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Broccoli Pasta February 20, 2014

Filed under: food — Becky D @ 9:08 pm

If you have come to my house to visit me, I can practically guarantee that I have made this for us for dinner.  made it because it really delicious, vegetarian, and only takes about 20 minutes. Which means more time to do touristy things with around Amsterdam instead of being stuck in the kitchen.  Originally I heard this recipe on NPR.  It was  in an interview with Chef Boyardee’s granddaughter,  who had published a cookbook  of family recipes.

You need:

1 good-sized head broccoli

1 package pasta (I am not so wild about spaghetti and tend to go for things like  penne or rigatoni, but use what you like)

1/4 c olive oil, plus more as needed

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan.  The real stuff, not the green can

salt and pepper

(meat, if you are serving omnivores.  More on that later)

Get a big pot of water and salt it really good, so it’s practically seawater salty.  Set it on the stove to boil.  Chop the broccoli into chunks.  Not too big.  I also trim and peel the stem and use that too.   When the water comes to a boil, add all the broccoli.  When it comes to a boil a second time, add the entire bag of pasta and cook the whole thing according to the directions on the pasta package.  Yes, you are really killing this poor broccoli, but I promise it will turn out alright in the end.

When the pasta is cooked, take it off the heat and drain it.  Use a colander with smallish holes, because you don’t want to lose too many bits of broccoli.  After it is drained, you can put in a big pretty bowl to go on the table or just dump it back in the pot you cooked it in.  I usually do the latter.  Anyway, now add the olive oil and the cheese.  And stir.  Stir really well. This is when the magic happens.   The broccoli disintegrates and makes this super smooth velvety sauce.  If it’s too dry tasting, add more oil and you really can’t go wrong with some more cheese if you like.   Salt and pepper to your taste, I usually hold off on the salt if the pasta water was really salty and just add tons of pepper.  And putting a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot on the table won’t hurt either.

Meat:  sometimes in a separate pan I will cook up some chicken bits or bacon and add it in at the stirring point.

Best with chocolate from Van Soest for dessert!

 

 

 

Plus, we probably bought some great chocolate from Van Soest

 

Vietnam trip part 2 February 17, 2014

Filed under: Travel — Becky D @ 8:31 am

Day 13

 

We left Saigon and had a 45 minute flight due east to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  After the enormous megalopolis feeling of Saigon, Siem Reap seemed very small, even though it has 1 million residents!  Our guide told us 80% of them work in the tourist trade and that in 2014 they expect 4 million people to visit the Angkor Wat Temples.  

 

While eating lunch we had 4 new species of birds. There is just so much more wildlife around in Cambodia than in Vietnam! After checking into our super fancy hotel we headed out to the temples to watch the sunset.  But we made use of the lovely outdoor pool after dinner!  Finally a chance for pina coladas and swimming.  

 

Day 14

 

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We got up really really early to go the temples for sunrise.  You arrive in the pitch dark and watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, the main temple.  Along with about 100 thousand other tourists, which was not so bad…it is kind of neat to hear so many different languages being spoken.  After sunrise we ate a picnic breakfast at a long table under the trees, and then went to explore the temples.

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The whole area is called Angkor Wat, and it consists of about 250 temples and buildings various states of being excavated. It was the capital of the Khmer empire from 900-1500 AD and each king that ruled had to build temples during his reign: his own, one for his parents, his wife, the people. etc. Originally Hindu, it later became Buddhist.  Angkor Wat was lost when the capital was relocated by a later king and this location was forgotten and overgrown by the jungle.  They are still actively excavating large parts of this area.

 

The main temple is the largest and was the first one we visited. It is enormous, with a huge outer wall, inner moat, and then in the moat two tiered levels. (For more specifics about Khmer architecture, check wikipedia).  The entire outer terrace is covered with amazing carvings depicting Hindu myths which have been very well preserved.  We walked through the whole building and up to the upper levels. It was really interesting, though crowded.  

 

After that we visited three other temples.  First, Bayon temple:  famous because all of its towers (there are a lot of them!) are identically carved with the 4 faces of Buddha (so the east is compassion, the west is sympathy, etc).  After that we went to a temple called Preah Khan.  This smaller temple complex had a really lovely stone walkway over a canal to enter it. One one side of the canal were demons, and one side were gods.  These were huge life sized statues, very impressive.  It is from an Hindu creation story where they are playing tug of war with a giant snake.  Also at Preah Khan was a unique carving that combined both  Hindu and Buddihst religious elements, which reflected the change in state religions.  

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We also visited the famous temple which has been used in many movies, including Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, Preah Pithu.  This is the temple being overgrown by trees, which makes for some dramatic photos.  It was busy with tourists but was still just spectacular to see the trees growing out and over the walls and roofs.  Very impressive.  And at this temple,  like many of the others there are active stabilizing and restoration works going on.  

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We took a break for lunch (where I drank my first green coconut, which was really refreshing after all that hot temple hiking) and then visited some more temples. Despite the fact it was blazingly hot at this point, there were enough trees to keep us shaded and the crowds had really thinned.  It was really special to be the only person in some of these old royal buildings such as the kings and queen’s house, and the elephant terrace.  We recovered at the end of the day with a beer and a dip in the hotel pool.  

 

At dinner we were entertained by Apsara dancers.  This is traditional religious dancing, an art form thousands of years old!  The dancing is very slow, and every movement has a meaning behind it. We saw about 10 short performances which acted out some of the Hindu myths and also scenes from traditional Khmer life.  The costumes were brilliantly colored and the women incredibly beautiful.  They wore these really tall headpieces that were similar in style the top tiers of the temple towers.  Apsara dancing has a very important role in Hinduism, and in the Angkor Wat temple there are over 15,000 dancers carved into the walls!

 

 

Day 15

 

Today we visited Tonle Sap lake, which is the largest lake in Southeast Asia.  Though the lake has a large open water portion in the middle, most of where we were was full of shrubs and small trees growing right out of the water!  It seemed more like a big field than a lake.  We took one large boat out to a floating village (most of the people who live on the lake are fishermen) and transferred to a tiny boat and went out into a nature reserve along the lake’s edge and visited the largest breeding colony of storks in all of Asia. We saw LOTS of birds, 4 species of Stork, including the Painted Stork which has a lovely pink bill and pink wing feathers, and the local spot billed pelican and lots of cormorants (which we had not seen much of before this).  We visited an observation platform built into a tree.  I was brave enough to climb to the top on the hand made ladder and the view was amazing! 

 

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On the way back to the floating village. we had a bit of excitement when a snake fell into our boat. I think he must have been sunning himself in the branches of a bush when we brushed against him.  It was a tiny little garter snake type, which Dave identified as a Wolf Snake before returning him to his perch.  

 

After a final swim and pina colada, we went to our final dinner as a group.  After dinner our companions left to begin  the odyssey of flights back to the states (they flew 3 flights for a total of 24 hours).  Chris and I, coming from Europe, got one last night in the hotel and then went to the airport in the morning.  After uneventful flights we returned to Amsterdam in the evening of the same day.

 

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Vietnam trip, part 1 February 16, 2014

Filed under: Birds,Travel — Becky D @ 10:00 am

As the last event of my 6 weeks of turning 40, we took an epic vacation…..

monkey

Day 1  Hanoi

We had two miracles on our flights over, one was that it was 10 hours (not 13 as I had read on the internet) and secondly, despite having a really tight connection in Paris our luggage made it to Hanoi.

Hanoi is a northern city in Vietnam, and though it is a modern city in many ways it for sure has signs of old traditions: we saw women carrying loads in the old fashioned style: a long stick over the shoulder with baskets hanging from each end (we never saw this in Saigon).  Hanoi has 8 million people and I think they all have scooters. The traffic was the same as I have seen in central america: barely contained chaos but few accidents.  The scooters are pretty ubiquitous and over the course of our time in Vietnam we kept a list of all the crazy cargo loads we saw. For example: a 4 foot tall model of the Eiffel tower, a very large basket of piglets, a wooden door, and a kitchen sink, not to mention families of 4 or 5  to give just a few examples.

The rest of the group was not arriving until later that night, so Chris and I  has a day to ourselves.  We began with a walk to Hoan Kiem lake.  This large lake is in the center of the old part of the city and has a legend attached to it:  the local dragon god gave the king a magical sword in anticipation of a Chinese invasion.  After the battle was finished and invaders repelled, the king went boating in the lake. A giant turtle surfaced and asked the king to give the turtle his magical sword, so that he could return it to the dragon god.  The lake has a shrine to turtles in the middle, and is rumored to have soft shell  turtles in it, though we  didn’t see any.

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We walked around the old part of Hanoi and it was a little overwhelming: so different than anywhere I have been. SO much going on, so much bustle, so many people everywhere!  Narrow streets packed with scooters and also people:  you cannot walk on the sidewalks as those are the domain of shops and cafes.  You may have a group of folks sitting on low stools around a tea stall, or shelves where wares or sold, and if there is an open patch of sidewalk there is a scooter parked there.  The streets in the old town are mostly divided by what they sell, so one street may sell only wooden carvings, and a different street sells red lanterns and shrine decorations.  After a long wander around, Chris and I ate the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, for dinner at a teeny cafe we found.

Day 2

The next morning over breakfast we caught up with our group who had arrived REALLY late the night before.  It was fantastic to see some pals we had not seen in a long time, as well as good friends Jenny and Watson who we travel with annually.  Dave, the trip leader and organizer, is a a good pal of ours and former coworker from the NC museum. He started Ecoquest Travel after doing educational trips for NCSM, and has spent lots of time in Southeast Asia.  He did his PhD research in Laos (has lots of insane stories about backwoods Laos in the 1980s).  Dave and our local guide, Wen, have been leading trips  for Appalachian State University students to Vietnam every other year for about 10 years.

For this first full day we had a tour of the city, of some of the highlights such as  the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and grounds, the Temple of Literature (a university built 1000 years ago, and is a temple now dedicated to scholars) and the 1400 year old Trấn Quốc Pagoda.  At the Temple of Literature we saw happy graduates in cap and gown having their photos taken, which is traditional.   We also got a peek at a white throated fantail, a spiffy black and white bird. Everyone was a bit jet lagged, so we had an easy day.

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Day 3

We left Hanoi for Ha Long Bay.  Driving around rural Vietnam the first thing that really hits you (and this was a recurring theme, sadly) is that there is NO wildlife.  Once you get out of the city, there are no birds.  No herons in the rice paddies, nothing sitting on the telephone wires, NOTHING.  Everything has been eaten.  If not by the Vietnamese, then hunted by them to send to the Chinese.  We finally saw a few birds about 2 hours into the drive, but the birds really were few and far between until we got to the bay.  It is really sad.  Even in the bay, a national park,  there are few gulls and no cormorants.  They have never recovered from being eaten for so many years.

The second thing I noticed was the architecture.  Land is really expensive so the houses are tall and narrow and mostly made of concrete.  On the ground floor is a shop or cafe.  Then the second, third and fourth floors.  The ground floor frequently looks not so nice (dirty, trash in front), but the upper floors are beautiful!  Most of them have balconies and are filled with carved wooden supports, artistic carvings into the cement, and lovely shutters and windows.  The upper floors are painted some bright color, like blue or pink.  However, they are not painted along the long side of the building, which is a little odd looking when you have a house alone, but most seemed to be attached to the neighboring house.  Or perhaps the owners expect to be attached to a second house at some point.

After 4 hours (all the roads are under construction all the time, according to Wen. The government wants people to have jobs) of driving we started to see some of the steep karst mountains that typify Ha Long Bay and then after another hour we were at the harbor.  We quickly transferred onto our boat where we would be spending the next 3 days.

Our boat would be best described as “bucket of bolts”.  But, the rooms were really quite large and comfy with big windows, and the main area had a lovely wooden bar and dining tables.  Upstairs on the open deck were lounge chairs.  The crew was really sweet and the food, amazing. Well, for me. We ate a TON of seafood while on the boat, which Chris was less wild about.  Fresh crab, mantis shrimp, clams, lots and lots of fish, it was all delicious.  I had had fantasies of a hot weather cruise, where we could swim off the boat and snorkel, but alas, the temperatures were in the mid 60s the whole time.  It was the dead of winter, after all!

Ha Long Bay is stunning.  2000 +  small islands consisting of steep cliff sides and vegetation.  Too small for habitation. There are some floating villages, where people live on houses on bamboo. The water is incredibly calm, it is hard to remember you are in the ocean and not in some really big lake!   During the big typhoon earlier this year, all the boats just stayed in the bay…there are so many islands that strong winds and waves are broken up.   On this first afternoon we visited a lagoon hidden within an island.  We saw our first hornbills ([oriental pied] like toucans but much, much larger) and Rhesus Macaques, a type of monkey.  We also visited a giant cave complex on one of the larger islands.

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Day 4 New Years Eve!

Thanks to continuing  jet lag, we all woke up before dawn, but made the best of it by stargazing from the boat. The visibility was amazing!!  Our pal Watson has a starfinder app on his phone, so we spent some time finding all the constellations and planets.

We spent the day today looking for the rare Cat Ba Langur, a black and white leaf eating monkey only found here, and the population in believed to be about 80 individuals left.  We drove around in a small wooden boat, through tiny inlets and saw many beautiful spots.  Steep cliff faces, tiny secret beaches, rustic floating villages (all the houses float on bamboo platforms and are solar powered) and some very nice birds.  We found more Rhesus Macaques, but no langurs, despite asking every local fisherman we came across.  Finally, at the end of the day we found the floating ranger station and the ranger promised us 100% success the following morning, we just had to be there at sunrise.  And pay a small bribe.  This was not a problem for us, as the rangers make very small salaries.  I would be content if they made every wildlife watcher pay!

That night, for the first time in more than 25 years, I went to bed well before midnight!  We were all still jet lagged and knew we had to get up at 5am.

Day 5

We got up at dark, went to the ranger station as the sun was just coming up, fetched the ranger, and just around the corner from his station there they were.  A troop of about 16 langurs in trees and on the cliff faces.  So close, they were easy to see!  They have long arms, legs and tails, and are mostly black with white heads. Watching them leap is amazing, they are just so agile!  They were eating leaves and just relaxing, we even saw a bright orange baby!  It was a really special moment. Dave has lead this trip many times and looked intensely for the langur and never before seen it. It was a great way for all of us to start off the year!

We had a slothful morning admiring the views, and then a final lunch on the boat as we motored back to shore,  and then got in the bus.  Before we left the bay area, however, we visited a center where we learned all about making pearls (there are many pearl farms in the bay).  It was actually quite interesting, and we got to see “oyster surgery” when they implant the base to make the pearl.  Then we got to do some shopping.  Thanks mom and dad for the earrings!

We had an uneventful drive back, and after a brief pause to check into our hotel, went to see a water puppetry show. Water puppetry is a traditional northern Vietnamese art form where the puppeteers stand in knee-deep water behind a screen of reeds.  They operate the puppets using bamboo sticks that are under the water, and cannot be seen.  There were about 15 short acts featuring Vietnamese folk  tales and also stories about traditional life, backed by a 6 piece musical group playing instruments I had never seen before.  The puppets were really beautiful, and I enjoyed the show quite a bit.

Day 6

We left Hanoi and went to hours south to a town called Ninh Binh.  On our way,  Wen bought a jackfruit for us to eat.  They are these football sized spikey fruits that grow directly off the trunk of the tree.  He had the seller chop it all up so it was in chunks for us to eat.  The taste is rather like banana and pineapple together, and it is not juicy.  It was really good!

Ninh Binh actually looks a lot like Ha Long Bay, because it is the same sort of steep karst mountains that are in the bay.  Of course here they are jutting out of the ground, not the ocean.  There is a public dock where you get in these teeny rowboats and they take you up the river, and in the course of this journey you go through three caves.  It was really pretty, and we did a bit of birdwatching along the way.  After lunch al fresco in the cute town we headed out to the Van Long Nature reserve, which is about 20 minutes drive away.

Van Long is one of the few bright spots in Vietnamese wildlife conservation.  The reserve is home to another rare langur, Delacour’s Langur.  The local people have learned that instead of eating the monkeys, tourists  will pay to go so see them, and besides the boats you ride in a teeny market has sprung up where the buses park selling local crafts and the like.  Van Long is really beautiful: it consists of a huge marsh filled with short vegetation and a few shrubs, and then behind it a giant wall of these same steep cliff faces we saw in Ninh Binh and Ha Long.

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Chris and I got into a traditional rowboat made of reeds and we went with group to the far edge where the mountains meet the water and there were the langurs!  Dave said we were quite lucky because the langurs were so close to the water, usually they are really high up in the cliff faces.  These guys are also mostly black, but they have white fur on their butts and legs so it looks like they are wearing pantalones.  Really sweet!  Again we had a large troop that were eating, relaxing, and occasionally moving between trees.  We watched them for quite a long time.

Also in the marsh were some amazing birds: a few different types of kingfishers, purple herons, lots of white egrets, and a bird that was near the top of my list to see:  Asian open billed stork.  As the sun set, the storks (about 500) and the egrets (about 700) started doing a giant murmuration (where they fly in a flock closely together).  It was really an amazing, beautiful moment.  The dark cliffs behind, the mirror smooth water and these large pale birds flying so closely.  Right behind us was a roller rink blasting Justin Timberlake, but even that didn’t dampen the magic.

Day 7

I would like to say a little bit about breakfast.  Every day we had breakfast at our hotel, which was the usual hotel food (pastries, omelettes) but with some non traditional things like fried rice, noodles with sausage, and pho, the beef (or chicken) noodle soup Chris and I ate on our first day.  It is the national dish, and Vietnamese tradition is to eat it out at a cafe every morning. There was always a huge fruit selection at breakfast: dragon fruit, watermelon, teeny bananas packed with flavor, it was all yummy.

Today was a travel day, and since our flight from Hanoi was delayed quite a bit we didn’t do as much of a city tour of Saigon as we had planned.

First impressions of Saigon:  massive.  Hot.  Greener than Hanoi, more parks.  More western and modern, with lots of shops we knew and english signs everywhere.  Saigon has 10 million people, and 5 million of them have scooters.   The traffic is unreal.

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We visited the reunification palace, which was the last hold out of the Americans during the war.  The war rooms were very interesting, still filled with communications equipment and cool old maps and in one room an exhibit of wartime photos.  The palace also contains some lush receiving rooms and the lovely private quarters for the prime minister.  After the palace, we visited the old post office, which was built in the french colonial style and quite attractive.  And, it still functions as a post office!

Day 8

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It took us 5 hours to get to Cat Tien National Park, and I think 2 of them were just driving through Saigon!  Today’s on the road fruit treat was rambutan, a fruit in the family of the lychee.  The skin is thick and has red hairs on it and you peel that off to reveal a  white, opaque fruit inside that you eat.  Delicious.

We got to Cat Tien, got on a little ferry across the Dong Nai River, and then we were in the park.  We saw more birds in the first hour than I think we had the entire trip thus far!  Just in front of our room Chris and I saw a lovely blue-winged leafbird (so spectacularly colored even Chris said “wow”).  After lunch we birded along the road away from headquarters, and discovered that even during the dry season, there were land leeches around.

Land leeches look like mini inchworms, and they are attracted to body heat.  We could see them coming towards us en masse whenever we stood in dead leaves.  However, they stayed away while we were on pavement.  The next day, a few of us were bitten (including me) and discovered it is not as traumatic as expected.  The leech comes (can go through pants and socks), feeds, and leaves, so you don’t even know you have been bitten until you see a spot of blood on  your sock or pant leg.  The main thing is not to scratch your bite or they can really bleed.

After dark we went out with a giant spotlight looking in the trees for nocturnal animals and birds. We found a few spiders, a scorpion,  and a lizard but we got really lucky and found a pygmy loris. This sweet little primate looks more like a lemur with really large eyes. He was eating fruit up in a tree when we spotted him.  It was a true high note to end our first day in the park with.

Day 9

We did a bird walk before breakfast and were rewarded with so many cool and colorful birds: dollar birds, every drongo you could imagine, rollers, chestnut-headed bee eaters, lineated barbets…it was just amazing.  I didn’t want to come in to eat breakfast!

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We did get quite lucky again with mammals:  we saw a buff-cheeked gibbon!   Our group had been informed that to see these gibbons would require a pre-dawn 7 km hike and a lot of luck.  Not a very encouraging proposition! However, the park had a small group of these rare primates in a giant cage at headquarters. They had been rescued from the black market and were being rehabilitated for release.  As we were birding nearby we saw something suspicious near but outside the cage, and sure enough, a lone wild male had been lured in by the captive animals!  We all got great looks at him. These gibbons make the most amazing loud calls, and it ended up a daily occurrence that we heard the ones in the cage and the lone wild male calling back and forth. It is a unique, fantastic sound.

Today I and most of our group set out for Crocodile Lake, which is a 5km hike into the jungle.  We were to spend the night at the ranger station there.  Chris and Jenny opted out of this excursion and instead spent the day learning about some of the sustainable industries around the park such as silk worm farming and weaving.  The rest of us left after lunch, carrying our things for the overnight and wearing anti leech socks.

It was a HOT hike, I really felt like I was back working in South Carolina.  It was a mostly flat trail through dense trees and the ground was lots of volcanic stones.  We saw another species of langur while on our hike, the black-shanked douc langur, and one of them leapt from tree to tree about 12 feet above my head!  It was amazing.  The birds weren’t too active as it was the mid afternoon, but once we got to the ranger station overlooking the lake in the late afternoon, we saw some amazing things.  The green peacocks native to this area were displaying!  Also we had a number of red junglefowl, which is the father of all domestic chickens everywhere, and boy, they are spectacular with red bodies and hunter green tails.  We had long tailed macaques as well, playing in the distance.

The ranger station is on an elevated platform, and we sat and overlooked the lake until it got dark. We saw many siamese crocodiles.  It is the only place in Vietnam where they are still found, and if not for the fact the ranger station is right there, they would all be poached.  The rangers told us that every day they pull illegaanima l traps during  their  rounds in the woods.  We ate dinner al fresco  and admired a giant spider building her web, and also spotted an albino snake hanging out in the tree branches above the cooking area.  After dinner we did another spotlight hike and saw a second pygmy loris and also a common palm civet, a fruit eating animal that looks a little bit like a weasel, but larger.

The accommodations at the ranger station were really quite basic, but there was good mosquito netting and really the food was fantastic.

Day 10

We got up really early to watch the sun rise over the lake. There was so much going on!  Lots of birds such as oriental pied hornbill, gray headed fish eagle, purple swamp hen, bronze winged jacana, and kingfishers galore.  The rangers took us out two at a time into the lake where we got nice few of some of these birds, the kingfishers, and of course the crocodiles!  Honestly, I was a bit more worried about getting into the boat via the three pieces of bamboo that passed for a dock than I was about getting eating by a croc.  Though later in the morning we watched a croc eating some small fish which was quite impressive: those teeth!

After a late breakfast we started the hike back. This time we saw a different species of langur, the silvered langur!  Sadly we did not get a species of bird I was really hoping for, the bar bellied pitta.  Though we heard one calling and our guide used a  song playback to try and draw him in, the bird did not come. It is a little to early for the breeding season, so he was not interested.

I was reunited with Chris at lunch, who told me about his time visiting local villages the day before, and the long bike ride he and Jenny had done that morning.  While we were eating lunch in the dining hall, some long tailed macaques decided to pay a visit!  It was amazing to see them up close.  After the heat of the day passed we went out into a different part of the forest where the trees are quite large and there we saw more of the black shanked and silvered langur species (and that was nice because Chris and Jenny had not gotten to see them before) as well as a new macaque species, the pig tailed macaque.  With that primate seen we had observed every type of primate it was possible to see on this trip. Our leaders, Dave and Wen, who have lead this trip every other year for about 10 years have never had that happen before!  We celebrated with beers at the park bar before dinner.

After dinner we did a game drive with a spotlight but it was pretty quiet, only two types of deer seen. Samba rdeer and Muntjac, or barking deer.

Before I go further, I want to mention the food.  It was fantastic the whole trip, and particularly at the park.  We ate every meal together as a group.  Each lunch and dinner consisted of 5-6 different dishes, usually a soup, 3-4 meat/fish dishes( stir fry style, for example: chicken in lemongrass, or whole fish with ginger sauce, or beef in oyster sauce) a vegetable (baby bok choy in garlic sauce) and a huge bowl of white rice.  Sometimes noodles too.  For dessert we always had fruit, usually watermelon and pineapple. It was really good food.  I loved trying different fruits, like longhans (which is another lychee type) or these tiny mandarins the size of a quarter that were beyond sweet and orangey tasting.

Day 11

We started the morning with a boat trip on the Dong Nai River which borders the park.  We saw every kingfisher imaginable, more long tailed macaques, and a really reclusive bird called the Asian Koel, an all-black member of the cuckoo family.  We also saw boats dredging sand from the bottom of the river, and what a process that was.  The boats were so heavy they looked like they were going to sink!

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Dave, Watson and I went on a mini bird walk in the heat of the day, after the boat trip was done. We were rewarded with a red and black broadbill, which is a stunning combination of maroon, black, white feathers and a large sky blue bill.  A really stellar bird. Also a racquet tailed treepie (pronounced tree-pie, not tree-pee).  And a massive dead scorpion.

Around two we got back on the ferry and headed back to Saigon.  It was nice to be staying at our deluxe hotel after a few days in the sparse guesthouses!  I am happy to report that the guesthouses did have air conditioning, at least.

Day 12

Today we went to the outer edges of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  This is an area that was extensively covered with tunnels during the war and you can go in them and learn about the war.  First we watched an introductory film which was an old propaganda film, which was pretty fascinating in itself: lauding the kills of a young (12) female assassin and the like. It was really interesting to learn a bit about how the Vietnamese experienced the war.

The museum area is a large forest, and you walk on the wide dirt trails and see many different exhibits:  what the entrance to a tunnel looked like (extremely small) and how hidden they were,  some of the truly frightening booby traps used on GIs, an old American tank, and models of some of the underground rooms.  Then there is a tunnel that has been enlarged for tourists that you can go through.  It is not for the faint of heart!  So narrow and dark I didn’t even last 20 meters.  But Chris went the whole way.  He said it got very hot.  You also learn about what it was like for the Vietnamese during the war, how they lived, what they wore, etc.  Everyone of all ages was involved in the war effort.  It was a fascinating museum.

After a lovely al fresco lunch at a restaurant between two canals (where we had some new bird species:  collared kingfisher and zebra dove) we headed over to the Wildlife at Risk (WAR) rescue center.  This center is where animals that are rescued from black markets, etc, are sent and rehabilitated before being released into the National Parks.  Some of the animals can never be released, sadly, so this is their permanent home.  They had a number of sunbears (the smaller asian cousin to the black bear), lots of buff cheeked gibbons, and a few cobras, among others.   It was interesting, and they do very good work,  though a bit depressing.   The poor bears in asia really do have a hard time; it is actually too brutal to describe here.

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In the evening we took a walk through Saigon to a night market (kind of like a day market but open until midnight).  We tried some new fruits, including mangosteen and sapodilla. Mangosteen is a dark purple fruit that looks like a plum. You tear it in half horizontally, and in the middle are small white segments that look like orange segments.  You eat those and boy, it was delicious!  Sapodilla is similar to a pear but tastes more like brown sugar.  Both were so good!  Walking through Saigon is not so relaxing, however.  Crossing the street takes a lot of nerves!  Also, it is very loud, and you feel so dirty from the exhaust from the traffic.

Part 2 later……

 

Getting back on the horse….

Filed under: not thinking — Becky D @ 9:49 am

Wow, it has been quite a long time since I worked on this blog. It’s been on my mind to get back into it, though. So, here goes…..paul

 

The Rain in Spain….. February 9, 2013

Filed under: Amsterdam ex pat,Travel — Becky D @ 11:13 pm

Actually, we had no rain for our Barcelona trip.  We saw the sun every day.  It was warmish, mostly about 15 degrees but one day got to 20.  I just have to come out and say it, I fell in love with this city.  I think it is my favorite city we have been too so far in Europe (sorry Prague).

So, we are fortunate to have two pals, Hanneke and Anneke who are now living in Barcelona and we took advantage of them to visit this city.  It was a great few days!  Our hostesses were amazing, the city is really lovely, and the food, oh, the food.  So delicious and not expensive!  Anyway, we arrived at 11 on a Friday night and had tapas at a place in the El Cortes neighborhood, which in itself was pretty shocking as all kitchens in Amsterdam close at 10. Period.  Hanneke and I stayed up late chatting so our planned birding trip for Saturday morning got cancelled in favor of sleeping in and checking out the local bakeries.  The lady at the bakery gave me a lesson that the baguette style bread they have is not a baguette (or a stockbrood) but a special local type of bread with an extra crispy crust and a super soft interior.  If you see it, try it. It was so nice.

We spent the afternoon and evening wandering through the streets of El Born, El Barrio Gotic, and then into Barcelonetta.  I loved the narrow windy streets and the great little shops and cafes.  The beach was my first time seeing the Mediterranean close up, and I said hello by dipping my feet in.  We relaxed on the sand for a while and eventually wandered back into El Born where we had drinks at La Barroc and dinner at La Tinaja.  Our late night activities included visiting a 90’s themed bar called Nevermind where grunge has never gone out of style.   (Jud Sanders, you would love this place).   We ended up meeting some nice folks and had a fun night.

Wandering through El Barrio Gothic.  I think.

Wandering through El Barrio Gothic. I think.

Our shadows on the Beach at Barcelonetta

Our shadows on the Beach at Barcelonetta

Jamon Ibirico on display

a Jamon Ibirico on display

Sunday morning we took advantage of a special deal (10 euro for train fare and entrance fee) and went up to a Cava tasting at the Freixenet Cava caves which are a 40 minute train ride West of Barcelona.  Cava is the Catalan sparkling wine, and it is only produced in Catalan (like  how Champagne only comes from France).   It was a really fun morning!  We got to see a little bit of the country from the train, and the tour itself was pretty interesting. I think it helped that our guide, Marie, was a really enthusiastic somellier who really knew her stuff!  We got to see how its made (how they get the sediment out is quite a fascinating, 21 day long process) and of course taste some Cava  at the end as well.

In the afternoon we went back to the city and visited La Sagrada Familia (we didn’t go in, the line was long and we were hungry) but it just as spectacular as everyone says.  After eating we wandered down the Passieg de Gracia, the fancy shopping street but also the location of two more Gaudi buildings, La Pedrera and one other whose name I forgot.  Since it was a work night, we ended the evening early.

Monday I finally got to do a little birding at the amazing Parc Guell.  The park is really lovely and not too manicured (in some parts) I saw the Catalan Redstart and also the local chifchaf, plus lots of Blackcaps.  The views from the top of the park into the city were really great and probably made it worth it for my non birding husband.  As we wandered down we came across the famous area of the park, where the Gaudi Museum house and the lovely terraces and arches he built are located.  Really beautiful places, though quite packed with tourists.  As we walked back south into the city center, we took the street with all the escalators.  I bet it makes carrying your groceries uphill so much easier!

Essentially, we ended up walking about 100 kilometers on Monday, but the highlight besides the park were visiting the Gaudi house, La Pedrera.  The rooftop terrace is just spectacular, though a little worrying for anyone afraid of heights.  Inside they have a furnished apartment you can tour, and that was so lovely I wanted to move right in!   We had a great day: we’d  walk a bit, stop at a cafe for a drink, walk more, gawk at the loveliness, squint in the sunshine, and stop again.  I am happy to report that unlike the Dutch, the Spanish are really into cocktails and every bar seemed to have an extensive drink list.  I mostly stuck with mojitos or the light and refreshing Estrella Beer.  For dinner we met our hostesses and had an amazing tapas dinner at Atril.  One dish we tried was dates stuffed with marscapone cheese and wrapped in smoked salmon, and the roasted.  Another was kangaroo!  It was all delicious.   And, like all our meals “out” not nearly as expensive as here in Amsterdam.

Our final day was Tuesday and we went to the Western side of the city.  We visited the Joan Miro Foundacion and enjoyed the colorful, engaging art.  We were also impressed by a class of kindergarteners who were there having a tour; they were incredibly engaged with the docent and seemed just as inspired as we did.  I am not sure if the same could be said for a class of American kindergarteners at a modern art museum, but maybe.  Anyway, after the visit to the museum we took the funicular across the city to Barcelonetta for Paella.  Sadly the cafe we visited was not the greatest, but even average Paella is pretty darn yummy.

The final event was getting back to the airport.  It was a basic train ride, but we were treated to the most spectacular sunset I have seen in a long time.  It felt like a final parting gift from this awesome city.  I will for sure be back to eat more jamon,  drink a mojito and do lots more bird watching.   My only regret is that we never made it to some of the awesome sites for birding out of the city, but next time, for sure!

 

 

End of summer, Antwerp, Moving October 24, 2012

Filed under: Amsterdam ex pat,Travel — Becky D @ 7:52 pm

It has been a long time since I posted, namely because I have been a bit lazy! And a bit busy, it would seem. In the big news department, we moved to a new apartment in the Oosterpark neighborhood of Amsterdam. I miss our old place on the canal lots; that view was just amazing, but am happy to report that our new place is very nice too. Its a bit larger, a bit nicer (double glazed windows, yay) and has the most amazing rooftop terrace which has a pretty great view of its own. Anyway, all this moving involved quite a bit of stress and worry, so we spent the latter part of the summer laying low in Amsterdam.

I want to mention a few things about Amsterdam summer living (now that it seems a distant memory, sigh). We had many many picnic dinners in Vondelpark. In fact, if not for the rooftop deck, I would say I may never host a summer dinner party ever at my house, in favor of chilling in the park. It involves seeing your pals but not having to do any house cleaning! Plus folks can come and go and you can play ladder golf as well.

Another great summer in the Netherlands feature is that because everyone goes on holiday for 2-3 weeks, the whole country, especially at work, gets really relaxed vibe to it. This summer the weather generally quite nice and one particularly hot day I even swam at the beach. First time in the North Sea!

Finally, this last weekend we went out of town, our first trip since going to the US in July! We went down to Antwerp, taking advantage of some really cheap fares on the train. We had a wonderful weekend. Belgium has a really laid back feel to it, just a little more relaxed than in the Netherlands and Antwerp is no exception.

We arrived on Friday night too late to do anything, but started out Saturday with a really long walk from our hotel, which was located on the south side of the city, to the Museum Aan de Stroom which is the stunning city museum of Antwerp. It is an amazing modern building (and you can check out the panoramic view from the roof!) that is a merging of about 5 smaller museums (city museum, maritime museum, etc) and tells the story of the city through art and artifacts. We spent quite a while there.

In the early afternoon, we wandered from MAS to the old part of the city, near the giant Cathedral of our Lady in the center. We found a cafe with beers and food and spent some time relaxing and people watching. We actually spent so long relaxing that we missed our window to get into the Cathedral, as they were closing to visitors for Saturday afternoon services! We consoled ourselves with a trip to a chocolate shop.

I had found what turned out to be an excellent restaurant, De Pottekijker on the internet. De pottekijker translates to the pot watcher and it means, in dutch, to be a nosy person! The food was Belgian and fantastic, and we had a great bottle of wine as well. There was a bit of excitement: in the restaurant was a party of men clearly celebrating a birthday. The birthday boy (who didn’t seem as drunk as he probably was) passed out outside the bathroom door when I was in it! When I was finally able to escape, his friends were around him and he seemed to be coming around. Before we left he was back at his table, but hopefully not having any more wine.

Sunday we visited the Ruben’s House Museum and then finally to the Cathedral in the early afternoon. The Rubens house was really amazing, filled with artifacts from the artist’s life and of course stunning paintings by both him and some of his contemporaries. The house itself is quite large and the gardens are really beautiful. The Cathedral was a continuation of our day of Rubens, because right now they are hosting an art show (the national art gallery is under renovation until 2017 or something) featuring many of his triptychs and other religious work. Stunning, large pieces. And the church is stellar too, an enormous Gothic cathedral filled with lovely altars and the most beautiful lectern I have ever seen. The lectern is carved dark wood and it looks like a tree with branches coming out all over and birds, including a turkey, carved into it.

We had warm, overcast weather until Sunday afternoon, when the sun came out! We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the sun, eating waffles and drinking beer. A lovely way to end the weekend.

PS Photos still trapped on the camera, hopefully they will be off and onto the website soon!

 

Copenhagen Part 2 June 24, 2012

Filed under: Travel — Becky D @ 3:11 pm

Continuing our adventures in Copenhagen!

Final bit of Day 3: after returning from Hven (and a nap on the ferry), we came back to the city and climbed the Round Tower to check out the views from the top.  A unique way to see the city! This building is home to a library, a church and a public observatory.  Not to hard to climb given the spiral walkway.  No stairs!

View from the Round Tower

Day 4:  Today was a final blitz of museums.  Started out with  a wander through the (free!) Botanical Gardens. They are doing some renovations, but despite that, there was still much to see. There were plenty of nifty plants from the USA which made me happy (I do miss NC native plants) among the extensive plantings, and some really attractive water features.  We also prowled through the Victorian era greenhouses filled with enormous palm trees and a huge variety of tropical plants.

In the botanical gardens

After this we went to Christiansborg Castle, an enormous palace as well as the seat of Danish government. We skipped the lavishly decorated upstairs and visited the ruins below the castle.  Here is what I learned: over the many, many years of its existence, this castle has frequently burned down!  During the most recent rebuilding (1905) archaeologists discovered all kinds of structural remains from the previous 5 castles built on this location, including the very first castle constructed by Bishop Absolon.  He is  the man who turned Copenhagen from a sleepy fishing port into a fortified city over a thousand years ago.

Christiansborg from the outside

After a lunch break, we split into two groups. The guys went to the Danish Resistance Museum while the Jenny and I toured the waterfront (yep, saw the little mermaid) and went shopping. I read the brochures from the Resistance Museum and learned two interesting facts: not only did the resistance carry out over 4000 acts of sabotage on the occupying Nazis, but a huge coordinated effort by the resistance got 90% of the Jewish population safely to Sweden. That is over 7000 people!!

After a few beers at a cafe, we hit the final museum we had planned for Copenhagen: The Danish Design Museum.  This museum is so full of treasures, I  wish we had gone early in the morning when I was feeling a bit more alert!  It was amazing.  I never have thought about the design of the items I use in my home such as chairs and appliances (probably because my style of decor is “hand-me-down”) so I found the exhibits quite interesting, especially the evolution of Danish chair design.  In addition to more modern Danish furniture, design and even fonts,  the museum had extensive rooms of historic furniture and art from Chippendale, Hepplewhite, items from and inspired by the far east as well as much more.  The temporary exhibit Rococo-mania, featuring costumes made from alternative fabrics such as paper and drinking straws, was really cool.

Dresses made from drinking straws!

After all this, I was exhausted!  An early night of beer and Eurocup.

Day 5

One of my coworkers had recommended a visit to the Fredriksborg castle in Hillerod, about 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen.  To convince me, he google image searched it and wow, I had to see it in person.  I have a slight castle obsession since moving to Europe, and this is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  It was an easy light rail trip out there, and then a 20 minute walk (another beautiful sunny day, too!) to Fredriksborg.

This castle was originally built during 1588 expanded in the mid 1600s, but burned down in 1859 and was restored after that.  It has some rooms from 1588 but most are from 1859.  It is absolutely enormous, and beyond beautiful.  The royal family hasn’t lived in it for centuries, and it now houses the Museum of National History.  Some of the rooms are as they would have been during royal occupation, such as the chapel (actually, still in use as the local parish) the great hall, and the chamber for audiences with the king.  Most of the rooms, though certainly to royal standards, instead of housing furniture (like in the Palace Het Loo here in the Netherlands) are home to the enormous collection of Danish portraits (all members of the extensive royal family through the ages, as well as any Danish person of note) and examples of decorative arts through the ages.  On the top floor is more modern art from the museum’s collection.

It took about 5 hours to go through the castle.  After a break in town for lunch we came back and wandered through the spectacular Baroque gardens.  This included napping on the grass (the royals did that too, right?) and taking about 100 photos of the castle.  We completed our trip to Hillerod with a trip to the local chocolate shop.

Our last night in Copehagen was beers on a terrace near the Round Tower and more Eurocup at home.

Day 6

We flew back pretty early in the day, after scouring the airport for my new favorite candy (Daim Bars) and visiting the duty-free shop.

It really was a great trip,  with excellent traveling companions. I recommend Copenhagen for anyone looking for a Scandinavian adventure!

View more photos HERE.