Saturday, May 2, 2009

South Carolina

On Thursday we went down to Congaree National Park, located near Columbia, South Carolina. Congaree Swamp is an area of old-growth forest, containing some of the tallest trees in the eastern US. Although it's called a swamp, it's actually a floodplain for the Congaree River. As we neared the park, I suddenly noticed that all of the trees had their leaves. It was a pretty dramatic change, and Bea said we had reached the Coastal Plain. These trees looked like they were at least a month ahead of New York; of course, SC is one of the hottest places in the country! Early April was probably the perfect time to go there. The park itself has an extensive network of trails, some of which would probably take a day to hike, as well as camping, fishing and boating facilities. There's also a visitor's center, where we stopped first, and a boardwalk through the park for people like us who were only there for a few hours. Along the path, I noticed that some trees had a bunch of knobby shoots sticking up from the ground around them, which were part of the root system of cypress trees. Biologists aren't sure what purpose they serve. They looked like stalagmites in a cave.

About two-thirds of the way down the path, I noticed a weird metal thing rusting in the forest. It looked like a big piece of trash, but I knew there was no way something like that would be allowed to just sit in a national park like that. It turned out that it was an old still! During Prohibition people in the area made a pretty nice profit selling illicit homemade liquor, and they used the Congaree Swamp because it was easy to hide there. When park employees found that still, they decided to leave it there as an artifact of the park's history.

And that's about it. It may not seem like the most exciting vacation, but I got to add two more states to my list and spend time exploring a part of the country I hadn't seen much of before.

North Carolina

I hadn't been to North Carolina before visiting my cousin and her husband there last month, but my relatives kindly showed me around. Sunday after church we drove out to Pilot Mountain, a monolith that stands about halfway between Greensboro and the Blue Ridge. It's weird because the ground around it is mostly flat, and then there's this giant rock that goes up about 2,000 feet. It's a state park, with camping and picnic facilities, although we just went there for an afternoon. We drove up the hill, then near the top there's a place where you can park and get out to look around and enjoy the view.

Catching up

Last month I went down to North Carolina for a week to visit relatives who live there. I'll write more about that in a bit, but first I need to mention the most important thing that happened that week. As I'm sure you've heard, U2 released a new album recently. They're going out on tour this year, which will include two stops at Giants Stadium over in Jersey next September, and tickets for their 9/25 show went on sale the Monday I was in NC. I can't tell you how badly I wanted to go to that. Before their last release in 2004 they gave a "surprise" free outdoor concert in Brooklyn, word of which was never officially announced but spread by word-of-mouth over the Internet. Of course, I didn't find out about it until I saw it on the evening news that night. Then they made a special appearance on Conan; they were the only guests, and the entire show was them performing with brief interview segments between songs. I knew about that ahead of time, but for some reason it didn't occur to me to try to go to the taping until that night! I'm still kicking myself for that one! Then for this release they appeared on Letterman every night for a solid week, and I would have gladly gone to one of those tapings...But of course, that would have to be the week I was in London! And of course, the week before I went to London they gave a free outdoor show there!...There are no words to adequately express my frustration!!!

So anyway, I knew the tickets were going on sale at 10 in the morning the Monday I was at my cousin's. By 9:50, I was on the Ticketmaster website, waiting to pounce as soon as 10:00 hit. And wouldn't you know? when I tried to get a ticket, the computer crapped out on me! I had to reboot the darn thing, and by the time I got back to the page I needed to be on it was past 10 after...There was a line about 15 minutes long at that point, but after all that time anxiously sitting in front of the screen expecting any second to be told the show was sold out I got my ticket!! U2 is playing at Giants Stadium in September, AND I'M GOING!!!! My ticket is sitting on the shelf above my computer as I type this. Now I just have to make sure I don't lose it before the 25th!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Like in Brussels, I stayed in a youth hostel in Luxembourg. When I was in the UK, I stayed with Iranga and his roommates in the apartment they share in East London. They were all very nice and welcoming to me, and on my birthday (March 7) they bought me a cake! I was so touched. Rimla wasn't at home then, but the other three were.

Iranga is on the right, next to him is Nazleen and on the left is Asif.

On my last full day overseas, Iranga and I visited the Tower of London and the British Museum. Both were very cool. The Tower was initially constructed in the 11th century; at first, the only part of the complex that existed was what today is called the “White Tower,” and was first a royal residence, then later an armory.

The first picture is the White Tower, and the second one, taken inside the building, is a medieval bathroom!

Of course, the Tower of London isn't just a fun historic site, but a place where political prisoners were once imprisoned and executed. In one corner of the inner courtyard is a little chapel, and inside are the unmarked graves of several decapitation victims, including Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The stories of some of the victims are really horrific, like one person whose execution was botched because the axeman was too drunk to swing straight; eventually he got so frustrated that he grabbed the person's head and sawed it off! And most of them were so young, younger than me...I wish it weren't all treated as mere entertainment now. These were real people, whose lives mattered as much as ours do and who suffered horrible fates that no human being should ever have to endure.

After the Tower we got lunch at a cafe along the Thames, then headed for the British Museum. I had always wanted to go there; the collection of ancient art is wonderful. Of course, we have museums like that here in New York, but it's still fun to look around, and besides, we got to see the actual Rosetta Stone, which you obviously can't see anywhere else! Seeing all those fantastic ancient artifacts made me even more eager than I was before to visit the countries they came from, and I may have a chance to go to China on a study abroad program next winter. Fingers crossed!

So that was how I spent the first week of March. Definitely the best birthday I've had so far! I've now been to nine countries (actually ten, since the train from London to Brussels passes through a bit of France after going through the Chunnel, but I don't really count that). I still feel kind of bad about allowing Iranga to pay for so much of my trip, even though I know I shouldn't. But most of all, I'm just incredibly grateful to have had a chance to see a bit more of the world. I know I only got a tiny glimpse of the countries I visited, but that was more than I had before I went, and while I would love to visit them again and explore them in greater detail (especially the UK), I'm very thankful to have been able to see as much as I did.


When you buy a round-trip ticket from Brussels to Luxembourg, it's an open ticket that's good for two months. Southern Belgium, the French-speaking region known as Wallonia (the Dutch-speaking part of the country is called Flanders) is hilly and looks a lot like the northeastern US. It takes about three hours to get to Luxembourg, and it was early evening when I arrived. Luxembourg City, the capital and only real city in the country (and it only has about 100,000 residents) is built in a valley and on the surrounding hills. The country of Luxembourg is unbelievably small, smaller even than Rhode Island. Despite this, they've managed to develop their own language, called Luxembourgish, which to my ears sounded like a mixture of German and French, both of which are also widely spoken there.

I liked Luxembourg a lot. I don't think there's much to see outside of the capital, but Luxembourg City is very pretty, and despite its small size there's a good bus system that covers the town. Most or maybe all of the bus lines stop at the central train station, so it's not hard to find your way around. I got in Wednesday evening (I just happened to wake up around 3:30 Thursday morning to use the bathroom, and I remember looking at my watch thinking: If I were at home, I would be watching LOST right now!), and left on Friday, giving myself Thursday to explore. I had hoped to visit the American military cemetery on the outskirts of the town, but I was told there wasn't a bus that went there. So instead I just spent the day poking around the town and seeing what there was to see. At first I just hopped on a bus and decided I'd ride it to the end and see where it went. (I had a one-day bus pass that you can get for 4.50 Euros, which allows you unlimited rides on city buses.) This one went out to the suburbs and to an athletic field of some kind—not much to see. It turned out the bus driver spoke English, so I explained to him that I was just out looking around and got on his bus to see where it would go. He seemed nice at first, telling me he was from Serbia and didn't like living in Luxembourg, but when he asked me if I liked it there and I said “yes,” he said, “Maybe if we get married and have a child you can stay here.” I figured that was an excellent time to put on my headphones and turn up my new mp.3 player, loud! ;)

I eventually made my way to the center of town, called the “Ville Haute.” It's a very pretty area. I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady, which was constructed by Jesuits in the early 17th century. Nearby was an area of old, narrow streets surrounded by government buildings. It was so strange—those buildings that were so important to the national government of Luxembourg were just...there. No extra security (except, I'm sure, for CCTVs), no distance between them and the street, nothing to tell you that they were particularly important except for the signs on the buildings that named them as places of government. It felt so weird. In most countries government buildings are both grand, to signify their importance, and set apart, for security purposes. Sure, I know Luxembourg is a tiny country and all, but it's still a country, so it seemed strange, and nice in a way, for their places of government to be so unpretentious. Here are some pictures I took in the area, the first being of the cathedral:

Because of its position along the German/French border, Luxembourg's culture is a mix of northern and southern Europe, and that comes through very clearly in its architecture.

The Ville Haute sits on top of a hill; below it (which you can actually take an elevator to, so there's no need to hike up or down a cliff) is the “Grund,” another historic, and very lovely part of town. I loved walking around that quarter (Luxembourg City is divided into quarters) and took as many pictures as I could. Surprisingly, given the gloomy dark skies, most of the pictures turned out pretty nice. Here are a couple:

The second picture is looking at the Grund from above.


On Tuesday, I left to go over to Europe for a few days. I had gotten enough money for my birthday to pay for this part of the trip, and quite frankly, I knew that all the time I was in England Iranga would insist on paying for everything! I actually got the idea from reading Jorge Garcia's blog. (Jorge plays “Hurley” on LOST.) He had blogged about a trip to Europe he took with his girlfriend last summer, and one of his entries described a day trip they took to Paris from London. I knew there was a train that ran between the two cities, but hadn't realized it was such a short trip. When I looked into it, I found out that there was another train that went to Brussels and was actually a little shorter than the one to Paris. I had never been to either France or Belgium, and to be honest France has always held more interest for me, but Belgium is a lot smaller and since I only had a few days, I thought I would be able to see more of that country in the time that I had. Then it occurred to me that I could go down to Luxembourg from Brussels, thereby not only adding one more country to my list but also getting to see a lot of Belgium on the way down.

I arrived in Brussels around noon. Unfortunately, the hostel I was staying at didn't check in guests until 4:00, so I had to lug my bag around with me. The mass transit system in the Belgian capital seems to run efficiently, but it's very confusing for visitors. I don't think I've ever been in a city where the platforms of the subway system were so poorly marked; everywhere I went, I had to ask someone if this was the right train to get where I wanted to go. Northern Belgium speaks Dutch and southern Belgium speaks French; Brussels, being both in the middle of the country and its capital, has both as its official languages, but French is the lingua franca of the city—good for me, since I don't speak any Dutch.

Once I figured out where to catch the train that I needed, I decided to head up to the Atomium, since I knew how to get there. The structure was built for Brussels' World Fair in 1958 and is a model of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It's basically just a big tourist trap, but it does look kind of cool and you can go inside and get a nice view of Brussels.

Unfortunately, it was overcast and drizzly the entire time I was in Europe! In any case, the Atomium was really the only sight-seeing I was able to do in Brussels, since I was there for such a short time. The country of Belgium is relatively new, and when Brussels became its capital in the 19th century most of the older structures in the city were demolished to make way for newer buildings housing the various offices of state. As a result, a lot of tourists don't care to spend much time there, using it only as an entrance point to explore the rest of the country, and I can kind of see why. Still, I would have liked to spend a bit more time exploring the city if I had had time to do so. I didn't even get to see the statue of the kid peeing! ;-P Oh well, maybe next time...

Salisbury & Stonehenge

Guess what? The day after I arrived in the UK, we went to Stonehenge! I'm fascinated by ancient history and love visiting old buildings and monuments, and of course, it doesn't really get any older than Stonehenge. I've always really wanted to go there and was so excited to get the chance to see it in person! To get there from London, you take a train to Salisbury an hour and a half away, then catch a bus to get to the stones. I enjoyed the train ride down, even though the scenery didn't look any different from the landscapes I'm used to. But it's always nice to see for yourself what a place looks like, and besides, it was just fun to be able to look out the window and think, Wow, I'm in England! The bus that you take to get to Stonehenge is run by a private tour company. I expected just a ride to the monument, but they actually give you a very nice tour of Salisbury, explaining the history of the town and the Salisbury Plain. Salisbury is a pretty Medieval town and worth the visit just for itself; a lot of the streets there look similar today to what they were like 600 years ago. Unlike a lot of British towns, it didn't suffer any bombing attacks during WWII, and after the war they learned that German bombers had been under strict orders not to touch the Salisbury Cathedral because they were using it as a marker to find their way. Most of the land on the Salisbury Plain is owned by the military and has been a major location for pilot training. Of course, the known history of the area goes back for millennia, and aside from Stonehenge itself a very noticeable sign of this history are the many burial mounds that still dot the countryside. It's really a fascinating place to visit.

Stonehenge itself was really, really cool. Our bus tickets included entry to the site and free audio guides to the site. You walk around the stones, and there are markers along the way that tell you when to move on to the next section of the recording. Seeing this was definitely the highlight of my week!

On the way back to Salisbury, the tour bus stops at the ruins of a 12th-century castle that you can visit if you want (also included in your bus ticket). We did that as well. On the way up the hill to the ruins we made a new friend:

I think this guy was probably very used to strangers walking past his yard ;) BTW, here's a pic of the castle ruins:

And here's one of the medieval streets of Salisbury: