It's official...I'm here! Twenty hours of travel split into three flights sure left me exhausted, but my low-energy state was nicely tempered by the warm welcome we received in Kenya. I arrived on Monday night in Nairobi from Amsterdam only to be greeted with a 40-minute line get my Visa. And, for the first time in my life, I was one of those guys whose name was on a sign, waiting to be picked up.
On our drive to the homestay, I got my first taste of the overwhelming poverty in Kenya. The slums we passed were undeniably real, and seeing them in person had a powerful impact. I've seen images like these before, but I didn't realize the emotional filter a camera lens could place on a setting.
That being said, our homestay for that night was nice - it had running water, toilets, and our hosts kept our stomachs full of some sort of Kenyan beef stew, rice & chai. Boy do Kenyas love their Chai!
The next day, after hours and hours of orientation, we were driven to our permanent homestay, where we met Lucy, an 18 year old girl who is our house mom! She is a warm-hearted host that is eager to learn about America from me, and about England from my fellow volunteer, Stevie.
The real surprise cam yesterday when we were walked to the school and got to meet the teachers and students. The school teaches kids ranging in age from 6 to 13 years old. It was opened in 2007 as a public school to serve the needs of the growing town of Kitengela. Already they have outgrown their facilities and are in need of expansion.
The greatest difference I've observed in the last two days between their school and American schools is the colossal amount of play time these kids have. They take various significant breaks throughout the day for the kids to run around the field, play football (soccer), volleyball, and other high-energy games.
That is all for now, hopefully I'll be able to update with some regularity over the coming weeks. Until next time!
We arrived in Venice after a short flight from Madrid. A bus then brought us to a port where a water bus was to take us to various docks scattered throughout the city. Venice is basically a series of roughly 100 'islands' separated by lagoons, rivers, and the Grand Canal. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island, so boats carry people (and goods) from one end of the city to the other. While we were taking the water bus to our stop, we saw water ambulances, water UPS vehicles, and water taxis (even with the little TAXI sign on the top!).
After settling into our amazing hotel (complete with balcony and river view), we decided to do what we normally do in new locations: take a walk and get lost. Lucky for us, the first place we ran across was a gelateria and enjoyed our first true Italian gelato. To be honest, I have no idea what we got since this was one of MANY cups of gelato we would treat ourselves to while in Italy. After that, we continued on to St. Mark's Basilica, called by some the most beautiful Catholic structure in the world. Since it was later in the afternoon at this point, we decided to just check out the exterior and the rest of Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square). Our eyes were overwhelmed by the intricate mosaics, statues, and domes covering the basilica. In addition to the basilica, the Piazza San Marco is flanked by two glorious bell towers: St. Mark's Campanile and St. Mark's Clocktower. The Clocktower (part of which is shown below) is an example of an astronomical clock in which the position of the sun and moon along with other zodiac information can be determined.
This astronomical display is topped by a what looks like a digital clock with Roman numerals. You can actually see the numbers change every five minutes. Then, above that clock are two bronze statues next to the bells. These statues have blackened over time, so they are known as "Moors" (how politically correct, huh?) At 55 minutes past the hour, you can actually see the statues swing mallets against the bells to appear as if they are the ones striking the bells.
After people-watching on the plaza for awhile, we decided to start thinking about dinner. (Okay, that's a lie, because we probably had started to think about dinner the minute we landed in Italy. . .). We went to a casual eatery deep in one of the Venetian neighborhoods. Before I mention what we ate, I should mention that a typical Italian meal is endless with multiple courses. First there is the antipasto course (appetizer), follwed by the primp piatti (typically a pasta). Following that, a secondo piatti (a meat or main course) and then a contorno (vegetable or side dish). Finally, the dolce (dessert) is enjoyed with a caffe. So, you can see why a meal might take two hours and cost a lot of euros! With all of that information, Chris and I decided to split an antipasti (an appetizer of various seafood pieces) and a primi piatti (pasta with salmon and zucchini). For dessert, we split a piece of tiramisu. At that point, Chris made a decision to try a piece of tiramisu in every city we would visit.
The next morning, we decided to trek back to St. Mark's Basilica and view the inside. One of the most interesting parts of the interior was the tile floor, which was literally warped so badly that it formed deep divets that looked like waves. Venice is literally sinking, and as a result, the tiles have started to sink unevenly. In addition to the actual nave, we visited the treasury which included an impressive collection of precious gems, pottery, relics, and other rich treasures from the days when Venetian Crusaders conquered Constantinople.
Following the Basilica, we popped into a Venetian glass studio where we were treated to a private glass-blowing demonstration. I bet you never realized that a glass lemon could be transformed into a glass cat, huh? After that, we continued on our walk where Chris indulged on a pastry filled with chocolate-cafe cream before finding a little restaurant for lunch. Feeling a little bit rushed, we both ordered the same dish: raviolis stuffed with porcini mushrooms in a lobster sauce over arugula. This meal may have Chris' favorite meal the entire month we were in Europe, and a top contender for me.
More walking and more snacking, we finally decided that it was time to head back to the hotel for a little rest. On our way back, we picked up some groceries and had a little cocktail party on our balcony. For dinner, we decided to stay in our neighborhood and visit a pizzeria for some Italian pizza and beer. We ended our last Venetian night with a walk over the Rialto bridge (one of the four bridges that crosses the Grand Canal) and a little people-watching on St. Mark's Square. Tomorrow, we had a six-hour train ride to the Cinque Terre!
Chris and I have a little bit of time before dinner tonight, so we thought we'd catch up on the blog. Right now we're in Cartajima (near Ronda), but since we've last blogged, we've been to Granada and Nerja.
We arrived in Granada the morning of May 19th after taking the overnight train (Trenhotel) from Valencia. The name 'Trenhotel' is misleading as we did not get the beds that we expected, but rather we slept in regular seats. We really did not have a problem with that as we were so tired we could have slept in the aisle--but it was the guy next to us who was coughing the entire night. We still got enough sleep to feel refreshed and not waste any of our precious time in Granada.
When we got off of the train, we literally wandered around the town looking for our hotel. We found it after a short walk, and our host was kind enough to let us check in at 9am (many hours early). Since we had been wearing the same clothes for over 24hours, we decided to quickly clean up and then head out to see the sights. The 'cleaning up' part was slightly difficult without ANY hot water.
We left the hostel, got a quick bite to eat and headed for the main square. Our first order of business was to take a walk through the Albayzin neighborhood, and old Moorish (Muslim) area with white washed homes, zig zagging roads and flower boxes on every window. We let ourselves get lost for awhile and then decided to follow our guide book to a look out point on the Saint Nicholas Plaza. This point had the greatest view in town, included a spectacular shot of the Alhambra.
After taking in the site for a good half-hour, we decided to walk back down to the main area of town. We eventually found ourselves on a street filled with dozens of shops selling many products from North Africa and India. We ate lunch at a Moroccan restaurant and then decided to continue on home for a little siesta ('when in Rome,' right? or should I say 'when in Granada?').
Later on that night, we took a walk down Las Avenidas de Tristes, or 'The Sad Avenues.' This was a street that used to be used for funeral processions, and it is now commonly a tourist site that leads up to a Gypsy/Roma neighborhood. We did not walk all the way up the street as we had heard stories (and advice from the gospel of Rick Steves) warning about theft further up the street. We then decided to end the night at a tapas bar where we met a great couple from Australia.
The next morning was devoted to the Alhambra. Since we did not book tickets in advance (because they sell out months in advance), we took a bus up first thing in the morning to get tickets. We eventually got tickets after a two hour wait, but the time slot we were scheduled for started at 4pm. Because of that, we hiked back down the mountain with our Australian friends (who also got tickets for the afternoon). Chris and I bid them farewell near their hotel and headed to our hostel for a little R&R before our big afternoon.
Before we headed to the Alhambra that afternoon, we stopped for a quick lunch (quick in Spanish culture--long for Americans). We found a little restaurant on a hidden plaza and ordered our lunches. Chris had squid. No, not the squid rings, but a full-blown puffed up squid.
After we paid the bill, we hiked back up to the Alhambra and began our tour. The Alhambra was essentially a Muslim fortress where over 2000 Muslims lived with Sultan Boabdil before the Catholic Reconquest in 1492. We started off in the Nazaries Palace, the original palace of the Moorish sultan Boabdil, who had originally ruled the Muslims in the area. The palace was a sensory overloading experience with it's size, intricacies and embedded history.
After the palace, we walked to Alcazaba, the original fortress. It included a prison and numerous watchtowers used to defend the citizens of the medina (the city). It was not nearly in as good shape as the palace since Napoleon eventually took it over and let his military destroy it. One of the greatest parts was that when we stood on any of the watchtowers, we could see all of Granada (including the Saint Nicholas Plaza we stood on the day before), the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and some of the little villages dotting the mountains.
After the Alcazaba, we walked briefly through Charles V's palace. Charles V chose not live in the palace of Boabdil but rather to build a home of his own. The outside of the structure is a square, and the inside is circular-much like a colliseum. The palace was originally intended to have a dome, but it never was built.
Finally, we walked up hill to the Generalife, the gardens of the Alhambra. This was really not like any garden we had seen before (surely not like our weed-infested gardens at home!). The bushes, trees, and flowers were manicured to remain authentic to their original likeness. The greatest part was that nearly everything was in bloom! The gardens were punctuated by the Sultan's summer palace, a three bedroom home with another garden in the middle. It was a stunning experience!
After a three hour awe-inspiring experience, we walked back down the hill and down to the grocery store for picnic supplies. We were a little tired of restaurants, so we stocked up on a baguette, jamon, an array of cheeses (yes Mom, they were pasteurized!), pears, and a mini-bottle of wine. We spread out an old map on the bed and enjoyed our feast.
That pretty much sums up our experience in Granada. The next morning we took the bus to the airport to pick up our rental car. We ended up with a Kia Picanta, or a Kia Piquena (little in Spanish) as I like to call it. We then took off on our Spanish road trip--more on that to come! Also, be on the lookout for a future post regarding mullets in Spain!
With our first European destination checked off, we arrived in Valencia after a 3 hour train ride. Emerging from the train station we were filled with the notion that this would be a much different experience than Barcelona. Valencia seems more open, cleaner, and its citizens - and tourists - are dressed in ridiculously nice clothes.
I´m going to be a little less wordy with Valencia, and just hit a couple high points. With not much on our agenda, everything happened by chance. First, in walking through Plaza de la Reina, we happened upon the Valencian soccer team parading through the plaza bearing the Copa del Rey - King Cup. We had no idea we would help receive the city´s top atheletes in the country´s most celebrated sport.
The other, more notable, event we happened upon, was the Procession of the Virgen de los Desamparados, marking the 50th anniversary of its choir. To say this was a procession does it little justice. There were hundreds of people lining the winding streets and hundreds more participating in the procession. Participants included religious groups, military personnel, bands, the choir, and women and girls adorned in dress representing their image of the Virgin Mary. It is strikingly similar to the costumes worn by teenage Latinas celebrating their quinceañera.
Our sampling of food in Valencia proved especially delicious. We dined on Valencian paella (with rabbit and chicken), tapas of mussels and prawns, and much more. And a quick word about rabbits in paella...don´t eat it without careful chewing and inspection. Now Allison knows how our cat feels when chomping through her latest garden kill - rabbits actually do have bones, and they make an obvious appearance in the paella.
Our lodging in Valencia was probably the purest of hostels - shared bedrooms, shared bathrooms, and absolutely no privacy...even for our French roommates who could have used more privacy than we allotted. It was a positive experience, although one that disrupted our normal sleep habits - that is, actually getting some sleep at night. Having a duet of French snorers is not as harmonious as it sounds.
With two Spanish cities down, and several left, we´re slowly but surely adjusting to the Spanish lifestyle of late nights and unconventional eating habits, by American standards. Now we´re just a Trenhotel ride away from Granada!
So here we are, on our last day in Barcelona, and we feel like we've already seen so much! Jet-lagged and toting our well-packed two backpacks (yes, only two!), we took our first breath of Spanish air on late Tuesday morning. After navigating the user-friendly subway system, about an hour later we were roaming what was apparently the street of our guesthouse...only we didn't know how to get in! Luckily our kind host, Juan, was waiting for us on his balcony and hollered down to retrieve us. Although our room is small by American standards, it does the job, and Juan is a great host! With our triple-keyed entrance and our closet safe, we feel pretty secure.
Although there have been countless sites to see here in Barcelona, I'll try to highlight our favorites. Our first was simply roaming the streets of Las Ramblas, kind of a main drag through the city. It's as crazy as Time Square, with streets that zig-zag in a maze-like fashion. The Barrí Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is rich in architecture that takes one back to old world charms. The Catedral Gotic is a site that is on our list for today before we leave.
Another incredible destination was Monserrat, a monastery built into the side of a mountain northwest of Barcelona. A quick cable car ride up the mountain left us to breathtaking views and sacred grounds. The pinnacle for many tourists is the Black Virgin, a statue of the Virgin Mary believed to have been discovered in La Santa Cova, a cave that is a 30-minute hike away. We ended up taking that hike, which rewarded us with even more breathtaking views...and quite the exercise.
Yesterday we started our day with La Sagrada Familia, a church designed by Gaudí, and still be constructed 125 years later. We then headed through the Citadel Park and munched on a baguette with jamón while people watching. Our walk then took us to Barceloneta, an old fishing village turned into a touristy drag lined with seafood restaurants.
After a walk on the beach and my first dip in the Mediterranean, our final destination was the Picasso Museum. Here we toured the strange life of the world-renowned artist.
Well, that's all for now...on to Valencia!