November 17, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions

Growing up we all had our version of normal and I’m pretty sure we thought the world worked just the same way that we did. Everything was just fine and dandy until we traveled abroad and suddenly realized that normal looks completely different somewhere else – maybe the cars drive on the opposite side of the street, or perhaps dinner isn’t served at 7:00pm but instead at 10:00pm. In many cases, these differences might be somewhat expected, but every once and awhile we’ve surely come across something that has just made us go “what the…??” I had a moment like this in Vietnam when at first the I-carry-my-world-on-my-motorbike concept seemed ridiculous, but then, upon closer consideration, it indeed made sense. With that in mind, it made me think – don’t we all have cultural quirks that make others do a double take? Since I surely can’t travel the world to discover all of these idiosyncrasies on my own, I thought who better to pose such a curiosity than to the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas? So, that’s what I did and here’s what they had to say:

“I admit, we, Filipinos, love to sing,” admits Claire over at First Time Travel. But she’s not just talking about in the shower and along with the radio in the car. According to Claire, “do not be surprised to find karaoke and videoke machines along the seaside or by the narrow streets in a remote town.” Before you become too charmed by the Filipinos’ passion for belting out their favorite tunes, you best read more about their hospitality, or else you should expect to be singing right along with them.

Do you remember your thermos? I do. Do you remember the last time that you used it? Probably not. This apparently long forgotten product seems to, however, have been given new life in Peru according to Jason of AlpacaSuitcase. Jason, who now looks at the “lowly termo (thermos) in exalted light,” tells how the undrinkable water in the country has resulted in a thermos resurrection of sorts that will have you singing its praises all the live long day. Read more about why you should consider starting a new love affair with your thermos.

Amy over at The Q Family Adventures Travel Blog brings new meaning to the family road-trip. Gone are the days of traveling across your country and stopping on the side of the roadway for some fresh-from-the-farm fruit while the kiddies romp around in the back seat. Oh no, not when you’re road-tripping it through Thailand!! While driving through the country, Amy recalls,“From a far, we saw several bags hung from the pole. As we got closer we noticed that those bags held something that moved.” It turns out that a few of these roadside stands boasted live lizards, buckets of frogs, and toad skewers for purchase.Take a virtual road-trip through Thailand’s array of unique roadside goodies. You know you’re hungry.

Who’s tired of tame and safe cultural gatherings? I think I am. Good thing Todd at Todd’s Wanderings has pulled together some of the gnarliest matsuris (festivals) that take place in Japan. And let me tell you, these gatherings aren’t for the weak. One of them seems to take on some parade-like characteristics, but don’t be fooled, this isn’t Disneyland. Todd explains, “When other floats are encountered each side spins their one ton float in a show of strength culminating in a mad dash at top speed into each other in a bone crunching crash. Teams battle for dominance until one float has pinned the other to the ground.” Fabulous! Who’s up for a trip to Japan? OK, maybe let’s just pretend – read more here.

There is an unfortunate similarity between the robes certain Latin countries wear during their Holy Week processions and those that are worn by the KKK. Yes, that KKK. The tragic infamy of the cone-shaped hood was most definitely not lost on a couple of Lonely Planet Bloggers. Abigail, from Inside the Travel Lab, who witnessed the processions in Sevilla, Spain, reflects, “It’s a shame that the outfits, a tradition that dates back to the 14th century,…now trigger images of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, fire and fear to those of us more familiar with stories from America than Andalucía.” Here, Abigail brings to life images of Spain’s most famous Holy Week processions in hopes of creating new and more positive memories of the historic and controversial costume.

Meanwhile, Tanya of Are we there yet? World Travels with Three Kids recounts her experience witnessing similar processions in a Brazilian town. Here, she tells how she battled with whether to purchase her children the keepsake puppets (with demonically lit-up red eyes) and also sheds light on the tradition and where it comes from. She explains, “It turns out that the symbolism…is actually quite sinister. They, after all, are the bad guys in the story as they are the ones hunting down Jesus to crucify him. This background helps to explain a bit this unique custom.”

Captured in photos, the duo over at Photito’s Blog take you on a journey into the watery wonderland of Venice. Through their words and pictures, it becomes evident that Venice is more than just the canal-filled city that we may all know it to be, but rather a city that lives with water in so many more ways than we can imagine. “People have adopted a way of coping with the ever present water ways which means that they all own a pair of hard core, waist high wellington boots. They all know what it means when the tidal alarm sounds…,” tells Vibeke. See for yourself a side of Venice that you may not have yet discovered.

I don’t know about you, but my parents have never called ME “mom” or “dad,” but perhaps if I were Lebanese, they might just have. According to Georgia of Ginger Beirut, “Lebanese dads call their kids ‘daddy’ and mums call their kids ‘mummy.'” This is only but one of the strange yet humorous quirks that she has encountered during her year living in Lebanon. Read more about why you should get rid of your credit cards and start investing in couture gowns here.

Bird hunting, deer hunting, head hunting – those are all so yesterday. It’s time to get on board with mushroom hunting like those in Catalunya, Spain. “Most Catalans wake up early on the weekend morning and drive to forests with baskets in tow to collect mushrooms,” comments Jennifer of Orange Polka Dot. She goes on to tell about her “master mushroom hunter” gardner and even her own attempt at tracking down the potentially deadly delicacy. Indulge your curiosity for fungi by reading more about this peculiar Catalan tradition here.

Finally, if you’ve been tuned into my blog, then you already know that last week I introduced you to another one of Spain’s unique customs, which just so happens to come in the form of an extra trashy tip for finding good Spanish food.

With that, I leave you to your own comfortable surroundings, unique customs and whatever oddly normal tradition it is that you have in your corner of the world. Considering that I’m in Spain, I’m going to go to my local tapas bar and throw some dirty napkins and cigarette butts on the ground just so that I can feel right at home. What makes your part of the planet strangely special?

To read up on other LonelyPlanet BlogSherpa carnivals, you can visit the previous one hosted by Travel with Den Den, in which the BlogSherpas shared memorable moments from their travels. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next carnival on regrettable trips, which will be hosted by The Turkish Life.

August 26, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia

You thought my honeymoon was over, didn’t you? So did I. Well, the luna de miel gods must have been feeling generous as we were given the gift of one extra quick stop on our trip – Bangkok. In the original itinerary for our trip, we were supposed to start in Bangkok for several days before resuming the rest of our journey. Although, given the political unrest at the time in Bangkok, we (and by we, I mean Jacobo) decided to go with a country that wasn’t having any anarchist uprisings, which took us to Vietnam instead. Unfortunately, three layovers in Bangkok was leaving me a little bummed (and maybe a little whiny) that we knew its airport inside and out, but nothing more. Somewhere between drinking pineapple smoothies and laying on the beach in Koh Phangan, however, we discovered that we would have a seven-hour layover in Bangkok. Even better, if we left from the islands earlier in the day, we could potentially have as much as 12 free hours there! So with the help of our travel agency we shuffled our flight and boat rides around and scrambled to figure out what we would do with several free hours in Thailand’s big city.

After taking our twelfth flight in three weeks, we arrived at the Bangkok Airport, fluttering through its terminal, practically throw our bags at the folks at “Left Luggage.” Moments later, we were in a cab battling traffic before arriving at one of the piers along the murky, choppy, water-hyacinth-filled Chao Phraya River. Trembling with excitement, and perhaps exhaustion, we boarded our own private long-tail boat named “Obama.”

Elated to have had the opportunity to even step foot outside the airport, we were only minimally disappointed when our boat driver told us that the famous Grand Palace had already closed for the day and we could only see it from the river. We would have been happy just sitting on the boat for five minutes and then heading back to the airport to be quite honest. So, when we had the opportunity to stop for 15 minutes at our first and only Thai Temple, Wat Arun, we did so with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning (or me as a full grown adult on Christmas morning).

The temple was so colorful and ornate compared to the other temples we’d seen on the trip – a mosaic of glass and stones that came together to make flowers, landscapes and other peculiar figures. The steps climbing to the stupa rivaled those of Siem Reap’s temples. I recalled conversations with my father of Half Dome in Yosemite, where you need to clutch on to a cable to scale the rock or fear rolling down the side of its steep incline (a vision I played over and over again in my head as a child after my dad told me we would climb it. Needless to say, I never did attempt it). From the top was a 360 degree view of the city. In the distance you could see the lights starting to twinkle on the sky scrapers of the big city, and in the foreground, the menacing (that day, anyway) Chao Phraya River. We could have absorbed every colorful glass tile of that temple, but with only 15 minutes, it was time to quickly and carefully temple-climb our way back down to the riverfront.

Returning to our Thai-style gondola, we began our journey through the klongs. Like the canals of Venice, the klongs seem to serve as roads that weave between the city’s ancient neighborhoods. We were struck by how just off the large commerce-filled river, you could find such antiquated neighborhoods. Small dilapidated homes that seemed to be one wave away from washing into the river, children swimming, jumping and playing in the water, men fishing, woman hanging clothes. All along the river, people graciously and enthusiastically waved at us as though we weren’t the millionth boat of tourists that had disturbed their daily routine, taking pictures, staring wide-eyed with goofy grins. I felt like I was on a ride at Disneyland, seeing a microcosm of Thai life, fast-forwarded and from the safety of a wildly colored boat (the only thing missing was the “It’s a small world” song looping in the background).

After an hour or so of getting lost in the back rivers of Bangkok, we arrived once again at the Chao Phraya. From there, we would be taken to dinner at a restaurant brilliantly recommended to me – Baan Klang Nam. Sitting right on the river, we were able to climb up to the pier from our boat and promptly be seated just ten feet away with a full view of the sun setting on the water around us. We ordered curry and bass, anticipating a light Thai meal, until out came our fish – our entire fish (reminding me of that time I ordered two pieces of fish at the market in Spain and, rather than getting two pieces, I got one giant fish, cut in to two pieces…thanks for the heads up on that one Jacobo). After one bite though, we attacked it like the mosquitos were attacking us. How could this fish be so fresh and delicious? The Chao Phraya was pretty and all, but surely it wasn’t the source of this happy bass – and it wasn’t. When we departed the restaurant later that night, we saw the pool full of live bass in the entryway of the restaurant (along with cages filled with other strange creatures like a monkey and squirrels – I’m glad I saw these after dinner).

For dessert we decided to treat ourselves to one last plate of one of Thailand’s famous desserts – mango and sticky rice. We need to talk about this actually. I am becoming particularly fascinated by all the wonderful things that can be done with rice. A self-proclaimed arroz-con-leche-aholic, the idea of mango and sticky rice, or even coconut and sticky rice, is a mind-blowing concept. Before this trip, I thought I didn’t even like mango, and my love of coconut was minimal. But now, I’m clamoring to find mango, and oh my lord, some sticky rice (what are the odds that I will actually find it here in Madrid??).

Finally yes, the honeymoon is over, really over. After three weeks of eating my way through South East Asia, I’ve returned to Madrid to pick up some sort of food poisoning or stomach bug. This inevitably means that the universe is laughing at me because now I am stuck eating rice. Lots of really boring rice. Repeated pleas to Jacobo to at least hunt down sticky rice have gone unfulfilled. After this, I might be taking a break from rice for awhile, at which point I will resume my intense diet of jamón, manchego, gazpacho and croquetas.

August 23, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia

Sure, right, Cambodia you’ve been in Cambodia, but why have I not heard more about you? How come questions like “have you seen the Coliseum and eaten pasta in Italy?” aren’t followed up by “or have you seen the temples and stuffed your face silly in Siem Reap?” Why aren’t Cambodian restaurants (serving what is called Khmer cuisine) as ubiquitous as Chinese, or even Thai?? I feel like I’ve been deceived. I suppose I should snap out of my Cambodian-cuisine-coma though and first take you all back to the other stops on my trip. While I sit here on the beach of Koh Phangan Island in Thailand (translation: paradise), however, I find that my mind is a mush of sticky rice and curry after the last couple of weeks in Laos, Cambodia, and now my latest stop here In the Gulf of Thailand.

There was our first stop after visiting Vietnam – Laos. Outside of knowing that Laos was tragically labeled as being the most bombed country in the world (more bombs were dropped there during the Vietnam-US war than all those dropped in World War II – this was largely as a result of its location on the Ho Chi Minh trail), I admittedly didn’t really know what to expect. So when we arrived in the small mountain town of Luang Prabang, with my senses buzzing and my ears still ringing from all the horn honking, I was pleasantly surprised by the what a tranquil and humble place it was and by the sudden change of pace. With one small main drag lined with charming buildings frozen in time, the town was simple but welcoming. It reminded me of a Country Western town, except instead of cowboys roaming the streets you had monks, instead of cacti there were palm trees, instead of carriages you had tuk tuks, and instead of chickens running around everywhere you had….well, chickens actually. Our days there were filled with far more tranquil activities than in Vietnam – a long boat ride on the Mekong River, walks through small villages, bike rides through the town, early morning rice offerings to monks, and visits to chant-filled temples. The highlight was actually our visit to the Museum of Ethnology, a little gem of a museum housed in a small old French colonial home nestled in one of the village’s neighborhoods. Not only was the visit incredibly insightful in terms of understanding the complex heritage and origins of the Lao people, but the building and location lent itself to what felt like an entirely authentic experience. The small cafe on the house’s patio provided us a front row seat to the backstreets of the town. We found ourselves sipping on our coffee as we played games of hide-and-go-seek with the local kids all while enjoying the view of the city just beyond the roof tops.

Laos definitely proved to be a good mental and physical break between Vietnam and Cambodia. Arriving in Cambodia, I was enthused to see the famous Angkor Wat temple, but had little idea of the what other surprises were in store for me. Before my love affair with Cambodia began, however, we were taken to our peculiar little hotel outside the main city center, where we gave each other sideways looks pondering how we ended up in such odd lodging (which shall remain nameless, but let’s just say I felt like I was in an oriental furniture warehouse that had been taken over by a jungle). When we discovered that we were in no way centrally located, we decided to seek out other accommodations. By some stroke of luck we ended up in the city center at the Hotel de la Paix and were upgraded to a junior suite where they treated us like Cambodian kings and queens. The trip took a decidedly fantastic turn back in the awesome direction that it was already going.

That day we were met by our guide Pol, who I’m now certain is one of the smartest people on the planet, and potentially equally as hilarious. While I only probably understood some 50% of what he said, that half of the information was probably all that my brain was capable of absorbing anyway. I spent my days there seesawing between being completely hypnotized by the ethereal stone temples, and tearful laughter at Pol’s jokes about five star bathrooms, stories about his dogs Angelina Jolie and Coca Cola, and various cross-the-road-jokes about monkeys and millipedes.

Then there was the food…oh the food! From hole in the wall restaurants to fancy modern cuisine, it just didn’t seem possible to eat something that wasn’t orgasmic! The food has the curry flavors of Thai food, but is a bit more mild and sweet such that your mouth doesn’t get a full workout just trying to manage the spice. Our particular favorite dish was the amok, which can be served with fish, or meat, or shoot why not ice cream…just a suggestion.

Our journey has come to its final stop here in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangnan, near Koh Samui (which, relative to Koh Phangan, is all hustle and bustle). We’ve spent the last days kayaking, wake boarding and scuba diving…oh, and just doing nothing while soaking up the sun by the pool, on the beach, or in our own little private pool area. The island here is spectacular – secluded enough that the beaches aren’t blanketed with boatloads of people, and populated enough such that you actually have something to do during a several day stay. The Rasananda Resort, where we’ve been staying, has been phenomenal and is a place I absolutely recommend if you are looking for a top notch trip to paradise, and who isn’t?

Apparently all good things must come to an end though (why? WHY!?!???). Now it’s back to reality where I will brainstorm ways to recreate Cambodian food and pineapple smoothies, which I can enjoy at our imaginary beach lounge (our balcony). I do hope Jacobo won’t mind being the towel boy.