Status Update

I just arrived in St. Croix, USVI, on a one way ticket with nowhere to be til mid April. My college roomate and best friend Ursula spent the last week with me getting into all sorts of trouble.

We met nearly everyone on the island in a matter of a few days, and made it to St. John for a couple days. Then we visited St. Thomas for a few days where I investigated my grandfathers’ life and history that I had never known. He was born in 1921, his middle name was Archibald, and he was a quarter black. That makes me a sixteenth black and I have 5 other aunties I know nothing about, much less their children, my cousins.

My 25th birthday was on Sunday and we rang it in at midnight on Saturday with a big bang. I had a boneless chicken-stuffed roti for dinner at Singhs restaurant in Christiansted, and Mr. Singh himself came to The Courtyard club at midnight to buy us a birthday drink after treating us to oxtail and doubles for dessert. The Courtyard owner did the same, and invited us out for a boat cruise, snorkel tour and unlimited rum punch the next morning. So I turned a-quarter-of-a-century with a big fat smile on my face.

I was anxiously awaiting my Phd interview results from Copenhagen and just got my rejection letter about 45 mins ago. I placed 14th out of 22 interviewees in which only the first 11 were offered paid research positions. Im a little disappointed, to make an understatement, and now have no idea what my plan or purpose is for the next 3 years. I just spent half an hour talking to a corrections officer/ dog trainer who has been been to jail 3 times in 3 different countries, and he’s convinced me that life isnt a bowl of cherries all the time, so Im gonna chew up this sour grape and spit out some wine.

Cheers 🙂

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Amsterdam

Amsterdam was totally frozen over when I arrived there from the Irelands. The canals were frozen solid, for the first time in over a decade, and people were traveling by circles around the city center instead of weaving thru the zigzagging streets. The weather was +9`C a few days before so I only packed a light rain jacket, but I had to scour the street market in De Pijp for another sweater and some long-johns to layer up against the cold.

The frozen canals

I couchsurfed with a few different hosts the week I was there. The first was a big Dutch guy with curly long blond hair, then a Persian immigrant living in an ‘anti-squat,’ and finally an Indonesian-dutch Phd student. I also spent some time with a Greek guy born and raised in the Netherlands who knew a few squat locations for great eating, drinking and ping pong. I haven’t

My vegan meal at MKZ

quite figured out the logistics of squats and anti-squats, but they both create really interesting, atypical spaces to commune. The Persian guy lived in an abandoned office building with 5 other roomates who each lived in an office room, while the other 30 offices just stayed eerily empty. The squated spaces were a combination or restaurants and bars, one in an old film school campus where people screen movies and train in acrobatics. People from all walks of life and different fringes of society get together for ping pong tournaments with 30 players on one table and 3 course vegan meals for 5 euros. I wasn’t any good at ping pong and didnt bring my own paddle anyway, but the vegan meal was delicious and paired well with a 1 euro organic beer.

I spent my days trying to sight-see but could only bear the cold for a couple hours at a time, so broke up my walks outside with stops to the Van Gogh museum and visiting various cafes. I met

Van Gogh self portrait

a friend for lunch in the Surinamese neighbourhood and accidentally ended up eating Cuban food, and I stumbled upon the redlight district when I got lost trying to find central station.

Besides getting lost a couple times and making a few mistakes with packing (plus a few I made during the trip that I haven’t admitted to), the trip was slightly overshadowed by my upcoming phd interview so I used it as an excuse to sit still and stay inside. I couldn’t capitalize on the rare winter weather since I didnt have any iceskates, and was a little tired of the cold after a 6 week snow storm in Iceland, so I’ve decided I just have to go back to Amsterdam in the spring to really scratch under the surface of the  charming, slightly infamous city.

 

Northern Ireland

When I arrived in Belfast, I wondered if I was in a new country. I was advised by my various couchsurf hosts in the Repbulic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that I could safely count each Ireland as its own country, since counting Northern Ireland as a UK visit was like counting Scotland as the same place as England, and saying there’s only one Ireland is opening a whole can of beans that I dont know enough about to defend.

Welcome to Northern Ireland

I had the greatest host of all time in Belfast, Rob, who knew how to play the Irish flute and Irish dance and spoke with the greatest Irish accent. He had another couchsurfer from Romania at his apartment the same weekend I was visiting, and we went out to an Irish pub to listen to a session, a live music night where a bunch of random musicians come together to jam on their various instruments. There was a couple flutists, a fiddler, a guitarist, and some sort of percussionist I think. They played happy, catchy folk songs that made you want to tap your foot and slap your knee, and out of the guinness drinking crown, a guy stood up and started river dancing impromptu.

Later that night we talked to the river dancer, and turned out he was actually a river dancer, having toured with the River Dance show for ten years. He was “retired” from the show, at only 30-something years old, and was actually a Quebecois Canadian descendant from Ireland. Then Rob and him had a dance off as the bar was closing, and the bouncers had to stop their feet from clapping despite the few people left in the pub cheering them on for more.

Infamous Sandy Row

The next 36 hours I basically lived on Robs couch, having contracted some serious food poisoning or some stomach bug that crippled me with bouts of vomiting and the inability to eat for 2 days. He took care of me and checked up on me every hour, making sure I stayed alive and force-fed me some water and white rice. Needless to say I didnt get to see much of Belfast, missing out on a rugby match and an Irish dance social, but on my last day there I mustered up the energy to take a walking tour of Belfast. I strolled through the western districts and saw the politically and historically charged murals of Belfast. I also walked through downtown and Royal Avenue to see the impressive city hall.

Belfast's Murals

Finally I boarded my bus to the airport that took me on a scenic drive through the outskirts of Belfast, through rolling green hills and farms in the countryside, and I couldn’t help but notice how stereotypical it was for everything in Ireland to seem a bit greyish except for the fluorescent green grass that managed to grow everywhere, as lively and vibrant as a summer field in a scene from Green Acres.

The Republic of Ireland

 

 

The Royal Gardens at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, with the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park in the far background

I spent a week in the ‘Irelands’, 4 days in Dublin and 3 days in Belfast, split between 3 couchsurf hosts and a handful of other local friends and couchsurfers. In Dublin, I stayed at a couchsurf house full of Irish students, and my host Griffin (what a perfect Irish name) had plenty of time to walk around with me. He worked some evenings at a Yoga studio and let me drop in on an advanced classs to partake in some well overdue detox and stretching. He showed me Phoenix park, and Kilmainham Gaol – a former prison which has played an incredibly important part in Irish history. We tried to go to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, just to discover no exhibits are open until 2013. He walked me through Trinity College campus, where I saw some of the most beautiful and oldest architecture in the whole city.

Kilmainham Gaol West Wing

We visited the famous Porterhouse, and sampled their large but weird array of beers. We had oyster stout, and some red ale that tasted like dirty gym socks. I forgot to sample the strawberry beer apparently so I´ll have to go back for that. I spent some time wandering around by myself, visiting the Guinness Store house and learning it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect pint of that yummy stuff. I spent a day working on my phd proposal at the Art of Coffee cafe house, sipping on a never ending cup of tea on the edge of downtown Dublin.

Griffin´s roomate Hugh worked at Jameson Old Distillery, so I went with my next host Gary and couchsurf friend Marcin to learn about whiskey making and tasting. We tried whiskey ginger, whiskey sprite, whiskey cranberry, and irish coffee, and learned the difference between irish, scotch and bourbon whiskeys. I even got certified as an official whiskey taster, something I never thought or expected I’d achieve so easily.

 

Jameson certification

I met up with another couchsurfer named Flo who is what I’d call a German Gypsy recovering from extreme nomadicism. At 30, after years of hitchhiking from North America to Patagonia, he settled into a salaried job at Google, and invited me there for lunch to talk about it. Google Europe headquarters are in Dublin, and the 3 googly towers housing 3500 employees (mostly between the ages of 25-30) are full of mac computers, free food and drink, and quirky lounges to nurture creative thinking. I got given a badge and had immediate access to everything, and ate my belly full on what Flo claimed was the best food in Dublin.

119.5 seconds later

We had a lot of laughs to share after realizing our travel philosophies were much the same, but just at different stages in our lives. He had apparently gotten his position after being selected over 2,014 other applicants, and with a facial piercing and dreadlocks, you would maybe guess its the education and character he´s developed from seeing the world that overpowered to make him top choice. He said he got the job by accident, and its impossible to leave with the pay and luxuries he benefits, but after many months there, he´s getting the travel itch bad… ironically I sympathized with him in kind of the opposite way; I’m here trying to settle into a 3 year paid phd position so I can have the comforts and steadiness of a paycheck and a home, but in the back of my head I know I’ll probably be thinking the grass was greener on my side the way I have it now.

Glacier Walking & Ice Climbing

I went on a tour offered by Arctic Adventures called “Blue Ice” and had my first intimate encounter with one of Iceland’s glaciers, Sólheimajökull. I´ve seen lots of glaciers, touched a few and chewed some ice off one, but never really played around on one.

arriving to the Glacier

It was pouring rain and grey, but the ice was actually glowing blue. Our tour guide, Valdi, explained that it takes 7m of cubic snow to form 1 cm of blue ice. That´s alot of snow. And Sólheimajökull, “Home of the Sun glacier” is one of the fastest moving glaciers in Iceland, receding about 75 cm and growing 65 cm every year. It is decreasing in size rapidly, mostly from a 10 cm annual height loss, and every day the glacier surface changes dramatically.

cramp ons

New moulins and cones form, with melting ice and lava gravel constantly shaping the topography of it, and lagoons of water and underground streams always thinning the ice layer.

We walked with cramp-ons over the glacier, which makes you feel like a small person with oversized feet, and you never quite trust the ground – the ice looks slippery, and the cramp-ons are supposed to give you adequate grip, but you’re always half-prepared to fall flat on your face. The ice is also transparent, sometimes for a meter or two, and you see the ice bubbles below the surface that could or could not be a thin layer of soon-to-break ice.

Sólheimajökull

Once you get used to stomping around, and figuring out the right angle to place your feet when going up or down hill, you realize you’ve been staring at the ground forever and remember to look up. The view is impressive – a scene from the movie Ice Age. Just blue ice, white ice, and black sand forming a massive landscape as far as your eye can see, disappearing into the grey horizon into what you know to be another, larger glacier.

the ice wall

We did some iceclimbing too, clumsily using two ice picks and the cramp ons to try and crawl up a wall of ice. We went one by one, each attached to our guide by a safety line, and awkwardly tried our best to reach the top while the other 8 tourists looked on. Most of us made it half way or more, but you could see the exhaustion in every person when their legs began to shake (“Elvis legs” our guide called it), and the point when one just had to give up, as they couldn’t muster up enough strength to get the ice pick lodged into the wall for another step. I barely made it to the top, and my hands and toes didn’t feel like they were there anymore. Repelling back down was much easier, and on the walk back to the car, I realized walking on ice seemed like a much simpler task.