London Town

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Most people travel to destinations, and so do I, but I tend to travel more to seasons. I was in search of some summer sun when I went island hopping last month, and then I went to Vancouver in search of some fresh, pink spring days. Now I’m in London for more spring time weather, but I always make the mistake of traveling through London, never to London. Its one of those places thats so big and intimidating its just too hard to manage unless you have a week (or month) or plain out move to. But I’ve been here over 20 times and I never stay longer than a quick hello and goodbye to friends and family that I wish I could see for longer.

This was a special visit to London because I had the chance to catch up with a first-year UBC friend, who used to lived on the same floor as me in Totem Park and then we became roomates on exchange at UQ in Australia. Elyse is from Oakville, where I visited her once, and we hadn’t seen eachother for 6 years. She lives near Chelsea, and I spent our first night reunited going around the chachi neighbourhood listening to stories about the (scripted) reality TV show “Made in Chelsea.” We went to a few bars and wondered why London guys were so shy, but then we got picked up by 3 at the same place and decided to stick with the one who was a promoter at Raffles. Before we entered the famous bar, Elyse reminded me not to make any references to Made in Chelsea, and then our night turned out just perfect. We met a (may or may not be) Swedish prince, and an Indian guy whos name I still cant pronounse or spell. But we we’re all very good friends after a second night out at Raffles complete with bottle service.

Now I’m on my way to summer again, in Brno where its 20`C and all the trees are in full green swing. The days were long in Vancouver and London, but not as warm as there, and then Ill head south through central europe until I reach some flip flop weather before heading back to Iceland, where summer is maybe (if I’m lucky) as warm as a London spring.

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Vancouver, as a tourist

Everytime I come back to Vancouver, after more and more time has passed since I lived there and called it home, I feel more and more like a visitor and less and less like a local. People even ask me where my accent is from, and I wonder if I should admit to being Canadian or just play the Iceland card. The friends I have (or had) become fewer and fewer as time goes by, as the UBC 2008 alumni have moved back home or onto other cities with bigger things. Visiting UBC campus is nostalgic in many ways, since the university is always a sacred memory of the happiest and hardest years of your adult-forming life. But then you feel like an outsider there, and atleast 10 years older than all the youthful faces who have replaced you and stolen the constantly under-construction campus to become their own happy place. There are new buildings and faculties and programs sprouting up year after year, and its always tempting to try and find one where I would still fit in.

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cherry blossom arches

Atleast Vancouver city doesnt change much, all the familiar streets, cafes, sushi restaurants, and shops that I crave when isolated in tiny Reykjavik. There are still a few new buildings and unfamiliar store fronts, but not enough to know for sure that they’re new to everyone or just new to me who had never noticed them before. I stayed at the Pan Pacific hotel, which has a huge, new Cactus Club restaurant right on the water beside it. I had to go there to see what it was like and pay my dues, since I have Cactus Club to thank for my first waitressing job, and the main supplier of my travel income for 2007-2008.

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bear crossing!

April is the most beautiful time to visit Vancouver, since the trees start blossoming, all at slightly different intervals, so that you can always find a street corner or park covered in various shades of pink and white petals. There are cherry, plum, crab apple and even Magnolia trees that colour every spring pink, and Vancouverites celebrate them with an annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But the best thing about a flowery spring in Vancouver is that its still a snowy time in the mountains, and spring skiing in Whistler and Vancouver mountains stays open as late as May 1. I didn’t make it snowboarding, but I spent enough time in the outskirts of Vancouver to throw myself into an icy lake (felt like home, Iceland-home that is), and see a family of black bears dizzily crawling out of hibernation.

Vancouver is nestled between the Pacific ocean and its many islands to the west, a towering mountain range and ever-green forests to the north, the lush countryside of the Fraser Valley to the east, and of course the American border only a few km’s south. This kind of location can’t be beat by any other American city, but the damn rain always turns out to be a major party-pooper. If it wasn’t for the gray, rainy weather, which i basically a 7-8 month long season, Vancouver would truly be the most livable city in the world.

 

Aruba and the ABC’s

Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao have always been somewhat connected, in size, shape, history and geography. Arbua is somehow the cleaner, safer, most expensive, tourist popular and developed island of the 3. The ABC’s are just a skip away from Venezuela but you couldn’t be farther away from a Venezuelan reality than you are when that 5 star Norwegian cruise ship arrives in Aruba’s port and dumps off 3000 rich Americans. But there were alot of Venezuelans and Colombians living and working in Aruba, so many that most people I met didn’t speak Dutch or English very well. Then there are the Dutch there, living and working in paradise, happy to speak English to every tourist but clearly showed a preference to their own kind. And then there are the medical students, thousands of them, mostly coming from American states that rejected their applications, or elsewhere where medical school wouldn’t have nearly as much sun and fun as in the Caribbean. The Chinese, who’ve learned the local papiamento language, run all the corner stores and supermarkets.

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I walked along this beautiful beach from the airport to town

It’s easy to see how the island has turned into a melting pot of languages and cultures, but one thing is clear, that tourism rules. The island’s economy is dependent on the dozens of hotels, split between the low-rise area and high-rise area, and the 1, 2, 3, or 4 cruise ships that dock every day, all day in Oranjestad. Aruba has outmarketed itself from Curacao and Bonaire because it has the safety that Curacao doesnt, and the facilities and beaches that Bonaire doesn’t. But they all have world-class windsurfing, kite-surfing, and no shortage of diving and snorkeling. What’s amazing is that only the shores around the island are calm enough for snorkeling and diving, thanks to the outlying coral reefs, since no ferry service is available between the 3 islands. They’ve attempted a few different routes, but the heavy winds and crazy waves make everyone seasick, so they’ve never survived. Instead you’re stuck to the little Insel air planes that shuttle people island to island, and all the while Venezuela is just around the corner, but they cant run flights or ferries there either because everytime they try that, it becomes a massive good and drug-smuggling operation. Too bad, I guess, but not sure for who.

 

Dushi Curaçao

the Penha building in downtown Punda

the Penha building in downtown Punda

Dushi means “sweet” in Papiemento, and you can use it the same way; there are dushi people, dushi food, and dushi places all over Curaçao. The city center is split between dushi Punda and Otrobanda, literally “the other side”, separated by a big river with a floating, movable bridge. Whenever a cruise ship needs to enter the harbour, the pontoon bridge swings open, and pedestrians are either stuck on it or on either side of downtown shadowed by the floating city moving past. Sometimes there are 3 ships in town, and then Punda, the touristy-shoppy side, is filled with Americans or Germans buying over-priced jewelry and cheap souvenirs. There are also 100 cheap-clothing stores, run by Indian and Chinese owners, a floating market of fresh Venezuelan produce, and a strange market of home-mad love potions and alcohols sold by locals, Venezuelans and Haitians.

The Queen Emma pontoon brige

The Queen Emma pontoon brige

Noone actually lives in Punda, its just a commercial area that shuts down at 6pm, and downtown becomes a ghost town overnight. Otrobanda has more residential areas, but more dilapidated buildings and crime rates make it less popular with tourists.  The famous street with the baroque-style Penha building is the most photographed place in Curacao, but the buildings in Pietermaii are equally impressive, a neighbourhood full of restored 18th and 19th century Dutch buildings painted in all the brightest and prettiest pastel colours. I slept in an all-white, self-designed loft, that had a matching cat. Smit’s white hairs eventually covered all of my dark clothes and pink towel, so I quickly realized why everything had to be white inside. I was couchsurfing with an architect (who does actually live in Punda), so perhaps my impressions of Willemstad are a little biased, but I started to criticize everything by its design, structure, or aesthetics. I saw alot of infinity pools, and even an infinity beach (the Renaissance hotel built a beach ontop of a mall), and we went underground to a 200,000 year old limestone cave full of tiny bats.

the infinity beach-pool at the Renaissance

the infinity beach-pool at the Renaissance

Everything was so pretty, and the city was filled with boutique hotels that were all cosy and artsy in their own way. The Kura Hulanda hotel was once voted one of the top 10 boutique hotels in the world, and it was easy to see why; some developer literally bought a neighbourhood and restored it to perfection in its original Dutch colonial style. The alleyways wind past 100’s of different hotel rooms hidden behind wooden shutters (each one is uniquely designed), and courtyards open up to restaurants and pools every few meters. But as soon as you leave the hotel grounds, youre back to the poor, unsafe regular neighbourhoods of Otrobanda.

the Hato Caves

the Hato Caves

There’s a famous touristy area called Mambo beach, a stretch of built-beach area full of bars, restaurants and shopping. But its one of the only areas you can actually swim off the beach, since they’ve built a breaker out in the sea. Its rough seas in Curacao, lots of wind, windsurfing and kite surfing. There are also natural beaches, but they’re scattered around the island in small, isolated patches. We roadtripped to the west end of the island to visit most of them, and found only a few locals, empty restaurants and abandoned hotels around them. We saw flamingos and visited “landhouses,” the old-school plantation homes spread out around the countryside. The original Curacao liquor distillery is in one where they give free samples 🙂 I tried some, and then ate iguana for lunch at Jaanchies. If you make it to Curacao one day, go there and try some, its super dushi!

Beautiful Bonaire

beautiful Bonaire

beautiful Bonaire

The ABC’s (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) were all once part of the Dutch kingdom, or Netherlands Antilles, but after some confusing legal terms, paperwork and meetings, Bonaire is the only ABC that’s still part of the Netherlands (a “municipality”), along with Saba and Sint Eustatius which are over 800km away. But Bonaire still shares its unofficial “official” language of Papiementu with nearby Aruba and Curcao, which is a confusing mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portugese. Native American words from the Arawak Indians and some words from African languages are also mixed in there, but somehow It still sounds like a dialect whose vocabulary is based on a lot of borrowing. The governments and schools of the ABC’s still function predominantly in Dutch, since many of the words and spelling aren’t confirmed in Papiemento – the spelling is largely phonetic and makes it very easy to read but then changes from person to person. Thank God everyone speaks English, and while the locals are hard to pinpoint (where they’re from or what to speak), the tall, white, sometimes sunburned Dutch people are real easy to spot.

salt fields and pink seas

salt fields and pink seas

Bonaire is similar in size to Aruba and Curacao, but only 17,000 people live on this little countryside island. It’s flat and dry, with flamingos, stray donkeys and salt fields spotting the interior. The coast is lined with coral reefs and baby blue seas, but not so many sandy beaches. One of the main public beaches had all its sand blown away in a hurricane, and now they’re left with alot of rocky shores. Its a windy island, making it a kite surfers paradise, and tourists come from all over the world to windsurf and scuba dive. I get claustrophobic under water and prefer to fly kites from land, so I went for free-diving off Kleine Bonaire and windsurfing in Lac Bay… and loved both.

Windsurfing in Lac Bay

Windsurfing in Lac Bay

I couchsurfed with a tall white dutch guy, who was a breath of fresh air on the little island. He;s lived there for a year and half but seemed to already knew everything and everyone on the island. He took me to soccer practice and kick-boxing lessons, two more firsts after windsurfing. We partied and danced every night, even though there were only 2 places to do so, but they were really nice, waterfront places. We had a sunset beach barbeque on my last night, with all the new friends I had made, and even I started to feel like I had a lot of friends on the island. After seeing some flamingos, I got on a plane to Curacao hoping to do the same things on another island.