Friday, December 9, 2011

Places to eat in Washington DC

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Costa Rica Adventure, part 1

This post is incredibly belated. It is in fact very nearly an entire year overdue. But it is still being written, because there are stories that should really be shared (and so I don't forget, of course).

From May 31, 2010 to June 11, 2010, Jeff and I traveled to Costa Rica. I was in Costa Rica 5 years previously on a school spring break trip, but Jeff had never been. Plane tickets were relatively cheap (~$300 roundtrip) and we knew someone in the Peace Corps there who we would visit.

We landed in San Jose on Monday, May 31 (it was Memorial Day in the US) and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, Hostel Bekuo. It had free internet and we had a decent private room but shared bathroom. We ate down the street at a place called Spoon, which allowed me to recall just how rusty my Spanish really was. I could get my point across, sure, but I'm definitely less conversant than in high school. We also walked around a bit, got some snacks at a grocery store, went into a comics shop, saw a Subway, etc. We had to arrange for a taxi the next morning at the crack of dawn to take us to the bus station, since San Jose wasn't so much a destination for us. That meant we missed the free hostel breakfast, but oh well.

The next morning we got up and went to the bus station. The taxi driver talked to us a bit, but of course we couldn't say much. We were there for the bus to Monteverde, and when we got there the ticket window wasn't open yet. There were a few other backpackers waiting around too. Some guys from Quebec we would see multiple times. Finally the window opened and we bought our tickets, something like $5 each (the public bus is the cheapest way around Costa Rica, and is what I would recommend if you are there). One cool thing about public buses is that food merchants get on every once in a while and are let off shortly afterward. But this means you can easily get a pretty cheap snack on your bus ride. The buses are mostly somewhat clean and a lot seem to have been tour buses in a former life (though, in the less visited areas I did ride on what was clearly a school bus once).

The bus ride was long but uneventful. As soon as you step off into Monteverde you are assaulted by people trying to sell you a place to stay. We already had reservations and one guy very nicely walked us to the bed and breakfast's sister hostel in town, where a guy who worked there walked us out to the Camino Verde B&B (it wasn't far just maybe not easy to describe). We were given our pick of rooms and basically had the place to ourselves.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our adventures - what we did in Monteverde and beyond - once I find the journal I wrote this down in!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Overcoming Fear: Kayaking Style

In my 100 facts about me post, I wrote "Overcoming a fear is one of the most satisfying and self-affirming things I can do." That really is true about me, and I'd like to share my tale of overcoming fear that really drove this point home.

During the spring semester of 2008, I decided to take a Whitewater Kayaking class at William and Mary. I had been flatwater kayaking many a time, and thought that doing whitewater would be really fun. But there was one part of the class for which I wasn't mentally prepared. That was the part where we learned various rescues. When you're just kayaking for fun the boat is not usually enclosed. However, for whitewater, you're in a smaller, more maneuverable boat and you close up the hole that you sit in with a spray skirt so the water doesn't get in and sink you. But, obviously, that means you're sort of shutting yourself in the boat. So one thing we had to practice was various ways to get out if your kayak gets overturned.

Up until this point, I hadn't really come to terms with the fact that I'm a little claustrophobic and a lot afraid of drowning. That's probably a lot of why the one time I went snorkeling ended with me freaking out and bailing. So of course when we started trapping ourselves underwater, stuck in a kayak, I was a little freaked out (this was in a pool, by the way). But I was also determined to get the stuff right. First we just practiced getting ourselves out of the boat. It's really easy, you just pull the loop for the spray skirt and push yourself out. So no, it's not like you're totally stuck or anything. However, if you're out in a river you don't want to bail like that if possible, because then you have to take a bunch of time to drain your boat and flip it and get back in, all taking lots of time away from your enjoyment of kayaking down rapids.

Luckily, there are a couple other options. One is called a bow rescue, and involves another boat coming perpendicular to yours. You grab the bow of their boat and use it to help flip yourself over. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. But imagine getting to that point - so you've flipped your kayak. You bang on the bottom of the boat and have to wait to feel the bow. Then of course, you're underwater and upside down, and if you're like me you're pretty disoriented by this point. Every time I tried it, I'd try to flip the wrong way and consequently get my head up a little then fall right back upside down. Of course, by that point I'd be panicking. I seriously wasn't getting it, and was stressing massively about it in and outside of class. My instructor, Randy, who was awesome by the way, offered an extra session for people who were having trouble. I came in along with a couple other people and we got one on one attention. At some point during this session, I finally got it. I could do it, and I could repeat it. Suddenly I felt a lot safer and more confident in my kayaking abilities.

Not long after that we learned how to do a self rescue called an Eskimo Roll. You roll in a similar manner, using a hip snap, but you do it all yourself, using your oar to help you. I was much more confident by this point, and I was able to get pretty good at doing an Eskimo Roll, doing it successfully more than half of the time. After a bunch of practice out on the lake we had our outing to the Appomattox River near Petersburg to raft some Class 2 and 3 rapids. The other parts of kayaking come fairly naturally to me - I assume it has something to do with my years of horseback riding (that sounds odd, I know, but I just have the feeling it's true). Anyway, the point is I didn't have to get rescued or self-rescue on the river, but I had that extra confidence boost from knowing that if I flipped out there, I'd be just fine.

And that's the sort of reason I love overcoming fears. Nothing can make you feel quite as good about yourself as mastering something you know you couldn't have done before. Plus the added adrenaline is pretty great.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

City Review: Williamsburg

City: Williamsburg, VA
Geographical Location: Mid-Atlantic, East Coast, USA
Population: 14,068
Size: 8.7 square miles
Climate: temperate, seasonal
My Time There: I went to college at William and Mary so I lived there for 3 and a half years, minus one semester abroad and one summer when I lived at home (that was August 2006 to December 2009). In addition, my grandmother lives there so I visited countless times throughout my childhood.

Weather: 3 out of 10. One summer I looked online and the two hottest places in the country at the time were Death Valley, CA and Williamsburg. No joke. Summers are muggy and miserable - it was built on a swamp, after all. There is a lot of rain. It can be nice in Williamsburg (winters are nice and mild), don't get me wrong, but because of summer it gets a low rating.

Food: 7 out of 10. Williamsburg is chock full of chain restaurants, being a huge tourist destination and all. It has a few unique options, and definitely lots of stuff is good. Plenty of non-American cuisine options, too.

Walkability: Campus and the historical part: 10 out of 10. The rest of the city: 6 out of 10. The William and Mary campus and Colonial Williamsburg are fantastic places to walk around. If it's within those boundaries it's easy to walk to, and a very pretty place to walk, besides. Both have few places where cars can get in your way. If you go outside of those areas, there are usually sidewalks but everything is really spread out so walking is not very practical.

Bikeability: 8 out of 10. Overall it is very bike-friendly, especially on/near campus and the colonial part. There are some bike lanes on the roads outside of campus, too.

Public Transportation: 2 out of 10. So there's a bus system, but it leaves a lot to be desired. There are only a few routes and they only go one way around a loop, so you might get stuck going through most of the whole loop to get to where you're going (and if you have to wait at the bus depot you should probably find another way to get where you're going).

Vegetarian-friendly: 4 out of 10. There are vegetarian options at many of the restaurants but no all-veg restaurants that I'm aware of. Food for Thought is one of the best choices to take someone vegetarian.

Beauty: 7 out of 10. Except for the swampy parts, Williamsburg is pretty gorgeous. Very green.

Museums, Etc.: 5 out of 10. There are a few museums around, but the rating is mostly for the 'etc.' Obviously with Colonial Williamsburg you have a wealth of historical information and locations to visit. That stuff is free for students but will cost you otherwise.

Cool Shops: 5 out of 10. There are definitely some neat places, like a totally sweet used bookstore and a shop that has tons of free samples of peanuts.

Free Stuff to Do: 8 out of 10. It's partially a college town, so of course there are plenty of things to do that are free and cheap.

Great Outdoors: 7 out of 10. The university has a boathouse which is free for students so you can kayak and canoe to your heart's content. The WM Rec Center has some great outdoor student trips, and there's a great outdoors club. If you're not a student, there are still some things for you - short drives to Jamestown and some James River beaches, and not very far from York River State Park.

Cleanliness: 9 out of 10. It's a clean place, probably because they want to make sure it looks nice for tourists. Though you should watch out for horse manure if you're in Colonial Williamsburg.

People: 8 out of 10. On campus there are lots of great people and I knew just about everybody. I have also met lots of non-WM Williamsburg residents through my grandmother and can say they are often friendly. One downside is that some residents resent the college students and tried to make our lives a bit more difficult.

Cost of Living: $$ out of $$$$. Rent is not terribly bad - on Craigslist there are plenty of apartments for $700-$800 a month. Food is also not extremely expensive (though can be a bit overpriced if it's a place that tourists flock to), and there are some pretty cheap places (I'm looking at you, Retro's).

Tourist Congestion: Non-Summer: 3 out of 5. Summer: 5 out of 5. People flock to Colonial Williamsburg when it is nice out. Also, there's Busch Gardens which is a big draw as well. If you're around on campus in the summer the tourists will even filter over and ask things like, "is this a real college?"

Safety: 4 out of 5. You would occasionally hear reports of crimes around campus, and there were a couple bad parts of town, but mostly it seemed quite safe.

Overall Thoughts: Williamsburg was a lovely place to go to college, although staying over the summer as I did, the heat sometimes got unbearable. There is stuff to do for students but in general this is a sleepy town that goes to bed around 8 pm. There are no establishments called 'bars' due to a town law - though of course there are bars, they are just called 'cafes' or 'delis'. So if you like to go out drinking, it's not the town for you. At least there is a 24-hour Wawa next to campus, for your late night macaroni and cheese needs. I liked it, but wouldn't really want to move back there unless I was doing grad school or something.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

City Review: Atlanta

City: Atlanta, GA
Geographical Location: Southeastern USA
Population: 420,003 (city); 3.49 million (urban); 5.29 million (metro)
Size: 132.4 square miles (city); 1,963 sq mi (urban); 8,376 sq mi (metro)
Climate: humid subtropical
My Time There: I joined my boyfriend on a business trip there for 4 days in early January 2011.

Weather: 3 out of 10. Winters are mild; I was there in early January and it was in the 50s - pretty excellent. However, they don't call it Hotlanta for nothing. From what I hear, summers are terrible, probably worse than in DC. Hot and humid - no good.

Food: 6 out of 10. We definitely found some delicious stuff, though it was almost exclusively American places, with a Southern cooking focus.

Walkability: 2 out of 10. There are sidewalks (in mostly good repair) but it will only be you and sort of sketchy people on them, except for a few touristy areas. Nobody walks around - I was walking and I did not feel safe in some places in mid-day.

Bikeability: 2 out of 10. No bike lanes that I saw, and no people on bikes either.

Public Transportation: 6 out of 10. The metro system, MARTA, will take you to many places in the city and there appeared to be a decent bus system. However, we were questioned about feeling safe on MARTA (which we did) so apparently there is a stereotype that it is unsafe.

Vegetarian-friendly: 4 out of 10. has quite a few listings for Atlanta veg places; however, none of them are in the downtown area - all in the burbs. There were veg options at some of the places we went.

Beauty: 3 out of 10. From what I saw, it was not that easy on the eyes.

Museums, Etc.: 5 out of 10. There are a number of museums, though they all cost money. The Georgia Aquarium is top notch. The World of Coke is cheesy, but fun for the tasting you can do.

Cool Shops: Downtown area: 0 out of 10. Little Five Points: 8 out of 10. There was nothing cool downtown, but Little Five Points was awesome, chock full of interesting stuff.

Free Stuff to Do: 0 out of 10. I really found basically nothing to do for free there.

Great Outdoors: 2 out of 10. There were a few parks, but nothing really close by in the way of hikes, that I know of.

Cleanliness: 3 out of 10. The downtown area, at least, was not particularly clean.

People: 3 out of 10. I know one nice guy who lives there, but people on the street were weird or sort of hostile.

Cost of Living: $ out of $$$$. Food was cheap (even the fancy places weren't too bad), and a quick Craigslist search just revealed that I could be living in a 4 bedroom home with what I pay for rent in DC.

Tourist Congestion: 3 out of 5. Apparently tourists come to Atlanta. I'm not really sure why.

Safety: 2 out of 5. I did not feel particularly safe anywhere in Atlanta (a little better in Little Five Points). The guy I know who lives there says every apartment parking lot has to be locked up tight. Not great.

Overall Thoughts: I was not enamored of Atlanta. In fact, I didn't like it. It was sort of dirty, and nobody walked around. It's easy to drive around in - traffic in the downtown seemed pretty light even during 'rush hour'. However, that's not what I want out of a city.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

City Review: Dunedin

City: Dunedin, New Zealand
Geographical Location: Otago Region, South Island
Population: 116,600 in the city proper; 124,800 in the territorial region
Size: 98.5 square miles (city), 1279.5 square miles (territorial region)
Climate: temperate
My Time There: Five months of living and studying at the University of Otago (June - November 2008).

Weather: 6 out of 10. Winters are cold (and there is pretty much no central heating) but it rarely snows or gets below freezing. It rains a lot in the winter. It does get warm (and fairly hot in the summer, I'm told). It really does embody that NZ slogan of '4 seasons in a day', though.

Food: 6 out of 10. Yummy Asian options. Good burger joints. Nothing in the way of good Mexican (but it's NZ, what can you expect?). Fabulous Saturday farmers' market at the train station (year round, as far as I could tell).

Walkability: 8 out of 10. Plenty of good sidewalks, and I never felt unsafe walking around anywhere from the Octagon north (even by myself at 3 am).

Bikeability: 6 out of 10. There were plenty of people biking but I didn't see any bike lanes. Center City and the Uni area is pretty flat, but if you went outside of that you'd be dealing with some major hills.

Public Transportation: 5 out of 10. There's just the bus, and it is hard to figure out. I had problems with it... I walked everywhere, though.

Vegetarian-friendly: 5 out of 10. Many places had meat-free items but there were few whole restaurants that were veg.

Beauty: City center: 7 out of 10, Areas around the city: 10 out of 10. Some lovely old architecture and a wonderful botanic gardens were gorgeous. Down in the uni flats, not so much. But you don't have to go far to get to some of the most amazing views I've seen.

Museums: 5 out of 10. There weren't that many museums but most of them were free or cheap.

Cool Shops: 6 out of 10. Plenty of opshops (that's a thrift store) but that's about it.

Free Stuff to Do: 4 out of 10. There were some things... but a lot of stuff cost a little money.

Great Outdoors: 9 out of 10. There were the botanic gardens and several hikes within walking distance, and if you had a car there are tons of hikes you can drive to.

Cleanliness: 3 out of 10. Especially on a Friday morning, it could be pretty gross - beer bottles everywhere... I would never walk around barefoot. I did find the ubiquitous graffiti rather charming.

People: 4 out of 10. I found nice people in Dunedin but on first glance most Uni students are standoffish, if not hostile. I didn't meet many other folks but the ones I did were rather nice.

Cost of Living: $$ out of $$$$. Quick TradeMe search revealed some 2 bedrooms in the city center for the equivalent of $1300/month USD. Food is also not too bad, though it always looked expensive due to exchange rates...

Tourist Congestion: 1 out of 5. Now, I wasn't there in the summer but it's not really a tourist destination as much as a lot of other NZ cities, so I can't imagine it's bad at all. If we're talking drunk uni student congestion, that is pretty high...

Safety: 5 out of 5. Like I mentioned earlier, I really never felt unsafe in Dunedin. A major plus.

Overall Thoughts: I absolutely loved Dunedin when I lived there for 5 months, but I don't think I'd want to live there again. It was a great base for travel but the sheer amount of drunk people you see was sort of overwhelming. It's pretty, but it's dirty. I'm sure there's better spots to call home in NZ.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

City Reviewing

Recently, I was thinking how I love to review everything and how there is a whole category of things I have totally neglected: cities. I travel a decent amount, and expect to travel more soon. There are many cities I have been to, and it would be cool to keep good track of what I liked and didn't like about them. That way when I am older and ready to choose where to move to, I can easily remember 'ah, yes, it's that one for sure!' assuming I move to a city. But I'll probably always want to be within a day's drive or so to some big city.

I've been trying to decide how to work it, what categories to use, and what numbers I should assign. So here I'm going to sort of do an example one with my home city.

City: Washington, DC
Geographical Location: Mid-Atlantic, East Coast, USA
Population: 600,000 in the city proper; 5.4 million in the metro area
Size: 68.3 square miles
Climate: humid subtropical
My Time There: I have lived here, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, since December 2009, and will probably be moving away in July or August.

Weather: 4 out of 10. DC weather is fairly nice in the spring and fall, and winters are generally mild (not this winter, though). However, the summer is ungodly hot and humid and barely tolerable. Also, the weather fluctuates a huge amount, and it rains with some frequency.

Food: 7 out of 10. We've got some great food. Lots of delicious American, Italian, Asian offerings in the city proper. Not much in the way of good Mexican food in DC, though. There are several great farmers' markets, and a couple (Dupont, Eastern Market) are even year-round.

Walkability: 8 out of 10. Good sidewalks, feels safe, lots of people walking around at all hours. Sort of unusual to find a closed sidewalk.

Bikeability: 9 out of 10. There are lots of bike lanes and more are getting added all the time. That doesn't mean that cars (cabs, especially) will honor the sanctity of the bike lane, though... Slightly hilly, but not too bad. The awesome new bikeshare system makes this an even better place to bike.

Public Transportation: 9 out of 10. You can get almost anywhere you want to go in the city by metro, and many places in the suburbs, too. Buses cover a lot of spots that aren't so metro accessible. Metro is easy to navigate, but the buses are actually pretty difficult to figure out (it took me nearly a year of living here to figure out even the buses in my neighborhood).

Vegetarian-friendly: 7 out of 10. My neighborhood is great for this, and there are a lot of veg places in the city.

Beauty: 5 out of 10. There's no coast or mountains to gaze at, but the old buildings down on the mall, and the cherry blossoms in spring, for instance, are quite nice.

Museums: 10 out of 10. DC is full of fabulous, FREE, museums. If you want to see basically any topic covered in a museum you just wander down to the Mall and pick a Smithsonian. There are some other museums that aren't free, and some of those are good as well, though generally at least $14.

Cool Shops: 4 out of 10. I like to look in thrift stores/consignment shops and they are sadly lacking in DC. There is the occasional shop like The Brass Knob, which is basically an antique doorknob store, but there isn't much for me in the way of cool places to go in.

Free Stuff to Do: 9 out of 10. There are the free museums, then also the free monuments. There tend to be a lot of things that happen in the city that are free or quite cheap; DCist is a great guide for that.

Great Outdoors: 5 out of 10. There are some parks, but a lot of them you can't sit in without being bothered by beggars or the smell of urine. We have Rock Creek Park, which has some nice hiking trails but you shouldn't be there if it isn't daytime. You can get to several good hikes in a couple hours by car.

Cleanliness: 5 out of 10. Depends on the part of the city, but generally it is only sort of clean. My part of the city, especially in the winter when they suspend street sweeping, can be pretty dirty indeed.

People: 6 out of 10. There are a lot of friendly people to be found, though many of those are just crazy and/or homeless people that will start talking to you on the street. Generally a good vibe, though, except maybe for angry government employees on the subway.

Cost of Living: $$$ out of $$$$. Rent is high - in Columbia Heights, $1300/month is a good deal for a one bedroom basement apartment. You can find rooms in the $800 range if you're willing to do group housing. Food is not especially expensive, however. It's easy to find cheap dinner under $10 or more pricey stuff is around $15.

Tourist Congestion: 4 out of 5. It definitely depends on what part of the city you're in, but if you're anywhere downtown and it is anywhere near summer, watch out, you are going to be in a mob of escalefters and matching backpacks. September, October, January, and February are relatively peaceful (I should know, I worked in a museum gift shop).

Safety: 3 out of 5. Certainly there are areas of the city that would get a higher score here. But there are places I wouldn't be comfortable walking alone during the day, and even in my neighborhood I limit the amount I walk alone after dark, and try not to be out at all if it's late enough.

Overall Thoughts: I like DC. It's awesomely easy to get around under your own power or by public transport. The whole free museums thing is a major perk. It's big, but not huge, so you don't feel totally lost to anonymity. It's not the prettiest of cities, but it is pretty vegetarian friendly. Probably the worst part about it is the summer. It is really awful. Thanks a lot, founding fathers, for building it on a swamp.

I will almost certainly be updating this with new things I think of. Let me know if you think of something I should add!