Monday, June 25, 2012

The Family Goes to Maine

Last week was a bit crazy, which is why I didn’t get around to writing a post for the week. Fortunately (?), Joe has lots of work to do this weekend so I get to work on my own projects, which are all falling behind after a weeklong vacation in the Northeast.

The main reason for this vacation was my good friend Shelly’s wedding to her fiancĂ© Jim in Maine. Shelly and I met while in graduate school and we hadn’t seen each other since we graduated back in 2010. Seeing Shelly was a treat in itself, but being a part of my friend’s wedding was simply fabulous!

Joe and I had never been to Maine before, so we decided to make a trip out of the wedding and to spend a few more days exploring the area. The wedding was going to take place in Boothbay Harbor, a seaside town 2 hours north of Portland, so we started looking around for nearby places to check out while out in that part of the country.  

As it turns out, Acadia National Park is right up there in Northern Maine, about 3 hours north of Boothbay Harbor, and it also happens to be the most dog-friendly national park in the country. After giving it some thought, we booked a campsite in Acadia and we called Virgin Airlines to let them know our puppy was going to be flying with us to Boston!

Bomber was coming to Maine with us!

We flew 5-and-a-half hours to Boston with some vet-prescribed sleeping pills for our dog.  But he never fell asleep as the drugs only served the purpose of disorienting him and making him whine for about 4 hours of our flight. Both the crew and the passengers were incredibly tolerant and sympathetic to our situation.

I will never again be grumpy or bothered by any crying or screaming baby on a flight!

Once we reached Boston, and after about 10 people came to check on Bomber and to see how he was doing now that he was back on solid ground, we started the 6-hour drive to Acadia.

Maine is quite the pretty place! I did not have any expectations about what it would look like. I guess that the only thing I expected to find was lots of old towns and historical sites. I don’t know how many historical sites we actually saw, but we sure saw seaside towns that had been founded back in the 1700s!

If you look at a map of coastal Maine, you’ll see it looks like a series of small islands lumped together, or a series of pieces of land interconnected in some way or another. The highlight: A dramatic rocky coast, lined with coniferous trees and dotted with short but scenic mountains.  In fact, Acadia National Park is located on an island called Mount Desert Island.

The Park, however, is not the only attraction in the island. In contrast with other national parks we’ve been to, Acadia is completely surrounded by lively towns and harbors.  Most national parks we’ve been to are a long ways to any development, and you are reliant on the general store in the park for any food and supplies. Acadia doesn’t even have a general store as it takes about 10 to 15 minutes from any part of the park to reach a town where the options for food are plenty.

We weren’t quite sure if the “convenience” was something positive or not. It’s easy to see why the island would be host to so many little towns. After all, people have been settling there for longer than any other region in the country. But, what this meant was that we got to see almost no wildlife, something very different from the other national parks we’ve been to.

Acadia was definitely different and we decided to embrace its singularity and enjoy the park in the way it is meant. During the 4 days we spent there, we visited most, if not all, of the small seaside towns on the island. Our favorite—and also a crowd’s favorite—was Bar Harbor with its cute harbor, green open spaces and plethora of small stores, bars and ice cream shops.

Maine is home to about 60 lighthouses and, of course, there was one on Mount Desert Island. Like most places in the park, we had to drive to the headlight and it was totally worth it. To enjoy the best views of the headlight you must walk on a dirt path, down some wooden steps and then on and over some rocks. The two of us (and Bomber) had no problem moving around the rocks and finding a good place to relax and have lunch. While hanging out there, we were amazed at people’s determination to get to a good rock from which they could see the headlight. We saw kids and adults in all different shapes scrambling over the rocks to get a good view of it.

The best thing about Acadia, actually, was the hiking. There are over 100 miles of trails and a lot of them offer fabulous views of the even more fabulous coastline. We hiked up Cadillac Mountain (the tallest mountain on the Eastern Coast), which was named after the man who founded Detroit and who gave the name to the car brand! The 3.5-mile hike was packed with climbing, rock skipping and stunning views of the blue Atlantic and the surrounding islands. Like Cadillac, there were many other short hikes up smaller mountains. All of them with panoramic views of the coast, something that really impressed me.

Yes, Acadia was not a park like Yellowstone, where you are stuck in traffic because dozens of buffalo are crossing the road, but it was still a great sample of this country’s beauty. Well, a good sample of our world’s beauty. In some ways, it is really impressive that a park was carved out in a place where so many people were settling.  Like the other national parks do, Acadia serves as a safe place in which the natural state of the land is preserved. A place that is as close as possible to being untouched by humans. At least as close as it can be in the East Coast.

National Parks, as well as State and Regional Parks, are such a good idea. In some ways it’s sad to know that unless protected, nature is highly vulnerable to people’s actions and lifestyle. In other ways, it’s so inspiring to know that, back in the day, people thought about protecting these areas to make them available “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Every national park is home to unique diversity of flora, fauna, geography, etc. that, if it weren’t for the park’s protected status, would have probably been directly affected by urban growth, industrial development and contamination, loose and/or illegal hunting practices, or abuse of resources.  As mentioned in the documentary produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, National Parks were this country’s best idea. For those of you who don’t know it, Yellowstone was the first national park to be created not only in the United States, but in the entire world. Now, this is something to be proud of!

For a list of National Parks, check out If you are lucky, you’ll have one near you and, if you do, make sure you check it out!

After the wedding and our camping trip, we started our drive back to Boston where we were going to be staying with Shelly—finally some time to catch up! On our way down we checked out Portland, Maine. Portland has cute cobblestone roads, bohemian stores, a great waterfront and, of course, a lighthouse, which we checked out!

After a night in Boston we flew back to San Francisco. This time Bomber slept for the entire duration of the flight without any drugs.

In other news, remember the photo I donated for the online auction help by Born Free USA? The one with the two elephants? Well, I’m happy to say that the photo sold for more than the estimated value! I love this kind of little accomplishment as it serves as a good reminder that it is always worth it to keep trying and to being true to what you love doing!

No more trips for now. The next few weekends I hope to get to explore a bit more of my city.  We have only been here for 8 months now, which might seem like a lot but in reality is not much time at all. We have a long list of places we want to see and we are really excited to go through it!

I’m sure fun and new situations, and exploring will lead to new and fun photos to share with you!

For more fun photos, don’t forget to check out my Etsy store.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Public Transit: More than Just a Green Option

Market Street train

Not many people know this about me: I do not have a driver’s license. In fact, not only do I not have a license, but I don’t even know how to drive. To be honest, if anyone were ever in an emergency and I was the only one around to drive to the hospital, it is possible that I might be able to get there but, to be safe, I would just call an ambulance to save everybody—especially me—the terrible stress of getting behind the wheel.

Because life without a car in this country can be a bit of a pain, my best alternative upon moving to the United States was to finesse my public transit skills, which includes being able to read the most complicated schedules for buses, trains and anything else that runs on a schedule; my reaction time to start running as fast as possible when the bus I want is almost to the bus stop while I am still a block away; and my enjoyment of small crowded spaces where you are in constant and unavoidable physical contact with other people.

Cable Car on top of Lombard St.
I personally love moving around using public transit. Not only is it super green, but I especially enjoy it because you get to learn more about people and more about the places you live in or visit.

When I lived in Minnesota, I was constantly riding on buses to get to and from school and work. Sometimes, I would even ride the light rail train for fun, just to look out the window. Minnesota is one of those places that was built for cars, so it’s no surprise that the majority of people drive everywhere—of course, there are some who make the effort of riding the bus or the train both to be green and to decongest the already overburden roads of the Twin Cities.

Bus and street car cross paths in SF
As a result of riding the bus everywhere in MN, I feel I got to see a side of the Twin Cities that a lot of people might not see on their way to and from their car every day. Putting the freezing cold temperatures during the brutal Minnesotan winters aside, I am glad I had the chance to experience the bus and the train as my main way of getting around the city!

Now I live in San Francisco, and riding public transit is not a big deal. In contrast with the Twin Cities, San Francisco was built for horses and carriages, so it’s easier to get around the city and to the adjacent neighborhoods. No need to jump on freeways for a “quick” 30-minute drive somewhere because you can ride the Muni trains, the Muni buses, the BART or the cable cars. In this city, you can get anywhere you want without a car; it’s just up to you to choose what to jump on!

Riders in Lisbon's Tram
In fact, when people think of San Francisco, they often think of the cable cars and the fun trains that run back and forth on Market Street. Some of these trains date as far back as 1914! Riding on these trains is like taking a fascinating trip back to the past.

Public transit not only comes in handy when moving around your city or town, but it’s also a wonderful way of getting around when traveling to new places! The reasons? The same I mentioned before, plus the added language crash-course; spontaneous cultural immersion; exploring random, but totally awesome train and bus stations; and seeing and experiencing the usually more exciting vehicles and modes of transport.

Tram in Lisbon
Over the years, Joe and I have been on more modes of public transit than you can imagine. As a result, we have been encountered several challenges that we happily overcame with a positive attitude, and the help of nice and friendly people around us.

One of the most fun (and challenging!) moments in our travel history was getting to a train station in southern China to catch a bus to the Vietnam border and realizing that the departures/arrival board was all in Chinese! Resourceful as we had to be, we started matching the characters on our bus tickets with those on the board until we figured out which bus to jump on.

Beautiful azulejos in Sao Bento Station, Porto

This was our first time traveling in South East Asia, and our stop in China was just another stop in our overland route from Hong Kong to Bangkok, all of which we did on public transit. I still remember one bus we took in Vietnam in which a man fell asleep on Joe’s shoulder for the entire way!

While traveling in Indonesia, our main mode of transport was boats. In order to get to our dream tropical islands, we had to take several boats, from a big ferry carrying hundreds of people, to small motorboats carrying more than they were meant to. By the end of a month, we had mastered the art of getting on and off boats!

Arrival/Departure in Nanning, China
Ferry on the Li River, China

In Porto and Lisbon in Portugal we discovered that their trams reminded us a lot of our beloved San Francisco. In fact both cities reminded us of SF, especially Lisbon. Unique to Porto, however, were the art-deco azulejos adorning the vestibule of the Sao Bento railway station. With 20,000 azulejos, the station is one of the most notable azulejo creations of its kind of the 20th century.

Buses in Kuala Lumpur

In Malaysia we were pleasantly surprised with how fancy the buses were—way better than any public bus we’ve ever been on in the US. In contrast, we were not so pleasantly surprised when we realized that the train that took us from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore didn’t have a proper bathroom but instead dumped the waste right on the tracks.

Train Station in Kuala Lumpur

Singapore showed us what the future looks like with its automated trains that run without a driver. While in Paris we crossed under the Seine River in their “vintage” metro, in Borneo we had to take “water taxis” to go across the river to eat traditional food, and in Bangkok we found a respite from the heat in their nicely air conditioned skytrain.

Sky train in Bangkok

All of this has led us to better enjoy the places we visit, and what they have to offer, because we do not isolate ourselves in private A/C vehicles. Instead, we rely on people’s help and advice (and a handy dandy map and a bit of background reading too!!!) to go around new places.

Metro in Paris

So yes, this is my very small photo tribute to mass transit and the experiences that come with it, especially to all those buses, trains, metros, ferries, small boats, etc., that have safely taken me and my other half to my final destinations over the past few years.

In two days we are getting on a plane once again. This time we are going to my best friend’s wedding in Maine. We decided to add a few days at each end of the trip to allow for some time to go camping in Acadia National Park. One great thing about Acadia is that it’s the most dog-friendly National Park in the country, which is why we are bringing Bomber with us! Wish us luck on the 5+ hour flight to Boston!

Boat in Togian Islands, Indonesia
This is my first time to the Northeast and I’m really excited to see it and to capture some images of the beauty everyone has been telling me about! I can’t wait to share those images with you!

Water Taxi in Borneo

The L in Chicago

The L in Chicago

Metro stop in Madrid
Water buses in Manado, Indonesia 
Art on Lisbon's trains

Cable car in Porto

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Road Trip Through the Heartland

Streets of Chicago

As I mentioned on my last post, last week we headed to the Midwest to attend a wedding. We flew into Chicago and spent a day there before moving on to Bettendorf, Iowa; where the wedding was taking place and where we spent the rest of the weekend.

As we prepared for our trip to the Midwest, we pictured ourselves laying down lakeside Lake Michigan, soaking up the warmth that we hardly ever get in San Francisco and relaxing next to other beach goers. Sadly for us, during our time in Chicago, we only got rain and clouds, and temperatures that never climbed above 55 degrees. Instead of the beach and the sun, we went on an impromptu pub-crawl to stay out of the rain while still being out and about.

Fortunately, the next morning was not rainy, only cloudy and cold, and we were able to walk around Chicago. 

I really like Chicago. The architecture is fabulous and the river walk is so pretty and peaceful.  The streets above the river are crowded but, once you get down by the river, it’s like having your own private showing of the city as hardly any people seemed to be down there.

The L
After some walking around, some photo-taking, and some coffee, we picked up our rental car and started the 3-hour drive to Bettendorf, Iowa—we actually took 5 hours to get there because we decided to take our time and drive slowly to enjoy the open skies, the simple beauty of the corn fields and the barns that accompanied us for most of the road.

As we headed west, we left the rainy clouds behind, the skies turned blue, and the rain clouds turned into gorgeous puffy white clouds.

I had forgotten how beautiful the skies can be in the Midwest. So open, so big, with not a single mountain on the horizon to block your view. I personally prefer mountains, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the beauty of such openness.

Peru, Illinois
The farther away we got from Chicago, the more rural the scenery turned. About 2 or 3 hours into our drive, we arrived to our first and only planned stop of the way: Peru, Illinois.

So, I am from Peru, as most of you might have already realized and, when Joe told me that a couple of miles south of I-80 was a town called Peru, I knew we had to stop there. I mean, how could I pass on that one, right?

Peru, Illinois
Peru (pop. 10,295) is one of the Twin Cities along with LaSalle, Illinois, and is located in the core of the Illinois Valley, right next to the Illinois River. Peru got its name back in 1834 when more settlers started coming to the area and the area had to be divided into different sections. The city got its name because the word was thought to be the Inca Indian word for “wealth.”
Peru, Illinois

Peru, Illinois
As we drove in the city, we saw a Police Station and we decided to stop and say hi. Why not? Right? Outside the station were two officers smoking cigarettes so we approached them and explained to them that I was from Peru, South America and then handed them a little handicraft made in my Peru as a souvenir (or a gift of peace!). I couldn’t quite tell if they had ever heard of a place in South America called Peru, but I could tell that they were really happy we had stopped by to say hello because one of the officers, who turned out to be the Chief of Police, invited us into the station and gave us 2 awesome police patches to take as souvenirs. We didn’t get the full tour of the station because, as the Chief told us, they had just brought in some prisoners. We didn’t mind as we had already seen more than we had before. My first time in a police station had been a more pleasant experience than I had ever imagined!

Peru, Illinois
Per the recommendation of the Chief of Police, we headed down to the river front to check out the Illinois River, the train tracks, and the pub he mentioned was there (not for a drink, just to check it out!).

Riverfront Building in Peru

The Chief had told us that the riverfront needed work and that, due to lack of funding, it had not been developed to its fullest potential. We agreed with his assessment.

Illinois River

While walking around, trying to find our way to the river, we got to a park where two men were very focused on scanning every inch of the grass with a metal detector. We saluted them and walked on. Shortly after, on our way back to the car, one of the men saw us again and, very puzzled, asked us “why, are you guys just walking for no reason?” I thought it was very funny that he was confused by the fact that two people would just walk for the sake of walking. Then I thought that maybe people around there don’t walk as much, which is totally possible as we hardly saw anybody walking around town. Immediately, my public health background connected the lack of physical exercise with the high rates of obesity in rural areas.

Illinois countryside
I say, get your body grooving, right? Anyway, back in the car, we turned the AC on and drove down to the river.

The riverfront in itself was beautiful. You could tell it had seen better days, though.  The train tracks ran right next to the (mighty?) Illinois River and, across the road, a couple of establishments adorned the bluff. Besides that, we saw an industrial area on one end, and not much on the other.

As we drove back up to town, we both imagined different ways in which to beautify the riverfront and thought about how unfortunate it was that such a wonderful space was not used to create an environment in which the community can come together.

Farmhouses in Illinois
Before writing this post, I sat down and did a little background reading on the city of Peru. I learned that they are famous mostly for being the birthplace and hometown of world-renowned violinist, Maud Powell. Ms. Powell was the first person from the United States to achieve international fame!

After an hour or so of poking around Peru, we continued our drive to Bettendorf. Somehow, I was so excited to have visited Peru and to have seen the name “Peru” written all over the streets, on signs, on boards, on churches, on schools. I don’t know, it just gave me a very strange sense of familiarity.
Aviation Museum

The next two hours of the way were through more flat countryside lined mostly by cornfields and barns, and adorned with lovely puffy clouds in the sky.  

Lilies in Peru

Our drive ended at The Lodge, a funky (and unfortunately not well kept) hotel in Bettendorf. The rest of the weekend was spent with family, eating, toasting, catching up, laughing, teasing and, most importantly, celebrating the union of two lovely young people in marriage!

Chicago Theater District

Before we even knew it, we were back on the road, heading back to Chicago to catch our flight back to the Bay Area. We took a local highway for most of the road as, once again, we had no time constraints and we simply wanted to absorb our surroundings. Behind us we left family but, with us, we carried great memories of a weekend with them and the hope to see all of them again very soon!

Storefront in Peru, Illinois


Chicago Theater District

Downtown Chicago

Chicago Riverfront

Chicago Riverwalk