Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Out of Africa

Before we take off on our African adventure, I wanted to send a quick note to wish you a Happy Easter. This trip has been a long time in coming, having booked our tickets last September with my very first post-graduate school pay check. Originally I wanted to buy Keenan a nice watch or a new wallet with that pay check, but he flat out said "No!," and insisted that we go on a big international trip outside of Europe instead. On top of his list: South Africa. We had already booked Russia for December so our trip to South Africa would have to wait until Easter bank holiday when we get a nice long four-day weekend in the U.K. (another reason to stay in London!).

In planning our itinerary, we both wanted to spend at least five days in Cape Town after hearing only great things about this city. Keenan and I also wanted to go on a safari and threw in the idea of going to Etosha National Park in Namibia, or Chobe National Park in Botswana with a side trip to Victoria Falls in either Zambia or Zimbabwe. We spent many hours scouring the internet, weeding through discussion boards, contacting tour operators, reading travel blogs, and emailing friends and family (thanks PV!) who previously visited South Africa. We decided to do a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is roughly the size of Massachusetts situated in the eastern part of South Africa on the Mozambique border.

If you are thinking of going on a safari in Kruger, please see this Fodor discussion forum which has loads of information. Clearly, this guy did his research. If only I came across this discussion post earlier, it'll certainly save me a lot of time and effort!

What was important to us was not the luxurious accommodations, although we prefer some level of comfort, but the quality of the game-viewings; I want to see lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards…all animals, you name it. And of course, to keep it affordable so we can still enjoy other upcoming city-break trips and holidays in 2010. Safaris can be outrageously expensive…definitely priced for the celebrities and millionaires, but there are also affordable safaris if you do your research. We also saw the value of going with small lodge on a private game reserve with no more than 10-12 people, as this is our first, and perhaps only (but hopefully not) safari experience. Finally, we wanted to stay at an unfenced reserve adjacent to Kruger which allows animals to roam seamlessly between the Kruger and other private reserves. This makes tracking animals a bit more challenging, but definitely offers a more authentic experience in my opinion.

After weeks of research, we finally selected Africa On Foot on Klaserie Game Reserve. We're doing a 4 days/3 nights safari and then spending 8 days in Cape Town. Passports, malarone pills, mossi spray, and sun cream in hand; we're all ready to go! Hopefully some real-time updates out of Africa…

Happy Easter Everyone!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

March: A Month in Review


March is my favourite month of year. Not only is it my birthday, my Dad, and my brother-in-law's birthday this month, in fact I know tons of March babies, but March also marks the beginning of spring. Hooray! I love the crisp spring air, the birds chirping in the mornings, the longer days, and the flowers blooming. The weather finally turned in London and we are experiencing a mild 14 Celsius (59 Farenheit)...finally!

March has also been a very eventful month, so our month in review by numbers:

1 engagement celebration: a soiree dubbed 'the night of the fruit cake' in Mayfair for our friends Mona and JC. What a night! We've received many engagement announcements this year-- many congratulations to all the recently engaged couples!

At least half a dozen birthdays: my birthday, my dad, brother-in-law, college roommates, cousins, friends, co-workers ...the list goes on! Happy Birthday Everyone!

1 Olympic Gold medal game: USA vs. Canada over dinner at Casa di Lily + Keenan; we didn't exactly watch the game; we followed the scores courtesy of the world wide web.

1 Trip: to Barcelona, Espana with our friends from home. Wait, make that two as we leave to South Africa on a red-eye on 30th March.

3 Visitors: Our couple friend Lena and Brent; and Steve from DC, who went to the same "economics" camp in Santa Barbara where Keenan and I met some 11 years ago. So great to see everyone!

2 Random Connections: too long to explain here...

1 St. Patty's Day: It's not a big celebration here in the U.K.; but we still celebrated over a few pints of Guinness at our local pub.

Photo taken in Dublin 8/2009:

2 Kebob Joints: Patogh Persian on Edgeware Road with my favorite Londoners; and Tayyab for oh so yummy lamb chops with Brent and Lena on their last night before they flew back to San Francisco/NYC.

1 New Camera: A new Nikon DSLR 5000D

Snap happy on Battersea Rise:

1 bottle of Lagavulin Scotch: enjoyed by Keenan and friends - Paul, Steve, and of course Brent G. (thanks again for the gift Brent!)

1 super fun photo shoot along Notting Hill's Portobello Road --- theme: Alice in Wonderland.

Team OUTNUMBERED -- 3 Yankees and 1 Brit

Team OUTNUMBERED: Three females and Keenan:

Team OUTNUMBERED was runner up for the category "Best Interpretation of a Phrase" - "fell to the ground." (see below; but the winning photo was from a different angle).

Happy spring everyone!

xx, Lily

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Exploring Haringey

Many of you know that I work as a consultant for an economic development research and consultancy in their economic regeneration division. Work is going well; I'm learning a lot on the job, and I get on with my colleagues all whom are extremely knowledgeable in urban policy. My latest work-related project has taken me all over the London Borough of Haringey. I usually don't venture beyond the London Boroughs of Camden and Islington in north London, so exploring Haringey was a new adventure for me. For those of you who are not familiar with city planning in London, allow me give you a brief introduction.

Greater London is divided into 32 "London Boroughs" -- 12 boroughs and the City of London make up Inner London, and the other 20 boroughs are considered as Outer London. Each borough elects their council members every four years, and is primarily responsible for administering local services such as schools, health services, and housing, while pan-London programmes are administered by the Greater London Authority, consisting of the Mayor of London and 25 elected members of the London Assembly.

My first introduction to Haringey (an outer borough of London) was about six weeks ago when Keenan and I, along with my good friend, went on a walking tour along the Parkland, London's longest nature reserve along a former railway line, which takes us through the leafy areas of Haringey. Since then I have made many trips up to Haringey. If I wasn't catching an overground train up to Bruce Grove or White Hart Lane from Liverpool Street, then I was certainly either on underground on the Victoria Line to Tottenham Hale, or on the Piccadilly Line towards Cockfosters (go ahead, laugh) to Wood Green, or on a bus to the not-so-well connected enclaves of Muswell Hill or Crouch End.

One afternoon, I found myself on an hour long bus ride on the W3 taking me from not-so-nice areas near Northumberland Park, a large council estate (read: housing projects) in Haringey through the leafy park of Alexandra Palace and finally to my destination, Finsbury Park Station where I can hop on the Victoria Line, my preferred underground line when possible. I certainly feel like I've covered most, if not all of Haringey's 11 square miles over the past month!

Home of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (4th in the ranking after Arsenal if you follow the English Premier League), my initial impression of Haringey is that is a geographically and ethnically diverse borough. To the west, you'll find the well-heeled areas of Highgate, Muswell Hill, and fashionable Crouch End, all which are leafy, quiet, family-oriented neighbourhoods surrounded by vast wooded parks including Queen Woods, Alexandra Park, and Priory Park. Crouch End is lined with beautiful boutiques, pubs, restaurants, and several hair salons, and of course your usual high street grocery chains like Marks & Spencers, as is Muswell Hill.

Crouch End (N8):

Muswell Hill (N10):

On the contrast, to the east, there are neighbourhoods which are considered to be the most deprived areas in the country according to the 2007 Index of Multiple Deprivation. The eastern part of Haringey is extremely ethnically diverse and home to a large East African/Afro Caribbean community. The geography also changes quite a bit, moving from hilly woody terrain to flatlands near the River Lea in Tottenham Hale.

Harringay Green Lanes:

Tottenham Hale @ Hale Wharf (N17):

White Hart Lane - Home of the Tottenham Hotspur:

Other neighbourhoods in Haringey such as Finsbury Park and Turnpike Lane (Green Lanes) are "rough around the edges" but also have many hidden gems, just ask my colleagues who lives in Manor House in Haringay. Take for example the upper end of Stroud Green Road toward Crouch Hill station has some nice independent shops and restaurants, but at the end of the road towards Finsbury Park station, the area becomes rough with several run-down shop fronts. As I was sitting in my 3:00PM meeting on Seven Sisters Road, there was a big drug bust just three blocks away where one-hundred kilos of heroin worth £4.5million was seized by the police around 3:30PM. Straight from the scene of The Wire….

Finsbury Park Underground:

Hidden Gems - Bruce Grove Castle:

Hidden Gems - Alexandra Park:

Well, I hope this give you somewhat of an insight to my working life in London. I don't want to bore you with details, but I'll write more about work another time. We're awaiting news on several big Olympic-related contracts, so wish us luck!

Cheers, Lily

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Viva La Barcelona!

Ahhh, Barcelona-- the land of Gaudi, tapas, fashion, Barca FC, and home of the famous La Ramblas -- is definitely one of Europe's most visually stunning city sitting on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. I still recall watching the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics as a 10 year old child and thought where is this place, it's so beautiful...I must go one day!

That day came during the summer of 2004 when my friend and I went to visit her sister who was "studying" abroad in Barcelona. It was a quick visit, too quick in fact. At that time I didn't realise how much there was to do and see in this fantastic city. Oh well, another time I suppose...

And then, Keenan and I received an email from our couple friend from California asking us if we wanted to spend a weekend in Barcelona as part of their second visit to London, we couldn't refuse! I've been dying to go back to Barcelona for some time now! Definitely a memorable trip with great food, wine, and wonderful friends -- it was great fun!

We booked an evening flight out of Gatwick and met our friends at our rented flat near Plaza de Catalunya (the very top of the Ramblas) around 10:30pm and headed straight to dinner at a nearby tapas restaurant called Ciudad Condal. Dinner of tapas, cold Estrella beers, and more tapas stretched until 1:30am -- I was impressed that our friends were still awake having just arrived from San Francisco. Good job guys!

Saturday we woke to glorious blue skies..."blue skies smiling at me, nothing but blue skies do I see!" Such as beautiful day in Barcelona. Keenan and I relished every minute of the sun. We started our morning with a quick dose of caffeine at Cafe Zurich and made our way down the Ramblas where you can find everything from pet stores, tourist junkets, florists, and street entertainers. Just beware of pickpocket whilst strolling down Barcelona's most famous boulevard.

Cafe Zurich:

La Ramblas:

La Boqueria:

The four of us stopped at La Boqueria Market, a must-see while in Barcelona. It wasn't even 11am yet and we were already devouring jamon and seafood coquette. We enjoyed the display of fresh tomato, courgette, lettuce, strawberries, mangoes...why can't produce look like this in England? Although Borough Market is still my favorite (I'm bias, I know).

Back on the Ramblas, we visited Gaudi's Palau Guell which is currently under renovation and then made our way down to the marina for a view of the sea. Oh how I wish I can splash around the water and lie on the beach. Far in the distance, you can see the uber-posh W Hotel at the very end of Rambla de Mar.

La Boqueria:

Inside Palau Guell:

Rambla del Mar/Marina:

At the marina:

We then made our way to La Barceloneta, the neighbourhood known for its sandy beaches and Frank Gehry's modern 'Peix d'Or' aka fish sculpture. It's an interesting structure, and best seen a from afar. By now we were hungry for more tapas and thanks to my friend's diligent research, we had a yummy lunch of bombas at La Cova Fumada, a busy (and tiny) family-run restaurant. Delicious!

Beachfront and Frank Gehry's Fish Sculpture

The boys are hungry:

The menu @ La Cava Fumada:

Keenan enjoying the sun:

We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon at Parc de la Ciuaudella, wondering around the neighborhood of the well-heeled La Ribera, admiring the Cathedral de Barcelona, and taking some 500+ photos.

We sat here and enjoyed this view (and blue skies):

Arc de Triomf:

Cathedral in Barri Gotic:

After a gorgeous stroll through narrow alleyways in my favourite neighborhood Barri Gotic, we indulged in some sweets...churros and chocolate at La Granja (thanks M for the recommendation). A match made in heaven...fluffy churros dipped in thick chocolate. It was so yummy that I had to send Keenan out for a second batch of churros; Keenan didn't mind (you get the churros three stores down and eat in at La Granja).

Xurros de Xocolata

La Granja:

Two amigas enjoying their churros:

The jetlag caught up with my friends so we spent Saturday evening at the flat, drinking wine, eating more jamon, and enjoying the company of great friends. But the boys did enjoy a little evening 'bromance' stroll along the Ramblas, while the girls relaxed back at the flat. As if the big lunch and snacks weren't enough, the boys went for dinner at a nearby pizza joint.

Barri Gotic, Barcelona:

On Sunday, the weather was not so nice...overcast and grey with rain in the evening and well into Monday. Our sightseeing plan was to visit the Moderniste architecture of Antonio Gaudi, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch along Passeig de Gracia in the posh neighbourhood of L'Eixample, and then make our way up to Gaudi's Parc Guell. Barcelona is absolutely delightful for strolling...love this city! A must-see on your European tour, IMHO.

Modernista Art Nouveau Walking Tour:

Being silly in front of Casa Mila (La Pedrera):

Designed by Gaudi, Parc Guell was originally planned as a development project with houses, schools, and shops. The project was a commercial failure and what is left today is a whimsical park with mosaic-clad benches perched on top of a hill overlooking Barcelona. We spent a few hours walking around this leafy and eye-catching park. I highly recommend Parc Guell; it is by far one of the most intriguing public parks I have seen to date.

The next stop on our list was the Picasso Museum. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, the museum was open free of charge all day (hooray!) but judging by the long queue, we decided to have lunch first at a nearby restaurant before touring the museum. Lunch at El Xampanyet was excellent; we feasted on Iberico jam and Manchego cheese; salted cod and anchovies; and rounded out the meal with biscotti dipped in Amaretto liqueur. Oh yes, of course, we also had their sparkling wine too. Tummy filled with goodness, we enjoyed the rest of the day at the museum with Picasso's finest collection.

Tapas @ El Xampanyet:

On our way back to flat to rest our feet, we also saw the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, a beautiful Catalan Gothic church, the Roman walls, Placa Reial (they say it is a meeting point for drug users; can't imagine, it is a beautiful square), and a quick walk through the El Raval, the seedy-turned-funky/bohemia neighborhood on the other side of the Ramblas.

Santa Maria del Mar:

The Roman temples:

Inside the temple:

Placa Reial on our way to El Raval:

Museau d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, El Raval:

Dinner (yes, dinner; time to eat again) was at Taverna Mam i Teca, which is highly recommended on Slow Food Travel. They also have an impressive display of liquor, but I think the boys were saving their liver for the bottle of Lagavulin Scotch in London (thanks for the gift BG!). We didn't do tapas this time, rather each of us got our own entree of veal, Catalan sausage, tuna salad, and beef. Unfortunately, it was rainy...very rainy that evening, so rather than roaming the streets of Barcelona in the rain, we went back to the apartment, shared some good laughs, and fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and praying for the rain to go away.

Taverna Mam i Teca:

On Monday, we experienced a freak storm in Barcelona -- it was snowing! Yes, it's March and it was snowing in Barcelona and needless to say, freezing cold! Yes, Keenan is indeed eating his own words so be careful what you wish for. The snow made our trip memorable, but unpleasant only because we didn't pack proper clothing or shoes. My purple suede flats were ruined. We stood in the queue at La Sagrada Familia, Antonio Gaudi's best known masterpiece, along with some 200 other people whom all looked miserable. The church is still under construction; and a bit underwhelming for the price you pay (10-12 Euros) in my opinion, although the museum was okay and you get to see Gaudi's tomb.


La Sagrada Familia:

Inside La Sagrada Familia:

Snow in Barcelona, 8th March 2010

We enjoyed one last meal together in Barcelona, at Cafe Sant Joan for homey Catalan food before going back to London (we took separate flights). If it wasn't for the freak snowstorm, we would have loved to have a second lunch at La Boqueria -- we have to fill-up for a long 1hr 45min plane ride back to London! It was a wonderful weekend in Barcelona! Thanks for the good times BG and LT, but lucky for us, our friends stayed another five days with us in London. More to come soon.

All photo credit goes to my friend, the amazing photographer, LT.

Restaurants we ate at whilst in Barcelona (all very local places), also thanks to LT!
Ciudad Condal, Rambla de Catalunya 18 (M: Passeig de Garcia)
Cafe Zurich, Placa Catalunya 1 (M: Catalunya)
La Boqueria, Carrer de La Boqueria (M: Liceu)
La Cova Fumada, Carrer Baluard 56 (M: Barceloneta)
La Granja for Churros in Barri Gotic, Carrer Banys Nous 4 (M: Liceu)
El Xampanyet, Carrer Montcada 22 (M: Jaume I)
Mam i Teca, Carrer Lluna 4 (M: Sant Antoni or Universitat)
Sant Joan, Passeig Sant Joan 65 (M: Tetuan)