Sunday, December 12, 2010

Baby Journal - Page One

Considering the fact that the baby isn't born yet, there isn't too much that we can scrapbook yet. But we can at least do a little background work for the little guy. We have decided to dedicate  two pages to this subject, leaving lots of growing room for the future. Drum-roll please......

Page One (click for full size)

So what we've got here is the first (title page) of the journal. Using the color laser printer at work and our Hamermill Color Laser paper (acid-free, 32 weight, 94 brightness), we printed some wedding pictures, a nice little heart, and a picture of one of the ultrasound pictures from October. I could certainly tell that the printer at work is built for printing graphs and charts because the colors in the photos wasn't quite right and overall I was slightly disappointed. However, the paper weight was nice and strong and considering the cost and the fact that I could print any size that I want, the flexibility is worth it. Plus, if we ever decide in the future to switch out the pictures, we've using double-sided acid-free tape so that should be do-able.

On the left-hand side is a strip that we cut from one of our full-size pages of visually-textured $0.99 paper. I think the colors go well with the album cover and we added two billowing cutouts from construction paper for the "dedication" passages written by Erika and I. We linked everything together with simple lines from our acid-free (get the theme here?) pen and wrote our wedding dates in the middle of the heart. Erika added some aging effects to the construction paper using our set of color pencils. We added one our our stickers to the upper-left corner of the ultrasound picture just to add some color (and so Erika could break out the sticker packets and put them to use ;o)

J. Riley, craft blogger (as Summer eloquently put it)... 

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Joys of Journals journals. I don't really know how to make one, but Erika
actually has (and uses) the creative side of the brain and made a
shopping list for us on Saturday. We splurged for the Kolo scrapbook,
one that is worthy of gracing shelves of some SoHo boutique
scrapbooking store, but of the up-most quality. I mean, this thing
needs to last several lifetimes, right? And then there were the clear
plastic sleeves, the extra pages, the tape, the acid-free pen, etc.
etc. The idea of buying a $29 journal at Barnes and Noble was sounding
better and better every minute.

And then off to the paper store. We had to have the baby stickers,
right? And the animal pictures. And the lettering stickers. And the
cute patterned sheets to decorate and border the pages. I was not in a
good mood when the pile of sticker packages were getting rung up and I
saw $5 per package. Luckily, Erika likes the clearance stuff as much
as I do and we did find some deals towards the bottom of the pile.

The biggest problem was when we got home and actually opened the
packages and looked at the mess we were creating. Where the hell do we
start??? First, we need to come up with a list of "facts" and
information that we want to put in the book. We decided that a title
page wasn't really an option (considering the cost of page real
estate) and we'd start with a little background. Extended family,
wedding pictures and hearts (add acid-free color laser printing paper
to the list), and memos to the baby from mom and dad (add color
pencils and construction paper to the list). Naturally, it needs a
cute border so we came up with a stinjenius way to not have to buy a
designer exacto knife and god-knows-what accessory to cut paper in
straight lines: a box cutting knife (from my urban tool-kit), a ruler
with a metal edge (thanks PWC), a flattened cardboard box (thanks
Amazon), and two pairs of hands. It works much better than trying to
cut straight lines with a pair of scissors, though it remains to be
seen if we have all of our appendages by the end of the project....

J. Riley, maybe I'll consider making a guide for this project on the
ol' blog...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Circles of Life

I'm hoping that this post will help me fall off the wagon when it comes to not writing, and with the events recently I think it's time!  The last two weeks have been pretty bi-polar around here. The phrase circle of life is very cliche (thanks, Lion King), but it really has hit me like a capoeira roundhouse recently.

Two weeks ago today, I attended the first funeral visitation in my life. I've been pretty lucky up to this point in dealing with the ends of life, i.e. I have not had to deal with it! My co-worker's wife passed away after about five years of battling lung and brain cancer, and although I didn't ever have the chance to meet her, just attending the visitation was fairly traumatic to me. I was confronted with feelings that hadn't really hit me before, but I put on a brave face and got through the visitation unscathed. But I felt like I had totally disrespected the experience by trying to be wooden with my emotions and dwelled on it for the rest of the evening, trying to understand the pain and loneliness that my coworker would be going through, knowing that they had no children and by his stories in the past how much he had loved her. I had a really hard time with it all night and actually lost quite a lot of sleep over it. I attended the funeral mass the next morning and felt like I was able to connect a lot more to my emotions and, thankfully, that awarded me with a sense of closure that was missing the day before. It made me think a lot about my relationship with my wife and how lucky I am to have someone that I can talk to and experience life with, although she was out of the country for the past month!

Fast forward just two days later, and the point hit home when I was told that my own grandmother had passed away after years of battling her cancer while waiting for Erika at the airport. I don't know if it was better or worse that I had gone through so much in the previous few days, but I definitely felt farther away from my family than I had for a long time. I yearned to be back in California and since I had moved to New York I knew that this day would come, especially recently as hospice had been coming to her house to let her go painlessly and peacefully. No matter how prepared you think you are for this event, and knowing that it's going to happen soon, knowing that you won't be able to have a conversation about their life with them again is hard, obviously. I definitely feel like I missed out on being there at the end, but I hope to find some closure for this event at Christmas time when I can be with my family and visit my grandma for the last time. I won't forget her voice and my memory of her will always be of her healthy years when she swing danced with me on the family ranch so many years ago!

As chapters end, so chapters begin. After six weeks of talking to my in utero "daughter" and wife over Skype, we found out that "she" was actually a he. If the ultrasound technician can't really tell the gender of your child, isn't it better that they say "we don't know yet" rather than "we think it's a girl, but we can't guarantee it yet"? It's going to take a while for me to come around to him being around in the belly, but like the doctor said, of course I'm happy it's a boy :o) . It's fun to think about all of the permutations that our child could have, but of course I assume that he will have olive skin, be handsome (i.e. look more like his mother), blue eyes, and thick blonde hair, but I have a feeling that I'm going to be his biggest fan even if he looks like a little cholito from South America :o).

We're in fully baby prep-mode around here and are beginning to think about baby journals. We looked at some at Barnes & Noble but they just seem to artificial and lack the personal touch, so we are thinking about going the creative route with making our own. Having done some research, I think it's going to be a lot of work, but if I'm going to be documenting it on paper and in pictures, I think I can at least do it online via my blog as well! Maybe I need a new blog :-$??? We'll see about that. In any case, if anyone has experience with scrapbooking baby journals, by all means let me know!  

In other news, there is a lot going on with our friends. Alan and Andrea just had baby boy number two!  Melissa and Jonathan have begun planning their wedding for next summer - in Aruba! Priya and Manny are engaged and are planning their wedding for next summer - in Jamaica (rumors)! Yinety and David are engaged and I can only assume that they are planning their wedding for next summer as well - in the Dominican Republic! Thanks a lot folks, couldn't you at least space your weddings out a year, or are we going to have to move down to the Caribbean for the summer? Not to mention Sean and Roberta's potential "wedding" in Italy - next summer. When else??

Season's greetings to everyone, stay in touch!

J. Riley, send in those baby journal ideas all of you Martha Stewarts out there!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ambitionz as a...Drivah?

Since I'm half-baked at the moment (my favorite B&J froyo), I figure that I can dedicate a blog title to the great, late rapper Tupac Shakur, who was a visionary, who sought change, and died trying. But he didn't change his lifestyle enough and was eventually gunned down after getting involved in the east/west hip-hop gang wars. I suppose Tupac was named after the last Peruvian Inca Tupac Amaru, who resisted change until the end and eventually succumbed to the Spanish conquistadors, who tied each of his limbs to a horse, and then unleashed the horses, who tore his body literally apart in front of the remnants of the Incan empire in their capital city of Cusco. Visuals aside, both Tupacs resisted the change that was necessary to survive.

Although not quite so extreme, there's gonna be some change in my life to come, and regardless of the outcome, there will be a car involved, and I will be a "drivah". I spent the last four days of last week up in Massachusetts with my mom, sister, and wife and became reacquainted with relatives, checked out some of the tourist hot-spots in the state and region, and spent some time in a great city and it's charming residential areas. I thought I had a rough sketch of my future residence in California, but Boston wooed me with it's perfect weather, it's urban and academic atmosphere, it's houses with marvelous and historic character, it's New England charm, and so many wonderful distant relatives of mine. I'm not sure if I can say that this has thrown a wrench in my plans, but it is an intriguing option that appealed to both of us. Of course, ask me in six weeks when it starts snowing there, and things can change in a hurry!

I'm at a cross-roads in my family life, and things are just not falling into place perfectly. But can they? I'm not so sure they can. No matter where I end up, I will miss everything that New York City offers. I've been saying for a while, why stay here when I can't enjoy everything it has on offer? But we do enjoy so much of what it offers with it's melting pot (or at least a salad!) environment that I take for granted until I visit somewhere that doesn't offer that to the same degree (like Boston). Public transportation is the best thing ever invented, but in seven months it's going to turn into a huge pain in the ass.

And where do I go from here? Just today I had a conversation with someone who had moved recently and whose children missed their old neighborhood, it's shopping centers, it's bread (??), and other things like that. It seems so easy just to pack it up and move out to California, but things will be so different there! We will miss walking to the grocery store and being able to buy almost any ingredient that we want. We will miss having every clothing store in existence a mere 30 minute subway ride away. Of course, we will have family there, which is a huge, huge bonus that can't be measured. What about moving to Boston? We would be in a charming environment, have to deal with snow and more of the same weather that we deal with now, and uncertainty as to whether family bonds could be established after thirty three years of neglect. But at least the option is there and we could settle into something and establish a home that would be our own. And then there is always international destinations like Peru, where we would have countless family members, certain employment for Erika, fresh fruit, vegetables, and all types of food from neighborhood markets. The language issue and the culture change wouldn't bother me too much, but I wouldn't know too many people (which Erika has had to deal with here as well!), my profession would most likely have to change, and I would need to deal with the crime and pollution that Lima offers. We could even stay more or less local and relocate to Long Island or (gasp!) dirty Jersey. We would be able to maintain some form of relationship with our current environment and our friends, but we know absolutely nobody in those outer regions and would be just as far (or farther) from our family then we are now! So, there is no perfect scenario, but what is certain is that there will be change in store in the future.

On the other fronts, it seems like Erika is progressively getting better and starting to feel human again, though it could change at any moment! I've been delving into my local libraries and reading some great books, such as "Born to Run", "Freakonomics", "Shadow of the Wind" (a good read before and after Barcelona!), "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman", and a few others that I've already forgotten. The idea of getting an eReader is becoming more appealing to me, especially as I've discovered that I can actually check out eBooks from the library. One of my biggest issues with the eReaders is that I don't want to have to buy books. I don't buy them now, I'm never going to read them again most likely, so why should I pay $10 for a book? But if libraries, an tax-paid-for asset that many people don't take advantage of enough I think, can rent me a book for a Nook (sorry Kindle and iPad fans), that has some appeal. Of course, I don't really have an issue with carrying a book now, so I really don't see any reason to buy an eReader in the first place! But it would be nice for trips.

J. Riley, I have to admit defeat - I most likely won't finish Barcelona and Germany! Maybe I'll publish some cliff notes!  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Barcelona Observations

While I continue to work on the detailed stories of our trip to Barcelona (a long time coming, but I shall persevere!!), I thought I would share some observations that I jotted down throughout the trip in my ultra-trendy faux-moleskin notebook that I carried along to document things while sitting on planes, trains, and automobiles. Here we go, bullet-point style:

  •  On our second day in Spain, we hit up some stores to replenish our clothing supplies due to the lost luggage incident. One of the things I noticed pretty quickly is that the Spanish are much more laid back and informal than the people in Peru are. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with "hola!", which I only hear in casual settings in Peru. I think the very prevalent Peruvian service industry is trained to be more formal and offer up a "buenos dias!" when greeting you. I don't think we got a "buenos dias" once during our trip. Using "hola" seems to make the human interaction more personal.
  • On our first night in town, we hit up the Born neighborhood for a late dinner and we immediately noticed that we seriously under-dressed. Shorts and t-shirts were definitely inappropriate, but what was I really thinking? I guess I wouldn't go out in a hip-part of Manhattan at night for dinner in shorts and a tee, but in Spain they did it up nice with slacks, nice shirts, and a lot of white. It was a reminder that in urban environments, you must dress to impress - even if you're married ;o) .
  • Speaking of dinner that night, I quickly realized that people eat late! We went out at about 11:00pm and every place that we walked by was so crowded that we couldn't even walk in in our shabby clothing. Then again, it was a Friday night, so I suppose that might of had something to do with that fact. But I guess Spain has a reputation for late dinners and drinks anyway due to the sweltering heat during the day. Maybe that's more relevant in southern Spain than in Catalonia, though. It was almost contradictory, however, that the subway stopped running at sometime around midnight. 
  • Wine is very cheap in Barcelona! In fact, I found most things priced very reasonably regardless of what we were buying. Maybe after spending so much time in New York I've gotten used to overspending when it comes to drinks and food. I think that might actually be true too, now that I think about my time in Germany as well, where the beers were very cheap relative to what we pay here. But, anyway, the wine was pretty good to my non-developed palate and at 3€ a glass, you really couldn't go wrong. Likewise, the tapas were great in Barcelona and could be surprisingly cheap, depending on where you go. It's like a buffet - all you can eat, you just pay per item. One of our favorite spots was around 1.50€ per tapa, which was quite a deal when you consider that you fill up after about six of them.
  • Barcelona was surprisingly cosmopolitan. There was a strong contingent of Africans there (mostly selling fake designer purses and watches, shockingly ;o) as well as some elements of South Americans. Erika said there were quite a few Bolivians there, although we didn't really come across many South Americans. Catalonia is known for having a robust economy, which I guess would draw people from around the world to move there. Erika and I certainly felt the pull!
  • The style for the younger generation is similar to what I envision Argentines being like - shaggy and hippy-like. Beards, overgrown and unkempt hair, and hemp necklaces and bracelets were the norm among the hipper crowd - and they were everywhere that we went. 
  • It's so ironic that local produce is so trendy in the United States when the plethora of markets in Barcelona (and the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world?) would find it ludicrous to sell anything but local, seasonal produce. In New York, we think that it's great that we have access to wonderful green markets and Whole Foods. But in reality, it's really difficult for us to live that kind of lifestyle with companies like Walmart going "local" and putting those "local" farmers under intense price pressure!
  • The subway trains in Barcelona, which were surprisingly clean (again, maybe I'm jaded by New York's), actually wait for you! We were about halfway down a long staircase trying to catch a train, when it closed its doors. We slowed down and waited for it to pull away when all of the sudden the train reopened it's doors and waited a good five seconds longer for us to run and jump in. Five seconds! How outrageous!
  • I had heard that sometimes people from Spain had a superiority complex when it came to Latin Americans and I was interested to see how they would treat Erika with her Castellano Spanish accent. The reality was that they didn't even react to her accent and, in the odd circumstance that they used a different word in Spanish than she knew (such as at our local market when talking to the deli meat specialist), they would laugh and joke together about the different words and would take interest in her words. 
  • The shoes. Ohhhh, the shoes. One thing I really regret is not taking advantage of the reasonable prices in Barcelona and buying some hot Euro-shoes. They really had a nice urban flair to them and were totally unique compared to what I have here in the states. But, with my shoe rack already overloaded, I couldn't justify spending the $80 on them. Oh well, next time!
J. Riley, just a taste of what's to come!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy birthday mom, you've got twins on the way! :-x

Monday, July 19, 2010

España and Deutschland: Churches

By the second day in Barcelona, we had the whole luggage escapade our of our system and we were ready to start checking off the boxes on our itinerary of amazing things to see in Barcelona. But where should we start? After doing some quick reading in our tour book, we decided to ponder it further over some variant of ham between two slices of bread at the Barceloneta mercado. Erika had had a coffee con leche with her breakfast the day prior and, although I am not a coffee guy, I decided that one was in order for the first day to really get me going. This was a sign of things to come and let to an incredible addiction that I am still fighting in my heart and mind to this day. Being a coffee culture, I got used to drinking some good stuff, which has set me up for disappointment whenever I indulge on the weekends in midtown.

But I digress. We decided that our first order of business was to check out the insatiable, incredible, one-of-a-kind Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudi in the early 20th century. He died without seeing it completed, and I will also likely die before it's completed because it's still very much a work-in-progress. Now that I think about it, I find it ironic that we Americans use the term "goddie" (spelled phonetically) with a negative connotation to describe a material thing that is over the top, embellished with thick, ornate, outlandish decorations (much like my definition of the word itself :o). Perhaps this term came from "Gotti" (as in the head of our local mafia family), but more likely it came from Gaudi, who's designs were in fact ornate, outlandish, and over-the-top. Which is what makes this place so controversial, I suppose. Some guidebooks describe his designs as "cake in the rain", which I found pretty accurate.

According to the length of the line and our Rick Steves Snapshot guide of Barcelona (highly recommended, by the way), we arrived right at the worst time, with a line snaking around the corner for the entrance. But, not for the first time, we found the line to be quick moving and in a few minutes we were standing in front of this impressive building in all of its glory. It was almost overwhelming just standing there, so, armed with our audio guides, we took a seat at the base of one of the columns near the entrance (conveniently in the shade since it was toasty) and just took it all in for a few minutes.

It's basically impossible to describe this place. Where's a Graham when you need him? The columns inside the church were unsymmetrical trees of concrete (literally, trees) and the exterior was just breathtaking. I could say that he incorporated nature in his design with spires built like honeycombs and native plants and animals from the Holy-land throughout the exterior, and you would probably cross it off your list of things to see in your lifetime, but that would be a mistake! I literally cannot describe the place, you just have to see it to believe it.

Following a few hours of drinking from the cup of Gaudi at the Sagrada Familie, it was time to see the next church. Euros, they always complain about how Americans love churches and how boring they find them, which I can totally understand. But when we picked up Leif at the Plaça de Catalunya, he was actually excited to see the next church on the list. After mentally mapping out our plan for the rest of the afternoon, we decided that the best thing to do would be to purchase day-passes. Of course, we'd already used our $0.70 metro card ticket twice that day, but surely we would ride it at least six more times that day. I mean, how long can you really stay at a church (especially after just finishing up with the Sagrada Familia)?    

So, we headed off to the next place of worship, which was a bit on the outskirts of Barcelona and a further ten minute walk from there before it appeared before us. This is a place where legends are created and nurtured from a young age until they are released against inferior opposition as teenagers. One of the largest of its kind in all of Europe (nearly 100,000 people can praise the Hand of God on an afternoon), a place where nationality was celebrated and defiance against fascism was practiced on a weekly basis for nearly a half-century, the Camp Nou: The house of FC Barcelona, the best football team in the world. I feel lucky to have been able to visit this place now while they are nearly at the peak of their ability. Where a boy (Leo Messi) who will likely be called the best football player of all time is plying his trade at the tender age of 23.

I haven't been to many football stadiums in Europe, but if I was to pick one to visit (other than Liverpool's Anfield, of course), it would have to be the Nou Camp. While it would be much more exciting to actually go there while the season was in full swing and experience the noise of 97,000 patrons, this would have to do for the time being. FC Barcelona is actually an important cultural icon for the nation of Catalonia. When the fascist Franco plunged the country into civil war and struck down Barcelona and the Catalans, FC Barcelona was one of the last places of refuge for the citizens. Franco outlawed the flag of Catalonia, but the flag was incorporated in the club's emblem, so it really was, and is, a way for them to display some pride in their nationality. Little did I know that the club's slogan "FC Barcelona, More Than Just A Club" is not just some marketing moniker that Nike came up with after all.

We toured the stadium and locker room (as exciting as a locker room can be I guess), we got pictures holding a mock Champions League trophy, we held a press conference in their media room, I got my photo taken with Messi himself, which was amazing since he was actually in South Africa at the same time!), and generally payed homage to all of the greats that have graced the colors of FC Barcelona.

After a few hours at the church, it was basically time to meet up with Leif's girlfriend Melanie (who, conveniently, was in town for a girl's weekend) and head out to the Olympic Port for a seafood dinner. This area, which felt like it was at least a five mile walk from the subway) was basically built for the '92 Olympics and was at the end of the incredible Barcelona beach (which, by the way, we never got to enjoy thanks to the weather and the luggage incident).

So we wandered along the beach, along the snack shacks, clubs, and all sorts of interesting things going on until we got to the pier that held giant outdoor restaurants stacked full of fresh seafood and greasy, over-sunned menu hawkers. I have no doubt that these guys are definitely the Jersey Guidos of Europe (minus The Situation's abs) judging by the way they haggled and got a little too cozy to girls walking by.

We were pretty tired by this time and so we settled into a nice paella plate after dining on appetizers. The ironic thing about it was that we had just walked for over an hour to this place way out of the way based on one of the German's book's recommendation when we learned that none of the Germans, in fact, liked seafood :o). Suddenly, Erika and I become the "experts" on recommending which fish they should eat when they don't like any fish at all. Leif made things easy by ordering a steak, while I hastily described what a monkfish looks like when Melanie asked me what I thought about that for dinner. I recommended the cod, which they found relatively palatable. :o)

It was one of our longer, dryer days (and hot!), but we enjoyed the Germans company for the night. Next time, we'll take them for awesome tapas instead of seafood :o). We took the brisk subway home and crashed pretty hard after wandering around our little village neighborhood's narrow streets a little bit more.

J. Riley, we used our day passes exactly twice, which means we wasted about $15 on the day pass :o|

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

IVF Cocktail Party Invitation

We're having a party at our humble abode, anyone want to stop by for an evening of indulgence and gluttony?

Snacks Available

After the party is the after-party...

J. Riley, Oven opened, bun inserted

Saturday, July 10, 2010

España and Deutschland: First Day in Barcelona

Friday morning, and Barcelona awaits us. I spent the last month studying the city and all of it's sites, but somehow it doesn't feel like we are on vacation. After all, we had no luggage. No clean clothing, no appropriate shoes for exploring, and no desire to get the day going. We hung out at the apartment hitting F5 on the laptop keyboard, hoping that British Airways would miraculously change the status from "We have no idea where your luggage is" (I paraphrase) to "Hey, your luggage arrived as expected at 10:00am, our first flight into Barcelona".

By 10:30, I was fed up and it was time that we start making the airlines pay and at least get enough clothing to last us a day or two. It is very frustrating not knowing when your luggage is going to come, or even if it is going to come, because I didn't want to waste money if I didn't need to, but I just wasn't feeling confident that they had their act together. But Erika was clearly in more dire straits because I at least had some underwear and a shirt that didn't stink too much, but Erika had shoes giving her blisters and no clean clothes. Luckily, we lived spitting distance from a modern shopping center, which I was hoping that we wouldn't need to explore, but it became inevitable.   

We did pretty well, actually. They had an H&M in the shopping center and I was able to get a shirt while Erika found some nice shirts, shorts, under-roos, sandals, and a nice lightweight scarf to get her accessory fix. Prior to going to the shopping center, I was sweating the "Euro tax" thanks to the negative exchange rate, but Barcelona was surprisingly...reasonable! I was expecting to pay one euro for every dollar that an item cost (i.e. a $15 shirt would cost 15 Euros, or about $20). But we found that the prices were more along the lines of costs in the U.S. Maybe a benefit of visiting a country in a major recession?

With the shopping out of the way, we hightailed it back to our apartment to drop the stuff off and change because we had a date with life, and a date with Leif! My German friend is a pilot and had managed to get scheduled to fly out of and into Barcelona for the next three days, which meant he could hang out with us and see the city in the afternoons. But first, the luggage. Of course as soon as we got back from shopping, the airlines said that our luggage had arrived that morning! A few quick phone calls later, and they said that they would deliver the luggage sometime after 6:00pm. That sucked that it would be a while before we got it, but as long as it was coming we were happy.

After getting marvelously lost on the way to our meetup spot in Plaça de Catalunya, we finally met up with Leif for the first time in five years, and Erika finally got to meet one of the Germans that I talk about incessantly. She got her first taste of the Euros with Roland's visit in November, so of course she was looking forward to meeting Leif Knappy.

So, we're hanging out and talking, but what should we do? All of the guidebooks focus their energy on the epicenter of tourism, La Rambla. La Rambla is a long, sweeping pedestrian street that travels from the Plaça de Catalunya all the way to the ocean. It's just the kind of place that I despise, but I figured we had to at least see what all the hooplah was about. As the impromptu tour guide, I explained that La Rambla came from the Arabic word for "stream", which it was back in the days that the Moors owned Barcelona. Of course, as the city grew, the "stream" turned into a sewage system and I guess they got tired of the smell and paved it over. Now, it's a place for street performers, bird salesmen (???), tourist giftshops, and pickpockets. As you travel down along the neighborhood of the Raval on the right-hand side, you come across prostitutes and other questionable characters, which is interesting since this is tourist centro. 

So, we cruised down La Rambla and headed for another prime tourist location, La Boqueria, which is the biggest, baddest, and most awesome market in Barcelona. This place was massive, full of colorful fruits, vegetables, ham, drinking holes, and little tapas bars and restaurants. I was looking forward to checking out the other markets, but I was very very impressed with La Boqueria. After smelling all of the wonderful products, we had to sample some, so we picked up a table at one of the tapas bars and gave the local malted beverages a try and snacked on anchovies (or sardines?), croquettes, ham, and a few other interesting small plates of food. They were good, but a little greasy to be honest. Of course there would be more tapas and better tapas later in the trip, but this was a nice way to ease into the local cuisine.

Sitting in the blazing sun while snacking and drinking, I realized that I had no sunscreen on, which would be definitely be a problem. I usually slather myself with sunscreen, but seeing as how it was in my luggage and my luggage was coming that night, I was determined to work on my skin cancer rather than pay a few bucks for sunscreen that I didn't even need. That's logical, right? Despite the fact that I would demand to be reimbursed for it from the airline (along with the rest of the stuff we bought that day)? Okay, maybe it wasn't such a cerebral idea, but I actually wanted to see if my epidermis was truly dead and dusted and would refuse to get any color. The result? No color (which is better than red)!!

After exploring La Rambla, admiring and trying to figure out how the hell the levitating men floated in the freaking air, and going up and down La Rambla searching in vain for Palau Guell (one of Gaudi's first designs) and some famous theaters, it was time to head down to the waterfront and relax on our way back to meetup with our beloved baggage. We hung out on some steps leading down to the smelly, polluted water (or maybe it was the cruise line exhaust we were smelling?), and eventually started heading back to Barceloneta and bid adieu to Leif until the next day.

Back in our apartment, it was time to figure out what was going on with our luggage. Lucky for us, our "roommate" was a pretty awesome guy and let us use his phone so that we could make all the phone calls that we needed to in Barcelona to get the information we needed. We had dinner plans that night with one of Erika's friends and, sure enough, the airline decided that that was a perfect target for the delivery time. So our luggage arrived at 10:00am, but they wouldn't deliver it to us until between 8:00 and 11:00pm. Although it was going to cause problems in our schedule, getting our luggage was priority number one, so we cancelled our plans and begrudgingly rescheduled for later in the weekend. It almost worked out better this way, because we had some pig shopping to do.

One of the things that Spain is famous for is their legs o'ham. Much like Italy has their prosciutto, Spain has their Jamon Serrano. I've head a lot about this, and had black pigs jumping over fences and landing between two pieces of buttered bread in my dreams at night. It was definitely on my agenda to eat at least four portions of fatty jamon for each meal, so we embarked on a trip to our local mercado to go pick some up.

Usually, when I visit a city, I try to find out the local customs and visit some more authentic areas (isn't that the dream of every traveler, though?). Typically, it doesn't happen, but we lucked on this trip because our apartment was situated in just such a place. Overlooking Passeig de Joan Borbo and it's constant flow of tourists and locals flocking to the beach, who would believe that just one block deeper into Barceloneta was a  feeding ground for local residents. The mercado, just a few three or four minutes away by walking, was my destination of fairy tales because it was a meeting place of families of the area and inside they had a lovely little market with several jamon stands. We ended up picking one to stick to and it became our ritual to visit this place on a daily basis to pick up a variety of ham to eat for breakfast, snack on, or make sandwiches with. Our meat cutter (scientific term ;o) told Erika all about the different varieties he had such as regular serrano vs. serranita vs. black pigs that were fed only chestnuts, etc. He let us sample the different types and was in no rush to get us out despite the fact that the place was closing down by this point. This: is the life! We matched the jamon up with some cheeses that he had and went across the street to Barceloneta's top bakery where for a small pence, we were able to get some delicious fresh bread that would be our breakfast the next day.

Back at the homestead, we waited for our luggage some more. Finally, at 9:00pm, Ricardo got the call that our stuff had arrived and we rushed downstairs to embrace my handicapped  bag (it desperately needs some new wheels!)!! It was such a relief to finally be able to change into something cool and fresh after two days of offending the people around us ;o).

After our things arrived, we decided to head out to get some sangria and maybe a bite to eat in the immediate area, but Ricardo recommended that we head of to the Born neighborhood, which was the next neighborhood over. We were met with more narrow streets, dark alleyways, and throngs of sharply-dressed people in this burgeoning and fashionable neighborhood. We felt totally out of place with my sandals and baggy shorts when everyone was dressed to the nines, but we wandered around in search of anything that was not jammed pack with people and that had some outdoor seating for us to enjoy in the comfortable weather. The tapa bars in this area were amazing full and it brought a great energy to the area.

At the same time, I felt like the neighborhood had a dark side to it. There were some really dark streets that we walked down and some shady characters that seemed to be around us all the time. After being warned repeatedly about the pickpockets, it really unnerved me when people would walk like two feet behind me. Luckily, I was with Erika (haha!) who had no problem in these situations, which was why she was the one in charge of carrying the cash and any valuables :o).

In any case, we eventually stumbled upon a culdesac that had several restaurants and we settled on pizzas and fresh sangria at Pizza Paco. This area was really hopping and it just felt great to finally be carefree, relax, and enjoy the sites and smells of Barcelona :o)

J. Riley, it was a long first day!

IVF Update

Thirteen embryos have been created. Now they're off to the lab for PGD testing! Assuming it all goes well and statistics are realistic and achievable, the embryo transfer should take place early next week. Erika, for one, can't wait to get this over with, these drugs are horrific!

Monday, June 28, 2010

España and Deutschland: Arrival in Barcelona

After a colorful day in London, my feet were aching as a result of the overbearing backpack that for some reason I had packed to the maximum. On our flight to Hamburg the next week, we were going to be limited to 15kg for each bag, so the weigh-in at the airport in New York was useful for figuring out how much we were packing, so I had stuffed a couple items of clothing in my backpack both as a precaution for lost luggage and also to put my luggage on the South Beach Diet and lose a few kilos.

Arriving in Barcelona, we were pretty tired and looking forward to checking into our apartment that we reserved over at There were some interesting characters on our plane ride, including a group that was going to Barcelona for what must have been a boys weekend in Spain and were getting all tipsy on the plane. We watched them as we waited for our luggage. As the wait grew, I was looking around and trying to find out where the trains to the city were, as we could save like $4 by taking them instead of the ultra-convenient Aerobus that goes directly to the town. And the wait kept growing, until eventually the baggage claim just stopped and we were standing there with another couple with neither of our bags. Not exactly part of the itinerary, low-cost carrier who advertised itself as British Airways.

We filed our claim and were despondent to learn that not only could they not tell us when the luggage would arrive (the next flight was the next day), but they couldn't even tell us where our luggage was last scanned and they didn't know where it was located, even if had even arrived in London or not. We filed our claim and took the Aerobus to the center of town in shock, the idea of not having clean clothing (save what was in my backpack) or shoes to replace Erika's damaged heels (that had given her blisters that she almost couldn't walk with) the next day after spending the whole day in London had not really sunk in yet.

We finally arrived in Plaça de Catalunya, meandered over to our subway and took it two stops to the Barceloneta station, where we found seafood restaurant after restaurant lining the main street that led down to the beach. Not in the mood to deal with the menu-totting restaurant hagglers, we bee-lined for the street where our apartment would await us. But we weren't exactly sure where that was. We stopped to buy an overpriced toothbrush and toothpaste at one of the only stores open at the hour (probably 10:30pm) and got directions to the street we were looking for. 

When we turned off the main avenue on the street where the apartment was and walked 10 meters, we found ourselves in a dimly lit neighborhood with narrow, dark streets and  sinister-looking characters lurking about. And we couldn't find the building where our apartment was! I didn't really feel like hanging out in the area, and luckily we realized that the directions we were given were off by one street and we found the building one block down. I never would have thought that I would come to love the neighborhood after that first step into Barceloneta! 

Anyway, we found the building and pressed the buzzer, but the buzzer made no sound and nobody responded. We tried it a few more times, double-checked the address, and I finally gave in and whipped out my Verizon phone that the week before had been impregnated with a GSM chip - my first experience in actually utilizing my World Phone :o). It cost $2.00 a minute to use, but it was well worth it when Ricardo answered and came down to pick us up. Apparently sometimes the electricity goes out in the stairwells and the buzzer - gotta love rustic Barcelona!

We finally were in our apartment and it was everything we had hoped it would be. Ricardo was great and showed us where everything was and our first view over the Barcelona marina filled with sailboats and yachts  with the old city center raising it's historical head in the background and we were enamored with the city. But not enamored with British Airlines, which would be our first of few conflicts in the old-country.   

J. Riley, to boot, Ricardo took pity on us and graciously made a pesto-seafood pasta dinner for the three of us to enjoy together.  

Minor IVF Update

Putting Europe aside for a moment, we received news last week that the Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis lab has completed it's setup - in more or less a month. Not bad considering they told us it would take up to eight weeks to have it all ready. We shortly thereafter received a phone call from the NYU Fertility Clinic that we are working with asking us if....we are ready for the next step! And that we had to come in THAT AFTERNOON for a meeting with the head nurse to show us how everything works from then on. I was expecting an hour long meeting, but it turned into like a three hours deal with a few other couples going through all the details.

It would have been nice to have like two weeks to mentally prepare for all this, but the very next day we were told that we had to order all of the needles (30+), pills (3 types), and a delicious cocktail of half a dozen hormone medications that Erika will be injected with by your's truly (joy!) over the next month, all of which had to be shipped with Fedex Priority overnight shipping.

Looking at the pharmacy's website, one of the medications alone was going to cost close to $800 and I was hoping that insurance would cut that down a bit, but by how much I didn't know. When Erika told me the pharmacy called and quoted us $780 for the whole package, I was relatively pleased and was mentally prepared for that. When the package arrived at 11:00am the next morning, the total for the bill was listed right there as a whopping...$78!! I was speechless - and immediately ordered my new Canon SD940IS camera that will replace our busted SD800 that served me so well over the last few years.

So, that was quite a stressful few days. However, after a sleepless first night, the stress was released over the weekend by indulging in four wonderfully delicious World Cup games :o).

To conclude, if everything goes well, there will be a bun in the over by the end of July!

J. Riley, speechless!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

España and Deutschland: But First, London

I've been to a few places in this world, but, shockingly, I've never been to England, the birthplace of football. It just so happened that American Airlines couldn't send us straight through to BCN International Airport, we had to spend a few hours in London. Like, eight hours. I've been to Heathrow before and know the kind of damage that can be done to a credit card with a limit there in eight hours, especially considering the British Pound currency rate and the unpublished airport tax - "Duty-Free" my ass, the prices are like 25% above market value!

So, we did our research and tried to find out what a Peruvian citizen without a British visa can get away with in London for eight hours. Like most government websites, it was confusing and although it said that Erika could transfer to another airline without a visa, it was up to the passport control agents whether or not they would give you a 24-hour temporary visa when you got there. Bleary-eyed and sleep deprived after a six-hour red-eye and loaded down with a sixty-pound backpack (or, so it felt), we arrived and hopped in the Non-EU line and started checking out the passport control agents and their demeanor. I've clearly become jaded by the famous New York "hospitality" and maintained a pessimistic outlook on our chances, but I cheered up immediately when we got in line with a chipper, smiling agent. Boarding passes in hand, Erika and I started to make our case for letting her pass due to our layover and connecting flights, green card, etc., but before we could even present our closing statement/remarks, she had stamped Erika's passport with a temporary visa and explained the best way to get to the train station. Erika and I both laughed as she was the one that we both wanted to check our passports, and it turned out perfect!

We found ourselves a Metro map and looked over it. I had no idea what there was to do in London and I justed wanted to wander around somewhere since we didn't have enough time to do a stadium tour ;o). I knew of a Tralfagar Square that would be teeming with tourists on a Friday, but Erika recommended we go see a castle or something. So we bought some subway tickets out to the area around Buckingham Palace. Ouch, I quickly realized that this little day trip to London was going to hurt my wallet when I paid eight bucks just for one subway ticket into town. Oh well, I'd probably be better off in town than shopping "Duty-Free" and English-styled clothes (I still desire you, Euro fashions!!).  

So after some clarifications on how to buy tickets, we were on our way down to "the tube", as they refer to the subway I believe. Walking inside the station, I was astonished at seeing a piece of trash down on the tracks. "A" piece of trash. In New York, you can't even see the tracks, it is so full of trash and mysterious standing rat bathing water. Based on its reputation for being formal, orderly, proper, and clean, I kind of expected it. After all, this was the country that was in uproar when a Prime Minister candidate forget his microphone was on and called an old lady who had presented a question at a town hall meeting a "bigot". Uproar! Scandal! Oh, the humanity of it all! 

We got off at Knightsbridge Station, somewhere and London and got out to walk around and attempt to waste time, find Buckingham Palace, and eat some lunch. I was shocked when I needed to actually use sunglasses in London and found it to be a bright, warm, and very sunny day. I had everything valuable in my backpack save for sunscreen - minor error on my part. I did find a sample of sunscreen given to us by a dermatologist somewhere in the dark depths of a crevice in my bag, though, and that probably helped me postpone my journey towards skin cancer by a day at least. 

We started wandering down the beautiful British boulevard and found Harrod's, which is supposedly one of the biggest department stores in the world - maybe after Macy's in NYC. It was a beautiful building that we took some pictures of but, of course in the interest of time (or so I told Erika), we should just keep walking and not go inside. Damage averted! We wandered around some pretty streets and noted that physically, this was the place where I probably fit in the most. Most people assume that I've got some German in my blood with the whole Aryan look and height, but I actually found myself more like the English than anyone. They're fairly tall, skinny, and tow-headed as well and I think I fit in pretty well there. 

What was funny was that although I physically fit in well, people had a hard time understanding me. They actually understood Erika better than me I think. Then again, when I listen to my voicemail message before I leave work, I hardly understand myself, so I can understand their pain in hearing me talk. But it was a unique and sort of funny experience being in Europe and speaking my native tongue without feeling guilty.

Eventually, we got lost, which was sort of my plan although I had thought I would just come across Buckingham Palace at some point. But using my subway map as my city guide, I soon realized that London is huge! We had gone in the complete wrong direction, so we decided that we'd need to ask for directions. We asked a lady who was walking about some directions and discovered, again, the the Brits are so. damn. FRIENDLY! She walked us to a bus station (out of her way), explained to us which bus to take, when to get off, how much to pay, etc. I was going to ask for a foot massage, but decided against it at the last minute. 

When our double-decker bus came rolling up, we had enough change to pay the bus driver for one person but only had a large bill otherwise. I found it interesting that you actually pay the bus driver himself and he makes change and all that. In New York, you're asking for problems if you even look at the bus drivers. Of course, packing a £20 bill, he couldn't make change so I wasn't sure what was going to happen. He took out this pad of paper and wrote something on it and gave it to me. I didn't know what to do with it or what it was, but he looked finished with me so we wandered up to the second-deck of the double-decker (of course). I looked at the note he gave me and it was basically an IOU form! It had the fare amount and gave me a phone number to call to pay for my fare with a credit card or told me to pay at a subway station sometime in the next five days. WHAT??? Are you kidding? You get an IOU and people actually PAY? This system WORKS? Having just come from New York, of course we laughed  about it and never paid it off :o/ . I feel slightly guilty about it now, but I'm sure I'll recover someday and pay my £2.

Eventually, we found some signs directing us to our main destination: Buckingham Palace. It was neat, but....rather underwhelming, to be honest. Isn't this where the Queen lives and stuff? It wasn't especially big or fancy. The gates had some cool gold designs and of course the guards look cool with their big fuzzy hats, but otherwise it was a bit of a letdown. There was a nice statue in the center circle across from the palace and there were a lot of flags, long, straight boulevards undoubtedly going to some other important places, but other than the statue, the PARK looked most interesting. We walked along the edge of it (Hyde Park, maybe?) on our way back towards to the subway station and I wanted to go sunbathe, relax, and take off this damn backpack that is killing my body, but we just didn't have the time. Next time!

On our way to the subway and lunch, we discovered that if we had turned right instead of left when we came out of the subway, we would have been at Buckingham Palace in like five minutes rather than two and a half hours. Oh well, at least we got to see some London! For lunch, we were treated with typical Euro patience (despite the fact that we were kind of in a hurry) and had a decent meal and bubbly water for a decent price, using up the rest of our £20. Interestingly, when we paid the bill at the table, nobody even came by to collect it or to see if we had paid it in full or anything. Wow, by the end of the day, I kind of enjoyed and could get used to this whole "trust" thing that was going on there. It was a sign of great things to come!

We headed back to the airport with a little bit of time to spare before our flight to Spain. We walked around some of the stores, checking out some of the completely stylish and completely unreasonably priced clothing that was everywhere as well as me gawking at the Liverpool memorabilia and the footballers' autobiographies in the book store. :o)

J. Riley, London was cool, but we were pumped up for Barcelona!


España and Deutschland: A Prologue

It was around 5:30am when I woke up, sweating and feeling disoriented. I sat up in bed and thought to myself, Where am I? I'm definitely not on stiff, uncomfortable seats at midnight on my way over the Atlantic with a microwaved chicken "dinner" slowly digesting in my stomach, or on my way to Barcelona with sore feet and a over-utilized shoulders, or on my way to Germany with a mind full of memories, anticipation, and the delight that my vacation wasn't over. I wasn't in Barcelona, sleeping in a stranger's apartment with the loud street noise and the wonderful sights visible from the bed at all hours. I definitely wasn't in Hamburg, with it's complete silence from 12:00am until 12:00am the next morning. Ahh, am I in the rural region of the Sauerland in Germany, the land first explored as a teenager where I tasted my first beer and visited every few years thereafter? No, looking around in the first rays of dusk light, I recognized the bathroom and mentally traced the path to the kitchen, the futon, and the large windows with views of tall buildings. I am in New York. I am home. 

Home is Where the Heart Is, the old adage says. The night before, home was where I begrudgingly lay down my head and woke up the next morning. By the adage was true: my heart was far away, in a land across the great pond where I experienced an amazing trip that I just wasn't willing to let go of. Not just yet. But, as always, the trip slipped further and further away and life returned to its recognizable pattern with friends, new experiences, and routines. 

People asked me the expected question when I returned home: How was your trip? I haven't thought of a short version of an answer, and the long answer will take a few hours or days to tell. I think people that have experienced these kinds of trips before know the answer without me having to explain in great detail the trip. Of course, vacations can be disasters, but I don't think I've experienced one of those yet. They are all special in their  own way, and this one was no different. 

J. Riley, pictures are up.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cruise Director's In-Transit Packet Inspection

The mosquito-inflected wounds on my legs barely healed before I was back at it again. Since last year, we'd been talking about taking a trip to Europe, but I sometimes doubted that it would be realistic for us to do that with all this IVF stuff going on with us.

The Background

Having accumulated some miles over the past few years with flights and purchases (more from the latter than the former), we started looking at some flights in September. Off-season, good weather, etc., it was looking good for a trip to sunny Barcelona and maybe a quick trip up to Berlin to visit Alexander. But then we came back to the subject and timelines of IVF, and we were kinda flip-flopping about when we would start IVF, would we want to go to Europe after Erika's inception and risk something happening, or would we wait until later in the year to kick it off?

On a whim, we decided to look into flights for the Spring. Amazingly, there were some flights available for mileage use in June! I was so excited, I could hardly contain myself. Was I really going to go to Europe on such a whim? That's when I put the hat "J. Riley: Cruise Director" on.

This title comes from "A Certain Italian" from trips of yore, mostly back in my traveling days in college. Stefan would sign up for one of my trips (begrudgingly on my part) and I would get to work. I would book the hotels, research the flights, read the books, research the routes, plan the events, book the pub crawls, and of course get in contact with our local contacts in each location. Stefan's sole responsibility was to book the flight I told him to book, and everything else would fall into place for him. This happened with Europe '97, Europe '01, South America '02, South America '05, World Cup '06, Slovakia '07, Peru '08, etc. (damn, I've traveled too much with him).

And thus, I sprang into action for Barcelona. Barcelona was an easy target for us due to it being geographically located in Spain (although culturally unique) and it being a place that neither Erika and I have been to. Though was also a small bit of me longing to make it to Germany, as this was a place that was instrumental to my development as a person and helped me discover a lot of the ideals that I now hold. Not to mention it was the place that kicked off my jet-setting lifestyle and, ultimately, led to my introduction of Erika in the first place. So I tossed an email out to my friend Leif who, as a pilot, I thought might be able to make it down to hang out with us for a few days in Barcelona with his girlfriend Melanie.

Leif through a spanner into my works by saying that not only was his girlfriend going to be in Barcelona just a few days before, but that Schuetzenfest in his hometown was going to be on the very weekend that we were going to be in Barcelona.

Ahhhh.....Schuetzenfest. You go to the semi-rural area of the Sauerland (Nordrhein-Westfallen) where they have local gun clubs. A wooden eagle is put in a box high up in a tree and the local gun club members each take a turn trying to hit the eagle and knock it off its perch that it is secured to in the tree. The person who knocks it down (after several hours) is declared the "King" of Schuetzenfest and leads a parade through town, eventually ending up in a huge tent that the whole town is at. There are carnival rides outside and a brass polka band inside. And beer. Lots of beer. Starting at about 9:00am and going through the night - the last time it was only interrupted by few hours of napping. I've been to a few of these in the past and, for me, it is clearly the cultural event to attend in Germany. It's not a watered down Oktoberfest and there are no other Americans (or Peruvians, for that matter) anywhere in town. It is quite epic.

The Flights

So now I'm trying to calculate the flights in and out of Barcelona, the possibility of getting to Germany by planes, trains, or automobiles, and, of course leaving enough time in each destination to actually enjoy it all while attempting to minimize the amount of days I'll be taking off. Erika and I mapped out a plan of days and then I get on the horn to see what other tickets were available for reward travelers in the month of June.

And I nailed it. Nailed it! We're now arriving in Barcelona, spending some (ample, I hope) time there, then flying (via a $100-for-two flight from sketchy RyanAir) up to Hamburg, Germany, where Leif lives (and, conveniently a place that we have a guidebook for as a wedding gift thanks to Alex's parents and sister, who also lives in Hamburg), and then traveling with Leif down to the Sauerland, then departing on the evening of the 14th from Frankfurt, where I hope that we can meet up with Alex's parents for a meal before our flight.

The Lodging

Of course, I am going to need a place to stay in Barcelona. I spent a significant amount of my downtime at work researching hotels and hostels, somewhere that wasn't going to bankrupt my undefined yet minimalistic budget. Erika and I can get by with just a bed, but most of the hostals were booked, except for the ones with like 25 beds in a room. And, even then, it was going to be around $70 a night (everything is times two!). Hotels were going to be even worse and just the thought of paying four-figures just for a room for this trip was keeping me awake at night.

I happened to mention my upcoming trip to my boss's boss (who travels for fun a lot, especially with his college-aged children) and he mentioned a website that people rent their free rooms out of. I told him to shoot it over, though I was confident that I had already checked out the website (since I'd been looking at apartments to rent). But alas! It was a new one: Air B-N-B (without the dashes; you'll know why in a minute). Like he said, people actually rent out fully furnished rooms (or whole apartments) to travelers. Many of them are centrally located, you can read reviews from other travelers about the place (but only after they've stayed there), you get a list of amenities, a Google map of the location, and anything the person wants to mention about themselves. Not to mention, all the booking takes place via the website (U.S. based, so no foreign-fees on the credit card; plus no VAT taxes on the room) and the website pays the person renting out the room - after I check in! I googled around about them and found some reputable stories in a variety of newspapers like the NY Times about it being quite legit.

And it quickly became my obsession. Hour after hour, I was looking after different options, seeing what was available, reading the reviews, calculating cost-benefits of different locations of residences and having a personal bathroom and free internet, etc. etc. Like a man-possessed, I was waking up early on the weekend to troll the site some more and finally we decided to go with a room overlooking the marina in the old blue-collar sailor part of town (Barceloneta) next to some recently renovated public beaches with a washer and dryer, WiFi internet, and a very nice kitchen and bedroom for $80 per night. It was a little high, but we figured that for an extra $20 per night, we might as well stay somewhere that looked nice and had really good reviews. The website of course has a service charge, so I was looking at almost $530 for the place for six days. I googled around for rumored coupons on the website and found one for $150 off! But I plugged it in and apparently it was no good because it was only for a certain location. Oh well.

And then I got my receipt. It said that my credit card was charged for $380 ($530-$150). Shocker: the friggin' website has a bug in it and it actually gave me the discount from the coupon. That just totally made my day and I couldn't believe it! Hence why I won't put the full website or link in the blog - in case they're trolling blogger looking for customer reviews about experience rather than working on fixing the bugs in the website :o).

Because we fly out of an airport in the lovely town of Girona about an hour and a half north of Barcelona, we decided to spend the day up there and spend the night in a regular-old airport hotel that night (since our flight is in the morning). Although the price was the same on the hotel's website, the website does NOT encrypt their transaction page with SSL, so I booked it with Additional benefit - no foreign-fee charges from the credit card.

In Hamburg, we will be staying at Leif's vacant apartment until he arrives back and takes us to the Sauerland, where we will be (hopefully!) staying at his parents' house.

Ground Transportation

RyanAir, one of the most sketchy, low-cost-no-frills airlines in Europe, saves money by flying into remote, random airports (like the one in Girona that we're leaving Barcelona from). Oftentimes, the only way to get to the actual city is to take a one-hour taxi ride from the airport, which quickly makes the savings on your flight disappear like an over-leveraged investment bank with no customer confidence. However, the remote, random airport that we fly into for Hamburg, Germany is actually quite a big city (Bremen). And they have a bus service that actually lines up with the RyanAir arrivals and takes you to Hamburg (and hour and a half away) for about $20. Much better, and cheaper, than a $100 taxi ride followed by an expensive train ride to our destination.

I had planned on taking a train from the Sauerland to Frankfurt to depart back to the United States, but one of Leif's friends coming to Schuetzenfest (they all come home for the event) will actually be driving back to Frankfurt on the same day that we would be going, so we'll avoid another long, expensive ride with that benefit!

The City Research

I've been using NYC's wonderful public library system lately to get books to read. Conveniently, they also have a few books on traveling as well (not to mention DVDs, language programs, CDs, etc. etc.). I went ahead and ordered the books that I could about Barcelona in order to do research. And of course I need to know more than just the tourist information - I want to learn all about Catalonia and the last thousand years of the city's history.

I got a few

By the way, after some extensive research, the National Geographic book is quite impressive. I also enjoy Rick Steves' book. Although a bit nerdy and very much tourist-oriented, I like how he presents his material very clearly and almost on a personal level. He also provides a lot of information on his web site and in his PBS shows, so that is the one book that I actually bought (for $9).

Potential Pitfalls and Perils 

Whenever my itinerary is over-engineered like this one, there's always plenty of room for a problem to slip into my plans, throwing everything into disarray. We have a nice little collection of problem points and no real contingency plans for any of them!

First of all, Erika needs a visa in order to travel to Europe. She can use the same visa for Spain as for Germany, but she does have to make an appointment at the Spanish embassy (they recommend three weeks before departure). Her appointment is a mere two weeks before our departure, but we're hoping that she can negotiate to get it expedited based on the itinerary that's required.

Assuming we are legally cleared to head to Spain, the air may not be. Eyjafjallajokul is rearing its ugly little (massive) head again and causing problems at airports all over Europe - including several in western part of Spain. Spain was affected a few weeks back and all German airspace was closed when the initial cloud of ash drifted over Old Europe last time around. If we get stuck in Spain, I can think of worse places to be.

Assuming we are legally cleared and the air is clear at 35,000 feet, British Airways (who operates the European legs of our round-trip flight) has conveniently scheduled cabin-crew strikes on three days in May and June. By fate, it happens to be two days after we arrive, so we should be in the clear here, but you never know. Is there any mystery as to why the airlines are all going bankrupt?

And the, of course, there is all the Internet booking going on and assuming that operators in Spain actually work on the posted schedule - which may or may not be the case in the siesta-laden land. However, I think we've scheduled enough time between our stops to make sure that this trip is going to be awesome!  

J. Riley, am I a nerd version of this horrible American in Vicky Christina Barcelona (order it on Netflix) ;o) ? BTW, the PGD test setup for the IVF got kicked off today

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Meet The Cuevas

Unlike Meet the Parents/Fockers, the sequel of Meet the Cuevas in San Marcos, Cajamarca, Peru was actually better than the first one that was released about a year and a half ago. It was certainly different than the first trip, especially considering the fact that I was picked up by Erika's dad and spent the first night at Erika's aunt's house without her around. And of course, no one speaks English so it was certainly a big challenge for me to communicate. But the challenge was met and I was dominate with my Spanglish, dropping some jokes and getting some laughs out of everyone. It was challenging, but I proved again that when Erika isn't around to translate, I can drop it like it's hot!

Among some new bad words, one thing that I did learn or was reminded of was the fact that Inca Kola, a staple of every meal in Peru, contains caffeine. To demonstrate my reaction to caffeine, on the rare days that I am sleep walking to work and cannot wake up, I put literally 1.45 inches of coffee in a cup and I'm wired for hours. So drinking ample amounts of Inca Kola at about 11:00pm and *not* following it up with equal parts of beer or liquor of some kind (which I was actually hoping for), means only one thing: insomnia. The Inca Kola, plus stressing about waking up late for our 5:00am flight, plus airplanes flying about 50 feet over the house as they come in to land (*much* louder than I remember at our house when the military planes would be pulling into Moffet), plus the usual orchestra of animals at night leads me and a rock-hard, 25" high pillow that was putting my spinal chord at risk of snapping led to zero sleep at night. Zero! That's the way to start a trip after flying all day and having a full half day more of travelling ahead of me!

So, with the trip off to a bad start, I headed to the airport the next morning with Pancrita (her dad's nickname that nobody can explain the meaning of), and had a pretty uneventful flight to Cajamarca. We took the taxi to the bus depot (garage) and were met there by Erika and her Mom, who woke up at 3:00am to take the bus to Cajamarca and meet us. Now that's some dedication! I was a walking zombie however and was just looking forward to getting on the bus and passing out. However, these buses are built for the little Peruvians, not strapping white-folk like me. Thing of those 1980s Toyota minivans (narrow, tall), expand the size by 50%, add about 35 seats, and you've got the Peruvian Combi. The seats are not plus leather, but basically springs covered by vinyl and 10" of leg room. Somehow, the Peruvians are soldiers and have no problem with these things, and in my past life I would relish the authenticity of such means of travel. But, I'm getting old and not having any leg room isn't cool, so I told Erika this is the *last* time I'm taking a Combi on a this two hour road-trip to San Marcos.

Well, once I made it to San Marcos, I was golden, and the few days I spent there were splendid and I was spoiled to life's full-extent. Does Justin want some breakfast? Yes please. Does Justin want some Ecco to drink? Yes please. Does Justin want to drink some beer with the men of the house, sharing a pixie cup? Yes please. Does Justin want some spicy, fried testicles from the sheep that was just butchered out back? Why not. Does Justin want to eat some Cuy (Guinea Pig)? Ummm, okay it's already spread-eagle and beheaded on my plate, so I guess so. Does Justin want some home-brewed 50-proof moonshine that can take paint off walls and that's sold in reused Sprite bottles or some chicha (a warm, frothy, full textured liquor made from fermented corn)? I think I'll stick with the beer and sheep testicles, thanks though!

Being spoiled doesn't come cheap or easy in these parts and life isn't easy, though. These people are hard-working honest folk. I was once asked, "what do they do for a living?", to which I responded, "They just live".      The women spend the day butchering the guinea pigs, free-range hens, or whatever other animal is going to be eaten, they collect peppers that are rampantly growing above the "shower", they collect herbs that are growing in between the "choclo" (Peruvian corn) stalks to spice Caldo Verde (a rich, green soup), etc. They take the animals (goats, pigs, sheeps, etc) out to mow down the brush growing everywhere on the farm. And, I had the wonderful opportunity to do some manual labor of my own along with Erika and her dad by knocking down the ripe "talla" off the tree and collecting the red pea-like-pods off the ground, which is painstaking on the back, knees, etc. The talla is collected and sold to collection agents that use the inside of the pods for making oil and red make-up.

Being Native American, I've long held the belief that I am immune to poison oak (which I have never contracted). But it doesn't start with poison oak; I am also immune to mosquitoes! People are always getting bit by mosquitoes and other small bugs and I never get bit. Despite my insistence on this FACT, Erika said I should put some repellent on because the mosquitoes were ravenous for human blood and I should put some jeans on. But it was way too hot to do manual labor in jeans, and I'm immune, right?

Soooo, it turns out I'm not immune. My upper body wasn't touched (except for some cyst-sized bites on various fingers - how the hell did they bite me without me seeing?). But my legs were dominated by the bastards. I counted 59 bites on my legs alone. Holy Jesus (Hey-Sus). I really don't think they were mosquitoes, cuz I didn't see any even touching me, but the swollen welts and gaping wounds on my legs told a different story. Maybe it was some other exotic bug that my people never built up a resistance to, unlike the Incas (especially since they didn't itch at all). All I know is that I'll be using more caladryl than soap for the next few days!

The main event for the trip was me becoming The Godfather. Our god-child Jimena, who is an adorable seven year-old with beautiful eyes (she'll be stunning some day I think) had her baptism on Saturday morning. Those of you in attendance at my wedding know how my Spanish goes in front of the priest. Well, this was even worse. I was mis-informed on what I was going to be saying to the priest, but likely I didn't have a microphone thrust down my throat, so I just nodded, mumbled, and avoided the glaring eyes of the priest as we went through the quick ceremony. Not my fault! Like I said, I was misinformed by everybody.

Unlike the short ceremony, the part was OFF. THE. HOOK. I lasted a few hours before I passed out in my room, but this party when twelve full hours and there was definitely high amounts of intoxication involved. These guys can certainly DRINK - and DANCE! I got dragged out quite a bit by my "comadre" (Jimena's mom), much to my embarrassment, but I had some fun. The family was trying to put me on a pedastool for travelling so far, but that was definitely uncomfortable and I just wanted to be treated like everyone else. I didn't need a metal fork to eat my sheep testicles. I didn't need a chair to put my plate of butterflied guinea pig on. I just wanted to blend in with everyone else, though physically that was clearly impossible!

At the end of the night, after my little napster, I re-joined the party and before I knew it it was mid-night and that means - Erika's birthday! So the party was definitely not done and in walked three really drunk mariachis - Cajamarca style, wearing the traditional Cajamarca sombreros and bellowing out mariachi songs. It was hilarious because they were so drunk and singing along with each other along with a guitar. They also lit twenty-four massive fireworks (one for each year of Erika's life ;o) that boomed outside, it was great! Everyone likes mariachis, even in Peru!

Despite my ear being attacked by a bastard of a mosquito and getting zero sleep again on the last night (true to tradition), the trip was really a good time. Unlike in Hollywood, the sequel was most definitely better than the prequel!

J. Riley, and the Combi ride on the way back to the airport? We took a taxi this time. The best $25 I spent in my life :o).

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Si Se Puede! Change We Can Believe In!

I'm a changed man. Erika left me on Saturday morning for a multitude of reasons. Most of them are my fault, but one of them is because we are going to be god-parents in a few weeks and I cracked under the pressure, letting her fly down to Peru on her wonderful $200 round-trip ticket and leaving me all by my lonesome. Fear not, however, because I am going to be joining her down there on my $200 round-trip ticket in a week or so. I'm looking forward to the party, the culture, the food, and the vacation! I've got the speech that she wrote in front of me and hopefully I will be able to memorize it before the trip, though I'm sure I'll be reciting it after a few rounds of the shared pixie cup of beer so I have little faith that I'll be able to remember it without my cheat sheet.

But, really, I'm a changed man! I've decided that I need to prioritize some things in my life, including my focus on learning better Spanish. I've started up on my Pimsleur Spanish CDs again - which are amazing, by the way. Sucky commute got you singing the blues? Change the channel and pop these guys in your car's CD player and you'll be golden. I used to listen to one lesson on the way to work and then listen to it again on the way home just to make sure it sinks in. I actually discovered that it's not too difficult to get going with because most of the terms you first learn are pretty well known. OK, enough advertising for CD's that I can provide to anybody free of charge. To take my lessons a step further, I attended a free Spanish Conversation Group down at the NY Public Library last night. I was really nervous, thinking about a giant room full of people, most of whom were probably more or less fluent that just wanted to practice a little. I was surprised to find that there were only about seven people in the group and that I wasn't half bad compared to them. It was a nice confidence booster.

Seriously though, I'm a changed man! I bought some new running shoes recently and after a day of lonesome reflection after dropping Erika off at the airport, I decided that I'm going to train for a triathalon. It's more like a try-athalon, though. And it will be like an eXtreme sports version of it. I've already got the spin classes on my regular schedule and on Sunday I decided to hit the streets with my new shoes and go explore the rustic, polluted, and industrial parts of Astoria along the power plants and the East River with a 3.5K jog. I didn't do too bad, though my legs are killing me to this day and my whole body is sore from my legs all the way up to my head with some screaming neck muscles. I plan on incorporating more jogs into my schedule and have even considered jogging home from work, which would only be about a 30 minute job for me.

I'm most excited about the last exercise that completes my triathalon training. I've been tossing around the idea of getting a bike to ride to work, except that I have no place to put it and arriving at work as a sweaty mess just doesn't fit my image - though I wouldn't be totally out of place among the nerds at work.

But! I have rollerblades at home still! I haven't used these things since I moved from Manhattan, but couldn't just toss them since they are a decent enough pair with newish wheels. I decided that on Monday, I would jam the blades into my backpack and take them to work with me and see if I could find a decent route home with them on.

First of all, have you ever changed at work? I dunno about you, but I have a major complex when it comes to changing at work. Maybe it violates the separation of work and personal life that I strive to maintain on a daily basis. I feel almost naked when I come out of the bathroom with shorts and a t-shirt on. I've got to work on that some more and learn to lift the shoulders up (and suck the belly in :o/) and try to hide the pit stains on my grungy undershirts while I try to make a quick getaway.

In any case, I made it to the street where I mounted my twin pair of horses onto my feet. I realized that I left my insoles at home, which meant that my balance would be all messed up. Or maybe I'm just using that as an excuse for why I was flailing all over the first couple of streets with cars honking behind me. Come on, it's been three years, gimmeabreak. Plus, the only place I used to roll in the city were in Central Park with it's meticulously maintained outer-rim road that provided me with lots of room to fly and launch off jumps.

Well, Queens is no Central Park, that's for sure. True to it's industrial image, the streets are lined with gravel, the decrepit sidewalks are more or less poorly maintained, there are no street sweepers off the major routes, and the roads are lined with chop shops and auto mechanics that love to drip oil all over the place, making me look like a car in that old video game that hits the oil slicks. Plus, the road along the water, with surprisingly clearly marked bike routes, were pitted, uneven, and full of little rocks that tore up my virgin wheels. It was great! This route is clearly going to be challenging to master, but this spring I am going to have a go at it and see if I can manage to survive.

After blading home yesterday, I decided that my suffering legs needed a stretch so I did a little jog around the hood and through the lovely sculpture park, where people like to unleash their dogs and minks. Wait, WTF? Somebody let their mink/weasel thing off the leash and it was just hopping alongside them in the park. That was the weirded thing that I've seen since I saw somebody taking their monkey for a walk in SoHo one time. At least with a pet mink you can skin it and make a nice neck lining for your coat....

Easter was pretty depressing around here, what with Liverpool failing to qualify for next year's Champion's League, Erika having a family reunion and making chicharron with a whole pig at home with people that traveled 16 hours on a Peruvian bus just for lunch, my family having a family reunion in California with various liquor concoctions and Brie undoubtedly getting drunk, and with me reading a book about a girl who's jailed and tortured in Iran as a political prisoner. At least the weather was brilliant! What a happy day :o) !!

J. Riley, remind me to bring my bike helmet back with me from California. I'd rather prevent my head from meeting the gravel on these dangerous commutes home!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Public Service Announcement Re:Reservation Rewards

I had some strange transactions on my credit card recently - $12 charges (that appeared to be occurring monthly) being charged by something called "Reservation Rewards". Apparently, this is one of those scams that they get you signed up for when you buy from "reputable" travel sites like Orbitz. Check out your credit card if you have used one of these discount sites and make sure you're not getting charged. If you are, call them up, demand that they cancel your account and threaten to report them to the BBB if they don't refund all of the past charges. I did that and they re-credited my credit card. I reported them to the BBB and disputed their charge on my credit card for good measure!

J. Riley, I recommend using a virtual credit card number from a credit card company like Citi (I think Amex may have it as well) when buying from these travel sites or any other "lowest bidder" sites that I like to frequent! Thanks for notifying me about the charges!

In An Effort To Catch Up....

For once, I've actually been too busy to blog! Let's see, what's going on around here:
  • In an effort to become cultured, we decided to go see a ballet at the NYC Ballet, which was also Erika's (belated) Valentine's Day present. As much as I mockingly "ooohhhed" and "awwwwwed", I couldn't really get into it. I'm not really sure what to look for when they are prancing and dancing around the stage. Some of it was cool, but I have a feeling that it has a lot to do with the classical music that the orchestra is playing. Classical. You know, that extremely cranial music style that people force their kids to listen to in order to increase their intelligence. Obviously, I didn't have that kind of training and clearly don't understand how to "interpret" the music like some of my neighbors at the ballet! But it was fun - considering I had a nice little discount. 
  • In an effort to become dehydrated, Paul and I visited the Russian Turkish Bath House. Despite the name, it's not a typical "bath house" that you would think exists in liberal NYC. In any case, my skin got as crispy as the porchetta sandwich that we enjoyed afterwards while we went between seven different saunas and steam rooms with a dips in an ice pool in between. Not only that, but we got to enjoy a public beating with a bushwhacking (literally) Russian who beat us down with oak branches/leaves in the Russian sauna. The oak leaves apparently open your pores even more, which was clearly the case as my skin was synged and fried by the time I was done. Throw in some warm water, a soapy paint brush (olive-oil soap!), and (what felt like a ) a bejewled, Michael Jackson-style,  glove that rubbed the complete epidermis off of my back (and scabbed up a few of my moles :o/ ), and the "platza" massage was a wrap! 
  • In an effort to explore Brooklyn and some of what's on offer,we enjoyed some legit Trinidadian food in Crown Heights/Bed-Stuy at Trini-Gul, which was recommended to me by a guy I know from Grenada. We tried out some tasty roasted goat that was coated in spices from the islands, some curry potatoes, and a "bake and shark", which was like a fried pita bread with breaded and fried shark meat. And some of the hottest hot sauce I've ever had the pleasure of trying! 
  • In an effort to check out the highly-acclaimed Brooklyn Museum (by said Grenadian), we met up with some of Erika's classmates and teachers for a Target First Saturday. Free entrance to the museum with some Haitian music that clearly was influenced by similar cultures as Brazilian samba music and, later, a full on party on a massive dance floor in the middle of a museum. It would have been awesome to hang out at, except for the fact that my feet were killing me because my latest Pumas don't exactly use comfort as one of their stand-out features and we had been walking around since 2:00pm. The next event is on my calendar for May, however, and I will attend and I will dance!
  • In an effort to finally let Erika see some of the touristy sites in the city, in particular from 67 floors up, we hit the Top of the Rock up last Sunday. The view from there isn't as impressive as from the observatory on the Empire State Building, with the exception of the fact that you can actually see the Empire State Building from there. The weather was crystal clear, spring-like, and there was absolutely no crowd or line at the entrance.
  • In an effort to enjoy a Snow Day (when I get to work from home), For one of the first times we ventured out into the fresh powder at our local sculpture park on the river, armed with a camera and some waterproof boots. It was pretty nice since it was dead quiet, nobody was in the park, and it just kept on snowing. We built a nice little snow man until I started not being able to feel my hands. I'll that one to the list for next winter - if I'm still here! 
  • In an effort to use my Justin-branded urban cowboy boots, we met up with Paul and Jeff to enjoy some boot-stompin', ass kickin' hipster bluegrass music downtown. We had seen the Hackensaw Boys a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. This time around was good because I got to take a picture with my favorite member of the band, but they were missing their redneck percussionist (who now lives in California, ironically) who used to play the spoons, pots, pans, metal trash-can lids, etc. 
J. Riley, not much going on on the IVF front right now, except that I am now coming to realize that doctor's do not like to have any liability with this kind of stuff!