April 28, 2009

I'll have the Dragon Balls

Moorish Castle up on the hill top (Sintra)

Day two in Portugal, James and I took a train to the fairy tale town of Sintra. It was a little town built into the grassy side of a hill. We saw the National Palace with its twin white, conical towers, Moorish Castle way up on the top of the hill, and spent the morning getting lost in the Quinta da Regaleira gardens.

National Palace

I think the brochure described it best: "The garden, as an image of the Cosmos, is revealed through a succession of magic and mysterious places. The quest for Paradise is found in coexistence with a mundus inferus - such as Dante's Inferno... it is the analogy to the metaphysical quest for the Being that is found in the great Epics. In these realms abound references to the worlds of mythology, to Olympus, Virgil, Dante, Milton, and Camoes, and to the mission of the Templars as continued by the Order of Christ, to great mystics and miraculous magicians, and to the enigmas of the alchemical Ars Magna. This symphony in Stone - crafted by builders of Temples, steeped in the true spirit of Tradition - reveals the poetic and prophetic dimension of a Lusitanian Philosophical Mansion."

Quinta da Regaleira, Main House

The garden was a labyrinth of dirt walkways, landscaped trees and flowers, stone walls and towers, chapels, waterfalls, grottos, fountains, wells - and they were all secretly connected by a series of underground tunnels. The first one we discovered led us out through the crypt of the chapel, back on a path toward the Main House - the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family. In the Regaleira Tower, I discovered a doorway that lead back into the dark. I walked as far as the light allowed and then took a picture. The flash from my camera momentarily lit up a bit more of the tunnel but I couldn't see where it ended. All of a sudden, I head a voice from deep in the darkness say, "hey". It scared me half to death. It was just James. He came back out into the light and told me that he walked in pretty far but the tunnel didn't seem to end and he couldn't see anything.

Regaleira Waterfall

We crossed the mossy green lake, which looked like something straight out of Lord of the Rings, and discovered another tunnel behind the statue of a dragon/lizard/fish. This time we were a little bit braver, and James led the way down the tunnel. We disappeared into the dark and griped the stone ceiling of the tunnel to guide our way through the complete blackness. At the time I was worried about hitting my head. Afterwards, I thought about how many spiders and maybe even bats might have been on the ceiling of that tunnel...

Entrance to Underground Tunnel

From within the tunnel, looking back out at the entrance

What an adventure it was making our way through the pitch black tunnel by ourselves, like we were explorers, discovering a secret passageway for the first time. Eventually the tunnel started to get light again, and we came out in the middle of a well. It was pretty awesome.

Underground Tunnel

Initiatic Well

The last thing we did before we left the gardens, was visit the inside of the Main House. There was one room upstairs that had bookshelves covering every inch of wall space. There were mirrors around the perimeter of the floor, that were about a foot down from floor-level, so if you tried to touch the mirror to reassure yourself that it was there, you felt nothing. You had to reach down a good ways below floor-level before you felt the hard surface of the mirror. The mirrors reflected the books and made it look like the walls continued all the way down to the first floor below, and that the black square of floor in front of you was just suspended in space, and might give way to your weight if you stepped on it, causing both you, and the floor, to fall down.

The book-wall illusion

Instead of going straight back to Lisbon. James and I took a train along the coast of Portugal and stopped in a little sleepy fishing village called Cascais (pronounced Kush-kish). It had a little beach right near where the boats were docked by the castle ramparts. It was a cold and dreary day, but I still dipped my toes into the other side of the Atlantic. It was just a brief stop in Cascais, but I'm glad we got to see what a small coastal town looked like in Portugal.


The beach at Cascais

The Atlantic Ocean 

That night, back in Lisbon, we decided to go out and experience the nightlife... even though we had to wake up at 5:20am the next morning to catch our flight back to Scotland. We went out in Barrio Alto, where everyone just crowds the streets with take-away drinks from bars. James and I started out at this place that had €1 shots... we couldn't turn that down. We each took a look at the shooters menu, and the same thing happened to jump off the page at both of us, the Dragon Ball. It consisted of Absinthe, Goldschlager, and Tequila. We each started the night off with a pair of Dragon Balls, and then went from there. James even tried a mixed drink with Cannabis Gin. I'm not even sure how they make that.

Cannibis Gin

Barrio Alto

We got back to our room around 3:00am and fell asleep watching "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on James' laptop.  It was the episode called "Dee Date's a Retarded Person", because we had been singing "Day Man" all day.

April 27, 2009

There aren't any pigs in Lisbon

On the bus from the airport to our hotel in Lisbon, James showed me his wallet that was overflowing with oversized European bills awkwardly spilling out. All I could do is laugh. For some reason, I've never had that problem.

James' overflowing wallet

Our first night in Lisbon, James and I checked into our hotel right near the Marques de Pombal, and took a stroll along Avenida de Liberdade. We found a nice seafood restaurant for dinner and ate outside on the sidewalk, enjoying the Portuguese atmosphere. Since we were still wide awake, but it was too late to start sightseeing, on the way back from dinner we stopped to buy a bottle of red wine to enjoy in our hotel room. A perfect night cap. When we turned on the TV in our room, there was breaking news on every channel. The Swine Flu. One hundred deaths in Mexico. The reporters only advice: avoid any unnecessary travel. Well, that was just great to hear, considering James and I were sitting in a hotel room in Portugal! So we drank our red wine and hoped there were no pigs in Lisbon.

Praca Dom Pedro IV Square

The next morning we took the subway into the center of town and began to wander the streets of Lisbon. We started in Baxia and saw the hypnotizing tile and beautiful fountains in Praca Dom Pedro IV (Rossio) Square. We passed by the Santa Justa elevator, which looked like a miniture Tower of Terror, on our way to the ruins of the ancient Church of Our Lady of Carmo Hill ruins and archeological museum. It was a strange sensation stepping inside, behind closed doors, with walls on all sides of you, pressed in between buildings along the street, but with nothing above you. Just the remains of stone arches above your head, bridging the walls on either side of you like ribs, as if you were in the belly of a whale rather than the ruins of a church.

Santa Justa elevator

There were blue skies overhead just long enough for us to enjoy the ruins, but then the gray cloud cover blew in and it began to rain. James and I ducked inside the museum building behind the ruins. It housed the artifacts found there when they started reconstructing the gothic church after the violent earthquake and fire in the mid 1700s. Budget problems prevented them from ever finishing their reconstruction.

Carmo Ruins

James and I walked down to the water's edge in Baxia to see the statue of Jose the First in Praca do Comercio. He was covered in scaffolding and surrounded by swarms of tourists. So, we wandered up through the Alfama district to Se de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral). It had a massive wooden door and a gorgeous stained glass rose window. Out back, there was an archeological dig site of the church's cloisters. You could walk all around the exterior of it and look down into the cloisters to see the stone wall remains that used to separate the rooms.

Se de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral)

Lisbon Cathedral Rose Window of the 12 Disciples and Jesus

Lisbon Cathedral Cloisters

We started our climb up the hill to the castle and passed a quaint little church with its own courtyard overlooking the river. When we finally reached the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we had a magnificent view of Lisbon and the Tejo River. In the distance we could see the 25 de Abril Bridge, which looks a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran, and we could even see the Cristo Rei (Christ King) statue, because it was so massive. James and I climbed all around the castle ramparts and saw stunning views of the city from all angles.

A little church we found along the way

Castelo Sao Jorge

Me and James at the Castle

That afternoon, we hoped on the subway and headed across town to the Oceanarium. When we first walked in the building, we were greeted by a giant sea creature, suspended from the ceiling, made entirely out of recycled soda cans. Inside the exhibit were cute little sea otters floating around on their backs and rubbing their paws together. There were penguins splashing around, and in another tank there were sharks, and still another was my favorite: the Mola Mola Sunfish. He's just a big lazy dude who floats around near the surface of the water, soaking in the sunlight. I took a really awesome picture of James and a shark, but it was on his camera since my battery had died. He also had videos of the adorable otters!

Lisbon Oceanarium

Mola Sunfish

April 25, 2009

Hebrew Chants

Greyfriar's Kirk

James. Brooks. Eckert. In Scotland! It was awesome to have my first visitor abroad, and even better for it to be my big brother. When James first arrived, jet-lag took over. After a three hour nap, I started showing him around the city. I took him to Greyfriar's Kirk, which I had actually never been to before. I've always walked past it, but never ventured inside the graveyard. We checked out the infamous Bloody Mackenzie's tomb - which is said to be viciously haunted by its resident ghost. I gave him a brief walking tour of the highlights of Old Town. Then we went back to my room to try to purchase tickets for the football match the following Saturday: Hibernian vs Dundee. The website was confusing, and I ended up having to make a few calls. I was put on hold a lot, and was giving James a play-by-play of what was happening. It took me a while to realize that he was no longer responding... he had fallen asleep in the middle of our conversation. After a half hour of battling with myself on whether I should wake him up or just let him sleep - I woke him up and we went out for dinner. We went for Mexican in New Town. There were Philly cheesesteaks on the menu... in a Mexican restaurant... in Great Britain... we got a kick out of that.

James sneaking a peak inside Bloody Mackenzie's tomb

The next morning, we headed over to the West End of Edinburgh. I never had any reason to spend time in the West End, but James discovered an art gallery in the area that looked interesting, the Dean's Gallery. So we checked it out. It was actually two buildings - two museum's in one. One building housed Scottish modern art from 1900s to today. The other, Dean's Gallery, had bizarre instillations, dada, and surrealist art. One artist who stood out to me was Damien Hirst, with his dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, his medicine cabinet instillations, and his paintings of colored dots representing pills and prescriptions.

Dean's Gallery

Outside the Dean's Gallery was an interesting landscape design on the front lawn. It almost looked futuristic: a serpentine island with block steps carved into the sides, that weaved its way around crescent-shaped ponds. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, so we sat outside on the steps of the gallery and enjoyed the view of the landform in front of us. Little kids ran around the island, chasing each other to the top of the mound. We ate lunch at Ryan's, on the corner of Queensferry and Princes Street, and were able to catch a little bit of a football match on the TVs there. Then we headed back up to Old Town and went to the Tron for drinks to watch the rest of the game.

Dean's Gallery landform

Back in my room that night, we flipped through our Lisbon guide books and started looking at what we wanted to do in Portugal. James practiced his Portuguese from the language guide in the back of his book. We only read the important phrases out loud: "where is the bathroom, please?", "one beer, thank you", and "let's get wasted tonight!" The way he read them, he sounded more like he was chanting in Hebrew, than speaking Portuguese.

I Love the 500s BC

We got off the boat around 8:00 in the morning and had all day in Athens until our flight left for Edinburgh via Frankfurt. So we explored the inside of the Ancient Agora in Athens. Rachel finally got a picture of me actually bowing down at the Temple of Zeus.

Not stretching my back this time, but acknowledging a worthy opponent

In our trek across the Agora, we found a stone ring in the middle of the path. I immediately challenged Rachel to a duel within the ring. She, of course, accepted my challenge. We duked it out with the tiny neon pink and green plastic swords that came skewered through pineapple wedges in our fruity cocktails on the cruise. I think Laura filmed it. I did something ridiculous and embarrassing, somebody must have filmed it. The funny thing was that Rachel finally had a real reason to say that phrase that we had been quoting all week. In VH1s "I Love the 90s part deux" 1993, the comedian Michael Ian Black is confronted with a Where's Waldo book. He pauses and then replies, deadpan: "I accept your challenge" as if it were a duel to the death. We can't stop quoting it.    

If only you could zoom in on our toothpick swords

Two islands in one day - I accept your challenge

Crete, Crete, Crete... what can I tell you about our time in Crete? It was short and rushed with a terrible tour guide. Six of us signed up for the excursion to the ruins of Knosses Palace, which was said to be the sight of the mythical labyrinth where the minotaur roamed. All the cruise ships arrived simultaneously, and there must have been about 20 other extremely large groups touring the palace ruins at the same time as us. We could barely hear the painfully slow English that our guide spoke. So we made an executive decision and the six Contiki kids broke away from our paid tour and went exploring on our own. I gave a much more interesting tour. I'm sure the other groups didn't discover the ancient ballroom and witness the reenactment of the ritual dance. We even beat our tour group back to the bus. We're extremely efficient at being rebellious.

Me and Laura at Knosses Palace

The Contiki Rebels, making Dan proud

We ate lunch back on the boat and then took shifts packing. I was so exhausted at this point from waking up before 7:00am every morning, being a nonstop tourist all day, and then taking part in the entertainment each night, that I zonked out in another infamous Katnap. I remember when I woke up, Laura asked me where Danielle went and my sleepy response was: "she wanted a... fresh... view." Come on, everyone knows this means: "she wanted a change of scenery and more space because it's so cramped in here with four people packing, so she went up to the Aquamarine Lounge to read her book and get some fresh air". Then I laughed so hard at myself that I laughed right out of bed and onto the floor.

The cruise ship deck with the cliffs of Fira in the background

Late that afternoon we arrived in Santorini. We took tenders ashore to Fira, which sat at the top of the cliffs. There were three ways up: cable car, donkey ride, or walk (dodging the the donkey droppings all the way up). On our tender ashore, Amber pondered: "I wonder how many donkeys there are on the island", to which I responded: "Oh, 173" without hesitation. Amber was impressed with my wealth of knowledge and asked where I had heard that. I told her: "I read it in my guide book... slasssssssh made it up." She didn't see that one coming! She wasn't with us on Crete when I was taking on the role of Creative Tour Guide.

I attempted to take a picture of our Contiki group on the tender, but none of them were paying attention. Finally I yelled: "Hey, port side! Pretend like you like Contiki!" to get them to look and laugh. Poor Dan put his hood up over his head and slouched down in defeat. You know we all love Contiki! And we all love you too, Dan. I mean, who didn't have a cruise-crush on Dan by the end of the trip??? I still maintain that Dan and I are soul mates - mostly because he also likes to make up songs about the food he eats.     

Oblivious Port Side

Defeated Dan


So, to get to the top of Fira, I was totally on board for hypothetical option number four: helicopter. But I chose the cable car. Only four of us did - the rest of Contiki braved the adventure of taming the wild Greek donkeys. Judging by the queues, Dan thought the Donkeys would beet the cable car up. He couldn't have been more wrong. Dun dun dun...  

Riding the cable car to the top

When we reached the top, Laura, Rachel, Jeff, and I scanned the Santorini hillside in search of the lost Contiki tribe. At this point I started describing the tribe and their mating rituals in a ridiculously bad Australian accent as if it were an episode on the Discovery Channel. Rachel got it on film. I'm so grateful that Rachel and Laura are always there to film and photograph the stupid things that I do...  


After waiting for a little while, Rachel called Dan to see if maybe they were already at the top and we had missed them. But as it was ringing, we saw our group making their way up the hill on the donkeys.  However, Dan picked up his phone with a nonchalant "Hello?" Rachel looked extremely confused and managed to ask: "Are you on a donkey right now?" to which Dan responded: "Why yes, I am." Dan, are you in a habit of answering your phone while riding on donkeys? How did you even get to it? Or hear it ring for that matter? Is your ringtone something loud and ridiculous like Jay-Z's Big Pimpin' or the theme song from Power Rangers? It is, isn't it! It's the theme song from Power Rangers. I knew it!

"Team Awesome"

Dan turned us loose in Fira. We saw a beautiful church, shopped, and then met up with our whole group to watch the sun set at the Tropical Bar. Contiki took over the balcony, and we enjoyed each others company, our cocktails, and the gorgeous view. I even sang a rendition of "Meet Me in Santorini", the lesser known musical, which of course, Rachel videotaped, and then posted. Again, thank you Rachel.

Contiki at Tropical Bar

Our cruise boat never anchored, it just circled the bay. Which is kinda a scary sight when you see your ship sailing off into the sunset without you, as you stand on top of a cliff. It was my favorite night of the entire cruise, just hanging out on the balcony of Tropical Bar, goofing around with our fun group. There was no more rushing to the next museum, or church, or palace, or ruins. It was the last night of our cruise and we all just relaxed and enjoyed it.


Rachel and I enjoying the sunset

yummy cocktails

We all decided to meet in the pub back on the boat for drinks before dinner. After dinner was the Latin Fever show and the talent show. One boy got up on stage with a Rubric's Cube and the tech guy played jeopardy-esque music that ticked away the seconds. After about five minutes, when the boy was still standing in the spotlight, twisting the cube around and around, I started to get really stressed out. I was nervous for him that he wasn't going to be able to solve it. Only geniuses, or math nerds who have the time to figure out the patterns, are ever able to solve it anyway. But he did it, phew! Then Jeff got up with a guitar and sang us a song. Contiki was so excited that one of our own was up there, that we were cheering like mad. But our seats were not ideal. Alberto got up and pushed the curtain back so that he could see where we were. It was really cute. We had all bonded. 
Not wanting our trip to end, a few of the night owls of the Conitki group went to the pub on board after the show. Then Dan and Jeff played songs on the guitar and we all sang along, until about 2:00 in the morning. We sang anything from Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", to Tenacious D's "@!#$ Her Gently" (censored for all the mothers out there who read this blog). It was the end of our trip, but not the end of our journey as friends...

Hahahahahahahaha. SO CORNY!

Contiki in Santorini April '09

PS The theme Song for this trip: "I'm On a Boat" by the Lonely Island. Check out this link to the video on youtube: I'm On a Boat

A flaming Baked Alaska parade

Day three aboard the Aquamarine, we docked for the day at the "Island of Roses" aka Rhodes. We walked around the stone walls of the Old Town, and entered through one of the gates to the medieval Street of the Knights that lead directly to the Palace of the Grand Masters. It's called the Street of the Knights because it was lined with Inns where the Knights would meet. When I told Laura, Rachel, and Danielle to act knightly, this is what I got:

Otherwise known as confusion

We checked out the Palace - the seat of the 19 Grand Masters. Built in the 14th century, it was blown up by an accidental explosion in 1856... whoops! The Italians restored the Palace in the 1930s.

Palace of the Grand Masters

Inside, there were exhibitions of Medieval and Ancient Rhodes. This was where I learned that the great Colossus of Rhodes was actually believed to have stood on the site where the Palace is now, which was thought to have once been the Temple of Apollo. Of course, literary romantics like to depict the 130-foot tall man straddling the entrance to Mandraki harbor, and ships with long wooden masts sailing between his legs... The English Majors and Masters that we are, couldn't help but pick up on that phallic symbolism. But thanks, Laura, for saying it out loud in the exhibition. No worries, no one heard you over the maniacal laughter of the little boy at random moments of complete silence in the museum. Even though the Colossus probably never stood at the harbor entrance to Rhodes Town, we still all went to that spot and posed as the one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:  

The result was kinda awkward

We snapped a picture of the ruined remains of the Temple of Aphrodite and then proceeded to take about a million pictures of the ocean. It was such a clear fantastic bluish-green: like an electric azure and jade that sparkled with flecks of champagne silver. It also just so happened that every day that the four of us got dressed, we seemed to be completely, yet unintentionally, color-coordinated. It was quite an impressive feat to do it day after day with four separate wardrobes. So our Wednesday's shades of pink and purple looked fantastic against the blue/green ocean and made for a fun photo shoot. 

Rhodes, Greece

Back on the ship we enjoyed a free lunch on the deck. Rachel and I posed, in our matching pink dresses for our Coca-Cola ad. I managed to spill coke all over Rachel's and my meal. Coke-soaked pizza and cake are surprisingly good. It was ironic, that after eating that horrendous mix, I threw a fit when Rachel sat back down and put her hot dog on top of her cake, for lack of another plate. Somehow icing on a hotdog does not sound enticing.  

The new Coke ad
That afternoon we relaxed on Elli Beach and soaked up the sunshine. It was a pebble beach, which was not the most fun to walk on. There was an old Greek man sweeping the sand-pebbles off of the concrete sidewalk behind us. I kid you not when I say that he swept the same five-foot stretch of sidewalk for a good 45 minutes. I wasn't sure if he was senile or was just being extremely thorough. Either way, it was excellent work ethic. On his resume, under special skills, it now reads: Able to strip down concrete with a broom. Even though the water was frigid - we still went in. But we didn't go cliff diving. Did you know you have to swim thirty meters just to get to the platform???

Elli Beach

Even our bathing suits matched - it's a sickness

There was a special evening planned for us back on board. It was a formal night with free cocktails and a handshake and photo with the captain of our ship. I still don't find it coincidental that the one evening our Captain was drinking booze with the guests for two+ hours at the stern, that the ship was jumping all over the water. Get that laundry boy off of the helm and let the captain steer us out of this rocky mess!
Formal night - you can't tell, but my stomach's incredibly queasy from the rocking

"Friends share their drinks with friends, otherwise friends will steal sips of friends' drinks when they get up to use the WC, especially if that drink has some combination of pineapple juice and rum in it..." -A proverb translated from the Original Greek

At dinner, our waiter claimed that we could not order dessert because Dan didn't finish his the night before. Way to go Dan, way to ruin it for all of us! ...Surprise! They wouldn't deprive us of dessert - they turned off all the lights and marched around the dining room with platters of Baked Alaska that were still flambe-ing. And if that weren't enough, they sang and danced too, to La Bamba if I remember correctly. A French cake, on Greek waters, while singing a Mexican tune... 
The show that evening was Broadway Hits and our buddy Ivan wore the most amazing shiny gold pants and purple velour suit jacket. We stopped by the Disco that night, briefly. All the 16-year-olds were grinding on the floor. I felt super old.  

Beauty and the Beast Ivan