Tuesday, January 02, 2018

2017 in 12 photos

Read Curious George with my niece and nephew in CA.

Met Charlie Brown in Santa Rosa.

Hosted family in Seattle.

Attended a live podcast taping (HIGHLIGHT).

Experienced the power of "60 mph" winds.

Enjoyed the rare convergence of all out of town relatives.

Climbed to the top of a six-story lighthouse in Spain.

Saw Mariah Carey in concert.

Went to the Pink Door with our Chicago/East Bay relatives.

Heard from [redacted] at the Paramount Theater (don't @ me).

Picked oranges with the CA nieces.

Chilled in Oakland with my nephew.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A love letter to London's public transport

Public transportation is truly a thing of wonder. When I was in college, I had a U-Pass, which gave me unlimited rides on Metro and Sound Transit, and I took full advantage of it. On Fridays I would go on excursions to Sand Point, downtown, South Seattle or Ballard; on the bus it would often take me up to an hour to arrive at my destination but I considered it all a part of my "urban pilgrimage." Since that time, King County has expanded its transportation infrastructure to not only include local and express buses, but Link Light Rail and downtown streetcars as well. I'm pretty proud of our public transpo, but I must tell you, it's nothing compared to London.

King County's Link Light Rail: One line, 77k daily ridership

London Underground: 11 lines, 4.8M daily ridership

London public transport, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

Stratford to London Fields

Our first day outing to London we decided to park and ride from Stratford station, which is located near the stadiums constructed for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Little did we know that it was the weekend of the World Athletic Championshps, where Usain Bolt was soon to run his last competitive race. Needless to say, the place was a zoo. In order to catch the tube to downtown London, we had to walk through one of the largest indoor/outdoor malls I have ever seen in my entire life: Westfield Stratford City.

We made our painfully slow way through the heart of the mall, shoulder to shoulder with the enormous and unending crowd. Bear in mind, we were with Naomi's family, and they have three small children, and had never been into the city before. When we got to the station, we had to get a couple floors underground to actually catch the tube--and unfortunately the lift was broken. So we lifted the double stroller and the children through a series of escalators and stairs (it really did feel like a labyrinth) to hop onto the Central Line.

One thing I learned about the tube is that they keep some lines up better than others. The Central Line is definitely not as well kept as others. It is physically small. Riders sit in rows facing each other with one aisle for people to stand. The seats are upholstered with a vibrant pattern that looks like it came out of the late 90s. Also, it has no air conditioning and since we were there in mid-August it was muggy, so all the windows were open. Thus, the whole way in, we could hear every scrape of metal and bump along the tracks. It was so un-glamorous. I loved it.

When we got to Bethnal Green, we ended up walking a little over a mile to get to Broadway Market and London Fields. I played "I spy" the entire way with Naomi's niece, though she says "My spy with my little eye," which is one of the cutest things ever.

London Fields where we met a lot of hilarious local kids on the playground

We ended up catching a bus from Hackney to get to Blackfriars, and like the tourists we are, the first thing we did was run up the stairs and sit in the very front, which, of course, is the best place to take photos and Snapchat selfies.

Being hella cheesy

I must say, the ride was exhilarating. Some "local youths" sat behind us, conversing loudly with much profanity and mentions of alcohol/drug use. And I saw a billboard for Jay-Z/Craig David, the gherkin and St. Paul's! 

Epping to South Bank

Our second time into the city, we took the Central Line again, but this time decided to park and ride from Epping, which is further from the city than Stratford. Epping definitely felt more like a suburb, and I enjoyed the part of the ride looking out into neighborhoods and industrial zones before we plunged into the darkness of the underground tunnel.

One thing you need to know is that we were going to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe, and since I had no notion of what the dress code might be, I was in a sheath dress with 2" heels (turns out I was WAY overdressed; major fail). Well, we ended up having to transfer from the underground to a double-decker bus. However, when we got to the bus stop, it was not in operation due to construction! So we started walking up to the next stop and watched our bus peel off when we were less than half a block away.

"We still have time," I reasoned, as we waited for the next one to arrive. The show started at 19:00, so even though we weren't getting there right when the doors opened to get the best spot in the yard (we got tickets where you stand in front of the stage the entire time, kind of like a mosh pit without the lingering fear of getting trampled to death), I figured we'd be fine.

The bus dropped us off near the Thames, and then we had another 10 minute walk. When we got to the venue, the lobby was entirely empty. I should have known then that something was off, but in my mind we still had time to spare. When I gave my name to the guy at the box office, he said, "The first act started about 15 minutes ago but if you go through those doors and to the left there should still be plenty of room." I blinked several times. "Wait, you mean it already started? I thought it started at 19:00 and that doors opened at 18:30!" He explained to me that the play started at 18:30; the doors had opened at 18:00. We had missed the beginning of the play! "I was wondering why you were so chill," he added, and I gave him my best self-deprecating shrug as we ran up the stairs to catch what was left of the play. "Americans," I'm sure he muttered to himself.

Slightly frazzled from the lengthy commute, I nonetheless greatly enjoyed the play. It was pretty funny, if a bit absurd. Next time, though, I'm wearing Keds.

Heathrow to Stepney Green

My last public transport story is my first solo trip in the city on my way back from Madrid. Flying from Madrid to Heathrow was kind of fun, actually. I had tons of time to kill at the airport, which worked out because the line for passport control was huge. It was an unexpected blessing to be able to speak to a couple of ladies next to me in line (who were from Central America) in my Mexican accent. They understood me (I was getting tired of the funny looks I kept getting in Spain because of the verbs and idioms I use) and their accents felt like home.

(Another aside that has nothing to do with public transportation: Spanish vending machines are on a whole other level! I purchased a smoked salmon sandwich on poppyseed bread... from a vending machine. Is there some way we can get these kinds of boutique offerings in the U.S.???)

When I touched down at Heathrow I followed the signs for the Heathrow Express, which is more or less a bullet train that gets you to London in less than half the time it might take through traditional routes. The first thing that was strange to me, was that they didn't ask for my fare; I just hopped onto the train, stowed my luggage on the rack and chilled. I kept waiting for some security guard to escort me off the train and arrest me. Turns out that they check your fare partway through the ride, kind of like they do on the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter. Apparently they're really trusting!

Heathrow Express is NOT paying me to say this but it was honestly one of the most luxurious mass transit rides I've ever experienced. You can watch the news on a small flatscreen, charge your phone, connect to complimentary WiFi and enjoy the smooth as silk ride. I think my dad would like the Heathrow Express. It's like the Cadillac of trains.

From there I transferred at Paddington station to the Hammersmith & City Line to Stepney Green to get to 40 Winks, a very unique and memorable B&B. Paddington station is HUGE. It's also hugely under construction. The first thing I noticed when I got off the train was there were tons of staff people just standing there, waiting to help clueless travelers like me. A man greeted me, then looked at me with some pity. He had to break the bad news that there was no working lift to the platform, so I would need to lug my rolling check-in, rolling carry-on and a backpack up a couple flights' worth of stairs. "It's okay!" I assured him as I walked away. "I'm strong!" I lied.

Dear reader, may I share a word of advice with you? If you travel in London, pack light. When entering an underground station, you place your oyster card on a sensor that opens gates swinging inward. Well, when I tried to go through with all my luggage, I wasn't fast enough because the gates closed on my check-in bag. I yelped, trying to pull the surprisingly strong gates apart so I could extricate it. A man behind me immediately tried to help; trying to push the luggage through but it just seemed to make the gates close even harder. As I was frantically working with him on this, my check-in luggage and backpack fell over onto the ground with a dramatic crash. By then the man had waved over a transport staff, who used her card to open the gates. I scrambled to pick up my other bag and guy with a European accent asked, "Are you all right?" I must have looked distraught. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I insisted, more embarrassed than anything as I headed to the lift to the platform.

Another reason to pack light: When I got on the tube, I had to stand at first and it was a nightmare. Spinner luggage is great for getting around in airports with smooth, pristine, polished stone floors, but my bags rolled around with a mind of their own at every stop along the tube route, much to my chagrin. When I managed to get a seat, I assumed an assortment of different positions to keep my luggage stationary with marginal success. Thankfully, the Hammersmith & City Line is much more spacious and better kept than the District Line so I didn't feel like I was being too annoying with all my luggage.

As we neared the downtown stations, a Chinese British couple (or so I assumed based on their appearance and accents) stepped onto the train and sat down next to me. They were smartly dressed and had their Starbucks in hand. The guy pulled out an enormous iPad and started fiddling with it.

At some point during the journey, one of them spilled their latte, creating an ever-growing pool of light brown liquid right in the middle of the train. The guy seemed pretty pained and embarrassed about it, so I dug through my backpack and handed them half of the travel-size pack of tissues that my mom had given me (thanks, Mom). He scrambled to mop up what he could as she kept insisting that it wasn't a big deal. When the train arrived at their stop, I noticed the guy hanging around near the door. He paused briefly. "Thank you," he said in his British accent. "Oh yeah, no prob," I replied.

When I finally got to Stepney Green I made my way to the exit only to find... they didn't have a lift. As I sighed, preparing myself mentally for the climb with my bags, which at this point felt like they were full of literal rocks, a guy stopped and offered to carry the largest one for me! It ended up being three flights up to the street surface level, so I was so grateful for his help.

I then rolled my way through Mile End another 15 minutes as the sun was going down. I really appreciated the paint at every sidewalk intersection with guidance for out of towners like me: "LOOK RIGHT."

After such a long day of travel, it was wonderful to come home to 40 Winks, change my clothes and charge my phone. My exhaustion, however, didn't keep me from venturing out again to get a little something sweet. :)

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Comparative Religion

I spent months planning things to do and see during our trip. I made a list of things that seemed interesting and began culling it to only include the must-sees. At the top of my list were cathedrals: a Catholic one in Spain and an Episcopalian one in England. I had gone to mass in Mexico and Episcopalian services in the States, so I knew a little bit of what to expect, but couldn't wait to attend services and experience it all firsthand.

Santiago de Compostela

I heard about this ancient Catholic pilgrimage site a while ago and had a desire to visit. It was about an hour drive from where we were staying on the coast. I had planned to attend mass at 9:00am and arrived with minutes to spare. Since Santiago de Compostela receives visitors from all over the world, I didn't realize that there would be multiple masses held in different parts of the cathedral at the same time. I ran to a small chapel where I heard singing, but discovered quickly that I had witnessed the tail-end of the German mass. Some of the people there asked me in German if I spoke German and I just shrugged. I asked the priest in Spanish where the Spanish mass was and he didn't know! Too hilarious. So I zipped out of there and thankfully found another chapel where they were holding mass in castellano.

It was a grand room with a dome four stories high and an ornate gold altar. Glass doors shielded it from the throng of visitors and a sign disallowed photography... so I was with people who were there to worship God, not take selfies. I came in while the priest was in the middle of the homily and he was encouraging parishioners to be faithful to God wherever the journey of life may take us. They had readings from the Old Testament, the gospels and Acts; a time of prayer; and a time for communion. After mass concluded I stayed to pray, and it was so special to have such a quiet, peaceful place to talk to God. Before I knew it another mass began! I decided to stick around and was happy to find that the presiding priest enunciated his words more than the last one had, which meant I better understood the homily this time around.

When I go to cathedrals, especially ones as ancient as Santiago de Compostela, I like to think about all the generations of people before me who have knelt there praying to God. It makes me think of Revelation 8:4 which talks about the incense along with the prayers of the saints that rise to him. God has been faithful to generations of people seeking him and he hears all our prayers.

I took a guided tour of the cathedral where we literally ascended to the roof, walking and standing on it as our tour guide explained the history of the place. I loved my tour guide's accent because it took me back to my days at the University of Washington, where I had a couple of young and hip Spanish teachers from Madrid and Barcelona who spoke like her. She explained that pilgrims would come west from the area near the Pyrenees and as a token of their journey, they received shells which they wore around their necks as a pendant. She explained that when pilgrims arrived they would, as a symbol of starting a new chapter of their lives having gone on this pilgrimage, would surrender their clothes to be burned and would receive new, white ones. She told us that regardless of social status, everyone received the same white clothes.

The cathedral museum had centuries' worth of religious art--sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Much of the depictions were of events occurring in the gospels and I enjoyed seeing the artist's interpretation and reflecting upon the story itself.

It was such a joy to experience God and worship him in Spain.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Towards the end of my trip I had one glorious, super-packed day in London. Someone from my home church had recommended going to visit St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which is Anglican (Church of England), so I attended their evening prayer service. St. James Cathedral in downtown Seattle is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, but I must say that St. Martin in the fields quite nearly surpasses it. Adherence to the Church of England is well on the decline (recent surveys show 15% of Britons identify as Anglican). Similar to the trends of mainline denominations in the U.S., most attendees were older adults, and though the cathedral was vast in size and had two stories worth of seating, I would say there were about 20 of us present.

A soprano soloist accompanied by a pianist sang some beautiful hymns. It was great. I love high church so much. The priest did readings from the Old Testament and gospels. She read the story of David and Saul when David was in the cave with him and could have taken his life. It was a poignant reminder that as tempting as it may be to take justice into our own hands, we must ultimately leave it in God's.

We had spent much of the day hustling to and fro in the city (we had walked for an hour or so downtown along the Thames, I got through about 1/6 of the National Gallery, we visited Daunt Books and survived the zoo that is Piccadilly Circus), so it was a great change of pace to be in a quiet, reflective space. I really liked being able to pray with other people, with the written-out prayers (we prayed the bolded text, just like we sometimes do at my home church), and to sing along with some hymns that I didn't know.

It was such a joy to experience God and worship him in England.

This is another of the many things I loved about travelling in England and Spain. More to come...