Nicaragua: My First Love

After five years of globe-trotting, I finally made it back to visit my first love; the country which started me on my journey: Nicaragua. Life in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes had really changed in some ways, but in most it was exactly as I remembered. I was quite pleased to find there were still mango slices on every corner, the majestic volcanoes still give you a slight sense of impending doom, the sand on the beach still gives 2nd degree burns on your feet, and the rum is still magnificent. Ahh Nica – how I’ve missed you. Despite your mosquitoes, your poorly mannered young men, and your lack of cuisine, you still hold the spot at the top of my list. It was good to be back.

When I found myself with three weeks to fill before returning to a snow-filled Alaska, it wasn’t a hard decision to pop down for a visit. My friend Rachel, who also was confronted with snow-filled Alaska (and rain-filled Oregon) decided to join. Some traveling buddies from Mexico were still on the road and were keen to tag along as well – so off we went.

We spent the first week Doris’s house. Doris and her family live in Tepeyac, a little, rural suburb of Granada. Doris and I became friends when I first moved to Nicaragua, and have stayed in touch over the years. It was great to visit and catch up. The kids were certainly a handful (where does all of that energy come from??) but they did make it interesting and kick-started Rachel’s Spanish.

Around Tepeyac

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Rachel made a friend (kind of)

Picking avocados was a family event

Taking a walk

After stops in Laguna de Apoyo and Ometepe, we were off to Leon. Other than everyone accepting US Dollars (weird, right?) and some of my favorite places having closed down (Chameleon, Siesta Perdida) it was pretty much the same. Veronie and Stijn, the delightful Dutchies who own Via Via were right where I left them, though Veronie does now have a one-year-old on her hip. When she first told me Sebastian was napping, I asked her if she had a new puppy (which was thankfully met with laughter). And Harrie, tour operator extraordinaire, was never far off and frequently popped in. It was great to visit.

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We took a self-guided tour of Volcano Telica while in Leon – I used to guide treks and was pretty confident I still knew the way. Turns out the trail has greatly changed due to eruptions since I’ve visited (locals confirmed!), so we did get slightly lost in cornfields. Oops. But it was an adventure! Even though Telica was too smokey to see lava, it was just as amazing as I remembered. And – we saw tons of wildlife on the way down after dark, including two tarantulas and a scorpion.

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After Leon followed an obligatory trip to Las Penitas (the beach!!), then Matagalpa before beginning our trip south to Rio San Juan. We spent almost a week in the jungle along the border of Costa Rica which was absolutely stunning. We spent a few nights in a very remote (like, a two-hour boat ride from the closest town) eco lodge in the middle of the jungle where macaws flew overhead, sloths clung to trees and poisonous frogs were underfoot. It was magical.

The jungle

How to make chocolate

Favorite shots

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It was over as quickly as it started, and I suddenly found myself back in freezing Pennsylvania. And after two feet of snow, canceled flights, sprinting through airports, a little mechanical trouble at 5,000 feet, and two more feet of snow, I’m currently settling into a slowly-thawing Alaska (though it is doing more snowing as I sit here typing this). And once the snow melts just a little bit more (or my friends come back to town, whichever happens first) I’ll report back with more adventures. Stay tuned!

Updates from San Miguel

Time just seems to slip by in the Mexican hills of Guanajuato. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now the holiday season is here. In San Miguel, a massive “tree” is being set up and decorated, pop-up poinsettia markets fill empty courtyards, and the central markets are filled with flashing strings of lights, nativity scenes, and small electronic toys which play a single Christmas classic on repeat all day, every day. ‘Tis the season. Here’s what I’ve been up to as the seasons change.

Tequila and Guadalajara

When Jennifer, a friend from Oaxaca, came up to visit, one of the top items on our list was to visit the town of Tequila in the neighboring state of Jalisco. All “official” tequila throughout the world comes from this small town, and we were looking forward to touring a tequila factory and, obviously, the taste test. The tour did not disappoint. And while we tasted some delicious tequilas, my favorite still remains the one given to me by a Frenchie in Tulum, which his neighbor brewed in a bathtub in his basement. 🙂

Tequila was about a two-hour drive outside of Guadalajara, a bustling city complete with a metro. We enjoyed strolling through the streets, tasting the local food, and hanging out in Oasis, the historic salsa bar which provided us with hours of entertaining people watching.

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Exploring the City

One of my favorite past times in San Miguel is to stroll through the narrow, cobblestone streets and take in the beautiful scenery and do some excellent people watching. The colors of the buildings, the abundant greenery, and the antique VW Beetles are stunning. The hills are totally worth the views.

Thanksgiving

I spent Thanksgiving at a ranch just outside of San Miguel with a group of American expats, who have retired to San Miguel mostly to pursue art. We had all of the key elements – good food, good wine, good friends. The weather was perfect and we ate outside, enjoying the sunset and the sound of howling coyotes after dinner. I even made it home in time to watch the Steelers win their game!

Salsa Classes

I’ve been taking daily group salsa classes which have quickly become one of my favorite parts of San Miguel. Last week, I also started taking a few private classes which I will continue throughout my time here. The teacher is phenomenal – he’s even managed to teach this white girl how to move her hips! Well…sort of. I have no hope of ever advancing beyond my “basic” level in class…but I can dance salsa, bachata, and cumbia without embarrassing myself…which I consider a win. And it is so fun! I love it.

Post-Mexico Planning

As usual, I need a plan to stay sane. I’ve decided to return to Alaska this summer, which means I needed to fill my time until mid-March. After going home for for the holidays (Yay!) I will be making stops in Lancaster, Cleveland, Memphis, and Nicaragua to visit friends and soak up some sun before returning to rainy Cordova. I’ve spent the past week working out logistics and buying plane tickets while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat – man…it is SO GOOD. I guess you could say I’ve become obsessed. Lin-Manuel Miranda – you’re a genius.

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Enjoy this photo of me with my new friend – he’s kind of an ass, but he has cool glasses!

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Pondicherry Escape

For my final road trip in India, I spent a long weekend in Pondicherry – a small, coastal city one state over from Bangalore which is the perfect distance for an overnight bus and a weekend getaway. I had been planning this trip with friends for some time now, and was really looking forward to spending some time at the beach and at the gorgeous hotel pool.

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Pondicherry is a small Union Territory (about 2 square km) surrounded by the state of Tamil Nadu. It was ruled by the French long ago their presence is still heavily felt today. Street signs posted on walls feature road names in both French and Tamil, restaurants offer cheeses and fresh breads, and locals passing each other on the street wave and say “bonjour” to friends. Schools within the city limits of Pondicherry are still under the control of the French government, so most children grow up being at least tri-lingual between English, French and Tamil. The architecture is a beautiful fusion of French and Tamil and historic buildings bear names like biblioteque or tribunal superior. Even the small, blue and white ceramic tiles displaying the house numbers were the same as what was on my house when I lived in France. It is like a little French bubble had traveled across the vast continents and popped right over top of Pondicherry.

Needless to say given my obsession and love for all things French – I was in heaven. My favorite aspect (other than the Camembert…obviously) was finally being able to understand what was going on around me. My Kannada never really advanced as much as I would have liked, so while I have become a master of interpreting hand gestures and picking up on one of the 20 words I know to make my own version of what is actually happening (which has actually proven to be fairly accurate), I could finally understand conversations with ease and join in if I chose.

Most of our time was spent reading, lounging by the pool, or exploring the nearby beaches. One morning we woke up early to walk out on a rocky pier to watch the sunrise which was absolutely beautiful. Fishermen slowly patrolling the waters, aunties and uncles getting in their morning exercise and children playing in the surf before school.

Good food, peaceful beaches and pretty architecture. Nicely done, Pondicherry.

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A Weekend in Hampi

Hampi is a small village in rural Karnataka which is surrounded by rice fields, coconut trees and lots and lots of goats. Hundreds of years ago around 1500, however, Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire and was one of the richest and largest cities in the world. The city was home to kings, queens, thousands of army men and over 2,600 temples beautifully carved out of stone, with intricate scenes depicted across every available surface. The city also had a Grand Bazaar where Portuguese horses (the very best horses) were traded for one diamond a piece and bowls overflowing with rubies, gold, and other colorful jewels could be bought and traded amongst the shoppers.

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In the mid-sixteenth century, a religious war broke out when the Hindu Empire was attacked by a large Muslim sect which feared the Hindu Empire was growing too big and too powerful. Battles broke out involving up to one million soldiers and the Muslims were eventually victorious and fled the city, taking the 1,500 elephants of Hampi with them. When they left, they set fire to the empire, destroying whatever remains were left.

In 1986, UNESCO declared Hampi a World Heritage Site and began conservation of the exiting ruins and multiple excavations to find what time had buried under layers of dust and dirt. Today, Hampi has become home to backpackers from around the world who have made it their home to study yoga and existential questions. Tourists from around the world also list Hampi as a must-see stop on their trip through India and the town has a very unique and multicultural vibe.

As my time in India is drawing to a close, I decided that I should spend my remaining weekends visiting nearby sites in Southern India, and Hampi was first on my list. I convinced my friend Arjun to join me, booked some bus tickets and off we went. We were taking an overnight bus, which is probably the easiest way to travel in India. We finally found our bus in the madness of the bus station around 11pm and we were officially on our way.

We were scheduled to arrive at 6am. I woke up around 6:30 to our bus stopped along the side of the road and it seemed everyone was getting off. Luckily, Arjun speaks Kannada and Hindi, so communication was finally a non-issue. Apparently the drivers had decided we’d reached our destination…even though we were still about 65km from the Hampi bus station. The passengers argued, and the driver changed his story to say that his bus wasn’t working properly, so we should find another bus. Again, lots of arguing, and the driver took us to a local bus and paid our remaining bus fare. In my early morning, lack of sleep-induced stupor, it was nice to let the crowd do the bargaining for me and happily follow along afterwards.

After another two-hour bus ride (including a government worker who hopped on midway and audited the bus, threatening to kick all Bangalore folk off for not having tickets), then a 30 minute rickshaw ride, 20 minute walk and a five minute boat ride, we finally arrived at the hotel where we quickly dropped our stuff, freshened up and set out to get some much needed food and do some exploration. We wandered up mountains of boulders, checking out the ruins of temples which had once been and soaked in the amazing views. The scattered ruins provided some much-needed shade from the scorching sun overhead. We heard of a specific temple to the Monkey God which sat on top of a mountain a few kilometers away and involved 600 steps to the top, but promised awesome views of the entire valley and a beautiful sunset, so off we went.

Hanuman Temple (Monkey Temple) was definitely the highlight of the trip. A small, white temple sat on top of a huge boulder mountain and provided panoramic views of the entire empire. It was also full, of course, with monkeys. Monkeys always seem to be portrayed as such cute creatures; like loving, mini humans encased in fur. Actually, however, I’ve decided that almost all monkeys are quite mean. Stealing water bottles and snacks from any tourist who steps within their view, these monkeys were very comfortable with people and were quite bold. One came up onto my lap as I sat waiting for the sun to sink…which was pretty cool but slightly terrifying at the same time.

Monkeys are quite skilled at opening the water bottle and then drinking up the water

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On Sunday we did a bike tour which took us through picturesque fields on dirt roads filled with vendors selling fresh juice, water bottles and popsicles. Along the way, we hopped off of our bikes and learned about the history of the Vijayanagara Empire. Looking around at the temple and palace ruins in the blazing midday sun and the barren, dusty land that surrounds them could easily make one think they’ve been transported to Egypt instead of the lush farm roads of India which they were in only a minute before. We laughed at the extravagance of the palace grounds and admired the brilliance of the three kilometer-long aqueducts and the naturally air conditioned buildings.

After finishing our tour, we grabbed lunch with some Dutch girls from our tour group and headed off on foot to see some more temples. Between the 100 degree heat and our action-packed days, we were exhausted by the time we began heading back to catch the Sunday night bus to Bangalore. Luckily, exhaustion works well with overnight buses, and the AC which is normally freezing was quite helpful on my newly-acquired sunburn. I slept like a baby. So long, Hampi, hope to see you again one day.

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The Auto-Rickshaw Driver Who Honked His Horn

This is the Aesop fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, retold by me, about the lovely city of Bangalore

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There once was an auto-rickshaw driver who was bored as he drove around in his auto, causing traffic jams as he weaved in and out of lanes to pick up passengers. To amuse himself he beeped his horn for no good reason at all, startling the pedestrians crossing the street and the motorcycles whizzing past.

Cars swerved and pedestrians jumped, fearing they were about to be hit. But when the drivers and passers-by looked around, they found no vehicles in their path. The auto driver laughed at the sight of their angry faces.

“Don’t beep your horn for no reason, auto driver,” said the others, “when there’s no one in your way!” They drove away, shaking their heads.

Later, the auto driver beeped his horn again, BEEP! BEEP! To his naughty delight, he watched the other drivers bob and swerve to get out of his path.

When the other drivers saw no speeding cars barreling towards them they sternly said, “Save your horn for when there is really something wrong! Don’t beep your horn when there is no one in your way!”

But the driver just grinned and watched them drive away, shaking their heads once more and disappearing back into the traffic.

Later, the auto driver was approaching a giant intersection with a red light. It was late at night without much traffic, which as we all know means stopping is optional. All of the sudden, a big truck came speeding up from the other direction. Already in the middle of the intersection, the auto driver  beeped his horn as loudly as he could BEEP! BEEP! BEEEEP!

But the truck driver didn’t slow, he had gotten so used to hearing horns everywhere he went, that it had lost all meaning.

At sunset, the auto driver’s family wondered why he hadn’t returned home after work. They went to his normal driving spot and found him standing next to a smashed auto.

“There was a really big truck driver here! He didn’t see my auto and he ran it over! I beeped my horn but he didn’t even notice! I escaped just in time! Why didn’t he stop?”

An old man tried to comfort the driver as they all walked home.

“We’ll help you fix your auto in the morning,” he said, putting his arm around the auto driver, “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”

 

 

Say What?

I love India…a lot…but sometimes I am left shaking my head. It has definitely taken some time to acclimate myself so that my immediate reaction is not are you kidding me?!? and is instead ha…only in India. I have written before about my sometimes frustration for the lack of logic, but I’ve grown slightly fond of it. Slightly. Depending on the day.

Last weekend I went to the grocery store to buy a few things. My total came to 458 rupees, so I handed over a 500 rupee note. The cashier, of course, had no change, so he scurried around to the other tellers to see what he could gather. When he came back he handed me 2-ten rupee notes. When I stood and waited, he apologized and and handed over another ten rupee note and two pieces of hard candy. When I inquired about the other two rupees…he pointed to the hard candies. I asked again, and he replied “No change madam, candy”.  Now, two rupees is about three US cents, so it’s pretty insignificant, even here. But the manner of the cashier, his attitude of why on earth are you still worried about two rupees? Didn’t you see the candy in your hand? left me laughing to myself as I walked away. Oh India.

Later that day I met up with a colleague for dinner. She is from Australia (along with most of my office), so everyone has been quite excited to check out the brand new Australian restaurant that had just opened up nearby. Mostly…we were quite intrigued as to what it would be. The menu looked great online, so off we went. Though it was 7pm on a Saturday night, we were only people on the outdoor, rooftop section. Well…only customers. There were 18 waiters and waitresses (yes, I counted) who hung out, stared at the white girls and hurried to get the EDM speakers and disco lights set up for our entertainment.

We were excited for the large beer list, something that can usually be a little hard to find here. There was a whole “foreign beer” section, which we both quickly reviewed and then placed our order. “Sorry,” the waiter replied, “we don’t have those”. We each picked a second choice, both of which were out of stock. When we asked what beer they did have, he pointed to Kingfisher, India’s home brew. So…out of the 20+ options, they had one. We settled on gin and tonics instead.

Next came the food. We both immediately saw calamari and said ohhh. But…it wasn’t meant to be. No calamari, either. We munched on our replacement wedges while perusing the remainder of the menu. We both decided on wraps – seemed simple enough. I ordered the mutton. After about fifteen minutes, the waiter brought out two plates, each with four sausages stacked, pyramid-style, next to a little salad and some dipping sauce. Hmm…wasn’t quite what we were expecting. The waiter first tried to tell us that the actual wrap wasn’t included and we would need to pay extra (though it was listed on the menu). Again…logic doesn’t get very far here. We started to argue, but then just said whatever, bring two.

After lots of discussions among the 18 waiters, we got free roomalis (aka tortillas) and complementary pink, sugary pina colada. Oh well…it was an adventure.

As my time in India is winding down I’ve started appreciating these little quirks a little more. Then, a colleague in Alaska sent me a picture of the town where I’ll be living. Oh man…I CANNOT WAIT.

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Compare the top picture to the one below, which was a street festival this weekend on Bangalore. Also beautiful, but the contrast couldn’t be greater 🙂

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A Day in the Life

I just finished reading the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It’s the story of a tribe of ultra marathoners tucked away in a Mexican canyon and it talks a lot about the science behind running and the advantages of barefoot running. I’m a total sucker for statistics and logical arguments, which this book is full of, and I am now convinced that I need to try out this minimalist running for myself. It talks a lot about how injuries develop because of the unnatural stride of running in a cushioned shoe, and by switching to shoes with less padding it actually helps people with bad knees (me) and flat feet (me). It’s an excellent read if you have any type of interest in either running or anthropology. Stay tuned for my findings, though I might wait to test until post-India to avoid Bangalore sidewalk tetanus.

In other news, Serial Season 1 is back! Adnan was granted a hearing to assess whether he should get a new trial because 1) Cristina Gutierrez was totally incompetent and/or 2) there is “new evidence” which isn’t really new, but wasn’t actually examined in his first trials. Asia finally gave her testimony (and nailed it!) and cell phone records are being reanalyzed due to the inaccurate analysis in the previous trials and the cover sheet on the phone records was previously excluded. This is a big deal, because it states that incoming calls are inaccurate for determining location…and this was pretty much the main argument of the State. The trial has been extended until today to hear all of the testimony and then the judge will take his time to decide – experts are speculating approximately two months.

If you’re following this, I highly recommend listening to Sarah Koenig on Serial in tandem with The Undisclosed Podcast by Rabia Chaudry, Susan Simpson and Colin Miller. Rabia, Susan and Colin are all attorneys who created Undisclosed to dig deeper than Serial could and their commentary on the Adnan’s hearing is quite different from Sarah’s.

My final recommendation, if you’re in Bangalore, is to visit the Palace (see Veena’s deets here). The audio tour is pretty good and the architecture is beautiful. Check out some of my pictures below.

The Bangalore Palace

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First, yes, the beginning rooms are really that yellow. No filters there. The bright red on yellow are all battle shields. All of the chandeliers and stained-glass windows were beautiful.

There was a lot of beautiful artwork throughout the Palace, but this painting of a woman was my favorite.

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One of the really cool parts of the Palace was that it was obviously a lived-in house. The walls were covered in old family photos which were a really interesting view into the past. The audio tour talked a lot about the clothing the women had to wear…particularly how long their saris were.

 

 

Running My First Race

Last weekend I ran in my first race: The Bengaluru Pinkathon. I ran the 10K race (they milind-soman__683983also offered a 5K and a 3K) and despite some timing issues and the overuse of the phrase “Pink Sister” it was quite fun and well-run. Pinkathon puts on races across India throughout the year to promote running in women and also teach about proper technique. And, India’s beloved heartthrob Milind Soman (who is somehow related to Veena) even made an appearance, causing the ten thousand women preparing for the run to go crazy. It was like Justin Bieber walked on stage in a high school auditorium.  Luckily, 10K runners were already lined up to run and I hastily made my escape.

We waited at the starting line for a few minutes…apparently there was also a half marathon which was unadvertised, and the course consisted of running the 10K course two times. We waited for them to pass, and off we went! The course was well-planned and well-marked along the way with big banners every few kilometers to remind you of your distance. Traffic was stopped (at least for the first group) and included a nice sprinkling of minor hills. The hills were small enough that the uphill portion wasn’t too bad and the downhill portions were just inclined enough to give weary legs a rest. Just around 8.5Km, when I began to get pretty tired, there were two cows in the middle of the course AND two drummers on the side of the road, drumming away. These provided me with enough amusement until I reached the banner that said  1000 METERS. Woo! I was quite proud of my first race: 10K in 1:04. Not a winning time, but not too bad for my first attempt and faster than my practice runs. I’ll take it!

After I finished my run I picked up my snack bag and found a nice, empty spot on the ground to relax, stretch and enjoy my snacks while waiting for my friends. Despite stating that there was a 5:30am reporting time for all…5K participants didn’t actually begin their run until around 7am. Veena was running the 5K so I had some time to kill. While I relaxed and enjoyed the fantastic people watching which never disappoints in India, a man walked up to me and asked if I wanted a free foot massage. There weren’t many things in that moment which could have made me stand up, gather my acquired prizes and move from my comfy little corner…but the phrase free foot massage was certainly one of them. Nice touch, Pinkathon.

Veena, Gayatri and I hanging out in the Winner’s Area before the race.

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Pinkathon had photographers along the route to snap shots. Mine came out pretty horrible…they’re so bad they’re actually quite comical. Here is the only one which is was acceptable. The guy in the bottom left corner with the pink head wrap is my drumming buddy.

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Zumba-class warm-up, starting line, and my favorite: the Avon table which was set up to “refresh make-up” for all of the sweaty runners. Only in India.

 

Happy Republic Day!

India’s Republic Day falls on January 26th each year. It celebrations the signing of the Declaration of Independence and their proposed split from the British Empire. Note: it’s not the same as their actual Independence day. Basically, it’s the day they said “We’ve had enough,” and began their quest to be recognized as a separate nation. Other fun fact: Republic Day is one of only three national holidays in India. Yes, I said three. Despite the weekly festivals, only three days are recognized holidays by every single state. The vast majority of holidays are celebrated regionally (can you imagine if California didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving??) so many festivals in Bangalore aren’t a big deal in New Delhi and vice versa. The other two holidays which garner national observance are Gandhi’s birthday on October 2nd and Independence Day on August 15th.

2016 marked the 67th Republic Day, which was primarily celebrated in the capital city of New Delhi with parades and, of course, lots of fireworks. Each year they invite a guest of honor, usually a head-of-state or high level government official from an alliance country. Last year, they invited US President Obama, making him the first US President to receive an invite. This year France’s President Francios Hollande was in attendance, making him the 5th Frenchie to receive the honor.

Bangalore didn’t have too many celebrations (nor many firecrackers, thank goodness – I still haven’t quite recovered from Diwali) but they did have their annual Republic Day Flower Show in Lal Bagh Gardens. This year’s show paid tribute to the 150th birthday of Gustav Krumbiegel – a renowned horticulturist and architect who is primarily responsible for planning the streets of Bangalore. Personally, after living here for six months, I’m not quite sure that the person responsible for the city planning of Bangalore would be at the top of my list to honor (think: Boston’s anti-grid system with 10x the traffic) but oh well. I’m sure he had good intentions.

The flower show provided me with both excellent people watching and flower displays which left me quite confused about what the designer was trying to convey – which was quite entertaining. Veena and I went a few days early to check it out and beat the crowds. We had a nice morning run inside the garden grounds and then made our way to the Glass House where the main showing took place. Check out some of my favorite photos below 🙂

The highlight of the show for me was this lovely creature. We dubbed her as “Bertha” and were so delighted at her existence in the center of the show. Locals flocked to take selfies and seemed to appreciate her for a whole different set of reasons than Veena and I. My only question was: Why?

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Second to Bertha was this creepy-looking baby. Again, it garnered a different type of appreciation from these ladies than from me. I would like to know what this designer was trying to convey when creating this baby head among the flowers.

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Bertha’s guard, perhaps? This fellow was stationed outside of the glass house, and I can only imagine that he is patrolling the red-flowered seas to make sure no unworthy suitors come to court young Bertha. Or, potentially he is on the lookout for her hairdresser, who I would guess is not welcome back.

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This is the replica of Gustav Krumbiegel’s home. Nice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to my friend, Bertha.

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This lovely totem pole sat next to the baby face…again, I’m not quite sure what they were going for. Also, the green material they put outside of the Glass house makes all of the photos appear to have a strange Instagram filter.

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Some of the more typical, flower show photos.