Sunday, April 17, 2016

The (Travel) Force Is Strong With This One

Poking around my blog, you might guess that my love of travel is genetic and that I come from a long line of explorers. Well, that's really not the case. Actually, many in my family just don't get why I like wandering all over the world. There are a couple of exceptions though, like my aunt and uncle and, now, my niece.

Back in 2010, I was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving when my cousin's daughter, who was in high school at the time, showed some interest in my travels. She asked me where I had been, what I liked, and some ideas of places she might visit one day. Even though she had yet to enter university, she was already thinking about where she'd could do an exchange semester overseas. As I had just come to Philadelphia directly from China, I think I said how impressed I was and that she might consider going there. I probably gave her some other ideas but I don't remember now.

Like all smart people, she's completely ignored my advice and is currently doing an exchange semester in London! By the way, it seems like that conversation was yesterday! I'm old!

When I found out she'd be in England, Diana and I told her she needed to visit during a break. It was an even bigger surprise when my cousin decided to visit her and that they'd do a quick Barcelona trip!

Even though it was for only a couple of days, we squeezed in all the best of Barcelona. The Magic Fountain above and the full Sagrada Familia tour. This was just a couple of days after we went for our private tour with Victor Ochen.

By the way, I was recently corrected that I'm wrong to call my cousin's daughter my niece but saying "my first cousin once removed" is just way too complicated, so you'll have to forgive me as I'll just continue saying niece.

I mentioned above about how my niece is a bit of a travel fan. She did a project in Belgium last year and has been bouncing around Europe for the last couple of months. I was jealous when I recently saw her posts from Croatia! It's good that the force is strong with (someone in) my family (finally)!

Taking in the view from Park Guell:

Between the wedding and several random visits like this one, maybe a third of my family's been, which isn't too bad when you consider it's like a ten-hour flight away. Now, about the rest of them...

At Casa Batllo:

It was a treat to have these guys stay with us. I can't wait to visit my niece when she's living somewhere in a land far, far away (hint, hint). Based on what I've seen, it won't be a long, long time...

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Day A Nobel Peace Prize Candidate Stopped By

Not too long ago I mentioned how a lot of random (good) things happen for Diana and me like the time we got an impromptu castle tour in Barbera de la Concha and when I taught the English class in Tibet. I figured this kinda' stuff happens to everyone but, after talking to some friends, it may come down to our openness to new experiences. The reality is that I can't remember a time when someone asked me to do something and I didn't except for when I was physically not able/there.

One recent example was when Xavi, the priest who married us, asked Diana if he could bring a few people by our apartment for pica pica one Sunday afternoon after a meeting. It's one of the reasons why we like living in the very center of Barcelona - people tend to stop by, which we really enjoy. Anyway, he didn't go into a lot of detail but, as usual, we said sure. Diana and I bought some food and straightened up a bit. Nothing special down to the plastic plates and cups. Hey, nothing screams class more than serving Cava and wine in plasticware!

Well, turns out that the guest of honor was Victor Ochen who was a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize candidate. D'oh, IKEA furniture and plastic cups!

Victor was in Spain to give a series of talks about his life and work. While my shallow self was worried about cutlery, Victor casually told us about how he spent his first 20 years living through civil war, surviving meningitis with no medical care, growing up in refuge camps, and trying not to get kidnapped and/or taken away to fight (like his brother who never came back). Then, if all that wasn't enough, how, for the last 15 years, he's been working for peace as well as starting and running the the African Youth Initiative Network. In other words, some amazing things.

We hung out at our place for about two hours before Xavi asked Diana and me if we'd like to go with them to the Sagrada Familia for a private tour. Sagrada Familia. Private tour. Hmm, is the Pope Catholic? Of course!!! And off we went.

Our tour was led by, you're not going to believe this, the parish priest of the Sagrada Familia, Father Lluis Bonet i Armengol whose father worked with Gaudi and whose brother oversaw construction of the Sagrada Familia for 28 years! Could this day get any better?

Father Bonet i Armengol took us through the entire church pointing out things like that the stained-glass windows each have a name of place, such as Lourdes and Guadalupe, where a miracle has happened. At one point, he asked Diana where she was from and, when she said Colombia, he said, oh, there's a window for Chiquinquira. What? The small farming town where Diana's parents are from here in the Sagrada Familia? Crazy. If you look at approximately 10 o'clock in the photo below, you'll see Chiquinquira.

We even had some fun during the tour. While in the crypt, Father Bonet i Armengol made each of us sit in a confessional that he said Gaudi designed. Here's Victor shyly looking out:

While in the crypt, I saw this lectern, which Father Bonet i Armengol said was also a Gaudi design. I love the dragons at the top and the bird feet down below:

After our church tour, we went to the parish office, which, if you're familiar with the Sagrada Familia, is the brick building to the left of the Passion facade. Victor signed the guest book and Father Bonet i Armengol showed us old photos and other Sagrada Familia memorabilia. Ah, yeah, that's me in the Sagrada Familia parish office with the parish priest and a Nobel candidate. Crazy day.

Father Bonet i Armengol sharing research he had done with Victor and Diana:

Victor had one more job to do after we left the Sagrada Familia. We went with him to a church where he gave a speech and met with parishioners. At this point, it felt like we were old friends so it was a bit strange to see him up on stage.

As you could imagine, Victor's an amazing guy. He's smart, funny, charismatic, humble, and even a bit shy. It was his humbleness that really struck me. Here's a guy who was nominated for a Nobel prize, who travels around the world speaking, who Forbes named one of the most powerful men in Africa, and who's got Desmond Tutu Whatsapping him, yet he was super humble. Like what he was doing was something anyone could do. Total respect.

The thing that I'll always remember about Victor, well other than he invited us to come stay with him in Uganda, was when he and I were just outside the Sagrada Familia waiting for the others. Looking at the scene, he reached over and pulled me in close, looked me in the eye, and said something like "this is amazing". I looked back and said "really, this happens to me every day" and we laughed like a couple of old friends.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


One of the best parts of living in Barcelona is having so much history in such a compact space. People have been living here for a long time but the city really had its first growth spurt during Roman times. There's still evidence a couple blocks from our apartment in the form of an old aqueduct-turned-building facade, columns from a forum inside another apartment building, and various building foundations throughout the city. Sort of like noticing the palm trees every day when I lived in San Diego, I never get tired of it.

For the last day of our trip to the Ruta del Cister, I wanted to visit the town of Tarragona, which is located on the coast about 60 miles south of Barcelona. Back in the day, Barcelona was a bit of a backwater and Tarragona was the big city. It was the first major Roman city on the Iberian peninsula and they have a bunch of Roman ruins, including an amphitheater right next to the sea, that you can visit.

After leaving Joan's place, we drove about 30 minutes through mostly farms to Tarragona and parked under La Rambla Nova. Immediately after coming up, we came across a fundraising event for a dog rescue. There were a bunch of dogs for adoption (no, we didn't get one much to Diana's continued frustration) and lots of dogs and their owners were dressed in costumes.

Tarragona and the surrounding area are respected as one of the powerhouses of castellers so much so that the annual castellers competition is held nearby. They have a surprisingly big sculpture celebrating the tradition about half-way down La Rambla Nova. After my time as a casteller, I couldn't help myself and pitched in with the pinya:

We spent some time walking along the old city wall and through neighborhoods near the old town center. One of my favorite things was seeing all the orange trees lining the streets. Diana sampled one of the oranges but it wasn't very good - not sweet at all. But they sure do look nice.

After a quick stop at the cathedral, we walked down towards the sea so we could visit the Roman sites before they closed for the day. The first thing we came across was the old Roman theater, which is built along a natural rock formation. It's been partially renovated but not by so much that it looks new. (Note how crazy blue the sky is in these photos.)

There's a Roman-history museum that opens up into of the ruins. You know the tunnels that you have to go through at some stadiums or the hallways behind the seats at the theater, well here's the ~2000 year-old version:

From the museum's rooftop, there's a nice view of the sea and surrounding city. That's the cathedral in the distance.

On the way out, my mom's voice popped into my head as I spotted this Romulus and Remus sculpture just like one I saw in Italy. "Were you raised by wolves?" she'd always ask when we did something foolish like leave the door open, be rude to someone, or perhaps, sometimes, just generally annoy her.

The final stop on our planned-to-be-lazy-do-nothing trip to the Catalan countryside was at the very scenic Roman amphitheater. It surprises me that this has managed to survive for something like two millennia.

If you'd asked me just a handful of years ago if I'd be spending my Sunday afternoon checking out Roman ruins along the coast of Spain, I'd have laughed. Even more if I'd have thought about giving up the palm trees and lovely Pacific for the history of Barcelona. But, it's been an amazing "trip" and our vacation to La Ruta del Cister and Tarragona was one more feather in that cap.