Friday, November 21, 2008

Into the Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad...I still remember reading it for one of my high school IB English courses and recall the horror, the intrigue, the curiosity it provoked in me with regard to the mysterious, the unruly Congo. The name alone conjures images of jungles, gorillas and all things WILD....At the time of reading that book, I had no idea that I'd actually be able to travel there....

Next week on the 26th, I am going with a very experienced colleague from MSF to visit some of our projects in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)!!! I am thrilled to have this opportunity to go with MSF and explore what kind of work we're doing there, as well as some of the country, as this is my first time into the 'heart' of Africa. Refer to the link to a map below - I will be traveling, roughly, in the area within the black circle.


Yes, it is a country which has been plagued by war and dire poverty for many years and a country in which there is still an ongoing war and extreme poverty. The current conflict which has been all over the news recently is localized in the North Kivu region to the northeast (closer to the border with Rwanda and Uganda). This conflict is several hundred or even a thousand miles from where I will be (keep in mind the size of the Congo is approx. 1/4 of the size of the U.S.).

We'll be spending most of the 11 days in the 'bush' with no means of communication except for satellite. We'll be looking at how the MSF programs in Dubie and Shamwana are running...I will encounter malnourished patients, patients with cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and a number of other diseases or ailments. You can imagine I've had tons of vaccinations to prepare!

The prospect of this trip is both exciting and scary and will surely be an eye opener into the peoples' lives and what MSF is doing to help those in need there. I fully expect I will be very humbled by what I witness and experience...seeing suffering with one's own eyes, rather than through the television will be...emotional, to say the least.

On a less gloomy note, the added bonus of this trip is that we end with a day or day and a half in Lubumbashi where a good friend of mine is living, so I get to see her! :)

Anyhow, stay tuned for photos! I will try to take as many as possible.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hruba Skala, Czech Republic for my Friends' Wedding

About a month ago, my good friends, Ida and Eric, got hitched. Ida is Macedonian (that's near Greece) and Eric is an American who has lived abroad for many, many years. I met Ida first because she was in my Master's program at Leiden University and I obviously met Eric through her. Arno has also become good friends with them so we were very happy to attend their wedding in the Czech Republic (sadly, I have missed several other good friends' weddings in the U.S. in the years I have been overseas...).

The wedding weekend had a medieval theme - we stayed in a lovely castle, called Hruba Skala, for the entire weekend in the Czech countryside about 1.5 hours from Prague. It's a beautiful countryside, too. The rock formations in the area of the castle have been wonderfully sculptured by the water over the years (check the photos - they don't capture how cool they are). The area has a Narnia or Robin Hood kind of aura.

Needless to say the weekend was splendid. In true Balkan style, there was a wonderful feast and party the night before the wedding. Festivities included: roasting a lamb on a spit; music from a medieval trio; flame breathing and juggling; belly dancing (see above - I am in the top right, my betrothed friend is in the middle); general wild dancing, and drinking some strong spirits, of course...great fun.

The wedding night was a BIT tamer. The highlight - aside from the very interesting Czech wedding ceremony which was translated into English for everyone - was the gorgeous fireworks set off from one of the castle terraces. It was a perfect setting, reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet, the version with Leonardo de Caprio and Clare Danes - anyone remember that one?

So, congratulations once again to my friends, Ida and Eric, and I wish you well in this new chapter of your life :) Thanks for keeping us in it! :)

Please enjoy my photos by clicking here - the first few are in Prague and the rest are from Hruba Skala castle and the forested surroundings.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Our trip in July to the Cote d' Azur in France

Well, it's officially September and the end of summer, at least here in Europe where the skies turned cloudy precisely as August came to an end on Sunday. The last weekend in August was great, though - some of the best weather we've had here in the Netherlands all summer! Imagine living somewhere where it rains, drizzles or is cloudy the majority of the year, no exaggeration. We probably have 50 sunny days a year here! Anyhow, I digress...

My point was, it's officially September and I have yet to post photos from our July trip to the south of France. We drove from Amsterdam which took approx. 14-16 hours. We stopped in the middle somewhere in the middle of France in a very cute village (these are the dark, rainy photos in the beginning of the slide show). Fortunately the bad weather only lasted that one day, while we were still enroute...

We rented a place from one of my colleagues in a lovely mountain village called Sainte Agnes. It's apparently been rated by some French tourist/gov't board as one of the most beautiful villages in France (it is very close to the Italian border and at the base of the Alps overlooking the Med. sea). I must say, it is indeed one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen in Europe. Moreover, this lovely and difficult to reach village (narrow road with treacherous curves) has some history as it was one of the main defense points on the Maginot line during WWII. There is a huge bunker built into the cliffside which was really cool to explore...before that it was established in the Middle Ages (there are still some ruins).

From Sainte-Agnes, we took short trips down the mountain to Menton, Cannes, Monaco or Monte Carlo and Grasse (the perfume capital).

It was very nice and relaxing to say the least! I wasn't very impressed with Cannes or Monaco, so if you ever head to the south of France, I highly recommend trying to see some less touristy towns or villages. Better yet, take a sailboat out and enjoy it from a distance :) Next time we head that way, I will be sure to avoid them...they were gritty and trashy (save of course the strand with the expensive, top-brand stores, which are also not very appealing to me)! Picture the Ocean City boardwalk....not the image I had in mind for Cannes.

The three photos on this page are from Sainte-Agnes. The bottom one is the view from the backyard of the house where we stayed.

Anyhow, don't take my word for it. Explore for yourself if ever in the neighborhood!

Here are some more photos for you to enjoy!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cycling from Amsterdam to Beijing (no, not me!)

A few friends of mine know these two Dutch girls who decided to embark on a cycling trip from Amsterdam to Beijing to make it in time to watch their friends row in the Olympics.

Isn't it amazing - can you imagine doing such a trip??

I thought I'd share their blog with you because I am simply impressed. The blog is in Dutch and English...they have just crossed the Chinese border.

This site has more photos on it (it's in Dutch but you can click on the different stories to see the photos)



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Belated Stockholm post

About a month ago, I traveled to Sweden to visit a former classmate and friend, Chiara, who is presently living in Stockholm. It was midsummer's festival weekend, although none of us knew exactly what that signified in terms of celebrations. We heard of this dancing around a pole singing songs thing, but I really had an all-out, all-weekend cultural festival in mind (a la renaissance fair or something with lots of beer). As part of this midsummer's festival, Swedish people tend to head to one of the many islands to camp.

So, we did the same. Upon arriving in Stockholm's very cool underground, cave-like train station, I met up with Chiara and we immediately headed to meet our other friend who had flown in earlier, Frank, at the ferries who was patiently waiting with our mountain of goods. Our destination was the island of Vaxholm, about 45 minutes by ferry from the city. We were on a boat, the weather was sunny, fairly warm, with a mild wind...the only thing missing? A beer, of course! The beers were a whopping 14 euros (that's approx. $USD 22)!!! I've been to Oslo and I knew Sweden is renown for its high price tags, but I had no idea a medium-sized beer would be so incredibly pricey! I guess that's why my friends *smartly* pre-prepared our drink supply, buying from the local supermarket.

Upon arriving to said island, we hauled our luggage to a campground - it has been years since I've camped (in fact the last time I camped was in good ole VA and, while hiking, my friend and I encountered a bear!). Chiara had thoughtfully pruchased two nice tents for the whopping low price of the equivalent of 30 euros a piece.

Funnily enough, the instructions were in English with a Swedish touch. They were very clear, but the final sentence in instruction pamphlet was classic! It said "Erection complete.Congratulation." Isn't that hilarious? It almost seems that it was intentional. Oh, and how could I forget - just as we went to erect our tents, a major downpour of rain bombarded us for an hour or so. Luckily enough and not anticipating the rain, we were able to share a nearby tent with some very nice and interesting Swedish people who did anticipate the rain.

We had an extensive intercultural dialogue lasting a good few hours throughout the night, which included me trying their herring in various sauces (the Dutch are also known for their love of raw herring and I had not tried it until this point! Sorry, Arno). Admittedly, the herring drenched in Thai sweet sauce was not so bad! The Dutch tend to eat their herring whole, completely raw, with no sauce, and sometimes with a bit of onion....

As I soon learned, the Swedish midsummer's festival is nothing more than a time to relax and celebrate the official start of summer with family and/or close friends, involving celebratory activities, such as pole dancing and singing, wrapping ribbons around the pole as they sing and dance, eating some herring in sauce and drinking schnapps (or your other preferred liquor. They practically drink themselves to the next day - I would say until the next sunrise, but the sun never really set (due to its location far north in case you hadn't heard of this phenomenon). This was truly bizzare and completely threw off my sleep cycle for the entire weekend. The sky at 2:00 in the morning was like dusk - the sun looked like it was setting, but it never dropped over the horizon. Needless to say, the evening and night was enjoyable. It included a bonfire, more intercultural dialogue, and volleyball in the sand.

>>This is the sky at about 2am and this is how it stayed until the sun rose completely about 2 hours later.

The next day, we headed back to Stockholm by bus rather than ferry (yes, many of the islands are connected by bridges including the city of Stockholm itself which is comprised of several islands). We spent the time gearing up to watch the EuroCup match of Netherlands v. Russia, which we decided we'd watch at the Dutch Embassy (we had 1 Dutch person in tow and 2 residents which was sufficient for entrance). Good thing, too, the beer was only 2 euros as compared to the 14 euros we'd have to pay elsewhere. Unluckily enough the NL lost to Russia in a devastating game...on that note, we headed out to sample some of the trendy Stockholm nightlife.
As this was a short weekend trip for me, I flew out the next afternoon - but not before having a terrific lunch and stroll through the Gamla Stan - the older part of the city.

The trip was short but very informative and fun :) I'd like to visit again sometime and especially to check out more of the Scandinavian nature.

For more photos, click here!

Friday, July 11, 2008

To the south of France

Travel update: I travelled to Sweden a few weeks ago which was a very nice time - I will post photos sometime soon. However, the latest travel news is that Arno and I are preparing to leave in approximately 12 hours to drive to the south of France where we will spend the next 10 days. We're staying a village called Menton (pictured below), which is not far from Monaco, Nice, Cannes, etc.!

It's my first time to the south of France and I've been wanting to go here for many many years. We'll also head a little west to the famed region of Provence! :)

I hope to have some great photos from this trip! Stay tuned!!!

I wish you all a wonderful summer and vacation if you're going on one!

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Mosaic

I saw this on some friends' blogs and think it's neat. I noticed that with many of my answers, several of the same photos appeared...mine are very nature-oriented...

Follow the simple steps to create your own!

a. Type your one-word answer to each of the questions below into Flickr Search.

b. Using only the first page, pick an image.

c. Copy and paste each of the URLs for the images into a Mosaic Maker.
I used this one

Here are the questions, and my answers:

1. What is your first name? Melissa
2. What is your favorite food? Tex Mex
3. What high school did you go to? Clarke County
4. What is your favorite color? Ocean blue
5. Who is your celebrity crush? Johnny Depp
6. Favorite drink? Glass of cold water
7. Dream vacation? Secluded island
8. Favorite dessert? Betty Crocker cake
9. What you want to be when you grow up? Happy and carefree
10. What do you love most in life? Life itself
11. One Word to describe you. Longing
12. Your flickr name:

These are the titles of the photos coming up from my searches in flickr for the above questions.
1. melissa, v, 2. combo fajitas at Ted's, 3. Rural Athens, GA, 4. Blue Ocean, 5. Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean, 6. glass and ice, 7. north island beach, 8. passover torte, 9. carefree, 10. Call of the Raven (formerly Nature's Special Effects), 11. The Shadow...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

May trip to U.S. - Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, NC

<<This photo of Al and Natalie on the riverboat before the reception was taken by the wedding photographer. It's a great photo! :)

A few weeks ago, Arno and I made the transatlantic flight to the States once again, but not just for any occasion. My brother, Al, was set to marry his long-time love, Natalie, in Wilmington, North Carolina.

After a few days in VA spent recovering from jet lag (I still haven't mastered this), we embarked on a 7 hour journey southeast to the beautiful North Carolina coast.

All of the families stayed in beach houses on Wrightsville Beach for the week, which was really a grand ol' time. Not to mention, it was simply relaxing to be able to wake up each morning to see the waves and empty beaches. It gets me every time (and I know many of you can relate!)

Anyhow, the week ended with the big shabang - my brother's wedding. It was very, very sweet. I can't (well, I can) believe that my slightly younger brother is married before me! :)

Please enjoy the photos from the week. Unfortunately, the inside photos did not come out so well...thank goodness there will be photos from the photographer!

1. The guys' fishing trip (photos courtesy of Arno)

2. Photos from the rest of the week

In other travel news, Arno and I booked a trip to Central America in December - to combine with our visit to the States for Christmas!!! I am super excited. We'll start in Costa Rica and head up to Guatemala in the course of 3 weeks. :)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tunisia - 2 year anniversary

In mid-April, Arno and I celebrated our 2-year anniversary! Wow! ;) To commemorate it, we booked a rather cheap trip to Tunisia in North Africa. Tunisia is known - in short- for its old Roman and Byzantine cities and ruins, such as found in Carthage and elsewhere; beaches, and the desert (some of the Sahara desert is found in Tunisia).

The flight to Monastir is only 3 hours from Amsterdam, and we stayed near a coastal town called Sousse (about 2.5 hours south of Tunis, the capital). It was my first time on the continent of Africa and my first time in an Arab country. The primary language is Arabic of course, but French is also widely spoken. While we were indeed in Africa, I will not consider myself as having really been to Africa until I travel more into the heart of the continent...
Regardless, the trip was fun and a nice taste of north African culture (this brief experience also warrants a trip to Morocco at some point in the near future). We enjoyed wandering around in the souks of the medina in Sousse. It was really what I had envisioned...lots of little vendors, objects hanging from above crowding out the light, the smell of fresh spices everywhere, etc. etc. There is also a very beautiful and ancient mosque in the center (entrance to mosque is pictured below) which is a couple thousand years old...the old stones certainly give you the feeling you've stepped back into biblical times - I can only imagine what Jerusalem and other ancient cities are like.

Since we were in Tunisia for only a few days, we just spent our time exploring the old part of Sousse and hanging out at the beach (not complaining!). On our next trip, however, I would like to travel into the desert and go for a cheesy camel ride or two! :)

Click here to see more of my photos and what I'm talking about...

More photos of the apartment

Here are a few additional photos of the apt.

Below: the nook for Arno's office...there used to be a closet here but we thought taking out those walls would make better use of the small-ish space. Arno's desk fit perfectly!

The photo with the blue walls is in our bedroom. We basically stuffed that wardrobe into the space there, lol.

The last photo is our extra room which we haven't decided yet how to use...I think it will just stay that way, as an all-purpose room.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Before and After photos of our Apartment!!

Here is a link to photos of our apartment. There are lots of before photos and a few after photos. I need to take some more 'after' photos to do it justice.

Link to Apartment photos

We had to stucco several walls, sand all of them a lot, paint at least 2 coats on each, lay in our floor and stain the floor! We stained it a dark brown color, with a reddish hint in it.

Thanks to Jan, Arno's dad, for all of the help!!

Bedankt, Jan en Jose, voor jullie hulp en ondersteuning!!

We replaced 3 doors with arches to open up the apartment. They look great!

Here are some more to give you a taste:

We have since hung up a lot of pictures and things so it changes on a weekly basis almost! I will add more photos of the other rooms soon.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Recent photos of my baby brother...

For recent photos of my baby brother (and other family members), click on this link:

You should be able to view them with no problem.

Here are some highlights of the collection:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

No new posts and photos yet, because...

..we still do not have internet at home!!!
We are on our 3rd attempt to get internet from the company here which has a monopoly on internet service provision in the Netherlands, which makes our situation all the more frustrating because we have no other provider to really turn to!!!

I mean, it's not a third world country or anything - the Netherlands has some of the fastest connections you can get and the most comprehensive coverage of many countries in the world - but the problems result from the fact that our address is a 'new' one in the system.
Regardless of this seemingly trivial fact, on the 3rd try, doesn't it seem they could cut some corners to get it to us quicker?!?!?! All they do is send you the items you need in the mail! No installation required on their part....
Ugh, until then, I'm afraid I can't make any new posts with lovely photos, but I promise to update as soon as possible!!!

In exciting travel news, I *may* get an opportunity to go on a field visit with MSF (cross your fingers), but otherwise we hope to travel somewhere for a weekend for our 2-year anniversary; we have a week at the beach in North Carolina in May for my brother's wedding; a week in southern France in a beautiful village on the Mediterranean coast near Monaco in July; and, a big trip somewhere in Asia or Africa in August/early fall!!! Yay!!!!!! :o)
In the midst of this all, I hope to celebrate the introduction of a beautiful baby sister into this world, also in July!
Good things are coming, that's for sure... :)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Just to clarify...

...the photo below of the interior is not our own interior!! Its taken from a random google search! I will post some actual photos soon :) Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The chaos involved in buying and moving into a newly (but not completely) renovated home...

Ever since we purchased our new apartment on 21 December, Arno, his Dad, and I have worked every weekend and several weeknights every week on the place (this includes working almost 2 weeks straight over the Christmas and New Year holiday when we had off from work).

We removed old wallpaper, sanded, stuccoed some of the walls that needed repair, primed, and painted. We then laid the wooden floor and stained it with "Rhode Island Brown" oil ourselves. The outcome is beautiful and I will post some photos as soon as I can get them off my camera!

With the floor in and the walls freshly painted, we moved in. Unfortunately the work doesn't end, as there is a lovely Italian styled kitchen to install, curtains to hang, boxes to unpack, and paint touching up to do, as well as general interior decorating tasks.

Where we are now as of today, 07 February: The kitchen is being installed as I write this, the curtains have all been hung, the door trims and painting mistakes have been touched up, and several boxes have been unpacked or moved to the attic. We have no dining table nor a couch (we used much of the landlord's furniture in the previous rented apartment)!! Not to mention, no internet!!

The unfortunate thing is that I am unsure of whether we are able to cook tonight! We have a portable oventop that we've been using to cook on, but now we may not even be able to use that with the majority of the kitchen installed! Yikes!

On top of that, I have a friend coming tomorrow to stay for a week so that adds a bit of pressure to everything. I want to make her feel welcome but I am limited by uncontrollable circumstances! The up-side is, she's coming to visit from Cameroon where she's lived for the past 2 years so I think she will be somewhat accustomed to not having proper, or the most updated amenities :o)

Big Sigh.

I am sure I forgot to mention something...there is so much happening in addition to the typical daily grind! I'm sure many of you can empathize.

Anyhow, had to vent a's much more stressful than I described! :)

Cheers from Amsterdam!

Monday, January 07, 2008

I've been blog tagged....

I've been blog tagged and here are the rules: Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog. Share 5 random and/or weird facts about yourself on your blog. or Share the 5 top places on your “want to see or want to see again” list. Or Share 5 things you never pictured being in your future when your were 25 years old.

So here's my list of 5. Since this is primarily a travel blog, I will list 5 places I want to see or see again:

1. India (the entire country)

2. The continent of Africa (all countries in general, and none in particular)

3. An island that nobody inhabits - I have been to a couple already, but I'd like to visit some more - located in any part of the world...

4. The open sea (or other body of water) while sailing - I absolutely love this. There is no comparison to being on the open water and feeling so free...except perhaps flying like a bird (hand gliding may then be comparable but also a bit more scary methinks!)

5. Latin America (again, all countries in general and none in particular)

So...I'm going to add a 6th -

Ok...I'm also going to give in and provide some more personal information too! Here are 5 little known or weird facts about me:

1. I really like the smell of leather, especially old, worn leather...don't ask why.

2. I still sleep with the blanket my mom made for me when I was a baby. I am thinkin' that maybe I will give it to my children (split into pieces and sewn into another blanket(s) or simply keep it and request that I'm buried with it, lol.

3. I love listening and also dancing to Latin and Arabic music.

4. I already have several, very noticeable
gray hairs (so, Kate, I cannot agree with you although I don't plan on coloring my hair anytime soon! :) )

5. The number one question asked of me - whether in the U.S. or abroad in any given country - is "where are you from, I mean, originally, i.e., what is your heritage?" The most common assumptions are: one of the Mediterranean countries (such as Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Spain, etc.) and Arab countries (most commonly, Iran and Egypt). I have also gotten regions, like the Caucasus and the Balkans....hmmm? And these assumptions are commonly from those countries' nationals themselves or people that know the country/region well! lol. I never know whether I should take it as a compliment or an insult...

Rules, continued...
Tag a minimum of 5, maximum of 10 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.The tagees have a choice of which they want to do.

Sorry - I only have 3 blogs!