Category Archives: Countries

Historic Willemstad, Curacao

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One of the odd things about the Dutch is like many small nations they have slight inferiority complexes about some topics, and my experience is colonialism is one of them.  They didn’t manage to grab as big a chunk of the world as England or Spain, so the Dutch spend a surprising amount of time lamenting things like how their ancestors traded Manhattan for Suriname.  I suspect this is all a combination of slight national hubris and wishing their bitterballen were more readily available elsewhere, which they nurse by ensuring you can drink Heineken in ever-more-remote corners of the planet.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is the Dutch have still convinced a few places around the globe to fly the Dutch flag, and one of the ones they have clung to the longest is Curacao.  Curacao has been a “constituent country” for a few years now- they run their own affairs but are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when it comes to foreign policy and all those things- but more importantly the island is crammed to this very day with Dutch tourists and expats to the point where I practiced my Dutch more here than I normally do in a week in Amsterdam.  Curiously, they only got this island in the first place because no one else wanted it- the Spanish found it in the 1500s but were not impressed due to its lack of gold and much fresh water, so when the Dutch decided to claim it in the 1600s as a base for trade in the area no one really complained or made much fuss over things.  From there they proceeded to build fortifications to defend the port of Willemstad, along with a town with canal houses as only the Dutch can-

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Like many towns in Europe, there is an elaborate set of chimes to ring out the hour and half hour, complete with local wooden figures who march around the clock on the hour.  Except of course we are not in Europe, so the figures are Caribbean!

Willemstad has been a bustling outpost of the Dutch kingdom ever since (excepting a few inevitable fights with the British here and there), first as a center of the slave trade which made them rather wealthy and then when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 1900s and a refinery was built over the old slave pens, making the Dutch in Curacao very wealthy again.  The local government now owns the refinery which is in turn leased to the Venezuelans, but what makes Willemstad interesting compared to many other Caribbean towns overrun by tourism is how they still have big ships devoted to industry passing through-

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Whenever the big ships come through, half the town is divided from the other half because it necessitates opening the Swinging Lady bridge, a pontoon bridge that pedestrians use to cross the channel.  It really is something else lit up at night!

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photo (17)Anyway, after mulling it over I decided the Dutch really ought to forgive their ancestors for trading Manhattan for Suriname already- it’s clear they were tired of the weather and decided if they were going to cross the ocean to a colony there’d best be beaches and cocktails waiting there.  And my experience with Dutch is they also love to complain how they just traveled to a new exotic location only to run into fellow Dutchmen there, so this surely would be a greater issue if they’d done colonialism a little more successfully.

That said, to be clear Willemstad is a lovely little town, and a nice break to explore from the beaches of Curacao.  It really is no exaggeration that if you’d told me to imagine a Dutch town in the Caribbean this is pretty much exactly what I would picture it like!

 

Feet in the Sand- Curacao

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Artie Aardvark sits in the shade, adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the azure ocean.  He sips a mojito, awaiting word on the wire from Havana…

Ok, I did not bring the aardvark- he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place on holidays, and only comes along for work for some reason- and this is about as far away from work as one can get.  Curacao!  I’m writing this on my balcony looking south over the Caribbean Sea where I’m told Venezuela lies about 60km away (not that you can tell other than the giant oil refinery on the island and the standard beer here being Venezuelan), spending a week with my feet in the sand when not scuba diving.  So a rather nice week getting acquainted with the fishes when not reading an inordinate number of books I never manage to read at home.

Also I will note because I’m proud of it that this trip was made possible thanks to my writing last year.  It is immensely satisfying to ponder the exact shade of blue of the ocean and think of how you’ve graduated to a “nice scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean” level of writer, believe you me!

The aardvark scowls in frustration at the paper delivered by his assistant, and orders another drink.  He ponders the problem facing him in great detail.

“Yes,” he muses, “yes… I would look really good in a Panama hat.”

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How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

The Time I Skied to Switzerland

Sorry, it’s been rather quiet around here lately.  Please direct all complaints to the Astronomical Institute Anton Pannekoek at he University of Amsterdam.

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There comes a special moment in every young woman’s life who skis when you are struck by the urge to ski to Switzerland.  This moment is roughly defined by the moment you first hear this is possible, and it is if you head for a weekend to the Portes du Soleil just south of Lake Geneva.  It is the second largest ski area in the world, with 650km of ski pistes, on both the French and Swiss sides of the border, and this massive network has a circuit that goes through all the main areas.  Sure it’s 20 miles (32km) of skiing, and sure it takes a full, long day to complete, but there was the urgent matter of deciding which side had superior fondue and scouting out the route in case enemies attacked Europe again (be they Nazis or Tripods…).IMG_1584

Now it turns out it is rather easy to ski to Switzerland from France and vice versa- I was based in Morzine, the biggest village in the Portes du Soleil, and you just follow the signs pointing to Switzerland once you get onto the mountain.  Eventually you reach a chairlift that grandly says it goes to Switzerland (the one in the lower left of the above image- the French-Swiss border follows the ridge line in the first picture of this post) and admonishes skiers to make sure they have photo ID to enter Switzerland at the top.  Turns out you aren’t checked at all, just deposited by a rest house at the summit with a cheery red Swiss flag flapping in the wind, but that’s just the letdown nature of most border crossings in Europe.  You sorta expect a pat on the back or at least a stamp to show your efforts, but instead just admire the view and press onwards.

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Of course, border crossings might be more low-key these days in Europe (there wasn’t even a sign when returning later in the day to France!), but that doesn’t mean you don’t spot differences even in a few miles.  Geographically, the view changes to mountains towering above green valley floors in Switzerland, and the little villages you traverse have buildings exclusively made out of wood (the French villages are almost all wooden, but the French still use stonework for their churches and chimneys).  If you are curious about any differences in the skiing itself, there is one- for whatever reason, the Swiss side has several T-bar lifts in places that these days would be replaced by chairlifts elsewhere, which can take several minutes to go up very steep slopes and require an effort of concentration to manage without incident. (I fell once the entire day… while trying to grab a T-bar.) Maybe the Swiss just assume everyone knows how to ski?  Either way, it’s impossible to complete the circuit without them!IMG_1593

Now here’s something also worth noting about the Portes du Soleil circuit- it is exhausting.  Not because it’s technically difficult, mind- at no point do you need to do any expert runs, and most are fairly flat pistes cutting across mountainsides… but when it’s 3pm and you realize you still have a few hillsides to traverse before the chairlifts stop, and the runs are rather icy with inadequate snow cover, well let’s just say you stop noticing the scenery around you so much as concentrating on not falling.  And, of course, pondering just what sort of dinner you’ll have in between your plans for a long soak in the tub and sleeping like the dead.IMG_1596

All told, though, it was a very epic journey that I’m glad I did, involving 2 gondolas, 12 chairlifts, three t-bar lifts, and two short little bus transfers to get from one side of a picturesque village to the other (and Alpine Replay tells me was 19.4 miles and 18.9k vertical feet of skiing).  Just what you’d expect from something as crazy as skiing to another country for the day!

Maps from Parts Unknown

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that a geek who loves to travel also has a fondness for maps. I’ve had them on my walls for years and years, first to mark all the shortwave radio stations I’d heard and contacted and then to mark where I’ve been once I started visiting them.  I think being a map person is one of those things you either are or you aren’t- upon renting a car you either study the random free map they give you in great interest at some point during the journey, or only bother to grab it when vainly trying to figure out where you got lost.

Anyway, last June I happened to be in London the same weekend as the London Map Fair held for a weekend at the Royal Geographical Society.  It is the largest antique map fair in Europe (I knew- who thought there’d be competition for a thing like that?) and while I usually hate shopping the idea of pawing over various maps throughout history sounded like a really fun thing to do.  Throw in the fact that it was held in the building of the same society where Charles Darwin and David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton would discuss their explorations over cigars and brandy and I was sold!

It turns out the Royal Geographical Society building itself wasn’t that interesting- it was rebuilt as one of those boring modern places, so Shackleton certainly never visited it- but the map festival itself was wonderful with prints and sketches and globes of all corners of the world stretching back hundreds of years.  You certainly wouldn’t be allowed to handle centuries-old art and take a few home for a reasonable price to boot, but apparently this does not apply for maps.

Now if I am anything I am a geek first and a romantic second, so after looking around I knew what sort I wanted- a map where eventually the borders end, and a cartographer filled in the blank space with an intriguing “parts unknown.”  I know we lucky to live in an era where seeing the entire world is possible in a way unimaginable to previous generations, but I still feel a slight twinge at being a few centuries too late to be a proper explorer.

Anyway, the reason you’re hearing all this now is while I visited the fair many moons ago is I finally got around to framing what I bought there!  To start with the pièce de résistance, this is a map of North America from 1759-

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On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

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Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

A Visit to Cape Canaveral

Now before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: I am not a space geek. Space geeks are the sort of people who can tell you all the little details about the Apollo missions to the moon like where they landed and what the goals were of each, how the next generation NASA space launcher is shaping up, and all sorts of minutiae about which rocket is used to launch where. The space geeks and I often hang out in very similar circles so I know a lot more about this stuff than the average person, but I am an astronomy geek at heart who spends her time thinking and talking about what is out there rather than the details of going there. Put it this way: space geeks are engineers and astronomy geeks are scientists.  You can tell which is which when faced with a telescope- astronomy geeks will obsess with looking through it, and space geeks will obsess with setting the tracking and gears correctly.

That said, let us make another thing clear: just because the two terms do not overlap as much as you’d assume doesn’t mean space geeks and astronomy geeks don’t get along well, and we do love to see what the other side is up to.  So with my brother now living in Florida, and some old physics friends scattered in Florida who I hadn’t seen in years up the coast, Cape Kennedy Kennedy Space Center on the island of Cape Canaveral was the perfect meeting spot for us to meet a day, catch up with each other, and see some big rockets!

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That time I saw a Protester Climb the Eiffel Tower Lattice

Now picture this: it is a weekend trip to Paris (because if Paris was only three hours on the train from where you live you’d keep feeling like you ought to go more often too), and the weather is rather sunny for November so it seems an excellent idea to cycle past the Eiffel Tower.  Like many others I am a fan- it’s essentially a structure that serves no purpose other than to show what cool things people can build, and I get to practice my memory of French mathematicians/scientists by looking at the names on it, so what’s not to like?  Seems like a good day to take in the view, so I join the tourist queues to tackle the steps.IMG_1420

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I last tackled the steps by the way in 1998 on a family vacation when I was 12 years old, and I distinctly recall thinking of the entire endeavor as something akin to a death march… meaning I was rather surprised to bound up the steps in half the estimated time, passing many a tourist group along the way.  I then remember that I was a bit of a wimp at age 12, and take solace in how I’ve left behind a large fraction of that in the intervening years…

Anyway, touristy moments done it was time to find lunch, when I took one last glance up and noticed a fellow on the outer scaffolding on the Eiffel Tower.  He was pretty high up on one of the legs and I confess at first I thought he was a cleaner (I’d just admired a postcard of a precariously perched one) until I realized wait, this was not normal, not normal at all…IMG_1427

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He was a protester of some sort, who had somehow managed to climb up on the leg and up on the framework quite a ways, and was now busily trying to tie a banner onto the iron struts. (He was not, however, thinking far enough ahead to make the banner or lettering big enough to be seen from the ground, so he gets an A for effort but F in execution for getting his message out.) I and the two other tourists were in fact getting really nervous watching him move around so high up with nothing to secure him whatsoever, and we realized this was kind of weird that no one in a position of authority was paying any attention.

I looked around, and saw three French police officers busily chatting with each other not fifty feet away.  This seemed odd in itself so I went over to say excuse me, but don’t they see the man up there…?  The annoyed looks at my interruption turned to a look of horror as they saw where my finger was pointing, and minor pandemonium broke out as they ran off to their positions shouting into their walkie-talkies.  Ah, the French!

Now that my civic duty was done I had no real interest in watching a man accidentally fall to his death should it happen, and more importantly I was pretty hungry, so I went off to a corner cafe nearby.  Ended up having a rather nice chat with my cafe neighbors as the police, fire, and medic cars kept turning the corner where we were sitting while heading towards the tower- it turned out they were American expatriates who lived in the neighborhood.

“Does this happen often?” I asked, as they were only mildly interested in the uproar.

“Oh yes!” the woman told me.  “It’s an internationally recognized monument, of course, so I’d say the Eiffel Tower has something like this happen every few weeks.  They shut it down a few times a year for bomb threats too, of course.”

Some onion soup, foie gras, and wine later I headed back to the Eiffel Tower where the fire department was packing up, and they told me they got the protester down without incident.  Paris, as she has for centuries when the politics of her people unfold, shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

Artie Aardvark Looks at La Palma

For those who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my little friend who is very curious and likes to visit various astronomy sites. Naturally when he heard about the La Palma observing run, he was begging to go…
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I am so excited, I get to visit La Palma and see what astronomers do!  La Palma is an island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco where a lot of Europeans come for vacation, and here I am relaxing with them on the beach a little before heading up to the observatory on the summit.  I am worried though- it’s cloudy!  Won’t the clouds make observing stars hard?IMG_1253

IMG_1260I soon learn the secret of La Palma though is the mountain is so tall and steep that we are above the clouds here!  Wow!  I can’t wait to visit all the telescopes! Continue reading

La Palma- On The Roof of the World

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IMG_1282These shots were taken at sunset a few hours ago, in the sort of sunset and circumstance that makes you think if this really is all there is, well, you’re pretty ok with that.

I am on La Palma in the Canary Islands for a week-long observing run.  Normally coming up to this sort of place isn’t the astronomy I do (I play with a radio telescope in the Netherlands, which I’ve never seen as I download the data form a supercomputer, meaning not too many exotic observing trips), but we have a course at the University of Amsterdam for our M.Sc. astronomy students where we have them write proposals and take data and write it up on a proper big telescope down here in La Palma.  They take a TA too- a PhD student who is the teaching assistant- so upon realizing I had to TA anyway I asked just what someone had to do to TA the La Palma course.

“You have to ask, and you’re the first one to ask” was the answer, so here I am, adapting to a week of nocturnal existence where one typically sleeps from 8am-4pm.  Something else I never really do normally by the way, as radio waves don’t care if it’s day or night when you observe them.

More later, probably from a furry little aardvark friend of mine who loves exploring all things astronomy.  But it was just too glorious a sunset tonight to not share it.