Author Archives: Donna

Tour de Valencia!

After Brandon and I flew back from New Zealand, there were about 4 days in San Francisco to organize and pack for our move to France in January before I would be flying to Valencia for two weeks of full immersion Spanish lessons. Brandon also had a short turnaround as he would be heading to Colorado for a week-long mountaineering course. It would be another whirlwind trips for both of us, but this was something we were now familiar with and didn’t bother us much – living out of a suitcase had become the new normal!


I arrived in Madrid on the morning of Sunday, December 7th. Aside from making a flight reservation through my dad’s benefits at United, I didn’t book anything. Since Valencia was a large city, my assumption was that English would get me around, public transportation would be reliable and that hostels and/or hotels would be easy and available to book. In hindsight, it may not have been the most prudent decision to make such assumptions especially when traveling alone. Luckily this time, for the most part, my assumptions were accurate – aside from English being widely spoken. As soon as I arrived in Madrid, I paid 5 euro and took the bus to the center of town where I walked around in circles for about 2 hours until I found the right ticketing desk and platform to take the high speed train to Valencia for 65 euro. I finally made it to Valencia that afternoon and continued to plan my stay there.


View of the Cathedral's bell tower in the center of Valencia!

View of the Cathedral’s bell tower in the center of Valencia!

BEACH and just look at that sky

BEACH and just look at that sky


The first step was to find a place to stay for the night. I rolled my one piece of luggage around the city until I found an acceptable hostel with availability. I came across the Orange Hostel near the center of Valencia and decided this would be a nice place to crash until I found a homestay to take me in for the following two weeks. I checked in with the receptionist and we started talking – I explained that I was visiting Valencia for two weeks to learn as much Spanish as possible but hadn’t booked anything yet. Her name was Ida and she was Italian but studying at the University of Valencia. Immediately after hearing my story and checking me in, she was on the phone with her friends in Valencia who were launching a new service for tourists visiting the city called Welcome Spanish. She arranged to have her two friends meet me the following morning for a tour around Valencia and to enroll me in Spanish school. I couldn’t believe it! What a hook up.


The following morning, I met Rafa and Jorge, who showed me the beaches and marinas in Valencia, the beautiful parks, the massive market in the center of town and other beautiful, historical sites around the city. That afternoon, Rafa and Jorge also helped me enroll in Spanish school. They had done their research and found the best one in Valencia – I just couldn’t believe how friendly and welcoming they were. I also sorted out a homestay in Valencia the following day that happened to be 4 blocks away from the Spanish school.


Best tour guides you'll find in Spain, Rafa and Jorge!

Best tour guides you’ll find in Spain, Rafa and Jorge!

surfable waves in what is usually a very tranquil beach

surfable waves in what is usually a very tranquil beach


My homestay was an interesting and more challenging experience compared to the homestay experience that Brandon and I shared in Bariloche that past summer. The homestay mother knew about as much English as I knew Spanish, which is to say she knew not much at all. In Bariloche, I would use Brandon as my crutch to communicate with the family. This time, I would have to fend for myself, which to be fair, is what I signed up for. I wanted to be thrown into the deep end when it came to learning Spanish this time.


View of the dome from the central market

View of the dome from the central market

Fresh Valencia Market

Fresh Valencia Market

View from the rooftop of the escuela

View from the rooftop of the escuela

Meanwhile, I was really enjoying the Spanish school (school name) where I registered thanks to Rafa and Jorge. Luckily, I also met a friend, Margot from Holland, in the class. She and I were on the same page in Valencia – we were in class from 9am – 1pm everyday and immediately afterwards, we would grab a delicious café con leche and explore the center of Valencia. Over the two weeks, we visited the aquarium, climbed the bell tower of the cathedral, shopped at the indoor and outdoor markets, and enjoyed amazing meals in the sun! One night, Raja even invited us to go out salsa dancing with him, which I hesitantly decided to join. It was a good experience, but let’s just say salsa dancing doesn’t run naturally in my veins.


Margot and me outside the cathedral!

Margot and me outside the cathedral!


Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

On one of our last days in the city, Rafa so generously offered to have us over to his house on the outskirts of Valencia to enjoy authentic Valencian paella. He said we couldn’t leave before trying paella from the birthplace of the dish. Margot and I drove over to Rafa’s house where we ate an amazing amount of paella outside in his backyard under the palm tress. I was in paradise. The food was delicious, the weather was perfect and I had met friends that I’d keep for a long time to come!

The intricately detailed and extravagant alter

The intricately detailed and extravagant alter



Margot making her confessions!

Margot making her confessions!

A visit to the aquarium

A visit to the aquarium

Looking good, Valencia!

Looking good, Valencia!


Margot and me in the center of town

Margot and me in the center of town


Paella de Valencia!! Me gusta mucho!

Paella de Valencia!! Me gusta mucho!


Valencia by night

Valencia by night

Enjoying an afternoon in the sun with good company and of course, paella

Enjoying an afternoon in the sun with good company and of course, paella

Categories: Spain, Valencia | 2 Comments

New Zealand, Part 1


Brandon and I arrived in Auckland on November 7th to begin our last adventure traveling together before we move to France in January. We agreed to go big in New Zealand for the next four weeks, and aside from our “budget” campervan, we followed through with that promise.

Brandon and I spent the first 4 days in the trendy Ponsonby area in Auckland to tour around the country’s largest city by population and roughly sketch out our plan to tour the rest of NZ. NZ has a total population of about 4.5 million and about 1.5 million are living in Auckland. The number of sheep in NZ, on the other hand, tops over 60 million – approximately 13 to 1. One would think that wool is NZ’s greatest export, but it’s actually dairy! As we witnessed firsthand while driving some 5,000 kilometers throughout the country, the livestock in NZ live happy lives in large green pastures they can roam freely. I can’t help but share these stats because we had just come from Shanghai (city population 24 million) and Singapore (city population 5.5 million). Compare NZ’s landmass of 100,000 square miles to Singapore’s of 277 square miles, it was like night and day to what we experienced a few short weeks ago.


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Prashant and me jumping for the camera to capture an INSEAD moment in Auckland!


View of Auckland

View of Auckland


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Marina in Auckland near the location of the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003.  Some big nice yachts in there!


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Another part of the marina housed some beautiful sailing yachts … these are more Brandon and my style!



In early October, while spending some time in San Francisco, I was able to meet the only classmate going to INSEAD from New Zealand as he just happened to be passing through the city before embarking on an epic road-trip around the US. His name was Prashant. It was over dinner in the Mission with Prashant and a few other INSEAD classmates that we planned to meet up again a month later in Auckland, where Brandon and I didn’t know anyone. How lucky is that?? Call me biased, but INSEAD is proving to admit very personable, friendly, intelligent, fun and sharp candidates from around the world. 😉


Brandon and I met up with Prashant on our second day in Auckland where we went on a tour to check out the views from various vista points around the city. It was absolutely beautiful. We took an obligatory INSEAD moments photo to let our class know that there were at least two of us celebrating our pre-INSEAD days in NZ! Prashant also brought us to a marina that held some incredible yachts and sailboats docked in the same location that had been the center of the 2000 and 2003 America’s Cup races. Later we stopped off along a beach to have a couple of drinks and to enjoy our first (of many) NZ burgers. I was pretty quickly falling in love with NZ. We had a great time with Prashant and learned a ton about NZ. He left us with many ideas of things to do and must-see places both in Auckland and around NZ. I’m still trying to convince him to start the program in France, but unfortunately my time is running short and I may just have to wait until Brandon and I move to Singapore the second half of next year.

That night, Brandon and I walked over to the Sky Tower in the center of Auckland to check out sunset views over the cityscape. We topped off the night with about as romantic a dinner as I could ever squeeze out of Brandon, a bottle of wine with an amazing meal on a slowly spinning platform overlooking the city. Many brownie points were earned that evening (thanks for the rec Prashant!!).


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Dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the SkyTower overlooking Auckland!



Life in a Campervan


The next day, it was time to pick up our campervan, which would act as both our transportation and home for many nights around New Zealand. We settled on a budget that would cost ~$1,150 for 23 days, including unlimited mileage. It was a cozy, trusty, eye-sore of a vehicle which we would come to love. It had a huge sticker of an Australian rugby player, obvious due to the yellow shirt and green trousers, stuck to its side which more than once arose the playful contempt of the Kiwis. The van was minimally stocked with sheets, pans, plates and few other essentials. When I say cozy, I mean it was a tight squeeze for us both to sleep in the back … when we put the cushions down, only one of us could comfortably lie on our backs, while the other would have to sacrifice and sleep on his/her shoulder until the other was ready to flip onto his/her side. After the first few nights, we grew accustomed to sleeping in the van and it became natural and surprisingly, comfortable. This would be a first for us – living out of a minivan on the road for over 3 weeks. The best part of living out of a campervan was the freedom that it afforded us; we woke up in a different part of NZ every morning until we reached Queenstown.

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Our home on wheels – the Amazing Campervan!


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Roadtripping to Milford Sound in the camper van!


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GoPro selfie during a stretch of the NZ drive!


Seeing that many visitors in NZ choose to roadtrip around the two islands via car or campervan, NZ has made roadtripping very easy and convenient. Brandon downloaded a Camping NZ app to his phone, which gave us all the information we needed to find a place to park our van and crash every night no matter where in NZ we were. The campsites ranged from full service motels offering basic private rooms for about ~$80 to so-called “freedom camping” sites that were more like free picnic sites on the side of the road. Most nights, Brandon and I posted up on what they call “unpowered vehicle sites”, which simply meant we paid for a flat square patch of grass to sleep in our van. The price for the night ranged from $20 – $40 per night, which gave us access to a communal kitchen, bathroom and hot showers. A handful of nights, mainly when Brandon and I thought one more elbow to the face might cause a physical fight between us, we decided to get a small motel room for a few more inches of sleeping space. A couple of times we also chose to “freedom camp”, but this was a little risky in our budget campervan because in order to legally freedom camp one is required to have a “self-contained” sticker on your vehicle, which certifies that you have a working toilet on board. Overall, after experiencing campervan roadtripping around NZ, I can vouch that traveling by campervan is a great way to see NZ; the roads are great and there are campsites/motels every few kilometers along most roads and anyplace remotely frequently by travelers.

Many mornings we made our own breakfasts directly from the back of the van or kitchen (if the campsites provided one) and enjoyed a cup of coffee together to kickstart our day. Brandon learned to master the art of on-the-road gourmet coffee using his Jetboil plus its handy plunger press accessory. Our meals were basic: scrambled cheesy eggs with veggies and toast or oatmeal with local honey and bananas. I have learned to love camping for the way it temporarily strips complexity from daily life: cooking basic meals with your partner, enjoying the art of conversing without distractions from the internet or TV and sleeping as much as you want!




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Enjoying one of Brandon’s morning brews from our freedom camping site!


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Breakfast of champions from the back of the van!


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Living the good life from our camper van!


On our first night with the campervan after departing from Auckland, we pulled into a small museum’s parking lot, which allowed campers to crash overnight. Brandon and I were hunched over trying to pull the sheets over the seat cushions while swatting flies off our legs to make our bed for the night. Not even 10 minutes later, a McMansion on wheels decided to drive in and park right next to us! The Britz was a luxury self-contained mobile home with the bed on the roof, stovetop and microwave, power outlets, a bathroom, and even a primitive shower. This thing was fully stocked, putting our little guy to shame! What our guy had was character, 340,000 km of experience on the NZ roads and most importantly us, so after a good laugh and a hint of jealousy, we settled into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.  Later on we couldn’t resist the temptation to analyze the pros and cons of our budget campervan decision against the other, more luxurious campervan options. It turns out that a decent motorhome like the Britz would run more like $150+ per day in the high summer seasons versus the $50 we were paying. A bigger campervan would comfortably sleep 3 or maybe 4 adults.   You’d get the option to save some money by freedom camping (legally), but my guess is most nights you’d still end up at a campground and thus paying $30-50 per night for a powered site. Also, gas would cost more and the vehicle itself would be slower and less maneuverable to drive, which is an important consideration in the harsh and windy road conditions that NZ can present. In the end we were happy with our decision to go budget for the two of us on this trip. Doing so incentivized us to spend more time away from our van to explore the beautiful country and the extra money spent on the luxury of a big van would’ve been wasted. If we come back to tour NZ with other people or a family, the bigger campervans will make much more sense.


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We took turns driving, here is Brandon doing his thing…


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… and here I am putting some KMs on the van!

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Our sleeping area in the van was overly comfy, but we learned to love it. And those Curtains!

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Brandon drinking a local brew one fine evening in the van

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After picking up some tasty sauvignon blanc in wine country, we got to enjoy it in the van

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At another freedom campsite we had some pleasant morning company in 4 ducklings that were eager for my bread gifts

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I included this pic because who doesn’t want to see baby swans on their momma’s back!

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Just us and one “self-contained” motorhome freedom camping somewhere in the South Island

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Our campsite lakeside near Queenstown


The next few posts will chronicle our adventures around the North and South Islands of NZ !!

Categories: Auckland, New Zealand | 3 Comments

Weekend in Singapore

I was already super excited about INSEAD after connecting with a handful of classmates and alumni over the past few months in the US.  Then Brandon and I visited the INSEAD campus in Singapore for Welcome Day, which verified what an exciting year we have ahead! There were about 120 INSEAD’ers from my graduating class there from all over the world.  Everyone had a unique background. For example, we shared a lunch table with a classmate who was born in India but raised in Singapore and worked for a start up in South Africa. Turns out, this is a typical description for those who will be attending INSEAD!


INSEAD 2015D Singapore Admit Day group shot!

INSEAD 2015D Singapore Admit Day group shot!  (can you find Brandon and me)

We checked into the Residences on the Singapore campus on Halloween and began exploring Singapore, beginning with their delicious and cheap street food. Immediately after getting some sustenance, Brandon was seeking out the electronics mall (Sim Lim) to shop for camera lenses and drones. We took subways everywhere – they are clean and easy to follow in Singapore – and quickly learned that Singapore is not a place to break rules. For one, there was signage everywhere that fines of $500 – $1000 if you ate or drank in the subways! As a result, Singapore was spotless, which also made it more enjoyable for us as tourists. We called it a night relatively early since the next day would be a full day of networking and meeting my future classmates at the INSEAD Welcome Day.

Flying into Singapore, one of the largest ports in the world

Flying into Singapore, one of the largest ports in the world

Singapore has basically a semi-authortarian government, and the penalties are stiff for transgressions of their laws

Singapore has basically a semi-authortarian government, and the penalties are stiff for transgressions of their laws


The next morning, I made plans to finally meet JK, who was generous enough to lend me her room/apartment in Shanghai for 3 weeks this past summer after a quick WeChat conversation! Since I essentially lived her life in Shanghai, I filled her in on what she missed during her summer months in Argentina where she was learning Spanish. As suspected, she was awesome and it was great to meet her.  After JK, Brandon and I enjoyed our first coffee and then the Welcome Day kicked off with networking and more coffee (thankfully) and then a mock MBA strategy class. Unlike undergrad classes, this one kept my attention for the full 1.5 hours – hopefully all of INSEAD’s classes will follow suit! We also had a chance to hear a panel of alumni talk about their experiences at INSEAD. They unanimously agreed that one of the most beneficial aspect of the program were the people they met throughout their experience.


My first masters class

My first masters class


In front of the INSEAD Singapore campus marquee with Bryan and Mudit

In front of the INSEAD Singapore campus marquee with Bryan and Mudit

The Welcome Day wrapped up with a nice dinner before we all went out to the rooftop bar of the Marina Bay Sands, Ku De Ta. With mixed drinks priced at $24 and beers at $18, I learned how important apartment pre-parties must be at INSEAD.  Brandon also learned, the hard way, that dress codes are enforced. Unbeknownst to Brandon, Ku De Ta’s dress code did not permit slippers, which are sandals to those of us from the US. We quickly devised a plan with one of the guys from INSEAD. We would all head into the bar together, leaving Brandon outside temporarily. I would then sneak my classmate’s shoes back out of the bar in a purse, rendering him temporarily shoe-less and voila, Brandon would be let into the bar. It worked! I foresee more good friendships forming along these lines next year!


The nice dinner INSEAD put on for Admit day joiners.  Nick Hsu with Brandon and me

The nice dinner INSEAD put on for Admit day joiners. Nick Hsu with Brandon and me

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands at Ku De Ta overlooking the Singapore cityscape

View from the top of Marina Bay Sands at Ku De Ta overlooking the Singapore cityscape

The next day, Brandon and I were invited to play beach volleyball with one of my classmates and her friends. We ended our trip to Singapore on the beach playing volleyball and eating refreshing watermelon to cool off! Next up would be Brisbane to visit Brandon’s friends, Kevin and Andrea.


At the beach on Sentosa Island

At the beach on Sentosa Island

Playing some beach volleyball with new friends

Playing some beach volleyball with new friends

Categories: INSEAD, Singapore | 1 Comment

China Part 1: Beijing & Shanghai

China Introduction

A couple of months ago, Brandon, his mom, my mom and I all decided to do a mini-tour of China together. It would be East meets West in more ways than one! It would also mark the first time our mom’s would meet and the first time Brandon and his mom have been to China. Rather than just dipping our toe into the introductions as is normally done over dinner or a drink, we would have our mom’s hang out continuously for two weeks! In order to arrange the tours, my mom worked directly with the tour groups in China to organize our trip, which would be spoken entirely in Chinese. Kudos to Brandon and his mom for their patience and willingness to participate 100% regardless of the language barrier. Over the next two weeks, we would be visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Zhangjiajie (inspiration behind the floating mountains in Avatar) in Hunan Province.


Brandon, his mom and I landed in Beijing from San Francisco on October 15th after a 12.5 hour flight. Out of luck and the connection of my dad working at United, Brandon and my standby seats turned out to be in global first class from SF to Beijing. Unfortunately we weren’t able to upgrade Brandon’s mom, Diane, to global first as she booked an actual economy class ticket – that said, the head steward on our flight hooked up Diane with glasses of fine wine and champagne throughout the long flight! Once we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately picked up by the pre-planned tour guide at the airport. From there, we were escorted by a van to the simultaneously elegant and kitschy King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel, which would be our home for the next three nights.

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

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Brandon catching up on the business news.


The following two days would be jam packed with Beijing tourist activities. The first day, Brandon, his mom and I (as jetlagged as we were) received our 6am wake-up call to start the day. After an enormous buffet breakfast consisting of both East and West style foods, and several cups of coffee,  we were loaded onto our tour bus and headed off to check out our first stop: Tian An Men Square. That same day, we visited the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

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Brandon and myself with Chairman Mao nuzzled between us

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Our hotel in Beijing had a ridiculous name: King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel


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In front of the Tiananmen Gate Tower, which serves as the main entrance to the Forbidden City and is characteristically adorned with a portrait of Chairman Mao.

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I’m not sure what this huge flower pot is in the middle of Tiananmen Square is supposed to symbolize, but Diane and I felt compelled to get a photo in front of it!

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Throngs of people in the Forbidden City

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Brandon hiding behind an old and valuable sculpture of some kind.

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Fun photo with Diane!

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Since the tour guide spoke only Mandarin, Brandon was happy to have his an automated tour guide explaining to him in English what all the buildings in the Forbidden City were used for

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Hey Lauren Willis – Can you guess what those Chinese characters mean? … if you guessed “Starbucks” you’d be right!

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Rickshaw driver

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Great architecture in the Forbidden City

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We visited the Summer Palace, which is surround by a vast and beautiful lake

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Brandon and I took a rickshaw ride in Old Beijing

On day two, Diane and I went to visit a small section of the Great Wall about that was an hour drive outside Beijing. Diane and I climbed to the top of one section of the Great Wall and received personalized medals to prove it! We both agreed that heading down was much harder than walking up. China has a famous saying about the Great Wall: 不到长城非好汉 (He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man). Brandon did not make it to the Great Wall with us that day 😉 He had prior obligations to meet his friend, Roger, who has been running a Chinese peer to peer lending business in Beijing. Brandon’s friend, Colin, also joined us in Beijing. The boys spent the afternoon nerding out and discussing the potential for business opportunities in China before an epic dinner of Beijing’s famous, Peking Duck.

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Brandon’s mom, Diane


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Diane and myself climbed all the way to the top of what you see in this picture and earned medals for our achievement!


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That’s a long wall!


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At the Forbidden City

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Diane in front of the Beijing Olympic Stadium

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Me posing with the strange Chinese mascot for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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As with pretty much everyplace in Beijing, the classic Nanluogo Lane shopping street was completely packed with tourists.

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Brandon was happy to find a good beer spot to have a drink at!

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Found this guy all dolled up along Nonluogo Lane.

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Brandon and Diane toasting to a refreshing beverage along Nanluogu Lane.


At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon's friend Roger in Beijing

At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon’s friend Roger in Beijing

All in all, it was a fun and eye opening trip to Beijing. We were lucky with the weather – the first two days were blue skies! The pollution skyrocketed on the fourth and last day we were there (411 on a scale of 1000 – extremely hazardous). It also happened to be the day of the Beijing marathon… turned out that 80% of the runners didn’t finish the race. Although Beijing has a lot of character and thousands of years of history, the pollution makes it difficult to live there. However, it’s certainly worth a visit if you haven’t been before!


Our next stop along the tour de China was Shanghai. This place was my jam. After having spent three and a half weeks in a future INSEAD classmate’s centrally located Shanghai apartment earlier this summer, it was the one city in China I sort of knew. I had only scratched the surface of the city in that time period, but I liked what I saw. I had made great friends there who showed me the ropes and gave me a chance to experience the real Shanghai from the perspective of a young adult. These guys knew how to have a good time and it was my turn to show Brandon, his mom, Colin and my mom, who I was most excited to show the new Shanghai!

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Bullet Train station in Beijing.

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The bullet train brought us from Beijing to Shanghai at a cool 306 km/h. That’s 190 mph.


My mom was born and raised in Shanghai from the mid 50’s – late 70’s before moving to Hong Kong and ultimately New York with her family. It goes without saying, her city has undergone such massive changes over those years that, were it not for street names remaining the same, she wouldn’t have recognized her childhood neighborhood! It was a strange feeling to know more about my mom’s hometown than she did, but that simply shows how rapidly Shanghai has developed in the last couple of decades. It’s now considered the business capital of China with a population growth rate of 20% per year. At that rate, it’s no surprise that high rises and retail shops can be seen for miles on end in every direction you look in Shanghai.

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The classic view of the Pundong business district which sits just across the Shanghai Huangpu River from The Bund.

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None of those high-rise buildings existed when my mother lived in Shanghai 30 years ago.


We lucked out on our Airbnb accomodations in Shanghai, staying in a 4 bedroom luxury apartment overlooking the famous skyscape, The Bund. Every morning my mom picked up hot Chinese breakfasts for us all before we went exploring the city. We took pictures along The Bund, rode a ferry across the river to Pudong, walked through Old Shanghai, and checked out an aggressive fake market where you could buy everything from faux-(ro)lexes and drones to iPhones and chopsticks. At one point, we found Brandon getting chased down the aisle by a fake rolex merchant after a negotiation went wrong. The price started at 600rmb ($100), but Brandon asked for 150rmb ($25), at which point the chase commenced. Brandon won the negotiation, but ultimately lost in the end when two out of four of his fake rolexes stopped ticking under 30 minutes after the purchase. Luckily he was able to get a refund for the two broken Rolexes!

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We were on the 8th floor of this luxury apartment building thanks to AirBnB!

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The view from the breakfast nook inside our Shanghai luxury pad.

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The Old Shanghai market

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Brandon and Diane in the Old Shanghai market

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Useless but fun trinkets abound in Chinese markets

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Brandon and Colin found these drones for sale in Old Shanghai and bought 2 of them, plus 5 extra batteries. They provided hours of entertainment.

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It cracked us all to see that Budweiser is still one of the beers of choice in China.

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Looking to the West along The Bund, the original heart of Shanghai


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Group shot at from The Bund with the Pundong skyscape in the background


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Fun photo at The Bund

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How inappropriate!

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Brandon couldn’t resist mounting a golden elephant statue he found in Pudong for this ridiculous shot

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Hooters has truly gone global, with a location right in the heart of the Shanghai business district in Pudong

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View of the Oriental Pearl Tower from the 38th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel.

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Posing in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower

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At the center of the biggest mall in Pudong… you guessed it, an Apple Store!


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An assortment of $25 Rolexes that look good enough from a slight distance to fool anyone… that is unless they notice that they aren’t ticking

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With the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, Brandon got to work hacking the Great Firewall of China and getting an post-season package so that we could stream the game live to the TV in the Shanghai apartment!


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Walking with the madre’s from our Shanghai apartment

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Group Pic after the amazing acrobatics show!

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Brandon and me under the spot light at a movie premier my friends got us into during fashion week in Shanghai!

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Monnie bartending at the movie premier after-party

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Movie premier with famous Hong Kong actors who we didn’t know – we got into the premier with badges that said we were working for my friend’s ad agency!

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Brandon’s first haircut in China – luckily they didn’t give him the Asian styled faux-hawk, which is the latest trend there


Other highlights of Shanghai include an impressive acrobatics show after dinner at the famous Old Jessie restaurant. My mom also made a Chinese feast of epic proportions for us all one night at the apartment. It was then that Brandon realized I should be a good cook given my roots, but I haven’t yet shown him my capabilities. Thanks to my mom, the bar is now set quite high! On one of our final nights in Shanghai, my uncles Jack and Franck, treated us to a delicious dinner at Jade Garden restaurant in Xin Tian Di, which is a very trendy area of Shanghai. The entire family was together to enjoy each other’s company over good Shanghai-style food and wine that I had brought from California. It was great to see Jack and Franck. Brandon and I will be seeing more of them next year in Paris as they spend quite a bit of time in France.

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Epic family shot at the Jade Garden restaurant, with Uncle Jack and his husband Frank, Mom, myself, Diane, Brandon and Grandma


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My Mom (Jenny), my Grandma, and me

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Nighttime view from the apartment of The Bund with the Old Shanghai shopping area lit up in the foreground

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My Mom went shopping in the local markets and grabbed all the ingredients necessary to cook an authentic Shanghai meal

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Eating the excellent Chinese meal prepared by my Mom

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These were the two drones that Brandon and Colin bought. The one on the bottom was the first one purchased and eventually broke due to constant abuse at which point Brandon dissected it to see how it was built.


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On our last evening in town we stopped by my friend Monnie’s apartment, where I lived when I was in Shanghai the previous month, and enjoyed the whiskey and company of Monnie and a few of her friends!

We left Shanghai for Zhangjiajie with many wonderful memories of the city and of the time we spent with family there!

Categories: Beijing, China, Shanghai | 3 Comments

A Taste of Shanghai

I decided the most efficient and guaranteed way to brush up on my Mandarin speaking, writing and reading skills was to leave South America early and move straight to the heart of China’s largest commercial city.   I flew back to SF for 42 hours to pack my bags for Shanghai. Although it wasn’t my first choice to skip out on exploring Chile with Brandon, in the end, the impromptu visit to China paid off. Shanghai is an incredibly vibrant, international and vivacious city where you can get just about anything you want at your fingertips. I was fortunate enough to explore a small fraction of the city over the past 3+ weeks.

Cityscape - The Bund

Cityscape – The Bund

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

To be honest, I thought these were going to be a rather mundane and tedious few weeks of re-learning how to read and write Chinese. It turned out to be everything but dull and redundant! A few days before arriving in Shanghai, I had reached out to Jacqueline, a future INSEAD classmate living in Shanghai, on Facebook to see if we could meet up during my visit. Ironically, she would be traveling to Argentina at that time, but she so generously offered for me to stay in her room in Jing’An, Shanghai – essentially as central as it gets in Shanghai! Her roommate, Monnie, was the first person I met in Shanghai, and she couldn’t have been more welcoming or well connected in Shanghai, having moved there two years ago from Hong Kong. Monnie also had one of her good friends, Melissa, staying at the apartment for two out of three of the weeks that I was in Shanghai which was a treat for me. Melissa and I would spend hours chatting in Mandarin and exploring Shanghai – mainly she was correcting my poor grammar and laowai enunciation – through her, I learned a lot about life in Shanghai and China. And finally, our last roommate, Tanaka-San, was always excited when we decided to have a low key night at home.

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!


Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing'an apartment - lounging.

Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing’an apartment – lounging.

After taking one day to settle into Shanghai, intensive Chinese classes began. I spent the first four hours of each weekday in a Mandarin school called Miracle Mandarin, which I found through a simple Google search online. The 30 minute walk to and from class was a daily battle between the endless cars, scooters, bicycles and flexible traffic laws, which I’m happy to report I won simply by surviving! In addition to learning Chinese reading/writing at a rapid pace, I met a few new friends at the school from Germany, England, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brazil and Spain who were fun sidekicks to explore the touristy aspects of Shanghai. We visited the Bund to execute an ice-bucket challenge, and also to visit Shanghai’s fake markets to have custom jackets made  and bars to get a taste of the ex-pat culture in Shanghai. You’ll see from the two photos below of The Bund.   Although I’m told the pollution in Shanghai is significantly better than Beijing, there is no hiding the fact that the city does struggle with some pollution particularly during the hot and humid summer months. In one of the photos below I had to increase contrast because the smog was dampening the colors!  By the end of my stay in Shanghai, I had two days of blue skies and even saw stars on my last night in the city! 

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Through Monnie, I met many of her friends who grew up either in Shanghai or another large city in China. This was by far one of the coolest parts of the trip. I would spend hours talking to them in Mandarin, learning about their life and culture in Shanghai over a steaming bowl of hotpot (similar to shabu-shabu, but way better!) or a traditional Shanghai styled restaurant. Shanghai’s culture is centered around the enjoyment of good food, drinks, company and of course, KARAOKE! On my last day in Shanghai, Monnie and her friends threw me a surprise farewell party at a swanky Karaoke (pronounced Ka-La-OK in Chinese) Bar so that I could experience one of their favorite outings with friends. We sang, we ate and we drank Tsingtao beers – I had to sit out during the Chinese songs this time, but I look forward to the time when I can also participate!

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Hong Shao Rou - Slow cooked pork belly

Hong Shao Rou – Slow cooked pork belly

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Sampling Crazy Chinese Fruits for Desert. (Edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Sampling crazy Chinese fruits for. (It’s the edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Swanky Karaoke Club Entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain't horsin' around!!

Swanky karaoke club entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain’t horsin’ around!!

Another highlight was a weekend “getaway” to Hangzhou Melissa (Monnie’s friend), who is originally from Fujian province in the South of China. I was hoping to escape city-life for a weekend, but it turned out that “getting away” got me to a city that had more people than NYC and all of it’s surrounding boroughs combined. Hangzhou is a city about 100 miles outside of Shanghai, though it only took us about an hour to get there by train. At one point on the train, I looked up and a saw a sign that displayed our current speed: 296km/hr. Impressive! China has something like 16-18 high-speed trains; the U.S. has some work to do to catch up! With 1.4 billion people, 24 million in Shanghai alone, I understand China’s commitment to building efficient modes of public transportation from their subways to high-speed trains that run like arteries throughout China. Once we arrived in Hangzhou, we explored around their famous Xi Hu (West Lake) and their historic temples dating back thousands of years (though many have been restored in the last decade).


Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

stone buddah and me

Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

My time in Shanghai flew by and I felt that I had hardly scratched the surface. The good news is that I’ll be heading back there with Brandon, my mom and his mom in a few short weeks to show them a few highlights in the city before we take a local airline to Zhangjiajie for a week long tour. Shanghai has changed significantly since my mom lived there nearly 30 years ago, so I am looking forward to showing her, Brandon and his mom the new Shanghai that I so fortunately had the chance to explore with the amazing friends that I met here over the past three weeks!




Categories: China, Shanghai | 1 Comment

Exciting Changes


Although Brandon and I had a rough plan drawn together for our year of travels, we were gifted with good news in Bariloche when I learned that INSEAD admitted me into their program beginning January 2015!!


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a toast to celebrate

Upon learning the news just after Spanish school on a Friday, Brandon immediately bought a bottle of Champers to celebrate!


So what does this mean for the Radical Sabbatical? Some changes. Firstly, the one-year of uninterrupted travel is now 5 months as Brandon and I move to Fontainebleau, France in early January where I start business school. Secondly, I have left Argentina early and I am currently in Shanghai to brush up on my Mandarin in intensive reading/writing/speaking classes for the next three weeks. Brandon will continue to ski and surf his way around South America, hiking to Refugios in Patagonia before making his way to Santiago to see his cousin, Matti and finally the coast of Chile to surf. I expect that we’ll see some amazing photos in his next post!

From there, Brandon and I meet again in mid September in San Francisco for Jess Sawhney and Ganesh’s wedding!! I’m looking forward to celebrating their big day with so many good friends who will all be gathering in the Bay Area. We are also looking forward to seeing many of you in San Francisco during the second half of September!

Next up from will be a post from Shanghai !!!


donna cheering in front of centro civico

Heel kicks of happiness in front of Bariloche’s Centro Civico


donna cheering in front of lake nahuel huapi

More heel kicks of happiness in front of Lake Nahuel Huapi !!

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche, INSEAD | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Beautiful Bariloche

It’s difficult to know where to begin writing about Bariloche to give the place the description it deserves! My hope is that through the writing and photos in this post, you will all have a good understanding of a few things this amazing place has to offer and that you will one day visit. There’s something for everyone here!

As I write this, Brandon and I have enjoyed just over two weeks in Bariloche, Argentina, which falls in the northern section of Patagonia. We decided to give full immersion Spanish learning a try in Bariloche, signing up for a homestay and Spanish school. We lucked out with our decision – Mara (our homestay mother) welcomed us into her home with open arms. Every morning, we woke up to breathtaking views of Lake Nahuel Huapi from her balcony followed by a light breakfast and every flavor of tea you could imagine. For mate drinkers, there’s no shortage of mate in Argentina. Every night, Mara home-cooked a massive spread of dinner ranging from traditional empanadas and pizzas to Argentinian beef paired with potatoes and Argentinian-styled shepards pie. I will certainly miss her cooking.  Naturally, I befriended Mara’s cat, Poncho, spending many hours relaxing with him at the house. It was a full house. In addition to the two of us and Mara, her two daughters, Belen and Paula were also living there for the ski season which made it a lot of fun for Brandon and me to learn about life in Bariloche. Additionally, Mara is renting another two rooms to Martin, an Argentine who works as a ski instructor, and Gonzalo, who returned to Bariloche from Buenos Aires to work at Cerro Catedral for the South America winter. Nightly dinner discussions ran the gamut from conversations around their healthcare system to the government’s decision two years ago to limit the possession of USD among the Argentinians. On the lighter side, we learned about the history of Cerro Catedral and where to ski. We also learned about Bariloche in the summer: epic mountain bike trails, white water rafting, sailing on Lake Naguel Huapei and accessing hidden beaches, and waterfalls along day-long hikes through the mountains. For nature lovers, it’s breathtaking and all here at your fingertips to enjoy!

Panoramic sunrise captured from the balcony of our home stay: Casa de Mara

Panoramic sunrise captured from the balcony of our home stay: Casa de Mara

View from the dining room. Pancho is a lucky cat and he knows it.

View from the dining room. Pancho is a lucky cat and he knows it.

Brandon in front of our Bariloche homestay: Casa de Mara!

Brandon in front of our Bariloche homestay: Casa de Mara!

Fine wining, dining and conversing in Casa de Mara! We enjoyed a traditional Argentinian Asado (bbq) cooked by Gonzalo!

Fine wining, dining and conversing in Casa de Mara! On this night we enjoyed a traditional Argentinian Asado (bbq) cooked by Gonzalo!

Looking regal and majestic, this is Pancho, the king of Casa de Mara!

Looking regal and majestic, this is Pancho, the king of Casa de Mara!


Fireworks on the last day of a SnowFest celebration in Bariloche. The Cathedral is beautifully lit on the right!

Fireworks on the last day of a SnowFest celebration in Bariloche. The Cathedral is beautifully lit on the right!

Sunset from Casa de Mara!

Sunset from Casa de Mara!

More Bariloche sunsets!

More Bariloche sunsets!

Surf-able waves on Lake Naguel Huapei!

Surf-able waves on Lake Naguel Huapei!


Brandon and I filled our weekday mornings in an intensive Spanish school at the Academia Bariloche (muchas gracias to Mike Stewart for the recommendation). My Spanish went from hola and gracias to a few full sentences and Brandon’s has improved drastically! Because Brandon was the only intermediate student signed up for the course the last two weeks, he had private lessons with his Professor, Sol (pictured below). For my first week, I had solo lessons with my Professor Fatima before Stefano, an Italian, joined my class the second week. Although Stefano and I had the same number of hours learning Spanish (approximately 15 hours EVER), he picked up the language as if he knew it from a prior life. Clearly because Italian is so similar to Spanish, those speaking Italian can pick up Spanish faster than English speakers! Overall the Spanish school was challenging and I found that I enjoy learning a new languages and I hope to continue to study Spanish over the coming months.

The last day of class was interactive as we played guessing games entirely over Spanish where I overused the phrase, “Como se dice en espanol?” Also on “graduation day,” we learned to make beef empanadas, so when Brandon and I return to SF or visit any of you in your respective cities, we promise to whip up some homemade, piping hot empanadas!


Interactive Spanish Learning. Do you know what we are??

Interactive Spanish Learning. Do you know what we are??

Brandon's Spanish teacher, Sol, explaining to him the difference between the Objeto Directo and Objeto Indirecto at Academia Bariloche

Brandon’s Spanish teacher at Academia Bariloche, Sol.


Learning to make empanadas with our classmates on the last day of Spanish school!

Learning to make empanadas with our classmates on the last day of Spanish school!


A Bariloche post wouldn’t be complete without discussing the massive quantities of beer that this town produces!  When we decided to come to Bariloche it was primarily because we wanted to check out northern Patagonia and do some skiing.  Unbeknown to us, Bariloche also happens to be a beer connoissuer’s heaven, which certainly made Brandon very happy.  In the Bariloche area there are no less than 20 ceverzerias.  Here, being a ceverzeria means that you make your own beer, which is kind of like a micro-brew in California, except the beer they make here they call “artesenal” and it is basically homebrew.  Each of the ceverzerias makes an assortment of different beers, with negros (black Stouts and Porters), ales (pale ale, IPA, blondes), and rubias (reds, Scottish) being the most popular.  Brandon has tried about 30 different kinds of beers so far like he is on some kind of crusade to try them all.  Also, for us the beer is cheap!  Everyplace has happy hours that begin around 6pm and go until about 9pm and you can get pints for $2.  So awesome!

A colorful assortment of Patagonia Cervezas!

A colorful assortment of Patagonia Cervezas!

Brandon enjoying a Cerveza at one of our favorite Cervezaria's in town, Manush. Beer flows like water in this town (and costs just as much)!

Brandon enjoying a Cerveza at one of our favorite Cervezaria’s in town, Manush. Beer flows like water in this town (and costs just as much)!

Cervezaria Manush

Cervezaria Manush

Brandon having (another) Cerveza on the coast of Lake Nahuel Huapi.

Brandon having (another) Cerveza

Finally, one last fun activity that filled an afternoon was biking El Circuito.  This was about a 25km ride that loops around the western part of Bariloche, half of which is a protected, undeveloped forest.  The glacier carved land here is rather with frequent ups and downs which made the ride a tad harder than perhaps we expected.  During the ride we visited the famous Loao Loao hotel, made frequent stops to “take it all in”, found Lago Escondida (Hidden Lake), and were able to get a real feel for the land.  I think I originally thought that everything would be too cold and snowy for biking here in Bariloche, but the lake is only about 1500 feet in elevation and so even in the winter it has proven warm and nice enough to go biking.  I love Bariloche!


Taking in the beautiful views from our cycling tour

Taking in the beautiful views from our cycling tour

Brandon taking in the Bariloche landscape

Brandon taking in the Bariloche landscape


Taking a panoramic break along El Circuto.

View from the top of our bike ride... and I thought SF was hilly...

View from the top of our bike ride… and I thought SF was hilly…

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Buenos Aires Part 1


Buenos Aires enjoys its long afternoon breaks over coffee and good company

After a long journey from San Francisco to Argentina, Brandon and I were very excited to have arrived in Buenos Aires on July 31st to begin our travels! The moment we landed, we booked an airbnb in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires where we dropped our bags and immediately crashed for 12 hours. Sleep had never felt so good.

Once we were well rested, it was time to tour the city and enjoy traditional Argentinian meals. Of course, before we could do anything, we needed to exchange USD for pesos. Heeding advice from our friend, Grant, who recently planned to visit Argentina and had learned the ropes while in Chile, we brought with us crisp, sequential $100 bills to exchange for pesos. Because of the capital controls in place in Argentina and the government’s control of the exchange rate, we learned we could find a better rate in the “black market” for pesos in the city.  However, first we had to use Brandon’s debit card to get only a small amount pesos from an ATM at the airport so we could catch a cab into the city.  The exchange rate at the ATM was a paltry 8 pesos per $1.  We quickly learned that Argentina is desperate for USDs as its own currency continues to lose value (nearly) by day, and because the Argentinian government makes it incredibly difficult for the Argentine’s to retrieve USD from their banks. Not to mention, Argentina was in the midst of a default against the US, which literally happened the day we arrived! This meant that in the black market, we were able to achieve a more favorable exchange rate of 12 pesos to 1 USD. In reality, Argentinians consider this so-called “blue rate” the true exchange rate.

With pesos in hand, we first toured around the Palermo District and had lunch near our place. Wow is the food good in Buenos Aires – from vegetarian dishes to steak and chorizo options, you cannot go wrong in this city. After lunch, we walked towards the downtown area of BA and came upon city bikes, which we learned were free for both the locals and for tourists. By simply bringing a copy of our passports to any city bike rental station, we were able to use the bikes for an hour at a time. We took advantage, riding around what is considered their Central Park, taking in the city around us.

That night, we met up with Josh Kazdin’s cousin, Agustin, who is very plugged into the Buenos Aires scene. Agustin brought us to the fun, trendy Las Cañitas area to have drinks at 2am. There he gave us the download on BA living, sharing the traditional nightly schedule to prepare us for the following evening:

8pm-10pm: nap
11pm-1am: dinner
1am-3am: bar,
3am-6am: disco-tech

This was a typical night in Buenos Aires?? Even my years in NYC just after graduation didn’t yield nights past 4am! My blood sugar levels fell just listening to his proposed schedule for Saturday night, but we followed his expert suggestions, and it turns out that Agustin was spot on. Brandon and I kicked off our night at Don Julio’s Argentinian steakhouse at 11pm, following an awesome recommendation from Todd Evans.  Then we meet up with Agustin for a drink at 1am. Finally at 2:30am we found ourselves in front of the first disco-tech, The Rose Bar. The dance floor was empty inside. Augustin explained that most people won’t start showing up until after 3am… and again, he was right. We switched to another disco-tech, Keki, which was going CRAZY at 4am as if the party had just begun! We had a great time thanks to Agustin who showed us the best of the Argentinian nightlife.

At Keki's in Buenos Aires with Agustin, our gracious host to the Argentinian nightlife

At Keki’s in Buenos Aires with Agustin, our gracious host to the Argentinian nightlife

On Sunday morning we slept in and recovered from the previous late night.  We would’ve slept in later than 11am for sure, but we had to check out of our room since that afternoon we had to catch a plane to Bariloche.  We spent the early part of the afternoon at a cafe and having lunch and then we caught a taxi to the airport and caught our plane to Patagonia…



Categories: Argentina | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Backcountry Skiing Iceland

The Radical Sabbatical unofficially kicked off in April 2014 when we visited the West Fjords of Iceland for a week-long backcountry tour of Hornstrandir with good friends. We were fortunate to have a friend of Brandon’s, Einar Svensson, hook us up with Borea Adventures to build out the week of exploring and pushing beyond our physical (and emotional in my case at least) limits! In the end, we all had an amazing time in Iceland.

Check out this 64 second clip of our trip!

Categories: Iceland | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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