Virgin Mobile Freefest Part III

After we escaped the scene in the “Dance Forest” we made our way back to the stage where Ludacris was finishing up.  Up next was M.I.A, whom most of us had on our list to see.   Now I had heard her album Kala a couple of years ago, and like most people know the song “Paper Planes” which was featured in Slumdog Millionaire and Pineapple Express.  But I hadn’t given her newest album Maya a listen yet, which apparently a much more of a techno edge to it.

I’ll say this right off the bat.  M.I.A.’s performance gets top billing for the most interesting show I witnessed that night.  This isn’t exactly a compliment either.  First off, she started 30-45 minutes late.  Her DJ sidekick was up there spinning some dance beats trying to keep the crowd entertained.  Randomly, there were also three “people” up on stage at the microphones, but covered in full body, multi-colored berkas and motionless.  I thought they were mannequins for a while.  I’ll get back to them in a moment.

Eventually, Maya, the lead singer, came out on stage and began performing.  The first few songs I didn’t recognize (actually I didn’t recognize most of the songs in the performance), but they had a good beat to them and most of the crowd was getting into it.  Nothing was really out of the ordinary at first.

Then, Maya started to get a little weird.  She kept asking for the sound people and the audience to turn up the volume.  That itself doesn’t sound that weird, but from the way she kept yelling it, one really started to get the sense that she wasn’t exactly sober.  But that was still speculation at this point.

Things started to get really bizarre in the next few songs however.  Remember those three motionless berka figures that were just standing there?  Yeah, at this point, they whipped out power drills and pretended to start shooting into the audience.  You know that face that Jim Halpert on The Office makes?


M.I.A. - What is going on up there?

That was the look on the faces of most of the people around me.  Oh and before I forget, it was pretty clear someone on stage kept getting a text message (I’d like to think it was Maya just to keep the weirdness going).  And no, the “bleep” noise could not have been part of any of the songs because it happened so randomly. But because the show already took a weird turn, it was probably the least strange thing happening.

So for her “last song”, she actually invited people in the audience on stage with her.  Let’s just say I was holding my breath the whole time while a flood of drunk fans rushed to try and get on stage.  It could have been bad.  Luckily it wasn’t and the group did their best to try and impress the audience with their not-so coordinated dancing skills.  Eventually, Maya finished up and walked off stage with her crew.   Now this is where people were confused.  Was she coming back?  Was there an encore?  This was the Virgin Freefest, so there probably shouldn’t have been an encore because of the time constraints and her already starting late.  But the lights were still down, and the set wasn’t being cleaned up.  So we all stood around for the next 15 minutes to see what would happen.

Our patience was rewarded with Maya stumbling back out.  And I mean, she literally, kinda stumbled back out…in her pajamas…with a bottle of patron in her hand.   Literally her first few words to the audience as she came back out were “I have a bottle of tequila!  I’m in my pajamas!”

So needless to say, I’m giddy as hell watching this.  C’mon, it’s a free show, so I couldn’t really expect too much.  Maya continues to perform, with the bottle in her hand, cell phone going off, and weird berka people still standing behind her.  She tries once again to get people on stage, but this time security puts a wall up in the front row that the Pittsburgh “Steel Curtain” would be proud of.  So Maya went into the crowd instead, and performed for her last song “Paper Planes” while rolling on a group of spectators.  Now this is where I can probably say most of the people in my group got disappointed.  After waiting around, and watching the shitshow unfold on stage, I think people were really excited to hear “Paper Planes” and she botched it up.  It’s hard to be on key when you’re crowd surfing with a dude’s hand grabbing your breast.  After she finished singing, the security guard, literally, carried her off stage and her DJ sidekick awkwardly invited the crowd to some bar down the street for the “after party”.  I think after that show, we’d all had enough partying.  My grading here is going to be a little schitzo.   The performance gets a C, but the show from a purely entrainment, “what just happened?” standpoint gets an A.

I don’t even know how to follow up with the fact that we caught the end of the LCD Soundsystem on the way out.  I’ll make three quick comments about them.  From what I heard, I thought they were pretty good.  We caught “Losing my Edge”,but I unfortunately didn’t get to hear “Daft Punk is Playing at my House”.

Once again, the lead singer is nothing like what I pictured.  Even more so then the lead singer from Temper Trap, this guy was not the hipster, nerdy white dude I envisioned.  The dude was a straight-up lumberjack.


Don't judge a book by its cover? I guess don't judge a musician by his/her sound.

Finally, in hindsight, I wish we had left M.I.A. early to catch more of LCD Soundsystem.  From most reports, they had put on the best performance of the entire festival (aside from the random few that loved Pavement. Why were they there again?).  From the fragment I saw, LCD gets a B+.

But all in all, I got to see some great acts, hear performances from artists I wouldn’t normally get to see in real life, and witness things I wouldn’t normally witness on a typical Saturday in September.  So, I feel like I got my money’s worth.  Oh wait a sec, it was free. 🙂

Virgin Mobile Freefest Part II

After Temper Trap wrapped up their show with “Sweet Disposition”, we moved onto see Jimmy Eat World.  Some of us went over to Trombone Shorty and you can read about that act here at Dwain Smith’s blog in his “Media Binge” section (I heard it was quite an excellent performance).  Of all the performances, Jimmy Eat World was probably the least exciting.  I’m not saying that they weren’t good, because they were.  But as far as early 2000’s bands go, they weren’t exactly the go-to band that everyone had targeting on the day.  They just played a relatively vanilla show, but it was fun hearing “Sweetness” and “The Middle”.  It was actually kind of funny because most of the crowd responded like they were listening to it on the radio.  People got into it and were happy to hear it, but still kept their conversations going, milled around, etc.  I’d give Jimmy Eat World a “B-“performance.

As Jimmy Eat World wrapped up, more people started coming over to see the next band: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.   Edward Sharpe is a new band that has just recently gotten popular with their hit “Home”.  You’ve probably heard it on the radio or seen the new NFL commercial featuring the song.   The band looks like what the Arcade Fire might look like if they came out of the woods of West Virginia.


Alex Ebert, lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Yes, his name isn't Edward Sharpe.


But their music hits that perfect combination of folksy, bluegrass catchy tunes that have been a hit on the airways.  They played “Home” as well as their other popular song, “Janglin”. (See the Ford Fiesta commercial).   B+

Joan Jett came on after Edward Sharpe.  Now I must admit, I knew who Joan Jett was, but I really honestly couldn’t tell you before the concert a name of a song she sang.  I also have to confess that it wasn’t until around the time of the concert that someone had to tell me that the Sunday Night Football song on NBC was actually a Joan Jett song that Pink/Faith Hill reworded.  Joan Jett did in fact play “I Hate Myself for Loving You” as well as her other hits, such as “Love Rock n’ Roll” and “Bad Reputation”.  The fact that this was probably the only time I’ll see Joan Jett was the only reason why I actually skipped Thievery Corporation for her performance (those guys tend to play a lot of shows in the D.C. area), but I don’t regret the decision. Because even though she looked a little old to be up there, she was actually still rocking out like it was 1981.  Joan and “The Blackhearts” get a B.

Next to come on the main stage was a band that I was looking forward to seeing and was one of the highlights of my day.  Matt & Kim comprises of married, dance, punk duo Matt Johnson (on keyboards and vocals) and Kim Schifino (on drums) and easily win the prize for cutest musician couple I’ve ever seen on stage.  Their enthusiasm, humor, and pure joy was intoxicating.  I’m not sure if they were on something, but they both had smiles from ear-to-ear throughout the show.  Their biggest hits to date are “Good ‘ol Fashion Nightmare” and “Daylight” – both can be heard on the first episode of NBC’s “Community”.  They performed those hits as well as a few covers (such as their rendition of “Let Me Clear My Throat”) because it seemed like as much as they wanted to play their music, they really wanted to get the crowd going and just plain have a good time.   Matt & Kim get an A-.

From Matt & Kim I moved with a group over to Ludacris.   Now you’d have to be living under a rock to not know who this guy is.  Even if you can’t name a song of the top of your head that’s his, you more than likely have one of his songs on your Ipod and don’t even know it.  That’s probably the biggest reason why I went over to his act.  To a lot of people at the concert, Ludacris probably should have been the headliner for the day and of all the performances I saw, his may actually have been the most packed.  While I enjoyed his performance a lot, I don’t listen to much hip-hop so I wasn’t as caught up as most of the crowd.  The one complaint I heard from most people was while he performed well, he actually only performed parts of a lot of songs, rather than a few whole ones.  But what can you do, it’s a free show.  Luda gets a B.


That's right, Yous a ho.


I actually left Ludacris before the end of his set in order to catch Sleigh Bells.  As day turned into night, it was a little tough to find my way to the “Dance Forest” where they were playing.  The “Dance Forest” was a stage on the edge of the pavilion where there was a thick grouping of trees (Obviously. I have no idea why I just bothered to write that last sentence).  It was hot, it was dusty from all the dirt kicked up, and it was really, really f**king smoky.  The trees trapped in all the dust and smoke and it was pretty difficult to see/breathe.  That being said, Sleigh Bells broke through all of it.  They were another boy/girl duo, but unlike Matt & Kim you got the impression these two had a lot more angst and they tore through your ears with hard, electronic rock.  Think Evanescence meets the Insane Clown Posse meets any European DJ.  Their performance was easily the most intense of the day, and maybe even that I’ve ever seen.  The sheer volume of the electric guitar, while rocking, also felt like you were getting hit by a train.  Apparently, there was something of a mosh pit going on up front where two of our group got sucked into inadvertently.   And although Sleigh Bells only had 30 minutes, they made the most of it.  Most of their music hasn’t hit the mainstream yet (although I just saw the new commercial for Honda that features they’re song “Riot Rhythm”), but I’m guessing songs such as “Rill Ril”, “Tell ‘Em” and “A/B Machines” will make Sleigh Bells a household name soon.  They get an A-.

The finale will be next.

Virgin Mobile Freefest Part I

Last week, those of us in the D.C. area were treated to a free, all day music festival for the second straight year; courtesy of Richard Branson and his Virgin empire.   The line up, while not as impressive as last year’s in my opinion, still had enough acts that I wanted to see that would make the trip up to Columbia, MD worth it.

The event (I just found myself cringing that I used that word, damn you NBC!) was held at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.  The actual pavilion (where normal shows perform during the year) acted as the main stage, and they set up a second west stage about 200 meters away.  There was also a “dance forest” set up – I’ll talk more about that later.

If you ever decide to see a show at Merriweather, here are a couple of tips.  1) Bring a bottle of water.  Yes, they’ll let you bring in one factory sealed bottle – which means as long as that gallon jug of water you want to take in is sealed, it’s all good.  And you don’t want to be paying $7 for a bottle once you’re inside.  2) Park at the Columbia Mall. The mall is literally a stone’s throw away from the back entrance of the pavilion.  State police “tried” to tell people to not park at the mall so that there wouldn’t be congestion, but we got away with it pretty easily.  If you park at the mall, park on the food court side.  You can get out of the area quicker and instead of paying $10 for a shitty plate of 3 chicken tenders (which I ended up having to have to do anyways since I got hungry 6 hours into the festival), you can hit up the food court at the mall before you go in.  Actually the food court is rather impressive with, seriously, pretty much every food vendor available.  This makes the pavilion actually a pretty good place to see a show during the week, since with the mall being right there, you can eat dinner before the typical 7:30 start time.

But back to the Freefest.  Before we went into the show, my group of friends had decided on what acts they most wanted to see.  Since a lot of the bands’ performances overlapped with each other we all did our best to try to plan so that we could get to and from the Main and West stage as well as the “dance forest” at the right times. Since most of the acts were on average 45 minutes, there was a lot of walking around.  But also, because the acts were generally shorter, all the bands played more of their famous songs and crowd pleasers to satisfy the masses.

As we walked in we noticed that the event holders were smart enough to have convenient tents and covered beds for the concert goers to relax in between shows.  There were also several vendors giving away souvenirs such as those plastic back sacks, wristbands and bandannas (that they refreshingly soaked in ice cold water before they gave to you).  Jeremiah Weed was also there with their sweet tea.  Yes, it was $10 for a Dixie cup sized cocktail, but it was damn tasty and damn refreshing on the last hot day of the year.


One of the cozy relaxation beds


(Thanks to the DCist for the pictures, my camera is broken)

Collectively, we all started at The Temper Trap on the west stage.  Most of you probably know the song “Sweet Disposition” from either the Diet Coke commercial, or the movie 500 Days of Summer (good flick to check out btw).  They were a solid B+, and I learned that they have both an Indonesian lead singer (the first of a few vocalists that day that I discovered I had wrongfully pictured in my head) and the most animated bassists I’ve ever seen.

I’ll get to more of the concert in the next post.

Ted’s Bulletin

505 8th Street Southeast
Washington D.C., DC 20003-2835
(202) 544-8337

Open Daily 7am-10:30pm

Some of you may or may not know, but I’ve been living in Washington, D.C. these past few years.  Recently this town has becoming quite the go-to place because of the recent presidential election, various reality television shows (e.g. The Real World, Housewives, Top Chef, and much to the annoyance of the 33rd St. residents in Georgetown, that cupcake shop show on TLC), and of course the food.  D.C. has become quite the foodie town with high end restaurants popping up all over the place, along with competing burger joints left and right.  And I think it’s safe to say that most everyone in this city is a foodie.  My theory is it’s because of the size of Washington.  It’s not huge like NYC or L.A. where because there are thousands of places to eat, you don’t have to be picky because you’re overwhelmed by the choices around.  You’ll probably find a place within a block that will have what you’re in the mood for.  But it’s also not so small that there are only a few good restaurants worth trying.  Cities like D.C. and Boston are that right city size where the people tend to be more foodish because it’s still a growing restaurant environment, but the standard local places are still around.   So you’ll hear a lot of “I like this burger place more than that, I think the seafood here at this new place is better than there.”   And believe me, the folks in Washington have their opinions.

So as a resident D.C. foodie, I’ve banded together with a group of friends and we’ve been affectionately calling ourselves Team Dinner Out (TDO).  For the past year, every week or so the seven of us try out a new place to eat in the D.C. Metro area.  Choices have ranged from the swankiest of French bistros to literally hole in the wall, no table service BBQ joints (which “the hole in the wall” part was unbeknown to the member of the group who chose that particular venue for that week and tried to call for reservations).

This past week, to celebrate the one year anniversary of our group we had dinner at Ted’s Bulletin.  The restaurant is located south of the U.S. Capitol in an area called Barrack’s Row (named as such because at the end of the street is a Marine Corps barracks).  Ted’s just opened up recently and is the product of the owners of another popular restaurant chain called Matchbox.  Unlike Matchbox, which is quite good, but almost a little too fancy and shi-shi for the simple American food that they serve (think of a yuppie T.G.I.Friday’s), Ted’s has more of the home style feel.  The restaurant itself looks like something out of the 1930’s, with several wooden booths and tables, and a giant chalkboard with the day’s deserts and children’s menu written on the wall.

When we sit we’re greeted by our waiter who pours us water out of old milk bottles and we’re given what looks like newspapers that you would find in your grandma’s basement.  When you open the newspapers, on the inside are the actual food choices.  The menu itself isn’t anything remarkable (burgers, pastas, breakfast food, diner food essentially), but don’t let the simplicity of the choices fool you.  All the food we had was excellent.  Ted’s Bulletin hits that comfort food bulls-eye.

For starters, we ordered french fries covered in gravy (the white kind since there are two vegetarians in the group, and the staff was kind enough to bring us our special request) and it pretty much foreshadowed how good our meals would be.  Several of us, including myself, ordered the breakfast food (served all day) for dinner.  The hash browns were that perfectly brown shredded potato kind and the homemade pop tarts were delectable.  The bacon was crispy and wasn’t fatty, just the way I like it.  The eggs were just okay, I would have liked to have them a tad bit less dry.  However, to go along with my eggs and bacon, I had to try the Mac and Cheese, and I’m glad I did.  The side order I got came in a little iron cast dish, and the Mac and Cheese was savory, warm, and had a nice little bread crumb crunch on top.  Other members of our group ordered regular dinner type food.  The herb roasted 1/2 chicken probably could have been a little bit juicier, but it was still bursting with flavor. And of course, I can’t forget the milkshakes that two members of the group ordered.  These milkshakes were meals themselves, coming out in a full, large pint glass along with the still half-full shaker it was mixed in.  We tried the Cherry Vanilla and S’more shakes; both were heaven.  They also offer “Adult” milkshakes such as Bailey’s Caramel Macchiato and Spiked Thai Coffee that I need to go back and try sometime. If there was one flaw in an otherwise excellent meal, it would be the Peanut Chocolate cake.  To be fair, I was already pretty damn full when we started eating it, but it really wasn’t that impressive.  The cake itself was chocolate, but dry.  And the peanut part was literally peanuts on the back of the cake, with peanut butter acting as the frosting.  For how much it cost ($7.00) it wasn’t worth the extra calories.  I did hear however that the Blueberry Pie a la mode was quite good, so maybe I’ll give that a shot next time around.

All in all though, I would highly recommend this joint.  The price is right, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, and the food will leave you satisfied.  But be warned; the restaurant is extremely popular for brunch on the weekends, so don’t try to stop in at 11 on a Saturday and expected to be seated without a 30-45 minute wait.  Grade: B+

A few quick tips

I’m learning very quickly that keeping a travel blog is sometimes hard to maintain regularly when you’re not traveling regularly.  I’m not going to be able to give you all stories every week even though I’d love to.  So allow me to share some random thoughts/tips every now and then that stem from things that I think of at any given moment.

-When you’re in line at the airport security gate, do yourself and everyone behind you a favor.  Be ready when it’s your turn at the X-Ray scanner.  Nothing is more annoying than someone who has tons of junk and takes forever to get their crap onto the belt – especially when you’re running a little late for your flight.  To make things go a little smoother, while you’re waiting in line, untie your shoes.  Take your watch, cell phone, and belt and put it in your carry-on (assuming you have one).  And while you’re putting stuff in your carry-on, take out that laptop that TSA wants you to separate.   Believe me, that routine will make your life much easier.  You can get all your stuff on the belt quickly, and when you get to the other side, you can quickly grab your bag and put your watch back on, take out your phone, etc. at a nearby chair without fumbling with all of it at the belt causing more traffic.

– Buy a bottle of water before you get on the plane at the Hudson News or whatever near your gate.  You might not be thirsty at the time, but believe me it could pay off.  If your plane is delayed and you’re stuck on the tarmac for an hour, the flight attendants don’t take drink orders.  You’ll be happy you at least have something.

-Finally, let the person in the middle seat have both arm rests.  I know it sounds silly.  But it already sucks to be in the middle (unless of course Giselle is on one side and Megan Fox is on the other), and it sucks even more if the guy on the right is hogging the right armrest, the girl on the left is hogging the left armrest.  Meanwhile, you’re stuck having to keep your elbows awkwardly pressed in your sides.  If you’re in the window seat, lean on the wall and wall arm.  If you’re in the aisle seat, lean a little on the aisle arm.  It’ll go a long way to make the middle person a tad more comfortable.  I’m saying this from a personal middle seat experience – 4 hours ago.

Hanging out at 2800 meters

Continuing my conversation about Venezuela, it’d be remiss of me to not mention further my group of high school friends who I take many of my travels with.  Once a year, we try our best to reunite to take our annual “Fire It Up” trip.  Going to Venezuela was one of the excursions.

First of all, going on the trip we went on to Venezuela was not cheap by any means.  Despite the fact that we’re all pretty low maintenance when traveling, the cost of the airfare and travel package was pricey.  That being said, you DO NOT want to be traveling around Venezuela without some sort of guide, especially on the hiking trip we took, so the cost is worth it.

The trip we took was a climb up Mt. Roraima, which is on the Venezuela/Brazil border.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “Up”, you remember that flaptop they wander around on?

Yeah, well Mt. Roraima is the real life place that the movie was depicting.  And yes, our trip was to go to the top.

Now, if you didn’t read the Wikipedia link I inserted, I’ll give you a brief description of what it is.  Mt. Roraima is a flattop mountain (think Will Smith’s hair in the Fresh Prince).  The top is a plateau that’s about a little under 3000 meters high and has a walking area of about 30 square km.  Getting to the top is no joke and I WOULD NOT recommend it for those of you who might not be in top shape.  The dangerous climb up  and down the side of the mountain is rocky, steep, and wet (at the part when you hike up and down through a waterfall).  And you’re doing all of this with all your gear on your back.  But when you do make it to the top – it’s like no other feeling.

Needless to say, it’s incredible.  It’s hard to describe in words what the plateau is like other than it’s like walking around on another planet.  Literally, you can hike around on the top for miles.   One second it’s sunny and clear, and the next second, a cloud will come cruising in and you’re immersed in fog.  There’s not a whole lot of life on the top, but there are several very unique rock formations all around making it very serene, eerie, and alien.

For those you who don’t like heights, stay away from the edges.  There is literally a straight 3,000 meter drop on the sides of the plateau that would make even a skydiver squirm.

Like I said before and earlier this week, the hiking company we went with was outstanding: New Frontier Adventures.  There’s not enough good things to say about the group of guys who we traveled to the top with.  All of our guides were friendly, competent, and made climbing up the 3000 meter side look like a walk in the park.  (Literally, I thought I was in shape, but after seeing these guys fly up the side of this mountain with 40lbs of gear, I need to rethink my workout).  A few of them always went ahead to have camp setup by the time our group arrived, and a few stayed with our group.  They made sure we all were okay with the pace and every few hours or so we’d have a “cookie break”.  I sorta felt like I was back in 4th grade summer camp.  Our main guy, and translator was Liu Izquierdo.  If you ever go with this company to this place – request him by name.

The guides took care of the tents and cooking while we hiked to the mountain and while we were on top.  I shit you not: these guys can cook.  They didn’t just make rice and beans and give us water to drink.  We had straight up meats, cheeses, pastas, casseroles, and they even hiked up a bottle of rum!  Now you may say to yourself, “why are you doing cartwheels over pasta?”  Believe me, when you’re out on a mountain, hiked all day, legs and back aching, and it’s 30 degrees (the temperature difference from the bottom to the top was like going from Florida to Maine) it’s nice to have real food. And these guys are gourmet chefs of the mountain.

The experience was memorable not only because of the great guides and environment, but because meeting the other hikers going up the mountain was a lot of fun.  Not a lot of people hike up and down the challenging face, so when there’s a group that is going up alongside yours, a bond is formed.  We met some really friendly locals during our climb, and exchanged stories, drinks, and items with them such as Venezuelan chocolate for Trader Joe’s trail mix.

The challenge, the bonding, and the unbelievble sights is what made this trip a must-do.  So, if you’re looking for an adventure, but are apprehensive about going it alone – save up your cash and vacation time and book a trip with New Frontier’s up Mt. Roraima.  Just remember to bring plenty of bug spray.  The insects at the base of Mt. Roraima had a Chinese buffet courtesy of my limbs.

Plastic can only go so far

These days when you’re traveling, most people do what they can do get currency at a place that has the best exchange rate.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s actually very smart.  Credit cards usually are the best bet when you’re purchasing items abroad, and most of the time you can find an ATM machine that’ll have a Star or Cirrus logo that you can get your local cash at.  Traveler’s checks (or cheques if you want to be anal) are alright, but honestly, who’s even seen a traveler’s check in the past 10 years?  I think the last time I used them was in 1999.

So all the plastic you have is fine in theory.  Unless your cards don’t work.

So here’s the tip: Bring three days worth of cash with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s U.S. Dollars, Euros, or the local currency.  Have something in paper.   Maybe your card doesn’t work, or it gets eaten by the ATM; it doesn’t matter.  You’ll want the security of a few bucks to either exchange or live off of.  If it’s the weekend, and the banks aren’t open then you’ll want to have enough cash for a few days until the banks do open.

You don’t want to end up like me and my friends in 2009.  The 6 of us all landed in Venezuela, each with a few bucks here and there, but all of us thinking, “We’ll grab some cash from the ATM when we get there.”  That thought process usually works fine in Europe, but in South America, that’s a different story.  So, one of us tries our ATM card at the kiosk.  Result: Fail.  The second person tries.   Same result.  So here we are, 6 helpless looking Americans who don’t speak Spanish and about 100 U.S. dollars.  It could have been really bad.  We even came really close to getting some folks back home to wire us some cash.

Luckily for us, we were going on a guided hiking trip with all meals included.  And our housing was our sleeping bags and tents anyways – so we were able to make due for a while.  You wanna know how we finally got money?  Our guide (Liu Izquierdo, more about him and this great hiking company in Venezuela in the next post) drove a few of us across the border into Brazil where we used the ATMs there.  Once we got Brazilian cash from those machines, we had to exchange like $1,000 worth of Brazilian currency into Venezuelan money in the back of Liu’s cousin’s restaurant in the kitchen (yes, it’s as shady as it sounds).  I shit you not, we came back over to Venezuela with a ratty-ass Jansport backpack full of cash, which we used as our money for the rest of the trip.

So, if you’re going to go abroad – make sure to have a money belt with a few Benjamins on you.

Conde Duque Hotel

Since we were on the topic of losing luggage, I wanted to talk about this hotel we stayed at in Madrid.  Like I said, losing your luggage is always a pain, especially when you have to deal with calling the airport and the one person in your party who speaks any Spanish has the proficiency of a 10 year old.

But if you happen to stay at a place like Conde Duque Hotel, your ordeal can be a whole lot less stressful.  If you want a good place to stay if you’re visiting Madrid, Conde Duque Hotel is a great choice.  The price is right, it’s right near the Madrid subway (or T, Metro, Underground, whatever you want to call it), and there’s a big supermarket conveniently down the street.  It’s not in the central part of Madrid, but if you want to stay at a hotel without all of the noise at night, this location is for you.  The subway, like I said, is only 100 meters away anyways.  And the breakfast that they provide each morning is pretty decent.  But the service is what made the experience memorable.

The bellman’s name was Victor and when we first walked in, he was so quiet that we weren’t sure if he was in a bad mood, or if he was just a dour person.  Not exactly uplifting to my luggage-less party.  But once we told him our situation, the curtain rose and he was tremendously helpful in getting our bags back. He gave us some great tips about food (I wish to god I could remember the paella place he sent us too – phenomenal) and getting around.  To this day, my sister still emails with Victor (every time I hear that name, I have an urge to growl/yell it out like Hugh Jackman) and although he’s probably still not working there, the hotel is one that I’d recommend to anyone.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil.  So my sister emailed Victor and he replied with the name of that great paella restaurant I mentioned above.  If you don’t know what paella is, click here.

The place is called La Paella de la Reina.  The restaurant is on a little side street, and yes, it looks a little shady from the outside, but trust me it’s fine.  When we asked the folks at Conde Duque for a quintessential place in Madrid to get paella, they didn’t hesitate to recommend this place.  You have to order the paella in advance, so be sure to plan ahead and call in the morning.  Since Madrid is known for their seafood (yes, I thought it was weird too since Madrid is right smack in the middle of Spain) I ordered the seafood paella.  Let’s just say I’ll never be able to eat any seafood dish (seriously, any seafood dish) again without comparing it to the paella I ate at this restaurant.

Trials and tribulations of lost luggage

Accepting that one might lose their luggage is an inherent risk that all travelers face.  Although it has rarely happened to me domestically, when it does the bags usually follow me on another flight and I’m able to get them later that day.  Flying internationally though is a different story.  Going somewhere abroad usually involves transfers, and when you have a layover, that’s the most likely time your bag ends up sitting on a tarmac somewhere.

The first rule of packing to try to follow is don’t pack anything that you’ll regret losing.  I know, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  You don’t want to have to go to Vegas hoping to get into the nightclubs looking like a scrub.  And sure, the reason why you bought that new bathing suit was so that you could wear it on the beach in the Bahamas.  But if you can avoid packing that dress shirt that fits you perfectly or that necklace that you got from grandma, then do it and keep them at home.

If you’re going abroad for a long trip, always, ALWAYS pack in your carry-on a spare shirt, pair of underwear, pair of socks and toothbrush/toothpaste.  It may seem simple and obvious, but its something that I had often failed to do and it bit me in the ass.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in another country, while my bags are 500 miles away.  Yes, I’m referring to you Alitalia – twice.  If you fly Alitalia, know that there’s an 80% chance they’ll lose your bags.  Go to any Alitalia lost luggage desk in any airport in the world and I guarantee you’ll see at least 15 people in line.  And its not just me saying this.  When my family finally received our bags back from one of our trips, our cab driver in Boston said “It’s always the Italians losing peoples stuff.  You’d think they were giving away free pizza with the amount of people at that [Alitalia] desk

So, back to the topic at hand.  You don’t want to end up like me, wandering around Prague in the height of winter with only the pair of underwear, pants, and socks you’re wearing, and a “Prague, Czech Me Out” t-shirt.  (Yes, I thought it would be funny to wear on the plane on the way there since it was a Xmas gift, and no, the locals didn’t find the American wandering around their city for 2 days in that shirt amusing.)  I know you’re thinking “he could have bought a new set of clothes while he was there.”  But in my opinion, why waste the money if you can be prepared.  You save a few bucks, and avoid the stress of having to have to find clothes when you should be enjoying the sights.

As a side tip:  If you don’t own a pair of those pants with the zipper on the knees, go buy a pair.  Though they can be on the pricey side, if you travel a lot the investment will be worth it.  Say you’re on a plane, and the air isn’t working well or you’re in a holding pattern on the runway waiting to take off, with the sun beaming through your window.  You’ll be happy that you can unzip the bottoms of your pants instead of being stuck with only a pair of hot, sticky jeans on.  Also, another advantage is if you’re traveling from a place like Wisconsin to maybe Mexico for the holiday, the beauty of being able to change up from pants to shorts once you land at a moments notice is really nice.

Starting Up

Welcome.  Welcome to my first ever blog post.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably a close friend or relative, so thanks for checking this out and making me feel like this isn’t a complete waste of time.  If you’re neither of those, thanks to you as well, but of course I’m totally confused at how you ended up here in the first place.  In any case, you’re lucky enough now to hear my stories.

So in hindsight, I probably should have done this a long, long time ago.  Honestly, I am probably one of the luckiest people to be able say that I have been to and seen enough in my short time on Earth to warrant starting my own blog.  For someone who’s walked the black sands of Iceland, gone cliff jumping off the shores of Cinque Terre, dined on goat eyeball in Marrakech, and smoked hooka on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, I kinda wish I had recorded and shared my experiences with you all.  I’ve been to some great restaurants, stayed in a few grand (and not so grand) places, met people of all types, and it’s a crying shame that all that knowledge has been displaced to the deep recesses of my vague memories.

But now that I’ve started up this little project, from here on out I’ll be able to share my tips and stories.  I’m not Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern, and I certainly don’t expect you to take me too, too seriously.  But I hope that you enjoy my hearing about my experiences and that you get something out of them.  Maybe you’ll avoid making the mistakes I’ve made.  Maybe you’ll end up in a place that I’ve been and are looking for somewhere to eat, or something to do, and think “Oh yeah, Andrew said…” If you get anything out of these posts, then that makes me happy and I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.

And I’d like to give a shout out to Mak, for helping me get this thing going.  Alas, the journey begins.