28 / Birthday / Sa Pa, Vietnam

I have cried tears of joy three separate times today, pretty much doubling my lifetime tears-of-joy count. This hasn’t just been one of the best birthdays ever, it’s been one of the best days of my entire life.

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There's a frickin' RAINBOW!

I slept well on the train last night and woke up this morning in Lao Cai. Then I got into a van with a bunch of other friendly tourists (again, not a single American) to make the hour-long, hair-raising drive up into the mountains. Even before I got to my hotel I was floored by the beauty of this place, but when I actually sat down on the seventh-story balcony to enjoy a nice bowl of pho for breakfast, I started to tear up.

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I’m a pretty emotional person in every aspect of my life, but it’s not too often that I express joy so viscerally. Maybe it was a mixture of it being my birthday, which is normally a depressing day for me (to say the least), and the exhaustion that comes with traveling, but it was a positive feeling, so who cares!!

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A Hmong woman named Mama Su, who found me in the street, took me on an adventure into her daily life. First we went to the market to buy food, then down to her house (in the most beautiful valley in the world) to cook it.

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Where Mama Su buys the food she doesn't grow herself.

She made chicken (since I said that was my favorite) with mushrooms, bamboo, carrots and onions, fried in the fat from the last pig she killed, served on top of the rice her family harvested over the last year, topped with super hot thai chili peppers. After the meal she boiled water for green tea, then brought out a huge plastic bottle full of home made “rice wine”, which was insanely strong. It was more like taking shots of alcohol than drinking sake, and she laughingly called it her “happy water”.

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Mama Su can’t read or write, but she is fluent in 5 languages, and was both funny and smart as could be. I stayed with her for over four hours, talking, cooking, eating, playing with her adorable children, looking at her rice fields, pigs, chickens, and ducks. She only wanted $20 for all this, and wouldn’t even take the extra money I wanted to give her (but luckily her husband did). We talked about everything from fashion to politics, native culture, modern technology, and just told each other jokes (she loved the elephant jokes, dad!) She did up my hair in the traditional Hmong style and gave me silver braceletes to take as a gift.

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Her husband was smoking tobacco out of a hand carved water pipe, and when i showed him my e-cig he was so, so, tickled by it and asked a million questions (through Su, as he only speaks Hmong).

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When I was ready to head back to the hotel (and only because I was ready, they offered to have me stay for dinner and even spend the night with them too), she had her husband drive me back up the mountain on the back of his motorbike for free, and he even let me wear his helmet.

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Shut eyed because the future is so bright

I’ve never met such kind and hospitable people in all my life, or been exposed to such a drastically different culture than my own.
It just officially struck midnight a few hours ago on my birthday in the US, and the Facebook messages have started rolling in. I miss everyone back home, but honestly there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than where I am right now. This has been a truly magical day; that it was my birthday too just made it even more so.

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View from the valley on mama su's porch

I’ll leave with this. Mama Su and the other Hmong women who come to town to find tourists carry around little notebooks that people can write recommendations in, if they enjoyed themselves. I wrote my honest feelings down and then I said “Mama Su! The next time you see an English speaker, PLEASE show them my page first!” She said she would, but because she doesn’t know how to read she wouldn’t be able to find it. So I drew a heart at the top, and she had never seen a heart drawn before. I’m glad i was able to show her. ‚̧

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Oh, and one LAST thing. They had PUPPIES!!!

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Is this really only my third full day in this county? Wow…

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Vietnam Trip: Hanoi Part 2

I didn’t think I’d be updating every day but here i am, with so much to share after just 48 hours.
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After my first day of sight seeing around hanoi i parked my butt on one of the kid-sized plastic stools outside every cafe and ordered a beer. I met the coolest couple from Scotland who left home to travel the world for 6 months, two years ago. A local girl about my age overheard us chatting, asked if i was American, and then asked if i wanted to come with her the next day to talk English to the kids she teaches.
I know, i know: “never follow a stranger to a second location”, but Nhung seemed really genuine (and i have some pretty good intuition) so i decided to roll with it, and I’m so glad i did.
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The next day she had a car pick me up at my hotel and take me to the outskirts of town where her class of 50 (!) kids was having an English lesson/feild trip to the arcade and the movies. The kids were climbing all over me and so excited to practice their English and they were really good! Way better than my vietnamese! Aside from exposure to a native English speaker, at the end of the day the kids were split into teams and given a listening exercize: listen to me talk about myself, my age, where im from, and how to spell my name, and which ever team wrote it down most accurately won. (I tried to explain that not even English speakers can spell “feingersh”, but whatever.)
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So instead of getting robbed or scammed (like everyone warned me) i made a new friend, was treated to the arcade, movies, lunch, and a birthday gift, and had an experience that no travel agent could possibly have arranged. She’s invited me to come have dinner with her family when i get back from sapa/halong bay.
Right now I’m on my way to sapa, sharing a sleeper train car with one local man and two super friendly sisters my age from Amsterdam. I haven’t met any other American tourists but it seems to be that way everywhere i go. Come on Americans, where’s your sense of adventure?!
In one hour, I’ll turn 28 years old. In 7 hours, the train will pull into Sapa, the place I’m most excited about visiting on this trip.
It’s shaping up to be a great birthday ūüôā
I’ll send this y’alls way as soon as i get to some wifi.
Time to sleep! The train is old and slow but it’s pretty comfy, AC and a nice pillow and comforter and the white noise of the man below me snoring.
Adios!
Katie

Ps: i had a conversation in Spanish today with a couple from Spain who immediately called me out for sounding “mexican”, and i felt very proud of that. Viva mexico!

Vietnam Trip: Hanoi Part 1

(Written July 20, 2015)

Hello all,

I’m sitting at a cafe streetside, drinking vietnamese iced coffee and watching the mayhem that is Hanoi fly by.¬†

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All my worries about this trip have been abated. The wonderful receptionist at my hotel, Anna, sat down with me to look at my itinerary and figure things out. She booked me train tickets to and from Sa Pa, as well as a 3 day trip to Ha Long bay, and my plane ticket down to danang. They will have a room for me to shower and rest in for free in between these excursions. I will probably be off the grid/no wifi for the few days I’m in ha long, since it’s on a junk boat, so don’t panic if you don’t hear from me during that (25th-27th July).

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Today I went to the temple of literature, which was very beautiful and had water gardens with lotus flowers and giant mangrove trees and bonsai. It was built in 1070 and renovated a few times since then. Then I went to the Ho Chi Minh museum. His body is in Russia right now to get some “work” done, so I didn’t see that, but the museum was pretty educational even though (I suspect) it was filled with more propoganda than history.¬†

I’m going to spend the rest of the day walking around the old quarter and trying not to get hit by a motorcycle, then find some bia hoi (a type of beer brewed daily at street cafes) and just keep people watching. Tomorrow im going to the museum of ethnology to learn more about the indigenous peoples of vietnam. Wednesday night I’ll be catching a train to sa pa, and *should* have wifi there, but we’ll see.

The weather is nice here, hot but not unbearable and a bit overcast. It smells like rain. 

78704 Roundup: Breakfast Tacos Galore

Does anyone remember that Shit Austinites Say¬†video, the one with a bunch of college kids just standing around, chanting “TACOS, TACOS, TACOS!”? Well, if there’s one true stereotype you can pin on this city, it’s that we love us some tacos. Particularly ones of the breakfast variety. From taco stands and trailers to nice restaurants, this city is a taco lovers paradise: but you needn’t stray far out of the ’04 to find a big variety of them.¬†Below I have compiled a list of my favorite places to get breakfast tacos in 78704, and evaluated¬†them¬†based on my own personal preferences. This list is very subjective, and with all the tacos in this zip code I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed a few. Drop a line in the comments if your favorite down-south breakfast tacos didn’t make the cut!

Melizzo’s

IMG_0517Melizzoz takes the cake. These are THE best tacos in the city, hands down, Torchy’s be damned. I know, saying that might be blasphemous in Austin, but Torchy’s has grown a bit too big for their britches in my opinion, and their breakfast tacos are massive and very greasy. Melizzoz is slightly similar to Torchy’s in menu only: they make “designer” tacos, with interesting ingredients and cute names. But in execution, Melizzoz tacos are way fresher, and as the truck says, “made with love”. Located in a trailer on South First street, you can pick them up or enjoy your tacos outside on a colorful picnic table. Pro tip: stay for lunch and get the fried avocado taco. You will not regret it. It might be the best decision you ever made, in fact.

Benefits: Amazing tacos made with love, and a beautiful outdoor setting.

Drawbacks: Closes early on some weekdays.

El Tacorrido

-Postcard_of_El_Tacorrido-20000000004540227-500x375El Tacorrido is a great Mexican taqueria on the corner of Oltorf and South First street. It’s walk up or drive through only, so its perfect when you’re in a hurry or on the go. You can build your own breakfast taco for $2. Pro tip: you can add things¬†that aren’t listed on the menu under “breakfast taco ingredients”, such as avocado or even chicken. Open from 7 am until midnight every day, El Tacorrido is one of the most reliable places for quick tacos in 78704. Everything is made fresh to order, and tacos are reasonably sized (small), so get a couple of them if you’re really hungry.

Benefits: Convenient, cheap, and reliable.

Drawbacks: You might want to learn a few words in Spanish if you want your order made correctly. (Is that a drawback, though?)

Taco Deli

lsTaco Deli isn’t exactly what I would call “authentic” by any measure, but they make some damn delicious tacos nonetheless. They have multiple locations around town, but my favorite is the one tucked away on Spyglass. It has a great outdoor seating area– when it’s not too crowded– and is right next to the greenbelt. The tacos are what I would call “Americanized”, or even “Austinized”, with ingredients and combinations you would never see in Mexico. Regardless, it’s absolutely delicious and their breakfast tacos are always fresh and never greasy. Definitely the healthy hippy place to get tacos. Taco Deli is also the leader in exporting breakfast tacos to local coffee shops fresh and early every morning, so even if you can’t make it over there, chances are you can grab one somewhere. I usually get them at the Irie Bean¬†on South Lamar.

Benefits: Fresh and healthy, available everywhere.

Drawbacks: They stop serving breakfast tacos at 11 am on weekdays and 3pm on weekends, which is akin to treason in my book.

La Mexicana

6167195La Mexicana brings all the authenticity to the South Austin breakfast taco scene. A traditional Mexican Panaderia (bakery), they have way more to offer than just sugar cookies and churros. Besides being a great place to grab fresh fruit juice, La Mexicana makes some absolutely killer breakfast tacos, and very cheap. Their handmade flour tortillas are fluffy and real, which is no less than you would expect from a Mexican bakery, but it will amaze you every time you bite into one. This place gets overlooked in my opinion, and as long as its been around I still consider it somewhat of a hidden treasure.

Benefits: Open 24 hours a day!! (Also on an unrelated note, get a slice of their Tres Leches cake. You can thank me later.)

Drawbacks: Not exactly the best ambiance for dining.

Rosita’s Al Pastor

lRosita’s Al Pastor is another place that earns the title of “authentic”. I learned about this gem of a trailer from Melissa, my go-to friend for everything food related in Austin. It’s a bit outside of 78704, situated on Riverside a few blocks east of 35. It is cheap, quick, and amazingly delicious. The menu is surprisingly huge for a food truck, but they seem to manage it just fine.

Benefits: Convenient and cheap.

Drawbacks: The line can be long on weekends. Also, the outdoor seating is limited so you might want to take it to-go.

Habaneros

2011-03-03-Habanero-Cafe-Austin-TXLast but in no way least is Habaneros Mexican Cafe on Oltorf. This is the place to go if you want to sit down and enjoy your breakfast tacos with a nice coffee or horchata. Only open for breakfast and lunch, the service is awesome and the place is always pleasantly busy. Family owned and operated for 20 years, Habaneros is consistent and delicious. They make their own toritllas as well, and for a sit-down dining experience the price is really cheap. This is definitely the place to go for brunch, or after a night downtown when you just want to sit and watch the world go by.

Benefits: Sit-down dining with food truck prices.

Drawbacks: There’s usually a wait for brunch on the weekends (worth it, though).

78704 Roundup: Dance Party with Monica

1526632_197896657077988_1791837052_nFor the 78704 Roundup, I planned to write about everything from profiles of cool south Austinites to awesome things to do in this particular zip, and I get to do both in my very first post. Say hello to Monica, the best dance+fitness instructor around. My best friend Melissa and I discovered Monica’s Zumba classes at Gold’s Gym a few years ago, and we have followed her around ever since- and we’re not the only ones! Monica turns “an hour at the gym” into pure fun. She now teaches at Lifetime Fitness as well as local dance studio Tiempo, right on South Congress. She’s also a born-and-raised local, a rare breed in this ever growing city. In addition to working a full-time job and teaching dance classes, she’s also nearly 8 months pregnant, so a big thanks to Monica for taking the time to answer a few questions about herself, and Austin. ūüôā

Why is Dance so much more fun than a boring gym workout?

 The music, moves and energy you find in a Zumba class is what makes Zumba a more fun workout than your regular gym routine. The music is fast and upbeat, the moves are fun and easy to follow, and the energy is addicting and exhilarating. You also leave class with a feeling of euphoria from releasing endorphins.

What is your ‚Äúday job‚ÄĚ?

 During the normal work hours, I am an Enforcement Coordinator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. I monitor compliance schedules and implementation of ordering provisions for formal enforcement actions until a case is resolved or closed; I conduct reviews of technical reports and determine compliance with applicable statutes, rules and orders.

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She shares my love for dachshunds, too.

Where are you favorite places to eat in south Austin?

¬†Arandas! My favorite authentic Mexican Food in Austin.¬†Umi – The longhorn roll is amazing! They also have a great happy hour!¬†Amy’s Ice Cream – Desert is my favorite meal of the day!¬†Chuys – I love their Tex Mex!¬†Pho Thaison – Their vermicelli bowls are amazing!

What are you favorite ‚Äúhidden gems‚ÄĚ in the city that not many others know about?

Hamilton Pool – It’s very nice and relaxing.¬†McKinney State Falls Park – Nice hiking and good swimming spots.¬†Thirsty Planet (this one is a little outside of Austin but worth the drive): I don’t really like beer or visiting breweries but my husband loves them. This one is my favorite to go to and I actually enjoy it there. The people who work there are friendly and inviting. The facility is small and beautifully located in the hill country.¬†Bull Creek District Park – Nice place for hiking and swimming.¬†Juice Spot – The best smoothies and juice I have ever had. The service is always great and the drinks are amazing! Absolutely the freshest in town!

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 Thanks for the awesome tips, Monica!

If you want to have a blast, check out Monica’s class schedule over on Facebook.

The 78704 Roundup: News, Reviews, & To-Dos for South Austin, Texas

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A friend of mine recently moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico into my garage apartment here in Austin, Texas. Excited to show my city off, I made him a list of great places he simply¬†must visit, and things he should do, all within the awesome 78704. I quickly realized that I should expand this into a series, so that’s what I’m doing:

Welcome to The 78704 Roundup, a collection of news, reviews, and to-dos for people in and around South Austin. Even if you’re not new to the area, Austin is full of hidden gems, and there are always new (and old!) things to be discovered.¬†Where are the best places to grab breakfast tacos? Where are the entrances to the greenbelt? When are the farmer’s markets? Where can I grab a drink without fighting the downtown crowds? And most importantly, I’m going to write features on¬†some of the awesome people that make this zip code so unique (starting, of course, with my friends.)

There’s a bumper sticker out there that reads “78704: We’re All Here Because We’re Not All There”… I guess this series will serve to illuminate who, and where, we are ūüôā

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Katie & Duchess – A Self Portrait of Love :-)

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Recuerdos :-)

Memories of Mexico. A few little drawings I made recently.

suenos