Berlin Christmas Market

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It’s still only mid-November, but that hasn’t stopped the Berliners from starting Christmas early. And it goes further than just the heaps of stollen, gingerbread, and spiced liquors in the supermarket nearby — they’ve opened a whole Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz. I’m flying out tomorrow, so Cindy, Eric, Anna, and I head out for one last adventure.

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Wow, did I mention this place was holiday-themed yet? The little wooden stalls are decked out in lights and doling out delicious winter carnival treats. There’s one doling out hot drinks, including mulled wine and spiked hot chocolates, one selling out decorated cookies, candy, and spiced nuts, and multiple selling the fried food from various cuisines. And then there’s…chili!?!

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We wander around, eating as much as possible and watching people sled down an artificial toboggan hill. We wonder aloud when we might see each other again, with Cindy and Eric bound for Amsterdam for another workshop, Anna heading home to California soon, and me flying to Boston tomorrow. I want to keep traveling, but there’s also a pull to stay in one place for a bit where I can accomplish something. That feeling comes from my lab days, as a graduate student. You can’t run PCRs and cell culture when you’re on the road — at least, not yet. But a suitcase lab and interesting questions to chase would be all I need to pack up again*.

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I’ll miss the three of them, but it’s only temporary. With friends like these, we’ll be sure to see each other again.

*Ironically, I will not be going back to the lab when I return. I have a new career waiting for me in consulting! We’ll see how it goes.

Delightful Da Lat

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If you want to visit Vietnam without the rote tourism, overcrowded cities, and tropical humidity, Da Lat is your city. Situated in the 1,500 m above sea level on the Langbian Plateau, Da Lat (or Dalat) is a year-round temperate getaway for people looking to relax, take in the mountain air, and drink coffee. The primary tourism market here is domestic and the foreign tourists that do make it here are primarily Russian, so don’t expect many English speakers. But several places offer English menus, and paper, a pen, and a smile are all you need to barter in the city’s markets. So pull up a chair and order a coffee, visit the city’s flower garden, or explore Da Lat’s bizarre architectural wonderland.

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A view of the city; red-roofed French villas from the colonial era sprawl across the countryside, a reminder that this was once a getaway for the French-colonial elite.

 

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A rain-kissed flower grows in a planter in Da Lat. The city is also known as “the city of a thousand flowers” and its temperate climate produces flowers for export.

 

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A man fishes in Xuan Huong Lake. I personally would not eat anything from this lake (see below).

 

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A woman uses a net and pole to fish waste out of Xuan Huong Lake after a storm. Heavy rainfall washes everything from plant debris to plastic bottles to dead fish down into the lake, so people like the above keep Da Lat beautiful.

 

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A military officer looks around at stalls in an indoor market.

 

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Plastic tables double as chairs, set out in preparation for an evening concert.

 

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Not someone’s home, but the interior of a local coffee shop. The city is filled with dozens of cozy cafes like this one.

 

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The branch of a bonsai tree on the shore of Xuan Huong Lake.

 

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A view over the night market in the city center.

 

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Vendors display wares to potential customers in the night market.

 

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Looking lost in the night market.

 

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Toys posed (by someone else) in a mall in Da Lat.

 

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A woman poses for a photo while riding as an advertisement for Yamaha motorbikes.

 

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A woman takes a selfie (left) while tourists wander by below (lower center) in the confusing architecture of the Hang Nga Crazy House.

 

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A bubbling cauldron of stew in the local market. IT WAS DELICIOUS.

 

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An offerings table for deceased ancestors in front of a local business.

 

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A truck-sized lotus lantern awaits deployment onto Xuan Huong Lake, part of a celebration of Buddha’s birthday.

 

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The night skyline of Da Lat, reflected into the lake.

Bogor part 1 : The market

One of the nearby places-to-see, just outside of Jakarta, is Bogor. Bogor is the sixth largest city in the Jakarta province and is a bit of everything, but mostly a cultural and tourist center. It’s famous for its sprawling garden park and numerous museums, and serves an industrial and transit hub for the area. Getting there is amazingly easy – there are a lot of commuter trains that run between the cities, similar to light rail or metro trains instead of the long-haul style. We took ours from the station nearest our hostel, Jakartakota.

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Workers mop and sweep the train during major stops.

About an hour out, and we arrive. Bogor is supposed to be ever so slightly cooler than Jakarta so a lot of Jakarta’s residents use it as a weekend getaway. We got off the train and began our wide-eyed exploration.

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 A family gets off the train with us.

Greeting us right out the gate was this view of the station’s ojek parking. The country runs on these things, and while it’s obvious there are tons of them just from watching the traffic, this sea of motor bikes is hard to fathom.

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Motorbike parking at the train station.

Next up, getting me a snack. The delicious banana and nutella sandwiches I’d been having for breakfast were not enough today, so the first food cart in our path was it. It turned out to be exactly like a scallion pancake, minus the scallion. Hot, oily, and delicious.

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My plan for the day was to take us through the market to see and smell, then off to an out of the way noodle vendor for lunch, and then to the famous gardens for an afternoon stroll. The market is about twenty minutes on foot from the station, and along the way I really, really, had to use the bathroom. In a very interesting tourist-only experience, I walked into a large bank and asked if they had a restroom I could use. The guard laughed and walked me out the security hut to let me use theirs. I am almost entirely sure there was a pay toilet somewhere nearby and a local would have been told to go there. In Indonesia being an oddity and clearly foreign confers a good deal of leeway and assistance, and it’s important to not abuse that.

Shortly after this experience of gratitude and mild embarrassment, we came upon a food stall selling what looked like little cakes. Natalie was not interested but I got one. It turned out to be a type of coconut cake, heavy on the coconut. They come out as disks and the vendor cuts them in half and sells them in a bag. I never got the name of this dessert, but it was delicious, and there’s a recipe for something that looks a lot like it here.

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Continuing on our journey we had to cross a mighty big street. Not much bigger than the ones in Jakarta but with traffic going every which way. Despite being used to the standard crossing style from our practice in the city, we hesitated and two officers decided we foreigners needed help. They might have been right. Luckily several other people took advantage of the stopped traffic to cross so we weren’t totally alone. The officers chatted with us for a bit, asked where we were from and where we were going, and told Natalie to hold the camera tight for fear of pickpockets. Then the senior officer asked for a picture! That interaction was great fun, and we headed to the market.

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I am very tall for Indonesia.

Much like South America’s markets, this was a stall-to-shack lined street selling anything and everything edible. The street here were pretty bad – mostly worn cement and dirt. Ojeks and vans had a habit of coming through at regular intervals to block up the street.

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Turning down a quieter street revealed a more cramped but also more interesting side of the market. Here there were only ojeks riding down the road.

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And instead of the previous main stalls of large-quantity vegetables, we met young people selling spices, fruits, and foods of every variety. Every stall we went by was another chat, another set of where why hows, and often a very agreeable picture session. One lady with an amazing smile declined to have a picture taken, saying she wasn’t done up today. These three kids spent the most time talking to us and seemed to have an incredible amount of energy and sense of humor.

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Out of the market and way, way, way down the road, we came to Soto Mie Ciseeng, the noodle place I’d found out about. The food was great but the walk was very long and hot. I’m not sure I’d go back knowing there’s Mie Ahin just around the corner from the hostel.

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The owner was extremely friendly and talked with us while we ate. His business seemed to be doing well judging from the flow of people in and out of the restaurant.

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Our final stop before the gardens was at a cart selling neon-colored jelly and biscuit sticks in a brown liquid. Natalie was caught – what was this strange soup? It’s called sekoteng, and it’s dessert.

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Warm, sweet, and full of different textures. It also comes on ice, but anything iced has a decent chance to cause stomach upset so we went with the boiled version.

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As we ate we had a good view from the vendor-side of the cart. During business hours all of these jars and bowls and jugs are splayed out for display and access, but at night every last one goes somewhere in the cart, what can be folded is, and the cart is packed away until the next day.

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Next time : Bogor’s garden.

Jakarta in a day

You can’t see everything in Jakarta in just one day. But if that’s all you have, this tour will take you across the city to sample its offerings in history, culture, and food:

8:00 am – Breakfast and Pasar Baru

Catch breakfast at Bakso Rusuk Samanhudi, where their specialties are traditional Indonesian bakso (meatballs) and rusuk (braised ribs). Spoil yourself and get both in menu item #1 (Bakso Urat + bakso Kecil + Rusuk) because you’re going to be doing a lot of walking before lunch. And if you loved it, come back here any time; the restaurant is open 24 hours.

After breakfast, walk down Pasar Baru and watch the market wake up (it officially opens at 9:00 am). Here you’ll find food stalls, clothing and fabric stores, shoe shops, and all sorts of other odds and ends. Watch out for the occasional ojek (motorbike) careening down the street.

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Bakso Rusuk Samanhudi storefront. “Buka 24 Jam” means “Open 24 hours”.
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The tender, fall-apart-at-a-touch rusuk (rib meat).

10:00 am – The Mosque and Cathedral

Wander south and you’ll encounter Istiqlal Mosque, Indonesia’s national mosque and the largest in Southeast Asia. Dress modestly and register with the front desk, and you’re free to admire the architecture inside. Across the street you’ll find the St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, the seat of Catholic worship in Indonesia. Again, dress modestly and you’re free to look around and admire the gothic architecture. Given the conflict in the rest of the world, the peaceful coexistence of these two houses of worship so close together is inspiring.

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Watching the traffic on a rainy day in front of the Istiqlal Mosque.

11:00 am – National Monument (Monas)

Southwest of the mosque and cathedral is the Monument Naisonal (National Monument), also known as Monas. Housed in a massive park, the tower holds a gold-leaf flame atop to symbolize the struggle for Indonesian independence. Reliefs depicting the fight for independence surround the tower’s base, and during business hours you can ascend to the top (though the wait can be long and the elevators crowded). The surrounding park affords a relaxing walk and souvenir vendors, but it can be hard to find your way in and out as the park only has entrances at each of its four corners.

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The National Monument (Monas), with the dome of the Istiqlal Mosque in the background (lower left).

12:30 pm – Lunch on Agus Salim Street

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head south to Agus Salim Street, which is famous for its street food. Grab a quick nasi goreng with telur (egg) or ayam (chicken), or get a bowl of mie (soupy noodles) with chopped meat and veggies. You won’t find many English speakers here, so brush up on your Indonesian foods and come armed with a smile and some patience. Eat quickly if it’s a Thursday and you want to catch the guided English-language tour at the National Museum.

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Mie ayam (noodles and diced chicken) from Agus Salim street.

1:30 pm – National Museum

Hurry back up the street to the National Museum, where on Thursdays you can catch an English-language tour by the Indonesian Heritage Society at 1:30 pm (double check tour times at the link). If it’s not Thursday, explore on your own. The museum houses thousands of artifacts illustrating Indonesia’s diverse history and culture, so it’s best to choose a couple of exhibits rather than cover the whole museum.

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The National Museum building, as seen from the courtyard/garden in front of it.

3:30 pm – Shopping mall stroll

After visiting the National Museum, it’s time to indulge in some consumerism at the massive mall plazas that sprawl just to the south of the National Monument Park. Catch bus line 1 south from the Monumen Nasional stop in front of the museum and take it three stops to Busway Bundaran Hotel Indonesia. Cross the street and you’ll find yourself between the Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia, two enormous, multi-story malls. Complete with themed food courts, international brands, and batik boutiques, you could literally and figuratively get lost in these malls for hours. This is a good chance to stock up on a quality batik scarf of dress, indulge in a quality coffee, or just marvel at the difference in development and income between these malls and the Pasar Baru Market only a couple of miles away.

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A fountain at the Grand Indonesia
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A nautically-themed restaurant, complete with a faux sailboat dining area, light house, and painted blue sky.

6:00 pm – Explore and dine at Blok M

Catch bus line 1 south again and ride 30 minutes (10 stops) to the end of the line at Blok M. If you’re worn out from the consumerism, get some fresh air by wandering the streets around Blok M station or head to Martha Tiahahu park for some greenery. Blok M also hosts a plethora of stores for gemstones, secondhand books, and records if you’re not done with shopping. You can also get an early drink here at a bar, but careful of what you order as we’ve heard there can be hidden charges.

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A man makes nasi goreng (fried rice) on the street near Blok M.

Once darkness falls and the shops of Blok M shutter, head to the Blok M Square for the nightly food market that sprouts up on the sidewalk outside. You’ll find a panoply of traditional Indonesian food on offer, but to sample the greatest variety get some padang—look for a long table with dozens of dishes on it. Get a plate of rice from the vendor and then load it down with whatever catches your fancy – I’d recommend the quail eggs on skewers, fried egg, braised eggplant in sauce, and sweet gudeg. Pay at the end based on how many dishes you got and doff your shoes to take a seat at one of the low tables nearby. When you’re done, indulge in dessert with an STMJ – a local drink made with milk, spicy ginger syrup, honey, and egg, topped with a thick froth and caramelized with a blowtorch.

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A padang vendor at the Blok M food market.
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Our padang plate: rice, braised eggplant, green beans, gudeg, and quail eggs.
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The Blok M market STMJ, with extra ginger concoction on the side for more spiciness (clear glass).

Buses run until 11:00 pm, so when you’re done you can catch one back to your hotel/hostel. Or if you want an all-nighter, you can stay until 3:00 am, when the food stalls pack up for the night to make way for the 5:00 am bulk goods market.

Visiting a farmer’s market in Auckland

The La Cigale Farmer’s Market is our first stop in Auckland – literally. With our Airbnb host at work until 5 pm, we’ve got nowhere to go and four hours after hitting the tarmac we’re walking up the steep streets of Parnell toward the market site.

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We’re so early that the market is still setting up.

We haven’t been to a farmer’s market since we left the U.S., at least not as most people in the developed western world would imagine them. There are countless markets in South America where farmers bring their produce for sale, and we’ve wandered such markets in countries from Costa Rica to Chile. But in South America they were just called markets, and it’s not where you went every Saturday morning with baby and stroller in tow, it’s where you got food to make meals for your family or customers in your restaurant. That often meant you weren’t buying just one carrot, but one hundred.

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Women selling breads and pastries at La Cigale Farmer’s Market.
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A man makes Gozleme (a Turkish meat-filled pancake) at the market. Here, like in the U.S., you come to the farmer’s market as an experience and expect to sample exotic foods.

That’s a bit rough when you’re only in a place for a week at a time, but finding fresh produce at local mom-and-pop shops was also less of a problem. Here in Auckland, we’re back in the world of supermarkets, with their thousand-mile-travelled veggies that look a bit past their prime. And for most of us living in cities in the Western world, that’s where farmer’s markets fill the gap. Fresher food from nearer places and friendly people happy to chat as much as make a sale, all for a moderate premium on price. Oh, and pastries astronomically better than you’d find at any supermarket.

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A peach and almond tart from the market
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The last remnants of a potato flour-based roll. We forgot to take pictures before we had scarfed most of it down.

Did I mention that moderate price premium? At the end of three hours we’ve spent $55 NZD, which is about $40 USD and more than double our daily food budget through most of South America. Traveling in New Zealand will take some adjusting.