Saturday, May 30, 2009

back from Spain

I just got back from Spain with my parents. The vacation was nothing short of amazing. Read on to find out what we did!

Day 1

We left for San José International Airport around 11:20 a.m. to catch a plane to Chicago. The reason for stopping here is that Dad wanted to see his late paternal uncle Chi-Ming's family in Illinois. It was the perfect opportunity to catch up as we hadn't seen them since my uncle Da-Wei's wedding 15 years ago.

Da-Wei picked us up at O'Hare and gave us a ride to my great-aunt Shu-Ying's house. I met his sons Eric and William, and my uncle Peter, for the first time. This was followed by dinner at a Chinese buffet restaurant. The food was delicious!

All of us later headed to Da-Wei's house in Darien to relax for a bit. Though Eric and William had tons of video games, there was no time for them as we had to leave for New York City the next morning. Back at Shu-Ying's place, I saw Jennifer, my aunt Fei-Bi's daughter. Her brother Frank was out of town, but I'm sure there will be other opportunities to see him.

Days 2 and 3

Our families met up after breakfast to pay respects to Chi-Ming at the cemetery where he was buried. One thing I noticed is that Shu-Ying had already reserved a spot for herself next to him. Well, that's just depressing. I'd rather not see my name on a gravestone as long as I'm alive, but to each their own.

Da-Wei took us to the airport after the farewells. On the whole, I enjoyed our stay in Chicago; the only downside is that we had to leave after just one night. Looks like we'll have to plan another trip there in the future.

The flight to New York City was mostly uneventful. The three of us made our way to the international terminal at JFK for our flight to Barcelona. I got to see Yes Man and Horton Hears a Who! on the plane. However, the fun ended when my parents realized we had forgotten to bring our hotel voucher. To make matters worse, none of us could remember the name of the place. Uh-oh.

The good news is that the three Spanish girls that Mom had befriended earlier (their names were Naiara, Guiomar and Goizane) were able to help us find the hotel. Those ladies will always have our gratitude; no doubt we'd be in deep shit without their kindness. I wish we had gotten their contact information.

The final stop of the day was Madrid. The plane landed at Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport around 75 minutes later. I then took a two-hour nap at the hotel. That was quite nice, considering I hadn't slept in about 28 hours!

The evening ended with dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a stroll around the area. Being completely exhausted at this point, my parents and I didn't stay out too long before heading back for some well-deserved rest.

Day 4

The jet lag made it hard to sleep more than a few hours. All of us woke up around 4 a.m. and decided to explore the downtown. It was still fairly early when we returned to the hotel for breakfast. Fatigue soon caught up with us, and only then were we able to go back to sleep.

A highlight of the day was the Madrid Vision bus tour. There are two routes, one that runs through historical Madrid and the other through the modern parts. Given that Spain is known for its beautiful architecture, Mom suggested the historical route first.

The three buses that passed us were all full. Dad went back to the store for a refund and was told they couldn't issue one. Funnily enough, the next bus had vacant seats. The tour was fun and informative; I reckon it's a good thing we didn't get the refund. The plan was to have lunch at one of the stops, but nothing there looked appetizing. We didn't actually have anything to eat until the late afternoon!

Later in the evening, after the tour and another nap, my family went to see a flamenco show at a popular restaurant. Though ethnic dances aren't my cup of tea, I loved the performance. There was a funny moment when the lead dancer swung her fan too hard, causing it to fly out of her hand and almost hit one of the guitarists in the face. I'm not going to lie - that would have been hilarious. *evil grin*

For dinner, my parents and I went to the same restaurant as the night before. It was well past midnight when we were done eating!

Day 5

The morning began with a tour of Toledo, an old town about 45 miles south of Madrid. The culture was well-preserved - it was like a step back in time. The five-hour tour was lots of fun despite the heat. I also chatted with a German girl who kept checking me out. I'm such a flirt. ^_^

On the whole, Toledo was my favorite part of the trip. Mom had hoped to spend more time in Toledo and even take the train to Seville, but neither was possible due to time constraints. Oh well, they're something to consider for a future trip to Spain.

It was 2 p.m. when we got back to the hotel. All of us were super hungry and had another late lunch before catching a Madrid Vision bus for the modern route. The architecture was truly impressive.

We then had another late dinner, this time at a seafood restaurant. It was a tourist trap: the paella was too salty and somewhat undercooked, and definitely not worth the €36 price tag. While paying the bill, my parents noticed we were charged for the bread that was given to us without asking. Bastards.

"Lunch" at 5 p.m. and dinner at midnight may seem unusual, but that's not too crazy compared to what goes on in college. ^_^

Day 6

The early flight back to Barcelona meant we had to leave Madrid right after breakfast. Upon arriving in Barcelona, the three of us took the train to the stop closest to our hotel. Carrying all that luggage was a pain in the ass. In hindsight, a taxi would have been a better choice.

The hotel was nowhere to be seen when we got off at the station. It turned out the woman at the airport information booth had given us wrong directions. The idiot wasted an hour of our time, and Dad was pretty pissed off. On the bright side, the right station wasn't very far.

The Barcelona bus tour awaited us next. This one was extensive and consisted of three different routes. We started with the closest one as time was a little tight. Though it was also fascinating, the selfish driver and made us sit in the hot sun while he leisurely ate his lunch in the shade. Sheesh...

The day ended with a nice dinner at a restaurant in downtown Barcelona. There was lots of commotion as we were walking back to the hotel. It turned out locals were celebrating FC Barcelona's victory over Manchester United F.C. during the 2009 UEFA Champions League Final. That was a cool experience.

Day 7

This was the most chaotic day of our trip. One thing we had heard before coming to Spain is that there are lots of shady people who prey on tourists. That didn't seem to be the case... until we arrived in Barcelona.

The morning started with a delicious breakfast at the hotel. The free time allowed us to continue with the Barcelona bus tour and have lunch at a deli near one of the stops. This was another memorable moment of our vacation.

Deciding to take a break from the bus, my family went on the Barcelona Metro after lunch. We were boarding the train at one of the stations when a group of people started pushing through the crowd. Upon disembarking, Mom saw napkins sticking out of Dad's pockets. That means someone had tried to go through them!

The napkins were all they got because my father had put them there as a decoy before starting out. I wish I could have seen their reactions. Perhaps I should get some Monopoly money the next time we visit Spain. :P

Some time later, my parents were taking pictures in a courtyard when three teenage girls asked us to sign a petition of some sort. Dad felt these girls were up to no good and told them to GTFO. Chances are that they wanted to do questionable things while using the "petition" as a distraction.

The third route of the Barcelona bus tour turned out to be fairly short. We finished the tour before coming back to the Metro. Things then went from bad to worse. At another Metro station, Mom noticed four young men trying to get close to my father. The escalator we were riding suddenly came to a stop. Just then, she caught one of the guys reaching towards Dad's pocket. The guy only backed off when Mom angrily asked what he was doing. Yikes!

Someone had apparently pushed the emergency stop button to create a diversion. Dad reported the incident to nearby security officers, but they wouldn't give a shit. Only when he threatened to contact the U.S. embassy did they take our statement. A group of girls later told us they were robbed of their luggage right in front of them. Holy crap. We then went to the Torre Agbar and the Arc de Triomf for pictures before returning to the hotel.

The fun wasn't over just yet: my parents were ordering sandwiches for a late-night meal when Dad noticed some suspicious-looking people loitering in the area. First was a guy selling beer. Another beer vendor soon joined him, followed by two other guys passing out business cards. Something didn't add up: why the hell would anyone want business cards in the middle of the night?

Dad had an uneasy feeling, so we high-tailed it out of there. On the way back to the hotel, my father noticed a man on a rental bike spying on us from a distance. To say this was creepy would be an understatement. But at least the sandwiches were pretty good!

Days 8 and 9

It was time to bid adiós to Spain. The flight to NYC wasn't too bad; I saw Get Smart and Marley & Me before getting some sleep. Upon arriving in the Big Apple, my family took the New York City Subway to Brooklyn and bought some sandwiches there. I was a little worried about missing our connecting flight to Dallas, but we managed to get back to JFK on time.

Given our tight schedule, there wasn't much to do in Dallas other than browse the airport shops. The last leg of the trip was a 12:40 p.m. flight to San Jose. After we landed, our family friend Karen picked us up and gave us a ride home.

Conclusions

This was one of our best international vacations ever. Toledo was my favorite stop, although I loved Barcelona as well. The language barrier posed difficulties at times, but people generally understood our questions and vice versa. It was also nice to finally put my high school Spanish classes to good use.

I was concerned about pickpockets, especially after having heard so many horror stories from other travelers. While we did run into a few of them, they didn't take any of our stuff, much to our relief. Though it helps to be alert, I'm also glad none of them had level 99 thieving in real life. Couldn't resist the RuneScape reference. :P

Seedy people aside, Spain is a great place to visit. I'd love to go back there in the future. In the meantime, pictures from the trip are available here. Go check 'em out!

I have to take two programming classes in the summer and should probably start preparing for them soon. On the other hand, they're the last two I need to complete my degree. W00t!

In other news...

I just got a Flickr Pro subscription. That means I can start sharing my older photos. :-)

May 31 update: The pictures are now online.

Currently listening to: "We're from Barcelona" by I'm from Barcelona

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