MEXICO

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There is something about the Spanish culture that I absolutely adored when I was in Europe. A combination of the weather, the language, the food, people and music; a sense of happiness encompassed me in Spain, and I was hoping for the same in Mexico. I hadn’t been to Mexico since a childhood visit to Tijuana, so I was definitely excited to explore the unknown. I had been learning Spanish for the few months leading up to this trip, and I was enthused by the prospect of practicing these skills. It was also a cheap, chilled way to end my trip; a cheeky stop through the Riviera Maya, who wouldn’t say no to a swim in the Caribbean?!

Here’s where I visited: (click on each title to read more)

 

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10 useful tips to know before you travel to Mexico:

  1. The water is mostly undrinkable. Ask at your accommodation though, because sometimes they will have a filter.
  2. US dollars are a second unofficial currency. Most places will accept US dollars or pesos, and frequently both prices will be advertised. It pays to always carry some cash, as most places won’t accept cards.
  3. Mexico’s own aperitif – corn chips with various sauces. Whenever you go out for a meal, complimentary chips are brought out to start you off; I had to develop some serious self-control, and quickly – otherwise I never actually wanted to eat my dinner.
  4. Haggling is a thing. In department stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and the like, prices will be as advertised. However, if it is a flea-market type shop, then feel free to negotiate towards what you believe is a fair price.
  5. Getting around – welcome to the collectivo. Looks like a shuttle, effectively a group taxi; you wave them down and should pay about 25 pesos regardless of where you are going. We got ripped off a few times, but didn’t waste our time arguing over a few dollars.
  6. Obviously the places I visited were more touristy than a lot of other places in Mexico, but I was astonished at how well everyone spoke English and how willing everyone is to help.
  7. Mexican toilets and loo paper don’t mix well. Don’t risk it, save yourself a potentially awkward situation and when instructed, just put your loo paper in the rubbish bin provided.
  8. Being young, female and blonde meant I attracted a lot of unwanted attention. I soon learnt that the Mexicans thrive off banter, and if you are willing to move past their nonsensical chat, they are indeed great sources of local information, and unlike other countries, are absolutely stoked to have you practice your amateur Spanish-speaking skills on them.
  9. Mexico’s version of the Seven Eleven, OXXO stores are virtually everywhere, and sell virtually everything.
  10. Museums are often closed on Mondays, so check that first.

 

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  • Everything incorporates tortillas one way or another. Whether it be fresh in a taco, toasted in a tostada, or grilled into a quesadilla, I suddenly found myself eating them on a regular basis.
  • Margarita. Tequila + triple sec + lime juice, served on the rocks. Nowadays, they are served in many different ways – flavoured, iced and all very delicious.
  • Paloma. Tequila mixed with sparkling lemon, what Mexican’s tend to think of when they picture drinks involving tequila.
  • Horchata. A traditional drink made with rice, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. To me it tasted like a chilled chai latte.
  • Tropical fruit. Usually in abundance in any tropical country, we saw mango, banana, coconut, pineapple, papaya… convenient, delicious, healthy snacks!
  • Tacos al pastor. One of the most famous dishes, ‘al pastor’ translates to ‘in the style of the shepherd’. To serve, think strips of meat are sliced off a spit, placed on a tortilla and topped with onion, coriander and fresh pineapple. My mouth is watering at the memory.
  • IMG_4522Tostadas. Simple yet delicious, basically they are baked/fried tortillas, served either plain or topped with cheese, meet, beans and anything else that tickles your fancy. Kind of like a pizza base, it is a great way to utilise slightly stale tortillas!
  • Chicharron. Unlike in New Zealand, where you only see pork crackling if someone successfully makes it when they cook a roast, you can find bags of crackling here, in amongst where you buy the potato chips. It is frequently found as a topping on salads, tacos, and of course, tostadas.
  • Enchiladas. An ancient dish evolved from when the Mayans used to wrap corn tortillas around small fish. Nowadays are enchiladas are filled with anything from meat to seafood, beans and vegetables, layered with cheese and chilli and baked until cooked through.
  • Quasedillas. Pronounced ‘kasss – aaaa- deeee- yaaah’.
  • Guacamole. Something I cannot get enough of, especially when tacos are in abundance. Combine avocado, onion, tomato, lemon juice, chilli, garlic and if you are feeling adventurous, a dash of tequila and devour with tortilla chips – one of my favourite foods in the world.
  • Frijoles. Translates to beans, I saw how popular these are with the Mexican people when I lived with Hector. They are usually cooked with water and onion very slowly, until they are soft. Sometimes they are mashed and recooked (ie. Re-fried beans).
  • Empanada. South America’s answer to the meat pie, it is a meat filled pastry.

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New York, New York

Running out of petrol on Manhattan Island? Sounds like somebody’s worst nightmare. Good story though… Right?

We knew we needed to fill up the rental car before we returned it to JFK Airport, but to avoid topping it up more than once we were putting it off until the last minute. Having driven about 10 hours continuous from Detroit we were well aware of the rest areas that were located every 20km or so along the highway. Until we reached New Jersey, that is: and then there were none. All of a sudden (after a million tolls later) Siri was directing us through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan (which completely defeated the purpose of us selecting JKF as the drop off point in the first place) and as I turned to Hailee to inform her of this semi-bad news, she turned to inform me that the petrol light was now on. We entered the tunnel (2.4km long, 2 lanes only, and bumper-to-bumper traffic) for what seemed like the longest journey ever. Riding in neutral where possible, Hailee was a bundle of nerves and I couldn’t use the GPS to locate the closest gas station as there was no reception. When we finally got out of the tunnel, we made it to the side of the road; Hailee burst into tears and I did my best to stay calm. I told Hailee to wait with the car while I went to locate a gas station. Fortunately for us, there was one just down the road. I would have made a funny sight, lugging a petrol tank down 35th Avenue, to our dinky little car. We poured the 2 litres of petrol into the tank, which gave us enough time to plan an extended route (taking into account the massive number of one-ways) around the block and back to the gas station to fill up. From there, it was smooth sailing to JFK (almost anything would be!), and we arrived at Belinda’s only about three hours behind schedule.

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A WEEK IN NEW YORK

This portion of my blog is modelled directly after my journal, which I don’t normally do, but because I felt like my six days in New York were perfect, I felt this was the most accurate way to portray my own experience. (Obviously such an itinerary is easily amended – let me know if you would like any help.)

We were staying at my friend Belinda’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; currently one of the funkier areas in New York. A definite hipster vibe, the vibrant bars and cafes seemed to be open round the clock (of course, it’s the city that never sleeps) and it also felt like a really safe area. We were fortunate to be right by the Bedford metro stop, meaning Manhattan was just a short ride away.  Tip number one: Buy a 7-day metro pass, if you are there for longer than 3 days. You will save money doing so.

IMG_3779Day One: Making like Gossip Girl, we met my friend Anna on the Met steps, before heading off for a walk around Central Park. We saw various movie filming locations (including the boat house, the castle, the great lake and the Alice in Wonderland statue) before making our way to Grand Central Terminal (don’t say ‘Station’). On the way, Hailee introduced Anna to the beauty that is a Starbucks Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. Grand Central is absolutely breathtaking. We stood on the steps mesmerised, just watching hundreds of people go about their daily lives, at what felt like a million miles per hour. Our stomachs calling, we walked through the dining concourse, past the Campbell Apartment (Gossip Girl fans will remember this as the site of Nate and Serena’s illicit affair) arriving at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt. Such an expansive range did nothing to help my indecisiveness. Between us we sampled a range: Anna had a mocha-almond crunch donut from Dough! (five stars for sure), Hailee had a scrumptious baguette, and I opted for a chickpea and tomato stew.

After lunch we headed to the Rockefeller Plaza. It had a beautiful tree and decorative IMG_3667lights, but it was certainly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been in my life. We literally had to queue to even have a peek of the ice-skating rink. The sheer number of people skating reduced any margin for error – no hope for an amateur! Like a pack of herded sheep, we shuffled past the bottom of the Rockefeller Centre, and resurfaced near St. Patricks Cathedral (gothic style, with a nostalgia-inducing resemblance to Milan’s Duomo). Loving the festive season, we floated past the Christmas windows at Saks, and along 5th Avenue until we reached the New York Public Library. We soon saw why Carrie Bradshaw wanted to get married here – the architecture is absolutely stunning. Tip number two: Audio guides (free of charge) will enhance your experience ten-fold.

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Entirely caught up in the magic of the movies, Anna guided us to Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment, before we met Binz at The Meatball Shop for dinner. The place was fabulous- delicious food at delicious prices, and the ambience was great. On the way home we ventured down to the Williamsburg waterfront for a panoramic view of Manhattan – one of Binz’ favourite spots in the city, and we could see why.

IMG_3759Day Two: Owned by a bunch of Aussies, Bluestone is a terrific place for brunch. Fresh, buzzing and delicious, there is a few dotted about the city. The one we visited (for easy access to the Met) was built into the side of an old cathedral. Despite the avocado smash supposedly being where it’s at, the green smoothie and mushrooms on toast were also fabulous. The Met’s entry fee is a donation – as a pretty broke traveller concerned about my potential under-budget for New York – this was a comforting start! The place was astronomical. You could spend days here – although most of our time was spent combing through the Ancient Egypt exhibition. Once again, our stomachs let us know it was time for lunch, so we walked through Central Park to LevaiIMG_3785n Bakery – world-famous (not sure if it is, but it should be!) for its cookies. The queue spilling out onto the street informed us we’d arrived, and we were stoked to find ourselves in line next to a local – one way to know the place is a goodie, and not merely a tourist trap. After this pit-stop we visited the Museum of Natural History (again admission by donation), where we were entranced by the dinosaur exhibition.

IMG_3824We met Binz at Union Square and walked to a delightfully cheery Mexican restaurant called Tacombi for dinner. I was incredibly over-excited for Times Square, and my expectations were met – the experience tainted only slightly by the scaffolding and preparations for the New Year’s Party in a few nights. Fun fact of the day: the main building in Times Square (the one from which the ball drops) is actually empty besides the first three floors due to insufficient natural light for tenants – however, the landlord still rakes in a massive $22m per year, from advertising alone. Captivated by the bright lights, I was reluctant to leave – but we were due at the Amsterdam Theatre, for my first Broadway experience. To say Aladdin was incredible is an understatement; the lights, costumes, dancing, singing and effects were all out of this world. When the show ended I teared up – I’m still not entirely sure if it was out of joy for the magic I had just witnessed, or sorrow for the show being over. We headed home past Saks, and watched a Christmas light show that was of a standard you could only find in New York. It was an insane night. Tip number three: if you don’t go to Broadway, you are mad.

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Day Three: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I ensured an early start to beat any queues for the Statten Island ferry (…there were none). Tip number four: for a free way to see the Statue of Liberty, take a return trip to Statten Island; sure beats lining up for 2 hours and paying to see the statue. It was approximately an hour return; so it didn’t take long to tick that one off the bucket list. I meandered through Battery Park, and along the water front, where it was possible to sneak another distant glimpse of the statue. I then headed into town, past the infamous Bull, down Wall Street, eventually winding up at Trinity Cathedral where it was an idealistic spot to soak up some beauty.

As one of the biggest historical events in my lifetime, I have always been fascinated by September 11. The Memorial was absolutely heart-breaking; all the names of the victims were engraved in plaques that formed the perimeters for two large infinity pools where the towers once stood. To my disappointment, there was a 2.5 hour wait for the Museum. A lack of time meant I instead opted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and into Dumbo – where I had a rushed explore of this funky ‘burb before racing to catch the ferry ($4/one way) and  sprint to the subway in order to meet the others at Union Square for lunch. Gramercy Bagels presented my first opportunity to indulge in a New York style (salmon and cream cheese of course), and I regret to report that I preferred the Montreal style that I’d experienced in Canada. Afterwards we explored the Union Square Market (indulging in $1 hot apple cider) before going one up and visiting the extremely festive Chelsea Market. Tip number five: Go hungry. The place was buzzing; it was an absolute people hub, with so many delicious sights, smells and tastes. The Market also provides easy access to the High Line walkway, which is essentially an abandoned, elevated train track, winding its way round part of the city’s waterfront. The views were absolutely gorgeous. Dinner saw us venture down the road from Binz’ house, to an Asian place called Snacky on Grand Avenue. It was really cheap, and unsurprisingly (given all of our eating experiences so far) really delicious.

Day Four: Far less populated than the Brooklyn Bridge, jogging across the Williamsburg Bridge makes for a beautiful way to start the day. It wasn’t designed with photographs in mind however; so the Insta-worthy photo is slightly harder to come by.  We visited the United Nations, where my friend Anna was currently undergoing an internship with the NZ Mission.  After signing us in and passing through security, we were lucky enough to get a personalised tour; exploring the main plaza and viewing the various gifts that countries had donated to the UN; some as extravagant as an entire lounge (with Long Island views – thanks to the UAE) and some as authentic as paintings by the country’s indigenous people (New Zealand, of course!).IMG_4002 The place was magnificent, and I remain highly envious of Anna’s experience. From the UN, we made our way back to Union Square, where Belinda substituted in for Hailee and we jumped on the subway out to Harlem. We explored our way through some of the project housing, before reaching Columbia University – which, as an Ivy League school, was just as pretty as one would expect. Lunch was at Nussbaum and Wu and was humming with people, variety and atmosphere. The food was also well-priced – yay! We walked home through Central Park – which was a solid walk, but some well-needed exercise. Tip number six: Central Park is so enormous that each experience is unique, so many little spots to see and explore. It is a great place to get some exercise and escape from the big city life.

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At home we recharged our batteries for the forthcoming party that would celebrate the incoming New Year. Significant delays on the subway saw us arrive in drips and drabs to Panna 2 in the East Village, for what was to be a New Zealand based party, with some delicious Indian food. God save the Queen evolved into God save Abe (Abraham Lincoln) for the benefit of our favourite American (Hailee!), in what was a highly NZ dominated party. Dinner was a laugh, it cost $30 for corkage and a set menu, and Belinda even got a free dessert to celebrate her ‘birthday’. After we walked through Washington Square Park, past NYU to the Fat Black Pussycat. $20 got us through the door, where the place was so full it was actually hard to move. Somewhat incredibly we bumped into a friend I’d made in Whistler, and his Australian crew soon formed connections with the Kiwis, and the night was made. The ball drop in Times Square was live streamed, and there were helium balloons on string covering every inch of the bar’s roof. A great night was had by all, and not anywhere near as expensive as I’d feared.

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IMG_4118Day Five: A sleep in and mini-workout session at McGarren Park fended off any potential hangover. Excited to make my debut at a “bottomless brunch” – we went to an Italian place called “Caroll’s” near Soho, and paid $24 for a scrumptious meal and unlimited cocktails. Belinda went home unwell, but Matt (her flatmate), Hailee and I sampled a few cocktails, sucked some helium and then decided it would be a good idea to go shopping. My bank balance suffered from spontaneous buys, but a few months down the track I think my work wardrobe benefited from the colour injection induced by drunk shopping. We were pretty exhausted so on the way home we stopped at Joe’s Pizza (New York style slices) and grabbed some Ben and Jerry’s to devour whilst soaking up the sites in Maid in Manhattan.

Day Six: Having ticked off almost all of the cliché tourist activities we were pretty happy to have Binz, our almost local, show us some of her favourite places. We headed out to Prospect Park for a wander (on the G Line, through Brooklyn Heights) – it is a great place for dog-lovers to get their fix. We headed to a place called Cheryl’s Global Soul for brunch – I had a delicious salmon platter, accompanied by a free mimosa and coffee. It had fab décor (highlight = fairy lights), and spritely staff. Walked past the entrance to the Brooklyn library (beautiful) and then caught a metro to One World. IMG_4430Tip number seven: Booking tickets in advance will allow you to turn up at a designated time, meaning you can avoid the seriously lengthy queues that loom. The lift ride was phenomenal – New York through the Ages. Tip number eight: if possible, position yourself so your back faces towards the elevator doors to enhance your view of the presentation. There was another presentation at the top, which was again sensational, and then we got to wander around taking in the panoramic view. After coming back down to reality, we found Binz and Anna before walking to the ferry terminal where we climbed aboard the free ferry, bound for the Red Hook IKEA. It was both Anna’s and mine first experience in an IKEA and upon leaving we were both pretty shell shocked. From here we headed to the Brooklyn Crab, IMG_4459 which is an incredible seafood restaurant, decked out accordingly, and with a mouth-watering menu!
Between us we saw seafood chowder, popcorn shrimp, fish and chips, and calamari served and devoured, and not one bad thing could be said about any of it. Full, but on a mission, we google mapped our way to Steve’s Authentic Pies, where we bought a Key Lime Pie (a local specialty) before slinking our way through some serious ghetto areas and heading home to demolish this delicious pie. Waved a reluctant goodbye to Binz, and headed across to Anna’s in the Upper East Side to sleep. Booked our shuttle to the airport (early start at 4.10am!) with Super Shuttles ($20)- who were prompt, and seemed organised, however the driver drove like a maniac- we were both a bit shaken when we arrived at Newark Airport (about an hour from the city). The airport lines were astronomical, however there proved to be a slick system which kept the queues moving quickly. Tip number nine: Give yourself a day that isn’t jam-packed with sight-seeing. It is such a big city with so many places to explore; it is nice to have a day to just soak up the glam that is NYC.

Tip number ten: if you haven’t been to NYC already, put it on that bucket list. I know for sure, that I will be back.

 

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