Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Swiss Beat: New Years in Switzerland Part I: Zurich

Teil Ens: Zurich

The profile on my Twitter page reads “travel bandit.” Let me explain this if I haven’t already. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I try to take advantage. If I have a 3 or 4-day weekend, I’m packing and going. My thought process is that I'm creating travel out of an everyday schedule - and it feels like I'm practically stealing. That’s what “travel bandit” means. I also rob people on vacation, but that’s another story.

"Percy Jackson" in-flight movie? C'mon man.
I found out I miraculously had unused vacation days and was looking to go somewhere for New Year’s. I was talking with my usual travel companion/victim, Pete, and we thought about snowboarding in Tahoe. Turns out, going to SF and Tahoe for 5 days would cost comparatively to going to Switzerland. That’s crazy. So I threw out the idea of going to Switzerland.

Stop looking at me, swan!

This looks Swiss.
For many who grew up in Orange County, there’s a strange connection to Switzerland because of Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain. You see the tip of the mountain from the freeway, you’ve ridden the bobsleds countless times, you’ve eaten at the churro stand next to the ride, you’ve even memorized the ride’s security announcement in two languages: “Remain seated, please. Permanecer sentados, por favor.” The thought of snowboarding down the real Matterhorn was too good to pass up. Pete and I and two more friends crunched some numbers, and low and behold, we were going to get our hot chocolate on.

Just like Anaheim
Since it was relatively last minute, we were going to do everything as budget-friendly as possible. We would fly into Zurich, then train to Zermatt. Hotels in Zurich are strangely cheap, so that was easy. Zermatt, however, would prove to be a challenge. The entire town, which is only accessible via train – you can’t drive there, was booked according to the interwebs. So we used airbnb.com, which is where people rent out their own homes and apartments for people to stay. We found a small spot in Zermatt that turned out to be perfect – and at a great price. If you ever need a place to stay on a budget – try this dude, Simon Gerber.

Simon Gerber not pictured here.
Anyway, I flew into Zurich early in the morning, everyone else was going to get there in the late afternoon, so I had the day to myself. The first thing I noticed at the airport is the terminal tram, which has the sounds of farm animals and cows mooing. It’s fricking awesome!

When traveling in Switzerland, if you’re trying to save cash, public transportation is the way to go. No need for rental cars or taxis. Buses and trains will take you everywhere on the cheap, which pays off later when you realize a Big Mac meal at McDonalds will cost you around $14 US. Who drops that kind of coin at McDonalds outside of a family of 8? Now I’m not one to advocate hopping on trams and not paying, but no one ever checked the myriad tram tickets I purchased. I don’t know the punishment for stowaways, maybe it’s buying a Big Mac meal at McDonalds.

Toblerone McFlurry? Intriguing.
This totally looks like Europe. Wait a minute... 
Selfie Time! 

That's stuff in Zurich. Famous? Who knows?!
Zurich’s a cool town to stroll around, but you don’t need that much time. There’s a massive shopping at Bahnhofstrasse, which is a Euro version of 5th Avenue combined with South Coast Plaza. The best place to hang is Old Town, or Altstadt. The Limmat river cuts through the town into Lake Zurich. There’s a famous church, Grossmunster. I don’t know what makes it famous, but apparently it is. I signed the welcome book, so that makes it famous since I’m such a big deal! #Nope There’s another church called the Fraumunster that features stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. You can also catch some of Chagalls work at the Kunsthaus, not to be confused with Kunsthalle - both of which you should be careful about pronouncing.
I got mad hops in Bahnofstrasse. #AdvilTakenShortlyAfter

Something in Bahnofstrasse

Grossmunster. Those two punctuation dots are supposed to go over the "u."

Fancy #CuzTheresAnAngle
The Kunsthaus is my first European art museum, and it’s way sweet. I love strolling through museums but I’m very much a celebrity-boffer when it comes to art. It’s all about the big names for me since I don’t really understand what I’m looking at. If Picasso and Joe Schmo painted something that looked exactly the same, I’d only care about the Picasso. This being said, when I stroll through many American museums, I only see one or two Monets (my fave), Van Goghs, etc. The Kunsthaus, which no one confuses with the Louvre, had boatloads of all the big names – Picassos, Van Goghs, Monets, Miros, even a Warhol. The featured exhibit was for Edvard Munch, famous from “The Scream,” not to be confused with the movie where Drew Barrymore died in the first 10 minutes. I took a bunch of pictures with my iPhone and no one seemed to stop me. So that added to the coolness of the museum, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t kosher. Whatever, I’m a dumb American tourist.

Edvard Munch Selfie
Sketch of "The Scream"

I swear this is Iron Man.
I think I've been reading to much "GQ" - but I liked these.

I think all these paintings are upside down. There's a woman in the middle. Why are they all upside down, Kunsthaus?


I dig Picasso's autograph

Picasso is all up in this joint.


More Monet

Love Van Gogh's colors.
When everyone met up, we planned to head to Old Town, but got lost and ended up at Shamrock Irish Pub, which had trivia night. Let me tell you, we did not help America’s international reputation. Predicting that we would be horrible at Switzerland trivia, our team name was the “American Wankers.” We were terrible and the questions weren't even Swiss-centric but international. “Milwaukee Brewers” was an answer to one question so that was good. The owner saw how poorly we were doing, and even fed us some answers, but we were confused which questions the answers were for. Was Columbo the capital of Sri Lanka or the name of the rocket that went to the moon? (It’s Sri Lanka’s capital. Saturn 5 is the rocket. We know that now.) Any how, if the locals that were in the bar were curious about American knowledge or ethnocentrism, they got a most unfortunate answer: we’re wankers.

I feel so ignorant.

Open square in Old Town. Opera House is to the right. Clouds above. You're welcome.

I missed the zoo. :(

Drink/eat: Santa Lucia – Italian chain, delicious Zurich fish soup, very salty. Good carpaccio (is there bad carpaccio?). Too expensive for price. Poor service.


Shamrock Irish Pub – good curry meat pie, friendly clientele.
Pub fare.

Ahhh, look who's all tuckered out?
Obligatory Pete pass out pic. #WhatMyBlogDoesForReaders
Coming up next: Zermatt NYE celebration, snowboarding the Matterhorn, and T-bar hatred.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Nicaragua Part II: Volcano Riding in Leon

Here's the long-awaited (for no one) follow-up to my adventures in Nicaragua, which seems forever ago. And I'm only writing this now so I can start my Switzerland stories soon and not screw up my blog's chronology too badly. But this isn't really an active blog anyway, so whatever. Shut up, Chow, and start writing!

It appears as if I began writing long ago, then saw something distracting like a lamp, stopped and never resumed. Oh memoirs!

Parte Dos
El 28 y 29 de Julio

Top of Cerro Negro, Leon. Volcano boards on bottom of screen. This is the best photo Pete has taken in his life.

The morning we left San Juan del Sur to drive to Leon, the power went out in the entire town. At first we thought it was our excessive viewing of the “Starsky and Hutch” DVD bonus features in the treehouse, but when we bought gas and noticed no one else had electricity, our disdain for Owen Wilson subsided.

Blackouts are a frequent occurrence in SJDS, and the locals could not be more indifferent. The whole town seems to shut down – restaurants close, post signs that say no power, and everyone goes about their merry way eating Ritz for lunch. We found an internet café that had a generator and looked up directions from SJDS to our hotel in Leon. Let me tell you this – whoever was driving Google’s little Homer-looking, satellite-image-capturing mobile in Nicaragua really butt-fumbled the job. The directions Google provided us took us on this 50% completed road that felt like an X-Games track that Travis Pastrana should’ve been rally-racing across. The road was so bumpy, everyone started to feel like the fish-ordering passengers in “Airplane.” At one point, without exaggeration, you could see 15-yards of paved road, interrupted by 30-yards of dirt, followed by another 15-yards of paved road. This is not even including traffic that was impeded by cows. The ride took around 3.5 hours, while it should’ve lasted 2.5. When we got into town, we discovered there was a far better road – the most pristine and best-paved highway in the entire country.

While SJDS is a lazy, surf/resort town, Leon is how you might picture a Central American city – old mission-style architecture, open plazas in front of aged churches, farmer’s markets, vendors selling various leches, local teens playing soccer on a public basketball court. It’s what the movies have led me to believe Cuba is like (this does not include “Bad Boys II”). Walking around town, we noticed there was some sort of celebration in the town square. After what seemed like Chinese dragon dancing, a guy came out in a prehistoric Ironman outfit and started shooting fireworks out of his suit at spectators. It was surreal; people ran from him and screamed like it was Pamplona. If the local little kids weren’t dancing up and down with ear-to-ear smiles, I would’ve thought this was the beginning of the next Zack Snyder flick – only better.
It's a celebration, b*****$!

Communion is way different in Leon. 
Basketball court is for futbol only. Thanks!
There’s a university in Leon, so there are several bars, but none were really throwing it down on a Sunday or Monday night. We ended up singing karaoke both nights. The bars have a huge binder full of English songs, but none of them actually had available English songs. We’d put in requests for myriad Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi songs, only to be constantly denied, so we sang the two Spanish songs we know – the Antonio Banderas song in “Desperado” and the chorus from Selena’s “Biddy Biddy Bum Bum” (and only the chorus – turns out I don’t know the rest of that song at all). Needless to say, we were totally awesome and brought the house down.
Futbol/balconcesto in the back.
Totes sobes.
Well... I am.
Of course, the only reason we were visiting Leon was to go volcano boarding at Cerro Negro, a fast-rising tourist attraction that will likely no longer be that far off the beaten path in a few years. I originally saw ESPN’s Kenny Mayne do it in a “Wider World of Sports” episode a few years back. You hike for 45-minutes up Cerro Negro with a backpack filled with a jumpsuit, goggles, and water; in addition to a 4.5-foot slab of wood with a tiny rope. That’s your board. To steer the board, you lean left or right while tugging the rope. To speed up, lean back as far as you can. To slow down or brake, sit up on the board and put your feet on the ash. If it sounds basic, it is. It’s really not complicated or the least bit scary. I wouldn’t say it’s a family activity, but most people should be plenty capable of doing it. The view from the top of the mountain is majestic. Surely there's better out there, but knowing you're about to slide down this thing on some bootleg piece of wood that Jake Burton (of Burton Snowboards) would cringe at... that'll put a smile on your face. Or at least it did mine.

Started from the bottom...
Now we're here.
A ski lift would've been nice.
Pacing ourselves. 
We booked our volcano boarding experience through a local guide named Anry, who came highly recommended on Yelp (http://masadventuresni.com). With Anry, we were the first ones on top of the mountain. Anry seemed very knowledgeable and energetic; he also claimed to be one of the first people to ever go volcano boarding. At the top of the mountain, there are some great photo ops, as well as an influx of bees. It’s best not to get stung by the bees, but our friend Mitch thought otherwise and got tagged. What an idiot!!! HAHA! #GoodFriend

Our guide Anry. He really likes "The Matrix"

Mitch has already been stung by bees.
Active volcano? Please...
After a very brief tutorial, we did a quick 10-foot trial; then boarded down to the bottom. The common sentiment is to slow down, but once you get comfortable, let loose and go as fast as possible. The ride is awesome (one that sadly I couldn't document because my GoPro stopped working before this trip), albeit short – probably lasts 45 seconds to a minute. I was actually hoping my ride would be even faster, but my rope wasn't long enough to allow me to lean back and build up more speed. I think I was using a girl's board, which might also explain the flowered, pastel backpack that I carried up the mountain. The faster you go, the bigger the thrill, there's no doubt. And as riveting as it is to finish, when your adrenaline finally slows down, I couldn't help but question if the ends justified the means. I wanted to do it again, hike it all, lean back like Fat Joe and just fly. But you can't. You're gone in 45 seconds. It's so quick. Of course the ends do justify the means, you can say you rode down a volcano, but it sounds way more badass than it actually is. If you go, I cannot stress enough that it looks and sounds far more intimidating than it is. When you ride, lean back and let the speed take you. It'll be a shorter ride but far more fulfilling. This isn't the Disneyland PeopleMover where you want to just cruise and look around and capture the view. (I just realized I don't think Disneyland has the PeopleMover any more. So sad.) No, this is the Disneyland Matterhorn bobsleds (foreshadowing to Switzerland adventures! #ComingSoon), you want to go fast.

The view from the bottom
The other "adventure" we went on with Anry was the zipline canopy tour. On the website, it looked sick. You can zipline over a lagoon, dip into the water, maybe even unhook and jump in! That sounds stupid awesome. That is so far away from what we actually did. The canopy park isn't like other ziplines that are set up high in the mountains for you to take in a bird's eye view of your surroundings (check out my Puerto Rico blog if you want to see video of the tallest zipline in the world). This was more of a stunt park where you can try to pull crazy maneuvers. But we went in July, and there was no water in the lagoon. It looked like one random, really rich guy in the middle of Nicaragua was bored and set up some ziplines over his pond in the backyard. Needless to say, this part of the tour was more disappointing than "The Phantom Menace." This was the Jar Jar Binks of our Nicaragua experience.

The rich guy's patio.
You know he's rich 'cuz he has these.
Ain't no lagoons behind us.
All in all, I would highly recommend visiting Nicaragua. The surf is spectacular, the food is deliciously inexpensive or inexpensively delicious, and the opportunity to ride down a volcano is a one-of-a-kind adventure. At this point, Cerro Negro in Nicaragua is still the only place in the world where you can (legally) board down an active volcano. It's a unique experience, and I suppose that's why we travel in the first place.

Why we travel

Next up: New Year's Eve at the real Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. Here's the trailer: