Arc Initiative – Takeaways

Key Takeaways from Arc Initiative

This summer, I had the opportunity to return as a Team Lead for the Arc Initiative. Context: the Arc Initiative is a non-profit organization run out of my university, UBC, that delivers business skills workshops to entrepreneurs in emerging economies. University students, faculty, and alumni mentors are selected to plan & execute a business skills conference which teaches business tools to entrepreneurs who currently have their own businesses, or who are serious about starting a new business. The Arc operates in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia, Peru, and Cambodia.

This year, my role was different than it had been in the past. I acted as a Team Lead, and therefore felt I had much more responsibility than ever before. Here are some overarching themes of my takeaways from this summer (in no particular order):

Team Dynamic is SO Important

  • This was especially prevalent to me this time because I was managing a team of individuals who not only needed to work together, but also live together for 4-6 weeks. I also learned that a diverse team is the best kind, with each person able to offer different perspectives and methods of problem solving. Overall, the team dynamic can make or break the team’s ability to execute a successful conference, and managers need to take into account not only individuals’ skills and attitudes, but also how diverse individuals will “fit” with each other in a group setting.

Candid Communication is Critical

  • They say communication is key. But this was extremely amplified in a brand new environment with a group of diverse individuals. It’s important to establish ground rules for communication and creating a safe space for candid dialogue before embarking on a trip like this – the group will be better off in the long run!

Stay Organized & Use Tools for Planning

  • Although I consider myself an organized person, there were instances where I could have been more efficient or structured with my planning. Using tools such as Gantt charts, databases, simple lists, and various templates could have made planning much smoother – I will definitely be using these tools in the future!

Always Consider Continuity & Think Long-Term

  • Especially with a program like Arc, which aims to provide tools that are cross-culturally consistent and able to be used in many different industries and contexts, a long-term approach is more beneficial than a short-term one. One of the biggest issues with anything international development-related is continuity (how can we ensure that these positive results continue in the future after we leave?), so a long-term mindset should be used when considering to implement a new tool, working with any organizational partners, choosing teams, etc.

I’m a big proponent of self-reflection and constant improvement. Posts like these push me to think hard about what I did well, and what I can improve for next time. Thanks for reading! 🙂

Arc Initiative – Ethiopia

Travel Dates: May 29 – June 15, 2015

I’ve been extremely blessed to have been able to work with the Arc Initiative again this summer. Context: the Arc Initiative is a non-profit organization run out of my university, UBC, that delivers business skills workshops to entrepreneurs in emerging economies. University students, faculty, and alumni mentors are selected to plan & execute a business skills conference which teaches business tools to entrepreneurs who currently have their own businesses, or who are serious about starting a new business. The Arc operates in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia, Peru, and Cambodia.

My involvement with Arc initially started two years ago when I travelled to Ethiopia as a student intern. I was initially intrigued by the program because it was a way to implement the business knowledge I had learned in school and apply it to real-life situations in unique international contexts. I learned about how business can truly be a means to improve developing economies, and I was finally seeing that my business degree can have a positive impact and defy the poor stereotypes of unethical, selfish, and harmful business practices. I also learned so much about myself and my teammates, whom I still keep in contact with regularly.

Upon returning from that trip, I continued to work for Arc, building the organization’s brand and overseeing all of its marketing activities, from social media to event planning. This year, I was requested to come back as a Team Lead, which consisted of overseeing trip logistics for more than 20 students over three travelling teams. While I worked for Arc, I was simultaneously working my second Co-op term; I would spend a few lunch hours per week working on Arc, and I often spent evenings catching up on anything I’d missed during working hours. Leading up to departure, I ran meetings with my teams and stayed on top of all the logistical details that came with coordinating dozens of students’ arrival and departure schedules, accommodation, visas, conference tasks, and more. Although it was tough to balance two jobs, I felt like my days were filled with purpose as I dedicated myself to these teams of students and alumni.

Impressions and Observations of Ethiopia

Fast forward to finally landing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after a long journey: the nostalgia immediately came rushing back to me upon touchdown. Seeing the airport, the stuffy scent of gasoline, feeling the unexpected cold wind… it reminded me of when I came to Addis two years ago with the 2013 Arc Initiative Ethiopia team.

When I finally got out of the terminal, I found my three teammates who had landed earlier and Amy, the manager of our guesthouse. It was so nice to see familiar faces after such a long flight. Cherokee House, the guest house we were staying at, had moved since two years ago. It had mostly the same furniture as the last house, and all the same workers. It was now just a 5 minute drive to Bole International Airport, making it a bit out of the way of more populated areas such as the Merkato. Nonetheless, the Bole area is quite nice, with huge unfinished mansions in our neighbourhood and a “higher end” shopping mall just down the street.

The familiarity of the city came rushing back to me for my second time in Addis. The sight of masses of people in the streets, the smells of berbere spices, the feeling of being a “celebrity” while walking around. What I mean by that last point is that seeing a Chinese girl with a blonde streak in a group of nine other foreigners definitely turns heads in a city like Addis. People often stare and call out, “China!”, and not only at the Chinese people. In Ethiopia, foreigners used to be called “forenjis”. But these days, with so much investment in infrastructure especially from the Chinese, people in Addis just associate any foreigners with the word “China”. Even a Caucasian person is “China”.

Our first meal as a full team!

Our first meal as a full team!

Speaking of foreign investment, the development in Addis is just booming. An above-ground skytrain has gone from just laying the foundation to being almost fully operational just two years later. In Vancouver, we built a similar metro line, but it took at least double the time to be built. That North American bureaucracy!

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Ethiopian LRT

Driving through Addis, I also noticed more commercial spaces being built and less goats/donkeys in the streets as a result of the construction. One unfortunate thing about all the development, though, is the increasing amount of pollution in the city. I’m not sure if I lived through rose-coloured glasses the last time I was there, but this time I really noticed the choking black smoke that emerged from cars & trucks clogging up my lungs. I must have also been more out of shape this time, because I was much more affected by the change in altitude. Addis Ababa is 2,000m (8,000ft) above sea level, a stark contrast compared to being “below” sea level in my hometown of Richmond, Canada. I found myself huffing and puffing simply from going up the stairs in the guest house!

Throughout the trip I was recalling Amharic words here and there, and I was so pleased when I could use one of the 30 words/phrases I’d remembered from last time. Recently, I’ve been taking more care to record new words I learn in different languages. If visiting countries for a short period of time where English is not widespread, I’ve learned that the key is to learn the few phrases that are useful in any language: Hello, Goodbye, Thank You (very much), I’m Sorry/Excuse Me, Beautiful/Nice, How Much (does it cost), Friend, No Problem, Big/Lots/Very, Small/Little, Yes, No, and simple numbers. Learn these phrases (and their correct pronunciation), and people will love you.

I have to disclaim that I am no expert on Ethiopian culture. I don’t believe my cumulative 8 weeks in Ethiopia to date is enough to truly understand its intricacies, but these are just observations I’ve made. My observations probably shouldn’t be used as a basis on which to generalize an entire people. So take all of this with a grain of salt!

Ethiopians are outwardly conservative and shy at first, but extremely loving and affectionate when they open up. They are proud of their country (especially the fact that they’ve never been formally colonized), and love specific aspects such as Ethiopian Airlines (which, by the way, is the most profitable airline in Africa), Haile Gebre Selassie (the Olympic runner), their origins in history and Christianity, and their food.

Ethiopian food YUMMMM.

Ethiopian food YUMMMM.

Cultural night at a restaurant called Habesha 2000

Cultural night at a restaurant called Habesha 2000

Most of the Ethiopians we met are also extremely hard-working: one individual (a driver we hired a few times) in particular said something that really stuck with me. His name was Haile (quite the popular Ethiopian name, it means “power”) and he said: “We are following the model of the Chinese, the Asian cultures. I will work hard, not for me, but for my children. One generation has to die for the next.” –cue melodramatic moment- I was so taken aback to hear this, but I think it really speaks to the determination of the Ethiopian people (or at least, of the superstars that we met) and that they see a brighter future for their children as a result of what they painstakingly do each day.

The Friendship building.

The Friendship building.

Many of the entrepreneurs we met have made it their mission to do good in their own community. There is no formalized concept of “social enterprise”. For example, many entrepreneurs will employ disadvantaged people or find ways to reduce, reuse and recycle in their business operations. But these means are not for ulterior motives. It’s not to get consumers to like them more, or “greenwash” anybody – it’s just good business. The notion of positive social impact and improvement of their own local communities is just a given when conducting business. I think this is extremely admirable, and something that we can all learn from. Now what’s not to love about all that?

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The Conference

We spent hours and hours in preparation for the conference. Since I was the only one of our group who had organized and executed an Arc conference before, I was the primary source of information. The team asked great questions and were so proactive with planning that I could take a hands-off approach and let the team thrive together. We planned to split up our curriculum and have teammates partner up to teach specific portions of the workshop. After running through the curriculum and logistics of the conference many times, I was confident that we could pull off an extremely successful workshop and that our entrepreneurs would come away with valuable skills and information.

The conference room

The conference room

The Arc conference is extremely interactive, with entrepreneurs seated at table groups and students acting as “floaters” during the workshop sessions. Each morning and afternoon typically consists of two big topics and teaching tools (some examples: SWOT, strategy canvas, break-even analysis, budgeting, value proposition canvas, and more). After giving a very brief (<10 min) lesson about the tool, entrepreneurs are thrown into a group activity where they actually use the tool they’d just learned on one of their own respective businesses. Each group then presents their work to the entire room, and everybody provides feedback and builds on their existing ideas.

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Students move around the room, answering questions from entrepreneurs and pushing groups in the right direction. The energy in the room is electric as groups can be heard discussing, focusing, laughing, and engaging in this style of learning. We often receive feedback that this type of interactive group-based collaboration is something completely new to these entrepreneurs (most of whom have university degrees), and that most of them have never experienced anything like our conference. Even as students ourselves, we don’t often get to experience a learning culture that is so vibrant and dynamic.

Part 2 of our conference, held at iceaddis

Part 2 of our conference, held at iceaddis

And what a success it was! The calibre of the group was so high, and each entrepreneur was hyper-engaged and eager to work with us and each other. What I love most about the conference is seeing my teammates learn and grow by working with the entrepreneurs. I saw their “Ah ha!” moments as they got into the groove of building rapport with entrepreneurs, and actually realizing that they serve as more of a guide, pushing groups into the right direction, rather than providing all the answers or their own personal input.

There are also two unique aspects of our conference: a case competition and an innovation challenge. The case competition is similar to the ones we are familiar with, where teams work to solve a hypothetical business’s problem and present their analysis and conclusions to the group. But the other aspect, the innovation challenge, is extremely exciting. Groups will work together to come up with a brand new business idea as a solution to an existing problem. The key is identifying problems that are prevalent in the context of their own city or country, and using the tools taught in the conference to analyze and justify the proposed ventures. We make it a competition between all the teams, and they just love it. The room becomes ablaze with energy and excitement as teams work together; many people get really competitive, too!

A visit from another longtime friend of the Arc, Fitsum, who owns Ethiopia's top tour & travel company.

A visit from another longtime friend of the Arc, Fitsum, who owns Ethiopia’s top tour & travel company.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the conference in Addis Ababa. It was more organized, polished, and fun than the one I’d been a part of in 2013 – this was mostly attributable to the fantastic team, and all the talented individuals who had worked together to create something great. I am so proud of everyone involved!

Arc Consulting

After the conference came the other main component of the Arc Initiative: entrepreneur visits and consulting. Throughout the conference, we asked entrepreneurs to sign up if they wanted an Arc team to visit their business. We then arranged initial meetings with them and discussed how, if at all, a team of Arc students could be of service to these businesses. This is our pseudo consulting arm of Arc, an aspect of the program that allows students to get hands-on experience working with businesses that face challenges that are less complex (compared to the bureaucracy and politics of multi-national corporations that business students are used to hearing about), yet extremely real and pressing.

Meeting Tesfaye, a longtime friend of the Arc. His company manufactures ecopaper made from recycled paper and banana leaf. Such a superstar and an honour to meet him again!

Meeting Tesfaye, a longtime friend of the Arc. His company manufactures ecopaper made from recycled paper and banana leaf. Such a superstar and an honour to meet him again!

We ended up working extensively with several entrepreneurs, including: a landscaping startup, a high-end fashion designer, an artisan jewelry and crafts maker, a security company, and more. Students chose which entrepreneurs they wanted to work with based on their own interests, and where they thought they could add the most value. Teams come up with deliverables to the entrepreneurs by the end of the session, and often leave feeling accomplished and appreciative of their genuine experience with the entrepreneurs they worked with. I love this aspect of the Arc because teams are engaged in work they enjoy, and there is so much learning involved: with the student teams, with team leads, and most importantly, with the entrepreneurs themselves.

Visiting LH Security

Visiting LH Security

Checking out Adila Crafts

Checking out Adila Crafts

Regrettably, I had to leave my team merely two weeks after landing, because meanwhile I was also managing the Arc Rwanda team this summer. Can you believe everything I’d described already only happened in two weeks? One thing I wished I did was leave them in better shape before I left – I could have assigned proper roles to individuals and provided more of a gameplan moving forward, but the fantastic team took initiative and did some great work even without my presence – I am so proud of them!

Last day with my team :(

Last day with my team 😦

I wrote a separate post about my Key Takeaways from the summer, view it <here>.

There are some things I did this time that the team didn’t do last time I was in Addis:

Saw a soccer game at the stadium

  • It was two Ethiopian teams playing: St. George and Derderbit. As usual, we stuck out like sore thumbs, and it didn’t help that we were sitting on the “wrong side” (Derderbit). St. George ended up winning, and the streets were crazy that night with people hanging off busses (which were honking hysterically) and proudly waving the yellow and orange flags of their winning team.

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Took more mini busses

  • Last time, we’d hired a driver for the entire month we were there. In contrast, this year the team was really keen on taking mini busses and taxis everywhere because it was cheaper and a more authentic experience. It made me realize how sheltered we were last time with our driver, and how much more I preferred taking the local transportation.

Red Terror museum

  • I really wished I saw this back in 2013 – it’s a museum documenting the accounts of the Communist occupation in the 1970s. The small size of the museum does not take away from the profound impact of that time period, a terrible experience I hope a great country like Ethiopia never has to undergo again. This made me realize how important it is to visit these types of places in order to get a more substantial appreciation for the country I am visiting and its history.

Although there are certainly areas where I thought I could improve as a Team Lead, overall I am very happy with the outcome of this summer. This was an unforgettable experience and really reinforced for me what kind of work I enjoy, and once again that business needs to leave a positive impact. Thanks for reading 🙂

Dinner with some local friends.

Dinner with some local friends.

SASQUATCH! Music Festival

Travel dates: May 22-25, 2015

Merely two days after coming back from LA & Santa Monica, my friends Wendy, Harriet, Blake and I left for Sasquatch! Music Festival. It was my first multi-day music festival, so I was excited to say the least. Because I was the only one who could provide a car, I drove the 4.5 hours from Vancouver to The Gorge Amphitheatre. It was tiring, but we survived! We left between 5-6am and after a stop at Wal-Mart, we arrived around 10am. The system for parking at the Gorge was simple and easy: just arrive whenever you can, and park where the attendants tell you to. Cars circled outwards from the middle, so by the end it just looked like a giant crop circle.

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Our packed car

 

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Harriet squished by all the stuff

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Wendy excited for Sasquatch!

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Cars setting up

While we were setting up, it was about 29 degrees. This was bloody hot by our standards, as we were still experiencing spots of rain up north in Vancouver. Nevertheless, we were all so happy to finally be there and ready for a weekend of great music, good company, and an overall fantastic time.

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Just got to the campsite & ready to crack open a cold beer!

Since the campsite and the stages were about a 10-15 minute walk apart, each day we participated in the “pilgrimage” to the stages. Starting from 1pm all the way until the evening, crowds and crowds of people could be seen walking towards the music. We usually left around 4pm to arrive at the stages, since most of the acts we wanted to see started around that time. We would listen to live music from 4pm until about 1 or 2am. We usually slept until 9 or 10am and took the late morning / early afternoon to relax at the campsite. Ahh… that was the life. Not the mention… the Gorge Amphitheatre was absolutely GORGEous! (don’t mind the pun)

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Pilgrimmage to stages

 

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Entering the festival grounds

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Friends!

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Absolutely beautiful day at the Gorge

 

It was clear some other groups had done this before. People brought gazebos, tarps, foldable tables, beer pong kits, flags, frisbees, lawn chairs, and more. Our setup looked a bit sad next to others’ full-blown campsites, but we made due with what we had and our neighbours were extremely nice to offer us sangria and shade.

Since we were there for the music, allow me to share and elaborate on the musical acts we saw. In the months leading up to the festival, I’d been listening to Spotify playlists containing all the artists, so I was somewhat more prepared for the 100+ acts of the weekend. Some musical highlights (in no particular order):

  • Kendrick Lamar
    • All I can say is… WOW. Although I’ve dabbled in hip hop music for the past few years, it was my first time at a rap show. It was nuts! No matter where you were in the crowd, you were in a mosh pit. There was so much energy, and even though I didn’t know all the lyrics to the songs, it was tons of fun. He really knows how to work the crowd. Not to mention, Kendrick Lamar is a cutie….
  • Chromeo
    • I absolutely loved them! Proud of some fellow Canadians, their high energy, cool displays and stage presence made it such an enjoyable show. The music festival environment was perfect for them – I would definitely see them again.
  • Spoon
    • I’ve been a fan of Spoon for so many years, and I finally got to see them live. None of my friends knew of them, so I went to the show by myself. But I was totally fine with that! It was nice to just stand back and enjoy the music. It’s a shame that Spoon isn’t more popular – they really have a great sound. I profited from their lower popularity by being in the third row!
  • James Blake
    • I simply loved James Blake. He has a great voice and gives me a “you’re so cool I just want to be like you” kind of feeling. Although he did seem a bit tired from touring, his genuineness still shone through.
  • Mother Mother
    • One of my Top 5 favourite bands of all time. I’d seen them a few times before, but I just had to see them again. They were debuting some of the songs from their new album, which had a harder, grittier sound. I’m loyal to the band, so I loved it. The best is singing along during the entire set because you know ALL the lyrics.
  • Modest Mouse
    • I had no idea what to expect from Modest Mouse – they’d always been such a mysterious band for me and I didn’t know how they would be live. It seemed like the lead singer, Isaac Brock, had some angst built up in him or something. Modest Mouse had more of an aggressive style than I’d anticipated, but I’m still glad I saw them live in concert once.
  • Lana Del Rey
    • One word (or is it a sound?): ZZzzZzzzZZ. I’m sorry, but I found Lana Del Rey a bit boring. She didn’t have much stage presence, and the low tempo of her songs lent to an overall low-energy performance. It was incredibly windy, so poor Lana had to keep pushing her long wavy hair to the side as she sang. Overall, I felt she handled the wind extremely well – I was really impressed by this! You go Lana.
  • Of Monsters and Men
    • I’m not crazy huge fans of Of Monsters and Men, but I could see why people really like them. Their chill Icelandic vibes were calming, and they did some cool stuff to mix up their set. They really were a great band live… if only I liked their music more.
  • The New Pornographers
    • They’ve been a band for a while, but despite their “older” stage in the band life cycle (in relation to many other bands at Sasquatch!), they’ve still got it. They sounded just like their recorded songs, which was cool and unexpected. I sang along to the hits that I knew.
  • Tame Impala
    • What an eccentric and psychedelic band – they were just in their own little world on stage. I feel like you had to be on some hallucinogenic drugs to fully enjoy their concert, but I really enjoyed how they mixed the psychedelic electronica with hard-nosed rock and roll.
  • Future Islands
    • Started listening to Future Islands after their single “Seasons” started blowing up. I gotta give them props for putting all their energy into attending a music festival. It definitely seemed like a one-person show, as the lead singer’s high intensity was unmatched by the rest of the band.
  •  Madeon
    • The MOST talented live DJ I have ever seen… and he’s only 16! Unlike most artists that just push a button and run around on stage, Madeon was actually playing live (either that, or he’s REALLY synchronized with this pre-recorded tapes). I was actually engaged the entire time during his set – definitely the most impressive DJ show I’ve been to.
  • Cashmere Cat
    • Loved loved LOVED him. He seems like a recluse “keep-to-yourself’ kind of guy (at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from him), but he sure puts on a crazy show. He’s one of the few EDM artists that I believe actually cares about the artistry of his music instead of trying to pump out hits. High energy, in his own little bubble, really concentrated on his set… that’s what I like to see.

There are more bands that I saw, but I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

I really wished I saw Robert Plant. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t make a point of seeing the Led Zeppelin legend. Maybe next time…

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The Gorge with the sun setting in the background. Absolutely mesmerizing.

I was so happy with my first multi-day music festival experience. I realized that the key with attending these kinds of events is pushing all your concerns, commitments, and worries on the backburner. It’s an environment where you really have to be present to soak up every wonderful moment. And once again, this reinforced for me the importance of finding the right people to travel with – it just made the trip that much better. This made me so excited for the next festival: Squamish Valley Music Festival in August!!

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Beautiful evening at the Gorge.

LA & Santa Monica

Travel dates: May 15-19, 2015

This was the first big trip of 2015 I’ve taken since coming back from exchange last December. I spent the last four months working a Co-op term at InterVISTAS Consulting, one of the world’s best aviation consulting firms. I loved my time there; the “internationality” of the office, with employees flying all over the place for work, made me crave travelling even more than I usually do! One of my proudest accomplishments of my Co-op term at IVC was chairing our weekly meeting – I discussed the importance of cultural understanding in the context of IVC’s work. It was pretty daunting and I was really nervous to present in front of the entire office (albeit only 20 people), but it worked out in the end and I was really happy with the outcome.

We took a late evening flight into LAX and arrived around midnight. By the time we picked up our rental car and found the place, it was already past 1am. Thank goodness for cheap SIM cards and widespread technology! We rented an Airbnb and it was cute and quaint. Since we planned to be out for most of our days, pretty much all we needed was a comfortable bed and a washroom.

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Landing in LA at night

On our first morning in LA, we searched up a good place for breakfast/brunch. We found a place called A-Frame, and boy were we happy about it! I had a “Surfer’s Sandwich” with homemade spam. Sooooo good.

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Surfer’s Sandwich with spam

That afternoon we went to the pier at Santa Monica. It was a pretty sight from afar, and it was the perfect day to walk along the beach. It was almost surreal being there – I felt like the front of a Hollister graphic tee.

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Landing in LA at night

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Santa Monica pier

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Then we searched for a good place to eat in Korea Town. I had always heard that LA’s famous K-Town had the BEST Korean food around, but I didn’t raise my expectations. That being said, I was blown away! The food was absolutely delicious. We went to a place called Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong – we had to wait 40 minutes, but it was worth it. We got a set menu that came with a LOT of food, and I tried so many new Korean dishes I had never even heard of before (bibimbap, seafood pancake, kimchi tofu soup… that’s about the breadth of my Korean food knowledge). It was pricier at ~$40 USD per person after tax and tip, but it was worth it for a once-in-a-while meal.

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Yummy Korean food

That evening as we pondered what to do, we decided to go to Sunset Boulevard and hit up a show at The Comedy Store. It was really cool – you buy tickets for a specific timeslot, enter the room where there’s dozens of small round tables made for 2-3 people, and enjoy yourself. The catch was that you had to order approximately $20 per person in food or drinks, in addition to the tickets you just bought. Not to mention the parking – we paid $30 to valet our car for the evening (you have to drive in LA, or you’ll get stuck on a terrible transit system or you’ll be walking for hours). LA ain’t cheap! Overall, the show was hilarious. I’d definitely go again for a great night of entertainment.

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Right before the show started

The next day we went to Grand Central Market where we stuffed our faces with delicious Cajun food and refreshing smoothies (Preface: we ate SO much on this trip). To minimize costs, we parked our car in a sketchy (but cheap) lot in downtown LA, and took Lyft around the city. Definitely the way to go.

With some resistance from my travel partner Nathan, we went to the Hello Kitty Exhibit  (full title: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty)at the Japanese American National Museum. I used to be obsessed with Hello Kitty as a child, so this nostalgic visit brought back memories of all the HK memorabilia I used to have. Nathan thought it was kind of creepy how HK was so damn happy all the time. I loved it.

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We spent the afternoon walking around downtown LA. I don’t know why, but it was eerily dead. I felt like a zombie apocalypse was about to start – everyone had already vacated the city and we were the only ones left. Granted, it was Sunday…

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One thing I wish I did was visit LACMA – and their Snapchat made me want to go even more. I’d heard all about it, but at the time I didn’t want to spend the money nor brave the traffic downtown in that area. I do enjoy going to art galleries, but they can take up entire afternoons and it seemed like the best use of our time to skip it since we were only there for four days. Next time!

That night, we met up with my mom’s cousin Tina (my second cousin?) for dinner at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood. We had delicious and fresh Italian food, and it was nice to catch up with Tina after a while – I’d never actually hung out with her without my other family members before. She’s a single middle-aged woman with a great career. She’s down to earth and knows what she wants in life, and I admire her for following her dreams and living life to the fullest. After dinner we got dessert at Harajuku Crepe which was super delicious.

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The next day we visited Beverly Hills. It was super luxurious just like I’d imagined, but it almost seemed like a fantasy world. We saw the famous sign and all the high-end brands, and felt extremely underdressed in our shorts and flip-flops. We simply windowshopped – and didn’t dare enter any of the stores for fear of getting kicked out. We got ice cream at Sprinkles (they had red velvet cones – how could we resist?), another treat to indulge in. We walked around inside the Beverly Hills neighbourhood and marveled at the huge mansions and fancy cars. I thought, “the definition of excess”.

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After Beverly Hills, we headed to Venice Beach for a little stroll. It really was cool seeing all the eccentric characters and muscle-y people working out. It was just like TV! I looked out for Kat Von D of LA Ink, but I figured she’s way past that TV show now and probably in Japan somewhere.

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That night, we cooked ourselves a fancy meal. We stopped by Ralph’s, a cheap grocery store, and bought ingredients for our home-cooked meal. On the menu was citrus chicken, sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes. We made way too much food, but it was absolutely delectable. We were munching on chicken legs into the night, still recovering from food coma.

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Dinner is served!

On our final day, we went to the Getty Museum first thing in the morning. What a great place: beautiful architecture, luscious gardens, interesting exhibits, and an overall fantastic way to spend a morning in LA. If you like museums, galleries, and history, I would definitely recommend the Getty! We could have stayed there all day, but we had Hollywood to get to.

Saved for our very last day, we finally went to Hollywood. I myself am interested in the media and entertainment industries, so I was really looking forward to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the surrounding areas. But….. I was quite disappointed!. On TV, Hollywood is always shown as this luxurious place full of celebrities and buzzing with activity. I’m not sure if it was because we were there in the early afternoon or at it was just a slow day, but it was much duller than I had expected. Passing by places like the famous Dolby Theatre, I was surprised at the inactivity in the area. I suspect the excitement happens when there is a premiere or a function of some sort – nevertheless, it was a good experience seeing Hollywood for the first time.

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One thing we didn’t do on this trip was Disneyland or Universal Studios. This is because I felt that they were part of a separate trip altogether, and we didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars in admission for these two attractions. Regardless, I know I will be back in LA someday. I have even considered moving there to work and live, but the biggest issue for me is the daily traffic (how can there STILL be congestion with 6 lanes on a highway?!). We shall see what the future has in store!

Other places I’d love to see next time are Malibu, Long Beach, Burbank, and Huntington and Newport beaches. LA, I will be back for you!!

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A beautiful sky on our way back to YVR

WU Exchange: Observations, Opinions, and Reflection

I’ve said it a million times, but I can’t believe exchange is actually over. I must say, I had some of the best times of my life during this experience and I met some of the most driven, interesting, and fun people ever. It zoomed by in a blur, but I’m glad I took photos and blogged to remind me of all the great things that happened over the past four months.

I definitely grew as a person throughout this wonderful experience. I learned so much about myself: how I function, how I like to spend my free time, who I prefer to surround myself with, and more. I learned to be more open, especially when meeting and hanging out with new people, and I learned to be patient with others.

I loved being able to meet people from different parts of the world, as well as travelling to several countries to learn about various cultures & languages. That was one thing I found astonishing about Europe: countries in such close proximity still maintain very strong cultural distinction, national traditions, and language. I suppose that goes for many other areas of the world: Africa, South East Asia, Latin America. It makes me feel so boring as a North American, where Canadians and Americans can easily get lumped together as one.

Here’s my first big cultural observation: it’s not about the Viennese or Europeans at all. In fact, it’s about our friendly neighbours… the Americans. Now, I must disclaim that I don’t hate Americans, nor do I condone racism or discrimination. Americans and Canadians love to make fun of each other all in good spirits, but here’s simply an observation I made about our fellow friends down south. During our very first day of orientation, we met all the members of our orientation group. Everyone began introducing themselves, stating their name, where they’re from, what they’re studying, etc. Mostly everyone would say their country, for example: “I’m from Russia”, “I’m from Spain”, etc. BUT, I noticed that every single American would say the state or city they were from, as if everyone was expected to know the USA in and out. A common stereotype is that Americans believe they’re the centre of the world, knowing nothing about other countries. The fact that some of our American counterparts stated they were from “Minnesota” or “New Orleans” seems to reinforce the stereotype. If a Russian were to say that they’re from Yekaterinburg, or a Spaniard to say that they’re from Seville, I doubt the American would know where those international cities are! Again, I’m not trying to be racist or discriminatory, it is just an observation I made.

On the topic of racism… I’m just going to come out and say it: I think Europeans are a bit racist. Maybe more than a bit. I have a few examples which reinforce my point:

  • Second-class citizens
    • In many parts of the world, there are “second-class citizens”. This includes Europe – many of the European second-class citizens come from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and surrounding countries. In Vienna, I noticed a strong divide between the “regular” Viennese and the Turkish population living in Vienna. One of my Viennese friends even said: “We like the Chinese and the Indians because they come to Austria and work hard and contribute to our economy. But the Turkish people, when they come, they don’t work. They live off the social welfare and don’t contribute to the society here.” Hearing my Viennese friend say this was surprising to me, because I’ve always been used to a very “open-arms” stance on immigration growing up in Canada. In fact, if it weren’t for the welcoming Canadian attitude towards immigration, my family probably would have suffered a lot more discrimination in “the West”.
    • Update: The recent Canadian Bill C-24 was passed and people can have their Canadian citizenship revoked at any time (including family members) for a number of reasons, including: obtaining the citizenship by false representation or fraud, having served in a military that was in armed conflict with Canada, conviction of (high) treason, spying, or sentenced to imprisonment for life, or terrorism offences as well as sentence to at least five years’ imprisonment. Historically, Canada has never had any similar laws and has prided itself on its welcoming immigration policies. The controversy comes from the fact that most cases will be dealt with procedurally by the citizen and immigration minister, rather than a “fair trial” by a Federal Court judge. Overall, I think the stripping of one’s Canadian citizenship is justified for the above fraudulent or terrorist-related reasons, but it’s very “un-Canadian” to start thinking of certain people as second-class citizens.
  • “Cat calling” in the streets
    • What I mean by “cat calling” doesn’t refer to anything sexual, but I actually had it happen to me multiple times where I was walking in the streets of Vienna and someone (usually a man) would shout at me, “Ni hao! Ching chong ling long!” or other Asian-sounding gibberish. The first time this happened, I was appalled. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the cat calling itself, or whether my subconscious associates negatively with being Asian, or what else. But after thinking about it a little more, I realized my discomfort probably originated from the fact that I was being judged or categorized without further investigation. I would think, “Do they think I’m from China? How do they even know I’m able to speak that language? They don’t know me! They don’t know my story!” Like most people, I don’t really enjoy being stereotyped or categorized without further inquiry. At first, I thought, “Maybe these people are just trying to understand me because they see that I’m Asian.” But what I realized was that people who were catcalling weren’t intending to get to know me at all, they were just being rude. At least in my view they were.
  • It’s not just me
    • Many of my friends from UBC also went on exchange in Europe, and most of them also experienced some kind of racist remark while travelling. Below are some examples:

european racism (WU exchange 2014) - Amy Luo

european racism (WU exchange 2014) - Fiona Wong

Final thoughts: You’d think that after horrific events like WWII and other world genocides perpetrated by Europeans, that people would learn…. But what I’ve experienced in Europe indicates otherwise. Why does this still happen today? Why, in an educated and worldly society (Europe), is there still blatant racism or judgment? One reason I can think of involves the mosaic of European cultures: each European country seems so ingrained in their own culture and is proud of being different from their neighbours that they can’t help but stereotype “the French”, “the Belgian”, “the Italians”. If you mistook a German for an Austrian, or a Spaniard for a Portuguese, boy would they give you a hard time about it. I think many Europeans are “trained” this way since childhood, and it trickles into adult life. Now, I don’t mean to say that ALL Europeans are racist. In fact, I met many who are totally non-judgmental and love interacting with people at “face value”. But after returning to my culturally diverse hometown, it’s undeniable to me that non-white people in Europe are treated differently. End rant.

Over the last four months, there have been highs and lows, but I’d say the entire experience was 95% positive. While writing this post, I attempted to summarize my Top 10 favourite moments of exchange, but I realized that was practically impossible. Of all the things I did and the places I went, I wouldn’t have changed any of it. And as I’ve been reiterating for several posts now, it’s not necessary what you do or where you go. It’s really about the people you’re with that make the experience either mediocre or fantastic. I met so many people who I know will go far and make big things happen, and I made so many great friends that I know I’ll cherish for life. Hands down, I would recommend everybody to go on an exchange semester. No matter what your motives are for going, I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

And now…. I must plan for my next adventure! 😉

Wien: Week 17

This marked the final week of my exchange semester in Vienna. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone by! This week, I wrapped up the administrative duties associated with moving out of a dorm and away from a country. It passed by in a blur, but I still wanted to make sure I got some bucket list things done before leaving the city.

Rathaus looked stunning that day

Rathaus looked stunning that day

Cafe Landtmann, a classic Viennese cafe. It was delicious!

Cafe Landtmann, a classic Viennese cafe. It was delicious!

One night, we went to Ribs of Vienna for a friend’s birthday. It. Was. Delicious. It was classic “American” ribs with a variety of marinades and sauces to choose from. The décor was cool too, the restaurant was inside an old tavern. Jason and I shared 5 half-racks with some side dishes, and we were still super full by the end. Would definitely recommend this place!

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Ribs of Vienna… soooo good.

Angel, Jocelyn, Florence and I went to this cool exhibition called the Olympus Photography Playground. You could rent an Olympus camera (a variety of different cameras for different photography levels), and they had several different decorated and interactive rooms where you could test the cameras and learn about photography. From a marketing point of view, this was a fantastic move for Olympus because through my marketing courses and from personal experience, I’ve learned that consumers love “trialability”. People like to try products with no strings attached, to see if they like them before they commit to buying anything. This “photography playground” did just that – it allowed thousands of people to test drive several Olympus camera models in creatively decorated rooms… for free! They relied heavily on an online presence for promotions, because I didn’t see any signs or advertisements other than via Facebook and their website. I think it was a genius move on Olympus’ part to set up the photography playground – it was a relatively low setup cost for exposure to thousands of customers.

Exterior of Olympus Photography Playground... very

Exterior of Olympus Photography Playground… very “hole in the wall” operation. I wonder if this was intentional, or if their signage wasn’t that great?

One of the many super cool rooms in which you could play around with photography and videography

One of the many super cool rooms in which you could play around with photography and videography

Joce, Angel & Florence experimenting with this cool mirror exhibition thing

Angel & Joce experimenting with this cool mirror exhibition thing

That night, a few of us went to Der Nussknacker (The Nutcracker) ballet at the State Opera House. My vision was limited since we were quite far away with our standing tickets (€3!), but it was a lovely show nonetheless. After the ballet, we had a super fun night at Passage, the nicest club in Vienna (in my opinion).

Standing tickets at Der Nussknacker

Standing tickets at Der Nussknacker

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The next day, Jocelyn, Florence and I went to Naschmarkt and ordered some meat and cheese from Urbanek. We got the idea from the outdoor market itself – each time we’d go to Naschmarkt, there were always people standing outside Urbanek sipping on wine and eating delicious charcuterie. So, one day we finally tried it ourselves! It was a wonderful experience at the family business. We had no idea what to order, so we asked the brothers behind the counter (at least they looked like brothers) to prepare an assortment of meat & cheeses for us for about €20 each. The meats were some type of ham, salami, traditional bacon and prosciutto. We also ordered a fruity white wine to pair with the assortment – it was all so delicious. It ended up being about €45 per person, more than expected, but the overall experience was totally worth doing once.

The super friendly owners at Urbanek

The super friendly owners at Urbanek

Our meet, cheese and wine assortment @___@

Our meet, cheese and wine assortment @___@

A display in an U-Bahn station which counts how many Wiener Schnitzels are being consumed in Vienna

A display in an U-Bahn station which counts how many Wiener Schnitzels are being consumed in Vienna

I realized that I still hadn’t gone to see an opera show, so I was determined to see one before leaving Vienna. Finally, Jason and I went to see the opera Rigoletto, a tragedy with the following themes: “a pivotal relationship between father and daughter, the inexorability of fate, love, revenge and sacrifice, as well as a close look at the suffering of a social outcast”. To be honest, I thought the opera would be really boring, but the English subtitles made it suspenseful and exciting because we could actually understand what was happening in the story. I would definitely recommend going to see a tragic opera, because it totally exceeded my expectations.

Ending of Rigoletto - Bravo!

Ending of Rigoletto – Bravo!

Jason and I at Rigoletto

Jason and I at Rigoletto

We planned to spend Christmas with friends who were still in Vienna for the holidays. It felt weird being here around this time, since it was my first Christmas away from home. I wouldn’t say Christmas is a huge production back home, but being with family has always been a constant around the holidays. Our Viennese Christmas was a potluck at Jason’s place, about 11 people who showed up in the end. It ended up being a very Italian-themed dinner, with dishes including antipasto, lasagna, spaghetti, risotto, and delicious orange-infused tiramisu (made by Jason). The odd dishes out were my mashed sweet potatoes, some tortilla chips, and the Spanish guys’ yummy sangria. By the end, we were all absolutely stuffed and satisfied. Overall, it was a really nice get together with friends, new and old.

Friends on Christmas Eve!

Friends on Christmas Eve!

Unintentionally Italian Christmas Dinner

Unintentionally Italian Christmas Dinner

Cheers to friends!

Cheers to friends!

We hit up some other clubs during our last week in Vienna: Prater Dome, Volksgarten, and Säulenhalle. Prater Dome is the biggest club in Vienna by size, with several rooms with different music. However, we were constantly warned by locals that Prater Dome is a place where “uneducated, uncivilized” people go. Nonetheless, we heard that Prater Dome had a room with really good hardstyle EDM, which Jason got excited about. I guess the locals meant “white trash” personalities (pardon the term), and once we arrived we understood what they meant. But the people didn’t really deter from us having a good time, because as I’ve repeatedly said… it’s about who you’re with that makes the experience enjoyable! Volksgarten and Säulenhalle are nicer clubs, with higher prices. They are frequented by young people and both great music. I didn’t make it to all the clubs in Vienna, but I was pretty happy with all the ones I did visit.

The morning before our departure, it snowed! We woke up in shock to see a thin blanket of snow covering the neighbouring building roofs. It truly felt like Christmas (though it was late December). In celebration, Amanda and I went to the Gasometer Noodle House very close to our dorm, a Chinese restaurant we’d been wanting to try for the longest time. Despite wanting to have the most authentic Austrian culinary experience we could during exchange, we gave in on our last day. We ordered duck on rice noodles, as well as beef rice noodle. It was actually run by Chinese people, so that was a semi-promising sign. The food was alright, not too authentic but our expectations were pretty low to begin with. I probably wouldn’t go back there voluntarily though.

Snow?!

Snow at Gasometer?!

After packing up the last of our things at home, we met up with our WU buddies for “the last supper” before our departure at this really nice Vietnamese restaurant called ___. After that, we went to a bar to play pool and have a few beers. We also had a bit of a snowball fight while walking down the street, because it had snowed more since the morning. We had a flight in the middle of the night, so we were trying to draw out the time as much as we could. I gotta say that I’m so grateful for our buddies, especially my buddy Andi, who took time out of their busy schedules to hang out with us, drive us to the airport, and just be great friends to us.

WU buddies - great friends for life!

WU buddies – great friends for life! [we attempted a self-timed photo here]

Fun fact: the first thing we ate in Vienna was McDonalds, and guess what the last thing was??

Fun fact: the first thing we ate in Vienna was McDonalds, and guess what the last thing was??

When Andi dropped us off at the airport, I got a bit emotional. I still remember the first day he picked us up and introduced us to Vienna four months ago. As Amanda and I went through security and sat in the terminal waiting for our flight, we couldn’t believe it was all over. It was a reflective moment as we mentally recapped everything that had happened during our exchange semester, good and bad. It was a bittersweet moment as we boarded the plane – we were both incredibly sad to leave the wonderful four-month experience that had been exchange, but we were also happy to be returning home to see our friends and family. Now, off I go with my cheesy photo of my passport about to take off……

Next post: Exchange recap and… Europeans are a bit racist. THERE, I said it.

Budapest + Wien: Week 16

After visiting my cousins in Rostock, I took a bus back to Berlin, where I took a 14-hr overnight train to Budapest to meet up with my fellow WU exchange friends. It was quite the long ride, with the ticket officers coming in to check our tickets at every stop (I swear it was every hour), but I finally made it at 8:30am. I joined the others (Jason, Melissa, Jessica and Ryoka) at our Airbnb and we did some sightseeing that day. They had already stayed one night and had seen a lot of the city already, but they were nice enough to accompany me again.

Selfie during exhausting trip to Budapest

Selfie during exhausting trip to Budapest

After having brunch at this cute little Italian-style café, we took a hike up Gellérthegy (Gellért Hill) to check out Szabadság Szobor, Budapest’s very own Statue of Liberty. It was first erected in 1947 in remembrance of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi forces during WW2. The 14m statue holds a palm leaf in the air, and its once bronze figure had transformed into a green-black coating over the years, similar to many of the old European buildings that were once adorned with copper and bronze accents. The air was cold and humid while hiking, but it was some much needed “exercise” due to my workout laziness from all the travelling I’d been doing in recent weeks.

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Szabadság Szobor

Cute little Budapest statue

Cute little Budapest statue

Friends in Budapest!

Friends in Budapest!

Our sightseeing continued and it was very foggy, which inhibited our full view of the landscape, but we went on to see some of the city’s major points. We must have walked 10km that day. We snapped some pictures at Buda Castle, where there was a mini version of Vienna’s Stephansdom. This one was called Matthias Church. Over the course of the day I realized that certain parts of Budapest looked exactly like Vienna – a smaller, rough-around-the-edges replica. I recall seeing a mini Parliament, Greek-style and all, as well as a structure that looked suspiciously similar to Vienna’s Schwarzenbergplatz. And need I mention the State Opera Houses in both cities? Carbon copies. I suppose it makes sense that both were once part of the formerly powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire and that rulers wanted the architecture to look similar in both of the major cities. I haven’t done any research on this, but the evidence is there. Well, it is to me anyway.

Foggy Budapest

Foggy Budapest

Mathias Church, Budapest

Matthias Church, Budapest

Hungarian State Opera House.... see the resemblance to Vienna's?!

State Opera House in Budapest…. see the resemblance to Vienna’s?!

We walked across the Chain Bridge to visit the Pest side (Budapest was once two cities separated by the Danube, called Buda & Óbuda and Pest, but in 1873 they united to form a single Budapest). To be honest, the Chain Bridge was a bit underwhelming. But I guess I was expecting more after hearing friends talk about it and the fact that it’s in the Top 15 things to do in Budapest, according to TripAdvisor.ca. Nonetheless, bridges are pretty sweet because of their ingenious architectural design and structural strength. After walking around a little bit, we started to get tired and cold. So…. naturally, we went back to our Airbnb to take naps!

Chain Bridge

Chain Bridge

That evening, we’d planned on going to the thermal baths that Budapest was so famous for. Sadly, Jessica and Ryoka couldn’t join us, so the three of us went. We were so excited to visit Széchenyi fürdő (Széchenyi Baths), which are considered to be the best and most popular in the city. It was 4,100 HUF (€13.50) for a daypass and a locker, not bad for a prime tourist attraction. The building itself looked like a Baroque palace, making us feel like royalty. There were a few baths each at different temperatures, but it was extremely soothing. Personally, I’m not one to enjoy spending more than 15-20 minutes in a hot environment like saunas or thermal baths, so I had to hope from pool to pool to mix it up. In the colder bath, there was a little whirlpool that went around a tiled pillar. We had way too much fun being swept away by the “current”. From what I’ve researched, the Széchenyi baths also has 15 indoor pools, and several steam baths and saunas. We didn’t have enough time to explore those areas, but overall it was a fun, relaxing time at the famous baths in Budapest.

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After bathing, we were pretty hungry. Jason, who’s a pro at choosing places to eat (based on ratings and reviews), chose a restaurant called Paprika. It’s meant to be a traditional Hungarian restaurant, and it was delicious!! The portions were huge, and I’m pretty sure nobody paid more than €12-15 per person.

Paprika.... such good Hungarian food!

Paprika…. such good Hungarian food!

After stuffing ourselves with the best meal of our Budapest trip, we hit up Szimpla Kert, a really cool and eclectic bar within walking distance of our accommodations. It wasn’t really “hipster” and pretentious, it was more just a hodgepodge of random décor: wires from electronics strung across rooms, plants growing from ceiling-suspended pots, brick walls paired with steel accents… it was a bit grungy and worn, but very lively and full of energy. One of my favourite things about this place was that they had people walking around selling carrots. No, not chopped up into nice bite-sized sticks… these carrots could have literally been pulled from the ground, skin peeled, and ends chopped off minutes before they arrived in a bucket at our table. I love carrots, and I was so taken aback by this ridiculously random carrot vendor. I just had to. It was one tasty carrot alright.

Carrot @ Szimpla Kert

That was one good carrot.

The next day, we had one final meal before returning “home”. Wanting to move away from the heavy Hungarian food we’d had the night before, we stumbled upon a Mexican joint at the right moment. It was called Arriba Taqueria, and it was a really good choice. It didn’t even phase us that we were a group of North Americans eating Mexican food in Budapest. There’s globalization for ya. The ingredients were really fresh, and even though I just had a taco salad, it was really filling and satisfying.

And with that, we took the bus back to good ol’ Vienna, where it began to dawn on us that we had a mere 10 days before leaving the wonderful experience that was exchange.

Next post: Final week in Vienna 😦