#NYVegPilgrimage Day 1: New York Indian Food

Indian vegetarian food

I’m technically in New York for a conference but I’ve decided that I’m also here on a food pilgrimage. I love trying new restaurants but, since my only vegetarian friend is more of a variations-of-bread-and-cheese kind of girl, I rarely get to explore adventurous meatless fare. While I’m always a good sport about having one to three options to choose off the menu when I go out with friends, I’m excited to check out places with more diversity.

I settled in to my hostel and set out to make my plans for the evening. My go-to move is to hang out in a common area near dinner time, start chatting with whoever comes by, and usually I get pulled into some kind of dinner/drinks arrangement. But this place is SO quiet. It’s cute, clean, centrally located, and more like a hotel than a hostel (except for the shared bathroom part). But being more isolated (i.e: there aren’t 12 people stuffed in a room of bunk beds) makes it much less social.

I checked out the communal area, perused the odds and ends books lining the cases (a bright orange Korean guidebook to New York was my personal favorite) and read over the bulletin board (I’m not sure how up-to-date it is after seeing one of the fliers claimed an event was happening in 2010). Only one person passed by and he was on his way back to his room with takeout.

I followed suit and went to my room to Yelp where I could pick up food. I decided on an Indian place a short walk away, bundled up in my makeshift winter-wear, and headed out.

As soon as I walked in the restaurant I decided to stay and dine solo instead of eating back at my place. I don’t know if it was because it didn’t look much like a to-go kind of restaurant or because there were tiny tables close together that would mask my aloneness or because I decided to seize the opportunity to people watch, but I prefer to think it was the last (least chicken) one.

I don’t know what is about eating at a restaurant alone that is so universally intimidating. But I like to do the things that scare me so I sat down and ordered a glass of wine.

I think the food must have had a level of authenticity because there were quite a few Indian pairs sitting around me – always a good sign. They ate expertly with their hands off of silver platters shaped like cafeteria trays. I took a wild guess with my order since I didn’t recognize anything on the menu. I think the restaurant’s origins may be from a different part of India than what I’m used to (though let’s be real, the only things I would have recognized on the menu are samosas and nan, so who knows).

Whatever I got (Something that started with a “P”? Damn, my ignorance is showing), it was delicious. My silver tray was filled with two large, round pieces of a slightly-fried flatbread. There were also two types of curry, neither of which looked like what would come to mind if I thought of curry.

It was a tasty start to my journey.

I’m going to Peru!!

About a month ago my cousin casually sent me a Facebook message asking what my plans are for March and if I happened to be interested in hiking the Inca Trail. She filled me in on the details and told me to “let it marinate”.

I’m always interested in new chances to travel but I was nervous about altitude sickness (nearly 14,000 ft!) and afraid that I’m not fit enough for such a strenuous four-day hike.

The night of my 23rd birthday I decided to screw my worries and take the trip.

Ashley begins training for the Inca TrailI make a lot of decisions based on not wanting to let fear hold me back. While I like to think I still have a healthy amount of fear in the back of my mind (although that hasn’t completely stopped me from doing some really stupid, dangerous things over the years; lessons learn, right?) I hate to pass up the opportunity for adventure.

For a long time there was a sticker on the freeway ramp near my house that read “Live a good story.” It’s gone now but it so perfectly sums up my philosophy that I still think about it all the time. Hiking to Machu Picchu is going to make a great addition to my story.

Here’s the skinny: I’ll fly to Lima with my cousin where we’ll spend a coupe days getting our bearings in Peru; we’ll hop on a plane to Cusco and acclimate to the high elevation (more than 11,000 ft!); then we hike the Inca Trail with a group for four days (26 miles and up to 13,800 ft!); fly back to Lima for a few more days of fun; and get back to California at midnight on Sunday with just enough time to turn around for work on Monday.

This past week I’ve started to ease myself into training to get a sense of where I’m at physically. I was SO sore after hiking Cowles Mt. with my mom. It’s only a 2.5 mile hike so, naturally, I got really nervous for a minute but the soreness quickly went away and now I’m just more motivated. I plan on doing a lot of yoga (for core and breathing), running (for cardio) and hiking (duh) of the next the next 100 days. You might also catch me taking laps on the stairs at work.

Any experienced travelers out there have tips? I’m all ears.

At the risk of sounding like a real jerk…

Can travel stop giving you butterflies?

The plane goes through its ritualistic grumbling while flight attendants on a screen remind me to put my own oxygen mask on before helping others around me. I’ve just departed San Diego for Madrid by way of Chicago – my ninth flight this year. It all feels very easy and routine. Even my ears know the drill and I’ve stopped needing to chew gum during take off. 

I’m hyper-aware that I’m extraordinarily fortunate to be able to see so much of the world and go on so many adventures. But is some of the magic gone?

I don’t get nervous about hurling through the sky in a bulky flying machine; I have a routine mostly perfected to speed through security with a smile; I remember to bring a sweater because I’ll always be cold; I know exactly which utility purse to bring and which pocket houses my headphones.

Rest assure that I still screw up. Regularly. But having turned into a relatively experienced traveler has made the whole processes easier and leaves me wondering if the jitters and road blocks that used to thrill and terrorize were part of the fun.

I’m hoping that I’m just entering an in between stage of travel transcendence where I become skilled at the basics and get to enjoy a new level of the experience.

Have any of you seasoned travelers out there gone through the same thing? I’d love to hear about how you’ve evolved as an explorer and how you dealt with the growing pains along the way.

Being Vegetarian in Spain Means Tiptoeing Around Ham (18/100)

Jamon iberico in spainHam is an unavoidable component of Spanish life. If you’re lucky enough to end up in someone’s kitchen, there’s sure to be a leg propped on a special wooden stand and covered with a cloth; leaving the hoof and hairy ankle exposed. The American in me questions how sanitary this could be, but Spaniards won’t hesitate to cut off a slice straight from the block. A Spanish teen once told me that adept ham-cutting skills are a point of pride and assured me his mother slices the best, thinnest pieces of jamón.

I was in El Tigre getting tapas with a gaggle of Americans and used my then-limited Spanish to ask for something “vegeteriano por favor. No carne por favor.” The waiter thought he had just the thing for me and brought out a big plate of cheese croquets. One bite confirmed my suspicions that Spaniards don’t 100% understand my lifestyle. Apparently the little flecks of ham in the cheese don’t count as meat, right?

The World’s Largest Cathedral is a Hot Mess (17/100)

Seville Cathedral, biggest cathedral in the worldSevilla (or Seville for us non-Spaniards) is home to this hot mess of a cathedral. It was added to for ages and clearly they took some stylistic liberties along the way.

I didn’t go inside but the exterior is having a wonderful identity crisis. I kind of like it. Maybe it’s a more realistic house for spirituality. Because whose inner-life actually looks the Basilica Di Santa Maria?

Firehouse Lounge and Hostel – Austin, Texas – Review

Firehouse Lounge and Hostel is the first American hostel I’ve ever stayed at. After backpacking through Europe, I wasn’t sure if it would have the same feel here in the states. I was pleasantly surprised that it was able to maintain the very communal vibe while being mildly more upscale than the hostels I stayed at abroad.

Photo from Firehouse's website

Photo from Firehouse’s website

One of Firehouse’s biggest assets is it’s location. It sits on Brazos right between 7th St and the legendary 6th St. The area get’s a little loud on the weekends but it’s tons of fun if that’s your scene. They block off cars from a big chunk of 6th on the weekends and people spill into the streets as they wobble from bar to bar. If you don’t feel like venturing too far, all you need to do is slide away the first floor bookcase. There you’ll find a dimly lit lounge with lots of seating, a stage for live music and a bar.

Just to give you some context to how good of a deal you are getting, rooms at the nice hotel across the street start at $299 a night.

Firehouse Hostel Austin

Photo from Firehouse’s website

As the name suggests, the hostel is a renovated three-story firehouse (don’t get too excited, there isn’t a pole to slide down from the top floor). There are rooms on both the second and third floor but (if you have a choice when booking) the second floor has rooms with nicer, more private bunks. Apparently there are also a few private rooms.

One thing you should know is that it is FREEZING at this hostel. It’s a great break from the Austin weather but I was pretty cold at night. Just remember to pack a sweater and you’ll be alright.

There are separate men’s and women’s bathrooms (with three showers a piece) on each floor. If you’re particular, note the bathroom setup is a little different on the different floors (at least for the ladies – can’t vouch the gents). I personally think the third floor has a better shower setup and the second floor has better bathroom stalls (as in they lock – no locks on the third floor and they don’t really close that well).

Firehouse is clean, modern and has a great staff. Free breakfast (bagels, toast, muffins, fruit, cereal), free WiFi (though it wasn’t working my first day so I can’t speak to how consistent it is). The communal kitchen has all the necessities (microwave, oven, toaster, fridge) and even a waffle iron. There are free bath towels for guests to use and you can rent locks for just $1 a day (+ a $5 deposit).

I’d also like to give them props for having a basket of mini-hand towels in the bathrooms and no paper towels. I always appreciate environmental touches.

The day I arrived the hostel began its new parking program. You can now park in a garage a few blocks away (on Trinity and 7th) for $10/day with the freedom to come and go as you please. It worked out really well for me. Be aware that the parking garage is right next to a church and it seems like there was always a small homeless crowd hanging out around the steps. They never gave me any problems (just tried talking to me) but it’s good to know.

I highly recommend staying here on your next trip to Austin

Travel is my least favorite part of travel

I always forget how much I hate travel days. Lugging bags, catching fights, hopping on a bus in good faith that it’s going the direction you want it to. Travel days are a special kind of personal hell for us directionally challenged folk.

I can figure out a metro system in just about any city but as soon as I’m walking,  driving or busing there is a 90% chance I’m lost 100% of the time. Couple that with sleep deprivation and getting around Austin has been a challenge so far.

I may or may not have yelled every filthy swear word I know (in surprisingly innovate combinations) at the GPS in my rental car as it directed me to make U-turns on the freeway while I was being introduced to the feeder road system.

On the bright side,  Austin is a very cool city and I’m lucky enough to be staying right in the heart of it. I had heard before that it’s the live music capital of the world, but when you walk down Sixth Street and hear a perfectly unintentional symphony of bands playing in bars up and down and as far as you can see, it really sinks in.

In Madrid, Everyone Drinks (14/100)

Old lady drinking beerI was getting lunch down the street from Universidad Antonio de Nebrija when I spied an elderly woman eating a sandwich and drinking an afternoon beer.

The best part was she looked like my Mexican grandma.

The Spanish propensity to drink at anytime of day will always fascinate me.

Read more about my Madrid adventures and that one time a Spanish dog peed on me.

Moms are the Best (8/100)

Parc Guell Spanish Mom

I was sitting in a Barcelona hostel -sick- while my friends explored the city. We only had two days in Barcelona before we had to take a train back to school in Madrid, but I knew I’d be back in a few weeks to visit friends. I took advantage of the free WiFi and skyped my mom for the first time in ages.

While catching up with her and my sister, she mentioned a Catalan student would be coming to my house in America to stay as my brother’s exchange student for the month. Interested, I emailed the kid’s family, told them I was in Barcelona for the weekend, and the next thing I knew they were making plans to pick me up at my hostel and take me to their house outside of the city for Sunday lunch.

They were so incredibly nice and hospitable. We ate lunch for hours, I told them and their son what to expect from my family and America, and they drove me back to my hostel. A few days later I got an email from them saying they would love me to come stay with them for a while. Score!

After backpacking on my own for about two weeks, I went back to their house and they took such fantastic care of me. They gave me a bed, made vegetarian food for me, drove me all over the place, took me on a day trip to the beach town Sitges and adopted me into their family life.

There are so many good people out there. Travel, find them, accept their hospitality, and return the favor some day.

Shout out to the little old lady in Madrid who took care of me and my other Barcelona mom Maria!

A Curious Granada Door Knob (7/100)

Unique doorknobSometime early on in Spain I realized how unique the doors were. They come in a brilliant assortment of sizes, colors, shapes and knobs. I told my good friend, who studied with me in Madrid, that I wanted to take photos of all the cool doors and create some kind of project that reflected my time in Spain through its doors.

She loved the idea and started snapping pictures for me – so much so that her Spanish novio said she had to stop showing him all her door shots.

I didn’t take nearly as many but I couldn’t help stopping to get this one in Granada.

I love how gingerly the hand is draped over the knob and I’m so curious how you open the door. One of the many finds that made Granada one of my favorite cities in Europe (even though The Worst Five Euros I’ve Ever Spent were in Granada).