Trapped in Paradise – the DC Edition

Part travel blog, part philosophical musings. All tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.


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120 days in Tel Aviv

I’ve been in Israel for about two weeks now, so I suppose it’s time I blogged about it.

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Here at last! A view of Tel Aviv during one of my morning jogs.

Getting here was an adventure involving many stops in other continents, stories I’ll get to in due time. But since I’ll be starting my study abroad program tomorrow (finally!) I feel like I need to catch up on what’s been going on in since I arrived in Tel Aviv.

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A bit of visiting all the touristy places, such as the old city of Jaffa.

I got here well before the start of the school year so that I could find a place to live. Thanks to my contacts here, I had learned that apartment hunting in Israel is not like apartment hunting in other cities I’d lived in. Sure, they have Craigslist and Airbnb and a few of the other normal sites if you’re looking to rent or sublet, but that’s basically setting yourself up to get ripped off. Everything is done in person at the last minute, where someone might wake up and decide to rent out a room in their place, so they tell their friends, and by word of mouth (or via one of the many online groups) you might find out about it.

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“Hey, did you guys here about the new apartment on Bograshov Street? Don’t let those exchange students anywhere near it!”

For someone who likes to have plans worked out well in advance, this idea of just showing up with no idea of where to live was not sitting well. At least I was more prepared than many of my fellow exchange students, who decided not to arrive until days before our orientation started.

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Group projects are going to be interesting.

But in the end it worked out well for everyone, including the late-comers. No one ended up homeless in a cardboard box, and thanks to a realtor who randomly showed up in our class Facebook group with a bunch of apartments for rent, I wound up renting a flat with two other students that’s just two blocks from the beach. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to let go of my need for structure and just embrace the Israeli attitude of doing stuff on the fly.

'I joined a relaxation program, to help me overcome my type A behavior. Damit! I'm going to be the best, most relaxed, one in the group.'

Yeah right, this is not going to happen overnight, if at all. Get back to me in February.

Aside from that stress test, adjusting to life in a foreign country has been interesting (in a good way, of course.) I’m reminded of the adjustment I went through when I’d moved to Japan back in 2010, since there were many similarities: non-Indo-European language, completely different writing system, unfamiliar customs and mannerisms, physically sticking out like a sore thumb.

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At least I’m not this guy.

However, in Japan I’d had the built-in support network of the military that had helped me navigate everything from living arrangements to riding the train. Other than the handful of contacts I’d made during my trip here over spring break, I was kind of on my own. Especially since my school had decided to cancel the annual short-term study abroad trip to Israel, citing security concerns. (Apparently letting a group of students come here for ten days was too risky, but sending me to live on my own for four months is totally fine.)

It’s been a fun adventure, though. Overall, I’ve found the locals to be quite friendly and helpful, and even though I had arrived right in the middle of the Jewish holiday season (meaning the city shut down practically every other day, which made shopping for groceries difficult) I haven’t had too bad of a time exploring and getting to know my new home. Plus, the food here is quite amazing (and healthy!)

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Breakfast of champions! Where has shakshuka been all my life?!

Anyway, I’m looking forward to my time here, and am excited to be able to write about it.

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Charming Changsha

The second part of our trip to China involved a visit to the capital of the Hunan province, Changsha – a city I had never heard of before starting on this project.

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That one time I got photobombed by the Chairman. This is Mao’s hometown, as everyone here will inform you.

Our client’s headquarters is located here, so we would be spending six days in the city visiting various companies and attending seminars at local universities in addition to working with our company. Although we were very busy, we still found time to see some of the local sights.

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We also got our first taste of Chinese opera: “Eeeeeeeiiiiieeeee….”

I was surprised at how much I liked Changsha! We were only told that it was a “second-tier city,” which means something entirely different in China given that Changsha’s population is around 7 million! We were also warned about the unusual Hunan cuisine, characterized by the fact that it’s extremely spicy.

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This food court, just downstairs from the Crowne Plaza where we were staying, was full of all sorts of delicious (and extra spicy) food

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…as well as some more unusual cuisine. Yes, those are turtles. No, I wasn’t brave enough to eat one.

This city has a completely different feel from Shanghai, which as one of my classmates put it, “felt like visiting Epcot.” Changsha, being a bit off the beaten path, just felt more authentic. It was the first time since arriving in China that I really felt like I was back in Asia.

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Case in point: a giant lobster mascot outside of a karaoke bar

Additionally, the people are extremely friendly. The city has a reputation for being one of the happiest in Asia, and we were greeted with such hospitality everywhere we went that it was hard to leave.

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Talk about random: for a “second-tier city,” Changsha’s nightlife has got it going on! The club we went to was like something you’d find in Vegas.

This region is famous for its embroidery, so on our list was the Hunan Embroidery Museum. At first we weren’t that excited – I mean, it’s fancy sewing. But we were astonished at what we saw when we entered.

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At first glance, the works look like paintings (such as this depiction of the Zhangjiajie mountains, which served as the backdrop for the film Avatar.

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But on closer inspection, they’re not paintings at all, but embroidery that takes months or even years to complete!

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This artist has been working on this embroidery for the past three years, and will require another two to finish!

We also visited Yuelu Academy, a 1000-year-old school that’s still being used today as a university. It’s up in the mountains, which added to the ancient-feeling ambiance.

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This school was first established during the days of the Song Dynasty

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An edict laying a curse on the descendants of all prospective cheaters.

After days of hard work and preparation, we gave our final presentation on our last morning there. The president of the company seemed to really like it, and the board was pretty happy with our findings! It felt good to have this victory, especially since on our practice run before we left DC, my team had gotten raked over the coals. We learned from our mistakes, however, and after some reorganizing we were able to put together a presentation we were not only proud of, but one that made our client happy. And at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.

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One of our judges, Professor Shun from Hunan University and a fellow UW alum. Go Huskies around the world!

I feel so fortunate to have been able to work with such a great team; they really made my job as project leader quite rewarding and educational. The nice thing about our schedule for this China trip was that since our final presentation happened about halfway through, that left almost an entire week to relax and enjoy the rest of our trip stress-free. So almost immediately after we were finished and said our final good-byes, we hopped on a plane to Beijing for some well-deserved leisure time!


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Aloha Monday! Also, more chocolate

I feel the need to give a shoutout  to the Matrix/Terminator/Tron/whatever other “computers are running the world” movies out there. My workday got cut short since a transformer or something blew overnight, knocking out the computer networks and phone lines for the entire base. It’s sad that without our computers there was literally nothing we could work on. Nothing at all! The only thing my coworkers and I could do was sit around talking about the Olympic hockey games and flipping out over the thousands of emails that would surely be waiting for us when we came back online. My big accomplishment for the day? Finishing most of the crossword puzzle in this week’s Navy Times. I know people talk about our dependency on computers and that it’s nothing new (see: every five year old carrying around an iPad nowadays) but it’s still crazy seeing it happen. Oh well, at least we got to go home early. Aloha Monday!

Damn you computer! Now I have to go outside in the sun and be social in person!

NO!! Now I have to go outside in the fresh air and TALK to people!

And now for something completely different – this past weekend was the Hawaii Chocolate Festival, meaning I get to keep with the theme of cookies and other goodies that I wrote about last time. I was expecting something not-so-fancy, and went into the Dole Cannery shops thinking “eh, it’s Hawaii, they’ve probably got like two tables set up where they’re giving out pieces of organic chocolate bars.” I was proven wrong by the presence of hula dancers, live music, and rather creative treats that went well beyond bits of plain chocolate (although they had those, too.) Well played, Hawaii.

Tiki's had chocolate-filled spring rolls, complete with ice cream on the side! And here I thought they were only a drinking establishment.

Tiki’s had chocolate-filled spring rolls, complete with ice cream on the side! And here I thought they were only a drinking establishment.

Bacon really DOES make everything better!

Bacon really DOES make everything better!

One of the vendors there was Manoa Chocolate Hawaii, which prides itself on using Hawaii-grown cacao and making the chocolate right there in the shop. And they should be proud, because the end product is quite amazing. I’m a bit of a dark chocolate snob and will stock up on Valrhona bars whenever I go back to the mainland. Now, however, I think I’ve found a place to go if my supply runs out between trips. If you ever find yourself on the windward side of Oahu, I highly recommend stopping by to check them out! Their store is in Kailua, on the second floor of Kailua Square (right above Cinnamon’s, the island-famous restaurant with the awesome red velvet and guava chiffon pancakes.) Also check out the cacao festival in Kailua this weekend!

Chocolate made right in the islands. Oh so delicious.

Chocolate made right in the islands. Oh so delicious.

Finally, I suppose it wouldn’t be a true chocolate festival without something completely weird. When the guy selling this has to continuously run out and tell people “don’t eat it! It’s for your face!” something might be off.

Are you SURE that isn't a jar of nutella?

Are you SURE that isn’t a jar of nutella?

Then again, a chocolate facial could be really good for the pores. Who knows?