Tag Archives: Virginia

American Summer


I have been in Asia since 2010.  Aside from a brief jaunt in Australia, I have been back and forth across the continent, from Burma to Bali to Bangkok (again and again), though mostly just here in Vientiane.

I have not, however, been back to the US in the past two years.  Not for any particular reason, but more because I haven’t had a particular reason I need to go, and friends and family are scattered across the country.  Last month I finally decided it was time for a visit back to my home country…it had been too long since seeing people, and even though it’s the same as my other two-week quarterly breaks here, “summer vacation” just seemed like the right time to visit.

Route 64 West outside of Charlottesville.

In just thirteen days in the US, I went from Virginia, to NYC, to Boston and Providence, to New Jersey, before beginning the long haul back to the Asian continent (2 hour flight + 13 hour flight with no personal TVs?!? 6 hour flight + overnight in Bangkok + 1 hour flight).

So after 2 years away, what did “America” look like to me?

People
* Diverse.  Wow, people of so many races, ethnicities, and nationalities all over the place!  True, Laos is home to many ethnic groups and quite a diverse population, but it was nothing like being in New York City.  The subway was like a menagerie of humanity–advertisements in Spanish, foreign tourists looking at maps of Manhattan, and so many Americans, but all of different backgrounds.  It’s not like in Laos where when someone looks strikingly different you know they are a foreigner.   You can’t make assumptions about anyone’s background in the US.
* While I’m describing people, I’ll say it: I was struck by the number of people that were overweight.  Coming from an area where most women (and some men) are at least 2 sizes smaller than me, if not a lot more, I was amazed about the stereotypically supersized Americans.  Maybe it has something to do with the massive amounts of food I was served!  Or other new American innovations in the last 2 years, like triple-stuffed Oreos, and Dorito-shelled Taco Bell tacos.  Just a theory…

A heaping plate of American food. YUM.

Amenities
* The internet was fast!  You can click on videos and they stream instantly.  When I play a video usually I click pause and then open a new window to do stuff while it loads.  Not in the US, with its super speeds!  Luckily I wasn’t there long enough to really get spoiled by this.
* The roads are wide, empty, and oh-so-smooth.  Cars drive FAST.
* People who are stationed in places to help you actually help.  And know the answers to your questions. (Train stations, malls, etc.)
* You can pay everywhere, for everything, with a credit or debit card.  In a taxi cab, in a convenience store, at a vending machine, when buying something that only costs $ 0.98.  Credit cards all the way.

Rules
* There are a lot of rules.  You have to show ID to buy alcohol.  You have to come to a complete stop at stop signs.  You have to look for real parking spaces even if they are hard to find and totally inconvenient.  I could go on.

I realize these are all very superficial observations, but those are the types of things that were most surprising.  As disappointing as it might be, I wasn’t struck by any deeper sense of reverse culture shock.  As soon as I got in the car and rode down Route 29 in Charlottesville, heading south from the airport, it felt like I had never left.  It seems that no matter how long you spend away from a place you know well, it always feels like no time has passed when you return.  Of course there are things that have changed–new roads, old places that have been paved over–but most things are the same.

Classic Downtown Charlottesville.

In contrast the rate of change here is so rapid, that the city seemed a bit different after only two weeks away–new buildings have arisen from dust, new shiny billboards and scaffolding hide the skeletons and massive development projects, and traffic and bureaucracy already seem to have increased in anticipation of the major international conference being held here this fall (more about this in a later post).  After two weeks I probably noticed a similar number of new things in Vientiane as after two years in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Although I have been slacking on blogging for the past two months, it’s back.  To keep up with the racing pace of change here I’ll be trying to pick up the pace online as well…look for posts to come on development, Hillary, teaching, and more!  I’m still posting daily photos too, so check them out.

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The Best-Laid Plans

And sometimes even your best-laid plans go awry.  Though I have been packed for southern India since the end of June, I am currently switching gears to depart for Laos in less than a week.  After several denied work visa applications, and 2 months of attempts at remedying the situation, there was still no progress.  As the school year was quickly passing by, it was decided that I would be placed somewhere else.  Much to my delight and surprise, I’ve been welcomed as an English teacher next term, beginning in October, at Vientiane College, in the capital city of Lao PDR.  I’ll be leaving next week, and will have awhile to settle in to my new home before work begins.

Are we really still in Virginia?! (Yogaville Lotus Temple)

In the meantime, as I’ve been waiting for these plans to fall into place, I’ve been continuing to explore and appreciate what’s in my own backyard.  The late summer days have been great for spending outdoors, and I finally got to visit Crabtree Falls, a nice hike in the George Washington Forest, and the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, with some friends on an August weekend.  On the way back, we refueled from hiking on smoked barbecue from Blue Ridge Pig, a very unassuming-looking stopoff in Nellysfod, that serves up mouth-watering sandwiches, acclaimed by decades worth of yellowing business cards and newspaper clippings inside.  To wash down the barbecue, we swung by Ciderworks, one of only two hard cider breweries in Virginia, where we got to sample the four current ciders on tap.

original site of the Woodstock festival

Another peculiar Virginia site I visited for an afternoon was Yogaville, which made me feel like I had ventured to an entirely different country for a few hours, with a barefoot vegan lunch, and the unreal-looking Lotus Temple.  Truly hard to believe this place exists in central Virginia.  Venturing further, I visited Richmond and DC several times as well as the Hudson Valley, at the foot of the Catskills, in upstate New York.  Highlights of this trip included a long scenic stroll along the Walkway Over the Hudson, and a visit to the Woodstock Museum, which is at the original site of the 1969 music festival, and was truly excellent (recommended both for those who remember Woodstock, and those who, like me, only wish we had been alive to be able to attend).

view from the Walkway Over the Hudson

So instead of Tamil, I’ll be learning Lao, instead of paneer and aloo gobi, I’ll be feasting on sticky rice and tam som.  I’m confident that my travels will take me to India sometime in the future, so instead of this being a setback, I see it more as an unexpected opportunity.  The unpredictability of the summer has certainly been frustrating, but has perhaps served as a lesson in patience, which will serve me well once I begin experiencing the much slowed-down pace of life in southeast Asia.  I’m incredibly excited to be touching down in one of the chillest countries on earth, the “Land of a Million Elephants,” in a matter of days.

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Endless Summer

Hot and muggy weather?  Yes.  Southern India?  No.  The beginning of August finds me, rather unexpectedly, still in Virginia.  Two rejections later, my visa debacle continues (this story is forthcoming, once I know what the ending is).   As PiA and I continue to try to negotiate my way to Asia, I am trying to keep myself entertained during this unexpectedly long summer.  The result of all this free time?  Some weekend trips and much exploration of central Virginia’s curiosities—from natural beauty to pure, man-made kitsch.

I’ve been revisiting favorite places in the Charlottesville area like Carter’s Mountain Orchard, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Bodo’s Bagels, and the hike at Humpback Rocks.  Add to that some new discoveries, like the Batesville Store, Blue Mountain Brewery, and the Secluded Farm walk at the Monticello trails, and that’s how I’ve been spending my days.  Perhaps it’s fitting that I reacquaint myself with the place I call home before traveling so far away.  Of course, Charlottesville can feel a little stifling after awhile, which demands a trip out of town.

A colorful section of Grand Caverns.

In nearby Grottoes, VA, I visited Grand Caverns, one of the first caves in the area to be discovered, in 1804.  Perhaps equally interesting as the ancient beauty inside the caves (the formations only grow one square inch per century) are the traces of over 200 years of tours, including torch marks and 19th century signatures carved into the rock.

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge, another day trip that I had never made, was both stunning, and over-the-top cheesy.  The bridge itself is photo-perfect, impressive in its sheer size and unusualness.   But this isn’t the only thing to be seen.  The natural wonder has been fenced in and surrounded by a village of old-time roadside attractions.  Next door: The Wax Museum, with wax figures posed in dramatic recreations of Virginia history, Natural Bridge lore, and selected bits of the Bible.  Downstairs, hundreds of molds of wax faces and bodies, and a peek into the workshop, where someone was actually working on a new wax figure (who knew there was such a demand?).   Nearby in the town is an even more outlandish 3-in-one attraction, which I am beginning to regret not visiting.  It included a dinosaur park (the invented backstory had something to do with Union troops using dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction) and the chance to “Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck.”  Luckily, on the way back I stumbled upon another ridiculous creation: Foamhenge.  Just what it sounds, this is one man’s full-scale recreation of Stonehenge out of Styrofoam.  Though it’s now looking a little worse for the wear, it still impresses out of sheer randomness.

The grandeur of "Foamhenge."

Despite the intrigue of these day trips I’ve been happy to get further out of town a few times.  A repeat visit to DC for July 4th was a happy whirlwind of friends and fireworks.  Also a surprise trip to New York City included a mini-Princeton reunion, a visit to Greenwich, CT, an afternoon in MoMA, and delicious meals at Rare and San Rocco.  I’ve stopped trying to predict when I’ll be heading off for good, so my next post might be about the Mumbai airport…or about what those dinosaurs were really up to during the Civil War.

New York, New York

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Tradition, Transition, Reflection

The past month has been a time of both celebration and reflection, of both reunions and goodbyes with close friends, and of closure to my college days and busy preparation for the adventures ahead.  Though these are all quite predictable aspects of the graduation (or Commencement, as Princeton prefers to call it) experience, it has been an intense period of time nonetheless, filled with both nostalgia and anticipation.

Three cheers for Old Nassau...

class of 2010 and 2009 beer jackets

It all began, as Shirley Tilghman referred to it in one of her many Commencement weekend speeches, with the “hoopla of Reunions“–the truly indescribable orange and black blur of a weekend (tents, fences, bands, beer, costumes, P-Rade!, children, golf carts, fireworks, chaos).  This year’s oldest returning alumnus was once again Malcolm Warnock, class of 1925 (his 85th Reunion!), who reigned stoically over the P-Rade, followed by the usual bagpipes, dogs/babies dressed as tigers, old alums sharing beers with young alums, tiger-striped cars, and witty signage.  Finally, the class of 2010 rushed Poe Field to take our places as the newest Tiger alums, while all of the older classes cheered a Locomotive in our honor (Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! 2010! 2010! 2010!).  The past four years, along with this final incredible weekend, brainwashed convinced me enough that I fully plan to return to Old Nassau until I am Malcolm’s age.

Twenty-Ten! Twenty-Ten! Twenty-Ten!

the 2010 senior class rushes Poe Field at the end of the P-Rade

The superb ridiculousness of Reunions was naturally followed by “the pomp and circumstance of Commencement” (another Shirley T. phrase).  Jeff Bezos ’86, CEO of Amazon.com, told us to reflect on the difference between cleverness and kindness, as we gathered in the chapel on Baccalaureate Sunday (And by the way, Jeff–just bought a Kindle to travel with next year and it’s pretty awesome.  Thanks).  Charlie Gibson ’65 and some of our remarkably hilarious classmates gave knee-slapping yet inspiring speeches on Class Day.  And lastly, on Commencement Day, we gathered in front of Nassau Hall, sweating in our caps and gowns, to finally hear that handful of Latin words that meant we were graduates, later dispersing to collect our coveted diplomas, pose with friends and family, and exchange hugs and tears as we left campus one by one.

Blue Ridge Mountains, near Crozet

porch of King Family Vineyards in Crozet

I returned home to Virginia, to enjoy a tiny bit of rest and to begin gearing up for my year with Princeton-in-Asia, which is set to begin this summer.

sunrise at Little River Farm

Though much of the past few weeks in Charlottesville have been spent shopping for appropriate clothing (and other essentials) for the subcontinent and doing lots of research to figure out exactly what these are, I’ve found some time to rediscover my hometown as well.  Snippets of Cville life in June: wine tasting at King Family Vineyards, old friends, new restaurants, and an unexpectedly dramatic storm.

Lincoln looks out on the Capitol.

A weekend trip to DC was also in order to apply for my work visa to India (this is a yet-to-be-resolved saga in itself, which will perhaps be the subject of some future post), and I extended the trip to visit with friends, who have slowly been amassing in “the District” to join the ranks of “the Real World” (the one involving post-grad jobs, rather than the reality show).  Among the highlights of the weekend: a visit to the National Zoo, a visit to a friend’s Northern Virginia farm, and a late-night excursion to the monuments.


Before I know it, these last few days in the US will pass, along with this period of transition, which has brought me from the FitzRandolph Gate, back home, and soon, halfway across the world.

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Paint the Town

In the last few weeks, as I’ve been waiting to go back to school for the last time, I’ve been getting to enjoy life in Charlottesville at a slower pace.  With fall approaching, there seem to be lots of fairs and festivals gearing up in the ‘ville.  UVA is already back in session and last Friday was “Paint the Town Orange” day, a homecoming pep rally of sorts, to celebrate the first UVA football game of the season.  Though the game itself did not end up going so well for the ‘Hoos, who lost to William and Mary the next day, the Downtown Mall was the place to be the night before.  I hadn’t seen it so packed in years, with crowds dining outdoors in the perfect weather, shoppers, families, students, and townies alike.  The UVA marching band paraded down the mall, cheering, throwing goodies at the crowd and playing the fight song, and making me generally feel proud about being a Charlottesvillian, despite Virginia not being my alma mater.

UVA pep marching by the Paramount

UVA pep marching by the Paramount

The crowds also swarmed the mall for “First Fridays”: the open houses for new shows at all of the art galleries around the downtown mall, held on (you guessed it), the first Friday of each month. The McGuffey Art Center is my favorite, both for its variety of artists and of free food during the open houses (guacamole, sugar cookies, giant green olives, YUM).

I also visited the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection for the first time ever.  As one of the most recommended free Cville sights, I figured it was probably about time.  I took the free tour (Saturdays at 10:30am) through the small but fascinating museum.  The vibrant, imposing, and exotic pieces contrast with the beautiful old mansion in which they’re housed.  I found it interesting to learn how modern a lot of the pieces and developments in aboriginal art are due to large commissions by Americans like Kluge.

Other late summer activities?  Peach-picking a few weeks ago at Chiles peach orchard in Crozet, and an afternoon at the Madison county “Taste of the Mountains” street festival, with all sorts of food and crafts for sale on Madison’s Main Street.

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Day Trip: Richmond

Maymont Italian garden

Maymont Italian garden

We drove over to Richmond for a short day trip to see friends after our adventures in the country.  Stopped by Maymont Park, one of my favorites (and free!  although there is a suggested donation).  Highlights: Italian and Japanese gardens.

curious koi

curious koi

The koi fish in the Japanese garden were massive, and swam over right away to check us out, before realizing that we had nothing to offer.  Below, the view of the river at Belle Isle, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon.

Belle Isle

Belle Isle

Also, pictures from the past week are now up on my Shutterfly site, so be sure to check out larger versions of the above, and more.

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Albemarle County Adventures

view from the top

view from the top

Midweek, Josh and I decided to hike Humpback Rock, a few miles west of Charlottesville on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I had done the hike years before, and the 40 minute ascent didn’t sound so bad, but as the trail immediately rose sharply, I realized that it wasn’t quite as easy as it had seemed the last time…when I was 10…  Nevertheless, we made it to the top, which was completely worth the sweat for the incredible view.  Had a picnic on the rocks and headed back down, which of course took less then half as long as the climb.

accomplishment!

accomplishment!

Naturally, to relax after the hike, we decided to stop at some of the many wineries we’d passed on the drive there.  It was my first time on the local Monticello Wine Trail and I was pleasantly surprised (not that I’m an expert).  We stopped at Afton Mountain Vineyards, Veritas, and Pollak…our favorite being Veritas, pictured below, which had an incredible complex and view of the countryside.

view from the Veritas porch

view from the Veritas porch

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