Brussels

I stayed in Brussels for a few days, sightseeing in this very walkable city.

I had to try Belgium waffles and beer. The waffles are normally eaten plain, as they are already sweetened. But like a filthy tourist, I piled on ice cream, chocolate, and berries. I ate Belgian frites cooked in animal fat. They tasted like regular French fries (burn!!!). And I sampled different varieties of beer. While Germany has the Reinheitsgebot (“German Beer Purity Law”), in Belgium there are no regulations for ingredients. The brewers can throw all kinds of random ingredients in, such as coriander.

At the Grand-Place, we saw the various guild houses and the Town Hall. The Town Hall was asymmetrical because one side was built first. So the other side has different windows. And the other side is shorter in length, to not block the road. Engraved into a wall is a monument for Everard t’Serclaes, who scaled the city walls and opened the gates to recover the city from the Flemings. People would touch the statue, since that will supposedly make sure you can return to Brussels again.

The most famous statue in Brussels is a 24-inch sculpture called Manneken Pis. It is a sculpture of a boy urinating water into the fountain. One theory on the origin of the sculpture is that it is to commemorate the boys who were piss poor. There were tanneries, and the leather making process requires ammonia. So piss poor boys would sell their pee. This beloved statue was stolen multiple times, once by a French soldier. This upset the people of Brussels, so King Louis XV returned the statue and knighted it. French soldiers would have to salute the statue when they passed it. Now the statue is dressed in different costumes each week.

Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis

There are comic murals painted on walls, such as the one below of Tintin. Belgium has the highest concentration of comic creators.

Tintin comic mural
Tintin comic mural

The comic below of Broussaille was controversial because of the purposefully ambiguous gender of the person on the left. The mayor forced artist Frank Pé to add earrings to make the person more feminine so that the couple looked like a heterosexual couple. To date, the mural is on Brussel’s gay alley. Belgium was the second country to allow same-sex marriage, after the Netherlands.

Broussaille comic mural
Broussaille comic mural

We walked by some interesting buildings, such as the Bourse (the Stock Exchange, now an exhibition hall), an indoor mall (Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert), the Art Nouveau Musical Instruments Museum.

Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style
Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style

We walked around Place Royale, home to museums and the Palace of Justice. We also saw the Royal Palace, extended by King Leopold II. King Leopold II exploited Congo’s natural resources, and under his authority, atrocities were committed against the people of Congo. Using the wealth obtained from Congo, Leopold II built many buildings in Brussels, earning the epithet the “Builder King.”

Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale

Brussels is the capital of the European Union. There were EU government buildings and embassies surrounding the center garden.

We also visited the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which are only open to the public a few weeks a year. That said, the gardens were not particularly impressive, and we had to wait in a long queue during Belgium’s Labor Day (May Day). The glass buildings were iridescent, shaped like crowns.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

We were in town during a jazz festival and caught a jazz performance in a small jazz club. The musicians were not notable or of spectacular talent, but it was nice to sip on some drinks in an intimate environment. After each set, there was one extremely enthusiastic audience member whooping and cheering them on much louder than the rest of the audience, saying how great they were, asking for encores. I wish everyone could have their own hype man.

Paris

I visited Paris for a few days, seeing the most popular attractions in a whirlwind tour. We walked around the Seine, visited the Louvre, climbed Sacré-Cœur, took pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

I climbed Sacré-Cœur again
I climbed Sacré-Cœur again

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to study math in Paris several years ago. During the study abroad program, I visited the Louvre 5 times, versus the quick few hours I spent on this last visit. All the art is visual overload, and I appreciate the art more when I can see each room at a leisurely pace.

Apollo "Sauroktonos" (the "Lizard-Slayer"), the selfie-taker
Apollo “Sauroktonos” (the “Lizard-Slayer”), the selfie-taker

I was able to visit a few places that I had always wanted to see, but missed the last time I was in Paris. First was the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The permanent exhibit featured murals, one showing people in motion by Matisse. Another mural showed the history of electricity. The main exhibit was for Karel Appel, who made large, “violent brushstrokes” to paint globs of vibrant color onto canvas. The forms appeared to have been drawn by a kindergartner with no sense of proportion, as he purposefully went against classical styles and methods of painting.

Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris
Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris

I walked around Parc des Buttes-Chaumont for a few hours on a weekday. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a park in the northeast part of Paris, with a gazebo overlooking an artificial lake. Students playing hooky and some elderly folk strolled on the grassy hills and trails. From the gazebo, I could see Sacré-Cœur perched on Montmartre.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

In the study abroad program, I lived at Cité Universitaire, so I would always pass by Denfert-Rochereau, the metro stop near the Catacombs. After waiting in line for two hours, I finally got to see the ossuary. There were stacks and stacks of bones, some neatly arranged, others tossed carelessly into a pile. The bones were arranged in groups, some from soldiers of a certain conflict, some were moved from overfilled cemeteries.

The catacombs
The catacombs

As I walked through the underground tunnels, surrounded by thousands of bones, I felt a chill. Each skull used to belong to a living person. Also, the tunnels were drafty.

Geocaching part 9: the Fremont GeoTour

I did the Fremont GeoTour with two friends. I’m glad they joined, because I would not have been able to find all the geocaches by myself. We walked around the familiar streets of Fremont, a neighborhood that has retained its quirky charm in spite of the new construction springing up all over Seattle. Most of the geocaches had fun puzzles, as the Geocaching headquarters is located in Fremont.

We got brunch at Pete’s Egg Nest, then began the 9-cache GeoTour.

We started at a coffeeshop near the Fremont Bridge. There was the artsy bike rack that I would frequently pass, but never realized it contained a geocache. Using the stones on the sidewalk, we figured out the combination to open the cache.

Geocache near the Fremont Bridge
Geocache near the Fremont Bridge

The next geocache was under the Aurora Bridge, under a fake rock in the middle of the landscaping.

Geocache under Aurora Bridge
Geocache under Aurora Bridge

The next cache was a newspaper vending machine.

Geocache in newspaper vending machine
Geocache in newspaper vending machine

We found the next geocache near a cafe. We had to solve a puzzle and input the correct digits into a fake payphone to unlock the cache.

Geocache phone
Geocache phone

It was hot, so we stopped by the cafe for some delicious burnt lemonade. Then we made our way to the Fremont troll. I turned over nearly every rock to no avail.  There were a lot of tourists posing for pictures, so if they spotted us they probably thought our behavior was strange. My friend noticed one particular rock looked odd, so she flipped it over to reveal the “troll dropping” geocache.

Geocache by the Fremont Bridge Troll
Geocache by the Fremont Bridge Troll
Under the rock
Under the rock

We headed to the Fremont library, and found the clue to the geocache along a walkway behind the building. The clue gave the Dewey Decimal of the geocache, an old atlas in the library.

Geocache behind the Fremont Library
Geocache behind the Fremont Library
Geocache atlas on bookshelf
Geocache atlas on bookshelf
Atlas geocache
Atlas geocache

The next geocache was in a “Chairy Tree,” a tree artfully decorated with chairs. My friend spotted a tiny chair high in the tree, which he retrieved by turning the pulley attached to the tree.

"Chairy Tree" geocache
“Chairy Tree” geocache

The next geocache was another multi-cache. We read the informational placards about the Fremont rocket and the Lenin statue. We answered questions about these sculptures to get the coordinates for the geocache’s location, by the Fremont dinosaur topiary.

Geocache by the dinosaur topiary
Geocache by the dinosaur topiary

We walked along the water to reach the location of the final geocache, a boardwalk that extended into the canal. We combed the boardwalk, looking for some kind of magnetic box attached to the bottom of the boardwalk. This cache was the most difficult to find, but my friend managed to spot it under the stairs.

Geocache by the water
Geocache by the water

The GeoTour was a good walk. Afterwards, we were hungry and went to a friend’s house for her fatty food party.


We also found a couple geocaches that were not part of the Fremont GeoTour.

We found a magnet geocache near the Fremont rocket.

Magnetic geocache by the Fremont Rocket
Magnetic geocache by the Fremont Rocket

We also found a film canister geocache under a bench.

Geocache under a bench
Geocache under a bench

Talapus Lake and Olallie Lake

I hiked to Talapus Lake and Olallie Lake, 6 miles roundtrip with 1200 ft. elevation gain. The trail was wide and had a constant climb, never steep.

There was a hot breeze blowing through the trees, and the sunlight was harsh in areas without cover. Whenever the trail neared a creek, the breeze became cold and refreshing, and the air felt 20 degrees cooler.

Talapus Creek
Talapus Creek

There were patches of deep mud. Before Talapus Lake and halfway to Olallie Lake, the ground was covered in snow. I lost the trail a couple times.

At Talapus Lake, hikers sunbathed on the logs. The smaller logs were rather unstable and one woman accidentally slipped into the water.

Talapus Lake panorama
Talapus Lake panorama

Olallie Lake was still covered in snow. But that did not stop a man and his dog from swimming in the frigid water.

Olallie Lake panorama
Olallie Lake panorama

Overall, this was an easy hike, perfect for a relaxing holiday. I saw some people slip and land on their butts in the snow. So to be safe, I wore microspikes and used trekking poles, but they weren’t necessary.

Heather Lake

I hiked to Heather Lake, roughly 5 miles roundtrip with 1000 ft. of elevation gain. Along the trail, we passed by stumps of old-growth trees, with new, thinner trunks shooting off the stumps. We hiked by waterfalls and over rickety wooden boardwalks. A section of trail was flooded by shallow running water. Near the lake, the trail was covered in snow. I had waterproof boots, microspikes, and poles, so there were no issues. I even had mats to sit on in the snow. It’s great to be geared up!

Heather Lake panorama
Heather Lake panorama

The lake was mostly covered in ice and mushy snow. We rested on the shore in the snow, a strange contrast to the bright, sunny, 70° weather. We could hear the roar of waterfalls on the other side of the lake, a robust flow from the snowmelt. As we milled at the lake, the number of arriving hikers started to pick up, and on our way down there were some traffic jams. We also missed a turn, and ended up doing a loop through the snow, stepping over tree branches and walking through mud.

Overall, I enjoyed the hike to Heather Lake. It was leisurely, and the views at the lake were gorgeous.

Spring Reading: Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude

I finally read Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I like Nabokov’s effusive prose, so good.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, about the rise and fall of the Buendía family over seven generations. At the beginning of the book, I read it as realistic fiction due to the matter of fact tone. But then flying carpets and magical elements were introduced, and I realized these things were taken for granted as completely ordinary, versus to be interpreted as metaphor. Adding to the realism of this fantasy novel, the book interwove actual historical figures and events into the story, such as the banana massacre. Every time I picked up the book, I felt somber afterwards. The decline of the family and their village is foreshadowed and feels inevitable. Buendía family members are born, grow up, live a unique and solitary existence of their own making, then die. In each generation, the children are named after other family members, and so everyone has one of a few names, and the generations follow a cyclical pattern. Events that happened prior in the book are often recalled. The weight of prior generations stack, so that by the end of the book, at the mention of a single room, several generations’ worth of memories in that room are recalled.  At the end of the novel, a mystery introduced at the beginning of the book is finally revealed, and everything comes full circle.

Geocaching part 8: Electric Boogaloo

I moved back to the westside, so I have a long commute. I started geocaching again to pass the time until traffic dies down. Oftentimes, the coordinates given for the cache are off, but they get me to the general vicinity. So I have to rely on a punny name for clues. Here are my latest finds by campus.

There was a Honeywell box geocache under a lamppost skirt near the Honeywell building.

geocache by Honeywell
geocache by Honeywell

This “basset” cache was found in between rocks in a parking lot.

a geocache for rockhounds
a geocache for rockhounds
a geocache with a basset hound photo
a geocache with a basset hound photo

This “tired” cache was found near a golf course.

geocache in a tire planter
geocache in a tire planter

This tree hugging cache was found in a tree by a parking lot.

geocache hugging a tree
geocache hugging a tree
closeup of tree hugging geocache
closeup of tree hugging geocache

This cache was found on the side of a bike trail. I took a travel bug to bring overseas.

geocache by a bike trail
geocache by a bike trail
geocache with dog drawn on lid
geocache with dog drawn on lid
geocache travel bug
geocache travel bug

This cache was tricky, because the coordinates pointed to a different lamppost. But the hint was “Black,” so when I saw the black tape I looked under the heavy metal lamppost skirt.

lamppost with black tape
lamppost with black tape
micro bison geocache under heavy lamppost skirt
micro bison geocache under heavy lamppost skirt

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

I took a 5-mile walk in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. We rolled in when the visitor center opened at 9AM, and borrowed binoculars from the visitor center.

At the start of the trail, we saw tens of sparrows diving in the air and flapping erratically, in contrast to the steady glide of larger birds. We saw several gaggles of Canadian geese. Whenever the geese took flight, they would shatter the silence with their loud honking. On the Twin Barns Loop Trail, we tried to find the three baby owls, but apparently they had changed trees. On the Estuary Trail, we spent some time observing two statuesque herons. They slowly waded in the water, then were patiently still as they fished. We also saw crows, red-winged blackbirds, various species of seagulls, and even an eagle soaring over a narrow strip of trees in the middle of the mudflats.

The visitor center overlooks a freshwater march. As we walked farther along the trail, the freshwater started to mix with the saltwater of Puget Sound, and we could smell the saltiness in the air.

An overlook on the Estuary Trail
An overlook on the Estuary Trail

I was surprised by the length of the boardwalks. The boardwalk to get to the Puget Sound Overlook was a mile long. The landscape was surreal, flat grassy marshes and mudflats (it was low tide) as far as the eye could see in all directions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time birdwatching. Fellow birdwatchers were all friendly, eager to share the location of any birds that were spotted. Many brought a full-size telescope or a camera with telephoto lens. As we walked back to the parking lot, we passed by a lot of families, so we were glad that we were able to enjoy the wildlife refuge when it was uncrowded. The trails are all flat, so the wildlife refuge is a place I would consider taking my parents for a relaxing stroll.


Afterwards, we walked around Olympia. I ate a crab benedict for brunch. We saw the old legislative building and the current state capitol. The gray marble interior and chandelier felt cold and unwelcoming compared to the natural beauty that the capitol building overlooks. Outside one of the chambers, there are portraits of current Washington statesmen. One portrait stood out from the rest: a man wearing black sunglasses. It turns out, that man is the Lieutenant Governor, has accomplished quite a lot as a politician, and is blind. We strolled along the nearby boardwalk at Percival Landing, which displayed sculptures along its length. We climbed a wooden tower to get a view of the lake.  Then we made our way to the farmers market. All these locations were within ten minutes of each other. Olympia’s core area is conveniently walkable.

Umtanum Ridge Crest

I wanted to get away from the unceasing Seattle rain (at record levels this year!), so I drove east towards Yakima, where the skies are blue and the sun beats down relentlessly. I hiked Umtanum Ridge Crest, a 6-mile roundtrip hike with 2400 ft. of elevation gain.

Though I was only 2 hours away from the Puget Sound, the Umtanum Canyon region was like stepping into another world. The coniferous trees of the Sound were swapped for desert fauna, short grasses, sagebrush. Wildflowers were in bloom—blue and purple drops, yellow flowers in star and circle shapes— peppering the rolling hills. Overgrown shrubs encroached on the trail.

Beginning of the trail
Beginning of the trail

There was no forest cover. The packed dirt trail was exposed, winding through hills, always with a moderate incline. We trudged along the dusty path of loose rock, walking past waterfalls and rocky caves.

After some winding turns, we could see the end, the top of a mountain. The trail turned extremely steep. Any steeper and the trail would be a scramble. There were some incredibly fit freaks of nature doing a 50K race, and they ran up and down the ridge with great agility, undaunted by the ridiculous incline.  We pushed along, legs burning, but spurred on by the sight of the end of the trail.

Stacked rocks at the end of the trail
Stacked rocks at the end of the trail

At the top, we soaked in the panoramic view. The way in which we came had a view superior to that of the other side of the mountain. Looking behind us, we could see a massive caldera, with a single yellow tree inside. The valley undulated below us.

Umtanum Ridge Crest panorama
Umtanum Ridge Crest panorama

We ran back down the mountain, as it was more efficient than walking down slowly. The wind died down. The bugs, which gave the hike the white noise of a constant buzzing hum, swarmed thicker as we descended, no longer deterred by strong winds. I kept swatting them away from my face.

As we trekked back, we passed the familiar curves of the trail, the caves, the waterfalls, past the live railroad tracks and the green suspension bridge.

On the way home, we passed by a store that advertised in big letters, “APPLES”, “ANTIQUES”, and interestingly, “ASPARAGUS.” We stopped by for groceries and ice cream.

The next few days, my legs ached. It hurt to walk, especially up staircases, even to stand up. I will remember this hike fondly. Washington’s diversity of ecosystems is astounding!

Bridal Veil Falls and Lake Serene

I hiked to Lake Serene, making a detour to see Bridal Veil Falls along the way, bringing the hike to 8 miles roundtrip with 2000 feet of elevation gain.

The start of the trail was wide and flat. At around the 2-mile mark, the trail branched to climb upwards to Bridal Veil Falls. There was a steep snowfield we had to cross. I brought microspikes, which I got to use for the first time. The falls were powerful. Water beat the rocks below and produced a far-reaching spray.

Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls

On the way down from the falls, I tried glissading, but I could not stop myself on the steep, slick snow. My heart raced, as I was sliding down out of control. Luckily, there was a tree branch I could grab on to. And if I were to have fallen farther, there were some patches of shrubs below that would have probably stopped my fall. After that incident, my fellow hikers gave me advice on how to use microspikes. Instead of glissading down without an ice axe to self-arrest, they said to “trust the equipment, trust the microspikes to work.” Rather than step gingerly on the snow, they said to take firm steps to create footholds, toe-first while ascending and heel-first while descending.

Back at the juncture, we continued on towards Lake Serene. We passed the lower falls, which were nearly as impressive as the Bridal Veil Falls, also wide with a large throughput of water. There were clear swimming holes at the base of the falls. But this was not a day for swimming— during the hike, the weather alternated between rain, sleet, and snow.

The lower falls on the way to Lake Serene
The lower falls on the way to Lake Serene

The flat trail turned into a slog of switchbacks, a stairmaster consisting alternately of actual wooden stairs, roots, and rocks. At higher elevation, again we donned our traction devices as the switchbacks became completely covered in snow. After the switchbacks, we hiked through precipitous snowfields on narrow trails forged by whoever hiked before us. A one point, there was a fairly large drop from the snowpack trail into a creek. We had to slide down, cross the creek, then lift ourselves back onto the trail.

Lake Serene covered in snow
Lake Serene covered in snow

When we finally reached the lake, I was elated. I had eaten breakfast, but the hike made me hungry, and I felt a dull and growing burning in my stomach as time went on. I guzzled down a sandwich while admiring the lake, which was covered in snow. It was certainly serene, watching the quiet lake while snowflakes fell. On the way back, the clouds opened up and we saw a rainbow in the misty blue sky. I was surprised, hiking back, seeing that we had travelled so far.

The snow made this hike challenging for me, and it was not a hike that I would have been comfortable doing alone. I am thankful for my fellow hikers, who lent me their hats to keep away the precipitation, for letting me borrow trekking pulls, giving me advice, and pulling me up steep sections. Most of all, they were all very friendly, humorous, and supportive. Back in the parking lot, I felt relief, glad to have made it and flush with the feeling of accomplishment and expanded capabilities. I will feel more confident and capable doing hikes with this terrain in the future.