Urban Pilgrim is moving to a new website!

Urban Pilgrim has had a good run at wordpress.com since July 2008. I’ve been able to share all of my stories from living in Thailand, traveling in Asia and moving to Sweden. On Sunday, it will be moving to a new website. The new Urban Pilgrim has a more visual and modern design that will enable you to quickly find posts that interest you, view more photos, and will hopefully encourage a more interactive and lively discussion with you.

The new Urban Pilgrim will also introduce a new feature I hope you will like. Throughout my travels, I have met many friends who have since moved to different parts of the world. After the new launch I will start sharing their stories and observations about the quirky, interesting and beautiful aspects of the countries they live in and have visited. There will also be a section where you can send me your travel stories to share on the blog. I hope that Urban Pilgrim can become a forum for all of us to share our first-person travel accounts of peculiar local behavior (in your opinion anyway), beautiful sights and incredible people in the places you visit or live.

If you come this site on Sunday, you will automatically be redirected to the new site. I will also post the new link to Urban Pilgrim’s new fan page on Facebook, which I encourage you to join to get all the new posts, Twitter musings and photos.

I am so excited to show you the new Urban Pilgrim and to continue sharing stories from Sweden and beyond. See you on Sunday!

Barca, Barca, Barca!

I couldn’t zoom, couldn’t take a clear picture and part of the lens actually fell off, but before disintegrating completely, my trusty point-and-shoot did manage to take some video in Nou Camp before Barcelona played Athletic Bilbao last week. And it was glorious…

Just six rows off the field, we were mere feet away when Messi scored the fourth goal. Nearly 80,000 fans (it wasn’t a full house) screamed, cheered, waved flags and blew plastic horns (that were made by the devil). The elation of the Barca fans was infectious, and aside from not seeing the Swede Ibrahimovic play, it was a perfect night.

And I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of football to a man. Seeing the world’s best team in their home arena produced the biggest and most sustained smile I’ve ever seen. I think he pulled a muscle.

Swedish hotels: Meeting all of your spelunking and snorkeling needs

I am still quite new in Sweden and my curiosity about the rest of the country continues to grow with each day that I don’t leave Stockholm. But travel funds are low and I must cope by plotting my future weekend getaways online, while looking out at the meter of snow on the ground. I considered skiing up north or taking a boat down to the island of Gotland, where as I understand it they speak a breed of Swedish I will never understand. But after discovering these hotels, I am seriously reconsidering.

Spelunking anyone?

If you have always wanted to spend a whole night awake in fear in a cave 155 meters (500 feet) underground while learning about silver mining, then this is the hotel for you. Probably the only hotel for you. This “bed and breakfast” at Sala Silvermines, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of Stockholm, boasts of vast caverns and lakes. It was even recommended by a patron as the perfect place to “get buck wild.” I’m not sure she really grasps the meaning of that term.

Not turned on by industrial history? That’s cool, because the Utter Inn will ensure an equally slumberless night. This outhouse-on-a-raft is located in the middle of Lake Mälaren in Västerås, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Stockholm. And the bed is surrounded by windows – three meters underwater.

I feel that I am an adventurous person and would most definitely consider staying here. But I think an email to the management addressing a few key questions is a must before booking.

Are there sharks?

And why is there duct tape around the hole to the underwater beds?

Urban Pilgrim is moving west…

I have spent months planning _ filling out job and residence permit applications, researching winter weather patterns, learning about the tall and blond inhabitants of my new home, and unloading not-so-prized belongings on friends.

I have kept quiet for months, barely able to keep my secret from all of you, waiting until everything was lined up before I shook your worlds.

But now it is finally official: I’m moving to Stockholm.

The move is a terribly exciting one for me as I’ve wanted to move back to Europe since living in London for a year in college. It is also a chance to learn Swedish, a strange and beautiful language that makes everyone who speaks it sound like they’re tripping over their tongues. And I have a new job that will hopefully bring new challenges.

But why Sweden, you might ask? It’s cold, dark and Swedes eat fermented fish like potato chips (ok I made that up, but I want to impress upon you the scariness of fermented fish consumption). I am moving to the land of banana-flavored caviar in a tube and ketchup on pasta (yes you read that right) for love. After falling for a Swede earlier this year and his unexpected departure from Bangkok over the summer, I decided it was time for a change.

My time in Bangkok has been an incredible adventure but I’ve grown weary of the language barrier, the cultural differences I can’t seem to adapt to, and the suffocating heat. During the past year I have often missed the West and longed to move to a country that feels more like home. And Stockholm’s lovely old buildings, cosmopolitan attitude, excellent English-language speaking abilities and wintry weather are just what I’ve been missing.

Have no fear, though. Urban Pilgrim will be reporting from Sweden starting October 10 and will be better than ever. I am hopeful the excitement and curiosities of Stockholm will breathe new life into this blog, as I chronicle moving to yet another international city I’ve never been to.

In the meantime, I will enjoy my dwindling time here and a trip to Thailand’s Railay Beach this week. Photos of what I hear is the most beautiful beach in Thailand will be shared!

Coming home at last

Goodbye slow walkers who block the sidewalk, sewer smell in the morning and stifling heat!

Well, for two weeks at least.

After 14 months away I am finally going home for a desperately needed visit. My travel arrangements are set, my souvenirs for folks at home are bought and my bags are packed _ with sweaters. Lots and lots of sweaters.

A year in 95 F/35 C temperatures means my blood has thinned _ a fact evidenced by my blanket-sized woolly sweater I wear in my over-air conditioned office. The temperatures in New York City, though not cold by any standard, will be celebrated with layers of sweaters and hats and pants. Nantucket promises to be even chillier with its ocean breezes and early morning fog. And you know what that means? Yeah you do. Long johns.

But more than my celebration of days without perspiration, it is a chance for me to see my nearest and dearest. For weeks I have imagined nothing but hugging my dad for the first time in over year, of laughing with my two sisters as we drive up to Nantucket, and drinking a beer with my mom while we battle over heath care in the U.S. I have been reading up Mom. Watch out.

It is a chance for me to hug my best friend for the first time since we parted in tears, spending a week in her apartment gossiping about all that we’ve missed and all that we have planned. And I get to spend a week in NYC properly catching up with my closest friends over BBQ dinners and bottles of wine.

(Incidentally I will be consuming a bottle a day to celebrate being able to buy $10 bottles and the departure from a country that charges $30 for a bottle of crap from Australia. No offense Australia.)

The trip to NYC is also an opportunity to revisit my most favorite of places, a city in which I feel infinitely comfortable and content. I will walk through Central Park, roam the city streets to see what has changed in this past year, and finally drink a well made cocktail. I anticipate these activities will take up about 20% of my day.

The other 80% you might wonder? I will be spending that in every brightly-lit, well-stocked and sale-sign-adorned shoe store I can find. I will try on every shoe they have. I will annoy and frustrate sales clerks. And I will love every minute. Because I have a primal need for this kind of shoe therapy; I have spent a year with the same old ratty, torn, unraveling shoes because of Asians’ miniature feet. (Well they’re not all mini. Ladyboys have huge feet. But I couldn’t bring myself to shop at their store. I’m already freakishly tall here. I don’t need to raise questions.)

So 12 hours out and one day of work to go I am antsy, distracted and more excited for this trip than any other I have taken. I wonder how much I have changed having spent a year immersed in another culture and another lifestyle. I wonder if my perception of the U.S. is different and if reverse culture shock will hit me square in the face. I wonder if being home will make me realize how much I’ve missed, or if it will reaffirm my choice to live overseas.

But for now I can think of only one thing: that first step on U.S. soil and seeing the NYC skyline _ the undeniable sign that I am finally home.

Suicide Mission: Mekong Delta on a Motorbike

I’ve seen the YouTube videos. You know, the myriad ones depicting the hellish motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was horrified, nervous about their lack of deference to traffic signals and wondering if they got their driver’s licenses out of a cereal box. So on a recent trip to HCMC what did my boyfriend and I do? We rented a motorbike and drove through it. Stoplight, shmoplight.

Our idea was brilliant, off the beaten track and adventurous. We planned to rent the motorbike in HCMC and drive the two hours down Highway 1 to the Mekong Delta. More specifically to a small town called My Tho, the gateway to the delta and right on the river. Easy cheesy.

OK, I wasn’t that naive. We had spent the day before playing chicken with the traffic at crosswalks and knew that if we were risking death on foot, being on a motorbike wouldn’t improve our chances of survival. Still, we were intrepid, negotiating with the small Vietnamese man for the softest-seated motorbike we could find. Then we put on our baby blue and hot pink helmets, stuffed the bag between us and took off.

We arrived in My Tho after three hours of sore asses, potholed highways and filthy faces. The town is small, the market nasty and the buildings crumbling. But we found ourselves in a beautiful hotel with a view of the Mekong, and just down the street from a night food market. Dinner was spent feebly trying to communicate to our waiters with hand signals, but our frustration was short-lived. Turns out, not being able to speak the language at a food market in Vietnam means you get over your preconceived notions of what tastes good and you are served the best of what they offer.

And the best happened to be the most succulent, juiciest and perfectly cooked pork of my life. Love songs and Hallmark cards should be written about this pork. A national day of celebration like July 4 should be created to commemorate this pork. We loved the pork, talked about it all night, tried to decipher the secret to its perfection. In fact, this post will likely spur another hour-long diatribe on our love for the pork. I will spare you a recounting of that though.

The next day we experienced the Mekong and the delta, passing fisherman’s houses anchored into the water, eating fresh fruit while listening to headache-inducing traditional music. And we became practiced at the most valuable skill in Vietnam _ avoiding the pushy sales pitches of every tout in our path. Would you like a pair of authentic Vietnamese sandals? No. Bee pollen that will cure your every ailment and make you look 15 years younger? No. Coconut candy handmade and fired in our very special kiln? No. No. No.

It was actually the last refusal that turned our previously friendly and jovial relationship with our tour guide to shit. Refusing the coconut candy was our undoing. You don’t like the candy??! Why you no buy!? We were ignored, glared at and treated like stupid tourists. I don’t really blame her though. We looked like stupid tourists. A torrential downpour had relegated us to pastel colored ponchos that made us look like cheap condoms. Flattering.

Despite our falling out, the tour was fantastic. We got in a small boat paddled by Vietnamese women down one of the deltas. We reveled in seeing such a remote corner of the world and its lush vegetation, charming tradition and raw beauty. Our battles with a busted headlight, a butt that refused to regain feeling and a maze of traffic in HCMC that inspired frantic prayers for our survival only made it better in the end. Because if you can say that you were were able to enjoy experiencing the charm and exoticism of a small Vietnamese town in spite of looking like a wet condom, you’ve done alright.

Kanchanagrrrrri Part Two

Ahead of my mom’s trip to Thailand, she had one experience at the top of her list that she wanted above all others: ride an elephant.

It just so happened that we were able to tailor a day trip that not only included a trip to the tiger temple, but a ride on an elephant at the Saiyok Elephant Park in Kanchanaburi.

The ride was bumpy, the elephants hungry, the babies adorable and the smashing of Tory’s butt under a giant elephant foot highly entertaining.

Music by Bruce Springsteen.