MBA Peregrinations

Charting the course of my travels through the MBA experience.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Cafe on the River, Part II

Similar to my relaxing drink on the Vltava, I ate a lovely meal last night at a cafe overlooking the Salzach River. Wien was quite expansive and Salzburg is much smaller - a nice change of pace. The tourist attractions have been interesting, but last night was the best so far. R. was feeling under the weather, so I ventured out on my own. It was a Saturday, so both tourists and locals were out and about.

Salzburg on a summer night is simply magical. After sunset, it cools down and the sweltering day transforms into a mild summer evening. The monuments like Festung Hohensalzburg (Hohensalzburg Fortress) and Residenz (in Altstadt - old town) are lit, as are the bridges that cross the river. A beam of light extends from the Mönschberg Museum of Modern Art at the top of the hill to highlight the Capuchin Monastery, which is nestled in another hill across the city.

If R. is feeling up to it, we'll enjoy Salzburg tonight one last time before our train tomorrow morning to Slovenia.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Salzburg, Österreich

What a ridiculously full day we had today. Visited Schloß (German for Castle, the symbol ß is actually a double 's', so the word is pronounced 'shloss') Hellbrunn, which is a 20 minute bus ride out of the center of Salzburg. Parts of 'The Sound of Music' were filmed here, and it has a delightful walking tour of the Wasserspiele (Trick Fountains) where you get squirted by unseen water fountains. Markus Sittikus, a Prince and Archbishop in Austria, had the Wasserspiele constructed to amuse the elite during their visits to Hellbrunn.

After Hellbrunn, we walked around Salzburg and checked out several attractions, including Residenz (where the ecclesiastical elite in Salzburg lived since the late 1500s) and Mozarts Wohnhaus - where Mozart lived with his family.

Salzburg has been a series of highs and lows...

High: Eating a delicious "dürüm" (kind of like shawarma - spit-roasted meat with vegetables and sauce wrapped in a thin tortilla-type bread) from the 'Kebap' shop before hopping the train to Salzburg.
Low: A stiflingly hot and noisy train ride to Salzburg.

Low: Being drenched in sweat climbing up the stairs on the side of the mountain with a heavy backpack to get to our hostel.
High: Discovering the phenomenal view of Salzburg from our bedroom window.

Low: Walking around Salzburg on a hot and humid (feels like 30 Celsius) day.
High: The Wasserspiele tour.

Other very memorable events that R. and I have shared in the past few days - drinking 1.5 L of water in a 4 hour period due to the heat, washing our clothes in the sink in our room with freezing cold water and then hanging them all over to dry off (we even have a clothesline, the room looks ridiculous), and savoring a Mozartkugel. If I can just sneak in a piece of apfelstrudel and some gelato before leaving for Slovenia on Monday morning...

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Wien, Österreich

Vienna, Austria is a beautiful city, with a lot to see and do. Three days is definitely not enough time. I decided to spend some additional time here tomorrow morning and just get to Salzburg later in the day.

So far, R. and I have visited quite a few tourist attractions, most of them palaces (Belvedere, Hofburg, Schönbrunn). We have been barraged with information about the Habsburg Dynasty (its very complicated, just try checking it out on Wikipedia) and post-Habsburg Austria. There are churches every few blocks, and I've taken to studying the architecture of the buildings as well. Having a technical background, I never received education about nor took much interest in architecture. But learning a few bits and pieces from others about Gothic, Baroque, and Greek styles of architecture has piqued my curiosity. So we went to check out the facades of the Rathaus (City Hall), Parliament, and Hofburg Theater for their contrasting styles of architecture.

Belvedere had Klimt's 'Der Kuss' (The Kiss) on display. Tomorrow morning, I want to check out some art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and then head off to Salzburg.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Czech 'Chinese' Food...

is very salty. And not really Chinese. The dish I had was supposed to be Kung Pao Chicken (which isn't very indicative of Chinese food to begin with), and it was mostly meat with a few pieces of cabbage, corn, and peas thrown in. One of the things I really enjoy about Chinese food (Asian food in general) is the balance. There is a healthy combination of starch, protein, and vegetable. Unfortunately, the 'Kuřecí Kung Po' was mostly meat and noodle. Oh well, I was craving something non-European. So this fit the bill, barely.

It rained last night in Brno - a spectacular display of thunder and lightning. I was lucky this morning, didn't hit any rain on my way to the train station. Managed to visit the Capuchin Crypt in Brno before leaving.

Am now in Wien and planning to meet R. in about 30 minutes...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Fried Cheese in Bohemia & Spelunking in Moravia

Before leaving Český Krumlov, I tried 'Smažený Syr Hermelín' as recommended by the Czech I met in Prague. 'Hermelín' is the locally-produced Czech version of French Camembert cheese. 'Smažený Syr Hermelín' is fried Hermelín cheese, a very Czech snack. It wasn't bad, but I probably won't be having it again as I'm not a fan of big chunks of cheese nor large quantities of fried foods.

Modern-day Czech Republic is comprised of ancient Bohemia and Moravia. The western part of Czech is considered Bohemia, the capital of which is Praha. I'm now in Brno, the capital of Moravia. Today I visited Moravský Kras - Punkevní Jeskyně (Punkva Caves) and Macocha Abyss to be exact. Macocha (Ma-tso-ka) is Czech for 'stepmother'. The legend is that a widower with a son remarried, giving his son a stepmother. When she had a child of her own, she wanted to get rid of the son and threw him into the abyss. He was able to hold onto the edge and was saved by locals, who punished the stepmother by throwing her into the abyss. Thus the abyss was named after the stepmother - Macocha Abyss. One of the cooler cave tours I've been on - part walking and then the rest on the Punkva river in a boat - inside the caves!

Off to meet R. in Wien (Vienna) tomorrow. I will be very glad to see a familiar face and have companionship for the remainder of my trip, but feel much more independent based on the 2 weeks of solo travel. I often craved a companion to share in the experience, but being solo in a foreign environment definitely throws you outside of your comfort zone much more than traveling with someone.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Outside of my Comfort Zone

Today, I decided to rent a bike and go on a day trip. I normally don't do bikes unless I know it will be a relatively flat and easy ride because me on wheels (other than a car) is asking for pain. But I chose to get outside of my comfort zone and give it another go. The upshot was less than stellar.

I managed to get lost, and ended up on a narrow trail just outside of the main part of town. I then took a tumble off the side and landed with my head facing downhill on a steep slope, in thorny bushes, with my bike on top of me. So I'm lying there, bruised and stuck, thinking "S$%&! I really should have learned Czech for 'help'."

I wasn't really panicking yet, but knew I was in a pickle. I couldn't move without getting poked by thorns, and I could not get the bike off of me - the slope was too steep and I was too wedged into the bushes. Luckily, a local walked by on the trail about 10 minutes later and helped me out. I exercised my knowledge of 'thank you' in Czech profusely, and then went back into town.

Got away easy - only a few splinters, a scratched-up arm, and clothing with holes to show for it. The rest of the afternoon will be spent outside of my comfort zone again - learning how to say 'help' in Czech while sitting in a cafe.

Friday, May 20, 2005

What Type of Traveller Are You?

My hostel is a quaint and friendly place, run by folks fluent in English (huge plus). I was chatting yesterday with the couple that helps the owners run the place. We were talking about travel guides, and which ones were the best to use. No concensus was reached, but one girl mentioned that the 'Let's Go' guide that she used recently had a lot of info that was simply incorrect. 'Lonely Planet' was slightly better in terms of the accuracy of info, but everyone and their mother uses it (yours truly included), so it tends to turn the places mentioned into tourist magnets.

There is a market for guidebooks based on different types of travellers and different budgets. And when I say different 'types' of travellers, I am not just referring to those that stay in a hotel versus a hostel. Other factors that distinguish experiences - flexibility, what the traveller is looking for during the experience, and whether he or she wants to (or is willing to based on the opportunities presented) take the path more or less traveled. I wonder if 'Lonely Planet' and other guidebooks are segmenting the market effectively.

Ruminating on the type of traveller that I am, I definitely do not fall into either the 'will only see the attractions and go where the guidebook suggests' bucket nor the 'refuse to do anything that involves other tourists and always want to forage new ground' bucket. I fall somewhere in between, probably closer to the earlier bucket. And I am a bit more adventurous and willing to take a new path when I have company, due more to safety than comfort. Perhaps I need to get further outside of my comfort zone...

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Český Krumlov

I arrived in Český Krumlov today, and may end up staying here longer than intended. Despite the throngs of tourists in a town magnitudes smaller than Praha, this place is impossibly cute and picturesque.

My growling tummy led me to a vegetarian restaurant on my first day here, where I ate while watching the ducks, chicks, and rafters float by on the Vltava River. It was late afternoon, so I was the only one in the resto. I had ordered the Indian food on the diverse menu, and mentioned to my host that it was a really nice change from standard Czech fare. The restaurant being empty, he had time to chat. So we spoke about his impressions of India when he visited.

Spent the rest of the day exploring the nooks and crannies in town.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Last Day in Praha

I spent the afternoon exploring Josefov (the Jewish quarter) and the collection of synagogues in the area. In the evening, I went to dinner with some folks at an organic vegetarian restaurant - I didn't believe those existed here.

I wonder whether I took the right approach to my time here. Like any big city with healthy tourism, Praha can be both welcoming and impersonal. The locals are desensitized to tourists, and its rare to interact with them on a deeper level without staying a long time and speaking Czech. Most of the people I met came to Praha from abroad to work or study. Few were fluent in Czech, and only one was a native.

Don't get me wrong, people were friendly in general and the ones I met were warm and affable. But (understandably so) there is little impetus for a local to spend time with someone so transitory. So I visited the tourist attractions, and met whomever I met along the way. Most human interactions and existence itself is fleeting, so is sharing a beer and having a conversation with someone really 'worth' more than visiting a castle or a cathedral?

There is a spectrum of experiences that travellers seek. In general, I leaned towards the latter for my stay in Praha. Visiting a castle and learning about its history was an experience that I consciously chose more often than sitting in a cafe and trying to chat with people. I also intentionally sought the types of interactions that went a bit deeper than spending just an hour with someone. The people I met, I met multiple times. Limiting? Perhaps. More meaningful? Definitely.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Unhealthily Yours

Today goes down as the day that I've consumed the most unhealthy food so far... ever. Breakfast was a decadent chocolate croissant and latte. Lunch was a granola bar (brand name - Corny) eaten on my way back from Karlštejn castle. Dinner was a bramborák (fried, super greasy potato pancake with magical spices that make it taste sooo good), a piece of žampióny (mushroom) pizza, and fornetti. Fornetti are bite-sized pastries with filling - sweet or savory. Mexické, Pizzové, and Nugátové were my flavors of choice. Ugh... I am the Atkins AntiChrist.

Depression to Revelry

I visited Terezín today, which was the site of a Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis. It served as a gateway to the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka to the east. Thousands of Jews died there, and the memorial is filled with descriptions of the deplorable conditions that the Jews endured as well as poetry and drawings of those that experienced life there. You can read more about it at:

Arriving back in Praha, I walked toward Staré Město and it was teeming with people. Yesterday, the ice hockey final match between the Czechs and Canadians was being broadcast on huge screens in Staré Město. Hundreds of screaming youth had their faces painted with the Czech flag. Today, the celebrations from Czech victory continue with a concert and jubilation. Young folks marching through the streets of Praha breaking out into chants 'Český! Český!', cars honking horns, general euphoria and madness.

What a city, this Praha.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The 'Locals'

Last week I met a couple of Brits in the internet cafe around the corner from my hostel, we chatted over lunch for a couple of hours. They are both medical students at Univerzita Karlova (Charles University). One of them is married to an American schoolteacher, and has a young daughter. Although his wife teaches at an international school in English, she has been living in Praha for many years and is quite proficient in Czech. I met him, his wife, and their daughter a few days ago and chatted over a drink. They may move to the States because he is hoping to get a residency in the states - in Chicago to be specific!

Yesterday during my visit to Kutna Hora, I met and spent the day with a Malaysian, an Indian, and a Czech. All of them were guys, electrial engineers, and in IT. It felt just like the Silicon Valley! ;) They work for DHL here in Praha, and the Malaysian and Indian guys are on international assignment. They leave later this week, so we're all planning to meet for dinner before they leave and I head down to Český Krumlov.

This internet cafe is a magnet for travellers. I just met a GSB Alum!!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Bones, Mines, Knedlíky, and a Cathedral

I visited Kutná Hora today. First stop was Sedlec Ossuary, a church that has bone 'creations' inside. Apparently, the bones of 40,000 people are used in the Ossuary. Babies have something like 350 bones that eventually fuse into a total of 206 for adults. For simplicity let's assume that no babies are used in the count, and there are no individuals with polydactyly or other bone deformities. That makes a bit over 8 million bones used in this church. Yikes. Here are some great pics (way better than the ones I took).

Next, I took the coolest tour of mine shafts underneath Kutná Hora, which was famed for its silver mines. Coated up, hard hat on, retro alkaline lamp in hand, and down we went into the shaft. Barely kept the claustrophobe in me from freaking out - dark and cramped is an understatement. The water in the mine has carved out some strange pits, promoted the proliferation of many a green and fuzzy growth, and poisoned a lot of the miners that drank it (it was arsenated).

After the mine tour, I feasted on some serious Czech food. Large portions - really good garlic soup, potato knedlíky, and red cabbage. I'm not a fan of the 24-7 meat and potatoes cuisine, but this stuff was pretty tasty.

Lastly, we visited the Cathedral of St. Barbara, patron saint of the miners. Its a beautiful cathedral, rivaling St. Vitus cathedral in Prague Castle. Kutná Hora was definitely worth the trip.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Cafe on the River

I spent today relaxing, with a leisurely lunch at a cafe not too far from Staré Město. In the afternoon, I met up with some folks and we checked out an art exhibit - drawings of politicians and other famous Czech figures done by children. I managed to pick up some wonderful postcards as well - famous sites in Praha drawn by children. Art education for children in Czech is apparently very strong. Does art education even exist in the States at public schools?

After the exhibit, we sat at a cafe on the river (literally, the 'cafe' was a pontoon on the Vltava). I'll have the Great Conversation with a side of View of the Western Side of Praha please...

Friday, May 13, 2005

Czech Castles and Toilet Paper

I went to visit Konopiště (Ko-no-pee-shtyuh) castle today, a short day trip outside of Prague. What a lovely place, full of artifacts and history. The emphasis of the tour was on the last owner of Konopiště - Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. You can read about Konopiště and Franz Ferdinand on Wikipedia:

In contrast to his unpopularity with the public, Franz Ferdinand was a devoted husband and father. He and Sophie were very much in love. Franz Ferdinand was said to have refused medical attention for his bullet wound while cradling his dead wife (she was shot first) and begging her not to die for the sake of their children. Standing in the bedroom of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, our guide told us about how he could still feel the remnants of the love that Franz and Sophie shared. He also sometimes heard faint noises of children and adults in the bedrooms when no one else was there.

In contrast to luxurious Czech castles, modern-day experience with Czech toilet paper is not as enjoyable. The toilet paper here has got to be the roughest, cheapest toilet paper on the face of the planet. Not a complaint, more an observation. At least most Czech bathrooms actually provide toilet paper, which is more than I can say for the French.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Beautiful Praha

I've been in Prague (Praha as its called in Czech) for 3 days now, and I'm finally starting to enjoy the city. I knew it would be rough initially - I've never traveled alone internationally and don't speak the language.

My first day here was simple - get from the airport to town, find a place to stay, and shower. After nearly a day of travel, I was keeping my expectations of my first day quite low. Yesterday was spent lolling about Staré Město (Old Town) and Karluv Most (Charles Bridge). Today was a busy day - very tourist-site filled. I spent the entire day in Hradcany and visited Prague Castle (Pražský Hrad, or simply 'Hrad' because its the biggest tourist site in Prague), Strahov Library, St. Nicholas Church, and Wallenstein Palace & Gardens. Pictures are tough for me to post here, so you'll have to take my word on how lovely it is. Today's excusions reminded me of one of several reasons I chose to visit Eastern Europe - affordable for tourists! Admissions to all of these places totaled less than $20 USD!

My Eastern Europe Lonely Planet guide and phrasebook have come in very handy, and I've learned a few key words - hello, please, sorry, thank you, and goodbye. Oh, and key phrases like 'Mluvíte anglicky?', 'Kde je toalety?', and 'Jsem studentka'. I'll leave you to figure those out... ;)

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Eve of my Trip

Tomorrow morning I leave for Europe. I am amazed by the amount of time I have spent planning for this trip. There is a large scale difference between planning for a 2-3 week trip versus a 6-7 week trip - definitely not a linear correlation.

The madness of the 4-leg flight will be ameliorated by the business class cabin - the perks of using many frequent flyer miles. But because there are 4 legs (San Jose to Chicago to Toronto to London to Prague), I did not want to risk check-in luggage in case it was lost along the way. So I have managed to pack my gear for the next 7 weeks into a carry-on backpack with less than 3300 cubic inches of space.

I will be on my own in Czech Republic for the first 2 weeks of my trip, and have heard that Prague is one of the loveliest cities in Europe. I have never before traveled solo internationally, so these 2 weeks before R. joins me should be an interesting experience...

Friday, May 06, 2005

Financial Aid Forms

FAFSA = Fervently Asking For Substantial Amounts

I'm gonna be a po' student again...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Le Voyageur's Top 5 on India

Less than a week before my trip and I still have so much to do. But I thought I would take a break to ruminate on a faraway place that is dear to me. More than anywhere else on the planet, I have spent the most time visiting India.

The Top 5 Things I Love About Visiting India:

5. Playing hours upon hours of rummy with Mum to pass the time on the plane flight.

4. Consuming all of the wonderful goodies that don't taste the same anyhere else:
  • Drinking a kullad full of cold salty lassi on a sweltering summer afternoon.
  • Eating hot, freshly made chaat from a street vendor as a mid-afternoon snack.
  • Meetha Paan... enough said.
3. Taking a ridiculously long train ride (see point above about playing rummy) over the course of an entire day to travel about 250 miles, and forgetting all about it after seeing your grandmother's wrinkled and beaming face.

2. Lying on a cot in an open-air room on a balmy summer night, comparing the number of stars in the sky to the number of geckos climbing the walls.

1. The absolute joy and amazing hospitality with which your family and friends greet you.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

HSA - Health Savings Account or Head Stuck up A**?

About a month and a half ago, I called my Health Savings Account provider because my new HSA credit card was not being accepted when the receptionist at my optometrist's office tried to use it. After being transferred from one place to the next and on hold for about 25 minutes, I finally spoke to a representative. She informed me that my optometrist was not 'in the provider network' and that she would put in a request to add this provider. 5-7 business days was the estimated time for this to occur.

The money contributed to both FSAs (Flexible Spending Accounts) and HSAs are pre-tax dollars, but the money in the HSA can rollover to ensuing years and be retained for the life of the account. In the past several years, I have been able to estimate reasonably well how much to contribute annually to a FSA without having money leftover and forfeited at the end of the year. But based on the rollover benefit, I decided to give the HSA a try even though I knew that it would be new for this year and likely to have kinks in the process. I did not at all expect there to be a 'network' needed for a provider considering that it was simply my pre-tax dollars paying for services that fit under the federal guidelines for 'qualified medical expenses'.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I'm on the phone again to see if my optometrist has been added to the network. Nope, not yet, call back in a few weeks. So I call back in a few weeks, and it seems that there has been no response from the people that need to 'approve and add this provider to the network'. Frustrated, I ask that this request be expedited - my optometrist needs to be paid.

Today I called the HSA provider again. Apparently, there are two reasons why the card does not work. One is that my provider is not in the network, the other is that I have no money in my account. After a quick look into my account, my friendly representative informs me that for my case, both of these apply. So here I am thinking 'WTF'? I know that there was $ deducted from my paycheck for a savings account, and I received a card for my HSA... did my contribution get lost in the ether? After a conversation with the company that handles my work benefits, it turns out that I have a FSA instead of an HSA account. I signed up for the HSA and received a credit card for it, but my $ went into a FSA account...

Logically, one would think that having received a card for the HSA means that you have the account... but the past several months have taught me that interactions with healthcare administration are not always the most logimical... There doesn't seem to be clear communication between the company that handles my work benefits and the HSA provider. I'm not sure how the SNAFU happened, but the experience has soured me against using the HSA. I've wasted hours in the past couple of months dealing with this, and the receptionist at my optometrist's office is probably screening calls from me by now.

Note to self: Next year, go back to the FSA. Oh, and delete this post if I end up working in healthcare administration... ;)

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What me, work? No longer now that I have the answer to life...

Friday was my last day on the job before leaving to go to school. Bittersweet - I'll definitely miss some of those folks. But if I stay in healthcare, I will likely run into them again. It's a small industry. Though I don't believe that my brain has fully accepted the fact that I won't be at work for the next couple of years. That will probably kick in on the plane flight to Europe.

Today was a science fiction themed day. I went to a used bookstore to pick up some reading material for the flight. R. taught me the method that I now often adopt during travel - 'read and discard'. I buy a cheap paperback to finish on the flight, and then leave it there. The next person gets a free read, and I have one less thing to carry. Eschewing incidentals is very handy when traveling, and even handier when planning a cross-country move. So I bought the 2 books in the 'Dune' series that I have not read yet - 'Heretics' and 'Chapterhouse'. In the evening, I went to the theater to see 'Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Having not read the book, I didn't really know what to expect. I was amused, and am now inspired to absorb the madness directly through the words of Mr. Adams.

I never thought that I would enjoy sci-fi... I was guilty of pigeonholing all sci-fi lovers into an archetype. But a few years ago, I chanced the original 'Dune'. 3 days later, I finished it and changed my opinion of sci-fi novels and the people that read them. Thanks in part to Frank, I've broadened my horizons about sci-fi and other pastimes like anime. Soon after this epiphany, I fell in love with an anime film called 'Spirited Away' by Miyazake (never before thought I would be one to enjoy anime). Although I don't claim to be a sci-fi or anime fanatic, I am more willing to give them a shot now that some paradigms of each genre have proven my notions false. There is only one truth my friends... and that is 42.