October 28, 2016

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi: A Travel Review

This month, the book club selection for the Beyond Words Bloggers' Book Club was "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. When this book was recommended, I had no idea what it was about. The Goodreads description describes it as "The unforgettable story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver." 

I didn't think much of the book when I downloaded the audiobook and started listening to it. I don't listen to audio books often, but I'm so glad I did listen to "Homegoing." It was beautifully told. This book truly came to life through the audio book. 

Within the first chapter, I was hooked, and then, the Cape Coast Castle was introduced and I immediately felt like I was back in Africa. Much of this book takes place at the Cape Coast Castle, or with the castle as an important figure in the novel, and rightfully so, as the castle was one of the most prominent in the slave trade. I traveled to Accra, Ghana in 2009 and visited two slave castles - the Cape Coast Castle and the Elmina Castle. These "castles" are both on the water and served, not only as fortresses that housed the colonists but as prisons where slaved were held before being loaded onto ships and sold across the Caribbean. Known as "the gate of no return," these castles were the last stop before crossing the Atlantic. 

Cape Coast Castle
Instead of sharing what I've been reading this month, I'm going to share about "Homegoing," along wit photos from my trip to Ghana in the hopes that this book will come to life as much for you as it did for me.

"Homegoing" was phenomenal. I couldn't get enough of this book. I listened to it in the mornings, the evenings, while I was running...I couldn't stop. The story begins in the late 1700s at the height of the slave trade with the stories of Effia and Esi, half-sisters born in different villages in Ghana. Each chapter follows their lineage across Africa and the U.S., ending in the present day with the very real exposure of slavery's legacy on African Americans today. I felt like this book read more like individual short stories that all tied together. There were stories that were beautiful and others that were heart-wrenching, but at the very core of this story, it is  a very real truth. This is the story of the slave trade, encapsulated in characters whose histories are so deeply rooted in this horrific part of our human history. 

One of the things I loved most about reading this book is how reminiscent were the words in Ewe, Ashanti, and Fante. For example, Akwaaba means "Welcome," and is used throughout the book. When you arrive in Accra, the same phrase greets you at the airport. As described in the book by Marcus, this phase of welcome greets you everywhere you go, at the markets, at museums, at tourist sites. I love it because, it's so much more of a welcome than a simple, "Hello." It's quite obvious that I'm not Ghanaian and so, instead of saying, "Hello," I was welcomed by everyone I met. 

Some of the characters in the books, Abena, Yaw, Amena, and Akosua are very familiar names. In Ghanaian culture, children are named for the day of the week they are born. They are often given a middle name which is their more commonly used name, but I remember by Ghanaian friends christening me, "Akosua" because I was born on a Sunday. I hadn't thought of this in years and I loved reading these names and remembering.

Entrance to Cape Coast Castle
I mentioned that this book truly came to life for me, so to share that experience with you, I'm going to use some of Yaa Gyasi's words to describe the castle, as I think she's such a brilliant writer and will do the castle more justice than I might be able to. 
"This is where the church was.," the rubber band man said, pointing. "It stands directly above the dungeons. You could walk around this upper level, go into that church, and never know what was going on underneath." 
"In fact, many of the British soldiers married local women, and their children, along with other local children would go to school right here in this upper level."

"And soon they were headed down, down into the belly of this large, beached beast. Here, there was grime that could not be washed away, green and gray and black and brown and dark, so dark. There were no windows. There was no air. " 

"This is one of the female dungeons," the guide said finally, leading them into a room that still smelled faintly. "They kept as many as 250 women here for about three months at a time." 
"From here, they would lead them out this door. He walked further. The group left the dungeon and walked toward the door. It was a wooden door painted black, above it, there was a sign that read, 'Door of no return.' "This door leads out to the beach where ships waited to take them away." 

The dungeons were terrifying and, yes, they did still faintly smell. They were so dark. You can see from the pictures above, that they aren't very large. Of the two photos I have of the dungeons, the second one shows a lot more light, but once those doors were closed and the windows were barred, darkness engulfed the space which comfortably held about 40 people. If I'm not mistaken, I believe this upper-level dungeon was used as a placeholder where people were kept while ships were boarded before they went into the dungeons. I can't imagine what it was like to be shoved in a room that size with 250 other people. I don't know if it was like this when the castle was in use, but when we were there, the ceiling of one of the dungeons was covered with bats, which was tremendously unsettling. 

The view outside the "Door of No Return" was breathtaking. It's shocking to think of those who walked through this door must have felt to see sunlight for the first time in three months, see the beauty of the Atlantic on the Gold Coast, and then board a ship to a life unknown. 

The Cape Coast Castle was built to be an impenetrable fortress. While small in size, you can see how thick the outer walls were. Even if someone could escape the dungeons, they would be in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by walls layers deep.

Inside the castle, today, there is a museum that teaches about the slave trade from the African perspective. They even had an auction block.

The castle wasn't meant to mistake any realities. Unlike modern slavery, where people fall victim to fraud or coercion, there was no mistaking the fate of those in the castle dungeons. This sign clearly indicates the fate of those who were sent into this particular dungeon, which was reserved for those who had to be punished. They were locked in this dungeon without food or water until they died.

I know this hasn't been a traditional book review, but I really hope you enjoyed these pictures and my own experience traveling to the Cape Coast Castle. It's been 7 years since that trip and I think about it often. I loved Accra. Visiting the slave castles gave me so much more perspective into American history than any history class I've ever taken. There's a conversation in this book where Yaw is teaching his students what history is and makes the point that it is the survivors who get to tell the story. In this instance, that's certainly true, but visiting the castle gave me the opportunity to experience the other side of the story.

If you haven't read, "Homegoing," I highly recommend it. This is a truly beautiful story that needs to be told. If you did read it, tell me what you thought and link up with us today!

If you're part of the book club or want to be, our next book is "The Pearl that Broke its Shell." We'll be linking up again on November 25, which is Black Friday! We'll be skipping the month of December since our link up falls in the middle of the holidays, but we'll pick the January book in November so that everyone has two months to read the book (and wait for any library holds to release!).

As always, Happy Reading!

October 27, 2016

Exploring Sydney

I'm picking things up with our trip to Australia by starting off where we did - in Sydney! Sydney is the most obvious starting point for any trip to Australia from the U.S. I know that Quantas does a flight from LA to Melbourne but all other airlines only fly to Sydney.

When we arrived in Sydney, it was the first nice weekend of spring. It was a little cold for me coming from DC summer but everyone was enjoying the first weekend of warmer weather and it was a great atmosphere. I have never in my life seen so many runners out and about in one city!

Day 1, Friday: We arrived in Sydney after a glorious first class flight  and made our way to our AirBnB in Darlinghurst on the edge of Paddington. Darlinghurst was an adorable neighborhood with tons of shops and restaurants and fairly central to the city. I had been nervous about staying there because it was outside the Central Business District (CBD) but after a few days exploring, I realized that we made the best choice possible as the CBD feels more like NY'S financial district, mostly being office buildings and a few hotels and virtually shutting down on weekends.

We got to our place, freshened up, and decided to walk to the Sydney Harbor. Our hosts told us about a great bakery in the neighborhood which we stopped at for a quick bite. Kurtosh is named for traditional Hungarian pastries that are a cross between a pretzel and a croissant and are delicious! We opted for the cinnamon sugar and it didn't disappoint!

Properly fed, we made our way to the Botanical Gardens and wandered through the gardens toward Sydney Harbor, where we caught our first glimpse of the famed Opera House, and it was ten times more magical than I thought it would be.

We kept walking through Sydney Harbor and eventually made our way further into the CBD to pick up a free walking tour we had read about.  The tour lasted three hours and was a fantastic introduction to the city! We learned so much about Australia's history, which I really didn't know much about. We learned about Australia's convict past, their Victorian inspiration, and aboriginal history. The tour was incredible and totally free (they ask for tips at the end, which we were happy to give!).

Our tour finished right on the Sydney Harbor, giving us the chance to see the Opera House at night. We walked a few blocks through The Rocks (an old, historic Sydney neighborhood) and had dinner at the Harbor View Hotel (which is not actually a hotel, as most "hotels" in Sydney are actually just bars). I had a pumpkin ravioli which was out of this world! Pumpkin was very much in season all over Australia, which was so weird to wrap my head around as it was their late winter/early spring!

By the time we finished dinner, we were exhausted. I actually fell asleep on the metro home! Thankfully, The Pilot was able to stay awake so I didn't get lost somewhere!

Day 2, Saturday: We were up pretty early since we had gone to bed early and started our morning with a quick "brekkie" at a great little coffee shop in the neighborhood. We had pineapple carrot cinnamon muffins, which I'm dying to recreate! This fueled us up for a perfect morning run in Centennial Park. It was amazing! We did a full loop of the park and I loved being in the park on a Saturday morning and seeing what all of the Sydneysiders were up to! There were so many runners out and about, people on horseback, or teaching their kids to ride bikes...it was the first spring-like weekend of winter, and everyone was out soaking up the sun!

We finished our run in Paddington and walked through the adorable Paddington Market before heading back to change and then making our way (via ferry!) to the Taronga Zoo. The Zoo was my absolute favorite part of Sydney!

One thing about the ferries - they're on the same system as the Sydney metro, so they're really inexpensive! I read a lot of recommendations about taking a Sydney Harbor cruise, but they were so expensive! You can definitely catch the same views on a Sydney Harbor ferry for a fraction of the price!

The Zoo was amazing! The price was pretty steep ($45 AUS/person) but I loved it! The giraffes have the best view in all of Sydney and the koalas melted my heart. I think Taronga deserves its own post, but here are a few highlights from our trip!

The peacocks aren't zoo animals, they just hang out all over the zoo!
Day 3, Sunday: We started our Sunday with coffee (flat whites) and donuts at Infinity Bakery. We had been eyeing Infinity's donuts for days and finally, couldn't resist the temptation!

Banana cream pie donuts with salted caramel. YUM!
Fueled up, we took the bus to Bondi. We stopped in at Gertrude and Alice, a famous bookstore (because I couldn't resist), and wandered around Bondi Beach. It was the Bondi Kite Festival and we saw so many beautiful kites!

Bondi was awesome and the Bondi to Coogee Walk definitely merits another post! These are a few shots that capture just how awesome Bondi is!

We took the bus from Coogee to Darling Harbor, which was kind of a disappointment. It's a newish area of Sydney and reminded me more of Downtown Disney than an actual neighborhood.

We wandered through there and then picked up a ferry to Sydney Harbor and caught the most immaculate sunset I've ever seen!

We found ourselves back in The Rocks where another free walking tour, specifically of that neighborhood, was taking off and we decided to join it. This tour wasn't as great as the first one we went on but was still fascinating. The Rocks is Sydney's oldest neighborhood and has a lot of really interesting history! We had dinner at a delicious restaurant called Pony and called it a night.

Day 4, Monday: Monday was our last day in Sydney and, while were planning to leave the city for the day to hike the Blue Mountains with my friend, Claire, we decided it against it after realizing that it was the type of day trip that really merited renting a car, rather than taking the train.

We started the morning with breakfast at Bill's, a local neighborhood restaurant that has been in Darlinghurst for over 25 years, and were not disappointed. We had one of their specialties, scrambled eggs and sourdough toast, which sounds simple, but was out of this world. I was disappointed that we didn't find Bill's until our last day there because it was unbelievable! I think it took us almost 20 minutes to order because everything looked so good! We left breakfast and walked back through the Botanical Gardens to Sydney Harbor before meeting up with my friend, Claire.

Claire and I met almost 10 years ago on a backpacking trip through Ireland and have stayed friends since. She's visited me in the states a few times, and I finally repaid the favor! We walked back to Sydney Harbor and met up at Custom House, an awesome spot that is also a library and then walked the Sydney Harbor Bridge (which was, honestly a disappointment, as the railings prevent you from really seeing anything) into Kirribilli.

This is the only picture I got from the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It's a nice shot, but it was the only picture I was really able to take, and this was after sticking my camera through the bars to get it!
We met up with a friend of Claire's in Luna Park who took us through some really cool parts of Kirribilli. We wandered down to Milson's Point and Lavender Bay and then made our way back.

Claire had to head out but her friend had given us tickets to Luna Park, so we wandered in and rode the Ferris Wheel and visited the Fun House! The Ferris Wheel offered a great view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge!

We took the ferry to back to Circular Quay and then wandered around the CBD, stopping in the Queen Victoria Market for some delicious macarons, and spending an absurd amount of time in a bookstore before heading back to Darlinghurst.

We had dinner at Malabar, an unbelievable South Indian restaurant that transported me back to Bangalore. I haven't been able to stomach Indian food since I came back from India five years ago, but most Indian food in America is North Indian and I about died over the masala dosas that reminded me of South India! We made our way back to our apartment and spent the night on the roof with our AirBnB hosts and some friends of theirs.

Our trip to Sydney was phenomenal! Of course, when we left Sydney on Tuesday morning, we really didn't know we would be back, but I loved it! Sydney has an unbelievable culture and everyone was so nice. Everywhere we went, the food was amazing, and we really just couldn't get enough of Sydney Harbor or it's fantastic sunsets! I loved being in Sydney for the first weekend of spring, but it was time to wrap up our stay and venture up north to Cairns!

I can't wait to share the rest of our trip with you: more about Sydney including the Taronga Zoo and the Bondi to Coogee Walk, our whirlwind trip to Cairns to visit the Great Barrier Reef, and our trip to Melbourne!

What do you think of our time in Sydney?
Did we miss anything? Which parts of our trip sound the most appealing to you?

October 18, 2016

Go to Australia.

I'm finally getting my Australia posts up! When we got back, I spent about 2 weeks trying to find the cable to import my photos before I finally sucked it up and just bought a new one! I've loved going through all of these pictures again and I'm so excited to be sharing our trip with you!

The Pilot and I celebrated our 2-year wedding anniversary this year on the East Coast of Australia and it was easily one of the most incredible trips I've ever taken. 

We hadn't planned to go to Australia. We spent quite a bit of time trying to decide where we good go. It should have been easy considering we were only able to take a 3-day anniversary trip last year (which was incredible and I would do again in a heartbeat!). Thailand, Spain, the UK, and South Africa were all discussed, but ultimately, about two weeks before our vacations started, we decided on Australia. When I say decided, this is how it happened:

I've wanted to go to Australia for years but have never seriously considered a trip because I've always been told that you need at least 3 weeks to go to Australia, that a trip less than 2 weeks isn't worth the flight to get there or the money you'll spend.
The Pilot and I had exactly 10 days to spend in the country and even while we were there, reactions were mixed among the other travelers we met. Most people were shocked that we made such a long trip for such a short amount of time, one Aussie even went so far as to say we shouldn't have come at all because it wasn't enough time. The language around traveling to Australia is pretty prohibitive."Don't go unless you have at least 3 weeks." "Don't go unless you've saved up a fortune." "Don't go unless you have 5 days to spend in each state."

If you get anything out of the posts I'm going to share with you over the next few days about out trip, I hope it's this: Go to Australia. We spent 10 days there and I think we would have had just as wonderful a trip with 7. Sure, we could have seen a lot more with more time, but the reality is that it's pretty rare for The Pilot (or anyone!) to get two weeks off from work. We went with the time we had and it was perfect. 

Did we see the entire country? Absolutely not, but why would I try to see all of Australia when I haven't even seen all of the U.S.? The Pilot and I left on a flight to Sydney with no agenda other than to take advice along the way and enjoy ourselves, and that's just what we did. Through this post and the next few I'll write, I'm going to share details of our itinerary, but I'm also going to share what we didn't do to give you an idea of what you can realistically do in a 10-day trip down under! 

Here's a look at our itinerary:
  • Wednesday, 9/7: Flight DC > LA > SYD
  • Friday, 9/9: Arrive in Sydney
  • Tuesday, 9/13: Flight Sydney > Cairns
  • Wednesday, 9/14: Flight Cairns > Melbourne
  • Saturday, 9/17: Flight Melbourne > Sydney
  • Monday, 9/18: Flight Sydney > LA > DC
We flew into Sydney (via LA). We left DC on a Wednesday evening and arrived in Sydney on Friday morning. We were incredibly lucky to get upgraded to first class, which made the long haul flight and the time difference much more bearable. (Usually, the Pilot and I fly in middle seats on opposite sides of the plane, so this was a very, very welcome surprise!).

We stayed in Airbnbs everywhere we went which was so much more affordable than the hotels and in much better neighborhoods! 

In total, we had 5 full days in Sydney, 1 full day in Cairns, and 2 full days in Melbourne. My only regret was that we didn't spend an extra day in Melbourne. We had really bad weather (torrential freezing rain) the first day we were there which put a damper on things (literally) and the only reason we spent an extra day in Sydney on the way back is because we couldn't get on a flight home on Sunday! 

In 10 days, we did a lot. It was a jam-packed trip and we didn't exactly slow down. It was exhausting, but it was such an unbelievable trip. Here are a few things we didn't do and why: 
  • We didn't go to Uluru (Ayer's Rock). The flight takes almost 4 hours each way and then you have to hire a bus tour or rent a car to take you to the rock. We asked a lot of people whether we should do it and the general consensus was, "You fly 8 hours round trip and then walk around a giant rock for 3 hours." The appeal of Uluru is that it's in the Australian Outback.On a longer trip to Australia, I wold probably make the trip on my way out West, but we didn't feel a desperate need to get there.
  • We didn't go to the Kuranda Rainforest. The Pilot and I both wanted to do this while we were in Cairns, but the "Airbnb" we booked was not an Airbnb and we actually had a pretty terrible experience in Cairns and booked the first flight out of there that we could, spending only 24 hours in the city. If I ever go back to Australia, I might make a trip back to Queensland to see Kuranda, but I definitely wouldn't go back to Cairns. 
  • We didn't go wine tasting. The Pilot and I wanted to go wine tasting in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne, but as I mentioned, the weather in Melbourne was pretty terrible. 
We could have opted to go to Uluru instead of Ayer's Rock and we could have spent one fewer day in Sydney in favor of an extra day in Cairns, but, aside from wanting an extra day in Melbourne, I wouldn't have changed a thing!

We did have an unbelievable time and I wouldn't change a thing about our trip! I hope you fall in love with Australia just as much as I did as I share all about our trip in these next few posts and, more than anything, I hope you realize that you definitely don't need all the time in the world to plan a trip Down Under!

Have you been to Australia?
Is it on your bucket list? 
My next post will be all about Sydney!
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