Through my eyes: Washington DC’s National Mall

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Firstly, you may have noticed the slight change in blog name; while I didn’t necessarily want to be “ordinary” any more, it’s occurred to me that for better or worse, Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary Dreamer is my brand and my online identity now, and I’ve gotta honour that! That’s how I’ve become known, and I’m still surprised and grateful at the fact that my blog actually is known, so I’m going to partially return to my roots 🙂

Secondly, we had a great weekend escape to Warburton yesterday! We did eat delicious pizza, as I suspected we would, and had an awesome time just leaving the world behind for a while and exploring on our own  : )   And despite the absolutely freezing cold, it was really nice – it was also nice to get back home, into warm PJs, the heater, and a book to read at the end of it all!

Don’t ask me why, but I associate cold weather with books. I know, I’m weird. Maybe it’s because that’s perfect weather for curling up under a blanket with a good book. Good weather to escape into another story and another life. That’s what I was thinking about when I posted a TBT photo on Instagram this week that my husband took of me taking a photo of Thomas Jefferson’s collection in the Library of Congress (last photo of the post). Posting that photo also reminded me of the few days we spend in DC in January, and the particularly cold wet day we spend walking around the National Mall. I’m not a patriotic American, but even I have to admit it’s an incredibly impressive area…

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Anyway, hope everyone else had a great weekend too, and stay warm, fellow Melbournians!

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Luxor Temple, Egypt

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It was around this time last week that I heard about a terrorist attack that was fortunately quelled at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. I visited Egypt a few years ago, and have written a lot about it; I was a little apprehensive about visiting, given that we arrived in the middle of unrest and riots, but I actually found it to be a wonderful country for the most part, with very kind and generous people, who were just trying to do the best they could in the circumstances they were experiencing. So it was really sad to hear that armed attackers tried to force their way through a security checkpoint at the Temple.

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In much the same vein as the post I wrote on Bangkok last year when they were going through some political (albeit a lot less violent) turmoil, I still believe Egypt is worth visiting. And instead of just writing a lengthy post about the curiosity and generosity of the people, the incredible food, the crazy markets and the brilliant culture shock, let me just show you yet another stunning example of the gorgeous temples that dot the country. Real life history like no where else, and absolutely worth seeing for yourself…

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Inside the hospital of Alcatraz

I can’t tell you why, but I’ve always had a strange fascination for old, abandoned hospitals. Much like old cemeteries (like the St. Louis #3 in New Orleans), I find something so perfectly, beautifully, macabre about them. I realise this is going to make me sound like even more of a lunatic than I already am, and I honestly can’t explain why; there’s just something about the decaying abandoned furniture and equipment, the cliched but naturally haunting lighting, imagining the stories of the patients who went through there. For these reasons, I loved the movie Sucker Punch, and am an enormous fan of the work of Seph Lawless, who captures a lot of these degenerate settings so beautifully.

I’d love nothing more than to spend days exploring some of these abandoned buildings with my camera, but they’re not easy to get into. So, one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever been afforded was to see inside the hospital of Alcatraz (which was closed back in 1934) when I visited a few months ago. It was opened to the public for a few months after Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was invited to turn the rooms of the hospital into an art gallery, displaying his art examining human rights and free expression. You can read a little more about that exhibition here, but here are some of the photos I was able to take when I visited…

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Read this: Nine Lives by Dan Baum

Nine Lives
by Dan Baum

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Being less than a week out from Mardi Gras, I thought now would be a good time to post this review about an amazing book I read about New Orleans, while in New Orleans last month.

Dan Baum’s book starts back in the 1960s with the occurrence of Hurricane Betsy, and ends not long after the more recent events of Hurricane Katrina, as told by nine New Orleanians who lived through one or both events.

Ronald Lewis, John/JoAnn Guidos, Anthony Wells, Joyce Montana, Frank Minyard, Billy Grace, Belinda Carr, Wilbert Rawlins Jr and Tim Bruneau are the voices behind this book, a truly beautiful biography of a people and a city unlike any other in the United States of America. Through countless interviews with Baum, these men and women told their stories, candidly and truthfully, to weave an amazing story that really captured your heart and imagination from the start, more so than any work of fiction could have.

The stories in this book were real and raw, and true to New Orleans, touching subjects and walks of life dear to the hearts of many New Orleanians, such as the musicians, the police, the Mardi Gras Indians, the poor single mothers, the working professionals and the criminals. The stories were told without judgement, and it was hard not to form a bond to the characters in those pages.

I found it really hard to read the last chapters of the book, the stories that came from Katrina. I remember, vividly, seeing those images that everyone else saw on the TV when it happened back in 2005 (was it really that long ago??); the crying woman sitting on a roof, holding a baby, water lapping at her feet. The men wheeling shopping trollies through the water, trying to rescue babies on their way. People crammed into the Superdome. The markings on surviving homes, indicating the number of dead found within. Seeing it all on TV, in papers, online, is horrific. Reading about it, however, in the stories told by the survivors, is infinitely more powerful.

It wasn’t all about the hurricanes, though. It was about every day life. About the same struggles people all over the world face. Finding a job, getting through a divorce, trying to live a good life without getting into trouble with the law, doing something meaningful with your life. It might be the same stories all over the world, but the way New Orleans does things in the face of situations like this is different. It’s not something you can explain or describe, there was no one passage or quote that could sum it up, it’s just a beautiful piece of work that you should be reading. Pick up a copy here and enjoy the journey.

Through my eyes: Chicago Theater

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The Chicago Theater; it’s an impressive sight, isn’t it?

Some fun facts for you (with plenty more on their website)…
– The gorgeous theater opened in October 1921 and cost $4 million to construct.
– The auditorium can hold 3, 600 guests.
– The famous C-H-I-C-A-G-O sign is almost 6 stories high.
– The first showing upon opening was “The Sign on the Door.”

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The New Orleans School of Cooking!

New Orleans School of Cooking
524 St. Louis St, New Orleans
http://www.neworleansschoolofcooking.com

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Now this was one hell of an experience! I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans, one of the reasons for which being the food culture here; it’s like no other part of America, in that it is SO unique and specialised. The mix of nationalities that had a hand in creating this city all brought with them elements of their foods from back home, which leads to dishes that have no comparisons in other parts of the world, like gumbo and pralines.

We purchased tickets for one of the cooking demonstrations, for around AUD$30.00 each, and it started from the moment we walked through the doors. We were greeted, checked in and invited to look around their store before the class began: questions welcomed and encouraged!

Right on 2pm, the gorgeous Pat breezed into the store and welcomed us all. Up to the third floor we trekked and took our seats at the scattered round tables, set with cutlery, recipes, condiments and drinks (water and iced tea) on a checkered tablecloth. The stove was already well and truly alive with a few pots of stock and the beginnings of a gumbo bubbling away.

Pat was quite simply amazing. This gorgeous lady gave us a full and truly entertaining run down of the history of New Orleans, constantly bringing it back to the food and history’s impact on Louisiana cuisine, intermittently fluttering back to the stove to explain the steps to getting the andouille and chicken gumbo together. Once everything was in the pot, she left it to simmer and do its thing, moving fluidly onto the next recipe, creole chicken.

She threw together another classic recipe, explaining as she went, all the while still giving us historical information and fielding questions from some of her more eager students; now, this lady really knows her stuff, answering questions on everything from the smoke point of butter and oil versus lard to how long your creole sauce will keep for. Count yourself incredibly fortunate if you should find yourself in her kitchen!

Again, leaving the creole to simmer away, she moved onto the pralines, the most famous of New Orleanian sweets. I plan to attempt all of these recipes when I’m back home, so if you’re interested in recipes and seeing how I did recreating them, visit back here soon : )

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Then, like the seasoned professional she clearly is, Pat’s lunch party was on! We were served bowls of gumbo and plates of creole chicken on rice. Beer appeared on the tables, as well as second servings for those of us who couldn’t get enough (more gumbo for me, please!). And that food.. It was like being served warm bowls of hugs, seriously.. New Orleans food is true comfort food. It’s rich and full of flavour. It’s the food you wanna be eating when it’s cold, when you’ve had a shitty day at work, when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. It’s not difficult to put together, but there are layers of flavours that work in absolute perfect symphony. If you don’t like the food in New Orleans, then you just don’t like food! Amazing class run by an amazing woman; do yourself a favour and sign up when you visit!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

I was so happy when Sibba agreed to let me drag her around to a few historical sites on our last day in Hanoi – I’m a history geek! I’ve read a lot about the Vietnam war and the decades leading up to it (and the aftermath of the decades after it), learning a lot in the process about Ho Chi Minh and what he did for Vietnam. Upon checking our map, I realised the Mausoleum and Museum were within a stone’s throw of each other, so we decided to visit them both, first thing in the morning (we’d heard they get pretty busy later in the day).

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Sibba and I actually walked the 2.5km from our accommodation at the Quoc Hoa Hotel, which was actually not too hard to navigate… until we accidentally stumbled into some sort of military compound (Google maps thought it’d be quicker to cut through it rather that walk around it) which we were sternly and swiftly told off for, and I imagine the armed guard said something (in Vietnamese) along the lines of “Idiot Australians! You can’t just walk through here!!!” His shiny uniform and large gun made his point, even if we couldn’t understand his words.

Anyway, we got there in the end, and first walked down through the enormous Ba Dinh Square leading to the Mausoleum. It was magnificent, silently commanding a quiet respect from the visitors. Despite his wishes to be cremated upon his death, he was instead embalmed and entombed in this Lenin-style mausoleum in the centre of the square, in the city where he read his Declaration of Independence in 1945 and thus establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The 25 words or less history (not literally, I tried!) is that Ho Chi Minh received a French education, spending time in France, the UK, the USA and Russia in his early years. He became a Vietnamese Communist leader, taking the roles of both president and prime minister of North Vietnam, as well as leading the Viet Minh movement. He was fighting for Vietnamese independence, bringing the North and South together under one rule. There is, of course, a LOT more to it than that – I’d recommend reading up on it if you’re interested! Anyway, the mausoleum brings in hundreds of visitors every day, mostly locals actually, paying their respects to Uncle Ho. Tourists come in by the bus load too, and it is nice to see that for the most part, people were very respectful.

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After spending some time under the watchful eyes of the guards and the big, grey structure itself, we walked over to the Museum, which was a real surprise. Built in the 90’s, it’s a supremely modern building, with an even more surprisingly modern interior. It’s dedicated to the plight of Ho Chi Minh and revolutionary fight for the country against foreign powers. The entrance fee was tiny, only a few dollars, and there was a lot to see – you can read a little more about the museum on their website, but I’d rather tell you about my impressions rather than re-telling something that already exists.

Upon entrance, you’re immediately faced with the first collection – mostly photographs and letters written in Vietnamese. It was interesting to look at, but even the descriptions were in Vietnamese, so we really didn’t have much of an idea of what we were looking at. We progressed up the stairs to the second collection in the second level, to be faced with a sort of ante-chamber, filled with the presence of an enormous, bronze Uncle Ho.

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As we moved through one of the few entrances, we discovered the complete opposite of the simple, primitive display downstairs – an ultra-modern museum, with beautiful displays telling the story of the history of Vietnam…

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It was well worth the visit and the tiny entrance fee – even Sib was fascinated! It was set up in such a great way that you really couldn’t help but learn, and you lingered at each new exhibit for a little longer than you expected to. It was also really interesting to note that there were more locals than tourists there; it seemed that they continue to be very interested in their culture and their past. I think that’s incredibly important, and was really wonderful to see.

I thought it was a fantastic place to see and spend some time in – we certainly stayed longer than we expected to! I would really recommend a visit if you are in Hanoi, it was a beautifully modern glimpse into a complicated past.

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