Visiting the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas

On our free morning in San Antonio with no Fiesta Week activities, we decided to visit the Alamo. First established as a mission in 1718, the Alamo was one of many settlements established by Spanish missionaries in an effort to convert the indigenous population. In San Antonio alone, there are five missions still standing (read about our bike ride to the other four here!). Although there were many missions established, the Alamo was made famous by the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” referring to the battle fought there on March 6, 1836.

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When we arrived downtown I was surprised to realize that the Alamo is literally smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio. We headed to the mall across the street first to watch the film “Alamo: The Price of Freedom” to get a better feel of the mission’s history before walking through the actual Alamo. The 48 minute long movie is a tribute to the 189 Texans, Tejanos, and settlers who died defending the Alamo from the Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna. No one knows exactly what happened inside the Alamo during the 13 day siege but the film represents historians best guess for what passed.

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Next we walked across the street to the front of the Alamo to enter the church. No pictures are allowed inside the church but walking through the remains we could see the rooms where some civilians waited out the battle. After exiting the church we stepped out into a large courtyard with a few buildings surrounded by a small stone wall.

The courtyard houses a building with exhibits displaying the history of the Alamo, a gift shop and food stalls. Outside there are canons used by the Mexican Army and sometimes reenactors on the lawn! Although the men at the Alamo were defeated, the fall of the mission rallied the Texas troops in the fight for Independence from Mexico with “Remember the Alamo!” as their battle cry. Before visiting I definitely recommend either watching the film like we did or doing your own research. It gave us a lot better perspective of the significance of the small Mission.

Vacationing in Liberia: Libassa Ecolodge and Wildlife Sanctuary

While we were in Liberia for almost two weeks we were busy almost every day, from doing engineering activities with Kim’s students to shopping in the enormous Waterside Market in Monrovia. For our last full day in Liberia we decided to relax by visiting the Libassa Ecolodge, about an hour away from Monrovia and not far from the airport. We called a taxi driver we had used previously during the trip to take us to the resort directly, instead of doing the less expensive, but much more time consuming traditional way through various taxi stations.

When we checked in our room wasn’t ready yet so we dropped off our bags and headed to the poolside. Before jumping in the water we relaxed under the warm sun and sipped on our complimentary fresh coconuts. The resort has a multiple swimming pools, a lazy river, a lagoon to swim in plus lounge chairs along the beach. We dipped in the various pools and floated in the not-so-lazy river (the pump was broken at the time so the water was still). After the pools, we headed towards the beach to walk in the sand and dip our toes in the water–a first for me on this side of the Atlantic!

On the same property as the Ecolodge resort is the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary. The recently opened sanctuary is home to wild animals rescued across the country from people that illegally kept as pets. Our wonderful guide, Angie, led us around to the different enclosures and explained the progress of various animals towards being reintroduced to the wild.

We saw many animals including different types of monkeys, mongooses, a small deer and the cutest little pangolin. Pangolins are actually the most sought after animal for poaching in the world because their scales are believed to have healing properties. We were surprised to learn that the small deer, technically called Maxwell’s Duiker, had been rescued from the beach front restaurant in Monrovia we ate at the night before! The poor deer were so overweight from a diet of pizza and beer that even though they had been at the sanctuary for four months, they still looked obese! The sanctuary was an eye-opening experience seeing the types of animals native to Liberia, as well as discovering the extent that some people go to keep them as pets.

Making Belgian Chocolates in Brussels, Belgium

During our week long trip in Belgium, we knew we had to enjoy some famous Belgian chocolates! After a little searching online we found a Belgian chocolate making workshop for 35 euros each. We signed up before our trip to reserve our spots in the class. At 11 am on the day of the workshop, we met our guide, Effie, on the Grand Place just outside the tourist office. Effie then led our group of 22 a few streets away into a building nearby. We split into groups of 2-3 people each with a crockpot of molten chocolate!

In the class we made two different types of chocolates: pralines (hard crisp chocolate on the outside and a soft ganache filling inside) and mendiants (hard chocolate discs with nuts or dried fruits on top). We started the class by tempering our chocolate. Tempering the chocolate is a process to make it smooth and glossy for the shells of our pralines and it is achieved by heating and cooling the chocolate in a specific sequence. We cooled our chocolate from 50 degrees Celsius, down to 33 degrees then back up to 35 degrees. Now our chocolate was all set to start making the shiny shells of our pralines!

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Armed with our molds a spoon and a spatula, one by one we prepped the top layer of our pralines. Praying for perfection we each carefully poured the molten chocolate filling our molds. Since we wanted to leave room for the ganache filling we poured most of the chocolate back into the crockpot hoping for a thin shell. We placed our molds into the freezer to set and moved on to making some mendiants!

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The mendiants were much simpler and almost impossible to ruin. The first step was spooning a thin layer of chocolate on our own wax papers in any shape you wanted to try. Not as easy as it sounds: after attempting a K, I ended up sticking with simple ovals! Next we had an assortment of nuts and dried fruits to chose from to garnish our mendiants. When we put them in the freezer to cool it was neat to see the fun shapes other people attempted!

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After we set our mendiants aside to cool, the class came together to make the ganache filling. A few volunteers, myself included, made our the filling from scratch! Mixing milk chocolate, dark chocolate, cream and honey we created our ganache. We filled piping bags to pass around and everyone took turns adding ganache to their cooled shells. We left a little room for a bottom layer of hard chocolate adding this layer much like we did the first. After the last layer was applied our pralines joined our mendiants in the freezer for one final cool down.

While we waited for our chocolates to set, we used the leftover dark chocolate to make some delicious hot chocolate for while we waited! Each person got their own little chocolate box to put their chocolates in once they cooled. Overall the workshop lasted about 2.5 hours and we walked away with over 30 chocolates each! This chocolate making workshop was definitely a highlight of our trip and none of our chocolates made it back home, they were too delicious to save!

Visiting Kim’s Classroom: Marshmallow Structures

For our second day helping Kim teach at her school, our lesson was all about structures. For anyone who missed the estimation activity last class, Mom and I reintroduced our selves. We explained how we are both engineers and a little bit about all the different types of engineering. Since we are engineers, we wanted to bring an engineering activity to do with them. Kim started the lesson with a few vocab words like structure, cube, tetrahedron (pyramid shape) and strength. The goal of the activity was to see which type of structure, the cube or tetrahedron, could hold the most weight.

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To start the activity we split the class into small groups and gave them their building materials we brought from the US: toothpicks and marshmallows! Each group was tasked with making one cube and one tetrahedron. We made some examples for them to use as a reference and walked around the room helping out the different groups. After a little help each group was able to make their own structures.

To test which shape is the strongest we combined four groups together and had them put all their tetrahedrons together on a desk. Next we used their “copybooks”, or notebooks, to see how many the small structures could hold. The students gingerly placed a copy book on the structures one at a time until the structures fell, then repeated the process for the cubes. The cubes fell with just one copy book placed on it while, the tetrahedron could hold more weight, falling on the second copy book. In later classes, we switched to seeing how many notecards the structures could carry instead of the copy books. This way instead of falling right away under the thick copy books the whole process was more suspenseful and fun having the students place notecards one by one.

 

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At the end of the lesson we revealed to the students that marshmallows are actually candy! They don’t have anything similar to them in Liberia so every student stared at us in disbelief. They wouldn’t eat their building materials until they saw Kim eat one to prove they were edible! Even then they were skeptical, but once they tried them they kept begging for more!

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After doing the activity for three different classes we invited any students who wanted to do more to stay after school for another activity. During class earlier, they learned that structures using triangles can hold more weight than one built with squares. With the the knowledge they’d learned in class, we challenged the students to build the tallest tower they could, with the same materials. We split them into teams then gave them twenty minutes to work before measuring to find out which group could build the tallest structure. The students seemed to really enjoy it and were proud to show off their final towers (even if a few of the groups had to hold theirs up). From all the classes the tallest free standing tower measured at 22 cm and the winners from each grade got a prize!

 

We adjusted a few things from class to class, learning along the way, but overall the activities were a hit! We were only slightly exhausted at the end of 5 sessions, but the students seemed to enjoy them and hopefully learned something too! Plus we got to share an American treat with them: My absolute favorite part was the reactions on the students faces when they saw us eating the marshmallows! Our activities with Kim’s students are something I’ll never forget.

Visiting Kim in Liberia: A Morning in Kakata

Since Kim lives relatively close to the larger city of Kakata, we decided to take a morning to visit and see the Peace Corps training center and to meet her Liberian host family who she lived with during her initial training in Liberia. Instead of trying to hail a cab on the side of the main rode with three open seats in it, we called our cab driver from the other day to bring us there. While its much more expensive to do it this way it definitely made things easier plus we got a taste of the true Liberian way to travel on the way back from Kakata. We had breakfast on Kim’s front porch enjoying the cool morning air waiting for our cab driver to arrive.

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Once in Kakata, we headed straight to the Peace Corps training center. During our visit the newest Peace Corps volunteers had just arrived but were off one site visits (like Kim did) so we had the facility basically to ourselves. Instead of one building it is more of a compound with multiple buildings and plenty of green space in between. We walked around and explored the training center and dorms and then practiced using the pump to draw water.

Next we took a winding dirt path, through peoples yards, up and down a small hillside to reach the home of Kim’s Liberian family. We met her Ma, her sister, Blessing, and her little brothers Prince and Seth. We sat on her Ma’s porch and spent some time catching up with her family. They were very excited to meet us and Mom got a chance to thank them for all the help they gave Kim adjusting to life in Liberia.

Kim’s Ma walked us out to the main road to say goodbye, then we headed to a tea shop for lunch. Liberian tea shops are similar looking to a bar outside, where you sit at a counter to eat and drink. The difference is that, the main thing they serve is assorted teas and coffees and then “bread with egg” to eat. We ordered three bread with egg and a coffee to share. The food came one at a time, since she was only using one pan to make eggs mixed with onions more similar to an omelette than scrambled eggs (with more oil than we tend to use at home!). The eggs were served on a long bread hot dog style to eat. We sat in the covered open air shop enjoying the food and the coffee and watching the passersby.

After we filled our bellies, we headed to the local market area to walk around. Since Kakata is a much larger city compared to Kim’s community, they have a market every day rather than just one day a week like Kim’s site. The market was huge! We walked up and down streets lined with small open air shops selling anything you can think of. In addition to those shops, there was also a large covered area filled with tables where various food commodities were sold. Most of the food is sold by the pile, so tables are lined with piles of various foods. We saw everything from piles of beans to piles of raw chicken feet!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!

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Visiting Kakata was an amazing experience. We loved getting the chance to see the Peace Corps training area and meeting Kim’s Liberian family we’ve heard so much about! Once we made it back to Kim’s home it was time to start prepping for our second day of activities in Kim’s classes — post about that coming soon!

First Day in Liberia: Walk About Kim’s Community

After 27 hours of traveling we finally made it to Liberia! After finding Kim at the airport (!) we spent our first night at the luxurious Farmington Hotel right across the street. After a much needed night’s sleep, we met a taxi driver in the morning to take us on the bumpy hour long ride to Kim’s site in Montserrado County.

Once we reached Kim’s house we saw the wonderful welcome sign Kim’s neighbor made for us on her door. After dropping off our bags, we headed out on a “walk about” to explore Kim’s town. The people in her community are the friendliest people I’ve ever met! Since there isn’t air conditioning, everyone congregates on the porches as they are the coolest areas in the house. This makes it easy for everyone to say hello, throughout our entire trip we never passed a house in Kim’s community without greeting everyone along the way.

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We started off walking the dirt road to the market area, which was mostly empty since it wasn’t market day. As rainy season was just beginning, the path got fairly muddy at times and we had to wait out the rain a time or two. We stopped at a house by the market to buy some African corn on the cob. Different from the sweet corn in the US, it was slightly harder and tasted like popcorn!

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While walking the streets we were amazed by the number of houses that were actually shops. Any house you pass may be selling something! Kim filled us in on a way some shop keepers let you know what they are selling: they hang an empty package label of what they are selling on the side of the porch. For example the house we bought sausages (really just hot dogs) from had an empty packaged tacked outside.

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After a fifteen minute walk from her house, greeting everyone along the way, we arrived at Kim’s school. The buildings were empty but we got to see the rooms she teaches in and where we would be helping with activities the next few school days.

Once we were done exploring the school, we walked across the street to a house selling bags of cold water. In Liberia, it’s not safe for Westerners to drink the water (it’ll make us sick). Liberians are able to drink the water because their bodies have adapted to it. Bottled water is super expensive so instead they sell cold water in 0.5 liter plastic bags! You bite off the corner then suck on it and squeeze water out into your mouth.

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To end our walk about, we stopped at a few more shops to pick up some food for dinner. Kim doesn’t have electricity so that means no refrigeration, so each day dinner is decided by what foods people are selling when we walk through town. We were lucky our first night that we could get eggs and bread. Eggs are somewhat scarce and bread is made then sold until they run out but not necessarily baked each day. For dinner Kim made us scrambled eggs with onions that we ate on our bread. The rest of the evening we spent relaxing in the cool air on Kim’s back porch and getting ready for our first day at school!

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San Antonio’s Fiesta Week: Taste of New Orleans, El Mercado and the Texas Cavaliers River Parade

During my short time in San Antonio visiting family, I was excited to participate in a few Fiesta Week activities!  The tradition began in 1891 as a one day event as a salute to those in the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. The celebration has evolved into 10 day festival held each spring in San Antonio featuring three different parades throughout the week.

The first event we attended was the Taste of New Orleans event at Brackenridge Park at the Sunken Gardens Theater. The park was filled with Cajun style food stalls ranging from savory crawfish to sweet beignets. We spent the afternoon eating, drinking and dancing to the music. Admission was $15 plus you will need to purchase food/drink tickets once you get inside but all of the money raised at the event goes towards scholarships offered by the San Antonio Zulu Association.

After getting our New Orleans fix, we headed next door to walk around the Sunken Gardens. This Japanese tea garden was completed in 1919 and was created to beautify an abandoned quarry at this location. Walking the stunning winding paths and seeing the vibrant koi fish was a great ending to our day!

Our next Fiesta week activity was a visit to the Mercado in downtown San Antonio. The Mercado is open all year long full of stores selling primarily Mexican wares but during Fiesta Week there is an entire festival lining the streets. We shopped and explored before eating a delicious lunch at La Margarita. The Mercado was a great place to get our festive flower crowns and clothes for the River Parade that evening!

Finally it was time for the main event of our visit, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade! Rows of chairs line the San Antonio Riverwalk going right up to the edge of the water. Sitting in the front row I was worried I was going to fall in! The parade began around dusk and the trail of 55 decorated barges glowed brighter as the evening went on. One of the best parts of the River Parade is that all the money raised from the event goes to various children’s charities in the community.

Our seats were along the newer addition to the canal so, since there was no exit for the floats at the other end, we got to see each float twice! Every float had their own theme about their “mission”, a play on words referring to the Missions located in San Antonio (The Alamo is the most well known). Each float also had their own source of music and I was pleasantly surprised that about half the floats had live music! The floats were gorgeous but the best part of the evening had to be the looks on my young cousin’s face at every new float she saw!

While there are two other parades and many other activities during the rest of Fiesta week, sadly our trip had to come to an end. But here are some tips if you are trying to participate in these Fiesta activities:

  1. Utilize the event Park & Rides. For every Fiesta activity we rode the Park & Ride buses for a small fee so we didn’t have to try to find parking spaces downtown.
  2. Buy your tickets in advance for the parades. For the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, no one was allowed down by the Riverwalk unless they had a ticket.
  3. For the River Parade you are allowed to bring food and drinks (alcoholic or not) as long as they aren’t in glass containers.

Hopefully these tips are helpful, we can’t wait to go back and experience more of Fiesta Week!

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