Thursday, April 29, 2010

Traveler Interview

We met this traveler when he was coming through the free ice cream line. He was very excited, so we stopped to talk with him for a little while.

HI: What is your name?
My Japanese name or my English name? (laughing)

HI: Well both!
Jack is my English name yeah.

HI: What is your Japanese name?
Y as in yoke, A as in and, S as in sugar, U as in uncle, Y as in yoke, U as in uncle, K as in king, and I. (Yasuyuki)

HI: Perfect! So you are from Japan you said?
Exactly yeah.
HI: So what are you doing in Chicago?
Actually I’m here for pleasure. This is my first time in the States. Yeah. I will probably stay for 4 days, then I am planning to go to New York.

HI: How long will you be in New York?
I will be in New York for 5 days.

HI: Are you seeing just these two cities? Chicago and New York?
No probably not. Actually I did San Francisco. This is my second visit, Chicago is. Then New York, Canada Montreal. I can’t speak any French but its okay. Then Quebec City, then south to Boston. Then I will take the blue train from Boston to Washington D.C. This might be my last chance to visit the United States. So yeah. Probably for my final destination go to Vancouver. I already visited Vancouver though.

HI: Oh okay.
Yeah long time ago though.

HI: Wow this is a long trip!
Yeah it is. Yeah. I am a bit of a wanderer (laughing). I started to travel in my mid 20’s I had a walking visa. I went to Australia and New Zealand to study English then England. I go to English speaking countries to learn. The last 2 years I have been to South Korea to study Korean. Yeah. I am a language junkie. Next I want to study Chinese and visit China.

HI: Wow! That sounds great!
Yeah. But in Japan I work at a hotel as a receptionist. So it is very good for me. I need to know languages. It is a great help for me.

HI: Yeah for sure. So what have you done in Chicago?
Just all touristy, I don’t know much. I need to stay and extra day to get to the suburbs. I’m a stranger by myself. I have a guidebook with me so I have been browsing around shops. I did the tour yesterday.

HI: Oh did you? The hostel’s downtown tour?
Yeah yeah. The tour with George was very helpful for me. It was really you know…George told lots about historic Chicago and culture. It was great help for me. Last night I went to the Jazz bar too.

HI: Yeah Kingston Mines! Was it good?
Yeah it was pretty good. There were lots of people, around 25. Unfortunately there was not enough time to talk to everyone. Yeah. Not enough time to talk to each person but it was a good time.
HI: Well I’m glad you liked it! Have you enjoyed your stay at the hostel?
Oh Yeah! Before Chicago I stayed in San Francisco downtown but yeah…no free tours for us and free ice cream. I was amazed at here. It is pretty good for me. I really enjoyed myself. I didn’t know but Chicago is famous for the windy city. I went to Navy Pier this morning and there were really gusty winds. Really cold.

HI: (laughing) Yup, it is usually like that.
I didn’t know that. It is still freezing cold.

HI: It is better in the summer. But you are right, now it is still pretty cold.
Yeah yeah
HI: Well thanks for talking with me! I will let you enjoy your ice cream now!
Yeah yeah thank you.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Summer in Chicago

Welcome to Chicago! By now, you probably have found out that this is a “City of Broad Shoulders”, Blues Brothers, Al Capone, Michael Jordan, and deep dish pizza. But besides these well known symbols of Chicago, what does Chicago have to offer to its visitors? The answer is everything!

One of the wonderful things that Chicagoans truly appreciate about their city is the broad range of activities that will suit nearly anyone. While there are many other cities in the world that are bustling with culture and round-the-clock activity, Chicago offers a wonderful balance between large city adventure and small town coziness.

As flowers begin to blossom and a new leaves spring up on trees, the entire city of Chicago awakens from its winter slumber. Although, our Chicago winters have been known to intimidate many, Chicago residents believe our colder season builds character, and forces us to truly appreciate our warmer months.

With that said, over the next several weeks I would like to share with you the top 10 activities to do in Chicago during the next few months, in no particular order.

Attend a Cubs Game at Wrigley Field - If you are visiting from another state, chances are that someone has already recommended a visit to Wrigley Field. This modern day shrine to baseball is the second oldest baseball park currently used in the Major Leagues. A trip to Wrigley, can easily transport a baseball aficionado to an era of baseball long gone. However, if baseball isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll definitely find a great party in the stands. Before and after the games, I highly recommend visiting the bars surrounding Wrigley Field, an area residents have come to call Wrigleyville. You will find bar after bar on Clark Street, making it ideal for pub crawls even on a day when the Cubs are not playing. The drink prices are quite affordable and the atmosphere is very casual. Best way to get to Wrigley is on the “El”, getting off at the Addison stop on the Red line.

For the Cubs schedule visit,season=2010
Go to a Blues Bar – It’s no coincidence that the Blues Brothers films have been filmed in Chicago. Chicago has a long standing reputation of being one of the premier blues destinations in the entire nation. The multitude of blues clubs can be found throughout the city. For a unique night of true Chicago blues, the Hostel offers free tours to Kingston Mines nearly every Monday evening. Kingston Mines provides a very casual laid back atmosphere, inexpensive drinks, free entrance (to Hostel groups or students) and wonderful music played by some of Chicago’s most talented musicians. If you love blues, definitely check out the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park (June 11-13), the largest outdoor blues event in the world. With good music and the amazing Chicago skyline behind you, you are sure to have a wonderful time.

-Peter Razumovskiy, HI Volunteer

Friday, April 23, 2010

Nine Awesome Souvenirs from Mainland Southeast Asia

You have just spent one, two, or ten weeks in Southeast Asia; Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, you’ve traveled the roads, seen the sights and mingled with the people. As you prepare to take the long flight home, you might have trouble thinking of ways to take the experience home with you. Here are ten souvenirs that will remind you of your travels and impress your friends and family.

Cotton shirt

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand
Price: $4-$12

Coming in a large variety of styles, cotton shirts in Southeast Asia are light, cheap and comfortable. Both hand-made and mass produced shirts are available and you can also find brand names from back home for dirt cheap. The real bargains are the shirts made for the sweat drenching climate of the region, which are light and breezy. Complement them with Thailand’s fisherman’s pants, or Burma’s longis, both perfect for hot climates. Unfortunately, these latter two won’t be the most fashionable back home.


Where to Buy: Laos, some tourist places in Thailand and Cambodia
Best Place to Buy: Vientiene, Pakse, or anywhere near Mekong River views
Price: $.70-1.20

One of the cheapest beers in Asia, Beerlao is also one of the best. Light and fresh, Beerlao lends itself well to hot Lao days. It also has a huge domestic following, having captured 99% of the Lao beer market. While it may seem silly to take a bottle home in your crammed baggage, the general consensus seems to be that Beerlao directly bought from Laos is better than the more expensive bottles back home (if you can find it). Beerlao isn’t just a great beer, it’s a life-style.

Paper Money

Where to “Buy”: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Everywhere
Price: Varies

Perhaps the souvenir that is easiest to get your hands on is currency. The images on the paper money of Southeast Asia countries tend to be unique, well-drawn, and culturally instructive. Some examples are the portraits of the tremendously influential and respected figures King Bhumibol and Ho Chi Minh on Thai and Vietnamese money respectively, and the image of a mythical lion that covers all of the Kyat notes of Burma. Common motifs include contrasts between tradition and modernization (such as pictures of temples vs. those of new highways), and local history and legend.

Something Elephant-y

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Yangon, Burma
Price: $1.00-$12.00

Elephants are revered throughout southeast Asia with some examples of their popularity being the sacred white elephants of Thailand, the name of a former Lao kingdom, Lan Xang or “Land of a million elephants,” and Thailand’s popular Chang (elephant) beer. Traditionally used for both general labor and warfare, elephants are an enduring symbol of Asia. Elephant souvenirs are among the most common in the region, and include die-cast miniatures, wood cuts, embroideries, paintings, and any other medium you can think of. Elephant souvenirs are well beyond the point of being clichĂ©, but this just means there is a larger selection to choose from, and who doesn’t love the world’s largest land mammal?

Hand-Rolled Cheroot

Where to Buy: Burma
Best Place to Buy: Inle Lake, Burma
Price: $0.50-$6.00 (for a pack)

If you’re the smoking type, consider the traditional cheroot of India and Burma. Some are rolled with paper and others with leaves, but either way, they’re dirt cheap alternatives to cigars or cigarettes. In Burma they are commonly hand prepared, and one can watch the whole process in workshops in Inle Lake. Extra bonus, the smoke of a cheroot works as an extremely effective mosquito repellant!

Tailor Made Clothes

Where to Buy: Thailand, Vietnam
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok, Thailand or Hoi An, Vietnam
Price: $8.00-$40.00 (shirts/pants), $20.00-$150.00 (dresses), $80.00-$350.000 (suits)

If you’re looking for tailor made clothing at a fraction of the Western price, look no further than Southeast Asia’s Thailand and Vietnam. Metropolitan Bangkok and the much smaller coastal Hoi An, are especially packed full of tailor shops. Quality and price can vary drastically from shop to shop, but in these two locations, vast competition has made the general price to quality ratio very reasonable. Before you go on a crazy shopping spree, remember these three guidelines; Shop around, inspect, and haggle. Make sure to look out for cloth quality, workmanship and price. Recommendations from other travelers are especially valuable.

New Light of Myanmar Newspaper

Where to Buy: Burma
Best Place to Buy: Yangon or Mandalay, Burma
Price: $1.00

The national mouthpiece of the military junta, the New Light of Myanmar would be a hilarious Orwellian parody if it wasn’t a legitimate attempt by the government to convey the news. The domestic news mostly comes from the state-run Myanmar News Agency (MNA), and international news is carefully selected and edited by censors before appearing in the bi-lingual daily. The result is domestic news of official inspections and general “progress” contrasted with mostly negative international news that would imply every country but Burma is falling apart. I think I remember a “scientific” article entitled, “Botox moves from face to brain.”

Cambodian Silk Scarf

Where to Buy: Cambodia
Best Place to Buy: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Price: $1:50-$15.00

If you’re looking for a cheap and beautiful gift for someone, seriously consider a Cambodian scarf. Commonly made from silk or fine cotton, many Cambodians wear scarves not to keep warm, but to keep out dust. The scarves are light and covered with assorted patterns and colors. There are a million varieties, so you’re sure to find something unique for yourself or anyone else.

One Crazily Marketed Product

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Who knows?
Price: Varies

Ever seen a product placement that just didn’t make sense? Maybe it’s just culture shock, but Asia seems to have a plethora of hilarious ad campaigns. Scour the shelves of stores, examine the newspaper stands; the gem you are looking for could be anywhere. My favorite discovery was a box of condoms covered in “scantily clad” humanoid fruit.

And There’s More…

If none of these ideas appeal to you, be creative! Check out ornate boxes, wall hangings, lacquer ware, even weird looking rocks. The key to a great souvenir or gift is to find something that will remind you of that “feeling of travel”.

-Ted Gault, former hostel intern

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cultural Kitchen with Christopher House

Hostelling International Chicago is a wonderful place to stay, with a great staff, clean and comfy rooms, and an unmatchable location in downtown Chicago. In addition to these advantages, HIChicago offers several education programs for Chicago students. One of these programs, appropriately named "Cultural Kitchen", challenges students to explore cultures outside their own and then spend a night at the hostel.

A typical Cultural Kitchen begins outside the hostel, when one of HIChicago's education staff visits a classroom of students at the their school. After learning about the program, the students vote on one country to study. In the following weeks, they study the culture of that country, researching topics like religion, geography, food, dress, traditions, and more. Although it is very educational, this part of the program is only the beginning of the students' learning experience.

After researching, the class travel downtown to Hostelling International Chicago. While at the hostel, they cook a typical meal from the country they studied, share the meal with hostel guests, present their research, and finally stay overnight. Most students learn a ton, and their reactions demonstrate the importance of intercultural experiences.

A Cultural Kitchen happens almost every week, but the group that came on March 31 made a unique impression. The group was not from a Chicago high school, which is the usual case, but from a community organization named Christopher House. The youth studied the country of India and then cooked a wonderful Indian meal -- Vegetable Curry, Potatoes and Spinach in Cream, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Coconut Bars (Nariyal Burfi) for dessert. The food was delicious, but it was topped by their presentation afterwards.

After dinner, the Christopher House students presented a slide show about India. In addition to painting a beautiful picture of this country and its culture, several students shared about their own cultures and backgrounds. The hostel guests learned even more about Nigeria, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and even Chicago. The presentations were very interesting and fun, as was the game afterwards, but it was most rewarding to hear the reactions of the students. In the end, Cultural Kitchen was not just another research project for them, but an opportunity for each student to get to know world cultures more. They themselves responded by saying things like "Learning about other cultures opens our minds to new things", "Cultural understanding helps build peace in our world", and "Learning about other cultures is good practice before we travel". On top of that, they all got to explore their own heritage more and become more familiar with their own cultures.

It is very rewarding to see this kind of influence that cultures, travel, and hostels can have on the youth of today. Most Chicago youth rarely get the opportunity to leave the country, but they are able to "travel" to new places by studying them, talking to travelers, and staying at the hostel downtown. Cultural Kitchen is an excellent program that offers so much for Chicago youth. And those guests that sign up to attend get some excellent food, learn more about other countries, and may even get to learn about the heritage of students in Chicago! What a program!

-Ben Wickstrom, HI-Chicago education intern

No Way Out!

The volcanic eruption in Iceland has wreaked havoc on the traveling industry across the world. Tour groups, backpackers, and business travelers alike are stuck in their current locations with no idea when they will be able to return home. Chicago is no different. Hostelling International Chicago has several travelers and groups who are unsure of how long their unexpected ‘vacation’ will last.

I caught up with one traveler in the hostel, Catherine King who is from Australia and now living in London. Her flight was supposed to leave on Wednesday April 14. Cat was traveling in the United States and fully expected to be home a week ago. Last Wednesday she boarded the plane and took off for London. However four hours into the flight, the pilot announced they were going to be turning back to Chicago. Laughing she said, “I gave it a test run. That same plane has not left yet and I liked the flight, it was a good plane so that is good! ” Cat managed to get another seat on a flight the next day, Thursday April 15. However, after checking in, the flight was then canceled. Cat has been in close contact with her travel agent back in London for the past week. Thankfully he was able to get her a seat on a flight for tomorrow, Wednesday April 21. Exactly one week later than she was originally scheduled to flight, Cat is still hoping the flight takes off. Third time is a charm right?

Despite the mess it has created, Cat remains positive. She said, “You just have to make the best of it!” The first night the airport gave Cat a voucher for the Hyatt. However, when Cat realized that her flight would not leave for another 6 days, she decided to come back to the hostel. She preferred to be downtown with things to do and the ability to meet people. “I could be out there at a really nice hotel for free, but it would be out by the airport. I would just be sitting in the hotel for four days,” Cat said.

When asked what she was doing about work, Cat said they are understanding: “There is really nothing they can do about it. I have been emailing them and staying in contact, but they know I can’t help it.” Cat works for a University in London in the lab, therefore working from Chicago is impossible. Two of her co-workers are also stuck, one in China and the other in Canada. Aside from work, Cat has also missed out on several other plans in the past week. Two of her friends celebrated their birthdays last weekend and she also had plans to take another trip next weekend. However, with the talk of no flights in the near future, she is unsure if those plans will go through as well. “My birthday is next week too. I really want to be home by then so I can celebrate with my friends,” says Cat.

Nonetheless, Cat is making the most of her stay in Chicago. She has been able to visit more of the museums around the city and she has attended several more of the outings with the hostel. If her flight does not go through tomorrow, she plans to take a bus out of the city and visit another city close by to Chicago; possibly Milwaukee. If this does happen her travel agent was able to hold a seat for her on a flight leaving Saturday April 24. This flight will be going through Calgary Canada. Keeping her positive attitude, Cat laughed and said if she gets stuck there she will at least get to see Canada too!

Cat is not the only stranded traveler at the hostel. Michael Baker, from the UK,
and Boris Hupkens Van DerElst, from the Netherlands,

are both hoping to leave soon. Michael has a flight on Saturday leaving Chicago, but he is already expecting to have it cancelled. Unfortunately because of the large number of travelers at the hostel, we are booked up for the next couple of nights. So Michael is trying to find another place to stay in Chicago until then. Boris managed to get a seat on a flight scheduled to leave today, however it was also cancelled. So, he was forced to make yet another change in plans. He is now flying to Houston and then to Frankfort. Both Boris and Michael were also keeping positive attitudes. They acknowledged that there was nothing you could do about it now, so you might as well make the best of your extended vacation.

So if you find yourself stuck with no sign of returning home in the near future, take advantage of it! Stay at hostels and meet other travelers who are in the same position. Let your frustrations with air travel be a bonding experience! If you are staying at Hostelling International Chicago, we are continuing to provide events and activities for you do to while stranded. Look on the bright side, you are in one of America’s greatest cities and spring has arrived! Happy exploring and minimal amounts of stress in your extended stay!

-Erika Ter Louw, HI intern

Even HI Staff Have the Travel Bug!

Working at a hostel, everyone has the travel bug. Hostelling International Chicago's staff members often take their vacation times and put them to good use. One staff member, Kimberly Turner, just returned from vacation. Naturally we were curious to see how her trip went and we wanted to share with you!

HI: What do you do here and how long have you been working at the hostel?
I am the assistant general manager. And I have been here a little over 4 years. 4 years and 3 months.

HI: So you recently went on vacation in Italy. Where were you in Italy?
We went to Rome, spent one night in the Cinque Terre, two nights in Siena, two in Tuscany in the countryside outside Florence.

HI: How long were you there for?
We left of the 7th. So, 10 days.

HI: What did you do as you were traveling?
We basically saw the sights. The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum and we spent time just wandering around the cities. Eating a lot of good food and good wine (laughing). That about sums it up! Nothing too exciting.

HI: Sounds great! What was your favorite part?
My favorite part would have to be…(pauses thinking) I loved the Sistine Chapel. And the Coliseum, I loved them both. But the Sistine Chapel was my favorite. It was even more amazing than I pictured it to be. We went at night and had an audio tour. It was very helpful and so beautiful at night. It was incredible.

HI: If you had to recommend one thing that a person had to see in Italy what would it be?
I would say the Coliseum is an absolute must. Just because there is nothing else like it. The third station of the cross is there if you are religious; or event if you are not it is still cool to see. It is also cool to look back to that point in history. There is so much history there! ½ million people died in sick and twisted games. It is disturbing but part of history. The Coliseum is also really easy to get to! Its right off of the train stop. You get off and the Coliseum is right there!

HI: Wow!
Yeah it was really neat. It was like watching free entertainment for them. I learned so much! There was free food and free wine. And most of the animals, tigers, giraffes, and stuff, are from Africa. But only 20% of them made the trip from Africa!

HI: Wow, sounds like there was a lot of information there!
Yeah we had a 45 minute tour with a guide. There was so much I never even thought about. It was well worth the paid tour. I was thinking of just going in and walking around and looking at the signs, but it was so much more fascinating with the guide.

HI: So after your travels in Italy, trying to get back to the United States in light of the Volcano, were you affected?
No we weren’t! We were so lucky! Our flight was Saturday morning and we had been watching the news a lot to make sure we were still on. But there were still people traveling in Italy and Spain. So we made it out. The airports were busy but I expected it to be more hectic. When we landed in New York, JFK is normally such an insiane place already but it wasn’t bad at all. There were cots lined up for stranded travelers, but it wasn’t bad. It was much busier in Chicago.

HI: That is so great! I’m so glad you made it back and didn’t have problems.
Yeah we were so lucky! It was such a blessing that our flights were on time!

HI: Well, thank you very much for talking with me! Have a good rest of the day and welcome back!
No problem! Thanks!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Crepes and Conversation

Thank you to all of you who participated in Crepes and Conversation on Friday night!

Two Hostelling International Chicago interns, Veronique and myself, got together on Friday night to make crepes for a group of 6 travelers. And it was a great hit! Veronique, who is originally from France, taught us how to make a perfect crepe and travelers could choose between a variety of toppings. Egg, ham, cheese, and mushroom crepes made the perfect dinner!

The event began at 5 pm in the dinning room and to start there were two travelers present, one from England and the other from Germany. These two in particular were traveling on a budget and one had only spent $4 so far in his trip here to Chicago. The pool table in the lobby and the free food was a huge hit with them! Promptly at 5 we began cooking the first crepes. Veronique was a natural and made the perfect crepe right off the bat. I however needed a little practice. My first crepe was slightly shaky, but after I saw how it was done, the next ones turned out much better. Every traveler was very grateful for that fact!

Word of free food travels fast in the hostel and soon we had a busy kitchen with people interested in some good crepes. Standing with travelers and engaging them in conversation, Veronique gained some valuable knowledge for the hostel. We were interested in learning how the hostel can make your stay here even better! It was very good to hear how the hostel is doing and what things you love about our accommodations. However, we know there is always room for improvement and we jump at the opportunity to better your experience!

Overall the night was a success with great conversation and incredible food! It was also another opportunity for travelers to get to know each other! The six travelers shared with each other their experiences, advice, and stories of traveling. Some new acquaintances were made and they joined together to attend the hostel outing to the Green Mill. So thank you very much everyone for attending! We loved getting to know you and hearing your feedback! Happy travels!

-Erika Ter Louw, HI intern

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Neighborhood Spotlight: HYDE PARK

Home to the University of Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, and pre-White House Obama, Hyde Park is a dynamic neighborhood with lots to offer. Founded in the 1850s, and developed by investments from great Chicago philanthropists such as Rockefeller and Marshall Field, Hyde Park has retained its reputation as a culturally, educationally, and architecturally significant neighborhood on the city’s South Side. The University of Chicago, however, has had by far the greatest impact on the small neighborhood, contributing art and cultural attractions such as the Oriental Institute Museum and Rockefeller Chapel (pictured). Tree-lined streets, stately architecture, quiet parks and hip restaurants make Hyde Park worth the 25-minute bus trip from the hostel.

 KNOWN FOR: Vibrant with the arts, culture, architecture, and diversity; The University of Chicago.

 DON’T MISS: The Museum of Science and Industry (5700 S Lake Shore Dr); Oriental Institute (1155 E 58th St), a free museum of art & history of the ancient Near East; Seminary Co-Op Bookstores (5757 S University Avenue) Hyde Park’s favorite book store; Valois (1518 E 53rd St) for no-fuss diner food; Istria CafĂ© (1520 E 57th St) for Intelligentsia coffee, deserts, and gelato.

 GET THERE: Take the #6 bus from State and Harrison south to 56th Street

Thursday, April 15, 2010

We stopped to talk with Sebastien while eating some ice cream on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon! Learn more about him!

HI: Where are you from?
Portugal. Right by the boarder of Spain, in the middle. But right now I live in France. I studied management and I graduated. Now I’m working. I was working before coming here to make money.

HI: Yeah that’s always good! What is your name?
Sebastien Batista

HI: Where do you work?
At an airport. I clean the airport during the night.

HI: Wow! During the night! Do you like it?
Yeah it is a very cool job. I drive the big machine (laughing).

HI: (laughing) Cool! What do you like about your job?
There is not enough to clean because it is in the middle of the night, and the manager is really cool. So you clean your one spot and do okay and then it is good. It is very cool, you clean your place and you are good. I love to talk with people in the airport. I practice my Spanish and talk with people as they are traveling. It is a very good wage during the night too.

HI: Wow, that sounds great! Really laid back. So have you traveled a lot?
Yes. New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Niagara, and Detroit.

HI: That is a lot of places! How long have you been traveling?
Two months. Three more weeks and then I leave.

HI: Is Chicago your last stop?

HI: How much longer will you be here?
If I like it two weeks maybe more, but if I don’t...I just leave (laughing).

HI: Well I hope you like it!

HI: What places did you really like?
I hated Montreal. Hated it. My credit card was stolen

HI: Oh no! What happened?
I was in the club and I put my coat in the room. But at the end of the night I came back to get my coat and the pocket was opened, and my credit card was gone. So I don’t like Montreal. It was too much like Europe too. So many Americans tell me, “Go to Montreal, you will love it!” But it was boring, not enough to see.

HI: (laughing) Yeah maybe Americans love it because it is like Europe, but you are used to it, so it is boring.
Yes I think so. But I didn’t like Montreal...don’t go (laughing).

HI: I will remember that (laughing). What place did you like?
Detroit. I loved Detroit. Some people say it is not safe, but I thought it was fine. And everything is so cheap! I also loved New York.

HI: So what are your plans for tonight?
I am staying with a friend for a few days and I might come back here. I’m going to see the city with him.

HI: How did you meet your friend?
Online. You can meet other people from all over the world and talk with them. Then you can visit and stay with them and see how the city is from someone who lives there. Then they can come and stay with you.

HI: Wow that sounds great! It is a perfect way to see Chicago!

HI: Well thanks for talking with me! Enjoy your ice cream and I hope you have a great time in Chicago!
Thank you. And yes this ice cream is very good. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Egypt: In and Out of the Bubble

I’m Tom and a volunteer at the HI Chicago Hostel. I mostly work the Info Desk, but also occasionally lead outings to places like the Green Mill Lounge and Smoke Daddy. I just returned from a tour of Egypt with my son and daughter and we had a great time. Our itinerary started with arrivals in Cairo. My daughter overland by bus from Jerusalem and my son and I from Chicago via Istanbul. We started our sightseeing in Cairo with the Sphynx and pyramids in Giza and then headed south to Aswan via the overnight “sleeping train”. We arrived late morning in Aswan and then had four days down the Nile on a cruise boat. We went from Aswan to Luxor and visited the Temple of Isis, the Aswan Dams, the Unfinished Obelisk, the Temple at Kom Ombo, then down the river further to Edfu and the Temple of Horus. On the third day we saw the Colossi of Memnon, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the largely restored Temple of Hatshepsut.(the queen who became a Pharoah) on the west bank of Luxor. We left the boat and our tour guide in Luxor and checked out the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, as well as, the wonderful Luxor Museum. The next day we went by train to Alexandria for four days to check out the Alexandria Library and other sites including the National Museum, Fort Qaitbay and the Presidential Palace at Montazah. After Alexandria a 3 hour evening train ride got us back to Cairo four days and the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, Old (Islamic) Cairo.

Most of the trip we made up our itinerary as we went using Lonely Planet and other resources for guides as to what to see and how to get there. The obvious exception was the cruise which included our own guide and prescheduled and prepaid outings and tours with still a fair amount of free time. In general the cost was higher, but more time efficient compared to going on our own. The package tour also allowed us to ease into the Egyptian way instead of a sink or swim approach of doing everything on our own. It also helped that my daughter Sara has a pretty good command of Arabic and is used to negotiating with taxi drivers in the West Bank in Palestine.

My favorite experiences there included Alexandria in general for it’s combination of Middle Eastern and European influences and great museums including the new Library which is an architectural masterpiece and the region’s great seafood. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a must as are at least some of the temples, tombs and pyramids in the Nile Valley. They all can be somewhat overwhelming, but taking them in manageable chunks and not trying to see them all is a good strategy. Getting around on foot can seem a little scary at first, but despite all the honking and lack of traffic control and structure that we are used to in the US, pedestrian and vehicular traffic moves fairly efficiently even in the busiest sections of Cairo. I highly recommend walking as much as you are comfortable in all of the cities. Follow the natives and keep an eye out, but drivers are highly aware of where the pedestrians are and will usually give tourists just a little more room to get through the traffic. I never saw outright road rage and in general drivers and walkers operate from a position of enlightened self-interest. When you get tired there are plenty of cheap minibuses and taxis that will get you to most places in the cities for a few cents to three or four dollars.

Food was great, inexpensive and easy to access without going near any western hotel chain dining rooms. Shammie is most like Greek or Lebanese pita, baladie is similar but darker with more whole grain and bran on the bottom. Schwarma of all kinds is available on the street and in restaurants. Egyptian pancakes tend to be fairly plain, but in some places are on the same menus with more standard Italian style thin crust pizza. The pancakes tend to have the ingredients baked totally inside the enveloping crust and are more like pizza than western style pancakes. Everywhere you go mezzes (salads and appetizers) are available. Some are served on a complimentary basis or can be ordered in combination plates. They vary from baba gannouj to green salads to pickled vegetables and various kinds of humus and tahina, as well as kibbeh and felafel. One dish unique to Egypt is kushari that contains lentils, pasta, rice, chick peas, onions and is topped with vinegar sauce and/or hot sauce made with chilies and tomatoes. Essentially vegetarian or in most cases vegan it can also be topped with schwarma, shish kabob or kibbeh. It is served in tiny street stalls and shiny, clean fast food places. One thing I did not see anywhere in Egypt is hot dogs, but there is the occasional McDonald’s and lots of KFC’s including across the street from the Sphynx in Giza. In Alexandria seafood reigns with street vendors and white table cloth fine dining. Many places you pick out what you want from either the raw catch on display or point to it as its pulled from the deep fryer and then piled on your platter. For a great selection of Egyptian fast food in Cairo or Alexandria go to GAD. The bakeries are not that plentiful, but very popular, particularly at night and many have great cheap gelato. Food and beer (when you can find it) is amazingly cheap in restaurants. Nice lunches will run to
15-25 Egyptian Pounds ($3-5) and easily feed two. Half liter beers are usually ten poounds. Even in nicer restaurants bills were typically under 100 pounds for two for dinner. Tips are often itemized and included on the bill.

Hotels tend to run from big city western rates for Sofitels and Hiltons to hostels for about $5 per person for a shared room to less than $25 for a private ensuite for two or three. Budget hotels in Alexandria are not plentiful, but the one we found was brand new (in an old building) and less than $50 per night for a private ensuite for three. Almost everybody includes breakfast in the rate as well as all the taxes. Our hostel/budget hotels in Alexandria and Cairo were both in the top floors of apartment/office buildings built in the late 19th century with lots of charm and floor to ceiling french doors with louvers and balconies and great views. The only downside seemed to be the lack of dependability of the elevators which were old cage style ones with slightly modernized cars. All of our hotel/hostel reservations were done through Hostelworld or Expedia and there were no problems with the reservations or the rates quoted. Hostelworld charges a small booking fee and prepaid deposit.

So if you go to Egypt, you don’t have to do the package tour. You can mix and match with cruises and side trips or even do it all ad hoc. Just one other piece of advice–take your ATM card. ATM’s are everywhere in Egypt and generally the fees are less than exchanging US$ travelers checks or cash and almost no one takes credit cards outside of the big hotels.

Hostel Stairwell Murals by Connect Force

Safe Spaces & Positive Attitudes

Where is the worldliest, most socially engaging stairwell in Chicago? Right here in our very own Hostelling International Chicago, thanks to a group of kids that belong to Alternatives, Inc., a non-profit organization based in the north side of the city. Instead of spending spring break playing video games, watching TV, or doing something equally detached from the community, this group of youth came to the hostel to decorate the 7 floors in the hostel stairwell with powerful, colorful, Chicago and world-themed murals.

Alternatives, Inc., according to their website (, "builds on the strengths of young people by focusing on leadership development, prevention of violence and substance abuse, academic enrichment and counseling." The hostel muralists participate are part of an Alternatives project called Connect Force, which is a recreational after-school program that allows kids to explore their creativity through hip-hop, breakdancing, mural arts, deejaying, and emceeing.

Justin Grey, program manager of Connect Force and team leader for the hostel murals, helped co-found Connect Force in 2002. Back then, the project's only aim was to provide a safe a place for kids to breakdance. Justin had a background as a graffiti artist and later brought that component into it. Before he knew it, it was a functioning after-school program with a ton of participants.

HI-Chicago and Connect Force joined together thanks to the chance meeting of HI-staffer and a Connect Force participant who was on a cultural youth retreat the hostel. He mentioned that he belonged to an organization that created empowering murals throughout the city. The shared mission was realized, the connection was sparked and the rest was history.

The murals' themes revolve around Chicago, community, the world, and youth ideals. Graffiti urges "Be Yourself" and "Leave a Path, Don't Just Follow a Trail." One wall is devoted to the word "Welcome" in 20 different languages. A full-wall map of the world gives travelers a chance to contemplate global geography as they walk up and down the hostel stairwells. A colorful map of Chicago's neighborhoods shows them the endless compartments of the city. When it came to depicting Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, the group tried to keep it positive by showcasing their experiences in the neighborhood - art, hip-hop and skateboarding - but at the same time represent the truth, which is evident in the representations of homelessness and gentrification.

The next time you're at the hostel, don't miss out on a viewing of this dynamic artwork. If you are interested in encouraging a youth in your life to join, or just want to know more about the organization, check them out on the web at You can also check out more of Connect Force's murals at the Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monkey Business: How Curious George Survived Nazi Germany, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and New York

Who doesn’t remember Curious George, that mischievous monkey who always found himself in trouble? Or the Man in the Yellow Hat, the father-figure who loved to leave a wild monkey alone in his house day after day so that he could parade around town in his bright yellow jungle ware? Both lovable characters were created by the writing-illustrating team of Margret and H.A. Rey, a pair of globetrotting Germans who met in Rio de Janeiro, fled invading Nazis in Paris, and eventually settled in New York. As cool as George is, he has nothing on his parents.

Both Margret and Hans Augusto (H.A.) were born around the turn of the century in Hamburg, Germany. Although they met each other briefly in Hamburg when Margret was a young girl (H.A. was eight years older), the two did not see each other again until 1935. The setting was Rio de Janeiro. If this seems odd, consider that at this time about 100,000 Germans were living in Brazil with possibly a million Brazilians being of German descent. Still, the pair was a unique case. When they met, Margret was an art school graduate, freshly arrived from Nazi Germany (both Margret and H.A. were Jews). H.A. was a bathtub salesman, albeit one with some excellent drawing skills. I imagine it wasn’t hard for Margret to convince H.A. to leave his prestigious job inspecting bathrooms, marry her, and move to Paris.

In Paris, H.A. published his first children’s book, Celicily G. and the Nine Monkeys. Curious George must have been king of the monkeys, because he was a hit, while the other eight fell into monkey obscurity. Margret and H.A., encouraged by George’s success, started writing and illustrating a new book dedicated to the monkey in 1940. Unfortunately their important work was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of France. Margret and H.A. knew that they had to avoid being captured by the Nazis and that they had little time to prepare. Perhaps putting his bathtub assembly skills to use, H.A. managed to turn a pile of spare parts into two working bicycles. The Rey’s were on the road literally a few hours before the Nazis reached the city.

After four days of heroically outrunning tanks on bikes (at least in my imagination), the Rey’s reached the French-Spanish border. Trading in their bicycles for train fare, the Rey’s then continued on to Lisbon, Brazil and then New York. Finally at rest, the Rey’s opened their luggage to reveal the five manuscripts they had carried all the way from Paris. One of them would eventually become Curious George.

Margret and H.A. Rey had wills (and legs) of iron. They were also infused with that worldly curiosity that so many travelers share today. Luckily for us, they passed that curiosity on to the world’s most celebrated monkey.

H.A. Rey

An exhibition entitled “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey,” recently opened at the Jewish Museum in New York, New York.

Look here for a review:

-Ted Gault, former hostel intern

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Twitter Wars in Thailand

People tend to be ambivalent about Twitter, a website that allows users to post short sentences and phrases about what's going on in their lives and to share their views on issues. People tweet on everything, ranging from eating delicious pie to hating their boss's choice in pop music. At first just an amputated feature of facebook, twitter has exploded in the last year with many celebrities and politicians using the site to reach out to supporters. With its lightening fast upload rate, spur of the moment writing, and easy accessibility, it was only a matter of time before twitter became a powerful political weapon. Everyone from Joe Biden, to Sarah Palin, to bored members of Congress have adopted twitter. And now an all out twitter war is blowing up in Thailand.

To make a long story short, Thailand is currently facing massive political turmoil. The politically underrepresented working class has risen up and demanded the dissolution of an elitist government that was voted into office after a military coup overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, the richest man in Thailand, was universally believed to be corrupt, but was also a populist and the first politician to acknowledge the poorer regions of Thailand. Thaksin was forced from the country, but his millions of supporters are not content to return to the shadows. For the past two years they have staged ever increasing protests against the government.

It's a colorful rebellion. The protesters wear red shirts and the royalists wear yellow (the royal color of the revered king of Thailand). In some ways, it's a war of publicity. The red shirts have been able to muster tens of thousands of people, clogging the streets of major cities in Thailand, taking over hotels and other commercial buildings, attacking and occupying government buildings, and shutting down parts of the Thai economy. The international media has grabbed hold of the protests and the government's situation seems more and more unstable.

Somewhat outnumbered on the streets, the royalists have turned to internet media in an attempt to gain an advantage in domestic and international sympathy. Twitter seems to be a preferred weapon. Many of the red shirts are rural poor and have never used a computer in their lives, but the yellow shirts, overwhelming middle and upper class, are very familiar with the internet. As a result, they have overwhelmed the red shirts on the twitter battlefield, spreading fact and fiction across the international scene. Even government officials are taking part. When the Government House was damaged by a grenade last week, the prime minister's office broke the news via tweet.

Who could have known that a website that many used to think was extremely annoying would become a powerful tool of the top tiers of government? Certainly not me. Maybe the obviously royalist Tweety Bird.
-Ted Gault, former hostel intern

Friday, April 9, 2010

Neighborhood Spotlight: Chinatown


Chicago’s Chinese population originally lived in the Loop area, but relocated to a then-Italian neighborhood south of downtown around 1912. Today, Chinatown is home to more than 30% of Chicago’s Chinese population, and its crowded streets are lined with exotic restaurants and authentic Chinese vendors. Starting at the Chinatown Gate next to the Red Line Cermak-Chinatown stop, walk down Wentworth Avenue, Cermak Road, and Archer Avenue for the best shopping and treats.

 KNOWN FOR: The bustling epicenter of Chicago’s Chinese population; authentic restaurants and bakeries; great place to purchase cookware and fun souvenirs.

 DON’T MISS: Double Li Restaurant (228 W Cermak) for a great BYOB option; Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S Archer) for a spicy menu; Giftland (2212 S Wentworth Ave), a fun store with good gifts, especially for kids; Chinatown Market (2121 S Archer Ave), the biggest grocery store in Chinatown; Chui Quon Bakery (2242 S Wentworth Ave) for Asian pork buns & egg custard tarts.

 GET THERE: Take the Red Line train (direction: 95th/Dan Ryan) to the Cermak/Chinatown stop.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Murals make an exciting new addition!

Hostelling International is very excited to announce the completion of two additional murals in our building! Last week a group of students and staff from Connect Force used their incredible talents to bring beauty to the hostel’s stairwells. The group had previously painted a mural on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors. We loved it so much we asked them to do more! Eventually all landings will have a mural done by Connect Force. The program is based out of Uptown and focuses on youth and hip-hop culture. We got a chance to talk with one of the staff members at Connect Force! Let him tell you more:

HI: What is your name?
Jesse. My art name is Jezi

HI: So you are working on the mural between the first floor and the second floor in the stairwell. What is this mural about?
It is about culture, dreaming, and believing.

HI: How did you come up with the inspiration?
Well this is what we practice with the hip-hop program. But most of it was spontaneous; we didn’t plan ahead with the concept. But we planned the basic images and then it manifested on top of that.

HI: Who was working on this mural?
Justin really kicked it off. Me, Oscar, Nick, Avery, Ruth, and Mike have been working on it too. Avery, Ruth, and Mike are all students. And the rest of us work for Connect Force.

HI: How long did it take with all of you working together?
This is day four. We will definitely finish by tomorrow. We have to do programming tonight so we have to leave early. But we will finish tomorrow.

HI: Tell me more about Connect Force. What do you guys do?
We are a hip-hop preservation and education program. We firstly teach and support youth in their own academic and self-development in a context of teaching the element of hip-hop culture.

HI: Where are most students from?
Most are from Uptown but we do get a lot of participants from all over the city. The other half of what we do is just to have an open space to practice hip-hop. Our hours are 6-8 Tuesdays and Thursdays and 1-4 on Saturdays. We actually have participants form all over the world come to practice with us. We have really nice dance floors so that draws in a lot of people. So it was a natural connection with the international hostel. Usually if breakers from out of town come in to Chicago, they visit us.

HI: Wow that is sweet! Have you done other murals?
Yeah mostly outdoor murals. We have done some indoor however we are hoping this will increase our publicity. And then allow us to increase our portfolio.

HI: Well it looks great! Thanks so much for taking a break and talking with me!
Yeah no problem. Check out the other murals too, they are all pretty sweet!

Thanks so much Connect Force! It looks great! Stop by the hostel and check it out!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Neighborhood Spotlight: ALBANY PARK

One of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, Albany Park is an entry-neighborhood for many of Chicago’s newest immigrants from East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America. A single strip mall can provide you with Latin American groceries, Jordanian breads, Korean BBQ, Lebanese music, DVDs of Japanese soap operas, and more. Lawrence Ave, nicknamed “Little Seoul Drive,” is the main street in Albany Park and hosts the Chicago Korean Festival every August. Nearby Bohemian National Cemetery, the burial place of several notable Czech-Americans, is notable for its elaborate limestone entrance and its two Albin Polasek sculptures, as well as an unusual way for Chicago Cubs fans to show their team loyalty.

 KNOWN FOR: Ethnic restaurants and groceries, especially Middle Eastern; thrift store and inexpensive shopping; vibrant community life such as the Albany Park Theater Project
 DON’T MISS: Al-Khaymeih (4748 N Kedzie Ave) for some of the best Lebanese food around; Lawrence Fish Market (3914 W Lawrence Ave) for unpretentious and excellent sushi; the many Middle Eastern bazaars for hookahs, jewelry, and more – Hookah Village Bazaar (4505 N Kedzie Ave) is a good one.
 GET THERE: Take the Brown Line to Kimball.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Traveler Interview

HI: What is your name?
Andreas, it is like the German form of Andrew

HI: Where are you from?

HI: How long have you been in Chicago?
Since last Tuesday. So one week ago I got here (smiling)

HI: What are you doing in the city?
(shrugs) I always wanted to visit Chicago. I am interested in the history and I had never been before. I have been to New York and Boston but not Chicago. I was surprised at the rich culture and history!

HI: What surprised you? What have you learned about Chicago?
Well it is hard to describe. It is the most open-minded city I have visited so far. There is rich culture! I am amazed at the museums. There is rich music culture too. I went to the blues bars with Chuck.

HI: Oh the Kingston Mines?
Yes! Also if the weather is nice, it is nice to walk the shoreline. It is fascinating to watch people! Each city differs in the US!

HI: Yeah that is so true! So have you seen any really interesting people as you were watching?
Oh yes. I stood for an hour watching people under the jellybean. So fascinating! (laughing) People were going like this and that and making faces to get a good angle (moving arms and legs to simulate motion).

HI: Yeah the jellybean is always fun. (laughing)
Yes. Of course I visited the John Hancock and the Willis tower. I prefer the Hancock. The restaurant was magnificent. I sat and had a coffee just sitting looking out.

HI: Did you go at sunset? That is beautiful I know.
No. It gets too crowded then. I try to avoid them, I don’t feel comfortable with crowds.

HI: Yeah that’s understandable. So what other things have you seen?
Been to the Botanical Gardens. Been to the Museum of Art. It was very confusing. So many floors I got lost! (laughing) Been to the planetarium. The view is great! You are able to walk to Millennium Park and walk all up it. Been to Obama’s house.

HI: Oh my goodness! You have seen a lot then! Are you traveling all over the US? Is Chicago the only city you are visiting?
This time yes. I also don’t like being in a city for one to two days. I want to get a feel for it. America in 48 hours is not my travel (laughing). For example, yesterday I walked the shoreline for 2 hours.

HI: Wow! Sounds like you have done a lot of walking while you were here!
Yes! Ugh. Yesterday I walked back from Obama’s house…

HI: Oh my word! Wow!
Yes I believe it was 9 miles. And before I spent 5 hours at Macy’s shopping (laughing).

HI: Wow! So what was your favorite part?
Well that is very hard to say. I really liked the two blues bars, Kingston Mines and Buddy Guy’s. They were great evenings. It is kind of hard, like comparing apples with oranges (laughing). Especially because they are so different but the blues was fantastic!

HI: Yeah I bet. So how much longer are you here for?
Until Saturday

HI: And then you head back to Germany?

HI: What do you do in Germany?
I recently graduated and just started to work. That is why I can’t take off too long (laughing).

HI: It’s a nice little break though.
From time to time I like to see some different things yes.

HI: Well thank you so much for talking with me! Enjoy the beautiful weather. Maybe you could take another nine-mile walk!
(laughing) Yes I could! Thank you, have a nice day!