Austin TX weekend getaway

What’s a girl to do on a snow day? Catch up on the blog…

At the end of November, Pocky and I attended an event in Austin, TX, and we planned a vegan foodie/culture adventure around it.

When most people think of Austin they probably imagine barbeque, craft beer and music — totally on point. But it’s also become a vegan comfort food and gastro pub kind of town.

We arrived on Thanksgiving, which can be an interesting time to travel as a vegan in the US. So we were grateful that the Sichuan River restaurant was not only open, but made great food. They served us tasty, spicy vegetable tofu dishes. We also had a great conversation with one of the owners who used to live in NY.

The next morning began with treats from Voodoo doughnut on 6th street, a short walk from our hotel. It’s a funky spot with great music, a stage in the front corner for bands to play, merchandise for sale, and a nice selection of vegan doughnuts. The maple, chocolate glazed, and strawberry doughnuts were delicious. They also had non-vegan options for the traditionalists.

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Since we needed to walk off breakfast before heading to lunch…we ambled around the downtown area, looked at shops and some of the historic buildings, then headed over to the state capital. We strolled around the grounds for a while and then walked over to Arlo’s for a quick lunch before the planned evening extravaganza (reason for our weekend visit).

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Our first Arlo’s Food Truck experience was at vegan fest in Toronto, Canada. It ranked in the top two favorite vendors that day, so we knew it had to be on the list for this weekend.

Austin doesn’t seem to have a lot of roaming food trucks, but instead four or five trucks are grouped together in parking lots next to bars and clubs and in the downtown business area off Congress Ave.

We stopped at the Arlo’s food truck, or as they call it, “curb-side kitchen,” set up in a permanent space on Red River. We opted for the Bac’n Cheeze Burger made with seitan bac’n and melted cheese and the Chipotle Chik’n seitan patty. It was filling and more than enough food since we had eaten doughnuts a few hours before.

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On our final day, we went to Counter Culture restaurant for brunch. We ordered the tofu rancheros, which was yummy, but the country biscuit bowl was a must have. They make the best vegan gravy I’ve ever had. I’d pour their gravy on top of almost anything. Good thing brunch was filling because we had a packed schedule planned for that day…

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After brunch, we drove to the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Presidential Library, situated on the University of Texas at Austin campus. The library offered a detailed history of his presidency through photos, documents, and the gifts he and Lady Bird received. There was a 7/8th scale replica of the Oval Office set up as it was during LBJ years, and loads of phone systems. I had no idea how much he loved to use the phone…there were old phone booths, and all of the displays included kiosks with phones and a screen to choose which old recordings to listen to. I selected a few conversations between LBJ and Thurgood Marshall, and LBJ and Martin Luther King.

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There was a nice section for Lady Bird, including a replica of her office. I’ve visited a few presidential libraries, which isn’t necessarily an endorsement of a specific president. I’m fascinated by history and find the libraries as a way to time travel in a concise visual way.

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After the LBJ Museum excursion, we returned to Congress Ave to check out the petite Mexicarte museum. The day we visited they had two fantastic exhibits – Love to Death: Community Altars to celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Diego y Frida: A Smile in the Middle of the Way, with photographs of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo by Guilermo Kahlo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, Peter Jules, Ansel Adams, Nicholas Muray, Leo Matiz, Guillermo Zamora, and Juan Guzmán. They also had a nice gift shop full of day of the dead and Frida items, and other art for sale. So happy we stopped.
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Next we headed over to Rainey Street to meet up with friends. The Rainey Street Historic District is a street with historic bungalow style houses in downtown Austin. Once a quiet neighborhood, it’s now a popular hang out spot for locals and visitors because of all of the houses that have been converted into bars and restaurants. We ended up at Unbarlievable. It has a nice patio in the front, an inside space, and a back patio where bands play. The bar had a very relaxed atmosphere.

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For our final meal we went to the Beer Plant, a vegan gastropub in the residential Tarrytown neighborhood. It’s a good date night spot. Not too loud, with low lighting. They make upscale plant based items and have about 40 craft beers on tap. We started with the ploughman’s plate– a house-made cheese board, tomato chutney, and house-made cultured garlic butter. I know vegan cheese just doesn’t sound appetizing to the traditionalists but it’s come a long way, especially the artisanal soft nut cheeses. We both ordered the big ben – BBQ smoked seitan and a side of mac n’ cheese. I have to admit – aside from doughnuts, mac n’ cheese is my overindulgent guilty pleasure. They are vegan so totally low calorie, right…in my dreams. Anyhow — we finished the meal off with the sticky toffee pudding with coconut whip cream.

Thanks for a great weekend, Austin.

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Exploring Antalya Turkey

On a recent research trip, I had the opportunity to be a tourist for one full day, as well as enjoy the city each night once the conference sessions concluded.

The conference was at the gorgeous Akra Barut hotel, situated on the coast of Antalya, Turkey. For those looking for a resort feel, high-end restaurants, spa, spectacular views, etc., this is your place. They had the best lunch buffet with vegetable dishes, loads of salads, breads, fruit, fish and meat options, and desserts.

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Though the Akra Barut is a gorgeous 5 star hotel, for this trip I just wanted a funky, eclectic space among the local population in the middle of the city. So, I found a space near old town off Ataturk Cd. I opted for the Oscar boutique hotel, which was billed as a great local spot for solo business travelers.

I arrived late at night by taxi, par for the course for my arrival in foreign countries, and found two cute little dogs lounging in the main space as I checked in. My room was on the second floor, had two twin memory foam beds, and was good size for a single. That night, I sank into the bed and left the world behind.

The next morning, on my one day off in Antalya it poured most of the day. From the looks of it…myself, and most of the hotel guests, opted for the breakfast buffet at the hotel. It was a typical Turkish breakfast consisting of cheese, honey, jam, olives, salami, egg, tomato and cucumber, bread, pastries, fruits, juices and coffee – plenty of vegan options. Turkish breakfasts are similar to European offerings. During breakfast the doggies were hanging out in the garden restaurant, also escaping the rain. At one point the dogs decided to play under my table, maybe they were hoping for food.

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As the rain slowed, I finally made my way out to explore the city. I headed to the old city and walked through the Hadrian’s Gate, which I believe was built by the Roman emperor in the second century. I was told that the architecture in Kaleici (old city) dates from the Ottoman period, but the walls surrounding the old city are from the Roman period.

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The narrow pathways of the old city leads to the harbor, and along the way there are plenty of restaurants, houses, shops, and boutique hotels. The harbor viewing point is situated on top of a cliff overlooking the harbor – the view is gorgeous. The hike down through the park to the harbor also offers fabulous views of the water, old harbor, and fishing boats.

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That night as I walked around the more modern area of town, I heard the Islamic call to prayer coming from the local mosque. I have heard it before in other countries; in some places, it is subtle, in places such as Turkey, the call to prayer is a central part of daily life and was audible throughout the city streets. For me, there is something mesmerizing about the call to prayer and it offered authentic moments of real life in Antalya.

One of the perks of staying at the Oscar hotel was that they allowed guests to pay for a bottle of more expensive local wine (not the house special) and they kept it at the bar with a room number attached. It was definitely more economical than paying by the glass. One night while sitting in their garden restaurant reading and enjoying a glass of wine, fireworks started going off in celebration of Turkish Republic day, Oct 29. I had a good view from the hotel courtyard.

For the vegans and vegetarians heading to Antalya, it will be worth your while to do the research in advance on restaurants – or prepare to walk around a while before you find a restaurant with options. It’s a coastal town, so if seafood is your thing there will be an abundance of choices. Along with seafood, old town has pub food, a few American style restaurants with burgers, Italian restaurants and local fare. The surrounding modern local city center also has a lot of restaurants but mostly traditional local cuisine like Kebab. Don’t expect to see hummus and falafel everywhere, in that neighborhood it’s mostly found at the vegan spots.

IMG_7979One night while roaming around old town, I stumbled upon the charming Mediterra Art boutique Hotel. On the ground floor they had a lovely poolside restaurant, Müdavim Meze. The meze plate was my only option – it came with Hibes – a spicy dip, similar to hummus with red peppers, Pazi kavurma (greens) with warm fresh bread, and I added a local red wine — fantastic.

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One of the best vegan restaurants in Antalya was the Lifeco Saf, located at the Akra Barut hotel. On one of the lower levels near the exercise facility and spa, it was a great spot to decompress and enjoy the incredible view. They served fresh juices, flavorful teas, healthy snacks and main dishes. I had the coconut curry — it was so good I wanted to drink the curry sauce.

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The spot local vegans and vegetarians prefer is Rokka. There food was so good I think I ate there three times. They have an extensive menu for carnivores and plant based diets. They also have an English menu and their servers speak a little English, which was very helpful. The spinach, onion, tomato, walnut pizza was the bomb; they also made yummy fries. Then there was the traditional platter of falafel, hummus, tahini, pickles, peppers and fresh bread, which was massive and so very tasty.

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For the coffee lovers – Turkey should be on your must visit list. I always bring coffee home from my travels and this time was no different. Making coffee in Turkey is an art form. It tasted good when I made it at home but there definitely is a process to making excellent Turkish coffee that I haven’t yet mastered.

Please visit my Flicker site for more Antalya pictures.

Day Trip to New Paltz, NY

New Paltz, New York makes a fantastic day trip or weekend getaway from Manhattan. For my first visit, a friend and I decided on a day trip. It’s roughly an hour and a half drive (depending on traffic) from Manhattan. Once we made it past the local urban sprawl it was a lovely scenic drive.

Because we only had one day — we planned to hike a section of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (22-mile-long), wander around the town, and see where that left us with time.

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Many cities in the US have created trails for public use on abandoned rail corridors, for instance Charlotte, NC has one, Indiana has a few, and of course NYC has the Highline — a 1.45-mile-long elevated walkway built on a disused New York Central Railroad line on the West Side. These trails are a fantastic way to reuse existing routes with scenic views, or a way to create walking and bike paths through concrete jungles full of automobiles and noise.

As we drove down Main Street, it was apparent that New Paltz was an eclectic community full of arts, entertainment, shopping, and a variety of cafés and restaurants. The GPS took us to a middle point of the rail trail, and luckily there was a spot left in the parking area. We grabbed our packed lunches, and after a short discussion, chose a direction and set off.

The trail passes through the towns of Rosendale, Gardiner, the Historic Huguenot District in New Paltz, and ends in Kingston. The section of the trail we walked was its own oasis in the middle of town. It’s a hidden path surrounded by greenery with small creeks and wooded areas. In some spots it seemed secluded while other sections of the trail had businesses and homes beyond the trees, with pathways leading to some of the private properties. We spotted horses, ducks, and other small creatures scurrying around. After a while, we found a bench and had lunch out on the trail.

My one piece of advice – pay attention because the path is wide enough for two people to walk but many people bike the trail, so be prepared to move over and let people pass. I wish we had had time to walk more of the trail so that we could experience the sections with bridges, views of the Wallkill River, and the Shawangunk Ridge. Next trip.

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After walking the trail, we headed to Main Street to check out the local scene. The drive through town with the Shawangunk Ridge as a majestic backdrop was gorgeous. On the way, we came across fruit and vegetable stands, including Dressel Farms, which has ice cream, apple picking, and signs indicating that strawberry season is days away. My vegan self passed on the ice cream, but my friend ordered what she claimed was a very tasty shake.

A few popular food spots to check out if headed that way — Mexicali Blue, Huckleberry, New Paltz Indian restaurant, China House, and Bangkok Café. We found two chocolatiers, Lagusta’s Luscious and Krause’s.

For the book lovers –Barner Books and Inquiring Minds are across the street from each other, just off Main Street. I liked Barner Books, probably because they had vintage typewriters for sale. I’ll let you in on a secret…I have this romanticized notion about writing a novel on typewriter.

Our final stop of the day was the Village Tea Room. Yes, it’s a traditional teahouse with cakes and sandwiches but they also have a full menu including vegan options, if tea isn’t your thing. I recommend the Monk tee. They also have a signature vanilla cake (not vegan) that looks like a bee hive with apricot preserves, honey butter cream and petite chocolate bees on top. The apricot jam looks like honey oozing out of the layers. My friend ordered a slice to go. I heard it was yummy but not too sweet.

For my next visit, I want to see the Minnewaska State Park, which is situated in the Shawangunk Mountains. It’s a hikers paradise replete with waterfalls, lakes, and dense forests. There is also the Mohonk Preserve with streams, fields and mountains that spans 8,000 acres of land, or the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary with 56 acres of grasses and plants. And after all that hiking, maybe a visit to one of the local wineries or breweries is in order. With all of the outdoor adventures this could turn into a regular weekend getaway.

 

 

New York touristy attractions for the local and visitor

Last month my uncle Ken visited me in New York, which presented an opportunity to explore the city in new ways.

Normally, I spend a lot of time walking in Central Park, but had never taken a pedicab before. Our driver was very knowledgeable of the statues and other landmarks in the park. It’s a great way to see the park, especially for those who cannot walk long distances. My recommendation is to pay cash at the park, instead of purchasing tickets online, and haggle over the price.

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There were several bus tours on our itinerary. First, we took a Brooklyn tour, which was okay but as someone who spends time in Brooklyn, I recommend just taking the subway over and walking around the neighborhoods that you want to see. We also took a bus tour through Harlem and Queens. It’s a good tour and worth checking out, it even stops at Yankee stadium for a photo op. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the day we went, which made it much harder to see from the bus, and taking good pictures was impossible. On a sunny day, it would be great though.

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During this visit we also went on a few harbor cruises. This is actually the main touristy go-to item on my list when I travel to places along a coast, near a river or lake. We settled on a full loop harbor cruise. For the architecture and bridge lovers – this is your tour. This 2.5-hour tour also offers a great historical journey of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn skylines.

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We took the boat tour to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Honestly, my photos of lady liberty were much better from the boat than the island. It is definitely worth doing but with limited time, I’d take photos from the boat and go straight to Ellis Island, otherwise plan on this as your all day experience. The museum on Ellis Island is fantastic; many of the people who passed through the island have donated personal items to the museum. There is also a computer area where visitors can pay a nominal fee and look up and print or email their family records. We had limited time to spend looking up records but luckily the public can access these records from the comfort of their home as well, which is on my list of my new projects.

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For those who appreciate architecture, take the Ellis Island hard hat tour. It’s a 90 minute guided tour of the abandoned immigrant hospital buildings; the proceeds are going toward renovation.

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I love architectural photography, especially abandoned urban structures and old houses. The buildings are amazing and the history of the hospital was fascinating. A word of warning — it’s hot in summer and there isn’t anywhere to sit, so make sure you are up to doing the tour. I’ll probably go again so that I can take more photos.

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We visited the 9/11 Memorial and took the walking tour of the neighborhood. Our guide told her own personal story about her experiences on that day as well as describing how the tragedy unfolded in the neighborhood and throughout the city. Our group walked to the small church that was the only building in the neighborhood without damage, we went to the memorial pools, and then the museum. It’s a somber tour but part of our history that should be talked about and remembered. The memorial pools include the nearly 3000 names of the victims of 9/11. Every day a single white rose is placed next to the names of those with birthdays on that day.

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One night we went to see the Book Mormon on Broadway. I had seen it before, but it has been a few years. There were even a few references that had been updated since I watched it the first time. Another night we checked out Terra Blues club. It was my fist visit and definitely not my last.

I can’t seem to write a blog without talking about food. Here are a few highlights of restaurants with a little something to satisfy a carnivore and vegan. Benares Indian near central park in midtown has a great lunch buffet, Yum Yum Thai in Hells Kitchen is a great post-Theater spot, Pelligrino is classic Italian in Little Italy, New Malaysia is my favorite hidden gem in China town, and Maz Mezcal Mexican, Bangkok Thai, and Agora Turkish are local Upper East Side staples. Finally, a couple of cocktail spots — Gotham west market is a popular artisan food court on the West Side near the Hudson river (think Pike’s Place in Seattle) – inside, GENUINE Roadside serves food and great cocktails. The Penrose, a hidden treasure on the Upper East Side makes a splendid pickle martini.

Finding food, nature, and art in Chicago

A recent weekend getaway to Chicago, was full of relaxation, exploration and visiting with relatives who I rarely have the opportunity to spend time with.

Most of my time in Chicago was spent in the downtown Loop area. While walking through Millennium Park, I heard a live band playing Frank Sinatra and big band staples, a favorite genre of mine. So, I wandered over to the bandshell and found a party for seniors going on – apparently my age group now…it was a fun time.

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I continued wandering around Lurie Garden, took the BP Pedestrian Bridge to Maggie Daley Park (rock climbing and tennis), walked to Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain), and then walked the Lakefront trail.

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After sitting and watching the sailboats, I walked to Native Foods Café in the Loop for lunch. Whew, that was a bit of a trek.

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Next up: Navy Pier for a relaxing afternoon including a boat tour of the shoreline, taking in the sights from the pier and a short break at Harry Caray’s Tavern to enjoy a beer on the patio and a little reading.

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My niece showed me around her neighborhood, and we spent time chatting and people watching at Chicago Riverwalk.

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We also ventured out to some great cafes and restaurants. My top picks for coffee/tea spots in the Loop are the Goddess and the Baker and Peach and Green, which both also have good food options. As for food, Silver Spoon Thai is a new favorite, along with low key and affordable Flaco’s Tacos, and Naf Naf Grill.

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One afternoon, we went to the wondrous Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His work depicts everyday scenes from a barber shop, a bedroom, to housing projects in Chicago’s South Side, where he where he has lived and worked since the late 1980s. As we moved through the exhibit the diverse themes were clear. His work is poignant, full of symbology and images that add another layer of meaning to each painting. This is the most excited I’ve been about a living painter in a long, long time. Marshall’s work travels to New York next, the Met Breuer. I’ll be going again.

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My final day was spent with family catching up. Over the past few years I have become more interested in genealogy. This trip was also an opportunity to learn more about my family history, specifically those who came from Eastern Europe, and when they arrived in the USA. Hopefully, I didn’t make my relatives too crazy with all of my questions.

No food, no friendship

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While in Nairobi, a friend and I visited the Giraffe Centre. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) breeds giraffes at the center and reintroduces them on the protected wild areas of land surrounding the center — 140 acres of indigenous forest. Their main focus is to provide conservation education to youth while providing a safe haven for the giraffes.

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The center offers several areas, including elevated platforms where visitors are able to feed food pellets to giraffes and watch warthogs scramble around near their feet. There is a snack bar, gift shop and outdoor area where large pieces of art are available for purchase. They also have a hotel, where the giraffes wander the property and occasionally poke their heads through windows looking for snacks.

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Though I love being able to see animals up close and interact with them when possible, I am very conscious of our responsibility as humans to act appropriately and not do anything to interfere with or disrupt their habitat.

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While at the center, I had the opportunity to feed several of the giraffes and it was fantastic; they are full of personality. However, there were a few cringe worthy moments. One tourist attempted to put his arm around the neck of a giraffe to take a photo and received a headbutt in response, as one of the trainers politely remarked – “No food, no friendship.” A woman also tried to feed a pellet to a giraffe from her mouth. I kept my inside thought about what I hoped would happen to her to myself. How to feed the giraffes is clearly spelled out to people before they receive the food, but does it really need to be? Does an adult really need to be told that they could spread germs to the giraffe and that it is potentially dangerous to feed an unsupervised wild animal from their mouth…why can’t adults just follow the rules? The magnitude of people lacking common sense never ceases to amaze me.

Aside from people behaving badly, the experience at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) is fantastic and worth the visit.


Our final excursion was to Kazuri beads in Nairobi. Kazuri is the Swahili word for “small and beautiful.” In many countries around the globe, including Kenya, it is often quite difficult for women, especially single or widowed mothers to find decent paying jobs. Kazuri, founded by Lady Susan Wood, provides training and skills for a permanent career for women. Kazuri currently employs 350 women and their crafts are sold around the world.

We visited on a Sunday and were unable to watch the women make the beads but they did have guides on hand to provide a tour of the compound and show what happens in each building, from shaping, polishing, firing to painting the beads and ceramics. The tour ends in the gift shop. The jewelry is exquisite and the pottery is gorgeous, needless to say, a little shopping took place.

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Exports and infrastructure ~ Kenya

The drive from Isiolo County to Nairobi offers a relaxing scenic landscape. The view of Mount Kenya alone, an extinct volcano at 5,199 m, is worth a look see. Mount Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site – it’s stunning.

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We also came across many fruit and vegetable stands along the way. As a tourist it’s best to go with easily peelable fruit at the stands, if it’s meant as an immediate snack, otherwise it needs a good scrub.

Kenya is one of the largest flowers producers in Europe, thanks in part to its ability to produce flowers year round without using greenhouses. Though known as a pastoralist area, numerous farms stretch along both sides of the road between Isiolo and Mt. Kenya. As we drove toward Nairobi at 6:00am we could see men and women walking to the farms to begin their workday. Children were also out in droves walking alongside the road in their red, green and blue uniforms on their way to school.

One of the other sights that caught my eye was the roadside garden center. In the United States (U.S.), the equivalent would be if garden centers were set up on the shoulder or in the median strip of the highway. The Kenyan garden centers carry trees, plants, flowers and gorgeous colorful pots and other accessories. The centers seem to be quite popular. We passed several on the way to Nairobi and later found more of them along main streets in a more urban center near Bungoma.

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For our journey from Nairobi to Bungoma, we flew from the Nairobi Airport to the Eldoret airport, then drove to Bungoma. It’s about an hour flight, and another two – three hour drive depending on traffic, versus a nine-hour drive. We flew Fly540. Eldoret is a small airport but clean and efficient. The Nairobi airport is also a breath of fresh air compared to some of the more rough and ready airports I’ve travelled through in the past two years.

Kenya is more developed than many of the countries that I have spent time in recently. Though, that doesn’t matter to me most days, when it comes to extensive driving — infrastructure starts to matter. For example, the lack of paved roads in some countries turns a 1.5-hour drive in the U.S. to a 7-hour drive on dirt roads. It’s also rough on the body as the vehicle slams endlessly into ditches that resemble moon craters and tosses a (hopefully) strapped in body around the entire time. Let’s just say, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Kenya’s main roads outside of Nairobi and across the country are paved.

Kenya’s investment in infrastructure is apparent — roads, aviation, ports and a foray into energy and solar power. That said, Kenya isn’t without its issues and poverty does exist. However, investment in the country by the government, coupled with its focus on exports, such as flowers and coffee is a good formula for continued development and makes Kenya a solid example on the continent for other countries struggling with growth.