Hiking, Rappelling, and Ziplining

Hands down we had the best outdoor experience to-date when we went hiking, rappelling, and ziplining at the San Salvador rainforest in Puerto Rico. We are adventurers at heart but as daily urban dwellers in a big city, we had forgotten how it felt like to be amidst nature and how much we really loved everything about it until that day. Part of what made our experiences so great and memorable was that we had fantastic guides, Alphonso and Andre, from Ecoquest who gave us tips on the outdoors and at the same time they were eager to share with us the Puerto Rican culture.

One of the villagers' homes
Though not as well known as El Yunque rainforest, our adventure at San Salvador rainforest was incredibly amazing. Located about an hour away from San Juan, we drove up very narrow, winding, and steep roads to get to the starting point of our hike at San Salvador rainforest. On the way up to our starting point, we passed by many villagers' homes and got a glimpse of what their everyday lives are like. Free from the hustle and bustle of urban life, they are contented with their laid back lifestyles. They are not envious of people who spend their days living by appointments and trying to get from one place to another at specific times of the day. They do not have jobs and live on government stamps while reciprocating by spending their days taking care of their surroundings of the rainforest as means of giving back. They pass the time mostly with domestic work such as maintaining and fixing necessary fixtures in their homes when needed.

After we put on our helmets and harness, we were ready to roll. On our first step of the hike we knew that we were in for pure adventure with no sugarcoating to the term adventure. We hiked through a river which meant that our feet were soaked right from the beginning. Not a problem though-- the husband and I were wearing our water shoes, which by the way were awesome and we loved it. Those water shoes were the best outdoor gear investment. They provided us with the very much needed grip and they were comfortable and fit to the contour of our feet. We traversed through shallow river streams with rocks beneath the water, hiked up steep rocks, and walked through trees. Due to the periodic rainfall on previous days, a lot of the rocks had moss on them but that wasn't the time for us to be dainty hikers. We had to lower our bodies and use our hands to hold on to the rocks for additional support and stability when climbing up the rocks (or hiking down the rocks towards the end of the excursion).

The water that flowed down from the waterfall was pure and safe to drink but I didn't try it although the husband T tried some of it by cupping it with his palms following after Alphonso. According to Alphonso, they had previously taken a sample of the water to a test lab in the city and the lab technicians couldn't believe that there were no impurities found in the water. This is also the water source for the villagers and our group were told beforehand by Alphonso and Andre not to put on sunscreen in order to protect and not pollute the water in the rainforest.

The highlight of our entire excursion was when we rappelled down 85 ft from a cliff and waterfall. When we got to the rappelling site, we watched Alphonso and Andre set up and anchor the ropes and carabiners and listened to them explain how the ropes and carabiners act as a support system for our bodyweight when rappelling. They also explained to us the set up of the backup and the backup for the backup. There were as many knots that were tied from ropes as there were carabiners that were used. After securing and locking the carabiners onto our harness, we started our descent one person at a time. To maintain the right posture for rappelling, we let our butts support our bodyweight while keeping our legs straight at a 90-degree angle from the body and used our feet as grip down the rocks while using our hand to feed the ropes to guide the descent. Since we were rappelling down a waterfall, naturally the rocks were slippery and we had water coming down onto our face and body and that made the rappelling experience more real for me. After I got to the bottom of the waterfall, I had an incredible moment. It was like one of those life-changing moments that went like Wow, if I could rappel 85 ft down a waterfall, I can do anything now.

I rappelled first so the husband T got some shots of me starting my descent. I, on the other hand, got to see him rappel down from the bottom.

There he comes at the top of the waterfall
Starting his descent at the top
Making his way down
And there he comes
After rappelling, we continued hiking towards our ziplining point where we began securing our harness to the zipline cables. We ziplined a total of 3 times from different locations in the rainforest with each zipline averaging about 400 ft long. Ziplining was incredibly fun and we let gravity do most of the work to propel us along the cable until the point when we had to slow down by applying pressure on the cable as we were arriving at the other end of the zipline. We crossed through canyons and trees and saw stunning views of the rainforest. It was liberating.

The outdoor experience that day was challenging and amazing. Would we do it again? Yes. We spend a lot of time outdoors throughout the year for running but rainforests also have so much to offer and we are not getting out there enough. Here's hoping to more.


Apple Pie

Apple pies are one of those classic pies that make a lot more appearances on the table come fall and during the holiday season. There's just something comforting about homemade apple pies and I don't think I can get tired of them. I would be making apple pies more often if it wasn't because the husband T isn't very much a dessert person (unless the dessert is amazing). Baking a 9-inch pie for a two-person household can be tricky. This Christmas however we had two friends over for dinner and what great reason to make an apple pie.

I believe I've possibly found the best apple pie recipe, or at least the best apple pie recipe which I've come across. There may be other better recipes out there, but at this point, Dorie Greenspan's recipe is a winner for me. I love her recipes and this one worked out terrific. The husband took a bite of it and said, "Wow I would eat this everyday". Maybe now it is not such a bad idea for me to bake 9-inch pies just for the both of us at home, as long as it tastes good. Our friend at dinner commented that the crust was so good he could eat it on it's own.

We have a bottle of apple pie liqueur at home that has been sitting among the rest of our whiskey and wine bottles at home. It was one of those purchases where I knew I wanted to have it when I saw it at the store although I hadn't quite decided yet how I would use it. I added some of the liqueur to the apple chunks and they were lovely. What a great way to bring the pie up a notch.

Preparing the Double crust

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 sticks (10 oz) very cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup very cold vegetable shortening, frozen preferred and cut into 4 pieces
About 1/2 cup ice water

Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Alternately, put in a mixing bowl with the dough hook attachment and mix on low speed just to combine the ingredients.

Drop butter and shortening pieces into the mixing bowl and mix until the butter and shortening are cut into the flour mixture. The dough will become like some pieces the size of big peas ans others a little smaller.

Still on low speed, gradually add 8 tablespoons of the ice water. Continue adding the water bit by bit until the dough becomes moistened and stick together. The dough will come away from the sides of the mixing bowl. If the dough is still not moist enough, add more ice water gradually by the tablespoon.

Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and put onto a work surface. Divide the dough into half and gather each half into a ball. Flatten each ball into a disk and wrap each half with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preparing the Pie

6 very large apples, variety of sweet, tart, and crisp
3/4 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons apple pie liqueur (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons bread crumbs or panko
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Generously butter a 9-inch pie plate.

On a floured surface or on wax paper, roll out one piece of the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Transfer the dough onto the buttered pie plate and trim the dough edges until it just overhangs from the plate. Roll the other piece of dough into a thickness of 1/8 inch and slip it onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover both dough pieces on the baking sheet and in pie plate with plastic and refrigerate.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Peel, core, and cut the apples into bite size chunks. Put the apple pieces into a large bowl and add the sugar, lemon zest, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, liqueur, and salt. Toss everything together and well combined. Let sit for 5 minutes until juice starts to accumulate in the bottom of the bowl.

Assembling the Pie

Remove the pie plate and top crust from refrigerator. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the bottom crust (this prevents the bottom crust from being too soggy from the juice the apple mixture). Add the apple pieces together with the juice in the bottom of the bowl over the bottom crust. Drop bits of cold butter over the apples.

Center the top crust over the apples and press the top crust against the bottom crust on the edge of the pie plate. Trim the overhang from both crusts so that the crusts are even with the rim of the pie plate. Use a fork to press down the edges of the crusts.

Use a sharp knife to make 6 slits on the top crust. Brush the top crust with a little milk and sprinkle it with sugar.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 375 degrees F and bake for another 50 to 60 minutes, with the total baking time between 65 to 75 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the juices bubble up through the top crust. After 40 minutes in the oven, if the top crust is browning too quickly, cover the pie loosely with foil.

Transfer the pie to a rack and let cool until warm or room temperature before serving.


Christmas and reminiscing the year

We returned last night from Puerto Rico where we had our official honeymoon. "Official" because it seemed like we traveled quite a bit before this but we weren't on our honeymoon, yet, until Puerto Rico. On our second last day in Puerto Rico, we were walking along Ashford Ave when I received a call on my cellphone. I saw that the caller ID was Unknown which most of the time means that someone is calling me via Skype, and usually it would either be my mom or sister. My worries were confirmed when my sister told me of the news that our grandmother, whom we dearly call Poh Poh, had just passed away. We were all overwhelmed with sadness but we find comfort and solace that she has led a long life of 92 years and that she is now relieved of the sufferings and pains which she endured these years and especially the months and days leading up to her passing. Poh Poh, I hope you are looking down at us now from heaven and we love you very much. Thank you for taking care of me when I was little and for letting me crawl into bed with you when I couldn't fall asleep. It's the Christmas season and my family and I are celebrating my grandmother having led a long life of 92 years.

The year of 2010 has been filled with moments for the husband T and I. We traveled alot: England, Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, and Puerto Rico. This was also the year we got married and we are still reliving our wedding day where we were showered with the outpouring of affection from our family and friends. We bought our first Christmas tree this year and also started a tradition involving stocking stuffers. We went out shopping, and went our own ways for 45 minutes and had to pick up as many stocking stuffers as we could for each other within that time frame. When the 45 minutes were up, we met at the designated spot. Still keeping what we bought as a secret, we came home and filled each other's Christmas stockings with the stuffers.

2010 has been a wonderful year for us but as the year came to an end, sadness was brought upon us at my grandmother's passing. But we find comfort that she is now at peace and we celebrate her long life.

Merry Christmas!


Queen of Tarts

What a gem in Dublin. Painted bright red on the outside walls and door, the Queen of Tarts isn't a place that one could easily miss. They have two locations; one on Cows Lane and the other on Dame Street. We had assumed that the location on Dame Street would be bigger since streets that come with the word "Lane" are usually small and narrow. But we were wrong to assume that. We stepped into the Dame Street location, realized how tiny (but cute) it was, and then only to see a sign at the counter that said "Visit our other location on Cows Lane for more seating".

We did not mind the limited seating at Queen of Tarts. It put us in the right mood and atmosphere of a quaint little European cafe that we wished we had back in Chicago. Petite size tables and wooden chairs are placed closed together. Vintage posters and plates are hung on the wall. We loved it already.

We lucked out and got seated at a table that was right beside the display of baked goods. The variety of items available was pretty amazing and we were spoiled by the choices. The variety of scones included blueberry, chocolate, and sultana.

Other sweet items included mince pies, macarons, madeleines, Victorian sponge cake, blueberry and raspberry crumble, and chocolate and pear tart. What a delight. We had coffee to accompany our food and I have to say that my latte was way less intense that I expected it to be. Our friend S had a latte as well and found it lacking in intensity that she ordered another coffee to give her some additional caffeine boost. I really loved the blueberry and raspberry crumble that came with a side of freshly whipped cream. The level of sweetness was just right with most of the natural sweetness coming from the fruit. It was perfect.

We were there at brunch hour and the tables were never empty. When we first walked in, the server was cleaning up a table that was just left empty which we very luckily got seated at. During our time there, as customers got up to leave, those tables would shortly be taken by incoming customers. I'm not sure about the afternoon crowd but I can only imagine myself enjoying a book at the cafe, among the waft of pastry smells, and enjoying a slice of goodness with a cup of afternoon tea.

Queen of Tarts
Dame Street
Dublin 2, Ireland



Before we left for Dublin, we've had several people tell us "The Irish are incredibly friendly! They will come talk to you at the pubs!" While we didn't get any locals chatting us up at the pubs, we definitely experienced some Irish friendliness on our very first day there. We had just arrived and were too early to check in at the hotel, and so we headed out and happened to be standing at the entrance of St Stephen's Green fussing with our camera when an elderly man approached us. He obviously knew we were visiting just from seeing us fussing with our camera. And before we knew it, he started giving us the spiel of the history of Ireland, the must-visit tourist attractions, which streets they were on, and how to get there. That was incredibly nice of him-- he really wanted to tell us so much about Dublin, the city that he lives in, but the conversation got too long and we had to excuse ourselves from him eventually.

St Stephen's Green

We left for Dublin thinking that we could momentarily escape the cold back in Chicago but lo and behold, Dublin was experiencing colder-than-usual weather while Chicago was in the warmer-than-usual mode. It snowed for 3 out of 4 days we were there, with a combination of rain. On our first night, we were awoken by the sound of thunder (and rain) and only to find the streets totally blanketed with snow the very next morning we woke up. We don't know exactly how Dublin deals with snow, but of all the days we were there, the city of Dublin never salted the sidewalks which had snow turned into ice. The sidewalks were slippery and we lost count of the number of times we saw strangers around us slipping and falling. We've never had to be that conscious of every step we take when walking along Chicago sidewalks as they would unquestionably be salted when it snows.

Dublin was perfect for us as we only had 4 days. The city is walkable to many places and we walked everywhere. On our first day, we kept looking out for street names expecting them to appear on a pole and then only to remind ourselves again that the street names are displayed on the outer walls of corner buildings. This threw us into slight confusion on the first day but after awhile we got the hang off not searching for street name poles but instead to glance up at the outer wall of a corner building where the street name plate would be displayed.

Corner building with carved figures on Parliament Street
Retail along Grafton Street
The Irish love their Guinness. And so do we. People tell us that Guinness in Ireland tastes much better and we couldn't agree more. Perfectly smooth until the last gulp, we had at least a couple pints a day. We were told that pubs in Ireland know how to store Guinness in a proper and ideal way in order to maintain the quality of the beer. If you just want to grab a pint, you can easily do it anywhere. If you want a pint AND a view of the Dublin skyline, go for the self-guided tour at the Guinness Storehouse Brewery at St James Gate. How could we not pay homage to the Guinness Storehouse during our visit? The end of the self-guided tour at the brewery was the highlight: it ended at the top floor of the Storehouse with everyone given a pint of Guinness to enjoy while overlooking the Dublin skyline. Just lovely.

Roasted barley used to make Guinness

Waiting for the Guinness to settle

The husband T is an avid fan of Scotch whiskey but we couldn't for our lives miss out on the Jameson whiskey distillery either. Thanks to friends who've told us ahead of time to remember to raise our hands when they ask for volunteers at the beginning of the guided tour, we were selected to be what they call "Official Jameson Taster". At the end of the tour, we and a few other volunteers were given Jameson, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and Jack Daniels to taste and then state which we preferred. The husband T asked the guide, "Should we give the politically correct answer or an honest answer"? His taste buds remained true to JW, however, we were comparing whiskeys on different distilled levels here so it wasn't an all-fair comparison. The Jameson we tasted was aged for 5 years, whereas JW Black is usually aged for 12 years. I did prefer the Jameson whiskey but that was because I am not a huge fan of the smokiness of JW Black in general. If we were given either my favorite JW Gold or Blue, needless to say, that changes my answer. Another volunteer visiting from Northern Ireland stated his preference which wasn't among the three whiskeys: Bushmills. Not surprising, since Bushmills is from Northern Ireland.

Old Jameson Distillery
Perfect on toast
One can never get enough of beer in Dublin. Plus, the Irish are really really good drinkers I must say. Walking into a pub at 6:30pm, we saw that it was already packed like sardines. When did the party even begin? It felt like 11:00pm back in Chicago. Nightlife is awesome in Dublin, for early nighters like me.

I don't know how they do it but Irish food really is a perfect accompaniment to beer. Even for non-drinkers, the food is hearty and so fulfilling. I believe I've found my favorite beef and Guinness stew ever. The stew was served with Yorkshire pudding which was amazing. We usually try not to seek out incredibly touristy joints when traveling but Brazen Head is a place that we will recommend. Popular and known as the oldest pub in Dublin, Brazen Head doesn't let their food slide. Bull & Castle is a gastropub that is worth visiting. They have Irish comfort foods like stew and fish and chips, but also other items that we wouldn't normally find at pubs like smoked salmon with a side of fresh greens.

Beef and Guinness stew with Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes
Curim Irish wheat beer
Fish and chips at Bull and Castle
We never thought of Dublin as a place to be spoiled for baked goods, chocolates, etc, but there really was eye candy in many places we were at. Brunch at Queen of Tarts was even more fun. Staring at the baked goods was eye candy in itself... blueberry scones, pear and chocolate tarts, Victorian sponge cake, and the list goes on. Or we could step into any coffee shop and there would be scones screaming our names.

Croissants at Chocolate Butler

Raisin scone with jam
We've been spoiled by the museums in Chicago and also the ones in London. They are huge and covering every part of one museum in one day is almost impossible. The museums in Dublin, however, were nowhere as big as we expected. We managed to cover the National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology, and the National Museum of Ireland-Natural History, and the National Gallery in one afternoon. While the museums are nowhere near a 5-star rating, they are still by all means worth making a trip there to see the exhibits. Christ Church Cathedral was beautiful although we didn't get to see the crypt.

National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology
Christ Church Cathedral
The really wonderful thing about Dublin is that it is walkable everywhere especially since walking really is the best way to explore a city. The city is friendly, safe, and beautiful. We would visit Dublin again even if it's only for the Guinness. It really does taste better than the ones we get outside Ireland.

General Post Office
Tulips on sale along the sidewalk

Brown Thomas departmental store