Birthday Surprise in Seattle

It’s Thursday night, February 16. I’m throwing outfits and toiletries into my suitcase and still don’t have a clue where I’m packing for.

I managed to nudge Byron enough to reveal that yes, I would need to keep my packed liquids to a maximum size of 3oz. Ha! Okay so I knew we were flying somewhere but his only advice was to “pack clothes as if you were in San Francisco”. Well, anyone that has visited the Bay Area knows that you can walk from one end of a street to another and experience four different weather patterns. I did my best to throw in every level of layering and hoped for the best.

The alarm went off at 5am, leaving me with 15 minutes to rush around before hopping in our Lyft line to the airport. Everyone in the car was silent; no need to chit chat before the sun was up. Byron still refused to reveal the destination and managed to get me all the way through security and in front of our gate until I saw the destination in big letters above the Virgin America logo: SEATTLE !

Apparently a lot of other people wanted to visit Seattle too since the airline staff started pleading with everyone in the gate to accept their $600 offer to give up our seats. We thought about it for a second but Byron mysteriously suggested that there were more surprises than just the flight waiting for us in Seattle. Eager to get to our destination, we held on to our seats and settled in for the next two hours.

Mount Ranier, Seattle’s “honorary skyscraper” as the locals call it, can only be seen 90 days out of the year. It’s so massive that it commands its own little weather patterns, choosing a particularly shy and shrouded lifestyle. However, February 17th turned out to be one of those rare magical days that the enormous peak rose up confidently, overlooking the evergreened suburbs and shiny skyscrapers. Seattle is positioned on Puget Sound, which is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, and the geography is interrupted with little islands and waterways as a result.

(A sassy diagram to give you some perspective)

We took the railway through the residential neighborhoods to downtown Seattle and to the Green Tortoise hostel, right in the heart of the action at the intersection of First and Pike St. As aspirational hostel owners, Byron and I normally go through an exercise of “what would we do better if this was our hostel?”. However, this hostel was perfect, down to plethora of free beer and breakfast, warm showers, and the scenic view of the iconic red neon sign marking the entrance to Pike Place Market.

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We threw down our packs and headed right back out into the busy streets to meet our tour guide, Jake, who was the only one operating a “pay what you feel” tour company in Seattle. He and his wife fell in love with the idea after traveling in Europe and wanted to bring back this style of tourism to their hometown and have been going strong for four years. Jake walked us through hundreds of years of history, including the fact that the famous Starbucks that everyone snaps #firststarbucks is actually NOT the first one. The first one was a block away and burned down in 1976. Sorry snappers. Not only did that Starbucks burn down, but in 1889 a fire that started at a glue factory resulted in 25 blocks of central Seattle to be destroyed. The story is pathetically laughable about how many things went wrong:

“Seattle’s first buildings were wooden. On June 6, 1889 at 2:39 in the afternoon, a cabinetmaker (Jonathan Edward Back), accidentally overturned and ignited a glue pot. An attempt to extinguish it with water spread the burning grease-based glue. The fire chief was out of town, and although the volunteer fire department responded they made the mistake of trying to use too many hoses at once. With the subsequent drop in water pressure none of the hoses were effective and the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 31 blocks.”  (from Wiki)

After this disaster, the city banned the use of wood in their buildings, and decided to rebuild the city a story or two higher than the original street level to ensure gravity-assisted flush toilets didn’t back up during high tide as they ran into the bay (sounds totally sanitary). As a result, many store fronts became the basement level, which now serves as a tourist attraction to see the “underground city”.

Our guide regaled us with Seattle’s native history and the unjust treatment of the Duwamish tribe that occupied the land that they were eventually forced out of. We weaved through alleyways and along the waterfront in the unseasonably sunny weather. Jake explained that although Seattle is cloudy and spritzing most of the time, the actual amount of rain is less than the national average.

After tipping our guide, we hopped on a ferry boat sitting at the dock as tourists packed in and found themselves having to choose between grabbing a prime seating location or quenching their thirst at the boat bar. We opted for no seat at all and moved from side to side as we cruised around the harbor and took in the scenery. The harbor is nestled in between the Cascade Mountains and the Olympic Mountains with evergreen trees blanketing the land on either side. Our tour guide rattled off fun facts about the sites we passed like when the Beatles stayed at Edgewater Hotel and fished from their bedroom window.

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We looped around the shipping port and passed Seattle’s massive sports arenas on our way back to our pier.

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The city was soaked in warm rays of orange sunshine while we walked to partake in one of Seattle’s infamous happy hours. The sushi fusion appetizer turned into more of an indulgent first round of dinner but the crispy tempura coated pieces of salmon and tuna were delicious. Way fuller than intended, we moseyed out to the street and took an Uber over to the Space Needle in the hopes of taking advantage of the clear views. We eagerly stepped up to the ticket counter with our arms outstretched with our passes. Our enthusiasm visibly deflated as the clerk informed us that our pass was simply the first step to purchasing our second ticket, which would grant us the privilege of standing in the elevator queue at our designated time for over an hour, and oh and by the way, the sun sets in half an hour. Quickly pivoting to a new plan, we decided to head up to Queen Annes Park to take in the view from a different perspective. Home to Meredith Grey’s house and countless other swanky real estate, this neighborhood enjoyed a breathtaking look at the city from the top of a hill. Our tour guide earlier remarked that your photos from here are even better than from the Needle because you actually get the Needle IN your photos. We were joined by fellow tourists, families out for a sunset stroll, and a group of rowdy preteens flaunting their bare skin in spaghetti strap tank tops while I was bundled up in a sweater and scarf. I remembered our occasion for celebration and felt old while I silently scolded them for being ill-prepared for the weather.

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Our night of activities began as Byron led me from the crest of the residential hill down into the city streets. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going but promised I would like where we were going. My inner crafting nerd jumped for joy as we paused in front of a glass blowing studio and Byron ushered me inside. The interior of the studio was decorated with swirls of handmade glass in all different colors and shapes, covering just about every surface from the walls and across the ceiling. At the back of the showroom was a chained off section that led to a series of massive car-sized ovens that glowed white hot with lava-like material inside. Soon it was our turn behind the chained off section and our dreadlocked glass master guided us through the process of plunging metal rods into the fiery ovens, collecting gooey glass, and rolling it in tiny shards of colored glass before shoving it back into the oven to keep it malleable at the end of the rod. We repeated this process several times until it was time to shape the glob into a bowl by blowing into the rod to create an air bubble. By the end, I was amazed that the blob actually looked like a cereal bowl, thanks to our expert glassblower. He had known ever since high school that his life calling was in glassblowing, and went on to study for years at the Swedish “Juilliard of glassblowing”.

It was at least twenty degrees colder as we left the oven room and walked back to the hostel just in time for free local craft beer. We shared in our excitement over the beer with some new friends from Canada, and the conversation quickly turned into naming all the peculiar differences between our two countries. To me, this seems like a sort of expected ritual to any Canadian/American interaction and one can only proceed in their conversation after they’ve established that yes, Canadians do keep their milk in bags, or, yes, it is wildly absurd that Americans don their flag printed on a string bikini on occasion. Once these formalities were through we went on to share recommendations and swap stories until Byron announced we had one more stop on our agenda for the evening.

We walked along the Seattle streets to a cleverly named churrascaria called “The Grill from Ipanema”. Brazilian steakhouses are one of our favorite places to celebrate important occasions and every time we go, it brings us back to our first experience with the frenzy of sword-carrying waiters in Rio de Janeiro. After ordering a bottle of red, we flipped our card to the green side and immediately a man was at our tableside with a massive portion of meat skewered on his sword. I reached out my tongs and latched on to a piece as he expertly shaved a slice onto my plate. Byron and I are very strategic in our dining and refuse to fill up on carbs and salad until we’ve had our fill of expensive steak. Since it’s all-you-can-eat, the restaurant tries to tempt you with plantains and cornbread to satiate you with their lower cost items.

A live singer was on a stage near the buffet and he ran through his repertoire of beachy music, starting with the obligatory “Girl From Ipanema”. He soon strayed from the samba and bossanova and moved on to Sublime and The Beach Boys. He must have exhausted this list too and started taking requests from the dining audience. Byron went up to the stage to provide some inspiration, but a song later the singer forgot what song Byron asked for and started an awkward inquisition of the tables to find the gentleman with the request. We waddled from the restaurant back to the hostel–sleepy, satiated, and satisfied with our day.

February 18th

You would think I’d be able to sleep like a log after the day we had, but the mixture of a hot stuffy room, thirst induced by salty food, and noisy streets kept me up. But it was officially my birthday and gosh darnit I was gonna look and act my best for my special day. We chowed through delicious free breakfast, and walked out to meet another tour with Jake. This one was an in-depth tour of the Pike Street Market and started early in the morning as the vendors were receiving their stall assignments, based on seniority.

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The market was started in 1903 and expands over 9 acres. The vendors range from farmers and craftspeople to tattoo artists, and barbers. Here’s a bit of history from their website:

“Farmers brought their vegetables, fruit, milk, dairy, eggs and meat to the city by horse drawn wagons and by ferry from the nearby islands. The goods were purchases by wholesalers, who sold the goods at a commission at warehouses on Western Ave. In this system, farmers occasionally made a profit but increasingly only broke even or lost money. In 1906-1907, the price of produce—onions namely—soared, leaving the farmers none the richer and the citizens angry over the price gouging.  The uproar led one local official to try to find a solution. In the summer of 1907, Seattle City Councilman Thomas Revelle proposed the city create a public market place where farmers and consumers could meet directly to sell and buy goods and thereby sidelining the wholesalers.”

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Jake had been bringing tours through here for years and had gotten to know the vendors on a personal basis, which may have helped us enjoy an abundance of samples including fresh salmon and dried apples. We witnessed the infamous throwing and catching of a fish at Pike Place Fish Co., whose antics have attracted attention from tv shows and celebrities.

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Our tour ended on a sweet, and mildly minty, note by the gum wall. It elicits a mix of repulsion and awe where you question why you think this germ infested wall is a work of art and beauty. Despite the city’s attempts to take down the wall, locals and tourists alike have rebelled and continued to stick their chewed neon wads to The Man.

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After the market tour, we walked to Capitol Hill, to find the ultimate Starbucks experience. No, not the location of the first Starbucks where you wait in line for an hour for the same coffee you can get at the Starbucks next to your house, but to the Starbucks Reserve–the Willy Wonka Factory of coffee. Copper pipes snaked their way across the ceiling in a grid of chaos, diving down and connecting to massive roasting, sorting, and packing machines. Everything was in motion–beans flying through pneumatic tubes, sifting arms combing through heating beans, and baristas flying around setting up tasting flights for buzzing caffeinated customers. We took a seat at the ergonomic sustainable wood carved stools at the coffee bar and ordered the reserve flight. The coffee was made using industrial Clover machines and served in tiny pots with colorfully designed info cards describing the country and family that farmed the beans. We poured each blend into the shot-sized glasses and did our best to discern the subtle hints and notes of cherry, vanilla, spices and chocolate in each sip.
We were jittery by the time we walked into the misty weather and made our way through the gay district to our next surprise activity. We were early but Byron still wouldn’t reveal his plan, so we enjoyed some tasty craft beer at Elysian brewing company. When it was time, he guided me down the street to the entrance of Unicorn, the most gaudy neon carnival themed bar. As we walked in, we observed mounted exotic animals above the black, white and pink striped wall. Chandeliers and lace hung above booths and bar stools. This madness was only the beginning as Byron led me to the stairs leading down to the second half of the bar, Narwhal. A man wearing nothing but his tighty-whities handed me a ticket as the smell of syrup drifted up from the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, I was greeted by a towering blonde queen, dressed to the nines, next to a full buffet along the bar top of waffles, chicken, syrup and more. Our lovely host walked us to a booth with my name on it in her sky high heels and told us to enjoy the show. We were at the Mimosas Cabaret Drag and Brunch Show!
The audience was a mix of gay/straight couples, bachelorette parties, a grandmother-mother-daughter table, groups of burly looking men and suave well groomed men. Everyone lined up with drinks in hand as we shoveled heaps of hot breakfast food onto our plates. Soon the curtains opened we sat back and watched four queens go through dances, songs, comedy and countless costume changes, all while the audience hooted and crumpled up dollar bills to fling at the stage as the tighty-whitey man bent over seductively to pick up the cash. Halfway through the show, the lead queen called everyone up to the stage that was celebrating something and passed out shots of tequila while quizzing us on our sexual endeavors. The twelve of us cheered and knocked back our shots before giving the stage back to our divas.

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The second half of the performance was a political commentary on the current tumultuous state of American government through song, dance, and video clips. Using songs from Cabaret like Money, they satirized Trump’s greed and crooked ways. Characters included Putin, Kelly Anne Conway, and a woman dealing with a pregnancy and the inaccess to choice. It was extremely well done and left me feeling mixed. On one hand I was so happy and glad that there were artistic safe spaces like this for our queens to be who they want to be and express themselves how they want. However, the pointed messages of the performance left me fearful for the future and longevity of places like this, given the recent issues revolving around transgender and women’s rights.
It was a bizarre sensation walking out into the drizzly daylight after hours of eating, drinking, and dancing in the cavernous basement in the early afternoon. We made our way to the space needle to procure our ticket securing our time slot to stand in the never ending line. With the hour we had to kill, we headed next door to the Chihuly Glass Garden and was immediately greeted with a familiar sight. The towering sculpture ahead of us was almost identical to the landmark glass design at the heart of Mohegan Sun, our beloved casino back in Connecticut. No trip to our casino is complete without posting an Instagram posing in front of the sculpture. Little did I know that the artwork belonged to a much bigger collection of work by Dale Chilhuly, one of the most well known glass artists in the world. It was fitting we did our glass blowing class the day before since it gave a much better appreciation for the difficulty in taming glass to behave in such intricate and diverse ways. Each exhibit was unique, ranging from massive glass globes in canoes to magical neon glass forests. The glass pieces outside meshed seamlessly with the live plants as if they had sprouted from the very same soil.

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Soon it was our turn to stand in the spiraling line to the elevator to the sixth floor. The Space Needle was built in 1962 as an exhibition for the Worlds Fair to showcase what the designer thought future buildings would look like. It only took 400 days to build and was intended to be temporary, but they decided to keep it up and maximize its tourist-drawing potential. Finally we made it into the sardine can of an elevator and we’re whisked up just as the dark of night fell over the city. The skyscrapers twinkled and the lights of the traffic blurred along the wide streets. The wind and crowds made it unpleasant to stay up for long, so we took our selfie and headed back down to earth and our cozy hostel.

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We took advantage of night two of free local craft beer and sat down at the tables with a couple from Oregon. They were living there on an Americorp assignment working in a social work capacity. Soon the beer ran out and we invited our new friends to join us to meet some Semester at Sea alumni at the Pine Box. The bar was massive and got its name from the fact that it was a converted funeral home. The atmosphere was far from dead as we staked a claim to a spot at the bar and caught up with our friends. We wished them a good night hoped to see them in SF and Byron and I started the long walk back to the hostel, interrupted by an obligatory stop at a Mexican burrito joint.
Sunday, February 19th 
It was our last day in Seattle. Rain hit the window panel as I started to pack. The rain held off just as we arrived back at the space needle for our complimentary morning viewing. It was literally night and day difference as we waltzed up to the elevator doors without a second of waiting. The elevator was empty and the viewing deck was ours to take photos and walk in circles admiring the views. It was clear enough to see Queen Anne’s Hill, the entire bay, and a clump of skyscrapers in Bellevue, WA, but the elusive Mount Rainier stayed hidden.

I was determined to find local Seattle jewelry as a souvenir, made form some friendly artist that I would remember forever. I hadn’t found anything in the markets yet, but Byron spotted a World’s Market store across the street and pulled me in to have a look. I’d never been to the chain before but was immediately fighting the urge to check a bag and buy everything in the store. Byron made a bee line for the spices and sauces as I wandered through aisle after aisle of exotic looking jewelry. Lo and behold I found the perfect ring and at least three pairs of earrings I din’t even know I needed. I raced back to the spice aisle and we shared in our excitement over the selection of clothes, food, furniture, gifts and everything in between.

I happily walked through the Pike Place stalls flaunting my new accessories as we tried to find something delicious to bring back home and share with our roommates. We aimlessly wandered the hallways of the market for hours and still kept finding new paths to explore, stopping every so often for pork buns or gifts for home.

With only a few hours left before we had to leave for the airport, we walked to the Seattle Aquarium right before they closed. Luckily we had time to learn all about the tragic love story of an octopi matchmaking attempt on Valentine’s Day that didn’t end in wedding bells. The resident octopus swamp around gleefully alone in her roomy tank. We lined up next to kids to touch prickly urchins and then fell in love with the cutest set of sea otters that spend 80% of their day grooming their fur with oils. Since the oil is excreted from glands on their cheeks, the otters rub their paws in circles on their face and then massage their body. To the casual observer it just looked like they were all having extreme outbursts of dandruff irritation. Somehow this whole process is surprisingly adorable.

We closed out the aquarium, packed up for the flight, grabbed a quick bite at a Middle Eastern Gyro restaurant and hopped on the metro to the airport. Seattle was determined to hang on to us for a little while longer as our flight to SFO was delayed for two hours due to “mechanical error”. So comforting. Finally back at home by 3am, I had no trouble falling asleep–exhausted and feeling like the luckiest girl on the planet.

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