I usually travel alone.

I'm not antisocial, but as a teacher I usually have a decent amount of time and money simultaneously. It's absurd how rare that is with any other job. My friends mean well - they will usually say, "Yeah! Let's plan it! I'm totally in!" when I say I want to go somewhere far away. Then I get crushed when they back out at the last minute.

That's why I usually travel alone. There are hundreds of reasons to do so, many of which I mention in these posts. But what it comes down to is: Either learn to get along in strange places without your friends, or stay home.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Cartagena, Colombia

Maybe it's Baader Meinhof syndrome, but ever since I booked my trip to Colombia last year, I've been hearing about people about to go to or just getting back from its coastal port city Cartagena. No one seemed to have anything bad to say: Colombia's days as the violent drug lair of Pablo Escobar and his henchmen seem to be firmly behind it, and tourists are lapping it up.

As usual, come March, the snowy northeastern weather was getting awfully old. Boyfriend and I set off early in the morning and made it out before the third nor'easter hit!

I've said it before, but there is nothing like that first wave of heat against your sad Bostonian skin as you come off the plane in a tropical place. Colombia delivered this in a big way with its cute tarmac arrival "hallways" outside leading you from the plane to the airport itself. They were filled with hanging plants and flowers and palm trees. Had these not been permeated with the smell of exhaust and jet fuel I might have tried to hang out there.

Our number one priority was to get to the beach, so after a chill arrival at our hotel (the intercontinental, known to cab drivers and locals as "el inter") we set out. The beaches in Cartagena proper are NOT the pristine ones you can find in nearby towns. Tons of cruise ships come in and out of the port, so the water is kinda muddled and the sand is brownish. Still, it was great for us since we were just getting our bearings.

Most guidebooks will tell you this, and most of you who have traveled before are used to it, but let me just say: the vendors selling trinkets on the beach and on the city streets are relentless. If you're walking, they run up to you, walk with you, and follow you. If you're stationary (for example, reading on a beach chair), you are a captive audience and you have no chance.

One of the vendors was selling massages on the beach. She was a lovely dark-skinned woman, rather plump, walking around with a not-so-clean-looking bucket and lotion in an unmarked tube. It was not hard to resist this massage. She introduced herself as Nico and would not stop talking to me as I politely declined her services. We actually had a nice conversation (read: she complimented me endlessly, and that was great even though I knew her motives weren't exactly altruistic). I should say here that some people suggest completely ignoring or rudely telling off these vendors, and that may be effective, but I would never do that.*

* Unless I cracked, which I did once  and only once on this trip, in the walled city. I'll tell you later.

We are guests in the country and as Americans we have a reputation to pull out of the mud, and cussing at locals is simply not an option for me (or you). So we would just kind of constantly say "no" as we walked along. My advice is don't bother giving reasons because it will backfire. Here's an exchange I had on the last day with a vendor selling trips to an island we had already gone to:

Him: Come to Bora Bora!
Me: We already went, thanks. It was great.
Him: So you liked it! Go again! Boats start at 9am tomorrow!
Me: We're going to the airport to go home tomorrow.
Him: Go tonight! See the island in the moonlight!

Anyway, we continued walking along the beach and finally sat down near a little restaurant shack. For about $50 American dollars we got ocean-side chairs for the day, lunch, and the first round of drinks, and we were ecstatic. The vendors selling águila ("eagle," the local beer) and fruity drinks were very successful with us. Pretty soon word got around that we were spending money and guess who comes back. Nico! She sits down next to us and just starts chatting but we know it's only a matter of time til she gets into business mode. Hoping to avoid that, we made clear we didn't want a massage but would be happy to buy her a drink. She seemed pretty surprised and delighted and had a beer with us, and we were just chatting about things to do in Cartagena, and it was great.

Then she says, "Well since you got me a beer I'll just give you a sample massage for free. Just your feet." This was to Boyfriend.

Thirty no's later she's rubbing his feet and he is complete mush. It apparently feels amazing and he'll spring for the paid version and "I have to try it" and it's the perfect remedy after all that cold weather and long flights and ok fine I'll get one too just a sample though and wow this is an amazing full body massage! We should probably have been concerned when Nico started confidently ordering more drinks on our tab, but we were very relaxed what with the awesome massages.

Then... oops! It's all over and we have no idea how much the massages are because we never asked. And now the service has been rendered so you can't exactly bargain.

And that's how we ended up paying about $130 US for beach side massages. Damn it Nico! Damn your strong healing hands! Boyfriend and I chalked it up as a win anyway, since we were  contributing to the local economy and the price was still way less than it would have been in Boston. We ended up buying beers for all of Nico's friends and using one of her contacts to set up an excursion to one of the lovely islands with pretty beaches for the next day: Bora Bora.

Bora Bora

Yes we went to Bora Bora, and you better believe I'm going to let people assume that I mean the one in the South Pacific northwest of Tahiti. You, however, will have the exclusive REAL version of the story, which is that this is a one hour speedferry ride from Cartagena. On the way there we were stuck being the last ones on the ferry even though we got to the port early. This is because SOMEONE was buying fresh mangos from a street vendor when they opened up the boat.* Anyway so we had to sit at the very front part of ferry, the part that was uncovered in full sun and the bumpiest. An hour later, we climb off the boat, up some stairs, and onto this island:

*Me, obviously, and if I could go back in time I would still not change a thing.

There were about 30 cabana/beds and we paid an extra $20 to have one on the front row, which was totally worth it, not least of all because it came with a fruit tray. We shared the island with our boat-mates and about 2 other ferries full of people for a total of about... oh I don't know, maybe 50 people total? So it wasn't completely off the grid but still pretty amazing. And there were only two vendors total. One selling jewelry in a very chill "you come to me I won't come to you" way, and another guy who rolled up in a tiny dinghy boat with his wares: live lobsters that he had just plucked from the seabed. Boyfriend has always said he dislikes running and will avoid it like the plague when I go out for jogs or sign up for races, but I am here to tell you he moved so fast trying to get to that lobster salesman that I believe he has been training behind my back for just such an occasion. I'm sure we were supposed to bargain here again, but the fisherman said about $50 usd for a big old lobster and honestly it was worth it to have fresh lobster on the beach. So we pick out the one Boyfriend wants, the fisherman leaves, and about 45 minutes later he paddles up with a fully cooked lobster on the prow of his ship on a little paper plate which was quite a site for someone who has only seen lobster served in fancy restaurants. Anyway it was apparently the best lobster Boyfriend has ever had and worth every penny.

Lunch is included in this little getaway (dinghy lobster is extra as you already know), and it was very nice: fish, coconut rice, fried plantains, just generally yummy stuff. They also had vegetarian options!

Unsuccessfully trying not to be obnoxious and smug.
On our way back, we made sure to get Prime Seats on the boat this time so we were one of the first ones on. We sat toward the back with full shade. Then the captain comes back to our rows and says that we should keep in mind that it's not his fault if we get wet since the way back is going "against the waves," as he put it.

"Getting wet" turned out to be the understatement of the trip. This was a ferry but it still went fast, and we were therefore getting smacked with massive walls of sea spray at about 500mph (yeah yeah not really but still). Here are the phases we, the 8 people in the last rows, went through on that one hour boat ride:

Phase 1 (first 5 minutes): laughing and shrieking
Phase 2 (next 5 minutes): covering faces with hats and making jokes about these being Prime Seats
Phase 3 (next 10 minutes): absolutely soaked, eyes burning with sea water, making tense jokes that we should put on our goggles and snorkles
Phase 4: (next 5 minutes) putting on goggles and snorkels, incredulously laughing about it
Phase 5: (remaining 40 minutes of ride) grimly staring ahead through goggles, getting absolutely pummeled by thick sea spray seeming spewed out by Poseidon himself, just making out the silhouettes of the people sitting up front in the "bad seats" (they seem to be pointing in our direction and laughing... surely we don't look ridiculous: soaked to the bone, wearing goggles and snorkels, while sitting on a boat, right?), heatedly saying "never again" under our breath, pondering Colombian maritime law and the likelihood of qualifying for a multi-million dollar settlement, etc.

Really though, it was fine. The whole day was awesome. I just suggest sitting in the back on the way there and way WAY in the front on the way back.

If you think you get a picture of us during that debacle, the answer is a firm "You are no longer my friend." Also we tried but it would have been like taking your phone out underwater so no go.

There transpired a small detail here that I will tell you personally if you like but should not be added to the blog.

A bit further out - castles and convents

The next day we hired a fabulous cab driver (contact info below) to take us on a jam-packed day since we wanted to see lots of historical things and famous places but also go to another famous beach called Baru. We started out a bit further away from the center of town, making our way to "the castle" which is really a fortress. As fortresses go I would say it is "average." If you're a detail-oriented history nut you will go positively crazy for it; if you're not you'll do an obligatory lap and check it off your list and move on.
The words "fortress turret" can be rearranged to spell Surfer Trotters, and I think we can all agree that's crucial.

We then went to La Popa. I recommend going to this beautiful former convent because it has an amazing view of Cartagena, and a vast collection of (of course!) bills from what must be every country in the world displayed on the walls.

La Popa

The walled city

From there we went to spend some day time in the old town, aka the walled city. We had gone there a few times in the evenings to walk around and shop and check out restaurants that had been recommended to us (I'll include them at the end), but seeing it in the day time is a MUST! The tiny streets are bursting with colorful buildings and flowers. As you can tell by the name, there is a big wall around all of this, a remnant of when the Spanish needed to protect their (stolen) land from pirates. You can walk along the wall and even go to one of two restaurants that are located ON it.

A vendor in the walled city

Locals and tourists milling around in old town. 
As mentioned above, it was in the walled city that I eventually broke down and sort of yelled at a vendor. I was caught off guard. We turned a corner onto a plaza and were absolutely swarmed by people hawking sunglasses and straw hats and jewelry and I finally erupted into a "NO!". Of course the person directly in front of me who took the brunt of this outburst was the youngest, cutest little vendor of them all (maybe 11 years old) and he quickly scurried off. I felt horribly guilty for the next few hours.


After a very full morning of site seeing and walking around, our amazing driver, Eloy, drove us the 40 minute route to the town of Barú. On our way I was chatting with the driver (Boyfriend was kind of zoning out since my countless Spanish lessons on him never really took). So I'm telling the driver my best stories, which all revolved around the fruit I had tried so far in Colombia. This is something I could easily talk about for 45-50 minutes with no interruption, but he managed to get a word in and mention that there was a street-side guanábana stand that we would be passing soon and we could stop. It was called "The Guanabana King" and they sell juice of this amazing fruit with the pulp still in it. This event may have been one of the top five happiest moments in my life.

Take my money.
So. Barú has amazing beaches, but it is not for the faint of heart or those traveling without a local. On the way, our driver had been telling us that there are many locals living in the town who are very poor and rely heavily on beach tourists. "That's pretty normal," we thought. No. This was different.

We roll up to the turnoff to get to the parking lot for the beach, and there are about 6 local boys (tall, very dark skinned, skinny teens, probably 16-22 years old) waving us over to talk with them. Our driver told us that these boys were pretending to be attendants for the lot, but they were actually relatives of people running restaurants on the beach with no written prices for food. Their specialty is having you order food and then telling you that your simple lunch cost about $150 usd and you can't argue because you already ate it (flashes of Nico's massage flickered through my mind, I nodded to convey my veteran wisdom in this matter). The boys corral you early on and bring you to these restaurants. So he says we're going to ignore them. This approach was fine with us. However, the teens were not too keen on it, and started yelling at him, then chasing the car, then jumping onto the moving car which forced our driver to stop. At this point Boyfriend and I are exchanging looks like "we're about to become combatants in a Colombian brawl," and I'm just happy my last meal was Guanabana juice. But our driver simply rolled down his window and in a voice that was insanely calm (keep in mind he is looking out his window at the stomach of a local teen who has mounted his car), said, "Get down." And the teens yelled some more, and he said, "Get down, get off the car." And they got off. And we went into the beach.

You should know that you can reach Barú from Cartagena by boat if you book with one of the excursion companies, which would circumnavigate the driving/parking/car-attacking issues.

Somewhat tense from that altercation (our driver was unfazed), boyfriend and I spent all day at a reputable place with written prices that featured a 3-step distance from the water. I don't know the name of this place, but apparently there are 3 restaurants (out of dozens) that have menus with prices on them, so just ask to see the prices before you eat and you'll be good. Maybe take a picture of them just in case.

Here is Barú! Worth it if you go with our driver, but if you want to completely unwind and not worry about being scammed, just go with the Bora Bora trip. 
Odds and ends:
Did I mention that you should eat as much fruit as possible? There are all sorts of exotic fruits you've probably never heard of.


Arepas. Arepas are translated as "corn patties" and that is a massive disservice because it makes them sound strange. You need to order them (plain, with cheese, with eggs, with meat if you're gross) and eat them at least once a day.

An arepa with fresh mango juice; this meal was about $6 usd at a fancy golf place (ask Boyfriend). I was assuming it would cost 4 times that much.


For the Bora Bora trip: we went with Rosario Beach Club. Lunch and a boat ride to and from the island was included, all told it was less than $200 for both of us and the "VIP" row of cabanas.

Get in touch with our driver. He's super nice and tries to practice his English but if you speak Spanish it's probably better (duh). His name is Eloy and he communicates mostly with WhatsApp: +57 301 585*

*rest of number separated to avoid bot dials: 5570. He was a lifesaver with transportation but also with advice and warnings about ripoffs around town.

Go to "El carbon de palo" restaurant. It's not one of the fancy ones in old town (though we loved those too, try Juan del Mar and 1621); it's in the Bocagrande zone, which is where most of the hotels are. We ate here 3 nights in a row because we loved it so much. The food was amazing, the service was embarrassingly good, and they had multiple live music acts every night. The music was always chill though; think more "quizás" than mariachi-style.

Guanábana juice and cheesy arepas at Carbon de Palo. I want to marry this situation.

Get local money. Save yourself the stress of asking cab drivers if they take American money as they hold up traffic waiting for you. Things are very reasonably priced; most of our cabs to and from the walled city were $5.

Have fun and let me know what you think!

Friday, January 19, 2018

January getaway: Mexico

I. love. Mexico. I went to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco (again!) and had a fabulous time.

This trip was even better than most. In addition to the gorgeous villa we stayed in and the yummy restaurants we visited almost every day, we also went paddle boarding (Paddle Zone at Mismaloya beach), sailing (Ada sailing) and whale watching. We saw at least 6 different humpback whales (some while sailing!), dolphins, manta rays, clown fish... You can see what I saw on my Instagram. There is also bonus footage of Huichol art souvenirs we got!

My favorite part was during paddle boarding. After we watched the sunset ON the water, it got dark, and our guide Beto (sweetest kid ever who did not mind falling in the water when he was backward on his board helping us navigate choppy waves) directed us under the arches of one of "los arcos," the rocky islands that had spiritual significance for the native Huichol population. He told us to put our hands in the water and agitate them a little bit, and when we did...
We saw glow in the dark algae!!!

This pic is from the Maldives, but it's the same thing. Imagine the water seeming normal but around your hand there is a sphere of these tiny things orbiting magically.

Bonus adventure: we got in a minor car accident and learned that you have to stay on the scene of a fender bender until the insurance agents come out and fill out paperwork. We almost missed our flight back to Boston!

Paddle boarding around Los Arcos at sunset.

Our fellow paddle boarders were 2 girls from Cuernavaca and 1 guy from New Zealand. I made sure to provide entertainment to our worldly group by gracefully falling off my board while shrieking wildly.

Sailing trip with fresh seafood and limitless beverages: go Ada Sailing!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Asia trip part 3: Japan

From Seoul, I went early to catch my flight to Tokyo. That was lucky since every airport experience involved extra security gymnastics because the travel agent who helped with the Chinese portion of the trip also helped me with this one, and had misspelled my name on all of my tickets. Poor guy just removed any hesitation I had about letting the travel agency industry die... Anyway!

I arrived in Tokyo and my first surprise was that the smog wasn't gone. It wasn't as brutally thick as in Beijing, but it was there. Tokyo completely made up for this, however, with their A+ toilet game. I forget where I saw a reference to complicated Japanese toilets, but these things were totally understandable and awesome. It was common to have the following setup: You walk into the stall and the cover is raised automatically. The seat is heated very subtly. There is a little controller with buttons with both Japanese and English text and obvious icons. For the environmentally-conscious yet courteous users, there is a button that makes a flushing sound without actually wasting the water. Having the festering squatty potties from China still haunting my memories, I was especially impressed with these toilets and said so to every Japanese person I met, stopping just short of screaming about them in the streets.

What? You want me to talk about something other than toilets? Ummm... ok, I guess, if I must.

My main goal in Japan was to see Mount Fuji. From Tokyo, this requires a substantial drive or bullet train (Shinkansen) ride, plus renting a car once you get to the correct prefecture (Shikuoka). This can probably be finagled on your own in 4 hours for around $60, but I decided to just book a tour for $140 which included a fabulous guide, quick (2.5 hour) transportation to and from downtown Tokyo, and lunch. "Worth it" would be an understatement.

This particular tour drove us on a bus on the way to Mt. Fuji and we came back to Tokyo via bullet train. During the long (2 hours or so) drive to Shikuoka, our guide taught us Japanese songs about Mount Fuji (how cute is that one?) and answered all of our questions.

There was only one problem. It was cloudy. Like, really cloudy. Our guide explained that we were visiting during the rainy season, and chances of seeing the mountain clearly were about 1 in 5. ONE in FIVE! Strange how they never tell you these things when you're booking... Sure enough, I checked instagram for #mtfuji and saw lots of videos and stories of people trying to see it but just filming clouds.

As we continued the drive, though, our guide stopped short in the middle of an explanation and almost shrieked, "There it is!" We were on the highway, but sure enough, you could see Mt. Fuji in the background, between clouds. Even on a gray day, speeding along the highway, it was stunning. The guide told us we might as well try to grab some pictures from the bus, since the clouds could easily swallow it up for the rest of the day. We did, and kept driving toward our first stop, the observation deck of a nearby mountain which had some great views, weather permitting, of Fuji.

We arrived at the base of the mountain next door (Kachi Kachi) and took the cable car up to the observation deck. A pre-recorded message was blasted to us in English in a creepy baby voice with details about the height of the mountain we were scaling, etc. We funneled out and looked around: all cloudy. Resigned to our nebulous fate, we made our way to the observation deck... and... guess what?!?!

We saw it!!!!!

Now that I think back at how elated we all were, I wonder if the guides always tell people they probably won't see Fuji so they feel extra special when they do. Cynicism aside, I was freaking pumped. As if that wasn't cool enough, there were doggos up there too.

Then I forced some Argentinians to take a handstand pic for me and they got it on the first try. By this point I was in a euphoric daze and went into the gift shop to promptly buy every single thing. When I regained full consciousness I was on the bus, surrounded by shopping bags and wondering where things like a Year of the Snake luck charm that were now in my possession had come from. On a related note, does anyone born in 1977 or 1989 or 2001 need a good luck charm? I had great luck that day, it will probably win you the lottery.

The tour also included a visit to Mount Fuji itself; specifically, the "5th station," a sort of mid-mountain camp with hot food and facilities for aching, tired climbers who had spent days getting there and were desperate for rest and a moment of zen before continuing their journey to the top. They made a prime audience for me as I hopped spryly from our tour bus and started proselytizing about the toilets.

The final part of the tour (it just kept going!) was a boat tour of Lake Ashi, and here our group shared the outing with other tour groups. So we had about 80 people on the boat, right? And it was cloudy again, so instead of taking in the theoretical views that were being described, I had time to people watch a bit. And guess what? There was 1, ONE, other person traveling alone. Out of all the large tour groups coming to see a wonder of the world, almost 100% of them were in groups. Families, retirees, mid-life couples... I knew traveling alone was rare, but this is when it actually set it that I was doing something strange. And of course the guy was Australian so does it even count? They travel in their sleep. Way to go Australians!

With Mt. Fuji off the checklist, I spent the next few days wandering around Tokyo, eating sushi and avoiding peak metro times. I had booked an air bnb in the Akasaka neighborhood, which was close to lots of parks (got in a few jogs!) and subway connections to downtown.

I had spent a little less than a month in Asia and was ready to come home. Now I'm back in Boston, and the school year will be starting soon, so no travel until... oh wait. This weekend :) I'm going to Jamaica for my cousin's wedding (Congrats Max and Alanna!!!).

Hello Kitty was still everywhere.

Book for this portion of the trip: SuperFreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. I read the original ages ago and this one is just as entertaining. Good for enabling you to bring up random facts during conversations that have almost fizzled out.
Neighborhood I stayed in: Akasaka
Tour company for Mount Fuji visit: Sunrise tours. You can be picked up at a hotel  for free and driven to the place where another bus takes you on the actual tour.
A place I didn't go but lots of people were talking about: Okinawa, famous for crystal clear waters above coral reefs. This is kinda the Japanese version of Hawaii: far away from the mainland but sought after due to the fact that it is an absolute tropical paradise. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Asia trip part 2: Seoul, South Korea

My favorite!

After the growing pains of experiencing China with a group of 14 adults (and their strong personalities) and days scheduled from 6:45am to 9:30pm, I was more than ready to get back to solo travel mode and to my next destination: Seoul.

As loyal readers may recall, my couchsurf hosting days in Dallas have already paid dividends. The good times just keep rolling, though. I contacted two of my South Korean guests from back in 2010 (!) and both of them delivered big time. One had moved to Canada (hi Ko!) but gave me the Kakao talk (Korea's version of text/whatsapp) of an awesome Korean girl who was willing to chat with me over dinner (hi Na Rae!), which was really nice. Thanks to Na Rae I also got the inside scoop on the K-beauty scene, which resulted in a bit of a binge. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Koreans have the most impressive beauty regimens and products in the entire world.

Note that I did not say "Korean women." Korean men are absolutely in on this and there are aisles and aisles of men's products in every shop. There is also a LOT of make-up marketed toward men. Probably because of K-pop.

Majorly famous boy band BTS, K-pop pros
The beauty obsession has a dark side though: a fixation with plastic surgery. Especially in the trendy Gangnam area, you will see dozens of buildings, each of which has dozens of floors, each of which houses several plastic surgery clinics.

A subway ad in the Gangnam area, one of many.
Additionally, before I stray too far from Kakao talk: their emojis have absolutely taken over Korea. Anything with a flat surface has been branded with these adorable little characters.

Please stop everything. I just read the bio for Apeach (the character featured above) and this is it, verbatim, from the Kakao Friends website: "APEACH is a genetically modified peach that left the orchard to seek adventure. This playful and wild creature is not afraid to show off its backside, which may remind you of something other than a peach." I just needed you all to know that. You probably want to see its backside now, which I cannot confirm being a safe for work search but I did the hard part for you.

Speaking of adorable, here is a side by side comparison of the Boston and Seoul metro cards.

Ok where were we? Oh yeah my second Korean friend. Jong Min (hi!) was in Seoul when I was, and helped me get the most out of my visit with some clutch advice and guided wanderings. We started with a tour of the famous local market. This was a brief tour because this market was, to put it delicately, not "vegetarian friendly". You can imagine for yourself the types of horrific "food" that were on display but this is a family blog (notwithstanding the NSFW apeach) so I won't be describing it for you.

The major tourist destinations in Seoul are sprawling palaces with names that you won't even be able to finish trying to say because you'll be laughing at your own incompetence too hard (Gyeongbokgung is the most famous, we started with Changdeokgung; when Korean people say these it sounds like one syllable). After visiting Changdeokgung in the afternoon heat, I mentioned that it would be cool to see Gyeongbokgung (although quite honestly... these palaces might just fall into the "seen one seen 'em all" category for all but the most obsessive historians). Jong Min broke the bad news: I happened to be in Seoul during the two weeks of the year during which Gyeongbokgung palace is closed during the day and open at night for a special show; the tickets for the show had sold out two weeks ago. Luckily, Jong Min is a boss and called the palace to see what we could get in, and it turned out there was a simple solution: foreigners are allowed to purchase tickets on a first come, first served basis. Korean citizens were not allowed to visit unless they had booked in advance! Seriously. So we got there before they opened, I bought two tickets for $3 each and gave one to Jong Min and we went right in.

Side note: there is one other way to get into the palace - wear a Hanbok [the 'k' is silent, 'hanh-bo']. These are traditional Korean costumes and visitors can rent them and wear them around for enhanced instagramming site-seeing. A rental will set you back $10 and includes hair and makeup.

From http://funtastickorea.com/m
Jong Min asked me several times if I wanted to wear one and each time I questioned our friendship because I firmly believed that this is something only a clinically insane person would do. Can you imagine dressing up like a puritan to walk around Boston? But the Hanbok rentals are actually wildly popular. Hundreds of young, cute people were doing it and I admit that the stigma had kind of dropped away by the end of my trip. Still, I just couldn't get on board. I think the 100 degree heat had something to do with it as well.

Anywaaaaay if you wear a Hanbok you can get into Gyeongbokgung for free, but in the fine print of this agreement it says that you still have to book tickets in advance. On our way out from the palace we saw lots of Hanbok-wearing people looking pre-tty outraged that they couldn't get in. Don't forget that the tickets cost $3 each.

Lovely Hanbok-wearing girls. I admit they make for great pictures. 

Here is an egregious example of the Confucian-style gates, seen in Changdeokgung 

So Jong Min and I had an awesome time strolling around the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, and we even got to see the show they put on with one of the ancient buildings serving as a stage. There were traditional instruments, Italian opera (?!), plenty of singing and dancing... but my favorite part was a troupe of female drummers. Jong Min takes awesome pictures (his blog and instagram here) and some of these (the good ones) are from him.


Lotus of dancers

So thanks to my generous guides, Seoul was my favorite place to visit!

Gyeongbokgung palace at sunset

Book for this part of the trip: Fall on your knees by Ann-Marie McDonald. Tough tough tough. It made Oprah's book club but jesus christ it's depressing.
I stayed at: Mapo, a cute neighborhood right next to the Han river. However, I would recommend staying in Gangnam, since that's where the biggest shopping/restaurant scene is.
Note: When you first arrive in Seoul, you will need to get Korean cash since the subway card machines don't take credit cards. I used the subway several times a day for 5 days and spent about $17 total on it. Most shops do take cards though. I would go to the 7-11 in the airport, buy a subway card at the counter, get cash at the global atm next door, then go to the subway machine and load the card with cash.
Another note: Google maps is not optimized in SK. I was looking for a store and googled it and it showed that there was one 2 towns over. I asked Na Rae and she said there was one ON THE SAME STREET that I was on, and sure enough a few blocks down there it was, with nary a mention on the google map. Kakao talk has a navigation app which is very thorough but the slight hiccup is that it's only in Korean. 

Asia trip part 1: China

Celebrating the 4th of July in Boston has generally been a hit or miss experience for me.

My first one was pretty bad. I was trying to show my friend Katie*, visiting from New York City, that we patriots in Boston, well... we do things big here. I knew there were fireworks on the Charles River at night and an elaborate outdoor concert before that, so I obviously took her there. What I didn't know was that everyone in a 500 mile radius has the same plan, and they all generally want to sit in the same 16 inch square of geese-poop-ridden grass that you managed to scout for yourself because you were too ignorant to get there at 8am. Katie was about as traumatized as I was by this experience, and we had to resort to going to one of Boston's few dance clubs to drink away the distress. This culminated in us spilling out of the club and Katie demanding pizza, finding a place open at 2:30am, then Katie hitting on a 16 year old boy who worked there ("I LIKE IT SAUCY!!!"). I managed to save him by pulling her away as I gasped for air from laughing so hard and we ate our pizza on the lid of a street trashcan. Someone driving by yelled "Hey Oscar the grouch!" and we didn't have much to come back with. Let's call that one a miss.

*names have been changed to preserve the dignity of certain individuals

The next year I was dating a doctor who had fancy rich friends, so I watched the fireworks from a rooftop penthouse overlooking the river on Marlborough street while sipping $400 champagne and eating all the food because apparently that crowd had too much tact to shove me away from it. Hit.

THIS time, I did the most unpatriotic 4th of July thing I can think of: I went to China.

I went with a group of 14 masters and doctoral students, plus a wise Chinese professor from my PhD department. The trip was mostly comprised of meetings and presentations to justify the degree credits I was getting for it, but they also allowed us a precious few touristy outings, including visits to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, and the Summer Palace.

Some initial "whoa this is not America" moments:

  1. The smog is no joke. It was very hard to tell if it was about to pour rain or just a high pollution day. Apparently it gets exponentially worse in the winter, when the coal plants kick on to provide energy to heat the cities. I wore my pollution mask pretty religiously, even though most of our group gave up on the concept because it's also HOT (imagine being hot and sweaty and covering half your face in cloth that you then exhale your hot humid breath into). 
  2. sup
  3. The toilets: I knew that toilets weren't great in China. But I didn't know how awful they were. The squatty potty element is fine once you are used to it (not going into details here, but let's just say one word: aim). The real problem is, you don't flush ANYthing down the toilet. Not even toilet paper. The vast majority of bathrooms have no toilet paper at all, which raises some very serious personal hygiene questions for me. We had been forewarned so we brought cute little personal toilet tissue packs, but what did Chinese people do? Just not wipe? I'm so confused. Now, where do you put the tp (and any other female products) when you're done? You can't flush it. So there is an open trash can in each stall. WITH USED TOILET PAPER IN IT. Now is also a good time to mention that there is no AC anywhere except the fanciest hotels, so these cans just sit there all day in 100 degree heat. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am shocked the whole continent hasn't dropped dead from Typhoid fever. Bathroom visits were not the girls' event they are in the US: go in a group, chat, refresh your makeup... no. They were like entering a war zone right before your side gives up. Or Dante's Inferno
  4. The manners: ah, the real reason I kept my pollution mask on. There was no sense of courtesy when it came to personal habits. People sneezed into the open air in front of them, coughed on whoever was in their general vicinity, passed gas with alarming volume and duration. I had to seriously fight my impulse to scold people like a schoolmarm. I wanted to ask, rhetorically, how a country with the biggest population in the world could ever succeed with everyone sneezing on each other. Instead I put my mask on and kept it on. 
  5. The t-shirt slogans. English is big here; understanding it, not so much. One middle-aged woman was wearing a shirt that said "Punch me in the face," and I'm relatively sure that's not what she actually wanted to happen. A little girl was wearing a shirt that said "You f*'n a*hole," which prompted one of our group members to pose for a picture with her. This led to one of the most controversial moments on the trip: eventually the girl got suspicious of all the attention and someone in our group asked our translator to explain why. He did. The girl started crying. Our group tried to console her but the damage was done. Where did this go wrong? Should we not have said anything and let the poor thing wear that shirt without knowing its expletive-filled meaning? She certainly would have been happier that way and may have never had any issue with it in the future. I'm still not sure of how that should have been handled. 

But if you think you can manage that, China makes for an amazing trip. 

Tiananmen Square

I was only 3 years old and far from Beijing when Chinese students demonstrated for human rights in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Still, I grew up with periodic reminders of the tragic end to that peaceful protest. Even in America, there were intermittent references to and reprints of “Tank Man,” the anonymous protestor bravely yet casually standing unarmed in front of a government tank that day. 
Magazines like National Geographic and Time elevated the photo to icon status, drawing comparisons between current events (such as Ieshia Evans standing peacefully for the Black Lives Matter movement in front of Louisiana state troopers in riot gear in 2016). It was humbling to be in that exact place in Beijing, but also a sobering reminder of the power of the government: an enormous portrait of chairman Mao still presides over the space, and surveillance cameras record visitors’ every move. 
It’s clear that the fight for freedom of expression in China has not made great strides since 1989. Indeed, there is no mention of the protests in that well-known square, even though they were and continue to be significant on a global scale. The "great firewall of China," means that online searches for any references to Tiananmen square, tank man, or similar events lead to blank pages. I have Chinese students in Boston who said they had never known the protest existed until they left China. (Fast forward to a later part of the trip: I ask a Chinese teacher who is about my age what she thought of the death of Liu Xiabao. She didn't know what I was talking about. We thought it was a translation issue so she gave me her phone and I typed in his name. Nothing. It was absolutely eerie.). 
I was floored when several Americans in our group asked what the significance of the place was, though. Now that I think about it, I guess we didn't really learn about modern Chinese history in school. 

The Forbidden City

Built to house the Ming dynasty in the 1400s, this place was home to emperors until the very last one (Puyi, duh) peacefully stepped down to make way for the Chinese revolution in the early 1900s. Walking unchecked throughout the palace is even more impressive when you stop to consider that entire areas of the city were accessible only to the emperor less than a hundred years ago (hence, "forbidden" to commoners).  As such, elaborate stairways and fountains that may in the past have only been closely seen by the most powerful man in China are today climbed on by adventurous children and featured in countless tourist selfies. 

So this is an imperial palace but it does really come off as more of a city, with separate villages for servants, businessmen, and concubines. From village to "village," there are humongous gates. Each gate has a huge (like, 30 feet tall) central entryway with intricate carvings in it. Then off to each side of the central gate, there is a smaller, basic gate. In some of the royal houses (not the FC but in ones I saw in South Korea and elsewhere), the side gates are only about 4 feet high. This is a manifestation of a Confucian ideal which stresses "respect of authority." Which means that the emperor goes through the central gate and everyone else (old, young, pregnant, whatever) stoops to go through the other gates. Because you have to inflate the fragile ego of a king. So that was how I lost my western wonder and veneration for Confucius.

If you're wondering why someone Chinese was named "Confucius," it's because he wasn't. The English name is a latinization of Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子), which means "Grand Master Kong". But again, he's a jerk, so who cares? "Life's too short to deliberately build gates that people have to stoop to get through." - little known quote from Grand Master Amanda.

The Great Wall

Speaking of gates... When you mention that you’re going to China for the summer, people ask what you are most looking forward to. My answer was simple: getting typhoid fever. Kidding! It was the Great Wall. 

When the Han tribe (now 92% of the Chinese population) overthrew the Mongols, marking the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they were worried about the Mongols retaking their old territory. So they built a wall, starting in present day North Korea and ending near the Gobi desert on the western side of the country. 

From https://sites.google.com/site/mrvailsclass2/great-wall-of-china, this is the current wall. You can see progress through the centuries at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/Map_of_the_Great_Wall_of_China.jpg which shows the full extent of the former wall.
When exploring the wall, you can mark your progress by counting the watch towers you pass through. I forget how far apart they are, but it took a *cough* pretty fit *cough* person about 8 minutes to get from one to the next, speedwalking. Guess how many watchtowers there are? Over 25,000. But the ones you can access from where we were in Beijing are limited to about 50.

In between watch towers in full sun and 100 degree heat, feeling totally spry and not holding myself up on the wall at all.

There are lots of slopes and uneven stairs to deal with between watch towers so I don't recommend running. Even if, hypothetically, you are trying to maximize the surface area you cover in a short time,  the tourists who like to cut in front of you and then stop to take pictures of like, a bug on the wall will just see it as an additional challenge to get in the way. I seriously saw a tourist take a selfie and you could only see her face and the inside of her umbrella. There was no indication whatsoever in that picture that she was currently on one of the wonders of the world. But I digress. You will probably only get to exactly 12 watchtowers. 

The Summer Palace

The summer palace is an enormous compound, the majority of which is comprised of a man-made lake. This place was the summer retreat of the imperial monarchy, which is evident in the luxury of the buildings and walkways that look out over the water. In the present day, thousands of tourists stroll on the elaborate sidewalks on land and zip across the lake in intricately carved, colorful dragon boats on the water.

Dragon boat!

I'll spare you the details of the education portion of this trip, and sum it up with the commentary that Chinese schools are making huge progress to shed their reputation of being military-like factories. They are finally embracing the inclusion model for special ed students and focusing on "STEAM" instead of purely "STEM," adding Arts to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math." However, they still have high stakes testing (as do we) and video cameras in classrooms (we only have them in hallways... for now). I asked why the cameras were in the classroom and the first answer was predictable ("safety") while the second one was jarring ("to ensure academic honesty on high stakes testing days"). It made me reflect on the similarities between the supposedly liberal, expressive and free American institutions and the unapologetic security state in China, especially as it manifests in the monitoring of children as young as kindergartners.

All of these places were accessible from Beijing. We also went (by train) to Nanjing, where I presented at an international education conference(!), and Shanghai.

All in all, China was fantastic. But it also set an amazing foundation for me to really appreciate what was up next: South Korea and Japan!

Book for this part of the trip: She's come undone by Wally Lamb. Hard to read subject matter but the writing is incredible. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Asia trip 2017: Overview

It took me way too long to get to northern Asia. Summer 2017 was the time to fix that.

With PhD summer classes to schedule around, I originally planned another solo trip, this time to China and maybe some neighboring countries. I booked my tickets in late 2016, but then a few months later my teacher canceled his summer classes and I was stumped. How could I get my summer credits in and still go to China?

As if on cue, I got an email from my uni saying that they had extended the deadline for a comparative education guided tour of China in early July. The program would count as 2 classes for my particular degree. Students would have the option to extend their trips or come home with the group after 2 weeks.

Not bad, right? I canceled my original tickets and applied. After getting in, I tossed the return ticket and booked a 5 day stay in Seoul and another 4 days in Tokyo instead. 

As you can probably imagine, it has been marvelous. I'm still not home yet (I'm currently sitting sipping an organic smoothie and eating a vegan lunch while people watching in Minato, Tokyo), but I'll try to get a start on telling you all about it (hi again, mom!). 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cuba: Cars, Castro, Churros and Che

I went to Cuba! It was fabulous.

This pic only took 5 tries and a heavy filter to look good. #progress

Even with the loosening restrictions on US - Cuba travel, the embargo is still in place and currently  Americans still need "a reason" to go to Cuba.  According to the US-Cuba embassy site :

The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba from the US are:

  1. family visits; 
  2. official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; 
  3. journalistic activity; 
  4. professional research and professional meetings;
  5.  educational activities; 
  6. religious activities; 
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  8. support for the Cuban people; 
  9. humanitarian projects; 
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; 
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; 
  12. and certain authorized export transactions.
Some of you might have a connection to one of the above reasons, but be aware that at least officially, you are expected to have plenty of documentation justifying your trip that can be checked at the border. For instance, a school ID for "educational activities" would not be sufficient. 

I've heard of people going on their own and not having to "prove" their reason, but to play it safe (who wants to spend their vacation worrying if some power-hungry border guard is going to give you issues?), I went with a tour group (Cuba explorer; I'll put details at the end of the entry). 

Now. This tour ended up being an incredible experience and totally worth the issues I had with them while I was still in the states. But jesus christ. We had issues. After sending them a (large!) deposit for the trip, I'd get an email saying "Here's your receipt for the deposit," (great!) and then months later, get another email saying "We HAVENT RECEIVED your deposit! IF YOU DON'T PAY we can't guarantee your spot!" Additionally, their site is not secure, so I just closed my eyes and prayed as I entered my credit card details for payments (for those not aware, not using a secure socket layer on web pages that are used for payments, which looks like 'https' in your browser URL instead of just 'http' is a huge, basic security no-no). Basically every email and payment I sent had to be screen-shotted and resent to prove that I did what I was supposed to do. Maybe you are the type of person who can brush this type of thing off, I found it enraging. 

Anyway, it was all worth it when I got to Havana! I flew American Airlines the whole way without incident and our tour guide was waiting for me at the gate. She gathered a few more people who had arrived on earlier flights and we went right through customs with her and skipped the long lines. The men in our group were probably sad about this expedited arrival, because the female security employees at the airport wear the sexiest outfits I've ever seen. 

I didn't take any pics but here's one I found on another blog. 

The group was mostly comprised of married retirees, with a few families. There were 15 of us total and we rode around Cuba in a lil minibus. It never fails to amaze me that families with multiple siblings a) travel as a unit and b) don't rip each other to shreds after day 4. I can only assume the family members were all heavily medicated. 

Our guide was incredible. Ari is a young (27ish?) Cuban woman who spoke wonderful English and knew everything we wanted to know about Cuba. Hundreds of historical dates memorized? Yep. Exact locations of where different battles and events happened? Yes. Entire lives of Cuban artists and their respective movements perfectly recited? Also yes. Deftly reconciling the major rift between ideologies of a pro-Fidel history professor and the people living in crumbling infrastructure on the street? Multiple times a day. She knew every type of building material, fish, cigar brand, rum brand,  and monument. She knew the best place to take a picture from to get the whole city in the background. And most importantly of all, she introduced me to a Cuban street food dessert called Chiviricos which are sold wrapped in, you guessed it, old printer paper (the kind with the holes on strips on either side). 

A greasy, sugary fried dough specimen called a chivirico. Best enjoyed while meandering through narrow Havana streets (and not indoors, because the sugar gets everywhere).
More or less, we stuck to this itinerary, so I'll give you a few details that aren't evident from that:

The food was always lovely (although if I was full vegetarian and not pescatarian I would have been mighty hungry); basic but with plenty of herbs and spices. Rice and beans were featured at almost every meal; apparently Cubans eat more rice per capita than some Asian countries, and they import it since it doesn't grow well here. 

The old cars are seriously everywhere, but only the ones used as taxis are kept in pristine condition. You'll see plenty of classic beauties rusted over and falling apart. While these gorgeous cars make for an awesome sight, they also spew pollution constantly (which, combined with the penchant for cigar smoking, perhaps contributed to Cuba being the first place where a vaccine for lung cancer was concocted) and even the well looked after ones break down a lot. 


The taxi drivers will totally hook you up. There is no beach in Havana proper, you'll have to get out of the city to find a good one (playa del este worked for me), and nothing beats cruising down the highway in a classic convertible with a friendly taxi driver!

Yes I found a handsome driver who also took me salsa dancing. Highly recommend.

The Spanish: omg, so fast. Lots of slang and swallowed word endings. Beginners beware!

The tourists: people from other countries have been coming here nonstop. It's a very popular destination for Canadians, Europeans, and Russians (they go way back 😉). Americans kept asking questions to our guide and locals like "What is it like to suddenly have tourists here?" It's not sudden, dummies. The world doesn't revolve around Americans' presence in foreign countries.  But Cubans like us for some reason. There were plenty of locals wearing the American flag emblazoned on clothing. Some had the flag on every article of clothing: shoes, shorts, shirt, hat, the works. I've seen this in several other countries but have never seen it with a different country's flag, so maybe we should be obsessed with ourselves.

The money: American banks and credit card companies do not operate in Cuba. If you have a European account/card (look at you, Mr. Fancypants) you should definitely bring it. Otherwise, bring USD and convert it at your hotel or the airport (you don't risk as much changing money at the airport here since the exchange rate is tightly controlled and monitored so that it is uniform throughout the city). You'll want CUCs ("kooks") aka "Convertible pesos," since those are the ones that match best with American dollars. Don't be surprised to see prices also listed in CUP, or Cuban pesos. I didn't bother getting the more authentic Cuban pesos since anyone who does business with you (or expects a tip from you) wants CUCs due to their stronger value. While our tour included almost all meals and entrance fees, I still spent about $200 on souvenirs, tips, etc. over the span of a week, so plan accordingly. Here's a site that goes into more detail on the money. 

The internet: let's just say, if you're looking for a place to unplug, you will like it here. Internet is accessible but pretty high maintenance. Until as recently as 2011, internet was only available for university students in Cuba, and capped at 3 hours per month (!). You can buy internet by the hour (about $2/hour) from most hotels. They'll give you a card with a looooooong username and longer password which basically works like a long distance phone card from generations ago. For locals and those not staying in hotels, keep your eyes peeled for random groups of people standing around on their phones (on the sidewalk or in a park). If you see this type of group and get your phone out, a random "dealer" will come up and offer you an internet card. There are also state-run computer cafes, which are very popular and usually full from what I saw. 

The history: Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are even more venerated and idolized than Castro. All three of those guys compete with José Martí, a Cuban hero from a different generation (Martí helped lead Cuba to independence from Spain in around 1898, whereas Castro/Guevara/Cienfuegos led mostly Cuban farmers in revolt of US-selected Batista in the 1950s and 60s). Propaganda still has a decent-sized role, as you can pick up from these comics I bought because my Spanish wasn't ready for complicated textbooks I wanted to see what kids here are taught. 

Fidel is consistently portrayed as standing up for justice and taking bullets for friends, showing mercy to enemies, and being cheeky to his teachers. Obviously it would be hard for him not to appeal to young kids. 

Here is described how the US forced Batista into power against Cubans' wishes and votes.
Remember when the US forced puppet governments into power in foreign countries despite democratic elections resulting in other people winning? You might not have one single instance in mind because we did that a lot. I guess it's different when Russia does it to us. 

"Alright Amanda, chill with the politics and let's end this on a positive note," you say.

Many places in Cuba are famous because they were frequented by Hemingway. This one was also apparently the birthplace of the mojito. Hemingway, however, was a jerk who hunted animals for sport so who cares about him?
This is more like it. Dancing Cuban salsa in the moonlight with a live band. 

And finally.... Cuban street kitty!
More info:

  • Tour company (be sure to read my warning above): http://cubaexplorer.com/
  • Yes, you need a visa. I got one through the tour company. It was around $80 (I'm sure you can get it for cheaper but again I didn't want to risk getting the wrong thing) and it was shipped to my door. You just bring it with you and they take it from you at the border.
  • Travel buddy: Neil, fellow travel addict, whom only when we arrived at the hotel I realized I had not met in person before 😂
  • Books read: Handmaiden's tale (yikes. not my favorite), They can live in the desert but nowhere else (I don't like his writing but the topic is important).