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.

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 knew 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).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The north island: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 5

I've been putting off this entry for several reasons:
1) I have been up for 24 hours due to jet lag that will not die,
2) I'm starting to focus more on my trip to Washington, D.C. tomorrow to protest that idiot's inauguration, but mostly 
3) Writing about it means this trip is really truly seriously over.

As you know from part 4, I wanted to weasel my way into the North Island so I could have a few sunny days before coming back to freezing Boston. The issue was finding a place to stay. Honestly, at this point I was ok with getting a hotel and sitting by the pool all day. BUT! Loyal readers may already have deduced that I do have some, albeit very loose, connections in New Zealand. Anyone remember? No? The cruise that I took in 2012. Here's the blog entry, and here's the direct quote: Probably our best buds were 3 brothers from South Africa/New Zealand whom we followed and tricked into talking in order to hear their glorious accents had some lovely conversations with and sometimes joined for dinner.

So on a whim, I got in touch with one of the 3 boys (what's up Arron!) and *happy dance* he said I could stay with him and his family in Auckland! The other two brothers lived elsewhere but I still got to see them, and I got to meet their parents, whose genetic perfection finally solved the mystery of the trio's freakishly good looks.

Side note: You know those people who look like real life Ken dolls and runway models? You know, the kinds that play villains in movies because no hero that good looking would ever be relatable to a wide audience? Don't you just wish when people like that opened their mouths they had some kind of dopey hick accent and were dumb as rocks so you could be like "Well yeah they have looks but at what cost?" This family will irritate you beyond measure. Because they are super villain gorgeous... and smart/articulate... AND HAVE AN ACCENT THAT IS A BLEND OF SOUTH AFRICAN AND NEW ZEALAND. What the actual heck?! It's troubling. It's not natural. 

It's totally awesome to hang out with for a few days though!

You're probably wondering: "What did YOU bring to the table, Amanda? Did you hold your own with witty banter and sparkling conversation?" Well let me tell you, in the form of an ACTUAL CONVERSATION that took place basically right as I arrived:

Arron: [hugs me] Wow, long time no see, thanks for visiting!
Me: [in my mind] Thanks for hosting me!
Me: [out loud in real life] Thanks for holding me!

---------awkward silence--------
---------Arron extricates himself from the hug---------

For some reason Arron didn't leave me to sleep under a bridge after that. In fact, he had some time off and quickly became the Best Guide Ever. We started off at the Auckland sky tower to get a bird's eye view of the city before exploring more in depth. 

Up the elevator we go!
Watch this one all the way to the end, it's only 30 seconds. 

And from there I was basically a spoiled brat and got chauffeured to all the best nooks and crannies of Auckland...

Seriously. Just overboard really at this point. Ok fine I won't keep them to myself: Arron's insta, Smatchimo's insta, Damian's insta
Auckland from faraway by night

The water was cold but I still got in! #majorprogress

We even got out of Auckland and into ("the?" not sure if it requires an article) Coromandel, a peninsula with some amazing beaches and bushwalks. 

For bearings

Here's a handy map for you

There were multiple highlights here: Cathedral Cove, a natural rock formation on the beach which was extremely peaceful even though there were tourists hanging about, Pohutukawa trees (for some reason I pronounced this correctly on the first try, yet "Bondi" eluded me for days) aka New Zealand Christmas trees since they are green with lovely red flowers and only bloom around Christmas, a secret swimming hole with a rope swing, a "hot beach" with geothermal springs coming up through the sand, steaming like crazy and people digging holes to sit in them, and a ridiculous moonrise that was so big that - no lie - I originally thought it was the sun setting.

Christmas tree with Cathedral Cove in the background
This reminded me of so many country songs. "Summertime" by Kenny Chesney, mostly.
Hot beach sands
Sunset and moonrise. You know how it is, pics won't do it justice, but there's an idea. P.s. read this poem about not being able to capture moments like this. 

When it was finally time to go home, I packed up and grabbed a healthy juice bottle to glamorously sip on the way to the airport. Of course, one of the greek statue brothers (what's up Smatchimo!) (that's really his name, weird huh? ;)) decided that was a great time to introduce me to the World's Second Best Ice Cream (surely you haven't forgotten about Hokey Pokey already!) which is made out of DARK chocolate. In ice cream. I think it's like 72%. Wtf, New Zealand? Can the US please have some of your dairy product goodness?

So my last moments in NZ, instead of sipping juice like a celebrity coming out of yoga class, were spent inhaling vast quantities of this ice cream in Arron's house AND car. 

worth it.

So the moral of the story is: plan as best as you can, but don't stress about changing things around when you're already abroad. And for the love of god, make friends when you travel, then you can go back and visit their amazing cities. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU all the people who helped and hosted me on this trip. My heart is so full right now, and I'm taking all that good energy with me to Washington tomorrow, where I'm sure it will be sorely needed. 

Bye bye silver fern! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The South Island: Australia and New Zealand adventure part 4

I made my way to Oamaru, a small town in the state of Otago, where a long-time family friend (what's up Sophie!) now lives. I didn't see much of Oamaru right away, because as soon as my bus arrived in town I was repacking bags: Sophie had planned an incredible getaway for me and her friends to go bushwalking in the Catlins.

Fun fact: I thought bushwalks were a uniquely "down under" thing requiring specific vegetation/bushes. It's actually just their word for "hiking."

Anyway, Sophie had rented a "bach," or little summer cabin, for us to stay in. I quickly picked up on the lingo and would provide poignant commentary like, "Party at the bach!" Alas, this was yet another word I was pronouncing incorrectly. It's supposed to be "batch" (rhymes with catch), whereas I was pronouncing it like the name of the 18th century German composer (bok), known for such hits as Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Party at the Bach. We ended up being a group of 7 people and 1 rambunctious dog (what's up Figo!) going on a 4 day mini-trip, and we traveled in true NZ style - an ancient van which at times had to be pulled via rope by a very sturdy SUV down careening cliffs and gravel roads.

That guitar would be put to very good use.
The van would later be named "Sassy Shanay" because during certain points in our driving conversations, the horn would beep without anyone touching it. This was considered to be Shanay voicing either agreement or displeasure, based upon individual interpretation.
Sassy Shanay taking a break.
 Some sweet little runaway sheep.

Glamorous: Unfiltered photo of a quick stop on the winding roads of the South Island. Less glamorous: we were probably stopped so one of the boys could pee.

Figo, the faithful pup, could always be counted on for snuggles and sudden fits of biting (he's teething). He would also lovingly hump his pillow at night before bedtime like clockwork. If he also did this during the day (which he did, usually in front of small children who had come to pet him), Sophie would quip, "Figo! That's for the late night showing of your parlor tricks!" and at least get a chuckle out of the concerned parents. 

With road prep complete, we had only one last stop left before the bach - pick up our final traveler! Serendipitously, a friend from Boston (what's up Mei!) was in New Zealand at the same time as me and hitchhiked to meet us on our way to the Catlins. Hitchhiking is reeeeeally common, and we picked up a hitcher here and there. No, mom, don't worry, I didn't do it myself (this time!).

We made it to the bach and set out for our first day of bushwalking: a loooooong (6 hour) trek through thick forest with hardly a path to speak of. I thought I was pretty amazing for doing this, and then Sophie casually mentioned that her 98 year-old granny had just done it last month. What a boss!

Ukelele Mei and Me hiking: Bad Bitches from Boston to the Bach. I'll tell you where her nickname comes from later since it's impossible to guess. 

Sophie crossing the treacherous bridge.

Picture taken from the bridge
Sophie and Mark, tree nymphs

 That night, we came back starving and had an awesome dinner made mostly from the veggies from one of Sophie's many projects: a community garden. Here I'll introduce the other campers, since they are about to have a musical role: Sophie's boyfriend, Mark, aka Marky Mark, who beat me so swiftly at the card game I had just taught him (Egyptian Rat Screw) that my head is still spinning; Sophie's roommate Alessandro, aka Ale, an Italian who was always polite and drove like a bat out of hell down narrow gravel roads; Ale's friend from Italy named, of course, Fabio, who was on vacation visiting NZ just like us; and their friend Mauro, an Italian cook working in Dunedin with stunning green eyes and a man bun, who could pick up a guitar and strum along to even my most tone-deaf warbling. Plus me, Sophie and Mei.

After dinner each night at the bach, the group would follow a strict schedule of
1) smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (dammit, Italians)
2) ignoring the game that I tried to get everyone to play (brutal flashback to teaching high school) and
3) singing songs with the ukelele and guitar going strong

We sang lots of folky style songs (you are my sunshine, riptide, etc), but the main event came about every 30 minutes, when Mei and I could no longer resist belting out the Cranberries "Dreams." I started out on guitar with Mei on Ukelele, and when Mauro finished his cigarettes he would mercifully grab the guitar and leave me both hands free for my air microphone. These campers were treated to the Deluxe Version of this song, complete with my (*cough* spot on *cough*) Irish brogue imitation of Dolores O'Riordan. If you are verrrrrrrrrry kind to me and I have a guitar, I will sing this for you, IF I can fit it into my busy schedule. If no one is there to sing harmony we can video conference Mei in there. Does Tuesday work for you? How about 3pm? I'll bring the guitar. You can just sit there. No, really, I don't mind. SIT DOWN AND LISTEN.

Anyway, at the end of that song, there is a yodeling section which always got pretty out of hand. Our best version featured Mei and me doing the standard harmonies at glass-shattering volume, climaxing to Sophie and Mark bleating like sheep and Ale screeching a falsetto and mooing. It was magic.

We did a few more days of hiking.

For a more profesh version of this pic, see here.

At the southern-most point in NZ, the wind is so strong that the trees grew like this. 
Fabio spots some vivid fungi en route.
One of my favorite parts of the entire trip happened when we were tramping through the bush to the beat of Sophie singing her own version "Down by the bay." In case you don't know this diddy, the general gist is that you add an absurd rhyme to each verse. The bulk of our song was:

Down by the bay
Where the little ferns grow
We're off to tramp
But before we go
My mother would say...
Have you ever seen a ___[noun]____, __[verb] ing a _[noun]_, down by the bay!

So as we're walking we're each adding silly stuff to it, like:
Have you ever seen Elvis, shaking his pelvis! or
Have you ever seen a bear, wearing underwear! etc.

And after most of us had had a go, Fabio still hadn't contributed anything. We would egg him on and he would just be silent or say "no you guys do it." And then we started the song again and out of the blue Fabio belted out joyfully: 

"Have you ever seen a shark! Eat a little kid!?"

And he sang the "down by the bay" by himself because we were all shocked into silence. Even more disturbing is the fact that he happens to be a scuba diving coach by trade. I'm shaking with laughter remembering it.


Here's a pic of the gents. By the way, there is a "not blog friendly" portion of this trip, I can tell you in person or privately if you're curious.

Mauro, Fabio, Ale, Mark ready for adventure, Figo looking like he didn't sign up for this.

We finally left the lovely bach and came back to Oamaru. Most people had to go back to work, but Fabio and Mei and I had some more exploring time, so we took a day trip to Lake Tepako and to see the Maori rock drawings.

Maori rock drawings. Tourists had carved their names over everything. 😡
Don't you hate when tourists do that? Like, does anyone care that you "wuz here 2009"??? It's like, "Man, I wonder who was here. Omg! Look! STEVEN! He was totally here... but WHEN? That is the question. Will we ever know? Oh, look! He really thought of everything. 2009. Mystery solved. Thanks Steven!"

To wit: You can see penguins coming back to nest after fishing if you come to a certain part of Oamaru at the right time. As we were on our way to see this sight, Ale warned us that we might see a "crazy lady" there, screaming at visitors to stay "5 METERS BACK" from the penguins. It turns out that penguins are pretty skittish and if you get close to them, or shine lights on them, or stand in their path to their nesting young, they might bail and go back into the water for safety. This is really really bad since their babies will die if they don't get fed.

So we went there, trying to be as respectful as possible. First, the good news: we saw penguins! You can watch what I saw here.

Then we saw the tourists. People in cars who would deliberately shine their lights on the penguins to get a better look (it was past dusk and pretty dark). People who would bumble right up to the penguins and crouch in their faces to take a picture. People who would stand right in front of the penguins as they (the penguins) looked anxiously toward their nesting rocks. The first 5 minutes of this was understandable: "Ah, they must not have heard, you're actually not supposed to do that." But after 30 minutes my blood was boiling and I was calling out to people to get away. I had basically become the crazy "5 meters back" lady within the scope of a mere half hour. Imagine if you were there, seeing that every day!?

Penguins stopped cold when this tourist group got all up in their face.
On the day we left Oamaru, Mei provided this addition to some sidewalk art in front of a cafe. 

A few more tidbits: Mei and I tried to ride a bicycle built for two. Obviously, we named the bicycle Daisy. It was really hard and we didn't last more than a few blocks. You can bet we sang the heck out of that song though.

Daisy was soon traded in for Moa, a single seater. 
Little known fact: Oamaru is known worldwide for... you guessed it... steam punk! So regular buildings and even playgrounds (yes, playgrounds) had this somewhat eerie theme of Victorian-Space-Locomotive vibes. You could tell that every shop in the neighborhood eventually got on board since many people came from all over the world to the steam punk festivals that seemed to be quite common (there's one coming up in June). 

I didn't even know this was a thing.

Looks pretty fun, huh?

It started with the understandable (a second hand clothing shop had major steam punk style clothes like corsets, top hats and monocles) and eventually devolved into the senseless (a handmade soap shop also sold jarring Victorian brooches and helmets with goggles on them). It's nuts!

Pic from http://steampunkoamaru.co.nz/blog/

We went to a small museum in Oamaru and I saw one of my favorite art pieces to date. The main exhibit was one of metal works, which were all really impressive; but one artist focused on "medals of dishonor" and really hit it out of the park. One huge medal (taller than me), hung from the ceiling. Along the ribbon part of the medal, which looked like a bandage, was printed "a drill chant used in the preparation of US Navy personnel for the invasion of Iraq (Quoted from 'The Ground Truth’: The Cruel Fate of Iraq War Veterans,” http://www.wsws. org/articles/2006/oct2006/grou-o25.shtml):

Bomb the village, kill the people, throw some napalm in the square.
Do it on a Sunday morning, kill them on their way to prayer. 
Ring the bell inside the schoolhouse, watch those kiddies gather round. 
Lock and load with your 240, mow them little motherfuckers down!"

--------- END OF DEPRESSION ----------
In case the Southern Island hadn't already enchanted me enough, Sophie introduced me to what is now my lifelong unrequited love: Hokey Pokey ice cream. It's kind of like a mix of birthday cake/cotton candy flavors... maybe with a bit of honey? I don't know, it's just crazy good. You can't get it in the US though. Because the world is a terrible place.

Come back, my love!
------- ACTUAL END OF DEPRESSION ----------

Sadly, it rained most of the time I was in Otago, except for our last day, on which of course I got a wretched farmer's tan and sunburn. But it was worth it.
Southern Isles, baby

Not too much drama going on in Otago, as judged by a penguin molting by the pool being front page news. This is the kind of world I want to live in.

I was scheduled to spend the rest of my trip in this rainy little town, but I just couldn't sit with the idea of going back to Boston without some significant time in the sun. When I complained to people about this, they all had a common refrain: "If you want sun, you need to go to the North Island!" Little ol' me thought that NZ was such a tiny place that it would mostly have one climate. I was so, so wrong. NZ has everything from Antarctic tundra to rainforest to geothermal springs to tropical beaches, all with a 1st world standard of living. But I digress. It was time to change my plane ticket and make a last ditch effort at sitting in the sun: the North Island. Now, if only I knew some people there... 

TBC in part 5!

Book for this part of the trip: La chica del tren by Paula Hawkins