Palau: Diving, Swimming with Jellyfish, and Shopping at the State Prison

This trip has been a steady progression in comfort from the Spartan accommodations in the Marshall Islands, to the rugged and underdeveloped Micronesian state of Chuuq, to the traffic and chain restaurants of Guam, and finally now to Palau. Nice roads, streetlights, sidewalks, boutique stores and restaurants, numerous resorts catering to a large number of Japanese tourists mark a real change from the prior stops. Palau is a fantastic tourist destination. The attraction is the natural unspoiled beauty of the place, which is a tricky thing to manage for a destination. Palau seems to strike just the right balance of welcoming visitors while keeping attractions like the rock islands and Jellyfish Lake pristine. Continue reading “Palau: Diving, Swimming with Jellyfish, and Shopping at the State Prison” »

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Truk Stop

Getting from Majuro to Truk/Chuuk was about a seven hour journey, with maybe only half of that being flight time. This was the real “pacific island hopper” experience. I must admit that I had had my fill of it by the time we got to our destination. Honolulu to Majuro was the first hop that we did a few days before. The jump from Majuro, Marshall Islands went to Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands (A U.S. military installation), then to Kosrae, Micronesia, then to Pohnpei, Micronesia, and finally to Truk/Chuuk, Micronesia. Each stop had about thirty minutes ground time for redundant security checks. Just for clarification, our final destination was Chuuk (pronounced Chooq). I guess it was decided Truk sounded better when it was under U.S. control. Now that it’s an independent country though, Chuuk seems like the more appropriate title. There are some places (like the lagoon) that seem to hold on to the “Truk” moniker. Continue reading “Truk Stop” »

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First Stops on the Pacific Hopper

United Airlines has a route from Hawaii that hops through multiple stops in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, terminating in Guam. It’s a carryover from Continental Airlines, and it’s a reasonably economical way to travel through multiple stops in the South Pacific. This is the route we’re moving through, and we’re now a couple of stops in. We overnighted in Honolulu and then caught an early morning flight to Majuro, Marshall Islands. Continue reading “First Stops on the Pacific Hopper” »

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Boracay, Philippines

I’m not sure what I expected prior to our visit to the Philippines, but our short visit here has certainly been interesting. This is our first trip to an East Asian country that is primarily Catholic/Christian, a feature that likely has a role in some of the cultural features that set the Philippines apart a bit from it’s neighbors. Geographically, it does make sense that there would be some sectarian conflict in the southern islands that border Malaysia. In the northern region where we’re visiting, everything seems uniformly Christian. As an aside, we stumbled upon a Filipino Christian TV channel that had a guy speaking with the title of “Appointed Son of God” underneath his name. This guy…. wow… he even had on dark sunglasses to complete the Filipino Jim Jones look. Check him out. Television here seems to be either that kind of craziness, weird variety shows, or any of five different channels of 24/7 YouTube clips of people injuring themselves grievously. Continue reading “Boracay, Philippines” »

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Don’t Ever Count On “Africa Time” Working In Your Favor.

Africa time is slow. Almost nobody seems to be in a hurry. The traffic is terrible. You could make the mistake of thinking things are flexible and relaxed, but when that might serve you well, you’d be completely wrong. The common thread is not a relaxed attitude, but rather a lazy and completely unconcerned one. The whole “hakuna matata” thing definitely goes both ways: apparently you don’t need to be worried about them not being worried about something that is genuinely worrisome to you. The only time it seems you can count on locals being punctual is when it comes time to take a break. On top of that, Africans LOVE bureaucracy. So, other than complaining, how might that knowledge serve you? Continue reading “Don’t Ever Count On “Africa Time” Working In Your Favor.” »

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? …Yes, They Do.

If you thought for a second that a resort on a remote island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia might provide a reprieve from the inane insanity and consumer orgy of the American Christmas season, you’d be wrong. Comically wrong. It turns out that they’re well aware that it’s Christmas in The Seychelles. Contrary to what some may have suggested, they know it’s Christmas in most of Africa. The mindless lyrics and migraine-inducing repetition of pop renditions of Christmas songs can be annoying in many settings, but having them pierce the lull of turquoise waters washing over white sandy beaches seems almost criminal. And tacky half-decorated artificial Christmas trees have no place amongst a backdrop of lazy palm trees, especially on an island where the tree worth celebrating is the “sexy” coco de’ mer. Regardless, relaxing in The Seychelles for a few days was still lovely and rejuvenating. Continue reading “Do They Know It’s Christmas? …Yes, They Do.” »

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You managed to get one thing right, Ethiopian Airlines

Ethiopian Airlines is a discount carrier, and it shows. We’ve had the displeasure now of utilizing them a few times in a few airports, and the experience has been consistent: rude or even hostile customer service, shabby and crowded planes, and miserly amenities. I suppose this is what it takes to remain one of the few profitable airlines in the region. Just take a flight on Kenya Airways though and the difference in the passenger experience comes into stark relief. All of that being said, our flight from Zanzibar to Seychelles was on Ethiopian and we had an overnight transit in Addis. When the tickets were booked, I had assumed it would be like any U.S. carrier and you’d be on your own to either roam the airport or find a nearby hotel and arrange transit. We came to find out that Ethiopian handles all of these logistics for you and they are included in the price of the (already inexpensive) plane ticket. Needless to say, we were all more than a bit concerned what the “hotel” would look like in this scenario. Continue reading “You managed to get one thing right, Ethiopian Airlines” »

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Charming the Yellow Fever Nurses

When we arrived back in Nairobi from Mogadishu, we were routed through a different hallway to customs than we were when we flew in originally from Zurich. Before getting to customs, we went through slightly more involved health checks, including Ebola screening with a very excitable man in mask and gloves. The last checkpoint was a couple of very serious nurses asking for the “yellow passports” indicating valid yellow fever vaccinations. The trouble with that part was that none of us have had our yellow fever vaccinations. Continue reading “Charming the Yellow Fever Nurses” »

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“You’re going where??” …Mogadishu, Somalia.

Mogadishu. We’ve been asked plenty of times: “Why? Why would you want to go there?” The answer is, to say the least, complicated. I know that I’ve responded to the question with a bit of a shrug at times. The smug reply would be to paraphrase Edmund Hillary with “because it is there.” There is a grain of truth to that answer, but it leaves an awful lot unspoken.

“Why?” is an inherently confrontational question, but it cuts to the essence of so very many things we do. One might simply ask: “Why travel? Why travel at all?” The specific answers are limitless. I would argue that there is an underlying theme to travel, and that theme is escape. Continue reading ““You’re going where??” …Mogadishu, Somalia.” »

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Amboseli day trip puts the “far” in “safari”

We made it into Nairobi late yesterday after mostly uneventful transit through Zurich. There are four of us on this trip: our friends Greg and Larissa in addition to Martha and me. The three of us on U.S. passports had Kenyan visas ahead of time, but it turns out visa on arrival seemed to be pretty straightforward as well. When we got to customs, a Caucasian non-English speaking couple with maroon colored passports ahead of us was asked if we were “with them,” to which both they and we nodded no. The customs people waved us through along with them regardless. Safe to say we won’t be blending in as locals. After some spirited negotiation with drivers in the taxi queue, we agreed on a fare with our driver Charles. Charles very confidently took us down a wrong and very desolate road. However, the road that led to our lodge, to paraphrase Greg “looked like it might have a mass grave at the end of it.” Once past the secure gates though, we were welcomed to a cozy little place with manicured planters and pathways leading to “luxury tents.” The place could be a new mid-range offering from Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Continue reading “Amboseli day trip puts the “far” in “safari”” »

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Lisbon City Center

Today was our last full day in Portugal and we spent it leisurely touring the downtown area around our apartment. We visited a church in which the roof collapsed, killing everyone inside (Carmo Convent) during the earthquake that practically leveled Lisbon in 1755. Near that church is an elevator where you can reach a viewing platform with a panorama of downtown Lisbon which was pretty cool as well. We also visited a church that was left unrepaired after the 5th time it caught on fire in the 1950s. That was pretty unusual, as it’s still an active church. Apparently it was left in the partially burned state as an act of repentance for the suffering inflicted by the church during the inquisition, as that building was the headquarters. We also met up for a private walking tour that mostly focused on local food, although we got a bit of history on some of the public squares as well. Definitely an informative and relaxed day. Seafood, wines, cheeses, hams… all great. We’ll mostly be heading home thinking of the amazing breads, sweets, and pastries. Until the next trip, which hopefully won’t be long ;-)…… Continue reading “Lisbon City Center” »

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Grottos and Castles in Sintra

So we slept in a bit and didn’t get out until late morning… I think we’re reset at this point on our sleep schedule. We went to a different part of the train station for the longer distance trains to head about 45 minutes outside of Lisbon to an historic area called Sintra. The ticket situation was a little confusing as the machines didn’t seem to sell the type of tickets we needed. I asked a security guard (who then face-palmed some local who tried to interrupt), and he leaned in and said softly “listen, off the record, everyone is on strike, the ticket counter has nobody working, today you don’t need a ticket, just go on the the train.” A train promptly arrived and he was telling the truth, so we certainly saved a few Euros. The way back was a different story, while it was also free, it was an hour and a half late and a bit crowded. Continue reading “Grottos and Castles in Sintra” »

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A Truly Shameless Passenger

I enjoy passenger shaming as much as anyone. I might even go so far as to say that the process is sometimes one of the enjoyable facets of travel, in particular during group transit periods. The thing is, brazenly snapping pictures of brazenly bad behavior is a risky proposition when you’re trapped in a high-altitude, high-speed aluminum tube with any number of potential lunatics. Not to mention that if anything ever really goes south on an airplane and an “altercation” ensues, you’re both gonna go through a bit of a process upon landing. Maybe I’m just not gutsy enough with the camera, but the guy that occupied the aisle seat with Martha and I on our flight across the pond really would’ve warranted video documentation to do any proper justice. Continue reading “A Truly Shameless Passenger” »

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Snapshots in Tokyo

What draws us back to Japan again and again is difficult to pin down. It’s certainly not the sights. To be sure, there are beautiful shrines and temples in Kyoto, sweeping views that span Lake Kawaguchiko to the Pacific Ocean atop Mt. Fuji, and beautiful parks around Tokyo. But if revisiting seemingly postcard-perfect attractions were a draw for us, maybe we’d be booking another visit to China… and, well, that’s fairly unlikely. The charm in Japan can’t really be captured in a photograph. Try as you might, it’s not going to carry over into hours of home video either. You can see plenty of starstruck gaijin trying to document everything from the airport terminal to the bathroom to every meal. On prior visits, that has been us as well. So what sets Japan apart exactly? Continue reading “Snapshots in Tokyo” »

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The New First Stops on the Banana Pancakes Trail

There is a well-worn path through Southeast Asia that snakes through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and, depending on whom you ask, maybe a few other places. Treading this path at a leisurely pace over a few weeks, you’re likely to see some of the same Western faces making their way from hostel to hostel across the backpacker districts on the trail. One item almost always on the breakfast menu at these places: pancakes. Specifically, banana pancakes, which are not exactly part of the traditional local selections. As a side note, yogurt and muesli is also almost always the menu, but, while delicious, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. The “Pancakes Trail” has many more common themes than just breakfast menu items though, revolving essentially around catering to (and exploiting) the tourists that make their way through it. You can see similar photo op gimmicks like deep fried bugs to eat or fish pedicures, child touts at temples and monuments pulling out all the guilt-inducing stops, even scams that are fairly similar across cities. The tourist sites themselves can have a bit of thematic repetition as well: the requisite visit to the “local village” and accompanying boat tour, whether it be lake or river, firing automatic weapons (or at least posing with them), and of course temples, temples, temples.

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Tourists Cutting the Alms Line in Mandalay

Domestic air travel in Myanmar is an interesting experience. Once we were turned loose at the terminal in Yangon, the seemingly chaotic boarding through a single exit and constant indecipherable announcements were a tad confusing. Admittedly, we were at least mildly concerned that we might miss our 0630 flight. Everything went smoothly though. We rode across the tarmac in a repurposed old Japanese city bus and connected through to Mandalay with a comfortable and short flight.

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Transit through Tokyo to Rangoon

Yangon, Myanmar isn’t quite the antipode of the southeastern United States. That would actually put you in the middle of the ocean west of Australia. However, after more than 20 hours of flight time equaling half the circumference of the globe, let’s just keep things simple and say that we’re on the other side of the earth.

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Vacating Cairo

Early flight today from Luxor to Cairo… an even earlier flight tomorrow from Cairo back to home. The flight from Luxor seems like it’s over as soon as it starts. When an attendant woke me to bring my seat back up it felt like I’d just nodded off for a minute, but we were already landing. We were met at the Cairo airport this time by Mahmoud and it made it far less of a headache. He had parked on the sidewalk right by the airport front doors which was kind of awesome. Getting out of that spot involved a lot of yelling and waving of hands which was also pretty awesome. Continue reading “Vacating Cairo” »

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The Gate Room in Abydos

We had every intention of getting pictures of the Stargate in Abydos, but unsurprisingly they don’t allow cameras in the gate room. Seriously though, both the movie and the series neglected to mention the touts and hustlers in the local village there.

We did have a good time though and Abydos and Dendera are both worth the drive outside of Luxor. We didn’t see a single other tourist of any stripe for the entire day outside Luxor, which is really very sad. The areas were both quite remote and rural, giving an impression of a different, even harsher way of life in these outlying villages. Continue reading “The Gate Room in Abydos” »

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Luxor West Bank

Breakfast at the Sheraton was a reminder of the state of tourism here. We booked a “club level” room, essentially as a value proposition: it includes Internet, breakfast, cocktails and amenities for a nominal amount extra. At the moment, it would appear we are the ONLY guests on this level. There is a concierge responsible for the club lounge, and that means he is responsible for us. Which means, for example, when we missed cocktail hour last night while out having tea, the concierge nervously asked about it at breakfast. I guess he had cocktail hour set up for us (since it’s an included amenity) and it sat empty since we didn’t come. There’s something very, very sad about that at a large five star resort. I think we’re doing our part for the industry, but this country needs thousands of tourists visiting, not the few dozen we’ve seen. That being said, from a strictly shortsighted and selfish perspective, visiting the sites themselves without throngs of tourists has been absolutely phenomenal. Continue reading “Luxor West Bank” »

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Tourist Ghost Town

We headed to the Cairo airport today bright and early and arrived in Luxor around lunchtime. Domestic service on Egypt Air was convenient and uneventful. Luxor definitely is a change of pace from Cairo, with a much more small town feel to the place. It’s clear that the economy of Luxor relies far more heavily on tourism than Cairo, and the upheaval in recent years has hit the place really, really hard. Huge cruise boats sit parallel parked many rows deep on the banks of the Nile. We visited a couple of temples sites in town today (Karnak and Luxor Temples) and the places were quite barren. Continue reading “Tourist Ghost Town” »

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The Giza Plateau and Tahrir Square

There’s definitely some risk of critical itinerary items getting jettisoned when you don’t allow for some periods in a trip as down time. However, on a timeline as short as ours here, we don’t really have that luxury. Thankfully, (or, since we’re in Egypt: Al-ḥamdu lillāh) everything is on schedule so far. Continue reading “The Giza Plateau and Tahrir Square” »

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Cairo? Is it ok to go there now?

When we started planning the multistop trip we took back in 2011, Egypt was on the tentative itinerary. Until, that is, the democratic process started getting rowdy enough for advisories against all nonessential travel to the country were issued by nearly all western governments. In the years since, Egypt has managed to stay pretty far down on our list for safety concerns. Egypt pops onto our news intermittently with riots, killings, terrorism, etc… the sort of stuff that generally dissuades westerners from taking a holiday there. Continue reading “Cairo? Is it ok to go there now?” »

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Aguascalientes 2014 Gallery

This quick trip to visit with family really got us ready to start booking some new travel. Stay tuned!

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Last Day in Maldives

Sometimes, at the end of an extended trip, after many long train rides, days of backpacking, multiple early-to-rise and late-to-bed days, there’s a bit of a sense of relief when the time to return home arrives. This, for us, unfortunately, is not one of those times.

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Huvahendhoo, Maldives

We’ve been at Lily Beach for a full day now, and it’s just been absolutely perfect. I thought I may have had some high expectations, but this place exceeds them in all kinds of ways. After our water taxi back to the airport before sunrise yesterday, we were greeted by Lily Beach staff and personally escorted through check in and to a private lounge in the domestic terminal. Way more stuff there than we could’ve needed. I didn’t see any other resorts at that time providing that kind of treatment to guests. Martha came up to me after getting a couple espressos and said: “The butler called to check on us” real nonchalant. “Wait, what?” I had forgotten a small mention that our “sunset villa” included a 24 hour private butler service, which is definitely not something we’ve had any place we’ve stayed.

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Male´: Water taxi in, seaplane out

Male´I really like the reorientation that comes as a necessity upon arrival to another country. It can be particularly acute when you’re either unprepared, or hopping through a few  different countries, or both. There are those inevitable questions, like:

What the heck is this scribbly manuscript everywhere that vaguely approximates written communication?
Oh, what language do they speak here again?
What time is it again? Wait, only a half hour time change??? That doesn’t even make sense!
What is the money called here? What’s the exchange rate?

Continue reading “Male´: Water taxi in, seaplane out” »

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Last day in Sri Lanka

*Full Sri Lanka photo gallery below*

We’re back in the Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the Indian Ocean in Colombo. We got in yesterday afternoon, and our flight to Male, Maldives is tonight at 2030. We’ll make sure to get there plenty early to avoid any late check-in excitement like in Dubai!

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Temple Hopping Sri Lanka: Sigirya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura

The last few days have been kind of a whirlwind tour of the “cultural triangle” in Sri Lanka. At this point, having seen many of the highlights of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, we are both officially “templed out.”

Continue reading “Temple Hopping Sri Lanka: Sigirya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura” »

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Traveling 3rd class… Sleeping 1st class.

“Flashpacking” is a loosely defined, upmarket variant of backpacking. We are more than happy to take on that moniker for a lot of our approach to travel. With flashpacking, you can have really extreme variation in the budget for different aspects of your travel. The driving considerations are just fun, comfort, and safety. One area that we’re seeing the contrast in budget quite a bit is in going really, really cheap with our overland travel and staying in pretty nice 4-5 star places. The dichotomy can be pretty entertaining…

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Recreating the British colonial experience

”Mike, you do realize this is the most ‘white devil’ stop we’ve ever had on vacation, right?”

Watching a throng of British tourists being waited on by servile Sri Lankans in traditional attire…. Yes, the thought had occurred to me. To be clear, we’re sort of co-opting the “white devil” term to refer to remnants of the more distasteful aspects of western colonialism (E.g. this attitude). However, the term has some more interesting etymology that is largely unrelated to colonialism (E.g. here and here).

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Colombo to Nuwara Eliya by train

Overland transport can be one of the more interesting parts of international travel. We particularly enjoy traveling by train, and the lengthy trip from Colombo through Kandy and on to Badulla is certainly one of the more scenic train rides in the world.
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The “missed” flight

Anyone who has taken more than a few flights may know the feeling of nearly missing a flight. Or, even worse, missing a connection. Or, even much worse, missing an international connection. But those feelings pale in comparison to missing an international connection in the middle of a multistop trip, potentially subverting prebooked lodging, ground transportation, and limited availability tickets. Even in the best of circumstances, these scenarios can be a roller coaster of hope and despair.

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Posted in Sri Lanka, UAE | 4 Comments

Dubai Shopping Festival

For the months of January and February, Dubai has an official “Shopping Festival” going on, which seems to be kind of a big deal. I must say, the shopping festival here in Jan-Feb is pretty similar to the one we have in the U.S. from Nov-Dec. The largest mall in the world (Dubai Mall) was at critical mass today. Elevators were overloaded, queues at the escalators… if a fire broke out in the mall, the lower levels would be a death trap. I’m pretty sure they have occasional tramplings when the sales are good enough here, just like in the U.S. The whole atmosphere was both entertaining and exhausting. We got a little shopping of our own done and picked up some stylish new threads.

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The rules apply… even to foreigners.

This being our first visit to an Islamic country, we’ve certainly been on a learning curve with appropriate etiquette. The difference here though is that breaches in etiquette, unintentional or not, can have some real consequences beyond causing offense. When you read about some of the very big differences in social protocol in a place like, say, Japan, explanations are often followed by a qualifier that “these rules don’t apply to foreigners” (tattoos, business card etiquette, bowing, Japanese language pleasantries). It doesn’t mean that attempting to follow local protocol isn’t good form, but it would seem that foreigners often get a pass for breaches. Not here though.

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Winter 2014 Mini-trip

2014 Packing


UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi)

Sri Lanka (Colombo, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Anuradhapura)

Maldives (Male, Huvahendhoo)

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France 2013 Gallery

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Netherlands 2013 Gallery

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The Long Journey Home

*Full Indonesia Gallery Below*

Our last day in Yogyakarta, like the day before, started around 0330 to head out for the sunrise over the Borobudur complex. It had rained the day before, and the sky was clear, which made for a very different look to things. It was beautiful… a fire of orange and pink and purple, but in my opinion lacked some of the magic from the prior day when the jungle and distant volcanoes were draped in a gentle covering of mist and clouds. Some of the same stereotypes were there to experience the magic: a young white girl with her own genie pants and batik prints in addition to the issued sarong, swaying to some unheard rhythm as the sun rose, positioning herself right in front of the best photography area (her boyfriend, with matching genie pants and a headlamp…. had a conical braided pony tail that maintained a diameter of maybe 2-3 millimeters at the distal end). Nobody was posing provocatively on the stupas this morning though. It was very pretty, and we took a little more time exploring the carved reliefs on multiple levels before leaving the complex for the last time. It’s really incredible, and well maintained. Continue reading “The Long Journey Home” »

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Sunrise over Borobudur

The Manohara hotel is pretty much the only game in town if you want to watch the sunrise over Borobudur. If you’re staying in Yogyakarta, you’re looking at an hour drive to get to the place, and you need to be there by 0430, and then the sunrise tickets will cost you more if you’re not a guest at the hotel. For Manohara guests, the temple is literally a five minute walk outside the hotel grounds. What is the demographic for this experience? Apparently middle aged caucasians…. they represent 90% of the relatively small group there for the sunrise on the temple. Continue reading “Sunrise over Borobudur” »

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Java by Train

Ahead of us was an eight hour train ride across the island of Java from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. The night before, we had procured our train tickets…. that is, a gentleman from the Crowne Plaza schlepped across town to broker them for us. It sounded like an ordeal that we were better off avoiding. “Executive” level tickets were sold out, leaving “Economy” as our only option for the first leg of the journey. Continue reading “Java by Train” »

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Last day in KL…. off to “The Big Durian” tomorrow

***Full Malaysia gallery below***

Martha took a pass on all the mosques we came across in India, so visiting Masjid Jamek was a first for both her and Ashley. It’s been a really pleasant surprise in Malaysia that the tourist attractions (that is, places that happen to attract tourists rather than places designed with that as the sole purse) are generally hassle free and even free of charge. The Batu Caves yesterday had no entry fee, we went the entire day without encountering a single tout of any sort, and several of the shops were very quaint with interesting and reasonably priced goods. If the Batu Caves were in China, they would be a nightmare: huge lines to pay an inflated admission price and further charges for anything interesting inside, people harassing you for cheesy group photos, scammers and touts, swarms of tourists ambling in all directions, aggressive shopkeepers hawking garbage. In Malaysia though, the place made for a really relaxed, pleasant day. While several of the mosques in India we visited actually had admission charges, Masjid Jamek (the most notable mosque in Kuala Lumpur) had no admission fee and actually seemed very inviting to tourists. It was a real surprise to me. I have to say, Malaysia seems to be “missing the boat” somewhat on the tourist thing…. other countries try to squeeze every dime they can out of you for anything that might be interesting or worthy of group photos. I digress though… Continue reading “Last day in KL…. off to “The Big Durian” tomorrow” »

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Wild Ass Malaysian Attack Monkeys

Started off our first day in Kuala Lumpur with a visit to the Batu Caves. Martha and Ashley seemed mostly excited about quaint and exotic religious practices involving offerings of milk and flowers to the local gods. I’m pretty sure their excitement mostly related to getting some little red string bracelets after the offerings. However, my interest was in the monkeys. Wild monkeys running loose amongst tourists….. always a recipe for entertainment. Needless to say, it really made my day when the best entertainment turned out to be with our own little trio. With nobody getting maimed, of course…. Continue reading “Wild Ass Malaysian Attack Monkeys” »

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Seoul: In 3 Hours

*Full South Korea gallery below*

Forget about a sample 1 day itinerary…. we only had the morning to get a taste of Seoul before heading back to the airport.

We stayed at “Toyoko Inn” in Dongdaemun (The same Japanese hotel chain we stayed at in Tokyo), which was very conveniently located. The requisite Toyoko Inn complimentary breakfast had some distinctly Korean accouterments like pickled radish and such, an interesting contrast having just come from the same chain in Japan. However, just like the location in Monzen-Nakacho, the clientele were mostly business men, and we were the only westerners staying at the large and busy hotel. Continue reading “Seoul: In 3 Hours” »

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The Bus Through Hell

We were prepared for Korea to be cold….. like, freezing cold. As the the cabin pressure on the Korean Air flight from Tokyo to Seoul started to change at the start of our descent, I could see as much when the landscape started to come into view. Snow-capped hills, windswept rocky terrain, empty golf courses devoid of grass and colored with parched brown winter soil. We touched down at Incheon airport and passed through immigration and customs uneventfully, and got a brief whiff of the biting cold as we stepped out of the airport to catch an express bus to our hotel. Little did we know…. Continue reading “The Bus Through Hell” »

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The Helvetica Scenario

*Full Japan picture gallery below*

Regrettably, the Japan segment of this trip has nearly come to a close. We had a great time, but four days was just far too short. Honestly though, if it were four weeks, or even four months, we’d probably leave feeling like we needed more time here. It’s been a few years since our last visit here, and we’ve managed to visit a fair number of other places in the interim, but Japan, and specifically Tokyo, remains our favorite place. The “one bag” approach just doesn’t work here. You want to take the whole country back home with you. Continue reading “The Helvetica Scenario” »

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Wooden Monkeys and a Sleeping Cat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATemple fatigue…. can it become a chronic condition? Can a bad case of it be permanent? We’re not certain, but it sure seems possible. We’ve got a few temples left on this trip yet, so, who knows…. but hopefully the cure for temple fatigue is more temples and different temples.

Today we took a little day trip to Nikko, home of the “three monkeys” carvings (see no, speak no evil, etc). It was up a couple thousand feet in elevation so there were actually pockets of snow on the ground. I’m glad we packed heavy, because it was really, really cold. We did have a good time though. Otherwise pretty uneventful day.

Pics from Nikko: Continue reading “Wooden Monkeys and a Sleeping Cat” »

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The Cat Brothel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s not really practical…. ok, maybe not really even possible, to be a “crazy cat lady” in a city as crowded as Tokyo. Even still, Japan has plenty of people obsessed with cats (do a Google search on “namennayo”), even while living in conditions crowded enough to make ownership of a cat or cats, at a minimum, difficult. No worries though, some enterprising (and maybe a little odd) souls have stepped in to fill the void of feline snuggle time for people in Tokyo who can’t or won’t own their own pet cats. So called “Cat Cafes” charge by the hour for cat overload. It’s kinda weird, kinda cute, and very Japanese. We saw a sign for one near Asakusa, and had to check it out today. Continue reading “The Cat Brothel” »

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One small step into Tokyo

ShibuyaOur winter break has officially begun… We arrived (3 pm Sunday, here) after a pretty uneventful flight. Korean Airlines was great!

So, after checking into Toyoko Inn in the fading daylight, we tried to run around a bit to see at least a few things.

On the agenda:

1: The Monzen-nakacho Kaiten sushi restaurant. Reaffirmed that yes, this is our favorite ever.

2: “Steve’s Takoyaki” Sorry, his stand was closed for the day =(

3: Shibuya (Hachiko, crosswalk, shopping, video arcades, people watching)

4: CoCo Curry. I stepped up the spice level to #7 after much goading by a certain chucklehead.

5: Mister Donut.

So yeah, 80% of the first order of business surrounded food. Continue reading “One small step into Tokyo” »

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World Trip 2011: Encore


Tokyo, Japan
Seoul, South Korea
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Jakarta & Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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Two Americans in North Korea

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve got our visas. We’ve got the gifts for our guides. We’ve got over 17,000 RMB (~$2,600) and a couple hundred USD. We’re checked out of our hotel in Beijing….. Strolling outside towards the subway with our luggage and goodies, wouldn’t you know, it’s an absolutely gorgeous day in Beijing. The sky a clear azure, specked with a few perfect cottonball clouds. It rains and rains for days, choking you with smog… you walk around in a dank white heat with the visibility of Silent Hill. Then, after suffering for a few days of this, you’re granted a one day reprieve. No rain, no smog, and remarkably tolerable heat. Today is that reprieve, and this beautiful day just happens to be our day of departure to the DPRK. Maybe it’s a good sign.

When we get to the airport and find our check-in counter, we get our first hints of the destination. There’s a small scattered group gathered in front of the desk. Like many places in China, there’s nothing really resembling a line, just a scattering of people moving back and forth, jockeying for position at the counter. Occasional arguments and yelling in Chinese, the usual queuing routine here. After briefly standing at the rear of the mess of suitcases and locals, planning our forward assault on the desk, a gentlemen emerged from another counter with “Can I help you? Where are you going?” …He had one of the tidy Kim Il Sung pins over his left chest. I’m pretty sure he thought we’d come to the wrong check-in counter.

“Pyongyang,” we replied.

“Right this way.” And with that, we were brought around and checked in by a couple more DPRK citizens. Continue reading “Two Americans in North Korea” »

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Farewell China. We’ll miss your, umm…uhh…Peking duck?

"Brochure shot" of Forbidden CityChina is the perfect place to end this incredible trip around the world. China makes you homesick. Ok…. Actually, China just makes us want to be anywhere but China. We even miss North Korea when we’re in China.

You can’t love every place you visit. Who would want to? Maybe sometimes the culture shock is more shocking (or gross) than you can get over. Looking back on this trip, we want to visit most of the places again, or at least see other cities in those countries. We want to see St. Petersburg in Russia, Mumbai & Goa & Kolkata in India, Hanoi in Vietnam. We want to see everything in Cambodia. As for China, well…. Shanghai and Hong Kong are convenient airport hubs…. maybe even a brief stop there one day.

So, with that, Ill try to make an objective list for why China is still a good vacation destination:  1: Beautiful scenic spots, 2: Ancient architectural marvels, and 3: The food is rich and varies significantly from your local takee-outee

And in the interest of fairness, here’s a list of why we didn’t quite enjoy it as much: 1: Unruly and unhygienic crowd behavior (and there are tons of crowds here), 2: Everything has been overly commercialized and “refurbished” (read: reconstructed) and the souvenirs are cheesy and chintzy, and 3: The food is rich and varies significantly from your local takee-outee (sometimes, your stomach just can’t take it anymore!). Continue reading “Farewell China. We’ll miss your, umm…uhh…Peking duck?” »

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Traditional Chinese Photography Poses

Advanced maneuver

Sometimes the most entertaining thing at a tourist site is not the site itself… but the tourists. This is certainly true in China. Just find a comfortable vantage point to observe the subjects in their natural habitat, behaving naturally, and you will likely be entertained by an array of both highly predictable and completely unpredictable behaviors. It should be noted that as a Westerner there is a distinct risk of altering their behavior via the Hawthorne effect. When they know they’re being watched directly, they will oftentimes scale down their routine. However, even this is unpredictable…. sometimes their behavior becomes even more absurd, particularly if they think you’re waiting on them to finish. One absolutely certain principle though: if a Westerner sets up a tripod, anywhere, at any time, no matter how empty the place, Chinese people will be attracted like flies to honey. Take the photo below for example. We were at a large monument (The Big Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi’an and started taking terrible photos of the monument blocked by a tree, just to see what the locals did. Next thing you know, we were surrounded and they were taking the same photo! Continue reading “Traditional Chinese Photography Poses” »

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Back from the DPRK

Just got back to Beijing after 8 days/7 nights in North Korea. It’s a pretty weird feeling to have freedom of movement and to feel comfortable speaking freely again here in the “kinder, gentler” Chinese communism. Let’s call it “Communism Lite.” Really though, all the jokes about the Chinese being such great capitalists…. the same jokes can’t be made about the DPRK. It’s the real deal there, and it’s sobering.

As for our visit though, it was a complete success. No complaints from either of us. We haven’t gotten much sleep in the past week because they’ve been cracking the whip, keeping us on schedule. We went all over the DPRK and saw a lot of things: temples, monuments, museums, tombs, “stores,” mountain hiking, the DMZ and JSA…. and let’s not forget the Arirang Mass Games. We saw them twice, the first on opening night! …and I just might have been shown on DPRK state television too =)

I did some journaling while we were there, and took tons of pictures and video. It’ll take me a little bit to get that organized, and I’ll post everything as soon as I can. In the meantime…. Continue reading “Back from the DPRK” »

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The DPRK Briefing

Tomorrow is the day. Our flight is booked and our visas are in hand for our trip to North Korea. We’ll be there for seven days total, and during that time, we’re going to be really “off the grid.” In a place where the only people with internet access are high government officials, and the only way to make an international phone call is through a monitored government call center for 2 Euros a minute. However the trip goes, it’s going to be interesting.

Today we had a pre-trip briefing on the DPRK at our tour agency and we picked up our visas and flight information. They provided a lot of the “dos and don’ts” ahead of time via e-mail, but they went over everything today in person in a lot more detail. It was all very interesting and it really got both of us excited that this previously very indefinite part of our trip seems to actually be coming together. Continue reading “The DPRK Briefing” »

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Thinning the herd in Beijing

Forbidden City, BeijingStarting to finish up some of the main sites in Beijing, and today we visited one of the bigger ones: The Forbidden City. It’s big, huge even, popular amongst foreigners and locals alike, and really, really crowded. We’ve started to fine tune some of our “crowd thinning” tactics for pictures though, and we managed to get away with way better pictures than we could’ve hoped for ahead of time. For reference, it doesn’t pay to get to these sites early in Beijing. The hordes of tourists flow in non-stop all morning and all afternoon. The point when they stop is as it nears closing time. A few photo tips…. 1) Move in the opposite direction of everyone else and backtrack to the best views at the end of the day, the ones that everybody already took photos at amongst the crowds. 2) Be aggressive with locals and befriend other locals to be aggressive on your behalf. For example, we let a family in front of us to grab some good pics and then took the pics for them. On older male then started yelling “Oy! Oy!” at anyone that got in the way of our view. Awesome. 3) Take it to the edge of closing time. The crowds are dissipating, and the sun is soft in the sky, so the lighting is better anyway. 4) Use the language barrier to your advantage with the security guards. They’ll use a nightstick on a local before you can say “Tiananmen Square,” but they’re really pretty shy and polite with westerners. Beyond all of that, it also helps that a lot (a whole lot) of Chinese tourists take absolutely terrible pictures with no concern whatsoever for people in the background. Often, we’re one of only a few people who seem to be really after grabbing pics at the postcard spots without random strangers photo-bombing our shots, doddling in the background. Continue reading “Thinning the herd in Beijing” »

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The Temple of Heaven

Temple of HeavenAfter several days in China, we have learned the secret to finding satisfaction with our visit. Always set the bar low, and expect waaaayy less than you are told you will get, and then when “it” happens, either it meets your expectation or you will be pleasantly surprised.  By “it” I mean everything you can possibly do, or place you can go, or thing you think you might want to buy. For example, if someone says, “Oh, this fabric is 100% cotton,” or “100% silk” in your mid you must think “In China, 100% cotton or silk = 100% polyester.” That way, when you actually feel the fabric, you aren’t disappointed, and you know what you’re looking at. If you still like it, then start bargaining.   Continue reading “The Temple of Heaven” »

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Hiking the “Wild Wall” in China

Great Wall (Jinshanling section)Crowds are virtually inescapable in Asia. Looking at professional pictures of isolated jungle temples or beautiful monuments without a soul in sight can awaken the inner explorer, dreaming of wandering alone through the sites in the pictures. When one actually makes it to the site, it’s usually a disappointment to find that other “explorers” have thought the same thing–and that actually, there isn’t anything new or unusual about your plans or visit. I say usually, because from what I understand, some cultures see the presence of crowds as a desirable thing, since it means they’re “in the right place” to see what they want to see. But unless it’s a concert or social event, us Westerners envision the pictures in “Lonely Planet” when we imagine what our vacation should look like. Sadly, the crowds in Asia don’t exactly match up with that ideal. So, you have two choices: 1) Deal with the crowds or 2) Find ways to “thin the herd,” so to speak. Mike and I have dealt with our fair share of crowds, but we’ve found a few key things that actually limit them. Generally, there are three factors that really minimize the numbers at an otherwise desirable location: Distance, Physical Exertion, and Money. If there’s a “near” option and a “far” option, the “near” option will almost always have more crowds. Also, of course, the cheaper and easier the activity is, the more uncomfortably crowded it will be. Continue reading “Hiking the “Wild Wall” in China” »

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Chinatown in China

tiananmen squareAs it turns out, Chinese people love “Chinatowns” so much that they actually have them in their own country. I mean sure, we’ve seen Chinatown’s in American and Canadian cities, even in Mexico. On this trip, we’ve seen them everywhere but Russia. We didn’t really spend any time at any of them because we figured we’d be seeing the real thing in China, right? Well, it turns out…. the markets here mostly look like any other old Chinatown. It got me wondering though, the Chinese are so good at creating counterfeit knock-offs (they even created counterfeit Apple stores here, WTF) is it possible that we’re actually traveling in a Chinese knock-off of China? These guys are pretty tricky, I wouldn’t put it past them. One good point on the Chinatown shopping…. You really don’t have to worry whether the cheap-o souvenirs are made in China, because you already know they ALL are! That keeps it simple at least. Continue reading “Chinatown in China” »

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Heavy rain in EPCOT Beijing

Summer Palace, BeijingThe rain finally caught up to us. We’ve travelled through India and Southeast Asia during rainy season with maybe one hour (cumulative) of rain in our way. It was great. But today, it finally caught up with us and we had a full day of rain. Miserable, heavy, angry sheets of rain. I suppose it will help clear the Beijing sky, since the smog made it look like we were in Silent Hill when we arrived yesterday.

Anyhow, when all this rain started pouring down on us we were at the Summer Palace of Beijing. It looks and feels alot like the China Pavilion at EPCOT, with its carefully manicured lawns and picturesque architecture and serene scenes. On a nice day the palace grounds would be stunning, but on a day like today, we couldn’t help but worry about when the rain would stop! At one point, we went down into a little shopping area modeled after a Chinese market in Suzhou. When the rain came, tons of mud went gushing on to one section of sidewalk in this area. People were struggling to stay dry and keep their nice little white shoes clean, but it was all for nothing. Mike called it the “Summer Palace Mudslide.” Everyone at the park got soaked today. Continue reading “Heavy rain in EPCOT Beijing” »

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For being Communists, they sure are good Capitalists.

Yaoshan ParkStep into your local Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree and you will find many imported “goods” from China. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you have at least several items around you at this very moment with a label that says “Made in China.” And how is that? I mean, yeah, we all know the quick answer: Cheap labor and business outsourcing, right? But have you ever stopped to think that maybe there is a little more to this? We’ve all seen what a well oiled (pardon the pun) machine a family owned Chinese take-out place is…and usually they do some brisk (and delicious) business!

Well, having been in China a few days, we’ve started to wonder how there can be so much blatant branding, advertising, and so many status symbols in a country that is supposed to be Communist! Doesn’t that basically mean it isn’t Communism anymore, except in theory? Continue reading “For being Communists, they sure are good Capitalists.” »

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The Longji Rice Terraces

Longji Rice TerracesToday we headed out bright and early for a day trip to Huangluo Yao village. The village is pretty much part of the Guilin sightseeing trifecta, along with a cruise on the Li River and several of the city tour sights. The main attraction at this village is the rice terraces built all along the side of a mountain. They have some real postcard-perfect scenery in the place, and from the books and postcards we saw in shops, it looks like a pretty amazing village year round. In winter, the terraces are covered in snow, which looks very interesting. Early in the spring, they flood with water, and sunrise and sunset pics reflecting off the water look really incredible. In the fall, the drying rice crop colors the scene gold. We’re here well into the summer though, and were met with lush green terraces, which was also very pretty. Continue reading “The Longji Rice Terraces” »

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Puerto Rico is no Cuba… and China is no Vietnam.

Li RiverA couple of years ago, while living in Miami for a time, we had the pleasure of making a pretty regular habit of Cuban cuisine. One of the Cuban offerings that really became a habit during that time was the coffee. Specifically, a beverage called a Cortadito. In the spectrum of Cuban coffee drinks, a cortadito falls right in the middle between the potent dark black colada served in little thimbles, and a cafe con leche, a light milky brew in a regular-sized cup. I’ve often referred to a properly prepared cortadito as the finest coffee beverage crafted by the hand of man. Needless to say, when I was in Miami, I drank a lot of them. One cortadito in the morning became one or two, and none at lunch became one…. ok maybe two…. and just maybe something after work. The point that I realized this was a problem was when Martha and I took a long weekend trip to Puerto Rico from Miami. I really had no sense of the drinkable-heroin habit that had evolved in a matter of months, but it was immediately apparent on that trip. The place we stayed at served us breakfast and “coffee.” Basically, it was steamed and sweetened milk with a dash of instant coffee for color. Hours later, driving through the bright green tropical countryside on our way out to the rainforest, the morning sun glaring through windows, an angry pounding headache began to emerge. A headache that nearly whited out my vision like some washed out photo from a point and shoot camera. This was a caffeine emergency. We pulled off the highway at the first little town, and sure enough, there was a little mom and pop “coffee shop” amongst the storefronts. Martha speaks Spanish, so I was basically like… “tell them I need a cortadito STAT!” Well, there was a lot of Spanish dialogue that ensued, and the guy still looked confused. I never heard the word cortadito used, so I threw that in there, assuming, it being Spanish, surely this guy with several thousand dollars of coffee-brewing apparatus behind him would understand. Instead, I got a confused and slightly humored look from him. Anyhow, Martha explained a little more and before too long I had, I guess, a Puerto Rican “cortadito.” Meh. I’m gonna make a rather broad generalization from our time there: Puerto Rico is not a place where coffee is appreciated. They may brew it, sure. It may be on offering, yes. But sweetened hot milk with brown coloring is not coffee, no matter what language you speak. There is no love in Puerto Rican coffee. Continue reading “Puerto Rico is no Cuba… and China is no Vietnam.” »

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The Chinese Lynch Mob

Elephant Trunk Hill, GuilinI’ve read many times that it’s part of Asian culture to avoid displaying excessive emotions in public. Throughout our visit to Southeast Asia, this cultural norm seemed mostly correct. On our prior visits to Japan, I would say this generalization is definitely correct. I mean, if I were to (ok, ahem, when I did) lose it a few times in Japan, it did actually get things done. But even a disrespectful Gaijin like me knew that I was acting way outside the bell curve. I’ve since read that displaying anger or frustration is seen in these cultures as a sign of weakness, as a loss of control. Reading that, and thinking on things a bit, I decided that maybe the “hostile westerner” approach that always served as the backup plan in Japan wasn’t the best approach. So, for the most part, I’ve done what I can to avoid bringing shame upon my people by “displaying weakness” and getting too visibly pissed off…. well, at least not too often. All of that being said, let me just say that in our short time in China, this cultural and behavioral norm does not seem to apply in the same way whatsoever. If displaying anger and frustration publicly is a sign of weakness, then I’m gonna have to say that a whole lot of Chinese people are kinda weak. Continue reading “The Chinese Lynch Mob” »

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Sunset on the Mekong

Mekong Delta*Full Vietnam photo gallery below*

When we first planned our itinerary, we were guided by both a long list of places we wanted to see as well as the logistics of connecting flights around the world. As the trip plan was fine tuned, I thought what we had ultimately chosen was an itinerary diverse enough to kind of keep us on our toes and prevent us from getting settled in too much to one region and culture. I saw it as “sustained culture shock.” Looking back on the limited traveling we did before this trip, it’s the part we remember the most. The stirrings of panic when you get a little lost, the elaborate production that even mundane errands can become, language barriers that segregate your conversation from all of those around you. An isolation that can have you with a sense of being alone in a crowd one moment and a subject of interest to curious strangers the next. Diving headlong into life in a foreign country can turn you upside down and rattle your sense of how things should operate. But really, you can get used to very different ways of doing things in a remarkably short period of time. We thought that the regional and cultural jumps that our early stops represented would present such stark contrasts that each of them might almost stand in isolation. Continue reading “Sunset on the Mekong” »

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High school field trip in Saigon

HCMCWe started out today with a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, about a two hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. The bus ride and tour was another one of those tourist bottlenecks where all the foreigners merge onto one space like a swarm of locusts. I was reminded again of my initial impression of HCMC being really quite full of tourists. We travelled on a pretty large bus with every seat taken, and every single traveler on the bus was a westerner. Martha said it made her feel like she was on a high school field trip…. except, a field trip at a high school where you can’t stand any of your classmates and they all stink. This like seven foot tall russian guy that we had also seen the day before was wearing the same muay thai boxing t-shirt as yesterday. Him and his whole group stunk soooo bad. I guess when you’re seven foot tall and built like you could tear a door off the hinges you feel entitled to stink as much as you like. Yeah, so Cu Chi is a tourist machine. A machine. They crank through absolute swarms of foreigners. The attraction is the tunnels that were originally built by Viet-Cong and used during the war. There’s 240 km of tunnels, but only certain sections have been protected and preserved. The section available to go through has been enlarged to, as our tour guide put it “international size” (as opposed to Vietnamese size). Read: we’re way too damn fat for their tunnels. I would’ve thought this meant that the “enlarged” tunnels would be easy to move through. They were pretty tight though, and if you have a tendency towards claustrophobia, it might just lead to freak out time going through the 100 meter stretch with turns and ups and downs and sections of pitch black. Add to that the fact that it was sweltering and damp and you had a line of smelly slow pokes in front and behind…. yikes. I kinda had to relax and find a happy place and get centered a little mentally going through a few spots. And damn, those were the “enlarged” tourist tunnels. Viet-Cong spent years in these tunnels. They also showed us a lot of the booby traps used against Americans in the war as well as some of the tricks in jungle combat. I can definitely see how we lost that war. The place also has a shooting range like the one in Cambodia, but they only have regular automatic rifles and it’s really crowded. At similar prices, I’d recommend blowing stuff up and shooting things in Cambodia over Vietnam. Continue reading “High school field trip in Saigon” »

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War Remnants

Reunification PalaceVietnamese people, generally speaking, are kinda serious people. Right next door you have the nearly always cheery and jaunty Cambodians, and next door to that it’s “the land of smiles.” In Vietnam though, a lot of people initially present a very severe business-like facade. A little small talk usually breaks through the facade, but in general people do seem to carry themselves a little differently here. Even the shopkeepers aren’t as energetic. Many of them have figured out that their job can be a lot easier when they set up shop as a “fixed price” establishment. It’s pretty common here, and the fixed price places generally have way better prices than the retail warfare markets where you have to haggle incessantly. Whoever figured out that just putting price tags on the goods with the actual price you’re willing to sell it for would bring the westerners to your shop in droves was a real genius. Then the shopkeeper gets to just chill and not harass every passerby on the sidewalk that averts their eyes into the shop. People come, look around, then maybe they leave, they find out who has the best stuff for the best price, and then they come back, or not. Continue reading “War Remnants” »

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The Mekong Express

“If this is the tourist bus, where are all the tourists?”

It’s a question that’s been asked a few times on this trip, enough that it’s become a bit of a joke. The first time it came up was in Mexico, taking a bus to the pyramids. I was the only foreigner on the buses there and back. This was made extra obvious at one point when we came upon a military roadblock and all the males had to exit the bus for a search. I might have stood out just a little amongst that lineup of locals getting patted down by Mexican troops on the side of the highway. Also, there were buses in India and Thailand where not a word of English was spoken and we really started guessing a little as we started making stops closer and closer to our destination. It can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game without a crowd to follow. Continue reading “The Mekong Express” »

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The Bamboo Train

Riding a Lorry

**Complete Cambodia photo gallery below**

The railroad system in Cambodia has largely languished in disrepair for the past few decades. The tracks were originally laid in the 1930s and 1940s when the country was still an imperialist French colony. After the civil war in the 1960s-1970s, and during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the train system was dismantled in many places. In the 1980s, train tracks were a target of guerrilla attacks, so much so that the front cars on a train acted as a sort of “minesweeper.” Riding in the front train car was actually free, and the second train car was half price, because of the danger of going over landmines or explosives. Meanwhile, villages that bordered isolated stretches of train tracks would still utilize the tracks by making improvised train cars with two axles, slats of wood, and powering the car with a small engine. These cars would transport passengers and goods between villages. The improvised train cars are called “norry” and are often referred to as a “bamboo train.” Continue reading “The Bamboo Train” »

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Holiday in Cambodia

Thunder Ranch

“Thunder Ranch Shooting Range” is definitely on the tourist circuit in Phnom Penh. It’s in all the books, guides, and sample itineraries. And why not? In the USA, (and for that matter, many other countries) you can’t very easily (and legally) go and fire off fully automatic weapons unless you’re in the military or law enforcement. Well they seem to have recognized this in Cambodia and have quite the niche offering for tourists. It’s actually illegal for regular citizens to own guns in Cambodia at the present time. Despite this, they manage to legally offer a few ranges that allow for (mostly tourists) to fire the hell out of a wide assortment of weaponry. What you can shoot there depends mostly on how much cash you’re willing to part with. They have Tommy guns, Uzis, Belt-fed Russian machine guns, Anti-aircraft machine guns, Anti-tank guns, and loads more. They basically sit you down with a menu and let you pick. Hand grenades? $50. Shoulder fired rocket launcher? $350…. ouch. I actually wanted to throw a hand grenade, but all of the mortars and grenades and rockets and such require a 40 kilometer drive to the side of a nearby mountain. We opted to just shoot an AK-47 and an M-16 (both full auto). It was on the must see/do for us for sure, but we didn’t want to empty the bank account on explosives and ammunition or spend the whole day there. It was pretty fun, albeit brief. In addition to the targets, they put up a green coconut and I managed to completely explode that thing with the M-16. Continue reading “Holiday in Cambodia” »

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The Deluxe Aircon VIP Emesis Express

Six hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh left at 0730. The bus and bus station should be familiar to anyone who’s taken, say, the “Chinatown buses” in the U.S. like Fung Wah or Lucky Star. Same Same. The last bus ride we took on this trip was from Delhi to Jaipur, and despite the fact that we were riding through utter pandemonium, it too was Same Same. One thing we remember on the bus in India was an elementary school-aged girl a few rows back that was puking and retching for hours before we had a mid-trip break. When the bus stopped, she skipped across the parking lot to get some greasy street-cart food with her family and chowed down before getting back on the bus. A few minutes after the bus got going again, she was back to puking and dry heaving. I did think at the time that it was strangely fortuitous that, unmedicated, I didn’t seem to have any motion sickness issues on that bus ride. Anyhow, the India bus did come back to memory when today a cute little asian boy maybe four years old, dressed in a little button up SE asian outfit, started puking his brains out as soon as the bus got going. Like the Indian girl, he wasn’t crying or causing any trouble, just puking and puking and puking. His mom would rub this menthol stuff on him and lay him flat across the seat. Continue reading “The Deluxe Aircon VIP Emesis Express” »

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Same Same… But Different.

dollar tree kids

I thought this was only a Thailand expression, but it seems to really be a SE Asian expression. Well, the first part, that is. It gets used all the time by locals and the expression is well known and funny enough to find it’s way onto T-Shirts and all other sorts of souvenirs. We saw them everywhere in Thailand, and in Cambodia it’s no different. It’s perfect for today though…. more of Same Same…. But Different.

We wrapped up our final day of temples a little further afield from Siem Reap, with some long tuk-tuk rides in between sites. We saw Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Bakong, and Preah Ko. We also visited the landmine museum in between. Briefly, Banteay Srei is known for having the best preserved figures and bas reliefs, and while it wasn’t a huge structure, the carvings were very intricate and worth the visit. Kbal Spean is an interesting site that probably has just as many locals visiting as tourists. It’s at the end of a 1.4 kilometer hike and has carvings into a creekbed as well as on a few rock walls that have water flowing over them (at least, after the rainy season). There’s a large waterfall near the top of the hike, and a lot of locals were having picnics and children were swimming there during our visit. The hike was definitely tougher than it needed to be with the sweltering jungle heat, but it was still a pretty cool place to visit. Continue reading “Same Same… But Different.” »

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The Levitating Village

Kampong Phluk floating village

Ok, actually it’s The Floating Village. Even though we’re a month into the rainy season in Cambodia, things remain really dry. And while the river is a lot lower than usual for this time of year, there are still plenty of “floating” homes along the river that leads to lake Tonle Sap.

Since the only “floating villages” remaining in Thailand exist primarily as tourist attractions, we hoped to see one of these during our time in Cambodia. The place we visited today is Kampong Phluk, a fishing village south of Siem Reap on the banks of a river leading to lake Tonle Sap, The trip was about an hour drive by tuk-tuk, most of which was through scenic farms and rice fields and small villages. Lots of random oddities on the way there. Cambodia is the first place we’ve been that in many areas there aren’t conventional gas pumps for refueling. What you see while traveling are multiple roadside stands with shelves of gasoline-filled bottles. Gasoline is dispensed in a variety of bottles, including soda two liters, but the bottle of choice for gasoline in Cambodia seems to be Johnnie Walker “Red Label” whiskey bottles. I wonder if you can haggle over the price when you’re buying gasoline like that. Continue reading “The Levitating Village” »

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Everything’s A Dollar in Cambodia

Angkor Water pretty cleverWe’re not the first to observe that Cambodia is kinda like a giant “Dollar Tree.” Seriously, everything here is $1 US. Ok, maybe not everything, but nearly everything. If it’s not $1, then it’s 2 for $1, or 3, or 4, or 10. And if it’s more than a dollar? It’s almost always some tidy sum like $2, or $5. In the very occasional instance that you might need change for some amount less than a dollar… well, you’ll be getting it in Cambodian Riel. The Cambodian currency exchanges at 4000 Riel to the dollar, and it’s all paper money, no coins. That is, no coins seem to be regularly used. It’s really kind of an interesting and surprising setup. I mean, the ATM’s actually dispense USD, and everything is priced in dollars. Not sure of the dynamics on a national level that have them using U.S. currency, but it sure makes for easy calculations of value.

The shopkeepers in the Angkor complex and the people touting souvenirs and drinks at the temple entries and exits are REALLY entertaining. They mostly use the same lines, but there’s really a lot of competition so occasionally they come out with stuff in English that is absolutely hilarious. Being able to distinguish yourself definitely will help with business, so I totally get it. Whether we’re interested in what they’re selling our not though, it can be pretty entertaining at times. Continue reading “Everything’s A Dollar in Cambodia” »

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor sunriseBefore arriving in Thailand, Martha and I received some suggestions from family members who had previously traveled there for things to do and stuff to buy. The thing is, the family members with suggestions had visited in the 1970’s. Well, obviously things have changed there since the 1970’s. The ways that they’ve changed are kind of interesting though. One suggestion from family was to visit a floating market. Those are amongst the classic Thailand postcard pictures. They do still exist. However, they only currently exist as a staged destination for tourists. It seems that tourists keep wanting to see them, and even though their practicality has mostly ceased in Thailand, they still stage them to draw tourists. Tuk-tuk’s are another classic tourist thing in Thailand. Tuk-tuk’s are aggressively touted to tourists, and there is a whole cottage industry of tuk-tuk related souvenirs. The issue is that for tourists at least, tuk-tuks are rarely going to be cheaper than an air-conditioned taxi in Bangkok. Tuk-tuks will drive up and quote a ridiculous amount of baht for a short drive, say a few hundred baht or $7-10. A taxi (if you insist on them using the meter) is well under 100 baht ($3-4) for a decent drive across town. Bottom line: tuk-tuk’s in Bangkok are mostly for tourists. Continue reading “Sunrise at Angkor Wat” »

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Finishing up in Thailand

Kanchanaburi Train Station

*Full photo gallery below*

Last full day in Thailand today, tomorrow we have an afternoon flight to Cambodia. Sites today included Wat Ratchanadda, Jim Thompson House, Lingam (fertility) Shrine, and Patpong Night Market.

The Wat we saw in the morning is unique in that it’s black and made of metal, the only one of it’s kind. Pretty cool and grabbed a few HDR pics. Jim Thompson House is a little out of the way, and we took some boat rides down a canal to get to it on the other side of town. Basically, it’s the house of an ex-pat American guy that started a Thai silk company and dealt in antiquities. He was also ex-military intelligence, so who knows what all he dabbled in. He disappeared without a trace in 1967 in Malaysia and the story of what happened to him has never been explained. His house was eventually converted to a museum in the 1970’s and mostly houses an extensive collection of Thai and Chinese antiques that he acquired. It was kind of interesting I guess, but I thought they’d talk more about his disappearance and the story around that. We also went to a shrine that is dedicated to fertility…. mostly because to us it seems a little comical that there are hundreds of phallic type offerings all over the place at the shrine. Continue reading “Finishing up in Thailand” »

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Wat a relaxing massage


Grand Palace

Full day exploring Bangkok today. We hit the three main tourist sites in Bangkok: The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun.

It seems that the place most tourists hit first is The Grand Palace, so we left that for second. It closes at 3:30 though, so you really don’t want to delay too much getting there. We went to Wat Pho first, with a plan to do Grand Palace second, and then close out the day across the river at Wat Arun. The way to get around to these sites is without a doubt by chao phraya express boat. Rides run from about 3 Baht to just cross the river to about 25 Baht (~$0.75) to go multiple stops down the river. You know these are the way to go because there are tons of touts trying to divert you from the ticket areas at these stops to find suckers to pay WAAAYYY more to ride on private boats. You should avoid them at all costs. Well, maybe not all costs. If you’re in a large group of family and friends and you absolutely want to stick together, maybe paying $60 for a boat ride or more could actually be a good deal for you. The express boats are crowded, hectic, and you actually need to know where you’re going. We had several stops to go to get off right at Wat Pho, and we really had no problems getting there. Continue reading “Wat a relaxing massage” »

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Two Words: Baby Tigers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what brought us all the way out to Kanchanaburi was a place called “The Tiger Temple.” It’s a Buddhist monastery that has an animal sanctuary around it. There are lots of animals there, many of them running wild within the gates, but what we came for of course are the tigers. The best package you can get at the place has you coming in before all the main tour groups arrive in the afternoon. You have to be there by 0730 and first you have breakfast with the monks there. There was a whole spread of really good Thai food, which was a nice way to start the day. After breakfast, you go through small chores of caring for and interacting with different age groups of tigers. There were a total of eleven tourists there, including Martha and I. The other nine visitors came in two organized tour groups with their own tour guides. Martha and I were the only visitors flying solo. It was pretty badass rolling up to that place on a motor scooter without assistance. Not having a tour guide I think got us a little better experience as well, because we were just one-on-one with staff. So for example, Martha could say “can you make sure I get a really young baby tiger” and they made it happen. Stuff like that, really cool. Continue reading “Two Words: Baby Tigers” »

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Respite in Thailand

Motor scooter in Kanchanaburi

Riding our motor scooter in Kanchanaburi

Made it to Bangkok around 0500. Slept good through the flight with the usual routine. We were really pleased we avoided checking any bags for that flight because Thai AirAsia has a 7 kg limit on carryon luggage. Martha and I put the breakable electronics and stuff into our day bags and then our MEI bags were still like 8 kg. We were able to pass off the day packs though as a “personal item” and they let the MEI bags slide with being a little overweight. Other than that bit of generosity, I gotta say Thai AirAsia is a pretty lousy airline. No drinks, uncomfortable seats, and moody staff. I guess none of that matters too much though if you’re heavily drugged on sleeping pills. That really makes the flight go by quickly!

Arriving to Bangkok was such a relief. It’s a beautiful, bustling, and clean city. Maybe our frame of reference has changed a little after our time in India, but the place really does seem nice. Housing complexes seem organized with sound construction methods. Areas that are “under construction” don’t have construction debris strewn all over the street or surrounding blocks. The streets themselves are paved… and they have sidewalks. There are traffic lights at busy intersections…. and people seem to generally obey them. Crossing the street doesn’t seem like putting your life in imminent danger. A lot of the same cute approaches to product promotion in Japan are seen here in billboards and such. The place is distinctly Thai though of course. I really love the architecture here. Palm trees, fruit stands everywhere, lush greenery, it makes sense why this is a prime tourist destination. Oh, and maybe the most glaring change for us at this moment…. touts. Continue reading “Respite in Thailand” »

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We got “Delhi Belly”

Delicious Malai Kofta

*Full picture gallery below*

“Delhi Belly,” the “Montezuma’s Revenge” of India, is greatly feared by travelers. In the best case scenario, it can ruin your trip. In the worst case, you’re going to the hospital. Maybe you don’t even leave the hospital. This is definitely something to be feared as a traveler in India and should dictate your eating, drinking, and hygiene habits while here.  Continue reading “We got “Delhi Belly”” »

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UNESCO has failed us again

Red Fort (New Delhi)Along with a few other sites, today we planned on checking off our last of the three UNESCO “World Heritage” sites in New Delhi: Red Fort. I gotta be honest with this one, it looks like a construction zone and is really in no way picturesque inside. This place was touched in many areas by Shah Jahan (the Taj Mahal guy) and you can see it in some of the white marble and the patterns used with it. However, a lot of the marble inlays, including jeweled flowers, have been gutted and are missing. Many of the buildings are being renovated or are in serious disrepair. Most of the landscaping is unkempt. Whatever bureaucrat at ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) is in charge of this place should be fired. Or maybe a UNESCO visit might prompt some cleaning. In any event, it’s one of the big sites on most itineraries, but we didn’t think it was worth it. Of course, even if we were told that ahead of time we still would have went. Just like the Trajineras in Mexico City (believe it or not they’re also a UNESCO site). It did take a few hours to explore though because it had a few museums included, so not a total ripoff or anything. Continue reading “UNESCO has failed us again” »

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“Helpful” Touts

Qutub Minar (New Delhi)Now that our time in India is coming to a close, I think we’re just beginning to really work effectively as a team when dealing with the large variety of predators that are encountered on the streets here. Shopkeepers are easy, just keep walking… or if inside and not going well… leave. Beggars…. ignore them, they do not exist. No eye contact whatsoever. I don’t care if they’re doing back flips, I don’t see them. Of course we know better than to take a picture of any random person on the street, but better not take one of them even if they ask. They’ll pull that trick too: “Take my picture, Take my picture!” Then hand’s out immediately for rupies. Fell for that once with a little girl that stalked us for a while in Agra Fort. She latched on to Martha and then (among the legit picture frenzy of college kids wanting pictures with us) she asked us to take a picture with her. That’s when the mom descended with a couple other haggard flea-bitten kids asking for money. That girl stalked us for maybe an hour for that little bit of change. Last time I fall for that though. Yesterday when we were at the Lotus Temple, we had a couple of the nicely dressed college-type kids that made small talk, practiced their English and maybe took a picture with us. I was surprised at how permissive the security was being with my camera, so I busted out the tripod completely and went down to the pool to take my time framing up a nice shot. I’m totally focused on that when a couple kids come up and make some curious small talk, no big deal. Then, as I’m putting my stuff up this kid (who looked just like the last group) starts asking about a picture. He had a cell phone and was well dressed, so I said sure, let me put my camera up and we can take one. “No, take a picture of me.” ….”ummm, no man.” He then snaps a few pics of me. A little irritating, but kinda the usual here. Then, the little bastard holds out his hand and says “some rupies please sir.” I think the most likely visible rage that instantly boiled over my face combined with “For taking a picture of ME?! Have you lost your mind?!” set him aback a little. Some of these guys really have some nerve. Continue reading ““Helpful” Touts” »

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It’s peanut butter Delhi time!

Lotus Temple (New Delhi)On the way to our “First Class Sleeper” train car, we walked past dozens and dozens and dozens of open-air hard seating general cars. They had bars on the windows with very sad faces peering out, with people packed in tightly on hard benches. Thousands of people. It looked like the train to some forced labor camp. I was getting a little worried after walking and walking as we started to near the front of the train and only passed more and more and more of these jail cell train cars. Eventually we found our car though, the only one on the entire massive train, and it only had four private cabins. Three of the cabins had four bunks, and one had two bunks, which is amazingly the one that Martha and I got! Out of this entire massive train that surely was carrying more than 1000 people, we were the only couple with secure, private quarters. When we got in there and were able to lock the door behind us I was like Thank God! Some comfortable sleep without having to keep one eye open. Martha was sure that everything was covered in cooties and leprosy though, and I started accusing her of acting like the blonde lady in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” I’m not gonna lie though, the cabin did kinda look like something out of “Silent Hill.” It definitely wasn’t decorated by Martha Stewart. They passed out some clean sheets though and the A.C. started kicking real good and we both slept pretty well for the four hour ride to New Delhi. Continue reading “It’s peanut butter Delhi time!” »

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Everybody Hates Agra

Taj MahalAfter reading a lot of India travel blogs, one thing becomes clear: Agra is not a place many people are fond of after actually visiting there. It’s often the place where travelers end up getting really ill during a visit to India. It’s filthy, smelly, has packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, and aggressive touts are at every turn. The thing is, none of that matters. People will still come, and they know it. There are limits to how disgusting the town is permitted to be though, but all of that is mostly to keep up appearances on paper. Pollution levels are monitored and industry is more heavily regulated in the area. The Taj Mahal is nearly white, and has a lot of ornate engravings. Token efforts are made to keep it that way. In recent years there was a proposal to drain the (somewhat) picturesque river behind the Taj Mahal and build a dense complex of definitely not picturesque shopping malls for tourists. When UNESCO threatened to withdraw the “World Heritage Site” status of the Taj Mahal, that plan was scrapped. Interestingly, a large portion of investor money for the project “disappeared” without any explanation. What a lovely, exploitive little town. Continue reading “Everybody Hates Agra” »

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Jaipur. Check.

Hawa Mahal (Jaipur)After a restful night in our fully air conditioned “oasis in the desert,” we started another day of sightseeing with our trusty tuk-tuk driver Vijay. We had asked him to be there at 8:45 a.m. to make sure we started as early as possible–and it turns out he was more punctual than we were! We still managed to make it to the Hawa Mahal by opening time though, and he instructed us on where to walk and how to avoid touts in the area.  Well, at first we thought he was exaggerating since we didn’t see very many people inside or on the way to the complex. As we made our way outside and to the front for the real view, this was where we put our anti-tout tips to work. Ladies with babies, crippled people, small children and old men were persistently begging for rupees, selling junk, or just trying to get our attention. By acting oblivious and shooing people away after a polite “no” we managed to find a way to enjoy the beautiful facade of the Hawa Mahal. Interestingly, the Hawa Mahal was designed to allow royal ladies to look down and observe the happenings on the street without being seen. I can totally see why this was necessary in a country where it’s fairly normal for dirtbags to catcall and act out towards any woman out alone. Continue reading “Jaipur. Check.” »

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Nothing can prepare you for India

Riding with VijayAs we planned out this trip, we received plenty of advice…. some solicited, some not so much. Some advice has proven priceless…. and some has proven worthless. And now, as the India segment of our trip has gotten underway, I recall the words of an Indian surgeon I worked with in Cambridge: “Nothing can prepare you for India,” she said. She was absolutely right…. Nothing can prepare you for India. Nothing.

On our flight out of Moscow, we had our sleep routine all planned out. The flight to New Delhi left around eight p.m., and it was only about halfway full. As soon as the cabin doors closed, we jockeyed for available seating real estate. A middle-aged Indian woman had taken up an entire row of four seats and invited Martha and I to take the one in front of her. Martha took the two seater row we were in and sent me to the open four seats. There were a couple European girls in a two seat row next to it, and they had big frowny faces as soon as I grabbed it. Landing gears up…. seat belt sign off…. pile of Aeroflot complimentary blankets wrapped up into a giant pillow and padding all hard seating areas…. 15 mg of Temazepam for me…. 4 mg Ambien for Martha…. and the six and half hour flight was over in no time. I woke up as we started our descent, just as we crossed the border from Pakistan. I saw that we flew over Kabul, Afghanistan and just south of Islamabad, Pakistan. We landed in Delhi just after two a.m. Continue reading “Nothing can prepare you for India” »

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Last thoughts on Russia

Love those Crapdogs!

As we’re sitting at the airport waiting for our flight, I wanted to put together a small list of the most interesting or surprising things we noticed in Russia:

1. Russians love their history.  They embrace it, make memorials to it, talk about it, joke about it, and drink to it all the time.  Not just the happy times, either.

2. There are many “familiar faces” here.  Looking around at the faces of people, I notice that almost everyone looks a lot like somebody I know. I guess what that really means is that we must have more Russian heritage in the USA than we know.  Maybe something conveniently “forgotten” during cold war times, but, then again, I don’t know.

3. Potatoes will fill you for a long time.  Potatoes come with every meal here.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  Sure, they can be prepared in a variety of ways, but, potatoes are potatoes.  While they might not excite me gastronomically, they sure fill me up—for HOURS! I guess that is what they mean when they say Russian food is hearty, and gets the people through many a hard winter. Continue reading “Last thoughts on Russia” »

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Out of Time in Moscow

St. Basil HDR*Check out our complete Moscow photo gallery below*

We spent our last full day here wrapping up the most “touristy” (although most of the tourists here are Russian) sites on our itinerary. We started out with the Lenin mausoleum. The mausoleum has pretty limited hours of 1000-1300 only and closed Monday and Friday. The VERY limited hours might reflect the periods of the year when those hours are nearly the only time there is daylight. Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear this place endures a bitter, cold, dark, endless winter each year…. kinda like we endured in Boston last year.

Admission to the mausoleum is free, although you really have to get there early. The line to get in starts building about an hour early and quickly gets really, really long. So long in fact, that in today’s case they stopped letting people in at a certain point, even though it was still well within their limited hours. Luckily, Martha had made sure we got there plenty early though and we were in the first batch to….. ummm…. walk solemnly past Vladimir Lenin’s preserved corpse. Actually, you know, the queuing process for this was not terribly dissimilar to waiting for “Space Mountain” at Disney World. The line was endless and moved slowly, you’re surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, you’re waiting in the hot sun, and when you finally get where you’re going it’s over in like a minute. Well, ok, maybe they’re not that similar. The thing is, while I’m normally pretty irreverent, they set this whole experience up so completely that you can’t help but just STFU and sort of pay your respects. After finally finishing up in line, a Russian officer let’s in small batches of people into a gated area in Red Square. Then, you have to check any and all bags, cameras, and phones. Finally, after a complete security check, you start to get ushered behind the mausoleum through marble walkways lined with monuments to prior Soviet leaders. Continue reading “Out of Time in Moscow” »

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Fallen Monuments

Garden of fallen monuments

Lenin monument

We’ve been battling some sleep disturbance since our arrival in Moscow.  Not just because of the 8 hour difference from Jacksonville (actually 9 hours if our stay in Mexico counts), but because the sun is always out. Mike and I have found ourselves galavanting around town (sun still out and bright) thinking it is early to mid-evening only to find out it’s already 11 pm! Then later, just as we’re getting into a nice deep sleep, the sun rises yet again (around 4:45 am or so).  Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly happy to be here for the 18 hour days, especially considering the sunrise in the deep of winter here isn’t until 10 am or so, and then sunset is around 5.  If you’re counting, that makes for a  7 hour day—much too short for decent sightseeing opportunities.

Today started out finishing up seeing the “must see” metro stations.  We started out at Mayakovskaya station. It is known for its “stalinist architecture” and it’s mosaic ceilings extolling the “bright Soviet future.” A few snaps (or in Mike’s case, more than just a few), and we were off to the last of our must-see metro stations, Komsomolskaya station. This was definitely our favorite, with the yellow ceilings and baroque-ish style.  If there is only one metro station to see while in Moscow, I’d say this is the pick. Continue reading “Fallen Monuments” »

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The Moscow Metro

Moscow subwayWalking through the Moscow Metro, you get the sense that you’re moving through hallowed ground. The place is busy, but not notably so, and everyone moves with a very quiet efficiency. Workers are constantly cleaning and polishing the floors. I saw one worker diligently moving a straight line of fine wood chips across the floor to pick up dust before another followed behind polishing the tile. Considering the age of many of the stations (it opened in 1935), the subway really is incredibly clean and well maintained. The architecture is really unique, with some of the oldest stations containing elements of a Soviet take on art deco called postconstructivism. Lots of classical shapes without the classical adornments. A lot of the older stations conform to Stalinist architecture, with all sorts of communist elements such as revolutionary statues and even, say, images of wheat in the ventilation grating. We made a point of stopping for a few minutes at several of the more notable stations, and it’s easy to see why the Moscow Metro makes it on any Moscow “must see” itinerary. Continue reading “The Moscow Metro” »

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Arrival in Moscow

After an uneventful flight to JFK, we checked in at Terminal 1 for our Aeroflot flight to Moscow. I don’t think we’ve ever been in Terminal 1 in JFK before, but I’ll say this: the place is a zoo. Flights are departing to every imaginable destination with every imaginable culture being jammed through the same customer-friendly TSA security protocols. The people-watching was entertaining to say the least during our wait there. Check-in at the Aeroflot (Russian airline) desk provided some cultural hints at our next destination. For one thing, it’s interesting how ethnically diverse Russian people are. I mean, it’s easy to imagine a stereotype like Ivan Drago (Rocky IV), and there are definitely some of those around. However, there are a lot of Russians who look far more “asian,” as well as all shades in between. We were some of the very few tourists on the flight, but I don’t think it was our physical appearance that made that obvious. The one thing that all the Russians on the flight seemed to have in common was TONS of baggage. Ridiculous amounts piled up on rolling carts. These guys went shopping, big time, and they were bringing home insane loads of stuff. So there were Martha and I with our little backpacks, and when we were finally able to check in the lady seemed a little incredulous that we hadn’t/weren’t checking any bags. Continue reading “Arrival in Moscow” »

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Last Days in Mexico

You know, one can’t help but filter travel experiences through the lens of your own culture and experience. You step into another way of life, observe the differences, and usually start out thinking “WTF is wrong with these people?!!” At least, that’s what I usually think. Seriously though, when observing things that don’t seem to make sense at first, I find it really interesting to find out the reasoning behind those different approaches. Sometimes those reasons are a window into a better way of doing things, and sometimes those reasons are completely stupid. Either way, here goes a random collection of thoughts and observations as we wrap up our time here in Mexico:

“Rampant Capitalism”
One of the first things that struck me, particularly in Mexico City, is the vast array of ways that people manage to scratch out a living here. Just like any major city in the U.S., there are plenty of beggars and panhandlers, but those are mostly unremarkable.** What I did find remarkable was just how ubiquitous and diverse the sale of random goods is. Continue reading “Last Days in Mexico” »

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Pico de Orizaba hiking trip

Meeting our guide Our hiking trip began catching a bus and bringing all our gear from Mexico City to Puebla. After overnighting in Puebla, we met our mountain guide “Oso” (Translation: The bear), who drove us to our first acclimatization stop in Tlachichuca. An interesting note on Oso, while he’s been professionally guiding on mountains for at least 15 years or so and climbing big peaks for much more, one of his prior careers was as a professional wrestler. Not sure if that’s where the nickname came from. The name works for him though. The man is a machine at altitude on the mountain, carrying far more, far faster than seems humanly possible. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The ride to Tlachichuca from Puebla was interesting, as all travel in Mexico tends to be. An example? Well, at most toll booths in Mexico, despite there being signs that prohibit selling items from pedestrians to cars (like at all red lights in Mexico) there are always people selling all sorts of things as you queue up. On the toll booth out of Puebla though, they were selling puppies! That’s right, puppies being held up for sale to cars as they pass through the toll booths. Weird and a little sad, although damn those puppies were cute.

As we started getting a little closer to Tlachichuca it became basically farmland as far as you could see. A lot of the cornfields unfortunately did not have any type of artificial irrigation. Continue reading “Pico de Orizaba hiking trip” »

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Passing through Puebla

Puebla zocaloWe stayed overnight in Puebla to meet our mountain guide “Oso” (The Bear) the next day to start our hiking trip to Pico de Orizaba. We were only there a short time but we really enjoyed the atmosphere in Puebla. The town is bustling, clean, and had more foreign tourists than any other place we’ve been on this trip. The town square (Zocalo) is blocked from auto traffic on the weekends, and it becomes a very festive, family friendly kind of carnival in the center of the city. The town is known for it’s candy shops, and there’s actually an entire street lined with just candy shops. The shops primarily sell traditional Mexican treats like candied fruit and nuts. However, there are a few treats that are unique to Puebla. One of them, and one that seems to be loved by many, is called camotes. Camotes are like little natural fruit tootsie rolls (except bigger), and I gotta say, they have a really disgusting gritty texture that I didn’t care for. They also tasted entirely too “natural”, that is, not nearly enough sugar, chemicals, and coloring. When I say I want strawberry, or lime, or orange candy, what I really want is “strawberry”, or “lime”, or “orange” candy. Another sweet treat to be found only in Puebla is called “Tortitas de Santa Clara”, and these things were an entirely different story. Continue reading “Passing through Puebla” »

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Photography Gestapo & Mexican Hairless dogs

Visited a big museum today and met some more of Martha’s family who are also in town visiting. We visited the Dolores Olmedo museum, which is basically a collection of art and artifacts from a VERY rich lady. A large part of the museum is collections of art from Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo, actually bigger collections than in the museums that carry their namesakes!

The museum begins with a tour of the founder’s actual house, which contains a lot of artifacts and photos from around the world. A large portion of items on display in the house are elaborate ivory carvings. Hence, Martha’s grandparents referred to it as “The Ivory Museum.” This part of the museum provided some real entertainment for me personally. One thing I’ve noticed in my brief time here is that Mexican bureaucrats absolutely LOVE crafting nonsensical ambiguous rules that they can choose to enforce arbitrarily. An example that created no small amount of drama yesterday was a sign at a museum that said no bags allowed inside, they have to be checked at the desk. Meanwhile, we’re in line watching multiple obese women with equally obese purses entering without a second glance. Continue reading “Photography Gestapo & Mexican Hairless dogs” »

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Coyoacan & Chapultepec

Mole stand in Coyoacan marketStarted out the day in Coyoacan and browsed around a market there. They have a lot of the local crafts and such, but generally of a higher quality and without the aggressive sales tactics at a lot of tourist areas. There was an artisan there selling the traditional carved and painted animals from the Oaxaca area. They had a display of these at the Mexico area in EPCOT years ago and we’ve never seen one’s of that high quality for sale other than from this guy, so we picked up a couple small ones.

Also of note for a certain one of our friends that just can’t get enough of the stuff: every imaginable variant of MOLE!!!! The vendor’s name: “Gour-Mole” mmmm..mmmm =)

There’s also some museums in the Coyoacan area and we went to the Leon Trotsky museum…. kind of an interesting story. The short version is that he was a Russian exiled in Mexico City, who was ultimately killed by assassins from Stalin. The Google or The Wikipedia could do his story more justice than I could. Anyhow, it should be interesting as a reference when we visit Stalin related sites in Moscow.
Continue reading “Coyoacan & Chapultepec” »

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Teotihuacan & Zona Rosa

Martha-Mike on Moon PyramidGot a fairly early start to go visit the ruins in Teotihuacan (about 45 min from Mexico City). Scorching hot but otherwise good weather. We traveled on the non-tourist local bus (less than $3 each) Interesting events during the trip included being stopped at a Federal Police roadblock and having every passenger and their luggage searched (including of course, the only gringo on the bus, me). After arriving back in Mexico City we braved rush hour in the Metro to get to Zona Rosa. When I say braved, I’m not exaggerating. They pack those subway cars tighter than Shinjuku station in rush hour. Actually, I’m gonna go ahead and say it: Mexico City subways are more crowded and crazier than Tokyo.
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The Trajinera Scam

Embarking on a TrajineraFairly relaxed third day in Mexico City. On the agenda: taking a Trajinera (elaborately decorated boat) down canals first used by the Aztecs. Our destination (sort of) was something called “Island of the Dolls”. It’s a bizarre area off a canal where a man started placing old and mutilated dolls everywhere to appease the spirit of a girl who drowned in the canal where he lived. Eventually locals joined the insanity and it added up to a really bizarre collection of dolls hanging everywhere from trees and such. Anyway, if you wanna see some good pics of that place, you can look it up in the Google because we didn’t get them. We managed to find a launching point for the canals, but our best guess is it didn’t access the island, and the last person willing to tell us that was the man selling us the boat ride. Only after we get going does the story change from taking us to Island of the Dolls to that place being too far away and we’re going to a “replica”. Hah! In any event, the boat ride still managed to be an interesting and slightly fun (albeit mega-touristy) little trip and made for a fairly relaxing day.
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Mexico City: Downtown/Historic District

We arrived in Mexico City a couple days ago reasonably well rested Edges of Mexico Cityafter a couple uneventful flights. I’m withholding my complete verdict on the “Cabin Comfort” pillow, but tentatively it seems ok and I managed a short nap on the way here with it. As usual, Martha snoozed most of the flight with her travel C-Collar on.

All our baggage arrived safe and we were pleasantly surprised to undergo a security check before leaving the baggage area that ensured the baggage we were departing with did in fact belong to us. They checked our check-in baggage receipts against those on the actual bags. Martha scooted through customs without anyone giving her or her bags a second look. However, as soon as I came through the baggage scanning area, security seemed to tense up and one guy started to divert me to the “random” baggage check. I think I set off the gringo alarm, but as soon as Martha said “he’s with me” en Espanol they waved me on. Martha’s grandparents were waiting for us past the threshold and THANK GOD they were, because we were gonna be descended upon by vultures with all the baggage we brought for the hiking trip.
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