Birthday Week in Bohol

On Monday, I caught a two-hour ferry to the island of Bohol. I had read about the unique ice cream flavors from Bohol Bee Farm so I decided to check them out. I had fourteen options, five of which were local flavors that to me didn’t really have a taste. I settled on one scoop of avocado (where else serves avocado ice cream??) and one scoop of salted honey. While the flavor of the avocado ice cream was spot on to the real thing, avocado is just not an ice cream flavor. The salted honey, on the other hand, was excellent! It was the perfect mix of sweet and salty. So much so, that I ended up indulging on it three more times this week.

Bohol Bee Farm Ice Cream

Bohol Fee Farm ice cream flavors

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Chocolate Hills

On Tuesday I rented a scooter and explored half of the island. First stop was Chocolate Hills. I wasn’t really expecting much because it was just a lookout over hills. I only went because it’s what Bohol is known for. I was pleasantly surprised with just how cool it was to look at these giant mounds for as far as the eye can see. Next I headed up to Anda Beach. The beach was white and pretty empty which was great. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much time there because it was already 4pm and I had a little under a 2 hour drive back to my hostel.  The sun sets around 5:30pm and I had been warned it wasn’t exactly safe to drive a scooter at night (no street lights, animals and humans frequently crossing the road, poor road conditions, etc.). I turned my iPod on, found a road that hugged the coast for the whole return trip, and sang my little heart out. About 20 minutes into the trip, I caught myself unable to wipe the smile off my face. The immaculate views, fantastic tunes, and the wind in my hair – it was all so great! While I wasn’t able to make it back before dark (they were right, driving at night is awful), I was able to catch the whole sunset and it was so gorgeous!

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Tuesday night’s sunset

Wednesday was my chill out day. While researching some things I wanted to see during my time in Bohol, I started to chat with a lady from Chicago. She quit her marketing job two and a half years ago, rented out her apartment in Wrigleyville, and has been traveling the world ever since, solely on the money she makes from her apartment. It came up in conversation that she had hiked the Anapurna Circuit so I spent the next two hours dissecting her experience. It was nice to hear first-hand accounts of the trek as well as confirm some of my thoughts and research on what Flynn and I are about to get into.

My plan for Thursday was to chase waterfalls around the island. First stop was Mag-aso Falls. I knew the last part of the route was going to be on some back roads. While driving, the road started to get dicey…. As in sharp rocks practically cemented into the ground. Should I keep going? Maybe I’ll ask the next person I see if I’m on the right path. Just when I was about to turn around, I made it to the entrance gate! After descending 197 slippery concrete stairs, I made it to Mag-aso Falls! While it was nice to only have to share the destination with a family of four, the waterfalls weren’t as majestic as I was expecting.

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Mag-aso Falls

20171116_135515Next up was Ingkumhan Falls. Again, I was prepared for the last bit to be on back roads. And just like before, the road started to get dicey. Just keep going. All roads to waterfalls must be this way. Then, five cows emerged from the country-side and started walking on the road I was trying to drive on. Well that’s interesting. I wonder how they react to scooters. I’m either going to spook them or they are immune to these things. As I started to approach their backsides, a man emerged from the same spot as the cows. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was their owner or a homeless man. After coming to the conclusion that he didn’t speak English, and him giving me a blank stare when I tried to motion if it was ok for me to drive around the cows, I forged ahead. Turns out, the cows are desensitized to scooters.

As I continued along, the road turned really dicey. Sharper rocks, part of the road eroded away, a hefty drop off over the edge…. Do I keep going? I really don’t like where this is headed. Should I turn around? That man back there clearly won’t be able to help me if something happens. I think I’ve reached my stress level for the day. Yep, chalk this one up to a failure. After reaching defeat, I turned around, drove past the cows and the odd man, and then noticed my scooter wasn’t driving the same. After a quick inspection, I saw that my back tire was flat. With the exception of that weird dude, I haven’t seen another human being in quite some time. Looks like I’m going to have to walk the 8km back into town. After walking maybe 20m, two guys on a motorbike came around the bend. I frantically waved at them. “Help me?!”  They asked how long my tire had been flat for and then said one would drive it into town while I rode with the other one. Staying true to Filipino hospitality, they stopped their day to help me, waited until my tire was fixed and I was safely back on the road (even after I insisted I was ok and they could get back to their day), refused the money I offered them as a token of my gratitude, and offered to take me to the waterfalls on Saturday.

I was a beach bum during the day on Friday. That evening, I met some really awesome people at my hostel during the meet-and-greet activity. There was nine of us – two guys from the UK who were traveling together and then seven of us solo travelers who all just clicked. We went out on the town that night and my birthday was kicked off by a shot at the bar when the clock struck midnight.

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My Bohol Birthday Entourage

Saturday… my birthday!!! I was up and on the road by 7am to meet Ago, the local who helped me with my flat tire. He took me to both Ingkumhan Falls and Twin Falls. Again, Ingkumhan Falls wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be thanks to over-edited photos online. Twin Falls was much better than expected and we had both places to ourselves since it was so early in the morning. That afternoon, I met up with my Bohol Entourage (our hostel group of 9 people). We went cliff jumping into the Philippine Sea and swam in Hinagdanan Cave. Yay for other thrill-seeking travelers! We caught the tail-end of the best sunset I’ve ever seen. Colors of orange and red light up the horizon and then turned into deep shades of ruby and purple. My birthday ended with another night on the town with my Bohol Entourage.

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Saturday night’s sunset. 

By Sunday afternoon, everyone except Curl and I, had left to continue on with their individual Philippine journeys. It was crazy how much we all connected over the 48 hours together… you would have thought we had all been friends for 10 years. It was mix of nationalities spanning the whole world – UK, Germany, Brazil, Nicaragua, Philippines, Spain, and the US. Thank God, everyone (besides the UK boys and myself) were bilingual with English!

After saying the goodbyes, I sat down to write my blog. I was really struggling to put words on the page. It hurt my head to think… my thoughts were confusing and didn’t make sense. Something is not right…. Am I lethargic? That’s when I realized I was lacking sleep (I had slept a total of 6 hours the last two nights), fluids, and nutrients (I hadn’t eaten for 36 hours)…. you know… the basic necessities to life. I was having so much fun that taking care of these three life necessities never crossed my mind. I inhaled a pizza (yay for a nearby Italian restaurant!), slept from 5-9pm, made plans for the next morning with Curl (Filipina from my Bohol Entourage), and went back to bed from 9:30pm-6am.

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Jumping my way into the Philippine Sea and 29th year of life!

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Our little photo shoot inside Hinagdanan Cave

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Adam’s First Southeast Asian Experience

 

Adam arrived late Sunday night. Prior to his arrival, we had decided I would meet him in the airport, near where drivers hold signs to pick up their passengers. When I got to the airport, I was told I couldn’t go inside because I didn’t have a visitors pass, which I was supposed to get three days earlier. That’s weird. People were allowed to walk freely into and out of Terminal 3 when I arrived. Guess things are different in Terminal 1. I wasn’t even allowed to be right next to the building. For those of your familiar with the Eppley Airport, it would be like having the security guards make you wait on the island between the parking garage and the airport. After explaining my brother had no phone access and he only knew to wait inside for me, I was able to sweet talk my way past barrier #1 (Eppley Airport island equivalent), but was shut down when I tried to get past barrier #2 (actually going inside the airport). There were two exits coming out of the airport so I had a 50/50 chance of getting it right. Fast forward an hour later, Adam comes strolling out! In that hour, he waited for me in our designated meeting spot, went out of the exit that I wasn’t standing at, back to our designated meeting spot, and then found me at the other exit. Later we realized all the delegates for the ASEAN conference were arriving in town that night so security was on high alert and a visitors pass is not a normal necessity. I should probably pay more attention to big events that are going on in each city that I’m in. 

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Our Manila AirBNB

While giving Adam the tour of our AirBNB, we got to the bathroom. I explained to him toilet paper cannot be flushed down the toilet and that he needs to use the sprayer to clean himself. “Are you kidding? That is just disgusting!” Fast forward to the next morning…

L: So how was your first bathroom experience?

A: That was pretty nice! It was like using a kitchen sprayer to clean dishes.

L: I must have spent too much time in Asia because that is a perfect description of the amenity, but it has never crossed my mind!

Monday was pretty relaxing as the only goal for the day was for Adam to beat jetlag. He hadn’t slept in 36 hours, but managed to go to bed and wake up at his usual time. How do you do this?! Jet lag hits me hard about 3-4 days in when I sleep for right about 24 hours and you knocked it the first night.

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Our redemption dinner

For dinner, Adam requested a Filipino restaurant. We found one 100 meters from our AirBNB and ordered pineapple chicken with rice. This should be a good intro meal to the Filipino cuisine. It. Was. Awful. The chicken was shaped like meatballs, but had about 25% meat and 75% bone shards. This was my second time ordering chicken in the Philippines and both times there were bone shards in it. Safe to say, I will not be ordering chicken while in this country. After giving up on the chicken and lack of pineapple, we gobbled down the rice but were obviously still hungry. On the walk back to our place, we stopped by a Hong Kong restaurant where I had eaten lunch the day before. We ordered Shanghai Rolls with rice and served with an orange duck sauce. Holy delicious! Yes, we both had two dinners and it cost us $12 total for the four meals.

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Trike from El Nido airport

Tuesday morning we caught an Air Swift flight to El Nido on a 48-person prop plane. Air Swift is the only airline that flies into El Nido and the experience was great! We were given a goody bag in the Manila airport which consisted of ice cold water, ice cold orange juice, peanut butter bar, ube croissant (ube is a local root whose flavor is used in sweet recipes), and mixed nuts. The seats on the plane were spacious and comfortable. Our luggage was hand delivered to us.

After catching a trike from the airport to our hostel in El Nido, we left our bags with the receptionist and rented scooters to check out Nacpan Beach for the day. Adam was a bit nervous as he hadn’t driven one before. “Don’t go too fast until I figure this thing out.” That lasted all of 1km when we stopped to fill up our gas tanks. “This isn’t too bad. I’m ready now!”

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Adam rocking his pink scooter

We were warned ahead of time the last part of the road to Nacpan Beach was dirt and with the recent rains, pretty muddy but not impassable. We definitely underestimated the road. It was like a Class B dirt road in Iowa after three days of nonstop rain. Unfortunately, I did not get any pictures of it so my descriptions and your imaginations will just have to suffice. The road started out with just some muddy holes which were avoidable. That turned into the entire road being underwater but only for a few feet. Next up was a 50 degree downhill straight into a 60 degree uphill which was rutted out but still managed to have giant rocks in it. With 2km left to the beach, we encountered the worst part. The road was completely underwater for 40 yards. Um… should we just turn back now? This is getting ridiculous. We encountered two English girls who were walking back to their abandoned bike after spending the night on the beach. They gave us pointers on the best way through the water and assured us the beach was worth it. We successfully made it through the water and to Nacpan Beach… and it was so not worth it. While the beach was secluded, the waves were too strong for swimming, the sand was nothing to write home about, and the views weren’t spectacular. Maybe my expectations were too high because I just came from Boracay? After a quick lunch, we headed back to El Nido, checked into our hostel, and went out for dinner on El Nido Beach.

I ordered pancit which is a Filipino noodle dish and Adam ordered seafood pasta. He asked the waitress what kind of seafood was in it. She said “shrimp and squid” to which he replied, “I’ll take it.” Then he turned to me. “Last time I had squid was over 10 years ago and I got food poisoning. It’s probably safe to eat it again.” After dinner, we participated in the hostel’s beer pong tournament (aka shot pong with rum and coke) and went to bed early as we had a full day island hopping tour the next morning.

During breakfast, Adam said, “So let me tell you about my night…” Oh this should be good. I thought it was a pretty quiet night but maybe I slept through something??? Turns out, Adam is allergic to squid. He spent three hours in the communal bathroom, purging the squid out of his body. The communal bathroom which has both showers and toilet stalls. The communal bathroom which both guys and girls use. The communal bathroom where other hostel guests were brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. It’s safe to say, he will never consume squid again.

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Small Lagoon

Our excursion Wednesday was island hopping around El Nido via boat. The scenery was phenomal. We went to three lagoons and two islands. Our first stop was at Small Lagoon. We were given the options to either kayak or snorkel/swim the lagoon. It’s been 11 years since I tried snorkeling. Let’s see if it still freaks me out. I snorkeled about 20 meters from our boat before confirming snorkeling is not for me. I’ll just swim the rest of the way. Wow, this is beautiful here. Ow! What did I just run into? Ow!! That hurts! While looking above the water, instead of down into the water, I managed to swim into a massive rock that had some coral on it. After swimming around Small Lagoon, we boarded our boat and I checked out my body. I cut up the inside of my ankle and had small abrasions on my upper thighs, wrist, and hand.

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Shimizu Island

Next up was Secret Lagoon. While helping one of our new friends over the rocks and towards the lagoon, Adam scraped up his shin. After boarding the ship and checking out his battle wound, one of our captains rushed over and gave him the 5-star First Aid treatment. They dried, cleaned, and put iodine over his wound. Where was this treatment 30 minutes ago?! Don’t worry, I only attempted to clean my wounds by rubbing on them in salt water. We ate lunch on Shimizu Island, boated through Big Lagoon, and grabbed some drinks on 7 Commandos Beach before heading back to El Nido.

Port Barton (2)On Thursday, we took a 12 passenger van to Port Barton. We turned off the main road and onto another dirt, more like mud, road for the last 23km. The road had short patches of pavement dispersed throughout. It had a hefty dropoff on one side for most of it. Some parts had eroded away to just a single lane. There was a lot of mud due to the recent rains. Something bad is about to happen. I can feel it. We’re either going to go over that dropoff and die or we’re going to get stuck. Sure enough, I heard a CLUNK and then we were stuck, high-centered in the mud. After 20 minutes of the boys rocking the van, putting rocks and pieces of wood near the tires to gain traction, our knight in shining armor arrived…. a Coca-Cola truck coming from Port Barton. The truck hooked their tow rope to our van and pulled us out.

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Coca-Cola truck to the rescue!

We all piled back into the van and that’s when it hit me… Adam and I just exposed our open wounds to standing muddy water that had who knows what in it. Bacteria…sewage runoff… whatever diseases the stray dogs carry….

While checking in to our beach cottage, I asked the front desk to use their First Aid kit. After showers, I played nurse to both of our wounds. I used their isopropyl alcohol in place of our hydrogen peroxide and iodine in place of our neosporin.

A: Who knew we needed to pack a First Aid kit while backpacking?

L: First aid kit….hmm…  Wait…. I did pack one!

A: Are you kidding me? We’ve been needing one for the last 24 hours and you just now remember you have one?!

To be fair… I had only packed it with the intent of needing it while Flynn and I hike the Anapurna Circle in April. More on these future plans later.

In the morning, we asked the front desk what we should do for a few hours before we were headed out that afternoon. They recommended Papawyan Falls and to arrange for a guide by talking to the man in the bamboo hut on the main road. Uh… every structure in town is a bamboo hut. We walked into a random bamboo hut and secured transportation. While waiting for our driver, we chatted with the man. He was the most hilarious Filipino I’ve met. The best part of our conversation was this:

Man: If you need entertainment while you wait, I can get my mother for you.

Adam: (laughs nervously)

Man: Haha. I’m olding you, I’m olding you! You know, like kidding, but you’re old.

Unfortunately, the road to the waterfall was impassable due to the previous night’s rainfall. Instead, we spent the morning being beach bums. There wasn’t much else to report on Port Barton as we only spent 21 hours there. We used it as a halfway point from El Nido to the Puerto Princesa Airport. It’s not a top tourist destination and the town only gets power from 6pm-midnight. No, that was not a typo. They only receive power for six hours a day. Our accommodation had a generator that provided electricity from 7am-6pm.

That afternoon, we took a 16 passenger van from Port Barton to Puerto Princesa where we caught an evening flight to Cebu which, aside from Manila, is the major hub of getting in and out of the Philippines. We checked into our AirBNB and headed to bed as we were getting picked up at 5am for our canyoneering excursion.

Saturday. Canyoneering excursion near Moalboal. Best. Excursion. Ever! Adam and I were fully prepared for another cramped 12 passenger van for the two hour drive from Cebu City to Moalboal and then a big group excursion. So we were blown away when we were picked up in a private SUV and had a private tour guide. After getting outfitted in our helmets, lifejackets, and aqua shoes, we hopped on the back of motorbikes and were driven about 10km into the countryside. From there, we had to hike 2km to the jump off point and then down into the canyon. There were other groups here, but we skipped ahead of them as they were moving slower. This made the experience even better because no one was hindering our speed and the water wasn’t kicked up. Over the next two hours, we swam, jumped off 10 cliffs, and hiked through the canyon. The tallest jump was 10 meters (30 feet). The scenery was remarkable; the jumps were a thrill; our guide was great and basically our personal photographer.

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Our final jump at 10 meters

That night, Adam boarded his plane back to reality and I started research on where to head to next. In reflecting on this last week, I would say Adam had a successful first backpacking experience. He claimed he would stay in a hostel again. He now realizes backpackers go out in t-shirts and shorts so there was no reason for him to pack polos and dress sandals. I think he may even convert all his toilets to sprayers, he enjoyed it that much. He became an expert at strategically packing his backpack for easy access on our one night accommodations. He quickly learned the lingo of meeting other backpackers – what’s your name, where are you from, how long are you traveling? Similiar to AIM’s a/s/l days (age, sex, location), I like to view this as the modern day traveler’s n/l/t (name, location, time).

So what are my future plans? Tomorrow (Monday), I am taking a ferry down to Bohol and Siquijor islands where I will spend my remaining 12 days in the Philippines. I will take a ferry back to Cebu City and catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on November 24. I secured my first international dogsit in KL and will be watching two dogs from November 27 – December 4 and then again from December 14-January 2. Barb will visit me in Malaysia over her Christmas break from December 23 – January 6. My January and February are unplanned. If I like Malaysia, then I will stay for the full extent of my 90 day visa. If I’m over Malaysia in those 44 days, then I’ll head someplace else. On March 8, I will meet up with my friend, Flynn, in Cambodia. We will spend two weeks in Phenom Penh and Siem Reap before heading to Nepal to trek the 140km Anapurna Circle for three weeks.

Boracay

I am so happy with my decision to take a side trip to Boracay this week!!! Sunday and Monday were spent in a new hostel researching Boracay. My initial hostel in Manila was SUPER cheap… as in $2.38 per night cheap, but I just wasn’t feeling the vibe there. Everyone kept to themselves and I felt like more locals were using it as a place of residence rather than travelers on their way through. So I switched to a different hostel which was MUCH better. I actually felt like I was at an all-inclusive resort. There were doormen, bell hops, and you loaded up an RFID bracelet as your way of payment at their bar and restaurant.

I stayed in an 8-bed mixed (coed) dorm. My late 40’s bunkmate enjoyed walking around in just his whitey-tighties. One roommate thought it was somehow appropriate for him to pee with the door open, in full view of others (we had an ensuite bathroom). I hate to break it to you fellas, but you’re not impressing myself or the other girl in this room.

Tuesday afternoon I began my journey to Boracay. I should preface this by saying I easily could have flown from Manila to Boracay. But where’s the adventure in that?! Instead, I chose to take an Uber to the bus station, a 3 hour bus ride to Batangas Pier, a 10 hour overnight ferry to Caticlan Port, and then a 5 minute pump boat to the island of Boracay. All of this cost me a mere $25.89 where as the flight would have been over $100 for the last minute booking.

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2GO Ferry

The bus ride was quite comfortable. It was an air conditioned charter-style bus that made random stops along the road. The roadside passengers were forced to stand or sit in the aisle for the duration of their ride whereas the passengers that boarded at the bus terminal were given a seat. The ferry experience was much better than I expected. It was like a cruise ship, but a hostel version. On board there was a karaoke bar, restaurant (we were served one meal), convenience store, air conditioning, and a doctor. But rather than a 2 person room, I was in a 192 person room. I was fortunate to have a relatively quiet room and got about 8 hours of sleep.

 

 

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My 192 person room

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White Beach

Since I wasn’t able to check into my hostel for about 3 hours, I headed straight for White Beach which is what Boracay is known for. And it did not disappoint! The sand was white and powdery. The water was crystal clear. There were views of other islands in the distance. I felt like I was looking at a back drop. I sat down on a log, digging through my bag to find my camera. I was approached by a late 20s Filipino lady who was very concerned that I was there by myself and asked numerous times if I was sure I was OK before going back to her husband and kids. I later found out, it is pretty uncommon for a solo female to be on the island. I think Barb appreciated this lady checking on me more than I did.

Mad Monkey Hostel - Wig Wednesday

Wig Wednesday

The evening was spent indulging in alcohol thanks to free hourly shots and a beer pong tournament at the hostel. Oh and it was also Wig Wednesday. Now this is my kind of hostel!

All thanks to the previous night’s imbibing, I was pretty worthless for most of Thursday. I spent the day in bed chatting with my bunkmates while the rest of the hostel partook in the Thursday Session…. aka free hourly shots and happy hour pricing from 8am-6pm. Yes, you read that right. At 8 in the morning, I was awoken to “Attention ladies and gentlemen of Mad Monkey Hostel, there are free shots at the bar!” Excuse me while I go throw up.

That evening started out with more beer pong and ended with a late night trip to McDonald’s so you could say it was a another success. Did I mention Boracay is known as the party island of the Philippines?

Friday. Oooo, Friday was a good day! While trying to figure out transportation to Puka Beach, two German girls who I had met the previous night, mentioned they were also headed there so we all went together. Puka Beach was recommended by a fellow American at the hostel and it was amazing! It was WAY less crowded than White Beach and the water was clearer which I didn’t think was possible. After taking numerous pictures and videos of the gorgeous scenery, we rented an inflatable flamingo and unicorn and spent the day in the water. Just picture perfect.

The evening was spent sober back at the hostel with the Germans. I had to catch my ferry back to Batangas the next day and the thought of being hungover on a 10 hour ferry ride was incomprehensible. My ferry was originally supposed to leave at 8am, but was delayed to 4:30pm due to tropical storm RAMIL moving through the area. The typhoon that hit Japan two weeks ago? Yep, it also started as a tropical storm in the Philippines.

Again, the ferry ride was pretty uneventful. This time, my ticket was in the Super Y class (read as the cheapest ticket possible) so my bed was right next to the all night karaoke bar with no air conditioning. Imagine sleeping on the top deck of a cruise ship. Open air and no real room. That was my situation. So I was extremely confused when I shaken awake at 2:30 in the morning by the cleaning staff. “Ma’am? Sorry to touch you, but you weren’t responding to my voice. We’ve arrived in Batangas. You need to leave so we can clean.” Yep, I was THE last passenger off the ship. Apparently, I’ve adapted to sleeping through noise. I boarded the bus back to Manila, only to wait an hour and a half for the ferry staff to hop on. I arrived in Manila at 6:30am and just hung out until my AirBNB was ready at 1pm. After taking a long and peaceful nap, I wrote this blog and am now headed to the airport to collect visitor #1… Adam!

This week should be rather comical…. Adam trying to live like a backpacker for a week…   🙂

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See ya, South Korea!

This week started out with three days exploring Busan. It was my kind of town! I should have left Seoul earlier. Busan is where it’s at! The best way I can describe Busan is where the mountains meet the beach along a jagged and steep coast line.

Monday afternoon was spent hiking Geumgang Mountain. Its summit is a mere 2,630 feet… quite different than the mountains of Colorado. The signs leading to the trail head were dual signed in English and Korean. The trail head was also dual signed. 200 yards into the hike, I encountered a three way intersection that was only in Korean. You couldn’t just continue with the dual signs?! Well… the sign back there said North Gate was 1.6km away. Sign one has .4km so that can’t be right. Sign two indicates 1.2km… No way have I gone .4 km. Sign three says 1.8km… did I miss something? So I did what any person hiking in a foreign country would do…. I sat at the intersection and waited. Twenty minutes and three people later, I came across a local who could speak enough English to direct me onto the correct path. Apparently, the 1.8km was the winner and I would later find out Korea is notorious for incorrect mileage. Would it be kilometerage since their unit of measure is not miles? Yeah, we’ll go with that. While the hike was relatively short and easy, the view from the top was beautiful! Busan was smack dab in the middle of their autumn so different colored tree tops ran right up to my views of the sea.

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Geumgang Mountain

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Gamcheon Culture Village

Tuesday morning I headed out to Gamcheon Culture Village which is nicknamed the Santorini of the East and for good reason. I Skyped Adam to show him the awesome view. His first response? “Are you in Europe?!” I could have easily spent a whole day looking at and walking around the village with all the pops of color. The village reinforced my desire to go through Greece on my way back to the States, whenever that may be.

Up next was another hike… this time on the coast. Again, very loose definition of “hike”. A more accurate description would be coastal walk. It was about a 2km undefined route from the bus station to the trail head. Again, I came to an intersection where I wasn’t confident on which way to go. Two elderly ladies, dressed in their obnoxious neon hiking attire, made a sound similar to “you who!!!” from across the road and waved me over to them.  “Is this the way to the Igidae Coastal Hike?” They responded with a smile and a string of Korean sentences that I couldn’t even pick out one familiar word. “I speak English and have no idea what you’re saying.” They gently rubbed my arm, pointed at my legs (pretty sure I was the only person in shorts that day), and spoke some more unknown Korean to me. Well, they’re headed in this direction and I can just wait for them if I come across another intersection. Lo and behold, I made it to the trail head without needing any other assistance.

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The start of Igidae Coastal Walk with views of Busan and Geumgang Mountain in the background

I really liked this coastal walk as the trail surface was constantly changing. Boardwalks to wooden stairs to pedestrian suspension bridges to dirt in a forest only to emerge back to the edge of a 50 foot cliff. Again, the kilometerage was unreliable. According to the signs, I’d walk for 5 minutes and cover 1km, yet also walk for 30 minutes and only go .3km.

On Wednesday, I took a train to Daejeon as a friend’s mother from Denver had recommended spending a day in the town. I didn’t have high hopes for my hotel as it was another $35/night accommodation which last time provided me a box spring of a bed and a shower connected to a mirror. Was I floored away when this room had a plush queen bed, bathroom separated from the shower, mini-fridge with two bottles of water, and a desktop computer on the desk! I got the best night of sleep in that room since my arrival to Asia.

Thursday I had planned to complete a 14km barefoot hike on a red clay trail which is their claim to fame. I mean, they even had a barefoot festival every May! The night before, I had done rather extensive research on getting to the trail head. It was going to take me three buses and about an hour and a half with all the transfers. Things started out less than par when I got on the correct bus…. but in the wrong direction. After two stops, I realized my mistake and hopped off. I then got on the correct bus in the correct direction, but the bus wasn’t following the route listed out on Google Maps. That’s weird. Maybe they changed their route? It’s still going in the general direction I need to get to though. I hopped off at a stop that was only a block away from the one listed on my directions. When I got to the stop, bus 74 (per my research) wasn’t listed on the signs. Maybe there’s another bus that will take me toward where I want to go? After whipping out Google Maps and formulating a new plan, I hopped on a new bus and yet again, the bus didn’t follow the route listed on Google Maps. I ended up essentially crossing the city but never getting closer to my destination after two hours. This is ridiculous. I give up! Defeated, I made my way back to my hotel, collected my luggage, and hopped on a train back to Seoul.

Air Asia flight 2

First hand view of nonexistent leg room

I stayed in Seoul Thursday night and caught my afternoon flight to Manila, Philippines. I flew with Air Asia and wow, they really take to heart the word Asia in their name. The seats were tiny and had practically no leg room. When my knees only have an inch and a half to the seat in front of me, you know it’s cramped! Oh no… Adam and I are flying Air Asia when we’re in the Philippines… he’s not going to fit! Unable to contain my giggles, I Skyped Adam while others were still boarding. We concluded not only does he need to stop eating from now until he arrives, but he’ll also need to chop off about 4 inches of his legs. Let’s just hope our Air Asia flight isn’t full that day!

My initial arrival to Manila was glorious. I walked off the plane, collected my baggage, and cleared customs within 20 minutes. And that’s about where the gloriousness stopped. I found the taxi service the hostel recommended on taking. I told them where I was going and they motioned for me to take a seat. I noticed that traffic wasn’t moving…. like at all…. every 20 minutes or so, traffic would move forward about one car length. About an hour into waiting for a taxi, I chatted with an older gentlemen next to me. After bonding over Australia (where he’s from), farming (he raises cattle), and the absurd wait time for a taxi, he decided it would be a better idea to go up to Departures and grab one from there. We were both going to the same area of town so I tagged along and shared the taxi with him. Fast forward three and a half hours later, I arrived at my hostel… a mere 6km from the airport. That’s 3.73 miles… that’s moving at a speed of 1 mile per hour. I could have walked faster! I asked the receptionist at my hostel if there was something going on in town. Her response? “Nope. That’s just Manila traffic.” Adam isn’t going to like it here! He can’t even stand traffic going to the mountains which can take three hours to cover 70 miles. 

Saturday was spent walking about Manila (no was way I getting in a taxi again!) and deciding that I will go crazy if I stay here for the next 8 days until Adam arrives. Too many people. Not really anything to do. I felt confined with the sheer amount of traffic and nothing really being accessible because of it. So instead, I booked myself a 4 day trip to Boracay (Philippines #1 tourist destination)! I will leave Manila Tuesday evening and arrive back Saturday night so I can welcome Adam in on Sunday.

Things I learned in South Korea:

  • Escalators: stand on the right, walk on the left (opposite of Japan)
  • Dirty toilet paper must be put into the trash can, but there aren’t any sprayers here. This really grosses me out. At least in the other Asian countries, you used a sprayer to clean yourself and toilet paper to dry yourself.
  • Google Maps and South Korea do not get along well. Google Maps will only give public transportation directions… no driving directions or walking directions.
  • Seoul is expensive!
  • Walking to the curb is not enough to get a bus drivers attention. You must walk into the street for them to stop for you.
  • Aloe juice is not nearly as disgusting as I thought it would be! More of a lime taste than an aloe vera taste.Aloe juice

Hostel Life

Life in hostels has been quite the experience. When I arrived at my first hostel, the reception desk was closed as it was 11pm. They kindly left my name on the outside door and written, clear as day, where my key was hidden. Quite the security they have here. I had booked an all-female 6 bed dormitory. Upon entering the room, the lights were all turned off and all five other beds had their privacy curtains drawn. Is everyone sleeping or are they all out on this Saturday night? What’s proper hostel etiquette? Would I be an awful person if I turned the lights on? I can find my bed with the lights off, but not my locker. I decided to play it safe. After heaving my 70 liter backpack onto the top bunk, I crawled into bed and snuggled up with it for the night.

Sunday was spent getting settled into my hostel (found my locker!), getting my Korean SIM card to work, buying groceries and a public transportation card, and familiarizing myself with the area. That night, I found one of my roommates passed out on the couch in the communal area on my 1am bathroom break. Should I help her into her bed? Nah, she’s a big girl and she made it back into the hostel. She’s fine. At 3am, I awoke to her phone ringing off the hook. Two staff girls, that occupy beds in my room, found the phone (had fallen between the bunk and the wall) but were unable to silence it because it required a password. They couldn’t wake her up (tried shaking her, turning the light on, talking to her). When they answered her phone, it was her dad and they tried to explain the situation. He wasn’t understanding because he spoke Korean. One staff girl called her friend who knows Korean, placed the friend on speaker phone so she could explain the situation to the dad through two phones. After an hour of all this, I figured they could use some help and told them to just throw water on her. Sure enough, she came to but wasn’t even phased about the water on her. I feel like I’m back in college again!

My next accommodation was a hotel for two nights. The mattress there was about as comfortable as a box spring. But it’s your own space with nobody waking you up! The shower was attached to the mirror so the faucet had a knob. Turn to the right for water to come out of the faucet. Turn to the left for water to come out of the shower. In the morning, I went to brush my teeth. I turned the faucet on and got a blast of water in my face. Turns out, I forgot to turn the knob back after taking a shower the night before. Bet I never make that mistake again.

Next was a hostel that smelled like a dirty hippie and had numerous mosquitoes in the room. I was so grossed out I didn’t even unpack anything. Good thing I had only booked one night there. I briefly chatted with one of my roommates upon arrival. She left for about an hour and when she came back, she was off her rocker. As in, legit crazy. What happened to her?! Did she take drugs or something? Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

My current hostel comes with two out of my nine roommates who enjoy talking as loud as they can across the room from each other until 1:30am with the lights on and then getting up at 6am and starting all over again. This morning I was Skyping with Barb down in the lobby. She made a comment about how she could hear the people in the background talking. I gave her one guess as to who it was 20 feet away….. This is why I’m sleep deprived and cranky!

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Poopoo Land

Outside of hostel life, I was able to see three really cool things in Seoul this week. On Monday, I visited Poopoo Land. Yes, it is exactly what you think it is…. A museum dedicated to poop, farts, and the digestive tract. Best $5 and 30 minutes I’ve probably ever spent! On each step in a set of stairs, a different fart noise played. The way out was to go through a digestive tract… cramped curvy space, obstacles to overcome, and a 70 degree drop slide as the finale.

20171019_100956On Wednesday, I toured the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA). The DMZ is on the 38th parallel, stretches coast to coast of Korea, and has a “peace area” two miles on either side of the line. I was able to go into the 3rd tunnel, out of 4, that South Korea has found built by the North as a way to invade. They estimated this tunnel had the capability to move 30,000 North Korean soldiers into the South within an hour. While they have blocked this tunnel off from the North via three cement walls, there were still gas masks hung on the wall every 100 meters. How confident are they in their security measures? I went to Dora Observatory where I could see into North Korea.

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Joint Security Area (JSA)

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Inside the Military Armistice Conference Room

After lunch, I toured the JSA which was so cool! The JSA is where meetings with North Korea take place, specifically in the Military Armistice Conference Room. We have an army base at the JSA so two US soldiers were our tour guides. The rules were much more stringent here. 1) Stay between two South Korean soldiers at all times. 2) Do not wave or gesture towards the North Korean soldiers. If you do, they will interpret that as a reason to attack. I know I will abide by these rules. But what about these 30 other people?! Please let there not be an idiot in this group! We were given about 10 minutes in the Military Armistice Conference Room. Here, I was able to technically stand in North Korea. It was a little unsettling but so awesome at the same time! Our US soldier, on the other hand, opted to stay on the South Korea side.

Saturday, I took the English Language Tour at the House of Sharing. I don’t remember exactly how I originally found out about this place, but wow, that was an eye opening experience! House of Sharing is a museum about and houses comfort women. Comfort women were young girls taken by the Japanese military and sex trafficked during World War II when Japan had control of Korea. These women were forced to service up to 40 men a day but only given one condom per day. The rank of the military men determined what hours they were allowed at the comfort stations.  These women were inventoried under Recreational Supplies. How demeaning! The first and second-hand accounts of these women’s testimonies were graphic and disturbing. We were allowed to interact with 3 out of the 9 women at House of Sharing for about 45 minutes. Our tour guides were all bilingual so they were our translators. The Japanese have offered some money but the comfort women refuse as they want a public apology and for Japan to acknowledge they knew about comfort stations and women.

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Map of the known Comfort Stations

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… either we weren’t taught about this in our history classes or I wasn’t paying attention. Probably a combination of both. I really hated History in school and only memorized enough to get through the tests. But wow… am I getting an education here! I know more about Korean history (World War 2 and Korean War) now than I ever have from all aspects:

  • The comfort women – World War II time frame
  • The US’s perspective – Truman entered the US into the Korean War under the UN because he thought World War 3 would break out if he didn’t
  • The North – China backed the North so no wonder they are communists
  • The South – they would have been taken over during the Korean War if the US hadn’t stepped in

I have now arrived in Busan (city on the southern coast of South Korea) where I plan to spend three days exploring the coast and some hikes.

On the road again

Mary Poppins’ Adventures is back and on the road again! After spending four months in Denver, I boarded a plane on October 12 and headed back to Asia. I’m currently writing this post during my 10 hour layover in Taipei. Yes, 10 hours in an airport can be awful, but I had time on my side. Hello cheap flight! Also, this airport is awesome! Free showers with complimentary shampoo, body wash, lotion, and towel for any transfer passengers. Yes please! I smell horrendous. Plush leather recliners near the gates. Free WiFi. Not a bad a place to spend half a day.

This summer, I spent the days with Eleanor and Theo and the weekends with my friends, usually in the mountains. As I had hoped, camping and hiking took up majority of my weekends. I put a lot of miles on my car since returning mid-May…. 13,764 to be exact (insert shocked face here).I checked another 14er off my list (my lifetime goal is to hike all 54 of them), completed my first backpacking trip, and went to Estes Park for the first time.

Eleanor and I had a great summer filled with hilarious conversations, some untimely comments, and life lessons.  Here’s some of the highlights:

While at the very quiet library and loud enough for everyone to hear– “That lady has a big bum bum!”

While at the swimming pool, she lifted up her shirt, and touched her nipples –
Eleanor: These are mine!
Laura: They sure are!
Eleanor: Um, what are they?
Laura: Those are your nipples.
Eleanor: Does Theo have nipples?
Laura: Yes, everyone has nipples.
Eleanor: Can I see them?!
Laura: Sure.  Please don’t ask to see mine!

While painting a picture –
Eleanor: (sniffs)… That’s stinky!
Laura: What is?
Eleanor: When I fart, it kind of stinks!

While walking to the car after swimming – “I wish you were a kid.”

While at the library and within earshot from an obese male whose belly was hanging out from under his t-shirt– “That man has a big belly!”

During a playdate, Van, a 4 year old boy, had been sent into timeout a few times. The other nanny mentioned that he was being naughty today. –
Eleanor: I’m nice because I’m beautiful.      Um…. I don’t think that’s how it works.

While eating lunch, Theo lets one rip –
Eleanor: Hahaha! Theo is a little stinker!
Laura: Why’s that?
Eleanor: Because he farted! Hahaha.

While making lunch –
Eleanor: I want an apple.
Laura: We don’t have any. We’re all out.
Eleanor: That’s ok. We can go to the Apple store and buy some.
Laura: Um, the Apple store sells electronics like computer and iPads… not apples.

We went to a new storytime and another kid had already chosen letter E to sit on. Eleanor had a major meltdown about it. I told her she doesn’t always get letter E and there are plenty of other letters to choose from. Fast forward 3 weeks, I brought the new nanny (she trained under me for the last week of my employment) with us to storytime. We were the first ones to arrive so I told Eleanor she could pick out a letter to sit on. “Ten bucks she chooses letter E”, I said to the new nanny. Eleanor comes back with letter S. “Eleanor, what letter did you choose today?” She replied as proud as can be, “S because I don’t always get letter E.”

Life lessons I taught Eleanor –
how to pee in the woods, how to milk a cow, how to bake cookies, muffins, and Apple Crisp, curse words are for grownups, how to write her name (has the ELEA part down, not so much on the NOR part), how to paint and carve pumpkins, how to wipe her own butt, how to check out books at the library, what happens when we don’t treat our library books with respect (RIP Clifford book that was left outside in the rain and found 5 days later), how to introduce herself to a new friend, and the ever so hard lesson that she doesn’t get everything she wants in life.

Don’t worry. Theo was with us during these times. He just isn’t talking yet so conversations with him were pretty one-sided…. Me talking… him staring at me or blabbing back. He definitely understands the English language though. For example, I could say a variety of sentences meaning he needed his diaper changed (did you poop?!, we need to change you, are you squishy, etc.) and he would walk into his room and stand by his changing table.

My last day with them was pretty bittersweet. The mom wrote me a very touching letter and gave me a bottle of wine. She sure knows the way to my heart. I spent two weeks back in Iowa seeing family and friends and getting things organized.

My plan is to travel through Asia until my fun money runs out. I will be in South Korea for two weeks, head to the Philippines where I will meet my brother, Adam, for a week, and then who knows after that. If I like the Philippines, then I will stay there for the entire length of my visa (30 days). If I don’t, then it’ll be onward to the next country. I plan to stay in hostels and when available, house/pet sit.

I joined an international house-sitting website this summer and completed four with the goal to build up my profile and online reputation. Let me tell you, those house-sits were less than ideal… Sit #1: Elderly 65 pound dog whose back legs no longer worked so I had to carry her around the house and outside for the bathroom. You know what’s not fun? Cleaning up a dog after she poops on herself because her back legs can’t hold her up. Sit #2: Rescued mill dog with so severe of anxiety I had to give her dog-friendly Xanax just so she wouldn’t pee on me when I carried her outside to relieve herself. The whole process of giving Xanax, waiting for it to kick in, and then carrying her outside took at least an hour. Sit #4: a cat with diarrhea for 7 out of the 10 days I was there. Sit #5: Three dogs and two cats who ran the house (scratched up all the interior woodwork of a beautiful log home, pooped on the counter, destroyed a pillow, ate the cat poop, etc.).

I can only hope the house/pet sits I do in Asia are better than the ones I completed this summer. My reason for continuing to do house/pet sits is that I get free housing which cuts down on my costs. Keep telling yourself the free lodging is worth it!

I frequently get asked if I’m scared to go by myself. Honestly, no. I feel like I’ve taken all the necessary precautions – purchased insurance, set up check-ins with Barb, limit the amount of alcohol consumed at the bars, and enrolled in the STEP program. The STEP program allows you to submit your general travel plans to the US Department of State. They will in turn give that information to the nearest embassy. The embassy will then notify you of any travel warnings in your current or upcoming destinations as well as account for you should a major incident occur near you.

Another frequently asked question is how I can afford to travel. Asia a pretty cheap place to travel after you get there, hence why I’m starting there. Lodging in hostels is between $5-$20 per night. A month-long furnished apartment rental can go for as little as $250. Food costs around $1-$3 per meal if you eat the local cuisine. Beer is $.40 – $1.50 per bottle. Uber rides are anywhere from $1 – $10.

I also worked my tail off this summer. In addition to nannying full time, I babysat for other families on their date nights. I drove a 3-year-old from her overnight sitter to preschool three times a week before heading to nanny. I drove a 4 year old between two parents who had lawsuits against each other.  I worked three weekend Kick It events. As mentioned earlier, I pet sat. I cut down unnecessary expenses. I only allowed myself two nights out at the bars. Quite an impressive feat if I do say so myself! I have some pretty fantastic friends that allowed me to stay at their houses for free or dirt cheap. I moved between 8 different houses over the four months. I can honestly sit here today, in Tai Pei awaiting my flight to Seoul, and say it was all worth it. I accomplished my three goals for this summer: make money, save money, and spend all my free time with my friends.

Let the adventures begins!

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Back to Reality

After living the dream through five countries and 165 days abroad, I headed back to the US on Tuesday, May 16. Monday evening was spent with the parents and I reflecting on our journey. While we were in the same cities, our experiences were drastically different. This was due to a combination of how we spent our days and our different interests. For five days a week, I had the kids and integrated them into the children’s culture so I got more of a local feel for things. Whereas the parents spent most of their five days behind a computer in a co-working space and interacting with foreigners. My days off were spent doing adventuresome things and enjoying the night life whereas their interests lie in being foodies. Our motivations for taking this trip were also drastically different. They were tired of trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and being materialistic so they wanted a full break from American society. I, on the other hand, was motivated by an overwhelming desire to travel the world.

Now that I’ve been back for a week, I’ve noticed some things are coming back easily while others are taking a bit more time.

Things that came back easily:

  • driving on the left hand side
  • turning right on red
  • using toilet paper instead of a sprayer
  • drinking tap water and not bottled water
  • American driving laws
  • cooking
  • planning out my summer schedule to maximize my time with family and friends

Things I’m still working on:

  • hitting my turn signal instead of the wipers
  • saying thank you, hello, and goodbye in a language other than English
  • getting my sleep schedule on local time
  • using my phone to call people instead of Skype or Facebook Messenger
  • finding food that I like. My taste buds have changed drastically. I now enjoy spicy foods and foods that have an abundance of flavor. So long bland taste buds.
  • wearing more than the four sets of clothes. Why do I have 60+ t-shirts?!

And now… for the moment you’ve all been waiting for… What are the plans now that I’m back in the US? I will spend my summer back in Denver, living with friends, and nannying for this same family. We will now be on more of a set schedule and I will have weekends off. Since graduating college, I’ve always worked summer weekends and never had the same two days off from my friends. The possibilities are endless! I plan to spend my weekends with lots of hiking and camping in the mountains. I will be done nannying mid-August, spend my last days in Denver with my brother Adam at a Sam Hunt Red Rocks concert, and then head back to Iowa. I’ll take a few weeks to downsize and get things organized. Once that is complete, I will then head out and solo travel the world for an undetermined amount of time! While I will take the summer off from blogging, I will start it back up when my world travels commence.

Per usual, after departing a country, I will leave you with this:

Things I learned in Japan

          Toilet experiences are great here! Heated toilet seat, warm water coming out of the sprayer, option for loud music to play so you can have some privacy

          Tokyo is expensive!

          The fashion here is…. Interesting….

          The proper way to eat ramen is to slurp your noodles so they slide right down your throat. I, however, prefer to chew mine.

          When riding escalators, stand on the left side and walk/pass on the right side

          Smoking is not allowed on the streets, but is allowed in restaurants

          Remove shoes before going inside houses. Some restaurants require this before entering their facility and even some dressing rooms require this before you try their clothes on.

          Cabs have automated back doors which the driver controls

          You can use your commuter train card to pay at grocery stores, convenience stores, and even some taxis

          Yellow cabs cost the same as black cabs, yet drivers must earn the right to drive a black cab

          Parks and playgrounds are dirt-based

          There are 924 train stations in Tokyo. The have got this public transportation system figured out!

          Man purses are EVERYWHERE

          For how technologically advanced Tokyo is, I’m surprised credit cards are only accepted about 40% of the time.

          Japanese read their books backwards from us. The spine of the book is on the right for them. So do they read right to left then?

          Japanese value cleanliness. I never saw a single piece of trash on the streets. This was even more surprising because trash cans were few and far between. I’ve concluded that everyone just packs their trash and disposes of it when they get home. This would also explain why the reason for man purses. They need to have somewhere to store their trash.

          I never ordered from a waitress at a restaurant. It’s been a full two weeks and all my orders have either been submitted through a machine/iPad or directly to the cook/chef.

          People walk so slow here and everyone is on their phones! We have signs for texting and driving. They have signs for texting and walking.

Texting and Walking Sign

Sumo Wrestling and Strep Throat

I retract my statement from last week about there being no grass here. I took the kids to the rooftop of Isetan Department Store as there were some slides and playhouses. The first thing I saw was grass! So they can grow grass on a rooftop which is not natural at all, but not in a regular park? As we got closer, I noticed there were signs indicating to stay off of the grass. And then I saw it… a man cutting the grass… with scissors! Haven’t you ever heard of a mower? Even a trimmer would be quicker than scissors! Either way, this gave me some renewed hope of finding grass in a park. After looking on Google Maps the next day, I found what appeared to be a massive park. This one has got to have grass. When we first got to Yoyogi Park, I only saw trees and some tall grass which was roped off. We’re getting closer!… 15 minutes of walking later, I found an open area of grass! I got both kids off the stroller and just let them run, or should I say frolic, in the grass. I attempted to get Eleanor to roll down the hill. She’s not exactly the most coordinated child so that was quickly dismissed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Theo must have been a dog in a past life. When he gets mad or frustrated, he plops down on his butt and scoots backwards. At the park, he enjoys putting sticks in his mouth perpendicular to his face. When we’re walking around, he’ll follow my path only if I pat the side of my leg and say, “Come on, Theo!” Otherwise, he’ll just stand and look at me. He enjoys playing fetch with his toys (I’ll throw something, he’ll grab and bring it back to me, and repeat) as well as shaking his head with a mouthful of sock. I can lead him on and around playground equipment by mere pointing and hand signals. You should see the looks some of the parents give me. I promise this isn’t how all American train their kids.

Monday night was spent back in Piss Alley with my foreign friend. We went back to Albatross and discovered it had a second floor! This floor was able to seat four people, but we had to order through a trap door in the floor above the bar. The bartender would then use a pulley system to deliver the drinks up through the trap door. This may be one of my favorite bars! I learned Piss Alley was a black market drinking area during World War 2. It’s the size of a basketball court and the bars can fit 8-12 people. Up until the 1990s, there was no toilet in the area so bar-goers would relieve themselves on the nearby train tracks, hence the name Piss Alley. There has since been a renovation due to a fire and while the buildings still look old and worn down, they did install one public toilet. While the females get one stall with a door, the urinals are lined up against a wall for all the public to view. The more Asian countries I visit, the more I realize men get no privacy when using urinals over here. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen urinals out in the open.

Sumo 14I tried to get a ticket to the May 14 – 28 Sumo tournament here in Tokyo. Apparently it’s been sold out for a few months (it is their national sport after all) so the closest I could get was to watch a practice in a sumo stable. It was awesome and eye-opening! I learned so many things about the sumo sport and lifestyle. You can become a sumo wrestler as early as 15 and most will retire around 35. There are 44 stables throughout the country. The stable I went to housed 25 wrestlers and was one of the biggest in Japan.  Having kids and/or spouses is very uncommon for wrestlers as they live and train at the stables. Sumo wrestlers

Sumo 5

White belts are reserved for high ranking wrestlers

only have Sundays and New Year’s Day off. Tournaments occur every other month so there really is no off-season. Sumo tournaments last for 15 days and wrestlers have only one match per day. A match typically lasts less than a minute. Talk about pressure to perform! Newbie sumo wrestlers will start out only making $600 USD/tournament (tournaments occur every two months). The higher ranking wrestlers will make upwards of $1 million USD/tournament. Division levels are based on number of wins, not weight. If they miss their 10pm curfew, they have to shave their heads and you can’t participate if your hair doesn’t fit into the ponytail/bun. One of the wrestlers didn’t participate in the practice as he had to shave his head 3 months ago and his hair still wasn’t long enough.

 

Sumo 13

Can you tell which wrestlers are new to the scene?

 

Sumo

Bare minimum coverage for these wrestlers

That afternoon, I began to get a sore throat which soon progressed into what felt like strep throat the next two days. I decided to go into the doctor to get checked on Friday. Looks I’ll be using my travel medical insurance after all. The doctor’s office experience was top notch! After filling out only one sheet of information and one signature, I was led back to my room. I opened the door to find the doctor waiting for me! Well this is a pleasant surprise. After looking inside my mouth, he held a device in front of me and said, “No fever”. “You just took my temperature with that thing?” “Yes,” he answered questioningly. “You guys are so advanced!” was my reply. I was then led into a different room to get tested for CRP (still no idea what that is) and strep. Naturally, I walked in and attempted to sit on the bed until I heard a strong, “NO!” I turned around and the lady (nurse, I’m guessing) pointed towards the chair. She preceded to lay the testing materials on the bed. Alright, so apparently beds are for supplies and chairs are for patients. Good to know. After confirming that I had strep throat, I asked the doctor where he recommended I should fill my prescriptions. He looked at my funny and said, “I give you the medicine here.” Five minutes later, I walked out of his office with four sets of pills in plain white paper sacks. This sure looks suspicious. But no pharmacy stop in my future. High five for Japan’s healthcare system/procedure!

 

Mt Fuji 5th Station 2I spent my last day off on a bus tour to Mt. Fuji! Our lunch stop was held at a ninja village so of course, I practiced my ninja star throwing skills. Well this sure brings me back to some nights in Ryan Fick’s garage in Mankato, right Ann?! Unfortunately, it was a very cloudy day so the only pictures that turned out were ones from the 5th Station. The 5th Station is the highest point that vehicles can drive up to. Even then, I had to be patient with my camera as the view would be clear for about one minute and then clouds/fog would roll through for about five minutes. I will definitely be back one day to hike this beautiful mountain.

Ninja Village

Ninja village!

Ninja Village 6

Practicing my ninja star skills

Mt Fuji 5th Station 5

Mt Fuji from the 5th Station

Mt Fuji 5th Station 8

Literally 15 seconds later…

Unique Experiences

This week was pretty mellow with the kids. The days consisted of Eleanor and I coloring, working on letters, and completing a train puzzle while Theo took his morning and afternoon naps. When Theo was awake, we played at parks. I was a bit taken back when the first park we went to had no grass. It was surrounded by trees, but all dirt-based. Maybe it’s because it’s just a small neighborhood park? Yet, they’ve installed a soft cushiony material under the dirt at the base each slide, Fireman’s pole, and stairs. After going to two other parks, both significantly bigger than the first one, I’ve come to the conclusion grass must not grow here. Either that, or they don’t want the upkeep/maintenance of it.

Between Eleanor’s clumsiness and Theo’s interest in tasting dirt while being the drooling king, they are both caked with dirt/mud by the time we leave. I’m all for kids playing outside and getting dirty, but this has reached a whole new level of dirty on a daily basis. Prior to now, we’ve had the kids re-wear their clothes a couple of days before sending them off to the laundry service. Here, however, the clothes last for about 3/4 of a day before going into the dirty clothes pile. Good thing we have a washing machine in our house this time!

Shinjuku Chuo Park

Shinjuku Chuo Park. Plenty of trees. Zero grass.

Over the last week and a half, I’ve noticed Eleanor has been constantly chewing on her fingers (not even biting her nails; literally chewing on her fingers) or licking/biting things (stroller, windows, hand rails, etc.). To (hopefully) nip this in the bud before it becomes a bad habit, I told her she needed to keep her tongue in her mouth and her fingers out of it. Her response? “What if my teeth stick out? Where do they go?” Um… your teeth are nowhere close to sticking out of your mouth, so let’s keep them in. Now, anytime I catch her, I say, “Tongue in!” and she sheepishly replies, “Fingers out”.

MariCar 2The first highlight of my week occurred on Wednesday. I booked a tour/experience with a company called MariCar. For a measly $70, I was able to dress up in a Mario Cart character (Yoshi!!!!) and drive around Tokyo in a go-cart for three hours. Real-life Mario Cart, Tokyo style! Their first rule… No throwing banana peels or leaving oil spills! 🙂   While we weren’t able to go on the highways due to the engine size, we did drive on the regular streets between cars and trucks. I was able to get my go-cart up to 62km/h before the governor kicked in! People came up to wave and take pictures with us at practically every stop light. I feel like a celebrity…and I’m going to soak every ounce of it up! Unique experience number one… check!

MariCar 7My second highlight of the week occurred Friday night. My plan was to grab some drinks in tiny area of town called Golden Gai. There are 288 bars crammed into the space of a soccer field. Each bar can only sit 4-8 people and each floor of the stall is a different bar. When one person wants to leave, it takes coordination on everyone’s part to get them out the door. I had read that Albatross was a good starting point as it welcomed foreigners. Some bars only allow locals and you’ll know right away if you walk into one – the bartender will shake their head and point to the street.

Albatross - Piss Alley

Piss Alley’s Albatross

I found Albatross and after chatting with the entire bar (four other foreigners and two bartenders) over a few drinks, I realized I was in Piss Alley, not Golden Gai. Apparently Albatross has two locations and all of us thought we had made it to Golden Gai. Upon this realization, we all decided to make the 500 meter walk to Golden Gai. We rallied another random foreigner on the walk and the six of us had quite the night together. One of the guys enlisted me as his wingwoman. He had his eyes on a girl and I attempted to start a conversation with her. Turned out, she’s local and doesn’t know a lick of English. The only two words I have learned in Japanese are hello and thank you. Well this isn’t going to work out. I got my phone out and started using Google Translate. I typed in English, the app would show the words back in Japanese, and I handed her my phone. She would do the same in Japanese and hand my her phone. Fast forward an hour later, we’re instant friends even though we can’t communicate in a common language. Technology is a fascinating thing!

Saturday was spent battling a hangover (the drinks here are very strong, even the beers) and exploring the Asakusa area with the French guy we randomly picked up on the walk from Piss Alley to Golden Gai. We checked out an onsen which is a public bathhouse, complete with nude hot springs. That was an… interesting experience. Males and females are only separated by a wall so while you can’t see the opposite sex, you’re still able to chat with them. The hot springs felt great and were definitely hot. There was one cold pool. I got in it as far as my ankles before deciding it wasn’t for me. The showers were no more than three feet off the ground and you had to sit on a stool in order to be below the nozzle. This part really grossed me out as the stools were reused without any sanitization… after customers sat on them in the buff. Yuck. Yuck. No thank you.

Asakusa 8During our exploration of Asakusa, we stumbled into a shop that allowed you to play with parakeets and look at owls for $8/half hour. We also checked out a game station. Game stations are huge here (both literally and figuratively). The best way to describe a game station is equivalent to sitting in a casino at the slot machines while being at a rock concert. The noise is so loud, it’s deafening. Locals will sit in these multi-level game stations for hours on end, playing video games (think Pac-man as opposed to PlayStation). As I’ve mentioned before, Tokyo is full of unique experiences!

 

 

Game Station

Game station in Shibuya

 

Fifth country in as many months

Per usual, this week was pretty uneventful as we prepared to leave Vietnam and headed to our fifth country in five months. We flew back to HCMC from Hoi An Tuesday evening and flew to Tokyo Saturday afternoon. Hoi An was a very relaxing place. It was great to get away from the hustle and bustle of HCMC. I definitely want to return to Hoi An on my own in the future.

Eleanor 5Eleanor only had one meltdown this week. The reason behind it….? She was looking at these letters and she wanted them to be numbers. Um…. that’s not exactly how it works. Theo face planted at the park on Thursday (total Bambi-style) and has some pretty sweet scratches on his nose and forehead. Nanny of the year award goes to….. !

Today, I went out and explored parts of Tokyo. First impression: Knowing what things are might be a bit difficult as it’s written in Japanese symbols and not English letters. At least in Vietnam, I knew that ga meant chicken, bo meant beef, and ca meant fish. Second impression: Holy cow. There are SO many people here. The foot traffic in Tokyo is like the scooter traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Granted, I was in the touristy areas of town but still… shoulder to shoulder on every sidewalk. The highlight of my day was eating at Uobei Sushi in Shibuya. I was sat down in a long row of people (15 places per row, 4 rows in the restaurant). I ordered my sushi off an iPad and it came out on a conveyor belt directly from the kitchen! You could order up to

Uobei Sushi 2

The set up at Uobei Sushi

3 plates at a time (each plate had two pieces for 100 yen). After you took your plates off the conveyor belt, you touched a button on the iPad and it zoomed back into the kitchen. The only times I interacted with a member of the staff was when I got seated and when I paid. This type of service keeps getting threatened to happen in America with the increase of minimum wage. I can honestly say, I had a great experience using a computer to order my meal! I was even able to customize it, no problems. Now, I did seek this place out off a recommendation from a fellow traveler so I knew what to expect. However, for dinner tonight, I just walked into a random ramen place (Tokyo is known for ramen) and had a pretty similar experience. I walked in and ordered from a computer. After I inserted my money, it spit out a ticket. The chef motioned for me to sit down on a particular chair (just one row of 15 seats in a bar-like setting). I handed him my ticket, watched him cook my order, and then he handed it to me. Again, very minimal staff to interact with. Maybe this is how all restaurants in Tokyo are? They eliminated the middle man position. While the noodles had great texture, I thought the broth tasted like moldy beef broth. So gross. It’s like I’m eating someone else’s throw up. After discussing this experience with Melissa and Travis later, I was informed it was probably miso-based. Safe to say, I do not like miso.

 

 

Shinjuku

Yep, I’m in Tokyo alright! If only I knew what any of the symbols meant.

 

Here are the things I learned in Vietnam that didn’t make it into a prior blog post….

          Driving is absolutely nuts in Ho Chi Minh City. As with Bali, whoever is the bravest has the right of way. Bali driving was a walk in the park compared to this!

          Pho is delicious. How have I never tried this before?!

          McDonalds has only been in Vietnam for one year

          There are 10 million residents in Ho Chi Minh City. There are 7 million scooters. No wonder traffic is crazy.

          There is no buffer zone between the green walking man and the red walking man on crosswalks. Sometimes, the man is still green after the streetlight turns green. I was caught in this awful “no man land” twice and it was scary.

          Vietnamese is a difficult language to learn.

          Coriander is used in lots of food which totally ruins the taste. Most times I can pick it out, but sometimes there is just too much.

          Hardly any Vietnamese cook at home. Properties with kitchens are expensive so they chose to eat out for their meals. A local meal for one person costs between $.75-$2 USD. Also they pack as many family members into each home as possible and would rather pay for more room space than a kitchen.

          Vietnam had their own baby boom as 17 million babies have been since the war ended. There are now 95 million residents throughout Vietnam.

          You know a restaurant is authentic/local if you have to sit outside on plastic tables and chairs made for preschoolers.

          While standing in line (grocery store check out line, Mcdonalds ordering line, etc.), if you don’t move quick, others will cut in front of you. Gotta be aggressive if you want to get through the line!

          Vermicelli is delicious. How have I never tried this before either?

          Always know how much change you should receive.   I was shorted multiple times and just kept motioning for them to give me more money back until it was the correct amount. The worst one was I gave the cashier 200 VND for a purchase of 107 VND and she only gave me 3 VND back to start with.

– Vietnamese are very resourceful. They can pack an astounding amount onto their scooters. See pictures below.

Resourceful 3       Resourceful   Resourceful 6