Taiwan

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Okay, what is Taiwan? Where is it?  Most people who travel in Asia seem to bypass this culinary epicenter of the world.  A lot of Americans don’t really know it more than a “Made in Taiwan” label that used to be on most clothing in 80’s and 90’s.  I knew it was an island off the coast of China but I really didn’t know much more about it hence why I had to go. I had heard stories about it and people have told me, “oh you have to go!”  During my travels I even met other travelers who were from Taiwan that microphoned their thoughts of national pride.  “Oh Taiwanese people are the friendliest!” “Oh the food is so good.”  “Oh the technology is so advanced!” Okay, okay! I’m sold…I’m going there!”  When I first started planning on going, I didn’t know how much time I would need to bounce around the island.  I remember asking someone if I could go from one end of the island to the other in 3 weeks.  Hahaha!  A day’s trip can easily get from one end of the island to the other.  Taiwan is like China but not. They are from the same seed but it’s rather different.  Taiwanese speak Mandaran which is one of the popular languages in China. I had the fortunate or unfortunate luck of being their during Chinese New Years. Chinese New Years is not an ordinary holiday in the Orient.  It is a really really big holiday.  I could probably say it is like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Years in the west all combined into an 8 day holiday.  It’s crazy!!!  Many of the Chinese don’t even get to travel home or vacation any other time of the year so this is a big deal.  Some of you may have seen the photos where Asians are cramming into a train and there is a guy pushing and squeezing one more person into the sardine like box car….well I guarantee that is Chinese New Year.  Those photos are from China by the way.  So I found myself in a lot of crowds at times and sometimes not.  Many restaurants and shops were either closed or on holiday schedule.  The crowds seemed to migrate to the same locations which I found a bit extreme on the personal space compared to Japan.  Japanese will stand a foot away from you.  In Taiwan during Chinese New Year, you will get an elbow to the face followed by a few steps on your feet.  It was rather hilarious at times.

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The visual hints of Chinese medicine are encompassed everywhere in Taiwan.  In a city park I found this reflexology stone path.  Walking on this barefoot is suppose to be good for the health.  However, when I was walking on it, it was very painful and caused me to yell, “ewwh, ahhh, ohhhh, eeeehhh” with an onlooking laughing audience staring me at wondering, “what the heck is wrong with that guy.” Then I got to see other Asian tourist follow suit after me which gave me plenty of amusement watching empathetically their painful faces.

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A few steps on the ecrutiatingly painful path will cure every ailment that you could possibly have except pain of the foot.  I walked away with having a bruised foot but everything else seemed to dissipated or at least I couldn’t focus on anything else.

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One thing I love about Asia is the culture that is ingrained into society and the city.  Art and beauty are inbred into visually stunning city.

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If you are a foodie, then Taiwan in your fantasy land.  Food stands, night markets, and restaurants are ubiquitous with Taiwanese culture.  Around every corner is a new discovery or an unusual food item that has you scratching your head, “yes please, I will take one of your mystery items.” Now I found most people didn’t speak english but they were very accommodating.  Ordering food was rather easy and very cheap!  In fact Taiwan boasts some of the cheapest food in Asia.  My secret on food was always following the the lines.  Now Asians in general seem love lines.  A line can go from 5 people to 50 in minutes.  I saw this time and time again…5 people would line up, and as if there was some unheard loud microphone yelling, “Hey everyone!  There is a line!!!!” Better hurry!!! You would see Asians running eagerly as fast as they can to line up.  I found myself becoming a part of this “standing in line” phenomena and after trying the food at the end of the lines, I loved them too! I was like, “LINE!!!!, Move over!!! Save me a spot!”

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As I followed this golden line of salivating and drooling Asians, I found myself having one of the best donuts of my life.

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Another worth the wait line.  As you can see there is so much love put into the food here.  See below for the inside filling.

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Tasty and succulent pork filling.

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I love exploring and not paying attention to where guidebooks send you.  I stumbled upon this market while looking for a cup of coffee one morning.

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Advertisement for a tour of the ship channel.  Seemed fun but I passed on this one but if you are in Houston, Texas and looking for a business opportunity then maybe you should think about offering tours of the Houston ship channel to Chinese tourist.  They were really packed!

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Chinese New Years Decorations.  As I said I was here for Chinese New Years.  I found myself receiving random gifts from people for the New Years.  At first I didn’t know what they were giving me and they didn’t speak any english to tell me what it was for. But after traveling for a bit, I know to just go with it and give them a very appreciative nod.   I love the generous and loving nature!

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French fry battered corndogs!  Seriously, this should be at every American state fair.


Noodle sandwich

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I was happy when the train station had a sign in English that pointed me to “Classy Restaurants.”  “Class restaurants, you say?  Where are the classy restaurants?” When I followed this path of discovery, it led me to McDonalds.  Haha!

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One thing I was pleased with is that coffee roasters aren’t too terribly hard to track down in Taiwan.  Being that they have a lot of Japanese influence, I could find my favorite Japanese pour-over coffee devices here.  Most Taiwanese prefer more of the fruity coffees from regions such as Ethiopia versus Central American Coffee.

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The train system is immaculate in Taiwan which is similar to Japan.  As in most places in Taipei, the stations are meticulously clean.  Even in this country of few trash cans, Taiwanese don’t litter.  I received a hint from a local, that you can always find a trash can in the train terminal.

 

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One day I was exploring the streets of Taipei and found the famous toilet themed restaurant as seen on numerous travel shows.  I couldn’t help myself but to go have lunch in good toilet humor.

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Chocolate soft serve ice cream.

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Curry Chicken out of a toilet bowl.


Pork filled green onion pancake.  I have seen it referred to as a green onion pancake as well.  It is not really a pancake in the western thought.  It is buttery, flake, and an extremely savory dough. Not sweet.  It comes in a few variations and is by far my favorite food in Taiwan that I have tasted.  I also had it with fried egg and a spicy peppery spread that had me salavating.  Taiwan will definitely be on my list of places to return.  I think my stomach will always yearn for this gastronomical paradise.  

Traveling in Japan

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I am truly impressed with Japan and this wonderful country on so many levels. As a traveler, I do some site seeing but my real reasons for long term travel are to study and observe other cultures and to learn.  I really wanted to learn about people, foods, societies, and even simple ways of doing things differently.  Growing up I felt like I was in a bubble and isolated from the rest of the world and I had a thirst and curiosity to see and learn.  These are things that can’t be learned from a book or on TV.  Travel is the best education possible in my opinion. I have learned a lot of things this past year and my opinions and insights will be forever changed.  I love arriving to countries that I am truly ignorant about and seeing things eyes wide opened.  Japan was a country I really knew little about.  First of all, it is not small.  There’s white capped mountains, miles of coastal lines, natural hotsprings called onsens everywhere, lush green forests, big cities, beautiful little villages, plenty of gardens, and temples to see.  Each city has a labyrinth of alleys filled with hidden gem shops and restaurants.  It feels like one big scavenger treasure hunt with surprises found around each corner.  At first I was marking cool spots with google maps so I could return to them later in the day…then I had a google map filled with dozens of stars marking locations and not knowing which was which. No two week holiday would do justice here. In fact, I feel a month doesn’t do it justice.  It is a country with great diversity and would take years to really explore.  As a westerner, I can only skim the surface in my short time here.  I am not able to read the language and many places don’t have any English reference.  I have spoken with expats who have lived here for years and still tell me they are learning things everyday.  It is an extremely interesting country.  I am sure I look pretty goofy half the time with my mouth wide open gaping at all the spectacles.  The sights, the sounds, the colors, and people have me awww struck’n!  It’s a visually exotic and exciting to be here!  I am just blown away by this richly advanced country.  I find myself continuously asking myself “why don’t we have this back home?”  I think Japan should seriously be a case study for any western country seeking to get out of the stone ages.  Japan is a well oiled machine and one of the most technologically advanced countries I have ever been to, yet they manage to keep tradition and character alive. Deep rooted traditions are ingrained in their culture and society.  The Geisha is not going away anytime soon…

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First thing I noticed about Japan is that is clean.  I mean really really clean.  Japanese don’t litter. In fact they recycle everything.  They take great pride in recycling.  There’s a place for plastic bottles, PET bottles, paper, and metal.  Lots of times there isn’t even a trash can because “why would you throw it away if you can recycle it.”  Wow, such forward thinking.  A Japanese will carry trash all day long just to find somewhere to recycle it.  The streets are immaculately clean.  A leaf hits the sidewalk or street in front of someone’s house or business and you will see a Japanese person scurry outside as soon as it hits the ground with broom and dust pan. Often times I wonder if there is some type of sensor alarm that sends a message to all Japanese “BEEP BEEP BEEP….WE HAVE A CODE BLUE EMERGENCY!!! LEAF JUST FELL ON THE SIDEWALK….ALL HANDS ON DECK!” People don’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground here.  There are designated areas to smoke and I even saw a guy with a pocket ashtray to ash in.  Why would he dare ash on the ground and dirty his beautifully immaculate country?  In the houses, you take off your shoes.  They have slippers for you to wear because you don’t want outside dirt contaminating your house.  Then there are bathroom slippers to put on before you enter the bathroom.  Some might think this is overkill but I love the extra effort and really enjoy how clean everything is.  Every business and home feels like you can eat off of the floor.  If food drops on the ground there’s no 3 second rule here…I wouldn’t have any issue with saving it for later and eating it.  Corners of counters and floor boards are spotless of dust. 

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Their cleanliness carries over to the body.  Home of the worlds most technologically advanced showers and toilets in the world.  The showers are fantastic.  The water pressure can be adjusted to car wash pressure and can probably power wash any tattoo right off of your body.  Showers don’t stop there.  You can actually set the temperature of the water.  So you don’t have to either freeze or burn your fingers trying to guess the water temperature. 

The toilets are by far the best in the world and it is on the top of any discussion about Japan from foreigners.  Seriously once you use a Japanese toilet, you will never be able to use anything else.  I will no doubt import one these wherever I live.  Why the rest of the world hasn’t adopted this technology, really beats me.   Maybe we are dirty savages that opt for a paper clean rather than washing clean.  My first experience sitting on one of these was like a 4 year stepping into a fighter jet and trying to figure out the controls.  It was all written in Japanese so I had no clue what anything meant but my kid like nature had to test all of the buttons.  So let me start out Japan is winter right now and my first experience of sitting on a heated toilet seat was great.  Wow…”that’s really nice”, I thought.  “Heated seats….why don’t we have that?”  Heated toilet seats at the ski lodges was particularly great as well!  So the toilet control panel buttons are a Flush for number 1, a flush for number 2, sound effects so you don’t get embarrassed for those noisy moments, men’s rear side spray (one with laser like precision that never misses the bullseye and another one for the whole thing in case you were messy), then there’s one for women that gives a more frontal wash.  I will add that these jet warm water as well and you can digitally control the water pressure.  So after my first few days, I was talking with a hostel mate about how great these toilet washes.  She’s like there’s a women button and men’s.  Then she proceeded to tell me which button was which.  Ohhhhh……well I have been using the women’s button this whole time. Haha it felt great though. 

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Toilet controls

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Most disability friendly country.  Braille on the sidewalks for blind people.  The crosswalks play beautiful nursery rhyme chimes to notify the blind when it is okay to walk across the street as well.  The train stations have bird sounds that tell the blind which direction to go.

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Warm water being sprayed on the streets and sidewalks to prevent freezing.  Colorado…take note of this.

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Ok, Japanese are extremely polite.  “Aragato” is thank you and I really try to be polite wherever I go.  No matter where you go and with every transaction there is an “aragatogozaimasu” from the clerk.  So I what I learned is that the clerk will always get the last word. I mean ALWAYS!  So the clerk would give me my change.  Me, I respond, “aragoto” and they respond “aragatogozaimasu,” then I repond “aragato” because honestly that is all I know how to respond with in Japanese.  They quickly then respond “aragatogozaimasu” again and bow like tennis match returning a serve. I say “aragoto” again and bow.  They then respond once again with an even more entusiatic smile until we are having a bowing and thanking contest.  I have learned the Japanese will not let you get the last word or bow no matter how hard you try.  As we exchanged our back and forth “thank you’s” a dozen times, others join in to help their coworker with the thanking contest.  “What? No fair …..lets keep this contest one on one,” I am thinking.  I try to deepen my “aragatogozaimasu” and bow until my back hurts but there’s no chance to win the thanking contest with any Japanese I have learned. Believe me, I have tried numerous times….no one can beat a Japanese.  A Japanese will always get the last thank you.  I have accepted being a loser in this contest now and I silently back out of the door smiling.

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Cell phones.

One thing you notice about Japan is that it is quiet, serene, and very relaxing.  I have yet to see a Japanese talk on their cell phone in public.  Not on a sidewalk, a train, or anywhere in a matter of fact.  People here have discipline.  There’s no signs saying “No talk on the cell phones in public or you there will be a high $$$$ fine.  People are just respectful and realize nobody wants to hear your yabbing conversation in public. The train rides are rather pleasant because they are quiet.  Now I found out there is a room similar to a bathroom that is designated to use a cell phone. Japanese are hard on each other and being rude is not acceptable. 

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If you were going to describe Japan in one word, I would say it is “PRIDE.”  It is very proud nation and likely-so should be.  They are efficient and really have adopted that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.  There’s no tipping in Japan.  Because if you tip then that would insinuate that everything wasn’t perfect.  Perfection is expected.  As one of my old VP’s use to say “mediocrity is unacceptable,” which I really like.  Maybe that is why everything runs like a well oiled machine.  Hospitality is exceptional, cleanliness is spectacular, and everything seems to be at the highest quality….note to the world.  Take more pride!

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Call button at the table….when you are ready to order press the button.  If you need something…press the button.  No waiting for service.  The check is always immediately brought to your table with each purchase as well.  So when you are ready, you just walk to the front and pay at the cash register.

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Another beautiful thing about Japan is that magnificent mass transportation system.  It is really easy to bounce around on the train….you just buy a ticket in one of these machines and go through the gates…It’s pretty easy to get around after you get the hang of it.

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Monkey chilling in one of the numerous hot springs of Japan.  There are literally thousands of Onsens.  This photo was taken at Monkey Park outside of Nagano.

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Golden Temple in Kyoto

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Nara Park is where you can buy crackers to feed the deer.  I will tell you deer are not near as docile as one might think.  When I walked into the park, deer swarmed me and started pulling things out of my pockets.  The deer are taught to bow and then you give them a treat.  Well, I wasn’t informed of this before…and these bowing deer were shocked when I wasn’t giving them their reward.  A bow, a nudge, another nod, a nudge…then as if then as if they were a golden retreiver playing “where’s the treat?” they started going for the pockets.  Pulling out gloves, phone, and everything from my pockets until nothing was left in them.  Fearful these deer weren’t going to stop until I got them a treat, I yelled at lady selling crackers….”Hurry, hurry…..I need some crackers fast!!!! Yes, yes…I have your money…please crackers fast!!!!!”  “These deer want their rewards!!!”  The deer and me became really good friends after I filled their bellies with crackers.  I then had a good time, taking crackers and getting the deer to follow me to other unsuspecting tourist….then watching the deer wreak havoc on the people….haha I do have a silly sense of humor.

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You might ask why the antlers are sawed off…..It is a safety thing, believe me it is a good thing.  Otherwise you would have every gored tourist crawling away like in a bloody freddy krueger horror flick saying “please please…I have no more crackers!”

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Geisha fabrics.  I love the colors of these beautifully designed fabrics.

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Look at me…”I’m totally Japanese!” with the “V” sign.  It’s not a peace sign folks.  “V” for victory.

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I showed up in a little village of Suzaka where I was staying a 100 year old traditional Japanese house.  Marina, the beautiful homeowner was like, “it’s snowing really hard, we are going skiing tomorrow, do you want to come?” I quickly responded, “DO I??????  YESSSSSSSSSS!!!”  Stoked because this was the best snow of the season and I just got lucky enough to be here at the right time.  It was a massive powder day and snowboarding at Hakuba was truly epic.  It beat any day I had on the hill in Colorado for the past two seasons.  It was one of the moments, “I’m snowboarding in JAPAN!!!!” $70 included my lunch, my snowboard, my boots, a rental ski jacket, pants, and googles….and the mountain was far more luxurious than what we have in Colorado.  Heated toilet seats and even a hot spring located at the main ski lodge at the bottom of the hill. Another “why don’t we have this” moment.  So after the tiring day of boarding all day, I slipped into a nice indoor hot spring and soaked my worn out muscles….it even had a sauna in there.

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High pressure air hoses to blow the snow off of your equipment at the base of the mountain….this way your don’t have snow all over your car.  Japanese truly think of everything.

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I was lucky enough to meet these two Japanese fellows and they invited me out with them.  Not being able to read Japanese, I miss out on so much….This was one of those we’ll have one of everything on the menu nights plus variety of sake tasting.  Here were are eating raw horse meat…one of the best things that I ate in Japan and that says a lot. It is like sashimi and dissolves in your mouth with minimal chewing.  I learned a lot this night about Japanese culture….and this is one of those nights I will never forget!!

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Yes please…we will have one bottle each.

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“Katasu” For those of you who don’t know what a katasu is….it is the best thing ever. Try a blanket over a table that has a small heater mounted to the underside. It makes a small oven under there and you just lay your legs inside there. It keeps you really really warm. Why every house in Colorado doesn’t have these beats me. These are fantastic!!!!!!

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Tokyo.

Japanese are the disciplined people.  Besides no littering, no talking on the cell phone in public, you notice that people don’t “J” walk here.  Its amazing.  Everyone waits for the walk sign to turn green.  There is even a chime with little music to give to the blind people notice to walk.

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Osaka

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No Japanese blog post can be complete without a “Hello Kitty” pic…

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Okonomiyaki – This was at a cook it yourself place.  I made that.

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My first cup of coffee in Tokyo was in a beautiful little cafe with an old roaster in the window.  I walked in and was looking bewildered at the menu written in Japanese.  The lady runs back and gets me an english menu.  I see “brended coffee” on the menu, so I tell the lady, “okay I will have the “blended” coffee.”  She looks at me really confused.  So I repeated myself but this time, I pronounced the R instead of the L as “brended”  coffee as it was written on the menu…she was like “aaahhh, brrrrended coffee”….”hei” (yes)…and did my universal index finger in the air for “one”.  Travel has taught me a lot about how to communicate effectively.

The english menu’s are oftentimes a dumbed down version of the real menu as to what foreigners will probably order.  Later I learned my brended coffee shop had single origin coffee that I didn’t know about it.  The Japanese menu can be 12 pages long, and the english is a one page flier that doesn’t have a fraction of what the restaurant serves.  I have learned that my google translator app allows me to take a picture of japanese characters and decipher words one by one.  The process can be arduous but at least I’m not eating the foriegner only food.  Some places have pictures which is always helpful but there are always options….options on everything.  Some are combos, some are different sizes, some are different ingredients.  Oh you want ramen noodle.  How soft or firm do you want the noodles?  How much lard?  Salt based or soy based?  Udon or Soba, hot or cold, soup or no soup….what size.  Pork, fish, no meat, egg or no egg, hard boiled or raw, spicy or not spicy….

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Okay…consider the best steak in the world by many.  Kobe beef was at the top of my list as a must try.  So I made a pilgrimage to Kobe, Japan where cows are massaged daily and live a life far better than most.  I have seen Kobe beef in the United States but it’s not the same.  There’s only one place to try Kobe beef and that is in Japan.  So when I arrived in Kobe, I asked a few where to get a Kobe steak.  Like many things in Japan, there are options and lots of options.  Kobe beef has different grades A1 to A5.  A5 being the most expensive.  Now when I arrived in Kobe, I found out what Kobe beef really costs.  Sticker shocked….but I’m here in Kobe.  I have to do this.  I don’t want to try a place that is serving a mediocre A1 kobe steak.  I wanted the best…after chalking up the price as a part of travel that is about the experience, I opted to go try a kobe steak. Initially I batted an eye….but then I thought it is like an expensive scuba excursion or something.  This is once in a life time.  Something I can judge all steaks by.  I can literally say I have experienced a real Kobe steak in Kobe, Japan….. So after getting an education on Kobe steaks and finding a place that every local says in the best steakhouse in Kobe, I opted for authentic A5 experience at the best steakhouse in Kobe.  At $150 a pop, I had a luxurious mouth watering fat melting steak.

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No not corndog man…that’s is fried yakatori man…which is meat skewer of fish, chicken, or steak…battered and then fried.

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Plastic food replicas in the window…are pretty common….makes picking out what to eat much easier.

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Soba Noodles

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A lot of places have these vending machines in the front.  You pay and it prints out a ticket.  You then walk to the cook and hand them your ticket. I ordered the one with a pic…haha.

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I had the wonderful experience of enjoying this Wagyu beef at one Japanese steak house.  One of those places where you have your own little grill and you cook your own beef.  The owner and I began chatting via google translator and handing the phone back and forth.  He was an extremely nice man and I really liked him.  After I ate a few courses of various pork cuts…he shows me this fat grained steak and says expensive and uttered something like present but I wasn’t sure.  Many things can be lost in translation..and then he lays it out for me..okay, I thought.. how could I say no…Sometimes you get in situations where you pay more than you want but you just chalk it up as…well…as an experience.  So I ate this delicious steak…and in fact it was incredible. I can honestly say this was one of the best steaks I have ever had.  After I finished my cut of cow and my belly ached from eating so much, he brings out another steak dish…”Oh my sir, I’m really full.  I can’t have that.”  He motioned for “togo”…uh alright. I’m really stuffed but okay.  Check please!….I was fearful this was going to be a $200 dinner because I know how expensive this stuff is.  When my check came out, none of these “presents” were on it.  When I got home, I found room for the togo dish…..It absolutely fantastic!

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Fresh Sashimi at the fish market.  I ate a lot of sushi in Japan and never had any bad sushi or sashimi.  Gimmicky rolls are not as popular here. Fresh fish is the showcase…and it just melts in your mouth.   Seriously…it is that good!

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Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

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Beautifully made siphon coffee.  Good coffee in Japan is not hard to find which makes me not understand why Starbucks is here.  Many places do their own roasting and a selection of various single origin coffees are everywhere.  No searching for a needle in a haystack to find good coffee here.  I was pleasantly surprised at most places I went.

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What’s he doing?  He’s throwing away the imperfect beans.  I will happily pay a few bucks more for my cup with this kind of attention to detail.

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Which bean do you want?  Uh…I’ll take that one…no the one to the left…one more over…yes that one… Small batch roasting…and so many choices.  I love it!!!!

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Capsule hotel in Japan

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These are absolutely fantastic. Austin and Portland have slogans that say things like “Keep Austin/Portland weird.” Well I think Japan should have the same but this is one of those things….that keeps Japan cutting edge. The famous capsule hotel. Things book up fast in Japan and at $30/night this was all that was available. I didn’t care…I really wanted to try it anyways!! I was soooo exited to finally get to stay in a capsule hotel. For me, I felt somewhat like Bill Murray in The movie “Lost in Translation.” Confused, definitely out of place, I felt like I was truly in an alien world. So what is the capsule hotel? It is a place where tired business men and people that don’t want to commute home after a few beers catch a few zzzz’s. An affordable plastic white Star Wars sleeping capsule for sleeping with all the comforts of a hotel room including a bed, tv, AC, radio, and alarm clock. A dormitory so to speak lined with hundreds of individual sleeping modules. The capsule itself was stacked two high and mine fortunately was on the bottom. As I opened the cargo door to enter my plastic caffin, I was expecting a stuffy clausterphobic tomb that simulated being buried alive. To my surprise, I noticed there was room. Lots of room. Laying down I couldn’t even reach the top. In fact I had another foot or so of room to the ceiling. On my side there was a full cockpit of controls which I took as a game of “what’s this button do?” to figure out. I then look up and see that I have my own tv. Awesome!!! How cool is this!! Japanese TV!! There’s buttons for sound, tv, radio, alarm, and few extra mystery buttons I never figured out. At the top there is an air vent that allows a perfect flow of temperature controlled air to get the cockpit at your desired temp. 

  
 The capsule hotel experience doesn’t stop there. There’s also locker room downstairs for all your luggage. After all you couldn’t have all these people keeping luggage in the hallway. In my locker there was a couple of towels and an obi wan kanobi outfit to lounge around in. 

  
  
 There are actually a few lounge areas filled with business men watching tv and sitting in the latest brookstone massage chairs buzzing at full massage speed. So for those of you who don’t know, Japanese showering and body cleaning is different than what we have in the west. They take baths. The bathing room is located on bottom floor. As I entered the room, there’s dozens of naked men and some chilling in there obi wan kanobi outfits..another tv, more lockers, and more massage chairs. There’s even sinks with hair dryers and other miscellaneous toiletry items that I have no clue what they are used for. The bathing room is located in the next room. I undress and enter the bathing room where I see an Olympic size pool that is roughly 3 feet deep and filled with boiling water. There’s another pool with bubbles and then there’s a sauna. But you can’t enter the giant hot tub bath before washing. Remember the rule of showering before you enter the pool as a kid, the one that nobody abided by. Well, in Japan that is not the case. They take this pre shower thing very seriously. The showers are more like plastic stools that you sit on with a removable shower handle accompanied with face wash, soap, shampoo, and conditioners. There’s even a personal mirror. I have always considered myself a clean guy. I like to take long showers….but the Japanese could probably hog a shower for hours. If you ever have a Japanese over, make sure you have plenty of hot water and two bathrooms. So as I sit on the stool to follow suit on my pre bath cleaning. I lather up…and see guys scrubbing like they are entering a decontamination zone. I finished my washing but noticed the guys that were sitting next to me and were there before me were still scrubbing. Every sq. inch and oriface is scrubbed for minutes….or should I say half hours. I was ready to do my cannonball into the giant hot tub but these guys were still washing and exfoliating. How dirty were these guys? Seriously…”did they play in manure all day?” I am like “guys, come on…I think we are clean…lets jump in.” As a traveler, I am very observant of what other people are doing so that I cut down on cultural faux pos. I did not want to be the dirty American who just ruined that bath water for everyone. These guys were sitting there when I entered the room so I felt I had to wait and clean some more before entering. I couldn’t have these guys judge me…so I continued lathering, lathering, lathering…..until I was rubbed raw when finally one got…”yup we are clean fellows….okay to enter the pool”. Now we enter…nobody talks, nobody even looks at each other. We are just naked men taking a bath together in a giant pool. This is peaceful time for Japanese and everyone enters into meditative relaxation mode. And the hot bath experience ensures, the best night of sleep ever. After my face was tomato red and I couldn’t handle it anymore, I get out where we repeat the soaping and washing. I then return to the club house locker room to chill. I give my nod to the other gentlemen, “good bath, everyone.” I have to say….we are really missing out in the west by not having these. For clarification, everyday they drain the hot pool and scrub it Japanese clean so it doesn’t feel like entering your typical gross western hot tub. 

      
So I just booked my capsule for another night. Haha.

Foodie in the Philippines

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Okay as many of you know, I am a foodie.  Yes I admit it.  I am a gormandizer and love to experience new tastes that can send me into an eye rolling in the back of my head euphoric high.  Now I found my Shangri-La in the Philippines.  The food here isn’t one for the salubrious kind.  Chin dripping grease with state fair ground like appetizing fried food is what you get here.   You can practically have any part of the animal fried from intestines, to stomach, to skin….and yes it is all eye popping delicious. On top of that there is sugary love for sweets.  Sweet breads, cakes, cupcakes, donuts, and every imaginable dessert concoction that you can think of.  Travel has seemingly turned into a food tour for me.   And this country has salivated my Texas tastebuds.  One nice thing about spending a bit longer here is that I have learned so much, made great new friends, and really had an opportunity to taste some wild and crazy things.  So this part of my exploration has taken me on a Filipino culinary adventure and has been exactly what I was looking for.  Now I admit, I still have a lot of exploring to do still but…..nom nom nom nom…..this has been really exciting to my gustatory cortex. 

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Filipinos really love their food in the highest foodie sense.  Talk to any Filipino about food and their eyes will light up like a christmas tree and they will simultaneously start drooling while telling you all about their favorite local delicacies.  They will be happy to show you these dishes just to watch the expression on your face with each masticating chew.   And when your eyes roll to the back of your head, they will jump out of their seat with joyous excitement.  I love it.  I feed off their love and passion for food.  It is that common love for food that makes me feel like I have a little Filipino in me.  I have actually tried more foods than what I can show you but my salivating eagerness to take the first bite gets the best of me before I can take a photo….all I can say is, “sssssoooooooooorrrryyyyy!”

Disclaimer:  When writing this blog entry I realized I missed a lot of dishes and that there are a lot of Filipino foods.  I have posted pics and blurbs about things I have tried but seriously there is a lot more that I’m not mentioning here.  Milk fish, the dessert Halo Halo, Rice Porridge, Fried Pork Belly (Lechon Kawali – this is absolutely amazing!)  Corned beef, lots of different breads, and numerous others.  Well here you go and a somewhat incomplete list of Filipino food.  enjoy!

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Breakfast.

Filipino breakfast can consist of items that would be considered lunch in the western world such as fried chicken and even french fries but here are some truly breakfast foods.  There are food carts that line the streets where people starting their day or perhaps ending their day (Manila has a lot of night shift workers) eat elbow to elbow on counters. For the sake of the blog, I will write about the uniquely breakfast items.  There’s pork, beef, chicken and seafood usually accompanied with rice, an egg sunny side up, and some pickled vegetables.  There is also rice porridge with chicken and plenty of varieties of sweet pancakes.

A little lesson in Filipino breakfast vocabulary, “silog” means with fried garlic fried rice and egg.  So on many breakfast menus there will by longsilog or cornsilog which is meat plus egg and fried rice.  Here’s a few examples…but there are literally tons of them.

  • Longsilog = Longanisa + Silog (fried rice and egg)
  • Adosilog = Adobo + Silog
  • Cornsilog = Corned beef + Silog

Longanisa or Longsilog

Okay this is my go to.  It is a chorizo like sausage but different.   I absolutely love this savory and incredibly addictive sausage.  It varies from region to region.  There is Vigan longanisa not to be confused with anything healthy.  Vigan is an area in Northern Luzon which is the island that Manila is located on.  Vigan longanisa is has a garlic taste but there are some that are very sweet to spicy. 

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Tocino

Sugar cured pork and very tasty.  I’m not sure how to describe this other than pork awesomeness!

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Balut

Haha…okay I must warn you on this…if you have a weak stomach…stop here.  This uniquely Filipino delicacy is hard for most westerners to comprehend eating.  Duck fetus! You think ,”What the BLEEP?!!!” “Why would anybody eat such a thing?”  So what is a Balut?  It is a duck embryo that has been allowed to age to a fetus state.  This formation of the bird is visible side the egg.  It is hard boiled but I would say more like soft boiled because they don’t want to cook all the juices.  As I was saying before, Filipinos love to watch westerners eat their dishes.  Most westerners pass on this…even some Filipinos pass on this dish.  Though there are plenty that absolutely love this!  So my tasting experience is similar to probably every other gringo trying it.  Hanging out with Filipinos and you will inevitably try this at some point.  It is a rite of passage into becoming Filipino.  So as I was hanging out with Filipinos, a guy walks past selling these nauseating soft boiled duck fetuses.  Oh they couldn’t pass it up…”Hey lets get the white guy to puke on himself and laugh at him.”  Now I don’t mind being the butt of any joke as I have stated many times but I responded….”uh uh…I don’t know about this.” “I had a lot of coffee today, this might not be the day for me to try this.”  I was picturing a formaldehyde taste while choking of feathers as I tried to chew through a crunchy beak.  “Guys I…..” But it was too late at that point.  It was already ordered and a crowd of Filipinos and restaurant workers were gathering around to watch the white guy puke all over himself.  Don’t get me wrong I wanted to try this but you are never ready for your first time to eat duck fetus.  My friends were very instructive and helpful on how to eat this as well.  “You have to punch a hole in the egg first and drink the juice.  That is the best part.” “There’s a best part?? huh okay…I don’t know want to miss out on that,” I thought.  My helpful friends took the liberty to punch a hole in the top for me so that I could drink the juice.  They took a chopstick and drilled a perfect drinking hole.  I then took the egg and took a deep breath as I was getting prepared to spew all over over myself.  I held the egg up and cheers’d with a nervous smile.  As I took a swig of the “best part” fetus juice, I was actually shocked. “Hey that wasn’t that bad. Definitely not formaldahyde.”  After getting through the first puke test, I was pretty proud.  Okay now the egg.  I was still receiving orders from my Filipino companions at this point.  “You have to peel back the egg!” Still nervous….”Ugg….I am not sure about this”….but I was doing this.  I wasn’t going to back out.  I wanted to prove that I could do this.  I wanted try it!  I needed to try it!  For myself and my love of the full Filipino experience. Then I looked up and of course I see a camera phone recording the whole escapade.  Great I will puke all over myself in a humiliating and embarrassing moment and it will be caught on camera.  I could just see myself starring in a Filipino viral “white guy pukes on himself” video in which every Filipino would recognize me from.  I guess you need to record this moment anyways.  “Okay here we go”…..as I peeled back the egg, I saw the appetizing fetus show its newly formed body.  Oh my…..That’s a bird! That doesn’t really look too good.  Just sight caused a gag reflex.  I peeled off more egg which was similar to peeling a hard boiled egg.  I shook my head trying to build my nerve up as I peeled.  I was thinking, “okay Jeff, do not puke.  DO NOT PUKE!”   Okay…here is the first bite.  I took a chomp.  As the juices and flavors swirled around my mouth, I was utterly shocked.  “Hey this isn’t that bad.”  I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it.  I couldn’t help but to be excited.  “I am eating duck fetus!”  Hey everyone look at me… I am eating duck fetus and not puking.”  As I started enjoying it they were like “dip it in salt.”  “Yes, yes  I want to eat this correctly.”  I dipped in salt…and finished the egg.   So yes my name is Jeff and I eat duck fetuses in the Philippines!  With the feeling of one of those guys from the travel channel who will eat anything, I was truly proud of experiencing the Balut. Yes, I will try anything….anything!

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Lechon

The best way to describe this is fat man’s bliss.  This roasted buttery and “honey boo boo” like plump whole pig is fantastic.  Slow roasted over charcoals in a way that only someone who has cooked a lot of these can master.  Celebrity Chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdaine has stated the best pig in the world is in Cebu, Philippines and I have to say I agree with him.  It is delicious.  I’m not sure who in the rest of the world makes this dish but in the Philippines the outside is crisped in a way that savors the juices inside.  As it cooks, the fat just renders and melts inside so each bit needs only minimal chewing.  The gelatinous goodness dissolves in your mouth and slathers down your throat in an “oh my gaawwwwdd” moment.  These guys really know how to cook pig here!!!  In typical Filipino style, locals will order what seemingly looks like pounds of pig stacked on a plate for the table.  Then they make a beautiful sauce to go with it.  As in most places in Asia, they give you the ingredients and leave it up to you to mix to your own liking.  I had to get the waitress to make my first few batches.  Now the thing Filipinos brag about it is that Cebu Lechon is so juicy that it doesn’t need any sauce.   It’s like putting steak sauce on a fine steak….kind of a taboo.  But the sauce goes like “a little soy sauce, vinegar, a squeeze of miniature local lime (calamansi), then add some chili pepper”….and wah-laaa you have a perfect little side sauce.

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Bulalo

Bone marrow soup.  Worth an hour drive just to taste….or perhaps a flight across the globe to the Philippines!  YES!!!!! Really really really really really really really good!!!! So they take beef shanks with bone and throw it in a big soup with corn and potatoes.  The buttery bone marrow melts into the soup giving a really succulent and fatty meaty taste in the mouth.  

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Adobo

This comes in pork, chicken, fish, or beef..and is essential any kind of meat marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar…It is a very popular dish and Filipinos will tell you it is very easy to make.  The dish is amazing and I love it.  It’s typically pretty cheap on the menu too.  I think it is more about than the sauce though. I love the sauce and could probably just order a glass of it to drink. It is that good. The pork adobo here doesn’t have the fat trimmed off which I love….they leave it on…and it gives that culinary explosion in the mouth with each flavor able chew.

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Pork Sissig

Another fine Filipino dish…This sizzling dish of pork consists of pig head and liver seasoned with chili peppers and lime.  Yes it is good but again I say that about most Filipino dishes.  I think it is considered an appetizer or snack.

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Shawarma

Think gyro or kebab…Filipino style.  Really good…and if you like spicy then incredibly awesome.  The meat is meticulously shaved off into the frying pan and then a tortilla is toasted on the back burner…Meat is then scooped up and thrown in a tortilla, then squirted with a generous serving of mayo and spicy sauce on top.  Then “KA-POW!!” in the mouth.  It is typically served at food cart style vendors and is considered a snack but geez, I am tempted to order them like tacos…”uh…yes, I will take a 6 pack please.”  Vendor: “You want six sir?” Me: “Yes 6 shawarmas please…don’t judge me…I want six for my big fat american belly…thank you.”

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Fried Chicken Skin

Okay this is genius…Who cares about that white meat inside fried chicken, everyone knows that best part is the fried skin.  So in usual Filipino style, they have taken off the best part of the chicken and fried it.  I wonder how this started…perhaps a special order…“Yes, I will take fried chicken….but can you hold the chicken, I just want the fried crunchy outer part only.”  Because in this service oriented country, it is okay to ask for special orders.  AWESOME!!!!!  So “One fried chicken hold the meat..coming up.!!!..”“And can you give me a side of gravy?”  Like I said Philippines can make any Texas State Fair food stand in the US jealous.

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Inasal

Paa and spicy Paa.  BBQ juicy chicken lathered with spices and cooked to perfection.  There are plenty of restaurants that specialize in this and they know what they are doing.  You will see the Inasal sign lit up as bright as the McDonald Arches and no doubt a long line of drooling Filipinos waiting for their chance to order..  Normally this mouth watering party in your mouth chicken comes with rice.  Now I want to clarify that rice in Asia is different than the rice in the US.  There are literally 1000s of varieties of rice here so as you can imagine it’s really good and fresh.  I think in Asia they eat all the best rice and ship whatever is deemed barely edible rice by Asian standards to the US.  Seriously, I have never tasted awesome rice until my Asian adventure.  So for a few pesos more at these establishments, you can get unlimited rice…some places don’t even make you pay for unlimited rice.  Part of eating local dishes is knowing how to eat them for the full effect.  So I was advised…”you must ask for chicken oil.” Okay what is that…well, it is chicken fat drippings that they serve with the chicken and rice.  You must poor this beautiful tasty goodness all over your rice and eat with chicken.  Again…this is the Texas in me that loves this unhealthy eating! 

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Kare Kare

Here is another Filipino favorite. When spoken by a Filipino…it’s really said with serious enthusiasm..”Kaaaarrrrrreeee kaaaarrreeee!” My feeble attempt at speaking Filipino has me sounding more like the godfather though.  I will admit this wasn’t my favorite but I figured I should at least blog it on here since it so loved.  It is stewed oxtail and to me tasted like grassy barnyard hay but I guess there are people that desire the flavors of earthiness.  I am certainly not judging all the Filipinos that love it.  They have a wonderful palate and have introduced me to plenty of savory dishes.  I just can’t be a fan of EVERY dish after all. 

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Dessert

Donuts

Okay they sell Krispy Kreme and Duncan Donuts here but they don’t have anything on JCO.  JCO might even be a Korean chain but they are everywhere here.  I always see Filipinos in these places so I had to try.  Definitely had to try…I kind of a like donuts! :).  This is one of those things when the icing drips on the plate, you look around to see if anybody is watching, then you stick out your tongue and lick every last drop on plate.   The donut itself is very lite and fluffy….and the icing isn’t too sweet and sugary…it really is a perfect balance.  When I walk in there and order one or two donuts, the person serving looks at me grabs a big box.  “No no! not 2 boxes, just 2 donuts.”  They then look at me like “are you crazy?” You want only 2 donuts? not 2 boxes?”  They always look at me in a quizzical look and can’t understand what is wrong with me.  Why would you order 1 or 2 donuts? That doesn’t making sense….These are so good….are you sure you don’t want 24 donuts.  I then have to explain myself.  I can’t order 24 donuts because I will eat them all here and I can’t have that.  Please just give me 2 donuts…. As you can tell from the top of the picture below, people order boxes!.   

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Chocnut

Okay, my favorite thing in the whole world is peanut butter.  Anything with peanut butter, I will inevitably eat.  Any restaurant that has any peanut butter concoction, I can’t help but to order.   I walk past an ice-cream shop that has peanut butter, I am like…err….must try.  I am very predictable when it comes to this.  I will account a large portion of my travel weight loss due to not having constant access to peanut butter all the time.  At home, I can’t even keep it in my house because I will no doubt finish it at a record pace.  I love it so much, I can sit on the couch and eat out of a jar of peanut butter with a spoon like a high school girl emotionally eating and going through a tough breakup..…oh my I love peanut butter!  Naturally my favorite candy is Reeses peanut butter cups.  I buy one of those halloween bags of Reeses Peanut butter cups and I will munch on the bag like bag of potato chips.  So my friend was like, “oh you have to try chocnut!”  “You will love it.”  Okay…I will try.  She brought me some chocnuts.  I crunched on the first piece and my taste buds went into hyperactive addictive mode.  My brain was like “YESSSSS!!!  This is the best thing I have ever eaten my whole life!!!” I immediately started opening up the next piece before I even finished chewing the first piece.  I then went for another and another….”Oh my…this is sooooooooo good!!”  Then there was a part of me that was mad about learning about this Filipino candy….Oh no! I have a new addiction here.  What does this mean?  Will I need to join a chocnut support group and need counseling for this addiction? Oh if you like peanut butter and chocolate and in the Philippines, do not try this…you see it…run in the other direction.  But if you are curious and brave enough to pickup a new addiction, then please try.  I even saw that they had it on Amazon.  It is called King Chocnut.  Here it is about $.50 for a package of 24 pieces. If you are like me..that is good for one sitting. hahah.   

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Champorado

Rice pudding and chocolate served with stinky and very fishy tasting dried fish.  The pudding with chocolate reminded me of licking the chocolate out of a mixing bowl when baking a chocolate cake.  So good…but I don’t get the fish.  Traveling through Asian countrysides for months, I am use this smell of this dried fish.  It is pungent…a lot of places they would dry it on the road and it filled the air with a nice steamy smell of putrid and rotten fish.  I think Myanmar gets the prize for the most stinky fish but it is all over Asia. So why do they pair it up with delicious rice chocolate pudding, I am not sure…maybe Asians need something to cover up the gag reflex too….actually that is not true…they love it and will eat it by itself.  I of course tried it and I think that fishy taste lasted for 3 days in my mouth.  Again, I am not judging all the Asians that love it…my palate is just not that refined yet.  But the chocolate rice pudding is absolutely amazing!!!!!!!

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Silvanas.

Hmm…how do I describe these.  Buttery crunchy marshmellow cookie?  Something like that and they are good.  I mean really good.  Any guidebook on the Philippines will tell you that this is a must try! They are only located on the island of Negros from what I can tell.  You see Filipinos flying back from Cebu to Manila with boxes of them.  I mean you will see one person with 20 boxes of these.  Actually more like most people carrying 20 boxes back.  These come in two flavors…butter and chocolate.  Bother are extremely good.  According to Wikipedia they are a frozen cookies made from a layer of buttercream sandwiched between two cashew-meringue wafers coated with cookie crumbs. Sounds like a recipe for goodness, eh. Nom nom nom nom!

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Siquijor, Philippines and Mythical Creatures (one of 7,000 islands)

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So many islands, so much to explore.  Philippines is an island hoppers paradise.  I love the fact that I have no clue where I am going.  I just follow where the wind takes me.  After my stint in Manila playing rehab and recovery for my foot injury, I was feeling itchy to get out and do something.  My toe is getting better.  Don’t get me wrong, you probably won’t see me jogging anytime soon but I am no longer walking with a hobble and excruciating pain.  It feels good to be getting better.  I will still be rehabbing it for a bit.  So as I sat in Manila wondering where to go to next, my friends who I met in hostel in Manila sent me a message….”Jeff we are in Siquijor!  Come meet us!” “Yes, I’m on my way….” “Oh wait, where is that?” “How do I get there?”  This is something that travel has taught me…how to get from point A to B.  It is a learned skill of being your own logistical travel agent.  So after a taxi ride, plane ride, motorcycle taxi ride, ferry ride, my friends met me at the port in Siquijor.  I hopped on the back of my friend’s scooter and we were off….about a 20 minute or so ride to the the hostel where we were staying at. 

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The smell of the ocean sea breeze, the sunset view, the feeling of that this wasn’t the normal tourist path, and my toe feeling better, I couldn’t help to feel anything other than exceptionally happy.  We immediately cracked open a San Miguel beer and toasted with a big hearty cheers!.  The reunion of travel friends always feels great!  Like I said before, you feel unusually close with travel friends!! There is a openness and a brotherly fraternal feeling of being in a foreign country with friends!  So as we shared a few laughs….I thought, I am going to try my flipflops on.  Is it too soon with the injury to wear them?  Oh god, please let me be able to wear flip-flops again.  That would be so great!! I immediately went to my backpack, dug for them…dusted off the bad boys, and slipped them on.  Oh my…”Is this happening????” “Am I wearing flip-flops?” It has been months since I could wear flip flips!  I immediately went outside and yelled “HEY LOOK AT ME, I’M WEARING FLIP-FLOPS!!!!”  No more being the cool guy wearing hiking boots on the beach.  For me this was a really exciting moment!!!!!  I practically cried with joy!  I am a flip-flop guy…so my identity is back….FLIP-FLOP JEFF BAAAAACCKKKK!

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Hanging in Siquijor was fantastic.  Siquijor is an island off the coast coast of Negros near Dumaguete.  There’s waterfalls, mountains, beaches, caves, and folklore.  It was so great being reunited with friends, renting scooters, and blasting around exploring.  The freedom of the motorcycle, scooter, moped, or anything on two wheels is exhilarating.  As we all rented scooters which mine was called “purple dragon”…..why is it called purple dragon you say.  Well I didn’t pick the name, he did.  First of all he’s purple and second of all he’s angry like a dragon that breathes fire.  Of course I had to ride this 115 cc beast to explore every inch of the island.  I had a couple of instances while riding the motorbike where kids pointed at me and started laughing.  I couldn’t help but to wonder what was so funny but I quickly joined them in laughing too.  I don’t mind being the butt of some joke and I thought it was hilarious I was entertaining them.  haha “Glad I amuse you kids.”  “Thank you! Thank you! I will be here all week.” Guess I looked silly or was doing something funny.  Maybe it was the fact that I was wearing a helmet.  Nobody on the island wears a helmet.  Surely they weren’t laughing at the angry purple dragon.  He doesn’t have the same kind of sense of humor as me. He would have been very very angry. 

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The ubiquitous Filipino basketball goal.  They are everywhere.  “Wanna play one on one with a cow?”  Here you go.   “Moooo over cow, I’m gunna dunk on ya.”

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There are just as many churches as basketball goals here.  One moment, we passed a church on our scooters…saw an open door and walked in.  As we were playing tourist and inside gaping at the inside of a Filipino church, a truck pulled up with a casket.  Suddenly people unloaded out of the truck and started carrying the casket in as we were in there.  In a very awkward moment as people started coming in……”ohhhh, sorry people!!! we meant no disrespect.”  We made our best attempt to walk in the opposite direction of the herding people with our embarrassed and sorry face.

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400 Year old Enchanted Tree…Siquijor is home of mythical creatures, potions and folklore.

When I told someone I was going to Siquijor, they responded, “oh that’s where witchcraft and the aswang are.”  “What?????? What’s that…oh please do tell!”  So I love these stories…and get very excited.  You mean I am going to Transylvania of the Philippines? Do I need silver bullets or a a wooden stake?  …so I prodded my friend for details.  She was like, “if a witch asks to do something to you, do let them…you will owe them and you don’t know what you will owe them.”  Well this sounds interesting….So I got a lesson on vampire-like creatures and horse head creatures with a human body. I wondering if I would get a chance to I capture one of these creatures on camera?  At first I wasn’t scared because the Aswang feed only on babies and fetuses so I’m safe.  Or so I thought…..then I thought,”Oh wait!!! What about my food baby belly, “Phillip?” Will I be attacked because of my food baby?” Maybe I wasn’t safe after all.  So how does the Aswang attack people?  Well, the Aswang, lands on the roof when you are sleeping, the slips its long tongue through the cracks of the roof down to your belly….then eats the baby fetus right out of the stomach!”  “YIKES!!!!!! That sounds terrible!”  How will I be able to sleep now? I quickly started doing situps right then…to get rid of Phillip… Warning: ….if you see that I don’t ever post a blog post again…you will know what happened to me.

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Rubber tree plantation.  As we were exploring on the scooters, we passed through this beautiful canopy of rubber trees and simultaneously pulled over!. We all couldn’t help but to pull over say “wow, this is beautiful.”  I think this is one of the things I love about travel.  These moments that you just appreciate your surroundings and the beauty that encompasses it.  You become soberly aware and you look for these moments that make you really understand that the best things in life are free.

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People often ask, “Jeff, what is your secret?” And I respond, “I have no secret.” Well I am tired of lying and now must come clean. I do have a secret….here it is.

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Looking at a mountain and then a map, “I wonder what the view is like up there.”  There we go, we have a journey…a mission…Here’s the pot of gold from that mission.  Oh yes, so beautiful!  We actually hit some caves too.  I was a bit concerned about hiking around the cave.  Cave had a sign “Must have a guide to enter.”  So we drove to the next town and found a guide.  “Is it climbing over things, and hard?” I asked as my concern was about my injured toe.  “Oh no…no climbing, straight walk…easy,” she said.  I was on the edge of passing on the spelunking adventure but if it was easy walk then…I’ll try. I was excited to be exploring. I have been in a lot of caves on this trip and they are all very different.  Some have boats, some have boarded walkways, some have stairs, and some have swimming, and some treacherous climbing is involved.  My friend also inquired,”is it crawling, or closed in spots?”  “Oh no…it is wide open.”  One thing about traveling…often times people need this business so bad that they will say anything to get your business.  As we signed up for the easy spelunking adventure…we walked about 15 minutes before getting to the cave.  They gave us helmet and lights.  We walked down a rocky entrance…then our guide said, “you will have to crawl in backwards to fit in.” “huh…I think this was a easy walkable cave.”  Oh no, as it turns out, we were climbing in tiny spots, on boulders, slippery mud, and climbing up waterfalls the whole time.  If you were claustrophobic, you would probably have had a heart attack right there! We walked through the water crouched over…as she said in english, “walk like a duck,” and even then we were bumping heads. There were times I had to suck in my Filipino belly with all my might to squeeze through the crevices.  She would then instruct, “You see that slippery rock that has room for only half of your foot, put your foot there. It is very slippery, be careful”  “Okay okay….I thought you said…..” I was thinking and I did my best to protect my injury. Thankfully it turned out okay!  We walked probably an hour inside the cave to the end and thirty minutes back.  It turns out our guide does maybe one or two guides a week.  She desperately needed the money…so I understand why she wasn’t 100% honest…she was a sweet lady and gave her a tip afterwards.

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This is how you carry your cow around in Siquijor.

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Living and healing in Manila, Philippines.

posted in: Blog | 2

Yes.  Philippines, you are giving me butterflies in my stomach.  You are the perfect package and everything I have ever wanted….you are beautiful and take my breath away, you are romantic and wear your emotions on your sleeves, you are friendly and make me feel so welcome and comfortable, you have values and morals that are very admirable, you are extremely polite, nonaggressive, and  non confrontational.  I’m talking about a country right? Oh yeah…now let me continue. Yes, you have put a spell on me… You have a worldly knowledge and a fiery curiosity to learn about the world.  You have the passion of Latin America, the culture of Asia, and the mindset of an American.  Oh what a beautiful fusion and unique culture!   You have tons of holidays and I like the fact that the president can decide to make a new national holiday with a week or two notice and everyone gets time off from work. Your delicious food keeps me fat, happy, and craving more.  I have fallen so deeply in love with you that I can’t even articulate accurately my feelings for this wonderful country. So if you see me wearing a “I heart Philippines” shirt, don’t judge.  Philippines really has a bit of everything.  It has over 7,000 tropical islands with domestic flights being fairly cheap to explore. It has mountains, hotsprings, waterfalls, crystal clear turquoise water, cosmopolitan cities, and off the beat’n path areas to go Indiana Jones’n in.  The landscapes are exotic, the people are wonderful, and an added bonus is that English is widely spoken. Traveling has been an experience and longterm travel is about spending time in one place.  You move on when it is time…and I’m not ready to move on.  Originally Philippines was not planned for me.  I wanted to come here but I didn’t know if it was going to happen.  I had an idea and timeline of where I wanted to go.  Devastated and hindered from my foot injury in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  I knew it was going to take some time to recover from it.  Do I call it quits and head back home to heal and get medical attention?  Do I go to a western country like Australia and get medical attention? That’s a travel budget burner! I called my travel insurance company to figure out my options. Soon I learned that the piece of paper that I bought from them was worth absolutely nothing.  They refused to pay any expenses thus far based on loop holes.  “ahh you went to a clinic? Sir, we don’t cover clinics.  You have to go to a hospital.”  “uh…there were no hospitals where I was.”  “So if there is a Western clinic and third world hospital, you will only pay the $2 hospital bill at the local hospital with an unqualified doctor so I can’t get real medical attention?” “okay, what happens if I need surgery?  Will you cover that?”  “Sir, we will pay for a ticket back to the states for you, your home insurance will cover that.”  “umm…I’m out of the country for a year, I don’t have insurance in the US. I didn’t think I needed that”  So what I found out is that basically they will pay for that one way ticket for you get to get back home which is less than the cost of the travel insurance. Of course, you pay that out of pocket and they will “decide” to reimburse you or not.  So after that I realized that my medical expenses were going to be out of pocket, where do I go.  I wanted to go somewhere that I really was interested in seeing and also get some treatment.  At the time I was in Indonesia and I realized I had to MAKE THIS INJURY GET BETTER.  Traveling with an injury is no fun.  It hurts, it is annoying, and extremely heartbreaking not being able to do all the things that you want to do.  Surfing in Indonesia…”sorry, you guys have fun.  I will watch from the shore.”  “Hey Jeff, we are going hiking up a volcano and camping up there.”  “You guys have fun, I’ll pass. I am going to sit here and hangout.”  Fortunately, I found my outlet and something that I could do was scuba diving.  And it was world class diving which was absolutely incredible!!!  Diving in Indonesia is jaw dropping spectacular!!! But I wanted this injury gone!  So determined, I grit in my teeth and I said “this injury is going down!!!”  I knew I needed a MRI to get the right diagnosis.  So with my best determine mean face, I booked my ticket to Philippines where it would be cheaper and give me a chance to chill, get medical attention, and relax before moving on. 

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This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.  I found a western hospital that could compete with anything that we have in the United States with all the proper medical equipment and gadgets. I found St. Lukes Medical Center which is amazing.  The moment that I walked in the door, I knew “yes this is the place.”  It looked like a first class hotel.  Kind of reminded me of MD Anderson in Houston.  I walked over to the concierge and gave my best dramatic short version of what happened and he was like no problem, “I will make an appointment for you with a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon.”  “Yes, yes, thank you very much..that would be great!!!”  So I was able to get in that very day.  I walked into the doctors office and he had a plaque, “American Association of Foot and Ankle Orthopedics.”  Now, I heard a lot of doctors at St. Lukes had either studied in the west or if they studied in the Philippines, the medical universities are so competitive that they have to be incredibly smart.   When it was my turn to see the doctor, I noticed he was incredibly smart.  If fact, he was one of those guys, that radiates intellect, and I was extremely confident in his abilities to get me back to normal. So Dr. Intelligent had me go through all the steps, X-Ray, MRI, ect…after a few appointments, we were making progress and determined that the previous diagnosis was all wrong.  And I was doing the wrong thing.  To give a short version of what was going on.   I was taping up my foot for an injury that we thought was what is called “turf toe.”  I couldn’t even bend my big toe.  Taping it up, I later found out what exactly was what I shouldn’t have been doing.  It was inflamed and the internal inflammation needed to go down.  Had I not been to Dr. Genius, I would have been living with my injury for the rest of my life.  So I had damaged tissue, bruising, a sprain, and my joints were filled with liquid similar a blister.  It was actually the best analysis that I could possibly have.  It meant no surgery and I was going to get better!  So there is a lubricating fluid in the joint that the body produces, but when there is an injury, the body goes into overdrive producing the liquid in order to try to protect itself.  This is extremely painful! Now they can’t drain this liquid like a blister.  Pop it or stick a need in it to drain it.  Your body has to reabsorb it which takes some time.  So I had to chew on anti-inflammatories like they were candy, take my doctor’s advice to stay off of it, ice it, and prop it up. No tape! Let the healing process start.  I chilled in the Makati area of the Manila which is the business district.  I found a cheap hostel and met some great people. Makati is great. It was hard being patient and staying off of it but I had to do it.  The nice thing about Makati is that everything is close, so I could hobble for anything I needed fairly easily which made it a perfect place to heal.  Plus there weren’t all the activities to remind me that I was injured.

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I really enjoyed Makati. For the first time, I truly felt like I was an expat since traveling.  I started really knowing the area.  People recognized me and waved.  I become a regular at the taco joint near my hostel which gave me a food baby that I named “Phillip” after Philippines. Living in a place is really what I really wanted to achieve in longterm travel.  I wanted to temporarily live is spot and experience life there. Actually have a routine and spots that I went to.  So perhaps this injury wasn’t so bad after all. It literally forced me to slow down and experience a place for a bit.  Oh how I am glad it was the Philippines.  

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Now, I could probably write a novel on how great my time in Manila was but I will try to keep it short.  …err short enough.  Many travelers don’t really like Manila. It is another big city where they spend a night or two then move on.  I found staying for some time, it really grew on me and I learned a lot about Filipino culture and made some new friends. 

In Manila, every establishment has a security guard at the door who opens the door for you and says “how are you sir?”  So if you are one of those people who get offended by manors and doors being opened for you, leave Manila off your list of places to visit.  Even when you walk up to any cash register, they greet you “Sir, how are you?”  I personally like this.  Growing up in Texas, I appreciate manors and I will chalk up Manila as one of the friendliest cities in the world. 

The Filipinos are also very family oriented.  Families can be as large as a small city which I couldn’t imagine what a family reunion would be like.  Christmas shopping for the Filipino I think starts at the beginning of the year for the next Christmas.  I have noticed that Christmas music was playing when I got here in the stores in September.  It confused me at first but now I get it.  Christmas decorations start going up in September as well.  The family oriented society also means they treat you like family too…it is just part of the Filipino personality.  It is very comforting.  I can say people have gone out of their way for me to help me.  Ask a question, a Filipino will help more than can be expected.

The food in the Philippines is probably not the healthiest but if you like southern fried food, then this is dream place.  You will have enough chin dripping grease to make you kick over in an euphoric bliss.  Unfortunately, growing up in Texas, I have a fat stomach appetite for greasy food.  Oh I love the food in the Philippines.  Filipinos love food too!  I mean they love to eat!!! They are food-philes.  You have to know a local to give you instructions of where to go, and how to eat Filipino style.  They eat family style.  Watch a group of Filipinos at a restaurant, they will order 1 of everything on the menu and share it.  Eat with a Filipino and you are sure to be ungodly full (“busog” in tagalog)….”After I eat with Filipino, I am like “Oh my belly.  My food baby, Phillip!  Where’s my elastic pants?” 

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Bulalo Soup.  Bone Marrow Soup.  FANTASTIC!!!….Maybe I shouldn’t have posted this one.  Disclaimer: I will not be held responsible for any damage caused by excessive drooling on your computer, ipad, smart phone, ect.

Donuts, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs and then throw a scoop of white rice on the side and that is Filipino.  The combos are much different than what you get in the US too.  “I will take the small pizza and a hotdog combo, please.”  Filipinos love meat, white rice, and fast food.  I am pretty sure that any vegetarian Filipino in Manila would be ostracized and accused of being unfilipino.  Their family would probably disown them and never speak to them again….There are some serious and excellent pork, beef, and chicken dishes here.  They don’t trim the fat either…they make it like butter…so it just melts in your mouth.  So get the Paa and be sure to ask for the chicken oil.  What’s that?  So Paa is this rotisserie chicken quarter and served with a side of white rice.  Then you get the chicken oil which is the fat drained from the rotisserie to be poured liberally over the rice….”It’s good. Maybe not the healthiest…but really good.”  Surprisingly many filipinos are relatively skinny with this diet.  The Filipinos stop aging after the age of 20. I don’t understand how this happens but people are extremely youthful looking here.  I am convinced their is some Filipino secret age fighting elixir that they don’t share with anybody outside themselves. Their body is permanently preserved at the age of 20 no matter what their age is.   Even a 60 year old can fool a seasoned ticket agent at the movies to get the child rate.

wpid-20151018_121937.jpgAdobo – One of the more popular dishes of the Philippines.  This is Pork Adobo…served with white rice.  Notice they don’t trim the fat on the pork.

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White Chocolate with Almonds donut.  A Filipino favorite.

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Nightly Market in Makati.  Great cheap dinner place.

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Lechon – Roasted pig.  Buttery fat.  This is in Manila but I hear the best Lechon is Cebu which is another island.

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Surprisingly, many Filipinos know Denver, Colorado and I have even met a few that have been there.  Mainly they know it because of the basketball team, Denver Nuggets.  Oh yes, Filipinos love basketball and boxing.  I mean LOVE, like just mention the word “b-ball” and you will have any Filipino jumping out of their seat with excitement to talk about it.

Manila Filipinos are also about status and image.  They love cars, American food chains, and really poppy songs such as “love me like you do.”  There’s a starbucks and other coffee shops on every corner that create some of the most beautiful latte art that would make even Picasso jealous.  I think more effort is put into the latte art than the taste though.  Image..remember…A Filipino will undoubtedly photograph the masterpiece “teddy bear jumping out of the coffee cup” latte art and throw it on instagram as fast as possible.   

Manila actually feels very American but has a really interesting flare of Asian and Latin mix.  The language is Tagalog but most people speak really good English.  Back in the 1500’s, a Mexican-Spanish explorer colonized the Philippines which every street in every town is named after.  They brought with them the Spanish influence and the Catholic religion.  Filipinos are deeply religious and there are tons of huge churches here.  Also many Filipinos can understand Spanish.  Many of the words in tagalog are Spanish.  Even the numbers here are in Spanish.  My knowledge of Spanish has really helped me in understanding the language.  After the Spanish colonized it, the Americans came here and colonized it.  The Americans brought the love of cars, basketball, and boxing here.  And of course the fast food here.  You can find many American products and restaurants here.  Starbucks, Wing Stop, Chilis, TGI Fridays, McDonalds, Burger King, Outback, California Pizza Kitchen, GNC, Jamba Juice, and 7-11 are just a few.  Even the stores have American products.  For me it has been nice to be able to communicate easily and have mutual understanding.  Playing charades for 15 minutes going back and forth every time I want water kind of gets old.  Sometimes you want to press the easy button.  I have learned so much more about this culture too because people can explain it and make suggestions for things for me to try. 

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One of the benefits of being able to find American products, is finding homegrown American microbrews.  After life on the road for 7 months, it was a little piece of home, finding these imported brews.  Here I am enjoying an Oregon brew.  I actually found some Colorado brews too.  

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Manila is home to some of the largest shopping malls on earth.  This is any mall walkers paradise.  There is a mall on very block and they literally connect.  You can walk for days through the network of malls.  There will be a dozen Nike stores in one branch.  If you keep walking you will inevitably see another one of the same store or restaurant.  Filipinos love to hangout in these malls.  I can see why too.  The climate is hot and humid similar to Houston, Texas, so walking around in an arctic blast AC filled shopping center is kind of nice.

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As I am just now recovering from my injury, it feels so good getting out exploring again!  I may try to go back and write missed blog entries or I might just keep it fresh and write about stuff happening right now. 

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Kuta Lombok – Surfs up

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Kuta, Lombok.  Not to be confused with Kuta, Bali.  Kuta, Lombok is on another island east of Bali and has a much different personality.  The feeling of Kuta, Lombok is that of a Jack Johnson surf video.  It is laid back and very much a surfing destination.  You see surfers everywhere blasting down the beach roads on scooters with attached surf racks following the tides to catch the best waves.  Words like “dude and brah” are used ubiquitously in every sentence.  “Hey brah, did you see those rollers over there?”  “Duuuuddee!” “Brah!” You can’t help to admire how cool these surfers are.  My attempt at the lingo exposes me as a poser. I tried surfing many years ago in Costa Rica but I can’t call myself a surfer by any means.  I am a surfer at heart though and as a snowboarder, I do feel certain a connection with surfers. I connect to the mountains in the same way as the surfer connects with the ocean.  The surfer feels the ocean’s raw force of undulating swells, paddles to match the force of the wave, and then stands up only to be miraculously projected forward in an addicting adrenaline rush ride. I get it!  As a snowboarder, I float down the powdery white slopes, bouncing with each contour of the mountain, following the natural gravitation force of earth, and when I get to the bottom I am like “Yes, may I have another!”  It is a eurphorical feeling….and I love it.  Unfortunately, still battling my foot injury, I had to sit out from surfing on this portion of my trip.  It is still cool seeing it all.

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All of Indonesia is beautiful.  I hope to return to this place one day! I’m definitely surfing next time!!wpid-20150829_164321.jpg

View from my lodging.  It felt good to be near nature.

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The ninja monkey…appeared out of nowhere, posed for a few pics, and then left.

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Look how happy that parrot looks on my shoulder.  Thankfully he waited til getting off my shoulder before going to the bathroom.

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$2.50 for the buttery and flavorful grilled fish.

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I took this picture so I could remember when I dropped off my laundry but it shows the surfer rack on the scooter.

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Jack Johnson video below.

Gili Air, Indonesia

posted in: Blog | 3

Took an hour long speedboat across the open sea from Bali to Gili Air Island.  White sand beaches, turquoise translucent waters, cabanas, locals strumming on weathered classical guitars, and beautiful happy hour sunsets while sipping on a frosty cold beer….yes this is the tropical island paradise.  Did I mention no cars.  The only traffic on this island is from horse and carriages, fat tire bikes, and people in flip flops.  The island is littered with a dozen dive shops which is a major reason why you come to this paradise.  Those who aren’t divers can snorkel too.  The coral reef surrounds the island so you just walk from the beach into the ocean, and wah-la, you are in world class snorkeling.  This is the place that you come you to visit and you never leave. Ask any expat dive master their ubiquitous story and they will tell you,  “I just came to visit and never left.”..many never even dove before they ventured to the island. Guess you could say they are living the dream.  Gili Air Island is one of three islands off the coast of Lombok.  Each having distinct and contrasting personalities.  If you looking for party then you hit Gili T (Trawangan), if you are looking for a honeymoon then Gili Meno, and if you are looking for something in between party and honeymoon then you hit Gili Air.  Gili Air is the only island of these three that has fresh water so it is nice having the luxury of taking fresh water showers.  The vibe is chill and definitely a nice place to rest and relax.  I absolutely loved this island so much, I ended up staying for 8 days.  I couldn’t help but to think “maybe I should stay and get my dive master .”

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I did a lot of diving on this island…..it was incredible.  I saw a lot of turtles, beautiful coral, and plenty of other colorful sea creatures.

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During the dive my Aussie dive buddy got my attention and pointed at this 6 foot sea snake coming right for me nearly a foot away. I let out a underwater bubble scream “Ahhh sea snake! Deadly dangerous snake! Everybody out of the water!!” And then I look over at my crocadile dundee buddy and he was like “that’s nawt ah snaaake. Yew wanna see ya snake come to austraaalia.” Then this vicious deadly snake crept right by me along the coral before entering a hole. Thank god. I was this close to grabbing my Aussie friend by his BCD vest and pushing him into the snake so I could make a safe get away. Australia is notorious for having the meanest most dangerous creatures in the world so I can see why he wasn’t too phased. Turns out my buddy has swam with hundreds of them. He even had one in his vest once that came out when he was back on the boat. When we were on the surface he was like “mate I just want you to see him. Didn’t mean to startle you.” “Hahahhaa sorry I thought you were warning me. Hahaha!” After the jumping aggressive malayan pit vipers incidents in Vietnam, I am a little more cautious. Photo is only of part of the snake.

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I think Indonesia has some of my favorite spicy curry in all of Asia.  The food in Indonesia is really good!!!  Sorry I didn’t get more pictures of food. Half the time when the food comes out, I’m absolutely so starving and feel like I’m going to pass out from having such low insulin levels! I am like, “hurry, hurry…waiter!  I need food in my belly before I kick over and die from this hunger!” As soon the food hits the table, I scarf it down like a wild hyena.  And after I have inhaled the food like a person who has not eaten for a month, I remember that I should have gotten a photo of that succulent and wonderfully delicious meal. One thing about Indonesia is that the portions feel a tad bit small, so the stomach never feels that American full.  I could never bring myself to order two meals at one time however I am sure that there are people who do it.   The humorous thing about all of Asia is that they always ask you “How many?” when ordering even when you are eating by yourself.   I’m always confused by that question but maybe there is logic behind it.  So maybe they are like “How many orders, you American? I know you guys like to eat a lot!” “ah yes, thank you for asking how many. As you can see I am a hungry American, I will take 5, please.  I cannot call it a meal until my stomach feels painfully full!”  I will admit that I think I have lost weight while traveling.

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I have always been a fan of positive sayings.

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Island entertainment…every sunset, people migrate to the beach, get a front row seat, and watch nature’s most glorious spectacle.

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Island Reggae Bob Marley cover band.  No matter what tropical paradise you go to in the world, they almost always inevitably play the tunes of Bob Marley.  These guys sounded just like Mr. Bob himself.  Live music on the beach, sand between the toes, smile of my face, and thoughts of “island life”….oh yes, this is a “chill bump” moment!

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Sandy bottom restaurants with a view…..:)

Padangbai and Scuba Diving in Indonesia

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Padangbai is on the east coast of Indonesian island of Bali.  It is the port for people catching the ferry to Lombok and the Gili Islands.  Besides being the jump off location for Lombok, it is known for world class diving as all of Indonesia is.  I had a friend getting her dive master there so it made sense for me to make a stop off there.  I have been diving with my Naui dive certification that I have had since I was 12.  The broken up card always got quizical looks when I showed dive shops it.  I mean, I have had this thing for so long that I don’t even show up in Naui’s computers. Having such an old dive certification and wanting to update my skills, I decided to get my advanced open water certification with PADI.

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Everyday people would march through town to a temple up on the hill for a funeral ceremony.

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This the dive shop that I dove with.  They were definitely a good group of professional people.

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The main street of Pandangbai.

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Blue Lagoon

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Scuba Diving

Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles!!!! Blowing Bubbles!!!! There is something that is addictive about scuba diving.  I mean addictive like you are willing to sleep in a cardboard box on a street corner begging for money to support your habit kind of addiction…well maybe not to that point but you get the idea.  Every scuba diver feels like they need to another scuba diving fix once they are out of water.  “Need to be back under water!! Must scuba dive!”  Dive resorts in Indonesia know this.  They don’t ask for the money up front.  “We will settle up later.”  They just keep a tab rolling and ask when you just get out of the water with a huge endorphin grin, “I saved a spot on the next boat, are you coming?”  “HECK YES!!! KEEP IT ROLLING!!!”. These dives add up like a gambler with a problem at a casino.  You have to eventually stop or you will spend all your travel budget. Over time being out of the water gets easier and you forget how much you love scuba diving but once you start blowing bubbles underwater, you are hooked again and you just sold your soul to Poseidon.

Scuba Day.

My typical dive day is………

Wake up with childlike christmas excitement!! “Yes, I’m going scuba diving today!!!!”  With a belly full of breakfast and a cup of coffee in the system, I walk over to the scuba shop.  Everybody has giddy grins in on their face and even the people who work there who do it everyday for a living are as happy as the tourist.  Scuba divers are dorks.  I mean we all totally “geek out” about being underwater. 

After the initial greetings with fellow divers, “How are you?  Where are you from?  Are you ready for some diving?  How many dives have you done?  Where have you been?  Can’t wait!!! I’m so stoked!!!!!”

Butterflies of excitement flutter around the stomach!….”I’m going diving today!!!!!! I’m going diving!!!!!!”  I then try to calm myself down, take a few breaths and start to get ready for the dive.   First, equipment checks are always necessary and especially in rental equipment.  You don’t want to be sucking in salt water at 100 feet deep. So, BCD in good condition with no leaks, regulator and octopus (breathing apparatus) working as they should with no leaks, tank has good o-ring gasket with no leaks when connected, fins and dive booties fit, mask has good suction on the face, weight belt has correct weight on it, and then it is time to start putting on the wetsuit.  Hopefully the guy that wore it before you was nice enough to not pee in it while diving.  You can do sniff test but I think it is best not to, you would rather not know.

Okay after everyone is ready, the dive plan and site is explained by the dive master to everyone.  Hand signs for communicating underwater are gone over…these hand signs can vary from dive shop and dive master so it is important to go over them each time.  The main thing is just being able to understand each other under water.  Signs such as “how much air do you have left, problem with my regulator, problem with my mask, can’t equalize, out of air, come up, go down, stick together, safety stop” and signs for different fish, “cuttle fish, trigger fish, octopus, shark, scorpion fish, turtle, lion fish, eel and so forth.”

After that, we all start getting on the boat but the boat is stuck.  So everyone has to get off the boat and give a few heeves to push the boat and then do a “dukes of hazzard” leap into the boat as it starts floating away. The boat captain cranks the engine and we start moving. The boat bounces with the undulating waves.  The feel of the occasional ocean spray splashes the face and everyone is smiling like “it doesn’t get better than this!”  In the digital area, nearly everyone has a camera and starts playing with their GoPro or other type of digital camera on the ride. “How do I work this thing again?”  “How’s the battery life on it?”  As we start getting closer to the dive site, everyone starts putting everything on and getting their mask defogged. Mask defogging is done by spitting into the mask or pouring dish soap in it and rinsing it out.  I offer my impressive thick defogging spit to everyone on the boat but there are unfortunately no takers.  Once we reach the dive site, the boat is attached to a mooring or just floats freely.  Anchors are frowned upon since they damage the coral.  So here we go, it is dive time!  “Okay let’s do this!!!”  Dive master yells out “It’s a back roll entry.”  That means we are sitting on the side of the boat, tank hanging over side, and we back roll while holding on to the mask.  It is very important to do this with your regulator in your mouth as well so you don’t choke on salt water.  And BCD is filled with air so you float. 

We all plummet off the side of boat.  The initial feel is chilly brisk water entering your wetsuit and for a moment your face is submerged underwater and you pop back up to the surface.  So once we are in the water, we all try to fin over and regroup together.

Dive master yells, “everybody ready?”  We all give the okay sign and he does the thumbs down sign to start the submersion.  We all let the air out of our BCDs and start sinking.  As we make our descent to the underwater alien world, the soothing sound of meditative bubbles permeate the ears. “blup blup blup.”  The group sinks together.  There is an awesome wolf pack experience as you look around at the group and going down together. You then notice the intoxication underwater world with an explosion of colors.  It is like being in an underwater disney aquarium.  The vivid colors, the crazy coral formations, and numerous exotic and cartoony fish swimming about. It is incredible! It is like being teleported into a real life computer screen saver.  You are like “sooo beautiful!  soooooo beautiful!!! can’t take it…tooo beautiful”  Your eyes almost hurt from opening them so wide to take it all in.  The excitement causes you to start breathing heavy. “uhhhhhh ahhhhh uhhhh ahhhh uhhhh ahhh!” Then you remember ,”Okay I must calm down the breathing, I’m going to use all my air.” Air is limited and you don’t want to suck down all your air in 15 minutes.  So you try your best zen-like meditative breathing to stretch out the air as long as possible.  Small women and very experienced divers can stay under water forever with one tank.  New people, people too excited underwater, and out of shape people typically run out first.  I have gotten better with this and I normally now can extend my tank to about average, that’s about 51 minutes for me.  Pro divers never swim with their hands underwater.  They have a very relaxed formation.  They keep the arms crossed on the chest and hold on to each biceps and barely kick.  They just float around and slow motion creep like a barracuda, watching, looking, and hardly using any muscles.  For those of you don’t know about barracudas, they appear out of nowhere and just hover around you.  Not swimming but creeping. The first appearance, is like “ahh where did you come from?”  Those beedie eyes just stare at you as they float and follow you around. This underwater creep’n barracuda strategy helps with air consumption and it makes it easy to tell the rookies from the pros by those who creep.  

The dive master floats about pointing to different underwater critters and does hand signs of what he’s looking at.  The dive group then tumbles over each other trying to get a look at what he’s pointing at.  Even if you don’t know what the heck he’s pointing at, you do the “okay” sign for “yeah I see it.”  You don’t want to sit there all day when there are so many beautiful and colorful feasts of the eyes.

The dive normally is 40-60 minutes depending on who runs out of air first.  As we make our ascent, we do a 3 minute safety stop of 5 meters to let the nitrogen out of the blood stream.  We then pop up to the surface and talk about the dive.   “Did you see that?  What was that?  That’s was crazy!” “AWWEEESOOOMMMEEE!!!” Everyone is stoked and I can’t stop giggling.  Don’t ask me why…I just can’t help it.  Guess I’m just happy.

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There is a ridiculous amount of sea turtles in Indonesia.  I love these cute sea creatures!

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Ubud – Cultural Center of Bali

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Ubud!  Ubud is considered the cultural center of Bali and is located inland on the island.  It is also a pilgrimage location of every girl who is a fan of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” Yes, it is a tourist destination.  In fact, it is the most touristy spot I have been to on my entire trip, I would say.  By far! And it definitely felt like a shock to the system after 5 months of travel especially coming from Vietnam.  I have to say even though it is a little more touristy than I am use to, I really liked it in Ubud.  Good place.

When I landed in Bali, I got in a taxi straight for Ubud and skipped the beach resort towns close to the airport.  They are more the Cancun-ish style resort places from what I have heard which wasn’t really what I was looking for.  Logistically Ubud made the most sense for me heading east and plus I heard good things about Ubud.  At first when I pulled into Ubud, it was crazy busy.   High end shops, spas, overpriced western meals, expensive drinks, and plenty of places for people who are looking to blow some vacation dollars. I would say it really caters to more a vacation style crowd than to travelers.  After I started walking down the street and I noticed it was so quiet.  Where are the horns?  I have been traveling now for 5 months and every place I have been to has a constant cacophonous sound “BEEEEEEEEEEEEP BEEP BEEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEEEP!” You almost get use to it after a while….it wasn’t until I didn’t hear the beeping, until I really noticed.  Okay….no horns.  Maybe I like this.  Yes, I like this.  It feels so peaceful!!  Relaxing!  Okay now I am starting to get why people love this place so much.  It is a relaxing state of mind.  Hawaii has the “Aloha” spirt, Costa Rica has the “Pura Vida” spirit, Belize has the “Go Slow” spirit, and Bali definitely has a “Bali” spirt.  I’m not sure if there is a word for it but I will try to find out.  The people seem pretty laid back and even with the hoards of tourist, they seem pretty happy that they are there.  Lots of smiles, thank yous, good customer service, and very welcoming from what I have gathered. I like it.  You can also find plenty cheap authentic restaurants on side streets as well.  The market has a certain hilarious obsession with some pretty funny bottle openers that would be perfect for any bachelorette party.  On top of having a great vibe and a funny sense of humor, there is a lot to do. You have a monkey forest, temples, rafting, sunrise hiking up a volcano, yoga, plenty of places to explore on a bike, elegant dancing plays, and live music.  I’m trying to heal my torn ligament in my toe so I opted out of some of those activities for more toe friendly activities.  I still had a blast though and it was so nice to relax for a bit.  Ubud is definitely a cool place.

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I love the intensity of the look.  I would love to better understand the meaning behind the bold look.  It is seen in many dances and even in the art around Ubud.

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I got lucky enough to be in Ubud for a dance competition that is only every other year.  As I started taking photos at the side of the stage, one of the locals directed me to go in front.  “Me? In front of the judges and everybody?  There’s nobody else there? So many people taking photographs and they are all standing in the back”  “Oh! wait maybe he thinks I’m a journalist or something?”  Okay roll with it! “Yes, yes…National Geographic coming through!”  🙂

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All smiles!

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Kecak Fire and Trance Dance.  The dances of Ubud are just amazing!!! I think these dances are a great way to really see into a heritage of a society.

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Monkey Forest!  Feels like you are in “Planet of the Apes”  Really really cool place!  It is a forest with lots and lots of monkeys and statues. I could have sat in this forest for days taking photographs!  So as I was taking this photo, I heard some obnoxious tourist belch on me. “Beeeaaaaalllllccchhhh!”  What the heck!  What kind of unclassy person does that.   Did he just belch on me!!!???” It startled me, irritated me, and I pulled the camera down to give this jerk who just belched on me the “Peyton Manning” stink eye.  [See below what the Peyton Manning stink eye is] As I pulled down the camera to give my stink eye, I saw this drooling vicious looking monkey with 5 inch fangs growling looking right at me.  “ahhhh!!!” Then I remembered a warning sign at the entrance to the park.  Do not look at monkeys in the eye.  It can been seen as a sign of aggression.  “Oh no, I just gave him the Peyton Manning stinkeye”  “He’s going to kill me!!!”  “ahhhh!!! I’m sorrry. I’m Sorry!!!!!”  I immediately jumped back…way back!!! Then got as far away as possible.   You know that feeling where you want to run as fast as you can but you don’t want to send this thing into a chasing frenzy like trying to run from a dog.   As I got a little distance, I looked up at this angry monkey and I then realized that he was giving me the Peyton Manning stink eye.

Peyton Manning Stink eye.  – Quarterback for Denver Broncos and is one of the greatest and most competitive players that American Football has ever seen.  He’s the nicest guy in the world but at times he will give the “Peyton Manning stink eye.”  Anyone who has ever received one of these stink eye looks, immediately trembles with fear, apologizes, and prays to the gods above that they will live to see another day.  Trust me…you never want the Peyton Manning stink eye!!”

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Here is a statue of the monkey who nearly killed me.

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wpid-20150813_095341.jpgCourtyard in front of my room where I stayed at.

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