Travel Hacks and Q&A

Read time: 4 minutes (+2 minute if you read the Travel Hacks guide)

After making it back to Austin and knocking on several peices of wood, I can safely say that I never got robbed or sick. This is my greatest accomplishment from 10 weeks abroad. I'm not sure if anything other than luck played into that. I did maintain a list of tips that we've turned into a downloadable guide (thank you Tariq, for making this visually digestable). 

You can view and download the PDF it here

A couple of friends sent me a list of questions and I thought I'd share some of the answers. When people have asked similar questions in real life so far, I didn't know where to begin. I'm so scatterbrained. So to all the friends so far who got jumbled nonsense from me the past week, here you go!

What’s your new favorite dish? 

Kaya Toast from Malaysia/Singapore. It’s a jam made out of coconut, sugar, eggs, and pandan between two slices of toast. You then crack two barely boiled eggs into a bowl and add soy sauce, salt, and pepper to taste. It’s basically deconstructed french toast because you dip the kaya toast into the egg and enjoy with strong coffee. I had never heard of it until I visited. I recreated it for my parents this past weekend and they loved it. 

Did you ever have to poop in a hole?

No and thank god! I actually only saw that toilet once and it was in the old “preserved” part of Singapore in Little India. Okay, but in the deepest part of my heart, I’m aware that this is the “best” way to take care of business.

How was your marriage tested/changed since?

We’re very close now. It’s a type of close that is almost too close and can only be achieved by constant togetherness. We have quirks and inside jokes. There were plenty of frustrating moments that came with insomnia, trying to find a place, and being out of your comfort zone for weeks. I know how to cure myself/Tariq now though. Tariq knows that if I even whisper that I want to eat a certain thing, we better make sure and find it that day - even if it’s as obscure as enchiladas in Thailand. Tariq’s food cure is usually an apple tart/pie/crumble type of thing. Now, we can change each other's mood back to something tolerable within 30 minutes because anything longer is unbearable.  

What did you miss the most? (points docked if you say family)

This is specific but I missed good conversation and food with friends. I could combat this by getting meals with new friends but it’s still didn’t keep me from missing the people in my life.

Most awe-inspiring moment?

Angkor Wat was a metaphysical experience for me. My chest tightened as soon as the sun hit the main gallery. I felt a really strong connection to that ancient civilization and was overcome with admiration at the detail and magnitude of the temple(s). This was also I place I knew NOTHING about before the trip. It was added to our last mid-trip. What happened to the Khmer people, the history behind its structure, the buddhist and hindu rulers, and it’s incomprehensible detail inspired me. It inspired me to seriously consider the impact we’re having on this planet. It also gave me a lot of anxiety … because of this core theme of “omg we’re running out of resources”, I barely want to have kids now. What kind of life are we promising them?

How much did you spend from country to country (not counting travel). Which country was the most expensive to spend time in?

Singapore is the most expensive country to both eat and stay in. Japan and Hong Kong come second. Overall, I didn’t change my eating habits regardless of which country I was in - I’m not fully a backpacker because I won’t rough it out too much. The budget ranged from $20-60/day for meals and accommodation depending on the country. The cheapest country was Cambodia. You’d get a delicious lok lak (beef curry with rice and an egg on top) and a latte for $3.

What’s your favorite picture?

Hard to narrow down but the “business babes” from Chiang Mai stole my heart. They were so precious with their temple outfits and their existence epitomized Thailand's hustle culture. I also love that picture because it was beautiful without any edits. It was a picturesque balance of color and culture. Those little girls know exactly what they’re doing.

My favorite thing to do on this trip was to offer to take pictures for strangers. Everyone struggles with selfies or group shots. I went out of my way and hurdle through language barriers to ask if they want me to take it for them. People always said yes. We're all trying to enjoy the experience and take in the same scenary. I love the sense of collectivism that came from it. 

If you could do the whole trip over again what would you do differently?

I would add time in Vietnam; 8 days was not enough. I also wanted to visit Myanmar, and everyone we met was visiting themselves, but I made a choice to avoid that country. There is currently ethnic cleansing against their Muslim minority, the Rohingiya people. There was also a moment when we seriously considered Mount Everest Basecamp in Nepal but decided that trip is best done on it’s own.

What made you sad?

How doomed we are. I’m not a pessimist but this trip made it hard to ignore the irreversible damage we’ve inflicted on this planet. The severity of climate change is making me question how many children I want to bring onto Earth.

  • America is the only developed country I know where there are citizens who deny climate change. Even the underdeveloped countries we visited had signs and take SOME measures to combat our environmental footprint.

  • We talk about fuel efficiency and electric cars but we aren’t considering everything else in manufacturing that requires oil. Once we run out, we won’t be able to produce and harvest enough food to feed the world.

  • This trip gave me a lot of time to think about sexy topics like marine pollution, deforestation, air quality, and biodiversity.

Did you eat bugs?

Refer to chart below.

Did your taste in music change?

Everyone, everywhere is listening to the same music. Good music is a global unifier. It surprised me but there were several times I’d be sitting in a cafe and hear a song that I thought only I knew. I will say, everyone in Asia super digs song covers. They also listen to the EDM version of any song - sad or happy.

This wraps up the Asia series. Thanks for reading! You can view all the photos here.

Singapore & Hong Kong

Read time: 3 minutes

Singapore is central, technologically driven, environmentally conscious, fashionable, and efficient. With asymmetrical buildings standing tall behind pristine relics of old towns, Singapore is like if the Modern Museum of Art became a country. From above, a hundred skyscrapers resemble people hovering over each other in a crammed train. The cars on the immaculate streets are drool worthy, even for someone (like me) who has no affinity towards luxury automakers. Chinatown and Little India exist like metaphors for the Asian melting pot that makes up the diversity of this country. Most people are bilingual and every age group knows how to use smartphones.

Singapore is the ideal segue into the rest of the Asia (and also the perfect segue for us out of Asia and back to the reverse culture shock that will be America).

We met up with a cousin who works between Singapore and Malaysia. He gave us a tour of the city and afterwards we crossed borders into Malaysia to visit family. It helps to meet people that live in the country because you learn about the country from an angle never shared on the news.

The country is slightly bigger than Austin with an even greater food haven. Hawker streets have been christened by Bourdain and one of them even has a Michelin star. But like all other “cool” cities “I’d consider moving to”, this city thrives on polarity.

Singapore is governed like a corporation and the stakeholder is their global image. They are neurotic about cleanliness and fees/fines are rampant to maintain order. Everyone is connected and we can expect that this is the world's next technological hub. There is zero tolerance (death penalty) for drugs. We walked down Arab Street to a hookah place we found on google maps to only find out they recently banned shisha in the country. So you can’t get shisha on “Hajj Lane” but you can get alcohol. With limited self expression - you won’t see street artists or food carts here.

When a city-state is this small and new, it’s easier to run it exactly however you want. Within 50 years of sovereignty, it became one of the wealthiest, advanced, and expensive countries in the world. What the government hasn’t figured out: how to relax.

Tariq and I didn’t know how to end our trip but we’re glad it eneded here. We knew we were flying out of Hong Kong and beginning our long journey back to America on March 31. The last few days, we’re in Hong Kong e a t i n g and counting the hours before we get to shower in our own bathroom again.

This is the tenth and last week we are in Asia so the “Travel Series” is over, for now. We haven’t been home or driven a car in 74 days. After 13 flights, 2 ferry's, a couple of bullet trains, a cruise, and countless tuk tuks, we will be back in Austin this weekend. There are no words for how excited we are to see friends and family again.

Next week, I’ll post a Travel Hacks download with all the wisdom and tips I’ve gathered the last few months. To everyone  in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, thank you for having us, sharing your stories, and making sure we had a great time. We are so grateful.

PICTURES: Singapore (Masjid Sultan, Orchard Road, Marina Bay Sands, Little India, China Town, Arab Street) / Hong Kong (Mong Kok area)

FOOD: Pictures of simple meals that stayed memorable. I'm starting to look like a dumpling after all the dim sum in Hong Kong.

FLOWERS: Cloud Forest was closed but Flower Dome was pretty cool too in Singapore. If you're into flowers, this is the motherload. 

Krabi

Read time: 4 minutes

Since we left the United States, Tareen has been pestering me to write something on her blog. If a friend asks me for advice, travel tips, or general highlights, I have no problem sharing. But I’d much rather have a casual conversation about where I went, what I liked most, and the best ways to deal with merciless diarrhea rather than putting pen to paper.

I guess since marriage is all about compromise, I can spare some insight:

Uncharted Waters

This is the first time Tareen and I have had ten weeks of uninterrupted time together (no friends, family, or jobs). Thoughts of leaving her on a quiet country-side road have popped in my head at least four times (I assure you, her count is much higher.) After a smooth sailing approximate two years of marriage we discovered very quickly that this much time together would be challenging.

We are perpetually learning from each other and figuring out the roles we must play. For example, I now wear the title of “Designated Bug Killer” and am tasked with charging into rooms and eliminating any unknown threats. Tareen is the picture-taker, puts up with my political venting, and forces me to dance when I don’t feel like it.

You should take any opportunity to experience the unfamiliar and confining with a significant other. The Asia trip has reinforced so many great qualities about Tareen while forcing me to accept some hard truths (i.e. her arachnophobia  is very real). Altogether, it has made for a stronger partnership.

My Trip Highlights Are the Nonevent

People watching outside a busy street will never get old. Listening to a band that livens a dull room or simply stirring up good conversation with a stranger in our hostel are my favorite moments.

I’m not the type that makes a daily itinerary of museums/sights to visit each day. Fortunately, neither is Tareen. I’m less sedentary while traveling but I still have no problem justifying doing nothing all day. Off days brought better active days.

People

Asia’s beauty has left me speechless. I saw a nature and history that I didn’t know existed. But at the risk of sounding cliche, the most gratifying experiences were reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.

Victor was a friend I met in Austin who recently relocated to Tokyo. Hanging out with him made our lives significantly easier. He spoke Japanese fluently and gave us the low-down on cultural norms while we slurped on ramen that God would envy.

Colby was in charge of my dorm my freshman year at Baylor. He did a profoundly terrible job, I think we all had the worst GPA’s on campus. We did, however, forge a great friendship and always stayed in touch. He’s been stationed in South Korea with the US Air Force for over a year and we got to visit him in Seoul. He and his partner, Brandon, made the freezing temperatures of South Korea’s winter bearable by taking us to a Texas themed restaurant and introducing us to one of the best damn burgers I’ve ever had. Meeting them up was a much needed slice of home.

Matt and Rachel are new friends that would have sucked to say goodbye to in Chiang Mai but we found out that they’re coming to Austin from Seattle/NYC next month. Tareen and I agree that we could’ve travelled the rest of the trip with them in complete harmony.

On this trip, I tried to talk to the locals to get their perspective. The language barrier is one worth getting over because it made me culturally sensitive and a better communicator. We went to a restaurant twice and the second time was just to talk to Red again. He told us about how he used to own a bar and his philosophy was to focus on quality and service. He did so well that the landlord tripled his rent after his contract was up. He had to shut it down. Red’s advice is to bet on yourself and sign longer contracts.

I could go on but Tareen told me that she has a word count limit.

I already feel rejuvenated with a renewed sense of purpose; charged with making my community and country better. See you in one week, P’Terry’s... and also America.

Tariq

PS: Tareen here. We've been in Krabi the last 10 days in Ao Nang (the party district of Krabi) and Koh Lanta (one of several remote parts and islands in Krabi). As beautiful as these beaches are, the creatures had me less than relaxed all week. Since it is my last night in Thailand, I was brave enough to look up what creature made a particularly haunting sound. It sounds like the noise that comes out of a hollow rubber animal when you press it. I assumed it was a bird. Someone on Lonely Planet had the same question and I found the answer too quickly and hate this.

It was a Tokay Gecko. A LIZARD. And it looks like this and sounds like this. BYE THAILAND.

tokay-gecko_2.jpg

Pictures: This was the "vacation" portion of the trip and included a lot of nothing. It also included a lot of experimenting in photography. Taking pictures has led to a newfound appreciation for all the color in the world and has forced me to slow down and take it in. I think thats evident in this weeks pictures.

Chiang Mai

Read time: 3 minutes

“You know, another thing you can do is eat it,” said Tariq, after watching me take three pictures of my first bowl of Khao Soi. At exactly $1 USD (35 Thai Baht), I got a bowl of thick, spicy broth with chunks of chicken and egg noodles. I topped it off with chopped shallots, pickled cabbage, and squirted lime all over it. My favorite meals usually include both a spoon and chopsticks. I sat back in repose, sweaty, and wished for it again on the next rainy day.

I noticed a pattern: we prefer smaller, provincial cities over large metropolises. Chiang Mai is Thailand's cultural epicenter: temples, yogi’s, cooking gardens, elephant sanctuaries, forested hills, painters, baristas, abstract haircuts, and a place for new ideas to grow.

We stayed at our last hostel for this trip in Chiang Mai. Everytime we came and went, someone at the front desk would ask either:

   Where are you going?

   Where did you come from?

Everytime. It was endearing and excessive. We found their inquisition to be a helpful validator to wherever we were eating or getting a massage. It reminded me of when one of my aunts first moved from Bangladesh to America, she stayed with us for a few weeks. Every time I headed out or came from somewhere she would ask:

   Where are you going?

   Where did you come from?

I answered the first few days but the seventh time I erupted, “MY MOM DOESN'T EVEN ASK ME THESE THINGS, WHY DO YOU CARE?” I said it while laughing but it was still confusing. My whereabouts add no value to her life. She just likes to know. There was no other explanation for it. I wouldn’t say it's snooping - people get used to knowing things in parts of Asia.

I have my own inquisitions. I ask the same question to everyone I meet in Asia who can speak the local language: How does your humor translate? Because often, languages can mold your personality. For Japan’s example, a level of politeness is embedded into your vernacular. I'm fascinated by the varying extent of sarcasm, idiosyncrasies, pop culture references, and idioms in every language's humor. For the most part, friends described a slight change in personality when speaking a different language but their humor remains intact. I can speak conversational Bengali (though, it’s worse now without practice) but I regret not being able to translate wit. My extended family doesn’t know a critical part of who I am. It’s strange but I’m grateful that at least they can still bring me to tears laughing.

Across the globe, humor in storytelling includes ironic details or connections to previous jokes. Slapstick comedy and sexual innuendos are universal. During a cooking class, the instructor brought up how the Thai word for “pumpkin” sounds like the F-word in English. We spent the rest of the hour talking a lot about pumpkins (none used to cook our meals).

PHOTOS: Thai food is beautiful. Learning to make red curry paste from scratch appeased a longing curiosity. Ziplining through remote mountains have forever ruined roller coasters. We are templed-out but the one we did go to brought views revealing the greater size of the city. Our friends and I took a path through the hills that felt wrong: with signs pointing both left and right to the “meditation room”. It was worth the retreat once we did find it. I’m wearing a yellow dress in one of these pictures. I bought the dress because I liked it but I wear it as often as someone would walk their dog.

Bangkok

Read time: 2 minutes

We’ve been away from home for 52 days.

Every time homesickness strikes, we find the nearest restaurant with burgers, induce a food coma, and take a nap. We wake up with fresh eyes and the energy to explore again. The cure isn’t that revolutionary. Most of the time, we only miss home because we’re tired and miss the familiar: friends and family. 

Seven days is too long for the intensity of Bangkok but it aligned with the cold that took us down a few days. Tariq also earned his immunity badge last week; he was bedridden for 36 hours with the trifecta of food poisoning symptoms (think Pepto Bismol jingle). Now that he’s on the other side, a world of street food stalls has opened up to us. I don’t even wipe our utensils anymore and I definitely don’t look too hard into the kitchen to gauge hygiene.

Thailand is currently in a state of mourning, their late King, Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away in October. Most people will wear black or neutral tones this entire year or a black ribbon to show their respect. You can find life size, gold framed portraits of Adulyadej set up outside skyscrapers, malls, and restaurants. He was truly admired, an uncommon narrative in most history books. None seem too excited about his wild son becoming his successor though. 

Despite this year of mourning, tourism is still encouraged. Unemployment is low because everyone has a hustle here: tuk tuks, hand made souvenirs, shoe shine, etc. There are low barriers for entry; if you want to sell bracelets, you can start that day. Bangkok is innovative, chaotic, commercialized, spirited, and tiring. The malls are lavish, the night markets are aggressive, and the party street's sell everything from fried scorpions to warm bodies.

We met up with my oldest family friend a few times who’s studying abroad for his MBA. At dinner, I noticed seven too many tables with white men and young thai women. My friend, Farzad, responds: “Wondering why there are so many escorts here is like asking, why are people drunk in Vegas?” That’s fair. Bangkok can be considered progressive. The culture is both open and closed minded, but overall, evolved when it comes to women's rights. Not every woman here needs saving. Though human trafficking is still a global issue, plenty women here choose their hustle - there’s not much to frown upon.

An unsurprising/surprising take away came from the Ladyboys. Once I got past their beauty, the Ladyboys reminded me how much progress is left to be made in feminism. If all sexes had political, economic, and social equality, women/transgender/Ladyboys wouldn’t be the first label you place on a person. If I could re-do any of my time in Bangkok, I would sit down with some coffee with one of them. I don’t know enough about Ladyboys but I admire their strength. They won’t take any crap from you and demand respect. Despite prejudice, they are loud and proud. The world knows they’re here. They defy traditional beauty standards, gender roles, or any form of constraint.

Happy #InternationalWomensDay and keep up your #Hustle

Siem Reap

Read time: 3 minutes

At 5:30 AM, we walked through the outer gates of the Angkor Wat. In total darkness, a hundred others and I were trying to find the perfect spot to sit near the lily pond across the main temple. After 15 minutes and some twilight seeping through, I could make out the four towers in front of me. I sat with my headphones in and waited. At the world's largest religious monument, this sunrise was already special. I did not expect a transcendental crisis for the next few hours.

I must have been listening to the right song.

Inside, you’ll find pillars, standing walls, pieces of walls, and ceilings ornate with incomprehensible detail. The temple walls depict religious pluralism with Buddhist and Hindu teachings and war scenes. Hundreds of thousands of people chipped away at stone to tell these stories and devise magnificence. Dating back to the 12th century, I can’t help but assume my ancestors walked these grounds 800 years ago. Despite the millions of visitors each year that climb the ancient steps and grease up the carvings, this abandoned metropolis remains a marvel.

People ask if this trip is changing me. Endless time to think about everything and nothing is what's changing me. What I take from this city is this: Earth would be fine without humans. What distinguishes us as "remarkable" is our ability to create and imagine. The lasting architecture and complexity in Angkor’s design is a mystery. Angkor Wat is the answer I needed after being unable to explain the difference between me and the AI hosts at Westworld.

You don’t live surrounded by history in most of America. Anything more than 300 years old fascinates us. Angkor is overwhelming and I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush it. To paraphrase an astonishing comparison I read before visiting: Angkor Wat was one of the world's largest metropolis, housing over a million people - at a time when London was only a population of 50k. If it weren’t for wars and genocide, it’s impossible to say where this country would be today. Every temple surrounding Angkor Wat would be it’s own highlight anywhere else in the world.

Between two to three days spent at the temples, you can graze through food stalls on pub street or haggle for yet another pair of harem style elephant pants at the night market. If you're bold, try a "happy pizza". Don't feel guilty ordering lok lak everyday; how do you top spicy meat and rice topped with a fried egg?

Music Matters: I have a playlist for every specific occasion or mood. I created album covers for my public Spotify playlists. The second best compliment you can give me is “I love your [insert name] playlist”. So yes, I am weird about this.

If you’re on Spotify, here’s the Touring Asia playlist.

That “right song” was Slowly Rising by Beatsofreen. Definitely listen while you go through these pictures. It also comes with a beautiful animated video.

Hanoi, Ha Long, & Hoi An

Read time: 4 minutes

Street life is the great equalizer in Vietnam. No matter your social status, everyone can enjoy sitting in low plastic tables and stools, sipping on tea/coffee/beer, going through a sack of sunflower seeds, and/or slurping on hot broth and noodles. Work and obligations pause for an hour and a half at 2:30 for parents to pick up their kids on their motorcycles from school and get them home. The road gets stuffed with kids, bikes, motorcycles, fumes, and honking – all a necessary chaos.

Both Hanoi and Hoi An maintain a lot of the French architecture from the 19th century. Nothing like remnants of an “old quarter” to remind you that imperialism was not long ago enough. With the contrast of palm leaves against crumbling brick and rows of shops colored in pastels, I am still charmed by the beauty. I’m dumbfounded by how welcoming, forgiving of war, and jovial the people in Vietnam are towards everyone, even Americans. They have completely moved forward and beyond – how do we all learn from this? Vietnam is a triumphant example of a nation crawling out of gun shells and blossoming into a beautiful lotus.

I can’t believe how many times this country made me say wow. High end stores line the wider boulevards of Hanoi. The street shuts down on the weekends for people and children to play or enjoy a stroll around Hoan Keim Lake. Tailors are on call for all your overnight bespoke needs. Ladies are adorned in vibrant silk gowns for all occasions. Hoi An was a favorite here. The city is more laid back and you can bike through most of the city or beach. Lanterns illuminate every street and Chinese/Japanese food and structures stand strong.

A four-hour bus ride through smaller streets and luscious rice fields will take you to Ha Long city. Ha Long Bay consists of approximately 2000 undulating islets resembling the spine of a creeping dragon. We kayaked through the limestone up close but I was more captivated by the distant collection of islets fading between shades of misty blue and grey. We laid out on the sundeck of the cruise with a cool breeze balanced by a warm sun and surrounded limestone karsts passing by. I felt very lucky to be here.

Mystery of Broken Hoarding: When I saw the broken microwaves and rusty metal canisters pushed into the corners of restaurants in Hanoi, I thought of my parents. The epiphany that struck made me laugh out loud. What is it with some Asian parents hoarding broken things? We have a stereo system from 1996, a cycling machine with missing parts, plastic Barbie plates from when my sisters and I were children, and probably a dead partridge from a decaying pear tree. Whenever I go home, I empty out the jar full of take-out sauces living in sticky residue. I could go on but the point is this: what sliver of hope comes from holding onto what cannot be fixed? There’s deeper meaning here somewhere.

Anti-Trump Highlights: We can’t escape American politics and neither can the rest of the world. The Ha Long Bay tour guide said he’d knock us off the boat if we voted for Trump. A little girl from Denmark asked why we couldn’t elect Obama again instead. The welcome we received at our hotel in Hoi An, “Are you guys Trump refugees?” I’m going to try to get this made as a shirt to wear the rest of the trip.

Self-Reflection: The onslaught of tourism in this region is regretful. The tourist economy has forced the government to prioritize the tourists’ experience over our ecological footprint. Southeast Asia is overburdened with accommodating tourists. More than anything else, the free space in my mind is consumed by the unfathomable, negative impact we’ve had on this planet the past 100 years. I wish these historical sites were discovered after commercializing solar energy. We’d never get to enjoy it but at least we’d know it would last. Going forward, I’d like to be more responsible with my choices in recreation because it’s about more than electric cars and recycling. Buzzkill.

Seoul

Read time: 4 minutes

With hair color ranging from blonde to mermaid and hip-hop echoing through alleys, people in Seoul know they’re too cool for you. After a few nights through Hongdae and Itaewon, the city proved that individualism is strong here. Restaurants display blunt signs like “this shit is good”, an intimate toy shop declared it was “open all night baby”, and witty graphic apparels are a staple here.

Seoul was the kind of cold that requires actual winter clothes, the kind of cold that makes you hate your trendy but impractical Northface jackets for existing. For five days, we wore all our clothes at the same time. Every time I took my gloves off to take a picture of anything, I considered just downloading stock images instead for this post.

The more superficially profound observation thus far has been the major role Instagram plays to unify the global culture. We’re all trying to find our edge, curate the happy part of our lives, and be selfie-ready at all times. The entire world is watching themselves dress up and eat food that defines your city. Fried chicken and Korean BBQ restaurants line narrow alleys. Even if you’re not hungry, you’re caught ogling at the street cart owners prepare food. If you hid all the signage and dropped me in the middle of either Seoul or Brooklyn, I wouldn’t know the difference.

Hot topic: Skincare

The preoccupation with perfect skin would be obvious to a first time visitor who had no idea a prolific obsession such as this could exist. Both Korean men and women have clear, pearly skin that could compete with a new born baby’s butt. We spent the first night at a Korean spa (called Jjimjilbang) and found most women sitting around with escargot face masks. I needed no further convincing. The next day, I went to a few shops dedicated to skin care and facemasks and bought whatever sounded the most witch-crafty to redistribute among friends at home.

Protip #1: Guided tours

Until now, the idea of guided group tours filled me with utter disdain. However, this was the first time I've experienced that unless you knew someone who spoke the language or lived there, it’s a challenge to learn the city. If you come here, tours are worth it. This trip was also saved by old and new friends we met up that are stationed through the Air Force in South Korea. 

Protip #2: Be prepared to get lost

Google maps and Apple Maps have to be used in tandem because though one might help you find a place, the other would have to be used to navigate. Locals rely on other apps but no one seemed to know how to put in English mode. The subway system is excellent but if you need to grab a cab, you have to be sure to have the location screenshotted in Korean. These were all very spoiled, American problems I suppose.

Protip #3: Come with time during a not cold season

Never again.

What I need to research since this visit:

  1. Korean Hip-Hop Culture: how did this happen and why aren’t we talking about this more than K-Pop?
  2. Conscription: mandatory two-year military service because crazy North Korea became a thing
  3. Follow up to #2, Gun Control: despite the imminent threat that looms a few kilometers North, gun regulation in South Korea is tight. People are trained on how to use guns but mostly can’t/don't own guns. For half of America, this is understandably unthinkable. 
  4. Itaewon and Texas: I get the abundance of LA and NYC hats but we saw a lot of Texas signs and references. “Why does Itaeweon like Texas?” provided no results on Google but the little part of us that was homesick appreciated the Texas themed restaurants we visited.

Side note: Korean Spa’s can also be found in America and are worth a visit, see previous post when I made a friend go through this for the first time.

Photos: I had tears forming in my eyes that would eventually freeze on my cheeks when wind would blow through so a lot of these photos are iPhone because nothing was worth taking my gloves. However, some of these photos look amazing and that's because Omair graciously edited them - check out his work here

Kyoto & Nara

Read time: 3 minutes

It was tough to quit my first career job. I walked into our Executive Partners office, sweating and word vomiting the opposite of what I had rehearsed in my head. I am thankful I was able to do this in person and tell her that I got more than I had hoped for, but I still needed to make sure I was living to my potential. She understood and I admire her more for it. The first thing she told me was how lucky I was to be able to travel with my life partner.

Until then, I was counting all my other blessings: the ability to be able to take time away, supportive friends and family, and the privilege of nothing to lose. BUT, I have never spent this much time with one person. Tariq and I have been c o n s t a n t l y near each other for over two months now and I won’t glorify this: it’s challenging and grounding at the same time.

Living together taught me a lot about myself and now, without the distraction of work or obligations, I am learning the bare bones version of my spouse. We appreciate and seek out time with new and old friends on this trip but I am astonished that we have held most of our sanity together. We’ve learned from each others travel styles and strive to grow in the same direction.

Stepping off the bullet train from Osaka to Kyoto, I already knew Kyoto was going to become my favorite city. There is no doubt that we look like tourists. We’re a cheesy, classic movie scene directed by a novice: a couple steps off the train, marvels in awe with their mouth agape, camera swaddled around their neck, and glancing left and right. I would try to blend in but looking foolish has been enjoyable.

Without the glare from neon signs and the advertisements you typically see in Osaka or Tokyo, you get a chance to notice the smaller details woven into life in Japan. Kyoto is sprawling with European influenced cafes and shops. Meals in Kyoto felt less rushed because restaurants have larger spaces to accommodate leisurely meals. Through Nishiki Market street, you get a similar vibe to the better known Tsujiki Market in Tokyo, but it’s slower and leads you forks in the road with more shops and eateries. Everything is also slightly less expensive. Tariq's favorite hobby is to Zillow homes everywhere he visits and apparently, Kyoto is very doable. Too bad it’s hard to get a visa to live in Japan!

We spent a lot of time meditating on our long walks to and through temples and shrines in Kyoto and Nara. The crisp air and quiet paths, where all you can hear is the gravel crackle beneath your feet, is something to seek out. Behind the temples and zen gardens, you can often find low key hiking trails through bamboo groves and towering trees.

The days have been inspiring, sublime, and tiring.  No one talks about how it’s difficult to sleep when your bed and surroundings change every few days. Though logical, a lack of sleep isn't instagramable and therefore, largely forgotten. I use the meditation app Headspace more than Yelp now; it works like hypnosis for me. I think this is the “slump” and I can’t wait to be over this. Seoul is next.

Photos: Kyoto (Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Bal Department Store, Nishiki Market, Gion District, Fushimi Inari and hidden bamboo path, Hiking behind Nazenji Temple) // Nara (Todai Ji Temple, Great Buddah Hall, Nara Park)

Osaka

Read time: 3 minutes

I spend a lot of time saying the polite form of “thank youuuu” which is “ari-gato-gozai-massss”. It’s as sing-songy as how we say Thank You but used at least thrice during any exchange. Everytime I say it, I’m reminded of the graciousness I have learned from this culture.

I never thought I would be this interested in Japan.  I can’t even tell you how this country came to be at the top of my list, because if you watch enough Anthony Bourdain, the character of any city can send you off into an existential crisis.

It’s been 2.5 weeks away from home/breakfast tacos and I have found a groove (except the part where I confuse my dates and post a day late). After the second, you accept that this is your new life and it feels like this has always been the normal routine.

A part of this new life includes the 7Eleven way of life. We go to 7Eleven at least twice a week for random meals/snacks, to withdraw cash, and re-up on supplies (sleep aids, lotion, toothpaste, etc). The more phenomenal part is the diversity and quality  of 7Eleven food. Grabbing tuna sushi rice triangles didn’t have me questioning my life’s direction the same way a processed “taquito” would back in America. It’s just good. However, I do get anxiety over all the candy and chocolates I haven’t tried but at least I have desserts and pastries to tide me over.

What’s the actual food situation?

Eating everything and not asking too many questions.

The narrow, one-man restaurants have been a favorite thus far, because it guarantees a spot at the bar to watch the chef at work. Despite the scattered hot stoves full of broth and timers, it’s a peaceful walkthrough of the art you’re about to consume.

Some of my unexpected favorite dishes:

  1. Grilled tuna on a stick at the fish market
  2. Ramen with fresh hand pulled noodles - hand pulled noodles are one of few acceptables reasons to become fat
  3. Apple tart
  4. Bean sprouts and minced meat
  5. Okonomiyaki (a specialty pancake stuffed with seafood, noodles, green onions or whatever else)
  6. Margarita pizza

I’ll explain the pizza.

I am eating some of the best croissants and pizza in Japan and I stopped trying to make sense of it. Baked goods are easier to find than ramen so that’s been happening more often than necessary but I’m not sorry about it and the Japanese certainly don’t seem sorry about it. Osaka had the best pizza I have ever eaten (but I’ve also never been to Naples, Italy). It was a no-name dive with only a generic sign that said “pizza” and “open”. Through broken English, Spanish, and Japanese, we learned the owner is a self proclaimed hippie who’s lived in at least five different countries in the past 13 years. In a country like Japan, where everyone is walking in the “same lane”, this man reminded us of the value in an outlier.

What’s the living situation?

In Tariq’s travel experiences, you make friends and find more things to do while staying at hostels. He found us two amazing ones that were affordable, in good locations, and housed like-minded backpackers. We spent nine nights in hostels and quickly realized we miscalculated a not so minor detail: we’re a married couple. Apparently that makes us less approachable or maybe we are not that cool? This might be the time to let us know.  

Photos: Osaka is a less aggressive, lax version of Tokyo. They have neon cityscapes but also have smaller streets full of shops and restaurants with distinct character. We spent 3 days here with key stops at Osaka Castle, Dotonbori, and Tsutenkaku.

Tokyo

Read time: 3 minutes

After 48 hours, I already had so much to say about Tokyo. We’re back in Tokyo next week but this first part will focus on a overwhelmingly common theme of conformity.

You know all those friends that visit Japan and come back changed? Kind of like how Gwen Stefani has an entire album inspired by Harajuku girls. That obsession makes sense. This country has an infectious beauty that creates a space in you to hold onto forever.  The cityscape - the streets, cars, buildings - are pristine. Every “downtown” in Tokyo competes with New York's Times Square. It’s an achievement I am still processing.  

Respect and intention is at the core of all things and beings here. Everywhere you turn, there is an extraordinary emphasis on aesthetics. On all the subway rides, I had a lot of time to pass my superficial observations from generalizations to (alt)facts:

  1. Everyone, EVERYONE dresses in neutrals: black, navy, greys, beige, and some white. It’s as if a Facebook event was sent to the 13 million people living in Tokyo to dress exclusively in Zara everyday for the rest of their lives - and they all hit “attending”.

  2. High-end fashion is the most alive here. Districts a few miles of each other all have large, multi-level stores of every brand. There is a market for everything exorbitant, delicious, and beautiful.

  3. Most ladies have eyelash extensions and men strut the freshest haircuts. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but knowing the workicide culture here, it seems unreasonable that they make time for such appearances.

Tokyo is also open container. You can buy and consume alcohol anywhere and therefore, pass out anywhere. This makes things interesting for a country that’s main cultural law is conformity and subsequently, self-restraint.  During the day, you can hear yourself breathing in a packed subway but at night, the facade of control momentarily fades into total chaos. This contrast fascinates me.

We’ve been meeting up with our friend Victor who now lives in Tokyo and as he puts it: Americans drink and get rowdy but Japanese hold onto their manners, internalize their aggression, and explode. This is best explained as the “Shibuya Meltdown”. The phrase is real and totally worth visualizing, here’s an Instagram account that gathers some amazing explosions. 

End Note: Until we get Japanese toilets with heated seats and a bidet, we are a second world country, as far as I’m concerned. You would think my new “hello” would be konnichiwa but it’s actually been “Hi, I don't like Trump either”.

Maldives & Sri Lanka

Read time: 4 minutes

From Our Honeymoon to Touring the Motherland

We were greeted by a sloppy dude who turned out to be the owner when we arrived at The Blue Eyes Inn. He said our room was not yet vacated so we would get a different room and a discount for the inconvenience. After seven too many apologies, it was clear that he was not in his right state of mind. We were escorted to our room by a staff member; going up narrow stairs with peeling paint and the entire place echoed with birds chirping and children laughing somewhere distance. The hotel staff that escorted us said that today was the first day the owner had drank in eight months and apologized on his behalf.When we walked into the room, I tried to hold in my panic but with every word I spoke, I began to crack. I don’t know if I can stay here. I don’t think I’m cool enough to not overthink this. We were basically in a closet. The bed took most of the room and bore baby pink bed-sheets that lost its luster. On the bed was a stiff towel that was origami’d into a swan.

There was a mosquito net for the bed.

That's how you know.

Everything was worn and not all quite clean-looking. This a nightmare for someone like me with a type of OCD that deters me from staying in anything old. I’d rather stay at a new Hilton Garden Inn than a famously historic or boutique hotel.

I remember unraveling. Why this place? Why wasn’t I warned we’d be staying here? I was upset, tired, and most of all: not mentally prepared to stay where we were staying for the next two nights.

“Okay, I’m sorry but I don’t know if we can stay here. I’m not cut out for this” I said. 

This was a low moment for me and as I’m looking back at this months later, I’m not proud of my freak out... but I am glad it happened.  It pushed me to figure out where I failed myself. I never studied abroad, I never go camping, I love to eat local but I never stay local, and I certainly don't make do with just one backpack.

State of the art facilities at The Blue Eyes Inn

State of the art facilities at The Blue Eyes Inn

My husband booked this place and everything was intentional. We needed to somewhere like The Blue Eyes Inn. This is where backpackers come stay for weeks and truly experience Unawatana and Galle. Unlike me, he's backpacked, stayed at an array of hostels, and "roughed it out". To me, backpacking was a glittery concept where all I could imagine was the scenery in front of me and not the background it took for me to get there.

What made this extra hard was where we were few days prior. We had just gotten back from the most beautiful place on earth for our honeymoon.It’s the honeymoon you see on your Instagram explore page with the white sand, perfect shades of blue, coral, and happy people. We already had to be in Sri Lanka for probably our 7th wedding event so if Maldives wasn’t a 45 minute flight from Colombo, I wouldn't recommend going all the way there when Bora Bora or Hawaii is much closer for that "luxury vacay" experience. 

After months of wedding stress, several events, seven flights, and a boat ride, we arrived to Angsana Ihuru.

Maldives

The Maldives has over two thousand islands and only 200 of them are inhabited. Every resort is on its own island. The airport is on its own island. Do not fact check this.

The Maldives has over two thousand islands and only 200 of them are inhabited. Every resort is on its own island. The airport is on its own island. Do not fact check this.

Every villa at Angsana Ihuru had its own part of the island. Four times a day, we'd see a scantily clad, old European couple talking a stroll around the shore.  You could walk the entire island in less than seven minutes.

Every villa at Angsana Ihuru had its own part of the island. Four times a day, we'd see a scantily clad, old European couple talking a stroll around the shore.  You could walk the entire island in less than seven minutes.

Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day. It taught me to slow down, eat well, and appreciate my life. This is also where my off-wedding-diet really shined. Also, have you had rombutan and mangosteen before? Makes lychee look like childs play.

Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day. It taught me to slow down, eat well, and appreciate my life. This is also where my off-wedding-diet really shined. Also, have you had rombutan and mangosteen before? Makes lychee look like childs play.

By now, you realize that we bought a nice camera just for this trip. 

By now, you realize that we bought a nice camera just for this trip. 

Visited the capital, Male, one day. The Maldives is 100% Muslim and their population is about the size of Plano, Texas. 

Visited the capital, Male, one day. The Maldives is 100% Muslim and their population is about the size of Plano, Texas. 

One of the oldest mosques in the world, dating back to 1153.

One of the oldest mosques in the world, dating back to 1153.

There is coral reef EVERYWHERE with hundreds of different types of fish. Safe to say I was freaking out everytime I snorkeled. Tariq is braver than me, which is why I married him.

There is coral reef EVERYWHERE with hundreds of different types of fish. Safe to say I was freaking out everytime I snorkeled. Tariq is braver than me, which is why I married him.

Every morning started with this view. Resorts are an hour behind Male time so we could wake up at a decent hour to watch the sunrise every morning.  Three times a day, someone comes by and RAKES the beach so there are minimal leaves. I don't even vacuum three times a quarter. Let that sink in. 

Every morning started with this view. Resorts are an hour behind Male time so we could wake up at a decent hour to watch the sunrise every morning.  Three times a day, someone comes by and RAKES the beach so there are minimal leaves. I don't even vacuum three times a quarter. Let that sink in. 

Maldives was perfection but perfection can be unsustainable (mostly financially but also spiritually). We needed to be tourists after a week of just vacationing. However, the transition from vacationing to touring is a change in perception that has to consciously happen.

Everything is perspective for me. If I’m vacationing, my objective is pure leisure. Lots of snacking, laying around, reading, and tuning out of life. If I’m touring, I’m up for anything. I want to mindfully experience my surrounding, discover, and fully engage.

Vacation Mode 10pm: I can barely muster up the energy to order a second dessert.  

Tourist Mode 10pm: Change for dinner and a stroll on the beach after a full day of hiking.

What my initial breakdown came down to was a failure to change my perspective. A few hours later, I came to terms with that closet. It was just for sleeping. Why was I really there? To experience as much as I can. After we walked around the local shops, ate fresh fish on the beach, and experienced a rare moment of a tortoise giving birth, I was unfazed by the leaky faucets and worn curtains during my shower at The Blue Eyes Inn.

Galle and Unawatana

Unawatana beach - a 45 second walk from our darling little closet at the Blue Eyes.  So, story time: Our second night, we tried to get into a sad attempt at a "party on the beach". There was a DJ and some flashing lights so I knew I had to be there. When we walked up, they said we had to pay for this. We started walking away. Then I noticed that white people just walked up and were able to go in without $$. So I went back and asked why, I didnt want to jump to conclusions like RACISM. "Tourists are free" he says. I told him we were American and he wasn't quite buying it. "You look like you're from here or India". Here's my counter racism: there are SO MANY Indians and Sri Lankans that speak perfect English in our "American accent" to telemarket that I could barely pass as American in their own country. Anyway, I was eventually let in I walked in and out of that lame party in 30 minutes. Whatever. 

Unawatana beach - a 45 second walk from our darling little closet at the Blue Eyes.  So, story time: Our second night, we tried to get into a sad attempt at a "party on the beach". There was a DJ and some flashing lights so I knew I had to be there. When we walked up, they said we had to pay for this. We started walking away. Then I noticed that white people just walked up and were able to go in without $$. So I went back and asked why, I didnt want to jump to conclusions like RACISM. "Tourists are free" he says. I told him we were American and he wasn't quite buying it. "You look like you're from here or India". Here's my counter racism: there are SO MANY Indians and Sri Lankans that speak perfect English in our "American accent" to telemarket that I could barely pass as American in their own country. Anyway, I was eventually let in I walked in and out of that lame party in 30 minutes. Whatever. 

This is inside Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Normally rickshaws are covered in dust, old bollywood stickers, and crazy colors. You will never see rickshaws this coordinated and pristine elsewhere (sorry Bangaldesh, India, and Pakistan). 

This is inside Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Normally rickshaws are covered in dust, old bollywood stickers, and crazy colors. You will never see rickshaws this coordinated and pristine elsewhere (sorry Bangaldesh, India, and Pakistan). 

Inside this fortress, the homes, hospitals, and old businesses were converted into restaurants, eclectic bars, beautiful shops, and trendy living spaces. 

Inside this fortress, the homes, hospitals, and old businesses were converted into restaurants, eclectic bars, beautiful shops, and trendy living spaces. 

LOOK AT ALL THIS FOOD THATS NOT THERE.  Downside of Sri Lanka: not a major emphasis on service. The dude told us "it's only been 45 min" when we asked where our food was. 

LOOK AT ALL THIS FOOD THATS NOT THERE.

Downside of Sri Lanka: not a major emphasis on service. The dude told us "it's only been 45 min" when we asked where our food was. 

GA-REE. Now you can say "car", a word that is the same for almost every language spoken in South Asia.

GA-REE. Now you can say "car", a word that is the same for almost every language spoken in South Asia.

A stranger in the water who left a poetic impression on me. It was either this or going shopping with his wife. 

A stranger in the water who left a poetic impression on me. It was either this or going shopping with his wife. 

End Note: Using the word husband is so awkward. While "wife" gets to be a smooth, one-syllabus word, "husband" falls out like a word going through puberty. However, my huz-band is authorized to draft divorce papers if I ever refer to him as hubby so huz-band it is.