6. Facilities, Security, and all the departments that have kept HQ running smoothly.
As a person who likes things clean and organized, I have much respect for the women and men who keep the place pleasant to be and work in. They are the true unsung heroes in making things run as smoothly as possible at HQ.
At the start of every morning, I already see the cleaning staff working hard, doing their routine tasks before most of the employees show up. They continue to keep the place looking good throughout the day, regardless of it being a regular workday or after a company party. It constantly makes me much more conscious to do my part to keep the place clean and leave as little extra work for the crew to do as possible.
Even though I don’t know the reach of Facilities’ operations in the building, I know that there are countless behind-the-scenes decisions and actions every day that make our work life more comfortable, allowing us to do our job. On just the things that we could see, thank you for coordinating all the massive desk moves over the years (and doing it efficiently), for responding to our fancy requests for standing desks, keyboard tray attachments, and “Never mind I don’t like it” keyboard tray detachment, for our seemingly conflicting requests to turn up the AC or turn up the heater, and for making possible big (and small) events that we host from time to time (or every other day).
And the security team, the group of people who are often seen quietly doing rounds around the office. I don’t know what you actually do during rounds, but I shouldn’t know anyway, except that I know it has kept the company, the building, the employees, and the equipment safe.
These departments make up the foundation of our awesome HQ. For these and many more reasons, thank you.
5. The culture to experiement
Whether it is experimenting with our products, with our process, or for myself, I have come to embrace the spirit to experiment, to fail fast and learn. As much as I prefer to develop habits, establish routines, and do things a particular way, I have learned that in order to grow and adapt to change, one must experiment and try new things, at least from time to time.
It is well known that we test the heck out of a lot of things in our products. If the cost was cheaper, we would have tested every single pixel and second of our players’ experience. But the fact that we don’t also taught me to be smart about what we test, to recognize that some things in life are more important than others, and I/we have the power to choose what those things are for ourselves.
At work, there is always something new happening. It may be an org change or a new production process or a shift in happy hour scheduling. I’m sure this happens at other companies as well, but, even though this is my first corporate job, I feel that this happens a lot more frequently than other companies. It took me two or three years to catch on; I had learned that at Zynga, practically everything is temporary. In a way, I see everything as an experiment, and if it doesn’t perform well with the employees, they’ll change it up and try something else until something sticks. It lets everyone in the company be more innovative in finding solutions that work best. It taught me be more open to new ideas and be less set in my ways. It’s the Zynga way, and we’re constantly getting better and better at it.
Similarly, on a smaller scale, I have my own experiments with the way I work. Over the years, I have developed and refined a routine and process that work with my work schedule and with my team (This personal routine that I’ve spent years piecing together is actually one of the things I will terribly miss after I leave.) And when my routine or process stop working and start affecting my performance, I experiment with other methods or schedules or apps to find a better way to work. And I feel that the way Zynga is run allows me to do these little experiments on my own so I can get the most out of myself.
It’s this spirit of not being afraid to experiment that has kept Zynga going, that has made working at Zynga infinitely interesting, and that I will carry with me in my personal life and hopefully in my next career adventure. For these and many other more reasons, thank you.
4. The gym
I must recognize the little family from the Zynga gym and mention how much I owe my health to this place and the people who run it.
I was already exercising regularly before the Zynga gym, but I was mainly doing my own thing, piecing together what little I learned in elective PE classes in college and from articles I found online. Through the classes I took with Jodi, JP, Dan, and a few others at the Zynga gym, I added so many new exercises and stretches into my repertoire. Specifically, the care they took to correct my stance and position in class led me to become more aware of my body posture, and effectively make me feel more confident. I still experiment and put together my own program, but the things I learned from them gave me a much better understanding of what is important, correct, and safe.
During the three-month Tough Mudder-themed competition at the gym, I adopted a particular diet that they recommended, and I have been on it ever since. Even though I am still experimenting with parts of it and making it work for my health goals, the basic philosophy of the diet is solid and genuine putting me on the right path to a healthier life.
The availability and access to massages, reflexology, and acupuncture were also great. Having these services reminds me how stressed out we often get and how important it is to take care of our health.
Finally, I had the opportunity to 1) travel to Nicaragua and 2) stayed in a “boutique hotel” near the beach for 3) a weeklong surf trip with Derek, JP and a few other Zyngites. It was a taste of a different lifestyle that I never thought I could experience. It was also one of the catalysts for my world trip a few years later.
Since many of my coworkers casually pointed out my dedication and consistent workout schedule, I often ask myself whether I spend too much time at the gym, potentially feeling guilty about being away from the office. But I would often reason (with myself) that 1) I care for and am actively taking responsibility for my health, 2) exercising definitely helps me relieve stress for the day, allowing me to come back refreshed and do better work, and 3) stepping away from my desk and from the problem of the day often unlock the solution while I’m running or doing sets. So with both personal and professional benefits, I would say my time at the gym is actually a good investment.
The Zynga gym has helped me grow for the past few years, both physically and mentally. For these and many more reasons, thank you.
3. The food
Zynga Culinary has done an amazing job providing food for the people at HQ. I am always impressed by both the variety and the amount of food it produces every day, not just for regular meals, but also for catering special meetings and events.
I have yet to consider myself a foodie, but I am really picky about what I eat, especially after I adopted the diet from the Zynga Tough competition. But that is totally okay, because Culinary offers the awesome Nirvana line, where the dishes are simple, nutritious, and clean. It’s my default line at lunch; I rarely have to look at the daily menu email because the Nirvana line’s weekly menu is more or less the same, just the way I like it.
It’s a little ironic/unusual that when people rave about the food at Zynga, they’re referring to the fancy or hearty dishes at the Expo line or the main line, or the dangerously good desserts they bring out from time to time, but I love the food at Zynga because of the healthy choices that they offer. I’m even more impressed that they are able to offer the healthy choices along with the “foodie” choices. They could easily and exclusively cater to people’s cravings and sweet tooth by making just deliciously heavy dishes and desserts, but they have people’s health-conscious lifestyles in mind and decided to provide for both, and I admire and appreciate that.
Like the regular meals, the food stocked in the kitchens near the offices is also wonderful. Again, there’s a wide variety of guilty foods along with healthier snacks, with me naturally gravitating toward the healthy stuff. And even then, it was mainly just one item for breakfast: first, it was greek yogurt, and after I began my diet, it was hard-boiled eggs. I feel so fortunate to have breakfast consistently taken care of and provided every day, that even when the batch of hard-boiled eggs that week turned out to be less than peelable, I remind myself of this first world problem and am grateful that there’s even food at all to begin with.
Making all this food and coordinating the operation of it all is not an easy or simple task. I don’t know what and how much they do behind the scenes (a lot, I’m sure), but from what I’ve seen at front of house, where I see the cooks dodge the smoke from the grill of sizzling salmon filets or gourmet burgers, or the servers pace around the floor carrying large trays of hot food, or the staff push shelves of plates and silverware or heavy machines to different spots across the always-rearranging cafe floor, these folks are just incredible, incredible people.
And even though the scale of the Friday brunch service has been reduced over the years, it remains to be something I look forward to every week. After I leave Zynga, I will continue to think about it and miss it, along with all the free food I would have every week. So Culinary, for these and many more reasons, thank you.
2. My managers and the creative teams
I came to Zynga as a graphic/web designer working on UI, became an asset manager, then worked my way from associate user experience designer to senior user experience designer. Every step of the way, I had the support and guidance of my direct managers all in their uniquely wonderful ways.
JC is the most positive, zen, and nurturing person I have ever met. Combined with his expertise in user experience and games, a brief chat with him would make me feel optimistic and motivated for the rest of the day.
Walter is a very creative guy, always coming up with ideas and helping to make my job easier. Very friendly and approachable, he would often crack jokes (and plenty of puns), keeping the mood in the office light and easy-going.
Gunthar’s energetic presence often gave me the motivation and confidence I needed to get the best ideas out of my brain and make them real. Along with the rest of the design team, he welcomed me into the world of professional design and set me up for significant growth and experience in a short amount of time, thanks to the numerous hands-on firefighting exercises that was ZDC.
In addition to already being a talented designer, Spencer was a thoughtful and dedicated manager. He cared a lot about the success and happiness of his designers, and worked with each one of us to take advantage of our strengths and offered practical advice to tackle our weaknesses.
Rhi, Rhi, Rhi. She has done so much for me, so much so that I cannot describe in a few sentences. I am so lucky that she saw potential in me as a designer when I joined the ZDC team, and had since assigned me multiple features and projects that she knew I could both handle and challenge myself with, essentially training me to become an ever better designer.
Nick M. and I share a sharp eye for pixel precision, and it made me feel more normal to have someone as detail-oriented (or more!) as I am. As both my colleague and then manager, Mr. Linens inspired me every day to always stay on my toes and keep fighting the good (design) fight.
Nick G. has only been my manager for less than two months, but in that short time, he’s managed to light up something inside everyone on the design team, motivating us to continue the success of our work and bring more delight to our players. I wish I had met him earlier so I could learn more from him.
Along with these great managers were the teams of truly talented and creatively diverse artists and designers that I had the privilege of working with. Having coworkers in the same discipline just made the entire experience much more valuable, educational, enjoyable. There were so many whom I admire, adore, and wish I could have worked with more. I earnestly hope our paths will cross in the future.
For these and many more reasons, thank you.
1. Everyone who has ever worked for Zynga.
Whether you were my managers, fellow designers, squad mates, teammates, division mates, or fellow Zyngites at HQ or around the world, thank you. Even if we have never met, there’s probably two or three degrees of separation where your good work has influenced my job, and vice versa.
As I mentioned in my letter of resignation, it honestly never ceases to amaze me how many talented people have worked at this company. And I have been fortunate enough to work with so many of them. I learned so much about business, tech, culture, processes, etc. from everyone over the years that it inevitably made me a more well-rounded and thoughtful designer.
In addition, practically all of the people I’ve worked with have been incredibly kind and generous, both with their hearts and with their time. I was taught to do things I would not have thought I would do in my career, like running stats queries, pushing code on Hudson, and working with outsourced vendors. I was also taught things that helped me become a better designer, like preparing specs and assets for delivery, owning the design for many projects and features, and drawing flows and wireframes that everyone could understand.
And specifically, I am extremely grateful that so many people have been patient with me and putting up with my neuroses and special ways of doing things. I love working in an environment where everyone’s unique quirks are embraced as strengths and used to the advantage of the team and the product.
One of the reasons I look forward to work every morning is to be in the company of such great people. To sneak a semi-pun, it is pretty much working with friends. But with my departure, all I could do is to cherish the unbelievable experience and think about all the amazing friends I’ve made along the way.
For these and endlessly more reasons, thank you.
After more than six years at Zynga, I have decided that it is time for me to move on and pursue other interests. Please accept this message as my resignation from Zynga as a Senior Experience Designer. My last day of employment is Friday, December 18, 2015. I plan to spend a period of time after my departure to explore my options and career paths.
I want to thank you for the support you have given me already in the short time that we got to work together. I am also grateful for the guidance you have provided to the design team to continue to be motivated and inspired in doing our best work and delivering the best experience for our players.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank Zynga for the incredible experience I have had for the past six years. During this time, I have learned an unbelievable amount, not just for my skill set as a designer, but also with product management, data analysis, game design, engineering frameworks, market research, business strategies, teamwork and collaboration, production processes, culture building, vision- and goal-setting, startup mentality, work-life balance, and so on. I am leaving this company with a lot more life and career experience than I could have ever imagined.
I am also thankful and amazed every day by the amount of talented people who work at this company. I have witnessed many times that when the right talents come together with a clear, common vision, greatness and success follow. I’m immensely honored to have worked with so many of these talented individuals in my journey through PetVille, Studio Platinum, ZDC, MSC, and the With Friends division. But I think I am most grateful, fortunate, and inspired to have the privilege to work for and with my direct managers throughout the years, all of whom have been unbelievably kind, approachable, smart, and enlightening, a combination of which I believe is rare.
For the remainder of my time here, I plan to continue my role and workload while preparing for a knowledge transfer with the design team. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to ensure the smoothest transition.
It has been an honor, a privilege, and a thrill to work at Zynga.
With endless gratitude,
Ivan W. Lam
Senior Experience Designer, Words With Friends
It’s paradise on American soil. It’s the vacation for my vacation as the last stop of my trip. I had heard so many nice things about Hawaii and this was my opportunity to see for myself.
- Wednesday, 12 November: Arrive in Honolulu airport, fly to Maui. Settle in.
- Thursday, 13 November: nothing
- Friday 14 November: Lahaina: surfed and explored downtown
- Saturday 15 November: Hiked Maui tour in East Maui
- Sunday 16 November: Departed Hawaii, headed home, and ended Little Big Trip
Maui was quite nice. The open landscapes with lush green mountains and vast rhythmic seas naturally got me to open up and allowed me to listen to my thoughts more deeply. The island was relatively quiet and pretty low-key, but it did have the conveniences of modern society in each city. It was a really nice place to just slow down and enjoy the ordinary moments of life.
While it was still warm, I would like to spend more time in even warmer weather to get the full experience that most travelers raved about.
I flew from Tokyo to Honolulu, went through customs and immigration, transferred to the domestic side of the airport, then flew to Maui. From there, I rented a car and drove to my hotel in Kihei.
I booked the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu as the last leg of my round-the-world ticket, before I decided to go to Maui. I thought the inter-island flights would be cheap and frequent, but I find out later that I had to book them ahead of time just like most flights.
Had I known and decided that I was going to Maui, I would have booked my flight straight to Maui, and I would also have booked the flight straight from Maui home in the Bay Area.
Instead, I had to sneak cellular service while I was landing in Honolulu to check in to my Maui flight, be shepherded into a shuttle, waited through the lines at immigration, and speedwalked to the domestic security check to catch my flight to Maui.
As I filled out my immigration form, I was very excited and proud to put in all the countries I had been to; it was like a badge of honor that only I and a small percentage of people in the world had done.
I rented a car from Maui airport and pretty much drove everywhere. This was made possible when my wallet (which had my California driver license) was found back in Albuquerque, and I was very thankful I had one less thing to worry about during the trip.
I couldn’t remember seeing public buses, but it would’ve been impractical to travel in Maui this way, although since I had a very little agenda in Hawaii, I probably could’ve taken my time and taken the bus to different places. I definitely could’ve done it if I had to. Still, it was nice to be able to drive to where I wanted to go in my own time.
The one issue was that it was hard for my to drive long distances; I already knew this before the trip but was reminded when I had to drive in Maui. I had a tendency to want to doze off if I drove long distances, like on the highway. And the weather in Hawaii made it easy to relax and be comfortable. The time it took to go from one part of Maui to another would take thirty to forty-five minutes, and while the view of the landscapes was very beautiful look at, they also calmed me down on the road. This was probably my own problem; as most drivers rarely experience this, I believed.
- Time of year: Mid-November.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
The weather was mildly warm. For a beachy vacation spot, it could definitely be warmer, but it was comfortable temperature-wise.
There was a slight humidity, though. It wasn’t enough to feel gross and sticky, but I could feel it and it made me want to head indoor somewhere or wish there was at least a breeze, like by the shore.
For the most part, I just wrote a T-shirt. I wrote my loose synthetic pants but even that was a bit stuffy at times.
At certain seemingly random times, there was rain for maybe thirty minutes to an hour, and the skies would change quickly between clear to cloudy.
The people were pretty much standard American (at least the kind I had come to know in California). Customer service was good and not overly friendly. Of course, some were better than others. The lady who worked at Local Food in Lahaina was very sweet and friendly; it made me feel good to have bought food from her. The college-student-looking folks who worked at the shave ice shop were just busy shaving the ice and finishing orders; they had little time to connect with customers, but the shave ice was delicious so that sort of made up for it.
People spoke English, which was such a relief and made my time in Hawaii more easy-going.
One of the things I wanted to do in Hawaii was surf, because I heard it was much easier to surf in Hawaii, and I needed the confidence boost and practice. However, I realized later that that was probably only true in certain beaches, and probably the popular beginner surfer beaches in the touristy part of Hawaii like Honolulu. Nonetheless, I still wanted to try.
I had breakfast early in the morning at Kihei Caffe. The food was decent, and it felt a little weird to eat at a restaurant where the people spoke English; I had to brush up my normal restaurant social skills.
There was so much butter on the biscuit.
I then drove up to Lahaina in search for one of the many recommended beaches. Apparently, many of those beaches did not exist or were right next to resorts, so I just went to the public beach near Lahaina Harbor. I rented a board from a man who had car-shop looking store front with a couple of boards and a bunch of tattered rash guards and hole-y booties. He was really laid back, almost to a point where he seemed like he didn’t care at all. I was almost scared to leave him my rental car keys.
I rented a long board as I usually did, and my session started off just like all the other times I “surfed”: mostly trying to surf. There was a lot of trial and error,and a lot of internal thinking, trying to figure out how to do better the next time. Also typical of my surfing experience, the gentle rhythm of the waves distracted me from focusing on catching the waves properly.
Then someone came up to me and started telling me how to catch the waves. Not knowing who the guy was, I tried to ignore him at first, but he continued to shouting instructions. He was a middle-aged man with a totally bald head and seemed to have some tattoos. On the surface he seemed like someone I would not normally socialize with. But being a newbie and naturally following people who shouted commands at me, I did what he said, and I did no better or worse than before. But I did something.
Soon after, he told me my board was too long and that I should use a shortboard. He told me to switch with him, and not knowing how to politely refuse, I took his shortboard. I then tried to catch the next wave and surprisingly, it was slightly easier to do. I still didn’t pop up, but I felt that I could the next time. This man suddenly earned my trust.
The tattooed bald man continued to give me instructions to improve my timing. Still not knowing who he was, I had yet to fully embrace and apply his commands. That reluctance and lack of confidence kept me from fully clicking with the sport, so I continued to fail one time, succeed the next, and then fail again, except it was at a better level than before.
It turned out the man was a surf instructor, and his name was Bully. He told me I had the basics right, and I just needed to improve my timing and refine my form. He mainly did private lessons, and he was curious how long I was in town for and if I would want to take a lesson. He had a plastic baggy of business cards and handed me one. I felt it was too sales-y, but then I switched on my “Take chances” and “Just do it” mindset and started working out my schedule to see if I could do it. He even pulled out a business card from a resealable plastic bag and handed to me. I thought it was going to dissolve in the water, but it held up pretty well. The back of the card advertised his wife’s stand-up paddle board classes.
But in the end, I didn’t do it, partly because the timing was too tight, though I wish I did if I had more time. His free quasi-lesson made such an impression on me that I would recommend him to anyone if they happened to be in Maui for a few days, including my future self.
After the surf session, I drove down a few blocks to downtown Lahaina for some lunch. Based on my Yelp research, I stopped by Local Food, which was walk-up window type of joint, and ordered a delicious and filly kalua pork rice plate with piping hot spam musubi (see food section below).
I parked in a paid parking lot in downtown, pretty close to the Lahaina Banyan Court, and became amazed by the incredible banyan trees seemingly interconnected with one another.
Then I just strolled down the street checking out the shops, looking for patches for my luggage and souvenir stickers for my notebook. I also got some shave ice.
The street was by the water, and I had to capture to beautiful scene. I took a vertical panoramic picture that showed the tree above me, the bright sky, calming waves, and smooth sands at the bottom.
For my last full day of the trip, I decided to take a tour of Maui and take advantage of where I was and learn more about it. I found the tour company Hike Maui, which offered a number of tours ranging in length, location, and level of physical activity. I signed up for the “East Maui Waterfalls & Rain Forest Hike” which was supposed to allow guests to swim under the waterfall. It was not in my plans to do that on the trip, but since the option came up, I quickly imagined the cheesy, picturesque scene of me right under the waterfall with my arms wide open, and it suddenly became a goal for me to accomplish.
I booked the tour a little over twenty-four hours before, and the website/company was relatively responsive and gave me a confirmation pretty quickly.
The confirmation email did ask to bring shoes we would not mind getting wet and dirty in, and since I did mind getting my hiking shoes wet and dirty, I bought a pair of water shoes from Safeway just for this tour. I found out at the start of the tour though, that they had a box of water shoes for guests to borrow, so I didn’t have to buy my own pair. After the tour, since I didn’t have room to bring them back home with me, when I checked out of the hotel, I left the shoes in the hotel’s pool supplies room for others to use.
When I arrived at the pick-up place, which was a random parking lot on the side of the highway near Kahului. When I arrived, it was just my car in the parking lot and it was raining. I was worried somehow I missed the pick-up or that it was canceled. After so many tours on this trip, I was still nervous about a tour going wrong.
But pretty soon, I saw a Hike Maui branded van pull up and I quickly got my stuff and got on the van. We then drove to the Hike Maui headquarters and picked up the supplies, including water shoes and our packed lunches.
The drive to East Maui was a little long; it took about an hour, but like any good tours, the tour guide, Ashley, who was also our driver, filled the time and talked about our agenda for the day, some history and culture with Hawaii, along with information about the towns and natural landmarks that we passed by on the way.
We were told that the area we were hiking was privately owned, and Hike Maui (along with a few other companies) had deals with the owners so not everyone could go to where we were going.
Once we arrived, we loaded our bags with food and other gear, used the porte-potties (because we weren’t supposed to do our business anywhere else, and started our tour.
As I learned from the videos on the website, Hike Maui’s tours were different from most tours I had been on. Throughout the hike, in addition to just talking about local plants and biology, Ashley the tour guide pulled off different plants and fruits to show us more in detail whatever she was saying. It was a really neat format that helped keep guests engaged.
About forty-five minutes into the tour, we reached our first waterfall. We got to take a dip to cool off, then we continued our hike. The water was cool, and the warm weather made it easy enough to dry off quickly.
At the second waterfall, we took a lunch break, and we were allowed to jump off the short cliff over the waterfall. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but the “Just do it” part of my brain kicked in again and I did it.
This was also my opportunity to do the dramatic waterfall photo. So I asked Ashley to take the video and photo. I could sense her silent awkwardness as she watched me do this cheesy pose, but I didn’t care nor did I try to diffuse the awkwardness by acknowledging. I wanted the shots.
After that we hiked some more, checked out a few more waterfalls, ate some things that Ashley pulled off and cut up for us, and unknowingly, we arrived back at our starting place.
The drive back to Kahului was pretty low-key. We did drive by very long, clean, blue waves long the shore, with a couple of surfers hanging out in the line-up. It made me very envious and wish I had more time to check this side of Maui.
Ashley dropped me off in the parking lot by the side of the highway where I got picked up. I thanked her and gave her a tip. We said our good byes, and she drove off to drop off the other guests.
After the hike tour, I decided to take up my last chance to hang out at the beach in Maui, since I still had yet to do so. I heard that Makena Beach/State Park in south Maui was pretty popular. But when I got there, the sun was about to set and the temperature was already cooling down. So I made the best of it and enjoyed the sunset instead.
As I watched the sunset, I reflected on the past forty-some days of my trip, especially on the second day, in Albuquerque, when I temporarily lost my wallet. I watched the sun set in the Albuquerque landscape wondering with worry what else could happen in the next forty-some days.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
The first meal I got after arriving and settling in in Kihei, Maui was fish tacos from Coconut’s Fish Cafe. I never really had a preference for fish tacos but it showed up on yelp for being very good, and I was really hungry, so I gave it a try.
The fish tacos turned out to be quite delicious. The fish was freshly cooked and pretty filling. The mango salsa was a bit spicy but tasty. It was kind of messy to eat. Still, it was definitely satisfactory. I ordered two and it was a good amount for me.
On my second day, I was so tired from traveling that I spend the whole day in the hotel, mostly sleeping and TV surfing. But I still had to eat dinner, so I got take out from a restaurant that was probably not the best representative of Hawaiian food, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. This was normally not part of my diet anyway, but it was one of the places that was supposed to have spam musubi, which I was craving. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it, so I just had the chicken katsu plate. It was still filling, though.
After a surf session in Lahaina, I found Local Food on Yelp and got the kalua pork rice plate, as well as the spam musubi.
The rice plate was so good and filling. The kalua pork had just the right amount of flavor and it wasn’t too salty.
The spam musubi was wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and it was quite hot to handle. Even after eating the rice plate, it was still piping hot. Also, I was expecting delicious flavors from this neatly packaged treat, but it pretty much tasted exactly as what I could see: rice, spam, and seaweed.
While on the flight to Maui, a newlywed couple sat next to me and being natives, they recommended a bunch of Hawaiian snacks with names of businesses to check out. One of them was Home Maid Bakery in Kahului. I managed to find it one night and and picked up a bunch of different pastries and treats:
The mango flavored coconut cream mochi was sweet and a bit tangy, but too soft to hold its shape after biting into the creamy center.
The tuna musubi was a mix of diluted rice and tuna flavors.
The texture of butter mochi reminded me of a Chinese treat (they were probably pretty similar), but the semi-savory flavor threw me off with what I associated the name “mochi” to be.
The mango was pretty much a big crumbly cookie with a little bit of filling inside; there was too much cookie and too little filling for my preference.
This was a hand pie of some sort, I honestly didn’t remember what it was, but it tasted okay.
The breakout food from Hawaii for me was shave ice. I fell in love with it the first time I had it. The folks at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice did a good job packing the ice, carving it out, and assembling the cone with flavors and toppings.
My favorite parts to the shave ice aligned with my green tea and mochi obsession, which conveniently carried over from when I was in Japan: green tea, mochi, and azuki beans. I only wished the weather wasn’t so warm so I had more time to enjoy the shave ice before it melted.
Noticing a highly-rated gelato shop in Hawaii, I figured I should try it out.
The first time, I got a local favorite, the Sandy Beach. It was basically a very caramel-y sweet, dense gelato with bits of brown sugar and other things in it, making it a bit gritty, like sand. Overall it was good, but it was one of those flavors where I would recommend trying once and then move on to other flavors.
The second time, I got a lemon gelato. Even though I realized I liked milk-based gelato more than fruit-based, I figured I should try it one more time. It turned out I was still right. This lemon flavor was really sour, almost in the lime territory.
I flew from Maui’s Kahului airport to Honolulu, then flew to San Jose, California.
However, I was having trouble checking in to the flight from Honolulu to San Jose. The flight was co-operated by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, but there was a slight time change, and somehow that wasn’t updated with one of the airlines or some other reason, and the check-in website said to call the provided number.
I was very fortunate this happened in the States where I had a cell plan, because I ended up spending at least an hour doing the “We can’t do anything on our system, you’d have to call the other airline” back and forth multiple times.
It was quite stressful as the thought of not being able to return home on time was becoming more and more real. Knowing that I could fly direct from Maui to the Bay Area instead of connecting in Honolulu with a very short timeframe, I started toying with the idea of dropping the two original flights and booking a new flight from Maui.
It was somewhat ironic that I was stressed from the potential of being stuck in paradise. But it was also ironic that the flights I had the most problems and was most stressed out with were the ones to and from the most relaxing part of the trip.
Finally, I had to stop the back and forth calls, and decided to go to the airport earlier to sort it out. That would mean I had to skip the final two food runs I wanted to do in the last hours of my trip. Instead, I got McDonald’s breakfast, which was honestly a fine alternative, because I allowed myself to indulge on McDonald’s whenever I went on vacation.
From My Travel Log
October 6 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH
- Wallet’s found, but not after I canceled my cards, and had them send replacements.
- Also, it was found only because I emailed and that I remembered the bus number. At least my ID was recovered so I can rent a car in Hawaii.
November 15 2014, 5:59pm, Hakena State Park Parking Lot
- Just saw the sunset of the second to last day of my trip. I remember when I saw the sunset of the second day of my trip, when I lost my wallet and I thought about how the rest of my trip would go and what kind of misadventures I would go through.
- The trip was amazing, And I am impressed I’m proud to have done it and have done all these and so many things in such a short time. I’ll try to get a better sense by laying it out in a collage or video montage, but I know it’ll never capture the real feeling I have. I don’t even know what feeling that is myself.
November 16 2014, 11:39pm, Maui, Kahului Airport Airside
- Waiting for flight, came in extra early to do with check-in problem with American/Alaskan Airlines. So not going with American next time, and so going to fly direct to the island instead of jumping around.
- I still have to see if I can make it to that flight with an hour to de-board, run to terminal, go through security, and run to the gate. If not, my back up would be to book a new flight to Oakland overnight.
- This is the last leg of traveling of my trip. A couple of hurdles. It’s interesting how on the second day of my trip I wasn’t sure if I could leave the country (technically I could but I wouldn’t be able to rent a car here in Hawaii without my driver’s license), and last night I wasn’t sure if I could get back to mainland U.S. on time.
- With this incident, I realized that I’m often with my foot halfway out the door and use money to solve my problems. Maybe I’m traveling and spend more freely, But I think the principle is still there in my everyday life now.
- With this incident, I’ve been aching to go home, that I am done with this trip. But I know I’m going to miss it and wished I was still on it when I’m back. I just want to mention that while I’m still on the trip, specifically, that there isn’t anything left that makes me want to stay on the trip, but I still regard the trip as a great success with amazing experiences and incredible achievements.
- I am modestly proud of what I’ve done, and only time will allow me to realize how much more significant this trip is than I think right now.
- I think about the first half of the trip and feel so proud or more proud of what I’ve done, and with the Europe and Asia portions, they’re still recent, or feel recent that I feel them less. I know, and I hope that, while I can’t possibly feel it now without deep analysis, I will feel it in a few weeks from now, with some distance, and with sorting of the photos and videos. That’s the most that I can expect, and I hope they’ll come true.
November 16 2014, 1:42pm, OGG -> HNL
- Hawaii looks small, But still large and islands are far enough apart.
- For this final flights incident, I’ve called American and Alaska back and forth so many times with very little to no results. In the process, I’d looked into alternative flights, including ditching my two flights and buy one direct to Oakland from OGG, to buy an earlier flight from OGG to HNL, to ensure I make it to the second flight on time with lower costs. After a certain point of calling back and forth and making myself “ask” for what I want, I had to call it and stop calling and hope for the best in the morning (with some resuming of the request to fix issue). And that’s what I did. I went into problem-solving mode this morning and skipped the trip to Home Maid Bakery for more mochi, or any other place for more Hawaiian food. I got breakfast from McDonald’s because it’s safe and predictable, and I went to the airport with a commitment to resolve this. As a result, I should not worry about my ability to resolve issues. I know it’s practically innate and I should focus on doing my best with plan A.
November 23 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed
- People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.
- Immigration officer who seemed half curious half serious about where I went and how long it took
- National rental person who was really nice about my reservation and in general and with my credit card issue
- Terel who helped me check-in
- Lady who cleaned my room very quickly
- Nice guests who say hi whenever we passed by.
- Marty the massage therapist
- Tez and Kai who were returning from their honeymoon
- Lady and young woman at Kihei Caffe who took my order and served me food
- Weird staff at L&L who seemed to not know much about California’s Asian/Chinese population
- Lady at L&L who probably has mental problems and she seems to be talking to nobody, even when I’m not responding
- Guy who rented me surfboard and shirts/shoes
- Bully the instructor
- Lady at Local Food who was really sweet
- Lady at general store who pointed me to the souvenir patches
- Crew at Uluani’s Shave Ice
- Ashley and George, the tour guide and tour guide in training
- Portland couple
- SD couple
- Older lady
- Staff at Saimin place
- Staff at Home Maid Bakery
- National rental drop off staff
- Lady at Alaska counter who helped me to check in to last flight
- American and Alaska phone support (Not really)
- Woman and man next to me on last flight (this one right now) swapping stories about parents in assisted living and diseases and whatnot
- Alaska airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny
- Don’t book tickets that were co-operated, especially by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. If they have a change in the flight information, the other airline may not update, and you may not be able to check in online; and you’d have to check in at the counter the day of the flight.
- There are plenty of flights that fly directly to Maui (OGG) from both Tokyo and the Bay Area. You don’t need to book flights to Honolulu and then shorter flights to Maui.
- The Honolulu airport seemed to be very spread out, so book flight connections with a lot of time in between just in case.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: Maui
- Average temperature of Kihei, Maui (weatherbase.com)
- Coconuts Fish Cafe
- Yelp: Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice (Kihei shop)
- Home Maid Bakery
- Local Food
- Ono Gelato
- Bully’s Surf School
If you have questions about specific experiences of Maui/Hawaii, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
I had a fascination with the Japanese culture. But since I grew up near Japan and was more familiar with Japanese culture than most Westerners were, my fascination was more on the orderliness of the people and way of doing things, especially when compared to the Chinese. Relatedly, there’s a particular design sensibility that also aligned with mine.
And since Tokyo was the largest and most well-known city in Japan, I thought it would be the best place to experience what Japan had to offer.
- Sunday, 9 Nov: Arrive in Tokyo.
- Monday, 10 Nov: Visited Tokyo SkyTree and Asakusa Shrine, Ate Ramen, and Checked out Shinjuku streets.
- Tuesday, 11 Nov: Visited Edo-Tokyo Museum, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku area, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Tower.
- Wednesday, 12 Nov: Visited Roppongi Tower’s Observation Floor and Imperial Palace East Garden, and Departed Tokyo.
On the whole, Tokyo to me was a hardworking, bustling city like any other. There were pockets of unique qualities in the different wards, and it was fun exploring and checking out a few of them. But Tokyo was too large to fully experience in three days.
I knew about the Japanese being known for being organized and tidy, but it was kind of shocking to see in person how true it was. Usually, in major cities, there would be random areas that would be filthy with trash or unpleasant smells. This occurred in some cities more often than others. But in Tokyo, every street and alley was practically spotless. It actually almost felt sterile.
With Tokyo being a seemingly nice place to be in, I thought for a moment about living in Japan. But I quickly realized that in my profession, I would probably become the well-known Japanese salaryman working extra hard, be obligated to to go out drinking with the boss, and be very subservient to people above me in a very structured hierarchy. There would be trade-offs to consider.
I flew from Beijing to Narita Airport. At the Narita airport, I tried to figure out by myself how to buy a train ticket to the city, but I was confused by all the different options and route splits, so I asked someone at the ticket counter which line I should take. The lady knew extremely limited English, so I repeated many times what I thought she said and what she pointed at on the train map just to make sure.
About half way on my train ride, I started getting nervous about whether I was on the right train or if it was one of the routes that split off to a different destination. I couldn’t match the station names with the ones on the train map anymore, so instead of having faith and being patient like I normally would, I got off the train and figured out where I was.
Perhaps I was more willing to take the risk because I was in Japan and felt more safe than other places I had been. Still, once I realized I actually was on right train, I had to pick out the next right train from the wrong trains to continue my journey.
I booked my stay at Nui. Hostel, which was in the Taitō ward, fairly close to the Kuramae station. It’s been said to be a “hipster hostel”, which made me feel less worthy to stay. Regardless, it was a nice hostel.
The ground level was a restaurant/lounge open to the public. I knew this going in, so when I entered, I looked around at the front desk until a worker greeted me. She could tell from my luggage that I was staying at the hostel instead of getting food. I made a reservation online but did not mention it. I didn’t see a computer so I wasn’t sure if my reservation mattered. She made a copy of my passport and I filled out the registration form. The worker shuffled some paperwork and got me checked in.
She handed me the guest information and went over it with me. As she was starting, I tried to respond in Japanese with simple phrases like “はい” (Yes). But when she asked me if I knew Japanese, I quickly shifted and said “すごし” (Little), “Very すごし”. She knew some English and it was enough to communicate.
The rest of the guest-interacting staff also knew a little bit of English, and they were very nice and accommodating when I needed assistance.
I booked an eight-person dorm. It had four wooden bunk beds, two on each side of the room with an aisle in the middle, leading to the window. Near the door were small wooden lockers with small metal loops for small locks.
With the concrete walls and brown wood bed frames, the room was somewhat dark, especially towards the door. I supposed that helped with sleep and keeping things quiet. Lighting in the room was also limited, but each bed had its own lamp. Also, since each bed had curtains, the space felt a little tight when all the curtains were closed. The dorm was really just a place to sleep.
On my side of the room, I met my roommates. One was a Japanese guy around my age from Seattle traveling to Japan to see family. One was a white American but was living and working in Shanghai. Another one was French. Throughout my stay, the two from the States just talked about different things, from places to check out in Tokyo and traveling to movies and international politics. I talked about my obsession of mochi and green tea, and they seemed amused by it.
On the other side of the room was an older Japanese man staying in a hostel for the first time, a Chinese (man?) who mostly kept to himself, maybe coming in late at night drunk?, and a French couple who unfortunately had bed bugs or something and asked to switch rooms and washed all their clothes the next day. They seemed to be the only ones affected, and they were in the corner of the room farthest from me, so I was a little less concerned.
I was on the top bunk for the last time of the trip. It included power outlet next to the bed, curtains for privacy (similar to St. Christopher’s Inn in Paris). Sheets and light duvet were included but I had to set it up myself (with instructions given in the check-in info sheet).
There were two metal loops in the ceiling with hangers, which was such a simple but genius idea.
At the foot of my bed was a straw or bamboo blinds separating me from the other top bunk. At night, when the other guest had his lamp turned on, I could kind of see into his bed, which was kind of weird.
The bathroom was dorm style and shared with other dorm guests on the floor. It had a few individual shower rooms and toilet rooms, including one just for ladies. The toilets were not the fancy Japanese kinds with bidets and whatnot, so I didn’t get a chance to try the different settings.
The shower room had a space to change/dry off, and a space for the actual shower. The shower had a two-pane folding door on a track that must be closed completely for the shower to turn on. It was a neat design and a pleasure to shower, thought it could get a bit claustrophobic. The shower also included soap and shampoo dispenser.
Near the entrance to the bathroom was a counter of sinks with mirrors. It was the first time using a co-ed dorm bathroom, and it felt kind of weird brushing my teeth next to ladies doing their make up or blowdrying their hair, but I just stayed cool and minded my own business. Such a noob moment.
There was a restaurant/lounge area on the ground floor for the public and a guest-only lounge on the top (6th) floor. I only hung out at the restaurant for breakfast on my last day. It seemed to always have a lot of people, but it was really laid back.
Aside from sleeping, I spent most of my time at the hostel in the guest-only lounge. It was a good-sized space with a large dining table near the elevator entrance. There were two long desks along the walls, with a bench on the far side. There were outlets and lamps at the desk for people to work at. Plenty of windows on one side provided pretty good light. There were many reading materials, including magazines and city guides.
There was also a small kitchen area near the dining table but I wasn’t sure if it was for guest use. Between the kitchen and the elevator was the laundry room, with a few coin-operated washing and drying machines. I used the washing machine but dried the clothes at my bed.
I usually brought breakfast from outside back to the lounge to eat before starting my day. There weren’t that many people using it, probably because it was on the top floor and felt secluded from everything else. It was still a nice place to just relax; though it could get boring.
The Wi-Fi was good. It was not hyper fast but it was quite sufficient for looking up stuff on websites and maps. It worked in the room as well as the lounge area.
The restaurant offered breakfast for sale in the morning, with different breads and pastries. I had a croissant and ordered a cup of tea from the kitchen. The food was decent.
On my first night, I noticed that they had a full dinner menu, but it was too late to order anything and I never got a chance to try the dinner.
Japan was a huge city, and it has a complicated subway system owned by three companies. I took the subway to go from one area to another, then walked within that area and got on the subway to head to another area.
Because the subway had too many options, and that I was only going to be in Tokyo for about 3 days, and that I had planned very little with my time in Tokyo, I opted to just buy tickets as I went.
The fares were determined by distance, so I had to decide where I wanted to go when I bought the tickets at the machine. At first, the machine was kind of confusing with so many choices, even when I toggled to English. It had really specific options so I had to know exactly where I wanted to go.
The ticket design was kind of utilitarian with a hint of Japanese sensibility. It was a rectangular piece of paper with a hole and custom-printed text. Either the machine could scan the text on the ticket or the tickets had an RFID chips in them.
Japanese trains were known for being on time. Some stations had digital boards listing upcoming trains and times. For the most part, the trains came frequently enough that missing one would be fine, at least for a traveler with little regard for time.
The subway map was really confusing but it was relatively easy to understand after taking the subway a few times. It was still frustrating to find that the shortest route across town would still take thirty minutes or more.
- Time of year: Mid-November.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
Tokyo was mostly cool throughout the day. But when the sun came out, it got a little warm and I only had a T-shirt.
At night, or when the weather was gloomy, I had a long-sleeve shirt and/or a light jacket on.
It also rained a little bit at certain times.
The people were very friendly. I think they were just trained and also grew up that way. Even if they didn’t speak English, they would smile to hide their embarrassment and either tried to get help or did their best.
But sometimes, their smiles and bows did little to help me and left me wondering if 1) they had accepted my request and were continue to help me or 2) I was asking for something they could not comply so they nonverbally ended the interaction. I would then have to pursue further to confirm either case, or that I would suggest doing something else if I asked for an undeliverable request.
Nonetheless, the people were nice and would do as much as they can to help me. For example, I was heading to the airport and wasn’t sure which ticket to buy because it wasn’t on the usual subway menu. I asked the station attendant but he couldn’t speak English. He pointed at route maps on a counter and at ticket machines, but I couldn’t understand him. I walked to the ticket machine trying to do what I thought he wanted me to do. But the attendant eventually came out and pressed the buttons for me.
From my limited experience reading people, he was a young man who seemed to have held the attendant job for only a short time. He didn’t seem to care a whole lot about the job, but his sense to serve seemed to have driven him to continue to help me. And I was glad he did, because I really didn’t know what to do. I probably would’ve figured it out myself or took my best guess after poking around on the screen a few times, but it was very nice of the attendant to help me.
I took one semester of Japanese in college, and I became mildly interested in it ever since. It may have been because my Chinese language background made learning Japanese easier, or that I was naturally interested in learning languages.
I had learned the Japanese alphabet, both hiragana and katakana, and could still recognize most of them.
For the trip, I took a course of the audio tapes like I did for the other languages, and it was nice to get a refresher but also good to learn new basic actions, like eat, drink, go, etc., even though, like the other languages, I didn’t have enough confidence to use or the sufficient practice to understand.
Tokyo Skytree (Shopping Center)
When I checked in to my hostel, I noticed the Tokyo Skytree in the near distance. So I walked up to the river near the hostel and tried to get a good shot of it, even though it was sort of raining. At first I did not know it was called Skytree; I thought it was called Tokyo Tower!
The next morning I figure it would be a good way to get my bearings by walking to the Skytree. I crossed the Asakusabashi bridge and had a direct view of the Asahi building.
Near the Skytree center, I went to a convenient store to get some snacks. I noticed these Skytree shaped bottles, which was not surprising at all.
The terrace outside of the Skytree center already had some sort of Christmas decorations and booths set up with Christmas trees and polar bears.
I looked up ahead of time that going up the Skytree required some sort of reservation, so I already gave up on doing that. Instead, I roamed around the shopping center for a little bit.
I noticed a green tea restaurant, and my eyes lit up. I wasn’t sure about having a full meal inside, so I asked to just get a green tea ice cream to go. There were so many choices I had trouble picking just one. Finally, I choice the green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean. It was really cold but delicious.
After that, I went to a stationery/office store and got some stickers for my travel log as well as for my nephews as souvenirs. Then as I was about to leave, I noticed a Studio Ghibli store, and I had to check it out.
It was very tough narrowing down the number of souvenirs I wanted to get. Because of my limited storage, I ultimately got small Totoro figures for my nephews.
Asakusa Shrine and Tori-no-ichi Festival
I made my way back to the other side of the river and headed to the Asakusa Shrine. I knew very little about the shrine or the temple, but I remained respectful and I took pictures and videos of what I felt was the important stuff.
I saw people at the chozuya cleaning their hands with a ladle of water.I wanted to do what they did but I didn’t know if it was appropriate. Even with illustrated instructions, I was a little confused.
There were also a wall of wooden plaques (called Ema) and they supposedly had wishes and whatnot.
I left the shrine area and went out to where the temple and other structures were. The shrine was a relatively low-key quiet place, but the temple area was much more popular and crowded with people.
I noticed one section had people shaking tin cans, letting a stick fall out, and then taking a fortune from one of the many drawers. I had seen this in Chinese temples so I wanted to get my for fun.
I then made my way to the main entrance of the temple grounds, through the shops and to the “Thunder Gate” with a giant lantern.
I thought it was neat how popular this temple was, even with young people, because in Chinese culture, this types of stuff mainly interested the older generation.
After Asakusa Shrine and Temple, I made my way to the Tori-no-ichi Festival, which I learned was happening while I was in town. I still had little understanding of what it was, but I just knew it was something that the locals celebrated.
As I was getting closer to Washi Shrine, I noticed people walking away holding large sticks with shiny decorative elements and a semi-creepy-looking mask-face. Apparently, these were rakes and people get them for good luck.
I noticed a line to enter the shrine area, but I didn’t get on it because I didn’t know what it was for exactly and I was not interested in the festival enough to wait in a long line. What I did notice was that next to the line was regular pedestrians passing by, only distinguished by colored tape on the ground. I was quite impressed at the level of order this piece of tape provided to the festival goers. In other countries, people would undoubtedly cut in line, or that tall barricades would be required to separate the queue from passerby.
Also, the line apparently was to ring some sort of bell.
I managed to find another entrance to the general festival area. But all it had were vendors that sold practically the same things: rakes.
After realizing that that was all there was, I started walking farther away from the main area and noticed street food vendors catering to any people checking out the festival.
I didn’t get any food at the time because I wasn’t sure what some of the things were, and I didn’t feel like going through the trouble with the language barrier and ask.
My hostel roommate mentioned a street food festival happening in Shinjuku, and since I wanted to see Shinjuku anyway, I figured I should check out the street food as well.
It took me a while to find the street food, I walked in a large circle around the Shinjuku area before finding it. It was mainly a long strip on one side of the street where there were vendors set up and people walk along the sidewalk and picked the things they liked.
There were plenty of the “usual” Japanese street food, including that one where the cook flipped little balls of food from a mold of semispheres.
There were other vendors that sold practically a meal, with meat and potatoes and a fried egg. I would’ve gotten it if I were more hungry and that it didn’t feel greasy.
Then there were the desserts. For the novelty, I had a chocolate-covered banana with Koala March cookie, which was disappointingly more healthy than I thought (it was just a banana inside).
I ate a fish-shaped cake with caramel filling before I saw a green tea version, so I had that as well. They were also disappointing in that there was more cake than filling.
I then saw boba drinks that was available in green tea. It was very milky and watered down.
Out of cash and full on sweets, I continued walking around Shinjuku and was mesmerized by the lighted signs.
There were plenty of karaoke bars and night clubs in Shinjuku; it was clearly a place for a good night life, but I was just not in the mood, especially by myself. There was an American-English speaking guy trying to get me in to come in to one of the clubs, and I could tell it was probably not a good idea.
After seeing all that I needed to see, I headed back to the hostel for the night.
With little on my agenda, I decided to check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida, which was near my hostel. It was a really interesting visit. Edo was the original name of Tokyo, and the museum pretty much went through the history of old Tokyo to today. It had a lot of amazing large, detailed diorama models illustrating different eras in Tokyo’s history.
Everything was organized and relatively easy to understand, especially if I could fully understand Japanese.
It even had a special exhibition on the 1964 Olympics to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary, displaying the clothing, posters, relay torch, and other materials from the time.
It also went through the Westernization of Japan as well as Japanese involvement in World War II.
The museum had a lot of very fascinating information about Tokyo’s history that I felt would be even more useful if I understood Japanese. Many but not all of the signs had English translation, so I could only understand some of the materials.
Meiji Shrine/Yoyogi Park
Knowing that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics in 2020, I wanted to check out the progress on the Olympic Stadium. However, I didn’t realized construction had yet to begin, and all I could find was a boring-looking entrance to a stadium that was closed. Disappointed, I moved on to the Meiji Shrine, which was in the area.
The park around Meiji Shrine was totally secluded. I could only see tall trees and wide gravel paths, and I could only hear birds chirping and insects buzzing, and maybe the faint sound of continuous traffic in the distance. It was a really nice change.
The shrine area was a big open space, with a small number of visitors. It rained a little bit, so may that led to fewer visitors than it could accommodate. There were Chozuya stations and Ema boards, just like in Asakusa.
The main shrine was closed off for visitors, so we could only peek from the distance. The place where visitors could peak into the shrine had a pit for people to throw coins in and pray. There were instructions in many languages for how to pay respects, but I wasn’t sure if I should do it, so I just watched others do it.
There were also signs asking visitors not to take any photos, so I didn’t. But I noticed others who may not have seen the sign taking photos.
I arrived at Meiji Shrine just before closing time at 4pm. As the staff was escorting visitors out of the park, I managed to get a selfie with a torii gate.
Harajuku was made famous in the States by Gwen Stefani. All I knew they had a unique sense of style. I figured it was worth checking out.
I actually wasn’t sure where exactly I could find the essence of Harajuku, but I did stumble upon Takeshita Street, which turned out to be popular street in Harajuku.
I did a quick walk down the street and noticed many boutique shops, along with a crepe shop and a convenience store that sold green tea Kit Kat!
I wasn’t sure how good a Japanese crepe shop would be so I didn’t try it, but I did get the green tea Kit Kat.
After some research, I found out the place where swarms of pedestrians cross an intersection in Tokyo was in Shibuya. So I headed there and tried to see it for myself.
The Shibuya station was huge, with sixteen exits. There were walkways after walkways with exit number posting throughout the station to redirect patrons to the right place. I got lost a couple times because some exit numbers stopped appearing after following the directed paths.
I asked a station worker in English about the intersection. She either understood English well or knew/assumed that I was just another tourist asking about it, because she was very prepared to point me in the right direction.
The intersection, called Shibuya Crossing, had a lot of large lighted signs, not as densely overwhelming as shinjuku, and nowhere like Times Square, but it almost had that atmosphere. Also, it may not have been the best time of day or day of the week because there were about half as many people crossing the intersection as I had seen on TV.
But it was still nice to experience it in person.
Another reason I went to Shibuya was to continue my quest for the best mochi/daifuku in Tokyo. I learned about the shop Ginza Akebono, which had few stores throughout Tokyo, one of which was in Shibuya. I could see it on a map, but it took more probably twenty to thirty minutes of walking around and clamoring for the free Wi-Fi at the subway station to finally find it. It turned out that instead of a store, it was a counter in the underground department-store-style supermarket.
I got one or two of the different kinds of daifuku on display, which they boxed up in a nice, simple packaging.
I was told I had to eat them within a day, which honestly wouldn’t be a problem. I waited until I was back in the hostel to eat them, but honestly, the texture was a little tougher than I’d like. They were totally fine, but I expected really fresh and soft mochi, but it was a little underwhelming.
At the underground supermarket, I also saw a counter with large cute breads/cakes on display. I couldn’t even.
For some reason, the Tokyo Tower became the symbol for Tokyo for me. With all the documenting I was doing and all the collages and compilations I was going to put together, I needed something to represent Tokyo. The city had very few landmarks, and with the Skytree being fairly new and still lesser-known, I figured Tokyo Tower was the closest thing.
So I spent a lot time walking around Tokyo Tower trying to get a good clean photo. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, however, where it was largely open space all around, Tokyo Tower had a lot of buildings around it, obstructing views almost everywhere.
I must have spent at least an hour one night walking to different areas around the tower trying to get good full-height shots.
I also tried to get shots of it from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower observation floor, but it was cloudy and visibility was limited.
I returned to the area again in afternoon before my flight for one more session.
I believed I had done what I could.
Imperial Palace East Garden
In my quest to get good photos of the Tokyo Tower from a distance, I inadvertently moved closer and closer to the Imperial Palace. So I decided I might as well visit it anyway.
As I entered the area, I noticed a large canal separating from the outside, much like the the canal outside of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
Then there was a field of trees there were evenly spaced far apart, and walking by made the scene a little mystical.
Once inside, there were wide walkways surrounded by square stone walls stacked very neatly. It sort of reminded me of old Inca structures in Cusco, Peru.
Admission was free, but every visitor was handed a plastic chip as a visitor counter to be returned on exit.
It turned out that I was only visiting the East Garden, and the entrance to the palace was somewhere else. Without the energy, time, nor resources to find where that would be, I stayed in the East Garden, trying to enjoy the scene a little bit on my last day in Tokyo.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
I love mochi and daifuku. The soft, pillowy, chewy treat is one of my favorite dessert. I often go to the supermarket in Japantown in San Francisco to get the fresh mochi and daifuku and eat them by myself.
I wasn’t expecting to pig out on mochi and daifuku while I was in Tokyo, but when in Tokyo… “Fresh” daifuku were commonly sold in convenient stores, so I knew I had to take advantage of that.
They also sold prepackaged ones, which, honestly was the best ones I had in Japan. They had the perfect balance of softness, chewiness, and mochi-to-bean-paste ratio.
I also seeked out supposedly the best daifuku, which was Ginza Akebono. As I explained my experience in the Shibuya section, the mochi was tough and not at all soft. And it had too much red bean paste, although that wasn’t bad by itself.
I also had mochi ice cream, which I had risen above long ago, but it was green tea ice cream, so I had to have it. The ice cream was too hard to really enjoy the flavor or the experience.
Green Tea Everything
An obsession I somehow began in Tokyo was green-tea flavored foods. I think it derived from my general preference for green tea flavored foods as well as a subculture obsession with green-tea everything. I figured I should become a green tea fanboy to see how it fit me.
I had fancy green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean paste from Nana’s Green Tea at Tokyo Skytree center. Good but very cold.
Fish-shaped cake with a drop of green tea filling. It needed a lot more green tea filling.
Green tea boba drink. Too much milk watering down the green tea flavor.
Green tea mochi ice cream (see mochi section above).
Then at the airport, I had my last chance to get green tea-flavored things.
I got a green tea mochi kit, which I didn’t realize was a kit; I thought it was already prepared and I was going to eat at the airport. But I realized I wouldn’t have a way to make it so I had to throw it away.
Green Tea pocky sticks. They tasted like sweet green-tea-flavored cream. Decent snack.
And green tea chocolate covered macadamia nuts. These were actually a souvenir so I didn’t get a chance to eat them.
I saw these commonly sold at the convenience stores like the daifuku, so I figured I should be like a local and eat as many of these as I could. I probably had about five to six of these in the three days I was in Tokyo.
Most of them had some sort of fish or help inside, which added some flavor to the rice. But it was still mostly rice inside, which was fine.
I went to Ichiran near Ueno station for my ramen. It was my first time ordering food on a machine in a Japanese restaurant, and it was sort of confusing. It only took cash so I actually had to find an ATM to withdraw money before I could order.
After ordering, the host directed me to one of the booths with partition from others. The experience felt a little clinical in that other than the host, everyone was a faceless figure, and there were forms to order seconds and drinks that require me to press a button to get someone to come and process.
But at least the ramen was good. I couldn’t tell good ramen from fantastic ramen, but mine was pretty good. I would want to try other combos in the future to find the right one for me.
Japan had so many different type of foods and snacks (as shown by a quick stroll in a convenient store) that it’s practically impossible to try them all. But more likely than not, a lot of them are more or less the same thing, much like American snacks.
Aside from the ramen, the only other time I ate in a restaurant setting was at a “fast food” restaurant near my hostel that served Japanese home-style plates. I got a curry dish with rice and meat, because I also liked Japanese curry.
It was decent, considering that it was a “fast food” dish. What’s more fascinating was the set up. Even though it was a different set up from the the Ichiran ramen place, it might as well have been the same. The restaurant had an open floor plan, with the server in an aisle in the middle surrounded by booths, sort of like in sushi restaurants. Each seat at the booth had a pictured menu with a button.
Customers would come in, sit down, and order what they wanted. After the customer finished, they would press the button at their seat to get the server’s attention so they could pay, and then they would leave. Many of the customers were in business attire, so I assumed they were salarymen catching a quick, cheap dinner after a long day at work before heading home.
I took the airport train from the city; pretty much the same way as I had arrived. It took about an hour, like before. However, this time there were a lot of people on the train in the beginning, probably because it was rush hour in the evening and people were heading back home from the city. It was also really warm and humid so the windows were beading with water.
- Lady at reception and guy who helped me check into hostel and whom I confessed I know only “very すごし” Japanese.
- Bennett (dorm mate)
- Vilman (sp?) (dormmate)
- Sho (dorm mate)
- Old man who’s staying in hostel for first time
- Chinese dude who stayed in the bed in front of me
- French couple who got bed bugs
- Staff from practically every store who were really nice
- Metro station workers who helped me transfer to another line, who led me to the purchase kiosk and press the right buttons for me for buying tickets to the airport, who gave me a map to go across the street to enter the other side of the station, who gave me change back for paying too much for the airport train
- Girls at Asakusa who helped me pronounce Asakusa Shrine in Japanese
- Girl from San Diego (?) who helped me film my fortune shaking process
- Restaurant staff who was nice but a bit awkward for helping me get my ramen
- Lady who was nice to try to understand I was pointing at green tea, which occurred to me that it’s pronounced “matcha”
- Weird guy asking me in American English whether I had plans that night in Shinjuku, which I assume he was trying to sell me entry to a karaoke bar
- Lady at Edo-Tokyo museum ticket counter who explained the difference with the ticket types
- Museum security who may have tried to tell me to not run down the escalators
- Security guard who kindly let me go through to enter the Meiji Shrine even though he had understood what I was trying to say with “いきます?” (“I go”, without the question marker か)
- Lady who may have been speaking Mandarin to the cook at the curry/rice restaurant
- Ladies who help me figure out the difference between the two daifuku at Ginza Akebono
- Japanese signage
- Man who gave out chip to enter Imperial Palace Garden
- Weird guy who sat next to me on the plane who seemed dodgy about what he’s doing in Hawaii
- Download the subway app (see Links) to plan your route before heading to the station.
- Because Tokyo subway systems are owned by three companies, some stations with the same name may actually be separate stations. Make sure you go to the right one. But even if you get to the wrong one by mistake, an attendant could probably lead you to the right place with hand signals or hand you a map.
- At the subway station, figure out exactly where you need to go and which line you will take before getting on the ticket machine. The options of the machine will probably confuse you even more if you don’t know ahead of time.
- When a convenience store cashier gives you change, let them put it in a tray before you grab it.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: Tokyo
- Average temperature for Tokyo (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: Nui. Hostel
- Nui. Hostel official website
- Japan subway app
If you have questions about specific experiences of Tokyo, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Why Beijing/Great Wall?
Because it’s the Great Wall. So many people have been, and I wanted to see it for myself, up close, and see how it’s structured.
I wanted to go to Beijing to visit Tiananmen Square because of the history, and I wanted to visit the Olympic Park and Stadium because I love the Olympics.
- Wednesday, 5 November: Arrived in Beijing. Visited Tiananmen.
- Thursday, 6 November: Visited Olympic Park.
- Friday, 7 November: Great Wall tour, including jade factory and teahouse visit. Checked out Street food Street and Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center.
- Saturday, 8 November: Visited Forbidden Palace. Checked out “dessert street”.
- Sunday, 9 November: Depart Beijing.
Beijing was nicer than I thought and have heard. My previous experiences of mainland China was only the southern region when I entered through Macau and Hong Kong. Compared to the westernization of the two cities, mainland China was very basic, less developed, and less maintained.
Beijing was slightly more organized and maintained, although I wondered if that was because APEC was visiting at the same time. However, there was little to bring me back to Beijing. I felt that I had seen enough.
The Great Wall was great. But it’s hard to comprehend the scale at which these walls were built, especially when I stood at a higher spot on the wall and looked out at a mid-point along the curving walls, trying to get a sense of scale and distance, and then imagine multiples of that as I looked out farther into the landscape.
I flew direct from Rome to Beijing. The flight was ten and a half hours, but it didn’t feel that long, partly because it was an overnight flight and I slept for a good amount of the time.
From the airport, I took a subway train into the city. There was a special booth to buy the ticket, and it costed twenty-five yuan. The ride took about 30 minutes. It dropped me off at one of the subway stations, but I had to exit the station for the airport train first before I could enter the subway system.
For Beijing, I booked my stay at the Peking Yard Hostel, partly because it was close to a subway station and that it was part of Hostelling International, which I became a member for this trip (although the only other time I used the membership was in London).
Since the hostel was located in the middle of a hutong alley, I studied the location on the map ahead of time to make sure I was going to the right place. Fortunately, there was the Hostelling International sign (albeit small) in front of the entrance.
Checking in was relatively simple. Knowing that I couldn’t speak Mandarin well enough, I eliminated all doubt that I was going to speak it by greeting the front desk with a gentle “Hello.”
The staff working there seemed to be young adults, late teens or early twenties, maybe in college and this was their part-time job. But they were all very professional and friendly to customers but were casual amongst themselves. The more senior staff could speak English well enough.
At check-in, one of the staff came out from behind the desk with a full-size airport security handheld metal detector to scan my luggage. I thought it was really unusual, but I wondered if it was because the APEC summit was happening. But she didn’t really scan the bag fully anyway. I saw her do that again with other new guests, and it was almost comical to watch.
One time, I was hanging out in the common area, and I was asked to watch the front desk because one of the staff had to step out to help another guest, and she assumed I spoke English. Fortunately, another staff member came back and I didn’t have to do anything. When the original staff member returned, she mentioned how she asked me to watch the desk, and the other staff member revealed to here that I didn’t speak Mandarin. They all had a laugh and they gave me a free tea. It looked pretty but tasted like regular tea.
I booked a dorm for my stay. Each guest was issued a key card for the room and a locker key.
My room held four bunk beds along one wall on the main floor, and there was a ladder between the bunk beds leading up to the attic for at least two more beds. They really crammed as many beds as they could. I was going to check out the attic but wasn’t sure what I would do if someone was up there and they caught me peeking.
The room had very limited lighting, so it was dingy-looking for most of the time. I had the top bunk so it was slightly better.
The room had an off-and-on faint sewage smell. I tried to track the smell to the bathroom, but it wasn’t it. When I first got to the room, I thought it was going to be a miserable four nights. But the smell went away randomly, and I was not too bothered by it throughout the stay, knowing that I was going to leave in a few days.
I was the top bunk, and it included a little shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. The sheets were provided and made, and a light duvet was included as well, and it was all sufficient.
Each guest had an assigned locker, and they were wooden cabinet with a key lock, and we’re assigned issued key at check-in. My locker cabinets had a slightly broken door hinge, most possibly from overuse. It’s been used a lot. It could fit a large backpack (though backpackers’ backpack wouldn’t fit because of the depth.
Laundry and Bathroom
I heard there was laundry service at the hostel but I did not bother to ask. So I washed my clothes in the bathroom and hung it in the empty space behind the ladder to the attic. Technically, it was probably communal area, but I doubted anyone was using it, so I took advantage of it. I hung my underwear and things, but I didn’t care; I needed washed clothes.
However, because the sink looked dirty, I instead washed my clothes in a large clean plastic bag that I had with me. For some reason, after I was done washing my clothes, the previously clean plastic bag had the same random sewage smell as the room. I was pretty certain the smell did not come from my clothes, so it may have been the water or the shower floor, where I rested the bag when I stirred the clothes and water inside.
The bathroom was really basic with a shower stall, a toilet, a trash can, and a few hooks on the wall, though it didn’t feel enough for me. Also, the trash can was for discarding used toilet paper, just like what I had to do in Peru. While I was familiar with the process and got used to it pretty quickly, the idea still felt quite strange and gross to me.
The common area was pretty nice. There were a few grouped sofa seatings along one wall, and a few small tables next to them. On the other side was a dining table and pool table. There were a lot of plants (perhaps they were fake), which made the space much more friendly and comfortable.
There were just enough power outlets to charge my phone or tablet, but that was only when there were a few people around. If the whole place was packed, then there would not be enough people to charge their devices.
The casual vibe was also achieved by the mellow English songs playing throughout the day. One time, I heard a few of Jack Johnson’s songs playing back to back, and that made my day, for bringing a piece of my life to the trip in an unexpected place.
Wi-Fi only worked in the common area. The speed was slow compared to the States and Europe. It was good for light browsing.
Also, they blocked many sites. For a few moments at the beginning, I felt a little lost for not being able to check Facebook. I was a little shocked to be able to experience first hand how some seemingly common and popular sites and apps were blocked.
There was also a Windows desktop computer with Internet access. I actually used the computer to transfer and back up the photos and videos from my phone to the flash drive I bought in South Africa, and that worked pretty well. I felt good to backup my photos so quickly, unlike the weeks of transferring them to the cloud.
See Food section, but basically, the hostel had a decent menu of Chinese and Western dishes. The quality was solid, and the price was reasonable.
While the staff was nice, the food was good, and the location was close to a subway station, after experiencing the setup on my room, I felt that I was grown up enough to be able to afford a regular hotel room instead. It would’ve made a lot of things easier and more comfortable, although I would have lost the opportunity to meet people like I did at the hostel.
Subway and walking. Beijing was surprisingly big. For farther distances, I took the subway, and for the rest, I walked.
I was surprised that Beijing had a subway system, and one that was pretty clean and reliable. That’s why I didn’t get a special multi-day or multi-use pass. But each ride was 2 yuan, about 30 U.S. cents, much more affordable than European and American subway fares, so I didn’t mind buying individual tickets, as I needed.
Most stations had a security checkpoint, where my backpack had to go through a scanner. Depending on the station, smaller bags were okay. I was rarely in a rush, so that was okay. I couldn’t imagine how rush hour would look and feel like for commuters. The stations at the Tiananmen Square even had security checkpoints for leaving the station.
Some station had machines that sell tickets. Some have staffed booths. Buying tickets at the booth was pretty quick. The staff are pros with trays of tickets, bills and coins in front of them a touchscreen next to them, ready to collect money, tap the screen to mark a sale, count the change, and issue the ticket. The tickets were in stacks at the ready, so I think they were reused.
At the platform were plenty of signs with route numbers, station names in Chinese and phonetic English, route map posters, and digital signs for arrival estimate. The space was also pretty clean and well maintained. There were glass walls and doors next to the boarding zone, and they would open in sync with the train doors. Some stations had signs pasted on the floor instructing where they should queue up, and people actually followed them. It’s consistent with my experience in Chinese culture where the people respect queues for public transport, but in every other instances, it’s a mob of people crowding and pushing to get their share.
On the trains were also route maps above the doors with lights along the route, marking the path with different colored lights. There was also a lot of advertising, on the walls, on the overhand handles, on TV screens on the walls. There was even advertising outside of the train in the form of frame-by-frame posters along the tunnel walls synced to the speed of the train so they practically looked like a video ad.
An example (from a video I found online):
Most subways stations were spaced a good distance apart. When I arrived in Beijing and took the subway for the first time to get to my hostel, I got off at a station that was the second closest to my hostel because it didn’t actually connect to the closest station. I thought I should just walk it. But it turned out to be a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk with my carry-on luggage on my back. I was fine at the end of the walk; it was like a good walking workout. But I learned my lesson and made sure I got off at the closest station wherever I was going, even if it meant that I would have to take different trains.
- Time of year: Early November.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
The weather was mostly cool. I wore layers and long sleeves all the time. In the middle of the day, when it was sunny and warmed up a bit, I would take off my jacket, but I’d still have my long-sleeve layers.
At night, it got very chilly, and I had my buff to cover my neck like a scarf. I wore my leather gloves as well.
On the Great Wall, it was still cool, but because of all the walking and hiking, it didn’t feel as cold as it would have if I had just stood still.
I was in a different situation from other American/Western travelers in China because I am Chinese. The locals treated me more like one of their own, until they could tell that I wasn’t a local.
In many instances, that came to my disadvantage because I was expected to behave and interact at a standard different from other travelers, but I inevitably fell short. That made me look incompetent to them.
One time at a bakery, the cashier did not have enough change to give back, and asked if I had smaller change. I understood the situation but couldn’t understand her exact request and question. All I could do was just shake my head and say, “Don’t have.” and I wanted to say “Don’t understand” in Chinese. Stuck in a tough situation, she started complaining at me, for making her get her coworker to help her get change and slow things down. In the end she had to give me change in the next highest denomination she had, which was a lot more than what she owed me and probably why she was so upset. If I looked more like a foreigner, she would probably still ask her coworker for help, but she would be more understanding and take it upon herself to resolve the issue instead of relying partly on me to help her as a fellow Chinese..
In general, though, because I stayed within touristy areas, the locals seemed to be used to travelers and would be fine helping them as best as they can. There may be prolonged stares if the visitors looked foreign, which may feel intimidating. But I can speak for Chinese people that most of them have a tendency to stare (albeit harmlessly) without realizing the how threatening they looked. Regardless, this was one of the advantage of looking more like the locals, the ability to blend in.
I grew up speaking Cantonese, but Mandarin was the main dialect in mainland China, including Beijing. I could understand basic words in Mandarin and speak it if it’s spoken slowly enough. But for travel, I would still need to know more phrases to successfully communicate with locals.
I learned Mandarin through audio tapes like the other languages for the trip. It was both easy and hard to learn because I was already familiar with some of the words and phrases but not others, so my mind was switching back and forth, figuring out if I already knew the word, and if I did, whether it was used the same way that I thought, and if it wasn’t, I had to relearn it and remember the new definition and usage.
Nonetheless, it was still helpful to know how to read some Chinese characters so I could have some confirmation from posted signs that I was heading in the right direction or that I picked the right thing.
The subway was usually pretty good with including English in signs, although most of the station names were converted to Chinese phonetically instead of translated, so those who didn’t understand Chinese would have to read the names carefully to make sure they go to the place they wanted. Outside of the subway system, it’s a bit more tricky; it’s a matter of luck for signs to include English.
Tiananmen Square and Gate
Just like with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Colosseum in Rome, after settling into my hostel in the early evening, I left the hostel and visited a major landmark in the city; I went to Tiananmen Square, specifically the Tiananmen gate.
I took the subway to one of the two stops for Tiananmen. That’s when I noticed the security checkpoints to leave the station. I was also just figuring how to pick an exit, because oftentimes, it was harder to cross the street above ground, especially at an iconic site like Tiananmen Square.
Originally, I was going to check out the Square itself, but I arrived too late and visitor hours were over. There were guards at the crosswalks stopping anyone trying to get through. I saw one guy obviously running across the street to get in, but he was promptly turned away.
The sidewalk where the gate was, however, was still open to visitors. So I had to cross the street underground through the station.
While in front of the gate, I realized that less than twenty-four hours before, I was in from of the Colosseum in Rome. A flight and some traveling later, I arrived at another landmark almost half way around the world. It seemed like a common enough event, but it still felt special to me.
Less than twenty-four hours before:
A few days later, I made another visit to Tiananmen Square, after checking out the Forbidden Palace, which was behind the Tiananmen gate. Tiananmen Square was incredibly huge. It’s hard to imagine any sort of public gathering that could fill the entire square with people.
To get to the Square, there were a few entrances. I took the eastern entrance, which was accessible after a crosswalk. There was a security checkpoint station with bag scanners. Lines were formed amorphously so like everyone else, I slowly pushed my way to the front.
Once inside, there were a lot of tourists, but like I said, because the Square was enormous, it actually felt sparse.
I noticed very few guards in the middle of the Square; they were mainly at the perimeter, especially the side closest to the iconic gate.
I took the subway all the way north to the Olympic Park. There were two stations that stopped at the Olympic Park, but only the northern one was open. And since the Olympic Stadium was near the south side, I walked down the entire park, with very little to see along the way.
I found out somehow that the Olympic Stadium was closed to visitors, most likely because of the APEC summit. Even the area around it was closed off. So the closest I go to the stadium was the southern perimeter of the park. It was often obstructed by trees and fences, so I had partial view of the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron.
I walked around the southern perimeter, which was a ramped, trenched alley, and emerged on the west side, which was where the Water Cube aquatic center was. It looked closed off, too, so I only took pictures from a distance.
As I made my way back north, I noticed an art sculpture with a bunch of boxy-people figures stacked to create a giant tower. I thought it was really interesting and optimistic, so I took pictures of it, including a selfie.
To my surprise, the day after I returned home from the trip, I was running errands in downtown San Francisco and noticed a similar sculpture. Having just ended the trip, memories were still fresh in my head and seeing the sculpture was a nice reminder and full-circle throwback of my experience.
While I had only planned to check out a small section of the park (the stadium side), I managed to start from the north side, make a clockwise loop around the park, and arrive back at the northern station for my exit. It was a very long walk, but it was all I could do to milk my experience at the Olympic Park.
Overall, the visit to the Olympic Park was nice, but I was very disappointed that I could not see the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron up close or get inside. And since the Olympic Stadium in London was also having work done, my dream to visit Olympic Parks in the inspiring way that they had been for me was still unfulfilled with this trip.
I had little plans to visit Beijing again, but being able to check out the stadium, cauldron, and aquatic center up close, and hopefully inside, would be the only reason I would return.
Great Wall Tour Package
I booked a Great Wall Tour through Viator. There were tours that went to either Badaling or Mutianyu, and after looking up reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go to Mutianyu because it was supposed to be less crowded. Before booking the tour, I also briefly looked into getting to the Great Wall myself, which involved taking buses at certain times and whatnot, which, from previous experience of transportation in mainland China, I would feel more confident purchasing a tour that took care of all of that for me, similar to my Machu Picchu tour in Peru.
My tour guide Jacky called my hostel the previous day to confirm the tour and the pick-up time. The morning of, Jacky picked me up and I followed him down the hutong to the main street and hopped on the van. As we made our way, he asked where I was from and if I spoke Mandarin, in Mandarin. I responded in English that I was from the States and I spoke Cantonese and very little Mandarin. Once I got on the van, I sat in the back since I noticed that the van was full and I was the last pickup.
The tour included a stop first at a jade factory in the city. We saw workers behind glass walls filing down jade into shapes, and went into rooms checking out the different types of jade and learned how to spot fakes. Then we were given a good amount of time to browse through the sales floor and shop for jade products. I didn’t get anything because 1) I had no plans to buy jade on the trip; my plan was to see the Great Wall, and 2) any purchases would take up an additional space in my luggage.
After the jade factory, we made our way to the Great Wall. The ride didn’t feel too long, especially when Jacky was practically constantly giving us little factoids and history about the Great Wall. It was almost getting annoying. He even started to sense it and mocked himself, asking us to remember the factoids to recite to our friends, in addition to mentioning that the tour guide never stopped talking. For what it’s worth, I commended him for putting in the effort and energy to inform and to keep us awake and entertained.
As we approached the site, Jacky explained how the tickets worked. He mentioned how we could hike our way up the mountain to the Wall, or take a ski-lift ride up, which costed money. In my head, I thought it would be fine to get to the wall on foot, but everyone else seemed to want to pay to ride up, and also honestly, I was confused by Jacky’s explanation, so I just did what everyone else did.
I continued to follow everyone else and took a ski-lift ride up the mountain. It seemed like an exciting thing to do, but considering all the stuff I had done already on the trip, it was pretty anticlimactic. The one thing I noticed was a track for toboggan slide down. Considering how this was China, I felt a bit uneasy to doing something like this, putting faith in the construction quality of the track.
Once I got off the lift at the top of the mountain, walked up the stairs to the wall, and stepped foot on the inside of the wall, a rush of excitement went through me very briefly. I had the “I am really here!” feeling quite quickly; usually, I had to stop what I was doing, become aware of the present, and remind myself where I was and be grateful about it. But for some reason, seeing the top of the wall, and that it continued down both sides for as far as I could see, made me feel very open, free and compelled to explore the the entire length. I was very giddy in my head, though I did let out a smile. But I soon calmed myself down and began my walk.
Some of the towers between the walls looked very well-designed with built-in walls dividing the interior into different sections. I couldn’t really imagine what could possibly be in these sections, other than weapons. But the window views were neat to look through.
Some parts of the walls had very steep steps, some as tall as two feet, I felt. It made me wonder how soldiers back then would be able to go from one tower to another tower without becoming winded just from climbing the steps.
At the end of our allotted time, I returned close to where I got off the ski lifts, but instead decided to ride the toboggan back down, partly because two other guys from my tour group did it, and partly because this was a rare opportunity, and I had to take it.
The toboggan ride was kind of fun. It had a smooth metal track but the speed was medium so there was not a point on the ride where I felt like it was so fast that I could potentially fly off the track. There was one control: a stick between my legs. It allowed me to slow down the toboggan and to stop it. Even though there were plenty of signs along the way that said “NO STOPPING”, I had to slow down a few times because there were a few riders in front of me that required me to slow down or stop so I didn’t crash into them.
Someone’s video of riding the toboggan:
Throughout the ride down were also small spaces where someone would sit at a chair with the radio, monitoring traffic. There were also signs along the way to discourage riders to stop the toboggan to take photos. The only photo I took was me at the start of the track getting ready to ride down.
Lunch and Cloisonné Enameling Factory
After getting back to the base of Mutianyu, we made our way back to the van and headed for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a standard Chinese lunch. I got a chance to learn about the other people from my tour group and it was interesting hearing people’s backgrounds.
There was this one lady and her teenage son, who were from LA. She seemed to have, let’s say, a lot of care taken to her facial appearance, which was an LA stereotype, and her son looked like a skater boy type of teenager and appeared to be bored most of the time. But when she talked about her travels around the world, she gave a spiel about how people in other countries making less money than we did or living in homes that we considered undeveloped were actually not poor, that it was just the way they lived and their standard of living was just lower, and to judge them based on that was unfair. And when the son took off his beanie, he looked more like a mature teenager, happy to take a trip with his mom. That and the spiel made me feel bad and guilty about the assumptions I made about them, and it reminded me to continue to be open-minded about other people, especially strangers.
After lunch, I thought we were going to get back on the van and head back to Beijing. Instead, Jacky led us to the Cloisonné enameling factory right in the same property as the restaurant. I had no idea; and it started to make sense why we had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Cloisonné was apparently an ancient art form where special color powder were decorated onto copper pieces and then baked in a kiln to set the color. We took a brief tour of the factory, which pretty much consisted on room after room, divided by the different stages of the process. The store sales floor obviously had a lot of cloisonné merchandise for sale. The pieces there were quite impressive, especially large floor vases. Despite the beautiful work, I still diddn’t buy anything from the store.
Our last stop the Great Wall tour was to learn how to make and drink tea at a teahouse in the city. We were led to a room with chairs around a table full of jars and set up, and we were introduced our tea expert. She taught us the etiquettes and process of drinking tea in Chinese culture, along with the different tea types that they made.
I had interest in teas, though not to the extent of setting it up like a teahouse. In my fascination and raised interest in discussions about teas, after the tea tasting, I picked out one of the teas I liked and bought it. This was different from how I normally behaved, especially from earlier that day at the jade factory and the Cloisonné enameling factory. Also, the tea was kind of bulky so it would definitely take up some space in my luggage. But I thought that since my trip was going to end soon, I could afford to carry that weight for just a little bit of time.
One of the stories Jacky kept mentioning before the teahouse was how it’s important to hold the tea cup a certain way (with all fingers inside) and not with pinky pointing out, otherwise the person would be considered a “lady boy” like a gay, who would have served the emperor in the old days. Perhaps it was my Californian sensibilities, somehow that sounded insensitive and a little ignorant to me. Knowing the culture, though, I’m almost certain it was only meant as a joke. An outdated one by my standard, and I was not amused.
After the Great Wall tour, I asked the two German guys from my tour group if I could join them in checking out the apparently well-known street food scene. So instead of being dropped off at my hostel, I got off the van and said goodbye to Jacky and the rest of the tour group.
We ended up around the intersection of Donghuamen Street and Wangfujing Street, which seemed to be a large tourist/retail area.
We started exploring the area, looking for the street food. On the way, we noticed an interesting looking vehicle where the wheel was the frame, and the whole thing rocked back and forth. It looked kind of cool and I wanted to try it.
We found the street with the long row of street food vendors. Apparently, it was one of those street foods that served insects on sticks. One of my new German friends was so excited about this and had a mission to eat different types of large insects and bugs. The vendors also seemed to favor and call out foreign-looking travelers in their best English to try their food. It’s a thing that I was not aware of but also not surprised by.
For me, I stuck to more regular food, like potstickers.
After that, we checked out the Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center nearby. It was really nice and large. We looked for more food (I had a McDonald’s sundae, even though we ordered McFlurrys), checked out movies that we could maybe watch in the theater, and checked out the giant screen showing us on the ground floor.
After that, I led the two guys, who didn’t know any Chinese, to the subway station so they could have a better chance of getting back to their super cheap hotel somewhere south of where we were. I took the subway and returned to my hostel.
On my final full day, I decided to check out the Forbidden Palace. I took the subway to Tiananmen and lined up where the signs directed. The place, which was considered a museum, opened at 8:30am, but there were already a lot of people in line. Fortunately, once the doors opened, the lined moved pretty quickly.
I actually got to walk through the main Tiananmen gate, the same one commonly seen in photos of Beijing. I felt the weight of the giant portrait of Mao as I walked towards it, conflicted by the differences in political ideals, despite this supposedly being the land of my people.
After walking through another gate (Duanmen), I queued up to buy my admission ticket. Then I looked around for the place to get an audio guide, which was near the entrance of the actual museum. The staff who loaned me the audio guide was surprised I wanted the English version.
The audio was kind of cool because it had a map of the museum, with different lights at different locations. Depending on where I was, the audio guide would detect it and play the corresponding recording about that spot.
The first few sections of the tour were the main gates and buildings of the palace, like the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor meet officials and guests and whatnot.
Then I moved on to the side quarters where the emperor’s wives and other relatives lived. It was a bit disorienting because it was essentially room after room and red-walled alleys one after another.
For some reason, I was fascinated by the red walls. Even though the museum probably has people repaint he walls red every once in a while, I felt that they could still tell so much history about the place. Also, the fact that they were just painted red without any other decorative paintings or writings. Compared to modern times, blank walls would be subliminally asked to be filled or vandalized.
Near the end, there was a room that displayed the last emperor’s things. One of them was a plate that showed the Coronation of Napoleon I.
I recognized that painting very clearly, for I had seen the real thing a few weeks before in the Louvre. This was somewhat trippy, because I immediately imagined France in the early 1800s, picturing how that painting would someday be copied onto a plate and delivered almost halfway around the world. I also wondered how the French would explain the significance of the painting. Seeing how history transports and intersects was very fascinating to me.
The last section of the museum was a garden, where a lot of people were hanging out, perhaps because they didn’t want to exit just yet. I hung out there too for a bit, but ultimately, I returned the audio guide, which was buzzing anyway either because it ran out of power or that it automatically signaled the end of the tour.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
Surprisingly, the hostel had a decent selection of food. The menu consisted of half Chinese dishes and half Western dishes. For breakfast one day, I ordered a western breakfast, which apparently consisted of toast, a fried egg, sausage links, potato patties, and bacon. But food seemed to be smaller in China, and I wasn’t sure what kind of meat was considered bacon in China.
I also ordered a spaghetti with carbonara sauce, because after my experience in Rome, I still thought carbonara was a red sauce.
Nonetheless, the cooked meals at the hostel was solid, probably because guests had to pay, so the quality had to be at a certain level.
Convenience Store Food
I had trouble finding a standard grocery store near my hostel in Beijing. All I could find were convenience stores that sold snacks.
One of the things I got was “biscuit rolls”, which were very flaky egg-based victor in the form of hollow rolls. They’re usually sold in large tin boxes, but at the convenience stores, they’re available in smaller, manageable boxes.
Aside from the meals at the hostel, I relied on bakeries to fill the gaps. When I was growing up in Macau, I must have had pastries a few times a well for breakfast and as afternoon snacks. There was a wide variety, and I had my favorites.
I couldn’t tell what these were exactly, but they may very well be hot dog bun and raisin bun. My other favorites included the cocktail bun, which was actually a coconut and custard filled bun, and the pineapple bun, which was a regular bun with crusty egg-sugar layer.
One of the bakeries also sold prepackaged pastries, including gChinese rice krispies, which were more crunchy than the Western version, and a version of the “wife cake” which was a flat flaky cake with filling inside.
I asked the hostel staff where I could find Chinese desserts, especially the warm, soupy ones. One of them told me there was this street a few blocks from the hostel that was called “Dessert Street”, officially South Luogo Alley. She gave me directions and I decided to make a trip a little later in the night, even though it was very cold outside.
Sure enough, the street was lively with people, despite the cold. I did a quick walk down the street and back to see what types of shops were available. There were warm desserts shops, for sure, but there were also candy shops, bars, and cold dessert shops as well. I usually had no problems eating ice cream in the winter, but I felt that there was no satisfaction in eating cold dessert when my face started to get numb.
I found a simple, humble tofu dessert shop, and I ordered a warm tofu dessert with red bean. The tofu was fresh and light, but it was almost lukewarm, and it pretty much didn’t do much to help with the cold. Still it was a nice treat to have.
I took the Airport Express train from the city back to the airport. When I was at the station to take the train, there was a long security line to scan bags before entering the platform.
Once at the airport, I took an airport shuttle to transfer to the correct terminal based on my airline and flight. The airport seemed to be split up into isolated terminals where people could only go from one to another via the airport-controlled shuttles. I was glad I had lots of time before my flight; I would’ve been much more antsy on the shuttles and out of breath from running across the hall.
From My Travel Log
23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed
- People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.
- Italian guy next to me on plane
- Guy in airport elevator who told me without words but just sounds that I was already on the right floor
- A mom and her daughter and the mom’s friend chatting on the airport train
- Hostel reception
- The two workers at the nearby bakery who ask me for small change but I didn’t have any and I couldn’t express sufficiently or answer their following questions so I stayed quiet and they ended up rounding to next yuan and gave me more change
- Everyone who worked at the subway stations
- Guards who work around the Olympic Park
- Jacky the tour guide
- John, Patrick and Patrick, Canadians, Swedes, Californian mom and son
- Toboggan operators
- Copper pot explainer
- Tea house staff
- Couple who helped me takes slanted wall picture
- Guy from group in CA who took pics of me at Great Wall with Mao sign on hill
- Lady at Forbidden City tourist center who awkwardly directed me in good English where audio guides were
- Lady at audio guide booth who seemed surprised I wanted English guide and explained how the thing worked
- French guys who I briefly talked to in French and English and who helped me take a photo that didn’t turn out as cool as I expected
- Obnoxious guys at Tiananmen Square who tactlessly asked me to move away from their shots
- People who kindly sold me till for dessert on cold desert street
- Bakery people who sold me stuff
- If you’re taking the subway to get around the city, make sure you get off at the closest station for your destination. The stations are relatively far from one another, unlike the stations in major American and European cities.
- Most subway stations in Beijing had security checkpoints. It would be wise to travel light whenever possible so you may not need to scan your belongings. Mainly because of this, give yourself enough of a cushion so you’re not late.
- The quickest entries into Tiananmen Square would probably be the southern corners of the square, because it’s the farthest from the Tiananmen Gate, so there’s less people already in that area. I noticed this after I entered the Square and saw the line to enter through the south side had a lot less people.
- If you’re going to Mutianyu to see the Great Wall, take the toboggan ride down if you can. For most people, it’s not scary. It’s almost like a children’s ride.
- If you’re taking the toboggan ride down, wear a GoPro so you can capture the ride without finessing with your camera while riding down the track.
- Full photo and video album of Beijing/Great Wall (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage – Beijing
- Wikivoyage – Great Wall (Mutianyu)
- Average temperature of Beijing (weatherbase.com)
- Peking Yard Hostel website
- TripAdvisor: Peking Yard Hostel
- TripAdvisor: Olympic Park
- TripAdvisor: Great Wall of China – Mutianyu
- Great Wall of China at Mutianyu Full Day Tour – Viator
- TripAdvisor: Forbidden Palace
If you have questions about specific experiences of Beijing or the Great Wall, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Because it’s a popular tourist destination. The Colosseum. Italian food. And anything else it had to offer.
- Saturday, 1 November: Arrived in Rome in evening. Checked out Colosseum, Alter of the Fatherland, Obelisco della Minerva, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Piazza di Monte Citorio, and Colonna di Marco Aurelio. Had a gelato.
- Sunday, 2 November: Free walking tour starting at Piazza del Popolo, with stops including Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo, ending at the edge of Vatican City. Checked out St. Peter’s Square, walked around District Seven, then Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Palace of Justice, back to Castel Sant’Angelo, Alter of the Fatherland, Colosseum. Had a bready pizza.
- Monday, 3 November: Went up to top of St. Peter’s Basilica, went though Vatican Museums, including Sistine Chapel, had more gelato with people from the hostel.
- Tuesday, 4 November: Checked out of hostel, took tour inside Colosseum, visited Parco del Celio next door, walked around District Eight, had a late lunch at a restaurant, had more gelato, got lost near District 22, got caught in a short rainstorm, returned to hostel to pick up luggage, headed to train station then to the airport. Departed Rome, Italy, and Europe.
Rome had a very high percentage of ancient structures. If felt like half of the city was ruins that tourists visit, and the other half was a standard urban European city. For people who love history told through old buildings, this would be the city to visit. I could only handle and appreciate so much history, so I thought Rome was fine.
I took an ItaliaRail train direct from Venice, and it took just under four hours.
I sat at a four-person table, and people switched out at different stops. First it was two Russian ladies who kept mostly to themselves, then half of an American couple, and finally an Italian mother and teenage son.
The Italian pair were the most lively of the table mates. They seemed to have really open communication and talk about everything like two good friends. At one point, the mother grabbed a 2-liter orange soda bottle from her bags in the overhead compartment, and she tried to open the bottle but the change in air pressure or something made the cap burst out, bouncing off the wall, and landed on me. The mother immediately apologized and we all had a laugh.
I arrived at Termini station in Rome early evening, and the lobby was bustling with activity; it was exciting. Many people had less-than-positive thoughts about Termini, and I couldn’t see why it was so bad.
Based on online maps, the hostel was a fifteen-minute walk away, so I decided to just walk it. I supposed it would be slightly different and more tiring walking with a carry-on luggage on my back. But at least the walk was interesting enough, walking by shops and random sculptures and fountains.
There were plenty of hostels near Termini station, but I read so many mixed reviews that I decided to pick a place a little farther but had a more balanced set of reviews.
La Controra Hostel Rome was (supposedly) a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk from Termini station, and I also realized later that it was a bit out of the way from the major landmarks. Places were still walkable, but it did get tiring near the end of my stay in Rome to have make the trek back the hostel again and again. Nonetheless, the hostel was pretty good.
Almost like Venice, the hostel was in an apartment building that had a huge lobby. There was no natural sunlight on the staircase, but it was still very classy and grand. I began to realize that Italian architects really liked to establish a high standard in experience.
The actual reception was on the fourth or fifth floor, with a few dorm units attached to it. But there was also another set of dorm units on the second or third floor, which was where I stayed. It seemed that these dorm units were converted from apartment units, and each room in the apartment unit was made to be a dorm.
In my “apartment unit,” there were at least four rooms, and I stayed in a four-person dorm, so if each room had that many people, maybe more, the entire apartment unit could house about twenty people! That sounded like a lot, but to be fair, these rooms (and these apartment units) were spacious. They could very well have crammed two more bunk beds in my room to house eight people per room, and space would still be satisfactory.
The common area of the apartment unit was just a large table with a bench, and a non-functioning kitchen unit, with a half-bath tucked away. The balcony looked out to the central courtyard in the apartment building.
I had a four-person ensuite dorm, with a few people staying as long as I did and others coming and going. There were two bunk beds, the same type as the ones in Venice, which led me to believe it was an IKEA bunk bed. And the storage cabinets were the same as well, except these had metal loops to put locks on.
I stayed on the top bunk, for the fourth of six times in a row on the trip. There were sheets and pillow provided, but I had to lay out the sheets myself. A first-world problem was that the power outlet was next to the bunk bed at hip height for some reason, and my cord was just long enough to rest on the edge of my bed almost completely. So if I accidentally pulled the phone, the cord would disconnect, and if I pushed my phone, it would fall off the bed.
The bathroom had the basics: shower, toilet, bidet, and sink with mirror. It also had a trash can from IKEA, which was the exact same model as in my bathroom. It was too mundane to be a homesick moment, but it was funny to see that, and it made me think about how much the people of the world had in common and what not.
The shower stall had a curved door, and it leaked water between the glass doors probably because the door was off its track. I tried fixing it, but it made little difference. I also noticed that the bathroom was on a hardwood floor, but there were no non-slip mat outside of the shower stall. Details.
The main common area in the same apartment unit as reception. There was a dining table area, and an area with tiny floor cushions in front of a TV. There were a few laptops (with Italian keyboards!) on a desk. And the kitchen was a nook on the other side, but it was fully functional. Just a step out of the kitchen would be the balcony also looked out to the central courtyard.
The people working there were pretty nice and knew what they were doing. The girl who checked me in was named Melody, had blue hair, and was probably in early-to-mid twenties. She looked like someone who would be into manga. She was from a country in the UK, but her accent sounded American. I sort of offended her when I asked “Where did you learn English?” but clarified that her accent made me thought she was from the States. She arrived in Rome recently and took a job at the hostel, and tried to do touristy things there.
The hostel provided breakfast, but it was very basic: slice bread, jams, butter, cereal, milk, coffee and tea. In the morning, the small kitchen was full with food for the guests.
The kitchen was functional so people could certainly make food. But I never did so I couldn’t say how good the kitchen equipment was.
The Wi-Fi worked, but it was only available in the hostel common area as well as the common area in the apartment unit.
Surprisingly, with the exception of one time when I took the subway, I walked everywhere, often going from one side of the inner city to another. The map of Rome showing winding roads may have made the city look larger than it was, because even with minor slopes, most places were relatively walkable.
With the subway, I originally planned to take the subway, even if it was limited, but upon arrival, fellow hostel mates said everywhere was reachable on foot. So I saved some money and just walked.
But one time, my hostel mate and I were in a hurry to get to the Vatican. I also wasn’t sure if he would be up for walking the distance like I was. So we took one of the two main Rome subway lines. I had heard that since Rome only had two subway lines, it wasn’t really used. But we took in a little bit after the morning rush hour, and the ridership was about medium. It was also pretty convenient, just like a standard subway system in any major city.
- Time of year: Early November.
Rome fluctuated between cool and mild at this time of year. I was told that a month earlier it was still pretty hot And only recently was it just cooling down. I had a light jacket most of the time but when the sun came out with few places to get shade, a T-shirt was fine.
It did rain once or twice though. On my last day in Rome, I was on my way back to the hostel, and it started looking gloomy and a bit drizzly. Judging from my distance to the hostel, I thought I could maybe make it back before it hit really hard.
But the weather turned really quickly. Drizzle turned into consistent droplets to pouring within a minute. It was actually very funny (though scary at the time) to see the pouring rain coming at me like an avalanche. I was crossing a bridge at that moment, and I could see translucent, diagonal lines in front of the sky and the river in the near distance steadily moving closer towards me. I could see people scattering for shelter, but I thought those people were silly running from a little drizzle. Then I suddenly found myself running for cover as well.
I got hit hard with some of the rain in the few seconds it took me to get off the bridge. But the nearest building was still too far. I only managed to get to a standalone shop that had an awning. Fortunately, I brought my rain jacket, so I put it on, zipped and fully covered (my top half at least), ready to go. But I wanted to wait it out still. At the same time, I needed to get back to the hostel, pick up my luggage, and head to the airport for my flight. After a few moments of self-talk, I walked out of the awning and paced as quickly as I could toward the direction of my hostel. My rain jacket was water-resistant but thick, so I could feel large droplets hitting my head and my arms.
At first, I didn’t know if it would stop raining soon. But after ten minutes, it eased up, and then it stopped raining altogether. The weather completely changed within fifteen minutes or so. Still, when I got to the hostel, my head was wet from the initial downpour, and Melody the hostel staff saw me and was sympathetic. I dried up a little bit in the bathroom, and saw that my head was actually more drenched and I looked more miserable that I thought.
In my experience, Italians were definitely more expressive than the French, which made them seem more outgoing and friendly. However, in individual interactions, at least with waiters and gelato servers, they seemed to have a straight face as if we were strangers in a professional business meeting. It made me feel like an outsider. Still, the service was mostly fine.
Some people could speak English, but it’s hard to tell who just by looking. There’s a higher chance in touristy places, but even then, the staff would just default in one language (Italian) unless they were helping individual people.
I took an audio course just like the other languages for this trip. It was actually fun to learn, until I took the course for Spanish and I started getting some words, especially the numbers, confused.
While “Buongiorno”, “Grazie”, and “Ciao” could be learned without the audio course, taking the time and effort to learn more than just that really proved its worth when I had trouble finding a grocery store one evening. The places listed on the map online seemed to have disappeared in real life. I was getting hungry and desperate, and then I saw a couple walking by holding grocery bags, so I ran towards them.
In the split-second moment, I pulled from my memory the words “Dove comprare” (where to buy) and started shouting at them while pointing at the bags, “Dove comprare?! Dove comprare?!” Understandably, the woman was startled and immediately resumed pacing past me. To be fair, I would react the same way too. But I persisted and tried my luck with the guy. Thankfully, he responded and started pointing in different directions. All I heard were “sinistra” and “destra” (left, right), but I immediately forgot the order. Still, I gathered enough hand gestures to get the general direction.
Many of Rome’s famous landmarks were all a hearty walk away. What helped passed the time was that the streets were often changing direction, giving me a different perspective in where I was going, and that there was often something interesting to look at along the way.
Also, because these landmarks were kind of close together, I inadvertently visited the same place multiple times.
Evening Walk to Colosseum
By the time I arrived at my hostel on the first day, it was still relatively early, even though it was getting dark. So I decided to take a walk to the Colosseum and get a lay of the land. After so many turns, I got to the Colosseum. I realized when I got there that because it was partly surrounded by modern streets and buildings, the iconic landmark felt a little less epic than what I had seen in photos. Still, it was a grand structure and I was finally able to see the details up close.
While trying to take some selfies with the Colosseum without the fence, I noticed an American couple struggling to do the same. I offered to help them out and we started talking about how we missed being in San Francisco when the Giants team won the World Series in baseball. It was kind of cool to randomly meet people like that.
After dinner at Café Café nearby, I resumed my walk. I got to the Alter of the Fatherland, or Altare della Patria, or Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. I helped a Spanish couple take a picture in front of it, and they offered to take my picture too.
The Photo Challenge
I continued to walk in that direction and found the Obelisco della Minerva. I was looking for this specifically because my friends were also visiting Rome a few weeks before, and they took a photo of this Obelisk. I decided to start a photo challenge then (mainly for myself) to hit as many places that they had gone to that I could find, and then recreate the photo as closely as possible.
And two months later, two of my friends were also visiting Rome, and I told them to do the same.
In my head, I thought it would be cool to get people, both friends and strangers, to start doing this and maybe make this a thing. With that in mind, I also took a photo of the spot where I took the obelisk photo:
Then I got in the spirit of doing more of these, so I found more photos my friends took and tried to recreate them. I did five more that night, where most of them were at the Pantheon. Here is one of them, again, as close to my friend’s version as possible:
I did a few more for the rest of my time in Rome. It ended up working out because I had very little plans in Rome, and this was a way for me to visit different places and spend time exploring. That and switching back apps on my phone between my friend’s photos and the camera to get the right shot.
Free Walking Tour
The next day, I went on a free walking tour. I learned about it from a flyer at the hostel. I reserved a spot on the listed website and received a confirmation email with a personalized note.
The instructions were to meet up at Piazza del Popolo, but that was the extent of all I read. I arrived a little early just in case, but I discovered that Piazza del Popolo was huge, and I didn’t know where the group was. I walked around the giant piazza trying to see if there were a number of people bunching up. After fifteen minutes or so, I managed to find some Wi-Fi and opened up the email to reread instructions. I still had trouble finding it at first, but I managed to poke my head around to discovered the group waiting at the entrance of Piazza del Popolo from the north side.
I met Chris, the tour guide, and he was American who was living in Rome. When I asked him where in the States he was from, he listed the cities and states he had studied and lived in before coming to Rome. He had a really laid back attitude that carried through in his tour guide style. He warned us that if he saw a big dog, he would not hesitate to run up to it and pet it. He also had a sense of humor like a beginning comedian, where some jokes earned a chuckle while some went over my head.
He knew a lot about the subject matter, as guides should, but he also had his commentary on it, which sometimes altered the way I looked at Roman history.
We started at Piazza del Popolo and made our way south and hit many places, including a few that I had been the night before, except now in the day time, like Pantheon and Piazza Navona. We made our way to St. Angelo Bridge, crossed it while listening to Chris’ presentation about the statues on the bridge, and ended right before the corridor that led to St. Peter’s Square.
At the end of the tour, Chris asked us to friend him on Facebook for a reason that I forgot. Ever since, I had seen his posts, both work- and non-work-related, and it was nice to remember for a moment my time in Rome, including the walking tour, as well as finding out Chris’ obsession with Taylor Swift and special travel adventures in Italy.
St. Peter’s Basilica Dome
The following morning, my hostel mate and I went to the Vatican with the intent of checking out the Vatican Museums. We waited in the line that was forming inside St. Peter’s Square. After waiting for about an hour, we found out the line was to go inside the church, and not the museums. But having waited for so long, we went in anyway.
The Basilica was free, but there was an option to go up to the dome for five euros. There was also an elevator that can take visitors part way for ten more euros. After my hostel mate checked his stuff at a storage room, we paid five euros each to make our up. There were signs showing how many steps it would take to get up. And I thought it was a nice piece of trivia. The amount of scales was pretty large, and it was too many for me to comprehend, so I thought it was the general “a lot”, but I had handled “a lot” before.
At first, the steps were pretty normal. We noticed where the elevator shaft was and were pointing out the silliness. But by the point where the elevator reached its highest point, I was starting to get jealous. From there on, everyone had to walk the steps, which were starting to get more narrow.
There were stretches of long hallways and then a spiral staircase or two, and then more hallways, etc., all the while the width was getting smaller.
When I thought the width of the path could not get narrower, I was proven wrong, multiple times. Near the end, it was almost starting to get claustrophobic for me. And once we finally got out to the top to the dome, there were so many people hugging the fence trying to take pictures. Getting through and around to the other side was annoying.
After taking enough selfies, panoramas, and videos, we decided to make our way down. We stopped by a large rooftop area complete with a food shop and souvenir store, and then continued getting back down. The path downward was like walking in reverse, where the halls were getting wider and wider, and it almost felt too much space. It also occurred to me that the path up was completely separate from the way down, since I did not encounter anyone coming up, nor the other way around.
We somehow exited into the church, and noticed that the Pope may potentially be in the house in a roped off area. I couldn’t tell because the Baldachin was in the way.
The church was very grand and magnificent, but I was exhausted from the hike to the dome, so after a few photos and videos, including this one of the light coming into the church, we left the Basilica.
We for some reason decided to go straight to the Vatican Museums. We considered getting lunch, but we couldn’t decide on a place so we just waited in line again, this time for thirty to forty minutes, and with cigarette smoke from the group behind us.
When we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and were about to get inside, we noticed different roped off paths with very little people in them. Some of them were used for tour groups, but I noticed one path with the signed that said something like “online reservations.” Then I saw people holding out a piece of paper to the staff, and they went straight into the museum. That made me regret not purchasing a ticket online earlier and deciding to just wing it.
The Museums, I heard, were a collection of galleries that the different popes curated over the years. I just wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, and the museum map had a route to bypass all the galleries. I tried to follow that path but got lost immediately; the rooms didn’t seem to correspond. So without knowing, we took the regular route like everyone else.
A lot of the museums had paintings; some had sculptures. Each room was very well decorated and filled with artwork, but a lot of the rooms looked old as well. By the end of it all, everything started to look similar, so I just walked as quickly as I good, turned my head left and right, scanning the pieces and moving on.
When we got to the entrance for the Sistine Chapel, there were plenty of signs saying “No Photo.” So we went in, and it was packed and a little dim. The entire room was filled with paintings, both the ceiling and the walls. I could see the part on the ceiling where God and man touched fingers. The whole time, the security guards kept yelling “No photo!” to a point where it started to become funny to me. I kept my camera (phone) in my pocket; my roommate may or may not have taken a photo of the ceiling.
After the Sistine Chapel was a few more rooms of modern art, and that was it. There was a cafeteria in the museum but we decided to get food outside.
Colosseum and Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana
On my last day, I headed back to the Colosseum, but to finally go inside. I waited in line for a reasonable amount of time, especially for a place as famous as the Colosseum, and purchased my ticket. I also purchased a tour so I could have a better understanding and appreciation of the place.
There were set times for the tours, and we were told to wait in the waiting area in the corner on the first floor. When the tour started, we received headphone packs so the guide could talk without shouting. The guide was also very good with her facts and tried to make her talk interesting with stacks of photos she waved around.
After the tour, I continued to walk around the Colosseum, taking photos and videos. There were a lot of people, but not enough to feel crowded. In an attempt to get someone to help take a picture of me, I looked for people who were struggling to take photos, or maybe a couple where one person was taking a photo of the other. When that worked, I managed to teach a fellow visitor how to take a panoramic photo of me, and then I saw him trying to do the same thing with his phone.
After the Colosseum, I still wanted a good, clean photo of it. So I figured that I could enter the park next to it, which was free for the day with ticket purchase to Colosseum, and somehow get on that hill that overlooked the Colosseum. I went into that park, which was kind of serene and lovely, totally removing me from the urban-ness of Rome for a few moments.
I made my way to the Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana, and had a few really good, but windy, shots of the Colosseum.
This was a restaurant near the Colosseum. It had good rating online so I decided to try it out. It was a nice little place with six to seven tables. When I was there, only two other tables were occupied. There were a bunch of photo frames and trinkets laid out all around, with worn but still working furniture. It felt like I could be anywhere, not just Italy or Europe.
The waiter was nice and patient. I ordered a lasagna and one of the really special teas. The tea I chose had yogurt in its ingredients and I could definitely taste the subtle creamy sweetness, and it made the tea quite delicious.
The lasagna was fresh and flavorful. Even though it was small, it was enough for me.
I had gelato from Giolitti twice (near the Pantheon), La Romana (near my hostel), and Gelateria Oldbridge (near the Vatican). They were all good, though I learned that I liked nut-flavor gelato more than fruit-flavor. There was something about the tartness of fruits that made it too sour for me. I like the more traditional, creamy, nutty, subtle flavors that balanced nicely with the dairy. I enjoyed the Nutella flavor, though not as much as I love Nutella, and I also discovered the deliciousness of pistachio gelato.
I also wanted to point out that La Romana, recommended by my hostel staff Melody, was probably the best, probably because they served chocolate gelato, and it was so smooth, rich, and creamy. That would be the place I need to go the next time I am in Rome.
After the free walking tour, I strolled through the area, starting to feel hungry. I found a restaurant with some people but not crowded. They also had free Wi-Fi. So I went in and ordered a pizza. I ate it with a fork and knife, and it reminded me of the story Jon Stewart did on the Daily Show about New Yorkers eating pizza with their hands.
I wasn’t sure if it was this restaurant or if it was how Italians do pizza, but the crust was too thick for me, and it felt a little overbaked, at least by American standard. This sort of got me hesitant to get pizza in Italy for the rest of my stay.
After the Vatican Museums, my hostel roommate walked for some more before deciding enough was enough: we needed to just pick a restaurant and eat. We went to a standard looking Italian restaurants and I ordered a pasta with carbonara sauce, because I had heard good things about carbonara sauce. Little did I know it was a white sauce, when I was expecting and mentally preparing for a red sauce. I still ate it of course, but the pasta was, like in Venice, really al dente.
On my last day, I walked around some more after the Colosseum visit, and I got hungry and went to Da Francesco because I had heard good things from multiple sources. I order a spaghetti (with red sauce). It was decent. Again, Italian al dente. The sauce was light; I wish there would be more sauce.
With my spaghetti I ordered a limoncello. The waiter asked me if I wanted it at the end, and without knowing much about drinks like limoncello, I said sure. The limoncello is like wine and beer; an acquired taste that would take time. I had a lot of trouble enjoying it. It tasted like margarita mix, except it felt more strong.
I took the train from Termini station to the airport. It’s a general-use ticket that I bought at the station, and I took the next available train. The ride took about half an hour and costed fourteen euros.
From My Travel Log
28 October 2014, 5:26pm, France, on TGV to Nice
- In one week, it will be 11/4, and I will be leaving Rome for China. One week from this moment, I will have been in three new cities. This is the most tight section of my trip, and it will be interesting. It may go terribly wrong, or very very fun. Or a combination of both. As long as I stick with my travel safety basics, I should be fine.
3 November 2014, 12:48pm, Rome, in line for Vatican Museums
- Weird mix of current and really old, sword of a worn out city, with the typical city problems. Walk tour guide says the majority of Rome’s economy is tourism. So what makes Rome Rome without the ruins from before? There will be less reasons to come back.
4 November 2014, 2:59pm, Rome, Da Francesco
- I would try Scandinavia again, but not that far north because of the weather. It’s the most modern of the places and speaking of which, I’ll have to try Germany next. And Netherlands. Paris and Rome are actually equal in most ways, except I would come back to Paris for the Eiffel Tower.
- London and Rome I’m least likely to come back alone because London feels too similar (with English language) but it’s not the same and everything smaller, though it has its benefits. Rome is half ruins and historical sites, where I haven’t even taken effort to learn about the first time around. But maybe I should start in Rome and do day trips or quick trips in the area, like Naples and Florence. Europe 2.0 is already unofficially in the works.
4 November 2014, 6:02pm, Rome Termini -> FCO train
- 11/3: Ibrahim and Salvador already got ready, but I wanted to join them to Vatican. Ibrahim was not to be found. Also checked Viator emails but didn’t get any. Walk to metro with Salvador at Reppublic. Salvador doesn’t speak much, probably because he doesn’t know that much English. I bet he talks more if he spoke in Spanish. Long line at Vatican, found out it’s for church and not museums, but went anyway. Went to dome, lots of steps and circular staircase that gets narrower as you go up. Came down to Basilica, where Pope may or may not be conducting some ceremony. Walked to Vatican Museum and waited longer (40-50 minutes). Also getting hungry. Long route to get to Sistine Chapel, and it was a little underwhelming. Funny guards kept telling people to not take pictures. Then walk to 433, had pasta with carbonara sauce and milkshake, then to Giolitti and got raspberry and lemon gelato. Crowd was restless and disrespectful and worker handled it well. Ate it at Pantheon and then left Salvador and I went back to hostel. Did some online time with pic backups and try to check into flight but couldn’t. Also bought an iceberg salad before getting to hostel and ate at the main hostel floor. Melody (receptionist) was there, Telling me she did the walking tour and I found out I called her the girl with the hair. She also suggested gelato at La Romana, and I invited Paoline then also Ibrahim and Salvador. Walk to La Romana was nice and gelato was pretty darn good! Went back to hostel and started getting ready for Beijing. Gelato flavors: pistachio and dark chocolate (ciocolato fondente). Kenny came back and talked about his goals and future.
- Mom and son on train to Rome who have a really open communication relationship, even though the son is around 16-18. Funny how mom’s giant orange soda bottle cap popped off and landed on my hand.
- Melody who semi-awkwardly took care of my hostel onboarding.
- Brigitte the French woman who so friendly but also a bit lively, and her farm stay friend for recommending places in Rome
- Waiter at Café Café, who is so nice even though I was only a table of one
- Couple from Seattle(?) who took pic of me at Colosseum
- Guy at Giolitti who helped me by telling me to get ticket
- Woman who sold me ticket at Giolitti
- Ibrahim, hostel roommate
- Salvador, hostel roommate
- Chris the free city tour walk guide
- Couple who took pic of me at Vittorio
- Lady who served me at that pizza place
- Pope (maybe?)
- Sistine Chapel security, who kept yelling “No photo!”
- 433 waiter for ordering my milkshake
- Kenny the 18-year-old hostel roommate who’s into hardware engineering (from Minneapolis?)
- Colosseum tour guide
- La Romana servers
- Kyle and Emily (?) from Seattle at hostel about to leave and work for environmental law company
- Pauline from Finland, who loves gelato
- Guy left his job and travel to a bunch of different places (from Vancouver?)
- Guy who exchanged my extra euro to yuan
- Homeless lady who I yelled at (I’m sorry!) to wait while I get unexchanged money to give her
- Woman at customs who didn’t even really check my passport before stamping on it
- Italian guy next to me on plane who makes big expressions but is nice to me
- Couple in front of me who reclined before flight started and expanded across the aisle in the empty seat, and the woman putting her leg up the window
- Air China flight attendants who are nice enough to shoot me despite them looking miserable.
- The long line in front of St Peter’s Square is for the basilica and the top of the basilica, not the Vatican museums where the Sistine Chapel is. If the line curves half way around the square where you’re standing directly in the middle divide of the square, the wait time should be half an hour-long maybe twenty minutes. The Vatican Museums entrance is on the side, around the tall walls.
- Buy tickets to the Vatican Museums online. In my experience, people who bought tickets online seemed to just pass right through the lines. I had to wait 40-50 minutes in line to buy tickets.
- This is common in Italy: If you see a little faucet-like structure on the street endlessly flowing water onto the ground, and there is a hole at the top of the spout, you can take a sip of the water by plugging the bottom hole with your finger to make the water flow up towards you.
- If a gelato shop is just a store front, you can buy gelato just by ordering what you want and pay the worker. But if the gelato shop is indoors, you have to pay for the amount you want (one scoop, two scoops, etc.), get a receipt, and then head over to the counter where they serve gelato, hand the worker your receipt, and pick the flavor. I don’t know why the process is separated.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: Rome
- Rome average temperatures (weatherbase.com)
- Rome’s Ultimate Free Walking Tour Website
- Rome’s Ultimate Free Walking Tour TripAdvisor
- Gelateria La Romana Website
- Gelateria La Romana (Yelp)
If you have questions about specific experiences of Rome, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
I wanted to see in person how a city functions when its streets are canals. I also heard the city was slowly sinking so I should visit sooner rather later.
- Thursday, 30 October: Arrived in Venice by train. Took vaporetto water taxi to hostel.
- Friday, 31 October: Walked around main island Venice. Short trip in Giudecca.
- Saturday, 1 November: Took last vaporetto ride around main island. Departed Venice by train.
Venice was indeed a unique town. As many people had said, it had become a town of tourists, and it seemed so. I had glimpses of locals when I visited Giudecca, one of the outer islands.
The strange thing about being in city of canals was that after spending half a day in the thick of it, walking everywhere, seeing gondolas float through the waterways, it was quite a shock and almost an insult when I saw cars and buses on roads near the train station, which was where the island portion of Venice that most people knew connected to the mainland and less-well-known portion of Venice.
I took three trains from Nice to Venice, stopping at Ventimiglia and Milan. I purchased the Nice-to-Ventimiglia ticket at Nice station when I arrived in Nice, and I booked the other two train tickets on ItaliaRail a few weeks earlier.
Nice to Ventimiglia train
The Nice-to-Ventimiglia train was relatively short, and it felt like a commuter train because the train car looked more like an urban subway’s, and there were people in business attire getting on and off at the same stops.
This train also gave me a final view of the beautiful French Riviera, before passing through Monacao and taking me away from the coast.
Ventimiglia to Milan
The Ventimiglia-to-Milan train was longer, almost four hours. I booked a first-class seat, which just meant I sat in a car that had isolated compartments of six seats (three facing the other), with slightly more room. There was also a trash can and a mini-table by the window, which I sat next to.
The view was pleasant; it definitely had a southern European look, whatever that means.
Milan to Venice
My connection at Milan was tight; by the schedule I had fifteen minutes to disembark one train and board another. I looked up Milan’s train station platform map online, which looked relatively straight-forward. Depending on the scale, I could probably make it if I half-ran.
I did make it, with surprisingly some time to spare. I booked a first class ticket as well, but that had a different style from the previous train. The car had an open plan. I sat on one side of the train in a one-seater behind another one-seater The other side of the train had two-seaters with tables.
There was an attendant pushing a cart down the aisle asking what the passengers would like to drink. Everyone also seemed to get a bag of cookies, with a choice of flavors. I believed the choices were cream or chocolate. I chose cream because I knew I didn’t want chocolate but I figure “con panna fresca” was the generic option, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was.
The view of Italy from the train continued to be quaint, especially with the sun starting to set on this day of train travel.
Arriving in Venice
By the time I got to Venice, it was already dark. But it was only about 6pm, so there were still a lot of people inside the train station as well as outside. Even though I looked up the vaporetto water taxi system before, it still took me a while to figure out which of the three stations (routes) I should go to, where to buy my ticket, how the boarding process worked, how to read the real-time electronic schedule.
After a bit of back-and-forth, I figured out the station I should board and took my first vaporetto ride. The vaporetto went down the Grand Canal, through a large, important-looking bridge, which I found out later was the iconic Rialto Bridge.
I got off near the San Marco stop and walked through Piazza San Marco (before I realized what it was) to my hostel.
I discovered early on that hostels were rare in Venice. And they either had bad reviews and horror stories or expensive. So I looked to Airbnb and found a few places, including one where it’s set up like a hostel. I was a little concerned because the listing felt kind of scrappy and unofficial, but I placed my faith on the reviews and booked it.
I was given turn-by-turn directions in the confirmation to get to the hostel. Part of me thought how thoughtful, and the other part wondered why there wasn’t an address. In retrospect, this was probably a good idea, since Venice rarely had street names, so the directions definitely won over any address that could be provided. I even tried to rehearse the route on Google Maps and Street View, but the layout was too imprecise and photo quality too poor to figure it out. When I finally arrived at night, I followed the directions very closely and was surprised to find it after only a few mis-turns.
I buzzed the hostel from the entrance and, as usual (like in London), awkwardly explained in the intercom as quickly as I could that I had a reservation and implicitly asked if I could be let in. Once in, there was a large dark empty lobby with a closer path on the right and a farther path on the left. I went to the path on the right first and noticed the name of the hostel, so I took the tiny little elevator up to the correct floor. The elevator car was slightly larger than a phone booth, and I likened it to a music recording booth.
At the door, I was greeted by a young woman, and I repeated what I said on the intercom while she looked at my with a blank face. Looking back, she probably thought, “I know you had a reservation. Why are you saying the same thing?”
She was finishing up helping with another group of guests, and then it was my turn. We were in the living room at this time. The woman pulled out her records, asked for my passport, told me about the hotel tax, which I could pay in cash or credit card, but for simplicity, I just paid in cash right then and there. She checked me in, gave me a set of keys, showed me and around the “hostel”, which seemed more like a large apartment reworked to be a hostel that could sleep more people.
The young woman’s name was Mirabella, I believe, and she spoke English with a different accent than Italians. She ended most of her sentences with an inflection as if she decided at the last second to turn the sentence into a question. I found out later on she was from Poland, and she was in Venice to work for a few months before moving back.
Perhaps it was the language barrier or the culture difference, but she was soft-spoken but very direct and serious, almost to a point where she had no sense of humor. On the second day, I was having lunch in the kitchen and she was preparing and cooking a full meal, seemingly for either a guest or the owner. I complimented her for making something that was smelling so good, and I said as a joke that I was jealous. She was a little amused and smiled, but continued concentrating cutting vegetables.
It seemed that she pretty much did the day-to-day chores and tasks, from checking in guests to changing sheets and housekeeping for the next guests. She did these things so swiftly that it looked almost effortless.
According to the listing, I was supposed to be in a room shared with another person. But I found out quite quickly that one wall in our room was completely open to the multi-bed room next door. There were no curtains or anything to divide the rooms; it was just open, almost like one room. I didn’t mind so much, since it’s so blatantly open, everyone knew to be respectful of noise and general chatter.
The room was pretty spacious. It could definitely fit another bun bed and that was still be enough room. It had a bunk bed, a tall closet, a standing fan, a chair and a long table. There was an power outlet near the bunk beds, but it was used by my roommate who was already there. The power outlet was on the opposite side of the room next to the chair and table. So I had to plug my flimsy universal power adapter, which wiggled a little bit from the outlet, and I had to protect my phone by sitting in the chair and couldn’t go anywhere else.
There were two large windows that look out to other buildings, separated by a canal below. From my window, I could see the Campanile of St. Mark’s church sticking out from St. Mark’s Square, and I could hear the bell quite clearly at certain times of the day.
The bed was pretty standard. Judging by the other furniture in the hostel, the bunk bed was most likely also from IKEA. The frame was made of thin metal strips, and that made a noise with big movements.
There were two large cupboards next to the bed to serve as storage, but there were no metal loops to attach locks to.
There were two bathrooms we had access to. One was closer to my room so I used that more often. It was a standard household bathroom (though somewhat spacious) with a bathtub, sink, toilet, and bidet.
There curtains in the bathtub was actually too short in width, so I had to be careful where I aimed the showered when I took showers.
The toilet was next to a large window, and opening it would allow me to look up to other buildings, and presumably others to look into the bathroom. But it was possible to leave the window open a little to get some ventilation without being exposed.
There was a living room with couches and coffee table in the middle of the hostel. There was a radio playing local stations during the day, and there were also plenty of literature about traveling and Venice.
There was no food provided, but the kitchen was fully stocked with equipment. I assembled my store-bought salad using the dishes and utensils, and I also made tea using an electric kettle. After I was done eating, I washed my own dishes and dried it next to the sink. Mirabella later came and put the dishes away, which I felt bad for.
The kitchen had a world map with little arrow-shaped Post-its for guest to mark where they were from. Mirabella told me I could put mine. At first I was hesitant, thinking it was silly, and Mirabella chuckled at me. But later on, I thought it was such an awesome idea I put my name up there. This map went on to inspire me to do something similar in my home.
There was Wi-Fi available, and it was medium-to-low speed compared to urban areas in the States. The login information was written down and put up in a picture frame in the living room.
Right outside of the hostel apartment was the staircase to the ground floor. There was a skylight that captured a lot of light that trickled down to the bottom floor. That, combined with the open ground floor lobby, the hostel’s spacious layout, and the window views, this unit was designed very well, and I felt that this was just how Italians design buildings to take advantage of the lighting and to make daily life more grand and beautiful.
Walking and vaporetto. I pretty much walked everywhere. There were no cars beyond the train station area. It’s all foot traffic, especially through narrow alleys and little bridges. It was actually quite nice to just walk freely and not have to watch out for cars or have the air polluted with exhaust.
I used the vaporetto four times: oonce to get from the train station to the hostel, twice to get from the main island to Giudecca and back, and once to take a tour around the main island before I left Venice.
Each vaporetto station had an entry path and an exit path. Most stations would have a ticket booth or machine at or near the entrance. Popular stations would have digital signs listing waiting times for the next arrival. At the entrance of each station, there was a plastic box on which to place the ticket for the RFID or something to mark the ticket as used. Then passengers would head to the waiting area for the next vaporetto. A vaporetto would arrive, passengers on the vaporetto would get off first, then waiting passengers would get on.
In the center of the vaporetto was the boarding area, but during the ride, passengers could stand in the open air. At the front of the vaporetto was also an open area for passengers to check out the view. In the rear was covered seating with clear but weathered windows, and the area would often get humid, especially if there were lots of passengers. Depending on the station, passengers would disembark on different sides of the vehicle, so passengers standing in the middle would be asked to move. All that would protect passengers from falling off the boarding zone during the ride were thin, sliding metal guard rails.
- Time of year: Late October/Early November.
- The temperature was generally cool. Perhaps walking a lot in the middle of the day required taking off layers until the body cooled off.
- On vaporetto rides in the open water, it actually got kind of chilly from the wind, even with my jacket on.
The people working in Venice were usually very straight with customers. I think it’s because Venice consisted mostly of tourists, and the workers were used to being direct and clear to avoid any confusion because of language differences. They would ask me to double check I knew what I wanted. At the grocery store, the cashier made sure I was aware I was on a cash-only line. At a gelato shop, the lady made sure before she scooped that I knew the caramel flavor costed 2 Euros instead of 1.5. At a bakery, the lady made sure I was paying for the takeaway (to-go) price and not the eat-in price. By each incident, it felt almost rude to ask me the obvious. But collectively, it’s more understandable why they would do that, and it actually seemed kind of courteous of them.
Again, since Venice was such a tourist town, most people who worked there could speak English, even with limited vocabulary. But I still made a solid effort to say “Grazie” with each interaction. I was able to recognize words from a few signs through repetition, like “ristorante” (which was obvious) and “trattoria” (which I didn’t know exactly, but it was similar to a restaurant).
Getting Lost on Purpose
Since I was only in Venice for less than forty-eight hours, I did not book any tours. Like Nice, I decided to just walk around and explore by myself. After grabbing a buttery croissant near the Rialto Bridge, I started my deliberate plan to get lost in Venice. I basically walked down roads and alleys as I wished, picking a path that looked interesting, turning around at dead ends, checking out shops, and repeat. There were plenty of restaurants, gelaterias, bakeries, and Venetian mask shops, but very few places interested me.
Initially, I tried to remember my direction and the path that I took. But after a few turns, I would have forgotten anything before my last turn. I was totally lost, but I felt totally fine, because it was my intention to get lost, and I had no agenda for the day, other than to eat when I got hungry.
Somewhere in my quest to get lost, I stopped by a bakery and got two craisin buns. It may be because I was a little hungry from only a croissant for breakfast and I was walking to get lost, but those buns were fresh, warm, and delicious.
Starting somewhere between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, I managed to make my way to the other side of the island at the train station.
I wanted to get to Giudecca, the southern island, so I could get a photo of the main island. Since I was already at the train station from my meandering morning, I bought a 24-hour pass and took a vaporetto over to Giudecca.
The ride went down a long canal slowly before reaching the “open” water. But once out of the canal, the boat sped up, picking up the wind. The breeze felt nice at first, but the constant stream got annoying and also a bit chilly.
The vibe in Giudecca was the opposite of main island. There were very few people around; the shops were less nice-looking and looked partially open. It almost felt like an abandoned port city.
I only walked on the road by the water, but looking down alleys and canals showed a different side of the island. The sunlight was hitting the walls and the water a very gentle way, and instead of looking abandoned, it just looked like a quiet town relaxing and savoring the afternoon with the sound of slow-flowing canals and birds playing above a welcoming alley.
I tried to take photos of the landmarks on the main island, but it was too far away. With little else to explore on Giudecca, I took the vaporetto back.
Final lap around the island
On the morning of my departure, I had a bit of time between checking out of the hostel and getting on my train. So I decided to make my 24-hour vaporetto pass worth its money by taking a water tour around the north side of the main island. I tried to make the most of the ride by standing in the center/boarding area of the vaporetto and taking in the view.
There were many stops along the way, and it occurred to me then that there were a lot of outer islands that looked interesting that I could have explored. Like Nice, I discovered these things only after I arrived and it was too late to do anything about, because I had done less research than the other places on my trip. However, even with more planning, I would still probably do what I did and just take it easy and wander.
Near the end, the chilly open-air wind was getting to me, and I had to get inside to warm up. The vaporetto ended its route by turning into one of the canals, which had rows of brightly-painted buildings, almost as a way to welcome me back to town and to send me off.
After checking in and dropping off my stuff at the hostel. I did a little exploration of the area, and somehow ended up near the Rialto Bridge. I passed by many gelato shops, glancing at the flavors and the prices. I was still getting used to Venetian prices so I was kind of picky and holding out on a reasonable price. Finally, I just picked a place that was open on my way back to the hostel.
To be honest, I had trouble telling the difference between gelato and regular ice cream. The gelato was good, and it satisfied my sweet tooth. It was plenty good enough for me.
The next day, I got another gelato, this time at a shop at Piazza San Marco. I got caramel flavor, which costed extra. It was very sweet and full.
Croissant and Craisin Bun
I bought a plain croissant at a bakery-cafe near the Rialto Bridge for breakfast on my second day. It tasted fine, though it was a bit buttery and too airy to be filling.
So in my morning of intentional wandering and getting lost, I stumbled upon another bakery-cafe near [square] that was selling craisin buns, among other dessert pastries. I bought two just in case, and I was glad I did, not because it was airy like the croissant, but it was dense with soft doughy bread and little drops of sweet craisins and I wanted to eat more than one.
Self-assembled grocery store salad
For lunch, I was going to try to go to a restaurant, but nothing really interested me. So I resorted to going to the grocery near my hostel and assembled my own salad like I did in Nice.
The grocery store was well stocked and had a wide range of goods, from fresh meat, seafood, and produce, to processed foods and typical home supplies. But it had tight aisles that can easily get clogged if someone stood at an intersection.
I got a prepackaged salad, canned tomatoes, and a pack of sliced salmon. I went back to my hostel and assembled it in the kitchen. Just like in Nice, the salad pack was too much for one plate, so I split the portion into two servings. It tasted as a self-assembled store-bought salad would, although the canned tomatoes were very sweet and juicy.
It was also nice to make the salad in the home kitchen at the hostel, with the faint sounds of the the crowds a few blocks away magnifying the calmness of the hostel. At the same time, the early afternoon sun drew a lot of indirect light into the kitchen, giving the space a more even glow. It almost transported me to another time, either my childhood or a the “olden days” portrayed in movies.
Before I arrived in Venice, I came upon a recommendation online for a place in Venice that sold fresh pasta. I thought I should check it out if I happened to be in the area. It turned out that that place was literally around the corner from my hostel. It probably took twenty to thirty steps to walk to that place. But it only opened for a few hours in the afternoon every day.
So after some more exploring around town in the afternoon, I headed back to the hostel to pick up some pasta on the way. When I got there, there were people outside with white cups of pasta in hand. But fortunately, there weren’t that many people inside. In fact, the customer area and sales counter was a tiny space, probably the size of a king-sized bed, with the kitchen in the back. There was a few big TVs hung from the ceiling showing the menu. There were also printed signs that request customers to not take photos.
The menu showed many types of pasta and sauces, as well as meat and vegetarian add-ons. It also recommended that customers eat the pasta immediately or on the go instead of saving it for later. I supposed that was to preserve the quality. I was not concerned because I could just bring it to my hostel a few steps away instead of sitting and standing in a narrow alley outside of the store.
While I was waiting to order, I noticed that there were a bunch of guys behind the counter working, but they seemed really casual, just talking amongst themselves. Once in a while, one of the guys would come up to the counter to serve out an order, and many of the guys would watch the customer pick up the food, probably out of habit. While they seemed to know what they were doing and were doing it well, the way they carried themselves reminded me of slightly more mature college bros who had little experience with customer service, or the stereotypical young men from Boston exhibiting a lot of bravado and overconfidence. In some incidences, they seemed to have little patience and wanted customers to pick up the food as soon as it’s called. To be fair, maybe it had to do with Venice being a tourist town and the people who worked there learned to be direct.
After I ordered, I got some coins for change. So I tried to put them back in my wallet, which already had more coins in it. Before I could drop the coins in, my order was ready. Not wanting to make the guy wait, I gripped my open wallet of coins with one hand while trying to grab the pasta with the other. But I loosened my grip of the wallet in the process and dropped all my coins on the floor. The guys behind the counter made an “awww” sound in a way that sounded like a combination of ridicule and sympathy: “Aww, look how klutzy you are, making a mess in the store” and “Aww, I’m sorry that happened, I hope you recover quickly, partly because we have a business to run here.” I shook my head smiling, acknowledging my unclassy moment.
I ordered a fusilli with marinara sauce. Honestly, it tasted fine. it was the first time I had pasta in Italy, and I thought it was a little undercooked. I had come to realized this was Italy’s definition of “al dente”. It probably meant the same everywhere, but it was a level of doneness that I was less used to. It was fresh indeed, but the sauce and steaming fresh pasta ended up leaving a lot of water at the bottom.
Having had a taste of hot food for the first time in a few days, I went back later that evening for dinner. I got a spaghetti with another tomato sauce. Again, the harder-than-I-was-used-to al dente pasta with sauce that watered down near the end. Still, it definitely filled me up, and I would still go back and try the other pastas and sauces if I ever return to Venice.
Store-bought raisin buns.
After getting the freshly made craisin buns in the morning, I developed a craving for buns. So I picked up a bag of many, many raisin buns, thinking I could fill also up on it on the following day’s train ride.
But somehow I managed to eat most of the bag that day, leaving only a few left the next morning that I figured I should finish, especially since I had little room in my luggage. The buns were definitely store-brand quality, and the raisins were few and far between. At least they were cheap and filling.
My Roommate’s Squid Ink Pasta
One food I didn’t know about was squid ink pasta. I only found out about it when my roommate came back at night and told me he had some. He also showed me by sticking out his black tongue. He told me it was a thing in Venice and he sought it out as one of the things he wanted to eat. He showed me pictures he looked up online, and I squirmed a little but was impressed by him.
I booked a ticket via ItaliaRail direct to Rome. While waiting on the platform, I checked out a few convenient stores and bought some overpriced snacks. I was going to get a pre-packaged sandwich for the train ride, but I could see the condensation on the inside of the clear plastic film, and the texture on the cut of the sandwich looked like it had been sitting out for a bit too long. So I only had my snacks to last me the nearly four-hour train ride.
From My Travel Log
30 October 2014, 11:04am, Ventimiglia, train heading to Milan
- There are two Italians traveling and sitting across from me. The old guy kept looking at me, so he’s probably wondering where I’m from. The lady next to me left the room so I took the chance to ask the two travelers where they’re from. They looked really friendly and the different from the lady I sat across from on the way to Nice. I kept looking up how to say “going” for you plural. I never learned it so I assumed it’s “andiete”. Finally, I asked “Dove andiete” and the lady responded a place that I’ve never heard of. Then the guy asked in English “Where are you from?” And I said “the States” but they didn’t understand. So I said “Stati Uniti” after a bit of thinking and remembering, thankful that I looked it up earlier. I’m glad I made the effort and now I feel more comfortable (though still awkward!) since we didn’t say anything else other than that I’m going to Venezia.
- I also feel home when I’m on the train or a plane because I feel like I belong there, like I’m supposed to be there, and people are there to serve my needs and they speak English. When I’m where I’m supposed to be, I feel safe. That sounds very obvious, and the converse is true. But it’s kind of important to me, I realize.
- That said, I’ve had those “I am here” feeling many times, Cuzco in that spot from Google Street View, Tromsø a little when I look out airplane window and when I saw the Arctic Cathedral, Paris a little when i see it in that park area. The moment comes and goes and I try to hold onto it but still try to experience it instead.
- For the past week, I realize more the today is short. I tried to think about what I’ve done in the past few days and why it’s gone by so fast, and it seems that I haven’t done that much. I sleep relatively less, I go online more. I spend time waiting for lines, traveling on the train. I take time to shop and buy groceries, I take my time getting to spots. My regard for time is so minimal that I feel like I’m wasting it on this trip. But being in Italy, I’m supposed to be mastered the art of doing nothing. If I’m not doing anything, what should I be doing so I don’t feel so guilty. I should be doing something that makes me feel good. So maybe take a nap, take a shower, watch movies. Heck, I’m on f-ing vacation, I should do whatever I want. So that should set me up for Italy.
30 October 2014, 4:07pm, Milano -> Venezia train
- The trains are so relaxed about seats switching. Also, first class is nice. We’ll see how second class feels when I ride to Rome. It boggles my mind how quickly the day has gone by. It’s almost 5 PM and I started taking the train at around 9:30. Seeing the sun on its way down already makes me feel like I’m not spending a day and my time wisely.
- Looking at the sunset, I remember how it was just as beautiful in South Africa in Kapama, in Paris on Montparnasse, on the train from Paris to Nice, ABQ.
- For some reason, I still hold the mentality that I’m going to be miles away from easy access of food. I guess that’s from both my trip to Nicaragua and from flying long flights. But every place I’ve been to, except Thornhill lodge in SA, have easy access to food whenever I want. But in the next places, Venice, Rome, Beijing, Tokyo, Hawaii, they should all have food access, like supermarkets. The parts I need to watch out for I guess are train from Venice to Rome, flight from Rome to Beijing, Tokyo to Hawaii, and Hawaii to SJC, and maybe the trips to and from the great wall.
- Italians on Milan -> Venice train who were nice and offered me treats
- Lady next to me on train who spoke/knew English and made me feel fine without saying a thing to me.
- Mirabella (Airbnb staff)
- Korean roommate who was nice and answers questions with a smile
- Guy who sold me croissant
- Lady who sold me two raisin buns and tried to clarify in English that it’s takeaway
- Lady who rung up my groceries of sad salad and explained in English it’s a cash-only line
- Lady who sold me two-scoop gelato and made sure in English that caramel is €2 a scoop
- Manager-looking dude who tried to clarify if it’s fusilli or spaghetti even though I never said spaghetti
- Guy who handed me the pasta while I had an open wallet and made me drop my coins
- The other guy who sold me pasta but was much nicer about it.
- New roommate from Beijing and Germany who told me about squid ink pasta and gave me advice about Beijing subway.
- San Diego friends who gave me a small sense of home
- And the girl who traveled for three months with two more to go who gave me a small sense of motivation subconsciously to keep going on my trip.
- Give yourself extra time from getting lost.
- Better yet, don’t have a destination in where you’re going, except maybe for a general direction. If you’re mentally ready to get lost, it’s very fun walking around. If you get tired of being lost, there are signs all over town leading you to landmarks, like “Ponte di Rialto” and “Piazza San Marco.”
- Travel to at least one of the outer islands for a different atmosphere and probably a lot less people.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: Venice
- Average temperature of Venice (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: Dal Moro’s Freshly Made Pasta
- Airbnb: Boutique San Marco (It costed much cheaper than the current (2015) listed price).
- Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta To Go
If you have questions about specific experiences of Venice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
I wanted to see if the “south of France” was as beautiful and lovely as people said it was. I was deciding between Nice and Cannes, considering the differences in people and vibe. Ultimately, Nice won out.
- Tuesday, 28 October: Arrived in Nice
- Wednesday, 29 October: Walked down Promenade des Anglais, Went up to Colline du Chateau, strolled through old town Nice
- Thursday, 30 October: Depart Nice
Nice was a very nice and beautiful city. It’s quite different from Paris, but it was still France. It was relaxing partly because I decided to relax instead of packing the day full of sightseeing.
I wish I had stayed longer, I wish the beach was made of sand instead of rocks, and I wish I visited when it was warmer.
I also only learned when I got there that while there was little to do in Nice, it was the town to take day trips from because there were so many cities nearby that had slightly different vibes. I would definitely return.
I took an SNCF train from Paris to Nice, with many stops along the way. It took about five and a half hours.
I booked a first-class seat to see what it’s like, but the car and the seats did not look first-class. The car was mostly empty, but I sat across an older classy lady who seemed to want to have as little to do with me as possible, so I kept to myself for the ride. I even tried to keep my snacks and things on my side of the table, and she seemed to have done the same. There was an outlet that kind of worked depending on how the plug was inserted; at first I thought my phone suddenly stopped charging.
Once I arrived at Nice-Ville station right before, I bought a train ticket to Ventimiglia for my departure in two days at the counter before they closed for the day. I asked the staff about departure times, and for the life of me, I could not understand French numbers. She said something like “Neuf heures vingt-cinq minutes” and while I recognized that those were French words, I had to repeat it to myself multiple times, until she got a little frustrated and wrote it out, and everything suddenly clicked and made sense again. Embarrassed, I continued to communicate in French, because I didn’t think she knew I spoke English, but I said as few words as I could, like “D’accord” (Okay) and “Merci beaucoup.”
Then, I walked the fifteen-or-so minutes to my hostel, which was near the beach. It was already dark, but it felt pretty safe. While the temperatures were already cool, the small streets and short buildings definitely had that small vacation town vibe, and like many of the European cities I had been to so far, it reminded me a little of of my original hometown of Macau.
The walk up to the hostel felt a bit shady, partly because it was kind of dark and unappealing. It felt like a regular old apartment building. There was also a sign on the elevator door saying that those staying at the hostel may not use the elevator. But once I got to the reception floor, the place looked like pictures online, albeit a bit more worn.
The space was pretty cozy, and there were plenty of people hanging out. There was only one person working at the front desk, and he was already helping out the guests ahead of me. The guests spoke Spanish, and the staff (named Luis) seemed very comfortable and fluent in communicating in Spanish as well. I also heard him speak English to another guest in between, so that comforted me.
I could tell by Luis’ body language that he was a bit stressed at being seemingly the only staff taking care of check-ins and guest issues, but he also seemed to handle it with determination. I could not imagine how it would feel for me to be doing a job like that.
When I checked in, Luis was very friendly, professional, and thorough with everything. Even though it was busy, he did not rush through the process and made sure I had what I needed. I was given my key, the password for the Wi-Fi, and a map of Nice.
I booked a four-bed mixed dorm. When I entered the room, there were four twin-size bed laid out in a room with just enough space in between to walk through; three across and one on the side. I couldn’t believe how basic it was. There were already two guys laying down in their beds looking at their phones. They were both Asian but they didn’t seem to know each other. I briefly said hi and just kept to myself, unpacking and settling in on the only empty bed, which, to my relief, was by the wall instead of being in the middle of the room between other guests.
I met the remaining roommate later in the evening. To my surprise, it was a woman. I forgot I had booked a mixed dorm, and seeing the two guys in the room when I entered made me think it was an all-male dorm.
The woman’s name was Lisa, and she was from Australia. She was traveling for a few weeks before heading back to work. She’s a really cool chick who convinced me to relax and take a breather in Nice (see People).
(In the panoramic photo, the middle part was the bathroom, and the right was the locker cubbies and entrance)
The bed was a simple mattress with sheets and on a frame. There was an outlet and lamp next to each bed. There’s a small nightstand table in between the beds to share.
There’s a full-height window with a small balcony for a view onto the street. There’s an air conditioner but it wasn’t used. At the entrance were small locker cubbies. But that area was too dark to see inside. The entire room had limited lighting overall. I want to say these rooms were refitted to be used as hostels, but I wouldn’t be able to figure out what the shape of the room used to be; because the room as it stood had a weird shape.
The bathroom looked like a regular home’s bathroom. With a sink, toilet, and shower tightly fit into a space.
I had to wash my clothes, but since there was no place to hang anything in the room, I hung my clothes in the bathroom overnight. But I forgot they were in there the next morning, and Lisa moved them aside so she could take a shower. I was a bit embarrassed but she said it was fine.
On my second evening, the toilet became clogged, and we couldn’t fix it. Flushing it just filled the bowl with more and more water. We told the staff and they said they would have someone fix it the next day. In the mean time, we used the bathroom by the front desk downstairs, which was weirdly also a full bathroom with a shower, along with all the shampoo bottles that old guests left behind.
A few feet from the front desk was the small couch area. A few feet from the front desk was the small dining area. A few feet from the front desk was the small kitchen. The entire common area was a small space. It could be converted to a small apartment for a couple or a young family, and even then it’s kind of tight. Instead, it was used as the hangout area for fifteen to twenty grown adults. Somehow the photos online made the place look larger than it was.
It was the only place in the hostel that guests could socialize. Guests hanging out in the common area were either already in a group or socially forced to switch on their extroverted side and start talking to people and make friends. My theory was that because everyone was so close together in that space, the awkwardness of not talking to strangers next to them would be so strong they had to talk to break the tension.
The kitchen was moderately equipped with pots, pans, and utensils. However, the problem was having three groups of people trying cook dinner at the same time. Even though many people were cooking pasta; it was a slightly different variation and the pots could not be reused. Also, some people would leave the used equipment in the sink while other people were still trying to cook and may need something from the dirty pile.
Seeing this, I decided to just make a simple salad by getting the items from the store and assembling it in the kitchen. But even then took more effort than it needed to be. There was limited counter space, and we ran out of forks. I had overage so I had to leave some stuff in the kitchen while I ate my first serving. And of all the things this kitchen was equipped with, paper towels or napkins were not one of them, so I ran to the Carrefour City downstairs and bought some with my own money and just left it in the kitchen for all to use. It was a cluster-F but somehow it all worked out, though I didn’t stay to find out who did the dishes.
Wi-Fi was good. More or less the same as urban areas in major American cities. It worked in the hostel room as well as the common area.
Impression of the Hostel
The hostel was in a great location, and for the price, it’s pretty decent. This is closer to what I thought a hostel would be. But after having stayed in more organized hostel organizations in London and Paris, I would pay a little more to have more space and organization. Still, for a few nights, this place was doable, affordable, and allowed for socializing opportunities.
There was a bus system in the city, but since I had very little agenda in Nice, I walked everywhere in the area. And the area around the beach was very walkable, provided there was enough time
- Time of year: late October.
- During the day, the sun warmed up the city just enough to be comfortable. Since it was already late October, the temperature couldn’t really get too high. When walking a lot, especially up a bunch of stairs, it got a little warm. A T-shirt would be fine.
- In the early hours or later in the day, it cooled a bit, and a light jacket was needed, especially when not moving much.
The people are generally in a good mood. It’s Nice, and the south of France!
One of my hostel roommates, Lisa, the one who inspired me to take a day off (see Activities), was an outgoing Australian woman who made friends on her trip left and right. She was cool to talk to, with no agenda other than to enjoy the company of fellow travelers. She included me into her group of newly made hostel friends at dinner and even invited me to go out with them to bars afterwards, though I politely declined.
We talked about travel styles, and we discovered we were practically on the opposite side, at least on this trip. The way she describe the freedom she had of not knowing where on her travels she would be or do the next day planted the seeds in my head that I should consider that travel style the next time I traveled.
By this time, I was getting used to being around French words and phrases. Since I took it easy in Nice, I didn’t really interact with that many people that would require me to speak French. Other than buying the train ticket at the station, I didn’t really have to use French so much. The staff at the hostel spoke English. At the grocery store, I just looked at the number on the cashier machine and gave them my money. At a candy store, the lady just assumed I spoke English.
After four action-packed days in Paris, the city of my fifteen-year dream, I was pretty exhausted, both from Paris and from the trip. I originally planned to visit the Matisse Museum on the other side of town, but the thought of researching bus routes to get there made me realized I needed a break.
Fortunately, I told one of my hostel roommates about this and she commiserated with me, telling me that it happened to her recently, and she decided to just do nothing and take a day off. The idea intrigued me, and as the evening went on, I was more and more on board with doing that.
Promenade des Anglais
So the next day, I slept in a little bit, had breakfast at the hostel, and took my time to get ready. I first walked toward the beach, which was two blocks away, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the water. It was such a calming scene that I wish I could have that for the rest of my life.
I consciously told myself to take my time and stroll along the promenade, but it felt strange because every day for the past three weeks had been planned out, at the latest one day before. That day, my one goal was to head up to the Colline du Chateau, and the rest of the day was unplanned. Not knowing what I would be doing was a little scary and still felt a little wasteful, especially when I would be in town for one full day and I still wanted to make the most of it. I reminded myself it’s what I needed, so I went along with it.
Colline du Chateau
I got to the end of the promenade, at the foot of Colline du Chateau. I noticed that there’s an elevator ride for a small fee, but being used to walking and hiking for the past few weeks, I did not mind taking the stairs instead.
The stairs went on longer than I thought, but it was doable given enough time. Once I got to (first?) observation deck, I could see the iconic view of Nice and the shore. I took a few photos, including one for my friend who had been there six months and one day prior.
Old Town Nice
After Colline du Chateau, I had no other plans. So I walked away from the promenade and the beach into Old Town Nice and walked around. The roads were much narrower and more windy, making the buildings seem taller. There were mainly souvenirs shops, which didn’t really interest me.
I got out of Old Town and crossed a long strip of greenery, the Promenade du Paillon, and to more regular streets. I bought some lunch and snacks at a Carrefour City grocery store, and continued walking aimlessly until I reached a long street (Avenue Jean Médecin) of big retail stores, along with rail tracks down the middle. It was meant to be the shopping area of Nice, I suppose.
I walked up and down the avenue, looking for restaurants that might interest me, even though I already bought food. I checked out a candy shop and bought different kinds of caramels.
Lunch at the Promenade
I was getting hungry so I made my way back to the Promenade, walking through Jardin Albert I. I sat at one of the benches on the Promenade, had my lunch and snacks (store-bought macarons). And watched people pass by.
Then I moved to a bench that was closer to the beach and just looked out into the sea for as long as I could, logging a little bit as well, making an effort to relax and enjoy the moment. I think I still needed to work on that.
After probably an hour and a half, I headed back to the hotel and rested there and cleaned up my things a little bit to get ready for my departure the next day.
There were many cafes near the hostel, but again, the intimidation of going to a restaurant was getting to me, and a quick glance at the menu signs and pictures of dishes didn’t seem to interest me.
So for both mornings, I had breakfast at the hostel. The kitchen/dining area was small to begin with, so there was only so many foods laid out to guests to have. There were the usual toast and different spreads, coffees, teas, juice.
There was this “croissant” pastry that was individually prepackaged and came in two flavors: I believe one was chocolate and the other vanilla. They were essentially breads shaped like a croissant and had filling inside. While they tasted fine, the marketing disappointed to my imagination. Still, since there was little else to eat, I grabbed two.
I believe there was yogurt too, and despite having removed dairy from my diet, I had it anyway just so I can be full.
Lunch and Dinner
For “proper” meals, I made salads by getting prepackaged salads from the Carrefour City right next to my hostel and added canned tomatoes and chicken slices. It may have been a sad salad, but I actually found comfort in the self-sufficiency and being satisfied with this simple dish as a meal. It also helped cleaned my system a little bit from eating all the snack food on the trip.
On my full day in Nice, I bought a pre-assembled salad from another Carrefour City, but with as many ingredients from my normal diet and as as few ingredients not in my diet as I could find, again to try to eat clean. I didn’t eat the breadsticks or use the vinaigrette dressing. I did eat the cookie though.
For the snack side, I got a pack of macarons from the store and they tasted dry and over-sweetened. Now I could tell the difference between good macarons (like Ladurée’s) and mediocre ones (like from a grocery store).
In my aimless walk around town, I bought some caramels from a nice little shop on Avenue Jean Médicin. They had lots of chocolates and caramels. And since I was staying away from chocolate for a little while, I got two types of caramels, and they were both delicious. The plain caramels were rich and with the right balance between sweet and salty.
In the hostel dorm room, there was a binder with recommendations for things to do and eat in Nice. One of the items famous in Nice was the Niçoise Salad. I actually tried to look for the recommended restaurants near the old town area, but I either couldn’t find them or they were packed with diners. I regretted not trying it but would definitely do a better job next time.
I walked the fifteen-or-so minutes from the hostel back to the train station, but this time during the day, and the walk somehow felt longer than before.
The train from Nice to Ventimiglia was relatively short (thirty minutes). The seats were more compact and looked more used. It was sort of like a commuter train, especially since I saw crowds in business attire come on and off the train at the same stops.
The train also made a quick stop at Monaco station. I didn’t get off, but I think that still technically counted that I was in Monaco.
The train also took a scenic route by water in the south of France before heading inland. That made me realized that I had not been by a body of water at all for the entire trip so far, and I would not again until the end of the trip. That was also probably why I liked Nice so much.
From My Travel Log
29 October 2014, 2:36pm, Nice, Promenade des Anglais
- Decided to take Australian roommate’s advice and just do nothing today. After days of activities or staying in the hostel using the Wifi, it’s taking some getting used to to do nothing by the beach. Still not used to it.
- Three weeks ago was 10/8, and it was my free day in Cuzco…
30 October 2014, 9:37am, France, outside of Nice, on train to Ventimiglia
- I haven’t mentioned this on the log, but I’ve said it a few times to others. But ever since arriving in Paris, I felt very tired of traveling and want to go home. But knowing that there’s a whole other half of the trip I haven’t been to and haven’t done was enough to snap me out of that thinking and continue. I still feel tired but I’m not going to let that stop my trip. It’s just too silly. That’s also why I took it easy yesterday in Nice. In retrospect, it felt a little like a waste, but I felt that it was a bigger waste of my schedule to only have one full day to explore a place. For all my future trips, I’m going to do at least three nights, two full days: first day to arrive and get settled, second day to do a city tour and go out at night, third day to do whatever else and also go out if I want, and fourth day to leave. That’s the bare minimum for a new city/destination. More if it’s a major place like Paris.
4 November 2014, 2:59pm, rome Da Francesco
- Of all the places I’ve been in Europe, I think the place I would most likely to come back to is Nice. The scene is beautiful, and there seems to be more things to do in the area.
- Lady who was patient with me when I bought Nice->Ventimiglia ticket, can’t figure out “nerf heures vingt-cinq”‘s meaning on the spot.
- Luis the receptionist
- Lisa who’s full of extrovertedness and inadvertently suggested that I not do anything in Nice, which makes me feel unproductive still, but I think I need it at the moment to not do more planning for the day.
- Hostel roommates
- Conor and Lisa’s gang
- Breakfast peeps
- Australian ladies who helped me take photo from Colline du Chateau
- Lady who helped sell me caramels and spoke English as I try to use my Italian
- Receptionist lady who helped explained toilet situation
- Couple from Denver who were on train to Milan also and made me feel relieved that Milan train doesn’t have a platform.
- The beach in Nice are mostly rocks. But the view is still gorgeous.
- If you have time, take day trips out of Nice, like to Cannes, Antibes, Monaco, and any other places people recommend.
- Go up Colline du Chateau for another beautiful view of Nice. There’s probably one of the most frequented places, but there’s a reason.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Average temperature (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: Hostel Meyerbeer Beach
- Hostel Meyerbeer Beach official site
If you have questions about specific experiences of Nice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
This was the city I must visit on the trip. I had wanted to go to Paris since I started taking French in freshman year of high school. It was a city that was always talked about and seen in pictures and movies, but never been. Learning more about the language and the culture with every school year just fueled my desire and dreams of “being French” and being surrounded by every stereotypical and unique aspects of the French culture. This visit was fifteen years, more than half my life, in the making.
- Friday 24 October: Arrived in Paris, checked in to hostel, visit Eiffel Tower
- Saturday 25 October: Walked by Notre Dame, went up the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Élysées, nightlife
- Sunday 26 October: Musée d’Orsay, crêpe, Seine, Pont des Arts, Ladurée macarons, Jardin du Trocadéro, Tour Montparnasse 56
- Monday 27 October: Louvre, Sacre Cœur, Moulin Rouge, Parc Montsouris, Eiffel Tower at night
- Tuesday 28 October: Last Eiffel Tower visit, departed Paris via Gare Lyon train station
Clearly, I had a lot of expectations of Paris, which I was very aware. That’s why I kind of reverse-psychologied myself and lowered my expectations. In the end, it netted out even: there were parts of Paris that I liked/loved, like the Eiffel Tower and the “French-ness” of the city. And then there were parts that bothered me, like the grittiness of the Metro stations and the random wafts of urine in certain corners by the Seine.
Of course, four days were not enough to fully experience the city, so I would definitely return and spend more time exploring different parts of the city. But the realness of Paris as a typical urban city sort of diluted my longtime dream of living in Paris. But if I was asked to live there, I wouldn’t mind giving it try either.
I took the Eurostar train from London’s St. Pancras International station. I wrote briefly about it in my London post.
I sat at a table seat on the train, thinking that I could meet people on the way. But everyone pretty much kept to themselves, and since I have long legs, it was a bit uncomfortable having to adjust where my legs were with the person sitting in front of me.
The train was packed, and there were so many little interactions and incidents during the train ride that I was afraid it was a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Paris. There was an incident where a child’s hand was caught between siding doors during boarding. And there was a mother who had trouble getting her two kids to behave and to stop bothering the passengers sitting across their table. They were somewhat entertaining to watch during the ride to see what kind of trouble they could get into.
After going through the tunnel for a not-too-long, not-too-short amount of time, the train emerged into a gloomy sky and fields of unremarkable muted greenery. There was nothing I could point to that would tell me that I had entered France.
I booked my stay in Paris at the St. Christopher’s Inn, Gare du Nord. It’s a really nice and organized hostel that I wouldn’t mind staying again if I had to book at a minute’s notice.
The location was quite convenient, just about one block from the Gare du Nord station, which was also where my train from London to Paris ended. Ironically, it took me longer that it should to find the hostel because it was a bit tucked in on a side street.
I stayed in a four-person coed ensuite dorm. My dorm mates were two young women from Brazil and a man from the Middle East. The women knew little English, and the man knew more. There were two bunk beds, a table with a chair. There were also hooks but the women from Brazil already claimed/used them when I arrived. The window looked out to the central atrium with the hostel restaurant/bar on the ground floor.
I stayed in the top bunk, and at the head of each bed, there were a French power outlet, lamp, and two USB outlets! That was by far the best bed set up at any place I stayed during the trip, not even just for hostels. Each bed even had curtains for privacy.
Under the two bunk beds were large wire baskets on casters as our lockers. To get to it, it must be pulled out from under the bunk bed almost all the way, then the top hinges open. It’s kind of hard to get to, especially if the space in between the two bunk beds was obstructed by people or people’s things. It’s a neat idea to save space, but it’s sort of a poorly designed experience. Plus, it’s all-metal structure made it noisy to put in or take out locks.
The bathroom was pretty standard and clean. The only ventilation was a tucked-away fan above the shower, so after someone showered, the bathroom got very steamy and took a while to clear out.
For guests who stayed in non-ensuite rooms, there’s a dorm-style bathroom with individual toilet stalls and shower stalls. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use it since I had my own bathroom, but I used it a few times when my bathroom was occupied.
The staff was quite professional and competent. They were quite knowledgeable and helpful. They mostly spoke English and well. It occurred to me that this hostel was probably run by an English-speaking company and are welcome by and popular with English-speaking guests.
I decided on the day of to get a Skip-the-Lines ticket of the Eiffel Tower through a company they were partnering with, and the staff got on the phone, asked for a few pieces of information, and booked a spot for me in the early afternoon. It was pretty convenient and helpful.
On bedroom floors, there were a few couches in the hallway for small groups to hang out in. Since guests only had access to their floors, there were plenty of closed doors between the first floor and the guests’ dorms. Many of those doors required the right credentials to get pass, and having to go through the doors just made me feel trapped in a maze.
On the ground floor, there’s the Belushi’s restaurant/bar, where there were bar tables and stools throughout the floor along with regular tables. They served free breakfast in the morning, become a “regular” restaurant for lunch and dinner, and slowly morphed into a bar at night. After a certain hour, the staff migrate the guests to the basement floor to continue the party while they clean up the emptied Belushi’s for the next morning.
There was a laundry room on the top floor, with multiple washing and drying machines. The instructions were easy enough to follow but had a small learning curve of how the whole thing was set up. Instead of putting coins in slots at each machine, they went into one central register and guests press the button for the specific washer/dryer they wanted to use. Also, the machines only took a certain denomination of coins.
Sweet, sweet Wi-Fi! The Wi-Fi speed at this hostel was unbelievable. The hostel prided themselves on having really good Internet speed for their guests in their rooms. I managed to back up a good amount of my photos while using it. The Wi-Fi worked in the common areas as well, but once outside of the hostel, the connection dropped pretty quickly. It made me want to stay at the hostel instead of going out to explore Paris as much as I could.
Impression of Hostel
St. Christopher’s Inn was a really organized, well-run hostel. It sort of reminded me of Pariwana in Cuzco, Peru in terms of how tight of a ship they ran. But the Wi-Fi was amazing, the dorm looked clear, and it’s located near a major train station. One thing that could improve would be that the bar staff could be friendlier. Again, I wondered if it was a French thing, even when I tried to withhold judgment for as long as I could.
After arriving in Paris at Gare du Nord station, I immediately got a Paris Visite five-day pass at a ticket counter. While in line, I practiced the sentence I was going to say multiple times, “Je voudrais acheter le billet « Paris Visite » pour cinq jours.” And it worked like a normal interaction. In my head, I did a little happy dance. If that was the only French sentence I successfully communicated for the trip, I would be satisfied and a little proud.
With the ticket, I could ride the Metro anywhere within zone 1 to 3, which were concentric circles moving out from the center of Paris. That covers most of the major sites in Paris.
The problem with these tickets were that they get demagnetized very easily. Since they’re so small, it felt inconvenient to have to pull out my wallet every time, so I kept it in my pants pocket with keys and coins. The ticket got demagnetized twice during the five days, and I had to have it replaced at a station each time. The first time, the staff was kind of nice about it. The second time, the staff (at another station) was yelling at me in French, and when I had a blank look, she pulled out some coins and clinked them together to illustrate that the ticket got demagnetized because of rubbing coins. I also heard “clés” uttered so I figured it’s coins and keys. And when the staff replaced the ticket, they had to report it on a form in a binder and staple the ticket to the form, along with all the other malfunctioning tickets.
Note: the Paris Visite ticket could be used for the short shuttle ride up to Sacré-Cœur.
Other than the Metro, I mostly walked. I took a taxi after a night out at the bars with a fellow hostel mate.
- Time of year: Late October.
- Cool when it’s cloudy. Warm when it’s sunny. Long sleeves and layers are recommended
- Chilly once the sun went down.
- It sprinkled a few times during the few times.
I had heard so much about the French people being rude. I could see why people say that, but from my brief experience, I think the reputation was misunderstood.
Generally, the people were fine. Yes, I had a few incidences where I received some less-than-pleasant interactions. But I also experienced really friendly customer service. That mix is more or less the same everywhere, including Cuzco, South Africa, and Beijing.
I think what Americans regard as rude was just honesty and straight-forwardedness. Americans’ high level of customer service seemed to be a luxury around the world. It’s true in Peru, it’s true in South Africa, it’s true in Beijing, and it’s true in Paris.
To be fair, I’m a little biased by my half-life fantasy to visit Paris and France, so I may have given the French a bit of slack and lowered my expectations based on what people said. Still, I think my impression and outlook are still valid: be nice and treat people with respect, and you’re more likely to receive the same.
I started learning French in freshman year of high school and continued for all four years. I also took one semester of it in college but was too committed in my major to continue. Still, I was always fascinated with the language and kept up with what I knew over the years and tried to learn more when I could.
Even though I still lacked enough vocabulary and confidence like the other languages I learned for the trip for me to carry a conversation, I felt that I had greater expectations for French since I knew it the most, except for maybe reading Chinese. But for the most part, I spoke English there, and most people would be either fine communicating in English or would make an effort to.
I still said short phrases like I would for the other languages, like “Bonjour.”, “Excusez-moi.”, “Merci beaucoup.”, and “Au revoir.” But whenever I did try to say something longer in French, I would get a response in French but I couldn’t understand it. So I would have a blank face, and they would pause and try to repeat in English, rendering my attempt to communicate in French practically useless.
The one time that I actually had a “conversation” was outside of the Musée d’Orsay when a man just started asking me in English if I was Japanese or Korean, and I responded, “chinois”. He was a little surprised and impressed that I spoke French, and he continued to ask me things in French. I forgot what else he asked, but it was probably along the lines of where I was from and how long I was in Paris. He did compliment me at the end that my French was good, and I thanked him. Conversation success!
I loved the Eiffel Tower. I visited it every day I was in Paris. I must warn those reading this that this will probably increase your expectations about it, so for your enjoyment, please lower your expectations back down. At the end of the day, even I agree that it’s just a hunk of metal.
Eiffel Tower Visit 1: 24 October 2014
Soon after I checked in to my hostel and settled in, I decided I had to see the Eiffel Tower that day, even though it was getting late and sort of drizzling. I figured out which train to take and made my way there from Gare du Nord.
As I was getting close and a few stops away, I was debating whether to look out the train windows to get my first glimpse at it as soon as possible, no matter how small, or save my first look until the perfect moment. I sort of did this with the Freedom Tower in New York when I rode in on Amtrak, as a symbolic moment that I had really arrived in New York. My answer was sort of a combination of both, where I inadvertently saw the top third peeking out between two buildings. Seeing the small sliver of it actually added to the anticipation of finally seeing the thing in its entirety.
After getting off at Bir-Hakeim station, there was still a decent walk to the area around the Tower. Even during that walk, I could see it in glimpses, getting larger and taller. Once I got close enough, I couldn’t stop turning my head every second while walking down a parallel street. The weather was cloudy so the first time I saw the Tower in its full height was a bit anti-climatic and less powerful than I had expected. Still, I continued to walk down the Champ de Mars stretch farther from the Tower to get a good full-height photo. I took my selfies and daily video recordings as the drizzle started to become more like rain, prompting me to head back.
Eiffel Tower Visit 2: 25 October 2014
I saw somewhere in the hostel promoting skip-the-line tickets for the Eiffel Tower, among other tours. So I asked reception about it and decided to book a spot for that day, within a few hours actually. I originally wanted to go the following day so I had some time to check out the city and got a lay of the land before I headed to the top of the tower. But the opportunity was there and I took it.
The staff took care of the reservation on the phone, asking just a few pieces of my invitation to complete the process. I paid for the reservation and got a printed receipt with instructions for meeting up.
Since I had a bit of time, I got off at Pont de l’Alma station and took the scenic route and strolled down the Seine before turning at Avenue de la Bourdonnais, but even that street was nice to walk down as well. I could see the Eiffel Tower peek out and be framed perfectly between the buildings separated by the crossroads.
I checked in at the Easy Pass Tours office, which was a nice little modern-looking space. I was given a plastic tag for my tour and was told I could wait at the benches in the back, and that we could use the free Wi-Fi. I had to use the restroom, and they directed me downstairs in the basement. It was bit of a narrow space on the floor below, but the bathrooms were fine to use. Waiting at the benches, I connected to the Wi-Fi and the speed was pretty good.
After more people joined me on the benches, the “tour” started, where one of the guides welcomed us and collected our tags. I suppose those tags were meant to make sure we were reporting to the right tour, although at the time, it was just one tour, and there were only five of us.
The guide explained the process, but I didn’t fully understood until afterwards. Basically, he walked us to the Eiffel Tower, gave us our tickets and a cheatsheet of landmarks that could be seen from the top of the tower, led us to the correct (and seemingly exclusive) line, and left us to our own. Before he left, I somehow thought he was going to be with us the whole time. It occurred to me later that this was a Skip-the-Line ticket instead of a full tour. But I was fine being on my own.
I went through security, although I felt that they didn’t bother to check my bag. Before we left the Easy Pass Tours office, the guide mentioned that we could not bring scissors or padlocks. I had a small pair of scissors that I left with the staff, but that probably didn’t actually matter. That’s not to say security wasn’t tight.
There were two levels in the first lift cabin. When we entered the waiting area, there was someone counting people to make sure there was enough space on the lift. Once the bottom waiting area (where I was) was full, visitors started filling the top waiting area above us. The lift moved diagonally, because it was essentially going up the leg of the Eiffel Tower.
This first lift stopped at the first floor and then second floor. There there were signs to move get to the second lift, which took me to the top. I could see there was already a long queue for the second lift, but I somehow ended up in a queue that got me right in one of the lift cabins and headed to the top.
It was a cloudy day, so visibility was moderate. I recognized a few places but Paris had very few large landmarks or landscapes that one would bother to point out. There was a room in the center that apparently was the office of the architect, Gustav Eiffel. It had semi-creepy figures of people from the time, including Eiffel himself. There was also a window that sold glasses of champagne, which was perfect for couples, I suppose.
As much as I’d like to spend more time at the top, there was little else to do. So I went back to the second floor and checked out the gift shops and other stores. I really wanted to get a souvenir but resisted the temptation. I also spent some time on the first floor, trying to find good shots.
By then, I was pretty done with the Tower. I decided to walk downstairs and not have to wait for the lift. On the way down, there were posters illustrating the history of the Tower and how other towers in the world took inspiration, like the Tokyo Tower. I also got to see the intricate and beautiful lattice work inside the tower.
Eiffel Tower Visit 3: 26 October 2014
After buying tickets for the Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck (see below), I headed to the Jardins du Trocadéro across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to enjoy my Ladurée macarons (see Food section). It was a sunny late afternoon, and I took some nice photos and videos of the Tower with lovely fountains.
After that, I headed back to Tour Montparnasse and checked out another elevated view of Paris, this time with the Eiffel Tower. I took the advice of the staff and came back just before sunset so I could see the tower in daylight as well as at night. At the top of the hour, the Eiffel Tower shimmered in the distance, continuing to impress me with its beauty.
The Tower shimmered for five minutes at the top of every hour after sunset, until midnight, I think.
Eiffel Tower Visit 4: 27 October 2014
I originally had no plans to visit the Eiffel Tower, because I had already seen it three times and I thought that should be enough. But after my visit to Parc Montsouris (see below), I had some extra time, so I thought, “What the heck?” and went down their again. It was past sunset and getting close to the top of the hour. I knew the roads from the Champs de Mars Metro station to the Eiffel Tower pretty well by now, so I took the shortest route and ran to the base of the tower to catch its shimmer. The shimmer was beautiful from afar, and it was more beautiful up close.
I was glad to have made the last minute decision to come to the Tower and see the lights up close. As I was about to head to the Metro station, I walked past the foot of the tower, looking up at it on my left, feeling its majestic presence, almost as if it was watching over me. At that moment, I felt pure joy. The only other time where I felt that was twenty days prior, when I walked down the field of the park in Albuquerque looking up at the balloons, excited for the trip ahead of me.
I think the Eiffel Tower had that effect on me because of its placement in relation to everything else. There were no other buildings nearby to take its thunder. For at least a mile out, everyone could get a clear view of the Eiffel Tower next to only the sky. From every angle, the tower looked as sturdy, confident, present, and permanent as it could, commanding respect from everyone while also looking over the city.
Eiffel Tower Visit 5: 28 October 2014
On my last day, I figured I should continue my streak and take a look at it one last time. On my way there, I encountered another clipboard scam (see Champs Élysées). I was also a pretty clear target since I already checked out of the hostel so I was carrying my luggage on my back. But this time, I was 100% unfazed, and walked by many of the clipboard holders as if they didn’t exist.
I walked to the Jardin du Trocadero for my final Paris daily video. The fog covered the top of half of the tour, and there were only a few people at the Jardin. While enjoying the view of half of the Eiffel Tower, I ate my croissant.
I crossed the bridge back towards the Eiffel Tower, and I decided that I would allow myself one tiny souvenir of the trip, because it’s the Eiffel Tower. At one end of the bridge was a popup shop selling souvenirs. I picked up a tiny brown Eiffel Tower keychain for a few Euros.
Arc de Triomphe
After the Eiffel Tower, I walked to Arc de Triomphe from the Seine. It was surrounded by a giant traffic circle, and the only way to get there was to go underneath through a tunnel. The tunnel was pretty wide, lined with nice walls with large boards posted along the way that explained the history of the Arc.
There was a long line on one side of the tunnel, and I thought it was to get out of the tunnel to see the Arc up close. But I saw other people kept walking so I walked some more. I saw the line ended at the same opening as where other people were freely getting out. It turned out that the line was to go inside the Arc, whereas the outside was free access.
So I went outside and suddenly became aware of how large the Arc was. It was really wide, really tall, and it had a lot of ornate details at different surfaces, including figures, motifs, and text. From what I could gathered by the engraved texts, it was a memorial of sorts. Other than the sheer size of this structure and the amount of seemingly perfect detail on it, there was little to draw me in. Therefore, after looking around a few times, I left and moved on.
It didn’t occur to me until I got to Paris that Arc de Triomphe was at one end of the Champs Élysées. That made it convenient to go from one famous Paris spot to another.
The Champs Élysées was basically a long strip of big stores and restaurants on both sides. And the sidewalks were crowded with people.
It was mid-afternoon and I had yet to eat lunch, so I was sort of looking at restaurants to see if any of them interested me. But I realized it was a tourist area so I figured all of the restaurants are overpriced and crowded, so I just kept walking aimlessly down the strip for about twenty minutes before I decided to go somewhere else and get some food.
While on the busy sidewalks, I got approached by a young woman with a clipboard asking me if I spoke English. I said yes and she proceeded to show me the paper on the clipboard, which was a form with the words “blind”, “deaf” in the title. I figured it was something she wanted me to sign, since that’s sort of common in the States. But I wasn’t sure what my foreigner signature could achieve. Also, while I wasn’t grumpy from being hungry, I had little patience for stuff like that at the moment. Besides, something about this felt a little bit uncomfortable. So in the split second, I shook my head and started walking away. The woman let out an angry, frustrated sigh and walked away.
After that weird encounter, I moved away from the busy foot traffic to the side of the building to check my phone. An old lady next to me signaled for my attention. At that point, I was very hesitant to interact with anybody because I felt vulnerable. So I turned to the lady, cautious of what she was about to do. She pointed at the young woman with the clipboard and wagged her finger definitively, saying, “No!” I didn’t know what she meant, but I didn’t want to engage and continue the interaction, so I looked at the woman with the clipboard, pretending to acknowledge her message, and looked back down at my phone.
At first, I thought the old woman was scolding me for refusing to help the deaf and blind, and that made me feel bad. In retrospect, and from reading tourist scam stories online, I realized that the old lady was actually advising me “No” to engaging with the scammers. That sort of made me feel bad as well because I kind of ignored her. But overall, it was fine because I avoided becoming a victim of a scam, and I was fortunate to have people watching the backs of tourists like me.
I heard there would be a long line to get in the museum for visitors without a tour, so I woke up early and tried to get there half an hour before opening so I could hear the crowds. But that morning was one of the two times my Metro Pass got demagnetized. The Musée d’Orsay metro station did not seem to have a staffed booth within the turnstiles, so I couldn’t get help because I couldn’t even exit the station. After it took me ten to fifteen minutes to realize this, I hopped on the next train, got help from the staff to reissue my Metro Pass, and got on the train in the other direction back to Musée d’Orsay station.
When I got there, the museum was about to open, and there was already a line formed. Fortunately, it was a relatively small line, and I got inside pretty quickly. It was a bit chilly too so I was glad to step inside.
Tip: For some reason, I was looking for Wi-Fi while waiting in line, and it turned out the museum had free Wi-Fi. I had little use for it at the time, but it was just nice to have. I even got a moderate signal after I left they museum and was hanging out outside.
The security bag check and ticket purchase process was pretty painless, and I got inside pretty quickly.
There were three floors: ground, second, and fifth. I thought it was strange to skip floors like that, but I believe the other floors were offices. I started at the top floor and worked my way down.
The Impressionist gallery was neat because I learned a lot of about it in French class, and there they were in abundance.
A Lost Camera
At the end if the Impressionist collection, I hung out for a bit in the lobby by the giant clock and some sofas. I noticed a digital camera in one of chairs with no one else sitting close enough to it to be theirs. I wondered if I should have waited for someone to claim it before I drop it off at some lost-and-found. I decided to look through the photos to find any identifying information so I can maybe contact them. But all I found were pictures of college students who seemed to be from Berkeley. I felt a bit of hope because they’re so close to San Francisco, but realized there’s still no way to get this back to them.
Fortunately, as I was almost about to drop it off with the staff, I saw a young man who was in many of the photos, walking towards me. I waved at him, with the camera in my hand. He felt relieved, and I felt it, too, through him. He took the camera, stood next to me, and raised his hands aiming the camera at both of us. He said he wanted to have a record of the person who found his camera. For some reason, the camera didn’t work, so he pulled it back and tried to get it working. By that point, the moment had practically passed, so I played it modest and said it’s okay that he didn’t have to do it. He seemed to understand the semi-awkwardness of taking a picture with a stranger he literally just met ten seconds ago, but he did mention that now he was sad he won’t have a record of it.
Looking back, I thought I should have let him take the photo of us to have a record, not at all because I wanted to be remembered as a hero, but because it would’ve been a good story for both of us, and it would’ve been funny to see that picture pop up online somewhere and be reunited somehow.
The (Almost) Rest of the Museum
I made my way down to the second floor as well as the ground floor of the museum, looking at almost every room. Honestly, it was way too much to look at in a few hours. By the end, I “skimmed” the pieces by walking pass them without stopping, almost like scanning down each aisle at a grocery store. Still, I skipped a few sections that I figured I would have little interest in.
One afternoon, somehow I was in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, so I figured I should check out how and where I would get tickets to get to the observation deck. I originally planned to go up the following day because I had other plans, so I wanted to know if I could buy a ticket one day and go up the next day.
It took a few tries to find the ticketing center. Once I found it and went in, I noticed there were very few people there. I asked one of the staff in French if I could buy a ticket today and returned tomorrow. She said no, and went on to explain in French. I semi-understood that, and she could tell, so she paused for a moment and tried to figure out what language I spoke. She somehow figured that I spoke in English, so she explained that I could not go up today and also tomorrow. So I either said something incorrectly in French or she didn’t understand my question.
Then I asked a slightly different question, in English to be clear, whether I could buy a ticket now and come back later. She said of course, so I decided to just do that. She also highly recommended going up fifteen to thirty minutes before sunset, so I did just that.
When I returned later, the place was a little more crowded. There was a line after the ticket counters to wait for the elevator. There were three or four elevators, but only one was for the observation deck. I could see office folk coming out of the other elevators, as it was the end of the work day.
Once I got to the indoor observation floor, the same staff who helped me earlier greeted and directed everyone including me to the right path. She recognized me and asked if I was Japanese. I said Chinese and she very quickly said “Ni Hao” (“hello” in Mandarin). My instinct was that it felt unnatural, and I deduced that she thought I was visiting from China. So I started correcting her, saying I was actually American, but by that point, I was already walking past her along with the other visitors, and she just nodded with a smile.
There were two floors, one inside, and one on the roof. The roof floor had glass panels installed all around, but not completely fencing every inch. That made taking clean photos difficult. Also, there were smudgy hand marks on some of the glass panels. There were large illustrations on each side of the floor pointing out some of the places in the distance, which was useful to a certain extent.
There was a giant circle in the middle of the roof floor for people to sit on. After checking out all sides of the view and took my pictures, I sat down and wrote on my log a little bit. Then when the sunset was getting close, a crowd gathered at once corner, trying to take their perfect sunset photos. I joined them, of course, but realized that my phone could only do so much, so after a few shots, I stepped back from the crowd.
The few minutes after the sunset was also beautiful, as the colors of the sky were more saturated without the strong glare of the sun, and the city still had enough details. After that, most smartphone cameras were too weak to take any more good shots.
But I still stuck around and logged some more on the giant sitting circle under the gradually dimming sky. Suddenly, I heard some noise on one side of the floor, and I realized it was because it was the top of the hour, so the Eiffel Tower had twinkling lights just because. I took shots as well as I can, glad I stuck around for this.
Soon after, the darkness set in along with the cold, so I went downstairs to the indoor observation deck. I hung out there for a while, checking out little displays explaining the history of the tower and whatnot. I also used the deck’s free Wi-Fi to figure out my options for dinner. In the end, I got two chocolate croissants and a chicken sandwich from the Paul bakery at Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Metro station.
Because experience with Skip-the-Lines Eiffel Tower session from Easy Pass Tours was so easy and simple, I decided to do the Louvre tour through them as well. I booked a spot directly from their website, but I did not get an email confirmation. I went to their office and got it sorted out quickly, and the staff was very nice and professional about it. It turned out I misspelled my email address.
Meet Up at Arc De Triomphe du Carrousel
The next day, I took the Metro to the Louvre to meet up with the tour group. For two reasons, I ran late and thought I missed the tour: 1) Once I got off the train at Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre station, I could not for the life of me find the exit to ground level. The regular exit would led passengers straight to the underground mall leading to the Louvre entrance. 2) Once I got to ground level, I couldn’t find where I was supposed to meet my group. The tour confirmation said to meet at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which sort of confused me because I knew it wasn’t the giant Arc de Triopmhe near the Champs Élysées, but my data-less phone could not look in the map where this Arc de Triomphe was. So I had to look at maps and signage in that underground mall to the Louvre for clues. I was getting redirected every which way and the anxiety of missing my tour was adding to the pressure and stress. Finally, I figured out where it was and rejoiced at the site of a person in the distance wearing a red shirt along with a few other people standing around. I checked in with him and we waited for more people past the meet-up time before starting the tour.
The Louvre Tour
When the tour started, the man in red handed us headsets so our guide, Jacque, could speak to us without yelling and without us having to follow really close. I had been in guided tours in the States but without headsets and information inevitably get lost, so I thought this was a neat idea, even though it seemed to be quite a common thing tour did.
We followed Jacque to the entrance, had a bathroom break, was told that was our only one because it was super crowded and it would be hard to stop and wait, went through security and the entrance together because we didn’t have any physical tickets because we were in a tour.
Jacque took us through galleries after galleries of sculptures and paintings, many of which the styles I had learned in school. All the galleries were pretty filled with visitors. I tried to stay close and in front to make the most of the tour, like a teacher’s pet. Jacque was pretty classy and pretty French. He clearly seemed knowledgable about the pieces and their history, and he was unfazed by the crowds. He was a pro and could tolerate the hectic conditions he had to work in presumably every day.
He led us to the Mona Lisa painting and gave us plenty of time to work through the crowd to get the closest possible picture of it. I knew ahead of time that it was a small painting and fenced off a couple feet out, so I didn’t try to get as close as I could and try to admire the painting. I took a selfie from far away and called it done.
He then led us to another painting, the Coronation of Napoleon I. I had seen that painting in a textbook, and the fact that it was humongous really got to me, and I just had to take a selfie with it, even though I had little emotional connection with it previously.
Then we looked at more paintings and sculptures and the tour ended sooner than I thought, although I was getting restless. I continued to check out other galleries throughout the museum, including the apartments of Napoleon III, which was so grand and elaborate that it helped almost transport me to the past to picture how life was like to live in spaces like this, seeing the furnishings as usable pieces instead of preserved museum objects.
More so than Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre was way too large to check out in a few hours, let alone a whole day. There were sections that I simply did not have time or brain power to explore. Next time, I may have to visit with someone else, commit a full day there, with plans to have lunch there as well and take a few breaks in between.
I heard little about Sacré-Cœur before arrive in Paris, but one there, I had heard so many references to it as a major tourist spot, especially for pickpockets. So with a bit of extra time, I paid it a visit.
I got off the Metro train at Abbesses station and went up the seemingly endless spiral, decorated stairs to the exit. Then I walked to the bottom of the steps on Rue Tardieu. I bought a quick snack to go at a convenience store, then I decided to take the little cable car up the hill using my Metro Pass instead of walking up (The spiral steps up Abbesses drained me).
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of people at the foot of the church, sitting on the steps. I weaved through and tried to get a good view of Paris. I desperately looked for the Eiffel Tower but it was blocked by houses and trees to the right. One of the reasons for going up here was to get a nice panoramic picture with the Eiffel Tower. I probably could have if I went up Sacré-Cœur, but it felt like too much of a hassle, so I began walking down on the west side of the church.
I noticed a little square, Place du Tertre, which had little restaurants and shops around it. I also saw that’s where the Dali Museum was, and I made a mental note to go later, but I forgot.
Continuing the road down from Place du Tertre, I made my way to Boulevard de Clichy, noticing many crêpe shops along the way. But I felt the shops looked too low quality to warrant a try, or that a quick glance at the menu did not include ingredients that I wanted.
Once I got to Boulevard de Clichy, my expectations for the Moulin Rouge strangely but appropriately lowered. Sure enough, I turned the corner, expecting a giant, iconic mesmerizing windmill. What I saw was a short, skinny weathered red silo with skinny wooden frames, sandwiched between two flat, white buildings. This was in the afternoon, so perhaps it was meant to be seen in the nighttime. But the letdown of this view was beyond rescuing that I quickly left the area.
One place I wanted to visit in Paris that was not iconic or wildly famous was Parc Montsouris. It was the location of the final scene in one of the short films in “Paris, je t’aime”. The short film illustrated an American woman’s trip to Paris, overlaid with the audio of her reading out in French (but with an Americanized accent) her experience to her French class. Most of the short film was funny, but in the final scene, where she visited Parc Montsouris to have her sandwich, she had an enlightening experience and fell in love with Paris.
Link to the short film from “Paris, je t’aime” (No longer available? Let me know in the comments.):
I did not necessarily go to this park to have the same experience, but I still wanted to see this place in person and to see what I could get out of it. When I got there, it was already past the time of day from the scene the movie, there were already people sitting on the bench that the character sat on, and it was too cold for anyone sit on the grass like in the scene. But it was late afternoon so the playground was full of children playing, just like the movie. Overall, though, it was far from the movie, but I still documented my visit with photos and videos. Then I stuck around the park and wrote on my log a little bit to savor the moment.
Croissant, crêpe, crème brûlée, and macarons. The four major French food groups. I had them all. Just kidding. I’m sure there were other French foods more significant than these, but I did have them while in Paris. I may have gotten cheaper versions of these foods, but they were decent at worst.
I had a crêpe from a cafe next to Musée d’Orsay. I learned about crêpes from French class, and I only knew it in the sweet form, with Nutella. I had a big Nutella phase and got so sick of it I didn’t have it for probably ten years. So I thought I should try a savory crêpe and ordered a simple ham, egg and cheese crêpe. It felt pretty mundane. It’s like eating ham, egg and cheese with a bit of thin pancake. Plus, the crêpe was slightly overcooked/too crispy for my taste. I’ll stay with my sweet crêpes, thank you.
I had heard about Ladurée’s macarons being really good, so I scoped it out one day when I was near Musée d’Orsay. When I went inside, I was a bit intimidated because the place looked really fancy, there was a line, and the anticipation of me being next gave me anxiety that I had to speak in French to get my order. I stumbled a little bit with my French, quickly revealing that I was American, but the lady helping me was nice about it while I tried to decide which of the many choices I wanted to get.
I got six macarons, all different kinds. I had macarons before and felt the hard-soft texture unusual. I thought it was because they were lower quality so I figure that the macarons from Ladurée, a popular and seemingly really fancy and therefore presumably high quality place, would be better. They were a little better, yes, but the texture still weirded me a little. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the raspberry flavor one, as it had the right balance between tart and sweet.
I got a plain croissant at a local bakery near the hostel and chocolate croissants from Paul Bakery at Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Metro station. They were both decent. It’s hard (though not impossible) to mess up croissants. More or less unremarkable.
I assumed that nice crème brûlées were served in restaurants, and I had little intention to go to a restaurant just to get crème brûlée. So I got it in a grocery store, because why not? I was in France, and they sold crème brûlées in grocery stores! I had to try it. I tried it once, and that was enough. It was basically a glass jar of custard that I poured burned sugar crystals over to simulate the cracked texture. It was a little bit sad. The taste was fine; it’s just so far removed from a proper crème brûlée.
I got some snack foods from grocery stores that I couldn’t get elsewhere. I got chocolate covered marshmallows because I heard it was a thing. The first ten to fifteen pieces were good, but I had to finish the bag and I got a little sick of it near the end.
I came to love the grocery chain Carrefour and Carrefour City. They were probably the most equivalent to local American grocery stores, where they had a good enough selection, and the consistent branding promised a certain level of trustworthiness.
After passing by a Middle Eastern fast food shop to and from the hostel every day, I gave it a try and got a schwarma. It was decent, a little filling, though a little bready.
While waiting for my first Metro ride, I got a glazed waffle from a vending machine because it was so unique. It had a light sugary glaze, but the rest just tasted like almost-stale waffle.
I took the Metro to Gare d’Austerlitz near the inner east side of Paris, then walked across the Pont Charles de Gaulle bridge to get to Paris-Gare de Lyon station for my SNCF train to Nice.
For some reason I assumed the Metro station was connected to Paris-Gare de Lyon train station, as most major stations should, but all the closest Metro stations to Paris-Gare de Lyon were a couple blocks away.
Paris-Gare de Lyon was a medium-sized station, with a few train lines, a few stores at platform level, and a few stores under the platform, half occupied and half vacant. Even though I was “inside” the station, it was exposed to the outside so it was kind of chilly.
From My Travel Log
26 October 2014, 10:30am, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, Impressionist Floor
- Impressionist art: so light and uplifting. Maybe that painted a rosy picture (no pun intended) of Paris and France from when I was in high school.
- The progression in style throughout the years is like thickening the pixel of a digital image. But then again, all paintings are only representations of other things; they’re only oil molecules, atoms, neutrons and protons and electrons. What matters is what is left: how it makes us feel.
- Still trying to think that Parisians and French aren’t rude, just direct. Their looks are very direct as well.
26 October 2014, 12:30pm, Le Royal Orsay (next to Musée d’Orsay)
- Just ordered a crepe all in French! But I pointed at the menu.
- Pointilism takes that expanding pixel idea to an other level/methodical calculations.
- Someone from the States, maybe USC and Berkeley, left their camera at the fancy sofas outside of Impressionism floor (when I wrote last entry). I asked myself what I would do if I had lost it. I tried to look if there’s a way to get the camera back to owner by looking at pictures, but there’s no contact info. I would have dropped it off at the gift shop and left a note on the sofa to go to gift shop.
26 October 2014, 5:43pm, Paris, top of Montparnasse Tower
- Just watched sunset from top of tower. Some couples are drinking champagnes, more are taking pics and kissing. Paris is a city of love because people want it to be a city of love. The sunset is romantic because it makes us feel romantic; otherwise it’s an illusion of a star’s position relative to a rotating planet at a particular point, with the atmosphere of the point on the planet changing the hue of the sky that looks different from most of the daytime sky. I’m not being cynical. It’s just my current reality. I wish I was with somebody and have those feelings where it naturally makes me have public displays of affection, a desire to capture moments together during sunset, when on holidays, or whatever else. I hope the next time I come back, I will be with somebody I really love and live out that fantasy.
- Twice today, I talked to someone in French and I was asked if I was Japanese or Korean. Then I told them Chinese. It caught me by surprise but now I think people are impressed with whatever French I know and want to know where I’m from. But I realize now that when I tell them Chinese, they’ll assume I’m from China. So next time that happens, if it happens, I need to add that I’m from the States.
- Today: took train to Musée d’Orsay, but ticket demagnetized. I tried to speak French to get help, and it seems to lead to (obviously) responses in French, which led to me to look flustered and forces the other to speak English. I consider it progress. Then had a savory crepe. Walked down Seine, went to Ladurée. Went to Eiffel Tower, got Louvre tour sorted out, and inadvertent discount even though it’s my fault.
26 October 2014, 7:20pm, Paris, Metro #4 towards hostel
- Then went to get Eiffel Tower sticker, walked across bridge to see other side of Eiffel Tower. Took more pics. Ate macaroons. Love strawberries/raspberries flavor. Walked to Passy station to head to Montparnasse. Went up tower. Took more shot. Took sunset shots. Wrote in notebook. Watched Eiffel Tower in blinking lights at 6pm. Then went to 56th floor to look for supermarket or food places. Then went to Montparnasse station to buy sandwich and pastries. Now on train back and prob won’t go out and clean up my luggage or something.
- A week ago Sunday 10/19: Just arrived in Tromsø after JNB -> FRA, FRA ->OSL, OSL -> TRS, 19 hours of traveling. Europe for first time.
27 October 2014, 4:51pm, Paris, Montsouris
- At the place where Carol from Paris Je T’aime were in last scene. The bench was taken and the sun went lower than from the movie. The setting is pretty similar otherwise.
- I can’t fall in love with Paris like this, not in this moment, not when there’s a small chill in the air, when the sun’s already behind the trees. The scene was just that: a scene, from a movie.
- That said, there are a few moments where I really enjoyed being in Paris. When I walked right by the Eiffel Tower on the way to Easy Pass Tours and felt the presence of the Tower over me, taking me in and sort of my breath away. When I walked the small streets of Le Marais two days ago and Montmartre this afternoon. It just reminds me of Macau, except bigger and more enjoyable with seemingly relevant shops.
- I am torn about Paris. There are likable parts for sure, but there are part I just prefer not to have, like the grittiness of the subway, although I don’t mind that of NYC for some reason. I can’t stand the spontaneous waft of piss or worse when I walk up or down stairs or in an alley. Other things I can probably get used to. And if I can choose, I would live in le Marais, although I haven’t fully explored the non-tourist parts of Paris yet.
- I do love that almost everyone dresses so nicely. I am for sure bringing that back with me home, although people in SF are so laid back.
- I could totally get used to speaking in French as I learn more.
- San Francisco is still home, the comfortable, practical, enjoyable, makes perfect sense, choice. I have to spend more time myself in Sydney to see if I really like it. It’s nawing at my consciousness to go back so I’ve got to do it.
30 October 2014, 9:37pm, France, outside of Nice, on train to Ventimiglia
- I haven’t mentioned this on the log, but I’ve said it a few times to others. But ever since arriving in Paris, I felt very tired of traveling and want to go home. But knowing that there’s a whole other half of the trip I haven’t been to and haven’t done was enough to snap me out of that thinking and continue. I still feel tired but I’m not going to let that stop my trippy. It’s just too silly.
23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed
- I also met up with Mike, Danny and friends for meals and catch up. I ate an open-face sandwich in honor of my smørbrød in Norway. I had a macaron for Paris. Got some almond milk ice cream; it’s alright.
- Flavia and Bachira, Assam, my dormmates
- Cody, 19-year-old Midwest student I met at hostel
- Montparnasse girl (who helped me out with tour ticket and said “Ni Hao” (hello in Mandarin) when I came back.)
- Musée d’Orsay camera guy (who lost camera momentarily)
- Musée d’Orsay random French guy who was impressed with my French
- Ladurée lady who tried to explain the small box of macarons situation
- The staff at Tata Burger
- The guide who brought us toe Skip-the-Lines Eiffel Tower entrance at Easy Pass Tours
- Felix from Easy Pass Tours
- Steve and Jacque from the Louvre Tour
- Bartenders at Belushi’s (at the hostel)
- Breakfast staff
- Metro staff
- Two ladies from Metro staff who helped me and yelled at me for demagnetizing my Metropass.
- Korean guy and Spanish couple who helped me take a photo on other side of Eiffel Tower
- If you are even slightly crunched for time, I recommend getting a Skip-the-Line ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. I also recommend booking a tour for the Louvre to avoid the lines and to get someone explain the artwork. Afterwards, you’re free to roam around the museum as long as you don’t exit, since you don’t get a ticket for being in a tour.
- Go up Tour Montparnasse, the only skyscraper in Paris, about 30-45 minutes before sunset, check out the views while it’s light out, watch the sunset, then watch the Eiffel Tower shimmer at the top of the hour (for five minutes).
- If you get a multi-day Metro pass, make sure you don’t keep the ticket next to coins or keys; they get demagnitized very easily.
- The restroom at the ground/commerical floors of Montparnasse station charge a small fee and were staffed. Even then, there’s a line, especially for the ladies side. To be honest, for a paid service, the experience could be better.
- Avoid people with clipboards. They’re most likely scammers. They’ll probably lead with asking if you speak English.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage – Paris
- Average temperatures in Paris (weatherbase.com)
- St. Christopher’s Inn official website
- St. Christopher’s TripAdvisor site.
- Easy Pass Tours.
- YouTube video about Easy Pass Tours (and what their Paris office looks like.)
If you have questions about specific experiences of Paris, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
It’s one of the first cities I had heard of in my life. So much of the world’s history seemed to revolve around it and its country, especially when I grew up next to the city that was under its rule for most of my childhood (Hong Kong). Whenever the topic of international travel was brought up, London was often one of major cities mentioned. And also, since the Olympics were held there recently, I had to visit their Olympic Park.
- 22 October: Arrived in London, dinner at Nando’s Greenwich with my cousin and his wife, quick tour of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and London Eye
- 23 October: SoHo/Chinatown, Olympic Park, London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, lunch at Dishoom, personal walking tour with former creative director from work: Trafalgar Square, South Bank, Tate Museum, Globe Theater, Clink Street, Golden Hinde II and London Bridge. Abbey Road, dessert take-out from Princi for dinner.
- 24 October: Left London via St. Pancras International train station.
In the less-than-48-hours that I was in London, I thought it was a solid city. I drew similarities to my experience in New York, with its constant stream of activity during the day, and the similar neighborhood vibe I got from Chelsea in New York and SoHo in London. The familiarity made me feel less impressed with the city, but I must withhold ultimate judgment until I spent more time to explore more areas in the future.
I flew in from Tromsø, Norway, with a connection in Oslo, and landed at Heathrow airport. I had heard so much dissatisfaction with Heathrow but my experience was typical of most airports. I then took the Piccadilly and Bakerloo trains into the city, and checked into the hostel.
Since I only had less than two days in London, I wanted to be central and close to the action, or at least to a popular Underground station. Unfortunately, the hostels I considered staying had one night of availability each. It sort of cut into my time to explore London by having to change hostels midway, but I made the best of it.
YHA London Central
I got off the Regent’s Park station at around rush hour and was already experiencing the liveliness of London, with people walking quickly and cars in traffic on Marylebone Road.
I found my way to the hostel using a cached map on my phone. The front desk area looked pretty much like the photos on the website, which was reassuring and exciting whenever I physically arrived at a place I had only seen in pictures, like when I finally walked by Jardin Sagrado in Cuzco that I had only seen multiple times in Google Street View (and once in my dreams).
The staff was friendly; Americans should have no problems interacting with them. One of them did have limited and stereotypical knowledge of San Francisco, which was interesting to see my home from a foreigner’s point of view, and it also took me out of the bubble and realize that the Bay Area was not the center of the universe.
My first night in London, I stayed in a six-person dorm. When I got to my room, it looked pretty empty, and I was told I could take whatever bed that wasn’t taken and clip my receipt next to the bed. But I found out pretty quickly that there were people napping in their beds, and there were only two beds available, so I chose the one by the window and unpacked quietly.
I didn’t interact with my dorm mates too much throughout my stay, but I did discover one by one that most of them were middle-aged men. I chatted with one of them briefly, and he had a long journey coming to London from elsewhere in the England, which was why he was napping in the early evening.
The beds were fine. There were three bunk beds and I was the bottom bunk of one of them. The beds were made and sheets were included. I loved that there was a shelf next to it with a lamp and outlet. I quickly took out my adapter and starting charging my phone.
There were large cupboard lockers, enough to store a large luggage. But it was kind of noisy to open and close, and lock and unlock (with my own lock), so I tried to limit my use and take out or put back multiple things at a time.
Every guest was given a key card to get to only their floor and only their room. They also need it to enter the hostel after hours.
The bathrooms were separated into individual water closets with toilet and sink, and individual shower rooms. The rooms were tight with medium ventilation. The sink in the water closet was incredibly small and had a shelf over it, so it was hard to bend over to wash my face without risking banging my head on the shelf. It was also difficult to dip and move my hands in the sink to wash without the faucet splashing water. It just seemed like poor design.
The hallways on sleeping floors were a series of door after door. I got lost a few times.
The main common area was next to the front desk, and it had a bunch of long benches and a few couches in the corner. Computers were along one wall with extra outlets, and those were the only outlets I could find, other than the couch areas (which were occupied anyway), so I had to sit next to the computers to use my phone while charging it. There were signs throughout the common area listing activities the hostel was organizing, including movie nights and local tours.
Buffet breakfast was available for a small fee that I paid right at the front desk/breakfast bar. But the process was a bit confusing since it was an open area and there were no signs saying where to pay or how the flow went.
The selection of food was decent and typical (toast, cereal, juice). There was an espresso bar for the staff to take drink orders. The breakfast selection had too little meat for my taste. I felt that I could probably get a better breakfast in the area for only slightly more money. Still, this was a decent alternative if you were in a hurry or crunched for time, like I was.
Wi-Fi only worked in the common area, and a little bit at the hostel entrance. When I checked in, I was given a code. I found out the following night that the same code worked in my second YHA hostel as well. The speed was good by American standard.
If I were to visit London and stay there again, I would come with friends. And I would spend at least more than one day so I could do some of the activities the hostel was offering.
YHA London Oxford Street
My second night, I stayed at the Oxford Street location a few blocks away. That morning, I checked out of London Central, checked in to Oxford Street early, and dropped off my luggage. The entrance to the hostel was almost unnoticeable. I buzzed the door bell and got a muffled response. I tried to explain I had a reservation, and I heard a muffle response again, but the door was opened.
Once inside, it was a tight space with narrow staircase and an elevator. I couldn’t figure out how to work the elevator so I took the stairs up. I discovered the hostel was about five to six floors above ground.
Luggage Storage in the Basement
After checking in, I was directed to the basement to lock my luggage. At the end of a hallway from the elevator with limited signage pointing towards it wa the room with the lockers. There were two sizes of lockers: the smaller costed two pounds, I believe, and the larger costed three pounds. And it only accepted one-pound coins. Once the locker was locked, the key could be taken out, and opening it would reset the locker, requiring more money to be added to lock again.
This time,e I stayed in a four-person dorm room. Again, my dorm mates were middle-aged men. I was surprised how popular these youth hostels were for middle-aged folks. Regardless, these men were friendly but could actually be a bit talkative.
This time, I was given the top bunk, which I was excited about at first because up until that point in the trip, I had only slept in the dark, bottom bunk. But the novelty of the top bunk quickly wore off as I had been assigned top bunk in all the hostels for the rest of my trip.
Like the YHA London Central location, these beds also had a shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. There were also similar lockers at the foot of my bed, but it sort of created a congested area when everyone needed to use it as we got ready for bed.
And like the other hostel, the bathrooms were split into individual toilets and showers. One difference was that the sinks were even smaller. I think it was the smallest working sink I had seen anywhere in my life.
The staff was friendly and pretty relaxed. In fact, at one point, they were prank-calling another YHA pretending to be a potential guest asking about the rules on pets, until the staff on the other end finally caught on and everyone had a big laugh.
I asked them for recommendations in the area, and they were able to give me a few suggestions.
The Staff and the Chinese Guest Who Couldn’t Speak English
The staff who was working the night shift was otherwise friendly, but he had a lot of problems communicating with an old Chinese man who didn’t speak any English. He lost his patience many times and started yelling things like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT!” at a slow pace, as if the Chinese man could suddenly understand. To my surprise, the Chinese man did not yell back in anger, probably because he felt very lost and desperate for help. So I tried to intervene with my poor Mandarin and managed to resolve the situation by helping the man pay for the computer usage time and print out an email that his relatives wrote for him to get to where he needed to go.
Oxford Street YHA hostel was much smaller than the London Central location, at least in horizontal space. The common area was a multi-purpose room that had a few tables and chairs, a custom cushioned seating area along one corner of the room (which had outlets hidden by the cushions), a few beanbag chairs that were seemingly for children, and a few computers on a long table along another wall. There’s also a TV hanging from the ceiling in one corner of the room.
Computer use was charged by the minute, and one needed to buy credit from reception. Printing also costed a fee.
While there, I saw a family or two with kids. I could imagine this being a more affordable alternative to hotels for family visiting London. Therefore, the “youth hostel” vibe was barely there.
Next to the Common Area was the kitchen that guests could use apparently, but it looked so much like a commercial kitchen that I didn’t think to prepare food there in the evening.
The Wi-Fi only worked in the Common Area, and a little bit in the lobby/front desk. As I mentioned, the Wi-Fi code I got from London Central location worked at this hostel as well. It apparently could be used for seven days.
There was an option to pay for a regular buffet breakfast, or to order an item in addition to the buffet, which they would make/heat up to order. I ordered an extra sandwich because I felt the standard breakfast would not be enough for me. The buffet also seemed to have a relatively smaller selection of food than the London Central location.
And like the London Central location, I wish they would do a better job explaining how the breakfast flow worked. I felt that if food was laid out in a public space (the kitchen), it’s up for grabs. That just might be my American way of thinking.
Because I was tight on time, I had planned my route ahead of time and grouped the places I wanted to see. I took the Underground to get from one main area to another, and walked my way through the spots I wanted to see before getting on the Tube again.
A friend gave me her Oyster card before the trip so I loaded it with some money at the airport. The fare system for the Underground was too complicated for me to decipher, and the fact that I was going to be in London for less than two days made getting any special multi-day passes pointless, so I just paid regular fare for each ride.
- Time of year: Mid-October.
The temperatures were pretty mild, a little cool. Long sleeves and light jacket should suffice. In the afternoon I got a little warm from the sun peeking out of the clouds from time to time as well as from walking for hours.
The people I encountered were fine; typical big city interactions. The staff at the Indian restaurant Dishoom were particularly friendly and attentive. I wasn’t sure if it’s because I was a party of one in a crowded restaurant during peak times.
People spoke English, but in a funny accent. Just kidding. I barely noticed the accent; I just accepted it as how people talked, and I think people did the same with me, probably because they’re used to tourists. I did noticed one of the guys who worked at the hostel having a strong regional accent or slang that I couldn’t follow half the things he said, so I just nodded and smiled.
This is my account of my one and only full day in London.
I read that Gerard street was the main street in Chinatown, so I headed that way, only to find the street being two blocks or so long, and with me visiting on Thursday morning, very few shops were open, and half of them seem to be restaurants. The street barely had people walking by; it was mainly workers unloading shipments from a truck. Very different from the Chinatown of San Francisco or New York.
I got off at Stratford station to find myself at one end of the shopping center. I made my way to the park side, using the stadium in the distance as my north. Most of the park was empty. I saw a few joggers and one or two small groups of people hanging out.
I walked by little sculptures and displays throughout the route, trying to picture two years prior, when a lot visitors checking out the park.
I got to the stadium but there was construction, and the perimeter was blocked off. I walked around it to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, of which I was still confused by the concept. I noticed a few class field trip groups in that area as I sat down on a bench to take a break and have some snacks.
I walked some more towards the Aquatic Center and found the entrance where there were young kids coming in and out of swim practice, but I couldn’t see any information about checking out the pool. I walked around and peeked through the tinted windows and noticed a standard looking Olympic-sized pool, so I probably saved some time and money by not going inside anyway.
I walked back towards the shopping center to give it a browse, but there were very few interesting shops to peak my interests.
London Eye and Jubilee Gardens
The London Eye had a long line, so I avoided it, as much as I wanted to have an elevated view of London. I did take a quick look of the timeline exhibit of the Jubilee Gardens nearby and learned about the history of that street block in the past century.
Took pictures of it, including selfies from Westminster Bridge, like all the other tourists.
St James’ Park
I continued down Westminster Bridge and made my way past a couple of people in suits and suddenly, the scene turned very manicured and recognizable from scenes I had seen on the news. I didn’t know where I was exactly at first, though I had a hunch. I saw park maps pointing towards the Buckinham Palace so I strolled through the park, enjoying the walk and the sights of little bridges and lakes.
Out of St. James’ Park I noticed really tall, fancy looking gates and finally seeing the palace in the distance with a giant traffic circle in between. It took me a while to figure out the quickest way to get to the front of the palace, and that was a series of crosswalks and detours. At many points, I was tempted to just run toward the middle circle when there weren’t cars, but I didn’t do it because 1) it was rare and unpredictable to spot cars going by; I was confused which traffic lights were for which lanes, and 2) with it being the Buckingham Palace, I was afraid there would be security catching me and ordering me to leave the premises. So I took the long and proper way to get in front of the palace, took a “few” photos, and moved on. It was after noon so the Changing of the Guards already happened that day anyway, so there was very little reason to stay there.
After lunch at Dishoom, I met up with my former creative director, a British woman, who contacted me earlier that day when she found out I was in town (after I sent a selfie with Big Ben to her and another former manager who used to live in London). We walked to Trafalgar Square, and she told me the history and significance of it because I knew absolutely nothing about it, not even how to pronounce it, until that afternoon. (I still have very little understanding of it.) To me, Trafalgar Square was a really big square with a lion sculpture in front of the National Gallery, and a giant column in the middle. We took a few pics and moved on.
South Bank, Tate, Globe Theatre
We made our way toward the Thames, crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, and walked along the South Bank while she became my personal tour guide and gave me a very brief history of the area.
We stopped by the Tate Modern and checked out the exhibition they had in the lobby before resuming our walk by the Thames. She pointed out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which I wasn’t expecting and also felt sort of hidden if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. I took an obligatory photo and continued our walk.
Clink Street, Golden Hinde II, and London Bridge
She then took me down Clink Street to show the really old English buildings and the way streets used to be. We arrived at the Golden Hinde II, which was a replica or something of a ship with great history, which I forgot.
Then we ended our tour at the foot of the London Bridge as she had to meet up with other friends. She pointed out the Tower Bridge in the distance, which I could almost see, but that was as close as I got to it in the day time. I had seen it the night before when my cousin drove accross it, with lights beaming on the over-the-top ornate details. I was tired from the long walk by the river so I decided that was good enough and I should head to my next destination instead.
It took me two tries to get to the right place. Somehow I thought the station to get off was Kingsbury, but a double-check via some random wifi outside of Kingsbury station revealed that I was supposed to get off at St. John’s Wood.
It was getting dark and looked like about to rain, so I walked as quickly as I could toward the pin on my semi-cached map. The intersection was a fork, and it took me a while to figure out the best place to take a picture of the famous crosswalk. I debated whether I should get a picture of me doing the pose. I thought it was cheesy and awkward to be just one person in the picture. But I did see a group of ladies being directed by some guy who seemed to be hanging around with an iPad for this purpose, so I took photos of their process.
After seeing them take the photo, there was little else to do; it really was just a crosswalk. So I made my way back to the station, but not before getting the start of a downpour.
The first night, I went out to dinner with my cousin and his wife at Nando’s Greenwich. The food was good; it was what I expected from a higher-than-fast-food restaurant.
For breakfasts on both days, I paid for it at the hostel. I think it would’ve been better to get breakfast outside of the hostel if there was more time for it. Otherwise, paid breakfast in the hostel was still fine.
A coworker highly recommended Dishoom. I thought the food was solid but not exceptional. I had a chicken dish with curry, naan, and rice as well as a lassi. Everything was delicious, but nothing really stood out.
Service was really great, even when I was by myself and it was very busy. They wanted to squeeze another party so they asked me very nicely if I could move down a seat, which I totally understood and moved without hesitation. And they were very grateful afterwards as well.
I was craving dessert so I went to this restaurant and got a mango cheesecake and a tiramisu. Only afterwards did I find out that Princi was one of the pastry shops my former manager recommended. I had the desserts for dinner at the hostel, and both cakes were both good. Again, they’re of expected quality but neither were remarkable.
I guess I didn’t have any traditional English food. I knew I didn’t want to get fish and chips because of a prior experience. However, I heard from somewhere that Indian cuisine was the most popular in the country, so I did have that.
I took the Underground to King’s Cross station/St. Pancras International station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. St. Pancras station felt very serious and modern. There’s a security station to scan luggage, but it was slightly less organized and I stumbled my way through queues. Same with the immigration lines.
Once through immigration, there’s a giant lobby where people wait for many different trains. Once one train was ready to board, half the lobby emptied and more people trickled in to wait for their trains. The actual train platform were one floor above the lobby, and people ascended multiple escalators to get to the platform.
There was a restaurant or two in the lobby with free Wi-Fi, along with a small newsstand store, which was where I bought stickers for my travel log. Near the newsstand store was a currency exchange booth where I converted all my remaining pounds to Euros.
From My Travel Log
23 October 2014, 8:56pm, London YHA Oxford
- London is like Hong Kong, New York, Macau. It’s real. It’s city life.
- Walking on Westminster Bridge, I thought, I am f***ing here!
- Big Ben, London Eye, larger than I thought.
- London also smells a bit, maybe that’s how Europe’s gonna be.
- Seeing Hank and Rhi made me not feel alone. But being in an English-speaking place helps as well.
- Hostel staff
- Hank, Jin (my cousin and his wife)
- Dave, Paul, Conor (Hostel roommates)
- Chinese guy who didn’t speak English at all
- Rhi (my former creative director)
- If there are ladies walking around, especially in tourist areas, shoving a little flower wrapped in foil to you until you take it, then ask you for donation and say it’s for “Children’s Day”, and it’s not May, it’s a scam! The first time, I was on Westminster Bridge among a lot of tourists, and one scammer lady grabbed my arm to give me the flower, even when I leaned back to get away from her. She signaled me to come to her, almost angrily, but I kept walking. The second time, I was in Green Park, where there was less people, and a lady approached me more politely. I was in a nicer mood, and more naive. When she gave me the flower, I hesitated for a second. Once I took it, she asked for a donation, and I finally could tell something was fishy. While I was digging in my wallet, she feigned interest and asked me where I was from. For some reason, I felt that saying “Not here.” was appropriate both to express my acknowledgement of being gullible enough to fall for the scam and to withheld any more personal information about myself in case she wanted to further the scam, even though I was sure she could tell where I was from based on my accent. After giving the lady some money, I walked away feeling cheated. I looked at the flower, trying to make the best of it and debating whether I should keep it as a souvenir of a “funny story”. But looking at the flower again just reminded me of the scam I consciously witnessed happening to me, so I chucked the flower into the next trash can I passed by.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: London
- YHA London Central official website
- TripAdvisor: YHA London Central
- YHA London Oxford Street official website
- TripAdvisor: YHA Oxford Street
- London Average temperature (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: Dishoom
- Dishoom official website
- Tripadvisor: Princi
- Princi official website
If you have questions about specific experiences of London, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Why Tromsø, Norway?
The northern lights. In my research, there were a few places one could go to have a good chance of seeing the lights, like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. I chose Tromsø after reading brief reviews of each of these places.
- Sunday, 19 Oct: Arrived in Tromsø, art museum, northern lights tour
- Monday, 20 Oct: Tromsø Bridge, Arctic Cathedral, northern lights tour again
- Tuesday, 21 Oct: Tromsø Museum, bus ride to Tromsø University and back.
- Wednesday, 22 Oct: Depart Tromsø
Tromsø was a lovely city. It is an incredibly normal city, because it is. People just lived out their lives. It’s apparently a college town, and it’s also known for tourism for northern lights. It is pretty cold, especially in more remote areas in the region at night.
Part of me wants to find a reason to return and just stay for a little longer to get a better sense of normal life. I think checking out the midnight sun on Summer Solstice would be a legitimate reason to return.
From Johannesburg, I took three flights:
- Johannesburg to Frankfurt on Lufthansa
- Frankfurt to Oslo on Lufthansa
- Oslo to Tromsø on Scandinavian Airlines
The whole route took about 17 hours.
From the small Tromsø airport, I was going to take the bus across the island to city center, but it was Sunday and the buses either don’t operate or were much less frequent. So I resorted to use the shuttle service offered at a booth at the airport. It costed me 70 kroner, which was about $10 USD at the time. I thought it was expensive at the time because 1) I had heard that Norway and Scandinavian countries were expensive, which was true, and 2) my research showed that taking the bus would’ve costed only 40 kroner or so.
Since I had heard it was expensive to be in Norway, I briefly looked up hotel prices before moving on to Airbnb. Fortunately, there were enough options to choose from, and my final choice ended up pretty good. Location-wise, judging by the maps, I thought it would be a bit too far from city center. But as I found out once I got there, it was really close and totally walkable.
The listing I booked was someone’s house. It seems that the owner wasn’t there, but her late-teen/early-twenties son was, so he opened the door for me, showed me the room, and left me alone for pretty much the rest of my stay. Actually, he opened the door for me, asked me to wait in the living room while he went back to his room to finish doing whatever he was doing that involved typing loudly on his keyboard, then he came out and showed me my room. Regardless, I was just very grateful to have a place to stay.
My room was pretty basic. It had a bed with sheets and comforter, a nightstand, and a window with somewhat broken curtains. There were closets and armoires, but they were filled with the owner’s stuff so I assumed it was off-limits. So there was limited room to hang clothes, but I somehow made it work. I had brought portable collapsible hangers and I just hung my clothes behind the bedroom door and on the door handle. I also brought a rubber clothesline with suction cups so I stuck it on the mirror on the closet and hung my laundry to dry.
There was a space heater right outside my room, which was the exact model I had at home (small world moment), and while it wasn’t so cold that I need it at night, I used it to dry my clothes during the day. But it sort of stopped working at some point so I thought I broke it, but it worked again the next day, so maybe it overheated.
The bathroom seemed like a normal house bathroom, except I noticed and LOVED the floor was heated. Even though this was the only home I had been to in Tromsø, it must be standard to have heated bathroom floors. It just made the place feel even more homey.
The shower was also worth mentioning just because the powerful water pressure combined with the hearty hot water totally warmed up my cold bones from being outside; it was almost an experience. I almost didn’t want to leave the shower, partly because I would have to feel cooler air by contrast.
Another thing I did notice was that the trash can was very full. I figured because with just a young man staying there, keeping things clean was probably a much lower priority. It would’ve been nice to make sure the communal areas are decent enough for Airbnb guests, though.
The bathroom also included the washing and drying machines. There were so many nobs and button on the washing machine that I had to look up the obscure brand and model online to try to find an English version. Finally, I managed to select the most basic one and just made sure my clothes at least get some sort of rinse.
So far on my trip, I had experienced “slow” Wifi by American urban utility standard. I was relying on the Internet to backup my photos and videos from the trip because I knew I would take more picture and videos than my phone could store. Plus, I wanted to have a backup just in case I lost my phone.
My Digital Storage Plan
I had set up personal cloud storage as well as Dropbox and Google Drive, and even Microsoft OneDrive if I really needed to. And during the trip, I would upload my photos whenever I had access to wifi and power source, so basically my hostel or hotel. When I got to South Africa, there were so many days of files I had yet to backup because the internet speed was so slow that my phone was approaching its storage limit. I even bought a flash drive at the Johannesburg airport, hoping to find a computer somewhere in the next few days and transfer my files more quickly.
Sweet European Wi-Fi
When I left Johannesburg and landed in Frankfurt airport for a connection, I tried to get on the airport wifi, expecting the typical, spotty, basic Internet speeds that airport wifi had. Instead, when I turned on my personal cloud app, I could see the progress bar for each file zoom by every two seconds or so, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was unfortunate that my connection was boarding soon, so I tried to milk the service as much as I could until I really had to board. I didn’t know if I would get such fast Wifi again. I was desperate and thirsty, clinging on to the wifi. It was a bit pathetic but I didn’t care. Sweet, sweet Wifi!
So when I got to the Airbnb house in Norway, I was equally happy to find out the Wifi was also fast. Hooray, European utilities! For a brief moment, I contemplated staying in the house the whole time and use the Wifi, but I knew that was silly and not realistic. Still, I took advantage of it as much as I could and backed up my files whenever I had the chance.
Downtown is relatively small; it’s very walkable. The streets were also pretty empty, not too many people or cars. It’s as if everyone went out of town for the week. Maybe it’s like that all the time, I don’t know.
Tromsø is a long-shaped island with large hills toward the center. To get from one corner to another, driving is recommended, especially in the cold. I bought a multi-day bus ticket from the bus station downtown the day after I arrived (because I arrived on a Sunday), and I just took the bus everywhere. One time I crossed the bridge to check out the Arctic Cathedral and other things, another time I took it to the southern tip of the island to visit the Tromsø Museum, then I took the bus in the wrong direction and got a tour of the other side of the island and ended up in Tromsø University.
- Time of year: mid-October.
During the day, it’s “comfortably” cold. By that, I mean I wore about three layers of long sleeves with a good pair of leather gloves and was okay when I was continuously moving. It was okay to keep the head uncovered for a short period of time outside. But a beanie or hat should be worn for longer duration. My face, exposed to the cold air, got a bit numb after a while, especially when there was wind. The wind definitely gave me a good fight to keep the warm in.
At night, especially out in the middle of nowhere during a northern lights tour, when we stood in place outside waiting and watching for the lights, it was much easier to get really cold. Clothing wise, I wore an extra top layer; that was sufficient. For bottoms, I wore thermal underwear. The fact that I felt normal in my legs meant that it was a good thing I had them on.
Shoes — Bring Good Boots
I arrived in Norway a little bit unprepared in terms of footwear. For my six-week world trip, I brought a pair of breathable hiking shoes and a pair of loafer-type shoes for versatility. Let’s just say if I were to go to Tromsø again, or anywhere very north or very south, I would invest in a pair of well-insulated boots. On my first northern lights tour, after standing for ten to fifteen minutes, my feet started to really feel the cold. There were multiple stages of them going numb and more numb, and when I thought they would become better if I just shuffle my feet in place, I was very wrong, and they just became more numb than I thought were possible. And then they got even more numb, to the point where I was wondering if I still had those legs, if they would recover if I ran back to the bus right then.
Back To the Bus
At one point, probably thirty minutes in, I couldn’t take it anymore. The lights were really pretty and everyone was expecting better ones to come. So I got back to the tour bus where there was a heater going. As I tried to warm up, I grabbed the plastic shopping bags I got from my souvenir shopping earlier that day and double wrapped my feet and stuffed everything back into my shoes. I had also worn two pairs of wool socks already. After maybe ten minutes, I hesitated leaving the warm tour bus but I still made it back to the group to try to enjoy the lights, but they were mostly gone. My feet were still numb, probably less so but I could feel them quickly getting back to where they were before. The plastic bags didn’t feel like they worked.
End of Misery
Fortunately, soon after I returned the guides decided to head to another location so we got back on the bus, and I got a bit of a chance to warm up. The second night, I was smarter, in that I wore the plastic bags before starting the tour, so I had time to properly insulate it better, so I suffered less. It may also have been that the temperatures were slightly warmer, or that it was more cloudy, or that we went more inland and away from the sea breeze.
Losing the Airbnb House Keys
When I checked in to the Airbnb location, I was given two keys with a wooden keychain with “Airbnb” written on it. I thought that was cute. On my second northern lights tour, we stopped on the side of the road to catch the northern lights flying above us. I took out my phone from my pocket to take pictures. For the trip, I got a heavy duty double layer phone case and attached it to a retractable keychain clip. So it was kind of bulky and taking it out of my pocket took some effort at times. The pocket also had the house keys in it, and I think that was when I dropped it. I may also have been wearing gloves and would not be able to feel the things falling out of my pocket.
I noticed that my keys were missing in the middle of the tour. In typical fashion, I checked and rechecked my belongings, every nook and cranny of my bags, around and under my seat. I also started thinking about how I would be able get back into the house, especially if I would get back to town from the tour at around midnight and the host’s son would probably be in bed and I would feel bad for ringing the doorbell.
What to do?
I knew that if I were to have a better chance at getting back into the house, I had to act fast and contact my host, which meant I had to be sure I lost the keys and give up a little bit of hope that I could resolve this myself, and also pride for having to admit I lost the keys. I agonized repeatedly over whether I should write the message to my host or I should risk it and ring the doorbell after midnight to get the host’s son to open the door. I also thought about how much of a hassle it would be, let alone costly to replace the locks on their doors. The thoughts in my mind were starting to get out of hand, so finally, I decided that the right thing to do was to contact my host as soon as possible.
Corresponding with the Airbnb Host
Fortunately, the bus had Wifi and I contacted the host through the Airbnb app, writing a long message thanking her for hosting, and explaining the situation and apologizing many times. After sending the message, I continued the tour and tried to enjoy the northern lights. But it was difficult with the incident on my mind, along with an uncertain near future. It reminded me of Albuquerque after I lost my wallet and I tried to enjoy the balloons but it just lacked the shine of pure happiness. To my surprise, about an hour later, the host responded and told me she arranged with her son to leave me a spare set of keys. I felt so lucky. It improved my mood for a few minutes, and then I reminded myself that I still lost the keys, and I should make up to my hosts somehow.
With the new set of keys, I guarded it very closely. I attached it to my retractable belt clip and made sure it’s still in my possession throughout the following day. That evening, the host’s son asked me for the keys back, and as I gave it back to him, I apologized and he straightly said it’s okay and that it’s not like I did it on purpose. I appreciated his lightheartedness at the situation.
Thanking the Host
Earlier that day, I went to the souvenir shop, “The Best Souvenir Shop in Town”, and bought a few keychains, one wooden and one plastic to give my host a choice to replace the one I lost. Then I got a card and gift bag from a bookstore. Finally, I went to the grocery store to get some chocolates. I also included some cash meant to cover the cost to get new keys. Right before I left the house to head to the airport, I gave the gift bag of things to the host’s son, who seemed really surprised. He either really was speechless or didn’t know the English words to express his thoughts, but before he had a chance to express them, I left the house and headed to the airport.
The people are generally very nice. Some have better customer service than others. There were also different levels of patience as well as ability to communicate in English. No one was particularly rude, although there was this one time when I went to the cable car station, hoping to get up to the top of the mountain, and finding out it was closed for the week. I still managed to get into the lobby with no one inside, until a man came out from his office, and I asked in English to confirm that it’s closed. The man said yes with a stern face so I left the awkward situation and made my way out of the parking lot. I turned around and noticed the man watching me from the window.
Even though I was only going to be in Norway for four days, and that I heard people in Norway spoke English (which they do, maybe at 80-90% ability and speed), I still wanted to learn Norwegian so I can somehow put it to good use. Like with the other languages that I learned for the trip, I had little chance or time to practice speaking it with other people beforehand. I only listened to the audio lessons and practiced in private. I jotted down the words and phrases that I learned so I could be familiar with how they looked and get a better understanding of the grammar structure.
As I said, since I heard most Norwegians could speak English, it was a bit difficult to 1) figure out who could speak it, and 2) have enough confidence to speak Norwegian instead of giving up and default to English. Every new interaction started with the awkwardness of those two factors, but that quickly went away when I just made the call to speak English, or that the other person seeing my appearance rightly assumed that I would be more comfortable with English. It was also easy to default to English when the casual greeting “Hi!”was pronounced the same in Norwegian (“Hei!”). Once in a while, I threw in a “God dag!” (“Good day!”) and then proceed with English. And I got pretty good at the end of an interaction with “Har det!” or “Har det bra!” which was a common phrase equivalent to “Have a good one!”
Knowing when and how to use phrases like that sort of redeemed the hard work I put in to learn the language, and to me, it showed the other persons that I made an effort, and hopefully threw off one or two people a little bit to wonder if I really knew Norwegian.
I looked up tours for northern lights and there were a few companies who did them, and a lot of search results tend to lead to TripAdvisor reviews. So I used them to help narrow down the companies to choose from. I ultimately chose NorthernShots Tours because of the great reviews as well as their promise that if they couldn’t see the lights that night, we could return the next day for half price.
Actually, originally, the package I bought promised a second tour for free if I couldn’t see the lights the first night. But on the day of the tour, I was contacted by the company asking if I wanted to switch to the less expensive package. I agreed to it, and because I got a reissued credit card, they couldn’t refund to my old card, so they had to refund me in cash.
I walked to the pickup spot that evening, which was right outside of the office near downtown. As I was going through the process to get my cash refund, I learned that the company was created by a couple of young passionate photographers who wanted to share their love for the northern lights by driving visitors around the area and take pictures. I thought the guys were really down to earth and genuine, and they made the experience as pleasant as possible. Judging by their accents and brief chats, I also learned that they were from other places in Europe, like France and Italy.
We rode in a big charter bus, which was much larger than I thought. Based on my experience on the trip so far, I thought I would be in a large van with uncomfortable seats. But instead, only about half of the large bus was full, so I got to sit in my own pair of seats. I noticed that there were a few groups of middle-aged Chinese tourists on the tour as well, which surprised me because Tromsø seem like a place Chinese people would visit, and it’s so cold that all I could picture were middle-aged Chinese people like my relatives scoffing at the idea of traveling to such a place and would prefer to go elsewhere warmer and with more landmarks to see in the daytime.
There was also wifi on the bus, which felt like such a luxury, even for the States. And a small bathroom was in the mid-section of the bus, right next to the mid-bus exit door. It surprised me that a bathroom could fit in that little nook, but it did! It’s small but very usable. These guys were prepared, and they got the right equipment.
The Tour Starts
The tour started at around 6pm, and one of the guides explained the agenda of the tour and then gave a history of northern lights. The ride to our first spot probably took 45 minutes, and right before, the guide explained how to set the cameras settings to capture the lights perfectly. I didn’t pay too much attention since I was going to use my basic iPhone 5s camera, and the settings were quite limited.
Literal Cold Feet
The first place we went to was by the water somewhere west of Tromsø. We had to get around a rocky and muddy hill in the dark to get there. Once there I started feeling the cold setting in, most notably my feet, partly because I was underprepared with footwear and wore my breathable hiking shoes. Basically, my feet felt numbing cold like I never thought were possible. They experienced alternating phases of cold and numb, but every phase more intense than before. Shuffling my feet did little to help.
It got to a point where it was too uncomfortable to think about anything else and my brain started wondering if my feet were still there, as if they had been disconnected from my body. I worried I did irreparable damage to my feet, so I decided to get back to the bus to try to warm up. The tour package offered professional northern lights portraits by the guides, and since all I brought was my iPhone 5s, I wanted to get a good photo of me and the lights to remember the experience. According to the guide, the lights were pretty good but less than optimal, so I took that as a good time to warm up in the bus for a little bit and come back out when it supposedly got better and get the portrait then. Still, the guide said to not go for too long because I might miss it.
Back to the Bus
Another visitor who also wanted to warm up in the bus made the little dark hike with me back to the heated bus, where the driver was comfortably waiting. I expected immediate relief once I stepped inside, but it was much more gradual, and actually slower, than I thought. I took the opportunity to take the plastic shopping bags from my souvenir store visit earlier that day to wrap my feet, which already had two pairs of wool socks. I figured it could probably seal in any heat that was escaping. It felt really silly but I had to do everything I could to keep my feet alive.
I waited in the bus for probably ten to fifteen minutes, watching faint streaks of green in the dark sky through the tinted windows. I imagined the hassle and discomfort I would experience if I had to put my layers back on and step out of the warm cocoon of the bus and into the chilling cold outside. My comfort was more important than a bucket list goal at that point. But finally, I snapped out of it, telling myself that I had traveled all this way not to sit in a bus. Actually, it was also because the other visitor wanted to go back outside again. So we rejoined the group, and my feet quickly restarted the process of becoming numb again. The plastic bags were of little help.
Apparently the conditions were not improving, and the lights were starting to move away. I missed my chance when everyone was getting their portraits taken, and I missed the last of the good lights while I was in the bus.
Snacks and Hot Chocolate
Some time in the middle of the tour, we took a break as the guides went outside to prepare hot chocolate. They had brought large containers of hot water and packets of powdered hot chocolate, and they were mixing them one cup at a time as quickly as they could. I was impressed at the level of service these guides were providing. They seemed to genuinely care for their customers. In the mean time, trays of cookies were also being passed around on the bus, where people could take as many as they want and there would still be enough left over.
After the break, we resumed the tour and visited other locations, stopping on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The lights didn’t seem to be getting better, so I asked the guides if I could get a professional photo. The guide said the lights weren’t ideal, but he would try his best. At that point, I just wanted some visual proof that I saw the lights.
Northern Lights in Town
By the end of the tour, I became relatively good at spotting the lights and distinguishing it from long streaks of clouds, because they looked very similar, especially if the lights were weak. So after we got dropped off from the tour, I walked back to my Airbnb house and to my surprise, I saw thick streaks of green right above the street, freely dancing in the sky. I thought it was just clouds at first because I thought it was hard to see the northern lights with light pollution. But it moved and changed form too quickly to be clouds.
Seeing this made me feel so special and lucky, partly because there was no one around to confirm what I was seeing nor to share this moment with, so the lights felt like a private show, in public, just for me.
Aside from the freezing feet, I had a good time on the tour with these guides. And since I had nothing else planned the following night, and I got the refund from the previous night for going on the cheaper tour (which was half the price of my original tour), I figured I should do the tour again for a second chance to get a good portrait.
The second night had a much smaller group than the first; there were only five or six people, but we still took the giant bus. We went to the opposite direction toward Finland, but it was a cloudy night so seeing the lights would be more difficult regardless.
Since this was my second consecutive night, I had more experience spotting the lights from inside the bus earlier in the night. At one point, I asked the guide to confirm that what I saw were the lights, and he confirmed that it was. (Teacher’s pet moment). Actually, the lights were so active that he decide to make an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take pictures.
I got my professional portrait but it was next to the front of the bus with its lit sign. Still, learning from the previous night, I had to take what I can get. I also tried to take some selfies with my phone using a camera app that could adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Of course, the quality was lower and more blurry from my ever-so-slightly moving arms, but it actually turned out better than I expected. Also, it was the wrong time to experiment not smiling in pictures and being more pensive and dramatic. That was also the place where I believe I lost my Airbnb house keys.
Later in the tour, we went to an open field and the sky was partly cloudy. We were probably there for an hour or so, and the clouds changed just as much as the lights. We were excited to see the clouds part or the lights become stronger, and then became disappointed whenever either of those improvements reversed. I helped a friend take photos of him and his girlfriend with his commercial camera, and he returned the favor and emailed me those pictures. That was also when I was dealing with the lost keys and thought more deeply and philosophically about life and the cosmos while being in the middle of nowhere looking at the lights.
Overall, both nights of tours were good. The guides were really cool folks who were passionate about photography and treat the patrons as special guests. I would do it again, and I would try to be more prepared with footwear and camera gear.
Museums and exhibits
I occupied my time during the day by going to different museums and exhibits throughout the city. Some were really abstract (Tromsø Kunstforening), some were very contemporary (Perspektivet Museum) and current with recent events around the world, and some were more standard museums, like the Tromsø Museum, which had a permanent exhibit on the local Scandinavian natural history. It had really simple but effective models illustrating specific ideas, like the comparison in scale between a particular whale and human being. The image alone said a lot without words. American museums should take note.
I also visited the Arctic Cathedral, an iconic building in Tromsø. The admission was 40 kroner which was around $5. I felt that it was a bit pricy because it was more or less just one big room with unique architecture. There was very little else to do, unless one was religious. I stayed there a bit longer than I needed because I paid so much for it and I should at least enjoy it a bit more.
The one thing I wanted to eat in Norway was a smørbrød, which is an open-faced sandwich. It’s a simple and common dish in Norway and Scandinavia; it’s probably so commonplace that I was making a big deal out of it. I learned about it in my Norwegian lessons, where I had to repeatedly order “et smørbrød” and “te” (tea). I became fascinated by it and looked up its significance in the culture. Smørbrøds could apparently get really fancy, but I just opted for the regular version, at a cafe near downtown.
I chose that cafe because I could tell from outside that they displayed the smørbrøds in a glass display case so I could just point and order. When I went up to pay, the language thing really made it awkward as I said what I wanted in English in a soft voice, a little embarrassed, and the cashier had trouble understanding. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t hear me or if she didn’t understand English. There was also a problem with using my card. My card wasn’t the problem; it was me using a chip card on a chip-reading machine. It was the first country that I had use it, and the screen was displaying Norwegian, which I could recognize and could probably understand if I took some time deciphering each word. I think I did after the fact, as I pieced together the translation of the phrase by each word “TA KORT UT” (“Take card out.”), which I had learned in my audio lessons.
Finally, I got my smørbrød along with a hot chocolate. I grabbed a fork and a knife because I heard that’s how it’s supposed to be eaten. The smørbrød was really simple; it was a piece of buttered bread with a piece of salmon, hard-boiled egg slices, and some veggies. It tasted exactly as it looks. It was a bit underwhelming but I felt proud that I finally ate something that I set out to eat on the trip!
Since I was staying at an Airbnb, food was totally on my own. For snacks, I went to the grocery store and got packaged cakes, nuts, mini bread rolls, chocolates, and dried fish (which seemed to be locally produced). They were decent. Standard grocery store food quality, although the nut clusters (“Nøtte Godt”) were especially tasty, probably from the salt content.
I had trouble finding bottled water at first, so I bought a bottle of flavored water and winced every time I take a sip. The grocery store I went to twice was named “joker” at a street corner by the church. Ironically, I found out the evening before I left Tromsø that the building with the giant “Eurospar” sign two blocks from my Airbnb place was a big chain grocery store. I saw the same logo across the bridge earlier and noticed a parking lot in front with shopping carts. So I went inside and found a much larger selection of foods, including bottled water! I also got some chocolates for my hosts as a gift as well as souvenirs.
For meals, I went to places I felt familiar with. One evening, I went to a Thai restaurant near my Airbnb place (across Eurospar, to my ignorance) and tried to warm up with some spicy soup, though that didn’t work. I went to a medium-fancy burger place called Flyt and that was decent. Other times, I just went in convenience stores and bought pastries to bring with me.
I had an early flight out Wednesday morning, so I walked to the 42 bus stop in the morning cold and crossed the island through tunnels to the airport. It was relatively convenient.
From My Travel Log
20 October 2014, 2:31pm, Tromsø Bibliotek (Library)
- Tromsø is a lovely city. It’s cold but it’s real. Streets remind me of video games when you walk down a street and only a few people are there minding their own business. The bridges remind me of Macau’s bridge and the “small city” quality. The bridge walk reminds me of walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. The side of the Arctic Cathedral reminds me of the side of the Sydney Opera House.
- Regarding languages, people at places I’ve visited have a high enough probability of speaking English that I have yet to really need to force myself to speak the local languages. Maybe after the fact I go over the expression over my head. Also, I don’t know enough to complete one interaction; if I knew how to ask the question, I might not understand the answer, which feels stupid to have asked in the local language in the first place.
- I also seem to have trouble going into restaurants myself, and also not knowing which restaurants to go to. I’m relying heavily on the Internet to find good places to go. And when I’m on the road, I just choose whatever I find. * Languages I should learn: Dutch, German, Portuguese. Even though I feel very foreigner in all these places, I could see myself having a life anywhere, even cold Tromsø, but I don’t want to. Everywhere I can get used to provided I have enough time. I can imagine living in Europe for a while and just be a local. Maybe I do that for a year, four countries, three months each. We’ll see how I feel at the end of this trip though, to see how homesick I feel.
- I realize I really like showers. I love good water pressure, warm water that hit the spot and heat up my bones. So far the two showers from my Airbnb hosts were good.
- Tromsø, third international spot. I have yet to FEEL being in a foreign place. I either am really in my head during the moment or that it doesn’t exist anymore, the feeling of being in a place. Every place feels similar in some way; I am just at a spot on a typical Earth, no matter how beautiful the view is (like right now at the library looking at the mountains and the Arctic Cathedral). I think I feel it the most when I’m in “God mode” and can see from really high up, like a plane, but outside, or less contained. That’s why paragliding sounds like a good goal to achieve.
21 October 2014, 4:40pm, Flyt
- Two and a half weeks ago, I saw hundreds of hot-air balloons fly into the sky. Just under two weeks ago, I witnessed the majestic view that is the Machu Picchu. Six days ago, I went on a safari and saw cheetah on a hunt. For the past two nights, I had seen the northern lights dance above me. Whatever happens for the rest of this trip, I must admit that I have been a very lucky guy so far.
- One frustration I’m having in Europe, or Norway, is the credit card machines. It seems like most people use it with ease, but I’ve often had to let the other person copy the three digits in the back of the card, or sign the receipt when other customers didn’t need to. What makes it worse is the display reads out in Norwegian, and I was only able to decipher one of the gajillion messages they have, “Ta sort ut.” which mostly doesn’t help me make the purchase. Hopefully, I get more practice in England with English so I know what to do in France and Italy.
- Took an accidental tour of Tromsø when I didn’t realize there’s a bus in the opposite direction when I left the Tromsø Museum.
- Tromsø Museum’s exhibits are pretty good. Good for children with some parts.
- Went to Thai restaurant last night. Didn’t know until I went home to check that you don’t tip in Norway. Oops.
- Lost the house keys on northern lights tour. Apologized to host Ellen and fortunately got another set. Bought a bunch of stuff as gifts to make up for it.
- Also, I don’t think Ellen is there, just his son Gunnar. I felt awful and it made the northern lights tours unenjoyable until Ellen replied that they have another set of keys.
- Shuttle saleswoman and driver
- Shuttle riders who are serving in the army
- Airbnb hosts, Gunnar and Ellen
- Nazarene saleswoman who inadvertently helped me feel comfortable in Tromsø
- OSL -> TOS flight attendants
- Francesco x2, Helder (sp), Pedro (northern lights guides)
- Julia and Harold (northern lights tour drivers)
- Sales clerks (both really friendly and “real”)
- Edwin and Christina (northern lights tour patrons)
- Eurospar is a chain grocery store.
- Bring well-insulated boots, along with layers
- It is very cold.
- The northern lights looks like they move slow but in twenty seconds they could disappear.
- The northern lights also look brighter in photos because cameras can capture more light than the human eye can.
- Listen to your northern lights tour guides; they knew what they’re doing. At least mine did.
- Buses are nicely heated.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: Tromsø
- Tromsø average temperatures (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: NorthernShots Tours
- NorthernShots Tours
- ProCam 3 app for shooting in low light.
If you have questions about specific experiences of Tromsø, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Why South Africa/Kruger National Park?
- I wanted to go on a safari, to be in a vehicle and check out animals in their habitat.
- I wanted to visit Africa, partly to accomplish my goal of having been to six of the seven continents before I turn 30, and partly to get a glimpse of life there.
- I wanted to visit Johannesburg and South Africa because of the eventful recent history.
- Monday, 13 Oct: Arrived in Johannesburg
- Tuesday, 14 Oct: Ride from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park area. Mini-safari at Kapama Game Reserve
- Wednesday, 15 Oct: Safari in Kruger National Park
- Thursday, 16 Oct: Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
- Friday, 17 Oct: Ride back to Johannesburg, Blyde River Canyon
- Saturday, 18 Oct: Leave Johannesburg and South Africa
The safari was nice. And the experience overall was pleasant. There was a lot of riding in vehicles, both during the safari and to and from places. I lacked the time to really check out and explore Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. I would consider returning and do a bigger tour of South Africa if the opportunity presents itself.
I flew to Johannesburg from Lima, Peru. As part of my Round-the-World itinerary, the route took 23 hours and three flights, from Lima to Panama City, to São Paulo, and to Johannesburg. Had I booked the trip a week earlier, I could have skipped Panama City and fly to São Paulo directly from Lima. The whole route still would’ve taken 23 hours, though.
When I got on the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, there was a package of blanket, socks, sleeping mask, toothbrush and toothpaste for every passenger. That made the flight feel more luxurious than most airlines, sort of like when I used to fly EVA Air across the Pacific.
No need for transit visa in Brazil
One concern I had as a US Passport holder is the connection in São Paulo, Brazil. Americans planning to visit Brazil must apply for visas, which were hard and expensive to get. I researched the immigration and visa rules on government and airline websites, I emailed the airlines and airports, and I even printed out their responses as proof just in case. I was assured that if I had an international outbound ticket, I would not need a transit visa at São Paulo. I even checked and double-checked the airport terminals where my flights would arrive and depart to make sure I would stay airside, especially since the airport just added a terminal in time for the World Cup. At the Panama City airport, the staff made an announcement asking US Passport holders to check at the counter. They asked me about my visa to Brazil, but I showed them my ticket to Johannesburg, and they were okay with it.
When I debarked the plane in São Paulo, I followed the paths to the queues for immigration, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to go through it, so I looked for other paths to go. I was pretty sure I was in Terminal 2. I got to a security checkpoint and asked the staff in English where to go for my flight, showing them my ticket. The staff didn’t seem to understand or speak English well, nor were they certain where the terminals for South African Airways were, but they signaled me to go down the path after the security checkpoint, which would lead me to Terminal 3. I wasn’t too concerned about the security checkpoint; I was just worried that if they led me the wrong path, I may not be able to return.
It turns out my main problem at the security checkpoint was that I had a full bottle of water at the security checkpoint, and told me I couldn’t have it, so I went to use the restroom and chug as much water as I could and dumped the rest in the sink. I went through the security checkpoint fine, and I proceeded to make my way to Terminal 3 in the longest path I had ever traversed in an airport. There were long halls with moving sidewalks after moving sidewalks. Usually, I have patience with walking long distances, but this inter-terminal path was mind-numbingly long. I was fortunate that I still had hours until my flight and could take my time.
Once I got to the gate, my name was called to check my passport for some reason, and they reissued me a flimsy boarding pass. I waited in the terminal for hours where there were shops and restaurants that only accept Brazilian currency, so I toughed it out and waited until I got on the plane to eat.
South Africa Immigration Did Not Ask about Yellow Fever
Another concern for this leg was that coming from Peru, I was supposedly at risk for exposure to Yellow Fever, even though Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu were not listed as such. To be safe, I got for a contraindication from the travel clinic in San Francisco as a pass for not taking the Yellow Fever vaccine. South Africa and China were the two countries on my itinerary that required proof of that. So I made copies of the contraindication in case the officials wanted to keep a copy, and I also had a PDF of it on my phone and tablet. I was very prepared. When I got off the plane and was directed to the Immigration queues, people were unsure about needing to fill immigration forms because some of the staff continuously yelled out that we don’t need the forms under certain conditions. So I filled one out just in case they asked. While in line, I noticed what seemed to be thermal cameras and small signs about Ebola. When it was my turn, all the officer wanted to know was where my flight was from (Brazil) and that I had a US passport. Very quickly I was dismissed and I proceeded to the main airport lobby. It happened pretty quick and there was no time or opportunity to mention Peru or Yellow Fever. I think the people there were more concerned about Ebola than other diseases at that time.
Johannesburg: Brown Sugar Backpackers
The safari tour I booked recommended staying at a few select hostels as a pickup spot, one of which was Brown Sugar Backpackers. For convenience, I booked one night there before my tour started, and another night after the tour ended.
The hostel offered airport pickup service, but I had to call them when I arrived, and it took about 30 minutes. Without cell service, I resorted to use the airport Wifi to call the hostel with Skype credits that I bought before the trip.
The place was nice. It had a lived-in feel. There’s a main lounge with a TV playing American shows and movies all day (I think it was playing Spike at one point). It had a bar on the side but it wasn’t really open when I was there. From the lounge, you could get to the outdoor patio where there are a bunch of table benches and shade.
The other side of the lounge opened to the Internet room with two Windows laptop computers for guest use, an ATM (which was useful since that’s where I got my cash for Kruger), and it’s also where the Wifi worked best. There’s a table and a couple of chairs, but it got uncomfortable sitting there for too long using the Wifi, but stepping outside of the Internet room reduced the Wifi strength significantly. There’s a small balcony next to the Internet room that had a couch, and it had medium Wifi strength.
The dining room where breakfast is served is a narrow room of tables. But there’s a wall with awesome quotes painted in different styles. It was inspiring, memorable, and motivational for my trip.
Brown Sugar – Room
On the first night, I stayed upstairs in a 12-person room, but it was just me in the room so I could pick whichever bed I wanted. Like Pay Purix in Lima, I picked the bottom bunk. After returning from Kruger, I stayed downstairs in another 12-person room, and I also picked the bottom bunk. It was fortunate that there weren’t that many people staying at the hostel, or at all in the room, because the bunk beds were arranged kind of tight together where moving around would’ve been more troublesome if there were more people.
Brown Sugar – Beds
The bed and sheets were decent. They felt kind of homey. There were mini wooden storage cubes next to the beds, with a metal loop for mini locks. Above the cubes were outlet with a switch to turn it on. It’s always neat to have simple conveniences like this.
Brown Sugar – Lockers/Storage
There were larger metal storage locker along one wall of the room, but I didn’t use it because it didn’t fit my carry-on luggage. The hostel also allow luggage storage in the form of putting them in a nook on the main floor and closing access to it with a metal folding gate and a lock.
Brown Sugar – Bathrooms
It’s a dorm-style bathroom, with a few toilet stalls, a few shower stalls, and a few sinks. I don’t believe the hostel provided towels so I used my own.
I stayed at the downstairs dorm my second time at Brown Sugar, and that bathroom had three shower stalls. I chose the middle one and it had a thin almost-see-through curtains. I wasn’t concerned about privacy since I was the only one staying in that dorm that night. I thought the curtains would block the water but after my shower, I discovered the water had leaked to the bathroom floor and moving towards the bedroom! So I tried to stop the flow by throwing wads of toilet paper on the floor. It was still soaking by the time I went to bed, so I left it there overnight. Fortunately, by morning, it had dried up pretty well, and I cleaned up the toilet paper and no one knew.
Brown Sugar – Staff
The staff was nice. There was one lady who took care of the guests’ stays, and another lady who was the cook. She would make lunch and dinner, and after dinner, she tried to clean up after diners as quickly as possible so she could go home. During my second stay, as I was hanging around the hostel waiting until it’s time to head to the airport, I noticed a lunch menu I could order from. But I felt bad asking because I was the only one ordering lunch and the lady cook would have to open the kitchen to make one meal for me. So I asked to make whatever was the easiest, but the front desk lady insisted that I order what I wanted, so I did and they made me lunch. I was very thankful when they served it, but they didn’t really have a response to indicate whether it was an annoyance or totally fine. I was still trying to figure out the South African nonverbal culture.
Kruger: Thornhill Safari Lodge
Thornhill was a nice little camp of single-floor room-cabins that surround the outdoor dining area, the pool, and gazebo. The entire area was surrounded by natural land on the gated property, so it’s isolated from neighboring properties. Getting there required getting off a highway into a very bumpy, unpaved road for about ten minutes. There’s a main congregating area at the lodge that is covered but still exposed to outside, where there are a few couches as well as a dining area for guests to have breakfast, and also dinner if it’s raining.
Thornhill – Room
My room was large for one person. It had a king-size bed and two twin beds, with benches at the foot of each. Based on the tour I purchased from Intrepid Travel, I thought I would have to share, but the staff assured me it was all mine. Each bed has bed nets set up, though they weren’t completely seal-proof, but it was okay; I think mosquitos weren’t that smart in navigating around the bed nets. I still wore my bug-repellent long sleeve shirt to bed just in case. The entrance to my room was a glass door that opens out to a shared porch with chair outside, facing a field of trees, so it felt pretty private. The decor was very themed to have an “African” feel, with earth tones and rich-color tiles. The bathroom had a shower stall and a sink counter that seemed to have been created along with the wall because of the way they flow from one surface to another. Above the toilet was a fan that can be switched on to improve ventilation.
Thornhill – Food
The first night was kind of neat. We sat in the outdoor dining area around a fire bit. But it was really dark so I could barely see the food that I got. I thought the experience was mediocre, but someone from my tour group who was assigned to stay at another lodge was hoping to eat around the fire like I did. I would’ve given him my spot if I knew how. Every night, someone from the cooking staff would beat a large drum by the gazebo to announce that it’s dinner time. Then when everyone’s at their seats, someone from the cooking staff (could be the same person, I wasn’t sure) would recite the menu. But honestly, their accents were very thick and they spoke relatively quickly that I could not catch half of what was said. Then they would decide the order in which the guests would get their food, either by gender (ladies first), or by the table that the guests were sitting. It’s different every night. The meals were mostly a buffet, except for dessert, which was also different every night. One night it’s pudding of some sort, another it’s ice cream. For the main and side dishes, it’s a good range for everyone’s tastes, including vegetarian. The portions were just enough (probably small by American standard) without feeling super full, although I could eat more if I didn’t have to be polite and save any for others. There’s also a bar with beers, wines, and mixed drinks. They also served lunch supposedly, but I never got to have it since I was always out on an activity.
Thornhill – Staff
The staff are good folks. It’s hard to tell just by looking at them, but they worked hard to make sure the guests have a good stay. I also noticed (along with other South Africans) that they tend to have an honest attitude and rarely fake friendliness like Americans would. They’re professional, respectful, and direct. That said, it’s a bit hard for a shy American like me to open up and truly relax when there seems to be a awkwardness between the staff and me. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing that I just needed to get used to. Nonetheless, they are good people.
Thornhill – Wifi
Wifi costs 50 rand for the whole stay. Those who purchase it are given a code. It only worked in the main “indoor” area. It’s fast enough to check emails and browse sites, but it’s hard to do more than that.
In Johannesburg, I stayed at the hostel the whole time. I didn’t have much time to go outside, and I read that the streets could be dangerous, especially for travelers. In Kruger area, going to places is a scheduled event. I got to places via safari jeeps or vans from and to the lodge, since things are pretty far from one another.
- Time of year: Mid-October.
Climate – Johannesburg
The city was nice at this time of year. Sunny but cool and breezy. T-shirt or one-layer long sleeve during the day should be fine.
Climate – Kruger Area
- The morning was surprisingly incredibly chilly, especially when riding in a open jeep. Long sleeves and jacket is recommended.
- It warmed up by mid-day and got warm and a bit humid in the afternoon. T-shirt is fine. The warm breeze in a moving jeep could get a bit uncomfortable.
- By nightfall, the temperatures dropped again and a light jacket is recommended.
- One night, there was a huge downpour that went on through the night. The next morning, it was sunny again.
The people are generally nice. It’s probably because I mainly interacted with people who interact with tourists everyday. However, they are different from American customer service in that Americans seemed to put more effort into appearing friendly and making the customers feel good, whereas the customer service in South Africa seemed to be more direct. If you ask a question or request something, they reply with a straight answer, and then they move on with no follow up.
Everyone spoke English. Most black South Africans have an African English accent, and most white South Africans have a mix of European and African English accents.
I purchased a safari tour from Intrepid Travel. It only occurred to me after the manager at Thornhill explained to another guest that companies like Intrepid Travel and G Adventures work with local tour companies around the world and book tours for travelers, and then mark up the price. If the travelers book the tour directly through the tour companies, it would be cheaper. How much cheaper and who the tour companies are, of course, aren’t always known to the customers. The safari group I was with came from the States, Europe and Australia, so I doubt they all booked the tour through Intrepid. My four-day tour package included a pickup from Johannesburg, a five-hour drive to Kruger area, a small safari at Kapama Game Reserve, three night stays at Thornhill, an all-day safari at Kruger National Park, a free day which I filled with a visit to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, and another five-hour drive back to Johannesburg with a stop at Blyde River Canyon.
The Pickup and Ride to Kruger
The first morning, at Brown Sugar I got up and ready, had a quick and light breakfast because I didn’t want to have to use the restroom on the ride to Kruger. The pickup was late however, and after a while, I was getting worried, especially after what happened that one time in Peru, so I used my Skype credits to call the contact number and asked about the status. They assured me the pickup is coming, so I had to take their word for it. Somehow I discovered that there were two other people at Brown Sugar also waiting for the pickup. They were two girls from Germany who were cousin and one knew more English than the other. That made me feel slightly better that I wasn’t alone and forgotten. After some time, they went back to their room to wait. After more time, the ride finally came. We gave our luggages to the driver, who put them in a small trailer behind the van. I felt a bit unease about being separate from my one luggage, but I didn’t really have a choice. There were already a Swedish couple and a English couple in the van, and with the German girls and me, we picked up more people in neighboring cities: an Australian couple and another American who happened to be from the Bay Area as well. The ride was long and there was small chats once in a while, since no one really knew one another. Parts of the road reminded me very much of highway 280 in San Mateo and Redwood City area back at home, where it’s just nothing but brown hill after brown hill.
We stopped a few times along the way for gas, lunch, and snacks. The driver told us there’s not that many places in Kruger area to buy snacks, so we needed to get them at the stop. So I got a bunch of biscuits and water, hoping it would be enough for the next four days or so.
Kapama Game Reserve
We arrived late at the hotel, and once we dropped off our luggage in the room, we hopped on the van again to head to our first mini-safari.
The Kapama Game Reserve was a small site, relatively speaking, It’s still a large area. We drove around, spotting giraffes and birds. I had trouble grasping the concept that these animals are living in a natural environment, as opposed to a zoo. So other than me being in a big 10-person jeep in Africa, it felt a bit underwhelming to me.
We then took a break in a designated area where we were allowed to get off the jeep. It still boggles my mind how the animals would know it’s a designated area since there were no fences at all; it’s just an unusually open are with no plants. Our guides set up a table and laid out snacks that included nuts and chips and different types of biltong, which is jerky. I was too afraid to try to biltong so I stayed with crackers and chips. I then took a sufficient amount of sunset photos and panoramas.
As the sun set near the end of the break, we heard the roar of a lion nearby, so we quickly packed up and continued the drive. Sure enough, we spotted a lion on the side of road. The guide explained that when the sun set, the lions make their calls to claim the territory for the night, warning other male lions to stay away. I couldn’t tell the difference, I was still frightened by the sound the lion kept making, even if it wasn’t directed at me.
After about twenty minutes with the lion, we moved on to try to spot other animals in the dark. We were surprisingly successful and spotted zebras, water buffalos, and a bunch of other animals whose names I forgot.
Kruger National Park
The next morning I got a knock on my hotel room door to wake me up. Without breakfast, my group got on a jeep and made our way to Kruger National Park. Riding fast down the highway early in the morning was incredibly chilly. We got to the entrance, took our restroom break, and started exploring. It was still chilly but since it was later in the morning and we were moving slower, it was less bad.
At one point that morning, we were riding down a road that looked out far in the horizon, and it felt very open and free. I thought how I was very much not in the office at that moment, how I felt a little sorry for my teammates back home, and how I was right when I was supposed to be.
After about an hour, we stopped for breakfast at a stop area. There were sandwiches, fruits, juice-boxes, and hard-boiled eggs! One of the German girls teased me because of how much I love eggs, since she noticed it when I had a second helping of eggs back at Brown Sugar.
A lot of the safari, I realized, was driving around trying to spot animals from fields of nothing. It helped to have the guide talk about the different animals and about African culture along the way, but there was still plenty of nothing. It may be a combination of nothing to see for most of the ride, the gentle vibration and white noise of the moving jeep, the waking up early in the morning, and the possible jet lag I was still experiencing, that I dozed off for most of the morning. My jeep-mates definitely noticed, since they giggled when I mentioned at lunch how sleepy I was.
For the safari, I chose to sit in the middle seat because everyone else had a fancy camera, and they were clearly prepared to take professional-looking photographs of these animals. And there I was, with my iPhone 5s. My goal of the trip was the experience of going on a safari and seeing things in person. I didn’t have a mission to spot particular animals or collect photographs of as many animals as I could find like the rest of my tour group did. So I let them sit on the sides and get clearer shots of what they wanted.
After lunch, it got a warmer and I was sort of afraid that would bring me back to sleep. But it was more exciting than the morning, since we heard someone spotted a cheetah. Surprisingly, to our guide’s quick response, we found the cheetah and followed it for a bit. Apparently it was chasing after its prey, but the prey either disappeared or climbed up a tree for refuge and the cheetah lost its lunch.
Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
The day after the Kruger safari was a free day. Guests could either pick an activity from a list or hang out at the lodge. One was to go on more game drives, and I felt that I had handled as much day-long driving as I could this trip. Another was the Cheetah Project, which involved rehabilitating injured cheetahs. And the other is Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre which is more for all types of animal. I was undecided since none of the activities appealed to me. The thought of hanging out at the lodge and maybe by the pool felt much closer to what I really wanted to do, albeit slow and kind of boring. But when the manager walked around after dinner and asked what I was going to do, before I could really answer I wanted to stay at the lodge, she recommended me to go to the Moholoholo activity instead of doing nothing. With little motivation to decline, and trusting her advice, I agreed to it. Moholoholo was pretty much like a zoo of African wildlife. It’s a bit more exciting because we had guides leading us through the campus explaining things and feeding animals. So I went along with it and it was actually cool to see these animals up close. But they’re mostly in cages so it could only be exciting for so much. My highlights were being a fence and few feet away from a lion, and I got to pet a cheetah, although it felt just like petting a big dog or animal with coarse fur. The moment went by pretty quickly, and I would’ve forgotten it if there wasn’t a video.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow:
South Africa was a good example of “eating what I can get.”
At Brown Sugar, one can buy a dinner meal, which comes in two options: meat or vegetarian. The first time, I had a burger and fries. The second time, it was spaghetti bolognese. Both were delicious. For lunch, I ordered from a menu, but it was just me in the hostel ordering a lunch that day, so I felt bad that they had to open the kitchen just for me. I forgot what I ordered, but it probably had chicken in it. And breakfast was pretty standard, so I choose anything with eggs and meat.
On the road to Kruger, I bought biscuits for the trip. I also got some sort of chicken dish from a fast food place at a rest stop. And on the road back to Johannesburg, I got a burger from a place called Spur, which had a Native American drawing on the branding, which made me feel more uneasy at the insensitivity the more I thought about it.
At Thornhill, dinner had a set menu. There was meat dish, a bunch of sides, and a dessert. Even though the setting was a bit casual, the food was served with a level of professionalism and procedure where guests were sort of made to feel more cared for. Breakfast was a level higher than standard, with a few cooked items, like potatoes, which I had, and french toast, which I didn’t have.
I got to be picky when there’s a selection to choose from, and when there wasn’t, I ate what I had.
After my safari tour, I was driven back to Brown Sugar Backpackers in Johannesburg. I arranged an airport ride for a fee and was taken to the airport at the time specified. It was quite easy.
From My Travel Log
14 October 2014, 8:48am, Joburg van to Kruger
- Places so far feel similar, particularly cars and roads. SA highway feels just like the 280 in Bay Area
- SA feels like “home”
- being greeted on boarding plane in English just feels welcoming
- radio talk pretty normal like in US
- hard to realize I’m in a diff country/continent, with so many things the same
- radio music very American Top 40
17 October 2014, 2:09pm, Brown Sugar
- There are so many commonalities I’ve experienced with things at home, including technology, media, languages, daily interactions. I think it’s all standardized/westernized so that the way things are carried out were very different if I had visited 100 years ago. The similarities, while seemingly good, like when I visited Hong Kong or Melbourne, make me more homesick. It’s usually more prominent in the last few days of my trips where I’m itching to go home. So hopefully, I still get to enjoy Hawaii.
- “Tuso” (Brown Sugar driver)
- Tina (Brown Sugar staff)
- Asaf and Shif (sp): travelers from Israel at Brown Sugar. Ate dinner with them
- “Dais”: traveler from Australia at Brown Sugar
- Inger and Geza: German travelers at Brown Sugar and Kruger
- Ollie and Dannee: English travelers at Kruger
- Miranda and Adam: Australian travelers at Kruger
- Chandra: Bay Area traveler at Kruger
- Anders and Cecilia: Swedish travelers at Kruger
- Jerry: J-Burg to Kruger driver
- Victor: Kapama driver
- Tim, Jaden, Charmaine (Thornhill staff)
- Patrick, Remco, Mariana (fellow Thornhill guests)
- Kent: Thornhill guest from LA and interested in traveling to Japan
- German couple, Jors, Ralph, Dutch people, German people
- Pechu (sp?): Thornhill driver
- Bring cash for tips for the many drivers throughout the trip
- Wear as many layers as possible for the morning drive to the safari. Even then, the face will still get numb from the wind.
- Thornhill has adapters to borrow during the stay.
- Thornhill: the toilets and sink next to the outdoor dining area are kind of shoddy. It’s best to use the bathroom in your bedroom.
- Thornhill: random creatures/insects will appear on sofas and chairs. There is no “indoors”, so just be aware if you’re squeamish like me.
- This is a heads up: the final road to get to the hotel is unpaved and very bumpy. I was very happy the last day when I rode that road for the last time and got on the smooth highway.
- Try to stay in Johannesburg for more than a day at a time so you can take advantage of day trips into the city that Brown Sugar offered.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage – Johannesburg
- Wikivoyage – Kruger National Park
- Average temperatures of Johannesburg (weatherbase.com)
- Average temperatures of Kruger National Park (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor – Brown Sugar Backpackers
- TripAdvisor – Thornhill Safari Lodge
- Intrepid Travel – Kruger Experience – Lodge (4 days)
If you have questions about specific experiences of [location], feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Why Cuzco and Machu Picchu?
Short answer: Because it’s there.
Long answer: In the few years before the trip, I had heard so much about Machu Picchu, and the photos I’d seen were always so majestic. It’s always had this mystical feel to it, and watching The Motorcycle Diaries just made me more interested in it. Also, I wanted to have been six of seven continents by the end of the trip, and this was my South America stop.
Longer answer: After the trip, I shared with my relatives the places that I had been. Whenever I mentioned Machu Picchu, none of them had heard of it, which made me think it might be a Westerner fascination. That led me to wonder why I really wanted to visit it other than that other people say it’s a place to visit. And the answer is, “I don’t know.”
- Monday, 6 Oct: Arrive at Lima at night
- Tuesday, 7 Oct: Fly from Lima to Cuzco
- Wednesday, 8 Oct: Inca Museum, Cuzco region tour
- Thursday, 9 Oct: Machu Picchu
- Friday, 10 Oct: Zip-lining in Sacred Valley
- Saturday, 11 Oct: Fly from Cuzco to Lima
- Sunday, 12 Oct: Fly out of Lima
Cuzco is a lovely town, larger and more developed than I thought. While the people spoke limited English, English-speaking travelers can get by in the main (touristy) part of town.
Machu Picchu was majestic. I used that word before, but it’s the closest description I could think of. It was exciting to see it, mainly because I had heard and read so much about it, and I finally got to be there in person. Otherwise, it’s just an abandoned ancient city at the top of a hill with two taller hills as an iconic backdrop. I’m currently 50/50 on returning, and if I do go back, I am also 50/50 about doing the Inca Trail. But I’m probably 90% sure I want to climb up that iconic mountain Wayna Picchu once I get there.
To get to Machu Picchu, most people start at the closest major town, which is Cuzco. And most people get to Cuzco by flying from Lima. I flew from Albuquerque to Lima with a connection in Houston.
I arrived at the Lima airport at night, and the flight from Lima to Cuzco was at six in the morning, as most flights with route were apparently, so I decided to spend the night at the airport. In my research, this is very common, and someone even outlined their experience with tips.
I bought a tour package for Machu Picchu via G Adventures, so when I got to the Cuzco airport, I had someone waiting for me with a sign that had my name. That was the first time it had happened to me, and I felt a little bit special.
The first three nights in Cuzco were part of the G Adventures tour, so I stayed in the Antawasi Hotel. The final night in Cuzco, I was on my own, so I booked a night at the Pariwana hostel. And when I got back to Lima, I stayed in the nearby Pay Purix Hostel for the night.
Antawasi Hotel (Cuzco)
Compared to the rest of the city, I would say it was a pretty nice hotel. A large part of that was how clean and well-kept the place was. One time, I came back to the hotel in the middle of the day, and I noticed at least three cleaning staff in the hallway, with face masks on, mopping floors, wiping surfaces, coming in and out of rooms with bags of trash. Every night I get back to the hotel, the bed was made with sheets tucked in squarely, the trash was emptied, and the bathroom counter was tidied up. I’m sure it’s the normal housekeeping stuff that American hotel cleaning staff do, but at this hotel, you actually noticed it.
My room was small by American standard, but it was just me so it was quite sufficient. There’s a full or queen size bed, nightstands, built-in closet, a table and chair, a TV hanging high up, and a basic bathroom. For power source, the outlets were either behind the nightstand or on the far side of the wall, so charging my phone took a bit of effort. First world problems.
The Toilet-Paper-Free Toilet
I noticed this at the Lima airport, but I thought it was just the airport. But it occurred to me at the hotel that most toilets in Peru, or at least in the area, can’t handle toilet paper, and one would need to put used toilet paper in a garbage bin next to the toilet to be emptied. This reminded me of the story when Olympians and visitors went to Sochi in Russia for the Winter Games and experienced the same culture shock. Now I know why the cleaning staff wore face masks.
As I was doing medical preparation for the trip, I learned that visitors in Peru may want to avoid drinking the local water there and should drink bottled water instead. Not taking any chances in the bathroom, I got a jug of water and used it to brush and rinse my teeth. It was a bit of hassle transferring water to a glass then sipping it to rinse. I also trained myself to not aim my open mouth at the shower head when showering. At the beginning, I got water in my mouth in the shower and quickly spit it out, but I left Peru without any medical problems, so all of this was probably overkill.
The Wifi Internet was basic, but slow by American standard. It’s available in the room and also at the lobby/reception. Checking emails and browsing sites are fine, and maybe streaming short videos. Uploading batches of photos may take more time.
The receptionist who was working for most my stay, whose name was Yolanda, was very helpful. She knew limited English, but she made up for it through the nonverbals like smiling after every sentence and being extra nice so I feel comfortable. She helped me take care of issues with my tour arrangements by talking to my local contact at G Adventures on the cellphone in Spanish, and then relayed the important information to me. I was glad she was there.
When I arrived at the hotel, I was quickly greeted and asked if I wanted some coca tea. Yolanda quickly made a cup at a self-serve station and served it to me. I had heard about the use of coca tea in Cuzco to deal with the altitude, but I thought it was something you had to order at a restaurant, and here at the hotel there’s a giant bowl of dried coca tea leaves ready to be brewed. I also took medication for the altitude, but I actually stopped taking it while I was in Cuzco. So either the combination of the medication and the tea worked very well, or that I adjusted well with the altitude. Still, I continued to drink the tea just because I felt like it.
The hotel offered free breakfast, but the selection was relatively basic. I noticed only about three or four pairs of guests when I was there, which was fine, because the quantity of food was sort of low, or at least the portions were small by American standard. There were hard boiled eggs the first day, which I was very excited about it. I took only two but I would’ve taken more if there were more to share in the tray. There were sausage links or smalls slices of ham, and the usual toast, fruit, butter, jam, granola/cereal, teas, and coffees. Again, by American standard, it’s quite basic. One would probably need to have a second breakfast after leaving the hotel to start the day.
The hotel was relatively nicely located. It’s tucked in a quiet alley, but a few quick turns and you would get to one of the main streets, and then you’ll be five to ten minutes from the main town square.
Personal note, around the corner of the hotel was a school, and there’s a large gate. That street very much reminded me of my school in Macau when I was young. Above is a picture of the street with the next to the school with the gate in Cuzco. Here is a Google Street View of my childhood school:
I know they don’t look exactly the same, but the mood of the alley triggered a memory. It’s one of those cases of strange faraway places evoking familiar feelings.
Pariwana Hostel (Cuzco)
With an extra day in Cuzco after the G Adventures Machu Picchu tour ended, I filled it with a zip-lining activity and came back to Cuzco and stayed at the Pariwana Hostel.
In my opinion, I see Pariwana as a tightly-run grown-up dorm. I think it’s because there are so many guests coming in and out every day that they had to implement an efficient system to keep things running smoothly. The staff communicated with guests and one another seriously and professionally like businesspeople. Everything was a task; when one staff asked another to do something, the command is received with a straight face, and the person proceeded to do what was asked. There were signs posted throughout the place for guests, like a noise curfew. People could still socialize after 11pm, but they had to do it in the bar room while the rest of the hostel was lights out and all quiet. All guests had a durable wristband attached when they checked in so they know who to charge meals and purchases, and I think to also prevent outside people from coming in.
Despite the slightly repressing feeling, the hostel had a lot of fun things to offer. The night I was there, they were organizing a weekly barbecue and were asking if people were interested in joining. There’s a giant activity board for day trips as well as tour packages to go to Machu Picchu and other places. On site, there’s TV/movie room, a bar room, a cafeteria, an Internet room, and laundry service and bottled water for sale at reception, all surrounding an open courtyard of ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs. It’s definitely aimed towards the college crowd or younger twenty-somethings, but there were people around my age as well. If I were to come to Cuzco again, I would stay here and for longer than one night, and I would probably bring one or more people along.
I stayed in a six-person room. It was a narrow room with three bunk beds and a couple of lockers. I had the bottom bunk and there was only one light in the room, so I had trouble seeing clearly when I had my stuff on my bed. The only source of natural light was a small window above the metal door, which had a slight problem opening and closing.
The lockers were tall and had loops to place your lock through. It’s a bit noisy to open since it’s all metal. Inside, there’s an outlet that you can charge your phone with! However, there were no outlets next to the bed.
Wifi Internet sort of works in the hallways and courtyard. It works best in the Internet room. Still slow by American standard.
There’s a bathroom area with several separate shower rooms and toilet rooms. The toilets again had trash cans next to them to place used toilet paper. The showers were basic with a rack to place toiletries. I accidentally left my travel-size shampoo bottle at night and the next day it was gone. I was hoping they were more lax about cleaning the bathrooms, or that they would have a lost-and-found, but neither of those things were true, it seemed. Oh well, It was far from the most valuable thing I lost on the trip anyway.
During the day, the balconies all had personal towels hanging off them to dry. With my room being so crowded and the only ventilation being by the door, I followed everyone else and tried to dry my towel in public as well. But it was already later in the evening so I only got to hang it for so long, so I took it back to my room and hung it at the foot of my bed.
There were two couples in my dorm that night. One was in their early twenties and were from England, and they gave me tips and places to visit when I get to London and Paris. The other couple was heading out for their Inca Trail journey to Machu Picchu the next morning. I know because there was ruckus in the middle of the night as people were coming in and out and asking for one of them.
The food at the cafeteria was good, probably because it’s paid food. I almost forgot that fact since everything was put on a tab to be closed at check out. In the evening, I ordered a chicken and rice dish. It was delicious but a bit of the medium portion size. In the morning, there was free breakfast, which was toast and other basic foods, but I ordered an “American” breakfast, which was eggs, sausage, etc. because I somehow needed a full breakfast for my travels back to Lima, and it would be hard to get full with just toast. The “American” breakfast was good but also on the smaller size, so the free breakfast items helped supplement that.
Check out was at 11am and I forgot that since the hostel had so many people, there would be a line to check out right before 11. Fortunately I made it, but there was a taxi waiting to get me to the airport, arranged by my G Adventures local contact (More on that later). Even with the rush, the hostel staff made me fill out a survey about my stay. So I more or less rated everything in a positive light, even though I would have rated differently had I been given more time. Also, I had to do it in front of the staff, which was sort of unfair and awkward.
Pay Purix Hostel (Peru)
I booked a night at the Pay Purix hostel near the airport because I wanted to avoid spending the night at the airport again, and my morning flight out departed a little later than my Cuzco flight, so I had a bit more time to sleep in a real bed. Aside from the fact that it was known as an overnight airport hostel for travelers, especially those on their way to or from Cuzco, from the reviews and photos of many websites, this hostel seemed to be a very happening place with many opportunities for socializing, so I was sort of curious to check it out.
I arranged for an airport pickup since I read about the safety issues in the neighborhood around the Lima airport. Once again someone held a sign with my name on it (as well as another guest’s) at the airport lobby. Once both of us were picked up, we rode in the taxi to the hostel. The other guest was Swiss, I believe, and he just completed the Inca Trail or something.
I tried to Google Street View the exact location of the hostel before the trip, but I had trouble pinpointing the entrance, or the building for that matter. When we arrived, I thought the taxi driver was dropping off the other guest at his hostel because I didn’t see any sign that says “Pay Purix”. It turns out the entrance was a metal door on a giant metallic facade. Looking back, it was probably like that for security reasons.
Right after walking through the door was the tiny reception desk underneath the stairs. I paid for the night in cash and was directed to my room upstairs.
I booked a spot in a four-person room, but I was the only one there. In fact, the entire hostel was the opposite of what the pictures online were. Instead of a happening hostel full of people hanging out, there were probably only a handful of people staying there. Maybe it was slow season.
There was a double-bed in the middle of the room, and a bunk bed by the wall. I wanted to be considerate (to whom?!) so I took the bottom bunk. Also, the double bed felt too open in case someone else happened to be staying there as well. As I was settling in, one of the staff came in to the room without realizing I was in there. She made an apologetic face and backed out of the room. But since the rooms had windows near the ceiling that were opened to the hallway. I could hear her talk to another staff about what just happened, and after an exchange of words that I couldn’t understand, she laughed as if she made a joke. I assumed that she was laughing at how I took the bottom bunk when I had the chance to take the big open double bed. On each bed was a nicely folded towel with a small slice of unwrapped soap. That was nice, I thought, until I lifted the towel and a bug scurried out of the way. I decided then that I was going to use my travel sheet and my own towel.
I took a shower and noticed the shower head had a interesting contraption to adjust the water temperature. There was also a sign next to the shower that said the water pressure needed to be lowered to get warm water. To this day, I still don’t know how that actually works, but I made it work and had some warm water for my shower. The provided soap pretty much washed out after my shower. I suppose they gave their guests just enough soap for one shower.
The room had “lockers,” which are giant cupboards with metal loops for mini padlocks. I chose one that happened to have an outlet on the wall and charged my phone while I was hanging out in the common area.
Common Area and WiFi
There was a relatively good size common area, with a pool room, a WiFi/couch area, and a TV room with a bunch of VHS tapes on a shelf. The only problem was that only I was there, and for only a few minutes, so did the Swiss guy who I rode in with from the airport. Wifi only worked in the Wifi area, so I hung out there with my tablet and surf the web a little bit. The speed was very basic, just like in Cuzco. And the Wifi area also had no roof, so it was starting to get dark as the evening arrived and it got chilly, so I went back to the room.
(Lack of) Food
From the pictures of the hostel online, the ones where people were socializing and laughing with drinks in their hands, I thought I saw food as well, so I assume there was food I could order. I noticed a small kitchen next to the Wifi area, but it was fairly clean and empty with no signs of being used any time soon. I also heard it is possible ask the staff to order takeout from outside the hostel and have them bring it in. But that felt like too much hassle and I wouldn’t know what to order anyway. So I just ate whatever snacks I had in my luggage as my dinner and went to bed early, and hoped to get something at the airport the next day.
In the middle of the night, I got woken up by some people at the door stage-whispering. A guest had checked in, and I somehow felt obligated to chat with him a little bit. The guy was from Korea and just landed. We chatted for a few minutes, longer than I expected, though I forgot his story (he may be a student) and where he was going. As he was settling in and started using the bathroom, I just went back to sleep.
Check out and airport pickup
The next early morning, I woke up and quietly got ready. I was very aware of where my things were so I could almost navigate around my luggage in the dark and without waking my new roommate. Then I went downstairs to check out and ask about my ride to the airport, which I arranged the previous evening. But there was already a couple there with the boyfriend talking to the receptionist about how their ride was fifteen or so minutes late. At one point, the impatient guy went outside of the hostel on the curb to wait for his taxi, but the receptionist told the girlfriend to ask him to come back because it wasn’t safe. That made me glad I decided to get a ride to the airport instead of trying to be self-sufficient and make the ten-minute walk by myself before dawn. When a taxi came, the couple was very ready to get in. It was also around the time when my taxi was supposed to arrive, so I was hesitating, not sure if it was my ride, too, but the receptionist confirmed that I should get in that taxi as well. Thinking back, I had paid the same flat rate as the couple for the taxi, and we both shared the ride, which means the hostel made a profit that way by packing the guests, paying for one taxi, and keeping the rest of the money.
Getting Around (Cuzco)
As I mentioned, I was picked up by from the airport via the tour package that I got. There are tips online for how to find the right taxis to get you to the town center. Once I got to the main tourist area, it’s relatively walkable. Many of the streets and alleys were narrow, with an occasional open courtyard popping up, and they are all paved differently. There are minor hills, and the altitude may make them require a bit more effort to get up.
Time of year: early October. The weather was generally mild, with a bit of humidity. A t-shirt or short sleeve is generally fine, especially if you’re walking around and up small slopes.
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
Spurts of Rain in Cuzco
One evening I was walking back to my hotel from dinner and I started feeling droplets of water on my head. It started with sprinkles but the droplets started getting bigger. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was pouring, and since the hotel had a central open atrium where all the rooms face out towards it, I could hear the roaring of the water just continuously dumping onto the courtyard on the ground floor until late in the night. So I guess it’s common to have these localized pockets of rain in Cuzco.
Machu Picchu is actually lower in elevation from Cuzco. The weather was partly sunny and the temperatures were cool down at the base at Aguas Calientes and warmer at the actual site. With all the hiking up and down the different parts of the site, I started working up a sweat. My tour guide also took out an umbrella to block the sun, which felt a bit excessive at first but was very helpful and necessary.
The people I encountered were nice for the most part, and they did what they can to help foreigners like me. I would say a third to a half of the people I’ve interacted with speak limited to basic English. If you don’t speak Spanish, most people still try to help you, or defer you to someone who spoke English. Since I stayed mostly in the tourist areas, there were plenty of workers with flyers or their portfolio in hands trying to sell your packages or paintings. For the most part, I just said “No, gracias.” and they would go on their way, though I was always afraid that if my eyes lingered just a bit longer at the paintings, they would be more persistent and I’d have to be more firm in getting them to stop following me.
This was my first time in a Spanish-speaking country by myself. I had been to Nicaragua two years previous, but I was in a group with a few people who knew Spanish. As I said before, in Cuzco, about a third to a half of the people know limited English. Fortunately, with whatever English they knew, I was able to get by with basic requests. In preparation for this trip, I tried to learn/brush up five languages through immersion audio lessons. I started the Spanish lessons after I started Italian, so it was sort of confusing between the two, especially with numbers and some of the conjunctions and prepositions. While I didn’t learn enough to have a conversation. I had learned enough words to build common traveling phrases and use the right conjugations, gender, and tenses. My proudest moment was on my last day, at the Lima airport, where I already got rid of most of my Peruvian soles and I had to pay for some food in U.S. Dollars. After hearing Spanish and thinking about words in Spanish for the past few days, I asked the cashier, with good confidence in my conjugations and grammar, “Puedo pagar in dólares?” (Can I pay in dollars?) And the cashier replied normally, “Claro!” (Of course!)
This was the first time I used G Adventures. The site was relatively easy to use, with very detailed information about each tour. I would recommend it if you have little to no idea how to take the trip you want to take, like this Machu Picchu one.
My first official day of the tour package was a free day, and the day before, I met with my local contact Wenny, and in addition to all the paperwork for the Machu Picchu trip, she gave me a list of optional activities to do on my first free day. She assured me I didn’t have to decide then, but when I have, I could let her know and she would arrange it.
I decided to do the half-day city/region tour of Cuzco. So that evening, I let Wenny know but she still said I didn’t have to decide then, so being polite, I took more time to think about it. The next day, I told her I still wanted to do the city tour, and she said she would arrange it, and that I should wait at the hotel at 1pm for pickup. So I waited at the lobby at 1pm and about fifteen to twenty minutes past, I asked Yolanda the receptionist to call Wenny to ask about the tour. After a long conversation between the two, I found out there was some sort of miscommunication, and Wenny asked Yolanda to call a taxi for me and get me to the tour group.
I got dropped off in front of the cathedral next to the town square, got led to the front door by several ladies and one boy, paid for a ticket, was asked to remove my cap, and the boy brought me to the tour group I was supposed to be with. I thanked the boy but he lingered a little bit, unsure what to do. A few minutes later he finally left. Only afterwards did I realized he was probably expecting a tip, and that made me feel a little bad. The tour guide walked us through different parts of the cathedral, telling the history of the natives and how they interacted with European foreigners coming in and spreading the religion. It was interesting to see large paintings depicting the Europeans as the aggressive conquerors forcing their way into the land, whereas a few weeks later, my visit to museums in Europe would depict the sentiment of how the saintly Europeans were doing the good work of taming the people in distant lands.
After the tour of the cathedral, we walked through certain parts of the town while Claudio the tour guide pointed things out and talked about the history, as tour guides do. This whole time, I kept wondering to whom I should pay the the twenty-dollar tour fee. In the rush to get to the tour group, no one from G Adventures asked me for the money, so I thought it was an pay-on-the-spot type of tour, if such a thing exists. So I asked Claudio whether I should pay him, and he just said yes.
After the tour of the city, we hopped on a bus and made our way up the hills to the ruins. There were four sites, and there are tickets for individual sites or all of them as a package. We gave Claudio the money and he bought the tickets for us. The first site was Saqsayhuamán, which sounded like “sexy woman” said in a funny way. Right after entering, I gave Claudio the twenty dollars for the tour, and I felt cleared that I didn’t owe anyone anything. We continue to check out the four sites and learned about the history. Near the end, I more or less got the gist of the story and was getting tired and a little bored.
On the bus ride back, the sun had gone down, and we were brought to an Alpaca wool store. We stood in front of a salesperson and was taught how to spot real baby alpaca wool from the fake, and they said that their store only sold the real stuff, so we should buy from them. I walked around the store once or twice and waited back at the bus, knowing that 1) I didn’t need any wool clothing, and 2) I didn’t have room in my one carry-on luggage, and I’d have to carry it with me throughout the trip. A while later, everyone from the tour finished their shopping and got back on the bus. The tour ended when we got dropped off in the city.
On my first day of arriving in Cuzco, I met with my G Adventures local contact Wenny at the hotel lobby and she gave me a big envelope of documents and explained how the Machu Picchu trip was going to work. It was all very detailed, which honestly went over my head. I reviewed the stuff later on to make sure everything was set.
Taxi to Poroy Train Station
Early in the morning, I got picked up by a taxi at my hotel. Before I left the hotel, a different receptionist asked me to leave my key. I didn’t know why, but I figured it might be in case I don’t make it back, like if I fell down the side of Machu Picchu? I don’t know. It turns out I would be riding with two other people, who also bought the G Adventures tour and were staying at the hotel across from mine. They were a Chinese couple from Canada, Felix and Grace. We made small talk in the 25-30 minute ride to Poroy station, and the ride gave me a brief look at the conditions in the outskirts of Cuzco for the first time. When we got to the station, it was pretty packed. It turned out most of the people there were waiting for an earlier train. Once those people boarded, the station almost emptied. While waiting, I bought two overpriced croissants from the cafe counter, since it was going to be along train ride. I hung out with Felix and Grace some more and we talked about their travels.
Train Ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes
The train was pretty nice. I sat at a four-seat table with Felix, Grace, and a French man who was in Lima for a conference. The tables were a bit tightly spaced so if people facing each other slouched a little bit, they would awkwardly touch knees. It’s definitely more uncomfortable for taller people like me. The train played “folksy” Peruvian music with flutes and things, then it got remix-y with some digital/house music spin to it, possibly as a way to wake people up. There were two main staff members in our car. And they were serving drinks and food at some point, and then became salespeople selling Machu Picchu souvenirs and DVDs. It was kind of weird. The train ride was about four hours, and I nodded off here and there. Other than looking out of the train at the farmlands and Peruvian landscape, which became repetitive after a few hours, there was very little to do.
Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, I was picked up by my tour guide Jose at the station. Felix and Grace had their own guide. He swiftly led me through a maze of vendors in Aguas Calientes, across a bridge, through more shops, and waited in line for the bus. We made obligatory small talk and talked about our jobs.
Bus Ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
The bus ride up the mountain to the Machu Picchu site was surprisingly long. It was probably 20-25 minutes. It was basically a back-and-forth winding road along one side of the mountain gradually getting higher and higher. As the bus turned at a corner on one side of the mountain, I could get glimpses of Wayna Picchu, peeking out and more visible as we got higher. For some reason, I imagined it like a giant inanimate T-Rex’s head.
After getting off the bus, we walked straight to the entrance and the staff checked and stamped my ticket with pasport. We walked past a small table where people could stamp a Machu Picchu image on their passport. After a few more climbs, we got to the main site area, and around the corner appeared the iconic postcard image I had seen for years, right in front of my eyes. It was almost surreal. From the way it looked, I could tell I wasn’t at the “correct” spot like I’ve seen in photos, so I was ready to keep walking and continue the tour until I get to that “spot.” But Jose convinced the me to just get a picture with it, because he could tell I was somewhat excited, so I did.
I followed Jose through the route of the site, which surprised me that there was a route. I thought people just freely walked around. Apparently, you must go in the direction of the route. If you want to go back to a certain area, you’d have to continue the route back to the beginning and walk through it again.
Jose was very knowledgeable about the different sections of the site and their history, which made the place more fascinating and rich with meaning. The tour took about two hours to complete. When the tour ended, I thanked Jose, took a selfie with him, tipped him, and then he left. The itinerary allowed me to stay for another hour or so exploring until I had to head back to catch the bus and train.
So with just me at this point, I climbed up and down different elevations trying to find the “right” shot. I also recorded my daily video among other footage. I said to myself that I could stay there longer, but I felt that I reached my picture quota, I was a little tired, and while I wasn’t hungry, I could eat. I pretty much took in as much of the Machu Picchu as I could. So I made my way to the exit, got my passport stamped, and headed to the bus stop to get picked up. Since I wanted to leave in the afternoon like almost everyone else, I waited about an hour in line. Near the beginning of the wait, I thought about going to the bathroom, but I felt that I could wait. Besides, the bathrooms charged money (a few coins). I also thought about getting food first but I felt that the wait for the bus probably wouldn’t be too long, so I forewent both. Luckily, I made it down to Aguas Calientes without any urgent need to use the restroom or to eat.
At Aguas Calientes, there was time left before the train arrived, so I tried to find something to eat and to buy couple of souvenirs for myself. I couldn’t decided which grab-and-go type of food I should get, since I wouldn’t have time to sit down at a restaurant for a meal. I ultimately choose an empanada, and it tasted decent. I rode the train back with Felix and Grace, but this time, everyone was more tired and napped more. After the three-to-four hour train ride, I felt I was so close to the hotel, but I remembered there was another 25 or so minutes of taxi ride from Poroy back to Cuzco, which felt unfairly long.
The taxi driver, with his limited English, was trying to talk to us and make jokes. It was sort of obvious he made an effort, so we agreed to give him a decent tip. We got dropped off at our hotels, Felix and Grace exchanged emails with me, and we ended the night.
I decided a few weeks before the trip that on the free day I had in Cuzco after my Machu Picchu visit, I would squeeze in an item from my “Before 30” list and go zip-lining. I found a company (Natura Vive) that did it in Cuzco and made arrangement to go. One reason I went with this company was that they offered six zip-line rides instead of one or two like other companies, supposedly.
Another early morning, I got picked up again, this time in a van. I honestly did not know how far it was going to be, other than that it was in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco. In total, I think the ride took about two hours, including picking up other customers and stopping at the company “headquarters” to pick up the zip-lining gear. We finally got to the side of a mountain and set up our gear. Before we got to zip-line, we had to hike our way up to the first spot. I wasn’t aware of this, and neither did some of the other customers. But I was fine with it because I was in shape and could do some hiking and climbing. A few others, one in particular, took longer to make his way up. Less in shape, he was devastatingly surprised this zip-line tour involved hiking. At the midway point, we took a food break, which were sandwiches and a piece of fruit that they provided. They even had bottled water for us.
The first spot was probably two-thirds to half way up on the side of the mountain. From there we just let gravity lead our way down the mountain six times. With this being my first time, it took getting used to with the breaking mechanics. We had heavy duty gloves on but placing our hands on the zip-line while it’s moving just subconsciously trigger possible rope burns in my mind. But for the most part, it was neat. While the speed of the zip-line was fast, it felt less so being in such an open space surrounded by tall mountains.
I tried taking videos of one of the rides, but it mostly aimed at the sky and zip-line. I also passed my phone to the person ahead of me and asked him to record me, which was out of focus at the beginning but came into focus in the end. That one made it to my daily video. Good enough.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow:
Other than ceviche and guinea pig (neither of which I ate while there), I knew very little about Peruvian cuisine. I went to the Agua y Manto restaurant the first night and had a fancy-looking chicken dish, but I wasn’t sure if it’s Peruvian. The chicken and rice dish from Pariwana Hostel was nice and delicious but again, I don’ know if it’s Peruvian. Other than that, I ate mostly snacks I got at the grocery store or American style foods.
I got a taxi ride to the Cuzco airport that was arranged by my G Adventures local contact. I thought it was a nice gesture until a representative from G Adventures waited for me at the airport, helped me get my boarding pass, and then asked me to pay her the twenty dollars for the city tour that I signed up for, which I thought was paid for when I gave the tour guide the twenty dollars. He fooled me out of twenty dollars.
And I got a taxi ride to the Lima airport through the Pay Purix hostel.
From My Travel Log
6 October 2014, 11:41pm, LIM Airport Food Court
First time in South America! First night will be spent at an airport food court!
When I left Houston, I was terrified of coming to a country where I don’t speak the language. Hearing the bilingual flight attendants speak Jibberish made me really nervous. But after finishing review for Pimsleur Spanish for the third time, I felt slightly better, at least I know how to say “I don’t understand.”
As I prepare for my short long night at the airport (flight’s at 6:30 so I go through the scans at around 4:30/5am), I went and bought a giant bottle of water. As I went to pay, I think the lady was already speaking English, but she spoke so fast with her accent that I froze and immediately dug out “no entiendo” to place at the tip of my tongue. But when she repeated, I caught “plastic bag” and I took a few seconds to confirm and responded “No.” When the transaction was complete, she said “thank you” and I mumbled “gracias” to redeem myself in the most subtlest way possible.
Also on the flight, the flight attendants were passing out immigration and declaration forms. The immigration form had both Spanish and English, but I took a look at the declaration form and it was all Spanish. I went back and forth as I looked through the form “I can do this.” and “I don’t know what this mean.” and “I think that’s this.” I wasn’t sure if there was an English version, so I really tried to take a stab at it and used the Word Lens app to see if it can translate. It’s actually pretty good. I would give it a 65-75% helpful rating. But I still wouldn’t be able to fill this out with full understanding of what I just wrote. So I finally asked for an English version and sure enough, there was one. In hindsight, it was interesting that the flight attendant gave me the Spanish version.
8 October 2014, 11:55am, Jack’s Cafe, Cuzco
- Impression of Cuzco
- Out of breath: hills, thin air, exhaust
- Interesting combo of old and new, similar but different than Hong Kong
- Glad I learned about water and toilet beforehand.
- “I’m really here!” after being in place where street view was.
- Inca Museum – very comprehensive, lots of pots and vases artifacts. Still not understanding full history.
- Lots of ATMs, almost obscene
- Lots of water bottles for sale
- Agua y Manto – hard to find entrance, but chicken really good. Banana blend really good
- Very few speaking English really well. Some only words and phrases, some not at all.
- Non main streets have different names at every block.
- Really annoying to make change for S/100
9 October 2014, 2:17pm, Machu Picchu
It’s magnificent! In many ways, like the city itself, it’s perfect. The experience is perfect. I can see myself being back here again like NYC. Maybe next time, I will do the Inca Trail, but probably with somebody. And having the guide definitely helped me appreciate and understand the place more. It’s hard to find myself walk away and return to Aguas Calientes, but I must.
11 October 2014, 11:34pm, Cuzco Airport Gate 2
- Cuzco – so much to explore
- Next time: Inca Trail, Wayna Picchu
- Cuzco, it’s a good town – NOT BAD
- Almost like Macau, people come here for the main attraction (Machu Picchu/casinos) but it’s a hard working town with its perks and issues.
- It doesn’t feel like I’m in Peru, whatever that means. I’m just in a place with different language, different customs and traditions, and different way of living, but not too different; we’re still all human, looking for the same things in life.
- Cuzco Airport security – just bag and trinkets (wallet, phone, coins, etc.) – no shoes, liquids
- G Adventures airport pick up driver
- Yolanda, the receptionist at Hotel Antawasi
- Wenny, my G Adventures contact
- Yolanda, the Tatoo Adventure Gear shop clerk who understood English and accepted my payment for the zip-line trip
- Claudio, city tour guide (who fooled me out of twenty dollars)
- Sergei, a fellow city tour customer
- Felix and Grace, my fellow G Adventures Machu Picchu train mates who are from Canada
- French man from Lyon on train to Aguas Calientes
- Jose, my G Adventures Machu Picchu tour guide
- Cynthia and Cesar, my zip-line operators
- Jacob and Tammy, and Henry, my fellow zip-liners.
- Jenny, the lady who showed me around Pariwana and my room
- May and Bryson, my Pariwana dorm mates who gave me advice about London and Paris
- Mariana, my Pariwana breakfast table-mate (from Brazil?)
- Simon, my fellow Pay Purix guest and taxi buddy from the Lima airport
- Jeremy and Angelina, my fellow Pay Purix guests and taxi buddies to the Lima airport
- taxi and shuttle drivers
- 100-Peruvian-sole bills are hard to break. When you get cash, get 50-sole bill as the largest denomination (though even then it’s hard to break), unless you are making large purchases.
- If you’re exchanging currency, either ask to get 50-sole bills (or smaller) denominations, or exchange one 20-dollar bills at a time. I made the mistake of exchanging two 20-dollar bills at the same time and got a 100-sole bill and change. As soon as I uttered, “Can I…” to ask for smaller bills, the guy wagged his finger and shook his head. His rudeness took me aback and I felt too defeated to try to ask again.
- If you’re unfamiliar with how to do Machu Picchu, I definitely recommend buying a tour like I did, because they took care the taxi ride from Cuzco to the Poroy train station about 30 minutes away, the train tickets from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, the bus tickets to get from AC to Machu Picchu, the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and the return trips. It would require me a lot more time and research to try to get all of that arranged.
- Get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp right after you go through the entrance (if you’re coming in from Aguas Calientes). There should be a small table on the side with two pads of stamps.
- If you are taking the bus back down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes in the afternoon, expect to wait for about an hour in line to get on a bus. So go to the bathroom and eat something before getting in line.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- My G Adventures tour package
- Wiki voyage for Cuzco
- Average temperatures in Cuzco
- Antawasi Hotel (TripAdvisor)
- Pariwana Hostel – main site
- Pariwana Hostel (TripAdvisor)
- Pay Purix – main site
- Pay Purix (TripAdvisor)
If you have questions about specific experiences of Cuzco or Machu Picchu, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Whenever I started listing my itinerary for the Little Big Trip (LBT) to people, they were surprised that Albuquerque was on there, let alone my first stop. (Some thought it was because of the show Breaking Bad, which I have yet to watch.) I wanted to visit Albuquerque to check out the annual International Balloon Fiesta. A few months earlier, I saw photos of a field of hot air balloons somewhere and thought it would be a great sight to see.
After carefully packing my things into one carry-on luggage for the six-week adventure, I flew from San Francisco to Albuquerque (or “ABQ” as I refer to the entire city now) with a connection at Phoenix. While I had flown over the American Southwest before, this was the first time I really looked out the window and become mesmerized by the alien-looking landscape. It may also be the time of day when the sun hits the land with a warm color. The Phoenix airport, maybe because of the openness of the land, also looks out to beautiful skylines in the evening time.
I stayed at an Airbnb in Albuquerque. Since I was one of the hundreds of thousands of spectators coming to Albuquerque for the Fiesta, a lot of the hotel rooms were booked in advance, and any rooms left would be expensive or low quality. This would be the perfect opportunity to book an Airbnb and be economical and self-sufficient to start off the trip.
I chose the place I stayed at based on its relatively close location to the pick-up spot for the Fiesta. The Fiesta offers these “Park & Ride” tickets where you meet up at one of four locations in the city and they would shuttle you to the Fiesta park. I looked up the Airbnb spot on a map and it was about a 20-minute walk to the meet-up point at Coronado mall, and I felt that 20 minutes was totally doable. The listing was also relatively inexpensive.
After landing at the ABQ airport at night, I Lyfted to the Airbnb house. I could go into detail about this place some other time, but basically, the place belongs to a young guy who’s starting a business and has this large house, so he’s renting out some of the rooms to Airbnb guests. This is one of the listings. The house was large, and it definitely has a 20-something guy’s pad feel to it, as in under-furnished with mismatched pieces of furniture. My room left something to be desired. But at this early point of the trip, I had an open mind and was glad to have a place to stay.
Most of the traveling I did in the city were 1) walking to and from the Airbnb place and the Coronado Center, 2) the school bus shuttles from the Coronado Center to the Fiesta Park and back, and 3) riding a bike I borrowed from the Airbnb place for a special errand (more on that later). I forewent the idea of renting a car because I felt that it was too much trouble, responsibility and money for an “easy” 20-minute walk. After settling into my Airbnb place that evening, I woke up very early the next morning because I had to walk to the Coronado Center for the Park & Ride. The walk was much longer than I anticipated; it may have been 25-30 minutes. It was around four in the morning, so the temperature was cool. During the day, however, when I returned from the mall (Coronado Center), it got a bit warmer, and the walk felt even longer. I believe I walked this length six times during my stay. In retrospect, I would rent a car. Albuquerque is very spread out with most of the streets in a grid.
Climate and Clothing
Time of year: Early October
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
- At night, it’s cool. A light jacket would suffice.
- But at the Fiesta Park, since it’s a big open field, it gets really chilly before daybreak. So wear layers to get ready to take off as the day warms up.
- During the day, it’s sunny, with barely a cloud. Sometimes there’s a breeze. Short-sleeves are preferred. Long pants are still okay if walking.
For the most part, the people are nice. I would say it’s the standard American polite etiquette for interacting with strangers. Small talks come up, especially around big events where there are out-of-towners and they’re generally in a good mood. Actually, on my first Park-and-Ride shuttle ride to the Fiesta park, I sat next to a woman who I honestly would not have a reason to talk to at home. I remember thinking on the bus that as I began this trip, I should start being more open and outgoing and try to talk to more people. I debated whether I should just break the ice with this woman; I would have doubts and make assumptions based on how different both of us looked and that we would not have anything in common to talk about. Finally, if I remember correctly, she broke the ice for us and asked whether I’ve come to this before. I said no, and then we found out we were both doing some traveling. She told me about her plans of traveling across the country, and I told her about my stunt to travel around the world and how this is the second day of my trip. By the end of the bus ride, I made a Facebook friend, and she had followed my journey ever since.
The Fiesta lasts for nine days, starting with one weekend, running through the week, and ending on the next weekend. Weekends are when most people visit, so they have “mass ascensions,” where a lot of balloons go up at the same time. On the weekends, there’s a morning session and an evening session. I attended the first weekend, morning and evening sessions on Saturday, and the morning session on Sunday.
There are many ways to attend. There are general admission tickets where guests would just enter the park on their own. There are the Park & Ride tickets, where guests meet up at one of many locations in ABQ, and get picked up through an enormous, organized network of school buses driven by real school bus drivers from schools in the area. There are also special VIP-type tickets that cover parking and food and an area at the Park to watch the balloons from. You can also buy tickets to ride one of the balloons. But a quick research showed how out of my price range it was (a few hundred dollars) that I didn’t look into it any more. I got the Park & Ride tickets and I would recommend this for most people. It just takes a lot of the hassle out of figuring out the logistics of getting to the Park.
I arrived at my Park & Ride pickup spot, Coronado Center, at around 4:30 in the morning. I thought I would be too early, or that there would be only a few people there, but when I arrived, there was already a long line snaking from the side of the parking lot. The system was pretty organized, where the workers scanned people’s tickets and led them to pens to be loaded onto a bus once the pen is full. There seems to be a never-ending queue of empty buses waiting to fill with people. It’s like the scene at an airport where taxis line up, except it’s school buses, and there are a lot more of them. There were so many visitors, and the Fiesta organizers knew this and were ready for it. It’s a huge operation, and they don’t mess around. From maps online, the driving distance from the mall to the Park seems short, but the bus ride was probably 20 minutes. Once there, everyone enters the booths area, which is a long strip of vendors selling souvenirs and whatnot. But first, I got an overpriced breakfast burrito from the first booth at the entrance. It’s still pretty dark out, so none of the balloons were up yet. So I walked along the booths, checking things out and killing time. By the time I got to one end of the strip, a few balloons were setting up on the field so I walked towards it, along with everyone else.
One row of balloons had set up and seemed to be doing synchronized burner firings to make the balloons glow together against dark sky. Other than that, for about an hour, there was very little happening. Only when the sky lightened a bit more did more balloons start filling up by rows, which were perpendicular to the strip of booths. When I read “mass ascension” on the website, I thought the balloons would go up all at the same time. But what actually happened was that they ascended in rows, so it would take a while before all the balloons would be in the air, and by that time, some of balloons launched earlier would already have landed somewhere else in the city.
It was a gradual process, but pretty soon, the sun came up, and a lot of the balloons were in the air. But the wind moved them away from the Park so they looked like a bunch of small semi-colored dots in the sky.
There were a bunch of adorable balloons with different markings and shapes in the form of animals or characters. I tried briefly to invoke my inner child to pick a favorite, but there were too many good ones to choose.
I looked up foods of Albuquerque, and there was very little special, regional dishes that I really had to try. So, I had pretty ordinary food while I was there, including a small, overpriced breakfast burrito at the Fiesta, a chicken salad at Jason’s Deli near the Coronado Center, and a sad salad from Target with sliced turkey added.
Losing My Wallet
Long story short, on my second day of trip, while I was riding the Park & Ride bus back from the morning session, I took out the new travel zip wallet I got for the trip to take out some cash to tip the driver. I saw people do it earlier the last time we got off the bus, so I felt I should do the same. I was still getting used to having a special wallet and putting it in a different place than I normally do to prevent theft, so I somehow forgot to put the wallet back in my pocket. On my walk back to the Airbnb house, I realized my pant pocket felt a bit empty. This led to about 28 hours of dread, disappointment, depression, and desperation that involved calling the Fiesta hotline about their lost-and-found process, asking as many bus drivers and staff members at the Coronado Center as I could about any returned wallets, asking the lost-and-found station at the Park many times, moping around during the evening session, feeling very disappointed at myself, escaping the problem for a few hours at night while I slept, emailing the Fiesta organizers about my situation as a last resort to plead for some help, calling credit card companies to cancel and reissue my cards while arranging with the hostel in South Africa via email to accept the packages two weeks away when I arrive, borrowing a bike from the Airbnb host to get to the FedEx Office store to complete and fax the paperwork to reissue my cards and to send them to South Africa, getting a call while I was at the FedEx Office store that my wallet’s been found, and riding one of the buses to the Park to pick up my wallet.
I consider myself incredibly lucky for many reasons. First and by far the most important, the only reason my wallet was found so quickly was that moments before I got on the bus where I lost my wallet, I casually noticed the bus number, and I saw that number again in passing in the later session, and I mentioned that number in the email to the Fiesta organizers, hoping that was the right bus. Second, this happened while I was still in the States, where I still had cell and data access, the people spoke English, and I still had time to arrange for replacements with access to places like a FedEx Office. And third, there are people in Albuquerque who are kind enough to help out-of-towners like me and in a timely fashion. I am very grateful for this and it was definitely a lesson for the rest of my trip.
From My Travel Log
October 4, 2014, 4:44pm, ABQ Balloon Fiesta [at the Saturday evening session]
Learned about self. I immediately thought of backup plan and steps to take care of mishap. But this is relatively not a trip-ending mishap. Losing my passport or getting stuck at a place would be really bad, and costly. Also a big disappointment on my trip.
October 6, 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH [on the plane to Houston]
One thing to note: It’s amazing how my day could turn from really happy to devastated to okay. This incident was a wake-up call, a practice round, for how to deal with problems. With hindsight, this was a relatively common problem with no real permanent damage. I don’t know what the next 42 1/2 days will bring. What I worry most right now are being stuck somewhere and/or not having enough money, not being able to communicate successfully with the different languages, being cold/not having enough clothing for Tromsø and Beijing, and maybe Cuzco.
- Lyft drivers: Danny (from the airport) and Chad (to the airport)
- Airbnb hosts: Travis, Reese, and Ryan
- People I met at the Fiesta
- Cynthia, the lady on the bus who broke the ice and became Facebook friends with me.
- Elaine, Janice, Trigo (sp?), the Park & Ride staff who helped me get my wallet back.
- Kathleen (sp?), my special private bus driver who drove me and only me back to the Coronado Center after I picked up my wallet from the Park.
- Rent a car, even if you are doing Park-and-Ride. It’s much more convenient to get around the spread-out city.
- If you do Park & Ride, tip the drivers (but make sure you still have your wallet).
- If you do Park & Ride, depending on your interest in spending time at the Park, try to leave the session very early or very late, because the lines to get back to your Park & Ride location is ridiculous. After all the balloons left the park, the booths and exhibits were still open.
- As far as I know, most of the booths at the fiesta park are cash-only, especially the food stands. Maybe booths selling expensive things will take cards. There are ATMs scattered throughout the strip.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- The official site of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta: balloonfiesta.com
- Average Monthly Temperature and Weather of Albuquerque
If you have questions about specific experiences of the Fiesta, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Just found out from an email that Scott Dinsmore of LYL just died.
He died from falling rocks on Mount Kilimanjaro.
The email was sent yesterday 9/15.
It’s quite ironic that I learned about this the day I am considering pausing on reading the LYL posts to work on my LBT blog. I don’t think I’m going to unpause it, because my priorities haven’t changed. In fact, it may magnified them. I want to get the LBT blog posts out as a way to make a difference in the world.
I just feel really sad for this young man and his young wife, who had so much left to do.
I requested to join the closed Facebook group and saw that there are already 4000+ people in the group. This suddenly made me realize the impact this person has made.
I hope this motivates every one of them in the group (and more who have probably yet to hear the news) to carry on Scott’s message and live their legends and change the world. If anything positive that can come out of this, I hope it’s that.
It seems too much like a movie that he died so young, motivating his Living Legends to continue their passion. I still have to ask myself if it’s real or if I just dreamt it.
I’m a Living Legend beginner, and I haven’t met Scott, like so many people.
I can’t imagine how Chelsea, his wife, feels. I want to know how it actually happen, but I kind of don’t, and it doesn’t matter. Part of me hopes Chelsea knows the impact Scott has had and could somehow find peace and comfort through this, maybe by continuing and expanding his work to reach more people.
In a few days, then weeks, and months, the sting will ease, and life will be back to normal for most of us. The drive in us from this incident will still be there, and to use that drive is the best way we can do to honor him. At the end of the day, or at the end of time, with no intent at all on being morbid, death is inevitable. I remind myself through Neil deGrasse Tyson that we’re just star dust, and none of this really matters.
I rarely get cryptic anymore, but:
- It’s sort of a big news in my life.
- I’m a sucker for countdowns (and count-ups).
- I also happened to have made a purchase today related to this news.
I’m a single, thirty-year-old Chinese-American male and I’m a trained visual designer living in San Francisco, with professional experience in print, web, UI and UX design. I’m also interested in math and geometry, astronomy, technology, front-end programming, puzzles, films and story-telling, organizing, learning things, education, languages, traveling, nutrition, fitness, the Olympics, the environment and sustainability, equality and social rights, humanitarian efforts, and self-improvement.
This post is prompted by the Live Your Legend movement. I’m doing this because I want to figure out from which of my interests I should make a career out of next. I still enjoy graphic design and experience design, but perhaps I can pair that with a subject I’m passionate about and find immense value in my life. Or I could do something totally different. I am trusting my heart to know what’s right.
— Ivan W. Lam (@IvanWLam) June 17, 2015
Start with the End in Mind
“I have an idea. Let’s play a game. A puzzle game. Or maybe a numbers game? How about a word game? Or a scavenger hunt?”
On my twenty-ninth birthday, I published the first post of the “A Number of Things” series on my blog, and I continued to post one every eleven days for twenty-nine more times. The original idea of the series was to conduct a “social experiment” (an item on my “Before 30” list) where I post my thoughts on certain topics, embed hidden puzzles in the posts, and have the audience participate and work together to solve puzzles while using my posts as a springboard to learn about one another’s approach to life.
In short, my goal was to connect with the world. I wanted to develop both a relationship between the audience and me as the content creator and a relationship among the audience members to discuss the content and to collaborate on solving the puzzles.
Like most of my goals, I started with the end in mind, and worked backwards to figure out the details, timeline, and the amount of work and planning I would need to do. Typically, it’s the most logical and efficient way to accomplish goals.
For this goal and this project, I knew that I wanted to 1) share thirty posts regarding my approach and philosophy to life as I see it at the moment, 2) plant clues to puzzles for the audience to find and try to solve, and 3) enhance both my posts and the clues by accompanying them with something visual and creative.
I started creating posts with the sincerest of intentions, but by the third post, I quickly realized that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Creating each post took a lot of time from my day-to-day life. To raise the level of complexity and planning that it needed to be a world-connecting-fuzzy-feeling-creating project would take even more work than I could afford. Still, I had many reasons to continue with the project, and even though I just started at the time and had a long way to go, it was subconsciously important enough for me to see it through.
Fortunately, the three things I knew I wanted to do (thirty posts, hidden puzzles, and visual pieces) addressed other smaller goals I had. So I pivoted a little bit and readjusted my plan based on those new smaller goals so the project could be more manageable. So in that sense, starting with the end in mind proved effective in that it allowed me to use what I originally planned, and then repurpose them for similar goals if necessary, all without needing to start over or give up.
Looking back, the series captured a good collection of my ideas about life, and it proved out numerous design experiments I wanted to try. Even though I knew from the first post that the topic of this post would be “Start with the end in mind.”, I was for a large part (as I mentioned in the second post) making it up as I went. As a result, the journey was both trying and delightful at times.
Yet for many reasons, I’m glad I did it, and I must be grateful for the way that I did. I had a grand and ambitious idea, and I ran with it. Fortunately, it was the type of project where I could start from the end and work backwards to build out a plan. But if I encounter projects where planning backwards feel impractical, I can always take another of my own advice: start somewhere.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29.
— Ivan W. Lam (@IvanWLam) June 5, 2015
Lists Can Drive Me Or Can Numb Me
Before 30 List
Right before I turned 27, I created a list called “30 Things to do Before Ivan Turns 30″. It was in part a response to the advice given by people over 30 for what twenty-somethings should do and what they wish they had done at that age. Some of things I came up with for my list were based on my pursuit of the positive, blissful feelings I had when I read about or see images for for the places I wanted to visit and the activities I wanted to do.
Through this list, I did many things that I was quite proud of. One of the first items I completed was dancing in a flash mob, which required me to step out of my comfort zone (even to join the group in the first place!). I checked off two things on the list by taking a solo train trip across the country and visited New York for the first time. Using that as a practice run, I then traveled around the world by myself in what I nicknamed “Little Big Trip”, visiting twelve places in nine countries and hitting eight things on the “Before 30” list in six weeks, including seeing the aurora borealis (northern lights) and walking on the Great Wall of China. I still look back at the experience from time to time with awe and surreality, amazed that I actually pulled off something like this.
Age is Just a Number
At the same time, as I was completing many items on the list, I had trouble feeling those blissful emotions that I was expecting. I thought that dancing in a flash mob would feel as joyful and perfect as I did watching it; instead, I was often preoccupied with hitting the right steps at the right time. When I visited Tokyo on my Little Big Trip, I thought I would become absorbed into the Japanese culture and explore the city like a local, but I was only there for four days and I knew a very small amount of Japanese. As a result, it made me feel a little out of place.
As I made progress in my Before 30 list and continued to feel underwhelmed with the things I had completed, I asked myself why I really wanted to do the things on the list. Even though I knew this going in, I realized that the list is mostly arbitrary and tying it to an age deadline made little sense. The phrase “Age is just a number” also came to mind and I suddenly felt conflicted to continue with the list because the phrase implies that age is a state of mind, and people’s mental age is more powerful and important than their chronological or biological age, so they should be able to do whatever they want at whatever chronological age they want. While I support this line of thinking, I also believe that people’s biological makeup and physical age play a role in how old they feel mentally, so a fifty-year-old person feeling like a twenty-five-year-old mentally would still probably have physical limitations that prevent them from enjoying a whitewater rafting trip as much as a chronological twenty-five-year-old would. And that pulls me back to the original premise, taking advice from older people for things I should do while in my twenties.
Value of Bucket Lists
I remember hearing Oprah, one of my life guides since my mid-twenties, say that she doesn’t believe in bucket lists (though in other interviews she still seemed to have a short list of things she wanted to accomplish.) The way I interpret her approach is that instead of making a list of things to do sometime between now and when she dies, she would seize any opportunity to do them as soon as she could.
Similarly, I learned that instead of thinking that I must do everything on the list before I turn 30, I should use it as a reflection of my goals and priorities and as an idea bank to either do the original thirty things on the list or do something that embodies the same spirit, whichever I felt was doable and compelling. Therefore, whether I complete the list becomes less important; it’s about moving with urgency and taking advantage of any opportunity that come my way. Acting with urgency also prevents me from the overanalyzing and over-planning that lead me to lose interest over time and building up the hype and expectations for something that would consequently underwhelm me.
Lists in General
I usually start a list when I needed to clear my mind or to remember multiple things for later. Surprisingly, it’s subconsciously therapeutic. It makes me feel like everything is under control, like I’m making progress, and that motivates me to continue working. And if that list is a checklist, it’s practically twice as fun because I would have the pleasure to check it off when done. That’s why I enjoy making lists.
However, the momentum and excitement from making lists can also lead me to go overboard, adding more items and subcategories, making them longer and more complex. This becomes a problem when I go back to review or reference them. Long, multi-level lists are hard to quickly scan through and intimidating to tackle, causing me to want to put it off until “I have more time.”
With my Before 30 list, even though completing some of the items left me feeling underwhelmed, the experiences were still rewarding and led me to new opportunities. While dancing in a flash mob may have been less heart-warming than I thought, being in the flash mob group allowed me to make so many cool new friends to socialize with and check out other activities and events in the area. Even though zip-lining felt less thrilling than I imagined, it opened up my mind to try other outdoor activities and find a sport that could potentially give me the thrill I was seeking. And most significantly, while having been to six of the seven continents felt just like another day of traveling, the trip itself was the experience of a lifetime, and it infected me with the travel bug, and sparking ideas for other itineraries and travel styles hopefully for the near future.
Lists are useful to get things done, and there’s probably a set of best practices somewhere that would make it work most efficiently and effectively. But ultimately, with or without them, what matters is the drive one needs to make things happen to live their best lives.
3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 27, 30.