Monthly Archives: October 2015

Part 8: Venice — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 7: Nice

Why Venice?

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.

My Impression

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.

Getting There

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.

Last view of the water in South of France.

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.

From my seat on Ventimiglia-to-Milan train

My seat by the window.

The view was pleasant; it definitely had a southern European look, whatever that means.

Somewhere between Ventimiglia and Milan.

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.

View from my seat on Milan-to-Venice train.

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.

Complementary cream flavor cookies from Milan-to-Venice train.

The view of Italy from the train continued to be quaint, especially with the sun starting to set on this day of train travel.

Somewhere between Milan and Venice.

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.

Photo slideshow:
Venice - Hostel - LBT 2014

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 Staff

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.

The Room

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.

Conjoined hostel room.

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.

View from hostel room.

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.

Common Area

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.

Living room in hostel

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.

Marking my origin on world map at hostel.

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.

Amazing lighting on the stairs to hostel.

Getting Around

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.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
  • 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.

Delicious craisin bun from a local bakery

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.

Getting close 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.

About to dock at Giudecca.

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.

Canal with great light in Giudecca

Quiet alley in Giudecca

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.


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.


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.

First gelato in Italy.

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.

Delicious craisin bun from a local bakery

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.

Self assembled salad.

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.

Having lunch at hostel kitchen.

Fresh pasta

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.

Freshly made pasta from Dal Moro's.

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.

Second-rate store-bought raisin buns.

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.

Getting out

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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Venice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 7: Nice – Little Big Trip 2014

Part 6: Paris

Why Nice?

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

My Impression

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.

Getting There

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.

Checking In

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.

My Room

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).

Panorama view of my room at Hostel Meyerbeer Beach. Middle was bathroom. Right was door.

(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.

Common Area

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.

Getting Around

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.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
  • 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.

Walking down Promenade des Anglais.

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.

View of Nice from Colline du Chateau.

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.

Retail Stores

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.

Passing the time in Promenade des Anglais.

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.


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.


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.

Healthy salad from Carrefour City store.

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).

Store-quality macarons.

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.

Getting out

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.

Brief moment in Monaco.

Passing through 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.

Beautiful view of southeast tip of France.

Last view of the water in South of France.

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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Nice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 6: Paris — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 5: London

Why Paris?

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

My Impression

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.

Getting There

I took the Eurostar train from London’s St. Pancras International station. I wrote briefly about it in my London post.

Waiting for Paris train at St. Pancras International station.

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.

On Eurostar train to Paris.

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.

The room

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.

Top bunk at St. Christopher's Inn.

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

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.

Bathroom at St. Christopher's Inn.

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

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.

Common Area

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.

Getting Around

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.

First of many Paris Visite 5-day metro ticket.

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.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
  • 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!


Eiffel Tower

Photo slideshow:
Paris - Eiffel Tower - LBT 2014

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.

Finally with the Eiffel Tower!

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.

Skipped the lines to go up the Eiffel Tower.

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.

Front of Skip-the-Line Eiffel Tower ticket

Back of Skip-the-Line Eiffel Tower ticket

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.

Elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower.

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.

North/east view of Paris from Eiffel Tower observation deck.

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.

Glass floor from first floor of Eiffel Tower

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.

Inner Lattice work of Eiffel 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.

From Jardins du Trocadéro.

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.

Sparkling Eiffel Tower after dusk from Tour Montparnasse 56.

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.

Twinkling Eiffel Tower.

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.

The one souvenir I allow myself.

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.

Champs Élysées

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.

Scam attempt

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.

Musee d’Orsay

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.

Tour Montparnasse

Getting Tickets

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.

Observation Deck

From Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck. (West view)

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.

From Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck. (East view)

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.

Sunset, Eiffel Tower, and Paris from Tour Montparnasse 56.

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.

Sparkling Eiffel Tower after dusk from Tour Montparnasse 56.

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.

Waiting to start the Louvre 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.

As close as I cared to get to Mona Lisa.

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.

Saw this in history class.

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.

Sacre Coeur

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.

Moulin Rouge

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.

Parc Montsouris

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.

From final scene of 14e Arrondissement in "Paris, je t'aime".

Parc Montsouris, the final scene of 14e Arrondissement in "Paris, je t'aime".


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:
Paris - Food - LBT 2014

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.


Ham, egg, and cheese crêpe at Le Royal Orsay

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.


In line for macarons at Ladurée.

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.

Macaron selections.

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.

Crème Brûlée

Self-assembly crème brûlée.

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.

Other Foods

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.

Getting out

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.


  • Reception
  • 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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Paris, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 5: London — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway

Why London?

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.

My Impression

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.

Getting There

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 room

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.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

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.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

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.

Fancy key card. YHA London Central.


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 shelf made it hard to lean down to the sink. YHA London Central.

Common Areas

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.

Next Time

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.

My Room

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.

4-person room. YHA London Oxford Street.

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.

The bathrooms

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.

Smallest sink I've ever seen. YHA London Oxford Street.

The Staff

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.

Common Area

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.

Getting Around

Handy subway map. Better than on the phone at times.

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.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

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.

Olympic Park

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.

Union Jack bus art piece at the Olympic Park.

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.

Aquatic Center. Couldn't find visitor entrance.

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.

Big Ben

Took pictures of it, including selfies from Westminster Bridge, like all the other tourists.

Big Ben and London Eye during the day.

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.

Buckingham Palace

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.

Trafalgar Square

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.

As close to Tower Bridge as I got in the daytime.

Abbey Road

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.

Some guy rehearsing visitors on the pose.

The pose.

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.


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.

Nando’s Greenwich

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.


Chicken dish and naan at Dishoom in Covent Garden

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.

Rose and Cardamom Lassi at Dishoom in Convent Garden

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.

Prince pastries: Tiramisu and a lemon/mango-type cake

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.

Getting out

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.

Waiting for Paris train at St. Pancras International station.

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.

On Eurostar train to Paris.

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
  • Underground
  • 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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of London, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park)

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

My Impression

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.

Getting There

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.

Space Heater

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.

Getting Around

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.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

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.

"It's, uh, pretty cold in Tromsø."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.

Second Chance

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.


Photo Slideshow: Norway - Northern Lights - LBT 2014

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.

The Bus

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.

The lights were visible in town!

Second Tour

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.

Professional photo:
Professional shot (Second night)

Selfie with iPhone 5s using ProCam app:
Overexposing the shot on my camera to make sure I get something.

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.

Simple yet effective display at Tromsø Museum.

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.

Inside the Arctic Cathedral.


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 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!

Other Foods

Photo Slideshow:

Norway - Food - LBT 2014

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.

Getting out

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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Tromsø, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park) — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)

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

My Impression

Full photo and video album on Flickr

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.

Getting There

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.

Blanket, socks and eye mask on South African Airways.

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. Connection in Panama City.

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.

Multiple long moving sidewalks at São Paulo airport.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

Photo Slideshow: South Africa - Brown Sugar Backpackers - LBT 2014

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

Photo Slideshow:

South Africa - Thornhill Safari Lodge - LBT 2014Thornhill 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.

Getting Around

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.



    • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.



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. Reminded me of Highway 280.

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.

The biscuits were were too good.

Kapama Game Reserve

Photo Slideshow: South Africa - Safari - LBT 2014

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.

Mini-Safari at Kapama Game Reserve.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. Taking a break at Kapama Game Reserve.

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.

Safari break snacks at Kapama Game Reserve.Sunset in Kapama Game Reserve.

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.

Openness at Kruger.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. Breakfast break at Kruger. I ate at least one hard-boiled eggs.

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

South Africa - Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre - LBT 2014The 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. Petting a wild cheetah at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre. Closest I got to a lion at Moholoholo.


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 - Food - LBT 2014

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.

Getting out

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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of [location], feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu) — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque

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

My Impression

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.

Getting 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.

Lima airport food court

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.

The room

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.

My room at Hotel Antawasi

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. Sign in hotel bathroom.

The water

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.

Coca tea

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.

Coca tea


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. School near the hotel.

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.

The Room

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.

Pariwana Hostel room.


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. My locker.


Wifi Internet sort of works in the hallways and courtyard. It works best in the Internet room. Still slow by American standard.

Pariwana Internet room.


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. Chicken dish at Pariwana Hostel

Check out

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.

Airport pickup

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.

Check in

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.

The room

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Pay Purix Hostel - LBT 2014There 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.

New guest

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

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!)


G Adventures

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.

City Tour

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.

The Cathedral

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.

Cuzco Walk

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.

Cuzco Ruins

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. In front of Inca wall in Saqsayhuamán

Alpaca Store

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.

Machu Picchu

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.

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Machu Picchu - LBT 2014

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.

Aguas Calientes

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.

Machu Picchu

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. First photo at Machu Picchu.

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.

My tour guide Jose and me.

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. Machu Picchu stamp on my passport.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.

The Return

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.

My attempt at POV shot.


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: Peru - Food - LBT 2014

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.

Getting out

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.


For More

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.

Albuquerque International Fiesta 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque — Little Big Trip 2014

Why Albuquerque?

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.

Getting There

My entire luggage: a carry-on bag.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. Beautiful Phoenix landscape from the airport.


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.

My Airbnb room. Very very basic.

Getting Around

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

Photo Slideshow: Albuquerque - Balloon Fiesta - LBT 2014

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.

On the way to Coronado Center.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. By the booths at the Fiesta Park.

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.

American flag balloon glowing.

The field before the sun showed up.

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.

Smiley balloon taking off, among dozens more.Bear balloon taking off.


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 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.

Sad salad with sliced turkey.

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. The lovely people at the Fiesta who helped me recover 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.

Bought these at target to mark my stuff in case I lose any more things.

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.


Getting Out

The day after my wallet was found, I Lyfted again to the airport, heading to my next destination. On take-off, I noticed more of the unique landscape of the Southwest. More interesting Southwest landscapes on flight to connection in Houston.


  • 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.


For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of the Fiesta, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)