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Part 12: Hawaii — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 11: Tokyo

Why Maui/Hawaii?

It’s paradise on American soil. It’s the vacation for my vacation as the last stop of my trip. I had heard so many nice things about Hawaii and this was my opportunity to see for myself.

Itinerary

  • Wednesday, 12 November: Arrive in Honolulu airport, fly to Maui. Settle in.
  • Thursday, 13 November: nothing
  • Friday 14 November: Lahaina: surfed and explored downtown
  • Saturday 15 November: Hiked Maui tour in East Maui
  • Sunday 16 November: Departed Hawaii, headed home, and ended Little Big Trip

My Impression

Maui was quite nice. The open landscapes with lush green mountains and vast rhythmic seas naturally got me to open up and allowed me to listen to my thoughts more deeply. The island was relatively quiet and pretty low-key, but it did have the conveniences of modern society in each city. It was a really nice place to just slow down and enjoy the ordinary moments of life.

While it was still warm, I would like to spend more time in even warmer weather to get the full experience that most travelers raved about.

Getting There

Starting to see the Hawaiian Islands

I flew from Tokyo to Honolulu, went through customs and immigration, transferred to the domestic side of the airport, then flew to Maui. From there, I rented a car and drove to my hotel in Kihei.

About to land in O'ahu.

I booked the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu as the last leg of my round-the-world ticket, before I decided to go to Maui. I thought the inter-island flights would be cheap and frequent, but I find out later that I had to book them ahead of time just like most flights.

Had I known and decided that I was going to Maui, I would have booked my flight straight to Maui, and I would also have booked the flight straight from Maui home in the Bay Area.

Instead, I had to sneak cellular service while I was landing in Honolulu to check in to my Maui flight, be shepherded into a shuttle, waited through the lines at immigration, and speedwalked to the domestic security check to catch my flight to Maui.

As I filled out my immigration form, I was very excited and proud to put in all the countries I had been to; it was like a badge of honor that only I and a small percentage of people in the world had done.

Summarizing my Little Big Trip on the immigration form.

Getting Around

I rented a car from Maui airport and pretty much drove everywhere. This was made possible when my wallet (which had my California driver license) was found back in Albuquerque, and I was very thankful I had one less thing to worry about during the trip.

Some sort of smoke or clouds in the mountains on the way to Makena Beach.

I couldn’t remember seeing public buses, but it would’ve been impractical to travel in Maui this way, although since I had a very little agenda in Hawaii, I probably could’ve taken my time and taken the bus to different places. I definitely could’ve done it if I had to. Still, it was nice to be able to drive to where I wanted to go in my own time.

Enjoying the vast landscape on the drive back to Kihei.

The one issue was that it was hard for my to drive long distances; I already knew this before the trip but was reminded when I had to drive in Maui. I had a tendency to want to doze off if I drove long distances, like on the highway. And the weather in Hawaii made it easy to relax and be comfortable. The time it took to go from one part of Maui to another would take thirty to forty-five minutes, and while the view of the landscapes was very beautiful look at, they also calmed me down on the road. This was probably my own problem; as most drivers rarely experience this, I believed.

Driving to Lahaina with Third Eye Blind playing. Such a mix of emotions.

Climate/Clothing

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


The weather was mildly warm. For a beachy vacation spot, it could definitely be warmer, but it was comfortable temperature-wise.

There was a slight humidity, though. It wasn’t enough to feel gross and sticky, but I could feel it and it made me want to head indoor somewhere or wish there was at least a breeze, like by the shore.

For the most part, I just wrote a T-shirt. I wrote my loose synthetic pants but even that was a bit stuffy at times.

At certain seemingly random times, there was rain for maybe thirty minutes to an hour, and the skies would change quickly between clear to cloudy.

People

The people were pretty much standard American (at least the kind I had come to know in California). Customer service was good and not overly friendly. Of course, some were better than others. The lady who worked at Local Food in Lahaina was very sweet and friendly; it made me feel good to have bought food from her. The college-student-looking folks who worked at the shave ice shop were just busy shaving the ice and finishing orders; they had little time to connect with customers, but the shave ice was delicious so that sort of made up for it.

Language

People spoke English, which was such a relief and made my time in Hawaii more easy-going.

Activities/Sightseeing

Surf

One of the things I wanted to do in Hawaii was surf, because I heard it was much easier to surf in Hawaii, and I needed the confidence boost and practice. However, I realized later that that was probably only true in certain beaches, and probably the popular beginner surfer beaches in the touristy part of Hawaii like Honolulu. Nonetheless, I still wanted to try.

I had breakfast early in the morning at Kihei Caffe. The food was decent, and it felt a little weird to eat at a restaurant where the people spoke English; I had to brush up my normal restaurant social skills.

Breakfast at Kihei Caffe before surfing.

There was so much butter on the biscuit.

Very buttery biscuit.

I then drove up to Lahaina in search for one of the many recommended beaches. Apparently, many of those beaches did not exist or were right next to resorts, so I just went to the public beach near Lahaina Harbor. I rented a board from a man who had car-shop looking store front with a couple of boards and a bunch of tattered rash guards and hole-y booties. He was really laid back, almost to a point where he seemed like he didn’t care at all. I was almost scared to leave him my rental car keys.

I rented a long board as I usually did, and my session started off just like all the other times I “surfed”: mostly trying to surf. There was a lot of trial and error,and a lot of internal thinking, trying to figure out how to do better the next time. Also typical of my surfing experience, the gentle rhythm of the waves distracted me from focusing on catching the waves properly.

Then someone came up to me and started telling me how to catch the waves. Not knowing who the guy was, I tried to ignore him at first, but he continued to shouting instructions. He was a middle-aged man with a totally bald head and seemed to have some tattoos. On the surface he seemed like someone I would not normally socialize with. But being a newbie and naturally following people who shouted commands at me, I did what he said, and I did no better or worse than before. But I did something.

Soon after, he told me my board was too long and that I should use a shortboard. He told me to switch with him, and not knowing how to politely refuse, I took his shortboard. I then tried to catch the next wave and surprisingly, it was slightly easier to do. I still didn’t pop up, but I felt that I could the next time. This man suddenly earned my trust.

The tattooed bald man continued to give me instructions to improve my timing. Still not knowing who he was, I had yet to fully embrace and apply his commands. That reluctance and lack of confidence kept me from fully clicking with the sport, so I continued to fail one time, succeed the next, and then fail again, except it was at a better level than before.

It turned out the man was a surf instructor, and his name was Bully. He told me I had the basics right, and I just needed to improve my timing and refine my form. He mainly did private lessons, and he was curious how long I was in town for and if I would want to take a lesson. He had a plastic baggy of business cards and handed me one. I felt it was too sales-y, but then I switched on my “Take chances” and “Just do it” mindset and started working out my schedule to see if I could do it. He even pulled out a business card from a resealable plastic bag and handed to me. I thought it was going to dissolve in the water, but it held up pretty well. The back of the card advertised his wife’s stand-up paddle board classes.

Business card from Bully during my surf.

But in the end, I didn’t do it, partly because the timing was too tight, though I wish I did if I had more time. His free quasi-lesson made such an impression on me that I would recommend him to anyone if they happened to be in Maui for a few days, including my future self.

Downtown Lahaina

After the surf session, I drove down a few blocks to downtown Lahaina for some lunch. Based on my Yelp research, I stopped by Local Food, which was walk-up window type of joint, and ordered a delicious and filly kalua pork rice plate with piping hot spam musubi (see food section below).

I parked in a paid parking lot in downtown, pretty close to the Lahaina Banyan Court, and became amazed by the incredible banyan trees seemingly interconnected with one another.

Crazy tree network in downtown Lahaina.

Then I just strolled down the street checking out the shops, looking for patches for my luggage and souvenir stickers for my notebook. I also got some shave ice.

The street was by the water, and I had to capture to beautiful scene. I took a vertical panoramic picture that showed the tree above me, the bright sky, calming waves, and smooth sands at the bottom.

The vertical view of the water from downtown Lahaina.

The scene of the water from Lahaina.

Hike Maui

Hawaii - Hike Maui - LBT 2014

For my last full day of the trip, I decided to take a tour of Maui and take advantage of where I was and learn more about it. I found the tour company Hike Maui, which offered a number of tours ranging in length, location, and level of physical activity. I signed up for the “East Maui Waterfalls & Rain Forest Hike” which was supposed to allow guests to swim under the waterfall. It was not in my plans to do that on the trip, but since the option came up, I quickly imagined the cheesy, picturesque scene of me right under the waterfall with my arms wide open, and it suddenly became a goal for me to accomplish.

I booked the tour a little over twenty-four hours before, and the website/company was relatively responsive and gave me a confirmation pretty quickly.

The confirmation email did ask to bring shoes we would not mind getting wet and dirty in, and since I did mind getting my hiking shoes wet and dirty, I bought a pair of water shoes from Safeway just for this tour. I found out at the start of the tour though, that they had a box of water shoes for guests to borrow, so I didn’t have to buy my own pair. After the tour, since I didn’t have room to bring them back home with me, when I checked out of the hotel, I left the shoes in the hotel’s pool supplies room for others to use.

Bought water shoes for the hike.

When I arrived at the pick-up place, which was a random parking lot on the side of the highway near Kahului. When I arrived, it was just my car in the parking lot and it was raining. I was worried somehow I missed the pick-up or that it was canceled. After so many tours on this trip, I was still nervous about a tour going wrong.

But pretty soon, I saw a Hike Maui branded van pull up and I quickly got my stuff and got on the van. We then drove to the Hike Maui headquarters and picked up the supplies, including water shoes and our packed lunches.

The drive to East Maui was a little long; it took about an hour, but like any good tours, the tour guide, Ashley, who was also our driver, filled the time and talked about our agenda for the day, some history and culture with Hawaii, along with information about the towns and natural landmarks that we passed by on the way.

We were told that the area we were hiking was privately owned, and Hike Maui (along with a few other companies) had deals with the owners so not everyone could go to where we were going.

Once we arrived, we loaded our bags with food and other gear, used the porte-potties (because we weren’t supposed to do our business anywhere else, and started our tour.

As I learned from the videos on the website, Hike Maui’s tours were different from most tours I had been on. Throughout the hike, in addition to just talking about local plants and biology, Ashley the tour guide pulled off different plants and fruits to show us more in detail whatever she was saying. It was a really neat format that helped keep guests engaged.

Tour guide getting us guava.

Tour guide making twine.

Tour guide serving avocado.

Not sure what this was but pretty tart.

About forty-five minutes into the tour, we reached our first waterfall. We got to take a dip to cool off, then we continued our hike. The water was cool, and the warm weather made it easy enough to dry off quickly.

Taking a dip in the first waterfall.

At the second waterfall, we took a lunch break, and we were allowed to jump off the short cliff over the waterfall. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but the “Just do it” part of my brain kicked in again and I did it.

Jumping over a short waterfall.

This was also my opportunity to do the dramatic waterfall photo. So I asked Ashley to take the video and photo. I could sense her silent awkwardness as she watched me do this cheesy pose, but I didn’t care nor did I try to diffuse the awkwardness by acknowledging. I wanted the shots.

Dramatic waterfall shot.

After that we hiked some more, checked out a few more waterfalls, ate some things that Ashley pulled off and cut up for us, and unknowingly, we arrived back at our starting place.

The drive back to Kahului was pretty low-key. We did drive by very long, clean, blue waves long the shore, with a couple of surfers hanging out in the line-up. It made me very envious and wish I had more time to check this side of Maui.

Incredibly beautiful waves and colors.

Ashley dropped me off in the parking lot by the side of the highway where I got picked up. I thanked her and gave her a tip. We said our good byes, and she drove off to drop off the other guests.

Makena Beach

After the hike tour, I decided to take up my last chance to hang out at the beach in Maui, since I still had yet to do so. I heard that Makena Beach/State Park in south Maui was pretty popular. But when I got there, the sun was about to set and the temperature was already cooling down. So I made the best of it and enjoyed the sunset instead.

Almost sunset at Makena Beach.

As I watched the sunset, I reflected on the past forty-some days of my trip, especially on the second day, in Albuquerque, when I temporarily lost my wallet. I watched the sun set in the Albuquerque landscape wondering with worry what else could happen in the next forty-some days.

Sunset at Makena Beach, Maui.

Sunset on the second day of the trip.

Food

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.

Hawaii - Food - LBT 2014

Fish Tacos

The first meal I got after arriving and settling in in Kihei, Maui was fish tacos from Coconut’s Fish Cafe. I never really had a preference for fish tacos but it showed up on yelp for being very good, and I was really hungry, so I gave it a try.

Coconut's Fish Cafe

The fish tacos turned out to be quite delicious. The fish was freshly cooked and pretty filling. The mango salsa was a bit spicy but tasty. It was kind of messy to eat. Still, it was definitely satisfactory. I ordered two and it was a good amount for me.

Fresh fish taco

Hawaiian Foods

On my second day, I was so tired from traveling that I spend the whole day in the hotel, mostly sleeping and TV surfing. But I still had to eat dinner, so I got take out from a restaurant that was probably not the best representative of Hawaiian food, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. This was normally not part of my diet anyway, but it was one of the places that was supposed to have spam musubi, which I was craving. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it, so I just had the chicken katsu plate. It was still filling, though.

Fast food dinner from L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Did the job.

After a surf session in Lahaina, I found Local Food on Yelp and got the kalua pork rice plate, as well as the spam musubi.

Local Food in Lahaina after surfing.

The rice plate was so good and filling. The kalua pork had just the right amount of flavor and it wasn’t too salty.

Kalua pork rice plate from Local Food. So good after surfing.

The spam musubi was wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and it was quite hot to handle. Even after eating the rice plate, it was still piping hot. Also, I was expecting delicious flavors from this neatly packaged treat, but it pretty much tasted exactly as what I could see: rice, spam, and seaweed.

Spam Musubi from Local Food. So hot!

Snacks

While on the flight to Maui, a newlywed couple sat next to me and being natives, they recommended a bunch of Hawaiian snacks with names of businesses to check out. One of them was Home Maid Bakery in Kahului. I managed to find it one night and and picked up a bunch of different pastries and treats:

The mango flavored coconut cream mochi was sweet and a bit tangy, but too soft to hold its shape after biting into the creamy center.

Mango coconut mochi with cream.

The tuna musubi was a mix of diluted rice and tuna flavors.

Tuna Musubi from Home Maid Bakery in Wailuku, Maui.

Inside tuna musubi.

The texture of butter mochi reminded me of a Chinese treat (they were probably pretty similar), but the semi-savory flavor threw me off with what I associated the name “mochi” to be.

Butter Mochi from Home Maid Bakery in Wailuku, Maui.

The mango was pretty much a big crumbly cookie with a little bit of filling inside; there was too much cookie and too little filling for my preference.

Sweet Potato Manju from Home Maid Bakery in Wailulu, Maui.

This was a hand pie of some sort, I honestly didn’t remember what it was, but it tasted okay.

I don't remember what this was.

Shave Ice

The breakout food from Hawaii for me was shave ice. I fell in love with it the first time I had it. The folks at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice did a good job packing the ice, carving it out, and assembling the cone with flavors and toppings.

Green tea/mange shave ice with mochi and azuki beans

My favorite parts to the shave ice aligned with my green tea and mochi obsession, which conveniently carried over from when I was in Japan: green tea, mochi, and azuki beans. I only wished the weather wasn’t so warm so I had more time to enjoy the shave ice before it melted.

Gelato

Noticing a highly-rated gelato shop in Hawaii, I figured I should try it out.

Ono Gelato in Kihei.

The first time, I got a local favorite, the Sandy Beach. It was basically a very caramel-y sweet, dense gelato with bits of brown sugar and other things in it, making it a bit gritty, like sand. Overall it was good, but it was one of those flavors where I would recommend trying once and then move on to other flavors.

"Sandy Beach" gelato from Ono Gelato in Maui. Quite sweet and rich.

The second time, I got a lemon gelato. Even though I realized I liked milk-based gelato more than fruit-based, I figured I should try it one more time. It turned out I was still right. This lemon flavor was really sour, almost in the lime territory.

Lemon gelato from Ono Gelato.

Getting out

I flew from Maui’s Kahului airport to Honolulu, then flew to San Jose, California.

However, I was having trouble checking in to the flight from Honolulu to San Jose. The flight was co-operated by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, but there was a slight time change, and somehow that wasn’t updated with one of the airlines or some other reason, and the check-in website said to call the provided number.

I was very fortunate this happened in the States where I had a cell plan, because I ended up spending at least an hour doing the “We can’t do anything on our system, you’d have to call the other airline” back and forth multiple times.

It was quite stressful as the thought of not being able to return home on time was becoming more and more real. Knowing that I could fly direct from Maui to the Bay Area instead of connecting in Honolulu with a very short timeframe, I started toying with the idea of dropping the two original flights and booking a new flight from Maui.

It was somewhat ironic that I was stressed from the potential of being stuck in paradise. But it was also ironic that the flights I had the most problems and was most stressed out with were the ones to and from the most relaxing part of the trip.

Finally, I had to stop the back and forth calls, and decided to go to the airport earlier to sort it out. That would mean I had to skip the final two food runs I wanted to do in the last hours of my trip. Instead, I got McDonald’s breakfast, which was honestly a fine alternative, because I allowed myself to indulge on McDonald’s whenever I went on vacation.

From My Travel Log

October 6 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH

  • Wallet’s found, but not after I canceled my cards, and had them send replacements.
  • Also, it was found only because I emailed and that I remembered the bus number. At least my ID was recovered so I can rent a car in Hawaii.

November 15 2014, 5:59pm, Hakena State Park Parking Lot

  • Just saw the sunset of the second to last day of my trip. I remember when I saw the sunset of the second day of my trip, when I lost my wallet and I thought about how the rest of my trip would go and what kind of misadventures I would go through.
  • The trip was amazing, And I am impressed I’m proud to have done it and have done all these and so many things in such a short time. I’ll try to get a better sense by laying it out in a collage or video montage, but I know it’ll never capture the real feeling I have. I don’t even know what feeling that is myself.

November 16 2014, 11:39pm, Maui, Kahului Airport Airside

  • Waiting for flight, came in extra early to do with check-in problem with American/Alaskan Airlines. So not going with American next time, and so going to fly direct to the island instead of jumping around.
  • I still have to see if I can make it to that flight with an hour to de-board, run to terminal, go through security, and run to the gate. If not, my back up would be to book a new flight to Oakland overnight.
  • This is the last leg of traveling of my trip. A couple of hurdles. It’s interesting how on the second day of my trip I wasn’t sure if I could leave the country (technically I could but I wouldn’t be able to rent a car here in Hawaii without my driver’s license), and last night I wasn’t sure if I could get back to mainland U.S. on time.
  • With this incident, I realized that I’m often with my foot halfway out the door and use money to solve my problems. Maybe I’m traveling and spend more freely, But I think the principle is still there in my everyday life now.
  • With this incident, I’ve been aching to go home, that I am done with this trip. But I know I’m going to miss it and wished I was still on it when I’m back. I just want to mention that while I’m still on the trip, specifically, that there isn’t anything left that makes me want to stay on the trip, but I still regard the trip as a great success with amazing experiences and incredible achievements.
  • I am modestly proud of what I’ve done, and only time will allow me to realize how much more significant this trip is than I think right now.
  • I think about the first half of the trip and feel so proud or more proud of what I’ve done, and with the Europe and Asia portions, they’re still recent, or feel recent that I feel them less. I know, and I hope that, while I can’t possibly feel it now without deep analysis, I will feel it in a few weeks from now, with some distance, and with sorting of the photos and videos. That’s the most that I can expect, and I hope they’ll come true.

November 16 2014, 1:42pm, OGG -> HNL

  • Hawaii looks small, But still large and islands are far enough apart.
  • For this final flights incident, I’ve called American and Alaska back and forth so many times with very little to no results. In the process, I’d looked into alternative flights, including ditching my two flights and buy one direct to Oakland from OGG, to buy an earlier flight from OGG to HNL, to ensure I make it to the second flight on time with lower costs. After a certain point of calling back and forth and making myself “ask” for what I want, I had to call it and stop calling and hope for the best in the morning (with some resuming of the request to fix issue). And that’s what I did. I went into problem-solving mode this morning and skipped the trip to Home Maid Bakery for more mochi, or any other place for more Hawaiian food. I got breakfast from McDonald’s because it’s safe and predictable, and I went to the airport with a commitment to resolve this. As a result, I should not worry about my ability to resolve issues. I know it’s practically innate and I should focus on doing my best with plan A.

November 23 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.

Thanks

  • Immigration officer who seemed half curious half serious about where I went and how long it took
  • National rental person who was really nice about my reservation and in general and with my credit card issue
  • Terel who helped me check-in
  • Lady who cleaned my room very quickly
  • Nice guests who say hi whenever we passed by.
  • Marty the massage therapist
  • Tez and Kai who were returning from their honeymoon
  • Lady and young woman at Kihei Caffe who took my order and served me food
  • Weird staff at L&L who seemed to not know much about California’s Asian/Chinese population
  • Lady at L&L who probably has mental problems and she seems to be talking to nobody, even when I’m not responding
  • Guy who rented me surfboard and shirts/shoes
  • Bully the instructor
  • Lady at Local Food who was really sweet
  • Lady at general store who pointed me to the souvenir patches
  • Crew at Uluani’s Shave Ice
  • Ashley and George, the tour guide and tour guide in training
  • Lucy
  • Portland couple
  • SD couple
  • Older lady
  • Staff at Saimin place
  • Staff at Home Maid Bakery
  • National rental drop off staff
  • Lady at Alaska counter who helped me to check in to last flight
  • American and Alaska phone support (Not really)
  • Woman and man next to me on last flight (this one right now) swapping stories about parents in assisted living and diseases and whatnot
  • Alaska airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny

Tips

  • Don’t book tickets that were co-operated, especially by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. If they have a change in the flight information, the other airline may not update, and you may not be able to check in online; and you’d have to check in at the counter the day of the flight.
  • There are plenty of flights that fly directly to Maui (OGG) from both Tokyo and the Bay Area. You don’t need to book flights to Honolulu and then shorter flights to Maui.
  • The Honolulu airport seemed to be very spread out, so book flight connections with a lot of time in between just in case.

Links

For More

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

Part 10: Beijing/Great Wall — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 9: Rome

Why Beijing/Great Wall?

Because it’s the Great Wall. So many people have been, and I wanted to see it for myself, up close, and see how it’s structured.

I wanted to go to Beijing to visit Tiananmen Square because of the history, and I wanted to visit the Olympic Park and Stadium because I love the Olympics.

Itinerary

  • Wednesday, 5 November: Arrived in Beijing. Visited Tiananmen.
  • Thursday, 6 November: Visited Olympic Park.
  • Friday, 7 November: Great Wall tour, including jade factory and teahouse visit. Checked out Street food Street and Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center.
  • Saturday, 8 November: Visited Forbidden Palace. Checked out “dessert street”.
  • Sunday, 9 November: Depart Beijing.

My Impression

Beijing was nicer than I thought and have heard. My previous experiences of mainland China was only the southern region when I entered through Macau and Hong Kong. Compared to the westernization of the two cities, mainland China was very basic, less developed, and less maintained.

Beijing was slightly more organized and maintained, although I wondered if that was because APEC was visiting at the same time. However, there was little to bring me back to Beijing. I felt that I had seen enough.

The Great Wall was great. But it’s hard to comprehend the scale at which these walls were built, especially when I stood at a higher spot on the wall and looked out at a mid-point along the curving walls, trying to get a sense of scale and distance, and then imagine multiples of that as I looked out farther into the landscape.

Getting There

I flew direct from Rome to Beijing. The flight was ten and a half hours, but it didn’t feel that long, partly because it was an overnight flight and I slept for a good amount of the time.

From the airport, I took a subway train into the city. There was a special booth to buy the ticket, and it costed twenty-five yuan. The ride took about 30 minutes. It dropped me off at one of the subway stations, but I had to exit the station for the airport train first before I could enter the subway system.

Accommodations

Beijing - Hostel - LBT 2014

For Beijing, I booked my stay at the Peking Yard Hostel, partly because it was close to a subway station and that it was part of Hostelling International, which I became a member for this trip (although the only other time I used the membership was in London).

Since the hostel was located in the middle of a hutong alley, I studied the location on the map ahead of time to make sure I was going to the right place. Fortunately, there was the Hostelling International sign (albeit small) in front of the entrance.

Hutong to the hostel.

The Staff

Checking in was relatively simple. Knowing that I couldn’t speak Mandarin well enough, I eliminated all doubt that I was going to speak it by greeting the front desk with a gentle “Hello.”

The staff working there seemed to be young adults, late teens or early twenties, maybe in college and this was their part-time job. But they were all very professional and friendly to customers but were casual amongst themselves. The more senior staff could speak English well enough.

At check-in, one of the staff came out from behind the desk with a full-size airport security handheld metal detector to scan my luggage. I thought it was really unusual, but I wondered if it was because the APEC summit was happening. But she didn’t really scan the bag fully anyway. I saw her do that again with other new guests, and it was almost comical to watch.

One time, I was hanging out in the common area, and I was asked to watch the front desk because one of the staff had to step out to help another guest, and she assumed I spoke English. Fortunately, another staff member came back and I didn’t have to do anything. When the original staff member returned, she mentioned how she asked me to watch the desk, and the other staff member revealed to here that I didn’t speak Mandarin. They all had a laugh and they gave me a free tea. It looked pretty but tasted like regular tea.

Free tea for involuntarily helping hostel staff.

The Room

I booked a dorm for my stay. Each guest was issued a key card for the room and a locker key.

Hostel key card and locker key

My room held four bunk beds along one wall on the main floor, and there was a ladder between the bunk beds leading up to the attic for at least two more beds. They really crammed as many beds as they could. I was going to check out the attic but wasn’t sure what I would do if someone was up there and they caught me peeking.

The room had very limited lighting, so it was dingy-looking for most of the time. I had the top bunk so it was slightly better.

Quick tour of my dorm in Beijing.

The room had an off-and-on faint sewage smell. I tried to track the smell to the bathroom, but it wasn’t it. When I first got to the room, I thought it was going to be a miserable four nights. But the smell went away randomly, and I was not too bothered by it throughout the stay, knowing that I was going to leave in a few days.

I was the top bunk, and it included a little shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. The sheets were provided and made, and a light duvet was included as well, and it was all sufficient.

Lockers

Each guest had an assigned locker, and they were wooden cabinet with a key lock, and we’re assigned issued key at check-in. My locker cabinets had a slightly broken door hinge, most possibly from overuse. It’s been used a lot. It could fit a large backpack (though backpackers’ backpack wouldn’t fit because of the depth.

Laundry and Bathroom

I heard there was laundry service at the hostel but I did not bother to ask. So I washed my clothes in the bathroom and hung it in the empty space behind the ladder to the attic. Technically, it was probably communal area, but I doubted anyone was using it, so I took advantage of it. I hung my underwear and things, but I didn’t care; I needed washed clothes.

Hanging my clothes behind ladder in hostel dorm.

However, because the sink looked dirty, I instead washed my clothes in a large clean plastic bag that I had with me. For some reason, after I was done washing my clothes, the previously clean plastic bag had the same random sewage smell as the room. I was pretty certain the smell did not come from my clothes, so it may have been the water or the shower floor, where I rested the bag when I stirred the clothes and water inside.

The bathroom situation in my hostel room.

The bathroom was really basic with a shower stall, a toilet, a trash can, and a few hooks on the wall, though it didn’t feel enough for me. Also, the trash can was for discarding used toilet paper, just like what I had to do in Peru. While I was familiar with the process and got used to it pretty quickly, the idea still felt quite strange and gross to me.

Sign in bathroom in the dorm in Beijing.

Common Area

The common area was pretty nice. There were a few grouped sofa seatings along one wall, and a few small tables next to them. On the other side was a dining table and pool table. There were a lot of plants (perhaps they were fake), which made the space much more friendly and comfortable.

There were just enough power outlets to charge my phone or tablet, but that was only when there were a few people around. If the whole place was packed, then there would not be enough people to charge their devices.

Hanging out in the hostel common area.

The casual vibe was also achieved by the mellow English songs playing throughout the day. One time, I heard a few of Jack Johnson’s songs playing back to back, and that made my day, for bringing a piece of my life to the trip in an unexpected place.

Wi-Fi/Internet

Wi-Fi only worked in the common area. The speed was slow compared to the States and Europe. It was good for light browsing.

Also, they blocked many sites. For a few moments at the beginning, I felt a little lost for not being able to check Facebook. I was a little shocked to be able to experience first hand how some seemingly common and popular sites and apps were blocked.

There was also a Windows desktop computer with Internet access. I actually used the computer to transfer and back up the photos and videos from my phone to the flash drive I bought in South Africa, and that worked pretty well. I felt good to backup my photos so quickly, unlike the weeks of transferring them to the cloud.

Food

See Food section, but basically, the hostel had a decent menu of Chinese and Western dishes. The quality was solid, and the price was reasonable.

Next Time

While the staff was nice, the food was good, and the location was close to a subway station, after experiencing the setup on my room, I felt that I was grown up enough to be able to afford a regular hotel room instead. It would’ve made a lot of things easier and more comfortable, although I would have lost the opportunity to meet people like I did at the hostel.

Getting Around

Subway and walking. Beijing was surprisingly big. For farther distances, I took the subway, and for the rest, I walked.

I was surprised that Beijing had a subway system, and one that was pretty clean and reliable. That’s why I didn’t get a special multi-day or multi-use pass. But each ride was 2 yuan, about 30 U.S. cents, much more affordable than European and American subway fares, so I didn’t mind buying individual tickets, as I needed.

Most stations had a security checkpoint, where my backpack had to go through a scanner. Depending on the station, smaller bags were okay. I was rarely in a rush, so that was okay. I couldn’t imagine how rush hour would look and feel like for commuters. The stations at the Tiananmen Square even had security checkpoints for leaving the station.

Some station had machines that sell tickets. Some have staffed booths. Buying tickets at the booth was pretty quick. The staff are pros with trays of tickets, bills and coins in front of them a touchscreen next to them, ready to collect money, tap the screen to mark a sale, count the change, and issue the ticket. The tickets were in stacks at the ready, so I think they were reused.

At the platform were plenty of signs with route numbers, station names in Chinese and phonetic English, route map posters, and digital signs for arrival estimate. The space was also pretty clean and well maintained. There were glass walls and doors next to the boarding zone, and they would open in sync with the train doors. Some stations had signs pasted on the floor instructing where they should queue up, and people actually followed them. It’s consistent with my experience in Chinese culture where the people respect queues for public transport, but in every other instances, it’s a mob of people crowding and pushing to get their share.

On the trains were also route maps above the doors with lights along the route, marking the path with different colored lights. There was also a lot of advertising, on the walls, on the overhand handles, on TV screens on the walls. There was even advertising outside of the train in the form of frame-by-frame posters along the tunnel walls synced to the speed of the train so they practically looked like a video ad.

An example (from a video I found online):

Most subways stations were spaced a good distance apart. When I arrived in Beijing and took the subway for the first time to get to my hostel, I got off at a station that was the second closest to my hostel because it didn’t actually connect to the closest station. I thought I should just walk it. But it turned out to be a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk with my carry-on luggage on my back. I was fine at the end of the walk; it was like a good walking workout. But I learned my lesson and made sure I got off at the closest station wherever I was going, even if it meant that I would have to take different trains.

Climate/Clothing

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

The weather was mostly cool. I wore layers and long sleeves all the time. In the middle of the day, when it was sunny and warmed up a bit, I would take off my jacket, but I’d still have my long-sleeve layers.

At night, it got very chilly, and I had my buff to cover my neck like a scarf. I wore my leather gloves as well.

On the Great Wall, it was still cool, but because of all the walking and hiking, it didn’t feel as cold as it would have if I had just stood still.

People

I was in a different situation from other American/Western travelers in China because I am Chinese. The locals treated me more like one of their own, until they could tell that I wasn’t a local.

In many instances, that came to my disadvantage because I was expected to behave and interact at a standard different from other travelers, but I inevitably fell short. That made me look incompetent to them.

One time at a bakery, the cashier did not have enough change to give back, and asked if I had smaller change. I understood the situation but couldn’t understand her exact request and question. All I could do was just shake my head and say, “Don’t have.” and I wanted to say “Don’t understand” in Chinese. Stuck in a tough situation, she started complaining at me, for making her get her coworker to help her get change and slow things down. In the end she had to give me change in the next highest denomination she had, which was a lot more than what she owed me and probably why she was so upset. If I looked more like a foreigner, she would probably still ask her coworker for help, but she would be more understanding and take it upon herself to resolve the issue instead of relying partly on me to help her as a fellow Chinese..

In general, though, because I stayed within touristy areas, the locals seemed to be used to travelers and would be fine helping them as best as they can. There may be prolonged stares if the visitors looked foreign, which may feel intimidating. But I can speak for Chinese people that most of them have a tendency to stare (albeit harmlessly) without realizing the how threatening they looked. Regardless, this was one of the advantage of looking more like the locals, the ability to blend in.

Language

I grew up speaking Cantonese, but Mandarin was the main dialect in mainland China, including Beijing. I could understand basic words in Mandarin and speak it if it’s spoken slowly enough. But for travel, I would still need to know more phrases to successfully communicate with locals.

I learned Mandarin through audio tapes like the other languages for the trip. It was both easy and hard to learn because I was already familiar with some of the words and phrases but not others, so my mind was switching back and forth, figuring out if I already knew the word, and if I did, whether it was used the same way that I thought, and if it wasn’t, I had to relearn it and remember the new definition and usage.

Nonetheless, it was still helpful to know how to read some Chinese characters so I could have some confirmation from posted signs that I was heading in the right direction or that I picked the right thing.

The subway was usually pretty good with including English in signs, although most of the station names were converted to Chinese phonetically instead of translated, so those who didn’t understand Chinese would have to read the names carefully to make sure they go to the place they wanted. Outside of the subway system, it’s a bit more tricky; it’s a matter of luck for signs to include English.

Tours/Sightseeing

Tiananmen Square and Gate

Just like with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Colosseum in Rome, after settling into my hostel in the early evening, I left the hostel and visited a major landmark in the city; I went to Tiananmen Square, specifically the Tiananmen gate.

I took the subway to one of the two stops for Tiananmen. That’s when I noticed the security checkpoints to leave the station. I was also just figuring how to pick an exit, because oftentimes, it was harder to cross the street above ground, especially at an iconic site like Tiananmen Square.

Originally, I was going to check out the Square itself, but I arrived too late and visitor hours were over. There were guards at the crosswalks stopping anyone trying to get through. I saw one guy obviously running across the street to get in, but he was promptly turned away.

Between Tiananmen and the Square.

The sidewalk where the gate was, however, was still open to visitors. So I had to cross the street underground through the station.

While in front of the gate, I realized that less than twenty-four hours before, I was in from of the Colosseum in Rome. A flight and some traveling later, I arrived at another landmark almost half way around the world. It seemed like a common enough event, but it still felt special to me.

Less than twenty-four hours before:

A few days later, I made another visit to Tiananmen Square, after checking out the Forbidden Palace, which was behind the Tiananmen gate. Tiananmen Square was incredibly huge. It’s hard to imagine any sort of public gathering that could fill the entire square with people.

To get to the Square, there were a few entrances. I took the eastern entrance, which was accessible after a crosswalk. There was a security checkpoint station with bag scanners. Lines were formed amorphously so like everyone else, I slowly pushed my way to the front.

Once inside, there were a lot of tourists, but like I said, because the Square was enormous, it actually felt sparse.

Tiananmen Square was really big.

I noticed very few guards in the middle of the Square; they were mainly at the perimeter, especially the side closest to the iconic gate.

Olympic Park

I took the subway all the way north to the Olympic Park. There were two stations that stopped at the Olympic Park, but only the northern one was open. And since the Olympic Stadium was near the south side, I walked down the entire park, with very little to see along the way.

At Beijing Olympic Park looking south.

I found out somehow that the Olympic Stadium was closed to visitors, most likely because of the APEC summit. Even the area around it was closed off. So the closest I go to the stadium was the southern perimeter of the park. It was often obstructed by trees and fences, so I had partial view of the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron.

Olympic Cauldron next to Bird's Nest.

As close as I got to Bird's Nest.

I walked around the southern perimeter, which was a ramped, trenched alley, and emerged on the west side, which was where the Water Cube aquatic center was. It looked closed off, too, so I only took pictures from a distance.

As I made my way back north, I noticed an art sculpture with a bunch of boxy-people figures stacked to create a giant tower. I thought it was really interesting and optimistic, so I took pictures of it, including a selfie.

This tower delighted me to take a selfie.

To my surprise, the day after I returned home from the trip, I was running errands in downtown San Francisco and noticed a similar sculpture. Having just ended the trip, memories were still fresh in my head and seeing the sculpture was a nice reminder and full-circle throwback of my experience.

Stacking people structure in downtown San Francisco the day I returned from the trip.

While I had only planned to check out a small section of the park (the stadium side), I managed to start from the north side, make a clockwise loop around the park, and arrive back at the northern station for my exit. It was a very long walk, but it was all I could do to milk my experience at the Olympic Park.

Overall, the visit to the Olympic Park was nice, but I was very disappointed that I could not see the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron up close or get inside. And since the Olympic Stadium in London was also having work done, my dream to visit Olympic Parks in the inspiring way that they had been for me was still unfulfilled with this trip.

I had little plans to visit Beijing again, but being able to check out the stadium, cauldron, and aquatic center up close, and hopefully inside, would be the only reason I would return.

Great Wall Tour Package

Beijing - Great Wall - LBT 2014

I booked a Great Wall Tour through Viator. There were tours that went to either Badaling or Mutianyu, and after looking up reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go to Mutianyu because it was supposed to be less crowded. Before booking the tour, I also briefly looked into getting to the Great Wall myself, which involved taking buses at certain times and whatnot, which, from previous experience of transportation in mainland China, I would feel more confident purchasing a tour that took care of all of that for me, similar to my Machu Picchu tour in Peru.

My tour guide Jacky called my hostel the previous day to confirm the tour and the pick-up time. The morning of, Jacky picked me up and I followed him down the hutong to the main street and hopped on the van. As we made our way, he asked where I was from and if I spoke Mandarin, in Mandarin. I responded in English that I was from the States and I spoke Cantonese and very little Mandarin. Once I got on the van, I sat in the back since I noticed that the van was full and I was the last pickup.

The tour included a stop first at a jade factory in the city. We saw workers behind glass walls filing down jade into shapes, and went into rooms checking out the different types of jade and learned how to spot fakes. Then we were given a good amount of time to browse through the sales floor and shop for jade products. I didn’t get anything because 1) I had no plans to buy jade on the trip; my plan was to see the Great Wall, and 2) any purchases would take up an additional space in my luggage.

After the jade factory, we made our way to the Great Wall. The ride didn’t feel too long, especially when Jacky was practically constantly giving us little factoids and history about the Great Wall. It was almost getting annoying. He even started to sense it and mocked himself, asking us to remember the factoids to recite to our friends, in addition to mentioning that the tour guide never stopped talking. For what it’s worth, I commended him for putting in the effort and energy to inform and to keep us awake and entertained.

As we approached the site, Jacky explained how the tickets worked. He mentioned how we could hike our way up the mountain to the Wall, or take a ski-lift ride up, which costed money. In my head, I thought it would be fine to get to the wall on foot, but everyone else seemed to want to pay to ride up, and also honestly, I was confused by Jacky’s explanation, so I just did what everyone else did.

I continued to follow everyone else and took a ski-lift ride up the mountain. It seemed like an exciting thing to do, but considering all the stuff I had done already on the trip, it was pretty anticlimactic. The one thing I noticed was a track for toboggan slide down. Considering how this was China, I felt a bit uneasy to doing something like this, putting faith in the construction quality of the track.

Lift to the Great Wall.

Once I got off the lift at the top of the mountain, walked up the stairs to the wall, and stepped foot on the inside of the wall, a rush of excitement went through me very briefly. I had the “I am really here!” feeling quite quickly; usually, I had to stop what I was doing, become aware of the present, and remind myself where I was and be grateful about it. But for some reason, seeing the top of the wall, and that it continued down both sides for as far as I could see, made me feel very open, free and compelled to explore the the entire length. I was very giddy in my head, though I did let out a smile. But I soon calmed myself down and began my walk.

Some of the towers between the walls looked very well-designed with built-in walls dividing the interior into different sections. I couldn’t really imagine what could possibly be in these sections, other than weapons. But the window views were neat to look through.

View from the window in one of the towers on the Great Wall.

A sense of space in a tower.

Some parts of the walls had very steep steps, some as tall as two feet, I felt. It made me wonder how soldiers back then would be able to go from one tower to another tower without becoming winded just from climbing the steps.

Tall steps to get up to the tower.

At the end of our allotted time, I returned close to where I got off the ski lifts, but instead decided to ride the toboggan back down, partly because two other guys from my tour group did it, and partly because this was a rare opportunity, and I had to take it.

The toboggan ride was kind of fun. It had a smooth metal track but the speed was medium so there was not a point on the ride where I felt like it was so fast that I could potentially fly off the track. There was one control: a stick between my legs. It allowed me to slow down the toboggan and to stop it. Even though there were plenty of signs along the way that said “NO STOPPING”, I had to slow down a few times because there were a few riders in front of me that required me to slow down or stop so I didn’t crash into them.

Someone’s video of riding the toboggan:

Throughout the ride down were also small spaces where someone would sit at a chair with the radio, monitoring traffic. There were also signs along the way to discourage riders to stop the toboggan to take photos. The only photo I took was me at the start of the track getting ready to ride down.

Getting ready to ride the toboggan down the mountain from the Wall.

Lunch and Cloisonné Enameling Factory

After getting back to the base of Mutianyu, we made our way back to the van and headed for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a standard Chinese lunch. I got a chance to learn about the other people from my tour group and it was interesting hearing people’s backgrounds.

There was this one lady and her teenage son, who were from LA. She seemed to have, let’s say, a lot of care taken to her facial appearance, which was an LA stereotype, and her son looked like a skater boy type of teenager and appeared to be bored most of the time. But when she talked about her travels around the world, she gave a spiel about how people in other countries making less money than we did or living in homes that we considered undeveloped were actually not poor, that it was just the way they lived and their standard of living was just lower, and to judge them based on that was unfair. And when the son took off his beanie, he looked more like a mature teenager, happy to take a trip with his mom. That and the spiel made me feel bad and guilty about the assumptions I made about them, and it reminded me to continue to be open-minded about other people, especially strangers.

After lunch, I thought we were going to get back on the van and head back to Beijing. Instead, Jacky led us to the Cloisonné enameling factory right in the same property as the restaurant. I had no idea; and it started to make sense why we had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Cloisonné was apparently an ancient art form where special color powder were decorated onto copper pieces and then baked in a kiln to set the color. We took a brief tour of the factory, which pretty much consisted on room after room, divided by the different stages of the process. The store sales floor obviously had a lot of cloisonné merchandise for sale. The pieces there were quite impressive, especially large floor vases. Despite the beautiful work, I still diddn’t buy anything from the store.

Teahouse

Our last stop the Great Wall tour was to learn how to make and drink tea at a teahouse in the city. We were led to a room with chairs around a table full of jars and set up, and we were introduced our tea expert. She taught us the etiquettes and process of drinking tea in Chinese culture, along with the different tea types that they made.

Staff explaining pu-erh tea.

Staff's tea tasting table set up.

I had interest in teas, though not to the extent of setting it up like a teahouse. In my fascination and raised interest in discussions about teas, after the tea tasting, I picked out one of the teas I liked and bought it. This was different from how I normally behaved, especially from earlier that day at the jade factory and the Cloisonné enameling factory. Also, the tea was kind of bulky so it would definitely take up some space in my luggage. But I thought that since my trip was going to end soon, I could afford to carry that weight for just a little bit of time.

Lychee red tea from teahouse.

One of the stories Jacky kept mentioning before the teahouse was how it’s important to hold the tea cup a certain way (with all fingers inside) and not with pinky pointing out, otherwise the person would be considered a “lady boy” like a gay, who would have served the emperor in the old days. Perhaps it was my Californian sensibilities, somehow that sounded insensitive and a little ignorant to me. Knowing the culture, though, I’m almost certain it was only meant as a joke. An outdated one by my standard, and I was not amused.

Shopping Area

After the Great Wall tour, I asked the two German guys from my tour group if I could join them in checking out the apparently well-known street food scene. So instead of being dropped off at my hostel, I got off the van and said goodbye to Jacky and the rest of the tour group.

We ended up around the intersection of Donghuamen Street and Wangfujing Street, which seemed to be a large tourist/retail area.

Retail area in the evening. Intersection of Donganmen St and Wangfujing St.

We started exploring the area, looking for the street food. On the way, we noticed an interesting looking vehicle where the wheel was the frame, and the whole thing rocked back and forth. It looked kind of cool and I wanted to try it.

Hamster wheel cart in action near Sun Dong An Plaza.

We found the street with the long row of street food vendors. Apparently, it was one of those street foods that served insects on sticks. One of my new German friends was so excited about this and had a mission to eat different types of large insects and bugs. The vendors also seemed to favor and call out foreign-looking travelers in their best English to try their food. It’s a thing that I was not aware of but also not surprised by.

Various insects on sticks.

Tour group mate eating scorpion.

For me, I stuck to more regular food, like potstickers.

I stuck with potstickers, thank you.

After that, we checked out the Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center nearby. It was really nice and large. We looked for more food (I had a McDonald’s sundae, even though we ordered McFlurrys), checked out movies that we could maybe watch in the theater, and checked out the giant screen showing us on the ground floor.

Inside Sun Dong An Plaza.

Seeing ourselves on the big screen at Sun Dong An Plaza.

After that, I led the two guys, who didn’t know any Chinese, to the subway station so they could have a better chance of getting back to their super cheap hotel somewhere south of where we were. I took the subway and returned to my hostel.

Forbidden Palace

Beijing - Forbidden Palace - LBT 2014

On my final full day, I decided to check out the Forbidden Palace. I took the subway to Tiananmen and lined up where the signs directed. The place, which was considered a museum, opened at 8:30am, but there were already a lot of people in line. Fortunately, once the doors opened, the lined moved pretty quickly.

I actually got to walk through the main Tiananmen gate, the same one commonly seen in photos of Beijing. I felt the weight of the giant portrait of Mao as I walked towards it, conflicted by the differences in political ideals, despite this supposedly being the land of my people.

After walking through another gate (Duanmen), I queued up to buy my admission ticket. Then I looked around for the place to get an audio guide, which was near the entrance of the actual museum. The staff who loaned me the audio guide was surprised I wanted the English version.

The audio was kind of cool because it had a map of the museum, with different lights at different locations. Depending on where I was, the audio guide would detect it and play the corresponding recording about that spot.

Back of audio guide for Forbidden Palace, with map and lights to indicate where I was.

The first few sections of the tour were the main gates and buildings of the palace, like the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor meet officials and guests and whatnot.

Then I moved on to the side quarters where the emperor’s wives and other relatives lived. It was a bit disorienting because it was essentially room after room and red-walled alleys one after another.

One of the alleys in the Forbidden Palace.

For some reason, I was fascinated by the red walls. Even though the museum probably has people repaint he walls red every once in a while, I felt that they could still tell so much history about the place. Also, the fact that they were just painted red without any other decorative paintings or writings. Compared to modern times, blank walls would be subliminally asked to be filled or vandalized.

Red wall and roof.

More red wall.

Near the end, there was a room that displayed the last emperor’s things. One of them was a plate that showed the Coronation of Napoleon I.

Coronation of Napoleon III on a Plate at the Forbidden Palace.

I recognized that painting very clearly, for I had seen the real thing a few weeks before in the Louvre. This was somewhat trippy, because I immediately imagined France in the early 1800s, picturing how that painting would someday be copied onto a plate and delivered almost halfway around the world. I also wondered how the French would explain the significance of the painting. Seeing how history transports and intersects was very fascinating to me.

Saw this in history class. Coronation of Napoleon I at the Louvre.

The last section of the museum was a garden, where a lot of people were hanging out, perhaps because they didn’t want to exit just yet. I hung out there too for a bit, but ultimately, I returned the audio guide, which was buzzing anyway either because it ran out of power or that it automatically signaled the end of the tour.

Food

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.

Beijing - Food - LBT 2014

Hostel

Surprisingly, the hostel had a decent selection of food. The menu consisted of half Chinese dishes and half Western dishes. For breakfast one day, I ordered a western breakfast, which apparently consisted of toast, a fried egg, sausage links, potato patties, and bacon. But food seemed to be smaller in China, and I wasn’t sure what kind of meat was considered bacon in China.

Breakfast at hostel.

I also ordered a spaghetti with carbonara sauce, because after my experience in Rome, I still thought carbonara was a red sauce.

Pasta with carbonara sauce. Not bad.

Nonetheless, the cooked meals at the hostel was solid, probably because guests had to pay, so the quality had to be at a certain level.

Convenience Store Food

I had trouble finding a standard grocery store near my hostel in Beijing. All I could find were convenience stores that sold snacks.

One of the things I got was “biscuit rolls”, which were very flaky egg-based victor in the form of hollow rolls. They’re usually sold in large tin boxes, but at the convenience stores, they’re available in smaller, manageable boxes.

Biscuit roll.

Chinese Pastries

Aside from the meals at the hostel, I relied on bakeries to fill the gaps. When I was growing up in Macau, I must have had pastries a few times a well for breakfast and as afternoon snacks. There was a wide variety, and I had my favorites.

Chinese pastries.

I couldn’t tell what these were exactly, but they may very well be hot dog bun and raisin bun. My other favorites included the cocktail bun, which was actually a coconut and custard filled bun, and the pineapple bun, which was a regular bun with crusty egg-sugar layer.

One of the bakeries also sold prepackaged pastries, including gChinese rice krispies, which were more crunchy than the Western version, and a version of the “wife cake” which was a flat flaky cake with filling inside.

Chinese rice kripsies.

"Rose flower" cake for the airport.

Dessert

I asked the hostel staff where I could find Chinese desserts, especially the warm, soupy ones. One of them told me there was this street a few blocks from the hostel that was called “Dessert Street”, officially South Luogo Alley. She gave me directions and I decided to make a trip a little later in the night, even though it was very cold outside.

Sure enough, the street was lively with people, despite the cold. I did a quick walk down the street and back to see what types of shops were available. There were warm desserts shops, for sure, but there were also candy shops, bars, and cold dessert shops as well. I usually had no problems eating ice cream in the winter, but I felt that there was no satisfaction in eating cold dessert when my face started to get numb.

I found a simple, humble tofu dessert shop, and I ordered a warm tofu dessert with red bean. The tofu was fresh and light, but it was almost lukewarm, and it pretty much didn’t do much to help with the cold. Still it was a nice treat to have.

Tofu dessert with red bean on dessert street.

Tofu dessert with red bean.

Getting out

I took the Airport Express train from the city back to the airport. When I was at the station to take the train, there was a long security line to scan bags before entering the platform.

Once at the airport, I took an airport shuttle to transfer to the correct terminal based on my airline and flight. The airport seemed to be split up into isolated terminals where people could only go from one to another via the airport-controlled shuttles. I was glad I had lots of time before my flight; I would’ve been much more antsy on the shuttles and out of breath from running across the hall.

From My Travel Log

23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • ​People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.

Thanks

  • Italian guy next to me on plane
  • Guy in airport elevator who told me without words but just sounds that I was already on the right floor
  • A mom and her daughter and the mom’s friend chatting on the airport train
  • Hostel reception
  • The two workers at the nearby bakery who ask me for small change but I didn’t have any and I couldn’t express sufficiently or answer their following questions so I stayed quiet and they ended up rounding to next yuan and gave me more change
  • Everyone who worked at the subway stations
  • Guards who work around the Olympic Park
  • Jacky the tour guide
  • John, Patrick and Patrick, Canadians, Swedes, Californian mom and son
  • Toboggan operators
  • Copper pot explainer
  • Tea house staff
  • Couple who helped me takes slanted wall picture
  • Guy from group in CA who took pics of me at Great Wall with Mao sign on hill
  • Lady at Forbidden City tourist center who awkwardly directed me in good English where audio guides were
  • Lady at audio guide booth who seemed surprised I wanted English guide and explained how the thing worked
  • French guys who I briefly talked to in French and English and who helped me take a photo that didn’t turn out as cool as I expected
  • Obnoxious guys at Tiananmen Square who tactlessly asked me to move away from their shots
  • People who kindly sold me till for dessert on cold desert street
  • Bakery people who sold me stuff

Tips

  • If you’re taking the subway to get around the city, make sure you get off at the closest station for your destination. The stations are relatively far from one another, unlike the stations in major American and European cities.
  • Most subway stations in Beijing had security checkpoints. It would be wise to travel light whenever possible so you may not need to scan your belongings. Mainly because of this, give yourself enough of a cushion so you’re not late.
  • The quickest entries into Tiananmen Square would probably be the southern corners of the square, because it’s the farthest from the Tiananmen Gate, so there’s less people already in that area. I noticed this after I entered the Square and saw the line to enter through the south side had a lot less people.
  • If you’re going to Mutianyu to see the Great Wall, take the toboggan ride down if you can. For most people, it’s not scary. It’s almost like a children’s ride.
  • If you’re taking the toboggan ride down, wear a GoPro so you can capture the ride without finessing with your camera while riding down the track.

Links

For More

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

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.

Itinerary

  • 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.

Accommodations

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.

Bathrooms

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.

Climate/Clothing

  • 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.

People

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.

Language

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).

Tours/Sightseeing

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.

Giudecca

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.

Food

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.

Gelato

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.

Thanks

  • 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.

Tips

  • 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.

Links

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.

Itinerary

  • 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.

Accommodations

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.

Bathroom

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

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

Climate/Clothing

  • 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.

People

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.

Language

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.

Activities

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.

Food

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.

Breakfast

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.

Caramels

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.

Thanks

  • 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.

Tips

  • 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.

Links

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 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.

Itinerary

  • 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.

Accommodations

 

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.

Climate/Clothing

      • 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.

 

 

People

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.

Language

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.

Tours

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.

Food

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.

Thanks

  • “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

Tips

  • 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.

Links

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.”

Itinerary

  • 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.

Accommodations

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.

Wifi

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.

Staff

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

Food

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.

Location

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.

Facilities

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.

Locker

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

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.

Bathrooms

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.

Towels

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.

Roommates

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.

Food

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. 

Bathroom

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.

Lockers

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.

Climate/Clothing

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.

People

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.

Language

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!)

Tours

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.

Arrangement

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.

Zip-lining

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.

Food

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

Thanks

  • 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

Tips

  • 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.

Links

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.

Accommodations

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.

People

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.

Food

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.

Thanks

  • 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.

Tips

  • 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.

Links

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)