^o^ Korea!

tl;dr – (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧ I LOVED SEOUL!!! Now I’m in Taiwan for 3 weeks. 

I did not want to leave Seoul this morning.

It was raining and I had this feeling of dread as I walked through the terminal to my gate. The kimchi withdrawals were already beginning to kick in.

The overwhelming sadness was not helped by the fact that I had just spent the night sleeping in the airport on a bench for just 4 hours.

While I had intended on rounding out my Korea trip the same way it began (lounging in the Incheon Airport spa), things did not pan out the way I’d hoped.

I got to the spa at midnight and the place was fully booked. The train back to the city had already stopped running for the night, so I trudged through the airport until I found a decently cushioned row of chairs to curl up on.

At 5 am, I woke up to the shrieking sound of packaging tape being wrapped around luggage. A huge group travelers chatted loudly about whatever there is to chat about at 5 am. I heaved my backpack on and checked into my Taipei flight.

I hadn’t expected to love Korea, and I definitely didn’t expect that I was going to LoOooOooooOooooOooOoove Seoul. It actually hurt to pass through immigration.

It didn’t matter whether I was eating tteokbokki alone at a restaurant or drinking soju with new friends, I loved nearly every moment of my time in Korea.

The city is so livable and interesting. The food is weird and incredible. The public transportation is thorough and convenient — even if I did manage to mess up every time I took it.

My favorite running path along the Han River.

Speaking of getting lost, I botched the one big sightseeing adventure I attempted in Korea. Getting to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, was a true nightmare.

For those headed wanting to visit the DMZ themselves, here’s a step by step guide to doing it wrong:

Step one Get lost at Seoul’s main train station. Literally run around the massive station trying to catch a 9:20 am train. Ask for help. Get conflicting information from every employee. Do this for one hour.

Step two – On the verge of crying, finally get on the right train to Munsan Station. After about an hour of travel, get off the train at Munsan and walk to the bus stop. Twenty minutes later,  get on a bus to Imjingang Station.

Step three – Get off the bus at the wrong stop. Note: The key to this step is to not know you are at the wrong stop. 

Step four – Walk around the ghost town of a stop and feel like giving up. Try to find a ticket booth you saw on some travel blog. Stare at the buildings and notice that nothing is written in English. Feel like a failure.

Step five – Open up Google maps, tell yourself that you won’t wasted 4 hours of your life only to give up on your DMZ dreams now. Start walking along the highway toward Imjingang Station. Don’t cry.

Step six – Hail the taxi that comes along, as though by magic. Show him your Google Map and understand exactly zero of his Korean. Sit back and revel in the air conditioning.

Step seven – Get dropped off at the wrong place. (In lieu of steps 6 & 7, maybe just light your money on fire instead. Same result.)

Step eight – Seek out help from a kind Korean man working at a kiosk. Sort of understand him and start walking down the highway again.

DMZ Time

Step nine – MAKE IT TO THE DMZ PARKING LOT!!!! Be weirded out by the amusement park blasting Justin Bieber music. Find the ticket booth and pay for a tour of the DMZ.

Step ten – Get on a tour bus. Realize you’ve just committed to a 3 hour tour. Feel overwhelmed.

Tunnel to North Korea - not for the claustrophobic.

Step eleven – Look with your very own eyes at the southernmost part of North Korea. Walk through tunnels that the North Koreans built to try to infiltrate after the Korean war. Feel lucky to be there, but feel exhausted.

Step twelve – Take one bus and two trains back to Seoul. Mess up twice.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

So visiting Korea wasn’t a piece of cake, but it was a dream – a dream I am sad to wake up from. I could honestly see myself living in Seoul, getting lost on the subway every day and consoling myself with Korean desserts.

Taro shaved ice with boba, because dreams *do* come true.
Taro shaved ice with boba, because dreams *do* come true.

But that chapter of this trip is over. It’s time to enjoy Taiwan, even if it has a hard act to follow.

##

Latest Stories:

Viet Mom

tl;dr – My mom came to Asia and we went to Vietnam. Now I’m alone in Korea. 

wefew

Last week in Hoi An, a 52-year-old woman named Tina playfully slapped my cheeks and called me a baby.

She had wrangled my mom and I into her shop to remove our unwanted peach fuzz (lady facial hair), and now she was using the threading technique to rip the fine follicles out of my jowls. I was wincing and maybe almost crying. It hurt, a lot.

When she finished torturing me, she slathered on some face cream said to make the hair “never come back again.” 

A staple of the trip, cà phê nâu đá, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk.
A staple of the trip, cà phê nâu đá, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. 

She had quoted us 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (the currency in Vietnam, about $4.50 US) for the painful service, and in the end demanded 800,000 for me, 600,000 for my mom. The only thing I hate more than peach fuzz is getting hustled.

I saw it coming but didn’t think we’d get charged 8x more (I didn’t think I had so much facial hair either). It wasn’t the first time I’ve been hustled, and it sure as hell won’t be the last! We paid Tina and took our waxy, smooth faces back into the insane Hoi An heat.

The face cream she applied ended up giving a bad red, raised, rash that lasted nearly a week. Also, the hair is coming back already.

Travel savvy mother in Hanoi at the One Pillar Pagoda.
Travel savvy mother in Hanoi at the One Pillar Pagoda.

Scams aside, my mom and I had a great trip in Vietnam for about a week and a half, splitting our time between Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Hoi An. The country is rich with history, good food, addictive coffee.

My mom fought jet lag well and was always more energetic than me to go out and see the sights, even though it was almost 100 degrees every day with 80% humidity.

We were up every morning to go jog around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, out and about every afternoon trying not to get hit by scooters in the crazy traffic.

Misty, but still hot AF, mornings around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
Misty, but still hot AF, mornings around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

One of the best parts of the trip was our overnight boat excursion to Ha Long Bay. It’s just as beautiful as the Google Images make it out to be.

Limestone cliffs at Ha Long Bay.
Limestone cliffs at Ha Long Bay.

We swam, hiked, sweat, and took 40,000 pictures over the two-day experience. The views were alone were worth the 8 hours (round trip) in a bus to get there.

Mai Tai with a view.
Mai Tai with a view.

I also got very lucky in Vietnam, not once, but three times. On our first night there, we’re sitting in a randomly chosen restaurant when who walks in the door? OH I DON’T KNOW, JUST RATATAT!!!! 

If you read the last blog post, you may remember that I lost my voice for four days screaming at their show in Bangkok recently. And here are Mike Stroud and Evan Mast in the same restaurant in Hanoi. Stars, they’re just like us!

I had a fangirl panic moment and couldn’t decide whether or not to play it cool, or ask for a photo, or get up and run into their arms. I ended up blurting out some words to them as they walked by our table, saying that I had seen them in Bangkok and now here we all are, or something mediocre.

The real MPV of the conversation was my mom, who made them laugh. They walked upstairs and ate dinner and I was in shock for another few hours.

Lucky situation number two. Still in shock after the whole Ratatat thing, I tell my mom that Bourdain is also in Hanoi that night (so is President Obama, nbd), so we go to his hotel to do some light stalking at the bar. While getting out of the taxi, I thought I slipped my phone into my purse, but it fell instead to the floor, under the seat.

The beautiful Hanoi opera house.
The beautiful Hanoi opera house.

I realized this later, of course. Once we get to the Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, I go to pull out my phone a few minutes after we’ve been dropped off and realize it is missing. The panic! I run outside of the hotel to see if the taxi driver is still there, maybe waiting for another customer, but he’s gone.

The hotel staff see how distressed I am and ask what’s wrong. I tell them I left my phone in the taxi, and three of them take off running in different directions. I’ve accepted the fact that it’s gone at this point, because Hanoi traffic is insane and there’s no way they’re going to find him.

A few moments later, one of the hotel employees is walking down the street toward me, and he’s not alone. He’s with the taxi driver! He said that he had remembered the license plate number from when we were dropped off, “it’s my job.” The cab driver had gone around the corner where taxis wait for customers.

Completely unrelated photo of a guy transporting chickens in Hoi An.
Completely unrelated photo of a guy transporting chickens in Hoi An.

I was totally stunned for the second time in one night. Also so happy that I could have kissed the guy. I said thank you about 80 times and then 30 more times.

Lucky moment number three: We flew from Danang to Hanoi and then took a cab into the city (it’s a 45 minute ride.) Once we’re checking into the Hotel de L’Opera Hanoi, I realize that I left a small bag that I keep in my larger bag on the plane. Inside that small bag? My wallet with my credit cards, cash, debit card, driver’s license, etc.

I wanted to die. HOW AM I ALLOWED TO BE AN ADULT. 

But really, why???
But really, why???

I told the concierge at our hotel and asked if he could call the airlines, the numbers I had tried weren’t working and most of the information was in Vietnamese. He took over for me, and after about 7 calls he told me that they had FOUND THE BAG!!! 

The hotel arranged a taxi driver to take us back to the airport and call the right people once we arrived. He did, and we got the bag back fully intact. I gave the concierge a gift and a letter thanking him in addition to the barrage of verbal thank yous.

The moral of the story: everyone in Vietnam is my hero and I (per usual) need to be more mindful.

Beach day in Hoi An, a city where I didn't lose anything, thank god.
Beach day in Hoi An, a city where I didn’t lose anything, thank god.

My mom and I left Vietnam on the same day, but many hours apart. Her flight took off at 11, and mine at 1:45 AM (technically the next day, but you get it).

I said goodbye to her (knowing that I’ll see her again in about a month, which is nice) and spent the day doing some work, killing time at the hotel until it was time to head to the airport.

Last lunch in Hanoi.
Last lunch in Hanoi.

I left Vietnam humbled, tired, and bloated (there had been a LOT of eating in the past week). Once my flight landed at Incheon International Airport, I didn’t have the energy to take the train into the city. Instead, I paid $12 to use the airport’s Korean spa.

Best spent $12 of my life! I soaked in hot tubs, cold pools, sweat out the exhaustion in the sauna and steam room, then slept for 4 hours on a thin cushion in the napping room.

I finally left the airport and made it to the heart of Seoul. I put my stuff down at the traditional Korean guesthouse I’m staying at, and started walking around the city. I have been here once before, but only for a 10 hour layover.

Korean pancakes that I should have eaten, but didn't.
Korean pancakes that I should have eaten, but didn’t.

This place is nuts and reminds me a lot of Tokyo. I think I’m going to like it here, despite feeling very lost already.

Home!
Seoul home!

##

Latest stories: 

Return to America

TL;DR – I’m in America for the first time in a year, it’s weird / Japan was hard 

I am in a Jamba Juice in San Leandro staring out the window at a Togo’s and a car wash. I am back in California, and it feels so weird.

I return after an emotionally tumultuous three weeks in Japan. The country turned out to be way more isolating than I had predicted thanks to a number of things. First, I don’t speak any Japanese and most people in Japan do not speak English. Second, the Japanese culture isn’t all about chatting up strangers, especially foreign strangers. Third, it’s very quiet in Japan, so I spent a lot of time trying to stay as silent as possible and blend into society. Toss all of that together and you have one tough trip for an extrovert.

I honestly can’t believe how intensely sad I got in such a short period of time, but I really struggled to stay happy in Tokyo and Tahara. Some days I slept for 13 hours, then spent 3-5 more in bed just looking at the Internet. Mind you, I am completely aware of how melodramatic this sounds. I’d do my fair share of walking around, exploring, taking random ferries or busses, then I’d feel exhausted/defeated and go home. A few things got me through my time in Japan: running, drinking with strangers, and working.

Jogging was a godsend. Released endorphins, upbeat music, fresh air, and happy fellow joggers lifted me out of the inexplicably heavy darkness. My favorite jogging routes were along the seemingly endless Tama River, and around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace at dusk ( minus the swarms of gnats that frequented the palace moat. I had to constantly rub them out of my eyes and when I was finished running, I had dead gnats smashed against my arms, neck, and face ).

Drinking with strangers rescued me from my silent loneliness. No one is going to talk to you on the subway, or in line at a coffee shop, so the only places to strike up conversations were in intimate Tokyo bars – I’m talking 7 seats intimate, these places are tiny. The later the better was the recipe for success. If I hit up a bar too early, my Japanese neighbors wouldn’t have enough liquid courage yet to find out what the crazy gaijin (foreigner) was doing there.

After 10 or 11 pm, tongues loosened (mine included) and broken English conversations ensued. Befriending foreigners was also crucial, and those rare times hanging out with fellow westerners were fantastic. It was nice to hear that other people felt the same melancholy I did in the biggest city in the world.

Working was the last element that kept me sane in Japan. Retreating to cafés to work on stories let me check out of my immediate reality for a while and focus on something other than my ridiculous misery. Unfortunately, there weren’t many places with free-flowing Internet access, so I ended up paying a small fortune to spend time at co-working spaces.

Despite all the first world problems bringing me down, I could not deny that Japan was absolutely incredible. The country is unreal on a million levels. Wildly clean, efficiently modern, and infinitely cooler than me. Everyone is impeccably dressed from the salarymen in perfectly tailored suits to the Shimokitazawa hipsters layering random things and looking great doing it.

The bottom line is that Japan is amazing. Everyone should go at some point in their lives, but prepare yourself before the journey. Learn a little Japanese, IT GOES A LONG WAY. Carefully choose where you want to stay. Get mentally ready to be an outsider.

I had a 17 hour layover in China that I spent mostly standing in infuriating lines at the Beijing airport. I did get the chance to explore the Forbidden City a little and eat some “Old Beijing” pastries, then it was time to hop on my 11 hour flight back to the USA.

Beijing blitz

The flight was a breeze. I did my best not to look at the clock and tried to ignore my increasingly uncomfortable head cold I caught in Tokyo. Before I knew it, the plane was landing at SFO. I was home. The flight was so easy that it was anticlimactic stepping off the plane. SFO has greatly improved its foreign entry process, and going through customs was a breeze. Suddenly I had my backpack and was sitting on the BART headed into the city. San Francisco was as beautiful as I had left it. It was all so completely normal and familiar. I cried three times.

I came back to be with my family, but my cold prevented me from meeting my sweet baby niece so I stayed in the Outer Sunset for a handful of days. The mix of being sick, being home for the first time, and being in the otherworldly Outer Sunset gloom was weird. I felt like I was walking in a dream. It was way too normal to be true. Did I even leave? Was I really gone for a year? Surreal.

Reverse culture shock isn’t the only reason I’m off. Since the decision to come home was made so suddenly, and I spent so much money in expensive AF Japan, my next move isn’t clear at the moment. I don’t  think I have enough money to leave right away, so suddenly I’m feeling a little trapped and confused. It has also been overwhelmingly nice to see loved ones again, I’m not even sure if I want to leave.

So I’m in California. I have no apartment, no sense of home, and no proof that the last year in Asia even happened (other than the memories in my brain, the scar on my forehead, and this blog).

What happens next? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

Bali Bagus, Again

TL;DR – Bali is still dreamy. My mom came to visit. We went to Lombok. 

After nearly a month in India, returning to Bali felt like being enveloped in a tropical, familiar hug. Everything was sunny and bright. A familiar – or rather familial – face came to join me in Indonesia, my mom, for her fourth time visiting me in Asia this year! I can’t think of many people who would fly almost 70,000 miles in a single year to see me (or maybe it’s just for the cheap massages).

Mom at Green Bowl Beach
Mom at Green Bowl Beach

We spent the first few days relaxing in Seminyak, adjusting to the time zone and working on our licenses to chill. We hired a car to check out a few of South Bali’s best beaches: Green Bowl and Dreamland. Green Bowl was an undeveloped pocket of clear water and white sand, whereas Dreamland was more tourist-friendly with sunny orange beach umbrellas, great surfing, and a restaurant or two.

After frolicking around Seminyak for a while, we hopped on a plane and headed to the Indonesian island of Lombok, Bali’s less developed neighbor. The short flight and drive to Kuta Lombok seemed to transport us back in time. Horse drawn carriages were more plentiful than taxis, there were no street lights.

Slanty hut literally throwing us shade in Kuta Lombok
Slanty hut literally throwing us shade in Kuta Lombok

In Bali, foreigners are no big deal; you can get lost in a sea of white people sporting flip-flops and sunburns. In Lombok, there are markedly less foreigners, and the locals got a kick out of us – particularly when my mom and I went on our morning jogs. On our daily run, we were met with cheers, laughs, waves, and scowls from the locals. The people of Lombok were not exactly outwardly friendly, but after dropping a few Bahasa Indonesia phrases, they instantly broke into smiles.

Lombok is a magnet for surfers, and most of the limited number of tourists were hella gnarly bros. While far from gnarly, I still took the opportunity to surf there as well. Instead of paddling out from the beach, you have to hire a boat to take you out to sea to get to the waves. The session was well worth the effort, it was fun taking the boat ride alone.

En route to Inside Gerupuk (aka Bumbang Bay) to surf
En route to Inside Gerupuk (aka Bumbang Bay) to surf

After our Lombok days were up, we set off back to Bali. Since Mount Raung wouldn’t stop spewing volcanic ash, my mom and I had to take a ferry. We were told the trip would take four hours, but it ended up being an all-day affair.

The hassle began when our “fast boat” was late in a very ambiguous way. After a two-hour car ride to the port, no one could tell us when the boat would arrive. We were ushered from one spot on the jetty to another to wait. It felt pretty stupid to complain about our inconvenience when we were surrounded by twinkling water and a coastline of palm trees. But complain we did, all dozen foreigners stranded on the sun-drenched dock.

A pretty hassle
A tropical pain

An hour and a half past our boat’s departure time and we learned that our ferry had yet to leave its dock on another island. We continued to freckle, burn, and rot on the jetty, clamoring together in limited slivers of shade. As other boats came and went, we all kept squinting into the brilliant blue horizon, straining to see a boat that wasn’t on its way.

At this point, Bali seemed to exist only in our minds like some unobtainable oasis, so close and yet so far. After two hours of sweaty frustration, my mom and I bought new tickets for the next boat we saw. The ferry took us to a town three hours from where we were staying in Bali, but we were just happy to get the F out of Lombok.

At dusk we arrived in the rice field-ed beach town of Canggu, Bali and checked in to The Kirana Bali hotel. This place had the most comfortable bed I’d slept on in weeks and it was just a 10 minute walk to Batu Bolong Beach. We were in close proximity to top-notch eateries like Betelnut Cafe, Le Petit Prince, and Deus Cafe.

Smoked salmon delights at Avocado Cafe in Canggu
Smoked salmon delights at Avocado Cafe in Canggu

So things were good back in Bali. My mom and I spent the rest of her time in town at the beach, massage spots, and bangin’ restaurants. It was fun having a travel buddy for two weeks, and it was sad to say goodbye to my mom when her trip was over.

I’m now entering my third month of the whole e-hobo thing, still adjusting to being semi-nomadic. One outcome of the lifestyle change is that I’m outside much more, which is great for my disposition but maybe not so great for my skin. I know one day a dermatologist will grimace at my weathered face and curse this time in the sun. Wrinkles be damned, I’m having a hell of a time!

Canggu, all rice fields and street art. Also, cows.
Canggu, all rice fields and street art. Also, cows.

Next up, I’ll spend a few days in Jakarta followed by a week in Bangkok before heading to Tokyo. Getting ready for Japan, I’m anxious as F about how expensive it’s going to be. I have been able to manage supporting myself in Southeast Asia, but Japan is a whole different ball game. The cheapest accommodations aren’t even cheap, and allegedly food is also pricey. The trip may be good for my waistline (still bloated from the parantha-filled India adventure), as I may have to starve to make it through the experience (jk that’s unlikely). 

Goodbye again, Bali.

Wrapping Up India

Two weeks of India exploration in Himachal Pradesh.

Heads up: LONGEST POST EVER.  You try cramming two plus weeks into one concisce blog post. I dare you. If you hang in there, you’ll read about WEED and ANGORA RABBITS and BEING IN THE CAR A LONG TIME. Anyway, TL;DR we went north to Himachal Pradesh and it was beautiful. 

I leave India heavier – both figuratively and literally. The combination of inhaling Indian delicacies and hardcore lounging definitely resulted in some kilo gainage, but my short trip to the country also made me realize that there is so much more of the place to see. I’m left with this nagging urge to go back and find out more about what makes India tick.

For now, all I know is that Himachal Pradesh turned out to be a stunning place of rushing rivers cutting through massive verdant mountains, baby cows walking through misty forests, apple orchards covering dewy hillsides. It’s a place you can go on an incredible hike, hold a baby goat, and eat a perfect pear right from the tree all in one afternoon.

The Ol’ Taj, Shilon & Shimla

We started the Indian adventure with a day trip to Agra where we saw, of course, the Taj Mahal in all of its glory. The place was enchanting, and being a low season for tourism we went in without spending any time in line. After a tour of the grounds (filled with cheesy photo ops), we went to the Oberoi for a luxurious lunch before heading back to Delhi.

After another day in the Capital, we set off for Himachal Pradesh and spent an ungodly number of hours in a van with our driver Kashiram. Being on the road in India feels like being in a video game. Thanks to my history of getting carsick, I stayed in the front seat most of the trip and had a premium view of the roadway madness.

In India, lane lines seem to be suggestions; people weave in and out of them wildly to constantly pass lagging cars. Red lights are jokes. Honking is incessant. One minute you’ll find yourself on a spacious highway in farmland, then in a bustling town, then on a single lane dirt road, then back on a  paved highway.

I passed the time anxiously, cringing every time Kashiram dodged cows that wandered into the traffic.

After a number of hours of flat landscape, we made it to the hills and started ascending toward the Himalayas. The roads became bumpier and less predictable, but the scenery became more mesmerizing. Mountain towns nestled in greenery appeared out of the fog. Silver monkeys gave zero f***s running across the roads.

Hours and hours and hours later, we finally got to Shilon, a minuscule little settlement outside of Shimla, where we stayed in a great Airbnb place for a few days. The house was on an largely undeveloped mountainside and the views were unbelievable. Surprise bonus: the place came with a cook and we were fed delicious homemade Indian feasts morning, noon and night.

Being monsoon season, it rained a lot. On one dry afternoon, our caretaker took us on a walk through the verdant area around our home. We stopped by an elementary school and were allowed (why, idk) to hang out with the kids for a while.

From Shilon, we took a short drive to Shimla and stayed at the most incredible bed and breakfast, Sunnymead. To say the chalet-like retreat was dreamy would be a criminal understatement. From the rooms to the gardens to the hospitality, everything was perfect.

Madhavi Bhatia is the woman behind Sunnymead, and arguably the most wonderful caretaker on the planet. When we arrived, she baked us a chocolate cake. Even though it wasn’t part of the deal, she whipped us up a “simple dinner” that turned out to be three courses of heaven. It was actually painful to check out of her place, especially after the glorious breakfast that left us in a food coma.

Sunnymead was just a short walk to Shimla’s Mall Road, a historic part of town that blends hundred year old cafes and shops with commercial newcomers like Sony and Baskin Robbins. While exploring town, we even ran into a Dominos pizza guy walking up endless stairs to make a hillside delivery.

Gushaini & Naggar

With broken hearts yearning for more nights at Sunnymead, we headed six hours north to Gushaini. We stayed just one night at the Himalayan Trout House. Surprise! We ate trout there.

Surprise number two! There is a ton of marijuana growing in Northern India. It grows – fittingly – like weeds. When we went on a morning hike in Gushaini, we kept doing double takes at the foliage along the road. We asked our guide if our eyes were deceiving us, but no, it really was wild-growing pot.

Before anyone gets too excited – we learned from experts at the Trout House that this stuff isn’t much to write home about (as I literally write home about it). Smoking any of the plants that grow below 6,000 ft. altitude would be like drinking kombucha to get drunk; it’s apparently not potent enough to do much unless you smoke like five joints. Extracting enough resin from the plants to actually make a joint would take forever. Like my homie Samual Taylor Coleridge said, water water everywher; nor any drop to drink. The locals don’t smoke it much and prefer to drink it in bang lassi.

With or without the weed sightings, the hiking in Gushaini was excellent. Our guide took us through hilltop farms and mossy paths until we reached an epic waterfall. I’m also 80% sure I saw a honey badger.

After Gushaini, it was off to the hills of Naggar where we stayed in a beautiful hassle of a place, Sonaugi Homestead. The staff and accommodations were fantastic, but we had to go through hell to get to and from the property. We needed to get out of the car and walk so the van could make it through the muddy unpaved roads. Even if the road had been dry, we still had to walk the last leg down a steep hill to the guesthouse. It was hard to complain about the ordeal when a 70-year-old man from the guesthouse was doing the same exact walk with us.

Once we got there, we were delighted by the cabin-esque setting, extravagant Indian buffets, and puppies running around the property. On the morning we were set to leave, it had been raining for hours – a problem for those dirt roads and our soccer mom van. Predictably, the van got stuck just 5 minutes after we left Sonaugi and we spent two hours depending on the kindness of locals to rip the car from the mud. Fortunately, there were fresh pears to be eaten – albeit eaten in the pouring rain on the side of the road.

Manali

Once we were free from the shackles of the mud, we drove a few more hours to Manali. Our first morning in the Himalayan resort town, we were stoked to see snow capped mountains and bright blue sky instead of rain.

We went to explore Old Manali and learned that it’s a tiny stoner version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Hippies from around the world congregate here to frequent eateries with names like “Moon Dance Cafe.” Men with dreadlocks and girls with hula hoops lazed around the cafes playing guitars and eating edibles. We had fun drinking locally made cider and listening to live music at Lazy Dog and eating leisurely breakfasts at Sunshine Cafe.

We had a bit of an issue with our Airbnb rental, so we decided to splurge on rooms at The Himalayan for our last nights in Himachal Pradesh. The “Medieval style Castle & Cottages” was excellent with views of the valley and the garden-surrounded pool. It was hard to pry ourselves out of the comfortable antique four-poster bed in the morning, but we managed.

In New Manali, we walked around Tibetan monasteries, ate Indian sweets, and perused the various shops for gifts. I had my first taste of celebrity status when groups of dudes would ask to take their photos with me (Because I’m a white lady? Because I was sweaty AF?). It would start with “Miss, one photo, one photo?” and I said yes because why not?

But then one photo turned into twelve, with other dudes swapping in, changing poses, handing me props like an Angora rabbit (really), asking to put their hands on my shoulder, and so on. It got weird, so I started saying no to future photo-op requests.

Back to Delhi and leaving India

It took us more than 16 hours to get back to Delhi on Thursday. We listened to music, This American Life podcasts, and tried not to think about the incredibly long journey. We didn’t make it home until midnight, but my friend’s grand-aunt was awake and ready with some crustless sandwiches for us weary travelers.

Just before leaving Delhi, Abhi took me back to bowels of Chandni Chowk so I could work on a story for Munchies. It was painfully hot, but we got through the afternoon and even stopped at Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib.

After a shower at home, I ordered an Uber and got the hell out of Delhi. The main takeaway from this trip is that three weeks is not nearly enough time to wrap your head around this country, although it is enough time to become an expert on parathas if you put your mind to it.

Landing in Bali almost felt like a joke. It’s too easy; there are no obstacles to overcome, nothing to fear. The only downsides here are the mosquitos and the tourists (says one such tourist).

Bali is this idyllic paradise that exists beyond reality. Everyone greets each other on the street. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear someone laughing. There are always flowers in bloom. I swear that even the air smells sweet on this island. When I saw the ocean again, my heart actually fluttered. Not a bad place to spend the next three weeks.

Avoiding Delhi Belly – Hello India!

For starters: INDIA IS INSANE!!!  

I’ve experienced a wildly swinging pendulum of emotions these past four days. India has been so much more intense than I predicted.

All of the pre-trip reading I did made me pretty anxious about spending time in New Delhi alone before my friends joined me a few days later. Nothing sold the country as a dream destination for women, especially women traveling solo. I arrived to New Delhi on Wednesday night on high alert and got a taxi to my hostel. It was pouring rain when the cab driver started to slow down in one of the sketchiest neighborhoods I’ve ever been in.

I thought to myself, “This has to be a mistake.

Stops Hostel, said TripAdvisor reviews, was “great,” an “Oasis in Delhi” with “excellent staff” and I found it to be none of those things. The hostel was located in a bleak part of Darya Ganj, and even in the dark of night, I could tell that this was not a neighborhood I should be in alone.

In the morning, I was able to confirm that yes, yes this wasn’t a choice pick of locations for a solo lady. Darya Ganj was a clusterf*** of haphazard construction where I saw the sadness of abject poverty in full light. I also saw a fully nude man casually strolling in the street. I didn’t arrive in Delhi expecting to find San Francisco, but I had booked this particular hostel expecting to be in a safe location.

Although the hostel itself seemed safe with security guards, I wasn’t loving the place. The front desk staff turned out to be cold and inhospitable. I had booked an all-girls dorm, yet on my second night my roommate was a 30+ year old man lounging around the room in nothing but a bath towel for way too long. I couldn’t handle the dodgy area, the front desk staff’s demeanor, or the unreliable WiFi, so I ended up booking a private room at Moustache Hostel in the GK-1 neighborhood.

I spent the next few nights in a little 2nd floor studio apartment reached by a quaint spiral staircase. The place was perfect, and free of semi or fully nude men.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset
Moustache Hostel = #Upgrade

So things were off to an interesting start from the get go with the accommodation issues. Day one I spent shopping for India-appropriate garb, adjusting to the culture, and meeting with locals who could help me with some Delhi-focused stories for Munchies.

For one such story, I needed to find a place in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar called Jain Coffee House. On day two, I set out to try Jain’s mango and paneer sandwiches. One metro trip, three failed rickshaw rides, and two and a half hours walking in the rain later, I finally found Jain hiding in an alley.

"Welcome to Jain Coffee House!" this sign probably says. Good thing I can read Hindi!
“Welcome to Jain Coffee House!” this sign probably says. Good thing I can read Hindi!

I approached the counter and asked about the sandwiches, to which the staff simply replied “no.” I was confused. No sandwiches now? No sandwiches ever? The language barrier made it impossible to find out what the actual f happened to the sandwiches. I was obviously killing it my first 24 hours in Delhi.

I spent the next 15 minutes simmering in my failure over a cup of their excellent chai tea.

The rest of days two and three I filled trying to research a story on a popular snack beloved by Delhi residents. The momo is a dumpling that originated from the Tibetan Plateau, so I went to different Tibetan colonies and Nepalese restaurants stuffing my face with the doughy spheres, Delhi Belly be damned! A highlight of the trip so far was being welcomed into the kitchen of Big Apple restaurant in Majnu-Ka-Tilla Tibetan refugee camp to photograph the pre-cooked momos.

DUMPLINGS

When I’m wasn’t thinking about dumplings, I kept finding myself wondering, “where are all the women?” On the streets, there are so few women out and about. There are very few on the metro (compared to the number of men), even in the women-only cars. Most of the vendors I come across are guys. I guess I get it; being in public as a lady isn’t very comfortable when you have men shamelessly stone-cold staring at you. I feel it myself and watch the way other local women get thoroughly stared at from every angle.

There’s also a clear reason for those all-women metro trains. During rush hour I was waiting in line (with other women) to board a co-ed train when a man placed his forearm on me like he was trying to get in between my butt cheeks. When I tried to move away, he moved with me, readjusting to make sure he got his arm right back in there. I pivoted and he pivoted. Finally I just power walked to a wall and put my back to it, forcing him to choose between continuing to harass me or miss the train. He left me alone.

Despite the unfortunate issues related to the country’s patriarchal culture, not everyone is the aggressive metro offender or the leering pedestrian.  I have met really great Indian men (and women) who have been more than welcoming and helpful. In a city of 9.8 million people, you are bound to find bad apples in with the good.

Ending on a good note, I’ve had the pleasure of eating some damn good Indian delights even though I’m worried about getting Delhi Belly. I have this very unscientific theory that I’m less likely to get sick from Indian sweets, so I’ve had my fair share of gulab jamun, laddu, and the sweet mother of all street desserts, jalebi. Thus far, my theory seems to be working out although I am on a sure path to diabetes, obesity, and toothache ( #WorthIt ).

Jalebi, you magical Indian version of funnel cake, you dog!
Piping hot jalebi, you magical Indian version of funnel cake. You dog!

Tomorrow is a new day, and we’re are headed to Agra to see the ol’ Taj Mahal before trekking north to Shimla, Kasol, and Manali. Outside of Delhi, I’m sure India will continue to surprise, shock, and delight, and I can’t wait to find out.

A Bali Fortnight – Groundhog Day, but in a good way

Getting sidelined with a cold pulled me out of my dreamy Bali tunnel vision. For the past two plus weeks, I’ve done almost the same thing every day and it’s been a great fortnight – possibly the best I’ve ever had. It doesn’t feel like real life at this point. My Groundhog Day existence looks like this (but subsitute a frustrated Bill Murray for a happy Bill Murray):

  • Early Morning – Wake up with the sunrise, go jogging (or change my mind and sleep in), eat breakfast at my hostel, slather my body with multiple coats of 110 SPF sunscreen
  • Morning – Walk down to the beach, go surfing (see also: attempt to surf), hang out, drink coffee, go surfing again (continue wiping out), drink a fresh coconut
  • Late Afternoon – Head home, shower, maybe nap, go to a cafe/restaurant to eat and write
  • Evening – Go out for drinks or go to bed early – like 9 pm early – maybe eat yogurt and granola on my bed

Then I got sick, and suddenly I couldn’t do the things I’ve been doing for like 16 days straight. Stopping the routine made me realize that holy f, almost three weeks has passed and I have done WAY LESS than I planned on doing. I feel like I just got here. How did time fly by that fast? What happened!? I wanted to file way more stories, see way more places, try way more restaurants.

Even though my days aren’t filled with the sort of variety I predicted, one perk is that they have been filled with damn good meals. Indonesian food is a dream; it’s so good that I haven’t missed Thai food yet. One of the dishes I’ve eaten is so incredible, I wrote about it for Vice.

Ok, so more reflecting on life after leaving Bangkok.

It has been interesting adjusting to backpack life. I thought that by packing 95% black clothing, it would be easier to wear the same thing all the time. Instead, I feel more like a gothic outfit repeater in a sea of Bali’s well-dressed beach goddesses.

All I want to do is surf or sit on the beach (go figure), so it’s harder than predicted to be proactive with my freelance work. By the time I do get to a cafe to write I’m exhausted from an active day in the sun.

Once I got sick, I had the chance to take a step back and reexamine my productivity game plan (aaaand see that something needs to change). As I recover from the cold, I’m trying out new routines to coax myself into working more while still soaking up ample beach time. (Insert quote here about life lessons or progress or something, idk)

So what next? I have about two weeks left in Bali until I fly to India where I’ll spend nearly three weeks stuffing my face with naan while simultaneously trying to avoid Delhi belly. Once I’m healthy, I imagine I’ll fall back into the surf-eat-surf-repeat routine until I wake up one morning and have to catch my flight. I booked a ticket back to Bali after India so I can come back and do more of the same, this time with my mom who will be visiting me again.

Freelance life: so far, so good.