What I Learned Traveling Off the Grid

“Travel is the only expense that makes you richer,” but at what point do we miss out on the richness of travel because of our mobile devices, our cameras, and a desire to share the our travels with the outside world? Between trying to take the perfect shot of the exotic plate of food in front of you and the urge to get wifi to check in at a far-flung destination, we often miss out on the true essence of travel: being out of our element in foreign lands.

As an avid traveler and photographer, I will admit that I, too, had fallen victim to this cycle of travel. I was constantly looking for wifi to stay in touch with people or trying to get the perfect photo of the back alleys in Burma, the cafe in Vientiane, or the mosaics in Macau instead of living in the moment. The worst part of this is that I did not even realize what I was doing. It had become second nature to me after traveling in Asia for several years. Unless I was writing in my travel journal and thinking about my trip, I was more worried about getting the perfect photo than stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.

All of that changed when I shared e-mail correspondence with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from a fourteen day trip to South Africa where he did not use his phone and did not take a camera with him.

He urged me to try traveling without a camera because, with Google Earth and Google Images, you can find any photo that will remind you of where you have been while you also retain the memory of actually being there in the first place. This e-mail came on the heels of me reading an article  about how taking photos of things harms your memory of those things. I wanted to see if there was any merit to this method of travel.

With this in mind, I went to Taipei with the intention living in the moment during my visit with old friends. Other than using wifi for directions and snapping a few photos with my phone (on airplane mode), I was going off the grid. Almost as soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I knew this was going to be a special trip.

The stairs leading to the peak of Elephant Mountain (像山) in Taipei

I even left my headphones at home and I immediately noticed things about Taiwan that I had never seen before once I got on the bus to Taipei from the airport. Posted signage banning live birds from being brought onto the bus and some of the Japanese-language signage near a shipping facility were two of the highlights of this ride, but more insight was yet to come.

With my friends for the next few days I was able to notice simple things that I had not noticed in the past because of my preoccupation with my camera and my desire to share my travel experiences with others in my photos.

The sounds of hustlers in the streets hawking their goods and the sizzling of saucepans at the night market I experienced last week would have certainly gone unnoticed had I been trying to get the perfect ISO or white balance setting for a photo. With my electronics tucked away, all of my senses were heightened and I was able to capture my trip using all of my senses.

As I stood next to a putrid tofu stand in the light rain, everything about the city seemed to come alive- shopkeepers scrambled to clean up their stands while bikers raced to the nearest overhang. All the while, Chinese-language neon signage glistened in the street gutter as the rain subsided a few minutes later. This kind of experience is what I had been missing while staying connected on my trips.

I had these kind of experiences during the entirety of my stay in Taiwan. I visited beautiful cliffs in Keelung and, instead of trying to get the best photo, I spoke with my friends about them and we took time to hike cliffside trails and breathe in and think about the fresh Pacific Ocean air.

While climbing Elephant Mountain, I noticed etched stairs which denoted the mountain’s name and the distance to various points on the mountain. They had certainly been there prior to that day, but I never noticed because I was too worried about getting the perfect photo of Taipei 101 from the stairs.

These were certainly good experiences, but nothing prepared me for what I saw during my last night in Taipei at the city’s oldest jazz club/bar.

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Elephant Mountain’s staircase. 

 

Ever since my last visit to Taipei in 2015, my friends had wanted to take me to this jazz club called Blue Note. Luckily for us, our schedules aligned and we made a reservation for the bar on a Saturday night to catch an incredible four piece band that would end up playing for two hours or so.

About halfway through the evening, I took my eyes off of the band and realized that, while the saxophone and piano players were in a deep musical conversation, half of the bar was either in deep conversation with another person or a game application on their cell phones.

Instead of living in the moment and feeling the joy of the music, all they were doing was living inside of their cell phones.

Once I arrived at the airport on Sunday night, I found it incredibly easy to write an in-depth journal entry about each day of my trip through Taiwan. That would not have been possible had I had my camera with me for the duration of the trip or had I been searching for wifi at every moment.

It might seem like blasphemy to even suggest, but try traveling without your camera and your wifi the next time you travel. You might get a more wholesome experience. It helped me live in the moment instead of being captured inside my devices.

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A Night in Hairtail Alley

One of Seoul’s busiest and most popular tourist destinations is Namdaemun Market. The massive open-air marketplace is filled with street vendors selling the newest shirts for tourists, the newest knockoff electronic devices, and some very interesting street food. The market comes alive in the late afternoon and early evening as tourists and locals descend on the market.

After dark, however, the mood is quite different. Shops close for the night while restaurants keep cooking or prepare for the next day. One of the most interesting parts of Namdaemun market for me was Hairtail Alley, famous for various types of seafood.

I showed up after closing and encountered some interesting scenes. The first person who greeted me was a shopkeeper enjoying an evening cigarette as others passed by his shop. IMG_3220 copy

If you look down Hairtail Alley from one end, you can see that all of the storefronts share similar signs. IMG_3233 copy

A few blocks away, some more stores appeared. Upon closer inspection, these stores were actually second-floor restaurants, but they lacked exterior signage. Instead, they used the stairs to showcase their menu items. I had never seen anything like this.

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I encountered some other pretty cool things as I wrapped up my journey through Hairtail Alley and the surrounding streets in the late hours of the night. A woman had left some pink gloves in a pot alongside some green vegetables. The bright colors and their contrast with the dark floor made for a nice photo subject. IMG_3250 copy

The coolest spot of the night, however, was a family-run fish stand that was closing up shop for the night. A rusted out scale that had to be twenty years old and a dirty cutting board were all that remained outside after a long day’s work. IMG_3260 copyIMG_3265 copy

As the shopkeeper turned in for the night, so did I. Hairtail Alley and Namdaemun Market are certainly different places at night than they are during the busy day. I’m glad I took a short detour here during my trip to Seoul a few weeks ago.

Rainy Myeongdong Nights

Weathermen are the only people on the planet who can be wrong every single day of their life and still have people hanging on their every word. During my last night in Seoul, I learned that Korean weathermen are no different than American weatherman- their forecasts are meaningless. IMG_3788For my trip to the DMZ earlier in the day, the weather forecast called for an 80 percent chance of driving winds and rain. Luckily for my friend and I there was nothing more than drizzle and some low-lying, eerie, clouds. That evening promised to be clear and cool, but we would have no such luck this February night in Seoul. As we walked out of the hotel with our polka-dotted umbrellas, unexpected raindrops fell and peppered our shoulders. Mother Nature wanted to rain on our parade through Seoul, but we would not allow it.

Tonight’s sudden rain rain mixed with Myeongdong’s bustling streets and provided a window into how the city shifts gears from dry to wet in a matter of moments. There were also some great photographic opportunities.

Myeongdong’s side streets turned into glistening gates into the city’s heart. IMG_3798

Umbrellas filled the streets and shielded shoppers from the unexpected evening showers. IMG_3828 copyIMG_3847 copy

Hoards of shoppers, locals, and tourists alike flowed effortlessly through the narrow streets much like the way the ocean shifts around barriers as the tide comes in and out. Shopkeepers and stands became obstacles to the crowd, but they were not barriers. IMG_3947 copy

Passersby listened to shopkeepers peddling their products and continued into the bright Myeongdong night. IMG_3868 copy

Somehow even this woman maintained some sort of order in front of her store. IMG_3973

As the masses crammed into narrow alleys and pranced down the glistening Myeongdong streets through this rain shower, other characters of the night also emerged. A woman accosted foreign tourists into her massage parlor. A man tried to sell us selfie sticks for our cell phones, but a cool cat was also on the prowl. A local cat cafe mascot was wandering the streets, looking for customers. Much like his feline cousins, he wanted nothing to do with the rain. IMG_3903.JPG

And then it was over. As quickly as the rain started, it tapered off and stopped. Bustling life in Myeongdong returned to normal and the memories of glistening Myeongdong were gone as quickly as they started.

Every dog, and cat, as the adage goes, has his day. As the rain stopped, he could return to normal work. IMG_4020 copy

With each passing hour and new experience in Seoul, the city’s mystique and charm grows on me. As readers here know, I fell in love with Seoul many months ago, but its alluring ambiance is quickly making it as appealing as Tokyo for me. You never know what you will see or get on any given night in one of the busiest parts of one of the world’s most bustling metropolises.

Travel Friends are Forever

Anyone who has read this website before knows how much I extoll the virtues of solo travel and how positive those journeys can be. Those values must not be forgotten but today I am going to focus on something even more important than the solo travel experience: the travel friend everyone needs to have.

Travel is the only expense that makes you richer. Sometimes you get even richer from travel if you can go with your good friends.

My best travel friend in the world also happens to be one of my best friends from my hometown. Our quest for adventure and sightseeing has taken us to many spectacular places where we have seen amazing things and participated in many unforgettable events.

It all started on a rainy Wednesday morning in central Pennsylvania when my friend Andrew and his brother, David, picked me up for what would end up being an eventful day in Lafayette Square at the inaugural Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C. The whole experience set the wheels in motion for a friendship that has led us to more than 15 states, three Canadian provinces, and two (soon to be four) countries in North America (and Asia).

From that moment onward, we began to take weekend trips to see different places in our part of the country. Often times we traveled in his Mazda to the historic triangle between Harper’s Ferry, WV, Antietam, MD, and Washington, D.C., to celebrate Memorial Day. One time we made a wrong turn and decided to stop at a special place on a state road where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia all converged into one point on the banks of the Potomac. DSC01461

The sights and sounds that day in the Mid Atlantic were amazing.

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As we continued to travel and make long hauls of weekends, we realized that we had something few friends have when it comes to travel: chemistry. Anyone who travels a lot knows how hard it is to find a friend who has the same travel interests and travel style. Pace, interests, and reasons are often irreconcilable differences when it comes to choosing the people with whom you want to travel.

We both love roadside attractions, a very fast pace, history, and taking a ridiculous amount of photos. As a result, we began to plan an unforgettable road trip during the summer of 2012 from Central Pennsylvania to Ft. Ticonderoga and then to St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, by way of Montreal and Quebec City. After that, this 2000-plus mile road trip would meander down the East Coast with stops at Acadia National Park and some other historical landmarks on our way home. With all these stops and all that distance, you would think that we would do it all in about a week or two, right?

Not us. We did it all in a span of only five days. We loaded up his Subaru and were on our way to Canada, for better or worse. DSC08147

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After many scenic stops, some ridiculous encounters with fellow travelers and locals, an interesting cab ride in Montreal, and an all-night drive between Montreal and Quebec City, we made it to New Brunswick where we met our match the following night. After taking in the beautiful cliffs at Fundy National Park, we were on our way back to the United States to hopefully camp for the night at Acadia National Park.

Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.
Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.

Horribly foggy conditions engulfed our vehicle in northern Maine and led us to drive at speeds of 15 miles an hour all night down back roads along the Maine coast to find the nearest hotel to stop for the night. We stopped at a bar to ask for directions and watched a Red Sox game with some locals who let us know that we were decidedly unwelcome. After that, we got back on the road and headed down the road with a brief stop until making it to Acadia National Park in the morning. Even though it was so stressful, we both knew more trips had to be done following an experience like that.

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We just never knew when it could happen.

As luck would have it, my vacation time from my job in Japan allowed us to meet up last summer (2014) for another high octane road trip across America, this time to St. Louis and back (via Chicago and Cincinnati).

Totaling over 1700 miles, this trip would be on more familiar territory (we both had extensive travel experience in the Midwest), but would not be short on energy or excitement. Posing with Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana, eating White Castle, seeing lightning strike the Sears Tower, meeting Swedes in Chicago, and seeing my aunt in Cincinnati all accented what was another amazing trip to one more of America’s great landmarks.

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The most remarkable thing about it is this: throughout all of our travels, we have never had a bitter dispute or bickered to the point where we were not speaking to each other, even for a few hours. Each time we have hit the road and traveled, it has been enjoyable and memorable no matter where we were in North America.

We were resided to the fact that that journey was probably our last one together as I returned to Japan and he returned to school in the United States.

As we all know, life often takes unexpected twists and Andrew and his brother are about to board a plane to come see me in Japan. During the three weeks they are in Japan, we will traverse Japanese cities and countryside and even take a jaunt to Seoul, South Korea, to get an authentic experience in the city with some of my Korean friends.

Who ever would have thought that two boys from small town USA would end up see so much of the world together in such a short period of time? Some things bring people together and help forge friendships for life.

For me, travel certainly is one of them.

I know as soon as I meet them at the arrivals gate at Kansai International Airport on Wednesday, the good times will roll again in Japan like we never missed a beat.

Travel friends and the memories you make with them will be a topic of conversation between you all until the day you pass. Get out there and travel and bring a seasoned friend with you from time to time.

2015 Great Wall Marathon in Photos

As my friend and I climbed up the set of stairs leading to the Jinshaling stretch of the Great Wall of China, we encountered some interesting individuals both descending and ascending the steep and ragged stairs.

One would expect large groups of tourists, photographers, or even vendors on a warm (and clear) April afternoon, but these people were unique and special— they were runners.

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As a runner from Hong Kong told me, this was no average run. They were near the finish line for the 2015 Great Wall Marathon. You read that right- the Great Wall Marathon. I didn’t believe it at first, but there were hundreds of people running 26.2 miles on one of the world’s most famous landmarks. At this point we still had not seen the wall ourselves, but once we arrived the immensity of the challenge was soon very apparent.

The Jinshaling section of the wall is the most-photographed section of the Great Wall. As it serpentines the ridges and mountaintops, it creates a breathtaking scene. This scenery coupled with weathered barriers was interesting when juxtaposed against marathoners.

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Once we reached the Wall, we our exciting 4 hour walk alongside marathoners led to new friendships and some unforgettable scenery.

I have never run a marathon, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that it is one of the most challenging and physically demanding athletic pursuits out there even if it is on flat ground or a paved roadway. The Great Wall Marathon was neither on flat ground nor was it on a paved roadway. Runners were met with steep slopes, ragged staircases, and eroding pathways as they carried on towards the finish line.

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As my friend and I struggled down these staircases, we could only imagine the difficulty and cramping runners faced as they reached mile 20 running on this wall. There was a real possibility for serious injury but they all pressed onward towards the finish line.

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In the face of this daunting challenge, many runners were cheerful and could not wait say hello during the marathon. IMG_4414

Runners of all ages with walking sticks stopped to say hello or wave as they continued towards the finish. IMG_4416

Other runners wearing nothing more than a tank top and shorts pressed toward the finish. 

Crossing through the watch posts was another interesting part of navigating the Great Wall and finishing the marathon. There were often bottlenecks inside as groups of runners jockeyed for position to keep up their pace.

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Our fantastic guide, Jack, was all smiles as he explained the Wall’s history and its importance throughout the duration of our tour. Anyone interested in doing a tour of the wall should definitely stop by the Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours website and book with them (http://www.wildgreatwall.com). The experience was world class and Rick and his team did a great job making sure everything was arranged for us weeks in advance.

Once we passed through the first watch tower, a young couple was giggling at the bottom and eventually ended up talking with my friend and I. Since they were staff for the marathon, they joined us for part of the walk to make nice conversation and talk about some of the race’s details. While there were some communication gaps, they helped make the whole tour memorable. It’s another example of meeting interesting people along the way when you travel.

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As the day grew older, we split ways and continued towards the terminus of the tour but encountered even more runners as they braved the Great Wall. About midway through our tour, the Chinese flag provided a great opportunity to see runners hustling down one of the smoother portions of the Jinshaling Wall.

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Several hundred yards later, an ominous watch tower was a preview of some of the difficulties runners would face later on in the course.

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From this point onward, the climb became even more difficult. Steep inclines and declines made some joggers take pause but they kept going against all odds.

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As we continued towards our tour’s terminus, there were beautiful scenes around every corner. Looking back at the wall as the sun began to set, we thought about the runners and finally making it to one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

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The runners and the marathon were an interesting distraction during the day, but the moment for which we had waited all day finally arrived– sunset. Words cannot describe how beautiful this sight was.

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New Friends and Free Pizza in Vientiane, Laos

For many backpackers and travelers in Laos, Vientiane is nothing more than an afterthought or a thorn in their side. For them, the capital city is a one night stay in one of the numerous hostels before making their way to either party in Vang Vieng or see the Buddhist marvels that await in Luang Prabang. Not for me.

I came to the city to see the remnants of French Indochina architecture and to explore the cafe and dining scene which is unlike anywhere else in Asia. The European influence was still strong in the city which gave it a very special vibe. Patrons, locals and tourists alike, were relaxed and moved around lethargically throughout their daily procedures. It was a welcomed respite for me.

After two days of wandering the city and meeting some interesting folks on the streets, I descended on Via Via Restaurant right next to the Mekong River for dinner on my last full evening in Vientiane.

As with all restaurants in Laos, Via Via had the standard yellow and green sign out front with a photo of a large bottle of Lao Beer. That is where its similarities with other restaurants I visited in the capital city stopped. On my first night in the city, I was struck by the unique atmosphere at this pizza restaurant.

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Traditional Italian music bellowed out from the speakers while waitresses frantically took orders and delivered drinks to patrons.  The unique mix of European expats, tourists, and locals resonated, as I heard orders taken in Laotian, French, and English on my first pass by the restaurant. I was intrigued and knew I would make my last meal in Vientiane a memorable one at this fine establishment.

After seeing the sun set over the Mekong the following day and checking out the night market, I made my way back to Via Via and was fortunate enough to grab a seat right outside of the restaurant itself but also not quite on the sidewalk. With a seat like this I could monitor what was happening both inside and outside the restaurant.

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Usually I do not drink soda when I am either at home or on the road, but I had a very special chance to order a Laotian Pepsi, served up in a glass bottle without any English labeling. For someone accustomed to international travel throughout Asia, I  was surprised by a native language Peopsi bottle. I had to take a photo. More than likely, I will not have the chance to sample this kind of Pepsi again.

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As the night wore on, patrons were quick to grab a Beer Lao and then head off into the Vientiane haze, either back to their hotel or to another cafe or dining establishment. I decided to order a Beer Lao and a pizza and wait it out for an hour or so at Via Via. Even though Beer Lao is a state-sponsored beer, it tasted very good. Such a pleasant surprise on this balmy December evening.

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With my Beer Lao in hand, I ordered their version of a supreme pizza and started to write in my travel journal when a British couple sat down next to me. They were old but certainly not elderly. Jim had wiry grey hair and wore a nice blue polo to compliment his thick black framed glasses. His wife was wearing a white shirt and carried a nice handbag. I can still see the two of them as I write this article.

They were quiet at first, but as soon as my mouth-watering pizza arrived, they started talking. It was for good reason, too. They wanted to know what kind of pizza I had ordered because it looked so good. Take a look for yourself:

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It was hard to believe, but the best pizza I had had since I moved to Asia was in, of all places, Vientiane. The sharpness of the pepperoni was complimented by the tingle of fresh peppers and the smoothness of Beer Lao.

Then we got to talking. Jim and his wife wanted to know about my travels through Southeast Asia at 24 because they had done similar travels when they were young, only through Europe. He told me stories of going from West Germany into East Germany, riding various trains throughout Europe, and even going to some countries in Indochina and Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. Usually long stories can become boring stories, but Jim had a unique way with imagery and describing the people he met along the way. His verbosity was truly something to behold.

We shared tales of the trains in Burma, dirty and crowded Bangkok streets, and of our time in Singapore. It was so cool to meet a travel couple which had been so many places but continued to go wherever they saw fit.

Jim revealed to me that he and his wife had been out of the United Kingdom for the last three months in Southeast Asia and had no plans of returning home in the near future. As they had both been foreign service officers in their youth, they were bitten by the travel bug and had no desire to stop going places and trying new foods along the way.

Our conversation seemed like it took up only a few minutes, but in reality we spoke to each other for over ninety minutes. As they finished up their pizza, I still had a few pieces left to go. He and his wife both said they enjoyed our conversation very much and said that they had already paid for my pizza.

“We were hoping to meet a young man on our travels tonight,” he said. “Never stop traveling. You never know when you will not have the chance to do it again in your life.”

Those words of wisdom, coupled with a saying my friend Tom told me way back in 2010 still stick to me this day.

“Young people have all the time in the world to travel, but no money. Old people have all the money in the world to travel, but no time. You are living abroad. Get out there and explore.”

It was a pleasure to meet yet another interesting couple out and about in Southeast Asia. While the friendships may be fleeting, it is always nice to meet generous and talkative people out there on the road.

Sometimes traveling alone has its benefits. I know that I would never have met half of the interesting people I have encountered on my travels if I was traveling in a group or with another person. Embrace solo travel meet new people on the road. You will have stories to last a lifetime.

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A Special Singapore Sling

Simple travel moments often turn into extraordinary memories. Two years ago I went to Singapore as a part of my inaugural trip through Southeast Asia and I had a great time. Between the bustling city, the interesting nightlife in Clarke Quay, and the new friends I made along the way, it was a memorable and unique trip.

Over the past year, some of my travel memories have gone to the wayside only to be rediscovered at a later time. While I was reading about the passing of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, my memory bank was tapped and I recalled one very special moment I had in Singapore. I made friends with complete strangers and would like to share this story with you.

As the typical budget traveler in Southeast Asia, many backpackers lambaste Singapore. They often say some things about Singapore that are meant to dissuade you from going.

“Oh, everything is so expensive,” they say.

“There really isn’t much culture there,” they say.

“Skip Singapore. It isn’t even worth it,” even more say.

As a big city lover who lives in one of the world’s most expensive countries, nothing could tarnish the allure which Singapore holds. For a history lover (tons of British colonial history) and an architecture lover (one of the world’s finest waterfront skylines), nothing would stop me from seeing Singapore and jotting down notes along the way.

As soon as I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Changi Airport was spectacular in every sense of the word. Transportation into the city was flawless. Aside from the strict rules and signs referring to the numerous prohibitions at every corner, Singapore was a nice place for me as a tourist. At least these signs made a great photo opportunity.

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Everyone spoke English and there were a lot of interesting things to do for someone there on a budget.

The highlight of wandering the streets was the chance to eat a real ice cream sandwich. Believe it or not, this version of the sandwich was more delicious than the typical version served up in every convenience store in the United States. Take a look for yourself!

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While Thailand was a budget traveler’s heaven, I did not like the lack of English and cleanliness.  After seeing the Merlion and taking in the skyline on my first night, one Singaporean staple catapulted to the top of my list. Glistening in the evening fog across the way was the Marina Bay Sands. After seeing it from the Merlion, I knew I needed to get to the  pool atop the ship-like casino.

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The pool is something about which you read in travel magazines, see on the Travel Channel, and about which you hear stories from your friends who had the money to stay there. The imagery from reading about it, seeing it on TV, and hearing stories turns the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool into a place that seems larger than life. Palm trees swaying in the subtropical wind while jazz music plays in the background make for an interesting atmosphere.

When I heard even more stories about the heated towels and the special drinks they serve at the top, getting there without paying the expensive price for the room became my number one Singaporean travel goal.

To make a long story short, I made it to the pool atop the Sands. Here is the the unconventional way in which it happened.

Before I left Japan, I developed a scheme to get to the pool. I would wear a nice set of clothes and just walk by the guards like I was staying there. Simple enough, I thought, as the typical tourist would not be wearing a button-down shirt. The average tourist would be wearing shorts and a t-shirt. They would have a camera draped around their neck and they would gawk at the skyline, right? Wrong.

Much to my chagrin, almost all of the tourists with whom I rode the elevator dressed nicely. They were all wearing button-down shirts and slacks. Even though we had tickets to the lowly “visitors space” atop the Marina Bay Sands, I came to the realization that  I would make it to the top and get some good photos of the harbor without making it to the pool.

I walked around and took in the atmosphere to plan my next move. I took photos of the boats docked outside the Sands.

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Then I took a photo of the golf course island and the ferris wheel which seemed so close to this mammoth structure.

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As I positioned my ¥100 tripod for my next shot of the harbor and the city, I felt a quick jolt and my camera was knocked to the ground.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, young man,” said the kind woman.

Her husband quickly apologized, as well. They had bumped into me while they were posing for a photo with the ferris wheel, mere inches away from my right arm. Fortunately my camera was still working and I was in a good mood because my luck that evening was about to take a change for the better.

The three of us got to talking about traveling in Asia, living and working abroad, and the exciting nature of being young. They were fascinated by my tales of living in Japan and traveling the world alone at such a young age. I was equally struck by their stories of working on Australian mining and oil operations while having also worked with the Australian equivalent of the Foreign Service. While slightly older than my parents, we were able to converse like old friends.

In passing they asked where I was staying and when I revealed that I was staying at a budget hostel, they presented the nicest offer to me:

“Why don’t you be our son for the night? We would like to talk to you more and share some drinks poolside with you,” said the gentleman.

With their kind invitation to join them poolside, our scheme was set in motion. I was to walk in with them like I knew them and there would be no questions asked, they said. They added that the guards would not stop anyone who looked like they belonged for fear of offending a wealthy or important guest.

Within a few minutes, they gave me their extra room key to prove I was staying with them. We quickly lined up to pass to the “hotel guests only” region on the roof. After a cursory checkpoint, I was through and at last!!

As my excitement swelled, they quickly ushered me over to a reserved table with their name on it! Drinks and food quickly came our way as they insisted to treat me for the evening. Their kind hospitality and welcoming nature is something I will never forget. As we peered off into the night, the lights came on in far off Indonesian islands and boats passed through narrow channels to their docks for the evening. Tiger Beer and intermittent appetizers made the evening pass effortlessly into the night.

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What was once a young evening had become old, and with the passing time, my gracious hosts had to return to their room for the evening, but not before they gave me one parting surprise.

“Behind us is the infinity pool. We have ordered a Singapore Sling for you and hope you enjoy the rest of your evening on the lounge chairs and in the heated pool. You made our night. Have a fine evening, young man,” the woman said as we embraced and parted ways.

As I settled into my lounge chair after a quick dip in the pool, I marveled at the palm trees and the poolside atmosphere.

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Looking past the lifeguards, frolicking children, and waiters, I saw a group of women at the edge of the infinity pool, overlooking the Singapore skyline.

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At that moment, I was tapped on the shoulder by an energetic waiter. In his right hand he held a heated towel. In his left, he carried the world-famous Singapore Sling. He also brought a message from my new friends.

“Share an experience like this with a young man someday,” they said.

All seemed right in the world at that moment. As the Rolling Stones played, I toasted to my new friends. I hope we meet again someday so I can share the impact this moment had on me and my subsequent travels.

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With Singapore in the background, I enjoyed this drink to the last drop. Sometimes the most human moments during our travels are the most memorable ones. This was a special Singapore Sling.

The 66th Sapporo Snow Festival – A Photographic Essay

The first evening in Sapporo was very memorable as my friend and I had our first glimpse into Sapporo cuisine while also sampling some of the local specialty Sapporo beers and checking out the ice sculptures at the Susukino ice sculpture site very near our hotel. Our second day in Sapporo was a much longer affair filled with more sightseeing and encounters with spectacular snow sculptures at the main Odori Park staging grounds.

When it comes to booking hotels when I am on vacation, it is all about location, location, location. The capsule hotel for the Snow Festival did not disappoint. We were equidistant between both of these sites and within eyeshot of one of my favorite components of the snow festival: the freestyle snowboard and ski ramps. I certainly expected to see many elegant snow sculptures in Sapporo, but not ski jumpers showing off their aerial skills each morning, afternoon, and night. My friend and I trekked over to the ramp to watch a few rounds of jumps before moving onward. It was my first time watching snowboarding like this in person and it was very impressive.

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The snowboarders during the morning session got some serious air as American rock music and some sort of Russian electronic music played in the background. It was certainly an interesting sight to behold. After watching this for almost an hour, we headed off, through Odori Park to take in the most spectacular snow sculptures I have ever seen.

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First up for the morning was this stunning Star Wars sculpture. Even if the Sith theme song was not playing in the background, you could hear Darth Vader’s voice, the lasers firing out the Tie Fighters, and even the humming of a lighsaber as you walked past this masterpiece. The details on all of the figures were so intricate. Everything from grooves on the Death Star to the visors on the Storm Troopers was taken into account for this one. In all honesty, a photo does not give this sculpture justice.

Next up was a trip down memory lane from some of my prior Asian adventures. I certainly did not expect to see my favorite temple from Taipei or the Manila Cathedral in all their splendor, but I sure did. First up was the Taiwanese temple: DSC01595

Further down the street past an assortment of food stalls and smaller sculptures, the Manila Cathedral stood. I had heard through some posts on twitter that the cathedral was here, but I was not expecting to see a sculpture as large, detailed and beautiful as this one. I was taken back to my time in Manila back in October by this beauty. All that was missing were the fountains, the statue of King Phillip, and a few palm trees.

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There were even salmon waiting for us at this juncture in the trip.

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From there, we continued onward passing more, smaller, sculptures and the international submissions to the sculpture competition going on at the far end of Odori Park. We turned around and headed back towards the Television Tower to see if anything else was happening at the snowboarding area and to grab some lunch. A few very nice ice sculptures were waiting for us.

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As night began to fall, we quickly headed off for some more of Sapporo’s famous miso ramen and decided to go to a place where “Anthony Bordain had come to the here.” For some reason, we thought this would be the best establishment at Ramen Alley, but we were mistaken. I still took a photo of the sign, for good measure.

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With our guts filled with some savory ramen and Sapporo beer, we walked back to Odori Park to see the sculptures in all of their nighttime splendor. All of this took place on beaten, worn, and treacherous snow-covered sidewalks. My friend and I slipped and fell countless times throughout the weekend. After a ten minute walk, we were back at the snow park and watched some great nighttime snowboarding. Believe it or not, children as young as nine and ten years old were jumping off this ramp!

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We continued down the street and words could not describe how cool the Star Wars display looked in the midst of its light show. With music blaring and lights flashing to a synchronized rhythm, this was one of the more memorable moments of the festival for me.

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After a few more near falls, slips, and a king crab leg on a stick, we encountered what was the most spectacular component of the whole festival: the projection mapping display on a temple facade. Watch as one of Japan’s most famous temples comes alive:

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After seeing these magnificent light displays, we continued onward to see the Taiwanese temple yet again before checking out some of the submissions into the international snow sculpture design contest. While Malaysia isn’t exactly known for its show, they even had a team there! I took a photo of their sculpture following an interesting chat with the person in charge of the design and carving.

Even the USS Constitution was here! This was my favorite small-scale sculpture at the whole festival, for obvious reasons.

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Even Cup Noodles had a sculpture at this festival!

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As we continued tripping, slipping, and nearly falling back toward our hotel, we decided to change course and go to the Sapporo TV tower to get the best view of the whole festival– from the tower’s observation deck. On the way there, we saw some of our favorite ice sculptures from the day turned into true masterpieces at night. The royal couple, an eagle, and the Shinkansen were a few of many. The ice sculptures, much like the snow sculptures, looked much better at night than they did during the day.

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Our final view of the night was the most breathtaking of all.

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As someone living and working in Japan, I constantly heard suggestions about traveling to Sapporo to see the snow festival over the course of the past two years. While I will admit that it was not high on my list when I first arrived in Japan in July, 2013, I crust say that I am very happy that I cam dot see it this year. The sheer number of tourists in Sapporo help give the festival a unique vibe. Couple that with the never-ending array of delicious Japanese street food and the beautiful snow and ice artwork and all the ingredients for a memorable weekend were in place. Things would get even more interesting the next day as my friend and I headed to the famous Sapporo brewery and to a few other places around town.

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The Beauty of San Agustin Church

As my travels in Asia have continued to evolve, so have my interests and sights I intend to see when I travel. Initially, I looked for skyline photos and other modern aspects that compliment and often overwhelm the Asian mega city. While captivating skyline photos are still near the top of my list when I travel, a new form of building to see in former colonial cities now tops my list of places to see: Catholic Churches. This may surprise some readers 3when you find that I am not Catholic, but the intrinsic beauty and Architectural components within many of the colonial-era Catholic churches in cities like Manila and Macau are ripe with these buildings and all the history attached to them.

Many buildings in Manila’s Intramuros had fantastic, vibrant colonial-era exteriors and architecture, but San Agustin Church (founded in 1607) was a cut above the rest. Its unique form of beauty, both on the interior and exterior stole the show for me.

When I did research about Manila before my trip last weekend, I was immediately mesmerized by the brightly colored, almost florescent stucco exterior of the San Agustin Church. Images online all showed the Philippines’s oldest adobe building adorned with  pink, peach, red, or yellow walls and white window frames and pillars. The feeling was distinctly Spanish and colonial, so I could not wait to see it. When I first arrived, I was in for quite a surprise: the colors were GONE and the bare, four hundred year old walls, were fully exposed to the outside world. While some may have been disappointed (I certainly was), reflection has allowed me to realize the true beauty and character of this church.

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While it was disappointing, the exposed exterior shows the amount of craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing a stone church the size of San Agustin. Everything from the mortar to the pillars and regular facade had a lot of wear, the type of erosion which only buildings with immense character hold.

After passing through the double doors on the right side and entering the church, I entered the interior courtyard of the church, which, although as bare as the exterior, exuded a similar sense of beauty in its plainness. The palm trees and fountains provided another unique scene.

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After entering another set of doors in the back side of this plaza, More stone corridors were waiting for me, and somehow the cool temperature of the hallway and the accompanying oil paintings of Catholic leaders in Manila through the centuries showed a different sense of plain beauty. All of the hallways in San Agustin resembled this one in one way or another, with ceiling heights varying slightly between floors. It was the first time I have seen hallways like this in a Catholic Church since I set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem back in 2013.

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At the end of this hallway, another first inside of a Catholic church awaited: a completely bare, bricked dome. As I have visited more and more churches, I have become accustomed to ornate mosaics or paintings at the top of many domes inside of these churches, but San Agustin was so different. There was no artwork at the top of this dome. The cool, dark hallway, only illuminated with a chandelier and sunlight provided yet another, different, backdrop for another amazing piece of architecture in Manila.

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After entering the second floor of the building, I encountered the church organ, and then to my right, a spectacular view of the altar and pews of San Agustin.

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As you can tell from the ceiling’s stonework and the woodwork style, San Agustin boasts a baroque style of architecture certainly unique to this part of the world. One of my family friends is an organist, and I could think of him playing this centuries-old organ as the pews fill on hot and steamy Sunday morning in September. The view over the railing was spectacular.

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High ceilings, dimmed and off chandeliers, simple painting on the ceilings, and an acoustically pleasing main hall accent an ornate and spectacular front altar. In the aforementioned paragraphs, the simple, historic, and cultural implications of San Agustin make this one of the most beautiful Catholic churches I have ever seen. Next up on the tour was the main floor.

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The altar was as spectacular as the rest of the church. High ceilings, marble pillars, and Spanish paintings dominated the main hall. The ornate masonry and stone carvings on the ceiling were the highlights of the architectural components of the main floor in San Agustin.

Even though I was initially met with disappointment surrounding the exterior of San Agustin, I am so happy that I continued to explore the interior of the oldest stone church in the Philippines and certainly one of the oldest churches in Asia. The high ceilings, palm trees, plazas, and bare, stone walls created a very different, memorable, building for me. Much different than other churches in Asia and North America, San Agustin stands alone for several reasons.

When you stop in Intramuros, I hope you take a few minutes to tour this fantastic church.

Taipei in Photos (Day 2)

Following a jam-packed first day in Taipei and a long night’s sleep, I was ready to go for another grueling day eating the best street food and seeing the best sites Taiwan had to offer. It’s a good thing, too, because this day was even more grueling than the first day. First up on the schedule was a rendezvous with one of my friends from college, both in Japan and the United States. David and I were off to Taipei Station. Stepping into the main atrium at the station, I felt like I was back in Japan, with high ceilings and shops in every corner at the station.

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Once we arrived, we found Karina in a Taiwan-style restaurant and recounted and rehashed our stores from college and talked about what we have been doing since we last saw ourselves in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. I often echo this sentiment on many of my posts on here, but I am always grateful when I meet my friends from college at different locales in Asia. Many people lose touch with their friends from college, but I am very fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with so many people given how busy all of us are.

After downing some delicious fried pork, some noodles, and some other Taiwanese delicacies, we were off to our first stop of the day, Freedom Plaza.

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After a short trip on Taipei’s subway system, dubbed the MRT, we were greeted by the sweltering humidity that had built as the day progressed. A quick stroll and turn to the right led us through the gates in this photo and into Freedom Plaza. I was very impressed with the size of the plaza in the middle of a bustling metropolis like Taipei. Traditional buildings flanked the plaza, with its focus on the Taiwanese national flag situated in the middle of the plaza. We were on our way to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the other end of the plaza. As soon as I saw it, images of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., filled my mind. The similarities between the two memorials are striking: a hike up several levels of white stairs led into a large, high-ceilinged rom with one main focus: a gargantuan statue of a national leader. Once you first see the statue, it would be almost impossible not to think about the Lincoln Memorial. While the materials are different, the exuding feeling is similar. The statue of Chiang Kaishek dominates the massive room.

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Following some perusing in the museum area of the memorial, we returned to the statue area to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. That, too, was exciting and very interesting to watch.

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Once the ceremony was over, we returned to the MRT to go to a different part of the city with another food in mind: mango-flavored ice cream. Following a short ride on the MRT, we arrived at the ice cream parlor and sat down to have more conversation and discuss my thoughts on Taipei before Karina had to go to work for the rest of the afternoon. Although we had planned to speak about Taipei, I noticed something interesting about the people who sat down next to us: they were speaking Japanese!

Quickly I was in the midst of a conversation with these three Japanese tourists about life in Japan. This was a very interesting conversation and my friends did their best to communicate with them even though they did not understand our Japanese conversation. Little encounters and conversations like this make learning and speaking another language very enjoyable for me. No matter where I go, I usually run into Japanese tourists at famous landmarks in Asia. The Japanese tourists were on their way and we lingered for a while longer to reminisce. It was a great morning with Karina.

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The three of us took a bus to Taipei 101and split ways, with Karina going to work and David and I continuing on to hike up Elephant Mountain, the most famous viewing point for Taipei 101. We saw the night view yesterday, so naturally we were headed up in the afternoon for a daytime view of the world’s second-tallest building. On the way to the mountain, I noticed Taipei copied another famous Philadelphia landmark, the LOVE statue.

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The humidity continued to increase and by the time we made it to the base of Elephant Mountain, my shirt was completely soiled with sweat and so was David’s. The sweat was dripping off the faces of everyone descending Elephant Mountain following the climb, so it was obvious that we would suffer the same fate following the twenty minute hike to the outlook point at the top. Scenery at the start reminded me of Macau, which was also unexpected.

As the hike up the narrow stairs began, I could not wait to see the spectacular views of Taipei 101!

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David and I passed some children and elderly visitors making the hike and finally made it to the first landing, and, oh, was it a sight to behold! Taipei 101 cut through the sky and was spectacular. I posed for a photo with the world’s second-tallest building even though I was soaked with sweat.

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Ten minutes later, David and I made it to the top and climbed up some large boulders to take in the skyline and snap some photos. the cameramen already atop these boulders made for an interesting foreground.

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As the sun began to set, David and I moved in unison with it, descending Elephant Mountain’s steep stairs.

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Then, in the middle of our descent, I encountered one of the most beautiful views of a skyline I have ever seen: the setting sun illuminated the humidity and smog which engulfed Taipei on that Sunday afternoon. The resulting view was fantastic. I will never forget this scene as long as I live. Taipei101

David and I stopped at the base of Taipei 101 for some photos and then were off to see more of the city before it was too late in the night. This evening’s purple lights were fantastic.

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First up on the night’s agenda was another night view of Taipei from a different location. Following a long motorcycle ride, we found out that location was closed due to road construction, so we quickly changed plans and decided to go to Taipei’s second most famous night market and included a stop at one of the city’s most famous temples, too.

Much like the previous night, David and I indulged on many foods and drinks as we walked through the narrow stalls and dogged the rain drops that intermittently spritzed throughout the night. Milkshakes, hot meat sandwiches, finger food, and pork ribs were all on the menu tonight. I am always impressed with the intricate nature of the woodwork that always adorns the temples in Asia.

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After a few hours enjoying the food (and wi-fi) in the market, my time with David in Taipei was essentially over. It was amazing to get a tour of one of Asia’s most bustling cities from a local perspective while also rekindling a lost friendship. Seeing Taipei from atop a motorcycle, in its back alleys, and from its most famous lookout points helped me appreciate one of Asia’s most underrated destinations. While I fully admit my feelings for Taipei over the first two days are largely dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my friends to be fantastic hosts, I recommend Taipei to anyone whom is seeking adventure and i unique mix of Eastern and Western history.

Aside from a random traffic stop at 2:30 AM following a very late dinner, this trip was stress-free and amazing. To this point, Taipei is certainly my favorite destination in Asia, alongside Macau and Seoul. Only one more day remained in my Taiwanese adventure and the next post here will certainly provide insight into my third and final day in Taiwan.