Missed Trains and Delayed Planes: Getting to Thailand

Thailand has been a long adventure.  Somehow this eight-day vacation managed to fly by, but at the same point when I look back it feels like leaving Narita Airport was an eternity ago. 

 
I have had an absolutely awesome time, but I think things could go either way in Thailand.  My great experience was thanks in the largest part to spending the last eight-days with my sister.  We had the roughest experience with getting here. My flight left on December 28 from Tokyo, but for monetary reasons I had to do a night’s layover in Guanzhou, China.  This was made infinitely better because China Southern Airlines will give you a free hotel if you have to stay overnight.  It was such a pleasant surprise to me.  I had been mentally preparing myself for sleeping on an airport bench and arriving in Thailand wrinkled and unwashed.  That free hotel was quite a classy move.  
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Granted, the hotel was off-site and pretty far so.  They gave us a shuttle to the hotel and it didn’t look bad.  It looked like the shell of what could be a nice hotel undergoing some serious pre-renovation jitters.  What looked like the dining room was emptied out and filled with crates and boxes, the stair-well next to the elevator looked like it was transporting you to some dark alley in the town of rapeville, but yay, I took the elevator.  When we checked in they required everyone to hand over their boarding pass; I was so relieved to find out I wasn’t the only person who found this super shady. But I was exhausted and didn’t fight them on it, but I definitely couldn’t get a full answer due to the language barrier. When I first went to my room, it looked okay, but it hadn’t  been cleaned. I go downstairs, and they tell me I have to wait for about a half an hour. I couldn’t think of a situation where at 10pm a hotel could check you into a dirty room. Nevertheless, I waited my 30 minutes and came back into a clean room.  
 
That all was very tame compared to the nail biter that was day  two of my vacation.  Misty and I were both coming from cold climates.  Granted Tokyo is chilly right now, but I don’t have to contend with the snow that Misty is dealing with.  Basically, we were both flying on the 28th and we were scheduled to actually make it to Bangkok on the 29th.  
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I knew for sure that I would make it, but because of inclement weather, I was worried that Misty wouldn’t even get as far as Dubai.  I woke up in the morning and used the hotel wifi to tell her that I was about to go to the airport and I had no Internet connection there, so we wouldn’t speak until I was in Bangkok, but I had no idea what was happening with her flight.  That was the last I heard from her.  I am on the flight wondering what I do if she is delayed a day.  We had bus tickets down to Suratthani and a ferry over to Koh Samui that had already been paid for.  The bus was leaving with or without us, and would be driving away with my money because it was too short notice to try to cancel.  The bus was small beans compared to the three-night stay in the Samui Paradise hotel that was booked on my credit card.  That was also too short notice to actually cancel and get any money back.  
 
This is where I find myself making life decisions on the person I want to be. Would I be a terrible sister for taking that bus? Am I already an awful sister for even considering it?  Would I be a fool to flush money down the toilet by choosing not to go ahead to Koh Samui and see Misty when or if she actually makes it there. I go through all these questions whilst walking through customs in Bangkok.  The line is long, everything is moving slowly, and I start talking to this couple on vacation and they look more than a little worried that I, as a female, would be traveling in Thailand on my own over New Year’s. In my mind I speculate that surely it can’t be that dangerous if I weren’t to engage in any high-risk activities.  
 
After being wracked with all the questions, I deal with trying to get wifi in the airport.  There is a wifi labeled airport free wifi, but it won’t let me sign on to use it.  That is super frustrating because I don’t know what has changed with Misty between 6:15 this morning and 10:50 still in the morning.  So I walk out of security just praying that I can get in touch with her or at least that she had sent me a message saying that she caught a later flight and would be there in time for us to take this bus, therefore making all of my nerves for naught.  
 
This is when I hear a voice call out my name.  I look up to see Misty standing by the carousel where my luggage is at.  There was just so much relief, and also more than a little confusion.  It felt very much like the scene in the Emporer’ New Groove where Kronk is trying to explain how he beat Kuzco and Pacha back to the lair despite being exponentially behind them.  I decide this is just a time to thank God for small miracles and accept that she is here and hopefully this vacation can only go uphill from tht point.  
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Now my trip to the airport was one of mental strain, Misty had a whole different experience that made my journey sound like a walk in the park.  

Sweating the Small Stuff: Prepping for Thailand

Thailand is right around the corner and I massively screwed up on a bit of the planning.  I bought my plane ticket in October. It was a rigorous search and the dam of relief came over me once that was completed. And in a really odd fashion, Misty and I booked our hotels a vast two months before I got my flight locked down. 

From there planning has been very speculative. “I want to go there and do this,” has been thrown around a lot. Most of the day in, day out details are being left until we are in country. For my part, I heard its cheaper that way. And I definitely know that to be true, I could walk into a Japanese travel agency looking to get things planned and come out wondering how I just gave up the rights of my first born for a sea kayaking trip. It really is that expensive.  

Because of this, the lazy kind of planning works for me. However, one thing we really needed to get were tickets to go from Bangkok to Koh Samui. There are a multitude of ways to get from the Capitol to the sort-of-remote island. It involved some combination of domestic flight, night bus, night train, and ferry. 

An airplane is a little more expensive than I really wanted and the bus is..well, a bus. On the train there are first-class sleeper-cars which would give us a bed and place to stretch out. I contacted thaifocus.com to book a train in early-October.  They messaged me back and told me that I could not a reserve a train ticket until 60 days before the date of travel. 

ImageFirst Class Sleeping Berth (with a door that you can lock. The back of the sofa flips up to make the top bunk.

I let a few too many days pass between contacting them again; by the time I email them to reserve my tickets, only second class is available for the ride there, but a first class bed is available for the return trip.  So, I go through the steps of paying to reserve.  Before they can finalize it, they send another email saying that in between this time the boat s booked, so I can get the train from them, but I need to find my own means of getting the boat. 

 ImageSecond Class Sleeping Berths

I can feel myself becoming a little bit peeved, because I have never had this much trouble booking something after I have already paid the money. They asked do I want to book the train ticket and here is our correspondence from this point.

Me:I’d like to reserve these seats, can I also reserve the ferry to Koh Samui too from you.

ThaiFocus: The trian is avialble as follow.

Bangkok-Suratthani 29 Dec 12 10:50p-08:05a 2nd air con SEAT

but this train we could not book the ferry connect to Koh Samui due to it is arrive at Suratthani is late.

Me: What changes does this make to the price of the ticket?

Me: I am attempting to buy my ferry tickets from another website, but I need some more information.  How far is the train station in Suratthani away from where the ferry leaves? As well, how long does it take to move from the train station to the port where the ferry leaves and how would you recommend we go.  Thank you for your help.

ThaiFocus: Thank you for your email. Normally after arrive at train staion. There are have staff to waiting customer at there then transfer to the port name Donsak take time around 1hour.  But we could arrange train with bus and boat combo only the train that arrive at Suratth ealry morning. In this case you would like to book only the train?

Me: I would like the train with bus to the port. How much will it cost and will I be receiving some discount since I can no longer get first class seats?

ThaiFocus: Thank you for your email. Due to train is avaialble as follow

Bangkok-Suratthani 29 Dec 12 10:50p-08:05a 2nd air con SEAT

This train arrive is late. We could not book bus and boat combo. We could book only the trian. 

With this I assumed they were booking the train. So later when I email them to ask them where my confirmation email is, and they tell me that I didn’t reply saying I wanted to book the tickets, they sent my payment back. (First off, the fact that they already had my money is pretty sure sign that I had signed off on the deal, but whatever). Then, they proceed to tell me that no seats are available on the train, and I am ready to go into a murderous rampage. So after some heavy duty searching, I find a bus that will take us.  

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At this point I realize that beggars can’t be choosers and I go with it since my other option is… I don’t know, hitchhiking? I get ready to pay for the bus, but as I use my credit card, a security restriction blocks my card. So, I have to buy skype credit so that I can call my bank in America, verify the charges, ask the man at the bus company to send me a new link so that I can pay, since now, the actual credit card verification link has locked me out too. 

Now, I have a bus ticket booked to Surratthani, from there we take the public bus to the port and I have already purchased the ferry tickets, but it was most-assuredly a frustrating process to get here.  

Short reflection: Could I have been more clear when dealing with ThaiFocus, definitely. Could I have done a better job at conveying my wishes and intentions, certainly. Will I still bad mouth them to anyone that will listen, yup. Because as much as I could have handled it better, how many times in the length of that conversation did I say I wanted to reserve the damn seats.

Travel Philosophies Masked as a Tale about Taipei

The second half of day one encompassed so much. From Chiang Kai-shek we checked out Longshan Temple.

Hamish had missed seeing a temple on his first trip to Taiwan, and I am addicted to exploring temples and shrines when traveling. I shall expand that to say, I enjoy seeing where the people worship, it typically tends to be the most lavish buildings with the most sordid history, not to mention the pinnacle of that countries architectural styling. Keep this in mind, see that mosque, shrine or cathedral; you won’t be disappointed. 

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The temple was built in Qianlong 5th year in Qing Dynasty. Due to natural disaster and damages caused by men, the temple was restored several times. The doors, beams, and poles are beautifully decorated. There are a pair of bronze dragon poles in the front hall, four pairs of dragon poles in the middle hall. The sculptures are delicate. There are also exquisite wood sculptures. Among them, the well and Budda setting in the main hall are highly appreciated. 

Stepping into the place, I felt that I was undeniably in Asia and that is not a feeling I commonly feel in Japan. Even outside of the temple the street is so stereotypically and cinematically Asian.  One thing that was fun about the temple is that people were there in droves buying food products to offer to Buddha and the other divine spirits. They would buy the food from the monks, place it on the offering tables and when the tables became full, the monks would take some stuff from the table and move it to be sold all over again. I don’t want to compare a temple to a business but if it was one, they are cleaning up. They literally sell the exact same product countless times in a day. However, I could see how that would feel like a secondary concern, the atmosphere was intoxicating. The air was so strong with incense and heat if heat had a smell.  

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After the Longshan temple we went on the hunt for food, which was much harder than you would expect.  But along the way we ran into a massage place.  All of the masseurs were blind, and we sat down for a little relaxation.  My massage therapist spoke some English and attempted to keep a conversation going throughout the whole massage.  This was made infinitely harder by the fact that I was gritting my teeth through the entire experience as he dug his thumbs and elbows so deep into my muscles that I was sure I would bruise.  This was relaxing in the same way an overdone chemical peel is comfortable.  With all that being said, when I stood up my muscles were like jelly, but in a good way.  All the weight and tension had been worked out. Though it felt more like it had been beat out of me. From there we passed a shoe store.  Earlier in that day I had been remarking on how cute the women’s shoes were.  Well I stopped and bought my first pair of shoes there.  This is the thing that ruined everything else for me.  

I bought a pair of shoes for Taiwan Dollar 190. That is roughly USD$6.50. Now the quality leaves a bit to be desired, but that is a steal.  From that point, everything I ate, every admission price was judged based on how many shoes I could buy for that price. For instance, when dinner rolled around, I am sitting there thinking that I could buy three pairs of shoes for the price of these soup dumplings. 

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That only limited me so much, what can I say, I just have a spending problem.  After shoe shopping and dinner we made our way around the night market in Ximen.  Night markets are something that you really shouldn’t miss in Taipei.  The sun goes down, the weather barely cools off and people show out for good deals and better food.  The Ximen night market is not huge compared to other markets, but was a great warm up, and more importantly, it was close to the hotel, and at 11:30, all I wanted to do was crash. 

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Yet, crash we did not.  Our weary bodies were made less weary by the neck, arm and back massage we had gotten earlier. So we decided to chase that high all the way to another massage shop.  This time we went in for a foot and leg massage.  I now had a woman massaging me, I thought for sure this would be a great thing, surely her hands wouldn’t be as strong.  It turns out that she administered her own type of torture.  Her little fingers were smaller, like tiny daggers digging into my calves. She raked her fingers down my legs and I realized that it was possible for someone to scratch you using only the pads of their fingers.  Then she asked me to turn around and started to punish my back.  I was all relaxed from the earlier massage, but that didn’t mean that my muscles and skin weren’t super sensitive.  So when she started digging in, my face fixed into a pained grimace, and when she caught sight of my expression she looked honestly bewildered like she didn’t realize that carving into someones muscles could be uncomfortable.  

 

I walked away feeling like I was floating on light clouds, trying to put the pain of the massage out of my mind and just enjoy the aftermath. And finally, after all of this, after the airplanes, sightseeing, two massages, and two ice creams for each of us in one day, we finally made it to bed. 

Travel Rants Masked as a Tale about Taipei

I have been a failure.  Based on what I’ve written over the last few weeks, you would think my life has become mundane. Au contraire, I have been a busy bee flitting from trip to trip. The first started with a long weekend in Taipei.

I wrote about the food of Taipei, and don’t get me wrong, the food was a highlight.  Every time I think about Taipei I get a little hungry.  But there was so much else packed into three days.

The best place to start is the beginning.  I was planning the trip with Hamish, my brilliant film-producing friend. This was my first time traveling with him, and that is always a scary feeling. But one of my goals this year was to expand my circle of friends that I could travel with. This came at the recommendation of just about EVERYONE.

I kid you not, every single person has an opinion about the choice to travel alone. It is almost never something positive. It is a long string of… “How dangerous!” “It must get so lonely.” “Who do you talk to?” To respond, if you’re smart, it’s not dangerous. I have an extensive inner dialogue going at all times. And I subscribe to the Dr. Seuss philosophy, “All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone is something you’ll be quite a lot!” And frankly, I like being alone. I’m practically nursing multiple personalities, so alone does not equal lonely.  Now, all of this sounds like I was not entirely enthused to be traveling with Hamish, so not true. We agreed on all the major travel questions. Did we have the same budget? Were we interested in the same things? Did our energy level and sleeping schedules match? Did we have the same objective for the trip (eat our weight in Taiwanese food and see some sights when we came up for air). Yes, yes, yes and fantastically yes.

But I digress.  Our day started at 4:30am in Japan. There was running for the train, me lagging, missing the train, catching the next one and still making it to our flight with abundant time to spare. Thank you Haneda Airport for being outstandingly efficient, and wondrously empty before 7am. The flight whirled by in a huff of movies, sleeping and questionable food.  I’m talking about you, unrecognizable green goop that was neither matcha flavored or any other discernible taste.

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From the airport, we hit the ground running. Songshan airport is really convenient. If you are flying into Taipei for a short stay, this is your airport.  Cab fare from the airport to the main station is infinitesimal. After dropping out bags at the hotel, we took another taxi from our hotel to the nearest train station, Ximen station. This later turned into a thing of shame.  Who knew Ximen was only a 10 minute walk? One of the bellhops gave us a disgusted look when we asked him to hail us a cab to Ximen. I’m certain he uttered to himself, “lazy foreigners.”  We used the subway to get around for most of the trip.  The subway system in Taipei is navigated easily.  There are a few lines, but they practically all run north to south, and the signage is stupefyingly simple, you would have to be daft to get lost.

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First, we visited Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This memorial hall is to Taipei what The Great Wall is to Beijing or The Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It is the quintessential look at Taipei. When I first saw it, I was struck by the beauty, and how unique the coloring was. The four sides of the structure are similar to those of the pyramids in Egypt. It’s made of white marble. The roofs are decorated with deep-blue glass as part of the reflection of blue sky and bright sun. It adds a touch of grandeur. The garden is planted with red flowers. The colors of blue, white and red express the National Flag and the spirit of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Still, the blue and white felt vaguely reminiscent of something I had seen in Beijing. After doing some reading, it turns out the architecture of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was inspired by Tiantan, or the Temple of Heaven, in Beijing. It is really important in Chinese culture. Can you guess which is which?

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Chiang Kai-shek (Taipei) are the first two.

Inside of Chiang Kai-shek was a museum that told the political history of Taipei. As well, we saw the changing of the guard. It might have been only a slightly entertaining thing to watch had Hamish not mentioned that when he first saw it he imagined it to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. As I watched it was impossible to get the image of the super sharp movements not to go in sync with Rhythm Nation.  Now, I share this video with you, and defy you to not mentally hum the song while you watch.

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Inside Chiang Kai-shek are also places for international art performances. They are National Theater and National Concert Hall. World famous musicians (such as the great cello performer Yo Yo Ma and the great violinist Shao Lian Lin) and renowned playgroups have conducted performances there. We decide to take in a show while we are there. And in this renowned theater that has housed some of the greatest musicians of our time what do you think we get to see. B.Box of Brother and Sister II. The show is part Taiwanese traditional opera, part hip-hop beat box dance-a-thon, part slapstick comedy show, part every weird thing that theater can throw at you.  It began with a take of Red Riding Hood told from the perspective of the Wolf crying that he is the way he is because he was physically and emotionally abused as a pup.

Should you be thinking that this story sounds a bit heavy for an afternoon opera, you would be mistaken.  The story was still told as a comedy with Red Riding Hood picking up random stuffed animals scattered around the stage.  The show was all in Chinese, and the subtitles on the side were handled a little bit weirdly.  They would stick on one set of lines for maybe 7 minutes, leaving me super confused as to why Red Riding Hood was hopping around with stuffed animals, and why the Big Bad Wolf was break dancing.  Then, suddenly all the lines from the elapsed time would flash by in about 25 seconds and stick again.  This cycle and the fact that I had been awake for 13 hours already lead me to sleeping.  I went in about out for the better part of an hour and finally woke up when the story got into more of the traditional opera.  It turns out that Red cleaned up very nicely in traditional

garments and the story entirely changed.  There was about 15 minutes of serious opera when suddenly there are cans of silly string.

Silly string was definitely the last thing I was expecting when walking into this show.  Two hours after we had sat down for the beginning the lights came up. There was some speaking in Chinese, then a translation in English that this was the intermission.  Hamish and I looked at each other in disbelief and horror.  We walked out of the theatre and did not return for the second part.  I’d like to think we got our moneys worth.

After all that, we were really still just at the half-point of our day.

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Peanut soup…obviouslyImage

Is it weird that I kind of want that in my homeImageImage

So much tradition surrounded by the ever progressing worldImage
Fun Asian spellingImageImage

Dancing on Alcatraz under the stars

My friend, and sometimes travel companion, Hamish, took a trip to the good old US of A this summer.  He began sharing some of his impressions of an Australian in the States, here is an even more in depth look at what he thinks of my home country. Enjoy***

Costco Greeter: [Greeting every customer] Welcome to Costco, I love you. Welcome to Costco, I love you. Welcome to Costco, I love you. Welcome to Costco, I love you.

– “Idiocracy”

Once inside the prison state… er… I mean America, there I encountered two Americas, the trash and the treasure. For starters, in my jet lagged induced state, Paul took me to the supermarket. In front of the carpark was this ye olde’ car, decorated with bullets. Bullets my friends.

I wasn’t in the country for long, but I already had been asked a few times for money from the homeless (both those bohemian hipster homeless who do it as a “radical” statement, and those who were genuinely homeless). It also wasn’t long before I noticed the racial divide. White people in business suits, Black people doing blue collar work, and Latin people waiting tables at your local restaurant. And this was in liberal California. The other thing I noticed was that I was much smaller than everyone else, both width and height. Everything in America was gigantic. So back to the supermarket. “The Simpsons” had prepared me for “Lucky Charms”. I remember years ago discussing with my American co-worker about cereal and she mentioned Lucky Charms, (a marshmallow cereal for the uninitiated), to which I replied, “that’s real?” I had honestly thought that it was just some mythical cereal. A far out parody of American Life. Not so, as I was to discover. The trashy side of America makes the dystopian universe of the movie “Idiocracy”, and I quote:

Pvt. Joe Bowers: [addressing Congress] … And there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!

– “Idiocracy”

Seems like it was a documentary. Only Starbucks still sells coffee! Anyway, I was searching for something to each for breakfast when I found this:

Yes, that’s right to all those non-Americans out there, they have Cookie cereal in America. And they wonder why they have an obesity problem. Even the supposedly healthy “Crunchy Granola” (or Muesli Bars as they are known in Australia) is filled to the brim with honey and chocolate. No America, natural does not equal healthy. I eventually found oats, unflavoured rolled oats. Heaven!

That doesn’t mean that America doesn’t know what good food is. Far from it. For years, McDonalds has been doing the world a disservice by claiming that Hash Browns were undercooked potatoes all mushed together in a semi-crispy coating. True hash browns are manna from heaven!

This was at the Sunnyside Cafe in Albany, San Francisco. And it was to die for! crispy fried goodness. How on earth did McDonalds manage to pull a fast one on the world with their concoction?

I also tried to eat Chicago-style deep dish pizza (basically a pie make of pizza ingredients). Despite Paul and I getting the small pie (now I know why American’s call pizza a pie on TV), we really struggled to finish it. No one told me that in America, you bring a doggy bag to restaurants as par for the course. Otherwise you are left feeling like you’ve eaten enough for a family of four for a week. It amazes me that in a country as litigious as America that the Doggy Bag has survived. In Australia that was banned years ago when some idiot got Salmonella poisoning after eating food they took home from a restaurant. This is despite the fact that that idiot failed to refrigerate said food, they sued and got money, and ruined it for the rest of us with common sense. This is at least one area that America’s lukewarm coffee culture has thankfully let slide. Hope I’m not giving anyone any ideas!

All great change in America begins at the dinner table.

Ronald Reagan 

Seriously though, there isn’t a bad restaurant in Albany. I wanted to be like pac-man running down the streets munching everything in sight. Everything was good. Real Mexican food especially. Why isn’t this the food that America exports to the world? That said, the best food usually comes from those Mom-and-Pop stores, that once turned into a franchise, turn out like Nicki Minaj post-record-deal (seriously where is that smart rapper from those early mix tapes?).

Speaking of Fast Food, I must tell you about this wonderful place called “In-and-Out burger”. Seriously, only three items on the menu (well the one on the board anyway), and they even cut the potato and fry it up fresh for you.

I’d heard about this California only chain before coming, and wanted to check it out. If only someone had told me about the secret menu before I went (I still don’t know what’s on that menu). Carl’s Junior is also worth mentioning, if only because it featured in “Idiocracy”.

Carl’s Jr. Computer: Enjoy your EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES!

Woman at Carl’s Jr.: You didn’t give me no fries, I got an empty box.

Carl’s Jr. Computer: Would you like another EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES?

Woman at Carl’s Jr.: I said I didn’t get any!

Carl’s Jr. Computer: Thank you! Your account has been charged. Your balance is zero. Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase.

Woman at Carl’s Jr.: What? Oh no, NO!

[She hits the machine. An alarm goes off, and a sign appears on the computer saying “WARNING! Carl’s Jr. Frowns Upon Vandalism”]

Carl’s Jr. Computer: I’m sorry you’re having trouble. I’m sorry you’re having trouble.

Woman at Carl’s Jr.: Come on! My kids are starvin’!

Carl’s Jr. Computer: [the woman kicks the computer, and it sprays a fast-acting tranquilizer in her face] This should help you calm down. Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase. Your kids are starving. Carl’s Jr. believes no child should go hungry. You are an unfit mother. Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl’s Jr. Carl’s Jr… “Fuck You, I’m Eating.”

[Joe approaches the computer]

Carl’s Jr. Computer: Welcome to Carl’s Jr. Would you like to try our EXTRA BIG ASS TACO? Now with more MOLECULES!

– Idiocracy

The sweet potato fries were wonderful, but I decided to try the Turkey burger… which as I found out, basically tastes a lot like cardboard. Which is, I guess, why it’s cheaper.

I went out for a day in the city (seems an odd thing to say, but like I said, this was a writing trip), and San Francisco was every bit as beautiful as I hoped it would be. Sure Sydney Harbour is beautiful too, but it doesn’t have that constant mist hanging over it, giving the city very romantic lighting. I took a ferry across the bay, and saw Alcatraz whizzing by. The Bay Bridge and the famous Golden Gate Bridge were both out in all their glory, although I couldn’t get a good shot of the Golden Gate. As I found out, it is a lot like Mt. Fuji in Japan. The moment you try to take a photo, it blushes and covers itself in fog and clouds. How rude!

Once on the other side, I found wetlands, just at the edge of a carpark. What made me and my little b-movie/B-52s heart jump for joy, was the discovery across the swamp of people living on the swamp’s edge. Swamp People! It was like I’d entered a 1950s B-movie. If it wasn’t for all those guns, I would have introduced myself to one of them.

Back on the ferry to San Francisco, proper. And I had lunch by the harbour. A delicious pot pie. Something I rarely get to experience in Tokyo (because it is just not done), was sitting on a bench, with my take-out pie, and eating up to my hearts content. Another thing I miss about being in the West, is that a lovely 90 year-old lady sat down next to me and started telling me her life story (until her daughter whisked her away). She was originally from Cuba, she got out 40 years ago after the revolution. We talked a little bit about San Francisco and she told me she wished they’d shut down Alcatraz and turn it into an outdoor Dance area. “Imagine,” she said, “dancing on Alcatraz under the stars.” I’d never heard of such a romantic notion. I loved it! Her daughter lived in Colorado and said it was the most beautiful part of the USA and I promised that I’d visit one day.

I decided that I would head on back to Paul’s place. And it was lucky I did. Despite the brightness of the day telling me it was still early afternoon, the clock said 7:30pm and as it turned out, that was the last train heading out to his neck of the woods. A “this is not Tokyo” moment.

The next day, we went to Paul’s boss/producer friend’s house, up in the hills. Seriously, the hill was so steep that we barely made it up the road. We came to an intersection, and had to stop to let a car pass, I thought that the car would roll all the way back, it was such an incline. Once there, they did their thing, while I sat and read up on books relating to a project we are working on. The best thing about this was his home cinema. All of the chairs were comfy reclining sofa chairs, and the screen was as big as what you find in those arthouses. It was so perfect that I was perfectly jealous. Really any serious cinema buff really just wants to watch a movie on a real movie screen, but the hermit in me just wants to do it at home curled up in my partners arms. This would be the best of both worlds. Except, that is, for that hill of death.

Paul and I finally got away from the office on the Monday before I was due back, and we hired a car and drove all the way to Yosemite. I got to see the farmlands of California, the oranges and peaches, and the big brown rolling hills that reminded me of home.

But, Yosemite was something else. This is the America I came to see. All my life I thought that the photos were doctored, but as it turns out, it really was as pretty as all of those inspirational posters. We hiked up, and saw lots of very cute little squirrels. A picture says a thousand words, so I’ll let it speak for itself.

Finally, look at those pins! For those not in the know, I was a Drag Queen for twelve years, and I always had the best gams in the business. Girls, you only get calves like that from dancing in 6″ platform heels for ten years, so this is not something you can get overnight at the gym.

Looking forward to going to the states again. Next time, I want to hit up the Grand Canyon. But first, I’m going to be there to shoot my World War Two short film.

I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.

John Adams 

xoxo

If you’re looking for more observant and poignant movie discussions, check out his blog at http://hamishdownie.wordpress.com 

That Dirty Thing That Nobody Really Wants to Talk About

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MONEY!

As I search for plane tickets to go to Thailand over the holidays this year I have two overwhelming feelings.  The first is…Ssshhhiiiiittttt! This is expensive. That ruminates for a few minutes every time I check the ticket’s price tag, which is never under $1000. Then the second wave hits me where I realize that it is getting harder to justify these lavish vacations.

I started the year off with a four-city tour of western Japan, followed that with a trip to Beijing. Had a lovely swim in paradise, otherwise called Ogasawara Island, then took an impromptu jaunt to The States right before a excursion around Taipei.

This year has been a whirlwind of travel, but the greatest truth is that travel is immensely addictive. As much as I have done this year, I want more. The more places I go, the more I want to go farther, longer, and deeper into that vast world out there. And believe me, if motivation alone could carry me, the wind would have whisked me far away along time ago. Alas, my greatest obstacle, money.

Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent wage, but traveling like I do, and trying to be responsible with putting little of my expenses on credit to be paid back at a later date leaves you without much in the old bank account.

Guess that’s just a quandary of life. So what discount-travel websites do you frequent?

Its Not Rafting Til…

YOU FALL OUT!!!

At least that’s what the locals believe lol excited to be in a new country and being one with nature participating in Eco Tourism, we headed to raft on a beautifully humid and sunny morning. Like any first experience we had our reservations but our tour guide, Rocky, promised we had optimal weather and water conditions. Great water flow, beautiful weather PERFECT.

I was pumped, I took my Dramamine so my motion sickness was quelled. How do I know this you ask? Well its simple we drove 30 minutes through the twisty and winedy Arenal Volcano hills to reach the Balsa River  and arrived with out a problem within my body.

After basic instructions in which Rocky would be yelling out for the rowers , The Rowers being us , to follow he put the raft in the water and we headed out. It began simple… Just floating, then Rocky would bellow in his raspy Costa Rican accent Front. We began the row in sync forward. What I learned later is that it provided directional guidance for the raft not just to move us forward. The first pocket of bubbling water we hit was enthralling!!! You had to bear down and row through the rockiness while water sputtered and slapped you in the face. We continued and got comfortable with the momentum, my boyfriend who was my companion loves adventure! Obviously he was not feeling enough Adrenaline coursing through his veins, so for the group he asked if we could go faster? I Gave him the side eye o_O and thought we are still novices lol. Lets just enjoy this!!! But Rocky obliged and roared front hard! So front hard we rowed towards the “Crazy Hole” I really couldn’t give you all the details because they are blurry I just know one minute I was in the raft and the next lol I’m out flying down the river hitting every damn rock in the Balsa River. Now, as a safety briefing the instructions were given that if for any reason you fall out get on your back and float forward feet forward so if you do see a boulder you can bounce of it with your feet. Well gravity wasn’t having that, in fact I wasn’t floating. I was like a spearheaded rocket flying through the river towards what I considered imminent danger and serious injury!!!! Instead my body kept turning around so I would swiftly flow head first. It was a feat to keep my body up and not sink but it became easier after every time my legs started to sink  and hit every rock lining this death of a river. What I do remember  is that I was a floundering expletive speeding down the river lol cussing up a storm as I was assaulted and drowned by the water. I must have looked terrible because the guy was yelling life saving techniques as I kept going under lol I finally was able to grab the kayak that he was in for what seemed like support. But it was more like a bullet speeding through the rivers allowing my legs to get drug on the rocks. Finally the raft caught up to me and the pulled me in. I just sat there heaving, thinking im so over this lol

Once on break we ate some fruit that they picked up on the morning ride over, I have to say that was THE BEST pineapples that I have ever ate. Mouth watering, juicy, sweet. There was a wasp that kept trying to land on the pieces in my hand so I believe that he felt the same. Not wanting to be stung, I was doing creative twirls to take bites lol

After the break we got back in and continued. My Boyfriend, however, was very leery lolol he didn’t like being drug on the rocks and beat up by gravity. So he was calm lol we proceeded down with out incident and had a great time. Gorgeous site, Rocky went and found a Dart Frog ( Poisonous) and pointed out sloths, various birds. All in a great experience that I would do again!

Food and Other Shenanigans in Taipei

The Good:

Let’s just say nearly everything is pretty darn delicious.  And one of the better parts is that there was a lot of it to go around. The portion sizes are magnificent. Let’s start with the absolute highlight; soup dumplings. This was a repeat from Beijing, but this is a food that is worth repeating. It is very much what it sounds like, a dumpling with soup inside, and it is exquisite.  We went to a world famous restaurant for it, and thankfully with all its locations so can you. For the stateside locations check the website, http://www.dintaifungusa.com. The soup dumplings were the highlights, but the gyoza, beef noodle soup, even the green onion tasted like it was soaked in pure awesome before hitting our table. 

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That meal was certainly the one to beat, but others did not disappoint.  The waffles that we had after our walk along the trail of tea was quite nice. Although the way the service is set up left a bit to be desired. We walked into the restaurant and choose where we want to sit (outside in the covered cabanna). We walk there, sit down and wait… and wait. Finally we have to flag a waitress down, who tells us that we order and pay at the front, so I’m left wondering why the woman at the front let us walk away in the first place. We order the strawberry waffles, but they have no more strawberries so, instead, we opt for the fruit. Still yummy. We also get some kind of mango concoction, the name doesn’t really give much of an idea, but then the woman tells us for the mango extravaganza its a minimum 30 minute wait. This leaves me wondering if they are running up the mountain to go pick mangos. But its a beautiful day and we go for it. 

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The waffles were worth the wait, and it turns out it really was just a mango smoothie, but it was quite fresh. But the food is hardly my fondest memory of this restaurant. I enjoyed the bathroom confusion.  To find the restroom, I had to walk upstairs into what was starting to feel like an apartment building. I see two doors with a Kanji sign on them that I assume must be the ‘stalls’. Both were locked so I walk around this corner where I assume more ‘stalls’ should be. Turned out to be an occupied outdoor urinal. To have that make sense, it is literally a urinal tucked into the corner at the end of a hall, where one side overlooks the street and the other side are random doors and a urinal. Well, I back away from the guy using the urinal and wait for a bathroom to open up to no avail.  I see another door with a washing machine, and look in there and see a toilet. As I look around I also see women’s laundry hung around the small room and feel ultra weird, like I just walked into a strangers’ bathroom and used it. When I leave the bathroom, suddenly the entire ground is covered with water and I see someone carrying a bucket to one of the stalls that had been locked while I waited. What happened within the two minutes that I was using that strangers potentially personal bathroom. I leapt over most of the water, made my way back to the restaurant and enjoyed my food, but that was a fun few minutes of utter confusionImage

 

Random street food also made the food awesome. Like the tapioca that was fresh and hot. Or the weird thing called frog eggs that was actually just some kind of lime gelatin thing. The boiled eggs soaked in some kind of flavoring were very nice, and the cruller served with a fairly giant cup of almond milk. Or just the meal of mountain vegetables. It all started to feel like, I could live there and consume this food for about a year and a half before I would crave something else. 

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My second favorite food, which was not necessarily second by taste but by how much fun I had eating it was the mango ice.  It is very much what it sounds like, a massive pile of shaved ice, topped with mango chunks in mango syrup and a scoop of mango ice cream. But we got half mango/half strawberry.  The strawberry side was maybe the more laughable side, maybe the whole of Taiwan was going through a strawberry shortage because it was really the shaved ice, with strawberry jam caked on top with possibly one fresh strawberry cut into four pieces.  When the ice was still frozen it was a nice treat, as it started melting, it certainly became easier to eat for my cold sensitive teeth. But looking at it, it started looking sadder and sadder as I realized that I was eating a giant bowl of icy water with strawberry jam stirred in. I had the realization that if I were a child and my mother had served this to me, I would end up asking, ‘Mommy, are we poor? Is that why we are eating water and jam soup while everyone is having ice cream?’ I cracked up, and yet I kept eating because it really was tasty and the only acceptable way to scoop up pretty much an entire spoon of straight jam without being really depressing. 

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The soupy jam jokes were awesome, but the bit of Taiwanese soap opera playing on tv was even better. Now it was all in Chinese, so I can’t be sure if the story that Hamish and I made up was correct, but I think we had the gist.  A girl was falling out of the good graces of her father, so he had no choice but to beat her with a sword, and she had no choice, but to cry, stand still, continue being beat, and then be locked out of the same house crying on the doorstep. Naturally we came to the conclusion that the fall out was her inability to be a good spy, which she would set out to do in the next episode.  

The Bad:

 The stinky tofu. First, I should admit that I did not have the heart to try it. I had every intention of trying it before I got there, it was going to be my challenge. I had been warned, but I thought I would be able to accept it. But when I was confronted with just passing the restaurant I almost choked on the smell, before I even knew what it was. That’s when Hamish, my travel partner, pointed out that what I was experiencing was the aroma of the stinky tofu.  The way it was explained to me is probably the most eloquent and honest way to say it. It smells like someone shit in a wok and stir fried it. Walking past it, you think, where is this foul bathroom and how to I escape it. That people actually eat it happily is a mystery on the same level of the disappearance of Atlantis.

 

Now that is the nastiness to beat, but there was really only one other food-related disappointment. The first night we went on a massive hunt for a restaurant.  It was certainly that circumstance where you have your heart set on something and it’s nowhere to be found, but the moment you give up, it materializes. We spend the better part of two hours just looking for some quality Taiwanese food. And finally, when we resign ourselves to just eat anything we run into a place. We have our first soup dumplings of the vacation. They were good, but just not on the same level as Din Tai Fung. The rest of the food was good, but not amazing, then we get this chicken hotpot. It’s chicken boiled in a clay pot with onions, garlic, peppers and lots of other strongly flavored vegetables. Sadly, somehow it was an experience of all those positives equalling a negative. It wasn’t bad, just bland. Which was ultimately sad because I was expecting so much from it. But that was hardly enough to sully my experience with Taiwanese food. On the whole, it was something that could bring me back to Taiwan and that is high praise.

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Mmmmm tap dancing crabs!

Sometimes traveling can happen in the kitchen. Lately I have become a Seafood Boil fanatic. The funny thing is that, I’m not to hot on Seafood. Neither is my older brother, in fact he said years ago he was mentally scarred and doesn’t think he will ever rightfully rebound. The story is as follows, our mother was going to make 2 whole crabs for dinner. After finding 2 succulent, gorgeous crabs that were frozen she bought them and headed home placing them in the freezer. Later she told my brother to take them out to thaw, doing as told he approaches the freezer and hears a tapping noise. Not really understanding what the noise was he ignored it and proceeded to open the freezer door and saw empty crab packaging, perplexed he blinked only to see a semi thawed crab falling out the freezer moving around frantically lol 🙂 needless to say he screamed like a little girl and ran!!! Lol But that southern twang seems to be callin my name. Slow graceful moving hips New Orleans, LA has been my motivation. Flavored everything tickling my taste buds, paired with some earthy jazz, pop a cork of your favorite red wine and just season. Hot, humid and sticky, nostrils dancing from all the spices! I get to do two of my favorite things… Travel and cook!

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Please don’t tell me I packed wrong

Fingers crossed, the Taipei wearer looks like it should be on my side temperature-wise, but would it kill the sky to send a little sunshine my way.