40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.


Included Food Photo Project

Before I left I thought about doing some sort of photo project to consistently document my trip. I’d watched epic selfie videos and drooled over wanderlust Instagrams like everyone else, but knew I didn’t have the technical or creative insight to make something at that level. I departed not knowing what I would photograph, what theme would be the best or most fun way to chronicle my year. Then I happened to snap a quick picture of my airplane meal, my first meal of the trip, and I had a flash of inspiration that turned into a full-scale international photo project: I would photograph the included food I ate around the world.

This subject was not about the epic but the mundane, and that was what piqued my interest. It was a reflection of my daily life – this was the food I ate because I was a budget traveler who would eat anything I was given to save money – and hopefully would be a reflection of the locations as well. As a reminder, here’s some of what I wrote when this idea came to me:

I’ve been thinking about doing a sort of photo project on this trip. I want to focus on something(s) that is consistent but has variety within each place. … As I was handed my first of 4 airplane treats today (seriously they love to feed us) I quickly thought to snap a picture. Part of being a traveler on a budget is taking advantage of what’s included in any price you pay. Breakfast included is one of the things I look for when I book a hostel. It’s usually not stellar, but it can save a lot of money over time.

So I’m playing with the idea of taking a picture of all the “meals included” I get. I’m sure they’ll vary everywhere I end up, and it could turn out to be an interesting story of what different places think should be complimentary. Also, so many people document their food these days. Typically they show food that is pleasing to look at as well as tasty, and often from great but not inexpensive restaurants. This is sort of a play on that – I won’t be paying for pretty food, but here’s what I got. And maybe it won’t look worth documenting alone, but that isn’t really the point. I wouldn’t be photographing food for food porn but as more of a cultural experiment. Who knows, maybe every hostel in the world thinks rolls and sliced meats and cheese are breakfast. Or maybe what is offered will end up reflecting the location.

96 pictures later I’ve completed this culinary and anthropological photographic study. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with the results. The driving force behind it – that the included meals were a reflection of location – turned out to be pretty accurate. Brazil had the best fruit, white bread rolls were standard in South America, omelets and pancakes appeared in Southeast Asia, and cornflakes were universal. Australasia didn’t believe in complimentary food in budget accommodation or transportation – there are only 7 pictures from New Zealand, 3 from the same place, and 4 from Australia, 2 from the same place.

The fundamental requirement for the meals I documented was food that was included in my accommodation or transportation that I ate because it would save me money so I wouldn’t have to buy a meal elsewhere. It was about the places I decided to stay and what they came with. If they had rolls with butter and jam available till noon, I ate that for breakfast and lunch so I didn’t have to waste money on other food. If there were multiple options I photographed each one, which is why some places have a few pictures to show the variety. In the case of America del Sur in Buenos Aires I just photographed the entire breakfast bar – it was unlike any other option I had the whole trip. I would always wait until all of the food was there to take the picture, which was sometimes hard in the places where breakfast was served at a leisurely pace and I had woken up starving.

I did not include food that was part of a package deal, like the Amazon or Fraser Island, because in paying for the tour I was also paying for the meals. I did not include food that was paid for in hotels when my family came because those were not places I chose to stay or would fit in my budget; I didn’t have to eat the included breakfast because I didn’t have to worry about paying for my meals. These meals were my choices as a backpacker – I can’t tell you how many times I would forgo a meal for hours knowing that my flight would give me something, or mornings I consumed instant coffee and cornflakes purely to fill my stomach for the first part of the day.

I decided to show these pictures unedited. I think the lighting is important to convey the sense of where and when I was, whether it’s sideways illumination from the airplane window, dull light from an early morning, or no light on an overnight bus. Something that was unexpectedly interesting to me about these pictures was the backgrounds. The table set-ups and airplane trays became just as important to me as the food itself.

So here it is, the final result of my Included Food Photo Project. If only I’d come up with a more inventive name…

“Where Should I Go?”

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.

So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.

So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:

I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:

  • Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
  • The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
  • Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
  • The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
  • Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.

Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:

  • The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
  • Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
  • I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
  • Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
  • Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.

Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.

If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.

Final Thoughts on Japan

Japan is a fascinating country. I went curiously, having always had a desire to see what it was like there, but also unexpectedly. Along with the fact that I didn’t know I was going to be there until a month before I went, all I knew once I arrived was that I’d be there for at least two weeks with Matt, but I had no idea what we’d see or where we’d go. I ended up staying for a month and seeing more than just the normal Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka highlight reel. I can only thank Matt for convincing me to go to that wonderful place. Looking back now, Japan has become one of my favorite countries of the trip.

When people ask me what I thought of Japan I describe it as so forward and so backward at the same time, 2080 and 1880 living simultaneously. Parts of the country are so modern, from 9-story glowing signs adorning the sides of glass towers to the most time-accurate trains running up to 200 mph. These parts live in harmony next to historic buildings and a rich cultural history and appreciation that permeates the entire experience of being there. People dressed in traditional clothes wander past a temple into a covered shopping arcade, literally crossing the boundaries of time. At times I was surprised by some of the cultural differences, like the inequality of gender when I was at an after-work bar surrounded by only men in suits. And then there’s the overall quirkiness of Japan, like the obsession with video game centers and toy stores.

The people are incredible, even though most don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier they still went out of their way in friendless and helpfulness, like the woman from our ryokan who drove us to and made sure we got on the right bus or the woman at my hostel in Fukuoka who made fresh miso soup and onigiri every morning for all the guests staying there, even though she was a guest herself.

The language was also interesting. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where the commercial director says 30 seconds worth of Japanese and the translator says, “He said ‘turn to camera'” and Bill Murray responds, “That’s all he said?” It’s so true. Every time I walked into a restaurant or out everyone there said a long string of Japanese that I think was just “hi how many people” upon entering and “thank you bye” when leaving. And it wasn’t until my last night that someone finally explained to me the difference between “arigatou ” and “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you and the formal version of thank you that I should have been saying all along. They love to throw “gozaimasu” around attached to other phrases too.

Unfortunately Japan is not really a backpacker-friendly country, especially during cherry blossom season. If I do return one day I’ll make sure to plan ahead: get a train pass and book accommodation. It did work out in the end, but it would have saved us from a lot of stress to have had a plan. For this reason I’d probably avoid it on another low-budget-spontaneous-type trip.

Bus rides though were a breath of fresh air. After my frustration traveling around the rest of Asia, having a reliable timetable and functioning bus stations was a relief. This was my main form of transportation around Japan and honestly pretty pleasant, and much more affordable than the train. Plus the cleanest rest stops I’ve ever been in and, of course, genial, helpful drivers.

The food is also probably my favorite on the trip. Vietnam would be tied, and definitely wins in the affordability category, but the sheer variety of Japanese food – donburi, sushi, tempura, noodles, tonkatsu, onigiri, hot pot, skewers – and the fact that all of it is delicious tips the win in Japan’s direction. It also wins worst dish of my trip for the intestine yakitori. I would even eat tarantula again if I had to pick between that and intestine.

All of this combined with the beauty of the country and the energy of the cities hopefully conveys why I found Japan to be not simply great but also captivating. I definitely will return one day.

The Many Activities of Tokyo

Tokyo. That crazy, electric, energetic city. It’s huge, it’s crowded, its subway map alone is overwhelming, and I freaking love the place.

I spent more time in Tokyo than anywhere since Buenos Aires – 10 days in total – so again it’s hard to know where to begin. Tokyo was my introduction to Japan and a break in the middle; I was there for my first six days and returned for my final four days on Honshu (the main island of Japan) before going to Kyushu. In those 10 days I felt like I got to know at least part of the giant metropolis through wandering its neighborhoods, mastering (I think?) its subway, tasting its food, and seeing its tourist attractions.

To truly understand the love I have for Tokyo, you just have to go. I’ll try my best to imbue the feeling I got from the city into my description of it, but it’s really just the energy of the place that is so addictive. Even after 10 days I’m itching to go back, and I know I’m not the only traveler who feels that you can never have enough time in Tokyo. It has so much to offer from calm park days to jam-packed tourist attractions that I can’t imagine ever being bored there. To go day by day would take way too long and probably bore even my most avid readers (hi Grandma!) so I’ll give a highlights overview of what I did there.

I walked. Extensively. From the hostel to Shinjuku to see the multi-story glowing signs hanging off the sides of buildings advertising restaurants on the 9th floor and I don’t even know what else. Through the shops of Harajuku and Shibuya, pausing at one of the busiest Starbucks in the world to watch one of the most-crossed intersections in the world flood with people and just as quickly empty out for cars, on repeat. (Except around 4 in the morning when we had the intersection more or less to ourselves, a stark contrast to the daytime insanity and a fun way to pass the time between leaving the bars and going to the fish market.) Through Ueno park at dawn and midday to see and take many pictures of the sakura (cherry blossoms) in various states of bloom, and to visit the Tokyo National Museum to brush up on my Asian art and cultural history. And finally around Asakusa to take in the remaining traditional Japanese buildings from the Edo period, including the popular Sensoji Temple, a relic from a time before the flashing lights took over Tokyo.

I ate. Japanese food might be my favorite in the world. The fresh sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market is among the best I’ve ever had, but really you can’t go wrong in any sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Then there’s the donburi places – including my favorite meal in Tokyo, tuna don at a random street corner restaurant in Shinjuku – and the udon and soba noodle places. And the yakatori street – Memory Lane – where we adventurously ordered the 10 skewer plate and tried everything from liver to heart to intestines to skin. I will never eat intestines again, this was worse than eating tarantulas. So maybe not all Japanese food is my favorite… The most fun part about eating in Japan though is the crazy types of places you can eat. First there’s the different ways to order: from a vending machine – insert money, push button, bring receipt to counter, receive food – or by pushing a button at our table, alerting a waiter that we were ready (brilliant). Then there’s the theme restaurants: we went to a maid cafe, where our waitress called Matt Master and me Princess and our food was shaped like a bear; Capcom bar, where diners can play Street Fighter while enjoying their game-named food and drinks; and Alcatraz E.R., the prison/hospital themed restaurant that serves drinks in an IV or other ways that may be best left to your imagination. Even food is an adventure in Tokyo.

I played. First around the city in the arcades, where we attempted to be DJs and drummers, went deaf in the Pachinko halls, and relived middle school birthday parties at laser light bowling (I kicked Matt’s ass while bowling the best game of my life). Then on a rollercoaster that wove its way through a building in the middle of the city; 30 seconds of zipping around with an amazing view of Tokyo. Then we went to Tokyo Disneyland. In my opinion, Tokyo Disney is halfway between California Disneyland and Florida Disneyworld in terms of size and rides – it has all the favorites like Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course Its a Small World – but far surpassed both in terms of line length. 3 hours was the norm for Thunder, Space or Splash Mountain and didn’t waver all day. When any line was under 100 minutes we were actually excited, that was short. Even so, nothing can diminish the fun of a day at Disneyland. We also watched some other people play: first at the Tokyo Dome, where I did my duty as an American and brought French Matt to his first ever baseball game, and we both marveled at the fans who were nothing like what I’m used to at baseball games, with their organized chants and movements; and then at a sumo stable where we watched a morning sumo wrestling practice.

I drank. No visit to Tokyo is complete without nightlife. We united with the Haas group (again!) for costumes and private room karaoke. We went to a club till the subways started running again (subways shut down from midnight to 5 am, so…). We pretended we were Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanssen at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, a fitting farewell on both Matt’s and my last nights in Tokyo. And my personal favorite, we bar hopped around Golden Gai, a small 3 blocks filled with 200 tiny bars. From our favorite generous pouring sake place to a raucous beer joint serving international brews from Anchor to Bah Bah Bah, there is something for everyone.

I feel like this post is just scratching the surface of my time in Tokyo; each neighborhood, the Giants game, Disneyland, Golden Gai, and the Fish Market could all have their own entries. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up writing some addendums to this post on any of those. But hopefully I’ve at least been able to paint a picture of the sheer variety of ways to enjoy yourself in Tokyo. I had a fantastic time there and am so happy it was my introduction to the quirky, modern, efficient, beautiful, spirited country of Japan.

Random Myanmar Observations

People in Myanmar all love the United States. Everyone asked where I was from and 90% of the time when I said USA they said “Obama!” They proudly told me that he had visited twice, once just at the end of last year. I even saw someone wearing a t-shirt with Obama’s picture on it and the date of his visit. So many people said they want to go to the US first – if they get to travel anywhere that’s where they want to go. USA is the best, they said.

The best food in Myanmar wasn’t where I expected it to be. I’d heard about street food in Yangon and Mandalay, that it was amazing, even though people kept getting sick from it. I ate the street food and ended up being fine, but that was all just okay to me. I found the best food in Myanmar in the small towns: I could eat the tomato salad in Bagan every day, or the tea leaf salad in Bagan and Inle Lake, and I’ll never forget the Nepalese restaurant in Kalaw.

The interactions I had with people who are from Myanmar are beyond any other country I’ve been to. I’ve raved about the people in Colombia for months, but even there doesn’t equal the spirit I witnessed in Myanmar. I don’t know how many times I can say how friendly they were, helpful beyond any expectation, and genuinely kind-hearted. I’ve felt a lot on this trip that I haven’t met many locals, that most of my interactions are with other travelers – it’s easier to meet them since we’re all in hostels together or on the same buses – but that wasn’t the case in Myanmar. For the first time I felt like I really got a sense of the people who live there, and it was great.

No Watches at Dreamtime

Dreamtime is a special place. Anywhere that has that name, and deserves that name, would be.

When Simo asked me if I would like to check out a place some people he met in Southern Laos had highly recommended – a chill Eco retreat in the forest just outside Vientiane, with wooden bungalows and without electricity, whose reputation was spreading just by word of mouth amongst travelers – I didn’t hesitate in my response: yes absolutely.

My mind instantly remembered the fantastic times I’d had at Poste Rojo just outside Granada in Nicaragua and Casa Elemento just outside Minca in Colombia. Other remote places that I had been told about by travelers. I loved those places so I had high hopes for Dreamtime. It exceeded those hopes.

We took local transport to get there, which is basically sitting in the back of a pick up truck on benches with open sides and a roof, packed with people, a random assortment of stuff, and one live chicken. Getting to these places is always part of the fun. It dropped us off in the town of Ban Hom (hamlet would be more accurate), right in front of a dirt road with a small green sign: DREAMTIME.

So we walked. For 2.5 km in already hot sun we walked and talked, spotting DREAMTIME signs along the way that reassured us we were going in the right direction. We finally reached the gate and in just a few more meters we were greeted by smiling faces on what we would come to know as “the Platform.” We had arrived.

Let me describe the Platform. It literally is a wooden platform raised a few steps off the ground and it is where we spent most of our time. It’s covered with cushions for lounging and the more you look around the more you discover: a ukulele, didgeridoos, juggling balls, a hula hoop, scrabble, poi spinning practice balls, a library, and, the most important part, the magically refilling jar. At any time of day anyone staying at Dreamtime might be hanging out here playing a game of cards, reading a book, or abiding by the retreat’s motto: Sit Down, Shut Up, Look at the Trees. It’s the ultimate chill space. It’s also where all the meals are served.

The food! The food is fantastic. Papaya salad, perfectly spicy. Spaghetti Bolognese, a perfect saucy and meaty combination. Muesli with fruit and homemade yogurt, perfectly fresh and tasty. But the two standout dishes I can barely talk about without salivating: the burger and the chocolate crepes. The homemade burger is actually buffalo meat, and its juiciness and flavor have earned it a spot on my top burgers of all time list. The chocolate crepes are a stack of thin crepes with a side of melted Belgian chocolate. I repeat: melted Belgian chocolate. This was my final meal at Dreamtime and I scraped the chocolate bowl clean.

Dinner at Dreamtime is served just after dark, and since there’s no electricity we ate by candlelight. It was lovely. All the guests and the owners came together on the Platform to dine and converse. This time of day had a real familial feeling.

All of this would not work if it wasn’t for Mike and Michelle. Dreamtime was Mike’s vision. 8 years ago he found this piece of land in Laos and turned it into what it is today. 4 years ago Michelle came to visit and she never left. Now they’re happily married and the best hosts I’ve encountered. They made us feel at home, and I thank them for their hospitality, friendship, and for sharing such a special place with the world.

I don’t know where to go from here; how to describe my Dreamtime experience and what it meant to me. Vaguely, for now, I suppose.

We went to Dreamtime for 1 day. We stayed for 3. And even then I wasn’t ready to leave. It was like we’d escaped from the rest of the world, living simply in the forest without modern conveniences, and I didn’t miss them at all. Days were spent reading, meditating, chatting with other guests, or playing games. I chilled in a hammock for a while one afternoon. Strolled down the dried up riverbed. I’d love to see this place in the wet season when the river is actually a river. One morning we went for a walk around the property to see all the bungalows; there are seven and they all have a unique design. One on stilts, one two-story one made with bottles, two you have to cross the river to get to, one with a lovely front porch, one unfortunately under repair due to an insane past guest, and Mike and Michelle’s deluxe bungalow home, complete with less than a week old kittens. Playing with kittens is anther way to pass the time. Cocaine took a liking to me and spent a lot of time on my lap; Mike tried to convince me to take her but the last thing I need is another living thing to take care of. Myself is enough. And yes the kitten’s name is Cocaine, and her siblings are Opium and ‘Shroom. It happened by chance.

The pace of life is different at Dreamtime. It got me back to base instincts: wake up when it’s sunny, eat when you’re hungry, go to sleep when it’s dark. It got me to take off my watch. Conventional time doesn’t matter at Dreamtime.

The kind of people who are attracted to and like a place like Dreamtime are a particular type that I can only hope to be a part of. Most have traveled near and far and have a unique perspective on life. Conversation was interesting and flowed easily. I learned a lot about them and myself.

I hope one day to go back to Dreamtime. I hope I can return more like the traveler I almost became while I was there. No plans, no stress, no watch. Just me, the forest, and serenity.

Vietnamese Cuisine is in the Lead

Despite my quick departure from Vietnam, I still think it has the best cuisine of my trip so far.

First of all, I have a declaration to make: Vietnamese coffee is the best coffee in the world. There, I said it. I love Vietnamese coffee. I don’t just mean the proper “Vietnamese coffee,” the type on ice with tons of condensed milk, although I do love that too. I mean all coffee in Vietnam. It is STRONG. It has flavor. It is good alone, with condensed milk, in Espresso form, in drip coffee form, with whipped egg yolk… You name it it’s good. There’s a reason there’s a whole street in Hanoi dedicated to Ca Fe’s. Go to Vietnam, have coffee, bring some back for me. Thanks.

Then there’s the food. It’s all so fresh, clean, rarely is there oil or excess sauce. I had the best spring rolls of my life in Hoi An and then learned how to make them myself on my Halong Bay boat. That Halong Bay tour had some incredible food! From DIY spring rolls to sauteed vegetable dishes to hot pot lunch to barbecued oysters everything was fantastic. The street food is unbeatable. Before I went I was most looking forward to bun mi but it’s the pho that is the clear meal of Vietnam – it’s on every street corner for around US$1.50 and it’s all good – and the bun cha was my surprise favorite. These were the make-it-as-flavorful-as-you-like kind of meals, with chili sauce, fish sauce, garlic water, herbs, and chili’s all available to please your taste buds. I wish I could eat in Vietnam every day.

I Made it to Australia! First Stop: Sydney.

From the window of my plane I watched the sun rising over Sydney. I spotted the Opera House and smiled. I made it to Australia.

I’ve wanted to go to Australia for as long as I can remember. The big island on the other side of the world held an appeal for its laid back reputation, its surfer culture, its chill no worries attitude, its exotic animals, and its supposedly stunning scenery from ocean to city to desert.

My first location was Sydney, the major metropolis on the coast. I had heard mixed reviews on Sydney, some people saying it was the best and others telling me to not spend much time there. I had no idea how long I would stay there, first and foremost for a logistical reason: I had to get my visa for Vietnam at the consulate in Sydney and I wasn’t sure how long they would need my passport. So stop one on the itinerary, after dropping off my bags at the office of my gracious host (more on him soon), was the consulate. 15 minutes later and AUD 90 poorer I was told I would have my passport back in 2 days, on Friday. Fantastic. And such an easy process, thank god! This meant I could leave Sydney as early as Saturday, but I ended up staying until Tuesday morning.

I could write this Sydney post in two ways. First, the city itself. Second, the people who I hung out with there. This seems to be a trend in my posts and I don’t see it stopping. So for now, let’s start with the city.

Sydney has everything: tourist attractions, cultural institutions, great food options, fun bars and nightlife, beaches, parks, and a public transportation system that easily gets you around to all of it.

I enjoyed my time just walking around Sydney. I dedicated days to different parts of the city: Day 1 on Bondi Beach, Day 2 being a tourist in Circular Quay and The Rocks then hanging out in the hipster neighborhood of Newtown, Day 3 back to the beaches for the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk and out that night for Halloween at a club in Darling Harbour, Day 4 at Manly via the ferry, Day 5 out of the city at the Blue Mountains, and Day 6 again in the city for brunch, the Botanical Gardens, and some bar hopping in The Rocks.

Instead of going into detail on all of these, which could lead to a short-story-length post, I’ll just focus on some highlights.

1. Tourist wandering. I opted to be truly the backpacker and not pay for the tour of the Opera House (unnecessary when I’ve studied it in architecture class anyway) or the Harbour Bridge Climb. I walked up to, into and around the Opera House and was satisfied. I had no idea it was tiled! The patterned blue and white ceramic tiles totally surprised me. They’re beautiful up close. I could only go into the lobby and the bathrooms but for me that was still worth it just to see the mixture of wood and concrete that composes the interior. As for the bridge, I simply walked across it and back, enjoying a spectacular view of the harbor for free. I ended the walk at The Rocks to see the colonial architecture and wander through the free Museum of Contemporary Art (one of two free museums I went to, the other being the Art Gallery of New South Wales by the Botanical Gardens, another beautiful place to wander around for a day). It is totally possible to see wonderful tourist and cultural sites like this without paying exhorbitant amounts for it – a sentiment I will echo in my post about the Blue Mountains.

2. The beaches. There’s no way to talk about Sydney without talking about the beaches. It is just incredible to have a thriving city so close to such a beach culture. Bondi is great but I enjoyed the walk down past Bronte to Coogee more, the beaches getting less crowded and more chill as I got further away from the city center. But to me, Manly takes the cake. The ferry ride out is a nice start, and the beach itself is a perfect sand arc. I happened to be there on a crazy weather day, alternating between sunny heat and storms, but the lightening bolts just a few kilometers out to sea didn’t deter the dozens of surfers hovering in the water, waiting for their perfect wave. I watched them from behind the row of beach volleyball courts where a tournament was taking place. I was tempted to forget the rest of the East Coast and just take up the beach life of Manly, becoming a surf and beach volleyball bum.

3. The gastronomic scene. Sydney’s food and drink scene is like most major cities in the US. I was a follower of the gastronomic scene in SF and NYC during my time living in each, a lifestyle that doesn’t work with being a backpacker, but I enjoyed being around it all again. From healthy salads in Bondi to the best brunch I’ve had in 5 months at The Grounds in Alexandria (seriously go here, it’s got amazing food and coffee that is roasted right on the premises, indoor and outdoor seating, a bar and great Italian food market next door, and even a small petting zoo) to a simple burger and glass of red wine at a corner pub, I had some great food moments in Sydney. My evening in Newtown probably wins this category. Thanks to the suggestion of a friend I had a great night out in this neighborhood, starting with beers in the beergarden of The Courthouse Hotel then moving to a 2 for 1 dinner at Coopers Hotel (surprisingly fantastic considering the deal) and back to the Courthouse for more beers and pool. This is definitely the kind of neighborhood I could see myself spending a lot of time in if I ever lived in Sydney.

Looking back, I am happy to remember how much I liked Sydney. I didn’t mean to spend 6 days there but I’m glad I did. Why did I spend 6 days there? Well, I knew I wanted to be there for Halloween (Friday night), that I wanted to get to the Blue Mountains for a day trip, and that I had to get my Vietnam visa sorted, so this meant I would leave Sunday or Monday. By the time all that was figured out, flight prices were not in my favor for those days; my cheapest option was to leave at 6:00 am on Tuesday morning (thanks to a Jetstar insider tip from a friend that will get its own post). It was my first week in the most expensive country I’m going to in this trip, so the cheapest option had to win.

I don’t regret staying there longer at all. Sydney was fantastic, and now that I’ve finally written about my time there I want to go back. One day maybe. For now, I’ll just work on the second post about the people there, keep the nostalgia going.

New World

I have a crush on a supermarket. NZ was shockingly expensive when I arrived so a lot of the food I ate there came from supermarkets. There were a few to choose from but my favorite was New World.

New World gets the backpackers needs. Not only do they provide free wifi (I spent an hour in the entrance of the Kaikoura New World so I didn’t have to buy wifi) but they have the best prepared food section I’ve seen. The sandwiches became a staple of any long trip, whether a ferry or bus ride, the salads were good, and the pizza was cheap ($3, although disappointing, sorry NW you messed this one up a bit).

The best way to shop at New World as a solo backpacker was going straight to the prepared food section and finding the “Reduced to Sell” items. Usually some kind of salad – couscous, veggies and rice, garden salad – these items were made out of fresh produce so they had to sell quickly or they would go bad. Anything that didn’t sell fast enough was marked down, usually at least half price, so it would not go to waste. Since I was not stocking a kitchen but looking for an immediate meal these were perfect for me. I had a delicious couscous and broccoli with bacon lunch for just $2.50, a Thai curry soup dinner for $3, or a side salad for my pizza for just $1.

I wish New World existed everywhere. It was a real budget helper, and the food at least felt much healthier than most other budget food options.