international

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…

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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 End of Part 3: Reflections on my Time in Southeast Asia and India

It’s hard to put into words how I felt at the end of Part 3. I’ve tried to isolate my thoughts about Southeast Asia and India apart from the end of my RTW trip as a whole, to reflect on my reaction to that part of the world specifically, but I don’t think it’s possible. Just like leaving Australia I couldn’t ignore my longing for South America and anticipation for Southeast Asia, leaving India couldn’t be separated from the effects that months of travel had had on me.

It’s not that I was less enthusiastic. If you go back to my blog posts when I first arrived on the Asian continent I was full of hope for what was to come. As I hopped around I had a ton of incredible experiences that have been highlights of my past year, from exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat and the waters of Gili Air to interacting with people in Myanmar and the landscape in Hampi. And I could never forget the formative time I spent at Dreamtime and Shambhala, places that reached to my core and made me truly think about what I value most in life. For all of these things and more, I look back at Southeast Asia with a fondness that will never waver.

But despite all of that, I still hesitate when trying to express what those four months were like to me. Along with the highs, I had the most lows of my trip. I had to flee Vietnam due to an unsettling feeling, I was nearly robbed by a guy on a motorbike and had lingering aftereffects of such an experience, and I had transportation issues from missing a bus to losing money on an unsuccessful tatkal train ticket attempt. These things couldn’t have any effect other than bringing down my overview of this part.

And then there’s the experience of traveling around this part of the world that I may have alluded to in location-specific posts but haven’t outright said yet. It can be sensory overwhelming. Maybe there’s a reason my favorite places were removed from the main trek. The soundtrack of cities was honking horns and zipping motorbikes, people yelling and dogs barking. Intense smells wafted through the air from curries to human piss. I smelled burning crops the other day and felt a wave of familiarity. Months of “walk at your own risk” takes a toll on someone who likes to explore on foot.

At some point a fellow traveler said to me, “You’re either a South America person or a Southeast Asia person.” I wish I’d never heard this. As much as I tried to see Southeast Asia from a clear perspective, in some way I already knew the outcome that was eventually confirmed: I’m a South America person. I don’t really believe it’s that black and white of course, and I sort of hate myself for even admitting this, but there’s just something about South America that vibes with me and Southeast Asia that doesn’t. It’s a feeling, a gut reaction, that can’t be put into words. Does the fact that it was my first three months as opposed to my last four months of a long trip matter? Probably, it shouldn’t be ignored, but I honestly don’t think that’s the reason.

Southeast Asia and India are dynamic places, I don’t want to take that away from them, but as energetic as that could sound it’s also explosive. So in the end I suppose I would say Part 3 was every bit the experience I wanted it to be. That might confuse you after how this post has gone, but let me elaborate. Color, as my friends in Bali would say. I didn’t expect Southeast Asia to be easy. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to be challenged, dirty, exhausted, and exhilarated by somewhere so unlike anywhere I’d been before. It delivered. I was fascinated by it and experienced intense emotions throughout my time there. I truly believe that I have come out of Part 3 a better version of myself having experienced the things I did.

So now that I’ve come to that realization, I without a doubt recommend going and will happily continue to offer advice on my favorite places. I intend to return myself one day.

The Travel Marathon to India

It took two days, three flights, five airports, and four countries to make it to India.

I left my hotel in Yangon at 9:00 am on Friday for my flight to Bangkok Don Muaeng Airport. This part was pretty painless, as was the shuttle over to Suvarnabhumi Airport. As long as you have a flight confirmation the shuttle is free and takes just an hour.

When I arrived at BKK this time for my second sleepover, I knew the drill. I knew where the restaurants were and the good benches to sleep on. I settled down to a nice Western meal of an Americano and a club sandwich and completely caught up on my blog posts. I knew I had just two hours of precious wifi so I saved these until they were all written for a major upload and scheduling session. Done by 10 pm. Time to go down to my sleeping spot.

My bench was free so I tucked my backpack underneath me, arranged my sweater on top of my carry on bag as a pillow, set my alarm for 4:30 am, and pulled on my eye shade. Then it all went wrong.

Not only could I barely sleep this time, but I was woken up at 3:30 am by a kind also-attempting-to-sleep neighbor who informed me that the floor had become a bit of a swimming pool. There was a leak somewhere and it was flooding all underneath us, right where my backpack was. Fantastic. I jumped up and hoisted it onto the bench to find the front totally soaked. Luckily this is where I keep my rain gear so I was hopeful that everything was still okay. But this meant the end of my sleep. Soon a cleaning crew arrived with squeegees and a robotic suck-up-the-water chair thing and quiet time was over.

I waited out the remainder of the hour till check-in near the counter, and once it was finally my turn I was informed that India would probably want my visa on arrival confirmation printed out, which I could conveniently do at the airport for 110 baht. But their card reader was down, so I needed baht, which I no longer had. I exchanged a measly US$5 just to do this – better to be safe than kicked out of India – and decided to use the extra 50 baht towards another Americano on the other side of immigration. I deserved it.

It was not the leisurely morning I was hoping for when I arrived so many hours before my flight, but all that melted away once I stepped onto my Sri Lankan Airlines flight. First because I heard a new welcome that I had never heard before. Then the reality hit: I wasn’t just going through the motions of travel, I was going to India. INDIA. This was entirely different from anywhere I’d been so far, and somewhere that was that end of the road “oh I’ll think about that when I get there” location. Well, time to think about it.

Second because I had forgotten how lovely it can be to fly internationally. You would’ve thought it was my first flight; I was like a kid in a candy store when I discovered the free personal entertainment – so many choices! – and was handed a menu of options for my included meal. I went with the Spanish omelette. I’m backpacking, I will eat whatever free food you’ll give me. I settled into my extra leg room exit row seat and, instead of the sleep I desperately needed, enjoyed some vegging out time.

I had a layover in the Colombo, Sri Lanka airport and easily killed four and a half hours by video editing, writing (this post! you have no idea how great it felt to be writing about where I actually was for the first time in months), and watching the Sopranos. After 15 hours in BKK, 4.5 hours felt like nothing. Then I boarded my final flight of this travel marathon to Delhi. One more movie, one more in-flight meal – this time with a glass of wine – and one more nervous seat-clutching moment of turbulence, and we landed. I was in India.

Now all I had to do was wait, with another Americano and my sign, for the arrival of MISS KRISTIN with an I KWAZnik. Because while I still would have gone through this ordeal just to see India, being joined by my best friend made it so much more worth it. Two weeks and two Kriste/ins, India was going to be incredible.

Safety Third at Angkor Wat

I found what I was missing in Siem Reap. The magical mixture of history, culture, nightlife, and people made me fall in love with Cambodia, even if it was only my second location in that country. The days I spent in Siem Reap have made it to my “highlights of the trip” list.

Angkor Wat was one of the pillars of my trip and it deserved to be. The entire Angkor complex is one of the best places I’ve been. It’s a massive collection of temples that expands well beyond just Angkor Wat, the largest and most well-known. There are different opinions on how best to visit the temples, depending on order and time of day, but really any way you do it will you will be impressed. I was happy with how things worked out for my three days there (entry tickets are 1 day, 3 days or 1 week; I opted for the 3-day US$40 pass, which seemed to be the most popular one).

I started big: Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d read to work my way up, save the best for last, but I decided instead to go big or go home. Plus I had met Ben the night before and we decided to share a tuktuk for the day, seriously helping reduce the cost of getting around. We were joined by hundreds of our closest friends (read: obnoxious tourists) to witness the spectacle of the sun rising behind the temple. Instead we got total cloud cover. It was still impressive to see the temple slowly reveal itself to us as the morning went from dark to light, but I was more distracted by all the people around us trying to get the perfect image on their iPads and selfie-stick-secured camera phones. We broke away from the crowd when we were sure the sun was up, even if we couldn’t see it, and and went into the temple.

This was the best part about getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise: the temple was nearly empty. We had two hours to wander around with just a handful of other people, leisurely exploring the different levels, taking tons of pictures, and ooing and awwing at the incredible level of detail of the carvings. The entirety of Angkor Wat is carved relief. There are walls of stories with thousands of figures at first intertwined and later perfectly organized. Ceilings, columns, platforms, walls – everything is decorated. It was extraordinary. The huge size of Angkor Wat also contributed to the sense of awe. After our initial 2 hours of exploring we took a much-needed breakfast break (surprisingly delicious pancakes, fruit and coffee right next to the temple) before going back in for another hour or so to finish the top level. At that point the tour groups had arrived and our peaceful time was over, but with just the one level left we weren’t too bothered. I was thrilled with my experience at Angkor Wat and the decision to start with this temple. The morning timing was perfect and something about getting the big one over-with let me relax about the rest of my time there.

As impressive as Angkor Wat was, I don’t think I could say it was my favorite. Academically I feel obliged to say that it was, but experientially Bayon and Ta Prohm were tied for favorite, perhaps with Bayon slightly in the lead.

Bayon is hard to describe. The reason it had such an impact was the experience of walking around. It is a towering temple with oversized stone faces all around. You circumambulate the temple on a narrow pathway that almost feels claustrophobic in between the stone walls. It is this dwarfed feeling that leads to the impressive nature of the experience of Bayon.

Ta Prohm was a totally difference experience that was impressive in its own right. This is known as the temple that nature has taken over. Massive trees claw over the edges of walls and grow out of piles of rubble. We wandered through parts where no one else was, feeling like we were discovering the temple for the first time. I could’ve wandered around in the quiet parts all day. I heard it was magical at sunrise when no one else was there; I believe it. It is eerie, it is man versus nature, it is fantastical.

There are tons of smaller temples in various states of preservation around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The second day was mainly filled with these and I was happily surprised that I was still amazed by them even after seeing the big three on day 1. It’s hard to not feel wonder when walking down a narrow wooden path hovering over an expansive lake with barren trees and at the end finding a solo temple structure in a circular pond.

My highlight of day 2 has to be Banteay Srei. It was a long tuktuk ride to get there but totally worth it. The carvings were the most delicate, detailed, gorgeous reliefs I saw. Angkor Wat had impressive art but Banteay Srei was a different level of ornate. The small temple didn’t take long to walk around, so we walked the nature path back out, stopping at all the Points of View overlooking the landscape of Cambodia. It was beautiful.

It is hard to keep the energy up when seeing so many temples in a day, but I’m so glad I packed in as much as possible on the first two days. Day three was a highlight in a totally different way. Ben, Alex and I (more on them in the next post) had done two days of intense temple exploring but knew we had one more day left on our ticket, so we decided to experience Angkor Thom in an alternative way. We picked a corner of Angkor Thom that wasn’t one of the highlighted temples on the tourist map and took a tuktuk straight there. We were the only three people at this temple. We climbed to the top and each took an alcove. For the next hour and a half it was like I was the only person in this ancient site. I stared out at the scenery around me, I meditated, I reflected on my week. It was perfect. When the temple was closing it was time to go, and we all left relaxed and happy to have had some quiet time in such a remarkable place.

I can’t say enough how incredible the temples at Angkor are, and I even if I never stopped this blog post it would not do them justice. You just have to go. These temples are monumental feats of architecture, important in art, history, and culture. But apart from that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at one thing: we were allowed to climb all over them. At one point a policeman even took us climbing over rubble and up onto a wall so we could get the best view (for a small tip of course). There are no rails next to huge drops, uneven stone steps, some places are still under construction, and no place is made tourist-friendly. I appreciated it, but also wondered at it. At one place Ben and I wandered into a hallway that was being held up by wooden posts. I felt like we shouldn’t be there so we turned around. Sure enough after leaving we saw a sign on the other side: dangerous area. Oops. But oh well, it’s Cambodia, so Safety Third.

Lake Titicaca: Puno and Copacabana

With the new way I had decided to travel – land border crossings – I ended up at Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. So I figured why not see the lake while I was here.

We started with a day on the Peru side in Puno. Puno itself doesn’t have much to offer at all, but our hostel had an assortment of half and full day tours to book so we opted for the half day Uros floating island tour. This is the main highlight from the Peru side, and it had some interesting qualities to it, but more so it left me with an impression of hypertourism.

The interesting part came from how many ways this community has used the reeds that grow in the lake: a group of houses made from reeds sits on an island constructed from the reeds, floating on blocks assembled from the roots. They even eat the reeds. The hypertourism was evident in the entire experience: first we boarded a boat where a guy was playing The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di on a guitar and reed wind instrument, and after finishing he of course asked for money. When we arrived at the island, they reenacted how they construct each community with miniature models. Then we were divided into pairs and brought into houses where they tried to sell us things; and as we later learned, most of them didn’t even live in these houses, they were there just to show the tourists. As we left on a traditionally constructed rowboat (for an extra 10 Bs), they sang a few songs, and after rowing for about 10 minutes a motorboat came up alongside us and attached, motoring us to the next island, where they sold traditional quinoa bread and would stamp your passport. The entire thing felt manufactured and a bit exploitative, both of this community and us. No wonder the Uros who still do live traditionally don’t want these tours coming to their islands.

The Bolivian side was much better. To cross the border, we booked a “tourist bus” through our hostel. It left at 7:30 am from Puno and we were at the Bolivian border about 3 hours later. After being rushed through a cambio (money change) and our exit stamp, we walked over to Bolivia for our entry stamp. At this point the bus driver ran up to me, the only American on the bus, to escort me through the visa process. As an American I had to fill out a visa application and pay $135 in pristine, unripped US dollars. At least after this painful process I got to cut the line for my entry stamp. I now have a 90 day Bolivia visa that is good for 5 years, so if anyone wants to go to Bolivia any time in the next 5 years let me know! I have to make good use of that $135. (Same goes for Brazil and Argentina, those are good for 10 years and cost me $160 a piece.)

Copacabana, Bolivia is right on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and it seems to be the town where hippies go to retire. People attempted to lure us into lakeside restaurants while juggling, promoting 2 for 1 happy hour all day from their rooftop restaurants. Seeing how it was lunch time, we did end up on the roof, and I enjoyed my first watery Bolivian beer in sun with a view of the lake. I also started to learn that Bolivianos are an annoying conversion: 7 to 1. Dividing by 7 was not a common occurrence in my life before, but I got very good at it during my time in Bolivia. So that 600 ml beer for 20 Bs cost me less than 3 dollars. Sweet. And our private 3-bed (we picked up another traveler in Puno) ensuite “hostel” room that was more like a hotel room and came with a fantastic breakfast for 60 Bs per person was actually less than $9 a night. 

Our only full day in Copacabana we spent on Isla del Sol. The boat ride to get there was a slow 3 hours but the island itself was beautiful. We started on the north, wandering through and past ruins built high up on the island’s hills, before we walked all the way to the south. At 4100 m elevation, if you have any elevation issues I don’t recommend attempting this walk. Our boat dropped us off an hour late, giving us only 4 hours to complete this hike. Jasmin was not doing well with the elevation so we took it a little more cautiously, but even so we made good time. Not good enough though.

Our boat was leaving from the south at 3:40, and we realized we were cutting it close so I moved ahead to get to the port in time while Jasmin and Val kept their pace. I arrived at the docks at exactly 3:40 to see our boat leave. It knew we were coming to meet it but that didn’t matter. We were forced to pay another 20 Bs to get the 4:00 boat back or stay the night on the island. It was hard to not see this as a way to make more money off of us.

Leaving aside the unfortunate boat incident, the island itself is worth a visit. The walk was satisfyingly hilly, making me feel like I got some exercise (which was very welcomed after 3 days on buses) and the scenery was stunning. We traveled past white sand beaches and tree-covered hilltops, all with a view over deep blue water and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The next day we hung out on a rooftop again before taking the 1:30 bus to La Paz. It was a short visit to Lake Titicaca, but any longer I think would have been too long. The chill town of Copacabana was a nice stop, and if you like just hanging out on a roof with a beer and not much else to do then it’s definitely for you. 

Medellin

Medellin. I have had a hard time writing this post, and I’m not entirely sure why. It could have to do with a few different factors: 1) I spent 6 days there, so there’s a lot to talk about; 2) my opinion on the city wavered, starting a little negative but improving toward the end; 3) I had two friends from San Francisco in town, and while it was awesome at the time, now at almost 3 months away from SF it does make me a little sad to think about; or 4) Medellin was my goodbye to Colombia, a country I thoroughly enjoyed, and to some extent it was also my goodbye to planned travel; I had no idea what trajectory I would take to get to Bolivia.

So having prefaced this post with all of that, I’ll try to summarize my feelings on the week as best I can.

Medellin is a metropolis. Probably the most modern city in Colombia, it has come a long way in recent years. It is loved by travelers and we are loved by it; people wanted to talk to us, take pictures with us, and welcome us to their city.

My initial impression was not positive. It was crowded, dirty, with main attractions running alongside shady areas. I witnessed fights being broken up by cops and thieves running en mass away from who knows what, all while touring the popular sites. Everything seemed further away than it initially looked on the map. It was still effing hot. Parque Lleras, the main place to go out, consisted of groups of foreigners trickling in together looking confused, eliciting the reaction: “A new hostel just got here.” Everyone wandered around looking for fun and found not much of anything. And to top it off, we were there during the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), supposedly the biggest cultural event of the year, and we didn’t see it anywhere or feel any sort of excited energy.

Where was the amazing city I’d heard so much about? “Medellin is the best! You’ll love it!” “It’s my favorite city, I have to go back.” “Nightlife is unreal! Medellin is so much fun!”

Maybe this was the problem. I had heard so much hype about how amazing Medellin was that I was initially disappointed. So I took a step back, got out of town for a day, and resumed my exploration of the city with Andy (when he didn’t have work anymore) and Matt (when he was awake).

Then things started to improve. We had a great weekend that balanced tourist activities and general city wandering. Friday we did the free walking tour, which was informative without being drawn out. Saturday we took the Metrocable up to Parque Arvi; the view is truly worth it, and leaves a mixed impression of awe at the scale of the city with unsettling at the conditions that people are living in. It was entirely worth seeing. Plus the market at the park was a highlight; a great place to get gifts and local treats. That afternoon we spent an hour or two just enjoying a beer in a bamboo garden, catching up. Sunday we searched for a place to play tejo, unsuccessfully (I guess I will never get to try this game, sigh), and ended up watching a local soccer game before going to the Flower Festival parade. The parade was actually really enjoyable – we finally found the festival! We watched some of the silleteros walk by carrying their impressive flower displays on their backs, and we wandered the streets with other locals enjoying this big celebration. This was my last night, so Andy, Matt and I made dinner at the hostel and just hung out, something that was so comfortably fun for me with friends from home.

The weekend was also a big improvement for the nightlife. Thursday night happy hour at the Tres Cordilleras brewery gave us a chance to taste all their beers, ones with actual flavor like wheats and IPAs (something I probably appreciated more since I’d been drinking the local watery-flavored beer of Brazil and Colombia for weeks) and Friday night out around Parque Lleras was much more what we were expecting. The only downside was the nightly rain; it would’ve been much better if everyone didn’t have to run and hide in packed bars, we still didn’t feel like we got the true Parque Lleras experience.

By the end, I did enjoy Medellin. It took me a little while to warm up to it, but the city does have a lot to offer. It took just wandering through some new neighborhoods to get there, but that’s how I have been enjoying cities anyway. The center was full of stories and interesting locations but it didn’t seem livable. Getting outside of the center helped tone down the city.

As for having Andy and Matt around, I am so happy they came while I was there. It has been great to have had friends around for parts of this journey, and I hope it continues. But leaving them I knew that I didn’t have anyone joining me again until December, so it was a strange feeling to say goodbye. It felt a lot more final than goodbyes had before. It didn’t help that this coincided with a lot of events at home that are hard to miss – Outside Lands, a close friend’s bachelorette weekend, and prep for Burning Man. All at the 2 months of travel mark, where it’s no longer a vacation and now a life.

I’ve had more time to process this and move on from Medellin and, as evidenced by a recent post from Quito, I am ok with it. Yes I am sad to miss these events, but I know that what I’m doing is right for me right now, and that these friends will be in my life for so much longer that a year away won’t make any difference in the end.

And lasty, leaving Medellin I entered a period of uncertainty: no plans to meet up with people, no planes or hostels booked, and an itinerary that was changing every day. I didn’t know what country I would be in by the end of the week, let alone what city or how I was getting there. That may sound kind of crazy, but it actually feels not just exciting, but like it’s about damn time I just wing it. For anyone who’s been reading along, this probably sounds a little bit like when I left Rio, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that this feels bigger. But it also means that Medellin has become another marker along this year of adventure, and I’m sure it’s not the last.

That Time I Took a Taxi to Get Into Colombia

International flights in South America are pretty expensive. Flying around Brazil was adding up already, but getting into Colombia was looking like it would set me back over US$600. So, much like my quick venture into Argentina, I looked into alternative border crossing options through domestic flights and land crossings. This is how I got into Colombia:

I flew from Manaus, Brazil to Tabatinga, Brazil. When I landed in the tiny Tabatinga airport, I walked about 10 minutes into town to immigration control and got my exit stamp from Brazil. From there, I walked another 10 minutes to a taxi stand and told the driver I needed to go to immigration control at the Leticia airport in Colombia. So we drove across the border into Leticia, Colombia.

This international border is so understated that I almost missed it. It’s just a sign and a guard, and everyone moves through it easily. There isn’t even a stop sign.

I was dropped off at the Leticia airport to get my entrance stamp for Colombia, which took no time at all. If I thought the Tabatinga airport was tiny, Leticia’s is minuscule. The one building and its one terminal could fit into baggage claim at most US airports.

From there, a helpful Colombian hailed me a mototaxi, aka a guy on a motorbike who will let you ride with him for a small fee. So I jumped on the back of this random person’s motorbike, with my big backpack on, put on his spare helmet, and in just 5 short minutes I was at my hostel.

I made it to Colombia.

All of this happened over a week ago already – I know, I’m a little behind. At this point I have started thinking about how I’m going to leave Colombia next week, and I can tell you to expect another random border crossing story. This might become the theme of my time in South America – how many countries will I enter and exit on land instead of in the air?

There are a few reasons crossings like this make sense for a trip like mine. 1) Cost. It’s just so much cheaper to take domestic flights and buses than it is international flights. 2) Immigration control. It’s so quick and easy to get your passport stamped at land crossings. Many international flights require proof of exit from the country, and I have yet to book any round trip tickets (nor do I think I will this whole trip), so you often have to buy a flight or bus ticket out. Domestic flights don’t care about this since you’re already in the country. And with Colombia, there is an exit fee for international flights but this may be avoidable through a land crossing. I’ll let you know if that’s true when I make it to Ecuador. 3) Airport time. Domestic flights have the quickest security check and you don’t have to get to the airport as early. And in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo that have two airports, the domestic one is usually closer to the center of the city than the larger international airport. 4) A good excuse to see a new place. I had actually cut Ecuador, but I just added it back in because taking a bus to Quito and moving on from there makes more sense than flying from Colombia to Bolivia. This one is tough because it changes how I allocate my time: the added stops mean that I lose a few days from other locations, but I am traveling for 10 months not 10 days, so I have the time if I need it (and if I can do overnight buses then it doesn’t take up sightseeing time and saves me a night paying for accommodation). 5) Fun stories. Who the hell knows what will happen on these buses? As soon as I decided to cross on land into Ecuador I got really excited about this portion of my trip. It’s more like how I expected to travel than the luxury of flights.

All Modes of Transportation End in Argentina

I’m in Argentina!

I had a few days to kill between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and instead of visiting one of the beach towns between the two cities I decided to give nature a few days and go to one of my top locations right away – Iguazu Falls. And man was it a full day of transportation to get here.

This morning I left my hostel in SP at 10 am and got on the Metro. Took the green line, switched to the yellow line, then to the red line. Got out and got on a bus to the airport. 1:45 travel time so far. R$7.50

Then I flew from Sao Paulo to Foz do Iguassu, Brasil. 1:30 flight.

I landed in Foz and jumped on the bus #120 into the center of town, got off and immediately got on the first bus I saw marked ARGENTINA. I got lucky – this bus left immediately after I got on. I would’ve had to wait a while for the next one. 45 min, R$2.85.

Then the ARGENTINA bus took us to the border of Brazil and dropped us off. And drove away. The driver gave us a little receipt saying we had already paid, and we were on our own to go get our passports stamped for exit from Brazil. 20 min, R$4.

The tiny little immigration office was probably the most informal border crossing I’ve ever been through, but no less official. Good thing the immigration officer in the Sao Paulo airport told me to hold onto that customs form; they asked for it when they stamped my passport here to exit. As soon as I got my exit stamp, it was back to the bus stop to wait for the next bus to come pick us up on its way to Argentina.

It came and the 5 of us who had gotten off the previous bus and were now in this crazy border crossing adventure together jumped on. 5 minutes later and we were at the Argentina border. Back off the bus, into immigration, which ran like a quick service ticket counter, and 30 seconds later I have a stamp to get into Argentina. Through the shoddiest security screening I’ve ever seen, and I’m back on the bus. At least this bus waited for all of us. No extra cost.

After a winding tour through Puerto Iguazu, we made it to the main bus station in the center of town. 15 minutes.

Just a short half a block walk and I’m at my hostel Mango Chill. And boy is it chill. There’s a BBQ dinner every night (for extra), and the chef is a bit of a DJ so it sounds like a club out where he’s cooking. There’s a small pool in the backyard and tomorrow at 4 there’s a yoga class, included in the price of the room. I even got a free welcome beer (Budweiser, he knew I’m from the US).

What a crazy day of travel. I’ve never done a border crossing like this before. It took a lot of blind trust and a little comfort in other people with backpacks doing the same thing. The email confirming my hostel had directions so I wrote those down and just set off, assuming I’d know what TTU was when I saw it and that the bus labeled ARGENTINA would actually be that obvious. In the end, it worked out.

The funny thing about doing a crossing like this is that there were 4 other people doing the same thing, but we weren’t all traveling together. It ended up being me, a Brit, two Belgians, and an Argentinian. We didn’t talk while doing it, but we would all look around once in a while to make sure that everyone was still doing the same thing. If one of us had strayed, the rest would have questioned what we were doing. Even without speaking, we knew we were all in this together.

So tonight I enjoy Argentinian BBQ at the hostel, and tomorrow it’s off to explore the falls. 100% chance of thunderstorms. Oh joy.

I’m Here!

I’ve checked into my hostel in Sao Paulo and now I feel like I’m traveling. There are tons of Brits here, plus an American and Australian so far. They’re all on multi-month journeys too; most are around 6 months into their trips already and are excited for me when I say this is my first stop. I feel like the newbie.

The hostel – Viva Design Hostel – is awesome. It’s new, it’s got an amazing common area, and the receptionist is so friendly and helpful he made me feel like I’ve already been here for weeks. People have said this is one of the best hostels they’ve stayed in and I can see why already. I think I may have spoiled myself too early.

This afternoon I walked around the neighborhood I’m staying in, Vila Madalena. It’s supposedly the “bohemian” neighborhood. From what I can tell, that means it has a lot of bars and restaurants. They all have outdoor seating that is so tempting; I wanted to go into every place I passed. It also feels a lot like San Francisco with its hills and street art. I’m excited to go down to the “party street” this evening to watch the USA vs Portugal game. From my hostelmates, it sounds like a fun area.

Stairs in Vila Madalena

Stairs in Vila Madalena

For some reason, whenever I’m around a foreign language I default to German. I keep finding myself saying “Ja” for yes and thinking about questions or words in German. That doesn’t work any better than English here. Even Spanish hasn’t been helpful. So hopefully I’ll get better at some Portuguese words soon so I don’t feel quite as lost. I have a cheat sheet written on my arm for the basics. How touristy of me.