street food

Flores and Tikal

I got off the bus in Flores and had to remind myself where I was: Guatemala. I had moved countries. That’s the thing about making such last-minute decisions – they don’t really have time to sink in before you find yourself standing in the dark on a cobblestone street being asked what hostel you’re going to. Hostel? Right, we had to find one of those. Cassidy had a recommendation, which matched the friendly travel agent’s who accompanied us into town, so off we went. It didn’t take long to find Los Amigos, since Flores is a tiny island whose circumference can be walked in no more than 10 minutes, and once inside it didn’t take long to reunite with the girls from Bacalar. The gringo trail is strong in Latin America.

Too exhausted from the full day bus journey (we had to pass through Belize, meaning two border crossings with four passport stamp stops), we decided to dine on the surprisingly good but totally overpriced international fare at Los Amigos, and only made it through one giant Jenga game at the Night Bar before succumbing to sleep. In the loft. Because apparently real beds are just too easy, so I decided to sleep on a pad on the floor above a real dorm room, covered by a peaked roof but sans walls and doors. The sacrifices we make to save Quetzales.

My time in Flores was focused on two things: 1) Arranging the trek to El Mirador; 2) Seeing Tikal. Arranging the trek took most of our first day – a topic that will get its own post soon – but we were able to secure a Monday morning departure (it was Saturday). We celebrated our success at Jorge’s Rope Swing, a chill place on the edge of the lagoon with hammocks, tubes, a surprisingly daunting platform to jump off of (my estimate is 8 meters), and, you guessed it, a couple of rope swings. We had a solid group of 9, a combination of former Green Monkey residents and bus trip buddies, who casually changed positions between land and water until the dazzling sunset signaled our return to the island.

Sunday was Tikal day, and Tikal does take the greater part of a day. We opted for the sunset tour, having heard about the struggle our friends endured for the sunrise tour, complete with 4 am departures and cloud-covered skies, and were picked up at noon. The ride to get there was hot and long, and the guide was not in any rush to get started, but once we did begin we were treated to stories about Mayan history and details of what we were seeing. It was well worth going with the English-speaking guide.

Tikal is gorgeous. It’s a great mixture of the kinds of ruins I’ve seen: it’s out in the jungle and not totally uncovered, but what is restored is jaw-dropping. The main positive about going on the sunset tour was being able to take our time exploring the site on the way to the tallest temple, as opposed to the morning when you go directly to the tallest one and work backward. We saw lots of wildlife on the walk in through the jungle, from toucans to spider monkeys to some relative of the raccoon whose name I forget, but did not see many other people, thankfully. There’s a lot to explore at Tikal, lots to climb up and around, which put it at the top of my ruins list thus far. Plus Temple 1, the one on all the postcards, is actually that pretty in real life. We were sitting in a grassy plaza surrounded by two towering temples and two multi-room complexes built up on hills when the colorful, strangest-looking turkeys I’ve ever seen came over to say hello. It was one of those scenes that is almost too good to believe, one that makes me think “wow I’m here right now.”

As sunset approached we climbed the tallest pyramid at Tikal for an overwhelming view of the jungle expanse beyond, with the tops of two temples peeking out in the near distance. Then we went to the oldest pyramid for the main event, which we had to earn by climbing up one of the more challenging ancient staircases I’ve ever ascended. Why people who were so short built such steep giant stairs I will never understand. Were they meant to be climbed like a ladder? Did they actually go up these? The climb was of course worth it. From our perch we could see the sun setting over the jungle, with the tops of the other pyramids lit up around us. The moon was just a few nights from full on our walk back out. We caught a glimpse of it behind Temple 1, which created an eerie, mystical scene that made me feel like I could understand a bit better the Maya’s fascination with the sky.

Flores itself though is not to be discounted. I’d heard that it wasn’t worth staying in for more than a day, it was just a launching point for Tikal, but I was charmed by its tiny size and the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that covered it. If they promoted it well, Flores could really be a tourist destination itself. But hopefully that wouldn’t ruin my favorite part of town: the tostada stands. Every night at the water’s edge five stands set up that all sell the same things: tamales, burritos (the tiny Guatemalan version), empanadas, jugos, cakes the size of the one Miss Trunchbull made Bruce finish, and the highlight, 3 for 5Q tostadas. My personal favorite was the beets, but others preferred the noodles, and the carne wasn’t too shabby either. We went there for our second, third, and final dinners in Flores, and if I ever go back I will go again.

 

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There’s More to Fukuoka Than Tonkotsu Ramen

My mental state during my last 10 days in Japan is hard to describe. I had suddenly booked a flight back to the United States so I knew this was it – the end of my trip abroad, the big trip I’d dreamt about, worked towards, and lived for for most of my recent past – and that affected my experience in a couple different ways. On one hand, I knew I had to go out well, finish strong with adventures in cities and nature, and stay true to how I had lived for the past year. On the other hand, I was distracted. Soon I would be reunited with some of the most important people in my life back in the country I called home. My mind constantly wandered to how I would carry out surprising my friends in Arizona and what food I would stock in my parents’ kitchen in Vermont. But I still had the island of Kyushu to explore so I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and forged forward. I wasn’t done just yet.

Two days after I made the decision to go Stateside I flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu. First brought to my attention by my train companions in India, all I really knew was that it was the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, which I was supposed to eat near a river, and a good launching point for nearby excursions. At first Fukuoka seemed to me like a big personality-less city. Sure there were a few pretty temples, as always, but for the most part it seemed to me like a city of sterile streets lined with nondescript buildings. I didn’t have an immediate connection with it. But as I continued exploring the city grew on me. It was more relaxed than its neighbors to the northeast but still had enough things to do.

Looking back, the parts of my visit that stand out in my mind are a stroll through Ohori Park and a leisurely rainy day at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Also the yatai, I can’t leave out the yatai.

Ohori Park is on the outskirts of the tourist center of Fukuoka, which is actually a very walkable 20 minutes. When I went I expected to find a lawn to sit and read in, but when I arrived I discovered there was a lot more to this park. I entered at the site of the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. All that’s left of the castle is the stone foundations but in and around them is more parkland, quirky trees, the end of the cherry blossoms, and a fantastic view of the city. Well worth a stroll. I continued to the lake, which is actually huge and a hub of activity. On the path surrounding it people were jogging, pushing strollers, doing calisthenics, or simply passing the time on park benches. In the center of the lake there is a strip of land connected by a few picturesque arching bridges. It was a lovely walk with water on either side and places to stop and contemplate the scene. I chose a bench on the far side, after walking the center island, to sit down and read for a bit. It is so nice that Fukuoka has a large, welcoming park so easily accessible.

The day I went to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum it was raining. Luckily Fukuoka has some good covered options for rainy days – the underground mall in Tenjin is right next to this small museum. Located on the 7th floor of an office building FAAM could be hard to find, but it would be a shame to miss it. It is just a few galleries housing rotating exhibitions but it only features contemporary Asian artists. Two of the galleries are free and one is a small charge (I stuck to the free ones, Japan was brutal on a budget traveler). The first exhibit was all quilts. I did not expect such a traditional medium to be on display at a modern art museum but I am happy it was. The quilts were modern patterns expertly executed and I found their placement in this gallery intriguing. Leave it to the Japanese to still consider quilts as part of the contemporary art scene.

The second exhibit though is what captivated me. A collection of contemporary artists from around Fukuoka, the paintings in this gallery made me pause, appreciate, and smile at their beauty, complexity, and talent. There were multiple pieces on display that I wish I could have taken with me. And in the most interesting twist of all, an artist was also in the gallery creating a new piece. I wondered when I walked into the room why there was music playing – a change from the typically silent museum experience that I thoroughly enjoyed – but when I turned the corner I discovered it was for the artist Miyamoto Daisuke who was right there, painting, adjacent to a work of his that was a part of the show. I must have sat on a bench for half an hour and watched him decide where to make quick calligraphic lines or blot on thick paint until it dripped, all in hot pink. I revisited the gallery before I left to see he had turned the canvas so what were previously drips were now strong horizontal lines and he had started to add yellow.

In between my sessions watching Daisuke I sipped on a mocha in the cafe overlooking the city. I wrote a little, read a little, and reflected on where I was and what I was doing. It was one of those quiet moments that I have enjoyed in cities across the world over the past year. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and there I was, after seeing a stunning exhibit, relaxing with a mocha, looking down at the bustling city and across at the tall office building housing floors of desks stacked like pancakes, scenes in which I used to belong, just another one of those people rushing through life, and now found myself detached from, a quiet observer happy to have liberated myself from all that came with the nine-to-five existence. I was content. I never wanted it to end. But I felt at peace with the decision to go back to the US, knowing full well that instead of rejoining the rat race I would continue to run the opposite direction, towards what I had no idea, and that was the point.

My final highlight of Fukuoka is probably what it is most known for: yatai. These small street stalls seat maybe seven guests and serve a variety of skewers, gyoza, seafood, and the famous tonkotsu ramen, which has a very rich broth made with pork bone. The first night I went to one of these alone, on a street by the fishing docks, but it was apparently still too cold; there were just three options instead of the typical back-to-back row of stalls and they had their walls up, making them into tiny dining rooms. I slurped my ramen in between two men chatting up the chef. If only I spoke Japanese; they were friendly dining companions with whom I would have loved to be able to communicate more. The second time (my last night in Japan) I was with two new friends at the location on the canal where there was a line of stalls. It was picturesque and busy. Both times I had the ramen and while it was a good treat it’s just too rich for me. But it’s a right of Fukuoka passage so I had to try it.

I departed Fukuoka pleased with my time there. What started as a potentially hard situation with my distracted mind and unsure feelings on the city ended as a relaxed urban experience attesting to the things I have realized I love most in cities around the world: parks and small galleries. I also had decided on, and booked, a plan of how I would spend my final days in Japan: Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Mount Aso, then back to Fukuoka to fly out. With a mixture of city, castle and volcano, it seemed to me like a good overview of Kyushu. And it was.

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 See Dead People in Hanoi

Hanoi is insanity personified, if you replace person with city (is there such a term?). If you thought motorbikes in HCMC were a problem, try Hanoi. It’s utter chaos. Only some major streets have traffic lights so the area you mostly walk around – the Old Town – is just a free-for-all. I resumed my old NYC jaywalking awareness. Whenever it looked remotely ok, full speed ahead, confident that I would make it to the other side. Somehow this worked. It was when cars got involved that it all went wrong. Motorcycles move quickly, much like people, and as long as everyone kept the same speed we were able to time it right and not interfere with each other without missing a beat. As soon as a car appeared, looking like a huge beast compared to the rest of us, the dance was thrown off. Speeds had to change, caution had to be practiced. It made me wonder if we’d all be better off with just motorbikes and pedestrians, something that is impossible in our world.

Hanoi, former capitol of North Vietnam, is now the capitol of all of Vietnam. I started my visit with one of the most important sites: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It took a while to even find the entrance but I eventually fell into line with everyone else approaching the impressive structure. Then I got inside and holy shit there he is! I’m staring at a dead man! I can see his facial hair! For some reason I didn’t process the fact that YOU CAN SEE HO CHI MINH. He’s not in a coffin, he’s right there inside transparent glass. I started my day by circumnavigating a dead man. Yup, that happened.

I got over the shock by hovering next to some tour guides outside of the building listening to the history of Ho Chi Minh, the Uncle of Vietnam, main proponent for unification who never got to see his efforts come to fruition (he died in 1969, Vietnam was unified in 1971).

The other highlight of my tourist wanderings in Hanoi was wandering through the Temple of Literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucious and his teachings. It’s a procession through and around 5 courtyards and it’s beautiful. I spent a while making my way through the complex, pausing to take in a temple here or a bonsai tree there. 20,000 VND well spent.

By the time I made it back to the main part of the Old Town I was starving. A nice lady who was running a pho stand on a street corner caught my eye at the right time: “one?” Sure, this place looked as good as any. It was the best pho of my life. I love how they give you a bowl with the noodles, meat and broth, and the rest is up to you. You can make it as simple or as spicy as you want. Of course the way I make it my noise was running uncontrollably and I loved it.

My two nights in Hanoi were different but both enjoyable. Night one I met a friendly dormmate from Mexico who had been in Hanoi for a bit but whose friends had already moved on, so he took me to a cool bar that he’d been to once before, Bar Betta. This would be a place I’d frequent (especially the free Wednesday night beer hour) if I spent more time in Hanoi. It has a very chill retro vibe, huge beers, eclectic seating options, and an expansive rooftop. Of course the guy at the table next to us was from San Francisco.

Night two was my last night in Vietnam and I was alone, which is what I had wanted. I went to a bun cha place that some people on my Halong Bay boat had recommended and it was one of the tastiest meals of my trip. Bun cha is a do-it-yourself experience: you get some fried (I think?) pork and some white vegetable (I think?) in broth, with a side of more of the white stuff in broth, a plate of herbs and lettuce, and a bowl of chilis. Again, as spicy or as bland as you want. Wash it down with a Hanoi beer and it’s the most filling and delicious $4 dinner you’ve ever had. Also by recommendation I had an egg coffee for a nightcap. It sounds like Manhattan’s famous egg cream, which I have to admit I’ve never actually had, but if they’re at all similar I have to get one when I visit Manhattan next. Egg coffee is basically coffee with whipped egg white but it tastes like liquid tiramisu. It is rich, creamy, decidant, dessert-worthy, and delicious. And not the thing to have when you have to wake up at 4 am for a flight. Oops.

Quick shoutout to my hostel, Hanoi Hostel. It’s tiny, just 2 8-bed dorms and one more room that we think may have been private, but for just $5 a night you get breakfast – egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee – and an hour of free beer every day. Plus huge lockers under the bed, warm showers (bathroom is better in the girls room), and a lovely rooftop on which you can enjoy the freebies.