tourist

A Chicken Sacrifice and a Trash Canyon

There are a couple of popular day trips from San Cristobal. I decided to do two that would give me a little taste of the region: one indigenous town and one natural wonder.

San Juan Chamula
Many people recommended going to see the nearby village of Chamula for its interesting church. Interesting did not properly prepare me for this experience.

The easiest way to get to Chamula is by minibus; it’s a quick 20 minute ride from the main market in San Cristobal. So naturally, I opted to walk, despite the fact that it had been less than a week since my 5 day jungle trek. Because.. I’m me? The walk was two hours all uphill on the side of a pretty major road. That probably sounds bad, but it was actually lovely – the landscape in Chiapas is beautiful, I was surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, I walked past sheep, goats and chickens that were hanging out on the side of the road, and the weather was perfectly sunny with a bit of a chill that made the exercise enjoyable.

When I got to Chamula I was at first entertained by the small town nestled in a valley. I walked past a few souvenir shops on my way to the main square. The church was not free to enter, so I kept walking around to see what else the town had to offer. Nothing. If it’s not a market day, there’s nothing going on in Chamula other than that church. People looked confused to see me wandering past their houses in a part of town tourists stay away from. So I went back, forfeited my pesos, and went inside the church.

I don’t even know if I should describe the church in case anyone reads this before they go see it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So if you are one of those people stop reading now. There’s a reason they don’t allow pictures inside.

I did not look into the indigenous culture of Chamula before I went to the town so I had no idea what to expect. I walked into what looked like a colorful church to find long green grass spread out on the floor. Altars to dozens upon dozens of saints lined the walls on each side. I walked past worshipers who were on the ground facing the altar. They had used wax to stick small thin candles to the floor in even lines and were sitting behind them chanting. I stood at the front and observed the emphatic devotees. Then it happened.

A mall pulled a chicken out of a cardboard box. He held it by its head and feet, wings outstretched, and waved it in circles over the candles and over the man to his left, chanting the whole time. I watched these rotations oddly mesmerized, wondering what the man had done to need a chicken waved over his head, and as I was watching the man stopped moving the chicken and pulled hard at its neck. Oh my god, he just sacrificed it. I watched him kill this chicken. In a church.

I had to walk past the chicken on my way out – my scarred walk out – and saw it laying lifeless in its cardboard box. I immediately got in a collectivo and went home. After more time in San Cristobal I learned that the people of Chamula still use sacrifice all the time. It’s apparently worse on Sundays, when dozens of animals are sacrificed in and around the church. They also will still burn someone in the town square if he has mistreated the wrong person. It seems to be an old, lawless, backwards by modern standards society that is still allowed to exist somehow.

San Cristobal still has a vast indigenous population, and Chamula is just one example. There’s a reason it’s the home to the Zapatistas, another group I did not know much about before but learned more about while I was there. Their fight for indigenous rights has occurred during my conscious lifespan, a fact that I was shocked to learn simply because of how little I had heard about it living in the neighboring country. This is all part of the fascination of the Chiapas region, albeit perhaps less enjoyable than the beautiful landscape but worth looking into.

Cañón del Sumidero
Next I decided to focus on that beautiful landscape, so Ale and I went on the tour to Cañón del Sumidero. It started out gorgeous – towering limestone mountains rose out from the green water, reminiscent of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Again I marveled at a landscape I did not know existed in Mexico. We saw giant iguanas, a huge crocodile chilling on the bank, and tons of birds. Then it turned sour. We saw a dead crocodile floating in the water. We saw rivers of trash that the boats simply drove around. We wondered how it was possible to have so much tourism money and boat traffic passing these problem areas and still have such a profound issue with garbage.

I tried to enjoy the ride. Our driver took us to a shrine inside a cave, underneath a multi-tiered waterfall, and past trees that floated off the side of the mountains, looking like they’d been put there by some talented CGI engineers. But I couldn’t ignore the trash. And then we reached the end of the river and our boat sidled up next to another boat that was selling snacks and drinks. We scoffed at the blatant attempt to get more money out of tourists, until we saw they were serving micheladas. Two please. If we had to go back through the river dump, we may as well boost the experience by sipping on a tasty michelada.

On the way back to San Cristobal we stopped in a town for an hour, another excuse to spend money. We took advantage of the time to get tacos and 1L micheladas (1 each) and the piñata that was in the Hostal Casa Gaia photo. Blame it on the michaeladas, but we were inspired to bring a little fun back to the hostel.

Would I recommend these excursions? Yes, hesitantly. The landscape of the canyon is beautiful but I would like to see some initiatives to clean it up before sending more people that way. And Chamula, well, it’s part of being in Mexico.

Advertisements

A Quiet Morning at Teotihuacan

Monday morning I woke up to the sound of rain. Damn. Today was the day I had planned to go to Teotihuacan. Located just an hour outside of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was the largest Pre-Columbian city in the Americas, and a must-do for me. I would not let the rain deter me – I was going.

It was early enough that the Metrobus wasn’t crowded, so my commute to the Terminal del Norte was painless, although the walk between the Potrero Station and the Terminal is not one I would suggest to the uneasy traveler. Finding the blue triangle sign that signaled the bus to Teotihuacan was easy, and after paying MX$88 for ida y vuelta I was told my bus would leave in 5 minutes. 15 minutes later I boarded the bus marked “Piramides.”

I had almost forgotten what taking a bus in Latin America was like. Someone greeted me by putting three chocolate bars on the seat next to me, then came back around asking for money for them. Someone else walked the aisle offering nuts for sale. Halfway through the journey a duo boarded with acoustic guitars to serenade us. I smiled at it all.

By the time I arrived at Teotihuacan the rain had stopped, and I realized I had timed it just right. Whether it was the morning rain, the 10 am arrival, or the day after Sunday, when it is free for Mexicans, or a combination of all three, I was practically alone. There were a handful of other people taking their time exploring the ruins, but for the most part it was a peaceful morning there.

I proceeded down the Avenue of the Dead, the main thoroughfare of the ancient town. I could see the gigantic pyramids lurking ahead but I took my time reaching them. Along the way were brief informative plaques and other subsidiary ruins to climb around on. The whole procession required climbing up and down over staircases into plateaus, a system devised to combat the incline of the site.

Then I reached the final plateau. To my right was the towering Pyramid of the Sun. As I approached I looked up at the daunting staircase I was about to climb. Without a break in my step I began the ascent, and about halfway up remembered that Mexico City is at elevation. At least that’s what I’m blaming for the quickness with which I lost my breath. But I powered on and made it to the top, where the view was beyond rewarding. Not only could I see the extent of the old city and the Pyramid of the Moon at the Avenue of the Dead’s end, but I could see the entire valley around me and the mountains in the distance. The top of the Pyramid of the Sun was believed to be a sacred place with strong energy, and there is no denying that it felt special up there.

After taking it all in and having some lovely conversations with an Australian couple and an American man – a welcomed reminder of how easy it is to meet people no matter where you are – I moved on. The hawkers were starting to appear and I wanted to make it to the Pyramid of the Sun before it was too crowded. The road ended in a square surrounded by the ruins of temples. It was a humbling space. I climbed the shorter ascent up the Pyramid of the Sun and looked back out at the town I had traversed. Even though it is in ruins, it is still impressive.

I liked it there so much that I decided to linger for a while, so I found a temple on the main square but off to the side where I could be alone. I sat at the top and took it all in. I meditated. I wondered at the ancient civilization that had built such a place and the beauty of what remained.

When the jovial Chinese tourists came up my pyramid to take a picture in my spot I took that as my sign to go. I had enjoyed a relatively quiet morning in Teotihuacan, but the masses were coming. I walked out and a bus back to the city was waiting in the parking lot; it left just a few minutes after I boarded.

Teotihuacan affected me more than I thought it would. I was in awe of it, and I recommend everyone go there. But beyond the site itself was the moment I had at the top of my pyramid, when I looked out at the spectacle below me and said to myself, “I’m back.”

Nara: Deer, Temples, and Sake

Our second day trip from Kyoto was to Nara.

Nara is known for two things: temples and deer. I’ll start with the deer. The deer in Nara are described as freely roaming in the town’s parks, which initially brought to mind images of dozens of Bambi’s happily coexisting with people and nature. But the first thing we saw when we got to Nara Park was a sign warning that the deer are wild animals and they may attack you in a variety of ways, such as kick, bite, knock down, or headbutt. Bambi would never headbutt me. Bambi also didn’t have stunted devil horns coming out of its head. These were a different breed of deer, more beast than Disney character. I also would not call their presence happily coexisting in nature as much as benefiting from tourists buying deer crackers to feed them. They actually stood in the way just hoping to get fed. It felt like a petting zoo we couldn’t escape.

The temples though were different. If they were not like I imagined it’s because I underestimated them. At first glance the Kofukuji Temple appeared as impressive as Ninna-ji in Kyoto had, with another five-story pagoda and one-story temple, but once we got entry into the Eastern Golden Hall and the neighboring National Treasure Museum it went beyond previous temple-going experiences. The Hall was filled with statues of Buddha and his allies and protectors. We were given a sheet in English that explained each figure’s importance, which I greatly appreciated. Inside the museum were more statues important to the temple, including the three-faced six-armed Ashura Statute, a highly important Buddhist sculpture in Japanese culture and history. It was spectacular. The entire collection was well worth seeing.

The Todaji Temple had the same result as the Kofukuji Temple. The approach, entry gate, and building at first seemed familiarly impressive, but once I stepped inside and saw the towering Buddha and his guards I was taken back. That was one big Buddha. The wooden sculptures, as well as the building interior, dwarfed everyone and seemed to assert their importance in their stature. Even with another large crowd, they were able to steal all the attention.

Our Nara day ended with a Japanese must-do: sake tasting. There is a neighborhood in Nara that was known for its merchants and still maintains an old school charm. We found it and one of the local shops that sells an abundance of alcohol, so we asked if it was possible to do a tasting there and sure enough it was. 3 big pours of sake for Y500 was a great deal and I learned that I like the most high quality one the best, of course. There’s no better way to wash down a full day of deer, parks, and temples than with some locally produced sake.

We Saw a Whale Shark in Osaka

We did two day trips from Kyoto. The first was a spur-of-the-moment trip to Osaka.

Originally we thought we’d spend a night in Osaka after Kyoto, but when we stepped outside on our third day in Kyoto to discover that it was miserably rainy our outside-focused plan for the day wasn’t so appealing anymore. So instead we decided to jump on a train and spend the day in Osaka. This is the great thing about flexible travel with another backpacker – so what if this wasn’t the plan, sounds good to us right now, let’s go for it.

Cities are better places to explore in the rain than temples, plus our main attraction for Osaka was an indoor activity: the aquarium. Yes we are just big kids. But they have a whale shark! Who doesn’t want to see a five-meter-long shark without fear of being attacked? Not like whale sharks attack humans, but you know what I mean. Anyway, a quick thirty minute train ride later and we were in Osaka Station trying to figure out how to get to the aquarium. Again tourist information pointed us in the right direction (so helpful all over Japan) and no more than an hour after we’d decided to go to Osaka we were entering the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.

It, like everywhere else, was packed. Does Japan ever work? I’ve heard they actually do more than anyone, but everywhere we went it seemed like everyone else was there too. The aquarium wasn’t too bad once we got past the first animals – Japanese river otters – and into the tanks, which had plenty of viewing space. Kaiyukan has an interesting layout: we moved in a circle, constantly descending, around the Pacific Ocean tank and past other global zones on the outside. They split up each tank according to location, an approach I actually really liked, and even had Monterey Bay! I got to watch some familiar sea lions play around for a bit.

Pacific Ocean tank

Pacific Ocean tank

The main attraction was the whale shark, and it was smaller than I expected. I actually enjoyed watching the other sharks and sting rays swim around more than the whale shark. I felt bad for it; it looked too big to be in that tank, and just slowly swam in the same circle over and over again. It reminded me that I never really like places that keep animals in captivity.

Upon leaving I had a weird feeling. This was the first time I’d been to an aquarium since all the snorkeling and scuba diving I’ve done in the past year. The last time I saw sea creatures they were freely swimming around in their natural environment. Seeing them in an aquarium felt anticlimactic, and a little wrong. Nothing against the aquarium, if you like them it’s a nice one, it just felt strange being inside walls with these beautiful creatures.

After the aquarium we just wandered through the shopping center of Osaka – a rainy day was the perfect time for one of those arcade shopping streets – and had a delicious sushi lunch. For some reason I hadn’t had nearly as much sushi as I thought I would when I came to Japan – we kept coming across noodle or donburi places instead – and since it’s one of my favorite foods I was seriously craving it, so even a simple sushi bar lunch was a big highlight for me.

It was a quick day in Osaka so I can’t say I got a great feel for the city as a whole. It seemed like another metropolis with similarities to Tokyo and Kyoto, but more toned down. I’ve heard mixed reviews so I’ll leave my final analysis ambiguous.

Do I Like Kyoto?

Everyone loves Kyoto. When I said I was coming to Japan so many people told me to just make sure I go to Kyoto, and Matt had heard the same. This earned it top billing on our mental list of places we would like to get to, and why we tried so hard to find somewhere to stay there after Tokyo and Lake Yamanaka and eventually just went for it from Hiroshima. So when we finally made it there imagine our surprise when both of us had an immediate negative reaction.

It’s freaking crowded. Tokyo is busy, but Kyoto felt congested. From the packed train station to the pedestrian-filled streets it was a game of dodge the people, not a fun task with our backpacks on. Then the ease of finding a good manga cafe that we had just experienced in Hiroshima didn’t exist in Kyoto, and after choosing one because we didn’t want to go back on those streets with our bags it took half an hour to even arrange where to store them until we checked in for our 12 hours at 9 pm. We ended up having to rent a karaoke room for them. The next day we left them in a hotel lobby that took pity on us, and the next in a locker at the train station.

We tried to regain our positivity as we ventured out to see the city. We had three days in Kyoto and allocated one each to our top priorities: 1) see the city center and Geisha district Gion; 2) temple hop; 3) walk through the bamboo forest.

As we wandered through the city center that first afternoon my impression of Kyoto was like a yo-yo, constantly fluctuating between liking the city and finding it overrated. We walked and shopped in the covered arcade, which I’ve now learned is the center of every city in Japan. They love these things. They are great on a rainy day, but they’re also just lined with stores, and when you’re traveling on a budget shopping can only entertain for so long. The one in Kyoto had a temple right off the main street, which was an interesting contrast to the commercialism surrounding it.

On our way to Gion we encountered a canal lined with full blossom sakura trees, which made for a lovely stroll one way, and then we had an equally lovely stroll back next to the big river, where Kyotans line the banks and enjoy a beverage as the daylight fades to dark (and well into dark too). Gion was again pretty to walk through at first, an area seemingly stuck in an age long ago, but then we realized it was just upscale restaurants. When we did return for dinner one night we had delicious shabu shabu (thank you Matt for the amazing early birthday dinner) and did actually catch a glimpse of a real Geisha, so in the end Gion came out on the positive side.

Temple day was fantastic and exhausting. We started big: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. It’s gorgeous. The gold leaf-covered building reflecting in the pond beneath it is a site to see, that is if you can see through all the people. Just like the rest of Kyoto, it was a tainted experience; to get a view of the pavilion required a lot of patience (or an aggressive move) to get to the front of a mass of tourists who only saw it through their electronic device screens. Have I become jaded? Maybe. I know at this point I like the less traveled locations, so when tourists overrun a place I can be easily peeved, and since Matt is the same way we probably just encouraged each other. I took a deep breath and refocused on the temple. That’s the reason we were there, and it was beautiful.

We moved on to Ryoan-ji, known for its rock garden, and enjoyed the serenity of the landscape. The garden was nice, but it was the lake and the plants surrounding it that captured our attention. Next up was Ninna-ji, a large complex that took way more time than expected but was a great display of the variety of temple architecture. We followed a raised wooden path through large and small pavilions within a sandscape on one side and a lush pond on the other, culminating in a shrine. We craned our necks up to marvel at the five-tiered pagoda. We peeked through a gate at the colorfully painted Kyusho-myojin. And we quickly walked past the other buildings once we realized we were starving. The only problem with these temples is part of the reason they’re so wonderful to explore: they’re far from the center of town.

Once satiated we had time for one more shrine in a different part of town, Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main draw of this shrine is the thousands of torii that line a path leading up and around Inari mountain. The seemingly infinite line of orange gates are stunning, and instead of letting the crowds get to us this time we turned the walk into a game of “try to get a picture alone before anyone else shows up.” We were actually pretty successful. It was a fun end to the day.

Our last day in Kyoto it rained. Bummer. Our plan had been to go to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an outdoor day, and for a minute we hesitated, considering indoor options. But when the rain seemed to lighten we decided to go for it. The rain was not lighter where the forest was, it was in fact more constant, but there was no turning back. What started as a wet depressing walk turned into an awesome sight. Bamboo towered up above us on either side, thousands of stalks deep. It was like a fantasy land, and I didn’t care that I was soaked. It’s not like I could get any wetter. So I slowed down and took it all in, my final view of Kyoto’s allure.

In the end, Kyoto is a wonderful place. While the city itself may have overwhelmed at times, it has an undeniable beauty and importance in Japanese history. If I went back, which I think I should at some point, I would stay on the fringes of the center of town, but not quite outside it. Our last two nights we stayed in a hostel (which luckily had opened early for the busy season, which is why we were able to get a reservation and were among its first guests) outside the main part of the city and we felt stranded at night out there. I feel like Goldilocks who never found the perfect in between. Maybe next time Kyoto.

Hiroshima

I was pleasantly surprised by Hiroshima. We went to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, as most everyone who visits Japan does, but ended up really liking the city for more than just the museum.

To be honest, the museum was a bit of a let down. It’s hard to say that and I might get some criticism for it, but after hearing that I had to go to Hiroshima just for this I suppose I expected a bit too much. Maybe it’s because some exhibits were closed and the A-bomb dome was hidden under scaffolding for research purposes. It is of course necessary to recognize this horrific event, and seeing the exhibits about the day the bomb exploded and the effects it had was hard but important. But in the end I appreciated the Peace Memorial Park more, with its symbols of peace, banners of stories from people who experienced it, and messages of hope that we as humanity can learn from this and never repeat such an act of mass destruction. It was perhaps less obvious than the scorched clothing we’d seen inside, but that’s what I liked about it. Regardless, together, they were a well-done tribute to what happened that day decades ago.

The museum was our first activity of the day, which happened to be Matt’s birthday. What a way to celebrate. So we took some time to process, sitting in a park under the gorgeous cherry blossoms with a view of the castle, silently contemplating, until we fell asleep.

We woke up refreshed (and slightly less hungover). We walked over to the castle and ventured inside. Japan is scattered with beautiful castles from its history like the one at Hiroshima. It’s an elegant structure of traditional wood construction on a strong stone base for protection. Inside the first floor was a nice exhibit on the history of the building and a place to try on a samurai outfit – a must for the birthday boy – but as we climbed higher the exhibits were less thought out. One floor was dedicated to toilets samurai used. The main draw was the top floor where we could see out over all of Hiroshima.

The rest of our time in Hiroshima was about experiencing the city by wandering. We walked a lot in this city, as we tend to do everywhere, but found it especially pleasant here. Hiroshima is a manageable size, easily explored on foot, and while it is modern it still has charm. Its rivers and streetcars aided this impression. This was also perhaps the best cherry blossoms we saw; they lined the rivers and in front of the castle, adding a pretty pink hue to all the views.

We learned that residents of Hiroshima are huge baseball fans. There was a game that day so the city was flooded with people in red jerseys. Matt really wanted one but apparently they aren’t sold anywhere in the city. Where do people get jerseys? We were baffled; he was sad.

We also learned that residents of Hiroshima are very friendly. We were there on a Saturday night, and after a delicious Japanese BBQ dinner went exploring in the nightlife neighborhood. When it struck midnight Matt turned another year older, so I shared this information with some guys in a bar that had karaoke and they treated him to an off-key but endearing rendition of Happy Birthday, then took us out to a club. Hence the rough next day.

The day we left Hiroshima we were excited to get Kyoto but a little sad to leave. It had exceeded our expectations, and encouraged our love of Japan. But it was time to move on to Kyoto. This time we had a bus booked, but still no accommodation. On to the next manga cafe search.

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.

Time for South India: Mumbai

I’m going to breeze over Agra and our return to New Delhi. Basically after the Taj we got back to Delhi as fast as possible. Agra is another busy North Indian city that we’d been told wasn’t worth spending much time in, so taking into consideration our exhaustion from the past week and Kwaz’s lingering illness we decided to just get the hell out of there. It was the right move. We enjoyed a relaxing night at the wonderfully modern Madpackers Hostel – we ordered in Lebanese food, I did some “work,” and Kwaz got a ton of sleep to finally get healthy – before our flight down to Mumbai the next morning.

In the two weeks Kwaz and I traveled India together we had inadvertently split them down the middle: one week North, one week South. Mumbai was the beginning of our South India chapter, and we had high hopes for how this week would go.

Mumbai was a breath of fresh air. It revived and reinvigorated us.

Starting with our lovely AirIndia flight, complete with Bollywood movie and veg or non-veg food options, and the well-signed airport, to the very kind man who helped us find the AirBnb apartment we would be staying in, even calling the owner himself to get accurate directions and giving us his number in case we needed anything, things were looking up.

We sprung for an AirBnb in the chic Bandra West neighborhood. We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the oceanside walk past the apartment complexes where all the rich and famous live – Mumbai’s Hollywood Hills – and tasting local street snacks of pani puri. We were shocked to get 6 per order for just 45 Rs, and even more shocked when we expressed how we didn’t realize we got so many and we should have split an order and they actually tried to give us our money back. People were so kind in Mumbai! After a bottle of wine in the apartment and a couple of hours in a dive bar that felt like home, Tito’s Garage, we were declaring our love for South India.

Our only full day in Mumabi was dedicated to one thing: Elephanta. Elephanta to Kwaz was like the Taj Mahal to me. This is the number one thing that she wanted to see on this trip and after going there I totally get why.

But first, we had breakfast at a bagel place. BAGELS. Sure they were no Jersey bagels but still, a little taste of home. Especially since we got one with avocado on it. Then we took an UBER to the ferry terminal. Were we really in India? The terminal was in the colonial part of town so the surrounding architecture was a mixture of European styles. The whole morning was a jarring difference from the India we had seen in the previous week.

An hour boat ride – always an enjoyable way to travel – and a 30 minute uphill climb brought us to the main cave on Elephanta Island. Standing in front of the row of pillars carved into a rock face imbued me with a sense of anticipation. “There’s something amazing through there.” And there was.

Art and Architecture of India came to life around me. We entered a hall of columns, rows of them carved into the cave as if they were holding up the whole mountain above us. Off to the right was the shrine for the linga, with its protectors carved into the walls around it. Images from class came rushing back to me and I smiled in the realization that I was actually there, seeing this in person. All around the cave were reliefs depicting Hindu scenes, most revolving around Shiva, and even though they were in various states of ruin I could still see the immense detail and care that went into creating them. We read the little guide Kwaz picked up and played “find the detail” with each one. At the center of it all was the impressive and emotive sculpture of the three heads of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. We stared at it for a long time, and no matter where we were in the cave, my eyes kept going back to this amazing piece. It commanded attention in its scale but allowed contemplation in its expression.

We explored the secondary caves but felt like we’d already seen everything we came for in the main one. Elephanta was the experience that was missing from the Taj Mahal; actually being there was a level above seeing the pictures. It was like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu – places that I knew would be stunning but the reality of walking around far exceeded the expectation. And for Kwaz, it was a life dream come true. I felt honored to be there with her for such an emotional moment, and seeing her reaction to this place only made me appreciate it even more.

The return ferry dropped us off somewhere else in Mumbai. It smelled rank of fish and with barely any taxis in sight we totally overpaid just to get out of there. The ride back to our area was a surprise, and fascinating in its own way; it was the other Mumbai. We drove through slums like I’ve never seen before. I felt almost guilty looking out the windows of the taxi, knowing this was a part of the city I wouldn’t have purposefully gone to but oddly happy (happy isn’t the right word, but I don’t know if I could ever find a right one) to have accidentally passed through it. Structures that can only be described as shacks were piled one on top of the other, with dirt paths weaving into and through them, hovering over the edge of a river or pushed up to the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare. People were everywhere, and so was garbage. It was overload in every way, literal and sensory.

To decompress from the day, the overwhelming traffic, and the intensity of what we just saw, we went to endless sangria happy hour before our flight. It was a quick trip to Mumbai but one that left us wanting more. We agreed that the next trip to India we would fly directly to Mumbai and move South from there.

The Taj Mahal

The other day Kwaz asked me why I wanted to come to India. My answer: the Taj Mahal.

The Taj was one of the pillars that outlined my route. I learned about it in multiple classes – I did take Art and Architecture of India in college – and was at one point able to describe its layout so well that my professor thought I’d been there. So I didn’t mind at all the 5 am wake up to try to beat the crowd and the heat (a successful strategy), I was finally going to see the Taj Mahal.

It looked exactly like it did in the slides I studied. This was the cause of both my amazement and my disappointment.

The Taj Mahal is perfect. It is pristine, gorgeous, impressive. It is every positive adjective you’ve ever heard people say about it. The first glimpse of it through the entry gate’s tall arch takes your breath away, and seeing the full expanse of the garden procession to the hovering building just increases the sense of awe.

It was the same garden that I had described so well, with its four rivers leading to the central fountain and its perfectly manicured lawn and bushes. Maybe that’s why I expected so much from it and was sad to feel so little. The procession leading to the Taj was supposed to feel like an honor to walk up with the building growing ever larger, but I just felt like it was any other walk. The building looked impressive but that was apparent from the start. The walk was more focused on platforms from which the best pictures could be taken. I yearned to know what it looked like with the original trees and fruit plants obscuring the view, causing the white bulbous domes to appear floating above Paradise.

Once I reached the Taj Mahal itself there was no way to stop staring at it. Every stone, every inlay, every detail, and every angle of the building commanded my attention. I ran my hands over perfectly carved flowers in vases, wondering how it was possible to create such a delicate image in such a hard material. I slowly walked the circle around Mumtaz Mahal’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs, my eyes scanning from the woven stone circle around them all the way up the ceiling. The amount of detail was astounding. When I made it back outside it lightly rained, a strange occurrence considering the bright blue sky, which made the stone plinth reflective (and slippery). I took my time walking back around from the river side to the garden, taking in the four corner towers, the side buildings (both beautiful in their own right), and the garden approach from this side. It is an amazing complex. It is Paradise on Earth, as intended.

After we finished our tour – I recommend the audio guide, it was informative but not long-winded – I sat on a bench to the side of the center fountain, staring at the Taj. It deserves nothing less than quiet contemplation, this perfect compilation of art and architecture.

After we left the Taj I expected to feel elated. I had just seen the one thing I wanted to see most in India. Something held me back. The Taj was as expected, and nothing more. There was a lack of an emotional, experiential connection. I remembered Angkor Wat and the feeling I had there, overwhelmed by the greatness that just being in the presence of the structures made me feel. The Taj is beautiful, but it didn’t have the same effect. I suppose that will happen sometimes. I wonder if it’s because I’ve seen its image so many times or seen so many amazing things in the past almost 9 months. Regardless of my slight disappointment, I still think the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece and a must-see, and I am thrilled I made it there.

Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.