When in Rome (and Pompeii and Florence and Venice and Bergamo)…

I spent the last week in Italy WITH MY MOM. Score. It was the most fun that I have had in quite some time, and I am so happy that I got to share it with her. I did a day-to-day log of what we did, here goes!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: Landed very late (nearly midnight) in Rome, and took a shuttle to the hotel where I met up with mom. Reunion hugs are great. There are bidets. This is not a drill.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015: We spent today really utilizing a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Rome. I usually pass on stuff like that because it’s gimmicky and really pigeon-holes what you do and see in a city, but it was really cool to do it in Rome because I, like everyone else, really wanted to see the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. We ate our first real Italian meal at a restaurant facing the Colosseum, the weather was great, and the pizza was awesome. The Trevi Fountain really stressed us out—there are so many people there (and we were there during of season!!) and there’s a gate around the actual fountain so you can’t get very close. It was still really beautiful to see, and the 10 long minutes we spent there elbowing fellow sassy tourists from all over the world was worth it. We found a restaurant right by our hotel we really liked, with a funny, playful waiter and followed dinner up with gelato. Sleep sleep sleep.

Thursday, November 5, 2015: Today we woke up at the crack of dawn to catch a day-excursion to Pompeii. It was SO. COOL. I realize now, after hours of guided-tour info and seeing it first-hand, that I really did not understand what Pompeii was. There was no lava. Pumice, gas and ash. Crazy. Seeing the plaster-cast bodies on display was so incredible. People were living one moment, and then next they were buried. It was definitely a very tourist-oriented destination—which doesn’t make it less impactful and cool!—but if I were to visit the area again I would roam around Naples and do my own thing.

Friday, November 6, 2015: We decided last minute to use the hop-on-hop-off bus service again because the things that we wanted to do today were en route. We went to Vatican City (the tiniest country in the world, and a country where women can’t vote)! We did not pay to get inside of the museum or the Sistine Chapel—I know, bummer I didn’t get to see those two naked dudes trying to touch fingers on the ceiling—but we still felt pretty fulfilled. Anyone who got a postcard from mom and I will notice it was posted from the Vatican. Pope approved. You’re welcome. Mom found her favorite macaroon shop in Europe, we had the best pizza of our entire trip in a random restaurant while wandering, had a Bulmer’s at an Irish pub, and I stumbled into Lush. How does that always happen? Oops.

Saturday, November 7, 2015: Today we traveled from Rome to Florence. Even the train ride was beautiful. Those rolling hills associated with Tuscany are real, and require no photoshop. When we started to wander around Florence, mom and I knew it was something special. Every street is cute, all the shops and restaurants charming, all the people warm. We spent too long at an outdoor market being harassed (a strong, appropriate word) by vendors to BUY THEIR LEATHER! CONSIDER THEIR KEYCHAINS! LOOK AT THEIR JOURNALS! It was a lot. But affordable and fun too. I bought too much in Italy. It is Florence’s fault. We ate at the most eclectic and beautiful restaurant in existence, found an Irish pub (a pattern), and literally stumbled upon the Basilica—Florence’s main attraction—and marveled for a long, long time. This is the most beautiful and intricate building that I have ever seen. It is beautiful. Seriously.

Sunday, November 8, 2015: We spent the day wandering around the city again. Crossed the famous bridge, found the famous palace (the Pitti Palace, lol) and climbed a mountain (walked up a slightly inclined hill) to the city’s vantage point. Florence is beautiful. We had sundried tomato bruschetta and the best sandwiches ever from a hole in the wall. I took photos of the world’s cutest old man playing an accordion, and we visited the Central Market of Florence. I can’t even formulate words about the market. The adjectives beautiful and colorful and fragrant do it no justice. Dinner was at that eclectic, delicious restaurant again. Are there more adjectives I can use to describe Florence’s deliciousness and beauty?!

Monday, November 9, 2015: Before catching a train to Venice, we had to go back to the market for lunch. We had a cheese sampler, green olive bread, and I bought vacuum sealed sundried tomatoes. No shame. I would have bought the whole market if I brought more than a carry-on. We arrived into a Venice that was socked in by fog, and it did NOT let up. It was already dark, we caught a water-bus (yeah, a water-bus! How cool!) to our hotel, and wandered out to find dinner. Venice is notorious for being pricier and for restaurants having oddly high cover charges (paying a fee for eat person seated in your party). We found this to be very true. But when in Venice, right? Kinda?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015: Venice is a labyrinth. Every alleyway is a street and every street is a canal and every canal connects tiny islands that are all very close together to form Venice, the labyrinth. It was charming. And cold. And foggy. And there was a Lush. We went on a boat tour, but the fog was so bad we could hardly see anything! Our tour guide was great, though, and provided us with so much information about all of the things that were just out of sight. I contemplated buying mittens. I tried a calzone (you’re welcome, Ben Wyatt). Saint Mark’s Square had all these weird, stacked tables everywhere that we didn’t understand (and later found out are walkways for when the Square is flooded! Venice is sinking, and everyone is doomed). It was our last night in Italy together. We overpaid for bloody mary’s and went to sleep early.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015: I had to be on a shuttle to the airport at 6 in the morning. When it’s that early, and the sun hasn’t even come out to play yet, goodbyes are fuzzy. (It’s okay, though, because I come home in less than a month for the holidays.) I get to the airport and wait in the terminal, only to have our flight cancelled after the very last minute possible. Great. The ticket booth informs me the next flight to Madrid is tomorrow morning from Milan. I’m in Venice. Where’s Milan? How do I get there? Tomorrow? Wtf? So I take a bus to a train to another train to Bergamo, a town right outside of Milan. A nice town that I never would have visited if this hadn’t happened. I get a room at a Best Western and relax. I wander around, find delicious pizza, and fall asleep early, because my flight is to be at 6:45 the next morning. Who invented early flights? Cruel, cruel people.

Thursday, November 12, 2015: I wake up at an ungodly hour, find a (free) shuttle to the airport, and check in. No one previously told me I was flying standby, so my anxiety is through the roof as I wait in line to (maybe) board the plane at my gate. At the very last moment, I am told I got the one spare seat on the plane, and I get to board. The relief was thoroughly visible. Hola, Madrid!

I am excited to come home to recharge for a little while over the holidays. I look forward to seeing everyone and relaxing and cooking and all that! See you guys soon!

Advertisements

Living in Madrid | Part 1

I have been living in Madrid for over a month now and have yet to blog about…anything, really! Like how I ended up here, what I am doing here, and all the cool stuff that I have done and seen. Here goes!

I decided that I wanted to be an au pair less than a month before I knew I was moving to Europe. One of my friends turned me on to aupairworld.com and I decided to make a profile during my off time on a Monday night at camp. I woke up the next morning with a lot of messages from potential au pair families, one of which I really liked the looks of. We exchanged emails and a Skype interview date was set up for Thursday night. The interview went amazing, and I was offered the job on the spot. It all happened so quickly it seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t. It is even more amazing now that I am living here and working with them. I work as an English aid au pair. My job is spend a few hours each day with the three daughters in the family and talk, play, and hang out in English. It really doesn’t even feel like a job. In my spare time during the week, I get to explore Madrid and surrounding areas, and on weekends I can venture out even further into the country.

In Madrid:

Puerta del Sol: This is where you have to start when you first visit this city. It is the absolute center, literally—in the Plaza there is a plaque on the ground that marks kilmetre 0. This area is always full of life, and a bunch of the city’s must-see sites are within walking distance.

Plaza Mayor: This is the first thing that I saw when I first started exploring Madrid, and that is because it is so close to Puerta del Sol. It is beautiful (though the first time I saw it, one of the sides was under construction). You can visit one of the several restaurants inside the plaza, or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view.

Mercado de San Miguel: This very popular market is within walking distance from Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor. When I say very popular, I mean very popular. Among tourists, mostly. It has a very cool set up that plenty of gourmet grocery stores have tried to mimic in the States: a host of several different kiosks with a range of great stuff from fresh produce to fresh meat to coffee to wine to cheese. When I went there, every square inch of the place was being inhabited by a human body. My final verdict: cool in theory, overrated in reality. There is a market very close to the Tribunal metro stop called Mercado de San Delfonso that is very, very similar but MUCH less crowded. You can get a seat inside without elbowing an old guy because he’s looking at the same table.

Royal Palace: I actually stumbled upon this for the first time without knowing what it was. I was in search of the Almudena Cathedral, which is right next to the palace. They are both beautiful. They are right next to the Plaza de Oriente, which was adorable. That’s the best word I can use to describe it. A stroll through that area will really give you a feel for Madrid.

Templo de Debod: This is probably my favorite attraction in Madrid. It has such a cool backstory! It is an ancient Egyptian temple! The Egyptian government (paired with UNESCO) realized that they needed to move the temple from its original location in the 1960’s due to a breaking dam, and decided to GIFT the entire temple to the Spanish government. They brought the entire temple over stone by stone and reassembled it in Madrid near-ish to the Royal Palace. How cool is that?! It’s free to visit (though impossible to take a photo of without getting a hundred tourists in the shot), and has a park attached to it that locals and foreigners frequent. The view of the city from this area is spectacular. I loved the whole experience!

Gran Via: One of the most notable and popular streets in Madrid. It’s here that you can do all of your shopping, if that is what you’re into. I only really liked it because it connects to the Chueca area of Madrid.

Chueca: The gayborhood of Madrid! Not only are the bars and restaurants colorful and alive on the weekends, this is also a fun neighborhood to pop in and out of cute little local shops. Very gay. Very hipster. I loved it. There are a lot of Senegalese shopkeepers in this area for some reason. I made a lot of friends the day I walked around speaking Wolof to them. I love this neighborhood. It is a must for anyone visiting.

Paseo del Prado: This street is REALLY pretty. It is a two way separated by what is basically a long, narrow park. It is spectacular. And to the east of this street, you can find the building where the stock market operates (snooze, I know, but the building is beautiful), Museo del Prado, and the Botanical Gardens.

Real Jardin Botanico (Botanical Gardens): This was so cute. With a student discount it was (I think?) 3 euro for an all-day pass. The whole garden is pretty huge, and separated into several different small gardens that are either populated by flowers or vegetables or herbs or trees from all over the world. There was literally no one else in the entire place that was my age. Everyone was over the age of 75 and strolling through those gardens without a care in the world. I am pretty used to that, though. Most of the things I like to do and see while traveling are the same things that old people like to do and see. Go figure!

Retiro Park: I would call this a tiny, Spanish Central Park. It is beautiful. Like, absolutely amazing. There are geese and flowers and accordion players and fountains and anything else you could want from a park. It’s a must. Sitting in this park at an outdoor café with a smoothie and a book in the fall. How much nicer can a day get?

Plaza de Cibeles: I was instructed by my host mother that this plaza was the most beautiful plaza in all of Madrid. Which is saying a lot, because there are hundreds of them in this city alone. So I was intrigued. And it lived up to expectations, undoubtedly. Cibeles fountain in right in the middle of the plaza, which has a Greek goddess and a chariot and lions and a bunch of other powerful imagery kind of stuff. I thought it was cool to learn that that fountain actually used to be in a different spot in Madrid, and was used as an actual source of water until the 19th century! The plaza itself has a bunch of beautiful buildings, including my personal favorite, Madrid’s City Hall. The first time I saw this building, the “Refugees Welcome” sign hanging from the top of the building took me by surprised. It was in that moment, looking at that beautiful building, I knew I would adore Spain.

El Rastro: The city’s largest market! It is a weekly pop-up market near the Puerta de Toledo metro stop. It happens every Sunday from 9 to 3 and has quite the set-up. It is a huge flea market with everything from antiques to books to really cool clothes to pots and pans. And a million people—every week. I loved it. I bought nothing (because I have no room to expand my list of possessions whilst a nomad), but I still had a great time walking around and watching everyone else haggle and laugh and roam.

“Tras Julia”, on one side of the building for Escuela Superior de Canto: This is probably my favorite thing that I have found while discovering the city. It is a life-size statue of a woman found in the Malasana district of Madrid. She is a myth, a legend. She is said to represent a woman from the eighteenth century that cross-dressed in order to get into the university (because back then, only men were allowed to attend). How cool is that? And how cool is it that that feat is commemorated in a statue? I’ll answer for you. It is SUPER cool.

Outside of Madrid:

Monasterio del Escorial: An hour’s train ride out of Marid, the town of Escorial is adorable. I only spent a few hours here, but I think that was enough to get a feel for the town. The Monasterio itself was very cool. You can pay to walk around inside of the building and get a tour for just a few euro more! If you are into that sort of thing, I say it is worth it. There is a tomb room where all of the past kings’ bodies are preserved (not that you can see the bodies, but seeing the room is cool!). The architecture of the building itself is very cool, and there is park just off of the grounds that is silent and smelled like autumn. It was a very interesting and pretty day trip!!

Toledo: This is my most recent trip as of posting this blog. Toledo is a very well-known, STUNNING town outside of Madrid. About 70km outside, to be exact. I visited the town on what was probably one of the last sunny, decently warm days of the year here in Spain. I just knew when I woke up that I needed to cease the fact it wasn’t freezing. Toledo is great. It’s small and surrounded by a river. I took the train for 10 euro and got there in a half hour. My host family had told me that it was the perfect place to just wander around and take pictures, so I did just that. The whole town in a UNESCO Heritage Site; it is one of the only places in Spain where Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures co-existed peacefully. It was really cool to walk through the town and see a plaque on the ground reading “Jewish Quarter,” and looking up to see a synagogue, and then walking a few more minutes and ending up at the cathedral. All of the streets of the town are narrow and winding—it felt like a really beautiful, stressless maze. There’s also a zipline you can do across the river for like 5 euro! SO FUN. When you initially get off the train, you are about a 15 minute walk from the city in one direction, and a 15 minute walk from the vista point in the other direction. I think the vista point was my favorite part. You could see the whole town—the cathedral, the synagogue, the monastery, the town hall, EVERYTHING—and it was spectacular to watch the sun set from this vantage point. Great day trip. Amazing day trip.

That’s the gist of what I’ve been doing in my spare time here! I’ve really slowed down my lifestyle to try and get my leg all healed up, but nothing can really stop me from exploring the place that I am in! Oops. I am taking it easy though, I promise. I hope you all are doing great! See you soon!

PS I LOVE YOU IRELAND: A Check Off the Mini Bucket List

I kind of think the idea of bucket lists are simultaneously very overrated and very cool. I think if you want to do or see something, you shouldn’t just toss it onto a list and hope that by the end of your life the universe will align just perfectly to allow you to fulfill that dream. Contrary, I think that if you want something, you should set out to make it happen. I believe in short-term bucket lists. Like, with five year expiration dates. That’s what I am living by right now. And it’s working pretty well, honestly!

Ireland was one of two things on this cycle’s bucket list. (Along with seeing the Northern Lights!) So when the opportunity arose for me to visit for a week, I literally did not even blink before buying a Ryanair flight to Dublin. I planned my whole trip about three days before I left, including public transport and hostels, and it went almost exactly according to plan! Also, every single day that I was there, the weather was amazing. Chilly, but the sun was out the whole time and there was no rain. I realize that this is essentially unheard of, so I feel very lucky to have visited all my dream places with clear views and a light sweater. Here goes!

Saturday, September 26, 2015: Ryanair rocks. If any of you have no idea what Ryanair is, get with the times!! It’s a true budget airline, bouncing all around Europe (and even to Morocco!). Flights can be anywhere from $5 to $50, and there are constantly sales going on on their website. Seriously, Any Americans reading this that really want to travel around Europe but fear that bouncing around the continent is going to be a huge money suck, this is one of the most important tricks I know!!! So, I hopped on a flight from Madrid to Dublin (around $30 bought pretty short notice). Immediately upon arrival to Dublin, I took a direct bus into the city center, and proceeded to walk to my friend’s house. It was quite a ways, but I saw a lot of Dublin in the process! His sister took me and some of her American friends that were visiting on a walking tour of the city later that day, complete with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, O’Connell Street, Christ Church, Bono’s Recording Studio, Trinity College and a bunch more. The Walsh Family is fun fact royalty. I learned more about Dublin in that 2 hour tour than I did about Madrid the first week I lived here! That night I went to a party with Ciaran and passed out at his house at the wee hour of 4am.

Sunday, September 27, 2015: After pushing back my original departure time due to a super fun hangover, I set out for Belfast at about noon. I had intended to have a few hours in Belfast to walk around, see City Hall and the Peace Wall and all that, but I ended up only having about an hour, and spent it finding lunch and an ATM because Northern Ireland is not part of Ireland, it is part of the UK, and therefore uses the Pound instead of the Euro(!!!). I wanted to get to the train station (which was about a 30 minute walk across town from the bus stop where I was dropped off) with a few minutes to spare because this was one of the only parts of my trip I could not book in advance. It turned out to be very easy to both buy the train ticket and find the right train to take, and I made it to Coleraine no problem. From Coleraine, I had to take a bus to Giant’s Causeway (I know, so complicated!). I BARELY caught the last bus out of the day. I had no cash (my bank had frozen my card earlier that day, yaaaay), so after looking really stressed and asking if he wanted 3 Euro and a Madrid transportation pass, the bus driver let me on for free. I took the bus straight to Giant’s Causeway (instead of the city closest to the Causeway) because the hostel that I had booked was literally a 3 minute walk from the entrance to the park. Finn McCool’s B&B was the BEST hostel that I stayed at this week. For one, it’s off season and it was a week night, so NOBODY ELSE was there. Two, it was really decently priced (less than $20), and they had cheap dinner and free breakfast. The view was INCREDIBLE. The wifi was great. I loved it. Seriously. I slept like a baby.

Monday, September 28, 2015: The Giant’s Causeway was magnificent. Not in the diluted, “it was super cool for an hour!” kind of way. Magnificence. I loved it. Pro-tip: you can visit the Causeway for free. That’s not a readily available fact on their website or at the visitor’s center, but it’s true. I chose to pay for a ticket (if bought in advance, like $7) because I wanted to carry the audio guide around with me and teach me about every single inch of the premises and spare no details. Since my hostel was a four second walk from the entrance to the park, I headed over at 8:45 and patiently waited for the doors to open. I was the first guest of the day! I had read somewhere (or cooked it up in that brilliant brain of mine, I literally do not remember which) that it would be best to get there right at the beginning of the day because you don’t have to share your view of the causeway with almost anyone, and getting pictures devoid of 50 tourists is a lot easier. And that rang so, so true. Having the park almost all to myself made it so much more interesting and pleasant and fun for me. The Causeway is a mindfuck. Even with the audio guide explaining all the geological reasoning behind its existence, I still felt like I was walking around with a huge sign above my head reading: “?!!!???!?” I loved it. I will go back again. I loved every inch of it. I took the free bus into the closest town, got authentic traditional fish and chips, and made my way back to the Causeway for one last look. The rest of the day is uninteresting, trains and buses and trains to get back to Dublin and to the hostel I was staying at. An exhausted, happy blur.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015: This was supposed to be the day that I visited Kilkenny. I had booked a bus ticket in advance and everything! I got to the bus stop early. No bus came for a very long time. I looked back to my ticket and started to realize that the bus ride (to and from) would accumulate to more travel time than time spent in Kilkenny itself…And the bus still didn’t come. It was 30 minutes after I was supposed to have departed and still no sign. When a bus finally arrived, it wasn’t even the right one! At that point, I shook hands with fate and said okay then, in Dublin I shall stay today. Ciaran mentioned I should visit Howth, a tiny little town on the outskirts of Dublin. I took the DART (much like the BART, for all my central California friends!) and spent a couple hours walking around there and soaking in the smell of fish in a harbor. It was quaint and quiet and nice. I took the train back to Dublin and wandered around the Temple Bar area for quite some time. I bought a Claddagh ring. Met Ciaran for lunch. Wandered back to my hostel for a nap. And then met a friend of mine that is an au pair in Dublin right now for dinner and drinks!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015: Anyone who knows me at all knows how much I have always loved the Cliffs of Moher. Coming to Ireland for me meant two things: frolicking through an open field with my bae, and visiting the Cliffs. Now, the former could not happen because I am currently as agile and nimble as a 96 year old man with arthritis (next time for sure!). But the latter had to happen. The only tourist-trap bus tour I would EVER take without my mother is the one from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher. For a student (wink wink), it is only about $40. We left at 7am. I had a great tour guide named Mike. The whole day was full of fun facts about Ireland. We stopped at Obama Plaza (yes, it’s a real place in the middle of nowhere in Ireland), River Shannon, The Burren and a bunch of other really beautiful spots apart from the Cliffs. The Cliffs themselves were unbelievable. The first half, the half that everyone and their mother takes photos of, has a small wall gating it off and making it safe for people of all ages to visit. The other half, though, is a free for all. No gates. No guard rail. You can go right up to the edge of the cliffs and look down. It is an adrenaline rush (and a heart attack!). I loved it. Everything was so green and unmarred and perfect. It was as captivating in real life as it was in photos. The perfect way to spend my last full day in Ireland. That night I met Ciaran for drinks. $2 pints are a godsend.

I flew out of Ireland the next morning. It feels like I hardly saw any of the country at all. And that’s okay, because as of right now, the plan is to find an au pair job in Dublin starting in January! So when I go back I will have plenty of time to see the rest of the country and bother Ciaran more. Score.

Housekeeping: I realize I have yet to blog about Madrid at all… I have been logging a bunch of stuff, I am just waiting to post a chunk of it all together! Soon, I promise. Also, I have an address if anyone would like to send me a letter or anything at all 😉 Let me know! I will be home for about a month for Christmas and New Years and all that! But from the looks of it I won’t be back in the states after that for quiiiiiiite some time… Exciting stuff happening in the next year. Yay yay yay!! I hope you all are doing amazing. Thank you for keeping up on my blogs and checking in on me and all that. I can’t wait to see all of you in a couple months!

Taiwan, Paris and Spain: Getting Around with Crutches and a Limp

Hello again!

I’ve been all over the place for the last couple weeks, so I’ve tried to do day-to-day logging as best I can.

Taiwan:

Monday, August 31, 2015: Hindsight is 20-20, right? We probably shouldn’t have gone to bed drunk at 2 in the morning knowing good and well we had to be at the airport this morning at 5. But oh well, that drag show in Kota Kinabalu gave me life! We slept the whole flight back to Taiwan and arrived before 10am even rolled around. It needed to be a laxed day. I got a pedicure and met 10 of the gems in my life for a belated birthday dinner for me. I tried cider ale for the first time without hating it. We had fancy cocktails and Ciaran, a very Irish Irishman, tried an Irish car bomb for the first time. It was a great day!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015: Ciaran, Theresa and I woke up late and eventually made our way to the train station. We took a three hour train down to the southern Taiwan city of Taitung with the intention of catching the next ferry out to either Green or Orchid island. Instead, we were greeted with ferry tickets with much higher prices than we had found online, and no tickets until tomorrow morning. We got on a bus to a tiny little town called Dulan and showed up at a hostel that we’d found on hostel world. This hostel is SO COOL. It is called the Wa Ga Li Gong Yoga studio—we slept on thin mattresses on the floor of said yoga studio—and the people that work here are awesome. Two doors down is a little restaurant with a retired man from India who has quite literally been everywhere and done everything running it. It’s run home style—only one dish served at each meal with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options—and has organic fresh pressed apple juice. Sometimes, like in the moment that we were eating this meal while the owner chatted with us about why San Francisco is his favorite “white world” city and how Ciaran may quite literally die from the heat in India, we will lock eyes and give each other the look. The look says “how did we get here? What are we doing?” and we chuckle and revel in the spontaneity of our choices and take another sip of Taiwanese organic apple juice. After dinner we were intent on walking to the beach. We followed the directions given to us exactly, and were very surprised when we finally got to the ocean and it was a rock beach instead of sand. We sat on huge rocks, spied on an old couple next to us who MacGyver’ed it with a small fire and food, and drank the smuggled, tiny flask of Fireball that Theresa had brought from the states. And then Ciaran was attacked by large rocks when he tried to dip in the ocean and we had to leave due to emotional scarring.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015: We hopped on a bus to the harbor nearby. The bus driver didn’t really understand where we were asking to go, and he ended up letting us off pretty far away. We flagged down a van and hitchhiked the rest of the way to the harbor! We were bound and determined to get to Green Island no matter what it took. When we finally got there, we haggled with several different scooter rental companies to no avail, and ended up just renting the 2 cheapest ones available. We circled the island, saw some truly breathtaking sites (even a temple in an underground cave!) and had dinner at a restaurant called Good Mr. Hot Dogs. Yes. We ended up at the island’s tourism center, stripped down to our bathing suits and got into the ocean right as the sun was setting. It was very majestic. After dinner we had the intentions of sneaking onto a camp site and sleeping there with nothing but our hammocks and a speaker, but then I got into a minor scooter accident and had to be whisked away to the island’s tiny hospital in the back of an ambulance. Before anyone freaks out, I’m fine! Really. And it is truly all thanks to the great people on Green Island, and ESPECIALLY thanks to Ciaran and Theresa. Baes for life. Thank you so much. So, so much.

Thursday, September 3, 2015: Though I am doing pretty well, it is very hard for me to walk. So I couldn’t do much else on the island today! But my great friends brought me food and carried my bags and held my hands and just rocked in general. We left Green Island this afternoon and ended up back at the hostel we stayed at a couple nights ago. I’ve spent the evening in the common area, French music playing quietly, just chilling. Granted, that’s really all I can do right now, this feels nice.

Friday, September 4, 2015: We woke up very very early, spent most of the day traveling back to Taipei, and then Theresa and I parted ways. I relaxed most of the day after going to the hospital for a final check to make sure nothing was broken or dislocated or torn. Ciaran came back to Taipei and then left Taiwan that night. The queen of my LIFE, Doreen, delivered dinner to me in the hostel I was staying in, went and bought me more medicine so that I wouldn’t run out before even leaving Asia, and booked a trip to Europe this winter!!! It’s people like this that fill my life with such gratitude. Absolute queen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015: Saturday was all traveling. Literally all travel. The silver lining to being on crutches and walking like a strolling snail is that I get a wheelchair and special treatment in airports. Upon booking these flights, I anticipated the biggest inconvenience I was going to face was the possibility I was going to be sucked into a worm hole—I flew Malaysia Airlines. But lo and behold, sitting in an overbooked transcontinental flight for 13 hours with a swollen leg and contused chest is what I got. By hour 8 I was really hoping for that wormhole. But I made it! And every single person along the way—every flight attendant, airport staff member, random person who offered to carry my bags, shuttle driver, everyone!—made my trip as smooth as it could have possibly gone. And I didn’t have to wait in a single line.

France:

Sunday, September 6, 2015: I arrived in Paris at 6am local time. It is SIGNIFICANTLY colder than Asia. I arrived in shorts and a tank top. I could see my breath as I waited for my shuttle. What a change! The hostel I am staying at is pretty much the only part of Paris I have seen yet, but it is great! St. Christopher’s Gare Du Nord Hostel. It’s huge and full of life and drink discount coupons and fast wifi. Welcome to Europe, right? I miss Taiwan. But I am happy to be here! I spent most of the day around the hostel, found a great Kebaberie and cheese and baguettes. What more could I need? This stopover is not going to consist of much, because I am slightly immobile and need rest. But I did go to see the Eiffel Tower tonight! Last year, my mom and I were unable to see it light up, so that was my goal for this time around. We got a bottle of wine and sat shivering as the clock struck midnight and the Tower sparkled.

Monday, September 7, 2015: Again, did not do much of anything today. But, I did get Chipotle to-go (surprise! I do miss something from America) for dinner, and went to the Louvre Pyramid to picnic. Upon arrival I realized I did not have a spoon and fashioned one from the aluminum lid of my takeaway container. It is in this moment I realized I will never have enough class to live in Paris. C’est la vie.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015: We checked out of the hostel late, and I took a bus to Beauvais—a town right outside of Paris where one of the airports is. My lovely, lovely mother helped me book a hotel in the area so that getting to my 9am flight the next morning would not be too much of a hassle. Hotel Balladins was affordable and totally accommodating!! They switched me to a ground-floor room and explained where everything was in the area. I took a (long) leisurely stroll to the grocery store and bought myself dinner and breakfast. I came back to my room and passed out. I don’t think it was even 8pm? Grandpa Harlee was really feeling it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 – Saturday September 12, 2015: I made it to Spain! YAY. My new host father picked me up from the airport and drove me to the house that I will now be living in. I’ve spent the last couple days really letting myself adjust to the time zone and catching up on all the sleep I’ve been lacking in the last few weeks. I have finished more than one book, started Game of Thrones, and had better wifi than anywhere else I have been since leaving America! I have left the house a couple times—I went and explored the little town that I live in a bit—but mostly I have been preparing for my job to start on Monday.

So I’m going to end this clusterf*ck of a blog here, because I am going into Madrid for the first time this afternoon and I want to have a separate blog about this big, beautiful city. I am doing great! This job is going to be so fun and getting to know a city that I never really expected to live in is going to be very cool. I hope you all are doing great too. Talk soon!

Malaysian Borneo + Brunei Darussalam: A Birthday for the Books

I’m going to write this post a little different than my usual posts, because I am not going to have time to write a long winded, reflective post about my time in Malaysian Borneo before I head off on my next adventure. So instead, I am going to document everything as I go!

Monday, August 24, 2015: Ciaran and I left Taipei really early in the morning and landed in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We had had disillusioned ideas of somehow getting into town to rent a car from an obscure dealer, but ended up haggling with the rental car place in the airport and drove off with a nearly new, gas-efficient-as-hell, tiny car that we will be using for a week, each having paid less than $50USD. Score. Straight out of the gates, we left Kota Kinabau in the dust and headed for the Tip of Borneo. Along the way, we stopped for gas ($10 to fill her up, wtf?), stocked up on road trip snacks and drove drove drove. We stopped at a tiny fruit stand at which we could identify maybe 2 of the 10 fruits and confused the bejesus out of the venders when I asked for a single banana in exchange for a photograph of their shop. Most of the afternoon was spent racing the sunset, trying to get to the northernmost tip of Borneo before the sun made her exit. Kudos to Ciaran, because we made it to the Tip in perfect time. A petite old Malaysian woman with perfect English spoke to us for a good twenty minutes about how we should spend the rest of the week, what those mystery fruits were, and how important it was to visit the Tea Plantation (mental note for later!) And here we are! We just so happened to pull up to a little restaurant/eco-hostel called Tampat Do Aman (meaning “a place of peace” in Rungus, the local language) at just the right time. The owner of the place, Howard, took us on a tour of his AWESOME property—we are staying in a longhouse tonight, there’s an indigenous museum and a rice patty and compost toilets and outdoor showers—and we ate amazing Malaysian food for dirt cheap. As I am writing this Ciaran and I are both sitting, writing in the common area of this remote haven, surrounded by a thunder/lightning/rain storm, headed to bed. A place of peace it is.

August 25, 2015: Following the advice of Howard the eco-hostel owner, we got up at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise over a mile-long rice paddy on the property. Keep in mind we are literally a couple degrees from the equator, and the air is quite literally dripping with humidity. AND it had rained the night before. Those ten minutes we were awake were a blur. A beautiful, moist blur. Obviously right back to bed for a few hours. After breakfast, we booked it out of Kudat with the intent of making it to Sandakan as soon as possible. We did make it… It just happened to end up taking most of the day driving across the entire country of Malaysian Borneo. Here are my two main insights about the whole of this country, formulated after many, many hours of being the copilot in a tiny, tiny car: 1) The world hates the idea of palm oil, and yet, a massive, massive amount of deforestation is happening in this country to make way for palm trees that will later be harvested for said oil. Why? It isn’t good for humans or our planet… so, why? And 2) KFC and Pizza Hut really stuck their claim to this country. We have seen an unfathomable amount of those establishments on our road trip, and only one McDonald’s. Is that insightful? Maybe a substitute #2 could be that outside of major cities, the people of this country are fascinated to see Ciaran and I. The people we have come across have all been exceptionally nice and (seem to be) genuinely excited to meet us. After countless hours in the car, we finally arrived in Sandakan a couple hours ago. We are staying in a Habourside Backpacker’s Hostel, and all we have done is wander two doors down for Indian food for dinner. Naan a thing hits the spot like naan! …That is a sign I need sleep.

August 26, 2015: After sleeping quite a lot, we woke up and had a tiny breakfast with a very helpful Malaysian woman who really wanted us to eat her papaya (papaya is always gross, I ate one piece and smiled uncomfortably). We drove to the Sepliok Orangutan Sanctuary, only to found out that we had missed the feeding time for the day, so we sat in the cafeteria for about an hour and waited for the shuttle to our river cruise to pick us up. We’ve come to agree that Malaysian fried noodles are a godsend. We have them whenever possible, literally. The shuttle ride to the Kinabatangan River took 2 hours, after stopping along the way for snacks and alcohol (sorry mom, this is my 21st birthday vacation!). The river cruise was absolutely incredible. The only reason we initially wanted to go on this cruise was to see orangutans in their natural habitat, but being in a tiny little boat, barreling down a river in the middle of the jungle and seeing a bunch of other monkeys and birds and snakes and cool trees, made everything worth it. We had dinner right off the river and were driven back to the beautiful (and cheap!) hostel we are staying at tonight.

August 27, 2015:

TODAY’S THE DAY THAT MADE THIS WHOLE TRIP WORTH IT. We woke up, had an awesome breakfast at this hostel (seriously, if you stay in Sepilok, Sabah, I recommend Forest Edge Resort. They have hostel-style accommodations and it was only $12 a night!!!) and set out for the sanctuary. We were not about to miss the orangutan feeding time again! We got there in perfect time. Watched all of the rescued apes eat bananas and drink milk. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any cooler, one of the monkeys came very, very close and started to walk alongside us. And then he started to chase us. And then he started to reach out to try and grab the plaid shirt that was tied around my waist. And that’s when we ran. We were being chased by a critically endangered species through the jungle of Borneo. The only possible way to follow that up was to come back to the hostel, charge our phones, and drive across the country. Along the way we found an extremely questionable hanging bridge going across a fast moving river on the side of the road. It was made of chain link fence and had two 2×4 pieces of plywood going all the way across. We, of course, decided to walk all the way across the river via this death bridge in order to pick a few pieces of fruit from a tree on the other side. I think I may have had a minor aneurism. Not only did I survive, I thrived. We made it to Kota Kinabalu once more, went out to a great dinner, and to sleep we go.

August 28, 2015:

We woke up and wandered around the neighborhood we were staying in (the street is famously known as Gaya strip). As soon as we ate and got gas, we started our trip towards Brunei. We drove all day (thaaaaaaanks Ciaran 🙂 ) and got lost in the same city along the way three times. We were so desperate for food and directions that we stumbled into a gaming cyber café, the only light provided by the hundred LED computer screens. The countless drooling young men behind those screens barely even noticed two foreigners stumbling into the establishment, but thankfully there was a free computer and we were able to find the directions we needed. I think it was around nine hours we spent in the car today… But now we are in a new country, and my birthday starts in about 2 hours. I’m already feeling 21, if you know what I mean. I must go. I need to concentrate on celebrating my incredible life. Pip piP!

August 29, 2015: We stayed up until midnight last night and ushered in my birthday by synchronized dancing to Shake It Off and Birthday by Selena Gomez and then walking around the neighborhood that our hotel is in. It is then that we met Jin and Tim. Our two new friends from Korea. The next morning we drove into the city, Bandar Seri Begawan, with our two new friends. (We have had a great track record for getting lost every single time we get into a car this week, so we thought it wise to let our new friends guide us.) We ended up at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. It was beautiful! It was comforting hearing the familiar sound of the Islamic call to prayer, despite the fact that meant we could not go inside. We wandered until we found lunch, and then wandered once more until we ended up at the loading dock for visiting the Water Village. Without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we paid a few bucks to get on a boat and be transported across the river to this floating neighborhood of small houses and apartments. Yes, floating. I guess the more accurate word would be stilted? Either way, it was great! We (naturally) skipped the tourist museum and went straight for the houses themselves. They were quaint, colorful, and full of interesting and friendly people. One man in particular, the owner of the Malay Modern House, brought us into his home. He’s turned the living room space of his house into a place where visitors can come and take funny pictures and laugh and add their name to the long list of friends that this man has made. Jin is an incredible illustrator, and the way she makes friends (and some money, too) is by drawing a caricature of all the people that she meets on her travels. She drew this man. She drew a quiet, beautiful old woman who was kind enough to let us into her home for a few minutes. She drew Ciaran and I, too. Right before we hit the road bound for Kota Kinabalu once again. Tim and Jin were the greatest companions we could have had for our day trip to Brunei!! We miss them already. We spent the rest of the day in the car, listening to Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and fantasizing about our last long road trip of the week being over. On the plus side, we hardly got lost at all on this drive! I saw the perfect sunset out of the passenger window, witnessed a pretty mighty lightning storm, and acquired 16 stamps in my passport in the course of 24 hours. Win win win. When we FINALLY arrived in Kota Kinabalu, we were both hangry and in need of a drink (or six) (sorry mom, it’s my birthday). We returned to the same restaurant as we had eaten dinner in a few days earlier, got really drunk, came back to the hostel and passed out. Would have never, ever guessed half of my 21st birthday was going to be spent like it was, but it was perf. #ThanksCiaran

August 30, 2015: Today is our last full day in Malaysian Borneo. We woke up way too early and walked down the road to Jesselton Point, a docking point for all the boats en route to the snorkel- and scuba-friendly islands off the coast. We walked into the incredibly busy ticket station, chose the very first kiosk we saw, and bought a cheap package to get us out to the island of Mamutik. We spent the morning snorkeling on an island that was dangerously close to a paradise. We drank our fifty thousandth glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice, ate our fifty-thousandth plate of fried noodles, took some really cool pictures, and just CHILLED. Been a while. We hopped on a boat back to the mainland, wandered back to the hostel and immediately fell into a deep, deep nap. We made our way to the mall near our hostel, because we had a reservation at a place called Lockdown. I had very little context as to what exactly Lockdown was going to be—all Ciaran had been able to tell me is that we were going to be locked in a room and had to figure out how to get out. Okay. Right. So we show up, we get told the back story about the lockdown sequence that we are going to be trying to escape from (we chose the storyline called Seven). And then we are left to our own devices in a series of rooms with a series of clues and very little background of the 7 circles of hell to bank on. I think it goes without saying that between the two of us, we won. We solved all of the puzzles and, when given the choice to either save the entire human race or detonate a bomb in every major city in the world, we chose to detonate. Wonder why we chose that option?! Go visit Lockdown in Kota KInabalu. Needless to say, we were both on a bit of an ego trip after that. Our plan was to go back to the hostel and watch a movie and chill. But after half of the movie, we got bored and decided to walk around the neighborhood our hostel was in. Not even half a mile away lives the Q Bar. We heard music and saw synth lights and slowed our walking to a crawl to get a peak inside. A very nice man told us we should come in and see the show! It was a contest! For just a few dollars you could come and watch and get a free beer! It was a blast! You could hardly tell the women performing were shemales! …Shemales? IS THIS A DRAG SHOW? IS THIS A GAY BAR? I immediately agreed to spend every Malaysian Ringgit I had left to get into this tiny bar for the night. Plus we were hammered and “gay bar” are red-alert trigger words for me no matter where in the world I am. So in we went. We literally spent all of our money and sat at a tiny table in a smoke-filled room and watched the second half of a drag contest. And it was marvelous. We learned that since Malaysia is a Muslim country, probably all of the men in that bar were completely closeted, might even have a wife and children at home, and come to a place like this on Sunday nights to find solace in their true identity. It made us sad but also made us cheer that much louder for each beautiful queen that got up on that stage. Who knows who the real winner was because we screamed as loud as possible for all 7 of them equally. After the contest was over, the bar shifted back to its more normal Sunday night routine—maybe 12 men remained and the karaoke microphones were whipped out. The hostess gave us free beer. We owned all of the English songs and hummed along to all of the Malay songs. No one knows how to work a small crowd of gay, Malaysian men while singing Let It Go and Chandelier quite like Ciaran and I. I am confidently saying no one in that bar will forget that night any time soon. That’s the last memory of Malaysian Borneo that I am going to have and I am perfectly content with that.

Next, I have five days back in Taiwan. Be back soon to tell you about that! I hope everyone is doing great!

A Taiwan Summer

It baffles me that already my summer in Taiwan is coming to a close. I feel like I have only been here such a brief amount of time, and yet this week our last set of campers comes and goes. My goal this summer was to do different things than I did last summer and to not limit myself to spending all my weekends exclusively in Taipei. (For those of you who don’t know, I work in northern Taiwan, about an hour’s car ride outside of the capital.)

The first few weekends were mostly spent at night markets and Din Tai Fung. Night markets were a frequent past-time last summer for us as well—you can eat and drink and shop and socialize all in one place all while experiencing the hustle and bustle of Taiwan’s streets. Din Tai Fung is the country’s most popular restaurant; their specialty is the soup dumpling, and boy let me tell you, it really is special… 10/10 would recommend.

One of the coolest places I was able to visit in Taipei (and one of the only photo-ops I have shared so far) was Elephant Mountain. It was really easy to get to the neighborhood where you start the hike—it’s one of the central MRT stops in the city—and the hike starts right next to a really beautiful park that reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires (…I don’t really know why, but the whole neighborhood was giving me BA déjà vu). The start of the hike is walking through a beautiful temple, and then it is just a straight ascent up a million flights of stairs. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the summit, and it is worth every bead of sweat that rolls off your forehead or down your back, I promise. It is a stunning view of the Taipei skyline, a breath of fresh air in the city, and a great place to meet fellow travelers.

One of the weekends, I chose to work overtime and take care of 4 stayover campers. It was actually one of my favorite experiences this summer. We took the kids to a night market in Jinshan, a town relatively close to the one that I work outside of. It was interesting to see the contrast between the bustling night market atmosphere in the big city and the less-densely populated crowd in Jinshan. The kids played carnival games and we got ice cream. After the night market we went to a tiny little restaurant that ended up seriously being one of the best meals I have had in Asia??? The entire Sunday of that weekend was spent at Jin Yong Quan Spa Hotspring, also in Jinshan. It was SO COOL. You pay to get in and then can experience everything that the spa has to offer. We sat in several different aromatherapy baths (like banana, mango, lavender, rose, etc) and and the dead skin of our feet eaten by little tiny fish! It didn’t even feel like work, because the four kids we were taking care of were having just as much fun as we were.

The next weekend a group of us went to a gay bar in the Ximen neighborhood of Taipei. We sat at tables outside and had a blast. That weekend we also visited a part of Taipei near Taipei Main Station called the “Old Streets.” It was a group of five girls, and we all visited a temple whose god was the God of Matchmaking. So we prayed to him to find our perfect man (after describing in detail what that man would be like), burned incense sticks, and ate cookies in solidarity. I am currently anticipating my perfect specimen finding me in the Taiwanese jungle…

My last weekend in Taipei so far was elongated because of what was expected to be a super-typhoon. (Don’t you fret, it ended up being a whole lot less daunting than expected.) We spent the first night at our boss’s house right outside of camp. We went to Costco with her (my second time visiting that establishment while in this country), and stocked up on pizza and snacks and alcohol for the night. She drove us in to Taipei the next morning, and Sam and I got our hair done! I got mine trimmed pretty short and got a beach wave perm, Sam dyed hers back to its spirit color of auburn. We IMMEDIATELY went and watched Inside Out after that, because I had been waiting for SEVERAL weeks for it to come out in Taiwan. It was so worth the wait. I am in love with that movie. A good portion of the rest of that weekend is a blur, mostly spent inside our hostel surrounded by dumplings, assorted other snacks, and good company.  I did wander out with my good friend/coworker in the middle of the night just as the typhoon was hitting Taipei and walked around in torrential rain and blustering winds… It was quite fun. And it looked like I had showered in my pj’s once I got back to the hostel. Surveying the damage that the typhoon had done the next morning was quite interesting; nothing catastrophic had happened in the city, but there were some uprooted trees and fallen business signs.

The next time I am going to be in Taipei is the weekend that camp is over. I cannot believe that???? Summers here pass so quickly. But I am happy to be on to my next adventure. The day our contract ends, a friend and I are headed to Malaysian Borneo to celebrate my 21st birthday. I AM SO EXCITED. After that him and I come back to Taiwan for a few days, and then I am off to Madrid!! I will be working as an au pair for a family there and I could not be more excited. A lot of good karma in the air right now and I am so happy about it. I am so fortunate to be able to do the things I do.

I promise to send postcards before I leave this country, and in all of the places I am going to be after here. So if you want one, send me your address!! I hope everyone who is reading this is having a great week. I’ll be updating more frequently now, as I am visiting a lot more places in a short amount of time. Check back soon!

A Hong Kong Minute

Between Hawaii and Taiwan, we did a 2 day stopover in Hong Kong to visit friends who were also counselors at CT last summer. We flew Philippine Airlines (pretty nice airline overall!!), and had a 15 hour layover in Manila. We really wanted to go out and explore Manila, but it was an overnight layover with a really early takeoff the next morning, we were already exhausted, and the re-entry policy for the Manila airport was confusing and inconvenient. So we slept on cots in a strange lounge in a corner of the airport, with no money to our names and heavy eyes. It passed by quick enough, and the flight to Hong Kong was short and sweet.

Flying into Hong Kong and going through customs took no time at all and getting onto the high speed rail to the actual island was seamless and relatively cheap. The train took us most of the way and then we took a taxi to the hostel we had arbitrarily chosen via Air BNB. Our random choosing was lucky, because it was a tiny little hostel with private rooms and a really sweet old lady running the front desk. It was right in the middle of everything, too. We got to the hostel before lunch and our good friend Thomas came and met us early in the afternoon. He took us to the Star Ferry Pier at Tsim Sha Tsui. We just so happened to be there on the one day a year there is a dragon boat festival in the bay there, and we must have caught the tail end of it because we saw a few really interesting sail boats on the water that afternoon!! From there we met Polly and caught a bus to The Peak. The Peak is the highest-most point in Hong Kong, and from the top of the mountain you are able to see the entire skyline and the water. I’m a real sucker for sunsets, so being able to have such a view was quite the privilege. We made our way to dinner and headed back to the hostel for the night.

The next day we walked around a lot, though it was raining that hot, humid rain that I was SO looking forward to in Southeast Asia. We bounced around cafes, an outdoor market and got ice cream. The Hong Kong tourism circuit is known for their t-shirts that bear a close resemblance to the I ♥ NY shirts that are a must in the Big Apple. Hong Kong shirts obviously say “I ♥ HK”, and one can only guess why I would buy 5 of them to force the people I love to wear them… (If I had more room in my suitcase, I would have bought hundreds. I know you all love me.)

That night we went to Din Tai Fung—a Taiwanese dumpling restaurant that EVERYONE IN THE WORLD NEEDS TO TRY. We just couldn’t wait another 24 hours to get to Taiwan and have Din Tai Fung in the country it comes from. Halfway back to the hostel, I realized that our room key had fallen out of my back pocket. And then it started to rain. So we went on a quest for the key in the pouring rain and got soaking wet and a little lost BUT we found it. Score. It was sitting on the side of the road right outside of the restaurant. We were exhausted that night so we showered (watched Scandal) and went to bed.

We may have only spent 2 days in Hong Kong, but it is one of the best countries I have been to so far. Really accessible for non-Chinese speakers, a lot of stuff to do and see, and really good shopping if that’s what you’re into. And if you’re ever in that area, pick up and I ♥ HK shirt. You know you want to.

Aloooooha!

About a week ago, I left Central California for an open-ended journey of work and travel. The first stop on this adventure was Hawaii! I flew in on Thursday night, got lei’d with a homemade treasure from Sam’s mom and sister (thanks Christi and Ella!), and made my way to Kailua, Oahu where there were freshly baked brownies and leftover tacos waiting for me. My heart.

My first full day was spent at Kailua Beach (in Kailua, obviously). This beach was awesome! Much more of a local treasure than a tourist destination, but it is still a beautiful place to waste the day away. The beach is attached to a park, is a great launching place for kayaking to a few different smaller islands, and within swimming distance of Flat Island. I should point out now, though, that the powerful Hawaiian sun punished me on that day a week ago, and I am still paying for it. (Reapply, reapply, reapply sunscreen!) After the beach we made our way to Island Snow, another local oasis. It is a shave ice counter tucked away inside an island supply store. (It’s also Prez Obama’s favorite shave ice on the island, and he would know—he lived here forever!) That night, we babysat three beautiful babies and, let’s just say, earned every penny that we were paid. We were also supplied with Bob’s Pizza—the tastiest pizza in Kailua.

The next day was spent sipping margaritas with Sam’s family, conveyer belt sushi, and Jurassic World. That’s really all I can say about that day! From what I can recall, Jurassic World was very satisfying! Chris Pratt, I love you.

Sunday was our North Shore day. Just saying “the North Shore” makes me feel elusive and like I am pretending to be a seasoned Hawaiian vacation expert. Nonetheless, North Shore is probably one of my favorite parts of Oahu. It’s indescribably beautiful, seriously. And every time you visit it there’s something new to see or do. This time, I revisited Giovanna’s Shrimp Shack—the most famous of shrimp shacks in all of Hawaii! And I must say, it lives up to the hype. As long as you actually enjoy shrimp. Next, we went to a tucked away beach whose name I do not even know where The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s beach scenes were filmed. YEAH, YOU READ RIGHT. I WALKED ON THE SAME BEACH THAT J-LAW GRACED WITH HER PRESENCE. I almost didn’t want to wash the sand off of me from that experience. Almost. We then made our way to Haleiwa, the little town at the end of the scenic North Shore drive. It’s under a bunch of construction currently in order to make it more accessible since it has such an intense amount of tourism, but ironically, the construction is making it more of a clusterfuck. We were able to go to an ice cream shop called Scoop of Paradise, which is stocked with homemade ice cream in really cool flavors, as well as being a toy store! Two birds one stone!

The next day, we kayaked out to The Mokes. The Mokes are two small (fraternal) twin islands off the shore of Kailua Beach. It takes about 45 minutes to paddle out to them. We were in a 3-person kayak and it was a choppy day out in the water, so it was a rough ride! Once you make it out there, the island that looks like a woman sitting and tilting her head back has a beach that you can dock your kayaks on. A long, long time ago, in a world that looked much different than ours, that island was formed by volcanic eruption. So, when I say that the trek around the rocky island to a hidden cove was a jagged one, you know I mean it! Once we made it to the other side of the island, then came my big-kid-panties moment. After 25 minutes of coaxing from random strangers and friends alike, I faced a big fear of mine and cliff dove for the first time!! It was like ten feet, and really should not have been that difficult for anyone to jump off of, but for me it was a feat! Of course, my most brave moment of the week was accompanied with a bruise on my butt from harsh water impact, but c’est la vie. I did it. That night we were supposed to go to a luau, but it was cancelled due to heavy flooding. We improvised and spent the evening sneaking around the Disney Resort on Oahu.

No trip to Oahu is complete without a trip to Honolulu and Waikiki, right? Personally, not a huge fan of huge metropolis tourist trap areas, but I still can appreciate the people watching that can occur in such a place. We spent a morning walking around and shopping in Waikiki, had lunch at Duke’s (one of the most famous restaurants on Oahu), and tried (stole) a bunch of free samples at Honolulu Cookie Company stores all along the strip. Prot-tip: if you are using a car (like a rental, or you live here, or you’re with someone who lives here) and you’re trying to park in Waikiki, arrive early and park at the Honolulu Zoo! It’s within walking distance of everything (including beaches) and only costs $1/hour.

The next day and a half were a blur, taking people to the airport, picking other people up from the airport, packing and leaving ourselves. We are currently in the Manila Airport in the Philippines for a 15 hour layover. Too exhausted to leave and explore the city. It feels good to be traveling again.

I’m available through Viber, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and (usually) iMessage. Would love to hear from you guys!!!

Buenos Aires? I Hardly Knew Her!

Last week was my third and final spring break as a university student. A month ago, I was expecting to spend it at home, baking banana bread and watching Netflix with my mom. Which, admittedly, still sounds like an incredible spring break. But when I was presented with the incredible opportunity to visit some of my best friends in Argentina, how could I say no?!

First of all, LAN Airlines is awesome if you’re flying to or within South America. I had the best of luck on all four of my long flights with them in this past week—good seats, quiet neighbors, M&M’s throughout the flight, delicious food and COMPLEMENTARY EARPLUGS AND SLEEPING MASKS. Game changer. LAN knows what a frequent traveler wants. I would recommend them to anyone flying South for sure! I may have to add them to my growing list of frequent flier memberships.

I got to Buenos Aires on Tuesday of last week, greeted by one of those very nice middle aged men with a sign that had my name on it. I felt a bit like a celebrity, but for some reason there were no paparazzi clamoring to get a glimpse of my beautiful, post-20-hours-of-air-travel self. I was greeted by my beautiful bae’s at their apartment (which is really cute, by the way!). There’s a very adorable minute-long video documenting the reunion. 5 stars. That’s when I learned that Robert had made a week-long itinerary for my visit in order to ensure that I would see and do everything I could! I melt. The first night was nice, we went to dinner and I showered and passed out in approximately 3.5 seconds. A good portion of the next day was spent at their school. Their spring break was the week following mine, so they still had midterms going on! After their tests were done that day, they showed me a few of the must-sees in their neighborhood. We walked along the widest road in the world—9 de Julio—and saw the Obelisk monument right in the middle of it. We visited the largest bookstore in the world—El Alteneo—and I must say it was awesome! We briefly stepped inside the mall located in that same part of town; the ceilings were lit up and made of glass and I felt vaguely like a dirty nomad just breathing the same air as those shopping in the upscale stores that populate the mall. That evening was also my first experience with both the bus system of Buenos Aires—which was very efficient and user friendly—and the black market currency exchange, or Cambio as it is fondly called by locals, which Vierra told me before I left the states that it is much easier to exchange USD for the local currency, because the ATM’s have a bunch of hidden fees and government taxes.

The next morning was very similar, the boys had their last couple midterms before their spring break officially began. On the walk home from their school we spotted a box full of very tiny, very talkative kittens outside of a boutique. We cooed over them for several minutes before heading to lunch. That afternoon I saw more of the city. They took me to Plaza de Mayo, which is right in front of Casa Rosada (kind of like Argentina’s version of the White House!). That whole section of town was so grand!! We hopped on a bus with the intent of going straight home but instead, we stumbled across a cultural event happening that was sponsored by the Youth Olympics! There was entertainment and (more importantly) snacks from around the world. I had the best Belgian chocolate-covered bananas ever. Go figure! That night we went to see a ballet! We essentially sat on the ceiling we were so high up in the balconies, but it was just as magical from high up there!! The ballet butts were pleasant. There was also a near-brawl among some old ladies seated below us and a crying baby who apparently didn’t love classical dancing. It was a great night!

The next day consisted of more exploring! First stop was the Recoleta Cemetery. Essentially the cemetery where the richest of the rich have been buried for the last few centuries. The tombs all looked like they cost more than my net worth. It was somber and interesting and took us over an hour to explore only part of it! Next door to that was a beautiful Catholic church and a Starbucks. Hand in hand, am I right? We headed to the city’s Rose Gardens after that, which I must say may have been my favorite spot all week! It was quiet, the weather was nice, and it smelled like (you guessed it!) roses. It’s always an interesting juxtaposition to visit a garden/park inside a metropolitan city. A little slice of paradise inside a concrete jungle. After a long trek back across the city, we ended up at Illegal Burgers. Listen, I am giving them a direct shout out for a few reasons. One, they just opened and everyone should support a new local business. Two, WOW? Literally one of the best burgers I’ve ever had and it was cheaper than a meal at McDonald’s? They even have a BOMB veggie burger option if that’s what you’re into? And three, they have wifi and a Twitter and Facebook. 10/10 would recommend. Literally. If you’re ever in Buenos Aires, it’s a must. That night we went to Plaza Serrano, an adorably decorated neighborhood with a bunch of bars and loud music and fun times! It was nice.

The next day was pretty chill, as we were trying to conserve our energy for that evening. I did get to visit another one of the city’s malls and play my sims game while Vierra got a massage! Saturday night was the big night. The gay pub crawl. It was many many hours of delicious drinks, amazing company, sassy gay bartenders, the Pamela Anderson shot, dancing and drag queens. The perfect last huzzah for my trip. Perfect. There are few words but many pictures.

Sunday we slept in really late, went to the San Telmo market and the boys’ favorite Mexican food joint in the city. Headed home early, ordered dinner in and went to sleep! I left Buenos Aires at 4 this morning. It was brisk and I was sleepy and I always hate saying goodbye to people and places I enjoy. I never feel like I have enough time when I visit new places. I just start to understand a place’s nuances and culture as I leave. I wrote in my journal a few different times this week that if I get the chance to visit Argentina again, I will still have a million things to see and places to visit.

I write this blog as I finish my first week back to classes. Hurray. I had a blast last week. I will always remember it. Not just because Buenos Aires opened her arms to welcome me, but also because my friends are gems and LAN gave me earplugs and a sleeping mask. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. Best spring break ever. Love you guys. This year’s big trip starts in early June, so I’ll be back on here then.

Cheers to Good Air!

Leaving Senegal, Actually Leaving Senegal, and Whats Up 2015?

I haven’t blogged in two and a half months. That’s way too long, and for that I am sorry. I was really busy my last month in Senegal, and then when I got back to the states I went MIA to catch up on family time and SLEEP. If/when travel blogging becomes my job, I’ll be way better!! But I still wanted to share with you all about my final weeks in Senegal, my horrific travel back to the states, what I have been up to since then, and what’s to come in 2015!!

The last time I blogged I had just finished my second and final excursion outside of Dakar. We got back from that trip and had our last week of classes. We tested out of both of our languages—French and Wolof—and began our month-long independent study project. I chose to focus on a topic that I had been well exposed to before my time in Senegal. In April of last year, I got word that my podcast/senior capstone project for Humboldt would be published in my University’s academic journal; that project took a look at the relationship between oral and written history in West Africa, more specifically Senegal. It was a great project, but my scope was limited to secondary research that I could access from my library stall at HSU. So when I went about choosing my topic for this independent study project in Senegal, it was honestly a no-brainer. Take what I learned through all that secondary research and expand the crap out of it with field research! I chose Daour Wade, an established children’s book author and all around incredible man, as my advisor. We worked together in shaping my project over the course of the month. I had the chance to see more of Dakar via interviews and participant observation opportunities! I visited private schools, authors’ homes, research centers, and even got invited to the opening ceremony of the Francophonie Summit of 2014 (which Senegal was hosting)! The month was full of fun, love, learning and genuine intellectual excitement. I even celebrated Thanksgiving with a UN family! I met more than one potential future employer and really came to understand how to work on my own. Though, I will mention here as I have mentioned several other places, the work I did would not have been possible without my advisor—Daour Wade—and my translator—Yerim Conga. If you’re interested in listening to the podcast(s), here are the links!

Episode 1: https://soundcloud.com/harleemai/griot-is-the-word

Episode 2: https://soundcloud.com/harleemai/isp-podcast

I tearfully moved out of my host family’s house about a week before leaving the country. It was heartbreaking to leave my little sister, the two housemaids, and my mother behind. All of them defied the normative female role I had come to recognize during my stay in Senegal, and all of them had beautiful souls that I miss every day. My study-abroad group left for a week-long stay at a beach resort in Mbour, Senegal. It was beautiful! The wifi was down all week, or I would have posted a blog while we were there… (I swear!) But it was a week full of mixed emotions. We all presented our individual projects to one another, went on safari, visited a beautiful small island town of which the ground was composed entirely of shells, went to a liquor tasting at a small Belgian distillery (what a lovely, lovely gift from our academic director that was), went skinny dipping in the icy Atlantic, and wrapped up our program. We went back to Dakar on Saturday morning. I spent the rest of the day with my lovely boy, visited my host family, had one last huzzah at my friends’ and my favorite bar, and headed to the airport.

Here’s the part that has taken me so long to be able to write about without sounding angry, bitter and annoyed by. It may be important to preface this by saying my flight itinerary was confusing, I had 3 major stops before I was supposed to get back to California, and I had bought tickets for some of them separately due to funding availability and visa stuff. So, all that being said… I get to Dakar’s one-terminal international airport. I start looking for the desk of the airline that I would be traveling with. I don’t see it. I ask someone working there, to which they respond: “no, you missed that flight.” I say “no, it’s 11:30 and my flight doesn’t leave until 2:05, I’m quite on time.” They say “no, the only flight out of here today with that airline left several hours ago.” My brain starts to hyperventilate. What? I say, “no, look, I have the itinerary right here, I am on a flight at 2:05…” We go to talk to someone else. They say the same thing. A third airport staff member, too. After talking to several, one of them says something along the lines of “oh yeah, that flight was dissolved and merged with a flight that leaves a week from today, so just come back then!” I actually start to hyperventilate. I say “excuse me?” I get: “Your flight doesn’t exist, go home.” And thus began my very public, (and in hindsight) very obnoxious breakdown. I had a flight leaving Barelona’s international airport in 7 hours, by not being able to leave at this time, I would miss my flight to New York City too. It was a MESS. After about an hour of being paraded around, and my friend Arden reigning my meltdown in, I was $1200 out on a new ticket for a direct flight to NYC. And as I go to check my bag for this flight, I am swarmed by airport employees asking me weird questions like “why did you just buy a ticket to leave the country tonight?” No, ma’am, I am not a suspicious traveler, you all know why I just bought this ticket. All 70 employees of this airport just saw my public meltdown! Let me through security!!! I was a bitter, quiet storm by that point in the night. But I was let through security, checked for Ebola, and on my way.

Upon arrival in NYC, I was graciously taken in by Arden’s family. I then spent a few hours with a friend I met at camp over the summer, and spent an evening locked in a very nice Best Western near the airport! When I got there the concierge asked if I needed delivery menus and gave me some cookies. I knew then that I must look like a wreck. Best Western took great care of me! I took the shuttle to the airport way too early (because I was not going to tolerate another mishap), and got home safely on the night of Monday, December 15. I was welcomed at the airport by my brother, mother, and a burrito. I had missed California.

Readjusting to the fast life that is the United States is hard. Everything’s so expensive and unnecessary. But I have been so happy seeing all of my family and friends and having a bunch of food I couldn’t have for six months!! It’s such a shock to me that I went all of those places and did all of those things in 2014. I am so fortunate. So lucky to have visited 3 continents, worked and studied, met amazing people, and seen so much. It will be hard to top that…But you can all bet your asses I am going to try. This year, I will be graduating from Humboldt State University! 3 great years in college, but I am ready to get out there for real. I will be returning to Taiwan this summer to work at camp again! After this summer, I think I will be spending some time in France!!! I can’t sit still. When opportunities arise, I now have the freedom and ability to say hell yeah instead of “hold on I need to finish school.” I am so bummed that Invisible Children closed their US office before I had the opportunity to work with them, because it was a mutual understanding that I would do so ASAP. But c’est la vie. 2015 is another Year of the Harlee. I’m comin’ for you, world.