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HK In a Day!

Sam and I went on an overnight “business” trip to Hong Kong earlier this week. And I feel compelled to share our adventure because of how much of a mess it truly was for everyone involved. Buckle up!

We had to go on this trip to sort some visa stuff out for Taiwan. The process is immediate, so we could have come back to Taiwan same-day, but decided to stay overnight to see some of our friends that live in HK.

We get up hours before our flight, and make our way to the bus station. There’s a thunder/lightning/torrential rain storm happening in Taipei as we are getting onto the bus. And it’s rush hour. Double traffic whammy. The bus is inching through the city at a pace so slow I honestly thought about getting out and running part of the way to make up for time lost (a fleeting thought, obviously.). Collectively, I think everyone on the bus started to realize how late the bus was running at about the same moment. People started to get up and mill about and chat on the phone trying to sort out their situations. Still, Sam and I held on to a fleeting hope that since we had chosen to go to HK without any luggage, they’d just let us sprint through the airport with 2 minutes to spare and a closing gate and a wing and a prayer. But alas.

We get to the airport at about 9:30, flight scheduled for 10. The airline counter tells us we are ten minutes to late to get on to the flight. We beg and plead, and they politely tell us to shove off. We ask to be out onto the next flight, and they tell us to call the travel agency our friend book the flight through. So begins the longest, most pricey 30 minutes of our life. Calls are being placed back and forth—to us, to Jojo, to the travel agent—and we finally get put onto the next flight. Which, again, leaves in about 30 minutes. We scramble through lines, get ushered to customer service, get thrown back into the general line. Get our ticket printed and sprint though the airport to security. Our sweat pools as our purses slowly roll through the machine. We sprint again between security and our gate.

As soon as we get to the gate, we are told that there will be a minor delay because, duh, look outside. You can’t even see the runways it is raining so hard. Nice. This definitely means that that flight we “missed” hadn’t left either. But OKAY, whatever, fine. We’ll just get a bottle of water and chill in the gate. So we do that. And after about 10 minutes we hear an announcement that the plane we were anticipating getting on had been struck by lightning upon its descent into Taipei, so it would be about an hour of routine maintenance before we could leave. OKAY! That’s fine. An hour. Lightning. Okay. Manageable.

But then, an hour passes. They hand out meal vouchers for inside the airport. Another hour passes. We find out the flight has moved gates. Another hour passes. Finally, we get on the flight. And smooth air-sailing from there. No lightning strikes on our flight! Score.

Hong Kong was fun. We saw all of our friends from the past few summers at camp. We all met Emily and her mom for dim sum. We did a little hike up Garden Hill and got some really beautiful panoramic views of HK at night. The hostel we stayed at was trash, and tried to kick me out of my bed in the middle of the night, so I’m going to refrain from including its name! But overall, very fun time in the city.

The next day, we got to the airport 6 hours early. And got drunk. Just in case chaos ensued for the second day in a row. But luckily, everything went smooth on our way back. And now we’re back in Taiwan right in the nick of time—my brother and a few friends are going to be camp counselors here with us this summer! A busy 10 weeks ahead. But I will be taking my peeps to do some of the token touristy stuff in the city throughout the summer, so I’ll try and blog about that stuff!

Hope everyone is well. There is so much shitty shit going on in the States right now. And I really hope everyone is doing okay. Stay strong. And vigilant. And proud of who you are. Love you guys!

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Going for Broke in Morocco

In late March, a group of us went to Morocco for spring break. (Listen, I know what you’re thinking: “Har, you graduated from university a year ago, you can’t just arbitrarily celebrate spring break anymore!” Let me live. And my karma came to me. Stay tuned.)

I left Ireland with a heavy heart and not a lot of money to work with, but I was pumped to finally see Morocco, and be back on my favorite continent for the first time in over a year. We had a long, complicated flight path (as usual. Help me, I’m poor!). Finally got to Rabat after dark. Our Airbnb situation ended up being a little ways out of the city, but all the more adventure it became. That first day, we briefly stopped in Rabat (and struggled greatly with buying train tickets, so a silent nod to the young guy in the train station who helped us buy them and physically guide us to the train) before heading to the city of Meknes for a mini-excursion. The train ride was a total ego boost—I spent all two hours chatting with this charming old archaeology professor and really crushing it with a bunch of French I didn’t know I could speak. The old city center (a UNESCO Heritage Site!) of Meknes was beautiful. A labyrinth of streets and vendors and homes and colors, encapsulated by the “Old Gate to the City.” We went to a restaurant with a lovely view of the city called Le Collier de la Colombe. It is upstairs at a hotel, there’s free wifi, the food is phenomenal and cheap, and the women that work there are all super nice. They helped us hail a cab back to the train station so that we wouldn’t miss the last one back to Rabat. (Didn’t, but then gloriously missed the last train back to Bouznika from there and had to take a taxi. Live and learn in Morocco I guess!)

The next day I left the group to go to Marrakech. I was doing the trek alone to meet Shelby, who was flying in that evening. I’ve become very good at traveling alone, and though it is typically more stressful, I live for it. Made it to Marrakech with ease (and a couple hours early), so I walked from the train station to city center. I think if I would have informed my friends that I was doing this alone at dusk, they would’ve been pretty pissed—there is a lot of stigma behind the idea of women traveling alone in Africa, and just in general, for a bunch of different reasons. And a lot of it is valid—we live in a gross world and women do have to look out for their safety in ways that men have no concept of. But I also feel very confident in my ability to take care of myself (like, I carry a knife and know how to kick someone’s ass). So I walked across Marrakech in the twilight alone. And got a lot of cat calls, and a few guys stop or slow down their cars to try and get my attention. Comes with the territory of exploring developing countries (and developed countries. Let’s be real, people can be disgusting). I had the time of my life! Seeing Marrakech in my favorite way—leisurely and alone. Got to city center right as it was getting dark. Walked around the world-famous market (and got called a fashion disaster by an exasperated vendor who really wanted the attention I wasn’t paying him) for a while before Shelby hopped off her shuttle and we booked it to the hostel we reserved.

We stayed at Dream Kasbah—I would say it was a dream for sure. The hostel itself is cute, and the people that choose to stay there all seemed very fun to talk to and down for adventure. There was free breakfast, and they offered tours of different parts of Morocco. We walked to and through the market for a few hours (the shopping is fun, get your game face on for hardcore bargaining, and expect to be hassled if you look like a “foreigner”) (oh, and try the orange juice. Life changing.). We then hopped on a train back to Rabat.

It is then that my memory of the trip becomes a bit more of a blur—we only really had one day left, and right as Sam and her friends were leaving to head to the airport, I lost/had my wallet stolen. Aka all of my money, my debit cards, the works. Like, I was 24 hours away from moving to Asia for the rest of the year, and I had literally not a penny to my name. I am absolutely certain that if Shelby hadn’t been with me on that last day, I would have popped a blood vessel. Needless to say, the next couple weeks of my life were very complicated—full of loans and favors and money-transfers and packages being frantically sent across the world. I want to take an extra second to virtually hug any- and everyone that helped me out. Going broke as a nomad is actually terrifying, but there’s always a way to fix things!

Balance has been restored, no worries. And I am living in Taiwan for the rest of 2016! I’ll be posting a few odd blogs about the different things to do in Taiwan that I have found this year at some point. Until then, I miss everyone and hope you all are doing great!! Much love.

Mission Accom-Polish-ed (and Some Other Eastern European Countries)

In the middle of March, I went on a week-long holiday to Eastern Europe with my friend Shelby. Our goals were simple: to eat and drink our way through all of the places we visited, and take great photos of every step of the way. And to do it all for under a collective $250. (Spoiler: all goals were accomplished. Or accom-Polish-ed, if I may…) I’m going to break this blog down by each place we went throughout the week!

Bratislava, Slovakia: We had a very short window in Bratislava, but planned to use the 18 hours to their fullest potential. We flew in, hopped on the first bus into the city, and made it to our hostel pretty easy (A Wild Elephants Hostel is where we stayed, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone!!!). The staff at the hostel took us on an “abandoned hospital sunset tour” and WOW. Just, wow. It was just Shelby and I on the tour, and a handful of volunteers from the hostel. We found our way to the top floor of a hospital that kinda could’ve definitely felt haunted if we were alone in there at night. But we sat on the roof (a free, incredible, view of the city of Bratislava), drank beer, and watched the sun set. Magic. We went out to dinner and hung out with some of the other guests of the hostel (and actually, literally, crushed the patriarchy that evening, but that’s another day’s story).

Prague, Czech Republic: What an incredible place. In a full day’s time, we were able to walk around and see all the major stuff the city has to offer. The astronomical clock and Old Town square, the John Lennon Wall, the Charles Bridge (we touched the good luck charm!), all of the incredible architecture, a lot of cool installation art scattered throughout the city, great (and cheap) food and drink. Prague is beautiful. (Side note, if you follow me on Snapchat, this is the city in which I posted a 5 minute long, very messy, story of Shelb and I trying Czech snacks and impersonating YouTube videos. Sorry, but also, not very sorry because we had a great night!)

Auschwitz/Birkenau: What an indescribable experience. I’ve struggled a lot on how to write about the visit to the museum/grounds, because it was so… Something. It was something. It was terrible. How could it not be? It gave me the same feeling as standing on top of the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor did. Or looking out of the Door of No Return on Goree Island in Senegal. It sucks. It’s uncomfortable. But I’m honored I had the opportunity to do it. To freely walk through the halls of a place that destroyed and ended so many lives—as an observant. Feeling nothing even close to what the million people that died there felt. Experiencing things like that—having such privilege to experience things like that—is horrifying and important. The tour guide I had said something right at the end of our tour that really stuck with me:  “Take what you see here, see it as a grain of salt on a bigger beach. This is a genocide we pay homage to, but it is not the only genocide that has ever happened. There is more than one genocide happening as I speak to you today. So be more than a visitor at a museum. Be more than a charitable donation. I hope today makes you want to do something, because I shouldn’t have to have a job at a former death camp. No one should have this job.”

Krakow, Poland: Probably my favorite place we stayed on this trip? We, again, saw a lot of the major sights in the full day we had there. The castle, the cathedral (and the dragon bones hanging over the door of the cathedral!), the old town square, the Jewish Quarter. We even rode in a horse drawn carriage (listen, it was cheap and we were feeling regal) through town square. The food was dangerously cheap, the people were interesting, and the hostel (Atlantis Hostel) was very nice. We had one roommate that we particularly enjoyed, an old man that had been everywhere in the world and was waiting for his papers to clear so he could return to his home in Ukraine. He bought us pizza while we were out one night, and gave it to us for breakfast the next morning. I love old people. I love Krakow.

Warsaw, Poland: Actually hardly saw the city at all. We had about an hour and a half to sight see, so we walked through old town (sensing a pattern here). We had heard mixed reviews about Warsaw, and ultimately ended up choosing to not spend a full day there. But after walking through old town, we have mild regret. Oh well, next time!

What a week it was. My disposable camera was filled with very stupid, lovely memories and my wallet was drained. Loved it. Be back soon.

A Transatlantic Minute

 

I left home almost two weeks ago. The five weeks I spent at home with my friends and family really did feel like it passed by in the blink of an eye, but I’m so grateful to have seen everyone. Even if briefly. My life-bae Sam, who’s always left in charge of talking me down when my pre-travel anxiety kicks in, said to me: “it’s so easy to get comfortable.” How. Freakin. True.

It’s such an obvious statement. I get it. Duh. But it’s so true. I got home, kicked off my shoes, snuggled up to the family dog and ate all the food my mom cooked. I saw all my friends and decorated the Christmas tree and had Chipotle several times and bought a bunch of clothes at all my favorite stores. Stockton is comfortable (existentially. Physically and realistically, probably not that much. If it really gelled with me, I would still be there. But alas.), Stockton is familiar. Stockton is home to my mom, and my high school, and Yummy Sushi Burrito. We’ve got history together. And it’s so easy to get comfortable in the routine of seeing and doing things that are just muscle memory. And I almost got too comfortable! Not that there’s anything wrong with people settling down in Stockton (maybe there is), but that is not what is in my cards. And I know that. But still, getting on my flight out of Central California on January 20 was really rough.

But then I landed in New York City, and everything felt a bit better. Because now I have traveling muscle memory too. And travel—while at times extremely, ridiculously, uncomfortable—is comfortable and familiar to me. My lovely friend Alicia (from my study abroad in Senegal in 2014!) picked me up from the airport and we spent the next two days catching up, seeing our other study-abroad-buddy Arden, drinking a bunch, and we went to a concert. It was great. New York City can be fun to visit when you have good company. I departed from JFK literally as it began snowing and Winter Storm Jonas (unfortunately, little-to-no connection to the Jonas Brothers) descended on the tristate area. What good luck.

After several hours of transit (and several face masks), Dublin welcomed me. I was in the city for a few days. Spent most of my time drinking and being merry. Honestly, not much new to report from that time. And now I am an hour south of Dublin, living at a hostel, volunteering for a free bed. And it’s magical. But I’ll blog about my time here at the end of the month when I really have a feel for it. Until then, I love and miss all my friends at home and everywhere, and hope that everyone’s doing great! I sure am!

 

One (Very Merry) Night in Belgium

About a month ago, I was trying to figure out my flight path home from Spain. I knew I wanted to visit a Christmas market—everything I had heard about them sounded magical. So I asked Ciarán (worked at camp with me, we went to Malaysian Borneo together, he’s super Irish…Ring a bell?) for advice. Where should I go? Should I drop my bags in Ireland first or bring them with me? Will they have festive alcoholic beverage choices? The essentials.

Ciarán knows better than pretty much anyone that I love to wing it when it comes to travel—for example, because of my whimsical idea to use only a paper map in Borneo, we got lost on the road about 8 times a day (still sorry, Ciarán)—so he came up with an idea. He double checked when I wanted to go, when my flight to the States would be, and then went on his merry way BOOKING A TRIP TO A SECRET COUNTRY FOR ME TO VISIT A CHRISTMAS MARKET. I was not to find out until I got to the airport the morning of my flight. The only hint I got was that this country was known for its chips (not super helpful, seeing how everyone loves potatoes).

I had a month to look forward to this. And I really did. It would have been easy enough to cheat, look up flights out of Dublin on that day around the time he gave me and narrow it down. But I did not! I was up for the adventure. He checked in for me and printed the boarding passes, and stuck them in an envelope.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday morning. I had flown into Dublin the night before. Ciarán handed me the envelope and dared me not to take any luggage with me. I agreed, grabbed my camera, and walked out the door. All I had was my camera, wallet, phone/charger, and the envelope with the tickets.

I get to the airport, and the only aimlessly wandering person I could find was a confused old man. I asked if he could record me opening the envelope. His perplexed, disinterested glare I could see from over the tip of my phone as he recorded me made me nervous. I opened the envelope….BELGIUM! Brussels! I nervously thanked the man recording me and went through security. You get a lot of looks when you literally have nothing with you but cash and a camera. But I was pumped. Since I was a tad early, I got online and booked a hostel. I pulled out the note that Ciarán had put in the envelope with my boarding pass. There was a to-do list for while I was in Brussels. How. Cool. It included eating chips (French fries, my American friends!) and waffles and chocolate and drinking Belgian beer and making a friend and such.

I arrived right as it was getting dark. I took a shuttle bus into Brussels. Remember, at this point, I had still had very little time to research Brussels. So I get off at the last stop. It’s dark, it’s raining, I’m starving. I see Christmas lights in the distance and assume it’s got something to do with the Christmas market, so I start walking. I was wrong BUT there was a chips shop right where I stopped off. One item checked off the list. I connected to wifi and mapped out where I was and realized I had walked in the opposite direction of the market! Of course! I bought an umbrella and walked almost two miles across Brussels to the market. The walk, though extremely brisk and moist, was very cool. Brussels is the political capital of the European Union, so there are a lot of important looking buildings scattered throughout the city. The closer to the city center I got, the older and fancier the architecture got. The Grand Place (city center) is, quite honestly, one of the prettiest places I have had the chances to see in Europe thus far. The buildings are the actual definition of marvelous, there was a huge Christmas tree, and (I kid you not) it smelled like chocolate.

Just a little further was the Christmas market. It was JUST as magical as I had hoped. There were over a hundred food/drink/gift/stuff booths! I visited almost all of them. I drank Belgian beer (I still hate beer, so) and spiked hot chocolate, ate a bunch, bought gifts, and rode a huge Ferris wheel and got the greatest vantage point of the market and greater Brussels area.

The next day I walked around all day. Literally just walked around. Revisited the city center, walked around in the city’s biggest park, ate at the most famous fish & chips restaurant in Belgium, walked more. It was sunny and not crazy cold and seeing more of the city was great. I flew back to Dublin that evening and left the following morning. 6 flights in 5 days! This week’s been quite the ride.

In case I haven’t been vocal enough about how grateful I am for this whole secret-mission-Christmas-trip, I AM SO GRATEFUL. Best gift ever. No one tell Ciarán that he is awesome for this and for everything, he really doesn’t need any more of an ego-boost. I kid. Tell him. There’s a reason some of my favorite blog posts on here somehow connect to him. Thanks Ciarán!!

I AM HOME FOR A MONTH. That is all. Happy Holidays!

 

Living In Madrid Pt 2: Talking to Tweens

When I woke up on the first of December and realized that the last three months in Madrid had skated by so quickly, I began to both panic and celebrate. Panic—I’m leaving behind some of the most charming and intelligent young ladies I have ever taken care of, I’m moving away from a city I am just beginning to really get the hang of, and no more patatas bravas (my favorite tapas dish)??? Celebrate—I am going home for the holidays, moving forward from what I would consider a fairly anxious time in my life, and GOING HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS!!

Since returning from Italy last month, I have laid pretty low—I already visited the touristy attractions, I’ve eaten all the traditional foods, watched flamenco dancing, went clubbing…all the interesting stuff to report back about. Honestly, I’ve spent the last month hanging out with the family I work for, reading in parks, Christmas shopping, and wandering around taking pictures. I can say, though: Puerta del Sol at Christmas time is magic. There is a HUGE, hollow-metal-frame Christmas tree completely made of lights that you can WALK THROUGH (A PHOTOGENIC DREAM), there is a teeny tiny Christmas market inside of Plaza Mayor, Christmas music abound, the works.

So, instead of opting out of a blog or writing boring content (like the curious case of my disappearing wallet), I decided to interview two of the three girls that I have been taking care of. They are 10 (Julia) and 14 (Monica), go to an English school in the city, are excellent English speakers, and are wonderful young women.

  1. Favorite movie?

Julia: Inside Out!!!
Monica: Ohhhhh, The Notebook. The book too.

  1. Favorite song?

Both: Lay Me Down by Sam Smith. (laughs together)

  1. Where do you want to visit someday?

Julia: Where do you live?! (I say California) Then California. I want to visit California.
Monica: Hollywood, New York City, Argentina… No I don’t, why did I say Argentina?! Just the first two. (laughs)

  1. Why do you like being a kid/teenager?

Julia: I can do a lot of things and don’t have to buy anything! And the Christmas presents… can’t forget those.
Monica: I DON’T like being a teenager! I don’t. It’s complicated. (more laughter)

  1. One thing you want to learn how to do?

Julia: Sew better!! Like make my own clothes.
Monica: I would love to learn how to dance. Like funky. Like the girls in that new Justin Beiber video…

 

  1. What makes a good friend?

Julia: Telling you the truth, being with you, and helping you with problems. Definitely.
Monica: I think you have to trust her. That’s really important. You have to have fun with her. She has to be there always! Even if you get a good mark on an exam, and when you cry too.

  1. Use only one word to describe yourself right now.

Julia: Pretty!
Monica: Special. I think everyone’s special in their own way, including me. And you!

  1. Describe how you see Spain.

Julia: Pretty, too! And dirty… But mostly pretty.
Monica: Oh I love Spain. It’s my country! Yeah we’ve got problems, but I just love it. I love Madrid.

  1. What’s one thing that’s special about Spain you want everyone to know?

Julia: Paella. It’s delicious.
Monica: I don’t know how you celebrate Christmas in the states but I love Christmas here, EVERYONE comes to Sol and stay there until midnight just counting down and celebrating and having a great time around the huge Christmas tree.

There were more questions but these were my favorite. None of them bore particularly prolific responses, but I think that’s the coolest part about it. I don’t know what I wanted to learn when I turned on the camera and started asking them questions, but that felt just as fun as setting out for a specific answer or message. These girls live a half a world apart from most of my readers, but most likely responded in the same cute, quip and innocent way that any of the 10 and 14 year olds you know would. They study for exams and worry about boys and love chocolate and Pringles. These girls are a lot like the kids I worked with in Taiwan, or the ones I lived with in Senegal, or the girls and boys I talked to in Malaysia. Pure hearted, fun to talk to, and loving the fact they got a moment to sit and talk and have the attention fully on them. In light of all the terror that has broken out all around the world, it’s really important that we take a moment to remember that we are the common thread. A mountain or an ocean can separate us, but all children will sing Frozen songs at the drop of a hat if you let them.

I am posting this on a Thursday. I left Madrid on Monday, and went on a secret mission. I’ll blog about that in a day or two! Hope everyone is doing great!

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!

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!

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!