Posted by: yellowt | November 24, 2014

Morocco

I think I should rename this blog, sh*t they don’t tell you in the guidebooks. For our annual trip this year, Kathy and I were very last minute in our planning and after a long debate over a few different options, we finally settled on Morocco. We heard from quite a few people that the country is beautiful but be careful about the people. I wish I had heard about the other things to be careful of. Therefore, consider this a free tips guide.

1.) Stay in riads, traditional Moroccan homes with an atrium courtyard. Some of them have a  little pool in the center and are beautifully decorated and clean. But be warned that the riads in Marrakech tend to be inside the Medina and might be located in tiny alleyways. Try to find your own way or at least be prepared to pay local children money for helping to guide you to your riad.

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2.) Food: Eat breakfast at the riads. The best breakfast we had included yogurt with pomegranate and oranges, toast, thick crepes with honey from a nearby farm, freshly squeezed orange juice and brewed coffee/mint tea. For lunch, try the tagine, a stew with veggies and meat cooked in a traditional clay pot sometimes with a side of couscous. I’m not a big tea drinker but for some reason every time I had mint tea (green tea with mint leaves and sugar), it represented a respite from the hectic city.

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3.) Stay in Essaouira for a day and a half at most. Get a r/t Supratours bus ticket the day before from Marrakech as there are only a few departures per day. You can tell Essaouira used to be a beautiful seaside town and with its’ many white houses with blue accents, it’s almost reminiscent of Greece if had maintained its’ upkeep. Things to do: SUP/surf, explore the souk, hammams where you can get the most thorough exfoliation of your life, argan oil massages and grab an alcoholic beverage at the rooftop escape Taros. Things to buy: ARGAN OIL!, honey, paintings on camel skin, camel skin made sandals and bags and Moroccon lipstick (green lipstick that reacts to your PH level).

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4.) Suck it up and take the 4 hour bus ride to Ouarzazate. Make sure you bring your motion sickness pills because the road from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is the most dangerous and windy one in Morocco, even the locals get sick. Stay for 2 days max. Don’t miss the famous kasbah and UNESCO site Ait Benhaddou famous for being the site of Gladiator, Babel, GoT and many other films. For movie buffs, the Atlas Film studio, one of the largest in the world is another fun place to visit. During our time there, we heard that Ben Kingsley was in town to film the mini series Tut. If you have the time, do a multi-day trek into the Sahara with camels as Ouarzazate is the base of the Atlas Mountains.

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5.) Marrakech…great city to practice your bargaining skills. Things to buy: dried figs and dates, almonds, cashews, black soap, exfoliating towels, oils, futa, ceramics and rugs. Besides shopping, we also visited the beautiful Madersa Ben Youssef, had dinner at the trendy Comptoir Darna and drinks at the infamous Theatro and relaxed in one more close quarters hammam spa.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s exhausting dealing with Moroccans in the streets. You will for sure always have people trying to tell you that routes are closed off so they can try to trick you into giving them money to guide you another way, henna artists marking your hand and telling you to pay them 40-60 Euros for their “art”, snake charmers chasing you down the street for taking photos from afar, taxi drivers who renege on the agreed upon rate and give you the wrong change at the end of the ride, the list goes on. Just be aware that this is part of the experience and be on high alert at all times.

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Posted by: yellowt | February 11, 2013

Capital of the Inca Empire … and Lima

Even if your primary reason for going to Peru is to see Machu Picchu, Cuzco is definitely worth a 3-4 day pit stop. Besides being the only destination to acclimate to the altitude prior to the rigorous trek, it’s a lively and interesting town and incredibly friendly to foreigners. To be honest, it’s been a few months since my trip so I don’t quite remember all the details but you can find below photos from places we explored and info on hotels we stayed at.

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(L to R): Compania Church, in Plaza de Armas, Coricancha, Arco Santa Clara (gateway to San Pedro market), random alley, Sacred Valley (can book a day trip with any hotel), Tambo del Inka hotel, Urubamba Valley, Tambo del Inka

Hotels in Cusco

  • Hostal el Triunfo: cheap, clean, simple breakfast included, free storage and wi-fi
  • Tierra Viva Cusco Plaza: moderate priced, free computer and printer usage, super helpful concierge, breakfast included, nice accomodations
  • Tambo del Inka: expensive, luxurious, great way to relax after the Inka Trail, no meals are included, heated pool, spa, views of Urubamba Valley

*Traveler Tip: Be careful of fake bills, especially when getting change from taxi drivers, they can easily take your real bill and swap it out.

Lastly, I did not find a good reason to stay in Lima for longer than a day other than as a transfer point to Cuzco. I didn’t find the streets to be that safe and our travel companions on the trek were actually mugged in broad daylight. Kathy and I had a full day to wander around before catching our flights so we went to the “nicest” part of Lima, Miraflores, supposedly where the best restaurants are. And this is what it looked like…not so impressed. We ended up hanging out at the local mall and getting back to the hotel early.

Hotel inIMG_8242 Lima: SM Hotel & Business – moderately priced, breakfast included, free wi-fi and bag storage, computers and printers available, helpful concierge, very residential area location

Question: is anyone else having trouble inserting photos into the exact place you want in a post with the new wordpress media format?

 

Posted by: yellowt | December 5, 2012

The Salar

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Never in my life had I considered Bolivia to be among my choices for a vacation destination, but with a few photos and a little convincing from my some time travel companion, Kathy, I found myself pressing the ‘purchase’ button on a shitty little Bolivian airline  (Amaszonas – don’t ever take this company!). At the very last minute, the airline decided to change it’s flight schedule, but conveniently “forgot” to send us an email notification.  We were forced to shorten our stay at the only nice hotel during our trip in South America and put up, instead, in a Psycho-esque hotel in unsafe La Paz then.   The following morning, upon visiting the Amaszonas counter to confirm our flight, we were harassed by the Amaszonas agent and explicitly called “the worst customers ever” for having the audacity to complain about the incompetency of the airline.

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Anyways…the main attraction for Kathy and my trip to Bolivia is a little known town called Uyuni, in particular Salar de Uyuni. Once a massive lake, it’s the largest salt flat in the world,visible even from space. On the first night of our stay, before the tour, we stayed in one of the most unique hotels in the world. Hotel de Sal Luna Salada’s structure is made entirely of salt with salt bed boards, couches, tables and chairs to match. It’s a tad pricey compared to other hotels in Bolivia but worth a night’s stay for the experience. Uyuni does not have many hotels so my recommendation is if you’re planning to visit, book the hotel before you book a tour.

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The following morning, our guide arrived in a 4×4 with the rest of our group, none of whom spoke any English.  Our first stop on the tour was the picturesque salt pyramids. We were praying for rain as even just a cm on the Salar would turn it into one of the largest mirrors in the world; unfortunately, we were not so lucky.

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Everyday, the sky was a perfect shade of blue without a single cloud in sight. The endless expanse of pure white salt was a wonder to see especially in contrast to the cacti on Incahuasi Island. One thing to note on this tour is that it requires a lot of driving.  Each site is a considerable distance from the next, so a little car-sickness can be expected, especially in the backseat of a 4×4 with four off-key singing Israelis sitting in the front the entire trip.

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The second day started early at 7 am with our first stop being a lake filled with pink St. James’s flamingos. It was a surprisingly unusual site as I had (wrongly) assumed that flamingos only lived in tropical climates like Florida. We then drove to another lake, Laguna Colorada, where more flamingos resided. Initially I thought I was seeing things because the lake was red; later, I learned that the redness was the result of sediments and algae pigmentation in the water.

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On our last day, our guide instructed us to bring our bathing suits as we were heading to aguas calientes. I thought ‘you must be joking,  it’s barely 10 degrees C outside!’. Sure enough, we arrived at some sulfuric hot springs (reminiscent of Taiwan) and several brave souls from our group, eager for a bath, were quick to jump in.

The trip to get to Uyuni may not be the most pleasant, but looking back, was well worth the effort. As previously mentioned, the Salar is home to a diverse array of interesting landscapes. From salt flats to the Andes mountain range to Largo Verde to a desert named after Salvador Dali, at times the surreal surroundings made me feel as though we were on a different planet.

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Tips

US citizens are required to have a visa to visit Bolivia. Documents and photos should be prepared and processing fee is $135 USD. You can either get the visa at a Bolivian consulate in the US or at the airport at your first port of entry into Bolivia. I got mine in Cusco where there happened to be a Bolivian consulate. Oh, and don’t forget to get a yellow fever shot!

  • It is freezing at night! Temperatures during the day can be quite mild, but make sure you have long johns, hat and gloves because when you are staying in the desert, be assured it will get cold!
  • Baby wipes! You most likely will not be showering during the entire tour so these will probably be the next closest thing.
  • Altitude in Uyuni is higher than in Cusco so if you’re not adjusted yet, you may want to bring some altitude sickness pills just in case.
  • Try not to get on a tour where the majority of people are Israelis. Not that I have anything against Israelis, but they will most likely keep exclusively to their own group…singing may also ensue…for the entire trip.
  • Don’t stay in La Paz and don’t take Amaszonas airlines

Airline: options will be limited since Uyuni is a small airport, take anything BUT Amaszonas

Hotel: Hotel de Sal Luna Salada (www.booking.com) – there are a lot of Hotel de Sal so make sure you type the entire name

Tour: La Paz on Foot (www.lapazonfoot.com) – speak to Lucia

More Photos: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=19459967

Posted by: yellowt | October 29, 2012

How to Prepare For and Survive the Inca Trail

Now there’s a lot of information on the web about Machu Picchu and its’ historical background but when I was preparing for my trek, I found very few guides on what/how to prepare for one of the most physically challenging activities that I have ever done. So instead of my usual recap of places, here’s my ‘How To’ guide:

Booking: Book your trip early! Our trek started at the end of Sept and even though we booked in April it was not early enough. Recommendation is at least 6 months beforehand. We went with All Trek Cusco and our contact person’s name was Ursula. She was super helpful, responsive and spoke English. Even though All Trek might be a tad more expensive than other agencies, this one included all the entrance fees into the mountain as well as train and local transportation, no hidden fees. Here’s their website in case you are interested in booking. We paid about $470 USD/person but that included the cost of half porter and sleeping bag.

www.alltrekcusco.com

If you fly into Peru, you most likely will enter through Lima. There is really no reason to stay in this city for that long unless you know locals (I will write a separate entry about this) so save money on your accommodations and book a flight for the same day of entry or the following morning. The cheapest airline from Lima-Cusco is Star Peru.

Fitness: Make sure you are somewhat physically fit before the trip. If you want to take it to the extreme, you can run on the treadmill with a face mask on or outside in the humidity to limit your oxygen intake or practice climbing stairs and steep hills. There’s no way to prepare for the high elevation though unless you already live in that type of area.

Packing: There will be no need for make up on this trip; one cannot afford to be vain when you are woken up at the ass crack of dawn for an intense uphill hike that will result in sweating 15 minutes in. As for what to bring, definitely Google the weather before you decide to book the tour. I personally enjoyed the cooler 18˚C weather during late Sept even if it was 0˚C at night. Here is my packing list.

– Backpack with sturdy support, you will be attached to it for at least 8 hours of the day. Should be big enough to hold a change of clothes and toiletries

– Rain jacket or poncho (can purchase in Peru)

– Hiking boots, a worthy investment. I had no blisters afterwards and was so grateful to have splurged a little bit more for my Merrell

– Sweater or sweatshirt, sweatpants (sleeping), hiking pants, 3 tank tops, swimsuit, long sleeve shirt, 3 pairs of socks, underwear, hat, gloves

– Sleeping bag (can rent from tour agency, either carry it yourself or pay a bit more for a porter)

– Sun block, insect repellent, toothbrush/toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner (if you want to be brave and take a freezing shower), small face towel, antiseptic, deodorant and most importantly a pack of baby wipes. This was a lifesaver since I did not shower for 3 days and afterwards, still smelled acceptable, at least in my opinion

– Most valuable TOILET PAPER!! And I’m not kidding when I say bring a roll of it just in case

– Water bottle, granola bars, coca candy and other small snacks

– Original passport, camera, spare camera battery, flashlight, mp3 player, small notebook/pen, sunglasses

Adjusting to Altitude: The elevation of Cusco is around 3,400m and you definitely feel all those meters as soon as you get off the plane. Ideally, you should spend at least 2 days in Cusco before the trek to get acclimated but due to our “late” booking, we only had a half day to adjust. As soon as we got into town, we rushed to find a pharmacy to look for Sorojchi, the pill for altitude sickness. Any pharmacy should carry it. Anything made with coca also helps too. Lucky for us, we didn’t experience any extreme symptoms, just a little dizziness, tiredness and hard of breathing during the afternoon.

Day 1 (12 km): The people you are with can make or break your trip. We ended up being with another group of 3 people + 2 of us + 2 English speaking guides + 7 porters + 1 chef. We were picked up around 7 am and driven to Ollantaytambo for the beginning of the trek. First day is definitely the easiest and the day is done around 5 pm at night. We really though we might starve on this trip but was so impressed with every single meal. The porters hustle up the mountain in their sandals ahead of us to set up our tent and start the cooking before lunch and dinner. We always had a 3 course meal of authentic Peruvian food and each was more delicious than the last. This was also the first day I recognized that my bathroom would be out in nature for the next 4 days.

Day 2 (11 km): Hardest day of the hike due to the ascent to Dead Women’s Pass (4,215 m above sea level) and the multiple levels of stairs. I really don’t mind hiking on an incline, but stairs kill me! When possible, try going around them or following the path of the porters. They know what they are doing. But once you reach the summit, you know you must go down one way or another and this is the part where walking sticks actually help. Some people in our group thought the descent was more difficult. The good thing about this day is that we didn’t stop for a sit down lunch so depending on how fast you are, you could be relaxing at the camp site by 1:30 pm. After being dubbed the ‘party group’ after celebrating conquering Dead Women’s Pass with sips of brandy from a water bottle, we of course had to break out the rum and make some alcoholic hot chocolate cocktails in the evening to go with our happy hour popcorn. This night was the coldest so remember to bundle up before bed.

Day 3 (16 km): The longest hike of the trip that started with a straight 2 hour hike uphill starting at 7 am. One thing to note, I’m usually a coffee drinker but I converted to mate de coca while in Peru. It surprisingly gave me so much energy right off the bat and it tasted like green tea. For this day, I would dress in a few layers because after 1 pm, the hike begins to descend into the jungle part of the mountains where it’s a bit more humid. In the afternoon, you can see the mountain Machu Picchu from the lunch campsite and encounter more and more Quechua buildings above the Urubamba River. We learned that the word Inca means ruler and was reserved only for the King; the tribe is called Quechua.

Day 4 (4 km): Our wake-up call was at 3:30 am this morning so that we could allow the porters to rush and catch their train home. The next two hours were spent waiting in line for the trail to open at 6 am. It wasn’t a very strenuous hike but it was quite crowded since all the groups on the last day converged and departed around the same time particularly when we all reached the Sun Gate. After a few group photos, we continued for about another hour to our final destination…Machu Picchu! Seeing the site after 4 days of hiking was such a proud moment and xtremely gratifying. The trek really made me appreciate the effort and energy it took for the Quechuans to build the “estate” and how lucky we are that the Spaniards never discovered it. On this day, you also have the option to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks the ruins. If you have done the Incan trail, this 1 hr steep hike is really unnecessary. For those who have time, you can stay in the charming town of Aguas Calientes at the bottom of Machu Picchu, a short ride away by bus and relax your sore muscles in their famous hot springs. Don’t forget a bathing suit and flip flops.

Even though we will never really know the true purpose of Machu Picchu, it is fun to speculate. One story we heard from our guide is that the Incas brought young virgins up to the site as sacrifices; however, the killings did not take place there. The girls were drugged and priests then brought the girls further up the mountain near the Sun Gate for the actual killing. If you want to read more about Machu Picchu, I suggest buying Hiram Bingham’s Lost City of the Incas, words from the discoverer himself.

Posted by: yellowt | October 21, 2012

Sawadika

For Garry’s birthday this year, I surprised him with a long weekend trip to Bangkok. Even though I just went last year, I didn’t stay in Bangkok very long and spent most of my time on Backpacker row. This time around, Garry’s friend and I planned a few activities that I didn’t get a chance to do during my last trip.

Wat Arun: On our first morning in the city, we got up bright and early to see the traditional temples and grand palace. When we arrived around 11, we were told by what seemed to be tour guides outside saying that the temple was closed for prayer and suggested that we go see Wat Arun on the other side of the river and then come back. They were even so kind to arrange a tuk tuk for us to take us to the ferry point; however, I soon realized we were being bamboozled when the ferry said it would be 70 baht for us to cross the river. I had actually been to this temple before and knew that there was a public ferry for less than 5 baht per person but since that station was a bit far from where we were being dropped off, we eventually stayed and haggled the price down to 40 baht.

Wat Pho: Also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok. The Buddha itself is 15 m high and 43 m long; there was no way for me to take a photo of the entire Buddha in one shot. The feet consists of mother of pearl engravings of symbols important to Buddhism. What’s interesting to note is that besides being one of the most popular tourist attractions, Wat Pho is an actual working monastery and was one of the first universities that taught the practice of Thai massage.

Nightlife: Gangnam Style has not avoided Bangkok that’s for sure. After starting the night at a chill club where our “table” was a rolling cart with our bottles and us huddling around we went to a lounge aka booking club where working girls were readily available for canoodling and dancing. There was a live band (Thais sure love music) who played local pop songs as well as PSY’s greatest hit. Downstairs, it was pretty calm and there was no nudity, just scantily clad women but I heard that upstairs was where the jiu dian action happens.

Muay Thai: Like all boys, Garry loves watching other guys wearing next to nothing, greased up, climb all over each other and fight. So as another surprise, Dan and I brought him to his first muay thai fight at Channel 7 Stadium. When we walked into the stadium, I was a bit shocked because it looked more like a TV studio than a sweaty uncivilized arena. There were actual bleachers and chairs, stage lighting illuminated the ring and it was packed with mostly locals and a smattering of foreigners. We found an elevated platform to stand on but soon realized it’s usually reserved for bookies and were charged 5 Baht to stay there but it was worth it. From there we could clearly see every aspect of the ceremony starting with the ritual dance that each fighter does upon entering the ring to honor his coach to the swiftness of each kick. For guys as skinny as 120 pounds, they sure can kick with such force that it sounded like the opponent was being belted with a cane.

Dinner Cruise: On our last night in Bangkok, Danny suggested to take a dinner boat cruise down the Chao Phraya River. Normally, this is not my way seeing the city especially since I tend to get motion sickness but I threw caution to the wind and jumped on board. For about 60 baht, you get pick up/drop off service at your hotel, a Thai buffet dinner and a 1.5 hour ride. There are a lot of different companies running cruises but we went with Chaophraya Cruise because we heard that the food is the best (even though it’s the most expensive). Our table of 3 was nicely situated by the buffet on the 2nd floor. Besides decent food, there was a Thai band covering the hits from the 80s and 90s that provided the night’s entertainment. The best part of the ride was being able to see the national temples and palaces lit up at night. If you have the time and want a break from partying, I recommend taking a cruise.

Posted by: yellowt | September 13, 2012

Seaside City

Last month, I had the opportunity to go to Japan for work but to a city that I would have never thought to visit. Yokohama is the 2nd largest city in Japan by population after Tokyo and is considered a prominent port city since it’s situated right on Tokyo Bay. I only had one full day to explore but tried to make the most of it. The hotel that I was staying at was in Shin-Yokohama located right in the Shinakansen train station so getting to Yokohama was convenient.

On Saturday, I woke up bright and early and took the train to the Minato Mirai 21 harbourside development area. As soon as I exited the station, a wave of nostalgia hit me. I had never been to Yokohama yet it felt so similar and then I realized it was because it resembled NYC’s Water Street. There was even a gigantic Bubby’s Pie storefront and a replica of an old ship right outside the station. Since it was quite early and the stores were not fully opened yet, I walked to the Yokohama Museum of Art that happened to be featuring famous Japanese artist Nara Yoshitomo’s collection latest collection a bit like you and me. Now I can’t even try to pretend I understand the meaning behind his work but I can appreciate the scale of his sculptures and the contrast between the innocence of children and more adult themes (vampires, Rock and Roll, etc.) Besides the main exhibit, I was also excited to see that they had some surrealist work from Dali and Picasso at the museum. The museum experience is the total opposite of going to a museum in Taiwan. There are no long lines, no one’s sitting on the ground sleeping, no one’s trying to touch priceless sculptures and paintings, no loud screams and noises, overall such a more enjoyable experience.

After the “cultural” part of my trip was complete, it was time for some serious window shopping. In Taiwan, we don’t get a lot of Western stores so I’m always excited to see if there’s anything I would like to buy even though the Japanese Yen is so damn strong. Two hours later, I came out of the Queen’s Square mall completely empty handed but the prices did not deter me from treating myself to some Japanese food. Instead of going into a restaurant for lunch, I mixed and matched from different stores in the food court and sat outside enjoying the weather with my lunch of cold soba noodle salad, blueberry beer and Bubby’s ice coffee.

Another similarity between Water Street and Yokohama is that both housed/house the tallest building in the country, the Landmark Tower being the tallest in Japan which I did not know at the time. The Minato Mirai is also very children friendly with a mini amusement park and Ferris wheel called the Cosmo Clock 21 that doubles as “the world’s largest clock”. Even though Yokohama is a city I would have never thought to visit on my own, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go.

Side Note: I got to spend one evening in Tokyo and my friend Rich was kind enough to take me out to an authentic yakitori dinner near the Ginza district. It’s similar to St. Marks in NYC but intensified with the intoxicating smell of cooked meat on skewers mixed in with cigarette smoke.

Posted by: yellowt | August 6, 2012

Blue Crush

It took me a couple of years but I finally checked a box on my Taiwan bucket list…learn how to surf. It’s something that I’ve wanted to learn for awhile but it’s also terrified me. I’m not the best swimmer and the thought of being caught under the waves or getting hit on the head by the board made me have some doubts. But even with my lack of confidence, I seemingly convinced a group of friends to come with me one hot Sunday. We took the train to 外澳 in Yilan; conveniently located right outside the station was the surf shop I had been in contact with. For only 800 NT (around $20 USD) per person, we were supposed to receive a private lesson and board rentals for the entire afternoon. Initially we thought this was a score especially when comparing the price to other countries like the US; however, we quickly remembered that nothing this good could be true. Our “lesson” consisted of 5 minutes of instruction max. and then our teacher sent us off on our merry way into the water. I don’t the guy even entered the water once the entire day!

Now the hardest part for me was to even get past the waves to reach calmer waters. Every time I got past one, I was swept back ashore by an even bigger one. My nightmare did come true and I was definitely hit by my own board multiple times. The only comfort is that I was using a beginner board made from a soft foam so it didn’t hurt as much as a normal one would. I guess my persistence impressed the 5 and 7 year old local boys nearby that they were offering me some tips once I was finally able to lay stable on top of the board. Eventually, I was able to catch some waves but was never able to fully get my proper footing on the board but riding the waves back to shore on my stomach was still fun nevertheless.

Little did we know the reason why the waves were so erratic the day we chose to go out was because of the impending Typhoon Saola that hit Taiwan the following week. Our surf day was cut short by intermittent showers and thunderstorms but I think we left the beach pretty optimistic that day and are all eager to return. I’ve also laid out a few tips for first time beginners in Taiwan.

1.) Invest in a rash guard and shorts (if you are a girl). One of our guy friends didn’t have a rash guard and his chest was pretty inflamed after an hour in the salt water. And shorts so that your bikini bottom doesn’t get swept away in the current.

2.) 800 NT is too cheap for a lesson + rental. If you want a real lesson, definitely do some research beforehand and ask more questions to the instructor. If you do not want to pay for a lesson, the beach locals are very helpful as well. Make friends when you get out on the water. I met some guys who would watch the waves for me and let me know when to paddle.

3.) Don’t eat too much beforehand. After swallowing a ton of sea water, you will most likely feel like puking at some point.

4.) Don’t be over ambitious. You will most likely not be able to stand on the board your first time out nor will you be able to push you board under the waves like in “Blue Crush” but don’t be discouraged, it’s all part of the learning process.

5.) Bring a nice big bottle of clean water to rinse out the sea water from your mouth.

6.) BBQ is the best recovery food after a day of surfing. All you can eat BBQ is even better especially at ‘Just Eat’ restaurant in Taipei.

Posted by: yellowt | July 2, 2012

The Balinese Life

One of the great perks of working at my company is the annual team outing every summer. My company usually selects 2 different locations each year, one is usually a beach resort and the other, a metropolitan shopping/touring experience. When it was decided that Bali would be this year’s resort location, I was beyond thrilled. Many a times, during the brutal winters of NYC, I would go online and research far away exotic places where sands were white and bungalows stood on stilts in crystal clear waters and dreamed that one day I would be able to escape there. Even though our resort wasn’t the bungalow I envisioned, it was nevertheless beautiful. The lobby of the Ayodya Hotel in Nusa Dua was probably the largest one I’ve ever been in; open and spacious, it allowed the breeze to permeate throughout and you couldn’t help feel a rush of calmness wash right over you. The rooms were an older 4-5 star hotel style but were clean and each had an outdoor seating patio for two. Since we got in pretty late on our first day, we were quickly ushered to a group dinner at a traditional Balinese restaurant where chefs cooked in an outdoor kitchen on the spot. Our tour guide warned us about was the slow pace of the Balinese and how we would need to test our patience especially when during meal times. I’ve never had Indonesian food before but it was pleasantly tasty, very meat heavy with lots of curry and spices and plenty of hot peppers.

We woke up fairly early the next day for an active morning that started with a run along the beach and then a game of beach volleyball with the coworkers for our mandatory team event. I’ve played beach volleyball probably a couple of times in my life and there’s a reason I don’t get asked to play a lot. It’s mostly because I’m afraid of getting hit with the ball so I either move away slowly or I stand there and watch it come down and assume the person next to me has “got it”. Well I gave up after a few minutes and decided my time was better spent cheering from the sidelines while working on my tan, which is exactly what I did for the better part of the afternoon until our spa time. When one goes to Bali, it is an absolute must to go to the spa. It’s fairly cheap, even compared to Taiwan standards, and it’s oh so enjoyable. The one that was arranged for us was better suited for couples considering at the very end, we were required to take a shower and then marinate in a rose petal bath. The treatment itself consisted of a little foot scrub and one hour oil massage all done in your own private bungalow all for the price of only $35 USD!

We ventured out to Ubud the following day, known for its lush rice farms and the imagery from the film “Eat, Pray, Love”. Unfortunately we didn’t get to really explore that part of the city but we did get to wander around the local markets and found a surprising sanctuary hidden behind a Starbucks of all places. It looked like an old temple that was transformed into an outdoor theater and in front was a marsh-like pond where children were fishing. I was a little upset we only had about 3 hours there and spent a good 3.5 hrs driving to and from Ubud. I’ve already determined that one day I will return to this city and spend a week backpacking and biking just like Julia Roberts.

Our last full day in Bali was pure indulgence. Since I knew what was to come, I made sure to hit the gym in the morning. Promptly at 8:30 am, a crew of us wandered along the beach to the St. Regis a few doors down for their breakfast buffet. $40 USD is a bit on the pricey side for breakfast but it was worth every penny. Besides the usual American style eggs and bacon type buffet available at every hotel, the real draw here is that you are allowed to order anything off the menu for FREE. This includes any beverage such as smoothies, sparkling water, juices, high end coffee and teas. Just a sampling of items you can order off the menu includes wagyu steak with potatoes, lobster and eggs, foie gras on brioche, veal and bacon, french toast croissant, gah I’m drooling just thinking about it. I recall ordering about 9 dishes off the menu in addition to 2 smoothies and multiple cups of coffee. Some of my coworkers had over 13 dishes and almost half of them consisted of either steak or lobster. Two and a half hours later, our lazy butts were by the pool languidly napping from our food coma until our next spa. This time, we booked our own spa after some internet research at Dancing Fingers located pretty close to the hotel. It was opened by Jari Menari who trained in multiple forms of massage and eventually developed her own technique and opened up her own chain of spas consisting of only male masseuses. A 90 minute full body with oil massage is about $35 USD and worth every penny; everyone felt like jelly when leaving the spa. We were starving afterwards and all headed to Kota, a town approximately 20 min. cab ride away for some super fresh seafood at Depot Tanjung Pinang. The cooking style here was more Malaysian/Chinese influence and was so yummy that a big group of us didn’t speak for the first couple of minutes since we were so busy devouring everything in sight. If you are ever in Bali, this restaurant is strongly recommended.

We didn’t have a lot of time on our last day in Bali since our flight was in the early afternoon so we spent our morning lying by the pool and eating fake dim sum at another team arranged dinner. Now most people think Bali is only for couples and honeymoons but if you have a group of great friends who all have the same agenda of relaxing, eating and drinking, then it can also make a great vacation for anyone.

Posted by: yellowt | June 14, 2012

Old Tokyo

It’s not the first place one would think to visit when in Tokyo, but Asakusa has a soft spot in my heart. It’s where I stayed in college for my ISP course and where I visited again 4 years later with my former job at American Greetings when we launched Care Bears in Japan. Today’s Asakusa is a a far cry from the bustle of Shinjiku and Shibuya but for most of the 20th century, it was the place to be, famous for their comedy shows and pachinko parlors. Now, it’s a remnant of 1950s/1960s Tokyo and at the center of it all the Senso-ji Temple. I was only here for a 3 day work trip but during my taxi ride to Asakusa Park View Hotel, I was flooded with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

During my only free afternoon, my director and I explored the temples and surrounding area. Being Japanese, my director taught me the proper way of entering the temple. First, purchase a fortune. I made the mistake of paying for the fortune after I took one and unfortunately ended up with a bad reading that brought me bad luck with electronics for the next several days. Second, surround areas of your body in pain with incense smoke. Third, wash your hands with a ladle from the fountain. Fourth, take a little prayer at the entrance and clap once you’re done. After our spiritual retreat, we were on a mission for a few small purchases aka face wash, Bleach comics, Japanese books and sweets. All the walking around made us quite hungry and my director was craving some traditional Japanese street food and there were plenty of restaurants to choose from. Our lunch consisted of yakisoba, okinomiyaki and monjayaki all washed down with glasses of draft beer; the perfect meal to end our brief trip.

Posted by: yellowt | May 19, 2012

Whirlwind Weekend

I know some people might call me crazy but for mother’s day and my brother’s graduation, I flew/traveled 24 hours from Taiwan to NYC to spend just 3 whole days with my family and friends. Do I regret it? Absolutely not, especially with the perfect weather we had over the weekend. Sure I was tired from going out until 3 am on Friday night catching up with friends and woke up a little hungover at 9 am, but I couldn’t NOT take advantage of this sunshine and lack of humidity. Saturday was devoted to wandering around the city running errands such as browsing Whole Foods, reminiscing in my old neighborhood and chilling on a friend’s terrace chatting with college buds. Our evening was spent pre-gaming at karaoke in Ktown and then dancing to pop jams at Vig bar until wee hours.

My parents came into the city just in time for Mother’s Day on Sunday. As a present, I made reservations for us at Sushi of Gari at the UES location. I had heard great things about this place from many people including my trusty NYmag. We ordered the grilled squid with a dash of salt, chirashi, yellowtail roll, sushi special and black cod teriyaki. The chirashi was beautifully presented but the sushi rice with eggs was really the highlight of the dish; it was perfectly cooked with just a hint of vinegar. The sushi platter was equally tasty; our only complaint was that there wasn’t enough of it! But surprisingly the plate we enjoyed the most was the teriyaki cod, so much so that we had to order 2 servings. Would I recommend this restaurant? Sure, for those who have high disposable incomes and more sophisticated palates who enjoy above average Japanese food in an inconspicuous hole in the wall. My money was actually better spent at Morimoto where we each had the 9 course Omakase menu and were seated right at the bar in front of the sushi chefs. All I have to say is thank goodness my parents had a late lunch of chicken and rice, otherwise the bill would have been much more.

On a more somber note, ever since I saw a few Facebook photos that were posted this year, I was determined to make it down to the WTC memorial this time around. I know that the entire complex is barely halfway completed and it might take another 10 years to finish, but it didn’t matter to me. I started my first year of college in 2002 and even though one year had passed since 9/11, the date was still fresh in everyone’s memory. Yet even though it was like the elephant in the room, we all put on brave faces each day and believed that NYC could withstand anything. It was never more apparent than on the anniversary of 9/11 at Washington Square Park where thousands gathered to pay their respects. The make shift memorials throughout the city were certainly touching but it feels absolute seeing something more permanent. It is a tranquil and elegant space reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial that allows each visitor a moment in peace to fully absorb what this site means to each person and to appreciate all of the heroes who gave their lives that day. I’m looking forward to see the completed museum as well as the soon to be tallest building in New York.

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