Saturday, April 30, 2016

Costa Rica

Remember that time I was gushing about Taiwan?  Well, I sort of feel the same way about Costa Rica.  Not quite as much as Taiwan, but I love Costa Rica.  Especially after coming from Cuba, Costa Rica was a breath of fresh air.  Literally.  All those old cars really polluted up the place.

Costa Rica was not what I was expecting from Central America.  The museums were good with proper curation and English signage.  It was relatively safe.  The food was delicious.  And the water was drinkable from the tap.  Holy crap!  There were a lot of American expats living there – finding it to be a better quality of life than staying in the USA.  I don’t blame them.  The only downside of Costa Rica:  the price tag.  It’s definitely more expensive than I was expecting for Central America.  Food cost more.  Accommodation cost more.  Museums, park entrance fees, and tours all cost more.  The only cheap thing:  bus travel.  The buses were so fucking cheap.  I don’t know how they do it.

A few highlights of my time in Costa Rica:

San Jose:
Most other tourists that I spoke to seemed to be skipping San Jose.  Sure, Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty, biodiversity, and adventure sports, but the country’s capital city has a lot to offer too.  The Jade Museum, National Museum of Costa Rica, and Museum of Contemporary Art and Design all were way better than anything I had seen in a while (and way way better than I was expecting).  The National Theatre is the most famous building in the city and has some neat artwork.  The best part of San Jose:  eating.  Yen and I stayed in the San Pedro area near the university.  The area is known for its plethora of delicious restaurants.  More about the food below.

Poas Volcano:
An easy day trip from San Jose is the Poas Volcano National Park.  We took the bus as far as we could go up the volcano and walked a bit further to the rim of the crater.  We got lucky as it was a (mostly) clear day when we arrived.  Looking down from the rim was a view of the active crater spewing out gases and steam.  It wasn’t erupting or anything at the moment – we weren’t in any danger of being killed by lava or pyroclastics – but it was doing something volcanic and that is a rare sight for most people.  Super cool.

La Fortuna:
La Fortuna is the little town as the base of the Arenal Volcano.  The volcano had been erupting for over four decades but finally petered out in 2010.  It was a major tourist draw back in the day, and tourists still come to the area despite the volcano’s now dormant state.  The volcano is the backdrop for the whole town and its perfect volcano shape looks like something out of a movie.  Next to the volcano and in the same national park lies Cerro Chato – an extinct volcano open for hiking.  We made it to the rim only to find the clouds and mist obscured the entire view.  Bah!  We did get to see one exciting thing though:  a coati!  It’s a super cute member of the racoon family and it was sniffing out us tourists at the top in hopes of scoring some snacks.

No, coati.  You get nothing.

After our hike, we took a dip in the water at La Catarata de La Fortuna (La Fortuna Waterfall).  The following day, we started out with a breakfast of champions:  a tour of a chocolate plantation!  Aside from the usual explanation of the cacao-growing and chocolate-making process, we were treated to various tropical fruits, sugarcane juice, and – of course – hot chocolate.  The chocolate plantation was also a good place for a bit of wildlife viewing – with woodpeckers, lizards, and a big ass iguana up in a tree.  After an afternoon massage (because we’re fancy bitches), we headed to the Baldi Hot Springs – one of the many thermal springs in the area – to take a dip in the hot waters.

Taking a van, a boat across Lake Arenal, and another van, we ended up a few hours later in Santa Elena and Monteverde – neighbouring towns/areas that are home to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest.  Zip-lining through this particular cloud forest was on my list of 103 Things and I was thrilled to check it out.

Thrilled aside, let me be honest for a second:  I don’t do adventure sports.  I work in insurance.  I’m risk averse.  Yen can vouch that I was a bit nervous (or maybe more than a bit nervous), but I ended up pulling my shit together.  The first zip-line or two were scary but I quickly got used to it and began to enjoy the experience of whizzing over the cloud forest canopy.  The ticket also included a “Tarzan swing” – where you strap in and some kid employee yells at you to bend your knees… “BEND YOUR KNEES”… and then he pushes you off a platform and you go swinging through the air on a rope while letting out a series of yelps that are not at all embarrassing.

Not in the least.

Finally, Yen made me purchase the upsell for $10 and we did a “Superman” zip for the final one kilometre-long cable.  The “Superman” is basically where they strap you in extra good and you’re in sort of a plank position looking at the ground and then you go flying through the air like… well, like Superman.  Sounds fun, right?

I swear I was going to vomit for the first few seconds but it actually ended up being good fun.  Terrifying for those of us afraid of heights, but good fun nonetheless.

Back on the ground, the zip-line place had a series of tree top walkways where we got to see a monkey!  We also did two guided tours through the cloud forests:  one in the morning and one at night.  The night walk was a wildlife goldmine:  an eyelash viper, tarantula, armadillos, scorpion, toucan, green viper in the shape of a penis, and a motherfucking two-toed sloth.  SLOTH!  The morning walk was more bird focused and we saw various species of hummingbirds and the most famous bird in the region:  the gorgeous quetzal.

Food food food:
Ok, Costa Rican food isn’t all that different from other typical foods in the region.  For breakfast, we had gallo pinto.  It translates literally into “painted cock” – like a rooster, not a penis – but I don’t know why it’s called that.  It’s basically eggs, rice mixed with black beans, cooked plantains, a tortilla or two, and some sauce.  For lunch, the typical set plate is called a casado and it’s not too different from the gallo pinto.  You order your casado at a soda (a small local restaurant) and it includes some sort of meat with rice, beans, cooked plantains, maybe a tortilla, and various salads (such as pasta salad, cole slaw, potato salad, beetroot salad, whatever).

But the real gems were the western style restaurants.  The San Pedro neighbourhood of San Jose and the Santa Elena/Monteverde area have a ton of delicious restaurants that cater to the yuppy university crowd and/or tourists.  There are bakeries, Middle Eastern restaurants, Asian food, Mexican (duh!), tons of vegetarian options, crepes, and more.  The food was fresh.  It was delicious.  And I swear many of the restaurants could easily survive in Australia.  Crazy.  It’s also worth mentioning coffee.  While 99% of the country’s coffee production is exported, 1% now remains onshore and cute little cafes are buying it up and serving coffee that wouldn’t be out of place in Sydney.  Delicious.

After 10 days in Costa Rica, Yen headed back down under and I made my way to the country’s northern border to meet up with two friends from university.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Costa Rica, follow this link:

Friday, April 22, 2016


So…. I got an Australian passport and I went to Cuba!  Yay!  It was much easier that way.  Americans have to jump through hoops.  My friend Yen flew over from Sydney to travel with me to Cuba (and to Costa Rica as well).
I might as well just jump into it:  I have super mixed feelings about Cuba.  Yes, aspects of Cuba are nice, but there’s always more to the story.  Healthcare is free for everyone and it’s pretty good.  I love free healthcare!  I wish America had free healthcare!  Yay for Cuba!  Except doctors get paid the equivalent of $24 per month.  That’s not enough to survive on even if you are single without a family.  Most doctors have to drive taxis after hours to be able to make enough money to survive.  The average wage for everyone is about $19 per month.  Many families rely on money sent from their families overseas in the USA or other countries.  Roads are freshly paved… when dignitaries like President Obama come to town.  The architecture is beautiful and many buildings have received UNESCO funding for restoration.  But the majority haven’t.  And they are falling apart.  Food rations are provided by the government, but they are basic and aren’t nearly enough to live off of.  In the 1990’s – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba basically had a big famine and the average Cuban lost one-third of their body weight.  It’s great if you want to lose weight, but this was the 1990’s.  Not the 1890’s.  WTF, Cuba?  Seeing all of the old cars – and riding in all of the old cars – is super neat, until you realize that they are spewing out all sorts of black smoke and they constantly break down.  The propaganda machine was strong in favour of communism, but the museums and official literature fail to mention how so many Cubans fled from it in the early 1960’s… and in the 1990’s… and even recently.  Up until very recently, Cubans were easily able to get visas for Ecuador.  They’d go and then try to make their way overland to the USA via Colombia, Central America, and Mexico.  Learning about this, Nicaragua – friends with Cuba – closed their border to Cubans at the Cuban government’s request.  So, many Cubans became stuck in Costa Rica and Panama.  Those two countries have intercepted thousands of Cubans already in 2016.  Thousands!  This year!  And we’re only in April!  So, Mexico and all of the Central American nations (except Nicaragua) pitched in and provided airlifts to bring the Cubans northward (avoiding Nicaragua) to help them get to the USA.  If it’s as good in Cuba as they want you to believe, then why is there still a massive exodus in 2016?

Most importantly: communism has failed.  And those clinging onto it are suffering the most.  Cuba has two currencies:  the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC).  The CUP is the national currency used by the people.  The CUC is for tourists and is pegged 1 to 1 with the US dollar.  So the CUC is worth a lot more.  Those people working in tourism have access to tips and tourist dollars.  So they are getting comparatively rich very quickly.  For example, my tip to my tour guide for the week was more than a doctor makes in a month.  Multiply that by fifteen people on our tour and you can see that a disparity is growing quickly.  Which is exactly what communism aims to eliminate.

What a clusterfuck.

Cuba was a beautiful country and I met some very nice people there, but maybe my thoughts on Cuba actually aren’t so mixed…

A few highlights of my time in Cuba:

Most of my time in Cuba was spent in Havana.  Which makes sense.  It’s the biggest city and the capital.  As Havana is in Latin America, I of course saw some churches and cathedrals.  But I mostly tried to avoid them because I didn’t want a repeat of being templed out too soon in Asia.  To counterbalance it, I also visited Havana’s most prominent Jewish synagogue.  I spoke with the staff there and may have found some information on some of my family members that fled to Cuba from Europe in the 1930’s (and then fled Cuba for the USA in the 1960’s).  I need to compare notes when I get back to my mom’s house in Florida.

Old Havana – the historic old centre of the city – has several beautifully restored plazas which make for a great walking tour.  The Malecon – an 8 kilometre waterfront promenade – was also a great walk during the day, at sunset, and at night when it seemed the whole city came out to socialize – just hanging out on the sidewalks.  As Havana was an important Spanish settlement, there are a handful of forts to visit.  My favourite was Castillo del Morro.  Perched across the bay from the main part of Havana, the fort offers great views.  It is still used today as navigation for boats entering and exiting Havana’s port.  The one peso ferry ride to get there was definitely within my budget.

Museums were also on the agenda.  The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has a whole building devoted solely to Cuban art.  The Museo de la Revolucion talked about how everyone was happy with the revolution… Right.  The Museo de la Ciudad was set in a nice building and that’s about it.  And the Museo de Naipes (playing card museum) was less a museum and more just someone showing off all the random playing cards they’ve collected over the years.  None of the museums were particularly outstanding.

Elsewhere in Havana, we visited the fancy shmancy Hotel Nacional, a Buena Vista Social Club (apparently there are a few), a gay club (where topless men left the stage and were replaced by a flamenco band – WTF?), and the Necropolis Cristobal Colon aka Christopher Columbus Cemetery… where he isn’t buried.

Santa Clara:
Our group stopped in Santa Clara to check out the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum.  He is idolized in Cuba.  Based on the information I received, he was sort of a dick.  We also saw the pretty town square.

UNESCO-listed and beautifully restored Trinidad is one of the major tourist destinations in Cuba.  The town’s main steps serve as a big club at night.  The Museo Historico Municipal has a few interesting displays and a great view from its tower.  We took a salsa class (I am apparently terrible at salsa dancing but I think it’s because they made me dance with girls.  Yuck!) and went to a nightclub deep inside a cave in a hill just outside the town.  Nearby, a national park had a nice little hike to a waterfall, and Yen and I rented bicycles one day to get out to the gorgeous beaches.

Our group had a brief stop in the city of Cienfuegos.  The city also has a lot of beautifully restored buildings – just like all of the other UNESCO sites in Cuba.  One of the highlights of our quick stop was to check out some stores.  Our guide took us to a store that sold good in CUP and another that sold goods in CUC.  Both were shitty, but the CUP store was definitely shittier.  There is no selection.  You want shampoo – you get shampoo.  You don’t get to pick your brand and scent.  There’s only one.  Maybe two or three options if you’re really lucky.  But really, you’re lucky that they have shampoo at all.  Communism.

Just outside of Cienfuegos, we stopped at the infamous Bay of Pigs to take a nice swim in the beautiful waters.

The more rural area of Viñales was our home for two nights.  Here we took a day trip to the gorgeous Cayo Jutias for a day at the beach.  We also visited an organic farm where we had a delicious meal, a tobacco farm where we got to see how a Cuban cigar is rolled, and a nearby liquor distillery.  The distillery – in the city of Pinar del Rio – was pretty shitty.  Comparing to the other alcohol tours I’ve done in other countries, it was fairly evident that quality control, occupational health and safety, and sanitation were not really on the mind.  Ick.  We also visited the Las Terrazas biosphere reserve on the way back to Havana.

Food - the anti-highlight:
I know this blog is already long, but I can’t blog without mentioning the food.  The food in Cuba is… not so great.  The Cuban food in Miami is better.  The reason:  Miami has ingredients.  Cuba doesn’t.  There are no big grocery stores in Cuba.  It’s all little government shops with little selection.  I had four types of fruits in Cuba:  pineapple, papaya, guava, and banana.  That’s pretty much all they have.  The vegetable selection was not much better.  Chicken, pork, and seafood are available, but beef is scarce.  It’s restricted by the government because they don’t have enough cows and it’s costly anyway.  Even one of their national dishes – ropa vieja – is made with lamb in many restaurants because they can’t get their hands on beef.  It’s ridiculous.  Rice and beans are prevalent, as are fried plantains.  Restaurants have been allowed to open since 2011, so we were told the food is a lot better now than what is was in the pre-restaurant era.  But the restaurants still struggle with the same lack of ingredients.  I did manage to get some shitty Chinese food in Havana’s old Chinatown (nearly all of the Chinese left after the revolution) and shitty pizzas were prevalent and cheap.  But they were usually terrible.  Like, offensive to god terrible.  It’s amazing how one country can fuck up a pizza so bad everywhere.

To drink, there was lots of fake Coke and fake Sprite.  And lots of rum.  More rum than you can shake a stick at.  I don’t normally like rum, but I’ll give the Cubans one thing:  they make a good rum.  I had pina coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres, and mojitos.  I like mojitos.

But the rum doesn’t excuse the food.  It was like the exact opposite of my food porn from Mexico City.  By day 11, it was definitely time to head to a place where I could switch up the cuisine.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Cuba, follow this link:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

CDMX Food Porn

For those of you that know me well, and those of you that barely know me, and those of you that don’t know me but have ever read any of my blogs, or those of you that don’t even know where that sound was coming from but happened to be within three kilometres of me while I was at a Mexican restaurant… you know that I love Mexican food.  I’ve eaten Mexican food in 27 different countries on all six inhabited continents.  Yes, I had Mexican food in Mexico a LONG time ago, but I was young and scared of the third world so I think I played it very safe.  But now – as an adult that knows how to avoid food poisoning (usually) – I was excited to touchdown in Mexico City (CDMX) and start eating my way through the largest city in the Americas.

And that’s just what I did.

I ate.  I blushed.  I took another bite.  I felt warm.  I licked the spoon.  Fuck this is hot.  Just one more nibble as I scrape the plate.  I can’t handle any more!  Tres leches is coming?  Oh!!!!!!

A few highlights of things I put in my mouth in Mexico City:

Picture it:  a warm plate.  Two long, hot enchiladas.  Covered in sultry sauce.  Mouth-watering.  Maybe I should unbutton my top button to send the signal that I’m going to make my move.  Then I fork those enchiladas.  Ooooooooo.  Delicious.

My favourite enchiladas of the trip were at a restaurant called Cabrera 7.  They were chicken mole enchiladas with almonds.  They were so hot.  11 out of 10.  I get all hot and bothered just thinking about them.  I also had enchiladas verdes and vegetarian mole enchiladas.  I need to go take a cold shower.

A long, tall, fully erect cactus stands all hot in the desert.  Shortly thereafter, it’s on my plate in the form of a chicken and cactus taco covered in creamy, creamy cheese.  This is the plot of the food porn film that I’m making.  I’ve been inspired.

I cheated on the cactus and also had a fourgy with tacos of zucchini with corn, poblano pepper with cream, and chicken a la talla.  And because I’m a high class ho, I ever-so-sensually put a duck mole taco into my mouth.  Duck.  Mole.  Duck.  Mole.  It’s so fancy.  It’s like having sex on the balcony of the penthouse suite of a six-star hotel.  Quick – give me some ice!

Tamales.  Oh tamales!  My favourite was the tamal oaxaqueno – a chicken mole tamal that’s a specialty of Oaxaca.  And Americans:  did you know that it’s not a tamale.  It’s a tamal.   Tamales is plural and Americans just chopped off the “S” as if it was English.  I learned something new.  Smart is sexy.

What’s hotter than Anderson Cooper laying naked on top of a bear-skin rug and a big pile of money?  A hot, steamy bowl of tortilla soup.  He may be a silver fox, but he’s got nothing on what’s in the bowl.

And what has my trip been missing?  I’ve been so focused on the Mexicans that I forgot about other cultures.  Some hot interracial action is in order.  Sushiroll is a chain of Mexican-inspired sushi restaurants.  After some sake sangria, my sushi rolls arrived.  One set of rolls with manchego cheese.  The other with spicy chipotle sauce.  It was too hot to handle.  It was Mexican-Phill-Japanese action and it was definitely rated X.

Every hot, throbbing meal needs a glass of liquid sex to cool it down a bit.  And I made sure drinks were on order.  Tequila drinks.  Mezcal drinks (it’s like tequila).  Pulque.  And Micheladas – beer with lemon and salt on the rim.  Rim.  It’s like a margarita.  But with beer.  And it gets me excited!

If you haven’t climaxed yet, then this is sure to take you home.  So just remember:  this is not safe for work.

Arroz con leche.  It’s Mexican rice pudding.  It belongs in my mouth.  Always.  Then there’s tres leches – aka “three milks”.  It’s a sponge cake with three different types of cream in it.  But they should change the name to “cuatro leches” – aka “four milks” – because when I eat it there’s a fourth cream produced.  Oh baby!  And then there’s churros.  Long, strong churros.  Filled with chocolate, oozing out of the tip.  You have to suck a little before eating it to avoid it dripping everywhere and making a mess.  I hate when the ooze gets all over me.  I want it all in my mouth.

And I have to give massive kudos to Mexico because they knew I was coming and they prepared macarons just for me.  I filled my tight little box with six flavours:  Palomitas Caramelizadas y Cardamomo, Naranja y Mezcal con Sal de Gusano, Horchata y Vainilla, Chocolate Mexicano, Pan de Elote, and Gloria.  Translated from Spanish to English:  caramelized popcorn and cardamom, orange and mezcal with worm salt, horchata and vanilla, Mexican chocolate, corn bread, and caramel.  Translated from English to Phill:  foreplay, moaning, heavy petting, sex, climax, and afterglow.

Was that as good for you as it was for me?  No?  Well maybe you should go to Mexico City…

I don’t have any selfies of me with food in Mexico City, mainly because my hands were… covered in taco sauce.

Yeah.  Taco sauce.  That’s right.

To see more pornographic photos of food in Mexico City, follow this link:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Mexico City

I couldn’t get from the USA to Cuba directly so I had to make a pit stop somewhere else.  The cheapest option:  Mexico City!  It wasn’t on my initial itinerary, but I’m super glad I went.  The city was impressive – definitely not what I was expecting.  While there were definitely some dodgy characters around, there was a massive police presence in the main tourist areas and I never felt unsafe.  Their metro system was dirty and crowded, but it only cost 5 pesos which is around US$0.30.  Compare that to London’s underground – also dirty and crowded – and the value is just mind-blowing.

Mexico City had some lovely neighbourhoods to walk around.  La Roma had a so many delicious-looking cafes and restaurants.  Polanco was the super fancy shmancy part of town with all of its Jews and valet parking at Starbucks.  It makes all other Starbucks everywhere else in the world look like slums.  Paseo de la Reforma – one of the main streets in the city – is closed to cars on Sunday.  Joggers, walkers, and bicyclists were out and about taking advantage of the open space.  There were dance classes in the street, food vendors, and more.  It was a fantastic walk.

The most impressive thing for me was the political situation in Mexico’s capital city.  Just like in the USA, Mexico is a union of states.  Up until the end of January, Mexico City was known as the Federal District (DF) – their version of the District of Columbia.  Just like Washington DC, the capital wasn’t equal to the rest of the country in terms of political representation and voting rights.  After years of pushing, January marked the end of the DF and the start of CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico).  No longer called the Federal District, the city is simply now just Mexico City and has been elevated to the same status as a state.  So, in summary, Mexico has beat the United States to equality for those people living in its capital city.  WTF, Congress?  Maybe the US should scrap the wall along the border and let some good ideas flow across instead…

Ok, enough of my political ranting.  A few highlights of my time in Mexico City:

One of my 103 Things is Teotihuacan – one of the most famous sites for Aztec ruins.  Located outside the city in the next state, it was an easy day trip from the capital.  The massive Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon were the main sights, but there were a ton of other smaller temples as well.  I went on a tour organized by my hostel and it was fantastic.  The guide was great and gave us a lot of information about the site and the Aztecs in general.

Elsewhere, the Templo Mayor right in the middle of the city has the ruins of the old Aztec capital – Tenochtitlan – and a museum about the site.  Another site – Tlateloco – has better restored ruins and a massive church which the Spanish built using stones from the pyramids there.

Museo Frida Kahlo:
After Teotihuacan, my next favourite thing was the Frida Kahlo Museum.  While Frida wasn’t the most well-known artist of her time (her husband – Diego Rivera – overshadowed her), the movie about her life thrust her into the history books.  Their house has been converted into a museum which has preserved some of the rooms as they were and transformed some into galleries of her work with displays on her life.  A temporary exhibition on her clothing and various braces she had to wear (she had an accident when she was young which badly damaged her body) was on display when I visited.

I visited various sites to check out Mexican art.  The Museum of Modern Art seemed to be mostly closed so the only noteworthy item on display was one of Frida’s most famous works:  The Two Fridas.  The National Palace – once the head of government of the country – has massive murals painted by Diego Rivera.  The Palace of Fine Arts (which also contains a big theatre) also has large murals by other famous Mexican artists and was free when I visited on a Sunday.

Aside from the art museums, the two big museum draws in Mexico City are Chapultepec Castle (which contains the National History Museum) and the National Anthropology Museum.  The former is set in an old castle which has been well-preserved with colonial furniture.  The museum section tells the history of Mexico but without any English whatsoever.  My Spanish is good enough to get the main points from the text, but it probably would have been better with a guide.  My favourite display were old maps which show Texas as part of Mexico.  Sometimes I think we should give it back…

The latter museum is MASSIVE and tells the entire anthropological history of the country from pre-historic times until today.  Relics from the Aztecs, Mayas, and a bunch of other cultures that I had never heard of were on display.  Even though their English captions were shorter and fewer than the Spanish ones, I still had to rush through the museum.  I was inside for four hours and only left because I was super hungry.  It was fantastic.  My favourite part:  ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Olmec phallic statues.  Of course.

No trip to a Latin American country is complete without churches.  And there are many.  I did my best to avoid them so I wouldn’t get churched out.  Aside from the Church of Santiago at the Tleteloco site, I visited the Metropolitan Cathedral which sits on the Zocalo (Mexico City’s main plaza).  The cathedral was massive and ornate, but it still only took five minutes to go through.  The Basilica of Guadelupe and the neighbouring Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe (built when the original proved to be too small to handle all the pilgrims coming) were excellent.  They are two of the most famous churches in the country because some dude saw the image of the Virgin Mary there a really long time ago and now that image is the patron saint of the Mexico and well-known all over Latin America.  Apparently.  Some of this Catholic mythology is really pushing the boundaries here.  I think the Shinto traditions in Japan are way more fun.

Elsewhere in Mexico City, I walked around a lot, went up the fairly unimpressive Monument to the Revolution, and did my best to confuse Starbucks baristas (and others) by telling them that my name is Felipe.  “Really?”  “Sí.”

There’s one aspect of Mexico City that I haven’t discussed here.  For those of you that know me, or have ever met me, or have ever read any of my blogs even just once, then you know what that is.  I’ll devote a special blog to that next.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Mexico City, follow this link:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Santo Domingo

After staying in actual homes and eating proper food for a few weeks, I decided that I needed to keep it real and make a little side trip from the USA.  I was missing hostels.

But not really.

Santo Domingo – the capital of the Dominican Republic – is a quick flight from Fort Lauderdale so I bought the cheapest ticket I could find and hopped down for four days.  Santo Domingo doesn’t have the pretty beaches that lure in the travellers to all the other parts of the Dominican Republic, but it’s an old city with a rich history.  And I usually prefer museums to excruciating sunburn anyway.  Settled by the Spanish in the late 1400’s – shortly after Columbus arrived – Santo Domingo retains the title of oldest European city in the Americas.  With that, there are a lot of “first” this and “oldest” that.  Some of it is interesting.  Some of it is not.

A few highlights of my time in Santo Domingo:

Catedral Primada de las Americas:
The first cathedral in the Americas sits in the Zona Colonial.  Well-preserved, the church has a great little audio tour that takes you around the building explaining historical events and religious symbols.

Museo Alcazar de Colon:
This museum sits in what was once the house of Diego Columbus – the son of Christopher Columbus.  It has been restored to look like what it likely looked like when Diego lived there.

Museo de las Casas Reales:
This museum was my favourite in Santo Domingo.  It showcases the history of the city and the country, and also had a great little audio tour.

Elsewhere in the Zona Colonial:
I visited Fortaleza Ozama – the oldest preserved European fort in the Americas.  I strolled around Parque Colon to do some people watching and visited the Panteon Nacional just in time to hear the national anthem play.  At the Altar de la Patria (Altar of the Homeland), some shifty guards grabbed my camera to take pictures and then asked for money.  Fuckers.  I also saw the gate to their Chinatown (it’s not impressive in any way shape or form, but I suppose it’s impressive that they have one) and Ponce de Leon’s house.  I learned a lot about Ponce de Leon growing up in Florida because he was the first to discover the state.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go into his house because people still live there.  WTF?  Can you imagine living in the house of such an important historical figure?

Faro a Colon:
Commonly known as the Columbus Lighthouse, this is one of the two attractions I ventured outside the Zona Colonial for.  It’s not actually a proper lighthouse, but it does emit a big ass beam of light which is apparently visible from Puerto Rico when it’s on.  The “lighthouse” contains the remains of Christopher Columbus, except that his remains are actually buried in Seville, Spain.  So nobody actually knows who is buried inside the tomb and the government of the Dominican Republic allegedly won’t let the bones be exhumed for DNA testing.  Sounds dodgy to me.  Anyway, the tribute to Columbus is quite nice despite the fact that some hobo is probably in there and the “lighthouse” also has a big museum area and displays from all of the countries in the Americas, including Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia, and a few others.  Wait a minute…

Parque Nacional Los Tres Ojos:
The smallest national park in the country, this little park just a *hop, skip, and a jump away from the Zona Colonial contains a few nice walking trails, underground lakes with pretty colours, aboveground lakes without pretty colours, and a nice little boat ride through a cave.

*hop, skip, and a jump = taxi

Dominican food was… fairly uninspiring to be honest.  I had some chicharrones de pollo (pieces of chicken) with plantains at a nice restaurant overlooking the water.  For dessert, I enjoyed a majarete – which I think is a sweet corn pudding with cinnamon and delightfulness.  I enjoyed a semi-traditional mofongo – mashed up plantains and root vegetables with pork (except I swapped the pork for chicken).  In case you’re wondering, the mofongo in the DR is nothing like the mofongo in Puerto Rico.  I also enjoyed a few Presidente beers – the local favourite which was also the favourite of my grandpa.

And I had Mexican food.  Duh.

My little side trip to the DR was a success.  After leaving Santo Domingo, I headed back to the USA to repack my bag and get back on the road (or the air really).  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Santo Domingo, follow this link:

Monday, April 4, 2016

'Murica, Round 1

America:  Land of the free.  Home of crazy Republicans.

I had not been to the USA in 3.5 years so I was a bit overdue for a visit.  There really isn’t all too much to report as my main activities were visiting friends and family and eating more food than you can possibly imagine.  There are no major highlights, but here’s a quick rundown of my time in the USA, just so you all don’t think that I just skipped a month of the blog.

Coral Springs, Florida – in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area – is my hometown and there is absolutely nothing to do there.  It’s a big, boring suburb.  I have two friends from high school who remained in the area and I caught up with them.  Aside from that, I did a bit of shopping, saw my mother, sister, and a few other family members, and spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning up my old room.  There was so much shit in there.  I saw a few friends’ mums and went to my favourite pizza place and my favourite ice cream place from when I was a kid (and the owners of Larry’s Ice Cream still remember me!)  The only new thing I did was pay a visit to the Green Cay Nature Center & Wetlands – a bit north of my hometown – with some family that wanted to go.  I saw a crocodile and some swamp birds.  Typical Florida.

I flew to Austin, Texas from Florida to visit a good mate of mine who moved there from Australia.  We did a few nice walks through some parks but most of the activities revolved around food, like going to Chuy’s – my favourite Tex-Mex restaurant.  There were also tacos for breakfast and burgers on doughnut buns.  Because America.  And Texas.

From Austin, we drove to Houston to visit my old university stomping grounds.  There was BBQ.  There was my favourite brunch spot.  And there were lots of visits with friends from my university who still live there.

Fort Worth:
From Houston, I travelled north to Fort Worth, Texas.  As flights were prohibitively expensive for no apparent reason, I had another first experience on my gap year: a Greyhound bus.  The bus ride itself wasn’t too terrible, but the Greyhound station in Houston was terrifying.  It was way dodgier than any of the bus stations I went to in Laos or Vietnam.  I got approached by a homeless man asking for money to help get him back to Louisiana.  I was eating breakfast at the time.  It made my yoghurt taste bad.  Our bus stopped halfway at a gas station/Dairy Queen combo in some quintessentially redneck town.  There were Christians with bibles awaiting our arrival in the gas station parking lot.  Oh, and I also got yelled at by the bitchy driver on my second Greyhound bus for boarding before she told me to board – though mostly everyone else had already boarded.  I guess I’d be a complete bitch too if I was a Greyhound driver.  And yes, I had to change buses in Dallas, like on an airplane.  Except it would have been the world’s shittiest airplane.  Like a box with wings.

In Fort Worth, I ate more Mexican food and more BBQ with my grandmother and a bunch of other family members. I was also reminded of why America can be so terrible at times:  Republicans.  It was local election season and there were signs everywhere and flyers touting politicians’ accomplishments on anti-gay measures, anti-abortion measures, and pro-gun measures.  These “courageous conservatives” were a solid reminder of why I moved to Australia.

I had had enough of the USA for a while and I was itching to get back on the road and scope out thirteen Latin American countries before returning to visit a few other parts of the US in July.  But first, let me take a selfie.

Me with Bobby and Cade at Hermann Park in Houston.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


Soooo…. I went to England.  I didn’t plan to go to England.  I didn’t plan to go to Europe at all.  But airlines make no sense and fares to go from Tokyo to the USA were substantially cheaper if I went via London.  So I did.  Surprisingly, I had never been to the UK before.  I don’t really know how it’s never happened but I guess I always assumed I would go at some point so it never featured so highly on my list.  Get the hard ones out of the way first and save the easy ones for later, right?

My first impression of the UK was pretty terrible.  As one of her newest royal subjects, I was expecting the queen to meet me at the airport.  That bitch didn’t.  I thought the Brits were supposed to be polite?  Ugh.  Oh well.  I suppose I’m fairly used to dealing with bitchy queens.  I also had a bad impression of the UK from their transport.  Trains are incredibly expensive, a bit confusing, and the station staff are anything but helpful.  The subway (aka tube or underground) is insanely crowded and uncomfortable.  I hope/plan to move to the UK after this year of travel is over, but I’m now a bit nervous about it based on what my commute might look like.  But, transport and a bitchy queen aside, London didn’t feel all too foreign.  The main reason: I have so many familiar faces there.  Between Australians who live in Britain, Brits who used to live in Australia, and the many British travellers I’ve met along the way, my social circle in London would already be at critical mass on day 1 when I hopefully/finally move there.

Given my crowded schedule full of catch-ups with friends – and a few insurance networking meetings thrown in for good measure – I didn’t really have much free time to sightsee.  But, I did manage to do a handful of things.

A few highlights of my time in England:

My first stop in England was Bristol.  Not usually on most people’s itineraries, I popped over to visit a mate.  Bristol doesn’t have too much to offer for tourists, but one stand-out attraction was Brunel’s SS Great Britain Museum.  The SS Great Britain was a ship from the 1800’s that was super revolutionary at the time.  The museum displays the ship (which was salvaged in the 1970’s from a scrapyard in the Falkland Islands) as well as history of the time, history of ship technology, and history of the ship itself.  It was a grand surprise.  I also visited the Bristol Zoo and rode my first red double decker bus.

I made a day trip to Oxford to visit two friends who live in that area.  The city was cute and it was a nice day walking through the streets and park areas.  Aside from that, I didn’t really do anything touristy aside from looking at some of the university buildings.

My friend Charlotte took off work on my first full day in London and took me on a great walking tour of the city.  We saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and so much more.  I also got a picture in one of the famous red phone booths that smells like piss.  Now I’m really a tourist in Britain.  Yippee!  I visited the spectacular Tate Modern on my own and hit up the National Portrait Gallery one evening with friends.  My friend Tamara from university met me for a walk at Regent’s Park followed by food at the delicious Borough Market.  I also had various other outings, meals, and drinks with various friends and groups of friends.  It’s so hard being popular.

London has not one but two of my 103 Things, and I was able to properly check one off on this trip.  The food hall inside the world famous Harrod’s department store was on my list.  Prices were high but I splurged on brunch inside the department store followed by the purchase of a super posh red velvet cupcake from the food hall.  OMG JIZZWORTHY.

British cuisine:
The Brits are not known for their cuisine.  Not at all.  But I did manage to go local for my first lunch in the country by way of a meat pie from the best-named pie shop in the whole country: Pie Minister.  That was pretty much where my experimentation with the local food ended.  London is massive and has all sorts of food.  I had Indian food – a staple of the British diet – as well as several Australian-style cafes for brunch.  And, of course, I had Mexican food.  Four times.  Because I can.

It was so good to see all of my friends – particularly Ross and Jon who hosted me for the week!  Despite the transport woes, it was a good first taste of what very well could be my future home.  Visiting all my peeps got me in the mood to see a few more of my peeps.  I hadn’t been back to the USA in 3.5 years so it was about time for a visit.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in England, follow this link: