Closing Thoughts to an Asian Adventure

28 Mar

I landed in JFK, in the darkness, watching the end of La La Land and crying, with exaggerated tears that the movie, I was convinced, pilfered from me. Of course I don’t cry during movies like this, I cry when the plane that carried me from worlds away touches down and abandons me on New York concrete, before embarking on its next adventure to somewhere amazing.

I sauntered in a daze through immigration and waited for ages to get my bag, which, after 45 minutes, I was convinced had gotten lost in transit. I waited for customs, walked outside the airport, and stood at the arrivals pick-up in my sweatshirt and flip flops, in the freezing cold, staring down at my bare, pedicure hungry toes. The silver Tahoe pulled up (a car that I forgot we owned), I threw my bag and myself into the back seat and, before the door could even close, the car was driving away from the madness of the airport. Angela asked how the flight was and Mom said she would have gotten out to hug me if JFK wasn’t such a madhouse. No sentimental hellos here. And just like that, weather talk commenced and the eerie feeling that no time had passed since I was last here consumed me.

But time had passed, a substantial amount of time. Half a year, six months and a week, 190 days spent in Southeast Asia, the faraway Eastern world so completely different from ours. Half a year mostly spent embarking on adventures you couldn’t have predicted the day before, eating cheap and questionable street food, sleeping in beds that you pray aren’t infested with bed bugs surrounded by people you hope won’t snore or steal your things, deciding if you should splurge the extra dollar for air-conditioned dorms, hunting down the cheapest beer options, having diarrhea at the most inconvenient hours. Six months spent chasing sunsets and sleeping through sunrises, trying new things, learning and discovering new ways of life, meeting people who you’ll never forget, not giving a damn about what clothes you wear, leaving your makeup bag stuffed in the bottom of your backpack, trudging through the tough times and laughing at them a few hours later.

I had so many ideas for my last blog while traveling, notes scrawled into my phone on long bus rides, all the prolific thoughts and earned wisdom I would share from my well-traveled head onto published paper. Yet, for the two weeks that I’ve been back, I’ve avoided sitting down to do this, completely unable to draw any conclusions I feel worthy of writing, everything I once thought I would write feeling trite or insubstantial. I can’t summarize my time away, a time filled with so many emotions and experiences, in a strong, concise manner. I can’t express how it’s changed me, simply because I don’t yet know how it has truly changed me. Sure, it’s made me more open, more understanding, more “worldly”, whatever the hell that means, more rugged, easier going. I like to think it’s made me less fearful, yet the one feeling that overwhelms me now that I’m home is fear. Fear that the things that changed me, that chipped away at me, that filled in the holes, that became part of me, won’t last. That I’ll somehow go through retrograde and come back as the exact person I was before getting on that first flight—a fine person, but not necessarily the person that I wish to be. I don’t think that anyone that uplifts their life to travel simply wants the romantic notion of seeing the whole world. If we were fully content with our lives, we wouldn’t throw a stone and shatter its perfect equilibrium, toss the pieces into the air, catch a few good ones in a backpack and carry it across the world. We are all running away from something. For some, that something is obvious, for others, like myself, we may have an idea, but we spend our time figuring it out, through others, through places, through conversation, through silence.

Already I slowly feel myself falling into the all too familiar patterns, the all-consuming, unnecessary worries. Worries about my future, my income, what kind of life I will have, where I should live, a respectable career path – things that will take time, things that won’t come easy, and things that someone who just got back from Asia certainly does not need to worry about just yet. Worst of all, I worry what others will think of me now that I’m back, unemployed, and living at home with a handful of days until I turn 25, an age that for some reason feels old to me. While I was gone, my age didn’t matter, my background didn’t matter, my education didn’t matter, my previous job didn’t matter and the amount of money I had certainly didn’t matter. My personality mattered, my sense of adventure, my ability to hold a fascinating conversation, to listen to people, to talk candidly about myself and my experiences. While I’ll never be like some of the more radical backpackers I met, those living out of a backpack until they spend their very last penny, I have to be able to find a happy balance, a job and a lifestyle that suits me, whatever that may be. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that happiness, and conscious appreciation for the moments that make us feel like were truly living, count for a whole fucking lot. And while I used to think swimming pools of money and a perfect NYC life could breed happiness, I’m no longer sure that’s what would do it for me. If it turns out that does make me happy, that’s great, but if it’s a secluded home on a farm in Ireland, that’s great too. While you’ll probably find me somewhere in between, the point remains, if I’m doing something that I myself respect and have enough money to live the way that I wish to live, then I’m doing alright.

I’m sure this all reads like a mess of unsettled thoughts, which is fine because that’s what I have. Simply stated, I went to Asia and it changed my life and my outlook on living. I’m so incredibly grateful for my experience and for doing something that not many around me are willing to do. I’ll leave this with a list of lessons learned, observations made, and quotes read while making my way across eight countries. It doesn’t cover everything, but that would be impossible anyway.

  • Time grows short, take advantage of it.
  • On another note, don’t fear downtime. That shits important too.
  • You’ll have the opportunity to get your abs back, but may not have the opportunity to eat that deep-fried, authentic and soul-warming street food again.
  • Most people are good people.
  • Discomfort should be welcomed from time to time.
  • Gut feelings should not be ignored—if you have a bad feeling about something, you’re probably right.
  • Practice riding a semi-automatic motorbike for more than one minute before going on a 40 kilometer ride. Practice may not make perfect, but it’s pretty fucking important.
  • Deep thoughts, mundane details, it doesn’t matter. Just write. You’ll thank yourself later.
  • The world doesn’t stop while you’re gone and carefree. Read the news.
  • However, sometimes a little bit of separation from the happenings of the world is a good thing.
  • While some stories may be more interesting or more enlightening than others, everyone has one to tell.
  • You can learn something from everyone, regardless of language. Learn from their actions and expressions.
  • There’s no correct way to live your life. Some people want to settle down and have five kids. Some want to travel until the day they die. Some want a lot, some want very little. There’s no right answer.
  • Worry about yourself and let others make their own decisions and mistakes.
  • “If I’ve learned anything in my travels it’s that a person can get used to anything.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
  • “Fear is the mind killer.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
  • Whether you think you believe in God or not, you’ll find yourself praying to Him before every bus, train, motorbike or taxi ride.
  • “The book is blank.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Enjoy your destiny as it comes.
  • You will meet people you don’t like. Give them a chance and if that feeling remains simply dismiss yourself from their presence. There are too many amazing people you can be sharing your experiences with.
  • Once one person opens up about their bowel movements, everyone will and great friendships will come from it.
  • “I am a slow walker but I never walk backwards.” Abe Lincoln
  • Good Wi-Fi is a gift that should never be taken for granted.
  • The ability to seize the day while battling diarrhea is perhaps the most sincere form of resiliency.
  • Full days in bed with Netflix are therapeutic, especially snuggled up with a great crew.
  • Sometimes you have to eat fast food and shamelessly surrender to your western spirit.
  • “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  • Fall in love with someone; fall in love with some place.
  • Don’t take your life for granted.
  • “Sometimes it feels as if there is no motion at all.” Colum McCann, Transatlantic
  • “She could see an orchestra in him, a whole range of instruments and sound.” Colum McCann, Transatlantic
  • Jellyfish stings hurt, but they don’t hurt as much as missing out on what lies under the surface.
  • Instagram likes feel good no matter what the haters say. Celebrate your likes, because why not.
  • American rest stop bathrooms are beautifully clean sanctuaries once you’ve squatted over a hole in a dark, moist, “water closet”.
  • Patience is the most important of virtues and can best be worked on while trying to take Southeast Asian transportation.
  • The smile you receive after greeting and thanking someone in their own language will always make you feel good.
  • Smiles are a language of their own. Smile at everyone. I’ve seen some smiles in the most unsuspecting of places that have nearly brought me to tears.
  • There is so much beauty in tradition and ceremony, focus on the small things people do.
  • Watch people cook.
  • “Life is what happens. Just fly.” – Kumar
  • When something big or exciting is happening, make yourself small. Step back, look around, and study others. Realize how truly special these moments are.
  • Sometimes no Wi-Fi is a good thing. Read a book. Write a list. Listen to music and focus on what you’re listening to. Look out the window and observe. Talk to the person next to you.
  • Say yes to experiences.
  • Travel the local way. Buses can be chaotic and jam-packed, but you’ll find yourself squished next to an old smiling lady or a small child who wraps her hand around your finger and stares into your eyes. Its human connection at its purest.
  • Discuss how you feel about social guilt, the fact that you have the ability to leave somewhere so rich with opportunity and enter these communities where opportunity is an imaginary construct. Allow yourself these guilt-stricken and heart heavy moments. Greatly respect the people whose home you’re entering and never forget how very lucky you are.
  • Life will not and should not be easy or adventurous at every moment, but we owe it to ourselves to sprinkle it with moments of spontaneity and truly exciting experience.
  • “If it helps, consider how people used to think the world was flat. Two-dimensional. They only believed in the part they could see, until somebody invented the ships and brave sailed off to find the rest of the earth.” Chuck Palahniuk, Rant



Hualien, Taroko National Park and the Last Hurrah 

16 Mar

After spending many days in Taipei, we decided it was time to pry ourselves away and give Taroko National Park a try. We took the two hour train, which was perfectly spotless and timely, as expected in Taiwan, and arrived in Hualien in the early afternoon. We decided to stay in the city for a night before heading to the National Park the following day We weren’t sure of what to do in the city, but we figured we’d explore a bit. We walked to the hostel through a park, where we took pictures of Ollie with octopus statues. The hostel, Journey Hostel, was another exceptionally clean hostel in Taiwan and we instantly curled up in the duvets for a nap. I saw on that there was a street of aboriginal cuisine, which we figured had to be some sort of market, down by the water. We walked the two miles over and were too early for the market, which looked to be massive. So, we set off walking down by the water and then went for cheap beers and a few rounds of cards at the first place we saw that looked like it would be selling cheap beer cans. After a few beers there we headed over to the night market, which was absolutely fantastic and had the feel of a carnival, with lines of games with prizes. We started off with some steamed pork dumplings and then had amazing aboriginal sausage wraps: sliced slightly sweet aboriginal sausage paired with some greens and sliced cabbage and wrapped inside a piping hot roti-like bread. While having a few more beers, we tried another aboriginal classic, bamboo rice. Pieces of bamboo are stuffed with rice and other accoutrement, such as the shrimp option we had, and steamed. You have to hit the bamboo piece on a hard surface to crack it and split it in half to eat it. It wasn’t really anything special, basically like a dense rice roll. Filled with food and beers, we tried our hand at a few games. I attempted to knock down towers of cans with bean bags, failing miserably, and tried a basketball shooting game where I made just enough to get a measly tube of bubbles. Christine opted for a dice game, where she wouldn’t have to embarrass herself like I did, and also lost. The woman gave her a pack of tissues as a consolation prize, telling her she can use them to dry her eyes.

The following morning we caught an early bus into the National Park and took it to the last stop, Tinxiang. For most of the ride we were sitting on the floor and getting tossed around the crazy mountainous turns. When I finally pulled myself up to the widow for a look I was blown away by the most majestic mountains and marble I’ve personally ever seen. We arrived in Tinxiang town center, which has three small restaurants, a 7 Eleven, a police station and a visitor information center. We walked up to where we were staying, a church that Maggie had recommended to us. No one was around, and the guests that were sitting outside didn’t speak English very well. Eventually, the man who apparently runs the place came back and also didn’t understand English. I spent about 15 minute talking to him and another woman, who actually called a friend of hers to talk to me, trying to figure out what trails we should do that day and whether or not we needed permits for any of the trails on the map. We got no where in conversation and even asking for the toilet was met with confusion. We decided we should just walk to the information center. After talking to the adorable old man working there, we determined we would walk to Baiyang Waterfall Trail first, followed by a bus to Swallows Grotto, the most popular spot to visit. Walking around the park is magical, the mountains are basically vertical in the sky and made me dizzy if I tried to walk and stare up at them. The roads cut through mountains and wrap around cliffs. To get to Baiyang Waterfall, for instance, we had to go through an underpass and take a turn into a pitch black tunnel through the mountain that branched out of the underpass. This first trail was more of a scenic and relaxing walk and we got to do it with coffees in hand. We walked along the river, got to see the beautiful rock strata and cross a suspension bridge to get a better view of the waterfall that was split into three massive parts running down the length of the rock. There were plenty of Korean tourists around, who were inspired by my waterfall poses and eagerly tried to replicate them.

We made our way back to the bus stop and took a bus down to Swallows Grotto, the main spot to view the marble gorge. The area is filled with swooping swallows that lay their eggs within the pot holes of the gorge. After walking around the area for a bit, we decided that we should try to walk back to the church, which was about five miles away. We were definitely tired, but we had time to kill. We started the walk back, stopping at some additional spots, including the Fuji Cliff and Cimu Bridge, the latter of which is surrounded by a few beautiful pavilions. By the time we made it back to the hostel we were exhausted after waking a total of 13 miles that day. We wanted to lay in bed and shower, but the man wasn’t there. We sat around outside for a while until I decided I was going to shower, with or without a bedroom. After a shower and a few episodes of the Good Wife he finally showed up. He couldn’t understand that we were asking for a bed, which he should have figured out because he hadn’t put us anywhere yet (our bags were in the lobby area). Even after acting out sleeping motions he wasn’t following. We eventually made it into the room and had some lay time before heading down to dinner, where I got a massive bowl of spectacular beef noodle soup, similar to that of the famous place in Taipei, but with more veggies, and less fat on the meat. We stocked up on treats from 7 Eleven and, after chocolate binges, passed right out.

We decided one night would be enough in the park, mostly because we wanted another night in Hualien for the night market. So we packed our things up the next morning and brought them down to the park headquarters, closer to the entrance of the park, where they’ll hold your big bags for you while you’re out exploring. We chose a trail just by the headquarters, Dekalun Trail, that would allegedly take us three hours. It started off simple enough, but then the stairs appeared. We walked up so many stairs, ascending straight into the clouds and eventually the rain. There were monkeys creeping on us and our belongings, and plenty of beautiful butterflies everywhere. We even had a few large frog sightings. We started off-roading up the trail in an attempt to get to Dali Village, but failed to make it there because the rain started to pick up, and we didn’t want to be going back down in the mud. On the way back down I slipped on a massive rock and landed right on my hip which bruised up my leg and left me with a swollen ass. By the time we got back down, our calves were jelly from the stairs and we agreed that we’d done enough trekking and were ready to get back to Hualien. We caught the next bus out and, after booking our train back to Taipei for the following morning arrived back to Journey Hostel in the afternoon. I wrote and Christine napped as we killed time before our beloved night market. We had one stop before the night market, a wonton soup place that we had passed on our first walk to the night market that looked absolutely amazing. We walked in and asked the woman what kind we should get, she ordered it for us, Christine got us a few beers and we sat down to enjoy the soup. I don’t think I can ever have Chinese takeout wonton soup again. The dumplings contained pork and a shrimp, a full massive shrimp, and with the addition of some chili it was truly the most perfect meal. We grabbed a bag of beers from a Family Mart and headed over to the night market, where we both got the aboriginal sausage wraps again and sat down to enjoy them over cards and beers.

We took a 9:45 AM train back to Taipei, eager to return to the city we love. We of course took naps when we first got back and then headed out on the subway to Taipei 101 to eat dumplings at the famous Din Tai Fung and then climb Elephant Mountain. We wanted to head back to Tonghua night market for more food that night, so we went light on the dumplings. We split an order of steamed shrimp and squash xiaolongbao, vegetable and pork wontons in the house spicy sauce and steamed shrimp and pork dumplings. They were all absolutely delicious, but I’ve had just as good dumplings of all kinds in Taipei for a fraction of the price. After eating we walked over to Elephant Mountain in the drizzling rain and climbed to the top for a view of Taipei 101 and the city. Naturally, given the weather, the view was mostly shrouded in fog. We went back down to the bottom of the hill and had happy hour beers at a bougie business district restaurant, Nola, along with an order of fried tomatoes. We walked over to the night market to work up a stronger appetite and got another sausage in a rice sausage with some very spicy sauce before getting a large order of our beloved sweet potato balls. We bought some more tarts, blueberry cheesecake and chocolate cheesecake, but were so full from the sweet potato balls that they had to wait until the following day to be eaten for breakfast.

I woke up early on the final day of the six month and a week trip to grab myself a coffee and do some writing before taking on the last adventure. It was pouring rain at the start of the day, but subsided by about 1:00 PM, which is when we headed out. We grabbed leek fritters around the corner and walked to 8 Percent for some final wacky ice cream flavors. I finally got some black sesame ice cream and Christine went for two cups, one chocolate earl gray and the other chocolate caramel whiskey. On the way into 8 Percent, we noticed the famous mango snowflake ice dessert plate next door, which we had read was an item on CNN’s 40 Taiwanese Foods We Can’t Live Without. Although fairly full, we knew we had to have it. The thing was massive, with oddly textured mango flavor ice shavings, topped with stewed mango chunks and mango sorbet. It was good, but not better than the ice cream we had previously. I tapped out early but Christine managed to finish the whole damn thing, it was a star performance.

We hopped on the subway and went to the Maokong Gondola, the last activity we had planned to do. The gondola offered amazing views of the city and was a longer ride than I had expected. The day was terribly cold so the stop up in the mountains where we got off was fairly uncomfortable. We walked around for a few minutes and then went up the stairs to the top of the mountain. Christine bailed out just before the end but I forged onward through the cold, cloudy weather and slippery stairs, all for another fog-covered view point. We took a car back down to the subway entrance and made our way back to the hostel, stopping for some bottles of wine at 7 Eleven, some amazing noodles with a beef sauce on top and some steamed buns and dumplings. We got back to the hostel, poured ourselves wine and played some cards for the last time. We started looking up gay bars, which we were excited to go to after seeing them on the walking tour, and were astonished by the many different kinds and sexual inspirations. We decided on a more chill option and set off to find it.

Naturally, we walked around for ages and were unable to find the bar. Instead, we went to the ones we knew about and were disappointed when they told us they didn’t take card. We didn’t want to take out any more cash on the final night. So instead, we went with plan B, which was karaoke at the massive, ten floor karaoke complex across the street, but they only had room options for six hours at a time, which seemed ridiculous. Slightly defeated, we got ourselves a beer at 7 Eleven and walked around in search of another, perhaps cheaper karaoke place. While Christine went inside to question another one, I heard singing coming from an unmarked basement. When she returned and heard it as well we decided to go down there and check it out. We found ourselves in a nearly empty lounge looking place, with one man singing. We asked if we were allowed to sing and she handed us the book which, while about two inches thick, contained only two pages of English songs. We bought four large beers, which was apparently the thing to do, and sat down at a table.

We had chosen A Thousand Miles, naively hoping it would be Vanessa Carlton, and were given what we believe was an old country or Christian song. We made our own words up to half the songs, sang Unbreak My Heart about 10 times and as the night progressed and we were the only ones left, we simply started playing our own music over the music coming out of the speaker and singing along. By 3:00 AM, we were no longer singing, just talking into the microphones, with Christine pretending to be a radio or podcast host. And while the place was closing, we thanked all our fans for listening to our show. We made it back to the hostel for three hours of sleep before having to get up to go to the airport for our flight back to New York. Both of us slept past our alarms, and I awoke at 8:45, when we were supposed to be out of the house by 8:00. We quickly shot up from bed, had a quick shower and headed to the airport MRT line, which brought our hungover heads to terminal two. We were at the wrong terminal, naturally, and had to get ourselves back to terminal one, and finally got checked in. We had a big breakfast to blow the last bit of cash we had and found ourselves on the plane to Korea, where our layover was, before we could even pause to think about what was happening. Terribly hungover, I threw up three times on the flight, which was a sure distraction for how sad I was to be leaving Asia and heading back home. After a three hour layover in Korea and some beef pho, we got on our second flight from Korea to JFK, where I sit writing this, with ten hours until that anxious moment the plane descends back in home territory.

Taipei Part II

14 Mar

On our walking tour we stopped outside the Office of the President and were thrilled to hear that you can go inside for a free visit during the mornings. Not ones to refuse a free activity, we headed out on the morning of the eighth to the visitor entrance of the building. Right when we approached the entrance we were greeted by security guards who guided us to the check-in point and then we went through a security line and were taken into the building. While it was clear that they were simply making sure there were eyes on us at all times it felt like we were VIPs coming to meet with the President (the female President Tsai Ing-Wen). We followed a woman all around the first floor of the building, where visitors are allowed, as she searched for an English-speaking tour guide for us. We were taken out of the building again, where we met Erich, the German name of our Taiwanese tour guide, who had learned English while studying in Germany. He certainly loved German words and often burst out in some expressive German term while talking to us. He was exceptionally loud, yet terribly adorable. He started off the tour by taking out a pointer and having us read along with the power of the people entrance exhibit. While talking about the architecture of the building, he took out of his bag a big folder of old resources, including original copies of maps so that we could better understand the changes in the area over time. He went above and beyond to give us any and all information he knew. At one point, he took out his phone to show us his Facebook, and the background of his phone was a half naked blonde woman. He tried to quickly hide it but he had been caught, we laughed at him asking who it was to which he replied, “a very sexy lady.” If we didn’t love Erich already, we certainly did at that point. The museum is definitely worth the visit, with exhibits on the architecture of the building, the past presidents and the history of demonstrations in Taipei. Many demonstrations will take place outside of the Office of the President and free speech and demonstrations are encouraged, a stark contrast from China. We had the best time making idiots of ourselves posing for pictures pretending to be the President and against back drops with the President and Vice President.

After deciding that I want to be the future president of Taiwan, we headed over to the National Palace Museum. We were way too tired to appreciate much, and a lot of the the exhibits were too much for two tired people. We saw paintings and calligraphy by Fu Chuan-fu, a whole ridiculous exhibition of paintings of chickens in honor of the year of the rooster, a new media room with interactive art and technology stations, and a room that contained a locked up jade cabbage. Yes, a block of jade in the shape of a cabbage. Apparently, cabbage signifies prosperity and luck. On our way back from the museum, I decided to try some of the soy milk drink at the shop nearby our hostel. It is definitely the most popular drink here and it’s constantly being poured into cups and sealed, ready for the hordes of people trying to buy it. I was hoping it would taste like my delicious almond milk drink but was highly disappointed by its plain and unenjoyable taste. I paired it with a deep fried dough stick, which we had seen people do, but that was equally as tasteless. It was the only time that food or drink let me down in Taipei. Things looked up later that night though, when we went to the market near us and got amazing pork dumplings doused in scallion soy sauce and chili sauce. I also got a smoked salmon sushi bowl, topped with lime and ginger.

We seriously did not slow down during our time in Taipei, wanting to fit as much in as we possibly could, so we had another full day ahead of us the following day, visiting the fisherman’s wharf. We had to take a subway to the end of the red line, Tamsui, and a bus to the very end of the city along the water. It was a terribly windy day and the place isn’t particularly lively during the cold weather months. We walked across the lovers bridge, nearly being blown off, and then walked along the water. Since we spent less time there than we had expected, we decided to walk back to the Tamsui metro station instead of take a bus. On our way we came across Fort San Domingo and decided to go in for a visit. The fort was originally a wood fort, built in 1629 by the Spanish. The fort was destroyed by local people in rebellion against the taxes imposed by the Spanish in 1636. The design was improved during reconstruction in 1637, with higher walls and stronger, stone structure. The Dutch took over the fort in the summer of 1642 and in 1644 the they took their turn at rebuilding the structure, which still stands today. In 1638, the Chinese gained control of the fort and in 1868, after the Second Opium War, the British took their turn at controlling the fort and it was made into their consulate. The fascinating linguist, Herbert Allen Giles, fluent in Chinese, lived at the fort and worked as a translator and British diplomat. He had full mastery of the Chinese language and modified the Mandarin Chinese romanization system, and translated important works including a Chinese-English Dictionary. In 1980 the fort was once again turned over to the Chinese and was made a historical site.

We got back to Tamsui and were amazed by the energy of the town. Market stands were at every turn and shop owners enthusiastically lured customers in to taste test and buy treats of all kinds. We found ourselves in a bakery where we tried every type of Asian cake there. I ended up buying a pineapple cake, a small pumpkin roll and a green tea and rosette cake. We made our way up a road where I bought a fried scallion cake, which was made by rolling up a scallion filling in dough, wrapping it up into a circle and deep frying it. It was perfectly crispy and doughy and garlicky. It was actually emotional to eat. We were so excited to come across our almond drink again and walked down the streets holding our drink with big smiles on our face, exploring the different things for sale.

We pulled ourselves away from the action and headed back to the subway to go to Beitou hot springs, a popular public hot spring. It took us forever to find and it was definitely an intimidating scene, with old people lined up outside with their tickets. We entered the hot spring, mind you its about 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and change into our bikinis, feeling terribly out of place surrounded by old people in one pieces. We certainly got some stares. The hot spring was separated into three levels of pools, the hottest at the top and the coolest at the bottom, and a separate cold water pool on the side. We attempted to get into the middle pool but it was so damn hot that we went into the bottom one instead, where we met a middle-aged, English-speaking Taiwanese man who took us under his wing and taught us how to properly tackle the hot springs. We started in the lowest pool, which was between 38-40 degrees Celsius for about ten minutes, followed by a few minutes submerged in the freezing cold water. Right after exiting the cold water we went into the second level of heat, between 40 and 43 degrees for a few minutes and then back into the cold water. We finally submerged into the hottest level which was between 43 and 45 degrees (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and felt like our bodies were burning. We lasted for under three minutes, and I couldn’t bring myself to get back into the cold water. When you think of hot springs you think of enjoyable warm water, however we had many moments of lightheadedness, had to suffer between the hot and cold waters, and in the last pool I basically felt like my toenails were melting off. It was a taxing experience.

On our way back towards the city we stopped at yet another night market, Shilin, which is the largest night market in Taipei. We tried our best to walk around everything, but the market takes up so many streets and even includes an indoor underground portion. We stuck with the outside and got ourselves some pork steamed buns and “hot dogs” composed of a rice sausage split open to resemble a bun and a grilled sausage stuffed inside it, covered in your choice of sauce (garlic for us). It was truly an otherworldly experience. We saw sweet potato balls and of course had to give them a try, but they simply did not stack up to the ones from Lehua market. Full, happy and exhausted we made it back to the hostel and got our things ready to head to Hualien the next day, the city that we would get to Taroko National Park from. 

Taipei Part I

13 Mar

We left the airport to beautiful weather reminiscent of early spring at home: definitely rain brewing in the atmosphere, but surprisingly warm. We hopped on a bus that took us into the city and from there got on the metro to the Dingxi stop by our hostel. Right away, a woman approached us asking if we needed any help and guided us to our hostel, after telling us it was a shame that we paid for a hostel already because we could have just stayed with her. While initially surprised by the genuine nature of this woman, it soon became clear that Taiwanese people are extremely friendly. We walked toward the hostel, Two Half Floors, which was on a lane off of a street. The tiny lanes that branch off streets have numbers themselves, which is slightly confusing. An address will have the house number followed by the lane number and then the street name. We made it to the hostel, down the most precious Christmas-lighted street, and walked into complete silence. No one was around in the home-turned-hostel, so we set our bags down, rested for a bit and then set off to do some walking around. First, however, we had to make a stop at a very popular spot around the corner from the hotel, which spits out different types of breads all day long to get ourselves some shao bing, basically a flaky, layered flatbread topped with sesame seeds. We opted to have an omelette stuffed inside the shao bing and also had a garlic-packed leek fritter on the side.

Taipei is amazing. Truly, truly amazing. We clocked a lot of miles that first day walking to Taipei 101 building, formally called the Taipei World Financial Center, which was the world’s tallest building from 2004-2009, until the building of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The part of the city we walked through was quiet, because it was a Sunday or because it always has a beautiful calmness I don’t know. The layout is intricate, with plenty of little streets to walk down, the streets are exceptionally clean, and the public transport unparalleled. We walked sleepily towards the tower, gawking at the amazing looking food along the way. We saw the tower, which, while boasting a unique design, reminded me of a NYC skyscraper. We attempted to go into the mall, knowing that we’d need sweatshirts for our time here, but were way too tired to even attempt. We took the subway back to the hostel, where we didn’t move from our beds for the rest of the evening. The subway system is a mix of what I got in Malaysia and Singapore. Like Malaysia, it has a token system for one time rides, where you buy the token for a specific stop, scan the token to get in, and then must deposit the token to exit, ensuring that you’re in the right destination based on the amount the trip cost. Like Singapore, you can’t eat or drink on the subway system, resulting in spectacularly clean transport, the trains were always timely, and they have a secure door that prevents people from getting too close to the track. Additionally, the Taiwanese are so considerate and respectful, that the priority seats don’t even get used by all those young and able. While the sign simply requests that people stand and offer those particular seats to those in need, a train will be full with people standing and those seats remain unoccupied, simply to keep them available for anyone who comes on and actually needs them.

The next day we decided to do a free walking tour, but since it wasn’t until 2:00 PM we hopped on the metro to go to Lungshan Temple, a Buddhist temple built in 1738 that also has halls altars for Chinese deities. It was definitely the most crowded temple I’ve ever seen, with hands grasping incense and coming together fervently in prayer all around us. The sound of wooden pieces hitting the floor brought my attention to kneeling people, holding two red, half moon shaped pieces, praying and throwing them to the ground, anxiously decoding the messages. We later found out that this is how people speak to the gods. The two half moon pieces have a rounded surface and a flat surface. After asking a yes or no question and throwing the pieces, you receive one of three answers. Both flat sides down indicates a no. Both rounded sides down indicates that the question is not clear enough or that you’re not asking the right question. One flat side down and one flat side up indicates a yes. We walked around the temple and appreciated all the Chinese New Year decor, with most displays boasting majestic looking chickens. For lunch, we headed to a famous spot for beef noodles. While still a soup, it was very different from the beef noodle soup I’ve had in Southeast Asia. The broth was a deep color, already spicy, and the beef was slow cooked in chunks rather than thin slices, and tasted of pot roast. While the beef was definitely too fatty for my liking, it was still a delicious dish. We then hurried over to 8 Percent, to quench Christine’s thirst for strange Taiwanese ice cream flavors with the classic black sesame, which, while overpowering at first, grows on you with its nutty aftertaste.

We were running short on time and had to book it over to where the tour was meeting, arriving at 2:00 PM exactly. We were doing the old town tour, through TourMeAway, an organization started by young Taiwanese individuals who went traveling and loved the free walking tours in European cities. They wanted to do something similar in Taipei, encouraging tourists to learn more about the city and its history. The efforts clearly work because the group was massive. The tour was phenomenal and went over its stated two hour time slot. We learned so much about the history of Taiwan, which we were embarrassed to admit we knew nothing about. We had plenty of questions about the relationship between Taiwan and China, and our tour guide Tanya was happy to answer our questions without making us feel stupid. One of the most important stops on our tour was the 228 Peace Memorial, where we learned about the most tumultuous time in Taiwan’s history, the February 28 Massacre, occurring in 1947, just after World War II. During this time, Taiwan was completely under control of the Republic of China after 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. On this day, a Taiwanese widow was selling cigarettes on the street, which was an illegal action. A young Chinese officer came over to her and attempted to confiscate all her items from her as payment for doing something illegal. She begged to keep her things, but the officer refused and got rough with her, pointing a gun to her head and causing her to fall to the ground. In a country so respectful of the elderly, this did not fly. People came out to the streets during the commotion to ask the officer why he was harming the woman. The crowd became overwhelming for the officer, so he shot his gun into the air in an attempt to calm them. However, the bullet hit a man standing out on his balcony as he was observing that was going on below. He was killed and fell over his balcony. Distracted by the violent death, the people did not notice the cop sneaking away. He went to the police station, and the station locked its doors, avoiding any questioning from the civilians. They protested outside the Governor-Generals Office, and when the door was finally unlocked the crowd thought they would receive an explanation. Instead, a machine gun came out from behind the door and shot into the crowd in an attempt to disperse it. In Early March, troops from mainland China entered Taiwan, and went on a killing spree, shooting anyone in the streets and even breaking into homes to kill people. At the end of the Taiwanese rebellion between 3,000 and 4,000 Taiwanese were executed. Taiwan was placed under martial law for 38 years and 57 days, the second longest period of martial law in history behind that of Syria from 1963 to 2011. The Chinese government finally acknowledged and took responsibility for the incidents of February 28, 2947 in 1995, when President Lee Teng-Hui apologized on the anniversary of the incident. The memorial represents three groups of people coming together, the Taiwanese, aboriginals and Chinese. The center of the memorial contains a waterfall surrounded by molds of handprints, which visitors lean against in a bowing manner that pays respect to victims.

We also had few other stops, such as a foot reflexology path, where we painfully walked along stones without our shoes on. It was truly painful and we couldn’t make it across the path. We learned that Taiwan has the largest gay pride parade in Asia, and will likely be the first Asian country to pass gay marriage. We also learned that the official name of Taiwan is The Republic of China (China’s official name is The People’s Republic of China) and that the Taiwanese cannot visit China unless they get a specific Mainland Travel Permit, as the People’s Republic of China does not consider the Republic of China passport as a valid travel document. We went to an ice cream place called Snow King on the tour, which Christine had wanted to go to anyway. This place has been making ice cream for 70 years, and doesn’t hold back on originality. Some of its more ridiculous flavors include pork knuckle, sesame chicken, wasabi and red kidney bean, among plenty of other strange vegetable flavors. I played it pretty safe with some fabulous taro ice cream while Christine got the wasabi, which was surprisingly tasty when you got over the feeling that you were simply eating straight wasabi. The tour ended in the young and lively part of Taipei, the Red House District, which people describe as a mini Times Square. Freezing cold, we headed into H&M to buy ourselves some sweatshirts, the first I would need in months, and headed back to the hostel. Christine went straight to bed that night, but I ventured out to Lehua Night Market, about a 15 minute walk from where we were staying. There were so many options yet all I ended up with was grilled corn coated in some brown caramelized sauce, which I could not figure out the flavor profile of, and then a bag of strawberries, which are in season in Taiwan.

The next day we ventured out of the city, taking the subway and a bus to Wulei, an aboriginal, mountainous area within the city of Taipei known for its nearby trekking routes. However, it started raining just as we got there, and we knew we were doomed for any sort of trail. We instead sat in a restaurant and drank a beer waiting for the rain to pass and watching the chef work his magic for all the food orders. Unfortunately, we weren’t hungry after our shao bing and shrimp dumplings for breakfast, so we sat and watched the different food coming out. When the rain settled a bit, we walked up to the waterfall and past the adorable aboriginal shops. After a bit of walking we went back down into the town. While I was waiting for a grilled chicken skewer, I got a whiff of the most perfect amaretto scent. I ventured across the street to investigate and found the smell coming from a big steaming pot of white liquid, which seemed to be some sort of almond milk. We bought one to try and quickly got another after tasting the slightly sweet, creamy, amaretto liquid. Seriously, it was one of the best things I have ever drank. We could not figure out the name of it and the people didn’t understand us, so we held our warm cups of heaven close and appreciated each sip while walking back to the bus stop.

That evening we tried Tonghua Night Market. The crappy weather definitely had an impact on attendance of food stands and customers alike, but we did manage to try one of our favorite snacks in Taipei at this market: sweet potato balls. The orange balls are deep fried in a big vat of oil and served up in a cup with tooth picks. When you bite into them, the slightly chewy dough reveals a creamy filling that was probably a condensed milk filling if I had to guess. They were perfect, like a zeppole on crack. We were less impressed with our following purchase, which was pieces of sesame chicken accompanied by long white logs that we feared were fat. We tasted them and they tasted like nothing but bad texture so we asked Maggie, the owner of the hostel, what they were. They’re simply some sort of Korean rice cake. We then bought ourselves beautiful looking tarts to take home, including key lime cheesecake and egg flavors and ate them in bed. If you can’t tell by now, night markets are everywhere in Taiwan and some are so large you can’t even walk through everything in one night. They have endless options of the best looking and tasting food. While we were supposed to head to Taroko National Park the following day, we held out for another few days, because the weather looked bad and because we wanted to spend so much more time adventuring (and eating) in the amazing city of Taipei.

El Nido

10 Mar

Back in Port Barton, Sophia had recommended to us a place to stay in El Nido, a cheap sort of hidden guesthouse called Mikee Pension. A lot of guesthouses in the Philippines are called pensions, which is just as confusing to us as it is to you. The place, while reeking of dog on the first floor, was a good place to stay, and one of the few places in the town, it seemed, with somewhat functioning wifi. We were put in a private room with three beds, because it was the last they had available, for just seven dollars a night each. We set off walking to explore the town, which was such a lively place, with little cafes, restaurants and shops lining the small dirt roads. We wandered past the bakeries, deciding what treats we would be eating over the next few days, stared at expensive menus and weaved our way through the line of liquor shops to decide what we would buy for that evening. After grabbing ourselves bottles of rum we decided we would shower, have a drink in the room, and then head to dinner.

Our plans were derailed when, while we were buying mixers, we were found by Peter, Matt and Sean, the three guys we met in Siquijor, who had been in El Nido for a few days already. They had just finished the island hopping tour and were about to rent bikes to drive to a sunset bar. They asked if we wished to join them so we happily threw our dinner plans to the wind and got on the back of their scooters to go chase the sunset. We were cutting it close, but arrived at a bar with the perfect stretch of sunset beach, just in time. We got ourselves a few beers and sat watching the massive fiery globe sink into the ocean. What started as an average blindingly orange sunset quickly turned into a whirlwind of pink and purple colors cutting across the navy, mountainous skyline. It was the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed. With everyone hungry as hell, we drove back into town to go to a pizza place that they guys had eaten at before, where Christine and I split a half white and half pepperoni pizza, both sides equally exceptional. After a quick breakup to shower and get ready, Matt and Sean (Peter was being lame, I hope you’re reading this Peter) came back to our guesthouse where we drank some rum and played cards before going out to Pukka bar, where we had a few more beers and watched the thirsty men on the male dominant dance floor vying for the attention of the few girls there.

The next day, the boys boys had planned to drive to Nacpan beach, which Christian LeBlanc, a travel vlogger, called the most beautiful beach in the world, and generously offered to take us along. Hungover and sleep-deprived, we hopped onto the scooters and set off to the beach, which took us about 45 minutes to get to since we couldn’t find the entrance. While most of the road was paved, the final bit was a minefield of rocks and loose dirt. I’m not sure my ass will ever be the same after going over the endless bumps. The ride certainly didn’t help the hangover, so I immediately threw my body into the ocean when we arrived. While most swimming beaches in Southeast Asia have super calm water this beach was a different story. The waves and currents were extremely strong, which gave us great waves. However, they were so strong that it was hard to get out of the water and I was rocked by a massive wave, emerging with a sand-filled bathing suit and sand-coated hair that took days to rinse to some degree of clean. Christine and I spent the afternoon sleeping on the beach and I ended the day with my first coconut ever, hoping that it would cure my hangover. While I hate coconut water at home, which prevented me from ever getting one during my whole time in Asia, a fresh coconut is truly a different story. I slugged down the water and had the man machete it open so I could scrape out the insides, which I can best describe as the consistency of jello.

A day or two before, the boys had gone to a basketball court in a village about a five to ten minute walk outside of the center of El Nido town, where they played basketball with a few little kids. I’m not sure I have said this yet, but basketball is a huge sport in the Philippines. You can’t drive for ten minutes without seeing a court occupied by kids playing ball. After school every day, these kids head home to the court and end their days playing or watching a few games. Matt, impressed by the kids’ growing passion for a sport he loves so much, and influenced by beer, decided to buy a few basketballs to replace the over-used one that the children were playing with. We left the beach just in time for the after school rush to the court, where it was guaranteed the kids would be. While driving to the court, we passed by John-John and Jose, the two children that they had told us about, who were so excited to see the guys coming back and hopped on the back of Sean’s scooter en route to the court. We pulled up to the already bustling court, where some teenagers and people probably around our age (it’s incredibly hard to tell the ages of Filipino people; they all look young) were in the middle of a game. Right away, they came over and asked the boys to get in on a game with them, and placed some bets. The game started up and Christine and I sat off to the side, with some small children running around us. Slowly, as the game progressed, more and more people turned up from the village until the court was surrounded by old and young alike, all watching the afternoon’s game unfold. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of excitement. I goofed around with the children, watched the game and observed all the different characters hanging around the court. These guys, who probably have never had any coaching, were so skilled at street basketball. Their ball handling skills were almost humorously good, filled with fake outs and even dribbling the ball between defenders’ legs.

When I took a moment to look at this game from an outside perspective, I was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. In this moment, who we are, our skin color, where we come from, our beliefs, our purposes, our money, does not matter. We were welcomed into this small community over common ground: the simple desire to play and watch a sport that we all enjoy, from the U.S.A to the Philippines. This basketball court is the core of their village community, their social space that they gather at daily. No matter the day, they will be here playing, we just happened to be lucky enough to be an equal part of it on this day. After two games, the exhausted and glistening guys shook hands and dispersed. The three basketballs we brought over were handed out, two to two of the guys who they had been playing with and one to John-John, who had been watching on eagerly. He took the ball from Matt with an unparalleled smile, and quickly accepted his responsibility as ball-keeper, running off towards home with his arms wrapped tightly around it. I’m not sure who was more appreciative in the moment.

It’s safe to say that we couldn’t top that experience for our final two days in El Nido. The following day we were rained out of doing any activities and simply walked about, ate and rested. On our last full day we woke up to sunshine and decided to do the island hopping tour. The tour was double the price of the tour in Port Barton and half the fun. We made five stops, three of which were lagoons. On the first stop they attempt to get you to rent a canoe, telling you that there are sea urchins, plankton and territorial fish. We took our chances and swam over to the lagoon, encountering none of these things. We experienced spurts of rain throughout the day and there was no snorkeling to be done. However, it was my last day of true adventure in Southeast Asia, as we’d be heading to Puerto Princesa the next day and then Taiwan the day after that, and I certainly don’t regret doing the tour. Overall, I would recommend the Port Barton tour over the El Nido tour any day.

On our last day, I had some business to take care of, which would require wifi, so after grabbing some baked goods we walked over to the bus station for an earlier bus back to Puerto Princesa, where we knew the hostel we had stayed in when we first got there had reliable wifi. The six hour bus got us into Puerto Princesa just before dark. With only a day left in the Philippines, we had no desire to take out any more cash. We had just enough to pay for the terminal fees and buy about one more meal. We got ourselves a cheap dinner at Chow King and then headed to the pharmacy to see if they would take cards, which they luckily did, so we could buy some soaps and hopefully an ice cream cone. The next morning started our terrible 48 hours. We did laundry at the laundromat, and went to McDonalds hoping to be able to use our cards to buy breakfast. McDonald’s did not take card, nor did any other place we tried. So, we decided we would refrain from eating until we got to Puerto Princesa airport, where we hoped they would have a place that took card. We got to Puerto Princesa and quickly realized how small the airport was, which we hadn’t took note of when we arrived. There was nowhere to take card and we had about two hours until our flight. We went to check in and they told me I would have to pay 780 pesos to check my bag, which I hadn’t been expecting. I was officially down to no money after this purchase, as the money I had was supposed to be for my terminal fees, and asked the guards where the nearest ATM was. I was allowed to leave the airport and, when I asked the guard outside where the ATM was, he told me it was broken and I’d have to go back into town, which I was not going to do, of course. I then had to wait on a massive line of people to get back into the airport. Christine had a cinnamon bun waiting for me when I got back in, which she was able to buy with the little bit of leftover money she had. We eventually got on our flight and made it to Manila, where we had a six hour layover. We were desperate for some food, so we went to McDonald’s, where they told us that they don’t take card. How a chain in an airport does not take credit card blows my mind. However, since I had taken a bit of money out here in the airport, I had just enough to binge on a McDonald’s meal. Christine, on the other hand, went to a nice restaurant which took card. When we went to check in, I kept my bag on my back, hoping I could take it as a carry-on and avoid paying the fees, and not a single person asked me about it, even though it was much bigger than the allowance. The bag made it past everyone and onto the plane with no trouble, which had me cursing myself for ever paying for baggage on the trip. Even my massive soap, lotion and sunscreen bottles made it through security, which astounded me.

Once we got to the gate, we realized that we never paid the terminal fee. We asked a couple of people sitting at the gate and they hadn’t either. Turns out the fee is now included in the ticket, which the Puerto Princesa guard who we asked about Manila terminal fees failed to tell us about. With so much money leftover, we decided to spend it all on beers and snacks and sat down to play cards and get drunk before our flight to Taipei. We put on power hour music in the corner of the seating area and had at it. By the time we were getting on board we were slugging the last of our fourth beer and feeling very tipsy. Our flight, which was after 10:00 PM , arrived in Taipei at about 1:00 AM. All of the hostels in Taipei that we read about would not let you check in after 12:00 AM, so we had decided we would have to sleep in the airport for that first night. We got off the plane and found a seating area where people seemed to be laying and curled up on the uncomfortable seats in an attempt to sleep. I fell in and out of terrible, curled up sleep a few times and woke up at 9:00 AM to a very awake, coffee-sipping Christine, who it turns out did not sleep at all. We sat around for another hour, since the hostel reception doesn’t open until noon (I know, ridiculous), and at about 10:30 decided to head out on the bus to get to our hostel.

While the end of my Philippines experience was certainly trying and left me cursing the country, I didn’t truly mean it. The Philippines is a beautiful country and has so much to offer. The only glaring issue is the travel within the country, which is made difficult by the lack of direct flights between the islands, the high expense of the flights (the flight from Palawan to Manila was $100 dollars while a flight from Manila to Taipei was $40), and the terrible ferry ticketing system. The intra-island land travel, however, was some of the easiest and cheapest I have encountered. We also shot for too much for three and a half weeks and the backpacker mindset of simply deciding the next day what you want to do doesn’t work as well in a place with so many islands and very few budget hostels. Yet, I’m not sure I would change my experience. It was beautiful, exhausting, frustrating and gave me a lot of stories. Going to the Philippines had not even been a thought at the start of my trip, but I’m so, so happy that it made its way into my plans.

Puerto Princesa and Port Barton

8 Mar

We flew into Puerto Princesa very early in the morning and, from what we saw, there weren’t very many Westerners. This took us by surprise since it is the only major hub for Palawan, a top destination for people traveling to the Philippines. We exited the plane and actually did not fall victim to much taxi or tricycle driver harassment. We walked out to the main road, where a tricycle driver told us it was only 10 pesos each to get to where we needed to go, a hostel called Tree House Inn. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Naturally, he was trying to convince us to take tours with him and his company, and we had to do the obligatory stop by his tourist agency so that he could give us a list of pricing for all the available tours. While this usually bothers me, he was really nice about everything and not particularly pushy. He brought us to our hostel and told us that if we wanted any tours or onward transportation we should give him a call. The hostel itself was really clean, except the bathrooms which had lime scale build up from what had to be years past. The wifi was exceptional, probably the best we’ve had in the Philippines, so we absorbed it into our pores before heading out to try to find something to do in Puerto Princesa.

There is nothing to do in Puerto Princesa. Like actually. I have never been in a city in Southeast Asia that offered such few activities. We set out walking that day towards the bay walk, which we hoped would lead us to the sunset. However, the sunset was blocked off by a massive wall that sectioned off the port, We did some wandering in search of a way to see the sunset, but found ourselves in the backyards of village people which was a bit uncomfortable. While walking back to find dinner, we encountered the Plaza Cuartel by chance, which it turns out is a very important place for American History. The Plaza was a military fort during World War II, which the Japanese set fire to on December 14, 1944, in an attempt to burn alive the 143 American POWs there. Of the 143, 11 escaped, with the help of Filipino guerrillas, by swimming across the ocean to Iwahig. The park provides information panels about the shocking event, providing a detailed history and discussing the survivors, and features monuments which list out the names of those who died during the massacre. A sign in the park expresses appreciation towards the Americans for their part in earning the Philippines their freedom. Embarrassingly enough, neither Christine nor I knew about this event in our country’s history. It was a completely humbling experience and a beautiful tribute to American soldiers. Content that we saw such a meaningful place in the city, we headed back towards the hostel and ended up at a fast food place, Chow King, where we ate beef fried rice, dumplings and spring rolls, before heading back to our comfy and clean hostel beds.

We had been deliberating the Undergound River tour, trying to decide if a 1,800 peso tour was worth it. The Underground River is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. It’s basically a massive cave with the ocean water running though it like a river. It is fairly untouched, and there is a massive effort to keep it that way, with the exception of the canoes quietly making their way through. We knew we could probably make it to Sebang, the coastal town that the Underwater River is located near, but we just weren’t sure how to go about it. It was closer to where our next destination would be, Port Barton, but it would also be more complicated to get to Port Barton from there than from Puerto Princesa, or so we were led to believe. We were also under the impression that getting the permit to do the Underwater River and enough people to fill a boat would be a difficult undertaking. So, after much consideration, we called the company of our tricycle driver and set the tour up for our second day in Puerto Princesa, deciding to come back with the tour and stay the night before moving on the next day.

We were picked up really early in the morning and, naturally, were stuffed into the back two tightest seats since we were the last to be picked up for the tour. We first had to stop by some office for the tour guide to get permits for everyone to do the tour, and since there were two other buses under our guide’s management things were kind of hectic. We drove for about an hour down windy roads which made me feel terribly sick in the desperately hot backseats. We stopped at a rest stop for far too long, which set the tone for the day as mostly a waiting game. After the tour guide met us here, we drove to Sebang, where we were told to sit and wait. After about an hour they shuffled us into the restaurant for a buffet lunch of the usual suspects: rice, veg, chickens of different kinds, spring rolls and fruit. We then waited some more, before walking over to the pier, where we waited again and finally got put onto small boats that shipped us across the ocean to the entrance of the Subterranean River National Park. We got handed some snazzy audio devices and walked through the jungle to the entrance of the cave where we, you guessed it, waited again. Christine and I stood on high alert for our boat number to be called so that we could get the prime front row seat. We succeeded in doing so, and once the boat was filled we were off to the cave entrance, adorned in hard hats and life vests. The cave was spectacular and clearly saw very little human contact. The men steering the boat wear torches on their heads, which provide a small yet sufficient light source and prevents the installation of lighting into the caves which could cause harm. We were instructed to refrain from touching anything, as we may carry foreign bacteria into the cave, and to be as quiet as possible. We had no problem keeping our mouths shut after the audio guide told us that water dripping from the top of the cave can contain bat poop and harmful bacterias. The audio tour pointed out different structures and had playful descriptions for a lot of the shapes of rocks. Some people find the cave to be a holy place, seeing images such as the last supper and angels in the rocks. The cave contained an astonishing amount of bats, all of which were undisturbed by our presence. Some were hanging on the side walls of the cave, which was definitely the closest view I’ve ever had of these strange creatures. That evening, after the drive back, we ate at a small Vietnamese place that had a decent rendition of beef pho.

We knew we didn’t want to take the vans to Port Barton with their excessive 500 peso charge, so we decided to go with the local buses, which we have had amazing luck with so far in the Philippines. We had to take a tricycle to the bus station that morning and right when we got there, someone was trying to shovel us into a van. At the call of my “cheap, cheap” request, a man ran over and guided us to the local bus, where people sat smiling at us and the bus driver put on American tunes. We took off, windows down, along a beautiful coastal drive, with the most random of music playing on ridiculously loud speakers, including but not limited to Taylor Swift, Cali Swag District and Lil John, which seemed like strange choices given the amount of old Filipino people surrounding us. To get to Port Barton, you need to turn off the main road that runs up and down the length of the island, onto a dirt road that leads you from the east to the west coast. The drive is brutal and bumpy. However, they are in the middle of constructing a paved road now, which leads me to believe it’ll be a popular tourist spot in a matter of time. I had briefly googled places to stay in Port Barton, most of which are small guesthouses that don’t have any online presence. I had read in a blog about a cheap place called El Busero, so I pinned it on the map and once we were off the bus, we set off walking along the beach to find it. We passed a woman who called herself Lovely, and told us that anything we need we should come to her for and most importantly that we should come to her bar, the Purple Turtle, that night. We talked to her for a bit before walking the short distance to El Busero. They had a single room with two double beds available for just 300 pesos each and we happily snatched up the offer. It was definitely hot, and power in Port Barton shuts off daily from 3:00 AM to about 8:00 AM, shutting the fan off. I awoke most nights either to the heat, or the surprisingly loud sound that the geckos make all night long.

Alter eating some quesadillas and slugging a cold beer at a small Spanish-owned joint, we decided to set off walking to a waterfall that the guesthouse owner told us about, since we felt like we hadn’t moved in days. It was definitely hot and we definitely sweat a lot. The waterfall didn’t appear on Maps.Me, but we knew the general direction so we set off walking. Somehow, at a fork in the road, we missed the sign indicating that Pamuayan Village was to the left and Pamuayan Waterfall was to the right, so we ended up walking down into the little village in search of a waterfall. Children tried to point us to the right direction, which we were unable to understand and finally we found a family that told us we had to go all the way back out towards the main road. While it added a decent amount of time onto our trip we were happy to see this lovely little village and its friendly people and animals going about their business. We walked back out of the village and towards the waterfall, which was farther than expected and ended up on a nice little nature walk to get to the small pool, where we of course saw Lovely again, who chatted us up for a while and asked us to come see her and her friend perform at the bar later. Spoiler alert, we didn’t make it to the bar that night, nor any other night due to our sheer tiredness, but we saw Lovely plenty more times. We made it back from the waterfall exhausted and terribly sweaty. After a shower and some lay time, we headed out to dinner at a place that was the cheapest for beers that we could find on our walk that day. I had some noodle soup and sweet potato fries while Christine enjoyed a curry pasta dish. We had a few beers and then headed back to the guesthouse to go to sleep, running with our heads down past the Purple Turtle so we wouldn’t get caught ditching the night out.

We decided to take the Island Hopping tour from Port Barton after hearing that it was totally beautiful and an overall nicer experience and half the price than the better known one in El Nido. We woke up early and headed down to book it the day of since it was a perfectly sunny day. With only a few other people on the boat we set off. We snorkeled over the most beautiful reef I have personally ever seen. At first, I was searching for fish out of habit and not finding anything spectacular, but once I looked past at the coral I was mesmerized and tried to make my way around and through the lot of it. We then made our way to the area the turtles are usually found, and our boat captain, Jacky, set out swimming to find us the turtles before we even had to jump in. We ended up seeing two turtles that day, the first there and then another later in the afternoon when we returned to the spot to look for the bigger turtle that Jacky said they had seen the day before. Luckily, Emma, one of the girls we were with, had an underwater camera and got some spectacular turtle pictures for us. We headed to Paradise Island for lunch, which had some of the clearest water I have seen yet. The beach was stunning and the rock formations were perfect against the water and the distant island backdrop. Here, the boat crew made us a fantastic lunch of full grilled fish, eggplant, cucumber and tomato salad, curried vegetables, rice and fruits. Filled with all the fresh food we set off for an area where the water is shallow and calm enough for starfish. It was a similar scene to the starfish spot on our Komodo tour, but we got to pick them up this time and actually examine them. Last time, we had been unsure as to whether or not they hurt you and it turns out they don’t. When you hold the starfish in the palm of your hand nice and still they release their little suction cups from underneath them to maintain their position. It is both a cool and very strange feeling. That night we went to the same place for dinner, with both Sophia and Emma from our boat trip.

We decided to stay a third day in Port Barton and spent the day on White Beach along with Sophia and Emma, which is about a thirty minute walk south of the town itself along a mostly decipherable dirt trail. Two dogs followed us all the way from the town and actually stayed with us on the beach until we made our way back in the afternoon. The beach was super quiet, but the shallow water and coral pieces on the ocean floor weren’t very conducive to swimming. We were super tired, however, and were okay spending the majority of the day sleeping and reading on our towels in the shade. We met back up again for dinner and tried a new spot called Paella, where Christine and I split, you guessed it, Paella. It certainly wasn’t authentic and erred on the side of Asian rather than Hispanic, but it was still delicious and contained lots of fresh squid.

Earlier that afternoon we had stopped by the office for the local bus we took from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton to ask about local options to get from Port Barton to El Nido. While at first he was trying to get us to take the van option, he eventually realized we were serious about wanting to take any form of public transportation. He told us to be at the church at 8:00 AM the next morning, where a jeepney would be waiting. We took a jam packed jeepney the next morning to Roxas, a town near the junction at the end of the road leaving Port Barton. In the shoddy jeepney it took us over an hour to make it to Roxas, but it was worth it. I sat next to the most adorable family and had my finger grasped by a tiny baby girl for a part of the journey. When we got to Roxas, we grabbed some baked goods and then got on the first bus that was going to El Nido. We pulled into El Nido at around 2:00 PM, with our 180 saved pesos in our pockets, and embarked on the short walk into town to find ourselves a place to stay.


5 Mar

Since we got to Siquijor a day later than we thought we were going to, we had less time to spend on this island, which was a shame because we really loved it. I had booked into a place called Tori’s Paradise, which was a bit away from the main hub of the island, San Juan, where most budget accommodations are. Everything else we found was all booked up, so we settled on this place which had cheap dorms, a pool, and beach front location. However, we had booked in advance for the night that we had to stay in the hotel after we couldn’t get the ferry in Bohol, so we were concerned that they would give our beds away since we didn’t check in the day we were supposed to. The boat got in around 1:00 PM and we decided that it would be a good idea to walk the distance to the hostel, which I was under the impression was closer than it actually was. The sun was the strongest we had seen in a while and we set off on our way, avoiding the hoard of tricycle drivers at the pier, with our bags on our backs. About half a mile in and dripping sweat we realized we had made a big mistake. I was lathering my arms with sunscreen as best I could with my bags on, missing spots that ended up burning in patches after the 30 minute walk. Eventually, we arrived at the hostel, exhausted and in clothes that were a new color from all the sweat. Luckily, our beds were still there for us so we threw our bags down in our sweaty fan room. It was already late in the afternoon so we decided we wouldn’t get up to much that day and instead, put on our bathing suits and sat outside on the beach reading and drinking beers, playing pool and eating a delicious meal. It was exactly the type of down time we needed after our hectic travel problems.

The hostel had a breakfast buffet, that, as is the case with a lot of food here, was simply cooked food sitting out getting cold. We weren’t too keen on the idea of eating cold eggs and sausages but when the guy told us that it was only 150 pesos (around three USD) we were happy enough to eat it and get on with our day. It was only when we went to pay that she told us it was 250 pesos each, which was far too much for the cold mediocre food we had consumed. Five dollars may not be a lot of money, but when you’re balling on a budget in Southeast Asia, where a meal should always be less than that, these things can make you angry. After our unsatisfying breakfast, we had one of the woman working at the hostel call for someone from town to bring a scooter for us to rent so that we could spend our only full day here exploring as much of this little island as possible. The guy showed up with a scooter, which I had to learn to kick start like a bad ass, and we were ready to go. Three guys from Los Angeles, Matt, Peter and Sean, were also renting scooters that day and we decided that we would head out together, although I warned them I would definitely be slower than they would. Since they were taking a bit longer to get ready we decided to head out first and meet them somewhere along the way since we all wanted to hit the same spots.

We got some gas and set out on our journey. The island is truly beautiful, with easy to drive and navigate roads that had very few other people on them. Our first stop was Cantabon Cave. Although I’ve seen a lot of caves in Asia, I was really interested in doing this one, which definitely had less people coming through it than others I have been to. We paid and got our guides in a tiny little office and were taken down to the entrance of the cave along with a lovely Finnish couple that we just happened to arrive at the same time as. The entrance to the cave was already much crazier than any I had been to previously, we had to crouch down and basically crab walk through tiny spaces to get to a point where we could stand up somewhat straight. The portion of cave that we could walk through was 800 meters, far more than I had expected. Pretty much right away we entered shallow water that had these tiny catfish swimming through it. We made our way through multiple climbs and dips and eventually got to see small waterfalls within the cave, pools big enough to swim in and gorgeous white terrace formations that looked so incredibly perfect with crystal clear water in them. I actually couldn’t believe how amazing the pattern of the terraces and desperately wished I could take a picture that would do it justice. But even photos with the go pro that the Finnish couple had weren’t coming out perfectly because the cave was incredibly dark and we only had the lights from our head torches. We made it all the way to the end and back, which was actually a great workout and one that we weren’t prepared for. I have to say that this was the most fun and tough cave that I got to walk through in all of Asia and I was so glad that we did it.

When we emerged back into the light of day we realized that it had started raining, which was of course less than ideal. When we were getting onto our bike and getting ready to head out to the next spot we realized there was a paper in it, which at first I nervously thought was some sort of ticket. It was a note left by the California boys letting us know that they had skipped the cave and were going to Cambugahay Falls. So, through the rain, we set off to meet them there. We had a minor setback as Christine realized she forgot her helmet halfway through the drive and we had to turn around, but by the time we got to the falls, they were still there. The falls were super blue and beautiful and even though it was drizzling we knew we had to go in. We jumped in off the top of one of the falls and swam around for a while, watching people swing off the rope swing, including a local kid doing crazy flips off of it.

After the waterfall we all took off together into the town of Lazi, where we took a quick pit stop into San Isidro Church, a beautiful church dating back to 1857, before heading to Salagdoong beach for its infamous 30 foot cliff jump into the ocean. By the time we arrived the water was looking pretty rough, with waves crashing hard into the rocks where the ladder to get back up onto the cliff was. The smaller of the jumps was closed because of the strength of the waves near the landing so it was the big jump or nothing. Sean took one for the team and was the first to jump, but was so silent after landing in the water that we all thought he was hurt or that something went wrong. After the other two boys jumped I got up there and did it myself. The jump was so long that I thought I should have hit the water much earlier than I actually did. Overall, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, with only some slight bruising from the landing. On the swim back to the shore, which we thought looked easier than trying to climb up the death ladder, the ocean made a visible change and the currents got much stronger. We stumbled out onto shore breathless, getting crashed on by waves. Right after we all finished our jumps they closed the jump because of the tides, which was a little concerning, but we were glad that we got to experience it.

Christine and I decided to continue around the island simply burning gas and taking in the scenery. We needed to get a ferry out the following day, so, once we got back to Siquijor town we rode down to the pier to ask about the ferries, but no stand was open. A sign on one of the ferries said that the 6:30 AM trip to Dumaguete was canceled for the following day already due to the weather, which had us feeling nervous. A man saw us looking around and asked us where we were trying to go. I told him that we needed to get back to Cebu city, but that it seemed like most boats just go to Dumaguete first, then you have to take another ferry to Liloan on the south of Cebu island. He told us that a ferry goes at night directly to Cebu from the pier at Lorena at 6:30 AM, which we had passed on the way back to Siquijor. So we hopped back on the bike and rode back to Lorena. At this point it was getting dark, we were freezing cold and we realized we were missing an incredible sunset, but we had to do what we had to do. We got to Lorena and when we asked the woman about the ferry she told us that there was none. So, we had to get back on the bike in the dark and cold and head back to Siquijor to take pictures of the ferry companies and time boards. The earliest trip would be 10:00 AM, so we knew we’d have to wake up early the following morning and head down around 8:00 AM, for when the ticket booths open, to buy our ticket.

When we got back to the hostel we sat for dinner and beers with the guys, which turned into cards and beers, which made its way to shots of Jager and deep conversation as the group dwindled down and then suddenly the sun was rising. The three of us that remained, Matt, Peter and myself, decided we would go for a sunrise swim, but the sand in the water was completely impossible to walk on and we ended up getting tiny shards of coral and shells stuck in our feet. Instead, we went to the pool, making one of the workers turn the water slide on for us. When it was nearing 8:00 AM, I went to collect Christine and, delusional on no sleep, I biked the both of us down to the pier and Christine went to the window to get our tickets. We had an hour to go back and pack our things and then bike back into town with all our luggage to return the bike just next to the pier, just in time to get on the ferry. The ferry took us to Dumaguete, where we had to take a tricycle to a separate port at Sibulan where we had to catch another ferry to Liloan on Cebu. From there, we got on the four hour bus ride back to Cebu city. It was a terribly long day of travel and we had to be up at 3:00 AM for our flight to Palawan. After a nap and food I went straight to bed and had a whopping four hours of sleep before having to get up, throw our bags back on and head out to the airport.