japan in january.

it is always on airplanes that i find the space to write. write for me. not for a client’s blog, not for a paid article, but for my mind, my soul, my sanity. something about this metal tube soaring through the sky – and probably my limited access to internet – focuses the words in my head.

i haven’t been on a long flight for awhile. perhaps the last one was from japan to hawaii. (that’s a lie, we flew back to australia for a wedding in march, but i’m going to stick with the lie because it works as a perfect segue.)

that flight signified a new chapter, but the old chapter was never written. this blog holds no words about that time i crossed off “visit japan” from my 35 before 35 list. until now… 🙂

the old chapter

part one: niseko

they (whoever they is) say that niseko has some of the best powder you will ever ride. and they were right. i’m guessing “they” is made up of all the snowboarders and skiers who have showed up to the stunning mountains of hokkaido not knowing what to expect and left with their minds blown. i am now one of this they.

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niseko slopes are not quite as steep as some of the BAMFs would like, but the continuous fresh powder and ungroomed glades make up for its gradual declines. and for me, it was perfect.

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cutting in and out of the trees until it got too narrow for comfort, then easily popping back out on the powdery edge of the groomed runs. not to mention, catching an edge becomes immensely more fun when you face plant into a mound of snowy goodness instead of ice. that is until you have to try and stand back up…

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for just over a week, we let ourselves sink into ski bum status. wake up, put on thermals, look outside, high five (because you can’t see past the huge white flakes), eat breakfast, gear up, grab board, walk to slope, ride ride ride, drink drink drink, go to bed. repeat.

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life is pretty simple in a ski town. life is pretty perfect in a ski town.

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when our lift passes ran out, we headed south to see what else japan had to offer. stoke was high, and i had no idea it was about to get even higher.

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part two: tokyo

i have traveled a lot of places, but japan was only marginally on my radar until recently. my older brother had lived there for quite some time and RAVED about it. at the time, i was like, yeah cool whatever. japan seemed faraway. on the wrong side of the globe. i was a north and south america type of girl. maybe a dash of europe. then i visited india. then i started dating an australian. all the sudden japan didn’t seem that faraway at all. and it sort of looked pretty cool.

sumimasen nikon. i am sorry i ever doubted your awesomeness.

we arrived late at night in tokyo. the airport was quiet and everything seemed to be shutting down. thanks to an old college friend who is currently living in tokyo, we were well-equipped with step-by-step instructions.

  1. find baggage counter and have snowboard bag shipped to apartment. check.
  2. take the ____ train and get off at the ______ stop. check.
  3. get on the _____ line and get off at the ______ stop. check.
  4. walk 15 minutes to apartment.
  5. key is in mailbox.
  6. make yourself at home.

wow. even half asleep, we were able to navigate the brilliant tokyo train system. talk about well-constructed public transportation. there is no need to rent a car in tokyo. the rail will take you basically everywhere you want to go. for cheap.

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as we walked to my friend’s apartment, the city was asleep. it was also short. after my visit to hong kong, i had the impression that tokyo might be similar. i was oh-so-wrong. the buildings are low and sprawl outward forever. there are areas of densely packed skyscrapers, but for the most part this city sits low, which makes it feel way less daunting that other big cities.

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it is also clean. and quiet. and for those of you who know anything about japanese culture, you are nodding your heads. in japan, you do not eat or drink while you walk down the street. you do not talk loudly on the train. you do not blow your nose in public. you are polite. you are very polite. you are probably too polite.

with limited time, we made sure to tackle the important things:

  • yoyogi koen in harajuku on a sunday – if you like people watching, this park is magical. from students practicing their latest hiphop moves to gray-haired street performers setting up their pantomime shows to japanese popstars-in-training belting out their cheesy vocals, yoyogi has got it all. as ryan put it, “these people are parking the shit out of this place.” the dog park adds at least 30 minutes of entertainment as well.
  • maid cafe in akihabara – you’ve gotta do it. yes, you’ll probably pay too much for your magic-infused drink and regret it later, but you still have to experience the weirdness of this popular dining experience.

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  • shibuya at night – switch your iphone to the time-lapse setting and squeeze your way into the lineup of cameras hovering around the second story starbucks window. the famous shibuya intersection is truly something to observe. thousands of humans dancing their way through each other amidst the bright city colors before the traffic light turns green.

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  • sensoji temple and sky tree in asakusa – sure it’s touristy, but once you get past all the kitschy shops, the temple is stunning. and seeing the city from the sky is definitely an interesting perspective. tokyo goes on forever.

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  • tsukiji market – if you want good sushi, go to the market in the morning, the earlier the better, most of the restaurants close by the afternoon. also, if you’re looking for a sweet japanese knife, this is a good place to find one.
  • golden gai – we didn’t actually go here, but we did find our way to another strip of tiny bars. these little establishments are so unique. with seats for only about 5-6 people, the bars offer a cozy way to end your day.
  • kobe beef – we found it, we ate it, we loved it. (and all the other delicious food!)

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  • see snow – you probably won’t be able to do this as it is a pretty rare occurence, but we did. what a magnificent sight to see this pristine city covered in a blanket of soft white snow.

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  • karaoke – even ryan did it. everyone has to do it. rent a room and let your favorites rip.
  • sumo tournament – saving the best for last. if you are in japan and happen to time it when one of the sumo tournaments are on, go. i had no clue how into this sport i would be. there is so much history, so many intricate regulations, so much beauty and performance. after attending the ninth day of the tourny, i wanted to buy tickets for the rest of it. luckily, we happened to catch the winning match on tv at the airport. what a huge win! japan on top again… take that mongolia. yoisho!

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i’m sure i’m forgetting some things above, but our time in tokyo left me wanting my brother to move back to japan so that i could have an excuse to return. i guess i don’t actually need an excuse…

part three: kyoto

my brother spent a lot of time in kyoto and had given me these instructions: in kyoto go to kinkakuji, ginkakuji, heian shrine, downtown, and the gardens.

we boarded that bullet train and headed south.

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after a few days, our feet were sore and cold (the snow followed us to kyoto as well), but we walked around to every temple and shrine and garden that we could find.

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kyoto’s old japanese charm is palpable. you can meander the streets for hours just taking in all the cute storefronts and ornate temples and shrines. every corner has a hidden space to uncover. if you’re into history, this is your city.

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in order to tap into the japanese culture a bit more, and fully embrace our absolute obsession with japanese food, we took a cooking class in kyoto. we crafted a bento box complete with tempura shrimp, sushi rolls, teriyaki chicken, spinach salad, and miso soup. i was pretty impressed with the results. and yes, i still have the recipes if you happen to want to sample my newfound skills. yum.

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with only a few days in kyoto, we spent all day every day getting lost and finding our way. finding our way to unknown temples off the tourist track and taking the time to let ourselves get lost in their majesty.

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japan was magical. a perfect introduction to our new home… hawaii.

p.s. as i finished this blog, i realized i lied some more. after japan, we went to taiwan before we officially moved to hawaii. stay tuned…

paris in the rearview.

life happens. before the hands can transcribe thought to script, the moment is gone. you keep on living. the details fade, and you can’t remember why you wrote that note about the ________.

but maybe it’s not the details that are important tomorrow.

today, six months later, i look at my notes: 

paris day three:

work, buy a french wardrobe due to climbing clothes selection

head to the louvre – seeing masterpieces i studied in college, things i wrote papers about, huge endless rooms of the world’s best art, surrounded by soldiers, never felt unsafe but rather safer amongst it all

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mona lisa thoughts, masterpiece thoughts, all the thoughts

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ice cream at the famous place on the island, patron saints of paris watching over

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meditation with aunt and friends followed by dinner, another night falling asleep as my auntie drove me home.

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by the bastille

paris day four:

breakfast – family does a mooc about versailles but it’s in french, so i do work

opera bastille – l’elisir d’amore by gaetano donizetti – lead female was amazing, a fun comic light hearted performance, fun to get dressed up, black and white – the colors of france

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paris day five:

church

Versailles food market for some lunch fixings, baguettes, cheese, crepes, french yelling

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family bonding – funny how us schneider women are all the same, the “outlaws” instead of inlaws

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sunday – slow and simple

roasted chestnuts (french word for that = marrons chauds), i thought it was just a song

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paris day six:

city tour…

train in by myself

notre dame – eavesdrop on a tour guide

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shakespeare and co.

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le procope

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wander around latin quarter – get lost, curving streets meandering and turing into dead ends, endless cafes and creperies

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tuileries garden stroll

champ elysees christmas market

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petit palace / gran palace

arc de triomphe

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crepe – egypt man

centre pompidou – pollack, matisse, different vibe, outdoor escalators reminded me of hong kong, best view from the top, tired legs, tired soul

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eiffel tower always in the distance, standing tall watching over its city

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day seven:

wake up in the french countryside to a crazy sunrise

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versailles – palace and gardens, meandering with audio tour, wondering what it would be like to have a bedroom like those…

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thai food for lunch with annie and jim

movie night – hunger games mockingly part 2

day eight:

rest?

day nine: 

museo d’Orsay – prostitutes exhibit, one elite parisian prostitute with last name schneider, maybe a past life… women in photography exhibit, giant inner working of clock, my monets

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tour with ethan’s mom – local view, born and raised, best pastries, stories from long ago

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thanksgiving dinner with family complete with my favorite, a delicious homemade pumpkin pie

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day ten:

fly home via iceland and maryland to st. louis to meet family for thanksgiving weekend

today, six months later, i remember:

i remember the graffiti. after coming from hong kong, the artistic expression flying by me through the train window was comforting. back in a space known for its creativity. the culture and language that gave us avant garde. without stalking the historical cafes where artist after artist stewed over music and poetry, i felt it in the air. in the architecture. in the opera. in the fashion. in the people. there is a certain hype that surrounds paris, and i will remember being entirely swept up in it.

i remember the aloneness. i haven’t walked around alone in a big city in quite some time. aimlessly wandering the streets with no specific destination in mind. seeing where a left might take me instead of a right. missing a subway station on purpose so i can backtrack by foot through the chaos. walking around paris reminded me of when i lived in buenos aires. they say it is the paris of south america, and if i had to go by the way both cities made me feel, i’d have to agree. the magic is palpable. to passerbys, my joy probably was too.

i remember the meals. my aunt and cousins sat down together for dinner almost every night. the bell would ring and supper would be served. the busyness of the day would come to a pause as we all gathered around the table to fuel our bodies with food and minds with conversation. perhaps they don’t do this all the time. maybe it was because i was in town. but, either way, it was a cherished gift. a chance to get to know the relatives who have lived so far away all this time. a chance to learn and debate and laugh and eat fresh baguettes and drink french wine.

i’ll always remember what i remember. the specifics aren’t really that important anymore.

alone in paris: settling in

paris.

you hear so much about the city of love. and for me, it lived up to every word. a lifetime of expectation entirely exceeded. ten days to soak in the french and their palace of a city…

when i arrived at the airport, instead of being welcomed with a hug from my auntie, i was greeted with a text message telling me to pop on the train. that the terrorists (i arrived days after terrorist attacks.) were being seized in a neighborhood near the airport and that traffic was a nightmare. so, i figured out how to get a ticket to the country and stared out the window for an hour or so, doe-eyed.

straightaway my cousin-in-law swept me up from the train station and started his tour guiding role. a stroll around the castle of la madeleine, a beautiful medieval fortress overlooking chevreuse.

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a quick stop for lunch at an all frozen food store, then home to their cozy house in saint remy.

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after the chaos of china, it was so nice to settle into family life. meal times and routine were a welcome change.

despite jet lag, i rallied and joined my aunt for a night out in paris. a delicious vegan meal with some longtime expats followed by a truly french musical performance in the small one room basement of a small one room bar.

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it was the sort of thing you’d imagine reading about or seeing in an old film. in my overly tired, dazed and confused state, it all felt so surreal. i wish i could have stayed awake and soaked in more, but alas, after the first performer (a friend of my aunt’s friend) i could not manage to keep my eyes open. but i had heard and seen enough already to know that i could easily fall in love with this city.

and on day two, i fell a little more.

despite a little rain, we strolled down near a canal and fantasized about owning one of the homes hugging the water’s edge.

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there is so much history in paris and its surrounding towns. my imagination was in overdrive flashing back to what it must have been like back when people hung out their windows to wash their clothes in the canal. or seeing the opening scene of beauty and the beast come to life before my very eyes. bonjour. bonjour. bonjour, bonjour, bonjour…

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we escaped the rain into a cute restaurant that apparently gets overrun by motorcyclists on the weekend, but today it was just us. i indulged in the traditional duck confit for lunch and profiteroles for dessert.

i had not yet gone into the city, but my family time in the country was just what i needed. every meal was filled with abundant conversation and rolling laughter. since my aunt, cousins, and second cousins have lived in france my whole life, i don’t get to see them nearly enough. and yet, it was evident upon arrival that we were indeed related. once a schneider woman, always a schneider woman (regardless of last name).

with jet lag dissipating and a good night’s sleep ahead, it was time to finally head into paris and see what the fuss was all about…

hong kong and beyond.

from tsim sha tsui to central, from lamma island to shek o, from macau to kowloon, i soaked in as much of hong kong as i could before departing china for my impromptu reroute.

tsim sha tsui is made up of rows and rows of “mansions” filled with tailors, money exchanges, massage parlors, and other random shops. most cheap lodging is found in guest houses that really are just apartments morphed into hotels. small and sketchy. cleanliness is optional but slow elevators are required.

the streets are bustling in this tourist district. you can slip into sync with the masses and march down one of the main drags to the jade market. although kitschy and overpriced, it is an excellent space to browse and take in old chinese men eating noodles over their suitcases of jade and antique wares. the surrounding area offers other food and knickknack markets to further fuel a truly intriguing people watching stroll.

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first and foremost, tsim sha tsui visits need to include crowding down on the water’s edge to take selfies in front of hong kong’s central skyline situated across the bay.

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then, come back around 8pm to take in a spectacular of lights. electricity dancing over the metal giants and shooting across the foggy night sky.

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a few museums make their home upon this promenade as well as the ferries. by the end of a week, we had mastered the ferries. by the end of a week, we were over tsim sha tsui.

across the water, central hong kong stands tall packed with bank buildings and business suits. double decker street cars move 9-5ers from point a to point b and back.

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an endless vertical incline of escalators takes pedestrians up through the mid-levels, full of trendy bars, health food stores, organic restaurants, and spas.

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at the top, signs direct you back down through a sad excuse for a zoo.

but the real treat in central is victoria peak, or the peak as it’s called. don’t buy a roundtrip ticket for the tram that takes you to the top. take the tram up and the bus down. after spending hours looking down upon hong kong’s jungle of skyscrapers in amazement, you won’t want to wait in the massive line to take the tram back down. the view from the top is epic.

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go right before sunset and watch the city shift from blue skies to fireflies. it’s like your own time-lapse…in real time.

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head to happy valley at some point and bet on the ponies. every wednesday night it’s themed. we went on james bond night. figuring out how to bet in chinese took me at least an hour, but in the end i won $18 and got to watch a couple ridiculously ripped men flagpole off each other. all in all, a win. plus ryan made friends with a swiss banker, plastic surgeon, and yacht salesman. rubbing elbows with the upper class at the races (and getting ready for the boob job i might need one day).

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after a few days of city life, we were ready to escape. a quick ferry ride to the outlying island of lamma island offered a pleasant change of scenery. within minimal, if any, roads, this little island is green and lush. one end of the island has a small town housing hippie boutiques and quaint apartment complexes.

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“the family trail” takes you for a 4k walk to the other side of the island, a strip of seafood restaurants on stilts above the water.

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tanks and tanks sit on the sidewalks filled with sea critters of which i have never heard.

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after a leisurely walk (and a few days in hong kong), a delicious seafood meal overlooking the sunset was a much needed recovery.

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you always see more interesting things when you know a local, and when our friend patrick arrived, we discovered shek o. his friend lived there and was living the good life. steps from the beach. steps from town. this cute little area sits away from central and feels like an entirely different world. the beach atmosphere. we drank through an entire cocktail list at their local beach shack pub and then headed to the next, on the backside of the town.

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it was nice to be away from the tourist scene. a night with home cooked food, too much spirit (in all senses of the word), and wonderful company. i spent the evening attempting to drunkenly learn turkish, and boy did i feel it the next day. but, not as bad as ryan. as we piled into a taxi in the morning, poor ryan sat shaking armed and ready with a plastic bag to puke in. windy roads did him in, but not a drop made it into the taxi. what a champion.

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however, our itinerary for the day involved taking an hour ferry ride over to macau, the vegas of china. we returned to our hostel room for a brief regrouping, only to find that someone else was in our room, and all of our luggage was missing. the receptionist informed us that they had switched our room. that our stuff was “downstairs.” all i could do was laugh.

turns out our stuff was not downstairs but just moved to the room across the hall. we regrouped and rallied. by lunchtime, we were riding the luxury boat (free upgrade) to macau with hopes to win big. we studied the possible casinos and decided to start at the venetian.

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after pat lost a quick few bucks on the roulette wheel, we filled our bellies with dim sum and headed back to plant ourselves at the cheaper roulette wheel.

turns out ryan hasn’t gambled much and had quite a bit of beginner’s luck. as he quietly hoarded his chips in the corner, looking surprisingly well after his morning of looking like death, patrick and i rode the waves of wins and losses. zero never did hit, but twenty-two did!

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it was our last full day in hong kong. as we headed home, i was tired. i was ready to head to paris. since china would not let me in, i would go to the city of love. alone. i would not let terrorist attacks stop me. fear should never dictate.

the next morning, ryan boarded a train and started an epic journey into rural china, ready to rock climb. pat and i wandered around kowloon after checking my bags in at the station. (yes, apparently you can check your bags before the airport so you don’t have to take them on the train. how great!) we found our way up to sky100, a 360 degree viewing lounge 400m above hong kong. another place to stare out over this monster of a city.

hong kong you are a beast.

that is all.

meant to be a city trip.

“don’t you love cities at night?” a friend said to me, visually overcome, as we drove into salt lake city a few years ago. growing up near chicago, i was used to seeing rows upon rows of skyscraper windows glowing like stars in the sky, but it wasn’t until that moment that i really understood just how beautiful these collection of human creations could be.

now take that experience and multiply it by a thousand.

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as i flew into hong kong last week, my comprehension of “city” was shattered. in the dust of its dissipation, i pressed my face against the taxi window and strained my neck as i gazed up in pure amazement. column after column flickering in a sea of structure. surrounded and intertwined with the green giants standing tall in the distance.

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what was this place?

i was only supposed to be here for a few days. arrive sunday night, leave thursday morning. just enough time to secure a visa to mainland china. a brief stopover on the way to yangshuo, a popular china climbing destination. it was not meant to be a city trip. it was meant to be a climbing trip.

but if this week has taught me anything, it’s that things don’t always go as planned.

on monday, i filled out my application for a ten year multiple entry tourist visa to china. i wrote down my name. i wrote down my address. where it said occupation, i checked the box for “self-employed.” where it said company name, i wrote down “saradipity media.” i filled out everything effortlessly and honestly.

that night as i returned to the hotel, i was handed a message. the visa office needed me to contact them as there had been a problem with my application. my heart sunk deep into my stomach, and i instantly knew what i had done.

prior to traveling to mainland china, i had done a lot of research. running your own online-based marketing company from a country that bans the use of facebook and other such websites, requires a bit of pre-planning. i had surveyed all my chinese connections and read every article regarding the “great firewall of china.” i was all set to get around the communist control of the internet.

and then i let my guard down.

i was in this city. this chinese city. this magnificent chinese city where i could still check my gmail and facebook and wordpress. surely all would be well and good.

“sensitive” is what they deemed me. when i asked the travel agent why my visa application was rejected, she pointed to the word “media” and informed me that that was the only reason.

one. fucking. word.

our brains tend to slip into what we know. we forget that words have different meanings and connotations for every individual. what means one thing to me, means another to you. i have never been the best at picking the right words. at consciously choosing the appropriate syllables for the occasion. but this is an instance where i really wish i was.

a month long climbing trip foiled by one word. a puzzle piece of my travel itinerary lost forever under the couch. after deciding that ryan would still head to yangshuo and meet back up with me in america in mid-december like we had originally planned, i was left in my least favorite place…the land of choices, conveniently located near the land of questions.

did i go home? where was home? portland? chicago? should i leave tomorrow? stay in hong kong? visit family? visit friends? see a new place?

it’s been the first time in a long time where i’ve needed to make a decision purely involving me. what did i want to do? where did i want to go?

well, to start with, i wanted to be present in hong kong. i wanted to learn how to say thank you in cantonese and not just mandarin. i wanted to haggle over some jade jewelry.

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i wanted to stare down from victoria peak at this beast of a city.

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i wanted to experience the ponies.

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i wanted to get lost wandering its busy sidewalks.

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and i wanted to eat all the steamed buns i could find.

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so i did.

a day or two in puerto princesa.

we slept most of the way to puerto princesa. six hours in an ice cold toyota van jam-packed with as many passengers as seat belts. you pay extra for air conditioned anything in the philippines, a luxury that we rarely opted for. this trip, however, we didn’t have a choice.

i bundled up in my blue patagonia puffy and tucked my freezing feet under ryan’s thigh. it’s so silly to think about being so layered in warmth when it was 100 degrees outside.

there is one surefire way to recognize where you are, traffic. as we pulled into puerto princesa, all the sudden there were cars again. lots of them. back in a city. a city named due to the sudden drop in its ocean shelf making it the perfect port for large ships. the princess of ports.

people come to puerto princesa to see palawan’s international treasure, the underground river. voted to be one of the new seven wonders of the world.

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we had been warned that we might not be able to book a tour to see it because of its popularity, the weather, and our limited timeframe.

pshhh. don’t always listen to people. that is one lesson travelers should learn. always try.

we hopped off the van with no plans. luckily, our tricycle driver had all the plans we needed. when we said we didn’t know where we needed him to take us, that we had no accommodation, he pulled out a small flyer advertising a local hotel. sure, why not.

we pulled up to the relatively cheap hotel close to the airport that he had recommended. it was probably the shittiest room i have ever paid to sleep in, but it had wifi, and it was just for one night, so we checked in too lazy and hungry to drive around town looking for a better room.

next, our tricycle man took us to book our underground river tour. i saw the hotel was offering the same tour.

“why should we book with your guy when we can book it here?”

he smiled and ensured that we would get a better deal. and indeed we did. we booked our tickets for 200 pesos less than everyone else. and, with proof that we were flying out the next evening, we were able to get on the early tour.

done and done. good thing we didn’t listen to those people telling us we wouldn’t be able to see the underground river.

the rest of the day was eating and napping and working and eating and sleeping. we had to be up at 5am the next day, ready for the tour van to pick us up and drive us the two hours to the launch point for the tour.

it’s a shame that you can’t experience the underground river without an organized tour. we arrived at the boarding dock with hundreds of other tourists. the tours had been closed for the past four days due to the weather. the day we went was the first day the water was calm enough to make the journey. this meant even more tourists than usual for the low season.

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vendors peddled their knockoff sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and waterproof sacks to the sea of foreigners crowded together waiting for their turn to climb aboard a rickety old outrigger-esque boat and head to the mouth of the underground river.

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we waited for our turn and then set out across the ocean waves. after we docked on shore, we climbed out onto the sand and walked the wooden, monkey-streaked path to the tour entry point.

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hurry up and wait. hurry up and wait. hurry up and wait. it is the way of all tourist activities.

but after we waited, we stepped into the front of a canoe decked out in fluorescent orange life vests and construction helmets. ryan held a car battery powered spotlight as our guide paddled us into the cave.

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if you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering what the hell it means to have an underground river. well, it’s basically a river that runs through a massive natural cave tunnel, and it is spectacular.

the ceiling is lined with bats and epic stalactites. they warn you to keep your mouth shut when you look up, and when bat guano landed on my hand, i was glad i had listened.

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there is something magical about caves. even when several canoes of tourists are floating within their walls, you can feel their power. this whole world existing in darkness, away from it all. the spotlight, our only means of seeing behind the black.

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i tuned out the tour guide as he pointed out different features and what they looked like. yes, that does look like the three wise man, but i really don’t care.

i care about the dank air coating my nostrils with every inhale and the echoing of the hidden waterfalls just waiting to be found. if only we had our own canoe; i would paddle the whole 8km of that underground river…

wet tourists in el nido

if all airport experiences were even remotely close to flying the ITI private plane to el nido from manila, i would be a much happier traveler. a private terminal with assigned tables, snacks, and wooden boarding passes. wait staff that know your name and politely tell you when it’s your time to check in, which means no line waiting at all.

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i haven’t ever been in an airport airline lounge, but i’d imagine it’s something like this minus the wooden boarding passes and lineless check-in.

the booking process is not quite as smooth though. email some random tourist shop in el nido five days before your desired departure date (and no earlier). they’ll let you know if there is space for you. might take a day of back and forth before you’ve secured your seat and paypal-ed the funds to them via internet still living in the 90s.

the small resort-owned plane is the only one that flies directly into el nido. you are welcomed to palawan with native lyrics singsonging into your ears as you once again indulge in free snacks.

well, maybe not free. the two hour flight costs about $100. if you live in america, this is pretty standard, but the other option is a $50 flight into puerto princesa and a dirt cheap six hour bus ride to el nido.

however, we stepped outside our cheap ass, dirt bagger ways this trip. we flew the fancy way. we paid $40/night for an ocean front view and a private bathroom and an army of ants to keep us company.

they warn you about monsoon season. we didn’t listen, and after a week of glorious sunshine and foreigner-free streets, we thought we’d totally lucked out. the slow season was treating us marvelously.

enter el nido.
our dose of reality (if you can call it that).

the earth was wet when we landed. it was still drizzling as our tricycle slowly navigated through puddled potholes the 15 minutes it took to get into town. into the small beach town on the northeast section of palawan. we checked in at rosanna’s without prior reservations, but not without a minimal amount of prior research.

he wanted beach, so i found him beach. immediately the hammock went up, and we were home for a few days.

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el nido is known for epic island hopping, decent scuba diving, and even some deep water soloing for us climbers. it is nestled between ocean and mountain. towering cliffs that teased us with their possibility and the smell of salty sweetness.

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we went for a wander and had a moment of shock as we passed tourist after tourist strolling the beach, aimlessly gazing at the bars and restaurants promoting their happy hour deals. we were no longer the only foreigners. we were one of them. we were one of many. i can imagine this tiny filipino gem gets pretty hopping in the busy season.

but that was not now. and i’m glad that was not now.
now was the monsoon season. and we soon found out what that meant.

beautiful afternoon thunderstorms that came out of nowhere and knocked over your “it’s five o’clock somewhere” seashore cocktails.

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perfectly timed sprints back to your hotel room that inevitably end up being unperfectly timed. shaggy wet hair dripping onto bare feet and framing our smiles.

we loved it.

rain pounding so loudly it made you listen. to nature. to each other. to nothing, and everything.

and then, we wanted to scuba dive.

as you might imagine, this weather doesn’t really lend itself to good diving conditions. we curled up in the hammock and read our course theory only to be told that we’d have to wait another day to go out on the boat. and another. and another.

since no boats could set sail, we rented a kayak to do a bit of our own island hopping. we (and by we i mean mostly ryan) paddled through the choppy waters from one island to the next. we rested on a small beach.

“i could live here.”
“look at all this treasure.”

i love this man. this man who sees a semi-deserted island covered in washed up trash and thinks he’s struck gold. this man who climbs up the first tree he can find and scopes out the lay of the land. this man who carries a giant piece of wood in from the waves and imagines what sort of furniture he can make from this waterlogged masterpiece. this man who can paddle us past the break and against the current and get us safely back to shore.

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safely back to local seafood and filipino fun.

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the people of the philippines are genuine. they smile and laugh. they are welcoming and accommodating. they tell us where to eat and what to see.

but we decide we must go.

i had it in my head that i wanted to complete my open water diving certification. no more looking in awe and envy at the photos from ryan’s latest pier dive. however, the weather really wasn’t participating in this endeavor. doesn’t mother nature care about my wants?!

i looked at a map. where could we go to escape the rain? north, south, east, west? the locals told us that it would be raining everywhere in the philippines.

but malaysia looked close. what about the weather in borneo?

on a whim, we booked flights. we spent our last evening strolling through corong corong (el nido’s neighbor) and enjoying beachside ceviche under a streetlamp… until the power went out.

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we walked home along the dark street. we took a tricycle to our door. we packed our backpacks.

today, el nido.
tomorrow, puerto princesa.
then, onto malaysia.

manila, zambales, bolinao, and buses.

IMG_8016we spend a lot of our time on buses. right now, we are on a 7-8 hour journey from bolinao back to manila. this time we have air conditioning, but we’re not picky. hop on the first bus we find going to our desired destination. sometimes crammed with locals. sometimes a flat tire. sometimes televisions playing cheesy action flicks. they all will get you there eventually.

for a dollar or so, we get a panoramic view of the lush green landscape surrounding us. the rolling hills. the sprawling fields. the weaving waters. homes and food stands built a few feet from the main road just strong enough to withstand the weather. maybe.

it’s “monsoon season” in the philippines right now, but we have only experienced the occasional afternoon shower and evening lightning show. it’s generally about 90-100 degrees with humidity that makes it absolutely useless to shower.

we embrace the heat. we embrace the solitude.

the low season has made this journey rather tourist free. my tall stature and fair skin stands out amongst the filipinos. i am an anonymous celebrity. famous only by association with a faraway land. all i can do is smile and keep going.

i try to learn the language. i always try to learn the language. there are broken bits of spanish mixed into their words, leftovers of the spanish reign. this makes it easier for me to understand, but still the only phrase i’ve mastered so far is “thank you,” that is enough. enough to show an effort. enough to acknowledge that i am a visitor. enough to appreciate this beautiful collection of islands. salamat.

there are over 7,000 islands in the philippines. we have three weeks.

since the main airport is in manila, we start there. on the island of luzon. we head west to zambales to chase down some surf. it’s not exactly surf season, but after a solo adventure, ryan managed to find a decent beach break off a nearby headland.

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we quickly moved from our crystal beach hut in san narciso…

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…down to another beachfront hut in pundaquit, but not before taking a few photos with the filipino soap opera stars filming at our accomodation. be sure to check them out in “pangako sa iyo” (i promise to you) on ABS CBN. #nextbigthing

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without any preemptive planning, we cram into a tricycle (the preferred local means of transportation) and rock up to pundaquit to find most hotels closed for the low season.

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one local points our tricycle driver to one place. closed. another local points our tricycle driver to another place. closed. we eventually find a sleepy resort with an open hut awaiting us. perfection.

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with electricity, a fan, and decent wifi, i am all set. my mobile office has found its new home. for two days. just enough time to catch up on work and track down a couple longboards to give “magic left” a go.

back in our element. away from the city chaos of manila. away from the mall of asia.

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away from all day rush hour traffic. now the only traffic was about ten other surfers waiting for the next set to roll in.

the days are short here. i rise early to get unpopulated wifi and take in the morning’s coolness. soon the sun will burn bright, and the next adventure will begin.

three buses later, we reach our next destination, bolinao. had it not been for my mother’s timeshare points getting us a cheap weeklong stay in this quiet fisherman’s town, we probably would never have ventured this far north. but we did. and it was breathtaking.

an empty all-inclusive resort with comfy beds and mediocre food. have you ever had 20 staff members there just to wait on you? someone to bring you towels. someone to bring you purified drinking water. someone to give you a massage on the beach. someone to make you cocktails. someone to prepare your meals. it’s weird.

but we took advantage of our resort stay and soaked up the local sights. walked along the beach and took a dip in the enchanted cave.

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hired a boat to tour the 100 islands national park near alaminos city. snorkeled with giant clams and swam into a bat-filled cave.

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kneeled in the saint james the great parish church built in 1609 and whispered salamat.

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sipped down some chicken lomi at adora’s restaurant. and of course, lounged by the pool and ordered a ton of room service.

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then we decided to leave two days early.

we are not resort people at heart. we are adventurers. we are bus riders. and so we ride the bus back to manila to board a puddle jumper to fly us across the sea to our next island, palawan.

solo al rodeo.

rodeo came to town last week. the locals save up all year for this week long festival. bulls from all over ready to buck off their riders and chase their taunters. for nosara, rodeo ranks up there with christmas and easter. it comes once a year, and it is not to be missed.

outside the rodeo ring is the fair. cotton candy and meat on a stick. corn on the cob and churros.

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a mechanical bull and dance club. rickety carnival rides and cheap goods for sale.

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it all started on wednesday with the kids parade and opening celebrations. it all ended on monday night with the last of the ticos cheering on the only female bull rider.

i’m here in costa rica with my friend and her sister. my friend is dating a nosara local who is the “mayor” of the town. he knows everyone. talk about a local hook up.

his company, chorotegas surf school, sponsored the rodeo. as part of this, his chorotegas soccer team (jersey pictured above) got to occupy the bull ring on thursday night. this in turn meant, we got to enter the ring as well. after signing a couple papers saying that i might die and i’m cool with that, we located all the exits and scooted into the ring.

sorry mom.

but don’t worry, i’m still alive. i played it safe and stayed near the edge. i did think about following the boys in closer, but instead of testing my running skills, i just stood in awe of the crazy ticos. grabbing the bull’s tail and horns. yikes.

it’s part of the culture. they’ve grown up around bulls and this sport. but truthfully, as i was standing in that ring amongst all the excitement and adrenaline, i felt a bit sad. that poor bull, stuck running away from these human bullies. the whole thing left me with mixed emotions.

after stepping outside of the ring, i did think i had watched enough bull riders to be a pro at it though, so i took a try on the fake one. it’s all about the whipping of the arm for balance. i’m a natural…

on saturday, we all rented horses to partake in el tope (parade of horses). hundreds of people gathered in the park for a pre-party and then boarded their horses to trot through the town towards the rodeo.

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everyone was decked out in their best plaid button down, cowboy hats, giant belt buckles, and boots. my favorite apparel.

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this self-proclaimed cowgirl was in heaven. my horse was named coqueta meaning coquette meaning a flirt. probably appropriate for its rider… she was quick and spirited but well-behaved and eager to listen. a perfect combination.

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we rode smashed in between several other horses strutting their stuff. some were well-trained, picking up their hooves in rhythm and tucking their heads. others meandered aimlessly while their riders guzzled another imperial.

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there was an energy in the air, a tradition. and we were part of it, complete with cowboy hats and horses.

solo al rodeo.

a day in the life of (no)sara.

the dog barks and wakes us up around 6am. some days i roll over and drift back to sleep. most days i wake up and slip into my swimsuit. you don’t need much of a wardrobe here. a couple sun dresses and some bikinis that stay on in the waves. that’s all you need.

make a quick breakfast and pack my bag for the day ahead. towel, sunscreen, computer, yoga clothes, journal, book, water bottle, snacks. our house is on a hill. a hill i only like to walk up and down once per day. so i pack it all, never knowing what adventure might appear.

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slip on my havaianas and start the trek down the dusty road.

it’s dry season here. the once lush and green foliage just hangs limp covered in a layer of grayish brown dirt. my lungs feel very similar after spending so much time strolling along the main street hoping to catch a ride from some kind local.

hitchhiking works about 75% of the time, and it is always such a blessing to escape the heat and dust. ducking into an air conditioned suv or hopping quickly into the back of a pick-up truck. you get to know the people in this small town a lot quicker this way.

hola. i’m sara. do you know so-and-so? oh really? i hung out with them last night. i’m here until mid-february. you work there? oh cool. here is good. thanks for the ride. mucho gusto. pura vida.

everyone is more or less on the same main road turning off to go to the same main place, the beach. playa guiones. and that is exactly where i am always heading first thing in the morning.

down to mamma rosa, a quaint hotel off the beaten path run by three italian brothers and their sister. they flicker between spanish and italian with ease and let me use their outdoor restaurant patio as my office.

the surf shop of my friend’s tico (local) boyfriend is on mamma rosa’s property. it is a cage full of surfboards and a table and chairs. that is where the mornings begin.

unlock the cage and wax my board. sometimes my new one, and sometimes a slightly bigger board depending on how my arms are feeling from the day before. smother my face in sunblock, put my backpack in the hotel office, and with surf board in hand, stroll to the beach.

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at the end of the path, there are two huts to shelter us from the harsh sun. videographers from the various surf schools sit perched below that trying to capture the epic waves of their students.

early mornings are cool, but still warm. if you can get down to the beach by 6 or 7am, the waves are glassy and the crowds are minimal. it’s just you and the ocean awakening to the day.

but let’s be honest, i’ve only gotten there that early twice in two weeks. most days, i am there around 8 or 9am. i stretch, attach my leg leash, and head out against the crash of the sea.

by then, the rest of nosara has awoken also. there are pods of people bobbing on their boards awaiting the perfect wave. watching the sets roll in from the horizon. i am learning this language. hearing the ocean talk to me with her highs and lows. telling me when it’s time to paddle into position and give it my all. feel the board drop in and angle along her unbroken wave until i lose my balance or meet the white water crashing over my feet.

when you ask a surfer how they know when to paddle or stand up or which way to go, they always tell you to just “feel” it. helpful? not at all for a beginner. they say you need time in the water to establish a relationship with the sea, a connection with your board. and after two weeks among the waves, i can finally see what they mean.

after about an hour or two, my arms start to voice their complaints, and i ride my last wave into the shore. it’s time to go to work.

the italians joke that my office hours are 10-3. i rinse off the board and myself, put everything away, change my clothes, and plug in. there are two tables that have outlets, so i plant myself at the same spot each day. i order a coffee, open my computer, and dig into reality. but i can still taste the salt on my lips and feel the sun’s kiss on my skin.

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i could do this forever. maybe.

i sit and work hard. catch up with old clients and new. sample random bits of meals prepared by the italians. make small talk with them about the day, and thank them for their kindness. i am not a guest of their hotel, yet somehow i have become family.

i tell them about the time i went to italy in 7th grade and was so upset when i discovered there was no such thing as fettuccine alfredo. and my confusion when there were two toilets, one that looked like a mini sink. they laugh big laughs like italians do. they make great coworkers.

sometimes i pack a lunch. sometimes i go to the snooty yoga/health-oriented hotel next door and treat myself to a banana nut and cacao smoothie and spring rolls. then with a full belly, i go back to work until my eyes won’t stay open, or i decide to go to yoga.

nosara is full of yoga. there is the nosara yoga institute tucked away at the edge of town, and there are endless other classes offered at hotels on the main strip. i am trying them all on for size. after a day of surfing and working, i usually only find enough energy to track down a restorative or gentle class. it is blissful.

on days when i don’t surf, i head to the institute for some more vigorous vinyasa flow. although, if i don’t manage to hitch a ride, the 3km hike to the studio sometimes leaves me wishing the teacher would change her mind and lead a yin class instead.

then come the evenings. the sun sets around 6pm and fills up the sky with oranges and purples and pinks and blues. the ocean mirrors the sky, and the horizon disappears if you let it.

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some nights i let it engulf me and just head home, up the hill, and sink into slumber. some nights we go out dancing or gather for dinner or cheer on the local soccer team or go fishing or maybe swimming. pura vida. no matter what happens, my bed always feels welcoming when i crawl under the bright orange sheets at the end of the day. it seems to know that i need to rest for tomorrow.

for tomorrow will be just like today.