tag:danawanders.com,2013:/posts Dana Wanders 2021-08-28T20:05:45Z Dana Overcash Around The Web tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/1029627 2016-04-09T08:21:00Z 2021-08-28T20:05:45Z A Quick Taste of Doha
I arrived at my hotel in Doha, Qatar in desperate need of a shower and sleep, maybe some food. Luckily I was checked in quickly and brought up to my room - and the views!! I could see the Corniche and several of the impressive skyscrapers. My hunger quickly got the best of me and I ventured to an adjacent mall for a quick bite to eat before bed. 

The following morning I woke up and had breakfast in a restaurant at the lobby of my hotel - Turkish coffee and some eggs, before heading out the door. I asked a bellman for directions to the Corniche and he laughed and informed me I couldn't walk there and got me a taxi instead. This immediately reminded me of the girl Katie and I met in Bali who lived in Doha - she had informed us that people wouldn't let her walk anywhere in the city, and that they always insisted she have a driver take her wherever she needed to go. Anyways, I got dropped off at the start of the Corniche and started my walk (with an iced coffee). The day was gorgeous - not too hot, but not a cloud in the sky, and the smell of the ocean (Doha Bay) wafted through the air. That's one thing that always smells the same, no matter where I am in the world, and I love it. My walk took me passed expat mom's pushing strollers, couples going for a jog, friends sitting on the stairs with their feet in the water - the Corniche is clearly a place for everyone to be outside. Oh, and there are free exercise equipment - apparently the U.S. hasn't caught on to this. As I made my way along the 4 miles to the Museum of Islamic Art, I kept turning around to see Doha's impressive skyline across the bay that was littered with dhows. Dhows are old wooden boats and the view of them in the foreground with the modern skyscrapers in the background was a great juxtaposition of the old with the new.

The Museum of Islamic Art is impressive - its location and the architecture are simply stunning. Then add in the ancient pottery, inscriptions of the Qur'an, beautifully carved astrolabes, intricately woven rugs and sparkling jewelry, and you have a museum definitely worth visiting. A few things I learned from my visit to the museum include:

• Arabic has a special significance in Islamic art, with calligraphers dedicating their entire lives to copying the Qur'an. 
• The arabesque is a vegetal design of palmettes and half-palmettes connected by stems. It is one of the defining elements of Islamic style.
• Islamic patterns are based off the idea that what we see is only part of a whole that extends to infinity. (I love this idea).

After several hours in the museum (and out of the heat), my intention was to walk back to my hotel. However, new sandals meant blisters. And I am now grateful for Uber in Doha! 

Some snacks by the pool, different shoes, and a short nap prepped me for another walk along the Corniche - this time to Souq Waqif! Souq Waqif was founded over 100 years ago, but underwent a restoration in 2006 to preserve the architecture and history of the Souq. It was originally a gathering place for trade, and today acts as a marketplace. 

My walk this time was after work and the Corniche was full - families eating dinner, kids riding bikes, couples running - it is clearly a place for people to get outdoors! Once I arrived at the Souq my senses kicked in - the smells of spices, the brightly colored fabrics and shimmering gold, the chatter of people, the wafting of shisha, and the sounds of animals. Walking along the narrow stalls I first ended up in the spice area of the market, and wow did it smell amazing! Add to that the colors of all the spices laid out and the different types of rice - it may have been the best spice market I've ever been in (and Asia does spices well, too). However, as I wandered, the scents quickly changed to that of animals, and before I knew it I was in the section of the Souq that has a plethora of animals from parrots to kittens to falcons. I'm 99% sure there were threatened animals and all of them were caged so I quickly made my way out of this section and didn't go back. Next up were the stalls of fabric with every color in the rainbow. They also had the little hats that Abu wears in Aladdin. I made my way to the Gold Souq that consisted of jewelry store upon jewelry store, and through the perfume area where I chatted with a stall owner and purchased a small bottle of perfume. 

By this time I was famished so I headed to find some food. My hotel had given me one recommendation that looked nice and had a patio overlooking the Souq; however, I was back in my normal swing of travel and quickly found a shoddy little stall serving up meat to people sitting on benches. It looked and smelled delicious, and was quite packed so naturally, this was what I went for. I paid about $3 for several kebabs, a water, and some other meat on a stick. The most...interesting I guess we'll say, part was my dinner companion. All I'll say is that I think I left the meal unmarried. 

I quickly left the Souq for fear of my suitor (husband? (Kidding, Mom!)) finding me and walked back along the Corniche, stopping periodically to take pictures of the beautifully illuminated skyline. An early morning flight to Nairobi should've meant early to bed, but instead I took my time on this walk to enjoy all the nighttime hustle and bustle. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/861128 2015-05-26T14:38:53Z 2015-05-29T20:37:36Z Biking and Eating through San Antonio
Have you started to notice a theme in my blog posts? I tend to eat my way through places, and use a bicycle as my preferred mode of transportation (partially to counter all of the eating that I do). Anyways, this trip was just a weekend trip with my best friend, Betty, and it took us across Texas. Our first stop was San Antonio - we stayed at the Omni La Mansion right on the riverwalk and the location couldn't have been better. 

After checking in and changing out of our road trip attire (yoga pants and tank tops), we got a ride to the Pearl Brewery area of San Antonio for lunch. Actually, we thought we were getting a ride to a restaurant called Pearl Brewery. Nope, it's a bunch of restaurants and shops (and a new hotel opening soon), none of which are a brewery called Pearl. A little confusing, if you ask me. We opted to eat lunch at an impeccably decorated and adorable locale by the name of Cured. While the building and decor received an 'A+' in my book, the food left some to be desired. We both ordered a salad with roasted chicken - the chicken was great, the salad was more like 3 carrot pieces, 4 asparagus pieces, and half a handful of mixed greens. Needless to say we were not impressed. 

We spent some time walking around the shops, got ice cream at Lick (which I highly recommend), and then headed down to the river where we were told we could get a water taxi back to our hotel. We sat, and sat, watching turtles swim (and one that was questionably attempting turtle suicide), and no boat came. We decided to walk along the river, figuring that at some point we'd see the water taxi. 

We did not, and eventually opted to rent bicycles from B-Cycle, and bike our way back to the hotel. Well, up in the art museum area and Pearl Brewery area the riverwalk is wider and not packed with people and restaurant tables. Once we got closer to our hotel, things got questionable as we weaved our way between people, and miraculously managed to not end up in the river. Multiple people commented that we were brave, crazy, stupid, surprisingly dry, etc. As soon as we could, we dumped the bikes and got margaritas. Because you obviously need electrolytes after such a strenuous bike ride...

The rest of our evening was spent getting mani/pedis, purchasing my coveted heart-shaped sunglasses, and eating (shocker). Per the recommendation of various people, we went to Two Bros. BBQ and stuffed ourselves silly with mac and cheese, creamed corn, potato salad, ribs, brisket, and stuffed jalapeños. I'll hand it to them on the mac and cheese, creamed corn, and jalapeños, but the rest was just okay. It didn't stop us from eating though, and it put us in quite the food-induced coma that carried us through the night. 

Friday morning, we woke up bright and early to some light rain and surprisingly hungry stomachs. We grabbed bikes from B-Cycle again and instead of biking along the river opted to bike on the roads - all the way passed Pearl Brewery to a Mexican restaurant called El Milagrito Cafe for breakfast. Once again, somewhat disappointed - I am a self-proclaimed chilaquiles connoisseur and what I go were not chilaquiles, but more like migas. That said, the horchata I added to my coffee was on point, and the tortillas could be eaten plain they were so good.

We jumped back on the bikes and made our way back to town for a quick walk through of the Alamo before packing up and heading out. While we weren't particularly hungry we knew we had a long drive through what I will affectionately call the "Nothing" part of Texas, so we obviously had to stop at In 'N Out for burgers and milk shakes. If you haven't had In 'N Out, I'm sorry, and if you have, you know that every time you have it its just as good as the first. 

We then started on our 5.5 hour drive to Marfa, through some rain, lots of sun, and stunningly beautiful landscapes as I was serenaded by Betty's snoring.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/853809 2015-05-09T19:34:50Z 2015-05-09T19:40:03Z Hanoi Happy

As I traveled north through Vietnam, I continued to hear not-so-great things about Hanoi, and I was not looking forward to the 4 days I had saved for myself there. When I finally got there and walked around, experiencing the street food, the hustle and bustle, the water puppet show (which is a waste of time and money), and the people, I confirmed what I had heard. So I kept my belongings in my hotel and ventured up to Mai Chau to avoid the city.

However, my last night in the city completely changed my view. I started with a foot massage and some last minute souvenir buying, before I grabbed a child-sized chair on the sidewalk of one of the busiest intersections and ordered a bia hoi. Bia hoi is draft beer that is brewed daily and costs a whopping 5000 Vietnamese dong, or less than $0.25. Definitely can’t be beat!

I drank my beer, wrote out postcards (because, yes, I waited until the very last minute), and just observed. I watched fellow tourists drinking their bia hoi, and rushing to take photos when a motorbike with 6 people on it would ride by. I watched police tell people they couldn’t be selling certain items on the street, and those same people run if they saw the cops coming back. I watched children play and listened to the chatter all around me.  

My walk back to my hotel that night was filled with observations as well. I was filled with a warmth from the multiple bia hois I had consumed, and had a hop in my step. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked through the streets. There were old couples holding hands and going for an evening stroll, young teenage love taking pictures by the lake, families stopping for ice cream on their way home. And it hit me then. Hanoi may not have as much to offer travelers as other cities, and on the surface it may seem like a place for a quick stopover. But if you take the time to just watch, listen, smell the city you’ll realize that there’s a happiness in the air that everyone is breathing. So as I made my final evening walk in SE Asia, I took a deep inhale to take in the Hanoi happiness.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/853795 2015-05-09T18:57:33Z 2015-05-09T19:03:16Z My Final Food Day

I was unsure of what to do with my final day in Vietnam – the only obvious thing that I would be doing was eating all of the Vietnamese food that I possibly could (while trying to save some room for sushi in Tokyo). The obvious activity was a cooking class, and boy did I luck out – private lesson!

Bright and early, I was picked up at my hotel in Hanoi and taken to a beautiful house right on the banks of the Red River. We sat outside, watching fishermen on the river, and discussed what I wanted to make. Little did I know, we’d make EVERYTHING - clams with lemongrass, stir-fry morning glory, green papaya salad, grilled pork with rice noodles, Hanoi grilled fish (and more that I don’t remember). Then the tough part came – learning what was needed for each recipe, and how to ask for it in Vietnamese. That’s right – this cooking class included a trip to the local market where I was responsible for getting the necessary ingredients. Uh oh…

Once I successfully faked my comfort with speaking in Vietnamese, I was handed some Vietnamese dong (yes, the 7-year old boy in me laughs each time), and we hopped onto bicycles and headed down an alley, away from the river. As I pedaled, following my guide, I began to notice that I was literally the only foreigner in the area – and I wasn’t the only one noticing that. People were waiving to me as the sights and sounds zoomed by. I was really getting to experience the city sans other tourists trying their best to bargain or cross the street.

Before I knew it, we arrived at the market, left our bikes with a little roadside restaurant and headed in. I was immediately overwhelmed. Despite being mid-morning, the market was still bustling and my eyes darted from one stall to the next – vegetables, fruit, beef, fish, poultry, dried goods. It was amazing how organized the space was amidst the chaos – people on foot, on bicycle, some people even brought their motorbikes right up to each stall. I immediately noted that I should pay attention to my feet – flip flops were a bad choice for fear of losing a toe to a motorbike or stepping in some of the foul looking puddles on the ground. Then there were the smells that all merged into what I can only describe as a mildly sweet, rotting scent.

My guide quickly pointed me to a pork stall and said I should order pork belly. Uh oh, that meant I needed to remember how to ask for things in Vietnamese and how to understand the response. Luckily I had a little cheat sheet that I pulled out as I slowly attempted the pronunciation of “How much for 200 grams of pork”. The woman chuckled, gave me a response, and I quickly accepted. My guide told me that the price was okay, but that I should try bargaining next time. The process went on like this for an hour – I’d ask for something, attempt to bargain, and then get it. My guide jumped in a few times when it was clear that I had no idea what I was asking for (or, more likely, I was pronouncing something incorrectly and asking for pig brains when it was clams that I really wanted). (Note: I do not know what pig brains are in Vietnamese, or clams, so it is very likely that these two things sound nothing alike). The following few things broke up the time in the market:

(1) The tiniest kitten ever, which I immediately spent the following 10 minutes petting, unfazed by the fact that it was likely covered in fleas.

 (2) The stall immediately adjacent to where I purchased the pork. I couldn’t stop staring out of disgust and awe. I had heard that older Vietnamese still ate cat and dog (and, therefore, avoided red meat when I was eating from street stalls), but I hadn’t seen it and I really didn’t want to believe it. But there it was – a dog on the cutting board. And people were actually purchasing pieces! (Side note: I realize that the thought of eating a cat or a dog is repulsive to me, because in my mind these animals are pets. If I had grown up eating cat or dog because I had no other meat options, I would likely have a different view).

(3) The stall with live pigeons stuffed in a cage with zero room to move. And then the yanking of a pigeon in said cage and the plop as it hit boiling water.

Despite my lack of language skills and my short attention span on what we were actually doing, we managed to purchase everything on our list, grabbed our bikes, and headed back to the house on the river.

It was cooking time! I was unsure how long I’d be in the kitchen given the number of dishes we were making, but luckily I had help from my guide and the chef at the house. Almost immediately the delicious smells wafted into the air (amidst the not so delicious smell of fish sauce, which we used in almost every dish as it’s a staple of Vietnamese cuisine). As we cooked and tasted, I shared a beer with the head chef, and we discussed life in Hanoi and the other areas of Vietnam that I had seen. Before I knew it, I was sitting outside filling up on all of the delicious food we had cooked, and talking with my tour guide about tattoos and where to buy various cooking supplies to bring home.

After stuffing ourselves to the point of sickness, we ate a bit more, and then my guide kindly offered to take me on her motorbike to buy a few things. I immediately accepted the offer, which was then followed by a few skipped heart beats as I realized that I’d be getting on a motorbike in the city. (Side note: the traffic in Hanoi is no different than that in Saigon – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians just go with the hopes of not colliding). Luckily, by this point in my trip fear was a thing of the past, so I grabbed the helmet and hopped on the motorbike. I didn’t even hold on, as I was preoccupied with videoing the craziness as we zoomed through the streets of Hanoi, stopping to purchase various fish sauces, oyster sauces, seasonings, and the ever-important extra-long cooking chopsticks.

I went to sleep that last night with a fully belly, two bags bursting at the seams, and the corners of my mouth turned up. I had done it. I had traveled for almost 6 weeks, half of which was solo, made new friends, experienced different cultures, and not once did I let my fears stop me. I realized now that my fears are never going to go away, but I found that courage that I thought I’d lost. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/832565 2015-03-29T14:09:07Z 2015-05-09T18:18:04Z Alone in a Village
Per the suggestion of Phu (my guide from Ha Long Bay), I opted to spend 2 of my final days in SE Asia in a small mountain village in northern Vietnam, Mai Chau. Actually, Mai Chau is where a lot of tourists go, so I opted for the less visited Mai Hich, just 15 km from Mai Chau. 

Once I arrived in Mai Chau with a tour bus, I hopped on the back of a motorbike for the ride to Mai Hich. I wasn't fully prepared for what I'd get, but as I watched the rice paddies go by and felt the light rain mist my arms, I decided I really didn't care. And then I got to the Homestay in the village and very quickly learned it would be an interesting stay. NO ONE spoke English. My language options were Vietnamese or the local village language. So, I acted out sleeping, and eating, and hiking. What I ended up getting was sleeping, eating, biking, and a motorbike tour of the surrounding villages. But hey, I can't complain about what I got.

About an hour into my stay a van pulled up with 5 people. I had been looking forward to an authentic experience, but an hour of not talking to anyone, made me hopeful that these people spoke English. I was disappointed, as one of them spoke some English, everyone else spoke French. So while I was not actually alone in a village, it sure felt like it at times.

The French group was nice enough to let me join their bike tour of the village. What this mainly did is prevent me from getting lost. We ended up getting a little lost anyways, but at least I was with someone who could speak to the local people to get us back on track. 

Biking on the narrow paved roads meant avoiding the water buffalo shit, but we quickly got onto dirt paths. The rain of the previous few days had made them a slick mess, and as we biked I'd feel my back tire slide out every couple hundred feet. At one point we stopped and were invited to join a football game, and a little further on we were invited into a local house for tea. 

What I was able to pick up from the French chatter was that the man who lived there is a carpenter, and he and his wife have two children, one of whom lives in the city with another family member. They're house was simple - a kitchen and one main room that held an entertainment center, rugs to pull out for people to sit on, and one large bed in the corner. The girls were full of laughter and kept joking about taking pictures with the older French men.

Our ride then really started to take us off track - onto unbikeable paths either covered in inches of mud or splayed with massive roots through the woods and rice paddies. Eventually, we made it back to a paved road just as it started to downpour. In my rush to get my camera in my dry bag, I hadn't noticed that everyone else had disappeared - a local saw everyone caught in the rain and invited us to stay dry. 

Back at the Homestay and in dry clothes, I joined the French couples for dinner and then we were treated to a traditional dance show, which included our participation coupled with drinking a sweet liquor out of a big jug via long bamboo straws. After several sips from the straws, I was ready for bed and headed up into the stilt house where I'd be sleeping with everyone else. The windows were open, our mattresses on the floor made up and beautifully surrounded by curtains and mosquito nets. I climbed in, pulled the covers up to shield myself from the chill in the air, and promptly passed out until morning.

That morning was when I had planned to go hiking with a local guide. A local guide showed up...on his motorbike, and with two helmets. I didn't bother explaining that I had said hike, not bike, and hopped on the back. 

The wind whipped my face and I pulled my jacket tighter as we passed  peanut farms, rice paddies, stilt homes, and schools. Children playing outside would yell hello to me, huge grins on their faces, and I'd waive back. We stopped a few times for photos, and again at a local market, where all of the old women said my smile was good luck. I literally could not stop smiling, even when my teeth started to chatter from the cold. It was a great way to spend my final days in Vietnam - eating and sleeping with locals, touring the countryside by motorbike, and getting stuck in the mud and rain. I was looking forward to a nap on my bus ride back, but that unfortunately didn't happen as I was busy running an experiment (see post on proposed horn honking ban). 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/832563 2015-03-29T14:06:51Z 2015-05-09T18:22:18Z The Adopt an American Program of Halong Bay
One of my splurges on this trip (besides all of the unexpected ones that occurred at the tailor in Hoi An) was my three day/2 night cruise of Ha Long Bay. And after my hike and night bus where I didn't sleep much, I was in need of some luxury!

Day one started with nine of us piling into a shuttle bus for the 3.5 hour journey to Ha Long City. As you can imagine, I was the only solo one, and was joined by a Canadian family of four, a German couple, and an Australian couple. I almost immediately thought, "Well, looks like I'll be spending a lot of time alone these next few days" as I dozed off on the bumpy ride. 

As we arrived at the port and were taken to our boat, Treasure Junk, I started to think I had overpaid. The boats on the bay are all called junks, and from the outside they look just like that; in fact, they look like one small wave may sink them. "Good thing I know how to swim", I thought. 

Once on the boat, however, that all changed, and I realized I would be getting the luxury I craved. The main deck consisted of a large dining area decorated with dark wood and tangerine fabrics, a bar and indoor lounge area, and then outdoor seating on the deck. Above it there was a sun deck with lounge chairs. The lowest deck held the cabins - mine was in the bow and I could lay in bed or stand in the shower and watch the limestone peaks pass by. 

After settling in, it was lunchtime on the boat, and I was lucky to join the Australian couple, Rachel and Anthony, instead of sitting alone. I quickly learned they have three children, but were enjoying a vacation to themselves. Little did they know, they'd have a 4th daughter for their 3 days on the ship, as I joined them over every meal and activity.

The main activities during the 3 days on the boat included relaxing (sometimes with a book), watching the changing yet somehow constant landscape of Ha Long Bay pass by, sleeping, spa treatments, kayaking, and visiting a floating village. Oh, and eating. Eating was a big part of our time in the bay, and I think if they had kept us on board for another day, the ship may have sunk. There's only so many 6+ course meals one can take. 

Kayaking was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and each time we went out, the conditions were completely different. On the first afternoon, the water was glass, perfectly reflecting the limestone islands we paddled around. The only sounds were the chirps of birds, the slight splash of paddles hitting the water, and the swoosh as our kayak glided forward. I was paddling with Phu, our guide, and as we glided along he told me about his travels, his family, and life on the bay. He informed me that we were actually in Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a less touristy bay adjacent to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay translates to Dragon Bay, while Bai Tu Long Bay is Baby Dragon Bay. The kayak trip was short but included passing through a small cave, and as we paddled Phu collected the trash that has unfortunately accumulated in the bay.

Our second kayaking experience was the next day, and boy had things changed. The wind was blowing, making the paddling slightly more difficult, as waves lapped over the front of the kayak. This time we were in Ha Long, and paddled for several hours. The trip included a stop at a beach where we were the only people in eyesight. I couldn't help but think that Johnny Depp was going to come out from behind one of the islands in a pirate ship, and wish that Leonardo Dicaprio would suddenly show up on our deserted beach. Neither of those things happened, but the kayaking through the mist of the bay did not disappoint. 

My third time kayaking I went solo, tagging along with another group and collecting trash. The presence of garbage in the bay is astounding and sad - I picked up plastic bottles, plastic bags, candy wrappers, and food containers. 

While the kayaking was fun, the food was delicious, and the scenery breathtaking, the best part of my 3 days on Ha Long Bay was the company. Rachel and Anthony took me in right away - we told stories of home and our travels, we laughed, and I gave them fair warning about the (financial) dangers of Hoi An. Overall, my time on Ha Long Bay was great and full of some necessary relaxation at the tail end of my trip.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/831556 2015-03-27T12:06:09Z 2015-05-09T18:25:52Z Ban Proposal for Car, Bus, Truck, and Motorbike Horns in Vietnam Why would I suggest this, you ask? Well, I am currently sitting on a tour bus taking me and 16 other people from Mai Chau back to Hanoi. The ride is 4 hours, and my plan had been to sleep. Within minutes of getting on our overpacked (there's a girl sitting on a stool because there were no seats left) minibus, the horn honking started. In fact, our driver keeps one hand on the horn at all times...just in case.

I've experienced this throughout Vietnam. While it appears that there are no traffic laws, there are some unspoken rules of the road, and specifically rules regarding honking. What I've gathered thus far is the following:

(1) Honk your horn if you are passing someone from behind to give them warning.
(2) Honk your horn if someone is turning onto the road you are on, just in case they didn't see you.
(3) Honk your horn if you want someone to move out of the way.
(4) Honk your horn if you are passing a vehicle on a blind turn to give oncoming traffic notice that you may hit them.
(5) Honk your horn in response to someone else honking their horn.
(6) Honk your horn at any pedestrian crossing the street, even if there is no chance of them being in your way.
(7) Honk your horn to give notice that you have arrived to pick someone up.
(8) Honk your horn if you are going the wrong way down a supposedly one-way street.
(9) And just in case there is no one else anywhere on the road near you, you can honk your horn then, too. I guess it's some sort of celebratory honk.
(10) I'm sure there are many other horn honking rules that I have yet to pick up on.

Due to my inability to sleep with the incessant  honking, I decided to conduct a little experiment. 

Methodology: Set phone timer to 5 minutes. Count how many times in the 5 minutes our driver honks the horn. Repeat 5 times.

I should note that these were all conducted in various conditions ranging from a town where school was getting out to an open stretch of road with no one else on it. 

23 honks/5minutes
20 honks/5 minutes
14 honks/5 minutes
20 honks/5 minutes
35 honks/5 minutes

Average of 22.4 honks/5 minutes or just under 4.5 honks per minute.

Given the above information, and the fact that this ride is 4 hours long, I've extrapolated the data to determine that our driver will have, on average, honked his horn over 1,000 times during our drive. This does not account for the length of honk, which ranged from under half a second to 3-4 seconds. 

Given this information, coupled with the fact that I have heard this incessant honking on almost every vehicle I've been in, I think a temporary ban of horn honking in Vietnam would be entertaining to watch how the driving changes, and quite pleasant for everyone's eardrums. 
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/830088 2015-03-25T11:08:48Z 2015-05-09T18:13:08Z Spelunking the Third Largest Cave in the World

One of the few activities on this trip that I planned in advance was hiking to Hang En, the third largest cave in the world at 200 meters wide and 100 meters high deep within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I hadn't even known about it when I booked my trip, but only a week later I read an article describing the trek in the New York Times about it, and knew I had to do it. The pictures were stunning, and I figured "I hike for work, this will be a piece of cake". (If you'd like to read the NYT article, shoot me an email - it does a much better job, in my opinion, of describing the adventure).


What I didn't plan for is the self-diagnosed tendinitis in my ankle getting worse over the course of my trip from all the walking I was doing on uneven ground. Luckily, I brought my mildly supportive ankle brace. So as I rode the local bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, the starting point of my trek, I began to question what I had gotten myself into. I knew I would do it - I don't quit, even if I'm getting my ass kicked, but I decided there was a definite possibility that my ass would be kicked, and an even higher probability that my ankle would hurt like hell. 


The following morning I woke up, decided what I'd be wearing and bringing (luon is a lifesaver), and boarded a bus with 15 other people - from San Francisco, Amsterdam, Canada, Vietnam, England, and Australia. It was nice to see that some people were feeling as unprepared as I was. My original plan had been to wear my Keens, as I knew part of the trek involved wading through hip-deep water; I instead opted to wear the fashionable camo high tops that Oxalis, my tour company, provided. 


Before I knew it, we were on the road, winding through limestone peaks covered with vegetation and over rivers that in the wet season can be impassable - essentially Ha Long Bay on land. Once we reached the start of our hike, we piled out, were given caving gloves, and started our descent. 


The sandal-clad porters carrying all of our camping gear and food quickly passed us on the 1500 meter descent. Luckily the shade of the trees provided relief from the hot sun, and every once in a while we'd get a nice cool breeze. Despite my ankle brace, my tendinitis was screaming at me with each step down, and I was looking forward to going uphill for a change (I would later regret this wish on day 2). After one final steep drop, we reached our first stream. We had been told we'd cross streams around 40 times (including multiple crossings the same stream) - we clearly had a ways to go and I was wishing for Advil. 


A few minutes later we arrived at lunch; the porters had set up quite the spread - baguettes, Baby Cow cheese, vegetables, fruit, processed meat (in the shape of a hot dog), and cookies. We ate and refilled our water bottles from the nearby stream (via a purifying pump), and then headed out again, this time on flat ground, so my ankle got a bit of a break. Our next stop was at a minority village, where the 62-year leader greeted us with tea and rice wine. We sat around, admiring their village, the tiny school, and the cutest of passed out puppies. 


The rest of our trek was through lush greenery and streams upon streams. The sandy bottom streams were quite easy to cross, even when they were deep and flowing; some streams, however, proved more difficult. Their slippery rocks, coupled with the gushing waters made it difficult to keep your footing and stay upright - somehow we all made it without falling! At one point we saw the rusty remains of a cluster bomb from the Vietnam War, and our guide told me that this whole area had been sprayed with Agent Orange and other herbicides, making it devoid of vegetation during the war. I felt a bit of sadness, and amazement at the power of Nature to grow back with such a vengeance. 


As we continued hiking, now drenched up to our hips, we finally saw an opening in the limestone - we were told it was called "Daylight" and we'd later learn that it's where the sun spills in over our campsite. One more river crossed, and we were at the opening to Hang En, putting on our caving gloves, our helmets, and our lights. We looked like professional spelunkers. 


Now it was time to act like professional spelunkers. We followed the river that flows through Hang En, and then started to ascend a pile of limestone and sand. I don't think any of us were ready for what we'd see at the top - sunbeams flooded through "Daylight", illuminating our campground down below. The porters had set up camp, and our colorful tents looked like tiny houses from an airplane, littering the beach around a turquoise blue pool. It was unreal. We carefully climbed down, still in awe of what was before us. I felt like I needed to be pinched, surely I was dreaming. 


We dropped our bags at camp and headed out to explore the cave - wading through the river and up over mounds of limestone and sand. We saw a very large and very poisonous centipede that I very much did not want to have in my tent, spiders, and heard thousands of swifts in the cave. Hang En translates to Swift Cave (hang = cave, which is why people were confused when I kept saying Hang En Cave, or Cave Swallow Cave) due to the plethora of birds during the dry season. 


Up over another pile of limestone and we were greeted once again by sunlight - this time through the largest opening in the cave, 120 meters high and 110 meters wide. It was massive, and has the ability to make one feel like the tiniest being on Earth (which is saying a lot in a country where many of the people are smaller than me). Our trek back to camp brought us past 300 million year old fossils of snails and insects in the limestone, and past few stalagmites and stalactites, none of which stretched from the ground to the ceiling, since they grow at a rate of less than 10 centimeters per 1,000 years. The cave itself is 300 million years old, but the limestone that speckles the region and is home to these caves is approximately 450 million years old, the oldest limestone in SE Asia.


We all dispersed to our tents, eager to strip off our wet (and not the most beautiful smelling) clothing. Some people went for a quick dip in the two pools, though it was a bit chilly. Before we knew it, it was dinner time, and the porters had delivered yet again. The amount of food was mind baffling - rice, pork, chicken, morning glory, green beans with beef, and more. And of course, rice wine. 


Before eating we all grabbed our shots of rice wine, and together yelled "Mot, hai, ba, do!". Little did we know, that would not be the last time we'd do that - in fact, 4-5 opportunities to down some rice wine presented themselves; I opted to chase the shots with actual rice in an attempt to cover the bitter shock I got with each one. We stayed up, chatting, laughing, and exchanging travel stories. 


That night I slept with only the mesh portion of my tent zipped, gazing up towards "Daylight" as I was serenaded to sleep by the swifts. Unfortunately, the same swifts that lured me to sleep also woke me multiple times in the night (coupled with the hard ground - I'm getting old). As the sun rose and light entered the cave, I watched the swifts fly in and out, listening to their chatter once more. Once I heard people up and moving, I went to get coffee and was pleasantly greeted with bird shit on my arm - the first of four times I was shit on that morning in the cave. I think/hope it's good luck...


By 7am more people were awake and I had the awesome and challenging opportunity to teach a yoga class to a few people of varying levels and varying English capabilities. It was quite the fun experience and felt good to move my stiff legs a bit before our hike out.


Yoga and breakfast done, I slipped my wunder unders back on, opted to use the same, still damp socks so as not to drench another pair, and slid my camo boots on for a little more cave exploration before we headed out. The porters once again passed us in their sandals, this time only having to carry 35 pounds each. Our trek back included a brief pause to let a green viper (definitely poisonous) cross our path, another stop at the minority village (they seemed happy to see us), and a lunch break to refuel before our steep climb - that same one we had descended the day before, and the same one I had said I was looking forward to.


Sixty minutes later, hot, sweaty, and with tired quadriceps, we reached the top, and more importantly, we reached hydration in the form of ice cold beer (or water or Coke)!


A quick but heavenly tepid shower, and the realization that I would not be able to get a ticket on the sleeper bus to Hanoi with some of my new friends, I hopped on the local bus to Dong Hoi, hoping I'd be able to get to get transportation from there. 


I wasn't sure where I needed to get off the bus, or if it would get me there in time. But the universe works in funny ways. There was a lovely Vietnamese girl who spoke English and kindly helped me. As we rode for 90 minutes she explained how the younger kids on the bus all wanted to practice their English with me, but were too scared (even after my encouragement), and how she works for Oxalis. I told her how I had just finished my hike to Hang En, and she took it upon herself to make sure that I would get to Hanoi. Tao skipped her bus stop, got off with me and walked me to the bus station, ensuring that they had a seat for me on the next departure. It's funny how the universe works. And maybe the universe was also working for the two Vietnamese men who got to sleep right next to me for the 10-hour ride. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/828577 2015-03-23T03:17:38Z 2015-05-09T18:30:28Z At Home in Hoi An
After my time in Saigon and before heading to North Vietnam where it's cooler and rainier, I knew I needed some time at the coast. Originally I had planned to go to Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. Luckily, however, I opted to go 45 minutes south to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn't really know what to expect besides a beach, an old town, and a room I had booked at Lam Hung Seaside Homestay. Well, Hoi An easily surpassed these expectations.

My first night in town I was invited to dinner with Hung, Lam, and their parents, as well as two other guests. The meal was delicious and the company even better. I was immediately taken in by the family as one of their own. 

Hung (24 years old) and Lam (21 years old) largely run the booking and guest interaction side of the business, as they both speak English. Their parents speak some English, but that doesn't mean they don't want to learn. One morning I worked with Lam and her parents to teach them a couple of sentences about the Homestay, and almost every morning I would talk with their mother over the delicious breakfast she had made. 

During the daytime I'd ride a bike to town, or Hung would take me on the back of his motorbike and show me around. I was lucky to get to eat at local places with him, though the best meals I had were at their home. Hung took me to try cao lau, chicken rice, and balut (if you don't get grossed out easily, look it up). I have to say, the balut was actually quite tasty, but had it not been dark out I don't know that I would've been able to eat it.

Hung showed me around town, taking me to the Japanese bridge, and showing me the Chinese and French areas of the town. At night we went to see the beautiful lanterns that light up the night sky with brilliant colors, and watched tourists purchase lanterns to set into the river for a wish. 

Hung also directed me to a tailor (Jenny's in the market area) and a leather shop, which both proved to be extremely dangerous. Hoi An is clearly the place to go for custom made clothes. I found that you can get women's pea coats for $50-60, pants for $22, shirts for about $15, and dresses for around $20, all fit to your body. For leather goods, depending on the quality of leather you choose, you can get handbags made for $70-90, shoes and boots for anything from $40 up, and leather jackets for $150-200. The only problem with the food at my Homestay was making sure I'd fit into the clothes I had made! Eleven kilos of clothes, shoes, and handbags later, I knew I had to stop! Luckily, Hung's home is right across the street from a beautiful beach, so I spent time there to avoid spending any more money. 

On my last morning I woke up for sunrise on the beach, and was bummed to see that it was cloudy. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the locals coming back from a fishing trip; they invited me over to watch as the whole family cleaned the fish and the net - even a 3-year old boy was trying to help. As I watched them and an older man who went in chest height with a net to catch fish, I noticed that the sun had risen above the clouds and was a brilliant orange-pink. With the sun now above us, I put my camera away, and helped them push the boat back into the water. 

A quick breakfast and goodbyes with the family, and it was time to go. I really didn't want to though. The combination of the beach, the quaint town, and Hung and his family had made Hoi An feel like home. It's a place that I can say I will definitely be back to...and not just for the custom clothing (though that's an added benefit). 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/825601 2015-03-17T02:43:09Z 2015-05-09T18:44:08Z Biking Back in Time
My reason for visiting and spending the bulk of my time in Vietnam is two-fold: (1) Vietnamese food is the bomb; (2) my father fought in the Vietnam War. Per usual, I will save the food post for later, once I have eaten my way through the country. 

Saigon and southern Vietnam is an area full of history - museums upon museums about the war, the Unification Palace (South Vietnam's presidential palace back before the war), memories etched into the minds of locals, injuries and defects all around from the use of various poisons and bombs, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I knew this was where I'd get the most regarding the war. 

First, a brief history: The Vietnam War (or in Vietnam, the American War) began after French withdrawal in 1954, and was fought on the American front as an attempt to stop the spread of communism. North Vietnam, a communist country, was supported by China and the Soviet Union; South Vietnam was supported by the U.S., Australia, Thailand and other countries. The North also had additional support from the Viet Cong, a communist front within South Vietnam. As you likely know from history classes, U.S. involvement in the war wavered, escalating in the 1960s. The Tet Offensive, launched in 1968 by the communist side, was a turning point where Americans began to distrust government assurances about the war, and the U.S. began to pull troops. Direct U.S. involvement ended August 15, 1973, and on April 30, 1975 the North captured Saigon, ending the war. 

During the war, the U.S. used various herbicides to remove foliage providing enemy cover; the most common of the herbicides was Agent Orange, which is a combination of herbicides that resulted in a byproduct called TCDD, a classified dioxin considered carcinogenic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Now for the personal side. My father fought in the Vietnam War during 1969-1970. He was deployed once, and was very likely exposed to Agent Orange. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers that veterans who were on land or in inland waterways of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. On May 19, 1992 my father passed away from brain cancer at the age of 42. His doctors at Yale said that the tumors had been developing for about 20 years, putting the initial development of the tumors around the time that he was exposed to Agent Orange. 

All of this considered, it was only natural that my interest in Vietnam was high. And my first full day in Saigon did not disappoint. 

Having had such a wonderful time on the Grasshopper bike tour of Angkor Wat, I booked another bike tour with the group, this time to the Cu Chi tunnels, and it happened to be a private tour! 

The day started with my pickup and a boat ride up the Saigon River. As the boat weaved through the water hyacinth, I ate breakfast, drank delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (without the condensed milk), and took in the sights. An hour later and off the boat, I met my guide, Nguyen, and we hopped on our bikes. If the Vietnamese coffee didn't wake me up, the first slap in the face by a banana tree did as we winded through small farm pathways. Before I knew it, we stopped at a rubber plantation and Nguyen was explaining how the farmer's tap the trees every few days to collect the latex, which then gets sent away and is used for everything from tires to balloons. The trees produce latex from when they are about 5 years old until they are 25, at which point they are chopped down and new ones are planted. The farmers make approximately 150 USD per month. As we pedaled side by side along dirt roadways between the carefully and perfectly planted rubber trees, Nguyen and I chatted about everything from what his parents did (they own a coffee shop 400km from Saigon) to the school system in Vietnam to the war. 

I had been a little unsure of whether I should tell locals that my father fought in the war - I didn't know how U.S. involvement in the war was perceived. But, per usual Dana, as we biked along I just blurted it out...and I was glad I did. Nguyen told me that both of his grandfathers had fought for the South and had died in the war. His father was young during the war, but Nguyen said he loved American soldiers - I like to think one of them was my dad.  

Our next stop was at a local market where I was was the only non-Vietnamese person. Nguyen explained that many women come to the market and spend 10 minutes buying what they need, and the rest of the time socializing. (Sometimes my work day is similar). He then purchased coconut and green bean sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common snack in Vietnam. It was delicious 

Our next stop was a rice paper factory. As a big fan of spring rolls, I was excited to see the process of making rice paper. The factory we visited can produce over one ton of rice paper per day, and 80% of what they produce is exported to the U.S. Until recently the entire process was done manually, but now they have machines to mix the rice and tapioca powder, to pour a thin layer on bamboo mats, and to cut out the circular sheets we're used to seeing in the U.S. However, parts of the process still use manual labor, and it's not an easy job. The men and women in the factory work from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, with one week off during the Lunar New Year. The men make $150/month; the women make less. 

Back on our bikes after a quick stop for fruit, water, and fresh sugar cane juice, we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels. (I very quickly learned that there are two places where you can visit the tunnels - one which is closer to the Saigon River, and the one I was visiting. From speaking with people, the place I went is the place to go). 

From the minute we arrived, I was in awe. We winded through dirt paths in the jungle that I imagine was non-existent in the 60s and 70s from the U.S. herbicides. As we walked, Nguyen explained the history of the tunnels and the war. The tunnels, which are 250km long, were constructed in Cu Chi due to the hard ground, and the location near the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were dug by hand with the equivalent of a small garden shovel. The tunnels consist of three levels, one at 3 meters underground, one at 7 meters underground, and one at 10 meters underground, and all of the tunnels are connected to the Saigon River as a means of escape if they were gassed. 

Level one consists of square bunkers and kitchens, all easily collapsed by bombs. The kitchens had chimneys that brought smoke far from the tunnels, and meals were only cooked in the early morning to prevent the South and the U.S. from determining tunnel locations. Levels two and three required air holes to the surface, which were cleverly disguised as ant mounds, and these levels had many traps in case enemy soldiers got in.  

As we walked the dirt paths, Nguyen pointed out a small, disguised mound of dirt that had 4 holes in it - each hole for the barrel of a gun. My task was then to find the entrance, and wow was it hard. I pointed to various locations and just got laughs. Then, in a perfectly inconspicuous spot, Nguyen wiped away leaves to reveal the tiniest trap door. And once another guide demoed how to get in, both he and the door were gone again, underground and covered with leaves. Fifteen meters away, he popped out of yet another opening. I cannot imagine having been an American soldier looking for the Viet Cong, and having them literally just disappear right before you.

It was then my turn to try dropping down into a tunnel and exploring. I didn't even attempt to disguise the area, and slowly lowered myself in. It was dark and damp except for a small amount of lighting. But the light was enough for me to see the two bats flying directly at my face! I put my bag up in front of me, hoping for the best...and then they were gone. The tunnels are small - I had to squat and bend at the waist to get through them. (I would not recommend going in them if you're claustrophobic). I opted to take the longest route through them, seeing everything from a kitchen and a meeting room to turns that went off to who knows where, and traps meant to injure but not kill American and South Vietnamese soldiers. All of it made me not at all surprised that the North won the war. The tunnels are simply genius. 

Once we finished exploring the tunnels, I got to try tapioca root, the staple food of the Viet Cong. It was pretty good, but if I had to eat it for every meal for multiple years, I would not be a happy camper. The Viet Cong were unable to eat rice due to the herbicides sprayed, so they relied on the tapioca root since it grew quickly and the roots weren't directly exposed to the sprayed poisons. 

As we ate the tapioca root and then moved onto a delicious lunch (complete with snake wine), Nguyen shared more staggering facts and information about the war. During the war approximately 2 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died, 1 million Vietnamese civilians died, 300-400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and 58,000 Americans died. These numbers are simply from during the war, and do not account for the 40,000 people (mostly children) who have died since 1973 from unexploded bombs in the ground, or the children who have gotten lost in the tunnel system. It does not account for the birth defects of children born to parents exposed to Agent Orange, or the parents who died due to their exposure. 

As we rode back to Saigon, with Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Whitney Houston serenading us, it was clear that the effects of the Vietnam War are still being felt - by U.S. Veterans, by many of the Vietnamese, by people, such as myself and my brother, who were not even alive during the war, and by children born with birth defects, or those unable to play in their backyard because of explosives. And I know as I travel up through Vietnam, I will see and feel many of these effects, and I can't help but think my father is by my side through this entire country (and really, always). 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/824974 2015-03-16T01:38:48Z 2015-05-09T18:48:24Z I Got This.
Katie's last night in Thailand, I was filled with anxiety in anticipation of heading to Vietnam on my own. Sure, I had traveled alone before, but I was younger, fearless, and didn't doubt myself at all. She got in a taxi around 11pm; I went to bed and tossed and turned, worried I'd miss my early morning flight to Saigon, worried I'd hate traveling alone, and thinking that maybe I should just change my flight and fly home. Growing up my mother used to always say that I could be put in a room knowing no one, and would immediately make friends. Since I've been older, I've questioned how much this is true, and as I laid in bed, I really believed I'd lost this ability and that I'd spend the final 2-3 weeks of my trip lonely. 

But I woke up, got to the airport, and headed to Saigon where I almost immediately took a nap. Yes, I was tired, but I was also scared to go explore the city - I had no idea where I was, the traffic was simply insane, and the language barrier was overwhelming. Very few people speak English, and those who do often speak very quickly and with a thick accent, making it difficult to understand. After a brief nap though, my hunger overcame me and I hit the streets of Saigon, timidly crossing the streets at first, then just walking straight into oncoming traffic. I had been given warnings of the traffic here, and boy were they right. 

Most people in Vietnam have motorbikes, as the taxes on cars are too high to make it affordable. And the motorbikes rule the road - they do not stop for lights, they go the wrong way down one way streets, they even drive on the sidewalks if that's more convenient. The rules of the road for pedestrians that I had been told by various people are as follows:
(1) It doesn't matter the color of the light, cars will still go.
(2) Look both ways, even on one-way streets.
(3) Slowly walk into traffic at a constant pace. Do not make any sudden movements.
(4) Make eye contact with the drivers. (This is difficult when they are coming from all directions).
(5) Just go for it.
I'd like to add numbers 6 and 7:
(6) Everyone will be honking their horn. Do not turn to look, your toes will get run over.
(7) Do not wear flip flops, especially broken ones that may come apart in the middle of the street. 
(Note that neither of these happened to me, though number 7 almost did because of my beloved Havianas that I couldn't part with).

My first meal was naturally pho, and it was delicious (not to mention I had wifi so I could figure out where I was and where I wanted to go). My wandering brought me to Ben Thahn Market, which caters to both locals and foreigners. The market consists of narrow walkways between stalls overflowing with everything from chopsticks and other souvenirs, to delicious treats and Vietnamese coffee, to every knockoff you could imagine (the typical Louis Vuitton and Prada bags and wallets next to ones I haven't seen on the streets of NYC such as Tory Burch, Jimmy Choo, Goyard, Nike and Converse shoes, and North Face jackets). After purchasing a pair of cheap flip flops, I headed back towards where I ate pho to steal the wifi and was pleasantly surprised to find food stalls had opened. Per usual, I used my nose and checked where the locals were to figure out where I'd eat. But then a new challenge arose - in every other country I've been in on this trip, there was a menu in English giving me some idea of what I was eating. Not the case here. Luckily, I've since learned to just point to something that looks good on someone else's plate and its proved relatively fruitful. This time I lucked out - there was a man who spoke English so he ordered for me and we sat down for a beer. Just by chance, he was Vietnamese, but lives in Philly, and was simply back visiting family. Small world for sure!

(A little side note about eating street food in Vietnam - they use mini tables and chairs, like child sized. So you are almost sitting on the ground, knees into your chest. It's very strange but it's everywhere).

I headed back to my apartment, knowing that I had an early morning, and unsure of crossing the Ho Chi Minh city streets in the dark. While sitting in the living room, I heard the lock turn and, low and behold, it was an American (not the person I rented from). She was staying in the other room, and we immediately hit it off, both happy to have someone to explore a bit with.

I spent the remainder of my time in Saigon realizing that I hadn't lost that ability after all. On tours, at restaurants, and even just walking around the city I met new people: fellow Americans, Vietnamese, Australians, even a Parisian. I've realized maybe my mother was right (clarification: not about everything, mom) and I haven't lost the ability to meet new people, to venture off on my own. I very quickly realized I've got this - whether it's my solo travel or possibly moving to a new city. It'll all be okay. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/823847 2015-03-13T11:34:07Z 2015-05-09T18:56:28Z Two American Girls Cause Food Shortage in Thailand

Guys, this title is no joke. Basically we ate in Thailand and found things to do between meals. And sometimes the thing to do between eating meals was eat snacks. 

Our first meal was a place we'd go back to multiple times. As we had walked in the wrong direction to our hotel we passed a little open-air shop that was emanating a delicious smell out into the street; when we saw it was full of only locals we knew that would be our first meal in Thailand. And it did not disappoint. After returning from dropping our bags off we were whisked to a metal table with a fan overhead and were very quickly brought what is quite possibly the best beef noodle soup I've ever had. The broth had been cooking all day and then simply tossed in some beef, a handful of veggies, and vermicelli noodles. As we are the smell continued to waft into our noses and the heat of the soup combined with the scorching outside temperature and humidity made us sweat. In the four times that we went back for this soup, we did not see any westerners, and the only thing that changed each time was the type of noodles we got. I'm salivating just reminiscing about it, and hope I can figure out what it was and how to make it.

Later that night did not disappoint either, as we walked out from our favorite lady-man massage place and found the street full of food options that had popped up as the sun went down. I found a woman cooking pad thai and Katie found some basil chicken, and we chopstick-shoveled our food in our mouths and walked down the street. As we continued to walk down the street we started to compile a list of things we needed to try: the fried chicken, the chicken and pork satay, the whole fried fish. Basically, we used our noses and saw where the locals were eating to determine where and what we'd eat. 

Per the suggestion of a friend, we tried the food court at one of the many high-end malls in Bangkok: Siam Paragon. First we were taken back by the sheer size of the mall, then by the stores in it. We did not expect a mall full of Valentino, Pucci, Prada and other high end designers, not to mention the car floor which had the likes of Porsche and Maserati. But we were really there to eat, and that we did. We found the food court, deposited money on food court cards, and went to town. Between the two of us we ordered at least four full meals. While some of them were tasty, others disappointed a little. And none of them compared to what we had found on the street, though a brief reprieve from the heat was nice. We also tried durian ice cream (the only way I'd suggest trying durian, though I wouldn't even recommend that), and found a gourmet supermarket that we knew we'd be back to. 

Another memorable meal happened the night before we left for Bali, when we met an expat and Thai at an outdoor restaurant. Besides drinking a bit too much, we also are quite a lot because Tick, the Thai guy, kept ordering more food for us to try. First we had a spicy lemongrass and chicken soup that was delicious and HOT. That was followed by some deliciously marinated meat and rice. This was a pivotal meal, as we learned to eat the way locals do: grab some rice in your hand, roll it into a tight ball, and then use that to soak up the delicious sauce that was used in cooking. 

After Bali and before Cambodia we had more eating time in Bangkok and that's just what we did. The last two memorable dishes were once again street food. We finally tried the fried chicken from the guy outside of our massage place and wow was it tasty - definitely gives the south a run for its money! And the final wow came from a snack when we weren't even hungry. We were strolling through our neighborhood market, both tired and not hungry, when we walked passed a cart that had the most delicious smell wafting into the air. It literally stopped us in our tracks. Once we went over we looked and saw what looked like fried green tofu - we didn't care what it was, we were trying it. She put some in a bowl, poured a soy sauce with chilis over it, and handed it to us with two toothpicks. We went to town, no breathing, just eating. It wasn't until later that we learned that these were choice dumplings, and our attempts at finding chive dumpling lady again proved futile. 

Needless to say, Katie and I did a good job of eating all the Thai food, and I can't say either of us regret it even if it causes us to gain a few pounds. 
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/823391 2015-03-12T16:16:17Z 2015-03-12T16:16:17Z If This is What Bird Flu Tastes Like, Sign Me Up.
The main thing Katie and I were told about our travel to Cambodia was that bird flu is there, and that we should avoid eating street food chicken and should always stay upwind of live chickens. Well, we pretty much disregarded this advice, unintentionally.

Khmer cuisine is similar to other Asian cuisines in that one of the staples is rice, typically eaten with every meal. The rice in Cambodia has been the best rice we've had on this trip; naturally, we both bought to kilos to bring home. Khmer cooking also uses a plethora of delicious spices, often blended together to make kroeung which is a paste used in many dishes (Katie and I know how to make this from our cooking class).

Our first night in Siem Reap took us to one of the many restaurants lining Pub Street - 50 cent draft beers are hard to say no to. But it was here that we confirmed our love of morning glory (or water spinach). Morning glory is a green vegetable that they cook with oyster sauce and other spices and it is beyond delicious - we literally ate it at least once a day. 

On our second night, however, we ventured into the night market and found a local restaurant with plastic tables next to a grill on the sidewalk. We knew what we were having the minute we saw and smelled the BBQ chicken. It wasn't until we had both devoured half of our meal that we recalled what the doctor had said...and we both agreed that if bird flu tasted as good as that chicken, we were okay with it!

It wouldn't be the last time we had street food chicken in Cambodia, as we had it at lunch with Mr. Sak, and we said the same thing. We clearly decided to take what the doctor said with a grain of salt. Sorry mom.

The good news is that everything we ate in Cambodia was delicious and didn't make us sick! And after our cooking class we are now Khmer cuisine pros. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/822866 2015-03-11T17:25:18Z 2015-03-11T17:25:18Z The "Real" Cambodia

Despite purchasing a 3-day pass to Angkor Wat and initially coming to Cambodia for the sole purpose of seeing the temples, Katie and I immediately agreed we needed to see and do more. Five days here, two of which aren't full days, is not enough. So on our final day we opted to do a countryside and floating village tour with our favorite, Mr. Sak. I can already tell you that what I will write in this blog post will not even come close to what Katie and I saw, heard, smelled, and experienced, but I will do my best.

At 9:30am we climbed into Mr. Sak's tuk tuk and started down the road. We almost immediately stopped at a roadside stand where Mr. Sak purchased three medical face masks, one for each of us, and instructed us to put them on. Another quick stop for gas and we were really on our way!

Let me first give you an idea of what driving in Cambodia is like. Take all of the common sense and laws that you have from driving and erase them. Now, imagine motorbikes, motorbikes pulling tuk tuks, bicycles, cars, vans, and buses all going as though it's a free for all. You're turning onto another street? You don't look, you just go. And the street you want to turn on to is one-way? It's not anymore if you honk your horn. Add in cattle on the sides of the road, a beautiful but dusty red dirt coating your face, the smell of exhaust, a bunch of bumps and holes, and you should get the picture. 

Once we were out of Siem Reap, it got better in the sense that there weren't as many cars on the road. But the dust picked up as the roads became strictly red dirt roads, and we were glad to have our "SARS" masks. The further we moved from the city, the more we were blown away by what we were seeing. It was all beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time: the brilliant red dirt made the greens of the rice fields with cattle and palm trees even greener, which ricocheted off the bright blue sky. But then this beauty was interlaced with hay huts that families live in, children as young as five walking and biking home from school alone, and older men and women working the fields. 

As we got further from town and closer to water we took a turn at the 2-story, turquoise fisheries building, and the road became less of a road and more of bumpy, sandy, red pathway along a canal. Mr. Sak even yelled back to us to apologize for all the bumps, and my bladder yelled even louder that I needed a bathroom. 

At least forty minutes later (I lost track of time) we arrived at a set of roadside shacks with boats in the water. Mr. Sak said he'd be coming with us and introduced us to our captain, a boy of maybe 20 years old. I said I needed a restroom and was instructed to go onto another boat to the bathroom at the back. My expectations weren't high, and I was right. I entered a small box, smaller than any linen closet I've seen in the US and found a toilet bowl (no seat, no tank) about waist height. I looked down and saw a wooden stair to step on with a water bucket next to it for rinsing. I was happy to find a small light switch that turned on the bulb and fan. As I climbed up, I noticed that I could see straight out to where everyone else was, and looking down I could see the dirt-colored water. I had no choice though, so I used it. 

Then we started off on our boat ride. Our boat was a decent size, with water in the hull, and 6 wicker chairs for seats. Our captain was pretty good at maneuvering the boat, but it was tough with the shallow water (it's the dry season). As we went down the canal, past children playing and men and women working, we started to run into boats coming in the other direction. Due to the low water levels, we would glide past them with only inches between us, and then we'd get sprayed with muddy water from their outboard engine that was churning the bottom of the stream bed. We'd then get stuck in shallow water and have to use a long pole to push ourselves to deeper water. 

We finally made it into the lake and saw children paddling home from school, people lounging in their floating homes on hammocks, younger adults cleaning fish, and elders washing themselves in the muddy water. We floated past the school that the children had come from - 4 floating structures, each with two classrooms. Mr. Sak told us that children go to school from 7am to 11am then they go home for lunch, and go back to school from 1pm to 5pm. While school is free, it is often a financial burden on families. For instance, Mr. Sak has three kids, his oldest is nine and is currently the only one in school. He told us that with the cost of two uniforms (which are required) and books, it costs about $100/year for one child so once his two other children are old enough, Mr. Sak will be paying $300/year for his kids to go to school. The poverty line is $32/month so you can imagine that there are kids that do not go to school. Some children don't go to school because their family cannot afford it, others work or do household chores instead. It was very clear that there are kids in this floating village that will not receive an education. 

On our way back from the village we got to experience more excitement. As we'd skirt past oncoming boats, we started to notice a horrible smell emanating from the engine and when we turned back there was a lot of black smoke, too. We joked that if we sunk it was so shallow that we'd be able to stand at least. The captain shut the engine off, reached in his little toolbox, and instructed Mr. Sak to try to keep the boat pointed in the right direction and out of the way. After an hour of off and on stopping and going and fixing, we made it back to land - with a new propeller blade, a new rubber belt (timing belt maybe?), and a pile of debris pulled from the propeller. 

Back on the bumpy road, my need to pee once again didn't fail me so I got another fun experience. Mr. Sak pulled off on the side of the road and walked over to an area where he said I should be able to get into the woods. Clad in flip flops and luon, I turned and asked if there were snakes. Mr. Sak's response, "maybe". The lesson I learned? Dehydrate yourself on countryside tours.

Our next stop was the silk farm, where we were hoping we'd be able to feed our growling bellies. Apparently Mr. Sak was on the same page because he pulled over to a market full of only locals and was going to buy his lunch as he expected that we'd eat at the restaurant at the silk farm. But how could we turn down an opportunity to eat street food where the locals eat? We hopped out of the tuk tuk and followed our leader directly to an older woman sitting with whole grilled chickens flattened between to sticks. He held one up for us to smell - you couldn't almost taste the sweetness of the marinade. It didn't even cross our minds that we were told not to eat street chicken in Cambodia due to bird flu, our noses did the thinking. We got the chicken, 4 bags of sticky rice, and 10 spring rolls for a total of $8, and hopped back in the tuk tuk.

Once at the silk farm we maneuvered some benches in the shade so we could sit on one and use the other as a table. Hands rinsed with our drinking water, Mr. Sak passed out the bags of rice and chicken and we chowed down, using only our hands to eat as we had no utensils (and many locals don't use utensils anyways). We learned more from Mr. Sak about his family and how he works very hard, and how when he comes home his oldest (his son) lights up with excitement. We were pleased to hear he hadn't lived in refugee camps growing up, as our bike tour guide had. 

After our delicious lunch we headed into the silk farm where we learned about the silk making process and witnessed women working on everything from processing the raw silk to dyeing it and winding it onto spools. We also got to see women working on looms making beautiful intricate patterns out of the silk - all of it was manual labor, and I can 100% assure you that if I had to do the weaving I would for sure screw it up. 

Beyond exhausted from our long day and from witnessing the heartbreaking conditions we saw people living in, we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. But we didn't get far before Mr. Sak noticed he had a flat tire, and we had to stop at a local mechanic. An hour and a half later, fumes inhaled, and we finally made it back to the hotel. When dinner time came around we asked for a tuk tuk to town and it was Mr. Sak again! He came out of a little garden area where he had been drinking a few beers with the other tuk tuk drivers, so naturally we asked if we could join him for a beer and that's exactly what we did.

We followed Mr. Sak back into the wooded area, sat down on rocks and were handed beers. I can't recall the names of all the guys but everyone was friendly and open. We learned that in their free time they play volleyball and had won a tournament earlier in the afternoon. After a of couple beers Mr. Sak took us to Pub Street, with a quick stop where we bought a case of beer for the guys.  We invited Mr. Sak to join us for dinner and took him to our favorite local spot, where we ordered beers, Khmer BBQ, fried morning glory, sticky rice, and BBQ shrimp. We ate it all while he showed us pictures of his kids and told us about his wedding. As we strolled back to the tuk tuk, we grabbed ice cream and made a few last Cambodia purchases, which Mr. Sak, being the gentleman he is, carried for us. 

When we got back to the hotel we were coaxed into staying for more beer. And this time the guys brought out some green mango and salt for us to snack on while we talked and laughed into the night.

I'll be honest, I'm a bit hungover now but it was 100% worth it to spend the day with Mr. Sak and to see what is probably the closest thing to the "real" Cambodia that we could. 

The entire experience moved me, and made me want to do something to help. As some of you may know, a big passion of mine is education - I believe that it is a right for everyone, and that I would not be where I am today had I not had the opportunities I've gotten with regards to my education (from Loomis Chaffee to Villanova, Duke, and my teacher training at BIG). With the help of my brother I found and donated to the following:

"World Assistance for Cambodia (WAfC) / Japan Relief for Cambodia (JRfC) are independent nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth and rural poor in Cambodia. World Assistance for Cambodia is registered in the United States as a 501(c) (3) tax-deductible nonprofit organization.  Within Cambodia, WAfC / JRfC is recognized by the Cambodian government as one nonprofit organization." The Federal Tax EIN ID number for WAfC is 51-0350058. Several of the programs they run offer educational assistance, such as providing incentives for girls to go to school, building rural schools, and investing in talented children to provide them with more opportunities. For more information, or to donate and give Cambodian children the opportunity to go to school, check out www.cambodiaschools.com

The day truly could not have been better, from the broken down boat and tuk tuk to the late night beers, and I look forward to returning to Cambodia in the future - it now holds a special place in my heart.

Chris Overcash
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/822004 2015-03-10T09:40:47Z 2015-03-10T09:54:22Z Khmer Cooking: Same Same, Not Different
We've eaten a lot on this trip. And we've wanted to take a cooking class. It happened to work out in Cambodia, so yesterday we did just that. 

We arrived at the Le Tigre de Papier restaurant and cooking school, and were told to pick a starter and a main dish off the menu. I had figured they'd teach us a few common Khmer dishes, so I was definitely surprised to get to choose what I'd be cooking. Katie chose the papaya salad as her starter and chicken curry as her main dish, while I opted for mango salad and Somloo Mjour Krueng, a traditional Khmer spice soup. Once the other 6 people in our class chose their dishes and we all voted on one dessert to make (a pumpkin custard), we were off to the local market where we were accosted by flies and smells of chicken, meat, and fish, and by local women trying to sell fruits, veggies, and spices. Our head chef purchased some last minute goods - a pumpkin for our dessert, and some rice balls and jackfruit for us to try. 

We then headed back to the restaurant and upstairs to the cooking school where we washed our hands, and put on our aprons and hats before getting started. As we peeled and cut the vegetables for our starters we chatted with our fellow chefs - a couple from France, a Swiss couple, a girl from Perth, and a guy from Taiwan. Between all of us we were covering the gauntlet of starters - the salads Katie and I chose, fried spring rolls, fresh spring rolls, and pumpkin soup. After prepping our starters we moved on to the main course prep, more peeling and dicing, which at times proved difficult with the slightly dull knife. The main dishes included my soup, Katie's curry, fried rice, fried noodles, and chicken amok. Most of us had to make curry paste from scratch which included dicing shallots, garlic, galangal (a ginger-like root that has a slight pine scent), lime leaf, lemon grass, and fresh turmeric (which turned our fingers and everything we touch an orange-yellow color). As our head chef kept saying to each of us when we'd ask what we do next, "Same, same, not different" implying that we simply needed to essentially mince everything. Once diced, we then had to smash it with mortar and pestle until it had become a paste - definitely not easy, and Katie and I agreed this gave us an appreciation for curry made from scratch...and for food processors. 

Our head chef then worked with each of us to show us how to make our main dishes. As the outdoor heat picked up, so did the heat in the kitchen, but before we knew it, it was lunchtime. We carried our dishes down to the restaurant, and all sat together to enjoy our meals. Everyone shared so we got to try it all!

Stuffed to the brims and tired, Katie and I headed back to the market to stock up on Cambodian spices. Once again accosted with the smells of beef and chicken that had now been sitting in the heat for hours, we put our bargaining hats on and went to town getting spices, rice, and teas.

Before we knew it, we had to head back to the hotel to meet up with Mr. Sak. Mr. Sak is our favorite tuk tuk driver from our hotel - his English is good, and he's nice and fun. He was taking us to Phnom Bakheng temple, where we hiked up to watch the sunset among hundreds of Chinese tourists in what could have been a Canon commercial. Afterwards, Mr. Sak dropped us in town for dinner and drinks, and more shopping.

After eating we ventured through the night markets and came across a local artisan. We could tell by his hands that he worked hard, and he explained the process he uses to make brass statues. One statue of Ganesha took over a year to make, starting with carving the mold in wax, and ending with oxidizing the brass with rainwater before burying it for 7-8 months. Katie and I talked to him about getting a website, and found that he does ship abroad, so if anyone is interested in his amazing work please let me know and I'd be happy to put you in touch. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/821642 2015-03-09T16:58:34Z 2015-03-10T01:07:38Z Bikes, Beer, Temples, and Bugs
Are you noticing a trend here? Bikes and beer have become a common thing...

For our first full day in Cambodia we took the advice from some travelers we met in Bali and booked a sunrise and bike tour of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples with Grasshopper Tours (highly recommend them). I'm a morning person, so the 5am pickup was no issue, but I've got to hand it to Katie for getting up AND functioning without coffee for 4-5 hours. 

We were picked up at our hotel by a van that had our guide, our bikes, and three other travelers - a Brit, and two Americans. It sure is a small world - one of the Americans, Bridget, has a background in environmental science and works for Conservation International; the other American recently retired from the World Bank where he worked as a forester, and is a Duke (Nic School back before it was the Nic School) alum. We haven't seen many Americans on our trip, and I definitely didn't expect to run into two people who have similar backgrounds to mine. 

That aside, we arrived at the temples and our guide set us up with a view over the 190 meter wide moat separating us from the towers of Angkor Wat. We sat, we ate croissants, and we waited for the sun - it seemed to take forever and we thought it was too overcast. Then suddenly, just above the highest tower of Angkor Wat, there was a fluorescent orange-red glow. 

Once some of the crowds had cleared from sunrise, we walked across the roadway that traverses the moat and entered Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. Our guide was unbelievably knowledgeable and told us the meanings of all the etchings in the stone, as well as the history of the temple. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II and was built in the early 12th century. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and later became a Buddhist temple. What differentiates Angkor Wat from other temples in the area is that is has been in almost constant use since it was built, and therefore was not overcome by nature. (I highly suggest researching more on both the history of Angkor Wat and of the Khmer empire - I plan to, as it has been extremely interesting to learn about).

Once we were all appropriately covered (shoulders and knees), we climbed up the 70 degree angle wooden stairs to the highest tower of Angkor Wat. It was nice to have the wooden stairs, as the originals were at an 85 degree angle and each stair would fit a 5 year old's foot. The view from up here was amazing - we could see every corner of Angkor Wat and the surrounding moat, as well as other temples in the area. The intricacies of the etchings and the shrines were simply stunning. After 20 minutes (the limit) we climbed down the treacherous stairs, managing to not fall and cause a domino effect, and made our way out the backside of the temple where we were whisked away to breakfast.

Our van pulled up in a wooded area where there was a breakfast picnic set up on the Siem Reap River. After a delicious meal, we grabbed our bikes (which were much better than any of the bikes we've had previously on this trip with working brakes and all!) and started on the trail.

One thing that was so great about tis tour is the mountain biking - we were going through small trails in the forest, over roots and ducking under tree branches. After a bit of this we turned to bike along the Angkor Wat moat where patches of sand would make you really work to keep your bike steady and moving. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the next stop - Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, also known as the Great City, is just that. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, when Angkor Wat was attacked, and was the last capital of the Khmer empire. It covers 9 square kilometers, and is surrounded by stone walls and a large moat. The entrance to Angkor Thom is simply breathtaking - a causeway with 54 demons and 54 gods representing the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and a massive gate with faces staring out in every direction. 

For this portion of the tour, we biked through the gates and up a forested path to travel along the walls of the city, with the moat to our left and the ruins to our right. We stopped at one of the guard stands on a corner of the wall to learn more about the city and the Khmer empire.

A short bike ride along roads in the city then brought us to Prasat Bayon, a stunning temple that I actually preferred over Angkor Wat. Bayon was the state temple for King Jayavarman VII. It is in more of a state of ruin than Angkor Wat, but the faces (216 of them!) glaring down on you from all 54 towers, and the stories depicting everyday life carved in the stone walls are impeccable. These 11,000 figures included those of war, fishing, feasts, king processions, and markets.

Just outside of Bayon we sat for water and fresh fruit. Our picnic table was situated directly next to a monastery where monks were praying, washing, and blessing those who had come with ailments or bad luck. Refreshments inhaled, we hopped back on our bikes for more biking in the Cambodian forests. These forest trails took us directly to our next stop - Ta Prohm, or the Lara Croft Temple. This Buddhist temple was built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII. Compared to the previous temples we saw, the uniqueness here lied in the power of nature to adapt and overtake what was man-made. The Cambodian forest has literally started to take over the temple, with moss on walls, doorways blocked, and trees growing out of and around the temple. 

A quick bike ride from here, past several Cambodian weddings, and we were at our late lunch of traditional Khmer dishes - chicken amok, beef amok, fried noodles, fish, and a vegetarian stir fry. It was all delicious, especially with a cold Cambodian beer! 

A quick post-ride shower to remove the layer of sweat and red dust, and a relaxing, pool-side margarita gave us the energy to grab a tuk-tuk to Pub Street. We walked around, went to the Night Market where we made several bargains, and got a quick foot massage to work up our appetites. Side note: I do not know how I will survive without $6 massages. 

Lucky for us, just around the corner from the massage place was a sidewalk restaurant, and as we walked by and smelled the food be cooked right there we knew where we'd have dinner. Two beers each, fried morning glory, two pieces of amazing grilled chicken, and two BBQ skewers later, we paid a whopping $7.50 total and headed to the street for the dessert that we weren't looking forward to: bugs. 

Just outside this "restaurant", was a street cart selling fried delicacies such as crickets, spiders, and water beetles. We both decided the only thing we could do would be the crickets, as the other options looked slimy, and the spiders apparently "pop" in your mouth...no thank you. One dollar for a 2-cup sized scoop of crickets - we opted to give her $1 for 4 crickets, and as quickly as possible popped one in our mouths. Surprisingly, not bad - the spices she had used to fry them were delicious and they were crunchy with no "popping" or gooeyness. We both actually chose to eat our second one, though I think two cups would've been pushing it. 

A couple of beers to wash down the crickets at the aptly named bar, Angkor What?, and we were ready to call it a (15+ hour) day.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/819476 2015-03-05T13:47:53Z 2015-03-10T01:05:55Z Overcoming Fear and Trusting Others
One thing I didn't mention about our time in Lembongan is the fact that on our last night there I realized I had left my bank card at Dream Beach. It was too dark (and far) to bike or walk, and too late to rent a motorbike. Luckily, one of the guys working at our hotel was willing to take me to get it.

A bit anxious, I hopped on the back of his motorbike, placed my feet on the pegs, and grabbed his arms with my hands. I'm pretty sure he could feel my nerves, but off we went (on the wrong side of the road). It wasn't too bad through town, despite his weaving in and out around potholes, but then we reached the big hill (that also had curves). Surely we would fall and then I'd have road burn to deal with and Cambodian water to wash said cuts with...at least those were the thoughts running through my mind. I gripped his arms tighter, he added more gas, and up we went. He continued to weave in and out of potholes, honking as a warning as we went around turns. At one point we passed a truck and had I just slightly kicked my leg out, it would've been gone, but had my driver (or knight in shining armor?) moved over anymore we would've been off the road. 

Once we got my card and started to head back downhill I loosened up a bit - I started to feel the breeze in my hair, notice the beautiful views down over the ocean and the rest of the island, and let up my grip on my driver. He could feel me relax and started to point out various things in the panoramic view; I even got my phone out and took a short video (that hopefully shows up on this post). I had realized that by hopping on the back of his bike, I had conquered that fear. Sure, I didn't know if I could personally do the driving, but I now knew that I could ride on a motorbike without dying (my mind makes up some really great stories), and that I could trust someone that I didn't know in the least bit. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/819470 2015-03-05T13:38:17Z 2015-03-10T01:06:34Z Bali Belly
Besides the questionable food we ate our last night in Indonesia, food on Bali and Lembongan has not disappointed. 

Our first night in Ubud, after mildly recovering from our hangovers, set the bar high with Indonesian fried chicken and a delicious and light coconut curry. However, our best meals were without a doubt those cooked at our homestay with Ketut and his family. Each morning our breakfast consisted of fresh cut fruit (papaya, banana, and watermelon), delicious Balinese coffee, the best omelette I've ever had (tomato, onion, and spices), and a Balinese pancake, served to us on our front porch. I wish I had learned how to make a Balinese pancake, as they are thin and light, and beyond delicious. Ketut's family also offered to cook us a traditional Balinese BBQ, and we took him up on the offer. Our feast included tofu in peanut sauce, delicious veggies, and chicken and pork satay that his son's carefully grilled on a little fire. The chicken satay was blended with coconut, giving it a slightly sweet flavor, and the pork satay had a fabulous glaze on it. Dinner was followed with a sweet black rice pudding topped with shaved coconut. We ate and ate, and then ate some more. Ubud was also full of fresh fruits, veggies, and juices - after our feasting in Bangkok on everything but veggies, we happily ordered green juices most everywhere we went. 

Outside of Ubud, our favorite meal was our first in Lembongan. We both ordered the grilled snapper. When the entire fish came out we both cleaned those bones off while drinking our beers. 

Despite the delicious seafood and the food from Ketut's, I'd say that our two favorite Indonesian dishes (they happen to also be the most common) were Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng - fried rice and fried noodles, two things you can never go wrong with.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/819370 2015-03-05T09:04:07Z 2015-03-10T01:07:00Z Beer, Bikes, Beaches.
The past few days Katie and I have been beachin' it on Nusa Lembongan, an island that is just a 30 minute boat ride from Sanur, Bali. After our time in Ubud, we were ready for some relaxation on the beach!

Our first night on Lembongan we met some Canadians and after eating a delicious meal of fresh fish, we had Bintangs (Indonesia's beer) and a breathtaking sunset. 

Early to bed, early to rise for beach time! We ate breakfast at our hotel and walked to find an ATM and to rent either bicycles or motorbikes. Well, we failed at the ATM and we failed at the motorbikes (because I was a chicken with the whole opposite side of the road thing coupled with the horrific condition of the island roads). So with my Rupiah in hand to last us the next few days, and bicycles rented, we headed towards Mushroom Beach. 

Pedaling through town proved easy, as long as one could avoid the potholes and the drivers. However, once we reached the edge of town we hit a hill that was simply not possible to bike up in flip flops and with our less than optimal mountain bikes. Silly me for thinking that only a 90 minute class at BIG could get me so sweaty...

Eventually, covered in sweat and a bit annoyed with life (it was a brief annoyance, as it's hard to be unhappy in Indonesia), we made it to Mushroom Beach. We had seen absolutely no other bicyclists along the way, just people zooming by on their scooters. Oh well, we earned our beach beers! 

Mushroom Beach was a beautiful and relatively long beach, with various boats in the bay that took tourists snorkeling, diving, and on banana boat rides. We paid $5 each and set up camp on some lounge chairs where we enjoyed Bintangs, the crashing waves, and a local Balinese guy strumming his guitar. We also got the privilege of playing with the happiest little girl!

After our 4pm happy hour cocktail, we rode back, showered, and watched another great sunset before chowing down on more fresh seafood followed by fried bananas with ice cream, and bed.

Our last full day in Indonesia consisted of one of the prettiest beaches I've ever seen, a fabulous pool, beer, girly cocktails, and more bike riding. Dream Beach was a fitting name - white sand, crashing waves against cliffs that had lush greenery up to their edges, and every shade of blue, from the light blue of the sky to the darker blues and turquoises of the water. It was simply stunning. Our $5 once again got us lounge chairs, but also gave us access to the infinity pool overlooking the beach. We set up camp underneath an umbrella, and went to town reading books, ordering drinks, snacks, and lunch, and relaxing. Before leaving we opted to have some beachy drinks - a piña colada for Katie, and a banana daiquiri for me. We should've stopped here, given the bike ride we had back to our hotel, but happy hour had just started...so we opted for one more drink, which happened to be the one with 4 types of alcohol and a splash of juice. Needless to say, we didn't finish our drinks, and we hopped on our bikes happily drunk. Our bike ride went a little like this: stop for pant rolling, a little wobble here and there, successful and failed attempts at missing pothole ax a broken flip flop, and walking downhill with said flip flop in one hand. It was quite the sobering adventure. 

After a shower, our initial attempt at dinner failed. Katie's chicken was a dark grey inside, and we aren't even sure what came out on my plate. We very quickly paid and went to the restaurant next door where we ordered the safest thing - pizza, beer, and french fries. We're leaving our time in Bali unsure of that last meal, with mildly sore "treasures" (as Madonna at BIG would say) from the bikes and potholes, slightly sunburnt from the strong Indonesian sun, and blissfully happy. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/817768 2015-03-02T21:20:36Z 2015-03-02T21:26:03Z Stop Monkeying Around

Last full day in Ubud, and boy are we sad to go. There is no question in my mind that I will be coming back to Bali.

We had our delicious Balinese breakfast (which I will surely miss) and headed into town to the Monkey Sanctuary. We had heard that the monkeys could bite, and to definitely not bring in any food; naturally, we were a little apprehensive. The monkeys here are long-tailed macaques. The minute we bought our tickets we saw a monkey sitting in the pathway, just chilling with his balls out. I was beyond shocked that the monkeys literally own this area - they go where they please, and the entire area is open (when we left we saw several monkeys outside of the sanctuary). When you added in the massive trees with sunlight shining through and the old temples, it really was a sanctuary in the middle of Ubud (which is a sanctuary of its own sorts). We walked around the forest in awe of every monkey we saw and how human-like they were. We saw them fight, eat, defecate, play, screw, nurse; we saw elders, teenagers, moms, dads, and babies (which were Benjamin Button like) - it was the whole spectrum of being a human. At one point we were walking and one of the monkeys came up to me and started to reach up my shorts and then tried to take my flip flop off. It was amazing how soft his hands were and how gentle he was. When he realized he wasn't winning anything from me, he moved on to Katie and tried to reach into her bag to see if she had any goodies. Once again, he realized he wouldn't win, but we ended up in a lot of foreigner's photographs. 

We left the monkey sanctuary ravenous and sweaty, but after a quick lunch we headed to the spa! We had signed up for a 5 hour spa day, which included a massage, body scrub, yogurt bath, facial, hair treatment, mani/pedi, and dinner. All for a whopping $95. Turns out, it was a couple's treatment - sorry, Aaron. 

It was the perfect end to our time in Ubud. Now onto the beach to relax some more! 

Chris Overcash
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/817176 2015-03-02T00:29:29Z 2015-03-02T00:32:19Z When It Rains, It Pours

Thanks to recommendations from two grad school friends (Emily and Jaime!), we spent our day on a fabulous bike tour (Bali Eco Cycling). I highly recommend it. 

When our 8am pickup arrived, we were happy to find 4 other energetic girls in the van - Jenna from Canada, Harriet from England, Yoska from Holland, and Chelsea from Oz. We really couldn't have asked for a better group!

That said, we were all quite hangry. Luckily the first stop was breakfast with an amazing view of Batur Volcano and Lake Batur. Batur Volcano is active, and we could see areas where lava had previously been flowing. Filled with eggs, rice, Balinese pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee, we piled back into the van and drove to a coffee farm where we (once again) learned about luwak coffee and got to taste a myriad of coffees and teas. This time, however, we also got to taste various fruits (guava, tamarind, and snakeskin fruit), as well as Balinese chocolate. 

Then it was off to our bike ride! We got our mountain bikes, grabbed helmets, and headed downhill! The first stop was at a traditional Balinese family compound. Here we learned the following:

• One of the buildings in the family compound is used for the oldest family members (grandparents, typically). It is actually higher than all of the other buildings (which is humorous since stairs can be difficult for older people).

• The first building is the kitchen. We got to look inside this family's kitchen - it was very simple, but had the necessities and some well-seasoned pans!

• There was another, completely open, building (except for a roof) that had a bed on it. We were told that this building is used for ceremonies - weddings, births, funerals. There are 3 types of Balinese weddings, and the one that stuck out the most to me happens to be the most common. Our guide referred to it as the MBA marriage, or Marriage By Accident. This is what happens when the girl gets pregnant first, and it's relatively common because "you gotta test the goods before you buy them" (yes, direct quote). It's really because the family wants to know that there is someone to continue the lineage and stay within the family compound, so if you can't get pregnant you get to live with mom and dad forever. We also learned about Balinese funerals (or really, the Cremation Ceremony, since the Balinese believe in reincarnation). When someone in a Balinese family dies, they are placed on the bed in the wall-less building as though they are simply sleeping. When it is time, the body is placed in a sarcophagus often resembling a lion (though there are two other animals it could resemble that I don't remember now). The body, in the sarcophagus is then processed to the temple, where it is burned. The ashes are collected, placed inside a coconut, and released to sea. This is a very expensive process, so lower classes will often bury the body and wait for the village's mass cremation, which occurs every 5 years. 

• One of the most prominent structures within the family compound is the temple. Depending on where on the island the compound is, the temple is in the corner of the property that faces the sunrise and the highest mountain. These family temples are beautifully elaborate, with multiple shrines, and only members of the family are allowed to enter.

(If you have questions about Balinese culture, feel free to ask, as we learned quite a bit more than this. I've found that the history and culture here is so deep, and their religion so complex, that you can never stop learning about it).

Once we finished our tour of the family compound we rode downhill some more to rice paddies, where we got off to see men planting rice. We were given the opportunity to try it, and I decided why the hell not, took my shoes off and climbed down with them. Boy was it surprising! I sunk in up to my mid-shins as the mud squeezed between my toes. (Hope the water and mud were cleanish since I have a bunch of mosquito bites)! I was handed a bunch of rice and told to place them in the grid system that was marked out. An older Balinese man quickly informed me that I wasn't putting them in deep enough when he shoved my hand even deeper into the mud. 

And that's when the rain really started...it started as a drizzle but as it got harder we nestled under a small shelter in the rice field with the men. They took out cigarettes and lit up while we unsuccessfully tried to get our belongings out of the rain. Once it seemed to stop we rinsed our feet and hopped back on our bikes.

A little freakier now as the dirt path was now mud, and several times my back tire skidded out. As we continued biking it started to POUR. My initial thought was that we would be forced off our bikes and into the van. Boy was I wrong; we just kept going. The rain pelted my skin and the front tire of the bike sent a stream of water straight into my face as we continued downhill past lush greenery and small villages. And then the thunder and lightning (and a yelp from me) came, but we kept going. After a quick stop at a massive Banyan tree, we were drenched but finished (with the downhill portion). 

At this point we were given the option of getting in the car and heading to lunch, or continuing on with the uphill portion of the ride. Jenna, Katie, and I opted to continue - North America, represent. 

The uphill portion was NOT easy, and made me realize I need to get back to spin when I return to TX. The rain continued to pelt our skin, and at times it was so heavy that it seemed like we were biking through rivers in the road. The gears on my bike were loose, making it so I could not stand to peddle uphill, and my back tire kept skidding out - definitely not easy to keep moving uphill. That said, we eventually made it, looked like wet dogs, and celebrated with lunch (and beer) with the rest of the group. 

The entire time, through the rain, the back tire issues, all of it, I couldn't help but smile. Balinese on the sides of the road (in their covered shops) smiled and always said hello as we rode by, and it was so nice to be caught outside in a storm and just stick with it. 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/816760 2015-02-28T16:04:32Z 2015-02-28T22:43:11Z Adventures in Catpoocino

Our first full day in Ubud! We woke up and Ketut's wife made us the most delicious breakfast ever - an omelette, a Balinese pancake (think banana, coconut goodness), fresh fruit, and Balinese coffee. All served to us on our front porch, surrounded by lush greenery and the family temple. 

In traditional Balinese culture, an extended family lives together. When each son marries, his new wife moves into the family compound (which means sisters move out of the compound). Twenty-six people live within Ketut's compound - we've met his wife and two sons, seen some of his brothers and their families. But I do know that his family built every structure on this compound, including their magnificent temple, and they've lived here for at least 150 years. When Ketut was explaining all of this to us over breakfast he put it this way: "What's more important than your family? We go live our lives and then we come back home and have dinner and talk with family every night - they will always be there". We also learned that if anyone in the family were to stop practicing their religion (Hindu), or stop participating in traditional Balinese culture, they would be kicked out and not allowed to live on the property. 

During our amazing breakfast we met two other women staying with Ketut and fam - Angela who is from Arizona, and Amani who is Canadian but currently living and working in Doha, Qatar. We opted to spend our day with Amani and had a fabulous tour of rice fields and a coffee plantation by Medhe (Ketut's second son). The rice fields are simply stunning with the vibrant green terraces interlaces with durian, papaya, and Palm trees set against a beautiful blue sky. We learned that it takes about 6 months for the rice to grow to a point where it can be harvested. We also saw some beautiful lotus flowers and got to meet a local and very talented artist. 

After the rice fields we went to a coffee farm where we got to see many different plants - cinnamon, ginger, coffee, cacao, pineapple, and more. We also got to see and feed coffee to luwaks. Luwaks are Asian Palm civets (look it up). The luwak eats the coffee but is unable to digest the coffee bean so it poops it out and then the coffee beans are taken from their shell, roasted, and ground. We naturally had to try the poop coffee (and others, too, including ginger coffee, lemongrass tea, ginseng coffee, and more). The luwak coffee was quite delicious, and you could taste the difference when you drank it side by side with regular Balinese coffee. 

Katie, Amani, and I then headed into downtown Ubud for some food and a little shopping before yoga. Indonesian food has yet to disappoint - their ingredients are so fresh and everything is delicious and has a light feeling to it. We wandered our way through shops and made it to Yoga Barn for a vinyasa class. Practicing outside in the upstairs studio was lovely, with the sounds of birds, the breeze, occasionally a motorbike; there were even lizards "practicing" on the ceiling with us. 

Sweaty practice done, we grabbed coconuts and juices for more shop meandering before making our way to the Ubud Palace for a traditional Legong and Barong Dance. The dancing included music played on drums, and an instrument similar to a xylophone. The first thing I noticed was how much eye movement and hand movement were an integral part to the entire dance; at some points, the dancers were completely still except for their arms, hands, head, and eyes. The dance we saw told the story of the battle between the virtue and the vice. 

We departed the dance a little bit early to make it back home for a BBQ with Amani, Angela, and Ketut's family. Ketut's wife is an amazing cook - we ate traditional Balinese food and a lot of it! There was tofu and tempeh in peanut sauce, Balinese rice, vegetables, and skewered and grilled coconut chicken and pork satay. We were stuffed, but still had dessert - a delicious black rice pudding. 

From rice fields to catpoocinos to yoga and a family BBQ, we definitely can't complain about our first full day in Ubud!

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/816635 2015-02-28T01:10:49Z 2015-02-28T22:43:13Z Magic

Unsurprisingly, after a late night in Bangkok followed by an early morning flight, I've gotten behind on blog posts. We arrived at the Bali airport feeling terrible...tired, hungover, hungry. I had booked us an AirBnB homestay in Ubud with Ketut Mendra. If you have never used AirBnB I 100% recommend it. If you are ever coming to Bali I 100% recommend staying with Ketut and his family. 

Ketut's first son, Wayan, picked us up. A little history on the Balinese naming system - they often name their kids one, two, three, etc. Ketut is four, and Wayan is....? You guessed it, one. Anyways, that means there are multiple people with the same name. 

Despite the rough state that we were in, Katie and I couldn't help but be talkative and feel full of life when we met Wayan. He is so joyful, funny, and answered all of our questions about Balinese culture and island life. One thing that was tough - the driving and the roads! The roads are quite windy once you leave the city, and technically they drive on the opposite side of the road, except we realized that it's more of a "drive wherever if it works for you" type of driving. Literally, sometimes we'd have motorbikes coming straight at us. 

Once we arrived in Ubud (Payogan is actually the little village where we are staying) we were shown to our room and were blown away by its beauty and the niceness of Ketut. Our room is the perfect little studio - marble floors, a small sink and fridge in one corner, a raised living/eating area with a beautifully carved coffee table and cushions for seating on the floor, two twin beds and more amazing furniture. The room is surrounded on three sides by windows, and a sliding wood and frosted glass door leads to our outdoor bathroom. We even have a front porch where we leave our shoes when we enter our room (as is customary in Bali when you enter inside a house, temple, or store). Ketut immediately realized we needed a nap so that's what we did. To give you an idea of just how special this family is, the minute our door closed Katie started to cry - the beauty of our room, of Bali, of Ketut and his family was simply overwhelming.

Post nap, we walked into town for some food! We didn't know what to expect of Balinese food and were pleasantly surprised. Fresh ginger iced tea, a salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and avocado, a very light coconut chicken curry, and Indonesian fried chicken (that was also light, somehow). The freshness of the food was amazing and we are sure this will be a nice change from the heavy (but delicious) Thai food.

The only way to fully describe Bali is magical. The Balinese people, the scenery, the way of life, the food - it is all so magical and indescribable.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/815965 2015-02-26T13:36:02Z 2015-02-28T22:44:16Z I'll Fight You For a Singha
Our last day in Bangkok before Bali delivered. We took the train to the Chao Phraya River that runs through the city, and hired a long boat for a one hour tour of the canals. It was beyond interesting to see this other side of Bangkok, where people live literally on the water, and to see the juxtaposition of new modern homes next to old, dilapidated houses, all intertwined with marvelous temples and shrines. There were storefronts that face out to the canal, so people can buy necessities from their boats. And there were areas where nature had taken over with lush greenery. All of this was complimented by an ice cold Singha that we paid a whopping $4 for (and were not ashamed because it was so good). 

Side note: there are two Thai beers - Singha and Chang. Naturally, Katie and I had to try both and wow were we disappointed in Chang. If you're ever in Thailand, Singha is the way to go.
After our tour we wandered through the streets and made our way back to the hotel. Along the way we stopped in a small park and were blown away by the body weight exercise equipment (we gave it a test drive). A little relaxation after our workout and we were off to see our first ever Muay Thai (Thai boxing) match.

One of the workers at our hotel walked us out to the street to hail. This man is one of the happiest old men ever. As we walked past food stalls and shops, he'd smile and chat with everyone. He proudly pointed things out to us, such as the impressive high rise down the street. Despite it being rush hour (which I think it's maybe always rush hour in Bangkok), we got a taxi and made our way to Rajadamnern Stadium. Rajadamnern Stadium was built in 1945, and Muay Thai has been a Thai sport since the Sukothai period which ended in 1767 AD. Muay Thai originated as hands on combat in times of war, but later became a sport. It is considered full body combat, and is the only combat sport that uses punches, kicks, elbow, and knee strikes. 
The hustle and bustle of the stadium hit us the minute we stepped out of the cab. There were food stalls, people selling tickets, a plethora of motorbikes, and gamblers placing their bets. We splurged on our tickets - $60 for ringside, knowing that it would give us access to the entire stadium. We settled into our seats, and just like at any American sporting event, paid an astronomical amount for beers (Singha, of course). We were close enough to see the beads of sweat dripping off the fighters insane abs. These men were ripped. That said, they were also tiny. The 9 matches of the night ranged in weight class from 109lbs to 126lbs, with the 126lbs match being the highlight. Before each match the boxers do a ritual dance around the ring and pray in each corner - it was quite surreal to watch. Each match then consists of 5 rounds, and typically the first round isn't very exciting as the fighters feel each other out. Between rounds the fighters get doused in water, pumped up by their coach, and rubbed down with what we believe was an oil of some sort. The excitement of the whole evening did not disappoint. 

One of the benefits of spending $60 on tickets meant that we could really go anywhere in the stadium - so we did just that. After one of the fights we wandered back into where the boxer had gone and found him giving an interview. His family and coaches surrounded him, and we learned that family members who cannot afford tickets can sit in the back and watch the match on TV. We took pictures with this fighter, and then went to watch the peak match (the 126lbs weight class).
All of the matches were entertaining but there was typically a clear winner. This match was different - there was not a moment that didn't have us on the edge of our seats. Once the match was over we got to take a picture with the winner. He was quite sweaty, and had a deep gash above his left eye from the fight. We could've stayed for 2 more matches, but hunger had hit us so we ventured out. 

Our plan had been to get some food and go home. Well that plan did not happen. We grabbed a taxi to a street near where our hotel was with the hopes that food stalls would still be open. Luckily they were. And then we followed our noses and noticed where the locals were eating to decide which place we would eat. Across from us there was a Thai man (Tick) and an expat (Martin) eating and drinking, so naturally I asked them for food recommendations and wow did they deliver. We had an amazingly spicy lemongrass chicken soup, sticky rice, and delicious pork. 
It became very clear that the night would not be ending early, as Tick and Martin invited us to join their table. Tick ordered more food for us to try, and we helped them a bit with the bottle of Johnny Walker on the table. We learned to make little rice balls with our hands to soak up the juices of the pork. We also learned that Tick works in the tourism industry (he will now be our tour guide when we go back to Bangkok) and Martin is a film director who lives half the year in northern Thailand (and may hook me up with some travel opportunities if I push my flight back). The entire experience was so amazing and made Katie and I both feel like we were really getting to experience Bangkok. Hell, it even included multiple trips to the gas station squatter (which was not a fun experience in flip flops). 
Martin and Tick kindly ushered us back to our hotel a mere 90 minutes before our taxi to the airport would be coming. Needless to say, the flight to Bali would be rough, but it was all well worth it for what was easily our best night in Bangkok. 
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/815155 2015-02-24T23:53:15Z 2015-02-28T22:46:00Z Thailand Does It Better
What does Thailand do better, you ask? A lot of things - temples, shrines, clean streets, roadways, markets, food, massages, malls, grocery stores. 

We started our day taking a taxi to visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace. We knew we had to dress conservatively so we brought scarves to cover our shoulders and wore pants/dresses to our ankles. This didn't cut it - we were forced to rock out some pale blue polyester button down shirts. They were hot (in more ways than one). 

Upon entering the temple and Grand Palace area we were in awe. The size, the colors, the detail of the temples were simply stunning, especially against the blue sky. We started at The Upper Terrace, which consists of 4 monuments and scattered statues of elephants and other mythical creatures. After that we walked through the crowds to The Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. We took our shoes off, doused ourselves with holy water, and entered the temple among the throngs of people. We were immediately bummed that photos were not allowed. The site was indescribable - from the marble floors, to the traditional golden Thai-style throne, to the Buddha himself. Disclaimer: the Emerald Buddha is actually jade, blame the abbot who initially discovered the Buddha covered in plaster in the 1400s. This Temple is why Thailand does temples better. 

At this point, quite sweaty and tired, we continued on to the Grand Palace. Some stops included the weapon museum which included tridents (I thought only King Triton from the Little Mermaid used a trident; apparently I was wrong) and hat caskets, and some beautiful architecture such as the Dusit Maha Prasat Hall, which is still used for the annual Coronation Day Ceremony (complete with throne). 

We happily returned our polyester prison garb and began our 10km walk back towards our hotel. Along our walk, we passed houses, the United Nations building, several government ministries - the majority of which had beautiful shrines. 

We also noted a lack of trash on the streets, and specifically mentioned that we had yet to see a single pothole (thus making the streets infinitely better than those of Houston...Westheimer in the loop, anyone?). 

Further along our walk home we happened upon a floating market. I've been to many a market in Latin America and they all have their bonuses. The bonuses of this one? The floating aspect, the bright colors reflecting against the water, the skincare products being sold (including a plethora of coconut oil products), and the food. We have yet to have any truly bad food in Thailand. If you want more on food (and massages), check out the feed me, rub me post or wait for an all encompassing food post that will make you go get Thai food (which I promise will not be as good as the Thai food I can get here).

After another round of massage, Katie and I headed to Siam Paragon, a mall recommended to me specifically for their food court. Well, let me tell you, Thailand wins the game in malls. On our short walk to Siam Paragon we passed at least 3 other malls that were massive, nice, and well-stocked with stores (think everything ranging from H&M to Mango to Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga). Once we reached Siam Paragon our minds were blown. WOW, does Thailand do malls better. Besides the store options, you also have options of visiting the aquarium in the bottom floor, or watching an IMAX on the top floor. But we were there for one thing, and one thing only - the food court. We each put 300 baht on a food court card and got started. Overall, I think their food court was good, but the street food is better. Following our meals (and ice cream), we wandered into the grocery store within the mall (it literally is your one stop place to shop)! We were, yet again, blown away. The rice selections, the pre-cut vegetable selections - all of it made HEB and Whole Foods look like a Piggly Wiggly. Hey U.S. Grocery stores, step up your game!

So there are some of the things that Thailand does better. What can they improve on? Traffic lights. As Katie says, "they're the longest in the world".

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/814436 2015-02-23T14:44:30Z 2015-02-24T01:36:58Z Feed Me and Rub Me
Oof that flight was rough...for everyone else on the plane. I very quickly passed out into a sleep-deprived, Benadryl-induced, drool-included slumber. My apologies to the two men in my row. 

Doesn't matter to me though, because I made it to Bangkok and met up with Katie. First impressions of Bangkok (and Thailand) are that it is a big, bustling city but still has greenery, public transportation is good and clean, and people are BEYOND friendly and helpful. 

We took the train from the airport to Ratchaprarop Station and then walked to our hotel. Unsurprisingly, we walked the wrong way (past a street stall selling something that smelled amazing), but a nice guy at a tailor shop asked us where we were going and pointed us in the right direction. We checked in at our hotel (Hotel de Bangkok) and were greeted with a welcome drink and AC! We took some time to decompress and then headed out into the streets with no plan in mind besides street food. And street food we got. We started by going back to that street stall where we were quickly ushered to a little metal table. We didn't even order anything, food just showed up. I can't actually tell you what it was called, but it was a beef broth with noodles, beef, and some vegetables. It was DELICIOUS. All for 70 Baht. One USD is approximately 32 Baht).

We then decided to just walk around and see what else Bangkok had to offer. We ended up meandering through a market while the likes of Lady Gaga and Tove Lo were blasting in the air. My guess is that they don't realize what Tove Lo is saying in "Talking Body". Next on our to do list was hydration so naturally we had to have fresh coconut water. The teenager that we got them from tried to cut Katie's open and drastically failed. His mom stepped in, and let me tell you, I would not mess with her when she has a butcher's knife in her hand! 

Coconut waters in hand, we wandered further down a street. By this point we had eaten and hydrated, and my feet were hurting and swollen from all the flying - so next on the list was obviously a massage. 

200 Baht later, with the softest feet ever, and feeling relaxed, we wandered back onto the street. I was shocked that it was already dark out! However, that meant that there were more and different street carts out with food. For someone who can be indecisive, having so many options can be tough. That is, until I saw a lady making pad Thai. Wowza was it good. Katie got garlic chicken and we ate while we walked back to our hotel for an early night to hopefully deal with some of our jet lag. 

Two takeaways: (1) the food is amazing and the smells are indescribable (in a good way); (2) we will likely get massages daily. Given these, I'm pretty sure the title of this post will be all-encompassing for our time in Thailand.
tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/814214 2015-02-22T19:02:15Z 2015-02-23T21:01:09Z Schnitzel, apfelwein, and Haagen Dazs for the win.
Well, jet lag and eating too much have already taken their toll. I'm back at the Frankfurt airport sooner than planned, trying my best to keep my eyes open and not throw up. 

I managed to sleep a bit on my flight here, but sleeping 5 hours on a plane is not equal to sleeping 5 hours in a bed. Didn't matter, I had the whole day in Frankfurt and was not going to let it go to waste (except that it's Sunday and some things are closed on Sunday, so I was limited in what I could do).

I did what any tourist would do - I bought a train ticket and headed into the center of the city, promptly found an open coffee shop, and drank coffee while I tried to keep my eyes open and figure out what to do with the day. Then I headed out on my adventure. It took me to the Alte Opera, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange,  Römerberg, some churches, Eiserner Steg, and across the Main river. To be honest, there were no wow factors. Much of Frankfurt is a new-old city, by which I mean buildings that were destroyed in WWII were rebuilt to look as though they were the originals. Still pretty though, and definitely different from what you get in the U.S. 

Fear not though, Frankfurt did offer a wow factor, just in the form of food. By the time I crossed the river I was ravenous, which was well planned because the local pubs were on this side of the river. I found one, called Atschel, and knew I was in for a treat when I was the only foreigner in there. Two glasses of apfelwein and the Frankfurt schnitzel later, I was beyond full (of the best schnitzel I've ever had) and realized I had no euros (thanks, jet lag). The waitress completely trusted me to walk 3-4 blocks to an ATM. Good thing, otherwise I'd still be there cleaning dishes. 
I decided to continue walking around the city to make room for my favorite thing - ice cream. This city has ice cream places every where, and I'm not talking about shitty frozen yogurt places. I'm talking about the real deal! Some of said ice cream places were Haagen Dazs (which is my favorite), so naturally it had to happen. Well I was in for a treat with quite the menu, sit down service, and a nice cafe feel while I ate my Belgian dark chocolate and dulce de leche ice cream. 

Unfortunately it put me over the edge which is why I'm back at the airport early, hoping I stay awake until my 9pm flight. Next stop is Bangkok and meeting up with Katie! But first, sleep on the plane. 

P.S. I can most likely assure you that my blog posts will get shorter and/or less frequent once I'm done with the bulk of this sitting in airports thing. Also, crappy connection is making it so I'm not sure that all the pics are uploaded - check Instagram (@dash319 and #danawanders) for the food pics at least.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/814043 2015-02-21T21:11:36Z 2015-02-28T16:10:41Z I'm Ready
I'm currently sitting in IAH Terminal D (which sucks, by the way), eating a salad and drinking some wine. And it just hit me - it's here! Less than 40 minutes 'til I board my Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. HOLY SHIT. 

I've really felt like this day would never come. Even earlier this morning, time was moving at a snail's pace. Saturday morning cartoons (naturally, I was too excited to sleep), yoga, Guadalupana brunch (I'll miss Mexican food), shower....it all seemed to take forever. And it was hard as hell to keep my mind focused on what I was doing/where I was. I think I've had a big, stupid grin on my face for at least the last 10 hours. My face hurts. 

I've been thinking about how my excitement has started to mask the fear, even make me think it's not there. But right now, it is. Butterflies in my stomach (they like wine). But I'm not worried. 

I heard two things this week in yoga that clicked for me: (1) "We already know the ending - we die", and (2) "play full out". (Sorry if that first one is morbid, but it's true. And thank you, Nancy. I hadn't taken your class in months and you said both of these (or something along those lines) this week). They clicked because I realized that the first one is true so why not live life to its fullest and "play full out"?! And the second one made me realize that my fear around this trip (and everything else) has been preventing me from doing just that - I've been playing it safe instead of taking risks and having fun! (Side note for my mother - this does not mean that I will be stupid and do stupid things or not pay attention to my surroundings. Calm down). 

The fact that these things have clicked for me in the past week, before I had even left on this adventure, make me even more ecstatic for what's to come over the next 5 weeks. I'm going to play full out and have an adventure, experience new cultures, eat ALL THE FOOD, and maybe get on my return flight at the end of March. I'm ready.

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/813934 2015-02-21T04:46:57Z 2015-02-28T16:10:19Z How an overpacker gets 5 weeks into 1 backpack.
I'm notorious for overpacking - just ask anyone who has traveled with me. Weekend trip? I obviously need my biggest suitcase. And I'm no stranger to the fees associated with luggage greater than 70lbs (I just view the >50lbs fees as the normal checked baggage fee). And whether it's for work or fun, I always bring a plethora of yoga clothes, only half of which get used. Unsurprisingly, this trip has been no different. 

I started gathering things for my trip a week ago by making a pile in my living room. Well, this pile very quickly grew to take over my living room. After spraying some items with permethrin and laying them on my floor to dry, I lost most of my walking space in my apartment.

Luckily, Mandy came to the rescue (after I bought a few additional items because you never know when you need another loose-fitting cotton grey tee). This afternoon she and I went through my piles. She made me get rid of the following: 1 dress, 1 skirt, Birkenstocks, LOTS of yoga clothes, several tank tops and tshirts. 

Then it came to packing. Previously, I've toyed with rolling my clothes, stacking them, and sometimes just quickly throwing them in a bag and hoping for the best. Well, today I opted for rolling, and man was it a success! My backpack (which has gone through Central and South America with me) has never been so small and light. It's currently 38lbs and could grow in height by at least 12 inches. Perfect for the purchases I plan to make!

I'm all set and ready to go! Next up, Germany (after yoga and breakfast tacos, of course). 

tag:danawanders.com,2013:Post/811874 2015-02-15T00:03:14Z 2015-02-17T23:23:05Z Facing My Fears

One week from today I will board a plane to Bangkok by way of Frankfurt. I'm anxious, fearful, excited. Exploring and venturing out of my comfort zone has always been a passion of mine - from my decision to go to boarding school to my move to Houston. What's changed as I've gotten older is the fear factor - it now exists. 

After college I got on a plane to Costa Rica to go work on a sea turtle project. All I knew was that once I arrived I'd hopefully meet the people I'd be working with. I did not know anything about them - what they looked like, even their names were a mystery. Boarding that plane was an adventure and, despite the circumstances, I was completely fearless. I used that trip to travel through Central America. After graduate school I took time to travel through South America, once again, not afraid of what I would encounter. It was all a big adventure.

Well, this time around it is still a big adventure. But there's fear involved. I don't know if it's because I'm older and therefore less naive, or if it's because I will have to deal with a language barrier, or because I haven't traveled out of the US much since South America. I don't know the why, I just know the fear is there. And in the past few weeks leading up to this trip, I've realized the fear is there in other parts of my life - my job, my yoga practice, my relationships. I want a change and instead I'm completely stagnant because of the brick wall in front of me. This trip is an opportunity to confront my fear, to push the boundaries of my comfort zone, so I can experience that courage again and make moves in life without fear of the unknown.