Sunday, July 27, 2014

Summer in Florida

Teaching abroad means lots of summer travel opportunities. I've used past summers to go on adventures (like volunteering in Guatemala or traveling in Israel), but when I started thinking about this summer, I realized I just wanted to kick back in Florida with my friends and family. After a one week stint in Japan, I arrived in Southwest Florida, ready to relax for a month.

Cuddle puddle with some friends from home 

My grandma, mom, and me

Being home this last month has been surprisingly fun! I've been catching up with old friends, spending time with my family, and eating all my favorite meals from home. Summer time means lots of parties and fun nights out.

Me with my two brothers

Fancy night out in Naples with some girlfriends

I even got to play tourist in my own state when a couple of friends from Hong Kong were passing through. I convinced them to stay in South Florida for an extra day of their road trip and visit Everglades City for an airboat tour of the mangroves. Our guide was named Captain Mo and he was a real character. Getting to see alligators up close in the wild never grows old.

Airboat tour of the Everglades

I really appreciate that I have amazing people in my life, in Florida and around the world as well, and always look forward to coming home. Florida was just stop one of my trip across the States this summer. Next up: Cincinnati and Chicago!

Friends since the age of 14, out on Fort Myers Beach

Eating My Way Across America

This summer, I am working my way up from Florida to Chicago with some stops in between. I am making some great memories with loved ones, but there have also been some awesome food moments along the way that I wanted to share with my blog audience.

Southern feast at Luptons in Tampa, Florida
Collard greens, okra, and fried chicken

Garlic blue crab clusters at Pinchers, Cape Coral
Literally my favorite food on Earth

Key lime pie, a typical Florida desert
Veranda in downtown Fort Myers

Shrimp and grits at Crave Diner, Fort Myers
Typical southern breakfast food

Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Ohio
That's spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and oyster crackers

Pretty much all of these meals are TERRIBLE for you, smothered in butter, beer, lard, or cheese, and I have been constantly reminded of why 35% of adults in the US are obese. I have been running two miles every other day to try to counterbalance all the shit I have been putting into my body this summer. No regrets! Every bite has been delicious and comforting. 

Feeling fierce after a run

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Quirky Kyoto

I LOVED Kyoto. Kyoto is known for being a historically significant city filled with world heritage sites and temples, but that wasn’t really what I loved about it. I just felt at home there almost immediately; something about the city’s vibes was on my same wavelength. As I spent days wandering the random neighborhoods and districts, I kept thinking ‘I could totally live here.'

Here is a list of some of my favourite characteristics of Kyoto-
  • Quaint- You can turn down so many random street corners in Kyoto and end up on an adorable block with gardens and small homes or colorful bicycles or school children playing games in the street. Basically, the city has major points in the cute category.
Spent a whole afternoon in this adorable coffee shop-
  • Tranquil- Things in Kyoto were quiet and calm. That’s not to say it lacked fun events or shopping or even traffic, but it lacked the hectic, frantic energy in most big cities despite having 1.5 million residents. Kyoto had a small town feel to me.

Locals chilling on the river banks near Sanjo Station

  • Bike-Friendly- I really liked this about Kyoto! Public transportation was great, but the cities’ embrace of bike culture was also really heartening. It felt like being back in the Netherlands because of the sheer volume of bicycles.

Notice all the bikes in front of
  • Feel Good Town- Kyoto had very positive vibes. In Hong Kong, we say ‘work hard, play harder’ which sounds fun but actually leads to a lot of stressed out urbanites. People in Kyoto just seemed content, happy, and courteous.

Teramachi shopping arcade in Kyoto-
Lots of leisurely strolling going on here

  • Historical- Kyoto is home to dozens of temples and gardens, and the famous Gion geisha district. Lots of artisan markets sell fans, coin purses, platform sandals, Japanese silks and snacks, etc. You can get a really strong sense of Japanese cultural history visiting Kyoto.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion peeking out above the trees

  • Laid-back- Kyoto didn’t feel as high-strung as Tokyo. People were much more relaxed and it didn’t seem like there was as much pressure to look impressive. Even on a Saturday night downtown, things were happening, but in a much more chill manner. It is more of a pub city than a nightclub city, which is fine by me. Cheers to Kyoto for not being pretentious at all!

Yakitori pub food- chicken skewers

A Week in Japan

In my first year living in Hong Kong, I have been lucky enough to visit Thailand, The Philippines, and now Japan as well.

Unfortunately my mom and I were both really sick for the Osaka/Tokyo portion of our trip so we didn’t really get to explore as much as we wanted. My iPad was loaded up with seasons of Orphan Black, Defiance, and Battlestar Galactica so my being bed-ridden was actually quite entertaining (yes, I’m on a sci-fi kick). By the time we got to Kyoto we were a bit more mobile and exploration-able.

Some general observations from my trip to Japan that might be helpful for other travellers-

The Japan Rail Pass is super convenient for travellers. You have to book it online before entering the country, and then you just pick up the pass at any rail station. It included unlimited train, subway, and bus rides for one week. Travel by train in Japan is clean, quick, and readily accessible. We walked into train stations with no reservations and were always able to catch a train to wherever we wanted to go within 30 minutes.

Me trying to sleep on a Japanese train

There are no tourist sim cards in Japan. Well, there sort of are pre-paid cards but you have to activate them with a local Japanese cell phone which is an issue. It is easier to either rent a phone or rent a pocket wi-fi router for internet access and stick to Skype for phone calls. This was a huge fault in the tourist infrastructure to me- in Thailand a one month unlimited data sim card was really cheap and easy so it came as a bit of a surprise that Japan didn’t have a similar system in place.

Japan is extremely well-kept. The streets are clean, things are properly labelled and orderly, and you won’t see a lot of blatant poverty. They really take care of their country.

The food is out of this world!! My mom and I feasted all week on tonkatsu, sushi, curries, miso ramen, okonomiyaki, and yakitori. No matter where we went, it was always mind-blowingly delicious. Japan gives Hong Kong a run for its money when it comes to cuisine.

Sushi platters galore

We took a break from Japanese food for one meal to get 
wraps from Good Honest Grub

Fashion is super fun in Japan! I am rocking some pink hair for the summer so I felt like one of the locals with my crazy hair. The many fashion statements I saw on the streets were diverse and style-inspiring.

Eating Japanese pancakes my first night in Tokyo

Language barriers exist, but they aren’t really a big deal. Most people I met did not speak English, but the Japanese people were very kind and helpful so it was not an issue.

My final note is that I would definitely like to return to Japan (fully healthy this time, mind you) and dig in even deeper.

Embracing my inner nerd at the airport on the way home

Friday, June 27, 2014

Airbnb in Japan

For a one week trip around Japan, my mom and I decided to give Airbnb a try for most of our accommodations. She was hesitant, but went ahead and booked a couple places in Tokyo and Kyoto. I definitely should have taken the lead on this because I learned pretty quickly my mom did not know to read the reviews or directions on the apartment listings.

Overall, the apartments were fine. In Tokyo we stayed right in the heart of Shibuya, walking distance from everything we wanted to see or do. In Kyoto, our apartment was more out in the suburbs, nearby the famous Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Japanese apartments are very small but efficient, with small pods and nooks for the kitchens and bathrooms.

Typical bathroom pod in Japan-
Feels like space camp!

The Kyoto apartment had great wifi, the Tokyo apartment did not. The Tokyo apartment had beds, the Kyoto did not. Yes, you heard me right. NO BEDS! To our dismay, we arrived in Kyoto and the apartment had two mats on the floor. This wasn't wildly misleading; the photos on Airbnb clearly showed floor mats but my mom didn't notice that and also didn't notice the scores of Western reviewers complaining about the sleeping accommodations. 

Mom at our Kyoto apartment- oops!

After one night of 'indoor camping' and lots of tossing and turning on bamboo mats, my mom and I found a hotel near Sanjo Station which made the rest of our stay in Kyoto much more pleasant. What a frakkin' awesome city!!

There were too many issues with Airbnb in Japan to recommend it to anyone. Wifi and air conditioning were sparse, the beds and bathrooms were always wanting, and we never had a smooth check in. This is largely due to the fact that it is really complicated to get a tourist SIM card in Japan so we were unable to call or email our hosts upon arrival. My mom and I spent a lot of time in random stairwells or on street corners trying to figure out how to get into our apartments. I don't think this would be an issue in the US, and I will definitely give Airbnb another go in a different place, but next time I go to Japan, I will be staying in hostels. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Finishing my First Year in Hong Kong

My first year in Hong Kong is coming to a close. I have grown so much personally and professionally, and I’m constantly grateful for this opportunity. In the spring of 2013, I knew I wanted to leave Ecuador, but I was convinced that I had to get to Western Europe. My current school director actually reached out to me at a job fair, and I agreed to an interview simply for the experience, because I really had no interest in living in Asia. 24 hours later, I had signed a contract to live in Hong Kong for 2 years!

I treated myself to a night's staycation at a fancy hotel in Hong 
Kong this weekend to wind down the year

Trying to squeeze in as much time with these crazies 
as possible before I leave for summer

I’ve eaten stinky tofu and ridden on a junk around Victoria Harbour. I’ve made an awesome group of friends who are actually more like a family to me. I have visited both the Philippines and Thailand, and I am going to Japan in a week. The school I work at is extremely high-achieving, professional, and positive, with tons of opportunities for professional growth. I get summers off to travel and visit people, and plenty of random holidays throughout the year to do the same. What a wonderful life!

A final girl's brunch before we all head off for summer

Got to show my mom around Hong Kong last week- 
we are off to Japan together next week!

Who knows what the future holds? I’m just looking ahead to summer, which will include trips to Japan, Florida, Cincinnati, and Chicago. I’m not really sure when the next time I will go back to the States will be after this summer trip, so I have to make the most out of my time with friends and family back home. This first year has just flown by, but I still have one more week of school before I can call it a wrap.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Get Your Nerd On in HK

Hong Kong has a couple of American style comic book stores over in Causeway Bay that I just explored today for the first time! They are on Sugar Street in Causeway Bay, near the public library and Ikea.

This is the nondescript entrance to the basement with all 
the comic book stores in Causeway Bay Shopping Centre

I've been on a comic book binge lately- Guardians of the Galaxy, Sandman, Serenity, Saga, Walking Dead, FreakAngels, Buffy, Y: The Last Man, Locke and Key, and my favorite of all- Chew. Truthfully, I torrent most of them for free because if I actually purchased every comic I wanted to read I would go bankrupt. I decided to purchase a couple issues from each series I read to support the authors, using the comiXology app on my iPad, but still wanted to physically flip through a couple of comics every now and then.

My loot from today- can't wait to dig in!

Metro Comics in Causeway Bay had pretty much every series I was looking for (as well as a huge stock of every DC and Marvel character you could want), although not always the right issues or volumes. The guy behind the desk was really helpful and looked up a few comics for me and told me they could special order the next issue and let me know when it arrives. The store next door, Clarks Comics, was closed when I was there, but I definitely plan on returning.

Metro Comics from the outside

It was pretty small inside but they had wall 
to wall comics and a great selection

So if you want super hero action figures or costumes, comic books galore, graphic novels, head over to that basement on Sugar Street where your nerdy dreams will come true!

On a happy side note: Produbanco (my old Ecuadorian bank) has been systematically fucking around me with for the last week and holding onto my tax return (some 1200 US dollars) by cancelling my debit card, saying my signature was a forgery, and blocking me from wiring money internationally to my US account. I FINALLY sorted it out today and managed to send home the majority of that money and I am done! Fucking done! This was the last piece of assholery that country was going to put me through and now I NEVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH ECUADOR AGAAAAIIINNNN. This bank account was the last little attachment I had to that country, and now I feel such a release of stress. Freedom!

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