Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Singapore Must: Unlimited Cheese and Chocolate Buffet + Infinity Pool

Singapore is a dazzling country. There is much to do, but this is my most pressing recommendation. It almost broke the budget for us poor travelers, but who can say no to unlimited cheese and chocolate buffet and an exclusive dip in a pool on top of a skyscraper?

On top of the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel there is an infinity pool that overlooks the entire city. It used to be open to the public, but now it is only open to those who stay in the hotel. Fortunately (as our local friends and guides, Channing and Spencer, pointed out to us) there is a loop hole.  If you reserve a spot at the cheese and chocolate buffet, you can be admitted into the pool area where you can swim before or after your appointment. It isn’t technically approved, but no one seemed to upset by us. I recommend swimming before, since you should be consuming half a dozen plates of amazingness.

Since it is on the 59th floor, there are 59 different kinds of chocolate and 59 different kinds of cheese. It is absolutely worth it. Here is a short video of what you can expect to see at the buffet and what the infinity pool looks like (ignore Austin's slightly murderous sounding comment, haha):

Photo Credit Here

Friday, 2 January 2015

A New Year: Check in on 26 Birthday Goals

Goal 1
Rather than doing traditional resolutions, I take a moment at the start of a new year to evaluate how I am doing on my July birthday goals since it is a natural halfway point. I'm taking this chance to inventory what I wanted to accomplish on my trip around the world: what I have done, what I have have yet to do, and what I have to work on. My new notes are in red! 

26 Things to Do Before I am 26

1. Get married-it is still 30 days away. So much could still happen! Check! And getting married was totally worth it.

2. Hold fast to the goals I have in my field project proposal researching marriage advice around the world. Specifically: writing daily field notes, writing 5 blog posts a month, and having 6 essay drafts before the trip is over. I'm mostly on track. I am doing daily field notes, which is my main priority since it will allow me to go back and pull out themes for writing. I could write a few more blog posts each month.

3. Write a letter or an email once a week to someone who does not expect it. My letter writing every Sunday with Jourdan was too great to stop there. I write a lot of letters, but it is sporadic and I could do more. This is a good reminder.

4.Take a picture once a day. I did a similar project when  I was in Ghana (a picture every hour on the hour), and I am inspired by people who do the 365 day challenges. I’m going to start this as soon as I publish this post. I'm taking a lot of pictures, especially lately, but I want to post more on Instagram. I need to figure out how to upload pictures from my computer to Instagram too. If you know how to do this without blocking your hashtags, let me know!
5. Climb Machu Picchu  And it was awesome! Check out the details here.

Goal 5

6. Sleep in a bed outside like this: (More awesome options found here!)  We stayed in hammocks in the Amazon. I think we might stay at another one in southern Thailand.

7.  Go to at least 10 new LDS temples This is going to be a tricky one. There are almost no temples in the Asian countries we are visiting, as it turns out. So far I have only visited Orlando, Bogota, and Lima.

8. Submit writing to 10 new  publications and contests.I have submitted a few things and will be submitting more. One article I wrote won $500 dollars for a study abroad writing contest. Check it out here "How to Select the Right International Program: 20 Steps".

9. Go inside the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It is 34 dollars to go to the top. I have seen it four times behind glass in an airport. I want to go inside. We have tickets to Dubai on April 4th, so stay tuned.

10.  Get my Spanish back (study an hour a day before the trip from my old textbooks/Rosetta Stone), and be able to buy groceries without any translation mishaps while in Spain or South America This one makes me sad. I had high hopes for upping my Spanish game in South America. We just weren't there long enough. I'm sure I improved, but this continues to be a lifetime goal.

11. Place a prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Israel might not be in the budget for this trip, but it isn't ruled out yet!

12. Eat mango sticky rice in Thailand  I ate dozens and dozens of plates of sticky rice. Amazing.

13. Kiss Austin in front of the Eiffel Tower. This is so cliche. I know, I’m sorry. I don’t even like the Eiffel Tower, but I promised myself when I was there last that I wouldn’t come back without a lover. We have plans to get to the south of France, but we'll see if we make it to Paris. I also feel like changing this goal to putting a lock on the famous love bridge instead. I'm allowed to change, yes?

14. Get at least 375 books on my “read” shelf on I’ve missed my book goal every year (this year, shy by 25 books). This is the year I’m going to do it! I'm still only at 330. I need to get to work!
Goal 16

15. Number 15 is a secret That you will never get to know

16.  Find a fish somewhere in the world that I am not allergic to and actually enjoy eating The fish in the Amazon were actually pretty good! I enjoyed the cat fish and piranhas we caught.

17. Take a Thai massage class. I loved my experience learning massage in India, but I could learn a lot more and be a lot more confident. My friend Cherie is awesome at this stuff. Check! We had so much fun with our instructor, Nana

18. Spend at least one day not doing anything “productive” without having overwhelming feelings that I am wasting my life or that I’m a worthless lazy person (some might call this “enjoy the moment”) The funny thing is I did this a week before my wedding on a trip to our family cabin. I played video games with my siblings, ate ridiculous amounts of food, and didn't bother to get dressed or brush my teeth for two days straight. Gross, but satisfying. 
Goal 17

19. Memorize a prayer in another language from another religion India, our next destination, might be a good place for this. 

20.  Here is a good one: not yell or curse at Austin for the entire first year of marriage Ha! What can I say? We love, we laugh, we fight, we forgive, we learn. I have a lifetime to figure out this one.

21.  Learn to cook 3 new meals from other countries that I could make in the U.S. when I get home  Yes! Is it okay that they are all Thai dishes?

22. Do (at least part of) a pilgrimage on foot, similar to some of these (the Camino de Santiagowould be awesome). My friend Alexandra did this one, I believe, and loved it. Spain is last on our itinerary!

23. Get perspective and decide if I want to continue in my education career or transition to creative writing or something else. Then apply for stuff. I'm still processing. I love volunteer teaching in these countries I visit, but I don't know if teaching is for me still. I'm looking into options where I could still build curriculum. 
Goal 21

24.  Keep in excellent contact with my friends and family back home. Currently, I have some of the best friends (and I mean the BEST) I have ever had. Austin and I realize that just the two of us are not enough to create and sustain an emotional support system solo. I need my family. I need my friends. Being out of the country will be hard, but I am committed to not falling into the chasm of distance/friend death that some people get lost in after they get married. I think I've done a pretty good job at keeping the people I am closest too in the loop. Of course there is room for improvement, but I love people too much to completely disappear. This will be ongoing.

25. Avoid oversleeping and exercise in the mornings. Being a teacher got me into the habit of waking up early, and I don’t want to lose that Oops.

26. Before leaving Boston, do the Freedom Trail. I have lived here for over two years and have managed to never do it. Another oops. Putting everything in storage took a bit longer than I planned. There is still time!

Monday, 15 December 2014

100 Lessons After 100 Days of Traveling Around the World

Today is the 100th day of our round the world trip. As a meaning maker, I am constantly looking for larger themes and digging at the experiences we have had so far. The world is so big, and we have barely scratched the surface. Making sense of what we have seen and continue to see will be a lifetime process. But in the meantime, here are 100 small--probably trivial, but slightly humorous--lessons I have learned from the first 100 days of traveling around the world:

1. Experience shows that when I am in an earthquake, my most immediate and pressing concern is quickly putting pants on because I don’t want to be found dead without them

2. Australians seem to travel at the rate Americans stay home

3. Calories are cleverly labeled “energy” on many international food labels 

4. Nothing humbles you faster than trying to learn a new language 

5. You never know how important the Spanish word for soap is (“jabón”) until you are in dire need and performing charades to help the Amazonian locals guess your meaning

Number 6 Need I Say More?
6. Peru is home to the world’s most terrifying mannequins 

7. I married a man who gets teary eyed reading the inspirational quotes in the US Passport (context: no sleep, just deported)

8. A large chunk of Peru looks uncannily like Utah

9. You don’t magically “pick up” languages by hiding in your apartment because you are too scared to talk to people

10. One of the sweetest Thai men I have met was named Gun

11. LDS churches are the best places to find free filtered water

12. When you don’t speak the language, making swimming arm motions and waterfall hand movements will still communicate “stop this car I’m going to vomit”

13. Hot pink is the new black in Thailand 

14. There is no such thing as too much mango sticky rice

15. Thailand is home to the world’s worst cookie counterfeits 

Number 19 Baby Tiger
16. Singapore is likely the best place to set a dystopia story in the making

17. Americans seem to be the ones most freaked out by unisex bathrooms

18. Checking a bag can cost more than the original flight price

19. Baby tigers love having their bellies rubbed. So do full grown tigers, but if you don’t scratch firmly enough they think you are a fly, and they will hit you in the head with their tail hard enough to give you a headache

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

World's Largest 3D Museum

Me, having a drink with God (apple juice, for sure)
It took us over a month to discover this gem in Chiang Mai, but I’m happy we did. Art in Paradise, the world’s largest 3D art museum, has been one of the best attractions in Thailand and one of our favorites so far on our round the world trip.

Art in Paradise hosts a unique viewer experience featuring illusion art. Illusion art, according to the museum, “is a sensory perception that causes a distorted or altered impression. Since illusion is not the opposite of reality, the effect of illusion one experiences is neither true nor false.”

Hundreds of these works are on display. Below are just a few of the images we snapped with them. These paintings and videos play with depth of field and use special techniques to “transform ordinary artworks into extraordinary three-dimensional interactive environments.”

Travel Tip: If you have a few days in Thailand, it is well worth visiting. Also, if you know someone who lives in Thailand with ID purchase your tickets, it is only 180 baht ($5.5) instead of the regular 300 baht ($9.10). 

Enjoy these surreal images! Don't miss the videos at the bottom. I know you always wanted to know what the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh would look like as Harry Potter portraits. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Sandboarding in Peru

Yes, that is me, and no, that is not snow.

A lot of people, myself included, are not familiar with the biodiversity that Peru has to offer prior to visiting. David Bellamy, an English botanist and environmental educator, said “If there were a planetary catastrophe and I had the possibility to choose a country to save and reconstruct the planet, without a doubt, I would chose Peru.” Peru has much more than just Machu Picchu. For example, take a bus south from Cusco (as opposed to north, the direction of Machu Picchu and the jungle-lands) and after 2 days of travel, you’ll find yourself in a dessert oasis known as Huacachina, a tiny town outside of Ica in the middle of nowhere.
Rooms here are cheap and sandboarding is everywhere. If you rent with an agency through your hotel or hostel, you can get discounts. Most places offer deals around 40 soles (14 USD) to take the dune buggy (warning: wear your seatbelt, no one will warn you, but trust me on this one) and enjoy a free board to slide down the sand mountains on your stomach. If you go to a shop, you can rent a real snowboard for 15 soles (5 USD).  Renting a board was well worth it. It gave me much more control standing up on the mountain, and being a snowboarder gave me an advantage. However, don’t expect it to feel like snow. You fall hard, and you must use a ton of wax (make sure to ask for it) to try and get past the friction of the sand. Still, one of the best expeditions on our round the world adventure so far.

I’ll post a video with shots from our GoPro soon as well as thoughts on the rest of the biodiversity in Peru.

Go, just go.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Funny Lessons from the First Two Months of Marriage (in Peru)

I have been married for exactly two months tomorrow, which is about as long as traditional Incan custom would allow as a “trial marriage” period. For them, if the couple couldn’t stand each other and realized their mistake, they were able to part ways without any stigma or shame.

Many people live together before marriage, but for us, there has been no “trial marriage.” A lot of these funny lessons are experiences most people would have already had, but for us, well. As my dear friend Carol Ann once said, “What was once cute is killer in marriage.”

Now don’t get me wrong: being married has been way better than this skeptic ever expected (even AMAZING)! But where is the fun in that? It seems we were not spared from some of the typical (dare I say quintessential?) lessons of newly married life, even in transit. Squabbling in the grocery store, for instance, just looks a little different in Peru than in the U.S. (but how much more entertaining it is—as you can imagine—when neither one of us can correctly translate the Spanish food labels?).

Austin, for example, reads before he goes to bed. During our two years of dating, I thought this was one of the most romantic and endearing things in the world. I used to love watching him in the lamp light, thumbing through the pages of a book. Now, however, it means falling asleep in florescent light to the sound of crinkling paper. Cute to killer.

And then there is the whole problem of waking up. As Austin has tried to gently explain, I am not so much a morning or a night person as I am a day person. Somehow this slips his mind when he tries to wake me up with a light kiss or a hug. I don’t care how romantic his substitute for an alarm clock is, somehow waking up is still a miserable and unwanted experience. Who knew? Not Hollywood.

I find it absolutely shocking that Austin seems to have similar tiffs about me. Apparently, he is not quite pleased with my sheet stealing habit or that I don’t make the bed. Ever. But what is more mundane and useless as making the bed? I keep racking my brain and nothing comes to mind.

I am also learning the art of telling part truths. So when Austin watches me brush my hair and asks if all the hairs get caught in the brush, I smile and say, “Yes.” You have to understand, I am easing him in; he is not used to living in a world with long hair and all the shedding that comes with it—nor is he particularly pleased by my habit of rolling stray hairs into little hair spiders and depositing them on the floor.

But all of this considered, it is still worth it.

If we were Incan, our trial period would be expiring here soon, and we would enter into permanent married life. During the marriage ceremony, the couple would hold hands and exchange a pair of shoes, showing their promise to serve each other for the rest of their days as they work and labor on the new land they receive as a new family.

Unfortunately, I only brought one pair of shoes so there will be no shoe exchanging over here. But hey, we are a few months ahead in lesson learning.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A Simple, Practical Guide on Traveling to Machu Picchu

Thinking of ever going to Machu Picchu? It’s really not as complicated as some travel guides make it seem. This is a super concise and simple guide for people not doing the 4 day Incan trail (which is most people). In short, know that there are many, many different routes to get there, so don’t feel like you need to book something 6 months to a year in advance. We booked our tour two days before on the most standard passage and it worked out fine. This is how we did it:

How to Get There:

Frequent flights from Lima to Cusco are readily available for good prices. From Cusco (the capital of the Incan Empire), you have access to all kinds of ruins in the Sacred Valley. Cusco thrives on tourism to Machu Picchu, so expect that everyone will know how to help you once you get here. You can plan a trip from Cusco and expect it to be way cheaper than paying in advance on the internet. Tour companies are ubiquitous, so you can also price check and get a better deal somewhere.

That being said, I recommend doing a two-day tour: one day for the Sacred Valley, which has some great locations that give context to Machu Picchu (Pisac and Ollantaytambo have impressive ruins and markets to visit), and then the second day at Machu Picchu. If doing the Sacred Valley tour, you get off the bus in Ollantaytambo and catch a train to Aguas Calientes, which is the city just outside of Machu Picchu. There are no roads to get into Machu Picchu, so the train or hiking expeditions are your only options.

If you just want to do Machu Picchu and forgo the Sacred Valley, you can take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes roundtrip either really early in the morning of or the night before, just know that the train fare will be a bit more expensive than it would be in Ollantaytambo.
Once in Aguas Calientes, you can hike a few hours or take a bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. The morning (5:00-6:00 AM) is better since it is less crowded and not as hot. You can even see the sunrise.

You don’t need a guide for Machu Picchu (although I would recommend it for reasons below). Know that there are several hikes available inside Machu Picchu. Some you need to pay extra for and buy in advance (like Huayna Picchu, the famous saddle-looking mountain you see in all the pictures).
When you are done and back in Aguas Calientes (again, you can hike or take the bus back down), take the train back to either Cusco or Ollantaytambo. If you go back to Ollantaytambo, you can catch vans back to Cusco for a great deal (10 soles).

Recommended Agency and Tour Guide:

After living in Cusco for a little over a month, we had a chance to scout out a lot of different tour agencies to figure out the best way for us to do Machu Picchu. We were most impressed with Moroni Tours and made friends with the director, Javier Gutiérrez. He can reserve any kind of tour around Cusco and into Machu Picchu, but we took him up on the two day tour of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. He offered by far the fairest prices for this tour. This tour included hotel pick up, the English-speaking bus tour of the Sacred Valley, lunch buffets on both days, entrance tickets to the sites, train pickup, tours of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, an epic tour guide for Machu Picchu, as well as all the bus and train fares for both days. He can help you get an affordable hotel or hostel in Aguas Calientes if you are interested as well.

Whether or not you go through Moroni Tours or decide to do it yourself, I recommend getting Patrick Mendoza Ayala as a guide for Machu Picchu. He was by far the most fun, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable guide I saw on the mountain that day. His English is great, and he is a researcher putting together his own book of Machu Picchu. His personal connection to the place makes the tour special and unique, and I just didn’t see that kind of excitement from the other guides. You can, however, reserve a guide last minute at the entrance of the ruins if you decide you want one last minute. There are many waiting outside.

Note: because Machu Picchu is so important to Peru and its economy, there isn’t really a “cheap” way to do it. Doing it on your own will save a few bucks, but if you are forking out a few hundred to get there, I think it is worth it to pay a little more to at least know what you are looking at.

Tour Contact Info:
Director: Javier Gutiérrez             Phone: (51-84) 984 695531
Address: Av. El Sol Comercial Sol Plaza, 3rd Piso #315
Email:          Facebook: Moroni Tours

Machu Picchu Guide:
Guide: Patrick Mendoza Ayala   Phone 969 542118
Email:          Facebook: Lic Patrick Mendoza

Going Without a Tour:

I am the kind of person who passes up official tour guides when possible to save a few bucks, but I would not recommend it in this case. That being said, it is possible to skip a tour agency and tour guides (or to get partial packages) and still have a great experience at Machu Picchu. Here is how you could do it:

Book your own train fare on Peru Rail, either roundtrip from Cusco or from Ollantaytambo. You can easily catch a bus to Ollantaytambo and back, so if you are looking to save money, go that route. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can reserve them in advance, but you can also catch them when you get there for a cheap price.

Once you get to Aguas Calientes, you can hike or take the bus up to Machu Picchu. Warning: you need your entrance ticket before you get up to Machu Picchu, so get it in Aguas Calientes or Cusco.

A Few Last Important Tips:

Spend at least a few days in Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (Cusco is actually higher in elevation than Machu Picchu). See if you get altitude sickness. If you didn’t bring medication with you, try coca tea, which is used as a natural remedy. There is plenty to see in Cusco, so feel free to take it slow.

Bring a lot of water and snacks before getting to Aguas Calientes, where food and drink prices are higher. Prices are even worse at Machu Picchu, so be prepared.

Get to Machu Picchu early (6:00 or earlier) for the sunrise and to beat the crowds. Buses run this early, and you can hike any time—even before the buses leave.

Go just outside of high season (April-September) so you beat the crowds but don’t get stuck in rainy, foggy weather when you can’t see the mountain properly. Early October was perfect for us.

Don’t forget to charge your camera batteries. Bring a camera with a wide angle lens if possible—you’ll use it.

Get plenty of sleep the night before so you have energy to do the climbs once you get there

Try out the hot springs in Aguas Calientes if you have extra time. It was one of the only affordable things to do there.

Take at least one of the train rides during the day when you can see the gorgeous Andean scenery. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Bring sunscreen. It is surprisingly hot and bright, especially if you have been used to Cusco weather.

Take a small notebook to write down information and facts you learn from the tour—there is so much you don’t want to miss.

Remember that you can buy and reserve everything for this trip on the fly and save big bucks once you get here