Nashvegas

I finally made it to Nashville last weekend. I’ve been wanting to visit since I was a wee little Asian country music fanatic living in Boston.

I’m not much of a country music lover these days, but this trip wasn’t for the music. It was for food! That, and the spectacle of Lower Broadway, a.k.a. Bachelorette Party Central. Bars and live music door after door after door, with the occasional boot shop sprinkled in. It was overwhelmingly loud and quite crowded.

Not loud or crowded, but overwhelmingly giant: The Gaylord Opryland Resort. It’s not a hotel, it’s a mini-city! That’s a thing??? Coming soon: a water park! I’m not even kidding.

Back to why I went: Food! I’m pretty sure I had biscuits and gravy every day. (Biscuit Love!) And barbecue. (Martin’s!) And hot chicken. (Boltons!) And meat-and-three. (Monell’s! That was more like three meat-and-threes, in a single meal.)

Also did an overnight trip to Chattanooga. Got a wonderful tour of the Tennessee Aquarium, then learned how to make bánh xèo from Hanh’s Mom. Super awesome unexpected bonus!

It was a whirlwind trip. So glad I go to do it! Much gratitude to Hanh for inviting me and her family for their hospitality.

Portlandia, Whirlwind Weekend Edition

Another year, another visit to Portlandia!

Actually, it was more like, I had expiring hotel points and Portland was the cheapest airfare for the one weekend this summer Aaron said he didn’t have a race. Booked it!

Flew into town Saturday morning and hopped on TriMet to the hotel. I love how easy this is here.

As it turned out, we rolled right into the annual Rose Parade. Strolled a couple blocks and encountered a passing troupe playing wooden wind instruments that wound into the air like upside down charmed snakes. I have no idea what this instrument is called.

Walked another couple blocks and across Director Park, where we stopped to take in a youth production of pirates and princesses and rodents performing an aerials silks routine.

Onward, to Case Study Coffee! The gentleman behind the counter was super friendly and explained their offerings: “Everything we sell here is local. We make our own syrups. All the pastries are local as well; the top shelf is all vegan and gluten free.”

As we enjoyed our coffee, we looked out the window at a pack of red-nosed suit-clad clowns towing a three foot long wooden slug down the sidewalk. They stopped at the TriMet fare machine to buy tickets.

A pair of Rosie the Riveter twins passed behind them.

My toasted hazelnut latte was delicious.

We had arrived.

Properly caffeinated. To the Alder Street Food Cart Pod! Nommed on some pan fried dumplings and a jalapeño grilled cheese. Overheard a passing local talk about moving northeast of the city because of the rising cost of living.

Popped into Billy Galaxy, where they had a Trypticon in a box!!! The store employee was having a heck of a time finishing a Star Trek puzzle, so I asked if Aaron and I could help/play. Success! Yeah, teamwork!

Wandered some more. Stumbled across Wailua Shave Ice. Ate some. Because of course we did.

It was Saturday, so we visited the Portland Saturday Market. Sampled CBD fruit leathers, ate local caramels, tried crazy spicy jerky. Restrained myself from buying all the cool shirts.

Finished up at the market, came across American Panda, a liege waffle / Vietnamese sandwich cart. The lady running it was super nice. Ate a S’mores liege waffle sandwich and got to sample their durian ice cream. It was totally legit.

Next, Ground Kontrol, a retro video game arcade. Played Tetris, DDR Extreme, Mortal Kombat II, plus a couple super classics like Arkanoid and Tempest. They had a CBD soda on tap. Tried one because it was novel… and because everything else was beer.

After that, Powell’s City of Books! Came away with a book and a list of books.

I was surprised to encounter the latest edition of The Art of Electronics, a text book I hauled around when little high school me took a night class at Harvard. Looking at the book again, I realized the author was my instructor.

Not far from this book…

Aaron, to me: I need to find a book on time series.
Nearby patron: Did you say you were looking for a book on time series?

20 minutes and two patrons’ worth of discussions later Aaron had a bunch of tips on things to look into. They both left him with, “Good luck.”

Finally, dinner! I’d been looking forward to visiting Grassa again. Their food is super solid like Flour + Water in SF, but without the formality, impossible reservations, and prices. I had radiatore with clams, Chinese sausage, Thai spices, and fermented black beans. What??? It worked.

Saturday, fin. What a jam packed day.

Woke up Sunday and headed straight for Coco Donuts. Their cake donuts are so good! We followed this up with a latte at Heart Coffee.

Then it was off to the International Rose Test Garden. So many scents and colors! I sniffed until I couldn’t sniff anymore.

After that, a visit to the adjacent Japanese Garden. Admission wasn’t cheap, but wow it was beautiful. I quite enjoyed the fluffy maple trees bouncing in the wind, bouncing from single raindrops, housing entire ecosystems under their fluff.

The garden garden grounds were expansive, thoughtfully arranged, and meticulously maintained.

All that gardening made us hungry, so we headed to AFURI for yuzu shio ramen. Their broth was super unique, very citrusey, and quite good.

After ramen, Division Street. Came across the following quote in a storefront as we walked by, in the rain:

Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.

Thanks to the rain, we stood in a very reasonable 40 minute line at Salt & Straw. Their June Guest Chef Collaboration Series flavors were totally worth the wait. Aaron and I both got a flight of four flavors. My favorite? Duck Crackling with Cherry Preserves: A rich ice cream made with duck fat, molasses, and salted custard, swirled with tart cherry preserve, candied duck skin brittle, and a local honey gastrique. What a mouthful!

We left Salt & Straw full of ice cream, on top of being full of ramen. One block later, we came across Townshend’s Teahouse. I love love love this place. What better way to digest than with some hot tea? I enjoyed a cup of white tea and left with a bag of milk oolong tea leaves. If you like tea and have never tried milk oolong, do! And make sure you give a leaves a good sniff before you brew. This tea smells like none other.

Walked over to Hawthorne Boulevard. A few blocks in, saw a sign for Rachel’s Ginger Beer. As in, the entire store served ginger beer. Their pink guava flavor was delish.

Returned to the hotel stuffed, but then realized we wouldn’t get to visit Chizu if we didn’t go right then. So we went, and had an a super delicious omakse cheese plate. Our cheesemonger told us origin stories of all the cheeses we ate. It was so fascinating and tasty I didn’t even realize I was full.

Post-cheese, a visit to Breakside. Because beer, or something.

Monday! Another day, another coffee shop. Went with a Portland classic this time, Stumptown. Then it was off to Screen Door for more eating. Cheddar and bacon hush puppies! For the first time since my initial exposure to hush puppies in North Carolina, I was not disappointed. Screen Door’s hush puppies finally allowed me to appreciate and enjoy a different style of fried corn lumps.

Back across the river to see if we might want to visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden. This required walking through Chinatown, where I once again felt like the token Chinese person. That feeling didn’t change upon reaching the garden, and ultimately we decided against going in. I felt vindicated when we stopped in the gift shop and found Japanese items for sale.

Never mix China and Japan. Never ever Ever.

We wandered back toward the Pearl District and stumbled across Nola Donuts. Beignets??! Beignets!! It didn’t matter that we were still stuffed from Screen Door. We ate beignets.

Then it was time to visit Keller Fountain Park. I’ve really enjoyed all the gathering spaces like this sprinkled across the city. The water is soothing to the ears and the kids have a blast.

Post-fountain-waterfall, Aaron got his slice of Sizzle Pie and we headed to the airport. Our Portland experience continued there, with a few local shorts at the in-concourse mini Hollywood Theatre.

Then it was really time to go. Portland vs. San Francisco (not a head-to-head, just using SF as my point of reference)? There are just as many homeless people, fewer dogs, and way less street poop. We only encountered a single street poop, and a kind passerby alerted me to it as I approached. People are nicer here. I hope Portland manages to stay this way as they grow. And they are growing. Cranes and construction everywhere. Just like in SF.

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour

October…

Jilly: I’m in planning mode on this Vegas helicopter ride where you land in the grand canyon. Are you interested in going?
Me: ermagerd the thought of a helicopter kind of terrifies me
Me: awesome, definitely must do then

January…

As it turns out, flying in a helicopter is not terrifying at all, because you’re too busy feeling exhilarated.

Not too exhilarated to feel airsick, though. OMG was I airsick. For hours.

Totally worth it! Because floating into the sky and trails and plateaus and mountains and Lake Mead and Hoover Dam and random little towns and eagles’ nests and swooping over crests and into valleys and omigosh the world is beautiful and amazing.

It doesn’t even look real. So much wowowow.

Also, this crazy turn:

And some more videos.

To quote Meri after we landed in the Grand Canyon, “I didn’t know this was on my bucket list until today!”

Check, and check.

Land of Smiles

Two years ago, Raisa invited me to play a hockey tournament in Thailand. I wanted to, but declined because my niece was due to be born around that time and I didn’t want to put off meeting her.

One year ago, Raisa invited me to play in the same tournament. I wanted to, but declined because Aaron and I had a wedding to attend in India shortly after.

This year, Raisa invited me to play once again. I enthusiastically said yes.

Then I had to stop playing hockey.

I wasn’t about to let that stop me from doing all the fun things related to hockey. I asked if I could still join the team in Thailand and Raisa said yes.

I needed that, to not feel like I was leaving everything behind.

The Saturday before Halloween, I set off to explore Thailand with the team.

Flight Notes

I chose my airlines and transfer airports for this trip based on food. On the way out, I connected through Hong Kong so I could eat between flights. On the way back, I connected through Narita so I could bring home some Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory cookies.

My flight to Hong Kong was quite the language experience. I was seated among a large South American tour group, and between them and Busuu my brain was deep into español. At the same time, announcements were made in Cantonese, and there was an assortment of Cantonese language videos available. I took advantage of these videos to practice my Cantonese, and by the time I landed in Hong Kong I found that my Cantonese made for much smoother interactions than the locals’ English. Multilingualism FTW!

On the flip side, I listened to flight deck communications over Chinese airspace in horror. How do people understand each other between two different languages and a world’s worth of English accents over a fuzzy channel? Verbal communication for something so structured and critical feels so outdated. There has to be a better way.

After a week in Bangkok, we flew out of DMK for Krabi. The taxiway at DMK cuts across a golf course. There’s a traffic light for crossing. Definitely not something you’d see in the US.

The return trip had me flying ANA for the first time from Bangkok to Narita. I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the bathroom: The toilets had bidets. I loved it so much I made my aisle seat neighbor get up more than was necessary so I could use the bathroom. A fresh bum makes traveling so much better!

You can quote me on that.

Thailand Notes

I brought a hot pink Field Notes notebook to document this trip, and filled most of it by the end. I’ll start with some general impressions before diving into specific excursions.

Cars are right hand drive here. I had not expected this. For some reason I had thought only a handful of countries were right hand drive. Clearly, there are more. Now I wonder how many more. (Update: The internet says many many more.)

Many people here have monks bless their cars. Every taxi and Uber I rode had some sort of blessing on the ceiling.

Table pepper is white here. I like that very much. Also, it reminds me of home.

Tasty tropical fruits FTW!

Spirit houses abound. Many residences have one on their property.

Tiny “curbs” also abound. It’s not uncommon for boundaries between spaces to be separated a ~1-2 inch difference in ground height. I tripped a lot my first couple days there.

The cost of living here is cheap. Food is cheap (protein on skewers is abundant), non-imported goods are cheap, massages are cheap. I did all my touring, eating, massaging, and shopping over 8 days for about $400.

Shopping malls are everywhere, and they have everything: Multiple levels of restaurants and food courts, bakeries, supermarkets, movie theaters, arcades, hockey rinks, karaoke, and clusters of banks, in addition to shops you’d normally expect to see in a mall. Some of the ones we frequented were 8 levels high, with themed neighborhoods of shops from around the world.

Hokkaido cheese tarts exist in Bangkok. I’ve been searching for these for a year, since Japan last November. We came across both Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and BAKE CHEESE TART at the mall and airport. Each time I spotted one I screamed and shared the joy of these tarts with my friends. A handful of us consumed about 14 tarts in 3 days.

Bangkok traffic is terrible. It’s somewhat rule bendingly flowy, but less so than in than India. Motorbikes and scooters are abundant, and work through the traffic much more quickly than taxis and Tuk Tuks. Uber works here, and you can even use it to call a motorcycle.

Public transit is the way to go. The MRT (subway) and BTS (Skytrain) are cool, clean, and efficient. At the final station, cleaners run from one end of the train to the other before new passengers are allowed to get on.

I never quite got over my jet lag. I alternated between nights of super crappy sleep and sleeping like a rock until 5:30 AM. On the upside, this meant I was always awake and ready to adventure as we formed spontaneous outings over breakfast.

Once again, two thumbs up for international travel on Project Fi.

Hockey Notes

We planned for me to assistant coach / work the bench door during our games. Due to a bike tour that ran longer than expected, I arrived at the rink in a tank top and shorts for the first game, so I watched from the stands above, where it was warmer.

Seeing my friends out there tournamenting, my jersey out on the ice, made me miss playing for the first time since I stopped.

I was properly dressed for the rest of our games and was fully occupied with my coach and door duties. I had a great time.

Final game scores:
– 9-0 vs. Kuwait
– 0-3 vs. Malaysia
– 7-0 quarterfinal vs. Dubai
– 0-5 semifinal vs. STC (Singapore Thailand Canada)

Things I Ate

I ordered curry every meal I could. I tried a variety of curries and proteins, and never encountered two similar dishes.

Skewers are common on the streets, and I ate all sorts of things on a stick: beef, pork, chicken, sausages, squid, jellyfish. I also bought bags of freshly cut fruit, sold with a skewer as utensil.

The night markets I visited all had the occasional fried bug stand, and I tried both crickets and grasshoppers. The crickets were fairly palatable, and tasted like dried shrimp. The grasshoppers were more crunchy, had less flavor, and ended up getting stuck in my teeth. I found myself picking grasshopper out of my teeth for an hour. Crickets: 1, grasshoppers: 0.

One thing I wanted to hunt down was the very Thai drink-in-a-bag. It felt as if this is becoming less common as plastic cups become more prevalent, but on my final full day in Bangkok I found a drink-in-a-bag stand in Chinatown. I couldn’t quite communicate to the lady that I wanted whatever herbal thing the locals were drinking and not a Thai iced tea, but it was cool because she made my tea in a sock and I got to check that off my list too.

We came across a lot of random sweet things on our adventures. I ate most of them: mango sticky rice, coconut ice cream, mini coconut pancakes, deep fried gluten things, deep fried bananas (from a market, from a floating market, and once from our Uber, purchased from street vendors selling in traffic), khanom buang pancakes.

If I could eat mango sticky rice every day I would.

If I could eat piles of tropical fruit every day I would. Mango, pineapple, papaya, dragonfruit… I also got to try a custard apple for the first time. It’s custardy, and nothing like an apple.

I made a point to try fairly western snacks in Thai flavors. The local 7-Eleven had all sorts of chips and crunchy pea snacks in flavors I’d never seen before, so I bought them. I couldn’t read all the flavor names, but from the pictures on the packages I gather I was eating sushi, miang kham, cuttlefish. I encountered a bag of scallop butter garlic Lays but didn’t buy them. Regret.

I also made a point to try the local McDonald’s. Ate a pork burger, a deep fried pineapple pie, and a deep fried corn pie. The pineapple pie tasted artificial, but the corn pie tasted like creamed corn in a crunchy shell. Would eat again!

Not related to Thailand, I ate jook almost every day this trip: first at the Hong Kong airport, every morning at our fancy hotel international buffet bar, and finally on my morning ANA flight home. I love jook; it reminds me of my childhood, when I hated jook.

Night Markets

Closely related to much of the food I experienced: night markets. On Thursday night, Linda and I went to a small one we saw in passing: Talad Neon. It had a mix of snack stands, outdoor sit-down food stands, and shops. There were also small food carts on the side street bordering the market. A nice gentle introduction.

The next night, a group of us ventured out for Loy Krathong, and ended up walking down a street along the river. It was lined with street vendors as well, krathong stands on one side, street food on the other. Mostly locals. This didn’t really count as a market, but it’s way more like one than anything we have stateside.

The night after that, Katie and I went to Talad Rot Fai Ratchada. This one was new and hip and bustling and HUGE. There were hundreds, possibly over a thousand, vendors hawking foods, goods, haircuts, and even tattoos. We saw maybe a third of it. I’d totally go back.

Temples

On my first full day in Bangkok, several of us visited a couple of the many temples in the city. We took a ferry down and across the river to start at Wat Arun. It was intricate and shiny and jingly in the wind, and many of its structures were surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of statues of dogs that are actually lions.

Next, we took a shuttle across the river for 45 cents. The river levels were high, and shops on the other side were flooded. This did not pose a problem; shopkeepers simply kept their goods on raised platforms and offered customers bags for their feet off the raised sandbag walkway.

On the other side of the river was Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha. This statue is HUGE.

There are people in that picture, in the lower right.

We walked around for food after touring Wat Pho and found our way into a back alley dried seafood market. It smelled as you would expect. We watched other lost tourists recoil in horror at the smell, then forged on in. This was where the locals purchased their ingredients. A most excellent accidental detour.

Bang Krachao by Bike

On the second day, Eula, Jimmy, Kim, and I toured Bang Krachao by bike.

Getting to the meeting point was an adventure in itself. Pro tip: If you need to get across Bangkok during morning rush hour, do not expect any taxi or Uber drivers to be willing to pick you up.

Crowded rush hour Skytrain and walking FTW!

Bang Krachao is something of an island in the heart of Bangkok. It’s actually referred to as the “green lung” of Bangkok, a lush urban oasis in the middle of a bustling city.

To get there, we rode to a pier, then took a long tail boat across the river. They ferried us across, then ferried our bikes across the same way.

Once across, everything slowed to island pace. There were fewer cars, fewer people, and the locals seemed extra chill and friendly. Not that they weren’t in Bangkok, but we definitely noticed a difference.

We rode through neighborhoods, ate at a local noodle shop, off-roaded through a park, fed some very ravenous fish. Much of the island seems to be build on marsh-like terrain, and side streets were often raised walkways the width of sidewalks. People, bikes, and scooters travel on them. Everyone makes way, and on the day we visited, no one fell into the water.

It was a very enjoyable way to spend a day.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

One morning, we woke up to a message on the group chat about a visit to the floating market. Jumped out of bed right quick! We spent a fabulous morning touring a maze of canals and trying all manner of street food from passing long boat vendors. People sold goods as well, mostly from shops on the sides. How to get what you want? Signal! The driver will maneuver you over, and often the vendor will extend a staff to pull your boat in.

After the market, our driver pulled over at a random house in a neighborhood… and a guy came out with a can of gas for the boat. No need for special gas station infrastructure.

On the way back, I convinced everyone on a passing longtail boat to high-five me. I was especially pleased that the passengers were an Asian family that seemed unaccustomed to such silly antics, and that I even got the grandma to give me a high-five. Our boat cheered loudly. Hopefully I’ve sparked in them a lifetime habit of high-fiving passing strangers.

A happy floating market crew, at the end of our tour:

The Grand Palace

We may have spent more time getting into the Grand Palace than actually being in the Grand Palace. There were lines for passport check, bag check, metal detector check, dress code check, buying tickets, and checking tickets.

After that, we were in! Wow, so crowded. But grand! And gold! Very very gold. And ornate. Everywhere.

We looked at some gold buildings, then some gold paintings, then located the Emerald Buddha. Then we headed out so we could procure more tastiness from the market outside.

Cooking Class

On Friday, Eula, Jimmy, Fuller, and I took a cooking class through Courageous Kitchen. We started with a tour of a local market, where locals buy produce, meats, dried goods, curry from giant spicy mounds, and fresh coconut milk.

We finished our market tour with a sampling of street snacks, starting with fresh roti sai mai. We followed that up with fried bananas/taro/sweet potato, coconut custard with pandan jelly, and grilled bananas.

Next, we experienced the magic of butterfly pea tea. 8th grade science project, yaaaaas!

Then we got to cooking. We each made our own tom yum soup and pad Thai, then combined efforts to make bua loy (rice balls in coconut milk) for dessert.

Tom Yum prep:

I cannot say enough good things about this class. I loved our hosts, the non-touristy location, the tour and samples and teamwork and of course, learning to cook some Thai dishes. Even better, it’s all for a great cause. Way to be, Courageous Kitchen!

Loy Krathong

Friday night was Loy Krathong. A group of us ventured out to partake.

Getting there was, um, a bit crowded. And we didn’t actually end up where we had intended, because after waiting forever to get on a water bus we ended up going the wrong way on the river.

All good. We got off at the flower market and walked back down along the river. This was much less of an extravaganza than where we had planned to go, and it was nice to just wander amongst the locals.

We each got a krathong, lit it, and sent it downriver.

The internet says a lot of different things about the significance of releasing a krathong. As I watched mine float away I thought about the end of my hockey playing days and letting that go. It felt appropriate, given why I was there.

After that, we stuffed ourselves with skewers and grasshoppers.

Chinatown

On Saturday, I teamed up with Katie, who had been adventuring solo through Bangkok all week. Destination: Chinatown.

Chinatown is huge! And crowded. Storefronts and open markets and alleys everywhere, every inch of space used. I loved ducking from the main open market into side alleys, shielded from the sun by buildings and awnings from both sides.

I loved popping out from a side alley onto a side street, so full of carts and people and vehicles that they felt just as crowded.

It was so tight that sometimes carts had to relocate to allow vehicles to pass.

The neighborhood itself was divided into sub-neighborhoods. Certain alleys specialized in hot foods, others in dry goods, and still others in household items. Katie tried all sorts of new-to-her Chinese foods. She needs to go to dim sum with us more often.

Shark fin and bird’s nest are commonplace here. It was a weird shift in worldview to be surrounded by that.

Also available here: fish foot spas. Yes, it’s a thing. And it tickles like you wouldn’t believe.

Eventually, you get used to it.

Koh Lanta

On Sunday, Jenny, Fuller, Linda and I journeyed to the island of Koh Lanta. This involved taking an Uber to the airport, a flight to Krabi, a taxi to the car ferry, my first ever car ferry to the island, and taxiing some more to the resort. It think it took us 7 hours to get there, and at least that much to get back. I only had one night to spend there, but it was totally worth it.

Arrived, checked in, to the beach! The water was warm and the weather was perfect. We instantly decompressed from our week in Bangkok.

I touched the Indian Ocean for the first time in my life. Even better, I floated in it. I’ve never floated in any ocean before. I’d never been comfortable enough in water to do so. Until now.

Got massages on the beach, watched the sunset, ate dinner, then headed back to our resort. We encountered all sorts of new creatures in the dark… including a scorpion. Yikes!

The next morning, Jenny and I rented scooters to check out Old Town on the other side of the island.

Rentals don’t come fueled up, so we stopped at a local gas station.

“Where you going?” asked the gas station / activities booking lady.
“Old Town,” we replied.
“Old Town far, need two bottles.”

Bottle service, island style:

Then we were off! We rode to the other side of the island. So green and lush and breezy!

My scooter felt a little squirrely, but I wasn’t sure if that was just the scooter. I’d never ridden a scooter before, so I wasn’t sure if it was because the wheels were smaller compared to those on a motorcycle or bicycle.

Shortly after reaching the other side of the island, I heard a pop while leaning into a turn. After that it was obvious that something was wrong.

We stopped, and examined the rear tire. It was flat. And had a nail in it.

Fortunately, we were able to call the scooter shop. They asked to speak to a local, and we were lucky enough to have stopped in front of a house with a lady on the porch, talking to… a neighbor? I walked over and put the shop guy on speakerphone.

They had what sounded like a very fun conversation for about five minutes. Then the shop guy told me to go up the road to get the tire fixed. “Two minutes,” he said.

I realized later he meant two minutes by functional scooter.

The lady was super nice, and did her best in Thai to direct us in the right direction. She even grabbed her bicycle to prepare to take us there. Except pushing speed isn’t anywhere close to biking speed. We thanked her profusely and started pushing.

All along the way, locals would stop to ask what was wrong. They consulted with each other and invariably directed us onward, up the road.

When we finally reached the repair shop (which was actually a scooter rental shop out of someone’s home), the entire town knew we were coming. A local we hadn’t yet seen had pulled his scooter up by the entrance to wave us in.

The two guys there propped the bike up and got to work.

I didn’t have much time before the shuttle back to the airport, so I hopped on the back of Jenny’s bike and we continued on to Old Town.

Success! We enjoyed a nice lunch on the water, did some souvenir shopping, picked up my scooter, and got back to the resort in plenty of time.

I loved that many of the shops and restaurants we visited in Old Town were also people’s homes. Many of these establishments had kids’ playpens in the back. Our resort was the same. It was run by a family, and the outdoor “lobby” felt almost as if we were visiting their home.

In a broader sense, we were visiting their collective island home as well.

Thanks Koh Lanta for a most excellent 26 hours.

Back to Bangkok for a few hours of sleep. Then it was time to go home.

What an amazing trip this was. I got to adventure with and get to know some truly incredible hockey peeps. Just as they all contribute differently on the ice, I could see how each of them contribute in their own way to the technicolor of our world.

I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

All the pics: Thailand 2017 on Google Photos

Boston 2017.2

Another visit with the folks in the books. Dad is bored in retirement, Mom seems to have found a volunteering/walking/cooking groove, Grandma is sick of being old, Sis has her hands full with little Penny, and Penny is super active and learning every moment.

Day 0: Now I Can Play Golf

Dad: How is your hockey season going?
Me: Well, I don’t play anymore. I retired.
Dad: Oh… now you can play golf!

That’s the spirit, Dad. :)

Day 1: Auntie Viv Phone?

Penny: Mommy phone video?
Sis: My phone is out of batteries.
Penny (to me): Auntie Viv phone?

The next day, she asked for my phone again. When I told her I didn’t know where it was, she proceeded to search my pockets.

Day 2: Up Up Down Down…

Dad and I turned the basement inside out on Saturday searching for the 8-bit NES. I was looking for my Contra cartridge, but instead I found the Atari 7800, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, and Nintendo 64. That, and a tabletop pinball machine. I was super excited and purchased batteries for it right away, but alas, it doesn’t work anymore beyond a sickly extended start beep.

Look super cool though.

Day 3: Observation Point

When I’m in town I like to get Mom outside for some exercise.

Sign: OBSERVATION POINT 300 YARDS
Me: Let’s go see what it looks like from up there.
Mom: 300 yards is far.
Me: We just walked 100 yards from the car. *points at car*
Mom: Let’s not go, there could be bad people on the trail.
Me: It’s the weekend, there are lot of people out.
Mom: 300 yards means 600 total, plus car. What if we get hungry?
Me: We’ll be fine.
Mom: This is steep. What if I climb up but can’t get back down?
Me: I’ll show you how!

In the end, Mom did a great job scrambling up rocks to the top. We were rewarded with a view of Downtown Boston as well as many other landmarks in the surrounding areas. Afterward she went home and took a nap.

Day 4: Hockey Travels

I told Dad about my upcoming Thailand trip to cheer and not play hockey, and he asked me about the places I’ve visited with my teams. He worked for years as a traveling salesman, so he started naming random places he’s been.

Dad: Have you been to Wisconsin?
Me: Yup.
Dad: Green Bay?
Me: Yeah, I got to tour Lambeau Field!
Dad: How about Minnesota?
Me: Yah, I went to the Mall of America!
Dad: Have you been to Detroit?
Me: I saw a Red Wings game there!

Writing about this reminds me that I got to visit the Budweiser factory in St. Louis as well. Clydesdales!

Also Day 4: Paper Sons

Mom and I got to talking about immigration, and she told me stories of paper sons related to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Entire families in the US today are here through a paper son. Entire families remained split because their documents were sold to families wishing to send a paper son. Mom knows people on both sides of those stories. I had no idea this was even a thing.

Ultimately, it’s the classic immigrant story: Life is hard, and you do whatever you can to make it less hard.

Days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6: Umami Monster

For an almost 2 year old, Penny has made it quite clear that she loves seafood. Her favorites: shrimp, lobster, and clams, as well as shumai and sushi. She asks for all of those by name, except lobster, which she calls “monster”.

Cheese is no slouch either: string cheese, Cheddar Bunnies, pizza, and Pirate’s Booty register high on her preferred foods list. This kid loves umami.

She’s willing to try just about anything. We gave her a pickled carrot. “Souwr!” Recoilscrunchyface. OMGSOCUTE.

Day 5: Bahn Gwai

Mom says when I was in elementary school she told me to behave and I told her, “I have to bahn gwai all day at school, I’m not doing it at home!”

Mom has used the phrase “bahn gwai” for as long as I can remember. Turns out she got it from me. It literally means “pretend behave”.

Day 5.5: Frogging

Dad recalled his frogging days as a kid. He’d catch a small frog by the side of the road, tie it to a string, and dangle it from a pole to fish for larger frogs. Larger frogs would leap to eat the small frog, and he’d fish them out and into a bucket. When he was done he’d release the small frog and take the large ones home for dinner.

Day 6: Narwhal

On the final full day of my visit, I taught Penny how to say “narwhal”. Success! I have done my duty as auntie.

Penny, whenever she sees herself in a selfie: Hiiiii…

The Dream Is Alive

Thanks to Aaron’s conference and a couple extra weekend days, I got to spend 5 days eating my way through Portlandia. The Dream of the 90s, whatever that is, is alive!

Saturday

Landed at PDX, stepped into the terminal, and was greeted by a lady playing an accordion. That’s how I knew this trip was gonna be good.

Checked into the Sentinel, which was just across the street from the Alder Street Food Cart Pod. Popped down there for lunch, where I came across Bing Mi, a jianbing cart. I’ve been wanting to try one of these ever since I heard about them. Noms numero uno was a success.

There were lots of homeless folks in the area asking for money. Kind of like in SF. The Dream is part nightmare for some. Portland is no different from other urban locales in that respect.

We went for a walk in the afternoon, but not before we stopped at Public Domain so Aaron could get a coffee. He said he liked their logo.

On our way to check out the Portland Saturday Market we passed by Voodoo Doughnuts. There was a ridiculous line outside. I was glad we went there years ago on a quiet weekday morning, because I would have been sad to have had to wait so long for average tasting donuts. (Cool designs, though. Kind of like Psycho Donuts here in the Bay Area.)

I quite liked the Portland Saturday Market. Lots of art that resonated with me.

Afterward, we stopped at Donut Byte Labs. Not much of a line and super tasty mini donut creations. Voodoo tourists, you are missing out!

As we enjoyed our various donut bytes, a lady started handing out samples by the cart.

Me: Look! Samples! Kind of want.
Me, a while later: Wait… is that a drag queen?

Indeed, it was Bolivia Carmichaels. She was super nice and sooo enthusiastic. <3

I clearly care way more about donuts than I do about how people dress.

After our donut bytes we continued on to Chinatown. It had the requisite gate, but only a couple Chinese restaurants. And I was the only Chinese person on the street.

Chinatown was super meh. And it smelled like pee.

Around this time, I noted that Portland isn’t covered in poop like San Francisco is.

Headed for the Pearl District. Came across a pastry shop so of course we popped in. Picked up a couple canelé and a double chocolate cookie from Nuvrei. Would eat again!

After Aaron did some beer shopping, we stopped for ice cream at Cool Moon. I had a scoop of pleasantly natural tasting coconut. The employees were super nice.

Everyone in Portland is super nice. Perhaps it’s part of the Dream?

Walked some more and came upon Powell’s City of Books. It’s an entire city block, several stories high, of books. Every display and end cap is thoughtfully curated. We spent 1.5 hours in there and could easily have stayed longer. I left with one book, and a list for 7 more.

It is perhaps one of my most favoritest stores evars on teh face of dis planet.

Rested a bit, then ventured back out for dinner at Grassa, purveyors of casual fancy pasta. They had Pok Pok Som in the beverage case, so I got to try my first drinking vinegar. Turmeric flavor.

I’ve not quite leveled up to drinking vinegars yet.

Aaron discovered Beer O’Clock next door to Grassa so we got our food to go and ate there. He got to beer while I got to watch the Warriors game.

Sunday

Strolled over to Tasty n Alder just before opening and got in line. We hadn’t actually planned to stand in line, but we got lucky with our accidental timing and wound up with a seat overlooking the kitchen.

The food was good. All of it. And they serve beef bacon. I didn’t know that was a thing.

After brunch, we got our bike share on with a Biketown ride along the Waterfront Park Trail. There were lots of people out and about by foot, bike, rollerblade, etc. When we reached the southern end of the trail, we headed for Tillikum Crossing. This bridge is for light rail, buses, bikes, and pedestrians only. It was a really enjoyable ride.

I’m happy to report that I did not endo in any light rail tracks.

We returned to the Sunday edition of the Portland Saturday Market so Aaron could revisit a shirt he wanted. The Sunday live music was a xylophone quartet! As if an accordion greeting at the airport wasn’t awesome enough.

There was a local ice cream stand at the market, so of course we had some.

Aaron bought a bike shirt, and then another bike shirt. I got to revisit an artist stand that fascinated me the day before: Tessmer’s Studios. It’s burned wood art. Scenes of trees burned into chunks of tree. I bought a magnet. Todd signed the back.

As we left the market, I heard someone yelling out a window about boiled bagels. Boiled bagels! I had not had one of those in over a decade. So of course I stopped to have one. Charlie’s Bagels. I enjoyed it muchly.

One Stumptown sarsaparilla iced latte, Chrome store visit (they’re leaving SF for Portlandia, like so many of us), and MadeHere PDX (they’re into local stuff here, and their local stuff is fantastic) visit later, we headed for Division Street.

We wandered up and down Division Street, taking in all the cool shops and eating establishments. I was hungry, so we stopped at the Tidbit Food Farm and Garden for a snack. It’s an inviting neighborhood food and art cart pod that’s sort of a microcosm of the neighborhood around it. The perimeter was surrounded by parked bicycles, many of them with kid trailers. I had a super noms Bacontella (Nutella and bacon) waffle sandwich from Smaaken. Aaron had a local craft brew.

With noms in our bellies we headed back up Division Street. I spied a little shop filled with notebooks and pencils. Special notebooks and writing instruments from around the world. Little Otsu, it was called. I spent a while looking at every pencil, and left with a couple I’ve been wanting to try, but only able to find in bulk online. Then I wrote about their notebooks and pencils in my beloved travel notebook.

More walking. We came across a Townshend’s Teahouse. It was laid out like a cafe, but for tea. I love tea. I love being able to order a fresh brew of milk oolong and sit and slowly enjoy it.

After the teahouse, Aaron popped into Five Points Coffee for a cappuccino, then picked up more beer at Imperial Bottle Shop.

Finally, dinner time! Everyone said to try Pok Pok, so we did. Their fish sauce wings lived up to the recommendation. We got a couple other dishes, the papaya salad and a boar collar dish that was so spicy they served it with a side of greens and ice. Ice. Yes, ice.

Fortunately, eating ridiculously spicy food is my new superpower, and I managed to eat, even enjoy, all the dishes. I even ate all the diced chili sauce that came with the boar collar because it had such good flavor.

We took the bus back across the river after dinner. It was clean and air conditioned and everyone that boarded or left said hello and thank you to the driver. The driver, in turn, kept track of people’s questions and stops, gave thoughtful routing suggestions, and made sure not to start the bus until all new passengers were seated. Dis bus, is Dream?

This was also our first experience with TriMet. You can buy your ticket on your phone. Brilliant.

Monday

Aaron started his conference Monday, so I was on my own. I started with an hour of work from Heart Coffee. Next, I migrated to Coco Donuts, reputed to have tastier donuts than the ever popular Blue Star. I walked in just before 11, and the entire store was empty. And clean. “Sorry!” the lady behind the counter said, “We’re all sold out.”

“Wow,” I said, “What time do I have to get here for donuts?”
“Well, we open at 6… but sometimes we get another delivery around 10 or 11.”
“Will you get one today?”
“I don’t know, I’m here waiting for the call.”
“So you’re just gonna be here waiting for donuts to maybe appear?”
“Pretty much.”
“Can I work in the corner over there in case donuts show up?”
“Yes! Of course! Let me know if you want a coffee or anything.”

So I worked in a totally empty Coco Donuts for another hour. And then donuts arrived. And I had one. And it had the most bestest fluffy donut texture. (More accurately, what I wrote in my notebook upon tasting said donut was, “Omg Dis donut So fluffy.”) Totally worth the wait.

Also worth the wait was the steady stream of customers who came and were bummed about not getting a donut, but were invariably super duper upbeat and nice about the situation. Moar Dream.

I remembered seeing a pair of Chuck Taylor-esque high tops in a Doc Martens window display the evening prior, so I stopped there to check them out. I had an extended conversation with a super friendly sales guy who told me they felt it was important to be nice in Portland, then recommended a nice neighborhood for me to check out, and that I could walk there since it was a nice day. I almost forgot to ask about the shoes. But ask I did, and I now own a pair of bright yellow Chuck Martens high tops with a red stripe down the back.

Met Aaron at the Alder Street Food Carts for lunch so he could try a grilled cheese sandwich. I picked up some dumplings from The Dump Truck, then some green tea & azuki balls from Zendako for dessert. Again, more Dreamy interactions with the food cart folks.

Back to Stumptown after lunch where we discovered cans of sparkling cold brew. Ginger Citrus flavor! Sounds weird, tastes amazing. I really hope we start getting these here in the Bay Area soon.

Picked up some local candies at QUIN. I love local. And yes, our visit was Dreamy.

Worked and worked out, then ventured to Breakside Brewery in the evening. Aaron had a bunch of beer, and left with a cool hat.

We then walked down 23rd Ave, which is the street the Doc Martens guy recommended to me earlier. It had an artsy neighborhood vibe. I strolled merrily along, looked to my left, and saw a guy on a porch playing what Aaron described as a Weber.

It was a hang drum, and it sounded, well, Dreamy. Move over, xylophones and accordions (by then I’d encountered accordions on two separate occasions).

Lucky us, there was a Bamboo Sushi another few blocks down. Sustainable sushi, thoughtfully sourced and served. We loved it on our first visit in 2011 and loved it again this time around. Also, any place that serves you raw amaebi nigiri followed by a deep fried head is legit in my book.

We strolled back to the hotel, stopping briefly at a Fred Meyer to explore its everythingness. A couple blocks out from the hotel, things got dark. Really dark. When we finally saw our hotel, the entire building was dark.

As it turned out, downtown had lost power, and it didn’t look like power was going to be restored until the next evening. Fortunately for us, they were able to relocate us to the Westin, which had power, just 3 blocks away.

Tuesday

I had originally planned to visit the downtown Blue Star and Lardo locations to pick up food for my lunch meeting, but all of downtown was closed due to the power outage. Plan B: East side! Hopped on a bus to Hawthorne Blvd, yet another nice neighborhood to visit. As a bonus reward for my effort, I got to visit Waffle Window. I loved this place when I visited in 2011 and I continue to love it today.

Passed by a tea and massage place. I really wanted to go in but didn’t have time because of my meeting. TeaScape looks really cool, though. They even have a guayusa and mate menu! Adding to my list for next time.

Picked up a few Blue Star Donuts, then a sandwich and some fries from Lardo, and Google Maps’ed myself a different bus back to the hotel. Google Maps for public transit is the bomb. It’s served me well around the world. Major props.

Stuffed my face and worked all afternoon. Lardo was good. The Blue Star donuts were creative, but I didn’t think much of the actual donut base. It’s kind of like Humphrey Slocombe here in SF; I like their inventive flavors but the ice cream coats my tongue in a weird way.

Bussed back across the river for dinner with Candi and Steve at a Russian restaurant called Kachka. What a treat to see them! We tried all sort of dishes, big and small, fish and dumplings and crispy barley sprinkled here and there. I quite enjoyed this meal, both for the company and for trying dishes I’d never seen before.

Came across this garage door after dinner. I liked it very much.

Wednesday

Headed out a little earlier than usual to visit Pine State Biscuits with Aaron. We had blueberry cornmeal pancakes and a Reggie Deluxe:

It lived up to the hype. Also, weekday mornings are a great time to visit all the super packed weekend joints.

We took a light rail back to downtown. I took a detour to Powell’s on my return to the hotel. Coming here alone was a totally different experience. Powell’s is so dense with interestingness that I’m forced to slow down. Once I settled into moving slowly I enjoyed my visit that much more. On this visit, I discovered their Espresso Book Machine. Need a reprint? Want to publish yourself? Espresso Book Machine is at your service!

I bought another book.

Found an hour between meetings to meet Aaron at Sizzle Pie (or, as I called it, Foshizzle Pie) for lunch. Their pizza was similar to Speederia in the Bay Area, except Speederia stopped at pizza, while Sizzle Pie branded themselves and became an empire.

Swung by TILT for a quick bite of key lime pie dessert. Solid! Or not, since it was key lime pie.

We were both pretty beat by dinnertime, so we popped downstairs to Kalé, a Japanese curry joint. It was not something we had expected to eat in Portland, but I’m glad we went. And, of course, the lady there was Dreamy nice.

Thursday

We flew out of PDX around 10 AM. I was bummed to see “just” a grand pianist performing in the terminal. After the accordions and xylophones and Weber I was expecting a harpist at the airport.

Paid a final visit to Stumptown and picked up some beans plus a Sparkling Honey Lemon Cold Brew. I wanted breakfast, and lucky for me there was a BAMBUZA in the terminal. I got a giant egg and Chinese sausage rice bowl. It was sooo good, and only $7.95. Portland food prices have been da BAMB.

The wrap: Five days of really nice people, really good food, and arts/music/books for the soul. I enjoyed my time in Portland more than in any other US city I’ve visited.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stabbing that happened on the light rail the day after we left. I don’t normally react much to news, but given how I felt about so many of the folks I interacted with there this incident made me incredibly sad. And yet, it made me hopeful, because not only did several people do the Right Thing, the city’s immediate reaction was that they did the Right Thing, and that people should continue doing so.

I know some Portlanders may not like the whole Portlandia thing, but if there ever was a Dream, it really is alive in Portland.

Boston 2017.1

It’s been about half a year since my last trip to Boston. Time to visit the folks!

Landed at Logan Thursday evening. My parents came to pick me up, and when we got to the house, Mom handed me a bowl of soup. I dutifully drank it. Then she handed me a duck foot. I dutifully ate it. Nourishment achieved, Mom proceeded to prepare the rest of dinner.

After dinner, Mom and I somehow got on the topic of devices and TV. She reminisced about the first radio they had in Hong Kong. It got its signal from a cable. Next came a radio that received broadcast signals. Then a single channel black and white cable-but-not-like-Comcast TV. Again, that got replaced by a TV that could receive broadcast signals… and colors!

She talked about how TVB came on the market first. As a result, they got all the good broadcast tower locations and had the best signal, which drew more ad dollars and allowed them to produce better shows. The other stations didn’t stand a chance. To this day, TVB is a powerhouse.

Dad has joined a golf club to help ease the boredom of retirement. He loves golf, but really he wants to work again. He hates having nothing to do.

They stocked the house with heavy cream for my coffee and my favorite flavors of Häagen-Dazs. So sweet.

On Saturday, we all went to see the circus. The Ringling Brothers are doing their last ever tour, and we all got to see the circus before it went away forever. It was exactly as I expected, but cheesier. There was tightrope walking, juggling, a human cannonball, strongmen, bikes, trampolines… and a couple acts with camels and tigers. Those animals did not look happy to be there. Circus, check! Happy we went. (Thanks Mike for putting this last hurrah tour on my radar!)

On Sunday, Grandma came over to “supervise” joong production. Mostly we made joong and she came by periodically to tell Mom she was doing it wrong. Everything turned out great; I’m really glad this tradition is being passed down the generations. I should do this more often so I don’t forget how.

A post shared by Viv (@soopahvivvy) on

Grandma herself is doing okay for her age. She’s definitely a lot weaker physically. Stairs are hard, even single steps. And she forgets to turn the faucet off all the time.

There’s a Chinese tradition of paying respects to dead relatives every spring called Ching Ming, and even though I visited a little late, my folks waited for me to go.

We visited my great-grandmother’s grave on Saturday. Usually, I spend that time remembering her, but this time I felt a true sense of gratitude for having had her in my life. Thanks great-grandma for taking care of me and sis when we were young, and for always being such a steady loving presence.

We visited my grandfather’s grave a few days later. I’ll always remember how he used to study my toys to figure out how they worked; I see a lot of that in myself. I’d long known that he knew acupuncture and practiced on himself, but Mom told me this week that he actually studied it in school. In his final years at the nursing home, Mom would smuggle him disposable needles. Mom the needle smuggler, hah!

I got to see sis and Penny every day. Every day! What a treat! Penny is growing and learning SO FAST. She has so many words now, and learns new ones every day, always listening and repeating what you teach her. Most of her words are in English, with a few in fairly well intoned Cantonese, learned from Mom (“Poh Poh”). She cracked me up one day with “Harajuku”. If you make a kids show with it, she will learn it.

On day 4 she learned how to say “Auntie Viv”, and my heart melted.

Like most babies these days she loves her video, be it on TV, tablet, or phone. Anything with an Apple logo on it is an “iPad”. It’s a both a blessing and a curse. She learns so much from these videos and it buys her parents much needed time, but she totally tunes out the rest of the world when she watches.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, she is hilarious when you take her to the store. She observes EVERYTHING, and notices details most adult would never see. She loves it, and we love it. Shopping with Penny is the bee’s knees.

Penny is the bee’s knees. Seriously, so amazing. And active. In sis’s words, she can’t be contained. The other day we had to go watch her so my sister could shower, and when we got home both Mom and Dad went crashed early because they were exhausted. I think it’s awesome how much she loves climbing on everything and exploring her world, nonstop.

Penny Boo, active and goofy and curious:

Random encounter with an elementary school age kid riding down the street on his bike, dribbling a basketball, as he passed by my parents’ house:

Me: Hey.
Kid: Potatoes!
Me: Potatoes?
Kid: Yeah.

I proceeded to go inside, where Dad was sitting in a chair talking into his phone:

Dad: Hey Siri.
Dad: Hi Sire-ee.
Dad: Hey Siri it’s me.
Dad: Hey. Siri.

Really enjoyed this trip. A++++++++++!!!!! Would go again!

Costa Rica!

Monday, March 27, 2017. Playa Conchal, Costa Rica…

Hola a todos! Estoy en Costa Rica! I’ve barely had to speak any Spanish because everyone I’ve talked to here speaks English. Still, it’s been fun reading road signs and what not.

We embarked on our adventure Friday, when I woke up and Aaron said, “Our first flight is delayed.” SFO strikes again! Indeed, our first flight was scheduled to take off from SFO right around when our second flight was scheduled to take off from LAX, so I got on the phone with Ellen from Southwest, who got us booked on a flight out of OAK instead. I got to go on my first AirBART ride. It’s spacey looking but slooow.

Once at OAK, I came across a cute little robot who wanted to chat. Actually, it wanted me to visit its restaurant, except it was super buggy and never quite managed to do what it said it was going to. But still, cute! See:

Got to our gate, where the incoming flight was delayed deplaning due to a medical emergency. Then we had to switch aircraft because of a broken windshield wiper. Then we had to hold at OAK before take off. When we landed at LAX, we had to hold again for a gate. Finally when we pulled up to the gate, another medical emergency! Thankfully, they held the flight to LIR for the 5 of us coming in from OAK. Sorry, 160 other passengers!

5 1/2 hours later, touchdown! We descended a set of stairs onto the tarmac. Tarmac is how I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.

Got to rent a manual transmission vehicle for the first time ever. I kept lurching the car on start because I’m not used to manual transmission rentals and the starters here aren’t dummy proof like they are in in the US. We also had some fun figuring out whether the 4×4 button meant on or off. The manual was in Spanish, and the button description translated to “interrupter of the blocker of the central differential“. Double negatives much?

Woke up Saturday to chirpy birds and tank top weather. It’s tank top weather at all hours here on the Pacific coast. Just like when I was in Hawaii. I love it. Wandered around looking for food, came across the first of many iguanas in the road, then wound up at the local grocery store. Picked up some kiwi drinkable yogurt. It’s a common flavor here, and not too sweet.

Made our way to the club house and beach. (We’re here for a wedding and staying at a resort with the rest of the guests.) Wandered up the beach, back along a local access road, then had a leisurely-whether-we-wanted-leisurely-or-not lunch. Everything here runs on Tico Time.

This included the wedding ceremony, which was advertised as a 4:30 start so everyone could get there for the 5:30 start. Brilliant strategy.

Wedding partied into the night. Unfortunately, we pooped out before the 10 foot tall mascaradas (human paper mache dancers) arrived.

Late brunched Sunday with the wedding crew. I’ve never had gazpacho at brunch. Me gusta.

Went for another walk down the other end of the beach. Turns out I enjoy long walks on the beach. Just not the ones in the Bay Area. Too cold!

Headed over to Tamarindo, which is way more touristy and happening than our secluded resort. The beach there is fantastic; a gentle slope with fine sand. Walked some more. It’s hot here but it’s nice and breezy by the ocean.

Drank way too many sweet things: frosty coffee, virgin mojito, two virgin piña coladas. Apparently “2-for-1” means for each person in the party who who orders a drink, 2 drinks arrive.

We came across some sort of fresh shaved mango cart. Mango threads con sal y limón y chile. I’m starting to understand where the mangonada flavor profile comes from.

Enjoyed a beautiful, albeit touristy sunset on the beach.

We passed by few supermarkets on the way to Tamarindo. There’s a chain called Super Compro, and another called Megasuper. MEGASUPER!!! Naturally, I needed to stop at the MEGASUPER.

A couple things about grocery store food here:

Thing 1: The chicharrones are amazing. 4505 you have been dethroned.

Thing 2: It seems they have to label artificial flavoring as such, as opposed to “natural” being a feature in the US. This has saved me from purchasing many candies. I much prefer this system to ours.

On the way to and from Tamarindo, there were signs for car washes all along the roads. In Spanish, they read “LAVA CAR”. I love this so much.

Aaron had a scuba excursion planned for Monday morning, so I booked myself a massage at the spa. I’ve generally only gotten massages to fix achy parts; this was my first relaxing massage. You know what relaxing massages are good for? Highlighting all the parts that need work. My body needs work.

When Aaron returned, we headed back toward Playa Flamingo to track down the shoes he left on the dive boat. After that, a SIM card procurement adventure with a lady who didn’t speak English. After the SIM card, we picked up a couple more bags of chicharrones, had ice cream in Huacas, and picked up some galletas at the local panaderia.

Chilled by the pool for a bit, then headed out for dinner. Spotted our first coati along on the way! It was cute and fuzzy, nothing like its apatosaurus warning sign.

Encountered what I initially thought was a moth migration on the sidewalk after dinner. Turns out it was a stream of leaf cutter ants at work. I’d never seen anything like that before, so I made a video.

So many animals here in Costa Rica. Earlier in the day I tried to identify all the birds by our condo. More shapes and sizes and chirps than I can count!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Back in California…

On Tuesday morning, we headed inland for the cloud forest in Monteverde. I have neglected to describe our rental car beyond the transmission. It was a Daihatsu Terios, a tiny SUV, like if you took an early 2000’s Mini Cooper platform but made it look like a baby CRV. It handled the bumpy hilly curvy dirt roads really well. It was a little less useful on fast open roads, but there wasn’t much of that from what we saw.

I should talk about driving in Costa Rica in general. Most of the roads were single lane in each direction. People go the speed that works for them, and others who want to go faster pass when there’s a chance. There’s no ego about it like in the US. At one point, we passed a guy on a small motorcycle towing an open wagon… with a goat in it. Oh how I wish I had a picture. Pura vida!

Along the roads, we came across lots more car washes, various kinds of repair shops, and schools. Many many schools. We learned from some tourist T-shirts that Costa Rica has no army, and it turns out they abolished the army in 1948 after a civil war, putting the money into education instead. I can totally get behind that.

Aaron wanted me to mention the gas prices in Costa Rica. We paid $35 for half a tank. He was horrified. I think we’re just gas price spoiled in the US. One of the benefits of having an army. :-|

We arrived at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve around 1. “Arron!” said the check-in guy, “We waited for you this morning at 7:30.” Turns out that was the tour we had booked. But, pura vida, we can put you on the 1:30 tour! No one else was signed up, so we effectively got a private tour with Sergio.

The cloud forest was unlike any place I’ve ever been. There’s growth everywhere, on every surface. Epiphytes of all kinds on every tree. Sergio tracked the wildlife by sound, then located them for us to view on his scope. He showed us all sorts of birds, a Cordyceps-infected zombie beetle, talked about strangler figs (they grow from the top down), and even located a newborn sloth with its mom.

Fun fact: Sloths are so sedentary that they will sometimes grow a layer of green algae on their fur.

A thing about birds and sloths: They may look like they’re being really still, but through a scope you can see all their micro movements. It’s immensely fascinating.

Crossed paths with a couple black milk snakes. The fact that we saw two probably means there were far more than that all around us.

We also saw more coati in the parking lot pre-tour. After observing them up close, I’ve decided they’re the Costa Rican equivalent of raccoons.

On Wednesday, we did the Don Juan coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour. I finally got to see the entire process from coffee sprout to roasted bean. It was interesting to hear about Costa Rica’s relationship with migrant pickers from Nicaragua and Panama. Not that different from what we debate here in the US.

Even more interesting than coffee was seeing how chocolate is made. The cacao fruit is crazy looking on the inside. Even crazier is the vinegary fermentation before it even starts to look or smell like the chocolate we know.

Bonus: We got to meet Don Juan.

We took a different route back to the coast, down a much more gentle dirt road. As we approached a corner, a vaquero waved at us to slow. Next, a herd of cows came around the bend, accompanied by a second vaquero.

On our way to the mountain the day before, we passed by many roadside stands with signs for pipa fría and vino de coyol. On this return trip, curiosity won and we pulled over to try them, whatever they were.

Pipa fría turned out to be a chilled green coconut with a straw in it. So refreshing! And only a dollar each.

Vino de coyol is basically moonshine in a reused plastic bottle. It’s a little tart, a little sweet, a little cloudy, a little fizzy. Goes down really easy. Also cheap, although I don’t remember how much it cost.

After a pit stop to eat and meet Sabra’s cousin, we continued toward the coast. Aaron tried to route us a different way back, and we drove down a side street in a residential neighborhood right smack into a stream crossing. A large pickup came through, but since I wasn’t willing to risk the rental on an unfamiliar water crossing we turned back. That was a long final stretch to the hotel.

Finally got to use my Spanish when we ventured into Huacas looking for ceviche. Success!

Thursday morning, to the airport. Costa Rica, you’ve been beautiful. I hope to return one day to visit your volcanoes, rainforests, and Caribbean coast. Oh, and to eat plantains at every meal. Plantains prepared every which way. Plátanos todos los días.

Photo album here.

Grow

This isn’t so much a trip report as it is a commentary on the experience of jumping from one country to another. I suppose it’s called culture shock, but that term always had a negative connotation to me. Whatever it’s called, however wondrous or uncomfortable it feels in the moment, it’s mind opening. It forces us to reconsider the meaning of “normal” and gives us a chance at understanding “others” who are different from us. During my travels to India and Japan, I watched myself adjust and readjust my worldview. I could feel myself grow.

U.S. to India

Upon exiting the airport and getting on the main road, my first thought was, “There are a lot of people here, and a lot of the people here don’t have very much.” Poor in the U.S. and poor in India are two completely different things. In the U.S. we have housing projects, trailer parks, dilapidated houses. In India there are shanty towns that look a lot like larger, dirtier versions of the homeless encampments in San Francisco, except these towns are homes to entire families.

I saw a tuk tuk drive by with 7 adult males (mostly) inside. In America we call that a clown car. In India that’s how some people get from point A to point B with the resources they have. Here, most of us commute one person to a car and complain about congestion.

Not that there’s isn’t congestion in India. We experienced traffic like I’ve never seen in Delhi and Agra. We also experienced a driving pattern I’ve never seen: A few basic rules like a suggested side of the road to drive on, stopping for red lights at major intersections, a sane and predictable trajectory and speed. Beyond that, find space and make it work. The flow of traffic and weaving of cars is a skillful dance. Horns are used lightly but liberally to let other drivers know you’re there.

It felt a bit like driving in Italy, compressed, shaken, and magnified thirty-fold.

While it did make crossing the street a challenge (at least initially), a part of me prefers it to the U.S. Here, we have rules that people mostly follow, but when someone doesn’t follow them, someone else gets upset. Horns are used rarely, but when they are, they’re often used in anger. Which is better? Chaotic flow, or orderly anger?

Some of the taxis in Delhi sported stickers that read, “This Taxi Respects Women.” India is not a good place for women. I’d seen this in the news, heard it from my Indian colleagues, and read about it extensively in travel guides before arriving there, but this signage really drove the point home. Over the course of our visit, it became abundantly clear to me how few women hold jobs in India. Almost everyone we interacted with who was performing some sort of job was male. The only exception was for security checkpoints; there are separate queues for women and those queues are staffed by women.

Things aren’t perfect in the U.S., but many of us here have it much better than our counterparts in India.

India to Japan

Upon touching down in Japan I drank from a fountain and felt grateful for the luxury of potable tap water.

Japan is clean. It’s clean because its people each do their part to keep it clean. It’s not like we don’t know we’re not supposed to leave a mess for others here in the U.S. So what’s the difference? Is it because we don’t care? What about people who litter on purpose? What compels them do it, knowing full well it’s not okay? What compels some of them to litter specifically because it’s not okay?

Many times while I was in Japan I found myself asking, “What is wrong with us?” Why do so many of us have to be angry and posturing and confrontational? Why can’t we try being polite and considerate first? Why can’t we try to make it work before flipping out?

Japan to U.S.

Touchdown! Time to find a bathroom. A public bathroom. Would it be clean like all the public bathrooms in Japan? Why are these stalls so flimsy? Where’s my Bellagio water show? I feel like a savage.

First restaurant experience upon return: Why is this sandwich so sloppily assembled? Why are the tables not immediately cleared? I should use the restroom… nah, I’ll wait until I get home.

I saw a TV show about the Spartan Race. How privileged are we, to expend our extra energy and hours training for an event like this? How privileged are we to even have extra energy and hours?

How privileged am I, to do exactly that on artificially frozen water, atop bicycles that cost more than some people make in a year?

How privileged am I, to live in a place with resources to support and a culture that tolerates/accepts women having such hobbies?

How privileged am I, to have the option of installing a Bellagio water show on my home toilet?

How privileged am I, to have the ability to go on a trip like this? To be able to afford this trip, be given time off for this trip, and to be in good enough health for this trip. I am privileged, and I am lucky.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a week now. At first, I wished that everyone in the U.S. could travel like this, because seeing the world helps with understanding and tolerance and acceptance. But having written the above, I wish that everyone in the world could travel like this, because the ability to do so implies all their basic needs are met.

I hate the word wish. I use it only for things I cannot make a reality.

Still, all is not lost. Knowing how good I have it affects how I interact with others. It allows me to be more tolerant, compassionate, patient. The world needs more of that, one person at a time, one interaction at a time.

Tokyo!

I had hoped to update every day as that allows me to document in more detail, but our schedule in Tokyo didn’t allow it. In India, we’re not supposed to wander around after it gets dark so I had time to write most evenings. In Tokyo, the city comes alive at night, so we pretty much wandered until we were too tired to wander.

We got to wander for 3 1/2 days: Monday morning through Thursday midday.

First Impressions

Japan is really, really clean. The platform where we waited for our train from Narita to Shinjuku was spotless. You could probably eat off the floor there with no ill effect. As we discussed the spotlessness of the station, we saw a lady scrubbing the opposite platform, pausing periodically to scrape particularly stubborn bits off the surface with a razor. When we got to the hotel, I watched a ~2 year old play with his train in the lobby. He drooled on the floor and immediately fetched a tissue from his mom to wipe it up.

Japan is really, really on time. The trains arrive when they say the will, and the conductor will look at his watch and leave the station on the minute, to the second. Our airport shuttle bus driver did the same. If you want to be on time for something in Japan, arrive 5 minutes early.

Japan is really, really polite. It’s cultural, it’s institutionalized. My first impression was that acting politely makes others more likely to do the same and keeps things peaceful, but I haven’t been there long enough to have an informed opinion on this.

Suica

It seems weird to talk about a payment card so early in my post, but if you go to Tokyo you’re going to want one of these right away. Suica is an RFID card you load money onto. It gets you on pretty much all the transit you need to explore Tokyo, and can also be used for payment at a variety of shops and vending machines. It’s just like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, which I love oh so much. Super duper convenient. I keep hoping they’ll do something similar with Clipper here in the Bay Area.

The Rail System

I’m only going to talk about a portion of the rail system here since I didn’t get to experience it all. We took a train from Narita to Shinjuku, then hopped around Tokyo on Tokyo Metro and JR East, which are two separate giant overlapping subway systems. In addition to this, there’s the bullet train which we didn’t ride, and probably a bunch of other rail options as well.

We spent a lot of time at Shinjuku Station, party because that’s where our hotel was, partly because we kept getting lost in there. It’s the busiest station in the world, a mostly interconnected 3D maze filled with platforms and gates and tunnels and crossings and shops and restaurants and people and signs and entrances and exits that you think you know but discover you don’t really when you go through them. The station agents don’t speak a lot of English, but if you tell them the name of the station you’re trying to get to they’ll pull out a giant box covered in colors and line names and platform numbers and point to the one you want, then point in the direction you need to walk to find it.

We got better at navigating the rail system over time. It’s really convenient and you can go pretty much anywhere in the city on it. The smaller stations are still full of tunnels and shops, but they’re mostly navigable on the first try if you follow the signs. For the larger stations, give yourself an extra half hour to get lost.

The trains are pretty crowded most of the day. There’s the extra crazy morning rush, a lunch rush, an after work rush, and a final hour before the trains stop running rush. During quiet times, no one has to stand but most of the seats are occupied. During busy times, people learn to make room. During extra crazy times… I don’t know. We decided not to participate in train packing.

Despite all the people, it’s quiet on the trains. Nobody talks on the phone, no one plays music out loud like they’re all cool and stuff. That would be rude.

3D to the Max

Most major cities are somewhat three-dimensional; the subway is below ground and there are tall buildings, often with a couple stories of shops, maybe a basement level, and many upper stories of offices and residences. Tokyo takes this to an extreme. The shops and restaurants often rise 7 stories up and descend ~4 stories below ground. When you explore, especially near a major train station, you often traverse several city blocks in tunnels, going up and down stairs, “exiting” into various malls or food courts, finally popping out in a different part of the neighborhood.

The city comes alive at night with vibrant signs up and down all the buildings. I realized on our second night that these signs are how you know to go into building to find a shop or restaurant on 5F, 7F, etc.

Bidets!

Bidets, such a treat! I seriously looked forward to using the bathroom. They came in different levels of awesome, but I was really impressed with some of the public bathrooms I came across. The best one had stalls that sealed like capsules, automatic lids, heated seats, complimentary running water sounds when you sat down, and a myriad of bidet/shower options including some Bellagio water show type patterns. I know this because I couldn’t read the controls and had to push every button. And, of course, everything in the stall was spotless.

The people of Japan must have the cleanest bums in the world. I feel like a barbarian with nothing but toilet paper back in the US.

Trash Cans

Public trash cans are all but nonexistent. Despite this, there is no trash on the streets because people carry their trash around until they can find a suitable way to dispose of it. I remember Taiwan was like this as well.

On the upside, every time you buy something they insist on giving it to you in a little bag. We quickly learned to use these bags for trash transport; we often carried our trash all the way back to our hotel room for disposal.

Food!

Us, exploring Tokyo, every 5 minutes: OOH STOP! WHAT’S THAT? MUST EAT THIS!!!

Before my trip, people kept telling me, “There is no bad food in Tokyo.” They were right. From sit down restaurants to train station shops to vending machines, everything we ate was super tasty.

Vending machines: There are vending machines all over town, sometimes clustered, sometimes solo, on major streets, and in back alleys. The vast majority of them sell drinks. You can always get water and tea and coffee, either hot or cold. Some machines will also carry things like red bean soup and creamed corn. Many of the machines accept Suica for payment. I would love to have these in the US, but I also realize random vending machines on the street aren’t likely to survive for very long here.

Pastries: There are shops with pastries all over train stations and in food courts that are often attached to train stations. Sometimes these are western pastries, sometimes these are Japanese versions of western pastries. Belgian waffles are a thing here, as well as cream puffs, but the thing I loved the most was a sweet fluffy cheese tart I got from a food court attached to Skytree Station. If I’d eaten it on the spot I would have purchased five more.

A restaurant for each food item: There is no such thing as a “Japanese restaurant” with different kinds of Japanese food items like we have here in the US. If you want gyoza, you go to a gyoza shop. Same goes for ramen, udon, soba, sushi, curry, unagi, etc. They each do only one thing and they do that one thing well. (This is not unlike “Chinese food” in Hong Kong.)

Here is Harajuku Gyozaro, a little gyoza shop down an alley:

Ticket machines for ordering: Many restaurants have a machine at the front where you order what you want, along with customizations. The machine collects payment, then spits out one or more tickets. Once inside, the workers take your tickets and prepare your food.

Eating booths: Many restaurants have open counters for eating, but Ichiran has booths. Here, we ordered through a ticket machine, then set our tickets down when when we reached our individual booths. They took our tickets, prepared and delivered our meals, then closed the little bamboo curtain to let us eat in privacy. There was a sensor under the table in each booth to tell the workers on the other side when a diner had finished, and they would quickly clean the booth for the next person. Super efficient.

Sushi: Sushi in the US and sushi in Japan are two very different experiences. US sushi is often very sauce dependent, often to the point where you can barely taste the fish. In Japan, it’s all the about the seafood, and the proper way to prepare each item. I say seafood instead of fish because you will be served fish and shrimp and oysters and scallop and uni and whatever else came from the market that day. You sit at the bar and watch as your chef prepares your food with a flourish of knife skills. Some items are marinated, others steamed, seared, and in the case of our shrimp heads, roasted (I believe). A lot of the cooking is done in scallop shells. We saw this in action the next day at the fish market. The meal starts with sashimi, eaten with chopsticks and accompanied by sides of seaweed, salt, and soy sauce, then continues on to nigiri, eaten with your hands and accompanied with a side of pickled ginger. Salmon and unagi, wildly popular in the US, are not sushi items in Japan (unless you go to a super touristy joint). Our wasabi was freshly grated on a shark skin lined wooden board. Unlike fake horseradish wasabi, I can eat the fresh stuff no problem.

Tsukiji Fish Market

So where do the sushi restaurants procure all that amazing seafood? At Tsukiji fish market. Auctions happen in the middle of the night before the sun even thinks about coming up. After that, a vast inner market open only to people there on official business gets busy with selling and buying and packing for shipment. There’s seafood and ice and people and scooters and turret trucks zipping to and fro. The inner market opens to tourists at 10 AM. Even then, it’s bustling with time sensitive packaging of seafood for shipment. Did I already mention ice? There’s a lot of ice, and a lot of styrofoam.

The outer market is open to all, and contains a mix of souvenir shops as well as stands with all kinds of seafood prepared in all sorts of ways. If you want fresh seafood for breakfast, Tsukiji Fish Market is the place to be.

Cash is King

Credit cards are good for some things such as hotels and fancy restaurants, but if you want to explore Tokyo, you must have cash! For one thing, you can’t get on a train (or purchase/reload a Suica card) without cash. For another you won’t be able to enjoy most of the random food you encounter without it. No cash, no life.

Arcades, Arcades, and Pachinko

There are arcades all over the city centers, and they are full of claw machines, capsule machines, and video games.

Taiko Master was super fun.

There are also pachinko / slot machine parlors all over the city centers. I think this is where the arcade kids go when they grow up. They’re super loud and smokey. Do not like.

Kabuki

On Tuesday we went to the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza. I’d never watched any kabuki before, even online. Some members of the audience were dressed up in kimonos. So were many of the actors, and by actors I mean dudes, because there are no female actresses in kabuki. The men playing female roles dress up in kimonos and speak in falsetto.

Kabuki happens in several acts. One of our acts was a naming ceremony. I learned that kabuki acting is a family affair, and during the course of an actor’s career he goes through various stage names handed down through generations. The ceremony we watched was presided by 84 year old Sakata Tojuro IV, a National Living Treasure. A row of actors and remain very very still while taking turns speaking. I was glad we got to witness it, even if we had no idea what they were saying.

Skytree

On Wednesday we visited Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower and second tallest structure in the world. It’s a TV and radio broadcast tower. The previous tower, Tokyo Tower, was no longer tall enough to broadcast over all the high rises. We went up to the observation deck for an amazing 360 view of Tokyo.

This view, all the way around the tower, multiplied by many stories up and down for every building. Tokyo is dense!

Robots

I use this term in the most general sense. Japan has a lot of robots. Ubiquitous vending machine robots, butt cleaning bidet robots, meal ticket selling restaurant robots. There are seven story electronics stores the size of city blocks. There’s an entire district, Akihabara, nicknamed Electric Town for its abundance of cheap electronics and parts.

For robot-loving tourists, there’s Robot Restaurant. There are actually more humans than robots there, but it was a weird and wacky Tokyo thing I’m really glad we experienced.

The People

For the most part, people keep to themselves. When store and restaurant employees interact with customers, they’re super polite. When random people on the street choose to interact with you because you’re a tourist, they’re really nice, offer to help take your picture, and volunteer interesting facts about the neighborhood. On our final day, Aaron and I realized it was uncouth to walk around eating, so we found a bench to enjoy our cream puffs. When we finished, an older lady who had been sitting next to us handed us wet wipes for our sticky cream puff fingers. Then she said, “Have a nice day. Enjoy Japan. My English not very good,” bowed, and was on her way.

I don’t know where the homeless people go during the day, but late at night just before the trains stop running they neatly lay out their perfect rectangles of cardboard and newspaper along the wall in open areas of the station. Each rectangle is perpendicular to the wall and they are exactingly spaced from each other. It’s a far cry from Civic Center and the Powell BART station in San Francisco. I wanted to take a picture but didn’t; I wouldn’t want that if I were in their situation.

Remember what I said at the beginning about how Japan is really, really polite? Their emergency vehicles are polite too. No blaring horns, just a dinging bell and patient wait.

Crossing the Street

If you want to cross the street, find a crosswalk and wait for the light. Even if there is not a car in sight, find a crosswalk and wait for the light. It’s the considerate and orderly thing to do. On the flip side, it a car wants to turn, it will wait patiently for all pedestrians to exit the crosswalk before proceeding, and it will do so with a sizable buffer. It’s the considerate and orderly thing to do.

Speaking of crosswalks, pedestrian scramble intersections are a thing here. Shibuya Crossing is the busiest and most famous example, but you find intersections like that all over the place.

Random Notes

If you come across something you want, get it. Don’t think that you’ll be able to find it again later. The maze will win.

Soft serve cones appear to be a thing in Tokyo, so I decided to have one. I stumbled across a Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory and got a cone there. It turned out to be milk flavored soft serve in a cheddar cheese waffle cone. That may sound weird, but it was really, really good. Also, their Salt & Camembert Cookies are to die for.

Google Translate is magical here. You can take a picture of anything and it will translate it for you. We used it to translate a pack of Velveeta. Turns out it’s called “cheap cheese” in Japan.

Speaking of Google Translate, I used it to image translate every pack of soba at a grocery store looking for one that was made of pure buckwheat. Yup, I was that weird foreigner.

If you have time to kill at the Haneda Airport International Terminal, check out the 4th floor before security. It has a fabulous outdoor observation deck as well as a bunch of character shops.

Japan Airlines is my new favoritest airline. The service is impeccable, the seats have legroom, the entertainment console is stocked and snappy, flight attendant ninjas clean the bathroom and fold the toilet paper ends into triangles between passengers, and even leave origami cranes in there for us to enjoy.

Tokyo, you were wonderful. I totally want to visit again!

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Here is the full set of pictures from the full India & Japan trip: https://goo.gl/photos/2NA7iWTW4BriPbUZ7