Road trip! What’s life on the road like?

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Ahh. Road trip.. life on the road, filled with new experiences, spontaneity, getting lost, and finding your way back, its very exciting! The romantic feeling of rolling down your window, one hand on the wheel, the other holding the hand of your amazing partner (if available), or if not, a can of Coke  (bullshit let’s admit it, its beer!). Wind and dust blowing while you cruise along a road framed by mountains, fields of corn, the occasional adobe farm house, it stretches until the very end of the horizon.

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On the road, when the journey is just as fun as the destination, it does feel nice to just sit and watch the world go by as if it were some silent movie directed by God. 

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Road trip! It’s the epitome of adventure and discovery. We’ve all had this. When you went for camping, after prom, towards the end of your senior high school year, cutting afternoon classes in college, or just time off work. Regardless of time and age, on the road, you are young and free!

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Recently catching up with a couple of lifelong friends sealed by road trips, we relive exactly what elements make life on the road unforgettable and legendary.

The classic road trip characters

The designated official driver, the music director, the accountant, and the sleeping beauty.

Road trips are volatile

It can easily go wrong from the smallest of mistakes, such as missing the last gas station, dropping a nuclear fart, or breakdowns of either car or people. It is important to establish rules. Who gets to ride shotgun, how much toilet stops, or the right to vote to leave someone behind.

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The soundtrack

I read somewhere that the only fault in the creation is that someone forgot to add background music to fit special moments in life. You can easily mend this tragic flaw by making a trip defning playlist for every beautiful moment you will have on the road. Trust me, you will have many. Moments looking out the window, moving your head about to the rhythm of music, as if you were part of a B roll of some catchy One Direction music video.

Road trips give a really strong bond to a group

Its spending hours talking, laughing, and singing in chorus to the Beatles and Bob Marley, or simply looking out into the clouds while finding comfort in everyone’s silence. But more than those moments of wonderful shared sunsets or the unnerving sight of hundred foot drops, its about having someone to reminisce and relive that bygone era of excitement. When no one was having a better time than we did, because during those rare moments, we were truly part of something greater than ourselves. 

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Road trips can be memorable for all the good things, but the bad things make it more interesting.

You will get lost, figure out how to ask directions in different dialects, or that world-falling-apart moment of being left behind when you took so long to pee. It could also be that life threatening moment when you turned on the ignition and the engine took a longer time to start, or when someone opened the window that doesn’t close, they all make the best stories years after, or at least once you’ve forgiven each other. 

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Road trip as summed up by Tiffanie DeBartolo from How to Kill a Rock Star,

“The concept of time, as it’s commonly understood by normal people with normal jobs and normal goddamn lives, doesn’t exist on the road. The nights spread out like the dark, godforsaken highways that distinguish them, and the days run together like Thanksgiving dinner smothered in gravy. You never really know where you are or what time it is, and the outside world starts to fade away. Its cool.”

So find the perfect destination, take the funniest combination of characters, play all the right music, buckle up and drive slow homie!

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My top 25 at 25.

Being 25 is fun. You are independent enough to do what’s wrong but you’re mature enough to know consequences. So you weight down which highs you want to chase, and when it comes to chasing the next high, travel is my choice of drug. At 25, I may not always know what I want to do in life, but at least I know where I want to go.

25. Dubai (U.A.E.)

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Perverse and boastful show of wealth and a nightmare for eco-tourism advocates, with its indoor ski park, one of the world’s largest indoor aquarium, etc., Dubai has it all. From a simple fishing community, it has emerged as one of the richest oil producing middle eastern countries. You are never far away from a Lamborghini or a Rolls Royce wherever you are in this city. Go to any hotel and surely there’s a Porsche (cheapskate) parked somewhere.

Glitz and glamour aside, there’s one road called Al Dhiyafha where a melting pot of blue collars, the backbone of any society, gather and exhibit specialty cuisines from their respective home countries. If you want real food in Dubai, its the place to be.

24. Seoul (South Korea)

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Already having lots of Koreans in the Philippines, its a wonder why I even went here. But to my surprise, Seoul turns out to be a one stop shop of Korean culture which I never really was curious back at home. Amidst skyscrapers, suit clad businessmen and efficient modern public transportation that smells of kimchi during the day and soju at night, massive shrines and temples located on prime real estate locations have been left untouched by city developers. A visit to these shrines automatically and surprisingly drown out the usual city sounds, a place to slow down your pace.

23. Bruges (Belgium)

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Old town Brugge gives you what most European old town squares offer. Everything is built around the town’s main church, where Jesus christ torned blood stained cloth is purportedly stored. Specific shops selling different things are organized and concentrated on their respective places, bierhaus (if you need translation for this, I am not talking to you) being the most popular of course. Equally famous for their chocolates, expect to find lots of overpriced chocolates here.

22. Nuremberg (Bavaria)

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Nuremberg is located in Bavaria, which is a part of Germany, but when I was here, everyone bragged about being Bavarian first, only then they are Germans. Proud people, these Bavarians are. Nuremberg is most famous for its Christmas market, or Christkindlemarkt in German, it is outlandishly cute. Although it may feel like you’ve just missed the party if you visit outside the Yule season, but this city is alive, thriving with history and students alike. Hungry? Try those tasty little Nurnberger sausages.

21. Hallstatt (Austria)

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A short train ride from Salzburg, Hallstatt is a small town that became opulent once from the salt trade, now, its nothing more than a postcard town. Although residents still cling to the narrow strip of land between the mountain and the lake, I actually don’t remember meeting any local in my short time there. The most interesting part of my visit is that since real estate is remarkably scarce, there is a limit of 50-year lease for a spot in the minuscule but quaint grave yard. After your golden death anniversary, some family member gets to write your name on what used to be your forehead and stacked up among the rest of the oldies.

20. Venice (Italy)

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Venice, a once powerful kingdom and a symbol of opulence just a few centuries ago, now suffering from the negative aspects of tourism, is sinking from its fame. There is no shortage of tourist influx here, rain or shine, for better or worse. But I can hardly blame anyone who goes to visit Venice, even if they make the place sink deeper from junk, waves coming from wakes of tourist boats and cruise ships. You have to see it at least once. Oh the grandeur and renaissance. Interestingly, Marco Polo, probably the worlds most famous traveler (not just a chain of hotels), was a Venetian. He somehow made it to China through the silk road, rubbed shoulders with Kublai Khan, and made it back to tell the story.

19. Jungfraujoch (Switzerland)

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I started my journey to the top of Europe from the small, cliche of a German speaking Swiss town in Grindelwald. Jungfraujoch is the highest point in the Alps, hence, the rest of Europe, with an elevation of 3,471 meters above sea level. Beyond the prized title of being the roof of the continent, it is also really expensive to get here. But the fun really is in getting here. You take a really cute train that gives you a view of the quintessential Swiss country side, slowly making elevation, change trains a few times, until you get a peek of the snoq capped mountains. Bring sunscreen as UV rays get really harmful with the elevation. When it gets too cold, you can always have the most expensive lackluster cheese fondue you’ll have in Switzerland at the restaurant on top.

18. Vienna (Austria)

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They say Vienna is for old people, I don’t always disagree, especially if you’re young with hormones running wild. But I enjoyed Vienna. I spent Christmas here, away from my family who were comfortably warm at our home in the Philippines. I loved Vienna for probably the most different reason why people come here. I came here for my favorite philosophically romantic couple, Jesse and Celine of the Before Sunrise series. I walked their walks, rode the creaking ferris wheel where they first kissed, because Jesse was too shy to do it on the booth at the record store, the cafes and the rest of it.

17. Bratislava (Slovakia)

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It does sound familiar, heard it somewhere once, where the hell is Bratislava? In the film Eurotrip, Bratislava is presented as a drab communist dead end town. Sure it does, once you cross the bridge with a weird looking UFO bar in the middle, it is the epitome of communism with its tenement housing, much like SMDC really. But if you arrive here by train, you’ll see that it must have been habituated by rich, cultured people once. The old town is just as beautiful as any other Eastern European old towns, with an overlooking upturned table-like castle. Its mystical and almost deserted in winter, but that’s where the charm comes from perhaps?

16. Pokhara (Nepal)

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Kathmandu can make you crazy after staying there for too long, and that’s what Pokhara is for. Get away from the city, take the nerve racking highway that falls a few hundred meters into a river that’s dotted with, wait for it, ill-fated buses. I personally just closed my eyes, prayed to the universe that should my time come, please please let me see the Himalayas first. The mountain gods must have heard my appeal and I was able to reach Pokhara, white knuckled, but safely. The city has a picturesque lake, and hordes of hippies that comes with a super laid back place. From here, I rented a plane to see the Himalayas, the rooftop of the world. Let’s just say I would more likely forget my first sex, god knows how bitter sweet that was, than my face to face experience with the Himalayas.

15. Krakow (Poland)

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Schindler’s list anyone? Save one life, save the world? Yes, Schindler’s enamel factory is located in Krakow, a 15 minute walk from the main square, Europe’s biggest square. And where else better to spend New Year’s eve than Europe’s biggest square? Yup. Spent NYE here and was rewarded threefold. Different stages for different bands of different genres, an intoxicated, super charged hormones of a crowd and you get the picture. To equalize the fun, a visit to Auschwitz concentration camp, around an hour by local bus from the square, is a never fail depressant.

14. Oxford vs Cambridge (U.K.)

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Let me tell something personal to you, sure, I like beautiful and intelligent students, but I like beautiful schools more. Professor Charles Xavier graduated here, prince Charles, also that egotistic physical theoreticist (clue, not Sheldon Cooper) named Stephen Hawking aka wheelz, and the infamous philanderer, Lord Byron, to name a few of my favorite, albeit one is fictional, alumni. In my next life, I only want to study here, graduate and become a fellow and tenured professor in either Universities.

13. New York (U.S.A)

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From JFK airport, I took the train to Bronx where I was staying with a friend in his flat. On the way, I had to transfer overland from one station to another, it was just before mid town, around the 30s when I got overland, luggage rolling and bouncing on rough and uneven pavement, Jay Z and A. Keys, as my friend, Angela, who, mind you, is personal friends with, even followed her back on Twitter, started playing in my head “Neeew yooooooork”. I love New York. There’s America and there’s New York. Its a city that’s got something going on at some place at any time of the day, and night. People from all over the world, with different ethnicities, from all walks of life, they’re all here, trying to make it big. As a result, really damn good food, cheap and expensive, so many interesting people, so much quirks.

12. Amsterdam (Netherlands)

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Amsterdam has an unfair reputation of a place where people go to for legal dosage of drugs and lenient bureaucracy. Sure, you get taxed for prostitution and marijuana, but the city itself is gorgeous on its own. With canals that smell so much better than those of Venice, low rise buildings with curious ground floor life size windows (wink) and the only place I’ve seen that’s got more bikes than people. Park your black, nondescript bike in some corner, when you come back, its impossible to tell which one is yours, hopefully not the one floating along the canal. I’ve never felt so short in my life than when I was here. The Dutch have the award for being the tallest people on Earth. It must be the cheese, that world famous Edam cheese. Spent two nights here, watched a sex show, got drunk, smoked a joint, passed out, magically woke up in my room, with pictures to show for. On the second night, got a tattoo. The following morning, really glad to have left.

11. Siem Reap (Cambodia)

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I’ve never been more humbled by this feat of mankind. The Khmers built something so vast and grand in the far east, that until now, the very basic maintaining of upkeep still puzzles the best archaeologists. Such colossal strongholds and places for worships, mysteriously abandoned, reclaimed by the forest, lost for generations until a French explorer chanced upon it. Wow is definitely an understatement. I don’t think there can be any superlative adjective used that will ever be an overstatement when describing Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon, and the rest of the structures that dot the rest of the once powerful kingdom.

10. Edinburgh (Scotland)

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Before becoming part of Great Britain, Scotland was a mysterious land of rolling hills, foul weather and inhabited by fierce mythical creatures and hell of a tough Scottish folks. Now, Edinburgh, its capital, is truly one of my favorite cities. The only reason its in number ten is because I didn’t like the food here that much. It still retains its foul weather, tough folks with very weird accent, hence, do not ever get into a bar fight in Scotland. Like the rest of my favorite cities, literature is always an inspiration to visit. For Edinburgh, there’s Trainspotting (“it sucks being Ska-ish”) and The Da Vinci code (Rosslyn chapel). Regardless of inspirations, it is a must visit city for any self respecting traveler. To see the old town from the Edinburgh castle, walk the Royal Mile, and a real Scottish pub crawl are experiences that are truly YOLO-ing.

9. Bled (Slovenia)

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I arrived in Bled when it was winter, dark, and empty. Its a sleepy lake town and the fog that blanketed the whole place didn’t afford me to see beyond a few meters from me. Its the perfect setting for Silent Hill. Upon checking in at my hostel, the receptionist informed me that I was the only guest and that she was glad that I have finally arrived so that she can finally go home and leave the whole 3 floors of that damned building all to myself. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Making it alive and unscathed come morning, I am a different man after that. Anyway, the only exciting thing about this place, is not the church planted on a small island inside the big lake, but the Vintgar gorge. A 1600 meter walkway made of sleet covered broken wood planks on top of a gushing river and in between wet mountains. I was the only traveler in town and had I fallen into the river, at least I meant that goodbye hug to my parents when they dropped me at the airport.

8. Tokyo (Japan)

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Tokyo, its easily the most shocking place I’ve ever been in my life. There seem to be an electric current running from the buildings to the neon signs to the people and food. Everything is alive, even the food you’re about to eat was surely living just a few moments back. You only have to see the famous Shibuya crossing and the morning auction in Tsukiji market to know what sort of energy and pace I’m talking about. During the day, everyone’s busy with work, the ideal Japanese salary man, at night, all fetishes are catered for. From Pachinko parlors (casinos), Purikura machines (a photobooth that’s girlishly blown out of proportion) to dive bars that fit 3 people the most. Food? Its all about sushi. Tuna is king and O-toro is gold.

7. Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

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Upfront, I would tell you that what moves people here is money, it is the catalyst in this city. People are flashy, Rolex stores are as abundant as 7elevens, but they are hard working people who know exactly what they want in life, except maybe that they have really really small expensive hotel rooms, but the rest, they’ve figured out perfectly. Duck rice, that’s what I go to Hong Kong for, that meal I cry myself to sleep at night when I want it and can’t have it. The Avenue of The Stars, the Victoria Harbour, the skyline from the opposite side of the river, shopping, nope, I’m skipping all that for all the Duck rice in Hong Kong.

6. The Sahara Desert (Disputed between neighboring North African countries)

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The Sahara, extends from Morocco to Egypt, Tunisia to Sudan. In English, its vast. Caravans of the past crossed this arid, uninhabitable, interminable landscape after landscape to do trade from Asia to Africa. Even Islam crossed this desert from the Middle East to reach Africa. Spending a night here will make even Bear Grylls humble about his self preservation instincts. Between the punishing mid day heat and chaffing camel ride to the campsite where we’d spend the bone chilling night is a moment spent siting down on top of a really tall dune, watching the most glorious sunset that nothing will ever compare to, slowly giving way into the moon and the stars to paint the sand silver and the make the rest of the desert seem like a violent ocean frozen mid wave.

5. Varanasi (India)

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Basically, Hindus go here to die. If you don’t get an instantaneous heavy dosage of culture shock with that, you are one tough bastard. You are in the holiest city in India. Expect to hear chanting everywhere, poor people resigned to their fates and get cremated and the remains thrown away in the Ganges river, where supposedly, the act of reincarnation will end and your samsara, over. Literally, where fire wood are stacked, you will see dead bodies being burned open air by the river. If that’s not enough, the Ganges is popular, aside from being one of the holiest rivers, but also the dirtiest. It makes Pasig river look like Evian. But in Hindu belief, a dip here will clean up all your karma, a sort of soul cleansing, and as weird as I am, I took a not so refreshing but inner cleansing morning dip.

4. Marrakech (Morocco)

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Dictators, colonialists, and governments may change with time but Marrakech will always be what it is, a hub of trade, culture and energy. Marrakech is damn sexy. A veiled woman walks by, taking with her the mystery of whats hiding underneath her perfect form, the way her hips sway when she walks, intrigues you like a mad lover. The constant sound of pounding metals, shaping them, gilding them to become something so exquisite, be it a lamp, a figurine, or any other Islamic art. The curious looking conical shaped pottery from which they stew their food, when opened, explodes different aromas of cinnamon, to olives, dried citrusy fruits and animal protein. Mud brick kasbahs, riads (guesthouses) mosques and shops form the labyrinthine medina. Come night time, a visit to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square is like an assault on the senses. Everything moves, some things bite, some dance, some sing, but mostly, they cook. Its the biggest open air stage I’ve ever seen in my life.

3. Penang (Malaysia)

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From Indonesia to Singapore, there is a general consensus that Penang is the food capital of the Straits. It used to be frequented by the British colonialist for Penang Hill which offers refuge from the damning heat, overlooking the sea. I’ll give it to Penang, the island is beautiful, but nothing of the landscape and the sea can beat what the island offers when it comes to food. Let me tell you straight, you need a local friend here to know which places to visit, and how to get there. The best Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak, oh and the Laksa! I’ve tried them all here. This place is second only to, you guessed it, San Sebastian in Spain, when it comes to concentration of so many good food in one place.

2 San Sebastian/Donostia (Spain/Basque)

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San Sebastian is the food capital of Spain, there is no contest. And if Spain is, arguably the food capital of the world, then logic follows that San Sebastian serves the best food in the world. Its got more than 3 michelin star restaurants concentrated for its small size than any other place in the world. But food doesn’t have to be expensive here. Nightlife here is a system of Pintxo (tapas) bar hop. You go to one bar, order the best Pintxo (normally advertised), drink just enough wine or Txakoli (sparkling dry white wine), then move to the next one. That sounds good enough on its own right? But did I tell you the buildings have very alluring old world appeal, the people are so beautiful and there’s a long stretch of beach, actually, two or three coves that stretches long enough to cover so many good looking people.

1. Hanoi (Viet Nam)

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Of all the places in the world, this is where I had the most fun. I found the perfect ratio of strangeness and familiarity in Hanoi. From the moment you wake up in the morning to eat Banh Mi (French baguette with fillings) while you sip that strong dark and gooey Vietnamese coffee, and then you head to watch people from all walks of life and generations exercise around Hoan Kiem lake to make room for all the delicious food to be had. Then you start looking for lunch and of course, its going to be Pho (rice noodle), the only choice really is if you’ll have it with beef or chicken. Alternatively, you can dine on some authentic French cuisine, but I’d rather explore more from Vietnamese cuisine like the Bun Cha, Cha Ca La Vong, and etc. up until you walk along the old quarter to look around old French colonial architecture, while somewhere in the corner, propagandas blast from a speaker on top of an electric post.

What you have to know about India

Its the most dazzling, puzzling, beautifully disorganized, and irresistibly chaotic set of places I’ve ever found myself in. From the ethereal and omnipresence of honking 21st century caravans to since-the-time-of-age camels in Delhi, my James Bond dreams in Udaipur, the withstanding merchants of Jaipur, the holiest place in Varanasi, and of course, to that postcard, desktop image, and posters we’ve all seen, the majestic Taj Mahal.

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You’re no longer just a desktop background!
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Breaking presumptions about India

1. It doesn’t stink and they don’t all wear Lungis

I took the metro in Delhi basically everyday, except when I’d get home late and its closed. I don’t want to sound unpatriotic, but to break our racial discriminative ideas about India, our MRT smells worse than the metro in Delhi. I’m not saying people from Delhi, or the rest of India, doesn’t reassure me once in a while of what I used to think about it, but its not any worse than the metro in Paris, infact most of them smell great.

They dress ridiculously well. No short pants here and the rest of India lest you want to look like an overgrown boy who never outgrew his age. Dressing up is a form of respect here, partly more for self respect really. You wear short pants/shorts in India and you’re literally looked down upon as an eight year old boy.

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Its sweltering hot and they don’t mind

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2. They are scammers

Only if you’re a fool. Scams in India are not so much worse than seasoned frauds in South East Asia. Agree on a price, check the quality, and count your change. Its not so different from Binondo or Bangkok when it comes to getting short changed, hustled or pick pocketed. Like the rest of the world, common sense rules. Which is not so common as I would find out as I got out of the airport, 12:30 am, bought a prepaid cab ticket, short changed by an innocently smiling cashier, hopped in the cab, counted my money, didn’t feel right, got out just before my cab left, got back to the counter and the cashier instantly gave a smile that says “you’re not as stupid as you look after all” and gave me the rest of my change. I arrived in NAIA once and got hustled by a cabbie who wanted to charge me more than what I knew was a generous fee, I got off in the middle of EDSA, not paying him a miserable cent. Sometimes its more about the principle. To be honest, next to Japanese folks, Indians are the nicest Asians. I’ve met the nicest people I’ll probably ever meet in life in India.

3. Food will give you constant indigestion

I love Indian food, I love street food wherever, even so, I experienced a tolerable Delhi belly. Okay. Most indigestions come from unfamiliarity with the spices used in your food than from hygienic reasons, even if you eat in fancy looking restaurants. So when I developed a tolerance with the spices, I had the best time eating whatever I wanted, so long as I see Indians buying food even from the dirtiest looking places, I grab the opportunity and reap rewards. Let me tell you one thing, Indians know how to eat. Follow their trail, never eat in any restaurant or food stall that only serves tourists (its the dirtiest food you’ll eat, trust me), apart from that, have the guts to eat along with white and blue collars, homeless people, holy men and the rest of them. I had my best meal in India from a stall that opened up at 8pm, a 15 minute queue, and worth 10 rupees, about 7 Philippine pesos.

I see a queue and I know I’ll eat well

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My 10 rupee meal!

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A plate of food here looks like an artist’s palette

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What you should know when visiting India

1. Book trains way ahead

Its not easy to get tickets from the Indian website called IRCTC. You have to provide a local Indian number, which, guess what, you can only get in Indian land, even then it still won’t be easy to get one. They start selling tickets 2 months ahead of your planned date of departure. Trust me, its worth setting up an alarm in your calendar for. You don’t want to take a regular class ticket traveling by rail in India more than once. So I suggest you spend a little more for getting a 1/2/3 AC berth when traveling long distance. I missed my train from Agra to Varanassi for a ridiculously rookie mistake, the only way to make it was to get a general class ticket. It was one of the highlights of my trip to India, but I would probably never do it again. Its masochism.

Traveling around India through rails

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Bed for the night

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Mornings in general class compartment

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2. Stay in guesthouses owned by Indian families

For me, the best way to do it is through Airbnb. Read the reviews, if most of the reviews mention anything related to food, book the damn place. I’ve never met an Indian mom who doesn’t cook well, with recipes at least from 3 generations past. Indian moms would never let you out of the dining table without a bursting tummy, so a word of advice, bring bigger sized jeans. if you ever plan on eating your way through India, with all the generous use of Indian butter called ghee, carbo loaded flat breads and those sinfully succulent sweets eventually take its toll.

3. Its all about romance

I made the unfortunate mistake of visiting India alone. PDA is an understatement in India. People make out in every dark corner, an alley, Vishnu knows what’s happening down there. I stayed in an apartment in Delhi and the newly weds on top of my room kept me from ever having a peaceful sleep the moment the husband gets home at around 3am from his call center job. I’ve concluded that Indian structures are earthquake proof because that couple would give it a definite rocking night after night.. I can easily tell you the sequence from my deduction. First there would be loud noises from water pipes, shower time! Then there would be closets opening and closing. A few minutes of gentle but audible movements, then its bring-the-house-down, wake-all-the-fucking-neighbors time. I feel a little bad for the new bride though because from the moment of audible rocking, 5 minutes after, its all silence.

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They say “There’s the rest of the world, and there’s India.” I cannot agree more.

Why is traveling good for you?

DSC_1993They were looking at the Taj Mahal during sunset.

Every time I leave our front door, airport bound, giddy with excitement for all the new places, people, and food I will get to see, meet, and eat (not always in that order), I take a good look at our home, and imagine how different I will be next time I enter this door. In so many ways that you can educate yourself, to improve ones personality, gain confidence, and learn to love, I find traveling to be the best way to get it. 

From my first bus tour, more like a blitzkrieg around Europe, I learned how to trust myself to be able to organize my own trips next time because depending on others to arrange your trip is why most people come back home completely disappointed in Paris, or swearing that pasta at home tastes better than in Italy. With confidence in the bag, there seemed to have been infinite possibilities for improvement. I learned to cook, hand wash, be organized, converse, say hello, sorry, and thank you in a dozen different languages, etc. I developed patience, acceptance, forgiveness, and appreciation with fervent passion. From interminable waiting for connections, the haunting punctuality of German trains, from the omnipresent crying infant in economy, the ill fated ordering for a cup of espresso against all these hand waving Romans, are just some of the moments that caused such personal developments.

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My favorite app that tells the schedules of most trains in Europe!

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The horror of taking your first intercity train ride.

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You hear them in movies in every scene from economy.

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you rich.” Obviously, after plane tickets, daily food consumption and museum tickets, this is not true in the most literal sense of the phrase. Traveling is not like buying stocks at their IPO, its not a financial investment. It is though, an investment for your self, in the most philosophically existential way which is what I want to share with you here.

1. To find courage

People who never believed in themselves, who shied away from the world, intimidated to take risks and opportunities, will discover the strength and courage they never knew existed within them. Leaving the comforts of home, the familiarity of your city, and your wolf pack friends is not easy. To find yourself in a strange city with not so much an understanding of their inaccessible language, and suddenly you’re hungry as you try to choose which food to order from the indecipherable hieroglyphic menu (yes I am afraid of hunger), pressured by the impatient underpaid waiter, you will take a leap of faith. To expose yourself, to get out of your daily state of normality, to me is what real courage is. To put yourself out there to the unfamiliar, not between your group induced testosterone, is what real courage is. 

IMG_1344Awhile back, I showed some friends this photo and they were mortified. Its ridiculous!

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Stuck in the middle of an Indian crowd, alone, and blending in!

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Got a tattoo from Amsterdam, not exactly sober, not that courageous then yet.

2. Learning acceptance and forgiveness.

When you lose your passport, pocket money stolen, memory card crashed, misread the 20:30 train departure, and a whole lot of other regretful events, at the moment, anger fills you up. Its so predictable, “Why me, of all people?” as if it would have been less worse ethically if it happened to the person next to you. Or “How could I have let that happen?” as if you had control of all the things that could go wrong in your life. Travel often and you’ll experience enough of this to get over that initial anger and regret. 

What better way to learn how to forgive people than by starting with yourself? Serious travelers know that there is nothing else to do in life’s irreversible lapses but to accept them, and as time heals all wounds, make a good story out of it. 

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I’m so sorry Brix, my man! First time to admit that Cherry and I instigated this. Time heals all wounds! 

3. To appreciate beauty.

No, I’m not talking about you, Angela, back from kindergarden! I’m talking about breaking our preconditioned idea of beauty, dictated by media, ethnicity and society’s bigotries. For example, Asians mostly dream of having fairer skin, while Caucasians take so much time getting a tan. People grow up basically dictated which details to admire. But after seeing some parts of the world, I learned to appreciate everything I encounter. The painfully pallid details of a Japanese bamboo forest, women of North India, Moroccan Kasbahs, German Christkindlesmarkt, and maybe hopefully someday, Italian wines. 

Beauty is everywhere. Everywhere you go, at home, a block away, halfway around the world, queuing at the bank, in your office, always find something beautiful to look at and devote your attention there. There are endless bad things to complain about, but you could be spending equal amount of time talking about things you appreciate. 

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Slender and graceful North Indian woman.

 

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Irresistibly cute Christmas market in Nuremberg. 

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Majestic Sahara sunset.

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A Russian roulette of a ferris wheel ride in my town of Balayan. 

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Picture perfect postcard shot of Hallstatt in winter.

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Japanese bamboo forest.

4. You’ll become an anthropologist.

Okay, maybe traveling doesn’t come with a degree, but you’ll build up enough curiosity that different people and cultures seem to be like a writing assignment. You will learn that douche people come from a certain background that when understood, they’re really not as douche as you have originally thought. It must be the circumstances of the lives they live in. People from Batangas speak loud, oft mistaken for having a verbal argument until they smile and wrap arms around each other’s shoulders. New Yorkers are always mad at tourists but try to imagine having leisurely walking people encroach on your office’s sidewalk when you’re running to make it on time for that life changing presentation. Hell the French eat everything, from tail, entrails, to head that will make the lousy American run for, wait for it, Golden “Mcdonald’s” Arches. You can easily be the second-rate tourist and simply just pass judgement, or you can be a sponge and learn why people are like that in those parts of the world. Perhaps when you get home, you’ll understand why your neighbor has the money to drink alcohol and rent karaoke but never pays the money he owes you.

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NY protesters screaming “Get out of our sidewalks!.” I kid!

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A sinister looking sausage, bland pretzel and a liter of beer for breakfast in Munich.

5. Learn to love.

You’ll meet a lot of things and see a lot of people (there is a joke somewhere inside). You’ll find a certain set of people that you had so much fun with but only have 3 hours before you have to part ways. Love at first sight, but never meant to last. The beautiful lady in La Maja Des Nuda, or the gothic church in Prague, you’ll understand that you can fall in love with these people and things, but ownership unnecessary, if not impossible. Suddenly, loving becomes easier, simpler. Understand that goodbyes and farewells are the norm but although some may stay, time is relevant, eventually, everything goes. Instead on focusing on how to prolong relationships and precious time with desired things, it’ll be about how can you make every moment special. Remember John Green? “Some infinities are just bigger than other infinities?” When you look at it this way, every moment becomes precious and spent with more quality.

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Jesse and Celine, total strangers, had to part ways before sunrise, ended up together 10 years after.

Haven’t found what you really want yet? Having trouble with your identity? Travel my friend. Explore your local neighborhood, allocate budget for a plane ticket, do whatever it takes to travel. Hustle, fight, take! Make it a priority, no one ever said on their dying moments that I wish I traveled less. 

5 Life And Mountaineering Lessons

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1. Pack light, you don’t want to carry too much weight.

They tell this to you in pre-climb, but nobody tells you this in college. Night before departure, you wonder if it would hurt to add that facial wash, special lotion, maybe an extra shirt and some more canned goods for your climb. When you’re exhausted and moody, trust me, it will. If you doubt you’ll use something, the fact that you have to think about it means its almost unnecessary. You can only need so much in mountaineering and in life. So what if you lose your comfort zone for a day or more. Do not let what you own start owning you. Things accumulated are things you have to take good care of, or else you run the risk of losing them. Learn what’s important. More things, more worries and responsibilities. Less of them, more time and energy for fun and appreciation.

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2. Budget your consumption of resources.

Learn how to allocate and budget your consumption properly. Food and water, have never been so scarce than when in hiking. Like all resources in general, they’re limited, regardless if you’re an oil sheik or a silicon valley billionaire. Finish your 2 litter water mid way and you’ve just formulated the perfect disaster for the second half of your climb, or in real life language, do not spend beyond your means.

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3. Its not a race

Save for marathons and hiking races, casual mountaineering is not a race unless you impose it on yourself. There will always be someone who is impeccably faster, or impossibly slower than your pace. In the end, we all reach the same “summit”. Life and mountaineering is about appreciating moments, flora and fauna. Consider it a race and you just ended up rushing yourself to the “summit” without having experienced the beauty of those accumulated moments we call life.

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4. Going up is hard, but going down is harder

Leaving the jump off point for base camp/summit, filled with excitement, it fuels your drive to make it to the top. With wobbly legs and and self gratifying ego, somehow you’re able to strut to the top, breathlessly basking in some breath-taking view and the majestic color combination of dark blue, purple, pink and orange of sunset or sunrise only a mountain summit can provide. Bad news, nobody stays at the summit forever. At some point, in relative time, all of us comes back down to sea level. Climbing down is harder because your knees take more impact, and your brain needs to decide quickly on which stone is most likely not to move when you step on it. Excitement long gone, fatigue sets in, much like in life, when life goes downhill, your character is tested and eventually revealed.

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5. You will not run out of summits to climb.

There are more summits to climb in par with our human lifetime. If you devote your attention to climbing every summit than appreciating each one, then the battle is lost. Each summit you achieve exposes you to another one that is even more tougher. Although it is in our nature to always go for more, to evolve and to best our previous states, never over look achievements in life and mountaineering. Celebrate every each one, every resting hut and shelter, those are what make reaching the goal more rewarding.

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DSC_0340“Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance towards the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point” – H. Melchert

The rice terraces of Ifugao

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I have always had an interest in quaint villages perched on high lands. Regardless of border, they all seem to share an identity of mysticism and spirituality. People who live in such communities seem to have a better understanding of the nature that surrounds them, like a secret has been passed on from past generations that they can easily trace. The simplicity of their cold bitten faces, their skin, tanned, wrinkled and hard from agricultural labor, in contrast with their enigmatic animist beliefs . What lies underneath that simplicity, there seem to be mystery. Like that universal image of a wrinkled old woman, sitting by the window overlooking the street, staring blankly ahead while smoking a tobacco as her lips move as if in chant or giving a curse.

So when I was bound for the mystical rice terraces of Ifugao, I was determined to ride on my idea of simplicity while giving respect to the spirit of nature that surrounded us. We all know what it looks like, we grew up with that image from our history books, always from that angle which is even printed in our recently replaced 1000 peso bill. So upon ascending the road to Ifugao province, every turn is a hope that the outing would be those green auditorium like rice terraces. And every time it isn’t, disappointment is instantly replaced by awe for those valleys between mountains, the steep drop it would make for a small miscalculation. Driving here, you know you do not get the slightest margin for error.

The road to Banaue

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Roadside view

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A miserable attempt at trying to piece them together

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After a few small villages and many blind corners later, we arrived at Banaue, a thriving town funded by tourism from its world famous two thousand year old rice terraces. Albeit a little commercialized for mountain standards, it still gives a quaint feeling, with a few homestays, some restaurants catering for tourists from most parts of the world, and a very helpful tourist information center from which all travelers must register upon arrival. Its the sort of town where you pick up most of what you need, from food and water, to hiking shoes and transportation, before you delve deeper into the region. Staying in Banaue View Inn for a night, nobly located at the top of the town, we had an overlooking view of the happenings down below. The unofficial bus station occupying half of the street, blocking the occasional flow of traffic, while their waiting passengers have only road railings to lean on for comfort, and those last minute shoppers from the busy town square, with everyone seem to be moving about in all directions, we watched over them until everything slowed down as the sun set, giving way to the slowly glowing moon. At night, the town gives a totally different atmosphere. With hushed conversations from obscure faces overcast by dim light, tracing distant foot steps, the feral barking of a dog, it feels like something straight from a Scorsese movie.

The town of Banaue from our balcony
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Lording over Banaue from Banaue View Inn

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An hour drive deeper into the province is Batad saddle, the end of one of the toughest roads ever. The strenuous incline to this point is still under construction, but its muddy and rocky tracks are open for vehicles who dare. While other travelers have no choice but to rent a jeep with fortified suspension, luckily, our vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser from the 1990’s, with its tall vertical clearance and armed to the teeth, is hungry for such a terrain. My driving partner offered to take the wheel, while my girlfriend and I dared to top load. White knuckled from our industrial grade grip on the railings, we were definitely rewarded with spectacular views that will haunt our memories for a lifetime. Upon arrival to the saddle, we gladly parked our tank and refused every offer of a guide for the single track human pathway down to the terraces.

Meet Elsie, our tank

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The road going up to Batad saddle

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Top loading going up to the saddle

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Risking it for views like these

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View of a lifetime

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Single track from the saddle all the way to Batad

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Unlike Banaue, Batad rice terraces is smaller in scale but offers more interaction by being able to hike around its amphitheater like terraces that is individually riprapped with rocks and cement. You can circumnavigate as you watch the locals tilling parches of land. We were advised to hire a guide to take us around the area. He was a short, thin and single middle aged man who lived in one of the few houses that stand on the terraces itself. Needless to say, he outpaced us in our desk job trained mid 20s bodies. Much to our desire to do this on our own, the guide proved to be very essential. With every information he disposed, we gained a better appreciation of the land. He told us that the communal process of planting starts by everyone working on the chief’s land, afterwards, they proceed to the second biggest owner of land and so on until everyone’s land is tilled and planted. It is then time for an end of plantation festival which includes a flooding of rice wine and ill fated live stock. Against common belief, whatever rice that is harvested here almost never gets out, its made for local consumption, and some that do are for souvenir material only. For entertainment, he explained to us that his reason for being a bachelor at his 50s is because in a small community such as this, the slightest imbalance of men to women ratio is a real problem.

Hiking Batad rice terraces

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Interaction with the village

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Smiles of achievement

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After a short swim on the extremely cold water around the mighty waterfalls, we headed back to our home stay. To say that our room in Batad Homestay is simple is definitely an overstatement. There is nothing in that spartan room that you do not need. There’s the luxury of a ceiling lamp, two beds, 4 pillows and a cozy Ifugao made blanket. There are no 20th century power outlets. You stay in Batad for a couple of nights, and it is impossible not to find yourself regardless if you are lost or not.

Ice cold gush of water

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That humbling feeling

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Spartan room from Batad Homestay

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Do you really need anything more than this?

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Waking up to a morning covered with fog offering zero visibility, we opted to let it clear out by having breakfast on the restaurant balcony that should be over looking the terraces on a clear day. After all,  our jelly legs were not in a hurry knowing that the 30 minute strut going down here converts to a 90 minute tongue-sticking-out trudge going up. After filling up our tanks with our hefty breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our reserved but generous host, and to those foreigners who we shared this home with. As hard as we tried to speak French, German and Spanish, a wave of hand was all we could muster. Laughing in our doomed attempt, it was the last thing we had to smile about as we made our ascend, barely making it to the top.

The Inter-zone

A mere one hour ferry ride, i cross continents, leaving Europe for Africa. From Tarifa, the southern most tip of Spain, across the strait of Gibraltar, I arrive in Tangier, one of the northern most cities of Africa in the kingdom of Morocco. Upon arrival, much like any port, you wouldn’t want to hang around it for a longer time than necessary. Pestered by touts with all kinds of plots and cons to take your tourist dollar, I rush to get out.

Crossing continents through the Strait of Gibraltar

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 Tangier port

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     Outside the port, its a totally different world. First thing you see, the white fortified medina walls give you an idea of its historical past. Its strategic military location attracted a lot of colonizing powers of the past.  First settled by the Berbers, a nomadic desert tribe, followed by the arabs, bringing with them Islam which became the major religion of the country.  From there, it has been a battle between Catholic Spain and Islamic Morocco. As a result, with alternating influences between religions, the city formed a look of mixed influences,  built with European fortification and Islamic architecture comparable to the Andalucian region of Spain.

Medina walls

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     Once inside the medina, identical white washed buildings, cobbled streets, narrow lanes and dark and dirty alleys all conspire against your initial resistance and unwillingness to accept loss of bearing. Acceptance with getting lost is a key factor in making the most out of this trip. With no street names and indistinguishable alleys, it makes for the most futile attempt to get a map. On finding your riad, an islamic version of a hotel, dragging your luggage on cobbled streets, it seems a poor decision refusing all the porting services back at the port. Luckily, Tangier is never short of its infamous beyond persistent faux guides. Bordering on aggressiveness and violence, somehow, they just don’t leave you with an option to refuse.  Eventually, you will understand that ignoring them, or a violent refusal only makes it worse. The best way to refuse an aggressive offer is to stride with confidence, offer a warm smile and a friendly pat on the back.

With the volume of different nationalities of visitors arriving here, Moroccan people have become fluent multi-linguals. Depending onn their location, speaking in Spanish, French, English, Moroccan and Arabic is just expected of them.

Getting casual with a Moroccan

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     Arriving on your riad, your senses are assaulted with infinitely colorful zuelig, a mosaic of tiles geometrically pieced together, and furnitures of different designs perfectly arranged together fulfilling your Arabian Nights dream. Meanwhile, the smell of aromatic burning argan oil, a sound of flowing fountain from the bright internal courtyard, and a welcome drink of sweet mint green tea, attacks  culture shocked visitors. From the roof deck, or the terrasse , you can hear the distant sound of waves crashing into the outer sea wall as you watch moroccan life through wide open windows, while on street level, determined kids play football on narrow lanes pestering passers-by.

Riad interiors assault the senses

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Arabian Nights dream

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Tangier from our Terrasse

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Street level

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     Later In the early 20th century, the French arrived. When Tangier was split by the French, Britain and Spain, it became an international zone or better known as, the inter-zone. Attracting all sorts of people, during that period, it became a center of misbehavior, espionage and political plots. Spies, drugs, more drugs, attracting artists, writers, rockstars, and even a refuge for escaped convicts. These elements amalgamated into one of the most hedonistic parties of their time. In the Petit Soco, meaning little square, it was the city’s place to be. Drug deals, destabilization plots for foreign governments, invitations for debauchery,  it all happened under the limelight of the legendary cafes that surrounded it. In those cafes, mobbed by all sorts of miscreants, it had the air of “anything goes!”

This table has seen those days

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Legendary Cafe Tingis along Petit Soco

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Majoon, look it up

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     Walk around now and if you can look past the obvious dirt and your fears, you will find a city that’s got beautiful buildings kept in photogenic state of disrepair. When the French left and Morocco was granted independence, funding got cut and and like all good things, the party ended. Relics of the past involve everything French, like cinemas, the language, the and big round-abouts. What then of those foreigners  who gave this city such almost notorious character? Most of them left and moved to other party scenes, but there are a some who, either from having nothing to come back to, or simply anchored themselves to deep, decided to stay and make a home out of Tangier. If you’re lucky, listen to their treasured stories as you try to bring the party back to life in your imagination. It can be charming to some, a horror for others, but its always misfortunes and misbehavior that make for the best stories.

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Listened to stories of a foreigner who stayed after the party ended

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     Overall, Tangier is now a Moroccan city but definitely with a different character from the rest of country, making for a perfect gateway to a country of vast landscapes and diverse scenery.

Diving into the country side

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Fundacion Pacita: A home at the end of the world

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One trademark of the Philippines is the fact that we have 7,107 islands. Expectedly, it offers varied landscapes and scenery. A quick observation is that it has a lot of tropical beaches with pristine shores and challenging mountains, but it is puzzling and quite surprising that it has Batanes, a group of northernmost islands.

Somehow, it feels like a lost paradise, a piece of land shipped from the Scottish Isles with all its cliffs, rolling hills, the capricious forces of nature, and violent waters. Not to mention a slumbering volcano towering one of its islands. Batanes, to me, is the definition of diversity in terms of Philippine geography.

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Travel quirks

Getting a window seat for your flight to Batanes, you get  hint of what’s to come. Prior to landing, you see its exciting topography and its not unusual for lucky passengers to gasp in awe. I wasn’t so blessed to get a window seat but I think I made the passenger next to me quite uncomfortable for trying my best to share his view as we prepared for a shaky, nerve rattling landing on a narrow strip of inclined runway. Suddenly, nobody’s talking, everyone tightens their seat belt as we gripped on to our arm rests. Very unstable, the plane hits the ground. As it breaks to a halt harder than usual, white knuckled, and with a sigh of relief, we let go.

Getting out of the airport, I greet a wide smiled man holding a board with our names on it waiting to take us to our hotel. First impression of Ivatan hospitality. The Ivatans are the tribe who settled, stayed and now form the community here. Even the conquering and evangelizing Spaniards noticed how different they were from other the rest of their conquest in what would be the Philippines, most noticeably in their amiable nature and receptiveness to the religion.

Fundacion Pacita: A home at the end of the world

Perched on the edge of a cliff, in an island caught between two vast oceans, with strong, unrelenting, gusty winds, and an erratic changing of weather in minutes, it can feel like doomsday. But what a divine way it is to feel so powerless in a place so bewitching such as this. Welcome to the home of Pacita Abad, a national artist, traveler, a volunteer, political activist, a dreamer, just to name a few things from her myriad life that I have discovered in my short sojourn at her home.

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A person who once hitchhiked from Turkey to the Philippines for a year, have worked and lived in 80 countries, is bound to have all the quirkiness in every nook and corner of her home. Every detail is a reflection of her colorful life and paintings, somehow, a stay here feels like a personal and intimate introduction. Its the feeling Owen Wilson had whenever the clock strikes midnight and he finds himself in the setting of his literary idols in Midnight in Paris.

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It is a haven for the creative types in seek of inspiration. For every dull gray stone, there’s a splash of bright cheerful color. There’s not a chair, a bench that you wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon on while looking out to the unobstructed view of the ocean, the drama that rolling hills unfold, or simply watching strong waves constantly crash into tall cliffs making permanent white washed water, an ideal contrast to the resplendent blue sea. It is forgivable to stay here and not to see what other things Batanes has to offer.

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Its easy to admit that staying at Fundacion Pacita made all the difference in our trip to these northern most islands of the country. A love at first sight upon arrival and a heart break to depart from. It may have cost an arm and a leg, but every waking moment I spent here made me realize I would have been willing to give up more.

The northern road to Hanoi

We were staying in Hue for a night to trim the train hours to Hanoi. Hue, pronounced as huwey, was once the capital of Vietnam, and a center of power for the French. It gives an air of imperialism with its mighty and historical citadel, with its forbidden city, meditative gardens and lakes fit for kings, it was a staging ground, a rallying point, a witness, and unfortunately, a casualty of many battles. There are also those larger than life tombs of proud feudal lords of the past.  Arriving here just after dusk, the city seems to be brimming with activities. There are night markets not unlike those we have at home. The riverside is lined up with expensive hotels, entertainment centers with bright neon lights, even one of the bridges here are colorfully lit and quite famous for young lovers. There are also some exquisite street food action, making this lane bright, safe, and fun to explore come night time.

Riverside bazaar

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Plan of attack

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Mighty gate to the citadel

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Imperial garden

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Lake fit for kings

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Tallest flag pole in Vietnam

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     The following day, our train wasn’t departing until later that afternoon. In preparation for our impending doom, we rented bicycles, explored the city on our own, tiring ourselves in hopes of sleeping out the whole train ride. Just as Hue was a staging ground for many battles of the past, it felt like one for us too. Come afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, had our last supper, drank minimal amounts of liquid, and headed for the station. The familiar sound of train coming in, we searched for our car amidst chickens running loose, and unreserved ticket holders elbowing each other for pole position when the train comes to a halt. Thankfully, we booked one of the best cabins you can get, a couchette of four. Upon finding our car and cabin, as expected, bed linens and pillows were not for the faint hearted, its exactly what my dorm bed looked like back in college after a whole semester has gone by and linens still unwashed. We were sharing this cabin with an old, friendly Vietnamese couple who looked like they started the trip from Saigon, you know what I mean. The toilets, sad to say, for 14 hours, we never ventured into the deep unknown. When the train started moving, we wore our rain coats for protection, like lab gowns are for laboratories, our packs for pillows, as we began our descent onto our beds. There was no standing up, no moving, no talking, no nothing. From my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time gets slower when a person is in motion, for those who disprove it, they have yet to try this 14 hour train ride for an experiment! Innumerable hours later, I woke up to the sound of our train breaking into a halt, to me, it might have been the sound angels singing. It was then that our friendly old Vietnamese cabin mates animately informed us we can now get off the train. Some ways of saying things are just universal. We have arrived in Hanoi.

Impending doom

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Rocky is not impressed

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Reminiscent of my unwashed dorm bed linen after a whole semster back in college

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     Getting off the train station, you get a different feel from all the other capital cities you’ve ever been, but you do get a feel that you arrived at the center of culture. Its not a backwards society, but its not over commercialized, pushed to its maximum potential. Instead, in the old quarter, you get streets of colonial style two story houses, its no surprise because it used to be the capital of French Indochina. The usual tells are the wrought iron balcony railings, and those chic French windows, and more architectural flourishes that contrast the later communist ideology.  Stores that are properly categorized according to their merchandise, as it has been hundreds of years ago. Brave a dark and narrow alley, if you’re lucky you can get to see functional communal houses. Loud PA devices installed on electricity posts from almost every corner of the old quarter, making announcements. Its early in the morning and there’s a community of joggers, and Tai Chi practitioners around Hoan Kiem lake, while close to it, shop keepers are dutifully opening shops, not without having that sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee or perhaps a Banh Mi, a sliced baguette with meat, greens and sauce inside, the inevitable child of French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

French colonial architecture in a photogenic state of disrepair

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Ladies getting in shape

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My company doing yoga around Hoan Kiem lake

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Barber street

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     After walking around the old quarter guidebook, in hand, visiting those historical sites, giving respect to one of the good hearted communists by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, and more museums, we’ve had enough history, propagandas and  boring bureaucracy. By now, we were starving. In Hanoi and much like the rest of Vietnam, the food they eat reflects their culture and their lifestyle. You will notice that there are thriving street peddlers selling food from a cart served on children’s tables and foot stools. Mainly because Vietnamese people have a dining culture. My theory is because the working population, including women,  doesn’t have much time left beyond their working hours to cook at home, its just more practical to eat out. And with a wealth distribution that doesn’t always equate dining out with eating in western style restaurants, or fast food chains, alas, street peddlers thrive.

Street peddler

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Street food action

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My company getting lost in the goodness of her pho from a street peddler

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      With fairly equal opportunities, making for a tough competition, only  quality street peddlers survive. The best guide will always be the number of locals who dine, or even queue. If street peddlers aren’t your thing, there are some long standing restaurants, barely meeting our ideology of what a restaurant should be, that serve some of the best meals I’ve had in the whole trip. Cha Ca La Vong at Cha Ca Street, serves only one dish for decades now, you simply walk in and order how many orders you want. The best bun cha, a perfectly grilled meat eaten with rice noodles, mixed with some fish sauce and light greens, served from an institution of a place aptly called Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh Street. Glorious meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo. Although in general, you would be hard-pressed to settle for a bad meal in Hanoi. After our long and arduous journey through Vietnam, it taught us that food is better from carts than those cooked with roof above their heads.

Reusable wooden chopsticks. Yum!

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Bun Cha from 1 Hang Manh Street

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Meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo Street

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72 Hang Bo Street

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Street party in Hanoi

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We found Bobby Chinn

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      After a much deserved overnight cruise to the mystical Ha Long bay, we bid Vietnam farewell. When it was time to catch our flight bound for Manila, I reminded myself that just as all good things come to an end, the most underrated thing about traveling is coming home.

Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay from our junk boat

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Getting deeper into Vietnam

When my company and I were planning this 14-day south to north Vietnam trip, we knew it wouldn’t be complete without experiencing Vietnamese trains. When the French built a colony here, much like any other European super power of their time, they brought railroads with them, as it is one of the most functional forms of logistics and transportation. I presume these trains would have been state of the art in their time. It had the air of luxury for the first class cabins with their butlers and buffet cars. And that industrial look of the coach which of course, the rest of the blue collar masses had to partake in. When the French left, the trains continued on , much of it the same with what they used in their good days here. With a little research and visuals, we have formed a brief but solid idea of the current state of these trains, and the conditions of taking them as our main source of transportation. It would have taken almost 2 days of a train ride marathon to reach Hanoi from Saigon. With the figures in hand, we counted how much water consumption versus visits to squatting toilets. If shower is even possible, would it make us cleaner than our previous unbathed states? Or are those couchettes worth the bites? It was then that we decided to cut the trip in half by taking a domestic flight from Saigon to the city of Da Nang, located in central Vietnam. A strategic point, from which we can cut the train ride ordeal significantly.

When we arrived Da Nang airport after an early morning flight from Saigon, we were glad to have made arrangements for transfers to Hoi An, A UNESCO world heritage site in central Vietnam, instead of having to bargain with drivers at 7 o’clock in the morning. From Da Nang airport en route to Hoi An, we would be able to visit the famous marble mountains of Da Nang. There will be some exquisite marble carvings lined up below every mountain, just before the entrance, tempting the most impulsive tourists to ship larger than life sizes of these marble carvings. These five marble mountains spread around the city are more like larger hills. It should not intimidate the most out of conditioned travelers, there is a lift for a nominal fee, if you don’t care to walk. There are pagodas that dot each mountain, small caves that may open up to buddhist idols carved out straight from the mountain itself. For the curious kind with keen eyes, there will be lots of small pathways veering off of the provided map, some will be your most rewarding lone moments because these mountains are quite touristy. But the most rewarding view would be once you get to the peak of the hill and enjoy a 360 degree view of Da Nang. Mountains on one side, and the seemingly interminable coastline of Vietnam on the other. From the time of visit, there have been lots of on going construction of what seemed to be chain of hotels along the coastline. I can only imagine how this pristine area, with its white sand and near perfect shores will be the next hot spot of tourism for Vietnam.

Off the map walkway

A charming pathway off the map in one of the marble mountains

Marble statues carved out straight from the mountain

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Made it to the top with my guidebook!

From the top of one of the marble mountains

Marble mountains side

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Interminable coastline

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     Upon arrival in Hoi An, we decided to stay in nearby Cua Dai beach that’s lined with hotels fit for a James Bond villain. After all, we have spent some rough but fun times during the previous half of our trip. Hoi An is nicknamed “The Venice of the East”, for its beautiful river streets and historical significance of being a wealthy trading post, giving this town an air of wealth and grandeur. The Portuguese settled and traded here too. Its got a preserved architecture and grid city street planning. Buildings are indubitably similar to each other, a whole town filled with old Chinese and Vietnamese houses, now in their antiquated yellow-washed but intact walls, the reason that it has become a tourist attraction. But what I really like about Hoi An is that it still remains a place for locals to live in. They have not been gentrified by negative aspects of tourism. Local industry is still intact. You will have some of the best tailor made silk clothing here as you will see from every tailoring shop. There’s also some good food at cheap local prices to be had from those stalls lined up across the river, apart from the more established restaurants within the town.

Hotel fit for a James Bond villain

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Night swim in our hotel

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Established riverside restaurants

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Munching on some tasty cheap food from Hi restaurant just across the bridge

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Buildings in their antiquated yellow washed walls

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Hoi An at night

Hoi An at night

     After recharging for a couple of nights, we were ready for the next half of the adventure. From Hoi An, we made a short stop in another Cham kingdom relic in My Son en route back to Da Nang, from where we are taking a famous, afternoon scenic train ride to Hue. For our first train ride in Vietnam, we were expecting something quite worse than what we actually experienced. The train cars have definitely come from the French era, but apart from old carpets, worn, funky smelling seats, universal dusty curtains and a distinct smell of dried fish brought by some suspected passengers, it didn’t turn out as bad as predicted. This three hour train ride goes through coastal railroads, and as the sun sets, unobstructed by the sea stretching into the horizon, it makes for the most glorious back drop. Each tunnel we passed through was an eclipse of total darkness, until a different cove appears, darkness gives way for orange skies, reflecting on undeveloped white sand beaches, sometimes just cliffs that fall straight to the open sea. But my favorite is whenever we cross arched stone bridges as we head for a turn and sneak a photo from outside the window when no official is looking. Its one of the most moving train rides to be had, just make sure you sit on the left side. Over all, I would do this trip again.

Vast My Son relics from the Cham kingdom

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Ga could be either chicken or train station

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Inside the train

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Coastal railway view

Scenic train ride from Da Nang to Hue

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     That’s it for now folks! Watch out for our following misadventures in Hue, impending doom of a train ride to Hanoi and the rest of our north Vietnam experiences from the next and final installment of my Vietnam series.

A preview of what happens next

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