32 Hours Tokyo

Japan Airlines allows a free 24-hour layover in Tokyo, which I took full advantage of when I booked my ticket from Hanoi to Chicago through Tokyo. In addition to the exemplary quality of JAL, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit an old flatmate in Tokyo and see the city and eat delicious food. What follows is a totally doable 32 hour layover in Tokyo:

7:00 a.m. Landed in Tokyo! Bought a bus ticket to Osaki station from the airport. Also bought a SIM card, because meeting up with people is hard without data. Toilets in Narita International Airport are SO COOL– lots of buttons.

8 a.m. Bus left the airport, and I had a USB port charger on my seat!

9:30 a.m. I arrived at Osaki station, which was a local bus and train terminal. It differed from many stations I have been to in its high level of cleanliness, and the quality of shops and restaurants at the terminal. I met my friend, we walked 15 minutes to her apartment, where I dropped my bags and we began our adventure. We walked back to Osaki station, and hopped on a train to Hamarikyu Gardens.

34699456_1844306718962449_526412048158949376_n10:30 a.m. Arrived at Hamarikyu Gardens and walked around for over an hour! Saw beautiful flowers, trees, and reconstructed teahouses

IMG_449711:45 a.m. Walked over to the Tsukiji Market, the Tokyo Fish market, and had sushi at a very small sushi bar. Tried a sampling of eel, shrimp, urchin, roe, egg, tuna, scallop, and more tuna sushis. The fish was SO fresh, and buttery-melt-in-your-mouth delicious. We walked around the market for quite awhile afterward.

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1:00 p.m. Picked up delicious red bean mochi with a strawberry on top from the market, and walked back to the Hamarikyu Gardens, where we caught a water taxi upriver to a Shinto Shrine in the Tokyo Skytree area. The taxi took about an hour, including a stop, to arrive at the area, and we used the opportunity to relax our feet and drink iced tea from a vending machine onboard.

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2:30 p.m. We walked around a market surrounding the Shrine, and payed respects to the shrine itself. In need of some serious hydration, we went to a tea shop around the corner and got iced matcha drinks.

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4:45 p.m. It was a 20 minute walk to Oshiage’s Onsen, a Japanese bath house from the teahouse. My friend and I bought our entrances, rented a towel, including entrance to the saunas, and spent the next 2 hours getting squeaky clean, sweating, and relaxing in the hot tubs. It was a wonderful community gathering space, and there were young and old Japanese women soaking in pools ranging from scalding hot to frigidly cold. We tried all the pools, and left feeling rejuvenated.

7:00 p.m. We found sake to drink at a cute pub run by a Japanese Osaka (momma). They were thrilled when we came inside, and we had a delicious meal of the fluffy sweet omelette, edamame, and a household dish with meat and glass noodles. We spent a good time eating and drinking sake, and finally took the train back to Osaki station. We stopped by the supermarket to get some yogurt for breakfast the next day.

10:30 p.m. We fell asleep after a long day of adventuring, and I bought my bus ticket back at 2:30 p.m. to the airport for the next day.

9:00 a.m. We woke up and had coffee and breakfast in the apartment before gathering our things and adventuring out to the train station to once again take the train to Shibuya and the Meiji Shrine Kaguraden, another beautiful garden and Shrine.

Here, we saw beautiful iris flowers and water lilies, and a shrine wall dedicated to the sake makers. We washed our hands before entering the main shrine down the path, and saw a traditional Shinto wedding procession!

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11:30 a.m. We walked over to Ichiran ramen restaurant, which was a glorious ramen experience! We bought our ramen tickets at a kiosk at the entrance to the restaurant, and then waited to be seated. We were led into a bar that had wooden dividers at each seat, to provide ramen-eating privacy. Our ramen arrived, and we dug in, silent for the meal, and happy to have arrived early enough to beat the line that extended down the stairs after we finished our meal.

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12:45 p.m. We walked a few blocks to Takeshita street Square– a wild shopping street catered to the cute-urban aesthetic. We walked around and stopped in a few very colorful stores before going to a photo booth that allows you to make your eyes bigger and edit your photos!

1:15 p.m. We took the train back to Osaki station, and we tried a Hojicha drink at Starbucks (apparently, the hip “next matcha”), and I went to the supermarket to get treats to bring home to family and friends.

2:00 p.m. I packed up my bags at the apartment, said goodbye to my friend, and walked over the the bus station, where the bus left exactly at 2:30 and arrived at the airport just before 4 p.m.

5:55 p.m. My flight took off to Chicago! I spent the next 12.5 hours watching movies and listening to an audiobook.

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No traffic in Naypyidaw and thousands of temples in Bagan

Too much has happened in the last five days to NOT write…

First, Yangon was great. I met up with a Smith alum who kindly offered me a place to stay for two nights and took me around in the sweltering heat all day Saturday. Burmese food is delicious, and I had coconut noodle soup for breakfast, lots of curries or Indian  biryani lunches, and endless MANGOS for snacks. The pictures below are of sweet Burmese tea in a classic tea shop.

It is mango season in Myanmar, folks, and I thought I knew mangos before this trip after living and traveling in other sub-tropical countries. This was until the delightful sien ta lone, or “diamond mango”, entered my vocabulary and stomach. This mango, small but plump, is unlike any mango I’ve ever tried before, and I think I’ve discovered the gold standard for mangos. I will recreate the famous marketing phrase (diamonds are a girl’s best friend) and say that diamond mangos are a Hannah’s best fruit. One day, I ate 4, without blinking, between noon and dinner. I got a lot of stares from Burmese fruit vendors as I peeled the mango skin away, like a banana, and ate the mango meat like an apple, leaving not one drop on the seed. “This weird white lady,” I expect they thought…

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From my mango awakening in Yangon, I took a bus (the only foreigner going) to Naypyidaw, where I contacted a Fulbright alum who had studied public health at the University of Texas, and is now working in Naypyidaw. He picked me up from the bus after a 5-hour bus ride (with a mango break), and was so generous with his time. And Naypyidaw is a WEIRD capital city. There are 6-lane highways and not a soul on them, and lining the highways are well-groomed lawns and landscaping, with the occasional giant government building or hotel.

While my friend/Fulbright contact worked one morning, he dropped me at an elephant camp, assuring me that the elephants were “happy”. I quickly discovered, after he left to work with a promise to pick me up in 3-4 hours across the river at an ecoresort, that these elephants were not the happiest. Granted, they are not hauling teak wood anymore (the adults used to haul logs of up to 2 tons!), but they are now used as a tourist attraction to give rides. I watched some other Burmese tourists get on the elephants and get walked around, and I was a little more than disgusted. This is an example, I think, of a westerner assuming that something is absolutely, without question, wrong, and seeing it through a local’s eyes where they might think that my wrong is just “way better than it used to be!”. So, I fed the elephants corn and sugarcane, pet their muscular trunks, napped on a bamboo platform, and crossed the river in a boat, to a refreshing dragonfruit juice while I waited to be picked up at the ecoresort.

I hopped on another Hannah-is-the-only-foreigner bus from Naypyidaw to Bagan and seven hours later, with I-don’t-know-how-many stops in small towns along the way, I arrived in scorching Bagan. Still, on the ride to my hostel (Ostello Bellowhich I would HIGHLY recommend to any solo traveler!), we passed monument after monument popping out of the surrounding vegetation. I arrived, did some sunset yoga with a group on a sandbar island in the middle of a river, and went to bed early.

This morning, we left the hostel at 4:45 a.m. to see the sunrise from a temple about a 10-15 minute e-bike ride away. We climbed up to a higher level in the temple and sat facing a cloudy sky, watching temples illuminated in the background as the sun rose. After breakfast, I went on a tour of some of the different monuments with a guide from our hostel (a FREE tour! Another brilliant thing about Ostello Bello!). We learned that in Bagan there are 4000 monuments, some of which date back to the 11th or 13th centuries, and cover 55 different kings. There are 5 different monument types: pagodas (which you can go in and also walk around), temples (which you can enter), stupahs (which you cannot enter), monastery (for the monks), and ordination hall (school for novices).

Several earthquakes in Bagan’s history have destroyed or damaged hundreds of monuments. Some are in repair, and it is crazy to see original stuccos or frescos from the 11th or 13th centuries next to original Buddha statues. The tour was from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., with a lunch break, and by 2 p.m., if felt like we were e-biking through an oven.

I have one more full day in Bagan, where I hope to climb Mt. Popa with some new hostel friends. Next stop is Kalaw, and a 3-day trek to Inle Lake, with more mango stops (yes, I got one today in the market on the way back from the tour), more sweaty time gawking at natural and man-made wonders, and hopefully onto a slightly cooler climate than Bagan!

Massage school, Malaysia and sandy toes

A few  weeks ago, I finished the Thai Massage Level I (30 hour) course at the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai. I now know where NOT to press while giving a massage, and have a basic understanding of where energy lines are, how to properly apply the correct amount of pressure, and have a full appreciation for how tiring Thai massage can be! I was thrilled with my experience at massage school. Not only did I bond with the fellow massage students, but the course was hands-on and professional, and we learned a lot within a short 5 days. Some of my friends stayed on to complete the full 3 or even 5 weeks of the course and receive a full certification, and while part of me wishes I could have done that too, other parts of me were eager to continue on my adventure.

The Saturday after massage school ended, I boarded an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. I had booked my ticket through 12goAsia and the process was seamless. I had a load of snacks from the market and 7-11 on hand (more on the marvel of 7-11 in Thailand at a later date), and the train left right on time. I rode in the Women and Children’s car, which had AC, and I was glad I brought along a sweater. Around 7:30 p.m., an attendant came through the car and made the beds (I had the lower bunk). It was as comfy, if not more comfortable, than a hostel bed, with a curtain for privacy. I fell asleep and only woke up to the 5:30 a.m. announcement that we had to get our beds turned back into chairs for arrival. I would highly recommend the overnight train (just bring your own snacks/meal!) for the journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok!

I only spent a day in Bangkok, and during the day I met up with an alum from my school for lunch. We ate at a family restaurant and sampled tons of dishes, and I was so happy to have someone order in Thai. Plus, the restaurant had a very cute chicken-theme going on (left picture above). After lunch, I walked through Chinatown and saw a GIANT gold (real gold) Buddha. After gawking [respectfully] in the Wat, I wandered through the night stalls of Chinatown, oogling steamed buns and bowls of soup, finally settling on a simple, brothy, but delicious bowl of noodle soup that looked heavily frequented by locals.

The next day, I had a wild time getting to Don Mueang airport, trying first to take the train (delayed an hour) and a tuk tuk, and finally in a minute of desperation at the side of the highway next to an overheated tuk tuk, a taxi. I made my flight just as we were boarding, and landed in Trang, flying over rubber tree plantations and abundant jungle greenery. My friends met me at the airport, and we ate and explored for the next few days (shout-out to Sara and Emily for another fantastic tour of a city, food, and wonderful travel mates). Sara and I explored a cave while Emily went to work one day, and stumbled into a cave (no entrance fee) with the story of a baby elephant that had gotten lost and had its tail cut off ages ago. We were awed by the stalactites hanging down, sometimes so far that they joined with the equally impressive stalagmites growing from the floor into massive columns. We followed dimly lit pathways into chamber after chamber, and were glad to be walking together as bats flew down from their roost to check us out.

We ate a lot, and one of the wonders was a dessert called bingsu– a pile of ice cream but with a snowy, fluffy texture. We had mango bingsu to celebrate Emily’s birthday, and we poured coconut milk and condensed milk over the stop. It took four of us to finish the massive pile. For bingsu, go with friends! Also seen was a Mister Donut, which I have only ever seen in El Salvador, and apparently, now in Thailand!

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We now come to the most tragic part of my journey: After a wild bus ride from Trang to Hat Yai (I would recommend just booking in Trang, and not try and book in advance as I did), where I scrambled to transfer to my bus to Penang, I arrived desperate to eat in the foodie capital of Malaysia. I wandered through Little India, excited for mango lassi, naan, and curry. This was my only meal in the two days I was there, because immediately after arriving at the Air BnB for the night, I had terrible food poisoning, and enjoyed the delicacies of butter crackers and Sprite the entire next day. It had to happen, and on my final night in Penang, I did manage to go out with a friend to eat some rice porridge near the Clan Jetties (congee, I think).

After a puddle jump over to Kota Bharu on Air Asia, I got an airport taxi to the pier (about an hour taxi, for 60 ringgit). I was dropped in front of a tour company, where I booked a seat to and from Perhentian Kecil for 35 ringgit each way. The boat dropped me off at Mari Mari, a lodging option constructed entirely out of recycled materials. I met my friends on this pristine beach, with brilliantly colored parrot fish swimming just offshore and monitor lizards handing in the trees. Eddy, the owner of the hostel/resort/shacks cooked us group dinners each night that we were able to help prepare. The beach community was easy.

I snorkeled two separate days, and saw black-tipped sharks (I was totally dismayed that some guides of other groups baited the sharks with some fish), turtles, dolphins in the distance, and schools of colorful fish. My friends and I took some island jungle walks to different beaches, and to a beautiful camp high up on the island with sweet coffee, and where we talked Malaysian and USA politics for a few hours. The mosquitoes were the biggest menace, but we burned some incense and stayed in our mosquito nets during the worst hours.

After four days of sandy toes, we took two flights and are now back in Bangkok, using internet to make plans and sign acceptance letters and eat pad thai before I head over to Myanmar to trek, gawk at temples in blazing heat, and sit in tea houses.

Prepping for SE Asia and Itinerary

Planning a solo trip to Southeast Asia has been a dizzying experience. I leave in just two weeks, and am only just solidifying my itinerary. I have actively sought out alums from Smith College and Fulbright to connect with along my path, and have greedily devoured advice from anyone who has been to the countries I am passing through. I highly recommend connecting with alumni networks before travel– they have always been wonderful connections, and some even provide couches for short-term stays.

My itinerary follows, with some fun activities and places I will try to stay in each area:

Thailand

I’m starting in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, where I’m meeting a good friend of my sister and starting my journey in Lanna Hostel while I scope out the scene and get settled. The first full week I’m in Chiang Mai, I’m taking the Level 1 Foundations of Thai Massage with the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai.

I hope to take cooking classes that a chef friend recommended to me one free day before massage school kicks in…

From Chiang Mai I’ll take a sleeper train to Bangkok, where I’ll spend a day before flying to Trang, in Southern Thailand, where I’m meeting up with some other friends.

Malaysia

After a week in Trang, I’ll take another bus (or two– from Trang I have to bus to Hat Yai and then take a bus to Penang) to Penang and check out the food scene in George Town for a day or two. I’m crashing the AirBnB of some friends who I am overlapping with. From Penang, I fly to Kota Bharu, and take a boat to an idyllic snorkeling paradise Perhentian Kecil, where I’m meeting yet another friend. We’re trying to stay at Mari Mari after a good friend insisted that it was the best place she stayed in all of her travels in SE Asia. Woah!

Thailand

After a few days on the island, I’m flying out of Kota Bharu to Bangkok. I might spend a day in Bangkok, then fly out to Yangon.

Myanmar

It will be sweltering in Myanmar at the end of May. After watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, I can’t pass over Myanmar, and time in El Salvador has prepared me for the level of sweat I might experience. Still, I’ve made friendly connections in Yangon and Naypyitaw, which are en route to Inle Lake and the 3-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I’ll spend some time around Inle Lake, staying at Zawgi Inn, and exploring the beautiful scenery. Time permitting, I’ll bounce to Mandalay and Bagan for some incredible temples. This time of year, I’ve been warned of sweltering heat in Bagan, so this leg of the journey will become weather dependent.

Laos

I want to hang in Luang Prabang for a few days. This leg of the journey is the most wishy-washy, and I hope to plan it out more once I’m already in SE Asia. I have friends who will have gone just before me, so I look forward to milking their brains for ideas and places to stay. Mostly, I want to go trek in the jungle. From here, I’ll fly to Hanoi in Vietnam.

Vietnam

The trip will end with a 3-4 day homestay in Hanoi. I wish I had more time to explore the full beauty of this country, but I’ll tempt my pallet to hopefully establish a craving for a return trip one day.

Tokyo, Japan

I have an old flatmate from studying abroad in NZ that lives in Tokyo! I hope to take a long layover and eat some ramen with her. From there, it’s a direct flight home.

Whatcha Packin’?

After reading dozens of blogs about lightweight international travel, especially as a single female traveler, I have fully packed my 40L REI Lookout Pack complete with a travel yoga mat attached to the outside. After extensive reading and research and obsessing, here’s my packing list:

Packed

Spread of everything that will fit in my 40L bag

Clothes

  • 1 x Long dress
  • 4 x Leggings
  • 1 x jean shorts
  • 2 x athletic shorts
  • 6 x tank tops
  • 2 x nicer t-shirt
  • 1 x long sleeve travel/UV protection shirt
  • 1 x long sleeve fleece
  • 7 x underwear
  • gym socks and hiking socks
  • 1 x bikini
  • 1 x rash guard
  • Keens (running, hiking, they do it all! I’m trying these out as my sole ((Hah! shoe pun)) shoe).

Non-Clothes

  • Silk sleep liner
  • camping pillow
  • Bug repellant lotion
  • sunglasses
  • buff
  • cards
  • contacts + solution + case
  • glasses
  • Dr. Bronner’s travel size
  • Yoga Mat and Yoga Towel (also will be used as towel for beach.. etc)
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste + floss
  • Small first-aid with bandaids, wipes
  • Lonely Planet SE Asia on a Shoestring (heaviest single thing in my pack)
  • Kindle and chargers
  • Passport, printed itinerary, printed insurance copies, passport copies, shot records
  • water bladder– 2 L. Figured it would come in handy in Myanmar where it will be hot as heck!

I packed clothes in packing cubes which many blog posts raved about, and which I really like for the organization. I can see them coming in handy. I also probably missed some critical items, but this is pretty much it! I will have a small over the shoulder bag too, for the important items and day trips.

For my flights, I used skyscanner almost exclusively, and then 12goasia for busses and trains. Lodging I have mostly covered, but I will be booking on the fly for the most part, and staying in places my friends/people I meet recommend. Adventure on, champs! Updates will be posted depending on access to internet/computer.

 

Water, maize, and pretty trees

When I go into the field, I’m faced with the reality of the importance of the work I do with the NGO. Conservation agriculture is a broad term, that before I tossed around without first-hand experience. I now understand it as the practices in agriculture that conserve soil and water.  While now we might go into the field to see maize planted in rows parallel to the slope, with little soil cover, our work flips this 90°. So soil stays blanketed by cover crops or organic matter and corn is instead planted along topo lines. These small changes in practices can be a world of difference to a farmer, who may struggle during times of drought. In these small alterations, they find a bit of refuge, a bank of water stored in the soil, and more soil conserved for planting the next year.

This farmer in Guatemala planted corn on slopes ranging from 30-70°. If you’ve ever walked on a 30° slope, you’ll know that even that angle feels like a scramble. The soil was rocky and calcareous, and very little soil remained; only 10cm of soil overlaid the bedrock in patches. Note in the photo below on the right, where my hand on the left is pointing to dry, bare soil, and my friend and fellow field tech Daniel is pointing to still humid soil that had been covered with leaves/sticks/branches/weeds. The difference is notable!

This farmer had his soil analyzed in a soils lab. The results matched what we might expect from the mineralogy of the rocks– high calcium and a pretty high pH. Yet, many maize plants had purple leaves– a sign of a phosphorous deficiency. The moral here is that the farmer can save money in fertilizer if they focus on the deficient nutrient in question. Instead of applying a fertilizer with an excess of nitrogen and potassium (part of the NPK package) in order to arrive at the correct amount of phosphorous, the farmer can invest in a fertilizer with a higher concentration of phosphorous compared to N and K, and apply less.

While looking at the farm in transition toward conservation agriculture, we dug some soil pits to visually assess soil quality in terms of aggregates and texture. It was great to involve the farmer in this process so they could see the difference in soil between more and less covered areas, and what a difference this makes for soil moisture.

And, it’s the rainy season, so everything is green and growing. In the park this morning, this beautiful tree-bark peppered our walk. And on the drive to the airport to pick up a friend, this view of raindrops dotting the window from the car window made traffic more bearable. Rainbow trees like this and raindrop-spattered-windows keep beauty in this country in sight and in perspective in the present while conservation agriculture allows us to imagine a more beautiful future.

A new kind of humus

There was a photo going around the ~social media~ of an avocado that was perfectly cubed in its husk. Multiple amigos, separately, shared the photo with me, knowing my love of avocados. Since I am in El Salvador, and avocados are abundant this time of year, I retaliated with my own geometrically sliced avo:

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There is a seed (legume), new to me, that is “in season” right now. It’s called semilla de paterna (literally, paternal seed). The legume was introduced to me by a friend who has a company called Terra Mantra that makes all kinds of delicious natural jams and products. We did an exchange: I taught them how to make Beer Bread and I got to see how to make a humus using this seed (photo below from my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Pam).

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Semilla de Paterna is surrounded with a sweet, white coating that can be eaten as is. The bright green seed needs to be cooked– usually boiled or cooked in ashes for up to 40 minutes. Luckily, a bag of already cooked semilla de paterna can be bought for $0.50 in the market. I bought a bag of my own with lemon juice and salt. The seeds can be eaten whole, with lemon juice and salt and even chile, as a snack. OR, it can be made into a delicious humus…

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Like a typical garbanzo-bean humus, the semilla de paterna humus is simple: beans, olive oil (we used a mix of olive and coconut oil), garlic, salt, pepper, and an optional spoonful of tahini or nuts.

The resulting beer bread and paterna humus mix were a divine combination. Fresh and hearty and full of distinct flavors.

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I would say that the humus tastes most like regular humus, but with brighter notes than a humus with garbanzo beans. While garbanzo bean humus has a creamy, nutty, earthy taste, the semilla de paterna humus is still earthy, but with a suggestion of an unidentifiable herb, and again, brighter.

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I had to make the humus again, this time, side-by-side with garbanzo-bean humus and sprinkled with paprika.

It’s refreshing to be constantly reminded of the variety of foods I have yet to try. I will continue to relish in the new learning opportunities, especially when they end in a delicious snack.

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Seeking coconuts in 2017

Happy 2017! For the past few weeks, I have been exploring the country with my best friend and sister, and after they left, hanging out at the beach, attempting to surf as much as possible. I aim, for the remaining 6 months here, to have sand permanently adhered to my scalp from tumbles in the ocean. I am constantly seeking coconuts to sip their electrolyte-laden juices, way better than any bottled proclamation of “coconut water” back in the States.

The row of photos below is a sample of the past weeks, showing sunsets, wall murals in Ataco, our breakfast setting, sunrise, and 12 grapes.

Two of my friends have a tradition where they eat the number of grapes to the corresponding month (so, for December, it was 12). For each grape, we shared or thought of a New Year’s resolution. It was a great way to bring in the new year, with sand between our toes, sipping fresh lemonade, noshing on each grape with wishes to eat more avocados and to accomplish new goals. Here’s to a new year, and to many more days of sunshine and salt-water and dabbling in soil.