Saturday, December 01, 2007

Hey Hello!

Well let me just begin by telling you all that if you have to spend the night in airport, Caracas is a pretty decent place to do it haha. I have been here in Venezuela for the past 12 hours hanging out before my flight to the Dominican Republic later this morning. I have been up to quite a bit since I last wrote, so here is an update...

Following our escapades the Greek Isles, Mary and I headed to Athens via ferry. Being as it was 1 am when we arrived, we opted not to pay for accommodation that night and camped out in a McDonald's with four other backpackers (4 Canadians) and waited for the metro to open at 5:30. Beyond tired, the six of us exchanged travel stories and gave recommendations before lugging our ever increasingly heavy packs to the hostel for check in. Athens was great - very touristy as to be expected - and the sights were very cool. The highlight for me was wandering around the Acropolis and the countless ruins that are now scattered in with the modernity of a contemporary Athens. Far and away the most depressing thing about leaving Greece was the food - no more gyros! We booked a flight to Barcelona, 3:55 am departure time, because that´s how we roll, and were one stop short of the airport when the trains cut off at midnight. Stranded at a random bus station, we ended up meeting a Chilean guy who was in the same boat, and coincidentally the on the same flight, and were able to split an over priced taxi to the airport between the three of us. Bonus!

Barcelona was rainy when we arrived and we spent far too long attempting to find out horrid hostel. Without food or sleep Mary and I headed to Las Ramblas where we found a great hostel with cool people and an awesome location - changing places was a no brianer. Spain was awesome and B-town was a great way to start it off. Gaudi galore! I led the charge on our walking tour of the city - La Perdera, the famous apartments, La Sagrada de la Familia, and Park Guell. We also did a lot of eating in Spain - paella and sangria - the food was fantastic. Next came Madrid, home to some of the greatest museums I have ever been to. With its wide tree-lines streets, and travel friendly atmosphere, Madrid was easy to navigate but quite difficult on the wallet. Every single day the dollar seemed to be losing strength, further killing my already dwindling bank account. Speaking of which, for those of you who have not yet heard, the company Mary and I worked for in Japan has totally shut down all schools and has filled for bankruptcy, not to mention that they stiffed me on my final pay check. Several Nova teachers found themselves jobless and facing eviction etc... It has been an international news topic, and it looks like I got out just in time.

Next we were off to Lisboa, Portugal or bust. After an overnight train from the Spanish capital we arrived early in Lisbon. I really had no expectations as to what the city would be like and found myself pleasantly surprised by its unique charm. The African influence is everywhere and when mixed in with European fundamentals makes for a very cool place. The city center is full of plazas and statues dedicate to the many explorers and their famous expeditions around the globe. It didn´t take long to fully explore the city, and a few days later we we off to Lagos in the Algrave -- the southern most section of Portugal. Known mostly for its beaches and party scene, Lagos lived up to its reputation. Mary and I booked our stay at the Rising Cock, a hostel known by backpackers everywhere as the place to be in Lagos. Packed with people, I´d say RC was one of the most fun places we stayed. Everyone shared cooking facilities, bunk beds and a really nice lounge/tv area. The best perk was breakfast: Mama, who ran the place, made fresh crepes all morning - boo ya! Mary and I had originally planned to stay only for a few days before heading to Morocco, but we enjoyed our time there so much that we extended and decided to leave Morocco for another trip. After meeting some awesome people and partying sufficiently, we headed out on a road trip. With two Aussie girls and two guys from Canada, we rented a car and set out to see the rest of the Algrave. The next four days consisted of swimming, sleeping on some of the most beautiful beaches, scouring for firewood, and spooning with perfect strangers for much needed body heat haha. It was a total blast - more fun than I can possibly explain. One place we visited was Sagres, Europe´s most southwestern point which was believed to be the literal end of the world before explorations began. Very cool.

From Portugal we worked our way back to Madrid via Sevilla world famous for flamenco dancing and summer bull fights. Kat and Monika, the Aussie gals from our Algrave excursion, continued on with us and we spent the next few days together before breaking off and going our different ways. Sevilla was really nice and relaxing, without overwhelming amounts of things to see and do. A six hour bus ride got us into Madrid at 10pm the day before we were to begin our trek to the Dominican Republic, and the city was booked solid for the weekend. No avaliabilty in any hostel near or far, so we decided to sleep in the airport, a good thought in theory -- saving money and we certainly wouldn't be late for check in. I ended up looking like a complete homless person when I pulled out my sheet, added as many layers as would allow and found an open spot in the hallway to sleep after locking my baggage to a nearby table. For a freezing cold stone floor I can't complain about two consecutive hours of sleep - not too bad. Mary and I hung out in our new home, also known as the food court, until 8 am when we were finally able to check in for our 3 pm flight, though the hands on the clock seemed to be moving in slow motion. We played the waiting game in true seventh grade fashion -- playing War and MASH with half open stuggling eyelids. Of course our flight departed late, not that it mattered as we had another night booked at 'el hotel del aeropuerto', but the nine hour cruise to Venezuela was easy and uneventful, but sleepless for us both. With the time change we arrived in Caracas at 7 pm, which meant we were looking at another 18 hours of waiting in the land of duty free and expensive/amazingly delicious airport food. Although, this time we were able to find a section of chairs without arm rests - ie a cushioned bed! I know it's difficult, but please, try to hide your envy. This evening I managed to get in four hours of shut eye before being wide awake in anticipation of seeing my best friend Jill in the DR. I met a Dominican woman, travelling back from India, who chatted my ear off, in Spanish of course, for about an hour and a half. She was very kind and I loaned her my convereter so she could charge her phone.

The time had come for us to check in and actually leave the airport, thank the lord. We headed to the gate and showed our tickets - there was a great confusion and we were then told that our luggage didn't make it on the plane from Spain. WTF mate?! We checked in early - Air Europa literally had hours to gte our baggage on the flight and some how managed not to. The man who was assisting us in Spanglish kept saying "tomorrow, tomorrow" which I assumed meant that we may not be able to fly today in my sleep starved state of delirium, when really he was refereing to the luggage. We were able to fly just fine, and our gate check in consisted of the Ascerca staff hand-writting our names and passport numbers down on a piece of paper before boarding. All passengers were then shuffled down to a screening area before ascending onto the bus that would drive us out to the plane for boarding. The Military Police ran the screening process. Men and women were separated into two lines and each was well patted down before given permission to hop on the bus. The darker your skin the more patting and passport checking you were given. The MPs glanced at the cover of our American passports, known by many locals as the desired Blue Passport, before barely running a finger over us and granting admission onto the vehicle, while darker individuals were held up for as much as five or ten minutes of profiled screening. This was the first time we were overlooked for our skin color in 14 plus months. The bus finally took off and drove over the busy runway to a tiny, well loved, green plane that looked like it might lose a wing sometime in the near future - I just hoped it would make it to Santo Domingo.

A quick hour up and down over beautiful Carribbean waters and we were in the Dominican Republic -- without new underwear or a change of clothes from our current, which were quite tired from three days of travel. But it didn't matter as soon as I saw Jill jump out of the long line of people eager too see their friends and families when we crossed through the airport doors.

More to come soon.

All my love,

C

Monday, October 22, 2007

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Singh!

Bombay. Mumbai. It doesn't matter what you call it the magnificence of the city is inescapable. Bombay, when it was under British rule. Mumbai, the signal India has reclaimed it's roots. Ironically, most people who inhabit the city still call it by Bombay. Tough habit to break, I suppose. We arrived to Bombay in the wee hours of the morning after riding the train from Agra for 22 hours. We grabbed a cab and headed to a hotel we knew was close to all we wanted to see and do. Only a few blocks from the Gateway of India which sits on the waterfront in Southern Bombay, we had a room located at the end of a dark-ish hallway on the fifth floor of a building with no elevators. Needless to say it was a challenge lugging our crap to the top.

Bombay is home to the Reserve Bank of India, the Bombay Stock Exchange and the headquarters to several of India's largest and best-thriving companies. Cool, but who cares? The real appeal to Bombay lies in the sites like Elephanta Island, the Gateway to India, the Queen's Necklace, and the famous Taj Hotel. Oh, and BOLLYWOOD! Anyone in America who has seen a Bollywood film will understand the excitment that comes with actually visiting the cities where all these crazy creations are well...created. The film industry in India is growing year by year, and movies are beginning to leak into mainstream American film. Apparently, the likelihood of a foreigner being approached to be an extra in one of the films is quite high. The thought of being an extra was rather exciting and was something Christy definitely wanted to do, if possible. I was game, as long as I didn't have to go looking for an opportunity. Truth be told it wasn't something I thought to be all too likely. Boy was I wrong? Within two hours of being in Bombay we were approached by a guy who seemed rather legit (he had a business card and everything), asking if we would like to be in a film. Ummm...yeah! Not only do you get to dress up and sit in the background of a movie, but they pay you and feed you for the day. Very cool. We end up saying we will meet up the next evening. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, kind of was. Come to find this "gig" wasn't so much a role in a movie as we would be hostesses for the evening. That should have been enough to stop us, but instead I ask, "Well, will they be doing our hair and makeup?" The answer was no, so I was out! He had asked us for our shoe and waist size, as there was a costume involved. So you want me to dress up in all black and play hostess for the evening? That's so worth more than 20 mesely bucks. Sorry friend, and with that, we were out, thus bursting the bubble of my dreams of becoming a Bollywood star. Next time India, next time.

Mary

Busted on the Bus!

Cambodia....what a trip. We started in Phnom Penh, as you've been told. We went from there to Siem Reap, you've read that, too. When we thought of time in Cambodia it was really an after thought. In the months we spent thinking of where we wanted to go Cambodia was never high on the list, however, was added in the end by default as we new it was close and probably worth seeing. We started with giving it a day or two, that soon turned into more. Before leaving Vietnam we decided to dedicate more time to a country to which most people don't give two thoughts. Without realizing it, we were in for a lot more than just Angkor Wat.

The trouble started when we got off the bus in Phnom Penh and grabbed a tuk-tuk. It was Christy, our friend Sean, and I with all our luggage which we were desperately trying to keep from falling into traffic at every turn. Within 2 minutes of being on the tuk-tuk it started to pour. This was crazy, flooded-the-streets-within-seconds kind of rain. I haven't seen it very often, and when you do see it, you understand the power behind nature. The streets were flooded, we were getting wet despite the "rain flaps" over the "windows." After another five minutes our tuk-tuk dies and our driver proceeds to flood the thing with gas until it's forced to work.

The next day the three of us went to the killing fields. Okay, I know this was a movie and all, but I still really didn't know anything about the genocide that took place in Cambodia. Talk about being kept in the dark! There were human bones and clothing still poking out of the ground as you walked around the now vacated mass graves that leave the ground looking like a giant piece of swiss cheese. The tour we took was short, as there wasn't all that much literal ground to cover, but the entire even was sobering to say the least. Everyone spent the next few hours rather depressed. Conveniently enough, our hostel showed The Killing Fields on TV that night, and every night we were there. That's kind of their thing, I guess.

Next problem. The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Long, dirty, bumpy. We were forced to get off the bus at the rest stops and hang out and order the really bad food that was being schlepped by the locals. When we got off the bus in Siem Reap we were literally forced to wade through the sea of tuk-tuk drivers offering their services. The door was swarmed, making it virtually impossible to get to your luggage at the other end of the bus. I took one of the shopping bags I was carting around and started swinging. Nothing gets little Cambodians out of the way faster than a big, white lady swinging a bag like a machete in the jungle. I grabbed the two giant backpacks Christy and I have been lugging around, yelled to her "Got 'em!" and found a driver that took us to our place.

Once inside I noticed my backpack, which had been on the bus with me, in an overhead compartment, was sporting a strange shape. Definitely not how I packed it earlier that morning. I opened the bag and noticed that items from the back pocket were now in the front. Not good! My brand new camera, purchased just before leaving Japan, flashed into my mind and my heart hit the floor. Gone. So here's the twist in the story. While we were in Vietnam this new camera, the latest Casio Exilim, totally crapped out on me. Apparently the cameras have been reported as having problems, and this particular crap out has happened to many others before me. The camera, was basically broken. I had to wait to get back to the States to either have it repaired or replaced. That morning I had taken my memory card from the new camera and placed it into the old one, which I kept with me, you know--just in case! So I tear through my backpack and the camera is definitely gone. Did they take the plastic bag with all the cords and accessories? No. Did they take my little makeshift jewelry box with all my jewelry? No. Did the morons take the only worthless thing from my backpack? Yes! They stole a broken camera with no memory card. And here's the kicker: instead of dealing with repairing the camera I am now able to claim it under my travel insurance, which will pay for a brand new one. So in the end, it's the best possible outcome for having something stolen.

After that there was an unfortunate incident involving a tuk-tuk driver and him extorting money from Christy and my bleeding hearts. Suckers, kinda. Basically, we were tired of dealing with people and paid the guy six dollars he didn't earn. But that's another story.

To feel better after losing a broken camera, Sean, Christy and I went at sunrise the next morning to Angkor Wat. The view was incredible, but the site was flooded with tourists that you could tell did not really appreciate what they were seeing. They piled off the bus for sunrise, took their crappy pictures (really, we saw some, they sucked.), and then piled back on the bus. The best part of the main temple, for us, was when all the other people peaced out and we were left with silence and the refreshing glow of the early morning.

We toured the temples all morning. When it was time to check out the last temple we were all a little beat and were slightly rushed. I was no longer taking great care in where I was stepping, and about 3/4 of the way into the temple I slipped off a stair, did the splits, and scraped the hell out of my left shin and knee. The shin is still tender and I will have some sweet story-inducing scars.

So that my friends, was my Cambodia, in a very small nutshell. Would I go back? Probably. :)

More to come, really, we promise.

~Mary

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vietnam,Cambodia and India Oh My!

Hello!

I am writing to you from New Delhi! Travelling is going really well - so many new things to see and do, always moving, and trying to take it all in. I wrote last from Hanoi, so here is a little bit of catch up...

After spending a weekend on BEAUTIFUL Ha long bay in N. Vietnam we headed south to Hoi An. For $25 you can buy a bus hopper pass that allows you to get on an off at five major stops in Vietnam (Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Na Trang, Saigon). Thinking this was a great deal, Mary and I booked our tickets and hopped on an overnight bus. What was meant to be 14 hour ride turned into an 18 hour ride, which would be ok if the roads weren't so horrifyingly scary and the people on our bus weren't so shady. The roads are in an awful state and people drive like madmen. After seeing two accidents, three bodies, and experiencing the horrifying driving techniques displayed by our driver - I was pretty sure we weren't going to make it to our destination. This was the kind of driving that would have caused my mom to go white knuckled and shove her feet firmly into the dashboard in front of her. Around 2 am the driver pulled over for gas, when we asked where a nearby bathroom was he gestured to an open field and a wall. Neat. The rain started and I thought it best for my own peace of mind to throw on my sleeping mask and ipod, grasping for much needed distractions. We stopped in Hue and dropped half of the bus off before continuing on to Hoi An. 40 minutes before our arrival we got a flat – a tiny man changed the giant bus tire in ten minutes with the help of a hand crank generator, very impressive. Hoi An is famous for tailoring and shoes. I had two winter coats, two leather sandals, and a pair of boots made custom made for me. Far and away the best part was selecting the materials, linings, and colors. (All of these items were whipped out in the span of 5 hours!) While we waited for out goods Mary and I walked around the small city, discovering the untouched areas of town including a cool covered bridge and an interesting river area.

Having had enough of the bus we booked a flight from Da Nang to Saigon ($35) for the following day. At the airport we spotted another American, Sean. Sean is a student at Penn who works for the government and was sent to Asia to pick up documents. Fancy huh? After the flight we foun each other again at the guesthouse, then once more on the bus to Cambodia. Sean became our American Asian travel buddy. Saigon was fine – just another big city – though it was interesting to see the historic sights. It is very clear that the city was 'captured', what with the continual display of Ho Chi Minh's image. He is everywhere; currency, banners, murals, and you can even see his remains in Hanoi - ick. From Saigon we headed to Phnom Penh the Cambodian Capital. Another bus ride (10 hours this time) and a border crossing later we arrived. The ride was fairly unevenetful - just a border crossing, ferry ride, a little dirt road action and you're there.The countryside in Cambodia is stunning; bright greens, clear skies with looming rain clouds, and white cows dotting the landscape. It was immediately different from Vietnam. Upon our arrival in Phnom Penh we hopped into a tuk tuk and headed to our guest house. September is the wet season in these parts and mid way through our ride it started to pour. The streets flooded and our tuk tuk stalled in the middle of a giant pool of water. "This is so South East Asia" were Sean's exact words, and it was. People we everywhere in the rain. Playing, selling, and generally carrying on as if nothing had changed. When we finally arrived at our $4 a night lodging, we met up with a group of Irish and some friends from the bus ride over then headed out for dinner.

I wasn't especially impressed with the food – nothing out of this world by any means. Walking along the main row of eateries I began to notice that the streets were lined with begging children. They latch on to your arm while holding their younger sibling hipside and break your heart asking for money. What's more depressing is the total lack of parents, there are children everywhere but no parents looking on. The capital is a really interesting place - very much stuck between the past in the present and seemingly confused on which way to go. There are only a few paved roads, and all of the houses are made of scrap material such as corrugated metal and palm frawns. We spent the folllowing day checking out Phnom Penh's main attractions: the Russian Market, and the genocidal center - more commonly known a the Killing Fields. It's interesting to see the country recovering from the horrific rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70's. The Killing Fields is one of those places you must see, but struggle to get through at the same time. The area is just out of town and home to upwards of 9,000 unidentified graves. We paid for a guide who was visibly harded from having lived through the experience. He walked us through the semi-excavated fields and explained the different sites of the now preserved area. The experince was numbing until you reached some of the many areas where bone, teeth, and clothing are visible from the trail. Bones and other reminints jutted out from the ground, making the history much more real than I had ever anticipated it would be. Talk about needing a Disney chaser.... The tuk tuk ride to the market was silent as we all attempted to digest what we had seen.

From here we went to Siem Reap and explored the absolutely amazing sites of Angkor Wat. Getting up for sunrise over the famous ancient towers was well worth it. Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia - and well should be. My favorite site was Angkor Thom and the Bayon - famous for the giant faces adorning the massive stone temple. $10 got the three of us a driver at our disposal to take us from sight to sight all day. We were spent by noon. Temple treking is hard work! The stairs are narrow and extrememly tall. I was a little sore the mnext day from all the hiking around. Each site offered soemthing very different, and all had spectacular views of the grounds. Much of the property was damaged or destroyed bu the Khmer Rouge. Most of the statues are headless or defaced. To think that Ankgor Wat stood largely untouched for so long only to be attacked the 1970's is a very depressing thought. The hostory that is shown on the temple was is fascinating and detailed in an intracate and careful manner. It was an amazing experince to wander through the ancient grounds.

From Siem Reap it was back to Bangkok - Via yet another bus. The road linking Siem Reap to the Thai border is notorious for it's horrid conditions and semi painful journey. about 25 people were packed into a tiny bus - Mar and I sat with the luggage as we were the last to board. There was no a/c and we road the entire distance on a dirt road. Windows open, sweaty and completely gritty - as the road flew in and covered us from head to toe... 13 hours later we were happily back in Bangkok ready to take off for INDIA!


We started off in Bangalore (just another big city), and then took an overnight sleeper to Goa. Not the best way to go - but yet another experience to add to my growing stack. We had 'beds', and by beds I mean a single sized area for two people who are meant to be very short. The ride was cramped to say the least and the driving was a step up from Vietname, but maybe only a baby step. Goa is very tropical and the beaches were nice. We rented a Motorbike and I, uh, kind of crashed it. I Broke the mirror when I slid us into some mud. Mary was unscathed - for the most part - and I took the brunt of the fall, landing on my right side and cutting up my ankle, knee, and arm pretty decently. I used my sweet swiss army knife to open up my 40 rupee bottle of hydrogen peroxide and to pop open the beers I needed in order to complete my at home medic attempt... Most of our time in Goa was spent beachside and trying to fend off the relentless vendors wearing beautiful saris. We flew into Delhi yesterday ($92) and I knew I needed to see a real doctor - so I headed to the hospital after getting into town. I didn't have to wait, was bandaged up, and handed a prescription for 5 days of antibiotics, and anti inflammatory, and something else. The whole visit (drugs included) cost about $30. Unreal. I wouldn't have made it without the help opf our now good friend Farooq. He strated talking to us immediately after we stepped out of the taxi, helped us find a really cheap hotel, called a car and waited at the hospital while I got patched up. Today we hired a car and toured Delhi and Farooq came along for the ride. Delhi is insane and wonderful all at the same time, there are people everywhere, and culture can't help but thrive in this maddend metropolis. My favorite thing would have to be the cows, the holy cows mind you. They are everywhere - in traffic, sitting on the sidewalk. People feel them and won't dare hit them because of their status as sacred. Tomorrow I am off to Jaipur then headed to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), then finally down to Mumbai before taking off for the UAE and Turkey. India is AMAZING. The food is better than anything I have ever eaten, the people are warm and friendly, and it is so colorful.

Well I am off for dinner with our crazy impromptu guide Farroq, he keeps trying to sell Mary a rug and I think he's sweet on her hehe!

With love from India,


C

Monday, September 10, 2007

Good Morning Vietnam!

Hello from Ha Long!

I arrived in Hanoi two days ago (From Bangkok) and am currently up north a bit on Cat Ba Island. Thailand was great - the people were extremely warm, the food absolutely amazing and the city itself is very cool. We saw it all - everything from the cultural side to the - we;;, how shall I put this - the not so cultural haha. Bangkok is really quite easy to navigate; the public transportation was great - not to mention very cheap. The people at our hostel were really down to earth and relaxed. The first night in town we met another American girl, Katie from the greater Sanata Barbara area, who was really cool and friendly. It was really nice meeting someone from the States as we comprise the minorityof the travelling group in South East Asia by a gaping percentage. It has been really interesting to copare stories with other people who are travelling - hearing and sharing future plans and past experiences.

We flew into Hanoi on Wednesday evening and arrived via mini bus at our hostel just before curfew. Our place was located in the heart of the Old Quarter of Hanoi and was stunning. For a grand total of six bucks we had an immaculate room, breakfast, fast and free internet, and good company. Mary and I spent yesterday wandering arounf Hanoi. What a CRAZY city. There are no traffic lights or really any rules - cars, motorcycles, bikes and people swarm through the streets in a chaoitic manner and some how people manage to get where they need to go. The sidewalks are crammed with motorbikes and street restaurants, so you have to hoof it in the street with all other traffic. Crossing the street is another issue entirely - you just sort of enter traffic and push your way through. The key, however, is to look at the drivers and move at a leisurely pace. It's difficult to fight the instinct to charge across to safety, but then you realize that there is no such safety, so it is best to hedge your bets and move in the direction that you need to go.

The noise and exhaust is endless, and by the end of a day you are coated with a thick layer of grime and sweat that appears under your fingernails after an innocent scratch. Ick. There isn't a huge amount to do and see in Hanoi, the city in motion seems to be the main attraction. The Old Quarter is beautiful in a really unique way I'm afraid I cannot fully explain in words or show in pictures. The French influence is everywhere - from the food to the architecture - even vendors address you as 'Madam'. The city appears to max out at five stories. There are no towering sky scrapers, no signifiers of modernity. The French colonial apartment buildings are stunning in their own right. The interiors, however, are barren and mirror the dirty impoverished streets below. This decor seems somehow to sum up Frnace's failure to overtake the country, because ultimately Vietnam did everything in its own way.

The people are abrupt and quite pushy compared to Thailand, and everyone is out to make money off the lost and confused tourists -- even if you are no longer lost or confused. The agression is palpable at times and I have been able to feel myself physically cower a bit from its strength. When you set foot outside an eatery, or really anywhere, people engulf you trying to sell goods or get you on their motor bike. I have never said no so many times in my life. There is something really primitive, desperate and animalistic about this behavior that really turns me off. There is no 'arms wide open' welcoming attitude in Hanoi - it is very much every person or themselves. When vendors call to you they demand rather than ask you to buy their goods: 'you buy banana', 'you to buy pearl'. I can't help but wonder if this agression is a result of some deep rooted cultural history having to do with the repeated overtakings, attempted imperialistic efforts, and the continual defense of their land. The government here is anything but together or organized and it show through in every aspect of life in Vietnam.

Simply getting oriented in Hanoi is a massive undertaking. After spending the morning figuring out where the hell we were and managing to buy our bus tickets to Cat Ba/Ha Long - Mar and I hopped onto some motorbikes to see some of the historical sights and get a good view of the markets. There is nothing like straddeling a motorbike to make you feel like a local. We ate dinner at an upscale restaurant, spending about $5 a person, and indulged on some good eats. The food had been a bit dissapointing, though the nem is great. Next up Ha Lon bay with its famous limestone islands, caves and emerald ocean waters. Stay tuned!

With love from Vietnam,

Christy

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thailand!

"One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster,


The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free.


You'll find a god in every golden cloister,


A little flesh, a little history


I can feel an angel sliding up to me."





And so it begins. Fifteen weeks of traveling the world back to front all starts here, in Bangkok. We left our apartment in Japan bright and early on September first and set out on a four hour (local) train ride that brought us to Osaka just in time to wait the obligatory two hours before our flight. At 1pm we taxied out and took off aboard a plane belonging to the Singapore Airlines fleet. We were sat in Economy, but lucked out and were given the first row. Upside, tons of leg room and we get served first for everything. Downside, it's the designated baby row. It's actually kind of cool....they attach little bassinets to the front wall where the baby can sleep during the flight and Mom doesn't have to waste her lap space. We had three young ones in our row, one sitting next to Christy, and two across the aisle from me. All three were practically perfect throughout the flight.





We touched down in Bangkok sometime after 4 and went through the most painless customs and immigration process I have ever witnessed. Luggage in hand we got a cab and travelled the 30 minutes into town to where we found our hostel. For the record, the cab ride was about 3 bucks a piece. Already, I love this country. We're staying here at Big John's Backpacker's Hostel. It's known more in town for the meat pies and good food than the fact that it is lodging for foreigners. Big John's is run by a pair of Aussie's who have been here for about 12 years. The food is actually damn good and I can see why the meat pies comes first on the moniker rather than the accommodations department. We're paying about 5 bucks a night here and staying in a 6 bed female dorm. The showers are clean, the water is warm to hot, the beds are futon style but really comfortable, and there's all the AC we can handle. A good thing seeing as this weather is none too different from what we left in Japan. The humidity is killer and I'm glad I've gotten used to it over the past three months.





Our first night here we ate, settled in, checked some maps and planned out day two, and then hit the sack early. Christy and I both got about three hours of sleep the night before we left. Packing completed we were simply saying goodbyes and getting things in order. I was doing my best to fight off the throat infection I caught two days before leaving Japan. As if the back injury in August wasn't enough I managed to get myself on antibiotics and hardcore anti-inflammatory to make eating, drinking, and breathing a possibility. Nothing like adding a little more pressure to starting a trip. Anyhow, I digress. My point is we were tired, I was sore in my back and joints, and so after hanging out we slept in our 6 bed female dorm, just the two of us, AC blasting. I woke up sweating through my shirt as the infection still wasn't allowing me to regulate body temperatures. Cool.





Day two--We did what all good travellers do in Bangkok...we hit the market! A few people we met the night before told us about the special weekend market that takes place in the north part of town. It was HUGE! I'm thinking at least seven city blocks worth of Thai, well, everything. We walked for hours through clothes, food, silk items, food, animals, food, housewares, artwork, food, cock fights (that one we stumbled upon and you probably couldn't find it if you really tried!), car parts, I mean everything. I have never seen such a complete collection of things. Amazingly, I bought nothing. My back was killing and we were exhausted. Christy and I met a girl named Katie the night before. She was waiting to meet up with a friend who's flight into town had been cancelled, so we had here hang out with us for the day. Her and her friend were placed with us in the dorm room that night. After the market we came back, hung out, had some food, met more cool people and decided it was time to get a massage. Just around the corner from the hostel we found a nice little place giving Thai massages for 200 Bhat an hour, that comes to about 6 dollars US. It was amazing. Painful at times, but I loved every minute of it. I could tell my lady was irritated with me because my joints weren't cracking like she wanted them to. Sorry sister. Christy was in pain afterwards. I was ready to sign up for round two. After the massage it was dark, so we headed to dinner with two girls we met at the hostel. Katie and her friend Brenda went off exploring, so it was just the four of us. We roamed down the street a few blocks and came upon a restaurant serving....THAI FOOD. The place next door was a Japanese restaurant, I'm not even kidding. I had spring rolls and Phad Thai with chicken. It was beyond words. I haven't had food with that much flavor in a year. I forgot how much I absolutely love the food in SE Asia.





Day three--Today was culture day. We started by taking a water taxi along the river to a central part of town. We went around to various temples including Wat Pho which houses the Reclining Buddha. Laying on it's right side you walk in to see it's giant face staring at you in all it's golden glory. It is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok measuring at 46 meters long and 15 meters high. This temple is known as the birthplace for Thai massage. It is adjacent to the royal palace which several Thai people wanted to point out only to follow by telling us we're not allowed inside. From here we took a Tuk-Tuk (small two-seater, open-air taxi good for weaving in and out of traffic) to a temple only open to the public on holidays. This day happened to be just that. Normally only monks are allowed inside to pray, however, today, unlike the royal palace, we were allowed inside as well. We met a man who sat us down inside the temple and taught us about it's history, and told us stories about Thailand. He was probably one of the friendliest people I can expect to meet on this trip. Our Tuk-Tuk driver was great and escorted us all over town for an agreed upon 10 Bhat a person. That's about 30 cents. At our last temple we came outside to find that he had gone and left us with one of his friends. His friend drove us around to different high-price shops so that he could get free gas coupons. The more shops we went to the pushier he got telling us, not asking, to stay inside longer. After the fourth shop we were finished, it was nearing 6:30, and we asked him to take us to the subway. As it was after 6 he refused saying he was off work. Long story short he screwed us and we wound up taking a taxi through heavy traffic back to the Sky Train so we could make our way back home.



On the walk back we grabbed some amazing food for dinner and headed back to the hostel where we hooked up with Katie and Brenda. Here's where the night got a little more interesting. We decided to head to Patpong, the district known for terrible knock-offs and sex shows. Four white girls walking the stalls didn't throw anyone. It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like, you will be approached and told there's something you HAVE to see. These men hold up a small card which is basically a menu for what you can see inside their bars. They tell you, "Only 100 Bhat, sample for free!" Basically, come inside, if you see something you like stay, have a drink, it's only 100 Bhat. So we did. You sit, have a drink, and watch a bunch of really disinterested Thai women in bikinis sway, not on beat, to the music being blasted from speakers somewhere overhead. They are completely unengaged. When the drinks come the women who run the bar (there are about 30 of them!) come up and demand, "You pay now!" So we hand over our 100 Bhat and are told, no no, the price is more. "You pay more money, this not enough! 300 Bhat, you pay now!" So of course, we argue saying this is not what we were told, the man downstairs said 100 Bhat. Of course they have no idea what man you are taking about. So we leave, one sip of my lukewarm Coke gone, as well as my 100 Bhat. Feeling cheated we walk on. We are hounded by more and more people. Two men stop the four of us and assure us they wouldn't dare cheat us. The other bar is known for lying to people. So, because we are suckers, we agree to go to their bar. Shock and amaze, the same thing happens. Fine, we argue, pissed off that they don't just tell you the damn price in the first place because at this point it's about principle. I mean, I have standards when it comes to my sex shows! Only honesty. We got a little more than we bargained for because these women were nasty albeit small. They wanted money, we said no way. I got aggressive and said give me my money back and we will leave. They got loud and scary. These women are weathered my friends. They've been living this life a long time and want whatever good they can cheat out of you. Words were being exchanged between the four of us and two of them and finally the woman says to me, "You want your money back, get on stage and dance!" She had a hold of the straps of my camisole and were pulling them off my body in a quasi-violent manner. Okay, here's where it's not okay. You can yell, and argue, and in then end it's a little fun for everyone. But touching, touching is where the line is drawn. There will be NO touching. Fight or flight kicked in and from the feel of adrenaline rushing through my veins, apparently I had chose fight. Before I realized it my fists were clenched and I was getting angry. The woman recognized this, backed up about two feet and screamed at us to get out. We did, and finding ourselves back on the street, another 100 Bhat short I noticed I was shaking a bit. It took several minutes to calm down. I had no idea my body would react like that when confronted by someone who looked like she wanted to fight. Apparently, without thinking, you prepare to fight back. Not a pleasant feeling when your brain catches up to what's happening. In the end we agreed the night made for a good story. We grabbed some beers, talked a while, and headed home.



Day four--We headed to what is apparently backpacker central...Khao San Road. This is a hub for street stalls peddling the clothes, purses, and jewelry that backpackers and tourists alike crave. It was featured in the first few scenes of The Beach and has been more than famous ever since. Here you can find guesthouses, restaurants, travel services, photo huts, massage shops, and hair dressers. Anything you need or want can and will be found here. It's not as big as the first market we went to, but does offer more of what travelers are looking for. We spent the entire day walking the street, shopping, buying, people watching. We grabbed a massage, had some dinner, and headed home.



Later that night we went out with a few guys from the hostel to Soi Cowboy. It's not so much like Patpong where you can get sex shows, but there are bars, with dancing (if you can call it that), however these women all wear numbers. Company for the night is for sale everywhere...not something that was so brazenly displayed in Patpong. The night ended at five the next morning. Plenty of drinking and watching girls pretend to care which people come in and out of the bar. I saw more than my fair share of old white men groping and grabbing at young Thai women. And when I say old, I'm talking 40s to 70s. Gross.

Day 5--After only a few nights sleep we were off to Chinatown. Although Chinatowns can be found across the globe I doubt any can compare to that in Bangkok. It was sheer madness, and not the normal madness found in an average Chinatown. This took crazy to a whole new level. The sidewalks in this portion of the city are strictly for selling and storing. There is very little walking involved on the sidewalks, thus pushing pedestrians to the streets, dodging taxis and motobikes alike, all the while feeling despairlingly out of place because our white bodies haven't seen sun in the last 50 weeks. At this point neither of us had eaten since dinner the night before and it was pushing two in the afternoon. We walked the streets for over 20 minutes without finding a single restaurant. We finally had to track down a mall and eat in a coffee shop. The noise and bustle of human traffic was overwhelming and after wandering for about an hour we were done with Chinatown and headed back to Big John's. Our flight to Hanoi was at 6 giving us just enough time to return to the hostel, grab our bags, snake a taxi and head out to the airport. Country number two here we come....

Mary

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

VISA, don't leave home without it!

I'm sure we all remember the VISA commercials from several years back, willing us into the credit card game by informing us of the convenience of cards over cash and the fact that they are accepted everywhere, so God forbid you leave your home without your Visa. American Express was really beaten upon in those commercials, I always felt a little bad....

This story really has nothing to do with credit cards, that comes in another entry you'll see shortly. No this story is about the visa that allows entry into a foreign country. As you all know we are gearing up for a trip that will take us, literally, around the world. We are visiting 12 countries, and several of them require visas, but only one we had to acquire before entering the specific country. This country....INDIA. The visa for India is setting us back a little over $100 but I figure it's a poor country, this is my way of helping out a bit. It's recommended you apply for your visa several weeks before you actually need it. To apply for a visa you need to go through an Embassy. The Indian Embassies in Japan are only located in Osaka and Tokyo. We had to go through Tokyo because it is arranged by prefecture. So we call the embassy, get the address, print out the application, attach a passport photo, get a money order to cover the cost of the visa, include a self-addressed stamped envelope and mail the sucker to Tokyo with our passports. It was a Tuesday. The 14th to be exact. We were headed to Gujo-Hachiman (another story for another entry) and Christy and I were anxious to mail it and go. We'd rented a car for the trip and were concerned about beating traffic. We went to the post office, payed for the postal orders, mailed the passports et. al, and were off on an adventure. If all went well it was to take upwards two weeks.

The following Monday I am at work. I come back from a lesson and notice that I have two missed calls, a text message and a voice mail. This is never a good sign as it is a sure bet that it's my roommate and there is something urgent, generally negative. Turns out she had received notification of two missed calls on the previous Friday and two more that Monday, all from the same number. There was no message left, but she called the number and was connected to the Indian Embassy in Tokyo. They informed her that they did not accept postal orders and needed cash. I thought it was funny that I hadn't received a similar phone call. She did too. Christy asked if they had both passports and visa applications. "Both," the man asked. Never a good sign. They had not received anything from me. Interesting, as we mailed everything in identical envelopes at the exact same time and were quoted a two day delivery to Tokyo. My heart stopped a little. Great, my passport is unaccounted for. Then I think back the hectic morning a week earlier. I remember the unease I felt when handing over my passport to be put into the mail. Then I remember the step I skipped that really made my heart stop. We did not use registered mail. At this point there was no way the post office would be able to track down the envelope containing my only way out of this country! For those of you who know me, this is very out of character. These are bases I always cover, things I always think about. It goes to show that when you get a little too comfortable, your game might slip a little. Unfortunately, this was a highly inopportune time for one's game to slip. The next 24 hours were spent in a deserved panic.

The next day I went to the post office. I asked about cancelling the money order. The asked for a receipt. I went to extract it from my purse only to discover I didn't have it. More panic set in and I realized my game had slipped more than a little. I save receipts for everything. Hell, I saved the receipts from the immunizations I received over a month ago. Without a receipt, or the actual money order, there was no way to recover the 11,250 yen I spent. At this point, Christy had already mailed off another 25,000 yen in cash to the embassy, I discovered, also not through registered mail. This was not due to comfort levels, rather stress and lack of time to think. A potentially bad situation was starting to get a little worse. Now I'm not only without a passport, but also about $100 bucks.

After spending two hours at the post office and learning I could not cancel a missing money order and there is no way to track down my piece of mail, I returned home, defeated, and tried the embassy once more. As soon as I got on the phone the lady recognized my voice, and told me they had received my stuff. She was in such a hurry to tell me that I need to send cash that she wouldn't let me tell her that it was already in the mail! She was rather insistent that I send it. I told her I had. We did this about three or four times before it sunk in. Okay, so we are a week behind schedule at this point, I'm a little nervous, but at least I know the physical location of the most important document I own.

We went to Disneyland the next day. As we were in Tokyo it only seemed right to call the embassy and check in. Have you received our cash??? They hadn't. At this point they felt it necessary to tell us that if they don't have it soon, the likelihood that the visas are able to be processed is slim. Great.

Thursday we find out that the cash made it! After a quick sigh of relief my heart started up again. Then we found out the processing could begin and it might take over a week. We don't have over a week!, I thought to myself. To cut down on time they told us to make a trip up to Tokyo to retrieve the documents by hand. Christy works, so that left me. The embassy told us it wouldn't be ready until probably Friday of the following week, August 31. Our flight to Bangkok leaves Osaka at 1 pm on Saturday, September 1. Okay, it's cool, we just like to keep things interesting. The embassy wasn't sure if any of this could be done, or whether the visa would take that long or longer, so they said they would call on the following Wednesday to let me know when to travel to Tokyo.

So for the last week I haven't been able to plan anything for my last two days in Nagoya, keeping a clear schedule in case I have to run up to Tokyo. We should get a call tomorrow. As of two hours ago I was hopeful.

As of an hour ago, I am relieved and a little closer to stress-free.

I was on the phone with my parents, explaining that I was planning a trip to Tokyo, when the doorbell rang. Normally I would ignore it because I am calling long distance and it's usually a person who has the wrong apartment. It didn't feel right to ignore this caller, so I put my parents on hold, got up, answered the door and was put face to face with a man holding two brown envelopes with handwriting I recognized as Christy's and my own. I almost peed myself as the man handed over the accumulation of two weeks of stress and worry and finally relief. I now sit with a way out of this country, a way into another country, and a piece of paper worth over 11,000 yen.

I told my parents what had happened as I ripped open my self-addressed stamped envelope. They said it was good karma and talking to them was good luck. I agreed. My Dad put it best when he said, "There, now you can move on to worrying about the next thing." Yep, pretty much. Over the next three days there is plenty to worry about, but why not just relax and left life happen. Boxes will get packed, then shipped, things will be sold off, and goodbyes will be said. On Saturday we will get on a plane and say goodbye to what has been our home for the last year. A lesson learned, be a little more diligent in applying for visas, and when you've lacked diligence, allow life to play out...it usually does, and it does so for the best.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kyoto--Day 3

Ah, back to normalcy. I love this city. As soon as I get off the train, out of the subway, into the fresh air I am instantly reminded of why I love Kyoto, and how amazing travelling in Japan can be! I know I complain an awful lot about living in Nagoya, and the truth is, it really does suck to live in my city. Daily life is not that great, but I would easily devote a few months and a lot of money to travelling through Japan. And Kyoto, as often as I can, is a city to which I will always return. The cool thing about this trip is three fold. One, I get to experience it with a person seeing it for the first time, which is always fun! Two, I had an agenda, which I will get to later. Three, this is the third different season I visited Kyoto--very good deal!

Before leaving Ise (ick!) Christy made a few phone calls and found a nice place for us to stay right outside the Imperial Palace, excellent central location, Chris! The room was great, bug free, and cheaper than the ryokan, go figure. We walked into the lobby around 6 pm and were greeted by a string quartet visiting for the evening. It was lovely. The music was wonderful, the hotel was clean, people spoke some English, and they had a computer with internet free for guests to use. BONUS! We were immediately pleased with the accommodations and got settled quickly. We all slept a bit better that night and were up bright and early for a buffet breakfast downstairs, consisting of Japanese and Western cuisines and then it was off to the Handicraft Center, the main reason I went to Kyoto for a third time. My Mom informed me she needed more Ukiyo-e, the art she bought when her and my Dad were here in April. Okay, no problem, so I set out to buy a few more prints, which was a rather stressful job considering they were meant as gifts, and my Mom is rather picky when it comes to art, and that's a lot of pressure and how was I know which prints to choose!? AGH! Not to worry, I found five that I knew would be suitable, and along the way I found three more for myself to add to the five I bought several months back, as well as another one to give as a gift for a lovely person back home.

After a little more than an hour prints were chosen, paid for, and ready to be shipped off to the states. After this we hit the path of Philosophy, Ginkaku-ji, and my all time fave Kiyomizu-dera. It is spectacular in the summer. Green, and more green, everywhere you looked. The colors ranged from light to dark and everything in between. The air was fresh, although a bit hazy over downtown, and there were so many white people I got a bit dizzy. I forgot that it's summer pretty much everywhere, and most people were on holiday. Kyoto is a tourist trap for tourists domestic and international alike. The place was packed and the air was filled with good spirits and positive energy. I fed off this as best I could, soaking up every bit of the atmosphere, holding a constant smile to my face. Seriously, I love this city.

After Kiyomizu we walked through the hills, watching the sun start to set, weaving our way through small streets and tiny back roads, keeping on the lookout for Geisha. At 7:00 I was back to Kyoto station, and looking to catch the Shinkansen home. I left Christy and Jan to another two fun-filled days in the original Imperial city. Sad to go, but so nice to have been back to visit. This will have been the last visit to Kyoto this time in Japan. It's one thing I will miss the most.

Mary

Toba--Sunday

Well, we survived the night with a few bites each and no one getting stellar sleep, but we were up early for showers and a quick conveni breakfast, and then off for an adventure-filled day 2!

Today was marked for Toba, another rather popular ocean-side spot a quick train ride away from Ise City. Toba is a small city with only over 24,000 residents, and is a sister city to Santa Barbara, California. Even with only a few residents Toba is still a bustling city thanks to all there is to see and do. A main point in Toba is the aquarium which, albeit nice, was not something on our agenda. No no, we were headed for what all the tourists really go to Toba to see....the world famous pearls. Toba is home to the Mikimoto Pearl Island. Mikimoto pearls are known the world over and are claimed to be the nicest a person can get their hands on. One thing is for sure, they are the most expensive a person can get their hands on! Mikimoto Pearl Island has four main areas: the pearl museum, the Ama Stand, the Kokichi Memeorial hall, and Pearl Plaza. We'll start with the museum, as that's what Jan, Christy, and I did.

The museum is the most popular attraction, and it contains four different sections which detail the birth of pearls, their production and distribution, as well as examples of both natural and cultured pearls. You can also see how pearls are made, the entire process of how a pearl is cultivated (from the oyster to the final product). Another section teaches about the farming and harvesting techniques used, and the economics dealing with pearls. One of my favorite sections of the museum was the area where one can watch the pearls being sorted, drilled and threaded onto strings of various lengths. One is able to learn the difference between natural and cultured pearls. I myself don't so much fancy the cultured pearls, as they are basically human made, and it feels like cheating. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't turn a pair down, but they're not my favorite.

After this we walked the 100 feet to the Ama stand where a demonstration was about to begin.
The demonstration is put on by the well-known women pearl divers. It was said back in the day that women had larger lung capacities than men, therefore making better divers. They dress up in these thin white suits that don't look all that conducive to diving into the ocean, but apparently are worn to scare off sharks. They also wore these funky, old school diving masks that take up a person's entire face. The divers dive about 10 meters downward to collect abalone which they then deposit into large wooden buckets attached to their feet that float on the surface of the water. When a diver drops into the ocean to retrieve a pearl the bucket floats above them, and is able to glide along the surface following the diver if need be. The ama have a history in this region dating back about 2000 years. Becoming an ama begins from childhood from the training offered by one's elders, and many ama continue diving well into their 60s and 70s. The demonstration only lasted a few minutes, but it was totally worth it.

After the ama demo we walked through the pearl shop, where I could afford nothing, soaking up the magnificent air conditioning for all it was worth. We decided to brave the heat by venturing back towards the station and grabbing a bite to eat at a local shop where locals were waiting in line to be seated....about five minutes after we'd arrived. Good timing us! A few plates of pasta and we were back to the dreaded Ise city. You could tell by the looks on our faces that no one was looking forward to this. Jan and I thought it would be worth our time and a bit of money to get the hell out of Ise city and move onto Kyoto a day earlier than planned. Christy was concerned that since we'd already paid a deposit on both nights we wouldn't be able to leave. It wasn't long back in Ise city that she was willing to give a go at backing out of our second night and finding something better, ANYTHING really, in Kyoto. She looked at me and said, "all right, you do the talking!" And talk I did. My Japanese is horrible, and the ladies who ran the ryokan spoke no English, but somehow I did it, and we were out of there just as soon as we could pay our bill. In less than an hour we were on a train bound for Kyoto, a sense of relief shown on our three faces.

Mary

Saturday--Ise

I figured after my birthday came and went time would start to move a little faster around here. Well, for the good of my sanity I was right. Christy's Mom, Jan, arrived in Japan on the 27th of July. She was here for 11 days and I was fortunate enough to take some vacation days and travel around for a good portion of that time. We started out with going to Ise, Toba, and Kyoto. I would be with Christy and Jan the first three days, and leaving them after only one day in Kyoto to return to life in Nagoya.

Bright and early Saturday morning we grabbed some breakfast and headed off to Ise. Located on the shima penninsula in the neighboring prefecture of Mie, Ise is home to the holiest and most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. Okay, so that seems worth seeing. We were scheduled to stay two nights in a traditional Japanese ryokan, a lodging dating back to the Edo period. Ryokans are basically very large, old houses turned into hotel style lodgings. The rooms are typical tatami mat and the baths are communal style. You can opt to have meals provided for you which are undoubtably traditional Japanese as well. We were staying in a triple room at the end of one of the many halls located in the upstairs portion of the house. We were provided with bedding, a TV, a small table, and AC unit, and a few hangers for our yukatas. The yukatas are robes provided when one is off to take a bath/shower.

When we arrived in Ise it was hotter than hell. Seriously, I think I may have had it worse than Satan that day. At 11 in the morning we were looking at 36 degrees celcius. When you do the math that comes close to 100 for those of us in the US. That's damn hot that early in the day. We walked our stuff from the station to the Ryokan along a street that barely provided a sidewalk, so lugging suitcases wasn't so easy. Lucky for me I was only toting a backpack and a healthy dose of optimism, both being light enough to walk comfortably...minus the heat and the humidity I failed to mention earlier. It's the humidity that really gets you! We checked into the ryokan and tried to beat the heat by laying down for a few minutes. It worked well, and 90 minutes later we left our air conditioned room and set out to see, you guessed it, the holiest and most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan!

As soon as we got there and I took two pictures at the entrance...my camera crapped out and the batteries died. This is extremely typical of my camera as it sucks the life out of batteries faster than I can suck the life out of a glass of wine. As I was at the holiest and most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan I figured there would be tons of pictures I would need to take. The guide book told us the shrine was in a park that wound through the mountain and houses many other smaller shrines. I figured we would be spending hours at this place. Long story short, Ise shrine was a bust. There were three other smaller shrines besides the main shrine, all looking the same, and none being all that impressive. The main shrine was nice, but nothing I haven't seen before, and you're not allowed to take pictures. Thank God I went back to grab freaking batteries! I ended up taking more pictures of leaves with snails on them than I did of any shrine. Oh, and the part about the park winding through the mountain? We made the loop in about 30 minutes, and that's being generous.

Okay, time filler. We needed something else to do. Christy suggested we take the train to Futami, a town only 30 minutes away. There we could walk to Futamigaura Beach, which is where the famous Meoto-Iwa wedding rocks are located. The train wasn't going to be there for a while so we decided to get a Coke. We went to the coffee shop we had passed earlier in the day to find what looked like a very closed establishment. We knocked and a woman ran over and hustled us inside. She turned on lights and fans and poured us some sort of brown water that reminded me of a scene from the movie The Goonies. An old man sat at a table close by and grunted at us to look at the menu. The place smelled strongly of urine, and after getting the brown water and eyes from the dirty old man, I was no longer in the mood for a Coke. Jan and I looked at each other in a now-way-am-I-staying-here kind of way and two minutes later we had Christy convinced it was okay to ditch out before we ordered anything. I wasted no time getting myself out the door, Jan and Christy close on my heels. Apparently I missed it when the dirty old man slammed his angry fist onto the table at the sight of us leaving. It scared the hell out of Jan and Christy. I was already out the door and not looking back, he he he. We walked back to the station and grabbed some Cokes from the vending machine.

So we finally made it to the beach where we get to see the famous Meoto-Iwa. Meoto-Iwa litearally means Husband-and-Wife rocks. The rocks are joined together by a rope made of rice straw weighing in over one ton. The rocks represent the union of two Shinto Gods and somehow symbolize the union of a man and a woman in marriage. The two rocks are several feet apart, the much larger of the two, on the left, said to be the man. Shock! I'll post pictures later, the rock on the right is much smaller than the one on the left. That's the real symbolism right there! We walked around the rocks, and the accompanying beach where I took about 40 versions of what can be said to be the same picture. We got there just before sunset and it was beautiful. We got back to the train at dusk, where we discovered the next train coming to take us back to Ise city would not be rolling through for another 45 minutes. This made sense following how the day had gone so far.

Back to Ise city where we needed to grab some dinner. It was 8 o clock at this point and anything that was open was looking to set us back about $50 a person. No, thank you. We finally settled on convenience store food and had a picnic in our room. We watched crazy Japanese television which Jan got a kick out of. We all took showers and settled in for the night...AC frosting away. It was still hotter than all get up as I layed awake. As soon as I started to drift off a mosquito buzzed my ear. That is the worst! It bit me about three times and I was up at that point. Long story short, it was hot, I was bit by mosquitoes about 15 times that night and I got very little sleep. So much for a peaceful end to day one....

Mary