Learn how to travel off the beaten path with the monthly HoliDaze insider guide  



If you want to be a happy crapper, use a Japanese toilet

There is nothing more gratifying than a top notch toilet. And when it comes to fancy toilets it is fairly common knowledge that Japan leads the pack. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other innovative features. Their proper name are bidets, although many locals refer to them as washlets.

At first glance these washlets can be a little much for foreigners to take in. For example, in America if you sit on a warm toilet seat it means some other warm posterier just vacated that spot mere seconds before. Not the most appealing sensation, to say the least. I've even moved one stall over, just for a cold seat! (Like that one was any more sanitary.) Yet warm toilet seats are preferred in Japan, especially during the colder months. For many Westerners this definitely takes some getting used to, but they will grow on you if you spend long enough there. Trust me ;).

Of course the surprises do not stop there. Another aspect is that every model is slightly different, so there can be a bit of a learning curve. Luckily most of the important bidet functions have icons.

Bidet Control Panels

Yes...Hands-Free Cleansing!

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

Japanese bidet instructions were sometimes a bit confusing...or just downright hilarious. Thankfully this one came with an English translation.
Thankfully this one came with the translation

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

A collage of Japanese toilet control panels

These control panels are what transforms the mere toilet into a sophisticated bidet, which is the technical term of a fixture intended for cleaning the genitalia. Using the appropriate buttons a warm sanitizing spray will gently clean all your important areas, one for the males and another for the ladies. Many inside flats and private residences include the ability to adjust the temperature of this cleansing spray. Some even feature a strategically positioned blow dryer to be used afterwards! Have no fear if not, all it takes is a single square of paper to dry off and you're set.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

The Toilet Paper Holder

These things are awesome! They have a lightweight flap that overhangs the toilet paper roll and has a downward curve along its front side that features perforated teeth. Thanks to gravity and a slight upwards tug this handy little device tears off individual t.p. square for you.

But the fancy features don't stop there. Rather than have a cylindrical mount that runs through the toilet paper tube and requires 5+ seconds to reload, Japanese toilet paper holders feature one-inch plastic prongs that flip out on either side to hold the roll in place and can be changed in literally one second. (Some Westerners will recognize these as being very similar to the paper towel holders which some people have in their kitchen.)

To remove an empty roll you simply flip up the overhanging flap and lift the old tube straight up. New rolls are loaded from the bottom, it's pure genius! It is simple yet effective innovations like that which make visiting Japan an unforgettable experience. Ask anyone who has ever visited.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

  HoliDaze Tip   These one-of-a-kind toilet paper holders can be purchased individually at department stores throughout Japan. They make amazing gifts for friends back home because they are 1) useful on a daily basis; 2) unquestionably unique; and 3) great conversation starters.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

Bathroom Noises

We've all been there, whether a culprit or the audience. Admit it. After all, sounds have a tendency to be audible to those in the adjoining room thanks to thin walls and doors without insulation. But many of these Japanese bidets combat this by featuring a type of audio masking that is designed to cover any sounds generated by the user. Some are triggered by a button or hand-operated motion sensor, others simply by exerting pressure on the toilet seat, but they all sound exactly the same: like flushing water.

Otohime, the Sound Princess, muffles any noises you make while on the toilet
Motion activated "Sound Princess" muffles any noises you make while on the toilet (found in a public restroom)

After making a comment about this to Mayu I learned that apparently this feature is referred to as Otohime, the Sound Princess. Custom models even have the ability to play bowel-relaxing music instead of the flushing water sound, to help you "loosen up" -- if you so desire. When it comes to Japanese toilets the only limitation is your imagination!

Flushing

This varies greatly between models. Often it is a button without an icon. Other times it is a push-button built into the basin itself. Sometimes it is even a traditional Western-style one-directional knob -- although the vast majority of the time the knob rotates both directions, one for small flushes (小) and another for larger passes (大).

Toilet Slippers

At the entrance of every residence there is a front landing that is used for removing shoes, as well as any outwear or umbrellas. However inside each bathroom there is a separate set of toilet slippers that never leaves the confines of that space. Bathroom visitors slip them on as they enter the room and remove them on their way out. These keep everyone's feet and socks clean.

The Bathroom Sink

When traveling around Japan you will notice that many of the washlets in flats and private residences have the sink built into the wash basin. The logic behind this is fairly simple: after each flush the washbin has to refill with water to prepare for the next flush, so why not first use that water to wash your hands. Besides the obvious water-saving factor, another upside is that you are filling up the washbin with water which has a slight soapy residue to it. This helps to keep the toilet clean.

The water runs for about twenty seconds, a perfect length of time for washing your hands. Plus there is no need for hot or cold knobs as the water is already the perfect temperature.

Toilets with built-in sinks found in apartments and restaurants throughout Tokyo

Back when I had a home (in my pre-nomad days) I tried so hard to have one of those fancy Japanese toilets installed. I don't care about the bidet functions but I really do like the built-in sinks. Of course that has not been an easy task. They just don't sell them in the States. The only current option is to buy a bidet toilet seat and swap out the seats on your Western toilet.

However not all Japanese toilets have this built-in sink. Many look like the one below and feature a separate, traditional sink. These are common in public, high traffic areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.


Hotel room toilet

 

Can't Forget The Squat Toilets!

No article on Japanese toilets would be complete without mentioning squat toilets. Although these are not a Japanese invention, they can be found throughout Japan. As such it is best to familiarize yourself with them.

The first experience can be a little strange but some people argue that this method is actually healthier and more efficient. To read more on that debate, I was recently surprised to find that Wikipedia even has a page on Human Defecation Postures.

 

  Have you seen any interesting Japanese bathrooms? Did I leave anything out?

Published in Japan

Thanks to movies like Hostel, I think using hostels when traveling has gotten a bad rep. I can't tell you how many times I have people reference that movie to me when I say that yes, I only stay in hostels while traveling abroad. I personally love staying in hostels! No matter how old I get I will probably never stop using hostels while I travel. I've said it time and again, I'm cheap. I can't stand spending money if I don't have to, which is another reason hostels are a great alternative to pricey hotels when traveling!

Edu Hostel Jogja, the fanciest and cheapest hostel in all of Yogyakarta, Indonesia
This magnificent hostel in Indonesia has a staff of 55 (including two professional chefs) yet costs only $6 USD a night!   See More Photos

Hostels are not only a great way to save money but a fantastic way to meet other travelers. I'm a social butterfly of sorts so any time I get to meet new people, I get a little too excited!

Here's What To Expect When Staying In Hostels

Bunk beds... lots and lots of bunk beds! Unless you're staying in private rooms -- which defeats the f'ing purpose of a hostel -- you can expect huge, well sometimes, rooms packed with bunks. I don't pay extra to stay in private rooms, unless I need the privacy for a night or two, so I mostly stay in the larger dorm rooms since those are always the cheapest ones.

Back Home Hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has the biggest bunk beds I've ever seen at any hostel in the world
Back Home Hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of my favorites!   See More Photos

I've staying in some massive dorms where I felt as if I was the only one in the room, I had tons of space, it wasn't cramped, and there was more than enough room to store all my stuff. Sometime, dorms are smaller but still packed with bunks. This room I stayed in while I was in Rome was one of the smaller dorms where we didn't have a whole lot of room to put our stuff away.

You can expect to meet some stellar travelers just like you! Being someone who is obsessed with traveling, I thoroughly enjoy meeting people from all over the world. I'm always amazed when staying in hostels how I can meet people from every corner of the world but still manage to meet people close to home! At this same hostel in Rome, I met another Gamma Phi from Missouri. It was so cool to meet a fellow sister halfway around the world! I've met people that I'm Facebook friends with and keep in contact with.

First time backpacking? Be prepared to make lots of new friends!
Be prepared to make lots of new friends from around the world

Expect to meet some really awesome staff members that can give you lots of great inside tips for the city that you're in! While I love hitting all the big tourist sights, I also enjoy getting to know the local side of a city! Now, sometimes you may come across a staff member who isn't all that friendly, or one who gives you terrible advice... But 99% of my encounters with hostel staff members have always been positive!

One of my favorite parts of hosteling is the exchange of cultures and experiences you get! When we were in Rome, we finally decided to utilize the kitchen since we were sick of eating out. We went to the grocery store up the street from out hostel and went back to make our dinner. There were a few other people in there making their dinners as well. Once we were all done making it, we went to the dining room to eat, we all decided to share what we had made. One guy was from Slovenia and one was from some other area of Italy. We not only met some really cool people, had fun cooking "together", but then also got to taste some food of theirs from their local areas! You don't get experiences like that staying in hotels!

My first time abroad staying in hostels, I wasn't expecting much. I was thinking I'd get a lumpy bed in a crowded room, and would use it only to sleep and shower. What I got was new friends, really comfortable beds (for the most part), and a great environment to hang out and relax after a long day of sightseeing!

  The best resource for researching and booking your hostels is TripAdvisor. They have millions of reviews from people just like you and I covering literally every hostel in the world, as well as a price comparison tool to instantly find you the lowest price online.

TripAdvisor

Published in First Time Backpacking

Iceland has been on my top 10 list of places to see since I was a teenager. Why? I’m not quite sure. I recall looking at a globe, fascinated with the wonders of the world. Somehow, our planet is home to over 7 billion people, spread out over nearly 200 countries.

Iceland, other than Antarctica, seemed to epitomize images of extreme cold – a place where nobody could possibly live, right? Of course, I was probably about 16 years old, never having traveled outside of Ontario, Canada, so what did I know? But at that time, Iceland seemed like a galaxy away. It was not on any top 10 places to visit list. It was never written about in any travel sections of the newspaper. It was never featured on any travel show on television. It seemed like a lost world, a place that needed to be explored.

Fast forward 11 years, and I can now cross Iceland off my bucket list. In 2010, I finally fulfilled a childhood dream.

At the time, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. A dear friend of mine was jetting off to Europe and I thought, “Hey, I wonder if there are any cheap flights to Iceland?” This was, of course, the year that Eyjafjallajökull erupted -- much to the chagrin of news anchors around the world whom had to stumble over the pronounciation of Eyjafjallajökull -- and caused major travel headaches all across Europe. This, coupled with Iceland’s economy, likely had something to do with the ultra cheap flight -- less than $500 direct and roundtrip! I was able to snap up at the time). I had asked a few friends if they were interested in going, but as expected, there were not many takers! After weeks of hounding, my dear friend finally said yes, she will meet in Iceland, and so, she purchased a ticket from London to Reykjavik.

Upon arrival in Reykjavik, it was obvious that an amazing journey was about to happen. Note: I am an extremely organized traveler. Most of our excursions or tours were booked weeks in advance.

We partook in snorkeling (in November, mind you), horseback riding in Þingvellir, bus tours to see the geysers, a day trip to the Blue Lagoon (for the most memorable birthday ever!), and we did rent a car to drive around Iceland and stumbled across breathtaking scenery - beautiful mountains, black sand beaches, the infamous volcanoes, frozen waterfalls, empty roads, icebergs, and towns that seemed almost abandoned. Although Iceland is the 18th largest island in the world, its total population is just over 300,000, with most of those living in the Greater Reykjavik Area, so as we drove further away from Reykjavik, it got more isolated. Our primary goal with this car rental was to find a place desolate enough to experience the Northern Lights. Alas, luck was not on our side and we never did catch this phenomenon (*insert super sad/disappointed/heartbroken face here*).

Of course, all this traveling makes a person hungry! We were both really intrigued with what constitutes Icelandic cuisine. I did do some research beforehand, and one of Iceland’s delicacies is hákarl, or cured and fermented shark that has been hung to dry for a few months (it’s often called rotten shark). Well, by this point we had already tried whale and puffin sashimi, so I do not think our stomachs could have handled eating rotten shark :) Afterall, Anthony Bourdain did declare that fermented shark was one of the worst things he has ever eaten. Another popular item on menus seemed to be horse, and since we had already gone horseback riding and fell in love with our horses, that was also out of the question :). So, did our palettes enjoy anything? Yes! Iceland’s proximity to the North Atlantic Ocean meant that we expected some delicious fish, and delicious fish we had!

Overall, Iceland was everything that I had hoped and dreamed of. Although we weren’t adventurous enough to try some of the Icelandic dishes, we thoroughly enjoyed each and every minute in this beautiful country with its friendly people and diverse culture. I can only hope to someday return and see more of what this country has to offer.

Published in Iceland

After vowing that we would be on full alert, all systems go, eyes peeled and ears cocked, money changed, visas opened and as on guard and vigilant as we could possibly appear...turns out Delhi airport was nowhere near as scary, hectic or confusing as we were incessantly warned it would be. In fact, it was one of the calmest, most relaxed and organised arrivals hall of our whole trip.

Our first impression of India had caught us completely off guard. So many people had made cutting comments, taken sharp intakes of breath and mumbled something about us ‘ being in for a shock’ that I had truly come to believe that we were. ..and not in a good way. One particularly pompous character had even chatted to us about the backpacker suicide rate in India over breakfast, tutting at our laughter and warning us of the dangers of being ‘naive’ to its evils. We did dare to think that, having just spent 2 months in neighbouring Nepal, we might not find it as difficult, but even that was beginning to ring hollow. Frightened that it may actually be as scary as people kept arguing, we had even booked our first night’s accommodation in Delhi. We.were.prepared.

‘Really? You like to live there?’

Approximately one hour later and we were sat in the foyer of our Karol Bagh hostel, drinking a Tiger beer and trying to persuade our new friend Arrun that Birmingham is not the most boring city in the UK. ‘It is just so quiet. So boring. I missed Delhi after like, one day.’ I smiled into my glass.

Our Bangalore born taxi driver had been hilarious, regaling us with tales of uber- famous tourists he had driven and refusing to believe that we were not upset about being unmarried 24 year olds. He’d phoned the hostel to let them know we were en route and practically planned our India itinerary for us. With an aunty in almost every city, and a family reputation for the best chai in town, he seemed like a good guy to have picked for our very first encounter with the local people of India’s capital. The hostel owner refused to let us pay for our taxi, refused to let us carry our own bags and made us promise that we would join them for welcome beers after a ‘nap-sleep’. Not ones for turning down naps, beers or new friends, we did.

It took India approximately one evening to completely steal my heart. Too excited about our first meal to accept Arun’s invitation to the ‘coolest bar in New Delhi’, we had opted instead for the very local Guru Nanak market in Karol Bagh. A labyrinth of dusty street stalls, there was something going on in every single nook and cranny. Men crowded around samosa stands like they would a bar in England, supping tiny paper cups of chai and bellowing with laughter at every given opportunity. Girls shimmied up and down the pathways in reds, golds, greens and silvers- their shalwar kameez trousers sweeping dust from the ground. Kids darted between tables, shiny-eyed.

There were all kinds of shops selling all kinds of junk. Motorcycle parts, plug sockets, yarns of glittery cloth, dried flowers, rusty medicine bottles, ironworks. Hallucinatory images of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu in all their glory. Tailors, barbers, fruit-sellers. Everyone worked to the obliterating noise of car horns and, in the midst of all this chaos, cows sauntered between cars and stands, occasionally knocking over bicycles. Flies buzzed in the smog and the heavy scent of masala spice lingered. For our deciding-what-to-order snack we bought samosas from the busiest stall on the market. Served in scraps of maths text book paper and drizzled with chilli sauce, they looked every bit as tasty as I had imagined. The crowd watched bug-eyed as we took our first bite, and then belly laughed with glee as we demonstrated our approval. Delicious.

Spurred on by the other snackers, we settled in a tiny side-street cafe for our dinner. Clearly bewildered as to why we had chosen his humble establishment for our tea, the owner recited the menu in his very best English and then decided we should definitely have the channa masala and rotis. We did not disagree, ate like kings and reassured him we would be back for breakfast the next morning. He nodded and smiled, laughing as we groaned with being too full and gushed about it being the best food we had ever tasted. Chased by the smiley rickshaw drivers, we made our way back to the hostel to sleep off our feast. We had arrived.

Published in India

Honduras. The country of good intentions and genuine smiles. However marred by a bad reputation of drug wars, crime, and corrupt politicians, my one on one experiences with the people here is what I base my opinion on. And it looks good, because the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met. Everyone says hello when passing, and a warm smile is usually always exchanged.

I smile because it is the universal language of love.

Carlos giving us the 101 on coffee production at the La Finca de Cisne in Honduras
Carlos giving us the 101 on coffee production at the La Finca de Cisne

My Spanish is not the best, however it is not the worst, and I am practicing everyday. And, whenever I find myself at a loss for words I simply smile. Because everyone understands a smile. No matter what language you speak, a smile is a sign of good intention and kindness. With one motion, it melts barriers and taps into the innate bond that we as humans share. Because we are all here together, and are all striving and looking for the same things. Whether it be love, happiness, stability, or simply a hot meal. So next time your verbal communication skills fail you, simply tap into your nonverbal reserve. Smile.

A Little Bit About Gracias, Honduras...

Nestled in the mountains, shadowed by Mt. Celeque, surrounded by coffee plantations, and laced with streams that lead to the river...Gracias is truly a hidden gem. And a great off the beaten path destination. This town is one where the markets don’t sell fruits or veggies that are out of season, no ATM exists, and the futbol posts are fashioned from wooden branches. And even though Lonely Planet says it is a place that you can skip, I don’t think that one can get the full experience of Honduras without visiting this rustic, colonial town which resides in the poorest region of the country.

13 year old Luis David Pinto Zuniga. Kind soul and future restaurant owner.
13 year old Luis David Pinto Zuniga. Kind soul and future restaurant owner.

However, if all you want is a week beach vacation in a resort on Roatan, to be able to “tell” your neighbors that you experienced and roughed it in Honduras (I’m sure there was no television in your hotel room), then no, this place is not for you. But if your intention is to immerse yourself in the culture, and you have the genuine desire to get to know the people, then Gracias is indeed the perfect place for you.

I feel safe, at home, and at ease here. The air is fresh, the fruit plentiful, and the mountains are a perfect background for this new chapter. This time around, I will be teaching kindergarten at the Minerva Bilingual School for the next ten months, and in turn I am also looking forward to what this country and my students have in store to teach me.

  Featured photo via flickr // nanpalmero

Published in Honduras

Surviving Jakarta. It was afternoon when I arrived at the Soekarno-Hatta airport and first thing I did was get a cab. The most reliable taxis are the Silver Bird (the make is Mercedez-Benz, very comfortable), Blue Bird (the make is Toyota), and Express. Most locals will recommend this and only this for you. For the record, I took Silver Bird because my friend's uncle was the driver.

Just a normal day's traffic in Jakarta, Indonesia

Traffic In Jakarta

One thing you will notice as soon as you get on the road is the traffic. Superbly congested in a nice way. You can see people along the road promoting their 'merchandises' (from foods to drinks to toys) and daring driving skills. It's just unique and somehow I found it serenading. It took an hour to get to my friend's house and it costs me Rp.200,000 (quite an amount!) or less than $20 USD but it was worth it.

Now now, for a person traveling with a tight budget, worry not! There are many other affordable transportation available and they seem to be fun. For example, they have 'Angkot' (which is a van made into a small bus, where it's destination differs and they are decorated differently according to the districts). 'Angkot' means 'carry' or 'bring'. The fares are from Rp.10000 and up (less than $1 USD). But always exercise precautions as you might be victims of pickpockets and such. Also brace yourself as they give you a VERY LIMITED time to enter and exit before they started accelerating the van. Vrooooommmm!

Jakarta Public Transportation

If you opt for something you are more familiar to, there are buses. The most reliable one is TransJakarta, in which it runs in special lane. Chances are you wont be stuck in the heavy traffic. Bingo! :) This bus is so unique that they have an extraordinary bus stops called shelters. These shelters are elevated, and it's like a mini glass building in the middle of the road. The fare may range from Rp. 3500 per trip.

Last but not least, if you wanna channel the inner 'adventurer explorer' in you, you may opt for a ride with some random dudes with motorcycles. Yes! I'm serious, there are dudes with motorcycles who will take you to your destination with a fresh breeze blowing your hair and cheap fares. Just look for any spot with 'OJEK' sign. Sometimes they name it 'PANGKALAN OJEK' which may mean 'OJEK'S STATION/STOP'. 'Ojek' refers to services of sending you to your destination with a motorcycle. Up for the challenge? The fares can be any amount, it depends on them. Chances are they are cheap. :)

Talking with the locals. As I can speak Bahasa Malaysia (and also Indonesian) this was easy for me. However, if you want to address people, be aware that the respective names differ according to the districts. But these are the generally accepted (my Indonesian friend taught me this, pardon me if I am wrong) greetings:

  • Bapak is equivalent to Mister or Sir. Perfect for someone older that you just met.
  • Ibu is equivalent to Madam or Mrs. Also for an older female that you want to address formally.
  • Mbak is equivalent to Sister. But while I was there I used it for male too! :O
  • Mas is equivalent to Brother. But normally is used to called husbands and brother.
  • Om is equivalent to Uncle. Can be used for elder male that you have known a bit well.
  • Tante is equivalent to Auntie. Perfect for elder female you feel related to.

MONAS in Jakarta, Indonesia

Cultural And Historical Spots

First I went to the Monumen Nasional (National Monument) or called MONAS. You can actually get to the top of the monument and experience a bird-eye's view of Jakarta I was told. Unfortunately, I went there at night and the admission was already closed. If you haven't find something for everyone yet, MONAS can be the place. You can find people selling their merchandises all around, mainly souvenirs and food. Prices are superbly reasonable.

And speaking of ancient and history, make sure you stop by for 'Es Ragusa Es Italia' (Ragusa, Italia Ice cream). The local said that it is from the Dutch Era. Which is just opposite Masjid Istiqlal. It is very well known and you might have to queue before entering the premise! Don't be fooled by the small old unattractive looking shop, the ice cream is anything but ordinary. I suggest you try 'nougat' flavour.

Es Ragusa in Jakarta, Indonesia

Also, make sure you stop by the 'Kota Tua' (Old city square) and have a tour in Fatahillah Museum. It is a Dutch heritage, a prison in which many were tortured. And if you are lucky, you will get a free 'Wayang Kulit' (Puppet opera) session! I get it from Mr. Alex. And the tour costs only from Rp.190000 (approx. 20 USD).

Oh and yes, if you are going to Kota Tua, make the trip on weekend, because there will be an event every weekend where they serve good indie musics and they sell merchandises for reasonable price. You will enjoy but be aware of your belonging, especially your wallet and cameras

Also in Kota Tua you may find a very very elegant cafe, right opposite the Fatahillah museum building, named Batavia Cafe. Claimed to be since the Dutch era, this cafe serve various foods and drinks for quite an 'elegant' price, yet it is worth it. The scenery and atmosphere are just........mindblowing. A good spot to relax your mind when you had enough with the crowds.

Cafe Batavia in Kota Tua, the old city of Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia has many various cultures and is rich with foods from each ethnic group. I must say I enjoyed all of it. Happy traveling!

  The Ultimate Unique & Off The Beaten Path Indonesia Travel Guide     Indonesia Archive

Published in Indonesia

My most overwhelming first impressions of Nairobi are centered on the smells. As my friend Julie pointed out to me, the U.S. is so sterile. People wear deodorant; we clean ourselves, our clothes, and our homes obsessively. Our trash is stored in dumpsters and cans and taken far away to decompose. My husband puts it like this, "At home, I never smell anything, and here I can smell all sorts of stuff." Touche.

Life is smelly here. You can see black car exhaust escaping from the tail pipes of buses. You can obviously smell it too, along with the trash that someone around the corner is burning. The sidewalks collapse into knee-deep gutters, where food wrappers and grass cuttings float in greasy rain water. A short walk leaves my nose running and my throat scratchy.

Body odor is a prevailing scent on the sidewalk and in stores. It's not gross, but it is strange to someone not used to smelling other people. I can see why people are sweating; it's warmer and more humid here than I expected. And I guess it makes me feel less conscious about my own sweating.

The grocery store smells like a cat died behind the milk section and no one did anything about it. Needless to say, we haven't bought any milk yet, although the smell permeates the entire store. The grocery store scents have migrated back to our house with our groceries. Apparently Kenyans like their fruit extra sweet, which means extra ripe. The area around our fruit bowl has that sickeningly sweet smell of fruit on the edge of rotting. Other groceries have left a lasting impression too. We didn't realize that a jar of hot sauce we had bought had started to ferment. When my husband opened it, it released a potent hot pepper gas that left us coughing, and laughing.

I have always thought that music conjures up my most vivid travel memories, but now I wonder if smells are just as powerful. What do you think?

Published in Kenya

My Opinions Were Mixed At First... To Say The Least

But I Quickly Fell In Love With The Philippines!

Arriving at Manila, Jared and I had a private driver waiting at Ninoy Aquino Int'l Airport with an aircon van full of beer. Originally it was supposed to be full of ladies too, but as our host told us upon arrival, had he done that there would have been nothing left of us upon arrival... we would have been eaten alive!
(And how right he was — I was literally nearly raped by a prostitute my first night in the Philippines).

  Before reading, let me just say please don't get disillusioned and stop halfway through. This was written in 2008 while I was living in Tokyo, the biggest, cleanest, most advanced city in the world. But partying seven days a week for a couple months on end was starting to wear my buddy Jared and I out, so we decided to fly to the Phils. However we were expecting to land in somewhere that looked like Boracay, not Manila. Clearly we had not done any research, just trusted some friends from back home. Regardless, I am still a fan of "first impression" posts because they become that much funnier when you re-read them later. Especially after seven or eight more trips through the Phils LOL. What, I really used to think that?!?

 

From A Blog Post My First Day In The Phils

Although my views have changed, the text remains the same...
Capturing the essence of my initial amazement and naivety :)

Derek Freal

Oh man oh man where do I start? So we arrived in the Philippines a few days ago and there was immediate shock. The airport in Manila looked like it was built in 1950 and never upgraded. There was not so much as a single computer anywhere throughout the terminals, even at customer service. The signs announcing arrivals/departures were still those old ones with the letters you have to physically change yourself. I expected the airport to be bigger, just because Manila is the capital of the Philippines and does at least some international business, but nope — a whooping like half-dozen terminals, that is it.

Going out into the city was another shock. I tell you folks, I have never seen anything like; no other country compares, not Mexico or Costa Rica or Honduras, nowhere! The roads are a cluster-fuck of old vans, smoke-spewing buses, motorcycles that barely run, all driving crazy like. People swing from lane to lane non-stop, will even pass on the shoulder, and there are no rules like in the States: first come first serve. It is a wonder more accidents do not happen.

And when I inquired with our driver, he said "people in the Philippines drive crazy, so you just have to driver crazier!" And what a fucking crazy ride it was. We were passing people in the oncoming lane, sometimes coming so close I thought we were about to have a head-on accident (I mean literally within a centimeter or two a few times). And as if all that is not bad enough, you have people constantly crossing the street and even–believe it or not–standing in the middle of the street trying to sell bottled water or fresh fruit. Unbelievable shit, unbelievable!

As for the condition of the city, Manila is a shit-hole. Even the locals here in Subic realize Manila is the shitter of this beautiful country. We have heard nothing but horror stories from the locals. Crime is rampant. The buildings — if you can call them buildings — are sometimes just slapped together pieces of sheet metal. Clothes are strung up every which way out to dry. But they are drying in smoke that just pours off the road from all these old and shitty cars tearing up the street. People everywhere walk with handkerchiefs across their mouths to try and breathe in less of it. Along the coast there is a few tall nice-ass hotels for traveling business people, but at the entrance to each is a guard armed with a mother fucking assault rifle! An assault rifle for God's sake! They built a tollway a few years ago on the outskirts of Manila, for people heading to San Fernando, a city we had to pass through to get to Subic Bay. They have so few highways here that was called Route 3! And at each of the booths where you have to stop and pay to get on the tollway there are also guards armed with assault rifles! Like seriously I can understand them outside of hotels, but at a tollbooth? Oh, and don’t even get me started on the banks. All the banks have two armed guards at the front doors, again with assault rifles! We were lucky enough to witness a money pickup in action. The armored truck looked like those military vehicles that have eight wheels and can drive through water as well. It was like a fucking submarine on wheels actually! And there were an additional four guards armed with assault rifles covering it while the money was being brought out by more guards. Ridiculous and crazy crazy shit!

~Derek, 2008, from his old blog of drunken ramblings, Shibuya Daze.

 

Toll Roads In The Philippines

The tollways in the Philippines, despite being newer, lack all of the amenities that we Westerners are used to on tollways. Don't get me wrong however, they work fantastically and get the job done — allowing you to bypass the traffic and wandering roadside vendors and random small motorcycles and pedestrians — so you can't complain.

Filipino Tollway

So as you finally start to break free from the traffic in Manila, the road separates into 12 or 16 lanes, each complete with a toll booth. Pulling up, you realize none of the toll booths are automated, but each one staffed with a meager individual inside the booth and then secured by an armed police officer (again, armed with an assault rifle mind you) outside the booth, posted up front, nearly unmoving -- almost like those British Palace Guards. In addition, there are signs at each lane reading "TRAFFIC DISCIPLINE AREA" (i.e. drive the right way you crazy locals) and another reading "Our good roads keep your mood good". The way the locals drive, they definitely need this reminder.

Anyway, unlike every other modern toll I have been around the world, this one still operates solely on paper slips. You take your slip at the first window, then whenever you finally exit the tollway — which is, keep in mind, secured by chain and barbed-wire fence, cement walls, and armed guards the entire way, to prevent both fraud and smuggling — you submit your tollway ticket and pay the difference. Rates are based upon three different classes, depending on your weight and industry: personal/commercial.

There are occasional rest stops along the way, each complete with a couple of fast food places, public restrooms, and a gas station -- but even there an armed guard always checks your slip on the way in, before granting you parking, to ensure you are authorized to be on the tollway. I took a few pictures from the main one on the Westbound side, which you can see below, as this is the stop we hit every time on our way from Manila.

The view along the way is spectacular, almost entirely countryside except for when you pass through San Fernando and have to take the toll exchange. We always pass all sorts of rice and suger cane fields, in addition to lots of lovely mountains. The pics down below do not do enough justice in my opinion. It really is a beautiful country, they are just so very poor. The scenery was definitely nice, that's for sure -- I'll post a photo gallery soon.

Luckily the four hour drive through the countryside passed easily enough, even without any women. It was nearly sunset by the time we first arrived at Subic Bay, but when we did we were immediately the subject of attention with all the ladies, being two young, good-looking, and obviously loaded guys. Jared and I spent a few minutes unloading and checking out our rooms before heading downstairs to play a cpl laid-back games of pool while switching to liquor. However it took only seconds for word to spread and the next thing you know about a dozen "working girls" started one-by-one coming inside from the attached disco to see what was up with us young gringos.

Two of them basically put the other girls in check and claimed Jared and I as their own. Next thing you know we are playing a team game of pool with the "working girls" as our partners. The booze keeps flying, now the girls are drinking, and next thing you know they are making out with Jared and I. I had been awake for something like 48 hrs though so I called it a night right around when the prostitute kept asking to go upstairs. No way you are getting my money six hours after I landed in this country, no way! Even after she tried to ask Jared what room I was in so she could go upstairs and crawl into bed with me. Luckily he didn't tell her. However little did I know at this time that within a cpl months I would soon be dating a Filipino and flying back already.

Jared

Ok so since I've been here my mind has just been going and going so much to think about. Ok so I consider my self a left wing liberal progressive person with that being said I think me and Derek are literally the only guys to vacation in Philippines with out having sex with a local girl. You think hepatitis would be enough to stop most guys but not the case. Ok with that being said everyone here is ex military old and love McCain and love to do drugs and fuck young hookers all day make sense? Palin is a right wing conservative fanatical Christian so all these people are saying they love and support a women that literally thinks they are going to burn in hell for eternity make sense? Yeah and to think leave it to the Agnostic guy to be the only one with morals here...~Jared, 2008, from the old Shibuya Daze blog

 

Drinking a beer at the bar
Jared enjoys a cold San Miguel

Needless to say, Jared and I had very mixed first impressions of the Philippines. It was a lot different than we'd told by our friends back home and even the Subic region itself just seemed kind of lacking of any real substance or anything really exciting to do. Oh yeah that and seemingly every girl is a hooker. That first night in Subic Bay was a total surprise. Apparently the pros were all over us because they are used to only having old veterans and seniors as johns. Either way, we definitely felt like celebrities our first week there.

See, any and all foreigners living in the Philippines are ex-military, usually almost always American but we did also meet a couple Brits and a few Australian guys. They are all in their 50's and 60's now, beer-bellied and weathered from the years and the things they have seen. Most of them own the bars and discos around town, financed by the wonderful salaries we give our troops.

But, as they all say, "the Philippines is a hell of a place to spend money, just not to make it!" At roughly $0.50 USD a beer, $2 for a full meal, and $20 a night for a nice hotel suite, you'd have a hard time finding a better quality product at such a low price.

Published in Philippines

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