November 17th, 2017

Falling Short of and Exceeding Expectations: Loy Krathong/Yi Peng and the Chiang Mai Cabaret

It’s hard to avoid having expectations when you travel. You know rationally that if you set the bar low and go in expecting nothing, you’re less likely to be disappointed. (Some people on We Roam think that’s part of why we all loved Belgrade so much.) But when you start reading about a place and researching all there is to do, it’s tough not to get excited. And it’s good to look forward to things—but sometimes the actual experience is nothing like you imagined. 

Our first weekend in Chiang Mai fortuitously fell on Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, two festivals that combine to create three days of excitement. The most well-known images are of people releasing lanterns into the sky, but it also involves releasing krathongs (small floating sculptures decorated with banana leaves and flowers) into the river. There are parades and dance exhibitions and special ceremonies at temples. I couldn’t wait.

The day of Loy Krathong started well. Our workspace hosted a workshop to make our own krathongs, graciously providing all of the materials. The final products were so lovely that people stopped us on the street to ask where we’d purchased them. 

Then we headed to the river for the evening release. Everyone describes it as being magical—you place your krathong in the water, candle and incense lit, or light your lantern and lift it to the sky, and you let go of your worries from the previous year and make a wish for the year to come. It sounded beautiful, magical, serene. 

But the reality was chaotic at best and dangerous at worst. We had to fight our way down to the river to release our krathongs, the final push occurring on a dubiously constructed wooden dock with flaming lanterns flying at our heads from the bridge above. Then instead of carefully placing our vessels in the water and watching them float away, we passed them off as quickly as possible to a man standing in the river below; the people behind us shoved through before we could see our krathong’s fate.

The attempt to release a lantern was even worse. Just buying one was a struggle in itself, then the flimsy paper was ripped by the crowds pushing past. We opted not to try to launch ours, as we watched lanterns burning in trees, getting caught on power lines, and even singeing people after failing to take flight as intended.

Lantern in a tree–fortunately, the trees are very green in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai, for reasons none of us can fathom, opted not to close the bridge where they specifically told tourists to release their lanterns, so in addition to thousands of people with burning objects, there were cars trying to make their way through the crowds. I couldn’t help but feel anxious, seemingly surrounded by potential threats.

Taking photos in this melee was difficult, and my iPhone was actually better at distinguishing the proper lighting than my fancy DSLR. Just know that below these lovely lanterns is a battle. 

 

I was happy I saw it but even happier to make it home unscathed. Perhaps the festival of my dreams exists in a smaller Thai town, but in Chiang Mai, it’s too overrun for me to feel the spirit the holidays represent.

But travel giveth as well as taketh away, and my experience at the Chiang Mai Cabaret a few days later was so much more than I could have hoped.

Informally known as the ladyboy cabaret (a term widely used in Thailand though obviously problematic), the show is located in the night market, and a few of the performers stand out front in sparkly costumes and feathered headdresses to entice tourists inside.

When I see a Broadway musical, my general test is whether I find myself smiling throughout the show, and by that measure, the cabaret was a huge success. The lip syncing is generally terrible, but it just adds to the fun. The dancing is energetic, with everything from Vegas-style showgirl numbers to a Rhianna S&M impersonation that was eerily spot on, and the guys in the first couple rows of the audience get way more of a show than they pay for. 

I went with a few friends the night before my birthday, but despite the occasion, my expectations were low. The online booking function on the website didn’t work, I’d heard almost nothing about it, and the venue itself is a little shabby. But it turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun and a far less stressful night than Loy Krathong. 

Travel is always surprising, and fortunately, sometimes the surprises are good. 

November 6th, 2017

6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Months of Travel

I left New York on April 29; this month in Chiang Mai is my seventh on the road. I’m not quite halfway through—currently planning to head back sometime in June probably—but it seems like a good moment to pause and take stock.

I was feeling a bit melancholy in September, thinking about how I don’t feel like I’ve changed much on this trip. Prior to this adventure, the most extended time I’ve spent away was a seven-week study abroad program in college. That was my first time leaving the country (apart from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, which hardly counts), and I grew so much. During my last week, navigating the streets of London alone—and pre-Google maps, for the record—I had an epiphany: that I didn’t want to keep heading down the road to early marriage with my small-town boyfriend, that I wanted to see more of the world, and I wanted to see much of it alone. 

Well…mission accomplished, 20-year-old Jennifer. She might have revised her wish slightly had she known just how far the scales would tip away from love and marriage, but that’s a topic for a different day. To today’s point, I think that with such a grand experience, I was expecting this journey to be similarly revelatory. But six months in, I’m still epiphany-less. To be fair, I’m in my thirties now. I’ve lived in five different cities, moving from coast to coast, worked numerous jobs in three different industries, and dated…quite a few men. I may be past the epiphany stage. Still, I am growing a bit, pushing my boundaries and learning new things—here are six of them.

1. I can go anywhere.

Before this trip, I’d traveled solo more than most people I know, but there were places I felt hesitant to go and things I wasn’t sure I could do. My solo travels were limited to Europe, the Caribbean, and one trip to Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I could navigate Asia alone. I’d never rented a car in a foreign country. I had a strange aversion to buses. 

Now I’m spending my birthday alone in Bangkok this week, I’ve rented cars in Germany and Croatia and just mapped out a road trip through both New Zealand islands, and I’m about to book a bus to Chiang Rai. There are still a few places in the world I’d choose not to go (I have a lot of Feelings about the harassment of women in many parts of the Middle East, for instance), but I feel completely confident that wherever I want to go, whatever I want to do, I can figure it out. 

2. I still have so much to learn about the world. 

A couple months ago, someone messaged me on OkCupid and asked whether I was traveling to learn more about the world or myself. Though that’s somewhat oversimplified—you’ll always be doing a bit of both—it made me realize that perhaps the reason I don’t feel like I’ve changed a great deal on this trip is because I’ve already invested a lot of time into self-growth over the years. I’m looking to discover the world, rather than find myself. 

The first couple months I was just spinning with all the changes, but starting in Berlin, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn more about the places I’m visiting—not just where the best restaurants are, but a bit about the history, culture, and current political climate. I’m trying to read at least one work of fiction and one of nonfiction each month and to read the local news. It’s highlighted how little I learned in school, where history classes generally stopped with World War II. Even in a relatively familiar country like Germany, I realized I knew almost nothing about the Cold War and how it still affects Berlin. With a place like Thailand, I’m a blank slate. It’s all connected, though, especially in our rapidly shrinking society, and I feel like I understand the world a bit better than I did a few months ago.

3. Where I am has a huge effect on how I feel.

When I decided to move to NYC from Houston about five years ago, my dad was not pleased, to put it mildly. We were talking about it over dinner, and he said, “I don’t understand why you can’t stay here. Some people are just happy wherever they are.” 

I could only reply, “Okay…but I’m not one of them.”

I’ve really always known that about myself (oh, how I itched to leave Oklahoma growing up), but this trip has made it even more clear. I’ve felt at home in about half the cities I’ve visited. In Barcelona, Berlin, Belgrade, and now Chiang Mai, I’ve been markedly more cheerful and productive. In Prague, Split, and Seoul, I watched more TV, ate nutritionally worse food, and left the apartment less often. For my own wellbeing, I need to be somewhere that energizes me.

What’s interesting is that this trip is changing my idea of where that might be. Before I would have told you that I need to be somewhere with a million things to do, a big city with lots of culture. But there’s loads to do in Seoul and very little in Belgrade and Chiang Mai. This is going to sound so simple and silly, but I think what makes me feel most content is having several good restaurants and coffee shops, places at which I enjoy hanging out, within walking distance. If it takes too much effort to get somewhere, I wind up staying home.

4. I actually like being alone.

I’m clearly comfortable being alone, or I wouldn’t have named my blog Girl Flies Solo. But for some time now, I’ve had this question in the back of my mind: do I really enjoy being alone, or have I just become comfortable with it out of necessity? The past six months have confirmed that yes, I actually do appreciate spending time by myself. I’m not a hermit; I need regular socialization as well. But I get cranky if I don’t have enough quiet time alone.

And on the flip side of this, I am finally ready to give up trying to be a group person. For much of my life, I’ve felt bad about not being adept in a group setting. I’ve been awkward and uncomfortable on the cheer squad, in a sorority, as a member of Junior League. And while there have been numerous benefits to traveling with We Roam, there have also been many times in which being part of a group has made my experience worse. I’d rather focus more on the places I’m in than the people I’m with…and that’s okay. 

5. The more I see, the more I want to see.

I’ve added more places to my list than I’ve checked off this year: Northern Croatia has a truffle festival in the fall. How have I not yet been to Seville and Granada? And those are just the places I haven’t visited at all; there are many more where I’m desperate to spend more time: That day trip to Timisoara, Romania was not enough. I need at least three months (a year? a lifetime?) in Berlin…but maybe a winter home in Chiang Mai. 

Many travelers keep track of the number of countries they’ve been to, which is fine; I do it, too (loosely…I think I’m somewhere in the low 30s at the moment). But I feel certain I could visit every country in the world and still not be finished traveling. Each place I’ve been has inspired me to explore further and more deeply.

6. I can travel as much as I want…but I don’t want to travel full time. 

I think the greatest gift We Roam has given me is the knowledge that I can travel long-term and work on the road. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, it just never occurred to me. I had a remote job and a desire to travel more, and I was still sitting in my apartment in New York, planning a one-week vacation here and a two-week trip there. Ridiculous! I love spending a month in a destination—it’s enough time to feel like you understand a place, to see a bit of the surrounding area, to know if you want to spend more time there, and to get your work done in the process. I’m definitely going to continue traveling this way in the future.

But this trip has also made me realize that I don’t enjoy being on the road semi-permanently. I like having a home; I miss my bed and bookshelves and closet. I haven’t become one of those nomads posting a photo of myself on a mountaintop with a long explanation about how I’ve left everything behind and now I feel so freeeeee! This lifestyle has some amazing benefits, but like everything else, it has its drawbacks, too. I think my ideal going forward will be having a base in the States and taking around two extended trips a year. But we’ll see what unfolds.

 

For now, as ever, onwards. I can’t wait to see what I discover in the next part of my journey. 

 

October 28th, 2017

Please Don’t Touch Me: Cultural Differences in Seoul

I know I said before that I was excited about living in places that are more different than home—that apparently has its limits.

One of the most interesting things to do while traveling is to observe the similarities and differences between cultures. Seoul is, in many respects, a very modern, Western-feeling city. There’s extensive and easy public transportation, and Itaewon, the expat neighborhood, has all the cuisine I’ve been missing on the road (Tex Mex! Pizza! BBQ!). 

But there are differences, of course. Some of them are innocuous: sure, I’ll take off my shoes when I enter my apartment; I wish there were a chair up front to sit on when I have to put them back on, but whatever. Some of them don’t thrill me but don’t really affect me: many Koreans driiiiiink with dinner; just on Tuesday, I saw one girl fall down while trying to exit a restaurant, and another girl in my building had to run to the bathroom to throw up, all before 9 pm. But one difference I just can’t handle: Koreans, you’re nice enough, but please don’t touch me.

It happens on the street frequently. A woman, rather than walking around me, put her arms around me and physically moved me from her path. A man, upset that I didn’t take the flyer he was offering me, resorted to tapping my arm aggressively. 

I’m willing to believe that I was doing something wrong in these situations. The woman was older; perhaps I was supposed to leap out of her way. Maybe Koreans take all the street flyers they’re offered. (This would be a problem unto itself, but that’s another matter.) But whatever the problem, the solution is never to touch me.

The strangest incarnation of this issue was actually the best intentioned. We went to a restaurant one night, James Cheese Back Ribs. It’s basically just what it sounds like—baby back ribs with melted cheese wrapped around them. They have illustrative photos at the entrance to lure in curious travelers like ourselves:

I like the concept, to be honest. I love ribs, I love melted cheese, I’m down to combine the two. But the problem is that they didn’t just let you eat your cheesy ribs in peace.

First, they made us don protective gear. Koreans really, really do not like to eat with their hands. So we had to put a glove on our left hands and use chopsticks in our right hands to maneuver the ribs into our mouths.

Second, they wouldn’t let us assemble our own cheesy ribs. A woman wrapped cheese around a rib and deposited it into one of our bowls. Once we ate that rib, she would give us another.

If it had stopped there, I would have been baffled and slightly annoyed, but I would have been okay. But it did not stop there.

When we got fried rice, the woman who had been assembling our ribs mixed it up in the remaining cheese, made a bite (with kimchi, of course, the universal condiment), BLEW ON IT, and then fed my friend like a baby. My friend tried to protest, but it was useless. That spoon was going in her mouth.

At another point, I made the grievous error of touching a rib—lightly, I did not grab, my hand merely grazed the rib—and a woman came racing out of the kitchen with a wet wipe. 

Did she hand it to me to use as I saw fit?

No. She did not. She wet wiped my hand.

This is all hilarious, of course, but it also made me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t have a phobia when it comes to touch: I’ll shake someone’s hand upon meeting; I have zero problems when it comes to romantic relationships. But I don’t thrive on touch the way others seem to. I don’t feel the need to hug my friends when I just saw them yesterday. And I really don’t care to be unnecessarily touched, particularly by strangers.

One of the other people (a man, of course) at dinner thought I was being silly: “No, no, this is great; think about it. If you were lying on the beach, and some hot guy was feeding you grapes, wouldn’t that be awesome?”

No. No no no. First of all, I can eat the grapes by my damn self. But second, we’re at a restaurant, we’re eating cheesy ribs, and there’s not a hot dude in sight, just an overly attentive woman trying to wipe my hands and feed us.

And this wasn’t an isolated feeding incident; a woman at a bar offered us French fries and then attempted to deposit them directly in our mouths. I ran away.

It’s been an interesting month here in Seoul—I’ve seen some beautiful sights, learned quite a bit more about history and current events, and eaten some tasty food (the cheesy ribs, to be fair, were very good)—but the lack of personal space boundaries means Seoul will never quite feel like home to me.

I do live in New York, after all. We can scream obscenities at each other on the street corner; just don’t touch me.

October 26th, 2017

I Accidentally Climbed Daedunsan Mountain

Funny story.

I signed up to go on a foliage tour yesterday. There were a few options for which park to visit (South Korea has so many!), and based on the photos, the description, and the time of year, I picked Daedunsan. The itinerary said that we would leave Seoul at 6:30 am, arrive at the mountain at 10, take a cable car up, have time to enjoy the views, walk down, eat lunch around 12:30, and depart at 2:30 pm. Sounded like a lovely day trip.

We arrived at Daedunsan, and the guide explained that once you take the cable car up, you have to cross a bridge and then walk up 120 steep steps to arrive at the top. Okay, I thought, no problem; I can do 120 steps.

So we took the cable car up, and it was beautiful; it felt like we were birds swooping over the treetops.

We stopped at the observation deck to take a few photos (I suppose, in hindsight, this is what the description might have been referring to), and then we headed for the top. We started climbing stairs, and one of the two girls who was with me began to count. “Um…” I said, looking up, “I don’t think this is the 120 steps he was talking about. We have to cross a bridge first.” 

Indeed, in order to get to the bridge, we had to climb quite a few steps. But the bridge was lovely, and at this point, it felt like a nice walk.

 

After we passed the bridge, we climbed hundreds more steps, and I started to regret my life choices. Then we reached the point where there were no longer manmade steps, just rocks to climb and scramble over as best you could—on all fours, pulling yourself over on the railing, however you could make it work. I had to stop several times on the way to the top, but after about an hour and a half, I made it to the summit (receipts at left). I was very proud.

Me, feeling proud.

And the views were lovely:

But then I learned that sometimes going down a mountain is even worse than going up. There were supposed to be a few different trails to the cable car, one of which was allegedly easier, more winding and gradual. In fact, there were no easy ways to get on and off this mountain. After a brief respite on a leaf-strewn path in the woods, we headed down in earnest, and the trail looked like this:

Except sometimes there wasn’t a railing at all. At one point, I was hugging a rock as I walked sideways so as not to fall off the mountain. 

I wasn’t loving the hike at this point, but I was doing okay. Then one of the girls and I realized that we had somehow missed the trail that went to the cable car, we’d been left by our faster friend, we had no choice but to climb another 800m to the bottom, we had only a vague idea of what the right trail to get there was, and we had an hour to make it back before the bus left.

This was the point when I stopped having any fun at all and seriously considered the ramifications of sitting down on the trail and crying. Then I forced myself to keep going anyway. My legs were shaking, and it took all my mental energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was tired, so my balance was shit, and I have the bruises to show for it today.

Eventually, two hours after we left the top, we made it to the bottom of the mountain. To the side of the highway, to be precise, where we had to backtrack for 15-20 minutes to return to the bus. (I’ve never thought so seriously about hitchhiking, but we can’t even get cabs to pick us up here, so I didn’t have high hopes for strangers.) We made it back 15 minutes before the bus left—no leisurely lunch for the weary. Standing at the bottom, I looked back up at the mountain in wonder.

I suppose I feel some small sense of accomplishment for surviving. Mostly, though, I’m just glad it’s over. But to be fair, the leaves were very pretty:

October 20th, 2017

A Strange Sort of Tourism at the DMZ

On Tuesday, I went to North Korea.

Briefly. Inside of a building. With military present. On a tour. Nothing to worry about, really.

I hadn’t planned on visiting the DMZ during my time in Seoul, but when a friend asked me if I wanted to join the tour she’d signed on to, with VIP Travel, I said yes. Why not, really?

Well, one reason why not is this sort of tourism makes me a little uncomfortable. I hated Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, with its fake document check and vendors selling gas masks. 

And in some respects, this was a similar excursion. The morning portion of the tour felt extremely touristy. Our first stop was a park, which I’m sure has some historical or political significance, but all we saw of it were preparations for the Ginseng Festival. We’d spent the bus ride learning about the seriousness of the conflict, hearing a story from our guide about her uncle, kidnapped as a child by North Korean forces and permanently separated from his family. Then we got off the bus and saw carnival rides.

But it was only a quick restroom break before getting back on the bus, going through a passport check (the first of many that day as we crossed back and forth into and out of the DMZ), and heading to the site of The Third Tunnel. 

For those of you who don’t know (I didn’t), North and South Korea aren’t divided by a border, per se. They never signed a peace treaty after the Korean War, only an armistice agreement. So instead of a border, there’s an MDL, a military demarcation line. And two kilometers on either side of it is the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. 

There are four tunnels, constructed by North Korea for infiltration, that South Korea has found, though they believe there are as many as 20 tunnels still undiscovered. The third tunnel is open to tourists to walk inside. We first went to a museum that briefly explained the history of the DMZ. Then we watched a short, yet very odd, film. It summarized the Korean War at blinding speed, touched on South Korea’s hope for unification, and then closed on an odd segment about the beauty of the DMZ with slow-motion footage of flowers blooming and a discussion of migratory birds. I left feeling like I’d just watched propaganda but had no idea of its aim.

Going into the tunnel itself reminded me of nothing so much as the salt mine tour Mom was desperate to take in Salzburg. Only with less to see, really; it was just a five-minute walk through a tunnel, hunched over at times (the tall man in front of me hit his [mercifully hard hat-covered] head repeatedly), and then you turned around and walked back. Walking out involved ascending a very steep 350m hill—not my favorite activity, but at least I felt like I accomplished something. No photos were allowed in the tunnel, sorry for that!

Our second stop was the Dora Observatory, a high point from which you could see North Korea. Not much to look at really, just a hazy mountain view, with a small village and a flagpole. (Apparently the two countries went back and forth erecting bigger and bigger flagpoles because of course they did. The double meaning of erection is not a coincidence, I think.) The most interesting thing I learned there is that South Korea uses massive speakers to blare k pop at North Korea. Really, I have video.

Our third stop was my favorite of the morning, Dorasan Station, the unfinished northernmost rail station in South Korea, which they hope will one day link the country to the north. Our guide put it poignantly: “We’re a peninsula, but since we can’t pass through to the north, it feels like we’re on an island.” 

Bush made a speech at the station in 2002, the text of which is displayed, and the evenhandedness and presidential qualities it showed just about broke me in light of T—‘s tweets. For the record, every person I talked to this day said he is making things worse here.

After a very quick lunch break, we boarded a different bus and went on to the second half of our tour to the JSA (Joint Security Area), officially the territory of the UN. This part of the day felt different, more serious—more like crossing the Berlin Wall when it was still up, rather than visiting Checkpoint Charlie today. 

After we signed the nuttiest waiver I’ve ever seen (and I used to do legal work for a reality show), we watched a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the JSA, hearing again about the acts of violence that have occurred here since the war, before things were regulated as strictly as they are now. 

We then boarded a military bus with our designated US solider—both US and Korean soldiers stay onsite—and drove deeper into the area, past a multi-layered barbed wire reinforced by a strip full of land mines, and on to the Freedom House, which we walked through quickly to stand on the steps and face North Korea. Or a building there, at least, with one soldier outside of it.

Our soldier barked orders at us: Stand in a single file line on the top step. Do not take photos to your left or right or behind you, only straight ahead. Do not make gestures. You can take photos for two minutes, now. 

The unzoomed view to the other side…

One woman apparently took a photo of something she wasn’t meant to; a soldier was by her side instantly, telling her to delete it. 

We then walked in two single file lines into a building situated exactly halfway between the north and south, with the MDL traversing the center. In the photo at left, the microphones on the table—ostensibly for negotiation—mark the MDL. I felt nervous while I was in there, more from my usual anxiety over following rules than any real sense of danger. But again there was the surreality of the contrast between the very serious situation this building represents and the inanity of tourists piling in and taking photos with soldiers.

And then it was back on the bus. The final place we visited before our tour concluded (besides the gift shop; there is ALWAYS a gift shop) was the recently constructed temple, a beautiful commemorative work, from which one day the bell will be rung, signifying peace.

It took me a few hours after returning home to shake my feelings of unease. For as cheesy as parts of the day were, as much as I’d laughed at them, taking the tour intensified the feeling that we’re edging closer to a precipice, which I very much hope we don’t fall over. 

 

October 17th, 2017

3 Things to Do and 3 Places to Eat in Hong Kong

First of all, let’s be clear: there are a million things to do and places to eat in Hong Kong. In five nights, especially since they were jetlagged nights followed by 95 degree days, I barely scratched the surface of all the city has to offer. I actually just decided to remedy that and booked a follow-up trip for December. But, nevertheless, I did manage to check a couple things off my Hong Kong to-do list. Here are a few favorites.

Things to Do

1. Mount High West

I can’t take any credit for my favorite thing I did in Hong Kong; I was just going to head up to the Victoria Peak viewing platform like every other tourist. Instead the  expat friend I made led me on a trail around the platform and up over 500 steps to the top of Mount High West, which has an even better view than the Peak, in my opinion. (And there’s something to be said for having to work for it rather than taking an elevator.)

We got up there just as the sun had set over the islands:

And we watched as the darkness grew and the lights came on in the city:

2. Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

I’m going to squeeze these technically separate spaces into one entry, since they’re physically connected. Chi Lin Nunnery is a Buddhist complex entirely constructed out of wood, with a lovely lotus pond-filled courtyard:

Nan Lian, just across the street but connected by a bridge so that the structures flow seamlessly into each other, is a beautiful traditional Chinese garden:

Together, the two form a peaceful respite from the bustle of Hong Kong. Though they’re just a couple blocks from the subway and surrounded by skyscrapers, they’re quiet and almost make you feel like you’re in another time. 

3. Islands!

I had a lot to learn about Hong Kong geography on my first visit, continually looking down from various windows and viewpoints and requesting that whoever was nearby explain what I was looking at exactly. Hong Kong is made up of the Kowloon peninsula and over 200 islands—including Hong Kong Island itself.  So on my last full day in the city, I hopped on a ferry to investigate one of the outlying islands: Cheung Chau.

The process of getting to the islands couldn’t be simpler; you can use the same Octopus card you use for subways and buses to scan into the ferry. It was, as per usual, hot as hell, but I sweated it out for a bit to get some shots of the city as we cruised away:

I chose Cheung Chau almost at random and didn’t have an agenda really, just a desire to explore another aspect of Hong Kong. There’s a beach and a small swimming area if you’d like to do that, and it’s a popular windsurfing spot if you want to kick your water activities up a notch. If you’re ready to hike up a hill (I wasn’t after climbing to spot #1 the night before), there are some pavilions and outlook spots to visit. But just by wandering around, I came across a vibrant temple:

And I also found some gorgeous street art, a lantern-lined street, an altar at the base of a spectacular tree, and more:

I found the excursion to be well worth the 45 minute trip; the small island had a different, slightly more mainland, vibe than Hong Kong proper. 

Places to Eat

To be honest, one of my favorite “things to do” in a new city is to try places to eat, and Hong Kong provided no shortage of those. From street food to pizza to fine dining, everything I ate in HK was delicious.

1. Tim Ho Wan

Billed as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, with three starred locations in the city, and more locations around Hong Kong and the world, Tim Ho Wan is famous for its baked barbecue pork buns, and as I type this, I am craving one desperately. 

I went to the Sham Shui Po location at an off hour (basically as soon as I’d checked into the hotel) and got a seat right away, but it was crowded—mostly with locals who were ordering extras and packing them into the tupperware they brought with them. They get enough tourists that they make it easy with English ordering cards, but it still feels like a pretty authentic experience.

2. High Tea at Cafe Gray Deluxe

I deeply love high tea, and this one was excellent. They sat me in a corner booth with views for days (views are everything in Hong Kong), and the tower was filled with treats: four kinds of cake, scones, and savory snacks and sandwiches. None of that cucumber and mayo nonsense either; think burrata and pesto instead. I feasted and alternated between staring out the window and spying on the ladies who lunch set.

3. Tin Lung Heen

I love a super fancy meal, and Tin Lung Heen, a two Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant in the Ritz Carlton on the 102nd floor of the ICC (the giant building across the water in the nighttime city shots above), more than delivers. I go into tasting menus knowing that not every course is going to be something I would have chosen for myself, but my hope is that one item I wouldn’t have picked blows me away. And that’s exactly what happened here: I generally find lobster to be overrated (I know, I’m a monster), but the wok-fried lobster with spring onion was incredible. I didn’t even get a picture; sorry, too busy eating.

And beyond the food, the atmosphere and service were perfect. When I looked over my shoulder, a server rushed over to direct me to the restroom. When the table by the window finished, they asked if I’d like to have my dessert there. Flawless. 

 

Hong Kong, I’m not done with you yet—more to report in a few months.

October 6th, 2017

When You Date While Traveling, Don’t Expect a Hollywood Ending

Yesterday I seriously considered hurling my phone out my 25th floor window. Only two things stopped me: one, the fact that I’ve replaced three phones in the last six months (not from throwing them, I swear) and two, a legitimate worry that I might injure person or property.

Apparently a memo went out yesterday to all the men I’ve dated this year. It read, “Today’s a great day to reach out to Jennifer. Say something shitty.”

One, who failed to respond to my last message, wanted to sext—this after telling me last month that we shouldn’t talk about anything real because “then we’d be in a relationship, and then it would just be over.” One told me hooking up was a mistake, but he sent relentless message after message, demanding my friendship. One said he’d love for me to spend more time with him, just so long as I know that it’s never going to be anything serious. And one, whom I haven’t spoken to since we went out in July, wanted me to take a look at the book he’d recently finished and provide my expertise on the publishing industry.

Honestly, it’s a miracle I didn’t hurl myself out my 25th floor window.

Dating while traveling can be a lot of fun. This year I’ve gone on dates to a waterfall park in Croatia, the best burger spot in Berlin, and the top of a mountain in Hong Kong (spectacular view below). It’s a good way to explore a city and potentially learn a bit more about the culture. And let’s be real; I’m traveling for a year, so not dating at all isn’t much of an option. 

But it also gives guys a great excuse to keep their distance, to not take you seriously. If you’re only in town for a week or a month, why would they invest in you? I alluded to this in a previous post as one reason why I don’t think constant travel is the right long-term choice for me.

The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that it’s the same song, different verse of the crap I get at home. “You don’t really live here” is just a variation on “I need to focus on work” or “I got out of a relationship recently and need time to myself.” Because when you call their bluff (and I have, twice), when you point out that you don’t really live anywhere, that you could hang out a bit and see where things go, they let the second round of excuses fly. Every reason can be translated to the same underlying truth: “I don’t like you enough to make the effort.”

And that is a sentiment with which I’m all too familiar. I mentioned before that I’ve been officially single for thirteen years—and before I left NYC, I was working with a matchmaker to try to change that status. I spent an insane amount of money and time from September through March. She brought a stylist over and dolled me up for new profile pics. I read books and took personality tests. I met with her once a week to review dates and discuss strategies. I went on upwards of three dates a week. And at the end of all of that, she sort of threw up her hands and said, “Eh, I don’t know. I’m not sure you like boys who like you, and vice versa. Maybe there’s not someone for you in New York…”

After 159 punishing days of international dating, I’m trying really hard not to draw the conclusion that maybe there’s not someone for me in the whole damn world.

This problem isn’t mine alone. I have a few limiting factors (not wanting kids, for instance) that make my pool of potentials a bit smaller. But I have an alarming number of gorgeous, smart, funny, objectively marketable girl friends who are single and don’t want to be, especially those who live in big cities. All of the reasons for this—apps, decreased focus on religion and community, the rise of non-monogamy, and so on—could, have, and will fill books. 

But I digress. There’s a romantic myth about travel in particular. When I signed on to this trip, so many people, from my girl friends to the aforementioned worst matchmaker in the world, predicted that I’d fall in love along the way. My cynical brain resisted, but some squishy part inside, the one that likes romance novels and Hallmark movies, hoped it would be true. It’s certainly what the media tells us will happen—how popular would EAT PRAY LOVE have been without the love, really?

I’m guilty of perpetuating the myth myself. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. My client’s book that came out in June, THE WILD WOMAN’S GUIDE TO TRAVELING THE WORLD, is about a girl who falls in love on a trip to Hong Kong. And does he tell her, “Oh, sorry, the hot hotel sex was awesome, but time for you to go home now, bye”? Um, hell no, he does not. That would be a terrible story. (And it’s a great story; you should buy the book. Forgive the shameless plug, but things are clearly not going well here. Some good should come out of this crap.)

Real life, however, is not women’s fiction. It is not a romantic comedy. In real life, you go to Hong Kong, and you meet an amazing guy—via a dating app, because who meets in bars in 2017 anyway? You go on fun dates. He takes you on an adventure to the top of a mountain, where you kiss overlooking the city. You jointly delight in the discovery of your similar backgrounds, your hopes for the future. You start to appreciate his snark, his nerdiness. You have hot hotel sex. Then your trip is over. And instead of begging you to stay or following you to your next destination, he says, “I had a great time. If you happen to pass through again, let me know.”

That’s the real ending. 

 

October 4th, 2017

Embarking on a Year of Travel, Part Two

I’m not quite halfway through my year on We Roam—this month is number six. But this month marks a huge shift in my experience, enough so to qualify as a second chapter.

I’m in Seoul for the month of October, which is a half day’s journey and a world away from Belgrade. After Seoul, I’ll move to Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bali, Taipei…six months of Asia before going on to Australia. 

In the jump from Belgrade to Seoul, I’ve moved from a place that had some particularities but largely felt as home-like as New York to a place where many people don’t speak English and I have zero understanding of the written language, where I don’t know exactly what I’m eating half the time, where I’m asked to take off my shoes in the foyer of my apartment before proceeding. 

I’ve also joined a new group of people. We Roam is organized into itineraries—I began my trip on their first itinerary, Polaris, but with the move to Seoul, I’ve jumped to Lyra. October is the first month on this itinerary, so while a few people are moving over from Polaris and We Roam’s second itinerary, Orion, a large contingent of the group is just beginning their journey. 

So this is something of a reboot for me: new group, new continent. 

And for the most part, though I’m a little sad to have left familiar things and people and nervous about the new, I’m excited about the change. Asia will stretch my traveler muscles and coping skills in a way that Europe rarely does. I eased into that transition with a solo few days in Hong Kong (in the photo above) before flying on to Seoul—more on that trip soon!

After five months on the road, novelty has become routine. So it’s good to keep pushing the limits, to keep challenging myself. I didn’t sign up for a year of travel to be comfortable and complacent. So, as is becoming my mantra: onward. 

September 20th, 2017

Relaxing Months Make for Boring Blogs

This month in Belgrade has been my most relaxed month of the trip. In my fifth month on We Roam, I’ve adjusted to the group, and I feel almost comfortable never being entirely comfortable. As I wrote before, Belgrade is an incredibly livable city. I’ve been enjoying staying in an apartment flanked by a grocery store and a coffee shop, eating in multiple delicious restaurants within a five-minute walk, and having absolutely everything be affordable. (Though I’ve learned it’s not so affordable for the locals; apparently salaries don’t quite match up to the cost of living here…)

That’s not to say I’ve done nothing. Two weekends ago, we had a completely gorgeous excursion to the northwestern edge of Serbia. We visited the home of artist Sava Šumanović and a museum dedicated to his work—he spent time in Paris with the lost generation in the 20s before returning home to paint. We then spent the afternoon at the Ilić-Nijemčević vineyard, touring the grounds and the cellar, eating an enormous lunch, and sampling many, many bottles of their wine.

Closer to home, we had a rakija tasting and picnic in the park last week. One of our amazing city leads brought homemade snacks and a selection of rakija much tastier than anything I’ve tried in restaurants. We watched the sun go down while snacking and chatting.

And last night we went on a scavenger hunt. We ran all over downtown Belgrade, eating cookies, doing shots of rakija, and asking random strangers to take photos with us. The hunt even took us to Belgrade’s weirdest (and in my opinion, most delightful) attraction: a dino park where kids can play. For the record, my team won. 

All in all, it’s been such a pleasant month. Belgrade is the first city we’ve been to that everyone on the trip endorses—I haven’t heard a bad word spoken about it, and that hasn’t been true for any other destination. Usually, some people love a place, and others hate it. It’s a little surprising because Belgrade doesn’t have the natural beauty of Split or the numerous tourist attractions of Berlin. If someone told me they were visiting Belgrade, I’d say, “Wonderful!” If they asked what to do, I’d say, “Um…make friends with locals and eat good food?”

But after four months of exhausting travel and personal drama, I’m incredibly grateful for the month off. I haven’t even gone on a date. I’ve just been getting extra sleep and trying to prepare, mentally and practically, for what comes next. Because by this time next week, I’ll be on to the next chapter. And things are about to get crazy. Stay tuned…the blog’s about to be a bit more exciting.

September 8th, 2017

You Must Go On the Gastro Balkan Foodie Tour in Belgrade

I’ve been delighted (and if I’m being totally honest, the tiniest bit surprised) by the quality of food in Belgrade. From coffee to pastry to casual bites to wine, nearly everything I’ve consumed has been both tasty and affordable. Last night I went on the Gastro Balkan Foodie Tour with some of my fellow travelers, and it proved Belgrade can go toe-to-toe with New York in fine dining—and blows NYC out of the water when it comes to price.

Our first stop was Ambar, a modern Balkan restaurant on the river that has a D.C. outpost as well. We kicked things off with a rakija mojito and feasted on Balkan-style tapas. I could eat a basketful of the gloriously puffy bread with three different dips, and the almond puree complemented the bacon-wrapped date. Apparently they offer $30 all-you-can-eat; I’ll be back to test my stomach’s puffy bread capacity.

Next was upscale and innovative Miamiam where we drank effervescent rose with three delicious courses: cucumber, avocado, and melon gazpacho in a glass; gravlax with a rye crouton, a slice of pear, and blueberry goat cheese; and (possibly the highlight of the evening for me) gorgeously wine-glazed pork belly topped with a plum, sweet potato puree, and garlic cream. I may have batted cleanup on my friend’s dish as well with that last one. Miamiam is just around the corner from my apartment here, so I will definitely go again in my two remaining weeks (how am I already down to two weeks?!) in Belgrade.

All of that was just a warm-up for the fine dining extravaganza that is Homa, where we had four beautiful and interesting courses: a sort of cheese puff that melts in your mouth with truffle mayo and shaved truffle; the most perfectly formed ricotta gnocchi I’ve ever eaten (they can get rather gummy; these had an ideal texture) with forest mushrooms AND MORE TRUFFLES; a squid ink pasta with fried Adriatic squid; and more pork belly—you can never have enough—with a pork fillet, grilled peach, and salad with truffle dressing. I don’t know what we did to deserve all that, but it was incredible, as were the white and red wine pairings.

Because you can’t have all that savory without a little sweet, we then made our way to Crna Ovca, an ice cream parlor with inventive flavors. I was tempted by a combo of sesame coffee with chocolate covered coffee beans and peanut butter with milk chocolate covered pretzels, but I’ll have to go back for that. With many, many courses sitting in my belly, I opted for the somewhat lighter combination of lemon basil and stracciatella with star anise.

And if we didn’t finish our meal with rakija, we wouldn’t be in Belgrade. So our final stop on the tour was Rakia Bar, where we sampled a few different kinds. They’re all ridiculously strong, but they range in flavor intensity from liquid candy to Robitussin to…drain cleaner, I’d imagine. But seriously, it was a fun end to an amazing night. Not only is the food excellent in Belgrade, the hospitality is phenomenal. From servers to chefs to our lovely guide, Uros, everyone was warm and welcoming—as evidenced by our (unnecessary and unexpected but so lovely and appreciated) parting gifts, wooden spoons with our names in Cyrillic burned into the handles. My name hardly makes sense in Serbian—with the way their letters are pronounced, it’s more like Yenneefer), but I’m happy to have something by which to remember a wonderful evening.