Thursday, July 12, 2012

Preparations for going Solo

I am nervous! Counting down until my solo trip. I am nervous because believe it or not, I am a total acting-on-a-whim kind of person. I just saw some good ticket prices to/from Singapore and bought them, without having really thought through all the logistics. Once I started researching and planning my trip out in more details, it turned out to be a big black hole of logistics, what-ifs, and money! Geoff has been very helpful, but he has also helped me realize that in order to do the things that I want to do in the budget that I want, this has to be a backpacking trip.

So far, I've done these things, in no particular order:
  • Gotten a Vietnamese tourist visa (Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia do not require visas from U.S. citizens if the trips are short, like under 30 days. I decided to fly from Thailand to Hanoi, and then from Ho Chi Minh City to Kuala Lampur in order to bypass Laos and to skip another visa process). Incidentally, if you wish to get a Vietnamese tourist visa in Berlin, it costs something like 65 Euros for regular processing or 88 Euros for rush processing. If you do some research on the web you'll see that the fees are not published for some reason. Some say that it's because the Vietnamese government is embarrassed by them and there is a bit of shadiness going on as well. I didn't look too much into it, but you can research it if you are curious.
  • Gotten a thorough review of my immunization records. Berlin has a travel clinic actually ( ), and they were immensely helpful. They went through my entire immunization record with me (I brought pieces of paper from Taiwan, U.S., and Peru), and recommended HepA and Typhoid shots specifically for the trip I am taking, since those are food-borne illnesses related to unsanitary food-handling. That was pretty much what I had already decided prior to going to the clinic, so I went ahead with it and the shots together costed about 80 Euros. On top of that, I also got a cocktail shot that included Polio and Tetanus, among other things, because my Polio shot was from when I was a kid and it's long expired. (Polio shots are recommended every 10 years, apparently. There are new polio outbreaks in the world, so I thought it wise to update my immunization to help prevent the spread of the once-almost-eliminated disease.) The shots are not immediately covered by the German health insurance, however, so I've submitted a reimbursement and will hope for the best.
  • I talked to the doc at the travel clinic about malaria pills, and she showed me some graphs and we agreed that if I get sick from mosquitoes, more likely than not it will be Dengue Fever, and I should seek medical attention immediately as Dengue has no vaccine or pills to take. I still bought a pack of emergency malaria pills just in case (they cost about 50 Euros), but the idea is certainly to prevent mosquito bites instead of working on preventing illness. So, I got some Autun (an insect-repellent I've used in El Salvador before) and also a small net to cover my face and neck when I sleep.
  •  I bought a 30-liter backpack! We went to a store called Globe Trotter for this. It's something like the R.E.I. from Seattle and it was a huge store of camping and traveling gear. Geoff and I looked for a good while and picked out finally a lightweight bag that is bigger than your normal day pack but smaller than a camping backpack. It will let me keep about a week's worth of clothes and all my toiletries in it, since I'm a small person and Asia is hot. Geoff basically forced me into this, because he thinks it would be an atrocity for me to walk around Asia with a wheelable carryon suitcase, especially if I might have to walk a couple of miles to find a hotel. Anyway, the bag from Globe Trotter is 60 Euros, and it's less expensive than their standard 32-liter bags which are 100 Euros, in case you're looking at this and thinking of heading over to the store for something similar.
  • Besides that, I also went to my German bank and asked them to allow my card to be used in Asia. I'm still not sure about this; the whole transaction was sehr Deutsch, because the lady just trusted that I was the account-owner without collecting a photo ID, and she never gave me a written confirmation that it worked. She just said, "Alles klar!" and that was it. On the other hand, I activated my ATM card from the States (and tested it by withdrawing some money here in Berlin), and also called my American credit card company to allow its use in Asia. Again, this transaction did not instill much faith, as I had to call them 3 times to get them to approve my purchase of an intra-Asia flight and to override automatic fraud detection. But, I will hope for the best and straighten it out in Singapore if I have to.
  • I have made a rough itinerary. Because my trip is so jam-packed, I had to research train schedules in advance and to book a couple of local flights (Bangkok --> Hanoi, then later Ho Chi Minh City --> Kuala Lampur) in order to fit everything in. I will still have some wiggle room to drop things here and there to make sure I get to make those flights in case I get delayed, but I am hopeful that I'll get to see a lot of stuff on this trip!
  • I've printed out and made copies of everything. Since I'll be by myself, the worst-case scenario is if I get pick-pocketed and lose my cards, or if my passport gets stolen. I still need to read up on precautionary measures, but I already know that I cannot be too careful! 
  • Along the same lines, I have been reading copiously on safety issues, particularly surrounding women traveling solo in SE Asia. It seems as though the things they are recommending against are mostly things that I wouldn't do anyway (it's hard to convince me to go out alone at night after living in El Salvador, and hanging out on dark beaches by myself is really a "Thanks, but no thanks!" type of thing). Still, it's always good to know things like I need to chain-lock my bag when I sleep, my skirt/shorts should be a certain length, and Thailand has had recent incidents of rape on beaches and the Thai/Malaysian border-crossing isn't the safest.
Things I still might do tomorrow (Friday... the last weekday before I head off!):
  • Buy a doorstop and a safety whistle (can never be too safe about being a solo female traveler; that's a recommendation from another solo female traveler)
  • Possibly going to see a doc to get my inhaler prescription (I'm semi-worried about an asthma attack, even though I haven't had issues in recent months and tend to be OK in the warmer months)
So, wish me luck! I'll keep all my wits about me. See you on the flip side.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Road Trip with the Coxes

To blog a bit about our recent travels, the (future) in-laws have been visiting us for about two weeks. During this time, we took a 9-day road trip with them to Heidelberg and Prague, and along the way we had also stopped by the "Disney" castle, Neuschwanstein, and the city of Dresden. It was a lot of driving for Geoff over the course of 9 days, and a lot of wine and champagne and meaty German/Bavarian/Czech food consumption for all of us, but overall the trip was a really great opportunity for me to get to know the Coxes better, and definitely a rare and lovely/special occasion for Geoff and his parents to travel together in his adulthood!

Here are some pictures from Geoff's phone (therefore excuse the weird borders and stuff):

Among other things, we went to an aquarium in Berlin where you can ride an elevator up through a tube of cylindrical fish tank.When you are riding up through the fishtank, you can see through it to see the aquarium hotel that surrounds the fish tank. It's a tourist trap, but a rather nice one.

We also did boat tours in every city (Berlin, Heidelberg, and Prague). Ironically, the weather for our boat tour in Berlin was the best out of the three. Heidelberg was steamy hot and Prague was rainy on the days of our boat tours. Berlin, which is consistently rainy, was actually nice and breezy and dry during those first days of the Coxes' visit.

As one would expect, we imbibed plentifully. In Berlin, Geoff took his parents to the Hofbrauhaus, which is a chain brewery/restaurant that originated from Munich and that has huge beer halls and huge steins of beer, Oktoberfest style. His dad thought the traditional fried pork knuckle from there (Schweinehaxe) was fantastic.

Heidelberg is beautiful. Smaller than Berlin, but a college town and full of buzzing young people. There are charming houses and traditional red rooftops all over, and some random castles and fortified houses up in the hills. We were here for a few days, and it was pretty slow-paced and nice.

We took a drive down to Bavaria from Heidelberg, to visit the Schloss Neuschwanstein. This is the castle that all of the Disney castles are inspired by. The inside is only 1/3 finished because the king died halfway through its construction, but I think the parts that are done are very rustic and medieval-looking; it's worth a visit. My favorite part is a man-made cave next to the king's bedroom. Really random and eclectic interior design!

You cannot tell from this picture, but that day it was about 30 degrees Celsius. I had to strip down to my undershirt, basically, because it was so damned hot. The view from the Neuschwanstein Castle, however, was stunning. It made me really miss Utah from last summer, because there is simply no view like this in the flatlands of Berlin.

Next up, we went to Prague. In Prague, the local food was amazing -- something that I had not experienced previously when I went as a chaperone on a school trip. This time, we ate our hearts out and quite literally every restaurant was amazing. Here is me munching on a trdol, which is a hollow bread glazed with sugar. (They make it simply by slapping dough around a rotating rolling pin, and then sticking it over some coals; afterwards, they add sugar or glaze it.) The bread reminded me of the brioches from Berkeley's Cheeseboard that I had once loved so much.

And here is a photo of the roadside "Prague old ham" that is sold in the center of the town. We tried it; it was delicious and juicy, but (in my personal opinion) you should try the sausage from the same vendor. They have the best sausages I've ever had. In my life! The sausages are spicy and literally bursting with juice upon each bite.
Geoff's mom had steak tartare at the same restaurant 3 days in a row, because it was that good. Also very notable is the Czech style of preparing garlic bread: they first fry buttered toast, and then they serve it with raw pieces of garlic, which you need to cut and rub onto the toast. It's sinful how garlicky and buttery the whole thing tastes!

Here is a picture we took in front of an apparently famous water wheel, as seen from the Charles Bridge. When we took this picture, we didn't know that this water wheel was the subject of many artists' paintings of Prague.
Another view of the gate next to the famous Charle's Bridge:

We also went to the Prague castle, obviously. Here's a view of the cathedral, from outside and inside. This cathedral is nice, but not quite as ornate on the inside as the St. James' Cathedral downtown.

One night, we decided on a whim to go catch a performance of parts of Don Giovanni at an old opera house in Prague. We decided to do this because it was the original theater where Mozart himself had directed the same opera, which he had written in Prague, for the people of Prague. The music and the singers' voices were absolutely enchanting, even though the lyrics were a mix of Italian and German and we couldn't follow the storyline. The theater was magnificent, and the experience of sitting in a box seat (Geoff's parents had decided to splurge a bit, so we went along with them to stay altogether) was also unique and very luxurious. (Of course, I did not bring appropriate attire on the trip for such luxurious occasion; you can't see it here, but I am wearing sneakers.)

On our last night in Prague, we had the most delicious meal on top of an old clock tower in a restaurant called Zvonice, because Geoff's parents wanted to relive their fabulous experience of dining there 7 years ago. (It's not the famous astronomical clock tower, but another one downtown somewhere.) It was expensive, but mostly because of the awesome wines we had. I think you could have a terrific meal in this cozy restaurant with breath-taking views, for about 30 to 35 Euros per person, which isn't too bad considering the phenomenal experience you would have. You could even see in the corner of the picture below of the large bell that still hangs behind Derek in the middle of the restaurant / tower. My lamb dish was every bit as good as it looks, and so were all the other dishes.

On our drive back from Prague, we stopped by Dresden for a bit. Not my favorite German city, unfortunately; I don't think it has that much character, to be honest. If you are familiar with the history of Dresden, basically 95% of the downtown area was destroyed in the air raids of WWII, so what's left now is mostly a reconstruction of what the old, beautiful Dresden had once looked like.  We walked through the old town, which still has remnants of the past glory. The food in Dresden was also mediocre -- typical German fare, and a pale comparison to the complex flavors offered by the cuisine in Prague, sadly.

But, all in all, it was a fantastic trip! Now that I have a flip-flop tan, I am truly in the summer mode. :)

Friday, July 6, 2012

To the End of the Roaring 20s

I have been doing some thinking about how adulthood has simply snuck up on me. I am turning 30 in about a month! This trip through Asia will be my last opportunity to do something big all by myself before I turn 30 (even though it was not intended as such).

And, in the end, the 20s were more glorious than anyone could have ever told me it would be. In hindsight, I think that if you just follow your heart, there's not really any way to mess up your 20s unless you're doing drugs or setting out to hurt people. No matter where you live, what you do for a living, no matter if you party all night or decide to tell your boss 5 months in advance of leaving a job, no matter if you move across the country without knowing anyone, no matter if you are disappointed and cry your heart out, or if you end up living in a 9ft-by-5ft bedroom infested with cockroaches, in the end your life will always turn out to be better than you could have planned it out to be.

One of my most memorable grown-up moments was when I cried over money for the first (and thus far, only) time. I had always been an idealist, and I never thought that this could catch up with me. I realized sometime soon after switching into teaching, that I needed to transfer a fairly sizable amount of money out of my savings account in order to help out my parents. In consequence, I also realized that my own life choices do impact those that I love, and I cried then, with the hope that there would never come a day when someone I love needed my help and I couldn't afford to help them.

One of my biggest "growing up" realizations about myself is that if I believe that things are possible, then they become entirely possible. Sounds like BS, but it has made all the difference in how I perceive my pursuit of goals. One of the examples of this was when I auditioned for a swing dance troupe in NYC, and at the time I simply was not technical enough for it. I gave it my all and I was crushed when I did not get in, and the next year I gathered up all of my broken hopes and did it again, after first requesting a private lesson with the troupe director to fix some of my bad dance habits. And the second time, despite all of my self-doubts and feeling of absolute foolishness for even giving it another shot, I was in!

Being part of a swing dance troupe in my 20s was an amazing experience. I had to place complete trust in myself and someone else in order to even attempt an aerial, and then to pick myself up repeatedly when I kept falling on my butt or on my old injury of a bad knee. I felt like I triumphed over my fears, the same way I felt when I jumped off a 30- or 40- foot high cliff and almost hit the side on the way into a volcanic lake or when I climbed up 4 or so stories of ladder-stairs in Tikal. I know that down the road, when I have to replace my knee, I'll still think this dance adventure was completely and absolutely worth it. We got to perform at Frankie's 95th Birthday Celebration in front of swing dancers from all over the world, and I also met some awesome and passionate people through this experience. It had changed me for the better, because I got to experience something that was made possible only by leaving myself fully vulnerable.

Most of all, I will always remember this decade as one filled with love and happiness. Geoff and I have been together for almost 6 years now, more than half of the decade! I love him dearly and I could have never imagined that I would be so lucky some day to have someone like him. But, even before his time, I had the good fortune to share my life with some wonderful people, truly amazing friends, my beloved family, and even some pretty great boyfriends.

So, cheers to a marvelous decade, and I hope the 30s live up to their promise.