A Mini Guide to Southeast Asia

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My favorite animal is a close tie between elephants and platypus (platypi?), but platypus don't fit in for the sake of this post. My favorite food is any sort of spicy Asian noodle bowl. So when I was able to eat spicy noodles with elephants walking nearby, I'd knew I'd found my place. It's crazy to say, but a few YEARS ago two friends and I traveled through Southeast Asia for roughly three months. It was the kind of trip they make movies about. Meaning yes - it was incredible to wake up next to elephants; yes - things went wrong. And yes - we got sick. But only after drinking the water! We ate from every sketchy street vendor you can imagine, and everything was dandy, until one day in Cambodia we were hungover/extremely lazy and got a splash of water in our mouths after brushing our teeth. I'd say all three of us were bed ridden from dusk to dawn that day. The below is a rough guide to traveling through Southeast Asia!

-          Eat like the locals.

-          Pack a filtering water bottle (saves plastic and is useful in rural areas) or straw

-          Book hostels ahead of time if you can, the good ones go fast (Try Hostelworld or Hostelbookers) We were trying to meet people as we went along our trip, so we tended towards hostel stays or home-stays with locals, versus Airbnbs or hotels

-          Always carry a sweater or scarf with you for going in to Temples (they require your shoulders to be covered and are pretty strict about it)

Life in the back of a tuktuk - keep all limbs inside the ride at all times.

Life in the back of a tuktuk - keep all limbs inside the ride at all times.

 Thailand

 Bangkok

Read this.

o   Hostels:

  • Bed Station
  • Boxpackers
  • Lub D Bangkok

o   Activities:

o   Resources:

o   Eat: EVERYTHING (including street food! None of us got sick from doing this. I 100% recommend) - Pad Thai, Tom Yum Soup, Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam), Pad Kra Pao, Pad See Ew

Chiang Mai

o   Hostels:

  • Hug Hostel
  • Spicythai Backpackers

o   Activities:

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o   Eat: Kao Soi Noodle soup

Pai

Pai is a super crunchy, hippie area about 2 hours by car from Chiang Mai. I highly recommend! It's got nightly markets on the streets, a very chill vibe, and really interesting people. There are also really pretty waterfalls nearby.

WARNING: The road is super curvy and known to make people very car sick. If you’re up for it, you can self-drive in a scooter, but people also crash these pretty often. Otherwise, Pai is DEFINITELY worth seeing. It’s a super crunchy, hippie town in the mountains and has gorgeous waterfalls nearby

o   Hostel we stayed in: Circus School Hostel

 

Cambodia

Siem Reap

o  Lara Croft meets Legends of the Hidden Temple: Go here to see Angkor Wat and the famous temples but do not stay more than 3 days (there is nothing else to see/do here and it’s very touristy) 

Sihanoukville

o   Beach town – very touristy/more for partiers. A more chill version is Otres Beach, about 20 mins by Tuk Tuk

Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Just to pass through – don’t stay here long! Super smoggy and congested)

  • Vietnam War museum - not a light viewing. The museum gives an interesting, and opposite, perspective on the war

o   Eat: Pho! and Bahn Mi from local carts

  • Transportation Note: In all of Vietnam, make sure to look at the cost of flights first, and then research overnight buses. Flights can be as low as $30 USD. I do NOT recommend taking trains. They are pretty unreliable, costly, and smelly (I once woke up with my head on the window, and a cockroach crawling nearby)
Cao Lau

Cao Lau

Hoi An

o   MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CITY

o   Stay at a homestay instead of a hostel this time!

o   Eat: Cao Lau! 

- Friend's recommendation: White Rose dumpling house - 

Hanoi

Hanoi is another large, bustling city, though much more amicable than Ho Chi Minh. There is a huge amount of expats living in the city, all around the 20-30 year old range, so it makes for a fun atmosphere. 

o   Eat: Bun Cha Noodles

a bunch of bun cha noodles

a bunch of bun cha noodles

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is reachable first by bus from Hanoi, and then by boat. We booked an overnight "party" boat, which I would probably never do again even if you paid me. BUT the destination itself is really beautiful. Most boats, overnight or not, will take you to Cat Ba National park where you can hike for a bit, see the local monkeys, and go kayaking. Make sure to look into the weather for the time you'll be there (we were technically there in their winter, so at night it was frigid).

Following our homestay guide in Sapa

Following our homestay guide in Sapa

Sapa

o   Stay in a homestay in the rice paddy villages. The ladies of the village will walk you through the area until you arrive at your designated homestay. We ate dinner cooked for us over a tiny fire overlooking the hills

You can book most of these "excursions" from hotels or hostels in Hanoi. Definitely haggle!

Laos

Vientane

o   Wake up at sunrise to see Monks

o   Read this

Vang Vieng

o   Four hours by bus, quite touristy but young

o   Take tubes down lazy river and stop at the bars along the way

Luang Prabang

Go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls! Just hop in a tuk-tuk from the center of town in Luang Prabang (average cost 30-40,000 kip). Make sure you plan your day to allow for at least four hours at the falls itself. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip ($2.50 USD)

Kaung Si Waterfalls

Kaung Si Waterfalls

Fight or Flight

it' s thai-m to get out there

it' s thai-m to get out there

How to find ANY flight for cheap

1. Hopper

Hopper is my favorite app when it comes to figuring out flight deals. It keeps a watch on the ups and downs of current flight prices and lets me know, based on history, if I should wait or buy at the time of search. It also sends notifications when the price changes (like the typical price alert from a website, but on your phone so you see it immediately versus having to check email).

2. Skyscanner - set price alerts

Skyscanner feeds my inner gypsy with it's Everywhere feature. You can literally just type in your home city/airport for departure and "Everywhere" for destination. For dates, I've been known to use the "Cheapest Month" feature as well. GYPSYHEAVEN.

Another favorite part of the tool is the ability to see whole months at a time, as well as selecting "Nearby Airports". The larger airports get the most traffic, and therefore, sometimes give the highest prices.

3. Google.com/flights - set price alerts

The advantage of setting both Google AND Skyscanner alerts is that certain airlines (i.e. JetBlue) actually aren't covered on the SkyScanner searches. Google covers them all in real time. I set multiple dates around the time I'd like to travel, and let 'em work their magic over the next few weeks or months. 

4. Choose new airports

In NYC we all know we have the normal options of Newark, JFK or LaGuardia, however, most do not know that Stewart (up north in Newburgh, NY) now has super cheap flight options because of Norwegian Air. 

Just last month I flew Stewart to Edinburgh, Scotland for $385 round-trip nonstop. Norwegian is a low budget airline, and I did choose the most economic option, meaning no seat reservations or checked bags. But I also flew to the United Kingdom for less than a flight to California!!!! It was a new plane, there were no frills like personal TVs, but I popped a melatonin and took a sleep in the sky. I woke up in Scotland before you could say WEE LAD!

5. Get Creative

Sometimes it's best NOT to fly directly into the desired destination. In the above example, I was flying in to Edinburgh to eventually get myself to London (normally $900+ for direct flights in the summer). I took a train- a sleek Virgin Train with WIFI and working outlets included - UK in 4 hours, for $45 each way. In Europe, you can sometimes get lucky and find budget airline flights for anywhere from $20 - $50. I once flew from Dusseldorf, Germany to London for 10 GBP (about $20 USD at the time!) on Ryanair.

I would recommend the same for Asia. While traveling through Southeast Asia we once took a $50, 14 hour overnight train, only to realize later we could've taken a $50 TWO HOUR flight!!!

To this day, the best deal I ever snagged was an $880 roundtrip flight back to the US from Australia on Virgin Australia. I left out of my home at the time, Melbourne, and stopped in Brisbane, finally landing at LAX. From LAX I used miles to fly for $Free.99 to NYC, giggling my way home. I was both delirious from the amount of flying and the feeling like somehow I had finally cheated the system. 

You live and you learn :)

And before/after/during your flight, be sure to treat yo' self!

And before/after/during your flight, be sure to treat yo' self!

*Updates*

6. Skiplagged

Skiplagged gives you the advantage of seeing hidden city flights (legs where the traveler exits before the final destination) faster than any other site. It's like a real-life cheat code. #rosebud

7. Scott's Cheap Flights

Scott is my platonic soulmate that I never met. He used to be a one-man-band (but has developed into a whole team of searchers!) that scan the web for the cheapest flights daily, and then email them out to you once you've subscribed. I found a $505 nonstop flight NYC - Madrid and then Barcelona - NYC last April through his alerts! 

Rocking a canadian tuxedo in espana After getting there for only $250

Rocking a canadian tuxedo in espana After getting there for only $250

8. Earning and Using Miles

One of my favorite ways to (attempt to) cheat the flight system is by using miles (IMO). I promote the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card like it's my job because I truly believe it is THE best. After you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of opening the account, you receive 50,000 bonus points which are directly transferable to major airlines like Virgin, Delta, KLM, and Southwest. OR you can use those miles to book through Chase travel and it will equal $625. You constantly earn double points on travel and dining, so to me it's a win-win. (Oh and $0 annual fee the first year!). Just don't keep a balance and you'll be flying high. 

I've used my miles for free round-trip nonstop flights from NYC to Austin, Atlanta, LA, the Dominican Republic and even London (and at least 2 DC to Vegas flights :)). To put it into perspective, an average nonstop flight NYC - Atlanta (or similar domestic hubs) on Southwest is usually under 20,000 miles, so already you've amassed enough points by opening the account to fly twice. 

 

If you have other flight-finding tips, I'd love to hear them!! Drop a(n) (air)line below.

- Al

Scotland for the Weekend

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A wee bit of Scottish flare.

With a little less than 48 hours in Edinburgh, here are our top recommendations:

1. Coffee at Artisan Roast and Milkman

Milkman vibes

Milkman vibes

Artisan Roast is located on Broughton Street, one of the main, quaint strips of the New Town neighborhood of Edinburgh. I'm no coffee snob (that's Pat), but their coffee was tart and fruity, while Milkman was a bit more mild. Both are great for takeaway brews or as cozy spots to chill with your coffee or tea.

A unique quirk to Artisan is their lack of an actual counter dividing the baristas from the customers. We loved this about it, as it played off a more inviting vibe than the usual separation in a cafe. 

2. Brunch at the Educated Flea

What I believe was named after the Cole Porter song, Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love) ("...even educated fleas do it..."), this adorable cafe located on Broughten Street serves up eclectic, "punchy global flavours" - and delicious - brunch/lunch and dinner. As the website notes, "Book a table and look forward to a warm welcome smile, maybe a cheeky giggle and a generally super time in a great neighbourhood".

Pat and I ordered off the specials menu, seen above. He got the duck hash with hollandaise and poached eggs, while I got the curried butter bean whip with dukkah (an Egyptian topping of herbs, nuts, and spices), soft boiled eggs and crispy flatbread.  IT WAS SUBLIME.

3. Hike Arthur's Seat

This wasn't even from the top of the peak!

This wasn't even from the top of the peak!

About a 15 minute walk from the center of town, and visible from all throughout the city, is Arthur's Seat. This peak is not only an ancient volcano, but one of the area's oldest forts, dating back more than 2000 years ago. Like the rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built, it was formed by an extinct volcano system which became eroded by a glacier moving from west to east over the last 2 million years. Side note: It's really steep, but the views are well worth the hike!

4. Visit the Castle

The historical fortress on Castle Rock attracts many a tourist, though I don't actually recommend paying the 17 pounds to get in. On both of my quick stints in Edinburgh, I've navigated my way up to the top but never actually entered the castle, and I've been just fine without it. If you're a true history buff you may want to buy the ticket, but I'm more of a fan of views and ambiance than tourist attractions and queues. 

JK Rowling wrote some of the first HP books at The Elephant House in Edinburgh

JK Rowling wrote some of the first HP books at The Elephant House in Edinburgh

Embark on a journey through Edinburgh to witness sites that inspired characters and scenes in the series. From the cemetery where JK Rowling began creating character names, to the cafes she would sit in and write parts of the book, this is a free tour for any Potter fan. 

6. Dinner and Drinks at The Devil's Advocate

Pat and I have a thing for genuine bars with authentic feels/food/people. The Devil's Advocate, located in an old Victorian pump station, is just that. The structure is exposed brick and wood beams with touches of brass and steel. The decor accentuates the old with the new, and the food is vibrant without overdoing it. The drinks are in a separate ballgame altogether. 

Pat got the Capercaille (rum, Campari, pineapple Cocchi Americano, Cafe Borghetti, and apple acid) while I ordered the Red Sky in the Morning (Japanese whiskey, Cacao Campari, Fernet Branca, mochaccino stout and chili tincture). UNREAL.

 

7. Stay at Susie's in New Town

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Sometimes you find a really quaint Airbnb and you're over the moon. Other times you find a charming Airbnb WITH a gorgeous host who sees after you like a great old friend. Susie is that host! While her flat is not only centrally located, but still in a quiet, residential area, it also has all the comforts of home with added hospitable touches. Everything you forgot to pack or didn't plan to need, she has: hairdryers, converters, umbrellas, little chocolate treats and water on your bedside table, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc. The bed was comfy and the big windows made me feel like a Scottish princess! And although it is a 6th floor walk-up, the trek is worth it after the Scottish beers you'll be consuming every night! 

8. Live Jazz at the Jazz Bar

picture courtesy of theJazzbar.co.uk

picture courtesy of theJazzbar.co.uk

Another favorite pastime done while traveling is truly being spontaneous. After we finished our lovely meal at The Devil's Advocate (meaning after we transferred to a table outside on their deck for a bottle of wine - our version of dessert), we were wandering about the cobblestone streets when we stumbled upon The Jazz Bar. Easily persuaded, we couldn't see why we wouldn't want to go down the secretive steps into the underground venue. And it did not disappoint. The bar serves up local craft beers and THE best homemade ginger beer I've had the pleasure of tasting (with any sort of spirit to be added if you'd like!). 

9. Scottish craft beers/whiskies

Scotland has a plethora of great locally made beer, from ciders to ales to intense dark stouts. I love them all. I wanted to try them all. But I only had 48 hours so I believe I tried about 6. Go forth and prosper, hoppily.

Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.
— Mark Twain

P.S. Dishoom is now located in Edinburgh in St. Andrew Square.

Even the decor at Dishoom was impeccable

Even the decor at Dishoom was impeccable

Known for their procured attention to detail, this Bombay-inspired Indian restaurant is delightfully delicious and easy to share. We split the Sali Boti, "a first-rate Parsi classic, tender lamb is braised in a rich and flavoursome gravy then finished with crunchy sali crisp-chips. Served with buttered roomali roti", and the Black House Daal, "A Dishoom signature dish - dark, rich, deeply flavoured. It is prepared over 24 hours for extra harmony". They were both intensely flavorful and definitely satisfying. I'd also recommend the vegetable samosas (served with their three sauces - chili, coriander and a sweet date and tamarind) as well as the Bhang Lassi (Traditional Holi drink, but with fresh shredded mint in place of happy-go-lucky hemp. Ginger, grenadine, candied fennel sprinkles and almond syrup and yoghurt. Can be served with or without rum, and was just as lovely sans-spirits). 

Homeward Bound

My beloved Melbs

My beloved Melbs

As we all know, 2016 was a crazy year- a whirlwind of WTFs, PADS (Post Alcohol Depression Syndrome, aka Sunday Scaries), and FFS (FerFuxSake) moments. But we made it, so on to the next!

Last year, I moved back to America from Australia, started a job in the city, left said job, started a new job at my former company, commuted to NYC from CT for 3 months, lived out of my suitcase, found an apartment, and completed my dream of having an NYC zip code. In between these adventures I also drove across the country with a long time friend, nearly peed myself driving through what I thought was a tornado in Kansas (we’ll get to that later), camped out along the way, camped out at Coachella as well, stayed in a dreamy airbnb in Palm Springs afterwards, went to London, FINALLY made it to Canada, and went back to London to finish off the year, (as you do).

The first big action item of my year was, of course, moving home from Aus. It was a tough breakup, and I have to say it was me, not Aus. But my visa was expiring and I felt like I was meant to be closer to family and friends once again. However, that is not to say the Melbournites (just made that up) I met were not my family and friends. My coworkers had absolutely become a family to me, and I attribute the happiness and the genuinely grand time I had there to them. Thank you to my Encore family – words will never be able to express how much you all mean to me!

Photo taken in the Encore office in Melbourne...Destiny?

Photo taken in the Encore office in Melbourne...Destiny?

My friends in Aus were just as special, but a different breed of special. A let’s-surprise-Alex-by-paying-for-her-tattoo-before-she-knows-she’s-getting-a-tattoo kind of special (read: crazy). For the record, I submitted and got the tattoo. Instead of the rhino riding a skateboard Melbourne Tram symbol they hoped I’d get, I chose a drawing by my friend Taylor, from a card she wrote me the day I left Bali to head to Australia on my own.  It’s three little elephants walking, and it has more meaning than just a love for the gentle beasts. To me, it’s a combination of so many things- the carefree feeling we had having quit our jobs to travel around Southeast Asia, the confidence we found from actually doing it, the fulfilling feeling of being entirely lost but not afraid, the companionship of friends with whom you’d shared these incredible memories with. But G damn, did that tattoo hurt. If it wasn’t already obvious, you have a lot of nerve endings in your feet, and obviously not a lot of fat/muscle/ANYTHING in between your skin and bones. So obviously I decided to stick an electrically vibrating pen straight through the sensitive spot.

When I did finally board the plane from Melbourne to LA, I was an absolute wreck. My eyes were so bloodshot and puffy I looked I had been attacked by hornets who only sting directly on your eyeballs. I was suddenly funemployed again, but didn’t have a real plan. Continue traveling or make my way home and settle down for once? Keep on gypsy-roaming, or pay off the credit card debt I had amassed by being an extreme YOLO artist in Aus? So I did what any free-spirited gen Y-er would do, I booked a ticket halfway to halfway answer my questions. I would get from the west coast back east somehow, but I would figure it out as I went.

San Diego vibes

San Diego vibes

This “strategy” somehow worked out perfectly. I’ve always wanted to drive across the country, and suddenly had a friend who would be in San Diego at the same time I would be and wanted to do the exact same thing. Next thing you know, we were traversing Route 66 in a solid all-weather Ford Fiesta. Our first stop was the Grand Canyon. We camped outside a few miles from the North End (North side?) and I mildly slept, convinced that coyotes were right outside our tent about to eat us.

From the GC we went to Albuquerque, my first time stepping in to New Mexico. I have to admit, I enjoyed the city more than I thought I would. It was very funky, and had an authentic feel to it. It was like a hipster Brooklyn without the pretentious hipsters. (I also couldn't stop thinking about how High School Musical was set in Albuquerque).

Before heading out of NM, we stopped for lunch in Santa Fe. It was a cozy little spot with fresh Mexican served with a local American twist. Next up was the lovely state of Kansas. We drove through Oklahoma, so therefore I am counting my visit to OK completed. We stayed at a bed and breakfast in Dodge City, right next to the Chili’s our host recommended (as it was the only bar that stays open past 10pm in the entire city). We had the absolute pleasure of meeting THE Deputy Sheriff in the morning, who greeted us as we ate breakfast, and told us the many wonders in the history of Dodge City. This includes, but is not limited to, killing 10,000 heads of capital per day. Yes, you are reading that correctly – PER DAY. I nearly threw up. I’m 100% sure the phrase “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge” comes from this godforsaken city in the middle of America.

THE Deputy Sheriff of Dodge City everybody

THE Deputy Sheriff of Dodge City everybody

Luckily, after Dodge City, came Kansas City, MO, a more civil place where humans do not breed millions of cattle. We stayed with my friend Stephen, who I met studying abroad in Spain back in college. We had a brief stay in KCMO but I loved it! Great BBQ, chill people and a somewhat busy city.

We spontaneously changed our route after KCMO to visit another friend of mine from Spain. Nick lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I was happy to check off Arkansas from my list while also having a reunion con un viejo amigo. For those who don’t know, Fayetteville is the city where the University of Arkansas campus is. And everything to do with Walmart and the Walton family. At one point we checked out the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was free and had some interesting architecture, but what was surprising was the amount of famous paintings inside, too. Go Arkansas, get yo culture on girl.

With our tastebuds now craving more barbecue, we decided the obvious next stop should be Memphis, TN. We feasted like we'd never feasted before at Corky's BBQ. Now ever the barbecue connoisseurs, we knew the next stop had to be Nashville. I can safely safe it is one of my all time favorites. It's got everything I love - live music, great BBQ, warm weather. The energy there is so buzzy, I couldn't get enough. We ate at Jack's and I knew I was no longer going to fit into any non-stretchy pants. #WORTHIT.  

Dreams of Central BBQ (Memphis)

Dreams of Central BBQ (Memphis)

Next up was Asheville, a beautiful little nugget of a city in rural North Carolina. It’s all good things hippie and outdoorsy and crunchy granola barefoot or jesus sandal-wearing (Birkenstocks) people. We tried to camp that night but quickly realized we should’ve booked a campground beforehand. Everything, and I mean literally everything, was full. We ended up at a Ramada Inn which was fine, but far out of our previously-made budget. Our main activity in Asheville was visiting the gorgeous (and massive!) Sierra Nevada brewery out there. I love that city and am craving to see a bit more of it.

Our final stop on the road trip was an accidental pitstop in South Carolina, just for the heck of it. We jumped out of the car in need of a break from the car and wandered on a hiking trail near a lake. It was gorgeous and quiet and the exact opposite of Dodge City, which made me happy. 

Wilmington, NC

Wilmington, NC

We ended in Wilmington, NC, an adorable beach town with perfect weather even in the early spring. I checked off my bucket list of making a cross country trip, and realized I still needed to figure out my next moves job-wise. I was in no rush, so I picked up a book, grabbed a towel and headed to the beach. Some things you simply cannot rush. 

Manifest Destiny

A little over a month ago, I landed back in America. My Working Holiday Visa had expired in Australia, and Immigration Officers quickly deported me. Just kidding, I left a day before it expired so nobody got hurt. (I even asked the officers at the airport if they would stamp my passport since they normally don't for electronic visas. The guy goes, "No I can't. But YOU can!" And hands me the stamp. Reason #349018 why I LOVE Australia). 

I flew in to LAX, and not having an immediate job set up, I decided to stay awhile! I met up with Ray and we ventured into the unknown waters of Venice Beach. Meaning, we rode hipster bikes and ate at delis filled with pretentious yuppies. At the first lunch spot, we overheard the guy in front of us asking if the salmon was wild, where it was caught, did it have other salmon friends, and did it have nuts in it. 

Pretentious sandwiches : Pretentwiches

Pretentious sandwiches : Pretentwiches

At the second Venice spot, I almost lost my cool when Giada DeLaurentis (newly single) walked in. In Australia, no one takes pictures with celebrities. That would be uncool. So, fresh off the Australian scene, I didn't take any pictures with her (despite my internal FOMO). 

From Venice, Ray and I began our camping trip into the desert. We were heading to Joshua Tree National Park to explore and camp out for a night. Unprofessional campers that we are, we didn't reserve a spot at the campsite and we're almost SOL when UUUUUNIIIII (the universe) swooped in and pointed us to an expired spot. Meaning, it was time to google how to set up a tent. Meaning, it was time to break out the wine.

We were lucky enough to witness one of the famous desert pink skies that night. But we were unlucky enough to have super annoying, inconsiderate societal rejects on their Spring Break being loud right next to our tent. So we popped some mellys (Melatonin) and tried to knock off. But instead I had to pull a mother-like SHHHHHHH and was laughed at .... I'm getting so old. The fact that if you interrupt my much needed beauty rest I call you a societal reject should say enough...

After epically camping and living the true nomad way, meaning dirtily, we decided the next stop would be a bit more glamorous. Because you always gotta treat yo self! We booked an AirBnb in Palm Springs and called it a day. We were staying with two lovely ladies who naturally informed us that in Palm Springs, "you're either grey, or you're gay". Being super non-mainstream as Ray and I are, we happily announced that we are neither.

 

Post-Palm Springs adventures, we drove down to see my long lost travel gnomes, Taylor and Liz, in San Diego. I hadn't seen either of them since we parted ways in Indonesia literally a year earlier. To say I was excited IS A MERE UNDERSTATEMENT. They were still living the dream in the mansion Taylor's family inherited (no, I'm not making this up). Once we dropped our bags in our respective bedrooms, because why not, we headed out to drink cappuccinos the size of our heads, feast on brunch, and have a luxurious day of drinking that is only acceptable in places like San Diego.  

My entrance back into the States has been exciting enough to reduce my severe PADS (Post Alcohol Depression Syndrome, or newly, Post Australia Depression Syndrome), and I'm excited to announce I'll be reducing them (or just distracting myself from them) even further by traveling across country next week. Leaving from San Diego, I plan to drive all the way from the West Coast to the East Coast, and stop for some eats along the way (obv). 

Back with the updates post-trip!

Attica

In February of this year, I had the IMMENSE privilege of receiving a text. This was not just any text either, my friends. This was an automated text from a robot, informing me that a table was available at a restaurant in Melbourne where my name had been patiently ingrained in the waiting list for the last SIX MONTHS. This particular restaurant has been rated within the Top 50 Restaurants IN THE WORLD. It's name is Attica.

To be honest, I never thought I'd receive such a brilliant text. I had put my name on the waiting list hoping to eat at the #32nd best restaurant on the globe, after watching the Netflix episode of Chef's Table that featured both Attica and it's head chef, Ben Shewry. I was immediately engrossed in the idea. How would I ever be able to leave Australia, now that I knew of such a place right in my own backyard?

Happy to provide my credit card guarantee, I immediately signed myself, and three others, onto the highly desirable waiting list. The idea was to a) get the table and then b) surprise my roommate, Katie, for her birthday. Only a month before, Katie decided to travel to Thailand for two weeks as a present to herself. As a Travel Coordinator, obviously I had few objections against her choice. Plus, we were getting so close to the date of the dinner, I never thought we had a chance! When I told Katie about the potential surprise, she simply answered, "Knowing my luck, now that I'll be gone you'll get a table". In the end, I received the message just 6 days shy of the requested date. 

Enter - a foraging heaven

Attica is an experience. It's not a casual dinner, no matter if you have the $$$ to constantly book a table there and spend heaps. To truly appreciate the fare, you have to understand the chef's message. Not to get all sappy on you, but Ben creates an extraordinary event on each dish he serves. He brings to life what is normally overlooked and discarded. Leaves suddenly become the highlight, nests are assembled, vegetables are invented, seeds and pits are reintroduced in lieu of spices and garnishes.  And, yes, sometimes things were a bit over the top and too pinky-up for my plebeian status, but isn't that half the fun?

First Course

First off, I need to confess the reason I can retell all the courses I consumed that evening. It's not because I have some incredible memory, or that I've self-taught myself how to remember every dish detail in order to become the next New York Times restaurant critic. No - the truth is - I was writing it all down on my phone underneath the table. Yes, it's true. I took my commoner level in society one class lower, because I simply HAD to remember everything I was eating. I was the nerd taking photos (though I still tried to hide it and only brought my camera out when the servers weren't looking at our table), and I was the dweeb simultaneously taking notes.

Confessions aside (I feel much better), let's get to the food!

The first course for this Chef's Tasting Menu was a cured beef from Cape Green, Tasmania, aged for six weeks, and served underneath a bed of pine mushrooms, along with their leaves. (Again, please picture me rapidly typing this underneath the table, all the while concentrating on the waiter's face so I didn't give myself away). The dish was "served with an egg yolk emulsion, and the pine mushrooms were in their new season". The pictures I attempted of this plate do not - in any way shape or form - do it justice. The beef was smokey in flavor, the mushrooms (and their leaves!) added just the right hint of earthiness to the plate, and an emulsion of egg yolks never hurt nobody (meaning it complimented well overall).

The beef is hidden under the mushrooms, taking the "foraging" from Chef to Table

The beef is hidden under the mushrooms, taking the "foraging" from Chef to Table

Second Course

In our second dish of the night, we took witness to the first vegetable-fruit combination. Ben had created a prodigy of both the pineapple and the tomato: the Pineato. Or the Tomapple. Or if you're not into word combining, just call them Pineapple Tomatoes. These were served with Snow Crab from South Australia and topped with micro basil. It was light and refreshing; sweet yet buttery. 

Third Course

Next up was another seafood dish, this one serving grilled squid from South Australia in a seaweed butter, topped with pumpkin seeds. Unfortunately, I ate this one so quickly that I forgot to take a picture...

Fourth Course

The highlight of the evening, my absolute favorite dish of the night, was the lamb. Lamb is by-far one of the most popular proteins in Australia, and I definitely never ate as much of it as I did when I lived in Melbourne. The main course was a confit shoulder of lamb in gum leaf oil, presented with a mint glaze and an apple cucumber (!!!). The lamb was roasted for 48 hours before being served, and the glaze featured "indigenous mint from Australia". Now, I don't have it written in my notes but I'm pretty sure most chefs don't usually cook with gum leaf, a leaf of the gum tree (related to the Eucalyptus tree) found all over Australia. And yes, the apple cucumber was another brilliant mad-scientist fruit-veggie miracle. The lamb melted in your mouth, the mint perfectly complimented it, and the apple cucumber was crisp and DELICIOUS.

BREAD & BUTTAH

All along this epic food journey, I should mention that Chenaye and I were consuming copious amounts of wine, but more so, absolutely devouring the bread and butter. The bread was a dark rye, but the butter. Oh, the butter. Chenaye repeatedly regarded it as the "best damn butter I've ever had in my entire life". It was hilarious- the servers were never allowed to take it away. If anything, they had to constantly replenish it. The butter was house-churned, and served alongside another dipping bowl of blended macadamia nuts dusted with ground Australian peach pits. I don't know that the pits added any flavor, but they did add a nice reddish-orange color (almost like sprinkling on cayenne pepper). Plus, in the middle of the table rested a small nest of emu feathers filled with the very unique-looking Australian peach pits- so it was intriguing to see them and say you had tasted them as well. Needless to say, our pleb-ness was showing...

Dessert

As dessert was served, I got one of those gut-wrenching feelings. No, I wasn't sick off the wine, I just didn't want the night to end! I knew I wouldn't be at such a highly regarded restaurant again for a long time, and I was savouring every moment. We were given a plate filled with sugar plums roasted in whiskey, topped with Macadamia nuts, and accented with "licorice leaf grown behind the restaurant and picked just as you walked in this evening". I giggled at this line. The entire night I had felt like I was pretending to be someone famous, but in this moment I felt like the server was pretending to be a bit too much.

I promise it looked nicer before I started eating - then stopped midway for the photo

I promise it looked nicer before I started eating - then stopped midway for the photo

The final dish, a now famous parting gift from Attica, was a Pukeko egg for each person at the table. Ben has recreated the egg of the bird indigenous to New Zealand (his home country), in chocolate form. With a perfectly decadent outer chocolate layer, and a creamy inside of salted caramel, these hand-painted eggs are absolutely to die for. I'm not embarrassed to say I was instantly in a state of sorrow when I finished mine. 

In the materials given with the eggs, Ben writes, “The New Zealand Pukeko is quite a character and has often provided my family with first class entertainment… Like me, Pukeko are often seen foraging for food beside roadside ditches, but unlike me they had been forced to adapt because their natural habit, the swamplands, have almost disappeared with human proliferation.”

Life take-away

Attica is one of those places where the restaurant's modest beginning are evident, but not overlooked. It sits on the outskirts of Melbourne, in a quiet suburb known as Ripponlea. It is not overly embellished, and the decor compliments the fare suitably. As soon as you are seated, you take witness to the small, but carefully thought out, tableware. The walls are dark, and dimly lit, but the staff are bright and enlivening. We were not the first guests in that evening, but we were absolutely the last to leave.

As I wrote in my notes circa 1:31 am that evening (/morning?), "We certainly weren't the regulars, but we certainly weren't treated any less regularly. The staff were gorgeous, the food was beautiful, the night was extraordinary".

Wine makes me the cheesiest person alive. Cheers to the universe delivering!!!!! Thanks Uni xx

Safe Solo Travel on A Super Slim Budget: 5 Tips to Get By On The Fly

As an American who has spent the last year living in Australia, and 3 months traveling through SE Asia prior, money was definitely an obstacle along the way- but never a complete roadblock. Before that I studied abroad in Europe in undergrad - so I was especially on a tight budget then. Here are 5 tips on my insights to traveling solo and on the cheap - 

1. Stay in hostels / Couchsurf / Airbnb

Our Airbnb flat in Hobart, Tasmania

Our Airbnb flat in Hobart, Tasmania

Stay with Locals and Make Travel Friends - Couchsurfing is NOT as sketchy as it sounds. Even as a solo female traveler you can safely stay on a fellow travelers couch for free and learn heaps more about the city than you would in a fancy hotel paying extortionate amounts.

If you're still a bit hesitant, hostels are cheap alternatives to hotels. You're surrounded by like-minded travelers (often on similar budgets), and some are actually quite accommodating. Check out the reviews before you book on Hostels Worldwide - Online Hostel Bookings, Ratings and Reviews and Hostels, Hotels & Youth Hostels at hostelbookers

And lastly, my new favorite, Airbnb! A cheap alternative to hotels, Airbnb allows you to stay in other people's homes (and usually meet the owner's as well - providing lots of insight and local advice on your current city). I've recently stayed at Airbnbs in Tasmania as well as London and couldn't be more satisfied with each experience!

2. Be a backpacker

Backpacking through the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar

Backpacking through the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar

There is a nomadic lifestyle associated with simply using a carry-on size backpack while traveling, in lieu of a rolly suitcase. You'll skip the airlines charges for checked luggage, you'll learn to prioritize when packing, and you'll skip the impulsive travel buys simply because you don't have the room in your bag.

3. Pack a water filter (and reusable bottle)

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When traveling through Asia, my friends and I saved heaps by simply packing a water filter. This way we were able to refill our water bottle wherever, and not have the worry of getting sick in the case that it was contaminated water. These days there are even water bottles with filters attached within them. However, I used a simple life straw and never once got sick. Amazon.com : LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

4. Set up your networks prior to leaving

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In this day and age of social networking, you're bound to know someone (or someone who knows someone) in the destination(s) you're headed. Reach out to friends and let them know your travel plans. Most likely they'll give you a connection in the area, and if not, they might just be able to give you some tricks of the trade for traveling solo there. There's nothing better than meeting a new friend in a new destination, and having them show you around. You get the perspective of a local but still have the feeling of an explorer.

Be sure to check out local groups on Facebook, Couchsurfing events & groups, or even just websites like Hommily, a social network specifically made for travelers.

5. Eat the street food!

Food stall vendors on the west coast of Krabi, Thailand

Food stall vendors on the west coast of Krabi, Thailand

Pad Thai off a cart anywhere and everywhere in Thailand is usually around $1 and equivalent in size to that of 3 dinners. And, as if that wasn't good enough, it's DELICIOUS. While you should always have your guard up regarding the cleanliness of street food, if you dismiss it altogether, you will truly be missing out on a good chunk of the best part of traveling - experiencing other cultures. My personal recommendation - just stick to the most popular street carts. If there is a line, it's legit (specifically if the line is made up of locals)!

5A. Find alternate forms of transportation (Less safe, more money-saving)

Depending on the mode of transportation, usually the cheaper the expense, the less safe the vehicle. I've ridden motorbikes in Thailand, electric bicycles in Myanmar, unstable TukTuks in Cambodia, highly unregulated buses in Northern Vietnam, non-airconditioned overnight trains in Southern Vietnam, uncomfortably packed vans in Laos, etc. If you can dream it, (and you have good coordination) you can most likely cheaply ride it. 

Riding (and photographing) through Koh Phangan island, Thailand

Riding (and photographing) through Koh Phangan island, Thailand

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

How to keep your cash, and thus your sanity, safe while traveling the world

AKA the article on keeping your monies 2legit2quit

1. Store your cash in multiple locations

e.g. on hand in a wallet (tucked beneath one's clothes in either a neck or waist pouch), in your shoes, inside an empty Vitamin container, on the inner-flap of a journal kept on hand in a backpack/purse/carry-on, inside the case of your mobile phone, etc. As a female, I've even resorted to stashing some cash in my bra (desperate times call for desperate actions). Never put cash in your back jean pocket for obvious mugging reasons.

2. Invest in a travel credit card

with no foreign transaction fees, and rewards for airfare and dining (Capital One Venture, Chase Sapphire Preferred- Chase Credit Card Application)

3. Store your credit cards in a RFID blocking wallet

Today, RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology is used constantly to track sensitive data, especially credit card information and transactions, and has become a concern against the unknowing tourist. This even extends to passports embedded with RFID to track one's personal data and photo. Counterfeit readers can easily scan this information and use for their own use. With RFID blockers, a Faraday cage works to prevent illegitimate scanning of RFID-embedded items by making them electromagnetically opaque, or unreadable.

4. Buy travel insurance.

No matter how short the trip, no matter how experienced a traveler you are. (This can sometimes be included if the flight/hotel/travel bookings are purchased using a travel credit card). So many unplanned events can occur in the midst of traveling (especially to lesser known/frequented destinations), from baggage issues to sudden health problems.

5. Print all travel documents twice. Save thrice.

Store one on hand (in a carry-on bag), and one in your checked luggage. Additionally, store these documents on a USB drive carried on hand with you. As a final precaution, also save these documents to a shared drive in the case of losing both paper copies, and the USB drive (such as Google drive, DropBox, iCloud). This includes credit card information/contacts/scanned copies, flight confirmations, accommodation bookings, passport/ID copies, frequent flyer information, emergency contacts, any important health information, travel insurance documentation, etc.

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MyanMars

Sunrise in Bagan

Sunrise in Bagan

Let's start where it all Bagan.

Hehehe with a pun, of course. It's taken me quite a while to write about Myanmar, but there is simply so much to say. If you were to stop reading right here, here is the moral of my story- go to Myanmar, and go now. Before it's too late.

While we didn't actually begin in Bagan, it was by far the highlight of the trip. 

We first arrived in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, by flying from Thailand to Yangon. You cannot enter the country through land borders, you have to fly in (luckily, we figured this into our itinerary early on in the planning process). Yangon was a bit more timid a city than I imagined it would be. By that, I mean it felt empty, especially when compared to the manic bustle that is all of Thailand. 

Immediately upon arrival, there was an eery calm in the air. Everything was already four notches down on the volume scale. There wasn't a commotion to get a TUKTUK TUKTUK as soon as you stepped foot onto the tarmac of the airport. We negotiated (heavily) with a nice looking woman who had some sort of white paint on her face. We found out later that many Burmese women and children do this as a form of sunscreen. Taylor, Liz and I made friends with another traveler and we four hustled into the van that would take us into downtown Yangon. We were staying at a hostel known as Four Rivers. It was practically brand new, as most hostels in Myanmar are because of their borders opening recently, and the sudden influx of backpackers aka ballin-on-a-budget tourists.

The first amusing aspect to the city was how amusing we seemed to be to everyone else. If the Thai were perplexed by our white skin and Liz's long legs, then the Burmese we're in utter shock. Their eyes followed our every move- some giggled and others smiled timidly. Or just followed us (but I think that only happened once. Or twice. And only to Long Leg Liz). 

In Yangon, we didn't plan much of an itinerary- we just wanted to see what the largest city in the country was like. After talking to one our hostel-mates, a scraggly Aussie photographer,  we found out we needed to go to the Shwedagon Paya, and we also needed to have the sushi nearby. We hadn't had sushi the entire three months (#firstworldproblems), and as soon as he mentioned it, we couldn't get it off our minds. Sushi for dinner, in Myanmar. But first, temple exploration. 

Shwedagon Paya, the Golden Pagoda, is considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. While it seemed half of it was under construction, it was still an impressive site to see. We thought we'd seen all the temples we could see while in Thailand, but the best part of this one was the people. From the pink layered monks to the umbrella-adorned women, I felt like I was on the set of a Bollywood-meets-Southeast-Asia movie. 

The heat was so strong midday that we needed to take a break, and sat down on some steps in the shade. Suddenly, we were witnessing the cutest group of kids ever. I felt super creepy because I simply could not stop taking pictures of them. Taylor gave them some stickers from her journal and within seconds we were surrounded by a clan of adorable giggle monsters. 

CAN YOU HANDLE THE CUTE?

CAN YOU HANDLE THE CUTE?

Because my memories of Myanmar are at times quite literally indescribable, I feel it's best to just lay out what I wrote in my travel journal during the trip.

February 24, 2015

Sitting in the sweltering hot humidity, even in a bungalow in the shade of a park, drinking homemade lime soda at a place called “Off the Beaten Track Café”, we’ve made it to our sixth country: Myanmar.

The Burmese are friendly, and much less apt to hassle us to come into their shops like in Vietnam. The owner of this café, Lin, just approached us, offering travel advice in a completely helpful, nonchalant way. It’s sad to realize but, jaded by the people constantly taking advantage of us this trip, I was skeptical of his motives at first. I can’t help but think everyone is constantly out to profit themselves, squeezing the (few) bills out of me at every opportunity. But he was different, offering accommodation suggestions for Bagan and telling us about his café’s menu. I’m keen to order a “Myanmar Limonade”, a pint of their draft beer mixed with Sprite. In this heat, walking on the desert path of pavement, Sprite is the only thirst quencher on my mind.

We arrived in Bagan after an overnight bus - a separate, miserable story in itself. To summarize, it was at least 90 degrees of stifling heat, and the bus had no air conditioning. On top of that, the bus was packed so full, the driver somehow started pulling seats out of nowhere in the middle aisle. Every aisle seat quickly became a middle seat like on a plane, except now without any form of movement allowed. I sometimes exaggerate with first world problems, but this entire situation was really pushing it. The monks in front of us smelled like our garbage can did in college after a weekend of parties with jungle juice, old beer, and rotting pizza, that then sat in the sun for 3 months. What's worse, in order to get any form of circulation into the bus, we had to open the windows- but seeing as it's Southeast Asia and speed limits are non-existant, we were CRUISING. Meaning the wind was knocking back this garbage-infultrated-monk smell right into our face. Then the girl next to me spewed. Not kidding. It's 3AM somewhere in Burma, it's gone from scorchingly hot to absolutely freezing (I don't know why- were we going North?), the monks still don't have any deodorant, and the girl in the seat over has vomited on herself. Have I ever mentioned how poorly I do when hearing/smelling/being in any proximity to retching? I do REALLY poorly- meaning most times I puke almost immediately after smelling it. So now my face is buried in Taylor's shoulder for the next NINE hours.  If I slept at all, it was for brief stints as a result of the multiple Dramamine I was popping like candy. Those babies became my crack- I took them almost every bus ride (out of pure necessity- all of the roads seemed to be made as if an infant was handed crayons and excitedly drew out every map). 

February 25, 2015
Sitting on ancient bricks, piled high to assemble a Buddhist pagoda centuries ago, Myanmar seems like a distant reverie. As the sun sets over this hazy valley, it feels more mesmerizing than real- a time traveling mystery unifying us in the present with the ancient kinds of the past.
It’s one of those moments that are too difficult to transform into words, into a language so definitive. It is awe-inspiring, humbling, wondrous, still, effortlessly calming. There is a layer of tranquility phyllo-ed between the pink and orange haze of the sky. The only sounds are the chatter of birds, the clippity-clop of horses and their carriages, the distant vibrations of bus motors far way. As Tay says, there’s a sense of magic here but it will be lost soon with the waves of sightseers, and the consequential chaos they (we) bring.

Burma is an extraordinary place, like entering a time machine. However, this makes for an epic tourist destination. Basically, if you want to see it in it's actual, pristine (but pristine meaning untouched by tourists) state, you need to go now, before tourist exploitation gets the best of it. 

Speaking of tourism and how ironically I am telling you tourists will ruin the magical element of this country, and yet at the same time encouraging you to go, another pointer is to buy a guidebook. We relied almost religiously on our Lonely Planet guidebook. I'm not one to be too touristy but in a place like this, where we literally knew nothing about what to do and see and eat (except Tea Leaf salad from my brief experience at Burma Superstar in San Fran). It was extra helpful to flip to a page, and find out you should 100% definitely book hostels/hotel rooms in advance because the likelihood of just arriving somewhere and there being room available was slim to none.

For example, when we were climbing back down from climbing atop hundred year old pagodas, we had to avoid the children sent to retrieve our money in exchange for postcards, poorly drawn paintings or just their presence. It was sad to see such a beautiful place already being corrupted by the heightened sense of money making. 

Long Leg got so sick of all the pestering that she flung a child away! Just kidding- no Burmese children were injured for this photo.

Long Leg got so sick of all the pestering that she flung a child away! Just kidding- no Burmese children were injured for this photo.

I guarantee in just a few years' time, you will no longer be able to climb atop these pagodas at your free will, but instead you'll have to pay an entry fee. Instead of renting a bike for $1 a day, you'll have to pay $20, or rather, you'll be forced into tourist vans that will drive you around specifically chosen pagodas. Instead of one or two Burmese children begging for money, there will be groups of them. And what's worse, they'll no longer look as cute because you'll be too busy clutching your purse fighting through the crowds in desperation. It's a sad point to make, but I say it honestly. There were times on this entire trip through Southeast Asia where I witnessed kids acting angelic and cute one second, slyly slipping their fingers into a bag the next. I digress.

February 26, 2015
Today was by far the absolute best day of this trip so far.

We woke up before the sun, grabbing our electric bikes and heading to a pagoda to climb and watch the sun rise over the valley of shrines. Not surprisingly, a few other tourists had the same idea. Luckily, we wedged ourselves atop a corner wall of the pagoda and began the suspenseful wait- using every bit of patience we could muster before even having our first cups of coffee (meaning we were all feeling a bit cranky).
Of course, suffering through the caffeine withdrawal ended up completely worthwhile. Not only was the actual sunrise gorgeous, but soon after hot air balloons began to rise in the distance. While their immense size alone is normally breathtaking, the silhouette they made while floating in front of the sun, hovering above hundreds of ancient pagodas mind you, was even more impressive. None of the words I want to use to describe the sight we witnessed come close to accurately portraying it’s significance- stunning, remarkable, absolutely extraordinary.

Myanmar has a calming effect that I’ve begun to truly appreciate. Bagan specifically has a spiritual vibe to it, and after so many chaotic cities filled with traffic, it is a wonderful relief to be somewhere so quiet and tranquil. There are hardly any motorbikes and those that are on the road are electric (and just like my little Prius, they are almost completely silent).

After the sunrise, we grabbed breakfast across the street (half of which went to our new little friend, Eggy- the cutest little mut puppy I ever did see. And in Asia, I saw my fair share). Then it was back to bed, because early bird gets the worm and then passes out if she plans to do more activities in the day. Around noon we headed back into the world, riding off to find some lunch. I ended up with avocado and tomato salad served with homemade rolls and mint lemonade. It was nothing short of divine, and every bite rejuvenating.

Then it was time to wander. We grabbed some ice cream- coconut and taro for me, avocado for the gals. Not interested in being smothered by cameras and annoying tourist groups again, we decided to be a part of the sun set, instead of just watching it stagnantly. We drove off, quite literally, into the sun.

We cruised off the main road, quoting Henry David Thoreau at every nerdy opportunity – “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.

And we did just that- getting lost at some points, falling off bikes into pricker bushes at other, even running into female farmers and their ox (Oxes? Oxen? Ox).

It was remarkable and something I will never forget.
I felt wild and free, not bound by the marks of other roamers or even by the lines of the paved road. This is what traveling is all about. And now to quote Tay, “We’re not here to do what others have done. We’re here to figure it all out and see for ourselves- and we three are certainly not the norm to begin with”. She’s right up there with Thoreau these days.

Who knew we could have the time of our lives by simply riding electric bikes around hundred year old pagodas in Myanmar? Wind in our hair, sand on our feet, smiles from the locals and a new sense of life.
Do not leave child unattended with electric bike.

Do not leave child unattended with electric bike.

To Be Continued...

Strayin' in 'Straya

Seven months and 3 weeks later, I'm forcing myself to update the world on my (eternally wandering) state of mind. And by the world I mean you few (greatly appreciated!) followers of the Urbon Vivant.

I'll be honest- the reason behind the forcing is not that I'm simply ready to share all the highs and lows of my trip, but more so that there's so much to say I feel like just spilling it all out at once. And today was just a superb example of living life outside your home country- but we'll get to that in a bit. 

Eventually, I'll catch up on the rest of the Southeast Asia trip- the ridiculous Thai Islands, the overly tuk-tuked country of Cambodia, all of Vietnam (south, north, and the strange Russian inhabited middle), the bizarrely alluring country that is Laos, the Aussie dominated island of Bali, and Myanmar (the gem in the rough). 

I flew straight to Melbourne on a red eye flight from Bali on Friday the 13th of March. 13 is my favorite number, and while Fridays with it are usually cause of havoc for the superstitious, I took it as a good omen. After 3 months of traveling with my best gals, I was finally heading off into the unknown down under by myself. 

But not really. I was meeting a friend who had spent the last year living and working in Melbs- Alex, an angel of a dude I met while studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain back in uni. First off, let me note that while I had already filed for a working holiday visa, I had no intentions of staying long in Aus. I figured 1-3 months to rid myself of the travel bug that is constantly biting me in the bum, making me feel like I have to run from one place to the next as if there's no time in the future to ever do so. And I could work in Aus to pay off the credit card debt I had accrued on ridiculous, mostly unnecessary, expenditures while in Southeast Asia. 

So to start, I was crashing on Alex's couch in St. Kilda, the beachy, hipster, backpacker-esque side of town. I know I tend to exaggerate but for the next few paragraphs just bear with me- I really was this enthusiastic.

Upon arriving I was OBSESSED. I've never lived in a cool trendy place like I don't know, ALL of California, and I definitely never lived walking distance to a beach. The Long Island Sound doesn't count either. 

Here was a place where it wasn't even that warm but no one was wearing shoes, every girl had a nose ring or blue hair, and everyone, male or female was doused in tattoos. While you're on the thought- YES I've always wanted my nose pierced and YES I've always wanted to die my hair blue. But I've had allergic reactions to every ear piercing I've ever endured and my hair is jet black, so no it doesn't absorb dye very well, especially blue dye. So I choose to live vicariously through the badass bitches of St. Kilda and Fitzroy, Melbourne. 

Which leads me to the area of Fitzroy. If St. Kilda was like a super tiny version of San Francisco- with trams running by the beach but not nearly as steep, and cool people with beards pursuing their life dreams and biking to work- then Fitzroy would be Brooklyn. Flat out, Brooklyn. It used to be a s**thole and then, as hipsters usually do, they started to populate the northern skirt of the city because of cheap rent and then bam that shit got popular. Now you can go and eat delicious vegetarian fare (like ridiculously scrumptious sweet potato fries) at Veggie Bar on Brunswick St, the most insane gelato I've ever had (been caught buying .6 liters of the crack-like substance), and celebrate the 4th of July at New Orleans style bars (that run out of PBR at 7pm- OI WTF MATE).

Speaking of PBR, yes PBR, I've the most painful craving for the sweet substance for months now. Then, one night while walking home from work, thinking about how I used to pay $2 TWO MEASLY LITTLE DOLL HAIRS for tall boys of it, BAM I see it in a bottle-o window. The sweet nectar of the Milwaukee gods had blessed me with their presence. To this day I have no idea what I paid for it (possibly $9AUD) but I savoured every last sip. So people back home, in the name of the PBR gods, do not take it for granted. Beer, all beer, even the piss made down the street, is at least $12 a pint here. Twelve hard earned plastic-y, colorful Aussie dollars. Ferfuxsake. Bloody fuckinel.

I’m sure you’re thinking, why does she want a cheap Milwaukee-made beer so badly? Isn’t there good beer in Aus? What about Fosters?

My response: because everything is so DAMN expensive I just needed a reminder of home and how wonderfully inexpensive things can be. Never mind I was paying 3 times the normal price for the sense of low cost (I think they call this irony).  Yes, there is good beer in Australia, but the wine is even better. And just an FYI no one in Aus drinks Fosters- or says “shrimp on the Barbie” just while we’re on the subject HA Crikey the misconceptions! No one says crikey either hahaha

Just to be stereotypical

Just to be stereotypical

In Australia, everything is casual. People avoid confrontation (much to the opposite of a lot of Northeastern Americans), have wine in the office on Fridays (or out at lunch everyday as I learned while working at a “businessman” restaurant), and curse every other sentence. Even the words alone are casual- most are shortened and made into an –y, meaning sunglasses are sunnies, breakfast is brekkie, sandwiches are toasties, the other day I heard someone call The Bachelor Bachy. HA.

Which gets me onto the subject of The Bachelor: Australia. When I first got to Melbourne, I had 3 waitressing jobs. The first was in a fancy restaurant in the CBD (Central Business District- picture downtown DC), one in an Italian restaurant run by crazy passionate Italians, and the last a laidback hipster café in a predominately Jewish neighborhood (picture Brooklyn).

One night in April I walked into the café knowing I would be catering a function that night. We were setting up his number 35 balloons when I was told the birthday boy was the new Bachelor (with his season about to premiere in a few months). I immediately pictured Juan Pablo and burst out laughing. If he was anything like the American bachelors, this night was going to be entertaining. It was- he was super self-absorbed, looked at himself in every reflection he passed and his “friends” were even worse. There was a point in the night where a girl half breaking her back for attention stopped me as I passed, asking “Um….seriously what other champagnes do you have?” To which I replied, “We only carry SINGLE bottles of bubbles. SOLO boxes of one type. You could say we're kind of like The BACHELOR."

Bachy also ended up making every one of his guests pay for their drinks (even though he had previously said he would be paying for the venue and the beverages). So then we had the pleasure of dealing with 50+ champagne divas paying at one till at once. Moral of the story, don’t believe what you see on TV. They’ve made him out to look like a gem, or at least the insane women on the show make him look like a gem next to them.

Now, back to the good stuff.

The food in Melbourne is ALL on point. When friends ask me what Australian food is I usually say Brekkie. Brekkie in Aus is served all day, erry day. It includes: poached eggs on everything, “smashed avo” a delicious combination of exactly what it sounds like- avocado smashed onto toast (and usually topped with a poached egg), smoked salmon, beetroot in everything (for whatever reason they call it beetroot, not beets. Which makes me think we should also be saying carrotroots and potatoroots, but I digress), and coffee, lots of coffee.

Ray understands the coffee shpeel

Ray understands the coffee shpeel

The city of Melbourne itself seems to be a food capital, and it DEFINITELY has the best coffee in the world. The hipsters will be happy I acknowledged their belief. But just as most gorgeous men usually know they’re gorgeous, the baristas know their coffee is delicious. And so with this sense of awareness, comes an air of pretentiousness (except sometimes it can be more like a blustery wind of pretentiousness).

The other day I went to a coffee shop on my Melbourne Bucket list (of course I have one). It was hands down the best coffee I’ve ever, ever had. But when I read the menu out loud I practically peed my pants laughing. It was a ridiculous combination of adjectives and hoity-toity vocabulary assembled by what I pictured to be a mustached man who drank coffee like wine, naming off subtle ingredients he identified like “hints of orange peel and cardamom dustings”. Just to emphasize that I am actually in no way exaggerating, I will prove it with examples pulled from the menu:

“Pickled celery, compressed apple, quinoa, fennel, celery leaves, watercress, candied walnuts, kale, pomegranate & smoked dried goats cheese”

“Crispy potato hash with braised wild & cultivated mushroom, poached eggs, shaved Gruyere & chlorophyll & truffle vinaigrette”

Chlorophyll vinaigrettes are my favorite.

And since I know you’re DYING to know what I ate that day:

“Smoked salmon on rye with grilled cucumber, radish, cottage cheese, beetroot, horseradish, preserved lemon & sea herbs” L.O.L

Surprisingly enough the grilled cucumber was super tasty, while the rye bread was a weird cracker that I would’ve rather called “essence of rye”.

But hands down my favorite:

“Raw cashew, matcha & avocado cheesecake on caramelized buckini & organic coconut oil crunch base with chia seed pudding & pear & lime caviar salad”

^^ What are you even talking about?

Regardless, I have to admit the food was delicious- I won’t deny the flavors of the overly pompous descriptions and heir of importance throughout the venue. But honestly- compressed apple?

While I could talk about the food in this city for ages, I feel like I owe it a bit of conversation. Food, after all, is the reason I’m still in Australia. It’s how I got the third job waitressing, and ultimately, what placed me in front of a table of 5 celebrating a birthday dinner. It eventually led to the exchange of a business card that now has me listing “Event Coordinator” underneath my name in emails. What I mean is that through my (mild) obsession with food, I got a job waitressing at a sexy little Italian restaurant in a random corner of Melbourne. Through the waitressing job, I served a table that happened to be the owners of another restaurant. Through the business card given to me more so for a hospitality role, I stumbled upon an Events & Travel Company known as Encore Journeys. And through my emailing of said company, I eventually landed a position at my dream job. So to put it simply, my obsession with food led me to my dream job (give or take a few details).

In my book, food really does make everything better. So I’ll end this post with pictures of what I’ve eaten in this lovely city. I’ll dish it to you. Not to be too cheesy. Toastally.  

Brie. Melted. Story over.

Brie. Melted. Story over.

Homemade 'ogis (pierogis) and a fresh 'ry (bloody mary) at 'Borsch (Borsch, Vodka & Tears)

Homemade 'ogis (pierogis) and a fresh 'ry (bloody mary) at 'Borsch (Borsch, Vodka & Tears)

Brekkie at a place called Journeyman. Because every dish is a Journey, Man.

Brekkie at a place called Journeyman. Because every dish is a Journey, Man.

See what i did here

See what i did here

Avo smashin in da club

Avo smashin in da club

Cheers mates ;)

In Cahoots with the Mahouts

Before arriving at the Elephant Nature Park in Surin, Thailand, the most extraordinary experience I'd ever had- the one that truly shocked me out of my mind, made me grateful for this crazy life, and always stuck out as one of the highlights of all my travels combined- was camping out in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. For 3 days and 2 nights, a group of ceaselessly curious students slept under the stars, peed in sand dunes in the pitch black of night, and even endured a wicked sand storm. We rode unbearably long bus rides all the way south from the city of Sevilla, endured a nauseating ferry ride across the Straight of Gibraltar, rode more rickety buses and eventually hopped onto some sand buggies to drive straight into the middle of nowhere. With nothing around us but ever-shifting sand dunes, it was instantly frightening and calming at the same time. Waking up with the sunrise and peeking my head out of our bleakly-constructed tents (literally a few sticks holding up handmade rugs), I was in awe of the world. 

But then, a new life experience wiped the Sahara out of the first place ranking. In January of this year, Taylor, Liz and I volunteered at an elephant conservation in a rural village of Thailand known as Surin. Upon arriving, it was a confusing campus of sorts. On one hand you still saw elephants chained up, a look of sadness in their beautiful orange hued eyes. On the other, there was a breeze of change in the air, and you could instinctively feel it. The Surin Project was created by Lek Chailert, a firecracker of a woman who for the past 10 years or so has been bulldozing her way through the elephant tourism industry of Thailand. What most people don’t understand is that industry is malevolent at best. It is a disgusting, torturous trade of commerce made up of businessmen and elephant owners who only see these animals as a method of profit. Long gone are the well-established social rankings of a mahout, proud caretakers of such majestic beasts.

Taylor and Liz were able to meet Lek personally, and help out at a local school, teaching the children the importance of taking care of the eles [Photo credit to Lek]

Taylor and Liz were able to meet Lek personally, and help out at a local school, teaching the children the importance of taking care of the eles [Photo credit to Lek]

Nowadays you’ll find caretakers who will do literally anything with their animals in order to reap a dollar- from street begging on the corners of Bangkok (now considered an illegal activity, though there are hardly any efforts made to enforce this law), to exploitation by tourist rides, to the brutal manipulation of circus acts. Fortunately, elephants as circus entertainment are more often frowned upon than enjoyed in modern times, yet these acts still exist all over the world. And while we Americans frown at the exploitation of such an animal in a circus atmosphere, I can guarantee at least one of you knows someone who recently posted a picture riding an elephant in a Southeast Asian country. We clap our hands at Barnum and Bailey ending their elephant routines, and yet we Instagram ourselves leisurely riding atop the same animal. PEOPLE. Get it together. How do you think that animal learned to balance a chair on top of its neck, casually allowing a heavy wooden structure to pierce it’s most sensitive pressure points? Why is it there is always a mahout around as you ride, almost never seen without some type of brutal poking stick? For your safety? So that the elephant doesn’t stampede off while you’re taking selfies 8 feet above ground? It’s because that gentle beast has been brutalized since it was a baby- beaten with bamboo sticks embellished with rusty nails, all the while trapped inside a cage the size of our closets. It’s a fact that emphasizes the true nature of the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”. Admittedly, I knew none of this before volunteering at the ele park. I simply thought we were off to hang out with the coolest creatures in Asia (yeah I said it, Pandas!). 

To make me not seem like such a ele-obsessed girl watch the following (click Training Crush):

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0510/feature5/video.html 

Then make a promise to the poor creatures that if you ever find yourself in Asia (or India), you won’t ride one just because it looks fun. And if you simply cannot live without doing so, the important part is to know the establishment you’re paying is legit, and you do NOT ride with a chair. Ride bareback my friends – you may be fat, but not as fat as a bulky wooden chair (I speak for the general population at least).

Alright spiel over. And in lighter news I just tried to spell that as shpeel. Niiiiice. Losing my English already!

Anyway, back to the actual experience. Surin is a smaller version of Lek’s main conservation in Chiang Mai- a paradise filled with 30+ eles roaming in their natural habitat. While there are only around 13 eles, it makes for a more intimate experience- both with the elephants as well as the volunteers (and the mahouts!). In just a week we were able to identify all the eles we were helping, name each mahout we were socializing with, andddd I can’t even complete the sentence because that was the greatest amount of rubbish I’ve ever attempted to write at once. I could only name one elephant by the end and that’s because she was the biggest and thereby my favorite (and the oldest. With the coolest name). Her name was Fah Sei, meaning Clear Skies in Thai and she was a 25 year old beaut! As for the mahouts, well they just had Thai names I couldn’t remember. With the exception of Singh, who never stopped singing one line to one song nobody else knew, “One way ticket”. Literally, all he would say, on repeat: “One way ticket…” It was bizarre and hilarious. Taylor and I even started accidentally singing it ourselves like mental patients.

While at the Surin Project, we stayed in huts right next to where the elephants were kept. They were previously the mahout’s actual homes, but with this new voluntourism trade, they gave up their houses in exchange for a commission gained monthly from the tourists. Waking up next to elephants is hands down the coolest sound ever, in history, ever. Think what it might sound like to wake up in Jurassic Park, autotune-in some roosters who sound like they’ve smoked cigs all their lives, get a couple dogs barking at each other for no reason, and you’ve got the soundtrack to an 6am wakeup call on an elephant park. The eles had a roar louder than any lion, their thundering call reverberating through the rickety walls of our little bamboo shack. Most people know I more than dislike waking up at sunrise, but this natural orchestra occurring outside my window didn’t bother me one bit. I found myself peering open my eyes with a geeky smile already on my face.

SURRRRPRISE

SURRRRPRISE

With the organic alarm clearly going off without any signs of snoozing, we would hop out of bed (or if you were me, first checking for giant tarantulas…and mini tarantulas), and head off to breakfast. After breakfast we were given team assignments, which ranged from chopping down sugar cane with badass handmade machetes with the mahouts (one of them watched me while laughing uncontrollably because I got so into it- I took out all my rage on those poor canes of sugar), cleaning the shelters (aka picking up dried out heaps of ele poo), and helping to build new houses (fortunately for every future participant staying here I was too sick the day I was assigned to this). As you can see, I had a certain favorite activity to partake in.

Intertwining reflections <3

Intertwining reflections <3

After the morning activities we would eat lunch at one of the mahouts’ wives’ restaurants- a little noodle shop where I had the best Tom Yom Gum to date. We would ride over on the back of a pickup truck, inhale our blistering hot meals in the blistering hot weather (enjoyably nonetheless!), ride back over and usually take a food-coma-induced nap. Then it was time for mahout socializing! An incredible part of the Surin Project’s goals is to not only inform everyone on the wrongdoings within the elephant tourism industry, but to also prove to the mahouts that they CAN make money in activities as simple as letting tourists see what they do on a daily basis, AND just hanging out with them! They were a rowdy group of Thai men but just as the saying of the country goes, they were never without smiles. They made up ridiculous games to pass the time, not excluding throwing balls of ele dung into a bucket and calling it Mahout Basketball. L.O.L. Needless to say, the mahouts were a riot. 

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This wouldn't be my blog unless at least one picture of what I ate is displayed, nice and extra zoomed in :)))))))

This wouldn't be my blog unless at least one picture of what I ate is displayed, nice and extra zoomed in :)))))))

On our final night at the park, we walked with the elephants about 2 miles away and set up camp. Right next to a small river in Southeast Thailand, I would camp out once again under the same stars I had years before in the desert, yet this time with elephants by my side. The mahouts built a ginormous fire nearby, and we spent almost the entire night keeping ourselves warm with a concoction of delicious Thai whiskey and our own good spirits. 

"Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant;
the only harmless great thing."

- John Donne

For more information on Surin Project and volunteering with the Save Elephant Foundation, visit 

http://www.saveelephant.org/

Bangkok Garden

A little over two months since my departure, I finally have the time, the energy, a real-life, functioning computer AND the sweet nectar of the internet. At a hostel in Bangkok, I'm right back to where it all started. N'SYNC is playing in the background. And so, perfectly in my element, here it begins.

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The day after Christmas I embarked on a slightly spontaneous, slightly planned adventure to Southeast Asia. In the words of Alex Garland, author of the backpacker cult-read The Beach,

“If I'd learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don't talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”
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I did just that, with the exception of the ticket being to Bangkok, Thailand. As I've written before, Sameea and I tried to make a trip to Thailand as soon as we graduated, with little success. We were completely broke recent grads who had already booked a one-way flight to Los Angeles. Determined to still reward ourselves for the frequent all-nighters and math emporium nightmares, we made the trip into a West Coast adventure. Five years later, we were still itching to get a plate of real Pad Thai.

My obsession with Thailand started in high school, when my dad and I would drive 45 minutes to a Thai restaurant called Bangkok Garden (in New Haven for all my Connecticut-ers (-ans?)). Growing up in Connecticut, the only real activity to keep my interest was the excitement of restaurants. (I almost wrote my interest in eating but I don't want anyone to picture a food-obsessed slob stuffing her face right after taking a picture of what she's about to eat- that's only me on the weekends). But seriously, most people know there's not much going on in CT for high schoolers, but there are heaps of good eats. Bangkok Garden, specifically, was the only restaurant I'd ever go to where I'd order the exact same thing every single time- Crispy Golden Bags, similar to fried wontons; a Thai bubble tea, black tea mixed with condensed milk and tapioca balls; and Drunken Chicken, ground chicken sauteed with peppers, green beans and basil, served over perfectly cooked sticky rice and a spicy sauce that makes me drool even while I'm writing from Thailand. This little Thai shop all the way on the other side of the world is where the craving began to seek out the very place where the food with this effect originated. I needed to go, and like the rest of my trips (or desires really) it consumed my mind- trying to plan, thinking when, where, how. 

In 2014, making our annual New Year's Eve trip plans, Sameea and I decided this was the year for Thailand. We booked a one way flight to Bangkok through Emirates and squealed over the phone in excitement. Clicking the Confirm Flight button, I had an epileptic type of reaction. I was convulsing out of my chair, more excited than any of the many times I've clicked the exact same link. I was going to Asia- an entirely new part of the world I'd never seen, a new beast to take on head first. 

Landing in Bangkok, after being served warm hand towels (what luxury!), delicious food and a smooth flight stopping in Dubai, I reached elevated levels of elation. After a quick taxi ride to our hostel, we stepped out into the smoggy air. It hit me like a punch in the face, inside a plastic bag, that was stuffed inside a sauna. I was bombarded with an abundance of sights, smells, noises- the true definition of sensory overload. If you've ever seen the beginning of The Beach with my boy Leo, it was 10 times more chaotic (that was also filmed 15 years ago so you can only imagine the increase in tourism and hustle over here. It's equally exponential to the increase in Leonardo Dicaprio's gut since then. I still love them both, though- Thailand and Leo- despite their shared gut-increasing tendencies). 

A Sameea lookalike serves fresh fish on the streets of Bangkok!

A Sameea lookalike serves fresh fish on the streets of Bangkok!

Boisterous and overwhelmed, I was anxious to try everything, and even more eager to eat it all. I could already sense the endless hunger that came with Asia. And I was also actually hungry. Sameea, Sam and I dropped our backs- yes, I actually stuffed everything I was bringing on this 3 month trip into a single backpack (my poor heart hurting that I couldn't fit a single pair of heels)- and headed out into the wild jungle of the city. We were staying at Boxpackers Hostel, a clean, quaint place with pod-type beds and air-con, my one essential diva necessity.  We stopped at the lobby for a map but decided it'd be more fun to be spontaneous and simply go exploring. We took a left and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a market. And let me say, markets in Asia are absolutely nothing like your Sunday farmer's market back home. Though you could hardly make it through the slight walkway in between each stand, motorbikes also though they could squeeze through at the same time. I didn't know if I should panic or leap in excitement. I could hardly move among the swarm of people, meandering around while simultaneously realizing I blended in one way only- short stature. 

Once we broke back into the light of the outside world, we were immediately hit with a smell I can only compare to what dogs must smell when the first hint of bacon hits their noses (snouts?). The sense can be described as an undeniable NEED to find and eat whatever it is. The trio of foodies we were, we didn't think twice- we followed the smell. Blindly led by our noses, we stumbled upon a hole in the wall spot serving something out of a giant pot, steaming so much you could hardly see the Thai man behind the pot, ladling the dish into basic white bowls. We pointed to the pot, held up 3 fingers, and sat down. We had no idea what we were about to eat but we didn't care. It HAD to be good.

Our taste buds confirmed what our nose buds had already known. It was out of this world delicious. It's what I expect Anthony Bourdain meant when he first told about how Asia changed his life. This one bowl of beef broth and noodles was changing my life, spoon by spoon. I awkwardly held my chopsticks in one hand, using them to scoop up noodles, while my other hand dipped the tiny soup spoon into the broth. I can only imagine the scene we were making as the other Thai people in the restaurant peered over wide-eyed at our slurping and sloshing. It was so spicy I had to blow my nose after each slurp, my eyes tearing at the same time. I couldn't look more in pain, yet I was in absolute ecstasy.

This is what I had been waiting for.