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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Running around Tokyo

So you would think after living here for a total of 3 years, getting around the city is that much easier. WRONG. Japan changes so quickly that it's incredibly hard to keep up. For example, they have at least 30 new songs released per month!  I don't know what the actual numbers are compared to the US, but that seems high to me.  Japanese people don't like old; it is rare to see a car older than 5 years on the streets. That mostly has to do with the fact that it would cost them much more to maintain an old car with a safety check than to just dump it and get a new one which is what most people end up doing.

So this morning, I needed to get out of the house when Owen did so we could avoid having to return the key etc.  Although I could have slept in much more, who am I to demand overstaying my welcome? I was just very grateful that I had a nice, warm place to lay my head down and hot running water to bathe (even though it was with the same clothes!).  So I resistingly got up at 7:30AM and got ready by 8AM.  We had a quick breakfast and headed out. It was nice to go out to work with Owen all dressed up in his suit! It's funny because I think it was the first time I ever saw Owen in a suit! Back when we used to work together, t-shirts and shorts were the norm and occasionally he'd throw on some slacks...actually I am not sure if I ever remember him wearing jeans? hmmm...funny that we're adults now, we have to dress up. We were only 21-23 back young.

Just to get out to Owen's place cost me about $10.00 one way. I suppose it's cheap considering if I had to pay for a place to stay but I really didn't want to spend all my money just on transportation.  So since I had an early start today, I decided I would by the 都区内パス tokunai pass; free pass for the main city routes for Y730 ($8.50). 

Taiwan to Tokyo

Taipei, Taiwan

I woke up at 830AM this morning so that I could start making my way to the airport...I had no idea how I was going to make my way down to the airport so I wanted to try and get an early start. There were various routes to get there but I was striving for the CHEAPEST. I ended up walking to the all too familiar SOGO (I think I went to SOGO almost everyday when I was in Taiwan!) since I had heard that there was a bus stop that could take me direclty to the airport. I was disappointed that the guy told me it was 140NT ($4.50), I thought it was 130NT! I started to wonder if I should have taken the MRT and then a bus from the Taipei Main Station. Oh well, on my way back, I will have to check to see if the second option was a better one.

Got to the airport in good time, just 2 hours before my departure for Beijing.  I had found a ticket on Air China, not to be confused with China Airlines, the national carrier for Taiwan.  Mine instead was the mainland China airlines. A few nights before when I was having dinner with Elroy (Hawaii boy), I was warned that it was a SCARY airlines which had a really bad reputation.  GREAT.  I asked him to clarify...bad service or faulty equipment? I can live with the former but not with the latter! It started to make me think, is it better to be on a brand new airlines with no reputation or an airlines with a bad reputation? I suppose neither. The flight was actually okay though$, nothing special, nothing terrible. The good thing though was that I was able to score China Airlines mileage (the Taiwan airlines)!  In 2008, when I went to India, I traveled on China Airlines. When my boarding pass was issued today, I noticed that it was tagged with a China Airlines tag and my boarding pass bore the same logo. Which is what prompted me to ask if I could get mileage. I am still confused with the relationship because I flew on Air China, but I was able to accrue points on China Airlines.

As a mainland China carrier, naturally, the flight routed through Beijing. I was still not sure if I would need a VISA. My hunch was that I wouldn't need one because I would not be going through customs so, I didn't bother and thought if I did need one, I'd cross that bridge when I got there. My guess was right and I didn't need a visa.  So, if ever you are going on a Chinese carrier and are only going TRANSIT through China, you do NOT need a visa. I think there was conflicting information on this on the web.  I do however intend to pick up a Chinese visa while I'm in Tokyo because I'll have an overnight layover on my way back and I want to exit the airport and have dinner with my friend.

Soon after bypassing customs and getting through the international transfer area, I was annoyed to learn that my flight was 35 minutes delayed; which ended up being almost 45 minutes delayed. I was already getting in at 9:45PM so was not happy about this news.  To make matters worst, I couldn't get connected to the internet there! Not surprising, in order to access the wi-fi in China, you need to register at the business center for a username and password. For the life of me though, I couldn't figure out if the O in my username that was given to me was a O or a 0.  I had two of them! After several attempts and killing my battery down to half, it was almost time to board. So I decided to quickly call my friend Nicole to let her know that I was in Beijing!

Nicole was my co-worker when I first came to work in Beijing in 1999; actually I met her at the same time that I met Dennis. Nicole has always been such a good friend and always so helpful!  A smart one, she turned an unpleasant situation to an amazing opportunity by starting her own practice as a leading attorney specializing in Intellectual Property.  She represents a lot of big name clients (I know Oakley is one of them!). so if you ever need intellectual property consulting or protection in China, you know who to call. I also plan to depend on Nicole a lot when I finally make my move to Beijing later this year.

It's so funny because every time I call Nicole, she ALWAYS knows it's me! Even when I try to disguise my voice in the best WEI? (hello) that I can spit out.  I can never get anything passed her! Or I suppose maybe it means my Chinese still needs some work!  Anyway, one CRUCIAL thing that Nicole told me in our brief conversation today was that China has blocked facebook. Was she serious?! Am I prepared to move and not be connected through facebook? Back when I first lived in China, social networking was in its very early stages. I remember first learning about social networking upon my return from China in April 2003. Everything was so new that we didn't really understand any of it!  But some of our friends were doing it so my friend and I thought we should sign up and see what it was all about.  That was Friendster, 7 years ago.  How my life has changed since all of that!  I don't know if I can live without status updates, 'like', photo posting, tagging, etc. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get's still making me worried though...

The plane ride from Beijing to Tokyo left at about 6:20PM (original time: 5:35PM).  I was nervous that I would get in too late. I wasn't quite sure where I was staying which is why I was so nervous.  My two aunts who live in Tokyo, whom I usually stay with, sleep very early and have their own challenges so I knew going over past 8:30PM would not sit well with them. I decided not to even propose the idea and instead started looking for alternative options. Put a post on my facebook and had several people kindly extend a hand, offering to call and ask host mothers (one who's host mother was from 12 years ago?!) and a friend with a 2 year old little girl. I didn't want to trouble all these people who had their own busy lives to take care of.  I was hoping that I could just bother a 'young' friend who wouldn't mind me coming in late.  Lucky for me, Owen answered my prayers.

Owen and I actually worked together in Japan from 2000-2002. He had even come to study in Hawaii for a year and stayed at my parents home for about a week.  I hadn't spoken to Owen since he came to stay with me so it had been almost 6 years! I felt bad but he and his girlfriend, also a familiar face (we also worked together) said it would be okay for a night.  When Owen first responded, I wasn't sure if I was more surprised that he was in Tokyo or if it was that he was STILL with Yoko (or rather she with him?). My first question: are you guys married yet? I was happy to find out that they'll be tying the knot later this spring. Yay!

Owen informed me that the last train was at 11:45PM. Yes, in Japan, there are LAST TRAINS, they don't run 24/7; they usually stop around 11:45PM-12:30AM.  Back when I was studying in Tokyo as an exchange student, we either had to catch 終電 shuuden (last train) or we would have to wait for the 初電 hatsuden (first train) the next morning, usually leaving somewhere around 5:00AM. Those were the days when we would pull all-nighters 徹夜 tetsuya and spend the non-train running hours dancing the night awayBut this is why I was so nervous and annoyed about my flight coming in late. It wasn't that I would lose sleep but that I may not be able to sleep at all! I quickly considered and ran all my options through my head, 1) go to Owen's house, 2) find a hotel, 3) find an internet cafe 4) find somewhere to sleep.

Earlier in an email a friend had asked me, how do you travel Japan on a budget? And the real answer is, you really can't. I had already spent about $1,000 for my travel to and within Japan ($450 for air ticket + $525 for 14 day Japan Rail Pass) and so I knew that I really needed to watch my spending.  I won't be able to eat out at every meal and instead would need to try to stretch my money. So with all of this in mind, I really couldn't take any food for granted either (although this is the problem that got me fat to begin with!) and I shouldn't spend money on things that I really don't need.  To this end, I ate most of the airplane food, heck, I paid for it! The girl sitting next to me seemed to think differently and her bread was still sitting on her tray. I debated.  Shamelessly, this is how our conversation went:

Me: Are you going to eat that?
Girl: No
Me: Okay, can I have it then?

And, I snatched it away and tucked into my bag. Ha ha, I had to laugh at myself for being so shameless! But I thought, what the heck, I'm not going to see this girl again! And then, COME TO FIND OUT as I was trying to make conversation with her because I just stole her airplane food, I asked where she was from.

Girl: Indiana
Me: Oh yeah? Oh wow, I went to school there. What part are you from?
Girl: I'm from the south
Me: Oh okay, I went to school in Greencastle
Girl: What? So did I?
Me: WHAT?! Seriously? What year did you grad?
Girl: I just graduated, this past 2009
Me: Oh okay, I'm a 2000 grad

And that's how it went, again in this small world, I connected with someone randomly!  It was incredibly random because actually in my row of 3 seats, the other two passengers left my row to sit in other seats since the plane wasn't completely full so, this girl came to sit in the aisle seat in my row. If I didn't take her bread, I probably wouldn't have found out that we had the same alma mater!  I wanted to take a photo with her but felt bad since I stole her bread...and because I got busy soon after....

Tokyo, Japan

Arrived safely at Haneda airport (in Tokyo, right in the city, vs. Narita, two hours away) at 10:00PM. Thankfully, only 15 minutes later. I was very well aware that I needed to be very efficient with my time because I needed to make shuuden.  Waited for my bag for a few minutes but nothing rather than waiting, decided to run to the restroom quickly.

When I came out, it wasn't what I expected to of the airlines' staff was calling out a name that sort of sounded like mine. I wasn't sure so waited for her to say the name again.  Yup, it was me. OH GOD, I thought, why is she calling me?  If it was before the flight, I would have been excited because it was probably an upgrade but AFTER a flight? In the baggage claim?  Yep, my worst nightmares came true.  My bag was not there.

Lots of papework later, I find out that my bag never got on the flight and so it wasn't on the plane with me.  Upon finding my bag left behind, Tokyo was contacted and I was relayed the bad news. I guess it was good that they let me know rather than have me wait for all the bags to come out to see that mine wasn't among them.  I really wasn't sure if it was a blessing in disgues; if I should be happy because I wouldn't have to carry my bag on the close to an hour commute to Owen's house or if I should be annoyed that I didn't have my toiletries, clothes, etc.  I guess in hindsight, it was easier not to lug my bag around especially since I wasn't entirely sure where I was going and at any given moment, may need to make a mad dash to catch the trains.  It took a while for them to document everything. Held me back about another 40 minutes. Please note, I was very disappointed that the airlines didn't even provide me a toiletry kit when I asked for one...I thought that was standard? Chinese airlines?! Is it because its a Chinese airlines or because we're in a recession? I'm thinking the answer is the former...

Got out of the airport and quickly tried to find a SIM card for my phone.  On my last couple of visits to Japan, I have always rented a SIM card at Narita airport.  This time though, I was at Haneda so I wasn't sure if they had SIM cards for rent; I assumed they did.  I was wrong. AHHH, that meant I couldn't call Owen on the go and I would have to stop every so often to call him.  I didn't have time!  So with the only Japanese money I had on me Y1,000 (about $8.10) saved from a previous trip, I bought a phone card. What sucked too was that because I mistakenly bought a card with international calling features, I have to punch in a bunch of numbers (vs. the domestic cards you only need to dial out) and then wait as they review how many minutes I have remaining, etc.  It literally takes me about 3 minutes to connect!  Anyway, I made my first call to Owen at 10:50PM.  The first good news in a while, he said that the last train from Akihabara station (on the main line) to his house would leave at 12:18AM.  So I had some time. It would still take about 40 minutes to Akihabara station though. I still needed to take a shuttle from the international terminal to domestics terminal then I still needed to take the monorail to the main Yamanote line and from there, I would ride the Yamanote line to Akihabara where I needed to be there before 12:18AM to catch the train to Owen's house.

But, first I needed money!  How can you travel in Japan on a budget when $1 will only get you Y80 some odd yen, which won't buy you anything!  The rate was Y86 to the $1.  Man, I don't ever remember it being THIS bad. The last time I remember it being bad was back in 1995 or so when it was about Y95 to the $1. When I remember bread (toast) cost me Y500 for one slice ($5.26); now that same bread would cost me $5.81, not taking inflation into consideration!  And it's only ONE, albeit thick, slice!  I was really bothered, that I only got about Y17,000 for my $200. At least they gave a slightly better rate with traveler's checks; up until now, traveler's checks had cost me more to exchange so I saved it.  The guy at the exchange counter told me that the rate went up again for the yen.  Will it stop?  It needs to come back down!  Well, the good side to that though is that I actually still have about Y50,000 yen in an old bank account here which I plan to get out on this visit; this will help alleviate the costs and spending here!  Money that I haven't had access to for more than 6 years!

It was now 11:10PM and I wasn't sure if I could make it to Akihabara by the last train.  Consulted with the train attendant and he gave me suggestions on possible places with possibly reasonably priced hotels.  I debated. Maybe it would be easier to just get a place closer than have to go out to where Owen is and impose on them...but, what if I couldn't find anything? Haneda wasn't giving me any wi-fi signals so I couldn't look anything up?!  I was barely going to make it but decided I should just go to Owen's and if I don't make it then figure something out from there.

I guess maybe because I didn't have my bag, I was able to make it to Akihabara on the second to the last train which is what Owen advised me to ride (I think the last train which is an express would pass Owen's stop and I'd need to take a cab).  Boarded my train at 12:09AM and made it to Owen's house.  At the train station, I was greeted by a familiar face!  Aww, Owen came down to fetch me. It was really nice to see him after all these years and to hear that he is doing well. So hospitable, he set me up in one of their extra rooms (which is almost unheard of in Japan; most people are known to live in shoeboxes), gave me towels, extra clothes (since I don't have any!), and showed me his kitchen in case I wanted something to eat; way more than what I needed!  Thanks Owen!  I even have a computer to write this post and an toasting under this kotatsu (small table with a thick blanket and a heated lamp attached)!  And, I'm watching HD TV on this monster screen in this room.

Well, it's getting late so (3:20AM) so I should end here...My dad arrives on January 29.  I have a day and a half without any warm clothes and any clothes for that matter!  I need to sort out my luggage later today and I need to also try and figure out how to withdraw my money since I don't have my bankcard and heard it takes a few weeks to process.  Hope I don't have any problems!  I'll be here in Japan for a month; it's the first time in a LONG TIME, that I'm here for more than a few days.  I'll get to see everyone and go everywhere only problem is I am unemployed! Oh well, I'm hoping to teach English here ($30/hour) if I can. Really excited about the snow festival though I am not sure if I have enough warm clothes, even with the clothes my dad is bringing me! We'll see....

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Taiwan and great friends

Taipei, Taiwan

Thankfully the Spirit of Manila got me into Taipei safely. I talked about SOM in my previous post but I still feel they deserve more press time! It was a very smooth flight over and the service was incredible! Every single person that I encountered from the company was extremely friendly. With the price being extremely affordable, we all carried nervous looks on our faces (SOM is relatively new), but managed to arrive safely. If you're ever thinking about going to/from Philippines, consider flying the Spirit of Manila! Not only will your wallet thank you but you'll be in good spirits after you deplane.

So I safely arrived in Taipei on Friday, January 22. One day before my time in the Philippines would expire. I have been to Taipei before so I didn't anticipate having a busy schedule trying to see and do all the sites like I normally do when I touchdown into a new city. Instead, my days would be filled with spending time with friends and of course eating!

My first stop from the airport was to Dennis and Vicky's home. I did this ride before when I was in transit from Honolulu to New Delhi in September 2008. Somehow though, my first time around was a smoother ride than this time.  This time I got on a bus that drove me a little further and required me to get on the MRT (rail) and then walk a bit to their place. Last time the bus had dropped me off less than a block away and all I had to do was walk over. Oh well, it gave me an excuse to practice my Mandarin.

How do I know Dennis and Vicky? I actually met Dennis back when he was a bachelor, when I was still a teenager! I think I was 19?! So young, where did all the time go??  Circa 1999 I was working at LLX law firm in Beijing as an intern and part of our job duties (that day) was to represent our company's softball team in a friendly match. Dennis being a baseball player himself played on his company's team (the same company that he's been employed at for the last 15 years!). Not sure how we actually met as we were on opposing teams but I found out that he was from Greenwood, IN and I was attending school in Greencastle, IN. A fellow Asian from IN? I didn't think that was a common occurence. I also found out that he went to Purdue which isn't a great, I would just tell him that to get under his skin! We've been friends for over 10 years now and Dennis has always been like a big brother to me.  Soon after we met, Vicky agreed to marry him and boy is he lucky! Since then, the two have always welcomed me whenever I was in their neighborhood.  This time was no different.

I arrived at Dennis and Vicky's house to be greeted by Vicky's aunt and cousin. Dennis, Vicky and their son Austin were out of town that night attending Dennis' company's End of the Year (Chinese New Year) party. The cousin came around because he had majored in Japanese in college and wanted to meet me so that he could practice. It was a three way translation game which was time consuming but probably a lot more effective than if it were just done in my poor Mandarin. They explained my responsibilities with Max and even gave me some tips on places I should check out while in town.  I was no sooner greeted by Max, the couple's (big) rottweiler or more commonly known as the four-legged family addition.  

Max and I go way back....close to 10 years now. Since the couple was out of town that night for a company party they had asked if I could take Max out for his evening and morning walk.  No problem! I always used to do this to earn my stay!  I did this for the couple back when I lived in Beijing in 2003. Whenever I needed a place to crash, Dennis would include Max into the bargaining agreement.  Dennis thinks that he needs to bribe me but I'd help out with Max any day! In the early days, Max was quite a handful, always jumping and running, 7 years later, you can see how time is non-discriminating and how Max has aged over the years. I miss the old active Max even though it was hard to control him!  Max is even cuter than ever, maybe because he's older and I have a thing for the old ones.

After walking Max, I went to walk around the neighborhood to find something to eat. I didn't know what to eat or where to go, I eventually stumbled upon a local noodle shop.  The noodles lacked flavor but it was real cheap NT100 ($3.30).  The lady was really nice too and tried so hard to help me with my ordering.  I don't know, I could have probably ordered if I tried but sometimes I get into this mode where I play dumb and make the other person do the work. Maybe I was just too tired to try.

The following day, I met up with my friend Jenn and her two boys Kaden and Koen. Jenn and I actually met back in 1997 when we both found ourselves on the same study abroad program to Japan.  Although Jenn and I didn't keep in touch after our time in Japan, fate would bring us back together when I spotted Jenn one day as I was driving into Chinatown in Hawaii! How random!  Her husband was stationed there and they had been living in Hawaii for a few years. She was pregnant at that time with Kaiden was soon born on the best day of the year - my birthday, October 8!  A native of Taiwan, Jenn actually resides in the Netherlands with her family of 4 now.  However, because her husband is currently out-of-town for work, she decided to bring her boys back to Taiwan to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family. It was pure coincidence that she was in town while I was stopping through!

I also couldn't have been any luckier because Jenn offered me to stay at her aunt's house since she is currently residing in China! How awesome is that? I'd be able to stay in a really nice 1 bedroom apartment for FREE? I'm so thankful!  Of course Dennis and Vicky were generous and offered me their place as well but I didn't want to become an imposition especially since they have their little one. At least at Jenn's aunt's place, I could come and go as I please so long as I take care of her aunt's things as if they were cultural relics (I can't say as "my own" because many know how I'm rough with my things).

The second day, Jenn helped me settle into her aunt's place and then we spent the rest of the day at the new SOGO department store. It's so funny, I don't believe SOGO is that big in Japan (maybe it's not even there anymore) but it's huge in Taiwan. I think it's big in Hong Kong too.  So many Japanese department stores fail locally but flourish abroad. One such example was Daiei in Hawaii.  Daiei had filed for bankruptcy long ago but in Hawaii, it was the go-to store for Japanese speciality products as well as your regular grocery shopping! Anyway, we had lunch at a really nice Taiwanese restaurant!

Later that day, I returned to Dennis and Vickys' place to meet up with them for dinner and see them for the first time since I'd been in the city. I finally would get to see Austin too!  The last time I saw him, he was barely one and now he's well over 2 with Mandarin skills far more superior to mine! I'm jealous! It's great that they're raising him bilingual; Dennis will only speak to Austin in English while Vicky (born and raised mostly in Taiwan) speaks to him in Mandarin. He's going to be a smart one!  They took me out to eat at 101 that evening at an Italian restaurant which was also very good!

101 (one-oh-one) was at one point, the tallest (inhabited) building in the world (there are just too many classifications!) until the Dubaians stole the title from them by erecting a building that stands 828M (2,720 feet) tall and celebrating its opening earlier this year - January 4, 2010 (not even a month ago!).  It took us a while to decide what to eat but finally settled at the Italian restaurant on one of the lower floors.  The meal was great and even better with great company. That night I had one of the best sleeps in a while! Thanks guys!

The following day I was invited to celebrate Jenn's second son, Koen's, 3rd birthday! How special it was to be able to celebrate his birthday together with her family. Joined together that night were Jenn's parents, Jenn's mother-in-law, Jenn's brother Howard, his wife, Jessica, and her best friend Susan. It was a nice intimate group at the ACC (American Club in China) which is a private and exclusive membership club that Jenn's mother-in-law belongs to. Really good American food too; it probably tasted so good because it was a drastic change from the Filipino and Chinese food that I had been consuming as of late.

The following evening, I got to meet up with Jenn again for a fun night at the night markets of Tong Hua Street. Clothes, gadgets, snacks and even sushi! We had great food, the best I had so far (well our first lunch together was very good too); definitely the tastiest for the price we (she) paid! Jenn helped me pick up some warm clothes for a really good price since I'll be going to Japan where it is about 20 degrees colder than here and it's cold here! She even bought me a cute wasabi kleenex/toilet paper holder. I couldn't eat too much though because I would be meeting up with a fellow Hawaii boy through the introduction of another friend Lorraine who I actually just saw in Manila for Lavie's wedding!

Calven Klain - get your own pair!

Met up with Elroy and Annie for my second dinner which was at a local Taiwanese restaurant. We ordered about 8 dishes and only spent about $10 a person! Great value! The food was good and it was nice to be able to go to a nice hole-in-the-wall type place. I love those places! Later, they took me to a famous Taiwanese dessert place. Even though I was so full and typically not a fan of Asian desserts, I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity and try it. I settled on tofu and peanuts.

Finally on my last full day here, I met up with Vicky (another Vicky) and her very adorable daughter Ezri.  Vicky and I also met during my study abroad period in Japan, close to 12 years ago!  The fact that we're still in touch is quite amazing actually as if I recall correctly, we only spent one weekend together! It was an inter-college retreat in which we were both invited to attend.

She took me to have dim sum which was quite good.  We had the regular dishes as well as some new delights that I had never had before including the chang fen which is made with rice noodles and filled with fried crispy dough which I think may be a Taiwanese dish since all the times I have had it, I've had it with Vicky (Dennis' Vicky).  Lunch was filling and I think my stomach has finally started to shrink! I don't feel like I am able to put away what I was so proud of doing just a month ago.  Yeah, am I finally starting to shed the weight?? Highway Inn gave me 25 pounds and now I'm zealously trying to get rid of it again!

Later, I mentioned to Vicky that I wanted to get my eyebrows waxed. God knows, I needed to take care of them as it was starting to get very messy up there. Can't help that I'm Okinawan too (The people of Okinawa are known for being blessed with so much (long) hair, facial, arms, legs, etc...) so it was getting long! A few more months and I could be mistaken for an ancient Chinese sage. She mentioned that typically when she gets here eyebrows done, it is offered for free when she gets a facial. I wasn't willing to pay for a $65 facial so she suggested we try to pretend to buy some make-up and maybe we could get it done for FREE! Thumbs up for Vicky's thinking (I love my Chinese!) and agreed that that would be the best strategy. Of course when we started looking at the cosmetics, we knew right away that it was too cheeky and we kept giggling trying to think of how we'd be able to accomplish the free eyebrow trim challenge. Finally, Vicky said she really wanted to get a new blush; still not sure if she just wanted game over and wanted me to get my eyebrows done because she couldn't bare to look at them anymore or if she really needed it. After settling on a color she liked, she asked the guy where we could get my eyebrows done. BINGO! He offered to do it for me for FREE! woot! So, that was how I got my eyebrows done. Of course, it will never be as good as Linda Mae Skin Care out in Waipahu but if it's free, you really can't complain!

Later Vicky needed to be home to meet someone so I was on my way.  I passed a lot of shoe shops and saw all the boots lined up. I wanted my own pair of boots too! The only nice shoes I had brought along on the trip were sandals that I bought before I left. I wore them a few times here in Taipei but 60 degree weather is probably not the most appropriate for those types of shoes.  Since I'd be going to Japan where it is 20-45 degrees (especially in Hokkaido where I plan to visit), I knew that I needed nice boots! Found one that I was okay with but it was selling for almost $40 USD.  In my best Chinese though, I was able to negotiate an additional 10% off the already 10% discounted price and got my shoes for a little more than $32!  Today, I was totally sporting a new look (from night market shopping with Jenn the night before) and my new boots, also for less than $60!  This will be my new winter look until I meet my dad who is bringing me a suitcase of warm clothes!

Had my last dinner tonight with Dennis, Vicky and Austin.  We had shou juan"spring rolls" or otherwise known as hand rolls." At first I thought they were burritos!  We had pork, veggie and shrimp flavor and I think I liked the veggies the best, minus the cucumber!   I guess I was really hungry because I forgot to take a photo like I normally do!

Tomorrow, I am making my way to Tokyo. Found a ticket for $450.  Also thanks to the help of Jenn, got a 14 day rail pass which cost me an arm and a leg ($525USD) at the last minute today.  I'll be in Japan for a month with plans to go up north to Hokkaido to view the annual Snow Festival for the very first time and down to Kyushu where I worked for two years, almost 10 years ago.  My dad will also be coming to Japan so it will be a nice reunion to see him and spend time with him (outside of the family business).

My time in Taiwan was short and very busy.  I got to meet with everyone I know here and what became so evident is that I am so much more grateful for all the relationships I have and have developed over the years. These reunions with old and new friends have made me so grateful of the (small) interactions that I have had that have led up to this moment; these relationships have truly developed into something significant in my life.  All of my friends have done so much for me while I was here and the time that we shared, talks, laughs, memories will forever be priceless.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dog eat Dog World...

So I will probably be getting a lot of "heat" for this. PETA, Dog lovers and all others: I am sorry. I just had to try it and see what all the fuss was about.  There were several possible names for this post: 'doggy style', 'Dog Gone It' and originally I had thought to name my post: B**** eats B**** following the lead of an earlier post 'chick eats chick' but for the life of me, could not confirm whether what I had for lunch was male or female. Not wanting to mislead anyone, I settled on the current title.

There are a few cultures that do consume dog meat and the Philippines is one of them.  I seemed to have more of an excited reaction with the people up north and especially in the Mountain Provinces when I asked if they eat dog.  People out in the city, Manila, seemed appalled that I would dare even ask such a question.  I was told that Bontoc was known for their preparation of this though I am not sure if this is true.

I had had the opportunity to try dog meat on previous trips to China; I do not believe they eat dog per se but you can easily find it on the menu at most Korean restaurants.  Once when I stayed in Dandong, Liaoning Peninsula in China which is the Chinese city that borders North Korea separated by the Yalu River, I could easily identify the characters almost anywhere. I had never had the courage to try it though.

Please note that this video may contain some graphic scenes that may not be suitable for all viewers:

And here is my reaction:

Conclusion: There are other types of meat that I would choose to eat any day. It was mentally challenging to eat this and I would probably only eat it again if 1) I didn't know what it was or 2) I was starving.

Would you want to try it? Have you tried it already?

Batad and Beyond

It was a stupid thing that I did the other night...staying on the computer for 4 hours that when I was ready to go home, it was pitch black. I almost never go out at night (although I must admit I walked about 2KM on a dark road in Rishikesh, India...twice) alone. I just don't think it's being smart. This time I got carried away with making up for lost time being disconnected from 'the world' for a week. After a certain hour the town dies down and becomes peacefully quiet.  This was the case at 10:00PM. Without no other option except to walk, I equipped myself with all three flashlights that I had: 1) finger flashlight (purchased from McCully Bicycle for a $1.00 and is the most convenient flashlight you will ever find! 2) night book reader given as a gift to me by my good friend Samarha in honor of my extended travels and 3) a small GE keychain flashlight given to me by my friend Deedee.  My dad had bought me my favorite travel flashlight over 10 years ago but I also left this behind (by accident of course!) in India.

I'm playing down the seriousness of the matter but yes it was not smart of me to do. In 2007, in Batad, a Peace Corp Volunteer, Julia Campbell, was murdered at the hands of a local so really, I shouldn't have done that.  Here's a clip of my mad dash home...passing some drunkards along the way.  I took a quick video so you can see how dark it was and the fear RUNNING through me.

To make matters worst, when I finally got back to my place, 5 minutes later, I found that they had closed and LOCKED the gate. I didn't know how I would get in...and where would I sleep? I didn't know anyone here. I decided to pound on the gate and hopefully someone would answer. Lucky for me, it didn't take too long for me to get someone's attention and let me in.  I thank my luck stars that I got home safely that night.

Day 19: Batad, Ifugao. Turned out my last full day in the Philippines was GORGEOUS. I was really hoping that I didn't go all the way to Banaue to only see fog. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and you could see the blue skies! Got up at 6:15AM and messaged a guy who had offered to drive me there the day before. He came to fetch me at 7:00AM.

The drive out to Batad was about 25-40 minutes away since we were traveling on a tricycle (moped with the side seat attachment). It is approximately 12 KM away, or 7.5 miles on rocky and muddy roads (because of the last few days of rain).  My driver offered to take me out there for P700 ($15.35) which he claimed was the cheapest price I could get but he wasn't going to serve as my guide. I was a little concerned and he said that there would be many people there and I could just follow them.  WRONG. I was the only person there when we arrived.  Basically the tricycle can only go up to a certain point, called the junction. From there, it is a 4KM uphill battle to the top. Alternatively you can ride a jeepney but it charges about P2000 ($43.86USD) so unless you have at least 3 others to split the cost with you, you better start walking.

Fortunately, when we got there, an older man was hanging out and started following me asking if I needed a guide. His price: P500. Since I really had NO CLUE where I was going and there was no one around, I thought I should hire him. We just walked in silence. A few minutes after I started walking, another tricycle arrived, this time carrying a Canadian female.  She also had her guide with her whom I had met the day before.  Eventually they caught up with me and we began to walk together (if only they had been there earlier, I wouldn't have needed to hire my own guide who hardly spoke English and took terrible photos!).  The four of us made the 4KM journey up.  After a grueling uphill walk, we got to the Saddle. From the Saddle, it would be another 5KM to get down to the waterfalls.  It was a hard hike that really tested my legs! Especially since I had walked over 5 miles the day before.  It was good to have the others there to shoot the breeze with.

We got down to the waterfall an hour later. It was bigger than the other waterfall I had seen in Sagada only a few days earlier.  It was too cold for a dip and besides, I didn't come prepared. My clothes were still wet from the days before; not being able to dry because of the rain and lack of air circulation in my room.  We had lunch on our way back.  I settled for the adobo while my Canadian friend and her guide ordered the pizza...I am not sure if their pizzas were any good but it looked like it was made with ketchup rather than pizza sauce! My adobo was very salty with more soy sauce and lots of peppers than anything else.

We made our way back up by 3:00PM and then walked the 4KM back down the hill. Along the way up, we had met a young German couple who offered us a ride back down to the junction but we wanted to say that we did the whole entire 18KM hike. At 3:30PM were able to say that we did it!

I needed to rush back to my place, take a shower and have dinner and start making my way to the bus stop. I would be traveling back to Manila that night so that I could catch my flight out to Taiwan.  Eventually I ended up being able to take a 'hot shower' only after I figured that I had to turn on the lower faucet which released cold water to get my shower to give me hot water. The shower came with a P50 pricetag.

Based on a write-up in the Lonely Planet, I ended up having dinner at Las Vegas I was the only one there and was greeted by the family workers.  The display case as you entered the door quickly caught my eye as all of pastries being showcased were Western style desserts.  A few minutes later, a young girl brought out what she told me was Chiffon cake. I learned that she had read about baking and found it to be her new hobby.  I ordered the 'peanut crunch' which turned out to be very good for the P20 I paid that I ended up getting 1 for dine-in and 3 for the road.  On the menu that night for me was fried pork and garlic rice.  The garlic rice was the best that I ever had in the Philippines. It was actually made with the red local rice but the garlic flavor was delish!

I ended up talking with the 'baker' and learned that their business was also a family business started by the girl's father.  They owned both a hotel and a restaurant although they were not situated in the same locale.  The only daughter of 9 children, she enjoyed helping with the family business. I quickly connected with her because of my own personal family restaurant business background.  After chatting and photo taking, I was on my way to the bus stop.

The Bustmante Family (father, daughter and granddaughter) of Las Vegas Lodging and Restaurant

The drive back to Manila was approximately 9 hours. I actually tried my very best to avoid going all the way back to Manila since the place that I needed to go - Clark Airport was actually 2 hours closer than Manila. I tried to weigh each option that I had but ironically, the one that I was trying to avoid (Manila) was the cheapest and safest option for me.  Had I tried to go to Clark directly, I would have had to get off in an unknown town (not listed in my guidebook), dropped off sometime after midnight (there were only two night buses that went in that direction), find a place to stay and then continue traveling in the morning. I was told by a couple of people that it probably wasn't safe.  Jeremy who had tipped me off on my Taiwan ticket to begin with had mentioned that the airlines actually offered a free shuttle from Manila to Clark so I decided I would take it.

The only uncertainty was getting off the bus and making it to the Spirit of Manila Ticketing Office to catch the shuttle.  A guy named Rod, that we had seen earlier that day on the hike had the seat behind me on the bus and turned out to be a Manila native. He offered to take me to the shuttle stop since he didn't have to report to work until 10:00AM. I suggested that maybe we could also eat breakfast if we had time. He politely smiled and said 'thank you' and thought to myself, I need to stop suggesting things because it would be considered an 'invite' and I will need to pay! ha ha.

The bus was cold but I managed to get some zzzs in probably because of all the walking I had done the past two days.  At about 5:10AM Rod woke me up. I didn't understand what he said and said 'what?' but he didn't answer me. I was still half sleeping and tried my best to stay up when about 5 minutes later, he said 'okay, let's go!' WHAT?! I'm not even ready is what I was thinking! I guess he was trying to let me know that our stop would be coming up soon. I quickly gathered my things and got off the bus. Rod led me to another bus where we literally rode for about :40 seconds.  Then, we got to the MRT station and rode the entire line.  After getting off, we hopped in a cab to the Heritage Hotel which I was told by the customer service agent the day before that it was very close.  When we were getting in the cab, there was a guy that opened my door for me and seemed to be 'working' us into the taxi. Rod gave him P10. Clearly, he was just some guy standing on the street, so I asked why he gave the guy money. Rod's answer was: 'this is how we do. Only in the Philippines.' I think Rod is just a very generous person. He paid for my entire transportation so far and refused my money; from the bus to the MRT to the taxi.

When we arrived at the Heritage Hotel, I suggested that we just stop and eat. It was almost 6:00AM and since he had paid my way down there, the least I could do was treat him to breakfast and figured that the hotel would most likely accept credit cards so I would be able to pay for it.  And it was breakfast so how much could they really charge? It was a buffet though so I thought maybe it would be about $15 per person.  I didn't ask the price and we just headed straight for the restaurant.  Thinking that they would probably have a wi-fi connection, I tried to get the password from the waitress.  She informed me that there was a P1000 per hour.  That comes out to over $20 an hour! That is unheard of! I still don't know if she meant to say P100 which would have sounded more reasonable or if it was really P1000. After she gave me that outrageous price, I thought OMG, I wonder how much the breakfast buffet is?! Please God, don't let it be like 'Orchids' at the Halekulani where I also offered to pay for the bill of 4 not knowing that it was $55.00 a person!

Later, our bill was dropped which came in the form of two receipts. I quickly glanced at the first receipt and it said P1746. Not wanting to make Rod feel uncomfortable (that I treated him but couldn't pay for it), I just whipped out my credit card and ignored him asking me what the price was. I reassured him that I had this one.  Did I really just pay $38 x 2 = $76 for our breakfast just now? HOLY SH**!  Later, after my credit card was swiped and I was asked to sign, I realized that they had given me 2 copies but it was P875 per person x 2. PHEW! So not bad, $19 per person for a breakfast buffet; that's probably how much you'd pay in the states. I also wanted Rod to be able to enjoy this as I assumed that he probably didn't get to eat like this often. Hope he enjoyed it...I sent him on his way since had to work in 3 hours and wanted to try and go home to rest before going to work.

As I was sitting there alone, two gentlemen had caught my eye earlier...they were screaming HAWAII but I have been wrong before so I didn't want to assume but was dying to know.  I was trying to discreetly eavesdrop on them to see if I could pick up Hawaii lingo. Finally, when one left the table, I caught the attention of the other and asked 'where you from?' He was taken aback by my talking to him that he told me he couldn't hear me. I asked again to find that my suspicions were in fact right and that they were from Hawaii! Long story short, they were customers of Highway Inn (YAY!) and one of the men actually said he knew my aunty Shirley! Everyone seems to know my aunty Shirley! I took a photo with them and was on my way. I didn't want to miss my $30 flight to Taiwan!

No one at the hotel seemed to know where I needed to go but the girl who had given me the information the day before was very good and had given me a very good description of the surrounding area. It was only a 3 minute walk away from the Heritage Hotel so I arrived on time!  Met the girl who actually took my call the day before in person! What a small company!

I still don't understand how the Spirit of Manila Airlines can remain profitable.  For only $30, they can take you to Taiwan, 2 hours away? They even offer you drinks and a full size snack! Not those snack size ones but a proper snack. If only their American counterparts could do the same! I suppose if their flight was full then yeah, they could make money but I think were only about 20 people on that 150+ seater plane. Everyone was so extremely nice though and they even offered the free shuttle that despite the fact that I was nervous whether or not I'd make it safely back to Taiwan, I was extremely satisfied with the fabulous service I had received from beginning to end.

It was just a matter of whether or not we would make it safely. I swear that had to be on everyone's mind!  Thankfully, we did arrive safely in Taipei on Friday, January 22, 2009!

Heading into the mountains...

Laoag, Illocos Norte, Philippines

So it's been a while since I was able to write something. Mainly it's because I removed myself further away from civilization and headed into the area known as the Cordillera, home to many tribes here in the Philippines.

Day 12: Laoag. Let me first say that I did get my hair straightened but it didn't cost me P300; instead I bargained and got it for P600 + P100 (tip). Supposedly, since my hair was dyed, I wasn't an eligible candidate for the hair straightening and instead needed to get the hair rebonding...whatever that is. So far it's been about a week and my hair seems straighter but not sure if the look suits me. Oh well, it was a good deal! The worst part though was that it took 5 hours! The guy told me 'one hour, one hour, ma'am'. So I agreed. I was there from 1PM to 6PM. And because it's like in some one's house, and it is the Philippines, they don't have nice plush chairs where the hair dresser can pump his leg and move you up and down. No, it was just a very old uncomfortable chair. I was getting so restless but we'll see how long it lasts, I'm told that it should hold for almost a year!

After my last blog, while I was at the computer shop, one of the guys from the neighboring shops was helpful and helped me to find a card reader so that I could more easily upload my photos (he just so happened to be visiting the shop I was at). After talking with him and telling him of my plans to go to the countryside, he said that coincidentally, he was thinking about going as well and would 'escort' me. I thought it was a little weird but he seemed nice enough and thought it would be nice to have someone to hang out with since I'm usually solo.

I spent another night in Laoag hoping to fly out on my hot air balloon the next day but again the winds were too strong so I decided to hit the road. Before I left town though, I made a quick stop to the town's museum which showcased a lot of the local provincial history of the people. There was even a chalkboard before you exited in which I wrote a message to the employees of Highway Inn.
At the urging of one of Lavie's friends, I also decided to buy a new phone. I ended up with a "NOKIA" phone with dual SIM and a TV! Because it's made in China, it's not the best but it is unlocked so I will be able to continue to use it while I travel and I'll also be able to hold two SIMs simultaneously.

The route: So I wanted to go directly from Laoag to Sagada, a town infamously known for putting their dead in 'hanging coffins' but unfortunately there was no direct route. I thought I had it all figured out...looking at the map, it made most sense to go up north to Laoag and then down south east to Sagada. But nope, there were no buses that made that route. So, I had to go back through Baguio (I passed it going to Laoag) and take another 6 or so hour up north east.

Going to Baguio - the 'summer capital' of the Philippines because it's at a higher elevation - was a 7 hour bus ride. Along the way (1.5 hours south of Laoag), we passed through Vigan which is where Jeremy (see previous posts)is actually from. In hindsight I really wish I scratched the hot air balloon idea earlier and spent a day or so in Vigan. Vigan is known for its well kept architecture (combination of Mexican and Chinese styles with Filipino influence) including its Mestizo District where the mansions there were built by the Chinese merchants who intermarried and settled there more than 200 years ago and eventually became very successful establishing themselves as an elite group. Oh well, if I ever make it back to the Philippines, I will definitely have to make it a point to stop there.

Got into Baguio fairly late and ended up at the Baguio Village Inn for P300 ($6.60). They weren't joking that it was cold! Someone had told me before I left that Baguio could be compared to Mililani Mauka. For those of you familiar with Hawaii, Mililani Mauka is considered cold in Hawaii but it really isn't that cold unless you consider 60 degrees to be cold (I know, I know, all the Hawaii people are nodding their heads) but I was not prepared for the cold air in Baguio! I think it was down to high 30s or perhaps in the 40s. They don't give you much of a blanket either and I nearly froze to death! I didn't want to ask the hotel staff for another blanket because I didn't want to pay for it. Ha! I later found out that it's usually free or a nominal fee of P20 ($0.43). Oh well. It was a good experience!

Day 14: Baguio, Benguet. The following day, I walked around Camp John Hay which is a former US rest and recreation facility, the Filipinos weren't the only ones trying to escape the tropical heat of the Philippines. I just walked around and killed most of the day doing absolutely nothing. I was mainly waiting because Jeremy had just finished his concert the night before at Paco Park and he and Jared were making their way up to Baguio to meet up with me. Jeremy is actually studying Linguistics and is studying about the varying dialects and languages of the Filipino people. So it was perfect for him to come to Baguio the capital of the Cordillera.

Before heading down to meet Jeremy, I stopped by this beautiful house that was next to the golf course in John Hay. It was beautiful! I stopped because passing through the back side of the house, read a sign in big black lettering 'open house'. I love looking at houses so I decided to see if it really meant 'open house' in the definition that I am familiar with. And it did. I got to meet the architect who had just so happened to stop by before I was leaving. A young Korean, he had designed, built and furnished the house in its entirely all with Korean furniture and appliances. It was amazing: a jacuzzi, intercom system, beautiful pine wood views and nice furniture. Price tag: $500,000 USD. I don't know what the rule is for foreigners owning land in the Philippines, but if anyone is interested, please let me know! I can get you in touch with the owner.

Jeremy was still settling in his room so I decided to stop at Saint Louis University because I had read that there was a nice little museum in the basement. I had about half an hour until it would close so had Jeremy meet me there; I figured he would like to see something like that for his studies and would be able to possibly connect with some people who could help him. I went there and a young student named Pearlyn gave me an exceptional tour all in 30 minutes! Later she showed me how to play some of the musical instruments and let me try! I even got to perform in a band! It was great!


That evening at 3:00AM, my new friend from Laoag (who I will name LF - Laoag Friend) arrived in Baguio. I didn't know what to tell him but he was not coming to my room! I suggested that he book a place (it was so cheap!) and we could meet in the morning at 7AM. I went back to fetal position and tried to sleep for the next 4 hours.

The next morning on the dot, I get a phone call at 7AM. I was nervous to meet him. I couldn't believe that he actually came down (7 hour bus ride) and didn't know what to expect. I mean, I really didn't know him! (Almost sounds like my Malaysian family but it was weird!) The four of us, LF, Jeremy, Jared and myself went out to Tam-Awan Village which houses some traditional houses of the Cordillera people as well as serves as a home for local up and coming artists and their artwork. We did a quick tour, some dancing and breakfast.

We enjoyed our time there but LF and I had to head out to catch the 1PM (last bus) out to Sagada. I was again nervous that I would now be alone with this stranger. I was also worried about payment. Jeremy had made a comment the previous day. I had made a comment about how I thought it was a little odd that when we had gone out to dinner with one of the alumni (who ended up tagging along with us), he had not offered to pitch in on the bill. Yes, it was DIRT cheap but for me, I just expected him to make a gesture that he wasn't there for a free meal and that he would also put in his fair share. The guys and I had already divided the bill three ways so it didn't matter but it was the effort. Jeremy had mentioned that because we had 'invited' him that it was expected that we would treat him. I sarcastically remarked, but we didn't invite him! He invited himself! So this got me thinking about my situation with LF. Did I invite him? Or did he invite himself which means I invited him? I didn't know if I needed to now pay double for everything. Yes, it's cheap but mind you, I'm also unemployed! I can't be supporting no one but myself right now, no less a stranger?! So that was a little gray...

We got to the bus station, just minutes after the second to the last bus had left the station so we had a whole 1.5 hours for the next bus. It was good to have him there so he could talk to the people and figure everything out. I could do it; I would do it if I were by myself but he was there so I could just relax. When the ticket line opened, he rushed to the line to buy the tickets. I thought okay, I will not go up there with my money, I will wait until he comes back and pay him for just my part. Which is exactly what I did. He said 'later' which I'm not sure if that meant, 'don't worry about it' or really if he meant 'later'. Ha ha. I hate owing people money though, I like to take care of that right away so there is no confusion so I just gave him the money.

It was a long agonizing 6 hour bus ride to Sagada. The road was windy and quite undeveloped! It was also an old bus with no luggage compartment. So, the luggage went in the middle aisle to the front of the bus. Additional passengers took out and sat on the middle aisle chairs to the back of the bus. It was a full bus! It was actually quite entertaining to see everyone who sat in the first 3-4 rows of the bus having to climb, literally climb, over the luggage to get to their seats.

Day 15: Sagada, Mountain Province. Hours later, we finally made it to Sagada. Although the elevation in Sagada is a bit higher than Baguio (1477m vs. 1450m) it didn't seem as cold as Baguio. Oh now, the part that I was were we going to have the sleeping arrangements? Of course it would be cheaper to share a room but I was starting to realize that this guy was a tad off. He wanted to go to a place that he knew but I insisted that we went to one of the places recommended in my book; that way I know what kind of place we were heading to. The first place that we went to only had doubles and I politely refused we couldn't be in the same room. So we went to the next place listed in my book. He really wanted to go to his place but I just walked away from him...started to look like we were going to have some compatibility issues!

The place that I chose: Ganduyan Inn which is also home to a museum (which I missed because they were closed on the day that I was going to go!) was where we settled for P200, less than $5! But talk about BASIC! Up until now, all the P300 places had a mirror, a bar of soap, towel, and usually a roll of toilet paper of there would be toilet paper in the bathroom. For P100 less, you got NOTHING! It was just a bed. I mean, not even an outlet for me to charge my phones and other electronics! Seriously, I rather pay the additional P100 please! I also learned that there was no hot water! So for P50 (about a buck), I had them boil a bucket of hot water. Lucky I used to live in Japan and know how to bathe furo-style (Japanese hot bath), pouring hot water onto yourself. This is how I bathed here. The things you become grateful for! Even a mirror! There were no mirrors in this place! Not even in the bathroom! I think the first morning we were there, because I don't rinse my mouth out after I brush my teeth (I'm told that it can be deadly because of the bacteria in the water), I just spit out. But because there was no mirror, I couldn't check to see if there was any toothpaste left around my mouth and chin. There seems to have been because when I greeted LF in the hallway, he chuckled. The things we should not take for granted! A mirror, among many other things!

Anyway, that day, we also learned that there were guides to do certain activities. I hadn't really read much on the area except that there were hanging coffins which would be a curious site to see. I didn't know about their caves and their hikes! LF informed me that the guides would be P400; we kinda agreed that it was expensive so I was leaning toward not having a guide and doing something else. After talking to a guy at our hotel and then later seeing other guides take other people around, I thought I was maybe missing out on something important. LF convinced me that we could do without a guide. After checking out the entrance to one of the caves (you need a lamp to go into the caves)I started to think that maybe I should just do it. After talking to some locals at a small store nearby and seeing some photos posted on the wall, yes we were missing out! So I told LF that I was going to do the caves. So the lady at the store called the guide office and had someone come down to meet us. I thought (hoped) I was going alone but LF decided that he would come along.

The caves were AMAZING! By far one of the most challenging and amazing things that I have done in my life...and I do have some crazy experiences under my belt! I am so glad that the lady encouraged me to do it. At first I was only going to do one cave. Yes, I was trying to be cheap but I forgot to mention that I only had $100 to last me the next 5 days. Because Sagada is small, population approximately 1700, there are no ATMs! Money changes but at bad rates so Lonely Planet says. There was also no ATMs in Banaue - the next town I was going I needed to be conservative. But then I saw some photos that were of the second cave. It was the cave connection where you could go in one cave and out the other. So, I just had to do it. I also found out that there was probably an ATM in the town right over; we'd have to go there to get to Banaue anyway.

We had an amazing guide, Erwin, who was only a couple of years older than us (LF is a year older than me). It was fun hanging out with him and watching him do all these crazy maneuvers in the caves. As I mentioned earlier, the caves are dark so you need a lamp. Erwin carried a kerosene lamp into the caves to guide our way all throughout the tour.  Ah, the smell reminded me of Japan and the days that I needed to buy kerosene from the gas station to fill up my portable heater. Some smells bring you back to a certain time. Anyway, I you'll have to see my photos of the Lumiang Burial Cave and Sumaging Cave. But to try and better describe the experience, it's not just walking into a cave and walking out; there are some parts of the cave that are very small places. You literally need to crawl into little holes to get into other parts and move along. There's also water running in the caves. There was one point that the water came up to our hips (we were warned) so our guide, stripped down and dropped his pants. I wasn't sure if he had clothes under there or what? I tried not to look but couldn't help it. Okay, he did have undies on. He then with incredible coordination rolled up his shirt so that it wouldn't get wet, somehow held the lamp and jumped over the rocks to avoid getting wet. I wish I could have taken a photo of that but since I'm not as agile as he is, I wasn't allowed to hold the camera for fear that I would drop it or break it.

As you can see by the photos, it was an incredible experience! It was estimated that it would take us at least 4 hours but if we were slower, maybe 5. We came out in a record 3.5 hours even with some time for me to SWIM (yes I swam!) in ice cold cave water.


Erwin also wanted to show us more of his town. We decided to go to the big waterfall Bomod-ok Falls (sounds Korean?). We got to walk through rice terraces (which is actually what Banaue is known for) a 2,000 year old tradition of cultivating rice for the people in the area. Our path ended at a waterfall which was also very nice. Having already swam in the underwater river in the caves, I thought I was ready to swim in the little pool. Mind you, I'm not a great swimmer. But, I wanted to do it. Once I got in though, I quickly changed my mind. It was freezing! Erwin kept encouraging me to jump off one of the rocks. I was terrified. I'm not afraid of heights but because I'm not totally comfortable being in the water, jumping into the water is not something I typically enjoy doing. Erwin didn't have his swim shorts but he agreed that if I wanted to jump, he'd jump with me. I told him I wouldn't jump unless he jumped with me. So were going to do it but then later I realized, it was too crazy and the water too cold. To get to the rock, I would probably slip so it was probably not the best idea. We decided to head back. I think LF started to feel left out because Erwin and I got along so well. I couldn't help it though LF was just boring.

Later it was getting dark so we decided to stop at a restaurant that Erwin wanted to take us to. Since I had already blown the bank that day, I told the guys that I would treat them to dinner. We got to the restaurant and waited by the campfire as we waited for our food to be prepared. LF not getting any attention decided to be a DRAMA QUEEN and didn't want to join us. What a liability. He complained of being tired. I didn't know if we should take him home so we wouldn't have to hear his bitching and could enjoy ourselves or if we should just make him eat it up (he is a grown man -33!) and deal. Later, he started talking to us about 'family problems' he was having and all Erwin and I could do was listen. OMG torture. I don't even know what he was talking about and he's just whack. Started talking about how he had a gun (guns are legal here) and how he told his brother or someone that he would kill them?! I was staring to realize that this guy is a loner and plays the victim card a lot! He refused to eat but so somehow when I suggested karaoke (yes they had a magic mic there!), he was all into it and somehow he was having the time of his life! Anyway, a beer and 12 or so songs later, we headed out.

When we got back to our hotel, the outer gate was closed. AH?! Where we locked out? Erwin said, 'oh yeah, I should have called your hotel to let them know.' oopsies. I guess there is a curfew because everything shuts down at a certain time. Later that night, I get a call from LF apologizing for his behavior. Was he trying to get some brownie points after making us listen to his nonsense?! I accepted and hung up.

The next morning, I was dreading having to have Erwin leave us and be alone with LF again. In the morning, I left him and told him I'd go out for breakfast and come back. I came back about 45 minutes later. We were already making our way to Banaue but we still had not gone out to Echo Valley (named so because you can hear your voice echoing through the mountains) and the hanging coffins, the two must-sees in the town! LF said he knew the way (and we didn't want to pay for a guide!) so we made our way. As we started walking on the trail, away from the town, I started to think what if he goes crazy on me? There will be no one to help me! I just decided to have my phone ready and just be ready. Anyway, I guess it was all in my head and that his weirdness just makes me feel uncomfortable but we went to Echo Valley saw the hanging coffins and came back. Such a dufus though, when we got to Echo Valley, he didn't emphasize that we were there that I didn't get to try it out! We left without ever experiencing Echo Valley. :(

We made our way to Bontoc first. A one hour jeepney ride over to the next town. The ride is on a small little jeepney/bus so we decided to ride ON TOP of it! They have a rule that they will seat 8 to a side = 16 people in these little things. I wasn't having any of that so I decided to go up top and enjoy the breathtaking views while also being able to breathe! It was a bumpy ride but it was fun!

We arrived in Bontoc safely and I quickly withdrew money! I also had a famous delicacy here in Bontoc. Making up for the last week though, this post is way too long so I'm going to save my lunch in Bontoc for another post.

We caught the next bus out from Bontoc and made it to Banaue, its rice terraces said to be the 8th World Wonder. Yes, it is pretty amazing! Terraces of rice, ingeniously carved alongside the rugged mountain terrains over 2,000 years ago. We got here in 2.5 hours. I didn't think that I could ride on top again for that long so (wo)manned it up and sat inside. LF decided to sit on top. Poor guys, there were 8 of them. It started to rain and a lot of the ride over was on roads still being constructed. Lots of smoke and dust blowing in their flaces along with the rain and cold temperatures, it must have sucked. The ride inside wasn't pleasant either but I do think it was better than what they experienced.

Got into Banaue and the weather was terrible! We could have spent more time in Sagada with our friend Erwin! Oh well, it was back to me and LF again. After we settled in, we were faced with the room situation again. Apparently the cheaper rooms, P200 were not available...I guess there was one left. There was a P500 one with own private bath with hot shower. BS! I decided to take the P500 just so I didn't have to share a room with LF. So LF got the P200 room which had 2 twin beds in it. I suppose, we could have shared that room but NO! I don't know if that insulted him but I didn't care. I went into my room and settled. A few minutes later, I walked to his door across the hallway and told him I was going downstairs. Basically, I needed to do my own thing. The hotel that we're staying at has 3 computers with only one real functioning one. FINALLY got onto the computer after being disconnected to the world for almost a week. 10 minutes later, the power went out! It came back out a few hours later but the internet was disconnected for the rest of the night! So, I enjoyed a nice cup of joe overlooking the rice terraces. It was wet and very cloudy but it was still beautiful. Then I decided to walk up to the bus stops to figure out how I was going to leave town on Thursday night.

Came back later, much later (2-3 hours later?) and found LF eating dinner alone. Sat and listened to him ramble for what seemed like hours (actually maybe it was...I secretly took a short video of him while he was going on talking about God knows what. If you want to see more about my travel through my eyes and what I had to live through, message me and I will give you access to this 3 minute video). I guess it was my fault because I asked if his family problems were resolved. I didn't know what else to talk to him about. I encouraged him that maybe he should just go and take care of his problems.

Later, that night he told me that he was going to leave for Baguio the next day. Okay I said. He asked for my email and I gave it to him then quickly closed my door. No hugs, no good-byes. Yes, I was grateful for him coming along but really, I don't think that's what I had expected or asked for. He came to my room later that night but I ignored his knocks, I really had nothing to say to him. I also shut off my phone. This may paint a very ugly picture of me but this RARELY happens to me where I am just so turned off by someone! Anyway...

So FAST FORWARD to today, the weather again was terrible so didn't want to pay for a guide only to have it rain down. I asked the owner of my hotel if she had any suggestions on things to do. She recommended that I take a 4KM walk up to viewpoint. I set out shortly after 10AM and I didn't get back until 4:30PM! I actually think I did the walk UP HILL fairly quick but I made many stops along the way talking to the locals, saying hi to the kids! It was a great day.

Finally found a place with internet. It's actually about 1.2 KM away from my hotel and it's extremely dark right now (I've been here for 3.5 hours!) so I don't know how I'm getting back...I guess I'm walking back. LF has been texting me since he's left and I'm trying to be cordial but it's trying!

Hopefully the weather tomorrow will be much better and I will make a day trip out to Batad which is said to have the most beautiful rice terraces in the area. Tomorrow night, I'll be making my way back to Manila for my flight to Taiwan! Can't believe it's almost 3 weeks since I first got here!