January 31, 2011

Island Hopping

I made it to Manila after a long, arduous journey of airports, running late and late flights alike, and a nonstop techno beat that made our beachy bungalow far from perfect.

I haven't slept more than two or three hours for at least four nights now. Our beach bungalow was adjacent to one of Mui Ne's hottest clubs that bumped techno beats from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m. We took sleeping pills, attempted going to sleep drunk and even put in our own headphones to try keep the noise out. Luckily our days were lazy, and I'm continuing to nurse a sunburned tummy.

We thought we would miss our flight in Ho Chi Minh, our bus was leaving more than two hours late from Mui Ne, and we were already cutting things close if we had left one time. Thankfully, due to Vietnam's avid disregard for traffic laws, we made it in four hours (instead of five) thanks to our driver's ability to play chicken and win every single time. 

Last night we slept in the Kuala Lumpur airport. And by "slept" I mean awkwardly finangled ourselves on hard plastic chairs and slept in a single position until some part of our body was numb (usually we had to wake up and switch positions every 20 minutes or so). We got coffee at Jenn's favorite chain and rushed to our 7 a.m. plane that we didn't realize we were running late for.

We arrived in Manila at last and had another three hour journey to our hostel. On the bus from the airport, a Filipino woman took us under her care and promised to find us a taxi. Bless her heart... we would have definitely gone to the wrong taxi stand. Manila is a chaotic, pseudo-scary mess -- but we got a reliable cab driver who didn't rip us off.

My primary mission for Manila is to check out where my grandpa stayed in World War II. I wanted to make sure to see The Great Eastern Hotel -- he was stationed just across the river from it. I can look at the hotel from my hostel. I can see the river too.

The next thing I wanted to see was the old Manila Post Office. Jenn and I got directions and hopped in a Jeepney (imagine a low-rider, extended cab Jeep with no windows). We ended up at a Post Office, it was hardly legendary though. It was a 1970s structure that had zero character and was definitely not the post office famed from the war. We learned that one is at least an hour away from where we were, by that time it was getting dark so we had to call it quits. We definitely gave it a diligent effort, but couldn't quite make it.

After the failed post office attempt, we tried to go to the Chase ATM (that's where Jenn's account is at, so she could avoid fees). We found the Chase tower and were sent to the 31st floor. We were greeted by a receptionist in a fancy office who made a phone call and asked us to go to a board room. 

The board room was extravagent but sterile. A phone was at the center of the table. After a minute or two the phone rang and we heard the receptionist run down the hall, open the door and "kindly requested" us to answer the phone.

Jenn answered and giggled as she said, "All I want is an ATM for some currency." ... "Oh, you don't have a bank in the Philippines? Ooops. Ok. Sorry!"

Only JP Morgan is here. Not Chase bank.

We couldn't help but laugh in the elevator down. It was sensational we ended up in a board room when all we wanted was an ATM.

Overall Manila has been cool, there are tons of police with guns -- even at 7-Eleven and Starbucks armed guards open the door as you enter. Just last week a bomb went off in my neighborhood I'm staying in (it is one of the main tourist areas). I can honestly say that I've been a lot less comfortable in places before. Manila isn't so bad. And I can sleep easy tonight knowing I'm on the 18th floor of a building just two blocks away from where my grandpa slept when he was my age. And I can guarantee this was a very different city when he was here.

Tomorrow off to Palawan! No ATMs. Possibly no internet. Plenty of beach and diving.

January 28, 2011

Tan lines

Right now I'm mooching a Mac sitting on a terracotta-tiled porch. The ocean is about 10 meters behind me and the waves are competing with the palm trees for the loudest windswept hiss.. I'm sandy and sticky and am beyond thrilled that we finally made it to the tropics.

This post will have to be brief, as I am borrowing a computer and quite frankly, I want to get back to the water. But here's a little update on where I've been the past few days:

I ended up buying the custom-made white dress. The receptionist from the store came to my hotel about an hour before I was set to leave on the bus. I had made friends with her earlier in the day, she's teaching herself English from a well-worn hand-written book. She's 20 years old, works seven days a week (two days off each month) from 8a-8p. She shares a dormitory with one other girl. She wants an education and a boyfriend.

I tried on the dress at the hotel and it still didn't fit. Desperate to not lose a sale, she told me to put on my pants and we'd go to the tailor's house. I hopped on her motorbike wearing green cargo pants and a white cocktail dress and she lead me through a labyrinth of narrow passageways far behind Hoi An's main roads that are loaded with travelers like me.

The electricity was still out and dusk was quickly approaching. I sat on the porch of the house as two women ripped my dress apart and manually started sewing it. I was surrounded my curious little kids and the elderly neighbors eyed me suspiciously. My new 20-year old friend was gracious and introduced me to everyone and was very sweet. I couldn't not buy the dress. It still doesn't fit and there is a lot of damage from all of the seam rips and restarts, but I will try rock it. And if anyone says anything about it, I will have one hell of a story to say as a rebuttal.

After that, we took an overnight bus to Nha Trang. We arrived at 7 a.m. and I had to be at my dive school at 7:30. Exhausted, hungry, nervous, and lost, I finally made it to the shop at 7:50. Within an hour I did my first scuba dive. I was terrified -- it was only my third time swimming in an ocean and I suddenly was 20 feet down? Unnatural and weird.

For the next two days, I was taught by two French guys. I was the only student and they were Nha Trang lifers. They were very friendly, but I felt a lot of pressure not to mess up, given I was their only pupil. My test day I did two dives and only could see 1.5-2 meters underwater. It was like driving in a blizzard. It freaked me out, but they told me it will only make me a better diver since I haven't ever gone in great conditions.

In two weeks, I'll be diving in some of the world's best waters. We got our permits for the Sipidan in Borneo (google it).

Three days from now, we'll sadly leave our beachfront bungalow in Mui Ne (a top spot for kite surfers) and fly to Manila and then to Palawan for a different beach bungalow. Internet is becoming more and more scarce and I'm not sure I'll get another update in before I return to China. I'll do my best though to keep up to date. I have taken a ton of video footage, so I will post some of that when I return.

For now, I hope you're all staying warm back home! I'm off to soak up more sun, go to a yoga class, then eat piles and piles of scallops and prawns from a beachside grill (did I mention the scallops are less than $1 a plate??)

Sorry. I'm guessing most of you want to punch me for that braggy little paragraph... I know it's bitterly cold back home, but I can't help but be giddy about my newly-found paradise.

January 23, 2011


Yesterday I was fitted for two dresses and one pair of high-rise shorts. The tailor shop had great samples on the shelves and they assured me the quality would be perfect. I had heard great things about Hoi An tailors, so my expectations were high.

I should have known better.

One of my dresses fits beautifully, but the fabric makes it look a bit like a bridesmaid dress. It's a full length strapless maxi dress -- I wanted it to be fun, summery and appropriate for a beach. My first fitting was horrible, it wouldn't stay up and the seamstresses were trying to assure me that the dress was beautiful and the fit was spot-on. I prevailed and they sent it back to get refinished. 

I attempted to get a classy cocktail dress and ended up with a shiny, white cheap looking prom dress. The design in the magazine was beautiful, but it didn't translate well into real life. It didn't even pretend to fit me yesterday when I tried it on. It was way too small and the deep V in the front was off center. If the dress were on Project Runway, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia would tear it apart and the designer would definitely be "out." 

They had to start again from scratch. The second fitting today wasn't much better, and I'm waiting on the tailor to come to my hotel with it for the final shot. If I don't like it, I don't have to pay. After it was reconstructed, it looks a bit like a babydoll maternity dress gone horribly wrong. I instantly gain 20 lbs when I put it on. It's awful.

My shorts are the worst. They fit nicely, but the fabric looks like Beach Boy swimming trunks from 1960. First off the shorts are silk (they should be cotton) so they're nice and shiny. The print I chose is a bold floral print that's ivory with dark blue outlines of leaves and flowers. I didn't realize that the ivory was dipped in a bright sky blue on the bottom and exactly 50% of my shorts are sky blue. My lower half is symmetrically divided into perfect chunks. And trust me, you do not want your ass cut into blocky slices.

"They're not as horrible as I thought... I mean, you look a bit like you're going into a boxing match," Jenn said.

I couldn't help but laugh.

I asked the tailor what she thought. "Yes, I think they're nice. Cute. Stylish, even." She was trying hard to be polite because everyone in the room knew the shorts were bad. Very, very bad. I guess I can try rock them in the Philippines where no one will know me? 

At any rate, I just picked up a pair of custom made sandals. They're beautiful. Jenn got two pairs of shoes and some boots -- all of them are constructed well and fit like Cinderella's glass slippers. Had I known how amazing the shoes were, I would have forgone every single piece of clothing I had made and invest the cash into shoes. Custom-made boots and flats and oxfords -- hello, heaven. 

I'm thrilled with the one pair I got... I guess it's just incentive to come back to Vietnam.

Currently the power is out all throughout town so all of the building are abuzz with generators. I feel a bit silly for being able to use this computer right now, but our hotel seems happy to accomodate. We have two more hours until we hop on our final overnight bus of the trip. We're once again heading south to warmer weather and we're seeking out a dive school so I can learn how to scuba dive. 

Here's to hoping I sleep well on the bus tonight. We arrive at 6 a.m. and I dive at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow... onward to yet another road-weary adventure!

January 21, 2011

Road weary

Never again will I underestimate the power of a change of clothes and a good, hot meal. Eight hours shy of exactly one week, I finally changed clothes. Jenn and I looked road weary and haggard -- the majority of our meals this week consisted of ritz crackers with peanut butter and we hadn't slept in a real bed for the better part of the week.

From Hanoi to Hoi An is 900 km --or a little more than 400 miles. We left at 6:30 p.m. one day and didn't arrive until 2 p.m. the next (we did have a two-hour stop  in Hue). Our bus was a sleeper, which meant there were top and bottom "beds" that didn't quite lay all the way flat. In order to fit more beds on the bus, they designed it so your feet go into a covered compartment that slants so that the bed in front of you overlaps. Without the guard for your legs, the person in front of you would lay their head on your knees. It's an interesting contraption that's tricky to explain.. Regardless, we were thankful for our petite stature because anyone who is taller than 5'8" and wider than normal wouldn't be able to fit.

The ride was rickety and bumpy and each time I tried to look out of the front window all that I could see was a pothole-laden road with no discernible lines and traffic coming head-on. I've come to realize that Americans must be the worst drivers in the world given our loyalty to rigid traffic laws. Even though the rest of the world  is a lot more chaotic, people are more, hmm...engaged, as they drive. Yes, I think engaged is an appropriate word. It's certainly suicidal to text and drive here.

I faded in and out of restless sleep and was elated to finally get off of the bus. Only one more overnight bus to go.

After arriving in Hoi An, we changed clothes, showered and ran off to a tailor shop. This tiny little town is famous for its custom-made clothes, and shop after shop of wool coats, men's suits, dresses, and trousers line the narrow streets. We chose a tailor based on the discount we got from our hostel, and we will each be getting two dresses and a pair of highrise shorts at 3 p.m. today. Despite our exhaustion, we perked up when we looked at book after book of magazine cutouts and department store catalogs to choose our styles. The tailors thankfully gave us advice as to which colors and patterns to choose -- it's funny how 24 hours on a sleeper bus can hamper judgment.

Once our clothes were sent to the seamstress, we headed off to Good Morning, Vietnam, an Italian restaurant that Jenn's friend praised. The chef is from Italy and the food was the best western-style meal I've had since coming to Asia. They had regional dishes that few Italian restaurants in the United States have and all of the pasta was homemade.

The ambiance of the restaurant was inviting -- it's the kind of place that easily prompts accidental three-hour dinners. I ate gli spaghetti amatriciana and Jenn had penne arrabiata (yes, the menu was even in Italian). After days of processed, prepackaged carbs and bland, mushy rice dishes, it was hard not to smile.

I'm off to retrieve my laundry... six days of public transit and dirty cities finally is getting cleaned out of my nasty clothes. Thank God.

January 18, 2011

And so it begins

After 30 hours on a train, 28 hours in a sketchy Chinese border town, and 9 hours on a bus and I finally find myself writing from my hostel in Hanoi. I have been wearing the same clothes since 5 a.m.on Saturday morning because it is so cold. We mistakenly thought Vietnam would be warm, but Hanoi is experiencing unusually chilly weather. I'm wearing every piece of warm-ish clothing I packed and I'm still chilled.

The journey thus far has been and adventure, as we expected. The train ride wasn't horrible, the beds were comfortable-ish and thankfully we had a shy, young couple sharing our cramped berth with. Many of the four person cabins were loaded up with two or three kids and piles of luggage, but ours was comfortable with normal amounts of bags and only four people. We relied solely on crackers, almonds, and peanut butter for the duration of the trip. Though our cabinmates felt a little sorry for us, so they bought us ramen.

Nanning (google it) is rough, unpolished China. It has the tall buildings and bright lights, but at street level it's gritty and well-worn. We inadvertantly found ourselves walking down a corridor of brothels and a half hour later we found ourselves in the middle of a porn market. Uncomfortable. We had to stay there for two nights in order to get our Vietnamese visa.

We got on the bus early this morning to drive to Hanoi. The drive was great -- the landscape was covered with the iconic limestone outcrop mountains bursting straight up out of the flat farmland. Layer upon foggy layer of mountains painted the landscape. I finally saw the China portrayed in mystical books and movies.

Vietnam is completely three-dimensional. The mountains from China get larger and more common throughout the northern tier of the country. The houses are a sloppy mix of shacks, concrete blocks, and three-story concrete houses with bright paint on the front and fancy fake shutters. Many of the houses proudly proclaim the year they were built --2006, 2009..etc. The roadside is filled with fruit and meat vendors -- we saw more than one torched hog for sale and countless stands selling pickled meats and unrecognizeable vegetables. Outside of each village were large cemetaries with colorful tombs commemorating lost loved ones. Altogether, Vietnam makes for a daring combination that leaves your eyes exhausted...and we've only just started our two-week adventure here.

Hanoi is a hot mess. A wonderful, edgy hot mess. You have to contantly look in every direction walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, hopping aruond vendors squatting on the corners -- the activity is frantic and nothing will stop to wait.

Tomorrow we're going to Halong Bay and sleeping on a junk boat overnight. The day after tomorrow we're taking an overnight bus to Hoi An in the center of Vietnam. Hopefully it'll be much warmer than Hanoi. I'm ready for shorts and t-shirts. I really don't know how much access I'll have to computers or how much time I'll be able to spend on them. I will try keep this updated as much as I can as I go along, but I will have to recap with more indepth posts once I'm back in China. So be patient, my friends. I'll update you as much as I can, but it might be a bit sparse for the next month.

Cheers to adventuring!

January 13, 2011

Season finale

Alex and I just finished the last episode of Glee's first season. Three or four nights a week for the past two months have been devoted to watching Rachel being a diva and drooling over Puck and Finn. Granted, the disks had some damaged spots and they wouldn't always work (we bought them for less than $1 next door) but we made it through the entire season.

We've been joking that we're like a married couple -- we have our routine of working out, eating eggplant and rice, and settling down to watch Glee. We know each other's looks, we finish each other's sentences, we do all the cliche things that sisters or husbands and wives are best known for. It's like we have an umbilical cord that is about to be cut in a day and a half.

It appears that Alex will leave China much the way she came in, still convinced (as am I) that this country is an abusive boyfriend. Today was a gut-punching kind of day, which thankfully are becoming less frequent. I spent 90% of my day in a taxi or hunting for a taxi. As a result, my legs, elbows, and back of my head have all been grazed by trucks and mopeds zooming through intersections (don't worry mom, your daughter has quick reflexes). 

The cabs today were angry and impolite. This morning I rode in one for 30 minutes to go to a store that sells Canon products. I needed to buy a battery and a memory stick for my camera and they thankfully understood what I needed when I showed them. Even though the employees knew what I wanted, they proceeded with a 10 minute monologue of Lord knows what. I kept telling them "Wo ting bu dong! Wo ting bu dong!" (I don't understand!) Which only prompted them to speak louder and faster. (Take note America, this is a bad habit you have when interacting with non-native English speakers).

At any rate, I managed to escape the store with a headache and new camera accessories. Later this afternoon I had to go pick up my passport from the police station. I needed to get my visa renewed before I leave the country this weekend. Again I repeated the routine of hailing a cab for 20 minutes and trying to explain to him where I needed to go (I resorted to calling a Chinese friend). 

The police station was filled with overly helpful people who jovially shouted me to go in a direction I couldn't quite interpret. Another headache was on its way. I finally got my passport and checked my new visa; China has now staked its claim on a full five pages of my passport, gotta love bureaucracy.

I went home to get Alex so we could do some last minute shopping. In order to go shopping, we needed a taxi. Between 3 and 5 p.m. taxis are impossible to snatch because all of the drivers are switching shifts. For 30 minutes we waved down green lights who shooed us away (they were on break). Locals were trying to give us advice we couldn't understand, and at one point we had the crossing guard lobby on our behalf to a driver.

We cursed. We flipped people off. We gave pleading looks. We slammed doors. We shouted. We begged. We tried to be respectful and then we tried being the opposite of respectful. We both broke and followed every cross-cultural communication rule in the process of talking with nearly 20 drivers. No one would take us.

Dejected, we came back to our apartment. (In the process I knocked over some man's bike, I helped him pick it up and thankfully he wasn't angry... I was quickly crumbling). 

Today was a bad China day. I know when I come back next month, there will be many more bad China days in store, but I won't have Alex to commiserate with. I know I can do it on my own, but it won't be nearly as much fun. Our apartment already lacks character, subtract our antics and the place will be downright desolate come mid-February. In August, I was ready to tackle this place alone. That was before I knew what I was getting into. Having experienced it, I know I will be just fine -- it'll just be a little less comfortable.

When I was little, I would see pictures of huge cities like Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong and be terrified by the dizzying lights, monolithic buildings, and mysterious symbols I couldn't interpret. I remember thinking that must be the most terrifying feeling in the world not being able to understand anything around you. 

During one of my many unpleasant taxi rides today, I looked at a sticker that was describing the fuel surcharge. The only part of it I could read was the price of gas. The rest of the symbols were beautiful but meaningless. I thought of those movie scenes I used to be scared of and the last emotion going through my body was fear. It was the most peculiar sense of accomplishment I've ever felt.

We have everything set to go for Saturday (except for packing, which must be done tomorrow). Overall I feel rather clueless about my trip, this is the longest and most spontaneous vacation I've ever taken. Though, spontaneity often leads to serendipity. If anything, the past three months have taught Alex and I that if the absurd is a possibility, it will often become reality. As Alex goes to the US and I head to southeast Asia, we'll cut our chord knowing we're capable of handling the most outrageous of situations. 

We'll also leave each other not knowing when or which country we'll see each other in. What a fantastic thought.

January 10, 2011

Wasted energy

I got a fresh light bulb in my room today. It's a fluorescent bulb that makes everything in my room look pink in comparison to the thick gold incandescent glow from the living room. Our doorman arranged a pyramid of three chairs in my room and spent 10 minutes trying to get the fixture off of the ceiling.

Even though the light is uncomfortable, it's nice having a bright room past 5 p.m. It was inconvenient and creepy using my computer or cell phone to dig through my closet or shuffle around my desk to find something in the dark. 

Earlier today I dropped more than $100USD to pay for half of last month's heat bill. Mind you, our university gives us a $50 monthly stipend to cover all of our utility costs. I'm angry and frustrated, because Alex and I have been thoroughly chilly since December 1. Right now, we're both sitting on my bed in flannel pants, thick socks, long sleeves, and zip-up fleece sweatshirts. Don't get me wrong, I'm comfortable at the moment but I wouldn't go as far go call our situation "cozy."

Having a dark bedroom and a huge heat bill helped me realize an interesting paradox between Chinese and American energy usage. I think both countries could take a lesson or two from one another. 

Per capita, Chinese people use one-fifth of the energy that Americans do. Granted, that's keeping in mind that somewhere between 1.5 and 2 billion people live here, and a huge chunk of that population scarcely has access to electricity whatsoever. Most energy usage in China is concentrated on manufacturing and construction (no surprise there). The creature comforts of walking around your apartment barefoot in January or wearing a light cardigan in your office mid-winter are mostly forgone in exchange for 24/7 construction sites and ultra-efficient factories. 

Here people think nothing of wearing parkas in doors or wearing thick, velvet pajama pant suits (yes, suits) out in public. There also seems to be much less light pollution, the bullet train ride back from Shanghai was eerily dark, especially given the millions upon millions of people who live between the two cities.

On the other hand, it's no wonder our electric bill was so expensive while our toes remain frozen: our apartment is essentially a concrete ice cube. There is no insulation and two of our windows don't even properly fit the frame. There is at least a five degree temperature difference between my feet on the floor and my head 63 inches above. 

From what I've gathered, there's an arbitrary line drawn somewhere north of Hangzhou where buildings quit being constructed with insulation. In the northern tiers of the country, buildings are build to better withstand the winter (and subsequently the summers as well) but further south, the idea of insulation is apparently frivolous and unnecessary. 

So here's my proposal for our two countries: America, you need to be more ok with relying on energy-efficient lights at night. And you need to be fine with accepting that running around in a tank top in your house in January (especially in the midwest) is not seasonally nor climate appropriate.

China, you need to take a breather. Slow down your construction. Broker a contract with an earth-friendly insulation company that utilizes recycled materials, like blue jeans for example. Build some concrete buildings with staying power -- the kind where people shouldn't have to spend nearly 1/3 of their monthly paycheck trying to keep the shivers away.

Collectively, we'll all use less electricity and we'll be much more comfortable. Think about it.

January 8, 2011

Market finds

My phone light was blinking red and nearly dead as I showed the proprietors of the Pashmina scarves and knockoff bags an address in Chinese characters on my phone. After three of them motioned "down" with their hands, we headed for the basement of the giant building.

In our quest to find a nose piercing parlor, we accidentally found ourselves in a large indoor market with scarves, bags, hats and jewelry on the top floor and boots and fake nails in the basement. Kiosk after kiosk of gaudy red table cloths displayed their manicure sets in clear plastic boxes. Apparently they were bridal nail sets with 3-D appliques of gems, lace, and fake roses. Given that brides would have a full half-inch faux nail attached to their hands with flowers and lace glued on top, I feel like their hands would be rendered useless. Not to mention, they would snag on everything -- especially a wedding gown. Of course, all of the stores were showcasing how "lovely" and "beautiful" the nails would be... perhaps I should consider bringing a set back for the brides I know who are getting married this summer. No doubt they would be a cherished gift. (ha!)

After meandering through the labyrinth of nails and floor to ceiling stalls of boots, we still couldn't find a piercing shop. We showed the address to a few more people before my phone was dead for good and we were pointed to a manicure place in the corner. 

Jenn and Alex began the arduous task of trying to explain what they wanted to the girls working. Noses and ears were pointed to and before long, one of the girls brought out her piercing gun and a box of earrings. I stood in the background exchanging looks with the boot seller next door -- she thought my friends were crazy and I was showing my gratitude for not being a part of the multi-lingual hot mess.

With some help from other shoppers, they finally deduced that the girls wanted to pierce their noses with a gun and large earring. After three days, the large earring could be replaced with a smaller one. Completely illogical. I don't know really anything about nose rings, but I know you wouldn't stick something for your ear into your nose and you wouldn't make a big hole and put a small earring in it. 

In the end they decided it would be best to wait or find a different place. After a number of phone calls, Alex and Jenn have found out two more options to check out: a hospital or another (albeit cleaner) department store. 

Once the nose rings were figured out, I was excited to explore the boot market. Though my feet are on the larger end of most Chinese (size 7), I'm well within the range of being able to shop for shoes almost wherever I please here. Shoes in China are eclectic, strange, and usually really uncomfortable looking.

A lot of sneakers or heels here have huge furry accents or are decked out in bejeweled teddy bears or have cutesy buttons and bows on them. The high heeled boots and pumps are shaped in an unnatural and unforgiving way so that you have to mangle your feet to make them fit inside and the manmade material doesn't stretch or move with you, so there's not way avoiding hobbling. Apparently that look is quite attractive here, I've seen too many girls try to pretend like they're not in pain.

I was after another pair of good, flat boots. The lady by the piercing shop had some nice ones, so I went to her first to try some on. Though my feet fit, my calves did not. The seller kept scolding me for having wool socks on (it's cold here!) and kept trying to hawk uglier, but larger, boots my way. I finally gave up and left.

About 10 stalls later, I found some gems. Knee-high, flat boots with a chain around the ankle and available in three colors. I started trying them on and quickly attracted a crowd. Jenn and Alex were off looking at different shoes, so I was the lone circus lion entertaining the audience. Interesting looks were exchanged regarding my wool socks and jeans pulled up above my knee. There were certainly some horrified looks when they saw my long scar on my lumpy knee (never have I ever received so many repulsed looks about my scar until I came here. Weird). 

I decided on the camel colored boots and wanted to find the perfect size. Of course, one size fit one foot and a size larger fit the other foot (the shoes in this market were super high quality...though they were all "leather" the place had no trace of the leather smell).

I finally got my pair right. "So beautiful!" "So lovely!" Then I began negotiating the price. 275 -- way too expensive. 


"Ha! No! 250."

"Tai gui le!" (too expensive) "120."

"No. 200. Final offer."

Ugh. I gave in. I liked the boots too much and they seemed to be made well-ish. Plus, they were much less expensive than a fake leather pair would run in the US.

I left with my box and sought out Alex and Jenn, in my search I ended up back at the piercing corner where the original boot lady was quick to get up in my face about the boots I bought.

She asked to see them, so I pulled them out.

"Bu hao! Bu hao! (No good, no good!) These ones are much nicer!"

She poked and prodded at the seams on my boots and reached on her shelf to a pair of very plain, brown, cheap looking boots that she assured me were the best quality. I told her I didn't like her them and that I didn't have any more money. She asked how much I spent on my boots, I told her 150 (even when you think you got a good deal in China, you inevitably feel like you got ripped off).

"150?! For these? Oh please... bu hao!"

I told her I'd come back another day to look at her awesome, high quality shoes and waved her goodbye. She amicably slapped me on the back when I walked away. 

The day wasn't an overall failure. Though noses remained unpierced, I got some great boots and my friends got some good hats at the strange and incredible indoor market.

January 5, 2011

January Beach

Nothing is sweeter for a girl who has spent every January of her life on the icy tundra of North Dakota than the prospect of an entire month of uninterrupted beach. In 10 days, that's exactly what I will be embarking on. 

Never ever did I think I would be backpacking and island-hopping my way through southeast Asia. I will bid Alex farewell next Saturday, and as she gets on her US-bound plane, I'll be halfway through my 20-hour train journey to the China-Vietnam border. I'm trying to pump myself up for the train ride, everyone I've talked to says that trains in China are something everyone must experience, so why not I guess. It's not going to be glamorous, in fact it might be nothing short of hell. My friend Jenn and I will be only two of the billion or more folks shuffling around China for Spring Festival, their equivalent of Christmas.

After we arrive in Nanning, the city on the border, we'll secure a Vietnamese visa and take a bus to Hanoi. We'll snake our way down the Vietnamese coast for two weeks, checking out Halong Bay, soaking up sun, and seeking out some market finds. I also plan to get my open water diving certification while I'm there.

Our Vietnam journey will end in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and we'll fly to Manila via a one night stay  in the Kuala Lumpur airport. I am beyond excited for the Philippines. Last summer, I started talking to my grandpa about trying to visit where he was stationed for World War II. He showed me the islands and wrote down the names, but I never actually thought I would be able to visit. Away I go! I plan on checking out a number of historical sites while we're there. It means a lot to me to be able to share modern Manila with him, even though he can't come with me. 

From Manila we're heading to Palawan, an island in the western Philippines. The island has zero ATMs, sketchy cell service, limited electricity, and some of the most pristine beaches in the entire world. All of our lodging (from what we've figured out) is either in small villages or in cottages right on the beach. I. Am. So. Excited!

I've never been on a tropical island before. Ever. I've never snorkeled. And I certainly have never been scuba diving. Hell, I can count the beaches I've been to on one hand. Now that I think about it, it's quite the ridiculous assortment: Cape Cod, Jersey Shore, Boca Raton, Amalfi Coast, Capri... the list will undoubtedly look different once the adventure is over.

After a week in the Philippines, we're off to Borneo. You know, the same island that Planet Earth and Survivor were filmed on. Half of our time there will be spent diving in one or two of the world's top diving sites and the other half will be spent in a jungle camp. At the camp, we'll go on guided hikes (both day and night) through Borneo's rain forest. We'll be sleeping on bamboo platforms with mosquito nets... don't worry though, the staff feeds us three meals plus afternoon tea (thank goodness for the tea, I'll feel like Jane from Tarzan for sure). 

Once our weeklong Borneo adventure is complete, we'll fly back to Hangzhou via another night's stay in the Kuala Lumpur airport. 

One month. Three countries. Countless beaches. Endless adventures.

Given that I had never heard of El Nido until a month ago and just learned what "Nha Trang" was today, this trip has been a bit of a doozy to plan. I've had a crash course in southeast Asian geography and have had a thorough lesson on which countries need visas, vaccines, or special medicines (umm, malaria anyone?)

In addition, my body has been through booty bootcamp and ab torture (though the results are marginal at best). It feels very unnatural to be donning a bikini mid-January. To top it off, I've been charged with the terrifying prospect of buying a bikini in China in the next week. Somewhere along the way, this country ate mine and it's nowhere to be found. 

Unlike in the US, where I could go to Target in Fargo and buy a bathing suit, most Chinese dress for the season (which makes much more sense). Rather than cutesy spring fashions filling store fronts, Hangzhou still appropriately is displaying their warmest winter coats and hats. Lord knows that most Chinese women are microscopic, so even if I do find a swimming suit, I'm hoping it'll be at an international chain like H&M. I have a feeling I may be resorting to Vietnamese markets for my beach gear though...

At any rate, I'm excited and scared and in total disbelief that this adventure is happening. My passport is about to get much more colorful.

January 2, 2011

Shanghai's Seven Levels

The human content of our tightly packed elevator spilled out on what we thought was the ground floor of Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.  Instead we were met with bright flashing lights, large plastic cartoon characters and the aural delight that only a busy arcade can bring. We glanced out a window and realized we were still high above the ground.

Thinking back, the arcade was like a sick horror show and all I remember is a loud, colorful blur and the frantic search for the green “exit” sign.

Alex and I decided to spend the first day of 2011 in one of the world’s greatest cities. We took the brand new bullet train, enjoying a smooth, clean and spacious one-hour ride into Shanghai. The train’s top speed was 350 km/hour (217 mph) and aside from my ears popping, it was a great ride.

Shanghai’s train station was gleaming and gargantuan and we found the subway station easily to go meet our friend. Once we were en route, we were reflecting back on our first trip to Shanghai (World Expo) and how much we’ve learned since. We were excited to fearlessly navigate a city twice the size of New York. Little did we know our second trip to Shanghai would prove to be as weird as our first.

We met up with Jenn and her family and went to the Oriental Pearl Tower. We decided to go to the top and afterwards we were going to check out a nearby market.

It was 4:20 p.m. when we purchased our tickets for the top. Our train returning to Hangzhou was set to leave at 8:20 p.m.

There was no line for the tickets and there were very few people climbing the steps to the tower’s entrance. However, China stayed true to its love for hiding anything that might appear unpleasant and we quickly found ourselves in a labyrinth of a line.

The line involved two sets of elevators, one long, skinny hallway and plenty of curves around the cylindrical elevators.

We finally got to the top at 6:30.

The view was incredible… or it could have been if we would have had better attitudes. At that point we were just happy to be able to move at our own free will. The train was also in the back of our minds; Lord knows if it was that hard to get to the top, it was bound to be awful getting back down again.

Shanghai’s iconic skyline was laid out before us in a neon and incandescent glow. We saw the World Financial Center, one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Jin Mao tower, The Bund, and many of Shanghai’s 1,000 other skyscrapers. (I’m not exaggerating, there really are 1,000…).

After a quick lap around the top, we decided we better leave. The curved flight of stairs to the level below was the first of too many levels of a dizzying inferno. We literally had to walk in circles at each new level to get to the exit to take us down a few floors at a time.

We hit the arcade at the halfway point of our descent. The only exit sign we could see on the floor led us to staff-only elevators. We asked a concession worker how to get down, she led us back to the creepy industrial elevators. Not surprisingly, they didn’t work.

We went to another staffer who recognized the panic in our eyes, and he showed us a staircase that would take us to the elevator to the ground floor.

A roller coaster greeted us at the bottom of the flight of stairs. A damn roller coaster. I mean, really… why wouldn’t a skyscraper have a roller coaster in it?

We found the little green exit sign and quickly walked down one more flight of stairs and finally saw an elevator with a sign that said “elevator to take you to bottom floor.” Thank God.

Of course we were packed tighter than a can of tuna and Alex and I were wedged up against the back wall. We emerged and thought we had survived all seven layers of hell. Oh no, there was more.

We were led through an mélange of souvenir shops where one could buy anything from jade to creepy dolls to giant Hello Kitty stuffed animals. At last we made it outside and went straight to the subway to get back to the train station.

Thirty minutes later we were noshing on Subway sandwiches in the station and shortly thereafter we were blazing back to Hangzhou at more than 200 mph.

Having been to Shanghai twice now, I feel like I still have seen nothing. The city might sparkle, but it has it out to deceive Alex and I to no end.