Tuesday, May 24, 2016

cruzin' Hawaii

We decided to come back to the USA when we did because my extremely generous parents offered to take on a cruise to Hawaii with them. So three days after arriving back in the country we met up with them in San Francisco and boarded the ship. The sailaway out of San Francisco was, as you would imagine, amazing:

We were at sea for four days and spent our time sleeping, relaxing, doing trivia, going to a couple lectures on Hawaii, occasionally visiting the gym, and of course eating a ton. It felt great to gain back some of those pounds that I had lost over the last 7 months.

Our first stop in Hawaii was Maui. Unfortunately my dad was sick so it was just JJ, my mom and I that headed out to see Haleakala Volcano National Park. If you don't already know this about me then I am big into the national parks. It is something of a goal of mine to visit all of the 59 national parks and I was super excited to see the two that are in Hawaii. So the three of us headed up on the long but incredible drive up to the park, which took us from sea level all of the way up to the summit at 10,000 feet. The terrain changed from green lush topics, to plain meadows, to mountainous pine forests, and then finally to a barren dead lava landscape that look down into the clouds.

the Néné, looked for this bird the whole time, and finally found one chilling in the parking lot when we were leaving

mom and i

JJ in the clouds

The next day we arrived into the island of Hawaii, which meant it was time to head to Hawaii's second national park: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Thankfully my father was feeling better so we all headed out to see the volcanic magic. Inside the park are two still active volcanoes, so the landscape is otherworldly. The most famous activity in the park is the lava that flows out into the Pacific Ocean, creating the "newest land on earth". But driving through the heart of the park you get to see the usually sudden changes from rich rainforest into a dead black landscape that was "recently" covered in lava and then to new plants that have started to reclaim the dead earth.

That day we also made it out to see the 'Akaka Falls State Park. The park and it's waterfalls were of course beautiful, but the thing that stole the show for me was the three inch long Hawaiian freshwater goby fish. We didn't see this fish, but our minds were blow when we learned that it uses a sucker on its underbelly to climb up this 442 foot waterfall in order to spawn. A three inch fish climbing that waterfall! Insane!

Our next stop was Kona on the big island. It was here that I started to feel kind of off. I won't go into detail but it started with body aches and just regressed from there. Over the course of the next five days I had a rotation of ailments that kept me curled up in a ball in the cabin and later hotel room. I'm still not sure what it was, the first doctor said a sinusitis (which didn't make much sense) and the second said a viral infection and dehydration. The only thing that I was able to see during this time was when we cruised past the stunning and remote Na Pali Coast on Kaua'i.

Luckily I was able to recover enough in time to see some of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and the crazy blue waters of the Oahu coast.

ʻIolani Palace, Honolulu

Father Damien Statue at the Hawaii State Capital

Pearl Harbor

Oahu coast

Oahu coast

Over the last eight months we have been to a decent amount of places where people throw out the "paradise" word. Of those places Hawaii seems to me to be the most apt. What a place! Thanks mom and dad!

more Hawaii pics at our flickr

And now, San Francisco

We flew back to San Francisco on March 11th...I'm trying to figure out how to describe how I felt...I was happy to be back where I knew how things work and couldn't believe that time had passed so quickly. What did we do first? We took BART straight to get a burrito in the Mission District. Home, sweet, home burrito! Nothing like getting a good burrito with good salsa. We were however, shocked by how much it cost, $23 for 2 burritos and 2 drinks. CALIFORNIA IS EXPENSIVE, totally worth it though. Hmm, overall it is strange to be home and I think it's mainly because we actually don't have a home. Our stuff is in storage and so we're going to keep living out of our bags until we get it all figured out.

We only had a few days in the Bay Area before we left for Hawaii (see next post to hear about that trip) but we managed to see several friends, get a working cell phone number, and I got a job. Big thanks to Mike and Gi for letting us stay with them for a few days. We hope to be seeing more of our friends and family in the coming months, we missed you!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A few hours in Shanghai

Our red-eye from Kota Kinabalu got us into surprisingly cold Shanghai early in the AM. We had 8 hours to kill here until our final flight would take us back to SF. Since Janet packed her coat in our (free) checked luggage she decided to just stay in the airport instead of dealing with the cold and the one hour train ride into the city with me.

After a few somewhat eerie minutes of wandering around the huge empty space for customs a security dude started to scorn me for either being late, early or maybe just for being there at all. Eventually he found someone to carefully look over my passport and give me an entrance stamp. The hour long metro ride into the city flew by. The rush hour train was packed, and clean, and people were all very well behaved, but that might have been because most of them were immersed in the American Idol type show that they all seemed to be silently watching on their phones. Picture dozens of straphangers in an oddly lit place grinning down to their glowing phones and swaying with the movement of the train. A Hitchcockian scene that I wish I had taken a picture of.

When I arrived at People's Park station a group of young Chinese people asked me to take their picture. I did and we got talking. They wanted to practice their English so they invited me to go to a tea tasting with them. I cautiously agreed and we arrived into a very homey tea house where we were served a pot of very expensive tea. When I say expensive I mean 450 Chinese Yuan or like $70 USD for a single pot! This is split between the five of us so I end up paying about $13 USD for a few ounces of tea. I've thought about it a lot and am fairly sure they weren't scamming me, and that that was just a normal price to pay for some fancy-ass tea. Regardless I had a very nice time talking with them. They had all sort of questions for me about life in the US and about my thoughts on their country. They shared their surprise that I was not overweight because they assumed all Americans are overweight. And then an hour later another lady said the same exact thing to me! I'm not sure why but I was somewhat offended by this. Obesity is obviously a serious problem for the US, but to assume that all Americans are overweight is unfortunate. Important to remember how wrong some of these assumptions are and to try and not make them about other cultures.

People's Park

People's Square

The 90 Yuan that the tea shop cost me was literally my lunch money, so instead of getting some food I walked around People's Park and watched hundreds of people do calisthenics and other morning exercises. I eventually made my way to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a museum dedicated to the city design of Shanghai. So were talking exhibits on public transportation, architecture, environmental resources and more generally on the history of the city. Do I know how to party or what? The major piece of the center is a huge scale model of the city, which takes up an entire floor.

Here are some infographs they had about how fast they built and expanded their metro system that blew my mind. I'd be so pumped if BART expanded at a 1/100th of this rate.

Unfortunately I was out of time and yuan and had to head back to the airport. My visit didn't go exactly as planned, as I didn't get to visit the Bund or any other part of the humongous city aside from the few blocks around People's Park, but it was a nice enough 2-hour sampling of a place I don't plan to head back to anytime soon.

Back at the airport I met back with JJ and we ate some overpriced crap food and eventually boarded a plane that took us on our last red-eye of the trip.

a few more photos here

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Malaysian Borneo

When we were in Spain we met some Kiwis (who I think as a country are the world's most likable travelers) that told us their favorite travel experience was a wildlife camp in Borneo. It seemed like an unique experience so I put the name in my phone and a few months later when we got to southeast Asia we decided to do it. The flight there was surprisingly cheap and the camp price fair, plus when else were we going to have the opportunity to go into the Borneo jungle?

Our flight took us into Kota Kinabalu (or KK, as it is often referred), the main city on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo, and then a few hour bus ride brought us to Sepilok where the base camp was located. Near the base camp is an Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, where you get to see injured or orphaned orangutans being trained/rehabilitated to be released back into the wild. It was incredible seeing them up close - far more so than I expected it to be. I've been to zoos before, and watch a lot of David Attenbourgh, but it was something else to see them so up close in real life. How similar they are to us, and how graceful and easy they move through the trees was a really special thing to see. Here's a video of one of them:

Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Sepilok (1)

Later we headed out to the wildlife camp, which involved an hour and a half car ride to the Kinabatangan River, where we boarded a boat that took us about 45 minutes upstream to where the camp was located. Along the way we stopped numerous times when the guide spotted some orangutans and other wildlife in the trees along the shore. Over the next three days we would be spending a lot of time in that boat cruising the river for wildlife.

Kinabatangan River

bigfoot or an orangutan

The camp is what you expect a camp in the middle of the jungle to be like: basic. It looks like any sort of camp you've been to except there's no running water, doors on the cabins or roads to/from the camp. It was a different kind of humid than what I've ever experienced. Not the most humid necessarily, but maybe the grossest humidity...if that makes any sense. Of course, lack of AC or fans makes it feel pretty gross. But I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining because this is what we expected it to be. We didn't come to the Borneo jungle for the comforts of the Borneo jungle, but instead for the Borneo jungle-ness of the Borneo jungle.

Over the next three days we saw some crazy animals, including: crocodiles, Gibbon monkeys, huge lizards, insanely massive dime sized ants, way too large spiders (bigger than your fist), beautiful kingfishers, hornbills, thousands of little fucker monkeys, and the amazingly repulsive proboscis monkey.


Gibbon monkey

not sure its name. basically a dinosaur.



Macaque monkeys, aka little fucker monkeys. These bastards are everywhere and are real pains in the ass. I had already had my fill of these guys before we even got to Borneo. The locals also hate them since they steal whatever they can, from electronics to crops. Our guide called them the "jungle mafia."

The most memorable animal for me was easily the Proboscis monkey. They are one of the largest monkeys in Asia and are memorable for a couple of different reasons. One being their huge noses. For males the bigger the better - some even have noses even hang well below their mouth. Another aspect is their pot bellies, which contain about a quarter of their body weight and makes them all (males and females alike) look permanently pregnant. But for me their most memorable feature has to be the male's permanently erect red penis. It's kind of hard to miss. Proboscis monkeys live in groups of usually 12-20, that consists of one male, his "wives", and offspring. It was really something watching them for a while. They look so big and awkward from afar, but then one time we saw the male get mad, honk at the rest of the group for a while and then peace out and jump ever so gracefully to what seemed a very far distance over to another tree. Wish we had a video of that.

We somehow even saw a solar eclipse while were there:

After three days of sun, humidity, mud, mosquitoes, and river water “showers” we were about ready to head back to the air conditioned and running water world. A long few hours late we make it back to KK for a few day of loitering before our glorious flight back to SF. We didn't do to much in KK in those few days, aside from walk around town, stopping in air-conditioned malls whenever we saw them. Not a lot of pictures to share, but here are a few, including some very memorable South Indian banana leaf rice and curry.

We were so excited to be heading back to California, literally counting down the days. It made these last few days go extra slow. Being at the end of the trip we were pretty worn out and excited to be heading somewhere familiar. I couldn't wait for that burrito that I'd been thinking about for the last 7 months, and of course we were excited to see friends and family again.

more Borneo photos

Friday, April 22, 2016

That time I lost my passport in Indonesia

Have you ever wondered how to ruin 5 days of a trip to a new country? It's quite simple, I'll break it down for you.
Step 1: Lose your passport. How to add some extra turmoil to the situation? Don't notice until you have taken an hour flight away from the capital and a 3 hour bus ride to your destination.
Step 2: Spend hours trying to contact airlines and buses in hope of finding said passport to no avail. Step 3: Lose sleep and wake up at 4:30 am to fly back to the capital where a new passport can be obtained.
Step 4: Skip seeing the sights you were most looking forward to seeing to procure new passport.
Step 5: Spend money unnecessarily to purchase an expedited passport.

So yeah, that's how I broke in our Indonesia trip. It sucked. The process of getting the passport was actually pretty painless, it was just the stress to me, Joel and my friend who was helping me that was the big downer. Now that I've moved past the lowlight of the entire trip I'm glad to discuss the highlight of Indonesia, which was seeing my friend, Asra. I met Asra 12 years ago via the Bjork chatroom. Remember, chatrooms? Those were the days (also the days of AIM)! I first met Asra and some other bjorkers from the chatroom in San Francisco. Asra ended up being a generous and kind guide, showing me San Francisco sights. Over the years I came to share lots of memories with Bjorkers in San Francisco, with Asra leading the way taking us to great restaurants, coffee shops, etc. About 8 years ago Asra moved back to Indonesia and I hadn't seen him since, until now!

He's still the same generous and kind person, of course. It was really special to get to know Jakarta, Asra's city. He patiently translated for me and helped get me get my passport. As you all know, I love food, and Asra took us to some great Indonesian food. My favorite was a restaurant that made food from Asra's home region on Sumatra.

Padang style

Us at the aforementioned amazing Sumatran restaurant

We had the good fortune of being in Jakarta when one of Asra's several bands (Efek Rumah Kaca) was playing a show. It was so awesome to see the venue packed and the crowd singing along and passionate. Additionally, we got to meet several of Asra's friends and chat it up. We even stayed out until 4am, a very late night for "Old Lady Ramirez."

crowd surfing at the final Efek Rumah Kaca show

We ended up spending 5 days in Jakarta thanks to my passport woes. What's Jakarta like? It's a massive city and holds the title of worst traffic in the world. I can attest to the insane traffic, it can be astounding. Note: Asra is a badass driver. In a city with so much traffic one must be decisive and aggressive and Asra rocked it. A subway system is under construction so it will be interesting to see how much traffic is reduced. We stayed in Kemang which has lots of restaurants, shopping, and was very lively. We didn't actually see sights in Jakarta since we took some days to recover from non-stop Vietnam travels, and just hung out; it was really nice. It's different to visit a city, spending time with a friend, rather than racing around trying to see a city. Of course, we'd like to see more of Jakarta at some point, but we enjoyed our time there.

Bogor Botanic Garden

Bogor Botanic Garden

I also have to mention the weather. It's the rainy season which means that there are these amazing downpours that last hours. I love watching and listening to downpours, from the safety and dryness of the indoors, of course. We got to witness lots of great downpours and the accompanying humidity. Lots of 80-100% humidity days which my California-dry-weather-body was not a fan of but I'm much better at tolerating after 8 weeks in Southeast Asia. I actually found myself thinking, "It's pretty good weather for 80% humidity." Never would have said that before.


Goa Gajah

Bali wasn't our first choice of places to visit in Indonesia but they had the cheapest flight, by far, to our next destination so we ended up going to Bali. It's the most visited island in Indonesia and attracts hoards of tourists. We didn't have much time on the island so we only got to spend time in 2 different cities, Sanur and Ubud (Ubud is famous for being that place where Julia Roberts finds love in Eat, Pray, Love). Bali is beautiful, of course, but we didn't find it all that interesting since it is so touristed-out. Still, we had a good time walking around.

not sure. as seen on the streets of Sanur

Saraswati Temple

evil macaque monkeys as represented in Ubud street art

  • KFC is suuuuuper popular in Indonesia. Like 2-story-restaurant-24 hours-popular. 
  • No surprise here, I blend right in with Indonesians.
  • Joel can generate a B-list celebrity status crowd (see video below)
  • Whats that smell? You know, that smell I've never been to place all these years. It's durian! Turns out I do not like the taste or smell of durian. 

Joel's Indonesian celebrity incident

Next stop: Malaysian side of Borneo.

Jakarta photos
Bali photos