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19 November 2010

A Full Day in Philly

When traveling, it is completely natural to compare each new place you visit to places more familiar to you. This comparison of what's different in each culture is exactly where the beauty of travel lies - in learning how and why things are done a different way, you can't help also thinking how and why things are done the way there are at home. In thinking about the very things you have taken for granted, your mind is broadened and you grow as a person. And even in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States, I was able to learn a bit more about myself not just as an American, but as a Californian.

It was Sunday morning and my second day in Philadelphia. Alisa, Leslie, and I walked to the train station and caught the train into the city. The train was about 15 minutes late, but we were able to pass our time by playing more 20 questions, which we continued playing on the train (we couldn't guess "avocado" but a nearby passenger chimed in to get it!). Laura joined us on the train.

My transportation for the day was covered by the "Independence Pass" - a one-day ticket that provides unlimited transportation on trains, buses, and the subway in Philadelphia. For $11 it was a no-brainer (our one-way tickets on the train would be $7 each).

13 November 2010

GUEST ENTRY! Arriving in Philadelphia, from Leslie's Perspective

What follows is a guest entry written by the amazing Leslie!

I took the Megabus from DC to Philly, although I ended up on a later bus than Jason because people in DC know how to take advantage of a three-day weekend - hence the 10:15 bus was full. After a three-hour bus ride (which arrived early) I found myself sitting in the Philly Amtrak station waiting for Alisa, JT and his friend Vy to arrive. I read people's blogs on my smartphone and "checked in" (receiving the "Pennsylvania" badge). JT and Vy arrived (searching for me in the station like Waldo), and soon after Alisa arrived in her car to pick us up.

Upon arrival, JT presented Alisa with the coveted treasure box of Porto's pastries [which you HAVE to try if you are ever around LA], and Alisa just about died from the excitement right there in the taxi/pick-up area.

12 November 2010

From DC to Philly Cheesesteak Heaven

I woke up on Leslie's couch at 8am. I had a bus to catch at 10:15am. As I had some cereal and packed my bags, I watched some CNN (the TV stations here seem to emphasize national news more than entertainment) - the program was debating Marijuana legalization; specifically, Prop 19. Yet another example showing that wherever I go, I can't escape California.

I said bye-for-now to Leslie (she's going to Philly too, but on the next bus), and I walked to the bus stop in the same parking lot as yesterday's food truck festival. The city was much quieter this Saturday morning. People queued and boarded the bus. Our bus driver was an entertaingly loud and friendly black woman named Carolyn. She prodded us passengers to say "good morning" like we meant it! (Unfortunately all these east coast people were more interested in getting to their destination than talking.) Carolyn then proudly proclaimed without any hint of timidness, "I HAVE MENOPAUSE."

Okay, now she got my attention. "This means that the temperature in the bus can either be TOO HOT or TOO COLD. Feel free to come up here and tap my shoulder or slap me in the face so that I'll adjust the a/c."

I was happy to finally encounter someone with a shred of genuine personality.

As the bus left DC, I began texting my friends in Philadelphia to see whether they'd meet me there or wait until Leslie arrived. After a few minutes, I looked up from my phone and saw that we were already driving through the forest (aka suburban Maryland). The rest of the ride went by smoothly.
  • I kept my ipod on as the scenery flew by. As I tried to take a picture of the scenery, I had a difficult time juggling my camera, phone, and ipod; I wish there was some gadget that combined all three into one! IF ONLY!
  • The bus passed through a tunnel underneath Baltimore harbor, and suddenly the freeway signs read "95 North - New York" ... but what about Philadelphia? Isn't that the next city?
  • The bus stopped in a suburb north of Baltimore to pick up more passengers. I noticed that the bus driver announced the stop as "Murryland" - is that how the locals pronounce it?
  • Every car on the freeway is from a different state - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, New York, DC.
  • I noticed the couple in front of me, about college-age, were playing a luge/bobsled game on their iPhone.
  • Traffic is bad. Especially with all these toll plazas every few miles. The worst backup was trying to cross into Delaware.
  • I just crossed from The South into The North. Interesting.

Before I knew it, the bus had whizzed through the industrial areas south of Philadelphia and I arrived in the city of brotherly love.

    Bringing Some California Cool to DC's Bureaucracy

    Many people just stared at me, confused...

    It was my second day in Washington DC, and Leslie and I walked to the Curbside Cook Off in a big parking lot near Chinatown. We had learned our lesson from the previous day's lunchtime rush, and we arrived there just after 11 AM. Nevertheless, the queues at each of the trucks ran almost across the entire lot, with at least 50 people waiting for each truck.

    We chose the Sâuçá truck, serving "globally inspired food." Each dish on their menu represented a different region of the world. I went for an Italian sausage wrap while Leslie got an Indian butter wrap. The food was delicious, but not completely filling for $8. The owner was really nice, though, going out and passing out samples of their lemonade to all those waiting in the warm sun. I also got him, and several other people in line, to give me high-fives. Only about 1 hour in, and I was at over 60 high-fives. OH YEAH.

    The next stop: Ford's Theatre. Most famously known as the place where President Lincoln was shot, the theater is still a functioning one, and in fact my visit just happened to coincide with a rehearsal of that evening's show, so I was not allowed in. (Yet another building in DC with restricted access! Lighten up people - it's not like I'm climbing in your windows and snatching your people up.) Across the street, the Petersen Boarding house, where Lincoln actually died, was closed for renovations. So Leslie and I had to be content with browsing the exhibit of Lincoln's life and presidency. At least the entry was free.

    22 October 2010

    Happy Hours and High Fives

    In any city where there are people in suits roaming the streets, you can feel a collective exhale at 5 PM. Everyone finally gets to loosen their collar and head home, or, as I soon discovered was very common in DC, to the local bar or restaurant for happy hour drinks.

    It was my first evening in DC, after a red eye flight and a day exploring the city on foot. So by 5:30pm, I was definitely exhausted and in need of a beer. I met up with Leslie at her office and we walked over to a place called Recessions. The bar is between Dupont Circle and Farragut (to the best of my DC geography knowledge), perfectly positioned to attract many young employees from the nearby think-tanks and policy agencies. And as I expected, the bar filled up mostly with 21-26 year olds. The atmosphere felt more like a lounge in a college dorm than that of an underground urban bar.

    I met Leslie's friends Mari and Anna there. What was awkward was that Leslie and I sat at our own table, and a dozen or so of Mari's friends filled in the tables next to us. We had a strong feeling that this was the group we were invited to join, but without Mari there to introduce us, it was just Leslie and I enjoying our drinks.

    Also, I was able to cross another item off my list: Take a picture wearing the craziest hat I could find. Unfortunately, there was hardly anyone wearing a hat that I could find, let alone a crazy hat, so I settled for the first moderately cool-looking hat I could find:

    The hat guy had asked us for a quarter so he could use the jukebox. He and the friend with him were from California. And at the time, I was sitting with Anna and her friends, Peter (?) and Ashley, also from California. Apparently DC has undergone a west coast invasion?

    19 October 2010

    Discovering DC on Foot

    The best way to explore a city, especially a big, vibrant, cosmopolitan city (like Washington DC) is on foot. You might think that you won't be able to see as much as you would if you were in a car, train, or bus - but in fact the opposite is true. The most rewarding parts of a visit to a new city are the small, unexpected details. Everyone's seen the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, but what makes the trip really yours is the little old lady who tells you about what used to stand on that empty lot, or the hidden alleyway filled with colorfully artistic murals. It's only by interacting with the city on a personal level - which can only be done at a human level, i.e. on foot - can you gain the most rewarding experiences from your visit.

    So, during my first day in Washington, DC, it was a no-brainer that I would spend the day exploring on foot. What would I discover?

    16 October 2010

    A Red Eye and a Real Red Eye in DC

    Washington, DC. The capitol of the United States of America. This is where the country's--no, the world's--power is concentrated. It's impressive, especially considering that this city was merely a small town for many decades after it was built on a drained swamp over 200 years ago.

    My arrival in DC was neither triumphant nor glamorous, but pretty mundane, commuting into the city with lots of workers. I flew into Dulles Airport, about 26 miles (41 km) west of Washington. It was 6:45 AM, and the earliest splashes of daylight were just emerging to the east.

    15 October 2010

    LAX to Dulles, Making My List

    It has been a chilly and damp week so far in LA, but the forecast calls for sunny and warm weather all weekend on the east coast. I can't help but smile at this irony.

    I'm sitting at the gate here at LAX, staying relaxed ahead of my flight. It isn't too hard to stay seated and rest, since I'm running on less than six hours sleep. I'm definitely going to get some shut-eye on this overnight flight.

    My trip was planned somewhat spontaneously. I am currently of the opinion that I need to get out of LA at least once a month in order to maintain my sanity. So, with some friends of mine on the east coast, what better time than now to visit?

    08 August 2010


    I have traveled to countries all over the world but had never been to Tijuana. It's the nearest non-US city to me, and easily accessible by day trip. Yet embarrassingly, it remained more unknown to me than the hawker centers of Singapore or the old town streets of Prague.

    So I set out to change that.

    Not wanting an opportunity to go to waste (and wanting to put some miles onto my new car), I decided to go on my soonest day off. Why not? I tried to gather people together to join - but in the end, only Michelle was available for the day trip. And so things began to fall into place: TIJUANA HERE I COME!

    It had been a fun week, with two Aussies surfing my couch for a few days. The night before, I had a night out with a close friend who's leaving for grad school. That night I ate yak meat for the first time, took in some live music, and enjoyed good times and Belgian beer. Life was rolling on. Thus, that Saturday, I woke up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy - adventurous and unstoppable. Well, unstoppable until I hit the traffic on the 405.

    16 July 2010

    Sequoia National Park

    In late June 2010, I traveled with some friends for a weekend camping trip at Sequoia National Park.

    Located in the southern Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park encompasses a large swath of land that includes several groves of the largest tree in the world, the Giant Sequoia.

    View Larger Map

    Moro rock.

    Big tree. There were plenty of big trees.

    07 June 2010


    One place in the world I want to go is Jamaica. It's so close to the US, also English speaking but still with a very distinct culture and lifestyle.

    I was looking for a tour guide and found Traverse Jamaica.

    29 May 2010

    A Day as a Jet-Setter

    I had an important meeting to attend. This meeting was in the Bay Area. It was on a Thursday. I needed to be at work on Wednesday and Friday. A dilemma?

    No, it was an opportunity: I flew to the Bay Area in the morning and returned back to LA that afternoon.

    Even though it was simply a visit to the Bay Area, where I'd been many times before, the timing and circumstances of this trip really made me feel like a jet setter. This was my first time flying somewhere and back on the same day. It was also the first time I parked my car at an airport lot, and the first time I flew on a plane without packing a change of clothes!

    26 April 2010

    A Birthday Trip Back to the Bay

    I returned to the Bay Area for the second weekend in a row. Only one night, but one amazing time!

    29 March 2010

    San Diego

    Spontaneity + rideshare + Tommy's + Aussies + Couchsurfing + Mission Beach + Gaslamp District + Trolley hopping + Low Riders + Roscoe's = what I called my "spring break" crammed into a short weekend.

    14 March 2010

    Pura Vida

    Definitely good times...
    Coming to Costa Rica as a tourist, there are several things you have to see/experience: Jungles; amazing beaches; an active volcano; monkeys, sloths, birds and countless other wildlife; the amazingly fresh and delicious coffee; the laid-back, Pura Vida mentality; simple but hearty and nourishing Tico cuisine; and some adventure - be it whitewater rafting, zip-lining, surfing, snorkeling, or whatever else you can think of!

    I was able to try a little bit of it all on this trip :) Such good times, for sure!

    Pura Vida!

    Oh yeah.

    Flying Home, Not a Moment Too Soon

    6:25 PM. Saturday, March 13, 2010. Panama Tocumen Airport.

    My stomach was about to explode, and so was my mind.

    So here I am, already tired from a long hot day in Panama and just wanting to ge on the flight back to LA, when I find out that there's an extra security screening of our bags at the gate. There's an incredibly long line. Only because it's a flight to the US?! No way. Fuck that, I'm going to chill here, rest my feet (and change my smelly socks), and wait for the line to die down.


    6:50 PM

    I'm in the airplane now. And I'm feeling annoyed, to say the least.

    13 March 2010

    Panama: I Get Saved Again!

    5:25 PM. In the Panama City airport.

    This woman turned out to be one of the most helpful and caring people I could ever hope to encounter!

    I wanted to head back to the bus terminal at the Albrook Mall - so when I saw a guy yelling out "Termina" as the destination for his bus, it seemed right. I got on, and waited for about 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, several vendors walked onto the bus and tries to sell children's books, fresh tamales (I was tempted), and pirated movies. [Seriously, who needs to go shopping when you can buy most of what you need right on the bus?!]. The bus left, and it headed into the city. Then it got on the main promenade along the waterfront - Avenida Balboa - a wide boulevard with all the major hotels and fancy apartment high-rises on it. It was amazing - like driving through Vegas or (as I'd imagine) Miami.

    It was a different route than what I expected, and when the bus got on the highway (aka Corredor Sur), I knew that it definitely wasn't headed back to the bus terminal at the mall.

    And so, I knew that I had gotten on the wrong bus. Was I going to miss my flight?

    I Had Made a Very Wrong Turn Somewhere

    4:25 PM. Saturday, March 13, 2010. Just outside Panama Tocumen Airport.

    She was begging me to get in a taxi for my own safety...

    The past few hours have been yet another adventure:

    I left the Albrook mall on one of Panamá's many festive buses to the plaza Cinco de Mayo, 10 minutes away. The streets around the plaza were alive with food vendors and people enjoying their Saturday. There was a pedestrian-only promenade leading away from the plaza, filled with vibrant shops and street vendors. I bought a small bag freshly-fried platano chips with hot sauce drizzled on top (yummy!), then I bought a cup of fresh coconut juice to cool me down from the sweltering day.

    It was a vibrant and welcoming scene. I would soon find out that not all of Panamá would be as friendly...

    The Last Night in Costa Rica and the Return to Panamá

    Friday, March 12, 2010. San José, Costa Rica.
    12:25 AM

    "Welcome to the third world"...

    Back from dinner, it was at an amazingly good (seriously, better than most places I've eaten at in the states) pizza restaurant/cafe. The pizza was fresh, crispy, cheesy, and all around amazing - imagine Cheese Board with meat! The restaurant is literally hidden down some railroad tracks - there's no street, just a small sidewalk (if you could call it that) along the tracks. And the crazy thing is - the tracks are still in use! Trains were passing by during our dinner (but not too often, and with the doors closed we hardly heard anything).

    12 March 2010

    The Volcano and the Old Man

    11:10 AM. Friday, March 12, 2010. Volcan Irazu.

    Atop an active volcano...

    I'm at Volcan Irazu. There's a cafe here where Christina, Annie and I are resting/rehydrating for a bit before we tackle the hike to the peak of the volcano. The altitude is beginning to get to us. The weather is a little clearer than it has been in previous days, but there are clouds coming in to the summit. The temperature is cool, the sun is bright, and the air is moist, much like Marin County in the summer.

    11 March 2010

    Alone in San José: The Inadvertent Adventure

    1:00 PM. Thursday, March 11, 2010.

    A mission I didn't sign up for...

    OH MAN! I am incredibly relieved and exhausted. I just spent the last hour wandering the streets of downtown San José by myself. I was on a mission, one that I didn't sign up for: Trying to get Christina's cell phone to work again. It was my only way to communicate and only way to get home. And it was locked! So I had no way of getting in touch with my cousin or my host.

    The phone locked itself after I inadvertently I turned it off. I was stranded and alone, with no way to get in touch with anyone I knew in this crazy city.

    It was definitely an adventure. Details follow...

    Over the Mountains, Through the Woods, and into San José

    2:30 PM. Wednesday, March 10. Peace Corps Office, San José.

    We just arrived in San José after an 8-hour journey. The bus ride wasn't bad; I drank some ginger ale to keep my stomach settled after our big lunch atop the cerro. (A good tip!) We each got a good amount of sleep on the bus ride. The day began early in Agua Buena; I groggily turned off my 5:40 cell phone alarm and soon got out of bed to get ready. It was a cloudy and humid morning. We got our stuff together, walked to the bus stop (Christina said hi to some neighbors that she knew), and it was soon good-bye Agua Buena!

    The bus stopped in Perez, then went into the mountains. We ate at a cafeteria/restaurant perched high in the mountains about 1.5 hours south of San José. There were huge sweeping windows providing an expansive view, with hummingbird feeders hanging just outside that attracted about a dozen hummingbirds. Spectacular.

    It was hot in San José when we arrived. We took a taxi from the bus station where we were dropped off to the Coca-Cola bus station, then grabbed a bus from there to the Peace Corps office, where we are now.

    10 March 2010

    Salchipapas and Skype

    6:50 PM.

    We're back at the apartment in Agua Buena. I just got Christina hooked on Sporcle :). We just came back from dinner at a not-so-nearby soda. Carlos, our taxi driver from today, picked us up at 5pm sharp (they're surprisingly punctual here) and dropped us off at the soda, which is about 3 miles out of the town. We had chalupas and an order of salchipapas (fries with cut up slices of fried sausage).

    The sodas here are just small, casual restaurants. Costa Rica's equivalent of a take-away chip shop (I can't think of any Stateside equivalent, maybe a diner?). They're not fast food by any means - few things here move quickly. The food was decent; we talked literature while eating.

    A Day at the Hot Spring

    10:00-11:00AM? Tuesday.

    Bumpy ride, bubbling water, and butterflies...

    At the hot springs (Agua Caliente). There are plenty of butterflies fluttering around. I tried to form the word "butterfly" by putting the Spanish words for "butter" and "to fly" together - I got something like "mantequilla volero" ("flying butter"). It's a comical alternative to just saying "mariposa."

    The drive up here was extremely bumpy - gravel/rock roads for over half the entire way. I was worried that the car we were in would just suddenly snap under all the pressure and bumps - but we did eventually make it! Thanks to Carlos our driver, and to all the locals who pointed us in the right direction whenever we reached a fork in the road.

    These hot springs are actually just a pool of hot water adjacent to the river. It's a pretty big and fast-flowing river with plenty of rapids - I don't know its name - I do know that we're near the Parque Internacional de Amistad (near the Panama border) and just over the mountains from the Caribbean side of the country. The river is cold. I sorta swam in but got instantly pinned against the huge rocks. I freed myself and made sure I wouldn't get sucked away by the strong rapids.

    09 March 2010

    Agua Buena: A Day in the Life

    9:10 AM Monday, March 8

    It's easy to wake up early here - the sun is so bright so early. It was 6:30 am - I checked the time and rolled back to sleep in my sleeping bag.

    Breakfast around 8:30 - fried ripe (sweeter) plantains and coffee.

    08 March 2010

    Across the Country by Bus

    Bus rides, hospitality, and yes, Univision's headquarters are in LA...

    4:20 AM. Sunday, 03/07/2010

    It's way too early to be awake. Ugh.

    07 March 2010

    Adrenaline Rush! Zip-Lines and Bullfighting

    11:15 PM. Saturday, March 6.

    What an amazing day! Zip-lining was simply awesome. Absolutely wicked fun! Christina and I were picked up at 10:10am from the hostel and were soon on our way! But first, paying and signing the paperwork at the La Cevita office. The zip-lining course is a 45-minute drive into the jungle, largely on unpaved gravel roade (we drove through a couple rivers!). Along the way, we met our fellow zip-liners: Matt and Sarah from England, and a family from Germany (near Hamburg!)... their son, who's around 15 years old, is on a Spanish-language exchange program. We got to the canopy, were soon strapped into our harnesses (which feel heavy at first - and the gloves reeked of other people's sweat - yuck!), and after a brief safety demo, we were zip-lining through the rainforest canopy!

    06 March 2010

    Margaritas and Hammocks

    8:00 AM. Saturday, March 6, 2010

    Another warm morning, another early sunrise. It's extremely easy to wake up here (with the sun and the heat already coming in by 6am), but it feels simply glorious.

    Yesterday we finished the park mid-afternoon, exiting through the beach exit - there's a small river that you have to cross to get out of the park. A couple locals operate a "bridge" - essentially two boats tied together that you walk over. Just like trolls charging a toll. Well, not really a toll - they were just collecting tips. But still... Christina and I each had a beer at the bus stop by the beach and we returned to the hostel. There's a restaurant along the road that is made from an old US air force bomber aircraft - it looks really cool (I think the restaurant's called "El Aviar" or something).

    05 March 2010

    Monkey Beach

    9:25-ish AM. Friday, March 5, 2010.

    I am sitting on a log at one of the most serene and paradisical beaches imaginable. It's still mid-morning but the sun is already searing hot and beating down on everything. Christina's taking a dip in the water. We're at Playa Dos at Manuel Antonio National Park. We just finished hiking a jungle loop trail around a small but hilly peninsula. The views were gorgeous.

    It was so hot and the hike was strenuous, so we were both totally drenched in sweat. There was an older couple hiking the same trail (but at a more leisurely pace) - they're from New Brunswick, which I know as the only bi-lingual province in Canada :)

    Yes, it's incredibly hot and humid but so beautiful too. There's now a breeze coming off the ocean... how refreshing.

    The Nauseating Bus Ride and the Beach

    9:10 AM. Thursday, March 4, 2010.

    Last night we ended up walking to a nearby sports bar nearby in Escazu (called Big Dog's or something). I tried Costa Rica's signature beer - Imperial. We had an amazing buffalo chicken pizza and nachos shared among the four of us. Fernando insisted that we take a taxi back because apparently there's a high crime risk (I felt completely safe, I couldn't see what he meant). I've felt much less safe in LA or even SF.

    Sleeping at Fernando's was great - he provided us with blankets/pillows and was incredibly hospitable. It's amazing how people surprise you when you couchsurf.

    04 March 2010

    Exhaust Fumes and My Arrival in Costa Rica

    5:31 PM. Panamá Tocumen Airport.

    Often, a smell can take you back to a memory faster and more intensely than any sound or sight. And it is often the smells that we associate with places. Well, Panamá smells like car exhaust. Heaps and heaps of exhaust fumes. And horrible exhaust - the stuff that comes out of our cars in California smells like a wedding cake compared to this.

    I spent another 2 hours on the bus - there was so much traffic. I was on the verge of getting off at a random stop and shelling out the money for a taxi, because I was afraid of missing my flight. Luckily I made it, with a little bit to spare!

    03 March 2010

    The Girl Who Works at the Airport

    12:25 PM. Albrook Mall, Panamá.

    It's too hot here to lose your cool!

    I made it to Panamá! The flight arrived a little early, which gave me time to go through immigration (almost as tedious as entering the US - luckily, no line!), filling out customs forms. Yes, it's warm and humid - not totally oppressive but it's close - somewhere between summer in Virginia and in the Philippines.

    At the airport I talked to the tourist information lady, who directed me to take the Corredor bus to Albrook station, where I can get a taxi to the canal.

    Armed with that information, I walked outside the airport confidently. There I found - a line of taxis, a parking lot, and no bus stops in sight. I wandered through the parking lot (the information lady told me the bus stops were beyond the parking lot), only to find that the lot was gated in and there was no exit there - and still, no bus stops in sight. I wandered back to the terminal, where I asked a couple airport employees for the bus stop. They then tried to haggle me onto a taxi - "11 dollars", "special deal" - but I would have none of it, especially now that I knew that a bus ride costs only 25 cents. (The currency of Panamá is officially the Balboa, but everywhere uses US dollars; the only time I saw balboas were as the quarters i got as change for bus fare.) The airport employees directed me to walk all the way down the roadway out of the airport, telling me the bus stops were outside the airport. So I wandered.

    It was then, as I was walking along the median of what looked almost like a highway, that I met Melanie.

    The Beginning of the Trip

    Midnight. LAX. Terminal 6.

    Why is everyone speaking Chinese?

    My flight should be leaving in an hour - and should start boarding at any moment.

    I have an inkling that I'm at the wrong gate - everyone around me is Asian and I can't see any signs declaring that it's my flight at the gate. There aren't even that many people around here; the flights from the other gates (red-eyes to Boston and Atlanta) have departed.