destination

15 Initial Impressions of Bali

Where and how do I begin with this stupendous island. It feels like a universe unto itself. Its geography is remarkable, its people beautiful (most of the people I met anyway), its culture rich, its religion ever-present, and its taxi drivers omnipresent. While Indonesia is primarily Muslim, Bali is primarily Hindu. “There is a temple for every household,” Gusti (Gusti number 2) my driver explained. “Every thing has a god. We make offerings everywhere…in the temple, in the street, many places. 

It keeps us busy.” 

Indeed as you walk the streets of Bali you will see offerings on the sidewalk, with incense burning (they have some of the best smelling incense). 

Without further adieu, here are my 15 Initial Impressions:

1. There are incredibly ornate statues EVERYWHERE. It's possible there are more statues here than there are Starbucks in the U.S. The numbers are too high for me to do the math. 

2. Wait, why are we driving on this side of the road and why is the steering wheel over there? Yes, they drive on the left side of the road. You get used to it. 

3. How are all these beautiful people not sweating like crazy wearing their awesome traditional accoutrement?

3. Most people seem to be genuinely rad and happy to talk with you. 

4. This culture embodies excellent customer service in many areas. In restaurants and hotels, you’ll find yourself being treated like a king, queen, prince, or princess, and it feels absolutely genuine in most cases. 

5. Taxi drivers and massage parlors are apparently mass produced and are available every ten seconds of your waking life. To put it another way: Just as there are an infinite number of dogs in the Philippines and Costa Rica, there are an infinite number of massage parlours and taxi drivers in Bali. There are probably more massage parlors and taxi drivers in Bali than there are grains of sand on earth, more than there are planets in the Andromeda Galaxy, more than…ok, I’ll stop with the hyperbole. But for real, a lot. 

6. In my math-deficient estimation, at least 1 million motor vehicles seem to take up a radius approximating a city block in Denpensar. *This is totally an exaggeration as an initial impression, but a reality when going into Denpasar on a scooter.

7. You can find awesome hotels on the cheap (one of the best hotels I’ve stayed in in my entire life of 39 years was Lilacita Inn, which was $18 USD a night). 

8. There are many wooden replicas of male genitalia of varying (I'm talking the difference between a smart car and a yacht) sizes available in gift shops, and these gift shops are almost as ubiquitous as massage parlors and taxi drivers. That means that there is an almost infinite number of wooden replicas of male genitalia in the country. I haven’t looked into why this is, and I don’t mind being ignorant about it either. 

9. There are a lot of people from Europe, Australia, and the states EVERYWHERE. I wouldn’t be surprised if I went to the most remote part of an island and was suddenly in the midst of a “Yoga and Dreadlocks Session for Tourists.” That’s not a thing yet that I know of, but it very well could be someday. 

10. Many locals wear really awesome traditional Balinese accoutrement, especially during funerals and ceremonies. See point 3. 

11. Many of the beaches have a shitload of garbage floating around in the water. Nusa Dusa is an exception, though I’ve heard there are more that are clean. Padang Padang was exceptionally disgusting and rubbish-filled. I swear it was like some very drunk city planner was in charge of creating a new waste site and was like: “fuckit, let’s throw all this shit in Padang Padang, I’m tired and want a taco.”

12. “Where are you from, “Where are you going,” and “Taxi” seem to be the 3 main opening sales lines anywhere on the island where tourists visit.

13. Much like the Philippines and Costa Rica, there are whole families cruising on heavily trafficked roads on nothing more than a small scooter, while wearing their awesome traditional garb. 

14. When I say I’m from the states, after a while they determine I mean American, and say Obama! They know about Barack there, as evidently our Commander in Chief lived in Indonesia for a while when he was younger. This was a fact that I did not know, but Gusti number 2 did. Gusto number 2 was my second driver named Gusti.

15. This is rad...this is just truly rad.

Can Anything Good Come Out of Manila?

This is my first post from a series on the Philippines. There is just too much to write about, so I'll start with my first destination in this amazing country, which only lasted about 2 days: Manila.

Can anything good come from Manila? Ask anyone from Panglao island and they would either say no or "how the hell should I know I can't afford to fly there."

I think Manila is worth visiting, but only for a day or two. Believe me, it does have its own beauty, but there are thousands of islands to visit, so it doesn't make sense to stay unless you have a ton of time, are enamored with the place, or decide that your true calling in life is to be a Manilian (I have no idea if they call themselves Manilians, but it sounds cool as hell).

Initial Inpressions

It reminds me of Juarez, Mexico mainly because of the traffic, but also because of the smells and abundance of people. It does not have a kind smell generally speaking, at least where I stayed and ventured to, and  the air was warm with smog. *Note to my Filipino Manila friends: I don't mean to offend, I'm offering my honest impression of the city. I spoke with a very kind, intelligent, and gorgeous Cebuana (a Cebuana is a girl from Cebu) recently who informed me these things can be taken the wrong way. Much love to you and your country.

The place where I stayed is called La Verti residences, and it was pretty decent, especially at around $30 a night. It's an upper middle class (I think) high rise smack dab in the middle of craziness. Walking around that area could be somewhat of a nightmare with so many buses. I think there are just as many buses in Manila as there are dogs in Costa Rica, which may as well be called infinite. I had a pretty great view of the skyline. The ocean was usually obscured, though you could make out the outlines of boats in the distance through the oft orange-ish haze. Once I walked outside of the high-rise, reality and the way of life for many living in the city always struck me. There is strife and 7-11's. Yes, 7-11's are abundant in this city, for better or worse. American commerce knows no bounds, and neither does strife. Hi America! I love ya but damn you're everywhere son. 

The view from my Airbnb balcony

The view from my Airbnb balcony

I was surprised to find that the time change is not completely unpleasant, though for a couple of days it seemed as though I kept falling sideways to the left. Maybe my body was confused about being on the other side of the planet. The change in time induces a sort of haze, and taking a nap at any given time becomes the norm for a few days.

My other view, facing the sea

My other view, facing the sea

Shotgun Arm

What the hell does this mean? This is a note that I made while in Manila, and I have no idea what it means. You would the phrase "shotgun arm" would be a powerful enough mnemonic device.  

The Streets

There is a lot of poverty in Manila. Infants can be seen sleeping on cardboard a meter away from a sleeping homeless dog. There are quite a few homeless individuals and families scattered throughout the city. It's not the same type of homelessness that we often see in major cities in the states, if I may be so bold as to classify homelessness. In U.S. cities we get used to seeing many homeless persons in rags emanating a sewer-like smell and talking to no one in particular (yes there are exceptions and I'm generalizing/stereotyping here). In Manila, like other cities in developing nations there are many people of all ages lying around inert, sitting quietly as a family, or begging. This is not to say that every square inch of the city looks like this. Quite the contrary, however, it is substantial enough that it's worth noting.  

I won't sugarcoat it; much of the city is dirty, and no, children should not be sleeping on the sidewalk.

There are some things that I feel a city just shouldn't ever do without. One of these things is having trash cans made available to the public, trash service, and no infants sleeping on cardboard in the middle of a hot day. 

I spoke with a few native Filipinos later and found that, surprise surprise, many of the problems in the Philippines are a direct result of action or inaction by greedy corrupt politicians. I'm merely an outsider looking through an admittedly distorted lens. I would love to do a deep dive akin to what Tim Urban does in his ridiculously awesome site waitbutwhy.com, but I know I won't anytime soon. I have a very limited knowledge about all of this, including the social-economic state of things, as well as political. So take my initial impressions for what they are: fragmented, real, narrow, honest, and likely out of context.

Some things aren't easy to see while you travel. Questions enter your mind like: "should I stop everything that I'm doing in life and try to do something about this crazy shit?" In the end you become an Observer Of Society, an OOS if you will. One of the great things about travel is that it can open your eyes to things, and can act as a catalyst to get you involved in positive social change.

Okay, enough on that subject. I'm not ready to be a revolutionary just yet. Anyway if I did it would more closely resemble Don Quixote as opposed to a Che Guevara or [insert revolutionary of choice here]. 

Road Transportation

*I didn't try out the rail system, so maybe that's a better way to get around, I don't know.

In any case...

The buses are these little trucks called Jeepneys, which are very antiquated looking, but also cool in a cartoonish kind of way. They are ubiquitous in the Philippines, and especially so in Manila. There of course trikes and taxis, but be prepared to negotiate on the price. 

Uber is available in Manila, which is the way I recommend getting around the city. The ride rate is always going to be reasonable and you can trust the drivers (more than the taxi drivers anyway). Independent of the type of road transportation you use, know that it is going to take a while to get to your destination. The streets are just too congested AT ALL TIMES. This leads me to my next point, which is: fuck taxis in Manila. I just had one experience so it's purely anecdotal, but it certainly was asinine enough to stop me from ever taking one again the this city.

The Taxi Ride

I was trying to get to Paco Park. The driver that pulled up at the ATM kiosk I had just failed to use wanted to charge me 100 dollars to go a few kilometers (this was after I had already gotten in). I admit I made the mistake of asking him if he took U.S. currency. In response to his request for $100 I started laughing, thinking that he had to be joking. I told him fuck no, and he kept going down, all the way to 10 or 20 dollars. I wasn't even negotiating, I just kept saying no...to everything. Believe me, that dude wanted to get the Benjamins that I didn't have real bad. All the while he was pulling away at his cigarette that dangled from yellowish brown lips in front of a few brown rusty looking teeth. He kept leaning in as if proximity was going to somehow sway me one way or the other. After about 1 minute I told him to stop and let me off.

He didn't stop.

Instead, he offered to bring me to a whore. I told him to stop again.

He still failed to stop the car.

He wanted to take me to some bars. I told him to stop and let me out.

He. Kept. Driving.

By that point I was pissed off and told him to stop the fucking car and let me out. I gave the guy a dollar. He was incredulous at getting only a dollar. Whatever.

Filipinos are awesome, don't get me wrong, but there are always a few questionable characters anywhere you go. Evidently the taxi drivers are somewhat notorious in Manila for being a tad batshit crazy. It worked out though, as I found a cool restaurant to chill at, after which I used Uber. Thanks old smelly crazy taxi guy!

The Sights

To be honest, I just picked a few of the top Tripadvisor attractions and went with that. This included Rizal Park, Paco Park, and Intramuros. It was definitely worth seeing these places and exploring them. You can read up on them, but I'll relate just a couple things from my time at these places.

Paco Park

Paco park is beautiful, though the experience is somewhat sullied by the loud music playing through PA speakers around the entire little place. There were a couple nooks in the back that I decided to explore. When I went into one there was a group of schoolchildren hanging about. They started chanting "selfie, selfie, selfie." So the first selfie shot in the Philippines turned out to be a group selfie.

Group selfie with the Paco Park Crew

Group selfie with the Paco Park Crew

Rizal Park

It's a big park with cool things, and tons of people go there to hang out. 

Rizal park at dusk

Rizal park at dusk

Intramuros

From Wikipedia: Intramuros (Spanish, "within the walls") is the oldest district and historic core of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Also called the Walled City, it was the original city of Manila and was the seat of government when the Philippines was a component realm of the Spanish Empire. Districts beyond the walls were referred as the extramuros of Manila, meaning "outside the walls".

This is a must see if you're going to be in Manila. It's fun to wander around there and just soak it in.

When I'm traveling I usually end up talking with a number of different fellow travelers at tourist destinations, but that day turned out to be a bit different.

As I was walking out of Intramuros yet another group of school kids appeared. Instead of chanting for a selfie they asked if they could interview me.

I told those kids to scram and get a job or something, and work on Christmas in a coal mine.

Not really...of course I said yes. 

When I said "sure" they were ecstatic. I could tell right away that this was for a school project, and was happy to provide my uneducated answers.

They asked me a number of different questions about social and cultural differences between my country and theirs, you know, the kind of questions you'd expect from a homework assignment. They recorded the whole thing from a tablet and took notes. They were very kind and respectful. It was really really cool.

At the end of the interview every single one of them shook my hand and thanked me. They told me that I was the only one who even acknowledged them.

This is sad and kind of messed up.

I get it, you can't really trust anyone, and a lot of times anyone of any age might be trying to sell or steal something (read about how I got robbed in Buenos Aires). But come on, you can use some discernment and common sense. If a group of schoolchildren in uniform ask to interview you, don't be a douchebag. 

Isn't that what the golden rule really is? Don't be a douchebag, that's it. World problems solved. Ha! 

I have so much more to write about, but for now I've got an island called Palawan to explore.

Oh, and in case you haven't guessed, many good things come from Manila. I'm looking forward to seeing how this scruffy giant of a city turns out in a couple years. 

The school kids who interviewed me

The school kids who interviewed me

Paco Park entrance

Paco Park entrance

Baluster de San Diego

Baluster de San Diego

St. Agustin church

St. Agustin church

Philippines flag in Rizal park

Philippines flag in Rizal park

If You're Heading to New York, Don't Stay in New Jersey

Some Helpful Tips if You Plan on Visiting this Great Place that Arthur Dent Never Truly Believed Existed

New Jersey is not New York. It sounds obvious, right? Let me be very clear on this. New Jersey is not New York, so if you plan on visiting New York, stay in New York. 

This is what I didn’t do. 

To give you a bit of context, I was on a brief hiatus from my foreign travels to visit family and friends during Christmas. For those of you just reading this blog, I’m one of those “I quit my cozy corporate job to travel the world” characters who are becoming more mainstream.

I found a spectacularly cheap flight to Manila, PH out of JFK (it was $399.80), so I thought I’d spend a few days in NY before hitting the sandy beach islands of the Philippines. I’m a fierce advocate of using Airbnb pretty much anywhere in the world, and NY was no exception. 

So I poured my coffee that had the hue of intensely dark chocolate and began to search. There are a few key factors that I consider when looking for a place: 1) it has to be inexpensive 2) it should be located a reasonable distance from where I want to spend most of my time, and 3) it can’t be a dilapidated uninhabitable 4-wall nightmare.

Pretty simple right?

The problem this time is that I got point number 2 completely wrong. I would have loved to stay in Manhattan, as that’s where I was going to be spending my time, but it was a bit too pricey. In retrospect, and of course after being advised/berated (rightly so) by a friend who lives there, I should have stayed in Brooklyn. To be honest, I should’ve stayed in any one of the 5 boroughs where I could skip over to a subway station. 

Instead, I stayed in a place that I believe to be in a separate dimension called North Bergen, which is in New Jersey. If you look at it on a map, it looks as though it’s just a quick swim across the Hudson and voila, you’re in Manhattan. Okay, fine, no-one should be swimming across the Hudson, winter or summer, but still it just looked so close. And the place I booked looked so cozy and nice. “Only 15 minutes to Manhattan” was somewhere in the description. I could deal with that. I could swallow some pride and show some love to NJ. 

I quickly found out that in North Bergen surreal bourgeois suburbia pervades the air like a quickly proliferating mutating virus like the one in 12 Monkeys series. Maybe it was just the weather. It’s just my take on the scene; I’m sure a lot of people love it, like the people I stayed with. 

The people I stayed with were great, a Columbian couple that I was able to practice my Spanish with. I love em’, but they’re more comfortable outside of the city. The city freaks em’ out a bit. That’s okay, I get it, there are a lot of people, and many of them are batshit crazy. I do have to say though, compared to Los Angeles, New York is pretty damn sane.

Anyway, let’s first talk about the transportation situation. This will help you if you still decide that you would like to have a nice surreal bourgeois suburban setting to come home to at night after New York hip styling.  

You have the following options if you want to head over to New York:

Uber (don’t do this): there is a $15 charge to cross the Lincoln tunnel (I assume it’s the same for the others). Talk about fucking expensive. When the Uber driver handed the toll person a $20 only to get $5 in change back, I thought wow, that’s fucked up. I also thought, damn, I better tip this guy. So I Googled something about Uber tipping recommendations for NY.

This was the wrong search, which I’ll explain in a bit. 

Uber is cashless. The drivers want to add the option for tipping in the app like Lyft. I personally love the idea of not having to consider a fucking tip, though I want to be sure that the people that are driving me the fuck around are taken care of (which Uber damn well better be making sure of). Anyway, I didn’t think that toll fares were included in the Uber fare, so I gave the guy a $20 as a tip. 

Then as I walked away I saw the charge, did another Google search (the correct search) and found that Uber includes the toll fares. Son of a bitch. Well, that was my good deed for the month. 

Bus: There are small buses that run every 10 minutes between NY and NJ. This will be your main mode of transportation. There is usually a dude speaking loudly into his earpiece in a language that I can’t ever seem to place. That’s fine, I can handle that. It costs $3 one way, so not bad I guess. They’re pretty shitty buses though, and sometimes the drivers get into yelling matches. One time a driver told a passenger “DO NOT PUSH ME, DO NOT PUSH ME MAN” because the dude made some comment about getting a move on. I found that kind of awesome and amusing.  

What I didn’t like at all about taking the bus is that it took way too long to get there and back. When I went into the city, I knew that I had to stay in the city until I wandered back home at night. One thing to note about Airbnb places. If they say that it takes “15 minutes” to get to some awesome destination, check the facts on those kinds of statements. I get it, it’s kind of a marketing ploy, but no, let’s all be real here. Here's what you have to consider: 

  • Walking to the bus station in NJ takes time
  • Waiting at the bus station in NJ can take time (though it's supposed to be every 10 minutes)
  • The ride seems to vary between 30 minutes to an hour (yes, I know, it's not really that bad)
  • Once you get into Manhattan there's no use in riding it out to the final stop, cuz traffic starts getting intense. 
  • You then walk or take a subway somewhere, which can take a while.
  • Total time to a specific destination can get to 1.5 to 2 hrs, especially if you get lost a lot like me; lost in a location sense, as well as in thought. 

Your Own Car: I sold mine, and I didn't get a rental, so I can't speak to this. I imagine paying a toll both ways would suck, though. Anyone have any insight into this?

Taxi: I didn’t do this because I assumed it would be a ton of money.  

Plane: This option is probably cheaper than using Uber or a taxi. It may be a bit inconvenient, though.

Walk/Swim: I imagine this would be the cheapest option, but I haven’t looked into whether some person pops up out of the water in the middle of the river and charges some sort of toll. So who knows?

My message is simple:

Stay anywhere with a subway line, no joke. Brooklyn. Stay in Brooklyn. Manhattan can be expensive, but if you’re a baller stay there. God, I didn’t know I had so much to say on that topic. 

Once You’re in New York

Grab yourself a Metro card at any of the kiosks spread throughout the city in the myriad subway stations and be whisked away in those lovely underground carriages. They’re really not too bad, though during peak times some can get a bit crowded, and in one car I remember the distinct smell of something produced by the human body pervading the space. There is also a thing every January called “No Pants Subway Ride” day. This is a real thing started years ago by a comedy improv group where people where their coats, scarfs, gloves, shoes, socks, ear mittens, turbans, etc. but absolutely no pants. They wear underwear though, so don’t get too worked up. This year I didn’t see anyone doing this, but I hopped on a train pretty late in the day, so people must’ve decided to don pants once again. I found this to be pretty entertaining:

 

I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you about the awesome places to go in New York; there are plenty of articles about that already, and I was only able to experience a small sliver of what NY has to offer. However, following are some of my recommendations while you’re in this great city:

  • For a great view, instead of going to the Empire State Building, go to Top of the Rock at the 30 Rockefeller Center. It’s a hefty $32, but pretty much worth it. 
  • The New York Public Library. It’s free and the historical significance is pretty awesome (yes, I’m primarily talking about Ghostbusters here).
  • Central Park. If you like to walk/run/people watch/pretend-to-read-while-pondering-the-universe, visit museums, look at statues, pretend to be a statue, then go here. 
  • Times Square. Even though your senses literally get saturated with advertising from ALL sides, and you suddenly feel the urge to buy a Vogue magazine and invest in some quasi-kitsch brand of clothing, it’s cool to check it out.
    • There are a lot of people all the time here. According to the official Times Square site over 300,000 pedestrians can be seen walking around on this concrete per day. On busier days it gets to be upwards of 480,000. Now that is a lot of selfies. I would think that at least 50% of the people striding along in the square are taking selfies, and more than just one. If I’m right, then that means about 150,000 people are taking selfies per day in Times Square alone. Let’s take a modest number and say that each person takes an average of 5 selfies. That’s 750,000 selfies per day in Times Square alone. This is not based on anything but my “not very informed” conjecture, but I’m pretty much right. 
  • Though I didn’t do it this time around, I hear that seeing a Broadway show is pretty much a “must do” thing. Good thing I’ll definitely be going back to NY.  
  • For a more somber experience, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum is totally worth visiting. 
  • Want a cool ferry ride for free over to Staten Island and back? Check out the schedule here: http://www.siferry.com/schedules.html. Doing this affords some really incredible views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Just remember: If you’re going to New York, please stay in New York. You’re welcome. I’m more than happy to make a ton of mistakes so you don’t have to. Also, New Jersey is in a different dimension. 

I leave you with a not very relevant, but still cool quote from the late Douglas Adams.

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time.”

Travel Destinations - The First 6 Months

Ticketed!: I finally have my travel iItinerary from October 14, 2015, to March 12, 2016. 

I’m still in Austin and have a month before I skim a slice of blue dot rondure. What I've been finding is that it takes a shitload of time researching countries and trying to determine when to go, how to get places, and where to stay. It’s worth it, especially if you want to save some cash and avoid terrible accommodations. I'll provide some inside tips throughout this article, and will call them out in bold. 

Without further adieu here's the breakdown. 

October 14 - October 15, 2015: San José, Costa Rica

The first night I'm there I'll be staying in the city of San Jose, cuz my flight gets in pretty late. 

I thought about going with Airbnb, but found a pretty rad deal at a place called Cocoon Hotel. We’ll see if I emerge as a butterfly resplendent in beauty and stuff. 

October 15: I’m taking a shuttle from my cocoon and going to my loft over on Coco beach. It’s only $52 to take a shared shuttle there. Details can be found here: http://www.transportationincostarica.com

Notes: Initially I reserved a place I found on Craigslist about a mile away from Montezuma beach in the jungle. I reserved it with $100 which I'm not getting back, which is fine by me. I changed it up for a few reasons:

  1. I had a weird feeling about the place
  2. Being so isolated I wondered if suddenly I would have a number of friends that no-one else could see
  3. It was too far from the beach (major first world problem)

Tip: Be flexible, and trust your instincts as long as those instincts aren't based on irrational fear. This is sometimes hard to navigate because we deceive ourselves daily (we are our best and worst lawyers). It's better to lose a bit of money in exchange for a preferred living situation.

An Even Bigger Tip: Go with Airbnb for your worldwide renting needs. Here are the reasons why:

  • The people renting out their places are vetted by Airbnb. Not only that, previous renters leave reviews about how good or bad the place is. 
  • You don't have to sift through a million foreign real estate sites. 
  • You don't have to deal with Craigslist and the risk involved therein. 
  • You know exactly how much to pay, and the transactions are all handled via Airbnb.

October 15 - November 20, 2015: El Coco, Costa Rica

I’ll be staying in a loft at the Tropical Gardens in El Coco, Costa Rica. This is right by Coco beach, which I intend to lay around on when I’m not laying around other beaches. 

View Kayak CR Itinerary

November 24 - December 11, 2015: Sao Paulo, Brazil and other parts of bigass (no euphemisms, stereotypes, puns, or otherwise intended) Brazil.

I’ll be there with friends in the vicinity of Sao Paulo, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to magically speak Portuguese. Carol is from Brazil and Josh is a white dude from Maine. They’re a vivacious married couple doing the ceremonial thing in her home country. How could I miss that shit?

View Kayak BR Itinerary

December 16 - January 5, 2016: Minden, NE.

Christmas with the fam!

January 6 - January 10, 2016: New York, NY.

I’ve been wanting to go back to NY anyway, because I’ve only been there once and it was about a million years ago when I visited just briefly. Additionally, the plane ticket to the Philippines was effin’ cheap from there (like $399.80). A friend asked me to show him the way of finding cheap tickets. Well, it comes down to a couple of things: Research, flexibility, and awesome sites like Kayak and Skyscanner. Because I was willing to spend a few days in NY I found a fuckin’ deal. Maybe the trick is to be flexible a bit. 

View Kayak NY Itinerary

January 11 - 12, 2016: Manila, Philippines

 

January 12 March 12, 2016: Panglao Island, Philippines.

I’ll be about a 5 minute walk away from Alona beach, pictured below. If it's half as awesome as it looks I'll be happy.