My last trip to Asia was fun. But there is a ton that was hidden from the camera. This last trip really put me through the ringer. I just wish my luck worked this well on lottery tickets.
My first mistake on this journey was not taking my own damn advice - give yourself time! Everyday something was on the itinerary. There was no breathing room whatsoever. Since one of my many rules when traveling is to never visit the same place more than once, I wanted to make sure I could do as much as possible. I consider myself to be very disciplined to handle this back to back scheduling but it hurt me in the end. Museums, DMZ tour, temples, markets, fly out early in the morning to Manila, take a 10 hour bus to Banaue...bam bam bam. I mean it just kept going. I even had to cut short my amazing dinner with my friend Che whom I hadn't seen in years because I failed to give myself considerable time to catch the next flight out to Manila. But one must remember
Give yourself time
You haven't seen the world, yet you're still alive. You're not going to die if you don't see everything. Enjoy the moment. Traveling like a contestant on the Amazing Race can really suck out what you're supposed to take in.
The other part that made this trip the hardest journey in my life is that I caught a vile stomach bug from the underworld. And this is not the first time. I first caught one in Mexico. I was on a row boat in city called Xochimilco, México just 30 mins outside of Mexico City. On the banks there were farmers selling a drink made from a Maguey plant that is native to Mexico called Pulque. I had it a few days before and knew that I wanted more before catching my flight back to Nashville. Heartburn, sulphuric burbs, paralyzing cramps and violent hacking in the toilet the next morning before my flight almost made me miss the plane. I'll never forget it because Lauryn Hill was playing at the Ryman Auditorium downtown the night I returned. I was with my mom and started feeling better because I refused to eat anything. As I grew hungry I decided to risk it with a hotdog. Then that dreadful curse reminded me that it wasn't just a dream. It must have been the pulque that I got off the banks in Xochimilco. The farmer must have used local water to make that batch. That was the only unprocessed fluid I ingested. I ended up having to see a doctor to get it taken care of. Most Americans and Europeans are not used to non processed water. So water from naturally occurring sources can really harm us if we are not careful.
Similar story in the Philippines except it was rice wine from a local village that did the damage. Local water is used in the fermentation process. You'd think I'd have learned from the first experience but as one who's trying all kinds of different foods and fruits and exotic flavors, it's easy to forget. I say all this to say that
If you don't know where it came from, don't drink it.
Sometimes other countries don't have strict rules about prescription antibiotics and you can find them at a local pharmacy. In my case the pharmacist in Banaue, Philippines gave me what I needed right away. But I wouldn't ever risk that again. I imagine it's possible for certain places to not be as willing to give them out or to not have exactly what it is you need. Since my doctor knows that I travel, he gives me emergency antibiotics to have available in case situations like these ever occur. Stomach bugs are no joke. So it's a good idea to be medically prepared. And that's the next travel tip...
be medically prepared before you leave.
Another hurdle that I encountered during my return flight from Seoul to Nashville was a sinus infection. I know right!!!! I told you this trip was rough. I was so congested that my ears wouldn't equalize to the cabin pressure. One ear in particular felt like it was going to explode. I thought I needed to go to the hospital. When I landed in Seoul from Manila I told the nearest taxi driver to take me to the hospital. I didn't care what it cost cause I was in so much pain. I got to the hospital and I couldn't get fixed cause it was unbelievably expensive. 500 USD to be seen. 500 USD to get treatment. 1000 USD total to fix my ear before my outbound flight to Nashville. I wasn't prepared for that so I was on the verge of tears. But there was good news. Turned out that there was an emergency clinic on the bottom level of the Seoul airport. I wish I had known before paying the taxi driver 200 USD to take me to the hospital. I'm still sour as hell about that. I got to the clinic in the airport and the doctor checked out my ear and was like whoaaaa!! My eardrum was severely bulged like a balloon and full of fluid. She gave me antibiotics and a steroid to reduce swelling. She said in 24 hours I should be ok to fly. My flight was in 12. Oye! Total clinic cost 36 USD. Better than 1000 the hospital was asking for.
Because I also experienced this, my doctor prescribes me nasil steroids and antibiotics to alleviate any symptoms of sinus infection. This as well as Aphrin, an over the counter nasil antihistamine, solves the problem. I can say for certain that this works because on my last flight to Haiti in December I had a sinus infection and the steroids and Aphrin helped to allow my ears adjust to the cabin pressure.
Talk to your doctor to see if they can help you get antidiarrheal tablets, antibiotics, and inflammatory steroids. These are a good first aid. Aphrin is available over the counter at most pharmacies.
Philippines: Manila, Batad, Puerto Princessa
The morning was cool. Empty. People don't seem to move in the streets before 0600. However the subway was busy. A woman by the subway entrance 200 meters from my hostel was selling 2,000 won sushi. The spontaneous breakfast was super tasty. It was warm and fresh and filling. Best 1.80 USD I spent.
The subway has a fluidity to it. Everyone moves in unison. Seoul moves like an organism. Everyone seemed sorta drone-like. People seem to line up in an orderly manner when boarding the train car. And the car is silent from people fiddling with their devices. Hypnotized by their gadgets. However, I'd say this is quite normal behavior these days. What is really impressive is how Seoul's subways are impressively clean and well kept. If you refer to the video you may notice that the floors and walls are white. The floors are free of shoe marks. Free from stains and signs of wear. It's evident that Seoul takes great care of its infrastructure.
I arrived at Gyeongbokgung palace 2 hours earlier than opening time. Palace hours are 09:00-18:00. As a lover of food, I decided to venture around the city and see what I can try. A decided to ask a stranger for some help - perhaps she could point me in the right direction. She knew no English. My Korean vocabulary was only comprised of thank you and hello. The Converse app is my go to when trying to communicate. This is another reason why having international coverage is extremely helpful. No wifi necessary to translate that I would like to find a place that serves traditional Korean food. A 15 minute walk led us to a place I cannot pronounce. But the long line outside made me curious. This is actually an exception to one of my rules - I tend to avoid places with trip advisor stickers because it robs the place of its authenticity (or at least that's how I feel). When I know that a location is a common tourist spot I tend to steer in a different direction. But after the kind lady walked all this way I disregarded those green stickers.
Mugyodong pollack soup. Their signature soup is what I everyone seemed to be ordering. You usually can have it cooked with your choice of seafood chicken or pork. Condiments at the table are there for you to design the taste to your liking. Make it as spicy or salty as you wish. I've noticed that the same condiments are common in every other restaurant I had visited. Kimchee, pajeori, and chili suace are available with every meal. It was tasty and filling. In fact I was already full from the sushi I had earlier in the morning but the soup was still delicious.
09:30. 8 USD gets you pass to 5 different palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the main one I wanted to visit because it's a partially reconstruction from the Joseon Dynasty. Dating back to the late 12th century Korea it was a the first established form of government in the city of Gyeongju Which is now known as Seoul until it was destroyed in the Imjin war when the Japanese invaded. The palace was burned to the ground. It was partially restored in the 1980s to give us a view into the Joseon period.
A visit to Gyeongbokgung can take several hours as the grounds cover a large area. The entire group of palaces are definitely going to consume the majority of a day. Keep this in mind when planning a visit.
The highlight of my day was myeongdong night market. Shoe shops, food stands, restaurants, outlets of all kinds exist here. You can find squid on a stick, crab cakes, lobster, sweet and sour chicken, a very appetite friendly zone. So much food to try, it can make you too full to subway back to your hostel. An Uber ride was my only option by the end of my visit here.
When people ask me “Why South Korea?” or why anywhere, I can’t give an answer. It’s almost like drawing a name out of a hat, or even better, a puzzle piece from a bag. I never had the patience for puzzles as a kid. But the world is a puzzle that I’m deeply vested in. Anywhere works for me as long as I feel the grand picture becoming sharper. I will admit though that I was in the mood for Asia. My most recent trips were to Europe, and Africa and South America before those. Australia is on the list but when I travel I usually knock out at least 2 countries. I like to get the most out of my outbounds overseas. Australia and New Zealand or anywhere else in the south pacific would’ve been over my budget, even with my tricks on finding cheap airfare. This was a small whisper to peel eyes toward Asia. Choosing the second country was more of a choice than leaving it was a draw. Korea's history is saturated in westernization. I wanted to fly somewhere where not too far but give me contrast to the americanization of Korea. Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines were all close by. I have heard stories about the Philippines and what its natural wonders offer. I'm looking for third world - dirt roads and make shift vehicles, villages, views of rice fields and get to learn how to make rice....the choice for my second country was clear. And it was cheaper than the other options. This way I get to try Korean barbecue, Filippino cuisines and stay under fair budget.
As soon as I landed, my patience was tested. You see, I am a lover of sweets. Swedish fish, cotton candy, sour gummy worms - in other words, 27 cavities later I still haven’t learned my lesson. I landed and had a taste for something chewy. Outside of airport customs were these little shops and restaurants where I knew I could get my kick. But the cashier’s hesitation after I handed him my card turned me sour…
One tip that I’ll be sure to include in my travel tips section of my webpage is that you need to make sure to have a travel friendly bank/card. The bank that I had during this trip was Southeast Financial Credit Union. Before I travel to a foreign country I give the bank notice of which countries I’ll be visiting and the duration. But for whatever reason they block my card every time I travel. And when I manage to get a hold of my bank, the unblock only lasts for 24 hours. For the last 6 countries they have provided me with financial hurdles. No matter what I do, they block my card for fraud and I get stuck on the phone for 30 minutes to an hour trying to tell them to unblock it so I can get money out of the ATM. This is the most frustrating thing that can happen when traveling. To be miles away from home without access to funds is truly a nightmare and can be dangerous if you can’t get in contact with your bank. Southeast Financial Credit Union fails to provide me with a valid reason as to why my card gets blocked every time I travel even though I give them notice. Thankfully, I have left that wretched dumpster they call a bank and switched to Capital One. So far they haven’t given me any problems. The next country I will visit is Haiti in December. I want to provide the world with all the tools necessary to make international travel easier, safer and affordable - which is why I will be sure to leave a blog entry of my experience banking and traveling with them.
It is also important to have an international friendly SIM card or phone service provider. I was with Verizon for several years. But their service features simply did not justify their cost for a single line. After shopping around for other providers and comparing all of them, T-Mobile had a feature that I found to be the most beneficial to me. Their unlimited plan, which goes for roughly $60 after tax, includes unlimited international data. I was skeptical about this at first and wasn’t sure if it was true. And if it was true, perhaps the service is spotty and far between. Considering that T-Mobile would nearly chop off a third of my bill with Verizon, I decided to gamble. I am thankful I made the switch. I had signal just about everywhere I ventured. Posting to Instagram and Facebook worked fine and with the same amount of speed as I get at home in the States. The service can be very slow outside of metropolitan areas. Phone calls (via internet applications) were clean. And there weren’t any fees that popped up on my billing cycle when returned home. I was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t have to rush to a café to get Wi-Fi in order to call my bank. T-Mobile made life much easier for me. If you are a traveler, I would definitely recommend switching to T-Mobile’s unlimited plan.
($350 USD = 370,000 Korean Won after ATM and fees)
After I was able to get money out of the ATM at the airport, I caught a train from Incheon International Airport to Seoul Main Station for the equivalent of $7USD. Incheon sits on an island about an hour's train ride outside of Seoul. When I arrived at the Seoul Main Station it took me a while to figure out if I needed to take a taxi, Uber or the subway to get to my hostel. Since I wasn’t familiar with the map of the city, the best bet was to hire a taxi. In Seoul, Uber’s can sometimes cost more than taxi’s. My ride to my hostel via Uber was nearly double what the taxi driver offered me. I paid her l0,000 won or about 9 bucks to take me 20 mins to my hostel. Not bad.
Seoul is huge. It is brightly lit with neon and decorated with stores, outlets and restaurants. Very metropolitan like New York’s time’s square but much cleaner and not as clustered. Kinda like a really laid back cousin of Tokyo. All the smells made me hungry. I was seeing noodle restaurants, even Popeyes. But God forbid I flew 7,000 miles for anything American. My hostel was a guesthouse. Small and quaint. As I said in my last entry, I tend to suffer from a bit of anxiety when I arrive. I have to hit the town or I'll begin to feel as if my time is being wasted. I met a nice lady, Putri (Indonesian for princess), from Indonesia who was looking to get out for the evening as well. We agreed on Korean barbecue.
Something to note while enjoying Korean eating is that it is common to eat with another person or with a group. Dining is a communal activity. Eating alone is uncommon. Dining is also where culture gets a bit technical. Never pour your own drinks. Someone else must pour your alcoholic beverages. And when he pours, he will do it with both hands. To respectfully accept, hold the cup in one hand and place the wrist that is holding the cup in the other hand. Then you pour his. It was simple when it was explained to me but it’s quite easy to forget to apply it. I caught myself reaching for the bottle several times and only pouring with one hand and pouring for myself. It is a tradition I would have to get used to.
The Korean barbecue was tasty. With a stove in the center of the table you cook the meat of your choice. In this case we chose pork. The lettuce acts as the wrap in which you put your cooked meat, kimchi (season salted and fermented cabbage) pajeori (green onion salad), chili sauce, garlic, and a few other vegetables. Together these make a tasty Korean lettuce wrap. This is rich in flavor and is not too heavy. It’s $10 USD well spent.
After dinner we walked around the area of Mapo Gu which is where most of the youths hang out. It’s an area filled with students because of the university nearby. One can find tons of places to eat, drink, dance, and shop. There’s tons of nighttime entertainment. Street performers are abundant like in New York. I had the chance to engage a crowd. A street performer pulled me in. I didn’t have much of a choice. I did a little jig, nothing extraordinary. An applause let me know I gave the kids what they wanted. Unfortunately the performer pull me in so fast i didn't have a second to tell Putri or Louis to catch it on my camera. But the memory is still there.
We stumbled upon a tri-level arcade. It reminded me of the arcades you would see in Tokyo. Large spaces with lots of racing games, games with prizes, and Dance Dance Revolution. I consider myself one who can hold his own in Dance Dance Revolution. I had to indulge. But I didn’t catch that the arrows were not up and down and side to side. Instead, the arrows were all diagonal, which threw me off. And what made it worse was that Louis had the nerve to set the difficulty to the max as if I was the one who invented the game. He learned quickly that my street dance moves don’t translate equally to this game.
Across the street was a café that had pastries I was dying to try. Blueberry cream cake. Let the record state that the cake was beyond exceptional. It was the perfect cake. Texture, level of sweetness, flavor intensity and all. Perfect I say. I’m angry I ate it before I took a picture. As the itis set in and Dance Dance Revolution and the blueberry cream cake, Putri, whose profession involves interpreting calligraphy, decided to give us a reading. (Refer to the video above)
Because I work in the night scene as a DJ in Nashville, I have grown somewhat numb to clubs and loud music (unless they play Michael Jackson or Bruno). Having helped to coordinate DJ parties for the better part of 2 years, when I walk into a club with a mediocre sound system, lighting rig, or DJ that plays to himself instead of the crowd, I have already made a list of things that would make the entire venue a better attraction. I also feel that very few places do it correctly. Dance music is popular among club scenes across the globe. It almost seems like a go-to for most venues. Top 40 is thrown in here and there but only to keep the DJ’s up to date instead of the rhythm alive. As you might observe, I’m very critical when it comes to nightclub scenes. Which is why I turned down waiting in line for Cocoon, a popular nightclub in Hong Dae. Instead we continued to Thursday party, which was only a block away. Thursday Party is a fun place to have drinks with friends and play a few rounds of foosball or darts. It is a youth oriented environment due to its proximity to the university. But there is no cover to get in. Drinks are made well. And the atmosphere is welcoming. We ended up spending the majority of our night here. It was a great closer for the night. It was 4am by the time I reached the hostel. It's 3 hours of sleep before the next thing on the agenda - Gyongbokgung.
It was the night of December 23rd when I arrived it Rjeka. While I was on the train from Salzburg, Austria, my mom sent me a photo of her Christmas tree. I wasn’t missing it. I was not bothered by not being close to family for the holidays. Squint at it if you will. I was enjoying myself.
Though some of the most fun, Salzburg was cold. THIS was nice. Mid winter and the weather was great. A long sleeved shirt was all I needed. I certainly over dressed for a day’s walk. Rijeka sits right on the water. It’s cupped in an inlet of the Adriatic Sea. Kind of like the armpit of Croatia – physically speaking. Rijeka is not an armpit in the least. Rijeka is stunning. Especially Opatija, which was a short 30 min bus ride north of Rijeka. Not a single photo I took while walking along the coast did Opatijia any justice. The city put me in the mind of a tiny Barcelona at times. But not entirely. I say Barcelona only because it’s European and on the coast. But this city is not like any I’ve visited. Perhaps the holidays had something to do with it but the calmness left a lasting impression. It wasn’t overly energetic or lacking any vibrancy. It was peaceful. A place where I would frequently vacation if I lived in Europe. Warm, quaint, friendly.
At night, Christmas Eve, I was in the city center where tons of people were out partying and drinking in public. Carried away by wine and the festivities I neglected to take pictures. But I do remember being hungry. I was looking for food but everything was closed. The only options I had were the sausage stands that served hot dogs, and sausage with mustard. No ketchup! That was it. A herd of people crowded around one in particular and it peaked my curiosity. I ordered one hotdog. It came back to me as this gigantic sausage accompanied by a bun. The bun did to the sausage what a bowtie does to a person. The width of 4 or so typical Oscar Myer weenies. It’s a hotdog that I had to wrestle for one bite. Then it left me wondering how the line was justified. Basic the hotdog was. Also, ketchup would’ve been so nice. I can’t do just mustard only. I don’t get how people do that. Enough about the hotdog. I danced, talked, socialized as liquor usually inspires me to. But there was more to be desired in the city center.
The Hostel 1W is a place I would recommend for budget travelers. Each wing has a themed after a continent. Each bunk had its own power socket, closet and lamp. The bathrooms are private with heated towel racks. And the breakfast is superb. All for less than the equivalent of $15 USD a night. Remember to pack lightly because there is no elevator. There are tall spiral stares that make it quite the workout if you’re lugging.
A last morning stroll through the town and the coast before leaving for my afternoon bus to Zagreb. The bus station was close to the water. And maybe 300 meters from the hostel. The sun rise on Christmas day made it one of the best Christmases ever. Everything was overflowing with gold light. I regretted having to leave.That afternoon, it was a $20 USD, 3-hour ride to Zagreb.
I arrived at dark. The first thing I noticed was the difference in temperature from Rijeka that was only 3 hours away. Back to cold again. My hostel wasn’t walking distance to the station. I had to take a 10-minute trolley. But the ride was so spectacular. The city was brightly light with Christmas lights. It was beautiful. Something to see. The markets are so alive. From the window to window of the trolley, it was busting with energy and food. I was anxious to find my hostel so I could get up and out. From my stop the hostel was well hidden. An alley on what seemed to be a major street led me to the Swanky Mint Hostel. I would later find that this hostel would be among my top 3 favorite hostels. The service here is second to none. Music, a bar, lounges, swimming pool, open kitchen…help yourself to free food if you’re hungry. People from all walks. I immediately felt right at home. I slept in a room with bunks made of particle board but don’t let that stop you. Each guest in the room was given a key card for the room and a personal lock. The bathrooms were private with heated towel racks. I will say that the amenities were not as nice as the Hostel 1W in Rijeka BUT…the atmosphere is what makes this hostel so incredible. The hostel enriched my stay in Zagreb. Refer to Hostel World under the Travel Tips tab to read more about my experience at the Swanky Mint Hostel.
I decided to take a look into the bar where everyone was gathered around, drinking and dancing. And I immediately found someone who was also interested in strolling through the Christmas markets. William from London. The markets and the city center were all within walking distance from the hostel. Mulled wine, cotton candy, ice-skating, churros, donuts. Santa hats, roasted chestnuts, glazed walnuts and pecans, candy apples, ice cream, snow cones, hotdogs (served with ketchup)…so much to stress out about at the gym. It is so easy to get carried away with the food. There is no stopping someone like me who wants to try everything. The churros were right on time. I’m a sucker for churros. Oh and chestnuts. I love it all.
The next day started early with breakfast. Outstanding! Cereal, waffles, toast, everything I needed for the day. The station wasn’t busy or crowded. After a short line I purchased my round trip ticket for the equivalent of roughly $15 USD. After boarding the bus I realized that I had eaten too much and it pushed me into a a coma for the better part of the 2.5 hours. When I arrived, there wasn’t much to see. There was a pavilion and a trail. The lakes were hidden. It wasn’t long on the trail before I caught a glimpse of something sparkling in the distance. Spectacular! Wooden planks that lead you through the lakes. The water was deep turquoise and still. Not many people. No distracting tourists that rob me of the authenticity. It was clean. Well protected. The air and wind and weather were all so tranquil, I knew I was going to spend the entire day here. It’s easy to take your time, and take in the sound of slow streaming water. My mistake was not bringing enough water. The water is so clear and appetizing; it’ll make you lick your lips.
When I made it back to my hostel I had one last night on the town. I wandered and found The Johann Frank, which is a restaurant and coffee shop. I know it to be a very unforgettable night club. Great music to dance to. People here dress up. Open dance floor. VIP section and waiters and waitresses who take your drink orders. It seemed to me like the place to be on any night. I will admit that stranger than normal looks were passed in my direction. I am used to standing out. I have been told I have that kind of charisma. But this was amplified on an exponential scale. After mingling with a gorgeous young lady she disclosed to me that not many dark skinned westerners are seen in Zagreb. Being rare, it was assumed I was “some celebrity from MTV or something” as she put it. That’s when I said, “oh you don’t recognize me? Kevin Hart is the name.” I have never been a fan of people comparing my likeness to his, so I ended the joke there. In reality I am a celebrity…just not yet. Without a doubt I had a fantastic night. If you visit Zagreb, you must come to this beautiful night club. It feels rich. It is a great place to enjoy yourself. And for me, the perfect spot to have ended this leg of my travels.
Croatia is an lovely country. The portions I got to experience were absolutely stunning and filled me with memories that I’ll forever cherish.
The land of the Aztecs. The Teotihuacans were a people that thrived for hundreds of years starting around 200AD. Central part where the pyramids stand served as a sacred place of study, worship and sacrifice. The intricate architecture of the pyramids suggests they were advanced in technology. Some argue alien technology might have played a role. And according to my guide, Sofia, more and more evidence is supporting the latter. No matter, these monuments are truly a world wonder and are worth a visit.
The hostel I stayed at was beautiful and family owned. One of Casa Roa's hosts, Sofia, was the tour giver. She was also an archaeologist who knew the ins and outs of Teotihuacan. It was an 80-minute drive from México City to the pyramids. When we arrived, I was shocked. Stunned at the sheer size of the Pyramid of the Sun that I could see down the valley of the dead. The valley of the dead is a 3-mile long avenue that extends north and south almost ending at the Pyramid of the Sun. It got its name from the tomb like mounds that line the avenue.
Valley of the dead leads just up to the left of the Pyramid of the Sun. Pyramid of the Moon is seen to the far right. Shot from the Pyramid of the Sun.
Before heading to the Pyramid of the Sun, Sofia showed me to the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, which had 11 other pyramids surrounding it in a square like formation. I couldn’t guess what they were for. She explained that the Aztecs mapped out the sky and understood that there were 12 months in a year. Quetzalcoatl was a God honored with human sacrifices based on a ritualized calendar. Roughly 200 human sculls of men and women rest underneath the Quetzalcoatl temple.
Agosada sacrificial platform
When we got to Quetzalcoatl, she showed me how climb the steps. The slope of the steps was extremely steep. They were only a few inches long. One must zig zag up in order to use his entire foot on the stairs and not fall to his death. I’m more sure-footed than a billy goat and I almost bit it hard at one point. Be careful!
Quetzalcoatl is The Temple of the Feathered Serpent God. The serpent is referenced throughout the park. He represented the flow of energy and life. The steps are decorated in the likeness of the serpent God, Quetzlcoatl, and the God of fertily and water, Tloloc. The pyramid can only be views from the sacrificial platform, called the Andosada, before it. The pyramid is protected because it is the last standing pyramid in the park with the outer layer still in tact.
The pyramids outer layer still has some visible color to it. Mostly red. The eyes where dragon glass because Teotihuacan was obsidian rich. The layers of the pyramid were also decorated with sea shells. Sea shell designs honored Tloloc who provided fresh water and fresh fish from the sea. Though Teotihuacan sits in the center of Mexico, the city had access to same-day fresh fish. The emperor had relay runners on both sides of the city that would relay the catch from either side, Caribbean and Pacific, and would have it in time for supper.
What boggles me more than anything is how they got the heavy stone heads all the way up the pyramid. Not knowing this is like a magician not telling me his secret. Most of the sites at Teotihuacan are still a mystery.
Just outside the center of the calendar was a closed off portion of the exhibit. She said that her archaeologist colleagues as well as the Mexican government had discovered a tunnel that runs underneath Quetzalcoatl. She said that the Mexican government was trying to prevent information from leaking to the public about what was underneath for reasons that I could not quite understand but something having to do with defying much of what we know about religion. Skulls. Giant elongated skulls that don’t appear to belong to any human species is what she told me. She said that her colleagues showed her into the tunnel so she could see them with her own eyes and what she saw was absolutely profound and unlike anything she had ever seen. The skulls would suggest that a species with a higher intellect than that of a human could have played a role in the development of this civilization. It's a possible lead on how they had access to clean running water in the surrounding towns, miles away from the lake that is now Mexico City, and knew how to move massive 10-ton stones upwardly to build monuments to the sky. I didn’t feel that I was being sold anything. She had no reason to devise. I was intrigued by her account. I believe she was telling me the truth.
We left to go see the main attraction, The pyramid of the sun. Before arriving at the entrance - merchants everywhere. They were selling everything you could think of. Water, umbrellas, hats, clothes, toys, statues, jewelry... I like to do my shopping after the attraction. Walking away wasn’t hard. I wasn’t harassed. Perhaps they get a plentitude of good business. Even in the early morning I could see hundreds of people climbing the pyramid. I had seen Chichen Itza when I was a wee little lad. But it does not come close to this. This pyramid was magnificent. Much larger than the any picture tried to illustrate when I was researching it. It seemed to have more mass than any of the buildings in my home city. And this was build 1,500 years ago!
Climbing this monster took a good 20 minutes. One needs rope and steady feet to climb the steep slope.
The Pyramid of the Sun was used as an observatory to map the stars. Where the valley of the dead ends and almost to the pyramid of the moon were giant pools of water that were used to reflect the night sky. From the top of the pyramid they could map the night sky and the stars.
At the top, the tradition is to raise your arms high to gods for good luck.
Between the Sun and Moon pyramids are more merchants. great opportunities to buy cheap earrings bracelets, statues, hats and more. I bought some green earrings for the equivalent of 50 cents.
Topless pyramids line the alley that leads up to the Pyramid of the Moon.
Pyramid of the Moon had a fantastic view of Sun Pyramid and the Valley of the Dead.
Sofia showed to some local spots around Teotihuacan. Our first stop was at a local bar/restaurant that served pulque. Pulque is a local beverage that is made only in Mezoamerica where the Maguay cactus plant grows. The beverage is made from the Maguay's fermented sap. It looks like milk but it is extremely viscous. It's not creamy at all. It's sweet and carbonated like thick soda. I wish it was made available outside of Mexico. It would be a very popular drink.
They also make candy from Maguay as well. The candy was my favorite. It was so sweet and full of flavor. It reminded me of those dried fruit rolls you see at the international markets. But much sweeter, chewier, and not as tangy.
All the walking produced an appetite. Next on the agenda was a local restaurant not too far from the pyramids. Founded in 1919, La Gruta is a famous local restaurant that once served as Aztecan refrigerator to store fish and other goods. The restaurant is naturally cooled and very beautiful.
Though they offer traditional delicacies, there are times I don't want to be so traditional. I like to try things I have never tried before. One side of the menu offered exotic foods like ant larvae and caterpillars. My adventurous nature rolled the die with chinicuil and esamoles.
The chinicuil was not what I was expecting. I was expecting meaty slugs packed with rich Mexican flavors of chili and pineapple or something of the sort. I was incorrect in my assumption. They were extremely dry, greasy, exoskeletons with absolutely no flavor. The only flavor I could taste was char from whatever pan they were cooked it. I dipped them in guacamole to see if it would provide any pleasure to my taste buds but that didn't help. I wasn't grossed out. The dish was just flat out not good. The escamoles were not any better. Unlike the flavorless caterpillars, the ant larvae had a strong nutty flavor that lingered in my mouth well after the swallow. They were soft. I at them with lettuce and that helped to smooth the nuttiness that was a bit harsh. I honestly was expecting to be blown away by a chef's creative ability to take something that's generally considered unstomachable and turn into something rich and pleasant. Neither of these dishes lived up to that or came close. But I am so glad I got to live on the edge a little.
Sofia's dish on the other hand was much more enjoyable. She ordered mole covered turkey. The mole (chocolate/cocoa based sauce) was more savory than sweet. The turkey wasn't overcooked or too dry. It was just right. The mole sauce complimented the turkey very well.
Along with my food I had Xoconastle. It is a fruity alcoholic beverage made from the same maguay fruit as is pulque. It was like a light smoothie. I could not get enough of it. Everything that comes from maguay is excellent. It must have come from the gods.
An unforgettable day. Teotihuacan is a place I'll never forget. The history is so outstanding and still a mystery, it's hard not to awe at it all.
When you come to Teotihuacan you will be amazed and in for a treat. There is a lot of information to learn. Don't forget to do your research. Researching prior to visiting helps understanding the history. A great place to visit either before or after your journey -- preferably before if you haven't already done research -- to Teotihuacan is Mexico City's National Museum of Anthroplogy. The museum is very large. Plan to spend an entire day. There you can learn a great deal of about the rich history of the Mezoamerican peoples of Mexico. The museum is a must see.
There are secrets in this world I cannot wait to uncover. Teotihuacan is decent sized piece to the puzzle. On to the next destination..
Peace. If I have ever experienced it, I experienced it here. Christmas was the perfect time to visit this magnificent place. As I recall back to winter of 2015, Slovenia was not at the top my list of places to visit before exiting Europe. It was supposed to be a pit stop before Croatia. Little did I know that this country was going to be a highlight of Europe for me.
The train arrived at a rickety old building that was supposed to be the Ljubljana station. Not a good first impression to the city. Cracked paint. Wooden supports exposed. But God forbid they forget the state of the art McDonalds. Priorities screamed, “’Merica!”
None one was waiting for me and none of the cab drivers around me spoke English. Sinful of me to expect them to. Hostelworld said the hostel was about a thirty-minute walk. I have always embraced exploration. Perhaps I’ll find some neat scarfs on the way. When I reached Vila Veselova, the kind hosts brought me to a room with bunks that had outlets, drawers, lockers, and night lights build in. The overall feel of the hostel was old apartment-like yet warm. I set my backpack in the locker part of the bed and rushed out. I tend to suffer from time-lapse anxiety. When I arrive at a new destination, I immediately expect a new experience. And when I feel I haven’t found a certain peace or thrill shortly after my foot has touched ground, I must find it before the day curtains.
Christmas was in 3 days and the markets were alive and well. Out of all of the Christmas markets I visited in Europe, Ljubljana was by far the most Unique. Lights of different themes, outer space, Pokémon… and the stands were full of delicious foods like lamb burgers and barbecue. One thing to never miss while at a Christmas market is the Mulled wine. It’s wine heated like an herbal tea with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and sometimes spiked with something stronger.
Before heading back to the hostel I explored the Castle of Ljubljana. Once a defense fortress for Cornelia, it stands as a museum and citadel with a fantastic areal view of the city. I was on my way up when I met a fellow who was fond of American culture. I cannot remember how the conversation initiated. But it was a conversation that lasted a couple hours, till the castle closed for the night. Robert and I found common interests in music. He was extremely enthusiastic about American culture. Eventually I asked him what was the most important thing to do in Slovenia? He mentioned Lake Bled. Because Slovenia was nothing more than a pit stop, I did not do enough research to know what Ljubljana had to offer. The only plan on the agenda was to improvise. I took his word and ran with it.
On top of Castle Ljubljana (Excuse the quality)
The next morning I walked to the train station that happens to also be a bus station. The ticket to Bled was very cheap. I believe it was about 5 euros each way. The forty-minute ride through the countryside was something to see. The mountainous region with clear blue skies and carpeted with green. It looked like the landscape of a train set. I opened dialogue with a middle-aged woman who spoke broken English. I cannot remember what I said. But someone on the bus was being loud and I made a joke. It looked like I made her day. I moved from my seat, which was about two seats back to sit behind her. She was amazed at my being a lone passenger traveling through Europe as if it was something only couples do. She was telling me all about bled and what I must do before leaving. Bled cake!
The bus stopped and I immediately reached for my camera. This place was breathtaking. It was winter and it was as she said, "the best time to come because there are no tourists and it is quiet." When the bus left, silence and miniature ripples in the water were all I heard. All I wanted to do was walk. Meander slowly and take in the serenity.
As I walked, I saw there were boats letting people onto the river. The first one I found was small but I would have needed to wait 20 minutes because the driver wanted a bigger party. I had just arrived and wanted to see what else was in store. A quarter of the way around the lake I found row boats. Something I can engage in. A motorboat is too easy. I like the slow hike to my hostel, the long walk around the lake, rowing of the boat instead of a pontoon. I like getting dirty and engaging with my destination. I recall correctly, 15 euros got me an hour on the lake. The lady working the rentals walked me to my boat and gave me a time to return. No rowing introduction -- not that one was needed-- no do’s and don’ts, just a gentle push off the tiny wooden dock. I rowed and sweated a lot. I hadn’t been to the gym in about a week up to that point so I was really putting in work. Rowing is harder than it looks. Then, I rested. It was in this moment I felt special. Graced with something so divine. I still fail to put it in words. I was able to spontaneously embark and arrive at a location as glorious as this. The mountains surround me. The silence in the clean, fresh air. Everything had been given to me. If not before, in that moment. I was surrounded by beauty. Angels. “I’m truly blessed.” “Special.” Then I continued to row.
The island at the center of the lake has a church. They say if you make a wish and ring the church bell, your wish will come true. A 4 euro ticket led me to a small catholic sanctuary with a long rope hanging by the ceiling in front of the alter. But no wishes were really needed. At lake bled, the whether, my health, my sense of freedom all converged into this perfect moment in time. As if the veil of heaven had been pulled back for a few days. Far from sorrow, I could only wish for world peace and for more moments like these.
I had hiked an appetite. On my way back to the bus I was asking the locals about places where I could find the best Bled cake. Answers led me to Park Restaurant and Cafe. The atmosphere screamed wedding reception. Purple chairs. Purple table covers. Burgundy wallpaper and all those gazebos. I wanted to sit by the window to stare at the lake. Here, I ran into the same woman from the bus. Her name was a tad difficult to remember. The same lady from the bus invited me to her table to have afternoon lunch with her. She’s a sweet lady. Married. But enjoys being alone and visiting places like this. We had pleasant conversations before ordering. Bled cake comes in the shape of a square and was light. The texture still sticks with me vividly. The was like flan but much better. There is very little that I don't like when it comes to food. Flan is one of the very few food I cannot stand. It's the texture. Not the taste. The cream layer was light and frothy and complimented the custard layer beneath it very well. I do not prefer soft custard like pastries. I would have given the cake a thumbs down if it weren’t for the crispy thin layer of pastry and powdered sugar that decorated the top. That crunch on top was a necessary contrast in texture to the soft cream and custard below. It wasn't blowing me away. But I'm glad I got to try it.
It was a pleasure lunching with the nice lady. The bus had arrived and it was time to head back to Ljubliana. She asked me if I was stopping at Lake Bohinj or heading straight back to Ljubliana. I had never heard of lake Bohinj. She said it was a must see. A motto that I follow when traveling is “spontaneity is king.” My itinerary had another advent.
It was a 30 minute bus to Bohinj. 4 extra euros. When I got off the bus, there was no one in site. She was right. Magnificent. THIS was real silence. No wind. The water was still. No voices. I assumed they were at peace as well.
I started walking on a trail that wraps around the lake. It was hard to make progress because every few steps, there was an incredible vantage point to snap a photo, sit, and meditate.
I sat and witnessed clouds roll over the snowcapped mountains and hover just above the lake without sound.
I could feel it again. Except this time it is even stronger. Special. A gift from God to experience this unheard of crinkle in the map. It was like a treasure I had unearthed. Instead of gold, pure serenity and life. The silence still amazes me. I had never experienced such natural silence before in my entire life. It was truly profound.
After walking for about for 30 minutes I realized the size of the lake. It’s no joke. I tried to make it at least half way. But no. I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around. The lake is deceptively massive.
An hour bus ride took me back to Ljubljana. I was so exhausted, all I did was blink and wound up there. When I had Wi-Fi at the hostel I saw that Robert had been trying to reach me. He told be come to the Christmas market where he and some of his friends were. It took me a 15-minute walk to get to the market. It was bustling with people. People laughing, drinking, music playing. It was like a citywide party in the city center. So much energy. It was beautiful. More beautiful than the night before. If that’s is what December 23 looked like, I would fly back just to see Christmas Eve.
When I found Robert, it was a party. His friend owned one of the stands and gave me mulled wine and alcohol to catch up with them. The mulled wine was absolutely necessary because it felt like negative 12 F. Bundling up in 4 layers and a parka was still no match for the Slovenian winter. Warm wine and so much fun. This was a great group of people. Loose on booze and wine, we shared laughs and times that alcohol can’t erase.
The next day, Robert invited me to his house to meet his family before I left for Zagreb. When I got there the door slammed behind me. And there was a little clown slowly eased into the fourier on a tricycle and said, "I want to play a game. "
Just kidding they were the sweetest people I had every met. His sister, Kleja, and brother, Kristjan, welcomed me and were delighted to meet me. Robert apparently gassed me to up to them. His sister made me some tortellini with salmon. It was the most delicious meal I had during my time in Slovenia. It was cheesy creamy pasta that was packed with flavor. To die for. We debated about music. New hip hop is better than old school hip hop. It's a debate I'm willing to have with anyone. That was almost 2 years ago. I can't defend the music of today. Puppy dog eyes then extended hugs. I told them that my stay in Slovenia was already impeccable. And that because of them, it's a place that cannot be topped. I rushed to my train.
Slovenia was not a place where I anticipated thrills and wonderment. But both exist here. Slovenia is a hidden treasure that I encourage you to explore if you haven't. Engage with your surroundings. Talk, laugh, open dialogue. Enrich your experience no matter where you go. But Slovenia particularly makes it easy.