Thoughts from Three Birthdays Abroad

September 24, 2010: Tokyo, Japan

“By the way, it’s my birthday.”

Unsure of how to bring it up, but knowing it was absolutely necessary to excuse the belligerency which would inevitably occur, I say it in passing as we walk into a discount sushi joint. After unloading such weighty news, I decide not to mention the fact that I don’t even eat fish. I don’t want to overwhelm him.

As I grab small plates from the revolving carousel of Japanese cuisine, I flick off pieces of raw salmon and tuna. I watch him send mass texts from his outdated cellphone.

Birthday celebrations. Shinjuku station. Get here.

We follow him through the streets of Tokyo. I feel relaxed because I no longer need a map. I feel comforted because I trust his local knowledge and know he’ll take us to the grungiest of bars. I feel fortunate to be celebrating my birthday with people I have known for longer than my nine days in this country.

I spent the day record-shopping. I find the Japanese release of Forever and Counting by Hot Water Music. Without even trying to convert the yen, I know I can’t afford it.

I try not to reminisce. Having only left Canada a month earlier, it’s probably too early to be doing that sort of thing. But I’m technically a year older, so I do it anyways.

We sit drinking at the intersections of Lost in Translation. We go to a bar where they yell at me for flash photography. We go somewhere else and allegedly, I try to steal the bartender’s cat. We go to another bar and I scream Pearl Jam lyrics while simultaneously lecturing both old friends and absolute strangers on the pointlessness of relationships. Drops of Asahi hit the group as I flail my arms and sound like a lonely conspiracy theorist when I rant, “Trust no one.” None of them agree with anything I’m saying. But they listen because it’s my birthday.

We never made it back to our hostel that night. They charged us one night’s stay, anyways.

September 24, 2011: Koh Samui, Thailand

There’s a jar of Nutella and a box of granola in front of me. I grab a spoon from the hostel, dig out a scoop of hazelnut chocolate, and swirl it around the mix of raisins, cranberries, and steel-cut oats. I let the chocolate rest in the corners of my mouth for longer than is socially acceptable. I root the bits of almond out of my teeth with my un-brushed tongue.

She hands over a TESCO bag full of other completely un-Thai foods. A baguette. Brie. Another jar of Nutella. I clap my hands and then feel selfish for hoarding all that hazelnut-chocolate spread in the first place. I offer him and his sister a slab for their toast. They both prefer Vegemite. I wince. I don’t bother to offer up the brie.

We hire a long-tail boat to take us fishing and snorkeling. We exchange stories of camping with our dads and learning to hook a lure. I catch something which looks like a  rainbow trout from Southwestern Ontario. It’s obviously not. I’m the only one to even get a bite all day and am convinced that our boat driver was in on it and had set up the whole thing beforehand. But they’re fish, after all. You know how they are. The driver smiles a silver and gold grin and wades his feet in the water.

At night, we walk across the beach. Flip flops in one hand, Chang beers in the other. I plead with a group of Aussies to lend me some of their fireworks. They tell me you can’t lend someone fireworks. I tell them I don’t have time for pragmatics. I ask again nicely for a Roman candle. I let if off too close to her feet. She screams at me predictably.

We scrawl Sharpie messages onto paper lanterns and light them off over the island. We each keep our wishes a secret but when no one’s looking, I peak at what they have written.

My wish?

Travels full of fireworks and free of injuries.

There, now I don’t feel so guilty.

I had cut my ankles on the shallow reef earlier that day. I iced my scrapes with melting cubes but hoped the scars wouldn’t actually fade. They haven’t yet.

September 24, 2012: Seoul, South Korea

I’ve already spilled a beer on myself and its only 8:00pm. She claims it to be typical. Everyone else nods in agreement. Most of these people have known me for less than six months. But when your nights become routine, so does your behavior.

We eat Mexican food outside. I hate the fact that it’s Monday. I had to celebrate a fake-birthday the weekend prior. We sit on the patio of my favourite bar and write song requests on the back of chocolate candy wrappers. People kept leaving to buy chocolate. Consequently, we kept requesting songs.

She needs to catch the last subway home. The others soon follow. With only two of us left, we finish everyone’s lukewarm beer and vow to find somewhere without so many fluorescent lights, or any lights at all. Before leaving, we steal posters for beer we will never be able to afford.

We mix Soju and Powerade on a curb outside 7-11. I clench my teeth a little because it’s harsher than expected. I don’t feel any older. It’s past 4:00 am. We zip our hoodies higher and clutch our paper cups.

A young Korean guy stops to open conversation. Both of us, in the thick of things, try hard not to engage.

He comments on our drink of choice and asks a bit too seriously for this time of day, “Are you joking?”

I’m not sure how to answer.

Decisions: Things Not to Make While Hungover in El Nido

Don’t make decisions whilst you’re hungover.

And don’t use words like “whilst” either. You’ll sound like an academia failure. And no one likes a failure. Or academics.

Deciding between blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes is difficult enough whilst (see?) experiencing half-bouts of nausea, clouded short-term memory, and almost debilitating waves of regret. So don’t make it harder on yourself by making actual decisions. Especially those related to travel. No one is that qualified.

But unfortunately, these decisions cannot be avoided. So they happen as such:

  • Get the van from Puerto Princesa to…wait, scratch that. There’s already gaps in this story.
  • Get drunk in Puerto Princesa

Feed off your travel buddies’ giddiness and consume buckets of San Miguel like you’re an aged upper-middle class white male “just here on business.” (This is no doubt said with a sly wink  and an even skeezier nod towards a group of oogling local women one-fifth his age.) Order shots of tequila because it’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Reconsider your niche as a “budget traveller.” Disregard the fact that tequila isn’t really necessary at a time like this. Wake up covered in rice and beans. Try to recall if you ate either.

  • Decide to go to El Nido instead

In a moment of clarity, leave your buddies and the predetermined destination of Sabang. Come to terms with the fact that you will never be able to keep up with these males and their pace of drinking. Hear something. Realize it’s your liver. It just breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Take the van to El Nido

Convince yourself that your kidneys are failing. Realize it’s just some minor San Miguel backlash which thankfully, passes before the first rest stop. Try to stomach a package of chocolate chip cookies. They’re stale and smell like tequila. Oh wait, that’s you.

  • Commit to sleeping on a deserted island

Take an easy boat tour of the archipelago of El Nido. Have an “ah-hah” moment when you realize you’ve been pronouncing “archipelago” wrong all these years. Say it quietly under your breath a couple times to commit it to memory. Spot Seven Commandos beach. Learn that you can sleep there overnight, completely on your own. Agree without a second of hesitation. Start saying “yes” to everything else presented that day. Drive a boat with a small piece of wood for a gas pedal. Book a “free solo climbing” thing with a local. Google it later. Pretend the descriptor “if you fall, you die” wasn’t actually written. Give the bartender a rhetorical look at Balay Tabay when he asks if you want another glass of mango rum. After all, a website tells you that you could possibly die by simply climbing some limestone rocks.

  • Go Free Solo Climbing

Forget breakfast. Congratulate yourself for showing up 15 minutes early. Realize your 30 minutes late. Overestimate your ability as a rock climber. Underestimate your ability to tell time. Enviously watch your 18-year-old guide clamber across these centimetre-wide rocks in knock-off Havanas flip-flops. Debate turning around every time your Adidas cross trainers slip from a natural crevice. Turns out you’re actually kind of afraid of climbing tall rocks. Remain silent on the descent. You’re too busy salivating over an upcoming breakfast at The Alternative. Stop at Midtown Bakery on the way. You deserve it.

  • Get to this deserted island.

Sleep the night in heavy downpours and lightning. Hold your breath for that elongated second between hearing the crack of a palm tree branch and the “thud” of it hitting the ground just meters from your tent. Stay warm by sipping gin. Wake up cold, wet, and fantastically giddy from spending the night completely on your own. Realize you still have to take down your tent. Stumble over pegs and plastic. You’re a spectacle, that’s for sure.

  • Take that awful van AGAIN

Don’t make the mistake of buying stale chocolate chip cookies for the second time. Congratulate yourself for choosing the bag of Cracked Pepper Lays instead. You’re a seasoned veteran, after all.

  • Leave El Nido

Recount the decisions that you made in El Nido. Sober, sort of drunk, and especially, hungover. Agree with yourself that yes, they were all perfectly amazing in that my-heart-is-bursting-because-I’m-so-happy sort of way. Wonder why you ever made the absolutely ridiculous decision to get into a van directed back to Puerto Princesca. Oh that’s right, you’re not hungover for this one.

How to Piss Off your Travel Buddies

I leave for the Philippines this week.

It will be my third time there in less than two years.

Now if it sounds like I’m bragging, that’s definitely not the case.

When I think about my time in the Philippines, I can’t help but just sort of shrug a little and talk about that one time I met a tout with 11 fingers. An occurrence which despite the weather, and the beaches, and the papaya-mango fruit shakes, remains my ultimate highlight of the country.

So, just to be clear, I’m visiting a country for the third time. A country which probably doesn’t even get a notable mention in my Cusack-inspired Top Ten Beaches of All Time. A country in which, when visited for a second time, I spent most days trying to decide how I was going to leave.  

So, why, with my mediocre opinion of the country, did I make the decision to go to the Philippines again?

Well, I guess the fact of the matter is, I didn’t.

If someone were to ask me to describe myself as a traveler (but let’s be real, everyone is too self-involved to do that sort of thing), I would probably say I am incredibly enthusiastic about overnight buses.  But if they prefer something vaguer, I would muster up a descriptor like “easy-going” and then go back to talking about nighttime bus rides.  

I generally go along with things. It’s the easiest thing to do. And as someone who struggles to apply myself in situations which do not require it (see: work, dating, separating my darks from my whites), I’m very eager to do what is easiest. To me, all possibilities seem absolutely fantastic and I never want to miss out on one by committing to another. 

When it comes down to it, I don’t have any real hardcore preferences about most topics. (Besides your standard stuff like say, the depleting ozone layer, The Replacements’ Let it Be album, and the Seoul Metro Subway System.)

Well, as it stands, this is absolutely without a doubt NOT the definition of “easy-going.”

Not even close.

All those carefree thoughts about wanting to try every single possibility before committing to just the god-awful lonely number of one?

Turns out, I’m indecisive.

Discovering and coming to terms with your own personality flaws is one of the most miserable things to do to oneself. 

And do you want to know the shittiest part of being indecisive?

No one likes it.

That’s right. Even your Mom will roll her eyes at you when she asks what you are thinking of doing in the future and you reply, “Not sure, Ma. Just see how this travel stuff goes.Well, either that or something else really really cool.”

And do you want to know what’s even shittier than having vague future goals like “something else really really cool” because of your inability to make a decision?

The indecisiveness is intensified when travelling.

From setting out on one route over another to deciding if you want the Dairy Queen employee in Chiang Mai to dip your cone in either chocolate or caramel sauce.

All of it- it’s so hard.

To avoid the complexity of decisions, I just limit all my choices. But when traveling, this just sort of translates into doing less research.

I’m pretty confident (only because others have blatantly told me) that when you travel with an indecisive floater like me, your patience is consistently tested. There have been countless times when I’ve told a travel buddy I will “look into” something and they find me, one hour later, with about 800 tabs open on my desktop- researching anything from to how to get cheap international flights with JetAbroad to the origin of chocolate milk (FYI: it’s Switzerland).

Travel pals in the past have complained about my unrealistic expectations to do absolutely everything instead of deciding what I would rather do. Consequently, they are left with a lot of the pressure that comes along with choice. The success of a plan becomes your responsibility. (Now I don’t mean you as in YOU specifically. I just mean you know, people other than me.)

I am travelling to the Philippines with two dudes from work. For the most part, they have taken care of destinations, accommodation, and looking up sweet stuff to do in a handful of cities.

But anything I have to decide independently? Well, I still haven’t actually got there yet.

It took me something like two months just to book my return flight to Korea. (Perhaps this isn’t really related to my indecisiveness and instead, speaks volumes about my lack of excitement to return to this country.) 

So if you need a reliable way to piss off your travel mates, refuse to make any decisions. “Hmm” and “haaa” over even the smallest of choices. Refuse to mask the hesitance in both your face and your voice when they ask you to commit to absolutely anything. Believe that flight times/ dates/ anything involving numbers, are all just rough estimates.

But since I’m all about things like personal growth, and you know, not pissing off my travel buddies, I’m going to try making some decisions.

I’m going to order the chocolate-dipped ice cream with confidence. I’m going to stop being utterly terrified in the finality of making a decision. Maybe I will realize that some decisions aren’t THAT big of deal. Maybe I will rid myself of this intense phobia of decisions (yeah. right). 

So I’ve decided to go to the Philippines for a third time.

Hopefully I don’t piss off my travel mates. But it’s okay. Because even if I do? Well, at least it was my decision. 

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Toothbrush Disclosure: This post was brought to you by JetAbroad . But don’t blame them if your travel buddies stop speaking to you. They had nothing to do with that.

More than Abbey Road: Beatlemania in India

If you’re anything like me (and in terms of self-validation, I kind of hope you are), Googling specific search terms prior to a trip becomes a pretty crucial step in the planning stage of travel.

Maybe you want to know about minor things like safety concerns in a new country. Or perhaps you’re silly with curiosity about things like exchange rates, or even more outrageous, the weather. Or maybe you’re just wondering about the feasibility of extravagant things like Goa Holidays in the upcoming months.

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Who’s Servicing Your Travels? A Tale from the Other Side

In the summer of 2007, I had reason to believe my life was going to end.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.

But I had just accepted an offer of admissions to complete my graduate degree in wizardry school Masters of Social Work, so really, life as I knew it was essentially over.

In my future, I would wield a briefcase (because apparently all social workers have briefcases). And I would choose to do the right thing over the fun thing (because that’s what social workers do…duh).

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The Time with the Costco…and other Tourist Attractions in Koh Samui

Somewhere along the way of glossy brochures, all-inclusive organized tours, and some unrelenting need to build the world’s largest squirting clam, the term “tourist attraction” got equated with the word “fun.”

I don’t know how it happened, but it did.

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The Time I wasn’t Lonely at Lonely Beach

How does one go about renaming a beach?

No, seriously. What exactly is the protocol here?

Do you write a letter to the mayor? Do you need loads of people to sign some sort of clipboard petition? Or, do you just go around the beach guerrilla-style, spray painting the new name everywhere? I mean, would that even work? Or would that just end in a jail-term…and fingers smelling of aerosol cans?

The reason why I’m asking is this;

Lonely Beach in Koh Chang, Thailand should seriously consider a name revision.

Or at least give me a couple cans of spray paint and I’ll just do it myself.

 

Because when it comes down to it, Lonely Beach isn’t really that accurate of a name.

I mean, I spent a WHOLE WEEK on this beach and not a second went by where I felt alone. Not a minute passed where I didn’t feel like I could talk to just about anyone and they would at least act a little interested in what I had to say. Not an hour passed where I was horrendously bored or thought “What’s next?” Not even a day went by where I worried about the perfect opening liner with hostel strangers in an attempt to find a common shared interest. An interest that was undoubtedly related to fruit shakes. Or drinking. Or drinking fruit shakes.

Anyways, you get the idea.

When I was on lonely beach for a WHOLE WEEK (that’s like, a really long time…), I was far from lonely.

But then again, that probably had a little something to do with the company I kept.

And I’m not just talking about any kind of friend, here. I’m talking about those kinds of friends which motivate me to the brink of vandalism. The kind of friends which make a future in a Thai prison seem like sort of a good time. The kind of friends made pre-travel. The kind of friends that already know I like fruit shakes. And drinking. And drinking fruit shakes.

Yeah, those kinds of friendships are a really special breed.

Like travelling with the kid you sat next to in kindergarten. The basis of a friendship which had little to do with shared interests and a lot to do with alphabetical-ordered seating arrangements. And the fact that he shared his snack-pak with you when all you could offer were some lousy ol’ grapes.

Like travelling with your pals from university (not predetermined by your last name but valued all the same), or your friends-of-friends which were only really your friends-of-friends for like, a second before they became your friend-without-a-connector-friend-friend.

Like travelling with your prom date. But without the awkward slow dances and awkward corsages and awkward everything else related to prom that makes most people feel nostalgically ill.

Yeah, those kinds of friends are definitely the exception.

Anyways, what I’m getting at is that Lonely Beach is far from lonely.

And if I had my say, the name “Lonely Beach” would be out the window all together. Instead, that Koh Chang beach at the far far FAR (it was really far…) end of the island, would probably be renamed something like a-place-to-reunion-with-all-your-childhood-friends-and-your-friend-of-friends-now-real-friends-and-your-university-friend, beach.

Okay, so maybe it would be kind of a pain to spray paint that on every sign.

But at least it would be a little more accurate.

The Time in Ayutthaya with the Ruins: A Photo Essay on How to Get Lost

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Bangkok. Actually, I think I really like it.

However, I think it is kind of secretly telling that after less than 12 hours in the city, we were already pre-booking tickets to Chiang Mai for two days later.

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The Time I Took One Big Breath….And Left with Only a Backpack

As I type this, I’m doing something all too familiar and packing up my stuff to leave. (In actuality, as I type this, I am CLEARLY procrastinating from packing up my stuff to leave. The bullshit is in the details, people!)

I’ve kind of perfected the whole packing-to-leave thing (and consequently, the procrastinating from packing-to-leave thing). I’ve got it down because it is something that has become all too common within the last year. 

Not just a place where you stay overnight, or even for a little while. But a place I refer to as “home.” (In the context of: Taxi man, I don’t think I have enough money to get home. Can you drive me there anyways?). A place where I tossed my dirty laundry on the floor and didn’t really feel bad about it. (In the context of: I don’t have to pretend around other people that I’m not a slob but in fact, a proper functioning human being). A place where I could spill oatmeal all over the floor and not feel bad about it taking me a week to clean it up because it was my home (In the context of: well nothing, really…other than the fact that I’m a self-admitted dirtball). A place where you could light stuff on fire and it would be totally cool. Because you know, it’s your home.

 

There you have it kids, the standard list of what I need for a place to be considered my “home.”

Saying good-bye to Vancouver was tough. The city held my heart hostage since the second I moved there and refused to give it up… even after I drove off on the Trans-Canada highway, watching as Grouse Mountain got tinier and tinier in my review window (this was only a short distance until my Dad harped on me to keep my eyes on the road. Talk about a mood killer!)

And then saying good-bye to Toronto was equally as hard. This was a city that placed so many of my roots firmly in the ground, then redeveloped new condos and parking lots over them, in a desperate attempt for me to stay put. This was a city that could steal my bike, make me wait in an exhausting line-up for brunch, over charge me for some mediocre draft beer, and I would still come back everyday….wanting more.

And saying good-bye to Geoje is well, none of the above. It’d be next to impossible to put any of this last year into accurate words (and I’d probably exceed this blog’s word count limit in an attempt to do so). I can’t say that this city has held my heart hostage (mainly because I do not think Koreans are an overly aggressive hostage-taking type of crowd) nor can I say that this city overcharges for mediocre beer (in fact, Korea’s quite upfront about their lackluster beer…and the price tag only proves this).

I can’t even say that I’ll miss  the island’s mascot. Two unidentifiable figures that look like tic tacs, fat people, or what some middle school students speculate to be pieces of bathroom waste.

Wait, I’ll obviously miss these overweight breath mint #2 look-a-likes.

Oh ya, and the people. Obvs.

And although I can admit that leaving Geoje will be easier than any moves prior (Yes, I’m practically running to Incheon airport right now…3 days before my flight leaves), I still feel some sort of something feeling that is making this slightly more difficult than I actually anticipated.

But that’s probably because my emotional hardware wasn’t designed for a level of intensity past the “catatonic” stage.

In the end, I am fully aware that this sprinting to the airport move is by far the easiest only because of what comes after. It’s like telling a little kid “First you clean your room, then you get the ice cream.” Instead, it’s something like “First you move away from Geoje, then you get to travel…and there will probably be moderately priced beer…and some mountains, too!”

So with that, I should probably get back to packing.

I just have to clean up that dirty oatmeal first….

The Time with the Bachelorette Party in South Korea

(It’s an assumption that you’ll miss some special moments when you move away from pals and people. That should come as no surprise. And as much as I complain, I can take it. I know there will come a time when I’ll be there for that brunch, or show up for that surprise, or join the headlock jungle any given night at any given dive bar. But sometimes there are those moments that you won’t be able to join some other time. Those experiences which only happen once. And it’s those moments and experiences that make me really wish someone would just pull up their socks, get to work, and invent a time machine already…or at least make it semi-affordable to fly to Canada for a night. I’m missing a special pal’s special’s day this weekend. And just because I knew it was coming and knew I was missing it….it still doesn’t make it any easier.)

Prior to this year, I had never been to a bachelorette party.

Wait, scratch that. Prior to this year, I’d been to loads of bachelorette parties.

BUT, before this year, I had never actually been invited to a bachelorette party. I mean, in the past, my attendance was more of a nuisance (at best) than an expectation that I would actually show up.

Since my pestering of brides-to-be happened all too often to count during my time in Toronto and Vancouver, I became a bit of a pro at spotting a bachelorette party in the distance (and either joining in or turning the other way…depending on my level of disdain for relationships and commitment at that exact moment).

The thing you need to know about spotting the brewings of a bachelorette party: they can first usually be heard, not seen.

 

 

 

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