The Travel Fuck Up: Broke in Bangkok

Here we are ladies and gentleman - the third installment of the "Travel Fuck Up"!  

Often times travel is portrayed as a beautiful, effortless, smooth experience when often times it can be quite the opposite.  This series allows me to document some of the silly, strange, or just plain stupid decisions I've made over the course of almost a decade of travel. Hopefully I can give a little insight into what I learned from these experiences so you can wander a bit more wisely.  If you're curious about the previous installments, you can take a gander at my examination of travel scams (LINK) or what to do when you misread your own travel itinerary (LINK).  

Which brings us to today's tale of mistakes and misadventure....


THE FUCK UP

Thailand.  One of the true gems of Asia in my very humble opinion.  I was lucky enough to make my first trip to the Land of Smiles when I stumbled upon a $580 USD fare from Chicago to Bangkok in the very first year I started traveling.  The timing for the cheap flight was pretty inconvenient as I had a previously purchased trip to Buenos Aires.  Booking the trip would mean I'd arrive back from Bangkok and two days later have to jet off to South America.  Was it a good idea to book two huge international trips so close together?  I was young and having caught the travel bug only a few months prior, I figured why the hell not?  I booked the ticket and went about selecting a hotel for my stay.

Fast forward a few weeks to my long journey over to Thailand.  A sleepless jaunt over the Pacific in American Airlines economy class followed by the seven hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok in the bottom deck economy exit row of a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 (yup, that's how long ago this was!).  At the time I thought scoring the exit row was a victory but this was the trip where I realized that leg room isn't nearly as important to me as lateral space.  The tight fit of the exit row's immovable arm rests had me feeling the absolute worst I have ever felt after a long plane trip.  I hopped into a taxi after queuing in what felt like the slowest moving line I'd ever had the misfortune of entering and after an hour in Bangkok traffic, I was finally dropped off at the Lebua at State Tower - my home for the next few days.

Lebua has achieved a bit of notoriety over the past few years due to its open air rooftop restaurant that sits 68 stories above the urban jungle of Bangkok.  The most well-known film to feature this iconic hotel was "The Hangover Part II".  Unfortunately for me, my stay at Lebua was a few years prior to the movie's filming which meant I was unable to fling myself past security into the arms of Bradley Cooper or Justin Bartha.  

The Sky Bar wasn't on my mind at the moment I walked through the front doors though.  I was exhausted, aching, and borderline delirious from what was genuinely just a rough trip.  I bolted through the doors of the tower, dutifully held open by two doormen, and immediately queued up to check-in.  All I wanted was my room key, a hot shower, and to collapse into bed.  After what felt like an eternity, a smiling Thai man behind the desk gestured for me to come over.

He welcomed me and asked me if I had been to Thailand before, why I was visiting, etc.... all very common small talk at an international hotel.  I handed over my passport as a perfunctory gesture which he took with both hands before uttering the words that came very close to destroying my trip - "Can you also provide a credit card for me to put on file?"

As I mentioned above, this was in my first year of traveling the world.  I was young and eager, but not very experienced.  My previous trips that year included a trip through Japan with my boyfriend where we paid cash for rooms in hostels and a trip to Greece with my boyfriend and his mother where they had handled all the hotel bookings.  This was my first solo trip and my very first trip where I was responsible for all the payments.  Being a bit nervous about being on my own and managing my money, I had pre-paid for my room assuming that I wouldn't have to worry about anything further at the hotel.  

That was my fuck up.

Being new to travel and pretty young, I wasn't nearly as financially stable as I am now.  Having pre-paid for my room and never having checked into a hotel on my own, I didn't realize that I would need to have a credit card on file to cover any incidentals at the hotel like using the wifi, eating at hotel restaurants, or using the mini-bar.  I hadn't notified my bank to put a note on my account that I would be traveling overseas, and I didn't have any credit cards with me.  I managed my money by pulling out cash the day before the trip which would constitute my budget for the entire stay and that's all I brought with me.  This was wildly silly and dangerous, and my lack of preparation was about to bite me in the ass.

I tentatively pulled out my bank card and handed it over to him.  Bangkok is always steamy but suddenly I was very aware of the buckets of sweat cascading down my back and from my forehead.  None of it was related to the heat.  I knew that card wouldn't work.  He took the card, swiped it, and frowned.  A second swipe.  And then a third.  

"Sir, this card is not good.  Do you have another?"

At this point I was about three seconds away from fleeing the premises of the hotel in shame, half expecting to be followed out by an army of Thai hotel staff yelling curses at the stupid man with no money.  

But like most things in life, I swallowed my fear and just plowed ahead with a sliver of optimism that I could make this work and somehow not end up working in a strip club featuring chubby foreigners on Khao San Road.  I told him that this was the only card that I had brought with me and that I had not informed my bank that I would be traveling.  I asked if there was a way to skip the hold on the card if I promised to not use any paid services in the hotel, or if there was another way to secure the room.  He thought for a minute and said that if I had cash, they could use that as the deposit and return it to me at the end of the stay.

Cash deposits are generally possible at hotels but they are so rarely done due to the ubiquity of credit cards that it's often forgotten entirely.  This looked like my ticket out of an awkward situation but like many solutions in life, would end up creating additional problems.  The deposit they were asking me to provide would leave me with about $60 USD to spend for the remainder my trip.  Thailand is a pretty cheap destination but could I really survive on that much money for five days?  I guess I was about to find out.  With little choice, I handed over the cash and received my room key.  


THE FIX

There really isn't too much of a cliffhanger as I am clearly alive and well writing this post for you today.  Yes, I managed to get by in Bangkok on $60.  If you're limited on cash, Bangkok is one of the best cities in a world to be stranded.  It's a very inexpensive place to get around and eat, so I was very lucky this fuck up just happened to occur in an ideal location.  If I were in Paris or Tokyo, the end of this story would likely be very different.  Still, it was a really stressful and rough few days and I did end up having to eat room service at the hotel a few times to tap into my deposit on the last two days.  Did I want to eat hotel food in one of the greatest food destination cities in the world?  Absolutely not!  But often times travel requires you to make decisions and adjustments, so I did what I had to do.

Once I got back to Chicago, I decided it was time to take this "travel" thing a bit more seriously.  So I set about educating myself on the ins and outs of properly managing money while on the road.  Over time I've created a strong process of planning and preparing that's kept me secure every since.  While there's too much to go over in this one post, I did wanted to share three quick tips with you.  

1.  Notify Your Bank & Credit Cards Of Your Travel

This was the crux of my issue in Bangkok - I didn't notify my bank and credit card companies that I would be flying halfway around the world.  In a global commercial environment where money is often exchanged or accessed electronically via cards, there's a lot of caution and vigilance on the part of these companies to avoid fraud.  Any transaction outside of the norm (like a hotel room in Bangkok, let's say...) will be declined and likely trigger a hold on your card, rendering it useless. 

Some cards will let you set travel notifications through their website, while others require you to call in and speak with a representative.  Either way, make sure you set aside some time to do this prior to getting on your plane out of the country.  

2.  Exchanging Cash

Situations are fluid but generally speaking I almost always find that the best conversion rate I get when exchanging US dollars for foreign currency are provided when I pull cash out of an ATM.  Currency exchanges at the airport generally have some of the worst rates available for conversions, so if you do end up wanting to use a currency exchange I would recommend look at establishments away from the airport as these generally have slightly better rates.  

That being said, I still keep some cash on hand with me when I start a trip.  ATMs can be offline, broken, or outside of your bank's network, so there's no guarantee you can access cash immediately upon arriving at your destination.  I've been burned once or twice when I tried to pull cash out of an ATM upon landing only to find myself unable to for one of the above reasons.  With that in mind, I almost always bring $40-$80 USD with me to the airport just in case I need to use the currency exchange services to get cash for the taxi into town from the airport.  Like a good Boy Scout - be prepared, and prepared in this situation means having enough currently to cover transport from the airport plus one or two meals till you can get to a working ATM.

3.  Beware the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)

When using your credit card overseas, many establishments such as hotels and restaurants will give you the option of paying in your home currency.  For example, I recently paid for a hotel stay while transiting through Qatar on my way back from Tanzania.  The rate I booked was in Qatari riyals, but when paying my bill at the end of the stay the hotel asked me whether I would like to pay in riyals or US dollars.  Sounds like a nice offer but really it's a complicated way of making you pay more money.  The currency amount is determined through "dynamic currency conversion" (DCC) and it's almost always a terrible idea.  

When you opt to use DCC the credit card processing company is providing you a less than stellar rate on the conversion - that's how they're making money.  So you're paying more than you'd ideally like to pay for the simple "convenience" of not having to do the currency conversion in your head or on an app.  Now, you might be thinking that paying in your home currency may save you on any foreign transaction fees your credit card incurs.  But sadly, you're likely wrong.  In many cases using DCC does NOT bypass the foreign exchange fees on a credit card.  So .... double whammy.  

I've heard stories from others where using the DCC actually did work in their favor, but these are few and very far between.  So as a rule, I decline DCC.


LET'S WRAP IT UP FOLKS

These might not be the most complicated travel money tips but they're the ones that I think are the most applicable on a routine basis and the easiest to implement.  When it comes to trouble while traveling, I think most people tend to gravitate toward personal safety, illness, or flight issues.  Other than budgeting, money doesn't often cross our minds until we suddenly find ourselves fucking it up.  Hopefully a few of these tips are useful to you and my mistake isn't one that you'll be repeating any time in the near future!

Until next time.....

Review: Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong - Chicago

Cathay Pacific (CX) Flight 806 - Hong Kong (HKG) to Chicago O'Hare (ORD)

Boeing 777-300ER, First Class, Seats 1D & 1K

My flight in Cathay Pacific's notoriously glamorous first class cabin started in the same (decidedly unglamorous) way all of my flights out of Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok Airport do - slurping a steaming hot bowl of dan dan mian and working my way through two baskets filled with doughy, savoury xiao long bao soup dumplings.  Never mind that Cathay Pacific has six lounges strewn about the massive airport complex that are all accessible to first class passengers.  Never mind that these lounges are filled with fine champagnes, food catered by the Four Seasons Hotel, and even has its own noodle bar serving bowls of dan dan mian.  

I'm a creature of very few habits but the ones I do have I honor religiously.  Without fail if I am departing from Hong Kong, I make my pilgrimage to the Crystal Jade eatery on the ground level of the airport's airside arrival's hall and eat the exact same meal.  If I were on death row and were given the choice of my very last meal before death, dan dan mian and xiao long bao from Crystal Jade would be in the running.  I even had one of my nicest, most serendipitous travel moments happen while eating this meal about a year ago, which I wrote about in my post titled "La Mien and Dumplings with Julie".  (LINK)

All of this rambling is my way of explaining to you why I don't have any photos or commentary to give you about the check-in experience or the first class lounge in this review.  Unfortunately my fiance and I spent way too much time enjoying my traditional meal that we ended up having to essentially toss a fistful of Hong Kong dollars at our waitress before running through the airport Home Alone-style to make our flight back home to Chicago.  I'm sorry I won't have details on those aspects of the flight, but I'm not sorry about having enjoyed that meal.  Not even a little bit.

We arrived at our boarding gate a few minutes before the scheduled boarding time.  Cathay Pacific generally provides very efficient, coordinated control of their gates in Hong Kong.  Uniformed staff make their way through the crowds gathering around the gate and start asking passengers to form lines for first, business, and economy class boarding.  As we walked up one of the uniformed staff members asked to see our boarding passes and when she noted we were flying in first class guided us to the empty first class boarding queue.  We waited there for less than a minute before someone approached us and invited us to walk down the jet bridge to take our seats.

Cathay Pacific's jet bridge lead down toward to the plane and then have separate paths designated for first class passenger and business/economy passengers.  We headed down the path marked for first class passengers and were greeted warmly by two flight attendants (FAs) who lead us to our seats for this flight - 1D and 1K.

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Cathay's first class cabin has been reviewed in-depth in so many ways across the internet that I don't want to take too much time going over every minute detail available on the product.  I'll focus more on our individual experience and general thoughts.

The seats are quite spacious though they aren't nearly as big as the seats you'll find on some other carriers, nor are they as private as they lack the sliding doors sometimes found in first class to allow passengers to close off their seat from FAs and other passengers.  Still, this is a very nice product and it does provide a great deal of space and privacy.  

As you can see from the panorama above, the seat shells do a pretty good job of wrapping around and shielding a passenger from the aisle.  When seated, you definitely have a partition separating you from any traffic passing in the aisle.  There is an opening between the partition and the front shell casing of the seat where there's additional storage and the in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen is held.

The seat isn't the widest in the industry but is still very spacious.  There's enough room for two to sit in the seat, perhaps one and a half if you're a bit wider like I happened to be at the time of this flight.  Still, there's tons of lateral space for a passenger to relax and move from side to side.  The cushioned area of the seat on the side also folds down with an arm rest should you find the need to prop it up on something.

In the shell of the front part of the seat is a little alcove where a foot rest is tucked away.  On top of the foot rest is a pillow with velcro on its back to keep it upright and attached to the wall.  While its main purpose is to be a foot rest, it also serves as an additional seat inside the suite for a visitor.  This is a nice feature if you're traveling with someone and they stop by to talk to you, or it can even be used if you wanted to dine together with a travel companion.  As you can see in the photos above, the leg room is quite expansive.  I am 5'8" and when my legs were fully extended I still was unable to place my legs on the rest.  I was only able to get my feet up onto the leg rest when I reclined my seat a bit.

The seat itself is very comfortable though when it's in a completely upright position (the required position for take off and landing), the rigid angle of the back can be a bit severe if you're unable to recline for a long time (such as delays).  Once you're in the air and able to adjust the seat according to your own desires, that's when the true comfort unfolds.

The seat can be controlled through a touchscreen panel on the side of the seat's shell.  Options to adjust individual parts of the seat such as leg, back, head, etc. are easy to work.  You can activate a seat massage feature from the screen as well as turn the overhead light on and off.

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If all of that seems like too much work to you, there are three preset buttons on the side of the shell that you can push for quick transition - the upright take off/landing position, the fully flat bed option, and the relaxation/semi-reclined option.  

There are a few other details to the seat of note.  There are flowers placed into holders along the wall at each seat, which is a nice little aesthetic touch.  In addition to the overhead light, there's a reading light along the side of the seat shell if you are looking to make progress on a book or Kindle but don't necessarily want the overbearing wattage of the overhead light.  

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The entire area of the seat along the fuselage of the plane is a faux wood top where you can place any variety of items during the flight.  Of course, placing items here during take off and landing is strictly forbidden.  There's a raised ring on top of the counter area where you can place a drink.  Next to the touchscreen to control the seat is a handheld remote that controls the IFE.  Next to that is a small cubby where you can store small items.  I placed my passport and my Kindle inside of it and they fit perfectly.  

There's also a USB connection port and a universal charging port located along the shell of the shelving along the fuselage of the plane.  It's great that you can charge your electronics at the seat but I found the location a bit odd since the plugs and cords hang into your lap area a bit.

There was also an awkwardly-shaped storage area directly below the screen for the IFE.  

Overall the seat is very comfortable and provides a very good amount of privacy.  It's not the leading seat out there being offered by any airline but it's a solid, tried and true product that features luxury and serves up comfort to a high degree.  Cathay Pacific has nothing to fret about when it comes to this first class product.

Now, back the actual flight ....

While we were settling in to our seats and putting our carry-on baggage away, the in-flight service manager stopped by our seats to welcome us on board and wish us a pleasant journey.  She noted that someone would be around soon to get us a beverage of our choice to help us settle in and relax.  Sure enough, one of the FAs came by a few moments later and took our requests - champagne for Zach and just some water for me.  She returned a few moments later and set down our drinks.

The pre-departure beverages were dropped off with Cathay's signature amuse bouche - a nice little snack provided to first class passenger prior to departure.

Today's offering was diced bits of salmon in some sort of gelee.  A toasted slice of focaccia accompanied it.  The FA also dropped off a hot, scented towel for us to "refresh" ourselves with.  I'll admit - I'm always slightly confused on just how to use these.  Are they just for your hands?  Do you wipe your face with them?  Is both okay?  I've seen a variety of people use them in various ways in the past.  I stick with my hands.

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As the plane filled up with passengers and we enjoyed our snacks, the FAs swung by again to drop off a pair of pajamas and Bose headset (sanitized for your enjoyment).  The pajamas provided will be in the size that the FAs deem appropriate for you, but don't be afraid to ask for the size you feel is most appropriate.  CX FAs always seem to want to give me mediums or extra large, despite at the time being a very comfortable large.  

Soon enough the plane's doors were closed and we were ready to head out.  Four out of the six seats in first class were filled up today, two of which were occupied by us.  Hong Kong never seems to take very long when it comes to queuing up flights for take off, and before I knew it the safety demonstration had been screened and our plane was rocketing off into the sky toward Chicago.  

After about fifteen minutes the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and our crew hopped into action.  First order of business was to hand out menus!  What follows are a few snap shots of the Cathay Pacific first class menu on this flight .....

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Like many long haul flights of this length, our flight would feature a lunch service to start followed by access to a list of snacks for the mid-flight time.  We'd end with a brunch service just prior to landing in Chicago.  Cathay Pacific allows first class passengers to dine at their leisure, so there's really no need to eat immediately after take off.  While this option is offered by quite a few airlines flying the friendly skies, in practice I find that passengers don't really take advantage of the flexibility that often.  We were no different on this flight and opted for lunch immediately.  Despite having eaten a big meal just an hour prior to boarding.  And running through an airport.  Gah.

The FA working our side of the cabin came by with her clip board and attentively took our order for lunch.  I started by ordering a ginger ale to drink, which was brought out promptly and dropped off along with a plate of warm cashew nuts.  Another FA stopped by to drop off the Cathay Pacific first class amenity kit.

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A bit disappointing to be honest.  Some rather run of the mill oral hygiene items along with some ear plugs, a comb, and shoe horn.  The only really unique elements were the Aesop cosmetic creams which were good quality but sadly not scented to my liking.  

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I also fired up Cathay's in-flight entertainment system, which is a very solid offering.  Apparently I didn't take any pictures of the system other than this one, so I apologize.  Cathay offers quite a few options in terms of new Hollywood releases, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other Asian language movies, television shows, and music.  It's not as vast as Emirates but is definitely a step up from what I usually see on Japan Airlines or Malaysia Airlines.  

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My lunch started with the caviar starter.  A chilled tin of caviar is placed on a plate along with some traditional accompaniments.  Some blinis, diced onion, egg, and a lemon.  I liked that the lemon was contained within a mesh netting so you can squeeze it without worrying about the seeds flinging about.  The FA took the liberty of bringing me a glass of champagne to go with the caviar, though I didn't have the heart to tell her I don't drink any liquor.  

As is traditional, a mother of pearl spoon is used for the caviar service.  I'm not sure what to say about the caviar starter - it's caviar.  I don't have a refined enough palate to tell you whether this caviar is better than any others I've had the opportunity to enjoy in the past.  It's oily, salty, and enjoyable. 

For my next course I opted for the mushroom cream soup.  It's difficult to plate and serve a nice looking soup on an airplane, as the little bumps of turbulence generally cause the liquid to slosh around a bit - case in point above.  Still, the soup itself was pretty tasty.  A little salty with the fried onion bites sprinkled on top, but still a solid offering.

Next was the main - I opted for the centre cut sea bass 'acqua pazza' style with baked fennel and bottarga.  Despite being a Chinese airline, I almost always opt for the European/American style dishes on Cathay Pacific when flying in business or first class.  After years of flying in both classes, I've learned that (at least in my very humble opinion) their Chinese dishes seem to come across as a bit Panda Express-y.  Lots of breaded fried meats in sickly sweet sauces.  Not good food for a plane ride.  

This fish dish was, again, pretty decent.  The filet was moist and the pop of flavor from the fennel and bottarga (fish roe) worked well up in the air.  The plating of the dish was a bit messy, though I'm not a stickler for stuff like that.  You're serving me a filet of fish with roasted fennel at 35,000 feet in the air over the Pacific Ocean - the plate can be a little sloppy.  

Topping off the meal was the panna cotta with white chocolate, amaretto, and preserved cherries.  There was also a small stick of some sort of nut brittle on the plate, unmentioned on the menu.  This was actually my favorite dish of the entire meal - creamy, subtle, palate-cleansing.  The crisp bite of the brittle contrasted nicely with the silky smoothness of the panna cotta.  

With only a partial load in first class, the FA swung by and dropped off a small pint of strawberry ice cream.  This was listed on the snack menu but I'm guessing they felt like they had more than enough for the remainder of the flight and were off-loading a bit of it on me.  I'm never one to turn down free ice cream!

The meal ended with a tea or coffee service.  I opted for a pot of jasmine tea, which seemed to surprise the FA.  I requested the Fuding jasmine silver fur though the pot of tea that was brought to me had a tea bag hanging from it.  In the past when I ordered this tea it was loose leaf, so I'm not sure if this was a change in packaging or I received a different type of tea.  

The tea service is coupled with an offering of pralines by the FA, placed delicately on a small plate and dropped off at my seat.  I don't eat chocolate so these remained untouched though Zach said there were very good and a nice touch to mark the end of the meal service.  

With lunch successfully packed into my belly, I decided the next best thing to do was get a little bit of sleep while we crossed the Pacific Ocean.  I grabbed the pajama set the FA had handed to me prior to take off and then headed to the bathroom.  Cathay's first class rest rooms are always clean.  A large basin sink with a touch actived water faucet.

Like the amenity kits, the products inside the bathroom were provided by Australian skin care company Aesop.  

I opened up my pajama bag to change into something more comfortable.  The pajama kit includes a top with a Chinese collar, matching pants, and matching slippers.  The clothing was pretty good quality, the kind that you can save and use over and over again in the future.  The slippers were a nice touch but of a throwaway quality.  Flimsy, good for on the plane though.

When I exited the bathroom a flight attendant was waiting for me with hangers to make sure my clothes was properly stowed in my seat's closet and didn't get wrinkled.  A nice, thoughtful element of service.  This also happened to me on Japan Airlines first class, the only other first class product I've flown where someone met me at the bathroom door to help me with my clothes.

Having told them that I intending to sleep, the flight attendants had already converted my seat into a bed.  The seat can fully reclined to 180 degrees flat and a mattress and comforter is placed on top.  A full sized, comfortable pillow was plucked down at the head of the seat.  Overall, Cathay first class has a very comfortable lay out for sleeping and resting during a flight.  It's not actually my favorite first class seat for sleeping (both Japan Airlines and Etihad gave me better rest when I've flown with them), but Cathay is nothing to shake a stick at.  A quality sleep on offer here.

I slept for a good six hours before waking up halfway across the Pacific.  I wasn't particularly interested in watching anything on the IFE so I did the other thing that's almost universally acknowledged as a great way to pass some time - eat!

From the snack menu I ordered the roasted duck with vermicelli noodles and some egg tarts.  Neither one was a particularly memorable meal, simply solid offerings to deal with some slight hunger pangs.  With my hunger taken care of, I decided to skip watching the IFE again and tried to catch a bit more sleep.  My intention was to sleep for just another hour or two, but ended up waking up as the flight attendants were starting to offer the breakfast options prior to landing at Chicago's O'Hare International airport.  Ooops.

 Seeing me rise from my slumber, the flight attendants swung by to make sure to take my breakfast order.  

After two full weeks in Asia, I was ready for a little taste of America.  I kicked off breakfast with a simple bowl of corn flakes with milk and a glass of grapefruit juice.  It's just a bowl of Kellogg's corn flakes so there isn't really much to discuss here.

I also asked for some yogurt, which was brought out to me and turned out to be apricot-flavored.  I was a little surprised that the yogurt was simply put down on my tray table with little fanfare.  I thought maybe they'd have the yogurt in a separate dish like the corn flakes?  It didn't bother me at all but did seem to be a bit incongruous with the lofty service ideals Cathay has for first class.

For my main dish I went with the dim sum selection.  A small ceramic pot with a few little tidbits inside.  A tofu skin roll, shrimp dumpling, shumai, spinach dumpling, and some sort of meatball.  Dim sum is hard to do on a plane, and it showed a bit with these dishes.  Each dim sum piece was 95% moist and succulent and 5% dried and crunchy on the edges.  Even though it was only a small portion, it really created an off-putting texture and ended my meal on a bad note.

As I had woke up a bit late for breakfast, by the time I had finished my mediocre dumplings we had started our decent.  I hopped up quickly to change back into my street clothes while the cabin crew prepared the plane for landing.  We sailed over the expanses of farm land as we slowly lowered out of the sky and our adventure on Cathay Pacific's first class came to an end.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This was my first review of Cathay Pacific first class but it's far from the first time I've flown it.  Other than Japan Airlines, this is the first class product I've flown the most.  It has a storied, pristine reputation among many travelers and aviation geeks, and I generally feel that's a status that's well-deserved.  The service in Cathay's first class is consistently friendly and welcoming.  The seats are quite private and comfortable, offering a variety of lounging positions and a fully flat bed.  I also really like the variety of non-alcoholic drinks the carrier offers.  

The few things that I wish were better?  Catering on Cathay always leaves me quite underwhelmed.  The food just never impresses and on a few occasions has just been downright bad.  Though I didn't watch any of the IFE on this flight, I do find it slightly annoying that they repeat the same 2 or 3 commercials at the beginning of every program.  If you're watching a sitcom, that becomes particularly tiresome and annoying.  

Overall I think Cathay Pacific first class is an excellent way to travel, and I can see why so many people hold it amongst the best ways to traverse the skies.  I don't think they excel in any specific area, but they do great in almost all areas that the overall experience still drifts towards the top of the heap.   

2016 Travel Stats & A Look At the Year Ahead

The smoldering carcass of 2016 is still visible in my rear view mirror but I've got both hands on the steering wheel and a foot jammed down hard on the gas pedal.  

We're headed full speed into 2017, no regrets.  

That being said, I feel like a quick look back at the ash heap behind us isn't entirely unwarranted.  Sure, I'm glad it's over, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the ride!  So here's a quick run down on some of my travel stats for 2016:


Continents Visited:  4 (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa)

New Countries Visited:  6 (France, Morocco, Malta, Italy, Ukraine, Georgia)

Total Countries Visited:  11 (repeats:  USA, United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Hungary)

New US States Visited:  3 (Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire)

Total States Visited:  13  (repeats:  California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Texas)

Miles Flown:  60,617

Circumnavigations of the Globe:  2.43

Longest Flight of the Year:  Chicago - Helsinki at 4,429 miles

Shortest Flight of the Year:  Casablanca - Marrakech at 122 miles

Top Five Airport (outside of Chicago):  Berlin (5), Casablanca (4), Helsinki (4), Paris (4), and Kiev (4)

Top Five Airlines:  Southwest Airlines (7), American (6), United (6), and a tie for third between AirBerlin, Ukraine International, and Royal Air Maroc (4)

New Airlines Flown:  4 (Ukraine International, Brussels Airlines, Air Malta, Royal Air Maroc)


Looking back on all that information, I see some bright spots and some stuff that makes me think.  

I'm pretty happy with the number of new countries I visited this year - six is a pretty solid number for someone that works full time.  I'm reasonably happy with hitting three new US states, though I was hoping to have gotten a few more under my belt to be honest.  The plan in New Hampshire was to spend time traveling through Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts as well, though a bout of illness kept me confined to my original state sadly.  

I'm surprised that Southwest came in as my top airline for the year.  This was pretty much my first full year without any sort of airline loyalty in the mix whatsoever, so American's fall from the top spot was expected.  Still, I hadn't even flown on Southwest prior to 2015 and a year and a half later it's topping my list.  Pretty impressive climb, though I'll admit Southwest has consistently delivered a solid trip for me.  So in the end, not really too shocking.  Southwest isn't on the agenda at all for next year at the moment though, so it's reign appears to be short lived.

The amount of flying I did this year is also significantly smaller than I usually do.  I've broken 100K miles flown every year since I started traveling, and in most years came closer to 200K.  To come in around 60K is reflective of my more fine-tuned approach to traveling this year (leaner, more efficient) as well as my choosen travel destinations.  I didn't cross the Pacific even once, which is a first for me in ten years of travel!  Having all of my trips localized in Europe or areas immediately accessible from Europe (Georgia, Morocco) really kept the distance down this year.  As I'll go over a little further down, the travel I have booked from now until early July actually takes me above this year's total miles flown!

While I might not have gone as far as I usually do, the miles were still packed with fun, food, and friends.

What's Happening in 2017

2017 promises to be quite an interesting year for me.  There's a lot of exciting travel coming up as well as a lot of big changes for a portion of the year.

In January I'll be heading to the historic, tropical island of Zanzibar off the coast of eastern Africa via the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. In February I'll stop off for a long layover in Washington, D.C. (where I hope to secure tickets to the newly opened National Museum of African American History & Culture) before continuing onward to Senegal, Egypt, and Portugal.  A few months back at home will end when I head off to Armenia and the United Arab Emirates via Paris in May.  Finally, I'll round out the first half of 2017 with a  jaunt back through Europe to Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Austria in the first week of July.  

That's 62K miles of travel to 10 new countries (only the UAE is a repeat, and it's only being repeated due to the cost of flights out of Armenia) by mid-July.  Quite an increased pace over my travel in 2016!

And why is that?  Welp.  I'm going to be taking a mini-travel hiatus for the remainder of the year.  That's right, no travel from mid-July till the end of December. Let me give you a minute to pick yourself up off of the floor.....

Yes, apparently it's happening.  Definitely with a lot of reluctance on my part, but I agreed to it in the end.  You're probably asking yourself "why?"  Well, my fiance recently started a new job which allowed us to re-evaluate some of our finances.  After a bit of discussion he noted that if we budgeted correctly and both made some sacrifices, we could go completely debt-free by the end of the year.  The sacrifice I would have to make?  Cut my travel budget in half.

If you know me at all, that's a bit like asking me to cut off one leg and one arm.  Yeah, I'll live, but life definitely won't be the same!  Still, I realize that I can sometimes get a bit tunnel visioned when it comes to travel and I forget there are other things in life that need my attention.  My focus on getting healthy the last few months of this year (LINK) has really helped me to center my life and bring a little balance to things.  Trading six months at home without travel, as painful as it will be, is worth getting rid of every debt we have and in the long run is a good travel decision because it will free up additional funds for airfare or hotels that would have otherwise gone toward student loans or credit cards.  

I'll grumble, but I can humble.

So there you have it - 2016 & 2017 in a nut shell.  Here's to more good food, good flights, and good friends in the year ahead!  

Do you have travel plans for the upcoming year?  Let me know where you're headed!

The Year in Photos - 2016

Let's be dead honest for a minute folks - 2016 was a freaking rough year for most of the world.  Whether it was the Syrian refugee crisis, the siege of Aleppo, the slew of celebrity deaths, the UK's Brexit vote, the insane US election cycle, or the poisoning of Flint's water supply, it's been difficult to limp into the last week of December without feeling like the whole world is nothing more than a series of raging dumpster fires.

But it wasn't all bad news this year!

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, I got engaged after 8 years of dating the man I love, and despite the complete shit show of hatred and vitriol being spewed across the globe I was uplifted by the many voices raised in solidarity for human dignity, rights, and life.  

There's always light if you're looking, people.  

It was also a great year of travel for me.  I spent a lot of time exploring Europe the past twelve months, from the desolate landscapes of Scotland's Isle of Skye to the mishmash of architecture that constitutes the city of Tbilisi in the Caucasus.  Georgia's inclusion in Europe is debatable but everyone I spoke to there considered themselves European and I'm a big fan of letting people choose their own fate!  Europe is probably one of the most widely explored areas of the globe for those interested in travel, though till this year I had focused much more heavily on Asia.  Other than a week spent in Marrakech my entire international travel schedule for the year was in the European sphere.  That's quite a change from my normal adventures!

With 2016 coming to a very welcomed close, I think one of the best ways for me to look back on the explorations and adventures I experienced over the year is to pick out a few of my favorite photos that were snapped on the road and share them with you.  Many of these photos have been featured on my Instagram account (LINK), though a handful haven't ever been shared.  Whether unseen or previously posted, each one encapsulates a feeling, a scene, or a memories that I found important over the course of the year.

So.  Without further ado.....!

Rome - Italy

Fresh off the 16 hour journey it took me to get from Chicago to Rome, I was a bleary-eyed mess of a traveler when I finally set my bag down on the floor of my hotel.  While I was eager to get out and explore, I made the practical choice to get a little bit of a nap first.  When I awoke my ears were filled with the sound of motorcycles zooming across pavement stones and drunken pedestrians meandering down the narrow alleyways outside my room.  Eager to see a bit of Rome, I grabbed my phone and a coat and headed out into the night.  The very first thing that caught my eye was the marble monster above - gleaming elegantly against the stark black Italian night.  This is the Altare del Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), also known as Il Vittoriano, a temple of patriotism that simultaneously serves as a museum to Italy's reunification, a monument to unknown soldiers, and a makeshift vista from which to view the Roman skyline. 

It's quite the welcome wagon for your first 15 minutes in Rome.

While making my way from the foot of the famous Spanish steps to the Piazza Navona I crossed in front of the Biblioteca Angelica, a library housing a large collection of historical documents from the period of the Reformation.  While the history within its walls is priceless, it was the simple wooden doors, crumbling wall, gently curved archway, and the bright blue moped parked in front that caught my eye.

It was all just so damn Italian.

Imagine my surprise as I walked through the Roman Forum when my ears picked up what sounded like the beginnings of a dance party from the mountains of South America.  With police blocking off vehicular traffic on both sides of a stretch of road, women in pollera skirts and bowler hats twirled with glee.  Was I in Rome or La Paz?  Apparently I had stumbled upon a small celebration of Bolivian expats living in Rome.

It was really a bit of a surreal experience.  There I was walking on the ancient stone ruins of a marketplace in a city that ruled over much of the known world while women with roots in a land completely unknown to the men who laid those stones below our feet.  The scene really spoke to the insanity of the modern world we live in.  Is it weird that I almost felt like the statue of Caesar was smiling as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors swirl before him?

Vatican City

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, coming in with a total area smaller than one square kilometer.  Smack dab in the middle of Rome, most visitors to the Papal state enter on foot without any passport or visa necessary but can only visit the very limited amount of publicly-accessible space.  This of course includes Vatican City's most popular sights - St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums.  A visit to any other portion of the Holy See requires more formal border crossing facilities.  

I was reminded of this when wandering through a museum and walked past a massive iron gate that opened onto a cobblestone driveway.  Through the door was a Vatican police officer with his iPhone in hand, slowly scrolling through his social media while the tip of St. Peter's poked through the treeline.  While he wasn't watching me, I was fully aware that stepping through those gates was a big no-no as the other side of those gates was a part of that forbidden non-public Vatican land.

Still, what a beautiful day in the world's smallest nation.  Even if I couldn't enjoy it outside.

Unlike many smaller churches, St. Peter's Basilica doesn't stay upon all hours of the day.  I had already spent over an hour wandering the interior of the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, so when the guards started making their rounds and ushering people out the front door I dutifully followed instructions.  I followed the marked barriers funneling the stragglers into St. Peter's Square, dragging my feet slightly to allow those around me to lap past.  

With no one else around, I turned back to take in the sight one last time.  Row after row of empty seats sat patiently awaiting the arrival of those seeking the Pope's wisdom during his weekly blessing.  Twin monitors bookended the elegant columns and sleek exterior of the Basilica while scrolling through uplifting, Catholic-inspired affirmations.  I knew the history of the building and the religion led from within it.  It had brought many beautiful things to humanity, but also cut deeply into the psyche of mankind.  Like most things in life, this building represented what was good in life, but also was the root of much of what was bad as well.

In the soft glow of the death of the day, it all seemed so harmlessly though.

Marrakesh - Morocco

There's a few things that Marrakech seems to have in spades - mint tea, maze-like alleyways, and beautiful doors.  I was a bit lost despite having left the twisty-turny confusion that constitutes the city's old medina on my way to the Saadian Tombs.  As I walked up a street with a flurry of cars and bicycles playing the Moroccan version of chicken next to me, I turned to my left and caught the scene above.  I loved the expansiveness and playful curve of the door, but it was made all the better when juxtaposed with the two diminutive women in modest Muslim dress sitting on a bench and chitchatting the day away.  

It feels like no matter where you turn in Marrakech, someone is trying to sell you something.  As you wander through the city you pass an endless stream of carpet shops, trinket emporiums, kebab houses, and spice vendors, all staffed with people who's sole purpose is to get your body inside and your hands to open your wallet.  While the calls to buy something can get aggressive and annoying, it does bring a certain charm to your visit.  One of my favorite types of shops were the numerous carts parked along the main square in town selling juice.  They were eye-poppingly colorful - seemingly endless rows of round fruit in a soothing pattern of citrus hues.  Lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges.  The sight was only rivaled by the heavenly scent of fresh squeezed juice wafting from each vendor.  In a city filled with shouting touts, car honks, and clanging pots, the juice carts were an oasis of beauty and calm.

If you know me at all, it's no secret that I didn't exactly love Marrakech.  I had a series of unfortunate encounters the culminated in what may or may not have been anti-gay harassment (LINK).  Despite my unease, I still made my way out into the kasbah at night to explore and grab a bite to eat.  As someone I used to work with used to say - "One monkey don't stop the show!" 

The medina's main square, Djemaa El-Fna, transforms from a sleepy crossroad during the day into a seething, heaving pair of lungs for a lively city at night.  Crammed with fortune tellers, snake charmers, drum circles, and restaurants, it actually provided what felt like a safe space for me.  The narrow streets throughout the medina can be a bit claustrophobic but the open space of the square, even with all the people, let me relax and feel uncramped.  I can still hear the sounds of the square mixed with the heady scent of roasting meat wafting about the smoke filled walkways to this day.

Soccer is a unifying sport across most of the globe outside of my home here in the US, where apparently we still haven't figured out the allure of the game.  Morocco seems to be no exception though!  The local soccer team, Kawkab Athletic Club, has fans that are so rabidly supportive that they have earned a name for themselves - the Crazy Boys.  As you wander the streets of Marrakech, if you keep your eyes peeled, you're sure to find a graffiti-style mural on a ramshackle wall touting the fervor of the soccer team's fans with their trademark logo of a boy tying a bandana around his head. They're all over the place if you look carefully. 

In a city that can often seem tilted toward aggression and disjointedness, it was nice to have a constant reminder of something that brought people together in happiness.

Inverness, Isle of Skye, & Edinburgh - Scotland

This photo from the Isle of Skye is a bit of a poignant reminder for me.  This was taken on the pathway leading up to one of the island's most famous sights - the Old Man of Storr.  A craggy rock formation at the top of hilly terrain, my fiance (then boyfriend) and I were making our way up along with a handful of other visitors when I reached this point.  I couldn't make it any further.  My body, and more importantly my lungs, were at their breaking point.  The climb wasn't particularly steep or difficult, I was just in terrible physical shape.  Sadly, my closest view of the Old Man of Storr was still a pretty distant one.  The view is beautiful, but the memories are difficult because prior to this I had never chosen to skip a sight simply because my body could not handle the demands.  

While I found the Isle of Skye breathtakingly beautiful, I was also struck by how lonely some parts of the island seemed.  The undulating hills and winding roads through the Scottish Highlands create a stunning landscape but I couldn't help but notice that the towns were tiny and the majority of the island seemed to be dotted with solitary homesteads few and far between.  While driving through one of these quiet corners of the island, we passed a single dilapidated phone booth on the side of the road.  I tapped my boyfriend on the arm and told him to circle back around.  We stopped on the side of the road and hopped out to snap a few pictures.  A little keepsake of the lonely beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

I was surprised by Edinburgh.  I knew that the city was filled with old world charm but I didn't realize I'd end up feeling like I was walking through a Harry Potter movie our entire trip.  From the tightly packed rows of shops to the historic castle perched on top of a hill in the center of the city, the area just oozed with history.  I still remember wandering through St. Giles Cathedral and sitting down in an empty row of seats to watch the sun stream through the windows.  Like some sort of magic spell, the beams of light seemed to dance in the aisle.

It was late May when we were jaunting through Scotland, and while summer was just around the corner it was still a bit chilly in Edinburgh.  Despite the lack of warmth I was struck by how residents of the city still spent so much time outside in their public spaces lounging and living life.  Whether it was sunset in the Meadows public park or midday at the Price Street Gardens, the residents of Edinburgh seem to revel in their beautiful outdoor spaces.  Looking at the photos above, can you blame them?

Paris - France

Paris is a city of lights and home of elegance, and there was no more beautiful combination of those two things than inside the Sainte-Chapelle.  A vaulted ceiling with seemingly endless columns of stained glass glimmering in the soft light of the sun.  Vibrant hues of red, blue, and pink fill your eyes as you gaze upward in pure awe.  Welcome to Paris, friend!

Sadly it rained a good portion of our time in Paris.  It's still a stunningly beautiful city but it looks a little different when everything is wet.  Don't we all?  

Spring flowers were still blooming all about and the showers continued to fall as we ducked in and out of cafes and museums during our several day visit to the City of Lights.  As we waited for the signal at a crosswalk, I turned around to gaze back at the Paris Metro exit we had just left.  The retro sign screamed Parisian cool and the pretty pink flowers in the trees above it evoked the season.  Then I saw the woman with the bright red trench coat walking toward the stairs and I put my camera up.  It really encapsulated my time in Paris well.

Paris is a city of love, and countless people visit in the hopes that they will either fall in love, find love, or firm up their existing love.  Because the immigration line at the airport took us almost two hours to clear (you can read more about my love for French efficiency here:  LINK), we ended up missing our appointment to pick up the keys to our rental apartment and that threw our whole day off.  By the time we had sorted everything out it was a little before midnight and the rain was starting to fall.  It was our first night there and I wanted to see at least one beautiful thing before we called it a day, so we grabbed our umbrellas and walked a few blocks over to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.  Just as we arrived, a middle-aged couple walking past the building stopped for a moment and proceeded to have an adorably delicate, tender kiss.  

The city of love indeed!

There really isn't much backstory to this photo - I'm just a huge fan of graffiti street art.  While walking through Le Marais neighborhood, we saw people coming in and out of a non-descript alleyway next to some high end fashion outlets.  We ducked into the alleyway and discovered the entrance to a museum of some sort that is currently slipping my mind.  We didn't go into the museum, but we did spend about 10 minutes enjoying the slew of graffiti murals in the alley.  The section above was my favorite.

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Spring flowers.  Cloudy skies.  Rain.  The Eiffel Tower.  The only thing missing from this photo that summarizes our trip to Paris is a delicious meal.  

Aviation

Taking a little break from destination photography for a few minutes to take a look at a few of the aviation-related shots I snapped this year that made me smile.  This was taken as I climbed the stairs from the tarmac at Tbilisi International Airport to board my Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kiev.  It was somewhere around 6 AM in the morning and the sun was just starting to peak above the horizon.  

My first flight with Royal Air Maroc from Rome to Casablanca.  The sun was setting off in the distance and as we started our descent the snowcapped outline of the Atlas Mountains came into view. 

A little later that night I had arrived in in Marrakech after connecting in Casablanca.  My flight was the last one into the airport that evening and the staff wasn't exactly interested in waiting for us to make our way out of the terminal before shutting down for the night.  They were shutting off lights and locking up the facility as we stood there waiting for our bags.  It seemed a bit odd to me but at the same time I didn't mind at all - the geometric diamond facade of the terminal really looked its most beautiful in the dark.

This is perhaps my favorite picture of the year.  I had flown to Manchester, New Hampshire for a long weekend exploring a new state but I ended up getting sick and barely left my hotel room.  i was disappointed that I didn't really get to see much of anything worthwhile and I was willing to write the whole trip off as a lost cause.  I boarded my flight with Southwest Airlines back to Chicago and zoned out.  As we started to descend into Chicago I did my usual - watch the world pass by.  I don't fly in and out of Midway airport often but every time I have we've never passed over the city upon approach.  Well, this time we did.

And *hand clap* it *hand clap* was *hand clap* glorious.  Trip officially not wasted.

A quick trip to Los Angeles to visit with some friends for a weekend of food and fun.  Since I needed to be in California I figured it would be a great opportunity to fly with Virgin America one last time before their likely disappearance due to the merger with Alaska Airlines.  After take off from Chicago I plugged my headphones into my ears and spent most of the flight drifting in and out of sleep while listening to some of my favorite podcasts.  After a few hours I decided to crack open the window and take a gander outside.  Good thing I did - we were soaring over the Grand Canyon.  It wasn't the first time I had seen this wonder from the air, but the blue tint of Virgin America's windows and the star-spangled tip on their wings really helped bring a sense of national pride to the photo.  America the Beautiful.

US Domestic Travel

The very first trip I took this year was a short five day visit to New Orleans for work.  Business trips for me are rarely very entertaining as I'm often driving into some forgotten corner of the American Midwest with little to do and only Golden Corrals to dine within.  Due to a unique project I'm working on though, suddenly Bourbon Street was in play.  

My hotel was booked in the French Quarter but my work station was out in East New Orleans.  Every day I would drive past the above mural painted on the side of what looked like an old abandoned building.  On my last day in Louisiana I pulled off the highway on my way back to the hotel and did my best to navigate over to the piece of art.  Indeed, it was located on the side of an abandoned movie theater with broken glass and overgrown grass all over.  I parked my car along the side of the road and carefully walked out to the middle of the grass and snapped the picture above.  

I later learned it was painted by artist Brandan Odum with a $5000 grant from hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.  Based on Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", it's designed to encourage anti-violence and was placed in this area of town due to its statistically high rates of violent crime.  A beautiful, modern take on a classic piece of art with a great purpose for the surrounding community.

This one happened during a trip to the Chicago Art Institute.  My brother and his girlfriend invited me to tag along with them and her family when they went to see a special exhibition of Van Gogh's "Bedrooms".  After taking in the various versions of that famous painting, everyone split off for a few hours to explore the massive complex on their own.  I made my way through the exhibition on Chinese and Japanese pottery before I exited into an atrium with a giant curved stairwell and took a seat on a bench.  While rested my feet I took in the architectural beauty of the sight before me.  I kept thinking that the light coming through the windows was really exquisite at that time of day.  Suddenly a man in a suit started to slowly ascend the steps.  Without much thinking I pulled out my phone and snapped this photo and prayed it turned out like I thought it would.  It did.

I love how the black and white contrast brings out the quiet serenity of the scene.

A quick visit to Denver for the Thanksgiving holiday with my family lead to my very first foray into Red Rocks.  It was November which meant no events were taking place, so we simply parked our car and walked around for awhile.  We found ourselves in front of the amphitheater as the sun's last beams eeked along the horizon, lighting up the city of Denver like a Christmas tree. 

Leaving work one day I was surprised to see a row of gigantic lamps shooting beams of lights against the Union League Club building.  I thought back to earlier in the day when an email was sent out about how there may be some disruption to building access do to filming for the upcoming season of FOX's "Empire".  It all made sense.

The American flag fluttered softly in the wind and to the west along Jackson Street the sun was setting and its rays were funneled into brilliant intensity by the skyscrapers' steel frames.  What a wonderful reminder that no matter where I go in the world, the place I call home is a beautiful place.

This year I was finally able to cross off a major travel goal from my bucket list - travel across the US on an Amtrak train.  The service on Amtrak was hit and miss on a variety of fronts, but the one things that stayed consistent was how beautiful the landscape was out the window.  I had booked a private sleeper suite on the California Zephyr service which travels from its first station just outside of San Francisco all the way through the western US to its terminus - my home city of Chicago.  The various landscapes changed over time outside my window from coast line to farm land to mountain peaks to arid desert.  I snapped a ton of beautiful photos but this one is probably my favorite - high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with snow covering the landscape and the late day's sunbeams zigzagging off the tranquil sheen of ice.

Tbilisi - Georgia

While I have a difficult time pronouncing Tbilisi, most Americans likely don't even know where it is.  My trip to Georgia had many people scratching their heads and wondering why I was hopping planes halfway across the globe to visit a place many didn't even know existed.  I have to admit that prior to arriving I was having similar thoughts.  Had I made a mistake?  Once I had climbed up to the top of Narikala Fort on the mountainside overlooking the expanse of Tbilisi and finally took in the view from St. Nicholas Church, I knew I had made the right choice.

After climbing up a steep hill and exploring Tbilisi's Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral, I sat myself down on one of the empty benches lining the park around the building to catch my breath.  I looked back at the modern majesty of the cathedral, many parts of which are still under construction.  A woman in a flowing dress with a headscarf wrapped around her hair came trotting down the staggered steps leading up to the church.  The gentle incline of the stairs and the geometric framing of the straight lines from the steps helped create a sense of movement in the picture that really made me smile.

Tbilisi is a city of heavy inclines and mountainous slopes.  I'm in much better shape now but at the time I found myself frequently taking breaks while exploring the sights of the city due to being out of breath and sadly, quite sweaty.  Imagine my relief when halfway up the hill to the peak of the Narikala Fortress I saw this man posted up on the ledge of some ruins reading a book while also taking a bit of a break.  He was much more fit than I was, though he was casually smoking a cigarette while reading his guidebook.  With the Sameba Cathedral and half of the city of Tbilisi spread out on the mountainside behind him, I raised my camera to snap a picture.  It didn't end up being very clear but I still love the casual vibes it gives off.

Kiev - Ukraine

Kiev was never very high on my list of potential travel destinations but when the opportunity to visit popped up I thought "why the hell not" and jumped at the opportunity.  And I'm so glad I did - it turned out to be one of the most interesting, beautiful, and vibrant destinations I've experienced in years.  One of the things I loved most about Kiev was that the city seemed to be filled with thousands of little old Ukrainian women in colorful scarves and flowing skirts slowly shuffling here and there.  No matter where in the city I found myself, the grumpy grumble of an octogenarian was never very far.  Take this woman for example.  She slowly trudged down the steep steps inside the Pechersk Lavra on her way to worship.  Despite the heavy incline she plodded down the hill, steadfast and resolute.  A nice metaphor for Ukraine in general.

The beauty of subway stations within the old Soviet sphere of influence are legendary in some circles.  So was it a bit odd that one of the things I was most looking forward to when I arrived in Kiev was making my way around the city on the various transit lines to see these glorious stations?  Maybe.  But I wasn't disappointed.  This photo is of Kiev's Olimpiiska metro station - named after the sports complex nearby that hosted events during the 1980 Moscow Olympic games.  I loved the dark stone work and the gentle arch of the ceiling.  The elegant chandeliers stood in stark contrast with the rather utilitarian, Soviet surroundings.  If you look carefully, a pair of Olympic rings can be seen on the wall at the very end of the platform.

Ukraine seems to conjure images of cloudy skies and dour landscapes in most people's minds, so I was quite pleased that for almost my entire stay the weather was bright and sunny.  The bright skies made exploring the city quite easy and pleasant, and the residents seemed to agree with me as they were out in force for the totality of my stay.  The photo above was taken inside the Pechersk Lavra compound.  Many other visitors stopped only in a few key areas but I decided to wander a bit further into the complex and poke my head around.  Eventually I reached a dead end and started to make my way back up the hill.  I wasn't the only one that had made a wrong turn though - a group of Ukrainian women were just ahead of me trudging back toward the crowds.  With the sun gleaming off the golden spires, it all felt very Ukrainian.

As I mentioned above, Ukraine was (and still technically is) in the midst of an armed conflict.  It was impossible to avoid that fact during my time in Kiev.  Patriotic banners, photographs of soldiers, and Ukrainian flags were plastered all over the city.  In addition to all that, armored vehicles were parked on street corners and park areas for the public to explore.  It was odd to see groups of young men posing for photos with giant tanks, or young women in miniskirts taking selfies with the requisite duck lips in front of fighter jets.  While a bit off-putting, it didn't upset me.  What did get me were all the children, like the little girl above.  Not more than ten with a crown of colorful flowers in her hair, she crawled and climbed with glee all over this instrument of death.  With all that's happened to children in Syria this year, it's hard to not to see the immense sadness in a photo like this.

Quite similar to the final photo from Paris, this one seems to sum up Kiev in a single capture - pastel church with golden domes, cobblestone streets, beautiful young women everywhere you turn, an an ancient Lada parked on the side of the road.

Chernobyl - Ukraine

My trip to Chernobyl was part of my stop in Kiev, though it was so unique I wanted to separate it out into its own section.  The above shot was from the interior of a sports and health complex that was abandoned during the meltdown crisis this corner of the globe is famous for.  I'm not sure why the baseboards around the basket have been pulled up and are collapsing while the rest of the floor is fine, but the starkness of the scene was haunting.  A very "life after humans" moment.

This one was shot inside an abandoned school house.  Of course the desk and books weren't left there when the residents were forced to evacuate their city, clearly someone moved it in an attempt to set up a photo.  Still, the funnel created by the hallway with the dirt covered floor and the emptiness represented by the desk and books creates quite the moody capture, even if it was posed by human hands years ago.  The curly, crumbling paper falling off the walls like a bad sunburn just adds to the overall effect.

Thousands of pages from books strewn about the hallways of the abandoned school form some of the saddest carpeting I've ever walked upon.

Back to the sports complex, where I marveled at the expanse of the empty swimming pool filled with the debris of a city lost to time and nature.  Graffiti stains the interior of the pool while the now glass-less windows give way to the growth of trees slowly creeping their branches into mankind's space.  They were like the fingers of Mother Nature slowly reaching back to reclaim what is rightfully her's

Berlin - Germany

This wasn't my first trip to Berlin, but it was the first one where I actually got to leave my hotel room and explore everything the city had to offer (my last visit I fell victim to food poisoning:  LINK).  I can tell you from experience now though - Berlin is beautiful in the fall.  Take the photo above for example.  Captured from the front portico of the Berliner Dom, the bright orange and yellow of autumn leaves pops with vibrancy while being framed by the massive columns of the cathedral's support structure.  The shadowy outline of a man gazing out upon the scene makes it almost seem like you've stumbled upon some intimate, contemplative scene from a movie.

I had a few hours to kill prior to my night train's departure from Berlin, so with no other items on my agenda I simply began wandering around the city on foot.  A few blocks from my hotel I passed through a pedestrian tunnel connecting two parts of a large park complex.  Inside that tunnel was an endless stream of graffiti art and a solitary man strumming a guitar while humming the words to a song I either didn't know or he was making up as he went along.  We smiled and nodded at one another.  There was just something about the scene that I felt like I wanted to remember, so I took a chance and raised my camera and gave the universally accepted "thumbs up" to seek his permission for a snapshot.  He gave his approval with a nod and an even wider smile.  I left him a pocketful of Euro coins as a thank you.  

I still think I got the better end of that deal.

This one was snapped inside the Berliner Dom.  A small child skittered around me, bumping into my leg in his hurry to get past.  He turned back to say sorry though his little feet never stopped moving - clearly he was on a mission!  He parked himself in the center of the church and lifted his camera to the ceiling, snapped a quick picture, and off his little feet carried him again.  In that short time frame, I managed to get my camera out and snap this image of him with his arms raised toward the sky.  His small frame helps give context to the massive height of the Dom's vaulted ceiling.

That glorious circular piece of architecture you see above you?  That's what the child was in such a hurry to snap a photo of from the previous narrative.  Now do you see why he didn't have time to move around me without shoving?  Completely excusable! ;)

A beautiful autumn day in Berlin and my friends and I were are making our way down the street toward the Brandenburg Gate.  As we approach the river we hear the unmistakable sound of children laughing and oddly enough, Peruvian pan flutes.  A few steps ahead of us was a magical scene - tons of small children leaping and jumping into the air as they tried to pop giant, rainbow-shimmering bubbles.  Off to the side, a small band of men playing pan flutes filled the air with musical notes that seemed to dance along side the bubbles.  The atmosphere was infectious and soon even the adults were joining in on the bubble popping fun, including a few in my merry band of friends.  

What a simple, beautiful way to start your day.  I highly recommend it.

Budapest - Hungary

This photo almost didn't come to life.  We were enjoying a few days in Budapest when a friend suggested we take a night time river cruise.  A quick poll of the group began and the consensus was that this was something we should do - so we booked our tickets for later that day and planned accordingly.  Once we arrived at the boat I was a bit more wary.  I wasn't feeling very well and when we boarded the air was thick with the smell of burning fuel.  My headache felt like it was moving to migraine pretty quickly.  I was a few seconds away from telling my friends I was going to get off the boat and wait for them on shore when I felt the engine rev and the boat started to pull away from the shore.  Looks like I was going whether I liked it or not.  Turns out I liked it, as we had views like this for an hour.

This is the same building as the illuminated masterpiece before, expect in sunlight.  It really is a beautiful building.  Our time in Budapest was continually cloudy and overcast, though for some reason I felt like that actually helped me enjoy the city a bit more.  Budapest is a bit of a moody city with a dark history.  The overcast weather seems to fit like a bespoke suit.

This is the interior of St. Matthias Church on Budapest's Castle Hill.  It's not very big, but with this type of interior does it need to be?  As I wandered around the church I couldn't help but feel like this was some sort of Candyland-inspired madness.  The warm pinks and blues reminded me of cotton candy.  The flourishes on the pulpit were like a swirled ice cream cone and the fine detail of the painting were like the the crisp lines of a chocolate bar.  I'm not sure if I'm loving the view or hungry at this point.

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The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the approximately 3500 Jews, LGBT, and Roma who were marched to the banks of the river, ordered to remove their shoes, and then shot in the back so their bodies fell into the river during World War II.  A poignant reminder of the horrors humanity can inflict upon itself and a call to action to never let this happen again that seems so appropriate this year.  Are we listening?  

Valletta - Malta

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Our first full day in Malta, my friends and I marched ourselves out of our tragically terrible AirBnB looking for a hearty breakfast to help fuel us on a long day of exploring and maybe, just maybe, cheer us up a bit after a difficult night of sleep.  Imagine our surprise as we walked up to the main square in the middle of Valletta to find a military band going full blast.  Dressed in sharp white uniforms and helmets, they marched to and fro inside the square while playing lively tunes to the delight of tourists and locals alike.  The sides of the square were crowded with gawkers but I noticed that the edge of the square in front of a government building didn't have anyone at all.  I slipped away from my friends and posted up in front of the building, which provided me the opportunity to snap the above pictures without any obstruction.

Valletta is pretty much summed up by this photo - crumbling beige walls, gated balconies, massive doors, and the ever present European moped.  The only thing missing is a steep incline.

Unfortunately the day we tried to visit the sea coast in Malta to rent a boat happened to be the one day where weather was just atrocious.  The seas were rough and the waves were crashing violently against the shore.  We decided to still make our way to a town where boats were rented in the hopes that the weather would calm down and we'd luck out.  We didn't.  I guess you can't win them all.  Instead of taking visitors out on boats, it looked like the locals were content to simply throw a hook and bait into the sea and see what turned up.  The Maltese version of making lemonade from lemons, I suppose!

If there's one thing Valletta has in spades it's scenic vistas.  With so may hills dotting the tiny little peninsula upon which the city rests, it's almost harder to find a place along the seashore where you aren't stopping for a minute to catch your breath and take in the amazing view.

I snapped this picture in the "silent city of Malta" - Mdina.  A tiny little enclave on top of a hill in the interior of the island, the city institutes required "quiet hours" during the evenings.  While awaiting the hour of our dinner reservation, my friends and I made our way through the streets doing our best to not make too much noise.  We crossed in front of the city's cathedral, illuminated against the night sky with heavy yellow lighting.  A little further up was a bright red phone booth with an interior light surrounded by palm trees.  It seemed out of place, completely gaudy and modern in a city so ancient and serene. 


So there you have it folks - my year in travel!  Despite all the stress and bad news that was dumped in our laps over the course of these twelve months, I feel there was still quite a bit to be thankful about.  And there's a lot to look forward to in 2017 as well.  My entire travel schedule (except for one trip) has been locked down already.  The new year will see me visiting Qatar, Tanzania, Senegal, Egypt, Portugal, Armenia, the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Austria.  Trust that I'll be taking my camera and snapping a few photos that hopefully will help me tell the story of what an amazing, beautiful work we live in!  I hope your 2016 was amazing, and if it wasn't all that you hoped it would be, I wish for you a fruitful and joyful 2017.  Much love and happiness to you and yours!

The Shy Gay Guy's How To Guide For Japanese Onsen

A collective of almost 7000 islands sitting on the rim of the Pacific Ocean's notorious "Ring of Fire", Japan is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of bubbly, piping hot volcanic hot springs.  Onsen is a Japanese tradition that appeals to visitors but is often quickly overshadowed by a stampede of nervousness and fear.  I'm a pretty perky and outgoing guy myself but I can't say that I don't sympathize with those that opt to skip this integral and beautiful part of Japanese culture.  Going to a foreign country where you likely are unfamiliar with the etiquette and stripping completely naked before jumping into a community bath is probably one of the more terrifying things a traveler can face - I get it!  

Add on top of that the general uneasiness many LGBTQ travelers have about being themselves in an unfamiliar location and you have a recipe for tense touring.  As a gay man on the road, one of the first things I do before arriving in a new city or country is research local attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals and overall safety for our community.  Even when educated, life (and travel) has a way of throwing you curve balls though.  While Japan in general is a relatively safe destination for LGBTQ travelers, a unique situation like onsen changes the dynamic a bit.  It is an entirely fair question to ask if this is an activity that we as a community can enjoy.

Luckily for me, I just happened to be half-Japanese and lived in Japan until I was fourteen years old, so the mystery of onsen was revealed to me at a very early age.  The language is not foreign to me, I have a solid understanding of what to expect and, more importantly, what is expected of me as a visitor.  This gives me a leg up and reduces some of my nervousness as a gay man, though it certainly doesn't make it disappear.

Hopefully I can use my experience and cultural competency to give other LGBTQ travelers an idea of what to expect when considering a dip into this Japanese tradition.  

The magic that is Japanese onsen is an amazing thing to experience and that's why I want LGBTQ travelers to consider trying it when they wander through the Land of the Rising Sun.  It's a therapeutic siren song that calls to weary feet that have spend the morning climbed Mt. Fuji or the neck rubbed raw by the dangling camera strap.  Onsen is a quintessential experience for the visitor to Japan and it would be a shame for someone to miss out on the opportunity to peek into this ancient and revered part of Japanese culture.  With this in mind, and knowing full well the hurdles even I have to overcome every year I return to my homeland to enjoy a dip, I present the "Shy Gay Guy's How To Guide For Japanese Onsen"!

Let's start off with a few things specifically for LGBTQ travelers that are good to know prior to showing up at the onsen followed by a general step by step guide to the entire process.  My goal is to make sure you're fully informed and can make a decision about whether onsen is something you'd like to try! 

IT'S A BATHHOUSE BUT NOT A "BATHHOUSE"

Bathhouses are not a new concept to many in the LGBTQ community, particularly those in the G category.  Gay bathhouses are a common sight in most major Western cities, though the arrival of the internet and smartphone may be curbing younger generations interest or need for such facilities.  Please note that unlike their western gay counterparts, Japanese onsen are generally not a location where men go to meet one another for casual sexual encounters.  Yes, there's an option for soaking in a hot bath.  Yes, there's communal nudity.  But the similarities end there.  Going to an onsen with an expectation of sexual activity or even meeting other LGBTQ individuals will likely end at a minimum with your disappointment and at most with your involvement with the Japanese police force.  

If you're seeking a more sexually charged experience along with your onsen soak, you can find specific establishments (mostly located in Tokyo and Osaka) that can tickle your fancy.  

EMBRACE YOUR NUDITY

Many Japanese adhere to the concept of "hadaka no tsukiai", which loosely translates as "naked communion".  There's a societal belief that barriers are easier to break down and people are on their most equal footing in the nude. 

There really is no way around this - if you want to onsen, you're going to have to strip down to your tight and curlies.  As Japanese onsen are almost exclusively shared facilities (either by a community or as a privately owned site open to the public), wearing underwear or swimsuits into the water is strictly forbidden.  Those are the rules, and there's really no way around it.  Take a minute, breathe a little, and accept that some random strangers are going to see you in the buff.

My brother and sister preparing for a dip in the onsen.

My brother and sister preparing for a dip in the onsen.

This requirement may be of particular concern (and possibly a deal breaker unfortunately) for travelers that are transgender, intersex, or genderqueer.  When your body and outward presentation doesn't conform to what people who see the world in a strict "male/female" dichotomy expect, it can raise concerns about safety and judgement, which is far from the experience travelers would want to seek out.  While my personal opinion is that there is likely a miniscule chance of having a violent reaction from other patrons, there is a much greater chance that a traveler that is transgender, intersex, or genderqueer will have onsen staff or patrons react negatively to their presence in the onsen, whether it's expressed verbally or through body language.  

I wish I could tell you that the chance of being excluded or discriminated against is small - but I can't.  This is a real concern that LGBTQ travelers will need to weigh and make a decision about on their own.  

There is a potential work around to this issue though!

If the nudity requirement is genuinely a deal breaker for you, I would suggest looking into an onsen facility that allows guests to book use of a hot spring in private.  Some properties allow guests to book a specific time slot where they (solo or as a group with family/friends) will have exclusive, private use of an onsen.  Note that even when you have exclusive use of the spring you should NOT be wearing underwear of swimwear into the water.  The private booking is a way for you to remove the strangers from the equation, but the nudity is still mandatory.  For couples, the option to book private time in the onsen is a great way to enjoy the experience while being intimate with your lover.  Sitting close, holding hands, or embracing your partner can be uncomfortable when others are in the same hot spring.  It should go without saying that sexual activity is not something you should enjoy in the onsen - it's a shared facility, no one wants to soak in your sexual debris!  

As noted above - if you want to pursue an onsen experience, embrace the nudity!  At the same time make sure you remain safe and avoid a situation that could ruin an otherwise great trip.

THE TATTOO CONUNDRUM

Another huge question that is often raised by visitors looking to experience onsen is whether or not having a tattoo will prevent them from being allowed inside.  Traditionally in Japan tattoos and those who sport them are associated with organized crime.  In order to avoid problems from patrons or becoming a meeting place for those looking to engage in criminal activity, onsen have typically instituted all-out bans on anyone with a tattoo.  As time progresses and Japanese culture changes, tattoos are becoming more prevalent in Japanese society.  As with most things though, society moves faster than rules and regulations change so the ban on tattoos in onsen seems to have quite a bit of staying power for now.  

Like any other group of people, many LGBTQ travelers have tattoos.  Any trip to a pride parade or bar will reveal a plethora of tattoos - anything from a full tribal arm sleeve to something as innocuous as the small fleur de lis my fiance has on his shoulder blade.  Unfortunately the fact that someone is foreign is almost always not seen as a reason to overlook the ban on tattooed patrons.

My fiance's tattoo.  His is small enough that we can often hide it.

My fiance's tattoo.  His is small enough that we can often hide it.

Despite all of this, visitors should know that there are ways around this ban! 

As noted above, you can always look into booking time at an onsen that allows private time slots.  As long as your tattoo isn't visible when you're interacting with staff, no one will be checking in on you while you're undressing or enjoying the water.  If you have tattoos on your arms or legs, just wear long sleeves and pants.  If you have a visible tattoo in a location that you cannot easily hide, you may be out of luck.  

Additionally, some onsen will allow tattooed individuals to enter the onsen if they are able to cover their tattoos with a bandaid or sticker.  Some of these facilities even provide the stickers for patrons, but will often still deny entry to those that cannot cover their tattoos with a single sticker.  If your tattoo needs two or more stickers to cover up, it's likely a no-go.

As a last resort, you can seek out an onsen facility that openly accepts those with tattoos.  They are fewer in numbers than onsen that ban them, and Japan is not always the easiest country to find detailed information on the web.  I know that the Kashiwaya Ryokan in Shima Onsen openly advertises access to tattooed visitors to some of their facilities.  You can find their website here:  (LINK).

GO ZEN

One common misconception is that an onsen is a pool.  This is a massive mistake.  Other than the fact that they both have water the similarities end there.

Japan's hot springs are some of the most relaxing experiences on the planet.  The sub-boiling volcanic water washes over your muscles and seems to magically suction out your pain and stress.  Your bathing companions will quietly enjoy the pleasure of tiny waves of water washing over their shoulders while occasionally chit chatting about their day.  There is nothing brash or loud about the experience.  

LGBTQ travelers, just like any other type of person, do love to have a good time on the road.  Unwinding, destressing, and living life to the fullest is high on the "to-do" list.  While an onsen is designed to do all of those things, it achieves those goals through stillness and calm.  

If you're looking for a place to blast your music, drink beer, and have cannonball splash contests, you should buy a ticket to Tokyo's DisneySea water park or find a warm stretch of sand on one of Japan's many beaches instead.

Please - respect the tradition and respect the onsen's serene atmosphere.  You can always hit the clubs in the evening or have a beach bbq the next day!

HOW TO ONSEN

With those general notes for LGBTQ travelers covered, let's get down to the nitty gritty of how you actually go about enjoying the onsen!

Step 1:  Figure Out Where To Onsen

While hot spring bathing is available in thousands of locations around Japan, not all facilities are created equally nor are all options really offering the same type of experience.  

Many local communities and neighborhoods in larger cities have shared onsen facilities that are owned by the local government and generally very inexpensive.  They're also quite public, not particularly prepared for tourists, and you're less likely to find someone to help you should you have a question.  Great for budget travelers but not so much anyone else. 

If you're looking for a step up from this, there are facilities that are set up like day spas in many major cities where you can buy entrance for a few hours or an entire day and have unlimited access to various types of hot springs, wading pools, and other leisurely activities.  While these are much more accessible and likely able to handle tourist inquiries, they're not really in the spirit of traditional Japanese onsen.  It's more like a modern day spa with a Japanese Instagram filter.

Arriving at an onsen hotel in Hakone where my reservation was on a board outside.

Arriving at an onsen hotel in Hakone where my reservation was on a board outside.

My preferred way of enjoying a traditional hot spring experience is to book a stay at a Japanese guesthouse (casual options are categorized as minshuku while a fancier accommodation is labeled a ryokan) which has an on-site onsen.  This provides just the right mix of intimacy, tradition, and relaxation in my personal opinion.  Many of these guesthouses have facilities that are open to the public during the day but close down and are reserved for exclusively for guests after a certain time.  The traffic in the onsen is much lighter and many places even allow private booking such as those discussed above.  

There's plenty of options to consider, so find the one the works best for your needs, interests, and wallet!

Step 2:  Take Off Your Shoes

This is the second step to Japanese onsen but really it's the second step to Japan in general.  When it comes to many indoor spaces in Japan that are more private or intimate - shoes come off.  

Photo Credit - LINK

Photo Credit - LINK

Onsen facilities are no different.  While every facility is set up differently, it's generally pretty easy to denote when it's time to remove your shoes.  Those who have entered before you will have taken their shoes off, so you'll often find an area with shoes left on the floor or placed into cubbies.  Some facilities will have a sign out notifying when to remove shoes and others will leave out a slew of plastic slippers to use when your shoes are off.

Much like the nudity, this isn't a negotiable rule.  You want to onsen?  Shoes off.

Step 3:  Grab A Towel & Enter Your Gendered Area

At most facilities there's someone running the show - either staff taking payment at the front reception area or staff from the hotel/onsen making sure everything is running smoothly.  The staff will generally provide you with a large towel, a smaller towel, and occasionally a yukata (robe).  Take these with you into the changing area. 

If you've booked private time in an onsen, you can do mixed sex bathing with your partner, friends, or family members.  Otherwise the facilities are segregated by gender.  

Japanese kanji for MAN.

Japanese kanji for MAN.

Japanese kanji for WOMAN

Japanese kanji for WOMAN

Entrances to the gender segregated-areas are generally noted by curtains hanging over the doors or wooden signs.  The Japanese kanji for "man" and "woman" are above and at a minimum each door should display one of these kanji to clarify which area you should be entering.  Often the curtains/signs will also contain the English words for man and woman and even be color coded with hetero-normative color configurations - blue for men, red/pink for women.  

Photo Credit - LINK

Photo Credit - LINK

Throwing back to the previous discussion on nudity and transgender, intersex, or genderqueer travelers - please note that Japanese onsen are not a location where they actively recognize the full spectrum of gender and gender identity.  Unless you are frequenting an onsen that has specific policies or advertising that denotes otherwise, the staff and patrons will expect you to use the facility that conforms with the gender identity that you physically most closely resemble.  

Ultimately what door you choose to walk through is up to you, but please be aware of how the locals may react to your choice and note that you may be asked to leave by staff if they believe you've entered the "wrong" side.

Step 4:  Get Naked

Ahhhhh.  Here's the part the gives me the most anxiety - getting butt ass naked in front of strangers.  If you're someone who is completely comfortable with their own body and have no qualms letting your naughty bits swing in the breeze - bravo!  Let me start a slow clap for you!

Sadly I'm not one of those people, and I know that many of my fellow travelers (LGBTQ or not) have similar reservations.  My advice to you is this - it's like getting into a pool.  The more slowly and tentatively you do it, the more painful the experience will end up being.  The best course of action is to take a deep breath and metaphorically diving right into the pool - drop trou, free the tatas, and just get it over with!

The changing area of an onsen on Lake Ashi.

The changing area of an onsen on Lake Ashi.

Depending on how fancy your facility is, you will either find baskets inside the changing area or perhaps you were given a key with a numbered tag on it to denote a specific locker for you to use.  You can toss all of your clothing into the basket or locker along with your large towel.  Keep your small towel with you.  

Note - if you brought a smart phone or camera, leave it here as well.  Onsen are strictly a no-photo facility unless you have permission from the property owners or are using the onsen under the private usage option discussed earlier.  Also, there really isn't going to be anywhere dry to keep your device and the atmosphere inside the onsen proper is quite humid, i.e. not ideal for electronics.

Step 5:  Scrub A Dub Dub

Once you're fully naked and done worrying about whether everyone can see your belly fat/neck roll/that ugly birthmark on your lower thigh, move through the doors to the next area.

As the onsen is a shared use facility, you'll be required to give yourself a very thorough cleaning prior to entering the water.  No one wants to share the water with someone who didn't take the time to wash the day's grit and grim away!

PHOTO CREDIT - LINK

PHOTO CREDIT - LINK

Don't expect individual shower stalls, though this is occasionally available.  Chances are you'll find a system very similar to what's shown above - several stools set up in front of handheld shower nozzles with mirrors and large shampoo, conditioner, and soap dispensers.  A bucket is often provided at each station.

You should start by using the shower nozzle to rinse off the stool and the bucket before using them.  Next, use all of the provided items to give yourself a very thorough cleaning.  I'm not talking a cursory run over the skin here people - get into the nooks and crannies and make sure you're serving sparkling clean realness.  If a bucket is not provided to fill with water, use the nozzle and soap to give yourself a proper washing.  Of course you should use the shampoo to clean your hair just as thoroughly.  If you have long hair, use a hair tie to collect your hair into a bun on the top of your head, well above the shoulder line.  Having your hair (even clean!) dip into the water is a no-no.

Step 6:  Place Towel On Head or Off To Side

One thing people always ask me the first time we onsen together is what to do with the small towel that you brought with you.  That's really up to you.  People do a variety of things with it, but the one thing that you should not do is let it fall into the water.  Some folks use it as a washcloth, others save it for use later on.  Some bathers will place their towel off to the side in a designated area that should be easy to identify since you'll see a grouping of small towels.  Others will fold it up and place it on top of their heads or tie it like a bandana.  Be creative, just don't dip it in the water.

Step 7:  Enjoy the Japanese Onsen, Don't Pass Out

It's time people.  The moment has arrived.  It's time to enter the onsen!

Whether the spring has stairs to facilitate entry into the water or you simply have to walk up to the edge and step in, your only task now is to get into the water and relax.

Japanese law actually categorizes onsen into four categories based on the temperature of the water.  A "cold spring" is anything below 22°C/77°F.  A "warm spring" is anything from there up to 33°C/91°F.  After that is a "hot spring" which runs to a threshold of 41°C/106°F.  Anything above that is categorized as an "extra hot spring".  If you're at a small onsen, there's likely only one spring to use with a consistent temperature.  Larger onsen facilities can have several types of baths that you can move around and experience.  They'll feature various temperatures as well as different mineral contents with associated "benefits".  

Just a reminder that the onsen is not a pool - swimming is impolite.  You should quietly sit and enjoy the ambiance.  You can chat quietly if you desire.  Do not dip your head into the water.  As indicated above, your hair and head should not enter the water at all.  This is a neck-down activity.

Onsen is similar to a sauna in that you should be very careful to monitor yourself to ensure you are not overheating.  If it's your first time experiencing an onsen it can be very easy to overdo things on the first go and end up getting lightheaded or even passing out.  I recommend staying in for no longer than 4 or 5 minute at a time if you're doing this for the first time, just to be safe.  You can exit the water and walk a bit, or remove yourself from the water and sit on the edge of the springs.  If you're in a larger onsen, move on to one of the cooler pools.  

You'll be sweating a bit so make sure you're well hydrated prior to entering the onsen and make sure you drink plenty of water after you've finished as well.

Step 8:  Dry Off & Cover Up

Once you've had your fill of soaking and relaxation, it's time to dry off and head out of the onsen.  If you've set your small towel off to the side, grab it.  If you kept it with you the whole time, snatch it off your head and use it to dry off prior to exiting the hot spring area.  It may be difficult but make sure you do the best you can to make sure you're not dripping copious amounts of hot water off of your body before you go back to your clothing.

Back at your locker/basket, use the larger towel to do a proper dry off.  Once done, put your clothes back on and throw the towels into the hamper where everyone else has left theirs.  If you're staying at a ryokan or minshuku, you may have been provided a yukata (robe) to use in the building or outdoors if their onsen facility is located slightly off property.  If that's the case, put on your robe (securing your obi around your waist tightly so you don't have a Janet Jackson-esque nip or dick slip) and head back to your room.  If the yukata is provided to you, you can expect that it's acceptable to wear it around the guesthouse to and from the onsen.  

So that's that, folks!

I hope you found this helpful.  As I mentioned before, the tradition of Japanese onsen is one that I grew up with as a child and one that I continue to enjoy as an adult every time I return to my homeland.  It's an amazingly intimate and relaxing way to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan, providing you an outlet at the end of a long day and also putting you in close proximity with locals.  Strike up a conversation, throw your towel on top of your head, and see where you end up.  

If you have questions about experiencing onsen as an LGBTQ traveler (or even if you're not!), please feel free to use the "Contact Me" button at the top of the page to send me a note.  I'm more than happy to talk about my experiences to help you feel more comfortable or make an informed decision.

Happy soaking!

 

Review: Cathay Pacific Business Class Kuala Lumpur - Hong Kong

Cathay Pacific (CX) Flight 720 - Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Hong Kong (HKG)

Boeing 777-300, Business Class, Seats 12D & 12E

Wasn't able to snap a pic of the plane, so this A330 will stand in.  But you get the general idea.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Wasn't able to snap a pic of the plane, so this A330 will stand in.  But you get the general idea.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We arrived in KUL on a connecting flight with Malaysia Airlines after a week of fun filled adventure in Bali, Indonesia.  Unfortunately a little bit of weather delayed our flight a bit, so there won't be any discussion of the business class lounge facilities used by Cathay Pacific in KUL as I didn't have time to visit at all on this trip.  Note that Cathay operates their own business class lounge facility in KUL due to the large number of flights per day they run, though if you have middle or top tier status within the Oneworld alliance you can also access Malaysia Airlines' various lounges throughout the airport due to the alliance's reciprocal benefits.  

By the time we had hopped off our delayed Malaysia flight and made our way over to the gate where our Cathay Pacific flight was boarding, they had already called for business class customers to head down the jet bridge so we dutifully queued up and made our way into Cathay's regional business class cabin.

Cathay Pacific has a multitude of Boeing 777 aircraft in their fleet, many of which are configured in a regional layout seeking a high density of seats on a large plane,  These birds are designed to move large amounts of passengers between cities within Asia to Hong Kong where most will then connect onward to other regional cities or often times destinations much further abroad.  Our plane was originally scheduled to be one of Cathay's long haul layout planes with seating arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration.  The last minute switch to the regional configuration meant a 2-3-2 layout.  This meant that our pair of seats in the center of the plane was suddenly a trio of seats we would be  sharing with a stranger.  Less ideal but nothing we couldn't handle though!

Cathay Pacific's color scheme inside their planes is very consistent - a lot of green fabric and soft white/beige tones on the visible plastic shells of the seats.  Crisp white linen was draped over each headrest.  Rusty bronze pillows were placed at each seat.  As a hallmark of Cathay's service and consistent professionalism, the seat belt at my (and everyone's) seat was neatly laid  into a point.  

As I mentioned, boarding as already pretty heavily underway which made it difficult to discreetly take a few more cabin pictures.  Instead I settled into my seat and began to explore.  

The seat featured a leg rest which, when deployed, reduced the amount of leg room rather substantially.  The seat shell  contained a cut out area to facilitate additional space when the foot rest was out, but it was still a bit of a tight fit.  Still, having a foot rest is better than not having one at all and the space for leg movement is still much larger than you'd have back in economy class. 

Above the foot rest cut out was a moderately sized television monitor which featured Cathay Pacific's standard "Studio CX" in-flight entertainment (IFE) options.  Music, television shows, movies, games, and a moving map were available to keep you distracted during the flight.  Cathay's entertainment system is generally better than most airlines but not in the top tier with carriers like Emirates, Etihad, and Singapore Airlines.  There's plenty to watch while on a short or even very long flight, you just won't be drowning in options like you would on those carriers.  

To the left of the IFE is a coat hook, to the right an AV hook up (in case you brought your VCR?) and a USB port for charging.  Between my seat and my boyfriend's were two recessed areas with thick security straps for you to place your smart phone.  Note that these areas are for use only during flight time - you cannot store your phones here during taxi, take off, and landing.

The tray table was hidden underneath the IFE screen and above the foot rest.  It can be deployed by simply grabbing a handhold underneath the tray and lifting upward and outward.  The tray table can be kept as is, folded in half, to keep a bit of space for your body while still giving you room to hold a drink and perhaps a snack.  If you need more space for the meal, your laptop, or anything larger, you can flip the table into its full length.  

The seat belt on this variation is a lap band with an airbag packed into one side, hence the very fat and thick packaging.  The safety card, duty free catalog, and in-flight magazine were stored in a small inset area in the console between the seats.  The headphone jack for the IFE was inside this inset area.  

On the front of the console were universal power outlets for charging electronics that needed a more traditional access port vs. the USB charger on the IFE screen.  The console between my seat and my boyfriend's seat had two chargers, so no need to fight over access to electricity.

The seat fully explored, I sat back and began to focus on enjoying the flight.  Cathay Pacific's in-flight crew have always impressed me with their friendly service.  It's generally genuinely friendly and very precise in terms of making sure everyone gets what they need.  The regional business class cabin is relatively large for the number of flight attendants available to provide service, so they're still just as friendly though a bit rushed when interacting with you.  It's still tough to beat a Cathy Pacific team of flight attendants in a world full of largely mediocre in-flight service, even when rushed.

Once boarding was complete, the door was shut and we pulled off the stand right on time.  KUL always seems to run their ground ops pretty efficiently and before I knew it our big ole Boeing was rocketing down the runway and soaring off into the cloudy skies over Malaysia.  After a few minutes of bumpy air the captain turned off the seat belt sign and our flight attendants hopped into action to being the meal service.

The crew started with a beverage of your choice.  If you've read any of my other trip reports you know that I don't drink alcohol, so of course I opted for a rather boring apple juice.  My boyfriend opted for some champagne.  They also dropped off scented hot towels to cleanse your hands and/or face.

After the towels were collected, menus were passed out.  Today's flight would feature a starter, a salad, an entree, a dessert, and would finish with a tea/coffee service.

Though not on the menu, it's common on most airlines in premium cabins to start the meal with hot nuts and Cathay is no exception.  Another drink service was performed.  This time I opted for a glass of water as well as Cathay's non-alcoholic featured beverage of the month - the Oriental Breeze, a mixture of sour plum tea, cranberry juice, honey, lemon juice, and a dash of rose water.  

One of the reasons I really love flying with Cathay Pacific in a premium cabin is that they offer these specialty non-alcoholic beverages on a monthly rotating basis.  In addition to the Oriental Breeze, I'm a huge fan of the Cathay Delight which is a mixture of kiwi juice, milk, and coconut milk garnished with mint leaves.  Between the two I prefer the Cathay Delight though the Oriental Breeze is a nice option as well.  The tartness of the sour plum and lemon is off-set nicely by the pungent sweetness of the rose water.

While the passengers snacked on their drinks and mixed nuts, the flight crew went about setting up each passenger's table with a tablecloth.  Once the scene was set, they started to drop off trays with the plated appetizer and salad and then offered passengers a choice of bread.  As you can see, I went with the garlic bread, which is almost never a bad choice on the ground or in the air.  The salad was pretty small with a vinegar-based dressing in a plastic container on the side.  The appetizer plate was much larger.  

The smoked chicken was indeed quite smokey, though also very tasty.  I'm not the biggest fan of Waldorf salads so left the reminder of the appetizer on the plate.  

For my entree I want the rice vermicelli with chicken in tom yum soup but for some reason the dish wasn't catered on the flight.  So we were stuck with just beef or fish.  Between the two, I went with the beef tenderloin in honey pepper sauce with jasmine rice and steamed broccoli.

When it comes to reviewing airlines I do my best to be honest with people, and that's why I'm always pretty critical of Cathay Pacific's catering despite many folks giving the airline across the board high marks.  It's never bad, but it's also never really that good.  It's one of the few areas where I think Cathay can do a bit of soul searching and make marked improvements to their service offering.  Take this beef dish for example - it reminded me of Panda Express beef and broccoli.  Now, on the one hand, Panda Express offers a pretty reasonably tasty dish.  On the other hand, when your business class food is comparable with an American fast food chain you can get in a foam container in the terminal, you may want to up your game a little.  

That being said, I ate it and it was just fine.

A cheese plate, fresh fruit, or ice cream was offered to end the meal.  The current version of me would have declined anything at this point, though the "then" version of me was more than happy to take a mini-pint of creme brulee Haagen-Dazs to sate his sweet tooth.  The unique flavor was welcomed as it gets a bit tiresome when you're on a plane as often as I am and the ice cream is always chocolate or vanilla.  

I opted for tea when it was offered and specifically requested the Hong Kong-style milk tea that Cathay serves on board.  Hong Kong-style milk tea is a sweet concoction of black tea and milk (usually evaporated or condensed to bump the sweetness) that is a phenomenally delicious treat when you're in Hong Kong.  Cathay Pacifics's offering on board is made from a powder and isn't anywhere near as good as what's made on the ground, but it still a cozy little tidbit to close out a meal when flying with the airline.

Once the meal was over the FAs came around to slowly clear my tray table.  I did a little work myself to free up some space because, as mentioned above, deploying the foot rest reduces a bit of the leg room/overall space available to you.  I snapped a quick picture of my leg room area with the foot rest out and the tray table folded to half of its size.  Not heart breaking, but a little cozy for a business class seat.  If you're a particularly tall individual, you can always take the bulkhead row which has a bit more stretching room as you can see in the second photo.

KUL to HKG isn't a particularly long regional flight, clocking in at just under 4 hours typically.  With the meal service running a bit long due to the very full cabin, we only had about an hour left on the plane once the trays were cleared before arriving into HKG.  I spent the remainder of my comfortable flight watching episodes of "The Big Bang Theory" on the IFE while sipping on water and Hong Kong milk tea (which an FA provided a refill for when she walked past and noted that I had finished my original).  

Overall it was a short, pleasant, and efficient flight with Cathay Pacific.  When it comes to regional business class seats in Asia, this isn't my favorite seat but it also is far from a terrible option.  The thought that went into the design is evident and the overall seating is very comfortable as long as you are not looking to nap or sleep during the flight.  In terms of having room to lounge it is more than adequate.  Food is mediocre to good at its best, though the beverage offerings (particularly for those that do not drink alcohol) are particularly nice on this airline.  Again, using the foot rest does cut into your space a bit but this is nothing that would stop me from taking a flight with Cathay again in the future.

Cathay Pacific is a quality airline and that showed through on this flight.  It remains one of my favorite ways to get around Asia and the globe in general.

Junk Food World Tour - McDonald's Speculoos McFlurry (France)

Let me start this off by stating I am acutely aware of the humor in my first post following my discussion of health and fitness is a little ditty about a McDonald's ice cream snack, but if you know me this really shouldn't be too much of a surprise.  Yes, I'm focused on fitness and health.  But I'm also still me.  And "me" likes to indulge in junk food, delicious eats, and generally enjoy life.  

I may be working on being the world's thinnest globe trotter, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop enjoying the delicious morsels along the way.  

So.  The McDonald's Speculoos McFlurry.  How did we arrive here?

Having spent the better half of a day exploring the opulence that is Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles in a nearby suburb, my partner and I made our way back to the train station to catch the RER back into Paris.  We both noted that we were feeling a bit peckish and while we didn't want to eat a very big meal (we had plans for a fancy dinner back in the city) we noted that perhaps a small snack would do.  There really didn't seem to be much in the area directly by the Versailles RER station other than a few kitschy gift shops and ... a McDonald's.

I prefer more local experiences when on the road but as someone who created a blog series about junk food on the road, I'm clearly also not above a little fast food snack either!  We hopped through those Golden Arches and took a look at the menu.

And there it was!  The Speculoos McFlurry!  Apparently this is a standard offering in France and Belgium, though it may also appear elsewhere.

For the uninitiated - speculoos is a spiced flat brown biscuit/cookie commonly found in Europe, though it is by no means confined to that geography.  Passengers on airlines like Delta and American may have experienced the joy of being handed a small package of Lotus Biscoff-branded cookies while traveling from here and there.  The flavor profile evokes Christmas time or a chai tea.  Every bite of speculoos biscuits are packed with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamon.  It's sweet and spicy, though subtle and never overpowering.  It's a great snack in the air or on the ground.  It's even available as a spreadable paste in a jar for those who would like to use it as a dip or toast condiment!

As an avid fan of the concoction, I ordered this with lip licking anticipation.

The size is smaller than your average McFlurry in the US - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  US sizes lead to US waist lines, and I'm trying to get rid of mine!  The construction is also familiar - a vanilla soft serve ice cream with mixed in flavor tidbits.  In the case of the speculoos variety, those mix-ins were a caramel sauce and crushed up bits of speculoos cookies.

I feel like the use of the caramel sauce was a bit of missed opportunity as it left the full weigh of providing speculoos' unique flavor profile to the crushed up cookies.  That being said, caramel was a nice compliment to everything in that cup!  As noted, the crushed up cookies were the only element of speculoos in the McFlurry and I thought they were a little stingy with the crumbles.  There really wasn't enough of it in the McFlurry to give the treat speculoos flavoring the entire way through.  You were pretty much eating a caramel sundae on vanilla ice cream with a pop of speculoos flavoring every third bite.  Of course this may have just been an issue with the way the McFlurry was made at this particular location and other McD's may give an extra scoop or two of cookie crumbs.  

As it were, I still really liked this offering.  I'd obviously prefer that the speculoos flavor be a bit more upfront though I can handle a game of culinary hide and seek from time to time.  If I ran across this tidbit here in Chicago or while I'm back on the road, I'd likely give it another order unless there was something more unique or exciting tempting me at the time!  

How Traveling Convinced Me to Get Fit

THE REVELATION

It was just past 4 A.M. in the Shota Rustaveli International Airport on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia, and I was exhausted.  I've never been known to be a morning person but I'm also not one to turn down a good price on an plane ticket, so there I sat in a hard plastic chair at the wrong side of dawn waiting for my flight to Kiev to start boarding.  In an abundance of caution I had arrived two hours prior to departure, but the airport's small size meant I was left with a solid hour and a half to sitting around and while away the time.  Better safe than sorry I suppose.

In Los Angeles in July of this year at 245 lbs.

Like most people, I waste time by hopping through various social media apps.  Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.  Articles about the election, selfies at the beach, and dozens of hashtags streamed past my eyes but little held my interest.  I was half way across the globe from most of my network which meant there was precious little going on.  With not much else to do, I decided to open up my Snapchat app and watch my own posts from the previous day.  I was heading out of Tbilisi and wanted to relive a bit of the fun and beauty I had experienced over the past few days.

Little did I know what a profound impact that decision would have on me.

A selfie in Tbilisi, June 2016.

As I watched the ten second blurbs of film click past my eyes, I kept getting distracted by an unidentifiable noise coming through the headphones.  Through the cacaphony of cars honking and people chattering on the snaps was the constant, rhythmic sound that reminded me of a dog panting for air.  Perplexed, I turned the volume up on my phone and re-watched the videos.  Slowly, as the source of the sound became clearer, the discomfort and embarrassment began to rise in my soul.  

The panting was me.  It was my body's struggle for oxygen as I wandered the city and filmed my exploits.  I knew over the past eight years I had slowly let my fitness fall to the wayside but I had continued to believe things weren't too bad.  Sure, I had to get rid of clothes and buy new ones on several occasions.  And sure, when I lost top tier airline status and first class seats were no longer given to me for free I found it a bit uncomfortable to fit in the ever-shrinking economy class seats that were now my home.  I was still able to convince myself that things weren't out of control.  The videos on my Snapchat seemed to be indicating otherwise.

Denial started to set in.  "Tbilisi is a hilly, mountainous city.  Of course you're short of breath!"  I told myself.  Committed to continuing the charade, I pulled up some snaps that I had saved from other trips.  And yet there it was, like a ghost stalking my adventures across the globe.  Puffing in Paris.  Huffing in Hong Kong.  Gasping in Goa.  The evidence was there and I couldn't look away - I was out of shape and my health was being impacted.  Suddenly being tired took a backseat to the dejection and frustration taking over my mind.

THE HISTORY

My commitment to a healthy weight and solid fitness level has always been a huge personal struggle.  Even as a child I would swing between periods of being active and fit to others were I was docile and chubby.  While I can likely attribute a bit of my childhood swings to simple growing pains, as I entered my teens years and adulthood the scenario changed a bit.  As time ticked away I noticed that my fitness and health was intricately tied to my love life.  If I was single and looking to mingle, I was at my peak level of health.  If I was in a relationship and looking to binge Netflix with my love, I was at the nadir of fitness.  In a sense, I only cared about myself when I wanted to attract someone to care about me.  That wasn't a healthy way to view my fitness and I knew it, but I didn't do anything to fix it.

Fast forward to 2016 and that choice to ignore the problem had come to a head.  I was approaching my eight year anniversary with my boyfriend and it was abundantly clear that I'd likely be spending the rest of my life with him.  He's a keeper.  While that is a blessing in and of itself, it also posed a bit of a conundrum for me - if I had finally found someone who would love me to the end of time, what incentive would I ever had to take care of my health?  

None.  Zero.  Zilch.

My outlook on personal fitness meant that I would never have a motivating need to make sure I was taking care of my body because, to be frank, I didn't need anyone to think I was attractive.  I had my boyfriend, we would be together forever, and it didn't matter if I was out of shape and wheezing.  I could lay on the couch and eat enough take out Chinese food for three people with abandon.  

Clearly that wasn't a great way to go about life.  First - my outlook on fitness and health shouldn't in any way, shape, or form be tied to whether anyone was attracted to me.  Second - if I retained that outlook on health, I wouldn't ever have an incentive to be healthy as long as I was in a relationship.

Something needed to change. 

THE FITNESS REGIMENT

It wasn't like I needed to start from scratch - there have been a few times in my life when I was quite thin and fit.  The knowledge was there, but it needed an update.  My life circumstances had changed quite a bit since the last time I had been so focused on my health, so my typical tactics weren't going to cut it.

In the past I had more free time.  As you get older you seem to accumulate responsibilities and activities.  As a younger man I only had work and free time, but the man I am today is devoted to a career, working on a long term relationship, a very active social life, and even a regular sports schedule for my two volleyball teams.  Scheduling was the most visible hurdle to fitness sitting before me.

In 2007, pre-relationship.  

Perhaps a bit fortuitously, my office begin offering staff the option to work from home three days per week.  My office had offered working from home one or two days per week in the past but I had opted to not exercise that option because I'm a big fan of keeping my home and work life separate.  I didn't want my house to be someplace I associated with the stress of my daily grind.  But the option for three days working at home seemed like an opportunity to me.  As I noted above, one of the excuses I always made for myself to not go to the gym was that I was too busy.  Commuting to the office, putting in extra hours almost every day to keep up with the grind, commuting back home, etc...

With the way my schedule worked out, I often wouldn't get home till 8PM.  This left me with precious little time to make dinner and walk my dogs before gyms were closed for the day.  I suppose I could have looked at waking up earlier to get a work out in, but the truth of the matter is that I have never in my life been a morning person (even when I was fit), and I knew that just wasn't going to work out.  I know myself and my limitations.  Waking up early is right behind heights in the list of things that can stop me in my tracks with terror.

With that in mind, I took the option for three days at home.  I figured that I get an hour lunch break every day and there is a very nice gym literally across the street from my house.  I could walk there, do an hour of exercise, and get back home in the blink of an eye.  While working from home I could simply eat while doing various projects as opposed to taking time away to purchase a meal and sit with coworkers to chit chat like I did in the office.  So I made a meeting with my boss, signed the paperwork, and signed up for the gym.  

Again, knowing myself and knowing my limits, I wanted to start slow and work my way up to a more rigorous regime.  I initially committed to going to the gym three times per week and simply walking for sixty minutes on a treadmill.  No intense fitness schedule.  No hardcore cardio regiments.  Just a simple pattern that would acclimate my body to the routine of going to the gym on a regular basis.  

It worked.

I've read over the years that in order to build a habit, you need to so something consistently for three weeks.  After three weeks, I found my behavior changing a bit.  Instead of fighting my desire to keep sitting on the couch with my laptop, I found myself laying out gym clothes on my dining room table.  Instead of shopping for cute shoes online, I went to a local shop to buy better gym shoes.  Overtime, it was just something I did.  Fitness was becoming habitual.  

It was a refreshing change.

In 2009, one year into the relationship in Athens, Greece.

I started this in mid-August and have slowly worked my way into a more intense workout routine.  I've stuck with the one hour time commitment (can't really do much else since it's all dependent on my lunch hour!) but have increased the intensity of my workout and even added one weekend day to the routine.  I no longer walk but instead have a pretty aggressive cardio program.  I don't see myself going much further beyond this going forward.  Four days per week is as much as I want to commit, particularly since I generally play 6-10 hours worth of volleyball per week.  

In April of this year (2016) with my sister in Orlando, FL.

But of course, a gym routine is only part of any fitness plan.  If I wanted to really see change, I needed to change the way I was eating as well.  

THE DIET

This was the hard part.  And I still struggle with it quite a bit.

If you know me at all, you know that I love indulgent food and eschew many tidbits that are considered healthy.  

Fried chicken?  It's my religion.  

Fresh fruit?  Won't touch the stuff.  

Sweet potato pie in Evanston, IL.

Several pounds of smoked meat at Cooper's BBQ in Llano, TX.

Cereal milk ice cream from Milk Bar in New York City.

Even in my days of being a skinny-minny my diet often consisted of serious periods of restricting my caloric intake followed by a few days of full on binge eating.  Not a particularly healthy way to approach food, I admit.  But in those days my goal was to be skinny, not necessarily to be healthy.  As a man in his mid-thirties (Lord does it kill me to say that....), I wanted to make sure I was shaping my body into a better vessel but also focusing on my overall health.  I'm at the age when things start to creak and crack, blood pressure can rise, and cholesterol is an issue.  Health is no longer an aspect of life that's relegated entirely to vanity.  

After about a month of going to the gym, I made the decision to slowly start incorporating healthier food choices into my diet.  First - I cut ordering food from GrubHub down to once a week.  That might not seem like a big deal but you probably didn't order 3-5 meals per week like I did.  A weekly diet that included pad thai, crab rangoon, fried chicken, pizza, and lamb vindaloo was delicious, but enormously fattening.  Hence, all the fat encasing my body.

I'll admit there was a fairly steep withdrawal period that tested my will to live.  Perhaps a little dramatic, but still ... the struggle is REAL people.  Food is a huge part of my life, and I thrive on eating tasty delights as often as possible.  It was a very difficult process to change my mindset and focus on what I was putting into my body from a health perspective instead of a taste perspective.  There's a bit of overlap on those two things but not nearly enough to make the transition easy.  

Eventually I adapted my Grubhub regiment to treating myself only once per week to a delivered meal, and over time that meal was narrowed further into a once weekly order from a local Middle Eastern restaurant that would bring me a whole grilled fish filet, some rice, and lentil soup.  Doing good but tasting great!

With only one GrubHub delivery per week, that meant I needed to start making my own food.  Even when I was thinner I almost never cooked for myself though.  I snacked on a lot of pre-packaged low-calorie foods but never really had meals that I cooked.   Clearly that needed to change going forward.  

And it has.

I now cook dinner at home between 3-4 time per week.  I still eat out with friends on average 1-2 times per week and with the amount I'm cooking at night I often have enough leftovers for dinner or lunch the next day.  I've actually really enjoyed exploring cooking from a healthy perspective.  By doing it myself I have the ability to explore flavors that I find interesting and create healthy foods that play to my interests.  

I now eat breakfast almost every day.  Breakfast was a myth to me in the past.  Something I had heard about but had never really seen or believed in.  As I mentioned several times above, I'm not much of a morning person.  When given the choice of sleeping more or waking up for breakfast, I always chose to sleep more and then eat a large and unhealthy lunch.  No longer.  I make sure to start the day right with something filling and tasty.  

My latest obsession - overnight oats and chia seed porridge.  They're very easy to make (usually less than 2 minutes!) and are very flexible in terms of flavors and ingredients you can use.  With a healthy base to work off of, you can get creative and throw in different healthy additional items to create fun flavor profiles.  From the top left and going clockwise above I have pomegranate, carrot cheesecake, cranberry lemon, and honey & peanut butter breakfast porridges that I've experimented with.  

I've also been working on making lunch and dinner healthy.  I'm half-Japanese and my overall taste in food leans pretty heavily in the Asian direction.  Since eating white rice is a cultural building block I'm never going to walk away from, I've really needed to focus on making sure the remainder of the food I make for meals is pretty low-calorie and high in nutrition.  Like the spicy miso baked chicken with green onions and mushrooms above.  

Overall, I've been very successful modifying the way that I eat and I've seen a lot of success sticking with a healthy mindset and fit-focused meals.  

THE RESULTS

It's been about three months since I started my fitness journey and I've lost about 38 lbs to date.  

Down 25 lbs in Berlin, Germany, in mid-October, 2016 with my fiance and five of my best friends.

Down 35 lbs at home with my dogs the first week of November, 2016.

I've been very, very happy with my progress to date and I've noticed several real impacts on my daily life.  

  • Clothes have stopped fitting me.  I have had to purchase several new pairs of pants and shirts, and with the dropping temperatures I just discovered I will need to purchase new coats as well.

  • While doing a ten day trip through Europe walking through Berlin, Budapest, and Valletta (which is very hilly), I was able to walk around without gasping for breath or stopping to rest every thirty minutes.  I was able to engage in constant physical activity comfortably.

  • Traveling is easier.  Getting from gate to gate during a connection no longer leaves me winded.  I am able to fit easier into standard economy class seats on domestic and international flights and I no longer feel self-conscious about fitting next to people on crowded flights.

  • When I take the train to and from work, I am much less likely to end up with an empty seat next to me for the entire trip.  At 240+ lbs, I often would find that people choose to simply stand when the train was crowded rather than sit next to me.  While I enjoy the extra room it has done wonders for my self-confidence to have people start sitting instead.

Sitting in the airport watching my own Snapchat feed seems like a pretty simple way tp pass some time but it ended up having a deep impact on my life.  I had known for awhile that I needed to make a change in my life but hearing myself wheezing on film, struggling for air while exploring a beautiful new city was a wake up call.  Travel is something that I love with all my heart and I want to enjoy it without a constant reminder that I've been neglecting my health for almost a decade.  

I'm very happy with the progress I've made and plan to continue focusing on my health whether I am at home or on the road.  Keep your eyes open for a future blog post discussing some of the difficulties of exercising and eating healthy while traveling!

Review: Salana Boutique Hotel - Vientiane, Laos

For a capital city, Vientiane is an awfully small and sleepy location.  Hugging the banks of the Mekong River along the border with Thailand, the city isn't as sexy or well known on the tourist circuit as its neighor to the north - Luang Prabang.  But let me assure you, it has charm nonetheless.

Vientiane was the second stop on our three city tour of Southeast Asia after spending several days further south in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to tour the crumbling ruins of Angkor Wat.  If you've followed the blog at all you know that I'm not driven by any hotel loyalty or desire to obtain/retain elite status in various programs, so I'm strictly looking at the cost/value proposition being offered by different properties.  

Vientiane isn't a bustling metropolis like many of its neighboring capitals, but there are a handful of name brand properties open or opening.  Tourism is growing, though there still seems to be a relative dearth of hotel options.  Since we were on a bit of a romantic couples getaway, the goal was affordable luxury.  The pickings were pretty slim in this arena, but after some careful consideration I selected the Salana Boutique Hotel.  

What did it have going for it that drove our decision?  

  • Large rooms with separate, private bathrooms.

  • Air conditioning.

  • A location a few blocks off of the Mekong River which meant it was a good location for shopping and dining.

  • Free wifi.

  • Free breakfast included in the room rate.

At the time of our stay, it was also rated the best hotel in Vientiane on TripAdvisor, though it appears to have slipped to second place since.  While I don't put too much weight into TripAdvisor reviews, it's nice to see that the overall consensus was positive.  

Our rate also included free airport transfers, which doesn't seem to be offered by the property any longer.  We were met by a smiling man with a "Salana" name board in the rather small arrivals hall at Vientiane's airport.  He quickly took both of our bags into his hands and escorted us out to the parking lot where a small passenger van with plush leather seats was waiting (A/C blasting!) to zip us off to the hotel, which was about 15 minutes away.  Chilled bottles of water were offered to both of us, which was welcome in the sweltering Lao heat, topping 110º Fahrenheit plus humidity during our stay.  

Salana is an L-shaped hotel that occupies a nice piece of real estate on a corner right smack in the center of the hotel and restaurant epicenter of Vientiane.  The van dropped us off out front and we quickly made our way indoors to get out of the heat.  The lobby is modern and spacious, a mix of dark tropical woods and rich fabrics.   

The check-in desk was actually just that - a desk off to the side of the lobby.  Unmanned at the time we walked in, a little mural of tropical fronds decorated the wall behind it.  As if on cue, a man appeared from behind the office doors next to the desk and welcomed us to the hotel.  He directed us to sit down in the cluster of chairs not in front of the desk but off to the side with a table and more space.

He was expecting us so once we handed over our credit card for the stay, he headed back to the desk to process the check-in.  In the mean time, another staff member emerged from the the hotel's restaurant to drop off two martini glasses filled with  fruit juice mixture that was both refreshing and tasty.  A nice little welcome amenity!

Yet another staff member wheeled our luggage into the lobby from the van on a small luggage rack.  He left it near the door while he walked over to the desk and picked up our room key from the desk clerk.  Our credit card was returned and we were invited to follow the bell man up to our room on the top floor.  The elevator wasn't very big, so we took the stairs up while the bell man took the elevator with our bags.  We offered to just take our own bags up but he insisted on taking them and showing us the room as well.

The room was quite spacious for two people as it was the largest/nicest room category they offered - the Salana Suite.  Just inside the door to the right was a small sink set into a cabinet which held some dishe.  There was also a small dining table with a radio/iPod dock set up.  To the left was a closet.  Inside was a key code operated safe, robes, slippers, and a basket for any laundry you wanted have done.  Prices were, as expected, inflated compared to what you could get done at a local laundry service but still very cheap for most visitors.  

On top of the cabinet with the sink was a hot water kettle and cups for water, tea, and hot chocolate.  Two bottles of water which were replaced daily were also provided.  A few bottles of liquor and snack packages were available as a form of mini-bar.  Again - inflated prices but still cheap for most visitors.  

Directly across from the room's door and the tables/sink area was a large, solid wooden coffee table and a couch.  It's a bit hard to see but the couch was one of those wide, deep-seat affairs that both my boyfriend and I love.  He's very tall so having the additional room to stretch out works well for him, and I'm just a big fan of anything, well, big.  A large lamp made out of wood was in the corner next to the couch.

The room is shaped line an L, and against the wall near the crook of the L-shape was a dresser for clothing storage with another iPod speaker as well as a wall-mounted flat screen television.  This meant that the TV was visible from both the couch and the bed, but not from the dining table.  Also, the TV was a bit small to watch comfortably from either location.  Programming as almost all in Thai or Lao, no international programming from BBC or CNN.  

The other half of the "L" was reserved for the sleeping area.  A very large (California King I'd wager, but simply listed as a king) bed sat with a padded bench at its foot.  Small night stands book ended the bed and a large golden metallic art piece of tropical flowers served as a pretty headboard.  The bed was firmer than I have at home but I still found it comfortable.  My boyfriend was less thrilled as he prefers a plush, soft bed.  

To the left of the bed was the entrance to the bathroom.  Inside the bathroom was a Jacuzzi tub on the right hand side.  I never ended up using this our entire stay so I cannot comment on the quality of the jets/experience.  When it's 110 degrees outside, you lose a little interest in hot water relaxation.  Who knew?

Moving from the tub from right to left were a toilet, sink and vanity, and then the rain shower.  

The toilet had a hose attachment for your spraying pleasure, which was the only noteworthy thing about it.  Otherwise it worked, and that's all that matters.  The sink and vanity area featured plenty of space for the two of us to lay out our array of products.  The only thing I didn't care for was the relatively small size of the mirror.  

The shower was roomy enough, though the water pressure wasn't fantastic.  It was definitely enough to comfortably shower, but not really a full power washing.  Overall the bathroom was the least impressive part of the room, though it was functional and that's acceptable for me to be satisfied on a trip.

On the vanity were a few odds and ends.  Glasses to use at the sink and then things like an extra tooth brush, shower cap, etc.

Shampoo, conditioner, and bath gel were all generic offerings but they smelled good and left me feeling clean after using them, so I didn't need anything fancy.  

As I mentioned we had booked the Salana Suite, the highest room category at the property.  Our top floor suite was in the crook of the hotel and had a wrap around balcony that overlooked the intersection below.  On one side was a temple complex, which oddly enough was less than peaceful as it was a hub of monks chatting and talking on their cell phones.  As you can see, the hotel is only a few short blocks from the shores of the Mekong River.  Plenty of great restaurants around this hotel, and Vientiane's night market sets up at the end of the street that heads to the river.  

Overall - we liked our stay here.  The service was top notch and very friendly.  From the servers at breakfast to the front desk staff, everyone seemed very down to earth and kind.  The location of the hotel was really ideal for dining and exploring during the evening.  The relatively few tourist sights in Vientiane are not in a single, consolidated area which means no hotel is going to be perfect for sightseeing.  The town is small and easy to navigate though, so that's not a big issue.  The hotel let us rent bicycles for a small fee and we found that ideal for getting around during the day, even if it was very sweaty.  

Final ruling - Recommended!

A Travel Wish List - Food Edition

If you've ever met me before, it's probably no surprise that much like a puppy or toddler I can very accurately be described as "food motivated."  Eating delicious food is one of the things that gives me the most joy in life and it definitely shapes the goals I set for myself when visiting a new destination.  Make no mistake - before my little half-Asian feet step inside the aluminum tube jetting me off to a fun new city, they've already done the leg work to identify a list of delicacies that I'll eventually be putting in my belly.  

My stomach's yearnings and my mind's wanderings aren't constrained by pending travel though.  No sir!  I keep a running mental list of things that I cannot wait to get on a platand devour with childlike glee.  I can often be found in yoga pants laying on my bed with my hair in a pony tail, legs kicking up and down and plucking petals off a flower as I daydream about the sweet and savory treats that await me across the globe.   

But why keep these thoughts to myself?  I figured I could write a little ditty listing the ten most eagerly anticipated bits of grub I've been dying to get my hands upon.  Who knows, maybe you'll be inspired to head out and eat a few of these things along with me.  Or maybe you've eaten one of them and can give me some feed back on how amazing (or overrated!) some of these dishes might be.  

So gird your food-loins people.  Here's a list full of food porn that's guaranteed to banana split your dairy queen.  

Canada - Pouding Chômeur

Translated as "unemployment pudding" or "pour man's pudding", pouding chômeur is a simple cake batter that is placed in a baking dish and then soaked in syrup or caramel.  When baked, the cake rises through the liquid, soaking through the pastry as it rises and caramelizes at the bottom.  The end result is a gooey, moist, sugary pillow of baked goodness that sounds like it might be worth committing a felony to taste.  

To quote a overplayed pop song on the radio recently - "Man, you wouldn't believe the amazing things that can come from some terrible nights."  That pretty much sums up the genesis of this delectable Canadian treat.  While it's unclear whether it was created for the unemployed or by the unemployed, the pudding has its roots in the Great Depression and the province of Quebec.  Originally made with chunks of stale bread, over the decades it has evolved into the more elegant cake variety that is so prevalent today.  

My only journey into this area of Canada was a quick weekend trip to Montreal during the height of winter.  While many would question my sanity for visiting with feet of snow covering the ground, I found the city to be full of life and quite charming.  I had an amazing weekend exploring despite frequent stops to defrost my body, which strengthened my resolve to return sometime in the future.  For some reason, the magic of pouding chômeur eluded my research and I left Montreal without managing to get my hands on a ramekin of this baked slice of heaven.  

I've been quietly plotting my return to Quebec every since and I'd say a solid 40% of that desire is driven entirely by my need to taste this treat.   

Egypt - Kanafeh

I've listed Egypt as the location to enjoy this particular parcel of pleasure, though in actually it's quite popular all over a large portion of the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey.  Egypt was singled out since the treat is quite popular there and I just happen to be headed that way in 2017.  Trust that I danced a little jig when I booked the plane tickets knowing that a mouthful of kanafeh was just a few months away!

Kanafeh is a mix of pastry and soft white cheese that is layered together and then soaked in rose or orange syrup, quite similar in process to the more familiar baklava.  While being soaked in syrup is enough to pique my interest, the textural interplay between the crunchy pastry and the creamy, soft cheese gives it that extra element of allure that brings it to my list.  

Its popularity across a large swath of land has lead to the development of three varieties of the dish.  Khishnah kanafeh is identified by the use of noodle-shaped pastry.  The cheese is often rolled in the noodles to coat the outside prior to soaking.  Na'ama kanafeh uses a semolina (wheat) dough to create a flatter, brownie shape.  Mhayara is a mixture of the noodle and semolina base in a single pastry.  Chopped pistachios are often used to garnish the dish.  

With its mixture of cream and crunch and the added kick of sugary syrup, you can bet that kanafeh will be one of the first things on my to-do list when I land in Cairo in February.  

Sri Lanka - Hot Buttered Cuttlefish

Following the attainment of independence from the British in the 1940s, Sri Lanka experienced a small wave of immigration from China.  While dwindling in numbers now, the impact of this migration can still be seen in the popularity of Chinese and Chinese-inspired foods throughout the teardrop-shaped island nation floating in the Indian Ocean.  

A true fusion food, hot buttered cuttlefish melds a variety of flavors and techniques from both nations to create what sounds like a delectable dish of mouthwatering proportions.  Featuring cuttlefish or squid, the meat is tossed in a batter and then quickly deep fried.  Once plated, the crispy rings of seafood are then slathered in a sauce created from a mix of butter, garlic, and chili paste.  As if that weren't enough, the dish is often garnished with a handful of chopped spring onion and roasted cashew nuts.  

There is genuinely zero redeeming health aspects to this dish, but forgive me if I don't give a shit.  The thought of crispy battered seafood, spicy/tangy sauce, and crunchy nuts is enough to throw every diet I've ever had to the wind and say good riddance.  Sri Lanka is another country that I've visited in the past but much like pouding chomeur I managed to miss out on this little local delicacy as I only caught wind of it about a year ago.  

Sadly, Sri Lankan cuisine isn't particularly common in my part of the world, let alone the subset of food that is Sri Lankan-Chinese fusion.  Looks like I'll have to plan a trip back to the nation formerly known as Ceylon to sate this hungry.  

Trust that I'm not too upset about that!

Peru - Picarones 

Surprise, surprise!  Another saccharinely sweet pastry from a corner of the globe that I'm just dying to get my lips around.  If anything I'm consistent, right?

I first read about picarones while doing a little research into the impact of the Spanish on Native American cultures during the colonial era (yes, I'm a nerd and actually look into stuff like that.  Wanna fight about it?).  The Spaniards that crossed the Atlantic craved little reminders of home, but their treasured little balls of fried, doughy goodness (bunuelos) turned out to be too difficult and expensive to prepare in the New World.  Denying colonizers the right to doughnuts doesn't seem like much but in my humble opinion this was a good first step for God's wrath.  Still, the desire for a sweet fried snack lead to the development of the picarone - a pastry made from sweet potatoes and squash (readily available in Peru, unlike the ingredients for bunuelos!).  

Shaped into rings and then deep fried much like a doughnut, the finished product is then dipped in or soaked in molasses flavored with orange peels.  Again, that interplay between crunchy fried dough and thick, sugary syrup is a texture profile that makes my tongue do a little jig in my mouth.  Peru (and much of South America) has escaped my wanderlust so far, but the minute I touchdown in Lima, you can bet I'll be on the hunt for a plate full of these little buggers.

China - Dragon Beard Candy

Chinese food is revered the world over as one of the great pillars of cuisine.  From xiao long bao to peking duck, the list of dishes from China that have beguiled the world goes on and on and on.  The one thing you likely won't find on that list though?  A dessert.  Whether fair or not, China is not known as a land where one with a sweet tooth would be happily sated.  

Maybe that perception can change though.  Consider dragon beard candy for a moment - a puffy pillow of spun sugary floss wrapped around a chewy core of crushed peanuts, flaky coconut, or sesame seeds.  As if that mixture of textures and flavors didn't sound enticing enough, the delicate nature of the confection means that it easily melts with the introduction of moisture.  Yes, it appears to literally be melt-in-your-mouth good!

Made almost entirely of sugar, oil, and high fat content items like peanuts and coconut, this isn't a light and healthy treat to end your meal.  But a little fanciful tidbit at the end of a meal never killed anyone.  Next time I'm in China, I'll have my eyes peeled for this flossy little nugget of goodness.

South Africa - Bunny Chow

Another entrant into the list that showcases the fusion of culture and cuisine that has defined our globe.  Bunny chow can be found all over South Africa but the coastal city of Durban is really the epicenter of this culinary oddity.  The origin of this dish is murky and there's really no consensus on how it came to be, but a few things are very clear - the importation of slaves and indentures laborers from India into South Africa by European colonial powers and the need for a portable, handheld meal were key to the creation of this savory pocket of deliciousness.  

How it got it's name is also up for debate, and to be honest I don't really care - as long as it taste's the way I think it will you can call it anything you want!

Starting with a hollowed out bread loaf and then filled to the brim with piping hot curry, the bunny chow is traditionally eaten by hand and guaranteed to be a messy meal.  The dish typically comes in three sizes - a rather self-explanatory quarter, half, or full loaf.  The curry filling is often bean or lentil-based to keep with the vegetarian diet of many Indians, though the use of meat curries (mutton and lamb are common) has grown popular since its inception.  Sadly, as far as I can tell, the ironic addition of a rabbit curry has yet to take hold in the country.  

Many shops that sell bunny chow will provide the removed bread stuffing on the side of the dish to give you more than enough to dip into the spicy curry.  Loaded with carbs and excessively large, this isn't the type of meal to eat when you're watching your waistline.  While I've been to South Africa before, I was unfortunately unable to track down a bunny chow during my stay due to the torrential downpour that blanketed the country for the majority of my stay.  South Africa (particularly Cape Town) was stunningly beautiful though, so I'm not heartbroken at the thought of making a return visit in the near future.  The ability to get my grubby little fingers on a loaf of bread stuff with curry is just icing on the cake.

France - Croquembouche

I have two words for you, people - PASTRY.  TOWER.  Close your eyes, open your mouth, and let that sink in to your metaphorical throat.  And yes, that imagery was intentionally sexual.  If you don't see the natural connection between food and sex, you're doing both wrong.  

Any who!

Behold the beauty that is the French croquembouche.  A conical spire of choux pastry (think eclairs or beignets) that's held together by a generous helping of caramel and its sheer magnificence, this wonder of the culinary world has spread past the borders of France and can often be found across Europe.  And can you blame people?  It looks amazingly delicious.

I think the aspect of this dish that really draws my interest is the "picking" part.  When I was a child, my American grandmother would always make monkey bread for us.  A simple mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and biscuit dough placed into a bundt cake dish and baked with copious amounts of butter, this is the flavor and tactile experience of my childhood.  The end product was a round circle of gooey bits that would be placed on a table and pulled apart slowly by anyone within smelling radius.

The instant I was introduced to the concept of the croquembouche I was reminded of this delicious treat from my grandmother's kitchen and the salivation started across the plane of my mouth.  While it is perhaps a more elegant version of the dish, I'm eager to find a way to to pick at a croquembouche the next time I find myself traipsing across France.

India/Pakistan - Shahi Tukda

Noticing a bit of a trend here?  I tend to favor bready, milky desserts over those with heavy chocolate.  That's because of an odd allergy quirk that plagues my existence that essentially prevents me from enjoying anything with chocolate.  I appreciate your thoughts and prayers but know that I've learned to cope over the years and do enjoy the vast array of non-chocolate desserts across the globe.

Like this pan-fried bread-based dessert from the Indian sub-continent!  

Various versions and names are attached to the dish depending on where you venture, but the overall ingredients and process remains the same - pan-fried slices of bread soaked in hot milk and sprinkled with nuts and spices.  The bread is often pan-fried in ghee, a clarified butter that's commonly used in Indian cooking.  Cardamon and saffron form the base of the seasoning.  Once sufficiently crispy and soaked, pistachios, cashews, almonds, and dried fruits are sprinkled over the top.  Make sure you take your Lactaid before digging into this dish, folks!  But come on - sweet, milk-soaked fried bread is worth it!

Sadly I've been to India four times and have yet to cross paths with this delightful dish.  From what I gather it's quite common during Ramadan and on Eid, which might explain why I have  yet to see it.  Four times is far from enough when it comes to visiting India though, so rest assured I'll be back and looking for this on every street corner.

Colombia/Venezuela - Arepa

Moving away from the sweet and back to the savory for a minute, let's talk about my desire to enjoy an arepa!

I was first made aware of these little corn patties by friends who would either be visiting the various countries in Central and South America where these are made or from friends here in Chicago who were enjoying them at little Latin food joints across the city.  The photos looked amazing and I immediately went to Wikipedia to learn a little more.  Discovering that they were thick patty-like slabs of bread made from corn flour, I was already sold.  Corn is one of my favorite types of food.  I love corn flakes.  Corn bread.  I even ate and liked corn ice cream in Singapore.  I'm half-Japanese but my other half is Midwestern and corn-fed.  

While arepas in and of themselves sound delicious to me, they're often taken to the next level by being stuffed with a variety of ingredients to create a sandwich of sorts.  What tickles your fancy today?  Shredded beef?  Fried plantains?  Maybe some black beans and mango salsa?  You name it - it's possible.  While I haven't really spent much time exploring Central or South America, I'm eagerly looking forward to a time when I can eat arepas on the regular.  

Philippines - Budbud Kabog

I've traveled through 18 countries in Asia, but the Philippines has eluded me so far.  An archipelago stretching from Taiwan to Papau New Guinea, the cuisine of this island nation has a special place in my heart.  Growing up on US navy bases across the Pacific Rim, many of my friends were Filipino.  Having Filipino friends growing up translates into a ton of Filipino food being fed to you by friendly mothers who are very concerned you aren't eating enough.  Pancit, lumpia, adobo.  You name it, I gorged on it and still crave it to this day.

Which is why budbud kabog caught my eye recently.  With as much experience as I have eating Filipino food, this sweet treat of stewed millet and coconut wrapped in a banana leaf never crossed my path.  While it is indeed another milky dessert, the prospect of eating millet is really what intrigues me.  A grain that is generally seen as one of the main components of common bird seed, it actually is a rather good product for foods and desserts due to its natural nutty flavor.

Throw in the coconut and I'm solidly sold on this dish.  Coconut is pretty much one of my five basic food groups, so my interest is essentially a given.  The dish features fresh coconut meat scrapped from the shell as well as coconut used during the stewing process for the millet.  Wrapped in banana leaves and left to steam over a pot of boiling water, the potential sweet, nutty goodness of this dish is mouth watering.  

The Philippines has a lot to offer - gorgeous beaches, colonial history, jungle-covered islands to hop to and fro.  Even with all that, budbud kabog is one of the things calling me to visit.

So there you have it - the top ten foods on my travel wish list.  Have you eaten any of these?  If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts!