Armenia, Defying Expectations (Part 1)

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I am going to die. I am going to be killed and no one will ever know what happened to me. I’ll be lucky if he holds me for ransom. That’s it. That will be the story of Sean Chase. My gravestone will read “who wandered and was lost” as my epithet.

A single bead of sweat started down my hairy brow. There was nothing to stop it, since I’d shaved my head clean the day before the flight. It was an exciting day, I thought. I was anticipating a new adventure, but this was not quite what I imagined. The driver was a surly old man about a head smaller than me but sturdier in build. The veins popped out of his arm like lightning bolts as he gripped to turn the heavy steering wheel of the old, black S class Mercedes-Benz, a common sight in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

Why is it so hard to simply get a taxi without having to worry about one’s life?

And here I had just gotten off an enjoyable flight too. I recalled successfully flirting my way into getting the contact info of cute Tatiana, the tourist sitting next to me as she was flying back to her native St. Petersburg (On my list now!) having flown in from California via the Russian carrier Aeroflot.  At around $700 roundtrip, they offer daily flights from Los Angeles to Yerevan with a brief connection in Moscow. As I stepped out of Armenia’s Zvartnots International Airport, I had turned on Caution Mode as I normally do in such situations. Basically, whenever you are in an unfamiliar place it is wise to heighten your sense of awareness, skepticism and discreetness.

Fortunately, with my looks I could somewhat pass for an Armenian… so I pretended to be a local waiting for my ride as the other passengers from the plane got surged by the hawkers looking to score a—no doubt—overly inflated passenger fare. I approached a yellow marked cab outside the terminal and looked around for the driver. That’s when Bruno approached me.

Okay, his name wasn’t really Bruno.

Probably.

But he might as well have been, given the way he looked. Thinking that he was the cab driver, I said that my destination was the Marriott near the center of Yerevan. He gave me an affirmative nod and took my bags… unexpectedly away from the yellow cab!

I followed him wondering what the hell was going on! Speaking at him proved futile as he didn’t seem to hear my English, nor did I seem to understand his Armenian. Well sh*t.

A short distance at a side parking lot near the small airport, and he loaded the bags into the unmarked black Benz. Now at that point, I have no idea what compelled me to get in… Cultural pressures perhaps, I’m still not certain. In Rome, the best advice is to do as the Romans do. Or so they keep saying.

And that, my friends, is basically how we got into my present predicament.

Now picture this. Riding down the street away from the airport in a completely unfamiliar culture smack dab in the middle of a very chaotic place on Earth in the middle of the dark night in what could have easily been a getaway car with a guy who looked like a Moroccan hitman, one might be justified enough to pee in one’s favored Levi’s jeans…

I attempted to strike up several conversations with the man and each time Bruno nodded and smiled. Confirmed, I thought. He doesn’t know a lick of English.

But you know what? Despite the circumstance I did not panic. “But Sean, HOW were you SO brave,” I hear you ask? Well, three good reasons.

One, we did not deviate from the route. I came prepared you see. I took advantage of the fact that I am good with maps and directions and memorized the way from the airport to Marriott. (God bless Google Maps.) This is something I highly recommend anyone do when going to a strange new land. Know where things are and how to get from one place to the other. Not having that knowledge puts you at a disadvantage. “Information is ammunition” I always like to say.

Two, his body language did not indicate any form of hostile or malicious intent. When you travel often, you’ll come across many a scenario where the language barrier is as thick as your stubborn little brother’s head. Fortunately, body language is somewhat universal and that is what gets me through such sticky situations. Bruno had no nervous twitches. His eyes did not dart back at me on his rear view mirror, his posture was relaxed and open with his elbow leaning out the window, his legs were apart and the feet were pointed away from each other. One of these days I’ll have to blog more about body language, but for now what that meant was that there was not some significant hidden intent that would cause him to be anxious. He’d probably been working all day up through the moment he picked me up which was around midnight.

It was bad enough that my double S.O.B. granted me only a measly 3 days time off to go to my family reunion halfway across the world, I was not about to let some potential taxi-driver-kidnaps-the-stupid-tourist-and-ransoms-his-*ss-for-a-hundred-dollars scenario ruin my d*mn vacation!

What’s the third reason?

As I sat behind him in the car assessing the situation, my mind had already run a thousand deadly simulations on how to kill him efficiently if he pulled something funny.

True story.

Anyway, as we finally pulled up to the Marriott, I breathed a sigh of relief… I’ve never killed anyone before and didn’t want to go all Jason Bourne on him.

Armenia01_pano

Yerevan’s Republic Square as seen from the Marriott

One lesson I’d learned though, is that it is much more stress-free if you arrange to have the hotel provide you with a ride from the airport. I swear Bruno billed me three times more than what I heard him say it would cost before taking the ride. Turns out he was just a cab driver. A typical one at that. D*mn taxi drivers will always find a way to get ya, unlike in Mindanao.

After he drove off, I was left standing in the center of Yerevan. It took but a second for me to realize why I was there in the first place, for family and for adventure. I looked around to reorient myself and shake off that feeling you always get when you feel cheated. The dark, angry clouds disappeared from my mind and I stood in awe at the nighttime splendour of Republic Square.

You can feel the importance of Republic Square simply by just being there. The Marriott Hotel where I was supposed to meet my family was right across from the Government House of Armenia (Curiously, I was surprised to find out that Armenia has both a President and a Prime Minister) which was right next to one of their most popular museums, the National Gallery.

When I think back to the beauty I witnessed as I was standing there… I can pinpoint that this was the moment my preconceptions of this country and its people started to gradually dissolve.

I came to find out that not only was Yerevan one of the oldest continuously thriving cities in the world, but that it was one of the safest as well. I would soon learn that the people pride themselves in being able to walk their streets at any hour without having to worry about their well-being.

As probably one of the only Christian countries in the Middle Eastern region, the women walk openly without fear. You can see Christians and Muslims walking side by side peacefully. Not once did I see a Muslim sneer at a local or a tourist or vice versa. I remember ogling a model-like blonde walking by with her fake breasts pouring out of a tight dress. Just then, a conservatively dressed, hijab-wearing wife who was out strolling with her husband smiled at the bombshell (the more preferable kind of ‘bombshell’), who also smiled back at them. Perhaps I am just getting more cynical as I grow older, but the experience in Armenia was turning out to be a much needed breath of fresh air. I never expected the people and the country to turn out to be the way it had.

Just now, a beautiful quote came to mind which I want to share with you all:

The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” -Samuel Johnson

And so, my wall of ignorance began to break down.

And yet, there was much more to explore in this wonderful Country of Churches, Pomegranates and Brandy. Stay tuned for my next post!

 

Reinvigorated

Hello everyone!

It’s been a long while since my last post. It’s been a very challenging past couple of years for me.

I got mired in a bad business deal with some folks I thought I could trust. The penalty was a very steep learning curve, costing me a few years of being in a debt pit about twenty thousand deep. Well, I’m climbing out of that pit a dollar at a time and I’m nearly free.

On top of all of that… was work, where I had to deal with (putting it nicely) a very challenging boss. I heard it said once that boss is double S.O.B. spelt backwards. Hah!

The good news is that all that is behind me for the most part.

I have relocated to Portland in the great Northwest which is a new frontier for me. A new exciting location, a new wonderful job, and a fresh new situation. I am happy to say that things are stabilizing quite well.

So now, it’s all a matter of time before I can put my plans into action.

Recently, I’ve explored a few new places which I will eventually share here with all of you. There was a family reunion in Armenia (of all places) and an epic Eastern Europe trip to talk about!

As always, we’ll use code names for the people involved to protect identities. Especially these days when the Net seems nastier and scarier. Hopefully, we can add a ray of sunshine to our corner of cyberspace.

Speaking of identity protection, I’ve chosen to adopt a pseudonym. For those who know me in real life, please start referring to me by my pen name, Sean Chase, while we’re on here. Or if you prefer simplicity: the Summer Chaser. =)

I appreciate it.

Now, the next order of business… Updating my list of places explored!

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone for liking my Face Book page. Now that I have more time, I shall practice my writing by sharing my stories, tips, adventures and experiences. Stay tuned for more!

Uncovering a Hidden Gem: Camiguin, Philippines

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I can’t help it.

I find it very difficult not to return to the Philippines. This is going to be the fourth time now in a span of just a few years. The place just has SO MUCH to offer. Before moving to California, I lived there for over a decade… yet only now do I realize how much of these islands I haven’t experienced yet.

Mantigue Island, read on...

Some of the best beaches in the world are found right here, in the Pearl of the Orient Seas.

The first time I went back was after almost 9 years of being away from my Motherland. I pretty much just kept it local to Manila, except for a quick trip to my old university in Los Baños, Laguna. I met up with relatives and old friends, not really doing much in the way of sight-seeing. But it was that first trip that sparked a curiosity in me. To the Westerners, you will find that the cost of living there, the prices of locally made goods, as well as that of labor and service to be very affordable. This makes Geo-Arbitration a very potent and efficient way to stretch your money. The efforts put towards earning Dollars or Euros but choosing to spend them as Pesos allows you get a lot more out of it. As a broad generalization, think of always being able to get about 50% off on the things you normally buy; That Happy Meal your kids bug you about, the monthly deep tissue massage at the mall, your weekly groceries, and don’t even get me started on housing rent or mortgage… It was this initial trip back to that breathtaking group of Pacific Islands that brought these facts to the front page of my mind. And it wasn’t like I didn’t already expect prices to be cheaper, but there I was bewildered with the fact that I could take a trip there with a couple thousand bucks, drink, eat and party like a king and still fly back to California with a third of my pocket money left untouched.

During that first trip, before even setting foot out of the country, I had already made up my mind on when the next Philippines trip would be. It was in part to attend my best friend’s wedding, but also to satiate my lust for adventure, that I set my sights on the target. The legendary Palawan: A truly wild and green part of the Philippines that kept me living in the moment. What a delightful expedition that turned out to be!

During this time my good friend and brother, NWA, cast off his chains and lived up to his code name: Never Winter Again. He is now living in the Philippines full time while taking full advantage of Geo-Arbitration. I admit, I am very jealous of his situation and am constantly striving to achieve a similar lifestyle. A journey which I use this blog to document. What he was able to pull off is a big inspiration that has guided me to my current belief system. It was some time after my second trip that he spoke to me of “A diamond in the rough,” -his exact words. I made it a mission to go there and see this island called Camiguin (kah-mi-GEEN) with my own eyes and share it with you here.

Camiguin is one of the smaller islands in the Philippines but is considered its own province. It is divided into 5 municipalities, with the largest, Mambajao (mam-bah-HOW) serving as the provincial seat where it’s governor takes office. Due to it being located right off the northern coast of the second largest island in the Philippine archipelago which is Mindanao, Camiguin is technically part of the Mindanao Region and not in the Visayas, at least politically speaking. It has a round shape and is often imagined by the locals to look like the delicious lanzones fruits for which it is nationally well known to produce. Heck, the culture there is so tied to the fruit, they even have lanzones festivals to celebrate the harvest season.

If you’ve never seen one before, the lanzones is a small, spherical, yellow fruit that grows in bunches on a type of mahogany tree. The fruit itself has a thin skin that you can easily peel off to get to the edible part. Watch out for the seeds, they’re bitter if you bite into them. Normally, lanzones have a sour zing to them however the ones I’ve tasted from this island have a much sweeter tickle to my taste buds… which is perhaps due to the nutrient rich volcanic soil they grow on.

Speaking of volcanoes, Camiguin has 7 of them! That’s right, SEVEN. The last recorded eruption was back in 1951, which killed about 3,000 people with pyroclastic lava flows and poisonous gases. Something about that fact still gives me a tinge of adrenalin rush when I think of it… The entire time I was there, at the corner of my mind lofted the fact that I could very suddenly find myself in hot water (literally!) at anytime. I came across several tourist guides that referred to place as “the Island born of Fire,” I also found out that this was one of the few provinces that had a dedicated outpost and research station operated by PHIVOLCS, the national entity that monitors volcanic activity. To me, both were subtle reminders of how short life is, cementing in my mind why the lifestyle path I’ve chosen to take, that of living in each moment, is thus far the correct decision.

As seen from White Island

Camiguin: The Island Born of Fire

NWA had a lot of good things to say about the place and having been there ahead of me, he had made some connections with locals. To my surprise, he said a good number of foreigners had decided to settle in Camiguin. I sought out to answer my question of why; what made this place so settle-down-worthy?

We planned to take a quick jaunt over to Camiguin during the latter part of my third ‘Pinas trip (The affectionate nickname is comes from Pilipinas which is what we Filipinos call our country.) We took a Cebu Pacific flight from Manila to Cagayan de Oro, the most urban area in Misamis Oriental which is the nearest province in northern Mindanao to our destination. After arrival, you have several options. We took a 2 hour shuttle van ride to a ferry terminal still further north of the province and traveled by ferry for about an hour to one of three ports of entry, this one being Benoni, in southeastern Camiguin. In hindsight, it turned out to be a mistake since the more time-efficient way would have been to take a flight to Cebu and make a connecting flight to the small airport in Mambajao. Ah well, as my uncle always said: charge it to experience.

NWA, helped plan the details of the trip. He brought along with us, his girlfriend (we’ll call her Maya) and her friend whom she used to work with, let’s give her the code name Inday (in-DIE,) both of whom proved to be such sweethearts during the trip and were representative of the compassionate and caring nature which epitomize the Filipina character. Inday was born in Camiguin and was eager to revisit her family and she was to be our guide and translator. Even though a good number of the locals could speak English and Tagalog (Filipino) it’s still very useful to have someone who could speak the local dialect. If anything, as a good way to haggle or negotiate for good deals. It caught me off-guard that Maya and Inday had never been on-board an airplane before. Having been in the air as early as I was three months old, it was easy for me to take something like an hour-and-a-half flight for granted. The mixed excitement and apprehension in their eyes gave me a glimpse into what it must be like to, for the first time, find yourself in a fragile can of metal and plastic and be thousands of feet in the air as you are propelled forward by aviation science. I chatted with Inday to ease her mind. It turns out that she had left her province a couple of years ago for the allure of the career opportunities in Manila. This is a very familiar story to most Filipinos, as there are many who set out to the big city to seek out their fortunes. Personally, I think it’s a mistake for everyone to crowd into the capital when there are so many other places in the country that could use development from the enterprising and ambitious provincial. This sort of Centralization mentality can have it’s uses, but the glaring disadvantage is that it keeps the poverty line at status quo. Aaaanyhow… that’s a conversation for another time.

~

Once we set foot on the island, we were picked up by a shuttle van courtesy of the resort we were booked to stay at, a place called Dayon sa Cabuan. We embarked upon Camiguin’s main artery of transportation which is called the Circumferential Road because it encircles the entire island along its coast. Shocking. I know. It took about 30 minutes to traverse there from the port. Upon arriving, we found it to be a modest resort, very easy on the pocket and had great service. It sprawled over a rather large strand with a lawn that led to the coast. There was a simple wooden fishing pier that jutted out to the relaxed waters. The fruit trees that dotted the resort swayed to the calm sea breeze. Rooms were in separate housing that were spaced apart from each other for ample privacy. We set our belongings down and asked the driver to drop us off to meet a college friend of NWA’s who lived nearby.

The meeting place was at a local open air bar, known as the Northern Lights. It was a gorgeous little place. We were greeted by Paul who met us at entrance to the charming restaurant/bar (commonly called “resto-bars.”) He was somewhat popular around town and had a long family history tied to the island. It turns out that he and Inday knew of each other. Ahhh, talk about the simple life on the small island where the people are pleasant and nice. Imagine that! I was slowly beginning to see why foreigners were opting to settle down here.

After feasting on good food and a few drinks, Paul drove us to the middle of the provincial capitol for some souvenir shopping. We got to finally taste another enjoyable edible that Camiguin is well known for, the heavenly pastry called Pastel. Pastel de Camiguin, is a bun baked with yema filling which is a sweet derivative of egg yolk. It’s history goes back more than a century ago with the birth of its creator, Agrepina Gultiano who turned it into a successful commercial business. Today, the pastries are filled with authentic Filipino flavors such as Ube (purple yam), Makapuno (a sweet product of coconut flesh) or Leche Flan (baked custard), and now you can even try strawberry and mocha flavored Pastel. Though I still think nothing beats the original yema filling. Each of us loaded up on boxes of Pastel and along with our lanzones in tow, we would randomly snack on them for the rest of our stay. NWA and I got into the habit of taking bites out of the Pastel bun until we’ve eaten most of the bread and all that’s left is pretty much the yema filling. Saving the sweetest part for last, we’d would drown out our palettes with these overpowering flavors! It’s in line with one of our guiding principles in life: Work hard, play hard.

At the market, Inday made plans to meet with her younger sister. She was from a big family and had numerous brothers and sisters. This one was the closest in age to her and was rather cute. Inday, if you are reading this…😉

That's quite a drop!

Katibawasan Falls

*ahem* … Paul then drove us up into the volcanoes and tropical jungles towards one of the tourist attractions there, Katibawasan Falls. We parked along a gravel lot surrounded by souvenir stalls. Paul bought a local treat for all of us. The name escapes me right now, but I think it was called kiping. It was a crunchy type of hard wafer that was shaped like a bowl or plate. Sweet, chocolate-y syrup is sprinkled over it. Be The obligatory "Look, I'm catching all the water in my hands!" photo posecareful as you walk up the path to the water falls, a brood of hungry chickens will follow you around hoping to have a peck of your delicious kiping! Pesky chickens. The kiping is mine! After a short stroll up the hill, we looked down towards a majestic pool that collected the cold mountain waters. The view was spectacular. We made our way down cautiously while making sure the chicken assault team stopped following us (they did.) NWA immediately checked in to the cool pond and stepped under the thunderous falls to shower. Looking up from the pool, the mountains and trees encircled us as if we were gladiators in an arena and they were the spectators. The girls and I took the mandatory photos posing by the waterfalls. Maya, despite her absurd fear of sea monsters, decided to brave the pool with her boyfriend. She cautiously stepped in and was feeling the waterbed Hell hath no fury like Maya in water imagining sea creatures...with her feet for anything alarmingly weird. NWA held her hand as he gallantly led her deeper. I really did not expect her fear to expand the borders of irrationality, so I jokingly called out to her “No need to fear [Maya], there are no sharks here. Sharks are afraid of crocodiles…” It took only a split second for her to go crazier than a sack of bees. She hopped on NWA’s back and cried out as she flailed about with one hand while the other covered his vision. I felt so bad after the initial chuckles wore off. Note to self: Don’t joke to Maya about sea creatures lest someone loses an eye.

After consuming our fill of unique treats and pure mountain spring, we loaded ourselves onto Paul’s van and were dropped off at the center of town. Paul had to go home and check on his kids while we accompanied Inday to her family who had prepared dinner for us, partly as a custom of hospitality, but also to thank us for bringing their daughter back home to visit them. The four of us each took one of the numerous scooter bikes, used by the locals to shuttle people around town. The operators would charge a small fee to ferry passengers sitting behind them to anywhere nearby. Eight people and four scooters set off towards Inday’s home. We would goad each other with jeers into a sort of race whenever one scooter overtook the other. Inday won in the end (I think she totally cheated by talking to her driver in their language to speed up and finish first!😛 )

Soon the pavement ended and we were dropped off. After paying our transport, the exciting moonlight hike started. It was dark and the only source of luminescence was the full moon above and the twinkling stars. We’d pass by the occasional nipa hut along the grassy path. It was remarkable how Inday could navigate through the fields, she still remembered the place like the back of her hand. Once in a while we’d pass by people who greeted her along the way. NWA and Maya were walking hand in hand, so I put Inday’s arm around mine and flirtatiously joked around to keep to the mood. I teased her about whether her dad would accept me or bring out the shotgun… She returned the jokes by saying not to worry “darling,” that her dad had poor aim. We laughed all the way to their humble residence. Inday’s brothers and sisters all ran out to greet her. It was quite the happy occasion. She introduced us to them one by one and we greeted her parents, snickering about our earlier private jokes. A bead of sweat would always be present over my brow whenever her dad, a strong and silent type, would disappear behind the plain cottage. It abruptly occurred to me that you really don’t need to aim well with a shotgun…

Again we feasted in the abundant local food. The laughter and merriment were thick in the air around us as the local kids, Inday’s brothers, sisters and their cousins and friends fed their curiosity at the sight of their visitors. We chatted with her parents, who were farmers and caretakers of the local land. Theirs was a simple, happy life far removed from the smart phone obsession and social media frenzy the rest of us were up to our eyeballs in. It was very refreshing to escape the complexities of urban living, even for a little while.

With full stomachs we said our goodbyes and left Inday to spend the night with her family. Paul picked us up a short while later right by the paved road, the night was not over yet.

~

Casa Roca was an exquisite bed and breakfast, an island mansion nestled upon the wave-stopping cliffs. We found ourselves in the resto-bar that lounged from the front door on the main floor of the mansion to the open air courtyard outside. We were warmly welcomed by the owners, Jim and Evelyn whom Paul knew and NWA had previously already met. Jim was a Canadian expat who resided there with his lovely fiancé, Evelyn. By the time of this writing, the two lovebirds have since gotten married (Congratulations!) Evelyn excitedly gave us the grand tour of the upstairs where all the rooms were nestled. The master bedroom was like a picture torn out from the front cover of some ultimate romance novel. Tropical style ceiling fans made of rattan, pearly-white veils draped over the king sized bed, open air windows inhaling the fresh sea air. I think I’ll stay here next time and bring some company. We sat by the table where Jim and Evelyn were entertaining an American expat and began to socialize. The cold beer was a perfect compliment to our earlier food fest while we traded stories. NWA held one of Jim’s guitars and Paul and I chatted with the American who lived in the city of Cagayan de Oro (CDO) with his Filipina wife but had a standing agreement that he would visit Camiguin for a week out of every month for relaxation. That seemed to be the theme around here with the men and women. Paul was no exception as his wife would similarly crave the urban setting and trek out to CDO every now and then for a shopping mall run. Do majority of men seek out simplicity and majority of women, excitement? It certainly seems so to me, now more than ever.

“Happiness is leisure.” -Aristotle

Next thing I know, my head was swimming in beer and we laid down to sleep for a bit back in the resort where Paul dropped us off at. He’d return the following morning. We got up early to maximize our last day, NWA and I had a motto to live up to: No Rest, No Shame. Inday came by to the resort after staying the night with her family and soon we were off to our first stop, White Island. If Camiguin were to ever be compared to a planet, it would have been like Mars who had two satellite moons. White Island being one of them, was so called because it was a sand bar composed entirely of strikingly white sand and shells. It was about a thirty minute boat ride off the shores of Camiguin. The boat operator would drop us off there along with the other tourist for about an hour while we walked around, took pictures, and had a picnic. They would return a few times to shuttle over other tourists and take us back when we were ready. One thing the city slicker should keep in mind about island life, is that schedules here are not set in stone. NWA and Maya took pictures by the beach and enjoyed the warm pacific waves. Paul, Inday and I laid down our beach towels and snacked on Pastel and Lanzones. Shortly after, a vendor came up to us selling sea urchin. (I know, right?!) They dove into the nearby waters and would harvest them, selling three for about 50 Pesos. Now, since I’m the type of guy that is very adventurous with food, I’ll try anything at least once and so I bit in. The vendor took one of the sea urchins from his wicker basket. NWA trying some Sea UrchinThey had a variety of dark colors. Some black, some grey and some even purple. He would carefully lay them on the beach and as if they knew they’d be eaten soon, they would try to slowly roll away by moving their spines. The vendor would chop off the spines so that they could be held more easily and he would crack them open like an egg. The hollow insides of a sea urchin have a trail of yellow sand-like goop in the shape of an asterisk with five points. It is precisely those yellow innards that is scooped up with a plastic spoon. If you frequent a sushi bar, you will recognize it as the edible sand grain looking substance that the Japanese call Uni. The difference here is that this is fresh off the sea and the vendor offers to add some vinegar to neutralize the briny taste. It was weird holding half the “shell” of the sea urchin, sort of like a cup, to scoop up the edible part soaked in vinegar. I could feel the rest of the chopped spines wiggling in my palm. If you are squeamish, please know that I wasn’t trying to gross you out… It was just such a unique “dining” experience that I’m always eager to try out and share. Even the girls sucked it up and courageously tried some uni. Before departing, I walked the stretch of the island and took a picture of some of the locals. Standing on the white beach, the back drop of the Camiguin volcanoes and the waves in between were a Facebook worthy cover photo.

I tried to invite him to dinner... Sadly, he declined.

One of the locals.

On the way to the next tourist stop, Paul took us to his home to pick up his kids. They were very excited to join us for a play day at the beach. He introduced us to all three of them plus one of their cousins. They were very well behaved and so charming. As they got their gear ready, Paul showed off some of his wood working skills, a sofa and a bed that he made with his own hands.

Our next stop!

Mantigue Island

At this point in our adventure, I was still not satisfied with the white sand we’d seen so far. My fetish for all things white seems to extend, not just to white chocolate and white women, but to friggin’ sand as well. Having been to Palawan the year before and marveling at El Nido’s gorgeous islets surrounded by the light yellow beaches, I was beginning to get disappointed with Camiguin’s drab, dirt-brown shores during our first day. But fortunately, there was another island nearby that would satiate my lust for everything alabaster. Mantigue (man-TEE-geh) was a fair sized circular island which you could walk in about thirty minutes around back to the point you started from. From our earlier Camiguin-Mars analogy, Mantigue would be the other “moon” just to the southeast of her mother island. The beach was as white as the previous sand bar and there was a jungle of sorts in the middle. It was the kind of deserted island you’d dream about getting stranded on… except… well, it’s not exactly deserted. On the eastern side of the island are some transients that have settled there, building a small community of huts. From what I understand, they are typhoon victims from another island called Bohol, further north. Mantigue Island is a nature park of sorts, with a bridge-path through the jungles and plenty of coral preservation around it where divers could explore. After diving into the warm embrace of the aqua blue clear waters, Paul let loose the kids who were eager to join in with us. The waves were very welcoming and after about a half-hour we walked back and sat on the picnic benches where our food was prepared for us. Pork and fish with rice, prepared right on the island. After chowing down and stuffing my face, I laid down on one of the benches and took a nap while the others explored the vegetation inland and took a holy-sh*t-that’s-a-ton-of-photos with my phone. As for the nap, oh, how it was glorious. I relaxed into a smile as I tucked away all those office day memories in some closet at the farthest corner of my thoughts.

(Note to NWA: For the record, bro, I was *not* resting. True to our motto of No Rest, No Shame, I was very busy enjoying doing absolutely nothing.)

The time to leave was nearly upon us. We decided to take the second to the last ferry out of Camiguin. A very prudent course of action given how the locals view time and schedules as not something that is constant which has to be adhered to, rather, something that is lucid and flowing like the palm trees in the wind. When someone tells you that the ferry will leave at 3:00 o’clock, allow a thirty minute change in the schedule to occur before or after… Probably after.

As we waited for the ferry, we dined at the nearby J & A Fishpen Restaurant. They have floating huts interconnected by wooden bridges that wallow over their fishpens. The sea food was very fresh and delicious. They also had aviaries where hawk-like birds-of-prey know as “kites” were perched. Which meant, you guessed it, mandatory picture taking.

I want a pet Kite!!

The majestic Kite.

We left Camiguin soon after, but we had only touched upon the tip of what this enamoring island had to offer us. We didn’t even get to explore the wonders of the Sunken Cemetery, the Soda Water Pools, the hot and cold springs, Mt. Hibok-Hibok and other attractions. I was left wanting more and this would not be the last time I’d be there. Even at this very moment while I type up this article with the words to describe my experience in Camiguin flowing from my memories, I can feel the firm tug of wanderlust pulling me back. My fourth trip looms just over the horizon in a few more months, promising me another chance to uncover other hidden gems in the Philippines. It holds captive my attention and lights a burning desire under my imagination. I have my eye on Cebu, cradled in the bosom of the Philippines. I vow to plunge forth to discover its secrets and quell this hunger within me as it roars once more for adventure…

I really can’t help it.

El Nido, Off the Beaten Path

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A view of Orange Beach

A view overlooking Orange Beach, near the town of El Nido, in the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

Palawan is truly a wondrous place.

This elongated island that stretches to the southwest from just off the coast of the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon, is pretty much untouched by the generic throng of tourists who mostly favor such commercialized getaways as Boracay and Subic.

Fools! If they only knew…

Something that is really remarkable about Palawan is its vibe. Setting foot there during my last trip to the Philippine archipelago some weeks ago, I quickly noticed that there is still a very primal and adventurous aura that the place gives off. Few places I have ever been to have given me that impression. I smell excitement in its fresh air.

Palawan, home to about 25% of all species of animals in the Philippines, is a clean island with little-to-no crime. The people are friendly, hospitable, honest and acclimated to foreign visitors. There is also a very nature-loving culture in Palawan. Illegal logging and illegal fishing are successfully prevented. Littering is strictly prohibited and in certain parts of the island, so is smoking. In my opinion, Californians, Canadians and Europeans as well as any other environmentalists or adventurers would absolutely love it here.

And so began my memorable trek.

Luckily my good buddy, NWA, was on board, as were a couple of female friends we brought with us. Once we deplaned at the small, rural airport in Puerto Princesa (PP), arguably the most developed town in Palawan (after all, it is the provincial capitol) we walked to the terminal and collected our belongings. Tourists will find that they will immediately encounter stalls promoting the different tour packages available which are run by different tour agencies. We decided that since a fraternity brother of ours, a local who grew up in the island province, was unavailable to meet with us in PP due to the flu season bug floating around at the time, that we’d spend the first few days in Palawan at one of the most northern towns in the island, called El Nido (EN).

When one hears of EN, it is usually spoken with hushed, reverent tones. A place of beauty. Sights that spur wanderlust. It is here that the beaches of legend inspired the author, Alex Garland, to write his novel “The Beach” as seen in the film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio. More recently, the film “Bourne Legacy” was shot and filmed in the islands near EN.

I was excited to finally see the place for myself. And so I did.

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Now there are a few ways to get to EN…

  1. You can fly there directly from Manila. Not recommended, as it can be comparatively expensive. At around 7000.00 to 12,000.00 Philippine Pesos (Php) for a one way flight, depending on the season, it can’t compare to the deal we got from Cebu Pacific Airlines 690.00 Php (plus taxes and fees) for a one way flight to PP.
  2. Island Hopping by boat. Again, not recommended, the boats are probably not the type of boats you are hoping for. It will be smaller and flimsier than what you are imagining and the boat ride will take you hours on end. Only do this if you are a die hard adventurer.
  3. Take an air-conditioned shuttle van or a bus from PP that will clock about 5 to 6 hours over a winding, crooked, bumpy ride. Emphasis on bumpy.

One thing about taking a trip to the Philippines that you’ll want to remember (and also in most similar countries) is that it’s okay to haggle. Ask for 10-25% discounts. No one will judge you harshly for simply asking and peddlers will typically pad up the prices in anticipation of being bargained down. Being somewhat financially savvy, I discreetly went from stall to stall at the airport and got the tour operators to out bid each other. What should have normally been a 700.00 Php shuttle van ride per person to EN, ended up costing us 600.00 Php instead.

We left PP not long after and about three hours into the trip, the shuttle van stopped at an eatery for dinner. It’s a typical style of restaurant for most Filipinos. Rice plates and you pick an entree or ulam to go with it. Not much choice here… It seemed to me that the eatery had the lion’s share of shuttled tourists. They were probably in cahoots with the shuttle service…

The second leg of the trip was a lot more bumpy. The paved roads gave way to soil and rock and they were much more unforgiving. Remember what I said? Primal. I now understood why mainstream tourists have not poured into these western islands en masse. Further efficient development is necessary to make the towns more accessible and less rough on the travelers. Heck, the German guy traveling with us had to stop the van in order to hurl his road-sickness away as his Filipina girlfriend pat him encouragingly on the back by the roadside. That said, the experience gave me new respect for the people who *have* been to EN and made it back. It was a hard road getting to EN. Waaay off the beaten path. When the poor German guy finally felt a bit better, we continued on. I wasn’t feeling too well myself. Not because of the road-sickness… rather, I was starting to get feverish off the flu season that was sweeping through the country. Luckily, NWA was in a more social mood and chatted up the Filipino couple next to us. Oliver and his young wife, Rose, would later on share some of our EN adventure.

As we neared EN, Oliver had mentioned that they planned to stay at a modest hostel called the Sands Inn. Rooms there would only cost them 1200.00 Php for a non air-conditioned room for two. NWA and I looked at each other and nodded. There was something about this couple that seemed very agreeable to us. Oliver gave off an experienced man’s air. Probably in his early 40’s, he was well built and spoke with a calm, learned demeanour. His lovely young wife must have easily been half his age and was also very easy to talk to. These easy-going people are ‘one of us,’ we decided. We agreed to go along and stay at the Sands Inn as well.

At the ‘station’ (if it could be called that, since it consisted of nothing more than four posts, a steel roof and some bamboo benches) we stretched our stiff legs from the long ride. It was raining hard. The rainy season discouraged much of the tourists, but on the other hand, that made a trip to Palawan in the middle of September considerably cheaper. We didn’t mind. Philippine rain was as warm as I remembered it. Or perhaps it was only because Michigan rain was so damn cold in my memories… Hmmm. I must ponder this some other time…

We rode a tricycle to town. It was dark. So dark that I didn’t realize we were already in the midst of town when the driver dropped us off in front of the Inn. Stepping out of the rain, the Innkeeper, a kindly old lady greeted us with a candle lamp.

Apparently, there was a power outage. At first, I thought because of the storm but later learned that in EN, electricity is cut off on purpose during a set time in the wee hours of the night. A scheduled brown-out, she called it.

It made no sense for us then to book an air-conditioned room only to be left in the heat and without power at night. Our room ended up costing 1600.00 Php for the four of us. NWA crashed dead-tired on one bed to the side modest room. As for myself, I sweated off my fever on the bottom bunk of our double-decker bed. The two friends with us, Weng and Lovelly, tended to me that night. It warms my heart that Filipina women are so compassionate and caring. Lovelly went to the store and purchased some cold medicine, while little Weng made me some warm tea.

I felt much better in the morning. When the storm passed, so did my fever, it seemed. I woke up to this view from the hostel balcony.

View from the Sands Inn

Everyone should wake up to this view, at least once in a while.

We spent the first day in EN just relaxing. Oliver and Rose had disappeared, kayaking off somewhere. The German guy and his girlfriend were apparently staying at our Inn as well. He was looking much better, breathing in the salty sea air and marveling over the same view as I was. Later on, when NWA woke up (that lazy bum…) we walked around town for a bit. Looked at some souvenirs. I bought some purple pearls for a friend back home who was all about the colour purple. We had an unremarkable lunch at a nearby eatery.

One thing I noticed here, was there were a lot of foreigners backpacking across town even during the off-season. El Nido itself is not all that big. You can walk from one end of town to the other in about an hour. There is a airstrip nearby for small chartered planes and a single small pier that docks boats from the town of Coron, located at an island to the north.

With NWA as the camera man, the girls and I went to explore Orange Beach, about 5 km outside town. We had to take a tricycle ride to get there and hike down a dirt path. The beach, unlike the one at the coast of EN was unbesmirched by any boats. Though there were a few houses here and there and a modest resort nearby, the area was pretty secluded for the most part and made for a relaxing beach-walk.

Orange Beach Walk

The rains were on and off that day. We took a brief respite from the downpour at an unused hut along the shore. Not fifteen minutes later, the hard rain stopped and we continued along. NWA and I, the old farts that we are, stopped at the resort and took a coffee break while the girls set off to explore the stony shoals, looking at starfishes and shells.

This was the life, I remember thinking. Taking all the time that day to do absolutely nothing was enjoyable. The fast paced life, a world away in the US, was but a distant memory. Doubtlessly, the French tourists sipping on their coffee next to us were thinking something quite similar. C’est la vie.

We headed back as the sun went down.

Seeing Oliver and Rose back at the Sands Inn, we invited them to dinner. As we had no particular place in mind yet… we walked along the beach-side of town and saw a ‘resto-bar’ that had tables along the shore, complete with tiki torches. Bingo. Particular place found.

We feasted on fish and meat and beer and having discovered that Rose was celebrating her birthday, we got even more liquored up!

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We could hear the chatter of Americans, Europeans, Australians and Filipinos in the background. Later, live music was put on by the local band. The night drifted on slowly. Next thing you know, we were relaxing at a hookah bar right next door. It’s evenings like these that melt all the stress away.

Suitably having elevated my blood alcohol level, I drifted off as the girls helped lay me to bed.

I was up early next morning. The old lady Innkeeper had a boat ready for us to take on one of the 4 tour packages… Tour A, B, C, and D as has been standardized by provincial government of Palawan, in order to have a single price point across the board for all tour guide services. This would keep boat operators from having to out do each other. On the positive, it also provides funds to license and train operators in first aid, historical knowledge of the tour sites, and environmental protection of the coral reefs. Not having any experience here, we took Tour A, which was a whole day island hopping boat ride to visit the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island and the Seven Commandos Beach. The tours range from 700.00 Php per person to 900.00 Php, depending on which of the 4 you choose. In addition there is a 200.00 Php per person environmental tax. No negotiating these fees, unfortunately.

As for the other tour options, I heard that Tour C was highly recommended and included a visit to a Secret Beach. Tour B was mostly cave sites and Tour D was somewhat lackluster.  So, when you get here… try A or C.

The boat ride to the tour site took about an hour… There were seven of us on the tour. Myself along with NWA, the girls, Oliver and Rose and a new comer as well, a British National who looked Indian to me, checked into the Inn the night before.

The lagoons we visited were incredibly amazing. The Big Lagoon was like an entrance into some exotic kingdom, it kept winding inwards and kept on going until a rounded-out dead end, deep inland. It felt like a scene taken out from an Indiana Jones movie. “Indiana Jones and the Secret Lagoon.”

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A wide open pool awaits at the end of the Big Lagoon water way.

They say that the lagoons in the area used to be caves hundreds of years ago. When the ceiling of the caves collapsed, presumably due to the volcanic activity of Pacific Ring of Fire, lagoons like these were formed.

Upon reaching the next site, Small Lagoon, the boat operators allowed us to swim with life preservers. We explored mini caves and swam around the turquoise waters of the lagoon. One of the guides mentioned that the water was even clearer than we were seeing during the summer, when there are no rains or currents to disturb the white sand below.

At Shimizu Island, we snorkeled amongst the schools of fishes.

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Our boat operators found us a little cove that would be suitable for cooking lunch. Earlier that day, before leaving EN, the old Innkeeper gave our tour guides some fresh fish, squid, and pork chops as well as tons of rice, veggies and fruits all packed safely within the boat. They then grilled us up a sumptuous feast which we proceeded to destroy!

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What better way to experience the trip than to eat fresh, natural food at a deserted white sand beach. We all ate heartily.

Oliver, the Brit and I got into an investments and travelling conversation. Apparently, the Brit made a lot of money in the banking trade which afforded him the chance to travel freely. I admit I was jealous that he’s seen quite a bit of the world. Everybody else probably found our intense currency discussion very boring as they scattered to the winds. Rose was taking a dip in the beach and NWA was playing photographer to the two girls modeling around the stunning cove.

The last stop after having our filling lunch, was the 7 Commandos beach. Not terribly far from EN, this beach was so named after 7 Japanese commandos who held out in the jungles long after World War II was won by the Allies. Much of the area has been fenced off, presumably by whoever purchased the land, however, the beach is still accessible to the public. There is even a store nearby if you want to sip on coconuts while sun bathing.

7 Commandos Beach!

7 Commandos Beach.

Sadly, we didn’t have a lot of time and there was still much more of Palawan to explore. Near sundown, we cut through the waves back to EN. That day on the islands and among the fishes will be a day I’ll always remember. I wish I was back there even now.

Once back, we quickly packed our bags. But there was still a bit of time afterwards for dinner before our shuttle was scheduled to depart EN. So, we invited Oliver and Rose to a farewell dinner. We had to leave soon, but they still had a few days to spend in town. We dined at La Chupetta, a very simple Italian resto-bar serving perfectly al dente pasta.

We then wished our new friends good luck and safe journeys and went our separate ways.

The road back to Puerto Princesa wasn’t as bad as I remembered. But perhaps, that was because thoughts of El Nido still lingered in our minds.

El Nido

It is a very difficult place to forget.

PS Stay tuned, as my next blog post shall cover what other hidden gems the Philippines has!

Hiatus Over!

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Wow… It’s been way over a year already!

Firstly, I’d like to apologize to everyone for my abrupt disappearing act… There have been many personal reasons that have prevented me from being at the keyboard. What can I say? It’s been a crazy year (and a half!) I’ve loved and lost, lived and laughed, but most importantly I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. Perhaps I will share some of the events of the past year here… We’ll see.

A few good friends have been clamouring for me to continue the blog, so I’ll try to blog as my schedule permits me. I think I won’t press myself to make any promises I can’t keep this time… Therefore, it won’t be a new post every MWF.

Everything else stays the same, though. The goal is still to See the World and to Travel to where ever it’s Summer. So, as before, we’ll talk about traveling to wonderful places, eating exotic food, how to be money-smart and fund such travels, and the interesting experiences we encounter on the dusty trail. I’ll also recap my European Adventures at some point, as I got cut off before I had a chance to share that with all of you.

Having just gotten back recently from the beautiful Pearl of the Orient Seas, the Philippines, my next post shall be about the gorgeous islands of Palawan, how to best enjoy it there, and what travel pitfalls to watch out for.

Exciting, no?!

How to Cook Adobo

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My new German friends have recently been asking about Filipino dishes. Well, Adobo seems to be the favorite amongst most Westerners. So, this one is for you all, meine Deutsch freunde!

First, you’ll want to start with your favorite meat. It really doesn’t matter too much whether it’s chicken, pork, beef… heck, I’ve even tried lamb.

1 pound (or more) of your favorite meat.
Vinegar
Soy Sauce
Chopped Garlic
Sliced Onions
Black Pepper
Bay Leaves (Optional)
 

I’m feeling hungry for pork, so let’s go with that.

About a pound of pork.

Next, we’ll want to fry up some chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil on medium heat.

Fry some garlic.

After a couple of minutes, we’ll go ahead and add the pork. Turn up the heat to high and fry the pork for 5 minutes. Mix it well so that the chopped garlic covers the pork cutlets and infuses it with flavor.

Add pork, mix well.

Now, add about a half a cup of vinegar and soy sauce. Also toss in some black pepper and Bay Leaves. Do NOT stir for about 10 minutes to allow the mixture to cook into the meat.

Mix vinegar, soy sauce and pepper.

After 10 minutes, stir the mixture and continue cooking for another 10 minutes on medium heat. Once the sauce is a thin gravy-like and dribbles off the spoon, you may add some chopped onions. Cook on high for about 2 minutes.

Pork Adobo!

Jawohl! You’re done! Serve with some sticky white rice!

Back from Europe!

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I’m back and have more or less recuperated from the most amazing, memorable and (These days most people take this word lightly, but still…) EPIC European Adventure!

Before diving into the details of the trip, let me apologize to everyone for not being able to update my blog as I journeyed. Yes… Europe was THAT good. So much so, that I couldn’t concentrate on blogging as I went. The experience was just too intense!

So, here’s what we did. There were three of us who trekked across the Old World. My good friend, Never Winter Again (NWA) along with Pizzarol (Code name explained later), who is NWA’s former co-worker that I have come to call a good friend as well.

Now, I’d like to state this upfront that I do NOT recommend what we did for just anyone taking a trip to Europe. It can get expensive, physically and mentally stressful and may even take away from the enjoyment of your travels. That said, if you are young, single, unburdened by finances and trust the people you are traveling with then by all means, feel free to have an adventure of your own in our footsteps!🙂

The thing about our grand endeavour (I’ve been to England now and have every right to spell ‘endeavour’ with a ‘u’😛 ) is that the only plans we had made was to get in and out of Europe. A flight into Heathrow Airport in London and a returning flight to the U.S. from Arlanda, near Stockholm were the only two things that were set in stone. Everything in between, we decided, would be figured out as we were confronted with it.

That probably makes some people cringe, but we wanted this kind of uncertainty to add excitement to our undertaking.

I shall describe in detail each city we stayed in during future posts, but right now, let me present you with the outline of our enterprise. Upon landing, we spent a couple of days exploring majestic London. Getting the lay of the land, so to speak. Having our fill of fish and chips, we took the Eurostar train under the Chunnel (Tunnel under the Channel, therefore, Chunnel) and found ourselves lost in a dangerous part of Brussels. Recovering from a riveting experience, we acquire a vehicle and make our way up to Amsterdam (Henceforth to be known as Amster-DAMN!), where a good seven and a half hours of my life remain unaccounted for…

From the Netherlands, we journeyed southwards to lovely Paris, where we took on a more cultural tone. After staying in our Five Star Opel, we drove it to San Sebastian, Spain to meet NWA’s aunt. Then, it was back across the Pyrenees and onward to Monaco and Italy. Charming Pisa and Ancient Rome where our hosts in the Italian Peninsula and afterwards we cut through the Austrian Alps towards Germany. Ahhhh… Deutschland, where I have made many good memories and many more good friends. Setting this as our home base, we struck out towards Karlovy Vary and Prague in the Czech Republic to meet and make new friends and to Switzerland and Liechtenstein afterwards.

Lastly, we flew off to lonely Stockholm and spent our remaining two days there before reluctantly returning to the US.

In the coming days, I shall regale you with the tales of our various experiences. Right now though… I really want to update something I’ve been meaning to update for a while now. Last we saw the Travbuddy map, I was at a measly 4% of the World Seen. I am quite glad to have more than doubled that.

Percent of the World Seen after Euro Tour '12

Percent of the World Seen after Euro Tour '12

Choices

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As I sit at the airport waiting for the connecting flight to New York before flying off beyond the azure main to Her Majesty’s land, I can’t help but marvel at one of the things most Americans like myself tend to take for granted.

Choices.

Looking for gas, earlier, I had the pick of either Shell or Chevron conveniently located near my place. At the coffee shop, Chai Latte, White Chocolate Mocha or a double shot of Espresso in my Cappuccino. Here at the airport, it was cinnamon-apple-walnut oatmeal, a breakfast burrito or some fruit yogurt (I went with the yogurt as my last healthy meal before abandoning all forms of inhibition once I land in the Cradle of Western Civilization.)

I remember as a kid in the Philippines, I’d go to the store near my school and ordering a sandwich was pretty straight forward. Ham sandwich or corned beef sandwich or tuna sandwich.

When I first walked into a Subway in suburban Michigan, I was hungry for a Steak and Cheese sandwich. “What kind of bread?” the chubby, gothic [teenager] asked me. “Uhhhh… what do you have?” In the 30,000 years of its existence, I had never been afforded the chance of choosing what way to cook my dough of flour and water. “There’s White, Wheat, Rye, Sour-dough, 7-grain…”

“Well… Let me try the Sour-dough.”

“Six inch or foot-long?”

“Foot-long.” It was slowly dawning on me why they called America the land of plenty.

“What kind of cheese? There’s Swiss, American or Provolone.”

Wow… I get to pick my cheese too? When in Rome… “American.”

“Veggies?”

“All of it.” I nodded.

“What kind of sauce?”

Just give me the d*mn sandwich already!

It really is such a great thing, to be fortunate enough to have all these options in front of us we can enjoy. Make no mistake, I am not taking a shot at how things were in the Philippines. I’m certain a lot has changed for the better over there since I migrated, but the fact of the matter is, I have never been so bogged down by having too many choices in any other country.

I believe that this is the result of a free market system. One that gives consumers the power to decide. I applaud businesses that have been able to monopolize their respective markets, however, it is through competition that companies can improve, renew, grow and set themselves apart. And when government steps aside and lets companies compete with each other, that is when we recieve the best value for our money. So, be glad you have choices. Somewhere out there the only option for beverage is water. Fight fiercely to defend that which allows us the variety in our lives, that is, our free market system.

Now then, all this writing and thinking has gotten my appetite complaining. I think I want something sweet. Should I get a Jamba Juice strawberry smoothie, a Smirnoff Ice or try the local restaurant’s rasberry iced tea?

European Wishlist: Germany

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I seem to have a fondness for anything German, especially the language. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Deutsch has a certain appeal to me that I cannot quite explain. While I can’t quite recall any memories from my childhood that might have contributed to this unusual preference, I do remember however, that while my father was alive, he spoke very highly of German automotive engineering. Not that it would be anything related. Years later, here I am, about to visit Germany.

Anyways, we tackled the United Kingdom, France and Italy. It’s time for Deutschland! Here are my choice picks for sights and sounds to see in this amazing country:

 
 
 
 
The Gothic Cologne cathedral in Cologne, Germa...

The Gothic Cologne cathedral in Cologne, Germany.

What: 
 
Cologne Cathedral 
 
Where:
 
Cologne, Germany
 

Why:

One of the most visited attractions in Germany, this beautiful Gothic Cathedral boasts incredibly unique architecture and houses the Shrine of the Three Kings, one of the largest reliquaries believed to be the traditional resting place of the Three Wise Men whose clothes and bones are within. Taking a cue from peasants and knights during the Medieval Ages, a pilgrimage to this holy place beckons.
 
 
 
 
 
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany Deutsc...

The Brandenburg Gate. Enter Berlin here.

What:
 
The Brandenburg Gate
 
Where:
 
Berlin, Germany
 
Why:
 
It is the only remaining city gate, one of eighteen such constructed, that used to be the entrance to Berlin. Just to the north of the gate is the Reichstag Building, where the German Parliament meet.
 
 
 
 
 
Remains of the Berlin Wall (Potsdamer Platz)

Remains of the Berlin Wall.

What:
 
The Berlin Wall
 
Where:
 
Right in the middle of the city…
 
Why:
 
Just imagine that someone erected a wall effectively cutting off half of the city you live in. Anyone attempting to cross from the East to the West would be shot on sight. That is just a tiny glimpse of the horrors the citizens had to face during the Cold War. Though very little remains of the wall, it is a place that has profoundly contributed to modern history. It’s amusing to remember the world maps in my old elementary classroom back in the 80’s when the wall divided these into two vastly polar countries. Having been erected by the Eastern Bloc, President Reagan later challenged General Secretary Gorbachev to tear down the wall, leading to the reunification of Eastern and Western Germany. 
 
 
 
 
 
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany.

What:
 
Schloss Neuschwanstein
 
Where:
 
Near Füssen in southwest Bavaria, Germany
 
Why:
 
Neuschwanstein Castle looks sort of familiar doesn’t it? It should be. It was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. This castle is the global symbol of the era of Romanticism, and as such, it’d be a perfect choice for tourist couples! While you are here, be sure to get on the Romantic Road, where you will find the best scenic route in Germany with historic castles, towers, towns, some preserved in their full Medieval majesty.
 
 
 
 
Hofbräuhaus

Hofbräuhaus, where you dare not touch someone else's beer stein.

What:
 
Hofbräuhaus
 
Where:
 
Munich
 
Why:
 
Seriously? No trip to Germany would be complete without beer! And since I won’t get to visit during Oktoberfest, it would be sacrilege not to drop by the world’s most famous beer hall. They serve the beer only in one-liter glasses!
 
 
 
 
 
German Souvenirs of Choice
 

Beer Stein owned by Friedrich Kellner to comme...

Für ihn:
 
 
For guys, I would recommend a beer stein. A well crafted piece of art such as this would be well suited to embrace that smooth brew, keeping it cold enough until you pour it down your belly. Nothing else shows how serious you are about your beer than this.
 
 
 

Dirndl with cording and green apron Deutsch: D...

Für sie

For the ladies, how about trying on a dirndl? This traditional garb worn by der frauen are not just a common sight worn during Oktoberfest, they are traditionally worn in formal occasions and other such events. Perhaps I am just biased… but it *does* look good on the ladies. :)