Foreword

Wanderlust — that urge to roam the world and experience everything it has to offer — is such a powerful and fundamentally human trait. Nurtured over years, this urge builds up into an ideal. Travel is inextricably associated with adventure, risk, uncertainty, exploration, immersion into foreign cultures, repeated exposure to beauty, personal growth, the discovery of one’s own limits, the promise of change, of breaking clean with what frustrates or limits us. Before we set out on our own trip around the world, Anaïs and I have always sought the accounts of travelers as a primer to what we hoped to accomplish. Having just recently returned from an extended period of traveling, we now have a natural inclination to share our experiences with those who might feel that same urge.

The journal and pictures that follow are for us to remember. They are for our friends and family to go deeper into what it felt like to be where we were, when we were there. They are for others, who yearn to embark on a similar trip, to learn from our experience and hopefully be slightly less daunted by the enterprise — because one thing to note, is that it is not as difficult as one might imagine.

Concretely, this site offers an eclectic mix of illustrated topics: the logistical ins and outs of organizing a trip around the world on one hand; and the accounts of our travels on the other. These logs are not in-depth analyses of any given nation, nor are they objective depictions of those countries. Rather, they are diaries and snapshots of disparate styles, often mundane in nature, which form a modest collection of what struck us the most about each location we visited.

This journal ends with some thoughts about the process of traveling, and with musings on what the world has taught us.

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Planning

ITINERARY

The first stage of planning a trip is figuring out where you want to go. At first, this is as simple as pulling up a map of the world and letting your imagination guide you. Some continents, some countries, appeal to us more than others. We simply followed our desires and intuitions until we had a list. We refined this list by ordering it, based on what incurred the least travel, and what time of the year suited a specific area of the world better.

In our case, we started with the more challenging countries first. This ended up working out because it takes quite a bit of energy to deal with the conditions in those countries. It’s also worth noting that home starts to call after a few months and you risk calling it quits early if a country really beats you down (and some of them do!). Being low on energy also leads to lazy planning, and potentially bad decisions that can strongly impact a trip.

BUDGETING

Our budget was divided into three parts:

  1. Home budget: what will you need to keep paying for while you are away? Any sources of income? We decided to rent our place out while being away, so the mortgage, utilities, stacked up, while rent gave us a breath of fresh air. Also, check if your carrier allows for data usage while abroad. In our case T-Mobile provided free 2G or 3G in nearly every country we visited (Vietnam being the exception), which justified keeping the subscription running while away from the US.

  2. Away budget: Do some research on the cost of living in each country. We separated expenses into the following accounts: housing, food, transport, special activities, and a buffer of 10% to account for mistakes, or unexpected costs. Many sites have incredibly useful tools to conduct this research. Lonely planet is incredible for this. For nearly every destination, they have a “Essential information” page (see America’s page as an example) that breaks down the essentials.

  3. Travel budget: This will most likely comprise of your plane tickets, or other modes of transportation that will get you from one country to the next. Do some research to see how much flights cost to go between your various destinations. Decide whether you want to book ahead of time, or more last minute (more on this later).

We fit all our research into this spreadsheet (embed or link) to help us gather everything in once place and sum up all our expenses. This is where the rubber really meets the road and you get a sense of whether you can make this work or not. From here on out, you can make some decisions to figure out what compromises you need/want to make. For example, we needed to cut our list of countries down and decided to tackle South America at a later date, but we could also have opted to travel with a much lower housing budget and stay in hostels all trip long, or be more frugal on food, or stay longer in each place to cut down on travel costs (probably what I would choose to do, with hindsight).

EQUIPMENT

Life-savers / MVPs:

  • Mosquito net: whether at home in temperate climates, or in malaria prone areas, this guy will save you countless hours of sleep and buy you invaluable peace of mind.
  • Our backpacks: light, flexible, with a detachable, smaller backpack / day bag.
  • Packing cubes: don’t let your life become
  • Menstrual cup
  • Smart wool socks
  • Quality power adapter: universal, with USB ports and retractable stems
  • Plastic soap bar box
  • Smart phone: always a double edged sword, as the temptation of screens can be an easy fall back for a tired mind, the convenience in unknown or hostile environments is not to be neglected.

Things we ended up never using:

  • Headlamp
  • Meat bags
  • Door stopper
  • Steripen (although I would still recommend grabbing this one: water is life).

HEALTH

BOOKING

The only flights we booked before leaving were our trip to Paris and back to SF, as well as our flight to Johannesburg. That left a lot of flights to book during our trip. When all was said and done, booking last minute cost us an extra 15%. It’s non trivial, but the flexibility this has granted us was worth it. Few things are worse than being stuck in a place that oppresses you, or needing to leave a place you are thoroughly enjoying, simply because you locked yourself in months ago.

South Africa

JanUARY 25 — FEBRUARY 15

After a layover in Cairo, we landed in Johannesburg. Utterly sleep deprived, and still dealing with jetlag from the trip to France from San Francisco. We were ready to join our Airbnb, but first things first: we needed to get our rental car. Anaïs, who risks getting sick in a car unless she steers, took it upon herself to drive. Mind you she had little experience driving stick, and we were driving on the left side of the road in a country where driving can be a little hectic. We eventually made it to our Airbnb, located in a rather posh and hip area of Johannesburg named Melville. Our hosts were very welcoming and eager to get to know us. One thing caught our attention instantly however: upon parking our car, we were handed a remote control to open the heavy metal gate of the property. It had six or eight buttons and one of them, a red button, was the panic button if ever we got into trouble. Feigning naivete, we asked why we might need that. We were told that the police had ‘other priorities’ than helping out white people and tourists. The comments would make a little more sense as we learned about the political climate in South Africa but at that moment, we found it baffling that things could be so dysfunctional that secluded, wealthy, white people would need to resort to private, armed security to get around town.

As we walked around the neighborhood, we noticed one feature shared by nearly every house: electric fences and barbed wire. The neighborhood seemed very quiet and safe. How could such protections be warranted? It made us wonder if people weren’t slightly paranoid about the actual risks they faced. We asked our first Airbnb hosts what it was all about. They mentioned a common fantasy, the ‘night of a thousand knives’, in which Black South Africans would storm the castle and oust the egregiously rich white folk from the country forever. They conceded this was total paranoia, but reminded us that the violence Johannesburg experienced in the nineties was still vivid for many and that a relapse of sorts was a latent fear.

Visiting Johannesburg’s Apartheid museum was an eye opener on South Africa’s rich history and political culture. I never knew there was a difference between segregation and apartheid. Segregation is the de facto separation of ethnic groups and apartheid is its institutionalization.

South Africa was originally colonized by the Portuguese. It was a strategic resupplying station on the way to India. The Dutch and the British exchanged control of The Cape a few times, but the Brits grabbed it more durably which forced the Dutch to expand further to the East and North. There were more Dutch in South Africa than there were Brits generally speaking, which is why so many of the names of cities are not English. In the early 20th century, South Africa declared independance not on request of the native South Africans, but on request of the Dutch who wanted out of the commonwealth. The language Afrikaans is a bifurcation of Dutch, very similar to modern Dutch, to my understanding. I can even understand some of it because of the German I studied in school. Afrikaans was the language of the ruling white class in South Africa. I find it ironic that they named their new language based on the continent that is home to people they subjugated. That’s as if French settlers in West Africa spoke a dialect of French and called it Africain. What a slap in the face!

In the 50s, the national party, lead by the white Dutch took over and institutionalized segregation. The situation worsened very quickly for Blacks until things came to a head, a revolt ensued and Mandela was elected President in ‘94. The rights of all minorities were restored in the eyes of the law but Blacks still have a long way to come in order to achieve the standard of living that whites do in South Africa. The economic transformation did not follow the political transformation. This is true despite the massive population imbalance of South Africa, with roughly 80% of the country being Black and 9% being white.

South Africa is unique in that it is, to my knowledge, the only former colony that has obtained independence yet where socio-economic status is still so starkly divided along racial lines. One would be tempted to describe whites in South Africa as a ruling class but there is a caveat: they do not have political power anymore. They rule in the sense that a majority of Blacks live in poverty while whites enjoy the standard of living comparable (often better!) than the whites of industrialized nations. Most white people in South Africa work well paying jobs and I have never seen a white person working as a maid, a gas station clerk, a waiter, etc.

According to a couple of friends we met in Durban through Hearthstone. The ANC, South Africa’s leading political party, has gone downhill since Mandela left power. This is also something I have heard from whites in multiple instances (our Airbnb host during our stay in Joburg and the b&b owner in Port Saint John’s) but the Indian couple we met in Durban also mentioned this. According to them, party elites and local government are corrupt and mismanage their resources. Allegedly, they remain in power by buying votes of rural uneducated citizens (by throwing parties, of all things).

This prompted me to ask about any opposition to the ANC. The Democratic Alliance is apparently a multi ethnic group (the ANC is nearly exclusively Black only from what I gathered) that now holds about a third of seats in parliament. They control regions like Cape Town which is apparently all too obvious when you compare The Cape to a city like Durban.

I must admit that I got a really strange vibe from Durban. The city felt unwelcoming, grim, rasp, chaotic, dirty and poor except for some small pockets of wealth. The Indian siblings we met on the beach promenade next to the sand sculptures outright said: you are wasting any time spent in Durban.

Every region of South Africa we have been to had a very distinct feel to it. KwaZulu-Natal of which Durban is the capital did seem like it was very marked by its Zulu heritage in terms of its ethnic makeup. Traveling through the Transkei had its own vibe, with its derelict steep roads and chaotic villages. Driving through those areas really made it feel like we were in the poverty stricken Africa TV images had sold us prior to arriving. Those areas were very remote and driving through those streets as a non-Black person was an intense experience. People would knock at our car windows and stare at us almost in disbelief: ‘what are you doing here?’ their stare seemed to ask. This experience culminated in the night we spent at Port Saint John’s. I booked the highest rated place on Booking.com which was conspicuously cheap. Despite the spectacular arrival through a small hamlet dubbed ‘the gate’ (a river flowing through two lush, towering cliffs), the rest was a little offsetting. Through the rain, we followed a battered road that lead us deep along the Indian coast. The battered road transformed into a muddy path that our anemic Hyundai struggled to follow. The sign to our hotel pointed towards a slippery, rocky grade covered in jungle flora. The reception had no counter, a scruffy-looking middle aged woman greeted me with her young son screeching in the background. She escorted us towards the house. It was a cold, musty, space that looked like it had been decorated as part of an arts and crafts class. We slept in the mezzanine with our laundry soap bar out to negate the smell. The bathroom had no soap, the bathtub had no shower head. The wifi provided by satellite was weaker than our 3G at most times and even got interrupted as it ran out of data (but late enough for Anais to download an episode of the X-Files!).

We darted out of there in the morning, but not before I could ask the hostess some questions about this intriguing area. I learned that her employees were paid 80 South African Rand (ZAR), roughly $5 per day, and that minimum wage in the countryside was 1800 ZAR a month which is just north of $100. My mind reeled: how can you live on that much money? As I was pondered this fact, the owner (white but obviously poor herself, although not as poor as her staff, to be sure) blurted out excuses explaining how little people need in order to get by in the countryside. I wondered out loud if the nation could sustain itself if the minimum wage were raised. She ventured that the jobless rate would go up even more (~25% currently) and that many businesses would shut down. She also blamed corrupt local government.

As we made our way towards our next destination, East London, the weather cleared up, the roads smoothened. We tried to stop at our Airbnb reservation but couldn’t check in yet, so we went to a restaurant called Sanook. Their ostrich burger was excellent and would put many SF joints to shame. Sitting down in this restaurant, I noticed how much richer people looked. Many Black people were in the restaurant as customers and appeared to be wealthy. Some tables had both Blacks and whites sitting together. Maybe I was in the right part of town, but it looked like the city was substantially wealthier than most of what we had seen in South Africa thus far.

We eventually made it to our Airbnb. There, we met a force of nature that goes by the name of Adri. No sooner had I said hello that she grabbed me in her arms (she is way taller than me) for a hug and asked me all about our trip. Later, she went out to get us sushi, offered us wine and we had a 4 hour-long conversation about life. Her enthusiasm and interest are so genuine they are contagious. She told us all kinds of stories about her grandmother and her mother who grew up in Kruger Park at the beginning of the 20th century. Her grandfather was a big game hunter that lead 6-week long expeditions in the bush. Those stories involved a lion-eating Masai tracker getting eaten by a lion, and her mother bonking a lioness on the head with a pan to shoo her away from camp. We spoke of many other things but for once, we didn't talk politics. Maybe because of her obviously Afrikaans heritage or because the conversation just took us elsewhere naturally.

We continued our journey South past Port Elizabeth onto the Garden Route until we reached Knysna where we decided to stay 3 nights. Knysna is one of the more populated areas along the Garden Route, located on a gorgeous bay. It’s also home to a broad set of animal sanctuaries, including a bird and a monkey/ape sanctuary which we both visited. In such sanctuaries, the animals are in an enclosure, but we’re talking about enclosures measuring hundreds of acres. I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed by the apes as I was. The gibbons gracefully gliding across the canopy is a sight I won’t soon forget.

Early during our stay in Knysna, Anaïs got a killer migraine, the type that leaves an aura. This time however the aura wouldn’t leave. Having experienced a sudden death from brain cancer in her family (by someone in their early 20s at that!), Anaïs is naturally worried that something similar might be happening to her when her field of vision is affected by a rather large aura. She had run into similar issues before in San Francisco, and no doctor seemed to take her seriously. Migraines seemed to be a fringe issue that no one understood or took seriously. After her aura persisted for over a day, she insisted to see someone in Knysna. We had decided to travel without health insurance (except in the US) so going to see a doctor was always something we decided to do as a last resort unless there was a clear emergency. The experience we had with South Africa’s health system was prodigious. We were able to see a doctor in a small office within minutes. Far from dismissing Anaïs’ concerns, as some have in the US or in France, this doctor gave me my first unambiguous explanation of how a migraine works, where the pain comes from and how auras occur. This alone shed some light on a mysterious process I personally had never quite grasped. He then recommended that we see a specialist who operates two practices in two different towns. He was not in our town that day, but the general practitioner managed to convince the specialist to come to Knysna before heading home. This retina specialist studied Anaïs’ eye and diagnosed the issue in mere minutes. In so doing, he achieved with a simple lense what neurologists and MRIs were unable to. He invited me to peer into Anaïs’ eye, revealing a small portion of Anaïs’ infarcted retina. There it was: the simple, observable explanation to a woe Anaïs dealt with for nearly two decades, and we found it at the meagre cost of $120 in a small village near the southernmost tip of Africa. Maybe this is just the lucky silver lining on an otherwise inauspicious migraine affliction, but it certainly calls into question the care we paid top dollar for in San Francisco.

Before we knew it, we were in Cape Town. The Cape was sold to us as South Africa’s crowning jewel, so our expectations were high. Arriving into Cape Town is a surreal experience. The city is so singularly located that it takes any visitor off guard. The city is scattered at the foot of two steep mountains, Table mountain and Lion’s head. Staring up at the cliffs left an indelible impression. We stayed at an Airbnb held by George, a rather eccentric gay man in his late 50s who was also hosting another guest by the name of Philip.

We walked twenty minutes to have dinner that night. We strolled through a park on a shortcut to The Cape’s lively city center. On our way back, we opted for the park once more. The sun had set long ago, the park was poorly lit and grew populated with homeless folk sleeping on benches and on the lawn. We stuck out like two sore thumbs and we were painfully aware of it. We were on edge and started to seriously second guess our decision. Halfway through the final stretch out of the park, we noticed two men walking silently behind us entering the same alleyway. We were walking at a brisk pace, and after an extra quarter of the way down the street, we heard a noise coming from behind us. We turned around and noticed the two men halfway down the street, gaining on us at an alarming rate. This was one of the rare moments on our trip where we felt threatened. In that moment, instinct took over and we bolted out of there. Luckily, a public square with some restaurants wasn’t too far away. A man sitting on a chair at the entrance of one of the establishments saw us on the tail end of our sprint and asked knowingly “Is everything ok?”. We told him we should be alright, and walked home with no further ado.

Nearby Cape Town lies an imposing range of mountains that feature several wineries. Many of them are also restaurants. The whole thing reminded me of Napa valley, which can be hit or miss in my experience but the views from up there are certainly worth it. Careful for baboons though. We picked up a hiker turned hitchhiker due to some very aggressive baboons blocking the path down the mountain.

One of the most memorable excursions in Cape Town was our hike up Lion’s head with our new found German roommate, Philip. It’s a relatively short trail that twirls up the spire and eventually turns into a climb. All said and done, you can be up there in an hour, but the heights can be intimidating, and the sun blistering. The view up there is breathtaking and yields stunning vistas of the city and the ocean. A must do while visiting The Cape! We made the mistake of going up there with no head protection and very little water. Once we made it back to the apartment, we realized we were suffering from heat exhaustion, and were shut down for the rest of the day.

The botanical gardens of The Cape are also worth the time. South African cities generally have worthwhile gardens, but the one in The Cape really took the cake. At the end of the day, however, even that paled in comparison with The Cape of Good Hope. Being at the end of that peninsula really felt like we’d reached the end of the world. I’ll let our pictures do the talking, as my words won’t do it justice.

Cape town was the last leg of our South African trip. We departed through Johannesburg, then Nairobi and finally Bangkok. South Africa is a bit of an outlier in our trip, being the only subequatorial destination, but the three weeks we spent there were unquestionably worth the detour. With all said and done, here are the few aspects that will stay with me the most and that we will remember as characteristically South African:

  • The self drive safari through Kruger Park was unforgettable. Being in our own metal cage, firmly within the animals’ kingdom and witnessing its majestic fauna just meters away was beyond words.

  • The way people reflexively return a broad smile on eye contact. I interpreted it as a way to break the awkwardness. I haven’t seen people do this anywhere else in the world but it’s surprisingly refreshing and welcoming.

  • Guest houses and restaurants filled with Black employees and nearly devoid of guests: these folks must work for peanuts because the food is inexpensive, and many of these joints weren’t exactly overflowing with customers.

  • Driving the Hyundai i10 through Swaziland. Swaziland is an alpine enclave surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique. In Swaziland, people don’t do tunnels, so we found ourselves struggling up steep hills, in second gear at 80 km/h, with what is essentially a moped motor inside a car’s body.

  • People on the sides of the road. Folks in South Africa walk insane distances. We would be driving for quite a while in between two cities and would see people walking on the side of the road, several hours on foot from the nearest village. This was strangely common. Another thing we’d witness every so often was small groups of people crossing sets of 4-lane highways on foot. Quite peculier! And last but not least, South Africa takes the toast for most cars stranded on the side of the road. This is what must fuel all the comments we read and heard, admonishing us never to stop to help people on the side of the road. Also on the list of advice: do not drive past dusk, and if you ever have to, never stop at red lights, but rather roll past the intersection at a moderate speed. People really made South Africa seem dangerous in this way, even if that’s not at all the overall vibe we got driving on South African roads.

  • Driving through South Africa was surprisingly tame. People have good driving etiquette, despite being cramped by rather small roads devoid of passing lanes. They are aware of their surroundings, move over to let you pass, turn their warnings lights on as a sign of thanks if you let them overtake safely and are overall relaxed drivers.

Thailand

FEBRUARY 16 — FEBRUARY 24

After journeying through South Africa and witnessing its vast inequalities, I was eager to see what Thailand looked like. I was eager to be in a country where I wouldn't be stigmatized for my wealth, and I wouldn't be associated with “the oppressors” by default. Knowing that Thailand's GDP per capita was much higher than South Africa's and that the country’s wealth distribution was a lot fairer, I looked for signs of that as soon as we left the airport.

We arrived in Bangkok after a drawn out trip. From Cape Town, we flew to Johannesburg, then to Nairobi and then to Bangkok. In addition, we didn't get much sleep on the eight-hour long Nairobi-Bangkok flight and planned to stay awake until the evening in Thailand, in order to beat the jetlag.

We managed to hail an Uber at the airport, which was surprisingly easy, and made our way to town for 400 baht — about $12.

Our driver dropped us off in the middle of the Sukhumvit district and the struggle to find our hotel began. Google was no help in finding our destination. It lead us to the right street, but was way off the mark to find the correct building. We realized how dependent we had become on such technologies to get our way around. Our Airbnb host finally answered our call for help by texting us a YouTube link that our 3G connection could not play. “Strange to send video instructions to guests without a decent Internet connection”, I thought to myself. We swept up and down the street with our huge backpacks, drenched in sweat due to the crushing Bangkok sun. The humidity and heat of the city make for an oppressive mix, especially when you're still wearing jeans and haven't slept in 24 hours. Taxi operators saw us wandering and offered their services, which only added to the stress. As we grew more desperate, we entered a small mall at which point a kind woman took pity on us and asked what we were looking for. She was able to guide us to our hotel after what was only 20 minutes, but seemed like an eternity of stewing, lost, under the heat.

It was still mid day, so we changed clothes and set out to explore downtown Bangkok. This was our first time experiencing Asia, and the chaos of the city delivered on what we expected. Streets were impossible to cross, and no one would let us through unless we imposed ourselves. City arteries were clogged up, noisy, polluted. The smells reached out and grabbed us: street food vendors, human waste, exhaust fumes, dust. I was beginning to see why most people didn't have the best things to say about Bangkok, but I just rolled with the punches and tried to avoid getting tripped up in the details.

We decided to explore the old town with its temples the next day. We hopped on the subway and made our way to Chinatown which we crossed on foot. Fifteen minutes in, we stopped for lunch in a tiny joint with ridiculously low prices. The food was rather good and we felt like we were finally getting a real taste of what things are like for normal people in Bangkok. The restaurant's kitchen was out for all to see, there was no window to speak of, tables spilled directly into the street. Service was fast, the food was good, simple and affordable.

Bangkok’s temples didn't exactly take my breath away. They weren't as architecturally impressive, ancient, ornate as what I'd already seen in other parts of the world, but the simple fact that they were Buddhist temples was novel and interesting in and of itself. The following aspects immediately stood out to me:

  • The buddhas depicted in the temples are very androgynous. I concluded that either the religion is meant to be more inclusive of women, or this area of the world has vastly different standards of virility.

  • The buddhas rocked some interesting mustaches which looked as if they had been scribbled onto them by some prankster tourist — another testament to a wildly different set of aesthetics.

  • Offerings in shrines (blankets, incense, fruits, soft drinks, bills) seemed to be intended specifically for the Buddha. It’s fun to imagine that such items are what people think the buddha might want. To me, it brought back down to earth what I thought of as a high-minded, esoteric religion.

  • The music played or sung in temples, revolved around 3 notes in a repetitive pattern — one step up, a minor third down, and half a step up to the fundamental. I can easily see how that would induce a meditative state.

  • Clothing restrictions. Although not entirely surprised, I would have expected Buddhist temples to be more open about women's attire. Some temples forbid women, period. All temples required visitors to take off their shoes, but women needed to cover their knees and shoulders, and could not wear any top that might be too revealing. Buddhism is always described in the West as a religion that is much more accepting and less prescriptive than Christianism, but it seemed to have its quirks as well.

  • Buddhism on a pedestal. The West often portrays Buddhism as a 'high minded' religion, but the attachment to gold and wealth displayed in the temples is a reminder that Buddhism is made of men who are themselves vulnerable to the distractions most humans fall prey to: amassing wealth, displaying power, status.

We walked towards the Grand Palace, only to find it closed. An old man noticed us on the street as we were regrouping and started conversing with us. He asked the usual set of questions: where are you from, where are you going, how long are you staying. He had a smile on his face and a playfulness you rarely see in men of his age. He was obviously very proud of his country and city, and pitched us a tour of his own making. He hailed a tuk-tuk for us and sent us off into the old city of Bangkok to see the standing Buddha and the Golden Mountain.

It felt great not to have to deal with walking in the heat! Riding on a tuk-tuk is noisy and you need to be able to withstand the exhaust fumes from other vehicles, but it’s a great way to experience the city. You can hear all the noises, smell all the food, and go much faster than a taxi would.

After a stop at the standing Buddha, our driver stopped to relieve himself while we were left chatting with the superintendant of a local school who was taking a break outside his establishment. He was excited to find some Americans with whom he could share his experience studying at UCLA, as well as his frustration working with less well educated folks in Thailand. He bemoaned their pride, unwillingness to learn, and occasional inability to teach according to the standards he would like to see set for his country. He explained to us why the tuk-tuk ride was so cheap (40 baht): it was being sponsored by the government to drop us off at specific locations where locally produced goods are sold. The government doesn’t want us shopping in malls where the only items sold are from foreign brands. They want the money to stay in Thailand. That’s why our driver insisted on us stopping at a local tailor and a travel agency, which we stepped in and out of as fast as common decency permitted.

The afternoon made for a short, but rather fun experience of Bangkok and its old city. We had some interactions with real Thai people who proved to be friendly, approachable, smiling, generous, and proud of their country.

That night, we would make our way to the opposite end of Sukhumvit to try out a random restaurant, which ended up being quite good. We were served a green crab curry that I think we will end up remembering as the most spicy dish we’ve had in a very long while.

That night, Anais finally decided to post about our trip on Facebook. That prompted quite a few reactions, including from some very old friends like Wong, someone she made in British Columbia on a Rotary excursion, over 10 years ago. He just happened to be Thai, lived in Bangkok, and checked Facebook at the right moment. The next morning, him and his girlfriend treated us to our best meal in Thailand. I particularly remember a glass of watermelon juice that may well be the best thing I’ve ever drank. Some of the other dishes included Sum Thum, green curry beef, shrimp... Everything was very unique, and very tasty. We were to take the overnight train for Chiang Mai at six later that day, but with quite a bit of time left before that, we decided to indulge in a massage next to the train station. Massages aren’t really my thing and I hadn’t gotten a proper one in years, so my initial reaction to the idea was unenthused, but I figured it would be a crime to go to Thailand and not experience a Thai massage so I just went for it. It’s kind of crazy what they do with your body. Step on it, crack it, tug on it, punch it. It’s enjoyable, I have to admit, all for the low low price of 200 baht ($6).

Wong then drove us to the train station, said goodbye, and we went our separate ways. The last tickets for the 6:30 train just slipped through our fingers. The whole experience was confusing. Hosts at the station sent us to the “foreigner ticket booth”. Naturally, you’re happy to go there because you figure you’ll be speaking to someone with some decent English, but it wasn’t that simple. With some observation, we gathered that the main reason they send you to that booth is to push first class tickets on you. As it turned out, by the time we stepped in, there were none left, neither in the 6, nor the 7 o’clock train. We were at a loss, not knowing if we’d be able to reach Chiang Mai on time, or if we might need to spend an extra night in Bangkok. Out of the blue, an attendant sent us back to the regular ticket booth and revealed that two second class tickets had just become available. What a coincidence!

I had never taken an overnight train before, so I was kind of looking forward to the experience. We watched a few series and movies, and slept together in the same bunk at the bottom. It was definitely cramped, but it was a fun experience to get up in the morning and see the countryside. That’s probably the most we ended up seeing of the Thai countryside, as we would spend most of the following days in Chiang Mai.

Once again, Google maps failed us and we struggled to find our Airbnb because. Once again, the host was unresponsive, but we eventually stumbled upon our place, which was basic, but of decent value for the price we were paying (slightly less than $20 a night).

Chiang Mai resembled Bangkok in some respects, bustling and dirty. But the city wasn’t quite as hot, buildings were much smaller and it was easier to walk around. We stayed in an area called Nimman, which our SF friends might as well dub the Mission, because it feels every bit as hipstery. It did have a lot of great food options which from my point of view was the highlight of the stay. After having done copious amounts of traveling since the beginning of our trip, we were happy to just chill there for a while, and not frantically be out and about every day.

We were also looking forward to meeting up with Sutee, the first person from San Francisco that we met with during our world trip. On our second day in Chiang Mai, we went to the old city and had lunch in a restaurant called Ruen Tamarind which ended up being one of the best eats we had in Thailand. We then perused multiple temples in the city center. One thing that stuck with me was noticing all the monks doing outdoor work. Far from leading ascetic, secluded lives, they were working on landscaping in the temple gardens. Instead of being the esoteric, mysterious, old and wise figures I had always imagined them to be, there they were, an unassuming group of young men toiling over a wooden fence.

As the sun set, we headed to an open air market along one of the city's longest streets. It was a great experience: old and young, locals and tourists, all mingled and enjoyed the night out. Stalls of all types were out selling food, clothes, souvenirs, musical instruments and more. Locals also used the market as a venue to perform their art, whether talented or not. For the first time, we tried proper street food. We were a little paranoid about the sanitary risks, but wrongly so. The food we had was good, not the best we'd ever had, but dirt cheap which meant we could easily afford to try out many types.

The other highlight that week was our excursion to a temple west of Chiang Mai: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We made our way up there in Sutee’s good company, up a long flight of stairs. Unfortunately, our time there was cut short as I started to develop a fever. As of the time of this writing, we're still not sure what was exactly wrong with me, but at the time, my temperature read 42 degrees Celsius. As it turns out, our thermometer was faulty but we didn't figure that out until we reached the hospital. I continued to feel dizzy for a few more days, but I was feeling better by the time we reached Vietnam.

I should say a few words about my experience with emergency care in Thailand. With a wait time of around an hour, I was processed relatively quickly. I saw an fairly inexperienced doctor who was not able to diagnose my exact condition and ended up prescribing antibiotics. The hospital staff was able to run blood and urine tests within an hour. Seeing the doctor, running the tests, and buying antibiotics cost me about $20 when all was said and done. I was amazed at how fast they saw me, how cheap it was, and how little paperwork was involved. Comparing this to America was unsettling. Going to a public ER in the US would have meant waiting for hours and stomaching a bill most likely in the thousands of dollars.

When I think of Thailand, I inevitably think of the heat, the dust, the pollution, the traffic, along with golden Buddhist temples, friendly locals, safe streets, “kaaaaap’!”, value for your money (if you're willing to forego the premium experience)... but the highlight for me was absolutely the food. I've been a fan of Thai cuisine for a while and our trip did not disappoint. We had both some refined meals (Tamarind in Chiang Mai) and comfort food-y chows. Most of all though, I was happy to get a taste of something completely new almost every day and to challenge what San Francisco had taught me about Thai food. The sugary curries that you're used to finding in the US are much more difficult to come by. Instead, I saw much more grilled meat, pungent flavors, fish, spicier than in the US (no surprise there!). All in all, I still enjoy Japanese, India, Italian, or French food more than I do Thai food, but the ability of thai food to consistently provide something tasty and unique with value for my money every day is unmatched.

Vietnam

FebRUARY 24th — March 4th

I wrote this entry in two parts: the first is a thematic list of what stood out to me in Vietnam. It’s the meat of the entry, and probably the most worth reading, while the second one is a shorter chronological recap of our trip in Vietnam, which I keep to help remember the exact chain of events in our trip, months or years after it has passed.

  • The communist propaganda: as soon as we exited the airport in Hanoi, it was omnipresent. Small signs planted at regular intervals along the highway, big billboards downtown. The billboards look transplanted from Stalinist Russia. Picture workers and families lined up in a row in front of a red background, a handful of communist symbols, and a slogan. The colors are half washed away and the billboard is just as dirtied by pollution as the walls of the building it is on.

  • Dat communist vibe: there is a sober, somber, stoic, atmosphere in some areas of Hanoi. The quarter surrounding the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh is a good example of this. Tall, monolithic, modern, concrete buildings decorated with a yellow star in a big red badge make these districts feel stern, devoid of life. It's a bit of the same vibe you get when watching a document about North Korea. Of course it's far from being the same but there's a tint of it.

  • Littering: More than anywhere else to this point, Vietnam felt the dirtiest. The countryside especially is littered all over the place. Villages have areas with trash stacked for god knows how long. This surely comes from the lack of proper garbage collection services but it's also the result of poor habits on the part of locals who toss trash on the side of the road without a second thought.

  • Driving: Vietnam had by far the worse driving. People honk constantly for the smallest thing. See another bus driver? Honk. Passing someone? Honk. Someone didn't see you? Honk? Think someone didn't see you? Honk all the same. Mad at someone? Honk repeatedly. But the honking pales in comparison to how people drive. There are no real highways to speak of. Multiple lanes going in the same direction are rare. This makes passing hell. Add on top of that the fact that most people drive mopeds, which drive rather slowly, and this results in the most gruesome passing-fests I have ever seen. Mopeds drove on every side of the road, in both directions and others are left to dodge. But the most jarring aspect is that people refuse to stop for anything less than a cas de force majeure. I mean, picking up speed with their subpar engines is understandably painful, slow, costly in gasoline, and besides, you're the king of the road anyway, right? If you’ve ever seen what a four way traffic intersection looks like in a world with only self driving cars, that's kind of what it looks like.

It's beautifully efficient in a way since no one has to stop. The hidden side of this is that traffic lights and stop signs are optional. This works just fine until someone dies, which happens to 25 of every 100,000 inhabitants yearly. That may seem high but it's not outrageous for South East Asia. It's 3 times less than Lybia, but 5 times more than France.

  • Crossing the streets: we found a contender for Bangkok! When it comes to getting to the other side of the road, Vietnam is surely the most intense place I've been to. Of course my opinion is impacted by my multi-day stays in Hanoi and Saigon, but it's still noteworthy. Crossing the street is a science in and of itself. As mentioned above, vehicles do not stop and it takes a whole lot of faith to march into 5 lanes worth of traffic. But somehow, it all works out. A few rules:

    • The river flows around the rock in the stream. So it is for you and motorbikes. Pay them no heed and they will be to you as the Red Sea was to Moses.

    • Never look them in the eye. Of course, take a good look at the road, but do not engage into the losing game of chicken also known as establishing eye contact. If you acknowledge a driver, you have no plausible deniability, and they have the killing machine. Check mate! You must stand down.

    • Strength in numbers. A group of pedestrians can intimidate even a torrent of traffic. A temporary alliance of circumstances is always advisable.

    • Cars usually respect stop signs and red lights. If you have the right away, take it.

    • Never fuck with a bus.

  • Villages and driving in the countryside: Once you are out of a city and driving on a main road or ‘highway’ a stream of endless houses, shops and fields begins to unravel before you. It's as though there is no central city district and that the economy revolves around roads, and not around cities. Along the road, you see people, usually women, toiling in rice fields, the tall and thin houses so specific to Vietnam, and a never ending backdrop of small businesses, many of them desperate for customers.

  • Not smiling: Now I know that I can't require people to smile all the time, nor would I want that to be the case. The world is a tough place and I certainly don't require all to cheer up at my mere presence. Still, people's’ propensity to smile says something about the country you are in. After a week in Thailand where locals seemed eager to talk, were obviously proud of their country and always very polite, it was clear that Vietnam wasn't in the same state of mind. I noticed early as we collected our visas. The immigration personnel wore no emotions. They were cold, stoic. I took note but shrugged it off. I would see the same thing in our taxi driver, in the faces of people in the street and in shops. I came to read despair in those faces, or a sense that they had given up, that they were resigned to facing their frustrations day in and day out with no hopes of improvement. There were exceptions of course, but I kept getting glimpses of this on our journey, and after a while it signals rather clearly that you are not meant to engage, that you are a tourist, that you are interacting because there is a process to follow and profit to be made. Once again, this omits a few counter examples but they were far and few inbetween and overall, I think it's fair to say that this crept into our experience of Vietnam in a noticeable way.

  • North vs South: there is a stark contrast between the North and the South of Vietnam. For starters, the weather was winter-like in Hanoi. I wore my windbreaker and a scarf my entire time there which was a shocker after hot and sticky Chiang Mai. The south on the other hand was warm and humid, probably just as much as Chiang Mai. But the most interesting was the change in overall atmosphere. It's hard to qualify exactly where it comes from but it's very palpable. It's most probably rooted in the fact that I haven't actually seen most of the North (just Hanoi, really) nor most of the South (just Saigon and the Mekong delta), but what started as a simple hunch ended up being confirmed time and time again either by speaking with locals or… simply reading up on a bit of Vietnamese history. On a superficial level, you could say the north feels communist while the south feel capitalist. But it's not just that. Of course, the north is the seat of power of a country ruled by a communist party but the amount of people in the streets, the buildings overgrown by seemingly knowing trees, acknowledging the passing of eras of Hanoi gone by, the cold, grey weather, the bustling but modest street life. All of this contributed to a unique and charming experience of Hanoi. Saigon, ironically named Ho Chi Minh city, is the polar opposite of what most would guess him to have wanted as a legacy. It's like a roaring middle finger raised up in direction of Hanoi. A modern, vibrant city, economically booming, with a very hip nightlife. What both have in common unfortunately is what most of the cities of south east Asia have shown to me so far: noise, dirt, pollution.

  • Tours: we hadn't taken a proper tour since the beginning of our trip until we arrived in Vietnam. This kind of constrained group experience is something we usually shy away from. It starts with a landscape on a website, or a recommendation from a friend. It then takes the form a cheap, seemingly valuable package and unfolds as a sub-par, grimey experience which leaves you wondering where all your money went and who is pocketing that margin. Experiencing this once didn't make us any wiser since we decided to go on a second tour to the Mekong delta after our first one in Halong Bay. such tours are an entire industry. Both in the Mekong and Ha Long bay (but especially in Ha Long bay), droves of tour buses and beat down boats await throngs of tourists. When you go on tours like this, there is no concept of relaxing. You wake up at 6 something and get herded like cattle from activity to activity all day long. If you want it to just stop, you're out of luck: the show must go on. What we paid for wasn't advertised as a luxury cruise, granted, but the quality of transportation, food, accommodations, and even most of the activities were sub par. It never felt like we got a good experience for our money and it never seemed like any of the economies of scale achieved by traveling as a group were ever passed down to the customers. Sometimes, such tours are necessary to see some of the things you want to see. For example, I'm unsure I could have seen Halong bay up close the way we did if it weren't for the crappy tour boat that took us there. I don't think we could have gone as far into the Mekong delta as we did (although I’m not sure why one would want to), but having to go through the tour experience definitely casts a veil of mediocrity over the trip.

  • Poverty: even more than South Africa in some respects, Vietnam struck me as a particularly poor country. When you’re in the streets of a busy city like Hanoi, a host of small things give that impression. First of all, many people in Vietnam are seen squatting down. This may seem like just a detail, but it portrays the fact that many make a living doing menial tasks, and they do so spending their time close to the grime of the street, the pollution of passing traffic and other people’s trash. This could mean street cleaning or cooking, but even meals are had on small chairs or on the ground directly. You can also read a sort of desperation in people when they speak to you. An example of this would be on our first night in Hanoi when we found a small restaurant (quite good). Before we were even presented with a menu, a pamphlet detailing the backstory about the establishment was handed out (the owner supports a cause that helps youth make their way into economic independence) and asks to leave a 5-star review on trip advisor, before you’ve even tasted the food or selected an item on the menu. Soon after, the owner of the place came by our table (we were the only customers in the restaurant) to tell us more about his project. He smiled but didn’t spare any details about how difficult life was in Vietnam. He spoke of how lucky he was to be married, because most youth cannot afford to support a wife, let alone an entire family. In fact, life is so difficult in Vietnam that, according to him, there is an industry that supports South Koreans coming to Vietnam to find wives. Women (and most likely their families) take the deal because the ease of life and support they can send home is presumably worth it. He explained that he lived 60 Km outside of Hanoi and had to commute insane amounts every day for his work. He explained that most people get by with slightly over $100 per month. He begged for that trip advisor review so insistently and with so much desperation that it broke my heart. I saw that same look in other people, especially in Hanoi, things weren’t as bad in Saigon, but poverty manifested itself in other ways in the South. The Mekong delta was eye opening. As mediocre a tour as it was, it gave an up and close insight into how people live in the countryside. By navigating through small arms of the river, up villages that border the water, we got to see people’s houses, but it was more than that. Rather than seeing the front of their house, ie the part they want to show to passersby on the street, we got to see the back of the houses, the part that faces the river, the part that most don’t see. In doing so, we saw the beat down part of their house, their back porch/living room/kitchen hanging on the edge of a couple of precarious concrete pillars. In some homes, the glare of a TV illuminated the hovels. Most of these homes were no more than shacks, most likely assembled from stray wood and metal sheets. Some had concrete to support them, but they all looked like their inhabitants had built them on their own. I wouldn’t wager this was a professional job. In the midsts of these villages, Children seem to have little supervision. Many of them roam the streets on bikes, or just running by at times where one would imagine they should be in school. While visiting a vermicelli factory, I walked by a small street and noticed from the corner of my eye a woman raising a baby slightly above the trash piled up in that street for it to do its baby business. Passing another corner, a small mountain of trash built up, indicating that there is no regular trash collection to speak of. The ‘homestay’ night we experienced as part of the tour was another glimpse into the daily lives of Vietnamese people. This must have been a richer family too given how many tourists they housed, but their home still betrayed so much of what is troubling in Vietnam. Passing from the courtyard to the rows of bungalows in the back, a section of the house was demolished, with rubble on the floor. The accommodations were probably the best they could muster, but everything felt half way done, from the sink with no pipes to drain the water, to the insect infestation in the door, the useless mosquito net. Families bury their dead in their own backyard, with more or less impressive graves depending on who passed away. Again, nothing wrong with this at all, but it feels borne out of a pragmatism inflicted by the dire realities of everyday life in Vietnam.

  • Food: I had such a good first impression just because of what I had tasted in the west. Bahn Mi, pho, crab vermicelli, etc. I have to say that I was slightly disappointed, but this was strictly a result of the high expectations I came in with. We tried all the well known dishes, and then some. We had some good stuff and some bad stuff, like in most places. In fact it was rare that something would be genuinely bad to the point where you stop eating it. Most of the time, the fault of these dishes was to be bland. That said, we did manage to have some decent dishes of the main types mentioned above. In the end, I would say that I'd rather have Vietnamese food in the west. This may seem like heresy to any Anthony Bourdain fanboy out there, but I feel like someone with a mixed influence could do a better job of exacerbating the qualities of Vietnamese food. I certainly would not make the same statement for Thai food, or Indian food, but for Vietnam… sorry!

Now for a chronological recap of the trip.

We arrived in Hanoi by night, after a short stop in Laos. We were a little tense because our visa application was done a little late. Rumor had it that the visa on arrival process could be a little hectic and that having all your paperwork ready and being first in line could be a huge time saver. So we prepared our backpacks inside the plane as soon as we landed. This had already become a ritual, despite only being a month into our trip: lay the big bag on its back, loosen the straps, grab the small bag, ease it jerk the zipper, tuck the shoulder straps underneath, force the zipper to the other side, unzip the the shoulder straps out of this large bag and fold the cover underneath it. It's a pain in the ass to do, but fitting so much of our lives into so little space is worth it. Also, not waiting for luggage at a carousel, and not losing our stuff is definitely worth it.

People in airports are kind of slow, and despite exiting the plane last, we made it first to the visa booth. First in, first out is the rule. We were called to the booth by a female immigration officer who processed our paperwork. To make these kinds of interactions a little more seamless, people habitually use common courtesy words, maybe an occasional smile. But not here. This woman was placid, not an expression out of her face. Now I know you don't want to draw all sorts of conclusions based on a single interaction, especially the first one after entering a country, but it did set the tone and I couldn't help but reading the same kind of attitude (or lack thereof) in people behind various counters for the rest of our stay. Our taxi driver just confirmed that impression. He was stoic, made no conversation, just drove. It was late and we didn't mind some calm, besides we were absorbed by the landscape and all the details we noticed through our car window.

Arriving in Hanoi by night is quite impressive. The airport appears modern and well kept. The highway is clean and smooth. Communist party propaganda lines the speedway until you reach a bridge and the city skyline is revealed in the horizon. Tall buildings, bright lights. Pretty modern indeed! But that wasn't where we were heading. Our destination was the old city of Hanoi, a maze of small streets in which flowed a steady stream of mopeds and bicycles. We noticed people’s attire: thick pollution masks (some ‘brand named’) and scarves. The weather was cold compared to Chiang Mai, and we were almost happy to experience a bit of winter seemingly for the first time this year (if you omit our short stint in France).

We had the entire following day to visit Hanoi. There's something charming about the city, almost mysterious. It also gives off an ancient feeling. It feels like history permeates the place. Maybe it's the trees that grow through buildings, or the houses that look so old, but I found it exciting to visit. It's fairly easy to go though the old city and see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh within a day and that's exactly what we did.

Next up was Halong bay. This would be our first cruise / group tour. I've spoken about the touring experience above so I'll leave it that but despite the mediocre experience, I have to say Halong bay is a sight to behold, and the people we met on the cruise were all lovely.

After a night in Halong bay, we headed back to Hanoi for a night in the same hotel we had stayed in the first time. We took an early flight to Saigon where we were to meet Michael and Lina. We met them that evening and played the first in a long series of pool games (which Anaïs and I won, for the record).

We spent the next two days visiting Saigon. We even met with Sutee again on the second day! The third day, we got on a bus to our cruise in the Mekong river. After driving south for most of the day, we were dropped off for the horrible homestay experience in a small village. I wouldn't be so salty about it if it weren't actually more expensive than the hotel option.

We had a bunch of activities the next day, mostly going through the Mekong and visiting a few villages. We stayed at an actual hotel that night.

We left Vietnam and crossed the Cambodian border the next day.

Cambodia

March 4 — March 12

Cambodia was a roller coaster. The kind of roller coaster you want to exit ASAP. Of course, it's a roller coaster you decided to go on for specific reasons and so it had its high points but it was a doozie. I'll recap per theme, the way I did for Vietnam, with a short, factual, chronological recap after that.

  • Being sick and taking water seriously: Before being sick in Cambodia, my understanding was that water in developing countries could sometimes be bad enough to make you queasy, give you diarrhea and maybe a little more. I underestimated how much trouble local water could be for a western stomach. It doesn't take sewer water to make you sick to your stomach. Tap water that looks clear and harmless can be nasty enough to put you out of commission for a couple of days. I didn't drink tap water outright, I knew better than to do that, but I figured that using tap water to rinse your mouth after brushing your teeth couldn't possibly do much harm. The fact is that I still don't know for sure where my illness came from, but I can tell you that I certainly won't run the risk or using tap water for anything more than rinsing my skin from here on out. The night before actually throwing up, I knew I was in trouble. I could feel it in my gut, quite literally. I took some pepto bismol to help me get through the dinner with Lina and Michael, but it only delayed the inevitable. The nausea I experienced before evacuating everything was so intense that, even after it all, I feared the simple idea of eating. I was finally rid of nausea, why take the risk and give up that fleeting comfort? Unfortunately, we have to eat to move on with life — it's not really a matter of choice. I chanced something light, a salad, which actually worked for that day. We dedicated the following day to traveling from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap. I had kept my food intake to a minimum and figured that I was out of the woods. Everything I had that night came straight back out. This time I knew what I was in for. Not wanting to suffer through the same thing again, I forced myself to evacuate until the nausea relented. Throwing up is a traumatizing process if you're not used to it — at least to me it was — so your tendency is to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. This is a mistake. Give your stomach what it wants and you can move on with life! I spent the next day paying particular attention to avoid anything pungent, potentially washed or prepared with tap water as well as alcohol. It left me longing for the days where I could indulge in a fat burger, overeat without regret and not constantly monitor my bowels. It’s crazy to think of how much I took for granted back when my stomach worked normally. That seems like a long time ago now. All in all, a lesson learned the hard way, despite the volumes of literature found online.

  • Poorly lit streets: Asia overall feels incredibly safe. Be it India, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, you barely ever feel at risk going in places that seem completely foreign, with little to no white folk (which your mind has a tendency to associate with “not a place a tourist should be”). That said, Cambodia felt noticeably less safe than Thailand and Vietnam for reasons that I had a hard time pinning down. I concluded that it mostly came down to the varying degree with which certain streets were lit. It's a subtle difference because street lighting isn't exemplary in most places in south east Asia anyways, but the fact that certain lamp posts were out, or spaced out a little more, or had dimmer light than what you might be accustomed to makes a subtle difference that made me feel more leery of my surroundings. Whether or not it was justified is another matter altogether, but the whole experience was a good insight into how simple things we take for granted (like street lighting) can alter your perception of a place in meaningful ways.

  • Prostitution: we were warned about this going into south east Asia, but it was striking in Cambodia to an extent that it wasn't in Thailand. What really struck me was open it was. Of course, you could see prostitutes in the streets of Bangkok, including in rather affluent, hip areas. You might see them walking with someone down the street but they would almost look like a normal couple, and she would look almost like a regular Thai girl, just a little more lightly clad. In Phnom Penh, you would see multiple women with a single man lounging on sofas and terrasses right out on the street. The whole enterprise is so casual, and so little effort is made to disguise that it’ all the more jarring. With that comes a slew of new questions:

    • What percentage of women in a given age bracket have resorted to this?

    • Are they well compensated?

    • Do they work alone or have protection?

    • How far do they go with a customer? How often does it go beyond company at the bar?

    • Do these women have families? If so do they know about what they do? Is it frowned upon or is it accepted to some extent?

    • How bad is Cambodia’s economy for so many women to need to resort to prostitution?

  • Food: being ill didn't make it easy to enjoy the food in Cambodia. If anything, it made me want to eat things I knew my stomach could handle, i.e. Western food. I did however have a few Cambodian dishes which were decent but didn't blow my mind. The beef lak lok with the pepper sauce was probably the best one I tried. I tried some food on a stick at a street market, which was appalling and I suspect might have made me sick. After that, I sadly didn't have the courage or the time to try much more. All in all, I would pick Vietnamese food over Cambodian food, and Thai food over both of them any day.

  • Dust and grime: this is a recurring theme for Asia from what I've experienced so far. I want to write about this because it's a big part of your experience in any Southeast Asian country, but it's sadly quite simple to cover: trash collection is sporadic, street cleaning non existing, the engines and exhausts are old, low quality while the heat and humidity make the pollution accumulate and sit above a city. Whether on a bike or in a tuk-tuk, you are hit with the full brunt of the dust and pollution every time you want to go somewhere. At first it's a little surprising, and ultimately you just deal with it, but it ends up being a veil that tints your entire stay. It grabs you and forces you to imagine what is must be like to live here full time, and either not know or have forgotten what it is like to breathe clean air, to live without a layer of sweat and dust accumulating on you, and without having the means to escape it. Maybe it's just me, but I would wager that even the most open-minded visitors leave Cambodia with many unforgettable memories, but also with a deep sigh of relief at the thought of making their way back to a cleaner life.

  • Currency: this was my first time visiting a country with a currency so weak, that they took dollars everywhere. For all I know, there may be more dollars in circulation that riels (the local currency). At first, I thought that having dollars was just something tourists did out of convenience, and to help the tourism industry by pricing goods and services at rates comparable to what visitors are used to seeing back home — i.e prices vastly over the Cambodian market rate. While there may be a sliver of truth in that, the number one reason seems to just be that too few people trust the riel.

  • Genocide: to my western mind, it is sadly implied that there is a sort of hierarchy of genocides. At least that's what one would imagine given how strongly some are covered, and how little others are. And this doesn't always have to do with how many people died, or how recently the genocide occurred, but maybe more with how close to home they are. The hollocaust is naturally on top of the list, few would question that. Then it gets a little more blurry. Armenia? Serbia? Rwanda? Native Americans? Sudan? The sad thing is that I'm missing some, but there a few more that, at least to me, were unknown until very recently. I'm thinking of the genocides in Indonesia, and Cambodia. The Cambodian genocide is the latest one I was made aware of. What made both so troubling to me was how recently they took place, and how little they are talked about, and in the case of Indonesia, the fact that western governments seemed to be complicit in it. There is such emphasis on the hollocaust and the main message taught in western classrooms is clear: genocides are the epitome of evil and must be stopped at all cost, history cannot be allowed to repeat itself. This sets a moral imperative to intercede whenever a genocide seems to be at play, and the UN theoretically has a key role in bringing countries together to stop genocides from unfolding, yet the reality is much less rosy and many genocides have gone unchecked since WW2. It's crazy to think that millions of Cambodians from our parents’ generation were massacred, yet it's possible for a tourist like me to visit Cambodia and not see any scars at a surface level.

  • Prices: Cambodia was the first country where people unabashedly gouged tourists. Thailand and Vietnam weren't so bad. People suggested prices that weren't egregious. I'm sure we ended up paying slightly more than what locals did, but at the end of the day, it felt fair. On average, Cambodia remained very affordable, but there were noticeably more occurrences of people asking more for goods or services than is customarily charged in the west. The funny thing is that they do not know how much goods cost in the west. They just shoot for the moon and end up insulting your intelligence. More importantly than being an annoyance, I find that this says something either about their greed, or their esteem for tourists, or simply how dire their economic situation is.

  • Sights: once more, and tragically so, being sick stopped us from seeing as much as we would have liked to. That said, we had time to visit the main sights in Siam Reap: Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom. Both were impressive in their own ways. Angkor Wat delivered on the stunning entry and the well preserved city inside. Very reminiscent of what we saw in the Yucatan peninsula. But it was extremely hot and humid. Hands down the hottest and most humid we'd experienced our entire trip. It kept us from spending as much time on site as we wanted to. Biking there at 11am may not have been the smartest idea in retrospect. Lina and Michael biked early and enjoyed cooler temperatures before heading to the shade of Angkor Tom. Angkor Wat was overcrowded with tourists which took away from the immersion. We spent the next day visiting Angkor Tom which really struck a chord with us. So many of the colors of the temples were preserved, which is unusual in structures that old. Inside, we were able to climb up multiple levels and enjoy the views. Instead of the vast courtyards and hallways of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom had extended networks of small corridors, steep sets of stairs and narrow angles which lead to the upper levels, revealing towering stone roofs with life-like faces engraved on them. It was like stepping foot in the jungle book. Angkor Tom is organized in a simple trail, protected by the shade of trees that leads you from temples, to ceremonial baths, to gates, walls, terraces and mausoleums. The combination of monuments gave a feel for what must have once been a vibrant city. My takeaway is that Angkor Wat garners the glamour shots that end up in brochures, while Angkor Tom is where the magic is.

  • Tuktuk solicitations: as soon as we stepped off the boat, the harassment begun. At first we didn’t think much of it because by this stage we were used to being solicited for tuktuk rides. But this was different. We quickly understood how different Phnom Penh was. It was particularly bad next to the port that brings visitors in from Vietnam. The amount of solicitations we got in the span of a 100 meters was baffling, and the vehemence with which they persisted was unparalleled. They do not take no for an answer. Initially concerned with being courteous, I smiled and politely declined. When that proved useless, I tried looking them in the eye and uttering a dry “no.” I soon realized that they weren’t in the business of interacting. To most tuktuk drivers, we were no more than fish in a stream of tourists, and mindless persistence was the only hunting technique they knew, so we were stuck with the most alienating option: ignoring them. Being harassed like this is a strain that you learn to put up with in Cambodia, but it does end up subtly coloring your experience throughout. On our way out of Cambodia, in the airport terminal, we noticed a gift shop in the duty free section in red and yellow. “No tuktuk today” it read.

  • Yes men: it may not come as a big surprise that communication breaks down when two people don't speak the same language. One of the most unique ways in which this happens in Southeast Asia is defaulting to ‘yes’. People in Cambodia must be taught, explicitly or implicitly, that saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t understand’ are bad form. As a result, we soon learned that whenever we heard someone say ‘yes’ to us, there was a high chance that person hadn't understood a thing of what we had just said. We found it wise to always double check that what we had just agreed on was well understood. The most cunning locals will occasionally play off of this ambiguity to extract a few more dollars from guilt-ridden tourists.

Chronological recount

We arrived in Phnom Penh on March 4th from the Mekong speed boat.

Next day, we spent most of our time inside organizing,running some finances, booking flights, and getting some rest. That night we went out for some food at the street market, which is probably where I fell sick. We joined Michael and Lina for dinner at a French restaurant. I ate light because I felt I might get sick.

I made it through the night but woke up with intense nausea and ended up vomiting. I felt so weak after throwing up that I spent the day inside and we binged watched the new House of Cards season. The next day we had to take the bus to Siam Reap. I felt better so I ate a bit at lunch and at dinner when we arrived to our hotel. Quite a nice hotel by the way. Well hidden off the main road, newly remodeled comfortable. Probably one of the best hotels we stayed at so far. They even had one of those incredibly efficient zapper tennis rackets. Unfortunately, I ended up throwing up that night again. It became clear that I wasn’t dealing with a simple indigestion but had caught some sort of bacteria.

But we had to do something with our stay. We couldn't sit around for another day waiting for me to get better, and Angkor Tom was waiting. Lina and Michael told us the bike ride was short and enjoyable from the hotel to the temples. So we grabbed a couple of bikes and went off. It was noon, the heat and humidity were probably the worst we'd experienced all whole trip.

We reached the ticket booth. It cost $40 per person for three days. Obviously we didn't have the cash to pay for all of it (what the hell costs $80 in Cambodia?) and obviously they didn't take credit cards. So I biked some more looking for an ATM. Once we hit the temple, we needed more water, maybe a tiny bit of food (but not too much, as I wasn't ready to trust my stomach yet). It was all over-priced. Higher even than what you would pay in the west. Locals really smelled blood in the water next to Angkor Wat. They know people will pay anything for food and water under this kind of heat. The temple was gorgeous but the heat was unbearable so we headed out early.

Angkor Tom awaited us next morning. It was much more pleasant than the previous day. Taking a tuktuk there was the right move. That night we went out to the same burger place as the previous night, except this time I was feeling well enough to eat. We stayed out at a bar with a jam session that I ended up taking part in. Siam Reap is a major party town, with entire districts full of bars full of westerners. There also seems to be a rather strong music scene, at least that’s what I derived from the bassist who played after me with his crew of regulars. They really tore it up.

That night we said goodbye to Michael and Lina and took a tuktuk to the bus station. We nearly missed our bus when the driver pretended to understand where we needed to go.

We stayed in the same hotel we did the first time we went to Phnom Penh. We used that day to walk around the city center. There are a few pretty sights but the rest was pretty dismal. When you’re abroad, you want to have a good experience. You hope to be surprised and delighted by the pace you visit. After traveling for as long and as fast as we had, our ability to suppress the negative aspects of a destination, and focus on the positive ones became diminished. So I can't write that Phnom Penh was an absolute marvel. I have to be honest and say that the city appeared to be run down, poorly maintained, lacked any sort of charm and looked like it still has a long ways to go to catch up with even a city like Hanoi.

I think we both felt that Phnom Penh didn't have much to offer, so we jumped into another tuktuk — he also pretended to know where he was going. We grabbed our stuff and headed to a small hotel next to the airport. We needed to catch a very early flight out of Phnom Penh and wanted to make it as hassle free as possible. We dined in a small place that probably hadn't seen a western customer in weeks. It was cheap and decent, so at least we left on a good culinary impression. This was also the only hostel we did until that point of our trip.

Early in the morning, we woke up a tuktuk driver who took us to the airport. A short while later, we were on our flight, ready to take on India.

India

March 12 — March 26

We arrived in India from Cambodia. Leaving Phnom Penh was a relief and we were looking forward to discovering another country. Everything was set: we had our Indian visa figured out well ahead of time (lesson learned from Vietnam!) so we were just going through the motions at the airport in Delhi. Our flight to Bangkok was late. We barely made our connection on time and no sooner had we arrived at the gate that a flight attendant told us we couldn't board without booking a return flight from India. Nowhere had this been communicated during the visa application. People give US airlines a lot of flack, but I have to say that Delta saved our asses that day: they have a penalty-free 24 hour cancellation policy. Book a flight out of India, take a screenshot, cancel the flight. We had to do the same thing for China so I wonder if all these cancellations for the two most populous countries in the world ever become a nuisance to them.

After a short stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we landed in Kochi. We sat in the immigration office and our visa on arrival procedure went smoothly. We made some conversation with the officers and they gave us the trademark sideway nod as we took off. We were traveling at such a rapid clip that it was becoming a ritual: we landed, got some cash, and took a cab to our hotel. India had an interesting setup: you actually prepaid your cab inside the airport. In situations where it's hard to communicate, where there may not be a meter and you're worried about potential scams, I have to say it's a rather good system. As soon as we walked out of the airport with the receipt, cab drivers rushed for our business. There was no official sign that they were legit, so we kind of had to go with the flow.

You can order the cab as one of two kinds, air conditioned or non air conditioned. That sets the tone in an interesting way. Coming from America or Europe, you would expect air conditioning as a baseline feature, especially in a car. What must their frame of reference be that you would pay extra for air conditioning?

We threw our bags in the trunk and sat in the back. Instinctively, we reached for our seat belt and pulled it down to our waist only to find nothing. So we sunk our hands under the seat, trying not to think too hard about how dirty it must have been down there, and ultimately pulled out the seat belt buckle. It was broad daylight so we got a good look at Kerala on our way to Fort Kochi. I always like that first car ride in a new country. There's so many small things to pick up on that inform you about your new environment. The first thing we noticed was how brash the driving was. I've talked about driving a lot, and I find myself saying this quite a bit but I'll say it again: this had to be some of the most gnarly driving we’d seen so far. The road to Kochi was actually rather mild but I'm referring to some of the things we saw later on. At a high level, all the bad habits we noticed in southeast Asia were dialed up to 11. The honking is incessant (many trucks and tuktuks even ask for it explicitly), people drive against the flow of traffic, they refuse to stop and will cut into incoming traffic in ways that defy any westerner’s sense of self preservation, they drive off the road at times and routinely exhibited the most reckless passing maneuvers I had ever witnessed.

Going back to the drive to Kochi, I think the most striking aspect was how colorful everything was. From the storefronts, the people, how they dress, to the trucks and buses painted in some characteristically exuberant patterns. It's a fairly well known aspect of India, still it's impressive to witness. I was also intrigued to see that color and decoration, seemingly optional features in a resource-deprived country, were given such importance where other essential features of life were lacking. It's an interesting contrast with a city like Kunming, which is decades ahead in terms of economic development and basic urban amenities, but remains grey and sterile in many respects.

The sides of the road were under a lot of construction, and much like in Vietnam or Cambodia, small businesses sprouted until we reached denser cities. Before reaching Kochi, we passed through Ernakulam. From what I could see it looked to be a mid-sized city with some taller buildings, sprawling shops and businesses and people all over the place. It was rush hour, traffic was thick, people were out and about and enjoying the final hours of sunlight as the work day ended. We were surprised by the number of churches that we encountered along the way. We didn't think that India would be a place where Christianity would have such a foothold. We would later realize that this is due to Kochi's history as a pit stop in the trade route to the East Indies. Much like Cape Town, control of Kochi ping ponged between the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English over the centuries.

Leaving Ernakulam meant crossing narrow bridges over relatively large expanses of water revealing an intricate bay and a network of islands. The streets narrowed as we made our way into the Kochi peninsula, the traffic thinned out, and the ambient noise receded until we reached the Fort Kochi Beach Inn, a discreet and recently remodeled facility that would be our home for the next 3-4 days. As we settled down, I tested the wifi connection which came in at a whopping 0.05 Mb/s. Here we were, catapulted back to the dial up era. This would be the first of many appalling internet connections we would experience in India. Of course, you don't come to India, or any country really, to browse the Internet, but I’ve been told there’s some pretty useful information there. Asking actual people for information is always good too, but ideally you want to cross-reference with an online source. Having such slow browsing speeds means either foregoing the latter, or taking considerably more time to do it. But most of all, it speaks to the level of infrastructure in the country. Like many who have been lucky enough to work in the Bay Area, I consider the Internet to be one of the most groundbreaking utilities a population can access. The information it provides is freedom-inducing, and helps educate, connect, compare. And I’m guessing that India is skipping out on reinforcing their cabled network and choosing to focus on its cellular data network, but not that many people actually have smart phones and even their 4G networks are spotty. I consider this to be one of the most fundamental infrastructure investments a country can make and it was disheartening to see that India was still so far back in that respect.

That night, we went out to a small restaurant named Dal Roti. I think that translates to bread and lentils. The place was dirt cheap, offered local dishes at two or three bucks and it was amazing. This was a flavor of things to come in India. I had sky high expectations for the food which were met again and again. The flavor, the variety, the refinement and the price are hard to beat.

On March 13th, we set out to explore the peninsula of Fort Kochi. We heard the main attractions were Kochi’s churches, Chinese fishing nets and museums and we started by a stroll on the waterfront. We were running short on clean clothes so Anaïs threw on the last trousers she had: a rather fitted pair of jogging pants. We had had heard of how Indian men’s gaze sometimes lingered in uncomfortable ways, but to experience it was an entirely different matter. Shortly into our stroll, we noticed entire verses of the Koran painted on the palisade of the waterfront specifically outlining dress codes for women. Simultaneously, groups of 5 to 6 men would pass us, their eyes widen open and hooked on Anaïs. As we crossed paths, their heads pivoted to follow her. Both of us were in shock. We didn't know whether they simply didn't realize that we noticed them staring (and would have stopped had we signaled to them that we were offended), or whether gawking in such a manner was just not something that was frowned upon in Indian society.

As the next group passed by, I looked directly back at them in a naive attempt to bring them back to their senses by asserting my presence. I figured that if such staring was indicative of lust, and if refraining out of respect for Anaïs was out of the question, they just might abstain out of respect for a man. It was like I didn’t even exist. Evidently, analyzing these interactions through the lense of a westerner wasn’t useful here.

After a few more encounters of this sort, Anaïs felt so uncomfortable that we decided to search for clothes that would help her pass for a local, reveal less of her shapes, and alleviate her of at least some of the glaring. This was probably one of our wiser moves, and quite fun actually. We stepped into many stores, getting a feel for the market until we found a good outfit at a reasonable price. The store we bought the most from was a small shop owned by a family of three. In accordance with India’s reputation, they showed great hospitality, offered us tea, honest prices, and even suggested having us over for dinner. After some uncomfortable encounters, it was a relief to be able to have a genuine conversation with locals.

The restaurant we tried at noon was the first in a string of slightly overpriced, but truly excellent meals we had in Kerala. Knowing that no matter where you are, you will most likely have a meal that will delight and surprise you is one of the best feelings. Japan and India share this and it really takes a trip to a new level.

At the end of the day, Anaïs had an outfit that wasn't a sari (which is what most women wore in Kochi), but a black pajama with a blue tunic. She looked amazing in that outfit, albeit a little warm. Stares didn't entirely stop, but they diminished noticeably, making simple strolls bearable. I think Indians found her quite ambiguous. She stood strong, wore sunglasses, definitely didn't look from the south of India, likely foreigner, but dressed in Indian clothes, and walked around with an American. In Rajasthan, people thought she was Punjabi, adding to the ambiguity.

On Monday, feeling like we'd seen a good deal of the peninsula, we sought out activities outside of Kochi proper. We caught wind of some scenic falls named Athirappilly, and a more cookie cutter experience in the Kerala's backwaters.

With our painfully slow internet connection, we looked up the waterfall and though it appeared to be only 50km away, Google indicated it would take us between two and three hours to get there. This is so representative of what it is like to travel in India. Getting from point A to point B can be incredibly complicated, unreliable, lengthy, and you often don't even know where to start. The whole process is extremely daunting. By contrast, here in Japan, if I want to get from Osaka to Hiroshima, all I need is to enter my destination in google maps and I will be provided with multiple options involving some walking, multiple local train and subway networks, a high speed rail, and the fare will be indicated for every option. You can do that search, show up at the train station on a whim and get a ticket to your destination without thinking twice about it. The freedom that comes with this level of infrastructure is a beautiful thing. But I digress. In India, Google will actually give you limited public transportation options for some areas, but booking them is complicated, most websites do not take foreign credit cards which forces you to work with agencies (which are basically using the same sites you would be using) who take a hefty fee and provide no value other than having an Indian bank account. Even if you were to rely on a bus for example, there's no telling that it will show up on time or even show up at all. The trains might be late as well, they often require multiple layovers, you will have to dodge multiple scam attempts all the while carrying a huge bag under crushing heat.

In the end, we opted for a private driver for the afternoon. This is definitely a more onerous option and we caved like this a few times during our stay in India. Despite being more expensive than taking a train or a bus, it has been worth it, as it saves energy and time.

The road to Athirappilly was narrow and winding and the driving was some of the scariest we'd experienced, especially considering the fact that we weren't in a bus, but in a small car with no seat belts. The passing was as crazy as what we'd seen in Vietnam, only with narrower roads. At some point, our driver got so close to another car while passing that his rear view mirror snapped loose. He tried to reposition it, but the mirror fell to the ground and shattered. Nothing so bad as to make the driver stop though: he shrugged and stepped on the gas as we made our way up the mountain. Dwellings thinned out and the flora grew into a thick jungle.

The driver stopped for us to grab tickets to the park. There was no line but the clerk was busy. By the time he was ready, another Indian man had walked straight up to the booth, cash in hand, parked himself next to my shoulder handing out bills to the clerk. That was my first taste of waiting in lines in India. I gently shouldered in front of him and got my tickets.

We stopped by a small restaurant for lunch which was excellent. A large family was already eating there which made for a lively atmosphere, but the host seated us in separate, quiet air conditioned room with no one else. We shared a chicken biryani and the restaurant offered us dessert for free. You could tell they made a point of ensuring their foreign guests had a good meal.

The heat was somewhat bearable, but the humidity was already killing us. The path lead to the top of the falls where many people were bathing and picnicking. This being one of the only tourist attractions in the area, we expected to see throngs of white tourists, but the only other people were a trio of Russian tourists that were also staying at the Fort Kochi Beach Inn, and other Indian folks. This would be a constant throughout our trip: white tourists were rare and only slightly more present in the golden triangle of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi ; the rest were all Indians. This didn’t really change much but we still found it exciting to know we were going where so relatively few tourists make it.

A steep path down a hill lead to the bottom of the monumental, raucous falls. The spray from the gushing water hitting the rocks was refreshing. On our way back up, Anaïs struggled a bit because of the heat and humidity. As we paused on the side of the trail, groups of Indian kids in their late teens passed us by. They stared and murmured amongst themselves, obviously talking about us until they mustered the courage to ask me for a selfie. I was taken off guard and wasn't too sure whether they were poking fun at us or were genuinely interested, but I accepted. A couple more of them came and asked for the same thing. This would the first encounters of this type in a long string. They seemed thrilled to get their picture with me. I think it's easy to underestimate how exotic foreigners can appear to locals. I was wearing my Vietnamese cap with a big yellow star in the middle, sunglasses, a t-shirt, shorts and a backpack. Many people mistook me for a marine, or someone from the US military because of that cap. The whole mix made me look very American in their eyes, and from what I saw in India, they seem to look up to American culture as the epitome of cool and hip, which might explain the draw that so many kids had to us over our time in India.

The following day, we signed up for a boat trip in the Kerela backwaters, another popular tourist attraction. Interestingly, the same trio of Russians were there with us. I realized that we had had breakfast at the hotel sitting right next to them two mornings prior, while we were making our planning for the next two or three days. I suspected that they overheard us and decided to copy our plans, which they later confirmed when we started talking with them. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, I was told as a kid. But more than that, it was somewhat revealing of how complicated it is to make plans and gain information about what to do in India. They were obviously struggling, just like us, and saw that we had figured it out and decided to also go to the waterfalls and backwater boat tour. They were a nice group of people who had originally come to India for a friend’s wedding. They gave us some tips for Jaipur (i.e. Don't go there!) and told us to contact them when we made our way to Russia.

The tour was like most group guided tours: you have to wake up early and feel herded like cattle but there were a few interesting things here and there. The bus ride was properly insane, but at least we were in a bus, we got to navigate down some narrow channels on a small boat and visit some typical Kerala homes and families. We got to see how some truly poor folks lived, in makeshift buildings in the middle of the jungle, with no access to roads. Women wove, some fished, washed clothes, prepared tea. Kids seemed to be coming back from school. They waved at us from above the canal. After yelling “Hello!” with a big smile on their face and making a few gestures, some of them flipped us off, trying to get a reaction out of us. I don't think it came from a place of hatred, they probably thought it would be a funny story to tell their friends. The girls were much more civil: as we made our way back to the starting point, a couple of young girls were bathing in the river with their mother and shouted “Hello!” from the opposite side of the river. Our boatful answered in unison and they asked our names and where we were from, in typical fashion.

The bus drove us to another, larger boat that took us around the bay after some mediocre lunch. It took us a couple of hours to finish that leg of the tour and when we came back to the bus, it appeared that it had broken down. It struggled to start, so we all got out of the bus and started pushing until it was able to ignite. And I'm not talking about a small minivan, but an actual bus, so it really took all of us to get the thing working again. It drove us to an elephant sanctuary. The elephants were shackled up, except for those that had come to us for feeding and petting. It was a little depressing to see such majestic beasts bound to trees and rocking back and forth trying to break free, but still impressive nonetheless to see them up and close (even closer than we had seen them in South Africa!).

We really struggled to find out where to go next on our trip. We read of several things to do along the coast but getting from place to place was awkward. It was hard to make our trip fit around existing public transportation options so at the end of the day, we scrapped everything. We had read great things about Rajasthan, so we simply booked a flight for Udaipur the following day.

It was already dark when we reached Udaipur’s airport on March 16. We used the same prepaid taxi service to get to town. As usual, we reached behind our shoulder for the seat belt and tried to lock it, only to find there was nothing to plug it into. At this stage, we were starting to get used to it so we bantered about it with the driver who half jokingly, half proudly explained to us that seat belts in India were not necessary. We burst out laughing at that assertion but part of me found it so scary that the people who harbor such beliefs are also the most at risk of dying in road accidents.

Our driver took us as far as he could into Udaipur’s center and we wandered a bit until we found our hotel. We were starving and started looking for some food options when we realized that the restaurant on top of our hotel was one of the best rated in town. So we walked a floor up to the rooftop and one of the most incredible views of our trip revealed itself. The city’s main Maharadja palace was directly opposite from us, beautifully lit. The Jain temple adjacent to our hotel felt so close we could almost touch it. Opposite that, Udaipur’s lake along with its palaces, also lit, gave another dimension to the experience. The temperature was perfect and the food was one of the best of our trip. We were completely taken by how exotic, otherworldly and charming the whole experience was. Udaipur was definitely the highlight of our trip in India, and it was only starting.

We geared up for a packed day. After a quick stop at the Jain temple, we visited the city palace, an impressive structure dating back to the 16th century. The palace is well organized for visits: few areas are barred from visitors so you can easily lose yourself in the many hallways and immerse yourself in what it must have been like to live there centuries ago.

We continued the day visiting Karni Mata temple which was under construction, but the view going up the cable car was something to behold. The vantage point on the lake and the mountains surrounding the city was awe-inspiring. We were under the spell of India in that moment. The colors, the views, the food, the people we had met, the history all conspired to craft a unique atmosphere that we will no doubt remember as one of the all-time highs of our trip.

We ended the day walking through the quarter of Udaipur opposite of the river. It was much poorer, with less shops and guest houses and gave us a glimpse of what we would later see throughout our Rajasthan trip.

On Friday March 18th, we organized for a driver to take us to Jodhpur with stops at Kumbhalgarh fort and Ranakpur temple. This day was also one of our highlights in India. The driver took us on a road that went right in between two major transportation routes, through some extremely rural areas of India where we felt taken back in time. For a few hours, we passed by endless wheat fields. The color pallet was surreal: the crop was ripe for harvest and blanketed the hills in bristling layers of gold. Seemingly dead tree trunks bloomed bright red flowers, women in gorgeous saris of all colors worked tirelessly in the fields under the gaze of the scabrous mountains.

Every so often, we stopped in a village for some masala chai and samosas. This is where all the men were (not out in the fields), shooting the breeze, or conducting business.

As we reached Kumbhalgarh fort, construction sites for hotels started to sprout. The driver informed us that the fort was in the process of being listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and folks in the area anticipated tourists to come in droves. We might have visited the area during one of its last periods of calm.

The fort was imposing and wondrous at once. Its walls extended far into the horizon. In fact, it's the structure with the longest walls after the Great Wall of China. The fort used to protect a large complex of dwellings and temples, many of which are well preserved. After a steep climb, it yielded some glorious views and invited visitors to imagine what it must be like to stand guard as a sentinel, watching for enemy armies approaching, or just contemplating how isolated they must have felt, behind treacherous mountain ranges as far as eye can see.

After a brief lunch stop, we traveled to Ranakpur temple, one of the holiest places in Jainism. It was built in the 15th century and is in incredibly good condition. The temple is made of immaculate marble and is several stories high. This was probably one of the most breathtaking sights in India, and possibly one of the most underrated. If prompted to choose between Ranakpur and the Taj Mahal, I would much sooner choose Ranakpur. The level of ornamentation, detail and symmetry is of the type you can only find in structures built by men truly dedicated to building something greater than themselves. It was also interesting to observe some of the uniquely Jain rules, such as removing all leather items before entering the temple. Menstruating women are prohibited from entering.

After visiting the temple, we made our final stretch towards Jodhpur. We arrived as the sun was setting. Jodhpur was a much larger city than Udaipur. The taxi had to leave us at the entrance of the old city. We kind of questioned his willingness to take us all the way to our hotel but when we reached the old town we immediately understood that he was physically unable to. The streets were minuscule, and cluttered with stalls, people, mopeds, cows and tuk-tuks. We hopped on a tuk-tuk which wasn't even able to find our hotel (even though he said he knew where it was). The streets were so incredibly hectic, swarmed with people. I had never seen anything like it. We had to walk with our bags across the streets to reach our guest house. We struggled so hard to find it! After asking a few different people, we ended up locating our hotel only to discover that the owner had given our room to someone else. He missed the notification from booking.com. Anaïs asked for his phone and called the UK customer service center and managed to find a nicer place for us to stay, the Juna Mahel. It was a 16th century building with a lot of cachet but dusty as hell. The owner was very gracious and offered us a choice of several rooms. It also had a beautiful rooftop view of the city and its typically azure houses.

That morning, we started our visit of Jodhpur with its Mehrangarh fort. The fort was perched high up on a hill, overlooking the city and the hills far in the distance. Much like the city palace of Udaipur, it was composed of a maze of courtyards and hallways. Back in its heyday, the women of the court were confined to shaded rooms in which narrow, intricate patterns carved through the wall served as their only outlook on the outside world. The interior was lavish, especially the throne room in which the sultans hosted foreign delegations. Women weren't allowed in those rooms either, but secret alcoves allowed them to spy on the meetings undetected. The armory was also effective in plunging us into the past. In a slightly morbid way, it’s fascinating to see how creative people got when it came to designing weapons to slay enemies in the most treacherous ways. An interesting example would be the blades affixed on a metal structure held in a clenched fist. The most elaborate versions of this exhibited a clutching mechanism which prompted the blade to open up like a flower, revealing a smaller blade inside. This emphasis on close combat weapons was embodied in some sultans’ initial refusal to use rifles, which were considered cowardly. Swift defeats were instrumental in changing the minds of those attached to a more honorable tradition in warfare.

We transitioned to the Jaswant Thada, as small temple down the hill. We met yet another group of Indian students there and happily submitted to the ritual of the group picture and selfies. The gardens of the temple were sumptuous and yielded worthy views on the bustling city down below. The distinctive feature of the temple, was its thinly-carved marble walls which glowed orange and red as the sun set.

We took another tuk-tuk to the Umaid Bhawan. This palace was built roughly a century ago. The local governor had it built in an Art Deco style that clashed completely with the old city of Udaipur. Black and white pictures of the governor littered the walls of the palace and emphasized how recently this had all been built. His progeny still lives there and based on the pictures and documents exhibited in the palace, it appears that the lot of regular Indians hasn’t improved dramatically in the past century.

Our tuk-tuk dropped us off at the clock tower plaza, which was surrounded by a dense and chaotic market. We found a hotel with a rooftop terrace overlooking the madness and settled down for a drink before diving back in to rejoin our hotel.

That night, Anaïs became worried about a numbing sensation that she had felt in her arms for a few days now. It had originally started with tingling and now grew to full on numbness depending on the time of day. It was getting late, but we could no longer ignore it, so we hopped on yet another tuk-tuk to a hospital that was recommended to us by the owner of our hotel. The front desk was crowded with a bunch of people but we were told to go into a room down the corridor where a doctor would see us.

The room was already full of patients. An old man was lying down in a bed and another younger man was lying in a stretcher next to him. Families of both patients crowded the room. The doctor began hearing us out only to be interrupted on and off by the other patients and their families. They seemed in worse shape than we were so we didn't protest. We were the only white people in the room. Things finally calmed down and the doctor gave us his prognosis. He thought it was most likely an issue in Anaïs’ spine, between her shoulder plates, as this is the area that controls your arms. We weren't expecting anything to be wrong with Anaïs’ back so this was a little offsetting, and we feared we were facing an ordeal when he advised us to take an MRI of her back. Now, in the US, MRIs are a scary thing, partly due to what illnesses one can diagnose from the images, but also due to the cost. We asked for a quote and he gave us an estimate that seemed acceptable and even potentially very low compared to what we would have paid in the US. We moved to the neighboring building for the exam. Anaïs got into the machine and I sat in the control room with the technician. He confessed to me that he had been putting in extra hours because his colleague was sick. That meant 12+ hour shifts multiple days in a row. The guy looked exhausted. He started the machine and the UI looked like the something straight out of the 90s. The scan failed a first time. He reset the application and I realized his machine was using Windows 95. He restarted it again and it failed a second time. In the meantime, Anaïs was lying down in the MRI scanner not knowing what to expect. He restarted everything once more, including the scanner itself and this time it finally worked. I realized by standing in the control room that MRI scanners make incredible amounts of noise. The timer read 15 minutes and Anaïs was lying in a tube, strapped down, amidst ear-shattering blasts. I felt terrible for her. When the exam was over, she explained that she had one of the worst panic attacks she had ever experienced during the exam.

The images finally came out and the technician made some preliminary readings that the doctor later on confirmed: part of her spine was slightly compressed, which lead to the occasional tingling and numbness in her arms. We were relieved to hear that the cause had been identified. The ailment would supposedly recede in time if we limited Anaïs’ exposure to bumpy roads, busses and tuk-tuks…

We went to pay, but they couldn’t operate the credit card terminal, so we asked our tuk-tuk driver who had been patiently waiting all this time to take us to an ATM. When all was said and done, the ordeal cost us $120, transport and all. Granted, the whole experience was slightly sketchy but at the end of the day, we had a competent diagnosis, a quality scan and an understanding of the issue and how to solve it. Once again, a foreign health care system punched over its weight, delivering things we couldn't obtain in the US at a fraction of the cost (both in time and money). They were more disorganized and had less resources and cut some corners, to be sure, but at the end of the day, it was effective.

Next morning, the hotel helped us book a bus to Jaipur. Our plan was to swing across the golden triangle to see Jaipur and Agra (where the Taj Mahal lies) before exploring India further east. The trip was long and hot but much cheaper than renting a taxi and much faster than the train. We made it to our hotel by night time and explored the city the next day. We were impressed with how busy Jodhpur was at first, but Jaipur made it all seem like child’s play. Larger streets were equally packed, dust filled the air and the solicitations from vendors and scammers intensified. Jaipur is reputed for its many palaces and attractions, but something about what we saw felt manufactured. Prices were much more expensive, places were packed, there were many more foreigners than anywhere else we had been until then. We started to feel what I call tourist creep, which is when the increase in tourism slowly warps the experience of a place. There are a few aspects to tourist creep:

  1. A subsequent share of economic activity is devoted entirely to tourism. Past a certain threshold, you're not visiting a place that exists in its own right, you're visiting a place that only exists because you are coming to visit it. You don't come to see how people live, they work and live for you to come see them. It becomes difficult to be a discreet spectator of a foreign and exotic society when in reality, the spotlight is on you, and every experience attempts to conform to the tourist’s expectations. Ironically, one of the few ways to get a glimpse into how locals think is by observing how they view you. This happens in small ways, in what people sell you, how they try to sway you, but my favorite example is probably from my time testing games at Atari when two Indian Q/A testers asked me what strip clubs to go to. They asked, expecting me to know about it because they thought that going to strip clubs was a totally routine activity for the denizens of France.

  2. High concentrations of tourists attract scammers, pickpockets and other folks trying to take advantage of you. This kind of predatory environment is a sure way for most people to put their guard up and enter every encounter from a defensive standpoint. This sadly gets in the way of potential genuine and authentic interactions.

  3. Feeling objectified. Most people only interact with you for the prospect of making money. Sometimes, I imagine that I'm a walking stack of cash. My first experience with this was years ago in Morocco where people would walk up to me and act extremely friendly. Invariably, and in short order, the conversation would steer to my wallet and I would have the burden of cutting the conversation short. Unusually high prices also contribute to this. If you know the cost of things by virtue of having traveled in a country and visit a tourist-ridden location where everything is overpriced, it quickly alienates you.

Of course, this is nothing new and anyone who has been abroad feels this at one point or another, but it's no less of a turn off when it happens. Jaipur really reeked of tourist creep to us so we decided to be on our way the next day. We took a taxi this time as the distance was shorter.

We had been warned that the so called golden triangle could feel like this. At this stage we were eager to pierce through this triangle and rejoin a calmer, more authentic part of India. But Agra stood in our way. Difficult to skip out on one of the wonders of the world in the Taj Mahal. We arrived by night at a decent looking hotel with a rooftop restaurant and a view on parts of the city. In the morning, we set off for the Taj Mahal. We didn't know it at the time, but we were embarking on one of the worst ordeals of our stay in India. To be clear, there is far worst than what we experienced, in the grand scheme of things, but it still felt quite epic to us so please indulge me while I go on my white tourist rant.

It started with a tuk tuk ride. I estimated the price based on the distance and suggested a decent fare because I didn't feel like haggling. The driver took it without hesitating but he drove us three blocks away to the gate farthest from the Taj Mahal instead of bringing us the entrance I had in mind. Technically he did what we had asked, but for the price we paid, he knew he had screwed us. So we walked to the ticket booth under the blistering heat, ignoring solicitations for rides to the monument. There were different booths for foreigners and locals. The price for foreigners was exorbitant which I'm usually fine with when it comes to monuments and museums. What follows is partly my fault because I knew it would be expensive and I knew I might not have enough cash, and part of me knew that despite charging western prices, they wouldn't take western payment methods. Sure enough, they didn't take cards and despite having lots of cash, it wasn't enough. They indicated an ATM was around the corner. That wasn't quite true, it turned out. After looking for a few more minutes while fighting off the hordes of solicitors and tuk-tuks, we found one. Out of order. We had to walk all the way back to the initial gate (i.e. the wrong gate) before finding a functioning ATM. Already tired from the friction and inefficiency of every interaction we had had, we caved in and hired a tuk-tuk back to the entrance. The 100 meter stretch leading to the ticket booth was without a doubt the most challenging gauntlet of our trip. The street was lined with small gift shops and children swarmed us offering all kinds of products and services we had no interest in. They were begging us to store our items with them. Why would anyone want to store our items with random kids off the street? I simply looked straight ahead and ignored them but they persisted with a pugnacity that I believe only Agra can manufacture. After a while, the absurdity of the situation was so blatant that I looked at the most insistent of all the teenagers and snapped at him ‘I have 10 people trying to get my attention that I've been thoroughly ignoring, what makes you think that what you're doing is working?’. We went in line for the ticket booth and the kid stood there looking at us. We got the tickets from a guy behind a small table (not an actual booth), which was an act of faith given how prevalent ticket scams are, but miraculously, it got us in — but not before passing the metal detector and bag check. The guard in military apparel with a semi automatic rifle didn't just look into our bag, he asked us to open every small compartment and zipper. He found an electric water purifier (steripen) and told us we couldn't enter given that electronics were forbidden. In addition to the fact that this rule makes no sense, he ignored the fact that we had a camera and two iPhones, which seemed to pose no issue. I asked nicely to go through. Then I begged him. Then I lost my patience and called BS on their rules.

All of a sudden, the lockers started to make sense. As I stepped back out, the kid I spoke to was there waiting for us with a wide grin across his face. Defeated, I followed him into his father’s shop. To my astonishment, they didn't charge anything to store our goods.

We went back into the line, and the security guard felt it necessary to search our bag once more. He managed to dig out a small headlamp that I had forgotten we even had with us. Of course, he threatened to send us away. I was so exhausted from the nonsense we had to deal with for a simple tourist attraction that I threw the headlamp into the trash bin and entered the Taj Mahal’s gardens.

If the past 30 minutes sound bad for me, they were worse for Anaïs who had to deal with the dirty stares and judgemental looks from the men outside. We were so appalled by the experience that we needed a moment to recuperate. We sat down on a short stone wall and Anaïs, also looking defeated, expressed how exhausted she had grown from dealing the passive, constant weight of men staring. At that moment, I suggested that we cut our stay short and go to China early. It didn't take much to convince her.

Making that decision gave us a sense of respite because there was now an end in sight, but Agra wasn't done with us yet. During our visit, Anaïs told me that inside the monument, where it was dark and jam packed, men groped her without her being able to see who it was or call them out. I felt angry and powerless. At the end of our visit, we sat and watched the mausoleum to take it in one last time when two Indian tourists asked us for a picture. I'm usually always happy to oblige, but we were so out of it that we politely declined. They stepped back a few meters and not-so-discreetly snapped a few shots of the rare birds. Upon exiting the site, we went to retrieve our belongings in storage. They were still there. We had no intention of purchasing anything from the shop so we tried to pay them for storing our items, but the shopkeeper wouldn't let us, insisting that he was happy to help.

That night, I got sick from the food at the hotel. I woke up in the middle of the night and vomited copiously. The bus we had reserved the day prior didn't arrive on time. Then we learned it wouldn't arrive at all, apparently because it was Holi festival and the driver didn't feel like working that day. People at the stop who were supposedly working for the bus company would not help us find an alternative or refund us. It took a couple of French women (who had also been ripped off) and their tuk-tuk driver to suggest an alternative bus to Delhi. Living on a prayer, we hopped on to the tuk-tuk and went to a travel agency to book tickets. I was still feeling like crap from being sick, probably with a fever, struggling to stay hydrated. We finally got to the new bus and soon enough the whole thing was packed and everyone was ready to go. The driver came up to his seat and lifted an lid off the motor (the engine is accessible directly inside the bus). Apparently something might not have been working quite right. He stepped back outside and hung out with a couple of friends, sipping tea. After waiting 20 minutes, I marched out of the bus and asked for an ETA. He said he didn't know because the bus had an issue. I came back out another 20 minutes later and they said they were still waiting on passengers to get their luggage at the hotel. 20 minutes later, Anaïs went out for a few minutes. When she came back in, she explained to me that she had pulled her phone out and pretended to be talking to Redbus, the bus booking website, with someone from quality control. She voiced a complaint about how slow the crew were to get going. The crew, paranoid, asked who she was on the phone with. She explained. They gave a 5 minute ETA. She pretended to tell Redfin about the new ETA and threatened to call back. No sooner had she explained her trick to me that the crew were starting up the bus. In a matter of minutes, they fixed whatever was wrong with the motor by sticking a piece of gum on a leaking tube and we were off to Delhi.

The ride was long and rough for me, but we eventually made it. We shared an Uber with the two French women we had met at the bus stop. Uber in India is incredibly cheap compared to regular taxis, maybe 5 times cheaper. I really wonder how the drivers manage. Uber is very proficient at developing local features. Since it was Holi festival, the car icons were replaced with colorful icons. I also noticed the S.O.S button on the top right. No doubt a remnant of their sexual assault issues which made the news a few months prior.

The hotel we stayed at was probably the worst we have encountered during our stay. On our second night there, I spotted a cockroach fleeing under our bed, a fact I carefully concealed from Anaïs, for the sake of her sanity. We spent a full day before taking off to try and enjoy the city. We had some decent food and visited some ramparts but that same night Anaïs fell sick from the hotel’s restaurant. I was taking antibiotics and already feeling better but she felt horrible. She managed not to vomit, although I wonder if it might not have been better for her to expel whatever she needed to. She was a hot mess on the plane, shivering and all, but she did her best to conceal it since we didn't want to get quarantined.

Despite having some of the most exotic, raw and authentic travel experiences in India, we left feeling like the country had kicked our asses and expectorated us after a string of misfortunes. India is a special place that leaves a deep impression on any visitor, as much for its positive aspects as for its shortcomings. The lack of basic infrastructure, the rampant poverty, the outrageous treatment of women, the omnipresence of grime and dust, the unreliability of services, the ever present scamming and scheming are unfathomable. Yet for each of these ordeals exists an inversely delightful experience, be it the seemingly inexhaustible sources of excellent food, the curiosity of its people, the explosion of colors, the elegance of its architecture and the lingering flavor of its history.

China

March 26th — April 20th

Kunming, April 2nd

After spending the last week Shanghai recuperating from our adventures in India, we moved to the city that Raphaël, who is one of Anaïs’ high school friends, is currently studying in. Kunming was presented to us as a small time city, almost podunk some might say. Well it turns out that podunk is all just a matter of perspective! From my point of view at least, it seems like a big city with a freeway ring around it, tall buildings, broad roads, traffic, lights, etc. Maybe about as big as Lyon intra muros.

We were warned that the city wasn't much to visit. We still spent a day there. We might have been better off taking a cab outside to see some other sights but I still found our time here worthwhile. It was a Saturday, not that we would usually pay attention to what day of the week it is, but it happened to be a day where everyone and their mom seemed to be out in the city, and in the park in particular. It was special to witness what a Saturday afternoon looks like for normal Chinese people. It was just authentic, no show put on for us or any expectations to meet. People were just being themselves. We could usually spot a westerner or two, but not this time around. We were like flies on the wall.

The city is centered around an artificial lake which doubles as a park with multiple islands. The whole thing reminded me of the night market in Chiang Mai because so many people got together to play music, dance and recite poetry. The first attraction that caught our attention was a large group of people gathered along a wall in a small alley. It looked like some kind of market so I got curious and went to see what it was all about. It was a market alright, but nothing was for sale, properly speaking. The wall was plastered with small notes, some printed, some handwritten. The folks gathering around the wall skewed old, and everything was written in Chinese. Hard to tell exactly what it was all about but we figured it must be an old fashioned classified section, out in the open.

The truth wasn't far from that. Anaïs suggested using the google translate app to take a picture. So I VPN’d, snapped a picture and asked the app to scan it. As a side note, this app is incredible. After scanning a picture with text, it highlights what it could parse and you are then able to swipe over a portion of text that Google translates for you. So we did just that for a couple of ads on the wall. Here's a picture of the first one:

The translation is rough, but from what I gathered, this is an advertisement by a mother, trying to marry her daughter. She then goes on to tout her daughter’s merits and describes what she's looking for. My mind was blown right then and there. First of all, the concept of parents wedding their children is a little foreign — although obviously not unheard of. Indian culture is notorious for this, but Chinese not quite so much. When marriages are arranged by parents to some degree, the assumption is that the match is carefully selected with precise strategic criteria to be fulfilled. But not here. This ad cast a wide net.

Walking a little further down the road, the small individual notes were replaced by entire folders of profiles. Blue folders for men, pink for women. We translated another one. This one was a profile of an older man, probably widowed, maybe divorced who was looking for love and companionship. His way of describing himself and what he sought was completely endearing. At that moment it struck me that we weren't just seeing a crowd of parents wedding their children, it was probably a majority of people who came out to the park on a Saturday afternoon looking for love. There was something earnest, unassuming and candid about the people there. You could just tell from the notes on the wall, even in the broken translations that were available to us.

Seeking companionship also means being vulnerable by opening oneself and also by acknowledging the potential for rejection. That's why dating sites in the west happen behind a screen, not in the open for everyone to see. The people in Green Lake Park really put themselves out there. Many waited next to their poster to see who would be interested. The whole endeavor was so innocent and old fashioned that it just made me melt. What an awesome sight!

We snapped a couple more pictures and headed toward the end of the alley. We stumbled upon a large group of people of all ages dancing in a circle to a traditional Chinese tune, with an EDM backbeat and some locals playing percussion instruments. They were into it. People were just enjoying life in the simplest of ways, dancing away seemingly without a care for how they looked or what others might think of them. They were just enjoying themselves. Most of them had traditional Chinese garments, others went for more fabulous looks with tall feathers in their hats. What surprised me the most was the mix of people. Men and women of all different ages took part. I projected myself into a similar situation. A) dancing in public, B) dressed up, C) with children and elderly folk? I'm way too self conscious to do anything like it.

I left the park with the impression that Chinese people are a pretty happy bunch who know how to have some clean, good old fashioned fun in a way that I had personally forgotten to. That shattered so many preconceived notions that western media feed us, namely that Chinese lead bleak lives, are censored, poor and work an ungodly amount of hours in horrible factory jobs. Maybe some of these things are true to some extent but that afternoon at least added a few shades of grey to the mix.

Dali, April 3rd-5th

This is my ritual each morning. Some noise or a ray of light wakes me up in the morning and I struggle with the same decision: do something about it (put some earplugs on, close the window, pull the curtain, maybe roll over?) or just try to go back to sleep? By the time I've settled on an answer, I'm usually up. That happens around 9am at which stage I'm ready to get up and do stuff. I look to my side, Anaïs is sound asleep. I feel bad waking her up, but I want to start doing things with my day. That's usually when I turn to my phone. VPN, Twitter, Facebook, nyt, gmail, Quartz, maybe write a bit. Now it's 11am and she's still sleeping. At 11am, I'm fine with waking her up. Add a bit of tossing, turning, the occasional complaining, getting dressed, then makeup and we’re out and about at the crack of noon. This is the story of how a quarter of my trip around the world was spent lazing around in a hotel room.

That Sunday morning was a little different though. We knew we had to catch a bus somewhat early if we wanted to make it to Dali at a reasonable time. Catching a bus in China is easy: there's a big terminal, a ticket counter, gates, buses, and off you go. The bus for Dali left at noon and would take us about five hours. The road isn't anything remarkable, mostly a string of buildings popping up on the sides of the highway. The scenery is nothing to write home about. What made the whole affair rather dull was that for once the quality of the roads was good. We essentially drove on a two to three lane highway, separated from oncoming traffic. After India, this was a good kind of boring. Sure there was some rogue passing, a few sudden slow downs, but it was a piece of cake compared what we dealy with in the past month.

We reached Dali in the evening and settled in at the Dragonfly Inn. This was a mix between a guest house and a hostel with a combination of nicer rooms and regular dorms. They hosted a barbecue on the rooftop and the food was decent and cheap. They mostly did this to foster a good atmosphere at the hostel. The roof revealed a view on the imposing Cangshan mountains. A blanket of clouds rolling over the range reminded me of San Francisco. It was warm, we ordered some beer, and a couple of Korean students introduced themselves to us. We spent the rest of the night talking about languages (they were studying Chinese), culture, career paths, and travel. We snapped a commemorative group picture and bid them farewell as they went off to Lijiang and the tiger leap gorge.

The ritual unfolded once more as we prepared to explore the Chongshen temple and its three pagodas. After much deliberation, we picked a lunch spot and walked to the temple. At first, we thought it would be a quick visit of the pagodas, so the entrance fee (~$20) felt steep but we went all the same. The temple was so much more than that! It was hard to tell at first because the temple is laid out in a straight line up Cangshan mountain, which means that each temple hides the subsequent temple. As we walked up the hill, we never knew which temple would be the last one. The more tired we got, the more amazing it became to discover a new set of temples and buildings. The higher we went, the more sophisticated the structures were. The complex of temples was built in the later half of the 20th century, fairly recently all said and told, which can sometimes feel a little cheap. You don't get quite the same experience as you might when visiting places like Uxmal, Hagia Sophia, the colosseum or Epidaurus that have witnessed centuries go by, but the architecture, the landscaping, and the views more than made up for it.

We came back to our hostel and got ready to go out for dinner. We went out to a Chinese place full of locals. The decoration reminded me of places you might find in the mission. I figured it must be a decent spot. The menu was all in Chinese — no pictures. So we whipped out Google translate and scanned the pages. Against all odds, we got what we ordered but we weren’t head over heels about the food. There was no hiding it from ourselves: we were having a bit of a falling out with Chinese food. We had tried so many different places on all ends of the price spectrum but it never really hit the spot. There was some good stuff but it was far and few in between. We tried so many different types of dishes: completely novel dishes with new flavors and textures, to the more secure options. At the end of the day, I had some decent rice dishes, some okay broth and noodles and some excellent braised pork belly, but I wasn’t consistently delighted like I was in India. In fact most of the time I walked away slightly disappointed.

We explored the old city by night. We went with no specific expectations and found that the old city of Dali was abuzz with lights, shops, crowded streets, bars and live music. It was quite an experience! It feels odd to say it in such a way, but for lack of a better word, the whole area felt very, very hip. Almost hipstery if it weren't for the fact that there was nothing haughty or pretentious about the atmosphere. The Dali night scene might teach SF a thing or two… the vibrancy and the abundance of shops, the attention to decoration, colors and atmosphere was delightful. Eventually, we walked our knees to a pulp and hit the sack, but what an impression Dali left on us!

I read about hiking in the Cangshan mountain range and was eager to check it out. We made it out the door at the usual time, then found a deli and stocked up on bread, cold cuts and cheese. After subjecting our pallets and bowels to such novelty, we craved something a little closer to home.

With our bellies full, we started our walk up the mountain for what would be a tortuous afternoon. We hiked through the dark side of Dali, up a steep hill towards what I thought would be the cable car to bring us to the top of the hill. “Cable car? Some hiking!”, one might think, but getting up there was hard enough to begin with. There was a bit of an issue however: the cable car station was nowhere in sight. Anaïs was already tired from the climb up and I felt terrible for having lead us astray. We stood at a crossroad, me fiddling with my phone, trying to VPN and use google maps to find our way to the cable car station. We were about to give up hope when we spotted a woman at the crossroad, walking with her elderly parents. I used the bilingual dictionary app to ask for the cable car. They seemed to know the way, so we followed them through a forest trail until we reached the building, 10 minutes later. But it wouldn't be so simple: the cable car terminal was fenced off entirely from our path and we were forced to crawl under a rusty padlocked gate to get there. Paying $15 per person for a cable car ride seemed steep, but after having scaled so much of the mountain and hiked under the rain, we succumbed to the sunken cost fallacy and bit the bullet.

If you're scared of heights, challenge yourself and take a ride up a mountain on a Chinese ropeway. Add a gust of wind or two and turn around to contemplate the terminal fading further and further into the distance and if you're anything like me, your stomach will start to feel quite light. After a steep 10-minute climb, the suspended wagon dipped back down before reaching the halfway station. At this stage, a stunning vista revealed a deep gorge, complete with waterfalls, vertical cliffs, gorgeous wild flowers wrapped in steamy mist befitting the stereotypical Chinese mountains that movies had planted in me all these years.

I was ready to hike, but the weather took a turn for the worse just as we arrived. I was so stunned by the arrival that I decided to wait almost an hour for the weather to clear up. With the cold building up, we only lasted 45 minutes before we went back the other way. We left a little disappointed that we couldn't go much further into the mountain, but the view coming up was well worth it.

We stumbled upon another breathtaking temple on our way down the hill. Yet again, the landscaping was incredible. They've done a great job of preserving Dali’s heritage. The rain brought out all the colors in the flowers and we were almost alone visiting the area. It's incredible to randomly discover this type of place. Dali is amazing in this respect.

We made it back to the inn late afternoon, hunkered down in front of a movie and ate the bread and cold cuts we had purchased earlier that day and hibernated until it was time to go back to Kunming.

Shanghai, April 20th

We woke up in Kunming on the morning on April 7th, checked out of Ji hotel late and headed to Salvador’s cafe to wait for Raphaël, a high-school friend of Anaïs’. It was good to see him and Anaïs reconnect. I thought back to my reunion with No-No just a few months back and it seemed like they went through something very similar. He caught us up with his life in the past few years. Moving to Malaysia, then to New Zealand, the breaking up with Cédric, and his decision to move to China on a Chinese government grant to perfect his Mandarin.

It was also nice to travel on the same flight. We arrived at the airport with a good head start and killed some time browsing the shops, talking about Chinese customs, and poking fun at the people taking pictures of us. The flight went smoothly and we arrived in Guilin late. We couldn’t see much coming into town, which I like because I get a kick out of discovering an entirely new place in the morning’s light. Our hotel room was a little cramped, and very humid — Guilin was reminiscent of some of our earlier Southeast Asian destinations in that sense, minus the heat. It was late and we were both hungry. Raphaël went to bed but we went scrounging for food. The only place open for business that our stomach could bear was KFC. I know. KFC. I didn’t think I’d eat at a KFC, but that just goes to show how desperate we were becoming for food in China.

We both came to China excited to learn more about the food there. After all, it’s common in the US to hear that Chinese restaurants aren’t anything like real Chinese food. It makes it seem like you’re missing out on something great. I wish I could claim to have fully experienced Chinese culinary traditions, but that’s simply not the case. In the first half of our trip, I was very curious to try out new stuff, even food that might look very different, or unappetizing. So I tried holes in the wall. I’m talking about places packed with locals, menus with no photos, necessitating a VPN connection and google translate. I tried high end places. My experiences were pretty consistent: either the food was passable, or it was really out there. I hadn’t given up but Anaïs lost her patience faster than I did. She quickly found herself craving western food at every meal. I resisted it for a while, partly because I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, partly because even the western food wasn’t up to par, and partly because western food options are 3-5 times more expensive than what we could find at a simple noodle joint. Ultimately, I caved in. I was just hungry, and my stomach turned at the mere sight of most restaurants.

It didn’t help that I fell sick again. I forced myself to throw up a little bit until I felt better. The next few days would be a mix of queasiness, diarrhea, and paranoia about whatever I ingested, which culminated in the first night in Beijing when I got very sick once more.

China has a rich history, a plethora of regional cultures, it’s been around the block for millennia and is home to the largest population on earth. Because of this, my assumption was that China must have a very strong culinary culture. It’s another one of those relative VS absolute debates that becomes very hard to parse when it comes to things like food. It’s obvious that people in China value different flavors than folks traditionally do in the West. Or else why would the food be so pungent, and why would people go for turtle, shark fin, beavers, dogs, cats? This even translates to the way food appears. It’s hard for me to describe what good western food looks like, but even the presentation of most of the dishes in China became repulsive to me after a while — often for no other reason that I’d been burnt in the past by things that looked new. So people in China are raised to value different looks and flavors in food. What I still wonder about is how Chinese people react when they come to the west and try food that we would think of as refined. I can think of a few different outcomes:

  1. they are repulsed by how different it is,
  2. they appreciate it but still consider Chinese food superior,
  3. they enjoy it as an equal to their usual food options,
  4. they enjoy it so much that they disown their own culinary tradition, or at least prefer it so much that they seek it out over Chinese food.

At the end of the day, I struggle over this simple question: am I just unable to see what is valuable in Chinese food, or am I onto something when my instinct tells me western culinary traditions are more varied and refined? I don’t think it’s too controversial to claim that some places have vastly superior culinary traditions than others. I’ve found myself faced with that fact when returning from places like Curacao, but saying this about the most populated country on earth feels like taking a big short cut.

I think it was Amanda, a woman from Kansas that we met going to the great wall who ventured that maybe food had a more functional role in China, and that people didn’t put as much emphasis on it because of that fact. I guess I’ll have to talk to people who have lived in China and emigrated elsewhere and see what their thoughts are.

Focusing back on Guilin: we had decided to go there because it came so highly recommended by friends of ours, and I have to say that food and bowel state aside, it did not disappoint. We walked (and climbed) inordinate amounts during our stay — the first day especially. The city is traversed by a river and multiple canals and offshoots of the river, but the most striking feature is the scores of steep hills surging from the ground, seemingly at random, throughout town and far out into the horizon. Most of the hills are well fitted out and easy to climb and explore. We climbed two of them on the first day. The views they yielded were gorgeous, often with a 360° outlook. After the first one, Raphaël and Anaïs grew tired and took a break, but this type of landscape is what makes me want to explore, so despite being so out of shape, I climbed up the stairs two by two and hopped from one peak to the next, with Inner Space playing on my phone.

Once again, It was time to feed ourselves. When you’re in a country whose food you don’t necessarily enjoy, picking a restaurant becomes complicated. The stakes are high because you’re hungry, you want something really good, but you cannot blow it. If you pick something bad, you’ll go hungry with some realistically bleak prospects as your next meal. As a result, we were extremely picky about what we wanted to eat. We wandered the streets of Guilin endlessly in search of a decent place, growing hungrier and more desperate as the night progressed. It was a Friday night, the streets were lively, and despite a plethora of options, nothing convinced us. As we walked, we saw so many people eating all kinds of stuff from street vendors, on a stick, wondering how they could possibly be eating such things. We turned down so many empty restaurants and hotpot joints until we predictably settled on a shamelessly overpriced pseudo western joint. At least we wouldn’t get sick, but we’d once more paid too much for a subpar meal. We were still slightly hungry and longing for something to soothe our nagging appetite.

Alfonso, Raphaël’s new boyfriend flew in that same night. We went to bed and prepared for the tour next morning which would take us down the Li river. This looked like another one of those typical tour experiences with the bus, the guide struggling to make himself heard or understood, and being herded from one place to another at a breakneck pace. Well, it kind of was, but the natural beauty of the places we got to see was such that anything else faded into the background. The first four hours were spent on a cruise down the river. No aggravating tour guide, just me and some friends chilling on the deck, marveling at the majestic hills streaming past us.

The tour guide tried to upsell us into visiting some caves in the afternoon. It’s a little annoying that they don’t present you with the full experience upfront and then pressure until you cave in, but I was on such a high from what we had already seen that we figured we’d give it a try. It was well worth it. The caves were extremely crowded, and it was sad that so many of the stalagmites and stalactites in the cave were so damaged by hordes of tourists, but even that couldn’t detract from how majestic the cave was. The most breathtaking sight was a pool which at first sight appeared to be a gaping chasm in the middle of the complex. The water was so still that it took me a few seconds to realize that it was just a basin. The ceiling of the cave was so high that it gave the pool’s reflection the appearance of a deep underground ravine.

Exiting the cave, we waited for the rest of the group in front of the restrooms. I was knackered from so much walking and just sat there, waiting, staring into nothingness. A Chinese man jolted me out of my daydreaming: “Can I take a picture?!”, At this stage, so many people had asked to take pictures that I figured that this time, I would at least learn something from it. So I asked, “Why would you want to take my picture, of all people?”. An older woman he was traveling with answered in broken English: “Because handsome”. As she said that, a couple of teenage girls I hadn’t even noticed started to giggle. Somewhat flattered, a smile cracked on my face. I decided I’d mess around with them, just to see how they reacted: “Ok, sure I’ll take a picture. Just don’t tell my wife. She’s in the restroom, let’s make this quick.” They snap one picture, then a the second, then I cupped my hand in a half heart, suggesting one of the girls form the other half for a pose. As the camera clicks, Anaïs walks out and I instantly look at her, pretending to be caught in the act of some infidelity. She plays along, gesturing a playful fighting stance in direction of one the girls. The man, visibly embarrassed, begun to apologize profusely at which point Anaïs and I both laughed and explained that we were just having some fun. Everyone smiled, somewhat relieved and delighted to be able to share a fun moment with some total strangers. The man then asked me if he could take a picture with Anaïs. I invited him to ask her instead. We thanked them, said goodbye, and climbed back onto the bus. Small encounters like this are a lot of fun and are so revealing of the differences between our cultures.

One recurring observation is that there seems to be a sort of fascination with white people in China. We had caught onto this fact and it became a regular topic of conversation with Raphaël. Raphaël had been exposed to China for a long time and has interiorized quite a few of the cultural quirks and customs. He explained that there is a fairly well established ladder on which Chinese people rank ethnicities. Caucasians apparently fit way on top, followed by asians, with black people at the bottom… Of course this is a generalization and surely not everyone in China will identify with this, but Raphaël did have some stories that exemplified this in a disturbing way. For example, it is commonplace for foreign exchange students to take up modeling gigs in their spare time. Not necessarily to feature in fashion magazines or runways, but for general purpose advertising, simply because people find them more photogenic. This video made the rounds and kind of says it all:

Now that’s pretty terrible, but on the flipside as a white person, I must confess that it’s fun for people to perceive you in such a different way. I’ve never thought of myself of as being particularly attractive. I grew up with a lot of acne, never kept a girlfriend for more than two weeks in high school and never got the signal that girls found me attractive generally speaking. So coming to China, and noticing heads turn, or having people mistake you for a celebrity is quite amusing. So we played around a bit with this with Anaïs. She purposefully cultivated the undercover celebrity look with a hat and sunglasses. This actually worked. A bunch of Chinese high school kids visiting the temple of heaven mistook her for some kind of celebrity. They did not know who she was exactly, but they were convinced that she was someone famous, and posed with her for five minutes. That same day, Anaïs asked me to lean against a wall, and starting “posing” to see if we could draw a crowd. Sure enough, 30 seconds in, a few people approached, taking more or less discreet glances. Some took out their phones and started taking pictures. All in all, it comes from a pretty similar place as it does for India: seeing a white person is somewhat exotic. The difference is that Indian people will walk up to you and strike up a conversation, whereas Chinese people will try to covertly take a picture, or pretend to take a selfie you just happen to be in the back ok. The most confident ones will stop in front of you and yelp “HELLO, HELLO, HELLO!”. It’s actually really weird. It’s like they dare themselves to do it. My favorite guy to do this was in Kunming airport. He was kind of tall and a little overweight, with a red ballcap and after doing his routine on Raphaël, Anaïs and I, he walked away like a boss. He was so proud of what he had just done. We smiled, somewhat puzzled, but we couldn’t contain ourselves when he slapped a random passerby’s belly in celebration of his accomplishment. So yeah, foreigners are a thing, and it’s fun to see how fascinated some are with you.


It was a tiresome road back from our cruise in Guilin. We got stuck in rush hour traffic. We were exhausted from the walk but still mustered up the courage to go out. We went to the restaurant that I think made me sick for the third time this trip and went out for a night of karaoke, on Raphaël’s insistence. I have never been to a proper karaoke joint, or KTV as they call it in China. You pay for a private room with a pa system, a large TV screen, and a smaller touch screen with a UI to build a playlist with. The room is fairly well insulated from sound and sight and you can just be yourself without singing in front of a crowd, which is how I’ve seen it done in the US most of the time. I have to say it was a lot of fun. I’m not one to sing or dance, but I kind of let loose. Anaïs stole the show, impressing her high school friend who had never heard how well she can sing.

Overall Guilin was an incredible stop on our trip. Sure, the food was subpar, and I got sick, but everything else was great. The city was beautiful, well kept and easy to get around, and the surrounding sights were unique.

We took off on Monday April 11th and landed in Beijing in the evening. I got really sick that night and started a second course of antibiotics in the span of three weeks. It forced us to stay put on Tuesday, which we used to organize our stay and plan our travel to Tokyo. We heard so many great things about Beijing and were really looking forward to it. We ended up having a really busy week:

  • Wednesday: Temple of heaven
  • Thursday: City center gardens
  • Friday: Forbidden City
  • Saturday: Drum Tower and city canals
  • Sunday: Summer Palace
  • Monday: Great Wall of China
  • Tuesday: Chill.

In terms of food, we had enough options that we could at least eat local stuff and weren’t forced to fall back on mediocre, expensive western joints. We weren’t quite blown away, but it at least ceased to be the hindrance it was in Guilin. Beijing is an amazing city. At first it seems very artificial, airy and polluted because the streets and blocks are jumbo sized and everything looks recent. It doesn’t help that everything worth seeing is hidden behind imposing walls. Once you get your footing and understand where things are, you get why people love Beijing so much. When it comes to feeling transported to another time and place, Beijing rivals what we experienced in Udaipur. There is a simplicity and a consistency to the style and the materials used. The walls, the tiles, the roofs radiate such character and infuse a distinct atmosphere to Beijing. The Chinese are masters of gardens and landscaping. Beijing is home to many expansive, delicately decorated gardens. Another fun quirk is the naming patterns for their monuments: temple of heaven, hall of prolonging life, hall of supreme harmony, etc. but I have to stay you are overcome by a sense of awe and peace when visiting these sites.

For centuries, the Chinese have displayed an impressive mastery of design and symmetry in their city planning. It shows in their temples, gardens, towers, walls and palaces, no matter how far apart they are in the city, many are built on the same axes. Planning something so vast with such coherence such a long time ago is an impressive feat. It thrusts you centuries back. What it must have been to witness this centuries ago, when Europe was only beginning to hoist itself out its medieval slump!

Walking the streets of Beijing was enjoyable. I think that my favorite part is after 5pm when people get off work and out of school. The streets come alive, people line up at bakeries and get their groceries for the night’s cooking. Our hotel was on a pedestrian street that had this kind of atmosphere every night and it was refreshing. The hutongs are just as picturesque and restful as you would imagine them. People seem busy, but are also enjoying life. People in the Beijing seemed to be thriving. One things we were told about China is that it’s really good at making things look good from the outside, but actually hides many issues. Maybe that’s the case, and maybe China’s success and apparent happiness are hollow, but if it is, they’re selling it really well. It truly seems like the country is doing great, and that people by and large are happy.

Overall, I think China’s been our best travel experience so far. The country is modern, developed and has an undeniable momentum that is electrifying even to a simple observer. The country feels foreign in one of the best ways possible. Not speaking the language is a barrier, of course, but it also contributes to the feeling you get when you realize you are the only white person for miles in every direction. It may be just an illusion, but being the only western folks as far as eyes can see really nails in the fact that you’re in a completely foreign land. It makes it exotic in a subtle way and contributes to your enjoyment of something essentially different. You get things raw. People don’t cater to you as a westerner, no one is waiting for you or expecting you. People are just doing their thing and you happen to be there. China was very immersive in this sense.

In addition to the language, Chinese people and Chinese culture are that much more mysterious because they are so hard to get through to. It’s so hard to get them to smile. The subtle cues of humor don’t really make it through and it seems as if they don’t expect things to go off script. You’re here to buy something, they’re here to sell it, and anything added to that experience often doesn’t get processed. Because of that, it’s hard to find the chink in the amor and get them to show a little bit of who they are. I don’t necessarily mind it. Of course, I wish I had gotten to know some people a little better, but it certainly contributes to making Chinese culture all the more intriguing. It makes you wonder: who do they open up to? If social interactions are all as codified as they seem to be, when do they let loose and express who they are?

China is definitely a country I see myself going back to, in particular to enjoy nature in more detail. I regret not exploring the Cangshan mountains of Dali. The Great wall of China was impressive to be sure, but hiking on it for extended sessions should be incredible. Tibet is also an area we completely forewent that we’ll have to be back for. Till next time...

Japan

April 21st — May 15th

Monday May 2nd

We've been in Japan since April 21st, a little over 10 days ago. We arrived from Beijing on a red eye flight and took a 5 o'clock train from the airport to Shibuya district where we were able to check in early and put down our backpacks.

Being in Japan felt sedating, in the best way possible. After 6-7 weeks of India and China, Japan was akin to dozing off in a cocoon of pure comfort. While our train quietly hovered above a clean and tidy city, I got the same feeling as while driving into Switzerland from France and imagined that Japan is to Asia what Helvetia is to Europe: a haven of, wealth, order and cleanliness.

On our trip to Shibuya, we gleefully compared all the ways in which Japan and China contrasted, basking in a newfound appreciation for what we didn't hesitate to call civilization. And to be fair, this wasn't just a comparison with China, it was a comparison with our entire Asian experience, which speaks to our state of mind in that moment: we had suddenly become conscious of the burden which had progressively accumulated on us over the past weeks because that burden was suddenly and unexpectedly been lifted from us.

Actual english translations, profuse courtesy and respect, unique and clearly displayed prices (no tourist treatment), abysmal levels of air pollution, spotless, fast and reliable public transit, clean water from the tap (!!), recycling, no littering, no hocking and spitting, not having to go through the slow, uncertain and friction-fraught process of connecting to a VPN to access basic information, palatable 3G connections, video streaming-worthy wifi connections, delicious and safe food, and finally, the hallmark of the select few and most evolved societies on the face of this earth: standing on one side of the escalator and walking on the other.

Japan was the source of that light at the end of the tunnel. We actually enjoyed the tunnel, in fact we didn't even realize we were in a tunnel but when we made it out, we felt like a million dollars.

We almost got lost on our way out of Shibuya station — it was huge. As we searched for our Airbnb, it was such an incredible relief to be able to enter addresses and find a route in Google maps. It even worked for public transportation! It seems that each Asian country has a different system for street addresses, so once more we struggled to find our apartment but we ultimately did. It was 6:30am ; we tossed our heavy bags on the floor and slept until noon.

I'll always remember Josh Hull telling me that Tokyo was so clean you could lick the sidewalk. I never took him up on the challenge but suffice it to say that Tokyo delivered on its reputation of modernity and cleanliness. Japan’s food however, was probably the number 1 item we were curious to investigate. But this was more than a mere matter of curiosity, it was eager anticipation to break free from the passive fear of falling sick at any given meal. Anaïs looked up a cafe inside a high rise Shibuya shopping mall where we had our first Japanese meal: a simple bowl of udon noodles with a raw egg. A comforting mood settled in, feeling finally rested as we ate our dish, contemplating Tokyo’s bustle from far above.


Despite slight showers, we braved the busy Shibuya district, marveling as we discovered how deeply organized and orderly Tokyo is. This went on for a bit until Anaïs admitted that she had been covertly guiding us towards a cat cafe. The crowd at a cafe had to be some of the most uniquely nerdy crowd I had encountered. The cafe was well organized with lockers, slippers for each guest, a place to wash our hands and an instruction manual explaining a little bit about each cat inside the pen. Of course, food is available to order (for both humans and cats) and a selection of manga was handy to read while petting your cat. They charged an hourly rate of 1000 yen, so as nice as the cats were, we didn’t extend our stay and left to get dinner. We tried our first Tokyo ramen place. Ramen joints in Tokyo are very formulaic, but the consistency and the overall quality have a comforting aspect: wherever you are, you know you'll be able to get a decent bowl of noodles, at a reasonable price and in short order. Walk up to the rectangular vending machine, hit the button (often at random if you can't read Japanese), sit down, give your ticket to the cook, and you'll be eating a bowl of ramen within a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Even an average ramen place in Tokyo will put the best SF ramen restaurants to shame, so we indulged in quite a few during our stay. A special mention for Tatsunoya, a small ramen joint that served a tsukemen that was without a doubt the best ramen we had in Japan.

That next morning, we changed Airbnb apartments and settled north of the Shinjuku district, which is a good neighborhood close to many parks, great ramen joints and JR lines.

A small digression on JR trains: having the JR pass which allows you to travel on bullet trains and a variety of local trains is one of the most freedom inducing purchases you can make in Japan. It costs about $500 per person for a 3-week pass, which feels like a big commitment upfront, but the ability to move from one city to the next and within a given city without having to think twice about it is liberating. While it doesn't allow you to use every single local train network, it's still worth it. We travelled to the south of Japan and back and the ticket paid for itself.

The next few days were spent visiting parks in Tokyo: Yoyogi, Meiji, the Imperial Palace, Senso Ji shrine, Shinjuku Goyen. At night, we discovered the Tokyo jazz scene. I always knew that Japan had a strong appreciation for black music so I figured it must have a strong set of jazz clubs. We avoided places like the Blue note and looked for some smaller venues with some jam sessions. The first one we tried, on a Saturday night was the Jazz Spot Intro. I was extremely impressed by the caliber of musicians playing there: they knew the standards, were virtuoso improvisers and good listeners. Another strange thing is how many bassists they have in Tokyo. At both jam sessions I went to, there were at least five different bassists, each excellent. It also helped that everyone there was extremely courteous. No one rushed onstage to play or pushed you off. There seemed to be no ego at play, stressing musicians out. It was all about the music and interacting with the other musicians. I have to say that this is quite a big change in what I'm used to experiencing in France and in SF. A Frenchman we met recommended we check out Somethin’ Jazz Club, so we did. Twice. It was a funk jam session, which was a little easier for me than playing the upright bass. I only got to play two tunes there but had so much fun doing it (So What and Butterfly by Herbie Hancock which I had never played before).

On Saturday April 23rd we tried out Jazz Spot Intro, but before that, we went for dinner at a small tavern next to the club. We tried it almost by chance. We had a very different type of meal and interacted with the folks in the restaurant. We placed our trust in the hands of the chef and asked him to serve us what he thought would shine the best light on his establishment. There's a specific word for this in Japanese: Omakase. We were served whole, miniature, squids, some sushi, skewers, a fish head (which was probably my favorite) and a few different varieties of sake. We also got to talk with another patron, a network engineer, with whom we traded stories about travels, work, life and living in the city. The patrons at the table behind ours were also keen to help translate and choose the right items on the menu. We definitely overspent, a frequent consequence of Omakase, but sharing a moment with new people and enjoying unique and authentic food was well worth it.

This experience summed up Tokyo in a lot of ways: being pleasantly surprised, delighted, and impressed at every turn by the quality of food and music. The mundane aspects of life such as commute, payment, even expurgation are all optimized so as to focus on more meaningful experiences.

On April 27th, we left Tokyo for Kyoto. Getting there thanks to the JR pass was a breeze. We had heard that getting from one city to the next could be complicated during golden week, but it ended up being simple and incredibly fast. In an hour and a half’s worth of train commute, we had reached a new city hundreds of kilometers away.

There is a CBD in Kyoto, and as many cities in Japan do, it contains tall and modern buildings that impressed on us the fact that we were in an important city, but we stayed further east in an area that had something very provincial about it. In fact, as we explored the city on foot and as we neared the mountain range surrounding Kyoto, it started to resemble the countryside. Many areas were deserted, the stores and buildings appeared modest and the pace of life just felt close to what I experienced in some slow summer days back home in Vourles or Saint Genis Laval. At any rate, it shattered any expectation I had from a city that used to be the capital of Japan.

We weren't quite as impressed by the food in Kyoto as we were in Tokyo. It was harder to enter any restaurant and feel secure in the knowledge that we were about to have something excellent. Prices appeared higher as well, and there were noticeably more foreign tourists than almost anywhere else we had been in Asia (barring Angkor Wat). However, once we walked out of the central areas towards the outskirts of the town, things calmed down to the point where we often found ourselves alone, stumbling from temple to temple and garden to garden. The density of monuments and parks in Kyoto is surreal. Outside of Kyoto, a temple was something exceptional that we specifically sought out. In Kyoto, the most imposing of monuments, the most ornate temples and serene gardens appeared unexpectedly, without needing to look for them. All that was needed was to let curiosity guide us from one place to the next.

The way Japan builds its temples and tends to its gardens is especially refined. You can tell that every aspect of their temples and gardens has been mulled over, optimized and improved upon over and over for centuries and now constitutes an elaborate tradition. Everything comes into play, from the layout of the facility and the garden, the method of trimming plants, the way of cutting and treating wood, the materials used in roofing, the methods for handling water, managing space with sliding doors and surely many more things I simply took for granted. This know-how culminates in the restful, harmonious ambiance that Japanese gardens are so well known for.

The care and attention paid to artisanry, the passion for music and art, the meticulousness applied in preparation of their food underlines a commitment to quality and substance that permeates Japanese culture. I'm well aware that Japan also makes room for the mundane and the superficial in many respects, as do all cultures, but Japan’s deep care for quality reminds me very much of France in a sense. In fact, as a kid, I always noticed that Japanese culture was held in high esteem and I think that is because the French share Japan’s commitment to rigor, discipline and tradition and are deeply impressed by it.

This appreciation for tradition is on display in Kyoto in ways that are offsetting but also delightful. For example, many women but also some men wear traditional garb in public that clash with the surroundings in obvious ways. Groups of women wear colorful kimonos with oversized ribbons in the back and white socks and wooden sandals, strolling in front of a 7/11 on a busy street, or boarding a bus or a train. In America, we slily mock our civil war reenactors and anyone dressed in this manner in public would draws great deals attention, if not mockery. In Japan, people enjoy wearing nice clothes to take a leisurely stroll, and no one bats an eye.

On May 1st, we took off for Nara, another city which once upon a time used to be Japan’s capital. Nara was much smaller and had an even greater proportion of its economy and overall activity dedicated to tourism. Most of the interest lied in the park in the east of town and in the litany of temples scattered across its hilly forest. The crown jewel of that park is the Todai-ji temple, which happens to be the largest wooden structure in the world. That blew my mind and it’s fascinating to sit under the roofs of such structures and study how the wood is carved and how the beams fit into one another, and contemplate how difficult it must have been to hoist them up into place.

We stayed an extra day in Nara, mostly because we needed some down time. We used it to plan out the rest of our trip and took off on Tuesday May 3rd.

Our next step was Osaka. There was something garish about Osaka. It was a large, modern city and an important port but something felt eerie about it. It was densely populated but it felt empty. It was a large city but felt devoid of activity. Asides from the castle, there wasn't much to see in Osaka. What I'll remember the most out of Osaka is a homeless man who spoke unusually good English and struck up a conversation with us. He was kind of an oddball, but we had had so little direct interaction with Japanese inhabitants that we felt compelled to hear him out. He lashed out at the idea of bowing, deriding it as a hypocritical display of respect lacking of any substance. His most scathing criticism of Japan was directed towards its criminal justice system in which, according to him, the police holds citizens arbitrarily for tens of days, pressuring for a confessions, and where lawyers are but paper tigers. He had harsh words for the people of Japan, insisting that they were sheep or zombies who had given up their freedom for bread and security and who were incapable of truly connecting with one another, or settling an argument in any other way than calling the police. He pointed to the thousands of oversized boulders constituting the moat of the nearby castle to illustrate how this issue is nothing new and that the Japanese people have always foregone their freedom and willfully accepted subjugation under the threat of sanguine and power-craved rulers. “If I lived in the old days and saw such an edifice, he warned, I would run in the opposite direction!” Implying that such impressive wonders of architecture can only be the fruit of coercion.

It’s common to hear of Japan’s problems: its high suicide rate, deflation, declining population, dwindling interest in romantic relationships between members of the opposite sex, and a multitude of taboos. Moreover, seeing a country so seemingly perfect gives a nagging suspicion that it all might be too good to be true and that deeper issues must lie beneath the surface. So all in all, I was disposed to hearing a little more about Japan’s darker side, but I was still a little skeptical about what our new found friend mentioned. He was a man of many experiences, apparently born in North Korea, who had fled to South Korea, but he kind of lost me when he claimed to have swam across the sea to join Japan.

On the morning of May 4th, we set out for Hiroshima. First, I should mention how easy it was to get here. We got up in the morning, packed our bags and went to Shin Osaka train station to catch a Shinkansen. Once again, our JR pass gave us the freedom to do such things on a whim. We got to the station at 11:35, and at 11:59 we were in a train to Hiroshima, a metropolis roughly 250 km away. 1h30 later, we had arrived. The ease with which you can go from point A to point B in Japan is unparalleled.

Right off the bat, Hiroshima had a liveliness that Osaka lacked. Our hotel was a short tram ride away. It was fancier than expected, definitely the most upscale place we stayed at in Japan, but for a respectable price. We were on the 15th floor and our room had a beautiful view on the city and its surroundings. Hiroshima is seated in a basin and we could notice the sea, mountains and forests bordering the city. Funk music was booming from the streets below which were densely crowded, likely in festivities related to Golden Week.

We were scruffy-looking and well aware of it, in desperate need of a haircut so we got a cheap cut and wandered the streets. They were so lively, with people grilling meat on the sidewalk, selling and drinking wine. Folks were well dressed. Many other spots had music blasting out into the streets which made for a light hearted, estival spirit in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. It reminded me a lot of the Fête de la Musique back in France. We hadn't really seen this side of Japan yet.

Seeing the great Torii gate is of course an important experience in Hiroshima, but more meaningful was the World Peace Museum and the details it reveals about what it actually means to be hit by an atomic bomb. Understanding the devastation inflicted by such a weapon is crucial in understanding the world we live in. And I don't mean understanding a death toll, which is just a number. I mean understanding how radiation works, how it can reach across buildings and heavy materials to burn and damage in ways that defy intuition and may be invisible but can last for ages. But even the immediate effects are crucial to grasp: the pressure of the explosion, the blow back (and forth), the level of heat, the burns, and how that affects your skin and clothes.

History has been shaped by technology and the destructive power it wields. Entire civilizations routinely fall to those possessing superior fire power. In this sense, citizens of the US, France, Russia, the U.K., China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and their allies are very much at the top of the food chain. International relations are couched in this fact but citizens of these nations tend to forget it, likely because serious nuclear threats are no longer issued and attacks happened so long ago that they become a thing of the distant past — with a caveat for countries neighboring the Korean peninsula. Visiting Hiroshima is a vivid reminder of these dynamics and how they frame our world.

On May 8th, we finally traveled down to Miyazaki. Anaïs had been looking forward to meeting with her Trion colleague, Scott. Hanging out with friends we meet on the road often makes for some of the best moments on our journey, so I was looking forward to it as well. I'll confess to not researching Miyazaki at all. From what I gathered overhearing conversations between Anaïs and Scott, I imagined it to be a small to medium-sized country town. It turns out Miyazaki was quite modern, with broad streets, tall-ish buildings, trains and buses. Definitely nothing to scoff at. Japan is reminiscent of China in this respect: even the smaller towns are impressive. Kunming was the same way ; Raphaël strongly downplayed it and urged us not to spend too much time there.

I enjoy coming to a place with little to no expectations because everything is a complete surprise. I was delighted by the nature we got to see: the ogre’s washboard next to Aoshima shrine, as well as the suspended bridge nearby Aya which provided valley views from far above that I would never have gotten a chance to enjoy otherwise.

The climate in Miyazaki is markedly different from what we'd experienced further north. It’s much more humid and warm, almost tropical. Palm trees line the train station and many of the coastal areas reminded me of Hawaii. Miyazaki was apparently one of Japan’s top honeymoon, golfing and vacationing destinations before the archipelago of Okinawa was returned to Japan by the US. I had no idea that this massive piece of land had been traded by the two nations in such recent history! It's interesting that Okinawa fell under Japanese influence seeing how far it is from the Japanese mainland.

Miyazaki had us rained in for most of our time there which meant we also got to do some normal things such as going to the movies, sitting in a cafe or a restaurant longer than you otherwise might, and just overall taking your time which was nice and restful for a change.

Spending time with Anaïs’ friends was an opportunity to get some more insights into Japanese culture from an expat’s perspective. Of course we had our own observations and intuitions, but it was fun to see whether or not they were shared. They also clued us into some aspects we hadn’t picked up on. I was eager to discuss the conversation we had with the homeless man in Osaka. Neither Scott nor his wife knew for sure but they had a friend who lived in Japan for a while and studied some law there who ended up confirming most of what we were told: you can legally be held for 21 days, during which you are pressured to admit guilt by means of sleep deprivation and constant exhortations to confess. The conviction rate is indeed 99%. This would explain at least in part why crime is so low and everything is so orderly in Japan. Without any further context, such facts leave a chasm open for foreigners to peer into, leading to all kinds of speculations on the Japanese psyche, its history and political culture. There appears to be mountains of complexities, attitudes, and reflexes baked in as a result of such a relationship with government and authority.

The reason why I find this more shocking in Japan than I did in China is that Japan doesn't correspond to the stereotype I had of governments with such practices. Japan seems to have freedom of speech, and while many subjects are apparently taboo, censorship seems light, you can use the web freely, citizens vote and Japan has the reputation on the world stage as a well functioning democracy.

We took off from Miyazaki on May 12th. I was looking forward to spending a final few days in Tokyo and taking a final bath of modernity and organization before heading off to the US where Washington state awaited us as the first destination on our road trip.

United States Of America

May 16th — June 26th

Our trip in America was a whirlwind. We crossed the country at a rapid pace, and I was so concerned with it becoming just a blur in my memory that I wrote short notes of what each was like. Every place we went to in America had such a distinct flavor that I’m happy I have this diary as a key to certain areas of my memories. For anyone else reading this, it should be an worthy glimpse into various areas of America, and of what it’s like to cross the country by car.

May 18th

Beyoncé concert!

May 19th

Took off with the car. Eric and Jeff took us out to great food, including an epic lamb burger followed up by expensive hipster cookies from Helen's Kitchen.

May 20th

Amazing day of driving and hiking. Of all things, Anaïs woke up first, and pushed us out of the house by 8:30. We visited Dry Falls Park, did a hike there and had a picnic in the middle of the canyon.  

Then we went to Steamboat Rock Park and hiked around the plateau for some of the most breathtaking views I've ever witnessed.

Grand coulee dam was up after that. It's a full mile long and hooked up to huge power lines. Super impressive. Yay for infrastructure!

May 21

Weather was crap in Glacier and Yellowstone and will continue to be for the next few days so we are going down to Utah directly and stopping in Boise on the way. The roads were incredible to drive through.

May 22

Drive from Boise to Salt Lake City. Short hike around Shoshone falls which are nicknamed the Niagara of the west for a reason!

May 23

Long drive from SLC to Zion. We had time for a short hike at emerald pool trail. Then we went to or Airbnb in Kanab. Great couple of folks managing it. Had an interesting conversation about being your own boss, and living in the countryside as opposed to the city.

May 24

Went for a strenuous hike up to Observation point in Zion. I had wanted to go on a longer hike like this for a while. It's approximately equivalent in length to most hikes I used to do back in Névache in the Alps, with a 600+ meter elevation gain. Zion is probably the most incredible place we've visited since the beginning of our trip. It has a sacred and cosmic quality to it. The shapes and the colors of the canyon are so otherworldly that you can't help but stand there and marvel at it. I felt dwarfed by the scale of it all. This is possibly best illustrated at sunset, when beams of light, sent by a gigantic burning ball of fire millions of kilometers away, hit a wall of rock itself carved by the elements over millions of years on a sphere of dirt assembled billions of years ago. Hiking from the bottom to the top of it made me feel as though I’d been invited to be a small part of it all.

The actual hike up the canyon was overwhelming. Near the top, we reached ledges overlooking such heights, amidst rain and wind, that I truly felt destabilized. The magnitude of the landscape intimidated me and I felt for a moment that I was out of my element. Everything was telling me that I shouldn’t be there. I powered through, clutching the wall and combatting a dizziness that grew more poignant every time I tilted my head up to glance at the gorge.

May 25

Made a long drive from Kanab to Cortez. The drive was gorgeous once again. We wove in and out of Utah through Arizona then into Colorado. The landscape was as dramatic as ever, with mountains resembling ships sinking into a rock ocean. At times, it looked like entire tectonic plates surged from the desert floor.

We opted not to pay the fee to enter monument valley, but ended up spending some time in the valley of the gods. I think the name more than anything is what drew us in, but after driving past a few curves on a dirt road, a vast valley revealed itself, strewn with rock stacks, cliffs and intense layers of green bushes. A worthwhile detour!

May 26

Hit up Mesa Verde before heading to Montrose. Mesa verde had two out of its four main attractions closed, so it was a bit of a bummer.

That said, it was interesting to learn more about the Pueblos. It seems that they bifurcated from the Ute/Navajo/Apaches and lived in isolation from other Native American tribes for centuries. Or at least there is no indication that they met. Fascinating to learn more about how humanity has splintered out over the ages.

We arrived at our Airbnb host’s place late afternoon. Karen was an epic host. Cozy, welcoming. She is a pastor and we spent the evening chatting away about religion, theology, ethics, and trading life stories. She has a loose approach to religions that gives large amounts of room for interpretation.

She played fair and admitted that the Bible had “many human fingerprints” on it and that God was often something that humans projected their owns experiences of authority upon. She sees God as an expression of pure love, a creator, but not a micromanager.

At this stage, the bells and whistles of Christianity felt pointless and I was tempted to prompt her to drop Christianity altogether but she kept referring to experiences she had with Jesus and the fact that Christianity was a part of her heritage and that it was her preferred vehicle to transmit her vision of spirituality.

May 27th

Drove through Black Canyon national park.

Made friends with an older Israeli couple who invited us to come see them when we come by their neck of the woods.

The canyon was wild and jagged. Very raw with some impressive views.

Then was a long drive to Colorado Springs with some dramatic views driving through canyons and lakes. We stopped for a burger that was actually quite good then crashed at our Airbnb. We stayed with a nice young couple. She's a Polish expat and he works in the air force helping pilots prep for high altitude situations. They just bought a big house that seems to have 7-8 rooms for a couple hundred grand. They are remodeling and transforming it into a guest house.

May 28th

I grew kind of tired of never having time to unwind. It feels like we're constantly either on the move, or planning for our next move. I'm afraid that we’re going too fast and not spending enough time kicking back and taking places in.

After leaving Colorado Springs, we visited the Garden of the Gods which has dramatic rock formations but was completely congested with cars. It was impossible to park and take a walk. Furthermore, we had 7+ hours of driving to Lubbock ahead of us.

The hotel in Lubbock was a little sleazy. I call it a hotel because it was setup as such, but it was really an Airbnb. That night we went to a huge barbecue joint. Prices were low and quantities were huge. Welcome to Texas. Also the price of gas is crazy low. Some places had a gallon at $1.90…

May 29

We made the drive down to Austin and stopped by the Long Horn Cavern State Park.

Anaïs got a speeding ticket :(

Went to dinner at Torchy’s tacos and watched Zootopia.

May 30th

Spent the day in Austin, woke up super late at Morgan’s Airbnb and went to the park where we walked and talked for a long time in the Texas heat and humidity. We stayed at another self-serve Airbnb that was kind of terrible. In an iffy part of town, dirty place etc.

May 31st

Drove to San Antonio. Saw the Alamo, discovered that the only reason it is so well known is that the texians, who were independent from the US at that stage got their asses handed to them by the Mexicans. The texians used the massacre as a rallying cry and a PR move that ultimately helped them win the war. The John Wayne movie helped popularize the slogan “Remember the Alamo”.

The reality is that the texians were for slavery and that's why they fought for their independence, so it's puzzling that we still glorify the Alamo to this day.

We wanted to walk on the riverside but got rained out so we went to our Airbnb. Walter, an army medic hosted us. We got into a political conversation with him and his other guest Josh. Walter is a conservative. His home is filled with framed pictures of W. That said I think we still had a good conversation, showed him that we weren't all one sided and through that perhaps got him to see that some ideas from the other side of the spectrum aren't so extreme.

We also found a cat stuck in the sewage system while walking home from a restaurant that night. A group of 6 people including us and some neighbors tried to help him out and even lifted a manhole and left him some food but he was too far away down the tunnels. We had to go away and leave rescue services to try and figure it out.

June 1st

We drove to Houston. The rain was scary and made the driving dangerous. Houston was hard to enjoy because we got rained out again. So we basically made Houston a Beyonce fan tour for Anaïs by going to her childhood house, and some of her favorite food joints, including Frenchy’s chicken and This is it. The food was just ok I'm my opinion, nothing to write home about.

We stayed at a comfy Airbnb that night, a woman called Kathryn hosted us.

June 2nd

Once more, we slept in super late (I really needed the sleep!) and hit the road. We went to New Orleans s directly. Again, the rain made it dangerous and the drive was long but it was worth it.

We made it to New Orleans at 7:30pm and started walking the streets in search of dinner. We went to a good but expensive place, which so far has been a trend in New Orleans.

June 3rd

We walked around the city and really got a feel for it. It's kind of like a mix of New England and the Caribbean. It really feels like you're in another country. It's surprising to me that America has anything this exotic.

The downtown area is imposing, like many other downtown areas of late American cities but the French quarter is so distinct with the balconies, shutters, parks, colors, etc. that it feels like another time and place.

We started to get rained out again and went to our Airbnb. We went out later for dinner and music despite the rain. We listened to a 6 piece band (bass saxophone, double bass, guitar, trumpet, violin, clarinet with three of them being singers) at a place called the Spotted Cat. It was in a loud bar with people dancing. All very old school but way more current than the last time I listened to a New Orleans band at the Hot Club in Lyon.

June 4th

Our 12th anniversary! We strolled around New Orleans. Got rained on hardcore. Hung out in Louis Armstrong park, Cafe du Monde, balconies of downtown bars and watched people get married and march down old New Orleans. We had dinner at Eat New Orleans which was good.

June 5th

Took it easy, woke up late. Went for a cheap brunch at Elizabeth’s then headed to Pierre Lafitte national park. Saw lots of cool plants and animals. Gators, turtles. Gators eating turtles. Jumping lizards, webbin spiders, buzzin dragonflies.

Got home, talked a bit with Ruby, our host. She was fit exactly to what I imagined a New Orleans resident to sound like, with the accent, expressions, the look, etc. she told us all about her family and her neighborhood. We eventually wound down ordering a huge pizza and chilling in front of Game of Thrones and tried to go to bed early.

June 6th

We braced for a looooooong drive to winter springs. Google said it would take 9h30. I don't think I've ever driven in such dicey weather. June is hurricane season in Florida and we traversed a proper tropical rainstorm through Mississippi and most of Florida. I played it cool but our car slid more than a couple of times.

We stopped for gas twice, a quick pass through Mickey D’s and DQ and that was it.

We made it to my cousin Jade’s around 9pm. It was so good to see her and her family. Her aunt and uncle from Gaile’s side were also there, Marie, Rich and her cousin Kaylee. Lovely folks that I never had a chance to get to know earlier.

June 7th

I was slammed from driving so much the day prior that we just chilled at Jade’s for the day. We chatted, played with the dogs, had dinner together, I swam in the lake. Just a good moment to get some family time and rest.

June 8th

We made the drive down to Miami. Relatively short compared to what we had gotten used to in the past few days.

Our plan was to check into Airbnb and meet up with Francois Paille at a place called Whisk. It was a little awkward and a lot of fun to meet with Francois, a room mate we used to live with in Lyon that we hadn't seen in 8 years by his count. He got married with a Brazilian woman and is expecting a daughter. He is so much happier in the US than he was in France. Of course, he still works insane hours but at least gets paid good money for it and loves his work. He feels valued and rewarded and engaged. He said he would never consider coming back to France. I'm always ambivalent when I hear that because I love seeing old friends come to the US and succeed, but it's also sad to hear that France is a place they associate with so many woes.

June 9th

The weather was crap again but we made a point of visiting key Biscayne all the same. Just a lot of beach. Nothing to go crazy over, although I have to say that the network of islands and bridges all over Miami makes for some dramatic drives.

That evening we met with Benoit Malige. He's married too now, and in the midst of transitioning from the hotel industry to the real estate industry. He strikes me as a real calm guy, thoughtful, with strong ideals, independent, entrepreneurial, and ambitious. It was cool catching up with him.

We decided the weather looked too dicey for us to stay another day and see the Everglades or key west.

June 10th

Of course, as soon as we decide to leave, the weather clears out. We are making our way to Savannah with a pit stop in Melbourne for lunch with grandpa. It was really good to catch up! He looks to be in great shape and good spirits.

We rushed to Savannah after having spent a few hours with grandpa. My aunt and uncle, Tiffany and Ron welcomed us and we went out for dinner.

We came home to watch the basketball game, the last game the Warriors won that season.

June 11th

We spent the entire day visiting Savannah. The temperature and humidity reminded me of what we experienced in southeast Asia. It's widely known that Savannah holds a special kind of atmosphere, but it struck me despite fully expecting it. The live oak trees with the Spanish moss infuse a distinct vibe throughout the whole region, and the extremely well preserved city center takes you back in time. Savannah has an undeniable charm.

Still, I couldn't shake the feeling, based on the time spent in my aunt and uncle's gated community, the conversations I overheard downtown and the affluence of local white folks, that there was an undue wealth. I had the same feeling in South Africa where I knew that the wealth of white people was only possible because of the misery of so many black people. Now and I'm not claiming that there is any equivalence in the level of disparity in wealth between blacks and whites in South Africa and Georgia, but it's obvious all the same that had slavery not taken place, the deck would be stacked in an entirely different way. While this may seem like a platitude, Georgia was a stark reminder of this fact.

We rejoined Tiffany, Ron, Brent and Earl for dinner that night. I hadn't seen Brent in well over a decade. It was good to see him and share some of our common gaming experience.

June 12th

We spent a lazy last day in Savannah visiting Bonaventure century under blistering heat. We had a last dinner with the family and played a coop arena game with Brent, which we rode to 9 wins despite a mediocre deck.

June 13th

We sped up north towards Charlotte where I would meet my cousin Brittany. We also had not seen one another for over a decade. She is married and has a kid!

Anaïs was getting sick, so I dropped her off at our Airbnb and rejoined Brittany and Brandon for the next game in the NBA finals.

June 14th

Based on some loose research, we drove towards Great Smoky Mountain national park, which is apparently the most visited of all the national parks (it's free and on a big transit axis). We did the main attractions, stopped for some pictures and crashed in Gatlinburg after an exhausting drive and some diluvian rain (again!).

I can't say I was blown away by the park. I'm well aware that I only got a superficial impression of it, and I'll have to come back and spend some more serious time there on day hikes or back country camping but the entire experience struck me as just more “normal” than all the national parks you see out west.

June 15th

After a brief ring around the Great Smoky Mountain’s motor nature trail, which although very crowded was surprisingly beautiful, we braced for a long drive north to Chippewa Lake. We got rained on again, hard, as we traversed Ohio. Tom and Claire were busy that night when we came home, but around 9 they both came back. Claire prepared some dinner and we opened a couple of bottles of wine.

June 16th

I watched Chippewa get hit with the most thorough downpour I had ever seen the little lake endure.

Most of the day was dedicated to shopping for a digital frame, gathering pictures from Eric and Phil, editing them and loading them up into the frame. Phil had this idea as a birthday present for mom when she arrived.

We had another family dinner with Diane and Zach. Seeing them again was good.

We finished the evening by watching the penultimate game in the NBA finals. Tom was so wound up, it was kind of cute. All in all it was a good family moment and I look forward to being there again, this time with mom and the whole crew!

June 17th

The rain finally went away. It was sunny, hot and humid, just like a regular Chippewa day. I said goodbye to Tom who left with the ski team for a competition and went out on the bike to see the neighborhood.

I went down to the point and looked for Margaret. She was out unfortunately so I went out to the water and sat on a tree stump, basking in the warm summer air, locking in with the slow pace of the lake. That was the feeling of summer. The stillness of the air and the temperature is what does it for me. The lyrics ‘summertime, and the living is easy’ were always just words in a song to me but in that moment, they became more meaningful to me.

When I felt like I had taken it in, I stopped by Jim and Pat Pojman’s place. Jim was there and we had a long conversation about travel, India, China, the political topics of the moment and what it's like to be the lone progressives in a conservative community.

I tried to see Margaret once more but to no avail. We went out with Claire for dinner and went to bed fairly early as we were going on the road once more the next day.

June 18th

We drove towards Niagara Falls. I was surprised at how close the falls are to Chippewa. In four hours we were there. It was pretty similar to what I remembered plus all the commercial aspect of it that I somehow filtered out over the years. The infrastructure built around it, while useful to get around, really looks quite brash. It's also incredibly overcrowded but the sheer beauty of the falls is uncontestable. I should note however that Shoshone falls are actually taller than Niagara Falls which kind of shocked me because in my memory Niagara falls were always humongous. It just goes to show how young I was when I had last been there.

We stayed in a cutesy Airbnb near Buffalo ate a terrible fast food taco, some DQ and went to bed.

June 19th

We made our way across New York State and stopped by some stunning parks along the way. There is a true charm to upstate New York if you take the smaller roads.

Watkins Glen state park in particular left an indelible impression on Anaïs and I. We reached the park somewhat late that afternoon which made for stunning light. The entrance of the park has a plate that states the original mission of the Rangers when they opened this park. It read something like this “bringing wilderness to civilization”. That's exactly what they did. The canyon is covered in a path and multiple bridges cross the canyon but their colors match those of the park so well that they blend in seamlessly and make what would otherwise be an intense canyon trek a leisurely stroll. The forest towering above the canyon filtered the late afternoon light to create a magical atmosphere. Rays of light cut through the myriad of waterfalls. Water carved the brittle canyon rock into smooth layered basins and cavernous passageways brought us from one level of the canyon to the next. This park is truly one of the most special places I've seen in America.

We finished the day in Ithaca. After checking in at our motel, we went downtown to the Ithaca ale house. Their beer and burger were top notch. We watched the last game of the finals. Cleveland ended up winning which ended up biting me in the ass given some rather brazen trash talk I had exchanged with Tom and Zach at half time, but it was a worthy ending to a roller coaster of a series.

June 20th

Another day, another marathon drive. This time to Boston. We made it to one of the shoddiest Airbnbs we had ever experienced. It was my first time in Boston and I was eager to experience the city. Boston has witnessed the passing of time and many buildings that still stand are a testament to that fact. It also had a warmth to it that screamed summer. We took a subway downtown to enjoy the longest day of the year (or so we thought it would be, until we reached Iceland).

We went to an overpriced Italian restaurant (what's up with all the Italian restaurants in this city btw!) and walked around town a little bit more before calling it.

June 21st

We woke up to find that our car had been towed. The 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month was when our tweet was scheduled to be cleaned and sure enough, we forgot to move our car. I went to fetch the car while Anaïs made some reservations for Iceland. This allowed us more time to enjoy the center of town. We lazed all afternoon in the park before strolling down commonwealth avenue. The old houses and alluring cathedrals blew us away. Boston. Impressed us!

We spent the evening at a bar called Wally’s cafe to listen to some live music. The bands were apparently from the Berkeley school of music. They had insane chops but their composing seemed rudimentary.

June 22nd

The final drive awaited us, from Boston to New York, but not before taking a peek at Harvard. The campus is stunning and oozes old money. It was enticing though. As a teenager, or a young adult, I could see how the simple sight of such a campus could motivate me to work very hard to study there. The clock was ticking though. We had a Marcin Wasilewski concert we wanted to be at in New York at 9:30.

We dropped the car off in Jersey City and lyfted to Xavier’s in Hoboken. We were happy to see one another after such a long time.

We parted in a bit of a hurry because we needed to be at Columbus circle by 9 for Marcin Wasilewski. Unfortunately, the person who took our reservation on the phone got the programming wrong: he wasn't playing at 9:30 but at 7:30. Bummer.

So we walked south towards the village. That was a long walk but we were up for it. We ended up chilling in Washington Square. It was a warm Summer night in New York. People were out enjoying themselves, singing, skateboarding, playing music. One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be way more people in pairs chatting, in deep conversation. It's something I notice a lot less in SF where I feel like I either see people alone or in larger groups, but less so in pairs.

When we got to Manhattan, I felt intimidated. New York is so competitive that only the best and brightest make it and what they accomplish impacts the world at large. People all looked and sounded like they were straight out of a Woody Allen movie. After having kicked back for the past few weeks and been immersed in the unassuming vibe of America and its roads, the thought of living in New York and keeping up with the appearances and the competition seemed daunting. And I usually get nothing but good vibes from New York, but this time the hustle and bustle was too much. It felt inescapable. Anaïs spent her time marveling and kept bringing up the idea of moving to New York but in that moment I just couldn't project myself living there. I think part of the reason why is because I'm already thinking a lot about coming back to SF and the challenges that await us there.

We decided not to take a Lyft to go home. So we took a subway to the port authority bus terminal, paid $3.50 each or something and got to Xavier's that way. We chatted some more with him until he went to bed.

June 23rd

We took the opportunity to rest. For once, we didn't need to pack, didn't need to be on the road. It was nice to kick back. We stayed in Hoboken for a long time before getting out to the city. I went to get my hair cut while Anaïs was still sleeping.

We went out for drinks in a hidden speakeasy called Angel’s share. The entrance was unmarked, within another establishment. The inside was fancy, the wait staff seemed hired from a modelling agency, as did everyone else in the bar, frankly, and the drinks were expensive. $16 for a cocktail, $13 for their import beers. Looking around me, I realized that while this was indeed a rather upscale establishment, I certainly wasn't one of a kind in New York. I got the impression that when you want to hang out in a hip venue and get some drinks, you go to this kind of place and pay through the nose. In contrast, a hip venue in SF that could be used as a comparison (at least to me) could be a place like Zeitgeist, which is way more low key and cheap. It just made me feel like being a socialite and going out often in New York must be a draining endeavor. Not that this is what I aspire to, but looking at the folks in these places, I wonder what their lives must be like. Is this something they have to do often? Is this part of what you need to do to exist in this city? I felt daunted for them.

But we were only there as a distraction from the main attraction, Ippudo, a ramen joint with an hour long wait. It was the first time we were going to eat ramen since Japan. We were ready to be disappointed but somewhat hopeful given the good reviews this place seemed to have garnered. It was expensive as hell, loud and ostentatiously trendy and fancy, the complete opposite of the best ramen places we enjoyed in Tokyo, but the food was rather good. Not close to the craziest ramen experiences in Japan, but better than most, and leagues ahead of what's in SF.

We walked to the village once more for an ice cream. We had planned to go see some music but we both realized that we were quite tired. Sheepishly, we hailed a Lyft and called it a night.

June 24th

After lazing around for way too long, we went out, picked up a sandwich and walked towards Central Park. Our goal was to find the tree on which we carved our initials 11 years ago. Two years ago, we had been to that exact same tree and dug the carvings even deeper as they had started to heal and erase themselves. In 2014, we somehow managed to find the tree we had marked 9 years prior, without taking any notes as to the whereabouts of the tree.

In 2016, a mere two years after deepening the grooves, equipped with photographs of the tree and gps coordinates, we were unable to find it. We searched for over an hour, in different areas of the park, checking multiple trees and multiple angles.

After a while, we just had to give up. If I were superstitious, I think it might have worried me. I'm still sad about it. Who knows, maybe we’ll find it if we go back in 8 years for our 20 year anniversary.

We took a subway to the village. Robert glasper and Jason Moran were set to play and we found a spot at the bar surprisingly easily. The concert was overall good. They had some moments where I think they played a bit of gibberish and lost folks, but they had some real moments of genuine interaction and splashed some beautiful colors on classic tunes (especially on I mean you).

We went out for dinner late, after the concert ended. Some new American place that was quite refined but expensive as hell with laughable servings. I had to get full buying cheap cookies at a store nearby. We grabbed a Lyft to get back home.

June 25th

We originally wanted to go to the Guggenheim museum before meeting Xavier for dinner but ended up changing plans. We went for a snack at a place showing a euro cup game, then joined Xavier for dinner at a vegan place. I had an excellent veggie burger there (kind of craving it right now as I write this in my b&b in Inverness, Scotland). We ended the evening at SPiN, the ping pong bar. It was quite fun and I actually took most games off of Xavier.

June 26th

Our last day in the US after a long time. I left with mixed feelings. Coming back to the US was like coming home after spending months in very foreign lands. But getting on a plane and going to a new country brought an element of adventure and excitement that I had missed. Iceland was also an enticing destination that I felt was perhaps even more exotic than anywhere else we had been until then.