Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba - "We Have Absolutely No Fear of You Mr. Imperialists"

In honor of the US having normalized relations with Cuba (someone in Florida must have died as it's certainly over someone's dead body) I can now publicly state that someone here at might have visited while in college in the mid to late 90's. 
I want to present to you my most striking memory of the island nation, this sign, by the beach in Havana, no doubt pointing towards the United States. 

Translation: "Mr. Imperialists- we have absolutely no fear of you."

mobbed in Havana by school children

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Palawan Island- El Nido- the amazing beauty of the Philippines

The El Nido area is a 6 hour drive, the last stretch of which is over some very rough road, from the Puerto Princessa airport on Palawan Island, but what you'll discover upon arrival will make more than worth it. 
Tucked away on this mountainous isle is the small, touristy town of El Nido. The rock formations here are similar to those found in one of my favorite spots in the world, Krabi, Thailand, and while perhaps not quite as spectacular, the water here is cleaner, lighter, and more transparent.
The main economic staple- definitely tourism, and rates compared to other tropical paradises such as Hawaii or Tahiti are incredibly cheap.
Not too far from town, are beaches of unbelievable beauty, only much less crowded and built up. I spent an afternoon by myself, swimming and playing in the surf, then meditating on the beach, opening my eyes every so often to appreciate the exquisiteness around me.
There is little to do here besides water activities, but it's tremendously fun to sail away with a group to the surrounding islands, snorkeling at each stop.
Below you'll find photos of such an expedition. If you know of a prettier place on the planet, leave a comment and let me know where.

maybe my white shirt reflects light creating the halo-
that's the sciency explanation at least

clown fish, underwater I believe :)

them there rock formations- a lot like Krabi

Are we clear?

a little slice of paradise
look how clean the water is

amazing beauty!

if you can show me a prettier place on earth, I'd love to visit- leave a comment!

This concludes my three month trek for the summer of 2014, til next time, happy travels and may you live in a state of joy, excitement, and gratitude!

Boracay Island, Philippines- the Most beautiful Beach on Earth

The sand on Boracay's main beach is so powder white, cokeheads believing they hit the motherlode have attempted to snort it.
tiny rock formation/ island, literally on Boracay beach
The beach itself is visually STUNNING. It will take your breath away and make you wonder why you live where you live, wherever it is that you do. The water is a crystal light blue color, which just a little bit offshore becomes  a darker, deeper, but still largely translucent blue.  
All the photos I offer you here are looking out towards the ocean. The beach itself is not terribly wide, and only maybe 40 feet away from the water are a plethora of businesses crowded together: hotels, bars, restaurants, etc. It is quite built up, but stunning nonetheless. 
actual water color- amazing!
The island is small, you could easily walk around it in a few hours, but only if you were blind, otherwise you're undoubtedly stopping to gaze around at the beauty surrounding you. 
Aside drink and eat, which tourists are doing a plethora of, the only activity here are watersports, diving and snorkeling being atop the list. 
about to dive into the H20
the underwater world
 The snorkeling here is the best I have ever seen. There is tremendous amount of aquatic life, from a variety of brightly colored tropical fish, crabs, lobsters, and squid, to sea snakes, which are in quite an abundance and highly venomous.
I surface and report the deadly serpents to my boat operators who shrug it off. "How often do people die from a bite?" I inquire.
"Not too often," they nonchalantly reply.
Satisfied, I dive back into the waters.

tropical foliage of Boracay
In the past I would have told you Krabi, Thailand was the most beautiful place on earth. if you're looking purely at the perfection of the beach area, then without a doubt, Boracay surpasses. 

The Challenges + Humor of Traveling Around the Philippines

The Philippines- a visually stunning nation and high on my recommended list, but there are some downsides to traveling this vast expanse of islands, the first of which being the difficulty of getting from place to place.

Traffic lights here are sometimes three minutes long, and due to congestion, confusion, and selfish drivers creating gridlock, it can take in excess of 10 minutes to get through a single Manila intersection. Needless to say, you need to allot far more time than you'd deem necessary for the distance if you have a flight to catch.
But now that you're at the airport, seemingly with time to spare, it doesn't necessarily mean you haven't missed your plane. That's because airliners in the Philippines only take-off only at two different times during the day; early or late.
Of the six flights I took, four departed tardy, and the other, which we anxiously chased down over two gate changes, somehow took off a half-hour early.

Inside the Cebu Pacific plane, her aisles designed for a population who's average height is 5' 3", leg-room for me is non-existent, I feel like I'm in a pressurized chamber, which of course I am, but should it feel like it?
The airline itself doesn't exactly inspire confidence. It's raining hard outside, and before take-off the captain announces we have to "balance the weight, and would anyone anyone like to take the next plane out of Manila in exchange for a voucher?"
Some people rise to accept the offer, which is no doubt deemed especially generous for the average Filipino considering their low hourly wages.
Twelve minutes later, we're still grounded.
"Sorry, we made an error in the calculation. We need three more volunteers to step-off the plane. We'll get you right on the next one."
A bit more slowly this time, but some people choose to take the next flight.
Twenty minutes later we still haven't moved. Once again, "Two more, just two more people." I rise on the premise the next plane will reach Boracay more quickly, but I'm beaten to the punch.

Want to save time by landing as close to your destination as possible? Prepare to pay more for use of these smaller airports specifically built for tourists with money.
El Nido area
The difference can be large. For example on Palawan island, you'll definitely want to visit El Nido, but unless you have money to land on the nearby runway, you're arriving in Puerto Princesa, which is five to six hours away by van, a decent part of which (at least time-wise) is over unpaved road, with lots of nausea inducing side-to-side bouncing.
I'm guessing my van's driver makes about $10 per trip, as he weaves around dogs, children, and trees taking up the narrow road. I tip him a couple bucks, and the grateful look on his face indicated I was definitely augmenting his income.
me with a halo in a protected lagoon area
Oh, and you're going to get hit with fees everywhere you go. When landing at the closest airport to Boracay for example, you have to take a boat to actually get to the island. You're going to get hit with a terminal fee, an environmental fee, a landing fee, a fee for sunlight, a fee for future lunar eclipses, etc etc . They're not large, but they add up not only for you, but whoever gets to manage that money.
The is an episode of VICE, where they expose the violent Philippine political system and the constant assassinations that take place between rival politicians. This a very corrupt nation, and I'd be willing to bet a large part of those "environmental fees" you're being charged end up paying for the shoe closets of their mistresses.
Also, while in general I find the islanders to be quite friendly, there were enough times during my two weeks I had to to question whether the average Filipino grew up around lead paint. A couple stories:
On an airplane: I stand to stretch my legs with a walk down the aisle, and feel a hand reaching out to stop me. It's a 50 year old lady telling she wants to read ... To read?
"Do I look like a Phillipine Airline stewardess?" I respond, with at least a hint of disbelief in my voice.
Now the plane lands and everyone rises to exit, except it's taking some time to line up the stairs. The aisle is densely packed with all the passengers, and I can't even raise my arm. A short, stocky Phillipino lady in her 40's loses patience and tries to squeeze around me, perfunctorily uttering "excuse me," I turn towards her gesture towards the sea of people around us packed in like sardines and retort, "I'd love to."
Where does this moron think she's going? A tank would bounce off us, and be thrown off the plane if it tried to pass.

Boracay island: 1 AM, Some starlight, but otherwise dark, Beside me two Filipina women shudder, almost visibly shaking,
"What's wrong?"
"Are those ghosts?"  they ask, pointing to silhouettes in the surf of two people on a late night outing.
"I'm pretty sure they're not," I deadpan. Then I look, and they're truly afraid.
"You really think they could be ghosts?" I inquire.
They nod their heads. "We Filipinos are very superstitious."
"Lead paint?"

Look, the Phillipines are definitely a bit disorganized, and nothing really works properly or consistently. From the airlines, the internet, the roads, even the toilets and showers, things are constantly breaking down, but I still believe with all my heart, that these islands are an absolute must see and should be near the top of any traveler's list.
But it's not a place to bring a toddler, A lot of the buildings are in a state of disrepair, and I'd be too concerned he'd eat some of the paint that's chipping off the walls.
Boracay's white sand beach- for real

Monday, November 3, 2014

Manila the Capital- Get a Feel for the Philippines

Warm and muggy air hits me as I exit the international terminal. Even at the early AM hour, traffic is heavy and chaotic, the system here disorganized.
Arrive at a high-rise condo unit; pay my driver as I'm cooled by an ocean breeze. Polite and helpful workers check me in. 
guns on guards like this all over
"The Philippines is a violent society."

Racist insensitive stereotyping by 'non-progressives' or an accurate depiction? 
Verified within minutes, in front of the Mall of Asia, guards walk with high-powered rifles slung over their shoulders. Before entering the mall you go through a metal detector, a cursory bag search, and pat down, a sign letting you know to leave your firearm at the door. 
No business undertakes such an expense needlessly. 

The mall is gigantic and expansive, and has anything and everything you could dream of, including Western prices, which, when traveling in SE Asia, is really more of a nightmare.
Behind the mall I discover a path along a sea wall. Sitting atop it, I watch the ocean waves pounding away. Though the Philippines have quite possibly the most beautiful beaches and ocean on earth, none are located in Manila.
Expensive tourist restaurants line the camino, and two kilometers down the road is the gorgeous (it's truly visually stunning) Soleil Casino where suckers pour their money down the drain. 
large rotating globe in front of Mall of Asia
The Philippines is an incredibly cheap place to travel, and that's due to a large segment of the population working for under a $1 an hour.
I speak with a young security guard who works for the minimum wage of 466 Philippine Pesos- ($10.50) for each 12 hour shift, 6 days a week.
"How much would I make in America?" he inquires.
"About 3000 pesos," I lowball after some quick math, "For an 8 hour shift."
His eyes go wide in surprise. Living in the reality which is the Philippines he's never even contemplated such a possibility.
"I need to go to America," he slowly replies, his eyes glazed in thought.

Note: To all of you who Americans who bag on the USA, who moan about the deck being stacked in favor of the wealthy, who agonize and expend energy complaining about this fact, I invite you to travel the world and enter reality from the viewpoint of others. In recent history, perhaps the greatest fortune which could befall you as a human being is to have been born in America. 

Just shy of 6 foot, I tower over everyone. I'm the giant here no one wants to mess with. I get a touch extra space wherever I walk. I feel like an NFL linebacker.
True fact: The center for the Philippine national basketball stands 5' 7" ... he's considered a monster.

Basketball is in fact the national sport, with courts abounding throughout the islands, though in classic American fashion I saw far greater numbers of people watching than playing.
Man, sports is like porn, why you gonna watch when you can do it? Huh? (pelvic thrust) Answer me that.

I walk a few kilometers inland from the ocean down Roxas Boulevard. Massage parlors and strip/sex bars pop up as I continue down the road.
A 22 year old girl staying in the same high-rise condo complex as me, described how she recently divorced her 53 year old American husband whom she met online. After some hemming and hawing about true love, she admits, "Life is hard here in the Philippines. It was do that, or sell myself on the corner." 

I continue past the small red-light district. Now the area turns into more of a shanty-town, people seemingly on the street in make-shift housing. Alone and white, intuition tells me to retreat. 

Walking back I note the fast food franchises dominating the landscape. This is the most Americanized nation in Southeast Asia, and by that I mean the fattest. Unless you're eating seafood, the food here is incredibly unhealthy, deep-fried, and full of added fat and sugar. 

"Mr. Richard, come come, breakfast is included in your stay." 
"Great, what are my choices?" 
"We have ham, pork adobo, or if you want, bacon." 
"My options are pork, pork, or pork?"
"I'll have some eggs." 
Manila- many stories above

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Genghis Khan Museum + the Mongolian Outback

Despite private taxis costing a pretty penny, I couldn't in good conscience spend three days in Ulaanbaatar without seeing what lied outside the city.
The Genghis Khan Monument/museum is an attempt to get more tourists to the country. Though the statue is large in size, the museum itself has little of note.
entrance to Genghis Khan exhibit
HUGE statue of Genghis Khan- the building is large, the
statue larger  
entrance to The Genghis Khan Museum

old Mongolian sword in the Ghengis Khan museum
 Head out from the monument area and you'll find, pretty much nothing. Grass and dust, with a mountainous background, and grazing herds of sheep, goat, and cattle.
The national park has nothing remarkable, and aside of paying a $3 toll to enter, there is no marker or boundary.
The highlight and original selling point for me going was to witness the amazing tortoise rock formation, which you'll see below in the photos. Beyond here, you plunge into the vast nothingness which comprises almost all of Mongolia.
Due to the difficulty of travel outside the capital, I had little desire to head into the outback to meet the nomadic people of Mongolia, especially after asking myself how different it would be than the days I spent with Bedouins in Syria and tribes in Laos and Vietnam amongst other adventures.
Fortunately my plane left the next day.

you'll see a lot of this- livestock grazing in the dusty fields with meager vegetation

Mongolians selling nuts along the side of the road-
hard way to make a living in a country where no one has any money

horses in the national park- note off-road vehicle.
Roads get dicey quickly out here
more sellers of nuts along the road-
be thankful you were born in your country!
a lot of rocky terrain around here
better grazing lands for these cattle- Mongolians eat a lot of meat

Tortoise rock formation- the highlight (and I mean highlight) of the area

Ulaanbaatar- Mongolia's Dusty Capital

typical buildings in Ulaanbaatar. Soviet style vomit architecture

There are places where friendly people, cheap prices, and scenic beauty abound, vastly underrated travel destinations well worth dropping off the grid to visit; Mongolia is not such a place.

First off, traveling around the country is excruciatingly difficult, as traversing any distance outside a certain radius around the capital takes a lonnnggggg time, a combination of the lack of paved roads and rugged terrain. Horses here are still symbols of prosperity and good luck, and they'll maintain that status until they become the slower option of exploring the outback.
horses are images of importance all over the country

Mongolians, at least in the capital, are plumper than you'd expect. Maybe they're imitating their pop-stars, as every single one of them I see in music videos are obese. 
Note to pop-stars: This isn't 1850 France. Being fat in today's world no longer indicates you're a person of means.

An interesting fact is that the center of Ulaanbaatar is filled with English signs, a welcome change from Russia, but still, few people speak the language. Case in point the taxi driver who accosts me, demanding my fare upon arrival, and takes me to a bank, where there are 150 people in line ahead of me, literally. "Serving #740," and I draw #892.
I asked him to stop at various banks along the way, but he drove me all the way past the center of town to what has to be the most inefficient money center of the world, then demands well above his quote when he takes me back to where I originally asked to be dropped, all without speaking a word of English.
I don't find the people here to be cheerful as they are in SE Asia. Maybe it's because the region is pretty much a dusty wasteland, a former Communist country with limited opportunity and infrastructure. Despite very low wages, the prices in the capital are fairly expensive. The buildings are without any charm (ie. ugly) and the average winter temperature is minus 20. 
I'll end my rant now and let you check out the photos of Ulaanbaatar below.  
this is still near the very center of the capital.

city center - very modern, and one of the few nice buildings
beautiful monument in the capital square. Hard to go wrong with flowers

the capital building

the Mongolian stock exchange

I did however make it out of the capital the next day: here is the story of that