…But but but, “Vanuatu”-leave Port-Vila!

…But but but, “Vanuatu”-leave Port-Vila!

 

Oh Vanuatu, how I “Vanuatu-leave” this place.

 

 

I know it’s quite a stretch of a pun, but my blogpost title is meant to be read out loud!

 

The world's only underwater post office

 

Let’s begin. After 2 days in The Solomon Islands, we headed boarded a 3:05pm flight out for Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. 

 

That little island is where we're staying!

 

From the airport we hailed buses to take us to Mele Road. If you’re curious on how public transportation works here, you’ll need to flag down a bus marked by a red letter “B” on its license plate (it works like glorified hitchhiking) and direct it to where you want to go for a base fare of 150vt.

From Mele Road we took the 5 minute ferry that runs 24/7 to Hideaway Island Resort on Imere Island, the ancestral home of the Mele people.

 

 

 

True paradise — we finally checked into our first beach bungalows of the trip!

 

 

Just in time for sunset:

 

 

Hnnnnnggggg….

 

 

And this is what it looks like when I step outside my bungalow:

 

 

After freshening up for an hour and meeting up with my college friend Ana who had arrived here a few hours earlier, my longtime monsooner Melissa Weinmann took over as our local guide in Port Vila. I had promised her 2 years ago I would visit in Vanuatu when she joined the Peace Corps here — Promise has been fulfilled!

At 7pm we headed back to the mainland for our first taste at kava: a local plant in the Pacific ground up into an herbal remedy/drink long used to relieve anxiety and promote sleep. Most would compare it to a depressant drug, so some may not like its effects.

You can find kava at nakamals (or “meeting place”) in Vanuatu, which have sprouted up everywhere in Port Vila and its outskirts. They’re indicated by a single lightbulb in the middle of a dirt road, and these lights turn off when they run out of kava. We accomplished such a feat at a nakamal called “Island Roots” when the 12 of us rocked up all at once for the drink.

 

 

FYI, is its recommended that you consume kava in a single shot as it’s not known for the taste and the intended effects are negligible if imbibed slowly. And unlike alcohol, kava causes intense nausea and vomiting if you drink it after eating. So go before dinner, and DON’T mix it with alcohol unless you really want to lose your shit.

You’ll know it works when your tongue goes numb and you feel a little sedated afterwards.

 

 

Afterwards Melissa led us to L’Houstalet for dinner, a popular French-Vanuatan restaurant.

 

 

The place is famous being one of the only places in the world for serving 2 local fares: the flying fox (aka a giant fruit bat):

 

 

…and the coconut crab:

 

 

As all the bars in Vanuatu close early on a Tuesday night, not to our surprise, we turned in early.

This is what I woke up to the next morning:

 

 

And this was my view for breakfast at the resort:

 

 

At around 9:30am we reconvened on the docks where we then returned to the mainland to meet up with Melissa:

 

 

We first bought some snacks at a local market before we hiking (1000vt entry fee) up the path for Mele Cascades:

 

 

It’s worth the 20 minute hike up for the dip in the waters underneath the cascades:

 

 

Afterwards we had hand-pulled, knife-cut noodles for lunch at Kung Fu Noodles in the center of Port-Vila. 

 

 

Then it was free time as the group explored the center of Port-Vila (also referred to as “town”) and its newly developed boardwalk, home to numerous seaside cafés and handicraft markets:

 

 

If you’re in need of fresh produce, stop by arguably the local commercial center of Vanuatu: Mama’s Market at the end of the boardwalk:

 

 

Of note while most of us were exploring town, others in our group paid a $500 USD supplement to be picked up earlier in the morning for a day trip to Tanna Volcano. This included a Cessna flight over the volcano, as well as a 4×4 jeep ride through the jungle for a hike up to the mouth itself.

 

PC: Mikhael Chai

 

At around 6:30pm we all reconvened back at Hideaway, freshening up once more before heading back out into the suburbs of Port Vila. There were had the rare opportunity to dine with Melissa’s local friend/colleague Madame Caroline and her family at their home outside.

 

 

We said hello to their chickens and pigs, admired their gardens, and played with their adorable kids!

 

 

Of course before eating anything we first enjoyed some kava at a nakamal down the road:

 

 

And then we chowed down on fresh fried fish, curry fish, sausages, and boiled rice back at Madame Caroline’s home:

 

 

As their kids approached their bedtimes, we gave our thanks to Madame Caroline and called for a bus to pick us up. We then finished off our night with a few drinks at Club Lit where I finally got to meet (and dance with) some of Melissa’s Peace Corps co-volunteers.

 

 

The group was beginning to tire out at this point after a long day so we turned in for more drinks back at Hideaway at midnight.

The next morning we made an obligatory visit to the world’s only underwater post office, located right off the shore of Hideaway Resort

 

 

You don’t need much more than a pair of goggles (or some snorkel gear) to deliver a special $3 AUD waterproof postcard to anyone in the world!

  

 

And now we head off for our afternoon flights to Fiji!

 

- At time of posting in Port Vila, Vanuatu, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 21km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

 

Thanks Fanny for the pun of a title!

I realized that whenever people ask for advice for what to see in Kiev and I look through my blog to rev up my memory again, all I have on Kiev is a crazy night out that began at the infamous Palata no. 6 (aka Hospital Bar), and nothing on what to actually see.

 

6 years ago in Kiev:

 

And we returned to Kiev today after a week in Armenia for an extended layover, I understood nostalgia and traditions are hard to quit.

Today in Kiev:

There’s been a few more tricks up their sleeves since then:

And yes, we even returned to Sorry, Babushka! afterwards.

 

 

But we also saw things this time! And when Ukraine International Airlines e-mailed me to say that our final flight home from Kiev to NYC would be delayed a whopping 8 hours, that left us with plenty of time to explore Kiev the next morning sober. 

Let’s begin — (Some of these photos are credited to Mihaela, who arrived in Kiev on an earlier flight than the rest of us)

 

 

From our hostel, we started at Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew’s Descent, a steep but charming cobblestone path lined with souvenir sellers, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and museums.

 

 

The descent’s official start is at Saint Andrew’s Church, and it ends at Kontraktova Ploshcha in Podil.

 

 

From Saint Andrew’s we walked 10 minutes over to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev’s oldest church dating back to the 11th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts the world’s largest ensemble of frescoes and mosaics. 

Admission fee is 60 UAH.

 

 

For an extra fee you can climb up the bell tower for these views:

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes over to Golden Gate, which is a 1982 reconstruction of the Golden Gate of Kyiv, which was immortalized in Mussorgski’s “Pictures of an Exhibition.”

 

 

Afterwards we turned onto Kreschatyk Street, the main path of Kiev’s center, where we took advantage of it being closed on weekends for pedestrians.

 

 

This street would then lead us to Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), which as I recall was also where we scrambled around for an hour thinking that we missed our bus to Chernobyl 6 years ago. 

More importantly though, it is Kiev’s central meeting place as well as the site where people camped for weeks on end during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that led to the election of Yushchenko and the violet crackdowns of the 2014 Ukranian revolution that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych.

 

 

You can take a small set of stairs above the mall for elevated views:

 

 

Nearby is a tribute composed of scattered bricks to the 113 of those who died during the 2014 Revolution.

 

 

We then walked to Globus Mall for dinner at Ostannya Barykada, a famous speakeasy restaurant devoted to purely Ukrainian cuisine.

 

 

You have to find the dedicated entrance first:

 

 

Then take an elevator to a hidden floor:

 

 

Grab a few drinks at the simple bar and give this password in Ukrainian: Boritesya i poborete! (Fight and you will win!)

 

 

Once your table is ready, head through a hidden entrance inside the walls:

 

 

And eat, eat, eat away. Our recommended dishes were the goat, steaks (big cuts for $10 USD!), catfish, black pudding (pork blood), and borscht.

 

 

After a filling dinner we walked about 8 minutes to St. Michael’s Monastery, which is an active monastery that dates back to the 12th century.

 

 

If you’re still up for a longer walk, head 20 minutes south to Friendship of Nations Arch where you can get great views of northern Kiev.

 

 

From there you can walk into a pleasant park beginning with Park Bridge:

 

 

Right at the end of the park is 140 year old Mariyinsky Palace, which was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who is also famous for designing the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

 

 

Walk another 25 minutes south to reach the Holodomor Holocaust Memorial and its underground exhibit in the park.

 

 

A few more paces south from the memorial will be the entrance to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, one of Ukraine’s oldest monasteries. Dug out by hermit priests, these cave monasteries are still intact today for visiting, where pilgrims and tourists alike can venture to see their mummified remains.

 

 

Finally, at the southern end of your walk will be The Motherland Monument, adorned by scores of military vehicles and classic Soviet-era memorial statuary dedicated to the sacrifices Kiev made during World War II.

 

 

And the motherland statue itself looks much larger in real life. Of note, the design on her shield is the only example of a Soviet hammer & sickle insignia allowed in Ukraine.

 

 

This whole walking tour took about 4-5 hours, after which we returned back to our hostel to pick up our bags and headed to the airport for our return flight home.

 

 

Perhaps because it’s my birthday tomorrow or Thanksgiving Day is in 2 days, I gotta say when this group first spontaneously formed a few weeks ago I remember not being able to help myself but have this gut feeling I would be traveling with and getting to know a solid bunch of special, amazing, funny, mature, and down-to-earth people. I didn’t know why; except for Mihaela, I never traveled with any of them before. While I tried hard not to overhype expectations, my expectations instead would be exceeded. By being themselves and coming on this trip with me, they gave me one of the best birthday presents I could ask for.

I’m already finding myself missing everyone before the trip even has ended, and I’m beginning to feel this sense of bittersweetness that because there are so many moving parts in this thing called life, these 4 people may never travel together with me all at once like this again.

I hope the universe may one day prove me wrong. Thank you for an amazing 9 days. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kiev, Ukraine, it was 5 °C - Humidity: 72% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

The Last Action Hiroshima

The Last Action Hiroshima

 

After 2 days in Nagasaki, we headed northeast for Hiroshima, first boarding the 3:20pm Kamome 26 Train (which leaves hourly on the :20) from Nagasaki Station to Hakata.

 

 

We arrived on time into Hakata at 5:13pm, transferring to Platform 13 for the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” Nozomi 56, departing at 5:33pm heading in the direction of Tokyo.

 

 

Don’t fall asleep! The train only takes 2 stops, aka one hour to cover 282km (or 175 miles) to reach our destination of Hiroshima. Our train was literally was moving at the speed of 282km/hr (175mph)!

We thus arrived on time at 6:34pm, with the whole journey from Nagasaki to Hiroshima costing about 12,000¥ per person and taking us about 3 hours.

 

 

From here we took Bus no. 24 out 7 stops (180¥ one way) to our hostel, Hostel Mallika, located right next to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We then settled in and Donna and I headed out for some night exploration of the park about a 3 minute walk away while Trish said she would take it easy/sit out for the rest of the trip until Kyoto, citing to what I suspect now could be an occult fracture (!). I suggested that she visit a clinic and finally get that foot x-rayed, but at the time of posting Trish would poll her social media hive to decide whether to get it checked here, or wait until she returned home. So if you’re reading this, go support/encourage her in getting this checked earlier than later (after all, that’s what Charlotte did when her toe got fractured in the film “Lost In Translation”)!

As Donna and I headed out it began to rain lightly, which made a perfect backdrop to the eerie nature of the area considering what had happened here 74 years ago on August 6, 1945.

The Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims was the first thing we saw. It features a stone chest in the center that acts as a registry of every victim of the atomic bomb, regardless of nationality. Names are still added when people die from diseases related to the radiation of the bomb. The Japanese inscription reads, “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for the evil shall not be repeated.”

The arch also artfully frames the A-Bomb Dome in the distance, as well as the Flame of Peace, which will reportedly burn until the dismantling of the last nuclear weapon.

 

 

Walking further north, we finally came upon the skeletal remains of the A-Bomb Dome, the most recognizable symbol of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

Designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel in 1915, the building once stood out as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall in a city devoid of any other European architectural influences. Although the dome was destroyed and the people inside were killed by the heat of the atomic blast, the inner walls has remained largely intact.

 

  

 

During the cleanup afterwards, this structure was first left alone simply because it was much more difficult to remove than other debris in the area. It continued to stand until it was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

 

 

Around the corner to the east is the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students, dedicated to the 6300 students working in the munitions factories before they were killed by the atomic bomb.

 

 

One block east from here around the corner is the Hypocenter, designating the exact spot where the atomic bomb detonated 600m above.

 

 

As the other sites in the park were closed, at this point we decided to return to the hostel and sleep in a little early.

The next morning we had a quick breakfast and returned to the park, starting by entering the park again through the Gates of Peace, which were installed by a pair of French artists in 2005. The word “peace” is written in 49 languages on the gates and the sidewalk, with the ten gates representing the nine circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno and an extra level of hell created by the atomic bomb.

 

 

Past the gates as the park begins is the Fountain of Prayer and the Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm. Both are currently undergoing earthquake-proofing so all we saw was tarp and scaffolding. So we walked west right by the fountain and entered the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which opened at 8:30am. 

Although the entry fee was once 50¥, it’s now 200¥ to support the current renovations.

 

 

Like the museum in Nagasaki, this one is also a doozy. We spent 45 minutes here taking it all in.

 

 

A few paces north of the museum is the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Entry is free.

 

 

The Peace Statue is right by the cenotaph.

 

 

If you need a break from all of this, the Rest House of Memorial Park is a few paces northeast from the Peace Statue. Formerly the Taishoya Kimono Shop at the time of the atomic bomb attack, only one employee who was in the basement at the time, survived.

 

 

If you’re still curious and not completely wiped out at this point, you can visit that very basement — which has been unchanged since the explosion — if you register at the information desk inside. However, the building is currently undergoing renovations, so we were unable to check that out.

 

Photo Credit: visithiroshima.net

 

Continue onwards to the Children’s Peace Monument. In a poignant moment, we were fortunate enough to witness a crowd of visiting schoolchildren praying by it.

 

 

And the Korean Atomic Bomb Victims Cenotaph is a few paces west, dedicated to the tens of thousands of Korean forced laborers who lost their lives in Hiroshima.

 

 

Right north to it lies the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, where the ashes of 70,000 unidentified or unclaimed bomb victims are buried underneath. Services are held in their memory on the 6th of every month.

 

 

And at the very north of the park you can ring the Peace Bell.

 

 

Crossing the bridge to the west, we quickly visited the Honkawa Elementary School. Out of the 400+ people in this building, only 1 student and 1 teacher survived the atomic bomb.

 

 

A new school has been built since then, but this section of the original structure has been kept as a museum and the basement has been preserved since the explosions. Free entry as long as you register at the main office.

 

We then walked east of the park to visit the Fukuromachi Elementary SchoolLike Honkawa, part of the original school building that survived the bomb is now a museum.

 

 

Survivors here used the school’s chalk to leave messages for lost friends and family members on its blackened walls. Free entry.

 

 

Right next to Fukuromachi one block over is the Former Hiroshima Branch of the Bank of Japan. Other than the A-bomb dome, this is Hiroshima’s other best-known pre-bomb structure.

 

 

Only 380 meters from the bomb’s hypocenter, the exterior walls remained intact while all 42 people inside the bank were killed by the heat of the blast. Remarkably, the bank reopened and was back in service only two days after the bomb and continued operating until 1992 when it was acquired by the city. 

The basement vaults have been converted to exhibits detailing another side to the atomic bomb explosion. Entry is free as well.

 

 

From there we walked up north to Hiroshima Castle. Although the original 16th century 5-story castle was destroyed by the bomb, the reconstructed museum boasts a view from the top that might be worth the 360¥ entrance fee.

 

 

The Gokoku Shrine is on the castle grounds near the entrance, having been rebuilt after the atomic blast and now serves as the center for annual Shinto ceremonies.

 

 

Feeling famished at this point, we grabbed lunch at Okonomiyaki (more on this hot beautiful mess or work of art below) back downtown at Mitchan. There’s one conveniently located in the basement floor of the Fukuya Hatchobori Store.

 

 

After lunch we took the 230¥ Astramline tram up 6 stops from the Kencho-Mae Station to Fudoin, a serene 14th century temple that survived the atomic blast. Free entry.

 

 

From there we returned to our hostel to recharge, and then took a 2010¥ cab a long way uphill to the Peace Pagoda.

Built in 1966 and dedicated to those killed by the atomic bomb, the pagoda houses two gifts from India and Mongolian Buddhists that contain ashes of the Buddha, as well as thousands of prayer stones. 

 

 

At this point dark clouds began to gather and it began to flash flood, HARD. Flashes of lightning were being followed by thunder only mere seconds afterwards. I counted a few and noticed lightning strikes were getting closer and closer. 

This felt personal to me as I had been struck once by lightning 7 years ago in Mandalay: I had been standing on top a hill next to a big pagoda, and here was I once again, standing on top of a hill next to a big pagoda. Donna and I started to sprint downhill as fast as we could, umbrellas be damned.

…but not before I could get a shot of Hiroshima from the pagoda first:

 

 

Ducking under roofs of random homes every 1-2 minutes and making a mad dash downhill before taking cover again, we managed to reach the bottom in 20 minutes where we looked up and saw we had just rushed down past the atomic bomb cenotaph without noticing. Just beyond is the Toshogu Shrine.

 

 

Afterwards we took final shelter back at Hiroshima Station, where we reunited with Billy, a friend we had made at the last minute right before we left our hostel CasaNoda back in Nagasaki

Given that the rain began to improve at this point, we collectively decided to make a run for Miyajima (Itsukushima) for sunset despite the thunderstorm.

 

Photo Credit: GaijinPot Travel

 

However, this one just wasn’t meant to be. The 3 of us were shuttled back and forth between Platform 1 and 2 no less than EIGHT (no joke) times before the stationmasters announced that the JR Sanyo train to Miyajimaguchi Station (so we could catch the ferry to Miyajima) actually may not be arriving at all. Because of the heavy thunderstorms in the area, they were concerned whether it could operate safely for the rest of the evening. Nevertheless, they were able to fully refund us for our 810¥ per person roundtrip fare at the adjustment office right by the exits.

Although we had dodged typhoons and earthquakes so far on this trip, it would be a simple local thunderstorm to finally do us in. We’ll come back next time! Besides, we’re way overdue for a drink. 

BTW if you’re not temple-d out at this point like we were, there’s also Mitakidera 15 minutes north of Hiroshima’s city center we thought about heading towards at the last minute. But we’ll save it for next time.

 

Photo Credit: Maikoya

 

7 hours later: Hiroshima can now claim one of the weirdest, most discombobulated nights out I’ve had in a while. We started with a quick bite at a random Mexican/Japanese fusion spot that we had all to ourselves, got turned away from an all-you-can-drink beer place because they were closing down early, shrugged our shoulders at cocktail shot bar, walked over to Nagarekawa (Hiroshima’s nightlife street), got paralyzed with too many choices, finally decided on a few drinks at Tropical Bar Revolucion on the 8th floor, took everyone not in our group from that bar out for dancing around the corner, lost a few of those people on the way, had more join us on the street, tried to haggle down cover prices at the door until we finally got free cover at Club G Hiroshima, raged to hip hop until 3:30am, took the last few standing over 2 blocks to a place without an English name (バー眠り猫) for shisha before finally crashing back at our hostel at 4:30am.

But it worked out — from left to right in the photo we have Camilla who’s from Brazil living in Melbourne, me, Donna, Luke who’s from Perth, Amy and Natasha who’s from Portland, Billy who’s from Austin living in San Diego, 2 Germans we met at Tropical Bar Revolucion who also joined us, Alexandria who’s from both Lima and here in Hiroshima, and a random Japanese woman who was collateral damage from being at the right place at the right time for the photo.

 

 

What To Eat In Hiroshima

 

Okonomiyaki. Literally meaning “cook it as you like it” and also known as “Japanese pizza” – A savory pancake made with egg, soba noodles, cabbage, mixed in with meat, seafood or cheese that’s then grilled in layers on a hot plate in front of you. Then it’s slathered with okonomiyaki sauce, with optional extras such as mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed.

 

Don’t know where to get one? There’s an entire okonomiyaki theme park called Okonominura where 4 floors of dozens of okonominura stalls bid for your patronage:

 

Next stop: Kobe!

 

 

- At time of posting in Hiroshima, Japan, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 86% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

A New Year’s Sydney Serendipity

A New Year’s Sydney Serendipity

 

Happy New Year from The Monsoon Diaries!
 
 

 

FYI, this entry almost never happened —  organizing affordable accommodations for a group during New Year’s Eve in Sydney has been no joke the past 6 months. Most of the affordable properties in Sydney’s city center require a 3 night minimum stay with a minimum of a $100/night charge for even a regular dorm bunkbed. You have been warned!

 

 

On the more positive side, it may have been worth the effort: it seems like everyone and their mother is in Sydney for New Year’s Eve tonight. I present you this entry in a series of crazy vignettes that have happened in the past 24 hours alone:

 

WTF SMALL WORLD STORY #1: Not even an hour touching down after my 42 hour journey across the world from NYC, I was contacted by my partner (and reluctant monsooner, hahaha) Mel’s work buddy Cathy Du who was also here with her partner and his 2 classmates from Duke Law.

One of the 2 classmates, Akash, is the partner of my med school’s classmate (and my Vice President at the time) Bhakti’s cousin Sahaj, who has been following my blog regularly and occasionally sends Akash updates on trip ideas since 2011! So as Cathy was coordinating dinner plans with me, Akash reportedly told her my blog sounded vaguely familiar…

The ironic part is that even though Sahaj has been following The Monsoon Diaries and has been wanting to go on a trip since 2011, it would be Akash who would inadvertently get to me first!

 

 

All thanks to Cathy, who just happened to have the same itinerary as me!

 

 

WTF SMALL WORLD STORY #2: As Cathy and I coordinated dinner plans, Genoviva — whom I first met 2 summers ago in Cape Town, South Africa while climbing Lion’s Head, and is the sister of my college friend/Central Asia monsooner Remi Coker (and who also happened to be in Sydney) — reached out and quickly suggested us a spot at Spice Alley.

 

 

Genoviva could only stay for mere seconds as the monsooners + Cathy’s contingent gathered at Spice Alley for dinner, but it was still nice to see her nonetheless!

 

 

WTF SMALL WORLD STORY #3: It’s been nearly 4 years since I ran into anyone outside the USA from my 2013 trip to Antarctica, but it would be fitting to have first night drinks with local Alex Hardy in his native Sydney!

Despite receiving a last minute message that we were in Sydney, Alex was kind enough to also join us for dinner at Spice Alley, bringing along his roommate Amy, while also pointing out Joel Edgerton passing by, and taking us out afterwards for drinks at Strawberry Hills Hotel in the Surry Hills area.

 

YPT alumni!

 

As the group began to fade at around 9pm, we ended the night early and headed into bed to reset our circadian rhythms at 10pm, after which I manage to get one of the fullest and longest slumber in a hostel bed at 10 hours. We begin New Year’s Eve recharged!

As we waited for 4 other monsooners — Sarah, David, Bryce, and Laura — to arrive the morning of New Year’s Eve, the rest of us went grocery shopping at the nearby Woolworth’s in Kings Cross to prepare for the 14 hour wait for the fireworks at Mrs Macquaries Chair in the Royal Botanical Gardens.

…A 14 hour wait?! Yes, because this is what awaits you when you arrive at the park:

 

 

Rest assured the queue/line is relatively well-organized and civilized despite the crowd of 19,000 people that shows up here every year. Nevertheless, I’ve never waited in a line this long for something so short (you’re lining up for an 8 min fireworks show at 9pm, and 12 min fireworks show at midnight…is it worth it?).

 

WTF SMALL WORLD STORY #4: While I sent up the rest of my group up to carve out a large space at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, I stayed at the back of the line to hold spots for David and Laura, whose flights were still coming in really late and they had yet to get into the city. But alas in the course of 10 minutes, it’d be more than them I would hold spots for. I soon got a text from a 203 number — which belonged to a couple named Mary and Dion — that they had just arrived into Sydney as well.

4 months ago in NYC, I had quickly befriended Mary and Dion for being college friends (well, Dion more than Mary hahaha) with one of my monsooner guides David Zhou, at a birthday party through by a fellow monsooner named Koichi. They had asked about honeymoon ideas at the time, and now here they are waiting in line with me in Sydney for New Year’s!

 

 

WTF SMALL WORLD STORY #5: But why should stories stop there? Saving the best one for last: Yesterday during her 4-5 hour layover in Beijing, Ann — a Luxembourg monsooner alumna with Koichi and one of the monsooners on this trip — decided to strike up a conversation with a nearby and seemingly random girl also heading to Sydney (Ann even invited her to join her at a Priority Pass lounge). 

Her name was Diana Klatt and she also happened to be attending NYU like Ann. 

Small world, right? Don’t stop there.

As Ann casually began mentioning this trip, myself, and The Monsoon Diaries, Diana began to realize she had already met me 10 months prior, even having been in my apartment! She was tagging along on a first date with Tim, another monsooner from the Palawan/East Timor-Leste trip, after just connecting on a dating app, and after we all had crashed a random rooftop party (the APAMSA Regional Conference afterparty) in Times Square.

I invited the 3 of them back to my place after the party, but we were all so inebriated (I passed out on them after making hookah for everyone), neither of us would really remember that night very well. And I woke up to an empty living room the next morning figuring that we would never see each other again.

Cut back to present day: As Ann and Diana stared open-jawed, at the realization of another serendipitous encounter that was unfolding on a random layover in Beijing of all places, suffice to say, the signs were too hard to ignore.

Welcome to my life.

Less than 24 hours later, Diana and her 2 Australian-based friends — Stephanie and her partner Mitch — who were visiting Sydney at the same time as her, would also join me for the 14 hour wait for the fireworks.

 

 

Anyways all bajillion of us waited about 6 hours in the actual line, which felt like it was moving constantly due to very good organizing skills by the park staff and security. 

Or maybe we were in good company? Either way, once you see this, you know you’ve finally made it.

 

 

Outside food and non-alcoholic drinks are okay, but any opened water bottles (under the suspicion that it may carry outside alcohol) are not.

 

 

After about 20 minutes of walking to the very tip of Mrs Macquaries Chair to the Macquaries Point, we reunited with the rest of the monsooners:

 

 

Then for the next 8 hours at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, we ate random food, played a series of Mafia rounds, walked around the park, said hi to Leionardo DiCaprio on his boat, bought more food and alcohol from the stalls inside the park, judged people from afar, befriended the people who waited behind us in line, and tried to get warm after sunset.

 

 

There are 2 fireworks shows — a 9pm display (so the families with kids can sleep in early) which features 4 barges of fireworks that lasts for 8 minutes, and a midnight fireworks show which features 7 barges and lasts 12 minutes.

 

 

Fight your way through the crowds as the clock ticks towards midnight and enjoy the photos of people taking photos. When people start counting down, get ready to take out your own camera (on a stick)!

 

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 

The fireworks literally lasts for 8 minutes and 12 minutes respectively and on the dot. Unlike the epic shows in NYC, which can last up to 30-45 minutes long, there is no encore here. Once the fireworks are done, they’re done.

Getting out of the park wasn’t as bad as we would have expected, however; we were back in our hostel in King’s Cross 30 minutes later, after which we changed and headed out to join Genoviva at Club Marquee at The Star casino to watch DJ MarLo spin.

 

 

We ended up turning in at 5am, pooped from the day but ready for a new year!

 

 

- At time of posting in Sydney, Australia, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 57% | Wind Speed: 34km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Munich By Night

Munich By Night

 

One year ago at a Thanksgiving Dinner I was hosting at my place, one of my monsooners from my 2016 Southern Africa trip and the 2017 Trans-Mongolian + Tibet trip, JC, brought over his new roommate Stephanie. She had just moved into NYC from her hometown of Munich and within a few months we would find out we’d share a scary number of unrelated, unconnected mutual friends from all over the world.

When I saw that I had a 22 hour layover in Munich on my way back home from Chisinau, Stephanie came to my rescue. This wouldn’t have been possible without her guidance.

But before I even start something crazy happened the moment I landed in Munich Airport. 3 months ago while hiking up Kotor Fortress I had made a friend named Terri from Australia, who since our chance meeting has been trying to come travel with us on our weekend trips to Slovenia and this very one to Moldova and Transnistria. However, neither came to fruition given her previously scheduled plans.

And alas, guess who I would run into the moment I landed in Munich Airport, on her one hour layover here?

 

 

Can’t make this up. It was meant to be, Terri!

After this chance meeting, Nick and I spent about a tortuous hour trying to locate our Uber before we were able to get into the city center at 4:30pm. We then checked into our accommodations at Gspusi Hostel before heading out into the cold, nasty rain. And to make things worse, we came in on a Sunday, which meant most places at this time would be closed.

Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to see in Munich so here’s the list of what we saw in order, making it all in 2 hours:

We started at Sendlinger Tor, an arched 14th century brick gate flanked by two towers that was part of the original city wall.

 

 

Asam’s Church, built in the 1700s and known for its baroque interior swathed in gold leaf.

 

 

200 year old Victuals Market boasting over 100 stalls.

 

 

Heiliggeistkirche, a 14th century Gothic church:

 

 

St. Peter’s Church, known for its tower overseeing the city:

 

 

The official city-center Square: Marienplatz and the neo-Gothic New Town Hall:

 

 

To the west is Frauenkirche, known for housing the Devil’s Footprint inside.

 

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 1.16.42 AM

 

According to legend this was where the devil stood when he pondered and then ridiculed a windowless church. And in another treatment of the legend, the devil made a deal with the builder to build a church as long as it contained no windows. When the builder tricked the devil by placing columns to obstruct th e windows — which prevented the devil from entering the church — the devil stomped furiously at the foyer to which he could proceed no further.

A little more west of Frauenkirche is St. Michael’s Church, built during the Renaissance:

 

 

Turn back around so you don’t miss legendary beerhall dating back since the 16th century: Hofbräuhaus München.

 

 

Then head to Max-Joseph-Platz

 

 

…where to its north is 19th century Odeonsplatz, which is home to Feldherrnhalle, the 19th-century Italianate monument to the Bavarian army & the site of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch:

 

.

 

…as well as Theatine Church

 

 

A few blocks over and you can enjoy a calm respite within Munich Residenz

 

 

…and with another 5 minute walk, Prinz-Carl-Palais

 

 

From Prinz-Carl-Palais you can enter the English Gardens (Englischer Garten’s) to catch a sight of Eisbachwelle, a hotspot featuring year-round surfing on a continuous wave on the Englischer Garten’s Eisbach River. Even more north in the park is the Chinese Tower (Chinesischer Turm), where there’s a beer garden here. Unfortunately, the heavy rain and early sunset deterred us from seeing anything interesting.

If you’re in the English Gardens, exit from its west side to reach the Ludwig-Maximilian University Campus where in front is the poignant Weiße Rose pavement memorial in front of the main entrance (address: Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1)

 

 

Here members of the White Rose — including the Scholl siblings — who had distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in the university’s main atrium — were arrested by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943. They were subsequently interrogated and executed by beheading 4 days later. However, their efforts did not go down in vain as their final leaflet was smuggled to Allied troops and later dropped out of planes across Germany, leading to posthumous recognition of the group’s activities in the postwar era.

Inside is a church-like interior in Germany’s 6th oldest and highest-ranking universities.

 

 

Right behind the main building of the university is Verrückter Eismacher – an ice cream place featuring flavors such as sauerkraut, sausage, and beer:

 

 

Look left to see Siegestor, a famous 19th-century triumphal arch featuring a bronze sculpture of Bavaria with 4 lions.

 

 

Begin heading south and recharge at Pommes Boutique, arguably the best Belgian fries in Munich featuring 15 different sauces (and you can try as many as you want for as little as half a euro for each sauce!)

 

 

Then head further south to reach Karolinenplatz and walk back east to reach Wittelsbacherplatz to return to the city center.

 

 

And if you have any more time, check out Maximilianeu —  home of the Bavarian State, and to your south south the majestic and towering Bavaria Statue. Too bad it was pouring rain throughout…so after a round of shisha at Babylon to celebrate a weekend well spent, we turned in back at our hostel.

Thanks for the tips Stephanie. Not bad for a few hours here during a cold, rainy Sunday in Munich!

And you too Terri. Munich how holds a special significance for me after what just happened with us at the airport.

 

 

- At time of posting in Munich, Germany, it was 8 °C - Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: rain

 

Chiseled Chisinau

Chiseled Chisinau

 

One more weekend off, one more monsoon. I’ve always wanted to come to Moldova & Transnistra for a few reasons:

  • Former Romanian-turned-USSR enclave rebuilt by Kruschev and thus currently one of the last few capital cities other than Minsk and Pyongyang to feature Soviet-style architecture as part of everyday life.
  • Breakaway/renegade self-proclaimed separatist region of Transnistra is one of 4 non-UN (aka unrecognized) countries in the world other than South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Artsakh.
  • Last year I had bought Moldovan money off from one of my favorite monsooners/travelers (believe it or not she feels the same way), Melissa Weinmann, right after her hilarious day in Chisinau and before we began our Trans-Siberian journey
  • . . . Then I realized that there’s such thing called inflation and that I may need to spend this cash quick before it depreciated any further!

And although I thought I was gonna go at it alone, Nick — whom I met back when I spoke at MAASU at Madison, WI in 2015 (in that link to the blogpost, there’s a group selfie where you can pick him out directly in the center; he’s wearing a striped maroon and black shirt while sitting down and waving his hand) — would join me literally at the last minute for the weekend.

I had no idea this would be his first time leaving the continental USA (except for a one time cruise to Mexico), hence his first time crossing an ocean and visiting Europe. Well, I’m honored. There’s a first time for everything!

We headed to Newark Airport at 4pm, catching the 5:30pm United Airlines flight to Munich. Given this is Nick’s first time in Europe, it was amusing to see him accidentally (and totally my fault for telling him to do it before checking myself) go through passport control only to find out that Moldova is not technically part of the Schengen Agreement and that he didn’t need to be stamped in at all in Munich. Given that we had only an hour to make the connecting flight, he rushed back through passport control a second time after only 5 minutes in Europe and caught our connecting flight to Chisinau just in time. I just sat by the gate getting ready to block the door if he was running late. After what almost happened in getting Paris and what definitely happened in getting to Slovenia, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

We arrived in Chisinau at noon:

 

 

It was around this point where a guy named Aryk approached us, having overheard our Americanized English, asking if we were from the States. When we affirmed, one question led to another where Aryk and I found out we were both born in New York City at Mount Sinai Hospital (That AND he said he had heard of The Monsoon Diaries when I showed him my card…this warms my heart)!

Of course this would lead to a natural friendship and his offer to give us a ride back into the city with his fellow Romanian friend and New Yorker, George, who told us hilarious stories of his time crossing the border into Transnistra.

 

Aryk on the left, and George on the right

 

It took about 20 minutes to drive from the airport into the city center. It just so happens as well that Aryk lives 2 blocks away from our hostel.

 

 

After parting with Aryk with promises to have drinks again before we leave, we checked in at Amazing Ionika Hostel and headed out for lunch at Aryk’s recommendation to Propaganda Café, which was stellar in both its food, Soviet decor, and impeccable service.

 

 

After an hour lunchin’, we started our day tour of Chisinau at 2pm, first stopping by at the Water Tower 2 blocks away. A former water tower, it has been converted into a War Museum and panoramic rooftop lookout. The entry fee is 10 lei.

 

 

Head up to the 7th floor for the city views of Chisinau:

 

 

After 20 minutes here we headed down 2 blocks to Parcul Valea Morilor, also at Aryk’s recommendation for scenic views of the nearby lake.

 

 

We headed down the steps, similarly designed to the Ptomekin Stairs in Odessa.

 

 

We spent about 10 minutes walking by the lake before heading back up a beautiful fountain.

 

 

We then walked north, walking through the line of monuments at Monument to Alexander Pushkin Park and Stefan cel Mare Monument.

 

 

Across the street is the giant Casa Guvernului (Government House):

 

 

Turn left (northwest) up a few blocks along Stefan cel Mare Boulevard to check out the imposing Presidency of the Republic of Moldova Building . . .

 

 

. . . which faces the Parliament of Moldova.

 

 

We then walked in the opposite direction along the same boulevard southeast to the center of the city, marked by The Triumphal Arch in front of the The Metropolitan Cathedral “Nativity of the Lord.

 

 

The rules state that no photos are allowed inside the church, but nobody really cared:

 

 

Afterwards we returned onto the boulevard and headed down more southwest.

 

 

Take a peek at Ciuflea Monastery along the way:

 

 

The boulevard finally concludes at Grigorii Kotovskii Monument

 

 

We then mosey’ed over around the roundabout to the nearby Train Station.

 

 

Knowing that one of my stalwart monsooner guides, Taylan, and my travel brother Gareth of Young Pioneer Tours were also going to be in Chisinau in a a week with the Eurasia Tour group (but that we we would narrowly miss them since we’re only here for 2 days), I decided to leave Taylan and Gareth a little note to find. Good luck!

 

 

Can you see where I hid it?

 

 

After the train station we retraced our steps and headed south on Strada Ismail to conclude our day tour at the World War II Memorial (Eternitate Memorial Complex). I highly recommend going at night.

 

 

We then returned to the hostel, immediately befriending a fellow American from Seattle named Reece, and her best friend that she met on her 13 month travels, an Australian from Melbourne named Ben, before taking them out for dinner and shisha at the best place you can start your night at in Chisinau: Draft. And so our night begins.

 

 

And did I mention yet how crazy their DO NOT signs are here?

 

A bathroom sign: DON'T BREAK THE TOILET
In front of a Karaoke venue: NO BULLS ALLOWED

 

- At time of posting in Chisinau, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast and drizzle