Venetian Architecture (and also boats)

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The look of Venice is fairly unique. Not too many places in the world can boast canals paired with Renaissance architecture. It’s a good fit, and wonderful for taking pictures and drawing. A fun fact we learned : most of the people drawing at any given time are not art students from one of the nearby colleges, but are tourists. It’s pretty fun to join them too!

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While there are plenty of famous scenes and views all around the city, we strayed a bit from the travelled path and took pictures of mostly anything that caught our eye.

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There was no shortage of interesting views, even just out our hotel window.

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I personally love the semi-planned stacking of buildings that look like they’ve grown from the water, huddle together in a very visually pleasing arrangement.

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It’s hard to ignore the boat-lined tunnel canals – the only way to get to a lot of these doors and boats is to have someone else drop you off.  There are many, many doors, that lead to a tiny dock and boat, or worse, drop straight out into the water. The best are private bridges – smaller versions of the canal-spanning bridges that lead to a single door.

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Between the crowded living spaces spring up massive cathedrals. It’s an odd contrast.

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One of the amazing and frustrating things about Venice is the constant haze. It comes from being warm and on the water, and it makes for some exciting and terrible photo conditions. During colder parts of the year the atmosphere is probably clearer and the photos come out crisper.

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We really enjoyed getting lost and seeing the smaller details of the city. It’s easy to miss in light of the surrounding grandeur.

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Walking is really the best thing to do. Every bridge, canal, and tiny alley offers a new and unexpected view.

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Sometimes the alleys are extremely small. This one, we think, was meant for people. Notice the streetlamp in the center. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.

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There are big life goals and small life goals. After we decided to come to Italy, and specifically Venice, I knew I had to recreate the View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana, by Bernando Bellotto. It’s one of the few paintings I know by name, and since seeing it at the Getty have wanted to see this view in person.

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Of course, since we were here in person, there was no doubt we’d eventually see the Dogana up close. It’s fantastic in its size and detail.

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Each one of the statues lining its parapet is a work of art unto itself, and the structure as a whole is breathtaking, especially in the low setting sun when its lines and minute details are thrown into sharp relief.

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Ancona, Intro to Italy

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Ancona is an interesting place. It’s definitely not touristy, but it still has the charming attractions of an Italian city – beautiful old architecture, a lovely promenade, coffee.. pizza.. really we didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us had ever been to Italy, and we came because I had always wanted to see Venice and Natalie had always wanted to go to a truffle festival.

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Ancona was our crash course in how to get around in Italy. First – mediocre Spanish will not cut it. Some people might humor you and try to understand, but by and large we had more success with English and a tiny bit of Spanish than full on Spanish. Maybe if we had tried Spanish with an Italian accent?

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Second – Italians love their mid day break. Everything, and I mean everything, excepting cafes, restaurants, and maybe hospitals, shuts down for the hours of 1 to 4, give or take. It’s fantastic and infuriating at the same time. We’re so used to 24 hour on demand everything all the time. When it’s not available we’re not sure what to do. I think the Italians are on to something though.

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Third – do ask for help. As with many countries on our trip, Italians seem interested in travelers and asking politely (if plainly) is very often the best way to get what you need or find out where you need to go. We haven’t mentioned this much, but post offices around the world are full of some of the nicest and most helpful people imaginable. Maybe we got lucky? The Ancona post office staff took great care of us and got our package through the relatively complex shipping procedure in no time. In a related act of kindness, we needed packing material so I went to a nearby newstand and did my best to ask for the cheapest newspaper they had. The vendor said “it’s Italian, can you read?” I told him it was for mail, for a package. He dropped a pile of newspapers in my arms and said they were free, yesterday’s lot.

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Ancona itself is split into two parts – a lower section near the water, and the remainder atop a massive cliff. It’s a hike to get to the old town, and the metro system was unintelligible to us the first day. The streets are tiny, especially in the old town – this will become a running theme in Italy. Vespas and tiny cars are popular for a reason.

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Beautiful,

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ancient,

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architecture.
Italy does not disappoint.

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When everything’s closed and you have no plans, what to do but get coffee? It turns out fancy drinks like this are a bit unusual for Italy. Everywhere else so far the coffee has been plain espresso, or maybe with a dash of milk (steamed, foamed, straight). A regular small cup costs 1 euro and almost everyone has one for breakfast. It’s like a natural right here, and the coffee is almost always excellent.

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Ancona even has a bit of a fashion district on the promenade.

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On our way back to the hotel we passed this intriguing restaurant. It was closed when we passed. We wanted to come back but still couldn’t figure out the buses, so when it came time for dinner we decided to eat local. I think if we had more than a day and change in Ancona the public transit would have eventually made sense, but there’s not much in the way of tourist information when it comes to riding the trams.

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What does eating local look like? A random pizzeria near the hotel. Full disclosure, this was the third random pizzeria near the hotel that we looked at. The other two were not nearly as appetizing. We asked the lady at the front desk of our hotel if a single pizza was enough for two. It turns out sharing a pie is uncommon here – they’re very thin crust and designed to be eaten by one person. That may be the intent, but we were full pretty quick, even with the thin crust. We finished it though – it was too good!

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Next time – we head to Sant’Agata Feltria for their truffle festival!

The beautiful city of Split

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Split is a costal town, oddly reminiscent of Southern California. Palm trees, beautiful ocean, ancient architecture and cobblestone houses. No, wait, that last part isn’t at all like SoCal. Split has a lot of things to see, and most people spend the majority of their time in the old quarter. The old quarter has a market place, a small surrounding area of older streets and their apartments, and, in vast majority, Diocletian’s Palace.

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The palace is a beautiful, massive fortress, with multiple squares and dozens of tiny, squigly back alley style streets that are hard to navigate but full of interesting restaurants and shops.

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It was built around 300 AD as a retirement house for the Emperor Diocletian. Half retreat and half garrison, it was heavily fortified and at times housed over 9000 people. Today it stands as the world’s most complete Roman ruin. It really is magical to see – the majority of the palace is intact and its towers, plazas, and tunnels are endlessly interesting to explore.

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The majority of the palace is well preserved and is in active use today. Some portions – mostly along the seaside souther wall – have decayed into a state of not-quite-ruins. The structure amazingly holds itself together even there.

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The towers that watched over the sea and city are a focal point even today.

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Outside of the architectural beauty, there’s a lot of shopping in the old city. As with any good tourist location, businesses big and small have set up shop to sell clothes, souvenirs, and food.

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The plazas under the towers are a main gathering point – hundreds of people will sit at the cafes, smoke, sip, and talk. Here we got a taste of what Italy might be like – there are a lot of Italian visitors, and they and the locals love to sit for hours.

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The smaller segments of the palace, tucked away from the main square, have been turned into twisting mazes of restaurants and apartments. The food in these is very good, especially the hard-to-find ones. Locals mostly go there, hoping to enjoy the city without the crowds.

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The apartments are mostly for rent to tourists, but from the looks of it some of them are actually occupied by residents of the city.

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Seating at these alley cafes is pretty limited, but that’s ok! The atmosphere is quiet compared to the bustling plazas.

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Sometimes the path takes you through an architectural tunnel. The ‘ceiling’ is a connector between two buildings up above.

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There is always more to see in the palace. We walked through it every day, and every day we found yet another section we hadn’t explored.

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In some parts of the palace, you can’t even tell it’s a colossal Roman construction anymore. This looks like a tiny village, not part of a fortress.

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From some parts of the palace you can see the water. This is the view from a restaurant we ate at, and the food was just as fantastic. We’re not even sure how we got there!

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Next time : sights from outside the palace!

 

Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride

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Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.

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The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.

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It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.

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Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.

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They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.

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At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.

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Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.

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The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.

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Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.

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Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.

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Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.

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The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.

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It’s time to get off the bus!

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Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.

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One last look at our bus..

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Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.

How not to hostel

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Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

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After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

This is why people are staring at you: the good, the bad, and the strange

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When you travel, especially off the beaten track, you’re going to get stares from the locals. Those stares can be uncomfortable, especially if you come from the U.S. or a closely-related culture where staring is considered rude. Why are they staring at you? Is it something I did? Why don’t they stop?

Staring etiquette varies from region to region and over time. For example, the Japanese rarely stare because it’s considered rude, preferring to steal glances of you through a long side-eye when you’re not looking. In contrast there’s neighboring China, where sometimes people will not only stare but also point at you, and it’s not considered rude. Because the world is increasingly cosmopolitan, staring seems to be considered rude in more places and I think it now happens less. Back in 2004, my mom got lots of stares from locals in Shanghai because she is white. Fast forward to present day, where she gets hardly a glance.

But in many places off the standard travel itineraries, be prepared for some stares or uncomfortably long glances. For those of you who aren’t used to this, here’s a primer for you on why the locals are staring at you and what to expect.

First, are they smiling? Then it’s probably…

The Good

Overwhelmingly if you’re getting stares and smiles, it’s a good thing. People are probably fascinated by you because you look and dress differently, you’re new, you’re interesting!

Especially in highly-isolated and rural places, you may be the only foreigner passing through they’ve ever seen. This was the case for us in Indonesia, where people frequently stopped to greet us and ask for a selfie, even if they spoke only broken English or no English at all. Because Stoytcho is tall (6’4”) and white, he was a magnet for every middle-school tour group at every temple, so we’re in about a dozen class pictures.

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Yep, here’s one of those class photos. I do not know whether it is more or less appropriate that I wore a “Damn! I love Indonesia” shirt.

In some cases, people are staring and smiling because they’re happy to see you, a tourist/visitor/traveler because you’re a herald of positive economic outcomes. We found this to be the case in Medellin Colombia, where we’d catch people staring at us, strike up a conversation with them, and find them thanking us for coming to their country. Things were really bad in Medellin (linkout) only a couple decades ago, so for people of Medellin, tourists are a big deal. That will probably change as more visitors come to the city, but for now, they stare and smile because you’re a sign of how much better life is now.

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A local jugo vendor we made acquaintance with makes faces for photos.

Lastly, sometimes people stare and smile because you’ve done something silly but harmless, like mispronounce a word. This will happen a lot if you’re trying to learn some of the local language. You’ll often hear this accompanied by a stifled giggle and someone may try to correct you. But that’s life and in no situation has a language mistake this ever been held against us.

Now, if people are staring at you and frowning, it may be…

The Bad

Every culture has its own maze of written and unwritten rules and social norms and superstitions that are impossible to understand and difficult to remember for foreigners. So if someone is staring at you and frowning, you’ve probably done something wrong.

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For example, you didn’t listen to this sign.

The good news is that while breaking cultural rules and norms is usually bad with varying degrees of seriousness, as a foreigner you’ll generally get a free pass. The only two exceptions to that free pass are: modesty-related and religion-related customs. Modesty-related customs are often dress codes or interpersonal interactions, like how much skin you can bare in public or how much romantic public affection is acceptable. Religion-related customs can vary, but usually relate to the aforementioned modesty, cleanliness, or separation of the sexes. Breaking these often makes a lot of people uncomfortable, or makes a lot of work for someone (i.e. they have to re-purify some sacred area thanks to your transgression). Hence, the frowns you’re getting.

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Women cover themselves after leaving a temple in Vietnam.

Some great examples include those stares that young woman in the tank top is getting while she wanders around in Indonesia, or that guy who didn’t wash his hands and feet when coming into the temple. In my case, I committed a terrible fashion faux pas: wearing boots in the summer. I got an average of three scowls a day for that, apparently because it’s weird and just not done. It was so bad that Stoytcho’s aunt (linkout) concocted a white lie to get me to wear a pair of her shoes when we went out for ice cream because she didn’t want to be seen with me in boots. The solution? I switched to flip flops.

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A Russian woman gives me the usual down-up-scowl: first she looks down at my boots (actually moves her head down), then she looks up at me, and frowns. This happened so often I started trying to get photos of people doing it.

It can be hard to avoid breaking the customs of another culture while traveling, but this is where a bit of research in advance can help a lot. Before traveling, type in “taboo” and where you’re going to see if there are things you should avoid doing or wearing. These can vary in validity, so it also helps to consult a friend, acquaintance, or a travel forum.

There’s another reason people could be staring at you without a smile, though. That’s…

The Strange

Because you’re strange, you’re weird, or you’re confusing. They’re staring at you because they’re trying to place you in some kind of context and having trouble. It’s not you, it’s them.

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Like this, although they’re also probably staring because we’re in the middle of rural Java hitching a ride in the open bed of a pickup truck with giant backpacks. This clearly doesn’t happen every day.

For better or worse, a lot of our judgements do stem from a person’s appearance. A white-person dressed in cargo zip-offs, a hat, and sunblock? Probably a tourist, has some money. Black woman, dressed nicely? A rich tourist or a model. A latino-looking guy in grungy clothes, carrying wares? Likely a local street vendor. That Asian-looking granny sitting on a park bench in rumpled clothes? Reasonable to assume she’s a resident octogenarian. We feel comfortable when we can place people into some kind of context and make assumptions about how we can interact with them. And when we can’t do that, we get confused and sometimes we stare.

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Me, ethnically ambiguous because I’m half-Chinese and half white.

As someone who’s ethnically ambiguous, this happens to me a lot. I look just enough like the local people almost everywhere we get stares, especially when I’m not with Stoytcho (who obviously looks like a foreigner). In South America, people would stare at me because I didn’t look totally white but I was an English-speaking tourist. In Japan, the ambiguity almost got me into trouble (linkout). And in Russia, the locals stared because I looked like a local Buryat girl dressed in weird tourist clothes. I got stuck in between the boxes of local and tourist, and it messed with people enough that they’d inadvertently stare at me for that extra second or two.

If you’re prone to receiving this kind of stare, the best way to deal with it is to smile and not take offense. It’s hard because when people stare at you, trying to figure out who or what you are, they don’t usually look friendly. They may even be frowning, although it’s an unconscious frown caused by their confusion. But if you make eye contact with them and smile, they usually realize they’ve been staring and avert their eyes or they’ll smile back. You may not fit neatly into their mental world, but that matters less once they realize you’re friendly.

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When you greet a stare with a smile, you make friends. They may even strike poses into the camera for you.

Riding the JR

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JR is Japan Rail, a group of companies providing intercity rail access in Japan, runs fantastically fast and on-schedule trains. We bought ourselves a JR pass for the entire island in one of the main stations in Tokyo. Was it worth it? The way we did it, yes it was. We rode up and down and all around the island, and looking back, we saved a few hundred dollars. The benefit of the pass was flexibility and unlimited rides during the pass period – we could jump on any train at any time in the unreserved section or, after a quick visit to the JR office in any station, we had reserved tickets for our whole journey for that day or the next. These passes can be bought at any of the larger JR offices and an ‘Exchange Order’ can be purchased abroad, which can be traded in for a pass.

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The coolest thing though, is the trains. I’m not a train fanatic, but I like me some public transit. JR’s lines are fast, clean, stop on the correct spot to a t, and arrive – barring some actual incident – to the second as promised. We hear legends of JR issuing apologies for mere seconds delay, and indeed they do. This went viral just recently : JR sincerely apologized for being 20 seconds early out the gate.
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We were waiting for our train at an outer station when the announcer came on to tell us a train was passing through and to be careful to move behind the line. I never stray past that line anyway, but I remember sort of smiling at the announcement, waiting for this train to .. and then with a tremendous wind and a whooshing noise, the train was gone. They are blink of an eye fast.

So how fast does their 300 km/h speed feel? Here’s a video I took from the window of one of our trains.

Like many other things in Japan, the trains have an associated collection – pins! Luckily there were only five – one for each color line on the main island. We ran around like mad the last few days of the pass, seeing random towns along the way and collecting the whole set of pins. Sightseeing incentive, effective!

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7-11 will take your dirty foreigner ATM card

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No seriously, 7-11 the convenience store, also known here as “7 and i Holdings” is the only place we found that would consistently take our non-Japanese Visa-based ATM card and let us withdraw money. This is a pretty regular problem in Japan; even if an ATM says on the side that it takes Visa or MasterCard, it’s usually restricted to Japanese-only cards and will reject an ATM card from outside the country. We found that this happened even at ATMs in train stations, banks, or at shopping malls. And it was a huge pain to run around looking for an ATM only to find it rejected our card. So now YOU know how to avoid it, plus it gives you a chance to visit one of the few places where you can get cheap, good food as a backpacker.

…like these always-perfect soft-boiled eggs…

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…or this whole curry potato croquette meal for 700 yen.

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ALL HAIL THE SEVEN ELEVEN!

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Japan for the first time.

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Growing up, Japan held a special, weird place in my heart. The land that brought us some of the coolest things – samurai, giant robots, anime, sushi, the list goes on – and also some of the weirdest gameshows and commercials I’ve ever seen, was actually entirely mysterious from a ‘what is it like there’ perspective. I’d heard and read it was very safe and extremely clean, that people were very polite and the trains ran perfectly on time – or else. There was supposed to be sushi and ramen shops around every corner, ramune was the drink of the land, and toys and tools of every imaginable color and purpose lay on every store shelf.

It turns out that many, really most, of the fantastical things I’d imagined were true. The country is actually full of very polite, very clean people.

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There are actually ramen and sushi shops all over, along with curry and udon and gyuudon and pastry shops and tempura and fluffy eggs and all sorts of other wonderful food. Tokyo is incredibly clean for a large city, but it is not utterly spotless. Outside of large cities though, everything is very, very clean. The trains do run incredibly on time, with apologies issued at the slightest mistake.

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There are indeed stores full of toys and hobby materials – everyone has a hobby. Everyone. And Japan is the place to find a full building dedicated to it.

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And there are things I never expected, like perfectly soft boiled and lightly salted eggs available in every 7-11.

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And the fact that tickets for the metro and for your food are ordered through these retro, 1980’s machines that work perfectly despite being built 30 years ago and having none of today’s modern technology. Interestingly the machines at restaurants seem to be a side effect of the Japanese cultural requirement for formality in many interactions coupled with the desire to make everything fast and efficient. You can’t change the culture but you can reduce the need for interaction.

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That there are stamps. Stamps! In every train station. And collecting them all is somewhere between a curiosity and an obsession. There were not many like me, but I was not the only person hunting for the stamp machine at various stations.

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Japan seems entirely capable of enabling any given passion, and despite the formal and sometimes rigid culture, oddity thrives.

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And giant robots are definitely a thing for everybody.

Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.

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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.

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A praying mantis explores my computer.

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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.

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A man gathers snails during low tide.

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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.

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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.

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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.

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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.

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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.

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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.

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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.

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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.