Beijing and Xian, China in 15 breezy, easy to digest photos

age discrimination

     Let me state for the record that I am against age discrimination in all forms. Thank you.

five jiao

     This might be my favorite banknote in the world that is currently in mass circulation, and my photo doesn’t bring out the purple in it. China used to have the most beautiful currency, a mix of socialist ideals and ethnic minorities. I just happen to have a link to my old website here for a photo of some of it.

terracotta warriors

     Xian’s terracotta warriors, a view from the rear.

uighur cake

     Three Uighur guys in Xian’s muslim quarter side by side selling cake…

uighur fried tofu

     …deep fried tofu…

uighur tofu

     …and grilled tofu.

pancake sign



     One little letter can make all the difference, mate.

boil dumpings


chinese communal toilet

     Chinese communal toilet for those boil dumpings.

chinese dentures

     In front of a dental practice that I chose not to patronize.

facebook hostel


forbidden haze

     Heavy pollution in front of the Forbidden City. It’s hard to see, but the flag of Trinidad is waving in the background as the president was on a state visit.

great wall hitch

     These guys gave me a ride hitchhiking to get to the Great Wall. They didn’t understand the concept, but they figured I needed help and stopped for me.

exquisite snacks

     Exquisite indeed!

     Did you know there are about ten cities in China at this point that allow visa-free entry if you stay less than 72 hours? It’s not so practical unless you are flying through China on different airlines or have a long stopover. If you are going through the effort to go to China, it’s likely you want to stay more than 72 hours.
     There are fast trains that go between Xian and Beijing as well as nonstop overnight trains, but it costs about the same to fly. That said, Xian’s new airport is way out of town. Contrary to that, I find it’s easier buying plane tickets than train tickets in China, and you can’t buy train tickets beyond 20 days in advance, I think it is.
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A Long March to the Great Pall of China

chinese lesson

     Hey, kidnappers need to improve their English, too. Let’s not be all high and mighty and discriminate.

huge load on highway 99

     You never see scenes like this in California any more, but driving to Los Angeles to get a Chinese visa, the roads become sinicized.

     Visiting an embassy or consulate to get a visa can be such a great introduction of what the country is like. (My most memorable embassy visit might be getting a Yugoslav/Serbian visa in Tirana, Albania, just after the war, but I can’t talk about it now because I can’t be wasting valuable blog space telling good travel stories. You understand.) The Chinese consulate in Los Angeles didn’t disappoint. Normally a consulate is a near-reverential place, subdued, quiet, all business. China’s visa section is a zoo. It’s noisy, crowded, people are yelling, fidgety kids are coughing in my face: it’s all China right there. If you want a whiff of China without paying $140 for the privilege of getting a visa, just hang out in the consulate all day.
     I used to live a few blocks away from the consulate in what is called Koreatown, but has since been subdivided into another more distinct area, Little Bangladesh. Add that to your melting pot, Mister! Los Angeles is not only totally underrated, it is one of the world’s great cities. No one believes me when I say it. I will argue this point another time, but again, space constraints. Would you rather have a well-thought out, passionate, articulate manifesto or photos like this:
Floor plan on the back!

     Knew it! This is from a magazine at the consulate: floor plans on the backs of women. I don’t know what to think of this—it’s more than a little demeaning, isn’t it?—but I’m now offering billboard space on the sides of my nose.

classic sign

     Classic Chinese sign at the consulate. Don’t waste time!

fgdf dfgfd fgsfdg
     I flew a motley combination of Virgin American and Hainan Airlines to go from San Francisco to China via Seattle. It was my first time flying both which is saying something. Virgin was something different. At SFO you pass by drab check-in counter after drab check-in counter before suddenly coming across the mellow feel of Virgin’s velvet ropes, its inviting deep reds, its subdued lighting, their relaxed agents greeting you like it’s a soiree—I felt hipster, yet looked dumpster.
     It’s all so inviting, a breath of fresh air, but their policy of disallowing frequent flyer miles if you don’t book your flight through their website—impossible on my route—is unforgivable. Death to Virgin!
     They do have the safety video of the century, which is any safety video that makes me pay attention. The link is here if you can’t see it below:


     When you see Travelex in an airport, you know the airport sucks. They are the equivalent of the rapacious Chequepoint moneychangers in big European cities with deceptive exchange rate boards (“$10,000 minimum, Sir”), poor rates AND commissions, the unholy trifecta of everything I hate about changing money. Can someone start a website/app where they can show what the airport exchange rate is before we get there? Another free business idea from The Dromomaniac!

     (Quick tangent: I thought Vienna was going to hold the championship belt for Worst New Airport for years until Bali snatched it quickly and decisively: no place to change money, no water fountain, flooded toilets, not enough seating, poorly placed signage and layout, and so many garbage boutiques that one has to walk from immigration through the duty free shops, which isn’t a path with the shops on both sides a la Bangkok, but actually weave your way through the displays which is pure cynicism. It’s like they closely studied Singapore’s Changi Airport and then consciously did the opposite. I will only concede that the remodeling isn’t 100% finished. End of tangent.)
Hainan Airlines

     Hainan Airlines is said to be a rare “5-star” airline, which is hokum. The only memorable things about Hainan were these biscuits and a flight attendant’s name badge that said, “CHILLY”. which might have simply been a warning of her temperment.

tiananmen haze

     I happened to be in Beijing during record bad pollution. When a storm finally came and the measurement went all the way down to merely “unhealthy” it was cause for joy. Look at how murky the air is at Tiananmen Square.

     I got a multiple entry, two-month Chinese visa good for one year for $140, a better deal than the $240, single entry, one month Chinese visa I got in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last year. It takes four business days to get. I made a fake onward ticket for the application.
     I paid $570 one way to go to China—I’m not happy about it either. Flying cheaply around the world has this one stumbling block: crossing the Pacific. However, someday before I die I will buy a decent video camera, stand in front of a big map, and make a video called, “How to Fly Around the World For Less Than $2000.” Even with $570 flights it’s doable, and I won’t make the dates far into the future to kill the popular myth that you need to book far in advance. Who wants to help me? I just need video, a map, and good looks.

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Ten photos from Hong Kong lacking any deep meaning

McDonald's tray

     ”Images are for reference only.” I think this was from a McDonald’s tray. Coincidentally, it’s also what my mail order bride said when I first met her.

tired panda

     Quick quiz question: according to the government-run China Daily newspaper, what is the only country in the world that has pandas that China doesn’t own? (China rents out their pandas to zoos around the world but retains ownership, except in the case of this one country.) Answer at the bottom.

asses glue

     I can’t explain everything I see. Sometimes I can’t explain anything I see.

very good seafood restaurant

     If you had a place called “VERY GOOD WIFI RESTAURANT” there would be a line out the door.

sai kung seafood

     Very fresh seafood in Sai Kung

cough manners

     Cough manners indeed. There are anti-spitting signs, too, which point out a big difference between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. In Hong Kong people get fined for spitting. In China they are feted.


     Filling that neglected niche for underqualified pharmacists.

hong kong police
do not scream
bonsai orange tree

     Miniature orange tree

     When searching for cheap flights on the likes of Momondo and Kayak, the problem is the unfamiliar website they send you—aside from the fact that they don’t always have English versions of their websites—is that they can try and charge you an extra 15%(!!) of the ticket cost just to use your credit card.
     Another trick is when you buy a ticket in euros, say, and then at the end they “helpfully” ask if you want the amount charged in dollars to your credit card. It is always much more than if you let the credit card make the conversion itself.
     Anything that makes you opt out rather than opt in is also scumbag sneaky, meaning that the website will automatically add something like insurance or a reserved seat fee to your flight unless you click a box wanting out, and sometimes it isn’t as easy as clicking a box to get out—yes, I’m talking to you, AirAsia.
     The answer to the panda quiz? Mexico!

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Eat rendang, pray for Russians, love the wifi in Bali

wifi losmen signs

     Free wifi is God. We can all agree on this by now, right?

wifi stone sign

     You can engrave it in stone…

wifi wood sign

     …or carve it in wood.

     I was in transit in New Delhi airport. My Air India flight to get there was delayed four hours and then my next flight was delayed four hours. I asked the agent if there was an explanation and he simply replied with a cheery, “We’re always late!” (It reminded me of the story of the Indian stationmaster at a suburban station where the trains always ran late and the one day he ensured that the train left on time, everyone missed their train and the angry mob beat him up.) For both delays I was given free food to mollify me, to my shame. If at the Boston Tea Party the British had said, “Yeah, look, we’re really sorry for all the taxation without representation, but for your inconvenience how about a voucher for some free gruel before we send you on your way?” I would have been cool with it.
     Anyway, in the airport I met a tall, blonde British girl named Stephanie. The skin on her face was so amazingly flawless and blemish-free that it looked cartoonish. I usually don’t pay any attention to skin, but I found myself staring hard at her. I might have had a thin, bubbling film of wonder on my lips.
     I asked. She said she puts honey on her face and then bathes using a combination of honey, olive oil and lemon juice on her body.
     When I stopped staring at her face I noticed she had equally amazing, lustrous hair. I asked about that, too, and her secret was to rub in mustard oil.
     If I had seen Stephanie in California, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. Too awkward. She’d have reflexively been reaching for her pepper spray and I’d have to evaluate if this was somehow violating the terms of my parole. Too messy. But traveling? I talk to everybody for any reason.
     Now I am in another place where I notice nice skin: Bali. Must be the humidity. It’s my fourth or fifth time in Bali, maybe my sixth time in Indonesia. It’s a vastly underrated place, easily in my Top 10 of favorites.
batur hitchhike

     This girl picked me up hitchhiking. Balinese women often dress like they are headed to a ceremony probably because they are headed to a ceremony. In Bali the festivals and ceremonies are endless, which is part of its charm. I always see people making little offerings or weaving something from plants and wonder how people earn money or when they work.

     I’ve been hitchhiking all over, from Ubud up to Lake Batur and back, and down through the southern peninsula. It’s been easy. It’s easy everywhere in Indonesia I have ever tried. It’s so easy that last time here I had an all-time experience: a couple stopped to pick me up who were driving home from the hospital with their newborn baby. Where else in the world would that happen? Did you know that in Bali a newborn baby doesn’t touch the ground for its first three months? (Students, you can drop out of school right now because is free education.)

     Funny story that would be funnier if I knew how to tell a story:
     I made a beeline to my favorite restaurant in Ubud, Puteri Minang, on the main road just near the post office. I sat next to a French girl at the table closest to the cash register and I overheard the owner take someone’s bill and say, “23,000…euros (instead of rupiah)!” I said to the girl, “That guy has been making the same joke for years.”
     She said, “I know,” and pointed to a paper taped to the wall, a printout that looked like a restaurant review. I leaned closer to look at it and said, “Hey! I wrote that!” The owner had printed part of my blog last time I was here.
puteri minang sign

puteri minang rendang

     Beef rendang. This tastes the opposite of what it looks like. I was taking photos of food when another traveler said derisively, “Oh, are you one of those (people)?”

     Ubud, now famous from the book and movie, “Eat Pray Love”, has become a mecca for older female travelers. I’ve never seen women outnumber men to this extent anywhere. A manifestation is that now central Ubud is almost completely saturated with fifi restaurants. It’s hard to find a place where normal people eat. I love succulent tempeh satay in a heavenly rich peanut sauce infused with potent wifi as much as anyone, but can I have a rough edge once in a while, a simple warung (food stall)?
This sign says it ALL about Ubud.

     This says it ALL about Ubud.

     I hitchhiked to the far southwest corner of Bali to the temple on the cliffs of Uluwatu, and when I came back, two local Aussies picked me up. The driver said that the last hitchhiker he took was a stunning Russian girl. “In fact,” he said, “I’m going to leave you in the same place I left her.”
     I said, “Good, I hope she’s still there!” but he shook his head and said, “No, she was really messed up.” She had just come out of a high-end rehab center specially for Russian heroin addicts and wasn’t quite right. (I forgot to ask about her skin.) He went on to say that the Russians now have a “presence” in Bali. It’s funny that we all know what that means.
     For the first time I have noticed Russian travelers. Many have yet to adjust to the heat judging from their lack of clothes, which is downright startling. Even more spent are the big Chinese tour groups—also a new entrant to Bali—who stagger around dazed in the midday heat.
nyepi project

     A Nyepi project. Some people say it is a work in progress. I say it is already a masterpiece.

     At the end of the month is Nyepi, the day before Balinese New Year. Absolutely everything shuts down, there is no public transport of any kind, no one goes outside, and tourists aren’t supposed to leave their hotels. It is taken so seriously that they even close the airport for the entire day. Is that not the ultimate sign of importance and devotion? What other place, especially one so dedicated to tourism, would do that? You’re not supposed to watch TV or cook during the day or do anything but sit around with your family. I asked one guy what he would do and he said, “Gamble!”
female construction workers

     We all love Bali, no one has anything bad to say about it even as we bemoan the traffic and congestion, and yet the casual attitude towards littering and women doing the heavy work is disheartening. I see this all over Asia, but in my idealized Bali, it offends. (though obviously not enough for me to actually do anything about it.) A Balinese woman I know shrugged when I asked about it. She said if a woman gets married, she must move out to the husband’s house and the son will inherit the family house. Carrying big loads on your head is just one of a series of injustices.

toilet batur
     Every time I am in Ubud I must mention the story of how I found three little kids 20 years later. When I tell this story to Balinese no one thinks it is interesting, probably because the family home is eternal. Everyone knows everyone, no one moves permanently, so where else were they going to be?
batur view

     View from the crater at Mount Batur, 6:15am. You can’t climb Mount Batur without a guide even though it is 10,000% unnecessary. Down by Lake Batur there are two official offices where you can get guides and they have prices posted, but they’ll try to rip you off anyway and claim that is it a per person price and not a group price. Our worthless guide drove us as far up the mountain as he possibly could in his motorbike (we didn’t realize we long passed the normal starting point) and it took no more than 45 minutes to go up to the crater. I think it’s absurd to hike in the dark with flashlights for the sunrise, but I am in the minority about this.

homestay melon

     I stayed in the top room of this home where the family rents out their extra rooms. Somehow among the hundreds of cheap places to stay in Ubud—and it’s not even in Ubud— managed to be near the top of Google. (The website has a photo of this same field growing rice. Now, since there is less water, honeydew melons. The volcanic soil is incredibly fertile in Bali.)
     This feels remote but it’s just 20 minutes east of Ubud. The village is nothing to get excited about—which is exactly why it is exciting. It’s a simple Balinese village. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming, the family makes some money, good feelings all around. The room is basic, but a deal at 80,000 rupiah (US$7) for a night including breakfast. It’s perfect for a relaxing spell away from everything. Your parole office will never find you.

astiti room

     This fantastic room is the deal of the trip so far. It took me forever to bargain, but it was only 100,000 rupiah—US$8.80! Ubud accommodation can be great value for money.

     South of the airport on the peninsula I stayed in a newish “boutique” hostel called Jolie Hostel. Maybe when it opened it felt boutique, but having that many people use the same two showers means the drains get backed up and the whole place looks run down pretty quickly. There was an Austrian guy who had been staying in a dorm bed (109,000 rupiah, about $10) for six weeks. I asked him why he would do that to himself when he could have his own place elsewhere and he said it was because of the beaches. I think he said beaches.
     When I asked more specifically where he was from, he said it was a little place near Vienna. He said it in the same resigned, conversation-ending tone as one would say, “Northwest Kansas” or “Southern Turkmenistan.” Who knows little places near Vienna? When I dragged it out of him that he came from St. Polten, I said, “I’ve slept at the St. Polten highway rest stop twice.” I do this all the time. (I am that annoying.) You can’t be from Central Europe and assume that I haven’t been to your town. You just can’t.
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My time with Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani

     Every once in a while I re-post this because my traffic spikes with Iranians who can’t get enough of Golshifteh Farahani. I can’t get enough of her name. How many cool, unisex-sounding names are out there these days? Not many. Is it too late to reinvent myself as Golshifteh Foster?

     I was at a film festival in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2005 watching an Iranian movie called “Boutique“. The only Iranian movie I had seen before was “The Circle“, which blew me away, so I eagerly devoured this in a small theatre with maybe 20 or 30 other people. It didn’t disappoint. Iran has long been my only unvisited country I really want to see, but the visa situation isn’t the best and I don’t want to deal with having a “minder” from the government with me 24/7. My fascination, unfortunately, is only from afar.
     After the credits had rolled I was getting up from my seat when suddenly a girl burst on to the stage. It was the star of the film, Golshifteh Farahani, there to do a quick question and answer session with what was left of the audience. She was all nervous, excitable energy, a bubbly, energetic kid in black sneakers swaying back and forth.
     Afterward, when I went to say hello, she asked where I was from and what I was doing in Georgia and marveled at the unlikelihood of meeting an American this way. She was with her husband and impulsively she grabbed my camera and said we needed to take some selfies (or what did we call them last decade?) She gave me their email addresses and phone numbers and invited me to contact them if I made it to Iran.
     I didn’t realize it then, but the experience was almost akin to meeting Michael Jordan on a basketball court as a 9th grader. Golshifteh Farahani’s resume grew, steadily garnering international acclaim, then she became exposed to American audiences in the film, “Body of Lies” with Leonardo DiCaprio. (I’ve also seen Mr. DiCaprio in person at the Formosa Cafe in Los Angeles, pre-Titanic.) Then she really became exposed, posing topless for a French magazine, which made her an enfant terrible to the Iranian government and hastened her into exile in Paris where she still is today.
     So Iranians, here you go. I don’t know who will get into Iran first now, Golshifteh or me, but let’s have a reunion.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Deep, Deep Thoughts about the 2014 World Cup Draw

     I once had a job—no, really, it’s true, but wait, I’m not finished—in Silicon Valley where I gave notice on a Tuesday that I would be quitting in two weeks. Of course my boss was devastated and showed early signs of being suicidal, but as this bombshell news sank in, he asked why I wanted my last day to be on a Tuesday.
     Because the World Cup started on a Wednesday.
     I’m a huge soccer fan, even though the only World Cup I have ever attended was in USA in 1994. I made enough money selling extra tickets for that World Cup (scalping is such a harsh word) that I could travel for three months. (I had 10+ tickets to USA/Brazil on the 4th of July—cha-ching!—but I also had 10+ tickets for Sweden/Romania, where I lost money and but got smart about it and hustled people in far-away parking lots to buy my $55 tickets for $40. If they had waited until they got closer to the stadium they would have seen that tickets were going for $10.)

1984 olympics ticket

     The 1984 Summer Olympics final in Los Angeles between France and Brazil.

     Yesterday was the 2014 World Cup draw to see who plays whom and where. The where is the under-reported story. Everyone thinks “Brazil!” and assumes that every stadium will be next to the beach, but one venue, Manaus, is deep in the interior on the Amazon, and another, Cuiaba, is way out in the swamps by Bolivia.
     I visited Brazil in 2008 for three months; it won me over instantly even though I found it a profoundly lonely place, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t the prettiest of my webpages, but hopefully it shows how fantastic Brazil is. Saw four matches in three stadiums in Rio, too.
     Hey, I forgot the background music for this post, some obscure early-70s psychedelia:

Maracana stadium in between renovations. Very boring, nothing like its glory days.

     Rio’s Maracana stadium in between renovations. Very sterile, nothing like its glory days.

Five deep, deep thoughts about the World Cup draw:
     (1) Idea of the Month: Since USA plays a first round match against Ghana, USA should invite a strong African team such as Zambia to play in Manila, Philippines. It would be a win-win: practice against good competition in tropical heat and have it act as a fundraiser for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. USA will be playing in some serious heat in Brazil; our warm-up matches should be in similar conditions. Maybe we can play Finland if they can find a sauna big enough there.
     (2) It’s absurd that Switzerland is the top seed in their group. Not even the most ardent Swiss supporter on his fifth schnapps would agree with that. Where is FIFA, soccer’s governing body, based? Switzerland. Why? Few other livable countries could handle FIFA’s shenanigans and still grant it tax-free status. I don’t care that Switzerland has a high (FIFA!) world ranking; that stuff is bogus.
     (3) Easiest games to get discounted tickets: Nigeria/Bosnia in Cuiaba, Cameroon/Croatia in Manaus and Honduras-Switzerland (only eight million people in each country) also in Manaus. Most tickets have already been sold which means no one knew who would play where until yesterday. There will be a LOT of buying and selling in the coming months.
     If you are looking to attend, the cheapest way to get to Brazil is to fly to Bogota, Colombia, fly to Leticia, Colombia down on the Amazon, walk across to Tabatinga, Brazil, then take the boat to Manaus which has cheap flights to Rio and Sao Paulo. If you had to pick one base, consider somewhere near Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais. Cariocas and Paulistas would roll their eyes at this, but it’s an underrated state with solid people, colonial towns, and hitchhiking isn’t a death wish.
     (4) Weirdest big-name match: England vs. Italy in Manaus, the Rumble in the Jungle! This is the only match in the entire tournament that starts at 10pm local time (which means 3am in London and 4am in Rome). All other matches start at 7pm at the latest. Manaus is remote (no road connects it to the rest of Brazil) and hot and steamy to an extreme unfathomable to Englishmen. Imagine all those fair-skinned British fans/hooligans getting blotto and then dying of heatstroke. I’m buying stock in Brazilian hospitals.
     (5) Did you see the woman on stage who assisted with the World Cup draw? Let’s just say that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar won’t have the same joie de vivre. (By the way, what if Israel qualifies for that World Cup? Would they be allowed in? Israel’s national team is getting better and better. Imagine if they had to play Iran in a second round match. It would be the heaviest, most watched World Cup game ever.)
Syria soccer

     A soccer match in Latakia, Syria, early 2011, a couple of months before it all went to hell.

chicken ballerina

     This photo from Japan (I know, it’s redundant to say; of course it’s from Japan) is from Peter Birinszki and is a statue of a ballerina made from small chickens. Japan is in the most wide-open group with Ivory Coast, Colombia, and Greece, but really, it’s just an excuse to show this photo.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

The all-Canada edition of the mailbag

     Greetings from California! This is a short mailbag since I believe everyone wishes I wrote less. First, thank you to Graydon (a Canadian!) for this guess-that-toilet game, The Crapper Mapper, and thank you to Lisa (from Canada’s neighbor!) for this guess-that-language game, The Great Language Game. Let’s get to it:
From Phill in location unknown but it could be Canada:
     You are who I one day very soon hope to be.

     I don’t know, man, be careful what you wish for—but thanks.

frozen tevas

     The dark side of traveling: freezing (for 18 hours minimum) is the only way to get the smell out of Teva sandals.

From Name Hidden in India:
     Dear Mr. Kent,
     At the outset I owe you an apology for addressing this mail and I have fervent hope that you will not mistake me for this liberty. I have gone through your web site, really it is interesting with full of information. So I think you are the proper person to take some advice to travel without a visa and other procedures.
     I introduce myself as ______ from India. I am an educated male, of ___ years. I am interested to relocate myself in USA. I have no friend or any family member in USA who can guide me in USA. Moreover it is almost impossible to get a official visitor/ Tourist visa of USA from India especially after 9/11. The tour agent of India is asking a very big amount to manage a USA visa and for preparing bank balance/ property documents needed for visa procedure. Many tour agents in India are fraud and full of scam.
     Looking to all legal hurdles of immigration rules and regulations, I am thinking to cross the border of USA from Canada without any visa. The Mexico border towards USA is like to travel in a death train; there is no safety of life. So the Canadian border is much safer to cross. I request you please give me proper advice and guidance to cross Canada border to enter USA without visa, I have Indian legal passport, but only passport is not sufficient to enter USA for an Indian. Many documents are needed to satisfy immigration officer at border point, which are practically not possible. Please guide me how can I cross the Canadian Border to enter USA by avoiding eagle eyes of immigration officer. I assure you all confidentiality and safe correspondences of your reply. I can manage a tourist visa for Canada from India to reach at Border point to cross over to USA.
     I am writing this mail with a frank and open mind, hope you will not feel bad and uneasy to handle an illegal matter. Thank you.
     I will appreciate if I get a good and positive suggestion from a person like you who is a master in tour and travel.

     Hi, that is a good question, I really don’t know how to do such a thing, and there are risks if you get caught. You will also spend quite a bit of money trying! I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to advise.
His response to my weak answer:
     Dear Mr. Ken
     Thank you for reply. Really it makes me glad that you have replied my bad question. I appreciate you for your kind gesture. I know there are many risks and also money is a big issue, but I have noticed many Indian as well as Mexican has successfully crossed the border in past. As the USA VISA process is a very rough and tuff matter for an Indian like me, I have no option but to think to take a bad route to cross the border. Moreover I have nobody to help and guide. Life is a game; I have to play the game for a good future by doing hard work with honesty and sincerely.
     Don’t worry, I am not a bad person or a terrorist, I am an educated person, working as a Manager in a company in India. I have earnest desire to arrive in USA, for a good future and a secure life but there are many immigration rules and regulation hurdles that compel me to take a bad idea to cross the border. I am planning to come to Canada, and cross the border to enter USA, and I am looking if anybody can give me some idea for easy cross to USA without any legal issue. If I arrested by immigration officer, than my life game will be ended for ever, as I have no sufficient money to save myself of legal litigation.
     I just write you with open and frank mind, as I find you as a gentle, kind person with lot of travel experiences. Anyway if you have any thing or information that you think useful to me, you can write to me. I assure you all safety and confidentiality of correspondences. If any of your friend or anybody of your group circle can guide me to cross the border in to USA, can write me. Total safety and confidentiality assured. I need at least first hand information before I reach to an unknown border.
     Once again thank you for your reply. Write to me anytime without any hesitation. You are not going to loose anything, but definitely you will get a gentle response.

paris airport


From Name Hidden in location unknown:
     I just stepped on your blog and I gotta tell I like what you’ve been doing!
Next vacation me and my best friend are gonna leave for a trip around States – no money, no car – just a backpack on. Hitchiking, walking, by any means possible :)
     I have a couple questions for you, as you seem to have a lot of experience about it!
     1. For sure that’s two of us guys going (we’re 19) but there’s a third guy who’d love to go. But a lot of people tell me that hitching in 3 is too big of a group for somebody to pick us up. I also predict that 3 of us would be more fun, safer etc. I just don’t want to ruin the whole trip, not getting any rides… What would you do if you were me?
     2. I heard that in the places that we’re gonna be visiting (like Alaska, Rockies, wild Canada) there’s a lot of wild animals. My friend suggested taking a shotgun for self-defense against those bears etc. Is it advisable? Can we even legally carry around such a shotgun in the backpack? I thought that a little handgun would be more sensible to take. But then I’m not sure can we even hitchhike possessing a weapon? I don’t really want to, because it’s heavy and you can’t carry in the cities mostly
     3. What if a cop stops us and wants to shake us down for hitching? How would you react? I know there’s two (?) states where it’s illegal but overall what should we do? Does having a handgun (legally) in this situation may change anything?

     Hi, I don’t think a cop will shake you down in the north because you are a young foreigner, but they may strongly warn you about hitching or safety or something like that.
     Three people hitching is a bad idea–even two guys will be extremely difficult–but you never know until you try, so don’t necessarily listen to me. I had a hard time hitchhiking in British Columbia last year, but this guy is doing it now. rideshare can be a good alternative.
     I think a gun is a very bad idea and you are one small mistake from spending the rest of your life in an American jail, which isn’t very fun. I know USA sounds like a gun-crazed nation—and it is—but we do have strict laws and Canada’s must be even stricter. I doubt you would ever need a gun against wild animals because I doubt you would ever be in such a survivalist situation (you aren’t going to go Alexander Supertramp on the world, are you?)
     If you will write about what you do in a blog, let me know.
His response to my weak answer:
     Thanks for such a quick response!
     I wouldn’t even consider carrying a firearm illegaly, I know that’s a legal suicide! So what if a have an firearms owner’s ID card and know the specific state laws? Does that change anything or would you still advise not doing that? You know, a white guy, in the bushes – for me that wouldn’t sound like a criminal or a bank robber, but I’m concerned about hitchhiking with a gun itself. Because I don’t want a cop to say “you have a gun, you can’t hitchhike” or something like that.
     We’ll probably spend a lot of time in the real wilderness, as northern Canada has a low population density and not a lot of cities there, so just want to be prepared for every kind of situation that we might face. We’ll be probably fishing, I also wanna do some hunting – just taking a step back from everyday life. We don’t plan to risk our lives strenuously but just wanna be really safe and prepared. So, aside from hitchhiking, that’ll be a hiking/taking a step off from a beaten path journey.
     And, as to your question about Alexander Supertramp – I’m not gonna burn my documents, passports, throw out belongings, and try to spend the rest of my life in the bushes :) I want to come back with a good sense of real-life knowledge and experience. It’s all about self-actualization for me. I already got over the “adventure” part in my head (because we have no chance to predict what’s gonna happen, although I’m pretty sure it’ll be fun)
     I’m concentrating more on the self actualization and the inner experience of such a trip. Meeting people, somehow different they are, retrieving the hope in them. When have just your backpack on and nothing else to rely on you start figuring out various ways to get yourself ahead. Us filming is just an addition to every other aspect, if it’ll be no good for publishing, we can still have it for our grandkids at least :)

     Thank you to everyone who wrote! I like getting messages from anyone about anything, and if I use your email in a mailbag I will either redact your name and personal info or I will ask you first for permission before I give a gentle response, so don’t worry.
tofu cat

     Panko-fried tofu with my parents’ cat. How can I get the egg to stick better to the tofu so more crumbs adhere? It’s one of life’s great mysteries.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

A mild defense of Filipino food

jolly love

     When I have banana catsup, it has to be Jolly Love brand banana catsup.

     I sense that any Filipinos about to read this are curling their fingers into fists right now, ready to lash out at another denigration of their beloved food. Filipino food is much-maligned. I myself might have been doing the maligning about Filipino cuisine. I might have even said out loud that “Filipino cuisine” is a contradiction in terms. I might have also said that it’s the worst food in SE Asia.
     I’ve been too harsh. Without too much hunting around, you can find non-greasy adobo, tasty seafood, and world-class fruit. It helps that I’m not a picky eater, so if every time there are just a couple of the same good things to choose from, it’s OK. It bears mentioning that not once in 100+ meals did I ever get sick, and I ate at some very dicey places.
filipino breakfast


     My beef with Filipino restaurants is that they cook all the food in the morning and so breakfast is warm, lunch is lukewarm, and dinner cold. (Noodles anywhere at any temperature always taste like gargling salt water.) I like humble Filipino restaurants anyway; they have an ambiance I miss. People are sweet, and we can all sit together with our cold food and watch cockfights on TV.
     There’s always fast food—there’s ALWAYS fast food—but I never found it appetizing. (It’s funny that fast food places, even donut shops, commonly have armed guards.) USA is justifiably famous for being the king of junk food, but the Philippines has to be in the discussion. When I asked Filipinos what food they don’t like, some said, “Vegetables!” They’re also eating crazy things like liver cooked in blood, chicken feet (commonly called adidas—get it? Clever!) and intestines or congealed blood chunks on skewers cooked over a fire.
     When I was by myself, only once in one month of traveling around did I pay more than 100 pesos (43 pesos = $1) for a meal. Portions are tiny, but that’s a good thing in the broader scope of things. The exception to all my simple meals was in Davao where I had a friend who made sure I ate very well and every friend of hers was a master chef. I pounced on every one of them: “What kind of vinegar do you use in your adobo? What about pandan leaves in your rice? Galangal: friend or foe?” Any glamorous food below is from the Davao area.
kinilaw recipe

     A recipe for kinilaw, similar to ceviche, involving Sprite/7up. Don’t squeeze!

cdo street food

     Cagayan de Oro street food. Nice to have some semi-fresh food in the evenings, yet it still wasn’t warm.

durian cob

     Normally I’m not a durian fan. It’s too rich, like eating a flavored cube of butter, but I didn’t know how many durian varieties there are. My hosts insisted that D101 is the best, but we had Cob, and it was very smooth.


     Pakfry, the back of the tuna.

yuyu dessert

     I can lose the extra 20kg around my waist another time.


     Rambutans, 30 pesos (US 70 cents) a kilo.



adobo dog

     The Philippines has followed me home!

black sand feet

     Last photo.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Malate + Makati = Manila?

     I want to be that one traveler who likes Manila. I can have a great time in many cities travelers despise: Jakarta, Medan, Kolkata, Frankfurt, Lima, etc., but Manila is a test. I had forgotten how overwhelming the poverty is. There are slums and then there are Manila slums. Coming on the highway from Cavite in the south towards Manila you wonder when if it ever ends. Then walking around Malate I couldn’t believe how many women and children slept on the streets. Malate is a super-scuzzy red light area and while nearly every city has it’s seedy, impoverished side, the sheer numbers here surprised me. All the cheap accommodation is in Malate, so it was my base.

five sentimo coin

     A five sentimo coin, worth about a tenth of a US cent. I was told that these are scarce because they are used for washers. A normal washer in a hardware store costs 25 sentimos, and this…

     I didn’t know where to stay. No Couchsurfing host wanted me. After my tears dried I got out my list. Someone recommended Lovely Moon Pension. I had Googled it and one of the first results was “Korean found dead at room 318 of the Lovely Moon Pension.” Sounds lovely indeed. I went to check it out anyway. Why not? That happened last year. Do they just throw the cadavers on top of all the others in room 318 now?
     The other hotel recommended to me, Casa de Antonio, was also predictably sad. Across the street was a sign advertising “Live goats for sale”. This is in the middle of the city, so why would…I really don’t need to know.
     I ended up at a place I knew, a heavily catholic hostel called Pension Natividad. 350 pesos ($8) for a dorm. The last thing I want is to be in a 10-bed dorm room for the last two days of my 263-day trip, but my own room in Chez Dead Korean would have been worse. When I arrived, an old Australian man was bitching to the staff that he should be able to bring his young, scantily-clad, uncomfortably-skinny companion to his room. I sat down to text a friend, and when he stormed off, the girl came over to me and said, unsmiling, “Give me your number.”
     Without exaggeration, in the Philippines I get asked an average of five times a day from both men and women if I have a “companion”. When I say no, I get the same look of incomprehension as when they ask my religion. Nearly every Filipino I meet is in disbelief that I’m not squiring around a local girl both for romantic reasons and the notion that doing anything alone is odd. I’m surprised myself, as I seem to be the only male traveler here who isn’t with a girl.
     Once I met a group of Filipino girls, one of whom, after ascertaining I wasn’t the marrying type, said, “Kent, find me a husband in America. 50-plus.”
     She was in her 20s. I asked, “Why do you want a husband in his 50s?”
     ”So he will take care of me and my family.”
     ”Then why not 80-plus?”
     ”Yes, better. 80-plus, please.”
red flower
     In line at a supermarket nearby a German man asked me if I had heard about the Aussie traveler who was stabbed. I hadn’t. The German said he was attacked for his laptop. I couldn’t follow the story but I didn’t want to know more because he kept loudly swearing about Filipinos. He leaned over the guy between us and then cut in front of him to continue his embarrassing diatribe next to me. I was half turned away as he droned on about living here for 34 years but always being regarded as an outsider. Thanks for that nugget of info, Einstein. With an attitude like that, I could have saved you 34 years of trouble had you consulted with me earlier.
washer ad


     Malate is where many overseas employment agencies have their offices. Is there a country that sends more of their citizens abroad to find work than the Philippines? Hard-working Filipinos are in very high demand, too, as seamen, entertainers (which can mean all kinds of things), maids, nurses, as well as many other industries.
     It seems ironic that in a country and religion where family is everything, they are always broken up by the need to go abroad to make money. It’s sad that families are torn apart by this. One of the ping pong kid’s fathers told me his wife has been working in Macau for six years and has yet to visit once; he’s been forced to raise their two teenage daughters himself.
     There are many stories of exploitation in the Middle East of the domestic helpers. I hope all Filipinas by now know what they are getting themselves into, but if there are no jobs, and you have three kids, then what are your choices?
     I may be overstating the situation. I don’t have a sense—wait, I’m not finished with the sentence yet—of how desperate the poverty is in the countryside. I do know that remittances are a vital part of the economy that lets the government continue being corrupt and inefficient because another country will provide jobs.
     Related to this, is the Philippines well-served in having a population of 98 million, the 12th largest in the world? It has the same area as Arizona, which is like putting 30% of the population of USA into Arizona. There seems to be no slowing of growth in sight when abortion is illegal, family planning isn’t common, and the Catholic Church wields so much influence.
cook ad

     There are tons of jobs in the Philippines. I see help wanted ads all the time. They just pay poorly–but is this really a bad salary considering what’s covered? (43 pesos = $1)

manila jeepney

     I only love jeepneys aesthetically and with the engines off.

     I was going to go on a long screed about jeepneys that no one wants to hear. Jeepneys are colorful, noisy, converted old American jeeps used for public transportation all over the country. People get on them and then cover their faces from all the exhaust fumes. They are great if you don’t have baggage, aren’t taller than 5 feet, don’t mind getting trampled on, and don’t mind not being able to look outside. On the other hand, it is fun to listen to how some people get the driver’s attention to stop: a loud kissing sound I can’t replicate.
     The issue with jeepneys is that they are working for themselves, not for you; the drivers are more interested in hustling rides—starting and stopping constantly, driving aggressively, honking their horns—than taking you to your destination. Since jeepneys run on fixed routes, why not have a bus system instead? SO, instead of boring you with all that, my question is simple: why do so many drivers sit to the right of the steering wheel?
right side driver

     It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries. At least this guy is faced straight ahead. Many of the drivers kind of curl their bodies so they are faced to the left. By the way, one driver in Davao told me that he rents his vehicle for 400 pesos ($9) a day, spends 800 pesos ($18) a day on gas, and his working hours were 7am-9pm. Fares were 8 pesos (18 US cents).

teeth closeup

     Found some time for a little medical tourism in Makati at Tripon Dental. Got a consultation about the broken tooth for 800 pesos (43 pesos = $1) and then a teeth cleaning for 900 pesos. If I got a porcelain-fused metal crown, it would be 5000 pesos, and a ceramic crown is 20,000 pesos.

     Manila’s Makati district, while adjacent, is the flipside of Malate. I didn’t take any photos because it wasn’t exotic to me. I could have been in California. At the Greenbelt shopping center the beautiful people dined al fresco in fifi restaurants, a band played California songs, and familiar brand names were all around me. I wanted to say something clever that I see more Asian faces in San Francisco than in Makati, but it’s not quite true—yet.
     In Makati I met with three Couchsurfers, but I couldn’t manage to get them together so I hung out for five hours chatting with them individually.

     When I first came through town I stayed in the suburb of Cavite with a CouchSurfing host, Jino, on the far left. Pookie, in the middle, told me how to fix the zippers on my backpack. Pookie knows.

manila airport

     Manila airport: so close to town, so far away because of traffic.

manila view

     Unusual view near Manila.

Practical Information
     Pension Natividad is a total oasis in Malate. It’s also the only Catholic-run pension I’ve been in that didn’t have paper-thin mattresses.
     At departure in almost every airport you have to pay a “terminal fee” that isn’t part of your ticket and goes into an unknown politician’s pockets. The endless corruption stories have made me cynical about such fees.
     My next and last Philippines blog post will be about the food here. It won’t be so long, don’t worry.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Cagayan de Oro, best (ping pong) city in the Philippines

     If I had started my Philippines trip in Cagayan de Oro, I wouldn’t have left. I’d have spent my whole month there playing ping pong. Even without ping pong—do I have to call it table tennis?—I still might have felt that way. Cagayan de Oro, a medium-sized place on the northern shore of Mindanao island, is my favorite city in the Philippines.

There you go

     There you go. The Dromomaniac is all about saving YOU money! 340 pesos is about US$7.75.

     Locals would ask me if I had done their famous whitewater rafting, went on Asia’s longest zipline or visited the national park, and I would sheepishly admit that I had been hanging out under an overpass at a ping pong club all day. This is the difference between me and a real traveler and why I travel too much. I’m not traveling the right way—yes, there is a right way—but it’s a discussion for another time. Nonetheless, if travel is to experience things you can’t see or do at home, then playing ping pong fits in perfectly, because when do I ever have the chance to play high-level ping pong?
     In most other countries, it would be a little awkward: who is this guy taking pictures and video of kids playing ping pong? At a minimum I’d be regarded with suspicion, but the inherent Pinoy friendliness to outsiders opens doors. I told everyone the truth, that I was blown away by their skill level at such a young age and I hoped to play a little with them. I found myself hitting with a tiny kid of unlimited energy whose chest came to the level of the table. I asked the coach, “Is that your daughter?”
     ”That’s my son,” he said.
     He was eight years old. I could tell it was the son of a coach from the relentless way he played. No sissy rallying. When you see an opening, you go for the smash, and time after time the ball whizzed by me. It was fun; I couldn’t help but laugh every time I retrieved the ball.
omar and sons

     This is Omar, one of the ping pong coaches at the club and two of his sons. I had to smile when Omar needed ten full seconds to say about the eight-year-old, “His mother is from…uh…she’s from…Canada!”

     The older of Omar’s sons in the photo, a twelve year old, was standing with a friend who was wearing a necklace with a cross hanging from it. I knew Omar’s kid was Muslim and I was going to have a kumbayah moment with them about kids of different religions co-existing peacefully. I pointed to the boy’s necklace and said, “You are Christian?”
     ”Catholic!” he corrected me.
     ”Whatever.” To Omar’s son, I started, “And you are Muslim…”
     He interrupted me: “I’m Abu Sayyaf!” (a Muslim terrorist group) and they both broke out into laughter.
     I’m still going to call the encounter an inspiring triumph of religious tolerance.

     I took tons of video, but could never get good action. I apologize. This clip, if you can’t see it below, isn’t the best representation of their skills, but it was fun to watch the beginning against his big brother and the way the other kids react.

     This video is just five seconds of one nine-year-old prodigy. I love the way she flips the paddle after a winning shot:

     It was cool to watch them practice hitting forehand to forehand at Forrest Gump-ian speed. The kids are so polished and poised that I temporarily forget they are so young, but then a 10-year-old girl will point to the kid sitting next to me and say, “That boy, he’s ugly, right?” Or, Omar’s eight-year-old will suddenly sulk and go under the table to cry.
     I sat with the mother of one of the kids and a teenage girl. In our conversation the girl made a joke that she wanted to come back to America with me. The mother turned to her and teased, “Oh, do you like him?” She giggled. The mother asked her, “How old are you?” The girl said 19. The mother then turned to me and asked, “How old are you?” I said I was in my forties. The mother then shrugged her shoulders and smiled as if to say, “So what’s the problem?!”

ping pong balloon gang

     I made animal balloons for some of the gang. As kids do, they immediately began disassembling them.

bank beauty pageant

     A bank teller beauty pageant, only in the Philippines.

     I went to a CouchSurfing get-together and met an impressive girl who told me something to chew on. She said that even though she is a fellow backpacker, it is impossible for her to go up to foreign travelers here to say hello. As a Filipina, the moment is too loaded with implied intent.
     She told me a funny story: a German guy offered her 500,000 pesos (about $11,500) to be his guide and lover for two weeks in the Philippines. She countered with, “How much just to be your guide?” I told her to give him my email address. Hey, these are recessionary times! $11,500 buys a LOT of grilled bananas on the street. As we say in America, You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
     I don’t know how the German met her, but I was joking that her CouchSurfing profile’s only photo might give some men the wrong impression.
cdo coconut man

     My neighborhood coconut man. 20 pesos (45 US cents). Note the large speakers in the background, essential for serious karaoke.

Practical Information
     Cagayan de Oro’s new airport in Laguindingan is way, way west of town. It’s also the smallest new airport I’ve ever seen with only two gates. From town you can take a rarely-running shuttle for 200 pesos (43 pesos = $1) or just take any regular bus from the Bulua bus terminal for 37 pesos, get off at the junction and hitchhike the last 4km, as I did with no problem.
     I stayed in Cagayan Park View Hotel (tel 088-857-1197.) A fan room with outside bathroom and cable TV was 350 pesos ($8) a night. It’s on Plaza Divisoria near Capistrano across the street from the ping pong club. (It’s very good money for value in the Philippines if you go where the tourists aren’t.) Having an outside bathroom doesn’t sound ideal to a lot of people, but a bathroom in the tropics usually means bad plumbing, mosquitoes, and cockroaches. Unless I’m sick, I’m content to do without.
eatery and massage

     Lina’s Eatery and Sanitary Massage Clinic looked to be just an internet cafe, but if I had walked in I am sure I would have been offered all kinds of services, none of them sanitary.

     Don’t expect to glean much information from the tourist offices in the Philippines. They are black holes. In most cities in the world the tourist offices are where the tourists are. In the Philippines they make you go find them. In Cagayan de Oro, like Camiguin, it is buried in a city services building complex, no signs, no one knows where it is even though they confidently point you somewhere. (I am really getting tired of that.) When I did find it, all the lights were off, everyone was asleep, and the air conditioner was on full blast. Someone slowly got up, ambled over to find me a lazily-designed map, and shuffled off to go back to sleep.
     At Davao airport the tourist information desk at arrivals was unstaffed “because it’s Saturday” I was told.
     At Manila airport terminal 3, its new showcase terminal, when I arrived I asked the girl at the tourist information counter if she knew any guest houses near the airport. She said no. I asked if she knew any guest houses at all in Manila. She said no. She heard there was a new hostel somewhere, but didn’t have any information. How many thousands of people come through the airport and ask the same questions? What a waste. I knew if I asked her how to go somewhere her one and only answer would be, “You can take a taxi.”
women dont wear pants

     Women don’t wear pants!

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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