Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Our New Loves

hort-term travelers often curse the idiosyncrasies of foreign destinations such as  strange toilets and unidentifiable foods.  Being long-term travelers, we had no choice but to accept the local choice until we found we actually loved these options.  Here are a few of the things that shocked us:

HE SAID…

I love the conveniences and consistency of the developed world.  I love that I can get the same cup of Pike Place Roast at every Starbucks globally.  I love that I can get an Egg McMuffin in every McDonald’s I find.  Knowing what I’m going to get removes a lot of anxiety and, sadly, thought from my daily life.  Life on the road though requires me to see the many ways people attack the same problems.  Here are a few that I’ve come to love.

I love shopping malls!?! Wow, I can’t believe I just said that, let alone in public…that’d be like me saying I’m listening to Taylor Swift as I type this, and, well, I wouldn’t admit to that, because of course that would never happen!  OK, here’s the thing about malls, they aren’t the derelict, soul-less, institutions filled with mallrats considering their next hairstyle at Hot Topics like at home.  Malls in much of the world are classy, air-conditioned, filled with great food options, and a window into the lives of a country’s wealthy.  Did I mention they have free, clean bathrooms (I loveneed these).  I decisively argued my case in the He Said-She Said: Malls vs Market post last year, but I’m still in awe with the fact that my love has only grown.

Malls, a great place for anything…even a nap!

I wish I could turn water into wine…if I could I would “bless” everyone on the Mississippi south of Minneapolis…  Short of that superpower though, I love turning water into a delicious meal.  All I need is some boiling water and I can whip up a delicious ramen dinner, because ramen noodles are delicious.  In Asian supermarkets there is often an entire aisle of delicious ramen flavors, all of which will hit the spot for a filling dinner.  I may have knocked the fact that I’ve been eating ramen here, but in reality, it’s #1 on my list of easy food.

I could probably go on and on with loves such as Japanese designTasmania, or a good roast chicken, but these best of’s just need to be experienced to be understood.

SHE SAID…

While many travelers collect souvenirs on their trip, I like to bring home ideas and new ways of doing things instead of just trinkets.  Sometimes these things are simple changes to the way I look at something and other times they are huge mental shifts.  Here are a couple things that I have grown to love on our world tour and I hope won’t go away once we’re stationary.

Seeing a clean squat toilet like this as the public restroom choice always makes me smile.

On the short list of things I hope to incorporate into my life are squat toilets and communal living.  These things may not seem very travel-centric, but this trip has given me a fresh perspective on each.  First of all, without going into too much detail, squat toilets have become my first choice when it comes to doing my business, particularly if I’m at a public restroom.  The squatting seems to make everything go smoother.  There’s nothing like needing to make a deposit only to find the toilet seat covered in someone else’s mess, which requires you to give your quads a good workout while you try to hover over the hole and hold the door shut.

Communal living has become a way of life as we move from hostel to hostel and country to country.  While I can’t say I always want to have to wait in line to use the shower there is something magical about sharing space with strangers.  Soon those people aren’t strangers and you have a whole new set of friends and perspectives to enjoy and ponder.  The power of community and the benefits of shared living are huge.  So, when I go home I’m looking to establish a communal living situation with squat toilets.  Let me know if you’re interested, we’ll serve ramen and have regular trips to the mall.

Erica and Matt Chua: Why Wine Taste in Mendoza

Wine regions rarely disappoint.  The combination of the visual, well-tended vines climbing towards the sky, and the experiential, flavors of the wine and food, will excite the most dull among us.  Almost universally wine regions are worth the trip, but being situated literally halfway around the world from most people, Argentina’s Mendoza region needed to offer something more than tours and tasting rooms.  Mendoza has succeeded in creating a food and wine experience worth the trip.

Mendoza is one the world’s most improbable and unique wine regions.  Naturally it is a barren, as precipitation is kept on the Chilean side by the highest part of the Andes range.  It should be a productive agriculture region as little as it should be a wine destination. Therein lies why it is successful though, generations had to work to make it happen, never taking for granted natural gifts.  The culture of hard work that led to the irrigation and cultivation of the land has since been put into creating an international tourist destination.

Fulfilling it’s duty as Argentina’s largest wine producer by volume, Trapiche offers the gold standard of large-winery tours similar to Mondavi in California.  Informative and thorough, the tours walk visitors through the entire process, albeit closer to the process than you can get in many other places. 

What makes Mendoza special?  It is the overall experience of European indulgence meets Latin America.  It has incomparable views of wineries nestled against the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas.  It offers the expected wine tasting, but also locally produces the unexpected: world-class gelato, chocolate, honey, olive oil, and much more. It blends a historic town center with thousands of acres of parks and modern amenities.  It even has adventure sports including climbing of one of the Seven Summits.  In short, it has everything.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Why Wine Taste in Mendoza

Erica and Matt Chua: All in the family

We think we know our family, that our parents have been honest in who you’re related to and who you’re not.  That is until the day you meet a member that you had no idea existed, even more surprising if it’s in an out-of-the-way place such as Borneo, but it happened.  I was standing with my camera at attention in a wildlife sanctuary, when suddenly out of the trees swung my distant cousin.  As soon as I saw her eyes I knew, I could see she recognized it too, we stood staring at each other.  Breaking the awkward moment was her daughter, reaching from her arms, offering me a piece of fruit.

Sadly, due to linguistic differences we were unable to discuss our shared history, sort out when her family moved to Sarawak and how we were related.  Sure, we had some differences, she’s much hairier than anyone in my family, has longer arms, and clearly superior tree climbing abilities, but the face, just look, chubby cheeks and all; we’re related.  I did some research and was able to find out about her family, or should I say our family, the hominids, and our similarities.  We all use tools, interact socially, enjoy eating fruits, and have similar reproductive terms (9 months in the womb, 22-30 days menstruation).  While my city life is fundamentally different than theirs, there are definitely people living in the Indonesian archipelago, even Borneo itself, that live similar nomadic lives in the jungle, wearing little, and enjoying the fruits of the wild.  It is hard to consider the realities of the Orangutans and not believe that we’re related.

Even though we’re in the same family, we’re driving the Orangutans to extinction.  In our lifetime we may see them go functionally extinct, surviving only in captivity, or there may be none at all.  For animals that we’re so closely related to, that we’ve shared earth for millions of years with, this is disturbing.  Just like people do with outcasts from their more direct family, billions of people are determined to ignore the overwhelming evidence that we’re related.  While claims that we were related to animals seemed incredulous in a world we knew little about, it’s ridiculously simple-minded to hold those beliefs today.  We’re now able to travel the world and see it ourselves, connect-the-dots, and understand the relations between animals.  It was once possible to live in a world of only what is immediately around you, but knowledge is fully accessible, travel is relatively accessible, and we can see with our own eyes what it took millennia to understand: we’re just part of an interconnected, related animal world.  With this knowledge comes the responsibility to do something to protect the planet from ourselves.

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Erica and Matt Chua: All in the family

Erica and Matt Chua: The Best of Shanghai in 3 Days

rriving in Shanghai at the end of our 14 week trip through China was a respite from the chaos and a fantastic end to our China adventure.  Having battled spitting swarms of Chinese people throughout the country, arriving in the modern, state of the art train station was like being beamed on to another planet.  Looking around I felt the same way Dorothy must have felt when she first arrived in the Land of Oz, wide-eyed and amazed.  Public transport was simple and the people were as helpful as the munchkins, which made getting around almost as easy as following the yellow brick road.

Where do I begin with the praise for Shanghai?  It is the largest city in China and the largest metro area in the world, yet remains shockingly clean.  This may not sound like a huge feat, but if you have ever seen crowds of Chinese people you would  understand why it is so hard to keep the streets spotless.  All the spitting, indiscriminate throwing out of trash and the complete disregard for any kind of cleanliness leads to clogged sewers and horrible smells throughout the rest of China.  But not in Shanghai, the streets are buffed to a shine and I didn’t experience any vomit inducing smells walking down the streets.

Shanghai is also the most westernized city in China.  Shanghai’s basketball team produced NBA sensation Yao Ming, the Grand Theater gets musicals such as Cats and you can buy cheese.  We even went to an Italian buffet in Shanghai, what a treat!  Beyond the creature comforts of Western ways we enjoyed conveniences such as faster internet, better signage and more English speakers.  The influence of the West also brought larger shopping malls, taller buildings and excellent public transport (well, I can’t necessarily attribute all those things to the west, they were appreciated nonetheless).

Besides being clean and westernized, which I cannot emphasize enough how much we appreciated these two things, Shanghai is also a fabulous city.  Many travelers told us that it wasn’t worth spending more than three days maximum and offered only a short list of attractions.  However, we found ourselves very comfortable in Shanghai and were happy to stay for a week and had no trouble filling our time.  If you only have three days for Shanghai, below is what I would recommend.

DAY 1:

50 Moganshan Arts District

I really enjoyed the art scene in Shanghai, we visited 50 Moganshan Arts District, which featured cutting edge Chinese artists expressing themselves in a variety of mediums.  There were unique paintings, excellent photographs and all the artists were happy to chat about their work.

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Erica and Matt Chua: The Best of Shanghai in 3 Days

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Travel Lessons Revisited

lmost a year ago we wrote about the lessons we’ve learned from travel.  After five more countries as diverse as Australia and Nepal here are the things we think we know.

HE SAID…

Arriving in India from the developed world highlighted the contrasts and taught me more than if I had arrived from another developing culture.  Moving from some of the most functional democracies in the world, Australia and Singapore, to arguably the world’s least, India and Nepal, showed me that good governance is the difference.  These are the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past year.

  • Government services and infrastructure matter. I said this last year after enjoying the epic infrastructure of China, Japan and South Korea.  Seeing perfectly functioning societies with huge infrastructure investment isn’t nearly as powerful as seeing countries without it.  India and Nepal don’t have trash collection, reliable electricity, water or roads.  Without focusing on providing these services and projects the countries will never advance.

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A Chinese bullet train station above versus an Indian train station below.  China’s investment in transportation will pay dividends for generations…

  • Justice must be blind. Laws and legal decisions must be made in the name of justice, not family name, bribes, or to gain favor.  If everyone doesn’t have to play by the same rules, a country cannot fully develop as those that are disenfranchised have no incentive to innovate and create.  While the riches will accrue to the few that aren’t bound by laws, the society as a whole won’t benefit.  You can see this in Mexico and India, home to some of the world’s richest people, surrounded by some of the poorest.
  • It’s a big world out there. Entering our third year of consecutive travel we have barely scratched the surface of seeing how people live, interact and make a life.  While there are PhD’s that have super-specialized knowledge on cultures and people, traveling is still the best way to get a sampling of what makes us all different and similar at the same time.

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Travel Lessons Revisited

Erica and Matt Chua: Korean Food: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Korean food ran the gambit from the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  On many occasions Korean cuisine surprised us, apparently South Koreans are better at more than kimchi.  Who knew that South Korea makes the best fried chicken in the world?  I feel that I am uniquely qualified to make a judgement on the best fried chicken in the world because I’ve tried my fair share due to my husband’s  fried chicken addiction.  He even believes his future is in fried chicken and beer.  So, while I know your dying to hear about kimchi, let’s start with the ugly and work our way to the highlights.  I want you to enjoy Korean cuisine, so I’ll end on a high note.

You will enjoy Korean food if you avoid two things; Lotteria and pig’s foot.  Lotteria is South Korea’s answer to McDonald’s.  Everything from the menu to the value meals is a mirror of McDonald’s offerings.  While I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s, we were told several times that we had to try Lotteria.  We decided we didn’t have too much to lose as it is a fast and cheap food option.  Little did we know that the similarities ended with the look alike menu. The cheeseburger we had tasted as if it had strawberry jam mixed with mayonnaise on it and I’m convinced the french fries we were served were made weeks ago.  In short avoid Lotteria at all costs.

The pig’s foot should have been more obvious than Lotteria as something to steer clear of, some may even say that I deserved what I got when I decided to try this local delicacy.  However, I am a firm believer in the old adage “when in Rome…”  We had heard of the popularity of pig feet, but it wasn’t until we saw it prominently displayed by every vendor in Seoul’s Namdaeumun Market that we decided we had to try it.  We hunted out the best pig foot we could find, not having any idea what you look for in a good pig foot.  Because quite frankly “good pig foot” sounds like an oxymoron to me.  However, even as I watched the woman we purchased our foot from working to dismember it in preparation for us to eat it I remained positive. When she set it in front of us it didn’t look too promising and then she gave us each a set of plastic gloves and my optimism started to fade.  Anything too vile to touch with bare hands probably shouldn’t be eaten, but against my better judgement I put a gelatinous piece of foot in my mouth.  It lived up to my worst nightmares, it was a fatty, Jell-O like texture and the taste was so bad I almost gagged trying to swallow it.  Then and there the award for worst item imbibed on this trip was given to the pig’s trotters.  We paid for our foot and passed on the remaining bits to the eager Koreans sitting next to us, laughing at our disgusted expressions.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Korean Food: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Erica and Matt Chua: Easily Score an Indian Train Ticket

“The pride of India” is India Railway’s undeniable slogan.  The train system is a marvel, moving hundreds of millions of people annually.  There is nothing in India that works with the efficiency and scale that the railway does.  It’s not world-class in any sense, but to get around and interact with Indian people, the trains are the way to go.  Serving as an artery to connect nearly every city, this is how nearly every person, caste, and family gets around.  The conversations that can be had in a compartment will be at least as memorable as the trip itself.  Here’s how to get train tickets when you need them to maximize your time in India.

An Second AC (2AC) cabin.  Not too bad…but either is the much cheaper 3AC.

THE CLASSES OF TRAVEL

In most trains there are five classes: First Class (1AC), Second A/C (2AC), Third A/C (3AC), Sleeper (SL), Second Seating (2ND) and General Seating (GS).  On some trains there are AC Chair cars which are exceptional for daytrips, but this is not recommended for long rides as it’s basically an economy class airplane seat.

As you can see there is a huge difference in cost, First Class costing over 12 times the reserved seat price.  With such a price difference you can be assured a totally different clientele in each, providing a different perspective on India in each class.  Most budget travelers opt for Sleeper class.  Due to the noise, dust and grime that come with open windows we always preferred 3AC.  2AC is hard to recommend, while substantially quieter than 3AC due to less families, the cost differential was too much for us as the bed itself is the same.

If you gamble with General Seating you may end up squeezing in this close as we did on a train to Agra.  (Read about that experience here)

BUYING TICKETS

India Railways does an admirable job to ensure that tourists aren’t delayed by lack of tickets.  There is a quota of tickets available only for foreigners on almost every train. To get these tickets you must purchase them at a station, in-person, with your passport.  Touts and tour agencies will often tell you that tickets aren’t available for certain routes, trying to steer you onto a commission paying bus, but always check the station in person for Tourist Quota before giving up on the train.  Buying tickets at the station is relatively painless and will save you big money on commissions and hassle from tourist agencies.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Easily Score an Indian Train Ticket

Erica and Matt Chua: Romans in Jordan?

The Romans never cease to amaze me, here I am writing about Jordan and the Middle East yet the Romans have yet again inserted themselves into the history of the region.  I shouldn´t be surprised considering that they were one of the largest empires in the ancient world.  I guess it says more about my poor grasp of history than the Romans that Ididn´t realize they conquered the lands around the Mediterranean and beyond.  Yet I was shocked to find one of the most important and well preserved cities of the Roman empire in modern day Jordan.

The imposing Hadrian´s Gate sets the tone for your visit to the impressive ruins of Jerash.  Passing under the enormous arch of the Gate I was even more blown away by the Romans.  Not only had they stretched their empire farther East than I had thought, but I was dwarfed by the stunning architecture, collonaded streets and towering temples that made up the ancient city of Jerash.

While Petra gets all the attention Jerash should not be missed, a far less crowded visit allows for a close-up look at the splendour of the ancient Roman empire. If you time your visit right, which seems to be more luck than anything, you can enjoy the site void of any other visitors.  Without the crowds I found a new appreciation for the worn cobblestones of the Cardo, where if you look closely you can see the chariot tracks and begin to imagine the city´s major buildings, shops and residences that lined the road.

The Nymphaeum set my imagination in motion once again as I tried to picture the grandeur of the fountain in it’s prime, decorated with lion heads and etched with detailed carvings.  Somehow without any modern day reminders transforming the sights of ancient Jerash to their original glory, in my mind, was easier.  The luxury of seeing the city without a throng of tourists gave me a new appreciation for the  Romans and their amazing ancient cities.

The Romans were never ones to overlook entertainment as is evident with the 3,000 seat theater in Jerash.  Occassionaly used today for performances, it’s amazing how the stone steps and massive stage have stood the test of time.  Without a performace in the amphittheater it was still an incredible testament to the Romans architectural expertise.

While I sincerely hope your historical knowledge is better than mine, if you let the world be your classroom you can learn about the Roman empire in Jordan of all placews.  The architecture will amaze you, sending you back in time to imagine what the ancient world was like in the Eastern reaches of one of the most powerful empires in the world.

WHEN YOU GO:

Get a taxi from Amman, we opted to navigate the confusing and difficult public transport system to make our way to Jerash only to find that a shared taxi home was much easier and almost the same price.  Skip the hassle and get a cab

Come prepared, Jerash is huge and requires a fair amount of walking, wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of water

Plan for a half day at least, visiting the ancient ruins of Jerash requires a lengthy cab ride and lots of working so make sure you budget enough time.

Erica and Matt Chua: Da Lat | Where to Stay

 

The center of Da Lat is mostly accommodations, with a huge variety in quality.  There are places from $5 to $200 per night, so you should be able to find anything you want.  The backpacker area is near the market where the going rate is $10-12 a night, but there is a huge variation in quality.  Make sure you check out several different hotels as price doesn’t dictate the quality of rooms.

We headed downhill on Đường 3 Tháng 2 from the market with a Canadian couple.  After viewing rooms in 4 places we found that there was little variation in prices, until we found a great little place that charged $6 a night.  It was difficult to figure out the price due to their total lack of English.  Finally they called a friend who spoke English and had me speak to them.  The room was equivalent to the $10/night rooms in hotels surrounding it and had good Internet access.

Erica and Matt Chua: Travel Guilt

When I decided to take a trip around the world with my husband I never thought that we would have a constant, often unwelcome third wheel: guilt.  In my mind it is impossible to do third world travel and never feel even a twinge of guilt about the fact that your traveling in a place where your daily expenditure, even if you’re on a budget, is often equivalent to a month’s salary (or more) for the average resident of the country your visiting.

It is impossible to avoid history, politics, the morality of tourism and the complications of charity while visiting developing countries. In fact thinkCHUA and I often can’t help but wonder if third world travel is one of the most selfish things you can participate in.  Enjoying the wonders of impoverished nations at dirt cheap prices then writing home to our family and friends about our adventures.  Sounds pretty selfish and makes me wonder about my role in it all.

Are some of the issues, such as begging that I find so hard to face, actually my fault?  Are the children selling me bracelets, postcards and flowers exploited because so many people fall victim to their adorable smiles and disarming requests for “one dollar, you buy something, one dollar.”  Do the adults that send them out to peddle their goods and pester tourists really mean ill or are children just better salespeople because their efforts are more fruitful?  Is the answer to say “no” to the children and if so, have you ever done it?  Because it’s not easy, it is so hard to tell a grinning child that you won’t part with just a dollar for their benefit.  Or to tell a leg-less man that you won’t give him a few dollars as he drags himself along the sidewalk by his hands.

Traveling responsibly requires that we make an effort to know more about a country than simply the location of its monuments and the bargains in its bazaars; it charges us to have a better understanding of the reality of peoples’ lives.  The only way to learn more about a country and it’s culture is to experience it on the ground, which is where the “catch 22″ comes in.  We have enjoyed our time in developing countries immensely and would recommend it to anyone, but from my experience it is difficult to avoid the guilt completely no matter how responsible you are.

“Power lies in the growth of awareness.”
Herbert de Souza, Brazilian human rights activist

I also have to remember that travel is about seeing the world with open eyes, stepping outside your comfort zone and taking the bitter with the sweet.  The more I travel, see and learn about the world the more I realize how little I know, how many more places there are to travel to and how much there is to see and learn.  This awareness is arguably the most important part of this entire journey.  Without my intense feelings of guilt and my confusion about what is the “right” thing to do about it this trip would simply be a sightseeing adventure.  However, it has been much more than that and it will change me and how I see the world forever.

From my experience traveling in the developing world it is more often positive for everyone involved than it is negative.  As I mentioned a huge part of making the experience positive is awareness.  The awareness of my guilt is in actuality a beneficial part of third world travel and sharing my stories and experiences on this blog is helpful for me and in raising awareness about these issues.  As Herbet deSouza says “Power lies in the growth of awareness.”  So, my hope is that by sharing my thoughts and anecdotes from our journey I will at least in a small way raise awareness about the triumphs and struggles of the developing world.