Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hangin' in the Toks


We ended our trip with a bang in one of the trendiest capitals in the world. Clearly, this was the place for us, being Glamazons and all.

Lyle had shown us a FABULOUS time in Kurabuchi and it was really nice to get a taste of what living in Japan is like and not just passing through as a tourist. It’s also been really nice to see things in a new light as my trip here 10 years ago with Mom and Abby was a bit different… though the trains, subways, and vending machines are still the same and I’m still the largest person in the country. Seriously, next travels I am headed to big people land where I won’t feel like la giante!

At 5:30 in the morning, we stood waiting in the snapping cold for the local train to Tokyo. True to form, I slept the whole way and it seemed like a 2-minute trip. Lyle rousted me and we were off, stashing our bags in lockers and breathing the crisp city air.

The reason we’d left so early was to see the Emperor on his birthday, the big 7-5! It’s a big deal each year and everyone lines up to wave paper flags and yell Banzai. And we did, with flair! The man himself came out (behind bullet proof glass) and reassured the crowd that his health was fine and wished everyone well. The best part for me was the walk you have to take through the grounds. We passed by countless manicured lawns and even his personal volleyball court. At one point, the imperial grounds in Tokyo we valued at a higher price than all California real estate combined. BANZAI!

Japan is cold this time of year, like snow cold. I’ve been in socks and sandals for 8 days now and am over the shame of it. Have moved on to just seeking warmth. Hats are a MUST and these tiny little girls who scamper around in micro-mini skirts and 4-inch heel boots baffle me.

We checked into the hostel, which was an experience in itself. The office is about half a kilometer from the actual bunk beds and after we’d finally made it, we took a time out for a few hours. Walked around the rest of the afternoon and popped into an alley for some bowling. Yes, bowling.

The next day saw an early start at the Tokyo fish market; the largest in the world. Weird stuff and crazy cart traffic made it quite the experience. Somehow I don’t think my experience on the boat will be that glamorous. We did get to see huge tunas getting jig-sawed up. Puffer fish, eels, giant squid, octopus, and sole are just a few of the specimens they sell daily.

That afternoon we were off to the National Nature and Science Museum, which was AMAZING! I could spend two solid days there and still not see everything. The evolution of Japan is particular as it is, in fact, an island.

Then we hit the karaoke bar. All you can drink and sing for an hour. I am SO not a fan of karaoke. Visions of cigarette smoke filled lounges, cocktail dresses and dirty old men danced in my head but this was totally unexpected. It’s a room you reserve with your friends with nothing in it but a tv, song box and phone to call for more drinks. Totally private and totally hilarious! Not sure yet if we’re posting a video, they’re pretty priceless.

Up this morning and Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday to Annie! Had some Krispy Kremes and all you can eat pizza for lunch. Can you tell we’re easing our way back into the US? Waiting in the airport lounge now, typing on wireless internet and drinking keg beer. Happy Holidays all, stay tuned for final thoughts!

The Golden Pint Awards

In celebration of completing our jaunt around the world we wanted to take a moment to think back and reflect on some of finer moments – good and bad. Of course this is only our opinions, so as always take them for what they are worth. – Annie

So….drum roll please.
Annie = italics / Rachael = bold

1. Best Beer - Brewerks Golden Ale (Singapore) / Brewerks Oatmeal Stout (Singapore)
2. Worst Beer - Kingsfisher (Egypt) / I've never met a beer I didn't like
3. Most Diverse Beer Country - Nepal / Singapore (Microbrew, hello?)
4. Best Beer on Tap - Ankor (Cambodia) / Brewerks Oatmeal Stout (Singapore)
5. The country that was cheapest for beer - Thailand (7Eleven + No open container laws) / Cambodia
6. The country that was the most expensive for beer - Singapore / Singapore

1. Favorite mode of transportation - Ferries / Metro
2. Easiest border crossing - Singapore to Malaysia / Malaysia and Singapore and reverse
3. Country with the cheapest transportation - India / India
4. Country with the most expensive transportation - Japan / Japan
5. Best single trip - JB to Malaka, Malaysia / Overnight sleeper from Sera Thani to Bangkok, Thailand
6. Worst single trip - Dahab to Luxor, Egypt / 3rd class park bench overnight to Sera Thani, Thailand

1. Best hotel - Jamine Lodge, Cambodia / Jasmine Lodge, Cambodia (Free Breakfast!)
2. Worst hotel - Cameron Hotel, India / Nubian Oasis Hotel, Egypt
3. Country with the cheapest hotel - India / India
4. County with the most expensive hotels - Japan / Japan
5. Best single feature of a hotel - Hot water / Free wi fi
6. Best night in a hotel - Koh Sok, Thailand / Saharia Farm, India

1. Favorite single item - Slurpies, Thailand and Momo, Nepal / Anything on a stick
2. Best dish - Chicken Rice, Malaysia / Thali Plate, Nepal (Free refills)
3. Worst dish - Plain boiled potatoes, Nepal / Is there such a thing?
4. Favorite country for food - Nepal / India and Thailand
5. Cheapest country for food - Thailand / India
6. Most expensive country for food - Singapore / Japan

MISC. “Naughty”
1. Most embarrassing moment - The 46 times my pants ripped at the crotch and getting passed by a Japanese grandmother on the Annapurna trek. / None
2. Funniest story - Seeing tourists and the Taj Mahal
3. Favorite person on the trip - South African bag pipe player / The Man who told us about the Penang concert
4. Favorite book - The Ultimate Gift / Why don't you fly
5. Most desperate and destitute moment - The Peace Pagoda / When I realized sleeping bags (which we didn't have) actually were esential on the Annapurna trail.
6. What I learned… Time does actually stand still sometimes. You can be an adult, travel, and have a lot of fun doing it. / It's okay to be a traveler on vacation once in a while.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Our homestay in Japan

(by Annie)

The flight to Japan was wonderful, good food + tons of movies + a half empty plane ='s two happy travelers. Our plane came in on time and we were off on the train to Lyle's nearby town of Takasaki. Japan trains run like clock-work literally, so at 12:04 a.m. we were waving to our Peace Corps Benin bro!!

After a quick 30 minute drive we were in the lovely little town of Kurabuchi. Rachael and I again had grown up envy much like in Singapore. His house and car gives us something to look up to.For those of you who are not familiar with the famous Lyle - he has been working for almost two years as a JET. No, not a member of West Side Story goes to Tokyo, but a "Japanese Exchange Teaching" employee. Basically he works for several grade schools and jr. highs as their English guru.

Our first two days were spent at Lyle's jr. high. We got to play teachers, designing a lesson describing our travels around the world. We played some introductory games, showed pictures from each country, and then played a game with the countries and flags. It was such a way to bring closure to our trip. Sharing the knowledge we had learned was a way to cement all our amazing experiences. The kids were the equivalent of 7th, 8th, and 9th grade and their English is remarkable, at least compared to my students of similar ages in Benin. Lyle team teaches, so another bonus was being able to have a cross cultural exchange with his colleges. Rachael spent a good hour showing Lyle's counterpart pictures of the mountains and she quizzed me about my time in Benin teaching there.

Another great part about having Lyle as a tour guide is all his friends we have been able to meet. His Japanese teacher cooked a wonderful meal for us Friday night as we swapped English stories for basic Japanese character writing. On the ex-pat side we enjoyed several meals with fellow JETs and graduate students. Again, it is one thing to see the sights but perhaps something even cooler about sharing culture and customs. Of course the main motivation for many of these exchanges has been food. And Japan has not disappointed. Noodles, Sushi, Ramen soaked in pig fat, and delicious cakes and desserts are only a few. I have never really had Japanese food before, so now I have another new obsession to continue stateside.

On the sight seeing frontier we climbed up to Mt. Myogi. Lyle lives in the Gumma prefecture, about an hour north of Tokyo, which has an active volcano and several mountain ranges. We also spent an evening driving up the mountain to see Christmas lights displayed in a volcanic crater. It was wonderful. Our last sight seeing excursion was a hillside temple with the seven lucky gods. I rubbed one of their bellies for wealth, cross your fingers!

A weekend of adventures left us to finish up the way we began - in the classroom. This time we were with the primary school students or kindergarten through 6th grade. They were so energetic and cute learning new vocabulary in time for Christmas. Rachael and I even got to lead group activities with the older kids and then eat lunch. They are completely self sufficient serving their own food and doing all the cleaning for the entire food.

Lyle does such a great job with his students and I have no doubt that he will be remembered for years after his departure. One of my favorite vacations in Peace Corps was Niger because I was able to see my friends in their villages and Niger through their eyes. Japan has been a similar experiences and a fantastic way to wind down our travels.

Right now we are watching movies and chillin' before our 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. The hustle and bustle of Tokyo awaits! BONZAI!!!

Melacca – We lika Melaka


Since the trip down treated us so well, we decided to take a few more days in Malaysia, the town of Melaka specifically. Notice I’ve spelled it a number of ways. That’s because it really is like that. Malay is a relatively new language but we were still surprised to see it written in the Roman alphabet rather than in characters like in Thailand and Cambodia. It made piecing words together a whole lot easier though.

UNESCO named Melacca a world heritage site and we FULLY support the decision. The museum density within a 2-kilometer area is the heaviest we’ve seen – EVER! There were no less than 15 museums, including ones featuring kites, literature, marine vessels of past and present, local history, and my favorite, the Museum of Enduring Beauty. It demonstrated how different groups around the world, past and present, have displayed beauty in their own minds. Included in the exhibits were – teeth filing, neck stretching, corset wearing, anorexia, piercing and tattooing, and skull forming. Enduring took on a whole new meaning.

We were particularly excited to see the sound and light show that evening. It advertised the history of Melacca with …yes, sound and lights. We were pretty excited, as Malaysia was unraveling itself to us as a very diverse, complex and layered country. Well, this was a bit of a disappointment. The amphitheatre was built to view the lit up fort hill at night and highlight the local sights while recounting the colonization on to independence in 1957. Not recommended as you can go next door to the top floor of some restaurant and listen for free. We went over to the mall next door and watched Transporter 3 to complete the media experience for the evening.

Walking along the river (it had a very Dutch feeling), I noticed something sliding along. It was too small to be a crocodile, but too big to be a snake. It turned out to be a HUGE swimming monitor lizard, many in fact. No one told us about these but they are not to be missed, creepy.

We took an afternoon bus the next day to Seremban, where we thought we’d be able to sleep and get a morning tram for our 11am flight to Japan. Not so. The bus station in Seremban was awful. After being told multiple times to just take a taxi by the TICKET SELLER, we decided to just go see if we could check-in at the airport…15 hours early. Refueled with some Dunkin’ Donuts, we took the commuter train and 2 hours later, we were in one of the nicest airports in the world (really, voted in the top 10 for 2008), lounging on a mat, watching movies, and sleeping for a solid 8 hours. Malaysia was great, so much more left to see!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Singapore: The Lions, the MRT, and the Breweries

(By Annie)

Our overnight train to Singapore was not the best nor worst. It was very efficient as Malaysian customs officers came to you to stamp your passport on the train. Even the Singapore border was relatively easy seeing as they had a special area for train passengers. Perhaps the only frustration was knowing our friend Anne’s house was just minutes away and yet we had agreed to meet her downtown, but alas neither knew – next time.

Sure, Rachael and I wanted to see the sights of Singapore but our real motivation in heading farther south was our friend Anne – a peace corps buddy from Benin. She has worked there for two years at the Singapore American School as a grade school gym teacher. So, our first day was hanging out at her school at teaching some of her classes with her. Our lesson was gymnastics and Rachael helped out with the floor exercise and I helped the kids to climb the ropes.
(Miller: picture if you will, Annie the Boys and Girls club saint and me, the not so kid friendly amazon, wrangling kids in a padded room…)

That night and really all of the day of the next we did nothing but chill, surf the web, and watch movies. (Miller: and get starbucks!!!!) It was wonderful and amazing and exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries. Anne was busy teaching and we were busy relaxing, until Friday when we conquered the bar and club scene including “the stage” at our last club. Oh yeah, and, if you haven’t scene what happens to mannequins when you leave them on the curb, well then you should click our you tube video right now.

The weekend came and Anne was a gracious hostess. We saw the Asian Civilizations Museum, the Mer-lion – a giant half lion/ half fish vomiting water in a fountain manner, the Cricket Club, and wonderful Christmas Decorations. It is hard to call Singapore simply a city but that is exact what it is – perhaps the only fair comparison is if Manhattan was another country.

Our last dinner was at Brewerkz a microbrewery near the Singapore river. It really was AWESOME and spawned our favorite beers on this trip. Rachael went for the oatmeal stout and I opted for the lighter golden ale. We had chicken wings, multiple pints, and watched the new Sex and the City movie before heading to bed.

We were up with the sun to wish Anne well and do some errands before we headed back to Malaysia. (Miller: Annie ripped me out of bed to announce that President Bush had just been attacked with shoes by an Iraqi reporter. It’s probably the only time on this trip an emergency wake-up has been warranted.) It was only a ten-minute bus ride from Anne’s house to the border patrol and cheap public buses lead us to the bus station in JB. From there we had enough time to change money and buy two McD McChicken meals before our ride to Malaka – the former colonial giant of Malaysia.

The capital of Malaysia - Kuala Lampur

(by Miller)

Arrived by overnight train…at 5:30 in the morning from Butterworth, the Penang/Georgetown connection. Due to schools’ holiday, it’s high tourist season and the hotels are just filled to the brim. Annie, being the dutiful scheduler she is, had suggested we make a reservation as we would be staying in the capital. Good call! We arrived at the Backpacker’s Inn at 6 a.m. and were told we didn’t have beds. This was the cheapest place in town by far so to change hostels was going to cost us. After insisting we’d emailed and talked to “Stevie the Wonderhost” (seriously, that’s how he signs his emails), we went for breakfast and to mull things over.

After noodles and salty porridge, we returned with our battle faces already on but the desk dude showed us our very own email and said our beds would be ready at noon. Shortly after, another backpacker walked in who’d been trying to get in for 4 days… not really sure how she didn’t get in.

We had two days to kill and really only one night as we were headed to Singapore on a deadline. After pursuing the guidebook yet again, we set off in search of the butterfly gardens, the planetarium, and the national museum.

Malaysia is definitely the rogue contender in this trip. The Georgetown experience was great and KL was as good or better with its attractions. Our hostel was in the heart of Chinatown and there was food galore. Slurpees in hand, our first stop was the planetarium. Yes, we LOVE stuff like this and I was a little more than just disappointed when the sign said it was closed for renovations. Along with 85 shrieking school kids, we braved the information lobby, which listed Malaysia’s celestial conquests. (Annie’s note: The staff thought we were DORKS…because we were the only non-chaperons above the age of 12.) Apparently, Russia made the open call and of 10,000 initial applicants, 1 made it through and was sent up as part of a crew in 2001. The dome movie was playing, called SOS Planet. It was a lovely, air-conditioned 45 minutes in which Annie and I recovered from the overnight train. The polar bear danced, the snake slithered and we learned about the importance of not littering…as I said, there was air conditioning.

The museum is definitely a must see. It was accidentally mistaken for the train station in the 40’s and bombed so it’s rather new in comparison to some of the other government sponsored establishments we’ve been to. They had just redone it also so there were new installations that had opened only a week ago. An English-speaking woman greeted us and introduced herself as a volunteer guide so we jumped on that ship. She took a group of us on a lovely 45-minute tour around the two floors of exhibits, explaining the history of colonization and industrialization. Fascinating, and the best part – admission was 2 ringet… That’s about 70 cents.

We walked back past the Islamic library, the national mosque, and the Islamic arts museum. Islam is the national religion and though there have been several clashes in recent history, the mix of cultures is tolerated if not celebrated by most. We didn’t go in but it was just another demonstration of the prominence of religion in the national image.

Walked around more that night and grabbed dinner, chicken and rice. Drank a few beers on the curb and went to bed. Our train to Singapore was the next night so after leaving our bags in the common area, we hopped on the metro to one of the biggest tourist attractions in KL, the Petronas Towers. Petronas is the Malaysian petrol giant and these towers are the largest in the area, largest in the world until Taiwan trumped them. These towers are also the home of a 6-story mall. Yes, a shopping mall, in full Christmas decoration. We were in shock and before we knew it, 6 hours and a lunch at Chili’s had passed and it was time for our overnight train to Singapore.

Kuala Lumpor, lots to see, lots to eat, friendly people and great public transport. Go.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Welcome to Penang!!

(By Annie)

After two consecutive train rides, two bus trips, and one border crossing we finally after 40 hours of traveling reached the lovely island of Penang and the city of Georgetown. All I have to say is - what an introduction to Malaysia. Our last bus was thankfully our best trip. It was only a three hours ride and 5 people comfortably sat in the 10-seat mini-van. The border crossing was our easiest yet and ironically the only time we have been asked to give money. Mind you it was by the driver and not the immigration officer.

Joining us on our travels were two very well spoken chaps who because of Bangkok airport problems were forced to go overland. They filled us in on all the ins and outs of Malaysia and even helped us with directions when we arrived. The minivan dropped us off right in the heart of backpacker central, so we grabbed a hotel room and a hot shower, the mandatory beer and literally crashed. Rachael’s poor ankles were the size of watermelons and I left sweat stains in the room by just walking in.

Twelve hours later we motivated and changed hotels to a cheaper one across the street. We then walked to the ferry to buy train tickets for the rest of our Malaysian adventure. I just can tell you enough how interesting Penang and Georgetown were to these two now seasoned travelers. It is a colonial town and a melting pot of MANY different cultures. The museum, which cost only a quarter, highlighted this so well, describing the Indian, Chinese, and Malay influences and how intermarriage and immigration truly made this city and island what it is today.

After the museum we headed back to the hotel and did some internet administrative duties. We then headed to the strait side and had some cheap beers and amazing Malay food. We were winding down our evening when this lovely man approached our table – there is a free concert at the fort tonight – he said simply. Another indication of the warmth of the people we have met, he didn’t have to do that, he did it because so far Malaysia rocks!

The concert was wonderful. The event was to celebrate Panang diversity and LG was even the corporate sponsor. The MC was hilarious the opening acts superb and then came the royal send off – the Alleycats. One of the most famous Malaysian bands ever. They surprised us by even playing a better than Guitar Hero version of “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Although we didn’t win a mug, a rice cooker, an LG phone, or even the 32’’ plasma TV it was a night to remember.

The next two days in Georgetown were down days. We tried to go up to the famous hill, but the gondola like train was under construction. Instead we had a lovely Sunday stroll in the park and then read under a tree while watching kids blow bubbles and fly kites.

A night train and a $5 dollar train ticket were the perfect end to our first Malaysian city. You see you get two for the price of one – a hotel room and transportation. Rachael was like a giddy school girl the seats were awesome and reclined with cushions to match. I finished my book and of course couldn’t fall asleep to save my life. Oh well, Kuala Lumpur here we come.