Today I’d like to travel back to a magical time. I use the word ‘magical’ because this month encompassed and embodied my dreams for traveling the world. I’m sure, if you’ve read some of my other blog posts then you know a bit about why I enjoy traveling or even why it was/is my dream to travel around the world. For those of you who need a refresher or simply don’t know then lets recap.
I’m from a small town in southern Illinois called East St. Louis. When I mention this to people I get a variation of two responses. The first is, “Oh, so you’re from St. Louis?”. And the second being either one of two types of responses, “Oh, I drove through there one time when I was a kid and we cried in the backseat” or “Isn’t that where Jackie Joyner Kersee is from?”. You can basically replace either of those second responses with other traumatic experiences or violent crimes that people have heard happened in East St. Louis or any number of famous athletes or musicians but you get the idea.
I like to think that my immediate family was weird but over the years I’ve found more and more ‘weirdos’ and ‘rebels’. My mom didn’t want to expose us to many of the mindsets, values, and social norms that my peers and neighbors had, so my childhood was ‘different’ or ‘weird’. As a disclaimer, I feel that its imperative that you know that I don’t use ‘weird’ in a negative way. In fact, ‘unique’ would probably serve me better than using ‘weird’ but I just like the word ‘weird’. Weird, ain’t it? So back to it.
We didn’t do things that were seen as normal. What did you do as a kid on Saturday mornings? Probably watched cartoons, right? We didn’t. We went to the local library and spent time in the children’s section reading or learning to type on the old Windows 95 block of plastic using the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 5 cd rom. What did you do when you got home from school? Homework? Watched TV? Played video games? Went outside to play with your friends? Not us. Of course we did our homework. But then we were only allowed an hour of TV each night. And we didn’t have cable. Can you imagine four kids calmly deciding what to watch? Me neither. We spent the remainder of the night avoiding that list of chores that my mom would leave for each of us. We transcribed lyrics from our favorite songs while listening to the radio. We drew and colored pictures. We played with our toys and each other. And when we got a big blocky Windows 95 computer we added Sonic the Hedgehog and Barbie Story Maker/Fashion Designer to the mix. Going outside to play when my mom wasn’t home was a big no-no. We tried it a couple times but we always got caught. Did your mom like to surprise you with visits home on her lunch break? Mine did.
I like to attribute my desire to see the world to the two ‘R’s’; Rick Steves and reading. Watching his tours of Europe on PBS were what really got me excited to see what was beyond the borders of my small town. And reading was also a great way to travel to new and exciting places for free. I could read about life in other places and experience whole new cultures, and mindsets in a single afternoon. They both had a major impact on me.
And that brings us to this magical summer, July 2017. This summer marked my golden birthday, the year I turned 30 on the 30th of July. And I really wanted to take advantage of living in Southeast Asia. I was so close to many of the places that were on my list of countries to visit one day. Add to that, the fact that traveling to many of these countries was far cheaper than I could have ever expected. Flights from Osaka to Okinawa were under $100. So when a few friends had the idea to island hop around the 4th of July, I was in there, like been there. We set off headed south to Okinawa.
We spent a single night in Okinawa before taking a ferry to Zamami Island which is a part of the Keruma Islands group. Zamami village consists of about 20 islands but only 3 are inhabited. Our goal was to visit all three islands in one trip. Our first stop was Zamami Island. There we spent the bulk of our time beach hopping. We met a lot of military peeps, as the United States military has a few bases in and round Okinawa. We had a blast. It was my first and second time staying in a hostel. My first time swimming in the sea. First time snorkeling and getting within reaching distance of Nemo and all his friends. My first time watching the sky darken as a typhoon rolled over the beach where we were enjoying ourselves. In short, there were a lot of firsts.
We took another ferry to Tokashiki Island and camped out in the camping area just feet away from the beach. I’d always wanted to go camping but my family isn’t the most outdoor loving bunch of people. But thanks to the generosity of some servicemen who didn’t want to pack up or continue carting their tent and camping supplies around, we were able to spend a fairly cheap 4th of July on the beach.
This trip ended with another boat ride to Naha and a night in the same hostel. My friends and I still reminisce about these trips. There are so many hilarious and enlightening events that happened. We met so many interesting people along the way. I hold to the idea that if you can travel with a person, y’all will be friends for life. Distance isn’t the true test of a friendship, traveling is. And this trip definitely solidified friendships.
Toward the end of July, one of my friends and I made major plans to hop around Asia. We both had dreams of visiting India but were a bit wary of going alone. So we joined forces and attempted to tack on as many countries as we could for a reasonable price. What we ended up with was a flight plan that crisscrossed around the map. We left Osaka heading for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we had a few hours long layover before going to New Delhi, India. From New Delhi we went to Hong Kong, took a day trip from Hong Kong to Macau, and finally traveled from Hong Kong back to Osaka. Yeah. We were doing ‘The absolute most”. If you were wondering, that’s five currencies in a span of a week (yen, ringgit, rupee, The Hong Kong dollar, The Macau Pataca). Conversions rates were trash on some days and glorious on others.
In Malaysia, we had just enough time to visit a major tourist spot called the Batu Caves. We payed for a locker and stored our luggage at the airport. We then successfully navigated the metro system and buses (woot woot, for us). Finally, we climbed a few hundred stairs to arrive at our destination. It was a pretty interesting experience. There was a Hindu temple at the bottom of the stairs and another temple at the top, inside the cave. That morning was muggy and hot but it didn’t stop people from coming to pray or climbing all 300 stairs. Because of our attire, t-shirts and shorts, we weren’t able to enter the cave/temple so we bought scarves from a local shop.
From this trip I learned that the best way to see a lot of places in a limited amount of time is to find flights that have layovers that are longer than an hour or two. I would have never been able to see those caves if it hadn’t been for that layover. We managed to get a cheaper flight and an added adventure out of it.
Then we were off to Bollywood! The term ‘Bollywood’ comes from what was once known as “Bombay Cinema”, an Indian Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai. Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie? I was introduced to them in undergrad by two Indian girls from Chicago. The first movie that I remember watching was “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai”. It was an epic 3 hour long love story of two friends who found love after being separated for years. There was singing and dancing and a whole lotta awesome. That movie was the real reason I wanted to visit India. Realistically, I knew and understood that no one would be dancing and singing in the streets but I didn’t care. I just wanted to see and experience the culture for myself. New Delhi was the closest city that I knew of to the Taj Mahal so we decided to go there. I had three major points of interest, seeing the Taj, attending an Indian wedding, and going to a Bollywood show. Everything else was a bonus.
We had so many amazing experiences on this trip to India. We stayed in a quaint little hotel. Here we nearly got swindled by the hotel worker that was responsible for organizing day trips and outings for travelers who weren’t brave enough to go around town alone. In the end, it all worked out. That dude also worked with our taxi driver to get us to shop at one of his friends or partners businesses. We were on the hunt for saris to wear when we visited the Taj. This dude got us in this Sari shop where he also sold Kashmir rugs… in the basement. When I tell you that God is my protector, I’m not kidding, dude. That was a truly sketchy experience that we survived and can laugh about today. We were essentially trapped in that shop for hours! That’s not an exaggeration. Whenever we tried to leave they would just try to sell us something else. That taxi driver could have taken us to H & M, or any number of western shopping malls where they also sold saris. But he didn’t. And if you’re wondering, no, we didn’t buy a rug. We bought a few saris and left as soon as we could. I get that you want foreigners to visit your shops and spend money to help your economy. But man, that was a totally wrong way to go about it. After looking at other shops where we were free to roam and not feel pressured, we realized that their saris and most of their clothing were overpriced. So, yeah, we got got.
We visited the Taj and even got to see a play called “Beyond Bollywood”. We met some pretty awesome people along the way. A new taxi driver that drove us from New Delhi to Agra, where the Taj is, was amazing. Neither of us knew how to tie or wrap a sari but he took us to his family home in Agra where his wife and mother helped my friend with her sari. On a different night, we decided that if I couldn’t attend an Indian wedding then the closest event to a wedding was a party. One thing lead to another and we ended up at someones birthday party in a very wealthy neighborhood. Everything was like a movie. The food was catered. The party goers were super hip. And everyone was excited to see each other and meet us, a pair of randos visiting from Japan.
From there we continued our adventure by traveling to Hong Kong. You know how some news and weather stations will talk about the heat index? Well in Hong Kong they mainly focus on the air quality index. And during our time there the air quality was pretty bad. The factories in that part of the world are doing some serious damage. Even on days with clear skies the haze is evident. But despite the heat and the haze we were determined to eat everything and visit as many places as we could. We took to the streets and walked around the markets. We took a ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, which was once a Portuguese territory. We roamed the streets of Macau and visited a wine lounge called Macau Soul where we met a cool Portuguese couple. They owned the wine lounge and were talking about opening another lounge in Kyoto, Japan. They advised us on where we could get delicious food while we were there.
To end this trip on a high note, we went to Hong Kong Disney. It was my first time staying in a Disney resort and it was, you guessed it, magical. My friend is a connoisseur of all things Disney and has visited many, if not all, of the Disneyland’s around the world. So, this was a major selling point for her visiting Hong Kong. We had a blast. My 30th birthday went down in history as the greatest celebration month to date. I’ll let you guys know if/when I surpass this collection of magic awesomeness.