Miniatures

I have always loved tiny versions of regular things. As a child, I was most fascinated by toys like my tiny working blender where I could make about 2 oz of chocolate milk at a time, my tiny Barbie spoon which I would use to make a dish of ice cream last longer, and a series of miniature fuzzy animals. Living in Japan in 3rd grade may have been the most ridiculous overexposure to the cute and the tiny since I was easily able to get tiny art supplies, tiny erasers shaped like tiny food, and tiny key chains shaped like tiny everything. As an adult, I have stopped acquiring stuff so much, but I cannot help but squee at the sight of well reproduced miniatures. Thus, when I found out that Europe has a proliferation of miniature theme parks, I was captivated. After careful consideration, I chose to visit 3: The Mini-Europe in Brussels, The Madurodam in Den Haag, and the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg. I was not disappointed.


Mini-Europe, Brussels

The weather this summer was insanely hot, and the northern Europeans are simply not prepared. It cut into my outdoor activities severely, and I almost didn’t make it to this park. Lucky me, there was a single cloudy and cool day during my week in Brussels. It doesn’t make the best photos, but overcast skies certainly make a happier me.

The park is right next to the Atomium a huge statue constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. I honestly believe that nearly every strange structure in a city can be attributed to this cause, not the least Seattle’s own Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can go inside. I did not.

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General admission is not too expensive at 15.5€ and it’s so full of amazing things that I felt it well worth the cost. I recommend bringing snacks and drinks since the on-site Cafe is overpriced.

Once inside, there is a winding path through a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is seriously all of Europe. The most famous buildings and historical sights of each country (at least as decided by the Belgians). It’s enormous.

While ogling the array of tiny architectural marvels from a distance, I came across a series of informative signs at the front. They were… interesting. Among other things it gave credit to UK for modern democracy (as an American my response is, “um excuse me?”) and also represented rampant European colonialism as “the spirit of adventure”. I know each culture teaches history in their own way, but… I suppose if the history can’t be accurate, at least the architecture is pretty spot on. (top: mini Brussels, bottom: real Brussels)20180710_14411620180711_111548

Some vignettes were reproductions of old villages, but most were modern familiar and famous sights. At the starting point for each nation, there was a button to push that played what I’m fairly sure were the national anthems. Some exhibits were also animated, many activated by another button. As you can imagine, kids raced along to be the first to push each button.

Because they’re miniature and placed on the ground, most exhibits are at eye level or below. I took some bird’s eye photos, but my favorites are the ones where I was able to get level with the model ground, as though I were standing inside. I used the selfie stick a lot to get better angles, and wished I had a better zoom since many of the amazing details were hard to capture. The three I loved most were Galileo testing his ideas at Pisa, Don Quixote and Sancho in la Mancha, and a tiny blue TARDIS in London.

I was blown away by the level of detail, the cathedrals especially. It’s hard for me to say how accurate they all are. I found the models of places I’ve been before to be a bit lackluster, while I found the ones I haven’t seen in person to be amazing. I visited several of these cities after Brussels, so you can see for yourself how they stack up. (top: mini Copenhagen, bottom: real Copenhagen) 

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More than anything, it reminded me of the “bigatures” that were used in the LOTR movies. These models were often gigantic, the size of a sofa or even a car, yet because the originals are multi-story, towering masterpieces, it still counts as “miniature”. (left: mini Maastricht, right: real Maastricht)

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It took me hours to navigate the entire park, and I am ashamed to admit there were one or two countries in the mini-EU I hadn’t heard of before. Overall, it was an amazing visual experience, and a fun photography day since I got to do a lot with experimental angles and effects. I took hundreds of photos, but here are the 50 I think are best.


Madurodam, Den Haag

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The Madurodam is far more focused than the Mini_EU. It is exclusively about the Netherlands, while Mini-EU covers all of Europe.  The attempt at being interactive was really more of a pain than an enhancement. Mini-Europe had a plethora of buttons that played music or activated moving parts. Most of the animations at Madurodam were coin operated so cost extra, and the informative audio clips, while free, required you to scan a card to hear it and see the educational video. I was constantly having to rearrange my camera and sunbrella (umbrella for sun) to dig the card out of my pocket. 

Despite this inconvenience, I did enjoy the miniatures. The quality of the constructions was high, and I liked the fact that there were more scenes of neighborhoods or city blocks rather than just a single monument in isolation. It’s hard for me to speak to the accuracy, and I didn’t recognize as many landmark buildings, since my travels in Holland were somewhat limited. Photography was if anything more fun since I was able to get much closer to the buildings and there were more interesting and active scenes, rather than stark and empty buildings (although both styles have an appeal). The one building I did get to see for real was the Dom Tower at Utrecht (left: mini, right: real life).Utrecht Dom Tower.jpg

One thing that Madurodam had that Mini-EU lacked were the shows. There were several locations where one could go into a small theater and watch a kind of puppet/animation show about some aspect of Dutch history. The shows reminded me of 80’s Disney animatronic entertainment, and some used puffs of air or sprinkles of water to create realism. 

One was about the namesake Maduro, one about the rebellion against the Spanish with William of Orange, and one about the founding of New Amsterdam. The performances were lovely, and I’m grateful that they were all available in English as well as Dutch, but the content left me feeling very uneasy.

George Maduro was a military officer who fought in WWII and eventually died in Dachau. His parents donated the money to start the park as a living memorial to their son. I’m quite sure that the video of his heroics is hyperbolic, but it is the one I mind the least, since it is after all a monument to his memory. Nonetheless, it does seem he was an extraordinary young man, who became a leader at a young age, escaped a German prison, became part of the resistance smuggling Allied troops through Spain, and finally perished in a concentration camp. The presentation was a panoramic movie screen that used a combination of actors in historical dress, photos of historical events, and shadow animation to give a sense of the battles and prison experiences of Maduro’s life.

The Rebellion against the Spanish was part of the 80 Years War, or the War of Dutch Independence. It was a combination of religious rebellion (Catholic vs Protestant) and of course the tangled web of European nobility and the right to rule (collect taxes). The Dutch were tired of being controlled by the Catholic Spanish, and William of Orange provided a central figure to rally around. The presentation was captivating. We entered a war room of the mid 1500, decorated with all appropriate trimmings. We sat at a large table and the video projected a revolutionary leader apprising us of the dire situation, and of the need to go to war for Prince William. We were made in large part to feel like active participants in the planning of the rebellion.

The last performance I visited was the most elaborate. We started off by going in a dark ship’s hold. The space was decorated with ship’s stores and some animals and it swayed slightly to represent the waves at sea. A ship’s captain narrated the journey of the Dutch pilgrims to the Americas, including a small storm with special effects. When the “ride” was over, we emerged into the harbor of New Amsterdam where we stood on the quayside and watched the invasion of the British. Well before the American war for Independence, this battle was fought between the Dutch and English for control of the colony, and the port city later named New York, after the English won. We were encouraged to take up “firelighters” to ignite the cannons before us and try to sink the English ships. Very fun and interactive, but sadly historically inaccurate and loaded down with propaganda.

I didn’t have the best cultural connection with the Dutch. While I found the individual Dutch people I met to be courteous and friendly, the culture as a whole felt to me like one of wealth and entitlement. Madurodam was far from the only place I encountered these attitudes while there. Basically every Dutch written info blurb or tour guide about this country did this at least a little, but the shows at Madurodam were best at putting them in a clear and succinct way that helped me identify my unease.

They’re rich and proud of it, but more they know they got rich with the Dutch East India trading Co. and rampant colonialism and they’re proud of that. Like ‘we are so awesome cause we built better ships than those horrible English and we got billions of euros of equivalent wealth by exploiting “unexplored” regions of the world’. Oh and ‘we invented democracy a 200 years before America when we fought a revolution against the Spanish (for King William) and we are responsible for everything good about New York, which was completely devoid of people (Indigenous People don’t count, right?) when we arrived to build it’.

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I did not know anyone was still bragging about colonial wealth. A lot of people (mostly white and Western) benefit from it, but most of us at least try to acknowledge it was a horrible atrocity. They seriously brag about it here all the time. At Madurodom, it was laid on so thick I felt like I was drowning in it. Holland and I are not destined to be friends until this country gets woke about it’s role in global wealth inequality and gets rid of the saying, “God made Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

The miniatures were of excellent quality, and it was a cute park. Despite the colonial superiority complex, I still took a million pictures, which I have winnowed down to the top 50 in this video.


Miniature Wonderland, Hamburg

The miniature museum was astonishing. It is completely different from the other two miniature parks. Both Mini-EU and Madurodom were outdoor parks that focused on reproducing famous architecture in miniature with great detail. Miniature Wonderland is an indoor attraction (climate control!), and focuses on the tradition of model trains. If someone had told me “model trains” I would not have gone, and I would have missed out. I don’t know what most people think of when they hear “model trains” but I think of the train, the tracks and maybe some engineering specs with a side note of mini-landscapes. At Miniature Wonderland, the landscapes the trains travel through are far and away the stars of the show. The trains are fun, but in many ways, merely an added detail. Although, I did see the Hogwarts Express pass by once, and that was a nice touch. I took so many more pictures here than at the other two parks I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 50 photos, so there are 2 videos. Here’s the first one.

Famous places were replicated, but in the style of a model train set, rather than a single building. As a consequence, there were many reproductions of famous landscapes, as well as cities, and towns. There was so much detail not only in the buildings but in the humans! There were thousands and thousands of tiny miniature humans engaging in every activity imaginable. There were passengers in the trains and people inside the buildings. I even found some nude bathers in a secluded lakeside retreat!

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In addition, everything moved and lit up, not only one or two attractions, but nearly everything. Every building and car had working lights. Of course the trains moved, but also ski lifts, and airplanes, and dolphins in the sea! Some were button activated, others on a timer. It was enchanting. Moreover, the lights would change from day to night and different things would be visible. At night, all the buildings lit up and you could see the delicate window dressings, or be a peeping tom and see what people were doing inside. During the day, the landscapes and building exteriors were on display, while the insides of buildings were dark and hidden. 

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The museum spans two floors in a large warehouse building near the water. Although there is a gift shop, and a restaurant, most of that space is dedicated to the models. There’s also a central control area where several employees monitor the trains movements and other activities around the scenes.

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My only complaint is that many of the viewing areas were cul-de-sac, so once you got in to see the point of interest, you were sort of trapped fighting the tide to get back out. Mini-EU had a single path with easy to follow arrows that kept the flow of people moving and avoided clumps or jams. The Wonderland was much harder to move around.

A local woman visiting with her husband noticed I was on my own and took it upon herself to point out the curious and interesting details around the various sets. She would run off and then come back to show me something else, and before she left she made sure that I wouldn’t pass by the Lindtt Chocolate factory which gave out actual pieces of chocolate!

I watched Mt. Vesuvius explode and pour lava made of light down onto a tiny replica of ancient Pompeii.

And we all flocked to the airport whenever a plane was ready for landing or departure.

There was even a miniature miniature park!

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Tickets are sold for an entry time, and you can stay as long as you like afterward (until closing). Early morning and late night tickets are cheaper, and I got a deal on a combo harbor boat tour. I enjoyed the boat trip, but seriously underestimated the amount of time I would want to spend inside the miniature display, and while I was shuffling out as the exhibits were being shut down for the night I felt I had still seen less than half of the stunning hidden delights tucked away in the extraordinary displays. Here’s 50 more of my top photos from the second half of the displays.

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Fairground Museum Paris

My travel tastes tend to range from the classic bucket list items to the hipster “you went where?” items. On my first trip to Paris, I visited the major must-dos like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery. At that time my “off the beaten track” experience was going to see my friend perform Burlesque at La Féline Bar. Sadly, I never had the chance to write this trip as my life in 2015 became rather hectic shortly afterward. I did upload my photo albums, however, so you can still see those on the Facebook Page by following the links on each location above.

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For my second trip to the city of lights, I made it to the Catecombs, a couple art museums, and a bike tour of the hot spots, which I’ll be writing about later. My more obscure find was a tiny museum of Fairground Arts, the Musée de Arts Forains. It’s actually not a public museum, but the private collection of Jean Paul Favand. It includes object d’art from fairgrounds around Europe in the 19th century. The museum has done extensive restoration on the artworks, and patrons are free to ride and play many of the “exhibits” on display. It was enchanting beyond all expectations and lasted just under 2 hours.

No Bag Storage? Starbucks!

Since the collection is private, the museum doesn’t keep regular opening hours, and tours are by appointment only. I was slightly desperate to go, but the only time a tour was available during my 6 days in Paris was the afternoon of my very last day, the day I was planning to catch a bus onward to Brussels. I had no choice but to choose that day, and move my bus to a later time. I’m so glad I did.

20180701_133424.jpgI had to check out of my Airbnb by 10am, and my host did not offer any variety of luggage storage. Neither does the museum offer any sort of cloak room or bag-check room. I checked a few websites for storage options, but it turns out that there are only a few places around town where it’s even possible and they are mightily expensive. I was travelling light (backpack only, yes, that is my actual luggage for the whole 7 week trip), but it was still at least 10-12 kilos, which can become tiresome to carry for many hours.

My tour was at 2pm, and I didn’t want to walk around Paris with all my luggage, so I headed straight to Bercy where both the museum and the bus would be found. I zeroed in on Starbucks for a clean bathroom, an iced latte, and a place to sit while waiting. This long haul travel is giving me some new appreciation for the use of American stand-bys. I’ve become addicted to iced lattes in hot weather, and the French seem to think that ice in coffee is anethema. Even McDonald’s McCafe failed at providing iced coffee options, but Starbucks is the same world wide with a few exceptions for seasonal specials.

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I love French coffee, and I could have sat at a cafe the whole time I was waiting. No one kicks you out of a restaurant in Paris. Oddly Starbucks was a cheaper option since a coffee here is a tiny shot of espresso for 2€ or maybe a small cafe creme for 3.5-4€. At Starbucks, I got a Venti iced latte for 4.65€. I don’t want to be the tourist who goes abroad and only visits American chain stores, but sometimes, especially on a long trip, it’s nice to have the choice. Free clean bathrooms, cheaper large (iced) coffee, air-con, and free wifi do make it an ideal place to kill time if you have to.

Getting There

The museum was easy to find, although it looked a little foreboding from the outside. The grounds are covered in fences and the buildings all have shuttered windows. The tour guides only speak French, but they were kind enough to make an English language pamphlet that contained the pertinent information about each area of the museum we would visit. I read through it while waiting for the group to assemble, hoping that it might help me follow along.

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When we finally assembled and began the tour, my feelings were primarily childlike glee. My joy wasn’t the only childlike feeling I had. Standing in the courtyard listening to the guide talk in French I had a sudden flash of understanding of how every kid must feel when tour guides talk and there’s nothing to look at or do. I tried to listen, but he talked so fast I couldn’t catch much. Fortunately, as he pointed out to us, it’s really a visual tour. The courtyard was pretty and I enjoyed the gargoyles and decorations amid the trees and flowers, but I was impatient to get inside.

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The Giant of Bercy

This is the story he was telling while we were standing outside. I found the English version later. According to legend, Kind Louis XIV came to Bercy to attend mass at a nearby cathedral. Of course, all of his subjects were expected to kneel before their king during his royal visit, but when the time came for this obeisance, one man remained standing. When the guard were sent to investigate, it turned out the man was kneeling after all, but he was a giant who loomed above the crowd even in genuflection. The giant was a vintner named Martin, who used this unique chance to meet the king to talk about the taxes on wine merchants in Paris.

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Charmed by the giant and amused by his complaints, the capricious king decided to grant the Pavilions of Bercy a tax exemption. The 106 acre region became closed off behind walls and ware houses with railroad tracks leading to the Seine where wine shipments could be transferred by boat. The buildings that now house the Musée d’Arts Forains were at one point warehouses and market buildings.

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It wasn’t all wholesale business, however, and Bercy was also known for it’s wine bars and guiguettes where patrons could sip by the glass or by the bottle in convivial company.  Such an atmosphere prompted festivals, fireworks and other fun, giving Bercy it’s reputation as a joyful place.

The Venetian Rooms

As soon as we stepped inside I realized the photos I found online do not come close to representing the atmosphere of this place. Beautiful pieces of art displayed around a centerpiece of a merry go round from a classic Venetian style carnival. There was no roof, as a modern carousel might have, and most of the seats were elaborate gondolas and carriages with a few ornate animals with saddles. Our guide invited us to hop in for a ride and we whirled around to a recording of the original music.

 

After the ride, we stayed seated but turned to face a wall which was decorated as the Grand Canal. The lights dimmed and we were treated to a beautiful light show that had clearly been made just to fit the size and shape of the room. We went from outer space, to under water, to a cityscape, a gondola ride on the river, a ballroom and a theater as the lights and sounds created this beautiful illusion.1377478_584720024920209_317152709_n

The adjacent room was an animatronic opera with singers mounted around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. The lights and speakers moved as different characters (including Columbine, Harlequin, and Cassanova) sang and the robots moved. It was like Disneyland’s tiki room or hall of presidents.

It was easy for me to wander away from the group or start behind as they moved on and get photos of the rooms with no people. Since I couldn’t really understand, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Sadly, the rooms were so dark that most of my photos are only any good for jogging my memory of the experience.

The Carousel-Salon

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In the 19th century, the Fairground was quite popular, and the Carousel-Salon was a style of fairground that included the pipe organ, the carousel, a ballroom for dancing, and of course, a bar.

Our guide cranked up the pipe organ, which was stunningly loud, and I took the time to get a closer look at some of the statues and carvings around the room. The detail of craftsmanship in these pieces was impressive. It was clear that the fair or carnival was much more than it is today. When I think of the clunky state-fairs of my childhood covered in bare bulb blinking lights and cheaply airbrushed panels on easily disassembled rides and booths, I can see how much we’ve lost in the last century of fairgrounds.

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Once the pipe organ ended it’s song, we were invited to ride again. This time, a more familiar carousel with the faux tent roof and a few horses that trotted up and down as the ride goes around. My only complaint is the the tours allow more people than there are seats. The guide ran the ride twice but I didn’t get to ride a moving horse either time. Despite this small disappointment, I had tremendous fun riding the antique carousel inside a room filled with similarly antique carnival rides, games, and decorations.

Vue d'ensemble du manège de chevaux de bois du Musée des Arts Forains

We rode a pedal powered carousel as well. It was made up of a circle of large brass bicycles. This carousel was all about the thrill of speed. When the device was in use, warnings had to be issued that if a patron should lose their footing, they should not try to catch the pedals. Apparently the speed and force of the pedals resulted in more than one lost foot. The cycle carousel was capable of reaching 40mph (65kph) which in 1861 was dizzyingly fast! Once upon a time it also ran on electricity or steam, but the museum’s ride was purely pedal-powered. Don’t think that makes it less impressive. With every seat filled, the cycles seem more like a roller coaster ride than a carousel.

Vue d'ensemble du Manège de Vélocipèdes du Musée des Arts Forains

There were many other oddities, pieces from other rides, and classic fairground games to look at as well. German swing boats, card tables, shooting galleries, and exotic animals lined the walls around us. Electric lights and moving pictures will still a novelty often found only at such public shows. One of the most famous shooting games is the French Waiters. I’ve seen similar racing games in most modern carnivals and fairgrounds. Shooting at your target advances your waiter and the first one to the finish is the winner.

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Next we entered a room full of oddities and treasures. It was Jean Favand’s own Cabinet of Curiosities including oddities such as a tree that could grow a leg and a dwarf in a boot. The center piece was made to look like the balloon of Baron Munchausen made by the collector himself. Esmerelda, the patroness of the funfair is depicted dancing. There was a huge papier-mâché elephant with a glamorously dressed rider, and Unicorn Cave is made from petrified wood, preserved plants, and mythical creatures.

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Our guide showed us a game called Palio di Sienna that was played by spinning a top through arches to hit a bell,and we all got to participate in a racing game that seemed like a combination of skee-ball and the shooting racer. Instead of hitting a target, you roll a ball into numbered holes for points, and your racehorse advances a little or a lot depending on how many points you got. The group played four times and I sat only one. It was very popular!

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We ended the tour with a waltz in a music room. A self playing orchestra like the ones I would later see in Utrecht played a waltz comprised of 12 different musical instruments. Members of the tour group paired off and danced joyously around the dance floor while waxwork oddities looked on. Great historical figures like Victor Hugo and Thomas Edison stared down, dressed in disguise, and an unimaginably queer unicornitaur (like a minotaur, but the head of a unicorn?) stood by a grand piano ready to deliver a song that would never play.

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The fall in Korea has been keeping me busy. I volunteered to teach a debate club this semester and I’ve been trying to get out to a few more local social groups, maybe join a book club or two. We’ve also had a lot of school holidays. Last year, the three main fall holidays came together for one glorious 10 day vacation, but this year they’re spread out across three weeks. Counter-intuitively, this has actually made more work for me, and given me less time at my desk to work on this blog.  I would also like to shout out to the beautiful photogs who donate to Creative Commons because they saved my bacon from my tragically dark-derpy camera, and provided beautiful royalty free images for me to share. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this hidden gem of Paris.

Chocolate! A Glorious Day in Brussels

I don’t know about you, but the current news cycle has me going back and forth between fiery rage and hide-in-bed anxiety, so I decided to write about something everyone can agree is wonderful: chocolate. Belgium is known for it’s high quality chocolate, despite not being able to grow cocoa, and that’s because it was a Belgian who first perfected the blend of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk that became the creamy, bitter-sweet confection we are all addicted to today. Naturally, as a lifelong chocoholic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a full day visiting the best that Brussels has to offer. I pulled a basic itinerary from another blogger, and modified it a little to suit my own needs. I also made a couple of extra stops in the days afterward to round out my Belgian Chocolate Experience. Get a napkin, because you may drool.


I’m not going to go into the history of chocolate (it’s fascinating), nor am I going to give detailed information on the chocolate flavor profiles (just as complex as wine). I’m also not going to do a lot of explaining of basic chocolate vocabulary. I think most of you can still enjoy these descriptions without that, but if you are curious to learn more about chocolate, I suggest you check out any of the websites of the chocolateries I visited in Belgium.

After each shop and description of individual candies, I’ve given my rating out of 5 stars and my recommendations for what to try. You can decide which shops are most appealing to you to make your own Brussels chocolate tour. Nearly all of them have multiple locations within a walking radius in Sablon, but those that are a little farther out are well worth the bus ride.20180711_201616

A note about being a tourist: When I read about chocolate touring in Brussels, I was warned that shops did not give out samples, but that single pieces would be about 1-2€. I was prepared for the price of fine chocolate, but I was delighted to find it wasn’t actually true. Nearly every shop I went into was happy to let me try one or more of their flavors if I stopped and talked about it with them. I’m guessing that other tourists have found the shops to be sample stingy because they want to go in and get free chocolate without engaging anyone socially. For me, chatting with the staff was half the joy of this chocolate self-tour! They are friendly and very knowledgeable about the history of chocolate and of their own shop. I also found that most places were very reasonably priced if you were willing to have your pieces in a bag, rather than a fancy box.

Neuhaus

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160 years ago, Jean Neuhaus (depicted in chocolate to the right) discovered the magical combination of ingredients that has lead to every chocolate confection and candy bar you’ve ever enjoyed. His chocolaterie is easily the most famous in the world, and it was my first stop.

Best Truffle in the World: No really, it won the award. It was given to me as a sample. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best chocolate I’ve ever eaten but I think it might be the epitome of “truffle”. The chocolate was not too bitter, not too tart, not too sweet, just the Goldilocks zone of chocolate and cream, dusted with cocoa powder. Simple and elegant.

Irrésistibles Coffee: Everyone in Belgium has ganaches, pralines, and truffles out the wazoo, but Neuhaus is the only place you can find the “Irresistables”. These little triangular gems are made with a base of nougatine (a crispy caramelized sugar), filled with cream or ganache, and enrobed in chocolate. I has the coffee ganache flavor. The coffee is very subtle, the filing is quite smooth, and the nougatine is delightfully crunchy and caramelly.

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Hazelnut Creme Cone: The cones are “just filling”, held together with a gold foil cone instead of a chocolate shell. The hazelnut flavor was creamy and smooth with tiny bits of nut, not too sweet and good balance of chocolate, cream and hazelnut flavors. I could eat a dozen. In fact, I went back another day and got more because these were some of my favorite treats from the whole tour!

4 stars: The cones are tantalizing, and the Irrisistables are so unique. Plus, it is the oldest chocolaterie in the world.

Mary

Mary Delluc was the first female chocolatier in Belgium. She also designed the boxes of silk back in the day, and though they use paper now it’s still her design.

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Champagne Truffle: The champagne flavor is clear and the texture contrast of the brittle chocolate outside and very soft creamy inside is nice. It was a little sweet for my personal tastes.

Earl Grey Ganache: There is no bad chocolate here, but it’s harder to judge the middle players after eating the best. I can’t really taste the bergamot flavor here. It’s a pleasant chocolate, but just chocolate. It’s disappointing because the truffles are good.

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Violet Ganache: The flavor is subtle and the flower is more of an aftertaste. At first I thought it wasn’t there but as the chocolate left my tongue the violet became more obvious. I think violet tastes a bit like bubble gum. I noticed this when I tried violet liquor some time ago. The chocolate is good quality, the ganache is very smooth.

Champagne Rose Truffle: This is made with ruby chocolate, which was just introduced to the chocolate world one year ago in 2017 by Swiss chocolatiers at Barry Callebaut. The champagne flavor comes through strong. The powdered sugar exterior is a bit sweet, but the overall flavor is more mild cleanly chocolate. It was my favorite at this shop.

3 stars: Her chocolates aren’t my favorite, but it’s worth stopping by for the history and the champagne truffles.

Dandoy

Dandoy isn’t a chocolaterie, it’s a waffle shop. Waffles: the other confection Belgium is famous for. I didn’t know, but there are different types of Belgian waffle. I tried the Leige style with stracciatella ice cream. It was more chocolate chip than stracciatella, but still good.

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The waffles are magically caramel on the outside. It’s as if a thin crispy later of sugar was caramelized. On the inside the Leige waffle is dense and bread-like, though think sweet bread like a cinnamon roll. Creamy ice cream is the best topping choice since it breaks up the sugar with fat.

Be careful if you order take out. They’re really serious about it, and won’t let take out orderers sit at the tables outside. If you want a table, you must request a seat and order from your waiter, not from the counter. The cost is the same.

4 stars: You have to try the waffles in Belgium, you might as well go for the famous name.

Chocoholic

I stopped to take pics of the tool shaped chocolate. Found …other… shapes. This shop isn’t anything to write about flavor-wise. The chocolate is mid-range and the flavors are unimaginative. It is purely a novelty shapes shop.

1 star: Don’t bother.

Pierre Marcolini

20180711_144153While I was interrogating the staff about their chocolate it became apparent they were only selling boxes (8 piece minimum). When I asked about the possibility of only buying a few pieces, I was sent upstairs to a little dining area. Although their chocolates focus mainly on single origin, bean to bar flavors, they do have a signature dessert line called the “Desir” which comes in a variety of flavors from white to dark chocolate and passing through a range of fruit and nut compliments.

20180711_170134Desir Noisette: I felt I had died and gone to heaven. The desert starts with a cookie base, followed by a hazelnut mousse filling, the center of which nestled a jewel of  custard and caramel, coated in more chocolate and caramel. 

I talked with the staff about my chocolate loves, and my plans for the day. I told them that chocolate and hazelnut was my all time favorite flavor combination, and the waiter gave me three hazelnut pieces to try. ❤ I don’t know their names, so I can only describe them by shape. 

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Round: The chocolate is very intense and a little bitter. The texture is dense with crunchy bits, probably a praline. 

Square: It is sweet and very crispy. Almost like many thin layers of sugar or dough. The hazelnut flavor is strong, while the chocolate flavor is lighter.

Oval: Similar in intensity and flavor to the square, but with a gooey later of liquid salted caramel in the center. Just what it needed to balance the sweet and crunchy. It is the clear winner.

5 stars: I can’t imagine not liking anything there, but make time to sample a Desir, you will not regret it.

Laurent Gerbaud

20180711_151334This shop is a little far out of the way but it is 100% worth the detour. It is a beans to bar production which means they actually make the chocolate from scratch. Most places buy chocolate from a bulk supplier and then add their own flavors. A few more places in Belgium are moving away from the couverture and into the beans to bar. My top 3 picks in Belgium are all bean to bar makers. Laurent Gerbaud is one of them.

In addition to making their own chocolate, their fillings are incredibly creative and diverse. Most other chocolatiers here have the same flavors, each shop having maybe one or two unique twists, but Laurent Gerbaud goes all over the flavor map! I love it! 

20180711_151022Black Olive Ganache: This award winning flavor was given to me as a sample. I probably wouldn’t have bought it just to find out, but they were excited to show off. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The filling evoked raisin and anise notes as my brain tried to reconcile chocolate and olive. I did have some cognitive dissonance as my palate refused to accept the blend. The second bite was smoother. Since I’m not really a fan of anise or raisin it wasn’t a winner for me, but neither did I feel the need to brush my teeth afterward. It went a long way toward showing me the skill of the makers.

Candied lemon peel: I’m used to candied fruit having more sticky chewy and this one seemed a bit dry for my taste. The lemon flavor is solid, no acidity and not overly sweet, and the chocolate is great, but the texture is a little odd.

Ginger praline: A milk chocolate filling that was light and creamy. There were candied ginger bits for added texture. The gigner was prominent but balanced.

Sesame praline: Stunning! It’s like the best halva in amazing chocolate. I could eat it by the pound. The toasting flavor comes through, there’s a crispy texture from the sugar, and the chocolate just glides in to the mix.

Marzipan: Good crystalized texture, not too sweet, nice blend with the dark, rich chocolate.

Chai ganache: Good balance of flavors, playing well but not overpowering the chocolate. It’s a savory chai which is almost like a sweet curry. I actually thought it WAS the curry at first, but the real curry had more heat.

Curry ganache: Nice spice blend, similar to the chai but with an added bonus of heat. Like everything here it’s well balanced between chocolate and infusion and sweetness.

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5 stars: Even the flavor I would not have imagined was well done. Things that are traditionally sweet are still only lightly sweet. They don’t need to use too much sugar to cover sad flavors because their flavors are amazing! Excellent ganache infusions and a truly magical sesame praline!

Corné Port Royal:

20180711_164350Pistachio Marzipan: So sweet! Even with the dark exterior. The almond flavor was ok, but the pistachio was not noticeable. 

20180711_165054Manon Sucre Vanilla: This shop is famous for inventing this particular confection, although other shops make and sell it now, too. It is so so so sweet. Nougat creme and nuts in white chocolate. It’s like someone took divinity and added white chocolate and whipped cream. Not… bad? Just so much sugar! I think the filling would have been great as a contrast to a dark, bitter exterior but only vanilla and coffee were on offer.

Ganache Violette: I was disillusioned with this shop by the time I tasted this one, and really only did so to compare it to Mary’s violet ganache. Here the chocolate is more tart/citrusy, where Mary is balanced, the ganache is thick where Mary’s is lighter, and although the final taste in Mary’s was more of an after taste, here it feels overpowered by bitter chocolate and extra sugar.

White chocolate speculoos praline: It was better than the Manon and the marzipan, but still quite sweet. Not a unique flavor, so I’d say just try the speculoos praline elsewhere if you’re curious.

1 star: Sugar, sugar, sugar. Seriously, I don’t know how this place is on the famous list. The white and milk chocolates are overly sweet, the special flavors are not present or are overpowered. Disappointing. Skip it.

Mathilde

20180711_183057Another “historical” stop. The dark chocolate here is a little on the fruity/sour side. Some people like that in a dark chocolate, I prefer the earthy flavors. The chocolate squares came with things like pop rocks, m&ms, or artificial fruit flavored dots. The chocolate bonbon balls were uninspired and bland flavors.

 Anywhere but Brussels, I’d call this good mid-range chocolate, but it’s much to expensive for it’s quality. 4.9€ per 100g, and the shop was one of two that had a minimum  I liked the samples but those were simple chocolate squares. I ended up buying more novelty flavors and some of the bonbon balls to fill out the 100g… I was frankly disappointed.

2 stars: Perhaps their liquors, spreads and vinegars are more impressive, but as for chocolate? Skip it.

Elizabeth

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Bay leaf / Laurier groseilles: The flavor is very subtle. The chocolate is dominant, and the filling is very smooth. Overall, it is rich and earthy with a pleasant bitterness.

Black cardamom /ganache cardamone: This one had a strong fruity flavor like berry? No sign of cardamom. It tastes good… but what flavor is it? I should be able to tell.

Jasmine ganache: Why can’t I tell what flavor it is when it’s in my mouth? I know what these things are supposed to taste like. Again more tart and citrusy, maybe a little earthy, but not clearly recognizable as floral.

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Orange Fleur de Sel: It is sweeter with a milk chocolate exterior, less acidic, probably orange peel. I can find the orange but it is very very faint. The fleur de sel is more a suggestion than a flavor. It tastes good, but not especially like what it’s supposed to taste like.

Chocolate truffle (sample): Delicious and rich, it has the perfect sweetness with a light crunch from a layer of cookie.

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Caramel rose / truffon rose: I ate this last and it blew my socks off! Liquid caramel, buttery and with the edge of bitterness that I like in caramels. The rose flavor is prominent and balanced and so easy to find, but it doesn’t hide the richness of the caramel or the chocolate. The dark outside layer is a little on the acidic side but not enough to put me off that amazing filling!

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Lemon meringue (sample): Next to the Elizabeth chocolates is the Elizabeth meringue shop. I’ve had meringues before but never imagined they could be so good. The crispy outside dissolved in my tongue like a cloud and the inside was chewy but light. I don’t think they sell them individually unless you but a huge one. But great to try!

A parade came by while I was inside. The shop woman told me it was Flemish Independence day. They aren’t independent, they just want to be, so they have this event every year to rally support.

4 stars: Worth going if you stick to the truffles and caramel on the chocolate side. Skip the flavored ganaches, but DO make time for the meringues next door.

Benoit Nihant

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While I was chatting up the generous staff at Pierre Marcolini, they recommended another shop that was not on my list. When a quality chocolatier tells you to visit a rival shop, you know you have to go, but it was too far out for me to get to on the same day.

When I finally had time, I hopped on a bus that took me practically to the door and was greeted by a bubbly and kind woman behind the counter. She was blown away that Pierre Marcolini staff had recommended me to go there and happily told me about all the chocolates on offer. It’s beans to bar, and high quality, but as a smaller and younger shop they can’t afford the rent in Sablon yet, which is a tragedy because they are amazing.

She was so excited to share with me, I tried several different flavors before deciding what to do my box with. The minimum is 4 pieces at 5€, but it is so worth it.

Sesame: The balance of flavor chocolate is perfect. The toasted sesame comes through clearly without hiding the chocolate or bring hidden. Just sweet enough, and a good earthy chocolate base.

Strawberry with Sichuan Pepper: I was warned this was sweet, the strawberry is a jelly and the pepper is a ganache infusion. The jelly was very sweet and the pepper and chocolate were both a bit run over. It was a good jelly with amazing fruit flavor and smooth texture but the lady helping me was correct when she said it was sweeter than I was really looking for. She says all the jellies are like this, so I didn’t get any others, although the fig raspberry and pear cardamom both looked intriguing. 

Baracoa from Cuba, Single Origin:  Rich and creamy, it was pushing the tart side  a little but not over the line. These are made with a simple ganache filling to show off the unique flavor of the origins.

Marzipan:  I had a marzipan from the sample dish. It is the best marzipan I have ever put in my face. They use 70% almonds to keep it from being too sweet. In addition to the almond, there are light floral notes and dreamy dark chocolate robe.

I did actually buy some chocolates that day as well. I took away a box with 4 more flavors.20180713_205150Earl Grey Ganache (two lines): This has a beautiful dark chocolate flavor, not acid or sweet, but earthy with a slight astringency from the tea. The bergamot is subtle, but it’s still a delightful piece.

Orange Thyme (orange line): It has abright zest flavor, without being too citrusy. The thyme is subtle but ads depth and range to the flavor I don’t think you’d get with just the orange alone. The chocolate is still amazing.

Cuyagua Village Single Origin from Venezuela (gold line): Just so good. Intense chocolate flavor smooth and clean with a tiny hint towards the fruity but just a whisper to make it interesting. Light and bright, but strong and powerful. The ganache is smooth and dense and helps spread the flavor access the tongue. Much love. Single origin is meant to highlight the unique flavor of a region rather than other ingredients.

4 Spice Praline (silver line): I was told this was classic gingerbread spices. Definitely true. The praline had a nice crunch and crisp with a lovely gingerbread flavor. Not too sweet, beautiful classic chocolate, the spices are there but quiet. It’s a classy candy.

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I loved Benoit Nihant so much that I hunted down their shop in Leige when I was there later in my trip. The weather was so hot that my chocolates melted a bit on the boat ride, so the textures were impacted by that, but it was still a trancendant experience.

Haceinda Single Origin: This one was dark and creamy, fruity without being overly acidic, with a slight spicy finish. Bear in mind, all that complexity comes from the chocolate alone, since there are no fruits or spices added. It’s a little like wine tasting.

Marzipan Pistachio: Since the original was so good, I decided to try the 2.0. It’s still delicious, but a bit sweeter. There is clearly a diffusion or mixture that isn’t all almond, I would not have been able to say it was pistachio if no one told me. Really good marzipan. I think I’ll stick to the original if I ever get another chance.

Peanut Praline: It’s like the most sophisticated peanut butter cup you’ll ever eat. It walks straight up to the edge of burnt sugar, bringing bitter, salty, sweet, and peanut in with the chocolate together with a nice crunch.

Hazelnut Praline: Surprisingly not as good as the peanut. It still has a dark close to burnt caramel in the praline. I can’t tell if the texture was off because of the melting but it seemed a bit more granular than it should be.

Lavender Ganache: Wow! Good lavender flavor without being potpourri. I love florals but balance is hard. I had become disenchanted with the violet ganaches in other shops and interrogated the shop staff mercilessly about this, but they nailed it!

Mint Ganache: This transported me back to my mother’s garden. The mint flavor is so fresh and natural I can taste the green. I believe it must have been made with fresh leaves in the infusion and not an extract.

Lime with Basil: The lime is dominant and reminds me of a lime chiffon or even a key lime pie, more like a creamy pastry lime than a drinks lime. The basil is a bit lost. Like the orange thyme, I think it added depth without drawing attention to itself.

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The staff in both places were pleased to talk endlessly about the chocolates and the shop. In Leige there is also a cafe next to the chocolate shop that sells several chocolate deserts as well as chocolate drinks. I didn’t get a chance to try anything on that side, sadly. I also learned that you don’t actually have to get a box for 5€. If you buy the chocolates in a bag it’s 100g for 9€, which works out to about 15 chocolates, but there is no minimum.

5 stars: I wish everyone on a chocolate tour of Brussels could take a side trip out here or find one of the other 5 stores in Belgium as they are not available anywhere else and are truly a treat worth having. Try anything, but especially the marzipan.

Galler
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Finally, I didn’t find this brand in a fancy shop in Sablon, but in nearly every grocery shop in the city. Galler praline bars were definitely a great score. They’re quite affordable and far superior to the average supermarket chocolate bar. Stop in a Del-Haize and grab your favorite flavor.

4 stars: Compared with the very best in Sablon, it might be 3, but taken in the context of the supermarket aisle, it blows away the competition.

Chocolate with Compassion

20180711_185029Chocolate is one of my favorite things on Earth, however it is an industry rife with slavery and abuse. Cocoa only grows in a few places on the planet and those are almost exclusively in 3rd world, developing nations in Central & South America, as well as Africa. Cheap chocolate companies use child labor, forced labor, and under paid labor, putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of the economic disparity between developed and developing nations.

In recent years, more and more fine chocolatiers have become interested in supporting these cocoa farmers by paying a fair price for this very labor intensive product. I often hear excuses about ethical consumerism around the basis of “all the companies do it”, or “how else am I supposed to afford xyz?”, but chocolate is a luxury and there are plenty of companies that source their cocoa responsibly.

Buying ethically sourced chocolate not only feels better, it often tastes better since these companies would not dream of diluting their top dollar cocoa with milk-fat, sugar, paraffin or other additives commonly used by the check-out aisle candy companies.

Please choose one of these the next time you want to indulge. Look for a label: Fair Trade, Fairly Traded, Jane Goodall, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ. You can see a list of many slavery-free chocolate companies at this website. Small chocolatiers are not listed, so if you have a neighborhood chocolatier, you can always ask them. People who use ethically sourced cocoa are proud to tell you.

Happy eating!


Writing about chocolate has helped take the edge off of the sheer horror that is the US News Cycle this week. I can’t say chocolate makes it all better, but there is a certain amount of truth in J.K. Rowling’s assessment that chocolate helps in the battle against the Dark Arts.  I will treasure this memory for as long as I have taste-buds, and I hope that you didn’t drool too much reading it 😉

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Hello Bohol: Waterfalls

On my last full day of vacation, everything on my Bohol checklist was done, but I was fighting for peace of mind after days of discord in what would turn out to be my shattered friendship. I will not air that laundry here, but it remains one of the hardest losses I’ve sustained in years. Seeking resilience and restoration that day, I turned toward the siren sounds of waterfalls. I adore waterfalls. Not only are they beautiful and fun if you can swim in them, but they also create negative ions. Any kind of massive moving water can do this, like pounding ocean surf or heavy rainstorms, even your shower. Studies started back in the early 2000s on the effects of negative ions on mood showed some promising results that walking on the beach when the waves are going, or visiting a waterfall can give you a major mood boost. Plus, they’re flippin’ gorgeous!


Mas Ago

20171007_095054.jpgMas Ago Falls is possibly the “most famous” of the Bohol waterfalls. I don’t mean to imply that it is famous, simply that of the dozens or more that dot the island, this one is better known and more often visited by tourists than any other. The drive time was a bit more than an hour, and there was a small fee to park my motorcycle and another small fee to enter the “park”. The parking attendant didn’t have any change so simply let me drive by and asked me to pay him as I left since the admittance fee collector would likely have change for me. She did, and also offered to hold my helmet in her office while I went down.

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I started down a long series of steep stairs. The falls and the river are at the bottom of a gorge. I could hear the falls long before I could see them. The stairs were wide, sturdy and well maintained, so I felt quite safe. My favorite waterfall near Seattle, Murhut Falls, was the other way around, and many others I’ve visited have been as well: a climb to reach, and an easier descent back to the parking lot. I knew as I descended that I would pay for the privilege of waterfall hunting with the uphill return later.

When I arrived at the bottom, it was clear that there had been some changes in the path. One branch led to a viewing platform where visitors could get a nice photo. Broken stairs led from the viewing area to the water, most likely destroyed in the earthquake. The stairs that now lead to the water were “blocked off” by a small stick, which I ducked under and proceeded onward. I felt emboldened to do this because there were already people at the river. There had been a heavy storm the night before, and there were what I presume to be park employees sweeping debris from the rocks to pretty up the area. There was also a father and son who had come down to the river for an early morning wash. It was quickly evident that none of them had been expecting a tourist so early in the morning.

The other effect of the previous night’s storm was that the falls were engorged. Photos I saw online showed two thinner streams  of water coming down the 8m drop into a turquoise pool below. The day I arrived, it was one very large waterfall moving massive amounts of water dangerously fast. The pool was far more peridot than turquoise, but the water was churning roughly and there were branches of fallen trees visible as well. I know better than to risk a river moving that fast, and as I stared at the water coming to terms with the fact that I would not be able to swim, one of the men sweeping asked me just that, “do you want to go swimming?”

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Of course I did, but the water looked too dangerous, I replied. He showed me a spot further down the river, behind some large rocks where there were pools that were sheltered from the worst of the current and indicated they would be safe. In addition to the rocks, I noticed that part of a concrete staircase had fallen into the river here as well. I found some older pictures of the area online where the pool and river are clear, so I can only guess that the boulders and stairs now cluttering up the river were a result of the quake that affected so much of the region. Given the remote location of the falls and the size of the rocks, I doubt they’ll be cleared away, however they provided a nice shelter from the strong current, and in calmer times would be a great way to get out into the middle of the river for photo-ops.

I doffed my pants but kept the shoulder and back covering I’d worn over my swimsuit. It wasn’t modesty, but a desire to keep the sun away. I settled into a little pool between some rocks and enjoyed the blissfully cool water. The rocks are quite slippery, yet the native Filipinos had no trouble at all bouncing around from rock to rock as though they had the best traction available. I was only somewhat mollified when some of the passing tourists later also had trouble with the slippery rocks (no one was hurt, only dignity).

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Before long, the sweepers finished and left, then the father and son departed as well, leaving me alone with the waterfall. I was having a little difficulty because I couldn’t get to a spot where I could sit in the water and see the falls at the same time, and so took to moving back and forth between sitting atop a large river rock and watching, and sitting beside that same rock and cooling my sunburn in the water. A few tourists came down the steps, but most just took a few pictures and headed back up. One couple did come down to the part of the river I was at, just to wet their toes, and these were the ones who slipped, as I had, on the rocks. I was less worried about keeping my clothes clean, however, and just resorted to scooting.

The most interesting visit of the morning was when a group of university students from the local college of tourism came down to ask me if they could do a video interview of me for a class project. As a teacher, I am morally obligated to help out with student projects whenever I can, plus they seemed nice, so I agreed and they came carefully down to the slippery rocks so they could film me there in the water, and I answered some questions about where I was from and how I was enjoying Bohol.

Despite a few tourists and students, most of my time at Mas Ago was spent in solitude. It was quiet and refreshing. After a couple hours, the negative ions and natural beauty started working on my mood and I began to feel that addictive surge of wonder and gratitude that I’ve come to associate with exploring the world.

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When I left, I discovered everyone had gone for lunch. The main fee collection booth was empty and locked, although she had left my helmet on my bike, and when I tried to stop at the parking attendant’s booth to pay the fee I’d missed on the way in, he was gone too, and the barrier blocking traffic was propped up. It seems that while the tourist industry does want to collect their fees when possible, they aren’t too bent out of shape about people wandering in on breaks.

Google Inspired Adventures

My waterfall itch wasn’t quite satisfied, as I’d been unable to do much swimming, and had to keep my distance from the raging falls for safety. I pulled up my trusty Google oracle and searched the area simply for “falls” to see what would come up. Sure enough, the map showed two such designations within 30 minutes of my current location.

People gripe about millennials being attached to phones, and although I’m not actually millennial,  I am attached to my phone. I bring it everywhere, I make sure to get a data plan and have a back up battery at all times. And yes, I like posting cool photos on Instagram or sharing updates on Facebook, but the real reason my phone is a critical accessory in world travel is that it is the ultimate guide book. I can look for attractions, find directions, translate labels or signs, and sometimes find hidden gems that I would never have even known to ask about. So, please, don’t judge people who are tethered to the device until you know what they’re using it for, because the next adventure would not have happened at all without my phone and my Google.

Malingin Falls

20171007_133201.jpgAfter checking the routes, it seemed that even though it was farther as the crow flies, that it was closer as the motorcycle drives and so I headed over to this less well known waterfall site. After driving for a bit on well maintained roads, Google Maps directed me to turn down a dirt side road. I wasn’t especially bothered by this, since several places I’d visited during the last week were down this kind of side road. There was a sign at the intersection for the waterfalls. Although it was a very temporary kind of sign made of hanging vinyl, at least it told me I was headed the right way. As I continued down the road, the gravel and dirt gave way to mud and grass. I passed some bewildered locals and asked querulously if I was heading the right way to the falls. They indicated I was, so I kept on going.

Maybe I should have parked and walked a good bit earlier, but it was hot, and I was reasonably confident in my ability to keep driving as the road became more narrow. Once or twice I hit a mud puddle and slid around a bit, but I was going slow and making progress … until I wasn’t. I managed to drive right into a deep and long patch of mud that claimed the bikes tires and stopped me flat. Putting my feet down, I sank in the mud past my ankles, and I worked hard to get the bike unstuck, only running into the bushes once in the process. In retrospect, it might have been less work to walk the longer distance than to fight with the mud, but it wouldn’t have been as cool a story, and one of my favorite lifestyle adages is to live your life for the stories it creates.

I was finally forced to abandon the bike by the side of the path. I can’t call it a road anymore. I suspect that in drier times it would be easy to drive all the way to the stairs, but the previous night’s rainstorms made the road simply too slippery to drive past a point. I was a little worried about leaving my rental out in what felt like the middle of nowhere, but it seemed like the rural folk were a good deal more honest and trustworthy than city folk are rumored to be, and I had a reasonable expectation it would remain unmolested while I was away. I only walked a short distance before I began to hear the rushing of water that told me I was getting close, and in just a few more minutes, I crested a ridge that opened onto a little green river valley and a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole, complete with local swimmers.

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There was another staircase down the ridge, but as it was also covered in slippery mud, I took off my mud covered sandals and proceeded down slowly, clinging to the railing, and where the railing was gone, sitting down and scooting once more. I can only imagine the ridiculous image I presented to the locals (who have no trouble at all navigating these slippery steps in flip flops) covered in mud from my struggles on the path, carrying my backpack and helmet and treating the steps like a dangerous mountainside. I made it to the field and began the trek through yet more mud, slipping and falling at least once when I took an incautiously large step. I began to wonder if all those pumice stone scrubbings I do to keep my feet soft were actually a bad idea because it seemed that every place I put my feet they tried to slide out from under me, but I did eventually make it all the way to the water’s edge where I was greeted with some amusement and much courtesy by the families already there.

I didn’t bother to change. Swimming clothed is common in most parts of Asia and the Philippines is no exception. Besides, my clothes were so muddy I’d be getting cleaner by swimming in them.

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This was easily my favorite waterfall experience of the day. Although it was also the most challenging, I think in some ways that made it more valuable. The river and fields were just amazing. Talk about your basic Garden of Eden unspoiled natural environment! Although there were man-made additions, I thought they added to the experience. There was a kind of concrete mini-dam that formed a pool at the top of the falls and also a safety barrier to keep anyone from getting pulled over by the current (and a footbridge across). There were also some little huts to put belongings and enjoy picnics at while hiding from the sun. The main swimming area was well shaded under an enormous tree.

I was a bit worried about having awkward social encounters, but the people there were lovely. One woman admitted she was quite surprised to see me (although reassuring me I was very welcome) and asked how I had managed to find the place at all. Two teenagers who I think were siblings introduced themselves and chatted with me. The girl was excited when she found out I lived in Korea because she loves K-pop. The families enjoyed themselves taking photos of each other (and some selfies with me), jumping from the top of the falls to the pool below, running up and down the slopes and generally splashing it up.

My favorite thing to do was to rest against the barrier at the falls and let the water rush past me as I looked downriver at the beautiful jungle scenery.

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Eventually, the families started packing up, and although at first I thought I might stay longer, a group of young men showed up with a bunch of beer. It may have been no threat at all, but I’m afraid my life experiences simply don’t allow me to feel safe as the only woman in a group of men with alcohol in the middle of the woods… yeah, there’s no way not to make that sound like the beginning of a horror movie. I think if anyone else was staying I wouldn’t have been driven off by the young men, but I’d had such a pleasant experience so far, I didn’t want to risk it becoming uncomfortable, or dangerous, so I decided to leave as well.

Solo Female Traveling Safety

I do want to point out that I did not feel unsafe anywhere in Bohol. The worst thing that happened was a guy who came over to talk to us in the ocean the one time we were out after dark, and he was totally friendly. It’s so hard to judge men’s intentions when I’m traveling as a female alone (or with only another female companion). Many folks around the world ask about things like age and marriage by way of friendly conversation and I’ve had lots of women ask me these questions, no problem. Unfortunately, when men ask, I can’t be sure if they just want to chat or if they are scoping me out for anything from easy sex to potential wife. And I’ve encountered the whole range. Some men I’ve met have been lovely to talk with and I’m happy to keep in touch after we part ways. Others made me wonder if it was worth calling the police over. But the vast majority are in a gray middle ground of making me feel vaguely uncomfortable without doing anything overtly “wrong”.

With the “me too” campaign underway, it’s hard not to think about my negative experiences at the hands of men in the US and around the world: taxi drivers who’ve tried to cop a feel or propose marriage in the Middle East. A well meaning festival goer in Japan who insisted my life was unfulfilled without a husband, who insisted on taking my hand in the crowd, and who is still sending me messages 2 years later even after being told “thanks but no thanks” as politely as I can. And I don’t even want to get into anything worse, but yeah, it’s there. I’m sad and angry that I have to live my life assuming that a man is a predator until proven otherwise, but if you as a man are upset that women are treating you like a threat, don’t get mad at us, get mad at all the men who creep, harass, and assault, leaving us with no choice but to live on the defense.

Filipino men may all be perfect gentlemen, I don’t know, but I do know it’s not worth taking the chance. So, I wrung out my clothes and gathered my things and followed the teenagers up the steps.

Stuck in the Mud

I had almost as much trouble going up as coming down, and one older gentleman paused to give me a hand. In this case, my nervousness at taking his hand was that he was not braced on anything and I was sure that adding my weight to his would cause us both to slip down the concrete sairs and split our skulls open, but he stood firmly and confidently and helped me up the steepest parts until I could reach the railing and manage on my own. I am sure they’re hiding super feet, either suckers or tiny hooks… I honestly have no idea how everyone was so sure footed on the mud and algae covered rocks and stairs. Island magic.

I got back to my bike, which was right where I left it, and bid the kids farewell as I began to ride back up the trail. When I encountered the mud patches on the way back, I got off the bike and walked it around, my shoes dangling from the handlebars to keep them mud free. This worked fairly well for the first two or three puddles, but soon I came upon a huge low place in the road. Somehow I’d ridden through it on my way in, but looking at it on the way out it seemed like an impassable lake. To drive home the metaphor, I spotted a water buffalo up to it’s shoulders just next to the road. I tried two times to progress and was forced backward each time after only a step or two.

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While I stood at the edge of the watery road debating the best path through the mud and marsh, the teenagers who were on foot caught up with me (more evidence I should have just left the bike back at the first mud puddle  on the way in). They quickly realized my conundrum and politely refrained from telling me how silly I’d been to drive in this far with the roads in this condition (literally everyone else I’d seen that afternoon was on foot, although I had seen a few more bikes parked on the path). The young man graciously began to poke around the mud for the shallowest path through, guiding me and my bike wide around the road up into the grass, through the trees, and eventually back down on the other side of the huge morass. I suppose I would have gotten through eventually, but who knows how long it would have taken or how many more times I would have been stuck.

20171007_142554.jpgI was humbled by the absolute unselfish behavior of these teens. They were kind and patient, and generally the type of teenagers no one thinks exist anywhere in the world (love Facebook, K-pop, and their phones, but are kind and helpful to each other and strangers?). I hope that their lives are as good as they are.

I bid them farewell when they reached their homes, and I made it back to the main road without further incident. I was covered in mud to the knees again. I didn’t want to put on my shoes and I didn’t want to drive far barefoot, so I drove just far enough until I saw a little roadside convenience stand.

I couldn’t find anyone, but it seemed that the cashier window was open (or at least not boarded up), so I called out to see if someone was around. The building itself was attached to more domestic looking structures and hanging laundry was also visible. Eventually, some small children noticed me and one girl came over to sell me a packet of cookies and a large bottle of water. They were a bit flustered at having to make change (I was always running out of small coins), but managed it in the end and I sat down on the bench out front to clean up and have my snack. The mud hadn’t had time to dry yet, so rinsing my feet was easy enough, and once they were mud-free I was able to put my shoes back on and do some more serious driving.

Kawasan Falls

The third waterfall was another 20 or so minutes away according to Google, and I wasn’t sure I was up for another slog through the mud, no matter how wonderful the prize at the end. I debated for a while and decided to head over anyway, promising myself that if the road was too muddy, I would turn back. (the lies we tell ourselves)

I followed the directions along the main roads, finally finding the side road in question. There was another sign indicating that this was the way to Kawasan Falls. The side road was under construction, perhaps someone in the tourism industry realized that muddy dirt roads are a solid deterrent to the average tourist. I was somewhat encouraged at the easier drive, although the road workers laughed a bit as I passed by, they assured me that I was on the right road to the falls. I guess that solo motorbiking foreign women are not a common sight on Bohol.

Eventually, the construction ran out, and the road returned to it’s former dirt and gravel state, however places that would have otherwise been mud pits had been filled in with more gravel, making the overall drive much less sticky. It was still a bumpy, uneven, rocky road, but the mud puddles were avoidable and I was able to press on without having to turn back from obstacles. There was a bit of a lawn at the end of the road that was being used as a parking lot and a park attendant sitting next to the path through the trees. Once I was parked, he led me through a little trail to a haphazard entrance pavillion where a young lady collected the small entry fee. The man continued to lead me down the path, although it was the only one and there was no way I could have gotten lost.

We passed some small feeder falls, and a series of elevated huts which I assume could be rented out for a day to have your family gathering and picnic at with a great view of the falls and the downstream river. It was obvious that this site was gunning to become a bigger attraction. There were plenty of locals already there enjoying the day. Once we were in sight of the falls, the guide released me on my own recognizance. It was easily the most crowded place I’d visited that day. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if because this location had easier access it was just more popular.

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I waved hello to a bench full of locals who were tickled pink to see me there. I found a tree to dump my bag, shoes and helmet at and set about trying to figure out how to get out to the swimming area. Again, I observed that all the Filipinos have magical feet. As I was moving out toward where some kids were swimming one of the little girls stopped me with a warning about how slippery the rocks were, and I headed off disaster or at least embarrassment. While trying to get out another way, I got approached for some more ‘selfies with the tourist’. Sometimes I wonder if I look like someone famous. I don’t think my appearance is especially remarkable, and yet it seems to give people joy to take pictures with me. I don’t get it, but it’s harmless as far as I know, and doesn’t cost me anything to make someone else happy, so I do it. I hesitate to imagine how many random group photos I’m in from around the world.

Of the three falls I saw that day, although Malingin was my favorite overall experience, there is no contest that Kawasan was the most stunning visually. (Not to be confused with Kawasan over in Cebu which is super famous and crowded with tourists from what I hear). It was much taller than the other two, and of course because of the previous night’s rains it was pouring a magnificent amount of water. Despite the torrent, a group of young men had climbed up the rock-face (no stairs, no handholds, just magic feet) and were sitting behind the falls. Lots of kids and moms with little ones were in the shallower pools, and a few more emboldened swimmers were out in the deep pool directly beneath the falls.

I am a confident swimmer, so I was happy to get right up close. I ended up perching against some large rocks in the pool to rest and just take in the scenery. It was the pinnacle of what I had hoped for when I set out to swim under a fall that day, since I was submerged in the cool water only a few meters from the downpour, the strength of the wind created by the falling water blowing the wonderful clean smell (and negative ions) over me while I gazed upward to the sun-sparkled peak where the water leapt over the edge like liquid diamonds.

After a little while of pure “oh my god, this is my life” feelings, I noticed that the young men up on the sheer rockface were standing up and preparing to jump. I have nothing against jumping into water. I like diving. I may be overly paranoid about jumping into water I’m unfamiliar with, but I think it’s safe to assume these young men were regulars at this particular swimming hole. Nonetheless, it was a nailbiting scene, and it was clear that even the jumpers were more than a little nervous, one even performing a sign of the cross before leaping into the air. Everyone below watched and cheered so it became a group spectator sport and when they returned to the shore, the young men were welcomed by their waiting wives and girlfriends.

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One of them asked me if I wanted to try, and while I might have been ok with the jumping part, when I asked them how they even got up there in the first place, they pointed to a section of wall that looked incredibly vertical and slippery, so I declined. I did try my luck at getting closer to the falls, although I only made it about halfway across the deep pool before the current and force of the wind drove me back, but it was exhilarating to be able to get so close to so much natural beauty and power.

After I retreated back to the resting rock, I was approached by yet another set of tourism students from the university, out collecting interviews for what was very likely the same class project. Of course I agreed to appear on camera, but I can’t help imagining what that class will be like when they show their projects and two separate groups with interviews at two separate waterfalls show up with the same tourist in their report!

I would have happily stayed until it was too dark to see or I got kicked out. Especially because around this time the crowds started thinning out and I got to take some totally human free photos of the magnificent scenery. However, I had made dinner plans for my last night in town and didn’t want to cancel. Thus, I clambered cautiously back through the shallow pools filled with pointy rocks, gathered my belongings, and climbed back out of the river valley as the golden light of the afternoon sun cast it’s glow on the quiet jungle around me.

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And so ends the Chuseok Philippine Holiday. Like all the very best vacation posts, it takes me months to process all the stories and photos. My goal is always to get one vacation fully published before the next one, and while I didn’t have a winter vacation this year, I am doing a major upheaval in March as I move to a new city in Korea, rent my first Korean apartment on my own, and start a new job, so that seemed like a good deadline. I don’t know how much time I’ll have in March to write, but I hope that as the weather warms up and the flowers come out in April, I’ll have a cavalcade of new stories about this next leg of my journey. As always, you can see the full photo album on Facebook. Thanks for reading!

Hello Bohol: Historical Sites & History

When I was in high school I thought history was the most boring subject ever. Now I know it was just that history had the most boring teachers… and textbooks. Seriously, I don’t know how hard they have to work to make something so interesting seem so boring. However, since I know the secret these days, I love using my travels as an excuse to learn about the history of each place I visit. Bohol is far richer in history than I can fully explore here, but I enjoyed learning more about it, and I hope you will too.


Mostly Catholic Churches

I visited many of the large cathedrals left over from Spanish occupation that had distinctive stone architecture and European influenced art, but driving around I saw a great many smaller centers of worship. Most of the small churches around the island are a single “room”, wall-less or lattice walled affairs where the neighborhood can gather to worship. I took that picture on the right from the street. It’s not under construction, it just doesn’t have a wall there.

They are very devout Catholics over there. One evening on the way to dinner from the hotel, I drove past a procession of some kind, a mixture of genders and ages, but 4 men were carrying a liter with a statue of (probably) the Virgin Mary and a mountain of colorful flowers. They walked down our small street singing Ave Maria as they trailed after the statue. I didn’t take any pictures in part because I was driving, but also I felt it would have been a bit rude. These people weren’t worshiping in a place that was heavy with tourists and I felt as though I’d been allowed to witness something very personal.

The large historical cathedrals are well marked tourist spots however, so I have plenty of photos of those.

Panglao Watchtower & St. Augustine Parish

Before visiting,  I didn’t know much about the history of the island other than a little bit about the Spanish colonization. However, the watchtowers are listed on a great many “to do” collections, so when I noticed one nearby on Google Maps, I decided to stop and check it out. As I pulled in, several young men asked if I was there for an island hopping tour. This was one major tourist attraction I decided against before arriving simply because the descriptions I read online made it sound like a horrible hassle for little reward. I politely declined and found a shady tree to park under near the church of San Augustine. Some nearby cows who wandered over to see if I had anything interesting, but soon realized there were no treats.20171001_114802.jpg

The Panglao Watchtower is located on the south end of the island. It is 5 stories high, making it the tallest structure on the island. It was built in 1851 by the Spanish, and is in serious disrepair. I know almost nothing else about it, because it’s not a popular enough historical site to have much published about it online. I did find that around that time the Spanish and Filipinos were having a bit of a tiff over things like government control and secularization, so I suppose the watchtower built next to the church may have been out of a concern that the church could be attacked by secularists?

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I wandered around taking photos of the tower and the mangroves nearby before moving to the church. There were people inside, it was a Sunday after all, but it seemed to be a small meeting and not a full congregation and they were confined to one section of the church, so I quietly stepped in to an empty area to look around and take a few more pictures inside. As I stood looking at the art and architecture, I was struck by the very Spanish style before remembering that colonization of the Philippines was Spanish and not British.

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Finally, I walked out along the end of the pier all those island hoppers were using to see the ocean view. I didn’t know it at the time, I only found out days later when a restaurant owner told me, but apparently a local church runs a free ferry to the nearby Virgin Island (a stop on the island hopping tour), and if you want to know more, you’ll have to go to Nikita’s Coffee Shop and ask the old British guy who runs the joint, as I never had the chance to find that particular boat.

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Dauis Watchtower, Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, & The Miracle Well

My next goal was to find the Miracle Well, which is located at the Our Lady of the Assumption church on the north end of the island. There is a little matching cathedral and watchtower at both north and south, although the northern watchtower was so much shorter that I almost didn’t see it at all.

The church is just next to the bridge that leads over to Bohol. It’s easy to find parking, and the grounds are lovely. I wandered slowly around taking photos of the exterior of the church, some of the statues and grottoes around, the sea nearby, and a little brood of baby chicks because they were insanely cute. The watchtower is so low that I have no idea what one would be watching from it’s second story window, but it seemed to be a part of the set. Unfortunately, by the time I finished exploring the exterior, they were just closing up for lunch and I didn’t get inside (don’t worry, I came back another day).

Our Lady of Assumption is so close to the bridge to Bohol that I was able to pause there again on my way elsewhere for another shot at getting inside the church and finding the Miracle Well, but it wasn’t until my third stop at the church that I finally succeeded. At long last, the church was both open and unoccupied, so I was able to get inside without interrupting services.

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It is an open and intricately decorated church. Either it had been untouched by the earthquake or had been lucky enough to earn a full restoration because the inside was in excellent repair. The large sanctuary had stone walls, but also large windows to let in light and air. It was an interesting combination of the European style and island style. I wandered around taking pictures and looking for the well, which is supposed to be near the altar.

According to myth, the town was under attack by pirates (a thing which did happen regularly), and all the townsfolk locked themselves in the church (big stone building, makes sense). However, the pirates were determined and began a siege, trapping the townsfolk inside with no water! Then, miraculously, a fresh water well sprang forth at the foot of the altar and saved the people inside, allowing them to wait out the pirates who I suppose either got bored or were driven off by the Spanish navy. The well remains a source of fresh water to this day, despite the fact that it is a stone’s throw from the sea. The church offers bottles of this miraculous water for a donation of your choice.

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I searched everywhere. I saw no well. I looked online for images that might give me a clue where the well was, but the interior seemed to have undergone a remodel, and the few photos of the well I found were such close ups that I could not tell where in the church they were. Was I even in the right church? There were no signs, no informative plaques to tell visitors about this amazing miracle. Had I really come to the wrong church three times looking for a well that either didn’t exist or had been destroyed in the earthquake?

Finally, on my way out, I saw a small office with some people who looked at least a little bit like they were affiliated with the church and asked. A very kind lady not only assured me that this was the correct church, but led me over to the well, which was hiding unobtrusively amid a low wooden railing that separated the parishioner’s pews from the priest’s area.

I had seen the railing and the signs on it that said “no entry”, and had looked no further, but in one little section, the railing goes from being a single line, to being a square and there is enclosed the well, covered with Plexiglas to keep anything or anyone from falling in. 20171006_150623She took up a nearby lamp and shone it into the depths so that I could see the water below.

Once I’d taken a few photos, she walked me back over to the office and fetched a bottle of the “miracle water” for me to try. Of course I left a donation, don’t be silly. And since tourists are advised against drinking the tap water here, you’ll be happy to hear that I suffered no ill health from the miracle well water. Maybe that’s the miracle?

More photos of the St. Augustine & Lady of Assumption Churches.

St. Peter the Apostle Parish Ruins

After the river cruise, I headed across the street to see the Loboc Church, aka Saint Peter the Apostle Parish Church. The full history of the Spanish colonization here is for a later time. For now, suffice it to note that this church was the second built on Bohol by the Jesuits. The Parish was done in 1602, but the coral-stone building that (mostly) stands today was finished in 1734. Then in 1768 the Jesuits were tossed out and another Catholic group called the Order of the Augustinian Recollects took over. I’m not going to try to explain Catholic orders here, feel free to wiki that if you have a burning desire to know. It’s also been declared a National Treasure by the Philippine government, and is under consideration for UNESCO heritage sites. It was absofrickinloutly beautiful (judging from photos) before the 2013 earthquake and now it is a stunning ruin.

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I had spotted the ruins when driving to and from the Chocolate Hills earlier in the week, but at the time I was  hurrying to get there or exhausted and ready for bed, so I was pleased to have carved out some time just to go and ogle the ruins. I know it’s tragic that the earthquake destroyed so much, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed seeing the church in it’s glory, because photos really do look lovely, but there is something about ruins being reclaimed by nature that just draws me right in. Even though it’s only been 4 years since the earthquake, the locals have just not been able to raise enough money to complete repairs and other than some scaffolding and a few gates to keep people out, the structure has been left to the onrush of jungle foliage.

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Trees have sprouted in the walls. Ferns and mosses creep across the stone carvings. I peeked in barred windows to see the remains of a baptismal font, and peered through gated doorways to see the interior filled only with more layers of scaffolding. It’s clear that they do not wish to simply leave the church to decay, but very little has been done in the 4 years following the destruction. To me it was the perfect combination of man-made beauty and natural power.

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At one point, I moved up close to get a good photo of some carving and I noticed the odd texture of some of the stones in the wall. They seemed to be organic. I know there are some crystalline structures that can appear organic, but these struck me as being especially sea-like and I wondered at the time if the stones may have come from a once-upon-a-time sea floor limestone quarry. I saw more of the same stones in other ruins once I knew what I was looking for, and vowed to find out when I got back. It turns out the answer is fairly simple, and I wasn’t far wrong. It’s not so much an ancient sea bed quarry, as a coral quarry. I had no idea coral could be quarried for building materials, but this happens in several islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Sometimes the coral is sliced into roof tiles, sometimes it’s mixed in with other ingredients to make a kind of concrete, and sometimes it’s big enough to hew whole building stones from, leaving some of the churches of Bohol with fascinating fossil structures in their walls.

I spent close to an hour circling around the crumbling church. The detail in the stones, the tiny plants and the hidden carvings and grottoes were entrancing, but eventually the heat and sunshine drove me back to my bike and back on the road where a welcome travel breeze cooled me off once more.

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Baclayon Church

I will admit that my itineraries were largely informed by picking a single destination based on interest or reviews, and then examining the map to see what else was labeled on the roads I would be driving. I mean, if you’re in control of your own transportation, there’s no reason not to pull off to at least have a look when passing by landmarks, right? I don’t think I would have gone on a church tour in the Philippines for it’s own sake (although I did go to several in Europe because architecture!), but I’m glad I had the chance to see the buildings.

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I had a suspicion by this time that I’d actually seen the Baclayon Church before, but not stopped at it. Looking at the map that day, I was sure it was the church that was visible from the market I’d stopped at for snacks on that first drive up to Bohol while going to the Chocolate Hills. And lo, I was correct. It was a little tricky to find the entrance, but fortunately Bohol is not a heavy traffic place, so if you get lost its easy enough to pull over or turn around.

The Baclayon Church (also The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary Parish Church)  is the oldest Christian settlement in Bohol, established by the same Jesuit group that had set up the Loboc Church. It was first colonized in 1596, and the finished coral stone building that stands now was completed in 1727. It was also taken over by the Augustinians. It was also declared a national treasure. And it was also a short-lister for UNESCO world heritage sites before the earthquake hit. However, unlike the Loboc church which is nearly untouched, the Baclayon Church is well under way with repairs. I ran into a construction crew on the far side actively working.20171006_141117.jpgThere is very little sign of damage on the exterior. This is not because the damage was minimal, but because the effort has been great. There was a before and after photo out front as well, showing what the damage looked like just after the quake and it’s much closer to what Loboc Church still looks like. I wandered around the exterior taking more photos and found several more blocks with that organic sea-life look that I now know to be coral stone. It seemed that the sanctuary proper was still under construction, but it is scheduled to re-open this year.

The museum, reliquary and gift shop are all open to the public. I have never seen so many rosary based trinkets in one place as that gift shop, I think some may have been several meters in length while others appeared to be made of glow in the dark materials. The reliquary is at this point in time simply a loose collection of the relics and art that adorned the church and (mostly) survived the damage: statues, a few rather terrifying mannequins and a version of the Pieta with some loose wigs. Still, it’s clear that these were all valuable historical displays and they were gathered together with care. I’m afraid I declined to enter the museum proper that day.

More photos of the Loboc and Baclayon Churches.

The Blood Compact Memorial

One of my favorite travel techniques is to look at a map or a tour to-do list, see a thing with an interesting name, visit it, realize I have no idea what it is about, take a ton of pictures, and look it up when I get home. The Blood Compact is a perfect example of this formula.

When I programmed my map app to take me there, the destination was a place I had driven past at least 3 times during the last week, yet unlike the Baclayon Church which I was confident of having seen while driving past, I could not recall anything at all where the map was pointing me. Confused, I pulled up the street view, hoping to get a better idea of what that stretch of road looked like, and Google insisted on pointing me to a patch of grass on the side of the road with nothing around it. This is not the first time that happened on this trip since some things are set back off the road, either down a slope or behind trees where the cameras missed it. Since I had to drive that way to get back to the hotel anyway, I decided to give it a whirl.

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I only realized I’d driven past when my app dinged in my earbuds. When I pulled over to look around, I spotted a tiny little monument set back from the road back the way I’d come. I turned around to get a better vantage point and took my “I was here photos”, but there didn’t seem to be anything other than this small wall, explanatory plaque, and a trio of wayward goats.

“About the middle of March, 1565, Captain General Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s fleet anchored along this shore. Shortly thereafter, Legaspi, manifesting trust and confidence in the islanders, entered into a blood compact with Datu Sikatuna, for the purpose of insuring friendly relations between the Spaniards and the natives. A few drops of blood drawn from a small incision in the arm of each of the two chiefs were placed in separate cups containing wine, and in the presence of the followers of both, each chief drank the potion containing the blood of the other. Thus, during this period of colonization, a bond was sealed in accordance with native practice, the first treaty of friendship and alliance between Spaniards and Filipinos. –1941”

Later, while doing my “now what did I just see” research, I found all these cool pictures of a bronze statue of the ceremony! Where even was that? There are two places on that road labeled “Blood Compact” on Google, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of the people posting photos of the statue were part of a tour group with a guide who knew where to go. Looking at Google Street View in retrospect, I found both the plaque and the bronze statue in different places. The plaque is next to a convenience store and somewhat down a slope from the roadside. The statue is next to “Ocean Suites”,  on a raised dais, behind a white metal fence. I may have driven past it and thought it was part of the hotel. *sigh.

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How About That History?

I am not going to write a comprehensive history of the Philippines, or even come close. This is a highlights reel to put the current socio-political and economical issues the Philippines is facing into context for those of you who, like me, found your history books mysteriously silent on the fate of small island nations.

Colonialism

A whole bunch of countries were scrambling to get to the East and get the precious SPICES! The Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, British, Ottoman, and even the Chinese and Japanese were all out to expaaaaaaand. That’s how I got a country, and how lots and lots of indigenous people lost theirs. The Portuguese and the Ottomans were being a bit rude in the Philippine Islands, so when the Spaniards showed up on Bohol and were like, “oh no we are not like those silly Portuguese!” The natives were happy to make this treaty with them, and the Boholano people are still quite proud that their ancestors made the first friendship treaty with their eventual oppressors… Yeah, I don’t like colonialism.

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Image – Front National SA

Which makes this next part extra sad.

A few hundred years of all those empires competing over SE Asia and South Pacific islands of military strategic value meant that even though the Spanish held the Philippines officially until 1898, there were plenty of battles, skirmishes and invasions where someone else took control of Manila or other islands. Basically all the rich kids fighting over the land and the native people getting boned. Sometimes the natives did rebel, I think the longest single rebellion lasted almost a hundred years in one part of the country, but none succeeded at driving their European overlords out. The part that came as a complete and total shock to me is that Spanish rule of the Philippines did NOT end with independence in 1898, but rather with the sale of the island nation to …(dun, dun, dun) THE USA! …at the end of the Spanish American war.

The Philippine American War

Mere days after the transfer of ownership, the Filipinos tried to declare their independence once more. While we (Americans) were busy fighting the Spanish American War, the native Filipinos were simultaneously fighting Spain for their independence. Was the democracy loving US *helping* little Philippines? No, because we were still pretty darn isolationist in 1898 and hadn’t gotten into the habit of having the giant standing army we like to send around on “peacekeeping missions”. We were actually fighting Spain for control of their islands like Cuba. By the end of the war, they signed over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, although apparently the US paid 20$ million for the last one to cover infrastructure costs.

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By the way, we still own Guam and Puerto Rico, but won’t let them be states (have representation) or apparently get decent federal aid after a devastating hurricane.

Having been engaged with the Spanish for their freedom, the Filipinos were not actually on board with the sale, and declared themselves independent and published a lovely constitution. The US, on the other hand felt it had paid some hard earned money for the territory and so began the Philippine American War, which I had actually never heard of until now. The Filipinos lost, and America continued to OWN the country until after WWII when we were generally making everyone (mostly Britain) give back all their colonies and decided to use the Philippines as our “set a good example” colony.

Military Dictatorship

Shortly after WWII, we get to Ferdinand Marcos who started his career in the House in 1949 (just a few years after officially free Philippines happened) and eventually became the President who implemented strict martial law from 1972-1981. It was a military dictatorship, and a seriously brutal time, and why am I telling you about it here? Because although the was finally ousted by a revolution in 1986, his rule was a major threat to democracy there and rife with cronyism, favoritism, extortion, and flat out ignoring the constitution. And the guy in power now is making a lot of people draw comparisons.

10 interesting facts about president ferdinand marcos | tenminutes.ph on Ferdinand Marcos Background

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Like many countries, the Philippines was not proud of that time in it’s history and as a new generation grew up in the light of the revolution and the restoration of democracy, they weren’t always well educated on the dark side of Marcos’ reign. Too soon, people began to think that stricter measures and even martial law could be good tools to help the country.

Democracy and Death Squads

Enter Duterte. Another lifelong politician, he has risen to popularity and power with the aid of DEATH SQUADS. I’m not kidding. In order to “clean up” the country, he has repeatedly and publicly declared that it’s ok to kill criminals without trial. This includes drug dealers, drug users, petty criminals, and “street children”. If you aren’t gagging in horror, you may need to get checked for your humanity.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects firearms together with Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit at the military camp in Marawi city

image Reuters

He’s also said unbelievably horrible things about wanting to rape women, wanting to kill people who cause problems with extreme violence, and pardoning everyone under his command who committed human rights abuses while carrying out his orders… if this sounds like any other world leader you may have seen on tv in the last year, you are not alone in thinking this.

Responsible Tourism

This left me in a tricky position vis a vis being a tourist. I did not feel in danger in Duterte’s bloody cleanup because they are in no way targeting foreign nationals in this death squad round up. But economically, it was a tough choice. I know that my tiny vacation budget is not going to have an impact on the national economy of the Philippines, but it just might have an impact on the lives of the small business owners, guides, and environmental preservation programs that I do want to support and that I desperately hope survive until the next era of democratic sanity is restored. So, yes, I went and I feel ok about that.

Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤

Hello Bohol: My Own Two Wheels

One of the best things about travel is getting to learn new things, and on this trip I got to aquire a brand new skill I hope will serve me well in my future adventures. Despite the dangeous sounding urban ledgends and my own father’s brush with severe injury at the hands (wheels?) of this contraption, I decided it was time to learn to ride. Not only was learning far easier than I imagined, the freedom it brought to my holiday was irreplacable. Suddenly moving from place to place was not a chore or lost time, but an opportunity to connect with the natural wonders around me. 


Why a Motorbike?

Regular readers may remember, and anyone who’s been to SE Asia will know, transit in these countries is primarily done via motorbike (moped, scooter). Those who have not been, let me briefly clarify. I am not talking about a full on motorcycle Harley Davidson style, and I think sometimes westerners (especially Americans) are confused about the differences. Many countries have laws defining the these and what kind of license you need for each, and in every case the motorcycle is more demanding, difficult to drive and dangerous. I don’t think the Philippines has or at least doesn’t enforce any such laws, as I saw vehicles that looked like both on the road all the time. The best part about the scooter for me was automatic transmission, and a floorboard, so you are able to sit more naturally.

After my very frustrating experiences with Thai public transit and private tours, I really wanted to give the whole bike thing a try, and Bohol with it’s slow farm life and tiny barrios seemed like a perfect chance. If you can drive and ride a bicycle, learning an automatic motorbike (scooter) is a breeze. Plus, then I could free myself from haggling with tuk tuk drivers or being chained to tour group schedules.

I had read online that most hotels/hostels will help you rent a motorbike and had verified that with Becca at Imagine Bohol before my trip. Once I was settled in my room, I asked her if we could get the motorbikes that evening. She called Lloyd and James to bring us the bikes and give us a quick lesson in scooter driving and Philippine road safety.

Driver’s Ed.

First they taught us how to turn the bikes on and off, where the break and gas were, how to control the kickstand, the bike lock, and all the things you do while sitting still. Then they had us hop on behind, one each, so they could show us the controls in motion. James walked me through a step by step of every control and dial and button on the bike, then we pulled over and it was my turn to drive. Not realizing we we’re going to be out on the road, I’d left my sandals in the room, and James lent me his flip flops so that my bare feet would not be scraped on the asphalt, and off we went. At first I was a little nervous, but mostly I was excited. The roads we practiced on were nearly empty, and soon I learned to keep the bike on the far right, and how to make turns, how to control my speed and how to park. We drove around Alona and passed by Alona beach to see where the main parking lot was.

By the time we finished practicing it was nearly dark, but I felt much more confident on the bike. We made sure we both had helmets to use, and went over the bike condition before paying for the rentals and taking their numbers just in case of problems. I had read that the average rental rate in Bohol was 400-600php/day. James and Lloyd charged us a mere 350. We felt like it was a great deal, and it turned out that we had no problems with the bikes, or with returning them (I read stories of renters accusing riders of extra damage to get more money, not an issue we had with these gentlemen).

GPS via Headset

The longest drive I had was to the Chocolate Hills. Our hotel was on the southernmost end of Panglao, and it was about a 30 minute drive just to get to the bridge that connected us to Bohol, plus another 2 hours after that to get to the hills in the center of the larger island. I think in a car it may have been a little faster, but we were content to drive 40-50km/hr on our bikes and that added some time to the trip estimate. I also had to stop sometimes to check the map. Even with Google Maps playing through my headphones, I couldn’t SEE the app while riding the bike, so if I needed to check something, I had to pull off the road and fish the phone out of my pocket to have a look. Of course, I also just stopped sometimes to look at things.

The Unsheltered Drive

Even though the weather was hot hot hot and oh so humid, riding the bike was very comfortable. At 40 kph you get a very nice breeze that feels cool and refreshing and you get a great view of the countryside as you ride through. Of course I had a few issues getting adjusted. I got smacked in the forehead by a large insect that then flew behind my sunglasses. If you think having a spider or a bee in your car is freaktown, let me assure you that having an unknown buzzing bug next to your eye inside your glasses is much worse. Luckily I didn’t crash, and the bug flew from one eye to the other before escaping the lenses and being whisked away by the wind.

The reason such an insect encounter was possible was because my helmet had no visor. This wasn’t an issue most of the time, but if I was planning to do more driving at night or in the rain, I would invest in a visor or some kind of driving goggles. For sunshiney day time, my sunglasses protected my eyes from everything other than that one very confused bug. Most of the natives don’t wear helmets or eye protection and it just mystifies me. I did forget to put my helmet on once when I was very tired and just focused on getting back to the room, but any other time I thought about it, all I could imagine was my mother flipping out if I splattered my brains on the highway.

Animal Crossing

Aside from the insects, other living creatures that hindered my driving by meandering onto the road, blocking my parking, or jumping out in front of me include: chickens, dogs, cows, goats, water buffalo, and tourists. Dogs were easily the most common, but they did a very good job of watching traffic, watching humans, and responding to beeps. The closest thing to an accident I had was one very confused dog who zigged into traffic instead of out. While stopping in a hurry, I put my feet out for balance, and my big toe got mildly scraped on the street.

Goats were usually not in the road. Cows and water buffalo were large enough that they expected to have right of way. The only near incident was having a calf come over to see if I had any food while I was trying to get out of a tight parking spot. The chickens, somewhat unexpectedly, never crossed the road.

Except for the dogs who roamed free, the animals were usually tethered with some kind of long string so that their owners could leave them to graze a reasonably large area without being in fear of having them wander off while no one was looking.

There is little to no traffic on Panglao except the 1-2km stretch next to Alona where all the bars, international restaurants, and tourist traps are situated. Every evening when we came back to the hotel, we had to drive through this and I dreaded it every time. However insane the other drivers were, the locals were generally safe drivers and my helmet tagged me as a foreigner to watch out for. Some had installed strobe lights or other party lights which made driving behind them a pain, but the worst by far were the tourists on foot. Whether drunk, lost, or simply staring at their phones, these people did very little watching of the traffic around them, and on at least one occasion a young man stepped out into the street right in front of my bike!

Passing and Turning

I drove up some intense twisting mountain roads. On the straighter roads, cars, bikes,  trucks and buses just passed whenever they felt like it. Often they drove on the wrong side of the road to get around one another and generally everyone is ok with this. However, in the mountains, the narrow roads and tight turns made this impossible. Combined with the fact that I just didn’t feel safe driving fast on hairpin turns on a scooter I’d learned to drive two days previously, I soon wound up with a line of traffic behind me. Doubly unfortunate, for long stretches the shoulder was nonexistent, the road dropping off sharply into drainage ditches or mountainside. I pulled over when I could, but it was more than a little nerve-wracking. I recalled similar drives in NZ with my rental car on the narrow winding roads while the locals and shipping trucks drove in silent annoyance behind me and reminded myself that it was better to be safe than to drive too fast and crash. Then again, I may be putting too much American in it. Road rage is a major thing in the US, and honking is a real sign of aggression. In the Philippines it seemed that a little ‘bip’ on the horn was more often just a friendly, “hey, I’m here” for awareness and safety and not a “get out of the way!” honk.

Women Drivers

Many Filipinos were surprised to see us on bikes at all, partially because we were foreign, but mostly because we were women. I saw only a small number of women driving motor bikes the whole time I was there. Mostly they were passengers riding behind a man. Sometimes whole families would pile on a single scooter. One taxi driver told us that not too many women drive there, although there isn’t any kind of legal restriction like in KSA. Our hotel hostess told us she had tried to learn before but had been too scared. Independence of transportation is so important for women’s equality, I hope that the younger generation will buck the trend. This is not to say that Filipina women are trapped at home, there were plenty of jeepneys and tricycles for hire, but there’s no substitute for independence.

Road Signs on a Long Drive

It was a nearly excruciating drive from the Chocolate Hills back to Panglao. As much as I adore the wondrous sensation of riding through the lush green countryside with the wind on my face, after so many hours my butt on that seat began to express a level of misery I think only marathon cyclists can relate to. As dusk approached, the drive became a contest between a desire to get back to the smaller island before dark and a need to stop every 20 minutes to move our legs. I tried to distract myself with reading the signs on the side of the road. The best was “Caution: vertical curve ahead”… put your best guess in the comments.

Although I didn’t get a shot of the first amusing sign, on my last day while I was pausing to check my GPS, I spotted this sign to Albuquerque, and all I could think “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn…”

The Sunset Burn

Around sunset, a whole new peril was added to the joyful dangers of scooter driving. At dusk, the Filipinos burn everything. Seriously, I have no idea. It smelled wonderful, like campfire wood-smoke, so I don’t think it was garbage burning (an actual recourse for the very poor in Manila. read here and here). Some might have been cooking, but it also seemed like some people just made brush-fires on the side of the road. I guess farming has more leftover plant matter than they know what to do with? The upshot was that the road was not merely pleasantly reminiscent of summer campgrounds, but actually choked with smoke and ash, making it hard to see and hard to breathe. An hour or two later it was gone, and it happened every night that I was out on a road at dusk.

If I return to do that again I’ll invest in a cloth mask for breathing and some kind of goggles since my sunglasses were more a hazard at dusk than the smoke for my vision. If we weren’t so nervous about driving in the dark, I think we might have been better off stopping for dinner and driving again after the burning time passed.

Photo Ops

I rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry. I had no confidence at all to try to take photos while driving (although I saw Filipinos on their phones while driving motorbikes, I’m still convinced that’s a really bad idea) so there aren’t many photos of this part of the trip. On later drives through Bohol, I did stop a couple times and take pictures, but I always feel a little strange taking pictures of people just living their lives, like kind of super-white-national-geographic-exploitive. I don’t know how to get across that I want to share their lives, not make them out to be exotic zoo creatures, so I just don’t take photos more often than not. I mean, how would you feel if a tourist drove through your neighborhood and took pictures of you mowing your lawn or hanging your laundry?

Friday (day 6) was chosen for the second long drive day onto the big(ger) island of Bohol to catch the other Tarsier Sanctuary and a lunch cruise along the Loboc river. The drive wasn’t far, but I passed through yet more of the iconic Bohol scenery and finally succumbed to stopping for photos when I saw another car stopped on the side of the road and a white man taking pictures of workers harvesting the rice fields. I still felt awkward, but at least I was blending in to other tourists being weird? Oh, who am I kidding, I’m a lone white woman on a motorbike in the middle of farm country, there’s no blending in.

Stick in the Mud

My last full day, I went on back roads in search of hidden waterfalls, which I found and enjoyed and will share in another post. However, since it had rained heavily the night before, I found these unpaved rural streets to be made mostly of mud. On the worst of these roads, I had the only other near accident experience of the trip. While driving in, once or twice I hit a mud puddle and slid around a bit, but I was going slow and making progress … until I wasn’t. I managed to drive right into a deep and long patch of mud that claimed the bikes tires and stopped me flat. Putting my feet down, I sank in the mud past my ankles, and I worked hard to get the bike unstuck. I wasn’t able to move it on my own and decided to give it just a little gas to get the wheel moving, but this resulted in the rear wheel going sideways out from under me, and dropping me and the front end into the bushes on the side of the road. Since I wasn’t moving at the time, the only damage I sustained was some minor bruising where the bike fell on my leg.

On the way back out, I decided to simply turn off the bike and walk around the mud patches. This was a great plan until I got to one that was bigger than the road. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d thought driving through it on the way in was a clever idea. I only managed to get back out because some very kind young people walked ahead of me and found the most solid ground through the morass that would take the bike’s weight without sinking. The result of this mudtastic adventure is that when I returned the bike to Jesse the next morning it looked like this, but Jesse wasn’t upset.

In Conclusion

Despite a few minor inconveniences, I still think renting motorbikes was the single best decision I made regarding this holiday. Not only did I get to see so much more of the countryside that I would from a tour bus, but I had the freedom to set my own schedule and persue my own adventures, which became more and more adventurous as I became a more confident driver. Although I have only a few photos of the road, my memories of driving through the stunning scenery with the wind caressing my skin and the fresh air filling my lungs are some of my favorite of the whole trip.


Today is American Thanksgiving. It’s a little strange to realize you have a holiday that’s only celebrated in one country on earth. Last year I went over to the Naval Base with some friends for a traditional meal, but this year I sadly had a dentist appointment. Aside from that, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Thanksgiving is a holiday with questionable origins. The Korean kids liken it to Chuseok, which is a holiday for honoring family and ancestors, but American kids are taught a fairytale about the Pilgrims and Indians. In an attempt to find balance and gratitude, this year I’m going to have a traditional Korean feast with a friend and think about what I’m thankful for, including the fact that we can learn to treat each other better than our ancestors did.

Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.

Malay Peninsula 2: Singapore Night Safari

March Madness does not just apply to basketball anymore. I missed it last year in part because I had the horrible avian death flu and in part because I was totally new to Korea and insulated from the madness. However, I’m getting it double this year, since I’m no longer the (complete) outsider. March is the start of the new school year, when every single bit of bureaucracy must be done while you’re trying to get to know new students and new co-workers! I used to have an hour or two of “me time” in the afternoons after all the work was done, but recently, it’s been a non-stop Alice in Wonderland style caucus race. So forgive me – the blog has fallen behind. Here’s the second installment of January’s adventure that made me rethink zoos forever.


Bad Tourist, Bad!

The day at the Gardens by the Bay kept me walking for the better part of 7 hours, more than half of that in the sunny, humid outdoors. I suppose I could have hustled over to see more of the heritage gardens, but since my night was going to be full of 5 more hours of walking around outside, I decided to hold still for a while and sip some more of the unique coffee.

While I was sitting in a nearly empty (indoor and AC’d) food court, I watched an abomination of tourism. In stark contrast to the fun, kind folks I’d been meeting all day, this man walked up to the coffee shop and demanded to know if they had a flat white or skinny latte. They did not, since it was a traditional Malaysian style coffee shop. The man then went on to berate the poor employees along the lines of how can they be a “coffee shop” if they don’t even serve a flat white or skinny latte. He was rude, angry, and belligerent to the staff, and seemed to have zero interest in finding out what the cafe did have (awkward since they totally serve coffee with milk, they just don’t call it “flat white”). I can understand the desire for something familiar when travelling. I personally think it’s important to try new things, but I know that if you’ve had new things out your ears for days, there is value in the familiar. But there is just no reason ever to get mad at a shop in another country for not being like a shop in yours. And yes, I did talk to the staff afterward and told them I thought that guy was being a jerk and that visitors should be more willing to try the local way. Don’t be that guy.

Taxi Driver History Lessons

I left the SuperTree grove around 6:15 and took a taxi on the long trek across the city. Although I hear the public transit system is spectacular, the distance I had to travel would have still taken about 90 min, so I opted for taxi instead. I ended up having a great chat with the taxi driver who was a Singapore native and rather older gentleman, so he was able to talk with me about some of the changes that had occurred in the city over the last couple decades. The biggest one seemed to be the land reclamation. Every bit of land I’d been on during the day was actually reclaimed from the ocean and the road that now lay inland called “beach road” was so named because it literally used to be a beach!

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I also discovered that Singapore has no minimum wage, although while he was complaining about the low wages that fast food level employees made, he did let slip a number that was rather higher than the US minimum wage. It makes me wonder about the economics of a situation that, without government enforcement, and with access to cheap immigrant labor, the average low end employee is still making more than the US burger flipper. I am willing to bet it’s related to the small size of the nation, and the fact that it is nearly all city.

And lastly, I discovered that there is a severely classist system for immigrant workers, with no wage regulation and heavy taxes. Inexperienced foreign workers from say… Bangladesh or the Philippines can end up taking home as little as 18-20$ a day. It’s not as bad as the situation in Dubai as far as exploiting foreign labor goes, but I have to say I was a little disappointed that Singapore, a model for environmentalism and safety, did not have sufficient laws in place to protect workers.

We drove through more animal conservation lands, and the driver pointed out to me a land-bridge that had been built to help animals move safely from one side of the highway to the other, as well as the area abutting the zoo where the wild sanctuary animals and captive zoo animals would occasionally encounter one another through the fence.

Zoo Shows

20170117_190355As I got out of the taxi, I walked past a peacock that had either escaped, or was deliberately placed at the entrance for effect. The bird seemed unperturbed by the traffic. Even though I was a little early, the courtyard was packed full of tour groups and I had trouble pushing my way through to an info counter just to find out where to go. I stood in a long line as we all had our tickets scanned and everyone streamed into the Night Safari like the opening bell at Disney.

The Singapore zoo has, as far as I can tell, four separate parks. The main zoo, a rivers of the world event, a bird event, and the Night Safari. At first, I thought it was simply a night time version of the main zoo, but later I realized that it is a separate park that simply doesn’t open until 7pm. It is entirely filled with nocturnal creatures and kept at a low light level so the animals are not much disturbed. It’s designed to be as open and natural as possible, allowing the visitors and animals to get as close as is safe, and is filled with hundreds of creatures that are almost always asleep during regular zoo hours.

20170117_194026I had missed the first fire show at the opening, but since it happened every hour until 9pm, I wasn’t too worried. I headed instead for the animal show at the advice of one of the zoo staff. This was just as well because the lines for the tram were insane. Being a lone traveler is sometimes advantageous, like when trying to find a seat in a crowded theater. I wedged myself in between two families in a fairly good spot and sat down to watch what I fervently hoped would not be an exploitative performing animal show. I was not disappointed. The “show” was largely animals being brought forward while the main announcer talked about the species being shown. There was humor and a few animal tricks, but these involved a large cat leaping, a raccoon going through a “garbage can”, and an otter doing some recycling (which may be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen). The last one led into a great discussion of what happens when urbanization encroaches on 20170117_195114animals habitat and on what we as humans can do to help better preserve the environment. I know some people might think it’s a little preachy, but I was personally gratified to see the zoo using it’s platform of animal entertainment to help educate visitors on conservation and preservation.

After the animal show, I headed back out to the main plaza to t20170117_2005001.jpgake in the fire show. Although the zoo website makes it seem as though this is some kind of traditional tribal fire dance, in reality it is a modern dance with a totally made up tribal sounding name. It was still fun and pretty, just not particularly traditional or historically accurate.

Walking with the Animals

Next, I decided to do a walking path or two. There are several walking path sections in the safari and each one highlights a different environment of animal. I started out on the “Fishing Cat Trail”, the primary attraction of which was a fishing cat that uses it’s claws to hook fish out of the river for dinner. The main area of the plaza is loud and bright with shops and restaurants and the waiting line for the tram, but once you get out of the main area and onto the walking paths, the zoo becomes dark, quiet and peaceful. Quite often, I was the only person on the path, or was only sharing it with a couple other people. From time to time, larger noisier groups would pass through and glance at the brush, then seeing no animals would complain loudly and move on. I just waited for them to go.

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Not the fishing cat. Just a cool leopard with better than average lighting.

The animals aren’t “on display”. The environments are designed to be natural while still giving the humans a good view. Plus, it’s dark, cause well, night safari. While I was shocked at the number of people who simply couldn’t get the idea, it didn’t take long to realize that all it took to have a good experience was a little patience. The animals would often retreat from large noisy crowds and only return to their normal nighttime activity after things had calmed down. I stood next to the fishing cat stream for several minutes trying to spot the cat, and finally my patience was rewarded as a medium sized feline came out from behind some trees and began to stalk fish in the small stream next to the path. I don’t know how long I stayed and watched. It was amazing. There was hardly any distance between myself and the fishing cat and yet his environment was so natural, he was comfortably hunting his dinner.

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Still not the fishing cat. Pelicans enjoying a night swim.

The vast majority of the displays were like that, close and open and natural making you feel like you’d just wandered into their home rather than like you were viewing a caged animal. The most dangerous animals were separated by a larger gap, and the tiniest animals were in display boxes (although we still couldn’t always find them). I didn’t get to see every animal. Most were completely hidden when I walked up and only came out after a few minutes. A few were on grand display, like the pelicans and otters. At one point, while crossing a bridge over a small stream, I looked down and spotted an enormous crocodile. He could easily have blocked the stream if he’d lain sideways across it. It was a bit terrifying to be so close with nothing between us, even though the bridge was well above his reach and the sides of the stream were too steep for him to climb. Many animals were hidden, but could be found with some searching like a hidden picture puzzle. And a few I never saw at all.

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I’m not sure I believe that flamingos are nocturnal, but they are pretty at night.

After walking about half the trails, I decided to catch the tram ride. The tram goes on a different route from the walking trails and afforded me a chance to sit down and relax for a little while. I think my favorite part of the tram ride was the rhinos, but it was an overall pleasant experience with light narration and continued reminders about environmental conservation and poaching. At one point the narratress asked us to make a pledge never to buy rhino horn products again, which isn’t usually an issue for Americans, but there are a lot of Chinese and other Asian tourists who come to Singapore who might need the reminder. Side bonus, since I’d waited a couple hours, the tram crowd thinned out and I got a bench to myself, which meant I could move to the left or right and get the best view of the animals.

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We could hear the lions everywhere, but only got to view them from the tram.

 

After the tram circuit, I finished up the walking trails, passing through a free flying bat house(!) and a sort of wallaby ranch. The bat house was easily my favorite thing in the zoo. I’ve only ever seen zoo bats behind glass and here these were flying around my head! The big fruit bats hung lazily from branches that had been strategically placed close to the path and hung with fruit to entice them, while the smaller bats zipped in an out of the trees. One flew so close past my ear, I felt the breeze from his wing as I heard the leathery flapping and sonic skittering. In the flying squirrel walk through, I didn’t get to see any fly, but I did play a fun game of hide and seek with a little tree dweller who was clearly curious about me too. And in the wallaby enclosure, the little hoppers were free to roam around the ground, including onto the path if they felt like it. None did, but even when I knelt down to their level to get a closer look, no one ran away either.

The last place I got to explore was a cave environment with all the little dark cave dwellers on display in a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean-esque themed man-made cave environment. Plenty of spiders and other creepy crawlies, including some black light glowing scorpions.

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I have not mentioned even a 10th of the animals I got to see and hear. The lions were roaring throughout the night and could be heard from nearly anywhere in the park. The hardest part about the Night Safari is the low lighting. I have good night vision, but a lot of guests were struggling to see the animals, and I was a little bit sad that I had no way to take pictures of these experiences. The Night Safari is not just another zoo, it’s the closest encounter you’re likely to have with any of these animals that isn’t directly exploitative the way that zoos in China and Thailand are. The Night Safari won’t force animals to do tricks or pose with guests. And it’s the only night zoo that specializes in showing off nocturnal animals at their natural time of day. It’s clean, well organized, clearly focused on the animal welfare both within and without the zoo grounds and has dozens of totally unique animal encounters. If you find yourself in Singapore with an evening open, I highly recommend spending the full 5 hours there.

Dinner in Chinatown

It was minutes before closing time when i made my way back to the main plaza. I had no hope of catching the bus back to Chinatown and ended up summoning an Uber, which I then shared with another visiting couple who had been trying to get their hotel concierge to get an Uber to pick them up with very limited success. We had a pleasant conversation on the drive and I found myself back in Chinatown after midnight and famished. The night safari had restaurants, but I didn’t have time to sit down and eat and still see everything. My hostel had cup noodles for sale, but I needed something more substantial after my long day of sightseeing.

I took off toward some bright lights and soon found a tiny Chinese restaurant open late. After a few minutes of hopelessly perusing a picture menu, I asked about my all time favorite Chinese dish 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (fried egg and tomato) and got a surprised yes. This may be because I asked in Chinese, but was more likely because my favorite Chinese food is a common ‘peasant’ dish that is not usually on the menu in western restaurants (though it had been on the menu here). Hanging out in Singapore’s Chinatown felt like being in a very clean version of China without the ubiquitous Chinese litter and smog. Most Chinatowns are a sort of fusion of the immigrant and local culture, but Singapore itself is a blend of Malay and Chinese cultures, so I guess it stands to reason that the extra Chinese part would be very authentic.


Stay tuned for installment 3 where I go back to Chinatown in the daytime to check out the famous temples! Sadly, the Night Safari is not conducive to photography so there’s no album accompanying this post, but feel free to check out the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more daily tidbits of life between posts. Thanks for reading! 🙂