SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER

Posted: September 26, 2016 in ASIA, AUSTRALIA & ZEALANDIA, EUROPE, MUSINGS
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Pack what you can carry on your own: 15kg luggage, 7kg backpack , purse or camera bag

2009 is the pivotal year when I first ventured into solo travel. To say that my life changed eminently since then is an understatement. I became fiercely unstoppable. My feet explored farther, my wings grew and I soared higher, as my horizon opened to endless possibilities.  My spirit thirsted for more adventures as I gain a deeper understanding of diversity and a passionate appreciation of humanity. This metamorphic experience has shaped me to become the wise, strong and emphatic woman I am today.

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Skydiving in Queenstown, New Zealand, 2014

The Catalyst 

I used to be a sheltered young lady who only travels with family and friends and stays in hotels. In 2008, I went on an adventure trip to Mt. Pinatubo, which was my very first trekking/hiking experience. A few months after that, I went to Sagada and did my very first spelunking. I found both activities to be very challenging and I told myself: “If I can do this, I can do anything.” These awoken my adventurous spirit. A year after, I was on the biggest adventure of my life. My very first solo trip to Europe.

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Chillaxing in London, 2013

Why Solo?

I tried to invite friends to travel with me and got turned down for various reasons: no money, cannot take long leaves from work, worried parents. I reckoned that if I wait for people to travel with me, I won’t see the world.

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Updating my journal in a cafe in Laos

Financial

I was 32, a Manager in a TV Network and unattached when I did my first solo trip. On this venture, and in all of my travels, I never asked my parents for a single centavo. I worked, I saved, I traveled. That’s the cycle.

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Catching the train in Berlin, 2015

As a single lady, I invested in myself…in experience…in things nobody could take away from me. I don’t have a huge bank account but while spending most of my money in travel, I also made sure I had enough left to pay my rent, to keep my lifestyle intact, to have money for emergencies and to save for my retirement. I was never into signature items. I equate the price a designer bag to a plane ticket.

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I choose countrysides more than cities when I’m traveling. This is in Poland, 2015.

I have taken note of my expenses for my first and second solo trips:

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https://msfrequentflyer.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/how-much-is-europe/

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https://msfrequentflyer.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/how-much-is-southeast-asia/

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I love wearing traditional costumes. Granada, Spain, 2012.

Planing, Preparation & Packing

There was no absence of fear when I knew I was about to venture out to the unknown. But knowledge gave me confidence. I prepared for all my trips by identifying what I want and what I can possibly see and do in limited amount of time that I had. It was then followed by careful reading and many hours of research. I planned every step, calculated every cost, and was ready with alternatives. Google, tripadvisor, skyscanner, and couchsurfing were my online best friends.

I am an organized traveler. My itinerary is detailed in excel format. My wardrobe plan is like an artwork.

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Winter Wardrobe

Packing details here: https://msfrequentflyer.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/mother-packer/

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Ankor, Cambodia, 2010

Itinerary

1st Solo Trip: 5 weeks in 2009

11 cities/ towns in Turkey, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany, France

2nd Solo Trip: 4 weeks in 2010

8 cities/town in Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand

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Updating my journal in Laos, 2010

3rd Solo Trip: 1 week in 2011

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

4th Solo Trip: 8 weeks in 2012

12 cities/towns in Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain

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Hiking in Luang Prabang, Laos, 2010

5th Solo Trip: 3 weeks in 2013

3 cities in The UK, Czech Republic, Germany

6th Solo Trip:9 days in 2014

4 cities/towns in New Zealand

7th Solo Trip: 4 weeks in 2015

7 cities/towns in Spain, Poland, Austria, Germany

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Biking in Hoi An, Vietnam, 2010

Extraordinaries

I did a lot of crazy but wonderful things while traveling solo. Things that could have given my parents a major heart attack. But these things are the feathers in my cap. These are the stories I will be telling my future children. These things made me feel most alive.

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Conquering Mt. Merapi in Indonesia, 2011

  1. Slept in strangers’ houses (www.couchsurfing.org)
  2. Hitched a ride in Italy
  3. Paraglided in Switzerland
  4. Smoked marijuana for the first time in Amsterdam
  5. Went topless in a nude beach in Spain
  6. Kayaked the Mekong River in Laos
  7. Bungee jumped in Thailand
  8. Skydived  in New Zealand
  9. Climbed an active volcano in Indonesia
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Paragliding in Interlaken, Switzerland, 2009.

Travel Lessons

Once you have gotten a taste of solo travel, I guarantee it won’t be the last. A metamorphosis shall take place within you, giving birth to a new breed of self-confidence and self-realizations, making you feel richer and wiser, but more hungry and curious about the world.

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Horseback Riding in New Zealand, 2014

I would highly suggest for women to travel solo at least once. To take risks, to discover one’s full potential, to see and feel the beauty that is above and beyond our comfort zone. To stay inside the box all your life is the biggest injustice one could inflict on your growth and freedom. My motto has always been: “Not to take any risk is to risk even more.”

  1. Go, travel solo! Don’t wait on others.
  2. Pay for your own trips. It is more fulfilling.
  3. Go YOLO but be a responsible traveler. Take calculated risks and don’t die. Take care of the environment. Be open and embrace other cultures. Have empathy towards people.
  4. Pack what you can carry without breaking your back.
     

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    Elephant Ride in Luang Prabang, Laos, 2010

  5. Research, plan and get organized.
  6. Go out and see the world but do not break the bank. And more importantly, do not quit your job.
  7. Follow your curiosity and trust your instinct.
  8. Kindness is abundant. Kindness takes you farther. Kindness given goes back. Have faith in humanity.
  9. Don’t try to see everything coz you can’t. Pace your travel. Enjoy the moment.
  10. Keep a journal and take lots of photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A month after we tied the knot, we flew to Europe for our first adventure as a couple, also known as the honeymoon. 13 cities, 8 countries, 6 weeks, 20 kilograms of luggage each. Inside the luggages were my wedding dress, his tux, our shoes and a tripod. The device that we used for the photoshoot was my husband’s wedding gift for me: a Fujifilm XA-2 mirrorless camera.

Growing up, I never dreamt of becoming a princess. I never accepted any invitation to be a Reyna Elena (The Santacruzan (Spanish for “sacred cross”) is the ritual pageant held on the last day of Flores de Mayo. It honors the finding the True Cross by Helena of Constantinople (known as Reyna Elena) and Constantine the Great), never had a debut where I had to wear a ball gown and dance waltz. My short wedding dress mirrors three of my strongest traits: practicality, creativity, nonconformity. It is the main reason why this project was even possible.

Growing up, I never dreamt of becoming a princess. But I’ve always known that I’ll travel the world. And in my experience as an extensive traveler, the best advice is to always pack light.

Rule #1: Have a WEDDING DRESS that fits in your luggage but does not occupy your entire luggage.

Our route included the world’s most popular cities. And what do these astonishing cities have in common aside from rich art heritage, majestic views and exhilarating history?  TOURISTS IN SELFIE STICKS. PHOTO BOMBERS. THIEVES.

Rule #2: Research and search for the best views in less crowded areas. Use your fingers to google or your feet to explore. The goal is to be able to have a background that is clear of people and be able set up your tripod and camera, and leave your bags on the ground without being stolen.

After the first photoshoot in Paris,  we discovered that this project was hard to pull off. We don’t just step out of our hotel door in our wedding clothes, cross the street and take the shot. There was a long day ahead and we still had some sightseeing to do.

Rule #3: Bring 2 backpacks, one for each. Put your wedding clothes and shoes in your own bag. Don’t forget the camera and the tripod.

We explored the city with backpacks in tow. After finding what we call the “sweet spot,” we looked for a nearby restaurant or restroom to change to our wedding clothes. We went back to the same restaurant or restroom after the shoot to change to a more comfortable walking attire. Too much hassle isn’t it?

Rule #4: Nothing beautiful comes out of something that is easy. 

But with the help of some friends, some photoshoots were a breeze.

Rule #5: Visit family and friends during your honeymoon. You won’t just get free meals or accommodation, you’ll also have a photographer for a day.

There were days when we get in each other’s nerves thinking of new poses or not being able to achieve the desired shot…days when we were lazy, days when it was raining, days when we wanted to give up.

Rule #6: Have the right amount of passion and dedication to finish the project no matter what hurdles may arise.

We are highly satisfied with the result of our efforts. We realised that we don’t need to hire an expensive photographer to do an amazing post-nup photoshoot. We look at each photo and we travel back to the memory of our splendid honeymoon. We can’t wait to show these to our future children.

Paris, France

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Tarragona, Spain

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Rome, Italy

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Venice, Italy

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Prague, Czech Republic

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Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

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Berlin, Germany

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The Hague, Netherlands

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Reykjavik, Iceland

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Record Breaker

Posted: September 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

I don’t usually do lists and ranking. But what the heck! 2013 is the special year when I broke personal travel records. It deserves to be acknowledged, written, remembered.

11 countries and 18 provinces in the Philippines. Let’s not forget that there are only 12 months in a year.

How did I do that? I don’t know too! Some trips were not planned.

Trips for 2013 (chronological order):

January : Legaspi, Albay (Phil)

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February : Brunei Darussalam

Brunei Darussalam

March : Palaui, Cagayan (Phil)

Palaui

Cagayan

April : Jordan, Israel, Egypt, United Arab Emirates

Petra, Jordan

Egypt

Israel

Dubai. UAE

June: Calatagan, Batangas (Phil)

Typhoon Survivors

July : El Nido, Palawan (Phil)

El Nido, Palawan

August : Indonesia

Bali, Indonesia

October : Davao del Sur, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, South
Cotabato, Sarangani, Rizal, Tarlac, Pangasinan, Baguio, La Union, Mt. Province, Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte (Phil)

Maguindanao

Lake Sebu

November : Thailand & India

Agra, India

Bangkok, Thailand

December : United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Germany

London, United Kingdom

Prague, Czech Republic

Berlin, Germany

I rested during the month of September while it rained. I would wake up early, watch the rain, enjoy cups of warm coffee and daydream.

And for everyone’s information (I receive a lot of queries about this), I also WORKED most of the times in between and sometimes while traveling. I have a full time job…one that I truly love. I just don’t talk too much about it because it’s something that I do, not who I really am. And I’m sure you’ll be bored by the details of my busy business. Understood? No more “so when do you work?” questions, okay?

Most memorable experiences of 2013:

8. Palaui: the truck ride.

7. Burot beach: camping on the path of a typhoon.

6. Prague: now the most beautiful city in Europe for me

5. Holy Land: trip with my dad.

4. Egypt: Climbing Mt. Sinai

3. Maguindanao: stepping foot in this province, meeting member of the NPA & MILF.

2. India: everything about it.

1. Thailand: Richard’s surprise for me on my birthday.

Firts in 2013:

1. India: Ride in a sleeper train.

2. Brunei: Spend less than $150 on a trip.

3. Prague: Stay in a dorm-type hostel.

4. Berlin: Eat in an Ethiopian Restaurant

5. Manila: Target shooting & baking on one weekend.

6. Egypt: Ride a camel.

Crazy things I did in 2013:

1. Berlin: Danced in the street, a bottle of beer on one hand, stopping a car.

2. India: Making up a story about being married to my friend Jharvis.

3. Cairo: Doing a whirling dervish.

4. Manila: Marched to the streets to protest against corruption.

APR 2015: INSIDE NORTH KOREA

Posted: March 23, 2016 in ADVENTURES, ASIA

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If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you’ll see a large splotch, nearly as large as England, curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In the middle of this black hole is the showcase capital, Pyongyang. It is meant to be a big gleaming demonstration of the country’s wealth and progress. Foreign visitors are driven along the same routes from the hotel (in an island) no matter where they are going.

Construction still abounds. The Pyongyang airport is getting a new terminal. At a fancy new equestrian center on the outskirts of the capital, with its faux-log-cabins, there is not a “customer” or any horse poop in sight.

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But even with all the pretentious facade, it can’t be hidden that the city is eerily quiet, with people marching on the streets like zombies. It is baffling how a nation of nearly 23 million can appear as vacant as the oceans.

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TEAM NOKOR:

 There were around 40 people who registered with Koryo Tours (www.koryotours.com) for this 3-day-2-night-trip to Pyongyang. We were later divided into 2 groups. It was an interesting bunch. There were students (21 years old) in the group, a lawyer, an architect, some businessmen, teachers, and even a newly-wedded couple on honeymoon. Isah and I met and made friends with 2 Brazilian Federal Agents on the first day. They have been close guards to 2 popes when they visited Brazil. One is going to Afghanistan after North Korea.

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Most of the people in the group were based in China, either working or studying. They chose to travel to NoKor because of its proximity to their current location. And there were those (like us) who flew in just for this trip…from Brazil, UK, Germany, USA.

This tour costs 890 euros per person. The package includes the return flights China – Pyongyang – China, hotel accommodation, meals, bus and tour guide. It is steep but this is the cheapest one amongst the choices from the tour company. Longer trips that include traveling to the countryside range from 1,200 to 2,300 euros.

No journalist nor photographer (professional or amateur) is allowed to join. All of us signed a waiver that says we can NOT publish our photos, stories and blogs on mainstream media. If the agency loses its license to operate in NoKor because of this, they will have the right to sue the traveler.

Whenever someone would ask me about the nature of my job, I was very careful so as not to mention that I work in Television. I always say I’m a Marketing Manager. One time our North Korean guide asked, tell me more…give an example. I just babbled words like promotion, advertisements, billboards. I think I left him more confused than ever. Lol!

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NORTH KOREANS:

  1. Don’t have passports. Only a selected few from Pyongyang, the showcase city, are allowed to travel.
  2. Don’t have cars. They walk or ride the bike. Cars in Pyongyang, including Mercedes Benz and Lexus brands, are owned by top ranking officials. “Normal” cars are said to be given by the government to a few individuals/family who serve the State.
  3. Women don’t smoke and they (should) get married in their 20s.
  4. Cannot criticize the regime otherwise their whole family could be banished from society and end up in political prison camps.

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6. Do not have internet. They don’t know the word. They have no freedom of information

7. Do not have any religion except to adore and obsess over the cult which exalts their leaders. It is a very serious offense to spread religion or any religious material. It could lead to persecution and death.

8. If a person is persecuted for “anti-state” crimes, 3 generations of his family suffers.

9. They earn a meager single digit monthly salary.

10. People who live in Pyongyang are the privileged ones. The rest live in the countryside where they are forced to do hard labor.

11. They cannot tell where Kim Jung Un lives. “We don’t reveal that information.” Nor how many kids does he have. “Nobody knows.”

 

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NoKor Day 1: Visa and Koryo Air

I got my Visa on our way to the airport. Left Beijing at 1pm on board a Soviet-era plane from the world’s only 1-star airline Koryo Air, and arrived in Pyongyang at 1:30 pm, local time.

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A trip to the most secretive country in the world makes seasoned travelers act like stupid tourists. Inside the airplane, I was taking photos of almost everything…the flight attendants, the video on board, the airsick back. When the flight attendant brought in our food, I took a photo of that as well. The Belgian guy seated beside me said with a bit of embarrassment: ” I was just waiting for you to do that so I could do it as well.” I responded: “We don’t do this in other countries do we?”

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The flight took 90 minutes. The entire time on the plane, they were playing a video of some local concert…women singing, playing various instruments and dancing in unison (maybe their version of Kpop), as images of their great leaders and of the war appear in a projected screen on the stage.

No visa and entry / exit stamp will appear on the passport. One only gets the boarding pass as souvenir. Passport and visa are collected upon arrival in Pyongyang and will only be returned to you inside the bus on the way back to the airport.

 

NoKor Day 1: Arrival

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I was seated in between an old North Korean guy (aisle; some privileged North Koreans apparently are allowed to travel) and a Belgian traveler (window). The latter was kind enough to let me stretch my hand towards the window so I could take photos while landing. As a first impression of the country from the plane, I thought that it’s barren and sad. No buildings, no trees, just brown. As we got closer to the ground, I noticed people…they look more like teenagers actually… everyone in a military uniform. We touched down, the atmosphere tensed. I never felt so scared landing in a new country before.

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We were instructed not to take photos of soldiers and of the interior of the airport (Because the airport was small. A new one is being constructed beside it). But outside is fine, so everyone was taking a photo of the sign that says Pyongyang and the airplane when we got to the bus. I was specifically taking a photo of the door of the plane and the people coming down from it. And then I had an eye contact with an officer. He was looking at me as if I did something wrong. He walked towards the bus where I was by the door and he looked at me again in a very unfriendly way. I bowed down and avoided his gaze. I panicked and kept my phone in my bag. My thought bubble: “Fuck! Am I gonna get arrested? How can I be in trouble just 5 minutes after arrival? Shit!”

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Passing through immigration and security was a slow and painful process. They got our passports, visa, mobile phones and cameras and scrutinized each piece critically. The whole ordeal was nerve-wracking.

 

NoKor Day 1: Dark Streets, Posh Bar & Eerie Hotel

From the airport we went straight to see some of DPRK’s major monuments, landmarks and a bookstore. It was a Sunday, a usual rest day for North Koreans. The streets were almost deserted. It looked as cold as the 8-degree weather.

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We walked to the square as night was falling and darkness enveloped the whole city. The most striking observation during this stroll was the lack of electricity on the streets and residential units. Monuments and important buildings, specially those with the images of the great leaders, were fully lit with powerful lights. But not a single street lamp was on. Stores didn’t have power too. I saw a seller use a flashlight while tending to her customers.

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Next they brought us to what seemed like an isolated office building. Surprisingly, a posh bar was inside. We drank locally brewed beer plus dried fish that went well with it (a local pulutan). We asked our guide if locals usually go there. She said yes, but we doubted the truthfulness of her answer. The bar was far from the center and locals usually just walk. Plus how can they afford? All of us in the group thought…hmmm maybe they just set this bar up for the tourists. And the handful locals who were there at that time were just actors. We thought it was all a show. No one could confirm. Our guides won’t flinch.

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We checked in at Yanggakdo International Hotel, the largest working hotel and the second tallest building in North Korea. It is located in an island away from where locals live. This is where ALL foreign tourists stay (no exception). We had a room on the 31st floor overlooking the river. There were approximately 100 tourists in the hotel at that time. The hotel has 1000 rooms. It had been empty for 6 months due to the closure of the border. Lights were dim, elevators open to empty, dark floors, the feel was eerie.

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I didn’t sleep well. Our room was cold and I felt scared. I had a nightmare. I saw myself on my bed and my friend on hers. I was screaming, calling her name but no sound came out of my mouth. In the morning, she said she heard me moan. I had what Filipinos call “bangungot.” Good thing I still woke up (Otherwise, I’ll be Rico Yan in Pyongyang).

NoKor Day 2: Grocery and Cafe

I’m sure a lot of you are interested in the story of the grocery store to know if the food inside are actually made of plastic. Sorry to disappoint…they are REAL! But! There are so many buts…

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To go to a cafe and pass by a grocery store weren’t part of the itinerary. We were supposed to go to a war cemetery. But because people in the group were very persistent to have coffee after the heavy lunch (many europeans in the group and some were jet lagged), the guides decided to grant our request. The other group didn’t go here, too bad for them.

So we went to this huge building again that seemed almost empty. As we turn right upon entry, ta-da! a grocery store! And just imagine how frantic us tourists were, taking photos like crazy. Some were not even discreet. I was always one of the firsts to arrive in the “scene of the crime” so I was able to take good shots. The rest of the people in the group weren’t allowed to take photos or were asked to delete previously taken photos on the spot.

So I went around the grocery and touched the fruits to see if they were plastic. They were not. I was disappointed. I walked deeper into the grocery store. All products being sold were imported from Europe and USA and were so damn expensive. There were huge containers of Nutella, packs of Haribo and all types of Swiss chocolates. I picked up a bottle of bratwurst to see if it is expired or not. It was good, expiring in 2017.

When I went out of the store, I asked our male North Korean guide, “Who shops here? The locals or expats..foreigners working here?” There was a pause. He wasn’t prepared for the question. He then answered “the locals.” I took it with a cavan of salt. In a separate scene, I asked the female tour guide the same question. She answered, “the expats.” In my head…you liars!!!

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Next we went to the coffee shop where I ordered a 5-euro (P250) cappuccino. My coffee came artfully and I was delighted. But what was striking was the poshness of the place. No one would think I was in North Korea if I showed them the interior of this cafe.

Anyone in his right frame of mind would know that locals couldn’t afford the products in this grocery store and the coffee in this cafe. I heard before the trip that they only earn a single digit salary per month. North Koreans always like pretending that they have a normal life. Same as what we have outside.

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On our way out, I took a shot of the framed photo of the cooking President Kim Il Sung. A guard approached me to ask to delete my photo. I did it on the spot. She let me go. What she didn’t know was that iphone 6 has a “Deleted Album” which stores restorable deleted photos. So yeah, I’ve outsmarted them there. Haha!

NoKor Day 2: The Subway Metro

There is no other Metro in the world subjected to continuous rumors, myths and speculations than the Pyongyang Metro. It is also the deepest subway system in the world at 150 meters underground.

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It is widely believed that the metro system was built for the purpose of linking military installations, transportation of high-level official in and out of Pyongyang, and a nuclear bunker to provide an escape route to China should conflict arise.

Our North Korean tour guide asked me, “Have u heard of the rumors?”

I pretended not to know so I answered, “What rumors?”

“That the Metro only runs when there are tourists. That the people you’ll see in the Metro are all actors,” she said.

“That is interesting,” I replied. “Maybe you are an actress too, acting as a tour guide.” We both laughed.

The ride in the world’s most mysterious subway system is one of my most favorite activities in Pyongyang. There are a total of 17 stops spread across 2 lines but tourists are only allowed to go into 5.

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My observations:

  1. Pretty chandeliers hang on high ceilings, colorful mosaic art on the walls, patriotic music echoing faintly across the stone floor. The Metro was very clean.
  2. The people were very unfriendly. All 17 foreigners were in one car. Locals would get in, but upon seeing the foreigners, they would get off. For some who have been there before we came, they stared but they didn’t smile. For those curious or brave enough to ride with us, they would sit far away avoiding body contact.
  3. Each car has photos of the supreme leaders perpetually smiling down at all passengers.
  4. People were quiet. They didn’t talk even amongst themselves.

 

NoKor Day 2: Gays

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I’m the type of traveler who asks so many questions. And so I like talking to locals or to a tour guide. I have one consistent question in almost all countries that I visit. It’s about homosexuality.

I waited till most people in our group have walked far ahead so I could talk to our guide in private. I put my arm around her shoulder and said in a muted voice…

“I have an important question for you. You may or may not answer. Is it okay?”

She nodded.

“Are there gay people in North Korea?”

She laughed.

“No. There is none,” she answered.

“But how do you view gay people?” I followed up. “Like when there are gay tourists…do you think they are yucky?”

Her answer: “No. It’s up to them. It’s their life.”

I smiled. “So I could tell my gay friends that they could visit your country, yes?”

“They are welcome to visit,” she finally said.

So mga beki friends, Attack na mga mereski!!! Rampa na to Pyongyang at i-sight ang mga muher at manchumakaris na huma-hunger games.

 

PROPAGANDA:

In the futuristic dystopia depicted in “1984,” George Orwell described a world where the only color visible would be in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.

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Images of Kim Il Sung are portrayed in vivid colors used by the Socialist Realism style of painting. The great leader smiles benevolently at children, farmers and workers. Rays of yellow and orange radiate from his face. He is the sun.

The words leap out of the gray landscape with urgency saying:

Long live Kim Il Sung.

Kim Jung Il, sun of the 21st century.

Let’s live our own way.

We will do as the party tells us.

We have nothing to envy in the world.

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FOOD & NEWSPAPERS:

The Koreans take the role of host seriously and therefore always over – provide in the way of food. There’s usually plenty of left over. If everything is eaten up they feel they haven’t given enough (So yeah, they like wasting food on tourists while their own people starve to death).

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It has been repeated and reiterated that we need to show respect to their leaders…even in how we handle/dispose news publications. Newspapers should be folded in a way that their faces are not creased. Don’t fold or crumple up any piece of paper with their photo on and throw it away. They will take offense.

 

CINEMA: Movies and entertainment in DPRK.

This a cinema in Pyongyang. Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong Il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in masses. He thinks that “revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution.”

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The films were mostly dramas with the same themes: the path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective. They produce 40 movies per year.

Hollywood films are banned. A consequence for secretly watching one is death!

 

NORTH KOREAN TOUR GUIDES:

These are our tour guides Mr. Li and Ms. Pang. In NoKor they are called “minders.”

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North Korean society is divided into a highly hierarchical cast system. Only the ‘friendly class’ – i.e., the elite – are allowed to live in Pyongyang, carry official Party membership, and work in the best jobs or in jobs where they might interact with foreigners. The DPRK takes the precaution of assigning 2 “minders” to foreign visitors, one to watch the other so that he can’t be bribed.

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Spying on one’s countrymen is something of a National pastime. There are vigilantes who actively make sure people aren’t violating any of the rules set by the regime, like wearing of blue jeans or shirts with roman writing (which are considered capitalist indulgence). Public Police have the right to barge on people’s houses to catch offenders who use more than their quota of electricity, a lightbulb brighter than 40 watts, a hot plate or a rice cooker. All these are prohibited.

MONUMENTS:

To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s of China, from Ceausescu’s Romania to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all these regimes have the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, portraits hung in every office.

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But Kim Il Sung didn’t want to be a Joseph Stalin, he wanted to be Santa Claus. His dimpled cheeks made him appear more cuddly than other dictators. He wanted to be ingratiated into North Korean families as their own flesh and blood. He wanted love. He wanted to be god.

The grandness of the monuments, statues and mausoleums in Pyongyang depicting their great leader testifies to the superiority of the Korean version of communism.

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Trivia:

  1. NoKor’s Arc of Triumph is 10 meters higher than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris making it the largest arc in the world.

But all of these artifice can’t feed the people.

LAST:

 Lastly, I intend to share a story that is most baffling to me.

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Kim Il Sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him from the other dictators is his ability to harness the power of faith. North Korean news carried tales of supernatural phenomena pertaining to their leaders: stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors sang songs in praise of Kim Il Sung; a mysterious fog descended to protect the Great Leader from South Korean snipers when he visited the DMZ; he caused trees to bloom and snow to melt.

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The entire population of NoKor are required to wear a lapel pin on their left breast bearing the faces of their 2 dead leaders. All houses must have a framed portrait of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il hung on the wall. People were not permitted to put anything else on that wall, not even pictures of family. Kim Il Sung was all the family they needed. A white cloth was given to people together with this portrait. They must clean it regularly. A police comes on surprise visits to check on the condition of the portraits.

CRAAAAAZYYY!!!

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MOTHER PACKER

Posted: October 23, 2014 in MUSINGS
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Many travelers aspire to travel light. Some are successful ,others bring their whole house. I, stand in the middle. For as long as you can carry your luggage ON YOUR OWN, without breaking your back, without the need to pester other people and without having to whine all day, it should be fine.

As much as possible....travel light.

As much as possible….travel light.

I am an organized traveler. I research, plan and book ahead of time. My itinerary is detailed in excel format. My wardrobe plan is like an artwork.

My Itinerary in Excel Format

My Itinerary in Excel Format

My colourful outfits

My colourful outfits

I couldn’t claim that I am a backpacker who travels really light. But in my years of traveling, I have learned which items are necessary and which ones constitute “excess baggage.” I used to bring with me a 20kg luggage with a 7kg backpack, camera bag with 3 lenses & a purse containing a huge wallet. I dreaded those times when I had to tow that luggage along cobbled roads and haul it all the way up to my room on the 3rd floor because my Bed & Breakfast didn’t have a lift. There was a time when I had to leave a pair of Naturalizer shoes and some clothes in my hostel, and another instance when I handed over my winter coat to a homeless person all because I refused to carry that load on to my next destination. To travel heavy is painful…on the arms, back and shoulders. So now, I try to travel light-er.

Excess Baggage

Excess Baggage

But there was also time when I went on a 1-month trip around 6 countries in Southeast Asia and just carried with me a 9kg backpack, my purse and a camera bag. Having no check-in luggage allowed me to breeze through the plane and out the airport way ahead of everyone else on the flight. It was a liberating experience.

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1 month and just these

1 month and just these

How can one travel in style and pack lighter? Easy. Plan your outfit. Make sure they Mix & Match.

  1. Use black leggings instead of jeans. They are lighter and easy to wash & dry.
  2. Bring a black dress that could be used during the day and for a night at the theater or a dinner date.
  3. Accessorize with pearls to make your outfit look formal.
  4. Ballerina flats (in black, silver or gold) are good for sight-seeing during the day and a more formal gathering or party at night.
  5. 2 pairs of shoes are enough.
  6. A camera bag with extra pockets for your lipstick and mobile phone is advisable.
  7. With the same shirt/blouse & leggings, use a scarf one day, a cardigan the next day and just your pearl necklace the next.
Outfit planning

Outfit planning

Winter Wardrobe

Winter Wardrobe

Other packing tips:

  1. Always have a print-out of your passport, plane tickets and hotel bookings. Also have digital copies of these in your email and mobile phone.
  2. Make sure you have your complete name, address and contact information somewhere in your luggage in case it gets lost.
  3. Invest in a money belt. Put your money and credit cards in different places.
  4. Buy those light-weight, quick-dry towels.
  5. A portable weighing scale is advisable so you could check the weight of your luggage after you just went shopping. If you travel using budget airlines, your luggage is limited to 10 – 15 KG.
  6. Use a soap that is good for both the body & face so you won’t have to bring 2 items for different purposes. I use Dove.
  7. If you’re traveling alone and have your own room, sleep in your underwear to save on clothes that need to be washed.
  8. Bring an extension cord so you could charge 3 devices at once when there is a limited number of electric socket in your hotel.
  9. Research on the adapter that you need to bring on a particular country. Buy a universal adapter.
  10. Bring medicine as these could be expensive abroad.
Australia & New Zealand

Australia & New Zealand

Below is my standard packing essentials. Not on the list are 3 things most important in my travels: 1. my bear, Mars (used to be Bruno), 2. an open mind, and 3. an adventurous spirit.

Brenda's Essentials

Brenda’s Essentials

Happy travels!

Captivating, stunning, breathtaking, picture-perfect, ridiculously beautiful…so many words to describe New Zealand but not nearly enough to give it justice. It has devoured on all the superlatives that could be depicted to any astonishing country. For me, it is a poet, a dreamer, an adventurer, a romantic.  It is one of my most favorite places on earth.

"What do you get when you kiss a guy? You'll get enough germs to catch Pneumonia." Candid shot of a couple kissing under a tree during sunset in Queenstown.

“What do you get when you kiss a guy? You’ll get enough germs to catch Pneumonia.”
Candid shot of a couple kissing under a tree, during sunset, in Queenstown.

Plucked straight out of a Peter Jackson film, this country is definitely one of the most picturesque and photogenic places you’ll ever see. Made up of some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes…from vast mountain ranges, steaming volcanoes to sweeping coastlines… It is a natural playground for thrill seekers and adventurers. It is home to the Middle-Earth, 4.5 million people and 31 million sheep.

The grandeur of the Southern Alps

The grandeur of the Southern Alps

New Zealand has always been on top of my list of countries to visit. But I have taken it for granted for years since it’s both near and out of the way. If not for the miracle glitch in Air Asia’s website where I was able to get a return ticket from Singapore to Sydney for only Php100 (US$ 2.22), New Zealand won’t be in my travel plans this year. My expectations of this country were high. Impressively, all of them were surpassed.

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Mornings at the vineyard. Fog hugging the land.

New Zealand is composed of 3 main islands: North Island, South Island & Stewart Island. To be in a metropolis, to go where 70% of the population lives, to experience volcanic shenanigans, to see Hobbiton, go North. If you want your jaw to drop, your stomach to drop or to step on Penguin droppings, go South.

Life is better by the lake.

Life is better by the lake.

Like in most, if not all of my travels, I plan. I research, I view photos, I read reviews, I ask friends. I only have 9 days. I don’t need to see all of New Zealand (that would be more expensive too). I wanted adventure, glaciers, scenic landscapes. This led me South to Queenstown.

Mordor?

Mordor?

There are countless things to do in New Zealand: hiking, kayaking, wine tasting, bungee jumping, sight seeing, farming, skiing, paragliding, whale watching… the list could go on. Everyone could have his own unique experience in this country. However, it is vital to travel with money since most activities are expensive. But more importantly, travel with an adventurous spirit.

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I flew from Sydney to Queenstown on a 3-hour flight via Jetstar Airways .  The airfare (no promos this time) cost Php 20,000, round trip. I had a total of 9 awesome days in paradise. Here’s a breakdown of the things that I did:

The most spectacular landing & take off  I've had in my life so far.

The most spectacular landing & take off I’ve had in my life so far.

SKYDIVING

Company: Nzone (http://www.nzoneskydive.co.nz)

Location: Queenstown

Price: $ 299 (P11,661)

Photo & Video: $ 239 ( P9,321)

Duration: 3 hours

It was a Friday. I have been in Queenstown less than 24 hours. My skydiving was scheduled on Saturday. But it was a beautiful day that Friday. The sun was up. The sky was clear. There’s no better day to jump but TODAY.

It takes a certain kind of person to jump out of an aircraft from 9,000 feet with terminal velocity of 200 kph. It takes courage. And I love how NZONE uses words to encourage their jumpers: “BE BRAVE, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT. PRETEND. NO ONE CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE.”

My flight took me high over crystal clear Lake Wakatipu and above the snow-capped Remarkable mountain. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to do my Skydiving than New Zealand. I couldn’t have chosen a better company than Nzone.

If you want the ultimate adrenaline rush and a lot of bragging rights, Skydive! “There is no such word as try. There is only Do or Did not do. Achievement doesn’t come sweeter.”

GLACIER HIKE

Company: Franz Josef Glacier Guides (http://www.franzjosefglacier.com)

Location: Franz Josef

Price (Heli Hike): $414 (P 16,146)

Price (Valley Walk): $ 75 (P 2,925)

Price: Bus Ticket (Queenstown – Franz Josef RT): $112 (P 4,368)

Price: Hostel (Glow Worm Cottages): $ 120 (2 nights) (P 4,680)

Franz Josef Glacier, ladies and gentlemen!

Franz Josef Glacier, ladies and gentlemen!

I traveled for 8 hours by bus from Queenstown to Franz Josef to do the Glacier Hike. I normally don’t like long land travels. But this one was different. I will be riding a helicopter and step on a glacier for the first time in my life. I bought a new go pro camera specifically for this activity. This could be the highlight of my trip. I was excited beyond measure.

I was seated just behind the driver so I could ask questions.

I was seated just behind the driver so I could ask questions.

So I left Queenstown at 8am. Little did I know that I was about to venture into the most amazing road trip of my life. Stunning views & jaw-dropping landscapes left & right…lakes, waterfalls, fern forests, mountains, seas, valleys. There was no room for boredom in the 8-hour journey. The charming bus drivers provided a very informative commentary to explain the sights along the way. There were several stops for lunch, tea and photo opp.

First Stop

First Stop

I finally reached Franz Josef at 4pm. It is a very small town with just 2 streets, 1 gasoline station, 1 grocery store, and 360 people. I checked in to my hostel, chatted with other guests, and had the FREE soup plus the bread I brought (as “baon”) for dinner.

I explored this small town for 30 minutes…I think even less!

I explored this small town for 30 minutes…I think even less!

In the morning, I was all set for my Heli Hike scheduled at 10:00 am. I went to the company at 9:00 but was asked to come back at 11:00 since no helicopter has been allowed to fly that day due to strong winds. I went back at 10:30 and was asked to come back again at 12:00. By 11:30 am, I was there together with 3 other passengers. We were instructed to change into the appropriate ice hiking gears (boots, pants, winter jacket, gloves & crampons) and were led to a vast field that served as their helipad. The pilots have given us the safety instructions but as we were about to board the helicopter, our guides received a call. The flight needed to be cancelled. The glacier just moved! Shit!

There but not quite!

There but not quite!

Instead, I did the valley walk. It wasn’t as badass but it was fine. I was still able to see the glacier up-close. Plus I was able to get a refund of $339. I just washed away my woes in the 40-degree hot pools before I retired for the night.

My very first glacier experience

My very first glacier experience

CRUISE

Company: Real Journeys (http://www.realjourneys.co.nz/en/destinations/milford-sound/)

Location: Milford Sound

Price: $195 (P7,605)

The iconic Milford Sound

The iconic Milford Sound

Milford sound is a National Icon. Every time I would mention to someone that I’ll be going to New Zealand, I was always told not to miss Milford Sound.

I booked a cruise to take a break from all my adrenaline-pumping activities. I figured it was time to relax.

Cruise with me, baby!

Cruise with me, baby!

It took 5 hours to reach Milford Sound from Queenstown with several stops for photo opp in some of the most remarkable natural wonders I have ever set eyes on.

The road to Milford

The road to Milford

There was the Eglinton Valley, which was once filled with glacier ice, The Mirror Lake which display a perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains, The Homer Tunnel , which is hewed from solid granite, took nearly 20 years to complete and measures 1270 metres, and The Chasm , a spectacular waterfall where the Cleddau River has scoured its way through solid rock.

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And as if the spectacular view during the cruise is not enough, there were dolphin and seal sightings along the way to make the experience more surreal.

The Chasm

The Chasm

“Milford Sound, located at the northern most end of Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. Celebrated for its pristine landscapes, and remote and rugged beauty, it is actually a fiord, rather than a sound. A river formed valley subsequently flooded by the sea is called a sound, however, Milford Sound was formed by the erosive effects of a glacier and is more correctly a fiord.”

HORSEBACK RIDING

Company: Dart Stables (http://www.dartstables.com)

Location: Glenorchy

Price: $155 (P6,040)

The movie set for "The Lord of The Rings"

The movie set for “The Lord of The Rings”

I got $339 as refund from the cancelled Heli Hike and another full day in Queenstown. What to do? So I browsed through the wall of brochures in my hostel and found this.

“Just 45 minutes from Queenstown, at the head of Lake Wakatipu lies Glenorchy, gateway to New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring National Park and Te Wahipounamu, one of New Zealand’s three World Heritage Areas. Internationally recognized for its exceptional beauty and natural, untouched qualities, it has been showcased in the Oscar winning Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as other big screen movies. With over 50 horses of various breeds, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides and a wealth of experience, Dart Stables is able to provide great horse riding and treks for all levels of rider.”

River Crossings

River Crossings

I’m scared of animals. All of them. So to horseback would be a huge challenge for me. And I love challenging myself. And in every challenge, I learn something new. Here’s what I learned that day:

1. The average horse weighs half a ton but its brain is only the size of a potato.

2. A horse could poop 14 times a day.

3. They could not vomit.

4. They don’t have nerve endings at the root of their manes so pulling their hair when you canter doesn’t hurt them.

5. Horseback riding for 2 hours will hurt your legs & pelvics terribly afterwards.

Selfie on a Horsie

Selfie on a Horsie

HOSTEL

Name: YHA Queenstown Lakefront (http://www.yha.co.nz/hostels/south-island-hostels/yha-queenstown-lakefront/)

Price: $237 (P9,243) 5 nights

Room: 3-bed dorm with single beds

Airport Shuttle: $40 (1,560) round trip

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I carefully choose my accommodation based on location and its reputation. I prefer ones that are quiet (not frequented by young, drunk & rowdy travelers) and with a gorgeous & ralaxing view that is walking-distance to the city center.

This is only my second time to stay in a dorm-type hostel. I chose a room with single beds since I’m not comfortable sleeping in bunk beds. I feel conscious that I would disturb the person I’m sharing the bed with.

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Sitting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, this fully equipped hostel offers an enchanting view of the lake and the Remarkable mountain range. It is friendly alpine lodge that is 10-minutes walk into town. It has a huge kitchen which also serves as the place for interaction among its traveler guests. Its rooms and bathrooms are very clean, bright and warm (during winter).

Highly Recommended!

CLOSING

I will end this blog entry with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien. Some people say that the movie, The Lord of the Rings, put New Zealand on the map. Not for me. I know of New Zealand even before I’ve seen the movie. All dairy products in the Philippines come from this country. I’ve always imagined it to be a magical place.

Even just once in your life, experience New Zealand. You deserve a taste of paradise.

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“Roads go ever ever on, Over rock and under tree, By caves where never sun has shone, By streams that never find the sea; Over snow by winter sown, And through the merry flowers of June, Over grass and over stone,And under mountains in the moon. Roads go ever ever on.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

“I must not fear, fear is the mind killer
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over and through me
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain”

After I have done bungee jumping (Macao & Thailand) and paragliding (Switzerland), what is there for me to do next? Skydiving of course! It is inevitable. It is definite. The question is when & where.

It was a Friday. I have been in Queenstown less than 24 hours. My skydiving was scheduled on Saturday. But it was a beautiful day that Friday. The sun was up. The sky was clear. So I figured, “There’s no better day to jump but TODAY!”

In the midst of winter in New Zealand, ground temperature was zero degree Celsius while air temperature was minus seventeen. I asked my tandem master. “You think I’m layered enough for the cold up there?” He responded, “The cold would be the least of your worries. Your mind will be occupied with other stuff.”

Banana. This was the one thing on my mind. This was what the instructor taught us before the flight. To flex your body to form a banana. Banana. Banana. Banananananana. Bananaaa.

It takes a certain kind of person to jump out of an aircraft from 9,000 feet with a terminal velocity of 200 kph. It takes courage. And I love how NZONE worded their encouragement: “BE BRAVE, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT. PRETEND. NO ONE CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE.”

My flight took me high over crystal clear Lake Wakatipu and above the snow-capped Remarkable mountain. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to do my Skydiving than New Zealand. I couldn’t have chosen a better company than Nzone.

Tips:

1. Research.

I am very particular about photos & videos. I want this once in a lifetime experience to be properly documented. So I read websites and reviews. I found out that there are 3 Skydiving companies operating in Queenstown. But only Nzone offers a separate photographer/videographer for each jumper. With others, a wrist cam is attached to the tandem master. Photos are tightly shot, mostly of terrified faces. I wanted wide-angle shots of the jaw-dropping view. This was what made me decide to go with Nzone. Moreover, part of the package included: a USB, printed 5R copies of all photos in an album & postcards of your awesome shots to send to your loved ones.

2. Be practical.

There are options to jump from 9,000ft, 12,000ft and 15,000ft. As you go higher, the free fall experience is longer (30 sec., 45 sec., 60 sec.) but it also becomes more expensive ($299, $339, $439). There is no difference in the fear at any of the altitudes. It is highly recommended to take the photo & video package, which is pricey ($229). So I decided to jump from the cheapest altitude. I could use the difference of $40 – 140 to do another adventure.

3. Enjoy.

Take in the view. Relish the experience. Scream. Breathe. Smile at the camera. Have fun.

If you want the ultimate adrenaline rush and a lot of bragging rights, Skydive!

“There is no such word as try. There is only Do or Did not do. Achievement doesn’t come sweeter.”

Choose wisely.

Company: Nzone (http://www.nzoneskydive.co.nz)
Location: Queenstown
Price: $ 299 (P11,661)
Photo & Video: $ 239 ( P9,321)
Duration: 3 hours

Jump in a dress if you must!

Jump in a dress if you must!

Before I left home for this trip, while at the airport waiting for boarding, my mom sent me a text message. She said, “Take care and please don’t do any dangerous sport.”

When I came back home, I showed my skydiving video to my 3 year old nephews and made up this story: “You see that man in red? He is stubborn. The pilot said not to open the door of the airplane but he did so he fell. Good thing your super hero Tita could fly. So I saved him.” In awe, my nephews chorused, “YOU’RE THE BEST!”

“Why Iran?” A question that stalked me before, during and after my trip to Iran. My answer has been consistent, “why not?!”

I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve seen so many pretty places. But I’m not an ordinary traveler who only longs to see what’s beautiful out there. There is an adventurer within me. Danger excites me. Curiosity is one of my best traits.

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When the country has not opened its gate to tourists…when Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest…when it’s still not a “common” tourist destination, I have traveled to Myanmar…alone! I walked on its streets at night knowing that a spy was following me from behind.

In the Philippine province of Maguindanao, located in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a place where 58 journalists were massacred, where kidnapping is rampant, where vehicles have to stop every 200 meters for a military checkpoint… a place where no local or foreign tourist would venture into for it is unsafe… I have proudly set foot on. I even had breakfast with a commander of a rebel group.

 

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So let’s just say that my journey to Iran began with the need to quench a renewed thirst for adventure.

 

 The captain has ordered the cabin crew to take their seats. The wheels of the plane were released. I put on my head scarf and turned up the volume of my entertainment system to full blast. I was shaking my head and tapping my foot to the beat of the music. With the Rolling Stone on the background, I have landed in Iran. Goosebumps! Badass goosebumps!

The captain has ordered the cabin crew to take their seats. The wheels of the plane were released. I put on my head scarf and turned up the volume of my ipod to full blast. I was shaking my head and tapping my foot to the beat of the music. With the Rolling Stones in the background, I have landed in Iran. Goosebumps! Badass goosebumps!

 

But Iran disappointed me. I was looking forward to some badass adventure. I was secretly hoping that after my trip, I would bring home an amazing story of how I survived a kidnap attempt or bombings two blocks away from my hotel. Sadly, my experience is not as action-packed as I expected. Iran is peaceful, friendly and beautiful.

 

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The people… their curious stares, their welcoming smiles, their hospitable invitations for tea… the exquisitely beautiful men and women. They ask where I am from and thank me for visiting their country.

 

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I feel like a celebrity in Iran. Girls of different ages ask to have a photo with me. Some put their arms around me. Others kiss me on the cheek.  They come up to me and ask, "Chi? (Are u from china?)"  I reply, "No, from the Philippines. My name is Brenda." Then they say, "Oh Baranda!!!"

I feel like a celebrity in Iran. Girls of different ages ask to have a photo with me. Some put their arms around me. Others kiss me on the cheek.
They come up to me and ask, “Chi? (Are u from china?)”
I reply, “No, from the Philippines. My name is Brenda.”
Then they say, “Oh Baranda!!!”

 

The landscape…wow! The road from Tehran to Isfahan and then to Kashan is a breathtaking scene of landscapes so unique, flipping like pages in a storybook. The mountains are like pictures of slumbering giants…opaque silhouettes soft in the distance, cocoon quiet, some beneath blankets of white snow laying in dreamless sleep.

 

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On the road from the small village up in the mountains called Abyaneh to the city of Kashan, while marveling at the gorgeous landscape, I mustered the courage to ask our driver/tour guide about Iran's Nuclear Facility. He didn't understand me at first so I said, "bomb! boom! you know?" Then it dawned on him and responded with "Oh! proton! atom!" I said, "yes, yes! where?" "We will pass by one on the way," he assured me. I remembered being so happy and excited. Mission accomplished. I found what I came to find in Iran. Hehehe!

On the road from the small village up in the mountains called Abyaneh to the city of Kashan, while marveling at the gorgeous landscape, I mustered the courage to ask our driver/tour guide about Iran’s Nuclear Facility. He didn’t understand me at first so I said, “bomb! boom! you know?” Then it dawned on him and responded with “Oh! proton! atom!” I said, “yes, yes! where?” “We will pass by one on the way,” he assured me. I remembered being so happy and excited.
Mission accomplished. I found what I came to find in Iran. Hehehe!

 

The experience…surreal! I had goosebumps just upon landing. On the road, as I marveled at the natural beauty in front of me, I choked up. I had to fight tears from falling on my sun burnt cheeks. I felt so blessed and grateful to be in that moment, in that country, to be traveling with friends, to be having this wonderful experience so unique from all other journeys I’ve had. It easily rose in the ranks as one of my most favorite travels of all.

 

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#1 rule in traveling: meet the locals. While having a leisurely walk at the park, I saw 2 girls and 1 boy playing volleyball. I asked if I could join them. 4 players became 5, and 5 became 9.  I played volleyball in my ballerina flats, dress and my head scarf. I have gained new friends and a unique, wonderful experience.

#1 rule in traveling: meet the locals.
While having a leisurely walk at the park, I saw 2 girls and 1 boy playing volleyball. I asked if I could join them. 4 players became 5, and 5 became 9.
I played volleyball in my ballerina flats, dress and my head scarf. I have gained new friends and a unique, wonderful experience.

 

So turn off your television and get on a plane. You don’t need to be brave to travel to Iran. All you need is your passport and an open mind. You will be pleasantly surprised in an explosive kind of way.

 

In a van speeding at 130 kilometers per hour, and my camera clenched between my hand and my face, trying hard to keep steady, I tried to capture the colossal beauty that is before me. Left and right I aimed and shot. And when it won’t end, I put my camera down. It didn’t feel right to keep shooting. I stopped coz I know that no photo could capture what my eyes were privileged to be made witness of. This was real. Speechless and in awe, I savored my own precious moments with the mountains. I tucked those images safely in my mind so one day, I could follow the trail of my memory of them and smile”

In a van speeding at 130 kilometers per hour, and my camera clenched between my hand and my face, trying hard to keep steady, I tried to capture the colossal beauty that is before me. Left and right I aimed and shot. And when it won’t end, I put my camera down. It didn’t feel right to keep shooting. I stopped coz I know that no photo could capture what my eyes were privileged to be made witness of. This was real. Speechless and in awe, I savored my own precious moments with the mountains. I tucked those images safely in my mind so one day, I could follow the trail of my memory of them and smile”

 

 

Discoveries, Observations, Shattered Expectations:

1. Wearing of head scarves is a LAW! Every woman, local or tourists must wear one. BUT unlike women in the Arabian Peninsula where only eyes are allowed to be shown, Iranian women are more modern & liberated…they could wear head scarves with colors and they could wear them loosely to show their whole face and a bulk of their hair.

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2. Nobody wears shorts in Iran. Even men. Even during summer.

3. Having a nose job is very common in Iran. Both men & women do it. In fact, Iran has been named the nose-job capital of the world. But instead of making the nose taller, they undergo surgery to lessen the height of their noses and achieve a perfect angle.

4. If an Iranian invites you to tea or tries to give you a favor, let him/her do it 3 times before saying yes. The first 2 invitations are just gestures of politeness and hospitality.

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5. There are no bombing and Talibans waving their guns in Iran. It is peaceful and the people are very friendly.

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6. It is NOT an endless desert. They have snow capped mountains, fields of crops and lush gardens.

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7. The people don’t hate America and they love tourists. They are curious as to where you come from and thanks you for visiting their country.

US Den of Espionage

US Den of Espionage

 

8. They have a 400 year old quaint little village on top of the mountains called Abyaneh where a small population of old women live. The place is charming and very interesting.

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9. Women in Iran wear make up most of the time…even at 6 am… in a ski resort…like it’s a custom not to go out of the house unpretty.

10. Iranian men are hot!

 

11. To slightly slap the hand is to say “Thank You!”

 

How to go to Iran?

1. Visa– http://www.irantouristvisa.com/iran-visa-procedure.html

Website Instructions

Website Instructions

 

Warning: Make sure to check your Visa as soon as you receive it from your embassy!

My details. My friend's face.

My details. My friend’s face.

First time in my experience as a traveler that an embassy issued me a wrong Visa. It got all my details correct except for the photo. Imagine if didn’t check..the trouble, the trauma, the costs!

 

2. Hotels – the problem with hotels & other accommodation in Iran is that they hardly respond to emails. I had to make overseas calls to several hotels to inquire and  book our rooms.

Tehran: Khayyam Hotel (+982133113757) / #3 Navidi Alley, Amirkabir St. Baharestan Square, Tehran / Mohammad Jasbi

1,150,000 IRR per night (approximately US$38) for a room for 2 pax

Isfahan: Setareh Hotel (+983112202988) / Hafez St. Naghseh -Jalan Square, Isfahan / Marya Chitsaz

3,420,000 IRR (approximately US$114) for a suite for 4 pax.

The spacious living room

The spacious living room

Bedroom & Bathroom

Bedroom & Bathroom

Kashan: Manouchehri House (+983614242617) / 49 Mohtasham Kashan / Elina

7,000,000 IRR (approximately US$ 233) for a suite for 4 pax.

Luxury in Iran

Luxury in Iran

 

3. Outfit – Women have to wear scarves and dresses / long blouses that would cover the shape of their hips.

 

4. Itinerary: We spent a total of 6 days in Iran.

Day 1: Arrived in Tehran. Explore hotel area by foot.

Day 2: Tehran – Tochal Ski Resort (6am to 2pm), US Den of Espionage, Art Gallery, Darband.

Day 3: Isfahan – 5-hour drive from Tehran to Isfahan, Imam Square , Hasht Behesht Palace, Bazaar.

Day 4: Isfahan – Friday Mosque , Khajou Bridge, 33pol Bridge, Si-o-se Bridge , Drive to Abyaneh (30 minutes), Kashan for dinner.

Day 5: Kashan – Historical House, Bagh-e Fin Garden, Chill in the luxury hotel and write postcards, Drive back to Tehran in the afternoon (2 hours)

Day 6: Tehran – Golestan Palace, Flight back home in the afternoon.

 

5. Costs

Visa: P 2,800 or $62

Airfare: P 30,000 or $670 (Manila – Dubai RT: P12,000 ($267) via Cebu Pacific promo fare / Dubai – Tehran RT: P18,000 ($400) Oman Air)

Transpo for 6 days: P 26,100 or $580 (divided by 4). Taxi to and from the airport is $20.

Hotel: P 19,125 or $425 (divided by 4)

Shopping: P4,500 or $100

Food:  P6750 or $150 ($25 per day)

 

6. Souvenir – I hand-carried a mirror set in hand-painted wood from Isfahan. 2 Kilograms. $60.

 

Thank you. The End.

 

“I didn’t ask for it to be over. But then again, I didn’t ask for it to begin. For that’s the way it is with life…some of the most beautiful days come completely by chance.” – Persian Proverb

Persian Sunset

Persian Sunset

The Mountain of Moses

Posted: July 26, 2013 in AFRICA
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Mt. Sinai: 2,285 m (7,497 ft)

Sunrise

Sunrise

To say the least, this night was magical.

In the bus, the tour guide asked for those climbing Mt. Sinai to raise their hands. There was only 1 hand in the air…mine. My dad, worried, subtly tried to discourage me into going…but he knew that my mind was made up. He never tried a second time. After dinner, 9 others decided to come along. My dad sighed a breath of relief.

Bargouk

Bargouk

I rode a camel half of the way to Mt. Sinai. It was my first time. My camel’s name is Bargouk…impatient and independent, but a very reliable animal. He started walking even without its guide…as if saying “i know the way…been there, done that!” We journeyed before midnight…the full moon, huge and dramatic above us, lighting our path. Stars enveloped the jet black sky while silhouettes of the majestic mountains towered closely on our sides. The desert was calm. The air was just the right amount of cold. The moment was surreal.

Bedouin Guide Mousa

Bedouin Guide Mousa

We reached the peak at 1:30 am. 10 of us and our Bedouin guide, Mousa, were the only ones on top. First time climbers in the group were in awe of their feat. I was beaming with pride that my latest mountain conquest is actually the mountain of Moses.

The cold has become unbearable…hours remain till sunrise.

Climbers inside the coffee shop

Climbers inside the coffee shop

We killed time inside a makeshift coffee shop owned by Bedouins. Over coffee and hot chocolate, we happily talked, laughed, got to know each other. And then the sky started to change hues. Black was slowly replaced by blue, yellow and orange. The mountain behind us became visible.

Tomorrow is here

Tomorrow is here

 

Good morning camel

Good morning camel

The camels awakened.

 

We went out into the open to witness the sun display its grandeur and beauty as it signals a new morning in Sinai. It was gorgeous! We all felt blessed.

Cambodia: More Than Its Temples

Posted: April 8, 2012 in ASIA
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Angkor Wat: Pride of the Cambodian People

Old French shop-houses, shady tree-lined boulevards, a slow-flowing river…and Ahhh! The magnificence that is Angkor…these are the usual marks that the enigmatic kingdom of Cambodia often imprints on its visitors.

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But Cambodia has an effect on me, which I’ve never felt anywhere else. It stirs in me a mixed feeling of sadness and amazement, of pity and of pride… of wanting to give everyone a hug so tight and say, “Your unbreakable spirit inspires me, thank you.”

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The eighth wonder of the world proudly sits in Cambodia’s backyard, but I would say its greatest treasure is its people. The Khmers have struggled through years of bloodshed, suffering and poverty and yet, they have prevailed with their warm smiles and infectious optimism intact. I came & left full of admiration and affection for its people.

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Highlights, Observations & Learning:

  • I stayed in a guesthouse called Golden Temple Villa. For US$ 13 per night, I got a single air-conditioned room, with my own bathroom, TV, small fridge, unlimited coffee, tea and bananas, free use of a bike and a half hour Khmer massage. Did I say just for $13? If not, I say it again…Thirteen US Dollars!

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  • When most tourists would hire a tuktuk to tour around the Wats of Angkor, I took the bike, and pedaled 20 kilometers to what I consider the best activity I’ve done in Cambodia.

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  • Watching the movie “The Killing Fields,” visiting an actual killing field, and having a tuktuk driver who is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge are the most heart breaking moments in my travel…but are also the most unforgettable.

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  • A lot of children, amputees, and tuktuk drivers trying to sell me just about anything….the hardest type of selling I’ve ever seen and experienced. The poverty in the country was just overwhelming. But in my mind, I was impressed. Coz at least the people are trying to earn a decent living…they work and not beg for money…keeping their dignity in the midst of poverty. Oh! How I respect them for that.

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  • People in general speak very good English, but I was never prepared for the wit of the children. They would call me “my friend” and recite to me the capital of every country. They even know the prime ministers of Britain. Impressive!

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  • Khmers practice BOTH Hinduism & Buddhism.

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  • Khmer is what you call the people & the language of Cambodia.

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  • Almost everything could be paid in US Dollars. And almost everything starts with $2…meals, post cards, fish therapy massages. It would cost $40 tho for a 3-day pass to the temples.

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  • There are clouds of dragonflies in the temple areas.

Basics:

Country: Kingdom of Cambodia

Capital: Phnom Penh

Language: Khmer

People: Khmer

Currency: Riel