Thailand

On a Friday around midnight, we boarded our 15-hour flight to Hong Kong. After a 90 minute transfer in Hong Kong, we flew another three hours to Suvarnabhumi Airport, where Sam’s sister and brother in law picked us up.

They immediately took us to an upscale mall only opened six months ago called Icon Siam. The bottom floor of the building, called Sook Siam was dedicated to traditional food vendors (street food, boat noodles, etc.) but presented in a very elaborately ornamental environment complete with fake trees, elephants, and even a faux river (real water) for the boat noodle vendors to rest on.

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She’s trying to tell me about the Mangos, but I wasn’t listening yet.

We ate traditional northern style noodles before visiting the Hokkaido themed section. Even though I know now I’m lactose intolerant I couldn’t resist one of my favorite finds from our trip to Hokkaido last fall: black sesame ice cream.

After going to Sam’s sister’s house and unloading our luggage we visited Sam’s in-law’s parents, who conveniently live on the same block.

After we went back to the house I laid down on the floor in the bedroom and passed out, having not slept for about 45 hours.

After a few hours, Sam woke me up and we went to a local street restaurant for tom yum and a few other things.

After sleeping in we took off the next morning for a government office to take care of some paperwork. Turns out Thailand’s gov offices run about as smoothly as anywhere else. Which means we had to drive 90 minutes to the other side of town to get a signature that the other office originally said they already had. Since it was so far, we decided to wait for Sam’s brother-in-law to drive us instead of taking a taxi. To kill time until he was available we visited the Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun.

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Hmmmm, this looks familiar….
Unfortunately, fifty years later, I was not allowed to walk up those steps and strike the same pose. Also, I think I’m twenty years older than my father was in this picture. Now we both can feel old, I suppose.

Later that afternoon after unsuccessfully visiting the government office across town we visited the Golden Mount, a Wat at the top of 344 stairs that circle the hill from the street.

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Kind of reminds me of a circus tent in the woods from this angle. Tim Burton would love this at night!
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We tried to eat dinner at the famous Jay Fai street vendor down the street that’s “always open.” It was not open. (this was not a Sunday) Maybe she’s making good on her threat to give back the Michelin star and had to do it in person?

Since Jay Fai was avoiding us, we ate dinner at an outdoor mall that offers a wide selection of one of Sam’s favorite foods:

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Okay, imagine these guys, but redder and deader, on a plate in spades with chili sauce.

On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we went across town for business meetings. This is in pursuit of a business venture that I’ll detail more about when/if it comes to fruition.

Wednesday night we stopped by Central World Mall to visit with friends that had an exhibit and event on-site to support their “My Life is Journey” lifestyle brand and tv show. This included our friend’s own 1988 (year is a guess) 930 Targa. I’m wishing my life was that journey too, or at least I had the same transportation through it!

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They supplied us with samples of beer and food outside in one of the event tents. So much that the whole group couldn’t finish it all.

Friday Sam went back to the government office yet again to complete her earlier paperwork, but they said it was still wrong. We went to an early dinner with the family at a fancy sushi buffet. It cost the same as a crappy sushi buffet in Los Angeles, but was actually stuffed with wagyu beef, fresh salmon, and all kinds of delicious things rolled up with rice.

We digested it during the two-hour drive across town in rush hour traffic to get to the Baiyoke Tower, which has an outdoor observation deck on the 84th floor.

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Shades of Tokyo, Bangkok expands in every direction, new high rises shooting up between old temples and arteries clogged with mufflerless motorbikes audible even on the 84th floor. There’s no way to remove the blur from your photos, it’s not shakey-cam, it’s just natural humidity shaking down the photons before they get to you all broke and tired.

Saturday we headed north for a few hours to visit Bang Rachan; which features a famous market located on the riverbanks of a town that banded together long ago to fight off an invading army. The gimmick here is that all vendors have to dress like the locals did back then and all the stalls are made out of palm trees, etc.

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At first you think “golly, not a lot of armor for a warrior,” then you realize how hot it would get inside that metal on 100 degree days and 95% humidity!

On the drive home I bought roasted coconut water at one of the gas station rest areas. Not that regular coconut water is bad, but the roasted version is much better. I hope I am able to find it back in the states, but I fear, like cold canned black coffee in Japan, this will just end up being just another pleasant food memory. Sam’s mother picked up on this obsession and bought me a collection of actual roasted coconuts so I could drink the real thing every day until we went back to America.

Speaking of food memories, one of my favorite foods of all time was (and still is) the fresh mangosteens on our last visit to Thailand. We missed them so much last year that we bought a $75 box of imported mangosteens from Mexico. Other than a few we had when meeting with suppliers, all the mangosteens we saw in Bangkok on this trip were pint size. Despite their advance in cuteness, their actual quality seemed to be a downgrade from our last two trips, really no better than the hit or miss experience with the imported Mexican variety. Nobody seemed to know why they were so small, but we bought two bags anyway since an entire bag retails for only a few dollars.

On Sunday Sam and I went out to a local salon so I could get a $3 haircut before heading to the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market for food and souvenir shopping (sorry, fam, just for us this time). One surprise was the utter deliciousness of one of the mango shakes we bought (the others were watered down).

Which brings me to a discovery: Thai “Yellow” Mango is very different from the regular mango available in the US. I’ve always hated mango, mostly fresh, but sometimes as a flavor as well. In the US there’s a sort of subtle pungent sour note that accompanies the fruit that I can’t stand.

Mango in Thailand has no weird flavors, just tangy and sweet, like a creamy orange. After discovering this I set about to have as many mango smoothies as possible but found that they’re often watered down into what we’d call slushies in the States.

Monday we woke up to news reports that a fire had destroyed parts of Chatuchak Market only hours after we’d left, injuring 2 people and destroying 200 stalls. We then went to see Sam’s Thailand BFF. They hung out for a while, then took a dance class together, before joining more friends for dinner at Ootoya.

On Tuesday we took Sam’s mom to a friend’s house on the other side of town and stayed for a while for home-made (hot!) Thai cooking and fresh durian. After eating both without too much trouble I was dubbed a “real” Thai person. Maybe that is an accomplishment that only impresses hot-sauce aficionados, but I’m glad my taste buds didn’t die in vain the last ten years. After dark, we visited the Asiatique Riverfront.

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Not a scene from your average midwestern mall.
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On the way home, we drove by Jay Fai, finally open for business, but we didn’t stop as it was already 10pm.

On Wednesday Sam gave it one last try to get her paperwork completed at the government office while I stayed home and worked my way through season 2 of Star Trek Discovery, which, of course, is available on Netflix everywhere except the United States.

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In the afternoon we spent some time in the Wednesday Buddha Temple next to the Golden Mount before Sam and I got a 2-hour massage.

After the massage we walked to the nearest bridge to take night time photos of the Chao Phraya.

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That big wide lit up building on the left is the Icon Siam mall I talked about earlier. It and the two high-rises next to it didn’t even exist the last time we visited Bangkok. Construction cranes dot the landscape like enterprising weeds and every third pick-up truck stuck in traffic holds a team of napping construction workers in the bed.

On Thursday we headed South to Hua Hin, first stopping at Maeklong Railway Market; famous for setting up on either side of a functioning railway.

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The train only comes every three hours, so we didn’t wait. Would have been a more dramatic version of this photo, huh?
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We ate an early dinner at a restaurant that opens right up to the beach.

Stomachs full, we lumbered up the beach toward Chopstick Mountain.

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Empty Beach: check, Giant human statue next to boulders: check, only white guy on the beach: check. Okay, I guess it’s a requirement: “You maniacs! You blew it up!” (the best part: that mountain’s other nickname is “Monkey Mountain”)

On the way to Chopstick we had to be careful not to step on any of the tiny sand bubbler crabs that fill the beach with their balls.

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The entire beach looks like this. If you stop walking for five seconds they all come back out and start over. Impressive when you realize this is all in a day’s work as this entire beach is covered by the tide at night.
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Did I mention they were small?

After hiking up to the top of Chopstick Mountain we foud the ruins of a temple, a lot of cats, and some monkies.

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“What have I done with my life? What is my purpose, my true calling? And how do I get down from here?”

Back in town we stopped by the Night Market for snacks (including mangosteen and a bottle of yuzu) to eat by the pool at the hotel.

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When nobody is around I pretend I live here.

On Friday morning we lounged by or in the pool before going to the chocolate factory and then a restaurant with a sign saying it had been in business in Hua Hin since 1931. Bellies full we walked the Mrigadayavan Palace grounds before visiting a local themed mall.

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Not sure what the theme is. Party in Havana?

We visited nearby Cicada Market for some handmade souvenirs.

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We returned to the night market to order up one of their famous grilled split lobsters. Or are they some kind of oversized prawn?

On our last day in Bangkok, we went to Central World again for the “fit journey” event. Afterwards, we headed to the street food fair a short walk away at Siam World. There, we were able to meet with a contact we have been working with for a bit as part of this mysterious business venture I continue to be vague about. Our sample was delicious, and in our fridge right now, but the production costs have to come way down before we can share it with the rest of you.

Sunday we headed to the airport and said our goodbyes, passing this truly massive sign.

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Is this what I think it is? I was going to say “shame on you, Germany!” but that would be a bit hypocritical of me since my own president uses the Oranging version (100% from Florida??).
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Remember kids, safety first, always keep your hands on the wheel!

As a conclusion, you may be reading all of this and thinking A) this jerk is clueless about the poverty in that country or B) Thailand is turning into a middle-class country. In truth, Thailand and the United States are becoming more like each other every day via wealth inequality. Although we spent most of our time with family and friends that are (even by American standards) considered wealthy, the poverty is still ever-present in the shacks that line the canals and overpasses.

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Imagine 95% humidity, triple digit temperatures, and living with nothing but a piece of corrugated metal over your head. After we left the city last time many of these homes were flooded out, making conditions even worse.

As Thailand emerges on the world stage, like China before it, the hope is that they’ll do a better job of lifting their poor up than we have of preventing ours from falling down.

Oh, Belize! Part II

Our flight from Placencia to Belize City on Wednesday was short, but our next hop to Caye Caulker was even shorter. At 10 minutes, the flight was the shortest we had ever taken.

After arrival, we took a golf cart taxi to our hotel and then walked up the beach to the split before watching kiteboarders show off in the sunset on the western side.

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Looks fun! I made a note to try this in a few days. My bank account put an asterisk next to the note warning me not to.

Before the sunset we checked in for the snorkel tour we’d already pre-booked for Thursday online. We let them know we were bringing our own equipment for the 10am “all day” snorkeling tour.

Still, after arriving on Thursday morning, we had to wait another hour while the tour company fitted fins and masks to everyone else on the island it seemed. They started all their tours at the same time and had enough snorkelers to fill several boats.

Despite checking in a day early and showing up early and bringing our own equipment, our boat was the second to last to leave at 11am. For an “all-day” tour.

Our first stop was the seahorse farm, which is actually open to the public and around the corner from our hotel. The next stop was only a hundred feet away and also public, but because we were in a boat the tarpons could grab fish right from our hands. (that’s what’s happening in slow-mo in the video at the top of the post)

A very bumpy twenty minutes later (I mean, why bother putting any padding on the boat when you’ve got a new gaggle of college kids from Australia every day, right?!) we arrived at the manatee spot.

Sigh, get that Ron Howard voice back in here… “But there were no manatees at the manatee spot.

We moved on to the turtle spot, where we swam for fifteen minutes around a small turtle.

Next we went to Hol Chan, where our guide took us on a bewildering tour of the reef. The information wasn’t bewildering, but keeping track of him in the sea of snorkelers (all with their own guides) was. Plus, we were told to stay very close to our guide so as not to wind up accidentally with the wrong group, which meant we couldn’t chase after the animals we had come so far to see like spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, and barracudas.

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Ooooh, barracu- oh, wait, [insert Eagles lyrical pun here]
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Okay, much better. Oooooh, Barracuda!

We had a short lunch on the boat before the next stop: Shark Ray Alley.

At the alley, the captain started throwing chum into the water for the sharks before any of us were in the water yet.

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Do nurses have fangs? Despite appearing docile, Wikipedia tells me these sharks rank 4th on the list of human shark bites.

As soon as they finished feeding the sharks and sam and I started to swim off with them and the rays…the captain ordered us back on the boat. Wtf? Five minutes at the world famous Shark Ray Alley? On an “all day” tour? Really? What happened to Belize’s “Go Slow” motto.

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Barely managed to hang out with one Ray at the alley.

Don’t worry, they made up for it by giving us 30 minutes at “coral gardens.” Which, unfortunately, is a bit of a misnomer as gardens usually feature more living plants than dead. Coral Gardens is mostly an example of what happens to coral when the government doesn’t step in to protect it, even a mile away from Hol Chan: lifeless chalky spirals poking through patches of seaweed.

After a while, Sam and I (most of the other folks on the tour didn’t even leave the boat at this stop) spotted a giant stingray.

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“You think Steve Irwin was an accident? Don’t push your luck, kid!”

And, of course, we were ushered back on the boat as soon as we spotted the thing.

The boat was back at dock by 4pm, for the “all day” tour.

We were a bit frustrated, but this is how snorkel tourism goes, I suppose. We went on a “snorkel with dolphins” tour in Hawaii and then they wouldn’t let us in the water when we finally found them.

We walked up the beach to the famous (on instagram) bar with a swing in the water to get happy hour drinks, ate dinner, and called it a day.

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Unlike those kids, these shots are tougher than they look. Especially after a few drinks.

With no other plans for Friday, we took the express boat to San Pedro to check it out. We walked down the street a bit, bought some ice cream, and then walked up the beach. Eventually, we stopped at a beach cabana couples massage.

Afterward, we visited one of the on-the-water bars for drinks before walking back to the express boat. Before boarding the express boat we visited a nearby food shop for the most pathetic chipotle imitation I’ve ever seen/eaten (and it cost more!).

Back in Caye Caulker we visited the dive shop that sold night reef tours. Yesterday they had told us they had two more interested people, which would make four-their minimum. But, the other couple never showed, so we didn’t get to go. We walked up to the split again just to kill time waiting for a sunset that never came because of cloud cover.

We ate at the local Cuban restaurant for dinner and found it surprisingly good. Guess that’s what happens when you roast a pig all day and then cut it up. (“Duh!” all my Filipino friends are shouting)

On our last day in Belize, we were super bored (Fun Fact, that was Seth and Adam’s original working title for SuperBad when the story was set in Canada, eh). We walked up the street for fruit smoothies and then got out paper and pen to work out some details of a new project we are starting (more on that soon).

We walked around for close to an hour later to find lunch. Most of the restaurants on the island serve the same three dishes, which aren’t especially interesting.

After lunch, we went back to our hotel room to watch Netflix since the heat outside is unbearable. We stayed in there until dinner time, when we returned to the same Cuban restaurant. After dark, we walked to the split one last time before packing up for our trip to Belize City, Miami, and then home, the next day.

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Somewhere over Miami-Dade, where NBA millionaires on private islands and everglades rednecks do their part to keep the American wealth gap alive.

Oh, Belize! Part I

I don’t Belize in those whale tales.

AKA “You better Belize it,” and “Conch Frittahs!”

Early Saturday morning I was off to the Miami airport to meet Sam for our flight to Belize City where we’d take an island hopper to Placencia.

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Belize it or not, we’ve not only been on a smaller plane than this, but Sam has flown it! (and then another time we jumped out the back!)

After checking in at Placencia we walked up the street for groceries. Returning to our room around 3pm, Sam collapsed to catch up on sleep because she’d taken the Friday night red-eye from LAX to meet me in Miami.

After her nap, we made a loop around the southern tip of the peninsula, noting the dolphins playing near shore, and had dinner at Dawn’s Grill, where we discovered that despite looking like Loreto, we would not be paying Loreto prices on this trip.

With a whale shark tour scheduled for the next morning, we decided to try and sleep early. The live music (think reggae versions of CCR classics) played at the outdoor bar twenty feet from our heads until midnight made that difficult.

So we got as much sleep as we could before heading to the whale shark tour office just up the road from our hotel the next morning. We came to Belize to see the whale sharks. It’s the only reason (sorry Belize lovers) we ever thought of coming to the country. This was our longtime goal: to swim alongside the biggest fish in the sea.

(Get out your Ron Howard narrator voice again)

We did not.

No whale sharks showed up. Not that morning, not that afternoon. Not the next day’s tour, or the following afternoon. Four trips to the spot on the exact days, times, and month when the elusive animals are supposed to float up from the depths and delight us. But we didn’t encounter any whale sharks. Emphasis on the whale part.

We saw nothing but a school of common fish on the first day’s morning snorkel.

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In America you fish, in Belize fish becomes you!

After lunch, we swam with a turtle at one of the reefs.

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So basically we got to hang with all of Dory’s friends except for Destiny.

Then we returned to the whale shark area. After 40 minutes of nothing, at the end of our time (because the government watches you) we started to hear the high pitched squeaks and tics of dolphins. A few minutes later, a small pod arrived and swam around our group. That checked off a bucket list item right there (swimming with wild dolphins in the open ocean), but the mammals weren’t alone.

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Think there’s three dolphins in this pic? Bull!

That pointy snout to the right is a bull shark maw. The shark that Wikipedia describes as the most aggressive to humans, even over Mako and Great Whites. We were essentially floating flesh bags just a few feet from this monster that is so voracious they’re known to regularly feed on their own kind. He kept following the dolphins (because the dolphins were diving down and catching fish) and swimming by us, appearing out of the blue ten feet below and disappearing again.

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That ain’t no Dreamworks Shark’s Tale.

A few minutes later, as the group was getting back on the boat, Sam and I found ourselves alone in the water with two lemon sharks. One made a bee-line for Sam, she wisely spread her limbs out to look bigger, then it swerved and headed right at me!

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We remembered Douglas Adams’ first piece of advice: Always Carry a Towel. Hadn’t expected to need “Don’t Panic.”
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Cue the Jaws soundtrack.

Keep in mind at this point we didn’t know that lemon sharks are much less aggressive than bull sharks, or even that the other was a bull. Unless it’s thirty feet long and spotted, it’s a “shark,” you should worry about, right?  

Okay okay, so we swim with leopard sharks in California and those aren’t dangerous either. But those guys aren’t ten feet long!

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Turns out, we’re more of a threat to this guy than he was to us. Lemon sharks are on the “near-threatened” list (one step away from endangered) because we like to eat them a lot more than they like to eat us.

After we got back to land we did another lap around the tip of the island and went for an early dinner.

With no tours planned, Monday saw us do several unsuccessful loops around the neighborhood looking for food and things to do.

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A lot of humidity and empty buildings.

We had scheduled two whale shark tours in case the first was a bust. We had high hopes for the second tour on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the only fish we saw out there was a curious remora.

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“Hi! Hi there! Can I.. can you guys give me a ride?”

To put the icing on the cake our boat broke down on the way back.

However, we did find one bright spot – Mr. Q’s BBQ. A literal shack on the side of the road, but made some great fried chicken. You’re already familiar with Mr. Q’s, you saw it in the picture of the empty building above. So we found a great place to eat in time for our last meal.

A Week in Miami Beach

On Saturday, April 13th, Sam drove me to LAX to begin my first trip to Florida. My flight was delayed, so I had to wait a few extra hours to see what drives Florida Man so crazy. When I got to Miami Beach I met my friends, B and C, who were generous enough to let me stay at their condo for the following week, and went to a late dinner at a local place next to the harbor.

On Sunday, B and I went south to find Jesus, but the local tourist information shop said 4 to 5-foot waves wouldn’t let us see the sunken statue at John Pennekamp State Park. I’d seen Jesus of the Pacific in Lima and hoped to Jesus of the Atlantic – but that plan was thwarted…for now. We went further south to a brewery for lunch before heading north again in search of a fan boat everglades tour.

Unfortunately, we ran through most of our available tour time sitting in traffic before going home to check on C’s meal prep. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for a bit so B and I headed to the pier at the end of Miami Beach.

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Not a lot of manipulation to get that teal color. As a southern Californian I have to compliment Miami Beach on its water color. Makes Santa Monica look like Lake Erie.

After contemplating how our life decisions got us to that literal point in time and on the Earth, we went back to the condo for a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. After drying off, we went back upstairs for B’s homemade drinks and C’s homemade cuisine. C trained to be a chef not long ago, so everyone left the table quite satisfied.

After sleeping in on Monday I walked down to the pier again before walking north for miles along the water’s edge. Occasionally, I came upon groups of surfers trying their best to stay aloft on the miniature waves.

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I laughed at first, but… then I realized this is probably harder. It’s like trying to keep a bicycle balanced while standing still, right?

Eventually, I moved to the boardwalk to save my feet the stress of pounding on sand (there’s a reason that idiom exists, after all).

However, the boardwalk soon closed for construction, pushing me back out onto the beach. As the sun rose higher I started to feel dehydrated, but all the exits had “no trespassing” signs posted on the chain link fences separating the dunes from the boardwalk construction.

When the boardwalk opened again it had mutated into a path next to an ugly concrete wall (opposite the dunes) with no street access. It continued this way, literally for miles, trapping me next to a beautiful beach. Technically, I could have found water at the cabanas on the beach serving the lounging well-to-do, but $10 for a bottle of water is an incredible motivator to keep going.

I walked and walked and eventually found street access somewhere north of 72nd street. For anyone keeping score, that means I’d already walked about seven miles in the sun with no water. I didn’t drink anything before I left the apartment either, didn’t want to have to pee at the beach. Being picky, I walked for several more blocks until finding a make-your-own poke bowl place (Poke & Ko) for lunch. Really hope to find a place like this in Los Angeles sometime.

Revived after lunch, I went back out to the dunes to see how far north i could go. After another twenty blocks on the boardwalk, I found street access again and started another search for water (did I mention I don’t carry water with me, who needs the extra weight?!)…but the area turned into mansions to the west of a four-lane divided street and high rise condos on the right.

At 94th street I made the executive decision to listen to the underlings in this organization (my aching feet!) and walk to 100th (just because, you know, 100) and call an Uber. However, by 99th the shimmering humidity-mirage in the distance materialized into a bridge, which I thought would bring photo opportunities.

Turn on your Arrested Development Ron Howard narrator voice for this: It did not.

But it did answer how far I could go, as the bridge spanned the Bal Harbour channel, ending the continuous span of white sand beach that began at the South Pointe Park Pier. On the other side of the bridge was a marina and a small supply shop opposite Haulover Park.

I chugged bottles of water and aloe simultaneously sitting on a plastic deck chair behind the Haulover Point Marine Store while the two florida-tanned bleach-blonde grandmas that ran the shop talked over cigarettes (and me, as I sat between them) about how the shrimp tanks need to be drained because everything is dying in there.

Now put on your Norm MacDonald Weekend Update voice: Note to self: Do not buy fresh shrimp from Haulover Point Marine. Only buy dead shrimp from Haulover Point Marine.

Then I finally took the Uber home.

But, my adventure wasn’t over. At 6:30 B took me to his boxing class.  I’m glad I tried it, but boxing isn’t my thing. Glad my friends are excited about it, though.

After this long day, we went a few blocks away to eat at Palacio de Los Jugos, where they piled gargantuan portions of Cuban style shredded pork, beef, and rice onto our plates. We capped off the night with another trip to the pool and some ginger beer.

On Tuesday I waited at the apartment to watch the implosion of a nearby building.

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Back, and to the left. From half a mile away the implosion sounded like LOTR Orc Army war drumming: Dun! Dun! Dun! Dun!

Then C and I walked to a nearby hotel for lunch because that’s where C would spend the rest of her day working remotely by the pool. I carried on north to the Esplanade, then walked the westward length of it before turning south again to spend some time at the pool. After work, B and I headed to Wynwood for Peruvian cuisine, a tour of the famous Wynwood Walls, and sketching time at a local bar.

Wednesday I was picked up late for a pre-arranged Everglades tour. Despite the brochure touting lots of time to walk the Everglades and explore, (Ron Howard voice again:) It did not.

The fan boat tour was unremarkable. Despite all the puffery on the bus by the prerecorded marketing…it’s just grass in a foot of water. (Sorry President Truman) After an entire tour of nothing but grass and sky (and a few birds), we finally saw a gator (and a turtle) ten feet from the visitors center. Or at least the folks on the right side of the thirty-person boat did; I only caught a glimpse of a tail through all the sweaty t-shirts.

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Can YOU spot the gator?

After a half hour fan boat tour and a short gator feeding presentation, I had a half hour to spend before boarding the bus again. My choices for that time were to pet a baby gator or eat lunch at the only national parks approved restaurant at this Everglades visitor center. My stomach chose to eat at the restaurant, which was about as backwater Floridian as it gets. Fried gator meat on a bed of the worst parts of the cheapest cut of lettuce. I have to admit I would eat gator nuggets again if I had the chance.

After another couple of hours on the bus back to town I walked around B’s neighborhood looking for juice before, you guessed it, another swim in the pool.

I told B and C a few days prior that I wanted to take them to a nice restaurant to thank them for their hospitality. So we went to Joe’s Crab.

No, not that Joe’s, Joes Stone Crab, a very old upscale place that, as I understand it, owns the stone crab catching, distribution, and sales in south Florida. As such, they can charge the kingly sum of $14 per claw. Not per crab, mind you, per claw. Good tasting crab, and everything else, but it’s an excellent example of mastering the means of production for your own benefit in a narrow niche. Of course, it could just be the proximity to the $7 half fried chicken on the same menu that makes everything else seem so expensive.

We ate to-go key lime pies while playing Monopoly cards back at the apartment and sloshing down another custom made lime alcoholic drink. Yes, cards, no board. It’s a surprisingly efficient and engaging version of the old greed-based game. A bit like Uno but with more twists.

Thursday I tried to walk to downtown Miami via MacArthur Causeway but found both sides of the bridge closed to pedestrian traffic halfway over. Back at the apartment, I ate leftovers from Jugos before walking to the beach to swim in the Atlantic for the first time since Senior Trip to Myrtle Beach (shudder) twenty years ago. With a red flag advisory, the waves were just large enough to keep me from relaxing among them, so I scrapped that plan for the pool instead.

I left again around 4:30 to seek my dinner on the famous Ocean Ave.

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Is it weird that my first association with Ocean Drive is The Birdcage?

Realizing that much of the food (and customers) are trying too hard to look cooler than they are (think Myrtle Beach boardwalk clientele on the senior trip – which, remember, was me once), I cut back a few streets west and kept walking north. Eventually, my body sent me the “eat now” signal and I settled for a nearby Indonesian place. I was excited at first, but then the blandest coconut curry south of Missouri came out of the kitchen. Unfortunately, it was probably the most expensive as well, but at least I could wash it down with a $6 Leffe. Lotta Belgian beer in Indonesia?

I walked back south along the boardwalk, catching the final performances of the Longines horse tour, if only for the purposes of capturing the event for Sam (the horse lover) later.

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You could have a whole tumblr page for the funny faces the riders make when the horse lands after a jump.

A white 2005 Ford GT with blue racing stripes greeted visitors. Every pompous European brat that walked by scoffed and reminded me that “it’s only a Ford” (pronounced the heavy British “Fowd” way). They wondered out loud why I would photograph such automotive mundanity. At least until their rich daddy arrived and also started taking pictures.

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“I don’t get it. It’s not even a Lamborghini, daddy!”

On Friday I went to work with B and toured his sleek modern office space. He gave me a Remarkable e-ink tablet to play around with until lunch. He warned me it retails for a good amount. I enjoyed the tablet as it felt much closer to real sketching than Wacom tablets. So much so that I looked it up when I got home and, ouch, B was right. $600.

We boarded a cruise ship and partook of the buffet lunch. Then he gave me a tour of the ship before heading back to work. Old hat to him (B’s family has gone on cruises since we were in high school), but it was my first time on a ship of that size (other than docked aircraft carriers). Once inside I got a weird feeling that I couldn’t place.

Back at their apartment doing laundry and packing for the second part of the trip I realized what it was: It’s the closest I’ve ever been to being on a vintage sci-fi starship cruiser. We talked about the enormity of managing a floating city that exchanges passengers every few days or weeks. The engineering behind it, of course, conjured up the same speculative mental exercises that a sci-fi author has to contemplate when writing about interstellar ships, as I’ve done.

I always thought I’d hate the idea of a cruise, being stuck with all those people. I still wouldn’t like that part – but there’s something calming about being out there on a fully functioning city in a smaller group leaving behind the noise and smells of a metropolis. I could do quite a bit of writing and drawing on a voyage like that. Something to consider for retirement.

After work, B and C grilled up some sausage, veggies, and marinated pork ribs. We feasted as the lightning flashed and thunder crashed outside. This was the first night of the trip in which I experienced sleeping problems. Maybe because I really wanted to be at the window watching the weather. I do miss thunderstorms immensely. And now it’ll probably be another five years before I see my friends again, so I’ll miss them too.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

We drove out of Ollantaytambo and up through the mountains beneath the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.

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That little girl seems just as mad as I am that the gringo lady had to get in my shot.

First, we stopped at the Moray Hills, an ancient incan site (although, it’s important to point out that only the Kings were known as “inca” and everyone else was Quechuan, but we’ll keep using that as shorthand for the culture on this blog post) used to test varieties of plant cultivation. Take a look for yourself:

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You say plant circles, Discovery channel says aliens!

Our guides cut across the wide mountain tops below the glacial peaks of the Andes until we reached the Salt Mines of Maras.

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I didn’t blur these kids’ faces for their own protection; this picture was taken inside a van going about sixty miles an hour down a dirt road.

The salt mines weren’t exactly the Mines of Moria, they were terraces (geez, are you starting to see a theme here? The Incas loved terraces, didn’t they?) dug out of the mountainside where a natural spring rich with minerals originally flowed down to the valley.

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This lady in traditional garb was posing for pictures with/for locals, until she saw the gringo with a Sony and got mad and said “no!” Too late, lady.
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We got to taste the salt in the terraces ourselves and as the internet says “can confirm 10/10 is salty.”

The entire world has learned to “exit through the gift shop,” and this salt mine in the middle of the Andes was no exception. Between the mine and the parking lot was a winding uphill street of souvenirs. At first this was a little annoying, but we soon found souvenirs that (for a reason yet unkown) were not duplicated at any of the other souvenir shops (and we visited hundreds) in the country. One shop was giving out free samples of a drink contained in flasks covered in brightly covered fabric. It tasted so good (and unique) that we had to buy it. An internet search later showed it was liquor made from locally grown Anis seed, which Maras is known for. Apparently, this is also considered absinthe.

That’s the anise-seed in my other arm there.

Slightly further up we saw a sign for cups of “strawberry corn beer” for only 1 Sol (33 cents). How could you not? The beer was surprisingly good because it was made from the “chicha” red corn mash. Turns out the chicha drink is a regional delicacy specific to Cusco. Establishments that have it make it known by tying a red balloon on a stick outside the business.

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If you see the red cloth hung outside a roadside stand like this, stop and try the chicha!

In case you forgot, the Chicha is the drink I ordered two nights in a row in Barrancos. I had no idea at the time it was rare (although I didn’t see it on any other menus in Lima, so that was a clue), just that it was very tasty.

As we sipped on the beer we also ate Aguaymanto, or Peruvian Cherry, which is only grown at high altitudes. The soft orange rind opens up to sweet little juice packets with sourish seeds. Our guides told us you’re supposed to eat the seeds as they’re good for you. (this is the fruit at the end of the sacred valley video at the top of the post)

On the drive through the mountains back to Cusco we stopped in Chinchero to walk amongst the local people, who instead of rioting, were celebrating the elections by barbequing at the town square.

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A laugh riot, more like it.

We sat for a moment to order a plate of the barbequed beef (old beef, chewy, but hey, authenticity, right?) and potatoes for only 10 soles ($3.35 USD).

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Pretty sure the green stuff was peanut sauce, so you’ll have to ask Sam how that tasted.

We arrived at the Cusco airport around 4 and paid to switch to an earlier flight as they could not pre-check our luggage for the international flight home. This allowed us to rest a little easier in the knowledge that we had plenty of time to get our luggage in Lima and recheck in the international terminal.

This actually became an issue. Even in Lima at the international airport, the attendants at the international check-in don’t speak English. They didn’t allow us to use the automated check-in machines and forced us into a “special needs” long line to talk to one of the few employees that spoke English. All just to check our bags and print our tickets.

At least my journey ended when we got back to LA. Sam had to turn around and go straight back to LAX for a red-eye to New York for work the same night! This time I politely declined the invitation to join her, sleep becoming a pressing priority that usurped a free hotel room anywhere.

Machu Picchu

Our flight to Cusco was uneventful. We had heard that it was the “most dangerous flight in the world,” but after arriving we still don’t see why.

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Yes, you fly over mountains and over the city itself, but this is no more dangerous than Burbank. Then again…

Our pre-arranged driver to Ollantaytambo showed up almost an hour late, even though we had agreed to pay $20 extra to have him meet us at the airport, which is normally not included in the pre-arranged travel. Apparently, most people spend a few days in Cusco “to adjust to the altitude” before heading to Machu Picchu. Unlike those people, we had to be back in Los Angeles Monday morning. The airport is literally in the middle of town, though, so (unlike in other cities) there wasn’t any extra driving involved, just a chance to gouge some gringos with no other options.

Cusco didn’t really seem like a place we’d want to spend a few days. Lots of thin stairways jabbing up the hills between always-under-construction unremarkable brickwork and a lot of stray dogs fishing through the ample sidewalk trash. Maybe there’s a whole other side we didn’t see.

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Three days of “exploring” this? We elitist jerks will just skip it. Thanks.

Outside Cusco was a different story. We spent two hours driving through the swooping valleys of the Andes, vaguely reminiscent of the Swiss alps if someone had placed blocks of chocolate over the valley floor and flatter parts of the hillsides. Well, I guess the swiss alps go straight up, so it’s not that much like it, but it certainly would be similarly exciting skiing country if the snow ever fell below the mountain tops (it doesn’t).

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Red things are good things in the Sacred Valley. Red soil raises red corn to mash into red beer to pass through the red sun-burnt lips and make red noses of thirsty gringos.

Our transport ended in Ollantaytambo where we would take the train to Aguas Calientes. The hotel we would stay at the following night on our return trip through Ollantaytambo has a private path from the train station through the farms straight to the nearby ruins up on the mountain and they informed us that the ruins would be closed the following day due to local elections. With about a half hour to spare before our train to Aguas Calientes would leave, we left our luggage at the hotel desk and rushed east to see the ruins of the Terraces of Pumatallis.

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Looks can be deceiving, folks. This one mile run brought back memories of childhood asthma attacks.

Of course, I say “rushed” but it was more hard walking and then heaving since the altitude difference was starting to kick in. We’d only been in the Andes for about three hours at this point. Usually people don’t acclimate by running up a hill on their first day. But, those people have entire days to spend here, we had 30 minutes.

Sam barely made it to the entrance of the park by the time we had to turn back and so she didn’t actually get to go inside. I huffed and puffed my way up the set of stairs to the Temple of the Sun, maneuvering around oh-so-slow tour groups.

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Pinkuylluna; so close, yet so far away. Due to the altitude climbing to the temple of the sun and then going over there too would be enough for one day for most people. We packed half of it into half an hour.

I jumped my way down the rock stairs around the same tour groups that I’d ran around to come up (still on their slow plodding – but smarter than me! – way up) to reach the valley for a few more photos.

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This is not the temple of the sun, so there were almost no tourists on these steps, but I didn’t have the time or lungs to go up.

Did I mention we were short on time? And my cell phone was dying. And I didn’t bring a watch to Peru (too afraid it would be snatched off my wrist in Lima). I put my phone on the ultra power saving mode to use it just as a clock. Felt a bit like we were filming B-roll for the Peruvian version of National Treasure (“quick, Nick! get to the temple of the sun before the bomb goes off – you’ve got five minutes!”).

With no time left, I ran out into the souvenir area outside the park to find Sam.

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I found Sam buying coca leaf candies because she’d nearly blacked out just on the mile walk to the ruins from the hotel.

Back at the station tired and hungry (it was 4:30 and we hadn’t eaten anything since 6am, did I mention that before? That probably contributed more to the light-headed-ness than the altitude, huh?) we grabbed a few sandwiches and ate them on the jittery jam-packed Inca rail line.

There were frequent awe-inspiring views through the high windows of the carriage, but the tight quarters didn’t allow for many photos that didn’t feature reflections from inside the cab, or even a good angle.

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Oh, did I mention we went to Ireland on this trip too?

At the Machu Picchu station a man met us to bus our bags to the hotel, which was through the souvenirs shop and up an incline.

The hotel was nice enough on the surface, but as soon as we laid down early to sleep other guests started partying against the thin walls and floors. Everyone says to go to Machu Picchu early. And “early” means be at the bus station at 5am for the first bus. This entire town only exists to funnel tourists up the mountain to the ruins. Except for the couple rooming next to us, apparently on spring break or something.

Our intention was to TRY to sleep early and be at Machu Picchu for sunrise by taking that 5am bus. That didn’t happen with Stompy McLaughingface and Peeing Force living their best lives in the next room.

We needed that sleep because we were going to attempt to hike the mountain at the other end of Machu Picchu famous for its extremely vertical steps which claim lives every year (although how many is up for debate).

Instead, we got up at our emergency alarm of 6:30 and quickly prepped ourselves for the day. That included me starting an antibiotics course because, yep, it wasn’t just the shellfish that got to me yesterday. For the record, I’d like to state that Montezuma has no need to take revenge on me, as far as I know, I have no Spanish ancestry. Apparently, Montezuma is a fan of racial profiling and I look pale enough to deserve his wrath.

Google translate tells me “Gestion” translates to “Gestion.”

(and yes, I know Montezuma was Aztec, much farther north than the Incas, but the medical condition that exists in several far flung parts of the globe has the same name for western travelers whether you’re in Mexico or not)

So I ate and drank very little before clenching what I could clench as we headed up the bumpy and dangerous (yet still somewhat luxurious) bus to Machu Picchu. Keep in mind I eschewed sustenance not only to keep Montezuma at bay, but because once you’re inside the gates of the citadel there’s no restroom until you exit for good.

Early call time on the set of my Pepto-Bismol commercial today, can you tell?

At the gate around 8:15 a local guide approached us and Sam haggled him down to 100 Soles (about $33) for a tour of the site that would culminate at the entrance to Huayna Picchu, the Death Stairs.

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Far over the misty mountains grim

The weather report said it would rain all day, but once on site it would rain for twenty minutes and then the fog would clear and the ancient city would glisten, and then it would rain another twenty minutes.

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Welcome to the famed “Seattle of the Incas!”

On paper, Huayna Picchu doesn’t seem that tough of a hike by US National Park standards. On paper, I didn’t even think I would need my knee supports. The paper doesn’t account for altitude adjustment as you force your body up wet stone steps that are sometimes two feet high.

Can’t say I’ve ever seen myself from this angle before. You’re welcome.

Sam would have stopped anyway because of her anemia, but I was more than happy to join her. I did not chew on the coca leaves or take the altitude medication because I read it’s a diarrhetic. Probably not the best thing to do if you already have diarrhea.

No, I am not taking advantage of an ancient Incan bathroom in this photo.

Through shear drops, shallow breaths, and slippery stones we reached the summit. And the sun rewarded us for the effort, shining down on Macchu Pichu for the duration of our visit.

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I don’t know where her lens cap is either. It disappears at LAX and reappears when we get home. This is what’s called “close-up magic.”

What nobody tells you about the citadel is how the city is now managed for tourists. There are signs and ropes keeping you on a one-way tour through the upper half the city. The Peruvian equivalent of park rangers keep watch along the path.

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Proof that humans can get bored anywhere.

At the other end of the complex the pathway bends back around at the Huayna Picchu entrance so you can experience the lower half, the terraces frequented by the llamas.

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Instead of growing rice for humans, these terraces grow grass for llamas.

We ended up getting very close to the llamas over the next hour.

Emphasis on very. Still not close enough for you?
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How about now?

It turns out there’s a whole little house (?) of Llamas where they cluster during the day to escape the sun and relax. Most of the people that look in (most don’t) assume you’re not allowed in and keep on moving to the exit (it’s at the back of the complex).

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We are not those people.

Back down in town around 4pm we were exhausted from a day with so much hiking, but no food and little water. We knew it might be our last chance to try a few traditional Peruvian dishes at a restaurant, so we ordered the famous fried cuy (hamster) and alpaca steak. Like Ralphie’s mother, Sam made a special request that the chef cut the hamster’s head off before delivering to our table. Neither were that great, to be honest, but hey, put it on the checklist of weird food we have eaten.

The alpaca steak just tasted like rough steak. The yellow sauce and risotto (who knew Peruvians like risotto almost as much as Italians?) were good, though.
That skin is as tough and rubbery as it looks. What’s under it isn’t much different from a emaciated chicken.

We walked to the train station to catch an earlier train out, but being in the middle of the jungle in the Andes with only one set of tracks, there wasn’t one. We lounged at the hotel for a few hours instead before taking the 7pm train to Ollantaytambo.

Even though the train was only an hour and forty minutes it felt like an eternity as we had to share the car with a caravan of teenage backpackers that treated it like their dorm room. At one point one of them spilled his complimentary coffee all over Sam’s suitcase, but since it didn’t get on his bags he just laughed it off. We were literally surrounded by this group so there wasn’t much comeuppance we could offer.

This ride was probably the most uncomfortable experience we had in Peru…and due in zero part to any Peruvian as the backpackers were all from New Zealand. How do I know they weren’t Aussie’s? Because when they shout at the top of their lungs you can discern those less than subtle differences.

It’s unclear if what happened next was due to the train operator’s sympathy or what, but before the ride ended an attendant brought Sam and I (and nobody else in the carriage) nice bags with a package of truffle chocolates inside.

At El Albergue, the hotel at the train staiton in Ollantaytambo, we found a nice quiet and very dark room to slumber away after a quick call to our tour guide to confirm the details about the next day (after the girl at the hotel desk found their phone number since the one they sent us with our reservation was disconnected). You see, the tour operator had emailed me a few days ago stating our tour that would originally start “whenever you want between 8 and 12” would now have to start at 7:30am. No bueno, compadre!

Their reason for the change? We had coincidentally chosen the day of our tour to coincide with a special election in Peru regarding corruption. The US state department confirmed this and also advised US tourists to avoid cities as “demonstrations” may occur. (our guides informed us “demonstrations” means “riots” there) Okay then. In our email exchange with the tour guide I noted our only real concern was getting to the airport in Cusco for our flight to Lima. We would skip the tour entirely if we had to to avoid those election complications. The response was that we would be in Lima by 1pm. Uh, our flight is at 8:12pm, we don’t need to be there 7 hours early AND get up early if we don’t have to, but when I pointed this out I didn’t get a reply.

It’s important to note that we had to get up early several times on this trip for legitimate reasons. However, on this particular day, we would be taking two night flights, the last one a red-eye to LAX. I don’t know about you, but I would like to sleep in a little before embarking on what may be a 48 hour day (I can’t sleep on planes).

So, at the end of Saturday we were able to reach the tour operator and he agreed to pick us up at 10:30am and everything would be fine, the election wouldn’t complicate the tour after all. A complete reversal from what we’d been told, so we left our fates in his hands.

Sapporo

After checking in at our Sapporo hotel (Gracery, across the street from the station) we visited the huge food market adjacent to (or in?) the train station before hopping a few subway trains across town to find the famous Genghis Kahn BBQ restaurant for Jingisukan.

beautiful, clean (char)coal!
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Remember what I said about that Ferris Wheel requirement?

After dinner we went to the JR Tower observatory next to our hotel.

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These folks prefer their glowing lights a little closer, thank you!

In the morning we walked around Odori Park.

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I think everyone in our party wanted to try it…but the (adult) children were afraid of acting childish in front of the moms and the moms were afraid of acting like children in front of their children. 

After chowing on a 7/11 breakfast in the park we took the train to Otaru.

Apparently travelers from all over the world celebrate their visit to Otaru by touching Pepe’s pepe.

Our first stop in Otaru was at the famous Naruto Honten for “golden” fried chicken lunch (as good as advertised). After that, we walked along the canal.

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If you want a picture of the canal without people you have to paint it.

We turned away from the canal to hit up the several blocks of souvenir shops. This included stops for snacking on things like melon ice cream on top of fresh melons.

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Neither the melon nor the ice cream was purple, but, that’s a good thing. (I like melons better than beets!)

Otaru is famous for its canal and the glass foundry. Most of the souvenirs are hand blown glass. And almost all of them were too expensive (and delicate) for us to buy and bring back.

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I think more people wanted to buy the foliage on the outside of the glass museum than the trinkets on the inside.

They’re also famous for a music box museum, which we found just before closing and snagged a few items. One of which will go to one of the three people that still reads this blog (hi Mom!).

Before going back to Sapporo we stopped at the canal again for some night shots, which is kind of more what it’s famous for anyway, though the crowds had clearly diminished.

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There’s a glaring error in all these Japan night photos: I really should have used a lens filter.

Back at the Sapporo train terminal, we had a late dinner with a view.

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Many-minutes-long exposures would also benefit from lens filters. Like Cher, I too wish I could turn back time.

When we got back to our room we turned on the AC as the sun had been beating on our floor to ceiling window all day. An hour later our room was much hotter.

After failing to find any documentation in English of what we might have done wrong with the thermostat we called the front desk. A man came up with a fan and explained that today the AC units only offered heat. This made little sense since today was hotter outside (sunny and nice) than yesterday (cold and raining), but there you go. He said the entire building had been switched from cooling to heating. So, because the window in our room didn’t open (and in a country with higher suicide rates than most, I don’t blame them), we set up the fan and blew air from the hallway into our room for an hour, which earned us some strange looks from other guests.

After breakfast at the train station, we went to Hokkaido University to see the avenue of ginkgo trees which were changing color.

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Ohio State ranks #89 on the QS World University Rankings, Hokkaido University? #128. But I don’t remember any gingko trees on The Oval, do you? So there!

We also visited a little pond on campus.

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Are the lilly pads there to stop the shenanigans that go on at ponds on other campuses?

Across from the pond, I found an iced black coffee that remains the best I’ve ever tasted, but also the most mysterious. The only Germanic alphabetic characters on the bottle said “black” and “Grandia.” I found the convenience store brand online and a page that describes its coffee. There’s a photo of a smaller can version of what I bought, but google searches for “Grandia” as a brand come up empty, so the manufacturer must be written in kanji and the translations of the store’s web page offer no help. A little bit of internet sleuthing, including what appears to be a drawing of a translated version of the can, shows that  Seicomart, which is a sub-brand of the larger Japanese company Secoma, makes their own coffee (I think). Whatever. I lost you three sentences ago, didn’t I?

Our next stop was at the Sapporo brewery for a tour and a pint of beer made and only sold in Sapporo.

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Sorry, but I have to tell the truth. As Japanese beers go, this was not as good as Coedo.

After the brewery we took a train to…a mall somewhere to eat dinner. Then walked about a mile to the Japanese version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Shiroi Koibito Park.

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These fellows are on loan from the zoo, showing us how Unicorn horns are made.

After that, the party split and Sam and I took the subway to the TV tower.

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Not the tallest tower in town, but a better view of the park.

We ran into Sam’s sister and brother-in-law at the Gucci store nearby, which was sort of Sapporo’s version of Rodeo Drive. Sam claimed that the Don Quijote store there had a good selection of watches. I didn’t believe her.

To my surprise, we found an interesting selection of Seiko and citizen watch models not available in America. So interesting that I bought one: the Seiko Tokyo Toro Wired model 420. I only got that one because the somewhat cooler (more expensive) ones weren’t available at the shop. The model 420 was only (approximately) $160. And it was a good thing I picked it up, too, because after we came back when I pulled the crown on my citizen to change the time it came all the way out! So my citizen eco drive will be set to Tokyo local time forever.

On the last full day in Japan The Fam walked to the Nijo fish market for sashimi breakfast.

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No thanks, just the salmon for me, please.

For me, it was one last chance to pile on the delicious fresh caught salmon, which, surprisingly, became my favorite thing about the trip.

After breakfast, we took The Fam to Don Quijote for souvenirs.  After sitting around the mall for a while we went to Suage+ for curry. The hole in the wall place had a squid ink curry with boiled fatty pork that was surprisingly good (the pork part).

Our next stop was the dollar store, Diaso, at the subway station for more souvenirs before going back to the hotel as a group to say last goodbyes because everyone else had early morning flights on Monday.

Sam and I went to the mall under our hotel and had gelato ( black sesame and Hokkaido berries), and yakatori while finding ways to spend the last of our yen and leftover Pasmo balances.

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Noboribetsu

Another few trains and a bus ride later we arrived in Noboribetsu, also known as “Demon City,” which welcomes you with a big angry club-wielding demon at the train station.

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A good dentist could really clean up in this town.

On the bus ride to the hotel we went past a giant blue demon, like Paul Bunyan’s evil brother at a Duke game. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of that, but he appeared again later in the forest (albeit smaller).

Why all this devil worship? Noboribetsu’s claim to fame is the natural sulfur hot springs that bubble up out of the mountain. Over time, the Japanese assigned what I guess you’d call mascots to the phenomenon (they tend to do that with everything, but usually are cute, not demonic) and demons were an obvious choice, especially since the valley between the mountains became known as Hell Valley due to the sulfur.

We checked into the hotel and hiked to Hell Valley.

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When I heard Sam tell her family “I’ll see you in Hell!” a few months ago I got worried. Turns out we were all going to Hell. Also turns out I retroactively imagined her saying that because it made for a funnier caption than “Let’s go to the hot tub together as a family. And naked.”

We walked to the top of the hiking trail and The Fam, eager to disrobe in front of each other, decided to go back to the hotel to check out the onsen. Sam and I continued on through the forest and discovered a natural onsen at the foot of a small waterfall in the valley.

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Only the shoes had to come off at this onsen!

We took our shoes off and walked into the hot (but not too-hot) spring.  The rocks under the water were fine-grained volcanic leftovers. At least I think. They were black and cleaved into tiny spheres. After relaxing there for a while we walked back down the mountain road among the fall foliage to the hotel.

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I did not use instagram’s “pumpkinspice” filter on this, I swear!

On the road we passed another statue of the blue demon, this time with child (and much smaller than the other statue).

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Coming upon this after dark might be a little creepy.

Back at the hotel we had time to kill before our pre-purchased buffet dinner so we visited the onsens (separate for men and women) at the hotel. Yes, that onsen, where you have to get naked.

Turns out, though, that the locals (or, as some claim, the experienced Chinese tourists) bring down the face towels from their room and use those to cover certain areas while walking around. Having no idea this was the custom, I followed the directions the hotel gave us and left all my worldly possessions in the locker room…including breaking Douglas Adams’ number one rule of travel: always bring a towel. Because of this, I strolled right out into awkward eye-contact with Sam’s brother-in-law. Fun. I don’t think I need to do this ever again. I expected a bunch of old dudes laughing it up in there, but nobody else at the onsen seemed to be having much fun either. In one of the pools I looked up to discover windows in the adjacent hotel could see right into the onsen. More fun. No thanks.

After that experience, we dressed in matching yukatas and attended a grand buffet.

This was after our first trip to the buffet. Before we discovered the fish. And the alcohol.

The “regional” dishes on the buffet were just okay, but I honed in on the tuna and salmon early because the fish there make for the best-tasting sashimi in the world (that I’ve had so far). I must have eaten a whole salmon and they just kept bringing it out. And the tuna. And the red king crab legs. We chased it down with Yuzu (a lemon-ish sour local fruit derived drink so nice we bought two bottles to take home) and a surprisingly well-done dessert table with chocolate cake and (perfect) cream puffs and all sorts of other sugary things. As the internet saying goes: 10/10 would come to Hokkaido again just for the fish. The room cost including buffet breakfast and dinner and onsen use was roughly $200 for one night. In Los Angeles, a meal for two with that much sashimi ain’t gonna be $200. Maybe $200 per person…but not in the quantities we were gulping down.

In the morning, we went to the Bear Park on the top of the mountain via the ropeway across the street from the hotel.

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Maybe this is what the M.O.V. will look like after global warming permanently floods out the Ohio River.

The bears are so accustomed to people that they raise their hands and point at their mouths to ask for acorns and dried salmon chunks.

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Despite all my rage I am still just a bear in a cage! Inside a larger cage. With larger bears. So, cageception. Not to be confused with this cageception.

At first, it’s cute. Then you realize they’re raised in captivity in the concrete cages and it becomes sad to watch. But, hey, guess they’re living better than the whales the Japanese are “studying,” right? (Side note: we did encounter a few places that would have apparently served us whale meat, but we did not want to do that)

The Japanese in Hokkaido have incorporated the bears into another type of mascot: the Melon Kuma, which combines their regional seasonal “melon” (which my Ohio raised taste buds and eyes call a cantaloupe) and their bears. The result?

Photos: メロン熊
Ahhh! WTF?! (source)
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This bear is looking at a child lingering close to its cage. “One more inch, Timmy and I’m going to go all Melon Kuma on you!”

Hakodate

On Tuesday morning the family assembled for a long three train journey to Hokkaido.

At our first destination, Hakodate, we visited the cape just as the sun started to set behind Mt. Hakodate.

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I disappeared to take this picture as the cabs waited for us. I could hear Sam yelling for me, but she couldn’t see me. A few minutes later the rest of the Fam realized what the view looked like on the western side of the cape and ran over as I was hurrying back.

We had dinner at a fancy local restaurant with lots of great food (but few customers) then took a cab (because the ropeway was closed for renovation) to the Mt. Hakodate Observatory on top of the mountain.

The wind rushed around the top swiftly enough to discourage the Fam from staying too long. They went back to the cabs and back to the hotel while I stayed and tried to get some stabilized shots. As throngs of teenagers arrived on buses and rattled the rails my gorrilapod was affixed to I realized that long exposures weren’t going to happen here and took the public bus back to the hotel.

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The first instinct for teenagers in Japan when reaching the observatory is to yell as if they’ve been stabbed in the back. I wonder if they’re conversely silent at sporting events and think WE’RE the weird ones.

The next morning, before catching our train to Noboribetsu, we walked to the Hakodate Asaichi for breakfast, focusing on super fresh crab and the most delicious salmon/tuna in the world.

Mmmm, that’s good salmon.
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Buy here! My fresh unmodified product is different than the other twenty fresh crab sellers on the same block that buy from the same fishermen! (note the eye-rolling daughter inside that can’t wait to get out of this little redneck town and do something in the big city, not gonna be the latest fish monger in a long line of… actually I have no idea if they’re related and might I might be projecting a bit…never mind!)

We also tried squid ink ice cream, which didn’t really taste like much of anything.