Cumpleaños in Costa Rica

Sunrise- Playa Negra

The impetus for transitioning from Asia to Latin America was my birthday. Sheila, one of my best friends since 7th grade, said she would meet me somewhere to celebrate for a week, which of course I was thrilled about. Since she was in California, I decided to leave Asia and pick somewhere a little closer to the US. After some research on flights and weather, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica became that “somewhere”.  So I planned to leave Hong Kong, stop in LA, then spend two weeks in Nicaragua (I mean, why not?) before landing in Costa Rica mid-September. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for my sister Joanne to join as well.

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The Old City of Granada

San Francisco Church- Granada

After my Nicaragua initiation, I spent a day in Managua getting a SIM card for my phone and discovering quesillos before setting off for the colonial town of Granada. Let’s pause on quesillos first, though, shall we? It’s a tortilla wrapped around blocks of soft cheese, pickled onions and warm crema. The crema slightly melts the cheese and creates a pool at the bottom of the baggie holding device, which apparently you’re supposed to slurp at the end. It’s fatty, salty, creamy goodness. I mean, cream on top of cheese with a punch of sour from the onions- what could be better? I fell in love immediately. Fortunately there were two shops across the street from the elusive Backpackers Manuhuac that sold quesillos.
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Welcome to Latin America… or Not

Colorful buildings- Nicaragua

My Latin American initiation was shockingly similar to that of Asia. I was forgotten at the airport. Again. In the middle of the night. Again. Apparently this is an epidemic that spans continents.

After leaving Hong Kong I stopped home in LA to eat Mexican food, pack some new clothes, gobble down a few insanely delicious home-cooked meals, scare the bejesus out of a friend by showing up at a restaurant when he thought I was still in Asia, drink wine, have an In-N-Out burger and eat more Mexican food. Then back to LAX I went, on my way to Nicaragua with a 15-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale. I had never been to Miami, so I decided to rent a car and explore the city for the day. I was happily upgraded to a convertible, and headed straight for South Beach where I ate a Cuban sandwich, sat on the beach, had a humongous mojito at a bar on Ocean Drive and savored a salad with fresh conch. Little did I know these comforts would have to sustain me for the next 24 hours. Continue reading

To Asia, With Love (and Other Emotions)

Shelley with Ultadanga kids

My time in Asia challenged me, rewarded me, made my heart ache and churned out a stronger person. I learned more in the last 11 months than I have in the last 11 years, and that’s no hyperbole. I became more familiar with the world and with myself. As it turns out, I’m a nomadic homebody. My style is to hunker down in a city and get the lay of the land instead of moving every three days. Maybe when in a state of constant change, it’s comforting to know where you can go for a reliable bowl of pho or a cup of REAL coffee.

Surprisingly I did make it to 12 countries (if you count Tibet and Hong Kong as separate from mainland China, which I do). I’ve had 7 telephone numbers, taken 13 flights, crossed 2 borders overland, added 31 stamps to my passport, secured 10 visas and spent about $24,000. Below is a snapshot of my feelings about each country: what I liked, what I didn’t and how I sum them each up. India is longer than the rest because I spent the most time there and it had such a profound effect. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my view of Asia in 2,000 words or less… Continue reading

Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Why I Hate Buses

Market in Hong Kong

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur became a sort of base camp during my Asian travels with this being my third trip. The first time was only for a few days between Vietnam and Bali (it was actually cheaper to book two separate tickets and stay overnight in KL than to have a layover).  My friend Jun, who I know from Japan, lives in a suburb of KL, and while he had to go out of town the weekend I was there, he picked me up from the airport and delivered me to my hotel. I was standing in line for the ATM when I spotted him. It had been 13 years and he looked very much the same. We kept looking at each other, not believing so much time had passed. It was strange, but also totally comfortable. Continue reading

Indian Wedding

Wedding entrance

I arrived in Delhi by plane, Dan via overnight bus, and we’d both leave by train bound for Kolkata that night. We planned to meet at Subway (the sandwich place, not another mode of transport) in a touristy area near the train station. Good  ol’ India welcomed me back as only India can. Upon arrival I told the cab driver where I was going and he nodded his head in recognition. What I had quickly forgotten is that cab drivers ALWAYS say they know where they’re going. This one did not. We drove in circles, and then retraced our circles. I tried to navigate via the map on my phone, but of course that led us astray as well. I reiterated the location and my aging driver put his hands to his head and shook it, as if it were the first time I’d told him the destination and we were way off course. Continue reading

Three Weeks in Kathmandu

Kathmandu valley

My intended two-week stay in Nepal turned into three weeks, but not because I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Upon arrival, Vivek (from my Tibet tour) and I checked into the same hotel, but different rooms. I was so happy to have my own space again! Hotel Family Home was perfect, situated in the heart of tourist district Thamel, but down a quiet-ish alley. There are a lot of good things about Thamel. Restaurants, shops, cafes and bars are all within easy walking distance, some right around the corner. Lots of people are on the streets in the evening, so it’s safe to walk home alone. While there are some Nepali restaurants, many are international serving everything from salads and sandwiches to hummus to grilled chicken with potatoes. Since I still couldn’t look at a plate of curry from my months in India, this was good news indeed. Continue reading

Lhasa to Nepal and Everest Base Camp

Entering Qomolangma National Nature Preserve

We hit two monasteries before leaving Lhasa- Sera and Drepung. At both we were able to witness robed monks in action. Unfortunately monasteries that once educated 1,000 monks at a time are now only operating at a capacity of 300 due to limitations by the Chinese government. Since many have historically expressed anti-government opinions, this is a way to keep them “in check”. Continue reading

Lhasa, Tibet: Land of the Gods

Local Tibetans with prayer wheels

I arrived at my hotel room in Lhasa around 5pm and was grateful to find it empty. My roommate from Mumbai, who I had yet to meet, wasn’t there, which allowed me to wash 44 hours of train riding off me in undisturbed peace. That was preferable to greeting him with, “Hi, nice to meet you, pardon me while I hop in the shower.” My experience with Indians based on my time in Kolkata is that they’re pretty conservative, so I was surprised he wanted to share a room with a woman. I know Mumbai is more progressive, but still. In India, many hotels won’t even rent rooms to unmarried couples. Once I did meet Vivek, however, I learned that he previously worked in NY as a banker and had traveled quite extensively. Ok, maybe this won’t be so awkward. It was also a reminder that the more I travel, the less I realize I know. He had come to Lhasa a few days earlier so he knew his way around and had already scoped out a few restaurants- perfect. The next night we found ourselves at a little Korean joint eating bibimbap and soon tofu soup. I was actually bummed I hadn’t thought of coming to town before the tour started as I found that two days in Lhasa weren’t nearly enough. Continue reading

Beijing and my 44-Hour Train Ride to Tibet

Great Wall of China 1My grandma made me go to China. On Easter, I Skyped with my mom and she put my grandma on the line. There was no “How are you?” or “Happy Easter” greeting. Instead, she got on the phone and asked, “Why aren’t you going to China?” Uh, I wasn’t aware I’d ruled it out! I told my grandma I was actually thinking about going to China, Tibet specifically. “Oh you HAAAAAAAAAAVE to go to Tibet! How wonderful!” I definitely have my grandmother’s travel gene. By the end of the conversation she had threatened to sell my belongings if I didn’t go to Tibet. My grandma was 92 at the time, going on 93. How could I NOT go? Even if she did use shady blackmail tactics. Continue reading