Loss in the City

Writing doesn’t come easy to me.  I can’t just blab to have something printed.  Such an irony since I am a writer.  There is something to words that when I share them with the world, they must have purpose.

There is nothing more raw in this world than life and death.  These past few days I have witnessed unexpected, tragic events happen to people that I considered bright, full of life, cheerful….simply unfair for them to depart so soon.

My heart is guiding my hands to type this.  I could not sleep without dedicating a few thoughts to Eli Sanabria, a wonderful, talented, amazing young man.  He was my high school classmate, certainly one that stood in my class; geeky, funny, cheerful, lively, a cool dude.  After graduation, it is fair to say that most of us (high school classmates) witnessed his passion, dedication and love for art, in particular, cosplay photography, grow and blossom. I mean, he was the real deal.  It was cool to see him succeed but moreover inspire people from around the world to love their geekiness, to appreciate this art form, to live to the very fullest.

Not so many have achieved the one thing I find the hardest, to pursue your dreams fiercely.  It takes guts and perseverance, specially when your niche happens to be a misunderstood art.  No small feat that of bringing to life and light characters that make us feel greater, better and even more real than life itself. Eli didn’t shy away from this, he embraced it and brought it to the spotlight of NYC.  I admired Eli and will continue to do so for the rest of my life, as I know so many today are expressing their love and praise for this real-life superhero.

To my fellow readers and bloggers, I kindly ask you to help his family in this difficult time by donating to Eli “Geeked” Memorial Fund at gofundme.com

I dedicate this quote to Eli and his loved ones. See you later Eli, Godspeed!

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”  Marcel Proust

Fall Leaves

Looking to take in the sights of the yellow and golden-brown fall leaves throughout New York City, I have taken the time to reflect on what it has been like to be back home after eight months abroad in tropical South East Asia.  I’ve had a wonderful time to bond with my loved ones, and even reconnect with long-time acquaintances.  What I did not expect was to face change.

The change of how people see me, treat me; the change of me, the change in me…I often thought to myself: “when I am back home, it will just be like I never left, business as usual and spending quality time with my loved ones.”

While away, I held on to the joyous memories of BFFs and sisterhood dear in my heart, and nearly convinced myself that if I remained true, my friendships would continue to thrive, remain intact, untouched, unchanged -not changed. But to say that I am the same girl that left in January would be a blatant denial of reality.

I remember the high school writing exercises with prompts such as: “what would you say to yourself five years ago?” and “what do you envision yourself to be ten years from now?” It is a beautiful, innocent fantasy to hold one accountable to those promises, to those assurances.  Life is this beautiful fountain of unpredictable forces.  It is a constant flow of unknowns that in response we can become dazed by our set of daily routines; at times, mistakenly giving us a sense of security, an anchor.  Perhaps I do best at not anchoring anywhere, or to try making a meaningful connection everywhere that I travel. Meeting the locals and the foreigners that I have spent time with is what helped me embrace my humanity, my love for others, my desire to engage, to share, to discuss, to create.  This is my nature, my truth and my anchor.

Maybe what one ex said to me many autumns ago was true: “you are not the same girl that I first met.”  I love the woman that I now am, I am kinder to the girl that I was, yet I long for an acceptance frozen over this past winter.  I wanted so badly to be seen as the same girl, but to my beloved neighbors, I am now an alien. So yes, I am one fierce alien with wings and an appetite to see countries, cry at wonders, marvel at the familiar, and live with no regrets. Always blessed, always holding on to the Lord’s hands.

There are always two sides of a story, and I sincerely share mine.  The leaves will turn yellow, then a lovely tint of honey, and then they will fall down leaving the trees bare.  I remain faithful to my word and to myself.  Even when those who knew or know me fail to recognize the me in me, I’ve never been more sure of myself and my place on this soil. I remain a tree.

Gracias


I had just turned 21, and it seemed like my life was over.  I was alive, watching each hour go by, numb. Yet, my muscles ached, each movement sent a loud, throbbing signal of pressure and pain from my scalp down to my toe nails.  My mind wrestled between fighting or quitting.  Living was pointless.

I was barely 21, and everyone was telling me “no, you can’t.” I kept getting one rejection after another; doors and windows kept closing on me, until all I had was the four walls of a room in my dad’s apartment. That, and my faith, that’s all I had.
A part of me died, and a new layer was born and grew strong. Just like that childhood anxiety to reach adulthood, your twenties seem like the time to finally make all those lifelong goals a reality. When that doesn’t happen, well, you feel more anxious, incomplete and at times, a failure. It is difficult for the mind to see beyond the obstacles, past the walls, and imagine new possibilities.

The Spanish gospel song “Gracias” by Marcos Witt says: ” You took me in your arms and gave me salvation.” The Lord has showed me during my trip in Asia that when all seemed lost and hopeless, well, that’s just my human nearsightedness. The Lord time and time again proved that when I felt alone, I’m really not, that’s just my pessimism.  Finally, He showed me that He is everywhere. From predominantly Muslim Jakarta, to the Mnong tribe of Dak Lak, Vietnam, I witnessed His promise fulfilled from Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

I have loved every single second in Asia. This love and awe flows strong like the Draynur waterfall in Vietnam. My faith has blossomed like the hydrangeas in Da Lat. I see new frontiers, and what was not possible and unimaginable before, now is my present reality.

Words are not enough to convey all that I feel. The best I can do is to assure you that miracles are for real. Christ is for real. He took me from defeated and lifeless, to grateful, lively and soaring.

Thank you God. Gracias.

Helpful Tips for Your Trip in Vietnam

After much walking on this cool summer day in Da Lat, I am taking a rest at the Windmills Cafe, overlooking the town’s city center and market.


Today marks my 17th day in Vietnam, and as I have traveled by land some 1400 kilometers south, there is a thing or four that I have learned and hope it will help you when you are visiting this country.

Money matters: US dollars or Vietnamese Dong?

You will see some goods and services priced in US dollars, such as coffee, tour packages, massages, etc..and you will see these same things and others priced in dong.  This varies city by city, but based on my experience, pay in the currency that is posted.  For example, if 1kg of coffee costs $2, it will be more economical to pay that in dollars. This is because if you ask the vendor to quote you in the other currency, there will be a surcharge or poor exchange rate.  In Hoi An for instance, I had dinner at a restaurant and I decided to pay with US dollars…They gave me 400,000 dong for $20, when at the time that amount yielded 448,000 dong.  It is very helpful to have both currencies at hand, just make sure after bargaining you stick to the posted currency so you won’t get a bad exchange rate.

Best exchange currency locations? Plenty of options.  You will surely get the best rate when you withdraw from an ATM machine. Do keep in mind, most ATMs charge a fee, personally I’ve paid 20,000 or 40,000 dong at most. I also exchanged dollars at the currency exchange office in Hanoi airport and in the city…fair exchange rates.  Where I found the rates to be the lowest where outside the city centers and by small independent shops. 

Count your bills, CAREFULLY. To some, all those zeros in a bill gets confusing. To others, the soft and sticky texture gets them.  I lost 300,000 my first day in Hanoi, because somehow I handed 6-100,000 bills instead of 3.  This tip has been repeated several times, it’s for a good reason. Be organized with your currency and take your time to make sure you hand out the correct amount.

Tours- In the most visited cities such as Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang, the abundance of tour agencies is overwhelming.  The prices I must say are extremely good, but I often asked myself is it too good to be true? Not necessarily, but here are some pointers:

Read the fine print- make sure you understand all terms and conditions before you pay for a tour.  

Refund policy- this one is significant specially if you plan to go to Halong Bay.  As this was in my itinerary, I took the 3 hour shuttle from Hanoi only to learn that the cruise was being cancelled due to bad weather.  I will write more about this in a separate post. For now, just to let you know that this does happen, especially in the months of July and August when there are heavy rains in this region. I was reimbursed 100%. Make sure you ask about the cruise or tour operator’s cancellation policy in the case of bad weather or a natural disaster.

Lunch time- banks and most attractions such as pagodas, or the cable car ride here in Dalat to go to Truc Lam Monastery are closed for lunch time. The time range is usually 11 or 11:30-1pm. Plan accordingly and keep this time block in mind.

Dress appropriately- I witnessed many people get turned away at temples and other holy sites because of their attire. The rule is no short dresses, skirts or shorts; and no sleeveless tops. 

Some of these temples have signs that indicate no pictures are allowed inside. Ask if you are not sure before you enter to take pictures. In addition, all temples require you to take your shoes off before entering. 

Passport and visa: 

Thus far, all the hotels I have checked into here in Vietnam have a unique practice I have not experienced elsewhere, they keep your passport. They don’t ask you for a credit card or a security deposit in cash, but they keep your passport and return it when you check out. My conclusion is they keep your passport as a security deposit.  I’ve read a couple of reviews where travelers are upset by this practice, and refuse to leave their passport starting a big raucous over the matter.  So here are my two cents: I am giving you this information in advance so you won’t be surprised. There is no need to argue, as travelers we must respect each country’s laws and regulations. I had no issues getting my passport back when checking out or even before when I needed it to book a tour. 

As far as getting a visa as an American citizen, you have two choices. You can apply at the nearest embassy, or you can go the Visa On Arrival route.  Because my flight back to NY leaves from Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted the peace of mind and secure the visa before. I went to the embassy in Jakarta, paid $100(actually, they prefer the 1.3 million rupiah) and got my visa in 24 hours.  The $100 seems to be the standard rate for a single entry, 1 month visa obtained at the embassy.

Be aware that it is difficult to get a price for the visa obtained at an embassy online. I tried getting this information by email and never got a response. Once I went in person to ask, the agent kept my passport and asked me to pay the fee upon picking up. I felt I had no choice but to leave my passport and not try the less expensive visa on arrival.  It seems like most people pay to get a letter online and then pay the visa on arrival office at the airport they land.  As a rule of thumb, obtaining the visa at an embassy is easy, secure but costs twice the price of doing it by VOA.

Thank you guys for reading my posts and following.  Vietnam has been wonderful to me, and to make the most of your time here, I gladly share my stories and experiences on this my first visit in Vietnam.  Wishing you a blessed day! 

A Homey Stay in Hanoi


My three week visit in Vietnam begins in the capital, Hanoi, where I arrived a few days ago.  It has been a wonderful start to my journey here, where I will be traveling south by land, exploring nine cities before going back home to NYC.  Several hours of searching and booking went into this, however I did not fully book all activities and tours.  I decided to take a leap of faith and wait until I was in Vietnam and have a better idea of my options here.

For accommodation, location ranks high in my must have list.  Especially when I am traveling to a city for the first time, I find it convenient to stay in the center, close to the action and save money in transport.  I followed the suggestions from a few members on Trip Advisor and reached out to the Gia Thinh Hotel.

A few emails where exchanged, and I was offered a few options that included my interests and needs. The booking was confirmed, and in the morning of my arrival, I was picked up in the airport, and taken to the hotel.  In the center of the Old Quarter, the staff of the Gia Thinh Hotel welcomed me, took my luggage to my room, and gave me a delicious and refreshing fruit juice.  I had the pleasure of conversing with Amaryllis, the receptionist, with whom I had exchanged emails.  She gave me an idea of things to do nearby, and allowed me to check in early to rest from my overnight flight.

Due to a change of plans, my three-night stay was extended to a fourth one.  For the first three nights, I treated myself to the junior suite with a balcony. The spacious room has everything one needs and from the balcony you can feel the beat of the Old Quarter. But I did not count on the loud sounds of the pedestrians and motorcycles at late hours of the night. For the first two nights, the noise woke me up a couple of times. For the extra night, I opted for a smaller room with city views. It was a completely different experience. From the window you see the back-end of other buildings. The room gave me the peace and quiet I needed for a restful sleep. I highly suggest you take this into consideration when booking your stay in Hanoi. Part of what is attractive of the Old Quarter is how upbeat it is. A balcony room is a great feature that allows you to experience this from the comfort of your room. But if you prefer to have a room with little to no noise, make sure you get a room located in the back part of the building.

Another added bonus of my stay was the made to order breakfast. I usually don’t pay mind to included breakfast because it often lacks variety and flavor. The Gia Thinh hotel offers a couple of set options (Western and Vietnamese) along with coffee, tea and a fresh assortment of seasonal fruit. I tried the ham and veggies omelette and the ham and egg sandwich, both delicious meals and the portions fuel you for the morning and early afternoon.

The Gia Thinh Hotel has set the bar high for the next couple of stays in other cities of Vietnam. Their warm and genuine care, attention to detail, and friendly hospitality created a homey experience for me in Vietnam’s capital. I am grateful to the reviewers of TA that take the time to share their reviews with the travel community, and allowed me to find this gem of a hotel.

I arrived in Hanoi feeling melancholic after departing from Jakarta, a bit worried not knowing what Hanoi would be like. Thanks for the Gia Thinh Hotel, Amaryllis and the always smiling staff, I leave Hanoi knowing my friends and I have a place in Hanoi to come back to in the future.

On Saying Good Bye

During my last two weeks in Jakarta, I spent some time thinking about how to say good bye to this wonderful place that was my home for over half a year.

My strong need for certainty forced me to emotionally prepare to face mixed emotions.  After all, when you are literally having the time of your life, leaving that can be depressing.   So, in the privacy of my room, I went on a voyage of love and gratitude. Yes, I use the word love. My stay in Indonesia would not have been the same without this element. The love I put towards what I do, to care for and educate children. The love I have for the culinary arts, and the joy it gives me to share it. The love I got from strangers who would go the extra mile to help me. The love I got from a family’s dog who would always follow me, wagging his tail with a huge smile when I played with him. The love I have for people, and the love they have for me.  

The day to depart was yesterday, and all I could do to keep it together was to pray.  I prayed to the Almighty to thank Him for Indonesia and my host family. I asked for wisdom, strength, courage. The good Lord gave me that and more.

As the country prepares to celebrate its Independence Day later this month, the white and red flags are everywhere.  It is a vibrant and beautiful sight, one that I am thankful for.  On the way to the airport, the sight of the flags waving was cemented to my memory. So is the kindness and love from the people of Indonesia, one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.   

There are no good byes to say to Indonesia, the closest and most fitting is “sampai jumpa lagi”. 

Until we meet again Indonesia. Terima Kasih!

Melaka 2016: A Feast for the Senses

Jakarta’s geographic position is such that there are many options of quick getaways within Indonesia as well as outside of this archipelago.  A flight under two hours took me to Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur, a capital city renowned for its modern appeal and eclectic mix of cultures.  With only three days available, I decided to spend the afternoon exploring the Petrona Towers, and then retired to my hotel to rest for my trip to Melaka.

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The Petronas Towers from Suria KLCC Park

I learned about Melaka from acquaintances here in JKT who recommended it as a long weekend trip.  My research showed me it was a quick 2-hour bus trip from KL, and that this city gained UNESCO recognition in 2008.  It didn’t take long for me to decide this was the place I wanted to explore in Malaysia.

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BTS Terminal Gate

The bus departed from Bandar Tasik Selatan (known as BTS by the locals) at 9:00am, and arrived at 10:50am in Melaka Sentral.  From first sight, I could tell this was on the outskirts of the main town. I began to look around me and figure out how I would get to my hotel.  Melaka Sentral is a bus terminal that offers many services to travellers.  There is a food court, plenty of currency exchange kiosks, as well as apparel, accessories and communication stores.  For 45 Ringgit, I obtained a SIM Card which included 30 minutes of talk time to the US and 2GB of data.  Melaka Sentral is easy to navigate, and from the signs you can either go and take a local bus or take a taxi.  I decided to take a taxi, the driver informed me there are no metered taxis in Melaka, and that the standard fare into the main town is 20 Ringgit.

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Arriving at Melaka Sentral

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In under 15 minutes, I was dropped off at Hotel Da Som Inn.  Two nights before, I did a quick search on hotels.com for available lodging in Melaka for under $30/night.  Da Som Inn was available, had great reviews and probably what sold me on the most was its close proximity to Jonker Street.  When I walked into the hotel, I was warmly greeted by a nice gentleman whom I assume is the manager/owner.  He offered me a cold orange-flavored drink as a lovely lady completed the registration.  As I sat to relax and enjoy this drink, I begin to converse with both of them.  The lady gave me a map, indicating the hotel’s location, and some of the touristic highlights nearby (pretty much all of them).  You see, Melaka is a small town that you can comfortably walk from point A to B, and then some. Joker street is just one block away, and after I freshened up a bit in my room, I changed to a sundress and began my walking exploration.

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Cute family in matching outfits posing for pictures at Jonker Street Walk

Not technically the main street, Jonker Walk is the main artery of Melaka.  This narrow and lively street is home to some of the most well known restaurants, as well as souvenir shops, cafes, and many of their famous pineapple tarts shops.  You will also see here the entrance to the Jonker night market, perhaps the top reason why so many visitors from nearby Singapore, as well as Indonesia and China come to Melaka to sample culinary riches.

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Early morning Jonker Street


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Dutch Square

From 11:00am-5:30pm, the sun can be unforgiving.  The heat is dry and the UV rays strong on your skin.  To take breaks to cool down, I kept going in and out of the various shops, as well as taking a 1-2 hour rest in the hotel.  The amazing thing is that you find Melaka to be a very relaxed and laid back town.  There is absolutely no need to rush, in fact you pace yourself and enjoy the provincial vibe, the colonial architecture, the colourful shops, as well as deciding on the next food to try.  Food options are economic, abundant and diverse, and of course the local food is sought after.

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For the next post, I would like to offer you, my awesome readers, a practical guide to Malacca.  There will be more on my memorable accommodation at Hotel Da Som Inn, the activities I absolutely enjoyed, the savoury foods I was lucky to sample and more on the history of this charming city.

My short visit helped me confirmed two things:  Melaka is certainly a culinary haven well known to the locals and to the fellow South-East Asian neighbors.  On the other hand, this is still a relatively unknown town to Westerners.  Based on my own experience, I find that so many stay in KL and perhaps don’t even know how easy it is go get here.  As revealed earlier, I didn’t even know nor had heard of Melaka before, and I am so grateful to my friends here in JKT for their suggestion.

Going to Melaka is an affordable and convenient trip here in SE Asia.  This historical city bears the marks of their colonial ancestors, and they have been able to guard their cultural heritage in ways that is is experienced through all your senses.

To all my readers, I thank you for following.  I have received a very positive feedback through Twitter and Instagram.  Thanks for sharing, commenting and liking my posts.  Cheers!

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A quiet Wednesday morning. This square in the afternoons and evenings is lively and crowded with tourist taking pictures and walking around.