Tales of Southeast Asia

I do love Southeast Asia. Something about the organised chaos and beautiful food keeps drawing me back. This is my third time visiting, but for some reason I’m seeing things very differently than I have on previous trips. I’ve been here for three weeks, and traveled from Bangkok to Vientiane, via Luang Prabang and some smaller cities along the way. It’s really stuck out to me just how many tourists there are here. Perhaps it’s been to do with the places that I’m staying, or perhaps my perception has changed in some way; I’m more comfortable in my surroundings and I’m past all of the culture shock so perhaps I approach things with different eyes. Basically what I’m trying to say is that you go to a new city, you stay in a particular area and you just get trapped inside of this little tourist bubble. I feel like I walk for miles to find local food (I’m sick of eating pancakes for breakfast), and any attraction I go to is just thronged with tourists. Where did the real Asia go?

The Khaosan

The Khaosan

Everything you need for a good night?

Everything you need for a good night?

Vang Vieng is a prime example of what I’m trying to describe in words. It’s probably one of the most picturesque places that I’ve been. Its a tiny wee town surround by mountains with a river that winds through. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. The primary tourist attraction there consists of hiring a tube and floating down the river, stopping at numerous bars along the way, taking drugs and partying all night. It’s quite sad to think that this tiny towns economic existence is based on the want of backpackers to party with other backpackers for days on end. I realize that everybody has different ideas of fun, but I just don’t understand this kind of tourism. This obviously isn’t the only type of tourism around, there are plenty activities, ranging from kayaking to caving to cooking classes to temple visits. 

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, Laos

Backpackers watch Friends and Family Guy all day to recover from tubing

Backpackers watch Friends and Family Guy all day to recover from tubing

By staying in these areas and simply by being here I am contributing to these cultural adaptations, and the growth of these areas. There are quite a few places run by expats, and the locals are providing services that must be their interpretation of what tourists want; perhaps they are spot on, because a lot of these places are packed with people. I am internally conflicted because just because I don’t like to do something, doesn’t mean that it’s stupid or a waste of time for somebody that enjoys it. We’re all different after all. Tourism of any form also contributes a lot to the local economy here. I find it funny that I find this environment offensive, when it’s essentially the same as Chinatown in a western city, which I think is super cool. It’s definitely all about perspective.

I suppose I should admit here to being a sucker for western style coffee shops. I like to take my laptop/journal/book and just chill, so I suppose you could say that these places really do cater for what I want. 

At least the food is good. Tom Yam for breakfast.

At least the food is good. Tom Yam for breakfast.

Tofu Massaman with Pumpkin

Tofu Massaman with Pumpkin

So what have I been up to? On a few recommendations I stayed near Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Oh my god, please don’t ever go here. It’s a few streets designated to partying and drinking. It boasts 90% western restaurants and fake ID shops, absolutely all prices everywhere are inflated. I found this funny website about The Khaosan, it actually sums it up perfectly. I did however find The Khaosan is a different world at 7am. I spoke to lovely Monks walking the streets collecting their daily Alms, and was treated to a street breakfast by a local couple on their way to work.

Stock up on fake ID's? PhD, perhaps?

Stock up on fake ID’s? PhD, perhaps?

I overnight trained to Chiang Mai, a small city in Northern Thailand. It’s such a nice place that a lot of tourists stay for months on end, doing 10 hour visa runs to the border every 60 days. It’s a bit of a backpacker hub, which makes it quite comfortable. Most people have a small grasp of English and you can find anything you want. It’s still super cheap. 100 Baht per night for a nice enough dorm bed ($3-4) and meals are about $2. The place I stayed (Big & O’s house) was run by some really cool Thai guys, and I met some nice people here. Harry, a chef from Ireland eating his way through Asia (sounds familiar), directed me to a fantastic local restaurant tucked away inside a drug store, and told me what I needed to order in Thai. Best Thai food I’ve ever had. I genuinely believe 80% of the food we see as ‘Thai food’ is generally not what local people eat in Thailand. 

Gang Om. Lightly spiced curry with beautifully tender meat. Served with sticky rice.

Gang Om. Lightly spiced curry with beautifully tender meat. Served with sticky rice.

Lap. Meat voraciously chopped with two large knives, until it becomes close to minced texture. Normally served raw.

Lap. Meat voraciously chopped with two large knives, until it becomes close to minced texture. Normally served raw.

Armed with a couple of new travel buddies, I made my way to Luang Prabang via slow boat, overnighting in Huay Xai and Pak Beng (both in Laos). Huay Xai was a sleepy little border town, which I really liked. Pak Being was hilarious. It serves purely as an overnight accommodation town for slow boat travelers and consists of a single street lined with guest houses and restaurants. Despite being a town for the slow boats, there is no dock and you jump off the boat and climb up a hill of sand with your bag. 3 minutes after getting off the boat I was offered ’smoking’ (read: opium), then not long afterward a very excitable guest house owner wanted us to come to his bar for Happy Shakes (read: mushrooms). He described his bar’s happy hour as, “Happy happy, too much, many hour!” With, “Whiskey more and more and more.” Which I think means free refills. 

Mekong sunset at Huay Xai

Mekong sunset at Huay Xai

Slow boats at Pak Beng

Slow boats at Pak Beng

Like Hoi An in Vietnam, Luang Prabang has a lot of pretty French Colonial architecture, and is nice to walk or cycle around.  As such it is a tourist haven with almost no indication that you are in Laos. Harry and I took the local ferry across the river and walked out to a village a few kilometers away. As soon as you cross the river there is a drastic change in scenery. Gone are the paved roads and buildings, and in are the dusty streets with wild dogs, lined with wooden shacks. We walked in on a family having their lunch in the village, we weren’t sure if it was a shop or not, but we asked the lady for some soup anyway. She cooked us a delicious noodle soup with what looked like the leftovers of her family lunch. We learnt some Lao, “Pep, pep!” As we high-fived with the kids.

The BBQ in the centre of town was amazing

The BBQ in the centre of town was amazing

Much pork belly was consumed

Much pork belly was consumed

I continued on alone to Vang Vieng, where I cycled around the town a little, but mostly spent some time resting my leg. Vang Vieng is the tubing town I described earlier, surrounded by beautiful mountains. The day I left I went on a sunrise hot air balloon ride, which was spectacular. It was my first time ballooning, and to be honest, it isn’t really a safe feeling. It’s also not as peaceful as I imagined, as the burners are super loud and are going 90% of the time. Even so, I really enjoyed it.

balloon

balloon1

balloon2

Vientiane I found interesting. It’s the capital city, and feels similar to Saigon, except much less hectic. I felt like I could blend in with local life a little more here. The food was interesting too, a mish-mash of Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food. I went to the COPE Center, which is where they make prosthetics for Laotians. Obviously I found this ridiculously interesting, especially seeing all the hand made legs that people wore for years and years, I cannot even imagine. I was also lucky enough to pick up food poisoning in Vientiane, so stayed for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh via plane. I wouldn’t really recommend food poisoning, but to only get food poisoning one time given the amount of things I’ve eaten, I’m definitely still ahead. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Phonm Penh for a few more days while I finish my TEFL certification and find somewhere to volunteer.

trip map

Winter in California

America wasn’t high on my list of places to see. In actual fact, I’m not sure it was really even on my list. I’m generally a lot more interested in places that have e very different culture than I am used to. Funnily enough though, after Alexa returned home to California, America very quickly shot to the top of my travel list.

Apart from my 3 week excursion to the East Coast, most of my time in the United States was spent in California. From the moment I landed, I was actually confronted with how different America is from New Zealand. You might even say I was experiencing culture shock to a certain extent. To start with I would have to say that, like New York, LA is just like you see on TV. Wide streets, low sunsets, expensive cars, and valet parking. I however did not catch any celebrities on the street. The plus-tax-plus-tip culture is strange and annoying, and you have to do your own table service in cafes (remind me why I’m tipping?). I was also surprised by how often Americans were not able to understand words that I would say, or be confused by words I was using; words like “serviette” and “take-away” (“napkin” and “to-go”).

I think everywhere should distribute newspaper like this

I think everywhere should distribute newspaper like this

I’ll be honest, after my first visit to LA I left feeling pretty lousy about the place. I think a lot of it was my mindset going in. I was expecting not to like it. Everybody (inside and outside of America) bags it, and I think I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was going to this place I automatically didn’t like. I visited Hollywood Boulevard (people actually like this stuff?) and went to Tommy Burger (again, really?), and was annoyed by the fact that you have to drive (don’t even attempt public transport) for 40 minutes to get basically anywhere.

Fast forward through Thanksgiving – yum! Jump over the East Coast and I’m back again before and after Christmas. This time around, I cleared the slate, giving LA a fresh chance to capture my eye. And capture it I think it did. I got used to driving around, to standing outside restaurants for an hour, to free right turns on red lights. Here are a few things that I now really appreciate about LA, and am keen to go back and enjoy.

Korean BBQ

All you can eat BBQ for $15-$30 (depending on how many options you want). If you go with a few people you can get through a lot, and it’s all delicious. You sit at a table with a communal grill, cooking and eating.

LA Korean BBQ

LA Korean BBQ

Boba (Bubble Tea)

Not normally my thing, but I’m super into it. It’s sweet green tea, with ice and milk, and tapioca pearls (sort of a chewy gelatinous thing) and the bottom. Apparently a lot of people don’t like it because they are weirded out by having lollies in their drink. Thanks for the new found sugar addiction, America.

Late night Boba date

Late night Boba date

Trader Joe’s

This isn’t LA specific, but deserves a mention. Alexa once told me that the things she missed most from America were Amazon Prime and Trader Joe’s, and I get it now (on both parts). It’s hard to explain why a grocery store (supermarket) can be so good, so I won’t try.

These have actual peanut butter inside

These have actual peanut butter inside

Neighbourhoods

Everyone in America uses Yelp, an app for your phone which allows people to review restaurants and cafes (imagine TripAdvisor on steroids). As such, when picking a place to eat or hang out, Yelp takes us to all different parts of the city. A lot of the neighborhoods are very different, which makes visiting different ones quite fun. It reminds me a bit of Melbourne in this manor. (I wonder if anyone will yell at me for comparing LA to Melbourne.)

Santa Monica

Santa Monica

We spent Christmas in San Jose (an hour from San Francisco). I had PRK eye surgery (I dare you to youtube it) and subsequently slept through Christmas. I could actually hardly open my eyes for about 4 days. Big shout out to Alexa’s mom Tina for all the amazing Japanese foods that she cooked for us while we were there. Those of you who get my Snapchats must have been proper jealous.

Tonkatsu in the kitchen

Tina’s Tonkatsu in the kitchen

After Christmas we spent a few days in San Francisco (apparently it’s bad form to say ‘San Fran’), where we walked the streets (read: hiked the hills) and loitered in hipster cafes serving flat whites. We also went to Cirque du Soleil. It was my first time and even though my eyes weren’t the best, it was such an amazing show. Definitely a must-see. I thought San Francisco was a super cool city, with a really nice feel to it. It also has one of the best Chinatowns I’ve been to.

Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

Driving back down to LA was also wonderful. We took the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Barbara. The Pacific Coast Highway is a stretch of road on the edge of cliffs, with many spots to pull over and take in the wonderful views. We were lucky enough to have perfect weather the entire trip down. We drank the best milkshake I’ve ever had (chocolate, peanut butter, and banana) at a vegan-hipster diner in Santa Cruz, and ate Acai (ah-sah-ee) bowls in Santa Barbara.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

 

Back in LA I tried my hand at Crossfit (I placed second overall in the session, so I’m basically a monster), drank fancy coffee (what we would call regular coffee in New Zealand) and stocked up on dates with Alexa before the next round of LDR. I ate a lot of food in America, and basically everything has sugar in it. One of the things I really liked was the sheer variety of options. Wherever we were, there always seemed to be any type of food that we wanted to eat. I managed to gain a few pounds, and definitely left with a sugar addiction. Despite it being winter, the coldest it ever got was about 10 degrees; most of the time the temperature was between 15 and 20 degrees, with only one day of rain while I was there. Some winter, huh.

Death by overhead squats, anyone?

Death by overhead squats, anyone?

I’m writing this from a cute little cafe in The Khaosan, Bangkok, waiting to take a train up to Chiang Mai. My life is pretty spectacular. I think I’d be jealous if I read my blog.

Lollipop moments

Welcome to 2015. I’d like to kick the year off by sharing a story, a Lollipop moment of mine. A Lollipop moment is a moment where someone said something, or did something, that fundamentally made your life better. If this is the first you’re hearing of this, I would encourage you to watch the 6 minute TEDx video below.

It feels like a long time ago since my last trip to Southeast Asia, I guess a lot has happened in the year gone by. I remember strolling through the ruins of Angkor Wat; trekking the rice paddy ridden plains of Sapa, and sailing the beautiful vistas of Halong Bay, pondering what to do with my life. At the time I was thinking about smaller, more trivial things, like whether or not to sell my house or switch jobs. It wasn’t until an unlikely day in Malaysia that I started to think beyond the mundane.

Monkeys on the steps at Batu Caves, KL

Monkeys on the steps at Batu Caves, KL

On a one-day stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the tail end of my SE Asia trip I found myself at KL Sentral, waiting on the platform for the train to take me to Batu caves. It’s quite easy to spot other travellers in an Asian-dominated city, and as such I found myself chatting to a friendly American by the name of Jared. We  boarded the train and quickly realised that we were headed to the same place, so I was introduced to the 5 other friends he had made in his dorm room that morning. So there we were: three Americans, a Chinese girl, an Irishman, an Aussie and a Kiwi; instant travel buddies, exchanging stories and ideas about life. We had a fun day touring the caves and lunching in Chinatown, floating around the plentiful KL malls, with equally plentiful Air Conditioning. We were all quite keen to see the Petronas towers at night, so we headed to KLCC via the underground mall complexes. 

It was on one of the lower levels of a mall, waiting for the girls to finish their toilet stop that a life-changing conversation was struck. Astounded at the idea that these people were travelling for months and years on end, and confronted with the harsh reality that I was mere days away from being back in my comfortable office job in Wellington, I remarked at how jealous I was that I couldn’t do the same. Jared didn’t blink, and responded.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.04.21 pm

My job, my house, my cat, my life. Duh, Jared, come on. How can I leave all of that? At the time this genuinely was how I felt, for some reason I didn’t see my life as something fluid, that I could change and mould. Perhaps in a way I even saw it as giving up on all the things that I’d worked hard to achieve.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.09.17 pm

Jared continued, “You’re still young, and if you want them later, they will all be there when you’re done living your life.” It was as if someone had just lifted the shades off my eyes, and I could see everything clearly. Those things I’d worked so hard to acquire, the things in my life that I considered high value, they didn’t make me happy at all.

Petronas Towers, KL

Petronas Towers, KL

There’s something about travelling that makes you more honest. Perhaps it’s the lack of familiar surroundings, or the extension of comfort zone, or being on a break from normal life, I’m not exactly sure. But I noticed it, a lot, and not just with myself. Everyone I met would tell me their entire life stories, and share their deepest hopes and dreams with me. I feel like I formed stronger relationships than I have back home with people I spent a day with, people I’m still in touch with and will continue to be into the future. I was more honest with myself and with others than I have been in the last 10 years of my life.

Those words, “Do they make you happy?” Continued to stick with me after I got home from my trip. A few weeks back into real life I decided that enough was enough. I made a pact with myself to finish doing up my house, and to sell it. To walk away from my wonderful job and to leave Wellington, at least for a while. The world was calling to me, and I had to respond. I set myself a goal of September, 2014. I achieved this on November 21, as I said my goodbyes and boarded a plane bound for LAX with nothing but a suitcase to my name. On Monday I’m heading to Thailand, and beyond the first couple of hostel nights I’ve booked – who knows. I wonder if I will ever be as free as I am in this period of my life. I have no responsibilities, and although I don’t have fleshed-out plan for the future, I feel very much in control of my life.

Jared has spent a lot of time travelling the world, and recently spent 2 months in India, one of which was spent training as a Yoga instructor before heading home to California. It wasn’t until two weeks after he got back to California that he was in a bad traffic accident, and unable to walk for 8 weeks. My brother Rick has a fitting saying for this type of thing, “If you’re born to be shot, you won’t drown.” It really makes me appreciate how short our lives can be, never fully in control of what happens next. So living for the now is something that I need to do, at least for a while. I told Jared how much what he said had impacted on my decision to leave New Zealand. Just like Drew Dudley, he had almost no recollection of the conversation, and encouraged me to document it for him. I hope to one day inspire somebody else to do something that makes them so happy.

Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, DC

Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, DC

“Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” – A week in the Big Apple

Growing up in the 90s, my image of New York was based on Home Alone, TMNT and the odd episode of Sex in the City (you know, when it was on in the background). Numbered streets and Avenues; bagels, donuts and pizza; Central Park and the Empire State building. Having spent a week in NYC I can successfully confirm that it is exactly like the TV shows and movies. From the gorgeously quaint Upper East Side, to the madness of Times Square, to the beautiful tranquility of Central Park, to the food. New York really doesn’t disappoint.

City Scape from the Brooklyn Bridge

City Scape from the Brooklyn Bridge

Let me start off by saying that I could have easily spent more time. A week was a great amount of time, but there are basically unlimited amounts of things to do in the city. And that’s just the city, I didn’t even make it out to Jersey or Long Island. Roll the highlight reel.

Central Park

By far my favourite place in NYC. Central Park is gigantic, spanning over 50 streets and 3 avenues. I didn’t even have time to explore more than half of the Park. Walking around was beautiful, there are so many trees and ponds, with squirrels running all around. People walk their dogs or run around, escaping the hustle bustle of the big city. One of the hostels that I stayed in was only a block away, so I ate breakfast in the park each day I was there.

"The Pool" at Central Park

“The Pool” at Central Park

Central Park on a crisp morning

Central Park on a crisp morning

Donuts

As some of you will know, I’m a massive fan of Donuts. I used to be a big fan of Dunkin’ Donuts. But no more. I’ve tasted the real thing, and I might not be able to go back. I spent some time compiling a list of about 10 different donut stores around Manhattan and Brooklyn that I wanted to visit while I was there. I even took a one hour train ride out to deep Brooklyn to try Shaikh’s Donuts on a recommendation. Oh, boy, was that a worthwhile trip. Not only were the Donuts amazing, but they were dirt cheap too. I picked up 2 donuts and a coffee for only $2.40, what a steal. I estimate that I’ve eaten 10+ donuts in the last week.

Shaikh's Donut Shoppe. Best I had in NYC

Shaikh’s Donut Shoppe. Best I had in NYC

Minis at Doughnuttery. Cacao, Chocolate and Mesquite

Minis at Doughnuttery. Cacao, Chocolate and Mesquite

Blackberry ginger crunch from Dough Loco

Blackberry ginger crunch from Dough Loco

Pizza

No NYC list would be complete without a mention of Pizza. Sold by the slice, you can’t walk a block without seeing someone chowing down on one, folded in half because they are so big. I’m not normally a big Pizza fan, but I ate a lot of different pizzas. A lot of the places were super cheap, some selling slices at 99c. Some of the better ones ranged from $3-6 per slice. The base is slim, but not thin, crunchy but still floppy, and it’s heated just enough for the cheese to be melted.

Mama Jo's

Mama Jo’s

Sal's Pizza

Sal’s Pizza

The subway

Riding the NYC subway was such a novelty for me. I’ve seen it on TV so much, and heard so many things, so it almost felt nostalgic to be a part of it. I can confirm that you see some pretty weird things on the subway. Every now and again, if you are lucky, you will get a busker on your train. That’s right – the busker is inside of your carriage! My first experience of this was a lady with a guitar and a baby strapped to her back, rocking out Mumford & Sons in between stops. I also saw barbershop quartets, homeless people telling elaborate stories, and heard about a group of acrobatic kids who do flips and tricks on the hand rails in between longer stops.

Subway busker rockin' Mumford and Sons

Subway busker rockin’ Mumford and Sons

At first I was a little confused, you have to be on the right side of the track, depending on whether you are going to Uptown or Downtown, I had no idea what this meant when I got off the plane, but my guess was correct. I also find the subways mixed with the numbered streets very disorientating. It’s tricky to figure out which way to go when you pop up on the street, so I generally find myself walking a full block to discover I’ve gone the wrong way. Perhaps I’m just no good at navigating. It’s quite funny listening to different people give subway directions. Everyone has a different idea of how to get somewhere, as there are a whole lot of different options that criss-cross each other.

Where I spent a lot of my time in NYC

Where I spent a lot of my time in NYC

The city doesn’t sleep. Basically ever.

No matter what time of night there is always something open, always something going on. In Manhattan, most places are open seemingly 24 hours. I went to a restaurant at 1am on a Thursday morning, and the place was packed, showing no signs that they would be closing soon. I’m not really into nightlife, but I hear it’s unlimited. I did find an amazing Jazz bar though, the best bar I’ve ever been to. They always have a Jazz band playing, couches, tables with chess, checkers, cards and scrabble, pool tables, shuffle board tables, and then the outside was lined with ping pong tables. I went there twice on non-weekend nights, and it was packed all night. I think what I liked about it so much was that it wasn’t just a big room for people to get drunk in (like basically every bar in NZ), it was just a great place for people to come and hang out and have fun.

Fat Cat

Fat Cat

Architecture

Wherever you are, especially in Manhattan, you can just walk around staring at the buildings. They are really something else, with a lot of variation. Beautiful stone churches pop up throughout the city, as well as the rows and rows of apartment buildings with the intricate criss cross of bars on the doors and windows. Even the project brick housing looks nice, certainly a step up from Newtown Flats!

Exploring around Central Park

Exploring around Central Park

Flatiron building. Looks cool at all angles

Flatiron building. Looks cool at all angles

Generic Tourist Trail

There are a few things that when you are in NYC, you just kind of have to do. Like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the City Scape. I went up the Rockefeller Centre rather than the Empire State building, as I heard that there were no queues. Even on a cloudy day, it was a pretty impressive view. Oh, and Times Square, of course. Times Square is hilarious. You can go there at 2am and you would think that it’s the middle of the day, the lights are that bright.

The lights, the people!

The lights, the people!

On the Brooklyn Bridge. A great view of the City Scape

On the Brooklyn Bridge. A great view of the City Scape

Top of the Rockefeller Centre at night

Top of the Rockefeller Centre at night

Grand Central Station was also very nice, although 90% of the people there were tourists.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Anything else?

The hustle bustle of the big city was starting to annoy me. When you’re walking down the street and the 5th person in the last minute bumps into you, despite their apologies, you just start to get really sick of it. I feel like people in the big city have no spatial awareness, slash, they only really care about themselves and what they’re doing. This is obviously a generalisation, but, it’ll be nice to go somewhere where I don’t have to dodge the umbrellas for fear of losing an eye.

I found a great coffee shop. Owned by Kiwis, all of the baristas were trained in the art of the Flat White and Long Black. I stayed a few hours here and had my first good coffee in a wee while. I also got to exclaim the classic line of, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” When a car tried to cut me off as I was crossing the street.

Oh yeah, it was also super cold. Some days it got down to -3 degrees! Unlike Sapa in Vietnam, I was prepared this time and had plenty of warm gear. As I sit here writing this post on the train to Philadelphia, it’s just beginning to snow. It feels a little magical, like New York is saying goodbye. It’s been a great stay, and I hope I’ll be back one day. Next up, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Apple pie with a slice of cheese is actually wonderful

Apple pie with a slice of cheese is actually wonderful

One windy week in Wellington

It was a hectic last week before departure. Dinner invitations were abundant, as were coffee dates and lunches, trying to find the time to fit people in was a bit of a task. It’s probably the first time in my life that I’ve actively kept a personal calendar, and planned my days out by the hour. Between the family parties, work parties and friend parties, I managed to eat some fish and chips, and drink some nice coffee.

Family goodbyes

Family goodbyes

Since I moved out of my house, I’d been living at my sister Beth’s house. It’s been super fun living with two teenage girls, and gaining an insight into what it is like to be a teenager these days. I can spot the differences to when I was their age; mostly I think this is based around social media. I overheard one specific kitchen conversation between Abbie and Bekah which tickled me greatly.

Bekah: I’m going to change my profile pic this Saturday afternoon.

Abbie: Why this Saturday?

Bekah: I think that’s when a lot of people are on, so I can get the most likes.

Me: ???

Abbie: Oh, right. I changed my picture one weekday morning and only got 60 likes.

Bekah: Ha, shame.

I thought this was super funny. Esepcially given that none of my facebook posts get even 60 likes.

selifes-1

Abbie also likes to take selfies on my phone

A few weekends ago, I went on a boys trip with my brother, brother-in-laws, and their respective sons. We had an awesome time at the bach in Foxton – eating, cruising around the sand dunes and throwing the rugby ball around. For some reason it’s not something that we ever thought to organise before now, so I’m really glad it was brought about by my leaving. It was a super fun weekend.

Beautiful New Zealand

Beautiful New Zealand

 

Burying George and Ethan in the sand

Burying George and Ethan in the sand

It was so lovely to spend my last week in Wellington catching up with people that are important to me. Sorry if I didn’t make it to you, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It just means that I’m forgetful and reactive 😉 I’ll miss you all greatly, don’t forget to bug me for Skype calls!

I’m finding it really interesting not having a job at the moment. It’s a freedom that I’ve never really felt before, as the last time I was unemployed I had no money and wanted a job. I can’t wait to see how I feel about that in a few months, or a year from now. But for the moment I’ll just continue to enjoy my first Thanksgiving in sunny California with Alexa, and explore the freezing NYC until I head to Asia in January. Stay tuned for what will hopefully be some mouth watering updates.

Growing down

10 days ago I moved out of my house. It was exciting and exhilarating, with undertones of sadness; I guess it’s never as easy as you think to let go of something you worked so hard to achieve. After spending the past month getting rid of virtually everything that I own, moving was kind of a breeze this time around. I’ve rid myself of a mortgage, a home, and all the things required to fill it. A lot was donated to charity, friends and family, with some bigger ticket items being sold at rock bottom prices. All in all, I feel a lot lighter than I did one month ago. There’s been something very liberating about cleansing my life of material possessions, I’m so interested to see how I feel about that a year from now.

There was of course one thing that was very hard to let go of, my cat, Boots. I never actually liked ginger cats until I picked him up in the SPCA and he started purring and licking my nose. It was the start of a special relationship which saw him sleeping in my bed every night (with his head on the pillow, thinking he was a human), running up to greet me every day after work, and randomly attacking me when it was raining outside. He’s quite the character, and I was fortunate enough to have a few offers to house him.

He’s also incredibly photogenic, let me prove it.

Boots

A number of people have asked me about whether or not I thought I’d done well out of owning a house, and whether or not I would do it again. I myself was skeptical around whether or not I would have been better to have rented a place and saved money instead of paying a mortgage. A quick tally of numbers suggests that renting would have been a much more cost efficient option, but it wasn’t until I delved a little deeper that I found it wasn’t really the case.

When I take the mortgage, rates, insurance, upgrades and income received (from renting a room) over the past three years, it’s double what I guesstimate that I would have spent if I were renting a place for the same period. Simple math would suggest that renting would have been better, but with the improvements to the house and capital gain, I actually walked away with about 80% of what I put in. Would I have saved this much money without the house? Possibly, but probably not. Having the mortgage meant I spent a lot less money on clothes, takeaways and going out. And I generally didn’t buy random things that I didn’t need (like a new car). As for whether or not I’d do it again… Time will tell. At this point I would say ‘maybe’. If I were to do it again, I would put more thought into how much I could rent the house for if I did not want to live in it.

So now that I’ve sold my house, quit my job and let go of my possessions, I’m in a sort of limbo period between old life and new. I still go to work every day, drive my car around, drink nice coffee and go to the Sunday market with my mum. But really I only have 25 days left of work, and 32 days before I get on a plane to LAX, to see a certain someone. The current chapter of my life will soon be coming to an end, and my new chapter book is only a month away. I’m crazy excited, but I’m going to enjoy my last few weeks living in Wellington; I’m especially looking forward to eating a lot of fish and chips, and drinking a lot of nice coffees.

Here’s a photo of Boots and I pretending to be cats.

Boots 2

Vietnam. Why the fuss?

Mention Halong Bay or Banh Mi to anybody who’s been to Vietnam and watch their eyes glaze over for a few seconds. It’s a magical country, filled with great food, wonderful people and beautiful landscapes; enough to leave anyone who has been with a warm heart and fond memories. I had the pleasure of gracing its shores through Christmas and January this year, and this post is a small summary of the things I came to appreciate about Vietnam. I’ve tried to keep this short, just be glad you didn’t have to sit through the 1,500 photo marathon that some of my family was put through.

Street food

Street food is a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture, there’s something very humbling about sitting on the side of the road on kindergarten sized plastic chairs eating amongst the locals. Vendors magically come and go depending on the time of day, so the same spot two hours apart will often sell a different delight. Oh yeah, and it’s cheap. So cheap. I mean seriously, you’re only going to charge me a dollar for this freshly baked baguette filled with meat and chilli, and fifty cents for a coffee?

6am Banh Mi and ca phe

6am Banh Mi and ca phe

People are often pretty reluctant when it comes to street food in Asia. It’s dirty, it’s unhygienic and the meat has been sitting in the sun all day. Yeah, I was a bit wary at first too. I went in with the mindset of, “Yes, this might give me food poisoning, but hopefully it will be worth it.” I ate off the street every day, and guess what? I didn’t get food poisoning even once. There are a couple of pretty basic rules that you can follow.

  1. The dirtier the better. This one sounds counter-intuitive but, quite simply, the dirtier a food stall is, the longer it has been in business.
  2. If you’re genuinely worried, go for food that has to be cooked in front of you. Like BBQ.
  3. Make sure the soup pot is boiling.

My favourite place for food by far was Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to many locals. The southern style food is really all on display here, simple but strong flavours,  huge variety, and everything super fresh. I spent a lot of my time here just walking around eating, Snail Street was a highlight.

Sticky rice with a gooey coconut center, wrapped in banana leaves and BBQd

Sticky rice with a gooey coconut center, wrapped in banana leaves and BBQd

Saigon's infamous Snail Street

Saigon’s infamous Snail Street

BBQ

Rats, frogs and snakes in the Mekong Delta

Approach to life

I felt like the Vietnamese approach to life was very much a ‘get it done’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you’ sort of mentality. It was very refreshing to see the lack of over the top boundaries that are imposed by Western Civilisation, whether it be through law or through social norms and expectations.

  • There didn’t appear to be any sort of hygiene standards at the places I was eating, yet I wasn’t getting sick.
  • I saw a man on a moped stick out his leg to push a trailer, because who really needs a car?
  • On a tour through the Mekong Delta, one of my guides grabbed a sack from behind a house and pulled out a large snake, he draped it over someones neck and then disappeared for 15 minutes while a group of us just passed it around.

Snake Oh yeah, and I guess we all know that you can transport literally anything on a moto, right? P1070698 P1060754

The people

From what I could tell, life in Vietnam is pretty hard. Most people work 7 days a week, and often go for months at a time before having any days off. Many of the locals I met were working two jobs. Although they don’t have a lot of money, they genuinely seem to be happy in their lives. Most people were very friendly toward me, striking up conversations in the street, offering me directions or advice on where to eat; sometimes even ‘treating’ me to a meal themselves. My friend Marcus calls this the “white man superstar” effect. I can see where he’s coming from; I am white, with a ginger beard and a metal leg, walking through their local eateries and markets. I guess it must be kind of exciting.

Christmas day in Saigon

Christmas day in Saigon

Easy riders in Nha Trang

Easy riders in Nha Trang

My friend Quang at Fansipan Hotel in Sapa

My friend Quang at Fansipan Hotel in Sapa

The sights

Drifting through the mangroves of the Mekong Delta felt like being in a dream. There were no sounds but the birds chirping in stereo, and the slow paddle grazing the water every few seconds. Nobody spoke, and nobody breathed, it was a completely surreal experience; it was the kind of experience that makes you contemplate life. Sapa was similar: quiet, pondering and back to basics. I wasn’t visiting at quite the right time of year, but still found it stunning all the same. I could write an entire post on Sapa alone.

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Rice paddies, Sapa

Halong Bay is a big ticket item, being a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to around 1,600 islands made of limestone, which you can spend a number of days sailing around. My experience of this was pretty touristy, on an overnight cruise boat with 20 other people, but still wonderful none the less. The fog cleared during the evening and there were some stunning views to be had.

Halong Bay

The coffee

Coffee easily gets a mention here. Strong drip coffee, iced or hot. I definitely came back addicted to condensed milk. You can also find it everywhere, there are cafes all over the place. In the south, people drink coffee like water. I was lucky enough to chance upon egg coffee in Hanoi, egg whites are mixed into the condensed milk, giving a taste somewhat like tiramisu.

Ca phe production line

Ca phe production line

Ca phe trung (egg coffee)

Ca phe trung (egg coffee)

Wet markets

Wet markets are like farmer markets on steroids. Early each morning the freshest produce is trucked in from the nearby farms. Hundreds of different types of fruits and vegetables are on display, as well as meat being freshly cut to order. Fish, snails, and frogs (mostly live) are also kept in buckets around the place. At first it’s a bit of a shock, a strong stench of rotten food greets your nostrils as you enter, and it’s just such a different experience to anything you might see back home. Locals ride around on mopeds and stop at their desired stall to haggle pricing, they never even get off the moped. Wet market

I didn't even know this many types of rice existed

I didn’t even know this many types of rice existed

If you’ve read this far, just know that it took my entire quota of will power for today not to add 300 extra photos and write a novel. To date, Vietnam is the most interesting place I’ve visited and this post gives only a taste of what it has to offer.  I’m really looking forward to going back one day.

You are what you eat

Addiction is something that every single person I know suffers from. But I’m not talking about drugs or alcohol, I’m talking about food. When was the last time you met someone that was 100% happy with what they ate? A few Paleo/Vegan extremists exist, sure, but for the majority of us, bad eating is just a way of life. In 2012 I weighed 76kg, not a huge number but certainly overweight for someone of my stature. I now average around 60kg (depending on which leg I’m wearing), so I thought I’d share some thoughts on weight loss and healthy eating.

People often ask me how to lose weight, or what kind of foods I eat that keep me so trim. Put simply, I don’t eat a shit tonne of carbohydrates. I don’t drink sugar drinks, or consume alcohol. I’ve swapped potatoes for pumpkin, rice for broccoli and bread for vegetables. In actual fact, I probably eat more food than I once did, but it’s the right food. I wasn’t however able to make these changes overnight, it was a gradual process where I incrementally removed bad things from my diet. Sugar and alcohol were the first to go – easy, who actually needs those? I then switched to eating kumara, brown rice and whole grains; these are known as complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates stick around in your system and keep you full for longer. As a general rule of thumb, any brown carbohydrate will be considered complex.

Orange kumara is delicious, it’s also freakishly expensive. One night I found myself with no kumara to cook, and instead I replaced it with a head of broccoli and extra carrots. It wasn’t until this meal that I realised that my body functioned fine without these traditional staple foods I’d been brought up to expect with every meal. It was around this time that the Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) type diets were fadding, and a guy at my work was losing 2kg per week eating as much food as he wanted. The idea is that the traditional source of energy (carbs) are replaced with fat, the concept of this interested me greatly. I, like the rest of the world, had been led to believe that fat was bad, it made you fat and caused heart disease. Well, fat in-fact does not make you fat. I now regularly use butter for everything, have a high intake of nuts, and devour roasted chicken skin whenever I get the chance.

Occasionally I go cold turkey on caffeine for 21 days, to prove to myself that I’m mentally strong enough to stop consuming it if I choose to. The first week of this involves headaches, restlessness and a dry throat. This is the exact same response I get if I go for 2-3 days with no carbs, my body is totally addicted. This is the biggest problem I see when people try to give up bad foods. They don’t realise that they’re dealing with an actual addiction, and try to go cold turkey. This is generally combined with an attempt to attend the gym 5 days per week. In my experience most people give up after two days, they miss that can of coke, or that hearty subway sandwich just a little bit too much. In this situation, less really is more. In the same way that 4 minutes of exercise per day is worthwhile, making one of many small changes to your diet can have a huge impact on your health and well being. Here are some examples of individual changes that have a huge impact:

  • Lower your portion sizes. Most people eat far more food than they actually need.
  • Snack on nuts. Nuts contain protein and healthy fats, and a couple of handfuls can easily get you through an afternoon.
  • Whatever you are currently eating for breakfast, switch it for eggs or meat.
  • Drop dessert.
  • Drink more water.
  • Opt for brown carbs (complex) over white.
  • Get to a farmers market. Vegetables are actually super affordable.
  • Read labels! People mock me for this, but seriously, you’d be surprised at what you are actually eating.

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Roasted Hazelnuts taste just as good as Nutella!

Roasted Hazelnuts taste just as good as Nutella!

I would say that two thirds of weight loss is attributed to a healthy diet, the final third being exercise. I’m not that into cardio, so my prefered form is lifting weights. I workout about 3 times per week, and that is enough. By manipulating the variables you can certainly lose weight with diet or exercise alone, but the two thirds approach feels like a nice balance to me. Besides the many health benefits, regular exercise feels good and provides a fantastic mental release from your work day.

So let’s recap. No potatoes, bread, rice, sugar or alcohol. Smaller meals, good snacks and read labels. Cool, lucky we’re all robots. In reality I don’t actually adhere to all of this advice. Fish and chips is still my favourite meal (consumed weekly), I also regularly eat chocolate, noodle soup and chicken rice. Do I consider myself a hypocrite? No, I’m a human being. I believe it’s about finding a good balance, and enjoying all the things that you want to in life. I tend to eat around one meal a day that has a decent sized carbohydrate component, this keeps my energy levels up without making me feel too lethargic. I also genuinely love to eat vegetables, enjoy drinking water, and get off on working out, which helps a lot.

Ultimately the best thing you can do is commit to some sort of lifestyle change with the purpose of making you feel good. All I do now is listen to my body and give it the fuel that it needs to perform the tasks I set it, the rest just takes care of itself.

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2011

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2014

 

Ticking boxes

Finally, after months of waiting and hard work I’ve arrived here, house finally on the market and three days out from my first open home. My todo list started pretty broad, and as any fellow procrastinator could guess, this wasn’t leading to successful completion. Following some helpful advice, this list was fleshed out into smaller tasks and I dragged myself away from the Dark Playground. Painting turned into components to sand, which quickly turned into organising some paid help. Gardening turned into, “Call Joel.” Which turned into organising a working bee with the family. Is anyone else seeing a pattern here? I guess my job has taught me the importance of delegation when you need to get something done quickly.

The painting was eventually completed, and the gardening was smashed out by my skilled family members over the course of a drizzly day. “Build a nice pathway,” Joel says. An hour later my handy brothers have composed a masterpiece, adding an entrance way into my now beautiful home.

Pathway

Rich hard at work.

 

 

The first week in the house I pulled up the carpet in the hallway, and ever since then I have been imagining how those Rimu floorboards would look sanded and polished. “But what about 60s cork board in the kitchen, and the lino in the bathroom?” I was constantly being asked. So up comes the lino and I get the floor man in for a quote. He advises to have it tested for asbestos, sure enough, he’s right. To my extreme fortune, my flatmate, Mike, is a professional asbestos remover, so he borrowed the gears and we set out to decontaminate the bathroom floor. For some reason we decided to do this after garden day at 8pm. At midnight we emerge, tired and sore, but victorious. The floor man had assured me there would be no asbestos under the cork in the kitchen, so the next weekend I got to prying up the board. Whoops, guess he was wrong.

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Old kitchen floor

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Hallway

 

Asbestos removal is actually quite straight forward. You take a bunch of plastic sheets and tape up doorways and cupboards to make the room airtight. You then donne masks and full body overalls and remove the asbestos into sealed bags. After the deed is done, an expensive multi-filter vacuum is used to clean up the dust, and then a solution of PVA (yep, just like the glue at school) is sprayed around the room like a mist to bind the fibres together. The PVA dries clear. After the bathroom experience, I had estimated about 30 hours to complete the kitchen. This time though, on the advice from the nice old man at Bunnings we bought a few tubs of Acetone (nail polish remover). Saturday morning my friends Liam and Gary pitched in, and together with Mike and I, managed to complete the Kitchen and toilet by Sunday night.

Mike and his gear

Mike and his gear


Fast forward through floor sanding, three coats of polyurethane, furniture moving, and a whole lot of cleaning, and I was finally taking a real estate agent through. She added a couple more things to my list, such as curtains in the spare room, to make the house ready for photos and open homes. The house listed on Monday and there’s already been four people through, the first open home is this weekend. Offers are being held off until September 3rd, at which point I guess I’ll find out whether my house is something that people want.

I’ve decided from this experience that I wouldn’t want to do it again. Not that I regret it, it’s been an interesting three year experiment. It’s more that I don’t actually enjoy DIY, or gardening, I don’t care about the same sorts of things that other people seem to, like curtains and light fittings. While I have an appreciation for these things, and can recognise good from bad, at the end of the day I feel like a house is something that you live in, and I can take or leave the rest. Home ownership is another topic entirely, perhaps I’ll write a post about that someday.

I’ll close with some before and after pictures of the house. Sad that I have no photos of the pink bathroom.

Lounge

Lounge

Kitchen

Kitchen

Bedroom1

Bedroom

Bedroom2

Bedroom