About Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
Latest Posts by Robert Schrader
I arrived to Iceland just hours before an aptly-described “Storm of the Century” hit. I did a bit of sightseeing before the veritable snow-hurricane made landfall, but I was well into the third day of my trip before I truly began to get acquainted with the country.
The first thing I noticed, outside of Reykjavík this is, was how few people there are in Iceland. On any given day, I could drive an hour or even two without seeing any other cars on the road. Towns and villages were nearly empty, even their restaurants and supermarkets. I had almost every attraction I visited completely to myself.
At first, these attractions seemed quite repetitive: A waterfall here, a team of Icelandic horses there; a black-lava beach here, a volcanic thermal field there; a picturesque church here, a charming farmhouse there; an all-day sunset here, an all-night aurora there—you get the picture. Well, 30 of them if you continue reading this post.
Indeed it took me several cycles through this proverbial list to realize it was not repetitive but geometric, like a snowflake: Immaculately structured and patterned, seemingly to spec, but absolutely one-of-a-kind.
I’ll be back on Monday with a guide that lays out concrete specifics about my trip (and how you can take one like it!) and matches some of the photos I’m about to share to their locations. But for now, I think it’s best if you experience Iceland as I did: A mesmerizing sequence of subjects and scenery that makes you feel like you’re everywhere and nowhere at once.
Travelers, book your tickets.
Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja is officially the sixth-tallest structure in Iceland, but the way it towers over everything else in the Icelandic capital, it might as well be the tallest building in the world. Although built in a style that makes it seem like a Norse-Pagan worship hall, it is in fact a monument to Lutheranism, whose adherents were never as cool as the Vikings, even in their heyday.
It was number one on a long list of things to see on my trip to Iceland, which boasts one of the world’s highest atheist populations. The irony was not lost on me, nor on whichever God was calling the shots the first day of my trip.
Storm of the century, read the message, not a second after I arrived at the church. It was from my Icelandic friend Hjörtur, who proofread my itinerary to make sure there were no potentially deadly diversions in it. 100 mile-per-hour winds and sub-zero temperatures—like a hurricane with snow.
I would’ve knelt down and said my prayers, had it not been for all the ice on the ground.
I left Reykjavík four hours before dawn the following morning—7 a.m. at this time of year. Imminent apocalypse or not, I wanted to get some sightseeing in, particularly because temperatures the evening before had made Hallgrímskirkja the first and last place I visited during my short stay in Iceland’s capital.
By noon in day two I’d seen a pair of waterfalls—Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss—and was on my way down to the black lava beach at Reynisfjara. The weather was rapidly (and conspicuously) deteriorating, but I planned to drive all the way down to the beach, even to take pictures, until another message from Hjörtur appeared.
Roads closing in 30 minutes, it read, Hurricane-force winds expected within the hour. I hope you’re close to Vík already.
I’m 7 km away, I wrote back, after consulting with Google Maps and making the potentially self-saving decision to turn around. I think I’ll get there just in time.
The roads re-opened just as I was finishing my breakfast the next morning, in spite of Hjörtur having told me I should expect being stranded until midday. I was in a particular rush on this day, which more than any others on my trip was not at all about the journey and entirely about the destination: Jökulsárlón, an “ice lagoon” whose importance I’ll explain in greater detail in just a couple paragraphs.
In any case, after several hours driving over impossibly lonely landscapes made all the more devastating by the still-horrid weather, I pulled into Jökulsárlón’s parking lot—and directly onto a patch of rain-slicked, solid ice, onto which I immediately slipped and fell backwards the moment I stepped out of my car.
In spite of my being on Iceland’s hit list, I woke up my third day in the country committed to seeing the rest of what was on my own. Jökulsárlón had originally been near the top of it, but my near-death incident the day before had jogged my memory: It wasn’t a lagoon of icebergs, but a beach covered in icebergs I was searching for. Allow me to explain.
My entire motivation for visiting Iceland in winter was a music video. And although I forgot my sparkly white coat and ice-queen tiara at home, the thing I wanted to do most in Iceland (excepting, of course, my imaginary communion with Viking worshippers at Hallgrímskirkja) was to strut across that beach like Jonna Lee.
Stretching out before my eyes, I sang to myself as the sun slowly began to rise, its dim light making the chunks of ice on the beach (which, it turns out, is located at the mouth of the lagoon) sparkle like diamonds. All riches a ruler requires.
My third day in Iceland was far and away my most beautiful up to that point, but by sunset, it had also become my most terrifying. I’d been driving in and out of the gorgeous fjords in the eastern part of the country for about an hour when I felt as if the road dropped out from under me.
My car spun in a full circle and came no more than a foot from falling off the edge before I gained control of it. It was only upon stepping out of the car—and nearly repeating my fall from Jökulsárlón—that I realized the road was covered in a thick sheet of ice, a fact its gray coloring made impossible to ascertain by sight alone.
To make matters worse, Iceland’s road authority doesn’t seem particularly fond of guardrails, even on roads that meander along cliff sides hundreds of feet above the sea. To make matters even worse than that, both of the first two roads that were supposed to have taken me over the mountains and to the town of Egilsstaðir were closed, which meant I had to flirt with almost-certain death for another hour, night setting in all the while.
I felt briefly relieved when the road finally veered away from the sea and a tunnel—a dry, warm tunnel—opened up in the mountain I thought I was going to drive over. But my enthusiasm vaporized when I exited said tunnel onto a steep, downward slope, snow swirling around me in the darkness like a whirlpool, sheer drops on both sides—and a slick road beneath.
Iceland is trying to kill me, I sighed.
Iceland in winter, with its four-hour days and 20-hour nights, feels like a time warp, which can make time pass extremely fast or extremely slow, depending on the day or night.
The day after my—miraculous—safe arrival in Egilsstaðir passed extremely quickly, on account of a heavy snowstorm that blocked whatever light I might’ve enjoyed that day. This was just as well: The landscapes I drove through were flat and boring; my would-be relaxing excursion to one of Iceland’s lesser-known hot springs was all but ruined by the inane conversation and vocal fry of a septuagenarian American couple, the only other humans there.
When I arrived in the small coastal town of Blönduós the following day, however, I began to see things from the other side of the vortex.
You see, I noticed a funny thing the moment I parked my car in front of my cottage: The sun—the actual sun!—the whole thing, seemingly frozen in a sunrise or sunset position. The rising/setting sun, and a mostly clear sky around it, which meant one thing: The aurora would be coming out.
I saw the aurora for the first time last year in Finland and truthfully, I’ve never had my heart set on seeing it again. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, and I’m sure it never ceases to be so, but you can only have your “first time” once.
Also, photographing the aurora is difficult, from the physical endurance required to stay up so long past sunset and to brave the cold that accompanies darker-than-dark Arctic nights, to the technical prowess needed to properly expose and focus a shot—even a small mistake can result in a completely ruined photo.
I knew all these facts going into my Iceland aurora experience, of course, which makes the result of that photoshoot all the more disappointing.
I knew exactly the steps I needed to take to make sure my shots didn’t look like shit (including, most importantly, to make sure my shots didn’t look like shit before I retreated to the warmth of my cottage), which is why it was so devastating that I realized only upon removing my thick wool socks that precisely zero of my shots were in proper focus.
As I headed west on Iceland’s Ring Road the next morning, toward mountains that would’ve made a far better backdrop for the Northern Lights than the random farmer’s field I’d settled on the night before, I initially continued feeling regretful.
But as the sun began to rise, painting everything in front of me in a fluorescent orange-pink, I realized the only thing scarier than Iceland was the unrealistic standard to which I often hold myself.
The incredible light emboldened me, both as a driver and as a human, as I headed toward the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This feeling heightened as the landscape around me grew more ubiquitously Arctic, even if I did feel slightly anxious as I wondered whether the clear skies would persist long enough for the aurora to appear once more.
Something tells me you’re right where you need to be, I reassured myself as I stepped onto the black lava beach, which was bathed in the most beautiful pink light I think I’ve ever seen. But you might not be if that tide creeps up any more quickly.
A few minutes before I arrived in Grundafjörður, where I’d be spending my night on the peninsula, I’d driven over a bridge I felt would be perfect for photographing the aurora. When I drove back onto said bridge just after 10 pm, I was puzzled by the barbed wire that separated the parking lot from the sea, and the fact that I hadn’t noticed it during the day.
I doubt the owner will care if I hop this fence, I laughed as I recalled how many cars—zero—I’d seen during my drive there. He probably hasn’t been here for years.
I’d just set the self-timer on my camera and walked down to the beach when I heard the loud splash in the water. Surely no one is swimming, I reassured myself and held still for the following 25 seconds as the shot exposed.
Then, a deep breathing sound. Maybe there’s some kind of endangered animal down on the beach? I wondered. Or more likely dangerous, since I’m in Iceland. When I shined my phone’s flashlight, however, I saw nothing.
It wasn’t until I heard the unmistakable sound of air being forced through a blowhole that I realized what was really going on. There are whales in this bay, I realized as a smile the circumference of the Arctic Circle came across my face.
I immediately hopped back over the barbed-wire fence, as much out of respect as because I secretly feared one of the whales would beach itself and drag me to a certain death in the cold, dark water.
Hey, you can be filled with terror and smile at the same time—it’s almost a requirement here.
I’d made the long journey to Snæfellsnes for the wild, untamed nature, but if I’m honest it was the church in the town of Olafsvík that most profoundly captivated me. It wasn’t as imposing or even as impressive as Hallgrímskirkja, but it seemed as if it grew out of the land, with its pure white façade and jagged edges and perfect positioning on the hillside.
As I stood at the door to the church and looked down to the harbor, I again reflected on the apparent contradiction that had begun my trip: The allure of religious structures in a country full of atheists (or empty of them, as it were).
And I realized in that moment that it wasn’t so much a contradiction as a dichotomy, not so much a paradox as a redundancy—religion isn’t so much obsolete here as it is superfluous. The forces of nature rule over Iceland and inspire fear in people—certainly, first-time visitors like me—in a way that even the most vengeful God could never dream of.
I secretly wish that all my final days in a particular country are rainy and ugly—it makes it easier to say goodbye. Iceland, you won’t be surprised to learn, delivered in spades.
My contingency plan—in case the sun came out, this is—had been to hit up Reykjavik again before my flight, to see place other then Hallgrímskirkja and take pictures of things besides it. But my time in Iceland, it seemed, was destined to end just as it began: Bypassing the capital almost entirely.
As I made my final approach to Keflavík Airport, I saw a sign bearing words I’d seen many times during my trip to Iceland. Goda ferð, it read, which means “safe journey.”
By the grace of God, I smiled as I pulled into the rental car return lot, mine shockingly untainted after my 2,200 km journey. Whatever that means around these parts.
Rio de Janeiro is in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Whether it’s the virus-laden waters Olympians will soon need to compete in, or reports of police having shot five seemingly innocent men, Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa probably doesn’t seem to marvelous to outsiders right at the moment.
Meanwhile, personal experience has tarnished my opinion of the city: My brand-new iPhone got stolen last June, when I visited the city for the second time. I should’ve known better—I had the phone in my back pocket while riding public transportation—but it still bummed me out.
Of course, it’s very difficult to deny the amazingness of Rio de Janeiro when you’re there, whether you’re looking down onto the city from Corcovado mountain, sipping caipirinhas on Ipanema Beach or traipsing through colonial Santa Teresa, to name just a few of the experiences you can have. Here’s my guide to three days in Rio de Janeiro—hopefully virus- and crime-free ones!
No matter the circumstances of your arrival in Rio, you’re going to be craving a beach. I mean, you’re either going to be getting off an overnight flight from Europe or the United States, or coming from somewhere in Brazil (probably São Paulo) that isn’t on the coast.
Assuming you sleep in Leblon, head toward the beach, then hang a left toward Ipanema Beach. While the beaches of Leblon are quiet and peaceful, Ipanema’s ambiance (which is admittedly crowded) provide a more iconic Rio de Janeiro experience.
If you don’t feel like bumming, another option would be to walk the entire length of the beach, perhaps heading even farther north into Copacabana, whose name is perhaps more ubiquitous than Ipanema’s, even if the neighborhood itself veers toward the “shabby” side of shabby-chic.
For sunset, you’ve got two option. Walk (or, more realistically, get a cab) to the base of Pão do Açucar (a.k.a. the Sugar Loaf) and take a cable car to the top, or climb up onto Arpaodor, the giant rock that separates Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.
A Tale of Two (Additional) Cities
To many travelers, Rio de Janeiro is nothing more than the aforementioned beaches and the tourist attractions I’m going to list in the next section of this piece. For this reason and others, I’m recommending you explore some lesser-known parts of the city on your second of three days in Rio de Janeiro.
After enjoying a breakfast of açaí at most any café near your hostel or apartment, get a taxi to the Lapa Arches, a conspicuously Roman structure in the heart of Rio’s modern downtown. Don’t walk toward the skyscrapers (you will later—don’t worry!) and instead take a left and walk up the hill, which will take you into Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood.
Although I don’t believe its iconic street car is operating anymore, Santa Teresa feels very European, whether you’re exploring the strange Parque das Ruinas or sneaking up to the rooftop of the Santa Teresa Hotel for a 360º panorama. To be sure, you could simply call it a day here and wait for the sun to set behind the Santa Teresa’s Portuguese-looking cityscape.
Or, you can head back down the hill and past the Lapa Arches and into Rio’s downtown, a lesser-visited part of the city that’s home to treasures such as São Bento Monastery, Metropolitan Cathedral, Rio’s Municipal Theater, and the neo-gothic palace at Fiscal Island. Ride the metro to Ipanema-General Osorio station and have dinner at Garota de Ipanema, where the song “Girl from Ipanema” is said to have been written.
Day 3: Jesus and the Garden
Thank you for your patience: Today, on your third of three days in Rio de Janeiro, you’ll be visiting Christ the Redeemer and scaling Corcovado mountain to enjoy your panoramic view of Rio de Janeiro. If you want to take the funicular railway to the top (which you should, unless you’re crazy like me and walk the two-hour, favela-filled path up to the top), you must buy tickets online and in advance.
After saying goodbye to Jeezy, take a taxi or the 569 bus to Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, a.k.a. the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens. A veritable jungle in the middle of the city, the garden is filled with towering palms, exotic flowers and mischievous monkeys. In its deepest reaches, you might forget you’re in a city, let alone one of the world’s largest.
As to how you finish out your three days in Rio de Janeiro, that’s up to you. You could head to Sugar Loaf or Arpaodor to watch sunset, if you missed either of those on day one, or you could eat dinner at Garota de Ipanema if you were too exhausted to make if there last night. Then again, you’ve probably made friends (Brazilians or fellow foreigners—likely both) and have veered off my itinerary by this point.
Traveling more extensively in Brazil?
“Gate lice” is a term airline employees use to refer to passengers who line up at the gate long before a particular flight begins to board. While some carriers instruct gate agents to scrub away such parasites using any verbal pyrethrin necessary, others seem to have accepted this phenomenon as fact, some going so far as to facilitate with numbered lanes that correspond to boarding groups.
One such carrier is United, with whom I hold Premier 1K status—the highest possible. Of course, I wouldn’t know this waiting to board most flights: The line for “prestigious” Group 1 is often longer than all the rest of the groups, sometimes all of them combined, to say nothing of how long upgrade lists can be or how crowded “VIP” lounges tend to get.
The ironic part about the degradation of elite benefits is that United—and most other U.S. carriers—have dramatically raised elite status qualification requirements. They’ve also made it much more difficult to earn frequent flyer miles in general, and to redeem them once you do, which has me (and thousands of other top-tier flyers, no doubt) scratching our heads: Is airline loyalty worth it anymore?
Delta as the Devil
To understand the current frequent flyer situation—and indeed, the airline industry climate in general—we need to go back in time about 15 years. Carriers were bleeding money, in part due to the events of 9/11, but mostly because of poor management, customer relations and, ultimately, sub-par onboard product and service.
In 2003, then-fledgling Delta Air Lines launched Song, a spinoff aimed at testing both the public reaction to and financial viability of a stylish, modern passenger experience, which to be fair was not entirely different from JetBlue, still in its early years at this time.
Song fell off the charts soon after Delta filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005, but was arguably the precursor the dramatic improvements the carrier made during and after its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines, since when it has almost indisputably become the most stylish and admired of the three major U.S carriers.
Unfortunately, Delta has also been a pioneer in not-as-melodious ways. In 2014, it became the first carrier to introduce a revenue requirement for elite qualification in its SkyMiles program, a move it one-upped the following year by tying all mileage earning to ticket price and, worse, devaluing the miles themselves to the point where members now refer to them as “SkyPesos.” Not surprisingly, United and American soon followed suit, although Delta’s requirements remain the most stringent, in spite of it belonging to the globe’s least prestigious airline alliance.
The Case for Foreign Airlines
To be sure, while flying Delta is a noticeably more pleasant experience than either of its domestic competitors, it pales in comparison to most Asian, Middle Eastern and even European airlines. Interestingly, the main incentive U.S. carriers once offered was their frequent flyer plans (foreign airlines have long employed revenue-based earning schemes), which begs a broader question: Is there any reason for international travelers to fly America, Delta or United, even occasionally?
The behavior of the so-called “Big 3” suggests not. In response to the growing market share of the “Middle Eastern 3” (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar), whose onboard product and service are literally decades ahead of their U.S. counterparts, Delta et al have resorted to legal bullying and P.R. smear campaigns, rather than addressing the fundamental deficiencies that have forced travelers at every price segment to look elsewhere for air transport.
Indeed, while premium-class tickets on most full-service foreign airlines cost significantly more than on U.S. carriers, fares in economy are similar and sometimes even cheaper. The economy-class experience is so much better on, say, ANA than it is on United, or on Finnair compared to American, which leaves few reasons to continue flying U.S. airlines for any reason, the devaluation of their frequent flyer programs notwithstanding.
Credit Cards and Travel Hacking
Whether or not elite-status tiers remain as overcrowded as they are today, one thing is certain: As time passes, your chances of achieving elite status decrease as dramatically as the quality of the benefits that status bestows.
The good news is that, for the time being anyway, many travel credit cards can help you fill the gap, both in terms of elite-type perks, as well as for earning miles in general. The American Express Platinum Card, for example, affords you lounge access and discounted enrollment in Global Entry™, which comes with TSA Pre✓ expedited security screening. It also comes with a sign-up bonus as high as 100,000 Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred 1-for-1 to a variety of airlines mileage programs, and allows you to earn between 1-3 points per dollar spent on all purchases.
Dozens of other credit cards boast similar benefits, from general-purpose travel cards like Chase Sapphire and Barclaycard Arrival Plus, to branded airline credit cards for American, Delta and United. While none of these will actually give you elite status (and I still have my reservations about travel hacking in general), they make for an adequate stop-gap.
The Bottom Line
As earning elite status and even frequent flyer miles becomes exponentially more difficult, the benefits associated with doing so have become diluted almost to point of meaninglessness. At the same time, onboard product and service—for U.S. carriers, anyway—has stagnated or even become worse, in spite of years of industry profitability.
While it’s unlikely that being loyal to an airline will ever be as lucrative for air travelers as it once was, we can maximize our comfort in the skies by flying foreign airlines whenever possible and shield ourselves from losses by choosing our travel credit cards wisely.
In life as with (gate) lice, prevention is preferable to treatment.
“The left one,” my travel companion said as we arrived at a particularly dramatic fork in the road. “Both Google Maps and Waze say it’s correct.”
My gut—and the smooth, contiguous asphalt of the right fork, which glistened like onyx under newly-installed overhead lighting—told me I was making a mistake. Next time, I’m going to listen to it.
To be sure, neither of the tech giants could help us mere minutes after we attempted to take the left fork, a muddy canal carved through rocky farmland, inhospitable in equal parts due to its steep grade and lack of cell signal. We had to walk at least a half a mile to call for help(there was still no cellular data) once our Hyundai Accent became stuck, a call that went unanswered for the better part of two hours.
The good news is that four officers (note to American cops: This is an example of how to “serve and protect”) from the local police department eventually arrived to escort us back to the road we should’ve taken in the first place.
The bad news? We weren’t in some uncharted jungle or labyrinthine cave or third-world mountain village. We were in Costa Rica, i.e. the place where people who never go anywhere exciting go to feel like intrepid explorers. It was my first full day in fucking Costa Rica—and I felt absolutely beaten by it.
Before I continue with this article, I need to give credit where credit is due. Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The people are warm-hearted, welcoming and conscientious to a degree that eclipses basically any other country in Latin America, maybe all of them combined.
This article is not so much an indictment of Costa Rica or Costa Ricans as it is of my failure to properly ascertain the challenges of traveling there.
I assumed Costa Rica would be an easy destination. As I mentioned in the introduction, Costa Rica is where the least adventurous of my countrymen and women go when they get a wild hair. They come back feeling like Indiana Jones, but without a single scratch on their perfectly tanned (well, in most cases, orange) bodies. They’ve got a million amazing pictures, even if many of them are photos of postcards they snapped exiting their guided tours of twice-reinforced rainforest canopies.
Costa Rica makes tourists feel like travelers, so I boarded my plane to San Jose two weeks ago with no intent of thinking about what I would do there until the moment I arrived.
I won’t go into the specific reasons for my visit now, other than to say I spent the entire trip with a Costa Rican, a fact I assumed would make this easy destination even easier.
Renting a car, it turns out, was among my chief mistakes in Costa Rica, emphasis on the word “car.” While many of the country’s main roads are of a modern standard, the vast majority of roads that lead even slightly off the beaten path are incredibly beaten in the own right, and completely hostile to a Hyundai Accent (or similar).
My travel companion and I would likely be dead right now were it not for my adaptable driving skills—You drive like a tico, he would frequently laugh, “tico” being an endearing term by which Costa Ricans refer to themselves.
Costa Ricans put mayonnaise (or condiments made with mayonnaise, such as ranch dressing) on everything: Beans; rice; plantains; tacos; even pizza. Now in my mind, mayo is never necessary—I would quite literally prefer death to a spoonful of it in my mouth—but Costa Ricans take it to a level that eclipses even the Dutch and the Japanese. Absolutely sickening!
Let’s unpack what I said: Mayo is never necessary. While some of the more adventurous varieties might add a spritz of flavor, the ultimate “purpose” of mayonnaise is to add moisture and elasticity. It’s almost Orwellian in its design and application: A last-ditch effort to save food that’s nearly unsalvageable by dousing it in something barely fit for human consumption.
Indeed, the only thing mayo does in the long term is remove the responsibility of chefs and processed food manufacturers to create enjoyable—hell, edible!—food in the first place, thereby forcing undiscriminating diners to slather a thin film of heart attack onto their sandwiches (and, in Costa Rica, their grains, vegetables and snack foods).
As it turns out, mayonnaise (and Costa Ricans’ liberal and totally superfluous application of it to their otherwise incredible cuisine) is a fitting metaphor for how I feel about Costa Rica overall.
Costa Rican cuisine is incredible, and so are the country’s landscapes and many of its small towns; chaotic San Jose even has its moments. But rather than invest even a portion of its millions of dollars of tourism revenue in infrastructure or facilities that would allows travelers, foreign or domestic, to more easily explore its riches on their own, the Costa Rican government seems content to slather on more proverbial mayonnaise, i.e. monopolistic tour companies that work closely with all-inclusive resorts, sterilized jungle “adventures” and other interests as deeply entrenched in the country’s DNA as sloths, parrots and jaguars—I saw none of these traveling independently, FWIW.
It doesn’t hurt my argument that many of the aforementioned non-adventurous adventurists who frequent Costa Rica also happen to belong to mayo’s core constituencies: Condo-dwelling NPR listeners who spice up their children’s gluten-free lunches with dabs of organic aioli; and conservative, Southern survivors of the Great Depression (and their descendants), for whom banana-mayonnaise sandwiches are the equivalent of tiramisu.
Costa Rica’s national mantra is “Pura Vida,” but when I think of the country, the first phrase that comes to mind is “Pura Mayonesa.”
I’m being irreverent to a cruel extent and that’s not fair. Costa Rica, as I echoed earlier in this piece, is a beautiful country, from the idyllic (if bro-infested) shores of Guanacaste, to the mysterious vistas of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, to the prehistoric landscapes that carpet the trail leading to Bajos del Toro waterfall, where I was attempting to return from when I encountered the dramatic dilemma with which I started this post. Costa Rica is a beautiful country and I say that having barely scratched its surface, which is much larger and more complex than its 20,000 square-mile footprint—and the types of travelers who most often visit it—might have you believe.
Costa Ricans are wonderful people, from the four police officers who saved my travel companion and I from anonymous deaths on a forlorn farm road, to said travel companion and his out-of-this-world kind, awesome, welcoming family, to basically everyone I met in the country who wasn’t a putty-faced American desk jockey or an Argentine surfer bro trying to charge me $12 for a shitty frozen margarita or bowl of half-assed ceviche.
Although I hope my words make you laugh and think, and I’m sure they’ll draw ire and even venom and possibly even hatred from some of you, I ultimately hope my photos speak louder than them. The last bit of my frustration with my maiden voyage to Costa Rica still lingers with me like the memory of the mayonnaise so pointlessly spread over the steaming plate of casado I ordered for my very first lunch there, but Costa Rica is a country that’s very much worth visiting, even if you’re not one of the sorts of tourists self-proclaimed “travelers” like me associate with the country—perhaps especially so.
Costa Rica is worth visiting, and it’s worth returning to: I plan to go back again in January, and I’ll report my findings then.
For now, please remember: Only you can prevent mayonnaise.
“You scared me,” I laughed in the general direction of my roommate, who’d been trying to come in the front door of our big, red bungalow literally the moment I was opening it to leave. He didn’t respond or even make further eye contact—he slipped past me and inside the house.
I fiddled with the lock for what felt like an eternity. My hand were shaky on account of the startle I’d received, yes, but something else was amiss.
Just then, I noticed Penny standing just to the right of the door on the porch, looking exactly how she had the last time I’d seen her.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I dropped down to her level and kissed her on her spotted head. “I’m not going to leave you leave me again,” I whispered, and embraced her as tightly as I could. “Never.”
But she was gone the moment I opened my eyes.
The ceiling of my hotel room was at least twice as far from the floor as the window was from the door, which is to say that volume-wise, it was quite a large living space for Tokyo.
According to said window it was still pitch dark outside, the bright lights of Shinjuku notwithstanding. I felt paralyzed by my vision, which had begun like a dream and ended like a nightmare, but I was anxious to see what time it was. I wanted to watch the sunrise.
You can’t always control the light, I consoled myself, when daybreak consisted of nothing more than black lightening into grey, and dragged my ass out of bed toward the nearest Mr. Donut. The world is not a camera.
I certainly couldn’t control Tokyo, or even the way I moved through it. Although I managed to make it on the 4:19 p.m. Narita Express (my flight parked at the gate at 3:55, to give you an idea of how fast I moved), it was nearly six o’clock before I traversed hectic Yasukuni Dori into Kabukicho.
Another 90 minutes would pass before I reached the sky deck of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, a viewpoint I’d managed to miss on all of my previous visits to Tokyo. My protracted timetable was as much due to the city’s vast footprint as it was my own penchant for taking trains going in wrong directions.
I returned to Shinjuku feeling far more exhausted than I should’ve, given the short time and expanse of my jaunt. The rainbow of neon lights that lined the roads leading back to my hotel was like a technicolor lullaby that stopped short of putting me to bed, but made me comatose enough to shrug off the Nigerian hustlers who tried to lure me into “hostess” clubs along the way.
But most every sign was darkened by the time I reached the doughnut shop, legions of partygoers reduced to only the stragglers with sensitive stomachs, who were vomiting in the streets or comforting their sick friends, the hustlers too hoarse to do anything but wave you in the direction of the clubs they were promoting. The crosswalks where I’d almost met my end the night before were deserted.
The world’s most populous city felt empty, and so did I: Penny died seven years ago today.
I felt charmed as I spotted the first bell along the path just outside the village of Magome, in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. I guess this has something to do with Shintoism, I smiled and walked closer to it.
Not so. Ring loudly, the note attached to the bell read, in uppercase Times New Roman font. To keep bears away.
The road ahead paved with fallen yellow Gingko leaves, the vast forest dark enough to house tigers and lions—or at least scarecrows and tin men—I felt like some kind of Twilight Zone Dorothy. But as much as I wished I could click my heels together when I spotted the first oriental hornet buzzing overhead (you know, the ones whose stings leave scars like bullet holes), there was nary a wizard, tornado or a single bejeweled slipper in sight.
Paradoxically, while this sort of total freedom—I didn’t see another human being for basically the entire walk, oh my!—is precisely what I craved all the years before I started traveling, it always terrifies me when I truly achieve it. And the solitude of it, the excitement and anxiety and fear and longing that all expand outward without any walls to contain them and without love to cool their heat.
Before Penny died, I used to calm myself when I’d get upset about her impending departure by thinking how free I’d finally be, but it is precisely in my freest moments that all I want is to help my decrepit dalmatian up the stairs one more time.
Thankfully, my proverbial Emerald City was much nearer than Oz. Tsumago-juku, the sign a few hundred meters ahead read. 6.6 km.
As is the case for more of my trips than you might imagine, my desire to walk a portion of the Nakasendo, an ancient trading route between Kyoto and Tokyo, was much more of an impulsive decision than an informed one. A couple I’d planned a trip for back in August requested that I include it in their itinerary and, having seen photos of the route framed by autumn leaves as I completed my research, I decided the route would be an ideal stone to kill both of the birds—that I should return to Japan this year; and that I should see fall colors when I do—who were singing in my ear.
They died quickly: I arrived to my ryokan later that evening, after just four total hours of walking the route, craving a more distant horizon. And I very quickly came across one.
“Kamikochi,” the traveler replied, when I asked her the name of the place in the pictures she was flipping through on her Windows phone, the only one I’ve seen outside of House of Cards. “Between Matsumoto and Takayama.”
I recently re-discovered my love for 80s pop icon Taylor Dayne, and so while it might seem strange that I would rock out to chart-toppers like “Tell It to My Heart” and “Love Will Lead You Back” as the bus I was on careened through the Japanese Alps, they somehow proved the perfect soundtrack to my journey: They distracted me.
You see, I’m an extremely optimistic person, but optimism is rooted in hope, which in many cases takes the form of expectations. And while I’d seen probably 200 pictures of Kamikochi before I got on my way, I didn’t expect the reds, oranges and yellows that painted the hillsides outside my window to disappear as quickly as they did on the way up the mountain to the national park, to say nothing of how quickly the blue skies that had gleamed over Matsumoto turned grey and dark.
I won’t mince words: The scene waiting for me when I walked onto the iconic Kappabashi Bridge was barren and dead. It was beautiful in its way, of course, the clear waters of the Asuza River flowing a vibrant turquoise color, in spite of the gloom that billowed over them, but I felt shortchanged, and not just because the bus ticket had cost me a cool ¥4,500. I felt disappointed in myself for being so ungrateful after all the amazing experiences I’ve had, for acting like the spoiled child I was in Kindergarten, when Taylor Dayne still got played on the radio, when the idea that I might one day have a dog of my own was as foreign to me as the possibility that I might one day travel the world.
I can’t believe you’ve got a heart of stone, I sighed, as I turned my back on the scene that just wasn’t splendid enough for me. I can’t believe it.
I was nearly to Takayama when news of the attacks in Paris began to dominate my social media. I’m so happy to be in a country where religion is essentially non-existent, I sighed happily as I spotted the city in the distance. Today really is going to be a good day.
Non-existent, or at least in the background, as was the case in the splendid graveyard I happened upon while traipsing through Takayama. If I wasn’t a photographer, I’d probably never visit graveyards—or any sacred sites, for that matter. I feel nothing when I’m walking through them, except pissed off at what a waste of land, money and human energy they signify. And perhaps also the urge to break out into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
But that’s a little bit of a lie, right? I asked myself as I made my way over the crimson Nakabashi Bridge toward my guesthouse. I mean, Penny sure seemed real the other night.
One superstition I’m particularly fond of, my disdain for religion notwithstanding, is the oft-cited “fact” that your entire body regenerates every seven years—every single cell. It might be rooted in science, I guess, but it just sounds like one of those lines someone used at a party once and spread around the world. I’ll have to check Snopes when I have a minute. It sounds plausible enough, however, which is how I imagine many people feel about religion, and tradition in general.
“Would you like to drink some green tea?” The yukata-clad woman asked me. “For free.”
“Yes,” I blurted out, without thinking. Then again, what was there to think about? I was on a three-hour pit stop in Kanazawa, with little agenda other than to be back at the train station in time to catch my Shinkansen. While it’s true that I was making my way, albeit haphazardly, toward the old city, the fact was that I had as little to lose as ever.
She pointed to the mat on the floor. “Tea ceremony with matcha.”
“It’s my fourth trip to Japan,” I replied to the man preparing the powdered green tea for me. “But my first tea ceremony.”
He smiled widely. “I’m glad you can finally experience this tradition.”
Part of me wanted to roll my eyes. I mean, drinking tea in a building that was expressly built to lure foreign tourists craving “tradition” as they explore Kanazawa, with a tea master who spoke better English than 95% of people I’ve ever met in Japan was far from authentic, to say nothing of how massive Kanazawa (which I’d heard, I can now say incorrectly, was like Kyoto, but smaller and less crowded) was. Kanazawa feels about as traditionally Japanese to me as Pokemon or Honda.
The woman who’d invited me inside for tea, a Kanazawa native, had said Nomura Samurai House was her favorite building in the city, but to me, it felt like Shinjuku station at rush hour. As I walked toward the garden, however, and managed to see an orange koi swim by in spite of how many tourists I saw reflected in the pond, I had a revelation: The Japanese have perfectly reconciled their past and their present.
As I’ve traveled through Japan on this particular trip, which began in a coffin-like hotel room in Tokyo with the ghost of Penny, and will end in a few hours when I pass through security at Toyama Airport, I’ve realized how important it is for me to learn how to do this in my own life.
If every cell in my body has regenerated since the last time I saw her, I thought as I walked past the Shirohije shrine, the Hotel Nikko towering behind it, then why can I still feel her in all of them?
I used to live in Shanghai and my time in the city initially was teaching English but ultimately, it led me to the world of digital media, which quite literally changed my life.
To be sure, while spending nearly eight months in Shanghai was a character-building experience, you don’t need nearly that much time to get acquainted with China’s proverbial city above the sea. In fact, much of what there is to see and do there is so readily accessible that three days in Shanghai is all you need for a proper introduction.
Where to Stay in Shanghai
When I lived in Shanghai, I rented an apartment near Hengshan Road in Xuhui, one of the neighborhoods in the city’s famous French Concession. While picturesque, I do think it’s better to stay near the Huangpu River (i.e. with views of Shanghai’s incredible skyline) if you come as a traveler. One place I’ve really taken a liking to during my subsequent visits to Shanghai is the Astor House Hotel, a restored historical hotel north of the city’s iconic Bund.
Day One: It’s Lujiazui, Not Pudong
The Huangpu River is the defining geographical feature of Shanghai, dividing the city into two basic parts: Puxi, on the west (“xi”) side; and Pudong, on the east (“dong”) side. I mention this not only to help orient you, but to call attention to one of the biggest mistakes guidebooks make, which is referring to Shanghai’s skyscrapers as the “Pudong skyline.”
While buildings like the Jin Mao Tower, Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the almost-completed Shanghai Tower are technically in Pudong, they are more specifically in the Lujiazui area, where I recommend you spend your first evening in Shanghai. Whether you ascend to the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center or simply traipse around the base of the skyscrapers like the little human ant you are, trust me on one thing: There isn’t a whole lot to see in Pudong outside of Lujiazui.
Day Two: Perusing Shanghai’s Past in Puxi
Wake up early the next morning—before dawn if you can. Then, walk (if you’re staying at Astor House Hotel) or take a taxi to Shanghai’s historical Bund, a long row of 1920s-era buildings along the Huangpu River just across from the skyscrapers of Lujiazui. If it’s not cloudy or smoggy (fair warning: it probably will be), stay here to watch one of the most incredible city sunrises in the world.
Afterwards, walk down East Nanjing Road to the subway station of the same name, then ride Line 10 of the Shanghai Metro to Yuyuan Gardens. Here, you’ll not only find a variety of traditional Shanghai foods (namely dumplings) to fulfill your breakfast and/or lunch needs, but one of the most complete (and, frankly, only) collections of traditional Chinese architecture in Shanghai.
From here, navigate the metro system to West Nanjing Road, where you’ll find Jing’an Temple, a reconstructed third-century temple whose beauty is greatly enhanced by the skyscrapers around it. Spend the rest of your afternoon exploring the surrounding French Concession neighborhoods (Huaihai and Hengshan roads are among the most picturesque), or by riding the metro to People’s Square and visiting Shanghai Museum.
End your day much in the way you started it: By walking down East Nanjing Road, which is much more exciting by night, thanks to its incredible neon lights. Even if you don’t plan to bar hop all night, get a night cap at one of the fancy bars on the Bund, such as Bar Rouge, whose skyline views alone are worth the high price of a cocktail there.
Day Three: Get Out of Town
There are a few points of interest in Shanghai—namely, Century Park, the fake markets at Qipu Lu and the commercial area of Xujiahui—I haven’t mentioned here, but unless you have more than three days in Shanghai, your third is best spent somewhere outside the city limits.
The most naturally splendid (and, thus, different from most of what you’ll see in the city) is the Anji Bamboo Forest, accessible via combination of bus (to Anji City, via Shanghai South Railway Station) and taxi (from Anji City to the forest). Other options include the historical cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou, the ancient “water town” of Zhujiajiao and the Chongming Island nature reserve, to name just a few.
Taipei is not a huge city, certainly not for East Asia. Taipei’s small size (compared to cities like Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong, anyway) was actually the first thing I noticed about it. The most obvious manifestation of this is in Taipei’s cityscape. Excepting Taipei 101, which was for a time the world’s tallest building, there are no skyscrapers of note on the skyline of Taiwan’s capital. Likewise, the city’s MRT system has only five lines, none of which are particularly sprawling and whose stations, even at transit junctions, are civilized and un-crowded.
I mention this not to degrade Taipei, but rather to praise it: Its manageable scale makes it an easy city to explore. And the ratio of awesome things to see and do in Taipei—they approach infinity—to its delightfully finite urban limits also makes it a very easy city to love.
Where to Stay in Taipei
Taipei’s city center is even more compact that the city itself, so as long as you’re somewhere in the general—I’d say within 3-5 stops of Taipei Main Station on the Taipei MRT—you’re going to be just fine. As far as which type of accommodation to stay? Well, like most Asian cities of any size, Taipei offers a wide range of accommodation, but in my experience, the best value can be had by staying in one of the hundreds of serviced apartments throughout the city.
Day One: Big Places in the Little City
The Taipei 101 skyscraper, as I mentioned in the intro to this article, is huge—and I’ll get to it in a second. Start your first of three days in Taipei, however, by seeing some of the other “big” attractions this small-ish city has to offer.
After having a breakfast of Taiwanese street food (might I recommend following your taste buds through the Shuanglian Morning Market, near the Shuanglian MRT station?), ride the MRT to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Dedicated to Taiwan’s founding father, the hall is the country’s national monument, and is probably the most imposing structure in Taipei apart from the massive building I promise I’ll get to in just one more second.
Stop for a lunch of delicious dumplings at nearby Hangzhou Xialong Tangbao, then take a leisurely walk around Taipei Peace Park to let the soupy contents of your stomach digest. If it’s before about 3 PM at this point, ride the MRT to Longshan Temple, one of the most impressive temples in central Taipei.
End the evening by taking the MRT to Houshanpi station, where you will find the impressive Raohe Night Market and adjacent Songhan Ciyou Temple, which is the perfect place to say your bedtime prayers.
Day Two: Going Green
In addition to not being extremely large, Taipei is also not extremely crowded, which is to say green space is plentiful and nature is accessible. Today, on your second of three days in Taipei, you’ll take advantage of both of these facts.
Take your time getting going in the morning, whether that entails further exploring Shuanglian Morning Market or simply vegging out in your serviced apartment, then ride the MRT to Xiaonanmen station, which is just a short walk to Taipei Botanical Garden. While it’s true that the Taipei Botanical Garden isn’t as impressive as its sister in Singapore or as well-maintained as its cousin in Hong Kong, it nonetheless provides a green respite to your thus-far urban experience in Taipei.
Enjoy a casual lunch near the Garden (I recommend Shin Tung Nan seafood restaurant?), before riding the red line of the MRT to its northern terminus, Tamsui. From here, you’ll take one of the many buses to Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf.
Like the Botanical Garden, the Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t as idyllic as you might hope, but it nonetheless provides an illuminating glimpse into the way everyday Taiwanese people unwind, to say nothing of the beautiful sunsets (and, for you aviation nerds, tons of planes from all over the world taking off) on offer there.
Day Three: Surf and/or Turf
Today, for your third of three days in Taiwan, I’m going to recommend that you go on a bonafide day trip—or maybe two, if you’re feeling extremely energetic.
If you’re in the mood for a beach, take a train from Taipei Main Station to Fulong, which is home to the nicest beach near Taipei. It’s not the nicest beach in all of Taiwan, to be sure, but if you’re just going for a day trip, you won’t find a better beach than the one at Fulong. If you happen to be in Taipei during early summer, be sure to check out the Fulong International Sand Sculpture Festival, which is an extremely impressive display of talent.
The mountains near Taipei are just as enchanting as the beach, so if you’re feeling more terrestrial than aquatic, board the R5 bus from Jiantin MRT Station to Yangmingshan National Park. Once at the park’s main station, you can take a shuttle to numerous destinations insidde. My personal favorite is Xiaoyoukeng, a massive gash in the earth that spews out sulfur steam, and is also home to a great hiking trail, which on clear days offers a panoramic view of Taipei from its summit.
Return to central Taipei and, if you’ve got the energy, spend your final evening in Taiwan’s capital enjoying the lively streets and great restaurants around Ximen station. Of course, it’s not a big deal if you run out of steam—I can’t imagine any reason why your first visit to Taipei would be your last.