Egypt

I have traveled to a lot of places, but I would never consider myself to be a true world traveler until I explored the Great Pyramids of Giza. After speaking with a coworker, she said the best time to go is either in the spring or in the fall. Considering that my wife and I were thinking about going to Hawaii for Christmas, we decided to go at the beginning of April.

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We first flew into Cairo International Airport where my I met up with one of my best buddies from Germany, Philipp. As we exited customs, my wife and I had to buy a visa from one of the local banks in the airport. I went to the ATM to take out cash to pay for our visa with Egyptian Pounds, but we quickly learned that they only want dollars or euros instead of their own currency. They will tell you that they don’t take Egyptian Pounds, but if you are persistent enough, they will be forced to take it. After we claimed our bags and rental car, we headed off into the night towards Alexandria. As I got onto the interstate, I noticed that in a city of more than 24 million people, almost no one was on the interstate. I couldn’t believe it. I was on a five-lane highway and less than a handful of cars could be seen going in either direction. I decided to put the pedal to the metal and trim down my transport time. The only things I saw that were lit up as I was driving through the Sahara in the middle of the night were a couple gas stations and lots of mosques. After arriving in Alexandria, we checked into the Hilton that we were staying in.

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After catching up on a little sleep, we headed to the dive center located on the bay near the citadel. Located in the Bay of Alexandria is the remains of the ancient lighthouse and Cleopatra’s palace. I had been trying to set up a dive for a couple months because there is only on doctor who operates all the dives for bay. But just as we coordinated the best dates that would work out for us and booked our tickets, the Egyptian Navy decided that they were going to occupy the bay for exercises while we were there. We headed to the dive shop to see if there were any changes to the situation. On the way to the dive site, I couldn’t believe the traffic. Cars cutting in front of other cars with razor thin precision all while going at high speeds with no regards to the lines on the road. If the traffic wasn’t bad enough, people kept crossing right in the middle of the mix. There was one point that I almost killed a family of four, but I just happened to pull up the e-brake just in time. After arriving at the dive center, we were met with bad news that they Navy still wasn’t letting anyone dive.

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Once the disappointment had settled in, we decided to Uber to the Bibliotheca Alexandria. Located in the library are some of the greatest collections of literary work ever known, and it houses the only remaining manuscript from Alexander the Great.

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The library was constructed by Ptolemy I Soter, who was a Macedonian general and the successor of Alexander the Great. Some of the first Bibles, Qurans, and Tanakhs that were printed in other languages other than their own origin are there.

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While we were walking around and taking in the overwhelming sea of knowledge that surrounded us, somehow we stumbled upon the Miss International Eco beauty competition contestants who were being escorted around the library for cultural exposure.

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We took a picture with Miss USA, explored the rest of the library, and then headed to the famous Alexandria Citadel.

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The Citadel is located on the site of where the Lighthouse of Alexandria used to stand. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but it fell into the bay and Mediteranean after it was badly damaged over three earthquakes from 956 to 1323 AD. The Citadel of Qaitbay was built on that location in 1477 AD. We walked around the Citadel and experienced firsthand why the fortress is considered one of the most important defensive strongholds, not only in Egypt, but also along the Mediterranean Sea coast.

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We explored the Citadel and then promptly headed into Old Alexandria to see Pompey’s Pillar. Pompey’s Pillar is the only remaining pillar from one of first buildings in Alexandria, and it is named after one of Alexander the Great’s generals who was killed by Cleopatra’s brother. It is the only known free-standing column in Roman Egypt that was not composed of drums; it is one of the largest ancient monoliths and one of the largest monolithic columns ever erected. Once the photo-ops were taken, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and relax for the night.

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The next morning, we headed to the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa located back in Old Alexandria near the Pompey’s Pillar. The catacombs of Kom Kom El Shoqafa, meaning “Mound of Shards,” is a historical archaeological site located in Alexandria, Egypt, and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The catacombs were lost after the fourth century and wasn’t rediscovered until 1900 when a donkey accidently fell into the access shaft. The catacombs descend 100 feet and passes through three different burial levels. The catacombs once housed over 300 bodies and is truly a sight to see when you visit Alexandria.

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The next day, we headed to Giza for the next leg of our trip. On the way to Giza, people kept running across the highway and never used the cross-walks or overpasses. Traffic was terrible in Alexandria, but now people were running across the road while cars were going 80 mph instead of 40 mph in the city. Philipp and I decided to drop my wife off at the hotel before returning the rental back at the airport. On the way from the Mercure hotel in Giza to the airport in Cairo, I had one of the most intense driving experiences of my life. I know I said earlier that no one was on the interstate at night when I first got there, but that was at 01:30 in the morning. I was on the Cairo interstate at 20:00, and the highway was certainly alive. Cars were going whatever speed that they want, the lines on the road were irrelevant, no one used a blinker, and people still kept playing frogger with their lives. I have never up-shifted and down-shifted with more ferociousness in all my entire life; it was fast and furious.

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The next morning, I woke up to one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, the Great Pyramids of Giza. We threw on our clothes and headed down to have breakfast and meet up with Phillip. He was in Jordan a couple months before and had made friends with someone who put him in contact with a doctor of archaeology who worked at the pyramids and would give us a private tour. The good doctor picked us up at our hotel and took us to the pyramids for a proper VIP tour.

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We started by ascending up and into Kings Khufu’s Pyramid (The Great Pyramid). The space to crawl is only 4ft x 4ft and ascends at a 55-degree angle for a little over a hundred meters. It is very hot inside the pyramid, not because of the heat of the desert, but due to lack of air circulation. The walls were actually very cool to the touch. The small crawl space opened into a huge room that was made of great triangle arches.

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On the other side of the grand corridor was an opening that led directly into Khufu’s tomb. The room is massive; the room roughly measures 20ft wide x 40ft long x 40ft high, and the only thing that remains after grave tomb raiders is just his empty sarcophagus.

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We exited Khufu’s tomb and were taken by the doctor to one of the local guides who had camels and horses waiting for us to explore the ruins between the pyramids. I was personally looking forward to riding a horse because I have ridden camels before, but I never really rode a horse. I’ve ridden on horses before, but I was never in charge of the reins. However, my wife and buddy wanted to ride camels because they thought it would make for a better picture.

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So we got camels. The camel that I got had a saddle that was too small, and with every camel stride, it felt like I was the guest of honor at a prison party. A little over halfway through the camel ride, I jumped off and started walking because I couldn’t take it anymore. The guide was riding a horse and offered to switch. He asked me, “Have you ever ridden a horse before?” I naturally replied, “Of course!” I had no idea what I was doing, only what I had seen in movies. I picked it up within a matter of minutes, and it was heaven compared to the camel. The saddle fit perfect, and the horse was much faster. Too bad it was just for the last stretch of the tour. I told myself that I wanted to come back the following day and explore the desert again by horseback.

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Once we thanked our guide, he took us to the doctor’s office located on the back side of the Pyramid for afternoon tea time. The doctor’s office was adjacent to a building that houses a fully intact ancient royal boat that was completely buried while intact right next to Khufu’s pyramid. The royal solar boat is huge and was used transport the king up and down the Nile. It was buried next to his pyramid so the king could navigate the afterlife with ease.

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The doctor proceeded to take us to a subterranean tomb that housed the remains of Khufu’s mother and another one for his wife. These tombs weren’t nearly as big as the King’s, but they were very well preserved and the hieroglyphics to could clearly be seen.

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From the tombs and pyramids we headed over to the Sphinx. We took some great pictures, but the doctor didn’t have too much to say about the Sphinx because it is still riddled with so many mysteries. We explored the temples next to Sphinx and then headed back to the hotel for a much-needed shower and some dinner.

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After rinsing off, we headed down to the hotel bar to meet up with Philip for dinner. While we were at the bar, we meet a German businessman named Roland. Mr. Roland (as the staff referred to him) had developed a way of harvesting the humidity in the air and convert it into purified drinking water without the use of any electricity. He sold his water devices not only to militaries, but also hotels including the one we were staying at, if you control water in the desert, you’re a pretty popular guy. We had a couple of drinks with Roland, before he sent his assistant to his room (Roland lived at the hotel) to grab bottle after bottle of top shelf booze from all around Europe. By the end of the night, we were all properly drunk and decided to meet for breakfast.

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The next morning, Roland took us to the roof to see some of his water-harvesting devices. While we were up there, he asked us what we were doing for the day and we told him that we planned on going back to the pyramids to go horseback riding. Roland then said, “I will go with you and have my assistant get you five of the best horses!” Roland then sent for his drivers, and we were on our way to the stables located along the wall that ran next to the pyramids. There are two walls that separate the city from the pyramids. The backside of the pyramids doesn’t need a wall because you would have to literally walk in from the Sahara Desert to avoid paying entry. Only guides and certain personnel were allowed to ride in the desert because the government deemed it dangerous. Roland’s assistant took us straight to the stables where five beautiful horses were waiting for us. After mounting our horses, the police opened the wall for us, and we were able to ride in the desert behind the pyramids where there were no tourists and we could get the best shots of the pyramids without people in the background. We explored the desert for a few more hours and then headed back to the stables and then back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner cruise on the Nile that night.

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We came back to the hotel, freshened up, and then met our driver who was waiting to take us to our riverboat in the center of Cairo. Aboard the riverboat, we were greeted with a huge buffet consisting of all authentic Egyptian and Arabic food. In addition to the wonderful food, we were treated to a belly dancing show followed by an Egyptian dance similar to the twirling dervishes in Turkey.

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After the cruise, my wife and I decided to turn it in for the night, but Philip decided to go party at some nightclub with Roland until he caught his flight early in the morning.

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The next morning, we woke up and had tea on the balcony as we overlooked the pyramids from our room before we headed to breakfast and then to the Cairo Museum. Once breakfast was inhaled, I requested our Uber and we headed to Tahrir Square.

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Tahrir Square is where the Cairo Museum is located, but more importantly, it is the location of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, 1952, and 2011. While we were there, we took a picture with the statue of Omar Makram.He is celebrated as a national hero for his resistance against Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and beyond the statue is the Omar Makram Mosque.

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As we walked up to the museum, we were greeted by a guide who worked for the museum and was offering us a good deal of $65 that included hiring him as our own personal tour guide and entry into the museum.

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We were so glad we hired a tour guide because the place is so massive and has so many rare items that it would take forever to read all the placards and you still wouldn’t know the whole story. There were so many important pieces that tourists just walked right by because they don’t know the significance.

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One of the most important pieces that I remember our guide showing us was The Israel Stela. The Israel Stela, also known as the Merneptah Stele is a huge tablet of rock with clear hieroglyphs that was found in 1896 in Thebes, Egypt. The monument was found where it had once stood in ancient Egypt, at the temple that honored Pharaoh Merneptah. Some refer to the stone as the “Victory Stele” because it records the military campaigns and victories of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of the mighty Ramesses II. The discovery of the Israel Stela is very important in the study of Biblical Archaeology. It is the oldest evidence for the existence of Israel in the land of Canaan in ancient times outside of the Bible. There were so many significant pieces of history that I would have never thought to stop and look at because they were either dingy and ugly or just really small.

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There are too many great pieces to mention here, but I will talk about King Tutankhamun’s funerary mask. The mask measures 54 x 39.3 x 49 cm and gilded with gold ranging from 18KY to 22.5KY!

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Tut’s mask and coffin are in a separate room from the rest of the museum that houses. There is a whole wing of museum dedicated to King Tut, but it’s not because he was a great king (he only ruled as pharaoh for ten years before his death at 19), but rather because his tomb is most intact Egyptian tomb in history.

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Somehow his tomb evaded tomb raiders and grave robbers for more than 3200 years! We saw more parts of the museum like the mummified pet section, and then we parted ways with our guide.

On the way back to the hotel, I had the Uber driver drop us off at the Khan el-Khalili so I could pick up some souvenirs (conversation pieces) before we left Egypt. Khan el-Khalili is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo. This bazaar district is one of Cairo’s main attractions and has served as trading for tourists and Egyptians for over 500 years.

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My wife and I grabbed some souvenirs and shawarma, then Ubered back to the hotel for our last night in Egypt. That night we just stayed in and ordered room service because the conversion rate made EVERYTHING so cheap. For example, my wife ordered a huge bowl of spaghetti bolognese (with extra meat sauce) for $2.30 USD, and I had a steak dinner for $4.35 USD! The next morning, we lounged around (ordering more room service) until it was time to check out and head to the airport.

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For a Valentine’s Day gift, I bought my wife tickets to see Aladdin in London’s West End. It seemed like the perfect end to an Egyptian vacation. So on the way home, we stopped off in London for a couple of days and then headed home (and back to reality).

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Egypt is one of the most intriguing places I have ever been to. In our time there, we only scratched the surface of the history that Egypt has to offer. I have been to a lot of places and try to collect more countries before I spend money going back to one I have already seen, but Egypt is different. First of all, the conversion rate is so good that you live like a king for only dollars a day. Second, I never got to see Cleopatra’s tomb at the bottom of the Bay of Alexandria. And third, I still want to see Luxor and Mount Sinai. The country is so rich with history and culture that if a person can only travel to a few places in their lifetime, Egypt needs to be one of them. Egypt, I shall return! So it is written, so it shall be done!

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Havana, Cuba

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Growing up in Florida, I had always been curious to go to Cuba, but Cuba was known as the forbidden neighbor. So when relations between the U.S. and Cuba had finally thawed from the Cold War and travel bans were lifted in 2016, my wife and I knew we had to get there before the culture changes.

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You have to understand that Cuba has been isolated from most the world for the past 50+ years. The cars there are mostly American cars from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but driving around in soviet-made engines. Internet has only been introduced to the island in the past few years, and the country is still under a communist regime.

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My wife and I traveled with some friends to Havana for a four-day stay. When we landed, I was worried about how stringent customs was going be because travel was allowed to Cuba, but only under one of twelve reasons to enter the country. Most people claim they are going for educational purposes, but my wife and I were traveling on journalism visas. Either way, I was under the impression you had to have our story straight before you got there or they wouldn’t allow entry. I soon came to find out that a lot of anxiety was felt over nothing. Things are pretty much free flowing, and the Cuban people are happy to see the influx of tourists and the money they bring with.

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As we exited the airport, we were greeted with a scene you only see at a classic car show. There were classic Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, and more that filled the entire parking lot. We grabbed our bags and hired one of the classic cars for about $30 to take us to our Air BnB. I had never done an Air BnB before this trip, but for a cheap price, I got a three-bedroom condo located right on the boardwalk with a beautiful balcony view. We even had maids/cooks that came to our condo and cooked breakfast for only six pesos each person.

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After we got to the condo, my wife and some of our friends were hungry and tired from the early morning flight, so while they took a siesta, I went for a walk. As I went venturing through the Havana neighborhoods, I came across the most beautiful displays of architecture ranging from the colonial and baroque period to the Neo-classical period. A lot of the houses that you see look rundown with paint missing, rusty gates, and foliage overgrowth, but all the houses look like they have very strong bones. I would love to buy a house in Havana and restore it, but I don’t think that will work out in a communist country. These same style houses with a little repair and upgrades go for millions in Miami and south Florida all day long. I then proceeded to grab a straw fedora and a cigar before I went in search of the Hemingway Marina to book our SCUBA trip for the next day.

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Once I scheduled our dives for the following day, I came back to the condo to get the rest of the gang. We unanimously decided to discuss our sightseeing plans over some mojitos and cuba libres. Located across from our condo was a shopping mall that carried all the essentials to have a good time in Cuba. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to go to buy rum. I couldn’t believe a liter of Havana Club rum was only $3.50! And yes, it was good-tasting rum. We all had a couple of drinks each and then decided to go wander the streets of Old Havana to become more immersed in the culture.

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As we walked through the streets, we came across plazas that you more commonly find in Europe. Like in Barcelona or Florence, people gathered around fountains, and street performers played music for pocket change. We wandered for a few more hours and then decided to turn it in because we had our dive master coming to pick us up in the morning.

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In the morning our dive master picked us up in a van and then were headed to a beach entry dive site located 40 minutes West of Havana in a town called Playa Baracoa. On the way out of town, we passed by the Russian embassy in Havana. It is a fortress that resembles a modern-day prison. It was the tallest building that I saw in Havana other than the Cuban capitol building. After getting away from the capital city, I was able to get a sense of what rural life was like in this communist country. I had seen the countryside in China (another communist country) and was curious to see how it compared. It was great to see that the flavor of Cuba did not fizzle off as we drove through the countryside.

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There was still plenty of restored cars, lots of sugar cane fields, and military training complexes. After a little while we came a banquet-type building located right on a cove. The facility looked like it was once a really nice place that families used to come to for the weekend, but now it was all boarded and neglected like so many other properties in Cuba that hold great potential. We went for a nice couple of dives and then headed back Havana.

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That night we had two missions: one was to find a restaurant that we had seen the night before that served $5 filets and $8 chateaubriand, the second was to find a real, authentic salsa dance hall. We headed back to the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana where we had seen the restaurant mentioned above. We found the restaurant and had a wonderful, cheap dinner. And yes, the steaks were good, but not as good as the Italian. That’s a funny thing about Cuban food; their traditional food is good, but their Italian food is great!

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After dinner, we flagged down another beautiful taxi and asked him where the one of the best salsa club is in town that is not filled with Americans. He said he knew of a great place near where were staying, so we all piled into two taxis and then headed that direction.

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About 15 minutes later, we came pulling up to a mansion that was converted into one of Havana’s landmark salsa clubs called Casa de la Musica in Miramar. It was a huge teal building surrounded by locals and of course beautiful classic cars. Trip Ddvisor said the entry was “peanuts.” Well let me tell you that peanut prices have inflated since the U.S. has started opening its doors to tourists. Either that or there must have must been a great band playing that night. The entry was $20 USD, but it was worth it to help filter out the other americanos. Once inside, we were immediately thrown back to the 1950’s more than we already had been.

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There were signed pictures of salsa legends that lined the entry hallway, which opened up to the dance hall. There was a spectacular band on stage that was exciting the dance hall with people dancing on the main dance floor and couples drinking mojitos perched around small little tables. The walls were lined with concession bars decked out from the sixties and filled with people dressed in that era. Women were walking around with trays around their necks, selling cigars out of them just like the ’50s. We danced and drank there for a few hours and then headed back to the condo so we could be fresh to head to the market for souvenir shopping the next day.

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The next morning we woke up to a wonderful breakfast that was once again prepared for us by the girls who maintain the condo. After letting our breakfast settle, we headed out to the Almacenes San Jose Artisans’ Market located at the port of Havana. The market is a completely covered indoor marketplace that has everything from cigars to art. If you are looking to grab souvenirs in Havana, this is the place to be. When buying cigars in Havana, I strongly recommend you do it here. You can buy cigars from anyone in Havana, but buying from a LICENSED vendor is the safest way to go.

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After a little shopping, we walked around Old Havana to take in more sites and look for a place to have lunch. It wasn’t long before we came across another 1950s-style restaurant. I keep wanting to refer to them as 1950s “themed” restaurants, but there is no theme that is trying to be relayed here. These are authentic restaurants that have been functioning this way for at least the past 50 years! You see pictures of Castro playing baseball, Che and Castro fishing, and many other pictures that reflect daily life that only exist on the walls of Cuban locals.

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Once lunch was concluded, we decided to do the typical tourist tradition and hire a tour guide to take us around Havana in a drop-top classic car. We picked up a tour cab near the San Francisco De Asis Statue in Old Havana near the port.

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Our guide was very knowledgable and took us around to see all the big sites in a ’57 Ford Fairlane 500!

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We went by sites such as EL Capitolio (National Capitol Building), El Paseo del Prado, El Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial), John Lennon Park, and then concluded the tour with a drive along El Malecon (Long Havana Seawall). We even went by the North Korean embassy in Havana, which I thought was pretty interesting. That night, we went out for more Italian food and then called it a wrap on our last evening in Havana.

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The next day, we lounged around, had a couple drinks over lunch, and then headed to the airport in the afternoon to fly back to Florida. Cuba was definitely a unique trip. It went to a country that has been 90 miles away from my sate my entire life, but I couldn’t visit until now. It was amazing to see where my home state gets its Latin influence from and to step into a country that has been absolutely frozen in time for longer than 50 years. There are very few places in the world that exist like that, and I wanted to see Cuba before it lost that charm. Everything in Cuba was cheap, the people were very nice, the cars and architecture were absolutely beautiful, and the weather was awesome. My wife and I will definitely spend more weekends in Cuba because it’s only $150 round trip and only an hour in the air from Tampa Bay. If you want to see Havana in its purest form, go soon now before it becomes too Amercanized and loses its Cold War charm.

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The Philippines

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Every time I see a list of the top five beaches in the world, the Philippines always makes the list. The top two island beach destinations they usually feature in the Philippines are Palawan and Boracay. For our honeymoon, my wife and I took off to Manila and then Boracay for breathtaking scenery, warm weather, and one of the most inexpensive trips we have ever taken.
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Let me start by mentioning that my wife is half Filipino (they call her “halo halo” for “mix mix”). She has family in Manila, so the first leg of our trip started in Manila. Her cousin’s fiancée, Fe, picked us up from the airport and took us to Z Hostel, which is located in Makati, Manila. My wife had never stayed in a hostel, but I had stayed in dozens and dozens of them. I told her that I’ve seen couples get their own room at some really nice hostels and that it’s great because they’re usually located next to all the main sites—but without the high prices. My wife agreed and booked a room at a brand new hostel located in Makati.
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The pictures looked nice, everything was new, and they had a quaint social area located on the roof. We grabbed our bags, said bye to Fe, and then headed inside. After checking in, we soon discovered that the elevator was “under improvements” and was the smallest elevator (outside of a dumbwaiter) that I had ever seen. So I hiked our luggage up six of the seven floors of stairs to our room.
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The room was nice, but we were exhausted with jet lag and decided to turn it in for the night. Just as I was starting to doze off, I heard and felt techno music. I thought to myself, “its probably just some douche driving by,” but the music didn’t seem to fade. Then I heard what sounded like a herd of buffalo, coming up the stairs. It was a bunch of people heading to the roof. What was advertised as “a quaint social area” turned out to be a full-blown discotheque located right above our room. And to make things worse, the elevator was not working, so we had foot traffic walking by and hanging out next to our room all night.
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The next morning, we were meeting with a friend of mine, Zhara, who lives in the Philippines. She had come down from Cebu City and said she had a friend who lived near our hostel. When she said near, I didn’t expect 15 feet from the hostel doorstep. We meet her friends and then headed out to walk around Manila. Zhara took us to some authentic Filipino restaurants and ordered for us. I don’t know what I ate, but the whole meal was delicious. 
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It sure was nice having a local with us to make sure we didn’t get charged Cano (Americano) prices. After a day of wandering about, we decided to have some drinks and check out the nightclub located above our room at the hostel. We had a good time that night and drank enough to sleep well. We would need it because the next day we were flying off to Boracay.
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We said our goodbyes to Zhara and her friends in the morning and caught a flight from Manila to the very Northwest part of Panay Island Caticlan Airport. This was more convenient than the other option of flying into the Kalibo Airport and taking a bus to Caticlan where the ferries are. We caught the ferry over to the island of Boracay. The ferries drop off at the Station 1 port, and then you hire a motorbike taxi to take you to one of the four stations located along the west part of the island.
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It’s important to know which station your hotel is located near. After got off the ferry, we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel called, The Spider House. The Spider House is a world-famous bamboo tree house built on the side of a cliff and leads down to the water. Just to get to the entrance you have to walk across a beach and through a manmade cave that leads up to the front desk. The Spider House is really cool because all the rooms are stacked so that every room has a gorgeous view.
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There is no air conditioning because there is no need for it with the trade winds, and all the beds have mosquito nets even though insects were a problem. The rooms are completely open air, so don’t be freaked out if the occasional cat comes running through. They’re part of the Hotel Rodent Police provided by the hotel.
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Once we were checked in and settled, we walked along the beach to find a SCUBA charter. All along the way, I was overwhelmed by how crystal clear the water was and how it complemented the palm tree–lined, white sandy beach. As we walked down to Station 2 (the busiest station), we came across a beautiful grotto of the Virgin Mary.
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It’s also called Willy’s Rock because it’s located right outside the Willy’s Beach Club Hotel. We took some pictures and discovered a SCUBA shop. The following day, we provided our SCUBA cards, paid the fees, and then headed out on our own private two-tank dive for only $30 each! Did I mention things in the Philippines are cheap?
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After an afternoon of diving, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up. Apparently the Spider House is so popular that a lot of tourists come to the downstairs restaurant just to see the sunset and cliff dive.
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Once we were done changing, we headed to a restaurant that my wife visited last time she was in Boracay called, The Hobbit House. The whole restaurant is run and operated vertically challenged (little) people. This place is outstanding, all the employees are super nice, and they embrace the theme of the restaurant. The walls are covered in huge tapestries depicting hobbit scenes from The Lord of the Rings. The glasses are full sized, but the bar is tiny, so it looks disproportioned and very funny. This place was great, and I insisted on going there at least once a day each day for the remainder of our stay in Boracay. We could never have one of these back in the states because someone would complain that these people are being exploited, but in reality the staff loved it. It gave them a portal to be themselves and have a field of work designed around little people.
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The next day, we woke up, had breakfast at our hotel, and then headed down the beach for a massage. We came across a private, open-air cabana with two tables and two ladies that only charged us $10 each for an hour-long, full-body massage right on the water. My wife got the young masseuse, and I took the older lady. Let me tell ya fellas, when I was single I wanted the young masseuse, but now that I’m married and wiser, the ancient lady masseuse is definitely the better option. This lady had lumberjack hands and knew every nook and cranny to get because she had been doing this for like, a thousand years. Needless to say, we had morning and afternoon massages every day we were there.
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Once we finished with our morning massages, we headed to Ariel’s hotel to book our ticket to go to Ariel’s Point. Ariel’s Point located on an island located just offshore of Boracay. You pay a flat fee of $30, and all your food and drinks are included as you cliff jump, kayak, and snorkel all day. On the boat ride out, I had a beer but didn’t want to have too many because the highest jumping point was 15 meters, and I didn’t want to land sideways on the water. As soon as the boat docked, I made a beeline straight for the high jump so I could knock it out and go back to eating and drinking. Needless to say, I stuck the landing and proceeded to have a great time. While waiting in line for a drink, a guy told me he overheard me tell someone on the boat that I was in the U.S. Navy. He said he retired from the U.S. Navy, so as a good sailor I offered to grab him a drink (even thought they were already included). He said, “No, let me grab you a drink.” I asked him what his name was and he said “It’s Ariel, and I own this place.” I said, “Bullshit!” He told me to watch as he clapped his hands and a bartender came running over. He then invited me and my wife to eat and drink with him as well as his friend who was an ex-general in the Filipino Army. It was an interesting lunch to say the least. After we ate, my wife and I decided to finish our trip to Ariel’s point by kayaking through caves and around the island.
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On the way back, we met a Korean couple who were also on their honeymoon. They seemed very nice, so naturally we invited them to dinner at the Hobbit House. The next day. we met them at Puka Shell Beach located at the northernmost part of the island. Every single inch of the island is beautiful, but this is where the film crews set up to film the “Top Beaches” segments. We relaxed and had lunch with our friends and then decided to go back to our hotel to cliff dive at sunset.
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The next day, we caught a small plane back to Manila for our last days. We went back to Z Hostel for one night and visited my wife’s family in San Juan, Rizal.
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After spending some time with the family, Fe took us to Green Hills. Green Hills is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
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It is an inside mall that is three stories high and is the size of a huge city block. Inside, you will absolute fashion bliss! They have every single replica made on the face of the earth. The vendors are jam-packed next to each other and only separated by hanging sheets.
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Every direction I looked was just an endless sea of Lacoste shirts, Patek Philippe watches, Christian Louboutin pumps, and every other high-end fashion name under the sun. But, the prices are ridiculously cheap if you can negotiate. I picked out a new wardrobe for cheap, and we still think we could have gotten some things cheaper if the white guy (me) wasn’t around. We shopped nonstop for six hours, and only saw half of the first floor. When visiting Manila, if there is nothing else you see, you have to see Green Hills.
 Eventually we had to stop shopping because we were exceeding the limits of the two suitcases we brought and the one we bought at Green Hills. We headed off to have our final dinner with Fe and right after dinner she surprised us with balut. OK, if you don’t know what balut is, try to stay with me. A balut is a fertilized duck egg with a nearly developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell.
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It is considered a delicacy in the Philippines, and all my Asian in-laws doubted if I would eat it. I have eaten some pretty disturbing stuff all around the world, but balut had me a little hesitant. You start off by cracking the top part of the shell and drinking the fluids out. Then, you peel back the shell to expose the baby chicken or baby duck—feathers, beak, and all. You then proceed to bite directly into the baby’s head and then work your way down. I thought is was going to be as bad as the way it was described to me and I described to you, but it wasn’t bad. If I was offered it right now, I’d probably eat it. The next day we caught our flight to China and said goodbye to the Philippines.
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 In closing, the Philippines is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The people are welcoming, the beaches inspire postcards, and the price for things in the Philippines couldn’t be better. Until next my next visit…paalam!
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Andorra

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Andorra is a small yet beautiful principality sandwiched between Spain and France in the in the heart of the Pyrenees Mountains. I never heard of Andorra until I was looking to surprise my wife with a day trip from Barcelona. Andorra is a ski resort town—kind of like Innsbruck but smaller. We were there in October before the snow came, but the rolling mountains were covered with a multitude Autumn colors that gave way to an absolutely breathtaking view.

We initially only went for lunch and to take in the isolated city of Andorra la Vella because there is not too much to see in the offseason. As we came into Andorra la Vella, I saw a big sign advertising for some place called Naturalandia. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I kept seeing more signs in town. After driving around and taking in the natural beauty, we were headed out of town until I came to another big sign that said, “Left for Naturalandia or right for Spain.” At the last second I decided to take a left. I felt there was something still left to explore about this postcard town.

The road I had taken had me ascending a huge mountain in my little Fiat Panda. Around the midway point of the mountain, we came upon an outdoor amusement park that bared the name Naturalandia, but we also saw a sign that said we were only halfway, so we proceeded on. When we got to the top, there was a giant log-cabin restaurant and bar surrounded by more amusement activities, one of them being the longest nature toboggan in the world. I asked a staff where I needed to buy tickets for the toboggan and I was directed to the fun park that I passed halfway up the mountain.

When I got back down to the fun park I couldn’t believe my eyes. The park is on the edge of the mountain (which provides for a breathtaking view) and boasted activities such as go-karts, archery, rope-swing obstacle courses, horseback riding, paintball, and much, much more. I went inside the clubhouse and purchased two tickets for the toboggan.

On the way to the ride I could tell my wife was not as excited as I was, so I asked her why. She said,“This looks a little lame. I can’t believe you jump out of planes, and you’re excited about a kid’s ride.” I told her, “I’ve seen this on Facebook and it looks like a lot of fun.” She rolled her eyes but proceeded to be a good sport about the situation. After getting strapped into the toboggan, we had to wait as we were lifted up through 5.3 kilometers of beautiful Andorran forest.

Once we got to the top we were given a brief tutorial on how to use the break and then off we went. After about a hundred meters of track we were flying like a bat out of hell down the mountain and through the forest. You really get the sense that the toboggan is going to come of the tracks and you’re going to go flipping through the forest. The ride is really intense because you’re going fast and close to the ground with no roll cage.

After we got to the bottom I asked Desi if she thought it was still lame. She said, “I’m so sorry for doubting you. That was really fun and really scary at the same time.” I would highly recommend Naturalandia to any family looking to go away on vacation. They are open year-round, the air and the scenery are clean, and there is a huge array of activities for kids and parents.

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After leaving Naturalandia, we head out of Andorra on our way to Zaragoza, Spain. I will always remember Andorra as a place I never knew existed, but now can’t imagine not knowing. The best way I can sum up Andorra is that the scenery looks like God painted a masterpiece, and Andorra was the canvas.

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France

I think it goes without saying that when people think of France they think of its beauty, conquering armies and exploration. I experienced the beauty and history of France first hand when I backpacked through France in 2010.eurostar       I took the Chunnel from London to get to France and then took the train to Paris. All along the way, I saw beautiful small towns and medieval chapels littering the mountainside. I would recommend anyone who goes to France to get out and see the countryside and not just the glamour of the main cities.screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-6-54-04-pmfrench-countrysideI arrived at Paris in the evening time, so there weren’t too many landmarks open. So I went to my hostel and then went out for some dinner while I planned my tourist route of all the things I wanted to see in Paris. I was staying right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge where there is plenty of restaurants and nightlife located nearby. They call Paris the city of lights, and it definitely lives up to that reputation. The bridges, Eiffel Tower as well as many fountains and national landmarks are illuminated. Paris really is a sight to see at nighttime. I had a lovely dinner at a café located around the corner and then turned it in for the night because I only had one full day to see as many landmarks as possible.moulin-rouge-paris-night_106381-1440x900bridges_2the-many-beautiful-romantic-scenes-of-paris-at-night-time-23The first stop on my Tour de Paris was the Jardin des Tuileries (Garden of Tuileries). The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris’ oldest and largest public garden. It is a formal garden with graveled paths and perfectly trimmed lawns, and it has unparalleled views of the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. The same architect who designed the gardens at Versailles designed this garden, which was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.dscf0092dscf0094dscf0093From the garden, I headed to the Place Charles de Gaulle to marvel at one of my favorite landmarks in Paris, The Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. It has the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. I was lucky enough to be there when the soldiers were performing a ceremony. I then decided that if I was going to see the Louvre that I had better see it in the morning because I didn’t want to have to rush through, and I hoped to beat the massive crowds of tourists and school kids.img_0970img_0987dscf0100The Louvre is unlike any museum that I have ever been to in the entire world. It is a treasure trove so big that houses enormous Egyptian monuments in its basement. No wonder it is the world’s largest museum. Nearly 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 60,600 square meters or 652,300 square feet. The Louvre is the world’s second-most visited museum after the Palace Museum in China. I had just finished studying fine art in college and could really appreciate the works of Da Vinci, Bosch, Jacques-Louis David, Caravaggio, Bernini, Vermeer, and so many, many more.

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I was also stunned to see Egyptian artifacts that had been dated to 3,000 years before Christ.

I even saw the Code of Hammurabi, which is a well-preserved Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1754 BC. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world.

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I could have walked around the entire museum twice and it still wouldn’t have been enough, but there were many more sights to see, and I was off to Notre Dame de Paris.gohistoric_2435_zdscf0181The Notre-Dame de Paris (or simply known as Notre-Dame) is a medieval Catholic cathedral located on the Île de la Cité (one of the last two natural islands in Paris and it is the center of Paris where the medieval city was refounded). The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture, and it is among the largest and most well known church buildings in the world. The naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture. Truly a must visit when you come to Paris. The next stop on my tour was the Hôtel national des Invalides.dscf0184

Les Invalides, or more commonly known as Hôtel national des Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids), is a complex of buildings containing museums and monuments (all relating to the military history of France), a hospital, and a retirement home for war veterans (the building’s original purpose). The buildings house the Musée de l’Armée (the military museum of the Army of France) and the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France’s war heroes, most notably the famous Napoleon Bonaparte.img_0821img_0841img_0837img_0848When I visited, I found it hard to believe that such a big coffin was made for such a small guy. It’s even more ironic that Napoleon’s wish was to be cremated, and the French people disagreed and built a huge tomb dedicated to him. I paid my respects to one of the greatest generals the world has ever known and then I was off to the Musée de l’Armée or Army Museum. img_0955

img_0938The Army Museum contains collections that span the period from antiquity through the 20th century. The Musée de l’Armée has 24 symbolic “treasures,” which are all closely linked to French military history from the late Middle Ages through World War II as well as countless of other pieces from around the world. This collection includes weapons, armor, works of arts and technology.

img_0898img_0906The Army Museum was like a bloody trip through French history. I could have stayed all day, but the day was getting late, and I had one last stop to make before the sun went down —the Eiffel Tower.img_0957Obviously, no trip Paris would be respectable without a trip to the Eiffel Tower. For those of you who didn’t know, it is a wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris. It is named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world and is 324 meters (1,063 feet) tall. At about the same height as an 81-story building, it is the tallest structure in Paris.img_0969I did not have enough time to go to the top, but from what I saw from the ground, it was jaw dropping. After a jam-packed day of French culture and history, I had some wine with a nice French dinner before I headed to bed so I could catch a train to Brussels in the morning. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been in, and the only two regrets I have are not going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and not visiting The Palace of Versailles, but those are two very good reasons to come back.palace-of-versailles-insidemedwt2071-753x320A few weeks later, I was back in France, but this time for the races in Monaco and I was staying in the neighboring city of Nice. Nice is a beautiful city located on the French Riviera. Their beach is not made of sand but rather large, smooth stones. They have a beautiful waterfront boardwalk and a completely different laid-back lifestyle than the Parisians. I came into Nice from Rome late in the evening. On the train, I met a couple of guys from the states who were backpacking as well. They said they didn’t have a room and were going to try to figure it out when we got there. Little did we know that most of the city shuts down late night, so they followed me to my hostel and were lucky that they had availability. We checked in and then headed down to the boardwalk where the nightclubs stay open later than the rest of the town.img_1526Walking up to the boardwalk, we came upon a huge checkerboard courtyard that was full of light posts with color changing lit-up men sitting on each one. There were musicians spread out, and for some reason there was belly dancers.We bar hopped along the beach for a while and then turned it in for the night because we were headed to Monte Carlo for the following day.place_massena_nice_conversations_jaume_plensa

I had a wonderful time all throughout France and enjoyed its influential culture and world-renowned heritage. It is important to remember that northern France and southern France are completely different. Paris is one of the greatest cities in the entire world, but the Parisians can sometimes be rude. So if you get a cold reception from Parisians, just remember it’s not that attitude throughout the rest of France. Au Revoir!

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Beijing, China

B,(As a traveler, I have always wanted to see historic man-made landmarks all around the world like the Pyramids of Giza, Angkor Wat, Christ the Redeemer, and especially the Great Wall of China, which is why I traveled to Beijing in 2012.asian-invasion-088I remember my first experience in Beijing very well because I was interrogated for three hours at the airport because someone at the airline didn’t send over my visa paperwork. Once my paperwork was cleared and after I received a crash course in Mandarin, I was told my visa was good for 72 hours and NOT to leave Beijing. This created a bit of a problem because technically you have to leave Beijing to get to the Wall, but I would figure that out later. I nodded, took my passport, grabbed my pack, and left.asian-invasion-087When I got outside, I realized that the temperature was drastically different from Hong Kong, which is where I had just come from. It was snowing profusely, and I was wearing shorts and flip-flops. After I did a quick outfit change, I caught the proper bus route to my hostel via their instructions. I arrived at my hostel in the middle of the night, and there wasn’t a single soul on the streets. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in such a huge metropolis and almost everyone was asleep. It may have been because it was a weeknight or because I was staying near The Forbidden City. I saw plenty of operating factories from the bus and some cars on the interstate, but when I stepped off the bus, I didn’t see anybody until I checked into my hostel.

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The hostel I was staying at was unlike anything I had ever seen. The front lobby and Internet area resembled a typical hostel, but once you walked beyond the front lobby, it opened up to a courtyard with two stories of surrounding rooms. Until that moment, I had only seen places like this in Kung Fu flicks. It was very cool because it was very authentic.dsc01140beijing_hutongs_vibrant_hutong_lifereal-hutongUpon dropping my bags off in my room, I headed out into the hutongs to grab some late-night dinner. Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods. I walked for about three blocks before I came across a small restaurant. I walked in, and the first thing I noticed was the row of ducks that lined the fireplace in the back.2ta-2-600x399

What I failed to notice was that the entire restaurant had stopped mid-bite to see the Gweilo (outsider) that just came in. I gave everyone a warm smile and followed the hostess to my seat. The entire menu was in Mandarin, but thank God for picture menus. A lot of stuff looked good and a lot looked strange, but the only thing I had on my mind was eating some Peking duck. I pointed to the picture on the menu and away went my server. When she came back, she had an entire cooked duck laying on a wood slab. She sat the duck down and then proceeded to whack her hatchet into it four or five times before pushing it towards me with a smile. As I looked into the duck’s eyes while I was consuming him, I realized that this was the best duck I had ever tasted. After filling up on duck and some neon-green juice to wash it down, I headed back to my hostel for the night.dsc01107dsc01104dsc01105The next day was the start of my real Chinese cultural experience. The hostel I was staying at was only about two or three streets from Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the center of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The next day when I headed out for breakfast, the streets were anything but quiet. The sidewalks were filled with people and lined with military and police personnel.

This was the first time in all my travels that I realized that if something goes bad here, there is no US cavalry over the next hill to save my ass. With that in mind, I headed to the front gates located near the huge picture of Mao Zedong to purchase my tickets to enter The Forbidden City.dsc01113The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It is located in the center of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.dsc01118 As I walked through the courtyard, I tried to imagine thousands of military personnel in rows awaiting orders from their great emperor. Not one detail was left out of the design and execution of construction of this palace. The Forbidden City becomes even more amazing when you realize that it was all built by hand and covers 180 acres or 720,000 square meters. Inside, there are five halls, 17 palaces, and numerous other buildings. The Forbidden City is alleged to have a total of 9,999.5 rooms. The half room apparently houses nothing more than a staircase.dsc01134dsc01133forbidden-city-map I took in the sights of the sights of The Gate of Supreme Harmony and The Hall of Supreme Harmony and exited through the Gate of Heavenly Purity to arrive on the backside of the palace and back among the hutongs.dsc01137The next stop on my sight-seeing trek was to find one of the last few entrances that lead into Mao’s secret underground city. The Underground City is a Cold War era bomb shelter consisting of a network of tunnels located beneath Beijing, China. It has also been referred to as the Underground Great Wall since it was built for the purpose of military defense. The complex was constructed from 1969 to 1979 in anticipation of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Underground City was built to house 40% of Beijing’s population. The Underground City is so big that it has its own stores, restaurants, clinics, schools, theatres, reading rooms, factories, cultivation farms, and even a rollerskating rink.

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As I was leaving, I asked someone for directions, but he didn’t speak English. Then a well-dressed Chinese woman came up to me and asked if I needed help and if she could practice her English with me. She pointed me in the direction I was asking for, and I let her tag along to practice her English. As we walked, I asked if she wanted to stop off for tea, and she agreed. We went inside a traditional Chinese tea parlor and got our own room with table. When waitress came in, she only spoke Mandarin to the lady I was with. We ordered a pot of tea with some pretzels and peanuts. Over a cup of tea, my companion asked me if I’d like to get a bottle of wine, and I thought that would be great. The lady then ordered a bottle of red in Mandarin from the waitress who then promptly grabbed our bottle. After a couple of glasses of wine, I asked for the check. When the check came, it read $735!! I asked the lady with me what the hell this was and she said it was a traditional Chinese lunch. Bullshit! I had seen enough of Beijing by this point to realize that not all 1.4 billion Chinese people are having $700+ lunches consisting of tea, wine, and Chex Mix. I told the lady I was with that there must be some mistake and I can’t afford that. She said she has money and that she would pay for 2/3 of it. I still thought that was outrageous, but I didn’t want to cause a scene and get thrown in communist, Chinese jail. So I paid my part of the bill and then said goodbye to my companion because I had already spent my budget for the day. I then went in search of the entrance to the Underground City only to discover that the government had closed down a lot of the entrances and the remaining few were closed for construction. When it rains, it pours. On the way back to my hostel, I managed to take some pictures of the Temple to Heaven, but I was not in the mood to take the tour.templeofheaven252812529On the way back to my hostel, I stopped off in a liquor store to find the answers as to what just happened at lunch. I quickly discovered that alcohol in Beijing is stupid cheap. A 100ml bottle of Chinese moonshine is only $0.85!gallery-7 So I grabbed a couple bottles and headed back to the hostel. In the social area, I sat down at a table and started drinking while I tried to wrap my head around how I just got bamboozled at lunch. After an hour or so of deep thoughts and a spotted liver, an Aussie couple came and sat down at the table. Their names were Rob and Ruth, and they were backpacking around the world together non-stop for two years! They asked me what I was celebrating, and I said nihilism. I then explained to them the situation I just encountered, and they felt so bad that they started drinking with me.

A little later on, the manager of the hostel came in and sat down with us. I explained to him what happened, and he said that was an old Chinese trick. He said that my companion told the waitress to dramatically inflate the price and then she would come back for her refund of the money and her cut of the profits. He said if you’re ever in that situation again, get the police involved. He said most tourists are afraid to get the police involved, but in reality the police there aren’t corrupt and will have your back. The government takes care of the police well enough and out of principle they won’t risk pulling a scandal on you and getting caught. Good to know, but that info came too late. We then headed out for some dinner and few more drinks. Along the way, I noticed that little children in China pee and poop out in public. Either the parent catches the shit with a paper towel as their kid defecates, or kids will unzip and stand over a grate and pea with pin-point accuracy. After dinner, we returned home. It had been an exhausting day, so I hit the sheets because I had to be up in the morning to catch my bus from Beijing to The Great Wall. I know I wasn’t supposed to leave Beijing, but I wasn’t about to come all that way not to see it.dsc01173

I awoke the next morning, ate breakfast, and then caught my tour bus out of the city. I don’t remember the ride to the wall because I slept the entire way, but I do remember getting out of the bus at the bottom of a hill and looking up and seeing the biggest man-made object in the world. It was grand in its vertical scale, but when you looked left and right you saw that the wall stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. I know it sounds cliché to say, but I was pretty great!dsc01151dsc01159dsc01165dsc01169More than a million people died building The Great Wall (some called it The Great Cemetery), and their efforts clearly still shine today. The longer you stare at The Great Wall, it becomes harder for you to grasp that a structure so big that it stretches for longer than 5,000 miles. I took many pictures, ate a huge lunch provided by the tour, and then headed back for my last night in Beijing.asian invasion 084.JPGimage13Along the way back, we dropped off other members of the tour and I got to see many outdoor food markets that were selling everything from fresh giant starfishes and eels to tarantulas and lizards. I would have never imagined people eating starfish. Once I got back to the hostel, I met Rob and Ruth in the social area, and we headed out for dinner at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAasian-invasion-085Quanjude’s is a world-famous Peking duck restaurant chain in Beijing and apparently have the best duck. I do not know because there was a three- to four-hour wait. We were already starving, so we hopped into another no-name restaurant down one of the hutongs. beijings-qianmen-area20161103_222237After a delicious dinner, we picked up some souvenirs and more moonshine, walked around bar-hopping, and then headed back the hostel so I wouldn’t miss my ride to the airport in the morning.My time in Beijing was short—but nothing short of fulfilling. I saw a lot of strange and fascinating things in Beijing, but it was definitely worth going just to see The Great Wall of China.DSC01154.JPGdsc01146screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-10-14-pmdsc01101dsc01143dsc01136dsc01135

Marrakesh, Morocco

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I’ve always wanted to step foot on all seven continents. I had achieved five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia) and looking to check Africa off my list next. I have seen the coasts of Djibouti and Somalia in the Navy, and I have been to the Seychelles Islands, but I had never stepped foot on mainland Africa until this fall of 2016.

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My wife and I were traveling between Spain and Germany for a few weeks and decided to take a cheap flight from Barcelona to Marrakesh for a few days. It’s a short hour and a half flight. As soon as we passed customs and I converted our money, we caught a taxi to the riad we were staying at. A riad is the term used for a Moroccan house with a courtyard or garden in the middle. It’s a short taxi trip from to the edge of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main market square in Marrakesh. maroc_marrakech_jemaa-el-fna_luc_viatour

As soon as we got out of the cab, we were swarmed by men either trying to help with our bags or show us how to get to our riad, and they all wanted to be paid for their services. I told them “stop” and “no thank you” in Arabic, and that seemed to do the trick. One guy said I’m going to get lost in the small alleys. What he didn’t know was that I had already programmed our riad all of the famous sights in Marrakesh into my GPS watch. I walked straight to our riad through a labyrinth of alleyways like I grew up in Marrakesh.20161002_10104620161002_192332

After we checked into our beautiful riad, my wife and I decided to go to the main market square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. As you walk down the small alleyways in Marrakesh, you have to really pay attention as to what’s going on around you. The alleyways are only six-feet wide with vendor shops pouring out onto the fringe and people on motorbikes sharing the same walkway. It’s not that dangerous; just pay attention to what you see coming at you and listen to what may be coming up from behind. As the alleyway opened up to the main square, we could immediately tell that we were in the heart of the city. There are hundreds of vendors selling everything from spices and fruits to oil lamps and rugs.20161004_20420620161003_21532020161004_204757

The sun was starting to set around this time, and I wanted to get a picture with the snake charmer and his cobras. The snake charmers are only out during the day because if a snake gets loose in the market after dark, it’ll be pretty hard to find. As we got closer to one of the snake charmers, he came up and shook my hand and started with whole sales pitch. I asked him how much, and he kept saying cheap and kept loading my body with snakes.20161002_195148

I figured it couldn’t be that much money in a country where people live off of $2.55 a day. After we got about eight pictures, the guy says he wants €50 ($55), and I told him to kiss my ass. He said that €50 is cheap and I said, “Ok, I’ll meet you halfway at €6.” He said, “This is nothing!” How ungrateful, right? He just made €6 tax-free in five minutes. If that’s nothing, then I’m in the wrong business. I told him, “Take it or leave it,” and he finally relented. Just as I was paying the snake charmer, I looked up and saw my wife getting pulled away by a woman in burka. Apparently, when I was paying the snake charmer, a lady who does henna tattoos came up and started working on my wife’s hand.20161002_200746 She told her repeatedly that she didn’t want it and that she had no money, but the henna woman kept going anyways. As I got closer, the lady tried pulling my wife into her chair that was in a row of other women trying to pull the same scam. Next thing you know, this woman and I are playing tug of war with my wife. I would have grabbed her arm and ripped it off my wife’s wrist, but when a Muslim woman is wearing a burka, it probably means she’s not supposed to have contact with any man but her husband. I didn’t feel like starting a religious, international conflict that week, so my wife and I simply pulled harder and eventually broke her grip. The woman started slinging vulgarities at us, including F-words, but we quickly walked away without looking back. I learned two valuable lessons that evening: 1. Never ever shake in hands in Marrakesh until a price is agreed upon. It may seem rude to refuse an introductory handshake, but the locals will know you’re no pushover. They consider a handshake to be something completely different over there. If you shake hands before a price has been settled on, you have already agreed to the transaction, and the price will be figured out later. 2. Don’t ever let you’re wife go out in a third world country wearing Tory Burch from head to toe, a Louis Vuitton handbag, and gold head band. It makes it harder to negotiate price when your wife is radiating money. After that culture clash, she decided to go back to the riad and change clothes.20161004_154601

For dinner that night, I indulged in one of my favorite meals in the entire world, shawarma. We have shawarma back in the states (or at least we claim we do), but it’s just not done right. Shawarma is an Arab and Israeli meat preparation in which lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, buffalo, or mixed meats are placed on a spit and may be grilled for as long as a day. I found a shawarma joint on the edge of the square and ate there three times a day every day I was in Marrakesh. For less than eight dollars, I was able to get two shawarma wraps with fries, two huge bottles of water, and two large fresh blended fruit smoothies. Gotta love that conversion rate! The main variable that makes or breaks a shawarma joint is the harissa sauce! Harissa is a delicious hot chili sauce. My wife has heard me bitch and complain about the lack of harissa sauce in the states for years, but after she tasted it in Morocco, she said she completely understood. After dinner, we turned it in for the night because we were going to be riding through the Palm Desert on camelback in the morning.

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The next morning we meet our tour bus with the other tourists on the edge of the main square. From there we went made a few more pick ups and then headed about an hour outside of Marrakesh in to the desert. After a while we pulled up to a small village that from the looks of it had been deserted, but as we got closer to our outpost, the tour guides and camels started to come into view. We got acquainted with our guides and camels and then were given head scarfs to help keep our heads cool.20161003_12253320161003_122608 We rode for an hour through the Palm Desert until we came across a little oasis with a clay hut and a gentleman ready to serve us a traditional Moroccan lunch consisting of mint tea and Moroccan Msemen flat bread. After sharing stories of who everyone was and where they were from, we headed back to the outpost to conclude our camel ride and head back to Marrakesh.20161004_142349

Once my wife and I arrived back in Marrakesh, we wanted to go take in some of the local historic sights. We first headed to the Saadian Tombs to view the beautiful architecture. The mausoleum contains the remains of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. The tomb was built in the late 16th century and was lost until being rediscovered in 1917. After paying our respects to the royal family, my wife and I headed to the Koutoubia Mosque.

The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest and oldest mosque in all of Marrakesh. The mosque was constructed in the mid-twelfth century and has remained ever since. We did not go inside because it was closed at the time we visited, but it was a sight to see. After the Koutoubia Mosque, we got a few pictures with monkeys in the market and then headed back to our riad for a much needed siesta. That night we just relaxed, took in the sights around us, and ate some more shawarma.20161003_143700

The next morning, my wife and I headed to the Bahia Palace before all the tour groups got there. The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens that was built in the late 19th century and intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means “brilliance.” As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the traditional Islamic and Moroccan style. This was accomplished the craftsmanship of woodcarvings, paintings, and geometric tile designs.20161002_124659img_830120161002_12441420161004_151619

After Bahia Palace, my wife and I headed back to Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main market) so I could try my luck at snake charming. Once we got there, we were immediately bombarded with snake charmers all with their hands out ready to shake. With one swift gesture I put both my hands in my pockets and said, “No price, no shake.” I was immediately elevated to a level of bargaining that they usually don’t get from a Yank. I said I wanted a few pictures playing the flute for the snake and a fair price that I wasn’t willing to budge from. One of the guys took my offer and then we shook on it. I got some great pics and then when I went to pay him, he wanted double my offer. I laughed and then gave him the amount we agreed upon. You have to be stern with these people or they will hustle every last cent out of you. I’ve been around the world, and these salesmen are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.14656381_10100809571838842_5501169822552510938_n

My wife and I then went shopping for an oil lamp that she wanted while I bought some Yves Saint Laurent replicas that I just couldn’t turn down. We then proceeded to stuff ourselves with more shawarma and tagine before heading to bed so we could wake up and catch our flight in the morning.

Overall, our entire trip to Marrakesh was wonderful. There was beautiful architecture, amazing food, and everything was cheap! The riad that we stayed in was called Riad l’heure D’été, and it was absolutely friendly, clean, and located within footsteps from all the main attractions. I highly recommend this riad to anybody who is planning a trip to Marrakesh.20161005_12085420161003_143323_001_0120161004_204419

Hong Kong

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When you talk about Hong Kong, you have to talk about Hong Kong like it is it’s own country. Even though the British gave back Hong Kong and Hong Kong Island back to the Chinese government in 1997, Hong Kong is very much different than the rest of China. Hong Kong operates under the “One Country, Two Systems.” This basically guarantees the people of Hong Kong will not be messed with economically or politically for the first 50 after Great Britain left in ’97. Needless to say, they have their own culture and their own flag to match.

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I visited Hong Kong when I was backpacking East Asia in 2013. I was leaving Cambodia and traveling to Beijing when I decided I wanted to stop off in Hong Kong for a few days to see about getting a new suit and to see if the Hong Kong replicas are all they’re cracked up to be. I flew into Hong Kong international airport, which is unlike anything i have ever seen; it’s essentially its own island.

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After grabbing my bags, the hotel I booked laid out a convenient bus route to take me from the airport to the hotel. The buses that service the airport are almost all red double-decker buses, just like the ones in Britain. It was about a 30- to 40-minute bus ride, but it was definitely worth it. The bus takes you up along the side of the mountain so that you can get a great view of Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, and Hong Kong Island. The waterways are filled with hundreds and hundreds of boats ranging from fishing boats to oil tankers. It’s really unlike and other port I’ve ever been to. As I got deeper into the city, the streets became very densely populated and came to life with upscale fashion, electronics, and noodle shops that literally went on for miles.

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The hotel I was staying at was called Chungking Mansions, and it is right in the center of Kowloon. Kowloon is the peninsula across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island and is the epicenter for entertainment and shopping on the mainland side. The “mansions” I was staying in were anything but luxurious. The mansions are closet-sized, single rooms located above a multitude of electronics stores, clothing wholesalers, and replica watch hustlers. But, considering the location, it was a good deal at only $30 a night.chungking-mansions-hong-kong-nathan-street-1160x833hong-kong-room

Surprisingly though, it was pretty quiet in my room. There were only three showers on the whole floor. And when I mean shower, I mean a one-person toilet room with a shower nozzle mounted on the wall above the toilet, a drain on the ground, and a glass folding door with the light switch in the hallway. I wasn’t complaining though; I was backpacking and was just happy to have a room to myself.img_1016

I cleaned up and then proceeded to head out and see the sights. As I was walking out of the building, I was approached by multiple men who were trying to sell me replica watches out of a catalog. I came to Hong Kong because I wanted to see if they really had the best replicas, so I asked one of the guys if he had Audermars Piguet and Patek Philippe watches and he said he did. Next thing you know, I’m two blocks away, on the 15th floor of some building in a Pakistani apartment with no windows, browsing through watch catalogs. Let me tell you now, the replicas in Hong Kong don’t live up to the hype. Every watch I picked they either wanted way too much for or the quality was far from par. Maybe I am a connoisseur for high-grade replicas, but I had just seen better quality and for a quarter of the price in Cambodia the day before. Once I evaded that situation, I then went in pursuit of a world-famous Hong Kong tailored suit.

Many of the streets are lined with custom suit shops, so it won’t take long to find one. As I looked through the shops, I saw high quality suits at high prices. I was under the impression that you could come to Hong Kong and get a beautiful suit for cheap. They do have quality, but I believe they overcharge on the price because they know they hype too. I had just purchased two gorgeous suits a week prior in Bangkok that was a fraction of the price of Hong Kong. The remainder of the afternoon was spent getting lost on the back streets and hopping from noodle shop to noodle shop before I headed out for St. Patrick’s Day. I can honestly say that the best noodle restaurant in all of Hong Kong is located at 17 Lock Rd, one block over Nathan Rd. in Kowloon. I ate at this restaraunt at least twice each day I was there. I can’t pronounce the name of the restaurant, but I have provided a picture and GPS location (22.297440, 114.171475). The restaurant is on the second floor with a street-level entrance.

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Next to my hotel was a really nice authentic-looking Irish pub. So what better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day than in an Irish Pub? Well, after I found out they were charging $10 for a pint of Guinness, I said, “Hell, if I’m going to pay $10 for a beer, I might as well go to the top of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) building.”

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It is the tallest building in Hong Kong, and they have a beautiful bar at the top. As I was walking to the ICC building, I saw multiple parks with people practicing Tai Chi. The parks in Hong Kong have people practicing Tai Chi and meditation all day and all night. I eventually reached the ICC and took the elevator to the 108th floor that opened up to a spectacular upscale bar and a 360 degree view of the whole city.asian-invasion-068dsc01018

After a few Guinnesses, I decided to head to Hong Kong Island to see what it had to offer. I took the subway under the harbour and popped up just around the corner from the main street where all the bars were located. After popping my head into a couple of pubs I met some German guys who were hopping around to and asked if I’d like to join. Naturally, I said yes.dsc01022

We were on our way to another pub when there was a tidal wave camera crew and photographers. Apparently, these people were filming a reality show in Hong Kong, and somehow I got wrapped up in the scene. After my ten seconds of Hong Kong fame, my new friends and I caught a cab back Kowloon where they were also staying and where I would ultimately turn it in for the night.

The next morning, I was headed to Macau with my new friends. But before I met up with them, I decided to go meditate at one of the many parks in the city. Then I headed down to Victoria Harbour where they have a Hong Kong movie Walk-of-Fame and a statue dedicated to Bruce Lee. I then caught up with my friends and took a hydrofoil ferry to Macau.h20tai20chi20002_web1asian-invasion-069turbojet_hydrofoil_cacilhas_in_hong_kong_harbor

When we got back that evening, I split off to go see the world-famous Victoria Harbour light show that happens every night on both sides of the harbour. If you ever go to Hong Kong, it is a must see on the to-do list. The show goes on for about ten minutes, and every building (no matter how big or small) is lit up with lights that operate in sequence to the music being projected. symphony-of-lightsdsc01050asian-invasion-072dsc01052

After the light show, I went shopping for a little while and then turned it in because the next day I was catching a flight to Beijing. Hong Kong is a place unlike any other. It’s similar to New York, but with a culture and outlook that sets it apart from any other city I’ve visited in Asia or the world. I very much enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and look forward to coming back to see some of the many sites that I missed, but for the short time I stayed, I couldn’t be happier.dsc01061

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Germany

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I first visited Germany when I was backpacking through Europe in 2010. I was heading from Amsterdam to Prague and decided to stop off in Berlin for a walk through history. Or in this case, it was a ride through history because the main highlight from my trip to Berlin was taking a Fat Tire Bike Tour throughout the city. I have taken the Fat Tire Bike Tour in Barcelona as well and can highly recommend their service if you’re looking for a funny, educational trip through time. On the tour through Berlin, I got to see sights like the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall,

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Hitler’s final bunker,

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Check Point Charlie,

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The Reichstag building,

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the Holocaust Memorial,

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the Brandenberg Gates,

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and many other historical sights.

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I loved every moment of Berlin because I am a huge history buff, the city was clean, everything operated efficiently, and my second language is German, so it was easy for me to get around. I only spent three days in Berlin, so the majority of this post is about my most recent trip to Germany in the fall of 2016.

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One of my best friends lives in Stuttgart, so my wife and I went to visit him. As soon as I got off the plane in Stuttgart, I felt at home. The air wasn’t humid, the leaves were changing because of the shift to fall, and all the taxis were Mercedes. Philip was still working, so we took a cab to his flat to meet up with a friend from Colombia, Ivan, who was also staying with him that week. We all got acquainted, and then Philip came home from work shortly thereafter. He said that he had a week full of activities planned based on what places and things we would like to see. It was late in the afternoon, and we were all hungry, so Philip suggested that we have dinner at the Fernsehturm Stuttgart.

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It is the first telecommunications tower in the world, constructed from reinforced concrete and has been the prototype for many such towers world-wide. From the top of the tower, you can see all of Stuttgart. It was overcast while we were up there, but I highly recommend going on a clear day.

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As we were up there, Philip pointed out the Stuttgart Oktoberfest that was all lit up and said that we would be going there the following night. We had to hurry to go to dinner so we can get up for a full day that was going to start with Philip getting a sports car for us to drive on the Autobahn.

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The next morning, I woke up after Philip left to go get the car. Ivan and I headed out to one of the many bakeries that are infused into German culture. After returning with breakfast for my wife, Philip showed up with a 2016 Lamborghini Huracan! The car is obviously only a two-seater, so he took my wife for a ride, then Ivan, and then he came back for me. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the section of the Autobahn that had no speed restrictions. After entering into no-speed-restrictions section, Philip did not seem to shy away from taking advantage of the car’s 5.2l V10 engine that produces a mean 602 BHP and can do 0-97km/h (60mph) in only 2.5 seconds! After a little bit of time, Philip let me take a turn behind the wheel for a short while.

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We were flying on the Autobahn, doing a calm 270km/h (168mph), when we ran into afternoon rush-hour traffic, and my dreams of breaking over 322km/h (200mph) had come to an end. Philip and I turned the car back in and quickly headed back to his flat so we could get changed for Oktoberfest that evening. Philip had three pairs of lederhosen for Ivan and me to try on, while my wife had a beautiful dirndl to wear that she borrowed from Philip’s mom. The lederhosen that Philip had were top-notch! The pairs that Ivan and I had were each around €500 while Philip’s lederhosen cost more than €1000. They were all made from deer suede and were embroidered and heat-branded with pictures of deer with huge antlers.

 

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Oktoberfest in Stuttgart is no joke. Just because it originated in Munich doesn’t mean Stuttgart takes the tradition lightly. As we arrived on the fairgrounds, I was almost blinded by all the bright lights coming off the amusement rides. I kept thinking to myself, you gotta have a pretty strong stomach to drink profusely and then climb into a pirate ship that goes in a complete circle. The Beirgartens were located throughout the park, but mostly toward the center. The “Beer Tents” in Germany are far from tents. They are massive buildings that are constructed in only two and a half months and look like they are meant to stand the next two and a half decades.

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After Oktoberfest, they take them all back down. We feasted on folk songs, many liters of beer, and outstanding German cuisine and then headed over to a private party hosted by Stihl power tools because Philip’s friend was bartending there. She got us into the party and then proceeded to feed us champagne, beer, and what seemed like an endless supply of Jagermeister shots.

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I was talking with this older guy from Holland that does the promotions for Stihl, and next thing you know he starts break dancing out of nowhere. He was in his 50s with a baldhead, a bright white beard and a helicopter leg swing that could rival Alfonso Ribeiro. That night was fun to say the least.

The next morning, we went to the Porsche Museum before we left Stuttgart. Stuttgart is home to the Porsche and Mercedes headquarters. We only had time to see one, so I went with Porsche. I have always had a fascination with the 911, but I plan on seeing the Mercedes museum next time.

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After seeing a vast array of trophies and racing machines at the Porsche Museum, we headed out of Stuttgart and off to the Bravarian region to explore Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle (Castle of King Ludwig of Bavaria). Neuschwanstein Castle (New Swan Rock Castle) is most popularly associated with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle (as my wife well knows) because it served as the inspiration.

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All along the way, we were greeted lush rolling green hills littered with small chapels and livestock. As we got closer to the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, we can start to see Neuschwanstein Castle.

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At the base of the mountain, there is a gorgeous lake that both castles overlook as well as a spectacular view of the farmland and the nearby village of Fussen. After taking in the beauty of King Ludwig’s Hohenschwangau Castle, we then headed up the road to his son Ludwig II’s castle. The castle was built in a Romanesque, Medieval style, but it is only about 150 years old. It’s construction was started in 1869 and was not completed until 1882, and none of the public saw the inside until the after the King’s death in 1889.

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After being opulently overwhelmed by the castle and the surrounding scenery, we all decided to stay in one of the many cute, German cottages in the city of Fussen because the next day we were headed to Munich for the original Oktoberfest.

The following morning, we drove about an hour and a half until we got to the center of Munich. After finding GS Hotel on short notice on Hotels.com, we were in a taxi on our way to the biggest festival in the world! And during the real time of Oktoberfest that takes place in the last week of September! When I got out of the cab, I couldn’t believe the size of it! It was the biggest festival that I have ever seen and it’s solely dedicated to copious amounts of dancing, eating, and drinking beer. I guess you could say it’s my Graceland.

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There are so many Beirgartens from all around Germany and other Germanic countries. The Biergarten that Philip got us into was supposed to be the most popular, and it takes a year to two years on the waitlist to get in, but Philip already had that covered, and we were seated right away. Everything was wonderful; the crowd was cheerful, the food was fresh and hot, and the beer was flowing by the gallons! Now, here comes the bad news. As the day goes on, people slip their friends into spots as soon as other people at the table leave. We had elbowroom at noon, and by 4pm, everyone is pushed up against the person sitting in the bench behind you. And then add on top that, almost everyone stands on the benches to sing. So the earlier the better, at least when you’re in the more popular tents.

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After a while, my wife and I decided to get some fresh air and go shopping for a beer stein to bring back. I have a hobby of collecting expensive beer steins from each Germanic place I visit, and this time was going to be no exception.

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After seeing every store twice and hours of negotiating prices in German, I finally got the good quality beer stein I wanted for a great price. My wife and I walked around from beer tent to beer tent, and then we caught a cab back to our hotel because we had a flight leaving at 2 p.m. the next day, two and a half hours away. We were a little worried about catching our flight because we lost Philip and Ivan earlier in the night, but like true champs, they came crawling in around 4 a.m. with sleeves from stamps of all the nightclubs they went to and an essence of bad decision making. We woke up early and headed back to Stuttgart to grab the remainder of our luggage and then off to catch a plane Barcelona. This trip to Germany was easily one of the best vacations I’ve had in my entire life!

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Hawaii

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Aloha! Hawaii is one of my favorite places on earth. Not only because of the great surf and the shaka lifestyle, but also because it is the place where my wife and I got married. I had been to Hawaii twice before in the Navy. The first time was for 48 hours, and the second time we were only in port long enough to resupply and then get back to San Diego. Most of my days as a sailor were spent like other sailors—drinking and making new friends. So I never got a real taste of the Hawaiian island lifestyle until I went with my wife.

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I do, however, remember the first time I saw Hawaii. It was the first time I had ever left the continent and wanted to see my first overseas exotic place. I was doing Sea & Anchor detail down in the forecastle of the USS Belleau Wood LHA-3. I was in an enclosed room with a crew of few that manually controlled the two 15,000lbs anchors that were used to stop a 50,000-ton ship (just under the size of an aircraft carrier). I remember standing there waiting for my next command when Master Chief said we could stick our heads out of the porthole and get a real sailor’s view of Hawaii.

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There were multiple portholes, but the ones with the best view were located on the forward keel of the boat. When it was my turn, I stepped up on the angle irons and stuck my head into what seemed like a dream. I was looking directly down at the keel of the ship as it was splitting crystal clear blue water. As it did so, dozens and dozens of flying fish were jumping off our wake and flying up to thirty yards before re-submerging. Then I looked port side and saw Oahu from about ten miles offshore. It had everything that I had come to expect from pictures. There were lush covered mountains, clouds that allowed for the sun to beam through, and a classic Hawaiian rainbow stretching almost the length of the island.

 

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The rest of the Navy story spirals out of control from there involving two guys in a urinal cake–eating competition, a girl that accidentally got mule kicked unconscious by one of my superiors, and I got kidnapped by a 550-lb. Polynesian. But that’s a different story for a different time.

This blog post is about my experiences in Hawaii while I was getting married. The first leg of our trip was from Tampa to LA and then we paid to upgrade to fly first class for our trip from LA to Honolulu. But as luck would have it, they ran out of champagne in first glass, so we only had half a glass each for us to toast.

I was disappointed with Delta about that one. We landed in Honolulu and were picked up by my fiancées Tutu (grandmother in Hawaiian) upon arrival. Tutu and Grandpa have lived in Hawaii Kai for more than 20 years. They are no longer visitors; they are kama’aina, which is Hawaiian for “local.” So if you’re ever in Waikiki and find yourself getting harassed by vendors, just say you’re kama’aina and they will immediately move on to the next tourist. After a long flight, we finally settled into the guest bedroom at my fiancée’s grandparents’ home and waited as other family members arrived from the airport. We then went to bed to rest for the activities that we planned for the week.

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The next morning, I woke up and went for a morning run to work out at the 24-Hour Fitness a couple miles away. Upon my return, my fiancée asked me why I was going for a run when we were just leaving to go hike a mountain? I had gotten the activities mixed up but met up with the rest of the family to climb Koko Crater. Koko Crater is a 1208-ft. ascension on an abandoned railway to a mineshaft and military bunker at the top. It makes for one of the best views in all of Oahu and is totally worth the climb. Plus, it’s free.horse11

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That afternoon, we went to our wedding rehearsal at Kualoa Ranch where our wedding would take place. Kualoa Ranch is famous because it was the shooting location for all of the Jurassic Park movies. After the wedding rehearsal, the family headed to Byodo-in Temple, located on the windward side of the island. It is a beautifully preserved Bushido Temple and cemetery. I’ve been to Japan, and I can honestly say that this temple and its surroundings completely reflect Japanese tradition.

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For dinner, a whole lot of family and friends headed to Hale Koa Resort for their famous luaus. The whole show and dinner were impressive to say the least. I had seen fire twirlers in Thailand, but the Hawaiians bring a completely different act. Aside from the fire twirlers, the hula dancers fulfill the cultural gap that makes the show that much more authentic to Hawaii. The luau host played a little game asking for all the engaged, newlyweds, and married folks in the audience to stand. He then asked the engaged to sit down, followed by the newly weds, and then eliminated the married couples until he came to the oldest couple in the audience who were celebrating their 73rd wedding anniversary! WOW. After an entertaining show and a full belly, we all retired for the night so we could go SCUBA diving in the morning.

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I love to SCUBA dive, and lucky for me so do almost all my new family members. That morning, we woke up and headed to the Patrick’s Diving Adventures, located on the other side of the island in Waianae. We went for a morning and early afternoon of beautiful SCUBA diving through lava tubes with tons of beautiful and colorful fish. I would have beautiful pictures of many reefs filled with fish, but my buddy whom I just loaned my GoPro to cracked the case before giving it back to me, so water unknowingly got inside. I didn’t realize this until I got back on the boat. By then, all the video and pictures were gone along with my GoPro. How do you even crack a GoPro case? We had even paid for a professional photographer to dive with us so he could take photos and videos with the GoPro. Fortunately, we salvaged some pictures from some other family members.

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Once back on shore from SCUBA Diving, half of us headed to the North Shore for some surfing and some Matsumoto’s shaved ice. We park along the roadside at North Shore and went down the walk way to the beach where you can find plenty of surfboards for rent. So, I grabbed a board and paddled out. It was on my bucket list to one-day surf the North Shore of Oahu. I caught about a hand full of decent rides in time of maybe 30 minutes before heading back to shore. This was the middle of June, and the real action doesn’t start until November. There was nothing really special to write home about, but I did surf North Shore.

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After surfing, I went in search of one of my favorite clothing lines from the ’80s that is only based out of Oahu—Town and Country Surf Designs (better known as T&C Surf Designs).

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Once I was successfully outfitted, we returned to Waikiki to meet up with the Asian side of my wife’s family. Before I go any further, maybe this would be a good time to point out that my wife is half white and half Asian. I tell her she is “White Rice,” haha! The Asian side decided that they wanted to do Korean BBQ for dinner, and Waikiki was host to one of the best outside of South Korea (probably North Korea too). The name of the restaurant was 678 Hawaii, and all your meals are served and cooked with grill-at-the-table yakiniku barbecue style.

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The next day, while the rest of the family was off at the famous Aloha Stadium Market Place, I was taking my first flying lesson. My wife’s grandfather who is living in Hawaii is a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot instructor. Needless to say, he doesn’t have a jet fighter plane anymore, but he does have a single engine Cessna that is perfect for island hopping.

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We went over our flight plan, radio checks, and next thing you, know we’re taxiing the runway. Grandfather Richard, as we call him, obviously took controls until after we took off. But once we were at safe cruising altitude he started instructing me on instrument gauges, throttle control, and simple plane movements. After 20 minutes of getting a feel for how the plane was reacting to my movements, I was flying between the Hawaiian Islands!

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I saw everything from old and new shipwrecks to rainbow-infused waterfalls as I banked between the lush, green mountains. My nerves were a complete wreck because of the exhilaration of the first time you actually fly a plane. Then Grandfather Richard said we should try and little touch and go. Touch and go is when you land a plane just to take off from the runway again. There was a small airport just a couple miles away on Molokai in Kalaupapa. Kalaupapa is an old leper colony set up in the late 19th century to quarantine people during a leprosy outbreak. Grandfather Richard obviously landed the plane, but once we were on the tarmac he turned all the controls over to me and said, “Let’s go back up.”

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The first time you take off in a plane that you are in complete control over, you’d better have your balls screwed on tight for that one. You have to completely commit to the ascension and what was earth showing through the window a second ago is now a tilt back with only the light blue yonder and a couple clouds staring back. Just when I thought that this flying experience couldn’t get any better, Grandfather Richard radioed in a request for us to fly over Pearl Harbor. They approved, and I changed my course heading. As we got closer, I encountered a cluster of clouds that blinded my view, but I was still flying off my gauges and GPS unit. And just as I got through to the other side of the cloud cluster, the clouds parted and I was just approaching Pearl Harbor. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to see the same view as the Japanese Kamikaze pilots saw more than 70 years earlier. We circled over Battleship Row and saw the USS Arizona like this sailor had never seen before. I’ve come in and out of that port as a sailor, but never as a pilot. After circling a couple more times, we flew back to the airport where Grandfather Richard stored his plane, and I thanked him for one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. He has inspired me to get my pilot’s license in the future. To end an emotionally draining day, we went back home to some single malt scotch and fine cigars.

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The following morning, the next item on our wedding itinerary was to relax most of the day at Hanauma Bay. Hanauma Bay was just a short walk from the grandparents’ house and is a State Park, Nature Preserve, and a National Treasure. It’s a beautiful bay that is filled with thousands and thousands of fish and aquatic life. You have to watch a short video presentation about preserving the bay, but after that, you’re allowed to enter. You can easily see why the State of Hawaii goes to great lengths to protect it from tourists.

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13466163_10100724320158892_3065324961563931411_nThat evening, the whole wedding party gathered back at the grandparents’ house for the rehearsal dinner that was nothing short of classy and classic. We drank and dined into the night and then I headed back to stay with one of my groomsmen to stay at his hotel because I couldn’t see the bride before the wedding. A couple of my groomsmen and I went out for one last hoorah in Waikiki. We went on a short pub-crawl until we ended up at a fully authentic Japanese karaoke club with multiple enclosed rooms for drinking having your own small private Karaoke parties. After a short-lived time in the karaoke bar, we headed back to the room to crash so that I wouldn’t be hungover or late for my own wedding.

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Without going in to too much detail, the wedding was perfect, I cried, and we got married at one of the most beautiful places on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Getting was clearly the best and most moment in my life so far. After the wedding ceremony, my wife made us all take a picture pretending that there was a T-Rex at the wedding so she could Photoshop it in later.

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After we took more wedding photos at Kualoa Ranch, we hopped into our limo and met the rest of the wedding party downtown at the exclusive Plaza Club in downtown Honolulu. My wife even designed our cake to look like suitcase luggage with multiple travel stamps covering it. Our reception was on the top floor with a 360 view of all of Honolulu.

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After much dinner, drinking, and dancing, my new wife and I returned to our Honeymoon Sweet at the world-famous Moana Surfrider Hotel right on Waikiki.

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The next morning, while the wife was sleeping in, I grabbed my best man who was staying down the hall at Surf Rider and we went out to catch some morning waves as the tide was coming in. We caught about a dozen each and then grabbed our girls for some lunch at Cheeseburger in Paradise. This is one of my favorite places to eat in Waikiki because it’s reasonably priced, you get good size portions, it’s delicious, and they have a killer breakfast special. The one thing that I regret that I didn’t do while I was there was the Cheeseburger Challenge.

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That afternoon we laid around on our balcony that overlooked the Pacific and sipped champagne until it was time to go to Disney’s Aulani Resort for final wedding photos and a world-class Hawaiian buffet that went on for miles

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The next day, we all had lunch at the Hard Rock Café before returning back to the grandparents’ house to pack our final things before catching our flight home that evening. I absolutely love everything about Hawaii, and I now understand why so many people want to live and retire here. Every day was amazing, and I can’t wait to return in the wintertime to SCUBA dive with the humpback whales. This purpose of this blog was to talk more about my experience with Hawaii and not focus too much on my wedding directly. Later I will post a separate blog section explaining how to get married in Hawaii and how to plan a wedding around a travel theme. I look forward to sharing soon. Aloha and Mahalo.

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