Amsterdam, Netherlands

On my Euro trip back in 2011, I took a train from Brussels to Amsterdam to see how wild a city it really was. Amsterdam is known for legalizing marijuana, prostitution, absinthe, and magic mushrooms. All along the train ride, I saw beautiful, lush green fields (some filled with tulips), windmills (new and old), and hundreds of little boat canals that were the arteries of the countryside. On each one of these tiny canals were long, narrow houseboats that were probably about 60 feet in length each.

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The train ride wasn’t too long thanks to the high-speed rail system, which gave me enough time to appreciate the countryside without getting bored. One of my favorite things to do while taking trains is to go hang out in the dining cart. You can sit there and have a meal, make new friends, and have a pint all while watching little towns and the beautiful countryside pass by.

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I arrived in Amsterdam just as the sun was starting to go down. I knew I better put a little pep in my step if I was going to catch the trolley to my hostel, check in, get situated, and still get back to Dam Square.

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Dam Square is pretty much the epicenter of Amsterdam. Everything except for a couple museums and The Hague happens in or around Dam Square. As I came walking out of the train station, I looked over to my left and saw this beautiful basilica named St. Nicholas reflecting back the dusk sun off of its gorgeous gothic architecture. St. Nicholas Basilica is the only basilica in Amsterdam. I took a quick picture of the basilica, read the directions to my hostel and caught the trolley.

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My hostel was about 20 minutes outside of Dam Square and located around the corner from the Van Gough Museum. As I arrived at my stop and exited the trolley, I made a beeline straight towards my hostel. Upon checking into my quaint little hostel, I headed back to my trolley only to find that on the other side of the street was a black-tie event at what looked like an opera house. I needed a landmark to reference in case I got lost later and need a reference; I then jumped on the trolley and head to Dam Square. Once back in Dam Square, I started to gaze in amazement at all the signs that were advertising sex shops, coffee/tea shops, and bakeries. I already had a full stomach from eating on the train, so I decided to have dessert—absinthe.

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If you don’t know what absinthe is, here is a crash course. Absinthe is a 90–148-proof alcohol that is infused with herbs and tastes like licorice. One of these herbs is called wormwood and contains a chemical named thujone that if consumed enough has hallucinogenic effects. So…walk before you run when it comes to absinthe. Vincent Van Gough drank too much one night and cut off his ear and gave it to a whore. Absinthe is not legal in the states, but is all over Europe and comes in an array of colors depending on the potency. Green absinthe is the most popular and is referred to as “The Green Fairy.”

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There are dozens and dozens of bars that line the streets around Dam Square, and they all have absinthe. After having a few drinks made with the traditional fire and sugar-cube method, I headed out to find a coffee shop. In Amsterdam, they don’t call the place to buy weed a smoke house or anything like that. Instead, they refer to them instead as coffee shops. Every coffee shop has three things: coffee, tea, and high-grade marijuana. You don’t have to necessarily buy weed from the coffee shop and can bring your own, but you must at least buy a coffee or tea to stay. I’m not much of a coffee person, so I stuck to tea. My favorite coffee shop hands down was Babba Bar.

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You walk in, go up to one counter and order your tea from a menu, then step over to a booth that has menu of all the different strands of marijuana posted. You place your order, grab your weed and a one of the dozens of beautiful acrylic water bongs available for use, and then sit down at a table or lounge area to wait for your waitress to bring over your tea. Located across from most coffee shops coincidently are some of the most delicious Dutch bakeries you will ever see.

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It was a very chill and relaxed environment. I made friends with some people from Milan who told me they come to Amsterdam every summer because they enjoy the people. They were right; the people of Amsterdam are very, very friendly. I finished my tea and my smoke and then headed out to have some more absinthe.

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I walked down the street and popped my head into a pub that had a bar with tiny chandeliers above the bar and they had the green fairy. So I ordered drink, twisted a spliff, and smoked at the bar while enjoying the American music playing in the background. I enjoyed so much absinthe that colors were becoming more and more vivid, and my depth perception was changing into something I had never experienced before. I wasn’t stumbling drunk, but rather wide-awake and taking in the amazement of this foreign luxury. I did know that I had reached my limit and walked back to the trolley station so I could get back to the hostel and plan my following day.

I asked one of the trolley personnel which trolley went to the opera house and politely told me the number. I got onto the trolley I was told and was on my way. After a little while, the trolley started thinning out and we were approaching the end of the line. Finally, the trolley driver said, “Last stop, opera house,” but this was not the building I remembered. I described to the driver the building I saw and he said, “Oh, you’re looking for the Theater.” At that moment the absinthe really kicked in. He also said that was the last stop for the train that night and I couldn’t ride back. Now I was totally freaking out because I was in an unknown part (to me) of Amsterdam, no trolley to get back, and the absinthe kept intensifying.

After I had stepped off the trolley, two ladies came up to me. They asked if I was an American and I said yes. They said they were from Houston and they overheard my dilemma. They said, “Don’t worry. If you ever get lost in Amsterdam, just jump on any bus or trolley, and they all head back to Dam Square. The trolley runs about every ten minutes until 11pm (it was past 11pm), and when they shut down and then you just have catch the bus that comes every hour on the hour.” A huge sigh of relief came over me and gave these ladies a big bear hug and then decided to step into the pub I was standing in front of to have another drink until my bus arrived. Right on the hour, the bus showed up and I was on my way back to Dam Square. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how convenient this was and how it took all the guesswork out if I got lost. I ended up back in Dam Square and bumped into the Italians from Milan. We went out for one last absinthe before I caught the right bus to the theater next to my hostel.

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The next morning, I woke up and headed out for breakfast. As I was walking along the street, I was amazed as how many people road bicycles in Amsterdam. It’s one of the main means of transportation for people living in the city. After eating at a small Dutch bakery, I headed over to The Van Gough Museum to take in some culture.

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Upon taking in unforgettable memories of priceless art, I headed back to Baba Bar. I chillaxed in Baba Bar for an hour or so, had lunch with some absinthe, and then proceeded to The Rembrandt Museum where I took in more culture. I then went back to Dam Square and watched soccer in the pub until it was time for dinner.

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One of the more innovative things that I saw were these port-o-potties for men to step into and take a pee instead of doing it in an alley around the corner. What a brilliant idea! I wish we had a convenience like that in every major city. At dinner, I had a couple more absinthes, made some English friends, and then we went on a pub-crawl for the remainder of the night.

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I awoke the following morning, had breakfast, and headed back to Dam Square to get a little more culture at the Heineken factory. I went in and paid an entrance fee of $12 that included a tour and two beers in the private Heineken bar. As I walked through the tour I thought, “This is pretty cool,” then I turned a corner and saw an entire part of the tour dedicated to James Bond. How could this get any better? Heineken has been featured in every James Bond movie in some shape or form.

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After the Heineken factory, I headed out for some souvenir shopping before I left that afternoon on a train headed for Berlin. As I waited in the train station, I was leaning up against a railing with my headphones in, thinking to myself, “This trip just keeps getting better and better. I wonder where the next excitement will come from.” Just as I was thinking that, a train pulled up in front of me, the doors opened, and thousands of soccer fans all piled out of the train. They were there for the final match of the Dutch soccer tournament. All the men and women were all decked out in jerseys, scarfs, and face paint. They all erupted into their football club’s chant, and the entire place went wild. I got a little choked up because I was so happy to be in a place where the people shared the same interests as me. That moment just solidified my intuition that Europe is the place for me.

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Amsterdam is one of the most fun-filled places I have ever been. It’s a place where all bets are off (for the most part), anything goes, and nobody abuses that privilege. The people of Amsterdam enjoy their coffee shops, red-light district, and bicycle rides. These are some of the happiest people I have ever met, and after a couple days in Amsterdam, you’ll know why.

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Thailand

The second stop on my Asian Invasion back in 2013 was to Thailand. You can’t go to Southeast Asia without seeing the beautiful and friendly country of Thailand. The first place I flew into was the capital, Bangkok. People call Bangkok “The Gateway to Southeast Asia.” As soon I cleared immigration and customs, I grabbed a taxi from the airport to the hostel was staying at.

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Until I was in country long enough to know what I should pay for transportation, I told the cabby to turn on his fare meter. You will have plenty of taxi drivers coming up to you at the airport and giving you a flat rate to your destination. At first it sounds like a good deal because naive Americans will think that $10 sounds like a good deal, but after you get used to the costs of things, you realize that you could have gotten that same trip for $6 if you would have had him turn the his meter on. It’s also a good way to find out right off the get-go how to determine the cost of things or at least transportation. I would have just taken a tuktuk/rickshaw to my hostel, but it was too far for one of those.

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Upon arriving at my hostel, HI-Sukhumvit, I went inside to what looked like a low-grade hotel, but decent at the same time. I walked to the front desk to check in, and the lady at the front desk told me that some rooms (including mine) were having construction done to them and I had been reassigned to their sister Hostel, 100 meters down the road and around the first corner. As I came walking up to this place, I almost sh*t myself. Somehow by the grace of God, I was upgraded from what was a Motel 6 with a room with 4 people to my own private room with a flat-screen TV at their new 4-star hotel.f

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Thailand was off to a great start! After checking around 2 in the afternoon, I caught a Tuktuk to Khaosan Road. Khaosan Road is a street in the center of Bangkok where anything and everything takes place. I knew that I could branch off this street and find a bargain at one of the many tourist travel agencies. I highly recommend doing this because all the guesswork will be taken out of the activities you want to do, including transportation to and/or from your hotel anywhere in Thailand. There are plenty to choose from, so you can shop for the best price. After walking into the agency I choose, I came out about 30 minutes later with transportation from Bangkok to Ko Chang (“Elephant Island”), Ko Chang to Siem Reap, Cambodia, plus ringside seats to the following night’s Muay Thai fights at the world famous Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. I think I paid around $120 for everything.

 

Once transportation had been arranged, I walked back to Khaosan Road to shop one of the many tailor shops they have there. These places are great! They have you pick from a warehouse of fabrics so they can custom tailor the exact suit you want made in the exact color, style, and lining of your desire. (Custom fitting is included in the price too.) By the time I left there, I had designed my own dark royal blue, British-cut, three-button, Burberry-lined, three-piece suit along with a custom tie and oxford shirt for $120, plus another $20 for shipping back to the states. If you do decide to grab a suit, make sure you give two days to allow for your initial fitting and then a follow-up to make corrections. Even though they took my measurements that night and started work on it, I still had to come back the next day to try on the almost-finished product for any last-minute alterations before I left town and they shipped it off.

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After my suit fitting, I caught another tuktuk for only a couple dollars to the Wat Po. It is a Buddhist temple complex in the Phra Nakhon District. In Wat Po resides The Great Golden Reclining Buddha, which is one of the largest statues in all of Thailand.  It is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, which is still taught and practiced at the temple. There are plenty of historic temples located in the same area so you’ll have plenty of photo opportunities.

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I achieved complete nirvana and exited the wat (temple) and then tried to catch a tuktuk back to my hotel. However, by this time, rush hour was in full effect and it was hard to grab a tuktuk or a cab, so I resorted to taking a motorcycle taxi. Let me say now that I have raced motorcycles and I jump out of planes regularly, but this was the scariest ride of my entire life. We were dipping in and out, side by side with other traffic all while having to dodge a gauntlet of rearview mirrors protruding from the thousands of cars and motorcycles competing with us. My driver was doing all this one-handed while trying to shove a Nokia phone into his helmet so he could have a conversation. I will admit that motorcycle taxis are hands down the cheapest and fastest ways to get around Bangkok. If you don’t mind a white-knuckle, fearing-for-your-life ride until you get used to it, it’s the best ride in the park.

 

Once I arrived back at my hotel for a shower and a drink to calm my nerves, I went to the rooftop pool. Up there, I met two guys from France and another from The People’s Republic of Congo. They had just arrived at the hotel shortly before and were trying to decide what they wanted to do for the night, so I suggested Khaosan Road because they hadn’t seen it yet. We all piled into a cab and were on our way.

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Khaosan Road looks just like the opening scene from the movie The Beach. There’s street food ranging from chicken and beef to scorpions and roaches. There are vendors selling replicas with everything from watches and college degrees to the entire line of Bose and Beats headsets. My new friends and I drank a couple buckets of long island ice teas, ate some bugs, and then went back to the hostel to retire for the night.

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The next day, I woke up and headed back to Khaosan road for my final fitting for my new suit and to pick up some souvenirs. After getting my final fitting, I decided to get a replica Beats by Dre headset. I walked in to one of the many stores selling them in plain view and started negotiating for the pair that costs $300 back in the US. After I test drove the pair and color that I wanted, I started to negotiate with the guy and got him down to $50, but I told him that I wanted the pair I tried out and not some pair pulled from the back. They boxed them up in a perfect replica box with all the same stuff you would get with the real ones. I then walked around and bought some other souvenirs, ate some more street food, and then hopped on a motorcycle taxi to head back to my hotel to drop off the souvenirs and shower before tonight’s Muay Thai fights.

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After I showered, I decided to take a real taxi to the stadium because I was too tired to slalom in and out of traffic on a motorbike. I soon arrived at the stadium, gave the guards my pre-paid ticket, and was then shown to my seat. I ended up getting sat next to three French guys who practiced mixed martial arts, and we all had some beers. We paced ourselves because there are 10 fights, each lasting five rounds of three minutes. The first fights start with the eight-year-olds and then goes up in age from there. When you hear the bell ring for the first match and you see these two cute kids come out from their corners, you think to yourself, “This is so cute.” Then the two little scrappers engage in throwing a barrage of elbows and knees to each other’s heads and vital organs. By the time the fights reached the ten- to twelve-year-olds, fighters were starting to get knocked out cold!

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About halfway through the fights and few more beers, I hopped the waist-high wall that separates the paying spectators from the taxi drivers who bet on the fights. I wanted in on the action and started betting based on what round it was. We bet if one of the guys was going to get knocked out that round, or if they were going to be able to go the whole 5 rounds. I can sadly say that I did not gamble my way to being a millionaire that night, but I at least broke even.

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The fights were over around midnight and then I headed back to my hotel because I had a bus to catch from Bangkok to Trat and then catch a boat to Ko Chang. I was sitting in the front seat of the bus waiting for some other people, and I had a terrible hangover. I put on my new headset to drown own the traffic and crying children and hit “play music” on my phone and the headset did not work. I thought to myself, ”Sh*t, this is exactly what I didn’t want. I thought I did everything to avoid getting hustled.” I then had two choices: either carry around these big headphones for the next couple weeks and hope they start to work or roll down my window and give them to a poor kid—I chose the latter. I looked out the window and saw a kid walking with his parents carrying a basket of fruit on his head. I leaned out the window and told the kid to come here. He put down his basket and told his parents he’d be right back. The kid came up to the window looking scared and confused. I then grabbed the headset with all the goodies and handed it to him. This kid’s face lit up like fireworks, and you would have thought that it was his birthday and Christmas morning all wrapped into one. His parents were just as grateful. I felt a little bad because they didn’t work, but I figured he had a cousin down the street who could fix them.

 

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I then slipped into a short coma until I arrived a few hours away at the docks in Trat to catch my boat to Ko Chang. Upon arriving on Ko Chang, I rented a motorbike for only $10 a day to explore the island at my leisure. I then asked directions to my hotel and was on my way. I followed the directions and came across this beautiful hotel that looked very modern. I thought, “Damn, you gotta love that exchange rate!” I walked in to the lobby and gave my name for my reservation. The lady tried looking me up, but couldn’t find my reservation. I showed her the email on my phone, and she said, “Oh, you’re looking for the huts just up the side road and in the jungle.” I got on my bike and went about 100 yards up a tiny road, only to come across a community of third-world huts. No wonder it was only $12 a night. I went to the first hut that was also the main office. Inside was the ugliest lady-boy I have ever seen. He was dressed in complete drag, loving life, and not at all hiding his Adam’s apple. I checked-in and then he/she showed me to my hut. It looked like at it was straight out of a National Geographic special, but it was only $12 a night and I was in paradise with my own room and water closet (bathroom).

 

I unloaded my gear and then took the bike back into town where I previously saw a SCUBA dive center. I went in and made reservations for a two-tank dive the next day. I was originally going to go to Pattaya Beach from Bangkok to see the crazy nightlife I heard about in the Navy and dive there, but I made a friend in Kuala Lumpur airport who told me there is much better diving in Ko Chang. She was right. I booked my dive, ate some street food, and then went bar hopping around the island for a couple of hours until I turned it in for the night so I could be fresh and crisp for my morning dive.

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The next morning, the dive center sent a truck to come pick me up from my hut. I jumped in the back and was greeted by a gentleman from Sweden. He was there on holiday as well and loved SCUBA diving. We picked up a couple more people and then headed to the docks. There, we were greeted by our dive masters and issued equipment. We then boarded the boat and headed out for a beautiful day of diving. We got back to docks around sunset.

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The Swede and I decided to meet up for dinner and explore more of the island. After heading back to my hotel for a much-needed shower, I met the Swede and his buddy down the street from my hut at a classy American Western–themed restaurant for a drink. We each had a few whiskies and then went looking for street food. Along the way, I came across a guy selling Beats by Dre headphones. He kept trying to pitch me, but I said, “Hell no. I already got screwed once on these damn things.” He said, “Which ones?” I pointed at the big pair and said, “Those!” He promptly replied, “Oh, you mean the ones that take batteries?” All the blood rushed out of my face. I asked him to repeat that again, and sure enough I heard him right the first time. Apparently, when I was paying the guy in Bangkok, his partner took out the batteries to use in another display model and didn’t tell me they were battery-powered.

 

The Swedes and I immediately headed to the next bar to put my shame to rest. Over a drink, one of the Swedes said, “There are fire dancers on the beach tonight.” We walked for about 20 minutes until we came across a big resort that had a dozens and dozens of beach chairs and social areas to mingle before the show started. We had drinks and made some new friends until the fire show started. The show consisted of six men who had fire-twirling talents that I had never seen before. I’ve been to impressive luaus in Hawaii, but this was just a different style and it’s hard to describe it unless you’ve seen it. Nonetheless, the show was entertaining to say the least. I headed back to my hut so I could get some sight seeing in before I left the following day.

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On my last day, I woke up, grabbed some street food breakfast and then went to an elephant ranch to get a picture with an elephant. Elephants are greatly revered in Thai culture, so I couldn’t visit the Island of Elephants without at least getting a picture with one.

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I got my Kodak moment, returned the motorbike, and then headed to the docks to catch a boat back to the mainland. Upon arrival, the bus driver that I had arranged in Bangkok to take me from Trat to the Thailand-Cambodia border greeted me. I got on the bus and enjoyed the beautiful sights of the Thai countryside all the way to the Cambodian border.

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Brussels, Belgium

On my way from Paris to Amsterdam, I had time to stop off in Brussels for the afternoon—thanks mostly to the efficiency of Europe’s high-speed rail system. My train arrived at the one of the classiest train stations I have seen in Europe. Everything looked clean and new, and the walls even had stained-glass murals throughout the structure. As I walked up and out from the train station to the surface level, I quickly discovered why the train station was so nice; it’s located directly underneath the European Parliament. The European Parliament building is gigantic in size, covered with glass, and located next to the Place du Luxembourg (a famous local square in Brussels).

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I had an afternoon to kill, so I decided to see some of Brussels’ landmarks. Just west of the Place du Luxembourg is one of the beautiful parks that are littered throughout the city. I asked a lady to take a picture of me in front of a huge gate that had lion statues on each side of it. The lady just happened to be working for the American embassy in Brussels. She told me the gate that I just took a picture in front of is actually the rear side of the Royal Palace of Brussels. She said for me to go northwest on Rue Belliard, through Parc de Bruxelles, and after I get to the other side of the park to go southwest and I’ll come to the front of the palace. Her directions were spot on.

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After walking through vast array of trees and artistic statues I came upon the front of the palace, I took a couple pictures and then asked another polite stranger where I should go for some good Belgium beer, chocolate, and waffles. He told me the main tourist area was only about a kilometer away and that he happened to be heading in that direction. Sure enough, after chit chat for a short walk, we came to a street that was lined from side to side with Belgium flag pennants overhead. He said to go down that street and you’ll arrive at the Town Hall located at Grand Palace Square. He said from there you could find anything and everything you want. So I headed down to take some pictures of the Town Hall and then was in search of beer, chocolate, and waffles (not necessarily in that order).

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I was clearly in the most dominant tourist area and had my pick of many pubs that surround the square and flowed down each connecting street. So I sat down, asked the bartender what are some of the better beers that are produced in Belgium and which are not readily available in the United States. He showed me a list, narrowed it down for me, and then I tried his top three choices (not all at once). Let me go on record as saying that I can’t remember which beers I sampled, but Belgium beer is divine.

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After a liquid lunch I was in search of chocolate-covered Belgium waffles. As I looked around, I saw a huge Haagen-Dazs boutique that had sign featuring chocolate-covered Belgium waffles displayed in the front window. I made a beeline for a table outside. The entire time I was thinking to myself with a name like Haagen-Dazs, this has to be an authentic Belguim company. Wrong! I did not find out until after I returned to the states that Haagen-Dazs is as American as apple pie. I will say that I was able to order Belgium waffles with chocolate and that the chocolate that they used was specifically made in that region of Belgium.

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The last thing I had to do on my to-do list was to buy a beer stein from Belgium. I collect a beer stein from every Germanic country that I visit. My father collected steins, and I like to continue that tradition. I usually like to spend anywhere from $100 to $200 on a souvenir (conversation piece) from each country I visit and then ship the items back to me in the states so I don’t have to take the chance on breaking it by lugging it around. Besides, it’s nice to get home and then every other day after your return you get a little present from yourself from a different country you went to. This seems to be the best method when you’re a backpacker.

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If you’re backpacking, set aside a portion of your money for shipping and then determine the weight and frequency in which you should ship things back. I only had one souvenir with me, so I carried it with me until I shipped out more souvenirs from the next stop on my trip. After buying my stein, I had a couple more beers before heading back to the Bruxelles-Luxembourg station and then was off to Amsterdam. I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wanted to in Brussels, but in the short time I was there, I got an eyeful of historic sights and a belly full of chocolate, waffles, and beer.

Tokyo, Japan

In 2013, the first leg of my Asian Invasion was a stop off for a few days in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo is exactly like everything you have ever seen and read about it. It is the future and the past coexisting next to one another. You can walk by a pair of skyscrapers that set the standard for what the future of architecture will look like, and then sandwiched in between these two buildings will be an ancient Bushido temple that has been there for hundreds of years. Everything is clean, everyone wears black and white apparel for the most part, and everyone takes honor in displaying respect for one another.

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I first arrived at Narita Airport, which is located a little longer than an hour away from downtown Tokyo by train. I got into the airport around 4 p.m., so I was still able to see the countryside while in transit from the airport to my hostel located in Kuramae, Taito-ku. My train stop was only about a block and a half from my hostel, which made getting around super simple and super fast. The name of the hostel was called Nui. Hostel & Bar Lounge, Tokyo. I highly recommend staying here whether you’re alone or as a couple. It is very quiet compared to most hostels, it has social areas located on the top floor, and it has a beautiful lobby that has a bar made from a 1,000-year-old tree. The hostel definitely lives up to Japanese quality standards for a very affordable price.

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I arrived at the hostel and checked in. The sun was setting, so I wanted to go see the Tokyo I had seen in Blade Runner and the futuristic movie backdrops I had seen since I was a kid. I headed out of my hostel, caught the underground, and headed straight to the Akihabara district. Akihabara is an epicenter for the latest electronics. Dozens upon dozens of ten-story or taller buildings that are full of the latest technology, ranging from 3D TVs to drones to high-tech spyware. You don’t have to travel very far to see technology and neon signs in Tokyo, but Akihabara is where you go if you’re a gadget geek. I was just getting a feel for what I was looking at for prices and options because I didn’t want to spend all my money on the first night.

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After catching a mild case of cataracts from all the flashing gadgets, I decided to head over to the Shibuya district for some authentic sushi. Shibuya is famous for its night clubs but most importantly for its world-famous intersection crossing.  Around 2,500 people cross that intersection every time the signal changes. That’s about 45,000 people every 30 minutes.

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As you walk by hundreds of different sushi shops, the streets are lined with girls dressed like anime handing out fliers. I don’t speak a lot of Japanese, but I know enough to see drink and sushi specials. So I stepped off the street onto this very narrow wooden staircase that led to a subterranean, very authentic-looking Japanese restaurant. There were about 10 tiny booths for two people and then a sushi bar that could only hold five people. I looked at the menu and quickly realized that the sushi in Japan is not commonly rolled like it is here in the states. The fish is thinly sliced and placed on small, warm, hand-molded mounds of white rice with a side of wasabi and steamed veggies. I’m not fish person at all, but I like sushi because it’s a mixture of many flavors (rice,seaweed,cucumber, etc.), and this was the best sushi I ever had. It’s not expensive, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to raise your standards in sushi. After dinner, I caught the train back to my hostel to retire for the night.

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The next morning, I woke up early, made a pot of tea, and went to the roof to see the sun rise in the land of the rising sun. After my serene morning start, I headed out to see some Tokyo culture. My first mission was to find my electronic heaven on earth, better known as the Sony Headquarters. The Sony Headquarters is located in the Ginza district, which is also known for its high-end fashion shopping district. I got to Sony just as they were opening and proceeded from floor to floor to see flagship items that at that time were not yet released to the western world. I got to experience virtual reality that we are just now starting to scratch the surface of here in the states. After leaving Sony, I headed out to do some Tokyo-style gambling with a little Pachinko.

My first mission was to find my electronic heaven on earth, better known as the Sony Headquarters. The Sony Headquarters is located in the Ginza district, which is also known for its high-end fashion shopping district. I got to Sony just as they were opening and proceeded from floor to floor to see flagship items that at that time were not yet released to the western world. I got to experience virtual reality that we are just now starting to scratch the surface of here in the states. After leaving Sony, I headed out to do some Tokyo-style gambling with a little Pachinko.

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Pachinko is a game where you purchase ball bearings to insert into a slot machine-like contraption. You control the rate at which the balls shoot up vertically and then fall through pegs to land on the number that pays out in games tickets. See, gambling in Tokyo is technically illegal, so to get around that, you walk into a Pachinko gaming facility and buy ball bearings with Japanese Yen and then use those ball bearings to play the game. After you are done playing, you take your ball bearings back to the cashier, and they give you a receipt. You then take that receipt to a booth located directly outside or just around the corner from the gaming facility to a person in a booth behind blacked-out glass who swaps your receipt for cash. It’s a gambling loophole that the government turns a blind eye to. To be honest, I was in the gaming room for only 20 minutes, lost 20 dollars, and had no idea what the hell I was doing. Imagine playing a slot machine crossed with a Street Fighter game and all the action is controlled by the tension you place on a knob. It was visually stimulating to say the least, and now I can check off gambling Pachinko in Tokyo from my bucket list.

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After Pachinko, I wanted so see Mount Fuji, but my tight time schedule didn’t permit me to travel to mountain and back in time, even with high-speed rail. So I went to to the highest point in Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower! It is basically an orange Eiffel Tower but less crowded, quicker to the top, and cheaper entrance fee. When I got to the top of Tokyo Tower, I was hoping to be greeted by a picturesque view of the Mount Fuji, but to my dismay, there was just enough haze to not get a picture worthy photo. I did, however, see how vast and big Tokyo really is. I was also surprised to he so many rooftop helicopter pads and tennis courts. There are roughly 8.5 million people in New York City and more than 13.6 million people living in Tokyo. I’ve been to a lot of big cities all around the world, but Tokyo is by far the cleanest, fastest, and safest of any metropolis I have ever seen.

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Upon leaving Tokyo Tower, I wandered my way into an ancient, traditional Japanese tea house. I had my afternoon tea (I don’t really drink coffee) and then headed back to my hostel for some R&R. I rested for a couple hours, grabbed some noodles from the noodle shop around the corner from my hostel, and then went back to sleep to let my jet lag catch up. I was only a few days into my Asian invasion that would last a month across four countries, so I needed some rest.

The next morning was the beginning of my last day in Tokyo and was my designated historical culture day. I started off by walking to the Sensō-ji temple located near my hostel in the Asakusa district.

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There is a big marketplace leading up to the temple that sells all types of Japanese souvenirs. There are many beautiful shrines between the entrance and the main temple. After viewing the beauty of Buddhism captured in this these temples, I headed back to the shopping area to buy a souvenir (or as I like to call them, “conversation pieces”).

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I call them conversation pieces because the piece of history I bring back from the country is not just a refrigerator magnet but something that really captures the eye and usually costs a pretty price as well. The conversation piece I was looking for in Japan was real Japanese steel. Real Japanese steel in the form of a samurai sword and katana set. I highly recommended doing your homework before buying a Japanese sword set. Just like any other country, there are cheap knock offs that look good from a distance but crap up close. Let’s just say my set wasn’t cheap, it was tempered properly, and has real shark bone hand-carved handles.

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After Sensō-ji, I went to see the Emperor of Japan or at least walk around his house, The Japanese Imperial Palace. The Emperor of Japan is just a figurehead, much as the Queen of England is. The palace is located in the heart of Tokyo and serves as a very popular route for avid runners.

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As you pass the the enormous wood doors, you approach the guard booth that provides you with a token. It is free to get in, but you must return the token to the exit guard, or you’re not leaving the palace. Three quarters of the grounds are beautiful cherry blossom trees and bonsai-trimmed juniper plants. You get to see the guard towers and the archers stand as well as many zen gardens.

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Upon leaving the palace, I went to complete the final stop on my Tokyo tour, Hello Kitty Heaven. Every girl/woman I’ve ever met loves Hello Kitty, so I decided to grab a souvenir for my niece. I  passed by a shawarma joint earlier that I wanted to try, and it just happened to be near a Hello Kitty Heaven. I bought my niece an arm bag covered with kitties and Japanese calligraphy; she went wild when she saw it! After I mailed my swords and Hello Kitty bag to myself in states, I headed back to the hostel to pack my stuff to head off for Bangkok in the morning.

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When I came back to my hostel, I discovered that not only is the lobby bar cool enough to attract backpackers but local Japanese businessmen as well. After sitting at the bar for about 20 minutes, I was invited to drink with a group of Japanese men, all dressed in black suits, white button-down shirts, and black ties. They asked me about America and my travels, and I asked them about Japanese business tactics. After many warm sakes, we bowed to each other, and I retired for the night.

The next morning, I woke up, drank my tea, watched the sun rise, and then caught the train to Haneda Airport to say sayonara to Tokyo and the blissful land of Japan.

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Costa Rica

Welcome to the land of Pura Vida! Costa Rica was the first country I ever trekked across in Central America, and I loved every moment of it. The people are rad, the waves are great, and it’s cheap. I have a surfer buddy who moved to Costa Rica the day after we graduated high school. He said he didn’t want to live the kook lifestyle in the U.S. and wanted to live a simpler life. He moved to Jaco, taught at a surf camp for two years, saved his money and then opened up his own beachfront bar in Esterillos Oeste, a small surf town 20 minutes south of Jaco. It took me 13 years to finally take him up on his offer to come visit him, but by this point, he had just sold his bar to his partner and moved back to the states to raise his daughter. Lucky for me, he just happened to be traveling back to Costa Rica for the last leg of my trip. From that point, I could just ride his coattails.

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My Costa Rican story starts just like most Costa Rican stories. I caught a flight into the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. From the moment I walked out the doors to the taxi area, I was quickly mobbed by numerous cabbies all trying to charge me gringo prices for a short trip. However, I organized with my hostel for a cheap airport pickup. Most hostels will offer either free or discounted travel to or from the airport; I suggest this method. After arriving at my hostel, Hostel Pangea, I checked in, drop my bag off on my bunkbed in my four-bed room and then headed back to the lobby where they offered tours throughout Costa Rica. This is a great way of getting around the country. You negotiate where you want to go and what you want to do along the way, and they usually provide lunch as well as food stops along the way. All this while getting a history and cultural lesson!

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I managed to book a tour to my first destination in Costa Rica—La Fortuna. La Fortuna is a small city located near the famous Arenal Volcano. The tour I booked included transportation, cultural lesson, a big authentic Costa Rican lunch, entrance into Baldi Hot Springs, and a big 4-star dinner at Baldi, all for about $50. After booking my tour, I went to the rooftop bar that doubles as an internet cafe and provides an awesome view of the city at night. I made some friends at the bar, and we decided to go bar hopping to get a little San Jose culture before we split our separate ways with our tours in the morning. In the morning, I gathered my pack, joined my group, and headed to Baldi Hot Springs.

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Baldi Hot Springs is upscale and located at the base of Arenal Volcano. There are 13 separate ascending hot springs that get hotter the higher you go up. I could only make it to level 6 or 7, just long enough for a quick picture. I could never imagine going to the top. The ground level at the resort is a beautiful, naturally heated swim-up bar.

After a relaxing dinner at Baldi, I caught a cab with some new friends to Arenal Backpackers Resort. My new friends and I agreed to check into our rooms, shower, and then like every other backpacker, meet at the hostel bar to socialize. The bar at this hostel closed a little earlier than other s that I’ve been to, so my friends and I went and got a couple bottles of Guaro and Fanta. When we returned to the hostel, there was a big group of Germans that had the same idea. So we drank until the bar closed and then proceeded to indulge in our own spirits. I noticed that we were running low on supplies and the mood was dropping, I looked across the street and saw a full-fledged open-air nightclub that was dead as a doornail. I told everyone in the bar in English, Spanish, and German, “Don’t go anywhere, I have an idea.” So I walked across the street and negotiated with the bartender and bar owner that if they lined up a row of free shots, that I would bring the entire hostel over. I went back to grab the group, we all took shots, the DJ cranked the music, and that place exploded with fun! While the party I started was in full effect, I got invited  by a friend of the owner to go hang out with him and some of his friends.

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While I was hanging with my new friends and practicing my Spanish, one of the guys said, “You’re a really cool guy. Do you want to come with us to our secret hot springs?” This is one of those moments when I really like traveling alone. If I was to tell a travel partner that I was going to leave with some strangers into the jungle in the middle of the night, they would probably think I was bananas. But I didn’t need to consult anybody, so I quickly agreed. I told them I just wanted to say goodbye to the party that I started. I ran out to the dance floor and told everybody that it was a blast, but I’m off on an adventure. They all got my Facebook info, I grabbed a bottle of Guaro from the owner, and then I was on my way to the unknown.

After we drove for 45 minutes through the jungle and a couple cocktails later, we pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere. All jungle, no street lights, and only a creepy rendition of a place that looked like the Eagles’ Hotel California. I asked my new friends, “Why have we stopped?” They told me that we had arrived at their secret spot. All three car loads of people jumped out, grabbed their booze, and started handing out torches. We all lit our torches, and then they told me to lead the group down a narrow, slippery, mud trail. Next thing you know, I’m walking through a rainforest with a bottle of booze in one hand, a primitive torch in the other, and I was barefoot in boardshorts. After about a ten minute trek the path opened up to reveal a lagoon and a waterfall. We swam around to the back of the waterfall where there was a cave that went on for about 40 or 50 meters and then reopened into the jungle again. But this time there were 30 to 35 people all with torches staked into the ground and having a blast. This is a lagoon that had the perfect warmth of water and that had a floor of thousands of large, smooth stones. Everyone made small chairs of stones in the water and just hung out and socialized. It was so peaceful that we all drank until we fell asleep.

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I woke up the next morning in a lagoon, in a rainforest, and was using a root as a pillow. This was actually one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had. But, as my eyes opened up to the sight of parrots flying over us, it quickly dawned on me that I had another transport bus planned to pick me up from my hostel in less than an hour to take me to another part of the country, Playas del Coco. I quickly woke my friends and we rally raced through the jungle to try to get me back in time. Just as we came pulling up, so did my transport van. I said i just needed to grab my bag and we could be on our way. I moved like lightning, said goodbye to my jungle buddies, and was on my way to the beach. A couple of hours later I was finally standing on a beach in Costa Rica.

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The city of Playas del Coco in a perfectly sized beach town for tourists. It’s quaint enough to not take out the feeling of Pura Vida that Costa Rica gives you, but it’s not too small to limit the activities and nightlife. The town has great SCUBA diving, fishing, and is only a little more an hour away from the famous surf spot, Witch’s Rock. I checked into my hostel and then went to arrange my dive trip for the next day. There are two main dive sites in Playas del Coco—Monkey Head Island and Bat Island. I choose the Monkey over the Bat. I spent the rest of the day rotating between eating awesome local cuisine and sleeping in the hammock at the hostel.

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The next day, I headed out out in the morning to go on a great dive trip that consisted of clear skies and clear waters full of different aquatic life. After I got back that afternoon, I tried to book another tour/transport bus to Jaco where I was going to meet with me buddy from high school. Funny thing was that there was no cheap buses going to Jaco for two days. So I went to go book another room at the hostel I was staying at, and they said that there was a Danish travel group that had rented out the rest of the hostel for the week. Just as I hear that I’m homeless for the night, I hear thunder and rain. The front desk guy was super cool and said, “Hey, I got buddy who owns a hotel directly on the beach. I’ll call him up and tell him I’m sending you. I’ll also loan you my bike so you don’t have to walk in the rain.” I’m thinking to myself either I just lucked out or this is gonna be some shithole because the owner didn’t want to advertise online. So the front desk guy takes out a Sharpie and draws a map to his buddy’s hotel, about 1.5 miles aways. He handed me his Frankensteined BMX, and off I went.

Five minutes later, I’m riding one-handed in the rain next to passing traffic while it’s raining in the jungle at night time—all while I’m trying to read a map on my hand that was quickly running down my arm. However, another five or ten minutes later and I arrived. It wasn’t the Four Seasons, but it looked pretty great for only $20 a night. The hostel that I was staying at was $25 a night with no air conditioning, and i shared the room with six other people. This new place had a queen-size bed, air conditioning, and I had my own private bathroom. Plus, it was a stone’s throw away from the two main nightclubs in town. It just goes to show that not all the best hotels have to advertise to stay in business. After I paid for two nights and the rain stopped, I headed back to my former hostel to collect my things. I told the guy that I really appreciated the gesture and offered to buy him a couple drinks. He graciously accepted. So after I changed hotels and showered, I met my new friend for a couple beers. We got a buzz at a local popular pub, made some more friends, and then I retired for the night.

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The next day consisted purely of beach fútbol (soccer), eating, and lounging in my personal hammock at my hotel. Sometimes you need to take a vacation from your vacation. The night before, my friend from the night before said I should rest up because there was going to be a big party the next day. Around dinner time, I walked to a local beach pub for some grub. While watching fútbol on TV, an American and his three friends asked if the seats next to me where open. I said, “Help yourself.” After a couple shots of Guaro, I came to find out that he moved to Costa Rica to start his own crossfit gym. At that time, crossfit was not yet popular. After a couple more rounds he says, “Come with me and my friends to Lizard Lounge. I’m friends with the owner, and tonight’s a big party.” I said, “Let’s go!” Ten minutes later, I was in the VIP section of one of the two coolest nightclubs in Playas del Coco and salsaing late into the night.

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The following day, I hopped on a chicken bus and headed to Jaco to meet my buddy. I had only been in town 15 minutes before he called. I told him that I was looking for a hostel, and he said,”Screw that! I’ve got everything taken care of from here!”

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It is not a bad thing to have someone in a foreign country take you around and alleviate the guesswork and confusion. Five minutes later, my homie Thomas comes flying around the corner and picks me up so we can stay at his buddy’s place. His buddy was a traveling tattoo artist who lived to surf. In his house, I counted 36 surfboards of all shapes and sizes for every type of wave.

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That night, we went bar hopping at every surf bar between Esterillos and Jaco. Every single place we went to the whole bar came to a stand still, and everyone would welcome Thomas back. I was definitely riding his coattails. So while the band stopped to bullshit with my buddy, I decided to grab a beer. While at the bar I look over at this attractive girl who was straddling some guy. I didn’t think anything of it, but then I looked back and she was staring at me. I went back to my beer and then looked over again at her staring at me. I politely said, “What’s up?” She said, “I know you!” I said, “There’s no way in hell you know me.” She insisted twice more that she did. So I replied, “OK, I’ll bite. Where do you know me from?” And she exclaims, “You’re that guy that threw that kickass party at that nightclub in Arenal about a week ago!” I almost dropped my beer; I was so in shock. I told her she was welcome for the fiesta, and then Thomas and I went home to crash because we were having an early morning surf session.

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The next morning, we loaded a surf van that looks like it came straight out of a Sublime music video and headed down the beach to see where the waves were breaking the best. After picking the right surf spot, we paddled out. After about 20 minutes of clean glassy breaks, I caught one of the best rides of my life. I was pumping this wave that seemed to go on forever, and to my left side was a beautiful jungle-covered mountain that was just starting to see daybreak creep over its top. It was one of the most serene moments of my life. I quickly paddled in so  I could crack open some coconuts to replenish my electrolytes and then surf for a couple more hours. The remainder of the day consisted of gorging on food and chillaxing before we went to the casino that night. That night, I earned a quarter of my trip money back in winnings at the blackjack table. I know to walk away when I’m ahead. We had a couple more Cuba Libres and then headed back to the house because my flight was the next day. On my last morning, we ate a lot of food for little money (again) and then headed back to San Jose. When we got to the airport, I told my friends, “Pura Vida,” threw around some high-fives and hugs, and then was headed back to Los Estados Unidos.

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Monaco

Monaco is one the the luckiest mishaps that could have ever happened to me. I was in Rome for a few days enjoying the sights, and then it came time to catch my next train to Geneva to do a little watch shopping. However, little did I know that the Italian train union workers have a cute tradition where they decide to go on short 24-hour strikes whenever they feel like it. That’s all good and dandy, but it threw off my time schedule for the other European cities I was planning to see. So I broke out Google Maps and my Eurail map and looked at the places to go between Rome and Barcelona.5be794951f5cee625125aa804a3c1b6aI saw Nice wasn’t a long train ride away and thought it would be cool to party on the French Riviera. So I went to Hostel World to book a room in Nice for a couple of days, only to find out that rooms were scarce and prices had gone up a little. After a little research I discovered that coincidently the Monaco Grand Prix was taking place at the same time. If you didn’t know, Nice is about a 20-minute train ride to Monaco but a hell of a lot cheaper. I quickly booked a room for a couple days and jumped on the next train to Nice.lewis_harbour_front

After arriving in Nice, I checked into my hostel and was told at the front desk that for an extra €10, I would be invited to a champagne party that was being thrown to celebrate of the final day of the Grand Prix, which was the next day. After settling into room, I went to the social lounge where there were about 70–75 people. It only took from 7 p.m. to about 11 p.m. for 75 people to drink 175 bottles of champagne, and then we all headed to the beach. The next day, some of my new friends and I caught the train to Monaco. When we exited the train station, we thought we had gotten off at the Ferrari factory.

IMG_1512 I had never seen so many super cars in one place in my entire life. There were Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mclarens, Porsches, and Aston Martins as far as the eye could see in every direction. My friends and I decided to go to the beach to admire some of the gorgeous yachts that were docked just offshore. If you swim about 50 meters towards the break water, you will see a net that lines the bay. Located around this net barrier are small floating barges that you can swim out to and lay on to tan.

IMG_1520 It’s a pretty incredible feeling to stand on the beach in Monte Carlo, Monaco, and listen to the horse power that is reverberating off of the crescent-shaped mountains. After we caught some sun and cleaned up, we walked towards the race circuit to have lunch. As you walk down towards the circuit, you are quickly approached by people with pictures of the hotels along the circuit that they represent. What happens is a negotiation process over a 3–4-course meal, wine, and your ticket to view from the bleachers located in front of their hotel. After a little haggling and shopping the competition, there is usually a good deal for both parties. I’m not going to say how much I negotiated because it’s been 5 years and the currency strength has  changed, but I will say that I got a 4-course meal, a bottle of cabernet, and tickets next to the checkered flag.

IMG_1495fairmont_vip_monaco_grand_prix_v2Seeing the races in Monaco was something I only came to appreciate after fate had thrown me a curveball. But that’s another great thing about traveling alone—when the plan goes to shit, you alone have the power to make the next move.

IMG_1523Monaco is a very beautiful country/city that hosts one of the greatest sporting events in all of Europe and the world, and I am truly fortunate to have this event checked off in my life while plenty of other people still have it on their bucket lists. I did not get a chance to play baccarat at the Hotel de Paris casino, but it definitely gives me a reason to go back.

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Singapore

In 2002, during Operation Enduring Freedom while on deployment, our ship stopped off in Singapore for some R&R. After we moored the ship to the pier, my my Marine Corps buddies and I walked to the end of the pier to be greeted by a fleet of Mercedes taxis. This was the first time I had ever seen a Mercedes used as a taxi. Needless to say, we rode around in style, and it wasn’t much more than the prices you would find back in the States—but a lot cleaner!

tiger-beerAs we were driving to the center of town to see all the electronic malls, I quickly discovered that most of Singapore’s economy revolves around Tiger Beer. Tiger Beer logos were on almost every billboard,  on the side of almost every taxi, and Tiger Beer delivery  trucks and motorbikes were all around me. So when we got to downtown, we went to a nice waterside bar located along the Singapore river to try this very popular, cheap beer. It wasn’t bad, and it kinda tasted like Yuengling.

23763343mua-do-dien-tu-o-singapore2We had a couple more pints, and then we head to Sim Lim Square to buy latest and greatest technology that hadn’t been released in the States yet—and for cheap! You’ll be overwhelmed by the size of this place and all the glimmering lights. After working up an appetite shopping, I decided to try some of the local cuisine. So I ordered cat, dog, steamed vegetables, and white rice. The meal was delicious. Dog tastes like a turkey drumstick, and cat tastes alot like duck.

ppho-3196119-v550After wrapping up lunch, I went back to the ship to shit, shower, and shave. After dressing up, the guys and I decided to go a place called Orchard Towers, which was four stories of nightclubs and pubs from all around the world for all types of tastes in music, and even more electronics to shop from.

maxresdefaultThe next day, I walked around to soak up some of Singapore’s culture  and was completely overwhelmed by how clean the city is. You’re not allowed walk and chew gum because it usually ends up as part of the sidewalk. Needless to say, the sidewalks all throughout Singapore are perfectly clean. Your are only allowed to smoke cigarettes in certain designated areas, and you are not allowed to walk and smoke based on the same reasons that gum is not allowed—to keep the sidewalks clean. Not only are the sidewalks spotless, but there is not graffiti on any walls, and literally every tree is trimmed in some type of geometric shape. It was one of the strangest experiences I ever saw. It looked like the place that landscapers from EPCOT go to retire.

Siong Lim Temple (Buddhist), SingaporeAs a walked through the city, I saw historical shrines and quickly learned that it is not polite to stare too long or take numerous amounts of pictures. After a day of shopping for souvenirs, my buddies and I returned back to the pier where our ship was docked and were greeted with an entire semi-truck of Tiger beer and a beer garden filled with Tiger beer girls handing out free beers. It was our ship’s way of giving a “last night in port” party. Tiger beer is a good, affordable beer and very accessible, but it gave me one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. So when in Singapore, try the Tiger beer, but remember there’s a reason why they’re so cheap.

The Seychelles Islands

Back in 2002, I was lucky enough to be able to visit this remote paradise. If you don’t know where The Seychelles Islands are, you’re not alone. Seychelles is located in the Indian Ocean just east of Kenya and lower Somalia. I stayed in the capital, Victoria, on the main island. Seychelles is pretty expensive, and it’s not cheap to get there either. The only reason I was fortunate enough to explore this paradise, which is usually reserved for celebrities, is because during Operation Enduring Freedom, my ship spent 90 days and nights straight at sea, and Seychelles was our reward. It is an extremely beautiful island, and it is inhabited with very generous people. The Seychelles may be remote, but it has all the modern conveniences of any island that you would visit in the caribbean.

scuba-diving-seychellesWe were only able to spend three days there, but in that time, I managed to make one of the best decisions of my life and try SCUBA diving for the first time. My friends and I were able to work a deal with one of the dive shops. The deal was for $80/each for 10 people to get a two-tank dive from our own private island, fresh swordfish, tuna, and chicken prepared over an open fire, and all the beer we could drink from the island’s local brewery. Not a bad deal! The next day was anchors aweigh, but I will never forget my stop in Seychelles as one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen above and below the water.

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Peru

Peru was the first country I ever visited in South America. This is a lesson of the dos and don’ts when traveling through Peru. I always wanted to see Machu Pichu, and I had a buddy who just happened to be going to Lima for a wedding, so we decided to plan an excursion after the wedding.

The first thing we looked at was the distance from Lima to Cusco (main city located nearest to Machu Pichu). The three main options you have are bus, car, or plane. On the map, the distance between Lima and Cusco looked about the same as Tampa to Miami (about a four-hour drive), so my buddy and I high fived, and we booked a rental car. This would later turn out to be one of the worst mistakes of our lives.

When we arrived in Lima, we promptly retrieved our rental car only to find out the GPS was not working properly because this model had not had a software update. This was the first sign of bad things to come. After we exchanged our GPS for one that we thought was better, we headed to our hostel. In Lima’s defense, the traffic in the city is not bad at all. But, the further you get away from the city center (the areas that have been modernized), the streets start to look like Fallujah. The GPS took us down one street that had a 12-foot crater in the middle of the road.

The first night we were in Lima, we wanted to see some sights before the wedding the next day. We looked on the internet for local nightlife, and we found directions to Plaza Agustin Gutierrez, which was only about a 10–15 minute walk from our hostel. Along the way, we stopped at a cool English pub and a couple of cantinas before arriving the Parque.

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Located adjacent to the Plaza is hands down the best cheeseburger joint on Earth, and its name is  La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla. You can’t miss it; every employee has checkered paper hats on. After gorging on more pisco sours (Peru’s national drink) and cheeseburgers we retired for the night to be up and ready for the wedding.

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The next day was the wedding, and I can honestly say that outside of the Vatican, the Monasterio de San Francisco is the most opulent cathedral I have ever been in. The wood carvings with accents of gold that seemed to go on forever is truly something to see when visiting Lima.

The following day after the wedding, we woke up to set out on our journey. When we turned on the GPS to map out the route from Lima to Cusco, we were greeted with an estimated driving time of 22 hours straight behind the wheel—each way! What looked like a simple 5–6 hour drive at face value on the map, just turned into the drive from hell. We looked at each other and said, “Whatever, let’s go! This will just make for a better story later on.” WRONG!!!

So we start driving, and no more than half an hour into our journey had passed before we got pulled over by the Policia. Our rental-car agency failed to mention that you have to drive with your running lights or fog lights on at all times because of the thick fog that settles on Lima. Our ticket was $200 until I bribed the cop with $80 in cash right there. In Peru, whenever you get a ticket you have to go to one of the many state owned banks and pay your fine there.

DSC01215.JPGOK, now we are back on the road, but only going at a speed limit of 35 KMH (18 MPH), which is why the road trip turned from 5 hours to 22 hours. This is why I strongly recommend taking a bus—because the bus drivers know where all the speed traps are, and they don’t look gringo. If moving at a snail’s pace wasn’t bad enough, we had to methodically plan every ounce of fuel to make it from one gas station to the next gas station (they don’t take debit or credit either).

Make sure that you have all your rabies shots before you go. The dogs in the local villages aren’t vaccinated, and most carry rabies. The dogs don’t mess with the locals because they’re used to them, but they dogs don’t like the smell of outsiders. So each time we needed a Fanta, I would have to get out and fend off rabid dogs with a flashlight because my buddy forgot to get his rabies shots. Just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, my friend and I came to a city (i forget the name) about halfway into our journey that has drainage ditches on the side of the road so big and steep that if we tried to drive the car into the intersection, it would have gotten stuck and straddled between the streets. After driving around this labyrinth of a city for an 2 hours in the middle of the night (and refused to be defeated and go back to Lima), we finally found a road that our little Fiat Panda could make it across. You can’t miss this city if you take the south route to Cusco. There are only two routes to Cusco—the north route and the south route. A lot of people take the southern route so they can see Nazca lines.

After another 10 hours of driving, we finally arrived at Cusco. Cusco is pretty, historic city and very tourist accommodating. My friend and I had booked our tickets for the Hiram Bingham train prior to flying to Peru. You want to check to see the ticket prices and availability before just going to Cusco. The Hiram Bingham is the only train that goes to the bottom of Machu Picchu. When we booked our tickets, the research that we read said that you could only take a train in the morning and then have to book a return train to Cusco that same night, but when we got to the bottom of Machu Picchu, that was not the case. They have hotels and restaurants located there now so a person doesn’t have to rush through their exploration of the many Inca sights to be seen. After arriving by train you can either walk up to the base of Machu Picchu or you can pay $5 and take a bus. Take the bus!

DSC01277It’s amazing how short of breath you’ll get when you get to 13,000 ft. That is why every hotel or hostel offers, coffee, tea, or coca. The morning before I ascended Machu Picchu, I grab a zip lock bag and brought coca leaves with me. Whenever I would get short of breath, I would take some coca leaves and pack them into my cheek. Sure that side of my face would go numb, but It gave me the little extra pick me up to continue my hike. Coca is EVERYWHERE in Peru. If chewing on leaves is not your thing, there are plenty of children in Cusco who will try to sell you coca candy.

DSC01258After the complete hell of driving through the Andes for 22 hours, once we got to the city of Machu Picchu, the view made the entire trip worthwhile. It is absolutely amazing and mysterious at the same time. My buddy and I hiked around until sundown and caught the train back to Cusco and then left to return to Lima the next morning. The walkaway message here is to enjoy the food, surf, and cathedrals in Lima, fly to Cusco, spend a couple of days at the bottom of Machu Picchu at one of the new hotels, and then fly back to Lima for one last cheeseburger and pisco sour.

London, England, United Kingdom

england_britain_london_920746_oThe first leg of my backpacking Eurotrip in 2011 started in London. I remember walking out from the underground and seeing Piccadilly Circus for the first time—seeing any European city for the first time. I was amazed by the old buildings with flashing LED signs, the double-decker buses, and groups of people huddled around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain.

Lucky for me, the hostel I was staying at (Piccadilly Backpackers) was only one block away from all of this epicenter of excitement. After checking into your hostel, the front desk usually lets you know if there is going to be a pub crawl that night or which other nights that week. Pub crawls usually cost around £18, and that usually covers four pubs and entrance into an exclusive London nightclub. The pub crawls work out really well because you get one free drink at each pub and no cover at the last nightclub, which also includes a free drink.

london-eye-2048x1024Over the next couple days I explored the Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the West End, the London Eye, Parliament, and the House of Commons. There is a lot to see in London, and I feel like I only scratched the service. Just be prepared to see some of the best-looking suits you have or will ever see. No one does high fashion like London does.

800px-barclays_cycle_hire_st-_mary_axe_aldgateLondon has an incredible underground rail system, but London also offers the luxury of bike rentals all around town with pick-up and drop-off locations all throughout the city. Next time I’m in London, I plan on spending at least a good four days so that I’m not rushed like I was last time and so I have time to see what I missed.

Have you been to London? What are some of your favorite sites? Let me know in the comments below!