I went to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens with my friend Gino. There was no real reason to go, especially for a $15 admissions fee, but it was a relaxing time for what was otherwise a perfect Saturday.
A few weekends ago I went camping. I took Nico, met up with the Scott and Ann Marie (and their pup, Sebastian), and drove upstate to join my roommates and other friends to spend a long summer weekend on a lake.
The campsite, Forked Lake, is situated around a cluster of lakes in the Adirondacks. During the three days that I was there, me and my group of 11 (plus two dogs) were completely isolated from everything — electricity, modern bathrooms, and even cellphone service. It was a nice break from technology, and I didn’t have to worry about work emails or talking to my family or the occasional spam email for my Bed Bath and Beyond 20% off coupon (I’m moving, after all, and I need new stuff at a discounted price). My only worry would be the nest spiders in the outhouse and them crawling on me as I pooped in a simple hole in the ground.
It was about a 7-minute hike from the parking lot to the forested campsite, and because we arrived at night, we initially got lost in the pitch-black wilderness. Using the flashlights on our near-depleted cellphones and following the muddy trails, we found our campsite by discovering the lone bear locker.
We pitched our tents in the darkness and unpacked for the long weekend: I had prepped food for an immense and otherwise fantastic breakfast the following Saturday, so I brought two coolers and cooked on the stone stove situated directly across the water.
I also brought a 4-person tent, but considering I’m alone and hopelessly single, it was just my dog and me occupying the spacious insides and living like royalty. We also had a picnic table on our grounds, and for whatever was going on inside her tiny, dog-brain, Nico decided to dig an entire hole underneath. For the majority of our time there, Nico was perched inside the hole; her little head poking out.
I wanted this camping trip to be a weekend to relax and not focus on moving out of my apartment or work or family. I succeeded in that respect. I also wanted to take some great photography shots, and even though I was able to produce some great images with my cellphone, I had a hiccup with my DSLR. You see, I figured I can get some cool shots of the wooded area and my dog on the lake. With my cell in my shorts’ pockets and my camera in hand, Scott and I took Nico and placed ourselves in a canoe. After launching only a few feet away from the shore, Nico decided to jump off the canoe. This, of course, destabilized the entire vessel, and we all tipped over into the water. My camera and my phone were only submerged for only a few seconds, but water did get inside each device. My phone ultimately survived, but my camera was less fortunate: even though it’s a freshwater lake and I let it dry out completely, my DSLR won’t take video and its preview screen refuses to turn on. The situation sucked, because I mainly used my camera to produce videos every other week. Overall, it’s a minor financial setback ($400 for a new body on eBay), but I wasn’t too upset. I did learn a valuable lesson: Nico hates boats.
Camera aside, camping was what I needed during these last few weeks of summer. I needed to get away from the city, from responsibility, from cloud and Wi-Fi based technology. I give you respect, Nature; you’re cool.
SETTLING INTO REYKJAVIK
Three of us were classmates in Parsons’ MFADT Program: Joe, a love-lorn gamer with a fondness for Trap Music; Alexandra, a petite, half-Chinese and half-Filipino girl whose temper is only matched by her great obsession over Japanese Reality TV shows; and myself, the timid, ever-curious explorer and dog handler. Alex’s husband, Michael (a towering man with a penchant for Super Dry jackets and the Japanese language), accompanied us as we travelled to the small, European nation of Iceland. This group of four would spend the next 6 days traversing the tourist-filled streets of Reykjavik and the frozen, snow-lined fields of The Golden Circle, bleeding out money but taking in the wonders and beauty of an absolutely pristine environment.
Our flight from Newark left a couple hours immediately after my work field trip to the Natural History Museum, and we landed in Keflavík International Airport at 4am the next day (granted, there is a +5-hour time difference between New York and Reykjavik, and the flight was about 6 hours long). When we touched down, we were posed with a small problem: our first Airbnb was located in the heart of Reykjavik but wouldn’t be ready till 3pm Icelandic time. On top of that, any shops or cafes wouldn’t open till 9am, so we spent a few hours at the airport: I tried getting as much sleep I can, Joe had his first taste of Icelandic cuisine at Keflavik’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and the married couple watched a few episodes of “Terrace House,” as they shared a pair of earbuds like two high school sweethearts on the subway (I wondered what communicable diseases they can transmit to one another by sharing headphones).
9am rolled around and we spent $120 on a cab ride from the airport to Reykjavik’s local bus station, where we stored our luggage in one of their lockers. We walked — in the cold, mostly empty streets of Reykjavik — to our first tourist destination: Hallgrímskirkja, a cathedral whose tall tower overlooked all of Reykjavik and into the Atlantic Ocean. Atop the tower, I was fucking freezing, but the view was spectacular. The sleepy city of Reykjavik was beginning to wake up that Friday morning, and the cargo ships in the bay bobbed slightly against a mountainous backdrop. Organ music from inside the cathedral hall began to drift up into the tower, and a steady stream of bushy-eyed tourists began to fill the cobblestone streets.
We struggled through our fatigue as much as we can, but nearly all of us passed out in one of the two cafes we waited at. 3pm rolled around, and with our Airbnb ready, we took a cab back to the bus station to pick up our luggage and another cab to the Airbnb; we were all goddamned tired and didn’t really want to walk anymore. Of course, our well-intended laziness cost us about $15 for a 5 minute trip.
The Airbnb was a small penthouse apartment on a busy street of Reykjavik, right above a coffee shop and a few blocks — in all directions — from several other cafes and bars. The far western balcony had a great view of the sea and Hallgrímskirkja, while the eastern windows overlooked the mountains. The low, arched ceilings gave the apartment a contemporary feel, yet the exposed wooden rafters lent itself to a more European aesthetic. A small nook loft with a bed was located near the front door, but neither the tiny space or the rickety ladder was suitable enough for Joe, Michael, or myself to stay in. I ultimately ended up sleeping on the couch, which was fine since I was next to a window, and I was able to wake up or fall asleep to Iceland’s beautiful landscape. We also had a single bathroom with a washing machine next to the sink and a tub so large, you can probably wash an entire horse in it. Because the hot water was supplied by a local volcanic spring, each time one of us took a shower, the entire Airbnb would smell like sulfur; and here I was thinking that one of kept farting while bathing.
THE AURORA BOREALIS
After settling in, we walked to Kex Hostel where Alex and Michael had prearranged a tour to see the Aurora Borealis. In our bus group, we met and befriended a group of four fellow Brooklyn girls (they even started to follow my dog on Instagram); each of them seemed well-travelled since they talked about their trips to Greece, Morocco, and Vietnam. Our tour guide was a Scottish expatriate named “Holly” but spelled it as “Hawlly”. She definitely made an effort to point that out.
Driving out of the city, Hawlly navigated through lightless, narrow roads that wound around valleys and rocky peaks. The gravel paths were frozen, and I can recall that the tour bus got stuck on two separate occasions. After pressing the acceleration pedal with the sort of determination as an angry dad whose station wagon was stuck in the mud, we continued on to our destination. Reaching the desolate, empty fields of rural Iceland about 45 minutes later, we were surrounded by near-complete darkness — save for the starry night sky and Joe’s cellphone. He was Snapchatting with a lady taxi driver whom he matched with on an online dating app.
The Northern Lights began to gradually appear, and a faint glow illuminated the night sky. They looked like a green-tinted, amorphous blob through the naked eye, but they were more than visible (and magnificent) through a camera with a long exposure. After taking a few pics for a solid hour, Hawlly dropped us off back at the Kex Hostel. Joe’s Snapchat friend picked us up in her taxi and drove us to Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. The small, outdoor cart would dress their lamb and beef hot dogs with ketchup, remoulade, chopped onions, and crispy onions; pretty much a fat ass’ (like me) wet dream. It was perhaps the best hot dog I’ve had outside of Chicago, though I’m fairly certain that my cholesterol levels shot up to that of an unhealthy sixty-five year-old’s.
Walking back to our Airbnb, we stopped by 1011, a convenient store chain that sold groceries. A carton of eggs were about 6 US dollars, and a pack of bacon was priced around 12. Yup, our first full day was indeed expensive — namely for food and drink — so we were determined to make our own cheap meals at the Airbnb as much as we can.
The next day the four of us wandered a mile or two to the car rental place, appropriately named SADcars: not only did Alex and Michael accidentally book it the day before (thus we lost an entire rental day), but the Toyota RAV4 was most likely an early 90’s model, had a completely empty tank when we received it, drank gas like a freshman on spring break, one of the passenger doors wouldn’t open, and each time we turned the steering wheel, the entire car would moan like a depressing trombone solo.
THE BLUE LAGOON & HARPA
With the car in our possession, we drove off to The Blue Lagoon, a hot spring that’s just as photogenic as the Aurora Borealis or anywhere else in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon requires you to shower before entering its waters, and there are only three or so stalls in the men’s locker room that are completely private. As a person who’s pretty self-conscious, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable being completely naked with a bunch of other American, European, and Chinese tourists. It also helped that, when changing with a towel wrapped around my waist, that the towel accidentally slipped off. I said “Fuck it” and exposed my bare ass to everyone around me. Oh well.
The average temperature the entire time I was in Iceland was about a freezing 0 degrees Celsius, so it was nice to dip into the hot water of The Blue Lagoon. Steam would rise from the murky, sky blue pool, and the salinity of the water tingled my skin. Our package included a white silica face mask, an algae mask, and one complimentary drink of our choosing, plus access to the their various dry saunas and steam rooms; it felt like a real spa experience save for the crowds of non-Icelandic people wandering around with waterproof iPhone cases. Parts of the lagoon came up to my neck, but they weren’t so deep that I could potentially drown. Alex, on the other hand, was so short and incapable of keeping herself afloat, she piggybacked on Michael; she and I — despite our Pacific Island heritage — just can’t swim.
Later that night, we went to Harpa, the grand, ornately-lit concert hall in Reykjavik. Joe had matched with another girl, a South Korean music student who was apparently playing a show, and he asked Alex, Michael, and I to tag along. In my entire existence of being able to hear, it was perhaps the most boring performance I’ve witnessed: a conductor directed 30 or so music students to play the goddamn triangle, in succession, for 20 minutes. It was just minute after minute of a person ringing a triangle, a cacophony of tiny pieces of metal clanging together with no rhythm or variation. Although I have an appreciation for repetitive music (earlier, Michael and I argued with Alex about 20-minute long instrumentals from Sufjan Stevens), I was so bored that I resorted to playing Pokémon Go for the entire duration of the concert. Hey, at least I can catch a Mr. Mime while in Iceland.
Afterwards, we went back to our Airbnb for one of our homemade meals and to get ready for a night on the town. We ended up meeting Joe’s new musician friend at Lebowski Bar, a club specifically themed for the Coen Brothers’ comedy hit. After a few White Russians, we walked to a bar named Bravo where I drunkenly bought our party of five a round of Brennivín shots. Following a few more drinks and talk of Alex and Michael’s wedding, we hit up the grocery store to stock up on food, and I called it a night.
ICELANDIC FLEA MARKETS AND MUSEUMS
The next day, the four of us devoted the entire day to exploring Reykjavik: our first destination was Kolaportio, the biggest flea market in all of Iceland, located just adjacent to the bay. I managed to buy some Icelandic yarn for my friend Monica, an avid knitter back in New York. Also, for only 500 Krona, I bought a small cup of Hákarl, the rotted shark meat that’s supposed to be a traditional delicacy in Iceland (more on that later). After browsing wool-lined coats handed down from Iceland’s military and a curiously abundant number of “Make America Great Again” hats, our next stop was Hafnarhús, the small contemporary art and design museum next to the flea market.
Hafnarhús is a beautifully built space with that modern, minimalist aesthetic you’d find in European design; think IKEA, but a museum. Though the building itself was large, the exhibitions were sparse and amounted to around 5 different artists showcasing their work. The majority of the exhibitions didn’t interest me, save for a few video installations and an entire wing dedicated to Yoko Ono and her DIY/interactive work: write a message on a wall to your mother, tie a wish to a tree, hammer a nail to wall — the kind of hippy, collective-integration stuff Yoko is known for. She even had a rotary telephone at the entrance of her exhibit, in which she would randomly call; I was tempted to make a long-distance phone call to my parents back in LA, but sadly I couldn’t remember the international dialing code. Yoko did have an incredibly impactful piece where she collected stories of women (from all over world and in different languages) who had been abused and mistreated — verbally, emotionally, or physically — and posted them on a wall. Some of the stories — including one where a father kidnapped a son, exposed him to child porn, and the Virginia court system refused to give the mother custody — were absolutely horrifying.
After the museum we made a trip to Bonus, an affordable grocery store chain whose locations span all over the country. That night, using our recently acquired purchases, I made pasta and baked brownies for Alex, Michael, Joe, and myself. Then came the big moment: we would all try the Hákarl. Opening up the sealed cup, a noticeable smell immediately filled the apartment; though Michael had to retreat to his room because of the stench, I can honestly say I smelled worst things. Tuyo fish and Durian fruit, for instance, have a more offensive aroma. I also own a dog, and she sometimes accidentally shits in the apartment; that, especially when I scoop it up indoors, smells worse.
Of course, we’re talking about rotted shark that’s been fermenting without refrigeration for three months, so it should come as no surprise that it reeks. If you’re too lazy to Wikipedia Hákarl, here’s the deal: the Greenland Shark is apparently very poisonous unless properly prepared. They bury it in the sand to press out all the fluids, and it ferments anywhere between six to twelve weeks. It’s then cut into strips and hung to dry, in an open and unprotected area for a few more months (I saw video of this process during the summer curing period; flies congregated on the carcass). After they remove the brown, rotted exterior, they cut it into cubes and package it.
Alex, Michael, Joe, and I hesitantly stuck the putrid, pink cubes of meat with toothpicks and started a countdown. At “1”, we hastily shoved the Hákarl into our mouths with the sentiment of “Fuck this shit. Let’s get it over with.” There was a definitive moment of absolute silence as we began to chew, and then suddenly Alex sprinted to the garbage can, fell to her knees, and spit it out. This set off an immediate chain reaction where we all ran to the garbage to furiously expel the Hákarl out. As someone who doesn’t like the general taste of fish coupled with the frantic reactions of everyone else, I can’t accurately recall how it tasted. I’ll just say this: the texture was spongey at best, and each chew secreted juices from the meat with this overwhelming fish flavor, followed by an extremely bitter and sour aftertaste.
After chasing the taste of Hákarl with water or Coca-Cola, we cleaned up the place and packed our belongings. The next day we would depart from Reykjavik and drive deep into the natural surroundings of The Golden Circle…
Literally two days after I came back from my Cuba trip, I boarded a plane (well, 3 planes if you want to get technical) towards California: it was the holidays, and as my parents grow older I wanted to spend Christmas with my entire family. As the years go on, I feel that pessimistic side of me growing, and I don’t want to ultimately be regretful that I didn’t spend enough time with them; I’m fully aware of the notion that they won’t be around forever. Seeing my loving family brings an indescribable joy and warmth in my life that I can’t get here – over 2,700 miles away – in New York. Granted, I saw them recently on Thanksgiving, but I looked forward to the extended vacation and the time I would have devoted to them. Not only would I be with my family, but also I wouldn’t have to worry about work, maintaining social obligations, or even my dog. I could actually fucking relax.
My older brother picked me up at Ontario airport in the afternoon, about two days from Christmas Eve, and I pondered what exactly I should get my family as a present. I wanted to give them something utilitarian, something that they’d actually use. Furthermore, I wanted to give them something they’d all enjoy, but my family has accrued almost everything that could make them technologically savvy. My gift would have to be affordable, so a laptop was out of the question. I ended up giving my parents and my brother a Spotify Premium Family Account, because if there’s one thing I know that my family likes as a whole, it’s listening to music. They’d also get the option to listen to anything they want, and a paid Spotify account gives them the freedom to pick and choose any artist or genre of music.
Jesus, I sound like a marketing ad.
On Christmas Eve, my aunts, uncle, and cousin came over to our house. I managed to cook nearly the entire dinner, including: a roasted turkey, cornbread stuffing, bourbon-honey ham, and mashed potatoes. My traditional Filipino family enjoyed what was a traditional American meal, and I’m happy that they were to stomach my cooking without vomiting or having spastic seizures. For the rest of the night, we all played poker, and I managed to happily take over eighty dollars from my relatives through my sheer sense of cunningness.
The next day — on actual Christmas — my parents, brother, and I drove to Las Vegas. It was on a whim, as my mom and dad agreed we should do something fun while I’m in California. We went last year, exactly on Christmas Day too, and I suppose this has or will become an annual tradition. The usual 3-hour drive across the barren deserts of California and Nevada was a little boring, save for the few moments I was captivated by the empty yet beautiful scenery around me. Inspired by the environment, a part of me got a brilliant idea of making a video where I’d be crawling around the desert and my dog Nico would give me water. Kind of like Jesus. Still, on a logistical level, I guess I should have been concerned about snakes or poisonous insects.
I booked a room at the Excalibur, as it was an affordable hotel immediately adjacent to The Strip. Just like last year, nearly all the casinos were packed with people wanting to spend the holidays gambling away their Christmas money or winter bonuses. It was quite a spectacle to see entire families – clad in Santa hats and red-and-green scarves pulling slot machine levers, smoking cigarettes, and carrying around obscenely large daiquiris in plastic tubes. Even though the casinos were open, a lot of restaurants in Vegas were not. The only place open was Denny’s, so my family and I had Grand Slams and Moons Over My Hammy for Christmas Day dinner.
Overall, Vegas was a lucrative learning experience: I used to love playing the “Lobstermania” and “Walking Dead” penny slots, but the gaming commission updated both those machines into “Lobstermania 3” and “Walking Dead 2”, and these new iterations didn’t have many fun bonuses to win at. In fact, I initially lost $80 in a span of 15 minutes. Undeterred at my losses, I instead turned to roulette and played a slow game: for several hours, I played the same numbers (all derivatives of my lucky numbers of 7 and 3), and I managed to profit about $300. I know I’m certainly going to use that money towards either a PS4 or expensive dog costumes.
On my last few days in California, I wanted to explore Los Angeles proper a little. My brother and I drove as close as we could to the Hollywood sign, but since that area is closed off I enjoyed the sight of the mansions and rich enclaves of Mulholland Drive. I wondered what celebrities lived on these winding streets of the Hollywood Hills and if I could manage to get a glimpse of one of them scooping up their dog’s shit or carrying out organic groceries from their cars. I suppose they have assistants to do that.
Afterwards, I once again went to LACMA. Above all else, I wanted to see The Rain Room, but it appears to have been sold out for the rest of the year. Nonetheless, I paid the tickets to actually enter the museum and capture the sights of yet another James Turrell exhibit, Japanese folk art, and some of LA’s contemporary artists. My brother stated that he was “able to feel cultured.”
The nine days I spent in Southern California was what I needed: I was able to not worry about anything – especially any responsibilities I had back in New York – and I got to spend some quality time with my entire family. A vacation that lasts longer than a week is what I need to revitalize my headspace, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied to spend it with the people that I love.
I went to Cuba this past weekend. It was partly an impulse (namely because I’m going to California for the holidays), and although I had discussed with my friends about going to Havana soon, I wasn’t expecting to go within a week of booking the ticket. Still, with the US Travel ban recently lifted, I decided to use my miles and a flight voucher to create an essentially free Cuban trip. With taxes and a visa fee, it cost me about $150 for a roundtrip flight.
Brett, Clayton, and I landed in Havana, and we shed our winter coats to enjoy the incredibly warm, Caribbean winter weather. Our Airbnb was located a few blocks away from the Malecón, the major highway adjacent to the coast. It was operated by a charming elderly couple who would serve us a home-cooked breakfast each day we were there. Overall, the entire apartment was beautiful and quaint, and we spent each night drinking on the open, second floor terrace outside of one of the bedrooms.
Everything was essentially in walking distance, and as we wandered Havana by foot, I couldn’t help but marvel at the brilliant, European-style architecture of both their aging and recently renovated buildings; it did feel like Paris with a Latin spin on it. Of course, I was aesthetically drawn to Cuba’s cars as well: nearly half of all the country’s automobiles were refurbished from the 60’s and earlier, and even though many had new(ish) internal parts hidden beneath their classic exteriors, I couldn’t count how many cars broke down on the road or spewed thick, diesel smoke as they passed.
This leads me to my next observation: despite Cuba’s warm weather and beautiful environment, the poverty is pretty goddamned apparent. The grocery stores had little to no food. At night, people — namely prostitutes and cab drivers — solicit you for business. Get outside of the downtown area, and that amazing European architecture looks like it’s about to fall apart. Aside from the large-scale hotels (which we were able to get WiFi at), the food is simple, and “meh.”
The sad conditions of the majority of its citizens is only compounded by the bureaucracy of the government: on my last day, I needed to get a few extra CUCs at the currency exchange. Brett and I spent 3 hours outside, waiting in line with a combination of Cuban people and European tourists, and the single clerk who ran the exchange had to go on a 30 minute lunch break. Even when I got to the airport, the airlines couldn’t figure out which terminal my plane was at, and the food court even ran out of food. Needless to say, my last few hours in Cuba were frustrating.
All in all, however, it is a country worth visiting once. And if I had to rank all the Latino countries I’ve visited so far in terms of enjoyment, I’d put Cuba in 2nd, right behind Brazil.
And you want photos? Well, I got ‘em!