A Merry Christmas in Micronesia

The moment I saw a photo taken from Palau, I knew we had to go. The diving destination quickly skipped to the top of my travel bucket list and just seven months after seeing that first photo, we were in Palau. Coming from Japan, we had a four hour layover in Guam where we made the most of our time by hitting the beach. This was a sharp, but very welcome change from the snowy weather we had in Japan. guamThe main reason to visit Palau is the world-class scuba diving. We purchased a week-long dive package with Sam’s Tours in Palau that included all transportation, hotels and dives so everything was already taken care of when we arrived (highly recommend!). We were picked up from the tiny airport in Palau, taken to our hotel and the next morning checked into the dive shop that would become our home for the next week. Our routine over the course of the week was as follows. 1. Arrive at the dive shop and get our gear ready for the day.IMG_3924 (1280x960)2. Take an hour long boat ride to the outer reef for a morning dive. Palau is comprised of roughly 250 islands, 200 of which are uninhabited. The daily boat rides were actually a huge perk, almost like a free scenic boat tour every day. Look at all the different colors of the water!IMG_3654 (1280x960)IMG_3663 (1280x960)IMG_3665 (1280x960)IMG_3675 (1280x960)IMG_3730 (1280x960)IMG_3738 (1280x960)IMG_4127 (1280x960)3. Get back on the dive boat and head to a secluded beach to eat lunch. IMG_3689 (1280x960)IMG_3690 (1280x960)IMG_3692 (1280x960)IMG_3694 (1280x960) One of the days we stopped at the beach below where they filmed “Survivor Palau” back in 2005.IMG_3747 (1280x960)IMG_3782 (1280x960)IMG_3772 (1280x960)IMG_3793 (1280x960)IMG_3810 (1280x960)IMG_3818 (1280x960)IMG_3789 (1280x960)4. Take the boat to the next dive site(s) for one or two more dives.IMG_3932 (1280x960)5. Head back to the dive shop for happy hour and catch the sunset.IMG_3917 (1280x960)IMG_3916 (1280x960)IMG_4103 (1280x960)6. Eat dinner and pass out. I don’t think we ever made it past 10pm! We were lucky enough to have a great group of people on our dive boat and made some awesome friends from Germany.  IMG_4115 (1280x960)One of which, Markus, is a dive master and owns one of the nicest underwater cameras we’ve ever seen. Thanks to him, he’s let us use some photos he took during our trip. If you are ever in Austria, check out Bukannon Divers!bukannon3 (960x540)bukannon2 (960x639)bukannon7 (960x640)palauThe diving in Palau is incredible. Not only is the underwater life amazing, there is so much diversity. Within our 12 dives, we dove in channels, drop-offs, caves, holes, shipwrecks, etc. You name it, Palau has it all!IMG_3888 (1280x960)bukannon1 (960x639)bukannon5 (640x960)bukannon6 (960x640)Aside from the diving, one of the highlights of Palau was or snorkel trip to Jellyfish Lake. There is a lake on Eil Malk island where an estimated five million golden jellyfish migrate from one side of the lake to the other following the sun. The jellyfish don’t sting, in fact, they are super soft and squishy, which is a good thing because they are everywhere!  They were so delicate that if you swam too quickly, your fins could easily rip one to shreds. We jumped into the lake and started to head to where they were most concentrated. As we swam, we slowly became increasingly surrounded by hundreds and then thousands of them.IMG_3956 (1280x960)IMG_3974 (1280x960)IMG_3981 (1280x960)IMG_3983 (1280x960)IMG_4002 (1280x960)IMG_3998 (1280x960)We took a ton of photos at Jellyfish Lake…IMG_3992 (1280x960)IMG_3994 (1280x960)IMG_3968 (1280x960)IMG_3975 (1280x960)IMG_3960 (1280x960)IMG_4006 (1280x960)IMG_4018 (960x1280)We took a video diving down through the masses of jellyfish. This gives a little perspective into how many there were and how dense the population was in certain spots of the lake.   The day before our flight back to the States, we went on an all-day kayak trip to get up close and personal to the Rock Islands, a dense cluster of limestone islands which is part of Palau. We kayaked in lagoons and caves and went snorkeling and cliff jumping all day. Not a bad way to spend our last day!IMG_4210 (1280x960)IMG_4197 (1280x960)We were picked up by our airport transfer for our long trip back to the States. From Palau we flew to the small island of Yap, then to Guam and Honolulu before eventually making it back to San Francisco 25 hours later. I would have flown another 25 hours if we had to; Palau is totally worth the trip! While we missed seeing all of our family and friends over the holidays, it was truly an incredible birthday and Christmas vacation.IMG_3928 (1280x960)Here’s to hoping 2015 brings as many amazing memories and getaways as this year did!bukannon8 (534x534)

I Think We’re Turning Japanese

Hi again! We thought it would be worth sharing our holiday trip with everyone after receiving requests for stories and photos from our time abroad. After 18 months back in California, we took our first international trip to Asia, spending one week in Japan and one week in Palau.IMG_3070 (1280x960)On December 12, we hopped on a flight with our dear friends, Georgeanna and Mike, to spend the week exploring and eating our way through Japan.  Our first stop was Tokyo where we booked an AirBnB for a few nights in Ebisu, a trendy and happening neighborhood. After checking in and getting settled, we went to what would be one of my favorite places, a restaurant/bar arcade featuring tons of little food stalls jumbled together that forced us into the thick of Japanese culture.photo (22) (1280x960)photo (2) (1280x960)IMG_2793 (1280x960)We were winning our fight against jetlag but were ready to eat! The menu was in Japanese and our server knew little to no English so we all ordered the only thing we could remember in Japanese – sashimi. They definitely understood this as plate after plate of amazingly fresh sashimi was delivered to our table.IMG_2795 (960x1280)IMG_2798 (1280x960)Après dinner, we walked around the neighborhood, stopped in at a local bar for a couple drinks (surprisingly one of the only places that wasn’t closed for a private holiday party) and finished the night with fried octopus balls and a night cap. Fried octopus balls (takoyaki) are fried pieces of dough with chunks of octopus inside – two thumbs up!IMG_2815 (1280x1280)IMG_2813 (1280x1280)Our first night in Japan was a super success and we promptly passed out that night, recouping lost hours from the 17 hour time change from California to Japan.

The next morning, Georgeanna and Mike went for a run while we went to pick up some trip necessities, i.e. this facemask.  IMG_3081 (1280x960)We rendezvoused at a recommended ramen shop in Ebisu called Afuri. This was the first of several trips to a ramen restaurant and the process was as follows: enter the building, select and order what kind of ramen you want from the machine in front and then take the ticket for your order and hand it to one of the cooks behind the counter to make.IMG_2831 (1280x960)Half the time, these machines said absolutely nothing in English or featured pictures too hard to make out so we’d usually stand there and all stare at the machine thinking that we’d eventually understand how to read Japanese. Someone would typically notice our confusion and would come to explain each option. These translations weren’t always perfect so the experience was something like ramen roulette, but the result was almost always delicious! At Afuri, Mike and I had a spicy tomato-based broth while Chris and Georgeanna enjoyed a more traditional light chicken broth. It was a solid start to our ramen experience in Japan.IMG_2828 (1280x960)IMG_2829 (1280x960)From Ebisu, we walked through several neighborhoods stopping every now and then to check out the local grocery store scene or window shop until we reached our primary destination, the neighborhood of Harajuku. Harajuku is known for its wild fashion and pop-culture craziness. Weird things happen here.

Crowded is an understatement. The two main streets were packed with a sea of people. You didn’t really have to walk because you were almost guided along by the general population of people moving in your same direction. Chris and Mike had a lot of height on everyone else and were easy to find!????????????????People watching was good, but the Engrish was GREAT. Full disclosure, not all photos below are from Harajuku.IMG_3100 (1280x960)signunnamedIMG_3277 (1280x960)On the west side of Harajuku is a large park featuring the Meiji shrine, gardens and several torii (a traditional Japanese gate typically found at the entrance or within a Shinto shrine). We took a free walking tour from an English speaking guide who touched on the Japanese Shinto religion, how to respectfully visit the shrine by adhering to their traditions and explained all their many customs including how you wash away impurities before entering the main shrine area.SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCThat evening, we walked through Shibuya crossing, the famous pedestrian crossway where people converge in organized chaos.shibuya crossing1 (702x395)shibuya crossing2 (702x395)IMG_2866 (1280x960)Back in Ebisu, we went to a lovely traditional dinner featuring multiple courses at a restaurant called Ippo and finished the night at Bar Martha – one of the coolest bars I have ever been to, but super pricey to boot! It was like a speakeasy but modernized with walls of records and music paraphernalia. Sorry, no photos.

The next morning, we woke up early to hit up the main tourist attraction in Tokyo, the Tsijuki Fish Market. We debated waking up at 4AM to make it to the live tuna auction, but decided against it for fear our internal clock would easily get confused if we continued to mess around with our sleeping patterns.

We did get there in time to walk among the many stalls in the outer market and the main seafood market before parking ourselves in line to wait for our first taste of sushi in Japan.????????SONY DSCSONY DSC????????????????There are two sushi restaurants within the fish market itself and both are only open for breakfast. People start lining up as early as 5AM! We were in line around 8:30AM and shortly afterwards, Mike and Georgeanna decided against waiting and left in search for other food options. There were a few times in our 90 minute wait when we really wished we would have gone with them. ????????One of the reason it takes so long is because the restaurant is comprised of just two sushi counters with 12 stools each. Once inside, it’s a very tight squeeze.????????We opted for the chef’s selection of the day which was squid, eel, amberjack, egg, sea urchin, raw shrimp, medium-fatty tuna, fatty tuna, a tuna roll, a roe roll and we bought a piece of extra lean tuna for good measure. Best sushi of our lives for sure. All so fresh and completely worth the wait. When in Japan, right?IMG_3136 (1280x960)IMG_3135 (1280x960)SONY DSCIMG_2893 (1280x960)We met back up just in time to ride the train to the Tokyo Sky Tree to meet Mike’s old family friends from New York – Saori and Taka. Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest tower in the world and offers a great vantage point of the sprawling city.IMG_3147 (960x1280)????????Afterwards, we went for okinominyaki, a Japanese style pizza or pancake. This specific one was packed with seafood, drizzled with different sauces and was delish! Plus the company was great, Saori and Taka were so nice and it was great to get a true local perspective.IMG_2897 (960x1280)IMG_3158 (1280x960)Not far away from Tokyo Sky Tree was Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo, which is also surrounded by a pagoda, other shrines and temples.  It was here at Senso-ji  that I received my omikuji or written fortune. Here’s an excerpt, “Your wish will not come true. The lost article will not be found. The person you are waiting for will not come. It is bad to make a trip.” Good traveling karma, eh?!????????????????????????That night, we met our friend Dayne, who has been working in Japan for the past few months, in Shibuya for a night on the town. We started at a beer bar and ended up where any typical group of friends would go in Tokyo…karaoke!!! This was my first time singing karaoke and we sang our little hearts out in our private room overlooking the streets of Shibuya. Karaoke lasted a couple of hours but the party continued well into the morning.IMG_2909 (1280x960)IMG_3178 (1280x960)IMG_3183 (608x1080)IMG_3185 (608x1080)IMG_2914 (1280x960)The next day hurt. Thanks to Dayne, we managed to make it to an awesome gyoza (Japanese dumpling) restaurant that completely hit the spot. It was late afternoon when we all slowly made our way to Yebisu brewery.

That evening we went for yakitori (grilled meat on a stick) in Drunken Alley, a lantern-filled lane where teeny tiny restaurants fit just 4-8 occupants at one time.IMG_2946 (1280x960)IMG_2945 (1280x960)IMG_3197 (1280x960)We crammed into a charming but quasi-claustrophobic spot and were served our dinner of tofu and radish, chicken thighs, chicken wings, chicken hearts and pork. All so tasty and served by our very own private chef!IMG_3199 (960x1280)IMG_3201 (960x1280)IMG_3202 (1280x960)IMG_2942 (1280x960)A bar and some roadies later, we ended the night at Gabi Gabi, a little bar famous in Tokyo for catching live music.  It was open mic night for amateurs and we got a good dose of local talent, the good, the bad and even some ugly. Pictured below with us was my favorite musician, a business man who came to jam and hear fellow musicians play. He was so good! Overall, a really fun night off the tourist trail.gabagaba (702x395)IMG_2956 (1280x960)In the morning we parted ways with Dayne as he headed to the airport while we went to catch the shinkansen, or bullet train, to Osaka for the day. So great to see you across the world, Dayne. We had such a great time with you as always!

Traveling at roughly 155 mph, it took about 3 hours before we arrived. We were moving so fast, look how warped the photos look when we tried to take pictures out the window.IMG_3209 (1280x960)shinkansen (702x395)The streets around Dotonbori in Osaka remind me of a mini Times Square…lots of signs and lights for restaurants, bars and shops all competing for your attention.????????IMG_3223 (1280x960) We had to try some Osaka cuisine so we went for kushikatsu which is basically fried meat or seafood and vegetables on a stick that you dip in house made sauce. While good, it wasn’t my favorite meal in Japan but neither is deep fried food.SONY DSC????????That evening we met up with another one of Mike’s childhood friend, Daisaku, whom he hadn’t seen in 20+ years! Osaka has a lot of shopping malls and we walked through shop after shop selling everything imaginable.????????Dai’s family including his daughter and her friend joined us for dinner that night and they were so incredibly adorable!????????We went for traditional Japanese dessert afterwards, which was a sweet bean soup served very hot with a drop of mochi on top. Good but not something I see us craving in the future. The girls were so happy to have it though, it was like going out to ice cream for them. IMG_3228 (1280x960)We ended the night at a bar owned by a friend of Dai’s, super cool and sleek with some very interesting beers and bar food. A really nice place to end our quick trip to Osaka!IMG_3232 (960x1280)The next morning we made our way to Kyoto, just 15 minutes from Osaka by bullet train. We only had two days and one night in Kyoto so we checked into our ryokan or traditional Japanese guesthouse, got a few directions and were off exploring the city. Our first stop was what we continually referred to as the ‘golden temple’ but its actual name is Kinkaku-ji. IMG_3268 (1280x960)IMG_3265 (1280x960)We stopped for soba or buckwheat noodle soup at a local restaurant a few blocks away. This was one of Chris’ favorite restaurants in Japan. Hot soup on a cold day was the perfect combo – great find Georgeanna!????????????????It snowed an hour or two when we were in Tokyo but in Kyoto it really started to dump. It was so beautiful since we hadn’t seen snow in forever! The exception to this was when we went to our next stop, Riyoan-ji, or the zen rock gardens. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much to see except a few rocks in snow. SONY DSCSONY DSCOh well, at least the surrounding gardens and grounds were still nice.SONY DSCSONY DSCIMG_3290 (960x1280)From the rock gardens we took the local train to our last stop for the day, the neighborhood of Arashiyama.????????There’s a high concentration of temples and shrines here (and in Kyoto in general) that we took a gander at before heading to our real destination, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for the festival of lights. The entire bamboo grove was lit up – so gorgeous! Our crappy photos don’t do the place justice.IMG_2995 (1280x960)IMG_2994 (1280x960)IMG_3002 (1280x1280)After our long day in Kyoto, we made our way back to our ryokan to thaw. As part of the room and board, you have access to the onsite onsen or spa. These bathhouses require everyone to strip down into their birthday suit (how appropriate as it was actually my birthday!) before showering and entering the hot tubs. There are separate rooms for males and females. No personal photos for obvious reasons, but I’ve included one below from our actual ryokan. These onsens were one of my favorite things about Japan! onsen (1000x667)Photo credit: Google Images

We quickly went back to our rooms and changed into our provided yukata robes before heading to dinner.????????????????Included in a traditional ryokan experience is a very elaborate multi-course dinner or kaiseki. Food presentation was amazing. Everything was served on tiny plates or in little boxes and bowls. Most of the food was super tasty although we were never sure what we were actually eating which was most of the fun. Here are just a few photos of what we ate and a photo of the aftermath.IMG_3356 (1280x960)IMG_3357 (960x1280)SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCWe celebrated the day with hot sake, bottles of beer and lots of unknown Japanese delicacies – an awesome and very memorable Japanese birthday dinner!

At first, I was unconvinced that paying to sleep on the floor would be fun but the tatami mats were actually really comfortable and the ryokan was one of our Japan highlights. From the photo below, think I could pass as Japanese?????????Breakfast the next morning was very similar, lots of little Japanese dishes all beautifully presented and mostly tasty.SONY DSCWe checked out of our ryokan and hit the streets for our last day in Kyoto. We took the train to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine which is comprised of thousands of torii (word for gate, remember??).????????SONY DSCSONY DSC????????SONY DSCWe spent a short time in the neighborhood of Gion, where you have your best (but still highly unlikely) chance of seeing a real geisha.SONY DSCWe had time for one last meal in Kyoto and after what seemed like hours of searching, we finally found the perfect place. It was a local joint serving everything we wanted: udon, tempura and tonkatsu or deep fried pork cutlet. The restaurant owner had spent some time in the States and was so excited to have us as patrons and was genuinely curious about our travels and lives. It’s tradition for the eldest son in Japanese culture to take over the father’s work when he retires so instead of chasing his own dreams, he came back to Tokyo after working and living abroad to manage his father’s restaurant. The upside to his predicament is that the food was very delicious. He was such a sweet man who ended up leaving briefly to buy us all handmade Japanese postcards as a gift to remember our trip by!SONY DSC????????????????We headed back to Tokyo via the bullet train for our last night out in Tokyo. We checked into our hotel, Chris and I had a quick drink on the rooftop bar overlooking Shinjuku, picked up a roadbeer (drinking on the streets is legal) and headed to sushi for dinner with Georgeanna and Mike. This sushi place, recommended by our hotel, was awesome! Not as good as the sushi we waited in line forever for, but a very close second. Melt in your mouth sushi…can’t beat it and so cheap!IMG_3401 (1280x960)IMG_3402 (1280x960)It was our last night together in Tokyo and we had to go out with a bang. So naturally, we rented a private karaoke room. These karaoke buildings are just like hotels, floors with room after room available to rent by the hour.IMG_3028 (960x1280) We were initially put in a room without windows and an awesome dolphin mural, but I requested to be switched to a room with floor to ceiling windows and multiple couches overlooking Shinjuku. This is where the magic unfolded.IMG_3405 (1280x960)IMG_3408 (1280x960)IMG_3047 (1280x960)IMG_3049 (1280x960)After getting our quick fix of karaoke, we went to a nearby area that has tons of super tiny bars. Much like Drunken Alley, these bars can only fit a handful of people at a time. The one that we selected was owned by a Japanese “Wayne’s World” lookalike.IMG_3055 (1280x960)I won’t go into detail but things went downhill (or uphill depending how you look at it OR who you’re talking to) pretty fast after ordering drinks. We finally fell into bed early the next morning and had very little time before we had to check out of the hotel. Miraculously, I was able to get myself to the iconic Tokyo train station for some ramen. This sesame seed ramen soup might be my favorite from Japan and it literally brought me back to life!IMG_3061 (1280x960)What do you do after a long night out? Well for me, I just eat all day long and that’s exactly what we did. We left our ramen lunch to go straight to dinner. We had a recommendation for a traditional Japanese steakhouse located on top of a butcher shop and it did not disappoint. The steak was like butter and it still makes me drool when I think about the food.IMG_3071 (1280x960)IMG_3073 (1280x960)This was one of our favorite meals and it was a perfect dinner to end our trip and say goodbye to our friends. We stayed at a hotel near the airport for our flight to Palau the next morning and they still had another day in Tokyo before flying back to the States.  We had such a good time traveling with Georgeanna and Mike and experiencing Japan together. We know our trip was better because we had them with us. Thanks for all the amazing memories guys!!

A few things worth mentioning about our time in Japan:

  • Whenever Chris would see a group of school children, particularly girls, he’d wave and smile or give them a shy wink which would set them off in a fit of giggles and make them go crazy!
  • We were won over by the food. I originally thought we’d live off sushi and ramen which we were completely looking forward to, but as you can see from all the awesome eats we had, there was so much to try and the majority of it was awesome.
  • Almost everyone thought I was Japanese and would start speaking to me in Japanese assuming I was a local playing host to my three American friends. This would happen all day everyday.
  • Japan is just as clean as everyone says it is, if not cleaner. As a self-proclaimed germaphobe, I hate bathrooms but the toilets in Japan were so clean (and so smart), you didn’t have to touch anything – especially the toilet seats!

Japan definitely tops our lists of favorite places we’ve been and it far exceeded our expectations. We highly recommend a trip and to go now, the dollar is so strong against the yen (for example one piece of high quality and super fresh salmon was only 85 cents)!

While I’m not sure what the future of our blog holds, I do know that we can commit to posting once more about the final week of our holiday trip – our adventures in Palau! Stay tuned for more…

Back in the U.S. of A!

Welllllll…..it’s been a couple of months since we’ve been back in the good ol’ U.S of A. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that it actually felt like our trip ended mainly because we’ve spent the last few months in cities all over the States catching up with friends and family.And boy have they spoiled us rotten since our return!

After departing Seoul, we flew to San Francisco where we stayed for three nights to catch up with friends. We met our friend Georgeanna and set off to find our favorite craft beer and later had our first taste of a home-cooked meal. Not only did we experience wonderful hospitality, but the next evening we were treated to our first real restaurant experience in several months. Georgeanna, manager of SF’s Nopalito, made us reservations at her sister restaurant NOPA where we were treated to whatever we wanted on their menu….for FREE! We ate and drank like kings but the fine dining experience was definitely our first dose of reverse culture shock – the portions, prices and buzz of activity at the popular hot spot was completely overwhelming. We didn’t take any photos in SF…except of the food at NOPA! Thanks for the awesome time, GA/Mike. We miss ya’ll! 1 (1024x768) 2 (1024x768)From San Francisco, we flew to Chicago to spend a few days in the burbs with my family before heading downtown to see some of our besties. A cookout, followed by drinks on the rooftop at Vertigo and Citizen landed me with a lost credit card the next day… yikes! It was totally worth it in the end.20 (1024x768)While in Chicago, we made sure to fit in a trip to visit my grandparents on their beautiful farm in Iowa. We helped my grandparents throw a bingo/pizza party for some relatives, shot some guns and spent time in their awesome garden.5 (1024x768) 3 (1024x768) 6 (1024x768)13 (1024x768)It just so happened that we celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary while in Iowa which was extra special for us because they weren’t able to make it to our wedding last year. Love you grandma and grandpa! 19 (1024x768)Back in Chicago, my girlfriends surprised Chris and me with a one-night stay at the Hard Rock Hotel downtown (not just any room but the ‘platinum suite’!) to celebrate our anniversary. After spending the last year in some really yucky places, we loved and fully appreciated our luxurious digs. 7 (1024x768)It’s been nearly five years since we’ve lived in Chicago so we hit up some of our fave spots in the city before gearing up for another night on the town. Thanks again for the hotel room Cami, Jess and Rach – what a super thoughtful gift. We had an amazing time with you guys…as always!12 (1024x768) 4 (1024x768)Our next stop was Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was anxiously waiting to see my brother, sis-in-law and adorable nephews! We also got a chance to head over to nearby Chapel Hill to see Chris’ sister and nephews in a swim meet.IMG_0603 (1024x768) 10 (1024x768)And of course, we made the rounds to see family and other NC buddies, too!18 (1024x768) 8 (1024x768) photo(13) (640x480)From Raleigh we made our way down to Ocean Isle Beach to visit with Chris’ parents. A couple weeks later, we drove up to meet them in the Appalachian mountains for some hiking and QT! ???????? ???????? ???????? photo(2) (1024x768) photo(3) (1024x768)We finally made it to Kure Beach, on the coast near Wilmington, where we are temporarily living while we look for jobs and settle down into our own place. Until that happens, we’ve been spending time with friends and family in the Wilmington-area and have been having a blast boating, fishing, playing tennis, running on the beach, going to concerts and enjoying our last few weeks of funemployment!photo(11) (1024x768) photo(12) (1024x768) photo(14) (1024x768)photo(9) (1024x768) IMG_3516 (1024x768) 14 (1024x768) 16 (1024x768) 11 (1024x768)IMG_5364 (1024x731)IMG_6561 (1024x731)A big thanks to my dad and step-mom for letting us crash at their beach house until we are back on our feet – what a view!photo(8) (1024x768) photo(7) (1024x768)All of the above has been taking up our time, which is one reason this post is overdue! The other reason it has taken so long for us to post is because we needed to marinate on our experience and to filter through all of the emotions we’ve experienced returning to life in the States. At times it was stressful and overwhelming, especially not being on-the-go every day and preparing to rejoin the workforce. What has really grounded us is our drive to be successful in our career and continuing to enjoy time with our loved ones.

Thanks again to everyone for all of the love, prayers and happy thoughts. Here’s to the next chapter!17 (1024x768)

Korea: Full of Heart and Seoul

When I was just a baby, I was adopted from Korea for a new life in America. This week-long trip to Korea was my first time back in the country since I was five months old! And what better company to share this experience with than my mom and brother Dave? As luck would have it, our flights landed 10 minutes apart so we met at baggage claim in Seoul’s airport and made our way to the apartment we rented in Itaewon.

The next morning, we were all tired from our long travel day (especially my mom and brother) but we powered through and took a taxi to a Korean cooking class I had booked. Halfway there, I realized that I hadn’t booked it for that day, but for the next day – oops. We showed up to O’ngo anyway and they were so nice and accommodating they let us have a private cooking class instead – right then and there!????????Just like any good cooking school, our class started with a tour of the local market where we learned about traditional Korean dishes and ingredients. We walked back to the classroom kitchen to get started on our two dishes – bulgogi (thin pieces of grilled sirloin – literally translating to “fire meat”) and bibimpbap (mixed rice with vegetables).???????? ????????Our first order of business was to prepare the marinade for the bulgogi. We chopped green onions and garlic, minced an Asian pear and added black pepper, salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and a bit of sugar to the bowl of thinly sliced beef sirloin.???????? ???????? ????????While the bulgogi was marinating, we got to work on the Korean classic bibimbap. We blanched the bean sprouts and spinach and seasoned them to our liking and then pan-fried the carrots and bracken adding sesame seed oil and soy sauce to taste. A serving of sticky rice lined the bottom of a stone bowl while we added each of the veggies on top. The stone bowls were heated over fire and finally topped with an over easy egg. I mixed my bibimbap together so the egg would continue to cook and so the rice on the bottom would get nice and fried from the hot stone bowl.???????? ???????? ????????While the stone bowls heated, we cooked the bulgolgi meat with onions and mushrooms until everything was ready to eat. Both dishes were so delicious. Besides, it always tastes better when you make it yourself!???????? ???????? ????????Looking back, I think it was the best meal we had in Korea. The cooking class was a great introduction to Korean food and a great first meal together.????????We walked around the neighborhood after our amazing lunch and then were so tuckered out, we made our way back to relax at our Korean apartment. As if we didn’t get enough bulgogi during lunch, Chris and I had a huge order for dinner that night which was accompanied by tons of little Korean side dishes.???????? ???????? ????????The next day, we walked through Namdaemun, Korea’s oldest and largest market dating back to 1414, for more eating of course! The best were the piping hot Korean pancakes and dumplings but the hotdogs weren’t bad either.???????? ???????? ???????? ???????? ???????? ????????We walked to Namsangol, an old hanok village, to have a look around at restored traditional Korean homes. We were wandering by just in time to see the taekwondo exhibition. Check out those Korean ups!???????? ???????? ????????The next day was one of the most memorable moments I’ve had on our entire trip. My mom had arranged a visit to Eastern Social Welfare Society, the adoption agency and orphanage which cared for me while I was going through the process of being adopted. We met the post-adoption agency manager, Jeon, who gave us a tour of the welfare society.

We were all a bit overwhelmed when we entered the hallway which led to three large rooms full of 80 adorable Korean babies waiting for foster homes and/or to be adopted. Each of the rooms had bassinet after bassinet after bassinet and each one was occupied by a beautiful baby. We first entered the infant room and although there were about 25 infants in there, every single one was sleeping. The woman watching over them in the room was a miracle worker! After a few minutes, a few woke up and we were able to hold them, feed them and put them back to sleep. We have some really sweet (and heartbreaking photos) but have agreed not to post them to protect the babies’ privacy.

We walked to the next room where the babies were a few months older. They were absolutely adorable. Space in the room is tight and some of the babies were doubled up in cribs but every single one of them looked well cared for. Leaving the lone woman there to care for all of the babies was so hard!

We walked around a nearby university campus neighborhood and then Chris and I spent the remainder of the day at Changdeokgung Palace which was home to one of the historic Korean kings.???????? ????????The next morning, we checked out of our apartment in Itaewon and made our way to the War Memorial of Korea. Inside the museum were displays, replicas and artifacts from every war Korea played a role in. There were also hundreds and hundreds of Korean children visiting the museum that same day. Every school is Seoul must have been at the museum!???????? ???????? ???????? ????????When my mom was first planning on meeting us in Korea, the welfare society said that they would be able to arrange meetings with my foster mom and even my birth mom if we were interested. I decided that the experience may be a little heavy and thought that it would be nice for my first trip back to Korea to be focused on learning more about the country and culture so we declined the offer. Well, after our time at the orphanage, I couldn’t stop thinking about those few women taking care of all of those babies. There was literally one lady for every 25 babies and they were all so well taken care of. After seeing the love, patience and kindness of the women, I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to thank my foster mom for taking care of me. I emailed Jeon from the welfare society to see if it was too late to arrange a meeting with my foster mom and luckily, it wasn’t!

So after the museum, we all went back to the welfare society where my foster mom was waiting to meet us! Her name was Ms. Lee and she was the coolest elderly Korean lady ever. Jeon acted as our translator and we sat and chatted with Ms. Lee for a good while. In addition to taking care of her own three sons, Ms. Lee has taken care of 60 orphaned babies in her lifetime, myself included (for five months before I was adopted to the U.S.). She is an angel! Ms. Lee is getting older so I’m so grateful that we were able to spend time with her and thank her for taking such good care of me.???????? ????????For our remaining days in Seoul, we moved into a hanok, a traditional Korean house, in the neighborhood of Insadong.????????We booked our stay on Airbnb and our host Alice was so sweet and her home was so cute and comfy. My mom loved learning about Korean life through Alice so it worked out perfectly for her to stay at home while Chris, Dave and I went to the DMZ the next day.

The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is the four kilometer buffer on the border of North Korea and South Korea. If you can believe it, tours run to the JSA or Joint Security Area which is the only place that North Korea and South Koreans hold meetings together and is heavily guarded on both sides.????????We met at a fancy hotel in downtown Seoul and hopped aboard a bus to the DMZ. As we started to head north towards the border (just 40 kilometers from Seoul), our tour guide goes through the list of security precautions. “No pointing! No talking! No cell phones! Stay in line and no running! If you run, North Koreans shoot you! Smile because North Korean soldiers will be photographing you!” The debriefing really got the blood pumping…we were excited!

We reached the South Korean military base closest to the border where we were transferred to a military guarded United Nations bus. The bus pulled up to a large building which we walked through in two perfectly even lines. We exited through the rear of the building and there we were, standing in front of North Korea! The blue buildings belong to the UNC (United Nation Committee) and the gray building belongs to North Korea. Just standing there, you could really feel the tension.???????? ???????? ????????The area is heavily patrolled with military guards who all take watch and face North Korea. We were told it that it wasn’t likely we would see any North Koreans because they usually just hide behind the blinds and take pictures but we were lucky because we saw one standing on the stairs of the North Korean building! He stared at us through binoculars the entire time – very exciting!SONY DSCWe then entered one of the blue UNC buildings where conferences and discussions take place between the two countries. Because the UNC building straddles the border, you can step foot in North Korea! The last photo of me is when I was on the North Korean side. You can see the concrete slab that serves as the actual border from the window.???????? ???????? ????????The remainder of the tour was sombering as we learned about the living conditions in North Korea and were taken to a few memorials where varying “incidents” have occurred between the countries. After the Korean War, many Korean families were separated. There isn’t any communication between the two so bridges are often covered in prayers for their loved ones.???????? ????????The following day was our last full day of our round-the-world trip! We started by walking through the streets of Gangnam, the fashion capital of Seoul, where we sat and people watched from the local coffee shops. And while in the famous neighborhood, we had to break it out Gangnam-style!???????? ????????In the early evening, we went for a short hike to the N Seoul Tower for 360 degree views of the city. The city is incredibly vast and extends as far as the eye can see in all directions. We visited the observatory at the top of the N Seoul tower and were able to see the city at night – a real beauty!???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Chris and I made one last stop in Korea. Our cab dropped us off in the neighborhood of Insadong where we planned to meet our friend Joonshik whom we met on our overland trip in Africa. Joonshik and his girlfriend Insun met us for a bowl of ‘dongdongju,’ a traditional Korean liquor which you ladle into cups, and a Korean pizza (seafood pancake).???????? ???????? ????????We went to two more bars in Seoul, one that was underground and the last was a rooftop for some local Korean brew. It was so good to see Joonshik and meet his girlfriend.????????After visiting 26 countries around the world, we couldn’t pass up the chance to go back to my motherland! It was so much fun to learn more about my Korean roots and a great way to end our round-the-world trip. I don’t know when, but I know I will be back to visit Korea!

Wow – after nearly a year on the road, our round-the-world trip comes to an end! Although our international travel is over for the moment, we still have a couple of weeks left to travel across the U.S. Coming home is incredibly bittersweet. We have a lot to look forward to as we integrate back into American life, especially seeing our friends and family, but we will definitely miss the life we’ve grown accustom to over the past year.

It’s been a wild and crazy journey and we feel very blessed for the entire experience. I cannot think of a better way to spend our first year as newlyweds! Thanks for everyone’s love and support over the past year. We’ve had an incredible time and are ready for our next adventure to unfold!

Picture Perfect Palawan

After a turbulent flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, we made our way from the airport to the bus terminal where we boarded a bus to El Nido. What was supposed to be a six hour journey took seven and a half hours so it was getting dark by the time we reached El Nido. We settled into some cheap digs outside of town and moved to an ocean front guesthouse on the main beach the next morning.IMG_3137 (1024x768)El Nido is on the northern tip of the island of Palawan and is known for its beautiful karst limestone scenery. The views are great but the main beach is full of boats and isn’t the greatest for swimming. We had previously talked to other travelers who recommended nearby Las Cabanas Beach so we hired a tricycle to take us there for the day. The beach was stunning with only a handful of other people around.IMG_2837 (1024x768) IMG_2845 (1024x768) IMG_2868 (1024x768) IMG_2855 (1024x768) IMG_2899 (1024x768)That evening, we ran into a Polish couple we met diving on Apo Island. They were with a group of people organizing a boat for an island hopping trip the next day so we decided to join them. The boat stopped at five different islands and our first stop was more than an hour away giving us time to snap some photos of the gorgeous scenery along the way.IMG_3000 (1024x768) IMG_2938 (1024x768) IMG_2941 (1024x768)Each of the five islands offered something a little different but almost all of the islands offered decent snorkeling.IMG_2948 (1024x768) IMG_2952 (1024x768) IMG_2961 (1024x768)One island was called Secret Beach because you had to swim through a small opening in the rocks. We stopped at another island for lunch which had a scenic lookout to view the surrounding area.IMG_2998 (1024x768) IMG_2996 (1024x768) IMG_3013 (1024x768)Hidden Beach was completely camouflaged by its surrounding rock formations and we got caught in a pretty good thunderstorm which added to the adventure. Luckily it was short lived so it wasn’t long until we were back in business visiting Helicopter Island, named for its shape, for some more swimming and snorkeling.IMG_3047 (1024x768) IMG_3053 (1024x768)The island hopping tour was nearly eight hours and quite exhausting so we decided to go back to Las Cabanas Beach the next day. It was even prettier the second time around.IMG_3126 (1024x768) IMG_3131 (1024x768) IMG_3092 (1024x768) IMG_3088 (1024x768)By our fifth day in El Nido, it was time to move on. Turns out the Polish couple, Patricia and Robert, were headed the same way so we negotiated four tickets on one of the daily ferries from El Nido to Coron. We were dreading the seven hour ride in such a small boat but it turned out to be pretty relaxing and incredibly scenic as we passed island after island and beach after beach. I think the boat ride really put into perspective just how many islands comprise the Philippines and most of them are untouched and uninhabited.IMG_3153 (1024x768) IMG_3141 (1024x768) IMG_3145 (1024x768) IMG_3147 (1024x768)It was early evening when we finally arrived in Coron. We found a pretty sweet guesthouse and then went to work talking to the numerous dive shops in town. We signed up for two dives for the next day and then found a local restaurant for dinner where Chris feasted on a plate of sizzling ‘sisig’ or pig face. It’s a bit fatty but pretty tasty!IMG_3489 (1024x768)Coron is known as the “Shipwreck Capital of the Philippines” because of its vicinity to about a dozen sunken Japanese war ships from WWII. Our dive boat took us about an hour offshore for two different wrecks. Olympia Maru and East Tangat were both Japanese auxiliary cargo ships sunk by U.S. air raids on September 24, 1944. Olympia Maru (our favorite of the two dives) sits 80 feet below the surface of the ocean while East Tangat rests at 60 feet below the surface. Between the two dives, we were able to swim through a propeller room, boiler room, kitchen and several cargo holds (one of which held stockpiles of explosives). The visibility was pretty bad ,which is normal for the area, but it just added to the spookiness of the experience.  It was surreal seeing evidence of former life on the sunken ships…valves and ladders were overgrown with  coral and reef life…definitely an awesome experience!IMG_3154 (1024x768)Between our two dives, we ate lunch and our dive leader showed us the local dive equipment. The handmade goggles were carved out of fish bone and held together by fishing line while one fin was made of fiberglass and the other from old wood scraps. The goggles must have been a custom fit because they immediately filled with water when Chris swam with them. Although they were pretty heavy, the fins worked surprisingly well!IMG_3162 (1024x768) IMG_3166 (1024x768) IMG_3167 (1024x768)After dinner that evening, we walked around the public food market where we bought Chris a balut. Often ranked among the top “nastiest foods in the world to eat,” balut is a developing duck embryo. Filipino locals boil the egg and serve it to you in its shell. When we opened it up, I could barely look at it. Chris dug in and said the first bite tasted like a normal egg but that it had a bit of “structure” to it. The other bites weren’t as bad as the first, which we think included the head of the unborn baby duck.DSC02359 (1024x681) DSC02361 (1024x681) DSC02364 (1024x681)The next morning, we went on a chaotic island hopping trip that was jam packed with people and planned stops. Our first stop was to a reef for some snorkeling…we weren’t expecting to see much but was pleasantly surprised to spot a few new things and even a spotted eel.IMG_3203 (1024x768)Our next two stops were to lakes set within the limestone formations. Both lakes were incredibly clean with good visibility and underwater rock outcroppings. The remaining stops included another reef, a secluded beach and a shipwreck. We spent nearly the entire day in the water and were thoroughly exhausted from the day’s activities.IMG_3250 (1024x768) IMG_3264 (1024x768) IMG_3266 (1024x768)While we were enjoying one of Coron’s many amazing sunsets with a few people from our snorkel tour, we ran into an American girl, Kim, from our dive trip in Apo Island. That evening, our group of seven (two other Americans, the Polish couple, and a Spaniard) made arrangements to hire a private boat to take us to some farther islands the next day.????????We met the next morning at the public market and split up to buy provisions for the day. Chris and I were on fish detail and bought nearly nine pounds of fresh fish – a four pound parrotfish and two tunas.  The others came back with fruit, vegetables, rice, beer, ice and charcoal. We loaded the boat and headed off to Malcapuya Island, our first stop for the day about 90 minutes away.IMG_3359 (1024x768)About half way there, we came across a large fishing boat pulling in their tuna net. A huge pod of dolphins was swarming the boat so we asked the captain to stop, grabbed our snorkels and jumped in the water. They were everywhere….swimming around us and jumping out of the water like crazy. The whole experience was awesome and totally unplanned.IMG_3369 (1024x768) IMG_3372 (1024x768)Malcapuya Island is known for its white sandy beaches and it did not disappoint. The white sand against the turquoise water was gorgeous…one of the most picturesque beaches we’ve seen. IMG_3441 (1024x768) IMG_3377 (1024x768) IMG_3455 (1024x768) IMG_3457 (1024x768)And what are the chances that a boat would be sitting on the sand that says “Chris 2013 Malcapuya” on it?!IMG_3436 (1024x768)The island is also known for its giant clams  located a couple hundred meters offshore. We swam for what seemed like forever until we reached them and they were huge!IMG_3385 (1024x768) IMG_3398 (1024x768)While we were swimming and snorkeling, the boat crew was busy preparing and cooking all of the food we had purchased. We climbed back onboard for fresh fish and ice cold beers and made our way to the next stop, Bulog Island.IMG_3447 (1024x768) IMG_3448 (1024x768)The beach wasn’t as nice as Malcapuya but the snorkeling was really good. There weren’t giant clams but there were thousands of smaller clams embedded all over the coral. IMG_3412 (1024x768)I’ve never seen so many clams. It looked as though the rocks had lips and some clams were so incredibly vibrant and colorful.IMG_3471 (1024x768) IMG_3478 (1024x768)The private boat turned out to be cheaper than if we had gone on an island hopping tour and we had more flexibility, could choose our own itinerary, had lunch cooked for us and had cold beer at our disposal! Such an amazing day spent with a great group of people.IMG_3487 (1024x768)We had one more day in Coron and given where we were, I decided to sign up for two more wreck dives. Unfortunately, on our first pair of wreck dives Chris tried to equalize his ears a little too hard on our descent and busted a capillary which caused him to spit up some blood for the next few days. To be on the safe side and not to risk anything, he stayed home while I went diving with Kim from Oregon. I hate to say it, but these dives were by far the best dives I’ve ever done and don’t even compare to the wrecks we saw a few days before. These ships were a lot deeper (115 feet) and were a lot larger. You could easily get lost swimming around the bowels of the ship. One of the ships, Akitsushima, is the only warship in the area and you could still see its artillery and explosives. The other ship, Kogyo Maru, had a bulldozer, cement mixer, bombs and huge boiler rooms. Both were absolutely incredible but I was bummed I couldn’t share the experience with Chris. He would have loved it.

That night, Kim, Chris and I went out for dinner and drinks with a few Germans from our dive boat. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a karaoke bar. Karaoke is a favorite Filipino pastime. They love it so much, you can easily find a place at 10AM to go karaoke. We (and by “we” I mean Chris and Kim) sang well into the night…a great way to end our time in Coron!

The next morning we boarded an all-day ferry to take us to Puerto Princesa. We arrived late at night and headed straight to our hotel to crash. Our hotel was located right next to a brand new mall so after three amazing weeks in the Philippines, we spent our last day shopping, eating and preparing for our last and final country…such a bittersweet feeling.

The Philippines is the last country that Chris and I will travel alone because my mom and brother Dave are meeting us in Korea for the final leg of our trip! We’re so excited to see them and to explore the country and culture of my homeland!????????