Things I learned in Japan

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  • Having one card that works for all public transit in different cities is such a blessing
  • Bento boxes are amazing, because they let you try many different foods in one box
  • Japan is not a great place if you’re vegetarian (I’m not, but a friend is) – there are only a few restaurants in each city that will work out
  • Service delays for local trains do happen occasionally. In such cases, it can be difficult to leave the train station, because most of the time, the system requires you to tag in and out of your departure and arrival station in order to work.
  • Water bottles get more expensive the higher up Fushimi Inari you climb
  • Vending machines with beverages on streets are remarkably…considerate when you’re feeling thirsty.
  • The Shinkansen takes 2.3 hours to go from Tokyo to Kyoto which are 318.6 miles apart. Compare that with the Acela, which takes 3.5 hrs to get you from Boston to New York which are 214 miles apart
  • The phrase for Good Morning is exceptionally fun to say: Ohayo (Oh-hi-oh)
  • Cardholders from the US generally fare better with 7-11 ATMs than others where you’ll get an error message
  • Don’t eat too much tempura or you’ll end up with stomach problems for weeks after you get back home
  • Women sometimes wear kimonos in the summer in Kyoto when they go out
  • There are beautiful places in every corner of the universe
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Ode to “Old Devices”

“What is that?” The guy next to me on the plane exclaimed, staring at my iPod.

Yes, I still use my iPod classic when traveling, because it carries thousands of songs that I can listen to without having to drain battery or data from the more important devices. It essentially has one function, but it works really, really well. I had to explain all of this to my seat neighbor when he shook his head, vehemently disagreeing with me from the look on his face. The fact that I even carried an older device was clearly a crime to him.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that I’ve had this reaction before when I see people carrying around flip phones. Don’t you want apps on your phone? At least for Maps or Weather?  The answer I often get it is “I can get around fine without it.”

The truth is, having a phone with limited functionality is still pretty functional. It allows you to constant people without aimlessly distracting you wherever you go. This has been discussed at length in other blogs and online magazines, but it really hit me in the face this past weekend.

I’m currently in Zurich, Switzerland on a business trip. On the way to the hotel, I found myself needing to check the reservation info. 5 minutes later, I was in another app browsing the news. The taxi stopped momentarily at a red stop during the trip, causing me to look up. Outside my window were charming bridges and canals. Pedestrians waited as the tram rolled by. The Swiss flag flew quietly in a number of stores. The city was in front of me.

I’m in Zurich, I thought to myself. Why am I looking at my phone instead of out my window?

Our mobile devices can do a lot for us, and for the most part, they help make information and tools more accessible. But they also cause us to seek out information when we don’t need to. When we have a 200 apps, we tend to spend time looking at the content inside them rather than outside in reality. It’s much too easy to keep scrolling, swiping and tapping.

In an age when we’re constantly connected through the web, having a single-function device sounds …like a relaxing time.

3 Questions in Boston: Asking people about favorite things and biggest fears

I’m continuing my three question video series in Boston. It’s been fun getting to talk to random people about things they like about the city and what they’re afraid of. Thanks to everyone who decided to help me by being in the video.

The hardest lesson I’ve learned from constant travel

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It was the third day in a row that I had traveled to a new city and the second week I had been in Scotland. I had been walking roughly 7-10 miles every day. I could do it, I said to myself. I just needed to get to Kelvingrove Museum from the railway station. No problem, I’ll just walk. I passed by retail stores with names I recognized and restaurants I could find back home. I passed by statues of famous Scotsman. Then I found myself on a street that sloped up. This can’t be that bad, I thought. I just have to get to the top of the hill, then I’ll be halfway there. The trip to Kelvingrove ended up being a few miles further away than I had thought. When I got there, I had climbed an enormous hill and walked along a deserted road for most of it. All I wanted to do was sit down, but I was at a museum. So I kept walking.

When I finally went back to the hostel that evening, I was fatigued and freezing. I felt like none of my blood was reaching my outer extremities. I was hungry too. Starbucks was close, but it didn’t have any real food. If I wanted real food, I was going to have to walk at least a mile to find it. I did find it that day, after a 2 mile round trip hike. I was mentally exhausted from having to figure out my bearings and physically exhausted from the day. But wait, I still had to do work for four hours. Ok, I’ll just get my laptop. It’ll be fine.

I plugged everything in, got myself some water and went to send an email. The email was sending so slowly I checked the wifi; it said I had four bars. It took about 12 minutes to send a 1MB file. I kept going anyway. The speed of the wifi cut the amount of work I was able to do in half. I couldn’t communicate with my coworkers or clients without having to sit through an excruciatingly long progress bar. Whatever, I’ll make it for it tomorrow when I get faster wifi somewhere else. My brain felt like jelly. It felt like I needed to exert extraordinary amounts of effort to think. I put my head back for a moment and almost immediately fell asleep.

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I foresaw that I was going to be tired, hungry and sleepy. I knew that I would be coming home a little drained and pale-faced. I had an inkling that I might get sick. What I didn’t expect was that I would be sick for three weeks, and that I would keep getting sick for the next three months. I kept traveling, and my immune system dipped again and again.

Had I slept a little more, eaten a little better, chosen to take the bus instead of walk to destinations that required more walking/climbing, I could have mitigated my illnesses. I didn’t have to deplete everything I had, but I did. I didn’t listen to my body. Whenever there was something new to see, I would ignore all of my basic needs and run to explore my new destination instead. I forgot about eating things with nutrients and recovering from long days. I forgot that those things were important.

I went to the doctor’s for an annual check-up in the middle of my traveling. He told me my white blood cell count was low, and that I should rest up for a while. Instead, I flew to the Middle East and continued my journey. I knew that I was about to get sick again, and I did.

Of all the things I’ve learned from traveling, I’ve learned that nothing is more important than taking care of yourself. You can’t do anything without your health. Don’t lose it.

Photos from Edinburgh, Miami and Istanbul

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Arthur’s Seat. This is one of the highest points in Edinburgh. The climb was fairly steep towards the top. The view was worth it though. You could see all of Edinburgh and cities/towns beyond it in all directions. The thing about hiking alone is that you make friends easily with other solo hikers. I met a man named Ang who had also heard of Arthur’s seat and decided to climb it. He flew all the way from Vietnam to see Scotland. I love people who go far to see something amazing.

 

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This was taken at the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Scotland has a thing for really nice views. This park was a complete surprise to me. I saw some interesting structures from the bottom of Princes Street and just wanted to find out more about them. Turns out, there are multiple monuments atop a lovely hill.

 

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Leith Walk: A waterway that twists and bends around Edinburgh with an awesome path that leads to unexpected sites. I took a photo here, because it reminded me of a scene from a fairytale. Maybe a princess used to live around here a thousand years ago. Who knows?

 

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This was taken near the top of Arthur’s Seat. I was getting tired and decided to stop for a moment to catch my breath. Luckily, a raven decided to do the same. (Although, I’m sure it wasn’t tired at all.) The clouds set an interesting scene and the view beyond was something incredible.

 

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This is a photo from the edge of Everglades National Park in Florida. There was a single row of palm trees along the road. It got me thinking about how we arrange natural objects in artificial positions.

 

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This is the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. The inside is heavily decorated with a number of blue tiles. Women must cover themselves upon entering and everyone must remove his or her shoes. It sits on top of a hill so that you can see it from many places in the city. Its minarets blast out the call to prayer (ezan) 5 times a day.

 

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Sultanahmet, a large square in Istanbul that sits by to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The women in the photo are wearing hijabs. It’s common to see many women wearing hijabs and niqabs in Turkey. There are also occasionally sitings of gypsies with children asking for money. If you are Asian, most Turkish people will think that you are Japanese and greet you with “konichiwa.” My mom and I experienced this on a daily basis.

 

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia / Ayasofya in black and white. It’s currently under construction, but still as beautiful as ever. The interior is, of course, epic. It’s amazing to think that this has been both a Christian church and a Muslim mosque. I love that Istanbul’s history is so rich.

 

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Istanbul from the sea. It’s so easy to only see the touristy parts of the city, but if you stray further into the Bosphorus, there are many other places worth seeing. The ferry that goes from Europe to Asia is inexpensive (5 TL) and fast. Bebek is a beautiful neighborhood in the northern part of Istanbul. There are yachts by the water, cafes with stunning views and a coastal walking path that stretches for 10 miles.

On Traveling & Working Remote in Edinburgh

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STARBUCKS WIFI

Good free WiFi is hard to find. A Scottish woman joked with me that only 3% of Scotland has real high-speed internet. Regardless, Starbucks will always get you free WiFi and outlets to plug your devices into. There are a bazillion Starbucks in Edinburgh. The most spacious one I’ve encountered so far in on Princes St. Waverly Station Starbucks is quite cozy and generally a bit warmer, which may be important in the winter. The central Starbucks in Old Town (off High Street) is nice as well, but generally more crowded.

OTHER WIFI

McDonald’s has free WiFi as well, but you need to go through a verification process that involves them sending you a verification code via SMS, which you may or may not be able to receive depending on your phone’s messaging plan. Waterstones Cafe on Princes is also quite roomy and offers free WiFi (faster than Starbucks) without requiring a password. The Central Library in Edinburgh has free WiFi as well, but you have to enter a library membership number in order to reach it. The Cafe inside the Main Library has 4-5 computers with fast internet. Hostels generally have free WiFi, but they are as slow as winters in Boston. Some hostels have multiple WiFi hotspots. Find the one closest to you; don’t assume the one you used in the main lounge (e.g. “Hostel Free”) is the best one.

TRAVEL

Get up early, especially if you want to travel to neighboring cities. Edinburgh to Glasgow: £9.50 / Edinburgh to Stirling: £12.50 / Bus in Edinburgh: £1.50 / Bus in Glasgow: £1.20 or £1.90 depending on distance / Bus prices vary in St. Andrews, Stirling.

Umbrellas are definitely necessary in a downpour, but not particularly useful during the short bursts of drizzle and light rain Edinburgh daily. Get a good hat instead that will keep your head dry and warm.

CONVERSATION

For Americans: “Hiya” = “Hey there, how’s it going.” and “Sitting in or taking away?” = “For here or to go?”

Talk to people you don’t know, whether its shopkeepers or other hostel residents. They won’t all be from the city you’re in. You’ll find travelers from everywhere. If you don’t know how to start a conversation, I recommend starting with a question.

Use “Globish” (Global English) with non-native English speakers. They’ll thank you for it.

Call/chat/email your loved ones often. They miss you. Skype/Hangout/FaceTime will suck without good WiFi.

FOOD

Haggis is actually good. But eat some green stuff too.

For hostelers: get ready to spend at least the same amount of money on food as you would on shelter. Food for a day (if you eat out) will usually be more expensive than a night’s stay in a 12-person room.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’

[9/7/09]

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My friend from England visited me in middle of nowhere, suburbia, MA recently and was astonished at how everything was “bigger” in America. That’s no surprise to anyone who has stepped out of his or her doors for a learning experience or two elsewhere. Everything is indeed bigger. The cars are bigger, the people are bigger, the houses and yards and bigger and the servings at restaurants are bigger.

But like everything there are exceptions to this rule. The sidewalks/pavements are smaller, or in many cases nonexistent. When I moved to the U.S. ten years ago, I experienced the same kind of confusion at why there are more people but fewer walking paths. It didn’t take me long to figure out it was because you couldn’t actually walk anywhere within a reasonable time frame. Of course, it still bothered that I was used to using sidewalks as the means to get places.

The 8-year-old me adapted quickly enough and accepted that walking was crossed off the list in favor of personal cars. I do think cars are wonderful in all sorts of ways. They are incredibly useful when you need to get somewhere – fast. It plays a key part in building our notion of how quickly life should move. Say I want to go to the supermarket, but I want to soak up the sun at the same time and get my exercise too. What happens is I realize how incredibly dangerous is it for me to make this trip, and I stop there.

Yesterday, my family took my friend into Boston where there are sidewalks. As we drove along the Charles River, we watched the people on the path beside us. There were joggers, more joggers, some bikers, a skateboarder and more joggers. No one was walking. OK, there were probably a few people here and there that were legitimately strolling, but I promise the majority of those people were not.

I don’t think everyone is uptight and rushed, but everything in our media and in our communities point to this. How many times have you seen a cell phone commercial that boasts how you’ll become the most efficient texting “machine” if you buy the phone or a service that “connects you faster than ever” to so and so? I’m betting probably a fair number of times. 

But we have the highest GDP in the world, don’t we? We work and live faster, because we grow faster? So let me ask you: Does this fact make you happier?

I challenge whoever is reading this to spend a day walking to their friend’s house or to the closest store. When you reach your destination, I hope that you will feel immensely satisfied by having made that walk. And I hope you’ll also feel some kind of achievement in it, because you put in effort to get there. I think it’s time to give a go. What do you think?