Floating on the Surface

Last weekend, I took the plunge. I scheduled a “float” appointment. I’ve wanted to do it for years now, but never made the effort. I was never scared to do it, I just didn’t want to pay the lofty $60-70! The idea of floating is to spend 90 minutes in a tank filled with 10 inches of salt water. You’re meant to float on the top of the water and experience total sensory deprivation and relaxation.

Luckily I found a Groupon that lowered the cost to a reasonable $30. I read the Yelp reviews of the “spa” and they seemed to be split. Some customers loved the place, but others wrote harsh reviews. Most of the bad reviews had to do with pricing or saying “They made me cancel my appointment after I showed up 30 minutes late! So unprofessional!” So I took those with a grain of salt.

I took a leisurely walk to the spa on Saturday afternoon. It was nestled on a residential street and would have been easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. I walked up right as another customer did. We approached the door and saw a sign with an arrow, pointing to the house next door. So we walked next door and saw another sign with an arrow pointing to the first house! We were confused. After a bit of back and forth, we realized the arrows were instructing us to enter through the tiny gated alley in between the houses! So strange.

Once we opened the gate, it made sense. There was a nice courtyard with a pond and flowers and beautiful trees. We walked into the reception area and it was crowded. There was one woman working the front desk and she didn’t have an ounce of urgency. After about 8 minutes, it was my turn to check in. She took my ID and I filled out the waiver. She asked if I needed a towel. I said yes, and she handed me what can only be described as a dish towel.

She instructed me to wait on the bench and someone would show me to the tanks shortly. This little spa was busy! I saw 30-40 people come and go within the 15 minutes I spent waiting. Most people seemed to be using the spa pools or getting a massage. After awhile, a woman walked up and asked “Are you the floaters?” The guy sitting next to me said yes and we followed her to the tanks. I was a little concerned. The lockers where we were supposed to store our clothes were located all the way across the spa. We would have to strip down and then walk past the showers, sauna, relaxation room, and then into the float tank room. There were signs everywhere saying that it was a “Clothing Optional” spa and told people not to exhibit creepy behavior. What?!

I assumed it would be a normal spa with normal sized towels and a tank in a private room. I didn’t pack a swim suit. You’re supposed to float naked!

My float parter and I went to the lockers and he started to strip down. I turned around and played on my phone until I could tell he was finished and had left. I have no interest in seeing a strange hippie get naked! I changed and wrapped myself in the mini-towel as best as I could and scurried into the tank room. Luckily there wasn’t anyone in the sauna or showers, so it was okay.

The tank room had 2 tanks the size of large ice coolers. They were slightly separated by a large folding wall, but there still weren’t any doors for privacy! Each tank had a slanted door, similar to a cellar. My float partner insisted he have Tank #1… I’m not sure why, but that should have been my first warning sign!

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I put petroleum jelly on my cuts so the salt water wouldn’t irritate them and then jumped in.

The water was warm. Almost too warm! I climbed into the tank and shut the door behind me. It was dark and the air was human. I laid down in the water and let myself float. It was a little uncomfortable at first. The water was pushing my back into a weird arch that wasn’t natural. I tried moving my arms in different positions and felt that the “goal post” felt the best. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.

I “relaxed” for about 20 minutes before I became bored. I couldn’t fall asleep because it was so cold! The top half of my body was above water and there was a ventilation fan that continually blew cold air into the tank! I ended up shivering most of the time and resorted to swimming around to try to stay warm. I realized I could easily just exit the tank and leave… but I paid money for this! It was kind of a cool feeling to float around on the top of the water. I had about 2 feet on either side, so I gentle pushed myself back and forth across the tank.

Before I knew it, I heard the knocking on my tank door that signaled the float was over. I listened for my float partner and waiting until he exited the room before I opened my door. I quickly grabbed my towel. The spa had become a lot busier and there were several naked people showering as I walked out. I was covered in salt water and I still had to walk home, so I needed to rinse off. I pretended to read a brochure until everyone left and I could shower in peace (as peaceful as an open shower with no wall or door could be!)

Inevitably, as soon as I started to rinse off, an old lady wandered in and started showering next to me. I’m not sure why this experience felt so awkward when I’ve already been to a naked bath house in Korea. Maybe because I was a foreigner it felt new and exciting. In America, it just felt weird. I showered as quickly as possible and put my clothes on before fully drying off.

I checked out and left the spa as soon as possible. Apparently my float included a complimentary 30 minute soak in the hot tub room… but the idea of sitting in there with more naked strangers was not something I was interested in.

I don’t think I would float again, even if it was at a more private spa. I never felt fully relaxed because I was so cold. Even if it had been warm, I don’t think I would have experienced the full sensory deprivation. My tank had flashing lights that reflected off the water and I could hear footsteps whenever anyone walked on the floor above us.

I would recommend floating if you want a unique experience, but definitely go in with low expectations!

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A Weekend in Vancouver, Canada!

As I took the majority of my vacation days when I went to Asia, it has been hard to find the time to travel! One of my good friends, Alicia, is leaving to go to grad school, so we decided to go on a weekend trip to Vancouver, Canada, as a final hurrah!

I have been to Vancouver once before in 2013, but Alicia had never been. We took the Bolt Bus ($80 round trip!) and stayed at the Cambie Hostel ($15 a night!) in order to save money. The Bolt Bus takes 8 hours and has stop-overs in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington. It takes a bit longer than driving, but is so much cheaper! And it has wifi and outlets, so we spent the entire time napping and listening to podcasts.

We arrived at 9pm on Wednesday. We found our way to the hostel and checked in, only to find that the remaining 2 beds in the room of 8 were top bunks. Lame! I spent the first night sleeping above a Brazilian guy who kept tossing and turning the entire night. Doesn’t he know that bunk beds shake?! He also kept itching his skin incessantly which was pretty gross.

The next day, we decided to switch beds to the opposite side of the room, away from the weird Brazilian. I got a bottom bunk next to a window that had a breeze, so it was great! We spent the entire first day walking around Vancouver and Stanley Park. We walked a total of 15 miles!

The food in Vancouver is so expensive. An “inexpensive” meal in the “$$” range is $15-$20! That’s too much to spend on lunch, so we brought a lot of protein bars and ate the complimentary muffins the hostel provided. We did splurge a couple of times on nicer food. My favorite was a picnic board where you built your own sandwiches! The entire platter was $15 and we split it between the two of us. Extravagant but cheap!

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On Friday, we found a bar to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It was a lot of fun and we even got to see the city light the Vancouver Cauldron from the 2010 games! That night, we planned to go to the Richmond Night Market which is famous for Asian street food and unique wares. We spent $9 to get there and it took 45 minutes on public transit. Once we arrived, there was an additional 15 minutes of walking to the market and being shuffled around by crossing guards and crowd management. It was packed! We stood in line for 20 minutes before deciding it wasn’t worth it. The food was still expensive ($10 for street food!) and the fairgrounds were exploding with people. There wasn’t an inch to move inside the fence! We left and took the train back to Vancouver, feeling defeated.

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The next day, we took the ferry across the water to North Vancouver where we went to the Lonsdale Quay market. That was much better! We didn’t find anything to buy, but it was nice being on the harbor. We stopped by a restaurant to get brunch. Did you know that in Vancouver, Bloody Marys are called Caesars? They’re made with clam juice, too! Pretty tasty. I also got to have taiyaki – my favorite fish shaped pastry I discovered in Tokyo! We ordered 3 of them to share… one with beans, one with custard, and one with nutella!

On our final day, we stopped by Tim Horton’s, the famous Canadian coffee chain. I ordered “one iced coffee” which typically is just black coffee with ice. I was served a beverage that was almost white in color and tasted like melted ice cream. It had so much cream and sugar, it didn’t even taste like coffee! Since turning 24, I’ve realized that I need to start asking for what I want, especially in stores. So at Tim Horton’s, I had no problem with telling the barista that I wanted a BLACK coffee. She seemed irritated, but ultimately switched out the coffee. You’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask!

The bus back to Portland was less fun than the ride to Canada. A loud group of 20-somethings got on in Seattle and kept LOUDLY talking about attractive women and explicit topics. The entire bus kept giving them the stink eye until they got the message and shut up. Some people just don’t know how to act in public.

Overall, it was a fun trip! Vancouver is a great city with amazing food (if you want to spend the money!) There aren’t many cultural or historical sites, so there isn’t much to tour. Unless you have friends who live there or are into the bar scene, I wouldn’t recommend going there on a long vacation, but it’s great for a short trip!

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Summer Kickball League!

I wanted something new and fun to do this summer, so I joined a kickball league with two of my friends – Leila and Joe!

We signed up for the league and were placed with other players who didn’t have enough people to form an entire team. Most of the teams we play against are groups of friends or coworkers who signed up together as a team. We are the underdogs! So far our season is 0-2, but there are still 6 weeks left of the season, so we might still win a couple.

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Vote for Eyes on Broadway!

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The local newspaper has a yearly “Reader’s Poll” where readers nominate local businesses in a variety of categories. We won the title of “Best Eyewear Shop” in 2015… and we’ve been nominated again for 2016!

As I am in charge of our social media, I am inadvertently responsible for our victory! If you wouldn’t mind, please vote for us at the link below…

http://wweek.secondstreetapp.com/l/BOP-Voting-2016/Ballot/LocalBusinessService

It does make you enter your email and zip code, but it doesn’t send you any spam. It is just to verify that you’re an actual person!

You can find us under “Local Businesses” and then halfway down the page “Best Eyewear Shop.” Results will be published in July! Fingers crossed!

Last Day in Seoul

Traveling with someone is a pretty big trial of friendship. Joe and I are both introverts who need time to recharge after spending awhile around other people. Usually we hang out on weekends at bars, but was our first big trip together. The first few days were great, but soon it became clear we needed our alone time. We planned to grab breakfast together at a cute little bakery down the road. After eating our unique pastries and black bread (that tasted totally normal and cheesy!) we split paths and planned to meet up for dinner.

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I decided to take the metro to the local fish market since it was a highly rated attraction and was located across the river in an area I hadn’t yet explored. The only obstacle was how I would get around without cellular connection. Public wifi exists, but at random cafes and other unreliable locations. I usually would route myself and then take screenshots to save on my phone to reference later. Luckily I made it to the fish market without problem (other than initially going to the wrong platform!) and spent awhile wandering the stalls and looking at the yummy seafood!

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Afterward, I walked to the giant waterfront park and was pleased to find street food! I’m typically such a food snob and dislike eating from food carts in Portland, but I think street food in foreign countries is an amazing way to taste the culture for cheap! I must have walked up and down the road 3 times, trying to decide what to get. Did I want the famous giant cotton candy I’ve seen all over the internet? Did I want the cup of crunchy bugs? I settled for Korea’s most famous street food – tteokbokki. They are cylindrical rice cakes in a spicy red fish sauce with slices of fish mixed in! It tasted delightfully savory and spicy with only a little bit of fish taste. The only downside was how piping hot it was! I was already a bit sweaty from the hot sun!

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Joe and I met up at the Gwangjang market which is famous for textiles and more street food! After we filled our bellies with vegetable pancakes, dumplings, sushi, and more tteokbokki, we went to the Myeongdong shopping district to go to The Foot Shop to have Dr. Fish pedicures. These iconic asian pedicures are performed by the Garra Rufa fish that nibble away dead skin on your feet. It definitely felt ticklish at first, but then it started to feel amazing! I can’t explain the bizarre sensation of tiny fish swimming between your toes and up your legs!

 

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Afterward…. we got more street food! I loved the fried milk the most. It tasted slightly like fried mozzarella cheese, but much smoother and softer. Simply divine! We also tried broiled eel with spicy sauce. I wanted to try meatballs and mochi strawberries, but there was simply no more room. I did spot another of Korea’s famous dishes – a potato tornado! It is a spiral potato on a stick and deep fried.

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We headed back to the Airbnb and immediately went to sleep in preparation for our morning flight to Japan!

If you want to see more pictures from my time in Seoul, here’s a public link to see the photos I’ve added to Facebook!

 

Land of Kim Jong Il

Our first day in Seoul was spent making the trek up to North Korea! Joe really wanted to go to the border and the only legal way to do that is to go with a tour group. I hate tourist traps, but I agreed to go anyway. We spent two hours on a tour bus with several other Americans and one Korean guide. He was admittedly pretty entertaining and told us interesting stories that illustrated the state of North Korea. South Korea funds a worker program that pays North Koreans to build infrastructure to connect the countries via a railway (South Korea is a peninsula, so it has to go through North Korea to be connected to the rest of the world via land). They even pay for the worker’s meals which include one Chocopie snack. These snacks were so popular that the workers would opt to pool them together and sell them at market. For Christmas, instead of a cash bonus that the government would confiscate, they asked for more Chocopies. This was an interesting glimpse into the difficult relationship between the countries.

Seoul is located along the Han River. During the North Korean invasion, the few bridges were immediately destroyed which left the South Koreans as sitting ducks. After the war, they vowed to never let that happen again and constructed 29 bridges across the river. I love learning these interesting facts that explain why a city looks the way it does!

Once we got close to the border, we stopped for lunch at an authentic Korean restaurant. We had to sit on the floor and eat everything with chopsticks (we became quite skilled at this!). I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what type of dish we ate, but it was served on a hot plate and had pork, mushrooms, and lettuce. It came along with kimchi, some noodles, and seaweed! I loved the black seaweed the most.

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The tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was quite time consuming. First we had to go through several passport checkpoints and then sign waivers. We also had to switch busses and watch a powerpoint presentation on the history of the area. Basically, the DMZ is a 2.5 mile wide buffer zone surrounding the “border” or military demarcation line. It is actually the most heavily militarized border in the world!

Within this zone is the Joint Security Area. It used to be entirely neutral with a mix of North Korean and South Korean buildings, but in 1976, the axe murder incident occurred. American army officers were assisting the Korean Service Corps in trimming a poplar tree that was blocking the view between two UN watch towers. The North Koreans immediately issued them to stop, stating that the tree was planted by Kim Il Sung. A fight broke out and two American army officers were killed, one of them being Arthur Bonifas, whom Camp Bonifas is named after. After this incident, the JSA area became separated into a North Korean and South Korean side. In the photo below, you can see the giant North Korean building on the opposite side of the neutral UN buildings in blue!

The most significant building in the JSA is the conference room where negotiations occur. The room straddles the demarcation line, so half is North Korea and half is South Korea. Within the room, the border is represented by the telecom wire draped across the table. We had approximately 5 minutes to take photos of the room and gaze at the intimidating soldiers!

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While in the JSA, we were ordered not to wear sloppy or revealing clothing, as the North Koreans could use the photos as propaganda to show how uncivilized the rest of the world is. We were also told not to point or make any gestures that could be perceived as hostile. It was a pretty solemn atmosphere and I definitely felt like we were going into uncharted territory.

However, this feeling soon faded as we were shuffled into the gift shop and witnessed the next group of 100 tourists being bussed around the grounds. Most of the tours are from the south, but North Korea does schedule the occasional tour for its citizens. I would love to compare the two tour narratives and see how radically different the two versions are.

After we were bussed back to Seoul, Joe and I went to Gangnam! This neighborhood is known as the wealthy fashion district with high end clubs. We had planned to bar hop, but 2 of the bars we wanted to visit didn’t exist! We spent almost 2 hours wandering around and trying to find directions.

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Finally we went to Moon Jar for some authentic makgeolli. This is a creamy rice wine that tastes so sweet, you could drink a gallon! We ordered our drinks and the waiter said “…and for food?” We explained that we were only drinking and he said “No, not allowed.” Joe had wanted to go to a burrito restaurant and I wanted to try actual Korean food, so we decided I would order dinner here and he would eat at the burrito place. I got a pancake sampler – onion, shrimp, and a variety of other flavors. It was pretty great!

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Afterward, we went to a couple more bars but realized we were too jet lagged to go to another club. We took an Uber Black back to the Airbnb. I don’t even want to know how much it cost!

It was a pretty interesting day of history, but I was excited to get to know Seoul during the duration of our trip to Korea. Next up – all the famous tourist sights!

 

 

Spontaneity in Asia!

I have a tendency to overplay vacations, so for this trip, I’m not! My biggest concern has been about whether or not I’ll be able to sleep on the long plane ride from San Francisco to Seoul. It is 12 hours and I don’t have the best history with being able to force myself to sleep. That’s why I’m writing this at 3:34 am… I took a short nap, but otherwise I am trying to stay up for most of the night so I can be tired enough to pass out on the plane!

Once we arrive in Seoul at 3pm, our only plan is to find food and get comfortable at our Air BnB. We definitely want to go out since it’ll be a Friday night. We are both dedicated to seeing as much of the night life as possible, so drinking is guaranteed. I think this trip will be an interesting comparison to my last adventure in Scandinavia where my travel parter much preferred sleeping over partying.

The following day we are going to the demilitarized zone on the border to see the conference room and take the DMZ tour. It lasts quite awhile, so it’ll take up most of the day, but we get to see into North Korea! So cool.

We have the rest of the days to explore Seoul without a strict plan. We assigned 1-2 major things to each day, but otherwise, we just want to be flexible! I’m most excited to go to a jimjilbang – an all inclusive spa where you pay $8 to get in and have access to soaking baths, ice saunas, cedar saunas, massages, etc. It is what Korea is known for! We also really want to have one of those fish pedicures where the fish eat the dead skin off of your feet.

I’m also really excited for the street food! I MUST have the delicious fish-bread! Each fish is filled with a red bean paste. There are also interesting looking “potato tornadoes” where a potato is spiralized down a stick!

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Our plan is mostly the same for Tokyo, but there are quite a few more things we want to see. Primarily – the Robot Restaurant. It was featured on the Anthony Bourdain show and looks insane. We already purchased tickets and I’m excited to go!

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We also plan on going to the Tsukiji market to sample some crazy food! It has the freshest seafood in the world and we definitely want to try sea urchin & the octopus tentacles that are still moving and suction to the inside of your mouth!

Tsukiji Fish Market

We’ll see how these expectations actually live up to the hype… but I’m just excited to break away from routine and try a few new things. I think this is the first time I’m worried about people NOT speaking English, especially since we don’t have program directors or friends who know Korean or Japanese. I read somewhere that most young Koreans do know English very well, but they are not confident in their skills and are deathly afraid to practice it. Who knows if this is true… but it definitely explains why such an Americanized country doesn’t speak much English!

Well… I have 45 minutes before we leave for the airport, so I need to get ready. I managed to pack everything into a carry on bag. The maximum size is 22 inches and my backpack is exactly 22 inches! Hopefully they won’t make me check it. Fingers crossed I can sleep! I have my ZzzQuil, pillow, and some aromatherapy to help.

I’m not bringing my laptop with me, so I’ll update when I return and get over the jet lag!