New Year Resolutions – Restart!

Jan. 2017. New Year Resolution.

Among a whole bunch of other resolutions for 2017, I’m putting “Restart the Blog” as one of them.

I’ve stopped writing since I’ve been back to my normal life in Tokyo 7 months ago but it’s always been on my mind. I had so much to tell about the 1 year journey but never seem to have enough time or take the first step to start.

All the stories that I couldn’t tell during my travels (traveling is BUSY! and blogging takes a whole lot of time!). The summaries of each country I visited and what I found fascinating about each of them. The beautiful people I encountered and feeling like being on top of the world with friends from around the world! Days and nights when I felt lonely for traveling alone and questioned why I was doing this when others are surrounded by family and friends. And what I learned from it and how I over came it.

The hikes in the Andes, the surfing on the coast of Peru, the roadtrip through Baja California, the week on a boat in Galapagos. All those amazing out of the world experience I didn’t have time to record.

The travel hacks I’ve learned along the way, the packing tips, the cautions for traveling alone. All that has changed me and the difference over time inside me that I noticed. What it felt like to be traveling freely for a year and then to be back to reality back home.

There was a whole lot to say and a whole lot I wanted to share. But it was all inside me slowly being buried with all the new memories building over it. The more time passed, the harder it got to tackle and the less approachable it became to write it down.

But I realize.

Who cares when it is? Who cares if it is not perfect?!

Better late than NEVER.

Better NOW than later.

So here I go. I start NOW.

I make it my resolution to tackle this blog and unravel all the stories I have buried inside me. Its been a while but its okay. I think they deserve to be dusted off and brought out to sunlight. And in addition, there’s other travels and stories that’s built up in the last few months after my 1 year journey. I have a lot of things to say about those too!

Riekotravels is back! Hope there are some people that will enjoy reading as much as I will enjoying writing it!



Thoughts…10 months in

10 months into the journey and post Mexico, I find myself unexpectedly situated in LA now for 2 weeks and it has given me the luxury of being in a comfortable non-foreign environment with lots of time to reflect on my journey. Catching up with old friends and sharing the highlights, the learning allows me to summarize, analyze and digest this massive experience.

Though my travels are not finished yet, I’d like write this all down and share.

The biggest luxury of travel – Time to think and talk to yourself

I was never good at taking time to think to myself. In your daily life with work, you go from one place / task / appointment to the other, catching up on status updates and emails in between on your smartphone. Probably the only time there is no distractions of new information entering your brain is when I was running. But even then, I was going through realistic To-Dos and brushing over matters that were close to daily life.

It took a few months to get used to letting my mind wander free to where ever it wanted. I would think about the day, about tomorrow, yesterday or 10 years ago. I let it wander to day dream, about the past, about friends, family the best of times, the worst mistakes, work, relationships, theories, food, and anything that entered my mind.

It also helped too that I lost 3 phones on my journey and I rarely had good internet connection to be connected and having so much time such as 12 hour bus rides with no lights or over nights stays at the airport or days with no plans but to take a walk around.

These allowed me to dig deeper beyond the surface, be comfortable and entertain myself and to finally feel comfortable in sitting still with my own thoughts. In addition, travel brings new scenery, people, flavors, smells, language, music in every step at a very fast pace so it naturally trains you to question, compare, accept and think on a daily basis.

Thoughts 10 months in and what I am grateful for to discover.

  • Meeting people in the same state of mind – I have met the most amazing friends from literally around the world and I felt like we connect mentally at the same state that I am in. As I have taken the leap out of my comfort zone to see and discover new things, other travelers have all taken the same step to get here. There are differences in the backgrounds but I found the commonality in the mental state were so strong and a means to become friends very quickly and deeply that it was one of the best discoveries of the trip.
  • Becoming attractive to attract people – When you are having fun and at your best, you attract people. The amount of attention I have felt on this trip is 100 times more than a year ago and it is because I am at my best and happy.
  • Social skill – You wake up in different places, beds with different people (and I mean roommates) almost everyday. You have to quickly acquaint yourself to the new environment, make small talk, sometimes grow it into instant friendships and it is a constant challenge to your social skills. You learn to be interested in people that you may usually not associate with if it were your hometown and take an interest in their lives and stories. It has definitely widened my social topics and the conversation skills.
  • Facebook & Social Media – I feel like I need to say a big Thank You. Without it, I would not have connected and re-connected to many of the people along the journey and even people from the past. How so many people have offered their advise on places I was visiting or put me in touch with their friends, came to meet me along the way is amazing and would not have been possible without FB. It has greatly influenced and changed the path of my travels. So I know its not cool to love social media, but hey, Thank You Facebook.
  • Discovering new ways to live – I never saw so many options on how to live. A couple taking a year vacation on a RV with a 1 month old baby using the mom’s maternity and the husband quitting for the year. A software programmer that works 6 months and travels 6 months every year, a family living out their dream traveling through Latin America homeschooling 3 kids traveling in a van, a family living out of hostels, a couple that works and travels with no end date. I thought traveling was saving money, taking time off work but its opened me up to completely new ways people live and travel.
  • Everyday new learning and rewards – When you are in a new environment, starting with the language you are constantly faced with new things to understand and learn. Learning your way around the neighborhood, figuring out the transport, finding new products and how to use them, new foods, new music, new customs. These are all small things but that sparks the mind. Also the great things is that you get a rewarding feeling of accomplishment when you get these right one by one every day.
  • Getting used to changes – Nothing goes as planned. Things are different from what you searched online or what you heard. There is no use complaining about it, you just change your plans. You become flexible in accepting that things don’t go as planned and appreciate that you were able to come up with an alternative plan quickly. Yes, sometimes it costs you a lot of money and bruises your ego for all the planning in advance but its always at the end opened me up to new adventures.
  • Being creative with what you have – Because I travel with one bag, the effort to keep it compact and sufficient was a constant challenge. You pack and repack and reevaluate the necessities. So you have to be creative with what you have. You don’t carry around the “just in case” nice heels, but do with flip flops and sneakers to make it into a acceptable night look. You reuse your sarong as a scarf, as a top, as a towel and accept that its not the best in the crowd but be pleased with your creativity.
  • Things are just things – When you go from one place to the other every week, you inevitably lose things. My list is long with phones (3), wallets, credit cards (3), sneakers, towels, bathing suits, jackets, books…. etc. etc. etc. They devastate me each time and I hate myself for it but after a day or two, you realize they’re just things and you just learn to live without it. Things are just things and as long as you are safe and happy, you can go on. The only thing I would be really devastated to lose would be the HD of photo and memories which would be irreplaceable.
  • Experiences, not things – Being in LA makes you realize how much we spend on things like having a good outfit to go out or having a nice car, and it makes me afraid that I will want them the more I am here. In my travels it was never about the things but what I can do with the little money that I had. I have lost the desire to own things but rather experience things and thought that is often very difficult in modern society, I hope I can hold onto these feelings.

In the 10 months, the adventures, the scenery the new encounters have been beyond amazing. But perhaps the biggest luxury of all is the time that I had with myself. To have the time to listen and talk to myself and be entertained by my own thoughts. Just a year ago I could not have sat still for 5 minutes. Now, I can sit still for hours with calm and with a smile on my face.



Queretaro, Mexico – Couchsurfing 2

My first Couchsurfing experience was amazing and I was convinced to try more.I had wanted to stay in Queretaro and was waiting to hear back from a bakery I wanted to volenteer at, but with no luck.

So reluctantly, I was on my way out to try to find my next journey when I received a message from a couple I had contacted initially on Couchsurfing that they would love to host me if I was still in town. I felt like I had pretty much seen the city in the week and a half but I loved the city and I believe in never turning down a kind offer so I said, Yes! I’ll do it! And it turned out to be of course, one of the best decisions ever.

Elena and Fernando (E&F)

They were a couple from Ukraine and Mexico.

They had met a few years ago in Queretaro and after a long distance has gotten married and moved to Queretaro. I read in Elena’s profile that she had had a busy career in law and after quitting her job, had traveled (using Couchsurfing) and then has made a big transition to her life here in Queretaro. What an interesting story I would love to learn from!

They have impressive careers and backgrounds they themselves are travelers having traveled together to Ukraine, Dubai, US, Cuba and many more plans for the future.

Elena was a lawyer amongst owning other businesses and speaks 5 languages. 5 languages!!! and I mean fluently! Fernando, born and raised in Queretaro is also a lawyer has experimented with his own business, worked for the government and now works for his parents’ business, and speaks Spanish and English.

The great thing for me was that I would get deep insights of culture of Queretaro and Ukraine but in Spanish because their common language in the home was Spanish with English as a suppliment when I needed it! A great relief compared to only having Spanish as an option.

E&F – Why they host

You think couch surfing and some people may imagine a couch in some “One world One Love” hippie’s couch, But that’s not reality. Real people that are themselves traveler or will be in the future host because they recognise how valuable meeting local are in travel.

Also open minded people that are genuinely interested in other cultures and want travellers to have a genuine experience in their home turf host. I guess it almost like having travel come to you at home when you’re not traveling.

The Home + Dogs

The small but cozy home was up on the hill overlooking the Queretaro, convenient location from the city centre in a nice neighbourhood.


Beautifully decorated cozy home with memories of their travels and Elena’s collection of her travels.


2 cute hyper dogs that are just begging to be played with.


My Room

Seriously, have I just hit the jackpot or what? I had my very own beautiful room, a queen size bed, a computer. After being used to sleeping in dorms with sometimes 4, 6, 8, 10 people, this was unbelievable.


Clean towels, and Elena was kind enough to lend me some “for the city” jackets too because you know, I only have backpackers attire. Thank you!

And NETFLIX! on a big screen. ….. I think I will stay here for a long time….

I felt like I was “checking-in” to a B&B because they had treated me as if I was paying guest with a proper reservation. I had to wonder if I really did have the concept right. Was this Air BnB? or Couchsurfing?! I had completely hit the jack pot in Queretaro.


I woke up to this breakfast.


What had I done right in this life to deserve this?

The food and them were so beautiful and lovely that it felt like I had literally entered into this TV show that is in Japan called “Breakfast around the world” which shows newly wed’s breakfast around the world. See sample it here.

And might I add that Elena also did my laundry (I insisted to do it, I swear!!) while we ate. Seriously! What did I do in my life that was so great I deserved this! or was it possible there were really people this nice?

Activities and Meeting Friends

Friday night, we went to a lovely restaurant on the top of a hotel, No name and no indication hence a tourist could never find it.


Fernando explained to me the “tales and legends” of Queretaro passing through the historical area. That’s the thing about Mexicans, they always have tales and legends in every corner of their streets. They assured me that I would be meeting a “historican” and he could tell me anything and everything about the history of Queretaro.

Oaxaca drinking traditions


Party at GAD – (Gracias, ADios) – beers and more mescals with the historian and his girlfriend.

San Miguel

Poker Night

Going to the Lake

Going to the Fair


Cooking at home

I wanted to cook for them to show gratitude and so I cooked Japanese Curry rice and some veggies. I was surprised that they really took a liking to bean sprouts! Simple home cooked dishes but glad it won their hearts.

Next day, Elena cooked Ukrainian Borsch. The color was absolutely beautiful and the flavour was so savoury and healthy! Apparently it changes flavour every day.

This type of cultural “food exchange” is what I most look forward to when I stay at someone’s home. Tasting their food and learning about cooking and introducing mine. A precious experience I could never get at a restaurant.

Oh and I should add Fernando adds to the table “strawberry water” – which is a delicious alternative to water. Strawberry + water + a little bit of sugar. Yum!

Mexican (slangs) and Culture

Because I had a chance to hang out with their friends, I learned all kinds of “Mexican” (as opposed to Spanish.

  • Many cultural slang (bad) words – which I loved saying because it would drive them crazy laughing
  • The best Gorditas in town


  • Real Narco homes – on top of the hill and humungeus.
  • Different neighbourhoods, the very rich, the old rich, the new and the poor.
  • Development in the city of Queretaro – its booming now and many industries and people are going in from overseas and from DF.
  • 8 people in a car – no problem

Everyday was filled with activities, meeting new friends and cultural experiences and I absolutely loved every minute of it. I had planned to stay for a few days but I ended up staying for 5 nights and I could have stayed longer, or forever.

The last day, Fernando help me look for a camera.

Not sure why but I had somehow gotten it in my head that I needed a camera NOW and Fernando took me to 4 pawn shots, 3 consumer stores during his work hours to find the perfect camera.

The Good Bye

On the last day, Elena gave me a necklace of a Sun from Mexico. What a surprise, it was ME that was planning a gift to give to THEM but she outdid me with the necklace.


Now I was a bit embarrassed to give my gift but I bought a box of chocolates and Sesame seed oil, which I had mentioned in conversation and thought they could use in trying out new dishes along with a letter and some Japanese coins.

They work up early to drive me to the bus station before work and said our good byes.

They were no longer my hosts but my good friends and my family in Queretaro, which I will think about often in my travels and which I will come back to visit.


One day I hope to meet them back here or back in Japan or another place we live. But what I gained from this experience is not just a place to stay but rich experiences and a friend, but also an open thought in my head of the concept of receiving and giving back and the willingness for me to be like that too.

Thoughts on Couchsurfing

I felt I hit the jackpot at first but perhaps it is exactly just what the concept is about. I received and felt genuine kindness and passing that on to the next traveler could be the way to make this world a better place. It has opened my mind to wanting to “Pay it Forward” in the next chance I get.
To make sure travelers are comfortable, they get some rest from their travels, to have them taste the best of the food my town has to offer, to have them meet my friends, to help them in any way they need.

I had seen the concept and how beneficial it was from a traveler’s perspective but now I kind of see how awesome it would be too as a host. It would be an absolute pleasure to do that one day because of the great experience I’ve gained already from them.


Thank you Elena and Fernando for the experience and opening up my mind. And thank you Couchsurging for this concept.

I think these things are what make the world a better place.

Love Queretaro and love even more the people that I met.
I will be back.

Now off to Sierra Gorda, a mountain range ouside of Queretaro which came with high praise from everyone I met in the city.

Why I travel and Why South America

Why am I traveling and why in South America?

I’m often asked this in my travels and by now (8th month) I’ve answered it so much that I’ve become an expert in providing a brief explanation in a concise 1-2 minute manner in English and Spanish. But I’ve always wanted to write this down and communicate the full thoughts. So here we go.

Why South America?

I’ve never traveled to South America and it was merely an image I had in my head but there was always some fascination with South America and Latin cultures. Perhaps it’s been images I’ve created through media and movies and the people that I’ve encountered but it was the bright colors, the rhythmical music, the sunny beaches, the rawness of the cities. It was “don’t worry be happy” attitude, it was the sexiness of its people and the way they didn’t care to hide happiness. It was the dancing and the music and the rhythm.

Perhaps it was influenced by my living in Miami for 4 years for college and being surrounded by the majority Cubans, Puerto Ricans and people from all over the Latin America and the Caribbean. Miami was the US but it definitely was not, with 70% of its population being from Latino backgrounds.

And maybe it a subconscious yearning to seek something the complete opposite of reality. The reality of Tokyo where I’ve been working for over 10 years in this busy, punctual, efficient, crowded city. Where the social norm is structure and tradition, strict hierarchy, being well planned, organised and efficient. Where there is great value placed upon fitting into the crowd, being proper and following protocol. Perhaps trying to blend in this serious mannered society had pushed me to dream about something that was not.

In fact, sometimes I have been described in Japan by my friends as being “So Latin!”. I presume it is based on the image people have of being carefree and “live for the moment”, loud, always wanting a party and dancing to any beat.

So why not go there? Would I fit in better there? Will I feel more comfortable? Maybe its like going back home?

So what’s been stopping me?

Well like many people, I blamed it on a job, and a job in Japan. Vacation days that grew only by +1 day each year on top of 10 days to start with a separate few days in the summer and the winter. I was one to take longer vacations, which sometimes shocked people and clients but that was still a maximum of 2 weeks, and still with a obligation of checking mail and working while traveling.

Logistically, it meant 24-48 hours on the plane to get to South America, which meant 4 days of travel from the 2 weeks, leaving the actual vacation to a whopping  1 week and 3 days. How much can I possible see and do in a week and a half? Maybe step into Rio and hit some beaches? Maybe rush it to Peru for a glimpse of Machupichu? It just wasn’t enough.

And I was also waiting for a travel buddy. Never in my wildest dreams had I pictured to do this alone. I would always share my dream with usually a then boyfriend and convince them of how amazing it would be. I’d successfully talk them into it and we would dream about it, but it never actualised whether it was the risk of quitting their jobs or money. It was a drastic commitment, especially for Japan standards.

So dawned upon me that I’ve been dreaming about it for years now, but it’s never happened and it scared me to think how many more years would go by before it becomes a reality. Like the Carl in “UP”.

The turning point – So what trigger me to actually do it?

A position. It was around this time last year that a position became available to till and myself or another was up for consideration. It was an opportunity that was vital to the team and the company and it would definitely been a good experience to add to my resume.

But when I heard about it, I just wasn’t excited. And I realised that I wasn’t even excited about my career even if I didn’t take the position. I felt flat.

So in the taxi discussing this, I was quickly working my brain on how to decline in a reasonable and definite way. Something that would be professional than “Sorry, I’m just not excited about it”. I racked my brain until the words just came out. 

” Hey, I can’t take the it because I’m going to South America. Sorry!”

Silence and confusion. Did I just say that?!

Yes, I did and now it was there out in public. And I had said it in definite tense as if there was already a plan. I thought it was a pretty funny at that time and a clever come back like “Ha! You can’t say anything to me now!”.  But really, it was not a well thought out excuse like telling the teacher your dog ate your homework. But it was out there.

Whether my boss took me seriously or not I don’t know, but it was enough to communicate that I was not interested in the job. 

The Aftermath

I was sharing this with my friends and how funny and cleverly I had been. Hahaha. Imagine? How cool that would be to be able to quit your job to go travel and follow your dream. Yeah, how cool would that be?

But then as I said it, it felt good and I started to convince myself that this actually should be my plan. So what if I quit my job? Its quitting for a very good reason. What better reason is there but to follow your dreams? Its a hell of a lot better than transferring to a better paying job.

The more I said it, the more it made sense. Maybe my subconscious was tired of me always dreaming and talking about it and not taking any action. Maybe it had pushed me and it was the right time. Hey, I could learn a new language! I could learn to Samba and Salsa! I could take myself to a completely different environment and absorb new things! Maybe even fall in love by the beaches of Rio! I could be the crazy person that quit her career and left everything in search for a different path in life.

And I really liked how that sounded and made me feel. I realised that it had been ages since I’ve been really excited about something in this way and it was all crystal clear.

What started as an abrupt excuse out of my mouth had turned into a life changing plan. It was crazy but it felt good.

The Planning:

So seriously, how realistic is this? Well, when your mind in set to a goal, things get figured out much more easily.

I bought a world map and pinned it to my living room wall. I started jotting things down I wanted to do and posting it next to the map.

I made a plan to get rid of my belongings and my apartment, figure out what kind of trip I can afford with the finances, what I had to do for a smooth transition out of my job and my life in Japan.

Why 1 year?  

Based on various travel blogs, I set a daily budget for traveling in South America, obviously much cheaper than traveling in the US or Europe. I calculated the budget for getting out of Japan, buying things for the trip and some budget for when and if I do come back. The calculations gave me just enough to afford a budget 1 year travel.

Plus I could use my airl

Why 1 year? and the realistic planning
1 year was just enough to be able to afford and a good enough time
Plus the airline miles allowed for 1 year return ticket
Give someone a year, they could figure it out right?

And that is why I am traveling for a year in South (now Latin) America.

I was never a blogger but I wanted something to keep record of, communicate to people I care about and create as a portfolio for the future. Hence, I made a name card and put an address on it.

The most important thing was coming up with the Blog name and I had to do it quick to get it to the printer.

Hence the blog title. MEET PLAY LIVE, like from the Eat pray love – I would honestly put a better title on this if it was now, but at the time
MEET – get to know the culture, the people and absorb
PLAY – let my heart do the talking and let it do whatever I want to do – within budget and reason
LIVE – and possible find a key to my next life.

So here it is.

First Try – Couchsurfing!

If you are a traveler you’ve probably hear about this, but for those of you not familiar, Couchsurfing is a website that connects people that are traveling and looking to meet local people with people offering a couch or a bed to stay in their homes. And this is without actually knowing the people, so in other word, strangers offering a place to stay in their home town to other strangers.


What a concept right? I love good use of technology like this, connecting the supply and the demand, sort of like Air BnB only that it is “free” and the whole concept lies in the kindness of people wanting to share their hometown with others and share an experience.

When I first heard this concept through colleague in Japan hosting visitors in his home, I thought it was crazy! How can you invite complete strangers from the internet to you home and trust them enough to have them there even when you are not there? What do they expect from you and what do you expect from them?

I didn’t quite get this until I myself started traveling.
I realised the value of meeting people that live there and the experience you get when locals show you around and invite you to their home. It’s not just the places you get to go, not on the guidebooks, but also the deeper experience and understanding you get from being able to share their “real lives” with them.

Though I must say, until now, my travel experiences have been heavily influenced by hostels and the amazing people that I have met there. In a hostel, it is so easy to meet other travellers and people from around the world, especially if you are a solo traveller. You share activities and adventures together, you stay up late nights partying and talking about life and travel so naturally, many of my favourite moments have been through hostels and I deeply cherish that.

However, the past few weeks, I had a small doubt in my head that I am merely an “observer” in the cultures that I visit and not really “living” in it. I visit and experience many things with my fellow traveler but how deeply involved have I been with with the real culture and the locals aside from when I talk to people in hostels, shops, restaurants, tourist attractions or the taxi drivers?

I felt like the times when I stayed with friends or when I did my 2 weeks home stay in Guatemala, there were deeper discoveries about the culture on a daily basis, even without going to look for them. It was already fascinating to see what the homes look like, how they decorate, what is in their fridge, what they eat and how much they eat, what they watch, what they do to hang out. To get to know the neighbourhood, what the supermarket looks like, how people interact with one another.
Oh and of course it’s awesome to have a place to call home even just for a short while. Being able to cook, sleep, shower in one place, spread your things out and not have to carry your products to the shower every time. Feeling like you “live” there for a change and not just a visitor.

But the more important experience lies in connecting with the hosts on a deeper level, sharing their lives with you. Conversations over breakfast or over drinks exchanging cultures and language. Cooking together, taking a walk, watching a movie together or even talking about local politics. Every opportunity has even a deeply fulfilling memorable experience for me.

I knew that I wanted more of these experiences and Couch Surfing could provide this to me, but I was reluctant to try until now. Because after all, they are strangers right?

But my curiosity and the need for it has been growing and as I asked more traveler about their experience, I was determined to try it finally!

And I gave it my first try in Queretaro, Mexico.

The search:
In the site, I searched for hosts that were ” Accepting Guests” and narrowed down the hosts down to females, that were closer to my age, had interests or job experiences in common, spoke primarily Spanish and those that I could feel a good and fun vibe from from their profiles. This was my first time so I wanted to be quite careful about having a good match and not take too much risks.

I was very nervous about this, but actually the hosts are the ones that are taking a much bigger risk than me. They’re people willing accept a complete stranger into their own homes! Especially me, because I had no references or not even a complete profile so who the hell knows what I could be!

The contact:
Thankfully, I got in contact with one girl ad we were quickly communicating about when and where to meet. It’s like online dating, only they’re already showing a huge commitment by offering you their home even before meeting! Wow, that’s some courage and generosity!

After a few exchanges on whatsup, we decided on a time and place and she kindly offered to come and pick me up.I was obviously very nervous about the pick up. Would she really show up? Where would she take me? How far is the home, if I wanted to run away? Would I get along and be able to sustain a conversation all in Spanish for a few days?

The meeting:
My host showed up in her car along with her adorable 2 dogs and she looked friendly and down to earth. She was very casual about the whole thing and helped board my bags and we were off! As we drove away from the commercial areas and to the suburb neighbourhoods, I was really excited that I was stepping into territory I would have never seen if I had just been a tourist. Away from the sophisticate, well restored and presented historical areas to the real and raw neighbourhoods where people live.

Arrival to the house:

When we arrived I was surprised to see that she actually lived in a house rather than an apartment, all by herself. A house with an enormous garden that looked almost like a retreat somewhere out in the country side. Apparently it is a home of her family which was not used and she has been building the garden and fixing it up for the last year.

The garden was very impressive and so peaceful. She grows various plants and vegetables to consume and to use medicinally. Limes, noplaes (cactus), aloe, lavender, thymes, lemongrass, and a whole bunch of other plants and herbs I did not know.


Also, the striking HUT in the middle of the garden. It is called “Mazcal” which was this huge round stone structure which is used similarly to a sauna. Stones are heated by fire outside the mazcal and brought into the centre of the hut, along with flowers and herbs for a aroma filled steamy sauna experience. How cool is that!

I would have loved to experience it but usually she uses it on full moons or when there is a special ritual, inviting her friends and meditating, sweating overnight. The mazcal can fit up to 10 people and they have a huge feast after the several hours of being in the sauna.

The home and the garden was decorated with many hand crafted items that were original and showed her taste.

I was like a kid, asking “Whats that?” “What does it mean?” and admiring everything in sight.

First night:
We went to pick up something to eat at the store next doors because I was slightly hungry. Picked up Queso (cheese) and tortillas. Even this was a cool experience because I didn’t know you can order Queso by the grams or by pesos. The store person just tore up 20 pesos worth of Oaxaca cheese by hand and weighed it on the scale. Cool.

She quickly prepared the tortillas and cheese. Simply dish but it was cool to see what a easy snack in a normal home would be like. When I remembered that I had only met her a few hours ago and now was standing in her kitchen cooking and talking like we had been good girlfriends all along, it was an amazing feeling.

We sat outside with the snacks and talked about my travels and the observations I had about Mexico, Queretaro and its people. She laughed about my observation, confirming how some of them were very true and giving me me insight in those that were not. She is also embarking on her journey to travel in South America in a few weeks so I shared some experiences of the countries and what to expect in long term travel.

She showed me around the garden picking leaves off the various plants and herbs and explaining to me its characteristics, its efficacies, and letting me taste and smell some of them. What a new experience and a completely new type of person to encounter. If I had not stepped outside my comfort zone, I would not be here tasting and smelling the herbs and conversing all these in Spanish. I was very thankful.

The room:
My room was separate from the living and her room, a big room that was partly used as storage now, a bed and a table and even with its own bathroom. Clean sheets and blanket was provided and it was great have my very own room and space for a change. I slept well.

The experience:
Next morning, I went for a run around the neighbourhood and no it was not as glorious and tourist attracting as the city centre but it was real. I picked up some vegetables and we cooked breakfast together. It was all so easy, as if we had been friends all along. Living and cooking together.

She gave me the keys to the house and said I can come in and out as I pleased. Wonderful. I was a bit concerned how attentive I need to be to my host but it was just like I was another roommate. I came in, out, slept, ate, cooked, played around, played on the internet as I pleased. I was living “like a local” in this suburb and it was completely comfortable.

She trusted me with all her stuff because she wasn’t even there for 2 of the nights and I was just living there. Though I must say, staying there without her was a bit awkward.

In the end, I ended up staying 4 nights instead of 3. She kindly offered that I stay more if I wanted but I decided to not overstay my welcome and move back into city centre. I gave her currencies from Argentina and Peru I had saved for her travels ahead.

My first experience in Couch Surfing was absolutely amazing.
I met someone that I probably wouldn’t have met if I had just been traveling as a tourist. Her encounter gave me interest and information on medicinal and herbal plants, spiritual rituals and a real look into one Mexican chica’s life and I hope I was able to give her some insights into my culture and my travels as well.

I will definitely be trying more on Couch surfing in the future but think there could be good balance between Surfing and hostels. Surfing is good to get a in-depth experience with the locals, but it could be in a location that is a bit far from the centre and less convenient compared to centrally located hostels. (especially in Queretaro, the only public transportation is buses and they stop at 9 – 10pm at night so the only other way is by car or taxi). Hostels are good to meet other traveler when you are exploring the city for the first time. Also, after only speaking in Spanish for 4 days (which right now is like 50-60% comprehension), I felt a need be able to express and understand with someone fully (preferably in English) I guess this comes with learning a new language, but its sometimes so frustrating when you can only communicate half way. Your sense of humour doesn’t get through, you can only understand and express half of what you are saying, so you kind of want to re-confirm your conversation skills in your own language.


Thank you so much Makech, for opening up your home to me and for being such a lovely host!
Buen Viaje!!! xoxo!

Medellin Airport – One Not So Fine Day

One “Not So Fine Day” journal of why I am sitting at Medellin airport for one night on the way up to Panama City. (Image taken from the Tom Hanks’s movie “The Terminal”)

The immaculate planning

I had planned to go through Panama, Costa Rica then fly to Mexico to meet my friend. I thought it would be simple journey by bus, but research proved to be a lot more complicated than I thought.


There was actually no direct route by land from Columbia to Panama! and so, my research and investigation of a few weeks have produced these options.

  1. Fly from Cartagena – the fastest and the best route for my current journey, but the cost was $540 and I couldn’t afford the luxury at this time.
  2. Fly from Medellin – my extensive search lead me to this route with flights from $160 (actually the flight itself if only $50 bu the taxes and surcharges was $100! WTF!) This meant that I had to get back down from Cartagena to Medellin, but even that was better than option A.
  3. By sea from Cartagena – A lovely Caribbean cruise sailing around 4 islands were available of $400 – $500 taking 5 days. If only I had the luxury of the cost and the time…
  4. Bus+Bus+Boat+Flight – The budget way to go, for roughly $180, but involved uncomfortable local buses and shady speed boats where i had read horrendous reviews of fractured backs and tooth from the rough journey. Also it takes at least 4 days.

Judging by cost, time and risk, I settled on Option 2 – flying to from Cartagena to Medellin to Panama City.

Now a 1 hour flight from Cartagena to Medellin was the same cost as a 14 hour bus so naturally I should go for that, but I found that I would have to get to Medellin the day before to catch my 10 AM Panama flight. It seemed like an unnecessary hassle to go back and forth from the airport for just one night.

So after numerous scenarios, I decided on the 14 hour bus, but a “Premium Plus” overnighter, which should give me a good night’s rest and get me just in time for the flight. Thoroughly researched and well organised, I was proud of reaching this conclusive plan.

The Premium Overnight Bus

The bus was indeed “premium” with super reclining seats, wi-fi, beverage and snack service (juice and crackers, really) and a personal screen. Not bad! Though the movies had no subtitles and it was hard to follow, I well enjoyed my $40 worth on the bus and had at least a good 10 hours of sleep in the rocking vehicle. The AC was cranked up so high that it was almost freezing but it was a great change to the heat in Cartagena.


Was even able to catch the beautiful sunrise of Medellin.

Getting to the airport
Well rested and knowing my next action, I made my way to the metro in Medellin which I already well knew. The train was packed at 8:30 am so I saw off 2 cars until I found one with enough space for me and my bag. Smooth.
Used my new Spanish phrases to excuse myself off at Park Berrio like the polite traveler that I am, walked to where the airport buses are parked. For the first timer, a weird location to figure out in a slightly dodgy neighbourhood, but as it was my second time, it was smooth sailing for me, even knowing which side of the road had less bumps for my roller.

The buses were parked and I even saw some familiar faces working. Loaded my luggage into the back of the bus, asked them how many minutes until the bus leaves.


Five minutes they said.

That should be enough time to pick up some pastries and a drink in the Panderia down the block because I was a well prepared traveler and was not about to spend double the price at the airport.I order some pastries and OJ and rushed the slow workers behind the counter telling them I had a bus to catch.

Made it back in just enough time and I was back on the bus, opened the food and dug into it. I looked around and something felt different. There’s only one business man. That’s weird, I though there were more people on the bus.
I ate while my imagination worked. Hey, wouldn’t it be really scary if I got to the airport and my bag wasn’t there? Yeah that would be! That would be chaotic because I have just enough time to check in!
I’m still proceeding with my imagination and how the scenario will play out. Yeah that’s scary!

But wait, why am I thinking this?

Hmm. maybe because there is a possibility this could happen? Well, if there is doubt, would it be better to find this out now or later?I guess I should go check it now.

So I get off the bus and go to the back, ask them to open the trunk to check my

Oh crap. There’s no bag!

I guess my conscience had spoken to me.

Uhhhh sir….. Where is my bag? Did the last bus leave with my bag?

Yeah probably he says.

Well sir, can you please do something? Tell them to leave the bag at the airport so that they don’t bring it back?
With very apparent annoyance because he knew I had gone stepped outside to get some food and it was my fault, he gets on his cell and manages to get a hold of the driver and tell them the situation.

Ya, it’ll be there. he says.

But where? and who will have it? How will it be secure? I grill him for a while.
It will be there, just ask the driver. Was all I could get out of him. Well, that’s South America for you.

I did have a slight guilty conscience of putting my hunger before security so I decided I won’t push any further and hope for the best.

Back in the bus, I regretted not being more careful and trusting in the “Five min”.
Dammit! Its not like five minutes means fine minutes! It means, I’lll go when I’ll go and soon. I should have known.

But at this point, what can I do? All I could do was hope for the best.

Then a new thought entered my mind. Wait, its an international flight. Didn’t you have to check in 2 hours in advance? It’s 8:30 now, get to the airport at 9…
Ya…. cold sweat.

So locate bag, find counter, check in, board. It could go perfectly well, or it could go disastrously bad. But what can I do? I imagined all things going well but prepared myself for the worst but surprisingly, managed to fall asleep even in the middle of this stress. Wow Rieko.

Retrieving the bag

8:55 – At the airport. I remind the driver and he annoyingly makes a phone call. The bus had been waiting. Thank god! I love you! I thank them dearly and give the a tip and thank my lucky starts for the letting me have the good scenario. I don’t know if I’m having a bad day or a lucky day!

Check in
9:00 – Find the Air Panama Counter. Passport, boarding pass.
Then they ask for proof of getting out of Panama.
Uhhhhh. well I was going to take a bus.
Not good enough, they need proof of purchase for immigration.
Well I have proof that I will fly out of Costa Rica the week after, which means I will be out of Panama.
Not good enough. He says I have 5 minutes.

I try searching online for a tickets. Find a page with a shining “Online Reservation”! But it miraculously opens to a page “Under Construction”. Then don’t fr*kin put the page up!!

My time’s up, but I see the checked in bags moving on the conveyer belt. Yes! That should buy me some time. I heard they can’t take off with the bags if the passenger is not on board. HA!!

But he still tells me no proof, not boarding. I panic, start demanding to use their PC with no luck.
I play the, “I’m Japanese I won’t stay over my welcome” card with the most innocent face I have.


It seemed to work at least for him and he calls Panama immigration explaining I’m a Japonesa and I have a ticket post Panama.

Big mistake. Of course that means nothing for them and there is not exception. Of course, they’re immigration! And they haven’t seen my innocent Japanese face in person! That now further confirms that I need solid evidence and I should be moved to tomorrow.

I panic more. I try harder on my search but internet is not going any faster. I try booking from Air Panama but they tell me its $300 for a one way ticket. No freaking way.

Finally, after 20 minutes of struggle, they say times up and that they are bringing back my bag.
No! No! No! There has to be a way around this! We can work this out!
Panic and frustration and anger. Though understanding its no fault of the agents at the counter, I couldn’t help it. I was a super bitch to the guy at the counter. (but at least I bitched in Spanish. Well done?!)

With no further possible actions, they escorted me to go get my bag and I probably look like a kid having a tantrum. NOOOOOOOO!!!!

My bags returned and I had was faced with the fact that I missed my flight. And then they tell me the change to tomorrow is going to be $21.

But But But…. Oh Come on!!!! My super bitch is combined with a panting child.

It’s no fault of theirs. I do slightly remember the fine print that said “you may be asked for a return ticket”
but it said “You MAY”!  I stomp around the airport with nowhere to direct my anger to and sit down and get online.

This ruins everything!!! My carefully planned schedule and finances. I even calculated the funds for today so that I wouldn’t leave any Pesos unused. My perfect planning crumbling to pieces.


After an hour or so, I take in the situation. Well, it all comes down to me ignoring the fine print, going to go get some food and losing my bags, and miscalculating the check in time. Yup, amateur mistakes but I’m frustrated.

9:40 – Text a couple of people, figure out what to do in Medellin for one night.

Maybe I was meant to stay in Medelin!
Then, I remembered there is a colleague from Japan happened to be in Medellin! What are the chances of that!? Maybe it was fate, maybe this was meant to happen so that I can meet up with him and share stories of being on the other side of the world! Oh it must be! A sudden light of hope and positive thoughts and I’m already imagining how fun it would be!

I text,  but the reply was “I just took off for Cartagena today”

Oh wow. How awesome fate works.

Back to reality.

Booked the bus for Panama to Costa Rica, which did require creating an account in Pay Pal and some communication back and forth with the agent online so I couldn’t have done it in 5 minutes anyway.

With the payment confirmation, I go back to the Air Panama girls and they kindly print it out for me to show to immigration. I feel quite bad for my behaviour and feel embarrassed for acting like a child. I force a smile in embarrassment. Sorry.

Decisions decisions. What to do.

  1. Go back to Medellin and spend the night
  2. Stay in the airport.
  1. 1 hour ride back to the city, hauling my bag to and from the metro, checking in, only to check out super early in the morning to make my way back to the airport. Lots of effort and costly, especially with the now additional costs.
  2. I’m here, there’s AC, good Wi-Fi, have sofas and a charging stations. No need to move and can save cost. The only thing is security and the fact I’ve never spent a night at an airport alone. Researched the airport and people seem to do it here. Doable, but a little scary.

Calculate out the time of travel, effort, and cost and I settle for Option 2. I’m staying!

Killing time at the airport

Chill out in the sofas. Its comfortable enough and with Wi-fi, I take this as an opportunity to catch up on things. I start getting excited over all the things I can do with this new found free time! Read, write, watch, play!

A happy encounter:

Then a tap on my shoulders and a familiar face pops up. Its the guys from the hostel from Medellin.
Hey! I’m so thrilled to see them! They’re flying out to no other than Catagena!
But still, this lifts my spirits up and we have an hour or two of fun chatting. I see them off to their gates.


It’s good, I tell myself. All these things happen for a reason. Now I have time with to catch up on writing my blog and the series of TV shows I wanted to watch. This will be good. I spend my time surfing the internet, learning Spanish and writing my blog.

I have just enough money for dinner, which ends up costing me 17,000 Pesos (damn airport food!) but oh well. I have just enough for morning coffee tomorrow.

The approach of the night

It’s almost 12 at night and slowly the doubt of this decision is creeping up on me. Is this really okay?

Surprisingly there are many people sleeping on the couches around and I don’t feel unsafe. The lights are on and there is a person at information and security that comes around once in a while and a Juan Valdez (Columbia’s Starbucks) that seems to be open 24h. I remind myself of why I chose to stay and the new experience I am getting and all the fun things I can do tonight.

But as I try to stay positive, a thought enters. Just yesterday, I had received a mail from a friend to share the mail with others to have the best day of my life (basically a chain mail I wouldn’t bother with) but should I have done it? Could this be a result of not forwarding?

Silly me, it has nothing to do with it and everything to do with decisions I’ve made but the fact that this thought enters is an indication I am scared. People have told me and I promised that when in doubt, go for the safer option, not the cheaper, not the more adventurous. But here I am sitting in Medellin Columbia in an airport in the middle of the night for logistic reasons.

I write these thoughts down now because its something I want to vividly remember.

Because when i wake up tomorrow and I am safe, I will justify my decision and think it was an awesome experience. What an adventure! Good for me for making the right decision and taking a bit of a risk! But the reality is, me sitting in an airport at 12:30 and still weighing the options of whether this was worth it or not while wondering if I should have replied and spread the chain mail or not is not the smart place to be.

Well, its been a long day and a long blog. Hope tomorrow comes and this helps me to remember the thoughts in my head.

Good night.


The night was fine and I am safe in the airport. I tried sleeping but couldn’t really because people started coming in to the airport at 4 am to catch their early morning flight. All in all, I didn’t feel it was dangerous and the experience was new and interesting. Definitely a lot easier than going back for one night.

As I expected, I do think now that it was a good decision and I’m glad I tried.

Now, after a 24 hour wait, really off to Panama!

100 DAYS on the Road – Thoughts

So I’ve passed the 100 day mark in my travel in South America on my backpack (well, on wheels), and covered 3 South American countries (5 including the US and the Columbia layover).

I probably could consider myself an experienced traveler so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on what I’ve learned, what is important and pass this on to other traveler seeking the same experience. Nice huh?

1. Accommodation Selection  – As a budget traveler, I have been staying at hostels (except for the times I get to travel with others, then its oasis to bump up to a hotel!) and I choose the hostels from based on the budget, the ratings and the reviews. But that doesn’t always make for a right fit for you. So here are the pointers.

  • Reserve only the first night – Because until you see it, you never know if it is in a dodgy place, the photos are much better than they actually are, maybe the showers don’t have hot showers and wi-fi they promised, don’t commit to more than one night. Assess for yourself if the place has all the things you want or that you can tolerate. Hostels are pretty flexible in last minute booking and extensions just let the know you could be extending if you like it and check that the beds are available.
  • A spacious chill area – Because I’ve been staying at dorms with sometimes 4, 6 or more people, its not a place you can assure privacy and concentrate to do the things you need to do. So it’s really important to have a good spacious lounge space, a good kitchen, good w-fi so that you can spend your spare time relaxing, reading, writing, researching, cooking there. If not, you end up spending time and money going out to cafes and lounges trying to be outside. Hostels that had a really good space in my travels were Frog’s at Huanchaco (Peru) or Che Lagarto Hostel in Foz de Iguasu (Brazil) where I hung out and made me feel at home and relaxed.



It’s really important! Because today, I’ve been going from cafe to cafe to bars with wifi to have time to myself and spending money and energy I otherwise wouldn’t need to…

2. Time for yourself – You’d think traveling alone will give you lots of time to yourself, but No! Everyday you see new things you want to do and meet new people you want to hang with so you actually really have to make a conscious effort to make time for yourself. If not, you’ll just fall behind on things you WANT to do and NEED to do. I haven’t been successful but these are the things I swear by to try to do going forward.

  • Take at least 1 hour to spend by yourself – the best way is to wake up early for me because at night, I’m too tired or drunk or just want to watch something and crash.
  • If you can’t do that… take 10 min to reflect on your day and plan the next – writing a diary is hard to do, but time goes so fast, its good to record and figure out what you need to do (like bookings, contacting family / friends, managing finances etc.)
  • If you can’t do that… have a day (once every three days or even a week) by yourself. – don’t book any activities, just plan the whole day figuring out what you need and want to do. It’s really worth it!
  • If you can’t do that… at least keep a TO DO LIST somewhere so you don’t miss any major must dos.

 3. Luggage and Packing – You’ll want to buy things when you go to a new place. You’ll get inspired by the local fashion, products or you’ll just realise your stuff just doesn’t blend in.

  • Don’t bring your best stuff and memorabilia – Because you’ll want to drop and replace them with things you need and want but they’re too valuable to you. I have so much stuff that people gave me upon my departure and they make me happy, but its really taking up space in my luggage but I still can’t drop them.
  • Lay out clothes flat – I watched this tutorial

on how to smartly pack and it really worked!! Initially I had things sorted in individual vacuums bags as per many blogs, but its annoying to take things out, especially when you’re in a rush and it RATTLES so much, I can’t use them without waking others up. I’ve experimented and its smart to lay things out flat and it avoids wrinkles!

 4. Finances  – I find it extremely difficult to keep track of your finances when you’re having fun and everything is a “once in a life time experience”. I’ve gone way over my budget for the first 2 months because I wasn’t conscious about it and I’m afraid it will affect how long I can travel for.

  • Jot down your expenses on an App– Because you won’t have time to jot the down everyday, use an app on your phone. Convenience is key! I am now using an app called Zaim (Japanese) that I jot down in local currency that converts to Yen (or the currency you like) so that you can keep track against your budget. Also, it allows me to categorise by type (food, travel, accommodation) so that you can reflect by week or month.
  • Check your credit card statements!!! – I did occasionally when I felt like it but this is really important! Thankfully my credit card contacted me to check on suspicious usage, but my card was actually skimmed and there were some usage from Indonesia, where i was most definitely not. Another friend also had the same case, used in Brazil when she was in Brazil so make sure you are checking online periodically because IT HAPPENS!
  • Keep US dollars somewhere for emergencies – Heard many stories of robberies and credit card failures even when your card is active. Many ATMs are not so reliable and sometimes you have to try several different locations to successfully get cash. So the best solution is to have some US dollars stashed for emergencies because its exchangeable almost anywhere here in S. America.

5.  People – I’ve experienced both really good and really bad. Ultimately, people influence your experience while you are traveling.

  • Talk to people for up to date info– Fellow traveler are usually the best and the most updated source of information. I have based most of my destinations and activities based on people and so far, its proven really good. Guide books and internet of course is good, but I only use it to get an idea and ultimately go with the advise of people that feel good to you.
  • Keep your own pace – Hanging out with people you meet is awesome but sometimes it can sometimes blow your time and budget. I for one am a person that usually don’t say no to invitations so it’s really important to keep your pace and  know what want and need to do.
  • Trust people, but your instincts more – Most of the people that I’ve et and offered help has been a great experience, but there are the occasional ones that you think could be risky and they are. There is no way to tell, but those were the ones I though they were a bit fishy from the beginning. One I met at a bus stop, I didn’t have a good feeling about it at the beginning and sure enough he wasn’t a good guy. Trust people, but ultimately, trust your instincts and walk away (or run away) even if you feel rude or the offer is great.

6. Language – I’ve picked up phrases to get by but imagining how much greater and deeper my experience could have been if I could communicate more leaves me with regret. But here are the things I’m doing now and improving.

  • Buy a phase book, learn before hand – which I haven’t done and I didn’t do, but many people say the same thing. Do it.
  • Try writing your diary in the local language – Which is something I started doing. Its genius because its what you want to say and what is relevant to you. I first write in my local language, then give it a try with my own knowledge with the local language then look up the words and sentences on Google translate. I think its great because you’re effectively learning the words you need and want. But does take a immensely long time to do.
  • Use an app to study – I use Chegg flash cards and you can download a whole bunch of words and phrases that you can flip through on your free time. Its like a game and its better than learning from a book. Others have told me Duolingo is really useful too.

7. Photo / Data back up – Because photos are the most precious things you’ll gain from the trip and it would be a complete bummer if it gets stolen (and it does!)

  • Dropbox/ Amazon storage – Automatically sync your photos when you’re connected to Wi-Fi. I have a separate hard drive to store, but just incase, I always have a back up.

These might be obvious, but its things I’d like to remind myself of to look back and remember.

Things I’m glad I brought:

  • Roller backpack


There’s a lot of discussion over back packs and rollers, but I’m glad I brought a roller / backpack. I’ve only used the backpack function twice when the roads were too bumpy. Yes, the backpackers look cool with their backpacks, and I’ve hesitated to stay “backpacker” hostels because I’m rolling in, but hey, its avoided unnecessary weight on my back and its much easier packing because I can open it up. Since I’m rolling it anyway, I feel like a bigger size or even a suitcase would have been fine. Big thanks to my friends Naho, Keiko, Chizu, Kayo and Ryoko that gifted this to me for this trip.

  • Lap top


As much as I thought twice about bringing one due to robbery risks, I’m so glad to have this and not just a smartphone. On travel, you have so much to research to do; bus routes, hostels, activities, and also blogging would have been painful (especially photo sorting and uploads) without it! Also, it makes for a great screen to watch movies when killing time or going to sleep because you pretty much don’t have access to a TV in a budget travels. Just need to be super careful and always have it locked and secured.

  • Super absorbing towel (and having 2!)


I forgot my original one at a hostel and got 2 more from Japan, but this is great. It dries really quickly, don’t take up space and also works as a beach towel. Good to have two so that you can separate your shower and beach towels.

  • Rechargeable battery for phone


On your long bus rides, your days out and the overnight adventures (kept my phone / camera alive on my 3 night 4 day treck!) it is super useful. Without this, I would have had no camera or music or apps to play with. Mine charges my iPhone around 3 full times so its great to not have to worry about using your phone when you want.

ricoh hawaii-theta-title

Get’s awesome photos like this:

It captures on only the front, but the back, top the bottom and everywhere else! Its been great to take this out and gain interest and capture the full scenery of the moment. Its a great conversation starter and a way to connect you and the people you meet after the moment too. Its an added bonus for me because its Japanese and I can show off my country’s hi-technology. If you can, always a cool gadget with you!

Things that I want now:

1. Kindle!


I want one so bad now. I got rid of my book because it was taking up so much space in my minimal luggage but a Kindle could solve that and allow you to have many.

2. A good camera


People told me I should get one before my travels, but I was sure it was going to get stolen so settled for my iPhone, But with all the amazing scenery, you’ll definitely want one. Hmmm…..

3. Thermos Cup


For carrying around tea or even hot alcoholic drinks.

4. A sun dress


I can’t  believe I still don’t have one (because my luggage can’t afford any more space) but this is a girls’s essential in traveling. Its good for daytime and you can put a sweater over it for night or for the cold. I mistakenly brought a nice semi-formal dress, which I have been contemplating throwing out but can’t, and also bought a long sleeve dress for the cold, but it could have all been replaced by one sun dress. Super dumb.

Well there you go. My round up of 100 days.