My Top 20 Travel Moments of 2016

I welcomed 2016 with a lot of hope and a pint of Guinness at a random British pub in Tokyo. Although I was alone in a foreign land, I could sense an air of positivity in the air. It was my first trip since I left my full-time job (again), and I was looking forward to more trips and more firsts. I didn’t know it then, but that year was going to be a rollercoaster ride, to say the least.

You can say what you want about 2016, but you can’t say it was boring. Even up to now, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling as though it is the year that the universe fucked up the world. There were a lot of times when I just wanted it to end just so I could have that illusion of starting over. I found that every political stand I took turned out to be on the losing side. The only movie I co-wrote this year leaked online while it was still in theaters. And I discovered that I suffer from a medical condition that only became apparent recently, confining me in the hospital for the first time in almost 20 years and stopping me from traveling for the entire summer. Imagine. The struggle is real.

Yet, 2016 is my best travel year so far. Despite the medical scare, I had set foot in 25 countries that include a long-time-coming two-month journey across Europe and a totally spontaneous getaway to the Maldives. I was also invited to speak at the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul and won 3rd place at the first ever #GoogleAdventure in Kanazawa, Japan.

Ugh, I’m kind of spoiling this list! So let’s begin. Here are my most unforgettable travel moments in this crazy thing that is 2016.

 

20. When I got ‘shook’ in the shower in Tokyo.

Over the past three years, I had been to Japan five times. Almost every time, weak earth tremors happened. Hence, when my hotel room began to shake that November morning, I felt like there was nothing to be worried about. So there I was, in the shower, getting ready for a big day, not minding the quake. That is, until it became too strong to be ignored. The walls and the ceiling made loud, creaky sounds for what felt like forever. That’s when I started getting scared. Thankfully, it subsided eventually and no one was hurt.

 

19. When Paris proved that magic doesn’t fade away easily.

I was afraid that since I had been to Paris before, I would not find it romantic anymore. But that moment when we were waiting for nightfall on top of Tour Montparnasse and we saw the Eiffel Tower’s famed sparkles, butterflies went fluttering in my tummy again. I think Paris will always have a place in my heart no matter how many times I find myself in its embrace.

 

18. When we were locked out of our rented apartment. At 3am. In freezing Iceland!

WE MISSED OUR SHUTTLE TO THE AIRPORT.

The worst part, we had already locked our AirBnB apartment in Reykjavik and left the keys inside, so we were stuck outside in the ICELAND cold at 3am.

At first, we didn’t think we missed it, so we waited. But after almost an hour in the cold, it finally dawned on us that it was not coming and we most definitely missed it. There were no taxis around. We tried calling transfer companies but the voice message said they open at 7:30am. We tried booking online but the next trip was scheduled at 5am. Our flight was at 6am. The airport is an hour away.

At that point, we knew it would be impossible to catch our flight.

BUT THEN, a shuttle from a competing company stopped in front of us, waiting for 2 other passengers from a nearby hotel. They waited, but the passengers CANCELED. There were 2 vacant seats in that shuttle, and we needed a ride. We talked to the driver. “We didn’t book this shuttle, but we missed ours. Would you accommodate us even without prior reservations?” He did! And he didn’t charge us extra.

We made it in time for our flight! Whew! Thank you, universe!

 

17. When we wandered around Copenhagen drunk af. At noon.

We stepped into that cafe for a sandwich. It was 12 noon, and we weren’t really planning on having a drink that early. The place was almost full so we sat at the bar and got into a fun conversation with Emil, the nice and friendly bartender. He first recommended a snap, a traditional Danish drink, and a tasty dark beer. After our meal though, he kept giving us free shots. By the time we emerged from that cafe, we were so intoxicated we couldn’t walk the line, but we still had to tour! We were laughing so hard as we explored the city.

 

16. When Dubai dunes turned my world upside down.

We joined a sand dunes day tour in Dubai. We were the second to be picked up by the staff, so we thought there would be more of us. Apparently, there would only be four of us in the group. Thing is, we sat at the very back of the vehicle. The driver was like, “Are you sure? It can get really bumpy there.” We were like, “Yeah, we’re cool.” BIG MISTAKE. The shaking was so strong I felt as if my soul wanted to leave my body. Haha. It was as though my insides turned liquid. When we finally reached the camp in the middle of the desert, I was unable to stand! I couldn’t speak a word for probably an hour.

Thank god the place was marvelous!

 

15. When I walked in the rain in Laguna.

Simple joys, eh? Before this trip, I couldn’t remember the last time I intentionally got soaked in the rain and didn’t care. But it was raining so hard non-stop and there wasn’t much anything to do at the hotel, so I decided to just go for it. It felt so good. I felt like a child again. It was also my first time to travel with my good friends Gael (The Pinay Solo Backpacker) and Astrid in a long time.

 

14. When I fell in love with Vincent in Amsterdam.

The life and works of Vincent Van Gogh have always fascinated me, so the museum named in his honor is to-do #1 on our Amsterdam itinerary. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I was moved by this visit. It’s a small museum and the pieces were arranged to narrate his story from his self-portraits and early works on the first two floors to his struggles on the top floor. By the time I reached his last works, I was on the verge of tears.

 

13. When I ticked another item off my bucket list in Munich.

Munich has always been one of my dream destinations. Every time I shared that with my German friends, they all had the same reaction. They laugh. And then ask, “Seriously? Why?” I grew up watching the Bundesliga and I was a fan of Bayern Munchen, so there’s that. Regardless, I still made sure that we made a stop in Munich on our Euro Tour. I LOVED IT!!! It was just so surreal being there finally.

 

12. When I got blown away by Prague’s old European charm.

I will never forget this. Prague is another city we didn’t know much about prior to arrival. We didn’t know what it looked like, where to go, what to do. To get there from the airport, we took the subway, so we didn’t have a good glimpse of the city. When we reached our stop, climbed the stairs, and exited the station… WHOAAA. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful cities in our years of travel blogging, but Prague is on another level.

 

11. When I was reunited with old friends in Seoul.

It’s funny how fast time flies. Ten years ago, I was still in college and had no idea that in three years or so, I would become a travel blogger. I haven’t seen many of my college friends since graduation. Two of them were Seneca and Boam Sik. Seneca was an orgmate, and Boam Sik was a Korean exchange student with whom I became very close. Both of them are based near Seoul, so when I had the opportunity to return to Korea, I knew it was time for a reunion.

 

10. When I finished the movie I was co-writing in La Union.

I was in La Union, when I finally typed “THE END” at the bottom of the last page of the screenplay that I had been co-writing for months. That alone would have made it memorable, but for it to happen while I was facing the non-mischievous waves of San Juan made it much more fulfilling.

Of course, there were revisions afterwards. But whatever.

 

9. When we merrily, merrily, merrily rowed a boat around Venice.

They say that you’ve never been to Venice until you explore its canals by gondola. But heck, I won’t be spending 100 USD on a 30-minute ride, so I looked for cheaper, more worthwhile alternative. That’s how we stumbled upon Row Venice, which offers 90-minute classes for only EUR60 per person. It wasn’t really a gondola but a rare “batellina coda di gambero.” It’s a traditional Venetian hand-crafted shrimp-tailed boat depicted in many old paintings by Italian masters. Back in the day, boats like this filled the canals of Venice. Today, only 8 of them are left in the city. We learned to row and saw much of the city along the way.

 

8. When we placed 3rd at this year’s Google Adventure in Kanazawa, Japan.

Our recent adventure in Japan was filled with memorable moments, but I guess the real highlight was being in the top 3 of the first ever Google Adventure, held in Kanazawa. We were so stoked and honored to be representing the Philippines, together with Jacko and Bogart the Explorer of PaperbugTV.

 

7. When a Shaolin performance almost made me cry in Zhengzhou.

In early July, Tiger Airways took us to Henan Province in China to experience most of what it has to offer, and man was it breathtaking, both figuratively and literally. Yuntai Mountain in particular is something I can confidently recommend to my most discerning friends. It’s most famous for its glass walkways (something I had tried three years ago in Zhangjiajie) and scenic gorges!

But the real highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the Shaolin Temple and the Shaolin musical show that followed. Even when the lyrics were in another language, the production almost moved me to tears.

 

6. When I finally appreciated Moroccan cuisine in Marrakech.

I wasn’t that happy in our first few days in Marrakech. Not only did we get scammed by a local even before we could get to the hotel, I just couldn’t get myself to like its food. There are two spices that I can’t stand in savory meals: cumin and cinnamon. Guess what. Most dishes served in the restaurants we entered had cumin, cinnamon, or both!

It all changed when we joined a food tour, which introduced to us well-prepared Moroccan delicacies. The funny part is, most of the items we sampled during the tour actually had cumin. Yet, it didn’t bother me. We were just eating at the wrong restaurants before! Our guide said the key may lie in the quality of the ingredients and how well they are cooked. I felt Morocco totally in love with their food!

 

5. When we spoke at the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul.

I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a bit scared during this trip. It was scheduled in a period when Istanbul’s most touristy site fell to a terrorist attack. But I never really let fear stop me from traveling to places outside war zones. It was a great decision because I thoroughly enjoyed the event and Istanbul as a whole.

 

4. When we chased waterfalls and rainbows in Iceland.

We were bummed that the Northern Lights didn’t show up at any time during our week-long stay, but Iceland still has a lot to offer. Its waterfalls alone can floor even the most discriminate tourists. Of these wonders, Skogafoss stood out. But not at first.

When we arrived, we were a little underwhelmed. The waterfall was great, yep, but after seeing the majestic Gullfoss, we would need more than a cascade. The place looked grey and dreary. They said it normally looks better under the sun, but even the sun was not in the mood. We were just about to leave when we stopped and said, “Let’s wait a bit more. Maybe.”

And just like that, the sun finally showed up. Just like that, a rainbow appeared in front of us.

Sometimes, all you have to do is WAIT a little bit more. FIGHT a little bit harder. STAY a little bit longer. And then you’ll see.

 

3. When I learned just how fun spontaneous trips can be in the Maldives.

Sometimes, the best trips are those you didn’t plan at all. The Maldives is one of those countries I never imagined I would be able to visit. But the universe has a way of surprising us. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a wooden platform, trying to dip my toes on the most turquoise lagoon I had ever seen in my life. The Maldives was never a dream for me, but when I was there, I felt like I was living in one.

It all started when my friend Tonet invited me to go with her somewhere she could relax. She would be coming from a trip in Japan and I from Singapore. Our initial plan was Bagan, Myanmar, but the weather forecast suggested we won’t be riding any hot-air balloon there. Haphazardly, we tried to come up with an alternative, a place that we’d never been before but did not require pre-approved visa. The idea of the Maldives was thrown on the table, and both of us grabbed it.

We booked the cheapest room at the cheapest private resort we found, but while we were there, we were given a free upgrade to one of the overwater bungalows that the Maldives is known for. Loooooved it!

 

2. When I reached new heights in Cappadocia, Turkey.

I had my first snowfall in Cappadocia. Sure, I’ve seen and touched snow before, but it was already on the ground. The first time I saw it falling happened in Goreme, Turkey. A snowflake landed on my glove-less hand and it disappeared almost instantly.

But that’s not even my most unforgettable first in Cappadocia. On our second day, we rode a hot air balloon for the first time, hovering above an endless sea of rock formations, from towering pillars that nature meticulously molded into massive chimneys for over 2000 years to spires that the early Christians carved through to create dwellings and churches centuries ago. The ride also allows a glimpse of some of Central Anatolia‚Äôs mighty peaks, from where the sun would emerge in a breathtaking celestial display. It was surreal.

 

1. When Florence reminded us exactly why we travel.

Where to begin? From our first look at the Duomo to our last meal in the city, there is so much to love about Firenze! On our first day, we wanted to try a panini behind the Duomo. When the staff asked us what we would like to have, I simply said, “whatever you recommend.” He then asked us to try the ingredients — cheeses and cold cuts — one by one, while he explained what they were and where they got them. We’re talking about a 6EUR panini here. It’s probably something that they do to every new customer that walks through their door, which is more admirable.

Same thing happened in one gelato shop. We were the only ones in the shop, but I couldn’t decide what flavor I wanted. The owner had us taste each flavor one by one so we could make an informed choice.

It’s little things like these that our memories of Florence for keeps. But one thing I will never ever forget was on one night on the way back to the hotel, there were street performers playing a classical tune. Suddenly, a mother began dancing with his probably 10-yo son in the middle of the street. They were tourists, and they just danced there with everyone watching. It was a tender moment that made me believe that despite all the bad things that happened in 2016, this world is remains brimming with love and beauty, and that life is still worth celebrating.

  • Paula Jean Untalan

    How to be you? :'(