# First trip to Europe: Portugal, Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, UK

I just came back from my first trip to Europe, covering five countries in about three weeks. A week in a city is not enough to really know it beyond a superficial level, but in this post I will describe my first impressions of the places I visited.

## Lisbon

My journey began by flying in directly from Toronto to Lisbon. With just under seven hours, it’s one of the closest destinations in Europe.

Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco (minus the homeless and tech employees). The city is built on hilly terrain, with streetcars running up and down the narrow and steep streets. A big red suspension bridge crosses the Tagus bay.

The city has a love-hate relationship with tourism. Although tourists drive a large part of the economy, short term Airbnb rentals have jacked up housing prices and have driven out the locals from many neighborhoods. Most stores and restaurants are forced to close before 11pm, due to complaints of noisy tourists.

Sintra is an hour west of Lisbon by train, and is well worth it for a day trip. It features some gorgeous castles and palaces built on a mountain.

## Amsterdam

Next destination was Amsterdam. Compared to Lisbon’s rolling hills, Amsterdam is as flat as a pancake. Every major street has a dedicated bike lane, so bikes are a great way to get around. Great way to encourage a healthy lifestyle. Around the old city center, there is a canal every few blocks — just don’t fall into them.

If you’re a budget traveler, beware that Amsterdam is expensive — we spent as much on accommodation in 5 days in Amsterdam as the rest of the trip combined. The first time at a restaurant, I couldn’t believe that a bottle of water cost 3 euros. My two companions watched amusingly as I demanded tap water (and my request was refused).

## Budapest

Budapest, the Hungarian capital on the Danube, is a city with magnificent architecture. I’d describe the architecture as giving a feeling of abundance: whereas most capital cities are tightly packed to maximize space efficiency, Budapest’s buildings are grand and spacious. Doorways and staircases are so tall that a man riding a horse could’ve walked through without dismounting.

I would recommend taking a Danube cruise at night: the parliament building and other major landmarks are brightly lit by powerful lights at night. Also, make sure to try some goulash (Hungarian soup) for lunch and kürtőskalács (chimney cake) for dessert.

Out of the places I went to this trip, Budapest is my favorite. I’d definitely recommend adding Budapest to your next trip to Europe.

## Romania

From Budapest, we took an overnight train eastward across the Great Hungarian Plain and the Transylvanian mountains to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. You can still feel the effects of Soviet communism in Bucharest. Most of the older historical buildings were damaged during war or systematically demolished under Ceausescu’s communist regime, and replaced with rows of austere-looking apartment blocks.

Brasov, our next stop in Romania, escaped relatively unscathed from World War 2. It’s a small town surrounded by lush green mountains and featuring a variety of shops, churches and other historical buildings. Nearby, you can visit the Bran and Peles castles: the former is tenuously connected to Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Lastly, I made a brief stop at London on the way back, where I got a chance to catch up with some friends living there. It turns out that plane tickets don’t satisfy the triangle inequality, so flying from Bucharest to London, staying a few days, then flying to Toronto was a lot cheaper than flying from Bucharest to Toronto directly.

Now I’m back — ready to start a new semester of research at UofT!

# Great Solo Asian Trip Part 1: General Thoughts

This is the first part of my two-part series on my 4-month trip to Asia. In this post, I will talk about my thoughts related to the trip and travel in general; in the second post I will go into detail about my experience learning the languages of all the countries I went to.

During my 4 months of travel, I visited 5 countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Now I will admit that I’m not a very skilled photographer, nor am I able to write succulent descriptions of exotic foods. Rather than bore the reader with a play-by-play itinerary of the whole 4 months, I’ve grouped my thoughts by theme rather than chronological order.

## Trip Planning

For the first month of my trip, I travelled around China with my mom and sister. Most of my relatives live there, and it’s obligatory to pay them a visit every 5 years or so. After China, Japan and South Korea were natural countries to visit next, since I’d wanted to go there for a long time but never got the chance to.

Above: Me at Yangshuo, Guangxi province, China

That left me another month of travel time, and initially I wasn’t sure where to go. There were a number of places I wanted to go in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, but it was July and much of Southeast Asia was in the middle of monsoon season. I figured it would suck to go somewhere and have it rain nonstop for days, so I looked at climatology maps and picked two places that were relatively dry this time of year: Central Vietnam and Malaysia.

## Travel and Productivity

During my trip, I spent roughly half my time doing touristy activities and the other half of my time sitting in cafes, working on various projects. One might wonder why you’d want to travel to Vietnam just to code in a cafe — but I found that after visiting tourist attractions every day for a week, I’d start to feel overwhelmed. Travelling is physically tiring, so it was important to pace myself for such a long trip.

I found cafes to be reasonably productive environments. Not only do they have better wifi than my hotel room, they also have nice ambiance and I get to try all sorts of snacks and drinks. Some of the stuff I worked on include:

• Wrote a few blog posts about math and language learning
• Some data analysis related to my school’s student enrolment statistics. I got a lot of practice using R in the process.
• Built some NLP modules for Snaptravel, a friend’s startup
• Watched some deep learning lectures and set up an AWS GPU instance to play with some deep learning models
• Spent about 30 minutes a day learning the country’s language

## Making Friends

I found that when travelling alone, I’m a lot more likely to talk to random strangers than when I’m travelling with other people — you’re much less approachable if you’re already engaged in an excited conversation with your travelmate. When travelling solo, it’s easy to start talking to the person next to you at a restaurant or on a train.

In all the countries I visited, I found that older people were universally more eager to talk to me than younger people. I imagine that young people are busy with their own problems and generally have better things to do than sit around and chat. One caveat is that older people usually don’t speak English. In Japan, this was a great way to practice my Japanese, but it was a problem in Korea and Vietnam, where I don’t speak the language very well. They still tried to talk to me, but I just didn’t know enough of their language to have a conversation for very long. When I got to Malaysia, where Mandarin is widely spoken, it was nice to be able to talk to the locals again.

Some of my friends like to use apps like Meetup to find events to meet people. I never tried it — it seemed like too much effort to actively make friends when I’m only in a city for a few days. Throughout the trip, I kept in contact with a bunch of relatives in China and friends in North America, so I never really felt lonely.

## Cultural Diversity and Food

Asia is a very culturally diverse place, with more or less every country having its own ethnic group and its own language.

At the same time, each individual country is not a very diverse place. With the exception of Malaysia, all the countries I visited each had a very homogeneous society. In Vietnam, everybody not a tourist was Vietnamese. Currently, less than 1 in 1000 residents of Vietnam are foreign-born, compared to about 1 in 5 for Canada. Essentially, if you’re in Da Nang, you can get amazing Pho or Cao Lau, but if you’re craving an authentic Mexican burrito? Tough luck.

Above: Delicious food from around Asia. Don’t ask me what they are, because I don’t remember either.

In Canada, we’re used to attending a lecture taught by an Indian professor, having lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then going to the doctor and see a black physician. Multiculturalism is something we take for granted, but is simply not a thing in most parts of the world.

Vietnam and Malaysia are good countries to eat food. There aren’t that many must-see tourist attractions, so you can relax and enjoy the scenery and the food. It’s nice to be able to order a full meal, complete with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, and still have the bill be less than $10. ## Travel and History Above: North Korea from across the Demilitarized Zone and Hiroshima Atom Bomb Dome Travel made me develop a greater appreciation for recent history and geopolitics, to understand how these countries became the way they are today. Two of the countries I visited were battlefields of the Cold War, the effects of which are still apparent to this day. When I went to Hong Kong, I was amazed by the wealth of this tiny island. Despite having a population of just 7 million, it’s rank 6 in the world in number of billionaires. How did this city on the outskirts of China, with no natural resources, become so wealthy? To find out, I started reading about the British Opium Wars, and soon found myself learning about all sorts of interconnected topics like the rise of Chinese Communism and the Cultural Revolution. Previously, I often found history to be a rather dry topic as presented in textbooks. It’s very different to visit the relevant countries and experience history firsthand. ## Wifi: The Good and Bad For me, wifi is probably the most important feature when booking hotels, as I’m heavily dependent on it for all my work, information, and communication. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to determine if a hotel has good wifi before actually going there (there do exist websites that collect speed test results, but their data only covers a small fraction of hotels in a city). As an experiment, I classified each hotel I stayed in as “decent wifi” or “terrible wifi”. A wifi connection passes the bar for “decent” if I can browse the usual websites without it being noticeably slow, and watch Youtube at 480p without buffering (this requires a connection speed of about 1.0Mbps), otherwise I classify it as “terrible”. Here are my results: So about half of the hotels passed this bar. China had the worst wifi and Japan had the best, but even in countries purported to have amazing internet like South Korea, you can end up with terrible hotel wifi. I suppose I should be glad that all of the places had at least some sort of wifi; this wasn’t the case when I visited China in 2013. Airbnb has gotten rather deceptive lately. Previously it was a good way to live in a person’s house and get to know the city from the perspective of a local. Now, a large number of listings are hotels, and even properties described as “homestays” are very much commercial ventures; most of the time, I never met my “host”. I found the best way to get an actual host is to look for hosts with only a single listing, but there is no way to filter for that automatically in the app. ## Final Thoughts Above: Me at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to take 4 months off to travel around Asia. The timing was worked naturally (graduated in April, leaving a 4-month gap before graduate school starts in September), and I had accumulated enough internship savings to afford it. Now, having had experience with long-term travel, I don’t want to make this my permanent lifestyle. The most obvious issue is money, which I’ll run out of eventually, so I’d need to find some part-time remote work on the side. More crucially, there are certain advantages of staying in one place: it’s easier to build a social network, advance in your career, and find a significant other, all of which are difficult if you’re moving every week. Although I don’t want to travel permanently, I really enjoyed my 4-month travel adventure. Maybe I’ll do it again someday, in a different part of the world — Europe maybe? We’ll see. # How a simple trick decreased my elevator waiting time by 33% Last month, when I traveled to Hong Kong, I stayed at a guesthouse in a place called the Chungking Mansions. Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, it’s one of the most crowded, sketchiest, and cheapest places to stay in Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui Of the 17 floors, the first few are teeming with Indian and African restaurants and various questionable businesses. The rest of the floors are guesthouses and private residences. One thing that’s unusual about the building is the structure of its elevators. The building is partitioned into five disjoint blocks, and each block has two elevators. One of the elevators only goes to the odd numbered floors, and the other elevator only goes to the even numbered floors. Neither elevator goes to the second floor because there are stairs. Elevator Schematic of Chungking Mansions I lived on the 14th floor, and man, those elevators were slow! Because of the crazy population density of the building, the elevator would stop on several floors on the way up and down. Even more, people often carried furniture on the elevators, which took a long time to load and unload. To pass the time, I timed exactly how long it took between arriving at the elevator on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator to come, riding the elevator up, and getting off at the 14th floor. After several trials, the average time came out to be about 4 minutes. Clearly, 4 minutes is too long, especially when waiting in 35 degrees weather without air condition, so I started to look for optimizations. The bulk of the time is spent waiting for the elevator to come. The best case is when the elevator is on your floor and you get in, then the waiting time is zero. The worst case is when the elevator has just left and you have to wait a full cycle before you can get in. After you get in, it takes a fairly constant amount of time to reach your floor. Therefore, your travel time is determined by your luck with the elevator cycle. Assuming that the elevator takes 4 minutes to make a complete cycle (and you live on the top floor), the best case total elevator time is 2 minutes, the worst case is 6 minutes, and the average case is 4 minutes. It occurred to me that just because I lived on the 14th floor, I don’t necessarily have to take the even numbered elevator! Instead, if the odd numbered elevator arrives first, it’s actually faster to take the elevator to the 13th floor and climb the stairs to the 14th floor. Compared to the time to wait for the elevator, the time to climb one floor is negligible. I started doing this trick and timed how long it took. Empirically, this optimization seemed to speed my time by about 1 minute on average. Being a mathematician at heart, I was unsatisfied with empirical results. Theoretically, exactly how big is this improvement? Let us model the two elevators as random variables $X_1$ and $X_2$, both independently drawn from the uniform distribution $[0,1]$. The random variables represent model the waiting time, with 0 being the best case and 1 being the worst case. With the naive strategy of taking the even numbered elevator, our waiting time is $X_1$ with expected value $E[X_1] = \frac{1}{2}$. Using the improved strategy, our waiting time is $\min(X_1, X_2)$. What is the expected value of this random variable? For two elevators, the solution is straightforward: consider every possible value of $X_1$ and $X_2$ and find the average of $\min(X_1, X_2)$. In other words, the expected value of $\min(X_1, X_2)$ is ${\displaystyle \int_0^1 \int_0^1 \min(x_1, x_2) \mathrm{d} x_1 \mathrm{d} x_2}$ Geometrically, this is equivalent to calculating the volume of the square pyramid with vertices at (0, 0, 0), (1, 0, 0), (0, 1, 0), (1, 1, 0), and (1, 1, 1). Recall from geometry that the volume of a square pyramid with known base and height is $\frac{1}{3} bh = \frac{1}{3}$. Therefore, the expected value of $\min(X_1, X_2)$ is $\frac{1}{3}$, which is a 33% improvement over the naive strategy with expected value $\frac{1}{2}$. Forget about elevators for now; let’s generalize! We know that the expected value of two uniform $[0,1]$ random variables is $\frac{1}{3}$, but what if we have n random variables? What is the expected value of the minimum of all of them? I coded a quick simulation and it seemed that the expected value of the minimum of n random variables is $\frac{1}{n+1}$, but I couldn’t find a simple proof of this. Searching online, I found proofs here and here. The proof isn’t too hard, so I’ll summarize it here. Lemma: Let $M_n(x)$ be the c.d.f for $\min(X_1, \cdots, X_n)$, where each $X_i$ is i.i.d with uniform distribution $[0,1]$. Then the formula for $M_n(x)$ is $M_n(x) = 1 - (1-x)^n$ Proof: $\begin{array}{rl} M_n(x) & = P(\min(X_1, \cdots, X_n) < x) \\ & = 1 - P(X_1 \geq x, \cdots, X_n \geq x) \\ & = 1 - (1-x)^n \; \; \; \square \end{array}$ Now to prove the main claim: Claim: The expected value of $\min(X_1, \cdots, X_n)$ is $\frac{1}{n+1}$ Proof: Let $m_n(x)$ be the p.d.f of $\min(X_1, \cdots, X_n)$, so $m_n(x) = M'_n(x) = n(1-x)^{n-1}$. From this, the expected value is $\begin{array}{rl} {\displaystyle \int_0^1 x m_n(x) \mathrm{d}x} & = {\displaystyle \int_0^1 x n (1-x)^{n-1} \mathrm{d} x} \\ & = {\displaystyle \frac{1}{n+1}} \end{array}$ This concludes the proof. I skipped a bunch of steps in the evaluation of the integral because Wolfram Alpha did it for me. For some people, this sort of travel frustration would lead to complaining and an angry Yelp review, but for me, it led me down this mathematical rabbit hole. Life is interesting, isn’t it? I’m not sure if the locals employ this trick or not: it was pretty obvious to me, but on the other hand I didn’t witness anybody else doing it during my stay. Anyhow, useful trick to know if you’re staying in the Chungking Mansions! Read further discussion of this post on Reddit! # Four Weeks in Tokyo: My Japanese Homestay Experience During the month of June, I enrolled in a Japanese language class in Tokyo, and stayed with a Japanese family in a homestay program. This is my first time to Japan, and I hoped to improve my Japanese language skills and learn about their culture. A month is an unusually long time to spend in one place for most tourists. Normally you’d stay for a few days, see all the pretty sights, and move on, but by doing a monthlong homestay, I got a better idea of what life is really like in Japan. Instead of rushing from one tourist attraction to another, I had time to explore at a more relaxed pace, and also code some side projects in the evenings. My homestay family got me a cake on the first day. “Welcome, Bai-kun” The language school I enrolled at was called Coto Language Academy. They provide various levels of small group Japanese language classes for foreigners, and they also helped me arrange my homestay. I’m not sure how effective the actual classes were: their style is focused on drilling rigid grammatical rules, which is not the best way to learn a foreign language. Nevertheless, attending classes for a few hours a day adds some structure to my life, and it’s a good way to meet other foreigners who are also learning Japanese. For the rest of this article, I’ll list some observations about Japan. Some things were more or less what I expected, but a lot of things were quite different. ## Things in Japan that went as expected 1. People are very polite. Everybody speaks quietly, there is no angry yelling on the streets. Waiting for the subway, walking up the escalator, crossing the street: everything is very orderly; you never see people cut the line or cut you off on the road. It’s as though everyone is hyper-aware of their surroundings and try not to do anything that might inconvenience others. 2. Trains are always on time, down to the minute. If the train is supposed to depart at 5:27, it will depart at 5:27, not a minute sooner, not a minute later. Any delay more than five minutes is considered late, and apologies are issued over the speakers. The Japanese punctuality extends to daily life. When my homestay family said we’d go out for dinner at 7pm, they really meant 7pm. In Canada, 7pm usually meant you’d actually leave the house at 7:10pm or 7:15pm. Not in Japan: by 7:02pm, they were already waiting in the car. Typical rush hour in Japan Trains can get very, very crowded during rush hour. Although I haven’t seen any pushers like that picture, I had the pleasant experience of touching the bodies of 5 strangers at the same time in a subway car. 3. Vending machines are everywhere, on every other street corner. They all sell the same variety of tea and coffee drinks though, I haven’t seen anything weird. Vending machines in a Chiba suburb 4. Cat cafes and anime shops. Cat cafes are a Japanese invention where you pet cats for stress relief. Me at a cat cafe. 100% as cute as you’d expect. Akihabara is the place to go for any kind of anime-related paraphernalia. A Pikachu slot machine Anime culture is much less prevalent in Japan than I expected. Outside of Japan, anime is considered a big part of Japanese culture, but in Japan, it’s fairly niche. The anime stores are all clustered in the Akihabara district, and otherwise you don’t encounter it that much. ## Things that surprised me about Japan 1. People work a lot. It’s expected to work many hours of overtime, far beyond the usual 40 hours a week in Canada. The evening rush hour starts at about 5pm and lasts well into the night: even at 11pm, the trains are always packed from salarymen who just got off from work. My homestay family’s dad often did not come home until after midnight, and we usually ate dinner without him. I don’t know how anyone can still be productive after working so much. Right now, I can’t really comment because I haven’t been inside of a Japanese corporation. It’s enough of a problem in Japan’s society that they have a word “karoshi”, meaning death from working too much. Aside from the long working hours, I was also surprised that Japanese salarymen typically work for one company for decades, sometimes their entire life. This is very rare in Canada, where software engineers seldom stay more than 5 years at a company. When technology shifts, companies in Japan train their existing employees to do the new tasks they need, rather than lay off workers and hire new ones. The culture is quite different. 2. Streets are much quieter and less crowded than expected. Before coming to Japan, I had spent a month in China and had grown accustomed to bustling streets with horns blaring and everybody jaywalking haphazardly. I expected Tokyo, with a population of 30 million, to be more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is not the case. Shinjuku at night: one of the busiest districts of Tokyo A few places were very crowded for sure, like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Everywhere else is not a lot different from the suburbs, except the buildings are a bit taller. 3. Tokyo is huge. With a metro-area population equal to that of Canada, its sheer size is massive. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from looking at Google Maps: it takes me about an hour to commute from my homestay in Urayasu to my language school in Chiyoda. Even with a system of super efficient trains going 100km/h, it still takes over two hours to get to attractions on the other side of the city. Two hours of commute time each way is common for the Japanese, if you work downtown and live in one of the outlying suburbs. 4. Japanese food is a lot more than sushi. In Canada, Japanese restaurants mostly focus on sushi, but sushi is not that common in Japan. Only maybe one in ten restaurants here serve sushi. The others serve all kinds of Japanese food I never knew existed. The sushi restaurants do not disappoint though. Even in cheaper restaurants, with rotating plates costing no more than 100-200 yen each, the sushi is better than anything I’ve had in Canada. Rotating sushi restaurant One particular Japanese delicacy is natto: a slimy mixture of fermented beans that they like to mix with rice. Most foreigners don’t like it. I tried it once. Now, when somebody asks me what I’d like to eat, I reply, “fine with anything but natto”. 5. Temples and shrines are everywhere. You will run into a shrine every few blocks in the city, and Nikko is full of them. UNESCO world heritage site of Nikko, with over 100 temples and shrines Architecturally they’re quite similar, but temples (tera) are for Buddhism and shrines (jinja) are for the Shinto religion. Besides feeding me and suffering through my broken Japanese for a month, my homestay family also taught me how to play Shogi. Learning how to play Shogi Shogi is the Japanese version of chess. A lot of tactics are similar to chess, but the games are a bit longer, and it never reaches an endgame because captured pieces get dropped back on the board. Me with homestay family. I will miss you guys! That’s it for my month in Tokyo. Next stop: Kyoto! # Reading Week Adventure: Backpacking through the Yucatan, Mexico What do you do during reading week? Relax at home in Toronto, or study for midterms at Waterloo? Why not book yourself a solo flight to Mexico to see the Mayan ruins? I didn’t originally plan on traveling solo. A friend was going to come with me, but he had to cancel. I decided to go anyways just by myself, and now I’m glad I did it. My flight landed at Cancun, where I spent three nights. After that, I backpacked across the peninsula to Valladolid, where I stayed for a night, and then onto Merida for two nights. Finally, I took a bus back to Cancun to catch a flight the next day. Above: Map of places I visited ### Beaches of Cancun Cancun is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America, with direct flights to many cities in Canada and the US. Flights here are relatively cheap, with a round trip from Toronto costing about$450 USD.

Landing in Cancun was the worst airport experience in my life. When my flight arrived at 10pm, there were hundreds of tourists from multiple flights coming in, and only two officials processing immigration customs. This resulted in a terrible bottleneck. By the time I exited the airport, it was past 1am — it took everyone over 2.5 hours to get through customs. Fortunately, getting out was smooth though.

The city of Cancun is quite literally built around tourism. The city is less than 50 years old, built in the 1970s when the Mexican government decided to develop its tourism infrastructure.

Above: Tropical island of Isla Mujeres

Many people come to Cancun for the beaches, and indeed, the beaches here are among the best in the world. But for a solo traveler like me, going to the beach is somewhat awkward. You can still do it, but you have to constantly keep an eye on your belongings when going for a swim.

Rather than an all-inclusive resort by the beach, I opted for a much cheaper room in a hostel downtown. Most of the beaches belong to private resorts, but there are many publicly accessible ones. I took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast with beaches and snorkeling activities.

### Mayan Ruins

Climbing through the ancient Mayan ruins was the highlight of my trip. The Mayan civilization thrived over a thousand years ago in present day Mexico and Guatemala, and their society collapsed around 900AD for unclear reasons. They left behind majestic temples in the jungle to explore today.

Above: Chichen Itza and Tulum

I went to four different Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza, Tulum, Ek Balam, and Uxmal. Chichen Itza and Tulum were the most touristy, with hundreds of organized tour buses bringing tens of thousands of tourists every day. Because of this massive volume, you’re not allowed to climb any of the ruins, only look from afar.

The ruins of Ek Balam and Uxmal were much nicer: with few organized tours, there were no massive crowds, only a handful of tourists. I would highly recommend visiting one of these less visited ruins, because you can climb freely onto the Mayan pyramids. Standing on top of the temple where Mayan rulers once stood, overlooking the ruins of the ancient city in the jungle — it feels like traveling back in time.

Above: Ek Balam and Uxmal

### Swimming in Cenotes

Another awesome activity to do in the area is swimming in the open groundwater caves, called cenotes. There are no rivers in the Yucatan peninsula, so cenotes were an important source of fresh water for the Mayans, who built cities around them.

Today, the cenotes serve as natural swimming pools. The water is cool and fresh, and it’s a lot nicer to swim in than the salty ocean water.

### Language Barrier

Spanish is the main language spoken in the Yucatan peninsula. Some people speak English, especially around Cancun and by people interacting with tourists.

I’ve studied Spanish for a few months — so my level is far from fluent, but I can have simple conversations in Spanish. You can get by without knowing Spanish, but knowing some made my trip a lot more interesting.

I met a lot of Mexican nationals: either locals, or Mexican tourists visiting from other parts of the country. These people generally don’t speak English, but they’re very friendly and are happy to let me practice my Spanish with them. On the bus, I chatted with a girl from Chetumal spending her weekend in Cancun; the next day, I met a guy from northern Mexico in my hostel and we went out for drinks together.

The immersive environment is really helpful for learning a language. I’d pick up 10-20 new words every day just by talking to people.

Occasionally I heard the Yucatec Maya language spoken as well — the indigenous Maya people still make up a large part of the population here. It’s easy to identify the Mayan language by its plosive consonants and abundant “sh” sounds, a sound which doesn’t exist in Spanish.

It’s certainly not the case that everyone speaks English — in one of my hostels, the front desk attendant spoke no English at all. Overall, I’d estimate I used Spanish in 60% of my interactions on this trip.

### Merida, The White City

Merida is a colonial city a few hundred kilometers to the west of Cancun. It feels very different from Cancun, with a much older history and fewer tourists.

Above: Central plaza of Merida

At the center of the city is a massive cathedral, next to a plaza. There are many plazas around the city where people gather. The narrow streets are lined with colorful houses, and old cars fill the air with a faint scent of petrol.

Being friendly with the locals can backfire. Apparently in Merida, it’s unusual to see a random Asian guy in a restaurant speaking Spanish. So unusual that after talking to a local family in a restaurant, they offered me to stay in their house for the night. I already had a hostel, but I mentioned that I was on my way to visit a Mayan site outside the city, so they offered to go there with me. I agreed. Then, rather than take me there, they gave me a tour of the city, their house, and the mall. Then they introduced me to their daughter studying in Mexico City, and insisted we keep in touch on Facebook. In the end, I never got to the Mayan site, but it was quite an interesting experience.

### Mexico Travel Logistics

In this section, all prices are assumed to be USD.

Around Cancun, the bus system is pretty good, with a two-hour air-conditioned bus ride costing about $7. There are also white vans called colectivos that pick up and drop off passengers along the highway; these are faster and cheaper, but less comfortable. In Merida, the buses were more sketchy. I knew I was in Mexico’s backwaters when I accidentally took the second class bus from Chichen Itza to Merida, which stopped at every little Mayan village along the way, taking twice as long as usual. The bus to Uxmal ran once every 3 hours, and the schedule is nowhere to be found on the internet — you have to ask the locals. Driving would’ve been a faster option. I wasn’t comfortable driving alone in a foreign country, so I took the bus, but you can see a lot more if you rented a car instead. For accommodation, I slept in hostels, which cost about$20 a night for a private room and $10 for a bunk bed with many people in one room. I did a mixture of the two, but it’s easier to sleep in a private room, so for me, it’s worth the extra cost. Most things in Mexico cost about half or one-third as much as the equivalent in the US: for example, I can get a decent meal for$5-10. On the other hand, I lost about 10% converting money into pesos through ATM and bank fees.

I got a SIM card at a bus station, which cost $20 for 1.5gb of data. Some people say that going offline gives a more authentic travel experience, but it’s useful to be able to look up information, rather than ask people where the nearest bank is. I spent about$70 a day in Mexico, including hotels, food, taxis, entrance fees, etc. You can get by with less, but I wasn’t super frugal, and being a tourist, I probably overpaid for things.

Traveling alone is quite fun! With nobody else to account for, I can do as much or as little as I feel like. I never really felt lonely either, since it’s easy to find people to talk to in hostels.

That’s all I have to say for now. I have four midterms next week — great way to return to reality after a journey to another world. Better start studying.

# Why is it so rainy in El Yunque – travels in Puerto Rico

This week, the entire engineering team at Yext went on a trip to Puerto Rico. Three nights at a beach resort, all expenses paid for.

What?! As an intern? No way! That was my reaction when I first heard about it. Friends at other software companies boasted about corporate housing, gourmet meals, and pantries stocked full of snacks of every kind, but Yext’s Puerto Rico offsite takes the cake.

### The Resort

San Juan, the main city in Puerto Rico, is a 4 hour flight from New York. Puerto Rico is a popular destination because it’s a US territory, so you don’t need to worry about things like visas or international currencies. Also the drinking age is 18, rather than 21 for most of the US.

The resort was located 1 hour from San Juan, in the Fajardo region. I had never been to a Caribbean resort before, but the experience was more or less identical to my preconception of what a resort should be like. Along with my fellow engineers, we had a good time swimming in the beach, playing beach volleyball, and drinking lots of mojitos.

Here’s me on the beach:

Since this is a company offsite, there were some serious activities too. For half the day, senior Yext engineers gave tech talks on things like domain driven design and how to write integration tests.

### After the Resort

For me, the amount of fun I have at a resort is not constant. The first day at the resort is the most amazing thing ever. Then on the second and third day, when you redo the same resort activities, the excitement wears off. I think if I spent a week at the resort, I’d be pretty bored by the end of it.

After the 3 days that were officially scheduled, some of the engineers decided to stay at the resort for the weekend. I joined a group that rented a car and drove to El Yunque — a tropical rainforest not too far away. After that, I spent another day exploring the city of San Juan by myself before getting on the plane back to New York.

El Yunque was surprisingly rainy. Even though we knew it was a rainforest, the amount of rain caught all of us off guard.

Standing on a lush green mountainside, you could see the dark clouds releasing a constant downpour of rain. Yet in the distance, the beach resort remained warm and sunny. The skies cleared up the moment we left the rainforest.

It seemed all the rain was concentrated within the boundaries of El Yunque national park, as if artificially constrained by a force field.

### So why is it rainy in El Yunque?

The curious climate of El Yunque intrigued me. When I got home, I did some research on why it behaved this way.

A quick Google search gave me this precipitation map, which confirmed my suspicions:

Figure: Mean Annual Precipitation of Puerto Rico in 1963-1996

The purple region in the northeast is El Yunque. It receives 120 inches of rainfall a year, which is 3 times more than San Juan.

It might also be worth looking at a relief map of Puerto Rico:

The rainforest area is on a higher elevation than the surrounding region. So the rain falls where there are mountains. Gotcha.

This phenomenon is called orographic precipitation (orographic means relating to mountains). When warm and humid air is forced up a mountain, it cools and forms clouds, which then precipitates. The other side of the mountain experiences a rain shadow effect as the descending is devoid of moisture.

Also, in the Caribbeans, the trade winds tend to blow from east to west. This explains why El Yunque is a rainforest, but there are higher mountains in other parts of the island which are not rainforests.

Actually, in retrospect this seems like a fact we all learned in grade school. I don’t know what explanation I was expecting, something fancier?

In any case, this mix of geographical and weather conditions gives us a unique and beautiful landscape — and the only tropical rainforest in the US.