How To Make Your Stay Abroad Amazing

When I first moved to Spain in 2015 for six months to study the Spanish language and culture, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. It was my first time in Europe, my first time to travel alone, I was 22 years old and seriously naive, and on top of that, I barely spoke the language. But somehow based on my misguided knowledge of the country’s culture Spain was the obvious choice: sun, tapas, flamenco… how could anyone go wrong? In truth, all I knew for certain back then was that I wanted to be away from home for some time, to learn how to live independently, and to discover the European continent as best I could. Those six months turned out to change the course of my life forever. I learned so many things about life and myself and more important, the experience cemented my desire to travel as far and as often as I could. From one student on exchange to another, here are some tips to make your stay abroad one to truly remember.

1. Keep an open mindset

Trying new things such as this “sweet” wine in Malaga, Spain

Your time abroad is an invaluable opportunity to immerse yourself completely in a culture that probably has very little to do with your own. Rid yourself of all inhibitions, stereotypes, and prejudices. The only way to gain a full experience abroad is to be entirely open to it. Do things that you’ve never done before, and more important, things you might not have the chance to experience back home. Eat cuisine from your host country so openly until you find yourself a favourite, go-to meal. Develop relationships with locals no matter how short-lived they might seem; it is through interacting with them that you can truly capture the essence of the place you temporarily call home. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised at each turn.

2. Stay organized

Finding time to visit Versailles and the Hall of Mirrors on a day trip from Paris, France

I know first-hand how difficult it is to stay on top of things when you’re out and about on every possible occasion. But also trust me when I tell you that it PAYS to be organized especially when you’re living alone in a foreign land. Take care of all the bureaucracy upon arrival, double up copies of all essential documents, keep track of all your expenses, and you’ll thank yourself later. Don’t merely consider your time abroad as the ultimate chance to let loose; instead, see it as the prime opportunity to be responsible and independent and you will grow so much as a person. On top of that, it will be so much easier to have fun and enjoy yourself without having to worry about whether or not your monthly credit card bill has been paid.

3. Learn basic life skills

Coming up with itineraries is a life skill, right? But here I am, winging it in Bruges, Belgium

Nothing compares to the feeling of gathering your first successful batch of laundry, of cooking your first full, edible meal, of cleaning your flat for the first time, of taking care of yourself the first time you get sick abroad. Living and studying in a foreign place changes you in such nuanced ways that you don’t even realize you’ve turned into an adult almost overnight. It is a rite of passage to be able to look after yourself for an extended period of time with zero casualties and minimal food spoilage involved. It is also an experience that anyone who studies abroad is automatically warranted.

4. Make new friends

Completing a leg of the Camino de Santiago starting from Logroño, Spain

I cannot begin to explain how making friends, with both locals and the people in the same program, of varying ages and professions, enriched my experience back in 2015 in ways I could have never imagined. It was truly comforting to have your own, little family in your home away from home, knowing that all of you were more or less going through the same experiences and sharing memories that will last a lifetime. And this is coming from someone who is extremely introverted. You will soon learn that these once-in-a-lifetime connections are invaluable and transcend both time and distance.

5. Travel. And Eat. A lot. 

An unforgettable day trip with classmates to San Sebastian, Spain

I owe my semi-nomadic lifestyle now to my first study abroad experience. It broadened my horizons in unexpected ways and opened my eyes to how simultaneously big and small the world really is. I traveled across the European continent with an unrelenting sense of adventure that has had an immense impact on the rest of my life. I ate my way through all the countries and cities that I visited in such a short period of time. And I took bajillion photos that to this day never fail to put a smile on my face.

Five European Cities Not To Miss While Studying Abroad

After all these years of travel, I can conclude that the best thing about venturing outside of one’s home is the overpowering sensation one gets every time he or she comes across a new place and decides that it has made it into the ever-growing list of favourites. It’s a feeling that is unlike any other. A close second is what follows: the consistent sentiment of nostalgia that one is enveloped in until the next visit to that place. I have been flying between my home in Asia and Europe frequently enough to develop a solid list of personal favourites that I believe any student on exchange (and on a budget) should definitely visit while studying abroad. These are not just cities with a lot of heart and character, but also a great amount of life enough to make any homesick student forget about home even for a short while.

1. Berlin, Germany

At quite possibly the most touching memorial ever

My favourite thing about the German capital city is that it is thriving with modern culture and yet extremely quiet and peaceful. It is an ideal place for those that, like me, appreciate art, history, and gastronomy. There are plenty of things to do, it’s almost impossible to get bored. Berlin’s rapid transit railway system, the U-bahn, is ridiculously efficient and easy to use, although I have found that most major sites are within walking distance. And it’s such a joy to just watch the Germans go about their daily business.

Don’t miss: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie

Eat and drink: German beer and sausages at a beer garden, Pretzels, Currywurst, Berliner

2. Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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The paradise of boats and canals

My memories of this place might be a bit hazy at best but to this day, I remember how being there made me feel: light and happy. Amsterdam is a place I can see myself living in because it is beautiful wherever you look; likewise, it is unassuming, quiet, and yet full of life. People are as incredibly friendly as they are disciplined and they imbibe a very laid-back vibe and evolved sense of existence without effort. My only frustration is that I still did not know how to ride a bike properly on my first visit (I know, HOW?) but I am sure it would have totally enriched my experience even more.

Don’t miss: Vondelpark, Anne Frank Museum, Van Gogh Museum, canals

Eat and drink: Stroopwafel, fresh seafood (Must try The Seafood Bar), Gouda cheese, “brownies”

3. Seville, Spain

Representing Bizkaia all the way down South

The one city in Spain I can’t quite seem to get enough of is Seville. This place is the image we all have of Spain and more: sunny, warm, lively, fun. It is so rich in history that one can easily spend days wandering around the city only to learn about how it came to be. Its gastronomy cannot be rivaled (except perhaps by the Basques up north) and I can confidently say it is the true tapas capital of Spain. There are so many reasons to visit Seville (again and again) and I don’t think I will ever tire of going back.

Don’t miss: Alcazar, Cathedral, Giralda, Plaza de España, Triana, day trip to Italica

Eat and drink: Tapas all day every day, Paella, Chocolate con churros, Serranito, Cruzcampo cerveza

4. Lisbon, Portugal

Splendid views of the city’s colorful neighborhoods from up high

Going as far west as Lisbon felt like reaching the end of the world, in the best way possible. The unique, “je ne sais quoi” vibe in the city made me fall in love with it instantly. It was like feeling as though I wasn’t in Europe anymore, or on Earth even. On top of that, Portuguese people have got to be some of the gentlest, nicest people on this planet and it reflects on their culture. They truly know how to live their lives and it is something worth watching and getting inspired by when studying abroad.

Don’t miss: Belem Tower, Alfama, Bairro Alto, Castelo de S. Jorge, day trip to Sintra

Eat and drink: Pastéis de nata, fresh seafood, Chicken piri piri, Gelato

5. Paris, France

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Soaking in the views from my favourite Parisian arrondisement

I have been back in Paris multiple times since the first time I went there and for good reason: Paris is always a good idea. The versions of Paris that we see in photographs and films do not do justice to the true Paris there is. For a city as famous and busy as it is, it is peculiarly tranquil any time of the day but everyone you come across is like a living, moving work of art – dressed in fine clothes, eating fine food – it’s something to behold! Even the least glamorous nooks and crannies of the city are interestingly beautiful and uniquely Paris. There really is nothing quite like the City of Light.

Don’t miss: Tour Eiffel, Montmartre, Notre Dame, Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, River Seine

Eat and drink: Le Relais de L’Entrecot, Escargots, French breakfast (avec pain au chocolat), Soufflé

How To Be the Ideal Hostel Guest Anywhere in the World

Exploring different districts on a solo trip to Berlin, Germany

Never have I met an individual who valued his or her personal space and protected his or her personal energy more than I do. I go to great lengths to make sure that I am comfortable at all times and devoid of unnecessary suffering caused by the mere existence of others. I hate people! I am the epitome of a misanthropic introvert. As a result, I have mastered the subtle art of avoiding any and all forms of social interaction whenever possible. I have spent many weekends sans FOMO and with no regrets. If there was a button to transform me into a hermit right now I would push it again and again.

It seems therefore counterintuitive that when I travel alone, I opt to stay in hostels, sharing dormitories and bathrooms with actual strangers. The truth is that solo female travel makes me feel utterly vulnerable, at least in the beginning when I find myself in yet unfamiliar territory. Depending on the availability, Airbnb and hostels are my go-to accommodation when there’s no one else with me on the road. It is logical: Airbnb hosts are there to automatically guide you through a uniquely local experience while hostels offer safety, security, and centrality. While Airbnb now rivals hostels in price, especially for solo budget travelers like me (by budget I mean, I’d rather spend my money on food and experience than on a hotel room I would hardly be spending time in… don’t get me wrong, staycations are my thing, too), the charm of spending 6 euros on a centrally-located dorm-bed to merely crash on after a full day of exploration has not been lost.

Despite the ridiculously cheap amount we spend on hostel accommodations, we shouldn’t disregard the fact that there are unwritten rules when it comes to sharing spaces with strangers and that acting like a decent human being is neither optional nor recommended, but obligatory. I’d like to think that I excel particularly in this area (whether I am staying in a hotel, an Airbnb, or a hostel, I am simply the guest of your dreams) and so I’d like to share some tips on how to be the ideal hostel guest anywhere in the world.

Nothing beats staying in a hostel and being a stone’s throw away from the main sights like in Vilnius, Lithuania

1. Party hostel or not, observe silence.

This has to be one of the most obvious ones in the book of unwritten hostel etiquette, and yet ironically, it is also one of the most notoriously neglected. Whether or not you are in a so-called “party” hostel (where apparently a certain amount of noise is acceptable, cringe), at least some degree of silence must be in place. It does not mean you can’t speak AT ALL but learn to modulate the pitch of your voice (read: kids, use your inside voice) and definitely respect the (wee) hours during which whispering is highly encouraged and carrier plastic bags are strongly discouraged. In addition, you should take additional measures if you are a chronic snorer and you know it: this could be as simple as letting your roommates know (and giving them permission to wake you up or handing out earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep for all parties involved) or as considerate as getting your own private room instead.

2. If you don’t know, ask.

This applies to practically everything you encounter as soon as you check in to a hostel. For instance, if you don’t know how to use the key to the front door, ask, or else be stuck outside for a whole night in the cold, or worse, be a constant inconvenience to the receptionist and/or other guests. No two hostels are alike; I have enough experience under my belt to prove that no matter how often you stay in a hostel-type accommodation, the next one could be a totally different world in comparison. And so it is best to keep asking, even if sometimes your question might seem stupid to you or to the person on the receiving end, it’s still better to be safe than to be sorry.

The only downside to solo travel: not having someone to take your photos like this one in Riga, Latvia

3. Don’t be that person packing or unpacking during weird hours.

This must be a Golden Rule by now but unfortunately, common sense is not so common these days. No one wants to wake up to the sound of rustling plastic bags (see rule 1) and stubborn zippers. It takes a few minutes to unpack your toiletries if you want to freshen up before bed. If you have to leave early in the morning, it is most logical to pack your things the night before, not while everyone else is soundly asleep. Here’s a tip: if you have to ask whether or not it might be an inconvenience to others if you pack at a certain hour, then chances are, it will be so either go ahead and take your stuff outside where no one can hear you or just pack when literally no one is around.

4. Mind your own business.

This is something that I consider an expertise which most people seem to struggle with. Staying in a hostel does not equate to being an extrovert or the most sociable person ever. Sometimes it is just the cheapest and most convenient option; so never assume that the person on the top bunk will be up for small talk or a deep conversation at any time just because you are staying in a shared space. Of course, it is common courtesy to say hello and even introduce one’s self to other roommates, have a short exchange on travel plans and where you come from, that sort of thing. But also be mindful of personal space and boundaries. This also applies to possessions. Especially toiletries. If it’s not yours, just don’t touch it.

Beautiful plazas in old towns filled with budget accommodations in Tallinn, Estonia

5. Clean up after yourself.

This is something that everyone should be mindful of, whether or not you’re staying in a hostel. But especially since you have actively chosen to stay in a budget accommodation where cleaning services are minimal (literally I have seen some hostels where simply making the bed and not even changing the sheets counted as cleaning) so you should also actively make sure that your space is clean and that you are not making a hell of a mess. Don’t be that person that leaves trash everywhere, or that person that uses up the whole kitchen when cooking, or that person that doesn’t flush the toilet; always keep in mind that there are other people wanting to use the communal facilities and that it is your duty to leave it as clean as when you first arrived (given it was clean in the first place).

In Between Travel Burn-out and Wanderlust

Ever since moving to Bilbao in October, I have found little luck and few opportunities when it comes to updating my travel blog. Every so often I urge myself to write; I firmly yet lovingly force myself to produce anything, even if it turns out to be of sub-par quality. For a while it truly seemed as though work and school had devoured me whole; at least until I realized I was yet again enveloped in a state not so alien to me after all.

Pretending to be Arya Stark in the Water Gardens on my most recent trip to Seville, Spain

The signs are consistent each time. First, I get excited about an upcoming trip and then I quickly remember all the others I have been on that have not, to this day, been given the attention they are due. Soon enough I catch myself visualizing the almost immeasurable amount of gigabytes in picture format that have yet to be sorted. On top of that, my own memory is noticeably slowing down and failing me more than ever. Likewise, it doesn’t help that these days all I ever think about when I actually have time to pause and reflect are potential topics for my presentation in Global Problems class.

Discovering new places that I can’t quite describe just yet in Italica, Santiponce, Spain

Almost immediately after all of that comes the ever-predictable “I don’t want to travel for a while” period, usually coupled with an emotionally-charged rant about the “too harsh for my tropical Asian complexion” winter season. As soon as I recognize how familiar this scenario is, I find myself hopping on a plane again to yet another destination, coming back on a definite high, and ultimately starting the dreaded cycle again. Much to my dismay, it has, time and again, proven to be an assembly line of events that runs like clockwork.

When I am stuck in the in-between, the only remedy I have found effective so far is gratitude. Travel burn out and wanderlust are, more than anything, states of being that I should be most thankful for and feel privileged to undergo. Not everyone gets to experience either, let alone both, at least not in a manner that ultimately leaves them fulfilled. And yet I constantly find myself in this cycle which has, without a doubt, contributed the most to the amount of growth that I have gone through in the past three years of essentially and accidentally embodying the ways of a true digital nomad.

Revisiting a place I have always loved but never shared in Seville, Spain

Perhaps I truly have come into my own as a travel blogger to even go through the motions of temporarily running out of steam as both a writer and a traveler. Although I am convinced that this blog probably deserves more attention than it is currently getting (from me), I also know that the tide will change and the cycle will sync and once again I will be able to express myself in ways that most likely (based on experience) only a three-month long vacation from life can warrant. But until that day comes, I hope this space, as well as the people that so willingly appreciate it, grows more and more patient with me as I seek to go out and see more of the world every chance I get.

After all, I am a traveler first and a blogger second.

How To Stay Vegan While Living Abroad

To say that I have had a love-hate relationship with food is an understatement. In my younger years, I was a textbook example of the saying “you are what you eat”. I was born with longganisa sized arms and thighs and maintained that figure long enough to earn the moniker “Tabernacles”, an allusion to my perpetually rotund tummy and cheeks (read: taba means fat in Filipino). A couple of years ago, after a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with psychedelics, I ventured into the terrains of veganism and quit the meat cold turkey. Just like that. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well; with a sudden and rather drastic drop in my weight I didn’t hear the end of it, what with my meat-eating friends and family telling me to stop this nonsense and never look back. Now with a more enlightened mind, a clearer view of what it is I truly want out of this life, and a deeper sense of spirituality, I have decided to give veganism another shot. And I am feeling better than ever.

I don’t have to tell you how utterly difficult it is to be vegan in the land of jamon and queso. But I will say it anyway. It is incredibly hard. There are still days when the temptation grows stronger than my resolve and I reach for that bag of chocolate pralines, that tub of mint chocolate ice cream, that container of Parmesan cheese, ignoring all together that I form part of the 75% of the human population that is in fact lactose intolerant. Nevertheless, here I am, not just surviving but thriving as a vegan in the michelin-star capital of Spain, the Basque Country, no less. But how exactly?

1. Watch all the documentaries and read all the books and articles you can find on the subject matter.

Fruits for days (Photo from Reader’s Digest)

Veganism doesn’t just translate to eating plant-based food and staying away from animal products. There is plenty to learn about it. I would argue that although veganism is something that comes naturally for us, it has been buried and forgotten through heavy conditioning thanks to the influence of consumerism and capitalism. Think about it. Veganism has in some way transformed into a solution to the planetary disaster that is the meat and poultry industry when in fact we were always designed – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – to eat plants and show compassion to animals. Documentaries such as Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, and What The Health, are just some that have opened the eyes and minds of many to this reality. Watching them (repeatedly, if possible) would be a great starting point for your new and somewhat still fragile food journey.

2. Turn your favourite food into vegan recipes. 

Sinigang, my favourite Filipino sour stew (Photo from Vegventures)

One grave mistake I made the first time I switched to a vegan diet was to denounce everything that I loved in the two decades of my life and essentially brand them as being pure evil. Direct consequences of said action were starvation and an unnecessary loss of iron. This doesn’t have to happen. In fact, one of the easiest and healthiest ways to transition into a vegan lifestyle is to keep what you love and just adapt them to meet your new needs. For instance, I absolutely love sisig, a Filipino dish made with pig’s face and egg, and basically a number of things that are just bad for you. Nowadays, I make it with extra firm tofu and no eggs, and it tastes even better knowing that I didn’t have to partake in the slaughter of innocent animals to enjoy it. You don’t have to demonize your old ways to become vegan; you just have to come to terms with the fact that you are now better and that your old ways are, too.

3. Learn about how to stay healthy while on a vegan diet. 

A useful visual guideline (photo from Pinterest)

You can be vegan and unhealthy; that is a fact. A lot of the processed food we got used to eating can be considered vegan (breakfast cereal, potato chips, you name it) but they’re not necessarily nutritious, are they? One concern that comes up a lot is if a vegan diet gives you all the vitamins and nutrients that you need (e.g. Vitamin B12, protein, iron are the main ones being disputed). You can get protein and iron from plants, probably more than you can from animals. You can get Vitamin B12 from fortified foods and supplements. The key is to be informed and not to quickly dismiss a plant-based diet as being deficient. This kind of thinking comes from the conditioning that we have been put under to believe that we need animal products to thrive, but that is just a lie we tell ourselves to justify stealing milk from a baby cow in order to produce dairy.

4. Look for health food stores and vegan restaurants in your neighborhood. 

No reason not to dine out (photo from Business Insider)

Living abroad and staying vegan can be tough especially when you don’t exactly know where to get your vegan fix, which is usually the case when you have just made the switch or have just moved abroad. Sometimes Oftentimes, the bigger, better-known supermarkets are not the best sources of  organic, whole, vegan foods so it pays to do your research and look for local brands and stores that do provide your favourite substitutes (such as the quintessential nutritional yeast). It also makes sense to have a list of restaurants that are vegan-friendly for when hunger strikes and you’re not necessarily in the mood to cook. This is also a good habit to have for when you are traveling and don’t want to mess with your diet so much while on the road. I personally love just staying in the kitchen for hours, experimenting with recipes and coming up with new ones, but there are times when I feel like I want to be inspired. This is key because it will help you stay focused and appreciate the effort that you are making to live a healthier, cruelty-free existence. It’s also nice to know and be involved in your local vegan community in this manner.

5 Ways I Grew As A Person Just By Living Abroad

Growing up, I never really thought I’d become the nomadic type. I had always felt that life back home was as good as it was going to get and I was completely fine with it. Then came an opportunity to live by myself in sunny Spain and did I cling to it for dear life. The rest, as they say, is history. Living abroad, however, is by no means a regular feat. Behind some of those (wander)lust-worthy photos I have shared on Instagram are desperately dreadful moments I would never wish upon anyone. Believe me when I say those are stories for another day.

In the not-so-distant past, whenever homesickness crept in undesirably like guys trying vainly to talk to me in a discoteca, no remedy proved better than countless packs of instant pancit canton. Nowadays it seems I have flown between the Philippines and Spain frequently enough to essentially get over that sensation and ultimately notice that in the last two years alone I have become a completely different person. So much has changed due to the sheer fact that I have divided my time as efficiently as possible between two places close to my heart, both of which I now consider home.

As I start yet another year in Spain, this time in the city of my dreams, I feel it is an opportune time to celebrate the culmination of my continued growth thus far, if that sentence even made sense. All other factors being equal, it seems living abroad has truly been the prime catalyst in this journey to self-transcendence.

1. I learned the true meaning of independence.

No better feeling than conquering a city on my own in Mirador de Artxanda, Bilbao, Spain

I don’t know about you but the feeling I got after graduating from college with honors doesn’t even compare to the one I got after gathering my first successful batch of laundry. In Spain I have never had anyone to hold my hand, which in turn makes accomplishing anything at all that much of a bigger deal. It was even trickier the first few months when I barely spoke the language. But I pulled through and never gave up. Now I am living in arguably one of the best cities in Europe and nothing makes me happier than doing my weekly groceries, preparing all of my daily meals, and cleaning my flat to no end.

2. I realized that the world is both big and small.

Where old meets new and big meets small is where you will find me in Casco Viejo, Bilbao, Spain

Travel upholds a reputation for opening and broadening horizons the world over. Living abroad adds to this a wholly different dimension. When you stay long enough in a place to know its nooks and crannies by heart, to speak not just the language of its people but also the language of its streets, you realize how oddly familiar and unfamiliar life there is as opposed to wherever you came from. You come to appreciate the similarities and the differences and that in order to maintain a nuanced balance, both should be present. Our lives are the same in the ways that they are different. That is an insight best formed from experience, especially when away from the comforts of home.

3. I appreciated the value of anonymity.

No more unneccessary headaches from keeping up appearances in San Francisco, Bilbao, Spain

No sooner had I left Manila in October than I started to sense that I was, finally, once again a nobody. Despite the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb in Spain, what with my jet-black hair and accompanying soft features, I have always basked in my anonymity; something that for some reason I just cannot be warranted back home. Living in a place where everyone minded their own business is definitely something I was not accustomed to but could very well get used to. It is something that I seek in other ways every time I’m back in the Philippines (read: I usually stay off social media and just hang out in my room with my cat for the most part).

4. I became better at setting goals for myself.

Walking at night and pondering the beauty of life in Uribarri, Bilbao, Spain

Living abroad has allowed me to zero in on what’s truly important and focus entirely on my own personal growth and self-transcendence, which means I have been able to set realistic goals for myself without the influence of anyone or anything else. And it has been nothing short of incredible. The circumstances that have been made available to me have in turn allowed me to position myself on a creative plane where competition is an alien concept. As a result, the rate of my growth in the past two years has been exponential. Instead of sulking about the difficulties presented by living in a foreign country alone, I am excited by the challenges.

5. I accepted all the versions of myself that I have and will become.

No time for judgement, just acceptance in Playa de Ereaga, Getxo, Greater Bilbao, Spain

With all the transformations that I have gone through in the last couple of years, it really isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that I have seen myself in every state of being possible. The worst of the worst and the best of the best; I have been on both ends of the same spectrum. What I realized is that when you live abroad you are given an opportunity to curate a life that is completely your own. You can therefore either make the most out of it and grab every opportunity you can: learn a language; make lots of friends; travel to other places, or you can do the exact opposite: avoid using a language you don’t speak; don’t go out to meet new people; stay at home on every occasion. I can empathize with versions of myself that have been on either side of the fence and in fact strive to move swimmingly across the limits. Living abroad teaches you that there is no black and white; only grey areas perfect for growth.


Books and Movies that Inspire Wanderlust

Film buff, book worm, travel bug: these are just some of the two-word parallel descriptions that plagued my social media profiles in the past. These days I just stick to letting virtual strangers know where in the world I currently am, followed by a convenient link to this blog. I still breathe movies, books, and travels, however; probably more so than I did in the past. As a result, all three passions past-times of mine have somehow all meshed together and formed what is now known as “my life”.

The simplest explanation I can give for this is that I grew up exposed to film (I gave up a not-so promising career in violin playing in high school to pursue film, best decision of my life) and literature (it’s no surprise I eventually became such an avid writer and story teller after dissecting so much imagery and symbolism). Traveling was something I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to growing up (try having a different summer vacation as the rest of your family) and so the effect those pseudo-adventures in films and books had on me was lasting: I no longer wanted to just live vicariously through these jet-setting characters, I wanted to live travel through myself.

With that I give you a [growing] list of movies and books that are near and dear to me, definitely having induced in me an unprecedented state of wanderlust over the years. Some of them I have lived out on my own, others I have yet to check off.

SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.

Movies That Inspire Wanderlust

1.  Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013) dir. by Richard Linklater

Before SUnrise
Setting: The hip nightlife in Vienna, Austria

As a complete introvert, I  am not one to romanticize the idea of strangers talking to you on the train but Before Sunrise definitely gave me a reason to hold out for the cute and cultured guy of my dreams, particularly so while traveling through Central Europe. The conversations these two have across the years, from wide-eyed aspirations as young adults in Vienna, to disillusioned rants as dissatisfied adults in Paris, and finally, through marital woes as vacationing parents in southern Peloponnese, prove their respective character developments to be some of the most enlightening to watch on-screen. If there’s a trilogy responsible for my strong affinity with European culture and ideals, it’s definitely this one.

2. Lost in Translation (2003) dir. by Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation
Setting: The skyscrapers and temples of Tokyo, Japan

I owe my love affair with Japan to three different persons: writer Haruki Murakami, animator Hayao Miyazaki, and director Sofia Coppola. Lost in Translation was not only my first encounter with existentialism (at the tender age of 11), it was also the first to introduce me to the delightful eccentricities of real-life Japan. After having been to Japan a couple of times, I now appreciate how perfectly the movie encapsulates the balance between that distinct feeling of being submerged in your own anonymity and the irony in [yet] automatically sticking out as a foreigner in the land of the rising sun. Needless to say, I watch this film on two occasions: 1) when I am planning a trip to Japan, or 2) when I already miss it.

3. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) dir. by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Setting: The arrondissements of Paris, France

I have seen so many movies set in Paris (Midnight in Paris, Paris Je T’Aime, La Vie en Rose, basically any Audrey Hepurn movie to name a few) but nothing comes close to the almost as bizarre version of the city as the movie’s protagonist that we come to know from Amélie herself. It was the Paris that I naively expected to see on my first trip to this dreamy city, after five years of learning French and immersing myself in Francophone culture; granted, I was a little disappointed given the heavy use of CGI and color manipulation in the cinematography. But the feeling I got upon actually seeing Café des 2 Moulins in Montmartre, where Amélie works in the film, is one I will remember for the rest of my life.

4. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) dir. by Wes Anderson

The Darjeeling Limited
Setting: The cabins of the train traveling across the Himalayas

Wes Anderson is known for his iconic movies and quirky characters but the locations in which they are filmed are usually overlooked. I would argue, however, that these places are characters in their own right (other examples include the cove in Moonrise Kingdom, the house in The Royal Tenenbaums, the hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the vessel in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). In The Darjeeling Limited, the eponymous train is almost entirely to blame for the progression of the three brothers’ stories. It takes them through various stops across India up until they reach their destination, in the same way that it gives them the space to confront and resolve their issues once and for all. I could only wish to have the opportunity to go on a similar trip one day (across the Himalayas, please!).

5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) dir. by Woody Allen

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Setting: The neighborhoods and suburbs of Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is easily one of my favourite cities in Europe. It’s hip, it’s happening, and it’s as Catalan as can be. Even though the city as we know it does not actually feature prominently in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, save for some subtle and almost necessary nods to the works of Antoni Gaudí, the movie does an amazing job of introducing its viewers to the beauty of northern Spain (specifically of Oviedo in Asturias). Despite having lived in the North multiple times, I have never been to Asturias and it is something that, due in part to this movie and the almost-mythical reputation of the region across Spain, I wish to do as soon as humanly possible.

6. The Beach (2000) dir. by Danny Boyle

The Beach
Setting: The hidden beaches and lagoons of Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand

Despite the reputation that The Beach upholds (what with the bulldozing and altering of the location in which it was filmed), the movie is still the one to be credited for my earliest recorded experience of wanderlust. In other words, The Beach is where it all began. Back in 1997, like many other young girls, I was feverishly in love with a young Leonardo DiCaprio of Titanic fame. It would follow naturally to watch this movie as well [when it showed on the TV] even though I was practically a baby then. A repeat viewing years later allowed me to finally make sense of the mature content but as a child I was simply enamored with the paradise-like islands featured in the movie and decided I wanted to become a backpacker one day.

7. The Sound of Music (1965) dir. by Robert Wise

The SoUnd of MUsic
Setting: The gardens and palaces in Salzburg, Austria

Prancing about the Mirabell Gardens while pretending to be a problem like Maria is what I went all the way to Salzburg for. I grew up watching The Sound of Music on a regular basis at home, with both parents being in love with it (yes, they own VHS copies and tapes and CD’s of the soundtrack, you name it). My dad and I even wanted to name one of our dogs after Edelweiss, to the dismay of the rest of the family (we ended up naming her Beyoncé, by the way). It’s not a surprise then that on my first trip to Europe I made sure to check this place off my list. Salzburg in itself is a such a beautiful city that’s definitely worth a visit even for the non-musical types.

8. Seven Years in Tibet (1997) dir. by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Seven Years in TIbet.jpg
Setting: The ancient palaces and monasteries in Lhasa, Tibet

Over the years, I have read a ton of the Dalai Lama’s writing and watched a lot of his talks and they have all transformed my life. I was more than happy to find out that there was a biographical novel which featured a young Tenzin Gyatso, and that it was adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt. While Seven Years in Tibet recounts the adventures of an Austrian mountain climber in the isolated country, the friendship he formed with His Holiness is what cements the importance of his stay there. The two characters learn so much from each other as the audience learns more about them. They also make it hard not to appreciate the beauty of Tibet’s geography and its people. Lhasa in particular tops my list of places to visit one day. But I hope that before that day comes the Dalai Lama will find a safe refuge in it once again.

9. Copenhagen (2014) dir. by Mark Raso

Setting: The alleys and establishments in Copenhagen, Denmark

While the fact that the actor who plays Renly Baratheon stars in this movie is what made me watch it, Copenhagen turned out to be such a raw and honest reflection of the capital city of Denmark. Just watching the two main characters (also love interests, might I add) go about their business, to find out the truth about a bitter past and to recreate vintage photos in iconic landmarks, made me book a one-way flight to Copenhagen in an instant. I’m not even kidding. The film is as emotionally stimulating as it is beautifully shot. And as per my experience, Copenhagen successfully highlights the liveliness of a city otherwise notorious (to budget travelers like me) for how expensive it is.

Books That Inspire Wanderlust

1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist.jpg

Even though I read The Alchemist at random and finished it in just a few hours, the effect it had on me is profound and lasting. It gave me hope to set out on my own journey and never look back; it gave me hope in a benevolent universe that perpetually rooted for my success. The Alchemist easily became the anthem of my pursuit of adventure, which has always been my Personal Legend. It might be an easy and succinct read but the novel’s potential to change lives is unparalleled. Bonus points because the titular character hails from Andalusia, one of my favourite regions in Spain.

2. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse


Siddhartha is one of those rare fictional novels that speak my preferred language: the language of the soul. The novel takes its readers on a journey of self-discovery, arguably one of the most important journeys of all. Siddhartha, referring to the titular character and not Gautama Buddha himself (although they were alive at the same time), leaves home in pursuit of enlightenment in true Bildungsroman fashion. This is the one book outside of the Dalai Lama’s written work that first inspired me to take a good, hard look at myself and the world around me, and to do so with love and compassion.

3. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston SeagUll.jpg

Another personal favourite of mine is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book about a stubborn seagull and his relentless pursuit to learn everything he can about flying. As a result, he becomes an outcast and leaves. His efforts bear fruit under the tutelage of a wise gull named Chiang and he eventually is able to impart what he learns to other seagulls. I identify so much with this one-in-a-million bird just knowing that he sees the flaws in a society that forces him to conform and quickly decides to abandon it. Fables exist to teach us a lot of things but what I love about this one is how it focuses on the theme of flight, and consequently, of travel.

4. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat Pray Love.jpg

Eat Pray Love had been pending on my reading list for a long time until I was stuck in the airport in Manila for six hours after a flight from Hong Kong. To kill the time, I decided to finish the book once and for all. It ended up being one of my favourites, although a bit cheesy for my usual taste. From Italy to India to Indonesia, Liz Gilbert recounts an important journey to self-acceptance after a particularly difficult divorce. What resonated with me most, however, is how the protagonist was essentially just a solo female traveler in search of goodness in the world, just like me.

5. Memoirs of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of A Geisha.jpg

I am a complete sucker for period pieces. Anything set during a time other than now or the recent past I would gladly devour. I am especially obsessed with pre-war Japan, back when traditions and cultures were deeply embedded in daily life. Needless to say, I have a strange fascination with geisha (and samurai). Thus, when I read Memoirs of A Geisha as a pre-teen, I became instantly engrossed in an exotic culture so different from my own. Years later, I finally found myself watching geisha apprentice in a traditional performance in Gion, the geisha district in Kyoto, and it honestly felt like a dream coming true.

6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being.jpg

My love for world history is especially magnified by novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set against the backdrop of the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia. I find that novels like ULOB (as we fondly referred to it in my IB Higher Level English class back in high school) give its readers a glimpse of how present-day countries and territories were formed and why their people are the way they are today. A trip to Prague a couple of years ago made the Prague of this novel almost indiscernible. Still, The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings together characters from different backgrounds and of differing sensibilities to form a philosophical conversation that transcends time and itself.

7. Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to A YoUng Poet.jpg

Letters to A Young Poet is one of those coming-of-age compilation of letters that just bring you home every time. It is a series of written correspondence between Rilke and an aspiring poet, both living in different parts of the globe and never meeting in person. Fine, I admit the world isn’t exactly abundant with these types of publications but the charm of Letters is not at all dependent on its format (although going back to my favourite passages has proven to be easier). Instead, it is replete with timeless wisdom not only about writing or travel, but more importantly about life.

8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are.jpg

Whenever I have to play Two Truths, One Lie, one of my favourite truths to say is that I have a tattoo on my back that says “Inside All Of Us Is A Wild Thing”, which is an homage to the movie version of this well-loved children’s book. Where The Wild Things Are taught me early on the importance of going on personal adventures, whether literal or figurative. We might meet wild things along the way but we cannot deny that there is one living inside all of us as well. As I get older, I appreciate the virtue of picture books even more in subconsciously teaching us what is truly of value in life: loving and accepting one’s self.

9. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince.jpg

My ultimate favourite book is one that I have read in English, French, and Spanish. By now, I already know the whole story, its ins and outs with its twists and turns, from beginning to end. In my humble opinion, the friendship formed between the little prince of asteroid 325 and an unnamed narrator from Earth is one of the most underrated fictional relationships, ever. This meeting occurs as the child/little prince resolves to leave his home to see what else the universe has to offer while the adult/narrator accidentally crashes his plane in the Sahara. The Little Prince is a classic for good reason; it is brimming with childlike curiosity and innocent observations, two things that we seem to simultaneously forget and pine for as we become adults.

Travel Like Belle: Three Days On A Budget in Coron, Palawan

Time and again I have professed my undying love for the seemingly immaculate islands of Palawan in the Philippines. I have been to the region numerous times, sometimes to splurge money but more often to travel on a budget. One of my favourites remains to be Coron Island, which happens to be a perfect budget-friendly and hassle-free option for a weekend getaway. Here is how I spent a mere PHP 7000 (around 140 USD as of writing) on a three-day trip to an otherwise world-renowned coral reef paradise.

It would serve you well (mostly just to avoid confusion) to know that Coron is a municipality in Palawan which comprises part of Busuanga Island and all of Coron Island. The airport in Coron is located in Busuanga.

Travel Like Belle: 3 Days/2 Nights Itinerary

A view like no other from the lookout point in Maquinit Hot Spring

Here is a very rough breakdown of our Palawan itinerary (I went with my brother on a weekend in August). As with any trip, give ample allowance for flight changes, traffic jams, and basically anything that can throw a wrench in your plans. Three days in Coron, or anywhere else in Palawan for that matter, is an incredibly short period of time and so it is best to plan ahead and be smart about maximizing your stay. There are loads of activities available for tourists but due to time constraints, it would be best to choose just a couple so you can enjoy and take your time.


0625 Departure from NAIA Terminal 4 (Manila) via CebGo Flight DG 6041 to Busuanga (Coron)

0730 Arrival at Francisco B. Reyes Airport in Busuanga

0800 Shuttle pick up at the airport to hotel in the town of Coron

0900 Arrival and check-in at hotel in Coron town proper

0930 Nap time because we got up so early for the flight

1200 Lunch in Coron town proper

1500 Start of hike up Mt. Tapyas in Coron for the sunset

1745 En route to Maquinit Hot Springs after a long hike

1930 Back to Coron town for dinner

2100 Lights off and well deserved rest


0730 Up early for breakfast at the hotel

0800 Picked up by shuttle for the island tour

0900 – 1700 Coron Island Tour (including lunch on the beach)

1730 Got back to hotel

1900 Out again for dinner and avocado shakes

2100 Lights off and well deserved rest


0800 Up for breakfast and going around Coron town before leaving

1030 Picked up by shuttle at the hotel to go to the airport in Busuanga

1200 Arrived at the airport and checked in for flight

1340 Departure from Francisco B. Reyes Airport via CebGo Flight DG 6052

1450 Arrival at NAIA Terminal 4

Budget and Expenses

Making friends with the local dogs on patrol in CYC Beach

The expenses here are per person; some smaller ones such as for food & shopping are only approximations and rounded up for good measure. Obviously your expenses will depend on your activities and preferences.

A tip: There are about four ATMs in total in Coron so it would be very wise to bring cash (in Philippine Peso).

Airfare PHP 3026/60.52 USD

All-in roundtrip from Manila via CebGo (When there is a promo or seat sale this can even go lower; also other carriers that fly to Busuanga are Skyjet and PAL Express)

Accommodation PHP 2650/52 USD

For an air-conditioned room in Haven 1916 Bed and Breakfast for 3Days/2Nights with WiFi (the price already includes breakfast, the Coron Island Tour, and van transfers to and from the airport)

Transportation PHP 150/3 USD

It’s actually PHP 300/6 USD for a tricycle ride to and from Mt. Tapyas to Maquinit Hot Spring so my brother and I halved it (our hotel was really close to the foot of the entrance to the mountain). Coron town proper is walkable.

Food & Shopping PHP 600/12 USD

For lunch on the first and third day and dinner on the first and second day only (Breakfast was included in the hotel as well as lunch on the Coron Island Tour). Food options in Coron town are cheap but good. Also, grab some avocado shakes whenever possible.

Other Fees PHP 400/8 USD

PHP 100 Terminal Fee in Francisco B. Reyes (Busuanga) airport

PHP 150 Entrance Fee to Maquinit Hot Spring

PHP 150 Rental of snorkeling equipment for one whole day

Total Expenses PHP 6826/ 136.52 USD

*1 USD = 50 PHP


Exhausted but fulfilled after a long hike to the summit of Mt. Tapyas

Hiking up Mt. Tapyas

Mt. Tapyas is located in Coron town proper and is either a short tricycle ride or a longer walk from your accommodation (if you choose to stay anywhere in town). Hiking to the top is a rather taxing activity so be prepared (especially if you’re doing this in the afternoon; don’t forget to stock up on water and some snacks). There are roughly 700 steps until you reach the top and it took us around 40 minutes to complete the hike. We were properly entertained by Pokémon Go and the sheer number of Pikachus we each caught. Anyway, don’t worry: there are benches and places to sit on the way up if you ever get tired (which I did, one too many times). I would say the view from the top is absolutely worth the trouble.

Dipping in the Maquinit Hot Spring

The perfect way to refresh after a long hike up the mountain is to submerge yourself in Maquinit, a privately owned salt water hot spring just one tricycle ride away from the town proper. It is a very therapeutic dip made even more wonderful by the sunset. Don’t forget to go to the lookout point for some of the most amazing views of Coron.

Coron Island Tour

There are lots of island tours to choose from once you get to town but our hotel booking had already included the Coron Island Tour (also known as Tour A) which makes stops at Kayangan Lake, Twin Peaks Reef, Hidden Lagoons, Bulungan Beach, CYC Island, and Coral Eden
. I would say that this is the best introduction to Coron Island as it includes the highlights (such as Kayangan Lake) and does not try to cram in too many stops. A hearty seafood lunch shared with new friends from this joiners tour is set up by the guides on Sunset Beach.

The whole-day tour allowed us to sample Coron’s clear waters, pristine sands, and rich corals. Kayangan Lake might have been the last stop but it definitely tops my list. Snorkeling in some of its secret caves is easily one of my favourite travel memories ever.

Other Options

Dozing off after lunch in Sunset Beach

If you intend to extend your trip in and around Coron Island, you will definitely not run out of things to do. Here are just some of the other [equally popular] options:

Safari Park in Calauit

This is something I want to do on a repeat visit. I’ve always wanted to feed the giraffe! Most of the animals here (offspring of those imported from Kenya back in the day) are able to run free, while there is a handful in captivity. Nevertheless, touring the place should make for an interesting history lesson. Calauit Safari Park is located in Busuanga and can be reached via shuttle either by a tour group or privately.

Other Island Tours

As I mentioned, we only had enough time for one tour (Tour A). But the alternate name itself suggests that there are other options. Here you can find a comprehensive list of offerings and packages to suit your own preferences.

How to Get to Coron

The iconic and breath-taking view from Kayangan Lake

From Manila

In my experience, it takes only 40 minutes flying to get from the capital city to Busuanga airport; short enough for a long nap, long enough for a short episode of your favourite TV show. Return flights are very cheap (see Airfare expense above) and plenty of seat sales take place all year. From the airport, you can take a van to Coron town. This was already factored in by our hotel for us but a one-way ticket would set you back only PHP 150/3 USD.

Game of Thrones Filming Locations You Can Visit in Real Life

As a sane human being, I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I have declared fealty to House Stark since the first season of mega-hit TV Series Game of Thrones. Time and again I have been called Arya by friends and acquaintances due to apparently bearing a physical resemblance to Maisie Williams, the actress portraying the character. I have, of course, used this to my advantage multiple times, quipping “A girl has no name” or “I am not a boy” whenever appropriate.

In reality, GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire has taken over my life. Thus, I have made it a travel goal or more aptly a true life’s goal to visit as many Thrones filming locations as I possibly could. Call it life imitating art. But really, it’s just that the locations look so stunning even with heavy CGI, one can only wonder how naturally beautiful they must be.

In light of my aforementioned goal to travel to as many real-life filming locations for what is arguably the best TV show around, I have decided to make this a work in progress and list down every location as soon as I visit them. Seriously, less few things have made me more excited.

SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.

1. Island of Dragonstone in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo, Spain

Dragonstone on Game of Thrones (taken from Game of Thrones Wiki)
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More than 200 steps all the way to the top of the islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Imagine my frustration when I found out that my ultimate crush, Kit Harrington/Jon Snow, and I were breathing the same Basque air when he was in Spain to film the now famous “Ben D. Knee” scenes with Emilia Clarke/Daenerys Targaryen some 50 kilometers from where I was living. Frustration because it was the epitome of the saying “so close yet so far”. Anyway, I got to finally visit the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe a few months later not really knowing for sure how they were going to incorporate it in the show and just a couple of  months shy of its first prominent feature as “the new and improved” eponymous Dragonstone castle a.k.a the Targaryen stronghold yet again in Season 7 of Game of Thrones.

How to get there: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe sits in the middle of two towns and can be easily reached by Bizkaibus to either Bakio or Bermeo from Bilbao in the Basque Country of Spain. Be ready for a hike filled with beautiful scenery!

2. Dorne and the Water Gardens in Real Alcázar de Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain

Water Gardens on Game of Thrones (taken from Game of Thrones Wiki)
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Moorish influences in every corner of the Real Alcázar de Seville

I had the exact same experience with the Southern region of Dorne. I was there yet again a few months after filming concluded and a few months before Season 5 premiered. Thank goodness I was spared the feeling of missing out on Oberyn, RIP. While many fans just absolutely hate the way the Dorne plot line played out on the series, I would have to say that the location scouts knocked this one out of the park. The Real Alcázar de Seville, a royal palace in Andalusia featuring mudéjar architecture, serves as the seat of the ruling House Martell of Dorne. The location itself, in all its vitality and vibrancy, is the best, if not the only good part about Dorne in the whole show (not including Pedro Pascal).

How to get there: There are several ways to get to Seville, the easiest ones are from Madrid. Flights and trains are frequent as well as bus schedules if coming from neighboring Andalusian cities.  Seville itself is such a beautiful place worth visiting even sans the Game of Thrones aspect.

3. King’s Landing in Walls of Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik, Croatia

King’s Landing on Game of Thrones (taken from Game of Thrones Wiki)
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Like time traveling to a medieval town in Walls of Dubrovnik

Anywhere you go in the city of Dubrovnik you are bound to be offered to join a Game of Thrones-inspired tour around its city walls. Such has been the lasting effect of the show on an otherwise quaint city along the Adriatic coast. Even without all the CGI, traces of King’s Landing are so easily recognizable when you wander around the city. Sturdy orange roofs, clear blue waters, ancient grey walls – these are the sights that make Dubrovnik a beautiful place on its own. True to my anti-establishment nature, I went around Dubrovnik without a tour but with a friend I made at the hostel. We visited the usual sights such as the stairs leading up to the Great Sept of Baelor but we also went to [Tommen’s] cat-infested corners that people would otherwise miss. We even hiked all the way up to Srd (instead of taking a cable car, how anti-establishment can you get) for amazing views of King’s Landing.

How to get there: There are now several direct flights from major cities in Europe to Dubrovnik and so it’s a pretty easy place to reach. There are also a lot of busses going to and from neighbouring cities in the Balkans, particularly along the coast.

4. Long Bridge of Volantis in Roman Bridge of Córdoba, Córdoba, Spain

Long Bridge of Volantis on Game of Thrones (taken from Game of Thrones Wiki)
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Offering more than just a picturesque view in the Roman Bridge of Córdoba

It’s no secret that Thrones has a special affinity for the South of Spain. This extends to tapping even just bridges as film locations, as is the case of the Roman Bridge of Córdoba standing in as the busy Long Bridge of Volantis. We haven’t really seen much of Volantis on the show, save for a few scenes involving a Red Priestess preaching about Daenerys as their saviour and minutes later a prostitute dressed as the Dragon Queen herself. Regardless, the Roman Bridge of Córdoba is such a sight to behold that I can believe, while walking through its busy passage and over to the other side, that it could truly be the Long Bridge of Volantis.

How to get there: There are many ways to get there such as via direct trains to the city from Madrid. Andalusia enjoys a vast system of busses that makes going around the cities very convenient. Córdoba in itself is one of Southern cities in Spain not to be missed.

My Love Affair With Japan Part II: Studio Ghibli

Growing up, I definitely had the best memories of summer vacations. Two months of doing absolutely nothing but eat and play. Days blur and merge until I’ve forgotten how far gone I was and with some time away from school I would lose all ability to write anything on paper. But there was one specific summer I actually remember in more detail because it changed the course of my life forever.

I still remember channel hopping with my brother on the television in our parents’ room when I was 9 and he was 7. We came across an animé unlike any other. Our eyes were glued to the screen for what seemed like an eternity. Everything was in Japanese and frankly we couldn’t understand anything but we didn’t so much as blink. We were in a trance. We cried. We laughed. We didn’t know what was going on. When it ended, we were in complete and utter shock. That animé was none other than Spirited Away.

With the giant Laputan robot outside the museum (no pictures allowed inside) in Tokyo, Japan

Given how young (and unsupervised, might I add) we were at that time, we didn’t even learn what that movie’s title was until years later. We would, however, talk about the strange albeit exhilarating experience from time to time. Finally, at 22, more than a decade later, I got to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum on a side trip to Mitaka, Tokyo. Needless to say, I was instantly brought back to my childhood and had the time of my life.

I tried making a definitive personal ranking of all the Ghibli films but in all honesty I totally loved most of them that it was hard enough to choose just five for this post. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing that in the future, but for now, here is a list of my absolute favourite movies from arguably the best animation production company in the world.

SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.

5. Princess Mononoke (1997)

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The titular character in Princess Mononoke just gets me. I empathize with both her utter disdain for mankind and her uncompromising love for nature. Not to mention, she’s a wolf-princess who has basically had it with all of society’s crap. She’s really me! All these aside, Princess Mononoke is definitely one of Ghibli’s smarter films. If there is one thing the studio has perfected throughout the years it’s definitely showing us that moral grey areas are real. To quote George R.R. Martin quoting someone else, “a villain is a hero of the other side”. There is no black and white. We all make mistakes, perhaps some graver than others. What matters is that we don’t let hatred get in the way of us living our own lives and living out our own truths.

4. Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday came into my life at such an auspicious time. I was months from graduating from college and was transitioning from a pescatarian diet to a vegetarian one. It was, in simpler words, a very confusing period in my life. I was, however, in the best position at the best possible time for Only Yesterday to teach me lessons and to give me direction. Taeko’s struggles which include, but are not limited to her career choices, her love life, and her childhood dreams, mirrored my own. Watching her story unfold, I was presented an opportunity to truly question my sense of self and what I really want out of life. Her desire to live a more peaceful life in the country definitely fortified my aspiration to one day have an organic farm of my own away from the city.

3. The Cat Returns (2002)

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No other piece of art has cemented the way I feel about myself in relation with cats than Ghibli’s The Cat Returns. It is known that I am both a cat person and a human cat. All my life I have just observed people, cultures, events; oftentimes with a glum indifference and a false sense of superiority. All my life I have had an affinity for the feline species (and perhaps a suppressed ability to talk to them, who knows). Ten minutes or so into The Cat Returns I start bawling when a young Haru feeds a stray kitten (or young Yuki) a box of fish crackers. Ghibli has unquestionably mastered surprising its audience with these subtle yet tender moments. On top of that, it was great to see The Baron again, this time equipped with unforgettable lines that bring you home: “What I need you to do is to learn one thing: always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”

2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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I honestly thought romance was dead up until I saw Whisper of the Heart this year. It’s not the first romantic animé I have seen but for me, it is the best. The relationship between Shizuku and Seiji, albeit new and blossoming, is already tested by time and distance and is a perfect encapsulation of the kind I wouldn’t mind nurturing in the future (maybe minus the let’s-get-married part given they were still high schoolers). I am still as lost and confused as 14-year-old Shizuku, but her grasp on writing as a passion is just as firm as mine. Her being positively inspired by Seiji’s relentless pursuit of his dream to become a master violin-maker is something that I have personally experienced. After all, this blog wouldn’t be around if it were not for a slightly bruised up heart and ego as a consequence of admiring someone so deeply. Yes, you read that right: just like how Shizuku started writing a book while Seiji was away, I fell in love abroad and started a blog, end of story.

1. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

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If there was a BuzzFeed quiz entitled “Which Studio Ghibli character are you?”, nine out of ten times I would get Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service as a result (the other time would probably be Princess Mononoke if I’m on a particularly misanthropic mood). Let me count the ways Kiki and I are the same person: Kiki is a badass young witch (1); her best friend is her cat Jiji (2); she is as courageously adventurous as she is fiercely independent (3); she leaves the nest at a young age (4); she is extremely dedicated to her work (5); she starts feeling like an outsider in her new home (6); she becomes anti-social (7); she basically loses her ability to fly due to burn out (8); but finally, she gains back her magical powers and proceeds to do what she loves most: flying (9). Her dedication to seeing her issues through, even if she has to face them alone, has inspired me on so many occasions to do the same. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the ultimate marriage between a coming-of-age plot and a tale of wanderlust, and in all honesty it is the most accurate representation of the story of my life.