Puerto Rico

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Day 1 – San Juan

The first place that we stayed in was an Airbnb near the Luis Mu帽oz Mar铆n International Airport. We had planned on staying in Old San Juan first, but we realized that we’d probably be too tired to do anything when we got to Puerto Rico at 12 midnight.

When we got up in the morning, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got a Puerto Rican dish called mofongo, a dense ball of fried-then-mashed plantains. Mofongo can come with a variety of sides, but we got mofongo relleno de bistec or mofongo filled with thin slices of steak. A heavy Puerto Rican breakfast and strong caf茅 con leche was definitely a good way to start our first day on the island.

We then got an Uber to check in to our next hotel in Old San Juan. We loved how walkable the barrio was and how beautiful the buildings were. It was a bit touristy, but that didn’t take away from our experience.

What we really wanted to visit was a citadel called the El Morro or Castillo San Felipe del Morro which, just like the Philippines, was named after King Philip II of Spain. (At least according to Wikipedia.)

The grass was so green and lush that we decided to relax on the lawn for a bit before we entered. It was also cold in Philly that we opted to just relish the sun while we were in Puerto Rico.

The citadel itself was massive. We wondered, as we walked along its halls, how much work must have gone into building this fortress. It tired us out a bit because it wasn’t only vast, it also had steep inclines that you have to use to get anywhere.

We were craving some food after all that walking so we went to a panaderia or bakery called La Bombonera and got a mallorca, a puffy bun that’s showered in confectioner’s sugar. We especially loved mallorca con jamon y queso which is a grilled mallorca with ham and cheese. It had a delightful mix of both sweet and salty.

That evening, we had longaniza de pollo or chicken sausage and sancocho, a traditional soup in Puerto Rico.

Andrea told me that the most useful set of words that you can say to learn Spanish is 驴C贸mo se dice? or “How do you say … ?” For example you would say, 驴C贸mo se dice ‘for here’? and they would say, para llevar.

Day 2 – El Yunque National Forest and Luquillo Kioskos

Ubers and taxis are only available in the metro area. So if you wanted to get around, you have to rent a car. (You can take publicos which are buses that can take you outside of metro areas, but we got a car instead for convenience.)

Since it was the second day, we wanted to do some exploring. First up was El Yunque National Forest. Getting to El Yunque was a little terrifying because of the narrow roads, but we were rewarded with some fantastic views of Puerto Rico as we went up the mountain.

Some trails were unfortunately closed because of Hurricane Maria, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the forest. It was especially beautiful when we got to the top of Yokah煤 Tower.

After a whole morning of driving and walking, we wanted to reward ourselves with some food. A local had previously told us about the kioskos in Luquillo, and how good the food was and how deliciously fried they were. They said that it was definitely something that we shouldn’t miss, so we drove over there after exploring El Yunque.

It didn’t disappoint. I’ve forgotten the names of all the fried things that we ate, but what I remembered the most was arepa rellena de camarones or shrimp arepas.

Day 3 – Cueva Ventana and Isabela

Our next Airbnb was in Isabela, a beach town which looked a bit like a tropical San Diego to me. But before we went there, we stopped by to go on a tour inside Cueva Ventana or window cave. Our tour guide talked a lot about the ecology around the cave and Puerto Rico in general. She mentioned a lot of facts, but what I remember the most was that there were no venomous animals on the island and that the fruit bat population was heavily affected by Hurricane Maria because they had trouble finding food.

As we entered the cave, our tour guide mentioned that you had to keep your mouth closed whenever you looked up because there were a lot of bats on the ceiling that could poop on you at any time. We did, in fact, see a lot of bats clustered on the ceiling. They looked a bit like this. We weren’t allowed to point the flashlight directly at them, but you could dim the light by using your hand to get a better look at them. The guide also showed us some petroglyphs in the cave that the Ta铆nos鈥攖he indigenous people of the Caribbean鈥攄rew 600 years ago.

After that, we went to Isabela to drop our things off at the Airbnb and enjoy the beach. That night we had red snapper mofongo. We were unsure at first because we didn’t really know how red snappers tasted, but we ended up loving the richness and garlic-y-ness of the dish.

Day 4 – Isabela

This was our recovery day, and all we did was eat and stay at the beach. We started the day by going to a nearby panaderia to eat breakfast and get lunch and dulce or dessert to go. We also went to the grocery store to get snacks, and we learned that Puerto Ricans call orange juice jugo de china instead of jugo de naranja. The beach in Isabela had strong currents, so we didn’t spend too much time in the water. But we did enjoy reading books and lounging in our beach chairs.

We also drove to Jobos beach where we watched the sunset while the waves crashed against the rock that we were standing on.

Day 5 – La Ruta Del Lech贸n & Vieques

The next day we drove to the other side of Puerto Rico to go to the La Ruta Del Lech贸n or Pork Highway where we had some delicious roast pork (lech贸n), blood sausage (morcilla), and yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules). We went to a place called Lechonera Los Pinos. The Lech贸n is very similar to the variant in the Philippines, except Filipinos grew up eating it with Mang Tomas sauce.

We then drove to Ceiba to take a ferry to Vieques, a small island municipality of Puerto Rico. We wanted to go there to see all the wild horses that roamed around the beaches and also see its famous bioluminescent bay. Also we learned that, golf carts are road legal in Vieques, so we rented one to get around the island.

That night we went on a tour of the bioluminescent bay. It was magical. I don’t have any pictures of it, but you can watch videos of it online. Apparently, the tiny microorganisms that live in the water produce a bright cobalt blue light with even the smallest agitation. So every time you paddle or glide your fingers across the water, a trail of blue light will appear in the water. We were lucky to have a transparent kayak because the fish that were swimming underwater also lit up the bay.

Day 6 – Vieques and San Juan

We couldn’t stay in Vieques for too long because we had to fly back the next day, but at least we were able to relax for a bit on Caracas beach. It was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and it was probably the calmest beach that I’ve ever been to. There was no crowd, the sand was soft beneath our feet, the water was warm, and there were barely any waves.

Before we hopped back in to the ferry, we got to try salmon with trifongo which was a mofongo variety that’s made of cassava, ripe plantains, and green plantains. We really couldn’t get enough of mofongo, and I wish I could get it here in Philly.

We then drove back to Old San Juan and stayed at a slightly more upscale hotel called Wind Chimes Hotel where we spent the night watching Spanish-dubbed Air Bud on cable TV.

Giving in 2019

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When I started to look more seriously into giving back in 2019, I stumbled across these three big ideas (these ideas are better described in the book, The Life You Can Save):

I was excited about these ideas because it changed my whole perspective on philanthropy. The realization that I’m actually very fortunate and that I could have a real impact on people is empowering. It turns out that I don’t need to go into medicine or become a teacher to make a difference. While I’m not planning on giving 50% of my income (article), I’m very much into the concept of earning to give.

So in 2019, I’m happy that I was able to donate $2,398.50 to GiveWell’s discretion! It’s not much, but it’s definitely a lot more focused and intentional compared to any sporadic donations that I’ve made in the past. I’m hoping that I’d be able to increase my contributions to around $3k or $4k this year.

2019GiveWell$1,398.50
GiveWell (Employer Match)$1,000.00
Total$2,398.50
Breakdown of donations.

In other giving news, I’m also glad that I got to schedule appointments throughout the year to donate blood at a local hospital. I got to come in four times this year, so they should’ve gotten around four pints from me. In return, I got a bunch of hospital swag and $6 meal tickets.

Seconds

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It’s been seventeen days since I got my surgery, but my jaw still feels tender to the touch. The surgeon told me at the very beginning that, since I’m already in my late twenties, the roots of my wisdom teeth had the chance to grow deeper into the bones of my mouth. This, he says, makes the surgery more invasive and more complicated than it should be. He showed me the x-ray, and the bottom wisdom teeth looked to me like ancient fossils in black and white, fossilized remains that time had consumed and buried in layers of rock.

The first time I had my wisdom teeth removed was in September. But after drilling for forty minutes, they were only able to get one and a half of my teeth out instead of all four. It turns out that my teeth were not only buried deep; they were also seated at an angle that made them difficult to extract without using special tools.

But even though they weren’t able to get everything out, recovering from it was awful. The pain was piercing and constant. It felt like I was getting stabbed in the mouth with a paring knife while simultaneously getting a noogie on my temple. And because of that, I couldn’t afford to skip a beat on pain relievers for the better part of two weeks. I had to take them on time, even if it was three in the morning. The worst part was knowing that I would have to go through the whole thing again.

So, two months later, I found myself back under the knife for round two. Although this time, it was in an actual operating room instead of the doctor’s office.

I had two and a half teeth to go. Things started to blur. I was asleep.

When I woke up in the recovery room, someone handed me a cup of apple juice and some chocolate pudding. I felt great. But I knew that surgery was the easy part鈥擨 was unconscious the whole time! Now I had to deal with the pain that came after it.

I felt the same piercing pain as before, but now on both sides of my jaw. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much pain in my life. I learned during my post-op visit that some of the bone around my teeth were also shaved off. The surgeon had mentioned it casually, but I found it a bit surprising. I didn’t know that they would have to deal with bone at all. I thought they only had to smash the teeth into bits. But it started to make sense considering how long it took for me to recover from it.

But, even though I was unfortunate enough to get my wisdom teeth removed a second time, I still feel incredibly lucky. I’m fortunate that I was born in the era of modern medicine, where doctors have access to anesthesia and antibiotics. I felt grateful when I imagined people from the 18th century who got their teeth pulled out using the tooth key. Not only was it painful, but it also led to crushed gums, broken teeth, and splintered jaws.

So now that it’s all over, I’m just glad I can start eating fried chicken again.

Connecting

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Nature

I was fortunate enough to go to two outdoor trips this month. The first one was a weekend trip up in the Catskills for my friend’s bachelor party. I’ve admittedly never been to a bachelor party, so it was pleasant to know that it was very much unlike the alcohol-fueled parties that you see on TV.

This one was spent in a quiet town where people hiked during the day and made home-cooked meals at night. We also got lots of sleep!

Co-workers

The second outdoor trip that I went to was with co-workers in Palm Springs. Since we all work remotely, teams in the company get together once a year to get to know each other and talk about our plans for the next year. We got to talk about the future of the design team, and the future of our work.

On the side, we got to swim, hike on Mt. San Jacinto, hike with goats in Pioneertown (archive), and then hike in Joshua Tree National Park.

Family and friends

I also stayed for a few days in Los Angeles to spend time with tito and tita, grandparents, cousins, and my buddy Katherine before I flew back to Philly. I rarely get to make it to California (last time was 2017), so it was good to carve out some time to catch up with people.

On Giving

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When I was in the Philippines back in June, I had a chance to talk to my grandma about giving money to charities. At that time, the majority of my donations have been going to environmental advocacy groups and to local non-profits. But what she was telling me was that I should try and think about giving more effectively, to think about how a little money can go a long way in poorer countries like the Philippines. That way, she said, my donations would have a more significant impact on people’s lives.

It was hard to swallow because the non-profits I’ve been donating to are local, and I love that they: support the people around me, work on things that personally I care about, and improve life around my city. I feel good when the money I give goes directly to my immediate environment. It feels more tangible. More real.

But she was right. My grandma forced me to think about why I was donating in the first place, and to think about the opportunity costs of donating my money to one charity instead of another. With money being a finite resource, wouldn’t it be better if it went to people who need it the most? Should I really choose charities based on things that I have an emotional attachment to and make me feel good instead of giving to charities that can actually do more good?

Take malaria, for example. I don’t know anyone who’s had malaria, I don’t know what it feels like to have malaria, and the community around me doesn’t get malaria. (Although certain parts of the Philippines do.) I have no emotions towards malaria whatsoever, and yet it continues to be one of the leading causes of death in the developing world.

Malaria is one of the most severe public health problems worldwide. It is a leading cause of death and disease in many developing countries, where young children and pregnant women are the groups most affected.

CDC’s Report on Malaria’s Impact Worldwide

So knowing that it’s a deadly disease and knowing that the solutions are proven to work and are low-cost (see long-lasting insecticide-treated nets and seasonal malaria chemoprevention), why wouldn’t I direct my money to that cause?

Of course, I’m not saying that “having the most impact” should be the only criteria that people should use for choosing a charity, and I’m not saying that local charities aren’t worth giving your money to. People’s donations can be shaped by the community around them and their experiences in life. But for someone like me who wants to stretch out every dollar to reach as many people as I could, I think this benchmark makes the most sense. (I don’t actually believe that my money will literally land on the hands of the people in need or be used out there in the field because organizations need to compensate people, do research, do outreach, etc. There are overhead costs, and that can be a good thing.)

But still, I’ve been hesitant. I can’t help but struggle with thoughts of not giving to causes that I have a personal connection to. But I’ve come to terms with it by reminding myself that I don’t have much to give away (therefore I want it to be focused on something that will likely work and get the most “bang for my buck”), and that I shouldn’t value people’s lives differently just because they live in the same country or have had the same experiences as I have.

So, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided to focus 100% of my donations to GiveWell’s discretion because they have the resources to make decisions on which charities are the most effective and which charities have room for more funding. What they do is they take this money and distribute 100% of it to the short list of charities that need it the most. They do a lot of research on cost-effectiveness and impact, so that gives me confidence that the money is going to the right places.

I’ve also decided to bump my donations from 1% to 3% of my pre-tax income.

I’m glad that I got to take a second look at my assumptions and challenge my thinking on giving. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I’m always open to changing my mind as I learn new things. If you can relate to this experience of not knowing where to give, I hope you find this at least a little bit helpful. Here’s a good starting point: Giving 101.

Visiting Singapore

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I couldn鈥檛 get on the plane the last time I tried to go to Singapore. I had a passport that was going to expire in less than thirty days, so they couldn鈥檛 let me in. And even if they did, immigration would just send me back.

I should’ve done my homework.

Fast forward a year and a half later, I finally got to fly out and visit my friends in Singapore for the first time. A few of them have moved to the city-state for work so I flew over there as part of my sorta-yearly trip to the Philippines.

I only stayed there for five days, but Singapore is probably my favorite city鈥攁t least as a tourist. First of all, the airport itself is a tourist attraction. It features sights like the rain vortex鈥攁 towering indoor waterfall that pumps collected rainwater onto a glass roof. I also liked how it created a fine mist that was enough to cool you down, but not enough to get you wet.

Singapore鈥檚 public transit is fast. I got to zip around the city easily and got to meet people on time鈥攅ven during peak hours鈥攖hanks to all the money that they put into their trains and buses.

All I needed was Citymapper and a WiFi hotspot to find my way.

Wait times have been very short in my experience, and data shows that that’s true: There is a 12 min average wait time in Singapore compared to 16 minutes in Philadelphia.

I’ve also never seen a city as green as Singapore before. It has so much greenery that the place is a literal urban jungle.

I find that it鈥檚 somehow able to satisfy my desire to be in nature without ever having to take a trip and leave the city. There are a lot of parks to go around and a lot of plants along the sidewalk. There鈥檚 even a car-free path distributed all over Singapore called the Park Connector Network where people can bike without any worries.

I ate so much while I was there. The cuisine was so new to me that I just had to try whatever I could get my hands on. It鈥檚 also relatively cheap if you went to eat out at hawker stands which costs about S$3 to S$10.

My favorite breakfast when I was there was laksa paired with coffee and condensed milk.

There were so many places that I wasn鈥檛 able to go to like the zoo or the botanical garden, so I鈥檒l try to make it out there again in the future. I鈥檓 also eyeing neighboring countries as well, but I鈥檓 getting ahead of myself.

Till next time!

Yurts and books.

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I’ve always had trouble reading fiction. Reading is often informational and a source of personal growth for me so I’ve had a tendency to reach for non-fiction books on my down time.

Reading non-fiction for me had made a lot of sense because it’s very relevant to my everyday life. Just take a look at the titles of the books that I’ve read recently:

But recently I’ve been thinking that it’s about time I read outside of my comfort zone. I felt like I was missing something because I didn’t know how to read imagined worlds and stories. Or at least I didn’t have the patience for it. I could watch movies and TV shows, but I couldn’t sit down and read. I think a part of it is that other forms of media are more attractive compared to a book:

There is no team of brilliant and vaguely sinister engineers, cooking up ways to get you binge reading. There is no auto-play technology frictionlessly delivering you from one chapter of the novel you鈥檙e reading to the next. There is only you, alone in the silence of your room with a chapter break before you and your phone cooing at you from the dresser. No one could blame you for putting 鈥淭he Count of Monte Cristo鈥 back on the bedside table where it spends its days. Maybe, like a long-forgotten glass of water, it will evaporate of its own accord.

Why You Should Start Binge-Reading Right Now
Just the idea of a vampire running a suicide hotline was enough to engage me. There are bits and pieces of familiar vampire lore in the book, but the rest of it was unexpected and new to me. It’s basically about a vampire who took it upon himself to give advice because of his old age.

I appreciated that the book had a mix of both humor and dark themes like rape, murder, and, suicide. (Not for kids!)

Anyway, I guess I’m just happy that I’m starting to get into fiction. Next up on my queue is The Quelling.

Andrea and I stayed at a yurt in Connecticut last weekend to get out of the city. We mostly slept in and enjoyed the sound of rain falling on the tarp.

We stayed at a farm that had Scottish highland cattle roaming around. They were very cute.