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Tokyo 2012 Reflections: My Top Places to Visit


Japan. The land of video games and anime. Two things I absolutely adore like a religion when I was a kid. Oh, I dreamt of someday visiting this holy land of all things I love. I would not be able to fulfill this dream until 2012; by then, most of the fanboy in me was chipped away. Staying strictly in Tokyo, I still find the place enchanting as a fulfillment of a childhood dream, nevertheless.

With a plan return trip to Japan in March 2016 for 14-days; staying mostly in Tokyo, and surrounding region, with a few days in Kyoto this time. I cannot help but to reflect on my experience there and things I hope to do.

Firstly, I remember entering Shinjuku station for the first time after landing from the airport during the late evening rush hour. I felt that all of Tokyo was at this station; incredibly intimidating. Let’s just say I followed my seasoned travel friend like a hawk until we made it out of the station.

After checking in at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, we went straight to Kabukicho district, in Shinjuku, for our first meal to my friend’s favorite 24-hour spot, Iwamoto-Q; a tendon and soba joint located in the heart of the red light district of Tokyo. Not saying this was the best tendon place, but it’s convenient and good. This spot would be our go to place late at night throughout the trip.

One thing you will immediately notice will be that many places will have vending machines outside where you place your order before coming in, which is great since you can avoid the awkward communication barrier if you can’t speak Japanese, like me.

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As with the rest of my experience of Tokyo, there are a couple of places I really enjoy visiting and would suggest for those looking for recommendations while in Tokyo.

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View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. This is the governing headquarters of 23 wards that makes up Tokyo. Located in Shinjuku, the true main draw to this building, which resembles a Gothic cathedral, is the FREE observatory at the top of the building that gives you a nice view of Tokyo. Look for signs that point you to designated elevators. I suggest going to the SOUTH tower as this has the best view, in my opinion.

Google Map Link

Nakamise street at Sensoji Temple

Nakamise street at Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple. One of Tokyo’s most popular Buddhist temple, and the oldest, is located in Asakusa. The temple and Kaminarimon, a giant gate with an equally giant red lantern, are nice but I enjoy Nakamise, the vendor filled road that leads to the temple, the most. Souvenirs and snacks everywhere! Make sure to check out the branching roads to the sides. My favorite thing there was melon pan.

Google Map Link

Kanda Yabusoba, 2012

Kanda Yabusoba, 2012

Kanda Yabusoba. This might be my favorite restaurant during my trip; the atmosphere and quality was top notch. Located in Akihabara, across the Kanda River, sits this one story joint with a zen garden outside that makes you feel you walking into an Edo-era restaurant. They make their own buckwheat soba noodles. They’re famous for their duck soba soup and ten-seiro soba. As a side note, has been recently rebuilt after a fire a few years ago. I don’t know if the garden outside is still here.

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Seating at Alcatraz ER

Seating at Alcatraz ER

Alcatraz ER. This was an interesting experience to say at least. The name says it all, imagine being locked up in a small cell while be served by nurses and doctors. It is definitely a novelty experience; not the place for fine dining. I’m sure there are better theme restaurants by now, but if you’re looking for a crazy and unique experience, you might want to check this place out.

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Togetsukyo at Rikugien

Togetsukyo at Rikugien

Gardens. Tokyo has the most gardens I’ve seen in any city, there was like a garden on every block. We visited many of them since my friend was a photographer – the photos from this post are from him – but I missed the most popular garden, Shinjuku Gyoen, when I went off on my own one day. Of the gardens I did visited, I would recommend Rikugien and Koishikawa Korakuen. Rikugien has a lovely, scenic stone bridge (Togetsukyo), while Koishikawa Korakuen is just a very pretty garden with many different sections of plants to observe – it even has a small rice paddy.

Miniature models at Edo Tokyo Museum

Miniature models at Edo Tokyo Museum

Edo Tokyo Museum. Not big on museums, but this one was more enjoyable than I thought. Showcasing the Edo, and some World War, period of Tokyo, this museum is worth a few hours if you have time to spare. My favorite exhibitions were the little town models with small figurines; the details on these models were extraordinary. As an extra, the building itself is quite unique.

Google Map Link

Of course, these are just the short list of attractions that stood out to me besides the usual attractions. We visited Shibuya crossing, Odaiba island, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Tsukiji Market, Imperial Palace, and even a cat cafe where you pay to pet cats. I feel most people will visit these sites without recommendation; okay, maybe not the cat cafe in Shibuya.

Besides the attractions, I was really addicted to Japanese vending machines throughout Tokyo. The first thing I did when I left Shinjuku station was buy a hot drink from a vending machine to keep warm; a hot drink from a vending machine. Japanese vending machines serve both hot and cold drinks, from the same machine. This feature, for whatever reason, totally amazed me.

Edit: Watch this video on the vending machines in Japan.

Gyudon with raw egg at Yoshinoya Japan

Gyudon with raw egg at Yoshinoya Japan

Another thing, try Yoshinoya in Japan. Beef bowls, or gyudon, are quite popular in Japan with various chains. I had them with raw eggs, which creates a rich texture, which is something you cannot get in the United States. in addition, Shakey’s Japan was surprising good; they had interesting toppings and a lovely thin pizza crust, plus it’s all you can eat.

I did wished to venture out on my own more. I wanted to check out the coffee scene there – I only visited two coffee joints, Streamer Coffee and Cafe de I’Ambre – since I hear 80% of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee beans are exported to Japan. I got my coffee fix from the vending machines on most days since I didn’t want to slow anyone down with my addiction.

Regardless, this post is getting a bit longer than I thought so I’ll split it up. In the next one, I’ll take a look at the places I wanted to check out in the 2016 trip; only months away.

Related:
My Top 4 Coffee Shops Japan 2016
My Top 4 Best Ramen Japan 2016
Japan Travel Tips
Japan 2016: Favorite Places

Bangkok – My Top Places to Visit


My 10-day trip in Bangkok was quite eye opening and, well, delicious. I spent most of the days eating all over the city. Of course, there were some touristy sight seeing that we felt, we must do at least once.

I’m by no means an expert on Bangkok in such a short time but here is my personal short list of things and places I recommend when you’re in Bangkok.

Soei
The place was recommended by Mark Wiens and I highly recommend this place as well if you love Thai cuisine. I thought the food here was extremely flavorful; lots of lime, basil, and chilies. This was probably my favorite restaurant in Bangkok as well.

Apparently, this place can get crowded at dinner time during the weekends, since the owner cooks most of the food himself. We came here at lunch time on an off day and there was plenty of open tables.

Our spread at Soei

Our spread at Soei

Using the picture above, starting with the fried mackerel heads, on the left, and going clockwise are: kaem pla too tod (fried mackerel head), tom yum pla too (tom yum soup with mackerel), pla goong pao (Thai prawn salad), chu chee pla too (curry mackerel), stir fried clams, pad woon sen kratiem dong (stir fried mung bean noodles), and with goong chae nam pla (Thai raw shrimp) in the middle.

I would have to say that the fried mackerel head, raw shrimp, prawn salad, and curry mackerel were my favorite dishes there. It was hard to pick a favorite, ok? The sauces on those dishes were addicting as hell.

By the way, this place is located next to train tracks. We sat next to the tracks for the view and lets just say we got extra “minerals” in our food when a train ran by. Unless you don’t mind that, you might want to get a table further away from the tracks.

Unfortunately, this place is a bit away from the BTS lines so unless you’re willing to walk, you will need a taxi. Victory Monument station is the closet via BTS with a major road then you might want to grab a taxi from here. We just took a taxi from our hotel straight there.

Google map link

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Boat Noodle Alley
Probably my favorite dish while in Thailand, mainly because I like spicy food, boat noodle is a very flavorful noodle soup that contains cow or pig blood which gives the broth the dark color.

Boat noodles with sides

Boat noodles with side toppings

Served in small bowls for less than $0.35 each. It’s common practice to stack up the bowls to see how many you ate. Ask for pork skin cracklings and fried wonton skins and throw a few of each into your bowls for spicy, rich, salty, and crunchy textures. It’s also common to add a bit of sugar for a bit of sweetness to each bite.

The alley contains 4-5 shops, all selling boat noodles among other things. Most of them were pretty good. The only one we didn’t like was the first one, facing the street – my favorite was the one at the very back of the alley with pink shirts.

Accessible by skytrain with a bit of walking. Take the Skytrain, or BTS for short, to Victory Monument. Walk towards the Victory Monument on the skywalk, it will be on your left as you walk. You will get a nice view of the monument as well.

Look for a small river and 7-Eleven on the right side, near the end of the monumental street circle. There’s a stairs that leads down to the 7-Eleven. Head towards the river after you take the stairs down. The shops are lining the right side of the river. The other side are a bunch of street vendors.

Google map link

P’Aor (Tom Yum Goong)
Another popular Thai and Lao dish, P’Aor probably serves the best tom yum goong I had the pleasure of eating while in Bangkok. Rich, spicy, sour, sweet, creamy and served with a large prawn, not much more you can ask for. I’m not the biggest fan of tom yum, but I really like this dish. They also have many other good dishes but tom yum is what they’re famous for.

Basic tom yum goong

Basic tom yum goong

Take the BTS to Phaya Thai station will bring you very close to P’Aor. It’s located in an alley and easy to miss so follow Google map. Of course, you can just hop into a taxi.

Google map link

Street Food/Night Market
Perhaps my favorite part of the Thailand experience, checking out the street food scene was a nightly ritual for me, even when I was not hungry. Nothing like seeing a whole street filled with countless vendors serving all kinds of goodies to be discovered.

There are many streets and alleys that have them all over Bangkok, but the two that I visited frequently were Sukhumvit Soi 38, below the Thong Lo station, and Ratchadamri Road, across from CentralWorld, that run north then wraps west onto Phetchaburi Road.

Sukhumvit Soi 38 night market is affordable and manageable street food experience, due to its small size; great for those getting introduced into Thai street food scene. We had our first street food experience here and was our to-go place late at night.

Two ways chicken rice

Two ways chicken rice

Chicken rice being very popular in Thailand, we all went for the fried and boiled chicken rice combination (khao man gai ruam) as this dish from this alley had been featured in various food sites and Youtube videos. The chicken, served two ways, were decent but the sauces, chilies, and garlic were really what made this dish great for me. The flavors and spices…hmm.

Google map link

Ratchadamri Road night market is located at the heart of modern Bangkok next to the BTS, between stations Siam and Chit Lom, and CentralWorld. This street night market starts at Phloen Chit Road and stretches to Phetchaburi Road.

There are an abundance of tourist friendly and local favorites. I personally spent a few nights trying out different places. The two that stand out for me was a popular chicken rice place called Kaiton Pathumwan – look for the pink shirts – and a donut stall next to the chicken rice place that my friend told me has been there for over 20 years.

Google map link

Again, roam and explore; I wished I venture out there more often during my free nights.

Chatuchak Weekend Market
This is a massive collection of stalls and permanent stores, located in a large and lovely park, that sells everything from coconut ice cream – served in a halved coconut shell – to wooden statues; if you can find it that is…

Getting to Chatuchak Market is quite simple; just take the BTS to Mo Chit. You can’t miss it, just follow the swarm of people. The market opens at 10am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday.

By the way, you might want to bring something to protect yourself from the sun and heat; it was really hot when we went. I’m talking about shirt soaked hot.

Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace
Of all the tourist spots we visited, I have to say that Wat Phra Kaew and the adjacent Grand Palace, you get to see both places, was my favorite in terms of architecture and beauty. Ayutthaya had history but this place just looks so pretty and unique.

By the way, entrance is on the north side if you’re hopping from another temple here without taxi guidance.

This place was ridiculously crowded when we were there, I regret not taking a picture of the mass of people trying to get in or out as I was more concerned with squeezing through to the ticket booth located inside the Grand Palace walls.

If you’re in this area, you’re probably hitting all the major tourist hotspots as well like Wat Pho and Temple of the Dawn just to name a few. So stop by Thip Samai to rest your feet after all that walking, grab some pad thai and cold orange juice or coconut juice, or both, you’re on vacation, right?

Google map link

Thip Samai (Pad Thai)
The quintessential dish of Thai food, outside of Thailand at least, is pad thai. I could not leave Thailand without trying it and this place delivered – way beyond my expectations.

Egg omelette pad thai

Egg omelette pad thai

The presentation was eye catching. The noodles were wrapped around an egg omelette, a feat I have not seen in the United States. Very flavorful. I’m no expert on pad thai but this was very good and I recommend you check them out for yourself.

They also sell an in-house made orange juice that very popular.

Thip Samai is a bit far from central Bangkok so taxi is needed to get to this place. It’s fairly close to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, so you can stop by afterwards. They open at 5 PM. You can expect a queue, there was one when I was there.

Google map link

So there you have it, my short list of places I would recommend you visit when you’re in Bangkok. There were many places we didn’t have time but will definitely check out when I re-visit the country in the near future.

First Trip to Bangkok – Land of Hot, Sour & Sweet


With a recent flight booked for Japan in March, 2016, I could not help to think about traveling, especially my previous trip to Bangkok, Thailand in 2015 – also March. What can I say, we like March, as it works for all of my travel bitten friends.

First and foremost, being my first time, I really enjoyed my 10-day trip in Bangkok and would gladly come back in the near future. Of course, we had a friend, serving as our tour guide, who knows the city well and speaks a bit of Thai. I’ll admit that my experience would easily been different if he was not with us; being lost and not knowing the language can be frustrating.

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew

We did many of the tourist things within and bordering Bangkok, like the Ayutthaya ruins and Amphawa Floating Market. Cause, you have to do it at least once, right? Just to say you seen/did it and never have to do it again. By the way, the temples at Wat Phra Kaew are spectacular, amazingly colorful and detailed; very distinct.

Food is amazing there; whether from street hawkers or food court in the malls, you cannot go wrong. The smell of the spices and herbs are enticing. In fact, experiencing authentic Thai food was the main reason why I came to the country.

So what else did I like about Bangkok? Good exchange rates. Although the exchange rates are not as great as a decade ago; I still hear my friend talk about “back then” prices. Of course, the cheaper prices can be deceiving if you’re buying three meals at one sitting – from experience.

Bangkok also has a modern skytrain system, or BTS, that takes you through many of the major spots and hotels in the metropolitan area. This was my choice of transport. Taxi is a must if you want to leave to the outer areas of Bangkok, like Ayutthaya or Wat Phra Kaew, or simply do not feel like walking.

Chicken (both sytle) & rice. Street Food.

Settling down for some street food

Speaking of the BTS, I would recommend staying in a hotel next to the BTS for first time visitors. It’s quite nice just walking out from your hotel to the skytrain and malls via skybridge. I would try the Holiday Inn next time, which is close the Chit Lom station; one stop away from Siam Paragon and a corner away from a popular night market on Ratchadamri Road that stretches to Phetchaburi Road. We stayed at the Radisson this trip, near Nana station, because it was cheaper.

Although I was not too bother with this, Thailand is really humid and hot. Many of my traveling companions could not withstand this and spent most of the day in malls. The Siam Paragon mall, one of the biggest mall in Asia, was our go-to place to get away from the heat and humidity; plus, their food court is probably one of the best in Bangkok.

In addition, diarrhea was an issue for some of my friends as well. As such, a few of them stuck to “cleaner” mall food – like the above mentioned Siam Paragon’s food court – but I feel they miss out on the great experience of wandering the streets with your eyes and nose. Of course, you have to listen to your body if it’s not agreeing with the food. Look for vendors with good turnover rates and you should be fine – in theory.

Although most Thai people I met are very friendly, do watch out for price gouging, especially area near major hotels. Look for places and vendors with established prices. There was a few times that I felt I got cheated. I do understand they’re trying to make a living and it’s really not much extra, but it never feels good to be on the bad end of an exchange.

One of many stalls at night

Chinese donuts on the streets

One example, I paid 400 baht plus 100 baht tip for a quick maintenance buzz cut at a salon near my hotel. I found later that most barbers charged foreigners 100 to 200 baht for basic cuts. Worst, it was badly done too – many uneven spots – as I had to fix it with a beard trimmer at the hotel. I didn’t check before leaving because I didn’t think you can mess up on a buzz cut. Honestly, I was a bit bitter, not because of the money, that I was cheated.

With that, my overall experience of Bangkok was very pleasant. Good food, ease of transportation, good exchange rates and beautiful sights. I definitely recommend Bangkok for those that never been there. In fact, we plan to return to Bangkok and visit Chiang Mai or one of the Thai beach townPhuket or Krabi – in the near future.

Because this post is getting longer than I intended, I will write a separate post on the places and locations I thought was worthwhile to help those taking the plunge and travel to Bangkok for the first time. Or experienced travelers that may have missed a few places here and there; because I am sure I missed many spots. That’s what Round 2 is for.

Related:
Bangkok – My Top Places to Visit

My Workout Plan – Exercise for Life


Exercise. The one word a lot of people dread. Exercise for many people is no difference than a second job. You actively have to set aside time to do repetitive tasks. Let’s face it, there are hundreds of other things you can be doing that are miles more fun, even if it’s good for you.

I, myself, struggled with exercise for a long time in the past. I would have periods of high motivation to get my chubby self to the gym and then periods of excessive excuses to stay home, losing all progress in the process. Too cold, too far, and no gas in the car were some of the excuses I made for myself.

The Plan:
After an event in my life, I decided to make changes and stop the excuses. The first change was a “no excuse” policy. Basically, there is no reason why I can’t not workout that day or any other day. Second change was the workout location from the gym to my home, or wherever I’m staying, which synergies with the first change. This change can be a bit challenging when you’re traveling or away from home. The third, and last, change was minimizing equipment needed and relying more than bodyweight exercises, or calisthenics.

I went from weighing 180 lbs to 155 lbs in 2 years. This is not a quick weight loss plan but a gradual change in lifestyle. The idea is to ingrain exercise into your daily routine with manageable workouts so you do not get burn out. This plan can be a bit hardcore for some as there’s no vacation days. You workout EVERYDAY but can be done in 20-35 minutes if you need be.

The Equipment:
Basic equipment like dumbbells, barbells, resistant bands, or loaded suitcase can be used. An exercise ball would be a useful piece of equipment to have. The only equipment you might not have readily available to you is a bar for pull-ups and chin-ups. There’s a few in the market that you can buy. You can even use a nearby park or playground.

Yes, I do keep my membership to a gym, which is 24 Hour Fitness – accessible nationwide. The gym is there for situations where going to the gym is more convenient or with friends. I have used the gym while on vacation or when I know I would not be home all day – plan ahead with a change of clothes for the shower afterwards.

The 3 Week Diet

The Workout:
As for workout, I do weight exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. 6 exercises of 3 sets that covers all the major body parts, aiming for a total body workout. For the rest of the week – Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays – I jog for 2 miles around my neighborhood or 20 minutes on the stairs, like a friend’s apartment, if a route is not viable. For those starting to exercise, do 1 mile if you just started and 1 mile walking back. I started with 1 mile jogs as well.

The cardio days are seen as off days, or break days, as they will only take 20 minutes or so to complete.

Here’s what I do for weight training days – picking one move per group:

Pull-ups/Chin-ups
Three set of as much as you can do. If you can’t do one, do negative pull-ups/chin-ups. Negative pull-up/chin-up is where you start at the top and slowing lower yourself down slowly. The slower the better.

I feel this is one of the best moves to perform. I focus on this exercise mainly because of my high school experience of never being able to perform do one.

Chests
Push-ups (inclined or declined)
Exercise ball dumbbell presses

Legs
Squats (with or without weights) – if using weights, place them on our shoulders
Jumping squats
Globe squats

Abs
Crunches
Planks (leveled, inclined, or declined)
Sit ups
Exercise ball pikes

Biceps
Concentration curls (chair, bench, or exercise ball)
Hammer curls

“Bonus”
Burpees
Kettlebell swings
Dumbbell Clean Presses

This is just a few of the moves I do. You’re free to add your own or change the format depending on your equipment. Remember, the goal create a workout plan that YOU can do easily for years. You can always go intense for bulk but it’s nice to have a manageable workout plan when things gets busier.

Learning to be a Better Conversationalist

Shyness & Social Anxiety Guy

A good conversationalist is a very important skill in every aspect. Being an introvert person, I have always been fascinated with talking to people. More specifically, what to say to people. During my high school and early college years, I was painfully shy and rarely say anything to anyone, mainly because I would never know what to say to people.

After college, I did pick up a few books on conversations. I have to say they really help, even if it’s all mental. However, I find myself forgetting most of the lessons from these books and sticking to only one trick: ask questions. Great for the initial few minutes, the problem is that I have fallen into the trap of machine gun questioning, which always makes people feel awkward. So I decided to learn new, and relearn old, conversation skills to become an interesting conversationalists.

I figure that I’ll share what I learn during this process of self improvement. Generally, a good conversationalist does not dominate the conversation but asks questions, listens, and responds to the speaker.

Asking questions:
This is the obvious one. However, asking questions one after another in succession can make the other person feel awkward, as from my experience.

Start with simple, non-threatening questions about the person to start the conversation going like “How they know the host/mutual friend?” or “Do they live around your here?” If you know the person’s interest, you can ask about their interest like “How your fantasy league doing?” or “How’s your sewing coming along?” As you get to know the person better, you can move to more interesting questions about themselves like “What is one or two things they would like to accomplish if work and money was not a factor?”

Of course, add some of your insights and opinions in between questions to avoid sounding like a questioning machine, like me. Be sure to ask them what they think when you’re sharing your thoughts or transiting the conversation to another topic.

Ask some follow up questions to gain a better insight and clarification on what the person is saying and the person’s life. These questions help the person know that you’re interested in what they’re saying and the happenings in their life. Follow up questions can be simple as, “How did you feel when that happened?” or “What did you do next?”

Listening:
Generally, people like good listeners because they make the speaker feel interesting and validated about themselves. Of course, being a good listener is not just being an ear for someone while looking bored.

Show interest by asking follow up questions like “What you mean?” or “How do you feel about that?”

Provide some feedback to the speaker. I fall to this myself at times. In my attempt to concentrate on what’s being said, I develop a blank face. The other person will notice and see it as you are not interested on what’s being said. I find nodding and some facial expressions can go a long way. Most importantly, be genuinely interested in the person. Move on to someone else if you are not interested to save both parties time and energy.

As such, I feel providing feedback is a critical skill that separates the good listeners from the average listeners. I notice that when I run out of steam in providing feedback to the speaker, the conversation usually ends, awkwardly at times. Some of my more animated and energetic friends can keep the speaker energized and the conversation going. Of course, this takes practice and knowing when to end the conversation and re-engage them again when you, yourself, is re-energized.

Keeping with current topics:
Keeping on top of current events in entertainment, sports, and politics can be very useful when conversing with someone. Entertainment and sports are obvious good choices to keep updated in as they are easy and not as controversial as politics.

I usually scan the news before bed on my phone on sites like Google News. I also follow a few websites that cover certain topics that interest me like video game.

Watching movies, reading popular books, and following a few sport stories will help your arsenal of conversation skills. Who does not want to discuss the latest episode of Games of Thrones? Of course, you don’t have to watch every movie or read every book, just a few so you can add to the conversation when people ask about your interests.

With politics, you can try to add some humor but being careful to not offend people around you. Of course, you do not have to agree with person, make sure your points with evidence, conviction, and a dash of humor if possible.

Being humorous:
Speaking of humor, witty comments can break ices and uplift the conversations. Not an easy skill to develop because good witty comments are spontaneous, clever, and unexpected. If you happen to know a witty person, try to observe the person and pick up a few tricks. Everyone appreciates a person that can make them laugh. I definitely need work on this, myself.

Having a few stories in your pocket can be helpful. Funny personal stories relating to unusual experiences and misfortunes are good. Self-deprecating stories can be funny as well. You should practice these stories but do not force them into conversations. You will learn to fine tune and time the delivery of the jokes over time.

Jokes and witty remarks that you borrowed should not be used without asking the other person. In addition, you should not finish or give away someone else’s punch line.
Most importantly, be yourself and enjoy the interaction. Being natural and relax with a positive attitude will attract more people around you. Yes, talking to a stranger can be scary but who knows, some of those interactions can be one of your life long friend, companion, or a future job opportunity.

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