Monthly Archives: January 2014

Night and Day: a two-part travel post.

Night is the Twilight Zone

When you are on a plane, in transit between cities or between countries, a funny thing happens. You also find your mind between places. It is not exactly occupied with the regular things you think about while heading to work, nor busy in contemplation of where you are going and the days or weeks to come. For me, the strangest thoughts drift through my mind – conversations from years ago, childhood memories almost forgotten… just as I am in-between places, so are my thoughts.

Flights, especially ones during the middle of the night, lend themselves to different experiences. You have never truly appreciated solitude until a stewardess has hawked luxury perfume to you at 2 am when all you want to do is close your eyes to oblivion, but sleep will not come. The alertness reminds you of other late nights, where there is no noble objective to be achieved, like a paper to be finished or someone to be taken care of, but simply to plod on and on until daylight. To simply endure.

Flights are boring. You are strapped to a snug seat, and asked to revert to your best behavior as a ten year-old (smile, follow directions, and do not ask questions). We are cattle, we are burden simply to be transported. The babies and small children have not yet learned that it does no good to cry about it, and if it did offer some small comfort from the cold and the boredom of this horrible stupor, we adults, too, would be howling.

Continue reading Night and Day: a two-part travel post.

Taiwan, how will I miss thee? Let me count the ways.

Tomorrow evening, Steve and I will board a flight out of Taipei to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our last day in Taipei will be filled with frantic errands, like mailing a package off to the United States, hanging out one last time with friends we’ve barely gotten to know, and ordering our favorite dishes for dinner one last time.

For several weeks now, I’ve been saying goodbye to Taiwan. Every time I walk by a market stall and catch a glimpse of a snack I once tried, I silently mourn the fact that I won’t be able to try it again. Each time I buy a tea drink, I think about the many desolate tea-less countries ahead, and that I won’t just be able to buy us tea to go with our lunch. In small ways and big, I am feeling nostalgia about our time here already.

“One green jasmine tea, half sugar, half ice, please.”

I am going to miss Taiwan. There is just no way around that simple fact. I think Steve and I have made it pretty clear that we think Taiwan is the bee’s knees when it comes to so many things, but on this, our next-to-last evening in Taiwan, it’s really hitting hard that not only will we have to say goodbye to a number of amazing, beautiful things, but that we will also need to take on a different frame of mind for travel in other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. It is a mixed blessing, but right now, I can only grasp how sad we are to be leaving Taiwan. Reader, if we have not convinced you yet that Taiwan should be a destination for you too someday, here is our last ditch attempt.

Continue reading Taiwan, how will I miss thee? Let me count the ways.

Chilly Taipei: unexpected heights, sights, and hikes.

On Tuesday, we boarded the HSR (high-speed rail) outside of Tainan and speeded into Taipei barely an hour and a half later. This is the way to travel! It felt just like the bullet trains we’d taken in Japan, and made for an ultra smooth ride. We trekked our way with heavy bags through the unreasonable cold to Da’an District, where we had reserved five nights in a hostel. That evening, I made Steve stay up with me to debate how to travel about in Thailand and reserved a few hostels and flights before we fell asleep.

Yesterday morning, bright and early, we left our hostel for the Taipei 101 Tower, just a 20-minute walk away. Once you get onto Xinyi Road, which cuts east-west, it is hard to miss the Tower because it looms over everything else for dozens of blocks. For comparison purposes, the Sears (never the Willis) Tower in Chicago is 442 meters tall, and Taipei 101 Tower is significantly taller at 509 meters. (Though both are small potatoes compared to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at a lofty 828 meters.) We took the fastest elevator in the world (deceptively labeled “a life-changing experience” according to a quote from CNN in the lobby) and emerged onto the 89th floor, a 360 degree viewing observatory. It was a beautiful day to see Taipei — slightly cloudy, but not oppressively so. Taipei lies in a basin on the very northern tip of Taiwan, and we could see mountains in several directions as well as a city (Taoyuan, maybe?) to the southwest on an elevated plateau, surrounding the sprawling metropolitan area.

Continue reading Chilly Taipei: unexpected heights, sights, and hikes.

Moving out, on, and up!

On Tuesday, we sold and donated the last of our belongings (a six-cup coffee maker, a bamboo mattress pad, an IKEA duvtet ) to some grateful expats in Kaohsiung and moved out of our small studio apartment on Lane 123, Linsen First Road. It was beautiful in that place, even if it had no kitchen — the sliding glass doors to the small balcony faced south, and from dawn to dusk, it needed no more illumination than the sun. And in Kaohsiung, it was always sunny! We stayed for two nights in the same hostel we found when we first came here, and said goodbye to the group of friends we had met through Couchsurfing with a few pitchers of San Miguel. And on a bright, sunny afternoon, boarded the train for Tainan.

It was barely a trip — even taking the local train which stopped every 10 minutes at small, out-of-the-way stations, it was only an hour before we arrived in Tainan, the old southern capital of Taiwan. Tainan’s a whole different universe, and sometime soon, when I have all my photos uploaded and categorized on Flickr, I’ll post some here. But it feels a little like Boston and a little like Japan — ungridded, somewhat disorganized, bereft of real sidewalks; large trees abound everywhere, old temples better preserved than any I’ve seen in China, and overall, just a cozier atmosphere than Kaohsiung. After touring several temples, all within easy walking distance of each other, Steve and I had a late lunch at a local place, him enjoying vegetable noodles with soybean paste (炸酱面) and me chicken curry over rice. We sipped tea from next door and watched trains stop the local traffic.

We’re spending a lot of time with Kate, our friend from Chicago. She was born and grew up in Kaohsiung, and her missionary parents currently work at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary, where we are staying. Being able to learn a little about temples and sights from them is really awesome and humbling. They also make their own bread, scorning Taiwanese standards for toast, and that made for a very satisfying breakfast. Kate and Gene, her husband, and Gene’s parents are visiting, which has been nice — it is good to see friendly, familiar faces from Chicago.

Here’s to several more lazy days around this quaint capital of the south before we head north. Between Steve’s admiring comments about the food and the scenery and my own longings for the tea drinks here, I am starting to suspect that we will miss Taiwan very, very much.


4 is the loneliest number.

When we first investigated the possibility of living in Taiwan, I heard from my mother and several others about the virtues of Taiwan. One of them was that Taiwan had preserved Chinese tradition and culture better than China itself. I have seen a lot more signs of religious and traditional beliefs here, from both individuals as much as institutions. For example, every Monday, many businesses bring out onto the sidewalk a metal container where they burn yellow paper, which symbolizes money in the afterlife. The metal container is accompanied by a small table of offerings to the ancestors, which invariably contains oranges and some products that would be considered good presents in Taiwan, like Coke and Lays potato chips. Small shrines and temples to Buddhist and other deities are everywhere — smaller ones can be found inside people’s living rooms and kitchens, and bigger ones sandwiched between clothing shops, and occupying prime spaces on large street corners. It’s very much a part of modern day Taiwan.

One sign of a strong culture could be a strict adherence to traditional taboos, in which my mother has indoctrinated me thoroughly. For example, don’t send old people clocks as a present — the Chinese character for clocks, 钟 (zhong1), sounds the same as another character, 终, meaning final or end, so it sounds like you’re cursing them to die. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl; that’s how they prepare a bowl of food for the dead (maybe because it looks like incense sticks that way?), so it’s a bad omen. Do you see a trend here? And definitely don’t give a couple an umbrella as a present, because the umbrella (伞, san3) is pronounced very similarly to 散, the character which can mean to split up.

Continue reading 4 is the loneliest number.

Travel optimization and other lessons from Taiwan.

In the past few days, Steve and I have been looking back at our three and a half month stay in Taiwan, figuring out what has worked out well, and what mistakes we’ve made that we definitely want to avoid on the rest of this trip. Hindsight can be twenty-twenty, but you have to be willing to look in the rearview mirror, assess your decisions dispassionately, and be candid about where you made the wrong calls. Here’s our attempt at doing that!

Know Your Priorities
People travel for different reasons, and one thing we haven’t done a great job of is really prioritizing our reasons. What Steve and I like best about travel is being able to soak up a particular culture, its idiosyncrasies, and hallmarks. We like to grab a meal on the street and talk endlessly about how you order a meal in China and the endlessly amusing subway jingles in Tokyo. Equally fun is people-watching, like comparing the different school uniforms and bags of Taiwanese high school students. We also want to have plenty of time to read books and plan our own projects (for Steve, websites and games, and for Connie, grad school and social enterprises).

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Hong Kong: where East met West and settled down together for good.

It’s impossible to cram five days of Hong Kong into a single blog post, but I’m going to try anyway. For a Christmas vacation, this was pretty darn good! I took a billion pictures of food, buildings, and road signs, which can all be found in World Tour, Vol. 4: Hong Kong.

Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong Island: Chinese characters, but double-decker trams and buses drive on the left.

Continue reading Hong Kong: where East met West and settled down together for good.