Taipei, City of Hawks

Taiwan

****Super old post, now getting published five months late****

tl;dr – I’m in Taiwan wrapping up this Asia jaunt.  

In my first week here in Taiwan, I went south to the town of Hsinchu to interview players on a professional baseball team for a story I’m writing. The next day, I got a direct tweet from a stranger:

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Apparently my appearance at the small baseball stadium was newsworthy, and someone wrote an article about me for Apple Daily, a Taiwanese news outlet.

The incident quickly revealed some differences between American and Taiwanese culture. I didn’t love the photo used in the story. When I showed the story and photo to friends/family back at home, their response went something like, Oh it’s not that bad!” When I showed Taiwanese people the story and photo, the responses were, “Why do you look fatter and older?” and “That is a very bad photo, why do you look like that?” 

Varying angles aside, my time here in Taiwan has been interesting. My Taipei neighborhood had some sort of hawk store, or medicinal hawk facility, I’m honestly not sure what the place actually was but there were hawks involved. It was a bizarre sight to pass every day for about two weeks.

Hawky

I piggybacked on my friendship with Bangkok-living Taiwanese cool girl Etty (check out her blog) and stayed with her family in a few different cities to get a taste of real life in Taiwan. My first stop was Taichung to meet her parents, Judy and Pi-Jay Liu.

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The Liu family takes hospitality to another level. I was welcomed beyond belief, not only given a place to stay but treated to feast after feast, whisked away to sightseeing destinations, introduced to new friends. I couldn’t have been more taken care of (or full).

Feeling welcomed into my new Taichung family.
Lowkey Taichung night market, source of grilled mochi, stinky tofu, and more.
Lowkey Taichung night market, source of grilled mochi, stinky tofu, and more.
Said grilled mochi.
Aforementioned grilled mochi.

After a few days of being fed to maximum capacity (and then some), I took the train to Taiwan’s east coast, first to do research for a story in Yilan, and next to Hualien where I was shepherded by Etty’s cousin, Eric.

It was so nice to be shown around different places by locals who are obviously much better at navigating Taiwan than I ever will be. I can now say I’ve eaten chicken feet, worn a Taiwanese aboriginal outfit, visited a Taiwanese elementary school. None of that would have been possible without the generosity of Etty and her kind, friendly family.

Home in Hualien
Home in Hualien

Taiwan’s high-speed train situation has made it really easy to hunt down Etty’s family all over the country. One day sweating your way through a night market in the southwest, and the next morning you’re sweating in the mountains clear across the island nation (see also: it’s humid AF here).

On a less cheerful note, somewhere in the whirlwind of my first weeks here I got sick and still haven’t recovered. This happened the last time my Asia trip was coming to a close; maybe my body is just rejecting the idea of going back to America.

I decided to cut my east coast exploration short and return to Taipei early to heal. Fresh air is great, but I’m a city person and feel more relaxed in a bustling metropolis. The end of the trip is closing in on me quickly. With less than a week until I fly to California, I’ll cram in some more work while I’m here and try to reflect on the three months abroad (conveniently glossing over the shortcomings, of course). 

Hualien
Hualien, land of very humid beaches.

#FEELINGS

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^o^ Korea!

tl;dr – (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧ I LOVED SEOUL!!! Now I’m in Taiwan for 3 weeks. 

I did not want to leave Seoul this morning.

It was raining and I had this feeling of dread as I walked through the terminal to my gate. The kimchi withdrawals were already beginning to kick in.

The overwhelming sadness was not helped by the fact that I had just spent the night sleeping in the airport on a bench for just 4 hours.

While I had intended on rounding out my Korea trip the same way it began (lounging in the Incheon Airport spa), things did not pan out the way I’d hoped.

I got to the spa at midnight and the place was fully booked. The train back to the city had already stopped running for the night, so I trudged through the airport until I found a decently cushioned row of chairs to curl up on.

At 5 am, I woke up to the shrieking sound of packaging tape being wrapped around luggage. A huge group travelers chatted loudly about whatever there is to chat about at 5 am. I heaved my backpack on and checked into my Taipei flight.

I hadn’t expected to love Korea, and I definitely didn’t expect that I was going to LoOooOooooOooooOooOoove Seoul. It actually hurt to pass through immigration.

It didn’t matter whether I was eating tteokbokki alone at a restaurant or drinking soju with new friends, I loved nearly every moment of my time in Korea.

The city is so livable and interesting. The food is weird and incredible. The public transportation is thorough and convenient — even if I did manage to mess up every time I took it.

My favorite running path along the Han River.

Speaking of getting lost, I botched the one big sightseeing adventure I attempted in Korea. Getting to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, was a true nightmare.

For those headed wanting to visit the DMZ themselves, here’s a step by step guide to doing it wrong:

Step one Get lost at Seoul’s main train station. Literally run around the massive station trying to catch a 9:20 am train. Ask for help. Get conflicting information from every employee. Do this for one hour.

Step two – On the verge of crying, finally get on the right train to Munsan Station. After about an hour of travel, get off the train at Munsan and walk to the bus stop. Twenty minutes later,  get on a bus to Imjingang Station.

Step three – Get off the bus at the wrong stop. Note: The key to this step is to not know you are at the wrong stop. 

Step four – Walk around the ghost town of a stop and feel like giving up. Try to find a ticket booth you saw on some travel blog. Stare at the buildings and notice that nothing is written in English. Feel like a failure.

Step five – Open up Google maps, tell yourself that you won’t wasted 4 hours of your life only to give up on your DMZ dreams now. Start walking along the highway toward Imjingang Station. Don’t cry.

Step six – Hail the taxi that comes along, as though by magic. Show him your Google Map and understand exactly zero of his Korean. Sit back and revel in the air conditioning.

Step seven – Get dropped off at the wrong place. (In lieu of steps 6 & 7, maybe just light your money on fire instead. Same result.)

Step eight – Seek out help from a kind Korean man working at a kiosk. Sort of understand him and start walking down the highway again.

DMZ Time

Step nine – MAKE IT TO THE DMZ PARKING LOT!!!! Be weirded out by the amusement park blasting Justin Bieber music. Find the ticket booth and pay for a tour of the DMZ.

Step ten – Get on a tour bus. Realize you’ve just committed to a 3 hour tour. Feel overwhelmed.

Tunnel to North Korea - not for the claustrophobic.

Step eleven – Look with your very own eyes at the southernmost part of North Korea. Walk through tunnels that the North Koreans built to try to infiltrate after the Korean war. Feel lucky to be there, but feel exhausted.

Step twelve – Take one bus and two trains back to Seoul. Mess up twice.

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So visiting Korea wasn’t a piece of cake, but it was a dream – a dream I am sad to wake up from. I could honestly see myself living in Seoul, getting lost on the subway every day and consoling myself with Korean desserts.

Taro shaved ice with boba, because dreams *do* come true.
Taro shaved ice with boba, because dreams *do* come true.

But that chapter of this trip is over. It’s time to enjoy Taiwan, even if it has a hard act to follow.

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Latest Stories:

Sleepless in Malaysia

TL;DR – I’m in Malaysia feeling productive and sometimes lost. 

Moving slowly on this first morning in Malaysia after a night of tossing and turning. Poor sleeping aside, it’s fun and challenging to be in a new city again.

I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur yesterday to come see Tame Impala play on Saturday. Walked around KL’s Chinatown and found a popular street food spot for dinner. Ate durian ice cream. All very standard tourist stuff for day one, nothing groundbreaking. Just trying to figure out what KL is all about. 

Jalan Alor happenings in Kuala Lumpur.
Jalan Alor night happenings in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve been back in Asia for a little more than two weeks, but it feels like WAY LONGER. My time spent in Bangkok was pretty productive for arriving right before the Songkran holiday (four days of nonstop water fighting to celebrate the Thai new year). Happy to be churning out more stories lately.

Bangkok mang's.
Bangkok mang’s.

Writing a second blog post has been a challenge. I’ve started different drafts with wildly different tones depending on the day. I’m striking while the iron is hot – or rather, while I’m feeling more positive about the whole situation. My last draft was filled with a lot of WHAT AM I DOING HERE in both the immediate and the broad sense.

Well, what am I doing here? The plan had been to come over here, write, travel around, see old friends, etc. Then TAXES HAPPENED. This was my first year paying my taxes as a freelancer and the amount I owed was way higher than I imagined it would be. A chunk of my savings has now vanished, so instead of floating around Asia as I had hoped, I’m going to spend more time lying low in Bangkok.

I need to stop hemorrhaging money on things like massages, too.

Wut. #Bangkok.
Wut. #Bangkok.

OK, the cry baby is going to stop crying (and apparently start writing in the third person??) and go back out into the Kuala Lumpur torrential downpour and eat some roti.

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Latest Stories:

One Year in Asia

TL;DR – I’m in Japan and celebrating a year of living abroad

Twelve months ago, I left foggy San Francisco and moved to Asia. I guess it’s fitting that I’m ringing in the milestone in overcast Tokyo.

When I got to Thailand last September, I had one main goal of making it abroad for at least a year. I had this fear that I would crumble financially or emotionally at three months and have to crawl home. I also had this reoccurring nightmare that I’d be on an airplane for a visit to the States and realize “oh my god, I don’t have enough money to get back to Asia” and that would be it, I’d fail the goal.

It’s a little surreal that I made it, especially surreal considering two girls dressed up in Sailor Moon costumes just walk by. You’ll see a lot in Japan.

This post could very easily turn into a mega cliché with me reflecting on this year abroad. I rolled my eyes every time I heard a backpacker talk about his “spiritual journey” and I’ve always been the first person to joke about coming here to “find myself” like the rest of the spoiled western foreigners.

That being said, it turns out there’s a reason that’s such a well-known cliché. It’s not like you set off a floating lantern at a full moon party and suddenly you’re reinvented, but spending a year out of your element challenges you in ways you’d never predict. I’m not even saying I’ve changed in a good way, but I’ve definitely changed. For example:

-I have a backpack full of clothes – and that’s it.

I started this journey (barfs in own mouth)  with just a suitcase and a carry-on bag, then accumulated some things while I spent 9 months in Bangkok. When I decided to hop around freelancing, I gave away everything that didn’t fit into my traveler’s backpack and purse. So wearing the same four things has been new. [Full disclosure – I have some cold weather clothes and apartment furniture stored at my parent’s house. So by “that’s it” that’s not totally it.]

Said backpack in my luxurious Tokyo Airbnb rental
Said backpack in my luxurious Tokyo Airbnb rental

-I’m much more comfortable being alone.

Moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone was a good introduction to solo life, but backpacking around bolstered my confidence operating as a one man wolfpack. Meals alone, movies alone, sightseeing alone, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it is totally depressing. I have to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with traveling alone. Emile Hirsch looked badass doing it in Into The Wild, so why do I feel like a total loser every now and then? It’s nice to fall back on the security blanket of saying “I’m traveling for work” when I don’t feel like being brave.

-I’ve learned a lot of helpful and useless new things.

For example: During my first week of working at HotelQuickly, my coworker said “and he didn’t even know that Singapore was a country.” I laughed out loud with the rest of the people in the conversation, but in my head frantically noted “OK SINGAPORE IS A COUNTRY AND A CITY, JESUS HOW DID I NOT KNOW THAT WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME.” So that was an important thing to learn. Less important are things like if you don’t take off your shoes in the Gap dressing room in Japan, people are going to yell at you. Or that teens sling their backpacks really low in India.

I could go on, and I’d probably disgust anyone reading this in the process. So I’ll leave it at this – and bear with me while I’m shamelessly gross for like two more sentences – it’s been the best year of my life, even despite the head wound, the loneliness, and the excessive sweating. For anyone debating whether or not to take the plunge and live somewhere new (out of the country or otherwise), do it. Life is short.

Reflecting aside, after a year of being gone, I’m finally going home for a while. Some of the best and worst things to happen to our family happened in August, and I’ll be making my way back to California to spend time with loved ones. At this point, I don’t have a plane ticket out of the States yet. I’m still figuring out what to do next. Until then, I’ll just keep wandering around Tokyo.

Avoiding Delhi Belly – Hello India!

For starters: INDIA IS INSANE!!!  

I’ve experienced a wildly swinging pendulum of emotions these past four days. India has been so much more intense than I predicted.

All of the pre-trip reading I did made me pretty anxious about spending time in New Delhi alone before my friends joined me a few days later. Nothing sold the country as a dream destination for women, especially women traveling solo. I arrived to New Delhi on Wednesday night on high alert and got a taxi to my hostel. It was pouring rain when the cab driver started to slow down in one of the sketchiest neighborhoods I’ve ever been in.

I thought to myself, “This has to be a mistake.

Stops Hostel, said TripAdvisor reviews, was “great,” an “Oasis in Delhi” with “excellent staff” and I found it to be none of those things. The hostel was located in a bleak part of Darya Ganj, and even in the dark of night, I could tell that this was not a neighborhood I should be in alone.

In the morning, I was able to confirm that yes, yes this wasn’t a choice pick of locations for a solo lady. Darya Ganj was a clusterf*** of haphazard construction where I saw the sadness of abject poverty in full light. I also saw a fully nude man casually strolling in the street. I didn’t arrive in Delhi expecting to find San Francisco, but I had booked this particular hostel expecting to be in a safe location.

Although the hostel itself seemed safe with security guards, I wasn’t loving the place. The front desk staff turned out to be cold and inhospitable. I had booked an all-girls dorm, yet on my second night my roommate was a 30+ year old man lounging around the room in nothing but a bath towel for way too long. I couldn’t handle the dodgy area, the front desk staff’s demeanor, or the unreliable WiFi, so I ended up booking a private room at Moustache Hostel in the GK-1 neighborhood.

I spent the next few nights in a little 2nd floor studio apartment reached by a quaint spiral staircase. The place was perfect, and free of semi or fully nude men.

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Moustache Hostel = #Upgrade

So things were off to an interesting start from the get go with the accommodation issues. Day one I spent shopping for India-appropriate garb, adjusting to the culture, and meeting with locals who could help me with some Delhi-focused stories for Munchies.

For one such story, I needed to find a place in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar called Jain Coffee House. On day two, I set out to try Jain’s mango and paneer sandwiches. One metro trip, three failed rickshaw rides, and two and a half hours walking in the rain later, I finally found Jain hiding in an alley.

"Welcome to Jain Coffee House!" this sign probably says. Good thing I can read Hindi!
“Welcome to Jain Coffee House!” this sign probably says. Good thing I can read Hindi!

I approached the counter and asked about the sandwiches, to which the staff simply replied “no.” I was confused. No sandwiches now? No sandwiches ever? The language barrier made it impossible to find out what the actual f happened to the sandwiches. I was obviously killing it my first 24 hours in Delhi.

I spent the next 15 minutes simmering in my failure over a cup of their excellent chai tea.

The rest of days two and three I filled trying to research a story on a popular snack beloved by Delhi residents. The momo is a dumpling that originated from the Tibetan Plateau, so I went to different Tibetan colonies and Nepalese restaurants stuffing my face with the doughy spheres, Delhi Belly be damned! A highlight of the trip so far was being welcomed into the kitchen of Big Apple restaurant in Majnu-Ka-Tilla Tibetan refugee camp to photograph the pre-cooked momos.

DUMPLINGS

When I’m wasn’t thinking about dumplings, I kept finding myself wondering, “where are all the women?” On the streets, there are so few women out and about. There are very few on the metro (compared to the number of men), even in the women-only cars. Most of the vendors I come across are guys. I guess I get it; being in public as a lady isn’t very comfortable when you have men shamelessly stone-cold staring at you. I feel it myself and watch the way other local women get thoroughly stared at from every angle.

There’s also a clear reason for those all-women metro trains. During rush hour I was waiting in line (with other women) to board a co-ed train when a man placed his forearm on me like he was trying to get in between my butt cheeks. When I tried to move away, he moved with me, readjusting to make sure he got his arm right back in there. I pivoted and he pivoted. Finally I just power walked to a wall and put my back to it, forcing him to choose between continuing to harass me or miss the train. He left me alone.

Despite the unfortunate issues related to the country’s patriarchal culture, not everyone is the aggressive metro offender or the leering pedestrian.  I have met really great Indian men (and women) who have been more than welcoming and helpful. In a city of 9.8 million people, you are bound to find bad apples in with the good.

Ending on a good note, I’ve had the pleasure of eating some damn good Indian delights even though I’m worried about getting Delhi Belly. I have this very unscientific theory that I’m less likely to get sick from Indian sweets, so I’ve had my fair share of gulab jamun, laddu, and the sweet mother of all street desserts, jalebi. Thus far, my theory seems to be working out although I am on a sure path to diabetes, obesity, and toothache ( #WorthIt ).

Jalebi, you magical Indian version of funnel cake, you dog!
Piping hot jalebi, you magical Indian version of funnel cake. You dog!

Tomorrow is a new day, and we’re are headed to Agra to see the ol’ Taj Mahal before trekking north to Shimla, Kasol, and Manali. Outside of Delhi, I’m sure India will continue to surprise, shock, and delight, and I can’t wait to find out.