Chicago Eats

So, I just got back from another trip to Chicago, which, of course, means another round of non-stop eating! Really anytime I travel back to the US, I have a list of foods I want to have while there, but with Chicago, the list is always much longer than usual. Maybe it’s the city’s infamous specialties, the wide variety of cultural influences you can find, or the nostalgia-factor, but whatever the reason, to me, Chicago is a foodie’s dream destination! In fact, anytime someone asks me for recommendations when visiting Chicago, I always include a list of specific foods to try, and for this month’s post, I’m going to share my list for anyone else who plans to visit my favorite US city. Warning: this might make you hungry.

Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Chicago has to be the pizza. Specifically, the deep-dish pizza. It is undoubtedly something everyone has to try at least once in their life – it’s like pizza on steroids! It’s baked in a pan to give it that two to three inches of thick buttery crust layered with everything you love about pizza: mounds of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and all the traditional topping options. There is definitely a reason this style of pizza is world famous. And fortunately, thanks globalization (and shipping companies around the world), you don’t necessarily have to be in Chicago to sample the majesty that is Chicago deep-dish. Many of the larger chains will ship these one-of-a-kind, ridiculously heavy pies directly to your door. But which chain should you go with? Oof, that conversation is bound to start an argument with any Chicagoan.

Chicago Thin-Crust Pizza

Another common Chicago argument is deep-dish versus thin-crust pizza. Although Chicago deep-dish pizza clearly enjoys more notoriety, most locals usually prefer thin-crust (me included). There’s just something about a super thin, crispy crust, loaded down with toppings, and always cut into squares (something I once thought universal) that just hits the spot. And if you’re thinking “hey, I’ve had ‘thin-crust’ pizza before at *insert national chain here*”, think again because Chicago thin-crust is fundamentally different and 100% worth trying if you’re ever in the city. Trust me.

Chicago Hotdogs

Another Chicago staple is the Chicago Dog. Traditionally an all-beef hotdog “dragged through the garden” with mustard, sweet pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and sport peppers all atop a steamed, poppyseed bun. I’m honestly not a huge hotdog fan in general, but the quality and uniqueness of Chicago Dogs makes them so much better than what you typically get at a baseball game or backyard BBQ. Just like with Chicago pizza, there are very strong opinions on who makes the best dogs and what can/can’t or should/shouldn’t go on them. Unfortunately, I always add ketchup to mine, which is decidedly very un-Chicagoan. Please, don’t judge me!

Italian Beefs

Alongside pizza and hotdogs, an Italian beef sandwich is another must-have whenever you find yourself in the Windy City. Thinly sliced, seasoned and simmered beef served on squishy bread dipped (or double dipped) in the au jus and topped with giardiniera (a sort of pickled relish), sweet peppers, and/or cheese – it’s an amazing sandwich to be sure. I pretty much always order both a hotdog and a beef because I just cannot decide which I prefer! This is absolutely why I cannot afford to live in the Midwest ever again – my pants would never fit! 

Polish Food

Another thing everyone should try (especially if/when in Chicago) is Polish food. I’m a bit biased here, but I think Polish food is one of the best cuisines in the world, and if you can’t make it to Poland, Chicago is your next best bet for some truly delicious and authentic Polish eats. Kielbasa, kabanosy, pierogi, bigos, gołąbki, placki ziemniaczane, żurek, rosół, and so much more can be found all over Chicago. If you pick the right place, you’ll absolutely feel like you’ve been transported to another country, and you won’t soon forget the homey, delicious dishes that have had a huge cultural influence on Chicago’s food scene.

Bakeries

In addition to all the amazing Chicago-specific restaurants and dishes you can try, I always recommend going to a local bakery as well. With all the immigrant groups that have continued to flow into Chicago throughout its history, the city has been blessed with some of the most amazing breads, pastries, and desserts in the US. Salt sticks are a favorite of mine; my mom loves Italian butter cookies; and my dad always goes straight for the decadent, dark chocolate desserts found at all the Polish bakeries. Unlike your basic grocery store bakery, a lot of these specialties have to be ordered in advance and sometimes only on certain days, so do some homework, get up early, and get the good stuff!

Delis

Similar to its incredible bakeries, Chicago’s delis are another thing you have to check out while in the city. Whether you want to get some cured sausages, delicatessen lunchmeat, or a sandwich the size of your head, a deli should be on your list. They have such an old-school, bustling community vibe (yes, even in the suburbs), and the prices are almost as amazing as the quality. Jewish delis in particular are so worth the trip because it’s really an experience as well as an incredible meal – just be sure you know what you want before you step up to order, like a lot of major cities, locals can be a bit impatient with the out-of-towners! 

Chicago Mix Popcorn

Another famous Chicago treat that is making itself known even outside the city, is Chicago Mix Popcorn. A mix of sweet, buttery caramel popcorn and salty, tangy cheese popcorn seems like a strange combination, but somehow it works amazingly well and is super addicting. One of the most famous brands of Chicago Mix is Garrett’s, which has been around since the 1940s and is marketed as “gourmet popcorn” (so you know it has to be good). But you probably don’t have to find a Garrett’s to get the good stuff anymore – most grocery stores nationwide sell a version of the “Mix” in the chip aisle. 

Fannie May Chocolates

And finally, a little dessert…another thing I absolutely always make time for when in Chicago is a trip to Fannie May. A confectionary founded in 1902, Fannie May has a plethora of chocolates and candies that are so unique, I travel thousands of miles to buy and transport them so my friends living abroad can also experience their exquisiteness. If I had to recommend just one thing to try from Fannie May, it would have to be the Mint Meltaways (even the most anti-mint people usually enjoy these perfectly balanced, creamy bites of chocolate). I literally have to ration them after a trip to Chicago! But even if mint isn’t your thing, they have a wide-variety of other truffles, caramels, and any other chocolate-dipped creation you can possibly imagine.

There you have it: my must-have list when it comes to Chicago eats. In my somewhat biased opinion, Chicago is a such great city to visit for a huge number of reasons, but if you’re a food-driven traveler (like I am), it absolutely has to be on your bucket list. So, I suggest you start planning your trip to the Windy city now, and just be sure to bring your stretchy pants with you!

Our Trip to South South America

Summer is officially here, so where better to celebrate than South America, where it happens to be winter! Of course, escaping the heat wasn’t our main reason to take off to Argentina this month, but I won’t lie, we were very happy to be donning our coats in July. Such a surreal experience!

In reality, we had many reasons to head to the opposite side of the Americas. For one, when we booked this trip, Canada was still an unknown, and Buenos Aires was at the top of our list for places to go after Guadalajara. Therefore, a large part of this trip was a scouting mission. Would we like southern South America? Would we prefer Buenos Aires or the nearby Montevideo, Uruguay? Could we picture ourselves moving there? Lots of questions to be answered even if the potential move has been pushed a bit further down the line. So, once again, we took to the road (or sky in this case) for some more “research”, and here’s what we discovered:

Seasonal Switch

First off, packing coats, scarves, and gloves for a July vacation was really strange. Of course, we knew the southern hemisphere is always in the opposite season as the northern hemisphere, but experiencing that drastic switch overnight in the dead of summer/winter was still disorienting. As was the fact that the weather got colder as we went further south. I didn’t realize how ingrained “north = colder” was in my brain! We also found it really entertaining to be all bundled up on the 4th of July – I can only imagine how strange Christmas in Argentina would be for me!

Happy 4th of July!

Another surprising, geography-related experience was just how far south Buenos Aires is! Our flight from Mexico City was 9 hours. We could have crossed an ocean in that amount of time! However, I think the long flight is worth it to have four distinct seasons. It was lovely to have brown leaves crunching beneath our feet again. Slightly less lovely was the fact that Buenos Aires is an hour ahead of Eastern Time. In Mexico, we’re an hour behind, and apparently, we’ve gotten really used to our work days ending at 4pm.

Map courtesy of Aeromexico 🙂

Amazing Food

Fugazzetta

Next up on our list of discoveries was actually more of a confirmation. Near our apartment in Guadalajara, we have several Argentine restaurants, and they’re easily some of our favorites in the city. We were beyond excited to try some of our favorite dishes in their country of origin. Thankfully, Argentina did not disappoint! Of course, the steak and wine were incredible (and SO inexpensive!), but the provoleta, the empanadas, the huge number of sandwiches, the dulce de leche – omg. I was extremely impressed with all the international options we had as well. Italian, German, Korean, Asian-style pay-by-weight places, we were definitely able to branch out even in just 2 weeks.

I was also blown away by the café culture of Argentina. I knew that people in South America have an affinity for drinking mate (a tea-like drink) and, of course, as part of Latin America, coffee is popular as well, but what I didn’t expect was just how abundant and accommodating the cafés would be. Literally every block of downtown BA had at least one café, most of which had several floors offering comfortable places to sit, eat, drink, and chat to your heart’s content. And whether at a café or a restaurant, you absolutely must ask for the check because they’ll never hurry you out.    

So Much Nature

While the local food is always a priority for us when we travel, the memories that stick with us longer are often our forays into the surrounding nature, which is something that South America has in spades. We knew we wanted to take a few trips outside Buenos Aires while we were there, but deciding on where to go was so tricky! An overnight train to the Andes out west? A trek through the jungle to see the infamous Iguazu Falls? Or fully embrace winter with a flight down to Cape Horn? Of course, we went with the coldest option!

Thanks to Argentina’s budget airline, Flybondi (which is thankfully still operating post 2020), we were able to find cheap tickets down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia sits in the far south of Patagonia and is known as “the southernmost city in the world”. Here we were able to play in the snow, chill our craft beers on the window sill, and tour the icy Beagle Channel. As a geography nerd, the sheer fact that I was at the southern tip of the Americas, only about 1000km from Antarctica was enough for my bucket list, but the incredible mountains and pink morning skies just made it that much more beautiful.

Fantastic Cities

As amazing as it was to be surrounded by such diverse nature, we definitely spent the majority of our time in the two major capital cities: Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Turns out we could have used even more time because Buenos Aires is huge! That’s really the immediate impression I got from the city. It was a 45-minute ride from the airport to Retiro (a downtown neighborhood), and aside from the distance, the number of massive buildings, many of which were apartments, definitely stood out. Walking downtown, I was also amazed by how tall so many of the building are. Very old, very European-style architecture, but much taller than I seem to remember in Poland (or than what we find in Guadalajara). Luckily everything seemed to be bigger in Buenos Aires because there were also gigantic plazas and parks, wide sidewalks, and many-laned throughfares. It seemed like the kind of place you could live for years and still be discovering new points of interest.

Montevideo, on the other hand, was much smaller. Both in terms of the city’s size and the architecture. Although just a few hours away, across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and has an entirely different vibe. Of course, we were super interested in noting any and all differences (in the name of research) and couldn’t help comparing as we went along. To me, Montevideo felt a little like the quirky younger sibling of Buenos Aires. It was much more colorful with lots of street art and eclectic architecture throughout the old and new sections of the city. It also felt much more coastal with its huge rambla (promenade) and beaches. While a lot of the culinary traditions are similar between the two countries, Uruguay has a few of its own stand-outs as well, like the Chivito sandwich, which is now in Tucker’s top 5 sandwiches of all time.

I give you the Chivito

Spanish Differences

Another interesting experience on this trip (as well as on our trip last year to Ecuador) was the Spanish we were hearing and eventually using. The Spanish I’m learning is Mexican, and this is never more obvious than when we’re traveling in another Spanish-speaking country. Words like “alquilar” (to rent), “maní” (peanut), and “palta” (avocado) gave me pause because we regularly (read: only) use “rentar”, “cacajuate”, and “aguacate”. Just like learning to use “chulla vida” in Ecuador, it was really interesting to see which indigenous words Argentina and Uruguay have adopted and how these (and other) influences still serve to differentiate Spanish varieties around the globe.

However, it wasn’t just the vocabulary that caught our attention on this trip to South America. The first real conversation we had in Argentina was with the security guard in the building where we were staying. He gave us our keys and made sure we knew what to expect with entering, exiting, etc. Luckily, having a few Argentine teachers in the past helped prepare me for hearing things like “sha” and “shaves” instead of “ya” and “llaves”, but it was still much harder than I expected. The accent is SO different from what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and start using ourselves. After just a few days we were saying “sho” (yo) and “para shevar” (para llevar) like everyone around us!  

So, What’s the Verdict?

Well, we loved it all! We could definitely see ourselves moving to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo in the future, and I would absolutely love to have a few years down there (at least!) to more thoroughly explore South America. Even though we might be going north before we make it back down south, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity we had to get even a glimpse of such an amazing part of the world! Until next time! ¡Chau!

Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!

¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

Somehow, we’ve officially been residents of Mexico for 6 months already, and it’s absolutely crazy how fast the time went by! Of course, as we’re still in “pandemic times”, our usual explorations and goings-on in a new city have been pretty tame, but that doesn’t mean we’re not learning everything we can about the incredible city we call home: Guadalajara. Through virtual chats with local friends, outdoor excursions, online Spanish classes, and, of course, the internet, we’ve definitely gleaned a lot of information about GDL, and I would say we are already as fiercely proud of this city as any good Tapatío (or Guadalajara native) would be. We’re so enamored (okay maybe even a little obsessed) that this month I want to share some keys facts about Guadalajara in the hopes that someday soon anyone and everyone will want to visit this amazing city.  

History

First thing’s first: where did it all begin? This is always a tricky subject with colonized countries because there are typically two histories: one European and one indigenous. Guadalajara’s story is no different. In the region/state now known as Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital), there were many indigenous groups such as the Tonallan, Tetlán, and Zapopan peoples. These names can actually still be seen and heard representing various parts of the modern-day, sprawling city, but it was in the early 1500s, when the Spanish settlers, continuing their journey west, officially founded the city known as “Guadalajara”. However, due to some unrest with the local indigenous groups of the time, the city was actually moved three times before finally settling in its current location in the Atemajac Valley, in 1542. In fact, the true founder of the city was Beatriz Hernández, one of the initial settlers, who got tired of all the moving around and finally put her foot down, ultimately choosing the city’s final placement.

From 1542 onward, Guadalajara has always played an important role in Mexico’s history. Miguel Hidalgo had his headquarters set up here during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. President Benito Juárez made Guadalajara the seat of his government during the Reform War of the 1850s. Throughout the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and multiple domestic and international wars, Guadalajara continued to flourish and grow. By 1910, it solidified its place as the second largest city in Mexico, and since then has also become known as the “Silicon Valley” of Mexico, hosting a large number of innovative companies and international events throughout the years. As the city of Guadalajara expanded, neighboring cities have also been absorbed into the greater GDL area, including Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, each of which still retains its unique vibe and perspective.

Geography/Climate

The geography of Guadalajara is a really interesting mix because while we’re squarely in Central Mexico in a “humid subtropical climate” zone, we’re also at 5,200 ft (1,560 m), roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado. For this reason, the weather is extremely mild (read: gorgeous). The hottest and driest months of the year here are April and May, but even then, the average high is only around 88°F (31°C). With no humidity and with temperatures dropping into the 50s (10-12°C) every night, it felt somewhat like a brief, very manageable (albeit early) summer. From June-September, GDL is in rainy season, which typically means rainy afternoons and some seriously stormy nights. Luckily, it also means the temperatures stay down as well. It’s currently August, and I usually have to wear a jacket when taking the dog out in the mornings – how awesome it that?! After the rainy season comes a cool, crisp autumn followed by a dry, mild winter. In GDL, winters are usually quite sunny and “spring-like”, but it has on occasion snowed. In fact, we’ve already heard several great stories about the infamous snow event of 1997!

Although it sits at a high elevation, Guadalajara is still technically in a valley, which means there are low-lying mountains surrounding the city. To the northeast there is a canyon system and several surrounding forests including Bosque Primavera. In general, Guadalajara is much lusher than I would have expected: green grasses, leafy trees, and many waterfalls can be found throughout Jalisco. There are also several volcanos in the area, a few small ones to the west (near Tequila) and a few more, southwest on the border of Colima, another one of Mexico’s 31 states. The city of Guadalajara itself is quite large: 58 sq mi (151 sq km) and is home to approximately 1.5 million people. If it helps, it’s about the same size and has a similar population density as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Guadalajara, like most large cities, is broken up into many distinctive barrios (or neighborhoods). We live in the slightly hipster Colonia Americana, which lies a little to the west of the oldest neighborhood in the city, the aptly named “Centro”.

Food

Of course, I cannot write about Guadalajara without highlighting some of its most characteristic foods. I wrote a bit about the common dishes found in the Bajío (lowland)/Western region of Mexico in a previous post, but for Guadalajara in particular there are a few specialties that must be mentioned. The first being the infamous torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”). Perhaps the Philly-GDL comparison can continue here because the fame and ubiquity of this particular sandwich is very similar to that of the renowned cheesesteak in PA. A torta ahogada is essentially a pork sandwich made on baguette-like bread smothered in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s absolutely delicious and very unique. Other famous dishes here include birria (slow-cooked meat stew), carne en su jugo (beef broth with beans, eaten with tortillas), and jericalla (a flan/crème brûlée like dessert). The French flair that can be seen (and tasted) in a lot of Guadalajara’s signature dishes actually comes from the large swath of French immigrants who came into the area throughout the 1800s.

Not exactly a food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the fact that tequila is also an important claim of Guadalajara/Jalisco. The city of Tequila (which is how the drink got its name) is about 40 miles (65km) outside GDL. Grown only in this particular region of Mexico, the blue agave plant (as opposed to other varieties) is what separates tequila from other types of mezcal. Its status is highly protected, and the drink is as beloved here as it is the States. Although the margarita is really more of a US thing, cocktails containing tequila mixed with various fruits, juices, and either salt or tajín (a powder made of chilis and dried fruit) are super common here. In Guadalajara, I’d say the paloma is the most popular tequila-based cocktail, which is made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda (usually Squirt), and salt mixed right into the drink.  

Other Notables

Guadalajara is known as a cultural hub of Mexico because not only does tequila (a national icon) originate here, but so does mariachi. The traditional music often associated with Mexico in general has gone through a lot of phases during its development and various influences. From handmade stringed instruments played by indigenous groups to the brightly colored outfits and trumpets of performers today, you can listen to a variety of mariachi styles in the Plaza de los Mariachis or in various restaurants across Guadalajara (and across Mexico as a whole), especially for important events. Mariachi, and its history, is widely celebrated in GDL, for example with a yearly Mariachi festival, during which (in 2009) a group of over 540 musicians gathered to break the world record for largest mariachi group playing together. One of the songs they played was, of course, “Guadalajara”, famously covered by Elvis Presley.

Other interesting facts about Guadalajara include: the Roman/Greek goddess Minerva/Athena has become a symbol of the city. She has a large statue near the Arch of Guadalajara and is also featured on the city’s license plates. GDL has two professional soccer teams: the Atlas and the Chivas, and from what I understand, the latter is arguably the most famous and successful team in Mexico. Guadalajara also has the largest indoor market in Latin America (Mercado San Juan de Dios also known as Mercado Libertad), which spans over 430,000 sq ft (40,000 sq m). GDL was also the birthplace of celebrities Guillermo del Toro (the director) and Canelo Álvarez (the boxer). And…it’s only a 4-5hour flight from Atlanta or Chicago! Ultimately, it’s a really remarkable city, and unlike some of the other places we’ve lived, the locals here know it and love it just as much as we do. I think you will too!

¡Todos bienvenidos!

La Comida: The Regional Cuisines of México

Mmm…enchiladas…

I absolutely love Mexican food! Tacos, enchiladas, guacamole…yes, yes, yes! But what I didn’t know and what I’m still learning is that the old stand-bys that we all know and love are only the teeny tiny tip of the authentic, Mexican food iceberg (quite the image, I know!). After delving a bit deeper into some of the regions of Mexico in 2019, and definitely more so recently, I’ve been discovering (and tasting) a lot of this incredible variety. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Like in many large, diverse countries, the dishes of Mexico are often grouped by geographical region. The boundaries of these regions might differ slightly from person to person and occasionally a few are lumped together for simplicity, but in general, there are seven main regional cuisines: Baja, El Norte, Bajío/The West, Gulf Coast, Central, South Pacific, and Yucatán. 

Starting at the top left is the region of Baja, and you guessed it; this region contains the two states that make up the Baja California peninsula. The food of this region is sometimes called Cali-Mex, and it is often seen as somewhat of a fusion of Mexican and Californian fare. Being surrounded in water, seafood is, of course, a big part of the local cuisine there. Baja is well-known for its amazing ceviches (fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices) as well as the infamous Baja fish tacos. Interestingly, Baja is also the point of origin for the now quite internationally famous Caesar salad.

(ceviche)
(one-stop, cheese shop)

Next, and easily the largest region in Mexico is El Norte (The North). This is the region that has arguably had the greatest effect on US-Mexican food (including the super Americanized hybrid that is Tex-Mex). This cuisine and culture evolved around ranch life; thus, beef is a main component. Flour (as opposed to corn) also reigns supreme here, and the need for a meal on the go (say via horseback) is how some say the burrito was born. Fajitas and other grilled dishes are also popular, and many of Mexico’s numerous cheeses are made in El Norte.

(carne en su jugo)

The next region on the list is very close to my heart (I live here), and funnily enough it’s often referred to as the “heart of Mexico”. Bajío means lowlands in Spanish, but the region generally includes states not necessary lying solely in the lowlands. This region, of which Jalisco is front and center, is known for its signature dishes, such as birria (a sort of meat stew), tortas ahogadas (literally “drowned sandwiches”, which are sandwiches swimming in tomato or chili-based sauces), and carne en su jugo (“beef in its juice”), as well as its desserts, like arroz con leche (rice pudding) and the absolutely delicious cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk). Jalisco is also the birthplace of tequila, so the influence clearly doesn’t stop at food!

(torta ahogada)
(coconut fried shrimp)

Heading east, we come to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. This is the region where the Spanish first landed, and their influence can be seen even in the modern-day cuisine of the area. One of the most popular dishes is Huachinango, or baked snapper flavored with traditional Spanish ingredients like olives, garlic, and capers. The incredibly diverse Caribbean and African influence can also be seen in this region. Unsurprisingly, seafood is generally the protein of choice here, particularly shrimp, although plantains also feature prominently, as well as vanilla, which is indigenous to the area.  

Another big-hitter in the Mexican cuisine line-up is the Central region, which includes Mexico City and Puebla, two very influential areas. Here the Aztec influence can still be felt (and tasted), especially in the abundant use of chili peppers. In fact, Mexico’s most patriotic dish, Chiles en Nogada (which are stuffed chili peppers in a walnut sauce sprinkled with parsley and pomegranate seeds), hails from this region. Street foods such as tacos and tortas are also generally associated with Central Mexico and like El Pastor (spit-grilled pork), probably come from the mixing of cultures that has always been prevalent in this part of Mexico. Interestingly, while the Central region is famous for its street foods and cheap eats, this is also the location for Mexico’s haute cuisine scene as well. 

Down in the South Pacific region, lies another internationally renowned cuisine, particularly the dishes and food culture of Oaxaca. Known for its moles (traditional Mexican sauces/marinades) and the use of chocolate in savory dishes, the South Pacific has been influenced by the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples. This is the region where chapulines (grasshoppers) can be found as well as other unique ingredients like huitlacoche (corn fungus). Oaxacan cuisine is often touted as one of the greatest untapped resources of the culinary world.

(panuchos)

Finally, we have the oft-visited, Yucatán peninsula. The resort cities of Cancún or Cozumel have their own culinary flair (catered to the needs of their many guests), but this region also has an array of incredible Mayan-influenced dishes. Papadzules (hard-boiled egg-stuffed tortillas covered in a pumpkin seed sauce), Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork), and anything with achiotes (flavorful seeds turned spices), are all unique, colorful, and absolutely delicious. As are the numerous tropical fruits incorporated into this region’s cuisine. Another personal favorite of mine, Yucatán cuisine surprises me at every bite. Even the seemingly simple panuchos (fried tortillas topped with beans, chicken, avocado, and pickled veggies) are just perfect.

(papadzules) (poc chuc) (relleno negro)

Of course, this is only a sample of the thousands and thousands of dishes that originated in Mexico. In fact, some of the most ubiquitous weren’t even included on this list because they don’t really belong to any particular region; dishes like chilaquiles (sort of like breakfast nachos), tacos, sopes (sometimes called Mexican pizza), tostadas, quesadillas, molletes (toasted bean and cheese flatbreads), pozole (hominy or puffed-corn soup), elotes, and tamales. They instead represent the country and its people as a whole; a country every bit as diverse as its cuisine. So, the next time you find yourself in Mexico (or even in a Mexican restaurant) try to stray away from the classic enchiladas or quesadillas and see what other offerings are available – you might find a few new favorites (much like I certainly have). Either way, ¡buen provecho!

(elotes) (chilaquiles) (flautas, fried tacos, y molletes) (sopes) (pozole)

Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hop Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!

Eating Our Way Through Japan

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Ready to eat!

Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:

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Omurice

Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.

Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!

 

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Okonomiyaki

All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.

Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!

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Gyudon with rice and miso

Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!

 

Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.

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Ramen and kimchi

Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!

Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!

Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.

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Train food perfection

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Famous cheesecake

Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.

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Haven’t had enough!

Other Snacks and Experiences:

Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori

KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar

Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat

Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones

Goyza – Japanese fried dumplings

Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)

Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything

Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes

Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku

Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup

Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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China Bucket List – Nearing the End

The New Year is here! And like many people, it has me both reminiscing about 2018 and planning for the upcoming year. In particular, Tucker and I have been looking at what we’ve accomplished China-wise since our move to Hefei. It’s beginning to hit us that we only have a few months left of living in this incredible country, so our China bucket list has become a bit of a priority. With this in mind, here are some of the things we accomplished in 2018 and a few more that we’re still hoping to cross off before our impending departure. If you’re ever in China, I highly recommend each item on this list!

25550266_10215398260578023_5563219324360546085_n✔ Learn to play Mahjong

As game lovers, we knew we would have to learn to play Mahjong while in China, but what we didn’t expect was how much we’d love it! Since our learning the game, we have bought our own set of tiles and have played in many a Mahjong room. It’s a bit like Gin Rummy, but with added Chinese practice – perfect for me!

 

22195457_10214729980991451_5640761874681964647_n✔ Visit a Buddhist Temple

Although China as a whole isn’t very religious, there are many temples still in use around the country. When we visited Nanjing during Golden Week last year, we climbed to the top of Jiming Temple and burned incense in order to strip away our negative qualities and purify our inner-selves (or so they say).

 

33165983_10216691252622016_2671023896341250048_n✔ Perfect our Chopsticks Skills

Just like many other Chinese takeout lovers around the world, we weren’t exactly new to chopsticks; however, there were many foods we had never attempted to eat with them before (like soup or salad for instance). But it didn’t take long for our hand cramps to disappear, leaving behind beautiful chopstick form and a sense of mastery.

 

23843625_10215123442787750_5496286057710795872_n✔ Hike Huangshan

We live in Anhui province, which is famous for having the most beautiful mountain in China: Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). It was made very clear to us that we had to visit the mountain, preferably once in each season. Well, a year and a half in, and we’ve made it to the top of Huangshan twice – once in November and once in April.

 

48427268_10218385939028117_6167021417226305536_n✔ Share Hotpot and Selfies with Friends

This is a bucket list item that we have happily done dozens of times. If grabbing a burger and a beer is the American way of hanging out with friends, hotpot and selfies are the Chinese way, and we’ve had so much fun every time!

 

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✔ Stare in Awe at the Terra-Cotta Warriors

History was never my favorite subject, but when it’s right in front of you, it’s hard to feel that way. The massive tomb and insane number of true-to-size warriors, horses, and chariots is something I’ll never forget. There is so much history here, and I’m happy to be taking it all in.

 

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✔ Visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Another absolute must-do for us in China was the Ice Festival in the far north of Dongbei. We’d heard about and seen many pictures of this event, but being surrounded in buildings made of ice was way cooler (see what I did there) than what we could have imagined. Honestly, I’m still not sure if it was the cold or the beautiful sculptures that took our breath away.

 

47573080_10218296931362981_8222027968302546944_n✔ Devour the Dim Sum in South China

When people ask me what my favorite Chinese food is, I often say Guangdong style. Sweet BBQ pork buns, light and fresh spring rolls, fluffy pineapple pastries, never ending tea for the table; dim sum is my favorite, and the best version we’ve ever had was in the region itself, in the city of Guangzhou.

 

29186978_10216122142394616_4670802097008799648_n✔ Wander around West Lake

There’s a Chinese saying “in Heaven there is paradise, on Earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou”. These are two cities know for their beauty and ancient Chinese charm. Tucker and I have been fortunate enough to visit them both (multiple times), and can now say with certainty that West Lake is one of the prettiest places in all of China.

 

31347884_10216502220376328_7998563502147002746_n✔ Feel like a Kid at Disneyland Shanghai

Everyone knows my family loves Disney, so of course it was on our list to visit the newest of the parks. How can I describe it as anything other than magical? A large pink castle, new roller coasters to ride, completely different foods and snacks to try, plus, we went with my parents which meant that we also got a much-needed dose of family time.

 

34395359_10216784503553231_2112007591797194752_n✔ Learn about the Minority Groups in China

China is a big place with a lot of people, and in many regions that means there are different ethnicities mixed in. When we visited Yunnan (in China’s southwest corner), we were able to learn more about these groups of people, where they live, what languages they speak, and how they have coped with the rapidly changing, modern China.

 

35475218_10216887149439314_3449926763910529024_n✔ Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival

Every summer, China celebrates an ancient legend by racing their famous dragon boats and eating lots of zongzi (think Chinese tamales). We were able to take part in these festivities by joining the crowds at Hefei’s Swan Lake for the races and following them up with a home-cooked meal (including many varieties of zongzi) at a colleague’s house.

 

42409352_10217684087802275_4573337294823489536_n✔ Drink Tsingtao from the Source

One of the most popular beers in China (thus one of the most popular beers in the world) is Tsingtao, which comes from the previously German-occupied city of Qingdao. As beer lovers, Tucker and I were very excited to traipse around this coastal city tasting all the local brews. We also visited the brewery itself, which had surprises around every corner – including a drunkenness simulator and a pop-up rave with pandas!

✔ Show our Families around our Home

This is one of the things I’m most thankful to have crossed off our list. We have both been lucky enough to host family members in China. It’s so much fun for us to show the places we love to the people we love. My parents visited in the spring, and Tucker’s mom and aunt in the fall. So many memories made and priceless experiences shared in-person this time!

 

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✔ Explore some Rice Paddies

When you picture China maybe you picture vast terraced mountains like these. I can’t remember what I first pictured when thinking of China, but I hope it was this. Although now I know that views like this aren’t around every corner, it doesn’t change the fact that when you do happen across them, you can’t help but be amazed. Definitely makes me think about my daily bowl of rice a little differently.

 

45111553_10217993293292219_5974621691412742144_n✔ Walk along the Great Wall

The most famous landmark in all of China has to be the Great Wall. Of course it’s on every China bucket list, but we took it one step further. We have actually walked on the 3 most famous sections of the Great Wall: Mutianyu, Badaling, and Jinshanling. Three sections, in three different seasons. Maybe we’ll have to come back one winter to see a fourth, snowy section.

 

43104942_10217769755343910_2411993070099759104_n✔ Make Dumplings from Scratch

Although I’m not really into cooking, I did want to experience the magic of Chinese cuisine firsthand. We made a friend just after we arrived in China who said she loves to cook, and offered to show us how to make our own dumplings. Filling, wrappers, everything! We had a great time shopping, preparing, cooking, and eating, and now I can say I’ve done it at least once!

 

46485909_10218117963368893_9080195655615381504_n✔ Crisscross the Yangtze

Along with the Great Wall, the Yangtze river is synonymous with China in my mind. I wanted to walk along it, cruise down it, maybe even swim in it (hard “no” on that now though). The river is central to China in so many ways, and nothing seems to remind me of what I thought about China prior to coming here quite like the Great River.

 

✔ View the Real Pandora at Zhangjiajie

So many places ended up on our list because of the recommendations of others, and Zhangjiajie was one of these. It’s the inspiration behind Pandora’s floating mountains in the movie Avatar, but I think hands down the real mountains were more beautiful. We visited on a snowy day in December and were definitely drawn into another world.

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✔ Soak in some Natural Hot Springs

The most recently completed item on our list was to relax and enjoy some of nature’s jacuzzis (otherwise known as hot springs). Near Hefei is a city called Chaohu, which is home to one of the largest freshwater lakes in China as well as a number of natural hot springs. It was a great way to end the semester, and begin thinking about what’s coming up on our collective agenda.

Still to come…

See some Pandas in Chengdu

In just a few days we’ll be on our way to Sichuan – a province in the west of China, famous for housing the country’s national treasure and some of the spiciest food on the continent. Can’t wait!

□ Gamble in Macau

We meant to go to Macau last year, but due to poor planning and holiday crowds, we didn’t make it. Luckily it’s back on the schedule for later this month! It’s known as the Vegas of the East, so maybe we’ll finally have a little luck at a casino.

□ Try Acupuncture

While not as popular as I thought it would be in China, as a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practice, both Tucker and I are eager to try it out. He’s not a huge fan of needles though – wish us luck!

□ Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Shufa (or calligraphy) is a well-respected art form here, and it’s easy to see why. Chinese characters are rich in meaning and symbolism, which is why calligraphy here is more than just nice handwriting. It’s often compared to poetry or painting, and I’m super excited to try out my abilities.

□ Sample the Top 10 Noodles and Top 10 Teas of China

One last ongoing item on our list is to try the most famous noodles and most famous teas from around China. We’re always on the lookout for items on our list as we travel around, but we’ve been able to scout out some imported noodles/teas around Hefei as well. Gotta try ’em all!

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In reality, there are so many more things that made it onto our China bucket list, and we seemingly add something new just about every week, ensuring there’s no end to our exploration. However, these definitely stand out as some of the highlights so far – experiences that we’re not likely to ever forget. What a truly amazing way to spend our 2018! Here’s to even more adventures in 2019!