Viva La Mexico

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Chichen Itza

Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:

Merida

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Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.

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Pure art!

Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.

Guadalajara

74469092_10221331106775470_6605481842357305344_nOur next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!

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Arco de Zapopan

Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!

Mexico City

78976206_10221463131596008_7786060591298248704_nOur final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!

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Busy, busy!

Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.

Mexico In General

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Incredibly lush!

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.

In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!

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A Tale of Two Cities

Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.

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Putting Lodz and Hefei on the map so to say

Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.

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Train travel in China

Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.

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Cityscape in Lodz

Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.

Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.

The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.

Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:

The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).

Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.

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Skyline in Hefei

Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.

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Skyline in Lodz

 

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Church in Lodz

Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.

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Temple in Hefei
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Polish offerings

Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.

Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:

The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).

I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!

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I ❤ Lodz & Hefei

Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.