Quintana Roo – Mexico’s Caribbean Coast

One of my goals for our time spent living in Mexico is to visit as many of the 31 states as I can. In fact, this lofty goal, coupled with the fact that my mother-in-law loves the beach, is what led us on our most recent adventure to Mexico’s easternmost state, Quintana Roo (pronounced “keen-tah-nah row”). Typically, we don’t spend quite as much time (two weeks!) in one state, nor do we often have the luxury of visiting four separate cities and two islands on one trip; however, we definitely wanted to be thorough here because these are some of the most popular tourist destinations both within Mexico and internationally! So, if you’ve always wanted to head on down to Riviera Maya, here’s my summary of what you can see, do, and expect:

Cancún / Isla Mujeres

Our first stop was in Cancún for many reasons. For one, Cancún International Airport is the second largest in the country, which means there are tons of flights in and out from a huge variety of locales. Another solid, practical reason to start in Cancún is the fact that it’s located at the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, meaning flights from east of the Mississippi are quite short and very affordable. Personally, I also wanted to start in Cancún because I had (erroneously, as it turns out) thought that Cancún would be my least favorite of the cities on our itinerary, and I’m very much a save-the-best-for-last kind of person.

The Best Parts:

Speaking of bests, one of our favorite experiences in Cancún was kayaking among the mangroves in the Nichupte Lagoon. As a planned city, Cancún has several distinct “zones”, and the Nichupte Lagoon is actually what separates the Hotel Zone from the city center, making it very convenient regardless of where you’re staying. The lagoon is part of a protected reserve and boasts incredibly clear and calm water as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Another must-do, as far as we’re concerned, is a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres. On a whim, we booked an all-day package that included a catamaran ride, snorkeling through MUSA (an underwater art museum), an open bar, a buffet, and several hours of free time on the island. It was amazing! Dancing to the macarena with a group of strangers was the cherry on top of the perfect beach day. Of course, all the beaches on Cancún and Isla Mujeres are glorious. I have never felt sand so powdery soft or seen such beautiful water both on the shore and out at sea. I totally get why people fall in love with these beaches.

Things to Note:

For me, Cancún (and really all of Riviera Maya) is not the place to go for true Mexican culture. It is a tourist haven, and there are essentially zero Quintana Roo locals. Cancún, especially, has a bit of a Vegas vibe as the city is divided into the Centro and the somewhat remote Hotel Zone – the Hotel Zone being very much like “The Strip”. We actually learned the hard way that getting around Cancún isn’t as easy as it usually is in Mexico. Ubers are banned from the airport and the Hotel Zone, taxis do everything they can to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, and the buses (while frequent) are quite crowded and more expensive as well. The resorts can also be a bit of a headache for those who are staying downtown. Although, by law, all beaches in Mexico are open to the public, private hotels can and have put up walls that require a long walk around to specified access points along the Hotel Zone. That said, once you’re on the beach, you can walk anywhere you want, and there’s nothing they can do about it!

Speaking of headaches…

Playa del Carmen / Cozumel

Our next stop was Playa del Carmen, another resort-focused city along the coast and without question a part of the infamous Riviera Maya. As it’s only about an hour from Cancún, it’s really easy to travel from one to the other, and like Cancún, Playa del Carmen also has a famous island destination right off its shores: Cozumel. Interestingly, I had been to Cozumel as a pre-teen while on a family cruise, but to be honest, my memory of it was almost non-existent…maybe that should have been my first clue as to how I would feel about it as an adult.

The Best Parts:

But first, the positives. The center or anchor of Playa del Carmen is a long shopping/restaurant street called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Here they have everything from high-end malls to beach trinkets and 5-star dining to taco stands. We ate at Aldea Corazón, which had an absolutely delicious take on modern Mexican cuisine. They also have a waterfall and cenote in the outdoor dining area, so the atmosphere is as excellent as the food. After Cancún, it was nice that everything: hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. were all running parallel to the beach, just one block inland. I appreciated not needing any form of transportation while seeing the sights. Playa del Carmen is also beautifully placed directly between Cancún and Tulum, making it easily accessible from either direction.

Things to Note:

Okay, now I’ll be the first one to admit that sometimes you have bad days or bad experiences while traveling (it has definitely happened to us on more than one occasion), and it doesn’t usually affect how I feel about a particular destination. However, our time in Playa del Carmen, definitely had some extreme travel lows. Tourist scams are abundant, upcharges are frequent, and Cozumel is catered to cruise ships. All I can say, is you’ll have to pay A LOT to see and do things that were honestly better in Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Another thing to note (really in all heavily touristed areas/large cities) is to be aware of your surroundings. While we were in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a serious street fight that got out of hand and could have easily escalated into something much worse. Remember it’s not only family vacationers that frequent high-end resort areas.

$25, over 45 minutes, blacked out windows…find another way!

Tulum

After our day in Playa del Carmen, we drove down to our next destination: the highly touted, Tulum. If you consume a lot of travel-related media (like I do), Tulum is/was most likely already on your bucket list as well. Mayan ruins on the cliffs, underground rivers and cenotes, eco-tourism at its finest! I think for this particular trip, Tulum was the city I was looking forward to the most.

The Best Parts:

The things that have put Tulum on the map are definitely the main reasons to visit. The Tulum ruins are incredible! There is so much history and beauty in these sites (although I do have to say that Uxmal, which is closer to Mérida in Yucatán, is still my favorite Mayan site. Yes, even over Chichén Itzá.) The cenotes, of which there are so many in this area, are also well worth the trip. Crystal clear freshwater swimming holes that have so many interesting facts and stories surrounding them – what’s not to love? Downtown Tulum isn’t quite as developed as either Playa del Carmen or Cancún, but the number of independently owned, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants is certainly top notch. The main road through the city is the aptly named Avenida Tulum, but I highly recommend walking parallel to the main drag (on either side) to get a little more of the real day-to-day life of Tulum. And if you are planning to stay in Tulum, I cannot recommend Casa Libélula enough – such a beautiful little oasis tucked away in the chaos that is a burgeoning tourism hub.

Things to Note:

As I mentioned, Tulum is still a growing tourist destination, meaning there are some kinks they’re still working out. Sidewalks are mostly present, but not always, and the locals are still figuring out the right prices for their wares…in my opinion, they’re aiming quite high at the moment. Unfortunately, another thing that goes along with these up-and-coming tourist destinations is the yolo mentality (on both sides). The tourists are yolo-ing it up with a lot of noise and trash (and no resort personnel to clean up after them), and the vendors are making the most of a current fad that they know might not last forever by taking advantage when and where they see fit. In addition to the pandemic-related slump that has affected tourism globally, over the past few years, the Caribbean coast of Mexico has also been inundated with sargassum, or seagrass, and Tulum is unfortunately not immune.

So much Sargassum!

Bacalar

Finally, our last stop on this epic journey, the future tourist hot-spot of Bacalar. Bacalar is about 4 hours south of Cancún, an hour north of Belize, and sits on the pristine Bacalar Lagoon. Unlike the other three cities we visited, Bacalar had not been on my radar until after we moved to Mexico. This is a favorite among locals, and anyone who visits can easily understand why. During our time in Bacalar, I actually felt quite sad thinking about whether or not it’s going to become the next Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but I have to think that it will always retain the special type of mágico that exists there now. ¡Ojalá!

The Best Parts:

Immediately, one of the best parts of Bacalar for me was that it felt much more like the Mexico that I have come to know. It is much more laid back (even with the growing tourism industry). Bacalar has a more traditional main square, an old Spanish fort, and plenty of places to just sit and chill out in the shade. Thankfully, price-gauging hasn’t become an issue in the local shops, and here, more than anywhere else on our trip, was my Spanish needed (as it should be!). Then there’s the lagoon itself. 42km by 2km (26mi by 1.2mi) of incredibly clear blue water (in fact, Bacalar Lagoon is known for having 7 distinct shades of blue). As there is a lot of shoreline available along the lagoon, it’s very common and affordable to stay right on the water, which is what we did. We stayed at Seven Blue House and had an amazing time swinging in hammocks on the dock, kayaking in the lagoon, and watching the sun and wind play on the water from our balcony right over the edge of the lagoon.

Things to Note:

Of course, with Bacalar being so much smaller than the other notable cities in Quintana Roo, the amenities are limited (no Señor Frog’s here!). It’s also not on the beach if that’s something you’re looking for. The lagoon is a couple of hours from the nearest Caribbean beach and all that accompanies it (like sand, for instance). Bacalar is also the furthest away from the big airports and most famous sites of the Yucatán peninsula, so if you want to do and see it all, Bacalar is not a likely home base for a trip like that.

TL;DR

Ultimately, this was a trip full of surprises for us, which shouldn’t actually be so surprising given all the expectations and preconceived notions we came into it with! In summary, I do feel a little guilty about how hard I was on Cancún (before I even visited) because in reality I enjoyed the variety it had to offer. Playa del Carmen isn’t really my vibe, but I can see the draw. I wish I had traveled to Tulum 10 years ago, but it’s still such a sight to see. And with Bacalar, the baby of Quintana Roo’s tourism industry, all I can do is wish it well and hope it remains as unique as it is in this moment.

And with that, another extraordinary trip is in the books! Just so everyone knows, I still pinch myself quite often over the fact that we’re able to do and see all that we have. What an incredible planet we inhabit! Hopefully everyone reading this is currently planning their next adventure, but if not, I hope you enjoyed living this one through my eyes. Here’s to the next one!

¡Salud!

One Year in Mexico – What Have We Learned?

What a year! And what a question! As usual, the time is flying by, and the number of stories, facts, and lessons we’ve accumulated are innumerable. However, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things that have stuck out this past year as we’ve continued adapting to our new home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Lifestyle

One of the first things that is easily recognizable as soon as someone enters Mexico is its vibe. Totally unique and bursting with energy, Mexico (and Guadalajara in particular) had an immediate effect on our mentality. Moving from China back to the US with Canada on the horizon during a global pandemic definitely had us in a more serious mindset. Luckily, only a few days in Mexico had us feeling considerably more relaxed.

More than relaxed actually – tranquilo is the word. The week we arrived in Mexico, I remember walking through a park and watching a man literally stop to smells the flowers. My American go-go-go brain couldn’t compute at first. But that was really all it was. He stopped, smelled the flowers, and went back to his walk. It was the first of many muy tranquilo instances we’ve encountered this year. You can’t help but slow down and ease up, even in a major city like Guadalajara. I have to imagine this year has been significantly better for my blood pressure!  

In addition to feeling more relaxed, we’ve also been re-learning the concept of divertido (fun). One image that will forever be ingrained in my head is that of a man we saw in Ajijic riding a horse down the middle of a road while simultaneously browsing his phone and downing a cerveza. He was definitely having fun. But it’s not just the so-called magic towns that have fun. We live a block away from the party street of GDL, and we hear ALL the fun. I know for some that sounds like a nightmare (light sleepers beware), but for us, it feels like we’re having a party every weekend. Even if we’re just in our PJs watching TV at a comfortable distance.  

Another aspect of our new lives in Mexico has to be living in the moment (o espontáneamente). Sometimes it seems like either something is done right then or else it’ll be “ahorita” (which basically means never). A good example of this would be the “afiladores” or “knife sharpeners”. Every week from our apartment we can hear a whistle and a shout from the afiladores who walk the neighborhood announcing their presence so residents in need can grab their knives and run down for an impromptu sharpening. So far, I’ve yet to attempt this, but maybe ahortia…       

The Lessons 

Of course, adapting to the lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. We’re basically still fumbling our way through life’s daily routines, making error after error as we go, but for me that’s where all the fun is. The laughs we get from the mistakes we make along with the little annoyances or oddities that give us a window into our own cultural confines definitely make all the ambiguity and confusion worth it.

¿Cajeta o galleta?

Most likely our biggest area of failure revolves around language (as it has in every one of our previous homes abroad). One that is still making us laugh actually occurred in the privacy of our own vehicle on the long drive down. The GPS kept saying we were headed toward Oeste, but neither of us had heard of that city or ever saw it on the map. Turns out “oeste” just means west in Spanish. How had we never learned the cardinal directions? Other language faux pas include my use of the word “cansada” rather than “casada” (“tired” instead of “married”) when asked my civil status, and Tucker’s continual struggle with the pronunciation of “galleta” versus “cajeta” (“cookie” or “caramel”) – for the record, I prefer cajeta.  

Another big lesson (mostly for Tucker) this year has been within the realm of driving. Driving in a foreign country is always challenging, but when you add increased frequency, the lessons just keep on coming. For example, we’ve just about reached our lifetime quota of driving through three-lane roundabouts. Still not always sure the best practices there, though. We’ve also realized that “yielding to flow” is not as easy as it sounds. But my personal favorite has been listening to forgotten 80s hits everywhere we go. The radio stations here absolutely love to play Rasputin, Take On Me, and the like.   

Glorieta de los Niños Héroes – pure chaos
Adiós Tony

Shopping in Mexico has also taught us a few lessons over the past year. We had previously learned that we might be expected to sticker our own produce before checking out (thanks Poland and China), but in Mexico, they thankfully do that at the registers. However, here it’s the bakery and cosmetics sections that are separate in most grocery stores, requiring separate check-outs/payments. We definitely lost a carrot cake in this learning process. Another fun grocery store occurrence is the covering up of any cartoon mascots on food products. There’s a law in Mexico that banned characters like Chester Cheeto and Tony the Tiger in an effort to combat childhood obesity and skewed marketing tactics. When we buy products imported from the US, there’s very often a huge sticker covering up some well-known faces.

Other Surprising Tidbits

In all honesty, every time I write a post like this, it’s hard to choose what to put in and what to save for in-person stories. I usually try to group our experiences in some way, but there are so many things we come across that are really in a world of their own. Things like…

Taco facts. Tacos are a way of life in Mexico, and we’ve learned a lot about how to rate, make, and eat a taco. First of all, two corn tortillas are a must for any self-respecting taco. We’ve heard rumors that in El Norte you can get flour tortillas, but I don’t know, it seems sort of sacrilegious now. Sadly, I also found out that putting crema on your tacos is totally fresa (uppity or snobbish). In fact, the purist tacos should have only 5 things: tortillas, meat, onion, cilantro, and lime. Of course, the final addition to any taco is a good salsa, but I could (and might seriously) write an entire post about salsa in Mexico. 

Another discovery in our early Mexico days was the constant morning cowbells. It reminded us of the “bring out your dead” scene of Monty Python, but in reality, it’s the call of the garbage collectors. There aren’t traditional bins in downtown GDL (and good thing too because the sidewalks are well-trafficked and the sun is warm), so instead of a weekly collection day, each morning the bells are rung, and if you have a full bin, you set your bag outside for collecting as they pass by.

Last but not least, I thought I’d end on a cultural tidbit that I’m not sure if I find cute or creepy. When children lose their teeth in the US, the Tooth Fairy visits their room while they sleep, taking the tooth and leaving some money (also somewhat of a mix between cute and creepy to be honest…). And kids here in Mexico experience a similar swap; however, it’s not a fairy that makes the trade. It’s the Ratón de los Dientes (or the Tooth Mouse). Makes me wonder if Mickey’s got a collection of teeth somewhere in the Kingdom.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to during our first year in Mexico. Picking it all up as we go along and having a ton of fun in the process. We’re currently busy renewing our residencies for an additional 3 years, so I think the learning has only begun! ¡Deseanos suerte!

Hogar dulce hogar ❤

US National Parks and Rec

For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!

Number and Size

The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.

What’s in a Name?

As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.

All Good Things

All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!

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!

Fun Facts and Features of Mexican Spanish

Mi escuela

It’s pretty safe to say I’ve been learning and using quite a bit of Spanish as of late. Living abroad, immersed in a new language and culture tends to push certain language lessons to the forefront (like how to order food, how to pay your bills, etc.), but recently, I decided I wanted more lessons, formal lessons. So, I started taking intensive Spanish courses at the University of Guadalajara. It has been so much fun to be a student again and to learn so much about the Spanish language, a language that has been strikingly absent in my life prior to this move. I took Latin classes in high school and (mostly) French in university before focusing on Polish and Chinese, so for me Spanish is super exciting and feels brand new. In fact, it’s so exciting and new that I want to share some of the things I have loved most about getting to know good ol’ español.

1 The Arabic Influence

The first thing I noticed right off the bat was the huge Arabic influence. Of course, I know Spain and the Arab empires had a history (to put it mildly), but I was still really surprised at the number of daily-use Spanish words that have a strong Arabic flair. My favorite of which is definitely “ojalá”. Ojalá means “hopefully” in Spanish, and as soon as I heard it, I knew there was an “allah” connection in there. The sound and use are super similar to the expression “inshallah”, which I’ve been hearing my Saudi students say for years. Now I think I use “ojalá” almost as frequently as they use “inshallah”, and I absolutely love it. The name Guadalajara is actually another example of Arabic influence. It means “valley of the stone” in Arabic. Other common words with Arabic roots are: alberca (pool), arroz (rice), jarabe (syrup), naranja (orange), sandía (watermelon), taza (cup), and zanahoria (carrot).

This is what comes to mind when I think “alberca”

2 The Drama

Go team perros!

Another feature of Spanish that I immediately loved was the drama or passion that is imbedded directly into the language. For example, to say “I’m sorry” in Spanish, you might use “lo siento”. However, if you translate the phrase literally, it means something more like “I feel it”, which I feel has a bit more strength to it. Another super common expression in Spanish is “me gusta _____”, which is generally translated as “I like _____”; however, grammatically, it’s more like saying “I am pleased by ______”. I feel a little Victorian and definitely a tad dramatic when I translate phrases like these in my head (“Yes, the tacos please me immensely, thank you kind sir”). I can also feel the emotion in some of the vocabulary/etymology divergences as well. “Pets” in Spanish are “mascotas”, which feels so much stronger to my English brain. I also love the vivid images given to “word searches” and “ironing boards” in Mexican Spanish, which are “sopa de letras” (letter soup) and “burros de planchar” (ironing donkeys), respectively.

3 The Specificity

Something else that jumped out at me pretty early on in my Spanish crash course was the specificity of the language. The first example I was met with was the fact that in Spanish I can be American (“americana”) or I can be United Statesian (“estadounidense”). This is a specification I really wish was just as easy and natural to make in English. Another good example is the term “treintañeros” or thirty-somethings, which is a word that this particular treintañera has found quite useful. Of course, there is also a seemingly endless supply of words for taco-like things: tacos, vampiros, dorados, gringas, guisados, etc. We’re honestly still figuring out all the particulars there, but it’s not just Mexican dishes that require this level of specificity, the ingredients often call for it too: for example, the difference between tomate and jitomate. From my understanding, tomates are green and rather small, whereas jitomates are your general Romas, beefsteaks, etc. Neither of which should be confused with my personal favorite: jitomates cherry.

4 The Slang

Another fun feature (of every language really) is the slang. And no, I don’t necessarily mean bad words, just words that are used in a more playful way. Some of my recent Spanish favorites include:

-Chafa (crappy)

-Chavorucco (someone older that acts young)

-Chido (cool)

-Chin (darn)

-Codo (literally “elbow”, figuratively “stingy”)

-Crudo (literally “raw”, figuratively “hungover”)

-Fresa (stuck up/snobby)

-Garrón (freeloader)

-Güey (dude)

-Moja pendejos (literally “wet idiots”, figuratively “annoying drizzly rain”)

-Naco (trashy/tacky)

5 The Trip-ups

¿Jabón o jamón?

But perhaps the most fun (and memorable) part of learning a new language are the missteps. Language is tricky and one slip of the tongue or change of a vowel and you could be saying something completely different. For example, when I was asked if I have a boyfriend or spouse. Instead of saying, “sí, soy casada” (yes, I’m married), I said “sí, soy cansada” (yes, I’m tired). I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was tired of being married. Haha! Sorry Tucker! Another slip-up I made recently reminded me of my students. In English there is always an issue with the pronunciation of “soup” and “soap”. They’re super similar words, but definitely not interchangeable. Well, I made the same kind of strange substitution when attempting to ask for soap (jabón), but instead asking for ham (jamón). Oops! Sometimes the missteps can be a bit more extreme as well. When trying to recall the general word for seafood (mariscos), I actually said something not so nice in Spanish, and promptly got a lesson in pronunciation as well as political correctness.

I’ve been having an amazing time learning and using such an incredibly rich and fun language. Making new friends and discussing the intricacies of linguistics (or else trying to ignore them completely and just speak) has continually reinforced all the reasons I love living abroad and being (currently) surrounded by all things español. ¡Qué buenas ondas! Ojalá this is only the beginning!

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)

Things We’ll Miss Most About China

I keep furtively glancing at my calendar, realizing that we’re leaving China in a mere 90 days, and I can’t help but feel a little sad. Just like our last few months in Poland, I keep finding myself saying things like “I wonder if this is the last time we’ll eat here” or “this will probably be our last Taobao order”, etc. It’s always hard to say goodbye, but to help make sure I never forget the details of living in China, I created this handy list of things we’ll miss most (one for each letter of the alphabet, of course):

a
Anda

Anda: Anda is the nickname of Anhui University. It’s probably the first Chinese word I learned to say correctly (tones and all) because if not, we’d have ended up in a taxi to who-knows-where rather than on our way home. But much more than the word itself, I will miss what it represents: the students and teachers I’ve gotten to know over the last year and a half. My time in China would have been entirely different without their continued encouragement, support, and friendship, and I’m so thankful for the memories we’ve shared.

Bubble Tea: Although I’m not a bubble tea fanatic (like some people I know), I will definitely still miss this sweet concoction. Tea with milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls; served piping hot in winter or with a mound of ice in summer, what’s not to love?

c
Cha

Cha: I never really considered myself a tea (“cha”) snob, but after having some of the best teas in the world readily available and often free at every restaurant and hotel, I might have to accept that moniker in the future. The variety and quality of tea in China really is above the rest, and it’s something I most certainly will miss!

Darunfa: Darunfa is our grocery store of choice, and although it stresses me out at times (especially on the weekends), there are so many things I’ll miss about it. The people keenly observing what Tucker and I are buying, the over-the-top decorations and displays, and especially the freshly made Tiantian balls that rarely made it all the way home, just to name a few.

Eleme: Having a pizza delivered is one thing, but Eleme delivered it all. What a great way to try out all the various Chinese dishes within a 5km radius, and all without having to get dressed!

f
Festivals

Festivals: After almost two years in China I can safely say the US just doesn’t have enough festivals. I’m going to miss all the talk about Chinese traditions and questions about whether or not I ate the respective holiday snacks: mooncakes, dumplings, zongzi, etc. I’ll also miss all the red and yellow.

Gaotie: Gaotie, or high-speed trains, are my absolute favorite way to travel, and I’ll miss them sorely. From the odd overhead announcements to the constant smell of instant noodles “cooking”, I will be thinking (and talking) about Chinese train travel for years to come.

Hotpot: How could we not miss the experience that is going out to hotpot with friends? From deciding which ingredients are okay for Dani to try to testing just how spicy we can go, it doesn’t seem to get old. Although the food itself is delicious and something that will certainly be missed, the time with our friends is even harder to let go of.

i
Insanity

Insanity: China’s crazy! Well, it can be crazy – travel during Golden Week and you’ll see (really even Saturdays at the grocery store or a weekday in rush hour counts as insanity for me), but I’m going to miss it for sure. The atmosphere created when you’re surrounded by so many other people just doing their thing is really something I’ve learned to appreciate. “People mountain, people sea” will be missed, but I’m happy to have been a part of these tides at least for awhile.

Jianbing: Specific street foods are always something we crave, and for me the Chinese street food I’ll miss the most is Jianbing (a crepe-like folded sandwich thing that usually has a crispy cracker in the center). Somehow I always seem to eat them early in the morning when we’re on our way somewhere quick, so I associate them with big events and on-the-go eating, which are just two more things I’ll miss about our time spent in China.

Kaishui: Someone recently asked why I still don’t drink hot water (“kaishui”), and I responded with a loud “I do!” When I’m sick, it’s my new favorite thing to drink, and if that’s not enough, just let me say how much I’ll miss having it readily available for my tea. From classrooms and offices to trains and airports, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle life without the possibility of a cup of tea wherever I am.

l
Luxing (Traveling)

Luxing: Speaking of trains and planes, I will miss traveling (“luxing”) around China immensely. What an incredibly beautiful (and vast) country this is. I’ll forever talk about the high speed trains, English signs and maps, and ultimately how easy China made it for me and Tucker to simply take it all in.

Malls: I never really understood the importance of malls until I moved abroad. In the US I never went to a mall – foreign brands? Foreign foods? Who needs them? Now I know: expats do! I also love that I now associate Starbucks, Pizzahut, and Walmart with malls! Thanks China!

n
Noodles

Noodles: How will I live without my daily bowl of Chinese noodles? Cheap, delicious, and widely available, I eat a lot of noodles here, and I will definitely miss my favorites when we go. Chongqing mian, dandan mian, niurou banmian; I’m going to have to work through my withdrawals carefully.

Our Home: Hefei is without a doubt my favorite city in China even though I know no local believes me when I say that. It will forever be one of our homes, and the Chinese city we know the best; therefore, it’s my favorite. Whenever we get back to Hefei after traveling we always say “home sweet Hefei”, and that’s what it is: a pretty sweet place to live.

Pengyou: This time leaving our pengyou (“friends”) behind is much harder than before because unlike most of the other places we’ve lived, where we can easily stay connected with the people we’ve met with Facebook or Instagram, China will be different. I will miss reading my friends daily WeChat moments, I will miss being able to share in the seasonal rituals like the uploading of weather events, and I will definitely miss the last minute plans to get together just for fun.

q
Qingwen (Excuse me, may I ask?)

Qingwen: Qingwen means “excuse me, may I ask…”, and it’s a phrase we have used A LOT during our time in China. Although I probably won’t miss the phrase itself, I will miss the ability to ask strangers for help no matter how small or obvious the solution is. We have been helped far and wide in China (we’ve even had a server cut up our food for us), and I will miss this particular brand of hospitality immensely.

RMB: Renmenbin, the people’s currency, has been good to us. It doesn’t take a lot of money to have a really nice life in China – going out with friends, traveling to nearby tourist locations, and so many of the fun parts of our China experience were so easy to do (and do often) because they were extremely affordable. I’ll definitely miss all the quick, cheap fun we’ve had.

s
Shufa (calligraphy)

Shufa: Shufa is “calligraphy”, which I’ll miss seeing on every hotel and restaurant wall, but more than that, I’ll miss the characters themselves. There is nothing that warms a Linguist’s heart quite like an ancient and unique writing system. Literally everything around me is an interesting language puzzle to solve, and although Tucker might not miss the headaches that caused, I’ll certainly miss the challenge!

Taxi Drivers: Our “paid friends”, as someone once put it, will definitely be missed. I really enjoyed my chats with drivers all around the country. My Chinese isn’t great, but it’s easy to ask about someone’s kids and let them do all the talking. I also appreciate all those drivers who took their time to teach us new vocabulary or pronunciation details – we have used it all!

u
Uniqueness

Uniqueness: China’s weird! And I love it! I’ve never seen a place that mixes extremes in such a way, and I love how much I have learned from that. I’ll miss the uniqueness of China, and I’ll do my best to continue sharing how awesome being a little different can be.

Visas: I will certainly miss the small piece of paper that allows us to travel freely in and out of this country, and I truly hope to get another one soon. It’s always hard to leave, but it’s especially hard when you can’t necessarily come back whenever you want. Here’s to an upcoming paperwork session!

WeChat Pay: The ease, the security, the practicality, I will miss WeChat Pay more than I can even write right now. I have often said WeChat is the lifeblood of China, and I stand by that. It allowed us to be independent, yet even more connected to the people and culture. I love all the surprised looks we get when we ask, “Weixin keyi ma?”.

x
Xuesheng (students)

Xuesheng: My students (“xuesheng”)! The first group I turn to for cultural/logistical questions! The real reason I do what I do! I will miss spending every week laughing at the cultural faux pas I make, bonding over the non-temperature controlled classrooms, and working together to learn and build their language skills. My students are very fast to tell me they love me, and as culturally awkward as it is for me to return the favor, I do love them, and will miss our class (and non-class) times immensely.

Yellow Mountain: The image I will carry in my head of Anhui province is one of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). It is arguably one of the most beautiful places in China, and is central to a lot of Eastern China’s history. I’ll miss the fact that it’s only a two hour train ride away, but at least I’ll have a beautiful visual to share when I talk about my people and home in Anhui.

z
Zhongguo Wenhua (Chinese culture)

Zhongguo Wenhua: “Chinese culture” is the only way I could sum up the rest of the things we’re going to miss. We’ve learned so much and have had an incredible time getting to know this country, some of its people, and their culture. From the small things like abundantly available hotel slippers to the large things like the value of community, I’m so thankful for the perspectives we’ve gained and the time we’ve spent in China.

中国,我们已经想念你了。

China, we miss you already.

IMG_6850

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!

51039841_10218631706852159_8560645814144204800_n

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: A Place Full of Misconceptions

31091991_10216468592255646_3327159418909757449_nPerhaps due to its location on the opposite side of the globe or maybe because of its notorious closed-door periods in history, China is a place with a lot of misconceptions. I remember when I first visited China; it was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. Since then, I’ve continually been surprised by China and have had the pleasure of watching several others break some of their preconceived notions on their first trips to this land in the Far East. While pretty much everything I post (let’s be honest, it’s mostly photos) is in some way shaping people’s views of this country I now call home, sometimes there’s a need for more explicit explanations. Some things just can’t be seen in photos, but can definitely be felt and discussed (and often are if given enough time). However, since not everyone can come to China and experience it all in person, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and discoveries (in written form) on some of the impressions that seem to have a strong effect on outsiders’ views of China, impressions that are often among the first to be thrown into question upon closer observation.

China’s One-Child Policy

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Brothers in a bubble

The One-Child Policy always seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts on China, its policy, family structure, etc., and while, there’s no doubt it has played a role in many aspects of family life in China, it’s not as black and white as the name makes it seem. It actually began as the Two-Child Policy in the 1970s and was put forth as a way to curb the exponential growth of an already heavily populated country. The policy’s aim was to limit the overall population over time and more importantly bring attention to the fact that the previously held views (something along the lines of “more people = more power”) were not accurate and would in fact hurt the population as a whole. The policy also went through a lot of changes throughout its 36 years, which included many exemptions for people in rural areas, minority groups, etc. Even if you weren’t among the exemptees at a given time, the punishment for having more than one child was a fine, which families often found a way to get around (or just knowingly paid). During this time (and still today) the government also provided easily accessible contraception and family planning education, something that still astounds me as I walk into a convenience store that sells affordable, shame-free birth control. What a concept?!

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Siblings entranced by Tucker’s fist bump

Today, China is back to a Two-Child Policy, but of course, there are still many exceptions. I also want to mention that of my roughly 100 students, the majority of them have siblings, despite the fact that they were all born under the One-Child Policy. For me, I think the trickiest thing about the One-Child Policy is that it is inextricably linked with so many other events and policies in China as they ended one really rough era of their history and very eagerly worked to jump into a position of leadership in the 21st century. Because of these coinciding events (and in part due to our national predisposition towards individual autonomy) we tend to think very harshly of this policy (and sometimes of China as a whole) because we’re remembering things like unwanted babies, hasty adoptions, unprecedented governmental control or worse. However, as I’ve been reminded, these were effects of a much greater set of events, not one policy. China was in the middle of a famine and recovering from a revolution that rivals those of 19th century Europe. Ultimately, nothing is simple or black and white, least of all the effects of any government policy.

China’s Communist Government

44054613_10217851084177080_5744207600904306688_nAfter delving into just one policy that definitely captured the world’s attention, I think another misconception of China lies in the government as a whole. When I told friends and family I’d be coming to China, this was a main point of contention. How could you live in a country that’s not free? Aren’t you worried about the communists? In hindsight, it must have got into my head a little because I now realize that when I first arrived I was a little careful about what I said, how I interacted with Party Members, etc. Now I’ve been here for over a year, and I see that that was totally necessary. While the government has many features of communism, it’s actually a hybrid of several political systems. It’s much more complicated than I care to go into, especially because unlike the US, changes within the government here seem to be made more quickly. China is still figuring out exactly how they want their government and economy to fit and work together, and due to their long history of preferring guidelines to written laws, it’s difficult to nail down the specifics regardless.

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Golden Arches are everywhere

It seems like many people are imagining China to look and feel like Cold War era Soviet Union, but it actually looks and feels much more like the US. Capitalism is here in full force, and the Chinese Dream is on everyone’s mind. One noticeable difference, however, is the safety. Cameras are everywhere, people are everywhere, and although I have no idea who (or if) anyone is watching, I know that there are less crimes because there’s a possibility that they are. We see children walking home from school alone in a city of 8 million, and I’ve never felt or experienced any sort of unwelcomed attention when walking alone at night (something that would be impossible in the US today). When my students talk about China one of the things they are most proud of is how safe it is, which I think is an incredible thing to be proud of. Political systems are often a factor in things like this, but culture is another.

China’s Censorship

Another point often brought up about China is the censorship and the Great Firewall. Many Americans have latched onto the censorship in China as a lack of freedom, but every time I hear this I can’t help but laugh. Seen any nudity on American TV as of late? We all live in various forms of censorship. It just so happens that China, coming late to the internet party, was able to pick and choose very carefully from the beginning what they wanted in or out. And of course, as anywhere, there is always a way around that (I don’t think I have a single student who hasn’t see Game of Thrones). I think what’s more interesting though, is that most Chinese people I know wouldn’t have it any other way. They often ask me, why do you want to be able to access media with excessive violence? Do you want young kids to be exposed to more negative influences than they already are? They’re usually tough questions to respond to. We love physical safety features, why don’t we look at mental safety the same way?

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Multiple lucrative walls in China

In addition to the safety and influence arguments made in support of the Firewall is an economic one. Of course China would prefer its citizens not use Facebook, YouTube, etc. That advertising money is going into other countries’ GDPs. China has cornered their own market by creating essentially the same apps, sites, and services here, but through Chinese companies. That’s how I have come to have double the social media options now. For Facebook I have WeChat, for Twitter – Weibo, Amazon – Taobao. Censorship seems to be part business strategy in China, and to me, it seems a lot like the US move towards more American-made products – it makes sense economically. However, most people aren’t especially concerned with who is benefiting from their use of a free app. Usually it just comes down to how good is the product, and I can tell you without a doubt that WeChat is way better than Facebook.

Wechat
Seriously it’s amazing

China’s Cheap Quality Products

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Their handicraft game is strong too

Speaking of Chinese products, another misconception is that everything here is cheap. I assume this one comes from the fact that we get all of our cheap stuff with “made in China” stamped on the back; however, I’d wager some of your most expensive items also come from China. In my experience, just like in the US, there are places you go for cheap stuff and places you go for expensive stuff. We do most of our grocery shopping at a large chain grocery (like Walmart) where if I were to buy a whisk or something like that I would expect it to break in a few months. However, we could go to a nice home goods store and buy a quality whisk as well. Unfortunately, I think the preference for cheap and fast has been an influence the US has had over a lot of countries – it’s something we hear people complain about on every continent we’ve been to.

 

China’s Size

US and China
Aren’t maps the best?!

I’m not sure if this fits into my “misconceptions” post, but I think it just needs to be reiterated how big China truly is. Like the US, it would take days to drive across it, and many years to visit all it’s provinces and regions (there are 34 by the way). However, even with it’s massive size (and extreme geological features: tallest mountains in the world, one of the largest deserts, a few of the longest, widest rivers, etc.), it’s actually incredibly easy and affordable to get around. It took my family 8 years of concentrated effort to visit all 50 states. Between the incredible amounts of planning, purchasing of flights, renting of cars, and the hours upon hours of driving, it was a challenge. We’ve been here in China for about a year and a half and have already visited over half of the provinces. The ease and affordability of the public transportation situation here definitely makes China feel a bit smaller – it means that without a car and without speaking the national language, we can still explore the whole of the country.

Something else that makes China seem very big is the fact that it’s not crowded. 1.3 billion people live here, but it almost never feels that way. Another misconception I think people have is that there are lines everywhere you go in China, and that nothing can be enjoyed because there are too many people. But I hope this is something I’ve been able to show with my pictures – we find ourselves alone even at the most popular of tourist destinations quite often. Chalk it up to the vast spaces or the well-designed properties, but honestly, only on the major festivals have I ever really felt the population of China.

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Wulingyuan, China

China’s Society

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Fast friends!

Another common insight people often have when visiting China is that it’s not as rigid as they thought. Perhaps this comes from the movies, where we see actors portraying the demur, obedient Chinese brides or stoic martial arts instructors of China’s past, but whatever it is that has given us this mental picture, it’s one of the first to be debunked. In my experience people here love to laugh. I think my favorite are the taxi drivers. They love guessing where we’re from, asking what we’re doing in China, if we like it here, etc. In China we’ve also experienced random strangers smiling at us, which after a year in Europe, I had begun to think was just an American thing. Sometimes the older generation here is a bit slower to smile or laugh, but I think it’s because they’ve been through a lot of changes in the last 30 years or so, and maybe they’re waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

China’s Students/Teachers

A final misconception I want to touch on, since it’s so near and dear to my teacher’s heart, is how the students of China are always seen as studious and highly motivated and how the teachers are often seen as aloof and uncaring. It’s very difficult to describe what education is like here. As a whole, I think China is a land of contradictions (some of the newest technology coupled with the oldest historical sites, some of the most stringent internet restrictions with the largest number of internet users on the planet, etc.), but especially in Chinese schools, can these dichotomies be seen. Students sort of have to be studious; a lot rides on their performances, but really they’re like students all over the world, a bit lazy and more interested in other things. Teachers have similar struggles; they are extremely motivated and often become teachers because they love learning themselves, but the pressure for them is high as well, and like most places around the world, they don’t get paid near enough.

 

Ultimately a key difference for me in teaching in China is the amount of respect the society at large has for students and teachers. Students enjoy discounted tickets at most tourist attractions and are not expected to work or support themselves until after they’ve graduated. Teachers also enjoy a high level of respect in the form of our very own holiday (September 10th) and the general admiration of students and children everywhere we go. In the US, education is treated much more like a business, which I think has turned many people off to the importance of education, but in China even with some of the negative effects of test-based systems and low salaries, the push for education is as strong as ever, and the importance of self-improvement can be seen in and out of universities.

45311418_10217990304857510_1333662588940058624_nYikes! That was a lot of information about China! I should probably start writing a book or something because I have learned so much from my time here. More than I could have possibly imagined, and the longer I’m here, the more I know I’ll learn. I’m extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity to better understand the people and the culture of the China, and I love sharing what I learn on both sides of the world. Recognizing some of my own misconceptions has been fascinating, but equally interesting is discovering others’ misconceptions of me (and America as a whole). Maybe that’ll be a future post! For now, I’m going to continue soaking it all up, remembering that things aren’t often as they first appear.

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Taking it all in