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!

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?!

2021 Wrap-up

Another year is coming to an end…and although it wasn’t quite as crazy as 2020, it was close. For me and Tucker there were definitely some things that changed (drastically) and others that were oddly more consistent than ever before; all of which has me reflecting. So, here’s a look back at our 2021: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In an effort to cleanse ourselves from the craziness of the previous year, we started 2021 by burning everything we could find that said “2020” on it. It was extremely cathartic. As was our drive to Florida’s west coast for sunset followed by a drive to the east coast for the first sunrise of 2021. I enjoyed the dramatic ending of what was objectively one of the worst years in recent history. Although, unfortunately, a lot of what made 2020 so bad seemed to follow us into 2021, I was still extremely happy that I was able to use the New Year as an excuse to move on (mentally and physically as it turned out).

In February we finally said “au revoir” to Quebec (at least for now, accepting the long immigration pause as a bit more permanent than we had originally thought), and then we literally said “goodbye” to Orlando as we packed up and headed out for yet another (different) international move. This time we went south, moving to beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico! With all the new challenges, like obtaining residency, driving across the border, and settling in with a four-legged family member this time, we all felt completely refreshed. It’s amazing what having tangible plans and clear goals can do for your mentality, especially after a year of complete stagnation. I joke that Mexico became my therapist because I had seriously needed something to focus my energy on post-2020, and luckily, I found it.

In addition to giving us a new focus, Mexico has been an incredibly fun experience! In April, Tucker and I celebrated our birthdays with piñatas and cervezas before getting the best birthday presents ever: our vaccines! Getting vaccinated was another sort of turning point for us as we had severely limited our time outside the house prior to the vaccines. Having some sort of protection (in addition to our masks and other precautions) allowed us to begin exploring again. Since we brought our trusty steed (our Ford Focus) down to Mexico, we’ve actually been able to take several road trips thus far: visits to Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro just to name a few.

Of course, we’ve also spent a good amount of the year simply adapting to life in Mexico. We’ve settled into our incredible neighborhood, and like I did with Orlando, I’ve essentially walked as far as I can in every possible direction to really get the feel for where we live (apparently this is my favorite pandemic-induced hobby: neighborhood walks). Another favorite pastime for me this year has been taking a plethora of Spanish classes. With the flexibility of my remote work schedule, I’ve made it a point to really work on my own language learning in 2021. I hope to continue this trend in the New Year as well. As for Tucker, he’s been paying a lot more attention to soccer as of late. We recently watched Atlas (our home team) win a championship, and we have plans to watch them play in person at some point. Fingers crossed!

Go Atlas!

While there have been many changes for us this year, one of the biggest things that hasn’t changed is work. This is the first time in many, many years that Tucker and I both started 2021 with the same jobs that we’re ending it with. Gotta love the remote work life! We’re also happy to report that our international family visits have continued as well without too much difficulty. As always, it has been such an amazing experience to share our new home with our most adventurous family members! During a lull in the variants, Tucker and I even got to continue our international travels by visiting an entirely new (to us) continent with our Thanksgiving trip to Ecuador. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that particular spur-of-the-moment decision. Maybe it’ll tide me over for a while…but probably not.

In contrast to all the triumphs, whether new or continued, we’ve also had a few unexpected hurdles this year. International apartment hunting amid a global pandemic was quite a challenge as was the procurement and installation of the most irritating dishwasher known to man. I also had to have a medical procedure done back in September, which not only tested our Spanish, but also our ability to lean into the unknown/ambiguous aspects of living abroad. Thankfully all went well, and I have only great things to say about the healthcare system of Mexico. Another difficulty arose a few months ago when a rogue highway rock hit and cracked our car’s windshield beyond repair. Dealing with car issues and insurance is never fun, but in a foreign country, in another language, it was torturous. However, as I kept reminding myself throughout the mishaps, this is exactly why we love living abroad: new challenges and endless lessons in patience.

As I write this, we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the days between Christmas and New Year, which brings me to yet another one of the most exciting aspects of our year: celebrating all the holidays! Learning that Cinco de Mayo is mostly an American invention, reliving the events of “Coco” during Día de Muertos, and wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad” this month have all been incredible additions to our collective cultural knowledge. Now I can’t wait to eat my 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve and ring in what I hope will be an even more exciting and transformational year! Here’s to a próspero 2022!

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!

Winter Wonderlands (of years past)

It’s December! Only a few days from the official start of winter! You might already know this about me, but I absolutely love this time of year. Of course, I know not everyone feels the same way, and I also know that this year is different (in about every way possible). Typically, during the holidays, Tucker and I do some traveling: we disconnect, explore someplace new (often somewhere we can play in the snow), but alas, 2020 has kept us pretty tethered…in Florida of all places. So, for this month’s post, I ask you to humor me as I look back at some of my favorite winter destinations of years past. I’m aiming to turn this pining into planning, and I invite you to do the same. There’s always another winter coming!

Tatra Mountains, Poland

This is the trip I always find myself looking back on around this time of year. Magical is the best word I have to describe our snowy hike in the Tatra Mountains. It felt and looked exactly like a fairy tale (well at least until our inadequate clothing choices had us pondering the effects of frostbite). Zakopane was the little mountain town we based our trip around, and the mulled wine, grilled oscypek (a mountain specialty), and the handmade wooden crafts in the local markets made it all the more beautiful.

Harbin, China

Even if you don’t like the cold, you should still be able to appreciate the incredible Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. I’ve never been to the North Pole (or any city that associates with it), but I definitely got Santa’s Village vibes while we were there. Snow sculptures as far as the eye could see, entire buildings and playgrounds made of ice, and, if I recall correctly, there was even a VR experience with penguins. Definitely worth the icy eyelashes!

New York, USA

A post about winter trips must include New York City. It’s truly lovely any time of year, but bundling up on a ferry crossing the Hudson, drinking hot chocolate while watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and feeling the fierce winds tunneling through the skyscrapers are some of my favorite memories of this iconic destination. I also feel pretty strongly about the fact that it smells much better in winter – no baking garbage or sweaty subway seatmates. Bonus!

Bergen, Norway

We actually booked our trip to Bergen on a bit of a whim because we found cheap tickets from Warsaw and we had the time off. In hindsight, I can’t believe we hadn’t already had such an amazing place on our travel list. We loved strolling down the snowy cobblestone streets and the fjords and scenic train rides were absolutely breathtaking. If you ever find yourself in Norway debating whether or not to do one of the “Norway in a Nutshell” tours – do it!  

Chengdu, China

Perhaps a somewhat surprising winter location, but as Chengdu is known as one of the “Furnaces of China”, I vowed to stay away in summer or anything summer adjacent. Thus, we visited in January and had the most amazing time! Pandas are adorable year-round, and I found the outdoor tea houses and consumption of extremely spicy food much more enjoyable in cooler temperatures. The mountains (and yaks) just outside the city were also extremely beautiful covered in a pristine blanket of fresh snow.

Sydney, Australia

Just for fun, let’s say you’re like me and would love to have TWO winters in a given year. A trip to Australia can grant this wish! The Southern Hemisphere, of course, has their winter from June-August, so one year, we spent July in “wintery” Sydney. It was a mild winter to say the least, but the general vibe was there as we walked by ice rinks and snowflake décor all around the city. Like NY, Sydney is an amazing place to visit any time of year, but the less touristy off-season was perhaps even more enjoyable.

Lisbon, Portugal

Another, slightly warmer location we really enjoyed one winter was Lisbon, Portugal. The city is incredibly gorgeous, but really hilly, so we were very happy for cool weather/less sweaty hikes. The local wine and food we had was also very fitting of the season: thick stews, warm egg tarts, and strong vinho verde, just to name a few of our favorites. I’m also a big fan of quiet oceanside walks in winter, and Lisbon’s coastline did not disappoint.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

And finally, because I realize many people take vacations to hotter climates in order to escape winter, I’ll include Chiang-Mai on this list. We were there in January one year, and let me tell you, it can definitely be considered a “hotter climate”. While Bangkok and Phuket might be the more famous of Thailand’s must-see destinations, Tucker and I fell in love with CM. The temples, the mountains, the food (omg), and the small-town feel with some of the friendliest, calmest locals we’ve ever encountered, Chiang-Mai is a great place to relax during one of the most stressful times of the year.  

So many memories, so many possibilities! My mind is spinning thinking about future winter trips! But for now, I’ll make do with reminiscing and enjoying a quieter, calmer winter. Happy holidays everyone!

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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Enter a caption

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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Eating Our Way Through Japan

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Ready to eat!

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

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Omurice

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

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

 

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Okonomiyaki

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

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

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Gyudon with rice and miso

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

 

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

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Ramen and kimchi

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

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

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

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Train food perfection

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Famous cheesecake

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

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Haven’t had enough!

Other Snacks and Experiences:

Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori

KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar

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

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

Goyza – Japanese fried dumplings

Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)

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

Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes

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

Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup

Traveling and Learning

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Bus Selfie!

I really love traveling, and recently I’ve been reflecting on why exactly I feel so strongly about it. Is it the break from daily life? A chance to meet new people? Why does anyone choose to travel? I think Tucker enjoys it so much because he loves to try anything new, and going to new places is the perfect way to do that. But I’m not as fond of new things (especially new foods) as he is; I have a different motivation. I like to travel because, ultimately, I like to learn. Originally I thought I’d be a lifelong student because of my love of learning; however, that turned out to be pretty uneconomical. Fortunately, just after graduation (only a few months after we got married) Tucker and I took our first trip overseas, and I found it: a new way to continue learning – through exploring the world around me.

During our subsequent travels I have been amazed at what we’ve ended up learning: geography, history, culture, psychology, self-awareness, the list goes on and on. So this is the force driving my not-so-easily-sated addiction, but thankfully, I’ve also been given ample opportunities to get my fix. Here are the places we’ve traveled and some of the things we’ve learned during my two years as an English Language Fellow (August 2017-July 2019):

Beijing

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Hefei

Hefei, Anhui [where we learned about HOME]

Through traveling, I think one of the things we’ve learned the most about is the concept of “home”. We’ve learned that a home can really be made anywhere, and that connections with neighbors and friends are absolutely necessary for a place to truly feel like home. In fact, we have often felt closer to the friends we’ve made during our brief stints abroad because these shared experiences bond people together in an incredible way. We become instant family with other expats, and our Chinese friends are literally our lifelines! It’s such an interesting dynamic that definitely opened up our views of family and home. Another interesting aspect of our new perspective on “home” is how well we actually know it. Going into our last two new homes we haven’t known anything about them. Nothing about the neighborhoods we’d be in or even anything past what Wikipedia says about the cities/regions they’re in. This has given us a new outlook on what it means to truly know where you live. We’ve had an amazing time learning more about the places we’ve called home, and it’s made me curious about the places we used to call home and how well we actually knew them.

Nanjing, Jiangsu

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Mongolia

Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar & Gorkhi-Terelj)

Shanghai

Wuhan, Hubei

Huangshan & Hongcun, Anhui

Xi’an & Lintong, Sha’anxi

Harbin, Heilongjiang

Thailand (Chiang Mai & Bangkok)

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Cambodia

Cambodia (Siem Reap & Phnom Penh) [where we learned about CONFLICT]

In addition to learning about our home (and our views of it), traveling to difference places has allowed us to take a closer look at how others view the same places and how they view their own homes. This has lead to a better understanding of conflicts and global perspectives, which I am endlessly interested in. When we visited Cambodia, for example, I was immediately struck by their relationship with Thailand. We took a bus from Thailand to Cambodia, and walked across the border through immigration, where the welcome was, well, not so welcome. Cambodia has had a rough history, with its neighbors and with many foreign nations, and that has left an impression on the population. And it’s hard to deny their feelings, especially when one of the other most noticeable features of Cambodia was the number of missing limbs, mostly caused by landmines still implanted within their borders decades after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. The US has its perspective on our many conflicts, but every country, and every person has their own views, which are extremely important to learn in order to really begin understanding each other.

Hong Kong

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Guangzhou

Shenzhen & Guangzhou, Guangdong

Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Sanhe, Anhui

Badaling, Beijing [where we learned about PERCEPTION]

On the topic of perception, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the fact that traveling has broken pretty much every stereotype I’ve ever had about a place or group of people. When we traveled with my family in China, it was amazing to watch those stereotypes break for someone other than myself. My parents realized pretty quickly that China was nothing like they had imagined, and Tucker and I have done the same thing in every place we’ve visited. Our perspectives are shaped through all sorts of things (the news, education, movies, etc.), but they’re always seen through our own individual filters as well as through the filters of the sources of information. This has lead to many different perspectives on many different things, but seeing and experiencing something for yourself gives you the best insight you could ask for. One of my favorite travel quotes comes from Aldous Huxley: “to travel is to learn that everyone was wrong about other countries.” Even when comparing your experiences with someone else who has been to the same place, a difference in perspective is almost guaranteed, but that’s what makes it so interesting!

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Badaling

Suzhou, Jiangsu

Kunming & Mile, Yunnan

Australia (Sydney, Port Macquarie, Brisbane, Airlie Beach, Cairns)

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Australia

Haikou, Hainan

Qingdao, Shandong

Guilin, Xingping, & Longjin, Guangxi [where we learned about FAMILY]

Traveling with family has taught us a lot as well. First, it taught me to be thankful for our family members who are willing and able to travel with us. There have been many expats we’ve met whose family members have never visited them or even want to see the places their loved ones call home. It truly makes me thankful for the open-minded and adventurous spirits of my and Tucker’s families. I have also learned a lot about taking care of other people’s needs. In China, independence really only comes with time because with no alphabet and very little English, trying to do things on your own can take a lot of effort and patience. Luckily for Tucker’s mom and aunt (and my parents), we were there to help them answer any questions and provide whatever they needed. Through these trips, I learned a lot about what is required to be responsible for someone other than myself 24/7, and it has left no question in my mind as to why we haven’t had any kids. Haha!

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Fanchang

Jinshanling, Hebei

Wuhu & Fanchang, Anhui 

Changsha, Hunan

Zhangjiajie, Hunan

Chaohu, Anhui [where we learned about the PAST]

Another set of lessons we have undoubtedly received through our travels has been in regards to history. Coming from the New World, our “history” typically refers to the seventeenth century and onward, but traveling to other parts of the world, we’ve realized just how recent that actually is. Europe showed us their history through maps and architecture; Asia has shown us through traditions and languages. Visiting the outskirts of Chaohu and other cities and villages of Anhui is a bit like stepping back in time. There are farmers whose ancestors have farmed the same land for hundreds of years. Ancient artifacts seem to be dug up every day in this part of China, cooking vessels and jewelry from thousands of years ago. In history classes I was never really good at linking what was happening in ancient Rome with the rest of the world, but after traveling and seeing some of the history for myself, it has gotten much easier, as has the ability to connect what has happened in the past with what is happening in the present.

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Chaohu

Chengdu, Sichuan

Siguniangshan, Sichuan

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Chongqing

Chongqing

Zhuhai, Guangdong

Macau

Lantau Island, HK

The Philippines (Cebu & Manila) [where we learned about INEQUALITY]

Traveling truly brings to light things I never would have given second thought to in other situations. Throughout our travels we’ve met many people in many different circumstances. And sadly, we’ve seen that people are almost never treated equally. We, in the US, tend to think of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but there are also issues of class, religion, ethnic background, age, and countless others. Inequality seems to be a shared human-trait, but it’s also something we’re all growing increasingly aware of. Sometimes seeing it manifest in a different way, as it often does in different contexts, helps show how ridiculously common, yet unnecessary it really is. Tucker and I were in the Philippines earlier this year, where we saw first hand some of the inequalities experienced by the people who live there versus the people who vacation there. It’s something that allows us to think about the impact we have when we unintentionally aid inequality, not only when traveling but in all aspects of our lives.

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The Philippines

Singapore

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)

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Jiufen

Taiwan (Taipei, Jiufen, & Tamsui)

Anqing, Anhui

Jiuhuashan & Chizhou, Anhui

Xining, Qinghai [where we learned about KINDNESS]

Finally, I think the biggest lesson of all has been the kindness strangers are capable of showing for each other, which we found well on display on our recent trip to Qinghai. It has been a common thread throughout every place we’ve traveled; the help we’ve received from people we had never met before continues to inspire us. Whether it is someone giving directions in multiple languages or simply sharing information about their culture so that we can leave with a more complete understanding, we’ve made friends with people around the world. This is what allows me to not get bogged down in politics or negative stories that are passed around because I have experienced the kindness of humans in every country I’ve been to. I’ve seen our similarities and they far outweigh any differences. Mark Twain wrote “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and I believe our ability to travel more freely now than ever before has played a big part in the acceptance and compassion people are showing each other around the globe. I want to continue to spread the kindness I’ve received, and I hope that we all continue to do that whether we’re traveling or not.

Chaka & Erlangjian, Qinghai

Japan [Upcoming!]

There you have it: 10 different countries, 20ish provinces/regions of China, over 60 cities, and an immeasurable amount of knowledge, experiences, and memories. It’s fun to keep track and even more fun to share, but don’t just take it from me. As the Asian proverb goes, “better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” Hope to see you on our next trip!

Map

Asian Island Adventures

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

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Macau/HK

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

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

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The Philippines

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

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

 

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

Singapore

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

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

Malaysia

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

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

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

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Our Packing Process

37500336_10217149019145893_5591727216695181312_nYou might have noticed that Tucker and I like to go on trips. A lot of trips. 🙂 And since we typically try to travel as cheaply as possible, we usually end up with long bus/train rides, fairly small accommodations (usually hostels), and ultimately a lot of walking. All of these factors (in addition to my scrawny arms and general aversion towards planning) have turned me into somewhat of an expert packer. For anything from 4 days to 40 days, I pack everything Tucker and I need in 2 regular-sized backpacks and 1 duffle bag, and it usually takes me about 20 minutes. I have whittled down my packing process and have come close to perfecting it (at least for our needs), and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with other trip-takers!

About Bags: I prefer to use regular backpacks, not backpacking backpacks, for several reasons. First, those huge ones that make you look like you’re about to hike the Himalayas are super expensive. I’m also a bit rough on my luggage (not to mention how the airlines treat them), so I just go with cheap back-to-school type bags. I like ones with only two pockets (one large and one small), and Tucker likes ALL THE POCKETS! Regular backpacks afford us a lot of variety, and they don’t break the bank when we need to replace them. In addition to cost is the versatility of a smaller bag. Often when we’re traveling we like to take day trips. It’s nice to have a smaller bag available for day-use as well. However, I will say that on occasion we have packed both backpacks a little too full and had to empty a bag onto the hotel bed before taking one of said day trips! You live and learn, I guess.

IMG_0672We also always bring a duffle bag as opposed to a rolling bag. The nice thing about a duffle is that it allows us to keep our hands free. One of us will sling it over our shoulder and happily traverse any sort of terrain (hundreds of stairs, cobble stones, dirt paths, etc.) all while holding a map, a phone, a water bottle, or anything else we might need. It’s also much easier to travel on a bus/train with a duffle than it is with a rolling bag. Our bag can be thrown in the overhead compartments, squashed under our feet, or stacked with other luggage in a separate area. We’ve also had zero issues with a duffle bag breaking (knock on wood!), and even if we did, they’re fairly easy to fix or replace. We have, however, broken wheels off of rolling bags, and that was not easily fixed. Instead it was dragged along behind us…rather loudly.

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Huge bummer

Toiletries: For our toiletries I typically pack two small pouches. I pretty much always have them prepped and ready to go with things like travel shampoo, body wash, q-tips, etc. Sometimes I separate our items into a sort of his-and-her situation, especially if we aren’t sharing a bathroom. Sometimes I’ll have them separated by stuff used in the shower/bathroom and other, non-wet things (like medicine, tissues, etc.). I also like to use Ziploc bags to keep things separate and leak-free. When you’re flying, you generally need them anyway, but even with ground travel, the Ziplocs have been lifesavers! We usually use them until they’re falling apart, so hopefully the environment will forgive me this use of plastic.

Clothes: This is probably where Tucker and I differ from most packers. We are rewear-ers. I’ll rewear most pants and shirts at least twice on a trip, which allows me to really cut down on the weight and bulk of our bags. For longer trips, we also rely on laundry facilities. We’ve done laundry in countless hotels/hostels, local laundromats, and yes, even in the sink (à la Rick Steves). The only thing we don’t skimp on is underwear and socks. There is nothing as bad as running out of clean underwear or socks! Another essential packing item for us is a trash bag. We use a trash bag to differentiate between the clothes we can still wear and the ones that must be washed before they touch our bodies again. This is really helpful because when rewearing clothes (especially in tropical locations) they can get a little ripe after awhile. Using a trash bag keeps that dirty laundry smell to a minimum.

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Other: Other things we pack include our collection of electronics: cellphone chargers, laptop, laptop charger, power bank, and adapters. I wish I had a nice tip for packing these things, but honestly we just shove them into an outer pocket. I will say that when traveling internationally, the smaller your adapter is, the better. We have some that fall out of the outlets because the adapter plus the weight of the plug/cord is just too much for the outlet to handle. We also always make sure to pack what we call “bag food”. It’s our supply of emergency snacks like granola bars, nuts, etc. Sometimes our transportation takes place in the wee hours, and as Tucker will attest, I can get pretty hangry. We try not to dip into the bag food too often, I mean, part of the reason we travel is to try all the local foods, but I will say that we have been extremely thankful for that Belvita on more than one occasion.

IMG_0670Souvenirs: Finally I’ve heard several people mention that they have had to buy additional suitcases for the souvenirs they bought while traveling (this may or may not have happened to us on occasion as well!). Typically I try to focus on collecting photos (and the occasional, functional item) for myself, but we often want to bring back souvenirs for friends and family as well. When looking for things to bring back, we typically aim for flat, sturdy items (wall art, bookmarks, games, etc.). They pack the best, whether for short or long-term storage/travel. I also really like to send postcards in lieu of gifts. If you travel a lot or live abroad giving gifts becomes expensive and exceedingly difficult to do in a timely manner, so instead I like to show I’m thinking of someone by sending a postcard from wherever I happen to be. I absolutely love getting mail, and I think most people would agree!

So that’s how we do it! It’s nothing special or groundbreaking; just taking the experiences/lessons as they come and adjusting as we go. There’s really no wrong way to pack though, and as we always remind ourselves when we’re walking out the door: all you really need is your ID, a form of payment, and a sense of adventure! 🙂

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Totally worth any packing hassle or mishap!