Pura Vida! We managed to get a week vacation just the two of us to Costa Rica. Huge thank you to our families and friends who provided many days of activities, pillow slides, hot tub dips and countless ice cream cones for our two girls back at home. We appreciate you all so much!
We flew into San Jose, Costa Rica…not San Jose, California. Three weeks before the trip, I was confirming our rental car with the agency and I received a “can you check your confirmation code again? I see that flight arriving in San Jose, California.” Crap! I booked our departing flight to San Jose, California, not San Jose, Costa Rica! Thank you car rental man for your attention to detail!
I should also note that 16 hours before we were supposed to leave, Sarah did not have a passport. Apparently, the passport agency has been overwhelmed and our expedited renewal was not going to happen within the 7 weeks we were quoted. After a stressful week of trying to land an in-person appointment and/or miraculously getting the passport overnighted, we decided to send Sarah to Detroit the day before the trip to get her passport renewed. A full day in Detroit later, 6:00pm, 12 hours before our flight, Sarah had a passport! Whew!
OK, back to Costa Rica…now that we were officially on our way. We landed in San Jose, the largest airport, after an easy 7 hour journey, and picked up our rental car and headed out on a 3 hour ride to our first stop – La Fortuna, the land of Volcano Arenal.
We stayed at a nice, laid back hotel roughly 5 minutes drive from the downtown touristy hub of La Fortuna.
La Fortuna is definitely a mainstay on every Costa Rican itinerary. It’s home to the Arenal Volcano, which is now dormant. The area is famous for adventure, with opportunity around every corner. We came for the hiking.
After devouring a less than average plate of Nachos in downtown La Fortuna, we found ourselves speaking with a local hiking guide over a Volcano IPA and he suggested skipping the usual route, Arenal 1968, but rather hike the El Silencio trail around the volcano. Local advice always trumps the guide books.
The El Silencio route was amazing. We showed up in the morning with two other cars in the parking and the trail to ourselves. A perfect half day hike.
In the afternoon we drove 5 minutes past downtown La Fortuna to a famous local swimming hole called El Salta. Turns out it’s a popular spot to grab a beer, swim in the waterfalls, cliff jump and take a turn on the rope swing.
Next stop on the itinerary was Monteverde, home to the cloud forest hanging bridges, the infamous ziplining and exotic flora and fauna. The drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde is near 3 hours so we decided to split that up with a side trip to Rio Celeste. Rio Celeste is a large waterfall located in the Tenorio Volcano National Park and is famous for its turquoise colored water. Other than getting soaked in a rainstorm, it was a perfect pit stop.
For the Monteverde portion of the trip, we booked an AirBnB in Las Juntas, which on a map, appears pretty close to Monteverde. Turns out I was wrong….mileage wise, yes it’s not bad, but I didn’t consider the condition of the roads in the equation. Once off the main highway, the roads become almost undriveable. The roads were steep and the potholes (more like craters) were destroying our tires. I thought for sure we were going to be stuck changing flat tires. By the grace of God, we made to the AirBnB and were welcomed by our host with an ice cold Imperial beer and some grilled steak. The view off the back porch was worth the bumpy ride in.
When you Google Costa Rica, ziplining is the probably the first thing that pops up. At first, we weren’t huge on ziplining. Seemed a little cheesy for $60/person. Totally wrong! The ziplining was a blast! 13 different zip lines with the longest being 1 kilometer long and 300 feet above the jungle. Definitely worth it and the sweeping views of the rainforest were incredible.
The Monteverde Jungle is also famous for the hanging bridges, which are long suspension bridges ranging from 60-300 feet above the trees.
On our way back to Las Juntas, we had to stop at Monteverde Brewing Company for a flight of beer.
La Fortuna and Monteverde are tourist hotspots and the towns cater to the tourists with many restaurants and bars to choose from. Las Juntas, the little town of our AirBnB was super local. Accessed mostly by dirt roads, with only a couple local restaurants, we had to get a glimpse of local life. Based on a recommendation from our AirBnB host, we decided to grab a beer at the local watering hole. Along with our Imperial beers, we were served a tasty salsa concoction of hot dogs, rice and chili sauce. Although I thought the place as fun, Sarah was feeling a tad uncomfortable being the only girl around. Understandable, but glad we did it.
Last stop on the itinerary was the coastal town of Tamarindo. Before heading out, our AirBnB host suggested we take a hike on the property to the river and check out their own waterfall and swimming hole. Good times chilling in our own waterfall.
Las Juntas to Tamarindo was roughly three hours along a (thankfully) paved highway. Not able to check-in until later afternoon, we had a beer at Volcano Brewing Company and walked along the famous surfing beach. The last two days consisted of rest and relaxation at the pool, cocktails at the Mercadito, pour over coffee at Tamarindo Coffee Roasters and watching the surfers with the sunset backdrop at Playa Avellana.
Pura Vida – Pure life or simple life, is a phrase heard everywhere in Costa Rica. So blessed to experience the Pura Vida lifestyle this past week!
Kottu Roti and Ella in Sri Lanka
From Kuala Lumpur we took a 3.5 hour flight into Colombo, the capital of the island country Sri Lanka. Up until this point, I had always been the one planning, scheduling, and researching where to go and what to do in the different countries we visited…this time, Sarah took the reins. We decided on Sri Lanka and it was solely up to her to decide what we were going to do! We landed mid-afternoon and took a 1 hour cab ride through the city out to our AirBnB on the outskirts of Colombo city center. We stayed with Jay and his wife, both Sri Lankans, who provided a nice room and travel advice for our stay. As we only had one day and one night in Colombo, we threw our packs down and went off to discover this new and exciting country. Neither of us had ever traveled to South Asia and we were a little apprehensive as we walked along the roads filled with trucks and rickshaws and questionable food stalls preparing local curries.
Our first stop, by way of Jay’s strong recommendation was a country club. We weren’t super interested in visiting a country club, but he insisted it served the best Kottu Roti and the coldest Lion Stout in the city. Apart from no one else in the dining room, Jay was right, the food was delicious.
After our wonderful lunch, we walked through colorful Buddhist temples and strolled around a lake in a local park. Prior to coming to Sri Lanka, I was picturing India with it’s chaotic traffic and hordes of people teaming the streets, but in reality, we found the parks and surrounding areas to be quite nice and serene. As we were planning to go to India after Sri Lanka, we thought it would be a good introduction to this part of Asia.
Our next stop in Sri Lanka was Kandy, the second largest city and the gateway to the rest of the island. We arrived by rickshaw super early at the train station and found out most of the train was sold out. We ended having to purchase 3rd class tickets for the 4 hour train ride. Other than hugging our Sri Lankan neighbors most of the way, it was a decent train ride for only a couple dollars.
Kandy turned out to be a little underwhelming for us. It was small city and it was easy to walk around but we didn’t find there was a lot to do. We stayed in a small hotel with a bakery on the first floor and fell in love with the local donuts for breakfast.
We had fun discovering different curry restaurants to try for dinners, and enjoyed walking around the lake, but two days in Kandy was definitely enough. It was time to move on to the part of the trip we were most looking forward to.
One of the top things to do in Sri Lanka is to take the unbelievably scenic train ride from Kandy to the small hiking hub of Ella. The train ride is a windy 6-7 hour ride through the green mountains and tea plantations of Central Sri Lanka. Luckily for us, we snagged an open doorway and watched the beautiful countryside roll by.
We arrived in Ella and walked along the train tracks to our AirBnB that was perched on a mountain skid that offered an amazing panorama of Little Adam’s Peak and waterfalls cascading down other mountains. We couldn’t have asked for a better view from our balcony. Ella was a very small town with a center tailored towards visitors coming in to hike the surrounding area. There were a few local restaurants and shops located a 10 minute walk down the hill from our place. Sarah booked us for 4 nights in Ella and each day consisted of hiking a different mountain, swimming in waterfalls, and eating the most scrumptious homemade Kottu Rotti. Sri Lanka in general is a pretty quiet country without much going on after night falls. Sarah and I always had to purchase a beer to go from the restaurant if we wanted to enjoy a drink in our room as there aren’t convenience stores or bars. Ella was super relaxing and refreshing. Beaches are usually our go-to destinations to relax, but soaking in the mountain scenery was great.
Our last day in Sri Lanka we took the same train we took to Ella to bring us back to Colombo. It was a 10 hour ride all the way back so we booked a cart with AC and started to mentally prepare for our last stop for the summer…India.
KL and the Petronas Towers
From our hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam we took the free van ride to Noi Boi international airport to make our way to Kuala Lumpur (KL), the capital and largest city in Malaysia. KL feels and looks different than other nearby SE Asian cities. Immediately upon driving into the city and hopping aboard the monorail, it’s hard not to notice the Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures and buildings all mixed together. On one side of the street could be a local mosque filled with KL’s large Muslim population, and on the other side of the street could be narrow alleys filled with Chinese vendors. I previously visited KL in 2012 after studying in Taipei and I remember not loving the city. The only thing that came to mind when thinking about KL was how blistering hot and humid it was. For a second, I wasn’t thrilled to be going back to that immense heat, but knew KL deserved a chance to redeem itself!
So we took the 1 hour bus ride to KL’s city centre and took the monorail to our AirBnb’s closest station. We were ecstatic for our accommodation and decided to splurge a little ($50 per night) and enjoy the city for a few days. Honestly, that $50 per night was worth just the insane view from the rooftop pool. That was pretty much the only reason we booked that place J. For me, KL has one of the greatest skylines in the world. The Islamic inspired Petronas Towers that dominate KL’s skyline are truly breathtaking. From our Airbnb’s viewpoint, we were offered one of the best panoramic views of downtown KL.
We spent the next few days walking around and exploring the different areas of Kuala Lumpur. We poked around the colorful textile and spice shops in Little India and bought some cool Indian clothing. Later, we ventured into Petaling Street, aka Chinatown. This is one of best areas to shop for trinkets and souvenirs to bring home. The street is literally packed full of tiny stalls selling anything from pirated DVD’s to scrolls of Chinese calligraphy.
Nighttime is the best time in KL. Jalan Alor street has to be one of the greatest food streets in the world. Once night falls, the street erupts into a full blown food market with stalls and restaurants selling the local cuisines. We decided to pop a squat at a Malay stall and tried some of their tasty chicken and beef kebabs with an ice cold Tiger Beer.
After stuffing ourselves at Jalan Alor night market, we took the monorail to the most popular destination, KLCC Park, home of the Petronas Towers. It’s one thing to see these towers from afar, but it’s another when standing directly underneath them. At night, this area is filled with not only tourists, but local families relaxing along the ponds and enjoying the daily fountain shows while gawking at the size of the Petronas Towers. A little embarrassed to say this, but we definitely spent some time trying to get the perfect selfie with the towers J
Kuala Lumpur definitely did not disappoint and has become a favorite city of ours. The food is fantastic and views are incredible. Can’t wait to head back someday!
Vietnam was Pho-nomenal
I was never super interested in visiting Vietnam until this past year. I had heard mixed reviews of backpackers loving the contrast between city life and nature, while others complained about the pushiness of the local touts and the constant hard selling tactics they used on travelers. Sarah and I decided to see for ourselves. A couple of my study abroad friends had taken trips to Vietnam and loved it…it was time for us find out first hand.
Vietnam is actually a very large country. There’s so much to see and discover between the southern city of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), and the northern capitol of Hanoi. We started our trip in the largest and most populous city of Ho Chi Minh City. I remember walking out of the airport after waiting for hours to get through the visa line, to an incredibly humid day and a SEA of Vietnamese people. As I’ve said before, Sarah and I love to stay in AirBnB’s for multiple reasons, but one reason in particular, is the inside scoop of how to get to the accommodation. It’s hard to explain the feelings of arriving in a foreign country and having to walk out the airport doors to an unknown world. It’s very overwhelming especially when you have a million Vietnamese taxi drivers grabbing your arms and bags trying to get you to take their “cheap” taxi. Luckily for us, our AirBnB host gave us excellent instructions on how to get to the apartment while not getting horribly ripped off…like most first timers do.
Other than the extra dollar the taxi driver made us pay for having two bags or something, we made it to the apartment in one piece, not broke, and very sweaty. One note on the weather, Vietnam is ridiculously humid. We thought Taiwan was bad, Vietnam was insane. Plus our apartment was on the fifth floor with no elevator J
Ho Chi Minh City was fantastic. It had a large city look and feel, but was walkable if you had time. Sarah and I stayed right on the edge of where the uppity financial district meets the “everyday life” part of the city. We spent our days sampling the local coffee and the delicious Vietnamese Pho soup, while literally dodging the hordes of scooters on our way to shop for handicrafts at the Ben Thanh Market.
Another reason we loved Ho Chi Minh was the great backpacker vibe and nightlife. We enjoyed our nights scoping out tiny eateries and rooftop bars. The night that stands out the most was our first night in Vietnam. We were roaming the city streets searching for a restaurant in the pouring rain and quickly decided to run under an awning to get some cover. A group of 3 people from the Netherlands asked us to join them. Eight hours later we had exchanged hundreds of stories and made new friends…just from getting out of the rain. It’s one of the greatest joys of traveling. It’s meeting people from every corner of the world, not being afraid to look dumb or act a certain way, casting all judgements aside and swapping stories about life.
We spent roughly four days in Ho Chi Minh and decided it was time to move on. We took a 1 hour flight north into Da Nang city. This was the closest airport to our next stop and one of Sarah’s favorite places of the entire summer…Hoi An. Hoi An is considered the most atmospheric and romantic town in Vietnam. This little town sits on a river with old women offering people the chance to light a lantern and float their wishes down the river. The cobblestone streets are lined with lanterns and buildings built centuries ago. Hoi An had an old town feel that was so calming and enjoyable. We rented a motorbike during the day and cruised through the miles of rice paddies to the pristine coastline of central Vietnam. We’d haul out the hammock and hang or lay out at the beach and read. Hoi An was paradise not only during the day, but at night as well. We’d rent bikes in the evening and pedal to the old town and eat local Vietnamese cuisine over a 25₵ beer. It felt like a candlelit, date night dinner with Sarah every night!
From Hoi An in central Vietnam to Hanoi in northern Vietnam, we decided to take the local train. The ride was a measly overnight, 18-hour trip. I was actually looking forward to this ride because we booked sleeper berths to relax the ride away. We shared the 4 bed berth a nice couple from Switzerland and made it to Hanoi.
We arrived in Hanoi early in the morning and walked to our hotel in the popular French Old Quarter. Hanoi had a much different atmosphere than Ho Chi Minh. It was more cramped, with little alleys and streets darting around like a spider web. It seemed like we ran into an older Vietnamese woman, balancing baskets with a pole over her shoulder, with her triangular rice hat, on almost every corner. Others were crowding around little stove tops with beef noodle soup brewing, while sitting on little plastic stools for breakfast. Hanoi felt…local.
We spent our two days in Hanoi strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, walking through the shops in the Old Quarter filled with knock-off goods and trinkets, and almost getting runover by a million motorbikes screaming through the city streets. Meal time was our favorite time in Hanoi. Sarah and I both concluded that Hanoi had the greatest food in all of Vietnam. There wasn’t much of a nightlife scene in Hanoi, so we found a little corner shop that we ate at every night. It was a tiny little place that looked to be family run, and the food was unbelievable. The soups and meat were to die for.
From Hanoi, we took an exhausting but very worthwhile day trip to one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam and all of S.E. Asia…Halong Bay. What made this Bay so breathtaking were the hundreds of limestone islands that rose up outstandingly from the ocean, covered in jungle vegetation. For the day tour, we boarded a junk boat which was essentially an old Chinese sailing ship that was used for sailing around the Bay. It was an overcast day, but we thoroughly enjoyed taking the kayaks around the cliffs and exploring the islands up close.
Our last stop on our Vietnam tour was Tam Coc, Ninh Binh. This part of the trip was completely last minute and not planned….and turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. Tam Coc is loosely referred to the Halong Bay on land. For us, we thought it was even more impressive than Halong Bay. The area was stunningly beautiful. The limestone cliffs and flowing rice paddies were never-ending and the colors that erupted over the cliffs at twilight were spectacular. It was such a peaceful setting. We stayed at a little B&B and enjoyed looking at the scenery from the porch in mornings and taking hikes through the cliffs during the days. The main attraction in Tam Coc was to get in a row boat and have a heavy Vietnamese lady row you, with her feet, between the cliffs and through tunnels along the river. It was probably the best $5 we spent the whole holiday.
Other than the sweltering heat, you were awesome Vietnam!
A Second in Singapore
After a beautiful week soaking up the sun and surf in Indonesia, we made our way back to the airport only to find out that our flight to Singapore had been cancelled. Crap. I had purposely booked a full day and night layover at one of my all-time favorite city states, Singapore. Again, I visited Singapore 5 years ago on my previous SE Asia tour and fell in love with the city. It’s literally a melting pot of people, colors, religions, and languages squeezed into one of the most technologically advanced and wealthiest cities in the world. Jam packed into this concrete jungle are areas for anyone’s tastes. In one day, you can visit Little India for your slice of the Hindu culture, haggle in Chinatown, or shop ‘til you drop on Orchard Road. Immediately upon landing at Changi International airport and onboard the conveniently placed MRT line from the airport to the city, you are surrounded by people from all over the globe. I love that feeling.
Anyways, back to the cancelled flight BS. If any of you readers get over to SE Asia, avoid Jetstar Airways like the plague. Horrible airline on all fronts. We found out our flight was cancelled when we got to the airport and went up to the counter and asked to get rescheduled onto the next available flight to Singapore as we needed to catch a connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The Jetstar agent looked at us like we were idiots. He basically told us we were sh*t out of luck, go find another way. We couldn’t believe this! We ended up having to race around the airport asking every and all airlines if they had anything available to Singapore. Thankfully we found a flight for 7 hours later that evening, but we had to pay for it out of pocket, but even more disappointing was not being able to spend the day in Singapore.
Fast forward 9 hours and we finally landed in Singapore at about 8pm. I was in a very bad mood, and to top it off, I lost one of my flip flops. That really ticked me off. We weren’t flying out of Singapore until the following morning at around 11am, so we decided to make the best of our situation and go into the city. I originally had lofty plans of hanging out along the river at Clarke Quay over a nice dinner, spending time in Little India, and winning my money back at the ultra-lux Marina Bay Sands Casino and Resort.
None of that happened which disappointed me, but we were able to spend some time walking around the Marina Bay and the gardens, and finally laying on a bench watching the city lights of downtown Singapore. It wasn’t the ideal day, but it worked out. Sarah was still able to get a glimpse of one of my favorite places on earth.
We took a cab back to the airport around 12:30am tried to find a dark, quiet place to sleep. It just plain sucks to sleep in the airport.
That was a long night of waking up every 15 minutes with a sore back. Thankfully our flight to Ho Chi Minh City was right on track. Off to Vietnam!
Sea Turtles and Rice Paddies
The end to our time in Taiwan was incredibly bittersweet. On one spectrum, we were very sad to be leaving the place we came to love, but on the other hand, we were GEEKED about our 2 month jaunt around Southeast and South Asia!
After waving goodbye to a group of our closest friends at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, with our backpacks in hand, we were aboard a very cramped, direct AirAsia flight to stop number one…Indonesia!
Indonesia is, uncommonly known, the fourth largest country and has the highest Muslim population in the world. With over 18,000 islands, it’s a diver/snorkeler/layer outers dream come true. It was the perfect place for Sarah and me to start off our summer of travel. She could tan the day away while I was able to revel in the underwater world with my favorite marine fish.
We flew into Denpasar International Airport on the super popular island of Bali. I visited Bali 5 years ago with my younger brother Jordan and his friend, Alec Green and we had the time our lives. I really wanted to share those experiences with Sarah, so we started in northern Bali in a place called Ubud. Have you ever read the book, “Eat, pray, Love?” In a nutshell, it talks about a girl who falls in love with an Italian guy while practicing yoga amidst the enchanting rice paddies that surround the villages in Ubud. My brother, Al, and I really regretted not going to Ubud last time, so I made it a point to visit this time. It did not disappoint! Southern Bali, especially the Kuta, Seminyak, and Legion areas are incredibly busy and don’t have a lot of local culture to experience, so Ubud was a great choice to start the trip.
It was about a 2 hour taxi ride north of the airport and we were dumped literally into the rice paddies. We spent the first 3 days in vacation mode…wandering through the paddies, watching the rice farmers gather their rice, laying out by the pool, and indulging in the native Nasi and Mie Goreng noodles.
A highlight from the previous trip to Indonesia was the Gili Islands. Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno make up the Gili Islands, which lie about a 2.5 hour boat ride from the eastern shore of Bali, or a 15-30 minute boat ride from Lombok. 5 years ago, these were off-the-beaten path, unspoiled islands. At the time, many locals lived on the largest island, Gili Trawangan, and us guys were excited to be on a slice of paradise that the hordes of travelers hadn’t discovered yet. I knew Sarah would love this place. We debated and debated on which island to stay on as the smaller two islands were very laid back with not much to do once the sun went down. Present day Gili T had lost its “untouched” luster a little bit as many new restaurants and guest houses had popped up over the past 5 years. We weighed the options and ultimately decided to stay on Gili T. Although we lost some culture, it offered more opportunities for dining and accommodation, but most importantly for me, was the night market.
Gili T is the only island with a night market run by the local people, serving freshly caught fish, and unique chicken and beef dishes. Every night was spent scarfing down the delicious Indonesian cuisine washed down with a Bintang brew discussing the two most asked questions in the backpacking world, “Where’ve you been?” and, “Where you off to next?” Where in reality, no one actually really cares, because they’ve probably been there or they’re heading there next. Same stories over and over!
We spent our days snorkeling in what had to be one of the best off-the-beach reefs in the world. Just a few steps in the water and we were surrounded with fields of soft coral swaying to the waves, and colorful clownfish and moorish idols swimming through the mazes of hard stony coral. We even got to swim next to several majestic sea turtles!
We took one day to visit the smallest island of Gili Meno. The “port,” was very small and that was where all five of the island’s restaurants were located, with some upper class guesthouses surrounding. But once we walked 15 minutes farther down the beach, we could’ve been on our own private island in the South Pacific. It was unbelievable. We snorkeled among some of the finest reefs in the world with not a sole in sight…couldn’t beat that.
It wasn’t all paradise though. For the two months we were gone, we tried to stay within a budget of $30 dollars per night for accommodation. Now, that’s not that hard to do considering you can stay in a 40 person hostel dorm room for $6 per night, but do you want to be sleeping with 39 drunken people? Toss up. If you would’ve asked me 5 years ago, $6 a night was the the way to go – no matter what. Nonetheless, I’ve grown up a bit, and have really enjoyed having our own place. We used AirBnB whenever possible. Rather than your typical, sterile hotel room, AirBnB is a website where anyone can put their homes/vacation homes/treehouses/boats/castles up for rent. Sarah and I love to use AirBnB because it offers a true window into the lives of the local people. Instead of a one bedroom, one bathroom hotel room, we’ve stayed in 30th floor; three bedroom condo’s overlooking skylines of some of the biggest cities in Asia….all for a fraction of the price.
When places like the above didn’t work out or AirBnB didn’t have budget options, it was good ol’ hostelworld. We did our best to stay away from the dorms rooms and at least get our own room. This usually meant $30 for a board for a bed, giant cockroaches, and a mosque prayer playing over the loud speaker and an ear splitting level from 2-5AM EVERY single night…basically our experience on Gili T. Other than the hostel we stayed in, Gili T ruled. It’s one of our all-time favorite spots. The mixture of local culture, beach, ocean, and nightlife made for an incredible week. Indonesia is a must for anyone taking the hike to Southeast Asia.
Last Days in Taipei
Where to begin? It was one heck of a summer and a lot has happened, things learned, and new places explored. I’m going to begin a series of blog posts that I wasn’t able to get to when we were traveling this summer. Time to fill you in!
June 30, 2015 was officially our last day as Teacher Kyle and Teacher Sarah the English teachers. What a year it was…already, as we look back and reminisce on our teaching days, it brings back challenging but great memories. We’ve come to the conclusion that teaching really has it’s ups and downs, perhaps more than any other job we’ve ever had. There were days that were just plain fun. The kids were joking around, paying attention, and listening. I loved introducing my older kids to things like paintball or sim city and see their eyes light up with imagination. They actually wanted to write journal entries about these topics. Can you believe that?!
Other days were extremely frustrating and draining. You know the feeling when you finally get out of work after a bad day and just want to hit something? It happens with teaching, too. You FINALLY get all your first graders sitting in their seats after 20 minutes of everyone (actually no one) needing to go to the bathroom… and then Emma drops her gigantic pencil case. An explosion of every type of pen, pencil, eraser, whiteout, ruler, scissors, tiny anime creatures, and stickers scattered all of over the floor. Commence 9 first graders rolling on the floor laughing uncontrollably. The first couple times it’s kind of cute, but after repeating this on a daily basis, it gets old, real old.
All in all, teaching was a valuable and rewarding experience. We remember our first week of teaching and how nervous we were and how much easier it got as the weeks went by. I don’t know if any of you readers remember my first post on teaching, but I’ll recap a bit. We taught for an English institute that was an after school program for the Taiwanese kids. We taught the kids after they had been in their regular Chinese schools all day. Our school was also a for profit institution. This made our jobs interesting. We would run into kids that were great students but others really gave us a run for our money. I had a 7 year old student who wrote me a note telling that I should go to H-E-double hockey sticks (he wrote the real thing). How does a 7 year old know that word?! With the school running for profit, there was nothing I could do about it. The school needed the tuition money. At times it was incredibly frustrating not getting support when it was needed. On the other hand, we had kids that were very serious about their English learning and it was exciting to see how much their English levels improved over the year. Our last day at school, we gave all the students our facebooks and we have been in touch with some of them, which is very cool. I hope to stay in touch and see where they end up in life. We truly learned how to interact and work with people of all ages from a culture far different than ours.
Our last few days were busy saying our goodbyes to all the wonderful people we met over the past year. What a weird feeling saying goodbye to the people we called our family while we were in Taiwan. Sarah and I spent an entire night with our night market family. They threw us a huge goodbye party with all the people we encountered there this past year. We felt truly loved and felt we had made not just great friends for the year, but friends for a lifetime. Sarah put together an ABC book for our little kiddo’s so they could continue their English learning through memories of the foreigners from America. We had spent so much time getting to know this family who literally didn’t speak a lick of English. Sarah, who barely speaks a word of Chinese, was able to connect and develop a relationp with Joan and the kids through smiles, hugs, me translating, and her trusty English-Chinese dictionary 🙂 We ate until we were stuffed and I was challenged by every macho guy around the table to an arm wrestle…weaklings 😉 We are excited to visit Taipei and especially our 737 night market to see our “family” again one day.
Fast forward one more day to July 1, our last day in Taipei, Taiwan, our home for the last year. What a strange day it was. We moved out of our apartment at 9am and we weren’t leaving until 1am that night, so we had all day to ourselves and our backpacks. We wanted to hit all of our favorite spots one more time. It was such a surreal feeling as we sat in our hammock looking over our favorite Bihu Lake. Were we really leaving tonight? Our time here was finished…already? The place we’ve come to love…when would we come back? The feelings were all over the board…Excited, sad, apprehensive. It was done. Our time in Taiwan was done and we had a freaking blast of a year. We met some amazing Taiwanese friends who we already miss dearly. Thank goodness for snapchat! We also have to thank them profusely for the caravan ride to the airport. Literally all of our friends packed into 3 cars just to take Sarah and me to the airport. How awesome is that? We were a little overwhelmed with the love from our friends.
We couldn’t help but put on big smile as we walked to the departure gate and said goodbye to Taipei.
Kyle & Sarah
Home vs. Taiwan
As our time winds down here in Taiwan, Sarah and I have really been reflecting on the past year. What have we experienced? What have we learned? How can we apply our time here to our life back in GR? It’s always been very entertaining and intriguing to have “honest hour,” with our guests…to listen to what differences they saw and felt while visiting Taiwan. Now, as we prepare to leave Taiwan, it’s our turn to have our “honest hour.” I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the differences and quirks Sarah and I have come to know while living here. I, by no means, want to disrespect anyone or anything, but just want to share some of the cultural differences and how they have affected us.
The infamous squatty potty. Actually, I just read an article the other day how the Western world is pooping all wrong. The sit down toilets we use to drop the number 2 are not designed for ideal trajectory. How often do you hear people struggling to push it out? That can’t be good on the ol’ b-hole. What’s the answer? The squatty potty! It’s basically a pit in the ground where you crouch down nice and low and let it go. Apparently, the squatting angle is the perfect angle for optimum results. Who knew? However (I know this would make a lot of Dad’s angry), you aren’t able to enjoy your evening newspaper and relax…I think I’ll stick to the Western style. Sarah, on the other hand, loves the squatty potty!
Fun fact: When I was experiencing the squatty for the first time, I was sure I had everything aimed just right. PLOP. I looked behind me and there it was….right BEHIND the hole. CRAAAAP (pun intended).
It’s been an adjustment not having a car to quick jump into…but it’s been reallllly nice not having to drop $40 a week on filling the tank. No car, no scooter, no bike….although hindsight is always 20/20. A bike would’ve been a great purchase 10 months ago. It’s been the subway and walking. The MRT system in Taipei is absolutely fantastic. Within about 40 minutes you can be anywhere in the city for no more than $1.50. Instead of $40 a week on gas, it’s $40 a month on the MRT card…not too shabby. We also live only one MRT stop from our school, so we walk there and back, 20 minutes each way. Great excuse for some exercise.
3. Trash Day
I love this one. I wish I could embed a video on this blog to show you a live feed, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Anyways, walking home from school one night, Sarah and I happened upon what looked like, a giant gathering outside of all the apartment buildings. All of a sudden we hear Beethoven’s Fur Elise playing over a loud speaker…ice cream truck? Awesome, I would love an ice cream cone! Psych! The garbage truck was blaring classical music while rolling up the street. Now, that’s awesome!
Most people here don’t have a trash service like we do at home, so once a week they bring out their trash to the street and throw it into the Beethoven-playing trash truck. Hey, at the least the song makes trash day a little more enjoyable.
7-11 just straight up owns over here. From our building alone, we can walk to four different 7-11’s within the same walking distance. There’s literally a 7-11 or Family Mart on every single corner or road. They’re not your average 7-11 either. I know what 7-11 you Grand Rapids people are picturing when I talk about 7-11…yea, that real shabby one on Fulton and Lane…way different! The 7-11’s over here offermuch more than your Coca-Cola slurpee.You are able to pay every utility bill, buy a gourmet latte, eat lunch, and purchase any type of sporting or entertainment ticket you can imagine. On top of all that, instead of having your recent online purchase sent to your house, you can have it sent to the nearest 7-11 for pick up!
5. Winter Clothing in Summer
Summer months in Taiwan are hot…ridiculously hot. It’s 100 degrees with 100% humidity. For us, the last thing we’d ever think of wearing on a day like this are a coat and a pair of jeans. But when you look around, you see many people wearing sweaters, jeans, coats, hats and a popped umbrella to protect their face. People here cover up when it’s hot. They avoid the sunrays like the plague. Us Americans could really learn a few lessons from our Taiwanese counterparts. Although I like to get my tan on, you can definitely see the positive affects of staying out of the sun on the middle aged people here. They look so young and their skin is flawless.
6. Scooters vs. Trucks
Scooters are everywhere, and they are not just used to transport people. Scooters are the most convenient mode of transport for people AND things. You will never see a GMC 2500 or a Ford F350 on the road here, but will see a million Yamaha 50cc scooters! It’s amazing what you will see on the back of those units. We’ve seen everything from an extension ladder to a 10 foot high pile of clothes….and the occasional family of five!
Yes, there is a baby hidden in there!
7. Markets vs. Meijer
This difference has been an enjoyable experience for us to get used to. We love walking through our local day market on a Saturday morning. They are so full of life with people searching and bargaining for the best price on star fruit or pig tongue. If you ever get the chance to go to Asia, make sure to visit the local markets. This is where you get a true taste of the everyday life. Other than Costco, there is nothing remotely close to a Meijer. We have a grocery store next to our house, but it is small and expensive. For our staples, we head to the market. Unlike at home where you can easily drop $150 once a week for a weeks worth of food, we tend to spend $5-$10 everyday on what we will eat that day. There’s usually nothing wasted, where at home I could probably count a shelf’s worth of half eaten boxes of snacks. We hope to combine these two very different methods of grocery shopping when we get home. Trust us, we definitely miss Meijer. It makes us smile thinking of being able to buy everything we want in one store!
This is a no brainer. There are two official languages in Taiwan: Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese. Just about everyone can speak both languages. Taiwanese is generally spoken amongst the older generation, while Mandarin is used by everyone else. I started learning Mandarin as a freshman in college and came to Taiwan my junior year for the first time to study it more in depth. Chinese is a very difficult language to learn and is vastly different from English. First and foremost, there is absolutely no alphabet, rather each character stands for a word. 我 = I, 愛 = love, 你 = you, 我愛你 = I love you. The no alphabet thing makes it very difficult to read and write..especially write. It comes down to root memorization. It’s a constant flipping and flipping of flashcards. They say you need to know about 3,000 characters just to make sense of a newspaper.
The grammar side of things, compared to other languages, is rather easy. Remember when you had to learn the male and female of every word in Spanish? Remember all the conjugations you had to memorize? Chinese has neither of these. In fact, other than adding 了 to a sentence or two, there aren’t even any tenses to learn. The basic structure is as follows: 我們今天晚上想要喝一杯紅茶 We today tonight would like drink one cup black tea. Not too bad!
Lastly, and most importantly in terms of speaking, are the four tones. Chinese is a tonal language and requires its learners to memorize the tone of each word. Depending on the tone of your word can change the meaning drastically. It can be extremely frustrating when I’m trying to say something, that I think is right, but turns out my tone was wrong and the person has no idea what I’m trying to say. For example, if I were to say “Mom” using the flat tone, that would be correct, but if I said “Mom” in the falling then rising tone, I would be calling her a horse. Need to know your tones!
I love learning Chinese. It’s a difficult but very rewarding language to learn. It’s always fun asking for something at the market in Chinese and getting a response of “you speak Chinese?!” It’s also opened doors to many friendships that I otherwise wouldn’t have made. Sarah has even learned some Chinese! She is able to go to the market by herself and buy the things she needs. I’m so proud of her 🙂
Lastly, you can’t beat the hospitality of the people here. Everyone has made us feel so welcome. From our night market family to our friends in Neihu, they have spoiled us beyond words. Whenever we bring guests to the night market or go out to eat with our friends, we are treated to endless amounts of food. They are just so proud of their home and are excited to share their culture with other people. This is something we are looking forward to bringing home to America. Instead of saving that $10 for who knows what, why not share a share a pint of your favorite beer with someone? We are going to miss our friends and their hospitality immensely.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gave you a window into the life and culture of Taiwan and its people. What an amazing country to call home for a year!
Kyle and Sarah
Benny & Jenny Invade Taiwan
Yes. Definitely time for an update. It’s been WAY too long and I apologize. Blogging is a lot more work than I anticipated and it’s so easy to say “Ahh, I’ll just write it next week.” Well it’s been 6 weeks and it’s time. I’ll regret this 6 week lapse in posts a year from now when Sarah and I want to live our time again through the posts. Oh well, it’s my own fault.
Anyways! Time is winding down… It’s scary. It’s just amazing how fast the time has gone. Where did this year go? Amongst delicious food and fantastic experiences, it’s been filled with lots of visitors! We added to that list two weeks ago with Sarah’s younger brother Ben and his girlfriend Jenny. We’ve had just about everyone from our families (sorry Luke!) visit us over the past year and Ben and Jenny didn’t want to miss out. Originally, they weren’t sure if they could make it with the timing of school letting out and their summer jobs, but what the hay? They couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one of the most BA countries in the world. So after 32 hours of missing flights, changing airports, and long layovers, they arrived in the hot and humid country of Taiwan. Let the fun begin.
I don’t need to go into detail about the usual itinerary for our visitors…I think I’ve beaten that to death in the previous posts. What we DO like to do with each pack of visitors is to do something unique and different from the rest. We knew Ben and Jenny were coming off a travel high with their recent interim trip to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, so we had to get them out into the beautiful mountains of Eastern Taiwan in Yilan/Hualien.
Another one of my favorite things to do with the visitors is to get them into a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable…where they feel like a fish out of water. Taipei is easy. Sure, it is much different than the USA, but it is an international city. There are Starbucks and McDonald’s at almost every MRT stop. Pizza Hut and Dominoes are also littered around the city. It’s a culture shock arriving in Taipei, but you really feel that shock once you get out of Taipei, the way of life outside the big city. That is when you feel, “Wow. I am a long ways from home.” That feeling is what is so rewarding when traveling. Experiencing a way of life vastly different from the one you are accustomed to.
We started out the weekend taking the local train to Wai Ao beach in Yilan County. It’s a super quiet coastal “town.” It was super quiet that weekend, almost like a ghost town. Ben and Jenny were a little wide eyed, trying to wrap their heads around their new surroundings. We stayed in a nice little hostel on the coast as our headquarters for exploring the surrounding area.
We arrived early and decided to take a short hike in the mountains as we waited for our room to be prepared. Quick fact: weather in Taiwan can change drastically within minutes. Sunshine one minute, torrential downpour the next. We set out on the hike with sunshine and within minutes…torrential downpour. We were literally soaked to the core. It was a blast..plus, good memories happen when things don’t always go as planned.
The weather stunk the rest of the day. We decided to just bomb around in the ocean with what we were wearing on the mountain. Might as well get it clean while swimming in the sea. We ended the night with a couple brews huddled under an umbrella playing euchre. I was also able to play a few tunes on the hostel’s guitar.
The next day was why we came to Yilan in the first place. Sarah and I had heard about a super remote hike to an enormous waterfall. Can’t beat that! The directions were very obscure and went a little something like, “take a left at the big rock,” or “continue down until you see an acorn.” Haha, maybe not the acorn part, but you get what I mean. We traveled a few hours out of Taipei hoping the waterfall actually existed and that the directions would get us there. Anyone we talked to had never even heard of the waterfall we were trying to find.
The start of the trailhead was actually at one of the most famous waterfall attractions in Jiaoxi, Taiwan. We were really hoping we didn’t get suckered into going all the way there just to climb a million man made steps to see a super touristy attraction. Luckily for us, the directions told us to, “take a left at the big rock, and continue the opposite direction.” Good, we wanted to be as far away from that trap as possible. We continued along the path and we were soon greeted with the jungle. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by nothing but greenery and spectacular views of the mountains surrounding us.
We finally came upon the part Ben and I had been looking forward to…river trekking. The trail stopped at the river and the rest was up to us. Time to get the feet wet and traverse up the river. Our first stop along the river was a small waterfall descending into a little watering hole. We had fun jumping in it from the rocks and cooling off a bit.
We continued our river trek trying not to totally slip and fall and finally came upon Yuimeikang Falls. Wow! It was one of the coolest waterfalls I had ever seen and we could literally stand in it! We were all pretty awestruck. We had no idea what the waterfall would be like, so we were more than overjoyed. It was absolutely amazing and we all agreed it was one of the best hikes we had ever been on. Totally worth the trip!
It was a fun week for all of us. We were never in high school with Ben or Jenny, so we had never had a lot of time with just the two of them. It was a great week of just spending time with each other and truly getting to know them. We spent the week checking out the Taipei 101, touring the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, walking through Dahu Park, cycling along the Neihu riverside, and climbing Tiger Mountain.
Our favorite night of the week was going to one of our favorite restaurants. Sarah and I met some guys at this restaurant a while ago and we have been hanging out with them ever since. They wanted to give us what they call, “a great memory” of Taiwan. We were treated to a table filled to the max with any and every dish you could possibly think of and plenty of Taiwan beer to go around. It was such a fun night introducing Ben and Jenny to the hospitality of the Taiwanese people and of course, introducing them to some of our good friends in Taiwan.
What an awesome week! We’ve loved having our families visit us over here. It’s been a blast introducing them to our Taiwanese life and the people in our lives. We will truly miss the people and places over here.
Stay tuned. I promise it won’t be six weeks again.
Kyle and Sarah
我們最喜歡的地方：第二部分 Our Favorite Places: Part II
Time for part two of our favorite places in Taipei!
1) 台北 101 Taipei 101
I think you all must know by now that I have a building crush on the Taipei 101. It’s such a beautiful building isn’t it? The Taipei 101 is located in the Xinyi District of Taipei and in 2004 was the tallest building in the world. In 2010, it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Now, it is the sixth tallest building in the world. How many floors do you think it has? You guessed it…101! For those of you who do not know, Taiwan experiences lots and lots earthquakes, ranging from barely feeling them to definitely feeling them. You would think building one of the tallest skyscrapers in Taipei wouldn’t be a great idea, but thanks to the Taipei 101’s 660 ton mass dampener, it can withstand wind gusts up to 135mph and is one of the most stable buildings ever constructed in history. It’s design is similar to that of bamboo, which symbolizes learning and growth. It’s a great example of ancient symbolism and modern technology. Pretty sweet huh?! I love this building. Another cool feature are the lights. The lights on the building are a different color each day.
2) 紅色的蘋果商店 Red Apple Store
This is a local store that Sarah has dubbed “our Target.” It’s a little shop right down the road from our apartment across the street from Bihu Lake. Although it’s a very small store, it packs a punch. You can literally buy anything here…anything from shoes, stationary, and groceries, to fish tanks, chinese yo-yo’s, and beats by Dre. If we are ever in a pickle and need something, Red apple is the place to go. Another great thing about it? It’s cheaper than dirt. I would say it’s a cross between a dollar store, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target. Sarah definitely loves this place.
3) 河畔 The Riverside
We always knew there was a large river flowing through Taipei, but it was hard to tell where it actually flowed. Little did we know that the river flowed right through Neihu (our neighborhood). It’s kind of hidden amongst the highrises of Taipei, but once you reach it, it’s a beautiful place to hang out. All along the river there are bike paths to ride along and countless green areas to play soccer or work on your Taiji. On the weekend, you can see thousands of locals having picnics and kids and adults playing baseball or softball. It also offers a fantastic view of the Xinyi District. We love roaming the parks of the riverside on the weekends.
4) 西門町 Ximending
Ximending is more of a younger/hip part of Taipei. It’s also one of the few areas that is pedestrian only. It’s called the “Harajuku,” “Shinjuku,” or “Shibuya,” of Taipei. For those of you who don’t know, Harajuku, Shinjuku, and Shibuya are very famous areas in Tokyo, Japan. Ximending is home to Taiwan’s fashion, subculture, and Japanese culture. You can get a tattoo at the countless open air tattoo parlors, eat at Modern Toilet, or shop at the many jewelry and clothing stores scattered among the walking streets. Although we don’t go here too often, it’s been a favorite amongst our visitors.
5) 忠孝復興／忠孝敦化 Zhongxiao Fuxing/Zhongxiao Dunhua
Another downtown area of Taipei. This area is very convenient for us and one that we visit quite often as it’s right off our MRT line. It’s safe to say that this area reminds people of Times Square in New York. It has lots of buildings with bright neon signs littered across them. We go to this area if we are craving Western food as it’s home to a myriad of bars, cafes, and international restaurants.
6) 國立中正紀念堂 Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
I’ve mentioned this site many times in previous blog posts, because it’s a staple on our itinerary of things to see when we have visitors. This memorial was built in honor of the former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). A couple things to note: The roof is octogonal, which represents the number eight. Eight is a number associated in Chinese culture with abundance and good fortune. The memorial hall has 89 steps leading to the entrance which represents the age of Chiang Kai-Shek at the time of his death.
On the same grounds as the memorial, there are also the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall. These two buildings are stunning examples of Asian architecture, both of which are very impressive to look upon.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual tour of some of our favorite spots in Taipei. Althought Taiwan is a small country, it really has so many things to see and do. It definitely has been an incredible place to call home for a year 🙂
Kyle and Sarah