Boracay

Tex and I spent a few nights in Boracay, Philippines over Chinese New Year*.  This was my first trip to a developing nation (besides New Jersey).  We had a fabulous time, but it was so much different than our previous island trips to Aruba and Curacao. My American guilt reared it’s head on an hourly basis as I said “no” to dozens of vendors that have less than a quarter of what I have.  “No, I can’t spend $5 USD on your wood carvings because I have to slather myself in sunscreen and beach myself on that chair.  Also, you’re interrupting my massage time. Thanks, though.” Best of Boracay 1. Sunsets 2. Beautiful beaches 3. It’s very affordable. Beer was around $2 and a professional swedish massage was about $50. 4. Corn nuts.  I’m not kidding.  They were the best I’ve ever had. 5. There seem to be a ton of activities to fill your day.  You can go on cruises, snorkel, scuba, etc.  We didn’t do anything.  We just laid around. Worst of Boracay 1. Gut-wrenching poverty. 2. Getting there.  Affordable flights from Taipei to Kalibo all seem to have a super long layover in Manila followed by a one hour flight, 2 hour bus ride, 20 minute boat trip, and 20 minute taxi ride. 3. Animals.  Chickens are everywhere.  We woke up to roosters every morning.  Also, like so many islands, there seems to be a serious stray dog problem. 4. Tricycles.  The island has very few vehicles on it so all taxis are tricycles.  They are cheap but inconsistentand require bargaining. Puka Beach – I didn’t find a single puka shell. View from inside the tricycle. Happy Hour. Dinner. Tapas. ? Beach. Perpetually confused. Sunset time. Sunset. Sunset.   *Chinese New Year – I still don’t have a firm grasp on this.  I know that the entire city appears to be covered in red because it’s “lucky.”  In fact, any time I ask anyone why something is the way that it is around here it’s because it’s “lucky.”  I know it’s the year of the horse and that you’re supposed to give red envelopes full of cash to your loved ones, as well as your front desk people apparently.  I also know that we get an awesome amount of time off.  We had Thursday through Tuesday off from work to...

6 months in Taipei

Tex and I hit the six month mark here a couple weekends ago.  Some days it feels like we’ve been here FOREVER and others it feels like we just arrived.  That’s true with a lot of people in the Foreign Service, I’m sure. Now that we’ve had time to make this city our home, to a certain degree I feel more comfortable judging it. The Good: – Taipei could not be more safe.  It it perfectly safe to walk down weird alleys, ride public transportation, and wear stupid clothes here.  No one will bother you – ever. – Taipei is navigable.  We are able to get anywhere in this city quickly, cheaply, and safely. – The city is full of tons of different restaurants, stores, and experiences.  It is not some sort of homogenous Asian experience.  There are scotch bars, tons of western food, and festivals all the time.  It’s fun. – Everyone is NICE.  My weird Chinese word salad is TERRIBLE.  However, the people here LOVE that I try.  They correct me, help me, and let me massacre their language with patience and understanding.  Thank goodness.  Also, so many people speak at least some English. – Environmentally speaking, Taipei recycles and is very aware of their carbon footprint most of the time.  Island living certainly makes them conscious of their imprint on the world.  (Unfortunately, sometimes we get pretty bad smog from China.) – No tipping – everyone in Taipei is paid a living wage.  Unfortunately, that is very low.  We sort of live like Kings here. The bad: – Timing – it’s just weird. Servers hand you your check and then stare at you until you pay them.  It’s probably to be polite, but in the U.S. that would be considered super weird.  Also, I’ve noticed that people walk really slow here.  The mindless, zombie, phone-staring youth contributes a great deal to the slow moving streets. – Food.  I know I’ve complained about the food before but I’m so serious about it.  Before we came here people said: “Oh!  you’ll LOVE the Taiwan food.”  Um…no. Sweetened boar meat sausage, weird cartilage-filled cuts of meat, oyster omelettes, stinky tofu, pork balls… it’s gross. Just EW. Luckily, just around most corners you can find French, Indian, Spanish, American, Swedish, Sichuan, Italian, German, even Canadian cuisine. – The phlegm – Gross.  In many Asian cultures it is considered unhealthy to keep any phlegm in your body.  If you know it’s there – get rid of it.  Unfortunately, that means that people are hacking, coughing, spitting, clearing, and otherwise being gross much of the time.  It’s accepted here…and very disgusting. – The table manners – annoying.  My family instilled in me a strict set of rules for the dinner table.  Some of them I still follow though I can’t seem to keep my elbows off the table.  The number one rule was to “chew with your mouth closed” because “nobody wants to see what you are eating.” This does not extend to the Taiwan people. It can make for an uncomfortable meal.  Many people will also take any opportunity to floss, even if that means doing so on the bus seat next to you. They also tend to suck on their teeth – A LOT. Besides the 3 F’s: Friends, Family, and Familiarity, I can’t help but miss the following about America: Cottage Cheese Taco Sauce Shopping for clothes/shoes that fit my giant American body English Readily available popcorn Sephora My brand of deodorant Morning Star Farms products Being able to get all of my groceries at the same store My car Snow I consider myself VERY lucky that this list is so short.  There are many other posts that just, well, suck.  They don’t have lettuce, nightlife, western food, vacation spots, etc. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is: So far, so good....

2013 In Review

As 2013 ended and the New Year began Tex and I reminisced about the previous year. Most years we talk about how we took a vacation or bought a new piece of furniture, but 2013 was very different.  At the very end of 2012 we both quit our jobs in preparation for joining the Foreign Service. A little over a year later it’s hard to imagine how much has changed in our lives. We took so many risks, brought our relationship into a new and stressful world, and really changed the relationships we have with other people.  I very much look forward to 2014 but I am still exhausted from 2013. January- We took a cruise to the Caribbean. We moved to Falls Church, VA. Tex started Orientation. February- We had our Flag Day and learned that we were moving to Taipei, Taiwan – a completely unexpected tour for us. March- I started taking Mandarin classes which I continue today. April-July- We had multiple house visitors all saying their farewells. We finally settled into a groove in Falls Church. July- We took a vacation to wine country and San Francisco. We moved to freaking Taiwan. August- I started interviewing for positions both at AIT and on the local market. We received our HHE shipment (Household Effects). September- My security clearance began for the position of Cleared Roving Support. We celebrated Tex’s birthday. October- Tex and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in Taiwan. We celebrated my birthday. We took a CLO trip to the small town of Jiu Fen. November- We took a trip to Bangkok. We went to our first Marine Ball. We celebrated our first Thanksgiving abroad in Wulai. December- I got a job as the AITEA Store Manager. We took a trip to the town of Yingge with some friends. We celebrated our first Christmas abroad.   Cruise – January 2013 Chinese Winery Tour – July 2013 Jiu Fen – October 2013 Bangkok – October 2013 Wulai – November 2013 Christmas – December 2013 Christmas – December...

Christmas in Taiwan

We haven’t quite figured out if people in Taiwan love to celebrate Christmas, or if they just love to celebrate period. Since the two major religions on the island are Buddhism and Taoism with only about 4 percent of the island claiming Christianity as their faith, I’m guessing it’s the latter. Our local shopping malls were coated in glitter, garland, and gold.  It was similar to how stores in the states decorate but somehow seemed a bit more tacky.  Everything seemed a bit … off.  While I’d normally smell cinnamon and pine everywhere Taiwan smelled like rain and food stalls.   All of the stores played holiday music but it was a bit bastardized and lacked a lot of … English.  And it all seemed to be some form of techno music. It felt too hot to be Christmas at 60-70 degrees every day.  I miss the cold and the snow. Tex warns me that if I keep complaining about the heat we’re going to Ulaanbaatar next.  Maybe they have real Christmas trees… To offset some of the not-so-jolly spirit I was feeling Tex and I hosted a holiday party at our house.   My family hosts a large holiday party every year so it was very satisfying to recreate a holiday tradition from home.  I think it was just an excuse for Tex to talk me into buying a 4lb tin of cookies at Costco. Taiwan did a lovely job at Christmas, it just wasn’t home. I think no matter where we were posted for our first tour I would feel a bit homesick.  It’s not like my family stands around singing carols while we exchange wooden toys across a piano. I’m probably just romanticizing a comfort zone.  However, let me just say that I was raised in the same town in Pennsylvania that inspired THIS song, how could I not miss it? Despite my preconceived notions about what the Christmas season should feel like we had a lovely holiday.  Tex wanted Chinese food on Christmas Eve (rather easy to find here) so we went out with some friends for dinner.  On Christmas Day we made salted caramel cappuccinos, opened our stockings, and watched movies all day. Not bad for our first Christmas away from home.         Inside SOGO Department Store. Outdoor courtyard at the mall. Christmas – December 2013 Christmas – December 2013 Grocery store. Sichuan Xmas eve dinner. Outside the nearby swanky hotel. Our lobby “fireplace.” Our lobby front desk. Please notice the traditional Santa Claus/Mrs. Claus in the nativity...

Wulai Thanksgiving

Our recent Thanksgiving vacation to Wulai rewarded us with hot springs, gondola rides, and angry ostriches. We booked a room at the Full Moon Spa in Wulai – a popular but clearly run down area of Taiwan.  Thankfully, the room had it’s own hot spring tub since the public baths were separated by gender, completely nude, and seemingly used exclusively by people over the age of 1,000. The food was…weird.  I’m not a huge fan of Taiwan food. Tex on the other hand can eat practically anything and enjoy it.   I ate a couple of boar sausages and a lot of mysterious meats.  I was less than impressed. It made me miss dry turkey. We had the option of either a Western breakfast or a Chinese breakfast. I stuck with the Western breakfast which was served with a salad, and while I don’t generally eat salad for breakfast I was eternally grateful for something that wasn’t boar meat.  After I picked the raisins off and poured on my thousand island dressing I just pretended it was brunch. I can adapt. Boar meat sausage. Tex enjoys his meat on a stick. Those first three characters on the left mean “mountain pig meat.” Chinese vs. Western Breakfast Food. Tex loves his Chinese food. “Where is that lady with my beer?” POPCORN! All that questionable food really got us revved up for a hike.  In order to get to a trail head we first had to ride this tiny, rickety train through a stunning mountain area.  Then we had to ride a gondola.  I’m less of a fan of heights than I am of boar sausage so I was a bit concerned.  Tex assured me that this particular gondola is the OLDEST in Taiwan.  Thanks, dear.  There’s nothing like hearing you’re going to be taking a 60 year old gondola over a rocky gorge.  It wasn’t too bad and it appeared to be a well cared for machine. Grand Central. Tiny train. Gondola ride. The ride was well worth it because what greeted us at the top of this mountain was more than we could have hoped for: an old, run-down, defunct amusement park with a zoo, multiple abandoned rides, and gorgeous scenery. We assume that the summer months might draw a crowd but the place had about a dozen people in it when we visited. I think my favorite part was the zoo.  Most of their animals were made of cement and very non-threatening. They had two ostriches and a half-dozen black chickens. The ostriches did not like Tex. I might have a certain video of him fleeing from a caged ostrich. Wulai – November 2013 They “arcade” left much to be desired.   We enjoyed the obstacle ropes course if the mold on the ropes wasn’t too bad.  I got stuck on something called the “pirate swing” and had to be rescued.  I don’t do ‘damsel’ very well. Despite the weirdness of the park we were able to find a trail head. However, we had to cut our hike short when we saw that the trail was completely washed away. Wulai falls. Did I mention there were a lot of stairs? After our jaunt we sat down at this restaurant to have a lunch of turkey jerky, nuts, and leftover popcorn.  Thank goodness my sister sent me survival food.  I don’t generally trust restaurants that have zero guests next to a zoo with practically zero animals. We returned to our hotel to soak away the park and compare photos of our incredibly weird but super fun day.  ...

Bangkok Report

  A few weeks ago Tex and I made the quick decision to hop on a cheap flight to Bangkok with our buddies. Traveling locally to post while abroad is one of the many perks of being in the Foreign Service. It was handy not having  that whole 13 hour jeg lag problem. Atmosphere: Bangkok is bustling to say the least.  Like so many Asian cities there are seemingly too many people, too many cars, and too many buildings for the area on which it is built. It is entirely too hot, even for November.  It is entirely too loud and dirty – for an American country-bred girl. We stayed in a great hotel in the expat area with a rooftop bar, a great restaurant, and wonderful service.  Though, just outside the door dozens of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers insisted on giving us a ride.  Street vendors were also nearby offering their cheap wares including rather large displays of sex toys. I wonder about the person who would buy a cheap sex toy off a dirty street in Bangkok. In general, there was a bit of a seedy feel to the entire city.  That probably has to do with my pre-misconceptions of the city — and the sex toys. Despite the seediness, the pushy drivers and the heat we all had a fantastic time. Transportation: All modes of transportation are cheap but it’s easy to get hosed.  We were constantly telling taxi drivers to use their meter before we got in the car and ensuring that they were not going to try to give us an unsolicited tour of Bangkok The subway systems are clean and easy to use.  We used the boat taxis to navigate popular sites on the river which is a much more relaxing way to travel.  Regular taxis are very cheap but subject to the infamous Bangkok traffic so it’s fruitless to use them at times.  Scooter taxis are popular though they appear to be death traps. There are also thousands of tuk-tuks around the city.  We took the one offered by the hotel once.  It was a very rough ride. Sights: I’ve never been great at describing art.  If it’s pleasing to the eye – I like it.  Thai Buddhist art is easy on the eyes. Bangkok – October 2013 Food: Anyone that knows me understands that I despise Thai food.  This is the culprit:  Cilantro is gross. In short, cilantro and lemongrass taste like dial soap to me.  Also, I’m not a huge fan of coconut milk.  A small amount added to a dish is great but the buttloads they put in Thai food is incredibly offensive. Not to mention peanut sauce – uh, why would I want to put peanut butter on my chicken?  In light of my taste buds we were a little concerned with our trip. While there were a ton of cuisines to enjoy in the city I couldn’t take the enjoyment of eating local cuisine away from my travel companions.  Luckily, early on, I found one thing, ONE THING I could eat.  Tom Yum Kung soup.  It’s full of cilantro, lemongrass, coconut milk, and something so spicy that it kills all of those flavors.  I could only eat the broth and the prawns but it was delicious. I ate it 5 times. What you’re supposed to buy: A suit.  A tailored suit.  We saw at least 60 tailors while we were there.  Luckily our buddy knew the place to go.  Raja’s.  The staff greets you with a beer and some swatches.  Tex had a suit and a tux made in a little under 4 days.  They fit great.  I’m regretting not getting a few shirts made myself. The best thing: What they lacked in regional cuisine (in my humble opinion) they made up for in popcorn. Our lobby had a popcorn machine which they moved to the hotel bar when happy hour started.  I saw a popcorn machine at the hotel next door and the bar we went to on our last night had popcorn.  I got to eat popcorn every single day.   It is always best to leave a vacation wishing you could have done more than relieved to be going home. We have so much more to see in Thailand. Bangkok was great but we both look forward to seeing what else Thailand has to offer maybe along the...

Hot Pot

Yes, another post about food.  Food is by far the easiest way to experience a new culture.  So, yes, another post about food. Hot Pot is my new favorite meal.  Our friends introduced us to a great all you can eat hot pot restaurant when we first arrived but we were still in a jet lag induced lethargy. It’s called huǒguō here.  (pronunciation)       火鍋 The first character above is the character for fire.   So, you order a soup or two, make a sauce of your choosing, pick up a bunch of fish and vegetables from the food bar, grab a beer and sit down.  Then, you wait for your hot pot to boil and start putting a bunch of food in.  As it cooks you pull it out with your chopsticks, dip it in your sauce, and eat it.  (Don’t dig too deep in the pot – last time we found coagulated pig blood – worst prize ever.) Tex takes advantage of some all you can drink San Miguel beer. We chose a pot with half miso and half spicy. The spicy was VERY spicy. They gave us this “nice cooker” to stir the pot and fish out the delicious morsels. Tex adds some miscellany to the pot. The best thing about this place, besides the free beer of course, is the delicious cotton candy! It looks like a peep!   Tex and I are pretty convinced that very few Americans know about the hot pot deal in Taipei.  For 2 hours you gorge yourself on meat, fish, vegetables, ALL YOU CAN DRINK BEER, and ALL YOU CAN EAT ICE CREAM!  Not to mention the cotton candy machine and the chocolate fountain they had at this place.  It costs about $20 per person.  What red-blooded American could pass that up? The only downside to going out for hot pot is that frequently it’s difficult to determine what exactly it is that you’re putting in your mouth. If things are labeled they are labeled with Chinese characters (which neither of us can read yet). Certain things are obvious.  “Ah, yes, cabbage!” Never did I think cabbage could be so comforting then when on a plate next to various gray colored balls.  Some of the dumplings are very good, some are suspicious, and some are downright disgusting.  Regardless, it’s a great adventure. SO!  After we had hot pot at our friend’s dinner party I learned that it’s possible to make this at home!  This way I can control the ingredients and experiment with flavors.  It still costs about the same since vegetables can be rather expensive but it’s worth it for a relaxing meal....