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The Attraction of Vietnam: Not Quite a Love Story

This was the problem with a walk down memory lane. It was almost always foggy, and one was likely to trip and fall.
– The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There’s something about Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, that attract me. I had a love-hate relationship during my time in both, which is why I chose to depart Vietnam after two months rather than explore for the additional month remaining on my visa.

Hoan Kiem Lake street

The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake

I could identify what drove me to dislike both cities, and to some extent that is my own fault. I didn’t get out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I was in Saigon during Tet. Both of those conscious decisions caused me to dislike Vietnam. That my stay in Hanoi ended on a sour note tainted the first part of my stay in Saigon. It’s disappointing because I have wonderful memories of my two months in the country.

power lines hanoi

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

But then there are the little things that made me love the cities, or at least enjoy my stay. This is a reversal of perception–usually it’s the little things that lead me to find fault in a place. There were moments in Vietnam that made me smile uncontrollably and laugh, tastes that made me stop to savor, and sounds that calmed me. While I believe I couldn’t live in either city long term, I have admiration of joyful memories to take me back.

Chaotic life & oases in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I found a few spots in the Old Quarter or just outside of it that I could return to for a moment of peace. The narrow, crowded streets that could give one a heart attack while attempting to cross made each day an adventure when all I wanted to do was find dinner or grab a beer. And after moving at a snail’s pace through the streets, dodging motorbikes and hawkers, I could find myself at a destination that provided breathing room, where I could tune out the noise and watch the lights of the city appear as the sun set behind the hazy sky.

bike hanoi

Woman rides a bike along Truc Bach Lake

Sometimes it was just a matter of reaching Highlands Coffee–a local coffee chain that had clean banh mi for lunch–to grab a meal and take in the view from three floors above Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the only view of the lake that was undisturbed by hawkers or students who approached requesting photos and English conversation.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Other times it was a matter of fighting my way from my room at Hanoi Graceful Hotel where I was working online all day to go grab the 2-for-1 75-cent happy hour special at Central Backpackers Hostel. I was able to meet some travelers there who had tips on places to see in my limited free time. It certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere as the dirty Bia Hoi around the corner from my hotel that served 33-cent draught beer, but that dingy little place was for other evenings.

Truc Bach Lake

Quiet view of Truc Bach Lake at night

More than anything, it was making a friend in Hanoi. A young woman stood on the side of the road inviting people into a restaurant a block or so from my hotel, and one night I decided to stop in. After talking with her during my time in the restaurant, I decided I’d find her again after my trip to Cambodia. We became friends and have kept in touch since then–she even visited Taiwan during my second stay. She gave me my first ride on the back of a motorbike, a rather terrifying experience as I don’t like being a passenger and Hanoi traffic is not exactly organized. That experience gave me a little more courage when I needed a motorbike taxi ride back to my apartment in Saigon a few times.

Away from the crowds in Saigon

I found a bit more breathing room in Saigon, or maybe it was sidewalk space. I rented a large private room in a building through Airbnb–it was down a quiet alley off Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The area was surrounded by embassies and consulates, which meant that there was more security and fewer crowds.

Saigon riverside walk

Is this really Ho Chi Minh City?

I encountered plenty of frustration in my first two weeks in Saigon–the local market refused to bargain and tried charging ridiculous prices for produce, so I ended up only buying bananas because the one vendor gave me a fair price that was still likely higher than the local price. There was also a lack of restaurants in the immediate area for lunch, which meant I spent most of my break walking in the oppressive heat to get take-out to eat while I worked.

After Tet, I found a little shop in my alley that had cheap lunch for local workers–it wasn’t anything special, but rice, fried fish, and vegetables for about $1 was good enough for me. A quaint cafe also opened at the end of the alley, which I headed to a few times to grab a drink after work and play with a couple kittens that hung around outside.

saigon kitten

Curious kitten at the local cafe

Every now and then I headed out in the early morning to one of three Highlands Coffee shops within a 15-minute walk that had a breakfast buffet. For about $6 I could eat all I wanted and drink as much coffee as possible for about three hours while I worked–the coffee shop had decent Wi-Fi and an outlet for my laptop. By the time breakfast was over, I was over-caffeinated and so full that I wasn’t hungry until dinner. If that location was full, I went to the one down the street that was in an old wood building–it was beautiful architecture, but it had no air conditioning, making it difficult to work.

During my first weekend in Saigon, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace. As I entered the grounds, I found two young women taking photos of each other and I offered to take photos for them. They were both recently returned students from the US, so it was easy to talk with them. For the rest of the day we walked around the Presidential Palace and talked; we exchanged Facebook contacts before parting ways. Only one of them lived in Saigon, and she contacted me after Tet to go out to dinner. She introduced me to her friend and some Korean exchange students she had just met.

Vietnam presidential palace

Presidential Palace on a hot day (now known as Independence Palace)

Before I left Vietnam, I met up with the two women for meals a few more times–they introduced me to some good food and interesting streets. Most importantly, they directed me to the Co.opmart, a government-run supermarket with set prices so I could easily buy tons of tropical fruit to enjoy for breakfast. After our second dinner together I regretted already booking my flight out of Vietnam–I was beginning to enjoy my time in Saigon and had found routines that made life easier.

restaurant saigon

Cool restaurant my new friends invited me to try

After the city returned to life following the Tet holiday, I found places to relax and enjoy myself. I found a roadside restaurant that opened in the evenings–small plastic chairs and tables with cheap food and beer. I discovered a few good noodle shops that were much cleaner than the street vendors and set out to find more high-end restaurants farther from my apartment. I grew more comfortable wandering the streets each day.

There was still plenty of daily frustration–hawkers approaching far too often and the ever-present danger of crossing the street. There was even a moment when I couldn’t physically cross a street with idle traffic because there wasn’t enough space between all the motorbikes–I was trapped on a narrow curb until the traffic began to move again.

More than anything, I have the friends I made in Vietnam to thank for my time in the country. Without them, I would have written off much of my time there. I have been fortunate enough to meet all three in Taipei and hope to be able to show them around again if they choose to return.

Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place? What made you love and hate it?

2016 Travel Review

I didn’t travel as much as I had wanted to over the last year. Part of that was because of work and an attempt at saving my vacation days so I could enjoy a longer holiday. Of course, that job didn’t work out and I ended up with a three-month paid holiday at the end of the year. It sounds great, but I had already planned a trip home for my birthday and Thanksgiving, which I extended by a week. Mixed in with searching for a new job and some freelance work, I didn’t have as much time as I had hoped to travel. But, I still managed to start and end the year with travel (and a new job).

sashimi

Every year should include good sashimi

There were some amazing adventures and some journeys that I’d prefer to forget. I also managed to spend a full 24 hours in the Bangkok airport spread over four layovers. It’s a very nice airport, but I hope to not see it again for at least a year.

bramble cocktail

…and more fancy cocktails

I also had some visitors this year. My parents came to Taiwan for the first time and my friends from Hong Kong (we met in New York) came for a long weekend. I’m still waiting on others to visit, if that ever happens.

 

 

My first trip of 2016 was to Myanmar

It was a trip that I had wanted to take for a long time. And I screwed up on that trip. I made the best of my mistake and had a wonderful time getting “stuck” in Bagan. Missing out on Inle Lake, Mandalay, and other parts of the country gives me another reason to go back. I’m sure I would’ve had a great time had I had access to my bank accounts, but it was relaxing to ride a bike around the dirt roads of Bagan for a few days.

Bagan balloons

Balloons over Bagan

I took a long weekend in Tainan

I will never go back to Tainan unless my new job forces me to go there. I have no idea why people seem to love this city so much.

Tainan bridge night

At least Tainan had some decent views

My parents visited Taipei

I showed my parents around Taipei, but they weren’t all that impressed. They did enjoy a few days at Sun Moon Lake, though. It was a relaxing place and a great way to end their trip. I also took them to Seoul for a week (I have not written about the new adventures I had there).

A last-minute trip home

I didn’t get to see friends on this trip. It was only a few days with family for a funeral. Not the best trip.

I found new adventures in Hong Kong

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

It had been a long time since I had been in Hong Kong. And I really never got to explore the city before this trip. Thanks to some friends, I found some new places for sightseeing and eating. This was probably the best time I’ve had in Hong Kong. I’ll definitely plan more trips there because a round-trip ticket from Taipei is only about $125.

A day-trip to Keelung

I needed a day out of Taipei and decided nearby Keelung would be a good choice. I hadn’t heard much about the city, but it was easy to get to. There wasn’t much to see or do there, but the weather was clear (and hot) for a long day of walking. Really, the only thing worth doing in the city is Zhongzheng Park–a small hill with a large statue of Guanyin, which you can go inside. There are great views of the port from the top of the hill. There’s probably more to see on the outskirts of town along the coast, but I really didn’t plan the day too well.

I took a last-minute trip to Tokyo

Another friend I met years ago in New York was taking a trip to Japan. He had originally planned to take a few days in Taipei, but couldn’t squeeze it in. Instead, he convinced me to head to Tokyo again. Our Airbnb plan fell through, but we ended up with a nice hostel stay. I got to see other friends in Tokyo as well. And we ate a lot on this trip.

Tachiaigawa

Street leading to Tachiaigawa Station in Tokyo, Japan

There is still so much in Tokyo I haven’t seen. I feel like it’d take a lifetime to get through the city.

I visited my friend in Kaohsiung

My friend came back from a year in Canada (and promptly returned). I still got a couple days in her hometown though. It’s a pleasant city, but I had seen most of the highlights on my previous trip there. The only new adventure this time was a short stop at Shoushan, where visitors can see a lot of wild monkeys (Formosan rock macaque, to be exact). We also checked out the new national library, which is an impressive building inside and out–there are some really cool art exhibits there as well.

My birthday trip home

I decided I wanted to celebrate my birthday with family and friends this year. And as my birthday is right around Thanksgiving, I got to double up on celebrations. And I was able to extend my stay by a week for only $37 (I have no idea how, but it worked). It would’ve been a more exciting trip home, but my brother’s house was being renovated so I couldn’t stay in Jersey City. Instead I spent most of my three weeks at my parents’ house in the quiet suburbs with very little to do. At least I got to sleep a lot.

 

Final trip to Laos

I was offered a new job and accepted, so I decided to take a last-minute trip before I’d have to get back to an office. I booked my flight to Vientiane via Bangkok two days before I left. It was more expensive than other flights, but it didn’t include an overnight layover in Hanoi. (Note: there is a capsule hotel in Hanoi airport, but it is outside the transit area, which means you need a visa.) Overall, the trip was wonderful with a few minor problems. I do think the town of Luang Prabang is overrated, but it’s still worth visiting mainly for the sites that are nearby. Although there wasn’t that much to do, I preferred Vientiane–it’s a lot less touristy and there’s a greater opportunity to interact with locals, whom I found to be quite nice.

 

And that is it for 2016. I know I still have to write about more of the adventures I had throughout the year, and I will get to them as soon as I can. I hope everyone enjoyed reading about my travels this year.

I wish my readers a happy, healthy, and travel-filled 2017!

Do you have any travel plans for the new year yet?

Brief Break in Kaohsiung

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
― Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Adjusting to life as an expat, settled into one place rather than country hopping, can be a slow process. As I’ve been in Taipei for an extended period before, the expat honeymoon phase is long gone and reality has set in for the most part.

That doesn’t mean I’m no longer adjusting to this life and already settled in. Far from it.

Walking through Pier-2 Arts Center with Kaohsiung in the background

Walking through Pier-2 Arts Center with Kaohsiung in the background

Most of the adjusting is with my apartment and making it livable (I finally have a functioning kitchen) and relearning what it’s like to work in an office after 12 years in other jobs. It’s not that I have any problems with editing; it’s that the process at this job is much different, and it’s not an editing process I would choose on my own. Plus I sometimes have to work a half-day on Sundays in addition to my side work. After a little more than a month, I was exhausted.

That’s when my friend, whom I met my first time in Taipei, invited me to Kaohsiung for the weekend. Actually, she ulterior motives–she wanted me to help her move to Kaohsiung before leaving for Canada. While I’m always willing to help a friend, my late shift at work prevented me from helping (though I still moved some boxes when I arrived).

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

Early Saturday morning after a slightly stressful week, I got on the high speed rail headed southwest–a journey that took a little less than two hours, during which time I slept instead of reading my new book. There was a sense of excitement and relief as I boarded my train to escape Taipei.

Travel destinations are not always about the place–there’s the experience of a place, which is influenced by our moods and the people around us. Kaohsiung could’ve been the ugliest city in the world, but it would nonetheless be wonderful because of the timing and my friend.

Noodles drying on the roadside. Birds were pecking at it later

Noodles drying on the roadside. Birds were pecking at it later

As we drove around in the car we borrowed from her mom, we talked–there wasn’t much catching up to do, but still plenty to talk about. And I saw another side of my friend in her hometown. There was nostalgia in speech as she pointed out the sights–not tourist attractions, but places from her past like her old home and schools, and parks she visited as a kid.

Kaohsiung's knock-off Transformer. It isn't more than meets the eye.

Kaohsiung’s knock-off Transformer. It isn’t more than meets the eye.

We did stop to see some tourist sights–Lotus Pond, Pier-2 Art Center, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (all of which I’ll write about soon). And while those tourist sights were great to see, they weren’t the highlight of my brief time away from Taipei.

I’m all for adventure in new destinations, but sometimes it’s better to experience a place through someone else, especially if that someone is a good friend.

Colorful Side of Singapore

“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
― Claude Monet

While modern Singapore is a marvel with the contemporary architecture of the areas surrounding Bayfront, I found it less interesting than the older side of the small Southeast Asian nation.

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

Prior to my trip, I wasn’t sure what remained of colonial era structures–whenever I saw pictures of Singapore, it was of those modern skyscrapers reiterating the city’s claim as a global financial center. Every now and then I recall seeing photos of a few scattered historic buildings–the few that remained after the destruction of World War II.colonial-singapore

As I wandered through streets on long walks in the tropical heat, I encountered another side of Singapore. I began to see those colonial-era houses that were familiar from my trip to Malaysia; that same style I saw in Malacca and Penang years ago. But here in Singapore, those same buildings were refurbished–cleaned up and painted, though a few were in disrepair. These buildings showed life, a life that was busy and beautiful.

Overwhelming color in Little India

Overwhelming color in Little India

This isn’t the same as finding those wonderful colors along quiet canals in Burano; this was boisterous and somewhat chaotic. This was no laid-back, relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle. This was Little India.

Little India Singapore

Details of the most colorful building in Little India

I wound up in Little India a few times during my short stay–it wasn’t far from my hostel and there were more affordable dining options. As I was invited to eat and drink with some locals after a long day of sightseeing, I was asked about my stay in Singapore. They were surprised it was my first visit–they didn’t expect a first-timer to wander through the Indian section of the city because it’s not on the popular tourist itinerary. That’s exactly why I was there.

This is must be Little India

This is must be Little India

I showed my haphazard itinerary to my new acquaintances–they were curious what I planned to see around their home. They told me to avoid a few things that they considered dull and laughed at my other choices because they were simply the official tourist destinations–of course, you have to go to the Raffles Hotel for a drink, but don’t expect to find locals there. They were also bewildered by my encounter with renovations at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve–“How could nature be under renovations?” they laughed.

Despite calling the major attractions nothing but garbage, they encouraged me to still visit the destinations on my list. “It’s what you have to do,” they told me.

“Next time, you can see the other side of Singapore.”

Introverted Travel or Social Avoidance?

“Be Yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
-Oscar Wilde

Sometimes I wonder what illogical black hole media pulls ideas from when they come up with pointless stories like the “18 Essential Tips for Introverted Travelers.” This brilliant (and I use the term loosely) piece of travel advice comes from the same editor who brought you “How to Spot an American Anywhere in the World.” (Note to Yahoo!: These pointless articles are great for generating a negative response. If you’d like more thoughtful articles, you can contact me.)

I’m by no means an extrovert, but I’m also not quite an introvert.

I just hate small talk, unless it’s in Chinese because that’s most of the Chinese I know; it’s how I met so many friendly Chinese travelers in Iceland. I enjoy talking with people most of the time, but I need a reason to start a conversation–without a reason for the conversation to begin, I’ll just stand aside and watch. I prefer to have other people start the conversation for me.

Damn tourists always get in the way

Damn tourists always get in the way

The Yahoo! article is more of a how-to guide of traveling and avoiding people. While I don’t always want to interact with people, I by no means want to avoid interactions. Where’s the joy in traveling if you can’t talk about the places you’ve been? And I don’t understand how taking an aisle seat is better for an introvert. If you want to sleep, take the window, and if you enjoy scenery on a train or bus, you’ll also want that window.

The entire does have some (obvious) good advice.

I agree with a few points that the article makes, but those points with which I agree are meant more for all travelers. I definitely encourage people to travel with literature–hell, I bring my Kindle to the bar in case I don’t find anyone to talk with (yes, some people think I’m crazy for reading in a bar). I also like the idea of taking an extra day off between returning from vacation and going back to work because I like any excuse for more time off from work.

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

There’s also tip #13: bring a journal. It’s definitely a good idea to bring a notebook–it helps you to remember what you’ve seen on your trip. It’s more of a writer’s tool for me–one of my grad school instructors told us to always have a notebook to write down ideas or record conversations. I also find a notebook is handy for writing down new words and phrases in another language. People in bars might also write down some recommended places to visit.

Because I took a tour on my second day in Siem Reap, I met a Dutch guy who lives in China who agreed to take a 40-mile bike ride the following day. Because I offered to move over one seat in a crowded restaurant in Tokyo, I made friends who took me out for yakitori and beer. Because I used Airbnb for the first time in Halifax, my hosts took me out to the farmer’s market. And because I stayed in a hostel dorm in Boston, I met a friendly Brazilian who wandered the city with me–I even introduced her to Xinjiang lamb kabobs that I got overexcited about (pretty sure I scared her when I stopped and exclaimed, “Oh my god! Yang rou chuan!”).

Sometimes I get to take pictures with people I meet in Tokyo

Group photos are inevitable after you offer your seat in a crowded restaurant

Back to the Yahoo! article and all that it emphasizes about introverted travel.

Order room service? Get your own room when traveling with friends? Set a time limit for group activities? With all this advice, an introvert won’t speak to anyone for the entire time. Not all introverts avoid social interactions–they just don’t enjoy certain social interactions (I can’t blame them; I’ve met enough people I wish I could’ve avoided).

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

I understand the desire to avoid large crowds and hawkers in tourist areas, but why would anyone actively avoid interacting with everyone?

Over the years I’ve read plenty of blog posts from self-proclaimed introverts (or semi-introverts) who travel. The takeaway from all of those posts is that travel forces them out of their comfort zones and into adventure–sometimes it includes meeting new people who end up as long-term friends. I have made some wonderful friends on my travels, and it’s all because I forced myself to interact with the people around me.

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

There is nothing wrong with taking some time for yourself while traveling–this is why I take solo hikes and bike rides–but not interacting with the world around you takes all the fun out of travel. Travel is supposed to encourage you to try new things and change how you normally live. You can always return to your introverted ways when you return home.

What is your advice for introverted travelers?

Preconceptions and Reality in Singapore

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here”
Tom Waits, Singapore

Last year when I considered taking a trip to Singapore I thought of a million reasons to not go, most of which stemmed from the little I knew about the country.

Maybe it all goes back to 1994–I was finishing middle school and a 19-year-old American named Michael Fay caused an international incident by being sentenced to a caning in Singapore. Americans were in an uproar over the punishment Fay received for vandalism. I thought he was an idiot. But that ordeal left me, and many others, with the impression that Singapore is a brutal police state.

It’s not.

singapore-skylineYes, there are tons of laws to follow, and the punishments for breaking the law can be harsh (mostly steep fines now). The laws governing day-to-day activities, however, don’t really register with tourists. No spitting! Ok. No littering! Fine, where’s the trash can? It really isn’t any inconvenience.

And when it comes to all the restrictions, no one seems to care about jaywalking. People cross the streets when they want, but they make sure no traffic is coming first (this isn’t Hanoi). Drivers are polite enough to stop for pedestrians, but I don’t imagine they’d be as happy if those pedestrians walked in front of their cars.singapore

I always thought Singapore would be immaculate with all the rules they supposedly enforce. It is quite clean, but there are plenty of messes–there was a public restroom at an MRT station was foul (still better than any public restroom in the US). There were a few others that weren’t much better. And at the outdoor food courts, there are plenty of messes–I saw no trash cans because everyone just leaves dishes and trays on the tables for staff to clean up. I’m sure if I stayed out later, those same food courts would get a bit messy.

For a country that some might regard as a police state, there isn’t a police presence. I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, and there were long lines of people paying their respects, so there were some police around to mostly help with directions. The police were quite friendly and helpful.

Clarke Quay at night

Clarke Quay at night

That level of friendliness and helpfulness expanded to the general population. I’ve said before how polite and friendly people in Taipei are. I found people in Seoul and Tokyo to also be polite, though not nearly as friendly. People in Singapore are more than that–they’re helpful and accommodating.

Example: I wanted to purchase a three-day metro ticket (which is not for a full 72 hours because the ticket offices aren’t open early enough), but the ticket office was closed when I arrived at Changi Airport. An MRT employee apologized because the office closed early in honor of Lee Kuan Yew. She then helped me buy my ticket and made sure I knew where to go. When I finally got to buy the three-day ticket, the ticket office was going on lunch break. There were three people ahead of me and they all desperately wanted to get things done now (I didn’t want to wait another hour either). The employee stayed to help us, but turned anyone else away. In Japan and Taiwan employees wouldn’t be so flexible.

I certainly worried about the weather in Singapore–I know it’s hot and humid year-round. But the heat wasn’t unbearable. Afternoon downpours were inconvenient, but they felt great. I had expected the city to be fully air conditioned, like in Hong Kong. We used to joke that Hong Kong was 5 degrees cooler than mainland China–I swear it got colder as soon as I set foot across the border at Luohu crossing. If I visited Hong Kong in the summer I went from frigid temperatures indoors to oppressive heat and humidity on the streets (my glasses would fog up if I went indoors for more than 5 minutes before going back outside).

supertrees-night

Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Singapore manages temperatures better. There was a progression to temperature changes that prevents people from getting sick and acclimates the population. It was hot and humid outside, and it got cooler as I got further into the metro stations–the buses and subway cars were quite cold, but I was prepared for it with the progression. The ticket area of the MRT was a few degrees cooler than outside; the waiting area for the train was a little cooler; and the trains were even cooler than that. The progression of air conditioning means that the city is more energy efficient than Hong Kong.

Another preconception I had was that Singapore is just a huge city. While that is true, there is also plenty of green space. The city is so well planned and covered in green. And all the plants along the streets and in the parks are well maintained. It’s not like in China where they rip out a plant just because a leaf is turning brown.

MacRitchie Reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir

I went for a hike at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve only to find the 400-acre reserve was closed for trail renovations. There were some other trails nearby though; they just weren’t as interesting. There’s also the MacRitchie Reservoir, where I took a more than 10 km hike (I thought the hike was only 5 km). And there’s still the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens. There is a lot of room to breathe in Singapore.

Singapore impressed me.

Have you ever visited a place with a preconception that was quickly broken?

Nationality Spotting Abroad

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
-attributed to Mark Twain, but probably not

This post contains rants and profanity, as well as cynicism and sarcasm.

The other day a lead editor at Yahoo! Travel wrote an article titled “How to Spot an American Anywhere in the World.” You know the type of article; it’s the one that calls out all the stupid America-centric behavior that makes Americans bad travelers. This is almost the same article that has been published elsewhere about once a year since “The Ugly American” stereotype was first coined. It’s also utter bullshit and lazy journalism. Sure, it adds some of the non-offensive behaviors that are somewhat funny, but it’s still a worthless load of shit.

In particular, this article focuses on Americans who travel to Europe and possibly Mexico (but only Cancun). This does not discuss veteran travelers, backpackers, food tourists, adventure travelers, etc. It focuses on a small demographic of American travelers who probably are getting out of the country for the first time and experiencing some slight culture shock.

Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation

Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation

Yes, there are stupid American travelers. I met some when I took a tour of Israel 10 years ago (seriously, your luggage was overweight for a 10-day tour on the way to Israel; I had a duffel bag and a small backpack and everyone thought I was crazy for underpacking).

Damn tourists always get in the way

Damn tourists always get in the way

But let’s move on from the brutish American traveler with his white athletic socks and baseball cap (which is popular among plenty of other travelers) and see how we can spot other nationalities while traveling.

  • Israelis. Why not start with them since I mentioned the trip. These are a bunch of pushy, noisy partiers who treat Southeast Asia like a garbage dump while doing nothing cultural and only looking for pot and ecstasy to continue the rave that only exists in their dirty hostel.
  • British. Let’s go to the former colonies and see what’s wrong in that country without actually knowing a single fucking thing about the local culture. These places would be so much better if they were still under the crown. Also, American beer tastes like shit, but I’ll drink Budweiser or Heineken instead of the local beer.
  • Australians. Shirtless beach bums wandering around with a beer in one hand and a prostitute in another. Loud and obnoxious, but will probably buy you a beer or two to hang around for a while.
  • Germans. Complain about a lack of efficiency anywhere in the world because everywhere should be just like the Fatherland. Also, German beer is the best beer in the world and American microbrews aren’t really beer. Oh, you like drinking stouts and IPAs? No, those are terrible beers; I’ll drink a Heineken.
  • French. Can’t understand why no one around here speaks French. And what is it with this lack of cheese in Asia? Oh yeah, and there was that asshole who stole my Coke in London as I sat outside having lunch. Side story: I met a French bartender in Scotland. I mentioned that I had wanted to visit France. She replied, “Why? There’s a reason I’m here.”
  • Japanese. Seriously, how much time do you need to take a fucking picture!?
At least they don't travel like this

At least they don’t travel like this

As you can see, these stereotypes are nothing more than sweeping bullshit generalizations for short-lived entertainment purposes and internet clickbait. Good job, Yahoo! Lead Editor. I’m sure your university journalism professor would be proud of your journalistic integrity (well, probably proud that you actually have a job anyway…great I made myself feel bad about my career path).

An appropriate reaction to such articles

An appropriate reaction to such articles

Are any of my stereotypes true? Well, sure, I’ve met these people while traveling, but that doesn’t mean it’s everyone. I’ve met wonderful travelers from all over the world–most of them were solo travelers or in small groups.

Why don’t we finally bury this stupid article on travel stereotypes and focus on travel stories that are worthwhile, like who the fuck actually travels with an Ostrich Pillow? Also, I would probably travel with one of those things because they look comfortable and ridiculous–it’d be hilarious to walk through immigration with that on my head (until US agents decide it’s a threat and need to detain me indefinitely).

Are there any other traveler stereotypes you’re tired of hearing? Add your own rant.

A Very Taipei Thanksgiving

“Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I’m fortunate to have a few friends here in Taipei. Some of them were able to join me for my birthday last week. And my two American friends joined me for Thanksgiving dinner in Zhongshan (we didn’t go back to Dream of Hobbiton though).

Interesting benches outside this dog-friendly restaurant

Interesting benches outside this dog-friendly restaurant

The original plan was to have a fancy roast duck dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant I found wasn’t quite what we wanted (it was also a bit overpriced). Instead, we decided to try a Dongbei restaurant (for those who don’t know, that’s northeastern Chinese cuisine) called 東北軒酸菜白肉鍋 at 79 Chongchun Rd. All three of us had previously lived in mainland China and love the Dongbei food. I was a bit disappointed to not get my roast duck, but everything else was great.

The staff at the restaurant was friendly, and even waived the corking fee for our wine so we could celebrate more.thanksgiving-friends

We contemplated going out after dinner to find some small restaurant for the duck, but decided that we had enough. We ordered 水煮鱼 (a spicy fish stew), garlic eggplant, 鱼香肉丝 (fish fragrance shredded pork, which the staff mentioned did not actually contain any fish), and spicy cabbage.garlic-eggplant

While all this food wasn’t really what we were used to in mainland China, we still enjoyed what we ordered. Of course, it didn’t quite matter what we ordered as we enjoyed sharing our stories of life in the mainland and circumstances that brought us to this island that’s China but not China.thanksgiving-fish

As we finished dinner and the restaurant was closing at 10pm, the staff wished us a happy Thanksgiving (I’m still not sure what the Chinese word for Thanksgiving is, but I’ve always been partial to using 火鸡节 (fire chicken festival)). Rather than head home after dinner, we stopped in Family Mart for some beer to drink in Linsen Park before catching the last MRT home.

Despite the lack of turkey, or in my case duck that I was so looking forward to eating, Thanksgiving had a wonderful Taiwanese atmosphere that I’m happy to have shared with my friends.

Another Birthday Abroad

“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories… And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”
-H.G. Wells, from The Time Machine

I’ve come up with a theory that birthdays while living abroad don’t count. That doesn’t matter, of course, as I’ve decided that I don’t feel like celebrating anything other than my 25th birthday, though I may change my mind when I hit 50 or so. I suppose it’s not so bad to admit that I’ve now turned 35–I was mistaken for 40 a few weeks ago, which forced me to shave my beard (I’m told I look younger than my age when I shave).

taipei-101-sun-yat-sen-parkLast year I celebrated on my own in Tokyo–it was a quiet affair of sorts that culminated in treating myself to a confusing journey through the local onsen. This year I departed Tokyo a few days before my birthday and returned to Taipei.

Why would you return to Taipei? is what you’re probably asking right now. I generally don’t plan on returning to cities I’ve already visited, but I already made an exception in the case of Tokyo. Over the last few months I’ve been applying for new jobs, most of which are in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything yet, but I may return to teaching at the beginning of the spring semester if all goes well with applications. Unfortunately, I can’t stay in Japan for more than 90 days without a visa, so I took a visa run of sorts–and the cheapest flights were to Taipei, where I can also stay for up to 90 days without a visa (it’s also a little easier to find short-term private students to help pay the bills).

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

If I hadn’t chosen to stay in Tokyo, I probably would have moved to Taipei (or possibly Kaohsiung) as it’s the most livable city I’ve visited (unless you count the horrifically humid summers).

But that’s neither here nor there and I’m getting off topic while musing about this whole aging process. I should tell you about all the great partying I did to celebrate this birthday, but then I’d have to lie.

A couple days before my birthday, I met a friend for drinks near where my hostel should have been (seems it moved to a less desirable location since my friend stayed here). She wanted to take me out earlier because she had to work on my birthday. The miscommunication was entertaining upon review: “I’m here.” “Where? I’m outside.” “I’m at the door.” “No you’re not.” “Did the hostel move?”

I ended up drinking a bottle of Queue de Charrue Brune, a Belgian sour brown ale. It wasn’t as strong as I expected at 5.5%, but the flavor was almost overpowering (I couldn’t taste my friend’s beer after a few sips of this one). It had a chocolate cherry aroma and tasted like a slightly sour brown ale.

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

On my birthday, another friend visited from Hsinchu to have dinner at Dream of Hobbiton, a Hobbit-themed restaurant in Zhongshan. I had read about this restaurant last time I was in Taipei–when I lived in Zhongshan–but I never tried it. Now I had an excuse to try Hobbit cuisine.

sweet-hobbitAlright, so the menu has nothing to do with the books or the movies–it’s mostly an Italian-style restaurant with pizza and pasta. There was one cocktail called the Sweet Hobbit, which was made with rum and some sort of sweet mixer, that I had to order to fit with the restaurant’s attempted theme.

Lord of the Rings corner

Lord of the Rings corner

The decor is halfway to the Hobbit. As my friend pointed out, it looks like they spent too much money on movie props and filled in the rest with whatever they could find. The bar downstairs at least looks like it’d fit in the Shire, if it were a bit shorter anyway. The corner by the door has the majority of the Hobbit memorabilia, but there’s also Smeagol upstairs (I didn’t check the upper floors for more). gollum

We’re still not sure about the Iron Man hand and mask on the door or the waiter statue wearing a pirate hat outside. Did Robert Downey, Jr. have a cameo in one of the Lord of the Ring movies? Was there a pirate butler in Rivendell?pirate-waiter

After dinner we walked around the neighborhood and ended up at the izakaya that plays punk near my old apartment in the seedier part of Taipei. The staff welcomed my friend back, even though he’d never been there before. When he mentioned to the staff that it was my birthday, they offered us a shot that contained cheap absinth and some awful Polish liquor that claims to be 160 proof. It was worse than the medicinal snake liquor I had in Vietnam.

When you’ve been traveling solo for an extended time, what do you do to celebrate your birthday or even holidays?

Conversation at a Cambodian Girl Bar

“…in that drunken place
you would
like to hand your heart to her
and say
touch it
but then
give it back.”
Charles Bukowski, The People Look Like Flowers at Last

I wasn’t sure how to frame this conversation on my last night in Cambodia. I wasn’t even sure I should write about it at all. But certain conversations stick with you as you travel the world, and parts of those conversations need to be recorded for others.

When I visited Cambodia, I saw a beautiful country that has been through hell–I witnessed extreme poverty like I’ve never seen before or since. I heard stories from longtime expats who worked with NGOs about the struggles in a corrupt nation in which most of the educated people were slaughtered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Without an educated class, the country has sputtered along with a lack of capable leadership.

Monks walking along the street in front of the palace in Phnom Penh

Monks walking along the street in front of the palace in Phnom Penh

At the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I was told not to give money to child vendors or beggars. The idea is that they earn plenty of money when they’re young and cute, but they miss out on education. As they grow older, tourists are less sympathetic and the children are forced into other lines of work–the boys turn to gangs and drugs, and the girls end up in prostitution or other exploitative work where they make little or no money. According to a report by Emma Poole in 2001, the sex trade in Cambodia was valued at $511 million, involving about 50,000 women many of whom were under 18 years old. I was told that through the work of many education funds in the country, there are fewer child beggars today, thus improving the overall situation for the future of Cambodia.

There are even some NGOs that have helped former sex workers learn skills and find work. There was one local non-profit art shop in Siem Reap that was established by former prostitutes and employed others. Other small businesses supported education or healthcare.

Non-profit bookstore in Siem Reap

Non-profit bookstore in Siem Reap

When I reached Phnom Penh, I discovered that my hotel was not in such a desirable neighborhood–it was between the night market, port, Central Market, and palace. While this area has a lot of restaurants and hotels, it is mostly home to an abundance of girl bars. As the name implies, these bars employ young women whose job it is to keep the customers company and attempt to get the customers to purchase drinks for them at inflated prices (at least $3 for a small glass of soda compared with about $1.50 for a beer for the customer). For a price, patrons can even take these women back to their hotel rooms (or other cheap places as many hotels have signs denying entrance to sex tourists).

As I walked around in search of a bar that didn’t double as a brothel, I watched foreigners casually enter and exit the girl bars. After eating a snack on the street near my hotel, I saw the women at one bar buy some cheap snacks from two young girls who were missing out on their education. The women at the bar offered the girls makeup and let them walk around a bit in their too-large high heeled shoes. Is this the future these poor girls will have to endure? 

I wanted to better understand the lives of these women, and decided to find one of the quieter bars with outdoor seating. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in anything more than a beer and conversation–I demanded to know prices before ordering anything to avoid getting ripped off. As there was only one other customer at the time, a few girls came to my table (all but one left when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to spend much money).phnom-penh-river

The one that stayed spoke a little English but a lot more Mandarin, which she had only been learning for about a year. I knew China had been investing quite a bit in infrastructure and manufacturing in Cambodia, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the young women at these bars would speak Mandarin to serve the Chinese businessmen. At first I was happy to practice my Mandarin with someone–it was a bit labored and rusty, but I managed to have a pleasant conversation. The boss was sitting nearby, and he wanted to know why I was speaking to his employee in a language he didn’t understand–it was then that I realized the young woman speaking with me was more comfortable talking because her boss didn’t understand.

The inside of the bar was a bit noisy and dimly lit with pale blue lighting. The small space had white bar next to a full-sized pool table at which a large middle-aged European was playing with one girl wrapped around him and a few others acting as bored spectators. I didn’t make a note of it, but there were at least ten young women working in the small bar with only one real customer.

As we spoke more outside, a few of the other young women came to sit outside–they offered me some of the grilled snakes and who-knows-what that they bought from the wandering vendors. None of them spoke much more than a few basic phrases of English, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Most of what they asked me was translated into Mandarin, and my responses were translated back from Mandarin. They were mostly interested in my age, nationality, and family (an obvious gauge of potential customers), but they also asked me about my travels.

As I had realized that the boss didn’t understand Mandarin, I began asking some serious questions the answers to which I sort of already knew. I began with the simple question of how much education the young women had. I was told that none of them had more than two years of formal education–they only knew some basics and learned foreign languages to drum up business.

The last question I asked was, “Do you ever feel afraid at work?” The young woman replied in Mandarin, “Yes, all the time.” She stopped smiling as she said this and turned her eyes to the floor.

I followed that question with lighter conversation unrelated to their work–I no longer wanted to hear answers to those questions. I bought the Mandarin-speaking woman a drink in the hope that she would keep some of that money. I thank her and the others for talking with me and headed back to my hotel to pack for my flight to Hanoi the next afternoon.

Facing Reality While Traveling

“What a weary time those years were — to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability.”
Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

We travel for many reasons; we want to see history and art, experience culture, and eat exotic food. We witness life as it moves past us on our journeys, but most of us only see the sanitized lives of locals in tourist areas. Few of us see the world as the majority of locals see it.

When I visited Panama City, I saw a city in transition–it was similar to gentrification back home. Casco Viejo was being purchased by real estate companies and hotels and redeveloped into a grand destination for tourists. There were still some squatters in the more dilapidated buildings throughout the small section of the city; the building across from my hotel was entirely owned by long-time squatters waiting to be bought out.

The American owners of the hotel told stories about finding bullet holes and casings everywhere when they first bought the building to transform it years earlier. They were happy to see the violent elements moved elsewhere, but they also desired a preservation of the original character of Casco Viejo. Much of the new construction on the other side of Panama City is empty–at night you can see how few buildings have lights. People I spoke with couldn’t explain who all the development was for or when enough people would move to the city to make it all worthwhile.

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

When tourists, businessmen, and expats move in, many of the original residents are left behind in an economic boom. Some of the locals will take advantage of the opportunities, but most are forced out due to a lack of education and the means to support a life that grows more expensive with the ensuing development.

Downtown Panama City

Downtown Panama City

After my sightseeing trip to Cambodia, during which I witnessed extreme poverty and exploitation of women, I returned to Hanoi. In the tourist center of the Old Quarter, redevelopment is slow. Businesses are certainly busy with the tourists providing enough money to keep it all running, and better educated Vietnamese are wandering through with more disposable income to join in the activities that are still mostly filled with foreigners. The majority of the buildings here are still crumbling and the utility wires are haphazardly set up in a way that can’t possibly be safe or efficient. But this is how life works in this part of Hanoi.

I'm not sure how this is supposed to work

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

A few times I found myself eating in busy open air restaurants with walls that were covered in dirt, most probably from the constant traffic exhaust. I often drank at the local Bia Hoi that was obviously unsanitary, but I figured the beer killed the bacteria on the glasses and I didn’t dare eat the dog meat stew that I was offered by the locals as we drank our 33-cent Hanoi beer.hanoi-street1

I met up with a friend I made through social media a few months before I traveled to Vietnam–she happened to be traveling home to Hanoi at the same time I was visiting. I was introduced to other parts of the city that I still can’t name because I was never told where we were heading when we jumped into taxis or on the back of a motorbike. We wandered through alleyways between dreary Soviet-era apartment blocks with rusting metal bars on windows and paint that faded to grey decades ago (assuming the paint ever existed). We ate in the courtyard surrounded by such buildings and I felt I was finally eating an authentic Vietnamese meal that I hoped wouldn’t make me sick for the lack of sanitation.

I was then taken to a friend’s apartment in another area–she received phone calls throughout the day from friends she hadn’t seen in years, and I decided to tag along to meet more locals. My friend being part of the better educated 20-somethings in Vietnam, I expected to meet more of the same who might enlighten me about life in the country. Aside from my friend, only one other in the group of five spoke some English, so I was left out of almost all of the conversation.

The new development of Vietnam

The new development of Vietnam

To reach her friend’s apartment, we walked through a maze of alleys surrounded by construction sites until we reached a dark stairway. The apartment was the size of a large bedroom with mismatched wrapping paper and posters used as wallpaper that probably covered cracks and mold. A flimsy mattress was spread out on the floor in the back corner of room and served as a bed as well as seating for guests.

There was one large window with bars on it, but no glass or screen to keep out insects and only a thin sheet to cover it for privacy. There was a single outlet that led to an outdated power strip next to the makeshift stove and propane tank. The dark and dirty toilet was down the open hallway–two stalls that required buckets of water to flush. I didn’t ask where the shower was for fear that it was the same room and require buckets of cold water.

The ceiling was an entirely new sight for me. It appeared as though someone had torn off the original roof, leaving uneven exposed-brick walls that were topped off by a patchwork of sheet metal, which left large gaps between the walls and makeshift ceiling. No part of this apartment would be considered livable in the developed world. Despite the lack of what many would consider necessities, the young woman who lived here had a job and even a smartphone. I didn’t know the circumstances that brought her to such a place.hanoi-street

This bare-bones apartment was enough to make me appreciate the places I have lived. Even the “hotel” in which I stayed the first night in Hanoi–the one I checked into and immediately walked out of at 10 pm in search of new accommodations for the following day–was a huge step up from this room.

I didn’t say anything about the room to my friend–it was the only home in Vietnam to which I was invited and had nothing with which to compare it. No one in the group seemed to think this room was undesirable as they chatted and shared a meal while seated on the bedding. I have since been shown pictures of other Vietnamese friends’ homes and realize that the one I visited was not typical.

It is difficult for those of us who grew up in the developed world in a house with functional plumbing, electricity, and a backyard to comprehend the lifestyle of those who survive in such harsh conditions. It’s still difficult for me to understand, even after hearing lively conversations and seeing the smiles of people who call this home. I may never understand it, but I will remember it anytime I feel my own life is difficult.

What have you seen while traveling that changed your perception of life? 

Mr. Chiang’s Taipei

Everyone recognizes one structure in Taiwan, but that’s not the structure I visited–Taipei 101 is beautiful skyscraper that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Instead of paying a small fortune to ride an elevator near the top of that huge building, I opted for hiking up Elephant Hill for a better view of the city that included Taipei 101. Really, what other buildings in the city would you want to see? What other buildings are there to see from above?chiang-kai-shek-memorial1

That’s when I found the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. It is flanked by the National Concert Hall and National Theater, which are indistinguishable but beautiful. I don’t imagine it’s such a sight to see from far above in Taipei 101, but all three are wonderful structures to behold and walk around for half a day–and it helped me to escape a bit of light rain. It is also more colorful to see at night with the lights, especially when the little pandas are on display for added cuteness.chiang-kai-shek-memorial-pa

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a monument for the former president and military leader of the Republic of China who was driven out of mainland China along with the rest of the Kuomintang by Mao Zedong’s communist army. Chiang died in 1975, ending martial law in Taiwan. Direct presidential elections in Taiwan were not held until 1996. chiang-guards

While history surrounding Chiang’s rule in mainland China and Taiwan is controversial to say the least, he is still revered as a great leader on the island. He does not secure the same reverence, however, as his predecessor Sun Yat-sen.changing-of-guard

Arriving at the memorial hall at the top of the hour, visitors are treated to the changing of the guard–every hour of the day (seems a bit excessive). A carefully choreographed ceremony that involves twirling and tossing firearms and plenty of stomping of boots. As a taller tourist, it’s easier to stand in the back and hold a camera above everyone else’s heads to record the ceremony.chiang-kai-shek-car

Inside the museum beneath the huge statue of a seated, benevolent Chiang Kai-shek visitors can learn a bit of history of the former leader’s military successes and relationship with Sun Yat-sen. You can even have your picture taken next to Chiang’s Cadillac. There’s also plenty of whitewashed Taiwanese political history that’s probably intended for the mainland Chinese tour groups.

Returning to Familiar Tokyo

What
has happened
makes

the world.
Live
on the edge,

looking.

-Robert Creeley, “Here”

I started my current journey in Tokyo–I had wanted to visit Japan for a long time, and it was my first opportunity to travel to the country. Now, I find myself back in the Land of the Rising Sun, more specifically back in the same neighborhood in Tokyo.

I was disappointed last time that I didn’t take any trips outside Tokyo–it was nearly impossible to find a room in Kyoto or Osaka for a weekend (autumn is one of the worst times to find weekend accommodation in tourist centers with a lot of outdoor activities). I wanted to return to Japan to at least see more of the country, and to reunite with friends I made.

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

I’ve been asked a few times why I decided on Japan so soon. The real answer to that is the price of airline tickets. When I booked my flight in May from Seoul to Rome for the end of July to attend a wedding and travel a bit, I knew I’d head back to Asia–I had a job that required me to work on Hong Kong time (little did I know that I would no longer have that job before heading back to the continent). I browsed every combination of return ticket–various Italian airports (and a few other European airports) paired with the various airports around East Asia–and Venice to Tokyo came out at $500 cheaper than any other combination of airports.

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

Staying in Tokyo was not a top priority when I booked my flight back at the beginning of May. I figured with the price of the flight, I could even book a budget airline flight elsewhere if I really wanted and I’d still come out ahead. Or I might find an apartment to rent in another city in Japan. As I searched Airbnb, I came up empty for my criteria–I needed a private apartment with internet, a washing machine, and kitchen within a 15-minute walk of public transportation. Well, there were plenty of options that fit that criteria, but not even close to my price range (I wanted to spend less on rent in Japan than I did back in New Jersey).

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

As my departure from Italy approached and my options faded, I took a chance and emailed the woman from whom I rented on my first trip through Tokyo. The apartment was a bit far from central Tokyo, but it was quiet and comfortable. Sure enough, the apartment was available. At least I knew I had a place to live while I searched for a new job and other accommodation.

I won't be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

I won’t be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

Familiarity is helpful, but it can also make one lazy. Oh, it’s going to rain today? Better stay inside and do nothing. Or maybe just sleep off the jetlag (I haven’t had jetlag since I left the US last October, so this feeling really sucks right now). Or I could take my sweet time in the morning instead of rushing out to go explore parts of Tokyo I missed last time–those second and third cups of coffee aren’t going to drink themselves.

After so many months of new experiences, however, it is pleasant to see the familiar. Not much has changed in this Tokyo suburb–I noticed a new restaurant that looks interesting with reasonable prices. On my first night back, I headed to a bar I frequented and ran into the Australian expat who took me to a local karaoke bar until 5 in the morning on my last weekend here. Last night I went to the wine bar in which I used to sit for a drink to read after work and found that the waitress remembers me (guess the beard doesn’t change my appearance that much), as did one of the regular customers. All this means I don’t have to go out of my way to be social–I can easily find the people I already know.

Normally I don’t want to return to places because there’s so much more to see in this world, but I’ll accept it this time around. How do you feel about returning to destinations?

On Departures

On journeys through the States we start,
(Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.
-Walt Whitman, “On Journeys Through the States”

Sometimes I get to hike with friends, like to Lion's Head Mountain in Taipei

Sometimes I get to hike with friends, like to Lion’s Head Mountain in Taipei

There’s a difference between the travel I’ve been experiencing and what most people consider travel. Most people visit a place for a few days or weeks–they see the highlights of a destination and move on. For many of these travelers, there isn’t much interaction with locals other than for services.

I’m in a different situation. Because I work during the week, I stay in one place for at least a month (sometimes three months as a visa allows). I may not have much interaction with people during the week because of language barriers or the fact that I just don’t approach people for conversation often. I do, however, meet people as I move along–and the conversations I have occasionally turn into friendships that last longer than my short-term expat adventures in each country.

The problem I encounter is saying good bye all the time. I have to say good bye to the places with which I’ve become familiar, only to start the process again. I have to say good bye to routines I’ve developed, only to be replaced by new routines in a new place. Most of all, I have to say good bye to the great people I’ve met.

Sharing Okonomiyaki with Chinese expats in Tokyo

Sharing Okonomiyaki with Chinese expats in Tokyo

There were friendly faces in Japan–waitstaff and restaurant managers, as well as regular customers–who always welcomed me. There was the shui jian bao vendor in my Taipei neighborhood who taught me the characters for the different varieties he sold. And then there were those who became more than just passing acquaintances.

Sometimes I can enjoy a view of Tokyo on my own

Sometimes I can enjoy a view of Tokyo on my own

In most cases, it takes a while to form friendships–one-time meetings aren’t enough to get to know someone, but they are enough to get an impression of that person to continue the connection. I have, fortunately, enough time in each place to make new acquaintances and plan to meet with them again before I depart for my next destination. These friends I’ve made in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Korea have made adjusting to moving to each place easier–they’ve suggested places to see and things to do, they’ve taken me out for birthday cake, and shared meals that would otherwise be awkward to eat alone.

The only exception to this is my coworker in Korea because we’ve been talking on Skype for work for two years–meeting was almost a formality to forming a friendship over a beer or two.

Way to make me feel welcome, Korean bar

Way to make me feel welcome, Korean bar

The wonders of Al Gore’s miraculous internet invention, as well as smartphone apps, have enabled people like me to continue the friendships that have developed across borders. I’ve had to download a few apps to connect to people in different areas–WhatsApp (which I no longer use), LINE (popular in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea), and even WeChat. Facebook is still the preferred method of communication for most people I’ve met, especially in Vietnam.

Friends in Saigon know what to order at the restaurants

Friends in Saigon know what to order at the restaurants

These friends I’ve made, and the subsequent ongoing communication with them, has made decisions to continue moving more difficult. Obviously, friends and family would like to see me move back to the US. And some friends around Asia would like to see me return to their countries. And I wish I could live in all at once. Each place, each friend holds a piece of my desire to return–some more than others. I just hope they all know that no matter where I end up I’ll always appreciate those with whom I’ve crossed paths.

How do you say good bye to those you’ve met while traveling? Or how do you maintain those friendships formed on the road?

Getting More Comfortable in Seoul

Gwanghwamun Gate

Gwanghwamun Gate

I figured that overwhelmed feeling wouldn’t last too long. I really just needed to get oriented, have a beer or two, and talk to some people. I still haven’t learned anything more than “hello,” “thank you,” and “beer” in Korean, but I’ll make an attempt to learn a few key words and phrases (I’m told the Korean alphabet isn’t difficult to learn).

I had Monday off from work for Memorial Day (the advantage of working for a US company), so I had three days to explore Seoul. In hindsight, I should’ve traded the day off for another week so I could’ve traveled outside Seoul–felt weird trying to plan a weekend away on my first full weekend here, which is why I stayed in the city.

Dongdaemun Hisory & Culture Park

Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

After work on Friday I decided to wander a nearby neighborhood–the guidebook that was in the my apartment suggested Dongdaemun (I didn’t realize I had already wandered that area). The history and culture park is nice–there’s an archaeological site surrounded by a futuristic building that made me think aliens had landed in Korea. It’s certainly the most interesting part of the neighborhood.

Futuristic Dondaemun building

Futuristic Dondaemun building

The rest of the neighborhood is full of clothing shops and street vendors selling cheaper versions. This wasn’t anything I was interested in. But as I kept walking, I began turning down alleys (I had to be careful because I had no map) and found a lot of street food and small restaurants that I will have to try. Then I found the highlight of the evening: a coffee shop that set up plastic tables outside and served beer. They also had a baseball game on a projection screen. To top it off, the beer was only about $2.50 for a pint (it was only Cass, but I can’t complain when watching baseball outside in a foreign country). I left the game around the 6th inning as it got rather cold and windy–I headed home to try the more local places.

Watching baseball outside in a parking lot on a Friday night

Watching baseball outside in a parking lot on a Friday night

I decided to try a self-serve beer bar around the corner from my apartment. These types of bars are all over Seoul–they have fridges stocked with a variety of beer, and customers can go up and take what they want. At the end of the night, they’ll count up what you served yourself. I chose the HiteJinro Black Beer Stout Lager–it’s a confusing label. The beer is definitely not a stout, but rather a schwarzbier. For less than $3, it’s definitely worth drinking.

HiteJinro black beer stout with some drinking snack

HiteJinro black beer stout with some drinking snack

The beer was more worthwhile as I met some friendly Koreans who spoke a little English and invited me to drink with them. Unfortunately, it ended with me helping them finish their bottle of Jose Cuervo (I’m not a fan of tequila, and that’s really bad tequila compared to what I’ve had). Needless to say, it was a rough Saturday morning to go to my coworker’s neighborhood–she was going to help me get a SIM card for my phone, but I forgot my passport because tequila. But it’s alright because despite some language barriers, I managed to get a local phone number in my neighborhood (though it was about twice the price of Taiwan).

Nothing like a trip to the market for some dried fish heads

Nothing like a trip to the market for some dried fish heads

Nonetheless, I had pleasant afternoon walking around a residential part of Seoul–we walked along a tributary until we came to the Han River to enjoy the hazy view.

Slightly cleaned up (Photoshopped) view of the hazy Han River

Slightly cleaned up (Photoshopped) view of the hazy Han River

Having someone around–even if you only see that person once a week, if that–can improve the experience of visiting/living in a new and slightly confusing place.

How long does it usually take you to adjust to a foreign city? Have friends/acquaintances helped you adjust?