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Hiking through Spirited Away

“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
- Zeniba, Spirited Away

Just before the Chinese New Year, I took a day trip to the far reaches of New Taipei, to the old mining town of Jiufen (九份). I headed out on a long bus ride from central Taipei to this small town in the mountains–the hour and a half ride cost less than $4 and I was fortunate enough to have a seat (on heavy travel days plenty of passengers have to stand for the entire ride, which wouldn’t be much fun on the winding mountain roads).jiufen

I met a few expats and visitors while waiting for the bus–I had just missed it; it turned the corner as I exited the MRT station, so I had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Two of the expats were showing a relative around and had been to Jiufen before; they told me where to get off the bus and which direction to head from the stop (I ran into them again on the way to the bus back to Taipei).Jiufen Old Street

Jiufen has some interesting history, which began with nine families calling the village home, giving the town the name that translates to nine portions. The mountainside settlement became a mining town with the discovery of gold in 1893. Allied POWs were sent to work in the mines during World War II. When the mines were closed in 1971, the town faded into history. In 1989, A City of Sadness, about the 228 Incident in which the Kuomintang massacred anti-government protesters and began the White Terror in Taiwan, was filmed in the town and led to some increased interest in Jiufen. However, it wasn’t until Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away that tourism began to revive the town. Jiufen was the inspiration for the town in Miyazaki’s film, which led to greater interest from Japanese tourists. Jiufen Old Street

Once off the bus, I headed for the old street, which is the touristy thing to do in Jiufen as well as in all the other little towns of New Taipei. The narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, food stalls, and restaurants was crowded with tourists who walked much too slow for my liking. As soon as I saw an opening that led to empty streets, I wandered off the tourist path.Jiufen

As I wandered through winding streets, I escaped the people. After continuing on a path that I only led up, I found myself at the top of the mountain at Lutou (露頭) overlooking Jiufen to the north (it was difficult to make out the characters on the faded sign, which made it difficult to locate on a map). I saw no one along the trail. I did find a broken, discarded motorbike and wondered how it ended up there with no road and all the steps up the mountain.

View from the trail to Lutou

View from the trail to Lutou

I rested at the peak and watched the clouds roll through between Jiufen and the surrounding mountains. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to bring a bottle of water with me–that was my next stop when I finally reached the town again.

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

After a break for water and some boozed-up coffee on Jiufen’s old street (how could I pass up some caffeine with Amarula Cream?). I wandered with my coffee through other, wider roads that lead to who-knows-where (maybe I should’ve picked up a map when I arrived).  That’s when I saw a sign for yet another hiking trail–to Keelung Mountain.

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

I figured Keelung Mountain (基隆山) wouldn’t be too difficult of a hike as I noticed other tourists there. The distance listed on the sign didn’t seem imposing, so I figured I’d take another hike and find another angle to view the town. It wasn’t as easy as I had expected. It was a lot of stairs straight up the mountain.jiufen-harbor-2

This trail would provide an amazing view for the sunset and to watch the lights of the town in the evening. I, however, was not fortunate enough to have a decent sunset or a flashlight to help me down the unlit stairway. More clouds rolled through and it looked like it might rain–the sun was blocked as it began to set behind the mountains. I could just make out the harbor leading to the East China Sea in the distance, but it was disappearing from view.jiufen2

As I looked back at Jiufen, I saw more elaborate tombs on the side of the mountain than homes. Many of the houses are in disrepair while the family tombs are well maintained.

Tombs around Jiufen

Tombs around Jiufen

I headed back to town as the sun set and had a quick bite to eat and more water at the convenience store. I waited a half hour to get on the crowded bus (I was fortunate to have a seat again) bound for Taipei. The next day my legs were sore and I had difficulty getting out of bed, but it was worth the pain of muscle recovery.

Have you visited Jiufen? Where were the best views?

What Do Androids in Taipei Dream of?

“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On the final day of the Chinese New Year holiday, I headed to the main shopping area–ATT 4 Fun, which is the large mall that attracts locals and tourists with its shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. They had plenty of displays set up for the Year of the Sheep. This one had me contemplating the Philip K. Dick classic that was turned into Bladerunner with Harrison Ford.electric-sheep

Seriously, what does this sign really mean? Are these electric sheep? Will I be electrocuted if I pet them? And do Taipei’s androids dream of electric sheep during Chinese New Year?

Happy Year of the Sheep

新年快乐, dear readers! February 19 marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year (as well as other Asian nations’ lunar new year). This is the year of the sheep/goat/ram and it happens to be my year, so I should probably go out and buy some lucky red underwear (seriously, this is a thing in China/Taiwan).

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

I didn’t make any special plans this year–Taipei emptied out for the first few days of the holiday as everyone traveled back to their parents and other relatives. I didn’t see any of the chaos that I witnessed during Spring Festivals past in China. I kind of miss the days of baijiu and beer with a meal that took hours to finish followed by fireworks set off haphazardly by revelers too drunk to be trusted with explosives.

Probably the creepiest sheep I've ever seen

Probably the creepiest sheep I’ve ever seen

I managed to keep some traditions alive this year–I purchased a whole fish and frozen dumplings from Carrefour. The fish is important because the character 鱼 (yú)  has the same pronunciation as 余 (yú), meaning “extra.”

After that I took a YouBike ride out to a wonderful bar called Beer & Cheese. It was a quiet evening at the bar with some really good beer from Evil Twin. I also had the friendliest taxi driver at the end of the night–he was quite happy to talk to a foreigner in Chinese and wished me a happy new year in English as I got into the cab. Somehow even with the New Year surcharge, the cab home was only a little more than the last time I came home from that bar.sheep-travel

In years past, I have eaten the animal for the zodiac year–for year of the rabbit the Sichuan restaurant in Jersey City served spicy rabbit head; they also had an array of eel dishes for year of the snake. But this year was different with a lack of lamb in Taipei. Had I been in mainland China, I would’ve sought out a Xinjiang restaurant for grilled lamb skewers or even a whole roasted lamb like I had for my going-away party years ago.

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

I wish my friends and family a healthy and prosperous year of the delicious sheep/goat/ram. Wait, that came out wrong. Maybe I need more baijiu and fireworks.

How did you celebrate the Lunar New Year? Did you eat plenty of lamb?

Discovering New Beer in Taiwan

In honor of reaching 500 unique brews on Untappd (I started using the app to log the different beers I drink in August 2012), I should write up another beer post. And my New Year’s resolution is not to reach 1,000, or even make a conscious attempt–I’d rather relax and enjoy my time with or without a new beer.

Last time I was in Taipei, I lamented the lack of local beer. I had found a couple decent beers, but nothing beyond that. When I returned, I was introduced to more local brews that I had either missed or that had finally become available in bars nearby.

Redpoint 台PA

Redpoint 台PA

North Taiwan Brewing, the brewery that I found with a pretty good abbey ale back in April, has a lot more beers. Unfortunately, most of them are fruit beers (I accidentally bought Apparallel Universe and it tasted like medicine). They did come out with a mildly hoppy brew called CHTHONIC. It’s definitely a beer worth trying, but not something I’d go out of my way for (but the label is pretty cool).

The beer has gotten better as I’ve stayed in Taipei longer–one friend introduced me to Redpoint, a beer brewed out in Hsinchu, which is a long, slow train ride west of the city, when I went to visit him and visit the beer haven iBeer. This was one of the better beers in Taiwan–it was a hoppy, but not overpowering, IPA (or I should say 台PA; that character is pronounced “tai”). The brewery also makes Long Dong Lager, which is a decent lager, but nothing special.

At the end of my adventure along Taiwan’s east coast, I tried the most unusual beer in Jiaoxi, a town renowned for its hot springs. At one of the hotel hot springs (I didn’t bother putting my feet in the outdoor pools) was a vendor for Barley Farm Manual Beer. There was not much English, so it was difficult to figure out what the beers were, but one of them claimed to be a green algae brew.

What an odd color for a beer

What an odd color for a beer

Another beer from Hsinchu, which I think is the best beer in Taiwan, is the 886 Brewing’s Magnum PIPA (seriously, why isn’t this brewed in Miami?). I had this beer at my hostel in Wai’ao on a weekend trip along the east coast, north of Hualien. They also make a brown ale that’s light enough to drink all night.

Tom Selleck would be proud

Tom Selleck would be proud

Most recently I tried 55th Street’s amber lager, which was a little on the sweet side because it’s brewed with dried longan (a fruit related to lychees). This was at a new bar in Taipei called Something Ales, which feels more like a cafe than a bar–certainly not a place I’d return to often for the prices they charge.

55th Street Amber with dried longan

55th Street Amber with dried longan

When I headed back to Revolver, a bar that once had a shrine to Mick Jagger (why is it gone!?), near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I found another local brew: #23 Brewery. They make a pale ale and a blonde. I happen to think the blonde tastes better as the pale ale is a little bland. I’d certainly have either them again depending on what else was on tap, but the blonde ale would be the preference as it has more flavor.

Steve's Lager

Steve’s Lager

Finally, I met the brewer of a new beer brand–he’s established in Taipei and Wisconsin. Steve’s Kraft Beer is a bit more innovative than the rest in the area. Steve tries to brew his beers with Taiwanese tastes in mind, which is why his amber lager is slightly sweet. I’d prefer a more hoppy blend, but I’m not his target market. Most brewers here are going for more traditional brews to introduce to the Taiwanese market, while Steve is trying to attract the market to his beer. I also got to taste his black lager, Black Hole Beer, which is more my taste–it’s a little on the lighter side but still provides the flavor a schwarzbier should. I didn’t get a chance to sample the rest of his beers yet, but I’m sure I will soon enough. His Area 51 Alien IPA is supposed to be available in 7-Eleven soon.

Have I missed any of the local brews worth trying in Taiwan? I’m sure there are more to come.

Lost at a Taiwanese Temple

The other day I headed out for an afternoon of art at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Art in northern Taipei’s Beitou District. I had some rough directions thanks to Google Maps, which still hasn’t fixed its maps here (MRT line 3 was on the map when I arrived back in late November, but it disappeared after a couple weeks).Hsing Tien Kong

As I wandered along the street outside the MRT station in search of the street that I assumed would take my the National Taiwan University of Art, I walked much too far–the street sign was not visible from the sidewalk. I ended up walking up another street that took me to a large temple.Hsing Tien Kong

Xingtian Temple (行天宫), which was founded by master Hsuang Kung who constructed temples in Taipei with his own money in the mid-20th century. The temple is part what is called True Faith, which appears more closely aligned with Taoism than Buddhism judging from the Five Saviors enshrined. The main savior is Guan Sheng Dijun who was born in 160 and is supposedly recognized in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Guan is the patron of businesspeople and scholars, which means I should probably take notice if I want better luck in business world and academia.Hsing Tien Kong

After a quick tour of Xingtian Temple, I encountered a monk who spoke fluent English. He gave me an English brochure that explained the temple and beliefs and then sort of pointed me in the direction of the university and museum. Unfortunately, I thought he meant for me to go up the road alongside the temple–that road just led straight up the mountain.ibid

About to give up as I wandered back down the mountain, I decided to walk around the area. I noticed the road I had been looking for earlier and decided to head that way to my intended destination. It was another hike up the mountain (or maybe a different one). I managed to find the museum and see Alec Shepley’s exhibition that was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I wasn’t impressed by the exhibit, but there were others at the museum that were much more interesting, like the paintings from the Living in Chengdu exhibition.shepley-ibid-exhibit

Have you ever gotten lost on the way to a destination only to discover something that made the journey more enjoyable?

Short Stay in Phnom Penh

“Behind them were the lights of the market, the lanterns and candles and witch-lights and fairy glitter, like a dream of the night sky brought down to earth.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

The New York Times reminded me of what to see and do with their “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” feature. The video online talks about the food and people being the best reason to visit, but they show high-class restaurants with foreign chefs–these are restaurants that Cambodians can’t afford. The article makes Phnom Penh seem like a trendy city full of great food and nightlife while neglecting the other side that most people encounter, unless they ignore poverty and prostitution. I understand NYT’s intention in such articles is to promote luxury travel, but you can’t ignore the rest of Cambodia.phnom-penh-traffic

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, but it’s not an easy city to experience. There’s still a large seedy side; there are still major problems throughout.

During my few days in Siem Reap, I stayed in a nicer hotel–not quite luxury, but close. I chose the Angkor Riviera hotel because there was a problem with the hostel I had originally booked and I needed something last minute; I decided to give myself a treat for a little less than $50/night. It was great and comfortable, but felt detached from the society just steps from the door–it’s the same reason I felt a little uncomfortable on Pub Street.

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

I went with something less appealing when I got to Phnom Penh.

I was fortunate enough to have a contact in the city to show me around one night. Paul took me out to one of the nicer bars, Metro Hassakan, that could fit into any American or European city (and the prices weren’t too bad, but still unaffordable for most of the local population). I also got to see the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which shows its age but exudes character and charm. Given more time to enjoy the city, I’d probably head back to the FCC for the views of Phnom Penh–we had to sit at the bar because there weren’t tables available by the windows facing the city or the river.

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

One attraction in the city that was missing from the New York Times piece is the night market. It’s unlike the street night markets in Taipei or Hong Kong–it’s set up in a square across from the Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay. It doesn’t have the same draw as the historic Central Market, which has a great food market for lunch and snacks during the day, but it has a more friendly vibe.phnom-penh-night-market

I skipped the stage performance and the stalls selling clothes and souvenirs and headed to the back of the market for food. The food vendors are set up around the dining area, which is just some bamboo mats and carpetson the ground–you have to take off your shoes to eat in the area. There’s a variety of delicacies ranging from grilled who-knows-what on a stick to full plates of chicken or fish with rice. After ordering, some vendors will deliver the food to you on the bamboo mats and carpets.

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

The dining area is more of a social event for locals–they order plenty of food to share as they talk and listen to the musical performances on the other side of the market. Sitting there with my food was the experience I sought; it was boisterous and friendly–I was warned about safety, particularly in crowds in Phnom Penh, but it felt comfortable in the evening warmth. I felt more at ease in that night market than I did in any of the markets in Vietnam.

What do you think? Can local night markets be a part of a luxury tour of a city? What are some of your favorite markets?

Traveler Reads: The Body by Hanif Kureishi

“I’d been alive a long time but my life, like most lives, seemed to have happened too quickly, when I was not ready.”

I was introduced to the work of Hanif Kureishi when I studied in London–a course on colonial literature included his first novel, Buddha of Suburbia, which I found thoroughly entertaining. It’s been 15 years since I read it, so I don’t remember everything about it, but it was interesting enough for me to pick up another book by Kureishi when I came across it.

The Body is a novella accompanied by seven other short stories that delve into similar themes about the self and self-perception. The novella sets out with the premise that a successful writer named Adam with failing health is approached with an opportunity to extend his life indefinitely. Adam decides to take the opportunity as a short-term experiment–a holiday from his own self in a way.The Body by Hanif Kureishi

The attraction to the experience of another life within the life he lives is similar to what we do as travelers. Many solo travelers will admit that they’re different when traveling–many are more introverted when at home. This is the experience Adam has as he travels outside London in his new self. He learns about himself and others, the things he missed out on in younger years and the pop culture he no longer understands. He finds that he has to relearn life while retaining the knowledge and experience of his age.

The other stories also focus on the idea of the self and how we see ourselves and others. “Face to Face with You” in particular shows the insecurity we feel when we encounter something or someone too similar to ourselves. It’s how we react when face the small details that we can’t recognize until they’re point out. A couple that lives a fairly routine life finds that their new neighbors are almost exactly the same as they are–names included. It’s an attempt to ignore or avoid the parts about ourselves that make us uncomfortable or question our abilities.

Through all of the stories, Kureishi maintains a wit to keep the philosophical undertones humorous–it’s existentialism mixed with overt comedy through descriptions and metaphors. As his narrator in The Body says, “consciousness was the thing I liked most about life. But who doesn’t need a rest from it now and again?”

The Body and other stories are a quick read while traveling–the perfect book to read on a long flight.

Recalling Winter

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

While friends and family have endured the winter storm that wasn’t in the New York/New Jersey area, I’m reminded that I haven’t experienced winter since the beginning of 2013 (unless you count the couple days I recently spent in Seoul, which welcomed me with some flurries). winter-highline

The last winter I had in New Jersey was pretty bad, but not as awful as the previous one. That was the year of the brutal storm and freezing temperatures that prevented anything from melting while residents pretty much refused to even shovel out their cars to make street-clearing easier. It didn’t help that I had to walk to work at the community college every day on icy sidewalks that weren’t cleared.Jersey-City-Winter-storm

What was the point of this post again? Oh yeah, I hate winter and I’m glad I’m living in a subtropical region that requires a jacket on occasion. Alright, I’ll admit it, I miss watching the snow. I just don’t like walking to work in it.

I actually enjoyed some of winter on my trip to Iceland–but that was more because of the landscape. I certainly didn’t enjoy the icy rain that Iceland enjoys more than snow in the winter. It was even worse to arrive home to even colder temperatures. Good thing I made a point of buying insulated winter boots for that trip so I could wear them upon my return to frigid New Jersey.iceland-winter-landscape

I’m not gloating about the current weather in Taipei–it rains too much for my liking and I know I’ll be miserable when the heat and humidity turn me into a lethargic puddle on the streets in the summer. Still, I don’t mind missing winter.

Do you ever feel like you miss the weather at home while traveling?

Travel Necessity: Making Coffee on the Road

and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
-Kwame Dawes, Coffee Break

One of the greatest expenses on the road can be coffee, especially for addicts like me. When I worked overnight in New Jersey, I would regularly make a full 10-cup pot of coffee. Plus, I’d drink tea later in my shift. (Note to coffee companies: You can sponsor my travels.)

In some destinations coffee can be expensive. In touristy parts of Italy, a cup of coffee will set you back at least EUR 3. I got spoiled going to my local used bookstore for good coffee for $1.75, with free refills, which usually convinced me to buy yet another book to read (one addiction feeds the other).venice-coffee

Before I set out on this journey I worried about my ability to find coffee at the grocery stores–I remember how difficult it was to find non-instant coffee when I first moved to China in 2005; I practically wept when Carrefour and Jusco moved in near my apartment in 2008  with a consistent supply of coffee and cheese. I was so desperate back then that I would travel an hour and half on a bus to the foreign import store and buy a tub of Folgers for more than $10 when I knew it was much less expensive back home.melita-coffeemaker

Fortunately, my parents’ friend had a Melita cup-top hand drip coffeemaker. It was the best going-away present I could receive (well, other than money for future plane tickets). Because I didn’t want to have to always go out to find new filters as I traveled, I set out in search of a reusable coffee filter–the stores didn’t have the specific one for this Melita product, but I managed to find one that fit.

More than a year later I’m still making my morning coffee with this. Fortunately, there’s a Carrefour near me in Taipei and I can buy 1/2 lb. of ground coffee for NT$99 (about $3). It’s not great coffee, but it’s good enough. If I buy really cheap coffee, like I usually did in New Jersey, I just add some cinnamon to the grounds as I brew my cup–it tastes better and the cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar.carrefour-coffee

Of course, I still enjoy going out to coffee shops. I went to a few in Seoul–they weren’t difficult to find as the Korean capital has more Starbucks than any other city in the world (plus a few dozen other coffee chains). During my second trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks working on my China Survival Guide and other writing and ramblings–I usually avoid Starbucks, but there wasn’t anything else near me. I was forced into a few coffee shops in Hanoi when the power went out at my hotel while I was working. Plus, I had to try the egg coffee–it was good, but a little too sweet for my taste.egg-coffee-hanoi

In Taipei, I sometimes go out to Cama Coffee, a chain that serves great coffee in very small shop spaces. They also have whiskey hot chocolate–you can’t taste the whiskey, but the hot chocolate is really good. There are plenty of other options around the city at varying prices (most don’t have seating though).

How do you feed your coffee addiction while traveling? 

Staring at the Lion’s Feet in Shanghai

“Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols.”
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Back in 2006, just before my first Spring Festival celebration in China, I wandered the streets of Shanghai. My travel companion was busy most days with her friend, so I was usually pointed in a direction to sightsee and attempt to not get too lost (with my limited Mandarin ability at the time, I probably would not have found my way to the usual meeting point). Most of the days’ activities were centered on the Jing’An area of Shanghai–the temple that has since been remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable and the enormous mall at which I had my morning coffee while waiting for my travel companion who couldn’t contact me because I had no mobile phone.lion's feet at Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, China 2006

I set about wandering the nearby area as I waited each day and took photos of what was interesting, or at least the angles I found interesting. I was lost in my camera viewfinder as I gazed at buildings and life that moved past, ignoring the noise of the shoppers going in and out of the posh shops of Nanjing Road. I took this photo from the foot of the lion guarding Jing’An Temple.

Witnessing Changes in Shanghai

“Even if we could turn back, we’d probably never end up where we started.”
Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

I first visited Shanghai during Spring Festival in 2006–I had turned 26 a few months before and I had only arrived in China at the end of October. I was mesmerized. This was a destination I had to see.

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

I was confused by Mandarin–I knew a few words and phrases then, but I couldn’t hold a conversation or read a menu (I was still in my point-and-pray phase of ordering at restaurants).

I returned nine years later on a 72-hour transit visa for an interview. I had a little time for sightseeing, but there wasn’t much I wanted to see this time around, mostly because I was exhausted. I wasn’t quite prepared to return to mainland China–I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the country again.bund-2006

What I saw during my overcast daytime walk brought back memories–something that feels a lifetime past. It was almost shocking to see the changes across the Huangpu River in Pudong–the city had changed; I had changed. I was overwhelmed on my short walk along the Bund–I tried to recall what it was like nine years prior with my different self. I gazed across the river at the now-crowded skyline with even taller skyscrapers.Pudong-Shanghai

I am not the same 26-year-old who experienced Shanghai for the first time with a travel companion I had only met a few months earlier. And Shanghai is not the same city–it has matured in some ways, and I swear there’s more construction than there was in 2006.bund-shanghai-2015

I was able to meet up with my friend Expat Edna (last time I saw her was at a meetup with former China expats in New York in 2009). This is her second stint in Shanghai, and I took the opportunity to ask about life in the city. She told me there are more expats and many more services to make life easier (there’s even non-Chinese beer to avoid the boredom of turning Tsingtao into Skittlebrau (yes, I have done this)). It’s not the Shanghai either of us remembers.

I don’t expect things to stay the same as I travel–particularly not in China–but it’s still a shock to the system to witness the changes.

Have you ever revisited a place only to be surprised by how much it had changed?

Experiencing the 72-Hour Visa-Free Stay in Shanghai

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I had planned to take a weekend in Hong Kong–the flight was cheap and I didn’t want to wait until my visa-free stay in Taiwan expires just before Chinese New Year when the ticket prices will skyrocket. Instead, I got an email and Skype call about a prospective job in Shanghai. I was excited and checked on flights to mainland China to schedule an in-person interview and editing test. It was easiest to just go immediately.

Hong Kong from the airplane

Just passing through Hong Kong this time around

I thought about the 72-hour visa-free stay that China now allows in a few cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. I only knew it existed, but I didn’t read all the details close enough.

As I got on the phone with Cathay Pacific to see about cancelling my flight to Hong Kong, I thought I should see about just changing my flight to include Hong Kong on the way back from Shanghai. I mentioned the 72-hour visa over the phone while talking with customer service. Everything seemed fine.

Then I got to Taoyuan International Airport.

“This ticket is no good for the transit visa,” the Cathay Pacific agent told me.

I was confused. I asked multiple questions.

“You need a third destination after Shanghai.”

“But I have a third destination. I’m going to Hong Kong before returning to Taipei,” I said.

“That doesn’t count.”

Technically, Hong Kong and Taiwan count as third destinations even though they are still China according to the mainland Chinese government (and despite having different passports, stamps, and visa requirements). The problem wasn’t that my third destination was Hong Kong; the problem was that Cathay Pacific always stops in Hong Kong on the way to anywhere else. This made Hong Kong my point of departure.Hong Kong from the airplane

But what if I just got a direct flight back to Taipei? Well, I couldn’t do that either, and certainly not with Cathay. The problem with that plan is that Taipei is my point of departure. Yes, my point of departure was Taipei…and Hong Kong. Are you confused yet?

So, unable to coax any sort of refund out of Cathay for this massive early-morning headache (before I had even had my coffee), I booked another ticket from Shanghai to Seoul to Taipei on Korean Air. “That works,” the agent said, “but how will you get the ticket as proof?” “How about you print it for me? I can put it on a flash drive.” No, they couldn’t do that. But they would get Korean Air to fax the ticket to them, which took so long that it left me 15 minutes to check in for my flight and run through immigration and security.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006

Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

I had arrived at the airport in Taipei early–I figured I could relax and enjoy some coffee on the way to my flight. I ended up needing every minute of it to deal with the Cathay agent who was entirely unhelpful. I also didn’t get coffee in Hong Kong because that hour layover meant running from one end of the airport to the other (and going through security again) to be the last person to board my Dragon Air flight (one of the worst flights I’ve ever had).

As I departed Shanghai (I have to admit the immigration officers in Shanghai are so much more polite than the ones I remember in Shenzhen years ago), I asked the immigration supervisor on duty about the 72-hour transit visa. He confirmed the third destination regulation. However, he wasn’t sure about my original flight plan–it was too confusing. And if I had re-booked a direct flight back to Taipei, they probably would have accepted it.

To add to my frustration, my hotel in Shanghai insisted I take a taxi to the airport at 4:30am for my 8:00am flight. They said it was too far to go at 5:00 or 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 5:00–Pudong International Airport doesn’t even open for check-in until 6:00.

It turned out to be a much more expensive trip than originally planned. The original ticket to Hong Kong was $157. That turned into about $300 when I added Shanghai (still not bad). It was another $375 for the trip to Seoul. I’ll call it an experience–I need to be less hasty when booking tickets before ensuring I know all the details involved in the trip.

Have you ever made a costly travel mistake? How did you handle it?

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 Crowded View in Taipei

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
John Muir, Our National Parks

On New Year’s Day, I headed to Xiangshan–Elephant Mountain–in southeastern Taipei. I’ve hiked this “mountain” before in much warmer weather. This time around it was a national holiday, and throngs of locals and tourists heading for the hills to catch a better view of the city.xiangshan-panorama

This time around I only wanted to hike, so I didn’t bother bringing my fancy camera. Fortunately, my new phone takes panoramic photos, unlike my fancy camera that lacks some features I didn’t take note of before purchasing it. The clouds broke above Taipei 101 just in time for a better picture. I managed to squeeze in among the crowd to get my photos.

EFL Jobs Abroad: The Interview

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as you.”
George Bernard Shaw

As I’ve re-entered the job market in Asia, I’ve looked at returning to teaching English as a foreign language (EFL); it’s a job I’ve enjoyed at times in the past despite the stress. After being away from the experience of teaching abroad, I have rediscovered the good and the bad in the job hunt. There are lessons that have stuck with me over the years, but I had forgotten about the general treatment and perception of most foreign English teachers in Asia, which is reflected in the operations of some schools and the contracts they offer. I’ve seen low pay, long hours, and absurd restrictions thrown at teachers for the “privilege” of teaching in certain places. I’ve also encountered some great operations that are, unfortunately, part time.

Peking University Graduate School across campus from where I worked in Shenzhen

Peking University Graduate School across campus from where I worked in Shenzhen

The most important thing to remember when it comes to EFL jobs is that your questions to the employer are more important than the questions being asked to you. For any interview it is important to ask a potential employer some key questions; this element is much more important for EFL positions. Schools around the world need qualified English teachers—there are more available jobs than teachers available. This means you hold the upper hand in the interview process.

Unless you’re applying for a position with an established and respected program, such as JET, Peace Corps, or other government-sponsored program, there are questions you should ask to help avoid employment shocks and possible disasters in the future.

1. How many classes will I teach each day and how long is each class?

This sounds like an obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s not. Some job advertisements state 18 hours of teaching per week or something similar. Does this mean 18 academic hours or total hours? How many classes will fill this time? Unless it is already stated, you should ask how much you will be paid for additional classes.

A good follow-up to this question is: How much time is there between classes? This will help in the future for you to decide how to prepare your classes.

If you have to teach more than 20 classes per week, the pay should be exceptional. I was offered a job that would have required me to teach 40 classes per week for less than $15 per class in Tokyo. If you factor in lesson planning time, you’re looking at a 60-hour work week for about $25,000 per year.

2. Are office hours mandatory and, if so, how many?

Just because you’re teaching 18 hours a week does not mean you will be at the school for only 18 hours. Many schools want to monopolize your time so that you won’t have time to tutor privately for extra cash.

You should also inquire as to what your duties will be outside of the classroom. If the school offers an acceptable salary, you may not be interested in tutoring part time, which means the office hours may not matter. In some cases, you may just sit at a computer doing whatever you want during those hours.

I had to schedule at least 10 hours of available office hours when I worked at the graduate school in China (I scheduled more to make the commute easier). This was intended as time for students to come in for additional help, but they almost never came, so I had more time to plan lessons and grade assignments (and take naps on my office sofa).

The graduate library in Shenzhen

The graduate library in Shenzhen

3. Are there times when I will have to work on the weekend?

The job may claim that you will only work Monday through Friday, but that doesn’t mean they won’t alter the schedule and have you work on a Saturday or Sunday from time to time. In China, it is standard practice to “make up” classes on weekends when the classes have been canceled due to national holidays. This may create six- or even seven-day workweeks. In some countries this is unavoidable, but you should know what to expect.

4. Is housing provided or will you help me find an apartment prior to arrival?

This is a complicated question. If the school provides housing, what amenities and furnishings are included? Is housing on campus, and, if so, is there a curfew? If they help you find an apartment, how much will it cost and where will it be located? If the school doesn’t help you find an apartment, will they have temporary housing for you while you search for an apartment? Everyone should be very careful when it comes to housing in a foreign country as locals and foreigners are treated differently by landlords. The laws protecting tenants in your home country are not the same when you move abroad.

I interviewed for a program in Japan that required me to provide an address for where I’d be living, otherwise they’d have to rent an apartment to me at an inflated price (they were definitely making money off the rental).

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

5. Will you provide me with the appropriate visa and cover all expenses involved in obtaining it?

This changes depending on the country. No matter where you go, you will be required to have a legal visa. Some schools will try to have new teachers pay for the expenses—you should not. If the interviewer says, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” it’s a sign that you should avoid the school. They should provide specific answers to important questions pertaining to visas.

Note on China: If the school does not say it will send documents to apply for a Z visa in your home country, avoid the school at all costs. This is the only way to obtain a legal work visa/residence permit in China now.

6. What materials do you provide for classes?

This sounds like another innocent question, but it can be one of the most important. You may not know the difference between textbooks, but you want to know that materials are available for use. If classroom materials are not available, you should ask about reimbursement for purchasing your own, assuming you don’t plan to keep them at the end of your contract.

7. Do you offer any classroom training or professional development seminars?

This is not a deal breaker, but it is a useful question. For more inexperienced EFL teachers, this can be important. Having some training prior to beginning your experience as a foreign-language instructor can be greatly beneficial to you and your students. This will also provide a general idea of the school’s expectations of the foreign teachers.

Be careful with this one. I have encountered more than a few training centers in Japan that required unpaid training, even for experienced teachers.

Some schools make these park rules seem reasonable (pay attention to no. 6)

Some schools make these park rules seem reasonable (pay attention to no. 6)

8. Does the school offer language classes for teachers?

Most schools should be willing to aid new staff through culture shock. The best way to overcome the shock of a foreign country is to learn the language. Schools should not expect foreign instructors to learn a new language on their own—it’s important to have a structured class.

9. How many teachers are currently at the school and how long have they been there? 

For some EFL teachers, the number of foreign teachers matters—some people prefer to have other English speakers around, while others would rather interact with locals. Having staff that has been at the school for a while can be helpful to new EFL teachers in getting acquainted with the new surroundings. If the staff changes every year, there’s probably something wrong with the school’s management.

10. Can you provide e-mail addresses of current and/or former teachers?

If the interviewer says no, end the interview. There is no reason why they can’t find a teacher willing to speak to a potential employee. You don’t need to speak with a current or former employee, but there should be someone willing to vouch for the school.

If these questions have been answered to your satisfaction, you will have less to worry about if you are offered a position at the school. With less stress prior to arrival, you can spend more time focusing on educating your students.

You can read some of my ESL teaching articles on FluentU.

Are there any questions you’d add to the list? Any questions you wish you had asked before accepting a job?

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