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On Studying Abroad

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
-Gustave Flaubert

The White House recently created a new Study Abroad Office to somehow support students who take the initiative to further their education outside the US borders while incurring crippling debt upon graduation. I really don’t see the impetus for creating such an office other than greater government surveillance of students abroad who are already encouraged to notify the US embassy in the host country–it’s not like the government is going to provide better loans or grants for the students. It will supposedly “manage” government scholarships for students who study abroad, but there’s no information whether it will expand such scholarships to relieve the debt burden.

View from my apartment in northwest London

View from my apartment in northwest London

Reading about this government initiative of sorts got me thinking about the advice I’ve given to students over the years–take at least a semester and study abroad. According to US government data, fewer than 10% of students study abroad, and only 1.5% of university students went abroad in 2012.

Back in 2000, I took a semester abroad. As a monolinguist at the time I headed for England–I was already studying English, literature, and creative writing, so it made sense to me. It, of course, brought up the old Simpsons joke, “Pfft, English. Who needs that? I’m never going to England.” All joking aside, I was desperate to get out of central Pennsylvania one way or another.london-from-st-pauls

My university denied my application because they claimed my grades weren’t good enough. As an alternative, I was pointed to study abroad paths that weren’t managed by my university–I applied for programs through other schools. I originally applied for a program in Oxford (but not at that Oxford University). I was told I was the only student on that program. My parents convinced me to change my school choice to one in London so I could be with other people from the program–who knows if that worked out for the best as I still talk with only one person for that semester abroad.

As most of the people housed in my apartment building were in the same program that required more class time than mine did, I didn’t get to interact with them too much. They also hated going to the pubs on our street because they thought the patrons were unfriendly–we were in London during the Bush-Gore election and faced a lot of political commentary from the Brits (I laughed it off as the locals attempted to offend the American; they usually bought me a beer after 15 minutes when they realized I wasn’t offended). I took the American jokes in stride and occasionally had some British jokes as retorts (it almost got me in trouble after I laughed when the bartender called my Australian friend a Kiwi).

What education in England doesn't include a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford?

What education in England doesn’t include a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford?

Classes in London were amazing–I feel that I got a better education in those literature classes than I did in almost any of my courses back home. Of course, I took courses that weren’t offered back home–modern British theatre, colonial literature, and an art and culture course only offered to international students (there was also a renaissance literature class in there). I was told I signed up for too many courses (I originally wanted five, but the advisor wouldn’t allow me). Unlike a lot of international students, I showed up for all my classes–no sense in wasting the educational value I was receiving.

I hung out at the student union most nights–they had a large pub for the students with beer that was much cheaper than anywhere else in London. That’s where I met all the other students; and I rarely ran into any other international students. I learned about the school and places to wander around and outside of London. Everyone had suggestions for me.edinburgh

I must admit that most British people I met didn’t think too highly of Americans–the stereotypes they held did not apply to me. The first step toward breaking preconceptions about groups of people is an encounter with those people. Time and again I heard comments about how I wasn’t like the other Americans these people knew. I didn’t feel like an ambassador for my country, but I might have at least changed some perceptions.

After I returned from my semester abroad, I volunteered at the university study abroad office–the office was happy to have someone with experience in studying abroad through a third party. I helped students who couldn’t find a program through the university that fit their academic and travel goals. When I met younger students during those final three semesters, I encouraged them to take a semester abroad–two of my friends enrolled in different programs in Europe during our last year.

Dublin on one of the few sunny days I had all semester

Dublin on one of the few sunny days I had all semester

Studying abroad is what opened my eyes to the world of travel. I forever became a wanderer after that. I was forced to travel alone because I couldn’t convince any one of the Americans in my program to travel for a weekend or even three days. I got fed up and took a university-sponsored trip to Amsterdam (I knew no one on that trip). After that trip I took another three-day solo journey to Dublin, where I met a lot of fun locals who pointed me toward some of the best sights of the city (though everyone was awful with directions). I even took a longer solo trip around Scotland while I was practically homeless between the end of the semester and the time my parents arrived for a vacation.

Not only did I learn more about literature and culture in class, but I also learned to trust myself and be more independent. Any free day I had was spent wandering the city in search of whatever I might find–sometimes I had more specific destinations rather than my usual lost wanderings.scottish-highlands

There’s more that a student can learn from studying abroad. Most people go to non-English-speaking countries to improve their language skills, which is something I wish I could’ve done if I hadn’t given up on Spanish after my freshman year. It’s also what drove me to move abroad after grad school with intention of traveling and learning a new language that I wouldn’t forget.

More than just improving Americans’ perception of the world around them, it improves other people’s perception of Americans. One kind person traveling abroad will encounter many people who may not have a favorable impression of that person’s culture–that one kind person can change the opinion of everyone he/she encounters. Conscientious travelers do more for international relations than all the diplomats combined.

If you’re a student reading this, I encourage you to take a semester abroad; see more of the world around you while you’re young. Higher education is much more expensive than it was when I earned my degrees (and it wasn’t so long ago), but the long-term payoff of a more well-rounded education is worthwhile.

Have you studied abroad? Did it improve your education? How did it change your perspective?

Cao Dai: A Different Kind of Temple in Vietnam

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh

As part of my tour of the Củ Chi tunnels outside Vietnam, we stopped at the Cao Đài Temple 60 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City. As I searched for tours to take outside the city, I came across this relatively new religion with a rather interesting temple. I had never heard of Caodaism before I checked out day-trips from Saigon, but I found the concept of it intriguing.cao-dai-temple

The history of Cao Đài only dates back to the early 20th century when Ngo Van Chieu had a vision and began the religion. Caodaism was formally established in 1926, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. Caodaists created their own army that fought against Japanese occupation in 1943. The religion was repressed by the Vietnamese government in 1975, but regained legal status in 1985. Today, the religion claims to have about 6 million adherents worldwide.cao-dai-temple1

To add to the inclusiveness of Cao Đài, the religion’s saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. I can’t really argue with a religion that accepts a literary figure as a saint, though I could think of other writers more deserving of sainthood.cao-dai-saints

The extravagant temple resembles a cathedral with elements of Buddhist and Taoist temples, particularly in the design of the pillars.cao-dai-temple-interior

While walking around the open space around the temple that provided little shade from the heat of southern Vietnam in winter, we entered the colorful temple with the large crowd of tourists before the Caodaists entered for their prayer service.cao-dai-temple-procession

Tourists were pushed to a gallery area above the main floor of the temple to watch the midday prayer–traditional Vietnamese music playing as the practitioners walked into the temple in their white, red, yellow, and blue robes. The yellow represents Buddhism, the red Christianity, the blue Taoism, and the white is for the ordinary adherents.cao-dai-temple-service

It feels awkward taking photos of religious ceremonies–I usually ask before I take pictures at any religious site–but after seeing everyone else taking photos, and more or less encouraged to do so, I snapped a few. I still avoided taking photos that could identify specific people inside the temple as it might be offensive.cao-dai-temple-man

Because Cao Đài Temple is such a large tourist destination, it seems that Caodaists just accept the gawking hordes as a way to promote the religion.

Overlooking San Marco Square

“There is something so different in Venice from any other place in the world, that you leave at once all accustomed habits and everyday sights to enter an enchanted garden.”
-Mary Shelley

I wasn’t certain I wanted to pay to get in. Sure, the view should be pleasant, but is it really worth 8 euros? Everything else in Venice is overpriced and I didn’t want to go to the ATM again.campanile-di-san-marco

Compared to the prices of everything else around Venice, it’s reasonable. Taking the elevator to the top of the Campanile of St. Mark’s Church provided the best views of the city. The problem is arriving at the appropriate time to catch the best weather, the smallest crowd, and the right angle of light. One of my hostel roommates took the journey the day after I did, but he had a view of the sunset–something I should’ve seen instead of morning. piazza-di-san-marco

Morning isn’t all bad. The weather is clear enough and the crowd is thin as most tourists wander the streets just after breakfast. It would’ve been better if I had a sunnier day like I had in Reykjavik.venice-from-san-marco

I was still able to see the surrounding islands and architecture, like that of Santa Maria della Salute.
st-maria-venice

The 323-ft tall Campanile di San Marco is just across from Basilica di San Marco in the corner of the square. On a clear day you can see all of Venice and the surrounding islands from the bell tower. Of course, scaffolding ruined the view of the top of the church, but I was more interested in looking out over the lagoon and square. san-marco-church

The campanile that stands today is not the original, as the original that was built centuries ago collapsed in 1902. The reconstructed campanile reopened in 1912. The rebuilt bell tower explains why there’s an elevator instead of narrow staircase up to the top. I was kind of looking forward to climbing the stairs to the highest point in Venice, but the elevator wasn’t so bad.overlook-doge-palace-san-ma

Usually I prefer the free views of the cities, which is why I enjoy hiking so much. I skipped the bell tower in Florence, which I heard is quite a view, so I decided to take in the view from Venice’s highest point as long as the line wasn’t prohibitively long.

How often are you willing to pay for such views of cities?

Admiring the Duomo in Florence

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve previously written about the fatigue travelers experience when visiting temples and churches–around Asia the temples all start to look alike, and it’s the same with the churches around Europe. Every once in a while, however, we encounter that one temple or church that reignites our interest (in some cases this occurs more frequently than expected). This was the case in Florence.Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

As I walked back toward my hostel on my first half day in the city, I stopped at Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo di Firenze. I had seen this architectural marvel from Piazzale Michelangelo as I looked out over Florence on a clear, yet oppressively hot, August afternoon. The iconic symbol of Florence stands out among the exquisite architecture that fills every corner of the city–it’s one of two structures that towers over everything else, the other being Palazzo Vecchio.duomo-florence3

I was fortunate to show up in the city on a quiet Friday afternoon–I entered the Duomo about an hour before they closed the doors to tourists for the day. There wasn’t a line to enter the cathedral, which was why I decided to have a look despite my exhaustion. I was fortunate to enter just a few minutes before the start of the free English tour, so I was able to learn a bit of history while gazing at the art that is the interior of this grand cathedral.

I admit that the exterior of the cathedral is more impressive than the interior, but it’s still amazing, particularly the painting of The Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari on the inside of the dome. The work was completed in 1579.duomo-last-judgement

The Duomo was started in 1296, but wasn’t completed until 1436. Michelangelo’s “David” was supposed to stand atop the dome, but the statue was never hoisted to overlook the city. “David” was supposed to be one of 12 Biblical figures around the cathedral, but the others never adorned the structure either. There was a sculpture of Joshua by Donatello in the Duomo, but it disappeared in the 18th century.duomo-florence2

There’s a lot more to see in and around the Duomo, but it certainly isn’t free like the cathedral. For an additional price there’s a museum in the crypt and visitors can also climb stairs to the interior of the dome to see cathedral from above. Outside, visitors can pay more to climb Giotto’s bell tower, and there’s always a long line for that. There are combo tickets along with the Baptistery of St. John across the street. After budgeting for the Uffizi Gallery and Academia, along with all the food, I wasn’t enthusiastic about spending more euros for a crowded view–I already got the best view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo.duomo-florence

As usual, There was a portion of the Duomo covered by scaffolding for restoration work. Fortunately, it wasn’t entirely encased in scaffolding like the Baptistery of St. John.

What church or temple has reignited your interest?

Lessons from Utility Workers in Vietnam

I know that things are getting tougher
When you can’t get the top off from the bottom of the barrel.
-Operation Ivy, Knowledge

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where to go and what to do. I’ve been struggling with where to take my career–the dearth of quality jobs available in places I’d feel comfortable certainly doesn’t make life easier. But then life isn’t supposed to be all that easy. I know it could be more complicated.saigon-utility-work

Searching for jobs while living abroad isn’t as exciting as most people think. Job postings can be hit and miss (more often miss). The choices I have and the process that I have to endure reminds me of the utility workers I saw around Vietnam. I still don’t know how they can figure out which wire goes where in that mess–I wouldn’t be surprised if they made mistakes often (might explain the power outages). I saw utility workers fiddling about with larger messes than what’s in this picture, but this was the only clear shot I could get.

How do you simplify your choices? Or is it better to just try everything and hope it works?

Classic Cocktails at KFC in Japan

“Open the whisky, Tom,” she ordered, “and I’ll make you a mint julep. Then you won’t seem so stupid to yourself.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Did you know there’s a KFC in Tokyo that serves alcohol?

col-sandersNo, really, it’s a legitimate KFC with a full bar. Street level is a typical KFC outlet with a creepy Colonel Sanders statue in front; there’s a large seating area on the second floor and a classy bar that serves food other than fried chicken on the third floor. All of this is just a couple blocks away from Shimokitazawa station. This was a welcome experience after going out for a McBeer in Italy.kfc-bar-menu

I was told about this place by an Australian expat in my quiet Kanagawa neighborhood who hadn’t been to the bar in years–he wasn’t even sure it still existed. On the first night my friend came to visit from Taiwan, I decided we should head out to Shimokitazawa for some dinner and the variety of bars (including the craft beer bar that I enjoyed). While wandering around for an hour or so, we came across the KFC–how did I miss this place that was so close to the station?kfc-bar

There’s a small sign on the side of the KFC for Route 25 KFC on the third floor. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we entered a chic bar decorated with classic KFC memorabilia–there was even a Colonel Sanders phone behind the bar. As we perused the menu, we noticed that the drinks were reasonably priced–under JPY 600 for an average cocktail is pretty good in Tokyo. Food options go beyond the usual KFC fare with onion rings, pizza, and pasta–I didn’t order anything, but it looked pretty good.colonels-dishes

The cocktails weren’t great, but what do you expect for the price? Obviously we had to order the bourbon cocktails made with Jim Beam (now owned by Suntory). There’s nothing quite like drinking a mint julep under the watchful eyes of Colonel Sanders while small plates of fried chicken adorned with a sprig of parsley are served.bourbon-ginger-kfc

After the mint julep, I decided to try the bourbon and ginger. Both cocktails could’ve used a little more bourbon; the mint julep definitely needed more mint.

Have you been to the Route 25 KFC? What did you think?

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.

Taiwanese Election Tanks

“I’ve had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth”
-John Lennon, Just Gimme Some Truth

I arrived in time for the political campaigns in Taiwan. There are campaign offices everywhere around the city and trucks driving around with loudspeakers telling people to vote for one candidate or the other (I can’t comment about the candidates because I have no idea who these people are). These loudspeakers around the streets get rather annoying, especially when I’m trying to sleep or work. At least the campaign is change from the huge protests I witnessed last time I was in the city.

Sometimes the campaigns are amusing and/or confusing.election-tank

The other day I came across this campaign vehicle while walking around Taipei. I’m not sure what the political party is or the candidate, but I would guess that the agenda is related to an anti-mainland China doctrine filled with larger purchases of military equipment from the U.S. Nothing says vote for me like a campaign tank.

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 o 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 restaurants 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 stay 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?

Streets of Perugia

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
-C.P. Cavafy, Ithaka

While Perugia isn’t a top tourist destination in Italy–it’s even overshadowed by it’s neighbor Assisi–it does have its charm for visitors and residents.perugia-city-wall

This quaint town in the hills of Umbria is picturesque–the medieval architecture mixed with modern structures against a backdrop of rolling green hills and distant towns provides a beautiful view at any time of day from the edges of the old town atop the hill. Sunrise is a particularly wonderful time with the dissipating fog in the valley below.San Domenico in Perugia, Italy

The streets were never straight and I didn’t know which direction I faced as I wandered through alleys and peered at the buildings constructed centuries ago. I got lost like so many times before, but the roads all seemed to interconnect and I soon found myself back where I began–all roads don’t lead to Rome when in Perugia; all roads just lead into themselves once more.perugia-steps-2

Taking the stairs through the historic archways through quiet narrow streets and into the sunlight that radiates off the buildings in August, I found myself lost within myself, thinking of poetry and literature before picking up a bottle of organic Umbrian wine for 5 euros. I could take a glass of wine into the Piazza IV Novembre to sit on the steps in the shade opposite the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. I sat there reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, even now and again looking up to watch the crowds slowly walking through.Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia, Italy

Every day I walked through the streets, turning down alleys that I thought I hadn’t tried before. Even down the streets and alleys I recognized I found new details missed on previous wanderings–it was never boring to see the same sights each day for a month. I watched the sun set over the hills and waited for the lights to  illuminate the main street leading to the town square where the people would congregate for drinks and merriment on the steps surrounding the fountain.

MiniMetro Musing

“The coach I got in was about as dignified as a match-box. The train rambled on for about five minutes, and then I had to get off. No wonder the fare was cheap.”
-Natsume Sōseki, Botchan

Before I arrived in Perugia, I researched public transportation in the town of fewer than 200,000 people. I really only wanted to find out how to get to my apartment from the train station–the town wasn’t all that big, but there was a significant distance to walk between the station and the apartment with all the luggage I had (e.g. my hefty backpack and medium-sized suitcase). What I found was that the university town has what is known as the MiniMetro.perugia minimetro

This automated, single-car public transportation system is limited to one line that runs from the center of town on top of the hill down to the train station and into the outskirts of town for total length of 2 miles and seven stations. The MiniMetro cars run every 90 seconds and can carry up to 25 people, though I wouldn’t expect it to be comfortable with more than 10. Although most of the town is concentrated in the old center on the hill, which takes about a half hour to wander through, Perugia is spread out over 173 sq. mi.

Traveling slowly through the tube

Traveling slowly through the tube

I took this small cable car two stops to the train station on my trip to Florence–it’s like riding a roller coaster that goes at a snail’s pace. When I returned, however, I found that the MiniMetro, which started operation in 2008, was suspended for annual maintenance for the next three weeks–I wasn’t able to take it again until I departed for Venice. Fortunately, there are plenty of buses around the town that are more convenient in some cases.

Reflection in the MiniMetro

Reflection in the MiniMetro

I had a difficult time understanding the necessity of such a transportation system with the buses in town and the size of the population. I only met a couple people who took the MiniMetro on a semi-regular basis.

Wanderings in Assisi

“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”
-The Counsels of the Holy Father St. Francis, Admonition 27

On my second weekend in Perugia, I decided to stay closer to town to see what sort of nightlife was around me. The previous weekend I saw nothing of my temporary home as I headed to Florence to get my fill of artistic culture and eat some new food. At the time I was working from 2am to noon, so I didn’t see much of the town’s life–feels a little odd having dinner when everyone else is just getting out of bed. To satisfy my desire to see the town, I only took a day-trip to Assisi, which is just a couple stops away. It was a bit of a religious pilgrimage for this non-religious traveler born into a different religion.assisi-street

As I got off the graffiti-covered train, I found what I hoped to be the bus stop that would take me up into the hills of Umbria to the town–the walk up with the sun beating down would be too exhausting for an enjoyable day of tourism. While waiting for the bus, a Danish backpacker approached asking whether it was the bus into Assisi–we chatted while waiting and spent the day wandering the town as neither of us had a set plan of what to see; I only had a list of a few sights in town without a route to take me anywhere. He was also staying in Perugia, so we met up again later that day for drinks.rocca-maggiore-assisi

As we reached Assisi, we headed up to the top of the hill to Rocca Maggiore. This medieval castle dates back to the late 12th century. It was expanded and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries–a few popes even commissioned construction. The castle attracts fewer tourists than the actual town, probably because fewer people want to make the trek up the hill and climb the narrow medieval staircases within it.

This hallway in Rocca Maggiore was not intended for claustrophobes

This hallway in Rocca Maggiore was not intended for claustrophobes

There isn’t much of great interest inside Rocca Maggiore, but it provides some amazing views of Assisi and the Umbrian countryside. There are a few exhibits with replicas of clothing, weaponry, and artwork, but nothing as interesting as the countless history museums throughout Italy. There’s also a long, narrow hallway that leads to the highest point of the castle for the best views–the hallway is narrow enough to make it difficult if two people are passing each other.assisi-from-castle-wall

Heading into the town helped us cool off in a bit of shade after the walk up the hill in the sun.

Temple of Minerva

Temple of Minerva

As we wandered through medieval streets toward the main square, we found the Temple of Minerva, which was converted into a Catholic church in the 16th century–the facade of the ancient Roman temple is beautiful, but the interior is uninspiring.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

From the Temple of Minerva, we headed to Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the main attraction for tourists to the town. The basilica was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.

Interior of the Basilica of San Francesco

Interior of the Basilica of San Francesco

After visiting so many churches around Italy, I was exhausted (much like the temple fatigue I feel around Asia). The Basilica of St. Francis is, fortunately, a more inspiring church to reinvigorate tourists who have visited more than a few too many in their time around Italy. The paintings from the floor to the ceiling are beautiful.

Friary at Basilica of San Francesco

Friary at Basilica of San Francesco

The crypt houses the remains of St. Francis. The murals in crypt are more interesting and detailed than the ones in the church–they appeared to be more recent–but photography is not permitted in the crypt (it’s supposedly not allowed in the church either, but everyone was snapping pictures).

Assisi from Rocca Maggiore

Assisi from Rocca Maggiore

While waiting for the train back to Perugia, my new Danish friend and I stopped off at McDonald’s for a McBeer (that wonderful €1 can of Peroni that for some reason was €3 when I got to Venice). While on the train, he asked if we had reached Perugia station and the woman next to him answered in Italian that it was. Having heard her speak Mandarin on her phone when we first got on the train, I thanked her in Mandarin and asked where she was from. She froze and slowly asked in English if I just spoke Chinese. I laughed and answered in Mandarin; I said good bye and we headed off into town where I introduce the Dane to a craft beer bottle shop that sold Mikkeller Beer Geek Bacon, which is a wonderful beer that tastes more like coffee than bacon.

After a hot day of walking around Assisi and then enjoying a strong dark brew, we purchased some lighter beer and sat out in the main square of Perugia with the locals and tourists to watch the nightlife.

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.

Highlights from My Year of Travel

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I realized it’s been a little over a year since I departed the familiarity of New Jersey for the linguist confusion of a life in foreign lands. Not everything went as planned during the course of the year–I lost my temper in Hanoi, became overwhelmed and lost in Seoul, and was laid off from my job that allowed me to travel as long as I had a stable internet connection for 50 hours a week.

Those were bumps in the road as the journey continues. Losing my temper in Hanoi brought me back to reality and dissipated the euphoria I had been experiencing that had generated unrealistic expectations; getting lost in Seoul forced me to find healthy routines to grow more comfortable in my surroundings; and losing the job that I had considered secure for who-knows-what-reason pushed me to write more (and publish my first e-guidebook on Amazon).

Sunset at Woljeongsa Temple, Korea

Sunset at Woljeongsa Temple, Korea

Despite those hiccups along the adventure, the past 12 months have been a success–I’ve seen places I had dreamed of, I made new friends, ate some amazing food, and tasted a few interesting drinks.

Here are my top 10 highlights from the last year:

  1. A 40-mile bike ride through the Cambodian countryside around Angkor Wat. This was my best day of travel (actually, one of the best days I’ve ever had), but it started the previous day when I met a Dutch expat from China on my tour of Banteay Srei who agreed to take a long bike trip (he also had GPS).

    I was smiling because I no longer had to ride the bike after 40 miles

    I was smiling because I no longer had to ride the bike after 40 miles

  2. Celebrating my cousin’s wedding in Italy. A combination of jetlag and probably heatstroke made it a bit more difficult to celebrate (I was ready to pass out far too early, and I wasn’t drinking much), but spending time with my family in Capri was certainly a high point in the journey.capri
  3.  A two-day cruise in Halong Bay. I’ve wanted to see Halong Bay for a long time. I have read horror stories about pollution (air and water) ruining the trip for many; my cruise, however, wasn’t marred by such pollution. Included in the price of my cruise was the group of traveling companions, one of which turned out to be a crazy British guy who insisted we all help him finish off a bottle of Jagermeister.halong-bay-sunset-b&w
  4. Hanging out with my co-worker in Seoul. I got to go out quite a bit with my co-worker during two months in Seoul–she showed me some interesting sights and took me to eat some great food, and I introduced her to a few of the better bars she hadn’t tried. We also got to enjoy a Korean baseball game with beer and fried chicken.
  5. Hiking the tallest peak in Seoul. Bukhansan is an amazing hike with spectacular views–and more than a million visitors a year.

    View from atop Baekundae

    View from atop Baekundae

  6. Taking the public bikes around Taipei. The YouBikes in Taipei are cheap and plentiful. When it wasn’t raining, I had a great way to see the city while getting some exercise that I desperately needed after stuffing myself full of dumplings and beef noodle soup a bit too often.
  7. Meeting Chinese expats while hiking in Tokyo. I made some quick friends along the trail up Mt. Takao–and they saved my ass when we got to the train station.takao-view
  8. Watching the sunrise during my lunch break in Perugia. Yeah, I had odd hours while working there. But it was peaceful and beautiful.
  9. The fall foliage at Mt. Oyama. Despite spending almost three hours standing in line for buses and cable cars, my hike up Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, was beautiful. I would certainly hike it again (almost did with my friend from the Mt. Takao hike, but the forecast said rain), but not on a weekend.
  10. Taking a speed boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It was quite a day speeding along Tonle Sap. I had to thank my friend’s son for suggesting I take the boat instead of the bus (nine-year-olds can offer some worthwhile advice sometimes).tonlesap-boat

There you have it. Those are my most memorable days from this past year. I’m sure there will be more in the next year as well.

Sunny Sensoji & Sumida River Walk

A friend from the Taipei Beer Lovers meetup came to visit Tokyo–my little apartment has a futon, so I could offer a little space to save money on travel (even with the expensive train ride from the suburbs to the city, it’s a large chunk of change to save on a hostel). We didn’t have much in the way of plans for the weekend–I came up with some sightseeing options depending on the weather, but we mostly planned for wandering the city for food and drinks, of which we had plenty in Shimokitazawa.

The crowd at Sensoji

The crowd at Sensoji

In lieu of hiking with the crowds of Japan, we decided to head to Asakusa and Sensoji Temple–the same temple I visited in a downpour on my first day in Tokyo last year. This time around the weather was beautiful–the crowd was another story. It’s a long metro ride, with two train line changes, from my apartment (this is why I usually bring my Kindle on the trains).sensoji-pagoda-sun

As beautiful as Tokyo’s oldest temple is, we decided to escape the crowd and walk around the area, which isn’t all that interesting. Actually, there are some nice streets and interesting shops, but those are on the so-crowded-you-can’t-walk-faster-than-a-tortoise streets. The combination of tourists and locals makes Asakusa almost unbearable in pleasant weather.sake-ice-cream

We stopped for a bit at a vendor to try the sake and wasabi ice cream. Not sure which flavor I enjoyed more as they were both delicious.

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

To escape the crowd, we took the riverside walk along the Sumida River toward Akihabara to see a bit of the weird side of Tokyo. Akihabara isn’t all that weird, really, but it does have a bit more of what tourists expect to see in respect to fashion and products in Tokyo.akihabara-cosplay

Aside from the the first steps down to the river walk, there isn’t much of a view of the city. But it’s also not at all crowded–there were surprisingly few people on the quiet path for a sunny Sunday afternoon.bond-boat-tokyo

We did see a few of these James Bond-esque boats along the river–we expected them to submerge, but it never happened.

As we arrived in Akihabara, we wandered the streets and browsed shops filled with anime figures and tech products that do who-knows-what. Seriously, I have no idea what that thing does.akihabara-electronics

We ended the day with a stop in Shinjuku for an evening view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Once again, I managed to arrive at the building with no line for the elevator and no crowd to block the view of the city.tokyo-metro-govt

It was an exhausting day of walking, but well worth the views and the few snacks we found along the way.

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