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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.

Seoul at Night

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
-Vincent Van Gogh

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Seoul is an amazing metropolis–the towering buildings and modern architecture make it seem overwhelming at times–with history, culture, and international commerce mingling in the streets. It’s fascinating to watch the people throughout the day among the backdrop of skyscrapers.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

While this busy city is lively enough during the day, it’s the evening that shows the colors and beauty of modern Korean culture. The people roam the streets in search of outdoor food and drink stands–during the summer, they sit outside restaurants and take over the sidewalks. Off in a parking lot lined with street food vendors, plastic tables are set for customers to watch the local baseball game on a projection screen as they order more beer and snacks.

Dongdaemun at night

Dongdaemun at night

Each neighborhood has its own character as the city returns home from work–the noise of expats and locals in the bars and restaurants of Itaewon, the shoppers in Dongdaemun and Hongdae, and the quiet awe in front of Gwanghwamun and Gyeongbokgung Palace with Admiral Yi Sun-sin and King Sejong watching over the center of the city. The character of one neighborhood during the day is not identical after the sun sets–it offers a split personality of sorts.

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

LED and older neon signs flicker along the streets and alleys, inviting the throngs to join in the activity of Seoul–coffee shops are still bustling into the evening as the salary men and women order more beer and soju from the myriad variety of restaurants and bars that equal the quantity of coffee shops (Seoul boasts more Starbucks outlets than any other city, and there are plenty of other local and international chains).

The aromas from the restaurants fill the streets as patrons filter in–there are more meals after dinner; the public demands sustenance after rounds of beer, soju, and makgeolli. The establishments expect people to eat more throughout the night before the office towers and residences turn off their lights that illuminate the metropolis.

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

To gain a real feeling for a city, a traveler needs to embrace the nightlife and the culture that changes with the passing of daylight.

How do you feel about wandering cities like Seoul in the evening?

Biking to Osaka Castle

A few days in Osaka was more than enough to see everything in the city–there really isn’t much to do there. It did, however, provide me with more time to relax before heading back to Tokyo. Besides, Ema, the Italian owner of Vitti Lodge, was quite friendly and made staying in a cramped hostel room more bearable. (I realized that hostel dorms in Japan are much smaller than what I’m used to.) He also provided guests with free bikes to ride around the city (and the bike was a million times more comfortable than the broken one I had to pay for in Kyoto).osaka-castle-moat

I decided to not make the same mistake as I did in Kyoto and walk a few too many miles to see the sights and took the the bike on about a three-mile ride to Osaka Castle (actually, the ride was probably longer because I wasn’t sure where to turn and ended up on the wrong street).osaka-castle

The park around Osaka Castle is beautiful, with plenty of locals and tourists enjoying the paths on a sunny day. There are also small festivals every now and then with performances and food–I was fortunate enough to find such food on my bike ride after walking around the castle.

Osaka Castle is a picturesque building that attracts every tourist to Osaka, because there isn’t much else in the city other than that and food. This is a modern reconstruction of the castle on a smaller scale. The original Osaka Castle, which was constructed in 1583, was burned down and the structures that surrounded it were also destroyed. Only a few other buildings have been reconstructed on the grounds.

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The castle first burned down in 1660 when a supply of gunpowder was struck by lightning. It was also destroyed in the 1800s during civil conflicts. It was again damaged during an Allied bombing raid in 1945. Other than the outer walls and moat, there is nothing left of the original structure. There are some huge stones that make up the fortification walls. Still, it’s a beautiful sight to see on a clear day. osaka-castle-crowd

Visitors are instructed to go to the top of the castle for the panoramic views of the city before walking down to each floor for exhibits about the history of Osaka Castle and the families that went to war for control over the country. The views of the city are spectacular, but you have to go to the nearby museums to get a better view of the castle.osaka-from-castle

The museum is educational, but it can be difficult to go through all the exhibits with all the tourists visiting at the same time–it would be better to get there as early as possible to avoid the organized tours that pass through. Most visitors walk up to the top for the views of the city and quickly walk through the exhibits. Most Japanese tourists will read through the history on display.

Have you been to Osaka? What did you think of Osaka Castle?

Photos for World Food Day

“What you are eating is always the end of a very long story–and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems.”
-Anthony Bourdain

Yesterday was World Food Day. No, really, this is an official day because people obviously need a reminder to eat food instead of plastic. It actually commemorates the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. It reminds me that on a family vacation we stopped in Morro Bay, California, and the only non-fast food chain near the hotel had a huge sign that said, “Real Food.” What does that say about the other establishments in town?

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few photos of food from Cambodia that I hadn’t posted before. Unlike it’s neighbors, Cambodia doesn’t use a lot of chili in its food–most dishes have lighter flavors. There’s a lot of grilled food and light curries around the country. They prefer to use a lot of lemongrass and basil to any overpowering flavors you might find in other parts of Asia. There aren’t any dishes that I would consider heavy or oily because they’d probably kill people with the heat and humidity.grilled-squid

One of the first meals I had in a real restaurant was amok, a lemongrass curry served in a banana leaf bowl, that I found in downtown Siem Reap. It’s generally served with fish, but there’s also chicken and beef for all the tourists who pass through. In Phnom Penh, the best food I found was at the Central Market–the crowded market that sells everything from clothes to tourist junk also has a great selection of local foods. I was tempted to eat everything in sight, but my stomach isn’t big enough for that.

Walking Hwaseong Fortress, Korea

After a few weekends of sightseeing around Seoul, I began to run out of important historic sites to visit. I had already visited the palaces and royal shrines and even a few interesting museums. As Seoul stretches out into the distance, engulfing towns that were once not part of the metropolis, there are other destinations of interest.hwaseong2

That’s when I found Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Suwon, which is almost an hour outside central Seoul. Construction of the fortress began in 1794 under the Joseon Dynasty by King Jeongjo to honor his father, Prince Sado, who was murdered by his own father, King Yeongjo. It was supposedly constructed in two years, which is impressive considering its size. Parts of the fortress have been restored as they suffered significant damage during the Korean War.hwaseong

The walls of Hwaseong stretch about six kilometers and can take about two or more hours to walk around, depending on how often one stops for photos.

Paldalmun Gate

Paldalmun Gate

The bus from Suwon station dropped me off in front of Paldamun Gate in the center of a busy roundabout. From there I walked in the wrong direction through the town and found a market that offered some food to tide me over until after my adventure around the fortress. hwaseong1

I had a beautiful clear day for walking around in late June. I did not, of course, arrive in Suwon early in the morning as I should have to avoid the summer heat. The heat wasn’t as oppressive as it can be in other parts of the world in the summer, but the lack of shade made the walk around the fortress a little more difficult. There were, however, some wooded areas to hide from the sun, but those were mostly at the start of my walk.hwaseong-trail

I stopped at the Suwon Hwaseong Museum for a respite from the heat–air conditioning is worth the price of admission in some cases. The museum wasn’t impressive and only took twenty minutes or so to walk through, but I took my time and enjoyed the cool air. Sometimes you need a break from all that walking and sightseeing.

Overlooking Haenggung

Overlooking Haenggung

I wanted to stay longer in the air conditioning, but I had one more stop before catching a bus back to the subway station. Within the walls of Hwaseong Fortress is Hwaseong Haenggung, the palace built by King Jeongjo when he supposedly planned to move the capital from Seoul. It’s a small palace and not nearly as impressive as the ones in Seoul, like Gyeongbokgung.hwaseong-haenggung

There was a corner of the palace that allowed visitors to dress up in traditional costumes, imitation weapons included for those who want to dress as warriors instead of royalty. I arrived too late to have my turn as they were closing up shop for the day. Sorry folks, no embarrassing photos of this traveler today.

Facing Reality While Traveling

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

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

When I visited Panama City, I saw a city in transition–it was similar to gentrification back home. Casco Viejo was being purchased by real estate companies and hotels and redeveloped into a grand destination for tourists. There were still some squatters in the more dilapidated buildings throughout the small section of the city; the building across from my hotel was entirely owned by long-time squatters waiting to be bought out. The American owners of the hotel told stories about finding bullet holes and casings everywhere when they first bought the building to transform it years earlier. They were happy to see the violent elements moved elsewhere, but they also desired a preservation of the original character of Casco Viejo. Much of the new construction on the other side of Panama City is empty–at night you can see how few buildings have lights. People I spoke with couldn’t explain who all the development was for or when enough people would move to the city to make it all worthwhile.

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

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

Downtown Panama City

Downtown Panama City

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

I'm not sure how this is supposed to work

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

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

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

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

The new development of Vietnam

The new development of Vietnam

To reach her friend’s apartment, we walked through a maze of alleys surrounded by construction sites until we reached a dark stairway. The apartment was the size of a large bedroom with mismatched wrapping paper and posters used as wallpaper that probably covered cracks and mold. A flimsy mattress was spread out on the floor in the back corner of room and served as a bed as well as seating for guests. There was one large window with bars on it, but no glass or screen to keep out insects and only a thin sheet to cover it for privacy. There was a single outlet that led to an outdated power strip next to the makeshift stove and propane tank. The dark and dirty toilet was down the open hallway–two stalls that required buckets of water to flush. I didn’t ask where the shower was for fear that it was the same room and require buckets of cold water.

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

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

I didn’t say anything about the room to my friend–it was the only home in Vietnam to which I was invited and had nothing with which to compare it. No one in the group seemed to think this room was undesirable as they chatted and shared a meal while seated on the bedding. I have since been shown pictures of other Vietnamese friends’ homes and realize that the one I visited was not typical. It is difficult for those of us who grew up in the developed world in a house with functional plumbing, electricity, and a backyard to comprehend the lifestyle of those who survive in such harsh conditions. It’s still difficult for me to understand, even after hearing lively conversations and seeing the smiles of people who call this home. I may never understand it, but I will remember it anytime I feel my own life is difficult.

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

Mr. Chiang’s Taipei

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painful Bike Ride to Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion

On my second full day in Kyoto I decided to rent a bike from my closet hostel to see the sights as I had walked too many miles the day before. I saw a sign that said the bikes were 500 yen, but it turned out to be a late-day rental price; I had to wait until 9 am when the front desk opened so I could rent a bike at the full-day price of 1000 yen.

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

The bike rental didn’t go as smoothly as expected. The bike was so rusted that I had a difficult time raising the seat to an appropriate height. I realized then that all bikes in Japan are about an inch too short for me to ride comfortably all day (I’ve had this experience with three other bikes), but I struggled through the discomfort in my knees. Unfortunately, that was not the only discomfort I experienced during the day–after riding my first 10 miles and walking around my first temple of the day, I discovered that beneath the cover on the seat was an exposed spring, which would explain the sharp pain in my ass.

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

My first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji, the temple that is home to the golden pavilion. It may have been my return to Japan, and I hadn’t been to any temples in a long time considering the month of churches I encountered in Italy, but I was already suffering from temple fatigue. Call it leftovers from my previous months spent traversing East Asia and visiting temples almost every weekend. At least Kinkaku-ji had one interesting aspect to make my bike ride and pain in my ass worthwhile.golden-pavilion3

Most of Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful Zen garden, but everyone visits to behold the golden pavilion–it’s a beautiful sight from any angle despite the crowd that descends on the temple.  The golden pavilion was the oldest building surviving from the original temple, which dates back to 1397, but the pavilion was destroyed in arson committed by a novice monk in 1950.golden-pavilion2

The golden pavilion is covered in gold leaf that shimmers in the sunlight and creates a beautiful reflection in the pond that surrounds it. Visitors, however, cannot enter the pavilion, probably because so many tourists would put a serious strain on the structure.

There are other shrines at Kinkaku-ji. One of the shrines allows visitors to swing the rope to ring the gong for luck after prayer. There are even vending machines for fortunes–and they dispense English fortunes for tourists like me who can’t read Japanese. Kinkaku-ji provided me with the best fortune I’ve received from a temple, but it still was more or less a meh-quality fortune (it was better than the one from Sensoji Temple that told me I’d have to work to succeed).

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

I returned my bike a few hours later–I made a couple more temple stops (to be written about later) before heading back to the hostel in the hope that I could return the bike. Of course, the hostel front desk was closed from 11 am to 3 pm, which left me with time for a nap while wondering where to go should I procure a more comfortable bike (an unlikely event because my ass was in such pain that even a more comfortable bike would be painful). I managed to get another bike when I found a hostel employee before 3 pm, and I went out for another ride.

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