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On Returning Home

“Never was it thought I would return; so
Neighbors get over the garden wall,
Every one sobbing out welcome; then
As darkness falls and by candlelight
We stare into each other’s face
As if in a dream.”
Du Fu, from Qiang Village

Coming home–however you want to define “home”–after being away for an extended period isn’t as easy as some would imagine. It’s a contrast of memory and reality, how you want to look back on what once was there and finding the unfamiliar.

First time I got to see the finished World Trade Center

First time I got to see the finished World Trade Center

I’ve been through this before. It’s called reverse culture shock. I spent almost four years in China before moving to Jersey City for another four, at which point I took my work-from-home job and set out on a bit of an adventure. I came home once during my stint as an expat in China; it was month-long Spring Festival holiday and I treated my time in the US as a vacation. When I returned to the US in what I thought was a permanent move, I felt slightly out-of-place; it was a feeling that didn’t dissipate for months.

Jersey City redevelopment with the Trump Plaza behind

Jersey City redevelopment with the Trump Plaza behind

And now I find myself home again after my journey through eight countries–a journey that gave me highs and lows as I met new people, said good byes, wondered what I was eating, lost my job, and struggled to survive on freelance employment.

The journey home this time around was indefinite. I had to return to New Jersey for my brother’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding and I’m happy for my brother and sister-in-law. I also got to see my relatives who came in for the festivities (and I attempted to stay out late to hang out with my cousins despite jetlag). I won’t post photos here because that’s their life and not mine.

View of Jersey City and NYC from the wedding

View of Jersey City and NYC from the wedding

Having a comfortable bed at my parents’ house when I arrived home was the greatest feeling–it was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in almost a year. Same goes for the nights at the hotel in Jersey City for the wedding (but not the nights I slept on my brother’s couch). A comfortable bed is what I love best about being home–I had very few comfortable beds around Asia, plus it takes me time to grow accustomed to a new abode.

You can't see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn't move far enough back to get it in the frame

My tiny apartment in Tokyo didn’t have a comfortable bed

During the first week and a half back in the US, I got to live back in Jersey City–someone had to take care of my brother’s cats. While recovering from jetlag, I wandered the streets that were once so familiar. I knew downtown Jersey City had changed since I’ve been gone, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much had changed. New high-rise apartments and expensive condos and more overpriced restaurants and bars. It wasn’t a cheap place to live when I was there for four years, but I’ve now been priced out of the market.

Nicole's jerk chicken and plantains before I added the hot sauce

Nicole’s jerk chicken and plantains before I added the hot sauce

I checked out some of the new places–I scoffed at most of the prices on menus. Even a beer is now at least $7. Why would I pay Manhattan prices if I’m not in Manhattan? At least in Taipei the price of good beer is justified because of outdated liquor laws and import costs. Fortunately, my favorite cheap eateries are still open, though prices have gone up by a dollar or two. I couldn’t resist a trip to the Taqueria for a chorizo taco and torta, as well as dinner at Nicole’s Caribbean Restaurant for jerk chicken and some amazing hot sauce. There are also two falafel shops that are still inexpensive and delicious–I got hawawshi with fries and salad for $8, and I was stuffed afterwards.

Tortas at the Taqueria

Tortas at the Taqueria

After wandering the streets of Jersey City each day I realized how little I connected to the city. I don’t know as many people as I once did, and I’ve lost touch with many of the ones still there. I became bored and only wandered through the city to get a bit of exercise and sunshine.

It’s been three weeks at home, and despite gorging on foods that are unavailable in Taiwan, I still feel like home isn’t home. Taking me out of my routines of the last several months–writing, walking, grocery shopping, biking–has complicated my sense of place. I attempt to find new routines–cooking for my parents, reading non-ebooks (Laird Hunt’s Neverhome is a terrific work of poetic historical fiction), finding comfortable times to write–to alleviate the boredom of returning home without work (though I have had a little freelance work to keep me busy for a few hours).

The new pedestrian mall on Newark Ave. in downtown Jersey City

The new pedestrian mall on Newark Ave. in downtown Jersey City

The longer I’m away from home, the more I feel comfortable abroad. The longer I’m home, the more I wonder if it’s still where I belong. Reconciling these emotions isn’t easy, and describing the feeling isn’t much easier.

Fortunately, I now know that my time home is temporary. I was offered a new job in Taipei and only have to wait on paperwork before booking my flight to begin a new routine a city I find somewhat comfortable. It’s reassurance that struggling to make ends meet while living abroad has finally paid off.

Sunset over my hometown in northern New Jersey

Sunset over my hometown in northern New Jersey

In the meantime, I’ll continue relaxing at home, eating all the delicious foods my parents keep buying simply because I’m home. I’ll also search for more things I can bring back to Taiwan to make my life more comfortable. I’ll also attempt to see more of my friends in the area.

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? How did you cope with it? Can you really go home again?

Views from Capri

Capri is not on most Italian vacation itineraries, mostly because it is prohibitively expensive. I was only there because I was attending a wedding (if my parents hadn’t paid for the hotel, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go).capri-view

Most people who stay in the quaint town of Sorrento or nearby Naples take a day-trip to Capri–they wander the streets and eat overpriced food before taking crowded cruises around the island on their way to the Blue Grotto for 13 euros per person, plus tip. If it wasn’t for the natural beauty of the island, this would all be rather disappointing.capri-view3

While my parents woke up early to take a tour of the island with my aunts and uncles–a tour I wasn’t particularly interested in joining or waking up for because of jetlag–I headed out on my own. I wandered through the empty streets that led away from the main square filled with tourists (and Lionel Messi, as I was later informed). The main touristy square did provide some wonderful views of Capri, but I had to wait for my turn to squeeze in and take my pictures.capri-street

I wandered past elaborate gardens and walls that hid the houses of Capri from prying eyes of curious wanderers such as myself. I gazed out over rooftops toward the cliffs and sea–it was beautiful set against the bright sky and high clouds.capri-view2

In the oppressive heat, though not as bad as it was in Rome, and along the hills I grew fatigued. My desire to see more of Capri was outweighed by my desire to sleep and conserve energy for the evening’s festivities with family.

There was more to see around the island–particularly a mountainous peak I never got to climb for a view–that will have to wait until I make a fortune for a return journey.

Colorful Side of Singapore

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

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

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

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

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

Overwhelming color in Little India

Overwhelming color in Little India

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

Little India Singapore

Details of the most colorful building in Little India

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

This is must be Little India

This is must be Little India

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

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

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

Royal Splendor in Phnom Penh

“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty

I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.monks-street

A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat–there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel–the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watch monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers protests in the capital had forced some closures.

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.phnom-penh-royal-palace

The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.phnom-penh-royal-palace1

The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.

Royal stupas and memorials

Royal stupas and memorials

There are portions of the Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration–there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. phnom-penh-royal-palace-mur

While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality–a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.

The Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening–I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about–a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.

Watching the Sunset Over Tō-Ji in Kyoto

“We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”
-Commoner, Rashōmon

Before setting out to Kyoto with my limited itinerary, I read that the sunset was beautiful around Tō-Ji, Eastern Temple. Or maybe I read that it was meant for sunrise, but I wasn’t about to wake up that early.

Tō-Ji pagoda

Tō-Ji pagoda

I figured it would be easy enough to visit the temple because it was a short distance from the train station, which wasn’t far from my cramped hostel. As I mentioned before, objects on the map appear much closer than they really are; fortunately, Tō-Ji wasn’t that far.

The temple dates back to 796 and was one of three Buddhist temples in the city when Kyoto was the capital. It is the only of those three to have survived, though plenty of other temples are now a part of the city’s cultural heritage. It’s also one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto–they’re all pretty much lumped together in official listings.

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

The only part of the temple that people really visit is the five-story pagoda that stands out in this part of the city–there isn’t much else of this height in area. It is also the tallest wooden structure in Japan. Don’t plan on entering the pagoda because it’s only open a few days each year, and I was not fortunate enough to be there on one of those days. Of course, I was also there late enough in the day that the other buildings were closed; I couldn’t enter the kondo or miedo.to-ji-pagoda

There are other buildings on the grounds of Tō-Ji, but nothing was all that inspiring. It could’ve been that I had walk a few too many miles in the sun on that hot day in September and only reached the temple before wandering in search of a decent dinner (note: the area surrounding Kyoto Station does not have much for dining options). There were beautiful gardens at the temple, which were relaxing with the light crowd milling about in the late afternoon.

to-ji-filter

The camera settings made this one look like an old postcard

As there wasn’t much else to see at Tō-Ji and I wanted to stay at the temple longer, I played with my camera’s settings to see if I could capture more colorful photos of the pagoda and garden.

Some settings certainly work better at different times of day, as I’ve discovered in the last year. It’s rare that I alter the settings to create brighter colors, but the effects are sometimes more interesting than reality.to-ji-trees

I found a spot to sit and relax while awaiting the sunset with the pagoda in the background. I think others were waiting as well. But we were kicked out of the temple. That’s right, the temple grounds close just before dinner. I tried finding an angle from outside the gate to set up for a sunset photo, but there wasn’t a good enough spot. There also wasn’t a seat in the shade to wait for the sunset.

Tired and defeated, I headed out for food, which ended up being a quick meal at the chain shop Yoshinoya. I gave up on planning sunset photos for the rest of my time in Japan, though I did manage to photograph a few around Tokyo.

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Have you ever been disappointed by a sunset or missed an opportunity to watch one from a comfortable location?

Rum Tasting in Siem Reap

“And together we’re so drunk
We’re making sense. Little
By little, with rum the color
Of a woman’s arm, we’re seeing things—”
Gary Soto, The Jungle Café

On New Year’s Eve, my final evening in Siem Reap before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, I wandered around Pub Street awaiting the celebration. I was exhausted from my 40-mile bike ride around Angkor Wat and in a bit of pain after the Khmer massage that felt more like a $4 muscle-twisting torture session. The heat hadn’t subsided as I walked through the streets in search of dinner, which added to my exhaustion. I was so tired, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner that night.

As it was still too early for the New Year’s revelers to crowd into Pub Street in preparation for performances, fireworks, and who-knows-what-else, I wandered out across the Siem Reap River. It would be my last opportunity to see what this Cambodia tourist city had to offer.

Pub Street ready for New Year's Eve festivities

Pub Street ready for New Year’s Eve festivities

I headed into the Siem Reap Art Center and browsed the stalls filled with tourist souvenirs and local crafts, most of which I couldn’t purchase because I was constantly moving. As I contemplated the souvenirs and food and drinks nearby, I noticed a stall full of liquor. I was invited in to try samples of Georges Rhum Arrangé, rums infused with local flavors; they had 10 flavors in all. These rums were infused to the point that it was unrecognizable as rum to people used to the likes of Captain Morgan and Bacardi. It was nothing like the Abuelo rum I bought in Panama.georges-rhum

The first I had was cinnamon, which was strong. I like cinnamon, so this was a good drink for me–it would be great in a dark & stormy. I didn’t enjoy the mango flavor as much because the fruit overpowered the rum, but I could see its usefulness in cocktails.

Georges' son gave me more than enough samples

Georges’ son gave me more than enough samples

After tasting a few of the flavors, I was convinced to go visit his father at Georges Rhumerie Restaurant, which had only been open for two months. They even paid for my tuk-tuk to the restaurant, which was down some dark streets (definitely not the place to walk, even if it wasn’t that far). When I arrived, I met three people, two of whom were the owner and an employee.

Georges Restaurant

Georges Restaurant

Despite being full from dinner, I ordered a light appetizer to go with a little more of the rum–the samoussa (samosa) platter sounded like the best option. It was tasty, filled with tuna and came with a sweet and spicy sauce. The menu is full of a fusion of French and Cambodian cuisine–Georges is from Madagascar and moved to Cambodia by way of Reunion Island, where his son is from.

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

While I waited for the samosas, I ordered the coffee rum for $2–I always have to try the coffee-flavored varieties of anything. Before departing in search of New Year’s festivities, I ordered the vanilla rum. It was a more complex flavor than the other rums as it included more than just one flavor. There was orange peel, lemongrass, anise, and cloves, and the flavors all stood out with each sip.

If you’re in Siem Reap, I recommend visiting Georges Rhumerie Restaurant for a bite to eat and a sip of local rhum arrangé.

Being an Expat Is Not All Travel and Sunshine

“Once upon a time I was someone then that stopped.”
Laird Hunt, The Exquisite

Let’s get something straight. Living abroad is not as exciting as most people think it is. The same goes for working from home.

Just as the phrase implies, living abroad is just that–living, just in another country. It’s not the same as living back home because it is a different country, but it involves similar concepts, which include working, eating, and living.

Of course, Yahoo! Travel would get this confused like most people in the US. They published another dull story titled “How to Stay on Vacation Forever – These People Did It!” I’m not even going to link to it because the headline is misleading and downright stupid. It has a brief story about a few people who went on vacation and decided to stay. How did they stay? That’s right, they got a job!

Another crowded park in China (least crowded photo I have)

Crowd at Lixiang Park in China (least crowded photo I have)

If you’re working abroad, you’re not on vacation. You’re working and earning a living.

Sure, it’s easier to travel someplace else for a long weekend while you’re working abroad (particularly if you’re in a cheaper country that pays expats well), but that can be done from the comfort of our home countries as well.

Typical night after work in Seoul

Typical night after work in Seoul

“But it’s so much more interesting to live in another country,” you say. Yes, to some extent it is. It can also be more frustrating depending on your language proficiency and understanding of the finer points of local culture. Depending on the country, it can be more difficult to make local friends–some countries are known for keeping foreign friends at a safe distance.

When I lived in China, I was not on vacation. I worked five days a week and had regular national holidays for my travels. It’s not like I could fly to Shanghai for a weekend (ok, I could have, but it would’ve been stupid and expensive for a weekend). My weekends usually involved hanging out with friends, going to a park or major grocery store, and drinking some cheap beer because there really wasn’t much to do in Shenzhen. The most exciting weekends I had were the day-trips I had to Hong Kong and Macau–they were my escape to a more developed world that had non-Chinese food for a break (and Macau had a shop that sold good coffee much cheaper than I could find in Shenzhen). My daily life revolved around working, eating what I hoped wouldn’t poison me, studying Chinese, not getting run over by cars and buses, and avoiding crowds as best I could.

Just another night in Macau

Just another night in Macau

When I set out on my current trip, I’ll admit it was a combination of work and vacation. Every weekend was an opportunity to see something new in a city. But I saw almost nothing during the week because I was locked away in room, slaving away for almost 50 hours a week. That’s right, I had to work all week so that I could have some excitement on the weekend. And because I attempted to fit as much as I could into two days, I was exhausted by the time I started work again on Monday. On occasion I experienced power and internet outages, which meant I had to scramble to find a cafe that offered wifi so I could continue working.

You can't see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn't move far enough back to get it in the frame

You can’t see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn’t move far enough back to get it in the frame

Just because I worked from home, or wherever I chose to claim as home, does not mean I had a leisurely job. Some days I had a lot of work to do. I edited an average of 60-70 business news stories each day, sometimes more. I also did not have the luxury of taking extra-long lunch breaks–there was no one to cover for me while I stepped out to eat; I had to guess what time would be slowest so I wouldn’t return to a pile of backlogged work.

When I started the job, I worked overnight–8 pm to 6 am. That was the impetus for moving to Asia; I wanted to work during daylight hours and have the sun shine through my window. Even when I worked those hours, I had friends who thought I could take a nap or go out for a drink while working because no one would know the difference.

tiger

He was quite the active dog. This was his usual position while I worked.

That awful work schedule is part of the reason I fostered a dog for a little while. I thought he’d keep me company, but he really just slept while I worked and sniffed my face while I attempted to sleep. That dog was funny and I’m happy he was adopted.

If that job sounds like leisure time to you, maybe you should give it a try.

But, hey, I got to take a walk during my lunch break to watch the sun rise when I stayed in Italy. I also had dinner at noon and went to bed at about 3 pm. When I wanted to take a weekend out of the quiet town of Perugia, I had to alter my sleep schedule–it was difficult in the summer heat in Florence.

Working from home does not mean you spend a day in your underwear either. Studies have shown that people who work from home are more productive and effective when they act like they’re in an office (i.e. get dressed for work).

My office was somewhere in that building

My office was somewhere in that building

And what did I do after I was laid off from that job so long ago? I spent my days reading books, writing things I hope will one day get published, and searching for work. I had Skype interviews for jobs too (most of those jobs were awful and I’m glad I didn’t accept them because they would’ve led to a miserable life abroad). I had to remember some of my rules for searching for ESL jobs abroad, which can apply to other fields when searching abroad. Factoring in visa rules makes searching for work abroad more difficult.

I’m not complaining about my life abroad (aside from the lack of stable employment at the moment); I made my decision to stay because it’s what I want. The cost of living is much lower than back home–I currently live on less than $800 per month, excluding my visa runs every 90 days. I’ve also managed to make some worthwhile friends along the way to make life here a bit more comfortable and less mundane.

Colorful Canals in Murano and Burano

“When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness also.”
Paul Cezanne

Beyond the main islands that make up Venice is more historic Italian beauty–it requires a water bus ride from within the city to the outskirts; it’s a journey on the water to the suburban canal towns of Murano and Burano.

Approaching Murano

Approaching Murano

The first thing I noticed on my trip to Murano from Venice was the price of the water bus–EUR 7 per ride. I figured since I was taking at least three rides, I might as well get the day pass for EUR 20. I wondered what sort of discount was offered to locals as this was certainly the most expensive public transportation I had ever encountered.

Murano

Murano

Murano and Burano are like Ventian twins–they’re always mentioned in the same breath when people talk about tourism outside the center of Venice. These were never part of the wealth class of the glory days of Venice–the islands were home to fishermen and artisans. They painted their home in vibrant colors, particularly in Burano, to make it easier for fishermen to find their way home in inclement weather. Today, those same bright houses on the canals are what draw tourists to the shores of Burano, while Murano has its colorful glass to attract attention.murano-glass

Murano is the larger tourist draw of the two towns in the Venetian Lagoon because it’s historically known for artistic glass products, which I wasn’t interested in seeing (I enjoy art, but colorful glass bowls are not my idea of inspiring). Glassmaking began in the area in late 13th century and Murano became the largest producer of glass products in Europe. While the industry has declined over the last two hundred years, Murano glass is still popular for its artistic quality and glassmaking remains Murano’s primary industry, which, of course, caters to tourists today.murano-lighthouse

There isn’t much to see or do around Murano, but it’s still a pleasant town to walk through. Large glass sculptures are displayed in public areas to attract visitors to the shops that sell smaller glass souvenirs (none of which I could afford if I wanted). There were some amusing window displays, including glass zombie figurines and some comically pornographic miniature glass figures.

Who wouldn't want decorative glass zombies?

Who wouldn’t want decorative glass zombies?

There was the impressive Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato with its leaning bell tower. The interior of the church is supposedly impressive, but it was not open to the public when I was there (it might’ve been closed for lunch).

Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato

Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato

After walking along the canals in the heat, I took one of the local water buses through the town to a stop where I could change to a water bus that would take me to Burano, the island that was once know for lace–even Leonardo di Vinci once purchased lace from Burano to cover the altar at Duomo di Milano.

Burano

Burano

What I didn’t know at the time is that Burano is much farther from Venice than Murano. The longer boat ride gave me time to peer out over the water at passing islands, none of which I could name.burano-canal

I wandered the colorful streets–it was a delight to the eyes after month of wandering Italian streets with weathered structures and an excessive of graffiti–and I could’ve wandered those streets for hours if the town was bigger and if I hadn’t been so desperate to find a decent meal. Everything on the main street through town is there for the tourists–overpriced restaurants and gift shops that sold nothing unique. I ducked down alleys to avoid the crowds and search for an affordable lunch, but came up empty; the rest of the town is residential. I only managed to find a small market at which to buy a cold bottle of water.

Creative name for a tourist trap shop

Creative name for a tourist trap shop

After wandering through streets of Burano and coming to the conclusion that everything was too expensive and touristy, I headed back to the dock for the water bus. I ate fritto misto (fried seafood) at a stand near the dock–it was the freshest fried seafood I had tasted, but it could’ve used more lemon to balance the salt. The little stand with seating in the shade was overpriced, but still significantly cheaper than anything I found in the center of the tourist area. It gave me enough energy to walk a little more across the bridge to the neighboring island of Mazzorbo.

Fritto Misto in the shade of Burano

Fritto Misto in the shade of Burano

I was welcomed to Mazzorbo with a public garden that wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped. It might’ve been more enjoyable if there was a shaded path to walk around–the sun was wearing me down and there wasn’t enough of a breeze for relief. I headed back to the dock to catch the next water bus back to Venice.

The garden at Mazzorbo

The garden at Mazzorbo

Of course, I managed to take the water bus that took the long way back to Venice. I chose the one that would drop me off at San Marco Square–I knew it wasn’t a long walk back to my hostel from there, and there was a wonderful inexpensive shop that sold mini sandwiches and spritzes for less than EUR 2. By some miracle I disembarked at San Marco–I fell asleep for at least a half hour on the boat, only to awake in time to the glory of Venice unfold before me. Maybe it was other passengers scrambling for photos that woke me from my exhaustion, but it was worth losing an extra 15 minutes of sleep on the boat to get some of those pictures that were unobscured by the crowds walking the streets.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the way back to Venice

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the way back to Venice

I was too exhausted to even stop off for a quick bite and a drink on the way to the hostel. I passed out for a while before heading out again for my second-to-last evening in Venice.

Drinking a Singapore Sling at Its Birthplace

“Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Slings. It’s one of the first things you find out there.”
-Anthony Bourdain

I have never tasted a cocktail in a place in which it was invented. I don’t know if I ever will again. At least not at the price I paid in Singapore.

It’s not that I haven’t had what most would consider original or unique cocktails–there was the cocktail the bartender gave me that wasn’t on the menu at Kolo Klub at the Pilsner Haus in Hoboken that had Aquavit and who-knows-what (it was tasty) and the ridiculous number of cocktails I sampled at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic–but I hadn’t had a cocktail in the place of its birth, in a place of legend.

Raffles Hotel Singapore

Raffles Hotel Singapore

When I arrived in Singapore for my short trip, I made a list of places I had to see. One of the top priorities was the Raffles Hotel–more specifically, it was the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

The opulent Raffles Hotel was built in the colonial style in 1887 by Martin and Tigran Sarkies; it was designated a national monument in 1987. During renovations from 1989 to 1991, the Long Bar was relocated to the shopping arcade area–the bar was supposedly relocated at other times throughout the hotel’s history. The Long Bar was patronized by literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad (I was tempted to reread Heart of Darkness while sitting at the bar).long-bar-singapore

The Long Bar is exquisite; it exudes history and class (a societal class I apparently can’t quite afford). The style is reminiscent of the late British colonial era–the details of the bar and tables are there for the patrons to imagine a time before Singapore was a glossy international economic hub. The two-storey bar (second floor was closed when I was there) is supposed to be inspired by Malaysian plantations of the early 20th century. There are even bags of peanuts around the bar–and customers are reminded to just toss the shells on the floor; it’s the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

This was where I had to order my first Singapore Sling. All I knew about the cocktail was that it’s sweet, and I don’t particularly enjoy cocktails that are too sweet. In honor of the cocktail’s invention 100 years ago by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender from China’s Hainan Province, the Long Bar had a menu full of variations of the Singapore Sling–there is no set recipe, so it’s easy to change the flavor. Of course, I ordered the original. It was good–refreshing and not too sweet for the heat and humidity of Singapore.

I better enjoy this now that I have no money in my wallet

I better enjoy this now that I have no money in my wallet

I would’ve ordered a second one, but I couldn’t afford it; this was by far the most expensive cocktail I have ever ordered. The original Singapore Sling at the Long Bar costs S$32.95, including tax and service fees (at current exchange rates that’s $24.13). I took my sweet time sipping that cocktail and filling up on peanuts. To put this in perspective, I had a Grey Goose martini with my uncle at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong for about $18 (I didn’t pay for it)–they left the shaker, which was almost another half a glass, and a nice bowl of olives and nuts. long-bar-singapore2

For some reason, probably to save money on another metro ticket, I walked back to my hostel. I picked up a relatively inexpensive beer at the 7-Eleven next door before heading off to sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventures in Singapore.

I’ve had some impressive spirits and cocktails over the years, but is any cocktail really worth that much money? Would you go out of your way to overspend on one drink?

Rome in Black & White

“My idea of Rome–the Rome I was looking for–was pretty much locked in. My Rome was the Rome of films…. No matter whose Rome it is–yours, mine, or Federico Fillini’s–it’s beautiful, as beautiful as everybody says it is.”
-Anthony Bourdain

Rome wasn’t one of my favorite destinations–there’s amazing history and ancient architecture everywhere, but it lacked the inviting feeling of other cities. Maybe it’s how everything is a tourist trap and there are too many hawkers trying to force you to buy everything you don’t want. Also, the late-July heat makes me cranky (alright, I’m downplaying the feeling; the weather turns me homicidal–if you don’t give me coffee or gelato, you should probably get out of my way).rooftop-rome

Complaints aside, Rome is a glorious city to photograph. It’s one of those places that cries out to you to change the camera settings to black & white–bright, cloudless skies as a backdrop for ruins of the Roman Empire juxtaposed with more recent structures. Anthony Bourdain even insisted on shooting an episode of No Reservations in black & white when he visited Rome.

The Roman Forum. So many historic shadows

The Roman Forum. So many historic shadows

The light plays games in photographs–weathered columns cast their shadows across the scenes as the locals and tourists saunter past. The tones emphasize the intensity of the summer sun in Rome.

View of Rome from the Altar of the Fatherland

View of Rome from the Altar of the Fatherland

Some places are perfect for black & white shots, while others require the vibrant colors–the islands of Murano and Burano just couldn’t be done without color; it would’ve taken the life out of those canal towns. Rome just happens to be one of those cities that appear perfect in black & white–the ancient mixed with the cracked and graffitied new.

Path to the Roman Forum

Path to the Roman Forum

What are your favorite places to take black & white photos?

Reasons to Visit Taiwan

I’ve already posted a rant about pointless travel articles from the media, and The Huffington Post made me do it again this week. Yesterday it published an “article” by Janice Lintz titled “7 Reasons Why Taiwan Should Be on Your Bucket List.” The article has been taken down, presumably because every expat in Taiwan called it an worthless piece of trash that could’ve been written by anyone checking out Wikipedia.xiangshan-panorama

But don’t worry, lazy journalism is a pastime in Taiwan and Focus Taiwan rewrote the article (it’s the laziest summarizing job I’ve seen since my students who handed in plagiarized work).taipei101-fireworks

Quite possibly the most cringe-worthy quote from the original article is “Taiwan is not a typical destination for Westerners yet it is popular with Chinese visitors. Taiwan has its own President, constitution, armed forces and currency but is officially called the Republic of China (ROC) despite being part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).” Nice job pandering to the mainland government; I suppose it’s because HuffPo isn’t blocked in China (yet).

Jiufen

Above Jiufen

Of course, the article also claimed the towns of Jiufen and Keelung are nothing more than night markets. After my trip to Jiufen, I’d say skip the night market and just go hiking to enjoy the scenery.

From the vague references to everything there is to do in Taipei–there isn’t even a mention of all the places outside Taipei like Taroko National Park or Tainan–I would assume Ms. Lintz has never set foot on the island. If she has visited Taiwan, it seems she’s managed to spend only a few days in Taipei without actually seeing much.

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko

There is absolutely nothing new or interesting in this article for tourists to Taiwan–it’s even written in such a bland tone that it doesn’t make Taiwan sound like a worthwhile destination. It only reinforced the boring image Taiwan has made for itself.

I’ve written plenty here about why I have stayed in Taipei for so long–there’s so much here to make it a great travel destination.

View from Rainbow Bridge

View from Rainbow Bridge

Taipei in particular has great night life (alright, I haven’t really sampled much nightlife outside the city)–there are some decent bars with local beer and, of course, the night markets. Taiwan has a thriving music scene at bars and clubs, as well as theater performances at the National Theatre and some smaller performance spaces. There’s even some great art here–and I don’t just mean the impressive museums either; there are smaller galleries all around.

And for the adventurous traveler there’s plenty of outdoor activities (assuming it isn’t raining). I’ve taken more than my share of bike rides through the riverside parks around the city, not to mention the coastal ride from Hualien. And travelers have their choice of hikes throughout Taiwan–sure, there are some good ones in Taipei, but there are even more elsewhere that are more rustic.

The coast near Hualien

The coast near Hualien

Oh yeah, and there’s food. More than the Michelin star restaurants mentioned in the article (do you really need to publicize Michelin star restaurants?). If you’re going to write about food in Taiwan, you have to describe all the common night market food. You have just about any type of food you could want here. My only complaint is the lack of truly spicy food, but there are some restaurants that will provide a good kick when I need it.night-market-skewers

And there is still so much more on this little island called Taiwan that I have yet to explore (hell, I haven’t even written about some of my other trips outside Taipei).

Houtong, the cat village

Houtong, the cat village

The next time a media organization wants to write a story about a travel destination, they should look beyond a Wikipedia page. There are plenty of literary-minded seasoned travelers living in places like Taiwan who would be more than happy to write an article about their adopted home.

What else makes Taiwan a great travel destination?

Introverted Travel or Social Avoidance?

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

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

I’m by no means an extrovert, but I’m also not quite an introvert. I just hate small talk, unless it’s in Chinese because that’s most of the Chinese I know; it’s how I met so many friendly Chinese travelers in Iceland. I enjoy talking with people most of the time, but I need a reason to start a conversation–without a reason for the conversation to begin, I’ll just stand aside and watch. I prefer to have other people start the conversation for me.

Damn tourists always get in the way

Damn tourists always get in the way

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

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

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

Sometimes we all need a conversation fish

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

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

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

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

What is your advice for introverted travelers?

The View from Sorrento

“Look at the sea, how beautiful it is,
it inspires so many emotions,
like you do with the people you look at,
who you make to dream while they are still awake.”
-Torna a Surriento (Come Back to Sorrento)

There isn’t much to see and do in Sorrento. It’s more of a stopover for travelers on their way to elsewhere or for those looking for a relaxing, accessible town; my parents and I stopped there as a base for visiting Pompeii before heading to Capri for a wedding. But that doesn’t mean Sorrento isn’t a beautiful, relaxing destination along the Italian coast.

View of the harbor from Piazza Tasso before the clouds dispersed

View of the harbor from Piazza Tasso before the clouds dispersed

Spending a day in Sorrento after a few days in the crowds and heat of Rome is pleasant–the sea breeze provides relief from the summer heat while walking the streets. It would be enough to lounge around with a bottle of wine as I stare out at the cliffs that meet the Gulf of Naples, but then what sort of story would I have to tell?sorrento-gulf-of-naples

The journey from Rome was less than pleasant–the high-speed train to Naples was wonderful, though the train stations were less than ideal. Upon arrival in Naples, we kept vigilant watch over our belongings as we searched for the train that would transport us to Sorrento.

People hanging out at the harbor in Sorrento

People hanging out at the harbor in Sorrento

The Circumvesuviana is the worst train in Italy–ask the Italians; they’ll back me up on this. The tracks were laid by Julius Caesar himself (alright, probably not). The only time the train service was improved, Mussolini was in power (this is quite possibly true), and it has been in decay ever since. It’s like riding the NYC subway in the 1980s, but the train is smaller and more crowded. Upon departing Naples station, the hour and a half journey gave us scenery as delightful as landfills, graffiti, and dilapidated structures (not Roman ruins, just modern ruins and neglect). There is no air conditioning on the train and it was pouring–windows were open and the floor of the train was soaked. I was fortunate to use my suitcase as a seat for the 36-station trip.

The passageway leading to Marina Grande

The passageway leading to Marina Grande

Sorrento was peaceful on arrival. Little traffic, few people, and sunny skies greeted us as we finally exited the Circumvesuviana. We walked farther than expected as our hotel was more difficult to find than anticipated, but we didn’t mind too much–we took in the local architecture and the mountains in the distance.

Via Luigi de Maio from Piazza Tasso

Via Luigi de Maio from Piazza Tasso

We walked down the winding Via Luigi de Maio to the port–we wanted to see the area and figure out where to catch the ferry to Capri. It was a beautiful sight with the buildings set on the cliff.

Marina Grande

Marina Grande

I later wandered away from Piazza Tasso through narrow streets and alleys, through ancient structures, down to Marina Grande, another coastal part of town where people lounged on a small beach.


A photo posted by @jcmatt on


After dinner I watched the sun set while staring out over the Gulf of Naples once more before the rain came in again–the clouds cleared the next day for even better pictures. I headed across the street from the hotel to buy a bottle of wine–I had to return to the shop after I realized my hotel didn’t have a corkscrew (isn’t this considered criminal negligence in Italy?).

Have you visited Sorrento? Did you experience a similar sense of relief and calm?

Wandering Through Castles in Kyoto

Even in Kyoto,
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.
― Matsuo Bashō

Sightseeing in Kyoto did not go as smoothly as I had anticipated. Most of it was my own fault. But I still managed to see most of what I wanted.

I did little research before heading to Kyoto in the early fall–I just wanted to get out of Tokyo and see more of Japan and this was the time of year to head to Kyoto before the tourists crowd the city to see the autumn foliage. I didn’t realize the highway bus from Machida really would drop me off on the side of the highway, a mile from the metro station that would take me to Kyoto Station, at which point I got lost because there’s no open WiFi and the maps are not all situated with north pointing up (that screwed me up more than a few times during my time in Japan).nijo-castle

I figured I’d get everything I needed once I checked into my hostel (another mistake). The hostel had little information other than tours that I didn’t want to pay for–and most of the brochures and maps were haphazardly stacked (this was possibly the most disorganized place in all of Japan). It also had staff that was rarely around and only spoke a few words of English (the hostel was also closed for a few hours in the afternoon for “cleaning”).

Karamon, the main gate to Ninomaru Palace

Karamon, the main gate to Ninomaru Palace

After consulting my map that I picked up at the train station, I made a plan to walk from my hostel to some of the tourist destinations in Kyoto–nothing looked that far from where I was staying (another mistake). The map I had did not have a guide for measuring distance–the walk I took was much longer than expected. My main destination was to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which I again neglected to research because it requires a reservation and it was entirely booked for the day (I managed to get a ticket for the morning tour the day before I departed for Osaka). But I stopped at Nijo Castle along the way, partly to get out of the sun and because it looked cool while walking nearby.

Honmaru Palace

Honmaru Palace

Nijo Castle was a little more than two miles from my hostel–it felt farther because of the sun and heat. The Kyoto Imperial Palace was another half mile, though the surrounding park is huge and took longer to walk around before I found that I needed a reservation. After all that walking, I headed back toward my hostel and a little farther south to Nishi Hongan-ji and Toji Temple. In all, it was at least a 10-mile walk for the day (renting a bike the following day was necessary to get to Kinkakuji, even though the bike had a broken seat), and I was exhausted enough to sleep early.nijo-castle-fortification

Nijo Castle is one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto–it was built in 1626 as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns; Ninomaru and Honmaru Palaces are contained within the walls. It’s a beautiful site and parts of it are reminiscent of Osaka Castle (or maybe that’s just my impression from the white structures along the fortification walls).

Overlooking Honmaru Palace

Overlooking Honmaru Palace

Buildings within the fortifications were twice destroyed by fire in the 18th century. The castle wasn’t used again until 1862.nijo-castle-moat

Today, the moat surrounding Nijo Castle looks a little fetid, but at least it isn’t completely dried up like the one surrounding Osaka Castle.

There’s a lot of beautiful architecture and historic works of art to gaze at while walking through the 275,000 sqm. that the castle encompasses. There are 3,000 screens just in Ninomaru Palace, although some rooms were closed for preservation efforts, so not all the screens are on display.

Ninomaru Garden

Ninomaru Garden

For tourists who get tired of staring at buildings that tend to look similar after a while, Nijo Castle also has three well maintained gardens, each planted during a different era. The most impressive of the gardens is the Ninomaru Garden, which is the most often photographed. It isn’t, however, as impressive as the Secret Garden in Seoul. It’s still an enjoyable and relaxing walk through the gardens, though it can be tiring on a hot day like I had.ninomaru-garden

While most historic sites around Japan charge admission, Nijo Castle is reasonable at 600 yen, though those admission costs can add up fast while sightseeing all day. Photos aren’t allowed in Ninomaru Palace, which explains why I have none here–unlike other tourist destinations in East Asia, Japan enforces photography bans.

Feeling Poor at Seoul’s Money Museum

“Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash”
Pink Floyd, Money

There are museums you don’t expect to visit on your travels. It’s happened before. I still regret visiting the Icelandic Phallological Museum. But sometimes the unexpected museums are more interesting. Fortunately, the Bank of Korea Money Museum in Seoul was a much better experience than that disturbing museum in Reykjavik.

Namdaemun, the largest gate in Seoul

Namdaemun, the largest gate in Seoul

It was on one of the hotter days in Seoul last summer, when I was wandering a new neighborhood on my day off, that I came across the Money Museum. I headed for the area to visit Namdaemun, the largest of the city gates in Seoul, and then wander around the nearby market (it was too crowded with tourists for my liking). After wandering through the crowds in the heat, I needed relief.Bank of Korea Money Museum

That’s when I saw an interesting building across the street–it was classical Western architecture. I walked over to take a look as well as a few pictures.

I wasn’t all that interested in visiting a money museum, but admission was free and the space was air conditioned–the decision was practically made for me. The decision was even easier when I noticed that the museum wasn’t crowded like the market across the street.

The opulence inside the Bank of Korea Money Museum

The opulence inside the Bank of Korea Money Museum

I didn’t expect much from the Money Museum, which is probably why it impressed me. This wasn’t just the Bank of Korea showing off its fortune–it was interesting and educational. (Alright, it was also the bank showing off it’s beautiful building, but there was more to it.) Most of the exhibits were intended to teach children about the banking system and even about the basics of savings and investing.

Recycle that cash and make more

Recycle that cash and make more

There was even some educational information for people like me. I had no idea how money was recycled–they can use it as construction material, or so they claim. And there was history about the bank for those who want to know more about the Bank of Korea.

Dear Leader's North Korean money

Dear Leader’s North Korean money

Of course, there was also the room full of currency. They had one of everything–even money from Kim Jong-un’s most glorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that tends to use US dollars more than their own printed currency, which I assume is suitable for toilet paper. But they also had Zimbabwe’s worthless currency–you know, the trillion dollar bill that was worth about one US dollar before Mugabe caved in and revalued the currency (it’s now about 360 Zimbabwean dollars to one US dollar).

For a free museum, it was definitely worth the price of admission (they didn’t even charge an ATM fee).

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