Monday, June 6, 2016

A Weekend in Beijing

Labor Day weekend saw myself and a gang of buddies tearing up Beijing for 3 nights. In the end, there were 9 of us who went! I was a bit concerned about traveling with such a large group, but everyone was flexible and open-minded, and we had no problem breaking up into smaller groups to do the stuff we really wanted to do.

The whole weekend gang at a Peking duck joint

Rooftop drinks our first day in the city

Confession: I'm not really interested in traveling in China. Or India for that matter, but that's another story for another day. BUT when you get a couple of friends who used to live in Beijing who say they are going to show you around all their favorite spots, how can you possibly say no?!

My friend Billy used to live around the corner,
how fitting

So our trip was more a drinking and eating tour of the city rather than cultural. I didn't go to Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall. Yikes! Because we were in a little bubble in the Sanlitun neighborhood, I had few encounters with horrifying squatter toilets, and no one spat or defecated in public that I saw, and I missed out on the hutongs. I feel like this was a teaser trip- I know I should go back and try to visit some historical sites.

The pollution was pretty terrible, as you can see

What DID we do? Brunched. Feasted on Peking Duck. Explored art galleries in the 798 district. Danced at one of the oldest night clubs in the city. Ate all you can eat teppanyaki. Drank on a rooftop on Bar Street. Accidentally stayed at a weird sex hotel. Shopped at the silk market. So it wasn't all a wash! But I think DOING stuff wasn't the point of this trip. I went just to spend time with people I like in a new setting, and we really could have been anywhere.

Really on top of our brunching game

While I don't feel a connection to China in general and Beijing didn't strike me as a place I ever want to return to, let alone live, I'm glad I went. I saw the monstrous pollution first hand. I got a sense of the layout of the city and saw its more eclectic side. I encountered people who I had previously thought as oppressed living much more openly than I expected. My time in Asia is winding down; I'm fairly certain I've only got a year left in me, but I'm not sure I would return to Beijing when I've still got places like Seoul and Singapore to check out.  

And finally- the most China manicure ever.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Taiwan With Teens

The students at my school go camping once a year, and I’ve always had a blast chaperoning these trips. This year, I got to supervise an outdoor experience in the mountains of northern Taiwan. Normally on these trips we stay in tents, but I got lucky and was assigned the one trip where the students stay in a mountain lodge.

Orientation activities with the kids

The view from our mountain lodge

5.5k Mountain Lodge is set on Lalashan Mountain near Fuxing, Taiwan. It overlooks a massive valley, and I was reminded of my view in Quito, although at a much lower altitude in Taiwan, the vegetation is much more dense. Each morning the adults would wake up a half hour before the kids to sit on the patio with a view and drink our coffee in silence.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom

Nearby waterfalls we hiked to

Because we use an outdoor education company to arrange all the activities and meals, I pretty much got to tag along and experience the trip with the kids. It was a serious challenge for me! We did a river crossing and a gorge hike, hiked to hot springs and waterfalls, and spent a day on a farm. The kids got to take local Taiwanese dance classes, make mochi, and drink boba tea. You couldn't have packed more fun in a week if you tried.

We put the kids to hard work on a farm for a day

Showing off moves from the Taiwanese dance classes

Our guides rocking their traditional garb

I was with 48 ninth graders on this trip, and they were freaking wonderful. There was teamwork and bonding and the kids encouraged each other to take risks- all of the growth you want to see from a trip like this. It made me think about the idea of teenagers as terrible. Who says teenagers have to have a terrible time adjusting through puberty and be nasty to each other and their parents and have an identity crisis? I'm down with a bit of rebellion of course, my hair was pink in my junior yearbook (sorry 'rents!), but my students in Hong Kong are the most well adjusted teenagers who are genuinely delightful to be around, and it makes me think that the US is doing something wrong.

My group drinking their coveted boba tea on the last day

Anyways, the trip was special as we really formed attachments like a family over the week long camp, and everyone was super bummed to go home. This was my second time in Taiwan and it was amazing yet again. I'd love to go back and rent a scooter and explore on my own, but I have absolutely no complaints about getting a free trip there through my school!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Some Stuff to Share

In February I went to Nanjing and the Philippines, in March I went to Malaysia and Thailand, and in April I already went to Taiwan but I am leaving for Beijing tomorrow. So my travel schedule is pretty crazy, obviously. Before I can sit down and sort through all of my photos and thoughts and memories and try to string them together in some semblance of order for this blog, I figured I'd share some stuff I made recently.

Firstly is a compilation I made for my friend Joep, who moved to London last month. This is pretty much our whole gang in Hong Kong and it took me awhile to compile all this footage and put this video together.

ALSO! I've been recording ukulele stuff. Like taking it up a notch with loops and special effects and layering and harmonizing with myself and having a blast messing around with Garageband. If you want to check it out, here is my soundcloud account where I have been uploading some covers and some original stuff (much more to come on this front...)

If I'm being honest, I've been too busy listening to Lemonade on repeat to update this blog. No regrets here.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Water Activities in El Nido

Lest you think I succumbed to a beach stupor during the Chinese New Year holiday and accepted my fate to rot in the sand for a week in a pile of coconuts and rum, I am here to say that there is so much more to El Nido. In fact, if you are a more active beach-goer, there aren't many places I have been that top it. Unfortunately, all scuba diving shops were completely booked up because of the holiday, but my friends and I found loads of other activities to sign up for during our time in El Nido.

Then again, I could easily spend a week 
lounging around in the sand...

Hands down my favorite activity of the week was Stand Up Paddleboarding. SUP! This was new to me, and despite falling on a pile of rocky coral and shredding my leg, was the most fun I had on this recent trip to El Nido. We found an expat Canadian couple located next to Happiness Cafe in Corong Corong beach that just began running day trips using local guides. Although they offer a few different tours, my friends and I chose the river tour, which took us through mangroves and out to the open ocean. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon this activity in the few months a year that they are open in El Nido, DO IT.

Mangrove river where the paddleboard tour began

Stunning scenery all around

This was a private beach we were only able to access 
because of our paddleboard tour

Kayak rentals were available every couple of feet in Corong Corong, and since we were spending so much time stuffing our faces with hummus at Happiness Cafe, it made sense to rent kayaks from them one afternoon. After accidentally paddling up to the wrong beach and having attack dogs threatened in our direction, we ended up on Papaya Beach for the afternoon. This place was pure bliss, and was the most beautiful beach I saw in all of El Nido, which is saying something considering the entire region looks photoshopped. Papaya Beach was uninhabited and wild, save for a single juice stand offering only coconuts and rum (here we go again...). The only downside? Realizing you have to paddle back to civilization eventually.

Still smiling after a half hour of paddling in open water

Cool rock formations we paddled under

Upper body strength from yoga pays off sometimes

We paddled right up to Papaya beach

Perfect spot for some beach yoga and acrobatics

Yes, this is real life

The boat tours are super popular in El Nido, and in the end, I don't think it really matters what company you go with- they all offer the same locations. We signed up with a group called Caera, and while they packed a few too many people on the boat (it was Chinese New Year holiday, after all), the food they served us was amazing and the boat experience was very idyllic. This day trip took us to a few different lagoons and more inaccessible beaches. There are no piers or docks, so for every location on the boat trip, you just jump off the side of the boat and swim to shore. This proved to be an issue when two Chinese girls on our boat couldn't swim. Our guide dragged them around on inner tubes, which provided a lot of entertainment for the other guests. I've gotta hand it to them, those girls showed resilience- they were not going to let a little thing like not knowing how to swim stop them from having a good time on a rickety boat tour.

Hanging off the end of our boat

The gang recovering from some jellyfish stings, yikes!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Palawan Paradise

Every good vacation needs a balance between adventure and unwinding. El Nido, on Palawan Island in the Philippines, is a great place for finding that balance. While there are a lot of options for day trips and water sports and other activities, simply wandering up and down the beach can provide just as much entertainment.

Beach babes and travel buddies for CNY

Approaching our beach bungalow

Corong Corong beach was where my friends and I stayed recently for Chinese New Year holiday. It is about 10 minutes south of the actual El Nido town, or a 1 USD trike ride. This area is veerrryyy chilled out, and while it's not the most perfect white sand beach, the ruggedness felt more natural and undeveloped. Beach bungalows here were cheap and plentiful, although they are very local, which may not be for the weak of heart. My friends and I heard loud squeals one morning from our patio that went on for about ten minutes, only to stumble upon a pig roast that evening on the beach... Yes, the shrieks we heard were a slaughter. Good thing only one of us was a vegetarian!

Traveling with a ukulele attracts all sorts of types

Night disco on the beach at Le Plage

Any relaxing beach vacation needs proper island cuisine, right? Eating the fresh catch of the day with my toes in the sand is one of my favorite parts of an island getaway. Food in El Nido (and all other expenses, to be honest) is stupidly cheap, so you can feast like a queen even if you are on a tight budget. Every meal we had during our stay in El Nido was delicious, from Art Cafe to Republica Sunset.

Coconnuuuuttttsss on Papaya Beach

Seafood lunch on our boat tour of the nearby lagoons

For that picture perfect beach experience, hop in a trike and go 45 minutes north to Nacpan beach. This is THE place for beach lounging. The ride out there is not for the faint of heart, but this beach is worth the bumpy road and dust inhalation. For 3 or 4 bucks, you can rent an umbrella and lounge chairs directly on the beach, and spend the day alternating between crystal clear waters and soft fluffy sand. There are palm trees to sit under, juice stands, and long stretches of prime postcard real estate.

Jumping for joy at Nacpan Beach

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, eh?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Outdoor Festivals in Hong Kong

I've written about Hong Kong's biggest music festival before. Clockenflap is a jam-packed party at the West Kowloon waterfront that brings in huge headliners as well as local talent. But it's not the only outdoor festival in Hong Kong! In a city this naturally lovely, it would be silly not to take advantage of the stunning scenery for a range of events. Here are a few I have really enjoyed:

Outlook Festival was held in north Ma On Shan in the fall. This featured many local bands, DJs, and artists, and definitely attracted some characters. By characters I mean people that were running around covered in glitter and sequins and clearly tripping balls. The location could not be beat- it was way out on a secluded piece of property in the middle of nowhere, so you felt like you were in on a secret.

Panoramic views at Outlook Festival

Beertopia is an annual craft beer festival on the Central waterfront. I love the atmosphere at this one- beer nerds from all over unite to sample and sip our way through as many beers as possible. There is a stage with fun acts to keep it lively, and you can buy a 5 or 10 beer pass. The food trucks here are slamming as well.

Temporary panda tattoos at Beertopia

Picnic in the Park in Discovery Bay is a more low-key event, but still energetic with a lot of variety. There are a couple different stages, although some more local acts like little kids from a dance studio might not interest everyone. But it's always nice to be able to sit outdoors on a blanket with friends, especially with fog covered mountains in the background!

Food stalls at Picnic in the Park

Finally, this isn't really a festival, but if you want to chill with your friends outdoors, the horse races at Happy Valley on Wednesday evenings have an energy that can't be beat. Every half hour the siren rings and the horses take off, and in between races jovial betting crowds yell and dance and crush beers. This is one of my favorite activities for people watching in Hong Kong, and it happens weekly, so you will have many opportunities to check it out.

The stadium at Happy Valley Racecourse

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Exploring My City

Visitors can be exhausting. Playing tour guide can be a drag when you have work obligations and routines and everything goes out the window. You get home in the evening and just want to sink into the couch and watch Jessica Jones for the umpteenth time in your pjs.


Every once in awhile someone comes along that reinvigorates you and inspires you to get out there and explore, renewing a sense of pride in your city and lifestyle. Seeing Hong Kong through that lens confirms what I already know deep down but mostly take for granted- this is a special place. And my guest was a special person.

Day 1 in Hong Kong- The Udderbelly Festival!

Hiking on the beautiful Dragon's Back trail

A good friend from Chicago came to visit recently, and what I thought was going to a fun weekend showing him around turned into 18 days crawling into the underbelly of this eclectic city.

Chili crab in the night market

We ate all the dumplings and noodles we could get our hands on

Australian circus? check. 2 AM reggae show on the dark side? check. Toy museum that smelled like cat piss? check. Sophisticated jazz concert? check. Island days and foot reflexology and rooftop drinks and mountain hikes? check check check check.

The bizarre ass toy museum of Yau Ma Tei

Evan has travelled onto Vietnam now, but his visit reinvigorated me and reminded me of everything I love about Hong Kong. I will probably be moving away from Hong Kong in the summer of 2017, but I’ve still got plenty of time to keep exploring the city and surrounding region.

Overcast day at Cheung Chau Island

The friendlist bridge troll there ever was

This spring, I have trips planned to El Nido, Nanjing, Taipei, and Beijing, and haven’t even decided where to go for spring break yet! Having Evan here got me so excited to hit the road. Bring it on, world!

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