Monday, December 29, 2014

a year in review: 2014's most memorable travel moments

Dear 2014,

Where did you go?




Okay, but seriously, this year has gone by in the blink of an eye!
It's hard to believe that in four weeks we will be heading off to New Zealand because I can so acutely remember floating in the pool in Bali last Chinese New Year stating to Sean + our friends: let's go to New Zealand next Chinese New Year!
And, suddenly, the year is over and here we are.

While our 2014 did include some great travel experiences, for us the year was so much more than that.
It was about going home after two long years away.
It was about reaching goals like Sean finishing classes and me deciding I was going to finally do what I wanted to do and start running and learning the ins and outs of photography.
It was about planning for our future and deciding to stay in Taiwan for one more year.
It was about self improvement and hard work and, as always, enjoying the heck out of each other and our friends.

That said, since this is my travel blog and we had some pretty epic travel moments, it was certainly also about monkeys in Bali, anniversaries in Canada, beautiful moments in Taiwan, and a homecoming in America.

So here are my most memorable travel moments of 2014:

Bali + Rouge Monkeys
Have you ever heard of the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali in Indonesia? It's a real place. This "Sacred Monkey Forest" swallowed up ancient Hindu temples over the course of some hundred years and is now home to some of the worst behaved monkeys in the whole, wide world!

While the concept of a Sacred Money Forest is intriguing, the reality is a whole different story. What I actually expected, I have no idea. Probably something along the lines of ancient Hindu temples covered in foliage, kind of like Angkor Wat. That part was true enough. And I guess I expected cute, docile, amusing monkeys. How wrong I was! I definitely did not expect them to be little thieving terrors!
These monkeys were aggressive and rude. At one point in time, I had to shove my entire purse down the front of my shirt as a huge, mean, bully of a monkey contemplated tearing off my shirt to garner the prize of my purse, which contained nothing more than my wallet and some lip gloss. What Mr. Monkey thought he would do with those items, I don't know. It even got worse! My poor husband was actually nibbled on my a monkey and had to get a series of rabies shots.

One critical lesson of 2014? Monkeys = bad news.

Victoria B.C. + Anniversaries
This year marked our five year wedding anniversary. As a treat, my mother paid for us to stay in a fabulous hotel in Victoria. B.C. and we got to spend a weekend enjoying the many delights of this Canadian city.

Victoria is one of my favorite places on earth, and one reason is because I can take an old fashioned ferry to get there. Riding the Coho, the ferry that services the route between Port Angeles, Washington and Victoria, B.C., is always a special experience.
The ferry crosses the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which is lined with beautiful mountains. It's a popular shipping route out to the Pacific Ocean so big container boats also frequently pass by. On the day we went to Victoria, it was a perfectly clear Pacific Northwest summer day. The sun was shining, the sky was azure, and the air was crisp and cool.If you have never been to the sea before, I am not sure you will know what I mean when I say the air smelled delicious. It was salty and fresh and to me the smell means home.

While on the Coho, we bought hot chocolates from the galley and played cards. We went outside and let our hair get windswept. We held hands and admired the beautiful place we call home. Hands down, this was one of my best days of the entire year.

Taiwan + Indescribable Moments
Pure beauty. That was the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Every February, in Taiwan, there is this magnificent festival in a small mountain village. On a bitter cold and stormy winter night, my husband and I headed off on an adventure.

It took a scooter, a train, a metro, a cab, and a bus to reach the small Taiwanese village of Pingxi. In the process, we got soaked by the deluge and were frozen from the wind. Regardless, we pushed onward with smiles, waiting to see something unspeakably beautiful.
The rain did not dampen our moods. We waited in the crowd and watched the first lantern release. It would suddenly go quiet, all the lights would dim, and then hundreds of illuminated lanterns would ascend into the sky. Scribbled on them were well wishes for the new year.

Witnessing this was so profound we had to get our own lantern. So we set off to choose one and write our messages. Most were for our families: that they would find peace and comfort. Some were for us: that we would have adventures and continued love and more success.

I like to think our wishes came true.

This year, absolutely nothing beat going home. We were in Asia for two years in a row without any escape trip off the continent. Trust me, it was a long two years. I love Asia and I love Taiwan but I needed some good old America.

When our plane landed in Seattle, I almost burst into tears. The sun was just starting to set over the mountains and the Puget Sound was basking in this warm, pink glow. We got to spend eight whole weeks with friends and family and it was a magical time.
Getting to spend so much time with my mom was heaven. Getting to see beloved friends and dogs: heaven. Getting to eat real bacon and donuts, you guessed it: heaven. Same thing with the hiking and beach strolls and Target shopping extravaganzas.

Taiwan + Extending Contracts
Oh Taiwan, how I love you. This year, you and I became even closer friends. I think I finally figured out how to dress appropriately for your bipolar weather. I think I finally figured out where to shop for everything I need to make all of my favorite dishes from home. I think I finally figured out how to navigate the immense cultural differences at work.

And I think I finally learned how to say more than five phrases in Chinese.
The last few months have been strained while we tried to decide what to do next year: stay or go. But in the end, we just weren't ready to leave. We love you Taiwan. We love our apartment. We love our scooters. We love our little Hsinchu. We love our friends. And we love this little country.

So we will spend one more year together.


So that was our 2014.

As for 2015? 

Stay tuned!

In four weeks, we are heading off on an epic, three week road trip through New Zealand with a popover in South Korea! 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

in the spotlight: a reluctant wallflower

I have always kind of been a wallflower. I know that may make some people who know me really well laugh out loud, but it's actually the absolute truth.

I am shy and awkward around people I don't know, and I don't like a lot of attention.

This is one aspect of expat life that I still struggle with daily.  In Taiwan, I stick out like a sore thumb. I get so much attention, and I have no idea how to deal with it or get over the massive amounts of discomfort I experience because of it.

Just the other day, we were eating dinner at one of my favorite restaurants ever: Din Tai Fung. The tables are close together to maximize room (because, let's face it, I think DTF is a lot of people's favorite restaurant ever), and the two women sitting beside us would not stop staring at me. They were completely without shame either. I made pretty serious eye contact with them at least twice, but they were not deterred. In fact, they didn't even look away and pretend they weren't looking at me when I glared at them. They proceeded to stare and talk about us as we ate for nearly the entire time. 

I have to tell you, I am weird about some things, and this is one of those things, but please show me a person who would like to be stared at and talked about while trying to eat slippery dumplings and fried rice with chopsticks when chopsticks are not his or her utensil of choice for such a complex dining experience??

Their blatant lack of respect for my desire to eat with some semblance of privacy made me so angry and in some ways humiliated because I don't have it in me not to wonder what they are saying/laughing about. It was the only time I have ever been to DTF and did not enjoy it.

Maybe I am overly sensitive, but that is not something I can change. I have never really been comfortable in the spotlight. I like being a wallflower. In my experience, wallflowers are not stared at and discussed in great and enthusiastic detail while trying to eat dinner. 

Everyday, something similar happens to me.
I am learning that it's not always entirely bad, though.

The other night, I was out running. For those of you who don't know, I got a wild hair this fall and decided that I would become more serious about running (meaning, I can now run three whole miles. Impressive, I know). I went out one night this week to challenge myself to run my fastest mile yet.
And I did. For a short, chubby girl, I totally kicked butt, but I noticed that every time I would lap this old couple, they would turn their heads and watch me come and go.

They did not do this for any of the other (numerous) runners on the track, only for me. Running is another one of those times I do not like being in the spotlight, which is precisely the reason why I choose to go at nighttime.  When I finally crossed the finish line, I had to walk two laps huffing and puffing. I was emitting a terrible choking/wheezing sound, and I am sure I looked a complete mess.
I mean, I did just run my guts out, but when the elderly couple caught up to me, they gave me a little round of applause. 

And, I have to admit, that was nice.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

our first (charlie brown) tree

Say hello to our first ever Christmas tree.
We bought it at a Taiwanese hardware store for less than $10 USD.
All of the ornaments were less than $1 each and had Made in China stamped on them.
Regardless, I love our little, cheap, made-in-Asia Christmas tree.

Some people have a hard time believing that we have never had a Christmas tree before. Yes, we have been together 10 years, living together seven, married five, but we have spent most of our holidays overseas. We spent a Christmas in Venice and a Christmas in Singapore. We have spent a few in Taiwan, and the others at mom's of course!

This year, though, we scooted past the hardware store on the way home from dinner and saw this Charlie Brown Christmas tree and thought: that is meant to be ours. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

the work of temple bedazzlers

Last weekend, I stumbled across this temple.
It is obviously undergoing some work.
And it made me do a double take because, well, I have never seen a naked temple before.
I am so used to their ornate appearance that at first my mind could not comprehend that, beneath it all, temples are just like every other building in Taiwan: cement + drab + ugly.

And what a juxtaposition this one is; half is bared for the whole world to see and the other half is still clad in colorful tiles and intricate artwork.
Seeing this temple made me appreciate even more these marvelous pieces of artwork.
I mean, just look at what amazing temple bedazzlers are able to do with a huge cement skeleton:

Amazing, right?! 
I know. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

my taiwan: my top 10 expat posts

We have been living in Taiwan going on three years now.
And we just signed a contract for one more year.
To celebrate, I am highlighting some of my favorite expat posts.

Some will make you laugh and others may make you shake your head in confusion.
We have come a long way in our expat adventure.
And three years into this adventure, we still have days of wonder, merriment, extreme culture shock, and lingering confusion.

So here are my expat highlights:

Taiwanese Baseball Insanity
It may sound ludicrous but the first time I felt like I ever truly understood what it meant to be Taiwanese was when I went to my first Taiwanese baseball game. It was total pandemonium. Up until this game, I had a very limited perspective of the average Taiwanese person: quiet, respectful, non-confrontational, happy. Then, bam! This was a game changer. I saw the other side: obnoxious, over the top, passionate, don't *%@# with my team!

My Love Affair with my Scooter
When we first moved to Taiwan, I had only ridden a scooter two other times: in Thailand and in Canada. Both times were in remote areas. Suffice it to say, I was ill prepared for the reality of relying solely on a scooter for transportation. The streets of Taiwan are congested with cars, trucks, over sized buses, and thousands of scooters. As an added bonus, there are flashing, neon lights stacked all the way up super tall buildings. Riding a scooter in Taiwan is truly like being sucked into a motocross video game. See that car aiming for you? Quickly veer to the left to avoid it. See that scooter that is going to pull into traffic despite the fact there is literally no room for it? Slam on the brakes pronto! Despite all of that, or perhaps because of all of that, I freakin' love riding my scooter around town.

A Welcome Home, Taiwan Style
Nothing says welcome back to Taiwan more than these dragon covered temples. Or maybe I just appreciated my welcome home from this temple more than the welcome home we got from our apartment. Over summer, we were in the states for more than eight weeks. Apparently, that was sufficient time for all of our utilities to be turned off, which we discovered upon our arrival back in Hsinchu, you know, when it was a billion degrees and humid outside. Power? Water? Who needs things like AC and showers? Most of the time, we like to think we manage our daily affairs alright despite the immense language barrier. However, having to locate each office and communicate our issue and sort out payments and times for people to pop over to connect things turned out to be a huge undertaking and a few days.

Sometimes, being an expat forces you to humiliate yourself. Like that time, for example, I had to ask a coworker to write it burns when I pee on a post it note so I could bring it to the clinic and show the doctor who only speaks Chinese. Sometimes, bring an expat forces you to reveal TMI to people who probably would like to remain ignorant of your medical woes.

Pole Dancing in Rush Hour Traffic
Months and months later, this still tickles me. This was the scene outside of my school last spring. You see, a mother felt the lottery system for admittance into my school was unfair so she hired pole dancers, who dance on top of moving jeeps, to put on a real show in front of my K-12 school as a form of protest. Taiwanese people are extremely non-confrontational. I suppose the mother thought it was better to have strippers make her point rather than go to the office herself.

Ugly - Pretty
It took me a while to appreciate Taiwan as a whole. A lot of days, all I could think was: how ugly! Because, honestly, a lot of Taiwan is hard on the eye. But I have learned how to spot the pretty, in nature and in culture. Taiwan is a land of great contrast but I have come to a place where I can appreciate the beauty it does offer.

Up on the Roof
One major adjustment we had to make after moving to Taiwan was dealing with a lack of space. Taiwan, especially on the west coast, is densely populated and very cramped. We are from the Pacific Northwest. We always had a yard and a back yard and empty places we could wander like forests and beaches. Here, not so much. Instead, we have claimed our rooftop. No one ever goes up there so when we need to get out of the apartment but we don't actually want to go out out, we simply go up. We especially like to go to the roof at night time. We like to observe Taiwan's crazy light pollution and every now and again catch a glimpse of the stars.

Typhoon Preparation
We have experienced two pretty major typhoons since moving to Taiwan. The first typhoon knocked a tree through our bedroom window, flooded our apartment, and caused electrical damage in our bathroom. It was a pretty interesting experience, especially considering is happened three days after we first moved to Taiwan. That said, our second typhoon was a real treat because we only learned of its imminent threat hours before it hit and therefore every single store was sold out of necessities like bottled water and batteries. We survived the storm just fine eating chocolate and drinking wine though.

Moving Day, Taiwan Style
That's us, moving everything we own in Taiwan from our first apartment, which was located on my school's campus, to our current apartment, which is about a five minute scoot away. You will be surprised to note that despite going out in rush hour traffic on a major roadway, not one single thing fell from either of our scooters and we successfully moved everything from point A to point B.

Cobras on the Loose
I found this letter on my desk at work one spring day and sat down and started crying. I was horrified. I had researched all of Taiwan's numerous deadly snakes prior to moving to Taiwan and even went so far as to purchase snake boots from REI, which protect hikers' feet from snake bites. To discover that Chinese Cobras were slithering around my work place, which also happened to be where I lived, was too much to bear. I took a flashlight with me everywhere and literally contemplated not going outside for a few days.

It was hard to choose just 10 of my favorite expat posts, but I love these ones because they show so many elements of our expat life. There have been really amazing ups and some pretty severe downs. That said, I am totally ready for one more year of Taiwan and all it has up its sleeve for us! 

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler link up! Check out the blog Pack Me To for more fun travel stories + photography! 

Monday, November 17, 2014

seasons of sacrifice + perspective

When it rains, it pours.

Sometimes, this is true.
The more life experiences I accumulate, the more I realize life comes in seasons.
Some seasons of life are joyous.
And others... not so much.
Currently, we find ourselves in the latter. 

We are in a season of stalled change.

Sean is almost done with school. 
We are almost ready to take our next big step: moving countries and moving schools so we can both teach and work and make money. 

Almost is trying our patience. 

We have been lingering in this season of life for two years now. 
We can see the end in sight and are growing impatient to get there and reap the rewards of moving on to something bigger and better.

We are in a season of homesickness.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are around the corner.

But for the third year in a row, we will be separated from our loved ones.
And, to add insult to injury, I will be working.

I can tell you there are fewer things more bizarre than "celebrating" Christmas in a predominately Buddhist country by eating a feast provided by your students' parents composed of Costco pizza, Chinese food and bubble tea. 

While we have made a family of friends here in Taiwan, nothing quite compares to my parents' house illuminated with Christmas lights and the smell of my mother's turkey dinner baking in the oven.

We are in a season of anniversaries and new beginnings, witnessed from afar.

December 10 is the anniversary of my dad's death. I am taking the day off so Sean and I can spend the day remembering my father and continuing to process his entirely unexpected death. Most likely, we will scoot up into the hillside and simply enjoy being outside. That is something my dad would enjoy. 

December 8, my mother moves out of the house she and my dad built. It is the absolute right choice but I long to help her pack up the house. I wish I could walk through it one last time. When I left this summer, I didn't even look back. It didn't really occur to me there would not be one more chance to do so.

November 20, my brother is getting married. I will be there via Skype. I'll take what I can get but I'll tell you I sure wish it was more.

We are in a season of having very little.

My student loan payment.
Sean's tuition and books and test fees.
Saving for New Zealand.
Bills + groceries + gas.

Suffice it to say, we have very little left over at the end of the month.
So little, we have not left Hsinchu since we got back in August. 
Usually, we would go to Taipei every other weekend or so but not now.

We made choices, great choices I do not regret to pursue a degree for Sean and explore the world, and we have been living with the consequences of those choices for more than one year now. 
This is just life, and we know that.
And we know one day, this will change.
But we are feeling the squeeze.

We are so ready to be financially freer. 

We are lingering in a season of sacrifice.
And we are trying to keep appropriate perspective.

How lucky are we to be in a position where we can actually afford to pay off my loans and send Sean to school and still get to travel and see the world?!

How lucky are we to have family we adore and miss terribly and wish we could spend more time with?

How lucky are we that my brother is happy and getting married and my mom was able to sell her house quickly?

How lucky are we that we have friends we love here who we get to celebrate the holiday seasons with and share our ups and downs with?

Even when it pours, there is still a silver lining somewhere up in those storm clouds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

life, in five words

Taiwan takes midterms very seriously. Elementary kids take midterms. So do my 8th graders. This week, I've had 60 English midterms to grade, 60 social studies midterms to grade and 60 short stories (mystery or science fiction) to grade. My palm has turned red, the color of this pen, because I have spent most of my waking hours with it clutched in my hand.

This man is my hero, seriously. Today, he woke up and went to work for me so I could sleep in, lounge around our apartment, take a bubble bath, read for fun, make scones, and then tackle some grading after having some down time first. Guys, this means he went and subbed for my middle school language arts and social studies classes. That's true love. He willingly spent time with my 8th graders, who I love dearly but I also know are rather...spirited, so I could have a break. Seriously, after 10 years, he stills finds ways to reel me in deeper and deeper.

We are considering moving to another Asian country for the 2015-2016 school year. So far, no official job offer has been made but we have interviewed for positions and should know sooner rather than later if we got the jobs. This is huge. We had no intention of actually leaving Taiwan this year but this opportunity was too good to pass up (if it actually pans out). I will save the finer details for later if we are offered the jobs, but I will tell you two things: one, it will make you scratch your head and wonder if we're sane and two, it will be one amazing adventure.

In 85 days, we are heading to New Zealand for three weeks with our good friends. So far, we only have our airfare. Originally, we were going to rent a huge camper van but due to cost, that won't happen. Now, we will mostly likely rent a small car and stay in cheaper hotels. This is definitely something that needs our attention as this time will fly by and we will be heading out before we know it!

I am in love with this soup. I tried it for the first time recently and, seriously, for 15NT (or 50 cents), it's amazing! I could eat this every single day for lunch. Its discovery was so welcome and amazing it definitely warrants a spot on my list, alongside major things like maybe moving and epic trips. That's how good it is.

What about you? What are your 5 words?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

stitch fix: a lifesaver, maybe

Like any woman, I have struggled with periods of insecurity regarding my body. But I have come to a point in my life where I can accept myself and not think of my body as something to fix or hide or shame. 
Gasp, I even think I am beautiful.
But that doesn't mean that dressing my uber petite, size 12 body doesn't frustrate me. 
It really, really does.
Especially in Taiwan, where nearly every single woman is a size 0 and clothing simply does not exist for women who look like me, except for at Big Girl stores, which I refuse to frequent as I find them ostracizing and demeaning. 
So for the last three years, I have had to buy every single stitch of clothing online and have it shipped to Taiwan.
We can all understand the perils of that: how am I supposed to know what will fit + look good?
Some stuff works great, but a lot (too much, actually) of the stuff I buy sits in my closet because it's too tight, too loose, too short, too long, etc.

Then, a friend mentioned Stitch Fix and I had an ah-ha moment.
Stitch Fix is an online shopping service for women. 
Customers fill out a detailed style survey and order a fix, or shipment. Within that shipment are five items personally chosen for you by a stylist according to your fashion survey, body type, and any other additional information you provide your stylist with such as a Pinterest fashion board
What I love about this is that the responsibility to get things right is on someone else.
I gave my stylist my size in measurements, so chances are my skirts + dresses + shirts will fit a lot better than when I order a size 12 and hope all size 12s are magically the same. 
I told my stylist that I hate baggy, shapeless tops, so chances are I won't get one by accident because I had no idea the top was pinned on the model in the picture. 
I told my stylist that I have a short torso and really rounded hips, so chances are she'll think twice about what does and does not make it into my box. 
Truth: I want clothes that look awesome on my body.
Who doesn't?

And since I cannot go to a mall in order to make that happen, I am excited that I now have a possible option for getting the most possible out of my extreme online shopping (the last thing I want to do is ship something from Taiwan back to the US). 
I cannot wait to tell you if Stitch Fix is a hit or not, but I am crossing my fingers that is it! My first fix should arrive sometime in December and I will definitely keep you posted! 

If interested, check out Stitch Fix for yourself! 

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler link up!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

the reality of being a working expat

Today, during some down time at school, a friend and I were talking about life as a working expat. We chuckled because a lot of our friends and family back home imagine that we are off on this grand adventure and long term vacation Yes, some days we are on an amazing adventure, but Monday through Friday, my life could take place in any country or in any city around the world.

It matters not one lick that it happens in Taiwan.

My life as a working expat is remarkably like my life was as a teacher in America.
I wake up at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, get dressed, go to work from 7:20 until 4:10, go home, sit on the couch for a bit, make dinner, do the dishes, go for a jog, watch a movie, and then collapse into bed and do it all again the next day.

That sounds pretty exotic, right, but that's the truth.
I know some unemployed expats both in real life and from the blogging world who have a lot more freedom to fill their days however they please, and maybe they do feel like they are on a grand adventure most of the time, but that is not my reality.

Part of our decision to move to Taiwan was the belief that it would be a wise economic investment, and it has been, but that means that I have to go work, which eats up most of my time, and therefore a lot of my life as well.

Some days, I am fine with that. Other days, I struggle with the feeling that I am missing out on something because I have to carefully plan and schedule my adventures in Taiwan in order to make them happen at all. Otherwise, I could easily live and work here and miss out on most of it.

I would love it if every day I could wake up whenever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. Then, I imagine I would have done a lot more on my Taiwan To Do List. However, as I think is the case for many working expats, I have to consider it good enough to get through the work week and then have some adventures over the weekend in between grocery shopping and Skype chats with family and loads of laundry.

Sometimes, the best I can do to appreciate and experience my host country is admire the little ornate temple crammed in between two ugly apartment buildings while driving back home from grocery shopping.