Friday, March 31, 2017

the joy of a staycation: one world traveler's thoughts

Traveling is the thing to do these days, or at least that's what it seems like to me. It could be because I am an expat living in Taiwan surrounded by other expats, but I don't really think so. Much of my generation was stymied by the recession as it tried to enter the workforce, and a lot of people were left wondering: well, what now?

Half of my good friends from college ended up overseas teaching ESL, and the other half travel extensively because they sure cannot afford to do much else with their money like make a serious savings or purchase a house (and believe it or not, long term travel can be quite cheap-- we lived off $2,000 for months while backpacking through Southeast Asia when I was unemployed).

Travelling has been my thing since I was 17 years old.
I have been to Rome.

I have been to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai.
Krabi Town.
Kuala Lumpur.
Siem Reap.
Ho Chi Minh.
Hong Kong.
Oh boy have I been to Taipei.
I have been to Christchurch.

I have been to Vancouver B.C.
San Francisco.
Las Vegas.

I have been to Loch Ness.
The Scottish Highlands.
Milford Sound.
Ha Long Bay.
The Bokeo Nature Reserve.
The Pacific Ocean.
The North Sea.
The Adriatic Sea.
The Atlantic Ocean.
Mt. Shasta.
Mt. Cook.
Mt. Baker.
Mt. Rainier.
The Olympic Mountains.
The Cascade Mountains.
Guys, I have been to a lot of mountains.
I have been to the movies in Singapore.
I sailed on a boat in Thailand and America and Indonesia.
I have trekked through caves in Vietnam and Taiwan.
I have camped under a starry night sky in New Zealand and America.
I have zip lined through rugged forests in Laos and Canada.
I have had romantic dinners in Italy and France.
I have explored shrines in Japan and temples in Cambodia.
I have scooted through the mountains, countrysides, and cities of Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Canada.

I guess I can summarize all of this by saying that I have seen a lot of the world. 

But in all the hype surrounding the word travel, I think it's easy to forget-- especially wrapped up in the lifestyle of being an expat-- that there is far more to life than travelling.

Things that are equally, if not more, rewarding and fulfilling and important.
Things that cost no money.
In fact, things that money cannot buy.

Like laughter with friends.
Like having a job that leaves you feeling tired and drained, but in a good way, because you had a busy but great and meaningful day.
Like playing with a dog.
Like connecting with your family.

Over dinner with friends last night, we talked a lot about travel. And it is absolutely true that travelling still gets me pumped and excited. Just last night, I started going on and on about our travel plans for next year when Ruby will be old enough to soar the skies with us.

Our grand plan?

Thailand in winter and Iceland in summer, plus a lot of the Pacific Northwest and Taiwan thrown in the mix.
And even though the friends we dined with had a more travel packed winter break than us-- one just got back from Japan and Hong Kong and the other Cambodia-- staycations are lifestyle choices I have learned to embrace wholeheartedly.

Last winter break, we didn't leave the island so we could pay off our debt. In less than a year, we paid of $45,000 USD of student loan debt. This year, we decided not to leave the island over winter break mostly because I am pregnant and all of the locations we actually wanted to visit posed serious health risks to me and Ruby, mainly in the form of Zika or other mosquito borne diseases.

This choice also allowed us to save nearly $25,000 in a very short period of time.

And even though we didn't "go anywhere" over winter break and have no plans to over summer break, we have still managed to have a great time.
We've played with Bubu so much. It's seriously been a blast. We've hung out with dear friends and relaxed. I went on a perfect scoot adventure up into the mountains with a dear friend. We hopped on a few slow trains to explore more of Taiwan. We've taken care of some business regarding school, life, and preparing for baby. We rented youbikes and pedaled all over Hsinchu and Taipei. We drove and hiked through Taroko Gorge and Longdong. I had a sleepover at a friend's place and stayed up way too late talking and watching cartoons. And don't even get me started on all of the naps I took.

Years ago, I would have looked at three weeks spent in Taiwan over winter break and eight weeks over summer break as a waste of time. I would have preferred to travel, travel, travel. And while the desire to see as much of the world as possible still exists within me, it is not quite as urgent as it was in my 20's.

I know that we will never be those people who wait until our kid is 18 and in college to live our lives. Heck, we live in Taiwan for crying out loud! However, I also know that with all of the changes taking place, our travels will likely slow down and become more intentional and meaningful.

I sincerely hope we make it to Thailand and Iceland next year, but I also know that if for some reason we don't, we will still be having a great time together doing whatever.

Because the staycation has taught me that rarely do you need to get on an airplane to have a truly amazing vacation. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Portland's Japanese Garden

While I really did enjoy Portland's Japanese Garden, I do have to admit that it felt a little... snobby. I was sitting on a bench eating a snack (some nuts), when a worker came over to me and very rudely informed me that no eating was allowed inside the park.

Truthfully, this kinda confused me.
What kind of outdoor park bans snacking??
I just don't know.

That said, the park is gorgeous.

Maybe I was also feeling a little snobby myself after the nut incident because I kept comparing the park to the time we spent in Japan and thinking: well, I've seen better, but that could have just been the hanger talking.

If you had a limited amount of time in Portland's Washington Park, which is where both the International Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden are located, I would choose the International Rose Garden. It is free, you can snack (maybe this only matters to me at the moment because I am 33 weeks pregnant?!), and I have never seen so many beautiful roses all in one place in my life.

If you do have time to see both, do; however, leave your snacks in your purse.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

a blogging pariah

I never really got into the whole blogging scene, and trust me, there is a huge travel/expat blogging scene lurking on the Internet.

It's full of cute girls (and a random guy here and there) taking selfies in classic travel locations and writing "the ultimate guide on ___________".

I think a lot of people blog for other people.

Or popularity.
Or money.
Or affirmation.

But I just blog for me.

I like writing-- a lot-- and I want to write more than just assignment sheets for my classes and comments on my students' essays and grocery lists for my Sunday shopping excursions.

I also like taking pictures and sharing them.

Blogging is a hobby, and as far as my hobbies go, well, I take some others far more seriously-- like perfecting my homemade creamy red pepper hummus.

The truth is that I have only ever come across one blog in my life that actually, really, honestly inspired me.

Going Slowly.

I stumbled across it when I was 22 years old.

And I think it was just what I needed eight years ago to introduce me to the idea of alternative lifestyles. The lifestyle behind Going Slowly is pretty extreme: biking around the world for years and then living off the grid back in America.

While that's not my kind of alternative lifestyle, it did open my mind to the idea that I have all kinds of choices-- like the choice to live in some other random country just because I want to and can.

Recently, I've been bombarded with offers for free iphones, flights, accommodations, tours, vacation packages, etc. in exchange for blogging about this or that, but my answer is no.

I've also been contacted by professionals (a.k.a. other bloggers who are looking to make a dime or two) who want to "increase my blog traffic" or "put together a social media kit" or "rewrite a killer About Page", but my answer is a resounding no.

I work hard Monday through Friday earning my money.
And I make pretty darn good money for the work I do.
That is so not what this space is about.
Not even close.

If I am going to invest myself in any side hustle, it will be growing a rock climbing hold business with my husband.

While I could shed my pariah status and embrace the whole travel/expat blogger scene, I just have zero desire to do so.

It would tickle me to know that someone came across my blog, read it, and genuinely found something interesting or inspiring or entertaining, but I am not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

I guess I get all the validation I need on a daily basis; my husband listens to me when I drone on about this or that and at least one of my students laughs when I try to be funny.

My dog is a pretty good listener too, although I think he only listens in case I say the word "treat" or "walk".

So that is why you don't see cute little buttons on the sidebar for Instagram or Twitter or Facebook.

That's why I am not a commenting on link-up maniac.

And that is why I am not interested in promoting something in exchange for something else.

Because this blogging thing-- it's just for fun.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

life with a dog in Taiwan

We have now had Bubu for 5+ months. We found him through the rescue organization GAIR that sends dogs from Taiwan to America. Honestly, we chose the organization because it had a detailed website in English and was very responsive to our (many, many) emails. However, nothing really prepared us to welcome another living creature into our home. While Bubu has always been pretty easy and mellow, we had a few kinks to work out. Now, after five months, we are really enjoying one another and we have very few complaints. 

Here are some interesting details about having a dog in Taiwan:

the vet is super, duper cheap
We have taken Bubu to the vet multiple times. Luckily, there is a vet within a 10 minute walk from our apartment. The vets speak varying levels of English, and Bubu seems to like them as much as any dog can like its vets. The mostly female staff love Bubu and lavish him with love and treats whenever we stop by. Much like the Taiwanese health care system, you don't need an appointment. You just pop by and wait. Truthfully, since we only live 10 minutes away, we always call first to see how many people are waiting. 

We've taken Bubu in so they could look at his ear infection, show us how to clip his nails, and because we thought he had a rash on his stomach. That rash actually just happened to be his micro nipples, so that was awkward for all of us. 

Each time we've gone in, the bill has been for about $10-20 USD. The more expensive visit was when he received two medications. 

We had two cats in America, and I can tell you we had a very different price tag when leaving the vet. Now, as one of my dearest friends is a vet in America, I know it is not because the vets want to charge that much. They have to due to various factors like insurance. That is definitely not the case here though. 

Suffice it to say, having Bubu in Taiwan is much more affordable on the health care front than it will be if we move somewhere else. 

doggy day care is super, duper cheap too
In February, we sent Bubu away to YoYo's doggie day care in Taoyuan, Taiwan, a city about an hour north of where we live. We went with Yoyo's daycare because our friend had used it for her two dogs in the past. While we did not actually leave Taiwan over winter break, we did travel around the island so we needed somewhere to send Bubu. 

More importantly, though, we needed to know we could send Bubu somewhere that he didn't loathe when we leave Taiwan for our longer summer breaks in the future. Anyone who has ever looked into flying a pet overseas knows it is expensive and not something to be taken lightly, especially considering Taiwan's rabies free status. 

Essentially, there is no way we are ever putting Bubu on an airplane until we leave Taiwan for good. 

I think sending Bubu away was harder on me than it was on him. Yoyo's has cameras literally all over the property. At any time, I could log on to its secure server and see Bubu. I watched him play with other dogs (in his awkward Bubu way) when they are let outside to play three times a day for a total of three hours. I watched him eat. I even watched him sleep. 

Yeah, I am one of those dog moms. 
But guys, I seriously love my dog. 

Bubu was gone for a total of 7 nights and 8 days. Yoyo's drove a total of four hours picking him up and dropping him off because we have no car. The total cost for everything? $150 USD. I can only imagine what the fee would have been in America! 

many Taiwanese people are skeptical of dogs
There are a lot of stray dogs in Taiwan. A lot. So much so, it actually disgusts me. For all Taiwan does right, it really does some things wrong-- like taking care of creatures. 

I think a lot of people grow up in Taiwan fearful of dogs because of the strays. Their parents probably tell them to be cautious and afraid. Frankly, I find this absurd. Most Taiwanese street dogs are perfectly harmless. In fact, in the five years that I have lived here, I have only had one experience with an aggressive street dog, and all I had to do was lunge at it before it ran away with its tail in between its legs. 

When I take Bubu for a walk, many people will actively avoid us at all costs. For example, if we are walking toward someone on the sidewalk, usually that person will walk in the road to avoid getting too close to Bubu when we pass. 

You know, because Bubu is obviously a terrifying beast with the intent to do everyone great harm. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

experiencing pregnancy in Taiwan

I am literally bursting at the seams I am so excited to meet my kid! I am 30+ weeks pregnant, so we have about nine weeks to go before Ruby makes her grand entrance into the world. We now have a lot of baby things in our apartment like a crib, changing table, baby bathtub, and a lot of really, really cute baby clothes, but we still have a fair amount to do still like buy a car seat, stroller, and carrier and try to figure out how the heck we want to set up our apartment for both the arrival of Ruby and my mother who will be staying with us for 10 weeks starting in early May.

A lot of people have been asking me questions about how Taiwan deals with pregnancy. While I still do not consider myself and expert on this matter, this is what I can tell you:


maternity leave
I just crossed my t's and dotted my i's on my maternity and parental leave paperwork. What am I entitled to here? As a teacher, I get paid August to July of each school year. This year, despite the fact I will take my leave starting on April 21st, 2017, I will still receive full compensation for the months of April, May, June, and July. Then, I will receive partial compensation (I am expecting a little more than $600 USD per month) during my parental leave, which I will take August, September, October, November, December, January, and part of February. I am actually entitled to 3 years of parental leave; however, because of our savings aspirations, I will only use 6.5 months of it. I am able to claim these benefits because I work for the Taiwanese government essentially; after all, I am a public school teacher. I know other foreigners who are entitled to much less because they work for private schools or businesses. I count myself very lucky to get to experience the same benefits as the average Taiwanese citizens because they are so much more than what most American women in my shoes receive back home.
healthcare costs
In the first and second trimester, I saw the doctor every four weeks. Now that I am in the third trimester, I see the doctor every two weeks. In around 5 weeks, I will see him every week. Since Taiwan has national health insurance, the fees are ridiculously low. Our co-pay to see the doctor is 150NTD, which is less than $5 USD, and it is the only fee we pay at each visit.

At every appointment, I get a urine test for protein and sugar, an ultrasound, and a consultation with my OBGYN. We have been so lucky; I am in my 7th month of pregnancy and we have gotten to see little miss Ruby 7 times. It is always the best part of our month! Further, I have had extensive blood work done on multiple occasions. The only thing we had to pay for in addition to the co-pay was the optional blood test for possible birth defects or conditions. That cost us less than $30 USD. I have had multiple prescriptions too for medications to help with heartburn, pain relief, and insomnia, all of which were free and completely covered by my health insurance. Most families, local or foreign, with national health insurance end up paying less than $200 USD after a 3-5 day hospital stay for an uncomplicated child birth.

Crunching the numbers, it is far, far, far cheaper to have our baby here in Taiwan than back in America, especially considering we don't have any health care at all in America.

The only complaint I have? The baby of two foreign parents won't receive health insurance for the first six months of its life. This was also true for Sean when we first arrived since he was not working. For regular baby wellness check ups, this is fine. The cost will still be ridiculously low, most likely between $10 - $20 USD. However, if there is any kind of serious complication or NICU stay after birth, costs could skyrocket. We have saved $20,000+ in the past few months just in case anything happens out of the ordinary. Still, the cost would be hundreds of thousands of dollars less than any hospital bill would be in America for complications or an NICU stay, especially given the fact that neither Sean nor I have health insurance in America.
seeing the OBGYN
Because Taiwan has national health care, the system is organized differently than it is in America. Here, I visit my OBGYN at the hospital. The hospital is not like a hospital in America. The hospital is where all kinds of doctors have their offices and practices. The OBGYN and infant care is on the second floor of the hospital along with the dermatology department. Of course, hospitals still serve as a place for surgeries and emergencies, but that is not their sole function.

I am enrolled in an automated system that makes my appointments for me at the right time. I am given a date and number. I chose to enroll in my hospital's evening clinic, which opens at 5:30pm and goes until 8:30 pm. We usually head to the hospital around 6p.m. and leave by 8-8:30p.m.

First, I take the urine test. Then, I record my own weight and blood pressure. After completing those three tasks, I register with the nurse. I show her those three items, and she prepares my file. She then gives me a number. I drop off my number and paperwork with the ultrasound technician. We usually wait around 20 minutes. When my number is up, we head back to the ultrasound room. We share a room with three other women who are all separated by curtains. Sean is allowed to come in. We usually spend 10-15 minutes in the ultrasound room and are given a picture. The ultrasound tech always walks us through what she is looking at and measuring (and yes, she does it in English). We are then sent to the doctor with our picture. We knock on the doctor's door and leave the picture with the doctor's secretary. We then usually wait 20-30 minutes until the secretary calls my name. Then, we meet with the OBGYN. Depending on how many questions we have, we spend anywhere from 15-30 minutes with him. Then we leave after the automated system schedules our next appointment and after we paid our 150NTD co-pay.

It's definitely a little more complicated than going to the doctor's in America, but we still receive quality care for a ridiculously low fee. I do feel the need to point out that every employed Taiwanese person pays into the system, including us. However, monthly, we each lose about $50 USD from our paycheck for healthcare.

I still cannot wrap my mind around how humane and well the system works!
Taiwanese attitude towards pregnancy
Here, people treat pregnant women pretty darn well. I have random people clap their hands when they see my belly, and strangers at the mall or on the metro are rude to others if they don't give their seat to me. There is priority seating practically everywhere in Taiwan-- in any waiting area, on trains and metros, at malls and restaurants-- and people are really good about making sure the seats are open for the elderly, injured, or pregnant women.


While I am not going to say that my pregnancy has been a walk in the park, I will say that it was relatively easy to figure out what to do in Taiwan as an expat. At first I was really overwhelmed, but now the system seems normal and easy to manage. I still have a few anxieties about giving birth, but I don't think a single one of them has to do with the fact that I will be doing it in Taiwan. 

Spending an entire pregnancy in a foreign country can be a bit overwhelming. I am lucky that in Taiwan pregnancy is very affordable and not looked at as an inconvenience by my employer. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

a birthday at Longdong

Last Saturday, we headed back to Longdong for Sean's 32nd birthday. What a lucky boy! Two trips to Longdong in less than one month. It's kinda a chore to get to Longdong. It includes an early morning scoot to the high speed rail station, a train, a bus, and a walk, but it is also Sean's absolute favorite place to climb, so it's worth it.

It was only one year ago that we visited Longdong for the first time (to celebrate Sean's 31st birthday). Since then, we've been back four times. This time, since I am almost 30 weeks pregnant, my friend and I spent most of our time exploring the Longdong Cape Trail instead of climbing up and down giant rocks at the waterfront.

While short, the Longdong Cape Trail is beautiful. It has great scenes of mountain and ocean and, when we happened to go, was also full of huge, beautiful butterflies.

While I think most of my weekend adventures like this one are winding down until baby comes in 10 weeks, it sure was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon (even if I did have to spend all of Sunday on the couch recovering from Saturday)!