In the Holy Land – Israel & Palestine, Dec. ’17/Jan. ’18

Howdy folks! (TL;DR: I&P pics here!)

Emily and I spent one and a half months in “the Holy Land,” primarily in Israel, with about one one week spent in the West Bank.

This was my fourth time in this part of the world, and Emily’s first. I was eager to get back to my “first” foreign country, Emily was excited to see what the hell I had been talking about since 2012, and we were both stoked to get a break the heat and humid of East/SE Asia.

And what a break we got! The weather in Israel and Palestine made us feel like we were already back home in a California winter – sometimes wet, often windy, but sunshine more often than not. The similarities didn’t end there, but they were cheek-and-jowl with fantastic differences in food, language, culture, and history.

Emily’s write-up about our time in Israel is a fantastic read for the more emotional side of our trip there. But for some lovely pictures of Tel Aviv street life, the Old City of Jerusalem, the difficult realities of Hebron, and the gorgeous north…click on the link above.

We’re back home in California already, believe it or not, but pictures aren’t done yet! Be on the lookout for pics from Paris very soon.

With love,




By Emily* (with Ethan Stan’s editing skills)

*I originally wrote this while in Hebron, but waited a few weeks to post.

I’m not really sure how to start this post because there’s so many ways to start. I can start with the good – the hospitality, the food, the views – and lead into the bad, but ending this post on a sad note will probably enhance the feelings of hopelessness. Conversely, starting with the bad may discourage anyone from reading far enough to get to the good. But when it comes down to it, I just need to start writing this down, sharing this experience with my friends and family, because so many Palestinians asked me to.


Quiet street in Tel Aviv


Our first week in the region was spent in Tel Aviv, which Ethan and I immediately started comparing to San Francisco. Other than it’s coastal vibe and presence of many overpriced coffee shops, however, Tel Aviv had a feeling of safety and cleanliness I hadn’t expected. We saw families everywhere we went, enjoyed beautiful parks and greenways, and socialized with our Israeli friends often.


Ethan in the Old City of Jerusalem

From there, we headed to Jerusalem – a whole different kettle of fish. The Old City astounded me with its maze of streets and alleys, where turning every corner would bring you face to face with a holy site. After all, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock are housed within the Old City’s walls – not to mention countless churches, temples, fountains, archaeological discoveries, etc. And other than one quick checkpoint to enter the plaza near the Western Wall, I didn’t really feel the tension that had been so prevalent in every conversation I’d had about Jerusalem. But that changed when we went to Bethlehem, and even more so in Hebron.

Like most tourists to this region, I’m absolutely unqualified to talk about the politics and problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I’ve been privileged enough not to know anyone directly affected, and like most Americans, a lot of what I do know about “the Middle East” is flavored with mass media sound bites and overheard conversations between passionate debaters (not necessarily those involved in the conflicts themselves, of course). I was raised Catholic – no longer practicing – so I could at least relate to the religious issues and histories in the region. But even that in itself is distant, because being religious in the United States is pretty different (almost entirely different) than being religious here. So I’ve spent the last week and a half talking to people, trying to hear their perspective and trying to keep an open mind (which isn’t easy for a stubborn and opinionated individual like myself).



On Christmas Eve, Ethan and I hopped on a bus to Bethlehem to check out the Church of the Nativity and the local festivities. We were dropped off outside a military checkpoint, with giant concrete walls extending upwards, topped with barbed wire. After wandering around in confusion, we found the entrance point, and handed over our passports for visa clearance before entering the city. It was hard not to wonder whether Jesus would have still been born in a manger if these had been in place at the time – more likely, today’s Nativity scenes would just be pictures of Mary and Joseph holding a child next to a graffitied wall. When we entered, we only found more walls and unmarked roads, which got us lost for about an hour before we found the way into town. The Palestinian side of the wall is famous for its extensive and beautiful graffiti art – apparently a Bansky is hidden there somewhere – as well as written pleas for peace and tolerance between Israel and Palestine. From the walls, we heard voices coming from down the road – and most bizarrely, a band of bagpipes.

Hundreds (if not thousands) of people had gathered for the Christmas Eve parade and religious ceremonies at the Church of the Nativity. High school bands, Christian leaders, local organizations, and local people marched from the north of the city to the Church, and we followed in their wake. (We later found out there were two bands of bagpipes, which both offends and confuses me). While quite a few tourists like us were present – we made a wonderful friend, Snjezana from Bosnia, along the way – most of the crowd were Palestinian Christians. While wandering the streets after leaving the parade route, we found the Milk Grotto Church (a monument to a story about Mary and Jesus not mentioned in the Bible) and browsed at the numerous souvenir shops. Once the festivities had subsided, we went into the Church of the Nativity. I was floored by the architecture (no pun intended) and the decorations in the church; gold, incense, and magnificent stones covered every visible surface. Ethan and Snjezana waited in line to go under the altar, where the supposed birthplace of Jesus is located, but I waited in the main area to people-watch.


Plaza outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The rest of Bethlehem was filled with Palestinian soldiers with guns on nearly every street (I assume more were there due to the rigamarole) but the Church of the Nativity held mostly tourists, families, and fatigued church personnel. When we exited, the weather had gotten particularly cold, so Ethan and I bid Snjezana goodbye and headed off to find a bus back to Jerusalem. We managed to find a bus, but only a few minutes down the road, we were once again stopped at a checkpoint.

Israeli soldiers boarded to look at everyone’s passports, and they barely glanced at Ethan and me before turning their attention to an Arab-looking man behind us. He showed them his documents, but they threatened to take him off the bus for more questions. What followed was about 30 seconds of tension – the man refused to get up, saying (in Hebrew) what we could only imagine was either an insistence of his rights or an insistence of how unnecessary it was. After a bit of back-and-forth, they left – and that was the first time I witnessed racial profiling at the borders. We began to wonder about our upcoming trip to Hebron.


The view from Yad Vashem

On Christmas Day, we decided to do something less than festive – we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I was blown away by the museum for many reasons – the staggering number of artifacts they saved, the detailed information at every exhibit, the personal interviews with Holocaust survivors. It was also incredibly effective at making the case for Israel – after such a tragedy, didn’t the Jewish people deserve a land of their own? The museum exhibits end with a video of the first Israeli president, David Ben-Gurion, declaring the state of Israel in 1948, with a recording of children singing the Israeli national anthem played over it. It’s absolutely compelling, and many of the arguments and emotions swirling around the Yad Vashem buildings run parallel to American beliefs, offering an explanation as to why we’ve supported Israel for so long (that, and the fact that the US has the second-largest Jewish population in the world after Israel).


View of Hebron from the center

On December 26th, we set out from Jerusalem to Hebron. We knew it would be difficult to find a direct route, but we managed to find a bus to Bethlehem, then a “servis” (taxi van) to Hebron. We didn’t hit any checkpoints – not by design, but that did make the journey more efficient. We got dropped off near one of the main markets in the city, in the Muslim/Palestinian (hereafter [possibly unfairly] equated) area of town. While wandering the streets in search of our AirBnB, we were frequently greeted with “Hello” and “Where are you from?” and “Welcome to Hebron!” Initially skeptical that someone was trying to sell us something, we soon realized that the greetings were genuine – people in Hebron are truly glad that tourists come to their side of town. Of course, within our first ten minutes of walking, we had this exchange with a local:

Man: “Hello! Welcome! Where you from?”

Us: “Hello! Thank you, California.”

Man: “Oh, Americans… What you think of Trump?”

Us: “[with thumbs down] Very bad, no good.”

Man: “Shit, yeah, fucking Trump.”

Emily: “Fuck Trump!” (Ethan is too polite to yell politically-charged curse words in a foreign country, I guess).

Man: “Yeah!”

This exchange has been repeated about eight times in the past two days, with various locals. One thing many Californians and Palestinians have in common is a intense dislike of the current American president. (The other thing we have in common is a love of hummus).

We realized after a time that we were lost in Hebron, with unclear directions. While staring at our phones and trying to contact our host, we were approached by a few people offering to help – in one case, we were offered lodging and dinner in a family’s home (Palestinian hospitality knows no bounds). We called our host and handed the phone to one of our saviors so he could speak to her in Arabic – and lo and behold, they already knew each other.

Apparently Zleikha is well-known all over the city. Not only has she lived in Hebron all her life (she’s about sixty), she’s also active in local pro-Palestine organizations and teaches kindergarten at her home. Zleikha has traveled all around the world and speaks excellent English – you can immediately tell that she loves people and experiencing the most out of life. However, her life in Hebron has been getting worse and worse since the early 1970’s – when the Israeli settlers moved in.

To be fair, there had always been a small Jewish population in Hebron. However, a massacre of Jews in Hebron by Arabs in 1929 sent many of the surviving inhabitants to Jerusalem, and the rest left with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the city falling under Jordanian rule. After the Six-Day War in 1967 – during which the West Bank was wrested from Jordanian control – a group of Jews returned to Hebron and decided to re-establish the Jewish community there, relying on nearby soldiers for protection. The settlement near Hebron, Kiryat Arba, was created during this time – since then, thousands of Israelis and even more soldiers have come into the region, claiming buildings and land. Four or five military bases surround the Old City of Hebron itself, each near a settlement, with prominent flags of Israel displayed. One of these bases is directly in the heart of the Old City, since one of the settlements took over a few buildings in the city center. Our AirBnB was overlooking this base, but on the Palestinian side.


View of the Israeli military base in the center of Hebron – from our AirBnB

While walking through Hebron, Zleikha pointed out the haphazard walls and millions of meters of barbed wire threaded through the streets. Roads had been blocked, concrete slabs erected, doors had even been sealed shut. In order to “keep the peace,” the city now has many dividing lines that make no logistical sense, except for that they keep the Palestinians and the Israelis on either side of the wall. And if you’re on one side of the wall, you probably won’t ever get to see the other. Since this segment of the city is so disfigured, a once-bustling marketplace has been all but shut down – empty storefronts and sealed metal doors show where trade once reigned. Today, the “chicken market” in the Old City has been moved, but abandoned ducks, geese, and chickens still wander the streets. On the building walls near the border walls, graffiti implores the reader to “Fight Ghost Town,” to fight the displacement of Palestinian businesses by Israeli setters. But that’s easier said than done.


Garbage thrown onto the “roof” of the Palestinian market by Israeli settlers, from their windows above

Zleikha introduced us to a merchant friend, Jamal, still sitting in front of his shop in the old city surrounded by scarves, blankets, and kefiyyeh. He’s one of the few who’ve remained, and he angrily pointed above the shop at the makeshift wall of chain link that covers the street. “Take pictures,” he asked, “and show people how the Israelis treat us.” The chain link is covered by piles of garbage, which the Israeli settlers in the building above regularly throw out their windows. “They throw dirty water, and eggs too,” Jamal says, showing us one of his hanging scarves that’s been stained with egg. “And the soldiers, they see it, but they do nothing.” Again, looking up, I notice a guard tower just a few meters away, with an Israeli soldier staring out a window onto our street below. “They don’t try to stop them. But if we try to fight back, they arrest us. Take pictures, show people in America what it’s like here.” With tensions rising, the tourist population has plummeted, with international visitors afraid to come to “dangerous Palestine.” Jamal told us he barely sold one or two souvenirs a day, these days.

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View of the Hebron cemetery from Zleikha’s apartment

When we finally got to our AirBnB, I was once again amazed by the view. We stayed in a rooftop apartment in the middle of the city, at its lowest point; on every side of us, old stone buildings trailed up the hills. It was breathtaking, and Zleikha began pointing out landmarks – the Ibrahimi Mosque (where Abraham and Isaac, of Biblical fame, are interred), the markets, the roads to the university and other areas outside the city. But the sad tone returned when she pointed out the growing number of military bases, Israeli settlements, and walls everywhere. Next to her home is a large road that was once available for public use, but has been taken over by the Israelis for a number of years. Palestinians aren’t allowed on it, but tourists and Israelis are. Her old front door, which opened on that street, has been sealed. She’s added chicken wire around her small balcony on that side of the building, to protect herself from passing settlers who throw things, or who have tried to climb the wall to break in.

Most heartbreakingly, across this road is an Islamic cemetery – “I used to walk across the street to visit,” Zleikha said, “but now it takes me forty-five minutes to go all the wall around the road and enter from the other side. My brother died last Friday, and he is buried there [she points at a spot near the road] but it will take me a long time to go and see him.” Zleikha also spoke of her sick mother, and I got the feeling she was wondering how many times she would be making that long trek to honor family members, and how difficult it would be. “We used to bring the bodies [of the deceased Muslim community] through the mosque, then to the cemetery. But now we are blocked.” It seems that caskets aren’t easy to get through checkpoints.

We thanked her for her time, then wandered the Old City ourselves. In trying to get to the Ibrahimi Mosque, we were once again stopped at a checkpoint. The soldiers were on break, or otherwise occupied, and we stood in a line of people waiting to get through the gate. Shouts for the guard did nothing, but finally someone began letting us through one by one. I noticed surprise in the guard’s eyes when he saw Ethan and me – and I was told later that normally, tourists aren’t made to wait like the Palestinians are.

Before heading to the mosque, we attempted to find a cafe on a nearby road, which ended up being another bizarre experience. As we approached, we suddenly saw what looked like a group of maybe 30 Israeli soldiers (dressed like officers) walking down the road. Maybe they were coming back from a meeting at another base? We had no idea. Once they passed, we reached another “checkpoint” – two Israeli soldiers standing next to a simple gate. It was at this point we realized this was the road we had been told Palestinians couldn’t walk on.

We could see the initial confusion in their eyes – we clearly didn’t look like people they usually see across the gate. We held up our passports in anticipation of questions, and asked if we could step on the road to find a cafe. The answer: “Wait…are you Christian or are you Muslim?” I let out a laugh, but quickly realized they weren’t joking. “I’m Jewish…well, half” answered Ethan. Comically, the soldier who spoke better English relayed Ethan’s half-Jewishness to the other in Hebrew (which Ethan could understand). This held them up…for a moment. Then they explained that if he crossed this “soft” checkpoint, they weren’t supposed to let him back over – for his safety. Ethan then blurted out, “Well, what about her? She’s Catholic.” Further hijinks – we weren’t even sure they knew what “Catholic” was. Though they tried to persuade us to not go back the way we came, we waved them off and resigned ourselves to another few hours before food would be available.

Ethan and I joked about how we could have answered their religious questions – his background is a bit more complicated, being that issues of non-matrilineal Jewishness and a hasty childhood baptism figure in. Mine, while more straightforward, doesn’t really have an ending yet: “Well, soldier, I was raised Catholic and practiced for awhile, but ended up falling out of faith and I really only attend church with my family on holidays sometimes, though I guess you can’t really say I’m an atheist or agnostic because that feels so ‘final,’ you know, and I joke that I’m a ‘lapsed Catholic’ and maybe once again I’ll rejoin the Church someday, but you know, with all the conflicts around abortion and women’s rights I can’t really say that I’ll ever be a card-carrying member…” What side of the wall would I be sent to? I believe that religion is a personal journey for every individual, and that the journey doesn’t always fit on a passport, but things are different here.


Interior of the Ibrahimi Mosque

Just before entering the Ibrahimi Mosque, we were approached by a young boy selling pro-Palestine bracelets. His English was fantastic, and he advised us to visit the mosque quickly because evening prayer services would begin soon (thoughtful words from a ten-year-old). As we walked in, I was asked to wear a cloak over my head and body, required garb for all non-Muslim female visitors. So, looking like a poor man’s Sherlock Holmes, I entered the room containing the tombs of Abraham and Isaac. The vaulted ceilings were beautifully painted, the tombs themselves surrounded by large structures with windows peeking in, and the floors covered in soft carpet for kneeling prayers. Yet this ancient building is also divided in half – a Jewish side and a Muslim side – so that both religions have access to the father of their faith. A Palestinian friend later remarked how angry Abraham would be if he woke up and saw how each faith treated the other (heck, let’s throw the Christians in there too). On the way out of the mosque, I bought two bracelets from the friendly young boy outside and hoped that he didn’t spend his whole day working.

After getting delicious shawarma from a place down the street, we spent the evening in a daze at our AirBnB. Trying to process the tension of the day was hard enough – what on earth must it be like to live here? We wondered aloud what we could do to help as tourists – where should our money be spent, how should we petition our own government, what could we do here on the ground to help the situation in the city? When it comes down to it, though, there’s little the visitors can do, except take pictures and tell people back home the truth about Hebron. Though we did hear of one group of international volunteers working for change – the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) – who coincidentally were based in our building.

While admiring the city at night, a man showed up on the roof – from the CPT downstairs. An American from the Midwest, he’d been in Hebron for a few months and planned to stay awhile with the team. Answering our many questions, he told us the group often went out as “observers,” third-party watchers of conflict in the city who recorded injustices and advocated for the Palestinian people. However, any international citizen detained in Hebron could be permanently banned from the region, so they were careful to stay out of direct activism. When we asked why he came to the roof, he told us he heard noises and came up to investigate. “You learn to differentiate between rubber bullets, real bullets, fireworks…”


Ethan fighting with a phone in Hebron

For our second day in Hebron, we decided to try some social media outreach. Ethan noticed that many of the historic sites in the city couldn’t be found on Google Maps, so if we could go to those places and mark them on the public platform, perhaps that would help tourists in the city who use the application. This was easier said than done, however, because we realized quickly that my cell data wasn’t strong enough to move around the city and find these spots. It turns out that T-Mobile works in Israel, but not Palestine, and my phone worked best when near a settlement. Of course.

Luckily, a friend we met through Couchsurfing messaged us right then and suggested meeting up. We headed to Kingdom of Falafel and said “marhaba” to Mo, a Hebron native and one of the most well-recommended Couchsurfers we had ever seen (it is astounding how many hundreds of people around the world have stayed with him and had the best time of their life). We had a truly fantastic afternoon talking with him at the restaurant, then at a hookah bar up the street. Mo went to university in Hebron and now works at one of the city’s hospitals. We discussed the healthcare system in Palestine vs. the US (unsurprisingly, Palestine’s is better), the best shows currently available on Netflix, and our favorite travel stories. When the conversation inevitably turned to the state of Hebron, Mo expressed the same frustration I’ve heard from so many people on each side of the conflict – “Israelis and Palestinians have so much in common. It’s a shame that they cannot get along.” We talked about the problems with people in Hebron provoking soldiers, littering the streets, and refusing to take responsibility for other problems in which they are a part. We talked about the Israeli soldiers put in place by a conservative and out-of-touch government, people who may feel more compassionately towards the people but are forced to act dispassionately. We talked about ignorant third parties who come in and try to solve the situation for the two groups without taking into account the history. We talked about a lot. There is so much blame, and shame, and guilt, and anger on every side of this conflict – no wonder a single law or protest can erupt into violence so quickly.

After Mo headed back to his job at the hospital, we visited a local attraction – the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory. For hundreds of years, beautiful glasswork and ceramics have been produced here in Hebron by the same group of families. Maybe this is overkill, but I was struck by how these delicate objects had survived so many decades of conflict. We loaded up on souvenirs and caught a cab back to the AirBnB.

I’m leaving out so many other stories in these paragraphs – a cab driver who ranted with us about politics, the number of children brightening the streets of Hebron, the size of the cauliflowers sold in the marketplace (HUGE. FUCKING. CAULIFLOWERS. MY GOD). How do you explain the feeling of what it is to be in a city in writing?

If nothing else, this experience already has me itching to return to Hebron in the future. To take more pictures, to talk to more locals, to eat more shawarma. I guess my recommendation to you, dear reader, is to consider a trip to the Holy Land. Israel and Palestine are filled with thousands of years of history, with all kinds of views, biases, and politics. It’s worth it to come and see it for yourself.

Ten Hours in Africa – Addis Ababa, Dec. 16

Howdy folks!

Linked here are photos from our long layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.

I’ve wanted to go to Ethiopia for years now. Why? The food! Ethiopian cuisine is a colorful mix of fresh salads and flavorful stew all eaten by hand with bits of a flat sourdough bread called injera. Em and I lived down the street from a great Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley, and in the years we lived there, I tried many of the small businesses opened by California’s small but entrepreneurial Ethiopian community.

Another reason was, surprisingly, jazz. Ethiopia had a “golden age” of jazz in the 1960’s and 70’s, a genre I discovered by chance through the music of Mulatu Astatke. Haunting, rich, and full of awesome harmonies, Ethiopian jazz captured my ears just as spicy Ethiopian berbere entranced my taste buds.

Clearly, I had built this country up in my head. Because of this, I was very eager to see Addis myself, check my assumptions at the door, and experience as much of the city as possible with what little time we had. Our 10 hours there did not disappoint, and we walked away exhausted, full to the brim with food, and eager to return one day when not on our way to somewhere else.

Stay tuned – we’re just 9 days away from the end of our trip. Photos from 6 weeks in Israel are coming soon.



The City of Angels and Beyond – Thailand, Nov. 26 – Dec. 17

Howdy folks – TL;DR photos here. Enjoy!

. . .

Thailand is Vietnam’s older sibling in the world of tourism in Southeast Asia. It’s more convenient, the roads are cleaner, the prices are higher, and the scams are slicker. Beneath all that, though, was the same beautiful depth of history, cuisine, culture, and friendliness we found on the eastern edge of Indochina. That is to say that, once again, all our overblown fears about a new country were just that.

We spent three wonderful weeks traveling from Bangkok (full name, and I am not joking, Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit) to Ayutthaya, then Chiang Mai, back down to Sukhothai, and back to “The City of Angels” (Bangkok’s other, shorter, translated name).

We traveled by foot, taxi, tuk tuk, ferry, bus, sleeper train, and motorbike. We had the best Thai food of our life and, ironically, some of the best Mexican and Japanese food we’ve had on this trip. We successfully drove hours to the top of Thailand’s highest mountain. A few days later, we had our second motorbike crash. We saw more gold on more temples than we knew existed in Asia. We took our first step towards India by experiencing the syncretism of Thailand’s unique brand of Buddhism.

So, enjoy the photos, plan your own Thailand adventure, and get ready for our next installment – a special batch of photos from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!




Vietnam, North to South

Howdy folks!

Emily and I spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam north to south – from Hànội to Ninh Bình to Huế to Hồ Chí Minh City (AKA Sàigòn).

We knew going in this was going to take our travels off “easy mode.” Whereas we had heard nothing but great things about Taiwan, we had been warned both online and in-person about Vietnam. Were we gonna get scammed? Run off the road by wild motorbike traffic?

Well, it turns out we only got scammed twice (no big deal, honest) and did crash a motorbike once. But otherwise? It was fantastic. These pictures are the receipts.

We’ve only got a week left in Thailand and have some amazing photos to show you. Stay tuned for more! Next stop: Israel.



Names from Travels – Part 2

Here’s the original post on my name blog: Names from My Travels – Part 2

And if you missed Part 1, check it out here: Names from Travels


Ethan and me scootering outside of Hanoi
I’ve tried to remove anything too personal – FB friends, let me know if I need to edit anything!
Not someone I actually met, but a few Belgian friends told me about the weirdest name they knew; apparently his parents couldn’t pick between the two, so they created a compound name. I gotta say, Joe-Thibault is an unusual mix of styles!
Sibset: Camille (f), Justine (f), Auguste (m)
The lovely Camille was named for an associate of Auguste Rodin, one of her parents’ favorite artists (hence her brother’s name, Auguste). We had a great conversation about names later on (just saying, there’s a lot of people out there who keep lists of their favorite names!)
Nadège (f)
The French form of a Slavic name meaning “hope” (from the same family as Nadia). I’m reminded of another French name, Edwige, and I can think of two currently popular names that end in -ge: Paige and Sage.
Lannan (Eve)
A friendly Chinese woman told me her name means “very smart” in Mandarin (I couldn’t find the right combination of name elements online). She picked her own English name, Eve.
Sibset: Itai (m), Dror (m), Naama (f), Sivan (f), Shaked (f), Keshet (f)
When Sivan told me she was one of six children, I asked their names so fast I nearly choked. Her family is Israeli, and they chose each of their children’s names based on the Torah reading for the week they were born. Itai is a name of one of King David‘s warriors, meaning “being.” Dror means “freedom,” chosen because he was born during Pesach (the Jewish holiday of Passover, celebrating the liberation of the Jews under the leadership of Moses). Naama is a fairly popular name in Israel, meaning “pleasant.” Sivan was named for the third month of the Jewish calendar, which comes from a word meaning “season” or “time.” Shaked means “almond,” as she was born during Tu BiShvat, a Jewish holiday celebrating ecological awareness and the planting of trees. Keshet means “rainbow,” referencing the story of Noah.
Sibset: Talia (f), Alon (m), Shachar (m), Shani (f)
Another excellent Israeli family name group! Talia is a Hebrew name meaning “dew from heaven” (it’s currently fairly popular in the US), Alon is a Hebrew name meaning “oak tree,” Shachar is a Hebrew name meaning “dawn,” and Shani is a Hebrew name meaning “red.”
Special thanks to the incomparable Shachar and Sivan for answering my questions one after another! ❤
The third Israeli interviewed on this list, Nathan was named for his grandfather. We talked a bit about “word names” being on the rise in the United States, when they’re very popular in other countries already (see Sivan and Shachar‘s stories above!)
Sibset: Elena Georgina and Isabel Antonia
These gorgeous names reflect Elena‘s family’s roots in Italy and in Puerto Rico. We also both noticed that the middles were feminizations of traditionally male names.
The fabulous Sigrid was supposed to be named Julia, but her parents felt the choice didn’t fit her. They chose her name in part because it sounds like “sie grinst,” German for “she smiles.”
Sibset: JackGraceSamuel
Jack would have been Kate if he was a girl, but didn’t know why his parents chose Jack.
Couple: Una and Aga
This warm Taiwanese couple owned and managed a hostel in Hualien. Una is one of my favorite names, and I love how their names sound together.
Sibset: Erica, Sara, Isaac, John
Erica told me that her parents chose “simple names” for her and her siblings because theirs were more complicated. I hear more about the reverse of that happening: choosing a “unique” name for one’s child because one’s own name is too popular.
Arslan (m)
This is a form of Aslan (meaning “lion”), and comes from Arslan‘s home state of Bashkortostan, a republic in Russia.
Huong (f)
This is a Vietnamese name meaning “perfume” – similar to Jasmine or Rose, perhaps?
While attending Quest Festival outside of Hanoi, I collected a lot of names, but few stories behind them: AymenAtlasEdithLou and LoupJaelMansourNaadirMutiTreyPim, and a ton of Alex‘s!
Couple: Willi (f) and Willem (m)
This funny couple from Amsterdam had been together for decades, with the matching names Willi and WillemWillem joked “If I had known her name, I would have walked away!”
Aladdin (m)
I met a real-life Aladdin, from Lyons, France!
Kurn (m)
When he told me he was Welsh, I asked his name, expecting an unusual Welsh choice. Instead, I got another Hebrew name! His parents chose Kurn (from Koren, meaning “shining”) to honor their Jewish heritage.
So many names and stories! Thanks everyone for sharing theirs with me 🙂

(Late) Disorganized Thoughts on Taiwan

By Emily

It wasn’t until college that I had Taiwan recommended to me as a destination. Honestly, I barely knew its political status related to China, let alone its location on a map. But Christopher (my good friend and former roommate) talked about how amazing it was, how much he enjoyed traveling there. So when we were booking flights through East Asia and added Taiwan to the mix, I had positive associations with it already.

During the four months traveling through Japan, Hong Kong, and southern China, we met dozens of travelers who had been to Taiwan already – and every single one of them LOVED it. We heard almost nothing negative about the entire island, which was a first (every destination has lovers and haters) and I began to pay closer attention. What about Taiwan makes it a place that all kinds of people enjoy?

We’re now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, looking back at six weeks spent exploring Taiwan’s cities, coasts, and national parks. Here are some thoughts (in no particular order of importance) on the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name).


In every city we visited, we found museums and cultural centers dedicated to promoting the cultures of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Exhibits on history, lifestyles, and practices filled huge buildings; we saw shows on traditional dancing and singing. At every tourist stop, mentions of the tribes local to the area were included in pamphlets and gift shops.

While I appreciate my elementary’s school’s lessons about the Chumash Indians, it’s pretty well-known that native peoples in the United States rarely get their history included in the education system or in local museums. Seeing Taiwan’s determination to share the lives and stories of indigenous tribes was a breath of fresh air, but brought up some difficult questions.

By promoting these cultures in museums and shops, there was a heavily commercialized aspect to it: “Buy these recreations of traditional clothes!” “Take your picture with an attractive female dancer!” “Join us on a tour through a ‘real village’!” It felt very uncomfortable and exotify-ing, as if this was just another tourist trap rather than a way of life for thousands.

I recognize that travel is often like this – going to another country to see how “others” live, and commenting on it as if your own way of life is superior/natural/default. So perhaps I’m not the most qualified individual to talk about the commercialization of a group of which I’m not a member. At least it’s made me a bit more aware of my actions as a foreigner in another country, and how best I can respect/appreciate other ways of life while avoiding fetishizing them.


Within an hour of arriving in Taipei, I turned to Ethan and accused him of tricking me into coming back to Japan. The basic similarities were striking – the prevalence of convenience stores, the cleanliness compared to mainland China, the amount of shopping everywhere – and I noticed it immediately. Through traveling the island, I learned a lot more about Taiwan’s history and relationship with Japan, and just why the Republic of China felt so Japanese.

One comment quite a few travelers made about Taiwan was as follows: “It’s like the best of both China and Japan in one place.” That did feel true a lot of the time. The organization, infrastructure, and ease of travel felt like the streamlined experience of Japan, while the delicious food, diversity of people (in terms of race/class/clothing) and the language, of course, was thoroughly Chinese. But there also developed a distinctly Taiwanese feeling after spending a few weeks meeting people and studying the island. There’s a sense of pride in being Taiwanese, excitement about their own history and struggles, and a friendliness in wanting to share the love of their country with visitors. There seemed to be a greater feeling of community that I hadn’t experienced in either Japan or China, though, a kind of camaraderie that felt refreshing and unique. It certainly made me miss my fellow Californians.


How to talk about the night markets… They were another aspect of Taiwan I was told about by many travelers. Similar to other open-air markets I’ve experienced – lots of people, mix of games, food and shopping, in a specific neighborhood in the evenings – but there were dozens of them throughout the island. I tried to find out more about what makes them so popular in Taiwan specifically, but haven’t found too much online. If you have an answer tell me in the comments?

My favorite dishes were barbecued corn (coated with four layers of sauces and spices, yum), giant pieces of fried chicken (as big as my head, and I have a large head), xiao long bao (I could eat ten dumplings a day for the rest of my life), and spiced beef skewers (returning to a primarily vegetarian lifestyle in California is going to be next to impossible). I realize I’m courting heresy with this next comment, but I don’t like boba tea. Feel free to yell at me about this controversial opinion when you see me next.

And maybe this is because I am a weak Westerner, but I cannot stand the smell of “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐) and I do not understand its popularity. Why? For what reason? How is this a thing?


I’ve always been drawn to the water – pools, lakes, hot springs – and being in east and southeast Asia has certainly been a treat. (There’s water everywhere!!! As a Californian, I can’t figure out where it all comes from??? Why don’t these regions run out???) Taiwan was particularly lovely for this reason.

At Taroko Gorge (north of Hualien), we scootered through the winding roads of the mountains, along the route of the Liwu River. At one point, we parked and hiked off the main road, climbing around a fence to get to a natural hot spring area. We found a couple of other travelers and a few Taiwanese locals there, sitting in the hot water along the edge of the roaring river. Stripping down to our underwear, Ethan and I jumped right in (while Nancy soaked her feet like a lady) and climbed around the calmer points of the river. The color of the water was a beautiful blue-grey, and being surrounded by marble cliff faces was awesome.

In Taichung, we stayed at a hostel that offered a trip to the “Double Dragon” waterfall, closer to the interior of the island (Taichung is on the west coast). After hiking a ways through thick forest on a tiny trail, we reached Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge – which had pretty much no solid railing. With our Taiwanese leader and four Malaysian travelers, Ethan, Nancy and I traversed the bridge, stopping to take pictures and/or swear. (Nancy helped a particularly fearful teenager conquer his fear of the bridge, while the rest of us pretended not to be frightened as all hell). When we reached the end of the bridge, we found the Double Dragon falls right above us, crashing down the cliff face. One pool nearby was deep enough to jump in off a boulder, and we were able to wade all the way in under the waterfall, an exhilarating experience.

South of Taipei, Ethan and I took a rickety bus all the way up to Wu Lai, a small village with a mining history, and now a tourist attraction for its beautiful waterfall and natural hot springs. Similar to Taroko, we shimmied down to the hot spring area where a ton of locals had set up their own spa, piping water from the hillside to fill large plastic tubs and cement pools. They even hung blankets above and around a rocky area to make an indoor sauna! While Ethan enjoyed the hot water, I took it upon myself to explore the river. The current was incredibly strong, but a rope was set up on one edge to allow you to swim while still connected to the bank. After playing around with that, Ethan and I both followed the “footsteps” of the locals and jumped in upstream to swim to a calmer spot downstream, allowing the current to push us quickly along the edge of the village. Relaxing at the end of a long day, I laid on the bank with my feet in the river, and was treated to an impromptu pedicure by some tiny fish, who enjoyed nibbling the dead skin off my feet (free spa treatment!) Definitely my favorite part of the trip.


On one of our last days in Taipei, Ethan and I went to two museums dedicated to the 2/28 Movement, as well as the 2/28 Memorial Park. For those who don’t know, this commemorates a huge protest in 1947 by the Taiwanese people against oppressive censorship measures of their government, which resulted in the death and imprisonment of thousands. In the past few decades, the government has begun to recognize the tragedy of this time in history, and have begun working with activists to set up museums and memorials to educate the public.

It’s something that greatly impressed me about this place, that the leaders were willing to admit past political wrongdoing and take steps to apologize to the public and make sure the tragedy isn’t swept under the rug. I wish the United States were better about admitting mistakes/errors of judgement/etc in their past, and were willing to make reparations to the groups wronged. To be proud of your country is one thing, but to refuse to admit that your country has ever hurt its own people is another. For me, the only reason to be proud of a place is to see it progress over time, to see it continually get better for all of its citizens. Otherwise, it’s like a stagnant pond that keeps filling up with mosquito larva and pond scum (see our current state of affairs).


That’s all I got for now. Message me to chat about Taiwan 🙂

Taiwan 2k17, the “We Are So Behind on Photos” Edition

Howdy folks! We’ve been in Vietnam for 3 weeks, but here’s hundreds of photos from Taiwan. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Hualien! Taitung! Kaohsiung! Taichung! Sun Moon Lake! Taipei (again)! It’s all here and more, plus plenty of pics of Emily’s lovely mother Nancy, who joined us for 3 abso-scooterly wonderful weeks.

Part 1: Hualien-Taitung-Kaohsiung

Part 2: Taichung and Sun Moon Lake

Part 3: Taipei – Round 2

Vietnam photos are coming soon (we survived)! Leaving for Bangkok in just two days; the trip goes ever onward.



Eat Pray Love Laugh Netflix Fatigue Travel

While Skyping with my sister yesterday, she jokingly asked me, “So are you all ‘enlightened’ now that you’ve traveled around the world?” My initial response was an eye roll and immediate assurance that I have not changed all that much; the only changes that I could think of at the time are that I’m more open to eating other types of foods (which is actually a milestone for this incredibly picky eater) and I’m more used to living each day with fewer material objects. But her question stuck in my head after the conversation ended, for a few reasons.

The backpacker life comes with quite a few cliches, both the ones that are projected upon us and the ones we create for ourselves. In the former category, there are the assumptions that we’re all trust fund kids with superiority complexes who don’t actually care about the places we’re visiting as long as they provide good backdrops for Instagram photos. In the latter category, there is a culture of self-righteousness about our amazing journeys that allow us to discover our life’s true purpose through learning from “other” (non-white or non-Western) peoples. While I have met two or three individuals who match up to these stereotypes, they are few and far between. Yes, a few of us have read Eat Pray Love (guilty) or wear loose elephant-print pants (you know who you are) or wax poetic about “life on the road,” but the majority of people I’ve met have been… normal, for lack of a better term.

Some travelers have saved money for their trip, others work on the road to keep themselves afloat. Some wear makeup daily, others have quit looking in mirrors altogether. Some haven’t talked with a friend back home in weeks, others Skype their families every day. Backpackers of all kinds spend a lot of time watching their favorite shows online, complaining about the foods they miss, chattering about their pets, comparing prices of items at convenience stores, asking for tips about their destinations ahead; there’s no singular type of traveler I’ve come across, really. Occasionally I’ve talked to others about the “reason” why they travel, but somehow it’s assumed as a given among the group – if you have the means and time, why not?

Ethan and I went into this trip with similar feelings – we both want to see more of the world, this is a good point in our lives to do it, our financial situations are stable enough for awhile. Very quickly into this trip, Ethan brought up the quote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re the same individuals who left Berkeley 5-6 months ago, just with a higher tolerance for mosquito bites and snoring roommates. I don’t think either of us expected an epiphany while climbing a mountain or a realization of some subconscious goal while eating a dumpling.

Still, there’s always a nagging feeling that we’re not doing/seeing/learning/experiencing enough, that somehow we’re traveling incorrectly. If my previous statement is true, that we’re traveling not for enlightenment but because we can, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to stay at home and study these places? I could glean more about Chinese history in a week at a desk than I could schlepping a backpack through Sichuan for two months. An immersion program at a Japanese school in San Francisco would teach me more language skills than what I picked up at a hostel in Tokyo. Removing the physical activity, social stress, and money-spending inherent in travel would certainly make learning about these cultures much easier and arguably more amusing.

When I look back on this trip – about 100 days until its end, just a bit past the midway point – I don’t think about all of the history I’ve learned or the museums I’ve seen or the souvenirs I bought. I think of it in terms of moments: watching my mother successfully coax a frightened Malaysian teenager across Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge; singing Eagles karaoke at a Family Guy-themed bar until 4:00 am in Osaka; sitting in an alleyway in Kyoto with my boyfriend at midnight, frustrated after a stressful day of switching trains and climbing stairs. I think of all of the people who I became close with because we were in the same city at the same time and spoke the same language, people who I’d love to see every week for the rest of my life, but can’t because the world is too big.

I guess I don’t travel to become more enlightened; I travel to fit more “life” into my life. And really, one doesn’t need to be in a foreign country to try new foods or meet new friends or have more fun – it’s just that travel reminds you how to do those things when your life at home feels ordinary. The most challenging part of this trip, for me, will be learning to make new adventures without a backpack on, to extend the exhilaration of novelty into a place I already know. So, little sister, get ready to get enlightened right along with me when I come home next year. We’re gonna have some fun.

Top of the Sweet Potato – Taipei Photos

Howdy folks. Ethan here.

TL;DR – Long live Taipei! Long live stinky tofu! Photos here.

If you look at a map of Taiwan, the whole island looks a bit like a sweet potato. At the northern end of that delicious green root vegetable is a big, beautiful city called Taipei.

Em and I had been told a lot of things about Taiwan before we arrived – literally all of them positive. The capital city is wonderful, the mountains are gorgeous, the eastern coast breathtaking, the food to die for…you name it. I had personally gotten a rushed glimpse of Taipei during a long layover back in 2016 and all I had were good memories. Suffice it to say, we arrived with high expectations.

Right off the bat, Taipei started to fulfill them.

Our first week in Taiwan was spent visiting museums, sweating our brains out, eating at night markets, and marveling at the curious mix of China and Japan that Taiwan represents. We also got to welcome the lovely Nancy (Emily’s mom) on our trip for a 3-week jaunt around the island.

And as always, lucky reader, you get to follow along with us! Until our next batch of photos. ❤