Hebron

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.

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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.

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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).

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Bethlehem

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.

(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).

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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).

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

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.

Macau: Portugal in China

By Emily

I don’t remember what made us decide to visit Macau in the first place. We needed a plane ticket out of China, I think, so we hastily bought the cheapest flight we could from Hong Kong/Macau to Taiwan (yes, they’re all technically part of China, but we’ll cover that more in a later post about Taiwan), and ended up in Macau for two nights. We booked an AirBnB (cheaper than a hostel in this region) and set out from Hong Kong by ferry, no idea what awaited us on the other side of the Pearl River Delta.

While in China, I did some reading on Macau’s history and tourist spots to figure out exactly where we were headed. I was surprised to hear it had once been a Portuguese colony (my colonial history knowledge has never been stellar) and wondered whether it would remind me of the Azores at all. My paternal family is from this tiny group of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic, with the past five generations of Cardozas born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, California (losing the language along the way, but not the appetite for fish nor the desire to cultivate fruit trees). A few years ago, my grandparents were generous enough to take myself and ten other family members to visit the homeland – Pico and Faial, specifically – where their parents and grandparents were born. Beautiful in both nature and architecture, the small towns on these islands amazed me with their ornate churches and breathtaking views of the Atlantic. I was also stunned at how many of the islanders looked like they were related to me – and in truth, many of them very well could have been. We were even lucky enough to meet a very distant cousin – an older man named Manuel who had a hobby of building miniature windmills – who looked a heck of a lot like my grandfather.

Back to the other side of the planet – here’s a brief history of Macau, for anyone who doesn’t know (I certainly didn’t).

Prior to the sixteenth century, Macau was primarily inhabited by the Tankas, an ethnic subgroup in China, as well as Han Chinese people. The Tankas are “boat people” who live by fishing, with community histories in southern China and parts of Vietnam. In the early 1500’s, Portuguese traders arrived in Macau and were allowed by the Chinese government to set up a commercial center. Over the following decades and centuries, the Portuguese influence expanded: a Roman Catholic diocese took root, the Iberians formed their own unofficial Senate, and the Portuguese even defended the region against attacks by the Dutch (well, their slaves did). After the Opium Wars, China ceded Macau to Portugal in 1887, making it an official Portuguese colony.

But the world wars and rapid governmental shifts that shook the globe in the twentieth century didn’t miss Macau. Partially as a result of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Macau’s inhabitants demanded change from their Portuguese administration; and after Portugal’s own Carnation Revolution, overseas colonies began to decolonize. In 1999, Macau was officially absorbed back into the Chinese sphere of influence, making it a special administrative region (SAR), like Hong Kong.

What does all of this history mean for Macau today? Well, their official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese, despite the fact that 95% of the population is Han Chinese and only 2% is Portuguese. This actually made traveling around the city much easier – with my intermediate French and Ethan’s beginner Spanish, we were able to read Portuguese signs and navigate through the historic spots more easily. We also ran into a ton of Portuguese travelers, on their own and in groups, who were exploring the region (and a bunch of them looked like my dad and his siblings. It’s truly bizarre). Macau also has a really great infrastructure set up for English-speaking travelers, providing free walking tour maps and guides (and an app).

Aesthetically, I felt like I was back in Portugal. The black-and-white cobblestone streets with their intricate designs matched my homeland exactly; the brightly colored buildings with European flair made my jaw drop. When I walked into the São Lourenço church, all of my memories of Western architecture classes came flooding back. The older sections of the city feel like a town in eighteenth-century Europe was transplanted to the other side of the world, and China filled in the blanks. Hearing Cantonese outside the Portuguese embassy (an historic building near our AirBnB) felt dissonant, but oddly worked perfectly with the Macanese lifestyle we witnessed.

And the FOOD. Macau has its own flavor, a special mix of Chinese and Portuguese cuisines with a ton of fish and spices (and cheese. Bless my people). We were directed to a nearby Portuguese restaurant by our AirBnB host, and we were not disappointed. I’d post pictures, but we ate the food so quickly that nothing survived to be Instagrammed.

One huge part of Macau that I’m not mentioning – its reputation as the “Las Vegas of the East.” Macau has quite a few large casinos, with eastern branches of the Venetian and the MGM Grand. We didn’t end up checking out these fine establishments for a few reasons: 1. We were only in Macau for two nights and 2. The only traveler we met who had been to Macau told us they weren’t worth our time, comparing them to “shitty Vegas, with no free drinks and the stakes are higher”. Next time, I think I’ll give them a look-see, though.

I’ll absolutely be returning to Macau to learn more about its history and see more of the city. Next time, hopefully, with my family in tow 🙂

Fine China

By Emily

We’ve been in mainland China for the past seven weeks, navigating our way from Shenzhen to Chengdu, with several stops along the way. While I’ve wanted to write more about this experience, it’s been hard to find any singular topic – for me, so much of the experience has been mixed. I’ve had some of my most fun moments of travel – zipping through the countryside on an electric scooter, snuggling baby kittens, going to an incredible hot pot restaurant – as well as my least fun – mosquito attacks, losing half of our clothing, food poisoning (ugh). I’m also nothing close to an expert on China’s politics, history, and cultures, so am I even qualified to write this? Here goes:

The Negatives:

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“Travel Fatigue” in an image

By the time we got to Hong Kong, Ethan and I had started feeling incredibly tired. After some doubt about our own abilities to undertake long-term travel, we found that it’s not uncommon for such people to experience travel fatigue (check out articles here and here). Often, people refer to our trip as a “vacation” or something else flippant, and I begin to bristle. Sure, we recognize that we have a level of privilege that allows us to do this, but the lifestyle is anything but relaxing. And China has certainly tested the level of discomfort I’ve experienced as a Westerner.

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Guangzhou train station – the clouds should have warned us

The Guangzhou train station is by far the most chaotic environment I’ve ever experienced – we missed our train the first time we tried to catch it, and ended up coming back the next day (two hours early). I’ve found that many bus/train/subway stations aren’t much more organized, and that quite a few Chinese citizens haven’t embraced the concept of “lining up.” Most “tourist information centers” don’t have English-speaking staff, either. While the buses between cities are fairly regular, it’s incredibly hard to figure out where the bus stations are, as well as how to buy tickets for them.

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Hoping we’re on the right bus?

 

After getting spoiled in Japan, we’ve been confronted by wooden beds (without mattresses/pads), squat toilets (my least favorite thing in the world), and a lack of available drinking water. Public urination and/or defecation isn’t uncommon either, especially among young children (at least THEY have an excuse). While I was warned about all of this ahead of time, getting used to it has been… hard.

The Awkward Parts:

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Me showing off my sunburn – and my response to people staring, generally

You know how you felt as a teenager, that everyone was staring at you all the time and judging you? Well, that actually happens to us. I’ve never been stared at as much as I have in this country. At first, it was funny, but after people started taking my picture (or video) without my consent, it got annoying. Just ask, people! I’ve asked locals why it is that I get more stares than Ethan, and I’ve gotten a few answers – “Because you are tall” (I am usually the tallest woman in my line of sight) or “Because you are beautiful” among them. While I appreciate the flattery, it’s hard to believe that my beauty is potent enough to affect small children – who frequently point and yell “WAI GUO REN” (“foreigners”) at us. I’ve responded to this by waving, winking, or pointing at those I catch staring, which usually surprises them. Quite a few other travelers (especially women) have mentioned this phenomenon as well, and while the staring doesn’t usually lead to a come-on or even a conversation, it’s certainly unnerving.

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Ethan getting Civ 6 tips from a friendly 8-year-old

It’s been much harder to communicate with people as well. While Ethan is making great headway in his Mandarin practice, asking questions beyond a few words is very difficult. We’ve responded to this by typing into Google Translate and holding up the results, or using a very complicated gesturing system. Usually, Chinese speakers have a decent sense of humor about our ineptitude, but we’ve been in quite a few uncomfortable situations in which the language barrier seemed particularly acute.

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Ethan on a motor scooter with Xiaolo

While we have driven motor scooters and the like through the countryside, we have yet to get behind the wheel of a car. Part of this is trepidation about driving in China, where the two rules of the road seem to be “Drive aggressively” and “Always be beeping.” As a Californian, I adhere to the policy that using one’s horn for anything other than a near-fatal accident is unnecessary. But here, horns are for communication – honk when you drive by another car, honk when you’re behind someone, honk if no one is around but you feel like making your presence known. Also, lines on the road are more suggestions than rules – many of our taxi drivers have spent at least half their routes driving against the traffic flow.

When Things Are Good, They’re Really Good:

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Ethan plays ping-pong with the Coolest Man in the World™

Even with us lao wai (slang for “foreign”) tourists, so many people in China have been incredibly friendly. We’ve been challenged to ping-pong matches, offered free food and drinks, and generally helped by locals in every city. I’ve seen many more smiles here than in Japan, and received quite a few enthusiastic “Hello’s!” from strangers and passers-by. It’s nice to feel as though you’re in a safe community no matter where you are, and that people are aware of one another.

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Many Americans still think China is like this ^

To continue that, China has felt very safe the entire time I’ve been in the country. Before we left the US, one of the more common questions we got was “China? Are you sure it’s safe?” The fact is, average citizens don’t have access to guns (the local police don’t even carry them), the city streets are well lit, and since people are always outside, hanging out or walking around, you never feel like you’re going to get snuck up on or even bothered. The United States is far more dangerous than anywhere I’ve been in China (especially recently), and one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from Chinese citizens is “America? Is it safe?”

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Me getting ready to devour beef noodles

Let’s move on to something we can all agree on – FOOD. Every single meal I’ve had has been awesome, and I don’t regret a single one (okay, maybe whatever gave me food poisoning, but other than that…) I enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but their favorite spice appears to be salt. Here in Sichuan, every meal has at least 20 different spices thrown in, plus garlic, onions, and all kinds of flavors. We were both challenged by hot pot – in Chongqing, it’s not just a meal, it’s a lifestyle – and the traditional ingredients – goose guts, chicken feet, beef stomach. Still, we persevered, because anything cooked in a Sichuan sauce is worth eating.

Bright Lights Big Cities

Here are some highlights from each city – if it’s mentioned, it’s recommended!

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View of Guangzhou from Zhenhai Tower (Five-Story Pagoda)

Guangzhou

  • Lazy Gaga Hostel – One of the best hostels we’ve stayed at thus far. Excellent facilities, super clean, reliable wifi, socializing space, and even a few groceries.
  • Tristan’s Tex-Mex – We Californians were dying for anything resembling Mexican food, and we found a restaurant run by an American expat! The burritos were heavenly, and Ethan nearly cried when Tristan himself brought out Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas beer from behind the counter.
  • Sun Yat-sen Memorial Museum – Beautiful architecture houses a near-complete history of Sun Yat-sen’s contributions to the forming of modern China, as well as a history of the building itself.
  • Zhujiang New Town – Really cool plaza in the middle of the city, with gardens, art pieces, and tons of people watching. It’s especially lovely at night, when all of the surrounding skyscrapers are lit up.
  • Zhujiang River Cruise – We were lucky to be with a Guangzhou local (shoutout to Annie!) who brought us on this fabulous cruise up and down the Zhujiang River. While it was cool watching the city at night, I’d go back for the daytime cruise, too.
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View of our village outside Yangshuo – check out them karsts!!!

Yangshuo

  • West Street – Very touristy, but it had quite a few interesting shops and services (We had our toes nibbled by fish. Best $4 I’ve ever spent). At night, it’s PACKED with people, but that’s when the local restaurants and bars come alive…
  • Mojo Bar – A paradise for expats, Mojo is owned and operated by newbies to China. Great drinks, free video games, and friendly staff.
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View of one neighborhood (and neat bridge) in Chongqing

Chongqing

  • Qianximen Bridge – In a world full of phallic buildings, yonic architecture is hard to find. This bridge is visually compelling and fun to walk across – during our stroll, we watched a wedding photo shoot happening on the median while cars rushed past!
  • Three Gorges Museum – This huge museum holds a ton of exhibits, both temporary and permanent, and focuses especially on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (a marvel or a fiasco, depending on who you talk to).
  • Hot Pot Cultural Promenade Yingbin – Just over the hill from the city, hot pot restaurants spread for miles. According to our AirBnB host (shoutout to Coco!) who brought us to this culinary delight, the locals of Chongqing celebrate everything by eating hot pot.
  • Ciqikou – An adorable winding path lined with shops and eateries, Ciqikou has been a shopper’s paradise for centuries. Today, the wares are mostly plastic (or fidget spinners), but we did come across some cool antique kiosks full of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.
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View of Jinjiang River in Chengdu

Chengdu

  • Giant Panda Research Base – WE SAW PANDAS PLAYING TOGETHER AND EATING BAMBOO. AND RED PANDAS. SO MANY PANDAS.
  • Jinsha Site Museum – Amazing preserved archaeological dig, plus a museum of the items found and their historical significance. The park around it is beautiful and pleasant to walk through as well.
  • Mrs Panda Hostel – Another highlight of our Journey of a Thousand Hostels, Mrs Panda Hostel is super clean, inexpensive, and all of their food is tasty. Extra points for having the board games Set and Carcassonne, which we’ve missed dearly.
  • Sichuan Museum – This enormous building houses quite a few exhibits on regional history, highlighting all sorts of arts, crafts, and more. My favorite section focused on traditional embroidery and brocade – the fabrics were incredible.
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Your friendly E’s of AirEandE

Ethan and I were lucky to be granted ten-year visas, allowing us to enter and exit China without issue for the next decade (for 60 days at a time maximum). And after spending a month and a half in the southwest, I can say that I’ll be looking forward to more Chinese travel experiences in the future. Though I’ll bring my own supply of DEET next time.

How We’re Doing This Travel Thing

By Emily*

This post is going to focus around a lot of the questions we get, as well as an overview of what the trip is like from a day-to-day perspective. If you have a question for us that isn’t answered here, go ahead and ask!

“Why are you doing this?”

Short answer: We both love traveling.

Long answer: After experiencing Japan for the first time during a trip in 2016, Ethan was eager to return (and add a few other Asian nations to the itinerary). I hadn’t been on a trip longer than one or two weeks since 2010. We spent a few months discussing the pro’s and con’s (mostly the pro’s) and deciding how/when we’d be able to undertake a long term trip.

A few factors in our decision to travel now, versus later: we’re both at an age/life stage where we don’t mind “rougher” living situations (hostels, walking all day, etc); we were both ready to leave our current jobs and experience something different for a while; we don’t have too many responsibilities (like mortgages, kids, school, etc) that could affect future travel plans.

“How are you paying for this?”

When we made the decision to undertake a year-long adventure, it was about a year in advance of our planned departure date. We read a lot of travel blog posts online about how different travelers budgeted for such a journey, and came up with the figure of $10,000 each for a year of travel. We spent the year saving money, adjusting for planned expenses (phone bills, travel insurance, etc) and researching cheap travel tips (as well as Workaway and CouchSurfing). Currently, we both make money while traveling via remote working – I write articles for BabyNameWizard, and Ethan advises high school students applying to college via email and Skype. We’ve also adjusted our length of trip from “one year” to “when the money runs out” – we would rather have more flexibility/comfort now than prolonging an uncomfortable trip.

“How did you plan ahead?”

Internet! It is easier than ever to find destination recommendations, cheap flight websites, and free daily itineraries in almost every language for every country. Travel blogs written by people like us (millennial Westerners without an infinite sum of money) have been incredibly helpful. We also depend a lot on WikiTravel, Google Maps, and Reddit. Being who I am, I’ve made quite a few spreadsheets to keep track of flights and hostels, what to pack, and weekly plans (when necessary).

“Why are you traveling in Asia?”

Ethan was the impetus for this decision – being an amateur scholar of Japanese history and language (#weeaboo) and working with recent Chinese immigrants to the United States sparked his curiosity to explore these particular countries. When we started researching travel plans, we found that adding Southeast Asia to our trip wouldn’t be too difficult once we were already in the “area” (continent).

While my travel experience prior to this has been in the US and Europe, I was eager to expand my knowledge on a part of the world that I’ve learned very little about. There’s also not many places in the world to which I *wouldn’t* go – I’ve got one life, might as well use it to explore all there is to see!

“What’s in your backpack?”

Probably too much. I’m currently using Flight 001 bags to organize everything, so at least it’s not all in a jumble. Here’s a quick run down:

  • Clothes: Three dresses, four tops, two undershirts, skirt, jeans, belt, leggings, shorts, pajama shirt/shorts, swimsuit, sweater, scarf, two pairs of socks, three bras, five underwears (ExOfficio is amazing!!), Birkenstock sandals, tennis shoes
  • Electronics: Laptop (MacBook Air), iPhone, mobile charger, charging cords, international outlet adapters, earbuds
  • Toiletries: deodorant, lotion (doubles as styling product), acne cream, face wash, toothbrush/toothpaste, floss, tweezers, mascara, lipstick, sunscreen
  • Medical kit: ibuprofen, band-aids, tampons (which are incredibly hard to find in Asia!!!), anti-malaria pills, antidepressants (I stocked up on a year’s worth in advance)
  • Documents: passport, driver’s license, immunization record, visa paperwork
  • Miscellaneous: quick-dry towel, sewing kit, travel blanket and pillow, tissues, pens/notebooks, reusable utensils, safety pins, lint roller, inflatable hanger, rain poncho, umbrella, mini combination locks, hair elastics, laundry soap packets

Being able to carry everything I own feels limiting in some ways but liberating in others. For example, I’m not very into fashion, but I really miss wearing more than three different outfits and putting on makeup when I want to. On the other hand, I’m always very proud when I find ways to use my limited tools to solve problems – tweezers and safety pins are surprisingly versatile!

“What do you do every day?”

It depends on the day!

  • Travel days – Going between cities usually involves either a bus, train, or plane. On these days, we pack up and check out of our hostel/Workaway, then spend a few hours schlepping our gear through turnstiles and subway stations. Once we arrive at the new location, we check into our hostel/Workaway, and usually rest. These days are sweaty and very tiring, so we don’t usually get to do much sightseeing.
  • Workaway days – We wake up, eat breakfast, and work for a few hours. Then we spend the rest of the day checking out the local sites or relaxing until dinner. Naps are often involved, as is socializing with other workers. Check out my post on Workaway here.
  • “Work days” – I usually sit in a quiet air-conditioned room and write a baby name article (with occasional bouts of procrastinating on Sporcle). Ethan will follow up with students via email or hold Skype meetings (with occasional bouts of procrastinating on news websites). We also use these days to plan travel logistics, such as buying bus/train tickets, creating itineraries for cities, or contacting Workaways we want to go to in the future.
  • Sightseeing days – We walk, look at things, and sweat. Well, a little bit more goes into it: we usually come up with a route or neighborhood of a city that contains a few sites we’re interested in. This can include museums, statues, parks, shopping streets, monuments, cool buildings, and temples. While we’re walking through it, we take a lot of pictures and usually embarrass ourselves in one way or another. We’ll also try to sample the local cuisine!

*Because this is written by Emily, some facets of Ethan’s travel experience are not included (obviously). Feel free to message him directly if you have questions for him!

The Ups and Downs of Workaway

By Emily

Today is my 76th day of travel (105th for Ethan), and I’ve been working for roughly half of it – 14 days in Nagano, 6 days in Osaka, 13 days in Kuma Kougen, and 4 days in Guangzhou (soon to be 5). For those who don’t know, part of the way Ethan and I have been keeping costs down on our trip has been through the Workaway program. Workaway connects international volunteers with community-oriented businesses, promising cultural exchange and a way for travelers to stay in areas that might be expensive or difficult to find. Businesses post about themselves on the site, and talk about what kind of work volunteers will do as well as what they offer in return – accommodation, food, activities, etc. We volunteers then email these places and apply to work for them, usually for a minimum of two weeks. Workaway puts in place an hourly maximum (no more than 5 hours a day, maximum 5 days per week) and allows volunteers to review the businesses and vice versa.

When I first heard about this program, it sounded too good to be true. Free food and lodging for hanging out at a hostel a few hours a day? (Childcare, farm/garden work, and English teaching are among the other popular opportunities). I agreed with Ethan, that this program could help us travel for a longer period of time, and help us explore these towns that we might never see otherwise. So, we decided to base our trip through East and Southeast Asia around the Workaway opportunities we could get.

37 work days later, my opinion on Workaway has changed a bit. Here’s a breakdown of my perspective on the pro’s and con’s of the program:

Advantages:

  • People: Through Workaway opportunities, I’ve met dozens of travelers and become friends with them; in countries where I can’t speak the requisite language(s), this has been a godsend. Because we’re eating, living, and working together, we can form friendships quickly based on common ground. I’ve heard stories from their home countries and their travels, gone out drinking, karaoke-ing, and sightseeing with new friends, and made connections for further travels (looking at you, Europe and Australia). Being homesick for my friends and family has been made so much easier with these new connections and new friends.
  • New Skills: While the opportunities we’ve chosen have mostly centered around cleaning and gardening, I can definitely say that I’ve learned new ways of getting things done. I can now thoroughly clean a bathroom in under 5 minutes, shuck freshly-chopped bamboo for use in meals, and make a bed in at least 4 different ways. I’m now much less grossed-out by tasks that previously annoyed me – washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, and ignoring large bugs (much harder than it sounds). If nothing else, I’ll be able to return to the US and complain less about emptying the dishwasher (this is for you, Mom).
  • Saving Money: Whether or not meals are provided with the Workaway opportunity (about half the time), staying at a Workaway location means saving money. There’s not having to worry about hostel/AirBnB fees, avoiding transportation costs, getting meals and/or drinks covered by the business (or at least discounted), and spending a few days working instead of going out and spending cash on museum visits, souvenirs, etc. For people I’ve met who are staying at a Workaway for two months or more, this is a crucial part of their budget.

Disadvantages

  • Workaway Profile vs. Real Experience: As would be expected, many businesses play up their amenities and play down the work itself in order to attract volunteers. However, in 2/4 of the places we’ve been, the work has just not been accurately advertised – one place said that gardening and painting cabins were the main projects, but when we showed up, the work was cleaning cabins and bathrooms daily. Our current location advertises itself as an “Eco-Village,” and said teaching dance and music and gardening would be our primary focus, but the last three days have been spent hacking a trail through the nearby forest in 90 degree heat. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a week cleaning a hostel if they were clear about it on the website (and I’m really efficient at it now), but promising one thing and delivering another feels like a trick.
  • Difficult Managers: Having left my favorite boss ever at my last job in CA (miss you, Linda <3), I might have some high expectations. Two managers through Workaway have been particularly amazing (Maya!!! and Kate!!!) and wrangled dozens of wacky millennial volunteers with grace and fairness. But at the other locations, management has been… disorganized to say the least. In some instances, the volunteer managers can’t speak enough English to explain the tasks, the daily schedule, etc., and since the default language for most international travelers is English, it’s been rough. In other cases, they’ve been uncommunicative for other reasons, asked more work than was originally requested, or shown a lack of respect to the workers. One issue we’ve run into a few times is what a fellow traveler called “being a petting zoo”: Workaway staff are “shown off” to guests as exotic foreigners (while we’re working, and we’ve even been asked to show up to locations just so the locals can see us), but we’re discouraged from actually speaking to guests and practicing the language.
  • Fatigue: With a maximum of 4-5 hours work per day, I was anticipating a lot of free time to explore the cities or get some writing done. But a lot of the work has been exhausting, to the point where I’m too tired to leave the Workaway or even read/write effectively. Maybe I was naive to think that I could do helpful work in four-hour shifts that wouldn’t make me want to lay down and sleep for the rest of the day. But combining work with the stress of being in a brand-new location with a new language, having your body get used to new foods/living environments/time zones, and doing the necessary upkeep for personal and mental health (socializing, hobbies, exercise, etc) is a lot. I suppose there’s a reason many people separate travel and work!

To counteract the negatives, Ethan and I have been alternating Workaway weeks with strictly travel/sightseeing weeks. This allows us to feel like we’re doing more of what we want and still saving money. We’ve also started including “work/relax” days in our plans, without any attractions/excursions, to help us catch up on much-needed mental and physical rest. As we identify possible Workaways to visit in the future, we’re more careful to get clear instructions from businesses on what they’re looking for and how they’re managed.

Ultimately, I still think that Workaway is a great option for people who want to travel, save money, and live like a local for a bit. It definitely helps if you have energy and a sense of humor! But if you’re looking for a way to travel for a long period of time without A) being rich or B) working… keep looking. And tell me how when you figure it out!

On Language

By Emily

I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent post about my experiences with language on this trip, but I consistently come up short. There are so many different aspects to this topic that it’s hard to find a thread to string them together – hence my title, “On Language.” Still, I’m going to attempt writing this, in no small part because I’m interested to see what my friends and family have to offer from their own perspectives – please comment!

I’ll begin at the beginning, I guess.

I studied Spanish for a semester in sixth grade, then a semester about a year ago after college. I studied French for three years in high school and three and a half years in college. I took a semester of German on top of that, and have been using the occasional language-learning apps to practice my skills and attempt new languages sporadically. But still, I consider myself an English-only speaker, with a minor French proficiency.

And boy, am I lucky.

In every hostel I’ve stayed in – six so far in Japan – the default language used has been English. Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican travelers all introduce themselves to one another with “Hello, my name is…” Many of these individuals are in their twenties and thirties, and all use English with a comfort and skill-level I’ve never reached in my own language pursuits. Quite frankly, because of this phenomenon, I’ll never really “have to” learn another language. The world around me has evolved towards catering to my culture, which causes me both extreme relief and acute discomfort.

On the one hand, it’s normally easier for all participants in a conversation to immediately switch to English than to watch an English speaker struggle through foreign verb conjugation. Because our (speaking for Americans here) education system doesn’t prioritize language-learning, many of us weren’t even given the option to expand our speech until high school or college, quite a few years after the “ideal” developmental period of pre-K. Other nations begin language-learning much earlier, and for a variety of socio-political-economic reasons, English has been a very common second language to teach.

I’m certainly benefiting from these phenomena – less formal schooling AND other people cater to me?? Hell yeah!! – but I’m aware of the problems implicit within them. For instance, should the world suddenly stop catering to Americans, I’d be screwed. And from a more progressive standpoint, I’m part of a system that’s hindering my own mental growth. Dozens of studies show the benefits of learning multiple languages – they broaden your mind measurably, allowing you to look at problems and situations from a myriad of perspectives in ways that single-language speakers can’t grasp. Looking at the current political situation in the US, I think it’s fairly clear that many of us have certain stunted narrow-minded attitudes that are manifesting themselves in racism, violence, and willful ignorance (not to say that a lack of language-learning is the only influence at play here, but it absolutely doesn’t help).

So here I am, a witless American touring a country whose official language I can’t begin to comprehend. Sure, I have the basics covered – “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” “Where is the plum wine?” – but putting together a sentence is like pulling my own teeth. Invariably I’ve been rescued by a kindly shopkeeper with some English, or by Ethan (who adores learning languages) eager to practice his Japanese. Most Japanese citizens respond to him with a combination of surprise and delight, totally floored that this pasty-white blue-eyed foreigner is asking them questions in (mostly) grammatically-correct Japanese. Quite often, they compliment him on his language skills if he says anything beyond “Konnichiwa” or “Arigatou gozaimasu.” As his girlfriend, I love watching him astound other people. But as his travel partner, I wonder if I’m depending too much on him in situations that could advance my own language-learning, for fear of the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with language practice.

It’s not as if all of Japan speaks perfect English – one of our favorite travel pastimes has been pointing out billboards, shirts, and storefronts with odd English-inspired phrases on them. Things like “I Hate’ Mondays,” “Wel Come,” or “It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time” (which I still haven’t figured out) have us nudging each other and giggling. But when I flip the situation, in which I were a store owner trying to cater to Japanese clients, I certainly would do much worse in trying to diagram a phrase in Japanese. This fear of speaking less-than-perfectly is part of the reason I gave up on learning Japanese after memorizing hiragana (the phonetic Japanese alphabet) and beginning katakana.

But then again, this journey isn’t about doing anything perfectly. It’s about getting outside of my comfort zone long enough to learn something, to see something new, to talk to a person (or ten) I’ve never met before. Perhaps this whole essay “On Language” is really about the difficulty in leaving comfortable situations behind, and embracing the unknown.

Or maybe, I’m just procrastinating studying Mandarin before we arrive in China.