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HK In a Day!

Sam and I went on an overnight “business” trip to Hong Kong earlier this week. And I feel compelled to share our adventure because of how much of a mess it truly was for everyone involved. Buckle up!

We had to go on this trip to sort some visa stuff out for Taiwan. The process is immediate, so we could have come back to Taiwan same-day, but decided to stay overnight to see some of our friends that live in HK.

We get up hours before our flight, and make our way to the bus station. There’s a thunder/lightning/torrential rain storm happening in Taipei as we are getting onto the bus. And it’s rush hour. Double traffic whammy. The bus is inching through the city at a pace so slow I honestly thought about getting out and running part of the way to make up for time lost (a fleeting thought, obviously.). Collectively, I think everyone on the bus started to realize how late the bus was running at about the same moment. People started to get up and mill about and chat on the phone trying to sort out their situations. Still, Sam and I held on to a fleeting hope that since we had chosen to go to HK without any luggage, they’d just let us sprint through the airport with 2 minutes to spare and a closing gate and a wing and a prayer. But alas.

We get to the airport at about 9:30, flight scheduled for 10. The airline counter tells us we are ten minutes to late to get on to the flight. We beg and plead, and they politely tell us to shove off. We ask to be out onto the next flight, and they tell us to call the travel agency our friend book the flight through. So begins the longest, most pricey 30 minutes of our life. Calls are being placed back and forth—to us, to Jojo, to the travel agent—and we finally get put onto the next flight. Which, again, leaves in about 30 minutes. We scramble through lines, get ushered to customer service, get thrown back into the general line. Get our ticket printed and sprint though the airport to security. Our sweat pools as our purses slowly roll through the machine. We sprint again between security and our gate.

As soon as we get to the gate, we are told that there will be a minor delay because, duh, look outside. You can’t even see the runways it is raining so hard. Nice. This definitely means that that flight we “missed” hadn’t left either. But OKAY, whatever, fine. We’ll just get a bottle of water and chill in the gate. So we do that. And after about 10 minutes we hear an announcement that the plane we were anticipating getting on had been struck by lightning upon its descent into Taipei, so it would be about an hour of routine maintenance before we could leave. OKAY! That’s fine. An hour. Lightning. Okay. Manageable.

But then, an hour passes. They hand out meal vouchers for inside the airport. Another hour passes. We find out the flight has moved gates. Another hour passes. Finally, we get on the flight. And smooth air-sailing from there. No lightning strikes on our flight! Score.

Hong Kong was fun. We saw all of our friends from the past few summers at camp. We all met Emily and her mom for dim sum. We did a little hike up Garden Hill and got some really beautiful panoramic views of HK at night. The hostel we stayed at was trash, and tried to kick me out of my bed in the middle of the night, so I’m going to refrain from including its name! But overall, very fun time in the city.

The next day, we got to the airport 6 hours early. And got drunk. Just in case chaos ensued for the second day in a row. But luckily, everything went smooth on our way back. And now we’re back in Taiwan right in the nick of time—my brother and a few friends are going to be camp counselors here with us this summer! A busy 10 weeks ahead. But I will be taking my peeps to do some of the token touristy stuff in the city throughout the summer, so I’ll try and blog about that stuff!

Hope everyone is well. There is so much shitty shit going on in the States right now. And I really hope everyone is doing okay. Stay strong. And vigilant. And proud of who you are. Love you guys!

Going for Broke in Morocco

In late March, a group of us went to Morocco for spring break. (Listen, I know what you’re thinking: “Har, you graduated from university a year ago, you can’t just arbitrarily celebrate spring break anymore!” Let me live. And my karma came to me. Stay tuned.)

I left Ireland with a heavy heart and not a lot of money to work with, but I was pumped to finally see Morocco, and be back on my favorite continent for the first time in over a year. We had a long, complicated flight path (as usual. Help me, I’m poor!). Finally got to Rabat after dark. Our Airbnb situation ended up being a little ways out of the city, but all the more adventure it became. That first day, we briefly stopped in Rabat (and struggled greatly with buying train tickets, so a silent nod to the young guy in the train station who helped us buy them and physically guide us to the train) before heading to the city of Meknes for a mini-excursion. The train ride was a total ego boost—I spent all two hours chatting with this charming old archaeology professor and really crushing it with a bunch of French I didn’t know I could speak. The old city center (a UNESCO Heritage Site!) of Meknes was beautiful. A labyrinth of streets and vendors and homes and colors, encapsulated by the “Old Gate to the City.” We went to a restaurant with a lovely view of the city called Le Collier de la Colombe. It is upstairs at a hotel, there’s free wifi, the food is phenomenal and cheap, and the women that work there are all super nice. They helped us hail a cab back to the train station so that we wouldn’t miss the last one back to Rabat. (Didn’t, but then gloriously missed the last train back to Bouznika from there and had to take a taxi. Live and learn in Morocco I guess!)

The next day I left the group to go to Marrakech. I was doing the trek alone to meet Shelby, who was flying in that evening. I’ve become very good at traveling alone, and though it is typically more stressful, I live for it. Made it to Marrakech with ease (and a couple hours early), so I walked from the train station to city center. I think if I would have informed my friends that I was doing this alone at dusk, they would’ve been pretty pissed—there is a lot of stigma behind the idea of women traveling alone in Africa, and just in general, for a bunch of different reasons. And a lot of it is valid—we live in a gross world and women do have to look out for their safety in ways that men have no concept of. But I also feel very confident in my ability to take care of myself (like, I carry a knife and know how to kick someone’s ass). So I walked across Marrakech in the twilight alone. And got a lot of cat calls, and a few guys stop or slow down their cars to try and get my attention. Comes with the territory of exploring developing countries (and developed countries. Let’s be real, people can be disgusting). I had the time of my life! Seeing Marrakech in my favorite way—leisurely and alone. Got to city center right as it was getting dark. Walked around the world-famous market (and got called a fashion disaster by an exasperated vendor who really wanted the attention I wasn’t paying him) for a while before Shelby hopped off her shuttle and we booked it to the hostel we reserved.

We stayed at Dream Kasbah—I would say it was a dream for sure. The hostel itself is cute, and the people that choose to stay there all seemed very fun to talk to and down for adventure. There was free breakfast, and they offered tours of different parts of Morocco. We walked to and through the market for a few hours (the shopping is fun, get your game face on for hardcore bargaining, and expect to be hassled if you look like a “foreigner”) (oh, and try the orange juice. Life changing.). We then hopped on a train back to Rabat.

It is then that my memory of the trip becomes a bit more of a blur—we only really had one day left, and right as Sam and her friends were leaving to head to the airport, I lost/had my wallet stolen. Aka all of my money, my debit cards, the works. Like, I was 24 hours away from moving to Asia for the rest of the year, and I had literally not a penny to my name. I am absolutely certain that if Shelby hadn’t been with me on that last day, I would have popped a blood vessel. Needless to say, the next couple weeks of my life were very complicated—full of loans and favors and money-transfers and packages being frantically sent across the world. I want to take an extra second to virtually hug any- and everyone that helped me out. Going broke as a nomad is actually terrifying, but there’s always a way to fix things!

Balance has been restored, no worries. And I am living in Taiwan for the rest of 2016! I’ll be posting a few odd blogs about the different things to do in Taiwan that I have found this year at some point. Until then, I miss everyone and hope you all are doing great!! Much love.

Mission Accom-Polish-ed (and Some Other Eastern European Countries)

In the middle of March, I went on a week-long holiday to Eastern Europe with my friend Shelby. Our goals were simple: to eat and drink our way through all of the places we visited, and take great photos of every step of the way. And to do it all for under a collective $250. (Spoiler: all goals were accomplished. Or accom-Polish-ed, if I may…) I’m going to break this blog down by each place we went throughout the week!

Bratislava, Slovakia: We had a very short window in Bratislava, but planned to use the 18 hours to their fullest potential. We flew in, hopped on the first bus into the city, and made it to our hostel pretty easy (A Wild Elephants Hostel is where we stayed, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone!!!). The staff at the hostel took us on an “abandoned hospital sunset tour” and WOW. Just, wow. It was just Shelby and I on the tour, and a handful of volunteers from the hostel. We found our way to the top floor of a hospital that kinda could’ve definitely felt haunted if we were alone in there at night. But we sat on the roof (a free, incredible, view of the city of Bratislava), drank beer, and watched the sun set. Magic. We went out to dinner and hung out with some of the other guests of the hostel (and actually, literally, crushed the patriarchy that evening, but that’s another day’s story).

Prague, Czech Republic: What an incredible place. In a full day’s time, we were able to walk around and see all the major stuff the city has to offer. The astronomical clock and Old Town square, the John Lennon Wall, the Charles Bridge (we touched the good luck charm!), all of the incredible architecture, a lot of cool installation art scattered throughout the city, great (and cheap) food and drink. Prague is beautiful. (Side note, if you follow me on Snapchat, this is the city in which I posted a 5 minute long, very messy, story of Shelb and I trying Czech snacks and impersonating YouTube videos. Sorry, but also, not very sorry because we had a great night!)

Auschwitz/Birkenau: What an indescribable experience. I’ve struggled a lot on how to write about the visit to the museum/grounds, because it was so… Something. It was something. It was terrible. How could it not be? It gave me the same feeling as standing on top of the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor did. Or looking out of the Door of No Return on Goree Island in Senegal. It sucks. It’s uncomfortable. But I’m honored I had the opportunity to do it. To freely walk through the halls of a place that destroyed and ended so many lives—as an observant. Feeling nothing even close to what the million people that died there felt. Experiencing things like that—having such privilege to experience things like that—is horrifying and important. The tour guide I had said something right at the end of our tour that really stuck with me:  “Take what you see here, see it as a grain of salt on a bigger beach. This is a genocide we pay homage to, but it is not the only genocide that has ever happened. There is more than one genocide happening as I speak to you today. So be more than a visitor at a museum. Be more than a charitable donation. I hope today makes you want to do something, because I shouldn’t have to have a job at a former death camp. No one should have this job.”

Krakow, Poland: Probably my favorite place we stayed on this trip? We, again, saw a lot of the major sights in the full day we had there. The castle, the cathedral (and the dragon bones hanging over the door of the cathedral!), the old town square, the Jewish Quarter. We even rode in a horse drawn carriage (listen, it was cheap and we were feeling regal) through town square. The food was dangerously cheap, the people were interesting, and the hostel (Atlantis Hostel) was very nice. We had one roommate that we particularly enjoyed, an old man that had been everywhere in the world and was waiting for his papers to clear so he could return to his home in Ukraine. He bought us pizza while we were out one night, and gave it to us for breakfast the next morning. I love old people. I love Krakow.

Warsaw, Poland: Actually hardly saw the city at all. We had about an hour and a half to sight see, so we walked through old town (sensing a pattern here). We had heard mixed reviews about Warsaw, and ultimately ended up choosing to not spend a full day there. But after walking through old town, we have mild regret. Oh well, next time!

What a week it was. My disposable camera was filled with very stupid, lovely memories and my wallet was drained. Loved it. Be back soon.

P.S. I Love You, Ireland Pt. 2

After leaving California in late January (and stopping over to see some friends in New York City for a couple days), I landed in Ireland with a hangover and high hopes. I was to be volunteering at a hostel in County Wicklow—just south of Dublin—for the next month.

Through the site WorkAway, I was able to secure a bed at a hostel along the Wicklow Way—work a couple hours of housekeeping 5 days a week in exchange for free accommodations and spend the other two days a week however/wherever I please. (I almost always chose Dublin). As per usual, I showed up winging it. Found out it was about an hour’s walk from any bus stop/convenience store/civilization of any sorts. I half-expected that, and really came to love the seclusion, but when I had to trek back in the morning after a long night in Dublin, it could be a bit much. Still, loved every day of it.

The area is truly a dream. Though it rained most days (and snowed a couple times!), I did get a few full hiking days; the days I got lost for a few hours without a phone or a worry in the world are the ones that will stick with me. If the weather was shit for most of the day, but cleared up even briefly, I would slip out the back and walk down to a small, secret gazebo none of the other volunteers knew about. From the looks of it, the people whose property it was on used it as a place to practice shooting—there were empty bottles and cans lining the edge of it and shell casings all over the ground. It was an oasis for me. I would go there to write or read or take photos or nap if it wasn’t freezing.

My days off in Dublin are what made this stint in Ireland so lovely. I met up with friends and explored new parts of the area I didn’t have time to see before (like Dun Laoghaire and Howth and Killiney Hill and, a bit further out, Bray). I drank a lot. Ate a lot of buffalo wings and eggs benedict. I spent Valentine’s Day bowling with Shelby and Irish Mother’s Day eating homemade apple tart with Ciaran’s family. I worked my first photography gig making everyone look glam at an event for Ciaran’s veterinary class. I even celebrated St Patrick’s Day in Dublin! I wish I had more to say about that day but I started celebrating when I woke up and didn’t stop until I fell asleep on a street corner at midnight. It was grand.

My last weekend was spent on a road trip to county Mayo in the west of Ireland. What is supposed to be the rainiest part of Ireland was sunny and not freezing. We visited Clew Bay (which is composed of 365 islands woah), Ciaran and I briefly explored the town of Westport and went to a party at one of his friend’s houses. It’s funny to see Irish people’s reaction to a three-hour road trip, because for me that’s a day-trip to Santa Cruz or the Bay. Within a day of driving back to Dublin, I was off on my next adventure.

If this blog seems brief considering how long I was in Ireland, apologies. I was way more focused on myself and having a good time with my friends than documenting my every move. And I really did enjoy myself. I fuckin’ love Ireland. In a lot of ways, most of which are impossible to articulate. On to my next adventure. Hope everyone’s great. Talk soon.

A Transatlantic Minute

 

I left home almost two weeks ago. The five weeks I spent at home with my friends and family really did feel like it passed by in the blink of an eye, but I’m so grateful to have seen everyone. Even if briefly. My life-bae Sam, who’s always left in charge of talking me down when my pre-travel anxiety kicks in, said to me: “it’s so easy to get comfortable.” How. Freakin. True.

It’s such an obvious statement. I get it. Duh. But it’s so true. I got home, kicked off my shoes, snuggled up to the family dog and ate all the food my mom cooked. I saw all my friends and decorated the Christmas tree and had Chipotle several times and bought a bunch of clothes at all my favorite stores. Stockton is comfortable (existentially. Physically and realistically, probably not that much. If it really gelled with me, I would still be there. But alas.), Stockton is familiar. Stockton is home to my mom, and my high school, and Yummy Sushi Burrito. We’ve got history together. And it’s so easy to get comfortable in the routine of seeing and doing things that are just muscle memory. And I almost got too comfortable! Not that there’s anything wrong with people settling down in Stockton (maybe there is), but that is not what is in my cards. And I know that. But still, getting on my flight out of Central California on January 20 was really rough.

But then I landed in New York City, and everything felt a bit better. Because now I have traveling muscle memory too. And travel—while at times extremely, ridiculously, uncomfortable—is comfortable and familiar to me. My lovely friend Alicia (from my study abroad in Senegal in 2014!) picked me up from the airport and we spent the next two days catching up, seeing our other study-abroad-buddy Arden, drinking a bunch, and we went to a concert. It was great. New York City can be fun to visit when you have good company. I departed from JFK literally as it began snowing and Winter Storm Jonas (unfortunately, little-to-no connection to the Jonas Brothers) descended on the tristate area. What good luck.

After several hours of transit (and several face masks), Dublin welcomed me. I was in the city for a few days. Spent most of my time drinking and being merry. Honestly, not much new to report from that time. And now I am an hour south of Dublin, living at a hostel, volunteering for a free bed. And it’s magical. But I’ll blog about my time here at the end of the month when I really have a feel for it. Until then, I love and miss all my friends at home and everywhere, and hope that everyone’s doing great! I sure am!

 

One (Very Merry) Night in Belgium

About a month ago, I was trying to figure out my flight path home from Spain. I knew I wanted to visit a Christmas market—everything I had heard about them sounded magical. So I asked Ciarán (worked at camp with me, we went to Malaysian Borneo together, he’s super Irish…Ring a bell?) for advice. Where should I go? Should I drop my bags in Ireland first or bring them with me? Will they have festive alcoholic beverage choices? The essentials.

Ciarán knows better than pretty much anyone that I love to wing it when it comes to travel—for example, because of my whimsical idea to use only a paper map in Borneo, we got lost on the road about 8 times a day (still sorry, Ciarán)—so he came up with an idea. He double checked when I wanted to go, when my flight to the States would be, and then went on his merry way BOOKING A TRIP TO A SECRET COUNTRY FOR ME TO VISIT A CHRISTMAS MARKET. I was not to find out until I got to the airport the morning of my flight. The only hint I got was that this country was known for its chips (not super helpful, seeing how everyone loves potatoes).

I had a month to look forward to this. And I really did. It would have been easy enough to cheat, look up flights out of Dublin on that day around the time he gave me and narrow it down. But I did not! I was up for the adventure. He checked in for me and printed the boarding passes, and stuck them in an envelope.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday morning. I had flown into Dublin the night before. Ciarán handed me the envelope and dared me not to take any luggage with me. I agreed, grabbed my camera, and walked out the door. All I had was my camera, wallet, phone/charger, and the envelope with the tickets.

I get to the airport, and the only aimlessly wandering person I could find was a confused old man. I asked if he could record me opening the envelope. His perplexed, disinterested glare I could see from over the tip of my phone as he recorded me made me nervous. I opened the envelope….BELGIUM! Brussels! I nervously thanked the man recording me and went through security. You get a lot of looks when you literally have nothing with you but cash and a camera. But I was pumped. Since I was a tad early, I got online and booked a hostel. I pulled out the note that Ciarán had put in the envelope with my boarding pass. There was a to-do list for while I was in Brussels. How. Cool. It included eating chips (French fries, my American friends!) and waffles and chocolate and drinking Belgian beer and making a friend and such.

I arrived right as it was getting dark. I took a shuttle bus into Brussels. Remember, at this point, I had still had very little time to research Brussels. So I get off at the last stop. It’s dark, it’s raining, I’m starving. I see Christmas lights in the distance and assume it’s got something to do with the Christmas market, so I start walking. I was wrong BUT there was a chips shop right where I stopped off. One item checked off the list. I connected to wifi and mapped out where I was and realized I had walked in the opposite direction of the market! Of course! I bought an umbrella and walked almost two miles across Brussels to the market. The walk, though extremely brisk and moist, was very cool. Brussels is the political capital of the European Union, so there are a lot of important looking buildings scattered throughout the city. The closer to the city center I got, the older and fancier the architecture got. The Grand Place (city center) is, quite honestly, one of the prettiest places I have had the chances to see in Europe thus far. The buildings are the actual definition of marvelous, there was a huge Christmas tree, and (I kid you not) it smelled like chocolate.

Just a little further was the Christmas market. It was JUST as magical as I had hoped. There were over a hundred food/drink/gift/stuff booths! I visited almost all of them. I drank Belgian beer (I still hate beer, so) and spiked hot chocolate, ate a bunch, bought gifts, and rode a huge Ferris wheel and got the greatest vantage point of the market and greater Brussels area.

The next day I walked around all day. Literally just walked around. Revisited the city center, walked around in the city’s biggest park, ate at the most famous fish & chips restaurant in Belgium, walked more. It was sunny and not crazy cold and seeing more of the city was great. I flew back to Dublin that evening and left the following morning. 6 flights in 5 days! This week’s been quite the ride.

In case I haven’t been vocal enough about how grateful I am for this whole secret-mission-Christmas-trip, I AM SO GRATEFUL. Best gift ever. No one tell Ciarán that he is awesome for this and for everything, he really doesn’t need any more of an ego-boost. I kid. Tell him. There’s a reason some of my favorite blog posts on here somehow connect to him. Thanks Ciarán!!

I AM HOME FOR A MONTH. That is all. Happy Holidays!

 

When in Rome (and Pompeii and Florence and Venice and Bergamo)…

I spent the last week in Italy WITH MY MOM. Score. It was the most fun that I have had in quite some time, and I am so happy that I got to share it with her. I did a day-to-day log of what we did, here goes!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: Landed very late (nearly midnight) in Rome, and took a shuttle to the hotel where I met up with mom. Reunion hugs are great. There are bidets. This is not a drill.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015: We spent today really utilizing a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Rome. I usually pass on stuff like that because it’s gimmicky and really pigeon-holes what you do and see in a city, but it was really cool to do it in Rome because I, like everyone else, really wanted to see the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. We ate our first real Italian meal at a restaurant facing the Colosseum, the weather was great, and the pizza was awesome. The Trevi Fountain really stressed us out—there are so many people there (and we were there during of season!!) and there’s a gate around the actual fountain so you can’t get very close. It was still really beautiful to see, and the 10 long minutes we spent there elbowing fellow sassy tourists from all over the world was worth it. We found a restaurant right by our hotel we really liked, with a funny, playful waiter and followed dinner up with gelato. Sleep sleep sleep.

Thursday, November 5, 2015: Today we woke up at the crack of dawn to catch a day-excursion to Pompeii. It was SO. COOL. I realize now, after hours of guided-tour info and seeing it first-hand, that I really did not understand what Pompeii was. There was no lava. Pumice, gas and ash. Crazy. Seeing the plaster-cast bodies on display was so incredible. People were living one moment, and then next they were buried. It was definitely a very tourist-oriented destination—which doesn’t make it less impactful and cool!—but if I were to visit the area again I would roam around Naples and do my own thing.

Friday, November 6, 2015: We decided last minute to use the hop-on-hop-off bus service again because the things that we wanted to do today were en route. We went to Vatican City (the tiniest country in the world, and a country where women can’t vote)! We did not pay to get inside of the museum or the Sistine Chapel—I know, bummer I didn’t get to see those two naked dudes trying to touch fingers on the ceiling—but we still felt pretty fulfilled. Anyone who got a postcard from mom and I will notice it was posted from the Vatican. Pope approved. You’re welcome. Mom found her favorite macaroon shop in Europe, we had the best pizza of our entire trip in a random restaurant while wandering, had a Bulmer’s at an Irish pub, and I stumbled into Lush. How does that always happen? Oops.

Saturday, November 7, 2015: Today we traveled from Rome to Florence. Even the train ride was beautiful. Those rolling hills associated with Tuscany are real, and require no photoshop. When we started to wander around Florence, mom and I knew it was something special. Every street is cute, all the shops and restaurants charming, all the people warm. We spent too long at an outdoor market being harassed (a strong, appropriate word) by vendors to BUY THEIR LEATHER! CONSIDER THEIR KEYCHAINS! LOOK AT THEIR JOURNALS! It was a lot. But affordable and fun too. I bought too much in Italy. It is Florence’s fault. We ate at the most eclectic and beautiful restaurant in existence, found an Irish pub (a pattern), and literally stumbled upon the Basilica—Florence’s main attraction—and marveled for a long, long time. This is the most beautiful and intricate building that I have ever seen. It is beautiful. Seriously.

Sunday, November 8, 2015: We spent the day wandering around the city again. Crossed the famous bridge, found the famous palace (the Pitti Palace, lol) and climbed a mountain (walked up a slightly inclined hill) to the city’s vantage point. Florence is beautiful. We had sundried tomato bruschetta and the best sandwiches ever from a hole in the wall. I took photos of the world’s cutest old man playing an accordion, and we visited the Central Market of Florence. I can’t even formulate words about the market. The adjectives beautiful and colorful and fragrant do it no justice. Dinner was at that eclectic, delicious restaurant again. Are there more adjectives I can use to describe Florence’s deliciousness and beauty?!

Monday, November 9, 2015: Before catching a train to Venice, we had to go back to the market for lunch. We had a cheese sampler, green olive bread, and I bought vacuum sealed sundried tomatoes. No shame. I would have bought the whole market if I brought more than a carry-on. We arrived into a Venice that was socked in by fog, and it did NOT let up. It was already dark, we caught a water-bus (yeah, a water-bus! How cool!) to our hotel, and wandered out to find dinner. Venice is notorious for being pricier and for restaurants having oddly high cover charges (paying a fee for eat person seated in your party). We found this to be very true. But when in Venice, right? Kinda?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015: Venice is a labyrinth. Every alleyway is a street and every street is a canal and every canal connects tiny islands that are all very close together to form Venice, the labyrinth. It was charming. And cold. And foggy. And there was a Lush. We went on a boat tour, but the fog was so bad we could hardly see anything! Our tour guide was great, though, and provided us with so much information about all of the things that were just out of sight. I contemplated buying mittens. I tried a calzone (you’re welcome, Ben Wyatt). Saint Mark’s Square had all these weird, stacked tables everywhere that we didn’t understand (and later found out are walkways for when the Square is flooded! Venice is sinking, and everyone is doomed). It was our last night in Italy together. We overpaid for bloody mary’s and went to sleep early.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015: I had to be on a shuttle to the airport at 6 in the morning. When it’s that early, and the sun hasn’t even come out to play yet, goodbyes are fuzzy. (It’s okay, though, because I come home in less than a month for the holidays.) I get to the airport and wait in the terminal, only to have our flight cancelled after the very last minute possible. Great. The ticket booth informs me the next flight to Madrid is tomorrow morning from Milan. I’m in Venice. Where’s Milan? How do I get there? Tomorrow? Wtf? So I take a bus to a train to another train to Bergamo, a town right outside of Milan. A nice town that I never would have visited if this hadn’t happened. I get a room at a Best Western and relax. I wander around, find delicious pizza, and fall asleep early, because my flight is to be at 6:45 the next morning. Who invented early flights? Cruel, cruel people.

Thursday, November 12, 2015: I wake up at an ungodly hour, find a (free) shuttle to the airport, and check in. No one previously told me I was flying standby, so my anxiety is through the roof as I wait in line to (maybe) board the plane at my gate. At the very last moment, I am told I got the one spare seat on the plane, and I get to board. The relief was thoroughly visible. Hola, Madrid!

I am excited to come home to recharge for a little while over the holidays. I look forward to seeing everyone and relaxing and cooking and all that! See you guys soon!

Living in Madrid | Part 1

I have been living in Madrid for over a month now and have yet to blog about…anything, really! Like how I ended up here, what I am doing here, and all the cool stuff that I have done and seen. Here goes!

I decided that I wanted to be an au pair less than a month before I knew I was moving to Europe. One of my friends turned me on to aupairworld.com and I decided to make a profile during my off time on a Monday night at camp. I woke up the next morning with a lot of messages from potential au pair families, one of which I really liked the looks of. We exchanged emails and a Skype interview date was set up for Thursday night. The interview went amazing, and I was offered the job on the spot. It all happened so quickly it seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t. It is even more amazing now that I am living here and working with them. I work as an English aid au pair. My job is spend a few hours each day with the three daughters in the family and talk, play, and hang out in English. It really doesn’t even feel like a job. In my spare time during the week, I get to explore Madrid and surrounding areas, and on weekends I can venture out even further into the country.

In Madrid:

Puerta del Sol: This is where you have to start when you first visit this city. It is the absolute center, literally—in the Plaza there is a plaque on the ground that marks kilmetre 0. This area is always full of life, and a bunch of the city’s must-see sites are within walking distance.

Plaza Mayor: This is the first thing that I saw when I first started exploring Madrid, and that is because it is so close to Puerta del Sol. It is beautiful (though the first time I saw it, one of the sides was under construction). You can visit one of the several restaurants inside the plaza, or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view.

Mercado de San Miguel: This very popular market is within walking distance from Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor. When I say very popular, I mean very popular. Among tourists, mostly. It has a very cool set up that plenty of gourmet grocery stores have tried to mimic in the States: a host of several different kiosks with a range of great stuff from fresh produce to fresh meat to coffee to wine to cheese. When I went there, every square inch of the place was being inhabited by a human body. My final verdict: cool in theory, overrated in reality. There is a market very close to the Tribunal metro stop called Mercado de San Delfonso that is very, very similar but MUCH less crowded. You can get a seat inside without elbowing an old guy because he’s looking at the same table.

Royal Palace: I actually stumbled upon this for the first time without knowing what it was. I was in search of the Almudena Cathedral, which is right next to the palace. They are both beautiful. They are right next to the Plaza de Oriente, which was adorable. That’s the best word I can use to describe it. A stroll through that area will really give you a feel for Madrid.

Templo de Debod: This is probably my favorite attraction in Madrid. It has such a cool backstory! It is an ancient Egyptian temple! The Egyptian government (paired with UNESCO) realized that they needed to move the temple from its original location in the 1960’s due to a breaking dam, and decided to GIFT the entire temple to the Spanish government. They brought the entire temple over stone by stone and reassembled it in Madrid near-ish to the Royal Palace. How cool is that?! It’s free to visit (though impossible to take a photo of without getting a hundred tourists in the shot), and has a park attached to it that locals and foreigners frequent. The view of the city from this area is spectacular. I loved the whole experience!

Gran Via: One of the most notable and popular streets in Madrid. It’s here that you can do all of your shopping, if that is what you’re into. I only really liked it because it connects to the Chueca area of Madrid.

Chueca: The gayborhood of Madrid! Not only are the bars and restaurants colorful and alive on the weekends, this is also a fun neighborhood to pop in and out of cute little local shops. Very gay. Very hipster. I loved it. There are a lot of Senegalese shopkeepers in this area for some reason. I made a lot of friends the day I walked around speaking Wolof to them. I love this neighborhood. It is a must for anyone visiting.

Paseo del Prado: This street is REALLY pretty. It is a two way separated by what is basically a long, narrow park. It is spectacular. And to the east of this street, you can find the building where the stock market operates (snooze, I know, but the building is beautiful), Museo del Prado, and the Botanical Gardens.

Real Jardin Botanico (Botanical Gardens): This was so cute. With a student discount it was (I think?) 3 euro for an all-day pass. The whole garden is pretty huge, and separated into several different small gardens that are either populated by flowers or vegetables or herbs or trees from all over the world. There was literally no one else in the entire place that was my age. Everyone was over the age of 75 and strolling through those gardens without a care in the world. I am pretty used to that, though. Most of the things I like to do and see while traveling are the same things that old people like to do and see. Go figure!

Retiro Park: I would call this a tiny, Spanish Central Park. It is beautiful. Like, absolutely amazing. There are geese and flowers and accordion players and fountains and anything else you could want from a park. It’s a must. Sitting in this park at an outdoor café with a smoothie and a book in the fall. How much nicer can a day get?

Plaza de Cibeles: I was instructed by my host mother that this plaza was the most beautiful plaza in all of Madrid. Which is saying a lot, because there are hundreds of them in this city alone. So I was intrigued. And it lived up to expectations, undoubtedly. Cibeles fountain in right in the middle of the plaza, which has a Greek goddess and a chariot and lions and a bunch of other powerful imagery kind of stuff. I thought it was cool to learn that that fountain actually used to be in a different spot in Madrid, and was used as an actual source of water until the 19th century! The plaza itself has a bunch of beautiful buildings, including my personal favorite, Madrid’s City Hall. The first time I saw this building, the “Refugees Welcome” sign hanging from the top of the building took me by surprised. It was in that moment, looking at that beautiful building, I knew I would adore Spain.

El Rastro: The city’s largest market! It is a weekly pop-up market near the Puerta de Toledo metro stop. It happens every Sunday from 9 to 3 and has quite the set-up. It is a huge flea market with everything from antiques to books to really cool clothes to pots and pans. And a million people—every week. I loved it. I bought nothing (because I have no room to expand my list of possessions whilst a nomad), but I still had a great time walking around and watching everyone else haggle and laugh and roam.

“Tras Julia”, on one side of the building for Escuela Superior de Canto: This is probably my favorite thing that I have found while discovering the city. It is a life-size statue of a woman found in the Malasana district of Madrid. She is a myth, a legend. She is said to represent a woman from the eighteenth century that cross-dressed in order to get into the university (because back then, only men were allowed to attend). How cool is that? And how cool is it that that feat is commemorated in a statue? I’ll answer for you. It is SUPER cool.

Outside of Madrid:

Monasterio del Escorial: An hour’s train ride out of Marid, the town of Escorial is adorable. I only spent a few hours here, but I think that was enough to get a feel for the town. The Monasterio itself was very cool. You can pay to walk around inside of the building and get a tour for just a few euro more! If you are into that sort of thing, I say it is worth it. There is a tomb room where all of the past kings’ bodies are preserved (not that you can see the bodies, but seeing the room is cool!). The architecture of the building itself is very cool, and there is park just off of the grounds that is silent and smelled like autumn. It was a very interesting and pretty day trip!!

Toledo: This is my most recent trip as of posting this blog. Toledo is a very well-known, STUNNING town outside of Madrid. About 70km outside, to be exact. I visited the town on what was probably one of the last sunny, decently warm days of the year here in Spain. I just knew when I woke up that I needed to cease the fact it wasn’t freezing. Toledo is great. It’s small and surrounded by a river. I took the train for 10 euro and got there in a half hour. My host family had told me that it was the perfect place to just wander around and take pictures, so I did just that. The whole town in a UNESCO Heritage Site; it is one of the only places in Spain where Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures co-existed peacefully. It was really cool to walk through the town and see a plaque on the ground reading “Jewish Quarter,” and looking up to see a synagogue, and then walking a few more minutes and ending up at the cathedral. All of the streets of the town are narrow and winding—it felt like a really beautiful, stressless maze. There’s also a zipline you can do across the river for like 5 euro! SO FUN. When you initially get off the train, you are about a 15 minute walk from the city in one direction, and a 15 minute walk from the vista point in the other direction. I think the vista point was my favorite part. You could see the whole town—the cathedral, the synagogue, the monastery, the town hall, EVERYTHING—and it was spectacular to watch the sun set from this vantage point. Great day trip. Amazing day trip.

That’s the gist of what I’ve been doing in my spare time here! I’ve really slowed down my lifestyle to try and get my leg all healed up, but nothing can really stop me from exploring the place that I am in! Oops. I am taking it easy though, I promise. I hope you all are doing great! See you soon!

PS I LOVE YOU IRELAND: A Check Off the Mini Bucket List

I kind of think the idea of bucket lists are simultaneously very overrated and very cool. I think if you want to do or see something, you shouldn’t just toss it onto a list and hope that by the end of your life the universe will align just perfectly to allow you to fulfill that dream. Contrary, I think that if you want something, you should set out to make it happen. I believe in short-term bucket lists. Like, with five year expiration dates. That’s what I am living by right now. And it’s working pretty well, honestly!

Ireland was one of two things on this cycle’s bucket list. (Along with seeing the Northern Lights!) So when the opportunity arose for me to visit for a week, I literally did not even blink before buying a Ryanair flight to Dublin. I planned my whole trip about three days before I left, including public transport and hostels, and it went almost exactly according to plan! Also, every single day that I was there, the weather was amazing. Chilly, but the sun was out the whole time and there was no rain. I realize that this is essentially unheard of, so I feel very lucky to have visited all my dream places with clear views and a light sweater. Here goes!

Saturday, September 26, 2015: Ryanair rocks. If any of you have no idea what Ryanair is, get with the times!! It’s a true budget airline, bouncing all around Europe (and even to Morocco!). Flights can be anywhere from $5 to $50, and there are constantly sales going on on their website. Seriously, Any Americans reading this that really want to travel around Europe but fear that bouncing around the continent is going to be a huge money suck, this is one of the most important tricks I know!!! So, I hopped on a flight from Madrid to Dublin (around $30 bought pretty short notice). Immediately upon arrival to Dublin, I took a direct bus into the city center, and proceeded to walk to my friend’s house. It was quite a ways, but I saw a lot of Dublin in the process! His sister took me and some of her American friends that were visiting on a walking tour of the city later that day, complete with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, O’Connell Street, Christ Church, Bono’s Recording Studio, Trinity College and a bunch more. The Walsh Family is fun fact royalty. I learned more about Dublin in that 2 hour tour than I did about Madrid the first week I lived here! That night I went to a party with Ciaran and passed out at his house at the wee hour of 4am.

Sunday, September 27, 2015: After pushing back my original departure time due to a super fun hangover, I set out for Belfast at about noon. I had intended to have a few hours in Belfast to walk around, see City Hall and the Peace Wall and all that, but I ended up only having about an hour, and spent it finding lunch and an ATM because Northern Ireland is not part of Ireland, it is part of the UK, and therefore uses the Pound instead of the Euro(!!!). I wanted to get to the train station (which was about a 30 minute walk across town from the bus stop where I was dropped off) with a few minutes to spare because this was one of the only parts of my trip I could not book in advance. It turned out to be very easy to both buy the train ticket and find the right train to take, and I made it to Coleraine no problem. From Coleraine, I had to take a bus to Giant’s Causeway (I know, so complicated!). I BARELY caught the last bus out of the day. I had no cash (my bank had frozen my card earlier that day, yaaaay), so after looking really stressed and asking if he wanted 3 Euro and a Madrid transportation pass, the bus driver let me on for free. I took the bus straight to Giant’s Causeway (instead of the city closest to the Causeway) because the hostel that I had booked was literally a 3 minute walk from the entrance to the park. Finn McCool’s B&B was the BEST hostel that I stayed at this week. For one, it’s off season and it was a week night, so NOBODY ELSE was there. Two, it was really decently priced (less than $20), and they had cheap dinner and free breakfast. The view was INCREDIBLE. The wifi was great. I loved it. Seriously. I slept like a baby.

Monday, September 28, 2015: The Giant’s Causeway was magnificent. Not in the diluted, “it was super cool for an hour!” kind of way. Magnificence. I loved it. Pro-tip: you can visit the Causeway for free. That’s not a readily available fact on their website or at the visitor’s center, but it’s true. I chose to pay for a ticket (if bought in advance, like $7) because I wanted to carry the audio guide around with me and teach me about every single inch of the premises and spare no details. Since my hostel was a four second walk from the entrance to the park, I headed over at 8:45 and patiently waited for the doors to open. I was the first guest of the day! I had read somewhere (or cooked it up in that brilliant brain of mine, I literally do not remember which) that it would be best to get there right at the beginning of the day because you don’t have to share your view of the causeway with almost anyone, and getting pictures devoid of 50 tourists is a lot easier. And that rang so, so true. Having the park almost all to myself made it so much more interesting and pleasant and fun for me. The Causeway is a mindfuck. Even with the audio guide explaining all the geological reasoning behind its existence, I still felt like I was walking around with a huge sign above my head reading: “?!!!???!?” I loved it. I will go back again. I loved every inch of it. I took the free bus into the closest town, got authentic traditional fish and chips, and made my way back to the Causeway for one last look. The rest of the day is uninteresting, trains and buses and trains to get back to Dublin and to the hostel I was staying at. An exhausted, happy blur.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015: This was supposed to be the day that I visited Kilkenny. I had booked a bus ticket in advance and everything! I got to the bus stop early. No bus came for a very long time. I looked back to my ticket and started to realize that the bus ride (to and from) would accumulate to more travel time than time spent in Kilkenny itself…And the bus still didn’t come. It was 30 minutes after I was supposed to have departed and still no sign. When a bus finally arrived, it wasn’t even the right one! At that point, I shook hands with fate and said okay then, in Dublin I shall stay today. Ciaran mentioned I should visit Howth, a tiny little town on the outskirts of Dublin. I took the DART (much like the BART, for all my central California friends!) and spent a couple hours walking around there and soaking in the smell of fish in a harbor. It was quaint and quiet and nice. I took the train back to Dublin and wandered around the Temple Bar area for quite some time. I bought a Claddagh ring. Met Ciaran for lunch. Wandered back to my hostel for a nap. And then met a friend of mine that is an au pair in Dublin right now for dinner and drinks!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015: Anyone who knows me at all knows how much I have always loved the Cliffs of Moher. Coming to Ireland for me meant two things: frolicking through an open field with my bae, and visiting the Cliffs. Now, the former could not happen because I am currently as agile and nimble as a 96 year old man with arthritis (next time for sure!). But the latter had to happen. The only tourist-trap bus tour I would EVER take without my mother is the one from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher. For a student (wink wink), it is only about $40. We left at 7am. I had a great tour guide named Mike. The whole day was full of fun facts about Ireland. We stopped at Obama Plaza (yes, it’s a real place in the middle of nowhere in Ireland), River Shannon, The Burren and a bunch of other really beautiful spots apart from the Cliffs. The Cliffs themselves were unbelievable. The first half, the half that everyone and their mother takes photos of, has a small wall gating it off and making it safe for people of all ages to visit. The other half, though, is a free for all. No gates. No guard rail. You can go right up to the edge of the cliffs and look down. It is an adrenaline rush (and a heart attack!). I loved it. Everything was so green and unmarred and perfect. It was as captivating in real life as it was in photos. The perfect way to spend my last full day in Ireland. That night I met Ciaran for drinks. $2 pints are a godsend.

I flew out of Ireland the next morning. It feels like I hardly saw any of the country at all. And that’s okay, because as of right now, the plan is to find an au pair job in Dublin starting in January! So when I go back I will have plenty of time to see the rest of the country and bother Ciaran more. Score.

Housekeeping: I realize I have yet to blog about Madrid at all… I have been logging a bunch of stuff, I am just waiting to post a chunk of it all together! Soon, I promise. Also, I have an address if anyone would like to send me a letter or anything at all 😉 Let me know! I will be home for about a month for Christmas and New Years and all that! But from the looks of it I won’t be back in the states after that for quiiiiiiite some time… Exciting stuff happening in the next year. Yay yay yay!! I hope you all are doing amazing. Thank you for keeping up on my blogs and checking in on me and all that. I can’t wait to see all of you in a couple months!

Taiwan, Paris and Spain: Getting Around with Crutches and a Limp

Hello again!

I’ve been all over the place for the last couple weeks, so I’ve tried to do day-to-day logging as best I can.

Taiwan:

Monday, August 31, 2015: Hindsight is 20-20, right? We probably shouldn’t have gone to bed drunk at 2 in the morning knowing good and well we had to be at the airport this morning at 5. But oh well, that drag show in Kota Kinabalu gave me life! We slept the whole flight back to Taiwan and arrived before 10am even rolled around. It needed to be a laxed day. I got a pedicure and met 10 of the gems in my life for a belated birthday dinner for me. I tried cider ale for the first time without hating it. We had fancy cocktails and Ciaran, a very Irish Irishman, tried an Irish car bomb for the first time. It was a great day!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015: Ciaran, Theresa and I woke up late and eventually made our way to the train station. We took a three hour train down to the southern Taiwan city of Taitung with the intention of catching the next ferry out to either Green or Orchid island. Instead, we were greeted with ferry tickets with much higher prices than we had found online, and no tickets until tomorrow morning. We got on a bus to a tiny little town called Dulan and showed up at a hostel that we’d found on hostel world. This hostel is SO COOL. It is called the Wa Ga Li Gong Yoga studio—we slept on thin mattresses on the floor of said yoga studio—and the people that work here are awesome. Two doors down is a little restaurant with a retired man from India who has quite literally been everywhere and done everything running it. It’s run home style—only one dish served at each meal with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options—and has organic fresh pressed apple juice. Sometimes, like in the moment that we were eating this meal while the owner chatted with us about why San Francisco is his favorite “white world” city and how Ciaran may quite literally die from the heat in India, we will lock eyes and give each other the look. The look says “how did we get here? What are we doing?” and we chuckle and revel in the spontaneity of our choices and take another sip of Taiwanese organic apple juice. After dinner we were intent on walking to the beach. We followed the directions given to us exactly, and were very surprised when we finally got to the ocean and it was a rock beach instead of sand. We sat on huge rocks, spied on an old couple next to us who MacGyver’ed it with a small fire and food, and drank the smuggled, tiny flask of Fireball that Theresa had brought from the states. And then Ciaran was attacked by large rocks when he tried to dip in the ocean and we had to leave due to emotional scarring.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015: We hopped on a bus to the harbor nearby. The bus driver didn’t really understand where we were asking to go, and he ended up letting us off pretty far away. We flagged down a van and hitchhiked the rest of the way to the harbor! We were bound and determined to get to Green Island no matter what it took. When we finally got there, we haggled with several different scooter rental companies to no avail, and ended up just renting the 2 cheapest ones available. We circled the island, saw some truly breathtaking sites (even a temple in an underground cave!) and had dinner at a restaurant called Good Mr. Hot Dogs. Yes. We ended up at the island’s tourism center, stripped down to our bathing suits and got into the ocean right as the sun was setting. It was very majestic. After dinner we had the intentions of sneaking onto a camp site and sleeping there with nothing but our hammocks and a speaker, but then I got into a minor scooter accident and had to be whisked away to the island’s tiny hospital in the back of an ambulance. Before anyone freaks out, I’m fine! Really. And it is truly all thanks to the great people on Green Island, and ESPECIALLY thanks to Ciaran and Theresa. Baes for life. Thank you so much. So, so much.

Thursday, September 3, 2015: Though I am doing pretty well, it is very hard for me to walk. So I couldn’t do much else on the island today! But my great friends brought me food and carried my bags and held my hands and just rocked in general. We left Green Island this afternoon and ended up back at the hostel we stayed at a couple nights ago. I’ve spent the evening in the common area, French music playing quietly, just chilling. Granted, that’s really all I can do right now, this feels nice.

Friday, September 4, 2015: We woke up very very early, spent most of the day traveling back to Taipei, and then Theresa and I parted ways. I relaxed most of the day after going to the hospital for a final check to make sure nothing was broken or dislocated or torn. Ciaran came back to Taipei and then left Taiwan that night. The queen of my LIFE, Doreen, delivered dinner to me in the hostel I was staying in, went and bought me more medicine so that I wouldn’t run out before even leaving Asia, and booked a trip to Europe this winter!!! It’s people like this that fill my life with such gratitude. Absolute queen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015: Saturday was all traveling. Literally all travel. The silver lining to being on crutches and walking like a strolling snail is that I get a wheelchair and special treatment in airports. Upon booking these flights, I anticipated the biggest inconvenience I was going to face was the possibility I was going to be sucked into a worm hole—I flew Malaysia Airlines. But lo and behold, sitting in an overbooked transcontinental flight for 13 hours with a swollen leg and contused chest is what I got. By hour 8 I was really hoping for that wormhole. But I made it! And every single person along the way—every flight attendant, airport staff member, random person who offered to carry my bags, shuttle driver, everyone!—made my trip as smooth as it could have possibly gone. And I didn’t have to wait in a single line.

France:

Sunday, September 6, 2015: I arrived in Paris at 6am local time. It is SIGNIFICANTLY colder than Asia. I arrived in shorts and a tank top. I could see my breath as I waited for my shuttle. What a change! The hostel I am staying at is pretty much the only part of Paris I have seen yet, but it is great! St. Christopher’s Gare Du Nord Hostel. It’s huge and full of life and drink discount coupons and fast wifi. Welcome to Europe, right? I miss Taiwan. But I am happy to be here! I spent most of the day around the hostel, found a great Kebaberie and cheese and baguettes. What more could I need? This stopover is not going to consist of much, because I am slightly immobile and need rest. But I did go to see the Eiffel Tower tonight! Last year, my mom and I were unable to see it light up, so that was my goal for this time around. We got a bottle of wine and sat shivering as the clock struck midnight and the Tower sparkled.

Monday, September 7, 2015: Again, did not do much of anything today. But, I did get Chipotle to-go (surprise! I do miss something from America) for dinner, and went to the Louvre Pyramid to picnic. Upon arrival I realized I did not have a spoon and fashioned one from the aluminum lid of my takeaway container. It is in this moment I realized I will never have enough class to live in Paris. C’est la vie.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015: We checked out of the hostel late, and I took a bus to Beauvais—a town right outside of Paris where one of the airports is. My lovely, lovely mother helped me book a hotel in the area so that getting to my 9am flight the next morning would not be too much of a hassle. Hotel Balladins was affordable and totally accommodating!! They switched me to a ground-floor room and explained where everything was in the area. I took a (long) leisurely stroll to the grocery store and bought myself dinner and breakfast. I came back to my room and passed out. I don’t think it was even 8pm? Grandpa Harlee was really feeling it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 – Saturday September 12, 2015: I made it to Spain! YAY. My new host father picked me up from the airport and drove me to the house that I will now be living in. I’ve spent the last couple days really letting myself adjust to the time zone and catching up on all the sleep I’ve been lacking in the last few weeks. I have finished more than one book, started Game of Thrones, and had better wifi than anywhere else I have been since leaving America! I have left the house a couple times—I went and explored the little town that I live in a bit—but mostly I have been preparing for my job to start on Monday.

So I’m going to end this clusterf*ck of a blog here, because I am going into Madrid for the first time this afternoon and I want to have a separate blog about this big, beautiful city. I am doing great! This job is going to be so fun and getting to know a city that I never really expected to live in is going to be very cool. I hope you all are doing great too. Talk soon!