Work in Progress

“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are; do no back-home business; take no assignments; remain incommunicado; be scarce. It is a good thing that people don’t know where you are or how to find you. Keep in mind the country you are in. That’s the theory.”
–Paul Theroux

I'm just a girl who loves the world, finds beauty in the unknown, and can't keep her feet on the ground. I like finding unique (and cheap) ways of making my way around the globe. Interacting with people while living, learning, and loving the culture I'm surrounded by.

This is my attempt to keep my friends and family updated, to keep track of my experiences, and to serve as an inspirational resource for all those travel addicts like me out there.

Monday, October 17, 2016

DPRK - from an American Imperialists Point of View


(If you haven't read my post about why I decided to visit North Korea, you can read it here.)


Well, I made it. I made it out of North Korea, with absolutely no temptation to steal anything from the restricted floor of the Yangakdo Hotel. I made it out with no regrets. With a drastically changed perspective on the country that has been looming overhead, almost literally. It's been a consistent curiosity of mine while living in South Korea. How has the separation affected the culture, the people? How does the North view the South? What's education like? How accurately is western media portraying this mysterious country? These are all questions that I pondered before visiting the DPRK. I can't say I've fully answered them all, but I do know that I left the country with a lot more unanswered questions than when I first arrived. This is being written many months post trip, so I've had a lot of time to reflect and think about the experience. I've probably been putting off writing this because it has been so hard to figure out what I want to say. Now that I've had the chance to be more vocal with people about it, I've been able to narrow down my ramblings to topics that I've found I talk about the most.

**Throughout this blog I may speak in absolutes (ex. North Koreans hate America). Please remember that these are just generalizations, as a person and their ideals are not defined by where they happen to have citizenship. 


differences

One of the things that propelled me to travel to the north was so that I could see how the division affected the culture and the people. Aside from the obvious and expected propaganda and the fact that the North is poor and the South is not, there were a couple differences that really stood out to me. 

My use of the language did not prove as useful as I was hoping. North Koreans speak much more formally and have adopted no English words. "Konglish" does not exist here, and the honorifics are much different. They also want to talk about really different things. My first conversation in Korean was with one of my North Korea tour guides, who was really dang excited to have a chance to talk to an American in Korean, let me tell you. I failed, miserably. I haven't had many conversations in Korean outside of a restaurant or taxi, so the personal questions he was asking were not only hard for me to understand, but hard to answer. 

North Koreans look a little different. They are much more tan, probably because they do more manual labor and don't have access to sun creams. But, just because sun cream might not be readily available, the woman are still quite concerned with covering up their skin while they are outside to avoid the sun. Oh, and they seem much smaller. A tour guide asked, as we were surrounded by hundreds of children at Kim Il Sung's birthplace, how old I thought these kids were. I guessed about 7 or 8. When he told me they were between 10 and 12, I was shocked. They were so skinny - not the typical Korean thinness, but a more malnourished kind of skinny. I told him they also acted younger, and had more of an innocence about them. They aren't glued to their phones and the wonder in their eyes as a group of foreigners climbs through them and their classmates was priceless. 

The buildings in Pyongyang were much more colorful than the autonomous grey scale feeling of a typical city in South Korea.  One of the things I noticed was that there were long phrases or names of places above a lot of the buildings, especially in comparison to what I'm used to in the South. It was abnormal to see so many syllables plastered above these buildings. I wish my Korean were better, so I could tell you more about what it says over the building. All I can recognize are Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. If anyone is reading this and knows what it says above the building pictured below, comment and let me know!



similarities


The presence of Confucian ideals is seemingly just as present in North Korean culture as it is in the South. A form of class structure exists in both, obviously in a much stronger sense in the North where the country is divided into workers, farmers, and intellects. In the South, there are various Confucian ideals that make it hard for someone who is in a lower economic class to break out of their pay scale. In order to make more money, you need to have higher test scores. In order to have higher test scores, you have to have money to pay for tutors and college. People get jobs based on who they know. Family name and reputation is often more important than, well anything really - and it's a vicious cycle. 

North and South Koreans both work really hard - to no avail. They spend all their lives working to (usually) never reap the benefits of their efforts. South Koreans are luckier in this aspect, as they have more freedom to make their own choices. Although, societal pressure in the South can often feel constricting and prevents people from really doing what they dream, opting to do what their family thinks is best instead. 

Education in both countries have similarities. Children spend their young lives focusing on what someone tells them they are supposed to be when they are older. Very high stakes are placed on tests and children are ranked in their classes, which are more often than not displayed publicly in the school. In the science and technology focused middle school that we visited outside of Pyongyang, photos were even placed above the rankings, the lowest and highest students clear for everyone to see. Because education is such a huge focus, teachers are well regarded positions in both countries. 

                 


interactions

I was pleasantly surprised at how many organic interactions I was able to have with the general population. I approached people in the metro stations, military personal, school children, and staff at the places we were visiting and tried my best to speak with them. I was often a little too shy slash worried about how these people would react to me trying to talk to them. Once I realized they were all really nice (to my face), I was able to venture out a little more. 

I was able to get to know my tour guides quite well, and shared quite a few alcoholic beverages with them. I convinced Mr. Kim, my favorite guide, to ride a roller coaster with me at the fun fair. On our last night I witnessed him drunk and bowling with all of us in a wife beater, slurring cuss words and flexing his muscles. I always sat in the front of the tour bus, which meant I got to overhear some of Mr. Kim's conversations. Most of the Korean I couldn't understand, but I noticed him asking our Australian tour guide a lot of questions about the people on the tour and things outside of North Korea. Later, I found out that Mr. Kim actually has full access to the internet. It makes me wonder how aware he is. Does he think the outside world is crazy, like we think North Korea is crazy?


My favorite interaction was definitely unexpected. At the DMZ we were given a tour by this middle-aged military man. He didn't look friendly at all and my Australian tour guide mentioned that he was a bit of a sour-patch. He probably didn't use the word sour-patch, though.  This man was impressed when I said, "Can we take a picture together?" In Korean, even though he tried not to show it. He looked right past me and at my tour guide, his comrade, and asked how I know Korean. After my guide explained, he looked at me and nodded his head. We took a quick, very unpleasant photo, and then he got mad because now everyone wanted a photo with him. Afterwards, we had to line up before moving on to the next spot. I naturally wanted to be in the front of the line. As I walk up to where he is standing, he notices me and then I notice him holding back this smile before he says, "You speak Korean well." By the end of the tour I was joking with him about loving to take pictures and drinking too much beer. 


We were able to visit a middle school on our last day. I wasn't surprised that it didn't seem much different from a South Korean school. After introducing myself in front of the class and announcing that I was a teacher, their instructor asked, "What do you teach?" When I replied, "I'm an English teacher" the class let out a chorus of approving"ohhs". After everyone got a chance to introduce themselves their instructor asked me if, since I'm an English teacher, I could help them with their pronunciation. I bet he was picking on me because I had just announced myself as an American who taught in South Korea - double whammy (just kidding, kind of). I started to walk around and see what they were working on. I asked a question, and before anyone could answer, this girl stood up and asked me, "How long have you been in Pyongyang? Have you been to Munsu Water Park? Our Great Leader built such an amazing park for his people and without him..." blah blah blah. All this very creepy, very well spoken but obviously memorized propaganda. This is when I realized why so many North Koreans would be learning how to speak English. With tourism being one of the biggest exports (along with meth-amphetamines and giant statues), of course they want their youth to be educated in all the RIGHT things to say to a western tourist. It makes sense that's the focus and scope of their English curriculum, spouting propaganda. 
Then we were able to have about a 10 minute conversation with a student. I squatted down next to a really sweet girl who told me she wanted to be an English teacher. She also told me I'm very beautiful, so that had me questioning her honesty from the get go. 
  • She wants to teach younger students because they memorize things quickly. 
  • When I asked her what English speaking country she would most like to visit, she very quickly said that she doesn't want to travel. North Korea is the best country and she doesn't need to visit anywhere else. 
  • She asked what made me happy. When I replied, "Being here, right now",  she was confused and said "now?" in Korean. I recognized the Korean word and repeated it back to her. She was surprised I spoke Korean and asked me to speak more. I probably said something about liking kimchi. 
  • She's happy when she gets a good score on a test. Which is exactly what my students in the south would say. 
  • I asked her is she is stressed and she said yes. She feels like her heart is weak and that she isn't strong enough. 
  • She asked me why I don't have a husband or children. I told her that I like to spend my time traveling the world and meeting new people and doing new things, and right now I don't want a husband or children. She was surprised and quickly changed the subject. Maybe they haven't covered the 'world travel' chapter in their text books yet. 


revelations

One of the most important things that I took away from North Korea has to do with my understanding of perception and individual realities. While at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, my perspective was challenged. Imagine sitting in front of a film of atrocities that your country committed, that which are a stark contrast to the history that you (and most of the world) has been taught. People on the tour, at one point, turned and looked at me and asked, "Is this true?" As an English teacher, I have to be clear with my pronoun usage, so let me elaborate. "This" referred to the accusations of things like biowarfare, the violent murder of women and children (which were all depicted by elaborate scenes throughout the museum), and torture of North Korean Civilians. 
In that moment, all I could say was, "I don't know, I wasn't there." The North Korean account of the war is much different from any other account than I've ever heard - that's all I can say for sure. It was frustrating not having internet access to fact check as the tour went along - as I'm sure Wikipedia would have some very contrasting ideas. 

I was interested to learn from my tour guide that, more often then not, North Koreans who have defected have a hard time adjusting - especially in the South. Imagine having your sense of reality completely shook - being told that throughout the course of your entire life, almost everything was completely fabricated. People will even leave the country, and when they take classes to re-learn history, it can take them months before they stop thinking that it's just the outside world trying to trick them, just like The Great Leader said they would. A woman wrote that, when being reeducated about the Korean War, she thought that the rest of the world was conspiring to hide the truth. It didn't occur to her that it was her country who had lied. 

The idea that we choose (or are given) our own truths was really solidified while in the North. It has made me much more understanding of the civilians in the North, as well as the random and varied people that I cross paths with on a daily basis. 
Truth can be subjective; based on an individuals own perception. What a person believes is largely based on what they have been told, or the experiences that have lead them to be who and where they are today. 


      


Monday, August 1, 2016

Decisions


A personal journal entry I wrote before officially deciding to visit North Korea:
  

I've gone back and forth on this idea since before even coming to Korea, nearly two years ago. Something deep in my loins is telling me to go. Just go. But, is it more than just wanting to be able to say, "I'VE BEEN TO NORTH KOREA"? Obviously, that factor definitely plays a role in my desire to go... but that's not all that entices me. It's a mysterious damn place, and at this moment only a handful of people can say that they've been there. I'm really freaking curious to "see" what's going on up there, especially after living in Korea for so long. The secretive North has been a common topic, considering it's not so far away from home. How much has the separation of the peninsula affected the culture? Do they speak with a different accent? Is the food the same? How much has it changed the general demeanor and vibes of the people? Would getting a glimpse into the North create a better understanding of the Korea that I've come to know and love? I always question how many authentic interactions I would have on the other side. I know that the whole trip isn't an elaborate set up. But, how many chances to mingle with locals will I get during a 5 day scheduled "to a T" trip? There will definitely be opportunities to get to know the guides. It's a small piece of the population... but it has to have some effect on opening up the minds of a suppressed population, even if it's just a tiny bit. The country, to some extent, seems to have been progressing it's mindset. I have a chance to keep it open, and maybe widen the view a few people have of the world that exists outside. I can help this motion to continue forward. If the people on the inside become more tuned into what's going on behind their walls, that's a good place for change to start. It's not like I would ignore the fact that there are horrible things happening there at the hands of the government, but does refusing to visit change anything? Wouldn't sharing a fraction of my money with the community, exchange interactions (even as minimal as a smile or bow) and the possibility of conversations make more of an impact in the right direction? I've read several accounts with tourists claiming that they, in fact, did have the chance to have authentic interactions. It's possible.



The biggest thing that kept me teeter-tottering between going and not going was the idea of putting my big ole' wad of money straight into the hands of Kim Jong Un.  After fiddling around countless blogs and researching, I concluded that whatever fraction of my money does go "straight" to the hands of the regime is minimal in comparison to the big picture. It's my understanding that the majority of the money will be used to fund the tourism department, which will in turn create more jobs for the population and thus, more opportunities to open the country up a bit more. I even read somewhere that they have opened up a college for tourism.


I've included links to some of the blogs I read that helped me make my decision. If visiting the DPRK is something you are considering, remember that the choice is ultimately yours. Do some research. Read about other people's experiences and their opinions. Make a pros and cons list. 

Sometimes, when making big decisions, I even like to imagine that I've decided one way or another, and then live a few days as if the decision has really been made. How do you feel about it after a few days? Pretend you've booked your tour, start researching what to pack, and imagine yourself carrying out an itinerary in the country. Or, pretend you have officially decided not to go. If pretending isn't your game, just leave whatever it is you need to figure out alone.  Let it marinate for a few days, or a week, before revisiting the topic. Your subconscious is a powerful thing on its own, and being able to return to something can usually offer up some fresh perspectives.



If you're curious about how it's even possible and what it means to travel to North Korea, this is a good overview.

I chose to go with Young Pioneer Tours, and would definitely recommend it. 
*Although not the most popular/highest "rated" company, this package was cheaper for essentially the same thing as other, more expensive tours.




Everywhere Once's stance on traveling - 
And their subsequent post to NOT go to North Korea.


Wandering Earl's opinions on travel and human rights - 
on DPRK
**Both mentioned on Everywhere Once's blog


This blog asks opinions from several people. 


Once I've written a blog about my experience in the DPRK, I will add a link here. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Another Ending



Well, that escalated quickly. The last 6 weeks of my time in Korea were a whirlwind of... everything. Now, here I am. With only one more day left of work. Only 4 more days in Korea. One more Monday, a hundred more goodbyes.

So, I had this list of practically a million things I wanted to do before I left Korea. Places I wanted to go, things I wanted to experience. At first, it was daunting. The pressure of time started creeping up on me. Then I realized, as I have time and time before, that I can't do everything. I did, however, try to squeeze in as much as possible. Having my friend here helped. I had to be a good host... which entails getting out of the house more than I would have otherwise.

We hiked mountains, went to jimjilbangs, and visited new places. I ate more than enough Korean food, and indulged in more soju than necessary. 

My last few weeks were colored beautifully by faces of friends and students. I made it a point to enjoy every last second of my job. To really appreciate how great I've had it the last two years. I was lucky enough to develop some really awesome relationships with my students. I'm currently involved in several group chats, where they keep me updated on their new classes and I keep them updated on my current position in the world. 



I was really thankful for my last evening in my neighborhood. The weekend prior was tough. I wasn't able to do half the things I wanted to; tying up loose ends. I was rushing to write "Thank You" cards, clean my apartment, and pack up a box to send home and my backpack to travel with. My last day of work was filled with snacks and photo shoots. I had to run home after to meet a friend, and to convince her to take all of the left over things that I wasn't able to sell. Then, as I was rushing to meet coworkers for a drink... I realized that it was the perfect time to pop into my yoga studio for the last time to extend my gratitude to my instructors for being so kind and accommodating. I missed my last class, and was worried that I wasn't going to have time to say goodbye. They were so excited that I stopped by, and even offered for me to stay for the next class. Which I think they realized I really could have used, considering my frazzled and stressed demeanor. 

Gamcheon Village, Busan

Magkeolli and Pajeon after hiking
I declined and continued my sprint to the coffee shop, until I noticed the lady who has been serving me food for 2 years standing on the side of the street. I was so excited for the chance to say thanks that I didn't even get nervous trying to speak to her in Korean. It was our best conversation yet. I really wanted to let her know that I was leaving, and to let her know much I've appreciated her. I was able to explain than I was not coming back to Korea and that her food was delicious. She asked me why, to which I replied, "I miss my parents." This was all my limited vocabulary would allow. She said, "Why don't they come here?" To which I had no choice but to say, "They don't like Korea." Which isn't entirely true, but I think it got the point across. 


Then, it was time to say goodbye to my coworkers, two of which I have seen almost everyday since arriving in Korea. It was a long and drawn out goodbye, as none of us wanted to get up and actually initiate it. Apparently I've become really good at controlling my emotional switchboard - because I didn't break out into tears during any of my goodbyes (those under the influence of alcohol do not count). I grabbed an overpriced bottle of wine from the market for the last time, only to get home and realized one of my friends had claimed my wine opener as their own. That didn't stop me. I spent the next 20 minutes watching YouTube videos, trying to find a clever way to open it. Instead I just resorted to pushing it through, which ended in a burgundy stained tank top. I stayed up late and enjoyed my last night in my apartment, organizing and packing and appreciating.

 Simple. Exactly the way I needed it to be. 









Friday, April 8, 2016

Wrap up



Alex// Sunrise @ Daewangam Park

I'm starting this blog three months prior to actually leaving Korea, in anticipation of having difficulty reflecting on my time here during the madness of my last few months.

Two years. Two years this has been my home. I've been thinking back to my first few months here, when I was in my nesting mode. Exploring my neighborhood, transforming my apartment into a place that I looked forward to returning to at the end of the day, catching up (or slowing down) to the pace of life. The life I created for myself here has been on one hell of a roller coaster. What I was doing during my first few months looks a lot different compared to what I am doing now. Ramen and gimbap are no longer a staple of my diet. My focus has drifted from accumulating objects to figuring out how to get rid of all my possessions. Wine and art nights have now just become art nights. Instead of rushing home after work, I rush to the gym.

When I walk down my street, I do so with a sense of pre-nostalgia. I'm viewing present moments with future feelings of loss. Soon, I will be overwhelmed with "lasts". The last time walking to work. My last class. The last time eating at my favorite gimbap restaurant. The last time purchasing flowers from the sweet lady on the corner. The list of ends is endless.

But what do endings bring, if not beginnings? It's hard trying to balance my appreciation for all that I am leaving behind and everything I have coming. One day I am asking myself if I am really ready to end this chapter, and the other I am begging time to move faster so I can get on with my plans. I've experienced this transitional phase a few times in the course of my life. I don't think it has gotten any easier to stay present when the "now" and the "future" are playing a competitive game of tug-o-war with my thoughts.



Things I'm gonna miss
-Ajummas speaking to me and having no idea what they are saying. Watching them laugh as a wave of confusion washes over my face, followed by us both giggling and shrugging our shoulders in defeat.

-Feeling really confident asking a question in Korean, only to realize I have no idea how to translate their response.

-My students, even the ones that make me want to pull my hair out.

-My apartment, and living near the sea. This is the first place I have been able to call entirely my own. Living alone and creating my own space has been such a treat.

View from my apartment
-Food. All of it.

-The families that I have been lucky enough to become a part of. I've had the chance to watch the kids I babysit for grow up, the boys into curious pre-schoolers and the girls into fun toddlers that never fail to brighten my day. Their moms have become like sisters to me, and I'm lucky enough to have the chance to take solace in the comfort of "family" when mine is so far away. 



- Jimjilbangs, and being completely comfortable walking around butt naked. Hopping between the scorching hot and ice cold baths, mixed in with a few sessions in the saunas. I wish I would have taken advantage of these magical places more often... but I refused to visit the one near my house in fear of seeing one of my students. THAT I would not be comfortable with.

- The incredible people that I teach with, and get to see nearly everyday. I am so lucky to work with people that I genuinely enjoy being around. My Korean coworkers have been so dang helpful since the beginning. I never hesitate to ask them for help, which they are always happy to give me.
-Cheap taxis, which sometimes double as the entertainment for the evening.

-Norebangs, and their unbeatable collection of old, cheesy English songs.


Things I am not going to miss
-Trash

-Being a part of an educational system that I disagree with. I often have a heavy heart at work, knowing that most of my students are stressed and tired. Some of them haven't eaten dinner, and won't have a chance to before they go to their next academy. Some of them study for 12 hours a day. They study when they are on vacation at school. They study on the weekends. Their little lives are focused on passing tests and memorizing useless facts. I have constantly wished there was something more that I could do. Something more than trying to shift the focus of our classes from "studying" to "talking". I hope I was able to help my students relax and take a breath.

- The frequency that I see dead animals for sale. Don't get me wrong, I find it completely fascinating. Roaming around markets is one of my favorite past times, and they are always presenting me with something new. I've never really been exposed to markets like this growing up, so they are one of the things that makes me realize where I am. However, seeing and smelling it every day isn't pleasant. And the condition that they keep some of those fishies in makes me uncomfortable as well.



I've probably said it a million times, but I am so grateful that I've been given the opportunity to experience Korea on such a deep, captivating level. I tried to be as present and aware as I could. I think this helped me come to somewhat of an understanding of what, and who Korea is. In the process of learning about another country, I've learned more about myself. I've gone through cycles, in and out of good habits. One thing I can say for sure, is that I'll be leaving Korea as the best version of me to date. It took a few downs to really catapult me into a deeper sense of self, and of this beautiful world around me. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Taipei



I could live here. I want to live here. If I ever come back to live in Asia, this is where you will find me. I have a tendency to compare every Asian country to Korea, considering it has been a huge focal point of my life these past two years. It's like, a family member that I am really close to - so I feel comfortable calling out it's flaws and putting it in it's place. Dear Korea, Taipei wins. I'm not saying that it's a better country - just that it seems like an environment that I would be more inclined to reside in (in the future). So, there. 


Taiwan (or, Taipei at least, considering that is the only place I've been) is like the love child of China and Japan, who was abandoned and raised by foster parents, in a more tropical climate. It was a refreshing change from the frigid cold that has consumed Korea. Oh, and the trees were still green. Every other minute, the phrase "omg that's so cute" escaped my lips. I couldn't stop it, and I didn't want to. From children running around in the park, English schools that we peered into, coffee shops, buildings, random gardens, trashcans, everything. It was all so cute. Not in the "Kawaii", little girl kitty cat kind of way... but in a more grown up meaning of the word. 


I couldn't have picked a better place to spend the New Year. This place was full of good juju. Everyone was so friendly, SO HAPPY. I got so many smiles from people, especially when it seems like the reactions I expected were negative. Couldn't find my bus ticket. Old man waited patiently for me to dig through my purse, and giggled with me when it was exactly where I put it. Woman stood up in the hot springs, the rule enforcer (as he shall be called) clapped his hands while motioning for her to sit down - huge grin on his face. Even though we only spent a few days here, it seemed like we had made friends all around the city (especially with the people who were feeding us on a regular basis).


Speaking of food. THE FOOD. Where do I start? Let's start at the beginning. Breakfast. It exists here. A huge contrast to Korea, where they eat rice and kimchi... Taipei has omelets in sesame bread, donut like devices,  and egg/ham/cheese roll-ups.  I wish I could tell you what the names of these brilliant foods actually are - but because I came across them by looking and pointing, I'm at a loss. I'm drooling just thinking about them.






And then there are the meat balls - which are actually dumpling like snacks. There was a stall down the street from our hostel, so naturally we ate there often, along with a stall selling delicious eggy bread. The night markets (despite the consistent smell of stinky tofu) had endless possibilities. There were fried sandwiches that I queued 20 minutes for, potatoes, noodles, and meat stuffed buns that are cooked along the side wall of a big stove (like naan). We ate ice cream spring rolls with cilantro and Gua Bao, yummy shredded pork in a steamed bun. I think, by the end of the trip, we had three bowls of beef noodles from three different places. Street food rocks here, blows any other place out of the park (for now). 




 

I was put in touch with a cousin of a friend, and he tuned us in to a really cool NYE party that was under a bride along a river, thrown by a few "burners". They had tire swings, body painting, salsa dancing, cooperative art, and only two port-a-potties. The evening resulted in me losing Leena and Jake. Thankfully, I met up with a group of people and they shared good conversation, alcohol, and other things. I was bummed I wasn't with my friends at the turn of the year, but thankful that I was still able to really enjoy myself.




TAIPEI HAS GOOD COFFEE. Oh, and loads of craft beer. That's reasonably priced. One night Leena and I stumbled into a 24 hour market called "Jason's" that is comparable to Trader Joe's back home. They had loads of fresh produce, a big selection of wine and beer, and snacks that set me into a stream of nostalgia. Just walking around the market made me feel like I was back home. I left with a big bag of Kettle Chips (Jalapeno), which had met its end by the time we got back to the hostel. Once again, these are things that I wish were as convenient in Korea. I would give someone a huge pat on the back if they could point out a coffee shop (that's not Starbucks) where I can get drip coffee before 11 am in Korea. It's a disgrace.


Here is a quick recap of some of the things we did during our five beautiful days in Taipei...


We stumbled into a small fun zone that was located down an alley at a night market. This sweet old guy dealt with me when I couldn't shoot the gun, and Leena won a cool kangaroo that says "I love Australia" on it.

We went to an old, illegal squatter area turned artist village called Treasure Hill and explored art exhibits, bought some cool postcards, admired street art as well as the beautiful view of the city. 

Friends themed coffee shop? This was an obvious place that needed to be checked out. The owner of this place spent some time in NY and loves the show, so naturally she comes back to Taipei and opens up a cafe decked out with Friends memorabilia. She did a great job of replicating good ole' Central Perk. We enjoyed our drinks on that comfy orange couch while enjoying a Christmas episode of Friends that she put on the projector, just for us.
We rode the glass bottom Gondolas up to Maokong. We ate more street food before settling down to eat a waffle and drink tea at a little outdoor cafe we found. We enjoyed the incredible view until the sun went down. After, we headed back to try and get down the mountain. The line for the gondolas was atrocious. There was no way we were gonna wait... so we fought our way into a very expensive (and dangerous) taxi down the mountain.



We checked out the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, which was massive and beautiful and adjacent to a quaint little park. 


We ate out of toilet bowls at Modern Toilet. This was, unsurprisingly, the most expensive meal of the whole trip - but it was well worth it. It's all for the novelty, isn't it? There were poop swirls everywhere. We sat on toilets at a table made of sinks with little brown poops in the center. Our soft drinks came in urinals, the sink was a toilet, and the lights were... you guessed it, poops. We ended our meal with dark brown, runny ice cream. Are you salivating? I hope not.   




We visited the Beitou area on a rainy afternoon. We got to soak in the public hot springs with locals and tourists and happy little men with close to no teeth. For about 3 USD we got access to a crowded cluster of pools ranging in temperature from freezing cold to scalding hot. Unfortunately (or very fortunately) there were no cameras allowed, so we didn't get any footage of our visit. EXCEPT one sneaky photo I snapped as we were walking out. Afterwards, we walked to the volcanic crater that heats the surrounding hot springs. The water was clear blue, near boiling, and smelt like eggs. The steam that came off of it hid a background of lush green trees, which every so often peeked between the clouds of mist.




We opted out of spending too much time at the most popular temple (Lungshan) and instead wandered around a nearly empty temple smack in the middle of a neighborhood. Qingshan was a great alternative to the crowds. There were three levels of intricate and colorful shrines, glistening with gold accents. Tall figures dressed in colorful gowns with their tongues sticking out stared at you as you walked through the rooms. We spent a long time on the top level, taking pictures and enjoying the atmosphere. The contrast of the dragons against a grey scale city-scape was oddly beautiful. I loved observing the people here, and their traditions. I watched as a couple fumbled their hands around a huge ceramic pot full of sticks. They each pulled one out, read something on it, and put it back before continuing to a chest full of numbered drawers. It didn't take long to realize it was a form of fortune telling. Now, if only I could read Chinese.

This city has heart. It has soul. There is an overwhelming appreciation for art, music, and civil rights. They encourage their citizens to not only be apart of Taiwan, but the world. It's a really cool place, and I can't wait until I get the chance to explore different parts of this beautifully unique country.