Wednesday, August 10, 2016

10 Days in Taiwan - Trip Itinerary

After 2 months traveling in China we had to leave because of visa limitations, and decided that a 10 day trip to Taiwan would show us a different side of history in Eastern Asia, as well as offer beautiful natural scenery and endless cups of bubble tea. Little did we know when we bought our flights, how hard it would be to actually plan Taiwan - there is so much to do on the island! Some recommended using Taipei as a base to take many day trips, while others said to travel just along the east coast. In the end, we had a list of about 10 places that many travelers had recommended, and had to simply pick our top 3 to go to based on our interests. We took our trip in July 2016.

Here's our trip in a nutshell: we flew into Taipei, spent 3 nights in Taitung, 3 nights in Kaoshiung, and our 2 final nights back in Taipei. If we had had another week we would have stopped at Taroko Gorge between Taipei and Taitung, and gone to Kenting before Kaoshiung. The rest of this post shares a few things we wished we would've known during the planning stage, and some of our reasons for choosing (or not choosing) each place.

Things we wish we would've known:

1) Trains are easy to use. We tried to book our tickets online ahead of time, but kept getting error messages indicating that seats were not available. This wasn't the case and it was easy for us to arrive at the station and book seats on trains the night before or morning of. We used the railway website to get accurate information about timetables.

2) The island is big, but not THAT big. Compared to China, train travel around Taiwan is a breeze. On a slow train, the trip from Taipei all the way in the North, to Taitung, all the way in the South, is only around 6-7 hours. There are also a few express trains that will travel the same distance in 2.5-3.5 hours. We were afraid of getting exhausted traveling to many different cities but found that 10 days gave us plenty of time to take trains around the island.

3) Once you're in a city, it's hard to get around. Taipei and Kaoshiung are the only cities with metro systems on the island. In most cities people have cars and if we could do it again, we would have come with the proper paperwork to either rent a car or scooter for the entire trip (this would eliminate taking trains all together). Of course, in many places there are taxis, but relying on them can get relatively expensive and can add some planning stress. We didn't thoroughly research how to rent a car/scooter but I believe you need to have an international drivers license.

3) Phone data is cheap and easy to purchase. In the Taipei airport we bought a sim card for $10 USD that gave us unlimited (super fast) data. Would highly recommend doing this to help you get around using google maps.


It was very easy to take a train from Taipei to Taitung (pronounced Taidong). The train traveled along the east coast past mind-easing views of the ocean. We stayed with Linda through AirBnB and she drove us to and from the train station and to the ferry dock one morning. Indeed, the trickiest thing in Taitung is figuring out how to get around without a car and on a budget. We went to Taitung primarily for the Taiwan International Hot Air Balloon Festival and for Green Island. Both day-trips made the visit completely worth it. While the city of Taitung has little to offer aside from a rather impressive tourist night market (we recommend the waffle paws), the location is ideal for getting to the balloon festival and/or Green Island.

The Hot Air Balloon Festival is in Luye and is about 1.5 hours by bus from Taitung. The festival lasts for about 2 months during the summer and the balloons fly twice a day: once in the early morning and once in the evening. Families and locals come out at night to watch the balloons, but the die-hard balloonists might want to go in the early morning to make sure they take advantage of all the chances to see them fly (the event is dependent on the weather/wind). There is a free shuttle bus to and from the Taitung bus station to the balloon site at Luye. If you are having a hard time finding information about how to get there, check the official festival website or go in person to the Taitung train station where they have some English tourist pamphlets and someone can likely help you figure out your transportation options. The balloon festival also has a FB page that is useful for regular weather updates. We spent hours trying to find online information in English about the balloon festival and found out that the best way is just to ask someone.

Green Island was probably the highlight of our trip in Taiwan. We had a blast even though the hot springs were closed due to damage from the recent super typhoon. Getting there and back was simple (a 45 min. ferry ride from the dock in Taitung) and we easily rented a scooter without having an international license. Definitely rent a scooter -- not only was it fun, but it would've taken quite a while to walk around the whole island (not feasible for a day trip). Bring sunscreen if you're visiting in the summer because it was blistering hot. If you enjoy scuba diving, Green Island has the best diving in China/Taiwan. When we arrived we wanted to rent snorkeling gear and go in the ocean on our own, but we had a really hard time finding a shop that would rent gear to us. So instead we decided to try to go for a swim on our own (without booties/masks) near the Chaikou Diving Area. In hindsight this was a stupid idea. As a rescue diver, I would definitely say that the snorkeling is "advanced" and it was probably hard for us to rent gear on our own because it's not safe to go without a group or a guide. The snorkeling area is basically on a very rocky reef. On the whole island we never found a place where you could simply hop in the water and swim for a couple hundred meters. We left our bags and clothes on the boardwalk and tiptoed across live rock before descending in some shallow tide pools. There were beautiful corals all around us, but it wasn't the safest place to be without booties (and very easy to potentially damage the reef). I'm guessing the guides know where to take the group and "descend" into the water, between the rocks. If you know you want to go diving or snorkeling ahead of time, we recommend setting out immediately when you arrive on the island to find a dive shop and book something for later in the day when the tide is right.


We picked Kaoshiung in July because we thought the weather would be better and had read very positive things about the city (smaller and more relaxed than Taipei, but still easy to get around in with plenty to do). And Kaoshiung did not disappoint. We stayed in the perfect location at The Factory and ate shaved ice down the street from us every single night. One evening we visited Cijin Island and climbed for 30 minutes up to the lighthouse to watch the sunset (and moon rise), before we settled in for a delicious meal of whole snapper and fried oysters near the water. The Factory was less than a 10 minute walk to the ferry, and the ferry ride itself was 5 minutes long. We also visited Pier 2 Art Center, which we honestly enjoyed more than the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, and the walk along Love River was a great way to pass a couple hours in the late afternoon. Hands down, Kaoshiung is one of our favorite cities in Eastern Asia.


Maybe we were slightly jaded after having spent so much time visiting large cities in China, but Taipei honestly made us feel tired and uninspired after spending time in southern Taiwan. I won't write a lot about Taipei because in all honesty we didn't spend enough time there or put enough effort into experiencing the city fully to have any strong opinion. Who knows, if we had spent a year traveling in Taiwan, Taipei might have been our favorite city. We don't regret not allocating more days to Taipei, but it is a city that's hard to see in a short amount of time. We just knew we were making that trade-off and thought we would get more out of Taitung and Kaoshiung going into the trip. Warning, coffee is expensive (we're not joking, it costs $8.50 USD for a pourover coffee to-go at Zhanlu).

Taroko Gorge

If you are planning trip to Taiwan you will quickly figure out that Taroko Gorge is THE main place to visit in Taiwan. We wanted to go, but didn't want to risk bad weather since we were traveling in July. If it had been any other time of year, we would have gone and done the bike-and-hike tour with Taroko Lodge (in our opinion it looked like the best budget-option to experience the gorge if you only have one day).

Friday, July 19, 2013

समझ गया?

In Hindi this means did you understand? Or did you fully comprehend? 

Earlier this afternoon I had an interaction  with someone that really bothered me. I completely lost my cool. I was not able to maintain inner peace during the conversation and I let my emotions do the talking for me. After a couple hours of reflection I started thinking about what I could have done differently in the conversation to make things go smoother. What did I say that started things off on the wrong note? Did my body language have something to do with it? I honestly wish I could have recorded the conversation to look back on how I interacted with this person.

This experience catalyzed a great conversation today with a friend about understanding humans and how we communicate and utilize language to convey meaning.

Before delving into the heart of our discussion I want to first bring up a point. Do you think that there is anyone in the world who believes that they are bad? Do you think that people go to sleep knowing that they are wrong about a number of things in their lives and are fully aware of what others might perceive as their incapabilities? Sure, there are probably some people but I doubt many in general. At the end of the day an individual is usually on their own side. This is extreme but I don't think even Hitler went to sleep at night believing he was a bad person; however many people find the things he did in his lifetime repulsive and evil. Why is this?

The more you delve into foreign languages the more you conclude that certain phrases are untranslatable in your mother tongue. And of course vice versa. The meaning of many idioms or phrases in specific languages cannot be reproduced. Additionally, a thought cannot truly ever be put into words. Back in time there was a human who probably felt hungry. He needed a way to tell someone else that he was experience this feeling. So he created words… Our entire language was created to express our feelings. Our thoughts and internal happenings are explained and understood through the use of words and body language.

I'm positive you've had a moment in your life when you've tried to tell someone something and they've completely misunderstood you. However, I'm also sure that if they could have fully understood what feeling/emotion/thought was going on inside of you and what you were actually trying to convey to them, they would have had a different response. This leads to another point that arose in the conversation. How do you ever know in which ways a person understands you? We all were born and raised in different environments and we have developed our own personal internal languages. When I talk to myself in my head I say things a certain way. The same can be said for each person. We all have a way that we have internalized our language and it's meaning to us specifically. 

Do you believe it is possible to ever fully understand a human being? We are always changing and we probably don't even fully understand ourselves. But it is one of the strangest feelings when you realize that someone in your life knows something about you that you don't know. It feels like they know you better than you know yourself. But do they really? What they have come to understand is an idea of YOU through the filter of their personal language. Over time and many interactions with you they have internalized your words through their own language.

What if our languages change though. You might have a misunderstanding with someone and after talking it out, you realize what you said that caused confusion. Surely you will try to change the way you say things to this individual so that there are not future miscommunications. Over years you will develop a 6th sense for the way that this person understands your words through their own language… In other words, you will start to understand their personal language and use it instead of your own personal language when trying to convey certain things.

During the conversation my friend explained the meaning of a beautiful Buddhist poem… Our friendships (even marriages) are like rivers. They start as separate flowing bodies and join together. The waters from each river mix and are one in the same; however, inevitably the rivers must again separate and flow down their different journeys at some point in the future. Whether at death or before. Relating this to human beings, we essentially change when we interact with another individual for some time. Our own languages change and the way we communicate. 

Our conversation really impacted the way I view my communication with people in my life. I thought I would share some of the rambling thoughts and main points we discussed!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Random Access Memories

The first day of the program we traveled as a group to visit different host families that we could live with in Jaipur. Most everyone was jet lagged and for about two hours we piled in and out of vans to check out the locations. We were all just getting to know each other and I happened to sit next to a girl named Pandita. 

We both really liked one house that we visited and I was surprised when she asked if I wanted to live together after we met only hours before. I felt like she took a great leap of faith in asking me because who you live with ends up being the person you spend the most time with (usually) and sometimes that can add to or really take away from your experience. I thought about it and decided, why not? Koei bat nehi? 

When I am not in class for hours each day I am with Pandita. Our friendship has quite frankly amazed me. I have never met another person that I could connect with in such a deep way so quickly. Just three weeks later I feel like we know everything about each other. She knows things about me that takes years for some people to discover. The kind of things that you can't just tell about yourself but are revealed over time and a variety of experiences...

I am laughing as I think back to that first day I met Pandita. I told her that I would love to live in the same host family but that I was really serious about only speaking Hindi and didn't want to speak any English with her….. FAIL.

She said something to me the first week that really sunk in. Instead of closing my mind off to certain possibilities I might learn a lot if I just let life happen to me and go with it. I realized that I had specific expectations for my summer that were predetermined before I got here. I wanted to learn Hindi and stay completely immersed in my studies and classes - basically leaving little room for personal growth and friendships. From that moment on I have tried to let life just kind of happen to me.

My friendship with Pandita has become one of the most important aspects of my experience in India. She has challenged me in ways that I have never been challenged before. I feel like we were supposed to meet each other -- that for some reason right now we were meant to be in each others lives and help the other grow from the past and move in a positive direction towards the future. 

Because we are experiencing the exact same things each day (whether that's breakfast, hindi classes, or a rickshaw ride) it is very enlightening to hear her commentary on daily events. Instead of just relying on the way I interpret a situation, I am able to hear her thoughts on things that have happened and learn how other people might interpret events differently from the way that I do. 

The title of this post, Random Access Memories, is the name of an album that just came out by Daft Punk. It is without a doubt the soundtrack to my summer and I would highly recommend listening to a few song samples and buying it! But the title holds a deeper meaning for me… through various conversations with Pandita this past month I have been opening up memories from my past that I have not thought about in such a long time. Just saying them out loud, I am realizing things about my past and reaching half-formed conclusions that make me feel like I might be healing wounds that I didn't know were still open. It is such a beautiful thing and I am so thankful to have found someone that I can trust on such a strong level. 

Did I mention today is my beautiful friend's birthday? I hope her day is exactly as she imagined! 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Back to India

It’s time to pull my dusty blog off the cybershelf and start updating again... When I returned from my travels a year ago and started going to school at UNC, I was consumed with academics and with my part-time job. I pretty much stayed within a five-mile radius of campus with occasional trips to Florida, South Carolina, and of course my home in Georgia. My freshman year was challenging in unexpected ways, but ultimately very fulfilling and I know that I am learning a lot at school. The highlight of the last 12 months? Probably being home for Christmas with my family! There’s nothing like being home for the holidays and I don’t think I’ll miss it again…

So here I am beginning another adventure that is (maybe) worth blogging abou! Something about India must have invaded my body and started flowing through my blood stream when I came a year ago because I’m back again in the pink city of Jaipur! I am doing an 8-week program of intensive Hindi study with AIIS (The American Institute of Indian Studies). I am 90% positive that I’m going to double major in Asian Studies and Business (maybe creative writing minor?) and I have been taking Hindi classes at Chapel Hill for the past two semesters. While my language classes challenge me and I love my professors and peers, I know that if I want to master Hindi it is going to be hard to do it in the US with the distraction of my other classes and extracurricular activities. I need to be immersed and really focus on listening and speaking.

From my research the AIIS program is the only institution that offers intensive Hindi programs in India. I will be in Hindi classes 5 hours a day for 5 days a week and will live with a homestay family. There are some study abroad programs I found that offer a few language courses, but those are centered more on having the experience of India rather than academics. AIIS is the program that two government funding sources use and approve – CLS (Critical Langugae Scholarship) and FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies).

Two days before I left home, I started what I call Project Exhaust. I knew I was going to be traveling and mostly sitting down for almost 24 hours so I wanted to be as tired as possible so I could sleep. I stayed up late both nights and did a lot of running, biking, etc… The bad news is that it didn’t work. I think I got at most 4 hours of sleep my entire journey to Mumbai. And unfortunately Project Exhaust had negative but predictable repercussion. I arrived in Mumbai at 11pm on June 5th and I had the next full day in the city that I was planning on spending around town visiting a couple tourist sites.  However, little did I know that as soon as I went to sleep I wouldn't wake up until 4pm the next afternoon! Day = wasted.

I was back in the airport on June 7th t to go to Jaipur and after drinking hands-down the best café latte I’ve had in India, I noticed some hooplah going on at the gate of my flight. Everyone was rushing to this man on a bench. They were asking to shake his hand and kept trying to sneak photos with their phones. All the girls in the vicinity were in giggles. I asked someone what the rush was about and turns it out he’s a famous Bollywood producer, Farhan Aktar. If you are a Bollywood fan you probably know a few of the movies he’s worked on – Rock One and Dil Chahta Hai. Crazy right?!?! I never thought I would go to the Bollywood capital of the world and actually see a star! He was on the same flight as me and walked literally 4 feet away from me when we were at baggage claim...

For the past two days I’ve been staying at the best budget hotel in the city, Hotel Pearl Palace. I’m bored out of my mind and can’t wait to meet up with everyone from my program today (I arrived a few days early because I was originally planning on training it from Mumbai to Jaipur – However, my train was booked full). I will move in with my family on Monday and will begin classes on Tuesday.

My friends and family, thank you for reading. I will send more news soon.


Friday, July 20, 2012


I have 2 travel peculiarities.

1. On days that I fly I always wear the same thing. Starting from the bottom I’m wearing red Salomon trekking shoes that are comfortable, easy to take on and off for security, and sturdy enough that I won’t fall over wearing my large backpack. Moving up, I’m wearing a pair of black synthetic pants that stretch enough to allow me to sit Indian style in my airplane seat and have a side zipper pocket that is convenient for discrete and safe access to money and important documents. On the upper half I’m wearing a red Nike golf shirt that’s synthetic and lightweight but has a collar and can look “dressy” if the occasion calls. And just in case I always have my black jacket that I usually pull out ten minutes into the flight. If you ever run into me in an airport you know exactly what I will look like!

2. I always listen to the same song the moment I feel the plane start to accelerate and gently lift off the ground. I’m sure you’re asking, “Don’t airplane regulations require you to turn off all electronics during takeoff and landing?” The answer is yes! However, music is ALWAYS something I am willing to break the rules for, so I have mastered the art of hiding headphones and looking inconspicuous. The song is “All Star” by Smash Mouth. Why I initially picked the song I can’t remember for the life of me, but the lyrics kind of fit. Here’s the first verse…

“Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me.
I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
She was lookin’ kind of dumb with her finger in her thumb
and the shape of an L on her forehead.

Well, the years start coming and they don’t stop coming.
Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running.
Didn’t make sense not to live for fun.
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb.

So much to do, so much to see.
So what’s wrong with taking the backstreets?
You’ll never know if you don’t go
You’ll never shine if you don’t glow.”

Right now I’m typing this from 32000 feet going 882 km/h somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.  I’m soaking in the moment and trying to let it sink in that my gap year is finished. Finito. A few hours ago I listened to “All Star” for the last time and after typing the lyrics I am wondering to myself, “What if I didn’t go? What if I decided to start my freshman year of college a year ago? Where would I be today? How would I be different?”

I can’t really answer any of those questions. For the past 6 days I have been in Johannesburg reflecting on the past year -- who I have become and what I have experienced. I’m tired of traveling in the touristic sense, so my stay in South Africa was purely to think, relax, and catch up on some reading. In fact, I even developed a daily routine of catching up on work in the morning (stuff I’ve been avoiding for a year) , ordering a sandwich and salad from a local bakery for lunch, talking a long walk around 3, and going to mass in the evening. During that time I think I managed to wrap my head around a lot of things and I am prepared to come home and begin school in the fall. I don’t know the person I would be if I never went abroad but I can say for sure that I feel like I’ve grown up 4 years in the past 10 months. Until I left I never fully realized that going to a different country means different rules, different languages, different stores, different food, and overall a different system. It’s stressful showing up in a foreign environment with few fall-back options, knowing that you have the sole responsibility for your own safety, food, and accommodation. If I’ve learned anything this past year it’s how to survive and how to find good deals on airline tickets :D

When I think about the problems that I used to let affect me a year ago I start laughing at myself. No matter what happens to me in the future, whether I have a successful career with a family or wind up working at McDonalds for the rest of my life, I am incredible lucky to have my health, an education, the opportunities to travel and pursue my goals, and a support system that stands behind me. I have seen firsthand how much worse things can always be and I don’t think I will ever take my life for granted.

Lately everyone has been asking me what I am studying or what I want to do for the rest of my life. The answer is I don’t know, and I am entirely confident not knowing! This year hasn’t shown me what I want pursue as a career, but it has shown me a lot of things that I don’t want to pursue.

When it comes down to it I find myself at a loss for words about my gap year… I think I can say everything I need to by describing an experience I had a few days ago. I was walking down the street in Johannesburg around twilight with my headphones plugged in and my feet stepping to the beat of the song, when suddenly I felt like an emotional fuse lit up inside me. The sun was shining on my face and looking around I realized how bizarre it was that I was standing in the middle of South Africa, a small American girl, oceans away from family in a city filled with so much history and culture. My mind started racing and video memories popped up randomly of a taxi ride through Kolkata, an after coffee chocolate in France, a small student holding my hand in Dadawas village, and a Meyer’s Butterflyfish in the Indian ocean. I started crying and laughing at the same time. How lucky do you get in life? How many blessings does God give you? Why me?

My gap year has been without a doubt the most amazing year of my life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Video: Underwater in The Bay of Ranobe

When I packed for Madagascar I bought an underwater housing unit for my travel camera, the Panasonic Lumix LX5. After a lot of research I went with the Ikelite Housing system and I was really satisfied with my purchase. One thing I love about the Lumix is the video feature. You can take videos from any setting on the camera and when I was underwater I experimented with a couple short clips. I went through all my footage and here is a video of my favorite parts. It's nothing fancy, but if anything it will give you a look at the sites I went diving at almost everyday. Enjoy!

P.S. To turn off the music and hear the audio on the video just click the pause button on the red bar on the bottom left side of the page. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Johannesburg Ice Cream

Okay, I know I write about ice cream a lot but I promise this is my last post on the subject for a while! My gap year is nearly over and I have to add my research about the McDonalds ice cream cone in Johannesburg, the last location on the itinerary. When I took a walk one day around the bunkhouse I was staying in, I was pleasantly surprised to see a McDonalds advertisement with an arrow pointing that the nearest location in Edenvale was 1km away. YES! No McDonalds ice cream in three months…it’s about time! When I got to the location I was shocked at how big the restaurant was! It was huge and rivaled some of the largest locations I’ve seen in the U.S. It’s also the only McDonalds I’ve seen abroad with a drive-thru. When I ordered the cone I was shocked that it only cost 2.95 South African Rand, which is about 0.36 USD. It was incredibly cheap! I didn’t really understand because South Africa is very developed and known to have prices that are comparable to western prices. The other meals and beverages on the menu had prices that were about the same as the U.S. McDonalds. So why was the ice cream so cheap? I got my answer a minute later when the woman made my cone. It was the wimpiest cone I’ve ever seen and probably had a third of the ice cream you would get on a cone back home! Hmmm… That was the first time I encountered this problem abroad. What was I supposed to do? Order three of them to satisfy my craving!? I wasn’t ready to look that desperate… On a plus note the ice cream was amazing. It was quite thick and had less sugar then most cones. The vanilla taste was prominent and there was a hint of something else. Banana? It’s weird but I could swear there were subtle flavors that reminded me of banana pudding. The cone was very thin and hallow all the way through with a cardboard holder instead of a paper one. Overall it rated 8.7 on the satisfaction rating which is pretty darn good.

When I think about it maybe the small cone isn’t such a bad idea. It’s incredibly cheap and you can eat it after a meal without feeling really full or guilty. Should we consider selling a small size in the states? Something else I took a photo of was a new product they were testing called the “Cuppa Cake.” I didn’t try it but I thought it looked amazing! I’m guessing they are seeing what kind of reviews the desert gets but maybe in a few months we’ll see it back home.

So after a year of traveling here are the final results!

Ice cream in order of best taste:
1.     France
2.     South Africa
3.     Hungary
4.     Italy
5.     India

Ice cream from cheapest to most expensive
1.     India
2.     South Africa
3.     Hungary
4.     Italy
5.     France