Video of my trip to South Africa last month, from Soweto to Cape Town. Featuring Two Oceans Aquarium, kite-surfing, penguins, lots of ducks, and I even drive…!
Video of my trip to South Africa last month, from Soweto to Cape Town. Featuring Two Oceans Aquarium, kite-surfing, penguins, lots of ducks, and I even drive…!
As some may know, I recently went to Japan with my lovely partner during the New Year holiday. It was a great opportunity to check out one of my favorite countries (and proximity is better than ever now living in Taiwan). Not to knock any other of the fascinating Eastern lands out there, but for my inner geek Japan will always be my first love…
It was my third time visiting, and Bronwen’s very first! In the month beforehand I brushed up on my old collegiate 日本語 studies, listening to audio lessons and dusting off the old phrasebooks. It turned out I can still surprisingly get by in survival Japanese at least, and I’ll never forget hiragana/katakana. Nowadays my Chinese is obviously much better, but I do know a lot of kanji even if I pronounce it wrong. Hence, I like to think I make for a decent Nihon guide.
In our planning stages we decided to forego the overwhelmingness of Tokyo, and instead opted for the more traditional city of Kyoto in the Kansai region. Sure enough it was a great place to explore, low-key and relaxed, and with a temple or shrine on every corner. Nijo Castle in particular stood out. And the Gion District was a cool place full of geisha stylings, and look how good she looks in a rented kimono!
(Note these Instagram links below are albums to flip through, so scroll all)
Later we went to Nara, which proved to be the first of our ‘animal friends’ series of photo ops. Nara is famous for it’s roaming deer, as you can see! Hundreds of them everywhere, what a sight. They are quite tame for the most part, except for a few selfish ones harassing tourists with bags of oranges, but basically one buys crackers from street vendors and all day they will safely feed from the humans. Lucky beasts.
It’s even advertised that they are polite and bow, but later I looked it up and they only “bow” because they think humans are about the head-butt them. Interesting facts.
The other main animal friends adventure consisted of going to the central shopping district of Kyoto for an amazing time at the hedgehog cafe!! Yes, the latest of the cafe trends is to play with super-cute hedgehogs. It was very popular and we had to reserve to get a seat.
I felt a bit bad, because our hedgehog was rather not into it. The workers there explained well how to treat the animals right, and it wasn’t uncomfortably exploitative or anything. Just slightly problematic what with the way the little guy kept wanting to run away into corners.
There was also an owl cafe in the area, but I can only handle so much cuteness.
New Year’s Eve was had partying, as it should be, at the rocker nightclub known as Metro. It was an excellent showing rotating live bands and DJs, with an almost retro 80s vibe to it. One band blew us away, they were dressed like boy scouts and absolutely insane. Made for a long night of ringing in 2018, and I hope I can maintain some optimism for the year…
I shouted out many a times: “明けましておめでとうございます!”
After going to the famous and beautiful Inari Shrine, and then the Toei Studios Park–which was somewhat of a lame tourist attraction and the anime section was pitiful but the samurai village was kind of cool and had horses–on the last day we were off to the nation’s second-biggest city of Osaka to absorb the whole futuristic Japan thing. Which is what I ultimately love about it there the most, though it did get very crowded. A city I visited over ten years previous, so nostalgic.
The bathhouses, the pretty light snow and the cold weather, the majestic mountains in the distance, calculating yen, the bullet trains, the heated seats, the soba noodles, the tempura, the lux toilets, the manga figurines, and the epic video game arcades. Experienced so much on this all too brief eight-day trip. And, she seemed to like it.
Until next time, Rising Sun land…
In my latest interview series, I’d like to introduce Taiwan-based bloggers. Since coming here, I’ve already met many promising writers and it is my pleasure to share some of the greats I have come across.
She even happens to live in the same region of the ROC as myself, Hsinchu.
Well, she can introduce herself best in her own words. Interview begins here:
First off, how would you best introduce your website?
My blog getupandgetlost.com is about our life as a travelling family, currently based out of Taiwan. It’s about our family experiences here as we navigate this new culture and discover the beauty of this diverse country. It’s about the ups and downs and funnies of everyday life for us. It’s also veering towards becoming a guide for other families wanting to live or travel in Taiwan.
What originally brought you to Taiwan?
The answer to that is more complicated than one might expect. The simple answer is that my husband accepted a position as a high school math and art teacher in Taiwan. It was in our plans for a long time that after baby number three, that we would embark on a yearlong adventure abroad. In Canada, one parent receives a maternity/parental leave salary for the first year after the birth of a child. This factored greatly into our timing. We chose Taiwan, in part because of it’s proximity to Beijing. Our oldest child is my husband’s daughter from his previous marriage. My husband’s ex wife was eager to move to Beijing, but we were no so inclined. Taiwan’s proximity to Beijing means that our daughter can live with one family while still visiting the other family frequently.
You write about raising a family while living in Taiwan, how would you rate the country when it comes to kids and families?
From this expat’s point of view, I would probably give it an overall pretty good or 7/10. For us, we don’t speak Mandarin, and we have found it very hard to find things to do for our kids. Luckily, I made local friends soon after our arrival here, so they have helped me navigate the language barrier.SAFETY: For the most part, Taiwan feels very safe. I send my 10-year old to run errands for me in the community. I don’t have to worry about my kids walking on drug needles at the park. Community members generally keep an eye out on each other’s children. Streets safety is basically our only issue here. Cars and scooters are not very pedestrian friendly.
COMMUNITY: If you put some effort into connecting with people here, both locals and expats, you will become part of a great community. People here are very welcoming and supportive of each other. From my experience, the locals are incredibly kind to foreigners.
MEDICAL: The medical system here is efficient and inexpensive, but it feels very transactional. You can easily access things here that would take months to access back home, such as an MRI. From our experience, however, we find most clinics to be very busy, and doctors tend to treat the symptoms first (and quickly! – five minutes would be a long visit), rather than look for the root of the problem.
EDUCATION: I think education varies from city to city, and I don’t know enough yet to really comment much on it. It seems like many schools here are very focused on rote learning. Outdoors time, brain breaks, inquiry-based learning, and other current trends of learning are less common here. I have seen some schools, however, that are implementing very impressive and contemporary methods of learning.
AMENITIES: These seem far and few between. As an expat parent who doesn’t speak Mandarin, it’s been tough to find kid-centric centres that are free or low cost. I’ve found one free government run play centre for kids in my city. Pools, for the most part (in my city at least) are very dull and not that exciting for kids. I feel like there are pockets of great things for kids to do, but it’s not consistent within cities or in the country. It would be great to see the government take a bigger initiative here.
OUTDOORS: Taiwan has amazing natural diversity. If you are committed to the outdoors, you can definitely go out and find things to do as a family. There are natural water holes and lovely walks. Again, as an expat, I often struggle to easily explore outdoors because I am simply not aware of where to go.
What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in the world?
One of the favorite places I’ve been to was a small town in the Sacred Valley of Peru called Ollantaytambo. Our time there was very chilled out. The town is built on ruins, and there are hundreds of ruins surrounding it. It’s a great place to chill, hike, explore and enjoy work by local artisans.
British Columbia, Canada:
I may be biased, but my home province is such an amazing place! For anyone wanting to visit, you won’t go wrong visiting any one or more of the following places: Vancouver, Victoria, The Okanagan, The sunshine Coast, Tofino/Uclulet and the Rockies.
This is just such a cool town. I lived there for a year during a university exchange. The old city is beautiful and the history is super cool.
What were some of your best experiences living in Taiwan?
The first would honestly have to be becoming part of my community. Most of my friends here are locals who live within a block of me. Connecting with locals and making friends has given me such an insight into the culture here. It’s been awesome! The second would be a 200-kilometer cycling trip we did along the East Coast. We tugged our two younger kids in the trailer and the older one rode her own bike. We joined another family and cycled from Hualien down to Taitung, camping along the way. It was amazing!
How would you compare life in Taiwan with Canada?
DIFFERENT! Life here is less expensive than back home. We can kind of manage on one salary in Taiwan. In Canada this isn’t remotely possible. Life here is simpler and runs at a slower pace, or so it feels. Taiwanese people here are extremely friendly, more so than Canadians on the whole. I know there are different aboriginal groups in Taiwan as well as people who have immigrated here, yet I feel like in Taiwan, there is a firm cultural identity and set of rules or normative values which dictate how we behave towards one another. In Canada, it’s less set in stone as people have so many different beliefs and backgrounds. As a family, life is a bit harder for us, but that could be due to the language barrier. I feel like many families spend a lot of time inside. We struggle with this as we love to be outside with the kids, but the weather makes that challenging at times.
Would you recommend Taiwan more as a place to visit or a place to live?
It depends on your purpose I suppose. You could easily spend a week or two in Taipei, eating great food, strolling the streets and exploring the nearby hikes and hot springs. I think you would come out of that having had a meaningful trip. That said, Taiwan is so diverse and the people so kind and interesting… I really believe that you only truly experience and understand this when you’ve lived in Taiwan (or maybe slow traveled).
Do you think you will be inspired by travel writing in Taiwan for the long-term?
Lastly, do you have any advice for other travel writers passing through Asia/Taiwan?
I can only really speak to Taiwan, but I would advise: 1.) Learn as much Mandarin as possible, starting with numbers (buying things). 2.) Get to know the locals. This is how you truly get to know Taiwan. When a stranger starts to talk to you, engage with them for a few minutes. Taiwan is very much about who you know. Connections get you very far here!
Thanks, Marisol! Look forward to reading more of your adventures in the future…
As I get used to living in and occasionally blogging about Taiwan, I have been trying to be as optimistic as I can get. But there are times when I have to admit certain challenges in changing locales, figuring out new ways to live, finding inspiration to write, and how I don’t always take it as well as I’d like.
Moving is always a bitch, even though in many ways going from PRC China to ROC China still contain many similarities. It’s not like I’m totally new to the whole Mandarin-speaking Asian country thing. And there are so many convenient things about Taiwan, from the high speed rail to those kiosks at convenience stores where you can pay phone bills and order taxis.
Also it’s quite clean. Taiwan is an incredibly efficient and well run little country.
But it’s not all good times, least not for me. Sure overcoming minor challenges is of course positive in it’s own right, of course, yet I’d like to take this time to share the slightly complainy perspective if you will.
There is the subject of transportation. On this I terribly miss Shenzhen. Even with all the China-police state crap, it was so easy (and so cheap) to get around by the subway or bus or hail a taxi. Taipei does have great public transportation, but I’m living a bit out of the big city for now… So that means a scooter.
I had to learn a new skill and everything. I was nervous at first, having zero experience with motorcycles. I was never the kind of expat to rent a motorbike and ride around Southeast Asia. I do like to bicycle, and I cannot say that’s the same. Now I am getting more and more used to zipping around town at 40-60 kilometers an hour, and the left turns are particularly tricky.
It is kind of awesome, actually.
Food. Not that Taiwan food isn’t great, as everyone knows. I mean, the night markets!
I just miss my life in Shenzhen when I could order in inexpensive Chinese food at any time of the day. The grocery stores are well stocked with domestic and foreign items here, and health inspection laws seem to be much better than in the mainland. It’s a great culinary delight to live just about anywhere in Taiwan.
I was however really used to my routine of ordering in tomato-eggs rice from the Hunanese restaurant, and vegetable curry from the cha chaan teng Hong Kong diner, and those peanut noodles from the little stands, and so on.
Currently I have more routines that I’m slowly getting accustomed to, which so far has mostly consisted of ordering inpizza from Dominoes. Soon I will learn better.
Meanwhile in Taipei, what’s better than discovering a One Piece-themed restaurant!!!
Travel is a blessing and a curse. I will probably take the high-speed rail to Taichung over the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival holiday weekend. Even though everyone says the nature and beaches are better along the east coast, which doesn’t have high-speed rail connection.
I was something of an expert at traveling in mainland China, if I do say so myself, that vast land with no end to history and tourist traps and epic cities and quaint villages. Etc., etc. I knew all the good websites to book guesthouses and where to stand in line for train tickets. Guess airbnb does work anywhere though.
It is amazing that the relatively small island of Taiwan contains so many places to go, and it will be years before I travel it all out. For now I am slightly intimidated on how to organize trips to new places.
I did enjoy taking the slow train to Fulong beach a couple of weekends ago; that wasn’t bad.
Then, there’s most important aspect of wherever it is I live: creative output.
Writing-wise, you see, I am in a bit of a rut.
I only got here fairly recently, and it takes time to get a feel for a place in order to write about with a sense of authenticity…
Do not expect a barrage of travel articles any time soon. I’m no expert on the place yet. Inspiration, for me, is more often a train of the slow-running variety.
Do stay tuned for a certain fictional writing project, which is far from ready to be announced and I will give away no hints as yet, but when the time comes then the time will come.
And also, the people. I don’t know too many here as of this writing. I know some. Honestly, the caliber of expat on average is a grade or so higher than many of those crazed outcasts who end up in China.
That’s just one of those things that happen when one moves, making friends can take time and all that.
It’s not that I’m super lonely. I am only a bit lonely.
That is what the internet is for.
Eh, mostly can’t complain.
Still, to everyone out there who’d like to keep in touch and maintain friendships and moreover check out Taiwan, please hurry up and come visit me!
Over the course of this blog, I’ve often written of my travels. Yet I never got around to having a particular category for travel. Y’know, like with those tabs above such as ‘Art,’ ‘Reviews’, ‘Comics,’ and of course ‘Chinglish.’ Travelling was but miscellaneous.
That ends now. I made a Travel category, and retroactively organized my old travel stories as such. Feel free to browse.
Now, I shall speak of my recent trip to beautiful Yangshuo (阳朔), which is technically a county as part of the greater city of Guilin (桂林). I’ve wanted to go for a long time to see what everyone likes so much about those limestone karst hills on the 20 RMB notes.
With several days off for the Christmas holiday, and the new express bullet train taking only three hours from Shenzhen, there was no reason not to go. Super convenient for those who hate flying but like traveling.
Off we went. After arriving in Guilin on the first day, which is more of a hub than a destination, we immediately continued our travels to the small village of Laozhai (老寨). Deep in the misty mountains, populated by the Yao minority group, it was very nice and all in all the essence of that feeling of getting out of the city. There were many chickens, some pigs, relaxed nice old locals, and under their guidance we made some tofu. Smallest village I’ve ever been to.
Pressed for time, the very next day we were bused to scenic Yangshuo where we would be staying for the bulk of our trip. The guesthouse was excellent and our host immensely helpful, can’t be recommended enough. On the first evening we went to bustling West street for dinner, and over the course of the trip much pancakes and pizza would be eaten indeed.
Everyday we rented bikes and cycled down the country roads to explore. Outside of West street, it becomes very towny fast. Little villages, epic views of karsts. There was bamboo rafting along the Lijiang river. I went horse-riding!
One particularly nice view was along the grande Moon Hill rock formation, next to some life-size Transformers which I assume are not really allowed under copyright law but hey it’s rural China.
Even met some friends. A couple known from their days in Shenzhen had moved to Yangshuo and we had a nice dinner to catch up, and by coincidence another friend happened to be traveling at the same time to join us.
Good times. The last day was bittersweet as it is when traveling ends.
Short blog, but you get the gist of it. The new year is approaching, and I said it would be a travel posting but I didn’t say it would be that detailed. Well I do hope to return to lovely Yangshuo one day…
Oh, and there was some Chinglish to be found if not that much and here you are:
2016 was, to say the least, a tumultuous year.
It’s already something of a meme to say that 2016 sucks so much. And yeah, that’s largely true specifically in the political sense anyway.
However, in my personal life I can definitely declare that though it’s been hard I can claim lot of positive growth over the past year. I traveled the world, I promoted some writing, I published here and there, wrote another book, and I even moved in with my girlfriend!
There has been a lot on this very blog worth share. I reviewed, I interviewed. And although at this stage it’s hard to say if it will lead anywhere, one of my personal productive favorites of the year was starting anew on my hobby of drawing silly little comics.
In thinking over this arbitrary marking of the Earth going around the sun that we all mark on our calendars, I have thought about it most nostalgically and created a list of links below. Here, a few posts that stand out to me to sum up the crazy intensities of this most epically year:
In February, right after Chinese New Year, I was lucky enough to be detained by the Chinese police after attending an unlicensed rave party. I tested negative for drugs and was soon released, while sadly others I knew tested positive, leaving me with the opportunity to write what proved to be my most popular piece of writing ever. The guys over at Reddit China were somewhat opinionated. But I had my say.
Hey it even led to a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
With my novel South China Morning Blues published — from Blacksmith Books, Hong Kong — in late 2015, I was very focused on promoting the book all over Shenzhen (and Guangzhou, and Hong Kong) over the beginning of the following year and on. It was a big part of my job for months on end. The highlight was definitely in March when I went to both Beijing and Chengdu for a little get-together known as the Bookworm Literary Festival.
The travel it did continue. I visited the great country/not country of Taiwan as part of my girlfriend Bronwen’s art residency in May. Absolutely wonderful place. There will be more on Taiwan come the next new year.
And in June it was time to go to Israel for the bi-annual visiting of the family. What a trip I met some little nieces and nephews, saw my parents, had emotions, all the while some legal complications came up and had to be dealt with.
One event that really stood out in the summer was the art exhibition by Bronwen and some other locally sourced artists over at Sin Sin Fine Art in Hong Kong. Great work. I happened to write an article about it.
At last, the dreaded subject of American politics. Over the second half of 2016, I carried on with my life and moved and wrote and promoted, meanwhile in America (totally affecting the rest of the world) it all went well and truly insane. I became rather consumed in following the politics of the horrible election cycle. Finally, of all things, I was forced to start writing political columns. The anxieties of the day before, then November’s horrific results, and a touch of conspiracy theory commentary.
Sadly, at this rate I will probably have yet more to say in 2017. A lot more. Despite the apocalyptic scenarios at hand, I’ll try to be optimistic about the new year. What’s certainly true is that nobody knows what will happen next.
Thus was the year. I and you survived. Thanks for paying attention to me and my humble perspective. On a concluding note, let us mourn the actual concept of truth and facts with this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow… RIP truth~
Good luck to 2017, we’ll need it!
Our interview today is with the well-traveled Hilton Yip who blogs @–
My Take: hcyip.wordpress.com
He currently resides in the nearby city of Hong Kong and was nice enough to talk with me about writing and seeing the world. I’m happy to introduce him herein!
How long have you been writing?
I started writing in university and my first published article in a non-student publication was in 2008. I wrote for the main college student newspaper. I wrote for the news team, but I also did opinion, arts and travel pieces too. When I think about it, that’s how my writing and my blogging have developed, in that I’m interested in a few different fields and I write about different things.
How did you get started in blogging?
When I was in university, a lot of people I knew had one so I felt it’d be good to have one as well. Since then, I’ve continued blogging.
My first blog was mainly about personal stuff with a bit of political rants. Some of it is probably embarrassing, but when you’re that age and you’re new to a form of social media as blogs were then, it’s easy to get caught up and write whatever nonsense comes to your mind. The people I knew mostly wrote about personal things too, but I also remember reading some really interesting geopolitical blogs. It’s kind of a pity that blogging doesn’t seem too popular, for instance a lot of China-based expat blogs I knew from a few years ago have stopped, but at least WordPress, which I also use, is still going strong.
You used to live in Beijing, and now live in Hong Kong. How do you feel each place compares when it comes to literary inspiration?
I’ve only been in HK for several months so there’s probably a lot more I need to find out. I think HK feels more hectic and smaller than Beijing but more international, whereas Beijing is more historic, is the capital of China so you’ve got tons of people from all over the country, and is still developing.
Beijing is at least 800 years old as a city. It’s full of centuries-old sites like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the hutongs. On the other hand, it is still a city in flux with a lot of strata in society from the obscenely powerful to well-off, urbane folks to migrant workers, educated and not-so-educated. The city itself is still growing in terms of both buildings and people, so much so that it wants to reduce its population. Hong Kong is more international in the sense that besides a large and established expat population and Western restaurants and stores, it has a longstanding Western heritage due to its colonial past.
You have a lot of published articles, as well as personal travel blogs. Is there anything you like better about writing your own blogs as opposed to writing for pay?
Yes, certainly. Writing on my blog allows me to write about anything I want or feel like. Of course, when I write for pay, I usually write about topics that interest me. I’d never write about something I didn’t believe in. But with blogging, there are absolutely no constraints such as word limits or deadlines except in your own mind.
What kind of places are your favorite to visit?
I like cities with a lot of history and that are bustling, but which are also attractive. Nanjing is my favorite city in China precisely because it has both history and pleasant scenery and streets. In terms of natural places, I like hills and mountains. That is one really good thing about Hong Kong that not many people outside of HK know- that it’s got a lot of good hills to hike with great scenery.
It may sound boring but I really like history museums and I always make sure to visit one whenever I’m in cities, especially major ones. No matter whether it be Tokyo, Seoul, London, Cape Town, Nanjing, Shanghai or even Hong Kong, I always make sure to check out history museums. In general though, I like cities that have a lot of history like Rome, Nanjing and Hanoi and historical landmarks like palaces, ancient structures and old city walls. For instance, I would say the best thing about Xian is not the terracotta warriors but the drum and bell towers, the nearby Muslim quarter, and the city walls. Of course, I like other things like interesting buildings and skyscrapers and especially old neighborhoods where you can walk around and explore.
What kind of places are your least favorite to visit?
There hasn’t been a country that I visited and I didn’t like. Now I don’t quite like China, but that’s from living there, not from traveling. I’m generally open to different kinds of places, but I admit I’m not much of a cafe person. I don’t mind meeting up with people in cafes but I won’t visit a neighborhood for its cafes; I’m not a cafe coffee drinker and I don’t have the habit of doing work like writing in them.
What exotic locales can we expect to see on your blog next; any interesting travel plans?
I haven’t decided on any trips for the near future, since I did a lot of traveling late last year and earlier this year (Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Italy, France). I hope to visit India though that’ll probably be next year.
As you may know from brief biographies published on occasion, I am American but I happened to be born in Israel. But what does that exactly mean? I moved when I was a baby and I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t even particularly care about Israel other than a general appreciation for the Western mythological tradition, and in fact if you speak to me in private I would express that I am quite critical of the intense political situation there. If you wanna get into religion then let me say I’m basically atheist at this point.
I identify myself as completely American and somewhat proud of that—not that America is perfect but there is an argument to be made that America’s contributions to the world do outnumber the negatives. And, America is just plain more interesting.
The short and long of it is that I left Israel at two-years old. I have no memory as “sabra”. My dad is from Chicago and my mom is from the former Soviet Union; they met there and me and my sister were born abroad but raised in the United States of America: the midwestern states of Indiana and Ohio to be specific. I consider my hometown to be Cincinnati. For the past decade I’ve had a California driver’s license. Even though I’ve lived in another interesting country for quite a while, China, I will always consider myself an American abroad.
I did visit Israel a few times in my adult life. When I was a teenager on one of those trips, a couple times to see family. What can I say? The food is good. It’s English-friendly and easy to get around. That’s about the main takeaway for me.
So, over the last several years my sister has chosen to live in Jerusalem and do the whole religious thing. Not for me, but to each their own. She has a family, a precocious hyper son whom I met at a wedding in Florida two years ago. Since then, her family has grown with the addition of two super-cute nieces I had yet to meet. Hence, the time came for one of those international trips to meet the family!
I had arranged to fly from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv for a brief, one-week trip. My mom was flying in as well. Right off the bat, unwelcoming Israeli security became an issue as I was personally escorted through the HK airport. It was better than the strip search last time. The real bureaucratic issue was when, after the grueling 11-hour flight, I was told off at the Ben-Gurion customs…
See, I have never even had an Israeli passport. I left as a baby under my parents’. I could claim dual citizenship, but I’ve never had any desire whatsoever. In 2011 I came for my sister’s wedding, and there wasn’t a problem with my U.S. passport until I left and a border guard yelled at me for not having an Israeli passport. I was told I would not be allowed in next time without it. In the years since I tried my best to forget about that. It was kind of offensive, being told what my identity is.
They must have remembered, because when I came in the guard knew I was warned already and gave me a very hard time for not getting the passport. Gotta give their record-keeping system credit. Apparently I had to go to the Ministry of the Interior to sort it out, or I would not be allowed to leave the country!
Bit scary to be told that. What, should I contact the American embassy and say Israel is trying to kidnap me? I do get it; Israel is very aggressive about getting more migration for their own reasons. However, I am not into it. Least I know I’m too old to get drafted.
I suppose it could come in handy if there was a world disaster and I needed a second country’s passport. Still, I try not to plan my life around paranoia.
So, they eventually let me through. I was nervous but ready to embrace the trip. My Dad—who happened to be in the area—picked me up along with my British brother-in-law. It was late, and already I preferred the cool, dry desert air to the humid jungle weather I had come from. We went to my dad’s accommodations to pass out, and the next day I saw my sister’s family!
I had met her son/my nephew in 2014 but I never met my nieces until that day. They are ridiculously cute. And not only that, but we then returned to the airport to pick up my mom! A real family reunion of a trip. I doled out gifts of Chinese trinkets and we all caught up on life. It’s always nice to see one’s immediate family after years away.
Finally, on Day 3, I went to the dreaded Ministry of the Interior. My dad helped me out a lot. I brought my (American) passport and my printout of flight details, and that’s all I had. No Israeli documentation whatsoever. We took a number, waited, then were told to go somewhere else to take a number. It was early in the day and I can’t complain as it was rather fast for a government ministry. At last, a lady took us in her office. I had two choices revealed: I could pay to receive an Israeli passport and it would take a few days, or I could get an exit permission letter right then and there at no charge. I chose the latter. She highly recommended that I get the passport and I must eventually if I ever come to Israel again, seriously I really better not forget, but this would be allowed for the current trip.
Now over with, I was free to enjoy the rest of my time! There were so many dinners with family. Playing with the kids. Taking photos. Eating delicious Middle Eastern food. Oh the hummus, the hummus!!! Lots of walking around the central district of Jerusalem, which is mostly an overly religious city, but touristy Jaffa Center at Ben-Yahuda street was tolerable. We went to malls, restaurants, and argued. It’s a family tradition. Arguing with my dad was the worst (we have a complex relationship), and there was a rather heavy disagreement with my sister as well over the settlements and alternative medicine. But don’t get me started, as this is supposed to be a mostly apolitical blog. The theological discussions were remarkably civil.
When asked about my favorite place on the trip, I have to admit it was going to the comic book store in the metropolitan city of Tel Aviv. I love checking out comic shops when going to a new place. The beach was also nice. The Israel Museum comes highly recommended; at the time they had an exhibition on ancient Egypt. They even have the Dead Sea Scrolls, an amazing sight to see (though they don’t let you take pictures there). I did enjoy the old city of Jerusalem, with the Western Wall and the Christian District, all those old churches and ancient structures.
One project I was working on while there was an interview series with my mother. She’s had a crazy life immigrating from one country to the next three times over, and I wanted to learn more about it. I treated the interview like journalism, recorded several hours of footage, and that’s all I’ll say about that until I create something to share next year.
The days went by too fast and before I knew it was over. After a funny episode of almost being late because I needed a new belt, I was driven back to the airport. I said my goodbyes, and the exit paper was no problem. All that was left was memories and souvenirs. I was headed back to that other controversial country of China, back to what had since become familiar to me, my life in Shenzhen. Not that life is stable here, the scenery is ever-changing no matter where…
Whether one likes it or not, family is where ya come from and they are important. I hope I’m on good terms with them. I’m not happy about everything when it comes to where I am from and my past, but then again perhaps I should get over those issues and appreciate all that’s been done for me. My mom and dad did their best, they are good people, and I thank my sister so much for helping me organize this trip. I wish her the best of luck with her new family, and I am sure she will do great.
That said, perhaps next time we should all visit in another country. Somewhere chill, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble over passport customs issues or anything.
Always on the lookout when I’m traveling, you should know already that I recently visited Beijing and Chengdu on a very fruitful trip.
It’s always interesting to discover Chinglish in a new city. Last week I shared Beijing, this week you can see some interesting pics I uncovered in the lovely city of Chengdu, including flowery poetry and randomness at the airport:
In the last installment, I arrive in South Africa which is the home nation of my lovely girlfriend. I explore Joburg, meet her dad, and experience the chill South African lifestyle of braais.
Now, the real part of the trip was to begin.
All the while, I should mention, Trevor Noah loomed in the background. Yes, by coincidence it was the same week that Trevor started at the Daily Show! I’ve always been a big fan of Jon Stewart and I was really looking forward to it. It was a big deal, his face was everywhere. South Africa seems to be pretty proud of their native son taking over my countries best political comedy show. His face was on every newspaper. Especially after the now legendary Trump-as-African-dictator bit.
(Although the place we mostly stayed at had cable, soon I would be without it, without even Wi-Fi on my laptop to catch up with TV. I’d eventually catch up, I always do, but to tell the truth being off the grid was hard on me. More on that in a moment. )
Also, people paid attention to the Rugby World Cup. Not only am I an American, I am an American who doesn’t follow sports. I didn’t really care. People seem to care a lot still. Something or other happened, Japan, Samoa, Wales, New Zealand. I don’t know.
Okay, on with the story.
Days Five to Nine
Day Five was a busy day. In the morning we went to downtown Pretoria and saw the capital Union Buildings. Then, transferred to another parent and in the evening we were to spend time with the mother. Again, I was anxious. Again, it was no big deal and everyone was totally welcoming.
I suppose being in one’s thirties, parents would have to accept whomever their daughter chooses to be with. Even me.
An uneventful evening, and then the next day the trip to the Kruger Park began!
Oh no, I knew it would partake of some driving, I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t know it would be that much driving.
My girlfriend’s mother’s husband drove, and we sat in the back. For days on end, we were driven around sitting in the back. Felt as if I was twelve-years old again.
Luckily I had my iPod. Got a lot of audiobook listening done: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. I recommend it, a good listen.
First day out, a slow drive north with many stops at sleepy little towns where there’s nothing to do but buy postcards and trinkets from locals. Finally we arrived at Grasskop to stay at log cabin guesthouses on the night before the Kruger Park camping started. A nice town, an interesting art hotel nearby, and we ate decent Portuguese food.
Another thing about these old people I was hanging out with, they are serious morning people. Nice people, absolutely generous people who are kind enough to support and show me around their country on this tour. But seriously morning people. And I happen to be not. Had to get used to that.
At dawn left for the Kruger Park. Finally made it!
The way the Kruger Park conservation park works, is that it’s not some zoo with animals on display for you. It’s an enormous area the size of a city or province. The animals simply go about their life. There is a fence around the edges, and I’m sure the rangers control the animal populations to some degree. Yet for the most part the animals are living exactly as they would in the wild, and any visitor can certainly get the sense that this is no zoo. No zoo pretensions here, it’s totally authentic nature, the way South Africans like it.
One just drives around, on dirt roads, following a map if one likes or only wandering, and see what animals turn up. If there’s a lion, roll up the window. If an elephant is standing on the road, no choice but to wait until he decides to walk on (please don’t antagonize the elephants).
Right off the bat I saw a lot. Giraffes chewing on the leaves of trees. Zebras hanging around. Families of elephants enjoying the day and spraying themselves with water to cool down. Endless herds of impala. With my binoculars, I sat in the backseat and we parked around various locations and took it all in. I got some good pictures.
The campsites don’t open until the afternoon, so we really took it easy. Like, hours and hours of taking it easy. After a certain point, I was listening to my iPod and reading my thick George R.R. Martin (Storm of Swords, best book of the song).
The campsite parts of the day were more chill. You aren’t even allowed to go for a drive when it gets dark, unless it’s a guided tour, so we stayed in. Read in the cabin, relaxed. Swam if there’s a pool. Listened to the noisy frogs at the nighttime pool. Read some comic files on my computer, unitizing my laptop best I could though there wasn’t even any Wi-Fi! Used up the airtime on my phone fast.
Every day we went to a different campsite, each with its own stylized bungalows. “Round hovel” or something it’s called in Dutch/Afrikaans. The first had these silly-looking blue-headed guineafowl birds that walked about.
The second included a rhinoceros exhibit with a fenced trail, and we happened to even see a rhino walk right up (sadly no camera on me so no rhino selfie). Poor endangered creatures, least they have their horns here.
The final was near Crocodile Bridge and filled with baboons and vervet monkeys walking around the site chill as can be – do not ever feed the monkeys.
Every night, of course this being South Africa, we drank wine and had a braai. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but it’s not my scene to be so into nature. I could have used a little bit more technology to pass the time. I mean, the stars were beautiful. The animals were indeed beautiful. Like that scary late part of the night when the leaves were rustling and the flashlight revealed a baby elephant came right up to edge of the camp to munch on greens. I was so nervous upon approaching. That was some moment. Even the hyena was beautiful.
Yet, I sometimes feel worried that there is something wrong with me. I cannot appreciate it the way other people can appreciate. I need something to read. I need some interactive media to comfortably remind me that the rest of the world exists, some distractions. I like that. Unlike locals that are ever content listening to the winds on a slight buzz. All the while, I partly felt like there was this underlying conflict because I wasn’t having some spiritual epiphany out there in the African wilderness.
Being an expat living in a major Chinese city of millions – with thousands of Westerners within the English-speaking foreigner scene – you never know who you will meet and what part of the world they may introduce you to… particularly when it comes to romance!
As I’ve written about extensively, it just never seemed to work out with me and Chinese girls. I haven’t followed up on those old blogs in a while, but know this of my present situation: I have not been lonely over the past year.
In the summer of ’14, I happened to fall for an artsy South African girl. Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say there were some interesting stories along the way. I’m not going to share all those personal stories at this time. Suffice to say it’s been serious, intense, and loving.
I am however happy to share the fact that last holiday (Moon Festival coinciding with National Day) she took me on a tour of her home country. An entire new continent I’ve never been to, a whole other land. I am still in awe of all I had seen.
I must admit, it was a challenge at times. Sad though it may be, at this late stage in my life this was actually the first time I had ever met a girlfriend’s parents! Wow. Really? Well, that’s me.
I was rather nervous. There was, in actuality, the issue of class. White South Africans tend to live in the suburbs, in gated communities, walled off by electric fences. I grew up a step below, and over the past half-decade gotten comfortable living in the lesser developed end of a developed city in developing country.
South Africa in actuality may be one of the most unequal countries in the world, but I’m not saying that my girlfriend’s family are that rich. Just normal middle class. Yet even that is tricky for me to be comfortable with. I liken myself to a starving artist-writer in China mind you, not some trader-businessman.
Really, it wasn’t that bad.
All that said, the country is full of beauty like no other… I can see what people love so much about Africa.
My lovely did an incredible job of planning this trip. (How could I plan? I followed her. And it worked out very well that I did.) Everyday, off to a new place. New sights to see. New wonders to behold.
Off we went.
We flew in from Hong Kong. Transferred at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the view from the aircraft of exquisite waterfalls and Mt. Kilimanjaro. My first time entering the Southern Hemisphere. Wish I could have explored Ethiopia more. Next time.
Though we were tired, I was determined to start exploring right after landing. Being picked up from the Johannesberg airport was almost a disappointment; I’d wanted to learn about trains right off the bat. But it was tiring after the second flight being over ten hours.
The driver took us to the guest house in Melville, the hip part of town. On the drive over I stared out the window and took pictures. The highway only showed what looked like middle-American suburbs. In fact, much of what I would see of the middle-class homes and shopping malls pretty much reminded me of American suburbs.
Melville was awesome. Full of vegetarian restaurants (we ate Mexican food the first night, yum!), used bookstores (I spent way too much money), and most importantly of all a comic book shop. Outer Limits: I got an old Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud I’d been wanting to reread and share for ages.
They didn’t have the latest One Piece manga volume, but later I did find it at a shop in Pretoria.
And Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture still hadn’t come out yet, always late.
By the second day my ears no longer popped and jetlag not too bad, we hung out some more in Melville and bought vintage clothes at this cool place made out of trucker containers called 27 Blocks. After some errands at the bank, I got a Sim card for my phone. Another highlight was simply going to a grocery store. Again, due to the western context, it was nice to simply be in a supermarket.
We checked out and took a tuk-tuk driver to downtown Pretoria, at the City Bowl area near the Gautrain station. There, although heavy with all the luggage, we went to yet another bookstore (found a used Warren Ellis graphic novel) to meet up with Eleni – blogger of Greek Meets Taiwan – who lives in the area. It was tricky to find the time, but small world that it is one might as well take advantage, and had coffee with her boyfriend and talked about education.
A lot of interesting talks showing me how it really is in South Africa…
Running a bit late, we took the Gautrain to Pretoria. This was the moment. My girlfriend’s dad, first time ever in my life to meet him. Although I did talk to him on Skype the week before. It was cool, no big deal at all. Nice man.
The dad and his wife – I would meet the mother later (now that I think about, perhaps divorced parents is one of the things that brings us together) – drove us out for dinner. We stopped by at a hoity-toity golf club where I did not feel comfortable at all. But it was interesting to see their scene. I was treated to an endless array of delicious meals, put on weight, and I’m very grateful he invited me into his home and was so kind.
The house in the suburbs was as suburban as ever. Except as said in South Africa they have electric fences. Stayed in our own guest bedrooms, watched cable TV, and caught up with my online life.
Already my third day in this land, and then sadly it started to get boring.
Hi all. I’ve been back from South Africa for several days, and busy with getting my China life back on track.
There are also some great new developments with the book and I will happily share soon enough…
Please be patient on my South Africa blog post updates. I have a lot to write about. (Coming up in two parts.) Currently drafting!
For now, enjoy this very short video I made about seeing monkeys at the Kruger Park campsite:
Apologies for no good blog post so far this week.
Actually, I have a whole lot to write about. I have many Chinglish pictures lined up for your amusement, some new interviews with brilliant young writers waiting to be posted for posterity, and of course the latest news on the promotion of my forthcoming novel South China Morning Blues.
(Please do check out the official new web page: http://www.blacksmithbooks.com/books/south-china-morning-blues)
But I am a bit busy lately, because I’m preparing to fly out for a big trip tomorrow: I’m going to South Africa
Shall be there for two weeks. Never been to that continent before. Should prove interesting.
More on that soon.
— And let me say that as a couple of white people going to Africa, this song has been stuck in my head! 🙂
No, not my first Chinese wedding. I mean my first Chinese wedding — of other people — I’ve ever been to.
Recently, my good friend got engaged and invited me to Hainan, the tropical island paradise of a province, and I was to attend his wedding. Always wanted to go that island, and always wanted to to one of those big festive Chinese weddings I’ve heard so much about. Made plans and I dusted off my old dress jacket and off we went.
Flew into Haikou city, the capital. To be honest, not my favorite city. People usually go to Sanya, the more touristy locale apparently overrun by Russians. I did enjoy the beaches in Haikou because they’re relatively deserted, and there were some decent natural hot springs, but overall it was a bit of a dead city. Really tricky to just find restaurants.
Then came the big day. The train at the airport conveniently goes right to the nearby small town of Wenchang, the bride’s hometown, which is actually better than Haikou. Plenty of places to eat. We were even nicely gifted with a hotel room.
The ceremony was at the adjoining big hotel. Look, he’s a celebrity.
The big day. That’s me, and my lovely date.
300 people in attendance. All the bride’s family. My American friend only had a relative few friends from the Shenzhen scene. We did get to sit in the front, VIP.
It surprised me how matter-of-fact the proceedings were. The groom did admit he found some of the rituals awkward. All the guests came in, paid a hongbao (red envelope, typically filled with *cash*), as if it was basically a show.
A show indeed. Here is the happy couple wearing undergoing the shaking-hands-with-guests-at-entrance move, with her in a red dress initially.
All in all it was a very structured affair. She changed into a white dress inside, but it wasn’t a Christian affair by any means. No priest, not quite walking down the aisle. The MC host of some wedding company was in charge, and it seemed like he did this sort of thing onstage all the time.
One thing checklisted after another. Pour the champagne, cut the cake, take pictures with the family. All with appropriate accompanying soundtrack.
Interview with the amazingly well-traveled Darcy Shillingford, Canadian novelist and blogger for the travel site travelingspaceopera.com
Pic info: “just as I was about to hop on a bus, leaving Cabanaconde to head to Arequipa, then eventually Cuzco. Caesar, who I’m pictured with, was our host in Cabanaconde.”
What is your writing process like?
It varies depending on the kind of writing I’m doing. With my travel blog posts, I try to put myself in a relaxed, informal state of mind. I give myself freedom to let my stream of consciousness flow, while trying to maintain some kind of structure and thematic consistency. Imagery is important to me, and despite the fact that I can throw in as many pictures as I want, my goal is for my writing to be able to evoke colourful detail with or without them. I want the reader to feel like they’re walking alongside with me.
As far as fiction goes, I can’t force creativity. I can sit there looking at a blank page or computer screen for a long time and nothing comes to mind. Other times, I’ve been lying in bed at two in the morning and suddenly think of an idea concept that I have to write down and develop a little bit before I can go to sleep. When I’m on a role, though, I try to let it snowball and see how far I can take it. The only fiction I’ve put a lot of effort into is in the sci-fi genre, and I try to write what I would want to read if I were to pick it up myself.
How do you compare travel writing with fiction writing?
For me, fiction writing has been far more time consuming. In addition to creating a plot, out-of-this-world (literally) settings, characters, and so forth, there is a great deal of research involved due to the genre choice. I’m no scientist, but I do take advantage of the relatively unlimited academic resources at my disposal and have put in countless hours researching elements of astrophysics, the gathering and employment of military intelligence, planetary and solar physics, religious and political history at a global level, various elements of the social sciences, philosophy, and so forth.
What gives you inspiration for fiction?
It depends on what aspect. I get inspiration for characters from my daily interactions with all kinds of people. I work at a restaurant and meet dozens of people a day. Also, the people I’ve met traveling are so varied and interesting that I can’t help but be inspired by them. When it comes to plot, I’m inspired by my education, particularly in the realm of history and politics. I like grand, I like big, I like epic, but I also like obscure. Random bits of military or colonial history that were glossed over in school, or missed altogether, fascinate me.
What are your favorite books?
Use of Weapons and Feersum Enjinn, both by the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks are certainly in my top five. I also appreciate classic or golden-era sci-fi, but I also think some of the classics haven’t aged well, particularly in regards to their social commentary. I also grew up loving the Harry Potter series. Stephen King is awesome as well; very psychologically immersive and vivid.
Why did you choose to spend your time in 2013 traveling in Southeast Asia?
I simply had to. I was at a point in my life where I’d recently graduated from university and didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life. My girlfriend and I had done some all-inclusives, but had also discussed doing some “real” travel. What began as an idea for a month or two in South America turned into half a year in Southeast Asia. When I look at a picture of the two of us at a wedding a couple days before we left for this trip, I get jealous of that guy. He has the best adventure of life just on the horizon.
Is it difficult to write about your experiences going back two years? Did you keep journals at the time or anything like that to help you to write about it now?
I did keep journals, but I rarely need to refer to them. I usually only look at them to remember the name of a person I met along the way. Having taken a couple thousand pictures makes it fairly easy to track everything we did, but every so often, a detail or nuance will creep into my memory that I hadn’t thought of since it happened.
You most recently traveled in South America, correct? What cultural differences have you come across that contrast with the Southeast Asian experience?
I actually wrapped up the Peru trip in mid-April. We were there for 18 days. The first thing I took into account were the similarities with Asia: the scorching heat, the abundance of cheap stall food, the hokey tourist areas where local merchants spout silly lines to travelers in order to charm them into overpaying for whatever product or service. All great stuff, in my opinion. The thing with Southeast Asia is that I visited seven countries so there are dozens of differences even between those countries. I found, though, that the food in Peru is a lot heavier and starchier. Also, the weather was far more erratic, perhaps because we spent much of the journey either in the Andes or the Amazon Jungle.
Which country or countries (Southeast Asian and/or South American) gives you the most inspiration?
Vietnam may have been the most inspiring, but as I’ve written in the past, I have a heavy bias. My girlfriend, Teresa, was born in Canada but her parents are from Vietnam and she speaks, reads, and writes it fluently. This had a vast impact on our experience there when it came to interacting with the locals and we really got to know people there more than anywhere else we’ve ever traveled. Also, Vietnam has a great deal of variety (accents, landscapes, cuisine) and its geographical makeup made it really easy to travel in a fairly straight line without missing too much along the way.
Do you prefer the bustle of developing cities or the splendor of natural, untouched-by-man places? Continue reading