Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

Pin It

I have a little secret to share: While I continue to report on locales across Latvia and Europe, for the past few months those dispatches have been sent from the tropical island of Taiwan. Technology is amazing, no? Although I missed Riga terribly at first, Taipei has charmed me with its fascinating mix of cultures and religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully, with temples, churches and shrines tucked in every nook and cranny. Although Christians make up just 4% of the island’s population, the Christmas holiday is widely embraced. The friendly people of Taiwan love all things cute, including Santa and Rudolf!

churches in taipei

Christmas decorations around Taipei range from the adorable (an inflatable Canadian moose) to over-the-top consumerist (an electric beer bottle topped with a star). Santas can be found shimmying up palm trees and strings of twinkle lights brighten the balmy December nights. With snow only a remote possibility in these parts, I give the Taiwanese a lot of credit for creating such a festive atmosphere!

Christmas at the Taipei Zoo

taipei love sign

Creepy anime Santa outside the Miramar Entertainment Park.

santas in palm trees

heineken christmas

Surprisingly, I was able to get my European Christmas market fix at the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei. 15 wooden cabins were set up in a plaza under the shadow of the Taipei 101 and stocked with everything from mulled wine and pastries to embroidered dish towels and woolen hats. I wasn’t able to purchase any French treats, as all the tickets for the event had been sold out, but was content to wander under the vibrant illuminations and soak up the holiday cheer.

taipei 101 christmas market

christmas in taipei

While I decided to forgo getting a tree for my apartment, I did stock up on colorful poinsettias at the local flower market. Considering they cost less than US$5 a pop, how could I resist? Taipei’s Jianguo Weekend Flower Market is a veritable treasure trove of seasonal plants and lawn decor. It’s also a great place for watching locals push their pampered pooches around in baby strollers. Yup, that’s a thing!

taipei weekend flower market

taipei weekend flower market

dogs of taiwan

One thing Asia does exceedingly well is seasonal desserts. Meticulously embellished with vivid details, these confections are almost too pretty to eat! Krispy Kreme’s red Santa donuts filled with dark chocolate pudding were my favorite, though the green matcha cakes filled with red bean paste were a close second. (This was a surprise as I didn’t think I liked red bean paste. I guess tastes change!)

krispy kreme christmas donuts

reindeer bread

fancy cakes taiwan

Where are some of your favorite places to celebrate the holidays?

Do you want to see more photos from around Taiwan?

PIN IT!

Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

travel alone

How to Travel and Have Fun Alone

Pin It

As the only child of two working parents, I learned to keep myself entertained from a very young age. I would create elaborate soap operas for my Barbie dolls and challenge my alter ego in games like Connect Four and Battleship. (I grew up before computers and smart phones. Can you imagine?) But as a young adult, the idea of going out to dinner or the movies alone was terrifying. What would people think?

My memory of the first time I dined alone remains vivid. I had just moved to Manhattan after college and knew no one in the city. After getting my fill of bagels and pizza I wanted a real meal. So one day I took a book to a charming restaurant I often passed on my neighborhood walks and requested a table for one by the window. There I was: all alone, on display for the world to see. Or so it felt at the time. In hindsight I’ve realized that the only person thinking about me was me.

IMG_6780

Just me and my shadow. Or something.

When it comes to overcoming the fear of doing stuff solo, the first step is really just getting over ourselves. We are our own worst critic and waste too much time worrying about the opinions of others. Who cares what strangers think, anyway? We will likely never see them again – and if we do, so what? Should their opinion have so much sway over our daily joy?

After that first solo dinner, I soon branched out to Broadway shows and movies. These are perfect activities to enjoy on your own because a) it’s dark, and b) there’s no talking. Plus, the concession stand clerk has no idea that that extra large popcorn is yours alone. Did I mention that you won’t have to share your snacks?

how to have fun alone

All for me! Yeeeesssss.

Now I think nothing of hopping a plane to Barcelona or Hong Kong, or a long-distance bus to Vilnius, and exploring the city completely by myself. Think that’s crazy? Read on for some strategies that will have you singing a different tune!

IMG_1087

Sometimes you have to just grab life by the horns!

Start Small

Attend a movie matinee. Treat yourself to a pedicure. Watch a fashion show at the local mall. Go to a cafe and sit down with your coffee instead of taking it to go, then work up to having lunch. Museums are great for solo exploration because they encourage quiet reflection. Ride the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus and listen to the often-interesting tidbits on your headphones. The opportunities are endless! Once you are comfortable doing some things by yourself, the next challenge is to put down your phone or book and simply enjoy the experience for what it is.

solo travel guide

I had this view – and this glass of port – all to myself.

Cultivate a New Hobby

Like photography? Grab your camera and go for a long walk. Always wanted to know how to knit/bowl/ski/etc? Take lessons or join a league. Many cities have clubs for outdoor running or public speaking. I once came across a group of people staring silently up at a tree in Central Park. Creeping over, I eventually saw the bird they were watching with keen interest. Whatever you’re into, there’s a group of people out there already practicing it. Join them! At the very least, the experience will give you some stories to tell at happy hour.

Horseback Riding in Yunnan

Horseback Riding in Yunnan, China

Be Open

Doing something alone doesn’t mean avoiding people. Consider joining a free walking tour or taking an art class. Grab a beer in a pub and chat up the locals. One of my best nights in Hong Kong happened after asking directions from strangers on the street and then accepting an invitation to join them for dinner. Once you open yourself up to new possibilities, it’s amazing what fun you’ll have! And you might make some new friends in the process.

Hong Kong

Rooftop selfie in Hong Kong.

Practice Makes Perfect

My first experience with solo travel was a business trip. My company sent me to meet with a vendor and I used my downtime (lunch, dinner, the morning before my return flight) to do a little exploring. Sent on a return trip a few months later, I asked to go on Sunday instead of Monday and used the extra day for sightseeing. After that, I was hooked! I worked hard and was rewarded with more business travel and thus more adventure. One trip required me to fly into Salt Lake City and drive a rental car to Provo for a meeting the next morning; I took a short detour to Park City to marvel at the snow-covered mountains and Old West architecture. Those opportunities boosted my confidence tremendously. Once I moved to Shanghai, visiting a far flung temple or enjoying afternoon tea by myself didn’t seem scary at all.

Sure, the first few times you venture out by yourself might be intimidating. But it will get easier, and the confidence and self-awareness you gain will be priceless. Don’t miss out on all the fun just because there’s no one to go with!

PIN IT!

How to Travel and Have Fun Alone

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done alone?

Have any tips for overcoming fear?

Top Ferreting Experiences of 2014

Pin It

I can hardly believe it, but another year is about to come to a close. And what a year it’s been! I spent the first half reconnecting with friends and family in the U.S. before pulling up stakes again and moving to yet another continent in June. All told, I visited eight states, five countries and four UNESCO sites in 2014.

Without further ado, here are my favorite experiences of the past year:

1. Moving to Riga, Latvia

IMG_5890

Obviously this one’s hard to beat. We moved to Riga at the end of June and enjoyed three blissful summer months getting to know our new home before the rapid onset of winter. I’ve been so busy exploring Riga that I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet. I plan to rectify that in the coming year, with posts about my favorite restaurants, cafes, shops, museums, parks and more!

2. Exploring Latvia

IMG_6837

After a short time in Riga I was extremely excited to explore further afield in Latvia, a country I knew precious little about before the move. In the six months we’ve lived here, we’ve visited the coastal city of Liepaja, the mountain hamlet of Sigulda, a country palace that would make the Hapsburgs proud, and a resort town on the Gulf of Riga. But there is plenty more of Latvia for me to discover, with Jelgava, Kuldiga, Ventspils, and Cesis on the short list for 2015.

3. Visiting Tallinn, Estonia – TWICE!

IMG_0855

I made my first visit to Tallinn in August, and loved it so much that I took my mother back for Christmas. I have a new goal of enjoying the beautiful old city during all four seasons. Two down, two to go!

4. Wandering Through Prague’s Terraced Gardens

IMG_8342

As if a trip to Prague isn’t special enough, we spent half our time there traipsing about magnificent gardens spread along Castle Hill. We were able to enjoy sweeping views of the city’s red rooftops, with hardly a soul in sight.

5. Visiting Niagara Falls

IMG_1302

Despite growing up in Virginia and living in New York for five years, I somehow never made it to Niagara Falls. That changed in June with a road trip up and down the U.S. East Coast. We made visiting the Falls a priority, and it was definitely worth the wait! The sight of all that water rushing over the cliff, and the sound of it reverberating through the gorge, is awe-inspiring. I want to write about the experience, but quite frankly, I can’t find the words.

6. Dinner at Komi

IMG_1767

I’ve eaten a lot of memorable meals around the world, but the best unequivocally was this past year at KOMI, a Greek restaurant in Washington, DC. There is no menu; rather, the chefs prepare a multi-course tasting to delight your palate. We enjoyed a total of 16 courses, each more exciting than the last. What began with an unassuming sunchoke chip topped with aged cream and trout roe ended in the mad marriage of white chocolate and vichyssoise olives. Other thoroughly-delicious-but-sometimes-challenging ingredients included foie gras, sea urchin, goat, tripe, and duck hearts. My favorite dish was a pudding of candied olive oil, sea salt and dark chocolate. My mouth waters at the memory of it, nearly a year later!

7. Spending a Day in Helsinki

IMG_1296

During my second visit to Tallinn, I took the ferry over to Helsinki and spent a day exploring the lovely city. Since it was December, the sun set at 3pm and I was barely able to scratch the surface of Finnish culture in that short amount of time. A weekend trip will be a must for next summer!

8. Eating All the Barbecue in Texas

IMG_0754

Another adventure I have yet to write about is a June weekend in Dallas, Texas. We toured the set of the eponymous television show, cheered on cowboys at a rodeo, saw where President Kennedy was shot, tried on Stetson hats, and ate tacos and barbecue. It was an amazing weekend that was overshadowed by our little overseas move, but I hope to share more about it – if only to go through my photos of the delicious food!

9. Exploring Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

IMG_8540

With a week in Prague, we had enough time to take a day trip to explore a little more of the Czech Republic. We opted for Kutna Hora, site of the famous Sedlec Ossuary, or Church of Bones. But we discovered that the medieval town has much more to offer, such as a UNESCO-listed cathedral and a miniature version of the Charles Bridge. A post about this special place is forthcoming!

10. Tiptoeing Through the Tulips at Longwood Gardens

IMG_3345

Often there are treasures in our own backyards waiting to be discovered. While I was home in the States, a friend and I drove to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania to enjoy the springtime flower display. And it was magnificent!

11. Festivals Galore

IMG_1966

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Latvia is joining the country’s many cultural celebrations. From Riga’s birthday and Latvia’s Independence Day to the annual Festival of Lights and Winter Solstice, it seems there’s a party for every month! I am very much looking forward to New Year’s Eve fireworks by the Daugava River and the Summer Solstice jubilee in June.

12. Having a Charming Time in Amish Country

IMG_0245-001

Buggies, and bonnets and bucolic scenery, oh my! Driving through Ohio’s Amish country is always a delight, and a must whenever I’m in the area.

13. Eating Buffalo Wings in Buffalo

IMG_4863

On the way to Niagara Falls, we stopped in Buffalo, NY and ate our body weight in wings at Anchor Bar, where the classic dish was invented. “Epic” is one way to describe it.  Another is “filling.”

14. Sitting Front Row at Riga Fashion Week

IMG_9211

I watched three shows by Latvian and Lithuanian designers while sipping champagne and ogling the local equivalent of the Kardashians. Four months in country and already front row at Fashion Week – what will 2015 bring!?

15. Getting Chased by Elmo in Times Square

IMG_1602

Enough said!

What are your favorite moments of 2014? Do you have any special plans for the coming year?

 

Riga, Latvia: First Impressions

Pin It

It’s been two weeks since I moved to Riga, Latvia and some days it still feels like a dream. The place is mind-boggling gorgeous and almost defies description. Riga’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a medieval beauty filled with candy-colored buildings and a maze of narrow, winding lanes. Beer gardens are set up in the public squares and nearly every cafe and restaurant has space to dine al fresco. Music wafts on the Baltic breeze, with street performers on most corners and professional musicians entertaining the beer garden crowds.

IMG_2644

Town Hall Square

IMG_2268

IMG_2695

IMG_2613

Looking down on Old Riga from the spire of St. Peter’s Church

IMG_2680

IMG_2657

Enjoying summer along the Daugava River

IMG_2218

The only remaining section of Riga’s Old City Wall

IMG_2192

Egle beer garden, my favorite place to spend an evening

IMG_2662

Riga Castle

IMG_2529

The Freedom Monument

Old Riga is bordered by the Daugava River and Kronvalda Park, both of which are lovely spots to take advantage of the endless summer sunshine. Follow the cobbled streets northeast and you’ll end up in the stunning Art Nouveau district, where one whimsically carved building is more impressive than the next.

IMG_2319

Albert Street, the heart of Riga’s Art Nouveau district

IMG_2334

IMG_2434

IMG_2428

The beauty of living here is that there is no rush. I don’t need to check off as many attractions as I can in a week. Rather, I can take my time and get to know my new city slowly, intimately. I’m working my way through the many cafes, trying to find my favorite. I’m learning how to shop for ingredients at the market and scouting out the local dry cleaners. I’m developing routines.

I’m also learning things about Riga that might escape the casual visitor: there are A LOT of seagulls in this city; cats aren’t just for building ornamentation; and a little Latvian will go a long way – even a simple “paldies” (thank you) is guaranteed to bring a smile. Also, the food is hearty, delicious and beautifully presented; wine tastes better when sipped on a patio in the shadow of an 800-year old castle; and the Northern European sun sets ridiculously late in summer. I’m sure I’ve learned more interesting things, but right now I’m still taking it all in and processing the fact that this is my new life and not a vacation with an end date.

IMG_2222

IMG_2205

IMG_2235

IMG_2229

IMG_2258

This photo was taken at 9pm

I still have much to explore, but so far I’m smitten with my new home! Would you enjoy living in Riga? What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever lived?

 

Friendship and Chocolate in New York City: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Pin It

My travels around the East Coast continued last week with an all-too-brief sojourn in New York. Having once lived in the city, I have many friends there and try to go back as often as I can. I usually take the bus from DC, relaxing with free WiFi until the famous skyline first comes into view along the Jersey Turnpike, when my excitement starts to build. Even after making the trip countless times, I still feel a thrill when we pass the New Jersey / New York demarcation line inside the Lincoln Tunnel and emerge into Hell’s Kitchen, the west-side neighborhood I called home my first year in Manhattan.

IMG_3769

IMG_3784

My returns to the Big Apple usually take place on weekends, when my pals are off work and able to spend time with me. But with preparations for our move well underway and time pressing in, the only days I had available were during the week. I took the opportunity to see one friend in New Jersey, rather than ask her to make the trek into the city like I usually do. She has two lovely children, whom I met for the first time, and it broke my heart to leave, not knowing when I might see them again.

IMG_3781

A bit melancholy after that visit, I went for a long walk around Midtown Manhattan, where my friend and I used to work. It was hard to stay sad for long with the stunning displays of tulips erupting all over the city. A perimeter of vivid orange surrounded the New York Public Library while small fields of red brightened up Park Avenue. I paused to photograph an abundance of pink tulips on the Upper East Side and shared a smile with several passers-by who seemed to notice the flowers only after seeing me with my camera. It was one of those rare moments between strangers which lifts everyone’s spirits.

IMG_3800

IMG_3788

Spring is bursting forth in Bryant Square Park.

IMG_3822

IMG_3825

I had planned to take a Circle Line cruise of the island the next day, but the weather didn’t cooperate; instead, I treated myself to some beautiful art at the Frick Collection. Once the home of steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick, the mansion now showcases his impressive collection of Old Master paintings and antique French furnishings. It also offers a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of America’s 19th century elite.

IMG_3850

IMG_3845

Photographs are only allowed in the Frick Collection’s elegant central courtyard.

IMG_3830

Later that evening, another friend met me at Chelsea Market where we joined a Great New York Chocolate Tour. I found a super deal on Groupon and thought it would be a fun way to explore our old stomping grounds. We ambled from the Meatpacking District to SoHo, tasting decadent sweets at some of Manhattan’s best shops, all while a quirky guide shared interesting tidbits about the city. My favorite stops included Magnolia Bakery, Chocolate Bar and Bisous Ciao Macarons. We purchased additional treats at about half the stops and had quite a chocolate bounty by the end!

IMG_3855

IMG_3856

IMG_3864

IMG_3862

IMG_3875

IMG_3889

Once the tour ended, we were hungry for something more substantial and walked along West Broadway until Sanctuary T enticed us with its charming facade. I gobbled up a bowl of sweet corn ravioli with bacon and tomatoes while my friend went for the spicy beef meatballs and the surprisingly tasty cauliflower steak. The service here was really exceptional, with a genial and attentive waitress who even gave us plates and extra cutlery so we could gracefully enjoy the chocolates we’d purchased on the tour!

Leaving the next day was bittersweet. Even though I’ll miss my friends and the city dearly, every “goodbye, for now!” takes me one step closer to a brand new adventure. And hopefully my friends will come visit!

New York Skyline

How do you stay connected to loved ones while you’re abroad? Is there a place you miss more than any other?

 

How to Have Fun Almost Anywhere

Pin It

When I started this blog two and a half years ago, one of my hopes was to show a few naysayers that I was capable of living beyond the comforts of North America and Europe. From the wilds of the Cambodian jungle to the crowded Beijing metro, I have tried to make the most of every experience and tackle every challenge with a smile. While I have bad days like anyone, I’m an eternal optimist who never stays down for long. Some writers highlight their travel mishaps and point out what they didn’t like about a particular city or sight. That information can be useful, but it’s more my style not to dwell on the negative. In this spirit, I bring you my six tips for having fun almost anywhere!

Loy Krathong Festival

1. Keep an Open Mind

Try not to be too swayed by any one person’s opinion. Just because one person loves or hates a place doesn’t mean you will. Personal experiences and preferences can vary wildly, and factors such as weather and travel season can have a big impact. We were warned against visiting Bangkok because of the touts outside the royal palace (which we didn’t encounter). Others have sworn off tuk-tuks because, allegedly, all the drivers are swindlers. (Yet we’ve taken dozens of tuk-tuk rides across Asia and our drivers have ranged from pleasant to downright awesome.) The Huffington Post recently had the gall to say the Statue of Liberty was overrated (it’s not). If we relied solely on others’ opinions, we’d probably never travel anywhere.

Bangkok temple

Bangkok tuk-tuk

2. Have Reasonable Expectations

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If your hopes for a particular destination are sky-high, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve found that when I go in managing my own expectations, I often enjoy myself more. This can be tough, especially when visiting famous cities and landmarks you’ve dreamed of for years. Just know that you probably can’t recreate the Eat, Pray, Love experience in Bali or meet a dashing stranger on a train and have an unforgettable night in Vienna à la Before Sunrise. It’s better to visit a place for its own merits and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. You won’t fall in love with every place you visit, and that’s okay. You don’t need to move there.

Yangshuo China

I had no idea what to expect in Yangshuo and it ended up being one of my favorite spots in China!

3. Be prepared

I’ve found that understanding some of a place’s culture and history will enrich your travel experiences. In addition my trusty guidebook, I like to read as much as I can before packing my bags. Novels set in the destination country can provide a wealth of historical and cultural context. Heading to China? Check out Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Cruising the Greek Isles? Get lost in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Crossing Angkor Wat off your bucket list? Read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a non-fiction account of Cambodia’s civil war. That last one was absolutely heartbreaking, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the kind people of Cambodia.

Cambodian girl

Doing a little research about your destination is also a great way to stave off disappointment (see Tip 2). I saw countless people turned away from the temples and ruins in Thailand and Cambodia because they weren’t dressed appropriately. Even just having an idea of how you’ll get to your hotel from the airport can spare you some stress.

Bug spray

Reapplying mosquito repellent in Bangkok. Nothing spoils a good time like malaria.

Koh Lanta, Thailand

Taking a speed boat to our hotel on Koh Lanta. This was infinitely more enjoyable than a public ferry.

4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

This is another one that can be tough to pull off in the heat of the moment. But some things you just have to let roll off your back. Did the street-food vendor charge you more than the local in front of you? It was pocket change, so let it go. Does your hotel in Southeast Asia not have running water when you come back from a day of sightseeing? Go for a swim if there’s a pool, otherwise get a drink at the bar. No one cares if you’re sweaty; they are too, and you’ll never see them again anyway. Did a gust of wind blow a US$50 bill out of your hand and over a cliff? (True story.) Take a deep breath and forget it.

The restaurant is going to mess up your order, your flight is going to be delayed and your bus may even break down (on the side of the Autobahn in August – another true story.) Mishaps on the road are inevitable. It’s how you deal with them that counts and earns you your travel stripes. If you can laugh at yourself and some of the situations you find yourself in, your trip will be much more pleasant.

The Netherlands

Trying to enjoy Keukenhof gardens in the freezing rain.

Chicken foot

If you find a chicken foot in your hotpot, just laugh it off.

5. Be True to Yourself

Whether you want to hike the Inca Trail or relax at an all-inclusive resort, there is no right or wrong way to travel. I’m all for immersion in the local culture and for pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. But you don’t need to make yourself miserable doing that every hour of every day. Travel can be exhausting and if a Big Mac will prevent a meltdown at the airport, by all means, enjoy one. There is nothing wrong with ducking into a local mall to enjoy the air conditioning or getting your Starbucks fix when you’re abroad. Once the craving for creature comforts has been sated, try to get back out there!

Santorini

This is how I spent five days on Santorini. And I’m okay with that.

KFC China

A delicious lunch in Xi’an, China.

6. Take Delight in the Little Things

It doesn’t take much to amuse me. Ice cream on a hot day. Baby animals. People walking around town in their pajamas. A cardboard cutout photo prop is sometimes all it takes. I’m not saying that every travel day has been smooth sailing, but I would have missed out on so many great moments had I let a negative attitude get in the way. Once, after spending the better part of a day exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing, we rushed across town to see the Temple of Heaven, only to find the gates closed. Our disappointment was short-lived, though: walking back to the subway, we came across a group of older Chinese women dancing gleefully to Jingle Bells. This odd scene in the middle of spring remains one of my favorite China memories, and one we might not have witnessed rushing off in a huff!

Xi'an warrior

Why yes, that is a bronze Terracotta Warrior with a fork head.

Dancing in Beijing

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…

How do you make the most of your travels? What are your tips for dealing with stressful situations?

 

The Big Reveal: We’re Moving to LATVIA!

Pin It

As you may recall, a few months ago I mentioned that we would be heading overseas again later this year. Well, I just can’t keep the secret to myself any longer. We are moving to Riga, Latvia in June!

Riga 1

Image source: Daring Planet

IMG_1581

You might be wondering where Latvia is. That’s the first question most people ask when they hear my news. The largest of the three Baltic countries, Latvia sits between Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. It also shares borders with Russia and Belarus to the east and south, respectively. Ferry service runs between Riga and Stockholm, and cheap Air Baltic flights should make it easy to travel around Europe!

Europe Map

Why move to Latvia?

Though we thoroughly enjoyed our two years in Shanghai and Asia, we were eager to explore another part of the world. Well, it doesn’t get much more different than Latvia! The country’s population is around 2.1 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to China’s 1.35 billion. Trees will outnumber people and Baltic sea breezes will replace China’s pollution. Blending in with the locals will be a refreshing change. Plus, the Latvian language uses a Latin alphabet and should hopefully be more intelligible than Chinese characters. If that’s not enough, Riga is the European Capital of Culture for 2014 and is hosting hundreds of unique events and festivals this year!

Riga 3

Image source: To Be Continued Magazine

Riga 2

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Latvian blonde parade

Image source: The Beautiful Latvia Project

What am I most excited about?

Old Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its well-preserved medieval buildings and large collection of Art Nouveau architecture. I can’t wait to wander the cobblestone streets in search of cool and creepy facades! Riga is also home to a 600-year-old castle, an 800-year-old cathedral, numerous museums and a brand-new public library. The city, which straddles the Daugava River, is dotted with parks and cafe-lined squares.

Riga 5

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 7

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 6

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 4

Image source: Mastering the Art of Travel Photography

One of the things I most enjoy about being an expat is the opportunity to explore the food and culture of my temporary home. In China, this manifested itself as a love for dumplings and fiery Sichuan dishes. I know little about Latvian cuisine, but I’m expecting an array of local treats with some Scandinavian, Russian and German influences.  I hear Latvia has rye breads, salmon, pickles and beets, not to mention pierogi and cheese – music to my ears and a death knell for my waistline!

Popular Latvian activities that I’m keen to try include picking mushrooms and berries, birdwatching and cross-country skiing. An artistic friend has introduced me to Latvian mittens, while my guidebook has extolled the benefits of Latvian saunas. Apparently you get whacked with birch branches (to enhance circulation) while partaking of the traditional steam bath, and then jump into some freezing water to cool down. THAT should make for an interesting blog post!

Latvian_dinner

Image source: Wikipedia

Latvian food

Image source: Share Latvia

Latvian mittens

Image source: FolkCostume & Embroidery blog

Latvian sauna 2

Image source: Medzabaki Hotel and Spa

The resort town of Jurmala is located just 25 kilometers from Riga so white sand beaches are under thirty minutes away! The arctic water may be too cold for me to dip a toe in, but the sound of crashing waves should be relaxing all the same.

Baltic_beach

Image source: Baltic Beach Hotel

Germany is famous for its extravagant Christmas markets, but I’ve learned that all the Baltic countries have them too! Did you know that Riga is credited with the creation of the Christmas tree? Germany might dispute this, but there’s a plaque in Old Riga marking the spot where the original tree allegedly stood. I’m guessing that means Christmas is a pretty big deal in Latvia. I’m hoping for lots of decorations around town, oven-fresh gingerbread and handmade ornaments to hang on my tree.

Riga Christmas

Image source: PhotoRiga.com

Riga Christmas 2

Image source: PhotoRiga.com

What I’m most apprehensive about:

As much as I’m looking forward to celebrating Christmas in Latvia, thoughts of a long Baltic winter have me a bit worried. With only seven hours of daylight during the winter months, how does everyone not come down with Seasonal Affective Disorder? I’ll just have to nurture a penchant for snow sports and be sure to get outside every single day. Or maybe I’ll sit by the fire and learn to knit while mulling my own wine. Whatever it takes to chase away the winter blues! And, of course, the 16 hours of daily sunshine during the summer should more than make up for any lost vitamin D.

Latvian winter 2

Image source: Live Riga

Latvian winter 3

Image source: PlayRiga.com

Latvian winter

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Have you been to Riga? Do you have any tips or recommendations on what to do/see/eat? What should I pack to survive the winter?

 

Becoming a Celebrity in China

Pin It

What happens when a blonde American with blue eyes and extremely pale skin moves to China? If my experience is any indication, she becomes an instant celebrity!

To say that I stood out from the local population is a bit of an understatement. While China has a surprising amount of ethnic diversity, the society is still very homogeneous at 91% Han Chinese. Sophisticated cities like Shanghai and Beijing are visited by increasing numbers of international travelers, but they are also receiving more and more Chinese tourists from the rural provinces who now have the means to travel, and whose only prior exposure to exotic foreigners might be through their television set.

Baisha

While visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing, I was surrounded by a group of women from Xinjiang Province, which is closer to Pakistan than Beijing and about as far from China’s cosmopolitan coasts as you can get. They stroked my arm while repeating the phrase “tai bai le, tai bai le” – or “so white, so white.” (Pale skin is prized among Chinese women, who take great pains to protect themselves from exposure to the sun.) Their ministrations made me feel a little like a petting zoo animal, but the ladies were well-intentioned and very endearing. Truth be told, having once been christened Casper the Ghost by the mean kids at school, it felt good to receive compliments on my pallor for a change.

Beijing

My new friends from Xinjiang Province.

I was asked for photos in nearly every place we visited in China, and I only declined a handful of times, usually because I was in a rush. What I found most amusing was that often we would be standing near a significant Chinese attraction or landmark and yet I would be getting all the attention! It got to the point where I decided to document these comical encounters myself. The below represent only a fraction of my photo shoots. (No word on what the Chinese are doing with their photos.)

Leshan

In the park surrounding the Leshan Giant Buddha.

Xi'an

Thousands of Terracotta Warriors are standing directly behind us.

Suzhou

Inside a classical garden of Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hangzhou

Standing next to Hangzhou’s West Lake, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But it’s not just blondes who have all the fun. If you stand out from the local population in any way, prepare to draw some scrutiny. One friend of mine was complimented for her naturally curly hairstyle, a look Chinese ladies of a certain age go to great lengths to emulate. Another friend, who is large in stature, was regarded with awe as he towered over the crowds. A brave Chinese girl even asked him for a photo, much to his amusement.

My favorite celebrity moment occurred when a friend and I were walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s riverside promenade, one sunny afternoon. As we posed together for a selfie, we were swarmed by a large group of visiting Chinese tourists. First the women came alongside and put their arms around us, beaming as the men took our photo. Then they switched places and we got a photo with the men. Finally, they asked a passerby to take one of us with the entire group. As we were chatting, it was revealed that they thought my friend and I were sisters; my friend is Egyptian and we look nothing alike. We laughed about this episode for days!

0334281119016

 Have you ever had a brush with fame while traveling?

 

Saddle Up: My Revelations for the Year of the Horse

Pin It

2014 is the Year of the Horse, under the twelve animal signs of the Chinese zodiac. Were I still in Shanghai, I would see red lanterns and giant horses strung up all over the city in celebration of the auspicious occasion. Last year was the Year of the Snake, supposedly a period of great change and the shedding of old skin. As someone born in a Snake year, I thought I would feel this growth and rebirth most acutely. I was hoping for a great epiphany in which the purpose of my life would finally be revealed and I would set off on my clear new course.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen.

While 2013 had some incredible moments, it wasn’t profound on that level. I’m still struggling to figure out what I want to be when I grow up and define my goals as an expat/blogger/writer. But during my two weeks home with family, I had plenty of time to ponder these issues and am now chomping at the bit to sort them out.

0413186885016

I recently read a post that resonated with me, about embracing our own quirks and owning who we are. Anyone who knows me personally will tell you that I can be something of a goofball. I like to have FUN! The whole point of this blog has been to show my friends and family all the fun things I was doing across the world while based in strange and wonderful Shanghai. But I’ve come to realize that my blog has lacked a key element – photos of myself in action. That changes right now. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to, well, ME!

Shangri-la

Striking a pose in Shangri-la.

Skydiving in upstate New York.

Skydiving in upstate New York.

Becoming a millionaire in Vietnam.

Becoming a millionaire in Vietnam.

Kayaking in Halong Bay.

Kayaking in Halong Bay.

Making new friends in Yunnan.

Making new friends in Yunnan.

Striking a pose in Bangkok - I can't resist a good costume!

Striking a pose in Bangkok – I can’t resist a good costume!

Trying to cool off in Singapore.

Trying to cool off in Singapore.

From now on, I plan to incorporate more photos of me being my silly, authentic self. I will try also to share more personal insights into the places I visit rather than just the facts, ma’am. Maybe I’ll go back and tell you why I wasn’t crazy about Beijing, or how I felt taking my first solo international trip to Hong Kong. Or maybe I’ll just move forward and share new experiences as they happen. If there are specific things you want to hear about, please let me know.

I’m hoping that by opening myself up a bit more, I will make more heart-felt connections with like-minded travelers. I met some fabulous ladies in Shanghai who enriched my time there and continue to inspire me from afar. As I prepare for my next expat adventure, I am also setting the stage for new friendships with people who will introduce me to new foods and experiences, motivate and challenge me in equal measure and, most importantly, make me laugh.

I’m getting ready to move overseas again in a few months. (Stay tuned this spring for more!) I can tell you it’s a place I’ve never visited before and one I’m extremely excited to explore. I hope to become an expert on my new home, establishing favorite spots around town and sharing recommendations and cultural tidbits about this up-and-coming destination.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my time in the States, reconnecting with friends and family and playing tourist in my backyard. I’d like to visit a few new-to-me states while here and take my first trip to Canada, our great neighbor to the north.

IMG_9610

I also want to reestablish my yoga practice, something I enjoyed while living in NYC but haven’t done for years. I took a sunrise class on the beach in Thailand, and while I felt great afterwards, I ultimately never sought out a Shanghai studio. Here, there’s one just up the street so I have no excuse aside from laziness. I don’t intend to curtail my food adventures, so more exercise is in order to make sure I’m in prime condition for future fun-doing!

Yoga on the beach

What dreams do you want to gallop towards in the Year of the Horse?

 

Top Ferreting Experiences of 2013

Pin It

As 2013 draws to a close, I want to take a look back at some of my favorite moments, both big and small. I am always so busy planning for the next adventure that sometimes I lose sight of the incredible things I’ve already done! The year began with a bang in Shanghai, China (literally thanks to the Chinese love of fireworks) and is ending with a slow southern drawl in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In between, I visited five countries and moved from one continent to another halfway around the world. I took my first solo international trip, a defining moment that allowed me to tap my strength and resourcefulness. Now, I am spending the holidays with my family for the first time in two years. While I didn’t have as many animal adventures as last year, 2013 was still quite special.

1. Visiting the Temples of Angkor

0403280310016

The highlight of the year was undoubtedly our visit to Cambodia’s UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, more commonly known as Angkor Wat. The ruins of the ancient Khmer Empire are breathtaking in their scope and beauty, and top many travelers’ must-see lists for good reason. I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric temples of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, which are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle and brought my Tomb Raider fantasies to life.

2. Glimpsing Tibetan culture in Shangri-la

IMG_1884

Living in Shanghai, it was easy to forget that there is more to China than shiny skyscrapers and high-speed trains. Yunnan Province, in the far southwest of the country, is home to blue skies, verdant hills and sizable populations of some of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups, including Tibetans. The picturesque town of Shangri-la is the site of Sumtseling Monastery, one of the most important outside Tibet. The gold-crowned prayer halls were a riot of color and candles, with jewel-encrusted Buddhas atop the altar and prayer flags strung from the ceiling. Amazingly, I had the space nearly all to myself, a rare moment in a country of 1.35 billion.

3. “Entering” North Korea at the DMZ

IMG_0610

Did you know that North Korea still considers itself to be at war with South Korea, even though hostilities were officially suspended in 1953, and that the “Demilitarized Zone” between the two nations is actually one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders? During our tour of the DMZ, we learned about the ongoing conflict and stood in the conference room where negotiations take place. Half the room technically resides in North Korea so, under the protective watch of ROK and US soldiers, we “crossed the border” into the Hermit Kingdom for a few thrilling minutes.

4. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

IMG_2589

One of the most stunning landscapes I saw in China was the towering cliffs of Tiger Leaping Gorge. A smooth-as-glass river runs through the 15-kilometer-long canyon and blue skies soar overhead. Though we technically walked along a paved path, our trek through this pristine place was one of my favorite moments during our entire stay in China.

5. Relaxing in Luang Prabang

IMG_2088

The sleepy hamlet of Luang Prabang, Laos, is a very special place. Though perhaps most famous for the daily alms procession made by saffron-robed monks, we most enjoyed the slow pace of life and the quiet cafes perched along the riverbank. The town’s architecture is a beautiful mix of traditional Lao and 19th century European styles, with a modern royal palace nestled among the golden stupas. The view from atop Luang Prabang’s highest hill is well worth the climb, especially at sunrise. I need to watch more sunrises.

6. Eating all the food in Budapest

IMG_7359

 

Our summer took an unexpected turn when we had the chance to go to Europe, a continent I hadn’t seen in over two years. We spent one glorious week in Budapest, eating all the Hungarian treats we could find: Paprika chicken, boar stew, roast goose, potato pancakes, cherry strudel … just looking back at the photos makes me drool!

7. Exploring a Hong Kong fishing village

IMG_4619

Many people venture to Hong Kong’s Lantau Island to see the big Buddha statue perched atop a hill, but for me the island’s biggest draw is a small fishing village called Tai O. While it attracts many tourists, it still manages to offer a fascinating glimpse of local life. Freshly caught fish and seafood are sold in shops while more fish are left to dry in the sun. Houses back against the water, many standing on stilts, with wooden walkways connecting the neighborhood to land. Quaint food and shopping options abound making Tai O the perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of central Hong Kong.

8. Going for a wild ride in the Cambodian countryside

IMG_1166

Cambodia made an indelible impression on me. Ravaged by genocide and civil war, the poverty there remains acute, and yet the people we encountered were generous and kind. Our tuk-tuk driver showed up wearing the same clothes every day and still he brought us cold bottles of water and face masks to protect us from the choking red dust of the roads. He had a grin that lit up everything around him and talked about the importance of forgiveness and his Buddhist faith. On our last day with him, we drove for several hours through the countryside and surrounding jungle, past villages with no electricity or running water. It was a side of Cambodia not many tourists get to see and an experience I’ll not soon forget.

9. Drinking bull’s blood wine in Eger, Hungary

0431318856016

With a full week in Budapest, we had plenty of time to see a little more of Hungary. One day we took the train to Eger, a medieval town famous for its wine. Though the region is best suited to making white wines, we traveled there expressly to taste a red variety known as “Bull’s Blood,” or Egri Bikavér. When the Turks attacked Eger in the 16th century, they were met with a stout defense and were unable to take the town. As the story goes, the Turks believed the defenders had drank the blood of bulls to gain unnatural strength. We didn’t come away any stronger, but the wine sure was delicious!

10. Meeting a Chinese medicine doctor

IMG_2467

While in China’s ethnically diverse Yunnan Province, we ventured into Baisha, a tiny Naxi village a few kilometers from Lijiang. Baisha’s most famous resident is Dr. Ho Shixiu, a spry 93-year-old expert in Chinese herbal medicine. Dr. Ho’s philosophy is simple and he repeated it to us several times: “Optimism is the best medicine.” He also told us that we looked very healthy so no herbal prescriptions for us!

11. Exploring Shanghai’s modern art scene

IMG_1328

50 Moganshan Lu, or M50 for short, is the nucleus of Shanghai’s burgeoning art scene. It was surreal to walk around abandoned-factories-cum-art-galleries in a country known more for making consumer goods than modern art. The graffiti-riddled walls and provocative paintings made this neighborhood a quick favorite.

12. Horseback riding in Yunnan

IMG_2515

We spent two weeks in Yunnan, soaking up the fresh air and marveling at the untouched landscapes. When the opportunity to take a horseback ride presented itself, we jumped at the chance! Our trusty steeds took us up through the mountains, past crumbling villages and high-altitude lakes supposedly left over from the last ice age. It was a wonderful respite from the noise and pollution of Shanghai!

13. Eating traditional dim sum in Hong Kong 

IMG_4772

A friend and Hong Kong native took me for a traditional brunch where dim sum is still served from pushcarts. As women wheeled carts laden with steamer baskets and small plates past our table, we signaled when we wanted something, and soon our table was overflowing with dishes. The high points included delicate shrimp dumplings, fluffy barbecue pork buns and deep-fried yams stuffed with roast pork. The experience was so much more enjoyable than simply ordering off a menu!

14. Discovering the National Arboretum in Washington, DC

IMG_9423

Despite having lived over half my life near Washington, DC, I was sadly unfamiliar with the U.S. National Arboretum. Eager to see the autumn leaves in peak color, we set off to explore the 446-acre park with nearly 10 miles of pathways winding through woods and gardens. Special features of the arboretum include a field of sandstone columns originally part of the U.S. Capitol Building and an expansive bonsai garden filled with centuries-old trees.

15. Touring Hungarian Parliament

IMG_6410

 

Budapest’s most iconic landmark is the gleaming white Parliament Building gracing the bank of the Danube. The interior resembles an opulent royal palace, with nearly 40 kilos of gold used in the ornamentation! We toured three rooms of the impressive structure, including the former meeting hall of the House of Lords and the chamber containing the Crown of St. Stephen, Hungary’s national treasure.

16. Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in NYC

100

When I moved to New York City twelve years ago, the World Trade Center was smoldering rubble. Today the 16-acre site is a lovely park filled with trees and tourists. Waterfalls pour into the footprints of the twin towers, where reflecting pools are meant to wash away the horrors of death and destruction. Visiting the site is an emotional experience, but one I encourage everyone to make.

17. Having afternoon tea in Hong Kong

IMG_3660

The tradition of afternoon tea began in 1865 at the Langham hotel in London and I couldn’t resist indulging myself at the sister property in Hong Kong. My Disney-themed Beauty and the Beast tea set provided the perfect combination of luxurious savory snacks and rich chocolaty desserts. I felt like a princess all afternoon!

18. Learning to play mahjong

IMG_1445

I couldn’t live in China for two years and not attempt to learn the national game! While I certainly didn’t become an expert, it was fun to play a few non-competitive rounds of mahjong with my neighbors and learn a little something of the history of this complex tile game.

19. French dining on the Bund

IMG_5343

There is no better place to be in Shanghai on a beautiful blue sky day than the Bund, the gorgeous promenade stretching along the banks of the busy Huangpu River. The ultra-modern skyscrapers of Pudong create a picture-perfect backdrop across the river, while the grand buildings of the former British Concession form a stately rear guard. Many of the old banks and offices have been converted into high-end dining establishments offering some of the best food in the city. One such restaurant is Jean Georges, where we enjoyed a truly exceptional meal.

20. A Night of a Thousand Candles

IMG_0722

To help celebrate my first Christmas home in two years, my mom and I walked through Brookgreen Gardens, a sculpture garden on the site of a former rice plantation. For the Christmas event known as A Night of a Thousand Candles, the already lovely park is transformed into South Carolina’s version of a winter wonderland. Candles line the walkways and float gracefully across ponds, while electric lights adorn the trees. The effect is magical and made my holiday feel even more special.

Happy New Year! Where will you be celebrating? What were the special moments of your year?