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February 25, 2012

Travels In New Zealand

You will have to forgive us for the delay in updating the blog. We have been wandering around New Zealand, and Internet access is difficult to find, as well as quite expensive. Also, keeping the iPad charged has been an issue, which has kept its usage to minimum, so I have had to cram in updating when we have both a power source and Internet, a mean feat here in the bush of NZ.

Anyhow, New Zealand has been excellent to us, as we had hoped. We started out our time here, now nearly two weeks ago, by visiting our friends Nick and Jenna up on the North Island, near the city of Whangerei. We met these fine folks back in 2009 on our Long Trip, in a little hostel in Warsaw, Poland. We hit it off well at the time, and took up their offer to pay a visit to Jenna's mom on our way through NZ, which turned out to be a great experience. This time around, we really wanted to see them again, so we worked out our trip to end here in NZ so that we could visit.

Since we last saw them, they finished up what was a very long trip, including time spent working in London, before returning home to get back to work as well as have a baby. The time that we spent with them in Poland was pretty limited, and having a baby in the house makes for a very different environment and visit, so we weren't too sure how things would go. We arrived on February 11 in the Auckland airport, picked up our rental car, and drove the two hours north to Whangerei. They manage a diary farm in the countryside outside of the city, but we didn't have any troubles finding the farm. Even with the new addition to their family, we felt as though we had just left them at the restaurant that we had last seen them in Krakow, Poland; the conversations started and didn't stop until we left five days later. In fact, if we hadn't purchased plane tickets to come to the south island, we might still be at the farm chatting whole days away.

Jess and Jenna busied themselves finding every topic known to mankind to discuss, in that breathless way women are able to talk, so Nick and I headed out for my introduction to dairy farming. Let me start by saying that this is not an occupation for the lazy and the squeamish, it takes an impressive amount of hard work and dedication. I used to say that nursing is hard labor, since we are on our feet for 12 hours or so a day; I won't be saying that anymore. A short description of Nick's day would entail getting up hours before sunrise, at around 4am, heading out to bring in the cows to the milking barn, cycling the 150+ cows through to the milking machine 16 at a time, and then washing and cleaning the area down before moving the cows to a different pasture (sorry, Nick, for the lack of proper nomenclature). This is a four to five hour process, meaning he gets back for breakfast by 9am or so, only to head back at 2pm to repeat the entire process; he keeps plenty busy with the nonstop maintenance of the farm in the meantime, as he and Jenna run the place themselves. And I complain about 12 hour days, while his are more like 16. Oh, and he does that seven days a week. 

I really wanted to get involved in the actual process of the milking, and Nick was kind enough to oblige, so the day after we arrived, I rode with him out onto the farm to fetch the cows. They were out in a far pasture, in some very hilly landscape, which is part of the time cost of his job. We rounded the cows up and started them back up the road towards the milking barn, stopping to check out a river on the property that disappears into a sinkhole in volcanic rock before emerging much further and lower downstream, which was quite interesting. Once we had the cows waiting at the barn, they began to line up in two rows, their heads facing outwards with their udders (and butts) facing inward to a concrete pit about waist deep. This pit, for lack of better word, was where Nick and I ventured down into in order to place the suctions onto the udders. 

If this is starting to sound like an episode of Dirty Jobs, then that is correct. Cows aren't exactly known to hold back on their various excretions, and we were working right in the firing range. Needless to say, I quickly realized that trying to avoid getting cow poop on me was rather futile; Jess came down for a minute and was immediately splattered. The key was to try to limit how much poop got on you, which can be a bit tricky as there are butts all around you and it is impossible to watch them all. The cows would throw in an occasional wild card in the form of coughing, which creates a bit of a spray. Now, this sounds like a full time job, avoiding becoming entirely covered, but that wasn't even the work part; to put the suction cups on the teats in order to actually milk the cow, you have to reach in between the back legs of the cow, find them, and pop all four on, all the while trying to keep from getting kicked or stomped. Where is your head during this action? That's right, in front of the barrel of the poop cannon. It is a bit nerve-wracking.

You learn quickly to work with your mouth shut, a difficult lesson indeed for someone like me, who habitually walks around with my mouth agape. 

Maybe he was just being nice, but Nick said that I learned quickly, and actually helped him instead of just being in the way. I guess I did get quicker at hooking up the cows (mostly to escape the danger zone), although I did make more than one cow uncomfortable by excessive tugging on its teats. At the end of the milking, the true extent of how much a herd of cows can poop in an hour or two became apparent (it is a lot), so I broke out the firehose to spray down the yard, taking a bittersweet revenge on the enemy by washing it down the drain with copious amounts of water (bitter because it occasionally sprayed back up at me). Evening had arrived by the time we finished, and tired and stinky, we headed up for dinner and and evening of talking and laughing.

Jess and I didn't spend all of our time there near Whangerei at the  farm, though it was our preferred base in the area. We ventured around the area, checking out the city itself for a few drinks and some Chinese take-out to take back to the farm. We also headed out for a few of the local highlights that were our favorites the last time we were the area, like swimming in Whale Bay and our favorite little Kiwi town of Whananaki. Being the awesome hosts that they are, Nick and Jenna took us to visit his mother on the farm he grew up on and tramp around in the bush in that wild place, a very cool experience. Though we hit some of the thunderstorms that have made this a wet, sad Kiwi summer, we really were lucky with the weather, enjoying some very bright days. I did go out to help Nick again with true milking, this time going out for the morning milking. I woke up at the proper time, at 4:15, but I listened and waited until I heard his 4-wheeler as he herded the last of the cows into the milking yard, at about 5:15, before I went out to help. Hey, what can I say? I'm on vacation.

It was with sadness on the 16th when we loaded up the rental car, bid our farewells to Nick and Jenna and young Wolf (at least temporarily), and headed south to Auckland to catch our flight to the south island. That day was rather long, turning in the rental car, catching a flight, then picking up another rental car, all before 3pm. We'd arrived into Christchurch, but we didn't stay for very long, as the center of the city was pretty much leveled a year ago now by the February 2011 earthquake and remains closed off even today. We found a store to buy supplies before heading south to the small town of Akaroa on the Banks Penisula, where we found a little hostel and campground on a working sheep farm. We arrived just in time, with the stress of the trip causing a bit of tension and a lot of sullen silence between us. 

We ended up staying there for a couple of nights, it was a pretty cool area. The peninsula itself was formed by two volcanic explosions and forms a circular landform surrounding a long bay of water coming in from the ocean. It is pretty scenic, and the hostel/campground was literally at the end of the road. We were in the campground, having borrowed a nice tent and a camp stove from Nick and Jenna. We had a non-sheepish sheep (e.g. tame) in the campground, keeping the grass nice and short. While this was charming and frequently funny, there was some real concern, on my part at least, about the sheep munching through our tent while we were off somewhere else. The campground, named Onuku Farmhouse Hostel, was packed full of hippy European kids, pretty aimless as far as I could tell, sitting around getting tans, drinking tea, and bumming rides the 6km back to Akaroa. If I had been in Akaroa when I was 20 years old, I would have most likely been doing the same thing, but now I just scoff and mock, which annoys Jess. The farm itself has some 1000 acres, 2000 sheep, and 40 or so dirty hippies. Since we were abruptly throwing ourselves back into three weeks of sleeping on the hard, cold ground in nylon sacks (i.e. camping), we set out the second day for a four hour hike into the hills of the farm, mostly to work our the kinks from our first night of camping. It was pretty spectacular, taking us to the tops of the hills where we could see the entire bay area, including where the ocean met its waters. The sun was truly brilliant that day, and had a beautiful four hour hike amongst the hills and in through grassy fields. We then topped off the day in the campground kitchen, where we shared long conversations with a German couple, an American couple who'd just spent four months working in Antartica, and random old British guy who didn't say much. Pretty swell day, I thought.

After our two nights camping there, we packed up and headed back up to Christchurch for more supplies to head south with. The two Americans, Gwen and Dan, were on a tight budget, as working as support staff in Antarctica isn't really a lucrative job. They had hitched down to Akaroa, something that we have noticed is very prevalent down here on the south island, and because they needed to get back up to the city to meet friends, we gave them a ride. We had a good chat with them on the way up, and they headed off to meet their friends while we shopped in a big store called the Warehouse, which is New Zealand's equivalent of Target or Walmart. After loading up food and camping supplies, we headed south to see how far we could get.

That got us as far down as Oamaru, a sleepy historic little town. The sky had increasingly gotten more cloudy and unpleasant looking the further south we went, and was threatening rain as we pulled into town. We had not yet found the cheap and primitive Dept. of Conservation campsites (thanks a lot, Lonely Planet), and so we found an expensive holiday car park, most of which was filled with campervans and caravans. It had a communal kitchen, which was filled with older, mostly European vacationers that looked upon us with a mix of distrust and skepticism. They weren't so coy about keeping their stares to themselves, or at least a minimum, so cooking and eating there was rather uncomfortable. The rain started as soon as we got our tent up, and didn't let off for the rest of the day, so we hung out in the tent until a bar with local music was supposed to open. We got there about a half hour after the music was to start, and found that even the band hadn't shown up yet. The empty bar and the NZ$12 per person admission fee had us go up the street to a cool little bar that featured another local singer, who had a voice like John Denver and sang old classics, strumming his guitar while the bartenders took turns on the drums. The beer was very expensive, as it is all over NZ, but it was free to watch, so we stayed until we were tired enough to fall asleep in a cold tent.

We were up early the next day, packing up the tent and having another uncomfortable meal amongst the older crowd. I found myself wishing I'd brought along a stack of wallet sized photos of myself for those who couldn't get enough looking at me. There was an old sea break outside of town, so I fished for a couple of hours while Jess walked through a nice Sunday farmers market, then we headed on down south to the city of Dunedin and the beautiful Otago Pensinsula.

Dunedin is pretty much a college town, and we rolled right on through it, wanting to get out to find the wildlife of the Otago Penisula. From Dunedin, the route out onto the peninsula is a narrow patch of road along the curvy northern shore, with a tiny shoulder that drops off into the inlet. We headed along this, Jess's nerves afray, to the tiny village of Portobello, where we set up our tent in its tourist park. We drove on to the end of the peninsula, where there is a center and viewing areas for Royal albatrosses; the cliffs there are full of nesting birds, including the majestic albatross, and we hadn't barely reached the cliffside before a soaring albatross passed just over our heads before swinging up and into the sky. 

The next day was a pretty lazy one. I spent a good majority of the day trying my luck fishing, with no luck whatsoever. I chose several promising spots, places that should have had a short fat man handing out paper guarantees they looked so likely to have biting fish, but I caught a whole lot of nothing. Jess didn't wait around for me, she hiked in the surrounding hills and went back out to the albatross colony. It was a perfect day for it, too, the sun bright and very little wind for a place that obviously had its share of windy weather. For lunch we stopped at a fish and chips joint next to the sunny shoreline, and after I gave up on the fishing later in the afternoon, we drove out to an isolated hike that led to a beach that supposedly had blue penguins emerge from the ocean at around dusk. There were no penguins, but as few grouchy sea lions and a spectacular and deserted beach made the trip worthwhile.

We were out and gone early the next morning, which was overcast and a good day to leave. We'd enjoyed the tourist park, the crowd was younger (although almost entirely German) and fewer people stared at us while we fixed meals or ate in the kitchen. Even better, we learned of the DOC campgrounds, where a site could be had for as little as NZ$6 and were much more primitive and isolated than the tourist parks. We stocked up in Dunedin and headed on south to the region known as the Catlins.  We didn't really have an objective in mind, but we found a brochure that showed all of the DOC sites on the south island, and a place called Purakaunui Bay looked pretty awesome, so we headed out there. It was isolated indeed, located about 15km outside the nearest town, Owaka, but it was located right on a long beach bookended on each side by massive stone cliffs. A wildly painted and beat-up bus sat centrally in the camping area, which apparently was inhabited by a commune of hippies; we snickered about what smells might emanate from the interior of the bus and headed up a hill that led to a site that overlooked the entire beach but none of the lower camping areas, giving the impression that we were completely out in the wild bush on our own. The camping area filled up by evening, mostly by the ubiquitous campervans, but we could retreat to our tent and enjoy an evening of solitude.

We spent two nights out at Purakaunui, it was that relaxing and chill. The surf was too rough for fishing, though a group of surfers seemed to be having a grand old time. I tried fishing on the end closest to our tent, but the water was too shallow and the kelp too thick, and I had no luck. Jess had met a Kiwi woman from Christchurch who told us about fishing off of the rock formations on the other end of the beach, so I headed there to try my luck. First I had to navigate along a beach of knee-high stones to reach the formations, which were heavily eroded; getting to the end of the formations and the water required crawling beneath shelves in some sections, trying not to look down at the kelp filled pools and swelling waves below. Later I discovered the path along the backside that were much easier, but this first attempt I was more of a form of entertainment for folks watching me from the beach with their binoculars, including Jess. I only had an hour of fishing before the tide started to come back in and darkness encroached, but the place looked promising, so I decided I would return the next day.

We spent our full day in the area exploring. We visited a lighthouse on a point that looked down south, towards Antarctica, a bleak but beautiful place that surely saw some terrible weather. Seals played and barked on the rocky shoreline far below the trail, and waves slowly eroded the coastline around the point into jutting rocks and gaping caves into the cliffsides. We took another hike to what was called Jack's Blowhole. It was a sinkhole more than 200m from the ocean, carved by the constant waves. At some point we headed back towards our campsite at the bay; I wanted to get a bit more fishing in, and Jess wanted to try to see more of the penguins we'd gotten a glimpse of the night before. Fishing was business as usual, I lost my line almost instantly, but we did find a few yellow-eyed penguins, fine fellows that they were. They were already off the beach up in the grass, drying their feathers and building their beds for the night; watching them try to hop from rock to rock to reach the grass, it was clear that they were much better suited for the water, and they were fortunate that there are no native mammalian predators in New Zealand, for they'd have no chance with a fox or coyote.

It was raining when we woke the next morning, so after cooking our breakfast in the entrance of our tent, we quickly packed up the tent and set out. We drove well over 200km that day, hoping to emerge from the rain, but it was consistent and constant the entire day. Eventually we arrived in the non-remarkable town of Tuatapere, having passed through Invercargill and then Riverton. There was a backpackers hotel there, where a double cost NZ$60, which we decided to get. We needed to do laundry, to dry out our tent, and to find Internet, and frankly a bed sounded pretty good, so we had a quiet night there. We set up the tent to dry in our room, and took care of the rest of our business there, and it ended up being a good stop.

The rain had stopped the next morning, which was yesterday, so we headed out as soon as possible, to the starting point of the nearby Hump Ridge Trail. The trail is three days long, and like all of NZ's Great Hikes, requires permits for overnight camping, but we were able to hike the first couple of hours of it, which took us along a lonely stretch of coastline. It was pretty beautiful, and the sun emerged from the cloudy morning, so we rather enjoyed the walk, especially after being cooped up inside all of the previous day. Sadly, upon returning to our rental, we noticed we'd lost a hubcap; together with the general grubbiness of the car, we might be taking our objective of trashing the rental past our limit of avoiding having to actually pay for some repair.

The day was beautiful by then, so we kept heading along the coast to the Fjordlands, probably New Zealand's most beautiful and spectacular region. We passed through Te Anau, which was a big tourist trap, and kept going towards Milford Sound. Back at Purakaunui Bay, we'd stopped in for a tea at the Kiwi woman and her husband's caravan. The lady, Carolyn, recommended that we avoid Milford and keep going up the coast, but fortunately we made our way to the region, where we are now. We soon found a quiet little DOC campsite, next to a river and in a wide, flat, grassy valley surrounded by the big mountains that are generally referred to as the Southern Alps. 

Our campsite is about 65km short of Milford Sound, along a road that is littered with wonderful views and starting points for multiday Great Hikes. There is plenty to do for several days, whether or not long-distance trekking is in the itinerary. Our time here has been nothing short of perfect. Yesterday, after setting up our tent, we still had plenty of time to head out towards Milford Sound. We set out, starting down in the golden valley and rising up through forests and past green lakes to a point called The Divide, from which point we dropped straight down to the Sound and the ocean. On the far side of The Divide, the stone face of the massive cliffs alongside the road were a dark volcanic rock, sheer and shimmering in a mysterious partially cloudy afternoon. We passed through a tunnel that looked as though it had been hacked by hand through the mountain (it might have been, as it took 60 years to complete). Down at the Sound, we found a nature walk to gave a brief introduction to the incredible isolation and beauty of the place, accessible only by boat or by trail until a bit more than twenty years ago. I took a ton of photos and we headed back. We cooked up a dinner of rice and canned tuna, along with my camping medicine (wine). Steak wouldn't taste better when camping.

Somehow we really slept in late this morning, I guess we are getting used to sleeping on ground. We had a very leisurely morning before heading back to The Divide, from which the famous Routeburn Trail starts. We hiked the first two hours of the trail, which is definitely a multiday trail, to a peak called the Key Summit. This summit was really something, with a panoramic view of the mountain ranges all around it. We spent a fair amount of time there, in part because they have a nature trail that explores the alpine landscape of the summit. It is a pretty incredible place, it made us want to head out on one of Great Hikes, which are likely to be loaded with such experiences. 

We explored a few other places along the road back to our campsite and then enjoyed a peaceful evening, except for the persistent and ferocious biting sand flies. We have less than two weeks now on the south island, and we are trying to enjoy every moment of it, trying to absorb the experience of being out in such a wild and beautiful place, and to remember the parts such as the stars that light up the night skies and the sound of the river near our tent, or the mighty mountains above us and the beautiful weather we've enjoyed. It's a pretty magical place, New Zealand.

Until next time, be safe.


February 14, 2012

Photos From Rome

Happy Valentines, from New Zealand. More photos...

Ahh, Rome. The Eternal City. Well, I took plenty of photos there. Here are but a few of them.

Coliseum during the day, Rome

One of the many cathedrals of Rome

Coliseum at night, Rome

Inside view of Coliseum, Rome

Another view of interior of Coliseum, Rome

Arch of Titus, Forum, Rome

Columns inside the Forum, Rome

View along the Forum, Rome

Ruins on Palantine Hill, Forum, Rome

Tiber River at dusk, Rome

Inside St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome


Another view of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Sculpture in Vatican Museum, Vatican, Rome

Sculpture in Vatican Museum, Vatican, Rome

Another Sculpture, Vatican Museum, Rome

The Pantheon at dusk, Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

Until next time, be safe.


February 11, 2012

A Week In Taiwan

We have arrived in Fiji, where I was sort of expecting to bake on the beach, singed by constant sunshine and surrounded by tropical glory. Alas, that has not come to pass, as it has rained since we arrived. I wouldn't call it a deluge or monsoon rain, but it has definitely been a fairly consistent downpour. Just now though, there has been a break in the clouds, a bit of blue sky has peeked through, and most promising, I can see across to another island. There was no sunshine yesterday, but I did shake the hand of the Fijian prime minister in a fruit market, drank some liquor made from crushed cava root with a few locals, and watched some performers do dances from various Polynesian cultures and toss around fiery batons. All in all, not a bad day.

I have been somewhat slow about getting our time in Taiwan written up, not so much because I am lazy or procrastinating, but also because we kept pretty busy and had a very good time. We arrived into the small city of Hualien midday after leaving Taipei, and quickly found our hostel, a little place called Amigos. Perhaps we are getting old (probably,I guess) but it seems as though our bags have become increasingly heavy as this trip goes on. We keep thinking that somehow we are obtaining more things, but our few acquisitions are not enough to account for the perceived increased weight gain. It could just be that we notice our bags more now, even on short walks, as from the train station to Amigos.

This hostel was of the sort that we used extensively on our last long trip, with only rooms filled with bunks. For our two nights there, we always had several people in our room, which is good for meeting folks. For example, we encountered a pair of American girls who were working abroad (one in Australia, the other as an English teacher in Taipei) during our hike our second day in Hualien, and later were surprised to find that they were bunkmates of ours back at Amigos. After arriving at the hostel, though, we set out to explore the city a bit. It was our first chance to see the real appearance of Taiwanese architecture, as Taipei is much like other big cities, with lots of tall buildings, an elevated fast-transit system above the street, and so on. I don't want to sound critical, and granted, we didn't visit any of the cities on the west coast of the island, which is much more heavily populated, but architecture in Taiwan doesn't seem so distinctive. Mostly it is block buildings, utilitarian versus for appearance, and with the individualistic looks of a city built by companies or folks for their own reasons rather than to fit in with a uniform pattern or trend. For the cities and villages of the east coast that we passed through this seemed to be the standard; larger villages and the cities were just a bit more compressed, the alleyways a bit tighter, the buildings a bit higher. I guess what I am trying to get out is that I didn't note anything particularly aesthetically unique or amazing about Taiwan's urban areas, and our afternoon spent wandering around Hualien seemed to substantiate this.

That isn't true for the nature in Taiwan, though, which to me is the gem of Taiwan. I am not alone, either, as the Europeans who first came across Taiwan named it Ilha Formosa, Portugese for the Beautiful Island. For the second and the only full day in the area around Hualien, we headed to the nearby Taroko Gorge, a spectacle of a canyon centered around the Liwu River carving its way through the stunning marble bases of towering cliffs and high hillsides. We had been told that we could hike down a 20km stretch from a town that served as the drop-off point for the bus back to the Taroko National Park headquarters, but we had assumed that there would be trails that comb through the hills above the highway. Well, you know what they say about assumptions, and this one was no exception. Even before we reached the drop-off town, we began to notice that there was little chance that there would be a trail that would follow the road. The sheer cliffs shot straight up from both the river and the highway, and frequently the highway itself would bore into the hillsides in either tunnels or through precariously carved channels that made the highway seem as though it were part of a beehive. When we saw an Asian tour group troop past, complete with its characteristic leader with a flag, we understood that our way down would be along the highway. In yet another confirmation that this is the absolute best time of year to travel anywhere, we were very fortunate that traffic was light on the highway; apparently in the summertime, tour buses stream up and down the highway in a continuous line. Even so, there were a few moments on the highway when we would come across a longer or an unlit tunnel, or a corner so tight it had been made into a single lane, or during the few times one of the huge tour buses would squeeze past us as we stood next the guardrail overlooking a drop into the river, that made us question our decision to walk down. Indeed, we didn't walk even half the distance to the headquarters, opting instead to walk about six or eight kilometers to a trail that led into the hills, then hopping on and off of the local bus system to reach trails further down the road. Besides, the scenery we had on our walk was definitely worth it; in the riverbed below us were huge boulders of white marble, bleached by the water and strewn along in a testament of the mighty capability of the Liwu during the monsoon season. Coming from Italy, where we saw many examples of what could be made from huge blocks of marble, it was fascinating to see it in its raw form. The trails that we found took us high above the highway into the forest, where we walked along paths that had been carved out by Japanese soldiers who had occupied Taiwan for the first fifty years of the 20th century.

Reaching the headquarters, we took another trail that had us walk about 9km through lush subtropical forest, along a smaller tributary to the Liwu that had this rich blue color, from what I assume to be some mineral. It was so colorful and pretty, and we went until a steady rain finally convinced us that our day of hiking was over. As we waited for the bus back to Hualien at the headquarters, we chatted with the aforementioned pair of American girls. They weren't as accustomed to the life of bunkrooms as we are, and once we discovered that we would all be bunked in the same room, they just wanted to know if either Jess or I snored. That totally jinxed their night, because for the first and so far only time in my life, I snored loudly and constantly the entire night. Even worse, I couldn't be roused for anything, even when Jess was slapping me. I still don't believe it happened, but nevertheless, one of the girls ended up sleeping on couch in the common room. So...my apologies.

Also notable of our time in Hualien was our dining experience. We did find a night market in the city, and ate there the first night. It was sort of an average experience, meaning it wasn't as touristy (and therefore safe) as the Shilin market, but it wasn't as dodgy as the other market we had found in Taipei. Even better, there was an inexpensive shuba-shuba restaurant next to Amigos, and the only thing better than a hot-pot restaurant is one that is buffet style. We ate there twice, and I did my best to see that they took a loss for the day. I tried all of the dumplings they offered, I plowed through plates of sliced meats, piles of vegetables, and bowls of rice in true American style, and I had my fill of as much of the seafood as I could stand, from the baby squid to the lumps of unidentified fish. There was so much that was unidentified that I had to develop my current philosophy on eating in the Asian culture: if it tastes good, eat it and don't ask too many questions. This strategy was later simultaneously confirmed and discredited later, when we ate hot-pot with a couple from Singapore who actually knew what we were consuming; more on that later.

Our plan from Hualien was to move on down the coast to the tip and try to get in a city on the west coast, which would have required some disciplined traveling given our time restraint. We did well on our plan by leaving Hualien after two nights, but we ended up staying in the next destination, the small town of Yuli, population 35,000, for four nights, changing our plans for good. It worked out well in our favor, though, because we had a great experience in Yuli, probably the highlight of our time in Taiwan. 

Upon arriving at the train station in Yuli, we didn't really know where we wanted to stay. Usually we use websites to find a hostel, but there are no hostels in towns the size of Yuli. Instead, we broke out the Lonely Planet guide to figure out hotels in the town. There were a couple of cheaper hotels across the street from the train station, and upon inspection, they were decent enough places. However, the guide listed a homestay guesthouse named the Wisdom Garden Guesthouse, and talked it up as being the best guesthouse in all of Taiwan.  I usually don't believe hype, but for less than twice what we would pay for a basic room in a hotel across from the train station, at which no one spoke a lick of English, we could stay out in the countryside and have a homemade breakfast made for us. That sounded more appealing, so we used a pay phone to call the place, and ten minutes later a green van driven by a jolly older man whose face had probably changed little in his decades of life since infancy pulled up. He carted us off to a beautiful little house four kilometers out of the town, leaving our plans for continued travel behind us at the train station.

We never figured out the man's name, nor had anyone else staying there that we talked to, but he and his wife May ran a very nice and apparently very busy business. We had by sheer luck missed the Chinese New Year and its hordes of travelers by just a week, so we only had a handful of fellow travelers at the place at any given time. The front of the house and the yard offered a great view across a valley to green hills in the distance, and a small stream trickled through the yard, passing through a series of small ponds made for it; frogs croaked all night from along it. The inside seems more like a Scandanavian home, with lots of wooden accents and beams, and had been beautifully decorated with large paintings of Chinese characters done by May herself, as she is an gifted artist. Our room served as a haven, the most homey place we'd been in since, well, being at home. The breakfast that May served featured dumplings and other Chinese style foods, and was delicious. Looking back, it is no wonder to me why we ended up staying for four nights.

The guesthouse wasn't the only reason for that, though. After we settled into our room, we had to figure how to get back along four kilometers to the town. The Old Dude, as I'll call him, offered to let us borrow a few old-maid bikes, which although we were thankful for were not very comfortable or practical for any length of a ride. We rode into the center and around town to try to get an idea of the layout, though we had difficulty because we did not have a map of Yuli. There didn't seem to be any tourist information centers even though the well-known Walami Trail of the Yushan National Park is only a short distance away. Within a couple of hours my bum was getting sore, so we stopped in a small teahouse for some refreshment, and from there the excitement began.

Jess tells me that I have a unique appearance, a distinctive face perhaps, in particular after a month of traveling and hence no trimming of my beard, and probably especially in particular in a country like Taiwan where even at my most trim I would stand out like a sore thumb. I certainly got my fair share of attention in Taiwan, and that teahouse was no exception. Perhaps they din't get a lot if nonlocals there, because as we entered, the two ladies and girl behind the bar took on a look that was both stunned and greatly amused. We were able to order a couple of teas without too much difficulty, but when I tried to ask where we might obtain a map, things got complicated. The girl had obviously had some English but still had difficulty understanding us. Before we knew it, we had their laptop out to use Google to translate. All of this brought great hilarity to the ladies, who would bray with laughter at each breakdown in communication. Jess had gone off with her tea, and she would hear some silence that would suddenly be shattered by another round of loud laughing. Curious, she came back to find them taking photos with their phones of me trying to type out a response (that happens more than you'd think; I make an appearance in a number of Asian family photo albums). 

Eventually we collectively found our efforts to be futile, and one of the ladies had the good idea to call up a local English language school. When she handed me the phone, I found myself speaking to a woman in nearly perfect English, who invited me to bike across the center to the school. That sounded better than serving as the comic relief for the teahouse, so Jess and I headed out behind the lady on her moped. At the school, we met with woman I had spoken to, Michelle, as well as her husband, David, a Canadian who taught at the school. They gave us a lot of information about the the town, as well as several things to do to keep us busy for several days, which made me realize we would not likely be heading south. They gave us their phone numbers and went off to teach their classes. On our way out of the school, the Taiwanese owner Robert stopped us and asked if we could come to a class to give the students a chance to speak to native English speakers. We spent more than fifteen minutes sitting in front of a class of shy ten-year olds, answering questions about our favorite colors and having them guess our ages (the answers ranged from 14 to 45). 

That night, May and her husband took us to town for dinner, since our only transportation were the bikes. We went to a noodle shop, surprising me because I figured they'd just have us grab something to go. Even more surprising, they paid for the dinner and ate with us. That in itself made the increased cost of our accommodation seem worth it, for we were getting much more value for our money than any hotel could have offered. 

The next morning, we decided that the bikes were not adequate for our transportation needs, so we went with the Old Dude back to the center, where we rented a moped. Now, this is pretty much out of Jess's comfort zone, as she has spent very little time on any motorized bike, not that I have had much opportunity myself to drive a moped other than a few isolated times. Still, the traffic in Yuli was very light, and almost nonexistent outside the city limits. We had a lot of exploring to do, so it just made good sense. Frayed nerves aside, it really allowed us to have a great time in Yuli, and we were quite sad to return it four days later.

Bucking the general weather pattern of Taiwan at the moment, we had three days of beautiful sunshine, at least in the mornings. That first day with the moped, we took advantage of the weather and headed out in a countryside lined with rice paddies and palms towards the Walami Trail. Getting to the headquarters of the park had us on some nice flat roads, which other than the distance would have been decent biking terrain. Once we entered the hills, though, for the last six kilometers before we reached the trail, the road was considerably steeper, and it was clear to me that I would have turned back long before we would have reached the trailhead. The part of the Walami Trail that was hikeable without a permit was only about 4.5km long, but it was steadily up, starting in thicker woods and climbing up to thinner vegetation and bamboo groves. We crossed over several suspension bridges and passed a number of waterfalls, enjoying a number of beautiful birds along the way. We had gotten a later start, a bit last noon, and while we passed several large groups on their way down, we mostly had the trail to ourselves on our way back. It was a beautiful hike, and had we  gotten the correct permits and perhaps a large dose of motivation, we could have continued on the trail past the highest peak in Taiwan and all of the way to the west coast, if desired. I was satisfied with the hike we had.

Back on the moped, it was later in the afternoon by the time we returned from the hills. We cruised around the countryside for awhile, watching the farmers planting rice (a very interesting process) and enjoying the tranquility of the area before heading back to Yuli. We picked up some dinner and headed back to our guesthouse. There, we Skyped Michelle and David to set up some plans for the next day, then relaxed for the remainder of the evening.

David and Michelle had invited us to go with a group of their friends and coworkers to a lunch at the top of the nearby Sixty Stone Mountain, which in the summer is packed with tourists coming to see the vibrantly colored fields of tiger lilies. While it was out of season to see the lilies, we still had a fun ride up the curvy mountain road that led to the top and offered great views of valley surrounding the mountain. There were monkeys in the trees along the road, and we passed groves of betel nut trees and dragonfruit plants. At the top, we were treated to a lunch of local foods, sitting around for a couple of hours chatting with the friendly group, enjoying their day off from teaching.  David and Michelle then took us on quite a road trip, heading out down the mountain and north from Yuli before turning into another mountainous area. This road passed through even more wild territory, on a road that had no other drivers that few locals on tractors or in small trucks. It wound along a serpentine canyon, following a river as it headed towards the sea. Along this route, the sunshine we'd enjoyed all morning gave way to clouds and then sprinkles. By the time we reached the ocean road, we could see on the southern route that a real rainstorm was brewing. We stopped briefly to see if the clouds were moving on, but it was apparent that the storm was socked in, and so we had to ride into it. 

We didn't have any rain gear besides my jacket, but there are 7-11s all over the island, some so close as to face each other across the street, so we figured we would see one and stop for some cheap parkas. Though we quickly entered the storm, for the first time in Taiwan we actually could not find a 7-11 to save our lives, or more aptly to keep our clothes dry. We began to get soaked, and I can't say that either of us were really comfortable driving our moped in pouring rain. We just had to keep going. At some point, we found a restaurant that was open, and stopped for some tea. They took a look at our dripping clothes and shooed us out the door. We kept moving and just as I was actually starting to get unhappy, as I could feel rivulets of water running down my thighs, the green, red, and white sign of a 7-11 came into view, and we at least didn't get more wet. By that point it was pretty much dark, but there was nothing to do but move on. We reached the road that led into the hills that separated the coast from Yuli and its valley, and starting climbing up the road. As we went higher, the rain stopped, to be replaced by a dense fog. We finally crossed over and found ourselves happy to be at David and Michelle's home, where we had dinner and sat up late chatting before driving back too our guesthouse.

Our plan the next day was to get back out to the coast and see it without having rain blasting our faces. However, we got a late start, and Jess had pretty much maxed out her moped credits in the rain, so she opted to rent a bike. While she rode around the town and its environs, I headed further out into the countryside, exploring the mazes of paths around the rice paddies. We met up later in the afternoon, rode a bit, and relaxed at our guesthouse. David and Michelle had arranged to take us up to a hot springs outside of Yuli, so in the early evening we met them back at the school and we headed to the springs. There we cooked in the waters, sitting around talking until nearly 11 pm, before returning to their home for more chatting. We were sad to bid farewell, for we'd had quite an adventure exploring the area and chatting them up.

We returned the next day to Taipei. Because we got a very late start and didn't get onto the train until 1 pm, we didn't arrive at our hostel until after 7pm. Tired, we wandered around a nearby night market until we realized we were in a more shady one than we had previously encountered, with a few scattered brothels and stands selling porn DVDs for $1. The food stands weren't appetizing enough to make up for the general creepiness of the market,  so we found a hot pot restaurant to eat at before going back to the hostel to take advantage of their washing machine.

Fortuitous luck was with us the next morning, when we encountered the previously mentioned couple from Singapore, Raymond and Regine, on our way out of the hostel. We struck up a conversation immediately, and ended sitting int the hostel talking to the for a couple of hours. Lunchtime came along, so we all left for some Thai food. We managed to talk long enough that we almost missed the one objective we had for this particularly rainy day in Taipei, which was to visit the National Palace Museum, the greatest repository of Chinese art in the world. We did make it and spent several hours getting a nice tour of the museum from Regine. Later, they took us for our final meal in Taiwan to a more upscale hot pot restaurant. This one was a buffet style joint, and it was excellent. Sure , there were surprises: they informed us that the little black squares that were delicious and I had figured were made from rice or soy were actually congealed pig's blood, and Regine cheerfully told us that the blocks of "tofu" in our pot were unfortunately cooked duck's blood. Once we stopped asking questions and got down to eating, it was very nice. I think in Singapore, which is too small to have any proper sports, the national pastime is shopping and fine dining, and our hot pot hosts were properly enthusiastic about their food. Singapore also happens to be a fascinating place, a real crossroads of the world, and we had a late evening with this couple talking about everything. It was great.

The next day we packed up and headed to the airport, for our overnight flight to Fiji. Taiwan was quite an experience, a lot packed into just nine days. We met some really great people, and had our perceptions of this little known nation completely reworked. Taiwan is very safe and easy to travel throughout, and yet is exotic enough to be very exciting, a sort of China-lite. Besides that, its nature is stunning. I wouldn't say it's a stretch to imagine we'll return one day.  

Until next time, be safe.


February 06, 2012

Photos From Perugia

These are photos from our two days in Perugia. It was quite an interesting place, it would be nice to go back and explore the rest of the Umbrian region.

Arches along narrow street, Perugia

City wall of Perugia

Jess on stairs at main Cathedral of Perugia

Oldest church in Perugia, from 5th Century, AD

Countryside around Perugia


Sunset view from Perugia

Until next time, be safe.


February 02, 2012

Photos From Cinque Terre

This area was my favorite: a place of beauty and ruggedness. These photos really don't do it justice.

Looking down at Riamaggiore

Jess and I near Riamaggiore

View of Manarola

Another shot of Manarola

View from our apartment, Riamaggiore

Waves crashing in harbor of Riamaggiore

Another shot of waves, Riamaggiore

Third shot of waves in Riamaggiore

Hiking above Monterosso

Jess hiking near Monterosso

Riamaggiore at sunset

Looking down at Manarola

Terraced hillsides topped by Volastra

Jess on a plank on the terraces, Manarola

Looking down at Volastra towards Manarola

Bad cat guarding Volastra

A view down to Manarola

Old men in evening at Manarola

Harbor of Manarola

Back at Riamaggiore at sunset

Until next time, be safe.


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