my expat story: year 4

our fourth year as expats was a wild series of highs and lows. or maybe the better way to phrase it would be: mountains and valleys.

I know that life anywhere, for anyone, has its ups and downs. that's something I've hit upon pretty hard in this series on expat life. but this year things seemed to swing wildly from incredible to awful and back again within a span of weeks, days, even hours.

when we arrived in Taipei after a summer in the US, Luke and I were exhausted but hopeful. our new apartment was a definite improvement in accomodations: big updated kitchen and baths, lots of light and space. but when we got in [around 11pm local time after 20 hours of travel] we realized the apartment had not been cleaned for our arrival. we spent 2 hours scrubbing to the point where we could shower and put the mattress on the floor -- having not yet bought a bedframe or any other furniture.

it took a few days to get ahold of the landlord, but eventually someone showed up to clean. we made about a dozen trips to IKEA and furnished our apartment. we were getting settled in nicely -- despite the accelerated culture shock and the fact that moving sucks -- and that's when a typhoon rolled in and we discovered that our bedroom ceiling leaked. [2 years, several typhoons and many "fixes" later: it still leaks. but that's another story.]

leaving Hsinchu, I realized that I never got to a lot of things I wanted to explore in the area. so I vowed to get out and actually see Taipei. and I did a damn good job of it. I started small, meeting the neighborhood dragons and learning the bus routes. I crafted a bucket list of 101 things to do in Taipei [which was a bit unrealistic and is in desperate need of updating] but I made some decent headway.

I took myself out on adventures every week. usually alone, but sometimes with my newly minted non-teacher friends. I went through a phase where every week, I climbed a new mountain. these ranged from the epic views of Elephant Mountain, to the short hike up to Battleship Rock [practically in my new backyard.] I even met up with Hsinchu friends to ride a complicated series of buses up to Yangmingshan and hike Taipei's highest peak [with the most beautiful name]: Mount Qixing, the Seven Star Mountain.

we also took time to head back down to Hsinchu and cross off some of those adventures we never made it to. not only did we get to see our friends, but explore cold springs and the villages of Emei and Beipu, hike around Lion's Head, and take a very misty and rainy scoot up to WuZhi Shan -- where dragons live under a rainbow.

while all of this was happening, symptoms of my food sensitivities and intolerances became increasingly worse. I became very strict at keeping gluten and dairy out of my diet... and it didn't help much. I was suffering from headaches almost daily, and an assortment of digestive issues that continued to worsen despite my vigilance. I didn't understand why. but. I refused to let it keep me from going out and doing things.

in October, Husband went to Cambodia on a school trip and so I took a girls weekend in Kenting. we beached, we ate, we drank, we beached some more... and it was lovely.  in November, his oldest sister came to visit. we made a trek down to Taroko Gorge, and explored Taipei from the crowds at Shilin night market to pandas at the zoo, cats in cafes to the dragons at Guandu. in December, I kept crossing things off my Taipei bucket list. I lost myself in a brick paradise, and finally finally FINALLY made it to Juifen to be spirited away by red lanterns and tea houses.

with all my travels around Taiwan, and with 3 full years of living here under my belt, I decided it was time to take a big step: writing a series of travel guide posts about visiting Taiwan. it was a massive undertaking. but I really enjoyed it. and according to comments, emails, and pageviews -- the information has been useful for so many people. the series is 2 years old now and could probably do with an update though. if any of you have questions about Taiwan you'd like answered, let me know in the comments and that promised 5th Q+A post may finally materialize!

in the meantime: what to pack // how to travel // where to go // what to expect

that Christmas, we went to Singapore. it was the first time since moving to Taiwan that Luke did not have to work on Christmas. so we splurged and stayed 2 nights at the Marina Bay Sands, ate brisket and fancy italian, and otherwise never left the pool. we also spent a few nights in Little India [eating all.the.things.] we skipped a lot of the tourist "must-dos" and just wandered through the neighborhoods of Arab Street and Haji Lane, Orchard Road and Emerald Hill.

it was an amazing holiday. but by January, my food issues were too intense to ignore. a friend of mine recommended a doctor, and I went to get bloodwork for food allergy testing. I really struggled with the results. I had to cut out several items that were staples in my diet [nuts and eggs] and things I loved [pineapple and avocado.] I had to rethink how I was shopping and eating. I started keeping a food journal and tracking my symptoms. over the next few months that led me to also cut out soy and olive as they were causing issues as well. I couldn't eat out... pretty much anywhere. the next few months I spent most of my time just figuring out how to feed myself.

in April, my parents came to visit Taiwan. it was amazing to have them here and get to show them my city. our adventures didn't take us as far as we'd hoped [thanks to construction, clouds, and my food issues] but we still managed to see a lot and have a wonderful time. after they left, I took a girl's trip to Sun Moon Lake. it was a huge challenge to feed myself, but somehow I survived. [mostly on wine and potato chips.]

over the year I did a lot of thinking about my blog. why I wrote, what I was writing, whether or not I was successful -- whatever that meant -- and why some posts flopped while others burned through pinterest like wildfire. with the struggle that eating had become, and in preparation for all our travels that summer, I decided that I needed to press pause on my blog for a while.

I still haven't caught back up. mostly because I've done so much traveling since then.

that summer we traveled through Turkey for two weeks, then spent a week in Prague with a few days in Vienna. there were mosques and museums, sunsets and sunrises, castles and caves, bones and balloons, kittens, wine, and even a terrorist attack. [some very serious ups, and very serious downs.] after a week or so back in Taiwan, I flew to Vietnam for a 10 day girls trip of eating, trekking, and cruising. I'm trying not to get too wordy in my recap here, because this post is already quite lengthy and I've already written a whole post on the journey through that summer.

at some point between all those travels, I came to the simultaneously crushing and freeing realization that it was time to shelve my memoir manuscript. and almost immediately following -- I had a new idea. it was almost like I had to let go of my old project before new inspiration and motivation could strike. sure it was late at night and fueled by cold meds and too many hours binge watching netflix. but I knew it was an idea worth pursuing. and so I began brainstorming my new novel.

year 4 was literally all over the place, and all over the planet.

this recap was hard for me to write. because SO MUCH happened, and so much of it has yet to be blogged. but also because of the physical and emotional struggles that I went through that year. [by those rules, year 5 will be harder to write... but I've made it this far with the series and I'm too stubborn to quit.] reading back now, I realize I glossed over a lot of the lows. you'll just have to take my word for it when I say: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

year 4 milestones

navigating the Taipei bus system
making new friends
hitchhiking in Kenting
solo mountain adventures
read the entire Wheel of Time series
trained for and ran a 10k
began journaling daily
mailed an international package at the post office
hosted my parents in Taiwan
visited a mosque
spotted hundreds of cats in Istanbul
flew in a hot air balloon
slept in a cave
cooked pho and spring rolls from scratch
completed a 2 day trek
ate on a streetside plastic stool
did not go to America for summer

6 countries traveled

Czech Republic

a few favorite posts

another expat post about culture shock
this blogging thing
Elephant Mountain
ten things I never told you
Huashan Creative Park
the business of blogging + the definition of success
spirited away in Juifen
when your parents visit Taiwan
a gift to myself
trekking with Sapa Sisters
a perfectly serendipitous visit to Vienna
sunset over Göreme
balloon-filled sunrise skies
walking Prague

for more of my expat story: year 1 // year 2 // year 3


cruising + kayaking in Ha Long Bay

exploring Vietnam's stunning Ha Long Bay by water: cruising and kayaking

Ha Long Bay is one of those places you have to see to believe. limestone giants draped with green vegetation rise out of blue seas, so plentiful they look like layers of mountains on the horizon. junk boats and fishing skiffs and kayak tours float along together by day, while a flock of squid boats appears from nowhere to light up the night.

last summer, I spent 3 days and 2 nights cruising Ha Long Bay while traveling through Vietnam. to be honest -- I feel the need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I am not a cruise person. I like being in control of my itinerary, my activities, and my menu when I travel. having a list of pre-arranged and not exactly optional excursions rubbed me a bit wrong. but. booking a cruise is the most efficient way to see Ha Long [unless, I suppose, you've got the cash to charter your own boat. I don't.]

that's not to knock our cruise -- everyone at the Indochina Junk office and aboard the Dragon Legend were helpful and attentive. our "junk boat" was not in any way junky, and the staff was extremely patient when dealing with my numerous food allergies. I'm just... not a cruise person. however, I chose to ham it up and do all the activities and ended up enjoying myself well enough.

[ for more details about my trip, check out my Vietnam travel guide + 10 day itinerary ]

this was my first time on a cruise. it was all-inclusive [except for the alcohol] and everything was planned out ahead of time. all we had to do was float along and enjoy the ride. after our trek through Sapa -- well, that sounded like a nice relaxing few days [no matter my cruise prejudice.] I pictured lounging on the sun deck, reading my book in peace, with some kind of tropical concoction to keep me cool.

the weather had other ideas. the sky was grey and hazy. it was sweltering hot, without even an ocean breeze to bring relief. in part, that's why I have so few photos from our cruise. and what I do have is a mash of shots from my camera, my phone, and my friend's waterproof camera. because [despite the heat and the occasional tropical downpour] we still went on two kayak excursions, a hike to a cave, a tour of a floating village, and a beach barbecue.

I know these photos make our kayak tours look pretty incredible. and they were -- even the part where we went through a dark sea cave with so little headspace we had to do the limbo in our kayak.

but what you don't see are the currents of trash our guide had to navigate us around. the water in Ha Long Bay... was filthy. in part, because a huge storm had blown by a few days before our cruise and caused debris from elsewhere to drift in. [also causing the windless and sweltering weather.] but some of the garbage in the water was just the pollution that has accumulated over time.

it was heartbreaking to see a blight like that in such a beautiful place, and to know humanity's part in the destruction.

the waters around the floating village that we toured were a little cleaner. each boat was armed with a net to scoop of bits of trash as we sailed along. but the difference was more than nets -- our guide explained that the cruise company was supporting eco-friendly tourism by bringing us there. the money that paid for our tour would go to help these fishing villages build more sustainable homes [floating on plastic barrels rather than styrofoam blocks.] our cruise ship would collect the garbage from the village and bring it to the mainland to be disposed of, rather than letting it drift out to sea.

it may not be much in the grand scheme of things -- only a drop in the ocean of the earth's problems -- but it made me feel better to know that in a small way, we were helping.

Ha Long Bay was beautiful. perhaps I should just leave it at that.

but the weather, the pollution, and the fact that I got wretchedly ill after our cruise have definitely given me mixed emotions about my experience there. so I'm having trouble finding the right words to end this post.

I always try to be honest about my travels. there are too many people out there who shine up their words and sell you the pinterest-perfect "ultimate" experience. [and at times I'm sure I've been guilty of that as well.] but there's never any guarantee that your encounter with a place will be the match of anyone else's. I think that each of us connect to a destination in our own way. and while Ha Long Bay was a beautiful place, it just wasn't my place.

but maybe... it might be yours.

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