Why I Travel

When I am not traveling or unable to travel, a dark cloud of depression slowly settles over me, for no apparent reason, really. The kind where I’m apathetic to the troubles of everyone around me and the weight of their supposed apathy towards me is crushing. The kind where I just want to crawl into bed, hide under the covers, and disappear (not that anyone would notice). Forever. The kind where tears inevitably fall as I succumb to the taunting of the monsters in my mind. These moments where I feel like I am alone–the forgotten, the neglected, the wallflower faded into the crumbling wallpaper–, I am overcome with intense longing to travel.

In traveling, I am removed from the mediocrity of my existence. I exploit that which I am: a wanderer with an inherent disconnect with time, places, and people. Instead I find my sense of belonging in wandering. It displaces me from my comfort cubicle, from what is familiar. And it is in traveling that I find a better version of myself. The me that ignores my usually paralyzing fear of heights and falling to finish a trail that ends at a cliff overlooking Yosemite Valley. The me that walks into the never-ending darkness of a deserted beach at night, to marvel at a forest of twinkling stars so dense that I am reminded that I am but an atom in the eye of the universe. This is brings me zen.

In traveling, the palpable anger and incessant yelling associated with family life is dissipated when upon reaching an undisturbed lake in the mountains, we find respite. An unusual silence blankets the scene. In traveling, the worn insults cease when we sit down together and discover that, wow, this dingy hole-in-the-wall food stop makes some really amazing dumplings and buns. Even a few laughs may make their way across the table. But these are specialties reserved for the transient and elusive moments when my family is a functioning unit.

So as I gather dust on the shelf and dissolve into nothingness, I’ll close my eyes and dream of another time where my suitcase and camera are filled with treasures of my dearly beloved travels.

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Nürnberg: Day 6, 2009

This was quite common to see for the time we were in Germany.

This was quite common to see for the time we were in Germany.

It was Monday, which is the worst day of the week because typically for me it indicates the start of something academically productive. Yet I actually found the prospect of attending my Gastschwester’s (host sister’s) classes exciting. First period was with Clara’s Englisch class; it was probably too early still, as I don’t remember a single thing about it.

2nd period was Greek–what an awesome class. I learned how to write my name and about the development of Greek and Latin languages. Particularly interesting to me was the word “Kairos” καιρός: an ancient Greek word that means the right or opportune moment. It’s a rhetorical device that’s understood as knowing what to say at the right moment.

During break time, we all met at the Schwarze Box (black box) with Herr Reindl, who would be chaperoning our trip to München the next day. We were given loads of maps and tour brochures, as well as our second allowance of the program so far. There were only two of us ones who had to wait for our Gastgeschwister (host siblings) to finish their classes after the meeting, so we played a few rounds of foosball. I was terrible.

My Gastvater (host father) told me he’d make Pfilzgoulasch (mushroom goulash) for me for lunch. Buuuuuut…I really wanted to explore the city after school. While I felt guilty, I still told Clara to go home first without me and to tell Gastvater. Seven of us went sightseeing in the old town, but split up in groups of 2-3 for lunch. Cory and I ate at a Döner place. No vegetarian food. Ended up getting Panda Express. Should’ve stuck with the Pfilzgoulasch.

IMG_2072We all then met up at a department store chain called Karstadt, which was insanely expensive. Since none of us were particularly interested in window shopping, we set off to discover the wonder that is Spaghetti Eis (spaghetti ice cream). Cost me €6, but what the hell–it was delicious. Spaghetti Eis is ice cream put through a noodle maker so it looks like spaghetti. Then some sort of berry jam or reduction is poured over it, along with chopped nuts, white chocolate chips, and an unhealthy serving of whipped cream. A waffle cookie tops off the masterpiece. One of the guys suggested visiting a Barockgarten (baroque-styled garden); it was nice. Well-manicured, small, and private. The most fun part about the garden was playing with this marbled, black and orange kitty making its rounds through the hedges. It must have been funny to see a group of 7 teenagers coddling and taking pictures of a cat. The second Barockgarten we visited was large in comparison and behind a Biergarten (!! the most mind-boggling idea I had come across at that age and time). People just sit outside and…drink beer?? What? The coolest part of the garden was this giant clock that the hedges formed.

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Our last tourist stop of the day was Johannis Friedhof (cemetery), to visit Albrecht Dürer’s grave. Dürer was one of the Renaissance men of his day, literally during the Northern Renaissance.  His most famous portrait is a self-portrait of him at age 28. That aside, German cemeteries are really beautiful. They’re unusually, colorfully decorated with flowers (by American standards). One of my friends and I rode the S-Bahn back to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) together. I discovered there how byzantine the Fahrplan (timetable) is. Luckily, I double-checked with the conductor the direction of the train I thought was heading towards Roßtal to find that it was going to Dresden. Oh. Good catch. Took the train home alone for the first time; I felt so independent!

IMG_2097 And I still got my Pfilzgoulasch at the end of the day. Die beste Gastvater in der Welt. :)

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Nürnberg: Day 5, 2009

It was a slow day–I slept until 9am and stuffed myself with bread and Nutella. This was back in the days before Nutella saw widespread popularity in U.S. supermarkets, so I wanted to get my fill of it–or maybe I had just never noticed it before? I asked my Gastmutter where Neuschwanstein, the castle built by Konig Ludwig that was the source of inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, was. Apparently quite far from Nürnberg! So disappointing. It’s definitely one of the things on my Germany bucket list of things to see.

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Strawberry cream pie…?

My Gastfamilie took me to a Gemeindefest: a potluck for the church community. There were 10 different kinds of Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), each a grandmother’s secret recipe. They looked so delicious! Alas, none of them were vegetarian-friendly. I’d stick with my Gastmutter’s potato salad anyway ;) hers is still the best I’ve had to this day. What’s your favorite Kartoffelsalat Rezept (recipe)?

Inside the church was essentially a dessert buffet of cakes, tarts, and other baked goods. While I desperately wanted to try them all, I didn’t want to be that person who eats everything in sight.

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City hall (I think)

When we were back home, I had to force myself to read Grapes of Wrath for my AP Literature class. So glad those days are over now! After about an hour or two, I went out for a small walk around Roßtal.

It was gorgeous and sunny, crystal clear skies stretched endlessly. Definitely got a few stares, but I guess it’s because you don’t see a small Asian girl walking around town every day. I walked all the way out to city hall and found that it overlooked another little town lying in the valley.

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Here have a butterfly instead.

I continued to roam around and found some solace in a patch of lavender–or some kind of pretty purple flower.  Then I spotted the strangest animal I’d ever seen. Was it a bee? A hummingbird? A butterfly? A moth?

It was amazingly hard to catch a picture of, and once I was back in the States, the first thing I did was Google “hummingbird bee moth thing”. What I saw was a hummingbird hawk-moth. It’s typically found only in the warmer climates of southern Europe, North Africa, and the East. Who knew such a thing existed?!

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cherries from our backyard

After 15 minutes of stalking it, I gave up and turned to corner to find a local band practicing swing and jazz. It was wonderful. Boy did I miss swing dancing–I had even dreamt about it that night. I think I was having too much fun in my dream, though, since I ended up hitting my head against the wall.

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Weimar: Day 4, 2009

Quick aside: I learned at breakfast that Germans slice their rolls through the middle (hamburger-style), rather than straight down it (hot dog style). Then they take like an 1/8” thick slice of butter and sandwich it as filling. But maybe it’s just my host family…? Anyone else notice this?

My Gastfamilie (host family) took me to Weimar my 4th day in Germany: the birthplace of famed writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. It was a long drive from Nürnberg–about 4 hours. I kept falling asleep in the car. But for the moments I was awake, I saw some of the most beautifully delicate scenery. We drove past fields of wildflowers and dense forests, as well as this wonderfully tranquil lake. There was an island of pines, fog resting gently on the surface of the water, and a lonely swan gliding across. It was so peaceful.

weimarWe first stopped at the Anna Amalia Bibliothek, which is the library of Duchess Anna Amalia. It houses over 1 million books, 10,000 volumes of Shakespeare, and even an expansive 13,000 volume music collection. The library is in a beautiful Rococo-style. Unfortunately, only 200 tickets are sold per day, so by the time we arrived, it was sold out. Have any of you managed to snag a ticket to the library?

We went instead to Goethe’s birth house. It was surprisingly large, with statues everywhere. It was definitely the house of a relatively wealthy man. No pictures were allowed inside the house, but I did snap some of the garden.

weimar2Before this trip to Weimar, I had never seen horse-drawn carriages and flipped out when I did see one. I felt like I was living a fairytale until I noticed the giant poop sack hanging between horse in carriage. Such a smart idea; keeps the poop off the streets!

weimar3We first lunched at this random cafe, where I ordered some warm vegetable soup and Clara ordered Apfelstrudel with vanilla ice cream. There was this really neat art exhibit upstairs called “Fehlerkunst/Kunstfehler”, which essentially means “Failed Art”. Most of it was strange contemporary art. The art painted onto the walls on the stairwell were really cool though.

After lunch, we proceeded to Goethe’s summer house, where he basically wrote all his poems and literary works. The river Im runs through the land and makes for very pretty scenery with the fields, small hills and what not. Because Goethe loved flowers, his summer house had a wonderful garden. Original manuscripts were on displace in glass cases. It was particularly exciting to see “Der Erlkönig”: a rather depressing piece we read in German class and the only piece of Goethe’s that I’m thoroughly familiar with.

His summer house wasn’t nearly as luxurious as his actual house even though he spent more time in the summer home. But I guess you don’t need many luxuries when you have creative thoughts to entertain you. :)

weimar4My Gastmutter (host mother) and Gastvater (host father) wanted to take me to Schiller’s house, but they were closed! Sad. My Gastvater told me this random fact about Schiller: he could only write when there was a rotten apple in his desk. Genius is strange. We ended up going to a Bauhaus store. And what is Bauhaus exactly? Some style of art and music that started in Weimar. That’s the extent of my understanding. There was an animated time line of Germany in the 1900’s up to the 1990’s. There were also comic-styled illustrations satirizing the Nazi era and stuff.

When we finally arrived back home, it was past 10pm; yet somehow, it was barely twilight. The stars could barely sparkle with how bright the sky was.

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台南 Tainan, 2009

tainanTainan literally means “southern Taiwan”; it was established by the Dutch East India Company as a ruling and trading base. As a result, you can still see traces of Dutch influence on the architecture, culture, and even some of the food in Taiwan. Tainan is also the oldest city in Taiwan, and with its complex history, has received the nickname “the Phoenix City”.

For our day trip in Tainan, we first went to Chikan Lou ‘赤崁樓’ or Fort Provintia. Chikan Lou is one of the most important historic sites in Tainan. It was a Dutch outpost built in 1653 during their colonization of Taiwan. The fort houses a library of dictionaries and business transactions documenting the Siraya language spoken by indigenous people of Formosa during Dutch rule.

tainan2Chikan Lou was surrendered to Zheng Chengong 国姓爷 when he and his army landed to take Taiwan from the Dutch. Since that point in history, Chikan Lou has been the residence of the governor, an army hospital during Japanese rule, and now a bookmark in Taiwanese history. There are two towers, Haishen Temple, and Wenchang Pavilion ‘文昌閣’. Both now serve as small museums. In Haishan Temple hangs small wooden plaques upon which students have written their wishes and prayers for good grades. Since I was just about to enter college at the time, my mom insisted that I write a plaque too.

We didn’t spend more than half an hour exploring Chikan Lou because of the blistering heat. What we decided to to afterwards was to get some 雪花冰 [xue hua bing], or more commonly known as “mian mian bing”.

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In short: shaved ice. Mango and blackberry shaved ice, with some green tea and mango panna cotta to boot.  The panna cotta is one of those foods from my travels that I still reminiscence about from time to time. So silky and smooth and cool–it just slithers down your throat. Nothing more gratifying in muggy, 96-degree weather.

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We visited a couple more temples, and spent some time sitting in a large park with this incredible banyan tree. It could have been almost a thousand years old for all I knew; looked like something you’d find in My Neighbor Totoro. Uncle Chen, mom, and I just relaxed on a park bench until the sun set. And then it was time for dinner!

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Perhaps I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: if there’s one thing you never should miss out on when you’re in Taiwan, its the fresh bamboo shoot that you dip in sweet mayonnaise. It is a godsend food. Crisp and sweet, almost like some buttery Gala apple. That was a pretty strange characterization, but it is so good.

We also ordered a large plate of 山蘇 [shan su], which is one of my favorite vegetables to eat in Taiwan. “Bird’s Nest Fern” is native to tropical areas; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the US.

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The large leaves curl outward, giving it the appearance of a nest. It’s delicate, crunchy, and (dare-I-say-it) kinda slimy. Like the tasty okra kind of slimy, unless you don’t like slimy vegetables.

There was also 絲瓜 [si gua], or loofah, steamed in a pumpkin sauce. Loofah is one of my favorite vegetables, hands down–it basically looks like a giant cucumber. And it is indeed the same loofah we use in scrubbing sponges! What a practical plant. One of my favorite things was the sticky rice balls stuffed with delicious things.

 

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sunset by the park!

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溪頭 Xi Tou, 2009

lemidiAfter our trip through Sichuan, China, my mom and I decided to venture outside of Taipei for a change: to 溪頭 [xi tou], a city south of Taichung. We stayed at the  [mi ti da fan dian] or Chitou Lemidi Hotel.  A surprisingly luxurious resort, styled in French architecture, in the midst of dense bamboo forest and mountainous Xi Tou.

An expansive continental breakfast is included, so I definitely recommend staying there if you ever head down to Xi Tou–since finding food in the mountains is inevitably difficult without a car. There’s also a small arcade with ping pong tables, as well as a tea tasting room. :)

My mom took me to visit the 溪頭自然教育園區, which I guess could be translated as “Xi Tou Natural Park” (?). It’s essentially a park where you can find tons of trails, see several hundred-year old trees, walk through bamboo forests, flower fields…etc. Basically requires a full day to explore! It was a pretty cloudy and misty day, but the sun came out to play when we hit the gardens. There is a beautiful arch bridge at “University Pond”, which is definitely worth the stop. It’s constructed entirely from bamboo, and considering how many tourists it’s manage to carry, it’s quite the engineering feat.

xitouMom and I also stopped by the ever-popular 竹廬 [zhu lu], or “Bamboo Cottage”. This place was previously the Chiang Kai-shek line shop; we couldn’t go in though, since the cottage isn’t open to the public. The cottage was completed in 1977 and is made of 100% bamboo. Each stalk is cut and fitted perfectly with the others.  Another popular attraction is the trail up to Shen Mu ‘神木’ giant tree. My fear of heights noted the trailhead’s marking as a “challenging uphill climb” of about at least 1.5 hours, so my mom and I ended up on not seeing the tree. Next time! I think I’m a lot less afraid of heights now than I was before. The 神木 spans several meters in diameter and remains standing after over 700 years, even though lightning split it in two years ago. 

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One of my mom’s best friends from college, Uncle Chen 陳叔叔, took us to what I believe was the Neihu Elementary School 內湖國小. Totally just basing it off of my memories matched with the pictures provided in the link. What I do remember is that there are a lot of butterfly plants and tress at the school, so hundreds of butterflies flock there in the summer. It was a kaleidoscope of fluttering wings and glimmering colors. I’m not the best photographer, but believe me when I say there were swarms of them flitting around!

nantouAfterwards, we walked down this huge street market in Nantou County ‘南投縣 ‘. I wish I remembered the name so I could recommend it, because there was so much to see! Street food everywhere, bands and dance groups performing, games and caricatures. The grilled corn came in about 8 different flavors, and the stinky tofu was delicious. Mmm. 

I got to see the 愛玉 [ai yu] fruit from the first time, which is what the super popular Aiyu jelly  is made from. Aiyu dessert is made from the seeds of a type of fig found mostly in just Taiwan and Singapore. (It’s the strange-looking prickly ball in the bottom left picture).  Aiyu seeds are steeped in cold water and rubbed until a slimy gel can be extracted from it. The dessert is usually eaten cold with a squeeze of lime on hot summer days. Perfectly refreshing!

We happened to run into a couple of my mom’s old friends as well–what a coinkidink! They took us all out to a vegetarian restaurant nearby that was simply delicious. Light but wonderfully filling food, all local and fresh.nantou2 There was a beautiful lily pond nearby, and some camellia bushes. There could not have been a more relaxing place to dine and chat with your friends on a breezy, summer’s day. You could even walk outside to the garden from which they harvest all their ingredients. 聖荷 [sheng he] is what I think is the name of the restaurant, but don’t take my word for it.

We ordered some pretty simple dishes, nothing complicated or fancy. It was just like mom’s cooking. A couple stir-fried vegetables, multigrain rice, some light tempura and bean curd skin rolls. Fresh fruit for dessert. Hot soup in a porcelain bowl with a melange of fungi and daikon. If you can find any place called 聖荷 in the area, you should definitely go!

shenghe

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Nürnberg: Day 3, 2009

nurntour5I woke up at 2:30am with the songs from the choir concert and German voices running through my head. Swear I was about to go insane at one point. My group and I met at the Box at 7:45am to go on a tour of Nürnberg with Herr Birkelbach. Herr Reynolds, our American chaperone, was nowhere to be seen. Since neither chaperone had shown up by 8am, we decided to explore the city on our own. A small group of us headed back after 15-20 minutes of exploring–after all, we didn’t know the city at all and wouldn’t be able to get back if we got lost. Everyone was present at 9:15am and we were finally able to start our tour!

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg was the first part of our tour. I think it’s wonderful how college tuition in Germany is free. All you have to pay for is room & board, but even that’s not too expensive. We also passed by the House of Tucher. The Tuchers were one of the richest families in Germany because of all the breweries they owned. They bought up all the land outside of the Nürnberger Wall (Nuremberg City wall) at insanely low prices through insider trading. Apparently quite the scandal at the time. 

nurntourHerr Birkelbach also explained to us how German license plates work: basically the bigger the city, the shorter the abbreviation. For example, Nürnberg’s is just “N” but Roßtal’s would be “Roß”. The blue part of the license plate tells you which country the car is from, so D = Deutschland, S = Spanien, F = Frankenreich (France)…usw (“und so weiter”, the equivalent of etc.). There’s also a little clock sticker that tells you when you have to take the car back to be checked.

We also went to the Kaiserburg, an ancient castle where all the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lived between 1050 and 1571. The climb up the cobblestones was steeper than I wanted it to be. On the way up, we stopped by the dried moat and Herr Birkelbach told us the story of a man who was sentenced to death but given one last wish. His last wish was to ride his horse one more time. Once he was on the horse, the two of them jumped over the moat and city wall; his horse left hoof print on the wall. We all rubbed it for luck! Up in the towers of the castle are shafts where soldiers could shoot arrows from any angle when the castle was under siege. It’s presently used by the people who work at the castle to shoot spit balls at tourists (HAHA).

nurntour3Our tour led us across the Pegnitz River, which runs through the city. We then went into the St. Lorenzkirche, a medieval church dedicated to Saint Lawrence. No pictures were allowed, unfortunately! Also short stops on our tour were the Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church) and Bauermarkt (farmer’s market). The Bauermarkt was enormous! Took up the entire square in front of the Frauenkirche; a sea of red-and-white-striped tents. Fresh fruit everywhere~.

nurntour2The last official stop on the tour was the Schönbrünn (Beautiful Fountain). Welded through the gaps in the fencing around the fountain is a bronze ring–legend says if you spin it twice, you’ll find success in love! The backstory of the ring began with a young blacksmith’s apprentice who fell in love with the mayor’s daughter. The mayor exiled the apprentice because he thought his daughter was too good for him. Yet the apprentice returned in the shade of night and welded the ring to prove his worthiness as blacksmith. The lovers eloped soon after. There are currently two rings on the fountain, but only one is real.

We had free time after seeing the Schönbrünn to visit the area nearby and were given an allowance. Game changer. Each of us were given €25 to spend on anything we wanted to. I didn’t have time to buy any souvenirs or visit the Frauenkirche in the time given. Something more important was to happen: we were to meet the mayor of Nürnberg at the Rathaus (city hall, literally means “Advice House”). It was such a nice reception! There were drinks and large plates of Belegtebrot (slices of bread with meat & cheese on it). The mayor welcomed us to Nürnberg, and someone from each of the American groups (there were 5) had to go up to talk a bit to show our appreciation for the sponsorship provided.

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When my Gastmutter picked me up afterwards, we went home for some delicious tomato/bell pepper ragout she had made for lunch. Happy belly. Then we went to Charlotte’s graduation ceremony. German graduation ceremonies all start with church service, or Gottesdienst. It was held at the Frauenkirche; there was a short sermon, and some worship and prayer. nurnday3The reception was back at the Rathaus, where I tried some Sekt (Champagne). Didn’t like it too much, so I stuck with apple cider.

Also met Clara’s grandparents, who were sweet. I fell asleep during the ceremony because there were way too many speeches, and the 5 hour walking tour had wiped me out…It was a cute scene when all the students gave presents to their teachers and finally received their Abitur. Charlotte got a €1,000 Stipendium (scholarship money) because she received one of the top grades in her class. Yay!

My Gastfamilie (host family) and I then went to the Schießhaus, a restaurant where there was a huge buffet and party for all the graduating students and their families. There wasn’t any vegetarian food :( other than dessert and fruit. Really delicious though. And I finally got to meet Konrad, my Gastbruder (host brother)! He’s about 3-4 years older than Charlotte (I think?).

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