Good to the Last Drop

When I first started drinking coffee, I had to drink it with milk and sugar. Actually, when I FIRST started, I just had hot chocolate with a shot of espresso. I thought the taste of black coffee was the worst. Bitter and sharp, it was an assault on my tastebuds.
Then, my father told me of how my brother (in an attempt to impress his then girlfriend, now wife) taught himself to drink black coffee: he bought a large at Starbucks and forced himself to drink the whole thing. So that’s what I did, and those who know me know I am a complete junkie now (though I also know better than Starbucks, having been fortunate enough to experience the tastebud joys that are Australian and Vietnamese coffee)


Traveling solo is kind of like training myself to like black coffee. I get so many shocked reactions when I talk about traveling on my own. I think people assume, when they hear that I love to travel solo, that I’m this fearless badass who just barrels into unknown circumstances with a smile and a backpack. 


Yeah, definitely not.

There are honestly a lot of times when I travel that I’m quite anxious. Today, for example, I had to take a taxi from the airport in Danang, Vietnam. I’d read, and been warned, several times about taxi scams and I was nervous about navigating the whole thing myself. But the alternative was to walk from the airport, in the rain, for an hour.


Uh, no thanks. 

So I took the taxi from a reputable company and…

It was fine. I think the guy asked for more than was on the meter at the end but he gave up pretty quick when I handed over some cash, so it was all good. No screaming, no yelling, no stealing my stuff. I survived wholly unscathed. 

There is, without a doubt, a lot of shit that can go wrong while traveling. I find I get most anxious when moving cities. I’ve checked out of one hotel/hostel room and have no “home base”. I move from a city where I have gotten my bearings and generally grasp how things work, to a place where everything is new, confusing, and intimidating. 

But this is where the true freedom and joy of travel–especially solo travel–comes in. As I left my hostel in Hanoi this morning, the woman at the front desk gave me directions to the stop for the airport bus, which I had not previously taken (Hanoi isn’t known for its super public transit system. It has one but taxis and motorbikes are used far more often). I did not, as usual, listen particularly carefully as she explained where to go–just took in a general idea of “rights and lefts”–what could go wrong?

As it turns out, nothing did. I found the stop fairly easily, got the bus quickly, and made it to the airport 2 hours before my flight. The whole walk to the bus stop I had worried about what to do–would the bus come? What if it took a long time? What if they didn’t give me change, only had large bills? What if I had to take a taxi, how much was it supposed to cost? What if I got ripped off? What if the taxi tried to take me to somewhere else? These may seem a bit excessive but when you hear people’s crazy stories about travel (and that’s ALWAYS what people want to tell you when they hear you travel) and you’re a single, solo female traveler, you kind of can’t help but be a little wary I think. 

But I got on the bus, and had an awesome, triumphant and immediate feeling of success. I had  figured it out. I can do this! 

Solo travel is like rock climbing. You’re up on the cliff, sometimes in a secure spot, sometimes dangling on the edge. And should you fall off, you’ve got to trust that your “rope”–all your brains and guts and common sense–is going to catch you. When I went rock climbing as a kid, I always had a giddy, excited sense of relief when then rope would catch me and I knew I wasn’t plummeting to my death (not unlike my feelings while bungee jumping last year). That is a similar feeling when I’m able to navigate a tricky situation while traveling solo–I “catch” myself and the feelings of badassery overwhelm. This has not always been a strength of mine–trusting myself to handle things–and this makes the experience all the more sweet.

So sometimes the thought of going on my own, dealing with the new and unfamiliar, seems like my old perspective of black coffee–“ick, why would I do that to myself?” But I always push myself to do it and–as I have come to feel about my coffee–it is So. Damn. Good. Every. Time.

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Do They Know It’s Christmastime At All?

It’s been interesting, spending the last two Christmases away from home. I love Christmas—not the commercialism and all, but the joy and traditions and the time with family. But as I’ve fully entered adulthood (as much as someone who still plays pretend with her friends at improv practice ever will) I’ve been more disappointed by Christmas each year. Many of my family’s traditions have faded or changed, and the magic that always seemed to surround the season disappeared for the most part. I hope that one day, with my own children, I’ll feel that again but for now, I honestly haven’t been sad to skip the whole thing the past couple of years.

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Last year I found myself in Malaysia, ordering room service breakfast and watching Home Alone 2 on cable. I was by myself and it was actually delightful, but this year I opted to spend time with a couple friends.

This year, I went to Taipei with two friends, a married couple I work with named Eric and Haley. Or, as Eric called it, “Tai-bae” (this is also, apparently, the correct pronunciation, funny enough).

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Just three weirdos at Christmas

Easily one of the most pleasurable aspects of the trip was getting direct flights from Ningbo to Taipei and back. I love my travels, but I rarely fly direct because of the cost and there is only so much fun to be had in any airport terminal.

I have developed a bit of a reputation this year—pardon the humble brag—among my friends for being particularly good at finding excellent restaurants in the cities we visit. I don’t see anything special in what I do—if anything, Google and Trip Advisor deserve the credit—but hell, I’ll take the praise! And I have had an usual amount of success as of late, so yeah, just call me the Travel Titan…the Dining Dutchess…THE MEALTIME MAESTRO.

Ok, I’m done.

Our first afternoon, after checking in at our respective hotel (them) and hostel (me), we grabbed lunch at a diner called Whalen’s in the city. I’d seen it online and it was touted as American/Canadian, which is difficult to find in China so we checked it out. It ended up being one of those meals where everyone sits and eats and just moans over how good the food is.

Despite being a little wary of it, I had poutine for the first time ever and it did not disappoint (it’s a Canadian dish of fries covered in cheese curds and chicken gravy). Haley was, to put it delicately, very fond of the gravy that accompanied the poutine. There is something special about living in another country and coming across your comfort foods from home. That food never tastes as good as when you haven’t had access to it in months.

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Apple Crisp at Whalen’s

We then made our way to Taipei 101, the big, iconic tower in the middle of the city. I’ve now been to many a tall building—Empire State Building and Freedom Tower in New York, Sears (IT IS SEARS NOT WILLIS) Tower in Chicago, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai Tower in (duh) Shanghai, and I’m sure several others. I’m not so impressed by the big, tall buildings anymore but it was worth a visit.

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Personally, I think “Taipei 101” sounds more like a course at the local university…

Unfortunately, the day was a big smoggy (as per usual) so we didn’t have the best view but it was definitely unique in terms of experiences I’ve had in tall building observatories. You could literally see the grime of pollutants on the outside of the building’s windows and I wondered, not for the first time, about my risk of lung cancer in the future…

One new aspect to this building was the gigantic steel ball positioned in the middle of it to help offset any wind from the many typhoons and earthquakes Taipei is at risk for. I didn’t fully understand how it works (because, let’s be honest, I didn’t quite care enough to watch the explanatory video) but from what I gathered, there’s a hydraulic mechanism that kicks into gear when a storm or seismic event occurs, helping keep the building from collapsing.

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It’s that kind of thing that reminds and impresses me with the ingenuity of the human brain. Super cool.

The one thing I always seek out in any city I visit is a foreign language bookstore, because I’m basically Hermione. I’ve taken to collecting books in each city I visit and inscribing them with the date and location where I purchased them. One day I will own a house with an international library—or maybe a private jet as I continue my journeys across the world.

We wound up at Eslite department store, which includes a massive book section. I was very excited to find another edition to JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective series, which I find delightful. I clearly enjoy her writing style and I read the first two in the series this summer. They’re compelling, easy reads that each have a good twist at the end. The two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellicott, are far more fleshed out and interesting to read about than many characters I’ve come across in popular mysteries/thrillers, but I digress…

We finished our night at a Thai rooftop restaurant in the area, which was fairly unremarkable except that my rice was served pyramid-style.

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On our way down from the restaurant, the already-packed elevator opened into a very crowded nightclub. Several people proceeded to load in a woman so intoxicated (it was about 8pm) that she was in a wheelchair and had a plastic bag attached to her neck.

If you know me at all, you know I have a serious case of emetophobia (IT IS A REAL THING) and the sound/sight of someone vomiting literally makes me want to bolt in panic. So there I stood, in the corner with my eyes shut, plugging my ears and humming tunelessly to myself as this woman proceeded to vomit continuously the entire way down the building.

I felt more impressed with my ability to make it through that situation than I did after bungee-jumping off the Auckland Bridge last year (ok maybe not quite, but it was up there).

I hope that woman was taken to a hospital and recovered. I also hope to never be that drunk in my life. That has to be a 9 day hangover, minimum.

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The following day I played tourist, visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial and then taking a walking tour of the city. Free walking tours are my favorite way to see a new city—though I’ve had a mixture of quality on them. The tours run by Sandeman’s in Europe have been the most excellent, but they are also the best established. I appreciated my tour in Taipei (though I snorted when one of the guides commented that Taiwanese people don’t party much, remembering my elevator ride the previous evening) but when we started to hit 3½ hours, I found an excuse to duck out.

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That evening I met back up with Eric and Haley to eat at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called James Kitchen that serves traditional Taiwanese food. It was hidden at the end of a busy street, a place that I would have normally walked right by had I not done my research ahead of time. The meal was excellent, the best parts being crab meatballs and pumpkin glass noodles.

We then ended up in a leather shop, buying ourselves Christmas gifts, and off to an expat-frequented bar called Revolver—picked based on it’s reputation and my fondness for the Chicago-based improv troupe of the same name. With the assistance of my two wing-friends, I worked on my flirting game. In my world, this consists of noticing a cute guy across the bar, making eye contact multiple times and quickly looking away. Maybe smiling. In Haley’s world, this consists of striking up conversation with the guy I’ve been looking at.

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I appreciated the cheeky decor at Revolver

One of these techniques resulted in me having a very pleasant conversation with an adorable German man.

 

Spoiler: my technique was not the successful one. Maybe I need to change my tactics.

 

Our third and final day in Taipei (Christmas day in fact) started with me nursing a spectacular hangover and attempting to skype with my brother, nieces, younger sister and sister-in-law. The camera only worked on my end, resulting in a hilariously narrated conversation in which my incredibly generous brother gave my younger sister a trip to visit me in China this spring. Having not had any visitors yet, it was a truly awesome gift for both of us (that will most definitely also result in some hilarious additions to this blog).

I then made my way to meet the others for brunch at Pig & Pepper, another delicious restaurant, and then board the bus up to Keelong Bay and Jiufen Village.

Jiufen Village a little tourist village on the mountainside outside of Taipei with a gorgeous view down into the bay. Our visit was marred slightly by my repeated necessity to chomp Pepto-Bismol (hangovers, amirite?) but it was a very worthwhile jaunt. We wondered among stalls full of food, handcrafts, touristy souvenirs, and all kinds of knickknacks, passing the time from late afternoon into evening and watching the sun descending over the valley and water below.

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The view down to Keelong Bay from Jiufen Village

A perfectly delightful Christmas afternoon, free of expectation and unnecessarily forced frivolity.

Back in the city, I explored the Raohe Street Night Market while Eric and Haley went back to their hotel. While the night markets in many of the cities I’ve visited have started to feel very similar, I still enjoy walking through them, observing all the people, salivating over the delicious foods, and exploring the stacks of goods up for sale. I greatly enjoy the feeling of being lost in a crowd—alone among hundreds of people—and night markets are an excellent place to do that.

It’s hard to regret missing Christmas when doing so had afforded me the opportunity to see places like Taipei. I do miss my family and regret not seeing them (save through the lens of my phone’s camera as my mom points me at the ceiling fan repeatedly) but these last two years have given me some pretty extraordinary experiences in compensation.

One of my friends—or possibly my siblings—once said that perhaps I’ll be that wild aunt who rolls into town once and a while with fabulous gifts and amazing tales of my adventures abroad.

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I think I’d be ok with that.

Run, Run to the Bus!

At the beginning of this school year I was relocated to a different campus of my school in Ningbo, China. What was supposed to be 6 weeks turned into a year and now, I’ve decided, probably longer. The decision has so far served me very well—I’ve had a huge career boost, I’ve met some fantastic new friends and coworkers, and I’ve grown a lot. I also got a killer new apartment in the whole deal, can’t complain.

My new apartment complex is a bit far from the center of Ningbo, and therefore I find myself taking the bus into the city quite often—either to meet friends for dinner, or often to catch a flight or a train. On my last several trips to the bus stop, I would turn out of my complex to see the bus I take sitting at the stop. The bus usually pauses there for a minute or two before departing on schedule (my stop is the first on the route). The first couple of times this happened, I kept walking at a quick pace toward the stop, but was unwilling to run because of my shoes or bags or I was tired or a little extra full from lunch or whatever excuse I had. Inevitably the bus would pull away before I got there and I’d be irritated that I hadn’t caught it and then had to wait 20 minutes for another one.

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On my way to dinner this past Friday, the same situation arose. I was in heels—and they were particularly tricky ones that are too big for my feet and often come whipping off unexpectedly when I walk (it’s possible I need new shoes…)

I had a moment of quiet resignation—I would miss the damn bus again and be late to dinner as a result.

Whatever. Fine. Totally great. I don’t want to get on your stupid bus anyway!

Then I thought, “Screw that. I can run and catch it, shoes be damned!” Stumbling and flailing toward the stop, I’m sure I looked ridiculous and my shoe popped off my foot approximately 900 times on the way.

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But the driver waited and I made it.

I made the effort, recognized the choice I had in the matter, and as a result I caught the bus and saved myself 20 minutes of waiting for another one.

It’s a seemingly inconsequential story—I doubt anyone reading this is particularly interested in my bus riding habits—but I share it because I think it speaks to a larger pattern. It’s currently the season of New Year’s resolutions, new beginnings, and seemingly endless possibilities. But often, many New Year’s resolutions seem to reside in Fantasyland. We believe that this magical time of year will just give us the willpower to do whatever we want, often whatever it is we think will “fix” our lives.

We can lose the weight in 6 weeks!
We can quit drinking coffee (though I don’t know why)!
We can finally write a series of 6 best-selling novels!
MARS HERE WE COME!!!

But then, we so often refuse to acknowledge the reality of that goal. We make bucket lists and vision boards and talk of doing things “someday” but we never take steps toward actually doing them—we procrastinate our way toward never actually living our lives.

We want to catch the bus but we don’t want to run.

In an age where keeping in touch often means liking a Facebook post, dating often means swiping left or right based solely on a photo, and ordering groceries can be done from your couch, we seem to have forgotten the rewards that real effort can bring. Instead, we hope that by simply willing something to happen, the bus will wait for us and we can get on without having to try.

Spoiler alert: every time I tried that method, I missed the bus.

I’ve had so many conversations recently with people that have left me weary. The conversations consist almost entirely of a series of whiny complaints—what’s wrong at work, not having enough money, not having enough dates or a relationship, no time to do fun things or travel, being annoyed at friends or family, and on and on.

Venting frustrations is one thing—something I feel is healthy and necessary to good mental health. I find it equally exhausting when people expect everyone to be happy and positive all the time, as if that is the sole acceptable human emotion. We feel the way we feel and we should accept that from others as well. But whining persistently about problems that do, in fact, have solutions…sigh…

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Again and again I listen to conversations that follow this pattern:

  • Person 1: “I just wish I had a date on Friday”
  • Person 2: “So let’s go talk to some people at the bar”
  • 1: “Well, I’m so tired from work…”
  • 2: “So we’ll go tomorrow night”
  • 1: “Well, I don’t know, I don’t like talking to people in bars…”
  • 2: “Ok, so maybe try online”
  • 1: “Ugh, I hate online dating, it’s so impersonal…”
  • 2: “Do you want me to set you up with this person I work with?”
  • 1: “I don’t know, I mean I’m pretty picky…”
  • 2: “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY?!?!”

Ok, so maybe that last line is just what I think in my head but I dream of having the guts to say it aloud—because seriously, what is there to say at this point? It’s not a discussion, it’s a one-sided whine-fest and I think we all would MUCH prefer to laugh and talk over other kind of wine.

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I want to add that I have been the first person in this conversation many times, and probably will be again–but I also see how annoying and pointless it is. Once you see the pattern, it’s really difficult to stop seeing it–and to not want to change it.

We all play a role in our reality—a much larger role than we are often willing to admit. In the dating scenario, the first person is making excuse after excuse in an effort to avoid actually having a dating life. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a total of zero people walk into my living room while I’m eating takeout and watching Netflix and offer to love me forever (probably something I should realistically be thankful for…). Refusing to change the pattern results in the same outcomes.

You don’t catch the bus when you flat out refuse to run toward it.

That goes for cynicism too. It’s quite easy to take the “well I don’t even care about dating anyway, all men are stupid” route but that’s not only unfair, I’d say it’s a flat out lie. From my experience, people who make those cynical statements are usually the people who care the most, just trying to cover the hurt and rejection they feel.

Life is full of seemingly impossible situations, frustrations, and irritating scenarios. Believe me, I’d love to be dating someone or to be better at saving money, or watch less television, or keep up with writing for this blog more often and have it just magically happen with ease.

But I am done with sitting back and being content to wish and whine about these things and do nothing more. It hasn’t solved anything thus far and I expect it never will.

So in the season of resolutions and new beginnings, I plan to keep running for the bus. As absurd and outrageous as I might look, stumbling in my shoes or with my backpack slapping me in time to my pace—and as many times as I might miss the bus anyway—it’s always going to be worth it to make the effort.

Because it’s always such an awesome feeling when you finally catch it.

marlonwebb