My Top 5 Non-Street-Food Eating Experiences in Taiwan

Hello world! So, it looks like something happened. Blog posts that were meant to publish in March never did, and in the ensuing cyclone-of-crazy that is late spring and summer, it never got fixed. So better late than never, here are the last parts of the Taiwan saga.


I’ve talked (in length) about the street food of Taiwan. But the truth is, street food is only half of Taiwan’s culinary picture, and some of the most memorable food-experiences we had there took place in restaurants…and warehouses. Here’s my top 5:

5. Running Sushi

Running Sushi Taiwan 1.jpg

Running sushi can be found all over the world, I know that. It was, however, a first for me – and I found it to be exhilarating. There were a several reasons for that. First, it was our first full day in Taiwan, and I was so excited by everything I saw that I was bouncing off the walls like a kid hyped on sugar. Second, it had to be some of the freshest sushi I had ever tasted. Third, every plate was so cheap – we ate gorgeous slices of salmon belly, mounds of fresh sea urchin, freshly barbequed eel, and more to our heart’s content. In the end, we barely spent $11 USD.

More than anything else however, I found the concept of running sushi to be fascinating. Not only is it a cost-efficient way for a restaurant to serve customers, but it also turns eating into a psychological game. If you pass up that plate coming down the line this time, will there be another? There is no guarantee that someone else won’t take the plate you want before it gets to you. What if you choose one thing, and then see something else you want more just two minutes after?

Running Sushi Taiwan.jpg

Most restaurants hand you a menu, effectively asking you to make a decision once, and then stick to your choice. Running sushi forces you into constant decision making, offering an endless variety of options that will “expire” (ie: run past you) if you don’t decide quickly. It’s intensely manipulative, and unlike any dining experience I’ve had before.

4. Beef Noodle Soup

Beef Noodle soup is so beloved; it is often called Taiwan’s national dish. Jacob did some research to see where we could find the best Beef Noodle soup, and came up with an informal restaurant called Yong-Kang Beef Noodle. We showed up to the restaurant one day for lunch and immediately knew we had made a good choice. The line for the restaurant snaked outside the door and past several other shop fronts. While we walked down to our place in line, taxi’s rolled up to the curb and dropped off passengers with suitcases…who then got in line behind us. Apparently Yong-Kang Beef Noodle was so good, it was worth making it your last or first stop in Taipei.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle Taipei 1

The restaurant was nothing fancy – fluorescent, cafeteria style, and crammed with people sitting at communal tables. Once inside, we placed our order at the window and found a spot at a table to wait. Behind us, a view into the kitchen showed a pot of soup broth big enough to drown in.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle 1
Yong Kang Beef Noodle 2

Our soup arrived within 5 minutes – large bowls of noodles and melt-in-your-mouth tender beef in a fatty, anise-spiced chili broth. The garnish of choice was a pot of pickled mustard greens sitting on the table – a dash of bitterness and vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat and broth. It took us barely 10 minutes to polish off our food. Once again our “Taiwan mantra” was affirmed: If people are waiting in line to eat it, it’s good.

3. Addiction Aquatic Development

Jacob and I live in a landlocked country. Though there are many, many things I love and appreciate about Austria, it’s landlocked status is not one of them. I could easily forego meat for a fish and shellfish only diet. The mere mention of fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster, or – my favorite – CRAB, is enough to turn me into a real-life “heart-eyes-emoji”. So of course, the prospect of visiting an island where seafood is a staple of the cuisine is profoundly exciting for me. Especially when said islands have places like Addiction Aquatic Development.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei

Addiction Aquatic is part fish market and part grocery store, housing a variety of seafood based food stalls and restaurants. As soon as Addiction Aquatic popped up in our research, it went straight to the top of the list. It was a must-visit for seafood lovers like us.

We saved Addiction Aquatic for our last day in Taiwan, making the trek to the massive fish warehouse with suitcases and backpacks in tow. It did not disappoint.

We spent a long time slowly perusing the fish market, staring wide-eyed at incredible varieties of shell fish and unimaginably large crabs. SO MUCH CRAB! Crab paradise. I was one happy Chelsea.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 1
Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 3

After checking out all of the food and restaurant options, we found ourselves returning over and to the grocery area, looking at glistening trays of brightly colored sashimi and boiled crab ready to be cracked into. We grabbed one of each, a beer, and a large stack of napkins and settled down with our luggage at a table outside. It was far from fancy, but high-quality enough to have been served in the world’s best restaurants.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 4

2. Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung is a world famous Dim Sum restaurant originating from Taipei. The restaurant now has branches all over the world, some of which have been awarded Michelin stars for their food. This was one experience we knew we needed to fit into our itinerary. Our hosts, Dave and Wendy, joined us for our meal at Din Tai Fung, which was really good for two reasons. One, Dave and Wendy are wonderful people and we love their company; and two, Dim Sum is a world in itself that Jacob and I would have been totally lost in.

There are a couple locations for Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and we wound up at the branch at the base of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan. Even though the restaurant is massive, with space to accommodate thousands of diners, there was, of course, a wait to get in. We put our names on the list and grabbed a menu so we could strategize our meal.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101

Dim Sum is traditionally considered a brunch meal, though places like Din Tai Fung have made it an all day affair. Food is served in smaller portions and meant to be shared family-style. Whereas many other cuisines (ie: Thai food) focuses on balancing all of the taste elements (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, etc.) in a single plate, Dim sum focuses on balancing the table. One dish may be spicy, another is sour, another is sweet, another is cold, etc. Together, you create a balanced palate – one reason why a proper Dim sum requires a lot of different dishes.  

We feasted. We had seaweed salad, marinated wood ear mushrooms, cold rice noodles with soy beans, spicy cucumbers and more – and that was just the salads. Our cups were filled with round after round of green tea while steamer baskets full of beautiful fresh steamed gyoza, shaomai, and bao began to arrive.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101 1

Din Tai Fung is particularly famous for their Xiao Long Bao, or “soup dumplings”. These special little dumplings of joy are filled with meat and a richly flavored broth, and require a special process to eat them. First, you pick up the Bao and support its heavy soup-filled bottom with a spoon. Then you bite a little hole into the Bao and slurp out the broth. Once you have slurped the broth, you can pop the whole thing in your mouth (and close your eyes and melt inside because it tastes so good).

We had quite a few of Xiao Long Bao, but the one that Jacob still talks about was the truffle bao. Yep, you heard me right. Bits of truffle and minced pork in a buttery, truffley soup broth…only five came in the steamer basket, so one lucky person got to have two of them. I still remind Jacob of how gracious I am that I let him have it. ;)

1. Shrimp Fishing

Top on my list of Taiwanese food experiences is one that actually involved so little food, we went out to dinner afterwards.

Shrimp fishing is a popular pastime in Taiwan, though you would have to ask the young, hip Taiwanese crowd to find out if it is actually considered “cool”. Regardless of cool-factor, Jacob and I were very keen to give shrimp fishing a try. Thankfully Dave and Wendy had some friends who had shrimp-fished before, so we called them up and headed over to the local shrimp-fishing spot in the early evening.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan

Shrimp fishing takes place in large warehouses filled with pools of varying types of shrimp, crawfish, and lobster. It’s not a fancy affair – it’s a fluorescent-lit, slightly smelly warehouse of fish. Patrons rent or bring their own special shrimp fishing poles and tackle, pull up a plastic chair to the pool of their choice, and settle down for some leisurely hours of fishing.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 1

We bought a two-hour pass, which basically meant we were entitled to eat as much as we could catch in that period of time. Armed with bamboo poles, nets, and slabs of raw liver for bait, we selected our pool and settled down. Shrimp fishing, as it turned out, takes some skill and technique. You wait patiently until your pole’s bob, floating on the top of the water, starts to be pulled down. Once it has been pulled far enough into the water, you flick your pole up, pray the shrimp is still hanging on, and bring the shrimp in to your net as quickly and smoothly as possible. This happened to me exactly once. I got so excited to have caught one that the line swung back over the pool and the shrimp dropped back off into the depths.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2

I have to say, as a group we weren’t the most successful shrimp fishers. Seasoned old men, who were so confident in their skills that they knew sitting at the more expensive pools was worthwhile, pulled in lobster after lobster with ease. There was a reason we had stuck with the run-of-the-mill shrimp pool. In the end, between the 6 of us, we had caught 9 shrimp.

Off to one side of the warehouse was the cooking area. With the help of our friend who knew what he was doing, we skewered our shrimp on metal kebabs, covered them in rock salt, and placed them in a large electric toaster oven until cooked. Plastic trays, napkins, and our prized shrimp in hand, we sat down at a plastic table and feasted on our 9 shrimp.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 3
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 4

It was delicious – I had never known that shrimp could taste so sweet. Cooking them so simply only heightened the freshness of the meat. I could see myself taking to shrimp fishing in Taiwan, joining the old men on a regular basis to fish while reading a book or chatting with friends. Perhaps one day, I’d even graduate up to the lobster pool.

...Then we went out for Teppanyaki, because 9 shrimp isn't much to feed 6 people. 

Adventures in Taiwan: "Why Taiwan?"

For the past several months, every time Jacob and I told someone that we were going on vacation to Taiwan, the first question out of their mouths was, “why Taiwan?”.

It’s an unusual question, if you think about it. How often do you ask why someone is going on vacation to an exotic foreign country? It is the sort of question you typically ask only if you are not sure what the draw to that country is. Our friends and acquaintances were not alone in asking this. All of our research indicated that Taiwan is the undiscovered gem of Asia – a gorgeous, inexpensive, accessible, and friendly country, that, within Asia, is acknowledged as the food destination.  

Our immediate answer to the question was: “We have friends in Taipei. Also, the food.” And while this was 100% true (in fact, our times with our friends and making new friends proved to be the highlight of our stay), Taiwan has a lot to offer beyond that.

Here’s what you need to know about Taiwan. Taipei, the capital city of this small island nation, sits in the north of the island. The climate is tropical, so even in the middle of winter the weather remains pleasant (especially for the likes of Jacob and I, leaving the snow to arrive to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Taiwan is the subject of a long history of dispute between the Chinese and the Japanese, while also absorbing strong cultural influences from the Dutch, the Spanish (as a result of maritime trading hubs throughout the island), and in more recent history, the United States. The result is a true “melting pot” of culture. The cuisine is one of the places where this “melting pot” is most visible, and a big reason why the food is so remarkable.

It also means that, for travelers like Jacob and I, who have very little experience in the Eastern Hemisphere, Taiwan provides less of a culture shock than other countries might. In fact, that was one of the first observations Jacob and I made when we landed in Taipei.

As tired as we were from 22+ hours of traveling, we knew exactly where we needed to go in the airport and what we needed to do. We bought a two-week SIM card with unlimited data for $15 USD before we even collected our baggage. Making the purchase at the kiosk was straightforward and uncomplicated. Purchasing our bus tickets to the city was equally simple, and the area to queue for the bus was well-marked. Before long, we had met with our friends and were taking the subway home, without once feeling like we had fallen out of our depth.

The next day the cultural differences started to become more apparent (or perhaps we were simply more observant), but Taiwan always struck a delightful balance of being totally new and “other”; stretching us past our previous experiences without ever becoming too much to handle.

We stayed with our friends (Dave and Wendy Hudson, long-time family friends and all-around wonderful people) in their home in the district of Tamsui.

Tamsui sits along the north coast of Taiwan, and the mouth of a river that runs south through the city. While Tamsui is somewhat outside of the city center (“city center” is not really a fair description though – Taipei is a bit like New York city, split into districts that each have their own hubs of actions), it provided a vibrant and action-packed home-base for our stay.  

Our first morning we ventured out into our neighborhood just to begin absorbing the sights and sounds. The streets are relatively narrow, flanked by four or five-story apartment buildings, with store fronts lining the streets. Scooters zip by haphazardly, making crossing the street a chaotic dance that requires a lot of feigned confidence but somehow always worked out. The smell of food is everywhere, wafting out of restaurants (that make up just about every third storefront) and food stalls that pop up like mushrooms on most streets.   

Wendy guided us to the start of the covered wet market (selling produce, fish, and meat, etc.) and set us loose to roam. The sensory immersion was incredible. We pushed through narrow aisles, avoiding people on scooters, ducking around shoppers and displays of fresh vegetables, trays of fish, hanging meat, stacks of prepared food, and fielding the constant call and chatter of the vendors hawking their goods.

We turned round a corner from the market and found ourselves in an unexpected pocket of quiet. We had entered a temple courtyard sitting in deep shadow, and the noise level dropped from near-chaos to near-silence. The suddenness of the change was staggering. We took a moment to breath in the silence, smell the burning incense, and plunged back into the market.

At the end of the covered market we popped out into a busy shopping street and smelled something really good. The smell of freshly baked sweet bread floated our way, and we saw a line of 7-8 people queued in front of a stall that was just pulling a massive tray of super fluffy cake or bread out of the oven. Naturally, we were curious and got in line. As we debated what it was and whether we should be purchasing it, the young woman in front of us turned around and gave us a thumbs up, and said “very good”. We smiled and thanked her, and every-so-often she would turn around again and repeat, “very, very good”.

She was right. We purchased a slab for ourselves (they only sold it in one size: huge), and sat down on the steps of 7-Eleven (which are everywhere in Taipei) to eat it. It was something between a cake and an egg bread, ridiculously fluffy, lightly sweet, custardy, and layered with melted cheese for a slightly salty bite. We ate about 1/8th of it between us, thinking that our first food purchase was boding well for the rest of our time in Taiwan.

Later on, Wendy found an article on the cake we had purchased (called Original Cake), which had apparently originated in the Tamsui district and had become a sensation. The article talks about how the company had just opened a new store in Malaysia, where people were queuing for hours at a time just to get a piece.

In the afternoon Jacob and I walked along the bustling waterfront with Bubble Tea in hand (Taiwan is the birth place of Bubble Tea! Did you know?), and met a very smiley old man walking a dog that had been styled to look like a goat. Because…why not?

And there my friends, I will pause this story with a “To be continued”. But please don’t worry - there is a lot more to come: more photos, more stories, and definitely more food.

Three Days in India: Pt. 2

Continuing from Three Days in India: Pt. 1... 

 

Day Two

The taxi arrived at 3:45 am to take us to the airport for our city transfer flight. By 4 am we were speeding down the road on the dark, mostly deserted streets when suddenly three large moving shapes loomed ahead. Camels! I stared open mouthed as we passed three boys riding three enormous camels along the side of the road and the opening words of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody floated through my head. “Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy…”

On the way to the airport I was informed that I would need to show my itinerary as proof of my flight before I would be allowed to enter the airport. Not having the itinerary printed or available Internet, I had no way of accessing the information. Ahead of me, my colleague showed the itinerary on his phone and was waved through. My turn. I explained that I couldn't show it, but did have an email with a taxi itinerary that mentioned Hyderabad.

"Sorry", the guard said, "you can't enter. You have to go print your itinerary." 

"Where?", I asked.

The guard pointed in the general direction of "outside the airport". 

No way was I going to leave the airport to track down an internet signal and printer at 4 AM in a city in India I knew nothing about. I argued with the guard and when my colleague joined in the fuss the guard apparently decided we weren't worth the trouble and let me in. After passing through security and receiving my boarding pass (funny, it's really easy to prove you have a flight once they let you IN the airport...), we went to the gates to wait.

Our flight status was posted as "Check in", so we kept an eye on the screens for update. 15 minutes into our wait the intercom came on: "Will Wolfgang Platz and Chelsea White please report for last call boarding immediately." What in the world? They never even posted a gate! We walked the 3 meters to the gate mentioned and they sent us down a flight of stairs - directly onto the Tarmac.

It was like a scene from Casablanca. Small groups of people streamed to various planes in the foggy morning air. I half expected to witness a tearful goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. We were directed to a small plane on the edge of the Tarmac, ducked under the propellers, and climbed in to an already full and boarded plane.

Once again the question arose: when did they announce the gate? How did all these people get here?!

Our short flight landed us yet another world away. This time the air was pleasantly cool, the airport modern and clean compared to Pune. The landscape was filled with jasmine trees, plumerias, and oleander. The roads were well kept and traffic showed a tendency to slightly more order.

Thankfully, our agenda for that day was simple: arrive in Hyderabad and check into our hotel, once again located on a campus of the tech company hosting us. 

We arrived to the guard house at the campus entrance knowing exactly what to expect. We stepped out of the taxi with our laptops already in hand, ready for the 6 security guards standing behind the desk to assess our threat level. Badges were issued within 10 minutes and we were waved through. The Hyderabad campus didn't seem to take security as seriously as Pune…I don’t think anyone even checked the taxi undercarriage.

The campus at Pune had been impressive, but it was already clear from our drive that Hyderabad was a wealthier city overall. The grounds were gorgeous; lushly landscaped with meandering paths cutting through glades of palms, fountains, and flowering trees to shiny glass building complexes. 

The air smelled like jasmine and plumeria, and there - just a glorious 20 meters ahead - was a hotel where I could face-plant onto a large, soft bed and go back to sleep. After two room changes and a small negotiation of “Excuse me, this room doesn’t have internet, how do you expect me to work?” with the hotel clerk, I did just that, my hard-won Wifi password clutched in my hand.

I woke up ravenous three hours later at 11 AM and feeling like I was wasting my short time in India. All I had eaten so far was a spicy chicken and cabbage wrap thing purchased from an airport kiosk 7 hours earlier. Thankfully I had been given multiple bags of a regional sweet-spicy pastry to take back to the office in Vienna - that would make for as good a meal as any. Munching happily away, I soon noticed the slogan written on the bag. 

Mmm…nothing like the taste of cannibalism. 

Around noon my colleague and I met up to go on a shopping excursion. We got the name of the nearest mall and waved down a Tuktuk on the busy street outside campus. For the uninitiated (as I was), Tuktuks are an extremely common form of transportation in India (and many parts of Asia).

A hybrid between a taxi and a man-powered rickshaw, they are a cheap and effective way to navigate cities quickly. The back seat of a Tuktuk is designed for two people, though I don't think I saw anyone besides ourselves with less than 4 people crammed into the back. On a later excursion to pick up food for dinner that evening, an Indian colleague explained to me how, as a child, he and his friends would fit 20 children into the back of one Tuktuk. It sounded like it was a feat in human Tetris. 

Our ride to the mall was thrilling. The Tuktuks ride low to the ground, sans-seat belts and the sides of the car open to the air. Cars and busses make up maybe 40% of the general traffic, with the other 60% of Tuktuks and motorbikes cramming themselves into the crevices between the cars, one wheel up on the sidewalk just to get an edge on their neighbor at the next green light. It felt a bit like real-world Mario Kart, though the drivers were so skilled and confident you never had the chance to feel nervous. 

The mall was a shiny testament to globalization surrounded by tell-tale signs of a growing economy. We passed through security entering the mall (as was becoming standard procedure), while I was pulled aside by a female guard to be patted down in a curtained cubicle. My threat level assessed, I was free to start shopping. 

First thing first was food. My “taste of people” wasn’t holding me over too well. Frankly the thing I found most challenging about my short time in India was the need for hyper-awareness about food and drink. I am privileged enough to hardly ever think twice about whether something is safe for me to eat or drink, and often found myself having to slap my hand away from fresh fruit, vegetables, or tap water being offered. Having double and triple checked that my lunch order did not contain anything fresh (I was getting excited to eat a salad when I got home), we ate a nice lunch in the food court, fielding the stares of every other person at the mall. We were the only non-Indian people there. Being a minority - also something I have not experienced frequently in my privileged life.

The majority of shops employed their own security guards, who would manually check your bags upon entrance. One of the stores even had a mandatory bag-check to ensure shoppers couldn't squirrel anything away into the bags they were already carrying. I was surprised to stumble across an entire UCLA Bruins merchandise corner of a department store - apparently they are big fans of the Bruins in Hyderabad. 

After a couple hours of shopping we had a coffee from Dunkin Donuts on an abandoned outdoor terrace overlooking posh apartments on the waterfront and tarp-covered hovels at the base of a half constructed building

Back at campus I took the opportunity to explore. It was amazing how much more it felt like a university than a workplace. We passed a glorious looking pool and fitness center, an outdoor amphitheater where a staff talent show was taking place, and an outdoor yoga class. Re-entering the hotel lobby, I came upon a young man leading a group of women in aerobic exercises.

I settled back in my room, got some work done, and re-emerged to meet Vaibhav, an Indian colleague, to pick up food for dinner. As tired as we were, we had turned down any sightseeing options earlier in the day, but now I was getting antsy to see something other than a mall. Vaibhav was a gracious and knowledgable tour guide, answering all my dumb questions (Why is everything here in English? British colonization, duh.), and sharing stories from his life. 

My Austrian colleague, in true Austrian form, had requested we bring some beer back with dinner. Beer wasn’t technically allowed on campus, but my purse was large enough to smuggle it in, and, to be honest, I really wanted a beer too. We stopped at a liquor shop first, then had the Tuktuk follow us as we walked up the side of the road so I could see everything going on. 

I tried to take lots of pictures but was self conscious about taking the time to stop and set up a shot. We passed a flower stand and I bought a strand of gorgeously fragrant jasmine to wear in my hair. It cost me all of 20 cents. 

Dinner was to be ordered from a well known Biryani shop, the famous dish of the area. We passed through security entering the store, placed our order, and waited 15 minutes before being presented with more food than the three of us could possibly eat. 

Back at the hotel we crowded into the bathroom to transfer our beer into the plastic water bottles (“If anyone asks, it’s juice”), just like rebellious teenagers. We found a table outside and ate a messy but delicious dinner with our hands while my legs got steadily consumed by mosquitos. Only half way through dinner did I realize that it was Thanksgiving. I counted 29 bites on my legs that night. 

 

Day Three

The next day we were packed and out of the hotel for a day-long conference and a flight home in the evening. The conference took place at a large hotel across the city, the drive for which provided a lot of good photo opportunities.

The conference went very successfully without drama. 

A group of men from a local TV crew asked to take selfies with me (uhh…sure?), and I found an outlet Macgyvered with unlit matches and wire. It seemed to be working just fine. For the moment.

That afternoon we unexpectedly ran into a woman we had met at the conference in Pune two days earlier. She happened to be at the hotel to celebrate the wedding of a friend. In the evening, as we prepared to leave, I heard drumming of a wedding procession begin in the street outside. I ran out into the courtyard and climbed up onto a wall to watch as much as I could. My view was limited but the music was loud and vibrant. What I would have given to see the full thing!

Soon after, we were packed back into the taxi and whisked off to the airport. This time I had my itinerary ready to ensure I could enter the airport. Two flights, some failed attempts at getting upgraded to first class, and a great conversation with a Welsh man in Abu Dhabi later, we arrived home to Vienna at 6:00 AM. The first thing I did was buy a salad and fall straight into bed. 

Three Days in India: Pt. 1

At the end of October, as a large yearly work conference was wrapping up, the CEO of the company I work for came up to me and announced that he would like me to accompany the Founder of the company on a business trip to India. Would I be interested in going? 

I was dumbfounded - of course I was interested in going! But why me? What did they expect a "Marketing Specialist" like me to accomplish? As it turned out, my main responsibility was to do one of the things I like best: observe. I was to join the Founder of our company in attending two software conferences with the goal of getting a "feel for the market". Observe, interview people, attend presentations, take notes, and see if I could figure out a better strategy for reaching the market that exists in India. 

Challenge accepted. 

*I have very few good pictures from the trip as the majority of my time was spent in a hotel or in the car. Hopefully whatever pictures I have will help to round out the story. 

Getting From Point A to Point B

The flight to India was uneventful in all the best ways. I watched the sun set over Iran during 3 pm my time, a fiery sunset unlike any of the soft palates featured in Vienna. We landed in Abu Dhabi after dark, and but for some clues I could have just as easily been in Arizona as the UAE. A long bus ride took us to the main terminal, passing an overhang covering luxury cabs - a Rolls Royce pulling out of the drive ahead of us. Within the terminal we passed through a mall's worth of luxury shopping.

The UAE is a famously wealthy country with a penchant for luxury brands. I was struck by the disparity between those shopping, covered and uncovered Arab women and men (in the white robes and checkered head cloths I had only ever seen in movies), as they were surrounded by the silicon advertising of airbrushed models, all invariably Caucasian. Does it ever strike them as odd? Do they ever wish they would see a Chanel or Burburry ad featuring someone who looked like them? 

Our flight to India was delayed, meaning our slim chances of sleep were further shortened. Once we had disembarked the plane in India at 4 am, I was naive to think we were on the home stretch and sleep was in sight. A taxi would be picking us up from the hotel at 7:30, so if I was lucky I might get 2 hours of sleep.

But first we had to get through customs. 

The "foreigner" line was short, but operating so slowly that 50 people had cleared customs to our right before we even arrived to the desk. We were admitted through customs, then asked to show our customs declaration pink slip to a guard by the stairs. He looked at it and waved us on. Down the stairs we found another queue being aggressively guarded by a paunchy uniformed military man, with a red stripe finger-painted onto his forehead. He didn't speak any English so he augmented his communication skills with an extra dash of enthusiasm. Before we could move on to the luggage pick up, it would seem, we first had to have our hand luggage re-screened and our tired bodies metal detected. The metal detector was held together in parts with packing tape.

Once our luggage was retrieved we passed through another checkpoint, this time, a re-screening of our checked baggage - our final barrier to India. A taxi driver was waiting for us, and led us out into the warm humid early morning amidst an ongoing symphony of car horns. In Indian traffic it would seem, car horns are constantly in use. The honking doesn't seem to accomplish much besides providing the drivers a constant source of cathartic self expression. That being said, I didn't see any car crashes - a feat unto itself. I liked to imagine that the honking was actually just their way of saying hello to each other. 

Even in the dark 5 am morning there were many people out on the streets. The drive revealed a non-tourist-board-approved India: fading and threadbare infrastructure, decades of signs and placards ripped and plastered over, heaps of dirt, rock, and rubbish. Stray dogs and people roamed freely, even in the street. Sidewalks were few and far between. Glimpses of temples and monuments integrated into strip malls flashed by, including one infinite second into a low fluorescent lit room, where a man with a tambourine chanted loudly over a floor covered by the praying bodies of men in white.

Our entry to the technological sector of Pune was met by an unbelievably large neon sign stating "Persistence",  illuminating the atmosphere with red light pollution glow. I learned that Persistence is the name of one of the local companies when a handful of their delegates arrived to the business conference the next day. That knowledge did little to make the sight of the monumental glow on the horizon less surreal. 

It was nearing 5:30 am and we finally had arrived to the campus of the company that was hosting us. A massive and powerful enterprise, the company has Google-esque campuses all over India, equipped with guest houses where we would be staying. We drove to the gate where we were stopped by a security guard and made to get out of the car so he could look at our laptops. 

He shook his head at us as his colleague held a mirror on a stick underneath the taxi carriage to check for explosives. "You need a pass". Frustrated but too tired to argue, we drove back down to another gate and entered the office, where a woman who was quite happy to take her time checked our trip details, confirmed our contact at the company, reviewed our passports, wrote down the serial numbers of our computers, and finally issued us a guest pass with our computer serial number printed on it. While this took place another guard held a mirror under our taxi.

Passes in hand, we drove back up to the first gate where the same guard as before re-checked our computers. We were waved onto the grounds while I asked my colleague why the company was so concerned about our computer serial numbers. It remains a mystery. Once at the guest house we passed through another security checkpoint. Our luggage was scanned as a guard reviewed the serial number on our laptops, compared the number to the one on our guest passes, and wrote the number down in a thick black ledger. It was past 6 am and we were finally free to check in.

Day One

I got ten minutes of sleep before I had to get up to prepare for the conference. My first impression of the Pune streets did not change now that the sun was up. Even more people thronged the streets, crossed haphazardly, or casually checked their cellphone while leaning against highway middle barriers.

Cows had been added to the mix now, standing just as casually as the people on the side of the road, munching on trash, far from any sign of grass. One white cow stood motionless in the middle of the road itself as traffic diverted around it. No one seemed to care.

We passed slums that looked like beaver dams made of rubble, and searched for the most daring biker (a barefoot family of 5 on a motorbike won that day).

We drove through the gate to the hotel hosting the conference and entered another world.

This world had two story waterfalls, lush palms, uniformed waiters and crystal chandeliers. This world felt odd being so close to the one just outside. We left that world at 5:30 pm and by 6:30 I was back in my room, finally able to sleep for the first time in almost 40 hours.

To be continued...

Lost in Bratislava

This past weekend Jacob and I realized that we hadn't left Vienna or the immediate surrounding area in 5 months. We have had the itch for a weekend trip for several months now, though every time we tossed the idea around, the actual followthrough fell like a deflating balloon. 

We really have very little excuse though - leaving Vienna is not difficult. One subway stop away from our home is a train station that can take you nearly anywhere you want to go in Europe; or at the least, an airport that will get you the rest of the way. Determined to escape the city for a day, we decided to spend Saturday in Bratislava - one of the most obvious day trips from Vienna. The city lies right inside the border of Slovakia, and is conveniently accessible by an inexpensive hour train ride. 

Jacob had done his research of course. He had a list of sights to see, micro breweries that offered craft beer, and a general idea of how to get from the train station into the city center. We crossed the border into Slovakia around 10:00 am, and immediately felt the difference of being in a new country. 

So many countries have rather homogenous borders - particularly in the European Union where no one will be coming by to check a passport. As a result, the borders tend to blend into each other, with citizens of one nation casually driving into the other for grocery shopping or dinner out. Though this is true of Austria and Slovakia as well, the difference between the two countries was immediately pronounced, at least along the train tracks (which perhaps should not be a surprise). Vienna has long been known as the city that connects Eastern and Western Europe, and visually at the least, the change is immediately apparent. 

The historical city center is filled with lovely buildings, surrounded by old and graying suburbs. The moment you cross the Danube however, you are in a land of identical, albeit colorful, concrete apartment blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see.

We missed the city center during our bus ride from the train station. We passed it without so much as noticing a downtown area, crossed the bridge over the Danube, and found ourselves craning our necks ahead, trying to see around the cinderblock sea ahead of us.

Bratislava1

Several minutes later, and no end to the apartment blocks in sight, we reconsulted our map and realized we had needed to disembark the bus before we crossed the river. We caught the next bus in the opposite direction and got off at the stop that looked like the most logical route. 

In our experience of traveling together, Jacob and I have realized some valuable things about how we operate as a team. Simply stated, without Jacob, I would have no idea where I was going. Without me however, Jacob would know where he was going, but never get there. He finds the maps, and I interpret them. The map we had for Bratislava, thoughtfully provided by the local tourism office, was just about the worst map I have ever used. Every time we followed the map we wound up somewhere that we had not intended to go, then had to compensate with Google Maps on our phones. 

Fortunately Bratislava's city center is charming, small, and....closed? Though it was a Saturday, 75% of the shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions were shuttered for the day. The city was surreally quiet. As far as we could tell it was not a holiday (the grocery stores were open), however very few people were on the streets with us - for the most part, we were alone. Coming from a city that is continually bustling with tourists, walking into Bratislava's main square, only to find it completely empty, was odd. 

Bratislava2
Bratislava3

We spent our day touring the churches and back streets, and climbing the hill to the old castle overlooking the city and Danube. In the afternoon we set out to find the breweries that Jacob had researched. We found the first one with some difficulty - but in the end, the beer was delicious. And cheap. Bratislava is known for being inexpensive (it is on the Euro), though I wasn't expecting to be able to pay for two beers with a small stack of change - the price of one beer here in Austria. (Which, is still cheap compared to San Diego. Forget paying $8.00 for a small beer in America- it's more like $4.00 for a pint in Vienna, $2.00 for a pint in Slovakia.)

Bratislava4

Leaving the brewery, we found our bearings to head over to the next spot. From the map, it looked like the second brewery was located on a small side street on the far side of the hill with the castle on it. At that point we had been walking quite a bit, so Jacob suggested we take the next tram over the small pedestrian bridge and see where it took us. I agreed, and we hopped on to the next tram. It crossed the bridge - so far, so good. Then the tram bore to the left and took us through a long tunnel through the hill. Once we exited the tunnel, we figured, we would get off the tram and be in a good spot for a short walk to the brewery. 

Jacob and I have a history of taking the most difficult route to destinations however, so I don't know why we had so much optimism. The tram exited the tunnel, bore left, and deposited us along the river at the foot of the hill: far from where we wanted to go. Feeling that our tourism map had failed us once again, we switched over to Google maps on our phones and saw that all of the roads surrounding us ran parallel with each other around the hill, when we wanted to go up the hill. We were stuck. Spotting a set of broken stairs across the road, Jacob and I set off to see if we could access another road at the top of the stairs. Rather than a road, we came across another flight of stairs: this time a 500-some step concrete staircase running at a 40 degree angle up the mountain. This, apparently, was our most direct route.

Bratislava5

We climbed the steps, shedding our scarves and gloves by the time we got to the top. Now we were level with the castle, and on the home stretch. We found the street the brewery was located on, and followed it around behind the castle. As the GPS indicated that we were nearing our destination, I noticed that things were looking familiar. Wasn't that the copper roof Jacob had pointed out just as we were getting on the tram? 

Wait...was that the pedestrian bridge?! 

Yes, my friends, it was. At the point we had stepped onto the tram, we had been a stone's throw away from the brewery. Remember how the tram bore left under the mountain? Well had it born right, we would have been right in front of the brewery. It was less than a two minute walk from where we had started. 

To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

On top of that, the brewery was closed. 

I'll admit that we were somewhat frustrated: our entire day in Bratislava had been marked by disorientation. The sheer ridiculousness of our route however - that is priceless. Ready to return home, we hopped onto the train back to Vienna feeling grateful to be returning to a place where we don't get lost.

That evening we had been invited to celebrate a friend's birthday at a local Viennese brewery. I looked up the directions, and we dragged our tired feet out into the rainy night to celebrate our friend. It turns out I had misread the directions. We were lost. 45 minutes of walking later, we crawled into the brewery, looking a bit like drowned rats. So much for not getting lost in Vienna. 

Travel: How To Travel Long Term (Without Going Broke)

Not too long ago I received a really exciting email. 

An old friend-of-a-friend from university days tracked me down and said she was planning a long trip with her husband - would I mind answering some travel questions?

Would I?!  Answering travel questions is practically one of my love languages (along with food, of course). My old friend received an email back from me that may have been a little too enthusiastic. Yes, give me all your questions! 

That interaction made me realize something however - I have been traveling for as long as I can remember. I was one year old for my first trans-Atlantic trip, a feat for which my mother deserves an award. As a result however, many of the questions that plague travelers have never even crossed my mind. The answers were trained into me along with being able to pee in a toilet. 

Suddenly I realized that my "love language" assumes quite a lot of prerequisite knowledge. So here is my question and rally cry to you, dear friends: 

What are your travel questions? 

When you are planning a trip, what keeps you lying awake at night? What keeps you in endless looping Google searches for information? I would love to know, and I would love to share a bit of my experience if it is helpful. I may not always have an answer for you, but I promise to have an opinion. (Hah - you can always count on me for an opinion!) 

So comment, message, tweet, and email (wywchelsea@gmail.com) your questions! I look forward to reading, sharing, and discussing them with you! 

In the meantime though - inspired by a question Jacob and I have received regarding our past travels and planning strategies: 

How To Travel Long Term
(Without Going Broke)

Margareten

The Big Move

Well friends, we are here. We are in Vienna!! I keep getting little shivers of excitement where, after two years of day dreaming of this city, I suddenly realize (yet again) that we are actually here. We are no longer dreaming. 

There was a point on our journey where I thought I might be having a stress dream where you keep being detoured and can never reach your destination... But I'll get to that part in a minute. 

Airport Lobby

We left San Diego at noon on Wednesday morning to drive up to Los Angeles for our 6 pm flight. So far, so good. We had spent a week meticulously packing and re-packing our luggage to make sure we were stretching our weight capacity as far as it could go. Challenge #1 would be getting our bags checked without incurring additional fees, or being told our carry-ons (which we had maxed out by any stretch of the imagination) were too heavy. Should that scenario arise, we had already agreed to put on extra clothes and go through security looking like the Michelin Man. 

I held my breath while checking the bags, and smiled innocently at the agent. Apparently the smiling worked -- not only were our bags checked without a hitch, but we were upgraded to exit row seats for our 12 hour flight. Thank God! Without the extra leg room I tend to go a little (a lot) stir crazy on long flights. 

Our flight, though long, was as pleasant as it possibly could have been. Turkish Airlines for the win! Theoretically all that was left was a quick lay over in Istanbul, and then a short flight to Vienna and we would be home. 

Plane wing

The Istanbul International Terminal was in chaos. We had arrived during a rain storm, but what we had missed (and of course only found out much later) was a violent thunderstorm that had grounded many planes and backlogged the entire airport. Gate assignments for flights were showing up only 20 minutes before the schedule take-off time, some of them popping up only to immediately have a neon "Last Call" sign flashing next to it. Our gate came up, only 15 minutes before take off, and we sprinted to find it. We came up short once at our gate -- the destination sign said "Munich". What? 

Apparently the flight for Munich had been delayed by 5 hours, so they were re-purposing the gate in the meantime. After asking around to other passengers we found were not the only ones waiting for Vienna. At least we had safety in numbers. The plane crew arrived and we all looked expectantly to them for information. They had none. They were as lost as we were, and our gate still said "Munich". By this time, the departures board was showing that at least 5 flights had been canceled, 14 were being delayed by over 9 hours, and the remaining majority were all delayed by 3 hours. Our flight was one of the few that didn't show a delay status.

Airport Delay

Every half hour for the next 3 hours were assured by the agents "it's only another 15 minutes." That was when I began to think that the entire past 20 hours might have been an endless looping stress dream that would never lead to Vienna. 

Thankfully, it did eventually lead to Vienna. The luggage arrived intact, we were met at the airport by friends, and safely in our beds 27 hours after leaving San Diego.  

Today has been dedicated to reacquainting ourselves with the city and walking through neighborhoods we had scouted online for apartments. Though there are a million and one things I could say, I'll leave you with this thought and a few pictures: 

In all my years of patronizing public bathrooms, I can honestly say I've never had a male bathroom attendant open the stall door for me. 

That's a first Vienna, that's a first. 

photo 1.JPG
RingStrasse
Jacob at Karlsplatz
Flower Shop


A New Adventure

Hi, and welcome to Where You Wander! 

NimesCanal

For those of you who followed our blog back when Jacob and I were traveling, this site is the snazzy revamped version for our new adventure. What is that new adventure you ask?

Jacob and I are moving to Vienna, Austria!

As of August 6th, Jacob and I will be leaving California to continue our life adventure as we move to Vienna, Austria. Throughout our 6 months of travel in Europe we had "scouted" for a place we may want to settle down (for however long). Though we stayed in Vienna for the shortest time of any place we visited, the city instantly made an impression on both of us - one we haven't been able to shake in the two years since. 

State Opera in Vienna, Austria
Belvedere Palace Gardens in Vienna, Austria

The idea of moving to Vienna has loitered obstinately in the back of our minds, a leap of faith that I am both thrilled and terrified to make. If our past travels taught me anything however, it's that the risks that make me want to hide under a rock are the ones that are most worth taking. (Unless, of course, that risk is bungee jumping.)

Karlsplatz in Vienna, Austria

In the meantime, Where You Wander is our new cyber-home - a mix of all the things I love, and love to share: travel, food, and good stories. Bookmark this page, and check back regularly (daily!) for news, blog posts, travel tips, featured stories, and recipes. 

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Also make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @wywander for daily Travel Tip tweets and photos from our day to day in Vienna. 

I am looking forward to sharing our experiences and stories with you, and hope you will join us for what promises to be an incredible journey! 

 

Announcement of a Project

Jacob and I have been back in the States for just over a month now.

Our homecoming was a sweet time. While we loved our time in Europe and would miss it dearly, we were so excited to come back to our friends and families who we hadn't seen in so long. For that alone, it has been wonderful to be back.

In the meanwhile, we are adjusting into our lives in San Diego, sorting through boxes of things that had been packed away and settling back into a working schedule.

One of the exciting parts of this new routine is the chance to work on a project I've had flickering around the edges of my mind for some while.

I've received so much overwhelming support and praise for this blog that I've decided to trying doing something about it: I am writing a book!

I've collected a great swath of recipes from our travels, not to mention countless stories and pictures (some of which you have read and seen here). I'm taking everyone on their word who has said "you should write a book!" and I'm going to try it.

Let me know if you are interested in the book, and what sorts of things you would like to see in it! I find it helpful to gauge what people are looking for.

Personally, I am surprised that anyone would be interested in having a book of my photographs and ramblings, but for now I'm chalking that up to the fact that I'm a harsh critic of my own work.

Along with the book I will be holding two Art Shows in the San Diego area where I will have prints of our best travel photography. You will also have a chance to look over and pre-order the book at the art show if you are interested.

Look for the dates for those art shows soon! (Most likely they will be held in late April or early May).

Friends, I will keep you posted as things progress - I am hoping this blog will not go silent just because Jacob and I are home now. :)