China was a country that challenged me as a traveler, there were food issues, language barriers and physical limitations because the country is huge. China is a seriously large country with lyrically pretty cityscapes and landscapes; from the wide multi-lane highways of impersonal Beijing to the sparkle of Shanghai, as is often the case, it’s the countryside that compelled me the most. Let’s take a photo-stroll through rural China, the China made up of weekly small-town markets and rural rice paddies rolling with flowing fields of rich yellow flowers and imposing karst rocks.
The pace of life in small rural towns slows down, it’s easier to look at the lines etched on the faces of each street vendor and fill in their life story…
Color me pleasantly surprised by my three days wandering the tidy and tall streets of Shanghai. I rarely love big cities—I’m much more of a small town girl at heart and busy sidewalks, gridlock traffic and the lack of greenery and earth starts to overwhelm me within a day or two.
Three days in Shanghai remapped my every definition of big city life and I loved the city within minutes of stepping outside of my hotel that first morning. Thanks to the generosity of my friends we spent our last days in China right on the edge of Shanghai’s trendy walking street, but with expansive views over the People’s Park (they splurged on the hotel and I got to tag along).
Tucked away into a small corner of a local coffee shop, I’m watching you and you don’t even realize it. The curiously strong coffee clutched in my fist makes me look just like you, but instead I’m listening, assessing, judging, and filing away my observations.
You’re telling a story, and I’m watching the way you fling your hands into the air to emphasize your point. Then the quietly demure nod of the server when your Western sentimentalities embarrass her; she takes your order and scuttles away, now ensconced behind the safety of the service counter.
I watch from park benches and coffee shops, sidewalk stoops and crowded markets.
Dense crowds make my heart seize (there’s just something unnerving about being so tightly packed that I’m breathing a stranger’s warm and moist exhaled breath) so instead I escape behind the crowds. I squeeze between the market tables and perch on small stool behind the market stalls. The vendors smile; they understand.
Then I watch and take note.
Behavior changes when you have no perception of being observed. That’s my favorite part. The vendors and tourists know they’re in a market surrounded by people, but they hide behind their language differences and perceived anonymity.
Locals assume the tourists won’t cotton on to the teasing if it’s done in Thai, and conversely, rapid exchanges in Swedish only go so far when I can obviously tell the couple is arguing over which person is about to take the role of “bad cop” in the pending price negotitations for a tacky souvenir (that they will regret. Trust me; it’s funny, but not a keeper).
The thing is, none of those overcome the body language. The cultural cues are written on our bodies and that’s what I’m watching.
In India, husband and wives rarely hold hands, but yet it’s a cultural norm for male friends to handhold and touch, and for women to hold hands with other women.
The French touch and gesture openly.
Young Japanese tourists are easily spotted by a face full of carefully applied makeup and a sense of style I’ve resigned myself to never actually possessing no matter how many copies of In Style I sift through.
And the Thai women like to giggle and gossip. They talk more crap about you while you’re getting your massage than you could possibly imagine.
You know how common knowledge says “you’re imaging things, people aren’t that interested in talking about you?”
Not quite true. Traveling and being intrigued by culture is a two way street – I’m here in Thailand learning about their culture, and they are staring right back at me, making assumptions and observations about Americans. The night markets in Chiang Mai are a breeding ground for gossip and trained ears pick up on the buzz of farang, farang, farang (Westerner, Westerner, Westerner) from the lips of locals as they gossip.
My people-watching props vary from city to city. Sometimes it’s an ice cream cone; other times a notebook and a shady tree. I’m unobtrusive and everyone is subject to scrutiny, tourists and locals alike, it’s fascinating to see not only a window into the local culture, but also how other people digest the culture.
I find myself wondering: Has anyone else noticed the women scootering around the city on impossibly high heels? Or the forgotten street dogs, mangy and sad with tattered, dingy sweaters indicating…? I’m not sure. Perhaps that someone does care. Or maybe it’s a single crazy old lady in town knitting sweaters, chasing down dogs and swathing them in clothes?!
I don’t people watch for answers, but instead for the endless streams of questions and perpetual food-for-thought.
Happy Holidays! In honor of the joy and happiness suffusing the holiday season I invite you to join me on a photo stroll through the markets and streets of Ubud, Bali, where the whole city smiled at me.
From the cheeky grin of mischievous children to an open, toothy smile from market vendors, an openness and joy is inherent.
Follow me on a tour of Bali’s Smiles
You step out of your room and into the family compound area of the guesthouse. You’ve had your tea and breakfast, brought right to your front patio and the cool fresh fruit was a perfect way to start your day.
As you weave through the compound you pass by a few members of the family weaving and readying their offerings. The oldest son speaks great English and you welcome the cheery and inquiries about your plans for the day. The little girl on his lap is less convinced of your harmlessness and shyly smiles from behind a mobile phone, on which she has been playing games.
You plan to explore one of Ubud’s larger markets and he gives you a pleasant smile of dismissal; you have no doubt he’ll follow up with you when you return for a full account.
Before one foot is even out of the elaborately carved wooden door guarding your compound two children dart by you giggling. With her perky pigtails perched on the top of her head you ready the camera and call out to them.
A cheesy grin breaks across the face of the youngest one – a grin so similar to the squishy grin your own young niece prefers that a pang of nostalgia for home breaks over you and then flows off just as quickly as the children scamper away down the side-street.
You leisurely follow in their wake in search of the nearby market and it’s mere minutes before you stumble into the densely packed maze of stalls.
The first woman you encounter gives an instantly open smile and offers up some fruit – you’re on the hunt for mangosteen and you eye her heaping pile. She’s not very pushy and instead asks the usual patter of conversation “where are you from? Are you married? Holy cow why not?”
You’re now toting a bag of mangosteen and dive deeper into the maze.
The colorful kites catch your eye. You stop to admire and the craftsman is more than happy to show off their features. If you had more space in your backpack you might be tempted, but a kite is not packable so you continue on.
You pass by tables full of knick knacks, wooden jewelry, and, oddly, a table full of moderately creepy wooden cats.
Your friend is on the hunt for a new purse and so the two of you look through the stalls until this woman’s frank friendliness and adorable children catch your eye.
You chat for ages with the vendor as your friend continues looking through the purses. Her son is quite the ham and his mother so clearly delights in her youngest.
The sun is high in the sky and the bright light penetrates the dense stalls and your hunger is now more insistent and you set your sites on the Dewa Warung as you leave the market.
You’re content and happy; it’s as if, through the process of proximity and osmosis, the simple inner joy of the locals is now your own.
Joy is universal no matter your religious denomination, so cheer and happiness to you, I hope you have joy this holiday season! :)
My 15 hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan has to offer but it’s plenty enough time to eat!
There were moments where the Asian culture shock was creeping up but the familiar pace of a city extinguished a lot of the potential angst. Instead of focusing on being lost throughout the day I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats.
Some were suspiciously meaty and avoided. But a busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a busy sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings.
The man pours what looks like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scoops in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.
The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats.
When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent if harried smiles as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste and a third with sweet creamy custard.
These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101 and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned.
To be truthful the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats with name’s I knew not then and know not now.
I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.
Sweet treats weren’t far either and with a small crowd around these fried milk balls I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter.
It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars, we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease!
For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.
My fifteen hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan was long…fifteen hours in a city is that in-between length of time. Perhaps not long enough to really justify renting a hotel room but an exhausting marathon of site-seeing without a resting spot.
And though my Taipei layover was way longer than I would normally choose, I had little choice in the matter so I embraced the craziness of filling that much time without a home-base and explored the city on the three recommendations from my Taiwanese friend Ben (met him in Belize actually!).
Three top spots for the widest range of experiences:
The National Palace Museum for some history and context
Taipei 101 for the view and national pride
Shilin Night Market for culture and fantastic street eats.
Once I got over the culture shock of Taipei my game plan shaped up nicely. Getting around Taipei is quite easy—the metro system is fantastic and each of these classic tourist destinations is easily accessible from the metro system –transportation and travel tips included in case you find yourself on a long layover in Taipei too!
The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world and sits perched on a green hillside above the nearby mid-level gray city-grid. The museum is vast and it is truly one of those “choose your own adventure” type museums…there was no way I could (or wanted to) wander through every room so instead I picked out those artifacts I most find intriguing.
For me, that’s intricate carved trinkets rather than pottery, and ornate ancient scripts written by the hand of people who have died hundreds of years ago. The museum has an entire room dedicated to delicately carved curio boxes (much like a women’s jewelry box of today). The drawers and doors on these were puzzles and this is where the emperors and royalty stored the valuable trinkets bestowed upon them through the centuries: ivory carved elephants, jade tigers, wooden figurines and precious stones.
This is the “hardest” of the three layover spots to visit and that’s only because you have to transfer from the metro to the bus. But the National Palace Museum is very touristy so once I was on that side of town there was a fair amount of English spoken.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei National Palace Museum Where: Take the red metro line to the Jiantan stop, walk directly out of the building and straight ahead to the curb. Find the bus signs for the Red 30 or 304 – take either of these two buses to the National Palace Museum stop (less than 10 minutes), it stops right out in front of the museum but sit near the bus driver and he’ll tell you when to exit. When: 8:30a to 6:30p and some Saturdays offer free extended evening hours. How Much: Adults: NT 160, Concession: NTD 80 More details: Official site for the National Palace Museum
Taipei 101: Taiwan’s Skyline Masterpiece
Nations around the world compete for the status of owning the tallest building in the world and Taiwan couldn’t stay out of the competition. Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s contribution to the tallest buildings in the world and I think it may be one of the prettiest.
The building is layered in pagoda-like tiers from top to bottom almost like a very Asian wedding cake – complete with a single candle-like point thrusting from the top and bringing the total height to a staggering 1,671 feet. The building dwarfs all of the nearby city buildings and when I exited the metro stop I craned my neck upwards and wove my way through the streets to the slim and elegant building.
Observation floors ring the very top of Taipei 101 and free audio guides describe every the surrounding city buildings, hills and tunnels sharing the evolving history of Taipei and its suburbs.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei 101 Where: Taipei 101 is on the blue line at the “Taipei City Hall” MRT stop. There are free shuttle buses from this metro stop, but it’s actually a short walk from the metro stop (10 minutes or less). When: Open from 10am to 10pm (last visitors allowed up at 9:15pm). How much: NT$400 (US $10+) – student discounts available More details: Official site for Taipei 101
Shilin Night Market
I love markets anywhere in the world and the Shinlin Night Market doesn’t disappoint. This nightly market takes over several city blocks with mazes of food stalls, clothes booths, kitschy plastic knickknacks and people.
An ice cold bubble tea is ideal for wandering the market while you scope out where to start on street foods – the selection of meat, tofu dishes, sweets and fruit are overwhelming and the mingling scents of street eats permeate the market.
The market gets into full swing around dusk so out of the three layover activities, the night market has the shortest time frame of operation.
Quick Travel Tips: Shinlin Night Market Where: The Shilin Night Market is on red metro line, get off at the Jiantan stop and the walk the market (just across the street from the Jiantan exit). The market runs all the way to the next stop on the red line, Shilin so you can take that stop back! When: Head there at dusk or later, once the sun has firmly set the market really begins to bustle. Tips: Go hungry because there is a truly huge selection of foods to sample and make sure your camera’s battery has lasted this long for fun market shots.
Layover’s Over, Get Back to the Airport for Your Flight !
Wherever you are in Taipei it’s now time to catch the metro line back to the Taipei Main Station – this is the same basic place where the airport bus dropped you off and the central point for the metro lines.
Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get lost finding the return bus terminal for international airport-bound buses, Taipei West Bus Station (bus ticket: roughly NT$150). The station is tricky to find – get a map from the information kiosk in the metro before you even head out for the day and keep in mind that it’s near the underground mall K12 and Z3 exits and MRT exit M5.
Then tell the driver your airline and he drops you off right precisely where you need to be to catch your flight to some other exotic location!
How do you spend a long-layover in a city? Sleep through it or sightsee?
This sweet little girl hid behind her mother for the full ten minutes that I was chatting away and purchasing my bright red shoulder bag at the market in Ubud, Bali. Her little brother hammed it up for the camera with barely recognizable peace signs and grins, but this little girl flatly refused all of the prompting from her mother to join the photo session.
The mom was delighted to see the photos of her son on my camera’s display and she actually vogued for me herself! No joke, she started displaying her purses and striking model-y poses for me as we chatted more.
I think it was the delighted laughter that did it for the little girl, that showed it was more than a photo but a chance to be in on the joke because we had spent ten minutes enjoying and being a little silly. Just as I was about to walk away and all of us were grinning because of our ridiculous poses (mom and baby and even me!) this little girl felt the opportunity passing her by and flashed me just the briefest opening—a shy grin through a cheek full of candy and the tenuous offering of a cautious peace sign.
I lifted my camera to ask her if she wanted her picture taken too, and the smallest of nods and the sustained pose told me she wanted, even if in a small way, to be a part of the moment.
And so she was—I love looking at her bright red dress and remembering how much fun I had that afternoon at the market.
The bright colors of Guatemala take their palette from a kindergarten classroom, or perhaps from the toucans and macaws that inhabit the country’s forests. The brilliant reds mix with saffrons made of liquid sunshine and blues right out of the darkest depths of the ocean.
I’ve milked just about story possible out of Guatemala except for the markets. I love markets all over the world and until Guatemala India held the top spot in my heart; now the two countries compete for the honor of most diverse and brilliant hued marketplaces.
Chichicastenango—Huge, Dense, & a Tad Overwhelming
Rosie didn’t do Chichicastenango justice when she sarcastically mentioned this now iconic Central American market in Bye Bye Birdie (any other musical nerds? anyone? Bueller?), but Chichi market place is certainly deserving of a both a song and half a day. Held every single Thursday and Sunday villagers from all over the Western Highlands in Guatemala bring their wares and textiles to flesh out the permanent stalls in this medium size town that swells in size on market days.
I actually have mixed feelings about Chichi, another traveler referred to it as the Walmart of Guatemala – a name both a funny and apt. The experience was neat but I would actually skip it if I were traveling on a tight time line…but that’s just me, other travelers fell in love!
Antigua’s Artisan’s Market—Great Deals, Friendly Bartering, & High Quality
As far as market’s go the Artisan’s market in Antigua was my favorite place to actually to pick up some trinkets and presents for the kids in my life back home. The vendors pay a pretty penny to locate themselves within the Artisan’s market which results in a higher end selection of goods in most cases.
Additionally, and it cannot be overrated, just outside of the Artisan’s Market is Antigua’s local market for fresh fruit and veggies. A mere 5Q (about 60 cents) yields a heaping cup full of fresh fruit and when I parted with another 5Q a nearby stall handed over a plate full of freshly grilled plantain –does lunch get much better than that?!
Although India’s markets are legendary because you can find the absolute most random items, Guatemala’s gentle Mayan vendors with their soft sell and fun fabrics leave me still smiling now as I look at my questionably tacky purse with clashing fabrics, mixed patterns, embroidery and nearly every other style of handiwork all on one lovely little bag – it’s my favorite souvenir yet
Friends in LA once I got there last month informed me that this purse is actually really tacky. It sends me straight back to Guatemalan every time I look at it though! What do you think? Tacky or gorgeous?!