Blog Retirement

I’ve decided to stop writing new posts for this blog. The whole idea behind the thing was to document parts of my trip for myself, my family and friends back home. And now that I’m back… well, I’ve run out of material (at least material I can share publicly). So time to move on. I’ll leave the blog up for sometime just in case others might like to enjoy these stories. You can sort by country via the links on the right. And if I start writing again I’ll let you all know.

Richard

More Simien Mountain Photos

One nice feature of the free wordpress blog platform is the stats page, where I can see things such as where the readers of this blog come from. and what those folks seem to be reading. Well, by far and away, my most popular post is the one I did on my trek through Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains (here). Unfortunately, I lost the majority of my photos from Ethiopia and the trek when my computer was stolen in Goa. However, I was recently cleaning out my e-mail account when I stumbled across a few that had been sent to me by other members on the trek, so I thought I’d share them:

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JD, myself and our guide looking out over a canyon on our first day.

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Tea, coffee and popcorn at camp after Day 1. For some reason in Ethiopia, it’s customary to serve popcorn with coffee and tea. The popcorn also tastes a bit different there as it’s made with sugar (just a little), so it’s sweet as opposed to salty and buttery…

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Dinner time in the cooking hut (Day 1 I think). Notice we’re all bundled up even near the fire… it definitely got cold.

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More spectacular scenery…

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Same day as above…

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One thing about Ethiopia was that no matter how remote you thought you were, there were always people living nearby, which meant there were always, always, kids everywhere. Here were some kids selling baskets by the side of the road.

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The young village boys were always out and about as shepherds for the animals. These boys would often sprint up and down the mountain to come say hello, ask for food/candy/money/water or to try an sell you something (usually a basket). They also would sing to each other from across the hills, which you would hear while walking from time to time.

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Me taking a picture of something… animals, flowers, shepherds? I honestly don’t know. At least it must have been something interesting judging by everybody’s focus.

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The morning of Day 4. Sure, it’s beautiful in this moment, but all of us (trekkers, guides and porters) spent the night in the cooking hut in the middle because it rained and hailed all night (soaking through our tents, as it had the previous night as well).

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Male Gelada Baboon… one of the best things about this trek is that you can get pretty close to troops of these animals.

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Nice shot of some of the mountains as well as our armed scout (a requirement while trekking here). He did have a rifle, but I could never get him to show us if there were actually any bullets in it.

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Goats among the flowers. Day 4 I believe…

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Stopping in a village coffee house for lunch Day 4. You’ll notice the flat metal try on the table, which is the way most Ethiopian meals are served. No utensils as everything come with a hard-to-describe spongy flat bread called injera, which is used to pick up everything else (generally meat, beans and vegetables).

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You can see a bit of trail on the right of the stream. From here the trail went down the canyon, forded a river at the bottom, then went back up the opposite side in the ravine you can see across the way. Obscured from this shot, Ethiopia’s tallest mountain, Ras Dashen, is (way) in the distance.

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More tea, coffee and popcorn at camp on Day 4. Despite the smiles, JD’s expression on the left sums up most of what we’re feeling because it’s pouring rain outside at the moment. We know that if it doesn’t let up we’ll be sleeping in the cooking hut for the third night in a row. The other problem is that the cooking hut is the building where we’re sitting in this picture (I’m sure you can see why we wouldn’t want to sleep there). Luckily, after dinner, the rain let up and didn’t come back all night (so we were able to sleep in our tents until morning). It’s pretty cold here, but I was saving my jeans for the evening as I knew it would be even colder then.

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Some of our crew, along with some ladies from the nearby village, the morning of Day 6.

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Kids selling hats and baskets on the trail (which you can see to the left). There was a constant refrain of “you want basket” most anytime we passed kids (baskets were 90% of what they were selling). The galoshes are actually a genius move considering the climate in the area. And you know it’s cold when even the little kids are bundled up.

More Mammoth Action

Hmmm… that title could really be misinterpreted ;-). As I mentioned in my last post, I got to spend some time up in Mammoth Lakes, CA. I’m fortunate that my parents own a condo there and graciously allowed me to use it for a bit this summer. Now, Mammoth is primarily a ski town. In fact, I used to come up here every winter with my family for exactly that before I went off to college. There’s also stuff to do in the summer, but only really if you’re into the whole outdoorsy-mountainy thing (fishing, horse-back riding, mountain biking, camping, hiking, etc.).

For those of you that have never heard of Mammoth , rest-assured, you’re in the majority. Despite being a really, really nice place to ski, due to a quirk of geography, during the winter the place is really only accessible by car to people from Southern California (Mammoth is located on the eastern side of Sierra Nevada mountains, so Northern Californians can‘t cross over the most direct routes, as they‘re closed in the winter, and the one available route goes through Lake Tahoe, so they just all stop at the ski resorts there. Southern Californians can just drive around the southern end of the Sierras and go up the eastern side from the get go, no snowed over mountain passes involved). So Southern Californians are all up in that piece (year-round), while no one else really knows about it, or if they do know about it, it’s still too hard to get to so they won’t go. And I’d even go so far to say that the majority of those Southern Californians are actually from San Diego (as opposed to LA/OC/Inland Empire).

The above fact alone makes Mammoth an interesting place just to people watch, its like a mini-San Diego in the mountains… the clothes people wear, the way people talk, the cars they drive, etc… the whole feel screams San Diego (for those of you that live, have lived, or have visited San Diego for any length of time, you know what I’m talking about). It was just fun to sit back an observe, because even though I’m from there, I don’t think I really share too many of those traits anymore (aside from ultra-laid-backness… other than that at least I don‘t think I do too many other stereotypical SD things… and you can correct me if you think otherwise).

Anyhow, my impeccable timing kicked in for the positive as one of the weekends I was there coincided with the Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza (which is exactly what it sounds like). Two old friends of mine (one of which I’ve know since elementary school) came out for the party. I wish it was solely because they just really wanted to see me after a long time out on the road, but I’m sure the free place to stay for the festival didn’t hurt. And the festival provided the perfect excuse to do what old friends do when they get together… get drunk. The general flow to the whole thing was that there’s a large area with stages where bands play (stay with me here) the blues, while craft breweries from all over set up tents and you walk around sampling their beers. Your entrance ticket includes a (small) cup and the beer is free (save for standing in line). Now, another little known fact, San Diego has one of the largest craft beer brewing scenes in the country, so most of the breweries slinging beer were from San Diego. That, plus 80% of the people there being from San Diego, exemplified the whole mini-San Diego in the mountains/forest feeling I was talking about earlier. Of course there were people from all over, but I kid you not that 80% of the people I spoke with were from SD.

Of course it turned out to be a great weekend (kinda hard to mess things up with that kind of combination). In addition to the festival, we even managed to get some hiking in the night before everything kicked into gear. We might even come back again next year as my friend’s band was invited to play… we shall see. Yes, that’s it… no crazy stories (that I can tell here anyhow), no broader point, just reporting on a good weekend out in the mountains. Oh, and some photos of course:

Hiking near Mammoth...

Hiking near Mammoth…

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Devil's Postpile National Monument...

Devil’s Postpile National Monument…

Scene of a forest fire in the 90's...

Scene of a forest fire in the 90’s…

Our destination...

Our destination…

Looks smaller from above (that's my friend Shaun standing next to the bottom of the falls)...

Looks smaller from above (that’s my friend Shaun standing next to the bottom of the falls)…

Yours truly swimming under the falls (very, very cold and very, very fun)...

Yours truly swimming under the falls (very, very cold and very, very fun)…

One trail starts near the ski resorts parking lot (you may have noticed the Mammoth)...

One trail starts near the ski resorts parking lot (you may have noticed the Mammoth)…

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General ambiance of the festival…

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Shaun starting in a Drunk Level 2: Feeling Good (DL1 being Just Chillin’).

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What fun is a festival without costumes…

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More costumery (and a good brewery)…

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Shaun, Ryan and I reaching DL 3: Feeling Great.

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Everyone at DL 4: Acting Foolish, later that night (yes, I had face paint on as well. no, I don’t have a picture of it. Where did we get face paint anyway?)

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Ryan reaching DL 5: Done For The night.

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One of the passes that gets closed in the winter (on my drive out of Mammoth to San Francisco), and why very few Northern Californians get out to Mammoth.

 

California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Whoa… no posts for quite a bit of time. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time floating around California… spending time with family and friends mostly. I have managed to get myself out and about a bit, although maybe not as much as I would have liked. One place I did manage to spend quite a bit of time in was Mammoth Lakes, CA; a small mountain/ski town in the Eastern Sierras. As it’s summer, there’s no skiing, but plenty of outdoor summer activities (fishing, mountain biking, hiking, etc.) if you like that sort of thing (I think you know that I do… well, at least hiking anyhow).

On the drive up from San Diego I saw a sign touting the “Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest” and thought it might be worth checking out. A week or so later, after some intrawebz investigating, I found myself driving back down from Mammoth for a solid afternoon of exploring. Now, the attraction here is that forest contains the oldest living tree on the planet (named Methuselah, the tree is an amazing 4,484 years old as of 2013… smartly, but also sadly, the actual tree is unmarked for fear of vandalism). That, plus, as you will see below, these trees look amazing. As you might expect, the forest itself is pretty remote (this whole region of California is pretty remote and sparsely populated) so it took sometime to wind my way up into the mountains get there, but it was well worth the effort. I’ll bore you with some of the details I found interesting before getting to the pictures. There’s two main groups/groves of trees, one you can get two via a paved road. The other is 12-miles away on a dirt and gravel road (it took me 45 minutes to go 12 miles one way). Both groves are up pretty high elevation-wise, but the one at the end of the dirt road is above 11,000 feet (3,350 meters for you metric thinkers). Each grove has some small hikes, but the lower one has a nice 5-mile loop that will also take you by an abandoned mine. I went to both areas and did the big loop as the sun was setting, which made for some really nice views (given the light) and ensured I had the place almost all to myself (only one other car in the parking lot when I left). It’s hard to explain how majestic the place felt…maybe the photos can convey some of it. All in all, a very good way to spend a day.

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Abandoned mine building…

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Abandoned mine shaft… note, that it looked entirely possible to worm oneself around that grate.

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These trees seem to grow right out of solid rock…

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Who’s national forest you in? I’m inyo national forest… sorry, could not resist.

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Back to the USA

Somewhere in Nepal, I decided that I needed to go back to the US. It’s hard to describe why, but something just clicked inside and I knew it was time to start on my next phase/adventure/whatever-you-want-to-call-it (plus, after spending so much quality time with Ben, I wanted to see my family and friends again). I wasn’t exactly going to be flying back the very next day, but I did begin to turn my thoughts toward moving in that direction.

When I set out on this little jaunt (I left my then home in San Francisco on May 1st of 2012 and drove to my hometown of San Diego) I had the following vague goals: 1) Stay out of the US for at least one year, and 2) I must see and experience Ibiza, Ethiopia and Nepal. Otherwise, I was just going to put up a sail and see where the wind sent me. After Nepal, I didn’t have any more “must dos”. It was like that point late in the evening of a great party… everything has been spectacular, you’re still having a good time, but you just know that it’s over. You’ll linger for a bit longer, but you know you’re going home soon. That’s exactly what happened; I just knew that this trip was over and it was time to go. Now, here I am… back in the US.

FAQ

I’ll spare you more some more boring introspection. For the curious out there, I’ll give you my answers to the 5 questions I’ve been asked the most about this trip since I got back:

1) What was your favorite place? Way too hard to answer as there are too many great places to pick just one. However, I will say that my favorite single experience was walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The magic of undertaking and completing such an epic journey, the metaphor of the camino for life itself (it’s the journey not the destination) and getting to share the whole experience with one particularly wonderful person (as well as the other characters you meet along the way) made the camino a very special experience for me.

2) Did you come back because you ran out of money? No, I came back because I wanted to come back (see above).

3) What was your favorite food? Indian… by far and away. The spices, the different regional styles, the breads, the yogurt, eating with your hands, free refills (sometimes), the tea, the coffee, the lassis, the prices (India was the cheapest place I traveled… yes, it’s cheaper than sub-Saharan Africa), the lime sodas… I liked Indian food so much that I sought it out in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong (all places which are known for great food).

4) Did you get sick? Yes, several times (all food poisoning). However, often it was my own fault, forgetting to wash my hands, or eating something I knew I shouldn’t (generally so as not offend people you’re with), or thinking I’m invincible (in general, I have a pretty iron stomach, but some places will put that thought to the test). Ironically, out of all the developing countries I visited, the place I got the sickest was Spain. Conveniently, in most countries one can buy antibiotics over the counter at any pharmacy (because the locals get sick sometimes as well, and the prices are a lot lower than in the US). However, in Spain, for antibiotics, I needed to get a prescription. So it took me much longer to get over it than it did anywhere else. Also, I generally tried to avoid antibiotics unless I knew it was going to be bad, so once or twice I had some low-grade lingering issues for weeks at a time. But I also didn’t necessarily take the greatest care of myself during these times either (late nights, partying, etc.).

5) Did you ever feel unsafe? Rarely. Now, it helps that I am a bigger than average male, but, honestly, the vast majority of places one would travel to are as safe as can be (you’ll often feel more comfortable walking around in many places in the world than you will in many places in the US… sad, but true). Here’s an interesting article, focus on numbers 6 and 7 for the purposes of this question as I found the answers to be spot on. Now, I did get robbed in Goa, but it was a room break-in where I was away from my room (an inside job I thought), and I did get sucker-punched in a bar in Addis Ababa (crazy dude who promptly got the shyte beat out of him by the bouncers before I even got up off the floor), but those are the only two “incidents” that happened. Occasionally, I would get the hair standing up on the back of my neck feeling, but that was mostly me putting myself in a dumb situation (taxi ride alone through a kidnapping prone region of the Sinai, having to walk a mile or so along a pitch dark beach in Goa at 4 AM, or walking around certain crappy parts of Cairo and Addis alone at night), things that could have honestly been avoided. But again, these feelings happened very, very rarely.

By The Numbers

Some tabulating for the future version of myself. Here’s a timeline breakdown of this adventure, which I’ll count as being book-ended by me being in San Diego:

New York: 5/10/12 – 5/16: 7 days
London: 5/17 – 5/20: 4 days
Spain/Portugal: 5/21 – 8/29: 102 days
Amman, Jordan (transit): 8/30: 1 day
Egypt: 8/31 – 9/16: 17 days
Ethiopia: 9/17 – 11/15: 60 days
Kenya: 11/16 – 11/20: 5 days
Tanzania: 11/21 – 12/10: 20 days
India (1st time round): 12/11/12 – 2/7/13: 58 days
Thailand: 2/8 – 3/2: 23 days (spent night in Colombo airport in transit to India).
India (2nd time around): 3/3 – 4/6: 35 days
Nepal: 4/7 – 6/4: 59 days (had dinner in Kuala Lumpur in transit to Taiwan).
Taiwan: 6/5 – 6-24: 20 days
Hong Kong: 6/25: 1 day
Tokyo (transit): 6/26: 1 day
New York: 6/26 – 7/13 (re-lived the 26th due to the international dateline): 18 days
Total Time Gone: 431 days

I also added up/estimated about how far (distance-wise) I ended up going (not counting intra-city transit or anything I forgot of course):

Flights: 39,481 miles.
Driving (myself): 1,563 miles.
Bus: 1,252 miles.
Car/Taxi: 2,510 miles.
Train: 3,281 miles.
Walking: 948 miles.
India Overland: 4,880 miles (don’t worry, no double counting with the above).
Total: 53,915 miles. For the record, the earth is 24,901 around. So adding up my total mileage means I could have circumnavigated the globe twice.

Even though I’m back, I still will have some more posts coming out, so don’t go away just yet. 

In Case of Emergency…

In this post I mentioned the set of emergency instructions I noticed on a Taiwanese train, which were as follows:

1) Press Button to sound the alarm and alert the authorities (actually, the first step of every set of emergency instructions anywhere in Taiwan is “Press Button”, which I found very funny).
2) If an object is blocking the train tracks, passengers should get out of the train and help clear the tracks.
3) Passengers outside of the train should take great care to not get hit by another train.

And I made some comments about how nothing like these instructions would ever, ever appear in America (primarily because the assumption of competence and responsibility in the adult train passengers is implicit in the instructions). In a semi-related note, I just came across this article:

http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/494007/20130724/japanese-commuters-unite-tilting-train-rescue-trapped.htm#.Ufq40NI3v4Q

The summary, in Tokyo a woman somehow fell onto the train tracks and became trapped under a train car. The station agent (someone, clearly, must have pressed the emergency button.. always step #1) held the train while the passengers collectively rocked the train car over to the side to make a space large enough to allow the woman to be rescued. The train then left the platform only having been delayed 8 minutes. Granted, this is Japan and not Taiwan, but they must have the same set of emergency instructions as shown above.

Now… could the above have happened in America? I’m actually confident that yes, it actually could have happened. However, I’m also cynically confident that post-incident, the lady that fell would sue somebody over platform gaps, slick surfaces, inadequate warning sings, improper safety procedures, psychological trauma resulting from the incident, etc. Also, it’s likely inevitable that one of the passengers who helped move the train would also sue somebody for causing, or re-aggravating, a back/wrist injury. The end result of which would be some kind of monetary settlement, a forced re-examination of the train safety regulations and emergency instructions, and the posting of the new “revised” emergency instructions exhorting everybody to do absolutely nothing in case of an emergency (except, of course, for waiting for the authorities to come to the rescue). Sad yes..? But you all know that’s what would happen. Feel free to insert your own mental commentary on the situation and what it all might mean.

Now, I had a 10-hour, overnight layover in Tokyo in June. I decided, rather than just sit in the airport all night, to take the train into town for dinner. I then caught the last train (circa midnight) back to the airport and slept on an airport bench for a bit before my morning flight (the train schedule was such that my original plan of staying out all night and taking the first train back was unfeasible because I couldn’t get to the airport in time for my flight). The one thing I noticed was drunk businessmen. They were everywhere, literally… and this was a Tuesday night (the only place I’ve ever seen something similar was London). On the train on the way back to the airport (filled with drunken businessmen), at one stop, the door opened to reveal this sign:

JapanApparently, other people have noticed this phenomenon as well… so much so that they need a warning sign in the train stations to exhort people to look out for drunken businessmen that might get hit by a train. Again, I’ll leave it up to you to make any possible connections about how the same society can simultaneously produce the above story and need the above warning sign.

A Tropical Island Off A Tropical Island

Taiwan is a tropical island. Literally, the tropic of cancer (everything below which is considered the “tropics”) runs right through the island. The landscape is, more or less, what one might picture when asked to think of a tropical island… lushly, jungly green, mountainy and volcanic, turquoise ocean water, humid as all get out, etc. So what to do when the friend you’re visiting unexpectedly gets a week off of work… fly to another tropical island of course!

Arrival...

Arrival…

The beach just down the street from the airport...

The beach just down the street from the airport…

 

As a bit of background, the friend I was visiting in Taiwan works in a hospital (she’s a surgeon). The hospital, for various reasons, gave her, and all the other foreign surgeons there on fellowship, a week off of work. So they put their big doctor brains together and planned a short two-night group trip (surgeons on spring break) to Penghu, a Taiwanese archipelago located almost exactly halfway between Taiwan and mainland China (or the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, as each country is officially dubbed). By virtue of my impeccable timing (i.e. I happen to be there during this week and having others plan and book the whole trip), I got to go along for the ride (I really enjoy when things like this work out).

The view from my room...

The view from my room…

The crew...

The crew…

Typical shops...

Typical shops…

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So, a house was booked, a car was rented and we were all off. Turns out the house we rented was owned by an American man / Taiwanese woman couple who now live with their family on Penghu (good for information without a language barrier). There were eight people in the group, two Americans, a Canadian, a Scot, a Hong Konger, a Welshman, a Czech and a Turk. All are surgeons but myself and the HKer (the girlfriend of the Scot, but she is gainfully employed as an accountant). Transportation of such a motley crew was provided by a super-hella-sweet 8-person Toyota van. By popular consensus I was elected to drive… mostly because I’m a man (y’all know we’re better drivers, just ask the auto insurance companies… no wait, don’t do that, but everyone knows it’s true anyhow ;-). Okay… maybe I drove because I volunteered (I like driving), and because I am used to driving on the right (details).

Surf shop... Sadly no waves that day...

Surf shop… Sadly no waves that day…

Dinner at an all you can eat BBQ place (you have to cook everything yourself through)...

Dinner at an all you can eat BBQ place (you have to cook everything yourself through)…

Sunset from the house...

Sunset from the house…

Making friends at the aquarium...

Making friends at the aquarium…

I found it interesting to hang out with a group of surgeons. Mostly because I always find it interesting talking with people who’ve always known what they wanted to do with their lives (despite being previously gainfully employed, I was never really excited by my previous line of work, nor was it something I’d always wanted to do). It’s a very different perspective. Also, stepping back, you just get some funny thoughts. Like that when Scottish dude, with whom you’re currently partner interpretative dancing to a Journey song, goes back to work the following Monday, he’s going to be doing things like re-attaching people’s limbs. At least I find it funny… people are just people no matter what they do, and it’s nice to see that (or be reminded of it).

View from the ferry...

View from the ferry…

Spontaneous Interpretive Dance Performance...

Spontaneous Interpretive Dance Performance…

Temple plus mandatory Asian tourist photo pose...

Temple plus mandatory Asian tourist photo pose…

Outside the ice cream shop...

Outside the ice cream shop…

Dinner...

Dinner…

Tropical island things were done… beaching, sunning, lounging, swimming, volley balling, etc. Highlights included a makeshift party on the balcony the last night of our stay, eating pink cactus fruit sorbet (a local specialty), gorging at an all you can eat bbq place, successfully making it all the way from one end of the archipelago to the other with the gas light on (all the gas stations except in the main city close at 5 PM), and taking a ferry out to a beach so pretty you’d question the fact that you were in Taiwan. All in all, it was a very lovely little vacation within a vacation (within another vacation?).

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Trying not to get stuck in the sand…

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I know… jumping photos are so 2011… whatever… yolo!

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The beach from above… still hard to believe this is Taiwan?

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Remember what I said in a different post about Taiwan just being nice. Check out the painting on the electrical boxes to the left… lots of little things like this in Taiwan.

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One guy brought some professional camera equipment for fun and some engagement photos… I got to help out. But please ignore us… look at that sky.

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I think I can see China from here…