What I Learned Traveling Off the Grid

“Travel is the only expense that makes you richer,” but at what point do we miss out on the richness of travel because of our mobile devices, our cameras, and a desire to share the our travels with the outside world? Between trying to take the perfect shot of the exotic plate of food in front of you and the urge to get wifi to check in at a far-flung destination, we often miss out on the true essence of travel: being out of our element in foreign lands.

As an avid traveler and photographer, I will admit that I, too, had fallen victim to this cycle of travel. I was constantly looking for wifi to stay in touch with people or trying to get the perfect photo of the back alleys in Burma, the cafe in Vientiane, or the mosaics in Macau instead of living in the moment. The worst part of this is that I did not even realize what I was doing. It had become second nature to me after traveling in Asia for several years. Unless I was writing in my travel journal and thinking about my trip, I was more worried about getting the perfect photo than stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.

All of that changed when I shared e-mail correspondence with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from a fourteen day trip to South Africa where he did not use his phone and did not take a camera with him.

He urged me to try traveling without a camera because, with Google Earth and Google Images, you can find any photo that will remind you of where you have been while you also retain the memory of actually being there in the first place. This e-mail came on the heels of me reading an article  about how taking photos of things harms your memory of those things. I wanted to see if there was any merit to this method of travel.

With this in mind, I went to Taipei with the intention living in the moment during my visit with old friends. Other than using wifi for directions and snapping a few photos with my phone (on airplane mode), I was going off the grid. Almost as soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I knew this was going to be a special trip.

The stairs leading to the peak of Elephant Mountain (像山) in Taipei

I even left my headphones at home and I immediately noticed things about Taiwan that I had never seen before once I got on the bus to Taipei from the airport. Posted signage banning live birds from being brought onto the bus and some of the Japanese-language signage near a shipping facility were two of the highlights of this ride, but more insight was yet to come.

With my friends for the next few days I was able to notice simple things that I had not noticed in the past because of my preoccupation with my camera and my desire to share my travel experiences with others in my photos.

The sounds of hustlers in the streets hawking their goods and the sizzling of saucepans at the night market I experienced last week would have certainly gone unnoticed had I been trying to get the perfect ISO or white balance setting for a photo. With my electronics tucked away, all of my senses were heightened and I was able to capture my trip using all of my senses.

As I stood next to a putrid tofu stand in the light rain, everything about the city seemed to come alive- shopkeepers scrambled to clean up their stands while bikers raced to the nearest overhang. All the while, Chinese-language neon signage glistened in the street gutter as the rain subsided a few minutes later. This kind of experience is what I had been missing while staying connected on my trips.

I had these kind of experiences during the entirety of my stay in Taiwan. I visited beautiful cliffs in Keelung and, instead of trying to get the best photo, I spoke with my friends about them and we took time to hike cliffside trails and breathe in and think about the fresh Pacific Ocean air.

While climbing Elephant Mountain, I noticed etched stairs which denoted the mountain’s name and the distance to various points on the mountain. They had certainly been there prior to that day, but I never noticed because I was too worried about getting the perfect photo of Taipei 101 from the stairs.

These were certainly good experiences, but nothing prepared me for what I saw during my last night in Taipei at the city’s oldest jazz club/bar.

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Elephant Mountain’s staircase. 

 

Ever since my last visit to Taipei in 2015, my friends had wanted to take me to this jazz club called Blue Note. Luckily for us, our schedules aligned and we made a reservation for the bar on a Saturday night to catch an incredible four piece band that would end up playing for two hours or so.

About halfway through the evening, I took my eyes off of the band and realized that, while the saxophone and piano players were in a deep musical conversation, half of the bar was either in deep conversation with another person or a game application on their cell phones.

Instead of living in the moment and feeling the joy of the music, all they were doing was living inside of their cell phones.

Once I arrived at the airport on Sunday night, I found it incredibly easy to write an in-depth journal entry about each day of my trip through Taiwan. That would not have been possible had I had my camera with me for the duration of the trip or had I been searching for wifi at every moment.

It might seem like blasphemy to even suggest, but try traveling without your camera and your wifi the next time you travel. You might get a more wholesome experience. It helped me live in the moment instead of being captured inside my devices.

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Trails Through Tokyo

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a great time with my friends in Tokyo last weekend. It was definitely needed to get my mind off of issues I was having both in Japan and back home in the United States. Do you ever have a weekend that just magically comes together and makes for an unforgettable time for everyone involved? It seems like that happens to me each time I take the Shinkansen or the plane back to Tokyo. It seems like every time I hear the harmonious melodies emanating from the Yamanote Train encircling Tokyo, all is right in the world.

After our night out in Shinjuku, my friend and I woke up rather early on Saturday for another day of sightseeing at some of my favorite spots in Tokyo. While it had been nearly three years since I had visited some of these places, it is amazing how small shops and memories come back to you when you are back in a familiar environment, regardless of how long the lag time is. First up on the list was my old neighborhood in Tokyo, Jiyugaoka.

This neighborhood is well known as one of the ritziest and most elite neighborhoods in all of the city, and for good reason. The boutiques, bakeries, and designer stores are abundant. Here there are any gardens and the streets are narrow near the station. I love this neighborhood. The only catch is that I lived in a dorm here, not an apartment. You can get a feeling for the neighborhood as soon as you step out of the station. The fashion-conscious japanese take their fashion very serious in Jiyugaoka. Here’s how the station looked on Saturday afternoon in the sunlight, as the hats umbrellas, and skirts were a sight to behold.

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As we exited the station, all the sights, sounds, and smells of the area triggered long lost memories to return. Acting on a spur of the moment impulse, my friend and I ventured to my old dorm building, somewhat off the beaten path, about ten minutes walk from the station. I was pleased that the gardens remained even though the tenants had changed. One of the nice memories of living where I did was picking up fresh vegetables from the garden each night as I walked home. Those veggies would be setting on a slab with a change can right next to the road. Always on the honor system, it would pick up radishes and onions for the evening’s dinners…

Following some more touring of the neighborhood and a quick stop for coffee, we were back on the Toyoko Train and headed to another favorite spots of mine: Shibuya Square. I changed trains every day in Shibuya Station and I still don’t know how I mastered the maze of corridors and halls that make up one Tokyo’s busiest stations. After a few wrong turns, we made it to the world’s busiest pedestrian crosswalk. As Japanese pop music came from the stores and people bustled to-and-fro, I again felt at home in the busiest city on the planet. After some sightseeing and a little shopping, we were off to some more nice places along the JR line: Takeshita Street and Shinjuku Gardens.

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First up was Takeshita Street, known for its bustling shopping streets and unique stores. We spent time there and marveled at all the different types of people that pass through there in a matter of minutes. From the foreigners to the otaku to the businessmen on their way to their next appointment, there are so many different types of people in this neighborhood. Lest I forget, there were also many, many camera-wielding tourists. After some ice cream on a storefront stoop, we were off to Shinjuku Gardens via Omodesanto.

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I thought Shinjuku Gardens would be a fitting place to end our day excursions because of the sheer number of beautiful scenes and benches on Jericho be could rest. Tokyo is very walkable, depending on where you get off the train, but a day of walking and people watching certainly takes it’s toll on you. In Shinjuku Gardens, we marveled at the ornate setup of the foliage and took time to watch the carp and koi swim through exquisite ponds while we also looked at beautifully pruned bushes and shrubs. While I must say the towering buildings in the background give a nice touch of modernity to the park in the summer, the best time to come to the gardens is during the cherry blossom season, often in the first week of April.

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After a few hours here, we wrapped up our tour and headed back to our hotel to take a nap before meeting some of my friends later in the evening. More on that one, later.

In Japanese, there is a word for dear or missed memories, and it happens to be one of my favorite Japanese words: 懐かしい. (Pronounced natsukashi.) Days like this in Tokyo remind me why I love the city so much and why it it is important to live in the moment whenever you are doing something. No one would have predicted the 3/11 earthquake nor how quickly I would have had to return after such a disaster, but I was able to relive better times in Tokyo with one of my dear friends from language on a beautiful, yet scorching, Saturday in Tokyo.

I finish this entry with a photo of the station board in Jiyugaoka. It is very 懐かしい for me.

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Hong Kong: A Photographic Essay (Day 2)

When I visited Hong Kong earlier this month, I had a lifetime of expectations and anticipation about the city. I never thought these expectations could be met. Not only were these expectations and travel visions met, they were far and away exceeded by the time the first of three days in the region was completed. Here’s a look into day two in Hong Kong and why the full day in Hong Kong and Kowloon was so enjoyable and different than our first day/evening on Hong Kong Island. 

Following our late return from Macau on the last train the previous evening, my friend and I agreed that we would sleep in for our third day in Hong Kong. We wanted to be fresh and well rested for what would be a grueling day on foot throughout the Asian metropolis. After waking up at around 10:00 and enjoying some quality breakfast, we were off and on our way to Admiralty Station to begin our day on the northern part of Hong Kong Island. At the station, one holdover of British rule hit us right in the face. We had to “mind the gap” as we entered the subway car. 

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Mind the Gap – (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following the advice of one of my seasoned traveller friends, our first stop of the day was the IFC Mall, located right on the Hong Kong Island side of Victoria Harbor. On the roof of the mall, there is a nice park that provides stunning views of the Hong Kong skyline, Victoria Harbor, and Kowloon. Even better than that, the IFC roof allows individuals to bring food and drinks to the top. We took advantage of the supermarket inside the mall and took up some refreshments and snacks to enjoy a few minutes overlooking Hong Kong to get a different perspective than we had at Victoria Peak the previous evening. It was a great view and great late morning activity. 

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IFC Roof (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a while enjoying some drinks and snacks, we passed the entrance to Hong Kong Station and continued, on foot, through Hong Kong Island to make our way to one of Hong Kong’s most famous noodle shops, Tsim Chai Kee. Along the way on Hong Kong’s long, steep, and interesting streets, I could not stop thinking about how much some of these streets resembled a cross between New York and San Francisco. The architecture and layout were certainly different than any other city I’ve seen in Asia to this point. Image

Steep Hong Kong (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Given that my friend and I live in Japan, we are more than accustomed to having delicious ramen and noodles almost whenever we want it. True ramen and home cooked noodles are some of the most delicious Japanese and Asian foods and I enjoy getting them whenever I get the chance. From Seoul and Tokyo to Hiroshima and Kobe, I have had more than my fair share of delicious noodles. When we read reviews about Tsim Chai Kee online, we knew we had to go to see what all the rage was. As soon as we arrived, we knew we would be in for a treat. Tsim Chai Kee and another Japanese-style ramen shop were the only wo shops on the whole street that had lines of patrons waiting to get in to enjoy lunch. More than that, this place was definitely not a chain restaurant. It was a family run institution. 

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Tsim Chai Kee Noodle (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

I ordered the noodle bowl which offered a smattering of all the meats the store had to offer and was not disappointed. The purely family restaurant feel of sitting with strangers at the table and the ambiance of hustle and bustle inside the store made for a great atmosphere. The food was even better. Once the steaming hot noodles and cans of Coca-Cola made it to the table, we knew we were in for a treat. The spicy and homemade flavor of the noodles was amazing! It looked pretty good, too. Image

Noodles for All (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs erikabroad.com

From Tsim Chai Kee, we were off to another Hong Kong institution, the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. While researching Hong Kong, I had read quite a bit about this escalator and walkway system which traversed through the heart of Hong Kong Island. For full disclosure, we had completely forgotten about this stop on our trip until we saw it out of the corner of our eye while we were on the way to Tsim Chai Kee Noodle. We reshuffled some of our plans and made time to take the entire escalator route through Hong Kong. I won’t soon forget the experience of riding an elevated escalator through one of the world’s biggest cities.

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Central-Mid-Levels Elevator (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As we climbed through the city, we passed by all kinds of shops, stores, construction, and streets to our right and left. There were entrance and exit staircases and escalators on both sides of the route so it almost felt like we were riding on a highway back in the United States, except this highway was one big escalator. The bars, restaurants, and stores were all teem ping with life as people hopped on and off the escalator.

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Entrance and Exit (c) Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Once we reached the end of the escalator ride, my friend and I agreed to stake a taxi back to Victoria Harbor to take a ride on another one of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions, the Star Ferry. As one of the world’s oldest and the world’s most busiest ferries, you have to ride if when you go to Hong Kong. Given the price (less than 50 cents, USD), skip the subway ride from Hong Kong to Kowloon and take a ride across the Harbor. I won’t forget the view from the boat as we passed through Victoria Harbor. CI also got to cross off one more thing from my travel bucket list in the process. 

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Star Ferry (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As the photographs show, the ride across the harbor provides some spectacular views of the skyline and other ferries. I finally was able to capture that photo I saw many years ago, hung on the wall of the Chinese restaurant in my hometown. It was as breathtaking as I thought it would be. 

After disembarking the ferry, my friend and I headed to the harbor for one final look at Hong Kong Island from the famous Clock Tower. The view was remarkable. The high buildings contrasted with the harbor and passing boats made a great scene where we just sat and watched passing boats for about thirty minutes. Even the sun burst through for a brief period of time. 

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From there, we stumbled into another ritzy and unforgettable shopping center much like the one I mentioned in my previous postings. All the name brand designers and watch makers were there. This one, however, had a unique twist: there was a park and green space on the roof near one of the entrances. A high school graduation ceremony was taking place and I was fortunate to capture a moment of pure joy as some girls remarked on their time as students together. 

 

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Pure Joy (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs erikabroad.com

Following some more street food and some browsing in the shopping centers, we made our way tom more Hong Kong Landmarks as our stay began to wind down to its conclusion. We returned to Jordan Street to see the famous Hong Kong Night Market, browse some more of the local shopping stores and take in one of Hong Kong’s most famous images: neon signs overhanging the streets. We were not disappointed, and I was able to pick up a Hong Kong t-shirt for all of $2.50 US. It was a great way to wrap up an unforgettable trip. 

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Neon to End the Day (c) Erik Jacobs, 2013. Erikabroad.com

When I look back on the trip to Hong Kong, I will never forget the nighttime scenery, the views from Victoria Harbor, or spending time with one of my new friends at another relocation in Asia. Very rarely do travel destinations live up to all of our expectations and then surpass all. Hong Kong certainly did that for me. I will be back in less than three weeks as Hong Kong is the starting and ending point for a forthcoming trip which will be more grueling and three times as long as the four day trip to Hong Kong earlier this month.

I look forward to bringing you along with me on another Asian adventure. I just hope the next one is as enjoyable as this one was.