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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Dutch Legacy in Tainan, Taiwan

Since the end of World War II, Taiwan has been the subject of tense international security policy in Asia. Often serving as a flashpoint in Sino-Western diplomacy struggles, Communist China claims the island as theirs. Prior to this conflict, Taiwan was ruled as a part of the Japanese Empire from 1895 until 1945. Japanese colonial rule still is very visible when it comes to architectural influence throughout the country, especially in Taiwan’s most historic city, Tainan.

Nearly three centuries prior to the Japanese colonial period, Taiwan was under control of the Dutch East India Company for nearly four decades. The cultural and architectural remnants of Dutch Formosa are few and far between, but there are several examples of impressive forts and military installations that still stand in the country. I visited a small Dutch fort in Taipei last year with friends and I was fortunate enough to have my friend David take me around Tainan this year to show me some of the city’s most important historic and cultural landmarks. Fort Zeelandia, the most recognizable Dutch fort in Taiwan, was our destination for the afternoon of my second day in Tainan. Fort ZeelandiaConstruction on Fort Zeelandia began in 1624 as the Dutch East India Company looked to expand its foothold in Taiwan and expand its power in Asia outside of Indonesia and Malaysia following a disastrous naval defeat at the Battle of Macau in 1622, where Dutch forces were repelled following an attempted siege of the Portuguese city.

Until its fall in 1662, Fort Zeelandia served as an important outpost for Dutch trade with its colonial outposts in Japan and the rest of Asia as well as a strategic military base.

Dutch SpikeAs soon as you arrive at the fort, two things stick out to you: the unique watchtower which overlooks the entire site and the old, disintegrating stuccoed brick wall which surrounds large parts of the fortification. Hooks like the one seen above aided in fortifying and strengthening the wall’s construction. It is very cool to see the perfect outline which still remains today.

IMG_9524Nature has begun to take control of some parts of the wall, too, but the wall’s integrity remains strong, as do the Dutch flowers in the foreground of this photo.

Once you climb the stairs towards the watch tower, on the left you can see several replica cannons which defended the fort from foreign attack or Taiwanese siege for several decades. These guns would see heavy action for nearly nine months between 1661 and 1662 before the Dutch surrendered to Taiwanese hero General Koxinga following the Siege of Fort Zeelandia on February 1, 1662. His imposing statue stands to the right of these cannons and other various armaments. IMG_9537Definitely one of the more tourist-oriented destinations in historic Tainan, I recommend visiting Fort Zeelandia and taking time to explore and learn about Dutch Formosa and the Siege of Fort Zeelandia. You will be met by some beautiful flowers and flora at every corner.

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The 66th Sapporo Snow Festival – A Photographic Essay

The first evening in Sapporo was very memorable as my friend and I had our first glimpse into Sapporo cuisine while also sampling some of the local specialty Sapporo beers and checking out the ice sculptures at the Susukino ice sculpture site very near our hotel. Our second day in Sapporo was a much longer affair filled with more sightseeing and encounters with spectacular snow sculptures at the main Odori Park staging grounds.

When it comes to booking hotels when I am on vacation, it is all about location, location, location. The capsule hotel for the Snow Festival did not disappoint. We were equidistant between both of these sites and within eyeshot of one of my favorite components of the snow festival: the freestyle snowboard and ski ramps. I certainly expected to see many elegant snow sculptures in Sapporo, but not ski jumpers showing off their aerial skills each morning, afternoon, and night. My friend and I trekked over to the ramp to watch a few rounds of jumps before moving onward. It was my first time watching snowboarding like this in person and it was very impressive.

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The snowboarders during the morning session got some serious air as American rock music and some sort of Russian electronic music played in the background. It was certainly an interesting sight to behold. After watching this for almost an hour, we headed off, through Odori Park to take in the most spectacular snow sculptures I have ever seen.

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First up for the morning was this stunning Star Wars sculpture. Even if the Sith theme song was not playing in the background, you could hear Darth Vader’s voice, the lasers firing out the Tie Fighters, and even the humming of a lighsaber as you walked past this masterpiece. The details on all of the figures were so intricate. Everything from grooves on the Death Star to the visors on the Storm Troopers was taken into account for this one. In all honesty, a photo does not give this sculpture justice.

Next up was a trip down memory lane from some of my prior Asian adventures. I certainly did not expect to see my favorite temple from Taipei or the Manila Cathedral in all their splendor, but I sure did. First up was the Taiwanese temple: DSC01595

Further down the street past an assortment of food stalls and smaller sculptures, the Manila Cathedral stood. I had heard through some posts on twitter that the cathedral was here, but I was not expecting to see a sculpture as large, detailed and beautiful as this one. I was taken back to my time in Manila back in October by this beauty. All that was missing were the fountains, the statue of King Phillip, and a few palm trees.

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There were even salmon waiting for us at this juncture in the trip.

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From there, we continued onward passing more, smaller, sculptures and the international submissions to the sculpture competition going on at the far end of Odori Park. We turned around and headed back towards the Television Tower to see if anything else was happening at the snowboarding area and to grab some lunch. A few very nice ice sculptures were waiting for us.

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As night began to fall, we quickly headed off for some more of Sapporo’s famous miso ramen and decided to go to a place where “Anthony Bordain had come to the here.” For some reason, we thought this would be the best establishment at Ramen Alley, but we were mistaken. I still took a photo of the sign, for good measure.

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With our guts filled with some savory ramen and Sapporo beer, we walked back to Odori Park to see the sculptures in all of their nighttime splendor. All of this took place on beaten, worn, and treacherous snow-covered sidewalks. My friend and I slipped and fell countless times throughout the weekend. After a ten minute walk, we were back at the snow park and watched some great nighttime snowboarding. Believe it or not, children as young as nine and ten years old were jumping off this ramp!

Jump Ramp Snowboard 1

We continued down the street and words could not describe how cool the Star Wars display looked in the midst of its light show. With music blaring and lights flashing to a synchronized rhythm, this was one of the more memorable moments of the festival for me.

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After a few more near falls, slips, and a king crab leg on a stick, we encountered what was the most spectacular component of the whole festival: the projection mapping display on a temple facade. Watch as one of Japan’s most famous temples comes alive:

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After seeing these magnificent light displays, we continued onward to see the Taiwanese temple yet again before checking out some of the submissions into the international snow sculpture design contest. While Malaysia isn’t exactly known for its show, they even had a team there! I took a photo of their sculpture following an interesting chat with the person in charge of the design and carving.

Even the USS Constitution was here! This was my favorite small-scale sculpture at the whole festival, for obvious reasons.

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Even Cup Noodles had a sculpture at this festival!

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As we continued tripping, slipping, and nearly falling back toward our hotel, we decided to change course and go to the Sapporo TV tower to get the best view of the whole festival– from the tower’s observation deck. On the way there, we saw some of our favorite ice sculptures from the day turned into true masterpieces at night. The royal couple, an eagle, and the Shinkansen were a few of many. The ice sculptures, much like the snow sculptures, looked much better at night than they did during the day.

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Our final view of the night was the most breathtaking of all.

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As someone living and working in Japan, I constantly heard suggestions about traveling to Sapporo to see the snow festival over the course of the past two years. While I will admit that it was not high on my list when I first arrived in Japan in July, 2013, I crust say that I am very happy that I cam dot see it this year. The sheer number of tourists in Sapporo help give the festival a unique vibe. Couple that with the never-ending array of delicious Japanese street food and the beautiful snow and ice artwork and all the ingredients for a memorable weekend were in place. Things would get even more interesting the next day as my friend and I headed to the famous Sapporo brewery and to a few other places around town.

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Taipei in Photos (Day 2)

Following a jam-packed first day in Taipei and a long night’s sleep, I was ready to go for another grueling day eating the best street food and seeing the best sites Taiwan had to offer. It’s a good thing, too, because this day was even more grueling than the first day. First up on the schedule was a rendezvous with one of my friends from college, both in Japan and the United States. David and I were off to Taipei Station. Stepping into the main atrium at the station, I felt like I was back in Japan, with high ceilings and shops in every corner at the station.

Taipei Station

Once we arrived, we found Karina in a Taiwan-style restaurant and recounted and rehashed our stores from college and talked about what we have been doing since we last saw ourselves in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. I often echo this sentiment on many of my posts on here, but I am always grateful when I meet my friends from college at different locales in Asia. Many people lose touch with their friends from college, but I am very fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with so many people given how busy all of us are.

After downing some delicious fried pork, some noodles, and some other Taiwanese delicacies, we were off to our first stop of the day, Freedom Plaza.

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After a short trip on Taipei’s subway system, dubbed the MRT, we were greeted by the sweltering humidity that had built as the day progressed. A quick stroll and turn to the right led us through the gates in this photo and into Freedom Plaza. I was very impressed with the size of the plaza in the middle of a bustling metropolis like Taipei. Traditional buildings flanked the plaza, with its focus on the Taiwanese national flag situated in the middle of the plaza. We were on our way to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the other end of the plaza. As soon as I saw it, images of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., filled my mind. The similarities between the two memorials are striking: a hike up several levels of white stairs led into a large, high-ceilinged rom with one main focus: a gargantuan statue of a national leader. Once you first see the statue, it would be almost impossible not to think about the Lincoln Memorial. While the materials are different, the exuding feeling is similar. The statue of Chiang Kaishek dominates the massive room.

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Following some perusing in the museum area of the memorial, we returned to the statue area to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. That, too, was exciting and very interesting to watch.

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Once the ceremony was over, we returned to the MRT to go to a different part of the city with another food in mind: mango-flavored ice cream. Following a short ride on the MRT, we arrived at the ice cream parlor and sat down to have more conversation and discuss my thoughts on Taipei before Karina had to go to work for the rest of the afternoon. Although we had planned to speak about Taipei, I noticed something interesting about the people who sat down next to us: they were speaking Japanese!

Quickly I was in the midst of a conversation with these three Japanese tourists about life in Japan. This was a very interesting conversation and my friends did their best to communicate with them even though they did not understand our Japanese conversation. Little encounters and conversations like this make learning and speaking another language very enjoyable for me. No matter where I go, I usually run into Japanese tourists at famous landmarks in Asia. The Japanese tourists were on their way and we lingered for a while longer to reminisce. It was a great morning with Karina.

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The three of us took a bus to Taipei 101and split ways, with Karina going to work and David and I continuing on to hike up Elephant Mountain, the most famous viewing point for Taipei 101. We saw the night view yesterday, so naturally we were headed up in the afternoon for a daytime view of the world’s second-tallest building. On the way to the mountain, I noticed Taipei copied another famous Philadelphia landmark, the LOVE statue.

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The humidity continued to increase and by the time we made it to the base of Elephant Mountain, my shirt was completely soiled with sweat and so was David’s. The sweat was dripping off the faces of everyone descending Elephant Mountain following the climb, so it was obvious that we would suffer the same fate following the twenty minute hike to the outlook point at the top. Scenery at the start reminded me of Macau, which was also unexpected.

As the hike up the narrow stairs began, I could not wait to see the spectacular views of Taipei 101!

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David and I passed some children and elderly visitors making the hike and finally made it to the first landing, and, oh, was it a sight to behold! Taipei 101 cut through the sky and was spectacular. I posed for a photo with the world’s second-tallest building even though I was soaked with sweat.

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Ten minutes later, David and I made it to the top and climbed up some large boulders to take in the skyline and snap some photos. the cameramen already atop these boulders made for an interesting foreground.

Taipei Rocks

As the sun began to set, David and I moved in unison with it, descending Elephant Mountain’s steep stairs.

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Then, in the middle of our descent, I encountered one of the most beautiful views of a skyline I have ever seen: the setting sun illuminated the humidity and smog which engulfed Taipei on that Sunday afternoon. The resulting view was fantastic. I will never forget this scene as long as I live. Taipei101

David and I stopped at the base of Taipei 101 for some photos and then were off to see more of the city before it was too late in the night. This evening’s purple lights were fantastic.

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First up on the night’s agenda was another night view of Taipei from a different location. Following a long motorcycle ride, we found out that location was closed due to road construction, so we quickly changed plans and decided to go to Taipei’s second most famous night market and included a stop at one of the city’s most famous temples, too.

Much like the previous night, David and I indulged on many foods and drinks as we walked through the narrow stalls and dogged the rain drops that intermittently spritzed throughout the night. Milkshakes, hot meat sandwiches, finger food, and pork ribs were all on the menu tonight. I am always impressed with the intricate nature of the woodwork that always adorns the temples in Asia.

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Temple

After a few hours enjoying the food (and wi-fi) in the market, my time with David in Taipei was essentially over. It was amazing to get a tour of one of Asia’s most bustling cities from a local perspective while also rekindling a lost friendship. Seeing Taipei from atop a motorcycle, in its back alleys, and from its most famous lookout points helped me appreciate one of Asia’s most underrated destinations. While I fully admit my feelings for Taipei over the first two days are largely dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my friends to be fantastic hosts, I recommend Taipei to anyone whom is seeking adventure and i unique mix of Eastern and Western history.

Aside from a random traffic stop at 2:30 AM following a very late dinner, this trip was stress-free and amazing. To this point, Taipei is certainly my favorite destination in Asia, alongside Macau and Seoul. Only one more day remained in my Taiwanese adventure and the next post here will certainly provide insight into my third and final day in Taiwan.

Tantalizing Taipei (Day 1)

I have just returned to Japan from a grueling, three-day tour of Taipei with my good friends from college, and there is only one word that can describe the experience as I think about it in retrospect: tantalizing. Eating the delicious street food in Taipei’s famous night markets, traveling through the city with my friends on motorcycles, and making new friends are the experiences that make this trip unforgettable in every sense of the word. Taiwan will always have a special place in my travel heart. My parents always talked about “doing what the locals do” on vacations to the American South, and I was finally able to experience “doing what the locals do” and “eating what the locals eat” while in Asia and I will not forget it anytime soon.

Following months of discussion with my Taiwanese friends about when I would make the short journey from Osaka, Japan, to Taipei to see their country, I was off on a Saturday morning flight to begin a nonstop weekend of sightseeing and indulging in local style. Things started off rather uneventfully in Japan as I took in a remarkable sunrise at the airport.

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Sunrise at Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. (c) Erik Jacobs, erikabroad.com

Following the short flight and about an hour long bus ride from Taoyuan International Airport to the Far Eastern Hotel, the trip was set to begin and I could not have been any happier. Meeting my friend, David, from college in Taiwan was something that I had always planned to do but never knew exactly if or when it would happen. To make a long story short, I joined the International Students Association at my university following my return from Japan in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. My friend and I joined because we wanted to return the favor that Tokyo residents had given us during our time there. Showing them around America and helping them come to love the United States seemed like second nature to us. I made some great friends in this organization, and it is always a real pleasure when they host me and how me the ropes of their homeland much like we showed them America.

After a few minutes of waiting outside the hotel in the sweltering Taiwanese heat, David showed up on his motorbike and we were off to his university to drop off my bags and head to our first stop of the day, a pool party in the heart of Taiwan!  Along the way, I was quite nervous because it was my first time riding on a motorbike. Aside from worrying about falling off of the bike as we weaved in and out of traffic, I had to contend with my concerns that other bikes would hit us. Add my insatiable desire to take photos into the mix, and it was a stressful and enjoyable ride to the university.

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Riding through Taipei.
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First time on a motorbike, Top Gun style.

 

After we made it to the university, we met with one of David’s Taiwanese friends, Eric, and continued onward to the pool party. Along the way, we passed Freedom Plaza, which is a gargantuan monument and plaza in honor of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of Taiwan. It was cool to drive by here given how many lectures and discussions we had in my AP American History course with Mr. McKenrick about the Red Chinese and Nationalist Chinese, but more to come on this landmark in my post about my second day in Taipei. Here is how the main gate looked from the road.

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Our marathon day then continued as we traversed some shopping areas in Taiwan, as my gracious hosts wanted to make sure I had some famous Taiwanese bubble tea and chicken cutlets the size of your face. I didn’t believe them, but I sure did when they arrived a few minutes after our order was placed.

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After some more bites to eat and a stop at Starbucks so I could use the wi-fi, we checked into my hotel and were off to more famous Taipei attractions, on motorcycles, of course.

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First up on the list of things to do on Saturday night was a stop at the world-famous Shinlin Night Market, located in northern Taipei. I first heard about this location on the Travel Channel and was tying to see if it would live up to the muster. Fortunately, the bustling corridors of tourists and locals, vendors and peddlers lived up to all of my expectations. I told my friends that I wanted to try “all of the foods the Taiwanese eat at these places,” and we sure did. First up on the list was a food I saw on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, the oyster omelette. I love oysters and eggs, so what’s not to like about this option? It was delicious and hit the spot! The coolest part about this market is that there is also an underground section!

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Market

Omelette

Next up were two more famous Taiwanese dishes, stinky tofu and fried crabs. I also head about both of these on the Travel Channel and I can confirm their deliciousness. I am always skeptical about eating new foods, but for some reason I was a little more willing than usual on this trip. The tofu tasted delicious for something that smelled as putrid as it did and the crabs were just as I had hoped: crunchy, salty, and delicious.

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After these foods, we passed by some delicious fruits and tried some more great street food, papaya milkshakes! They were tantalizing. On the way out of the crowded market, the sounds of Chinese merchants, Japanese tourists, and the pattering of feet created a harmonious sound that somehow brought calm and order to the chaos. Shinlin Night Market was one for the ages as far as I am concerned. The only downside to it all was the cockroaches infesting the parking garage. No more commentary on that!

Fruits

Those of you that read this website that I fixate on a few things when I travel. First and foremost, I try to capture the energy and excitement of the moment in which I am by taking candid photography. After that, there is nothing more interesting than architectural photography. In Asia, the unique blend of Western influences (Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia) and Eastern style make for some exciting photographic canvasses. The modern cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore also offer spectacular nighttime skylines and viewing opportunities. Few things compare to shooting Shanghai from across the Bund or Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor. Taiwan also offers a spectacular night view, but the trek to get there made it all the more worthwhile.

Once we were done at the night market, David, Eric, and I hopped on our motorcycles and headed to a more secluded, “locals-only” location to view Taipei 101 and Taipei’s Ferris wheel all at once. My friends said this site was relatively unknown until more recently, and for good reason. We turned up an unpaved roadway and ascended a large hill for nearly ten minutes over bumps, potholes, and ruts to make it to our final destination. With little surprise, we were greeted by dirt on our clothes from the kicked up dust, and a lot of Taiwanese locals posing for photos with and taking photos of the city skyline. It was remarkable. Unlike other cities i have seen in Asia, Taipei is dominated by Taipei 101. There are few other buildings in the city which stand out or even rival its height. Other cities I have seen usually have a “high-rise district,” much like Shinjuku in Tokyo, but that is not the case in Taipei. As we stood there, I thought about where I was and with whom I was.  Looking out over a vivid green Ferris wheel, the world’s second tallest building with one of my good friends in college was a beautiful sight. After a while at this spot, we headed out for some more late night food before splitting our ways, only to rendezvous the following morning for my Taipei exploration.

Night View

My first day in Taipei was fantastic, but I had no idea how much better things would get as the weekend progressed!