Taipei, Taiwan: rain, pork buns and temples

It had finally come – our family vacation to Taiwan! We had originally been planning a trip to Thailand, but the flights went up in price before John had his leave approved. So Taiwan it was! It was Chaucer who wrote that spring is when folks long to go on pilgrimage, and I can’t deny that’s what we were feeling. It was time to go. After moving every year for 6 years in a row, we were feeling the need to go somewhere. This is the longest we’ve lived in one place since having children (mind you, it’s only been a year and 4 months). John had visited China in 2015 before the kids and I were able to move out here to Okinawa with him, but when we found out the Visas to get into China were over $200 we realized we wouldn’t be able to take the whole family. So for that reason I was really excited to see Taiwan. It was about as Chinese as you could get without actually going to China. The main culture we witnessed was Chinese, as the language spoken is Mandarin, but there is also a lot of influence from Japan and other Asian countries. India even has a pretty big influence on this large island. They call Taiwan the “The heart of Asia”.

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We had booked our trip to start at the end of the rainy season, and were hoping and praying that we wouldn’t get too wet. Overall, the weather ended up being perfect, and we only had rain the first day we got in town. We were so thankful!

It was a whopping 1 hour and 25 minute flight from Okinawa – so we were in the country before 10am and had there whole day to get settled and explore. I had booked us an AirBnB apartment in the Wanhua District, which is an up and coming hip area with lots of cute cafes and coffee shops. It was also a pretty short walk to the metro station which turned out to be very helpful. Thankfully, Taipei had just opened up a new line on the metro station that took us straight from the airport to Taipei Main Station, near our apartment.

We had decided to leave all our devices at home except John’s small iPad (he still had to receive work messages). We really wanted to unplug during this vacation. When we landed we got a chip for 10 days of data and  went on our merry way. It was a bit difficult finding the place, but I had printed maps and had a phone number to reach our host. Once we found a pay phone we were able to meet up with him. The apartment we rented was super cute, with turquoise walls and Art Deco light fixtures. It was Tiny!! But really perfect, since the kids had their own room with a bunk. They were so happy to have a new space all to themselves!

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As soon as we dropped our suitcases (all two of them – read about that here) we headed out for the famous beef noodle soup of the area. Our host had given us the scoop on a great hole in the wall place nearby. It reminded us of the tiny restaurants in the Mercados of Lima, Peru. You definitely don’t go there for the atmosphere!

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Lunch at the Beef Noodle shop

But the noodles were delicious. Violet had a lot of fun playing with them.

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Olivia wasn’t too keen on them though, so she was a bit pouty through the meal – just keeping it real 😉 At least she had fun playing with the noodles after we were done eating. I’m sure this was probably not considered good manners, but I don’t think anyone saw us…lol. Generally, you’re not supposed to touch your food with your fingers at all. We ate with chopsticks for 10 days straight! Thank goodness we all knew how.

It rained all morning and into the afternoon, but after a short rest back at the apartment it had cleared up pretty nicely. We walked out to the bus station and on the way found this beautiful tree blooming with the biggest blossoms!

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Blooming tree

The city was busy, but not overwhelming. Probably 2/3 of the people rode scooters, which made things seem a little less crowded.

We got to the bus stop and boarded, but either we boarded the wrong bus, or just didn’t know how to work the system. Regardless, we jumped out at the first stop, which happened to be several blocks past where we were trying to go. We just took the scenic route 😉 We were walking to the Dihua Street area, where there are a lot of new shops and cafes that have opened in the historic buildings. Along the way we tried a green onion crepe from a street vendor. It was delicious! Cliff really liked it. Once we got to Dihua St. we saw there was a lot going on – from plays and music, to the tea cart guy who’s teapot whistled sharply through the air to alert passersby to his presence.

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Tea cart/bike guy

We bought the kids a few taro and red bean treats while we were walking.

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Red bean treat

We saw our first temple here. It was busy, with lots of locals and a few obvious tourists lighting incense and offering prayers. To who, I’m not sure.

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We continued walking and found a nice little bakery, where we grabbed a loaf of sweet taro bread for breakfast the next day (we had learned in our previous trip to have backup plans for meals, especially the first one of the day – hungry kids are not fun to travel with!). We also found many little open shops selling dried fruits, so we bought a bag of dried kiwis, pineapples, and mangos, as well as some dried figs stuffed with walnuts. Those were lifesavers on some days when the kids needed a little pick-me-up.

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Walking further down the street we finally spotted something that would satisfy us for dinner – the famous pork buns of Taiwan. Their operation was coming to a close, but we managed to grab the last few they had left. They were already washing out the pans behind the stand in the street.

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Pork bun stand

After the kids ate we hailed a taxi, since we’d walked quite a ways by now and it was getting dark. Once the kids were in bed and settled, John went out to try one of the many foot massage parlors nearby. Most of them offered hour foot massages for the equivalent of about $15 USD. We tried out a few places over the 10 day trip… It was a great first day. We were excited to see Taipei 101 the next day! The 4th tallest building in the world! More to come later…

Hokkaido, Japan: Otaru

If you haven’t done so already, you can read about the rest of our trip in Hokkaido, Japan here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.

The last day of our trip was finally here. We only had one day in Otaru, so we really packed everything in as best we could. We went to a fish market for breakfast, which was such a fun experience.

John got a roasted fish with rice, miso soup and sides, the kids got roasted salmon with rice and miso and I got the seasonal sashimi platter, complete with raw shrimp! Yikes!

These are very traditional breakfasts for the Japanese. The appetizer, that was served with the oolong tea, was dried squid. It was our first time trying it, and it was surprisingly good! John and the kids loved their fish, and I liked my sashimi platter, though it was just a bit strange eating cold fish while it was so cold out – in the morning.

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Sashimi set for breakfast

It was some of the best seafood I’ve had though! The hot tea was really nice too. The ladies who ran the fish market restaurant were so sweet, and kept talking to the kids. When they heard them playing Janken (the Japanese paper, rock, scissors game) they were so excited and came over and started talking to them in Japanese. At one point Violet got pretty rowdy and hit her head hard on the corner of the table. The sweet ladies did everything they could to console her, but the favorite was a singing and dancing cat statue they brought out. Too funny.

It was time for us to catch our bus for the aquarium after breakfast. The ride up there was so pretty, as we rounded the snowy coastline of Hokkaido.

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The aquarium was definitely a highlight of the trip. 

It was situated on top of quite a big hill, and had a gorgeous view of the ocean and nearby mountaintops.

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View from the top of the aquarium

We made it there just in time for the daily penguin walk! This was the highly anticipated moment of the trip for myself at least ;).

The penguins were all corralled outside and made a few circles around the pathway so everyone could get a good look and a good picture. They were so cute!!

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Violet had again fallen asleep out of self defense in the cold, so she missed that part, but Olivia really enjoyed it.

Cliff was so excited to have found a green snow shovel and some big piles of snow, that he barely watched the penguins! Kids can be so funny. We did manage to peel him away from his very important job for a few minutes 😉

We ended up staying for a while after the penguins left and did some sledding down the hills. John pretty much scared me half to death at one point, as I thought he was going to go right over the edge of a 30 foot drop off. The snow had all but covered the barrier, and it wouldn’t have taken much to go over! He is insane sometimes. I’m convinced I’m the only reason he’s still alive now.

We all had a really fun time though. Olivia worked hard to dig a snow slide and then we took turns sliding down on it.

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Moments like this make the difficulties of traveling with little ones worth the memories. They even convinced their mama to try out the snow slide.

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The views were amazing up there, and we thoroughly enjoyed the family time.

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We also got to see the seals, who were in a very good mood.

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Playful seals

I didn’t think the rest of the aquarium would be that appealing to us, since we have the Churumi Aquarium in Okinawa, but I was wrong! There were some of the most interesting fish and sea creatures there! The kids even got to touch an octopus! The “octopus supervisor” put this octopus away after the kids kept getting a little too close to his mouth – yikes – I think he was saying it was hungry!

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Touching the octopus – “tako” in Japanese

Lastly, we saw them feed the porpoises and saw a few more local fishes.

It was a really fun visit! Definitely worth the bus ride out. When we got back to Otaru, we took the mile and a half walk to the music box museum.

Along the way we had lunch at a local seafood restaurant. Sashimi rice bowl and grilled eel with miso soup. So delicious!

Cliff actually slept through lunch in the stroller but when he woke up we got all the kids got some street food too, since they weren’t a fan of the raw fish ;). They had corn on the cob and some sort of a fish pancake that looked pretty good. Apparently “Royce” chocolate is a really big thing in Otaru. Since my dad’s name is Royce I had to take a picture 🙂

The music box museum was in a beautiful old historical building and had wooden balconies lining the inside.

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We’d never seen so many music boxes! We had told the kids they could pick out a music box as their souvenir when we went, so we spent a while perusing the place helping them pick out the perfect ones. I regret I didn’t take any photos of the inside – it was pretty unbelievable! At one point when I went to pay, John turned his back on Violet and she piled as many music box bears as she could reach into her stroller. She either was surprised at herself or was trying to look innocent…”who, me??”

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“who, me?”

Otaru was such a cute little town. We really loved our short time there. The old buildings were so fun to see, and the canals with the rushing water along the snowy banks were like something out of a storybook.

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The canal at nighttime

We stepped into a local chocolate shop on the walk back and had some hot chocolate to warm us up.

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Hot chocolate pit stop!

We also got to check out a couple of the glass shops. I would have loved to spend hours combing the little shops, but it’s not super practical with 3 kids 5 and under! It was starting to get dark now, so we made the trek towards the ramen restaurant we’d picked out for dinner. We were excited about this one. It was ranked as one of the best restaurants in the town, and we agreed!

The ramen was absolutely delicious. The kids liked it too, and they also are the bonito fish rice and dumplings. There’s nothing like a soulful bowl of ramen to warm you up after hours of walking in the freezing cold snow! Next, we headed to the train station again to pick up our tickets for the next morning, and some bakery breads for breakfast (we’d be leaving too early to get anything then). On our walk back home we stopped in the pathway of candles and snow sculptures that snaked along the alley. Some of them were surprisingly intricate! The sculptures were a gift from the Korean country to the Japanese. It went along for blocks, and we were all pretty cold, so we didn’t get to see all of it, but what we did see of it was really beautiful.

I could hardly believe our trip had come to an end! The next morning we would pack up early and get on the 6:00 train back to Sapporo to catch our flights to Tokyo and then back to Okinawa.

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The canal outside our hotel

Traveling with three kids 5 and under…we finally did it. We were crazy, but we did it 😉

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Going home!

Iquitos: Off to the Amazon

  Our much anticipated trip to the Amazon had finally arrived. When I used to think of South America, that’s what usually would come to mind. That huge river with wildlife so diverse and exotic that documentaries and books hardly did it justice. We hadn’t originally planned on taking the kids on this trip, but after living in Peru for nine months, we’d adjusted to the idea of traveling into more adventurous places with our littles. We talked to a few people who had done it successfully with children and found (not much, but some) information online as well. We got a great deal on flights when LAN was running a special, and though we waited on the Tarmac for about an hour, the savings was still worth the mediocre flight.

We arrived in Iquitos around noon, feeling the full force of the hot sun and the jungle humidity. Iquitos is an interesting city. The largest city in the world that’s not reachable by road. It’s full of motorcycles and mototaxis – literally hundreds crowd the streets in the afternoons and evenings.  

Cliff riding a MotoTaxi with Aunt Katelyn & Uncle David

Cliff riding a MotoTaxi with Aunt Katelyn & Uncle David

We were staying at the Nativa Apartments. A good, clean place to stay for a few days, or an extended period of time. Plus, they had a room big enough for all six of us. We were traveling with John’s brother and his wife, who had been staying with us and traveling around Peru the last few weeks.

That first day we didn’t do much, besides walk to the riverfront and grab lunch. 

Walking around Iquitos

Walking around Iquitos

Artwork by the river

Artwork by the river 

  We talked to a tour guide and got some information on day tours for later in the week. 

Talking to a guide

Talking to a guide

We were all pretty wiped out, and wilting in the heat and humidity, so we got a rest and then headed out to a local market nearby our hotel.

It was dusk as we arrived and some of the market was already closing up. The smell hit us before we even could see it. It was a pretty dirty market, maybe because we arrived at closing. We were looking for fruit and veggies to snack on since we had a small kitchenette at the hotel. We were also hoping to find some dinner…but didn’t have much luck amid the sea of chicken carcasses and gutted fishes. David did manage to find some grilled smallish fish and plantain that they bagged up for him, but none of the rest of us felt so brave (or had much appetite with all the strong smells surrounding us). We decided it would be best to go down to the river and eat at a restaurant for dinner.

When we got there we were amazed at the number of people out and about. It was a fun crowd. Lots of locals, kids, and tourists mingled along the riverwalk. We ordered some food at a patio seating area while the kids sat on the sidewalk and watched the busy excitement before them. It wasn’t long before a teenage girl came up to the kids and started talking to them.  

Blowing bubbles with new friends

Blowing bubbles with new friends

 It happens everywhere we go – especially with teenage girls. They want to know their names, where they’re from, and if they speak English. Then they usually want a picture together. The kids have been through this routine so many times now that they can give their own answers in Spanish and just need the occasional verification from us on the pronunciation of their names. It’s pretty funny to watch, really. They’ve gotten really comfortable with it. The young girl had a toddler with her, and after talking to the kids for a while, she went and bought a cup of bubbles. The kids had a lot of fun with that. 

Blowing bubbles

Blowing bubbles

 When a group of about 10 young people came over they agreed to take pictures with all of them one at a time. They looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. As long as they don’t seem bothered, we don’t mind. When they want space they know to come back to us, and we always watch closely to see if they’re being smothered.

Surrounded by friendly Peruvian teenagers

Surrounded by friendly Peruvian teenagers

The food at Dawn on the Amazon was really good. Delicious local fish with a twice baked potato and some coconut milk smoothies to finish it off. We were glad we’d gotten to see a bit of the town, too, since during the heat of the day it had been pretty desolate. We were learning quickly. In this heat and humidity, enjoy the morning, go home for a nap, and come back out for the night. Seemed to be the way to do it!

5 reasons we love plantains

It’s been nearly four months since we moved to Lima, Peru.  Since being here, one thing that we have really enjoyed has been finding new foods – especially veggies and fruits!  Plantains are one of the new staples in our home, so I thought I’d share a little about why we love this unique fruit.  I think you can usually find them in the states – I remember seeing them in Whole Foods – I just never knew what to do with them!  Or that they could be so delicious… So here goes – 5 reasons we love plantains!

1. They’re a great carb!

Since getting rid of grains two years ago, we are always looking for good ways to get in carbs, especially for the kids. That energy-fueling component may have a bad rap in pop health, but as “real-foodies” we know it’s just as important to the body as good fats.  Plantains are the third highest source of carbs, behind cassava and taro root.  They contain a whopping 62 grams of carbs in one mashed cup.  Nice!

2. They’re cheap!

Here in Peru, plantains are about as cheap as bananas. They’re a great way to round out a meal without spending a bunch of money!

Plantain tortillas

Plantain tortillas

3. They have a good shelf life.

If you buy green plantains, you can use them all week. Some recipes need the more green, unripe fruit, while others call for the sweeter ripened yellow fruit. Once they start getting brown spots they’re a nice addition to smoothies. No matter where the plantain is in its ripening process, it’s useable. That means they make a great back-up veggie 🙂

4. They can be sweet or savory

I love that I can use them for slightly sweet, fluffy, plantain pancakes (sometimes even throwing in a few mini Enjoy Life chocolate chips for the kids),

Plantain Pancakes

Plantain Pancakes

or for a dinner casserole. Of course, the Peruvian side dish of fried green plantains or “tostones” is also a great savory way to eat them (especially when pan fried in coconut oil and dressed with real sea salt!)

Tostones

Tostones

This week, we also made plantain tortillas that turned out great!  They were a nice accompaniment to mexican rice, beef & veggies, with some diced avocado and a cilantro pesto.

Plantain tortilla

Plantain tortilla

5. They’re a fantastic starch!

I’ve seen them in everything from muffins and cake, to pancakes and desserts – in place of flour!  We’ve had some delicious treats made out of plantains at our local organic market, and I’m really excited to start experimenting with baking them! The recipes we’ve used so far are super quick and simple, which as a mama of two Littles three and under, is really important! I’ll post recipes on the blog as I come up with them.  Let me know if you give plantains a try and what you think!

Exploring Miraflores

¡Hola! ¡Felices Fiestas Patrias! Today is Peru’s independence day. I suspect there will be parades and festivities later in the day because everywhere we’ve gone we’ve seen banners announcing the holiday.Window shopping
We spent the foggy, wet weekend getting to know Lima, and specifically Miraflores. On Saturday we found a local store and John had a couple suits made. Many things here are cheaper than in the states, and then some things are more expensive, so I guess it balances out. We found some good deals, though, and explored a little past our immediate block or two of shops. We found a nice little cafe for lunch. I had the Peruvian signature dish: Anticuchos, which is seasoned beef heart slices on a skewer. It’s a delicious dish! Although nearly everything we’ve put in our mouths this past week has been delicious. We are in love with the local cuisine!

A Peruvian fish dish

A Peruvian fish dish

The food is beautiful, too (like this fish dish I had earlier in the week – probably the best fish I’ve ever eaten). You can tell most restaurants have very well trained chefs. We ordered cafe lattes with our lunch on Saturday and I was surprised when I looked down at my mug and saw a sun smiling back at me. They do latte art here, too :).

Latte art

Latte art

We also found another grocery store while we were out. It’s not far from where our apartment is located, so we may be new frequenters. Guess what we saw in the freezer section?? I couldn’t believe it! Blue Bell Ice Cream (the best ice cream you’ll ever buy – and generally only sold in the southwest of the US). We’ll be keeping that in mind for a special occasion 🙂Bluebell icecream