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…

Brazil: Rio de Janeiro

After our short stop at Iguazu Falls, we were back on another flight for Rio de Janeiro.  This was John’s favorite place he visited when in Brazil last November.  It’s amazing how nice and relaxing flights are when you don’t have two toddlers to entertain!  Don’t get me wrong, I was missing those sweet kiddos like crazy, but I was not missing flying with them ;).

The first day we had in Rio we visited the iconic Sugar Loaf or Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese.  Being in a country that spoke Portuguese was challenging for me.  It did help me see how much my Spanish has improved with living in Lima, but I was discouraged at how little I understood of Portuguese!  John had been taking lessons for the past year, so his was good enough to get us around, which was a good thing since I was basically useless on that front!

Half way to Sugarloaf!

Half way to Sugarloaf!

The tram up to the top had beautiful views!  It was a nice clear day, with just a little bit of haze.

View from the top of Sugarloaf

View from the top of Sugarloaf

The weather was warm and the sun was shining – it was a great break from Lima, which can be pretty foggy in April.  What I loved most about Rio was the temperature.  It was 80F when we woke up each morning, and 86F by the peak of the afternoon.  Not bad, not bad.

Rio below

Rio below

I was nearing the end of the first trimester by this trip, so thankfully the debilitating nausea that had plagued me the previous two months was subsiding.

View from the top

View from the top

At the back of Sugarloaf was a nature trail.  You had to walk down this super steep ramp to get there!

Ramp to the nature trail

Ramp to the nature trail

Not many people know about it I guess, because while there was a good crowd at the view points, there weren’t many people on the trail.  It was a nice walk and we saw quite a bit of wildlife.  The coolest thing we saw were these little monkeys – this one had three or four tiny baby monkeys hanging on her back!

Mama Monkey

Mama Monkey

We also saw some lizards, big birds (maybe hawks), and mosquitos…darn.  That’s something we’ve taken for granted in Peru!  No mosquitos!  The views were just incredible – there are tons of tiny islands all around Rio, which was really cool to see.

Beach below and islands

Beach below and islands

What a nice day!

What a nice day!

When we had explored all Sugarloaf had to offer, we headed back down to the city to do some more exploring.

The next day we visited another one of the 7 Wonders of the World: Christ the Redeemer.  We waited a while to board the train up Mount Corcovado.

Train Station at Mount Corcovado

Train Station at Mount Corcovado

It was a pretty ride, through lots of vegetation and there was a cool breeze blowing through the train car.  Once at the top you can either take the elevator or stairs to the statue.  This statue was built between 1922-1931 and created by French sculptor Paul Landowski.

Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

 It is the largest art deco statue in the world, standing 98 feet tall, with arms stretching an incredible 92 feet.  Unfortunately it was very crowded the morning we went, so it was hard to get a picture without a photo bomb :).

At the top of Mount Corcovado

At the top of Mount Corcovado

Photo bomb!

Photo bomb!  And baby belly.

 But it was still amazing.  The views of Rio were again just breathtaking.

View from the top of Mount Corcovado

View from the top of Mount Corcovado

Sunny day

Sunny day

After our trip to Christ the Redeemer, we went downtown to visit the Museu de Arte do Rio (or MAR art museum).  We just happened to show up on half-price day, which was nice.  It had some really interesting exhibits, with mostly modern art.  I’m not a big fan of videos and lights in my art, but other than that there was some cool stuff.  John liked this one…

Victim of violence

Victim of violence

Not sure what this was supposed to be…again, interesting though.

Modern art

Modern art

What was really great is that nearly all the art was about Brazil – or even Rio more specifically.  It was cool to get a glimpse into the history and culture of the favelas and this huge city.  The view from the top of the museum was really beautiful.

Harbor view from the MAR

Harbor view from the MAR

 This was the harbor that once had been the bustling center of Rio back in the day, bringing in all those items from abroad.  Rio as a city is big, but it felt a lot more warm and friendly than some of the big cities I’ve visited.  Probably because everyone was happy to have beach time :).

Our apartment we rented through AirB&B was just a few blocks from the Ipanema Beach.

View of Sugarloaf from Ipanema Beach

View of Sugarloaf from Ipanema Beach

 We enjoyed our last afternoon relaxing and reading while soaking up some sun and sipping some fresh coconut water!

Perfect day for the beach

Perfect day for the beach

Wading in the ocean

Wading in the ocean

 That night we made it to The Girl from Ipanema (Garota de Ipanema) restaurant, known throughout the world from the top-charting song of the same name.

At dinner

At dinner

 The food was hearty and delicious and the atmosphere was great fun – with windows open to the street and a packed room, you felt like a part of the fun, busy city.  We’d enjoyed Rio.  It had been a wonderful getaway!

Brazil: Iguazu Falls

While David and Katelyn were with us in Peru, they offered (or maybe John coerced them into it…) to watch the kids for us so we could make a trip to Brazil together.  It was our first time leaving the kids in quite a long time and I was really apprehensive about it.  Thankfully, the kids had a wonderful time with their aunt and uncle and everyone did great!  John really wanted us to go on this trip – he had already been to Brazil few months earlier for a 2 week trip traveling around the country, but he had loved Rio so much he wanted us to go back together.  When it came time to book our tickets, the prices had gone up so much that we didn’t think it was going to work out. I kept looking for options though, and finally realized that if we had a long layover in Iguazu Falls, we could save $100+ per ticket!   This almost covered the price of a hotel in Iguazu (like my money-saving logic? 🙂 ). So we flew in around 6pm and got a taxi to the hotel right at the falls edge.

View of the falls from the hotel

View of the falls from the hotel

The sun had just set when we arrived, but we could hear the water rushing over the falls.  The hotel was amazing.  Definitely a splurge, but totally worth it since we were right there (and only for 18 hours or so).  There weren’t any restaurants around the hotel, so we ate at the hotel’s amazing dinner buffet.  After having lived in Peru for the last 10 months, I was so happy to see some decent beef!  They had every kind of beef you could imagine, including some delicious filet mignon.  The salads and side dishes were also to die for.  We ate dinner on the festively-lit patio overlooking the beautiful pool.  It was such a beautiful place!

The next morning we awoke early to toucans outside our balcony.

Good morning, Toucan

Good morning, Toucan

We were excited to get a head start at the falls, before all the tourists arrived at 9am.  We wouldn’t realize just how much of an advantage that was until about the 10th loaded bus dropped off its’ passengers 6 hours later.  We were on the trail by 7am.

The falls early in the morning

The falls early in the morning

 The birds were loud enough that you could still hear them over the thunderous noise of the water rushing over the edge of the falls.  Iguazu Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on both the Argentinian side and the Brazilian side, and stretches nearly 2 miles across.  That’s twice as wide as Niagra Falls!

On the trail

On the trail

 We were only seeing the Brazilian side, since I didn’t have my Visa for Argentina before the trip.  It worked out fine though, since our time was so limited anyways.

Getting a little wet!

Getting a little wet!

 From the Argentinian side, it looked like you could more look over the falls.  Where as on the Brazilian side you got an amazing front view of the falls.

Rainbow over the falls

Rainbow over the falls

 The wildlife was amazing too.  We’ve never seen so many butterflies as we did that day.  There were literally hundreds in all different sizes and colors flitting every which way.  Most of the birds we saw were toucans, but there were also some large black and white birds that reminded me of magpies.  We saw these funny little mammals, too, called a South American Coati, or a Quati in Portuguese.

South American Coati

South American Coati

 A whole family of them….just out for a morning walk.  They were pretty used to people.  And for Olivia, we caught this picture of one of her favorite bugs – the snail.

Mr. Snail

Mr. Snail

 When we got near the end of the trail, we realized there was a walkway out into the middle of the falls – so we decided to do it.

Looking closely you can see the bridge into the falls

Looking closely you can see the bridge we walked

 We hadn’t brought rain ponchos, but hey, you only get to do something like this once!  We got soaked, but we ran all the way out to the edge and stood under the beautiful rainbow that stretched from side to side.

Getting wet!

Getting wet!

 Before we headed back we took the elevator up to an observatory deck and got a picture of us all soaking wet from the waterfalls spray!

Wet and happy

Wet and happy

 By then we were ready for breakfast, so we walked back to the hotel for an amazing buffet breakfast.

The Belmond Hotel

The Belmond Hotel tower

 We had a few more hours before we needed to be to the airport for our flight to Rio, so after breakfast we grabbed our suits and hit the pool for some reading and relaxation and a game of ping-pong.

Enjoying the morning at the pool

Enjoying the morning at the pool

 Despite the limited time, it was a wonderful stay!  We had just enough time to grab lunch and check out the hotel’s tower before catching our cab back to the airport!

In the hotel tower

In the hotel tower

In the hotel tower

In the hotel tower

 I was really liking what I’d seen of Brazil so far – I couldn’t wait to get to Rio!