Ku Ku KaChew

Welcome to the world of Ku! This was originally a food blog, but I am turning it into a general collection of my life experiences :)
If you're looking for my raw food blog, you can find it here: http://atlantarawks.blogspot.com

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fes, Morocco

As-salam alaykom!!
(Peace be upon you)

Wow, where to begin?! Morocco encompassed many firsts for me: First time in Africa, first time in an Arab country, and first time I've genuinely felt like a tourist. Despite visiting several different countries last year, I never felt like a tourist because I more or less blended in Asia. Even though everyone could tell I wasn't full Asian, I still didn't particularly stand out and skated by under the radar.

However, despite covering all my appendages and wearing sunglasses, I was still very obviously Asian to everyone in Morocco. I constantly heard "Konichiwa" and "China helloooo" and "Japonais?" everywhere I went. I guess I should have expected that but I honestly was not prepared! I now understand how much that kind of interaction can influence one's view of a country/culture. It's very overwhelming when you are verbally singled out.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that Americans in general have extremely negatively skewed opinions of Arabs/Muslims. Our media has done a very deliberate job in creating a fear-based cacophony surrounding Arabs and Muslims due to actions conducting by extremists. That's not fair. And while I try very hard to not make premature judgments, I must admit that I was a bit nervous about visiting North Africa. As a woman. And completely alone. 

Well, do one thing every day that scares you, right?


My worry about this discrimination was that I would be targeted for scams, pickpocketing, etc. However, after spending a few days there, I realized that I really had nothing more to be wary about than if I was traveling in any other country. While a few people who approached me were trying to get some money out of me (which, let's get real, happens everywhere), most people were just genuinely interested to see a foreigner and make a new friend. I was really quite delighted with all the smiles and kindness I received in Morocco. 

We fear the unknown. We fear what we don't understand. I don't blame us, that's natural! But the way to combat these fears are by confronting them with an open mind and gentle heart. I learned a lot about Moroccan (and consequently Islamic) culture during my visit and have a better understanding of what I previously knew little about. 

Below are my day-by-day experiences in Fez, Morocco. They are pretty detailed, but I'm guessing that's why you're reading this, right?? Carry on :)

Tuesday - June 2, 2015
I arrived in Fes-Saïss Airport at about 16:00. I had arranged for a pick-up from my hostel, Funky Fez, so someone was waiting for me with a sign with my name on it when I walked out of the airport #fancy. The ride took about 30 minutes and was pretty quiet. The landscape was warm, sunny, dusty, and very tan. The driver escorted me to the front desk of the hostel where I paid him a flat 150 dirham airport shuttle fee (~$15). Check in went smoothly and I promptly set down my backpack on a bunk, got a map with suggested points of interest, and headed out to explore.

For 2 hours I got THOROUGHLY lost in the alleyways of the Medina, or old city of Fez. If you ever go to there, understand that maps are mere directional suggestions, you WILL get lost, and that it will all be just fine! However, the first venture in the Medina can be a bit terrifying. Anyone who has gotten lost in a car with me knows that I'm very easy going about it and enjoy the opportunity to learn a new route. Getting lost is simply the education of a new way. But no joke I almost freaked the hell out lol. There are so many alleyways and turns and people that it's impossible to just retrace your route or keep track of where you're going. 

Despite strong suggestions to not follow strangers offering directions,  a couple young boys offered to show me a rooftop view of the oldest university in Fez, free of charge of course.* Caught up in the trance of friendliness in a foreign land, I followed them. We climbed the steep, narrow staircase through what was obviously a family's house, and I held my breath and hoped I didn't make a huge mistake. Luckily the view was terrific and they offered me mint tea to go along with it. I (perhaps foolishly) said sure and we sat on pillows on the balcony and chatted. They were smiley, friendly, bright-eyed, very enthusiastic, and both named Umar but were not related. They seemed harmless and kind but considering I had only been in this new country for a couple hours I was nervous that my actions were ridiculously naive. 

As soon as the tea cooled a bit, I downed it (again, could have been a horrible judgment as I had not seen it being made) and said that I had to go. I trust easily, which society tells me is stupid and foolish, but (knock on wood) I've always been lucky. Thankfully this time was no exception. I am a firm believer that people generally have good hearts (thanks to my sweet mother) and that continues to be reaffirmed, especially when I travel. One day I might not be so lucky. I know this. But sometimes the world isn't as broken as we often think it is. Sometimes showing faith in others provides the opportunity for wonderful connections. In my experiences, it's better to give the benefit of the doubt than to prejudge.

*Well, the view was technically free of charge but I paid 15 dirhams for the tea and the boys asked for tips when I left them, so I paid them 20 dirhams each for a whopping total of about $5.50. Bottom line is that I didn't get kidnapped or drugged or have a kidney stolen so I still believe that people are inherently good. It was worth the view and experience and I ended up being greeted by their smiling faces every time I went back to the Medina :) Sarah: 326, Pessimists: 0, take that!

The buildings of the Medina are all about 3-5 stories tall; the alleys are narrow and uneven; every doorway has extremely detailed patterns and designs; people are bustling in all directions, competing with mules and cats; animal poop and trash litter the ground and must be carefully dodged; claustrophobia inevitably set in; and signs directed to various sights give faint but completely illegitimate reassurance to even the most directionally capable individual. 

Why, then, would one ever voluntarily weave through this labyrinth of chaos?! Why endure the heat and stress and sweat and anxiety and mess of getting lost in a completely unfamiliar environment??

Well, let me tell you... The sights, smells, sounds, textures, flavors, and unbelievable craftsmanship you discover will draw you further and further down this winding, wonderful maze that is the Medina. Fez is completely dependent on the artisanal work of textiles, metal, wood, shoes, and leather. The quality of these products is no match for the unblemished, uniform, factory-made products to which we have grown so accustomed. Spending even just a few minutes watching someone carving an enormous piece of wood by hammering ("stamping") a chisel over the entire surface area is truly breathtaking. Or witnessing a widowed woman creating a handmade carpet with such speed and precision that you can't even process her process. Or having a bird's eye view of men hunched over vats of dye getting stained along with hundreds of hides in the sweltering heat. It makes you really step back and appreciate the skill, hard work, and artistry of the people of an entire city.

Well, I'm not sure how it happened, but I somehow miraculously ended up back where I started. Perhaps this is part of Fez's magic! I returned to the hostel where I was able to choose from several Moroccan dishes for only 50 dirham (~$5). I had veggie couscous and ate with  some fellow hostelmates who became great adventure partners during the remainder of my stay. We ate on the rooftop terrace and watched heat lightning in the beautiful, breezy evening. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

Wednesday - June 3, 2015
Breakfast was included in the hostel stay and consisted of a hard boiled egg, a slice of slightly sweet cake, sliced tomatoes, and a piece of msemen/rghaif. Msemen is a type of crepe or flatbread that is chewy and delicious, almost reminiscent of roti, but greater. Unlimited bread, apricot jelly, tea, and coffee was also available.

The hostel offered a morning walking tour for only 50 dirhams (~$5) so I thought this would be a good way to get my bearings and learn about the various things in the Medina that were unrecognizable to me. The tour was fantastic!! Our guide, Youssef, was kind, friendly, and very helpful.

Youssef explained that 100% of Moroccan Muslims are Sunni and that it is illegal to be Shi'ite in Morocco. Sunnis are more tolerant while Shi'ites are more extreme/radical. Many rooftops have a rod with 3 balls topped with a crescent; the 3 balls symbolize the 3 Western religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) and the crescent represents the lunar calendar. Doors often have a knocker in the shape of Fatima's hand, which symbolizes protection. Doors also often have 2 knockers, each having a different sound, which is used as a code to inform those on the inside whether there is company at the door or just close friends/family.

Stray cats are rampant, much more so than stray dogs. This is because dogs are considered unclean and shunned away. If performing salat (formal prayers), a Muslim must perform wudu (wash hands) 7 times after touching a dog, whereas it is unnecessary to perform wudu after touching a cat. Quite different from the French who bring their dogs everywhere with them!

We were all curious about the levels of covering necessary for women. We saw full coverings with only slits for eyes all the way to women in t-shirts. Youssef told us that the full burka style covering is not Sunni, but representative of other sects of Islam. Women's hair is typically covered because hair is considered one of the most sexual aspests of a woman; however, we saw many women whose hair was exposed. Things are less strict in Fez due to the number of tourists and simply because times they are a-changin.

The tour lasted almost 5 hours and we visited a former Quranic school; a textiles co-op; a carpet co-op; an argan oil, soap, and spices co-op; and the largest tannery in Fez, where leather is stained. 

Here are some more things I learned:
■ Arabic is the official language of Fez with French as the second. Other cities in Morocco have Spanish as the second official language.
■ One studies for several years to become an imam (an Islamic leader, like a priest). If someone does not complete the full studies necessary to become an imam, he can be a muezzin, the one who leads the call to worship 5 times a day.
■ Textiles made in Morocco mainly consist of cotton, wool, and cactus threads. Silk and polyester are also used.
■ It takes one woman about 6 months to complete a single carpet, depending on the size. They only work a couple hours a day because it's very intense on the eyes and fingers.
■ Argan oil is used in cosmetics as well as cooking. Its aroma is similar to that of hazelnuts.
■ Bird poop is collected and sold to tanneries. It helps soften the leather hides before washing and staining them. Sprigs of mint leaves are given to those who visit tanneries to help mask the pungent odors.

Got back to the hostel and had a classic Moroccan soup for lunch. Went back out to the Medina to explore and try the briouates, little triangle samosa lookin things that are filled with almond paste, deep fried, and drenched in honey. Tasted kinda like baklava! These are commonly eaten during Ramadan to provide energy before or after fasting between sunrise and sundown. 

I had been debating about taking a Moroccan cooking class through my hostel. It was only $20 but it wasn't going to be nearly as inclusive as the Thai cooking class I took last summer; no recipe booklet and I'd only learn a couple dishes. So I was super happy when I was strolling through the Medina and found a little Moroccan cookbook with lots of pictures for only $2! Plus it's in French so it will enable me to practice my French as well as make yummy meals!

OK. Let's talk about something that is common to traveling: food poisoning. Many countries don't have potable water so one must be careful and conscious with raw produce, glassware, and ice. There were 4 instances where I probably should have gotten sick:
■ Roasted corn - This is a fresh ear of corn that gets slow roasted rotisserie style over hot coals and then dunked in salted water to season and cool before eating. This smelled and tasted like popcorn!
■ Fresh squeezed juice - Seems harmless, but many carts serve this in glasses that have been rinsed with water from who knows where. Available flavors are orange juice, lemon juice, and pistachio juice. I tried all 3 but drank out of a mystery glass once. Even though I was paranoid about the potentially contaminated glass, the juice certainly was divine.
■ Fresh melon - I was standing watching a chicken butcher doin his thing and he was tickled that I wanted to watch the process. Someone brought over slices of honeydew melon and he offered me a slice. I politely declined but he insisted. Not sure who cut it or where it came from, I was just glad he hadn't touched it hah.
■ Salad - I ended the day with a yummy Moroccan salad that had deliciously flavored cooked eggplant. However, it was mostly lots of raw ingredients (lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, etc) and the water used for washing is questionable.
Lo and behold I had absolutely no food poisoning or funny tummy! Perhaps my immune system is getting stronger :-P

Thursday - June 4, 2015
Woke up at 5:45 to watch the sunrise. It was a beautiful view from the rooftop and all the satellite dishes were funny silhouettes to the golden sky.

Went with a Canadian couple through Bab Jdid (South gate) and up a hill to Borj Sud (South fort). This fort is being restored into a museum and provides a fantastic panorama of Fez El-Bali. Among tourists, there were a few guards and also a few souvenir vendors. However, I guess they are not allowed within the fort fence so they have worked around this loophole by displaying their merchandise inside the fence while they are on standing the other side of the fence hah. Pretty funny to see.

We went past the fort to find a cemetery. At first we thought it was just a small local one because it seemed deserted and unkempt. But as we kept going up the hill, the rest of it was impressively revealed. The white tombstones just kept going and going, overlooking the landscape of the city. Since it was on a hill there was a lovely breeze and we spent the rest of the morning just sitting and watching the city.

Lunch was Kofta tagine (beef meatballs in tomato sauce and spices), which was tasty but honestly tasted a lot like Bolognese sauce. Afterwards a group of us went out and explored the Jewish quarter. We thought we would see some landmarks or synagogues or at least a star of David, but turns out it was just another shopping area, definitely geared more towards locals and not tourists. We passed Palais des Hôtes and Jardin Jnan Sbil but began melting so much from the heat that we decided to head back.

Dinner was a vegetable pastella, which is a filled pastry. Traditionally it's with shredded chicken, almonds, and cinnamon, so it's sweet and savory. The veggie version is kinda like a spring roll, filled with clear vermicelli noodles, lettuce, carrots, lemon, cilantro, and green olives. Was tasty but I was hoping for more veggies and less noodle filler so I wish I had gotten the chicken one!
Friday - June 5, 2015
Woke up at 6am to see my hostel buddies off to their desert trip. I wanted to go but my time in Fez was short and I didn't want to spend the entire visit in the desert, so I'm saving that for my next visit :) I had a couple hours to kill before breakfast would be ready so I went back up the hill where the fort was and brought my hammock! I swear hammocking is like instant therapy. I can feel my blood pressure drop as soon as I lay down, and I ain't even stressed! Being cradled and slightly swaying while hearing birds chirping and feeling a gentle breeze is absolute heaven. Here I caught up on some journaling and watched Fez wake up.

Went back to the hostel for breakfast and then went out to the Medina one last time in an attempt to spend the rest of my dirhams. What I failed to remember was that it was Friday. Friday is a holy day for Islam so most of the stalls were closed. It was interesting seeing the alleys so empty. I kept walking and came across a huge local market. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, toiletries, fowl, bread, kitchen items, tons and tons of stuff. 

I soon discovered the unique smell that comes from chicken stalls...
I'm about to outline what goes on in these chicken stalls so if you've got a weak stomach I encourage you to be done with this entry hah.

First off, all these stalls are quite small. Probably roughly 5' x 10' x 15' areas. There are a couple shelves of live white chickens, or low, wide cages full of them. There is only one person, sometimes 2 people, working these stalls. Someone comes up and orders chicken! I guess  either by quantity or weight. The guy takes a chicken (or 4) by the wing and places it in a crate on a scale. The chicken is tagged around the foot, I guess to keep track of whose chicken it is or whether it is to be left whole or not. The chicken's head is pulled back towards its feet to expose the neck and with a quick, small slice of a sharp knife, it is dead. It's then dropped into a bucket for the blood to drain. After a few minutes, the chicken is taken out of the bucket and dunked in water to rinse it. Then it's placed in a large metal machine that spins and de-feathers it. It comes out spankin clean and is then inspected before being butchered into smaller pieces if desired. 

The entire process takes approximately 10 minutes. It's really quite a fascinating process and also amazing how relatively calm all the chickens are. The chicken's scrap parts (intestines, feet, etc) are thrown to stray cats, which I guess is one way of reducing waste, but it is rather gross to see...
There are humane and inhumane ways of killing animals for food and this seems like a pretty humane way. Certainly better than factory farms do it. I'd actually be curious about learning how to do the process myself. The way I feel is that if you can't handle watching (or doing) the process, then you shouldn't be eating it. Seems fair to me.

Aaaaaannnnnnndddd on that note I think I'm done! I hope you enjoyed learning about Fez, I certainly enjoyed doing the research :-D I'll try to host a Moroccan dinner when I return so let me know if you'd like to partake :) I'm out!


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Friday, January 9, 2015

Backpacking Tips

Wanna know how I survived traveling around Southeast Asia for 4 months with only 2 backpacks? Are you thinking of embarking on your own backpacking journey, but have no clue what to get or how to pack? Are you an organization junkie who thrives on efficiency and being prepared? Are you an awesome friend who loves to read about my wanderlust? If you answered yes to any of these, then this blog post is for you!! :-D Prompted by some good friends of mine, I decided to write a post to encourage anyone who is wanting to backpack but unsure of how to start. I really hope you find some helpful tips here and that you are inspired to get out there and have an adventure!


Let me start by saying that I avoid checking bags whenever possible. Lost luggage is no fun to deal with. I know from experience and I’d rather spare you the hassle! I also have always followed a very simple rule for traveling: If you can’t carry it, you can’t bring it. Don’t pack more than you alone can manage! Sometimes you will find yourself in situations that don’t have luggage carts, people to help, or enough room on particular modes of transportation. Don’t let your luggage bog you down. You will have wonderful experiences whether you wear the same shirt three days in a row or not. My advice is to get over the need to wear something new every day and get used to handwashing clothes. Backpacking is not about being stylish, and clean is a relative term. If you can’t wrap your head around that, then backpacking may not be for you! Even if this kind of traveling is not your cup of tea, I invite you to continue reading anyway, because most of these tips are good for any kind of travel. Flexibility is the most valuable thing you can bring with you when traveling, so don’t worry so much and just have fun! 

Solidly framed backpack : $20.00-200.00 

I really lucked out with my backpack. I went to REI during one of their Scratch and Dent Sales and found a great used backpack that only cost me $20. $20!!! Framed backpacks cost anywhere from $40-500 and it’s important to get one that fits comfortably and properly. Again, I really lucked out because mine fits me pretty well and hasn’t caused me any problems. If there is an REI near you I HIGHLY recommend checking out their Scratch and Dent Sales. I also got a pair of Keens at that sale for really cheap. Be prepared to find a ton of great stuff!

Drawstring camping bags : Pack of 3 for $5.00 

These bags can be found in the camping section of Walmart and are super awesome when it comes to packing, regardless of whether you are backpacking or not. They’re like drawstring sleeping bag bags and you can stuff so much more in them than if you didn't have them. They come in a pack of 3, and each bag is a different color and a different size. This makes organizing really easy and you can access things incredibly conveniently. For example, I put my socks and underwear in the small red bag, shorts in the medium blue bag, and shirts in the large green bag. That way I knew exactly which bag I needed to pull out because I had a system. No more rifling through and unpacking your entire backpack to get the shirt you’re looking for only to discover it was actually in a different place altogether. Hooray for organization! Also, any other small bags (like the ones that are given to first class passengers on airplanes) are super convenient for chargers, glasses, tissues, pill boxes, etc. So next time you’re on a flight and pass the first class rows on your way off the plane, swipe a bag or two! They are factored into the ticket costs, so if they aren’t taken from the passengers who were sitting there then it’s their loss and your gain! But it still never hurts to be discreet about it ;) 

Clothesline (shoelaces and rope are fine substitutes) : <$5.00 
Any kind of rope or string is going to be handy to have on any trip. At some point you will come across a situation in which rope or string will be useful. From hanging wet clothes to affixing extra things to your backpack. It takes up no space and can literally save you. 

Carabiners : ~$1.00 each 

Clip these to all your bags. Just like string or rope, these babies are wildly handy to have. I always bring a backpack with me wherever I go, whether I’m strolling around the neighborhood for 30 minutes or have a full day-trip ahead of me. I often stop in a store or get some groceries or souvenirs and I don’t always have extra room in my backpack. I just clip the grocery bag to my backpack with a carabiner and bam, I am hands-free again! 

Mosquito repellent and sunscreen wipes : $3.00-20.00 

Like I said before, I rarely check bags. This means my liquids are limited. Instead of wasting my liquids on things like mosquito repellent or sunscreen, buy the wipes instead. They can be shoved into those extra pockets around your backpack so they’re also great for limited space. Not to mention you minimize your risk of leakage problems! 

Tiger balm : $6.00+ 
Tiger balm is a natural remedy to help soothe mosquito bites, congested sinuses, sore muscles, you name it. Plus it’s not a liquid so it doesn’t count against your liquid limit! Here are some more uses: http://tiger.the-balm.com/uses.htm 

Microfiber towel : $12.00-24.00 

A microfiber towel is light, thin, and dries super fast. Much better than a regular towel. I got mine on Amazon, and REI has them too. 

Washcloths : $1.00-6.00 

Get washcloths that are not actually cloth, but plastic. These dry incredibly fast and never retain odor or mold. I use these at home in addition to travel. Also, Korean spa scrubbers are similar to these but only cost $1 each. Look for them in Korean markets (Super H Mart) and other Korean stores. 

Travel utensils   : $12.00 
These are fantastic travel utensils. I always travel with these, as well as a pair of compact metal travel chopsticks that was gifted to me by a dear friend. To-Go Ware includes a bamboo fork, spoon, knife, and chopsticks in a convenient carrying case equipped with its own carabiner. Great great product. I’ve never had any problems with these in airport security, although my metal chopsticks did set off a red flag once, but it was no problem and they didn’t confiscate them. 

Universal adapter and extension cord : $5.00-15.00 

The only advice I have on these is that some are better than others hah. Unfortunately it’s really really hard to be able to tell without trying them whether it’s of good quality or not. I just bought one for $10 and when I plug it in, it falls right out of the outlet because it is heavy. Some have a tighter fit so that it holds better. I just prop it with bags underneath it and it’s been fine. Another option is to keep a small roll of tape in your bag for situations like this. Packing an extension cord allows you to plug in multiple devices from one outlet. Pack smarter, not harder :) 

Flip flops : $2.00+ 

If you are staying in hostels, you will want flip flops to protect your feet against fungus. Get the cheapest pair you can find and use them only for showers. Wear more comfortable ones for walking around. 

Plastic bags 

We all have a surplus of plastic grocery bags. Stick a handful of them in each piece of luggage you have. Use them to hold your dirty clothes, for storing your shower flip flops and other shoes, for trash bags, etc. 

Ziploc bags 

I use these for waterproofing my phone, preventing liquid bottles from leaking, collecting shells and rocks, and saving food leftovers. 

Bandanas are cheap, useful, and come in a lovely variety of colors and styles. I first realized bandanas were amazing when I was 7 years old. My twin brother and I were at summer camp and went to Stone Mountain for a hike. Our counselor had a bandana tied around her backpack, and we asked her why she had it. She replied, "Well, you never know when you might need it." Unimpressed, we both shrugged the answer off and went about our hike. During the hike, Jason (my twin brother), slipped and fell onto a very sharp stick. The counselor promptly took the bandana off her backpack and tied it around Jason's leg to minimize the bleeding, racing him down the mountain on her back. Jason ended up with several stitches in his leg and a very memorable story. Ever since, I have always had a bandana around all my backpacks. They've come in handy for wiping up spills, cleaning sunglasses, use as an emergency napkin, handkerchief, even as a makeshift scarf in cold weather, and luckily not for any injuries (yet). You could even use them for patching holes in clothing/bags. Which segways me into this next item...

Sewing kit 

Next time you stay in a hotel, ask for a sewing kit and keep it in your backpack. These are extremely handy for patching things on the go. I used mine several times to patch holes in pockets and broken seams and everything was good as new. 

Eye shade and ear plugs 

These are included in the first class bags that I talked about earlier. These can be particularly useful if you are staying in hostels where people are coming in and out of the room on their own schedule. Don’t let them interrupt your beauty sleep! 

Tissue paper / moist towelettes / wipes 

Always useful! Especially if you are in Asian countries that only have squat toilets. 


It’s always good to have food on you. There will be times when you are in transit and won’t have the time or ability to get food. Don’t let hanger ruin your adventures! Energy/granola bars, mini bags of nuts and pretzels (save them from your flights!), bananas, apples, oranges, and peanut butter packets are some personal favorites. Keep them in your backpack!


Other tips: 

• Wear polyester/nylon/rayon clothing 

These materials are very quick drying, making them ideal for handwashing situations. They also help keep you cool during summer traveling. Cotton, while soft and comfortable, takes a long time to dry. Also, cotton is terrible (and dangerous) for cold weather camping and will actually make you colder if temperatures drop below freezing because it retains moisture. Jeans take forever to dry, and if you are in a humid climate, don’t expect them to ever get fully dry. 

• Wear long sleeves and hats 

The sun is damaging to your skin. Instead of worrying about applying and reapplying sunscreen all day long, wear long sleeves and hats for summer travels. If your clothing is polyester you won’t be miserably uncomfortable, I promise. If you travel anywhere that is hot, notice how locals dress. You will find that they cover their skin. Do what locals do! 

• NO money belt 

I highly recommend NOT purchasing a money belt. You don’t wear a money belt on the regular so you will be fumbling with it constantly, which makes you very vulnerable to pick pocketing and a prime target. Stick with what’s familiar. 

• Zippered pockets 

Buy clothing that has pockets with zippers. This makes your belongings infinitely more secure. I’ve had a camera slip right out of my pocket during a bus ride. 

• Diversify your money 

Don’t keep all your credit cards, debit cards, and cash in your wallet because you will be royally screwed if it gets lost or stolen. Keep some on you, some in a backpack, and some in a locker at the hostel. That way you always have backup money. 

• Paper copies 

Print copies of your passport, visa, and driver’s license. Again, if things get lost or stolen, you at least have something. It’s also helpful to have electronic copies of these on your phone, tablet, or laptop. 

• Fold your dirty clothes 

I know this sounds weird, but just like folding or rolling clean clothes is more efficient for space saving, doing it with your dirty clothes makes just as much sense. 

• Buy groceries 

If you are staying at hostels and wanting to keep a low budget, buy groceries for some of your meals instead of always eating out. Most hostels have communal kitchens with pots, pans, condiments, etc. Pick up a head of broccoli and a can of tuna and you’ve got an easy, healthy meal for only a couple bucks. 


I also have a small bag that I carry with me everywhere. Fortune favors the prepared, so I like to be prepared. It contains the following items: 

• Glasses and an extra pair of contacts 

• Eyedrops 
• Antacid tablets 
• Ibuprofen 
• Bandaids 
• Moist towelette wipes / rubbing alcohol pads 
• Sewing kit 
• Eye shade and ear plugs 
• Tissues 
• Pens 
• Nail file 
• Safety pins 
• Floss 
• Mouthwash 
• Mints / gum 
• Comb 
• Headphones 
• USB drive 
• Battery operated USB charger 
• Batteries 


I’m sure I have forgotten several tips, but hopefully this was helpful!! I will add to it when I think of things. Hope this has inspired you and shown you that you too can embark on a wonderful backpacking excursion! 

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Where in the world is Ku?

I've created a public calendar so that my wonderful family and friends can check out where I'll be in the foreseeable future! Anything with a question mark is tentative. I feel like I know someone in just about every city I go to, so in the event that I haven't reached out to you and I'm comin through your hood, let me know so we can hang! :-D

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tales of Taipei

Well hey, Blogger!! Haven't been on you in a while! I had a wonderfully amazing time in Xiamen spending time with new and old family and learning about my roots. I come from some really awesome people and it makes me very proud :-)

I'm currently in Taipei, Taiwan and absolutely loving it!! Since I've been slacking with the posts, here are a few separate snippets about my time here so far.


This city is unlike any I've ever been to. Below are some factors that contribute to my adoration of this beautiful place:

The Taipei metro is fast, cheap, convenient, accessible, clean, and super easy to navigate. Scrolling marquees in both Chinese and English make getting lost difficult. Before you even enter a station there are screens outside the gates indicating whether a train is about to arrive or has just left, so you never have to run frantically to the platform only to watch your train pull away from you. There are lines on the platforms to organize people entering and exiting the trains, and what's even more fascinating is that people actually abide by them! This was an immediately noticeable difference from the metro in Shanghai where everyone is constantly pushing and shoving their way on and off the trains in utter chaos. Children, elderly, disabled folks, and pregnant women are not spared any courtesies on the mainland. Chinese people on the mainland are in a constant struggle with each other because there are just SO many people EVERYWHERE. It's no wonder they've inhabited a fend-for-yourself disposition. But Taiwan is miniscule compared to the mainland. The entire island has only 23 million people compared to the mainland's 1.3 billion people (not to mention the glaringly obvious difference in land mass), so it's only natural that there would be differences. Plus Taiwan is democratic! So for example, with escalators, everyone (I mean EVERYONE) stands on the right side so that people can pass on the left. While this is also common in America, it is more a theory than an actual practice. And here, priority seating is always followed. There are often empty seats on the subway cars even when there are several people still standing. I've never experienced a city with people who are so cooperative as those in Taipei. Bus systems, especially in foreign languages, can be overwhelmingly confusing. But bus signs and routes here are very clear (also in Chinese and English) and are pretty easy to understand. If subways and busses weren't enough, there are also cheap, fast trains that cover the entire perimeter of Taiwan. Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Also there are clean bathrooms in every metro station. I feel like I haven't seen that in other cities, but maybe I haven't been paying attention?

To piggyback on transportation, it's incredibly easy to access nature from this modern city. Just hop on a metro line and ride it til the end and you will be only minutes away from outdoorsy wonders including hiking trails, hot springs, and lush mountains. No need for a car to get your nature on here!

Two words: street food!! It's cheap, delicious, and, unlike some other areas of Southeast Asia, Taiwan's street food is not likely to divert you to spending half a day on the porcelain express. $5USD will get you plenty satiated at a night market. If you've had enough of foods that have been fried and skewered, just walk around and you'll undoubtedly come across a variety of international restaurants to choose from, also very affordably priced. Taipei offers the same diversity of cuisine available in Hong Kong but without the dent in your wallet.

History and Culture
Museums? Art? Temples? Monuments? Shows? Artifacts? Festivals? It's all here!!


OK so let me tell you about a glorious day I had here.

I took the metro in the morning to Xiangshan station and walked about 0.5km to the base of Elephant Mountain (there was excellent signage). I spent almost 4 hours hiking (and not leisurely) around the mountain and didn't come close to covering even 1/4 of the trails. These are well-paved, well-signed trails that satisfy explorers of all ages and skill levels. Some may scoff at the artifice of groomed steps instead of rugged rocky terrain, but a smoother path does not necessarily mean a less arduous hike. I personally loved seeing a number of elderly people dedicated to what seemed like a routine trek for them. I got winded throughout my journey (and I'm a triathlete, damnit!) and was impressed with their nonchalance and perseverance. A non-paved path would surely result in less people able to enjoy fresh air and exercise in such beautiful scenery. There are points along the trail with exercise equipment, even a barbell with weights! 

There are tons of side spurt trails for those looking for more of a challenge on a less populated path, and I took my chances on one of these outliers. I'm so glad I did because I eventually discovered a very steep path that had knotted ropes to climb up large mossy rocks! It was like rockclimbing, but without the security of a harness. Before I committed to the climb, I realized that I was very much alone. I hadn't seen anybody on this side path and I was at least 30 minutes away from the main path. If I fell or slipped it was very likely I wouldn't be found for a while... I could hear my mother's voice in my head urging me not to risk it, but I shook it off and decided that this was my do-one-thing-every-day-that-scares-you moment (shout out to Baz Luhrmann). So up I went! In retrospect I feel like it really wasn't that scary, but I was actually a bit shaky when I reached the top! I was rewarded with a beautiful view of Taipei101 that was blemished by an enormous spider resting in its spectacular web. I went up a bit further, feeling very cat-like; if there is a higher place to go, I wanna be up there! I almost laughed out loud when I saw what was at the very top: IT WAS THE MAIN PATH!!!!! Miffed at the sheer thought that anyone would take the easy way back down after such an exhilarating climb, I promptly turned around and went back down the ropes course! It was much less scary going down, although that might be because I actually put away my headphones on the descent :-P

Feeling wonderfully accomplished, I made my way back down the mountain with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I hopped back onto the metro and only rode it one stop to the Taipei101 station. Walked a few blocks to Eslite Bookstore, which is a large chain with several floors of books, shops, and food. I had lunch at a vegetarian place that used a plate-by-weight system (like Whole Foods' cafeteria). At only $109TWD (<$4USD), I was thoroughly full. I wandered around the bookstore a bit, but it wasn't like Borders or Barnes and Noble. No big comfy couches or chairs to post up in and get lost in a crisp new cookbook (my personal go-to). Instead there were only hard chairs or benches and most of the books were sealed with clear wrappers to preserve the mystery of their contents. It was crowded, noisy, and cold, so I went back out into the steamy city streets.

I took the metro from Taipei101 over to the Taipei Zoo station to catch the gondola up to Maokong. The gondola costs $50TWD (<$2USD) to the top and another $50TWD to come back down. It takes approximately 30 minutes each way and has a few exit points along the way for tea and temples. I spotted a rooftop restaurant at the top and went straight there to settle in for the sunset. To my surprise I was the only one there for a good while. Granted, I got there around 17:30, so a bit early for dinner, but still. With a view like that I'm shocked it‘s not packed 24/7!

I stayed for a couple hours reading and soaking in the view. Ordered fried noodles (kinda like Pad See Ew) for $100TWD (~$3USD) and it was almost too much food. Sunset was around 18:30 and was absolutely marvelous from Maokong. What a great way to wind down the day :-)


Today I had a nice turn of events. After just missing the bus to go the a national park, I botched that plan and explored Shilin instead. I meandered along the Keelung River, which was lined with a long bike path, rugby fields, and softball fields. I then went past the Taipei Astronomical Museum (which I did not go to because I decided that I have to wait and go with my aerospace/astrophysics best friend!) and noticed a sign that said something like "Science and Physics Park." Say what? It was like Sci-Trek... OUTSIDE!! Tons of interactive structures all over! Very very cool.

I then went along a perpendicular river and it was smaller and quieter. The bike path continued on along this river, but there were no more sports fields. Instead, locals with fishing poles dotted the riverbank. I sat and relaxed on a bench under a bridge for a bit to enjoy the shade and the breeze. A group of tandem bikers came and took a break under the bridge as well. Some of the bikers were escorted to the benches and had walking sticks. Half of the bikers were blind! The group leader made an announcement and was given a plaque from the group. He started crying as he spoke to the group and it was so so moving. How wonderful that this group enables blind people to experience bike riding in a safe way! And how rewarding it must be to give someone that kind of experience. No doubt they do it voluntarily. Does this kind of organization exist in the States? If not, it really should, and I want to be a part of it!! I was so glad I got to witness this special moment. I love how even despite language barriers, so much can be understood by one another. So much of what is communicated is through body language and facial expressions, not specific words, and I've experienced that so fully on this trip. 

I stayed there on the bench under the bridge for a while after they left, almost paralyzed by their compassion. Call me naive or sheltered or even my mother, but I will always believe that people in general are good. I know we get exposed to so much negativity and cruelty with the news and media, but when I am out in the world and I see people helping each other, in small and big ways, it's powerful. When I pay attention and I disconnect from my phone, my iPod, my tablet, and other distractions, I see so many little gestures. From alerting someone of an item dropped to assisting with lifting a heavy object to giving up a seat, these are all meaningful acts of kindness. Yes it's cliché, but they make the world such better place, and I feel so grateful whenever I witness them.

People helping people. That's what it's all about, guys :-D