Bryan in Taipei: Arrival and Adjustment Period

September 7, 2018

It’s been a few days since I’ve arrived in Taipei and moved in to my apartment. Upon arriving I almost immediately noticed the towering, bamboo-inspired Taipei 101 in the skyline. My apartment is about a 20 minute walk from it, so it’s a very lively yet local area with lots of restaurants and cafes. Taipei has a very convenient metro and bus system, which makes accessing the rest of the city incredibly easy. Even beaches and mountains are accessible. There are plenty of possible day trips.

Elephant Mountain

My first “hike” here has been up Elephant Mountain. Lots of tourists and locals gather here and spread out on some rocks to see the city. We tried to make it by sunset, but unfortunately we underestimated the amount of stairs going up! The perch overlooks the city and offers a view of Taipei 101 that’s hard to beat.

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung specializes in Huaiyang cuisine (also known as Jiangsu cuisine), which is among the ‘Four Great Traditions’ or schools of classical Chinese cooking

Having travelled to Taipei for a short week when I was 16, I already had a pretty decent idea of the abundance of good food in this city. That being said, I knew my very first meal had to be at the much-acclaimed Din Tai Fung. This restaurant is known for its world-famous Xiaolongbao. It has spread throughout Asia and is even in the United States, but I had to go to the original. It was even better than I had remembered and the service and atmosphere were phenomenal as well.


View of Taipei at sunset from a local rooftop restaurant

In retrospect, it was a good decision to come before orientation and school started. I’ve had the opportunity to explore the city and get comfortable with everything before starting classes. I’m excited for the semester to start so I can see more of the school and clubs and activities on campus.

Bryan in Taipei

Ella in Buenos Aires: A Weekend in Salta

June 25, 2018


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Things have been getting kind of crazy here since finals are coming up! This week I wanted to write about my amazing trip to the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, Argentina. I went with four of my good friends that I met here in Buenos Aires at the Universidad Católica Argentina.

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First we traveled to the cities of Humahuaca and Tilcara, which were absolutely incredible. The mountains were breathtaking.

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Next, we went to Purmamarca, and to the Salinas Grandes, or salt flats, which went on as far as the eye could see. We learned that the government harvests the salt to sell! I had never seen anything like it in my life. We thought our car looked cool against the barren landscape.

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Last, we went to the city of Cafayate, which is kind of off the beaten path. None of our friends had been there before, so we weren’t sure exactly what to expect but we ended up having such a great time. The bodegas weren’t all open since it is the low season in terms of tourism, but the ones that we found were so cute and nice. I think this is my favorite city I’ve been to in Argentina outside of Buenos Aires. I can’t tell you how calm and relaxing it was! Also, the people we met were so nice and friendly.

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The whole trip was an incredible experience, but the highlight was definitely the hike that we went on in Cafayate. Our guide took us all the way to the top of steep mountain, where we could see the whole city below us. On our way up we saw five different waterfalls, and a whole herd of wild mountain goats!

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Now that I’m back in BA, I really have to hit the books this week so that I’m ready for finals!

Chau for now!


Olivia in Scotland: Hello, Goodbye

December 29, 2016

Hello everyone!

These past few weeks have been crazy, full of finals, reunions, journeys, and farewells. I even traveled from Edinburgh to Paris and back to Edinburgh again before returning to the United States. Before I write one last post reflecting on my time abroad in general, I wanted to take this time to tell you about how my final weeks have been.

Finals: Honestly, it was very difficult to muster up the motivation to work when there were so many places and, more importantly, people I wanted to see. I had one final exam on Saturday the 10th and spent the following week working on my two final exam essays for my English seminars. My solution to the problem of my academic burnout and the need to spend time with friends was primarily to see people during the afternoon/evening and then stay up late at night working on my essays—it was a weird schedule, but it worked for me. I finished my last essay with 12 hours to spare, and I have to tell you, it was a great feeling.

Reunions: In addition to wanting to spend time with all the friends I’ve made here in Edinburgh, I also saw a few friends from home during my last two weeks. I met up with a couple fellow Spiders on Monday and Tuesday of my exam week. It was wonderful to see these friends and start getting excited about being back on campus. In the midst of all my mixed emotions about returning home, it was helpful to remember the great things and people I have waiting for me back in Richmond. In addition to these Spider friends, on that Wednesday night, my best friend Taylor from my hometown arrived here in Edinburgh to visit me!


Hot chocolate + reunion with an old friend = huge smiles 🙂

Journeys: After I finished my final essays late on that Thursday night, I got to spend the next few days showing Taylor the sights of Edinburgh. It was great having a friend in town during my last full days in the city because it always gives you extra motivation to go out and really see the city. Here are some  of the highlights from those few days:


We went to see the Scottish National Ballet perform Hansel and Gretel–it was AMAZING!


I introduced Taylor to Indian food for the first time ever! There is a lot of good Indian food in Edinburgh (which I’m really going to miss back home). You might not think it from her face here, but she loved it as much as I did. 


We visited the Royal Yacht Britannia, which the Queen used to use to sail around the world before it was retired in 1997.


We visited Leith, the norther part of the city that borders the Firth of Forth. It was a beautiful place to see one of my last Edinburgh sunsets.


I finally had a full Scottish breakfast! This is a signature thing to do in Scotland. This one featured haggis, a tattie scone, a grilled tomato, toast, beans, sausage, a fried egg, and mushrooms. It was quite good!


I got to climb up Arthur’s Seat one last time with Taylor on that Sunday morning. Spectacular views of a spectacular city ❤

After all our Edinburgh sightseeing, Taylor and I flew to PARIS together on Sunday night! We had two full days there and saw some absolutely beautiful things. This was our first trip to Paris for both of us, and it was incredibly surreal to be walking around Paris with such an old friend. I’m so glad we got to have this trip together. I could talk about this trip for a very long time—we saw a lot in a very short period of time, and it was truly amazing to go somewhere that you’ve heard about and seen in the movies your entire life. Here are just some of the highlights from that journey:


Notre Dame, a.k.a. one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Its beauty is truly awesome. 


Freezing, but we did the thing—we saw the tower, waited in line, and went up!


The Palais Garnier, also known as the Paris Opera House! I have dreamed of going here for years because it is the setting of Phantom of the Opera. On Box 5, there is a sign calling it the Phantom of the Opera’s box. I pretty much died of happiness. 


I spent my last morning in Paris walking alone by the Seine near Notre Dame. There were pink fluffy clouds floating along that you can see here, and it looked just like something out of a movie or off of a postcard. 

Farewells: On the Sunday night before Taylor and I flew to Paris, we attended my final Sunday service at my church in Edinburgh. It was a carol service and it was very special. I had the privilege of being involved in the music for it, and it was nice to participate so much on my last Sunday there with the people I have played music with this semester. I could hardly believe as I sat there that I might never see the people in that room again on this earth. As bittersweet as that service was, however, I know that I will see those people again eventually, in the next world if not this one.


Some of my closest church friends whom I will miss very much. The three of us actually performed an a capella version of The Little Drummer Boy at that last service, which was a really fun way to end our time together. 

Saying goodbye to my friends and to this city was difficult. It was odd to be bidding these friends farewell even as I was also being reunited with several friends from back home. I felt so torn between the two worlds. I wish it was possible for me to combine both of them and have all the people I love in one place—if only the world worked that way. Even with my final trips of the semester, I felt as though I had to say “hello” and “goodbye” in the same breath to the places I was visiting, like Paris. In any case, though, I feel so blessed to have made such wonderful friends in Edinburgh and to have seen so many beautiful places, and I am also excited to spend time with my family and see my friends back in Richmond again.

Actually, it was so hard to say goodbye to Edinburgh that I almost failed to do so. Remember that post back in the beginning of my time abroad where I mixed up a lot of dates and times and had to switch trains and all of that with my trips to London? I’ve been pretty honest about my travel mistakes on this blog. Well, I made the biggest travel mistake yet the other day: I missed my flight home. Yep. Just imagine the heart attack I had when that happened. Thankfully, and I still don’t know how, the United airlines staff switched me to the exact same flight the following morning and didn’t even charge me anything extra! I was absolutely astonished but so happy about it. It was extremely stressful, but it did give me an extra day in the city and allowed me to go home on the same flight as one of my closest study abroad friends from Edinburgh. All in all, I’m actually glad that it happened.

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I got to spend time with my friend Gianna on that extra day in the city, and because we were on the same flight home, we even got to hang out briefly on the American side of the Atlantic. I was glad to have some surprise extra time with such a great friend. 🙂

And on that note, I’ll close this whirlwind of a post. Stay tuned for one last reflection on my time abroad. Till next time!

Olivia in Scotland: Not Throwing Away My Shot

November 4, 2016

Hello! Are you ready for a long post?

As you may remember, I spent a lot of the beginning of my time in the U.K. traveling back and forth between London and Edinburgh. Well, since then, I’ve stayed entirely in Scotland and explored more of this country. Let me tell you, it’s amazing. I did try to slow down a bit these past few weeks, but when I look back at all I did, I see that I’ve really still been going pretty nonstop. I guess that’s the nature of study abroad; I don’t want to throw away my shot to see as many of the sights of Scotland as I possibly can. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to in Scotland in October!

October 8th-9th: I traveled through the Highlands with a bunch of international students to the Isle of Skye! This was the most scenically stunning trip I have ever been on by far. I mean, just look at this:


From the Old Man of Storr which we hiked up on Saturday. The view was absolutely incredible. 

On the way to Skye, we made a lot of stops to see the sights of the Highlands. One of these was Loch Lomond—yes, the one from the song you might have heard before (the “you take the high road and I’ll take the low road” one). From there, we rode through the Highlands (on the same road that James Bond drives on in the movie Skyfall) to Glencoe. This was the site of Scotland’s famous Glencoe Massacre, and for me, the misty mountains there still carry an air of mystery with a touch of the ominous. With its three mountains called the Three Sisters, it is a starkly beautiful place.

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You couldn’t see the tops of the mountains because of the mist and it was eerily cool. Also #spiderpride in Glencoe 

One cool thing I did happened when we stopped for lunch at Fort William. I actually ran around looking for graveyards. That probably sounds pretty weird, but my parents told me that I had ancestors who lived there way back when, so I decided to see if I could find any of them! I didn’t have much luck, but I did see some names on their World War I memorial who could be relatives of ours. That was still a pretty cool feeling.

I’ll mention one other stop we made on the way to Skye: Eilean Donan Castle. It’s located at a point where three lochs converge. We didn’t go inside the castle, but this is definitely among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

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You might recognize this castle if you’ve seen the movie Made of Honor. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. 

Once we got to Skye, I had one of my favorite moments of the whole tour. We stayed in a hostel called Saucy Mary’s that had a bar in the bottom floor. In the bar that night, a band called Iron Midden played (yes, that was their real name). They were a traditional Scottish folk band and they were absolutely incredible. Here’s a sample of one of their songs.

The next day, we rode up to the North of the island, hiked the Old Man of Storr, ate fish and chips in Portree, and made a lot of other stops throughout the island before heading back to Edinburgh. Everywhere we went on this trip was just do beautiful. If you have the opportunity to do a tour like this, GO!


“What are men to rocks and mountains?” -Jane Austen 

October 14th-15th: Because I was showing a friend around the city, I finally did some of the more touristy Edinburgh things that I hadn’t done yet! We went to Edinburgh Castle where we saw the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny which was once the throne of the rulers of Scotland. We also walked along Princes Street where we saw the Scott Monument and walked up Calton Hill where we got a lovely view of the city, and the next morning we went up a bit of Arthur’s Seat for the sunrise.


Arthur’s Seat(ish) at sunrise! (I say “ish” because we didn’t go up very high; that hill is steeeeep.)

In the middle of this, we also took a day trip north to the town of Cupar where we went to Cairnie Fruit Farm. It was fun being in a part of Scotland I had never seen before; there were lots of gentler hills rolling away for miles around. The fruit farm itself had trampolines, pedal-operated go-karts, a corn maze, and a yummy café, so my friends and I had a lovely time.


Pumpkins + friends = a good day!

October 19th: I started making use of my Historic Scotland Membership by visiting nearby Craigmillar Castle with my friend Rachel. This trip illustrated one of my favorite things about Edinburgh—it’s a great city, but you don’t have to go very far until you reach nature again. Craigmillar Castle is only about a 20-minute bus ride away, yet it’s in the middle of open fields and has lots of trees around it. This castle is interesting because, although it’s a ruin and doesn’t look very big, there are a lot of twists and turns and it’s easy to get a little lost. Also, my friend Rachel and I found a room with amazing acoustics, so we had to try singing there.


October 21st-22nd: I went to a light show at the Royal Botanical Gardens on Friday night with some friends from my church. This was really unique and fun! It was actually more of a light-and-water show as they did things like this that combined the two with music:

Then on Saturday I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Art and went on the Potter Trail! Although it’s not as large as other national galleries, I really enjoyed the one here and its wide range of art. It was especially cool to see a few paintings of Edinburgh throughout the ages. Now, what is the Potter Trail, you might ask? Well, it’s a free walking tour that takes you to every location in the city that has something to do with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the series here and got her inspiration from some of the things around her so there’s plenty to see. The highlight? The grave of a “Thomas Riddell,” the name inspiration for Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort.


I was pretty excited to be standing at Voldemort’s grave. #potterhead 

October 28th-30th: I traveled up to St Andrews to visit my friend Susy from Richmond. It’s only about an hour’s train ride away from Edinburgh. The small town atmosphere was a nice change from the city. We went to the East Sands Pier, saw the castle with its impressive siege mine and countermine (which we went down into, although it’s not for the claustrophobic), and went to the ruined cathedral and climbed its tower where you can look out over the town.  For such a placid, peaceful place, it actually has quite a bloody history.


Bloody history or no, the view from the pier is beautiful!

We also went golfing at St Andrew’s world-famous Old Course! Well, not quite at the old course, more like right next to it. They have a putting green called the Himalayas where people who have no idea how to golf can go play mini golf for just a couple pounds, so it was perfect for us. Other than spending time with my sweet friend, my two favorite things about the trip were 1.) the Malteser hot chocolate that I bought at North Point, which is the café where Prince William and Kate used to meet for coffee when they attended the university, and 2.) this beautiful recreation of a movie scene that we caught on camera. We went to West Sands, the beach where the first scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed, and, well, you see what happened.

October 31st: A few friends and I took a road trip to Linlithgow to visit Linlithgow Palace and Blackness Castle. My favorite of these two was Linlithgow Palace. There’s a beautiful loch right next to it with all these little boats on it, and there was some beautiful fall foliage on the trees around it. I loved how the palace had lots of very large windows; the architects seemed to realize that they should just let the natural beauty of Linlithgow speak for itself.


The view from one of the big windows! If you look closely, you can see some white stuff on the water- those are swans.

Lastly, we stopped by Blackness Castle. This one isn’t very large, but its location on the North Sea definitely made it a worthwhile stop for me.

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Blackness Castle with friends! It’s a beautiful spot.

So, that’s all the places I traveled to in the month of October! I’m in love with Scotland. I love the landscapes and the people and the history. I hope I get to explore it more and get to know Edinburgh better in the time I have left here.

Till next time! Slainte mhath! (That’s “cheers” in Gaelic.)

Olivia in Scotland: Strangers Like Me

September 22, 2016

Greetings from Edinburgh!

After a week and two days, it’s still difficult to believe that I’m actually here. Even from what I’ve seen so far, this city and this country are as lovely or lovelier than I heard them described. Where else can you get views like this?


From my day trip to the Borders area where we stopped by the beautiful village of Peebles!


Hiking up Arthur’s Seat, the big hill in the middle of Edinburgh.


This is a little of what it looks like from the top of Arthur’s Seat!


I took this from inside The Elephant House, which is, for the Harry Potter fans, the coffeeshop where J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of the first book!


I love how cozy all of the streets look here. Many houses have flowers in their window boxes or front gardens. 

I’ve only really done one major tourist attraction in the city so far (Arthur’s Seat). Thankfully, I’ve got the rest of the semester to see the sights. So much of this past week has been about gathering basic necessities, enrolling in courses, meeting new people, trying to get over my jet lag, and generally getting settled. If you’re a student thinking of going abroad, make sure to be gracious with yourself; don’t feel like you have to see every sight of your new city all at once in the very beginning while you’re still exhausted!

I think often what is most striking about a new place is not what is different from one’s home, but what is unexpectedly the same. I’ve seen a lot of similarities over the past week so I’m just going to list some off:

  • The natural scenery. When my taxi took me from the airport through the surrounding countryside to the city center, I was surprised how much the landscape reminded me of Virginia. I have lived in Virginia all my life, and the hills here actually look quite a lot like those of western Virginia, or of somewhere like Albemarle county. I thought the same thing on my day trip to the Borders area on Saturday when I hiked through the Cardrona forest in Tweed Valley Forest Park.

While it’s certainly not exactly like home, to me, it felt like I was in Virginia but with more coniferous trees. 

  • The number of Americans. There are more American visiting students in Edinburgh than students visiting from any other country! Even outside of the university students, I have met many other American adults living in the city as well. I actually feel like I’ve talked to more Americans than Scots in my time here so far. This didn’t even happen on purpose; there’s just so many of them!
  • Political talk. Scotland and the US are both in political turmoil right now what with the upcoming presidential election in America and the fierce desire of many Scots for independence from the UK. My personal tutor (the equivalent of an academic advisor here) told me that he hasn’t seen the political situation this volatile here since the 70s. Both countries seem to be at a crossroads, so you’ll hear a lot of people talking about politics. All of the Scottish people here want to know what the Americans think about America’s political situation right now, so in turn, I ask them about their perspective on their own. It’s definitely led to a few interesting conversations.
  • The music. They mostly play American music on the radio in the shops and pubs here. For me, this was most striking when I attended  Christian faith events. In the church services I went to, as well as the worship session with Christian Union (a student organization here), we sang some of the exact same worship songs I sing in my church at home. While I definitely heard some unfamiliar Christian songs as well, it did feel nice to have some that I knew well.

All that being said, there are also a lot of differences from the life I am used to. I’ve never lived in a city before, so I’m still getting used to all of the walking (thankfully, Edinburgh is a very walkable city). There are more people here from other countries and regions than I’ve encountered in one place before. Unexpectedly, I’ve learned quite a bit about cultures other than Scottish culture just in the past week. I became friends with one student from Louisiana who explained the difference between Cajun and Creole culture and told me all about the city of New Orleans. I also became friends with several people of Korean origin and have eaten Korean food more than once since arriving here! I am learning that living in a city means encountering a variety of cultures, and I am loving it.

One difference between American and British culture I have fully embraced: when British people drink tea, they usually eat biscuits (cookies) with it instead of just drinking the beverage on its own. I knew this about the culture already because I have a boyfriend back home who is half English, so when I arrived, I decided to go all out with it. Tea biscuits were one of my first purchases here, and I’ve taken to drinking no less than two cups of tea per day with them. I’ve been an avid tea lover for a long time, so I feel rather like I’m able to fully be my true tea-drinking self here!


To close this post, I’ll share a little of what the most special aspect of this trip has been to me so far. I thought that it would take me a while to make friends in Edinburgh, especially friends who would really care about me. To my surprise, I’ve made good friends incredibly quickly. This is entirely due to the Christian community here. I’ve found that having one thing in common with other people—particularly having faith in common—can bond you together with them very quickly, whatever your other differences might be. I’ve certainly talked to people who are different from me in this area as well and I value those conversations very higly, but it has been very sweet to see how faith creates a family. I can’t wait to see more of this as my trip goes on.


Part of my Edinburgh family!


Because family is also crazy and sometimes they paint your face.

Welcome week was great; now on to classes!

Naomi at Akita: Don’t Stop Believin’

September 12, 2016

So, you wouldn’t believe this BUT we ended up missing the train again. No worries though because we ended up finding ANOTHER festival – Akita Music Festival. It was around 9am so there weren’t too many people. Everyone tried cow tongue and matcha (green tea) flavored soft cream. I’m not sure what I was expecting but cow tongue tastes very salty and gamy. The mascots we took a picture with are from TV stations, I think. After the festival, we also found a huge garden filled with lotus flowers. Our friend Okkasan (Okaasan is mom in Japanese so you can imagine how much we enjoy yelling his name) told us that we could eat the seeds. They tasted like almonds – 美味しいかった !


Finally made the train to go to Shimohama! It cost only ¥500 by train to get there. We practically had the beach to ourselves, besides the guys wearing the pink speedos. We swam, played soccer, wrestled, swam, swam, got stung by jellyfish, wrestled, swam, soccer, swam, got stung by jellyfish, swam…mid-afternoon we ended up finding the Orange House that served かき氷 (flavored shaved ice) and drinks. The Ojiisan working there let us sing karaoke so everyone sang Bohemian Rhapsody, Party in the USA, Sorry, Just The Way You Are, and several other hits. After spending 7 hours at the beach and seeing the sunset, we head back to Akita Station and ate some udon and tempura. Udon, thick wheat flour noodles, is usually served hot but we were all exhausted and hot from the sun so cold udon was the way to go. By the way, none of us brought sunscreen…almost a week has past and our skin is still peeling.


By the way, at the beach, Patrick and I wanted to swim out as far as we could, which was a horrible idea because I ended up getting hit by a banana boat. The bruise has gradually gotten worse throughout the week and most people say I look like I’m wearing eye shadow HAHA I’m proud of this bruise. I feel like that and my painful sore arms are an accomplishment for my swimming distance.


Friday night and no one planned anything! At the last second, the 10 of us decided to go to a karaoke place. Unfortunately, we had to wait at the station for 40 minutes till the next train to Akita so, naturally, we decided to take a group picture and this is what happened. When we finally arrived at Akita, we found out we couldn’t karaoke because people under 20 years old need to have a parent with them after 11pm. Since our plan was to stay out all night, we ended up hanging around the city. We listened to 80s music throughout the night, singing and dancing our sleep away – we basically sang karaoke. Four of our friends left earlier though and missed the beautiful sunrise. I’m not lying when I say we stared at the sunrise for about an hour. It was unbelievable – crows flying above us, roads filling with passing cars, people heading to work.

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After the sunrise, we took the train from Akita to Wada. The bus back to school picks us up from Wada station, except we decided to walk back to school since the bus wasn’t coming for another two hours. All we passed were rice fields and trees – everything green.

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