South Texas

Brownsville is the southern most city in Texas, which usually means it’s the warmest. So we stuck around the area. Our roots in boating led us back to the water so we headed for the beach. The barrier island of South Padre Island is known for spring break, but we found some non-touristy things to do like fishing, getting stuck in the sand, and running around the dunes. The beach driving and camping is limited to a narrow strip of sand with the waves practically lapping up to your tires. People camp there, but usually have 4wd to be able to get slightly further from the water into the soft sand. I don’t recommend it, but can be a fun day trip.

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Fishing on the jetty

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South Padre Island

The southern most Texas beach you can get to is called Boca Chica beach. Unfortunately we got there on Saturday night, so had more company than we’d like. And plus the beach was littered with trash.

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ATVs and border patrol at Boca Chica beach.

Port Mansfield is a small town opposite the cut through Padre Island. We spent a quiet few days by the fishing pier and watching the local wildlife.

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The deer must have smelled the food spilled on his shirt.

Then a stop in the 8th largest city in Texas, Corpus Christi. The girls visited the local art museum while the boys visited an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington.

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Then back to the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.

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Lunch at home on the beach.

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V and her growing sea bean collection.

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Sunset on the beach.

Unfortunately for us, winter time beaches in Texas are still pretty chilly. After looking at weather maps, we decide to head west towards the warmth of the desert.

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Don’t be that guy at the Mexican border

Short story: We were denied by Mexican authorities to drive our van past the border towns of the hassle free zone.

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Customs, immigration and the Banjercito.

Long story: While getting our ducks in a row to enter Mexico, we noticed I had inadvertently switched the registration paperwork for our van with our other car. Oops. Good thing I had a digital record of registration and quickly found a place to print it out. With passports, copy of car registration, international drivers license, Mexican pesos, extra US dollars (for TIP deposit), Mexican car insurance, and copies of everything in hand and a fridge and water supply stocked up, we were ready.

So here’s how it went down. We get up early to cross the border. After the American checkpoint where our crossing was recorded by cameras, we pay a $3.50 toll to cross the bridge. You can tell you’re in Mexico when the bridge road starts to be filled with potholes. Just across the border is a Mexican customs, immigration, & banjercito (official bank) office. Unfortunately at 7am when we arrived the Banjercito was not open yet. They opened at 8am and promptly told to us to go to immigration first and get a tourist card (FMM), which is essentially a visa. Immigration is just a counter on the opposite side of building. We fill out our paperwork and he gives us a 6 month visa, stamps our passports, and tells us to pay our fee of 533 pesos each at Banjercito. We go back to Banjercito and give them our paperwork. They see the photo copy of the car registration and ask for the original. “Funny story,” I chuckle. The Banjercito official is not smiling at my story. I even show him the original registration of our other car and show him how it has been mixed up. He’s not amused by my charm and says he requires original registration. After pleading in English and poor Spanish, he eventually concedes a little and says he will accept an original title of car. Unfortunately I only have a copy of the title with me as well.

I know I’ve been defeated, hang my head, pack everyone back in the van and head back to the USA (after paying a $1.95 toll coming back across bridge). Back in the US, a friend at home comes to our rescue and gets the correct registration FedEx’ed to us. Thanks so much Liza!

The next day, we are back at immigration and Banjercito office by 10am. This time, we head to immigration first. There’s a different official from yesterday and after asking us some questions, he tells us to go to Banjercito first. Oh well. Back to Banjercito. I happily give the official our paperwork. He looks it over, types some things into computer, then asks to see vehicle.

We walk out into parking lot and he looks and ask about official number. I’m assuming VIN number so I open driver’s door and show him. He checks the VIN and continues to look around until finally finds what he wants in the manufacturer’s official weight numbers and he snaps a picture. We go back to the office and he says that the van is too heavy and he can not give me the Temporary Import Permit (TIP) I need to drive through out Mexico.

I am dumbfounded and plead. He says customs can help.

Confused I take the whole family across parking lot to find the customs official. After “talking” to the customs official (by talking, I mean both of us typing on our phone using Google translate and showing the other the translation), he tells me that Banjercito is the only one who can give out TIP. Argh. Back to Banjercito. I drag the whole family back and Banjercito tells me, my van weighs too much. I try pleading with him that GVWR is not the weight of van but how much it can tow/carry. I ask can I get the van weighed to prove it’s not too heavy? He says to go back to customs.

We bounce back to customs. The customs official looks up something on his computer and tells me he can not help because the date is not in certain date range. Huh? He shows me his screen with an official Mexican document with 3 date ranges. From what little Spanish I know, I’m guessing that customs can search vehicle and give a waiver of weight limit, but only between certain dates. And guess what? We were not within that range. The next time he would be allowed to do that is March 7. (The 3 date ranges seemed to be from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, summer, and Holy Week – I guess to help out tourism.) And so I went back to Banjercito to plead some more.

All useless. If our Sprinter had been registered on the original card as a “motorhome” instead of “van” we would have gotten through. After 2 hours of this, we packed up and headed back to the US (paying both bridge tolls again). Those who know me well, know that I can be a real stubborn bastard. And not to be dissuaded, I was willing to try a third time. That night we drove 45 minutes to McAllen (another Texas border town) to try crossing and possibly pleading with a different Mexican official there. This time I used some points and we stayed at a hotel with good WiFi instead of sleeping at a Walmart parking lot.

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Hotel break.

After some more research on the topic I find many reports of people being rejected for the same reason as us. 3/4 ton trucks and up all had too much of a GVWR value. There was one border crossing in Phoenix where people seemed to be getting through. Another option was to get the TIP online, but that would take longer than a week for that whole process. After some debating, we decided that it wouldn’t be worth it to hang out in border towns for a week while we got this sorted out. We decided to cut our losses and come up with a new plan.

Though it was a disappointment, to put it mildly, it helps to remember that when you go on adventures, sometimes you’ll end up being that guy who’s rejected at the border.

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Fleeing winter

It’s been a long few weeks to get to south Texas & the border of Mexico. We got slapped in the face on our intended departure date of 12/29 by a bitter cold spell that started after Christmas and lasted over a week. With high temperatures around 5F & lows around -20F, the diesel van was unable to start. And just like sailing, we started watching the weather for an opportune window to escape. It wasn’t until the afternoon of 1/2 that the van begrudgingly started up. We scrambled for the next few hours, quickly packed the van and shut the house down for winter & left that evening (the van running for hours while getting ready).

Temperatures were around -10F that night as we drove southbound. We made it to a cousin’s house in New Jersey by morning and rested some. But we knew we had to keep moving because a snow storm was forecasted for the Northeast starting later that night.

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Van selfie against the New York skyline.

When we made it to Virginia, the threat of snow was over, but temperatures were still freezing. We slowed down taking a few nights rest at hotels along the road. We finally parked at a friend’s house in Tennessee for almost a week (thanks Nick and Stacy).

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The world’s largest cedar bucket.

During that time I worked on some van projects like putting in AC power to run an electric heater, setting up my running water system, oil & fuel filter changes while the kids played with their old cruising friend.

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We left Tennessee just before another cold front with snow came barreling through. We outran the snow, but not the cold as we made it to the gulf coast at New Orleans. We spent a day exploring The Big Easy with another cousin. The kids even got some beads.

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Beads were readily thrown at the kids.

As you can tell by the winter jackets, we hadn’t quite run away from winter yet and with subzero night time temperatures, we sought refuge (heat, or electricity so we can use our heater) for 2 nights at Bayou Segnette state park, 10 minutes from the French Quarter.

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Playing with fire.

We had one night of relative warmth (40s) and found a great beach for camping on the southern shores of Louisiana, called Rutherford Beach.

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Former boat kids in their natural habitat.

Our ferry to Texas was thwarted by the weather (this time wind and rain) and we eventually stopped at Spring Creek Park, in the suburbs of Houston to take care of errands.

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The park is a gem because it is clean, has 2 playgrounds (1 with the tallest public play structure I’ve seen), archery range, trails, geocaching, and best of all: restrooms with free hot showers. And oh yeah, they offer 8 level sites with full RV hookups (electric, water, sewer) – 7 day max stay. Unfortunately the first night we were there, the water & pipes had frozen, but at least we had heat.

Next stop Magnolia Beach where for one day we got to wear shorts, but promptly had to put jackets back on because of the wind.

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Magnolia beach

With a quick pit stop in Corpus Christi, we at last arrived in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas & on the border of Mexico.

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Good enough

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A common theme among our friends who build their own houses (or gut remuddle them in our case) is this magical point of good enough. Diehards and perfectionists excepted, many of us get to the stage where our house is functional and we declare it “good enough,” and move on to other pressing projects.

The house is then frozen in said state for the next ten, twenty years. As the owners, we’ll perfectly happy, but every time we walk by that spot, we might think, “Oh, I should really finish that trim.” But we won’t, until it’s time to move. Then it’s a mad dash to finish house, declutter, and decorate it. And right before our lovely home passes on to the next owner, we’ll look around and say, “Now why didn’t we get around to doing that last 10%? This looks great, but we don’t get to enjoy it!” Not that I’m projecting or anything…ahem.

Well folks, we’ve reached that point in our kitchen remodel. That door to the pantry will be cut in the spring. Someday, kitchen shelves and a windowsill will be made. Not now, though. Now it’s time to appreciate this beautiful space and its evolution.


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Kitchen after

Some notes about the space I don’t want to forget:

The walls are Sherwin Williams Harmony (no-VOC) paintline color-matched to Colorhouse palette’s Beeswax .01. It’s a lovely warm color, like…beeswax. The kids helped us prime and paint the walls, which was an exciting and sometimes hair-raising event in itself.

Cabinets were from Barker Cabinets, a company based in Oregon. We liked their plywood box construction, solid fronts, dovetail drawers and soft-closing hardware. The cabinets were manufactured in Oregon, flat-packed (except the drawers, which are pre-assembled) and shipped to us on a pallet.

Countertops were Geos recycled glass surface in Cirrus, measured and cut by a contractor. Apparently, my head was still in the Stone Ages; I was expecting someone to come and make paper templates. Instead the guy showed up with lasers and a laptop and proceeded to make CAD drawings for our review–welcome to the Digital Age!

We switched over to a propane stove which Tig got used from Craigslist. Between the stove and the exhaust fan, I’m over the moon. The power, the flame!

The tile backsplash behind the stove is remnant tile we bought from a contractor friend for $20 or less. The brand is Iron Gate, and it’s been discontinued, but the tiles are nice quality. Tig came up with a gorgeous pattern that he knew I would like.

One of my favorite concepts of architect Sarah Susanka’s Not so Big House design that we used here is varied ceiling heights to define space. The dropped ceiling in our kitchen not only hides electrical wires and exhaust fan ducting, but also helps to frame the space (design geek moment).

Lastly, but not least, the best thing about this kitchen is the french door that closes off the icy-cold ell where our old kitchen used to be. The old kitchen where my feet would freeze and when I opened a drawer in the wintertime, the thermometer inside would read 40 degrees. All that is in the distant past now.

Our house now feels warm and cozy, and that’s good enough.

Before: view from living room

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After: view from living room

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One step further


Throwback to November 2014.

Three years ago, the day after Halloween, a huge snow dump cut off our power (this was the beginning of the infamous Snowvember). We were still living in the back room at that point, which was in the poorly built addition that was heated only by one oil-filled electric radiator. Said radiator cut off once the power went out, along with the electric stove and our lights.

And, oh, by the way, Tig developed a migraine.

We sat huddled in our one room off the kitchen, getting colder by the minute (because, no insulation), unable to cook or heat any water. After a few hours, we cried uncle and called up our neighbor’s Mark and Sasha. We were able to go over and have a hot meal, and a warm place to sleep. It seemed the powers that be were telling us in no uncertain terms that we were not cut out for Maine living. After all, we were “from away.”

Fast forward to October 30th of this year. High winds and storms slammed us this time instead of snow. The power cut out in the morning and wouldn’t come back for another 12 hours.

This time, we threw in another log in our wood stove. The 9-inch thick insulated walls in the main part of the house kept us a toasty 68-70 degrees. Our new (scratch and dent) propane stove turned out breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tig hooked up our small boat generator to the refrigerator to keep the food from spoiling. I had by chance bought some beeswax candles the day before, so we had lighting. Best of all, we had put in an insulated door between our newly built kitchen and the old one (see our remuddling overview post). Now all the heat stays in the main footprint of the house, instead of leaking out the back ell.

We had a pleasant evening by candlelight. Tig even broke out the laptop and played a movie since we were done so early. By the time they finished watching Charlotte’s Web, the power came back on and we rejoiced. We had made it through one small power outage, a small but worthy goal in my mind.

Yes, we’re still from away. Yes, we still have a lot more to do in order to be prepared. But we’re one step further than before.

 

 

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Spring 2017

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Early spring looked brown and drab here in Maine, while the rest of the country seemed to be vibrant and green. While we plant seeds, there were still many hours cozying in front of the wood stove. When April came around things started to brighten up.

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Closing out: Postcards from Taiwan

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Another month (or two) and we haven’t uploaded the rest of our Taiwan pictures. Spring started out with a bang with various projects underway, so it’s time to close out the winter chapter. Here are the last pictures from our trip to Taiwan.

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The Chiang Kai Shek memorial was a fun attraction for our kids. I imagine it holds similar appeal to the Buckingham palace with their silent, immovable guards. I love these pictures because, damn, it’s hard to get photos without selfie bombers these days!

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Food, always food. Shaved ice, Chinese pastries, pickled and fermented jars. We could spend the rest of our lives eating and still not experience all there is food-wise.

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Friendly Taipei festival.

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We took the gondola lift up to the Taipei Zoo. This trip was even more fun, because our old college friend, Darren, joined us from Hong Kong. The kids really enjoyed hanging out with him. Darren gave us the audio commentary on the film he worked on, The Grandmaster, which we all watched together one night.

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Last, but not least, going up the Taipe 101. That completed (for us) our tour of tall buildings in that corner of the world. A few months later, we still talk about Taiwan being our favorite part of our trip. We hope to visit again someday.

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Eating our way through Taiwan

We spent two weeks in Taiwan, visiting relatives I have not seen in a long time, catching up with old friends and new alike. We also spent plenty of time admiring sites, like a jade cabbage, a former tallest building in the world, hiking up some mountains, hanging out in parks, seeing monuments and memorials, visiting temples, riding on fast trains, etc.

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Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, Jade Cabbage, High Speed Train (300 km/hr)

But for us, the real highlight was EATING.

Let me start by explaining how efficient many of the restaurants in Taiwan are. In this example, upon being seated (or even before, if there is a wait), we were handed a menu to order from. In the blank space, we had to indicate how many of that item/dish we want. You’ll notice in my menu below there are what look like “T” (2) and “-” (1). You could write the numeral (1,2,3,4,5,etc), but the locals use a system based on the strokes to write the word 正. (So what looks like a T is the first 2 strokes of that symbol – hence 2 of that item.) There are 5 strokes for that word. I’m not sure how you order more than 5.

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But what if you can’t read traditional Chinese characters like me (damn – should have paid more attention in Chinese school). There’s always Google Translate, an incredibly useful app. I can speak Mandarin and get the waitstaff to explain to us most of the menu items; we did that once and it was tough going for everyone. Hopefully the waitstaff will just be frustrated and throw you a menu with pictures on it, woohoo! Then you just have to match pictures to Chinese characters to the ordering menu (which can be time consuming itself).

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Everything on this menu looks awesome. I want to eat it all.

Here are some of the meals we had during the trip.

Breakfast/Snacks

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Scallion pancakes, etc

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So many buns (包子) and steamed breads (饅頭)

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Peach bun filled with red bean paste

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Dumplings steaming in front of a bakery. Yes, you can have dumplings for breakfast.

Lunch/Dinner

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Hot pot and shabu shabu

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Check out those crusty cauldrons (filled with pig feet)

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Can you believe this was only a tiny selection from the food court in the basement of Taipei 101?

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Rice with chopped tea leaves, tea and citrus fish, tea smoked goose, mmmm….

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Dumplings, turnip cakes, beef rolls, custard buns, and more…

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Delicious Hakka cuisine

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Even the ramen is good.

Desserts

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Markets & Night Markets

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Oyster omelettes were new to us all (not my thing)

Drinks

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Hope you enjoyed our culinary tour of Taiwan. We certainly did!

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Taichung (台中) and Lukang Old Street (鹿港老街)

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One of the things on our list for Taiwan was to ride the bullet to make O happy–keeping kids happy is a big part of adventure planning. So we took the High Speed Rail (HSR) to Taichung, an industrial city on the western side of central Taiwan. We stayed at The Holiday Inn Express near a park, so that kids had access to playgrounds and green spaces.

The public parks in Taiwan were wonderfully planned places for people of all ages. I personally loved watching the seniors gather in the morning. It seemed that each senior citizen who went there had his or her own movement practice or group of friends that they exercised with. Taichi or chigong classes were often happening at the same time. Scattered around the parks were “exercise stations” for adults. The kiddos called these places “grandma stations” as we guessed that they were strategically placed near playgrounds so that parents/grandparents could exercise while watching young children.

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We did some geo-caching, and visiting of markets around the area. As a treat, Tig took us to indulge in tea time at Miyahara, a flagship store that sells packaged baked goods as well as ice cream from the back of the building. But we were mostly there because Tig had heard that the inside distinctly reminded people of a Harry-Potter-esque Hogwarts set, do you agree? Tea and pastries were served on the second floor, with bubble tea of course. We learned that “apple pie” in Chinese is just “píngguŏ pie”, haha.

With the help of Uncle Henry, Tig got in touch with a cousin he hadn’t seen in over 20 years. We met up and had dinner in Taichung one evening. The next day, we received an invitation to take the train down to Yuanlin to visit her family.

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The trains and subways in Taiwan were super-efficient and modern, a dream to navigate. Often there was English alongside Chinese in the signage. People are civilized and queue up in designated lines. The train to Yuanlin was just a regular train, but O was still happy to ride it. Once we arrived, Tig’s cousin met us at the train station and took us to her house. We went out to lunch with Tig’s, jiu ma (maternal uncle’s wife, Chinese familial relationships are very specific, see this table). It was nice to connect with a side of Tig’s family that me and the kids had never met before, even if our language abilities were somewhat limited.

After lunch, cousin Jessica took us sightseeing. First, to Taiwan’s Glass Gallery, a Taoist temple, and then to Lukang Old Street. The kids loved having an auntie who spoiled them. It was a wonderfully full day, and we returned by train to Taichung feeling grateful for family.

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Night market

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Even though we had a long list of things to do in Taiwan, it seems to me that we spent half the time looking for bubble tea, and half the time looking for dumplings, neither of which are hard to find. Another top list item to check off: going to the night markets.

An Epic Education lists the most popular night markets here. The first one we went to was the Raohe Night market near Songshan TRA station. But first, Tig had arranged a meetup with Jeremy–of the popular financial blog gocurrycracker.com–and his family.  The cafe we met at didn’t have bubble tea, so we took a stroll and ended up at some playgrounds where the kids could burn off some energy. Notice my kids barefoot and not wearing much in the above pictures? That is the height of bad parenting in Taiwan. We actually bundle up quite a lot, normally. In Maine.

During our conversation, I found out that Winnie (Jeremy’s wife), who is Taiwanese, is a successful author and blogger in her own right, all the while juggling motherhood and traveling. After some time, we all decided to head over to Raohe via the subway. We got to taste all sorts of yummy foods, with Winnie’s guidance. There aren’t many pictures of the food, because our hands were busy…holding food. But I will say that we crossed one more thing off our list: stinky tofu. The verdict: me and O liked it, V and Tig not so much.

A week later, we met up with Jeremy and his son one more time at an interactive art and light exhibit, which was fun for the kids.

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