The Best App for Organizing Your Travel Plans

How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans
How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans
How to Plan a Trip, Best App for Organizing Travel, Free App, Microsoft OneNote Uses, Travel Plans

Planning a trip can be really stressful for some people, and with good reason. You’re probably going somewhere you’ve never been before, where you may not even speak the same language, and yet you have to manage transportation, accommodations, a general itinerary, and that’s just the beginning.
 Some people are very go-with-the-flow travelers, which I think is great; I, on the other hand, am a planner. It’s very important to be flexible an patient while traveling, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan. I like to at least have a rough plan so I can hit all the places I want to go.
Until recently, I’ve read blogs and Lonely Planet books and simply taken notes. I’ve made a list of all the places I’ve wanted to visit within a country or city (I love lists), and then I’ve casually planned each day the night before (sometimes even that morning). That’s when I would normally look up all the directions, addresses, contact info (if necessary), etc. This was pretty much my standard way of planning until I learned about Microsoft OneNote from The Rachael Way. I use it for pretty much everything, but I find it most beneficial for traveling. Here’s why:
  1. I can organize all of my travel into separate pages based on location.
  2. Within a page, you can click and type anywhere, adding text, tables, pictures, attachments, checklists, and more.
  3. You can easily arrange any parts you add at any time.
  4. You can zoom out to get a quick look at everything and easily find what you’re looking for in the document.
  5. It syncs with your phone, so you can take it with you anywhere you go!

So how do I actually use OneNote to plan a trip?

Step 1: BrainstormingOneNote allows me to take all the information I’ve gathered from blogs and easily copy it into the page I’ve created. I can choose activities, events, or sites and quickly add photos, hyperlinks, locations, or a bit of history if I want to be reminded why I became interested in a certain attraction in the first place.
Step 2: Create a List (optional, but preferred) After you’ve decided what it is you want to do, you can use the “To Do” button to create a list. I like to use this to list out the things that are most important for me to do and check them off as I go. Doing this allows me to make sure I don’t miss anything important. At this point, you could do two lists if you wanted, a list of must-dos and a list of other interesting activities if you have time. I haven’t done this yet, but it seems like a good idea to me!
Step 3: Mark Up a Map (especially if you’re touring a country) This was incredibly useful for organizing my drive around New Zealand. Find a clear map of wherever you’re traveling. In my case, I searched a map of the entire country of New Zealand and chose the best one, but you could use this for a city as well so that you know what is nearby for planning purposes! For New Zealand, using the list I created in Step 2, I plotted dots on my picture of all the locations we wanted to stop at by using the tools in the “Draw” tab of OneNote. I ended up with this lovely piece of work that really helped me with the next step!
Step 4: Set your Itinerary Some trips are more flexible than others. Setting an itinerary for a flexible trip helps you understand how much you should plan to do in a day. I planned Sydney like this until we booked our time slots for our big activities and checked the weather. Then, we did a little adjusting since we had the freedom to. Our trip around New Zealand, however, was not as flexible; we couldn’t exactly go around the South Island in a random order. After looking at where the airport is and deciding we wanted to travel clockwise around the island, I was able to build our itinerary. I created a list in the order we’d be stopping and added things to do in each location. Once I checked off the entire list from step 2, I removed the duplicated information from the page.
The Final Step: Put it into a Calendar Using the OneNote Insert > Table option, I built a calendar for our holiday. By having the itinerary on the same page, I was easily able to see how much we had scheduled for which cities and how long we would need to stay in each place. I quickly put everything in and adjusted the length of stays in certain areas if needed. It was also helpful to add prices, flight info, phone numbers, confirmation numbers, etc. to the appropriate days on the calendar. Here’s what our entire three week trip to Australia and New Zealand looked like.
I enjoy being able to zoom out and quickly pinpoint where my map, calendar, itinerary, tickets, and anything I added are located. I don’t have to scroll or flip through pages; it’s all there in one place, together!
Here’s a screenshot of the majority of the page and the planning. The left side is some of the brainstorming. I grabbed those photos from a blog I found on Pinterest: In a Faraway Land  
I also added things like who on the trip has paid for what since often we do a lot of online bookings and one person pays for it on a card. When the trip is done and it’s time to settle up, we have everything we need. And having this on my phone at all times is pretty much the greatest thing for traveling. I have all the information I need at my fingertips, no internet required after it syncs. I’m obsessed with using this as a travel planning tool. There’s always an opportunity to get creative and find more ways to use it!
Have you ever used OneNote? What is your favorite planning tool for trips?

What little things bring you happiness?

Do you ever just feel like you need to write, not about anything in particular but just write?

I have deemed today a me day, so while I have loads of writing I could do about my recent trip to New Zealand, I’d rather write about literally nothing to clear my mind. I hope some of you understand where I’m coming from.

As I said, today was a me day. If you’ve ever met me, you’d know that I don’t give myself a lot of those. Right now, I’m still off work for the holiday but that will change shortly. Since it’s still the holiday, everyone who lives here is either on a flight coming back or recuperating from their trip. So, I figure this might be my only opportunity for some me time. Overall, it’s been a good day.

I woke up this morning and chatted with some friends back home. Thankfully the internet was working at 6 am.

I was able to finish some work for grad school before the internet cut out at 9 am. But naturally, experiencing dysfunctional internet really frustrated me, so I shut off my computer and decided to be old-fashioned and do things that didn’t require Wi-Fi.

I cooked myself breakfast (a rare thing). It wasn’t anything extravagant, but it was about as good as it gets for me.

I cleaned my apartment. All of my laundry is officially dry and put away. Doing laundry is a 24 hour event when you live in China.

I played my ukulele. I haven’t had time to do this in months, so it was really nice. However, I realized how rusty I am and how important it is to keep at it or I’ll never get any better!
I doodled. I have not drawn anything in a really long time (mostly because I’m a perfectionist and I have to leave myself ample time to work on a drawing , so if I don’t have the time I won’t even start a project).
I set goals for the semester and did some teacher research to make the spring a bit easier on me, hopefully!
I worked out. Being in New Zealand reminded me how much I miss being active, so I came home in the right mindset to get back into a new fitness routine. It’s crazy to me how quickly I can forget how happy working out makes me.
I pampered myself with a new face mask. I will say this didn’t go as planned, but in the end, my skin felt pretty good!

And now, I’m writing. I’m writing about nothing that anyone else cares about simply because it makes me happy to just write. There’s no pressure when I can just ramble about whatever and it frees up space in my mind. I used to write random ramblings a lot, but since I’ve started traveling, most of my posts are strictly about travel. Sometimes it’s nice to write random ramblings. So here it is, a post just to post and to make me happy.

 Sometimes the little things are the most important things. What little things do you do that bring you happiness?

Sydney, Australia: One Week Itinerary

Sydney is a place I’ve always wanted to visit but never thought I’d actually get to. This past week, that dream came true and majorly exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for some unforgettable experiences to add to and then cross off your bucket list, Sydney has you covered.

We spent one week in Sydney, but I could have stayed forever. Viewing the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge was enough to make me instantly fall in love and never want to leave. Apart from those beautiful views, we did a lot of other things that I never imagined I would. We did everything we had planned and still had time for smaller, filler activities.
Here are my favorite things we did each day.
Day 1: Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour Dinner with a View
We were feeling jet lag a little bit on this day but managed to power through it, having a lovely dinner on the Harbour after a peaceful walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens. Walking through the gardens will bring you on a nice path along the water, taking you right to the Sydney Opera House. Down some steps near the Opera House you can find plenty of restaurants with a great view. If you eat outside, beware of the seagulls!
Day 2: Australian Museum, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

The Australian Museum is great if you want to learn more about the history of the people who lived in Australia pre-colonization who still share the land today. It’s pretty remarkable and also contains different sections in different levels with native animals, fossils, minerals, and more. It is really close to the St. James subway stop. If you walk towards St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Australian Museum is on the right.

After spending a couple hours at the museum, we checked out St. Mary’s Cathedral. It’s beautiful, both inside and out! The day we visited, there were two weddings there, a truly stunning wedding venue.

We completed our evening with the Bridge Climb. This is a must do, even if you are afraid of heights. Trust me, it’s worth it. You go through quite a bit of training and are attached to a harness, no worries!

Day 3: Beach Day – Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk

To be honest, the day we went to the beach was really hot, and we all got pretty toasted considering we spend most of our time in Shanghai, “protected” from the Sun by the pollution. Because of this, we didn’t make it all the way to Coogee. We only made it to Bronte, but we stopped and did some swimming and photoshoots along the way! This walk is definitely a great place to get some amazing photos. If you get a chance, there are some aboriginal rock engravings nearby and a cemetery as well – just a couple extra things to spice up your walk. We were too warm and spent too much time swimming to have time to do anything extra. If you’re located in central Sydney, you can take a few different buses to Bondi which only costs $0.10 AUD – SO CHEAP!

Day 4: Darling Harbour, View from the Pylons

If you enjoy dining at The Hard Rock Café in different countries (or just want souvenirs), you can find one at Darling Harbour. We ate there for lunch and completed all of our souvenir shopping in this area. It’s also a nice place to walk around and just enjoy the weather (the Maritime Museum is located here if you’re interested).

After hanging out at Darling Harbour for a little while, we went to the Pylons for another spectacular view of Sydney. The Pylons are the stone structures on the Harbour Bridge. If you did the Bridge Climb, you can access the Pylons for free as long as you bring the right documents that they gave you; on the other hand, if you didn’t do the Bridge Climb, you can still get in for $15 AUD.

Day 5: Sydney Opera House Tour, Shark Dive Xtreme

The Sydney Opera House Tour is about an hour long, and I highly recommend doing it. You learn so much about the construction and history of the Opera House. You, of course, get to walk around and see the interior.  It’s pretty fascinating, and the thought put into this amazing specimen of architecture is impressive. I can’t even imagine seeing a show there. Can you imagine what it would be like to perform there?

The next big thing we did was swim with nurse sharks over at the Sea Life Sanctuary on Manly Beach (you’ll need to take a 30 minute ferry from the Harbour). It’s not as scary as it sounds and was incredibly cool. The great thing about this is that it’s meant so that someone with zero scuba experience can handle it. They teach you the basics through a thorough training process and guide you the whole way. The stingrays in the tank scared me most, but it was definitely worth it! Not to mention the adorable Myrtle the Turtle who came to hang out with us while we were under!

Day 6: Taronga Zoo

The Taronga Zoo is only a short ferry ride from the Harbour and has all the typical zoo animals, plus the ones specific to Australia. My favorite parts were the Koala Encounter and the Kangaroo Walkabout. For about $30 AUD, you can take a picture with a koala. You are not allowed to touch them though, as it is illegal in New South Wales.

The Kangaroo Walkabout was awesome because the animals just roam free with you in their designated area. You have to follow the path, but the kangaroos, wallabies, and emus wander around as they please. I had a kangaroo jump across my path, less than a foot away! It was pretty cool!

We flew out on day 7, so nothing exciting that day… mostly just tears. We were so sad to leave, but we were lucky that we picked a hostel with a great location. Bounce Sydney is located just outside of the Central train stop, so access anywhere was easy, especially the airport – only 10 minutes away!!!!  It made leaving slightly less dreadful. I recommend choosing a hostel with location to the metro in mind. Taxis are quite expensive and the bus can be a little confusing if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going. Get an Opal card and take the metro everywhere. Most things are pretty accessible from a train.
My favorite vantage point of  Sydney – Mrs. MacQuaries Point
One week in Sydney is enough time to do some pretty amazing things, but it will definitely leave you longing for more. The trip went by way too quickly, and I already want to go back. Sydney is now being added to the list of places that I would love to live long-term.

Have you ever been to Sydney? What are your favorite things to do there?

Snow Place Like Harbin: Ice and Snow Festival, Harbin, China

Visiting Harbin for the Snow and Ice Festival has been on my bucket list since I read about it a couple years ago over at The Rachael Way. Two years later and I’ve finally made it! I was worried that I had built this up so much that I’d be disappointed, but let me tell you, Harbin definitely lived up to my expectations. If you’re looking for a real life winter wonderland experience, Harbin is your place.
Ice Sculptures @ Zhaolin Park
This is a much smaller scale ice festival, but it’s only 50 RMB compared to the other, more expensive festivals and is easily accessible in the city center. There are plenty of sculptures around the park, as well as a cute train and some slides. 
Snow Sculptures @ Sun Island Park
This is where things get a little more expensive and a lot more intense. I recommend doing this during the day. You can easily spend a few hours walking around the park. The park closes at 5 pm, so I recommend going directly after lunch before it gets too cold. They turn the lights on around 4 pm, and the already mesmerizing sculptures become even more gorgeous. We paid 240RMB/ticket and an additional 20 for access to the cars three times (which we only used once as we were leaving).
Ice and Snow World
The biggest ice festival in the world is here, with companies like Ford, the NBA, Pizza Hut, and more all with their own designated ice castle ads. The Ford castle actually had a car parked on it. Uh, what. Everything is breathtaking, and there are loads of things to do. They have reindeer (pulling sleds-sad face), slides, an art expo, a lantern show, and a concert.  This festival costs about 330 RMB and closes at 10 pm. It’s not far from Sun Island Park; however, if you aren’t careful, you may end up spending an outrageous 50 RMB on a taxi from one place to the next.The Church of St. Sophia
There’s a bit of recent history in Harbin, which you might be able to guess when you arrive and notice how vastly different it looks from the rest of China. You can immediately see the Russian influence in the architecture, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Many Byzantine orthodox churches had been built in Harbin, but many had been torn down. The church of St. Sophia is the only one left standing today. It’s free to have a look from the outside, but if you want to go inside, it costs 15 RMB. It’s really inexpensive and worth it to walk around. There are pictures and models on the inside to help you understand the history behind it all. I definitely recommend it!
Several things to note:
//The people were super friendly and helpful, but don’t speak any English. It was a great opportunity to practice my Chinese skills.
//Cabs are super cheap, but they may try and rip you off. If you have Uber and know a small bit of Chinese, I would advise using the app. It was extremely helpful for us.
//Try to enjoy some Russian food. We had a place in mind that ended up being closed, so we missed our chance.
//Pack hand warmers (and maybe feet and body warmers as well).
//Layer up. It gets pretty cold! We were there before a cold front, and it was already -17°C or 2°F.
//It can be pretty polluted, so bring a mask! When I went, it was the worst pollution I’d ever experienced. I’m talking AQI of 463.
//Bring water or snacks to the ice and snow festivals. Concessions are over-priced, as expected, so pack your own. If you’re bringing water, put it in a thermos to keep it from freezing.
//Don’t be alarmed that a lot of the snacks they sell are frozen, like these candied fruit for example!
//As always, toilet paper and soap are in short supply or non-existent, so make sure you bring some tissues and hand sanitizer with you.
//Beware that your battery may die quickly being out in the cold. Find ways to protect your electronics from the brutal winter air.
//Zhongyangdajie is the pedestrian street that you may find yourself on if you’re looking for food. It has everything and no cars!
This place is truly wonderful to see if you get the chance. Just make sure that you come prepared, especially if you aren’t used to freezing cold weather!

Phuket, Thailand: Good Thai-dings for Christmas

Convincing me to spend Christmas in a tropical place was a bit of a task for my good friend Chris, but when combined with an opportunity to attend our friends’ wedding in Thailand, I agreed.

I will admit that Christmas was not the same, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever go anywhere warm again for Christmas; however, this was easily one of the best vacations I’ve taken in my life, and I certainly needed it. I’ve taken some amazing trips in 2016, every country just as amazing as the next, but for the first time I was able to do awesome things and relax at the same time. It was incredibly nice.

My favorite things in Phuket:
Swimming with Yaya @ Paradise Beach
This was a truly magnificent experience. Baby elephants are so playful , and this one was so well trained. Going swimming with this gentle giant was well worth the money. Yaya used to be at Tritang Beach but is now at Paradise Beach. Read more about my interaction with Yaya here.
Cuddling with Tiger Cubs @ Tiger Kingdom
(Well, this one’s not a cub, but look how cute!)
wI was in love with these little cubs. AHH, adorable!
This was another unforgettable experience. We did a package deal for this and paid 1600 baht to experience both the big and small tigers. They have several different packages for all the different sizes that you can purchase and there are age requirements, but everything is safe as long as you follow the rules and don’t do anything stupid. It’s a bit expensive, but hello… tigers!
Getting a Thai Massage
This may have been my best decision ever. I had my first traditional Thai massage at a little shop near our resort. I can’t even describe how amazing it was. For only 300 baht, you can get an hour of the most glorious massage available on Earth. They somehow manage to use every part of their body, seemingly simultaneously, and use just the right amount of pressure that it doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort. On top of that, they give you a good stretch, and you just feel like a whole new person in the end. Definitely do this, maybe once, twice, or twelve times before leaving.
Getting an Elephant Tattoo
One of the first things that you’ll probably notice while walking around Phuket is that there are loads of tattoo parlors. On our first day,  I jokingly said to my friend that we should get elephant tattoos. Later, we brought it up again to the groom after the wedding as a joke. After repeatedly saying this and not taking it seriously, we soon grew fond of the idea, especially after the impression that Yaya had left on us. And as our last line of business before departing the island, we went to Aussine, an Australian tattoo parlor, to get our tattoos.
White Water Rafting Going white water rafting in Thailand was our way of having a “white” Christmas. This was actually part of a tour we booked that included white water rafting, zip lining, elephant trekking, and a trip to a monkey “cave” all for 1200 baht. You could also book the ATV tour as well, but we opted not to. For our tour, they picked us up at 7:30 am from our hotel, and we were out all day. I can really only recommend the white water rafting as part of this specific tour. The white water rafting was fantastic and the crew was amazing; however, the elephant trekking and ATV option shared part of the track and weren’t really “through the forest” as advertised. We were also surprised that it was nearly three hours from our hotel, also not as advertised. We had to go to Phang Nga, so it took forever. It was certainly the best bang for your buck, though. I’d probably recommend skipping the tour and just doing the white water rafting.
Other Ideas:
Elephant TrekkingA lot of places offer elephant trekking. If you’re someone who is sensitive about animals and how they are treated, then I recommend doing your research on this before committing to a tour. I didn’t realize how terrible this was for the elephants until I got on. I, personally, won’t do this again.
Zip Lining/ATV Tour
The place we went was a bit underwhelming, but I’m sure if this is something you’re really into, you could definitely find better places.
Take a Tuk Tuk
If you’re not going far, this is the best way to get around, and it’s super fun with all the lights and music!
Relax at a Resort or BeachI think this one goes without saying. It’s vacation in Thailand, go enjoy yourself!
Take a Ferry to Koh Phi Phi
Keep in mind that the last ferry back to Phuket is at 2:30 in the afternoon so plan to spend the night there.
Go Snorkeling
There are many beaches that offer great snorkeling. You can easily search locations near you on the internet.
Night Life on Bangla Road
If you’re looking for a night out in Phuket, this is where you need to be. It’s pretty much a pedestrian street of bars and clubs.
Visit the Big Buddha
If you haven’t seen a Big Buddha, I would recommend checking this out. We didn’t because we have both visited the one in Hong Kong, but I sort of wish we had. Big Buddha’s are always fun, in my opinion. It’s definitely on my list for next time!

I definitely plan to visit Thailand again some day. Have you ever been? Any recommendations of other things to do?

Swimming with a Baby Elephant: Phuket, Thailand


This was hands down one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first because I read that the salt water really isn’t good for the elephant’s skin. While this may be true, I was extremely happy to see that after sending Yaya in the water to swim, they immediately wash her off.
If you want to go swimming with Yaya, you can find her at Paradise Beach, well nearby. We told our cab driver we wanted to go to Paradise Beach and once we got close enough to see signs, we were able to convey that we wanted him to follow them. He double checked with some locals and got us there without a problem.
Swimming with an elephant isn’t the cheapest experience, but you’re paying for a once in a lifetime experience. It’s 700 baht for 10 minutes (although honestly, there wasn’t anyone there when we went, and I’m sure we spent much longer than that). They can take pictures for you that I’m sure you can pay for, or you can allow them to use your camera. I seriously need to learn the photographer’s iPhone hacks because he took some amazing photos and videos simultaneously. I need to take lessons or something!
Yaya is super well-trained. She’ll sit down and let you ride on her back, give kisses, and throw you over her and into the water. It was a truly wonderful time swimming with Yaya. She’s an absolute sweetheart, but beware that she may poop in the water! They were super quick to notice and clean up, but the employee did pick it up with his hands. That was a bit disturbing.
After our time in the water, we hung out with our adorable, baby elephant friend on the beach. We were able to cuddle with her for a bit and take more pictures. Yaya is always up for a photo shoot! She gave us one last kiss goodbye before touching us each inappropriately. Quite the funny prank they’ve taught her to play on people!
To wrap it all up, she takes some photos by herself, being more photogenic than I’ll ever be in my life. Then she kindly waves bye to you and goes to receive her bath.

If this is something you’re thinking about doing, I strongly recommend it. It was beyond worth it, and it still feels a bit unreal to me. Truly unforgettable. Don’t forget to leave the guys who work there a tip for making your experience great! I found that most people are quick to remind you to tip, but these guys didn’t say a word and were so incredibly friendly and helpful. This is certainly an experience to look into if you’re ever in Phuket! And besides, who doesn’t wanna swim with a baby elephant?


Holidays Away from Home: Thanksgiving 2016

To say that this Thanksgiving was better than last year’s would be an immense understatement. Being in a new home can make adapting to the holidays difficult at first. Don’t worry, it get’s easier.

Last year, I was new to Shanghai but had already found my new “family” that I’d be celebrating with. Shanghai offers a ton of amazing opportunities for foreigners to celebrate Thanksgiving. These opportunities have a tendency to be quite expensive though, and I just can’t justify it. This lead to my friends and I just going to a western restaurant for dinner last year. That night wasn’t the best night, but it at least came with many memories.
This year, I truly feel as if we mastered Thanksgiving. It was absolutely perfect, and I can’t imagine having a more successful Thanksgiving celebration in China. I had what I’ll count as 2.5 holiday feasts. It was a weekend of overeating and being thankful for the things we all have, including the wonderful groups of people I celebrated with.
Feast 1: Thanksgiving Day
We ordered our pre-made dinner from a store called City Shop. They delivered it to us after we got off work in a styrofoam box; everything was still steaming 4 hours later. AMAZING. My favorite part of this dinner may have been the stuffing. I just couldn’t get enough of it! We also had rolls, which were delightful. I kind of wish I could have had 10 to myself. No shame on Thanksgiving! Honestly, we probably could have ordered extra sides and less turkey. We ended up with an entire turkey left over for people to take home! While the turkey was quite good, nothing beats sides in my opinion.
Feast 2: Fantastic Beasts and Friday’s Feast
Friday wasn’t exactly a feast, but it was originally intended to be, so I made sure to eat plenty of food in honor of our original intentions. We went to this nice restaurant called CH2 by Whisk and enjoyed a nice meal before heading to watch Fantastic Beasts in IMAX 3-D. Harry Potter has managed to wiggle its way into several of my Thanksgiving memories, so I’m counting Friday as part of the festivities.
Feast 3: Thanksgiving Dinner Round 2
We did in fact have a second celebration with pretty much all of the same food, give or take certain side dishes provided by those in attendance. This time we had more sides and less turkey, which worked out much, much better! We ordered our dinner from a different location for Saturday. It was from a place called Kate and Kimi. Favorite part of this may have been the potatoes, or possibly the beans. Still, sides are where it’s at.
This Thanksgiving was probably the best one I could have asked for being away from home. I, of course, missed my family and friends back home, but this actually felt like a real Thanksgiving celebration. We ate an inconceivable amount of food, laughed a lot, and gave thanks for the wonderful things and people we all have in our lives. We truly  came together like a family and kicked off the holiday season right, and for that I am extremely grateful.

What are you grateful for this year?

4 Tips for Maintaining your Sanity as an Expat

Living abroad can easily be an immensely thrilling experience; however, it can be equally frustrating at times, making it difficult to maintain your sanity.
Regardless of the drastic highs and lows I experience living in China, I can honestly say that I’m extremely lucky to live in Shanghai, a city with a phenomenal expat community. In a moment, this community can remind me why I am choosing this lifestyle at this point in time. It’s all the other moments that are a struggle. Over the past year, I’ve developed (and am still developing) habits to help me maintain my sanity in this world of extremes I’ve subjected myself to.
If I’ve learned anything about what it takes for me to remain mentally stable here, it’s these four things: putting myself first, being overly productive, actively discovering new health habits, and getting involved in the community outside of work.
1. Being your first priority: For some people, this just comes naturally. For others, it’s not quite that easy, myself included. This year specifically, I’m learning how to care for myself. It’s wonderful to want to help people and do everything you can to make others happier, but it’s not okay when the cost becomes your sanity. Cut out the toxic things in your life, or at least regulate them so they don’t consume you. Figuring out how to put myself first has not been the easiest thing, but I’ve definitely noticed a difference in my mental health since I’ve begun trying. I’ve also started meditating to help me let go of the things that aren’t worthy of being a stressor and allow myself time to relax. Trust me, you can find time for yourself. Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, you owe it to your body and mind to set this time aside.
2. Making good use of your time: If you’re an expat that has a tendency to ask yourself why you are where you are, then you need to find ways to be productive and make yourself feel like you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile. I constantly go back and forth with my feelings of living where I am and what my future plans are, focusing only on the big picture. Worrying about the future will not help me in the now. I’m guaranteed to be here for an entire year, so it’s important that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time until the next big thing comes along. Identify your priorities and your why and then fill your time with things that serve your purpose.
3. Forming new health habits: In general, your idea of being healthy will remain the same, but the means of achieving good health may change based on your environment. Adapting to a new way of life isn’t always easy. Finding clean, healthy vegetables may be difficult or overly expensive. Going to a gym may be less convenient than ever before. Discovering this may be incredibly discouraging, but you mustn’t let it deter you from continuing to live a healthy life. You just have to redefine how you achieve it. Find out what options you have available and choose what works best for you. I personally have invested in a mask that I can run in on high pollution days, and try to exercise with videos at home. I’m constantly participating in Fitbit challenges with friends from all over the world. One of my good friends in China, Rachael, is going to start leading a couple of us in a weekly yoga session. There are plenty of options out there. Don’t give up on discovering a new angle. I will say that planning out meals is still a struggle for me and I often resort to ordering unhealthy food or just eating loads of pasta. If you know any ways to make maintaining a healthy diet in Shanghai easier, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
4. Exploring the wonderful local events and groups: I can have the worst “China week” possible and question everything, but going to watch an improv show on Saturday can completely reset my views on being here. I go from questioning what I’m doing here to being in awe of the amazing community I live in. It really helps me to appreciate the life I have here. There’s something about being around a group of open-minded individuals from all over the world that reminds me why I live abroad. Interacting with the expat community outside of work makes me proud to be a part of it. For me personally, watching improv groups in Shanghai does this for me. For you, it may be something different. The point is, find that extra something that brings you happiness and grows your network a bit. It’s easy to talk (or even complain/worry) about work when you’re always with your coworkers. Expand your group of friends and find something new to show you just how awesome your current home is.
When I really think about the things that help me get through the tough times and random daily struggles of life as an expat, it’s these. All of these things could easily be applied to life anywhere, but being a million miles away from home may cause you to question your decisions a little more frequently. These help me to relax my mind, prioritize my life, stay healthy, enjoy myself, and overall just stay sane.

What activities do you do regularly to keep your life in check? If you’re an expat, what gets you through the toughest days?

Does Making Life Decisions Ever Get Any Easier as an Expat?

It’s time again to start thinking about my future. Do I stay another year in China? Move to another country? Go home for grad school? Do something entirely different in the States? Or do I just take all my savings and travel while I can and then deal with it?
It’s hard to believe that it’s time to start making this decision again. Last year I hadn’t thought much about it until February. Up until then, I was fairly certain there wasn’t even a small chance I’d come back. It’s crazy how time affects the decisions we make.

Right now, this is what I’m considering:

1. Stay in Shanghai for another year.
-This is the easy choice. I have a home that I’m settled into, a good paying job, plenty of connections, and a great incentive from the school for those who stay a third year. Granted all of these things come at a cost, not monetarily though.

2. Move to a new country.
-I think this is what I want to do most if I can find a way to make it a fiscally responsible decision. I miss speaking French a lot, and I haven’t lived there in over three years. But I’m torn between wanting to go back to France and wanting to explore a completely new place and learn a completely new language. I would consider teaching again, or even trying out the whole au pair experience.

3. Go back to the States for grad school.
-Doing this would (in a way) set me back a few years. This was my initial option immediately after undergrad, but when offered an amazing opportunity for an assistantship, I turned it down. I don’t regret it, I’ve had some amazing experiences these past three years; I’m just wondering why it was so hard for me to accept that opportunity back then. It should have been an easy choice to make. Nevertheless, I couldn’t say yes and now the idea is back on the table for consideration. 

4. Get a big girl job in America. 

-And then there is this, the idea that sort of haunts me always. I’m not against this idea, as thrilled as that last statement sounded, I just don’t think I’m ready to give up all of the international travel I’ve been doing. As much as I’d love to be home with my family (I miss them terribly) and doing a job that I am truly passionate about, I can’t help worrying that staying home would take me back to a life of just a trip or two a year that I’ve struggled to afford, and they all would be domestic trips. Even though there’s nothing wrong with that and there’s plenty to see in the USA, international travel will probably never be easier for me than it is now. And am I willing to make that trade off at this moment in my life?

I suppose if all else fails, I’ll just take my savings and live it up until I have no choice but to start adulting…
I’ve got a lot to think about and time is not slowing down for me, no matter how frequently I ask it to. Wish me luck!

Taiwan Travel: 7 Days

I used Taipei as a base for four of the nights, booking a hostel in Shilin District. This allowed easy bus access to a lot of the surrounding areas on my list. There are plenty of great things to do in Taipei, as well as outside of it.

-Night Markets

-Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101

-Starbucks at Taipei 101

-Speakeasy: Ounce Taipei

-Maokong Gondola

-National Palace Museum
-Peace Park
-National Museum of History
-Taiwan National Museum
-C.K.S. Memorial Hall
-Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
Keelung, Jiufen, Jinguashi

-Golden Waterfalls

-YinYang Sea

-Gold Mine Museum
-Jiufen Old Street
-Keelung Port

-Yangmingshan National Park

Things to Note in Taipei: 
Toilets are everywhere, not similar to Shanghai. I would still bring sanitizer and toilet paper just in case.
Wifi is absolutely everywhere! 7-11, metro, random areas on the street.
You won’t see many trash cans even though the city is very clean. Make sure that if you see one you take advantage of it.
Transportation can be (very) confusing. Stay at a good hostel so that you can ask for guidance before beginning your daily adventures.
Don’t eat or drink on subway. Some foreigners might not realize, but I promise you’ll be the only one casually sipping a beverage. I visited a friend of mine while there and he had even made a comment stating nobody is supposed to do that. This is not something specific to Taiwan. I’ve been to a few countries where this has been the case. Try to be aware of your surroundings!
GETTING AWAY FROM TAIPEI: What to do in Hualien

Taking a train to Hualien is extremely convenient, quick, affordable, and you can pick up your train tickets at most 7-11s. And trust me, those are everywhere!

We stayed at a really nice BnB in Hualien. They didn’t speak English but it was so clean, had free laundry service, and was super comfortable. Hualien is rather small and you can get to most places by walking. The walk can be a little bit long though, so don’t be fooled by the disproportionate map that the visitor center gives you. Hualien has a night market as well, but it is at the opposite end of the town from the visitor center and train. Expect to walk at least 20 minutes.

Things to do:
-Take a bus to Taroko Gorge National Park (bus stop is the orange building across from the visitor center, adjacent to the train station). Here you can go hiking and see Taroko Gorge. Expect confusion on the bus, you’ll figure it out eventually.

-QiXingTan to play in the Pacific Ocean and get the perfect view of the Big Dipper (which is where the name QiXingTan comes from).-Night Market
-Local food (or if that’s not your thing, there’s a Subway, McDonald’s, and Starbucks)

Overall I had an amazing time in Taiwan, but if I’m being completely honest I thought it was a bit difficult to get around most places. Unfortunately, I found my hostel and various employees throughout the island to be less than helpful, making it difficult for a tourist to figure anything out.
In Taipei, the metro will be your best friend. I recommend downloading the Taipei Metro app which requires no internet, finds the stops nearest to you, and navigates your best route with distance in time included

(I download this same app for different cities whenever I travel). However, there will be tourist sites that have no metro stop nearby, and that’s when it gets complicated.

I originally intended to create a post that would be useful for getting around, but even after spending a week in Taiwan, I continued to struggle and don’t feel completely qualified to offer too much advice. It was a really nice trip but my best advice is just to be patient. Things probably won’t be easy and they won’t go as planned. Just be easy-going and flexible and you’ll have a wonderful time!