Mexico City: A Winter Retreat to CDMX

Mexico City is full of contrasts: chaotic but also serene, modern but also rooted in millennia of Mesoamerican history and culture. Looking to escape the frigid New York winter, I’d booked my visit to CDMX based on the recommendations of many friends and colleagues. And while my stay lasted only for five days, I left realizing how much more I need to learn about the continent I currently call home — its past, its present, and its potential futures.

Metropolitan Cathedral in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main public square
The Zócalo at night, as viewed from the top of the Torre Latinoamericana
View from a pedestrian crossing near La Condesa
Late morning stroll down a leafy street in Roma Norte
One of many murals along the Real Mayorazgo in Xoco
A colorful church in the colorful neighborhood of Coyoacán
The Pyramid of the Sun, largest of the iconic pyramids at Teotihuacán
The Polanco skyline (foreground: the Bosque de Chapultepec park)
Saturday morning in the Parque México, La Condesa
Central Library at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)


Tim’s Highlights:

  • Food and Drink: El Cardenal, Bósforo Mezcaleria (Centro), Ojo de Agua (Condesa), Mercado de Coyoacán (Coyoacán), Contramar, Pulqueria Los Insurgentes (Roma Norte)
  • Museums: Palacio de Bellas Artes (Centro), Museo Frida Kahlo (Coyoacán), Museo Nacional de Antropología (Polanco)
  • Parks: Alameda Central (Centro), Bosque de Chapultepec, Parque México (Condesa)
  • Cafés/Other: Café El Jarocho (Coyoacán), Café NIN (Juárez), Cafebrería El Péndulo (Roma Norte)


Japan: A Photo a Day from Two Weeks of Hiking and City Hopping

I have long been drawn to Japan’s cultural and spiritual history, hypermodern cities, food scene, and hiking culture. The country also provides an important contextual backdrop for my family history, as my maternal grandparents grew up and lived under Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan and spoke the Japanese language. For several years, I have anticipated finally experiencing Japan in person for the first time and gaining a broader perspective of the country’s influence on the Asia Pacific region.

I initially planned to organize my trip around three legs, split evenly between (1) the Greater Tokyo area, (2) the Japanese Alps in Central Honshu, and (3) Osaka as a home base for the Kansai region (Kyoto, Nara, etc.). However, due to a combination of weather and transit complications in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis, I wound up cutting short my time in the Alps, taking instead a two-day detour in Hiroshima and Miyajima.

Overall, I enjoyed a rich, full two weeks in Japan, meeting up with a number of old friends and making some new ones along the way — and with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito and the culmination of the Rugby World Cup as the backdrop. Ultimately, I found that two weeks was enough for only a first taste of Japan, and I look forward to reading and learning more.

Day 1: Fighting off jet lag with a Sunday afternoon walk through Ueno Park, Tokyo
Day 2: A quiet Monday morning in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo
Day 3: Capping off a day of Tokyo neighborhood-hopping with a stroll in trendy Kichijōji
Day 4: Part of the Tokyo skyline as viewed from the Bunkyō Civic Center 
Day 5: Hints of autumn foliage in the highland valley of Kamikōchi, Nagano Prefecture
Day 6: Rainy morning walk on the grounds of Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture
Day 7: After a rainy hike, a view of Seto Inland Sea from Mount Misen, Miyajima Island
Day 8: Hiroshima City / the Ōta River delta
Day 9: A view of the Tōji Temple from the Gion district in Kyoto
Day 10: The electric downtown neighborhood of Dōtonbori in Osaka
Day 11: The quaint Yoshikien Garden in Nara
Day 12: The iconic Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto
Day 13: Wandering the alleys of Nakazakichō, Osaka
Day 14: Sunset over Tokyo’s Chūō ward, viewed from Tsukishima, Tokyo

Iceland’s Ring Road: The Ultimate Panoramic Road Trip

Behind the curtain at Seljalandsfoss

I had the privilege of kicking off Summer 2019 with my good friend Jonathan on an 8-day road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road. We’re both no-frills, DIY travelers with a penchant for hiking, so we aimed for an itinerary that combined well-known landmarks with opportunities to go off the beaten path.

Black beach at Vestrahorn mountain in southern Iceland
A lighthouse across the fjord at Djúpivogur

Traveling around Iceland is like moving through a postcard, with breathtaking landscapes around every corner. It was also fun to experience the dramatic shifts in topography and climate across the country’s various regions, which included driving through the winding roads of eastern Iceland’s fjords during a mild snowstorm.

The town of Seyðisfjörður in Eastern Iceland
Fog and snow along Iceland’s Ring Road

Iceland gave me a renewed reverence for the powerful forces of nature that shape our planet, and for how the same fundamental elements — earth, wind, water, and fire — have forged themselves into endless variations of grandeur.

One of the countless scenic views along Iceland’s Ring Road
Crater hike in Northern Iceland’s Lake Mývatn region
Embracing the wind at Kolugljúfur canyon

And from conversations with fellow travelers and new Icelander friends, I was also reminded that while our planet is grand, it is also small; that our commonalities are far greater than our differences; and that together, we have what it takes to build a better future.

Across the fjord from Akureyri, Iceland
A view of Reykjavík from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja


Postcards from Taiwan, no. 7: Finding Roots and Tracing History in Tainan

Cheng Kung Lake, National Cheng Kung University

“Know your roots,” my cousin K. told me on a previous trip to Asia. What does it mean to know my roots as a first-generation American with family from Taiwan and Hong Kong? It’s a question that kept surfacing as I walked around Tainan (population 1.9 million). This was partially thanks to the frequent visual reminder of banyans, a fig tree with massive root systems and extensive branches.

Banyan Garden, National Cheng Kung University

Beyond literal roots, Tainan is also Taiwan’s oldest city and was the stage for many of the events that shaped the country’s political history. The Dutch first established the Tainan as “Fort Zeelandia” in the early 17th century and it served as a major trade hub between China, Japan, and Europe. Later, Tainan served as the capital city of the Taiwan Prefecture under China’s Qing Dynasty for more than 200 years. In addition, Tainan is a spiritual epicenter and home to more than 2,000 temples and shrines, Buddhist and Taoist, large and small.

Taiwan Confucius Temple, West Central District

What I love about Tainan is the way its modern facade—its shopping centers, cafes, and street art—coexist with its historical and sacred sites. The city is less obviously altered by globalizing forces than places like Taipei or Hong Kong. It feels unapologetically Taiwanese in its demeanor and the spoken sound of the Taiwanese Hokkien dialect is ubiquitous. You can also trace the progression of history through Tainan’s old back alleys. Many of these alleys have retained their traditional character even as hip, new cafes and restaurants move in.

A side alleyway in Tainan’s West Central District

I thought the Anping Tree House was a fitting symbol for Taiwanese resilience amidst the waves of colonialism and occupation. The British Tait & Company built the former warehouse in 1867 as part of a trading hub for sugar and camphor. During Japanese colonialism, the building became a warehouse for a salt company. Eventually, the warehouse was abandoned, and the roots and branches of a giant banyan tree took over the building.

Anping Tree House, Anping District

The Tree House also reminded me of the resilience of our cultural roots. For example, second-generation Americans like me may be culturally programmed as Westerners. But if we look deeply, we can find traces of our parents’ homelands—both traumas and graces—within ourselves. These contextual clues are especially precious in a time when we are becoming more and more rootless.

My favorite experience in Tainan was going for an early Friday morning walk in Tainan Park. The park is humble but beautiful, and graced with Chinese-style pavilions and bridges. I watched groups of senior citizens doing tai chi, aerobics, and stretching exercises to a mix of soundtracks: traditional Chinese music, K-pop, and a Mandarin mashup of “Ode to Joy” and hip hop beats. Here, on my morning walk—going through the rhythms of a normal day—I felt at home.

Tainan Park, North District

So what does it mean to “know your roots,” particularly if you’ve been uprooted? Spending time in Tainan taught me that I’m only beginning to understand, and that I have so much to learn. I was also reminded that it’s bittersweet to visit a home you never inhabited—to remember that you’ve been uprooted. Then again, maybe that’s the unique charm of living in a multicultural society like America. We’ve all got different roots, and a diverse set of crops is good for the soil.

Postcards from Taiwan, no. 6: Embracing Change at Kenting National Park

Longpan Park, Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Taiwan is where I hit the “reset” button on life, and my visits always seem to coincide with seasons of transitions. In May 2011, I was fresh out of college, unemployed, and had just left Chicago for the East Coast. In December 2014, I was amidst transitions from DC to New York and from the private to the nonprofit sector. And this year, I had a few weeks off before starting a new job—and am within a year from turning thirty.

This time around, I wanted to spend more time in nature, so I chose to kick off my time in Taiwan around Kenting National Park. I stayed in the town of Hengchun, where I rented a bike and headed east toward the ocean, zipping through small villages along the way. After making a turn southeast on Highway 26, I was accompanied to my left by majestic views of Taiwan’s east Pacific coast. Longpan Park awaited at the top of an aggressive, windy climb. There, I was awarded with a breathtaking view of the cliffs, mountains, grasslands, and the sea and sky.

Windy and on a cliff’s edge at Longpan Park

From Longpan Park, I continued south on Highway 26, flying downhill toward the southern tip of Taiwan with the wind behind my back. It felt like freedom.

Eluanbi Park near the southernmost point in Taiwan

I do my best reflection and learning when I’m on the move. Over time, I’ve also learned that the “traveling mindset” is an instinct that requires practice. It disrupts us from our rigid rhythms and asks us to let go of ourselves and embrace uncertainty. It’s like a dissonant chord or a pause before the beat drops. Even though I’m thousands of miles away, there’s something about this place that feels like home.

A temple in Hengchun Old Town, Pingtung County
Baishawan, Kenting National Park
The white sands of Baishawan, Kenting National Park

Golden State of Mind: Road Tripping California’s Pacific Coast Highway

Shortly following my brother Matt’s college graduation in May 2017, we got to spend nine days exploring the California coast. It was the first substantive trip to California for both of us, and we wanted to get a good sampling of the state, so we ended up splitting our road trip into three legs of roughly three days each in Greater Los Angeles, along the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), and in the Bay Area.

Exploring Los Angeles was more like experiencing a patchwork of completely different towns and cities — from the boardwalk of Venice Beach and Santa Monica, to a hike up and down the Griffith Park trail, to cafe hopping along Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake.

Overlook of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory
Pacific waves at Santa Monica State Beach
Street art on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles viewed from across Echo Park Lake

The second three-day leg marked the “road trip” portion of our journey, a northward drive on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Some of our favorite stops along the way included Santa Barbara and coastal state parks. And we enjoyed breathtaking views of the ocean from Big Sur, even though significant parts of the area were unfortunately closed due to a landslide.

El Matador State Beach, Malibu
View of Bixby Bridge and Big Sur Coast from Highway One, Monterey County
The Big Sur Coast, Monterey County

We capped off our California excursion with three days in the San Francisco Bay Area, which included some hiking in Oakland’s redwood forest, getting dim sum in Chinatown, and lots of bar hopping and taco hunting in the Mission District.

Redwood Regional Park, Oakland
Downtown San Francisco as viewed from the Golden Gate Ferry
Sausalito, Marin County
Chinatown, San Francisco
Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco
Mission District, San Francisco
Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco

Overall, this trip gave us a solid introduction to California, but definitely left me wanting to  see more of the state, include Lake Tahoe, Napa, San Diego, and Yosemite National Park. Shoutout to my brother Matt for road tripping with me — let’s go back soon!

Battery Spencer, Sausalito

A Geography of Hope: Highlights from Two Alaska National Parks

My family traveled to Alaska in the summer of 2016, where we visited Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks. Along the way, some of our favorite stops included the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood, the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and the town of Talkeetna. And in Anchorage, I got to catch up with my college roommate Bourke in his home state.

Over the course of a week, we got a small but rich taste of Alaska’s vastness and natural beauty. And during our hike to Exit Glacier, we saw up close how far the glacier’s edge had receded in just the past two centuries — a sobering reminder of the responsibility we all share to protect our wild places and natural treasures that inhabit them.

Read “The Mirror in the Ice,” a longer piece about our Exit Glacier hike, featured in the NRDC’s journal series celebrating 100 years of the National Park Service. 

Denali from across Reflection Pond
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My brother Matt photographing Beluga Point
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Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Girdwood
A humpback whale breaches by a glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park
A flock of gulls takes off from the Chiswell Islands in Kenai Fjords National Park
Up close and personal with Exit Glacier

Dispatch from Seattle: Alain De Botton on a “Travelling Mind-Set”

“… The pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set that we travel with than on the destination we travel to

What, then, is a travelling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting … We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood … We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.”

— Alain de Botton in “On Habit,” The Art of Travel

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast — you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”

— Eddie Cantor

My trips this past month have given me an opportunity to practice the acts of wandering and noticing. On returning to New York City from Portland and Seattle, I’m challenged to slow down, look carefully, and notice the little things in the neighborhoods and places I inhabit and frequent — and ultimately, to go about everyday life with a mindset more like that of a traveler.

Tim’s Highlights:

22 Hours in Portland, or an Exercise in Improvisational Travel

My default mindset for travel (and perhaps in general) is a structured one. A case in point would be my family’s recent mini-vacation to Vermont. Leading up to our trip, I studied Vermont maps, researched possible destinations, and drafted a spreadsheet-style itinerary with addresses, estimated driving times, etc., all customizable based on weather changes.

I “mixed it up” yesterday on my one-day solo trip to Portland. Aside from getting a handful of personal recommendations, I decided I would “wing it” with the 22 hours I would have in the city. It took some effort to figure out the city layout and transit system, and I had a couple moments of self-doubt — (“am I skipping out on something I should be seeing?”) — but in the end, I left Portland satisfied, and I gained a dose of confidence in my ability to wander, or to go unscripted. It was an exercise in forced spontaneity, which is something I’d like to try more often.

Tim’s Recommendations:

Dispatch from Vermont: On Hubert Butler, Local Histories, and Places of Identity Formation

Last week, I took a five-day trip with my family to Vermont. This was my first time in the state and my first extended “travel” since moving to New York City in January.

Vermont was a refreshing detour for me. After seven months in Manhattan, it was good to retreat to a state with lots of green mountains but not a single billboard, and whose largest city has fewer than 50,000 residents.

What I enjoyed most in Vermont was experiencing the many hints of local pride, which were rooted in a very specific but deep history. From listening to a long-winded but impassioned brewery tour guide to coming across an intricate alleyway mural chronicling the centuries-long story of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, I got an impression that Vermonters truly had a sense of ownership of their home state.

During one of our evenings off, I skimmed through an essay anthology I found on a bookshelf in our rental home and stumbled across a piece by the late Hubert Butler, an Irish essayist. He writes in the essay “Beside the Nore”:

I have always believed that local history is more important than national history… Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighborhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be only of marginal concern to us.

Many people — myself included — move to places such as New York or Los Angeles to, at least in part, “find ourselves.” And while these journeys of identity creation may be rewarding, my brief time in Vermont has reminded me to appreciate the other neighborhoods that have formed me and my family — a blue-collar suburb in New Jersey, a mountain village in central Taiwan, a coastal town in Southern China — places with richer stories than their seemingly unassuming natures might suggest.

Tim’s Recommendations