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Surfing and figuring out my next move after Taiwan were how I spent my last few days in Dulan. I had a few more stops along the way but was starting to think after 3 months here I may never leave. After all; the people are amazingly friendly, the food is delicious and the scenery is stunning. In Hualien, in-between horrific sunburn and passing out in the shower, I met many travelers who were discussing the Philippines. Mainly in a negative light. Due to the recent bombings in Manila and the increase in pirate kidnapping, many foreigners had cancelled their flights.  Obviously this piqued my interest enough to revisit the conversation with a new set of travelers. The result: booking three flights to get myself to Siargao Island.

siargao fisherman
Fisherman life on the island of Siargao
The mission of making it to Siargao Island

After some catching up in Kaohsiung and Taipei it’s a flight to Manila. Arriving so early I’m left will little to do with my evening. It’s finally time to create a massive conga line. First set back hits: I don’t have an exit flight out of the Philippines. I attempt to argue the fact I don’t know where I’m going after Siargao Island. I follow with a promise to leave within 30 days. Both arguments failing I leave the line and proceed to panic. Searching for cheap flights I give myself two weeks in the Philippines then fly to Hong Kong. Indonesia is actually where I wanted to go but hadn’t planned when and Hong Kong was the cheapest next to Taiwan. I had just come from Taiwan so Hong Kong it was. Note to self; get fucking organised!

siargao hidden beaches
Hidden beach in Siargao

Landing in Manila in the early hours of the morning I discover no food available. In fact, only the dim light of several vending machines offer a possibility of nourishment. I find only sugary drinks and water. No coffee. I repeat the earlier note made to ones self; get fucking organised! My next flight is to Cebu. I’m met with the same airport dilemma. Trying to keep spirits high I wait around for my flight and hope the plane serves food. There is no food. But it’s okay, one more flight and I’ll make it to Siargao Island by the morning. The plane to Siargao is the smallest I have ever been on. I’m relieved it isn’t full, not just for the weight but also my small hand luggage sized suitcase is too large for the over head compartment and under the seat.

From Siargao airport to Paglaom hostel
Siargao sunny paglaom hostel
Sunny and pup

The airport is fairly out-of-the-way to the main strip of the island. I booked transfer via Paglaom hostel and I recommend others book in advance. I had been awake through the night without food and so was grateful to climb into an empty air-conditioned van. The desire to sleep lifted as I got my first view of life in the Philippines. The island is a paradox. It’s poverty and paradise almost overshadowing each other. A place resembling the beauty of a Monet where upon the illusion of perfection is stripped away once you look closely at the detail. The waters reflect the sun off its crisp waves and plastic bottles. The children joyfully laugh on the beaches as they weave bracelets for their income.

siargao Filipino food
Island dinner

None of this is to dissuade anyone from visiting this once secret island. There is enormous life and beauty here. But with Siargao’s secrecy slowing disappearing, so is its natural beauty. It is not the influx of tourists to this paradise that bares the fault alone. Siargao island isn’t fully equipped to become a tourist hot-spot. There is no recycling in place and little in the way of medical facilities. The more resorts appear though, which is at a rapid speed, the more funding is going into protecting Siargao’s landscape and local people.

The home of Paglaom
siargao stand up paddle boarding
SUP day island hopping

Paglaom hostel has a vibe like no other. I arrive on family dinner day, obviously with no food to contribute. I was told it would be enough just to help prepare. Quickly showering I was immediately told I looked 100 times better than I did on arrival! We ate, we drank, we played questionable games and by the end of the night I was booked onto a SUP tour to a small island. This is the type of hostel where if you are traveling alone and want to meet people you’ve got it all. Strangers become family. Sunny and Coy are amazing and have a chalk board where they let you know what’s going on daily. Sunny also runs a small NGO doing beach clean ups and educating the youth of General Luna on protecting the environment. Coy is an amazing surfer who will teach you the best stand up technique on the kitchen table, and their dogs will keep you company if you fancy a quieter night in.

Things to do on Siargao island

Siargao is known as the surfing capital of the Philippines. With the famous Cloud 9 bringing surfers together from all over the world since the 80’s. It’s actually how the secret of Siargao was whispered among the tourists. But this slice of paradise doesn’t just cater to surfers. With yoga, tidal pools, caves and lagoons just being a taste of what is on offer here it attracts all kinds of travelers. Siargao is definitely a spot for nature lovers and beach bums. One thing I definitely recommend doing is island hopping. This often comes with lunch and is a great was to socialize with all your new hostel buddies. The waters are crystal clear providing a great opportunity for snorkeling among the coral and the beaches are a blinding white.

Magpupungko tidal pool
Magpupungko Tidal Pool

The best way to get around Siargao island is to rent a scooter. It will cost you around 350 pesos a day to explore this natural landscape. As a side-note; many of the hostels and restaurants are off the main strip and the roads turn into dirt tracks. With the high possibility of rain suddenly surrounding you these tracks become murky pools that are less than fun to ride through. If you are here to surf get yourself a bike with a rack in place so you can take your board to cloud 9 with ease. A great place not to miss is the Magpupungko Pool which is located in Pilar, about an hours drive from General Luna. This is the only tidal pool in the Philippines I have been told and offers an amazing spot to swim, separated from the ocean by a large reef that acts as a walk way during low tide.

siargao cloud 9 walkway
Cloud 9 pier
Leaving Siargao Island
siargao huts in water
secret island huts

Having to leave after a week was awful. All I kept saying to myself was ‘this is why you don’t book flights in advance!’ I was kicking myself for only giving two weeks to the Philippines. I had let the recent news and travelers worries affect my decision. Many of the people I met had cancelled their next set of flights to extend their stay in this paradise. I wanted to do the same but I had my next destination booked and didn’t mind a reason to come back to Siargao. I toyed with the idea of looking for work at a resort and just staying forever! After saying goodbye to Sunny and Coy it was the start of my journey to Palawan. Puerto Princesa was my intended stop for a week before heading to Hong Kong….not Indonesia….again; get fucking organised.

siargao beach clean up

siargao crystal clear water

siargao sunsets
Siargao sunsets

 

 

 

Leaving my last Workaway in Keelung I was feeling it was time for a break from volunteering. The next stop on my east coast route of Taiwan was Hualien. Everyone had told me this was a place for the scenery. Without looking much into what to do in Hualien, I booked the train ticket and made my way south.

I booked into a hostel called Big Bear Hostel conveniently located in walking distance from the train station. The weather is humid with the lightest of rain when I arrive. Settling in I venture out to get a hold of my surroundings. In Keelung I was used to wandering outside and finding an array of markets full of every kind of vegetable, fruit and meat that you could desire. Walking from my street into the main city I’ve yet to come across fresh produce. Instead there are the neon lights of 7 11 and family mart everywhere. Choosing a local restaurant for food, I head back to the hostel in the evening to meet the other travelers.

Beginning to explore Hualien

I wake up fairly late having decided not to set an alarm and realize it’s not raining. The sun though has yet to show itself from the what to do in Hualienclouds. My “what to do in Hualien” list includes finding myself on a beach. It may not be a tropical beach but Chishingtan Scenic area was less than an hours walk away to a stony but pretty looking coast line.

There are of course buses to take you to this beach in around 10 minutes or alternatively, Hualien is much easier to rent a motorbike than Keelung, providing you have an international license. I always choose to walk though as it allows me to see the locals of the area and discover unexpected charms of a place. Passing temples and shop owners I follow the road and come across what is either a prison or an air-force. Which ever it may be it creates a stark contrast of barbed wire cutting into the now blue skyline. Lined with mountains and palm trees the road makes me think of pictures of California.

Pebbles and currents

what to do in HualienBreaking from the main road I head towards the pink and white colored houses that are perfectly reminiscent of seaside towns. The area is so quiet I almost think its abandoned until I see the odd person sitting in their darkened store. I follow the sound of crashing waves and begin the unbalanced walk over the stones that make up the beach here. The water is beautiful. It’s been so long since I have seen blue waters.

The few people that are here are fully clothed and getting only their feet wet for a short time for photographs. I take some pictures for myself but soon I consider undressing to my bikini. I sit for a while. I’m not hugely confident that this is a beach for sunbathing. But I am here, and after calling myself a coward I race to remove my own dress so quickly that hesitation is unable to take hold of me. Moving straight to hide in the waves I quickly realize the sea deepens suddenly and carries the strongest current. I wouldn’t recommend using this beach for swimming.

what to do in HualienWhether it was the rush of excitement or the fact I have been absent of a beach for so long, I neglect to put any sunscreen on. Nearly two hours later I’m walking into a store for a cool drink and met with quite a gaze from the shop owner who motions towards my arms. I return to the hostel hidden under an umbrella and once I shower I realize how much damage I have done. I resemble a lobster in the transition of life to the boiling pot! The next few days involve fainting, drinking huge amounts of water and applying copious amounts of aloe gel onto my skin.

What to do in Hualien when it rains

After a few days recovering, still very pink, the heavens have opened to days of rain. My current state is appreciative of these cooler days. Yet finding what to do in Hualien, a city known for its scenery, in the rain isn’t the easiest. Had I the energy I would have ventured to Taroko gorge. The aboriginal tribe who reside in this area have aptly named this place. Taroko, in the language of Truku that belongs to the tribe, means “magnificent and splendid.” I may have only seen pictures but it is a place I regret not being able to make it to.

what to do in HualienNot up for anything to strenuous I walk in the rain in search of a place called Pine Garden. Along the way I come across Martyr’s Shrine. Perched high on a small hill at Meiluen Shan Park, the colorful roof of this beautiful architecture shone through the clouds and rain. After the Chinese Civil War, the shrine was built to honor the fallen Kuomintang soldiers. I was fortunate to have this place all to myself. I take some time to enjoy the peace of this area. After a while I walked up past the shrine to explore some gardens.

The command center of Pine Garden

what to do in HualienFollowing the road that leads around the shrine I continued on to find Pine Garden. Overlooking the Hualien harbor I reach an extremely well preserved and charming example of Japanese military structure. Situated at the highest point of Hualien city, Pine Garden was a strategic point that allowed the Japanese forces to command their battleships and fighter aircraft’s without difficulty. Today, it is a prestigious cultural hub dedicated to poetry in the beautiful city of Hualien. There is an eerie atmosphere behind its walls that leave some believing the building is haunted. Reach the top floor though and you will only find a gallery of unique artwork.

what to do in HualienAfter exploring the main building there is a coffee shop in the garden where you can rest for a snack. There is also two gift shops of charming trinkets that make great gifts or personal mementos. If you continue on the road past Pine Garden you will come across a store of artwork and wood carvings. Reaching the main road there are further monuments to take in and steps to take you down to the harbor.

I slightly ruined my Hualien trip for myself by punishing my skin in the sun. There is so much more to explore here and it is a great location to use as a base for bus trips to surrounding areas. Hualien will certainly move to my list of areas to revisit on my Taiwan travels.

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what to do in Hualien
Bunker at Pine Garden

what to do in Hualien

We’ve all either heard about or felt what it’s like to be in a bustling room of people and strangely feel quite alone. To be surrounded by chatter that fades into a dream like mumbling. This moment now belonged to me, in an airport lounge, silently debating if a holiday by myself was really the way I wanted to spend my 29th birthday.

Hungarian Parliament

Since I was 15yrs old I’ve imagined travelling the world. Living in an apartment in Paris spending my days in coffee shops and art galleries. Doing yoga on the beaches of Thailand and meditating in temples in Vietnam. Or hiking through the mountains of Canada to return to my cabin in the woods for the moments I need to go off grid and reconnect. As time passed these dreams have never left me but also never materialized. A sense of fear always surrounding the idea that to pursue this life alone could only be dangerous. I would become lost and helpless, lonely or simply run out of funds.

All of a sudden I was 28 and still talking about the life I wasn’t leading. Friends had taken the course of marriage, mortgage and motherhood and for me the route ahead had never changed, I had just not hit the road yet. Finally I had enough of myself, enough of fear tricking me into leading a life I had become quite bored of. And that’s how I found myself on my fourth coffee out of a paper cup, checking, yet again, that I had packed my passport and waterproof mascara!

St Stephen’s Basilica

The destination ahead was Budapest. I knew very little about the city but George Ezra had given it a touch of romanticism that was enough to convince me in a moment of impulse to book a ticket for my first 4 day solo city break. Four days completely alone with a pocket sized tour guide, a camera to be used mainly to create a picture map to aid my appalling sense of direction, and a suede skinned notebook to keep me company in coffee shops. This was to be my test; if I could do this alone, I could go anywhere alone.

Nevertheless nerves slowly turned to panic in the walkway tunnel from the airport to the plane. The usual polite conversation that is made when you are uncomfortably close to those as tired as you turned into a barrage of questions; why go alone? Do you know anyone there? What if you get lost? Finally a woman of maybe 60 turned to me and said she had wished she had had my courage in her youth, when time was on her side to explore all the endless possibilities life could offer if only she had the courage to take hold of them. A wave of conviction comforted me in that moment. I was doing exactly what I needed to do for the life I wanted to live.

Danube Fountain

Rain greeted me upon arrival, the sky was rather grey for September. All of this though seemed fitting. I had timed my trip to Budapest with Europe’s escalating migration crisis (Sep 2015). The Keleti train station had become the setting of quite a cold reception towards those searching for salvation. Although I wanted to document this historic moment, I concluded adding this experience to my first solo trip would perhaps be too much and so I regrettably arranged for a car. The driver spoke no English and I hadn’t thought to learn a word of Hungarian so we sat in silence for the hours drive to the apartment I had found on Airbnb, the idea of a hotel room housing only my carry on luggage seemed depressing.

The car pulled up to a beautiful square on the Pest side of the river. I was met with the warmest welcome ever experienced from a stranger. The woman whose apartment I would be calling home was Iren, she spoke Deutsch and English and had all the style and charisma of those city woman you see in old hollywood movies. I liked her immediately. As she helped with my luggage and guided me through the largest hallway I’d seen in an apartment building, the inevitable was asked while we squeezed into the not so large, very old questionable elevator; do you have a friend here? My answer gave way to the response I was beginning to become quite accustomed to. Her body froze in a way that I was unsure the lift was still moving! The moment she saw her panic reflected back in my eyes she smiled and gave her voice a rhythm of enthusiasm sung purely for my benefit. We were in the apartment for maybe 3 minutes discussing the WiFi code and which keys I needed when I was suddenly shuffled out of the door, back into the elevator and once again in to that beautiful square surrounded by stunning architecture.

Museum of Ethnography

It’s funny how differently people prioritize the essentials they feel we should know when becoming accustomed to a new environment. Iren was leading me to the best coffee shops and restaurants that wouldn’t overcharge me and to my nearest metro stop that would take me to Váci Street in downtown Budapest; where everyone simply must go for all their shopping. We parted with exchanges of phone numbers, her own and all the local emergency numbers just in case. But the more I was seeing of this stunning city bathed in history and culture, the more content and confident I was becoming in my choice to be here by myself, to be dictated to only by myself as to when I should get up and where I should go.

I briefly returned to the apartment to freshen up and gather my camera and notebook. It was early evening and music was now playing in the square, it was the perfect time to wander and get my bearings in this city that I was to spend the next few days exploring at my own leisure. The Solo Pursuit had began.

House of Terror

The Pest side is quite flat and I was in the heart of Budapest. Within 5 minutes of wandering from my apartment I fell upon St. Stephen’s Basilica, a stunning example of Neoclassical architecture that was a theater in the 18th century and hosted animal fights! It didn’t take long to realize that Budapest was home to some of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen, adorned inside and out.

A further 10 minutes of wandering and I found myself at the grand Hungarian Parliament building, around this area there are many memorials dedicated to the 1956 rebellion against Soviet control, but the one that compelled me the most stood opposite the Parliament building, a wall of bullet holes commemorating the victims of “Bloody Thursday”. This City is full of history and the House of Terror museum is also not one to miss for its moving exhibits.

A tremendous glimpse of the Buda side of the city can also be viewed from the Parliament building and it is a short walk along the Danube river before you find your self at the Chain Bridge, a cast iron suspension bridge that creates a link between East and West. But before I discover the older side of Buda I had more of Pest to explore.

Opposite the Hungarian Parliament building stands the Museum of Ethnography, it is one of the oldest institutions in Hungary. I was fortunate to visit during the World Press Photo exhibit that left me wandering the museum almost in a daze with silent tears rolling down my cheeks. The artifacts of Hungarian folk life followed and sent me in search of some lace and embroidery to take home for my niece. If museums aren’t for you I would still recommend visiting if only to take in the design of the building and magnificent paintings that are its ceilings.

Szechenyi Spa Baths

The Pest side is also where I recommend for window shopping, particularly around the Andrassy ut area. This avenue will also lead you to the House of Terror Museum, the State Opera House and Hero’s Square. One thing not to miss is a visit to the Szechenyi Spa Baths, one of the largest in Europe, a stunning Neo-baroque palace built in 1913. You can take a dip in one of the many medicinal natural hot spring waters or detox in saunas and steam rooms before plunging into an ice cold bath. If that’s not your thing there are several massage therapies and facial treatments you can enjoy. For those looking to really let their hair down I recommend looking at tickets for the night parties held in the thermal pools once a month!

Buda Castle

After two days of taking in the sights of Pest I wandered over the Chain Bridge to the more hilly side of Buda. I immediately discovered Buda castle, a breathtaking palace that is home to both the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. I wandered the grounds for nearly an hour and sat for almost as long listening to an old violinist playing notes carried in the wind. From here I followed behind a crowd of tourist looking for holy trinity square. This is how I spent the majority of the trip, wandering and hoping to cross off a good amount of sights on my list, little planning and navigation were involved. Although this meant I didn’t see everything, I saw enough to convince me that Budapest is a city to see more than once.

Matthias Church

The tourist group succeeded in its quest and recognizing the image of the Old Town Hall I realized we had reached the home of Matthias Church, built in the typical Gothic style, the once Mosque incorporates beautiful ceramic tiles in its construction that radiate a rainbow of color when kissed by the sun. Inside is even more wondrous in decoration, something I had come to expect in Budapest, the underground gallery housing many relics  and replicas of the Hungarian crown and coronation jewels. For me though, the terrace of Fisherman’s Bastion with it’s seven towers was the highlight of Buda, offering panoramic views of the Danube and home to a restaurant that hosted
a small live orchestra.

Fisherman’s Bastion

I only spent a day wandering the alleys of Buda but it was enough to see these two side of the city have very different personalities. Both having such distinct characters, I feel when I return to Budapest I could explore both sides as almost two separate trips. There is much left to absorb of this city and I’m captivated by what I have seen so far. One thing I did feel I missed out on as a solo traveler was the night life, particularly exploring the ruin bars. This isn’t to say as a lone female this is off limits, but as a first time single female traveler, I felt more comfortable sitting in the cafes and sampling the local dishes in the many fine restaurants than I did at the idea of moving from bar to bar following the gin and jazz. For my next visit, I will most likely stay in a hostel for the opportunity to meet others that I can join with for this part of the evening.

Hungarian Parliament by night

This uncertainty of drinking alone however did not stop me from taking in the beauty of Budapest by night, where the monuments light up and lovers roam the streets. Budapest is a perfect city to discover by foot and I felt safer wandering here at night than I have in many cities back in the UK. One thing to add is that as a single person comfortably roaming the streets you are often mistaken for a local and so avoid the usual attempts people may make to try and sell you various trinkets or tickets for events that do not exist.

My last day in Budapest was spent buying the usual souvenirs for friends and family and sipping coffee with a view of St Stephen’s Basilica. The sky was blue with only a slight chill to the wind. September was perfect for me, warm enough to pack light only requiring a few layers, and quiet from the return of the children to school. Upon finishing my birthday cheesecake I wrote a thank you card to leave for Iren and returned to the apartment for the last time; on this trip anyway. Usually at the end of a holiday I feel deflated not wanting to return to the 9-5 life, but this was different. I felt ready. Ready to go beyond a 4 day city break.

Sitting in the airport I connected to the WiFi and started researching how to make travel and earning an income coincide. I was astounded by the amount of available options, particularly for the technologically fluent, but where to start. A few days later I was home to Wales to visit family and give them their gifts from Budapest. It was a chance meeting with my first employer and her friend that set me on a new course. I signed up to gain a certificate as a TEFL teacher and a few months later completed the course and began the second round of research, where to relocate to! It only took a single trip by myself to find the courage necessary to make my life an adventure. And so here I am, on the solo pursuit to an extraordinary life.

You can find Iren here on Airbnb Hello Iren

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