Last Fall, when travel was still possible and we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, E and I flew to China for two weeks. We were visiting our friends, Eben and Laura, who had recently moved to Shenzhen to work at an international school. (Yes, these are the same friends who were displaced by coronavirus and now kinda, sorta live in Berlin for the foreseeable future.)
After two weeks in China, E flew back to Berlin to start a new job (which you can read about here) and I flew to Indonesia. I spent a couple days on Bali traveling solo for the first time in years, and then I met up with a friend from high school who was living on Flores. We spent two weeks together road tripping across the island and learning to SCUBA dive. Finally, on my way home to Berlin, I spent a whirlwind 24 hours in Hong Kong.
Friends, it was a good trip.
I started working on this blog post months ago, and then set it aside, for obvious reasons. I’m sharing it now, not to make us all jealous of past-Emma, but to offer a chance to daydream. Come on this trip with me and we can imagine a future where this kind of travel is possible again.
Eben and Laura were our first visitors after we moved abroad, so we decided to return the favor. When they told us they had accepted teaching positions in Shenzhen, I immediately looked up their school calendar online and suggested we visit during their vacation week in early October. Always Eager To Travel: The Emma Holliday Story.
Visiting during a school vacation week was good and bad. Eben and Laura had the time off to hang out with us because it was China’s National Holiday, and there were some extra special happenings like the light-show pictured above to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
But… it’s a very busy week for travel in China and we didn’t book far enough in advance to get outside of Shenzhen at a reasonable price. Our visas are good for 10 years though, so, hopefully, we’ll go back to see more of China someday. Spending time with our best friends and getting to know their new city made for a great first trip to the country.
Shenzhen is a megacity, so there was certainly plenty to see without leaving. One day, we hopped on public transit in Eben and Laura’s skyscraper-filled neighborhood and rode for an hour and 45 minutes in one direction. When we got off the train, we were still in Shenzhen and there were still skyscrapers. As you can see from the photo below, it was also pretty smoggy while we were there. The air quality was bad enough that we wore masks most days whenever we were outside. (A precursor to pandemic life?)
Other than spending time with Eben and Laura, I’d say the best part of the trip was the food. The dim sum we got in Shenzhen was easily one of the best meals of my life. Made tastier by the fact that just finding the restaurant felt like an accomplishment. We didn’t have an exact address, only these instructions: one block down from one of the exits of a particular metro stop (which exit? who knows!), then up a round staircase on the left, and if you see the big fish, you know you’ve got the right place.
Oh, we saw the big fish, all right.
Other fun food experiences included, but were not limited to: soup dumplings, Korean bbq, hot pot at a restaurant with robot busboys, a really good totally nondescript noodle place we stumbled upon, cheese tea (yes, you read that right), absurdly large citrus (pictured above), and a visit to a German restaurant (also pictured above).
Over the course of my two and a half weeks in Indonesia, I saw three sunrises. The first was from Mt. Batur on Bali which, like most mountains in Indonesia, is a volcano. Hiking up Mt. Batur was particularly cool because so much of the mountain just steams. You can easily push aside some of the earth and find pockets hot to enough to boil an egg or heat water for tea. Both of which, my guide did.
I did also spend a little time by the coast, but then it was off to my next destination!
After just three days on Bali, I flew to Flores to meet up with my friend Meghan Rose and go on one of the coolest adventures of my life. She was doing her PhD research at a convent in Larantuka, which is on the Eastern edge of Flores and we signed up to get SCUBA certified in Labuan Bajo, on the Western edge of the island. It takes about 17 hours to drive the length of the island, and we did it in three days on her motorcycle.
The road switch-backed up and down the hilly terrain and around perfectly conical volcanoes. We passed bamboo forests and rice paddies and empty beaches covered in pale blue stones. Children playing on the side of the road would pause and shout “hello mister” as we sped past.
Days sitting on the back of a bike with my butt aching and my legs painfully stiff were rewarded by Labuan Bajo’s sunsets and coral reefs.
Diving was unbelievable. There was so much life and color that I’d never seen before, and nothing to do except observe it. The experience was magical and meditative, strange and humbling. Our dive instructor (who, amusingly, was German) filmed parts of our dives with her go-pro, which means I have underwater footage(!) that I hope to edit together one of these days. In the meantime, please enjoy this video of a baby black tipped reef shark:
After getting SCUBA certified, we hopped back on Meghan Rose’s bike and did the whole trip over again in reverse. A couple of white girls (one of whom spoke fluent Indonesian) riding a motorcycle through rural Indonesia was a novelty and strangers often asked to take photos with us. We usually obliged.
Other interesting stops on the way back across Flores included “Bena Traditional Village.” The residents of this town have made their home into a tourist attraction — they live in traditional thatched roof houses, weave scarves by hand, and welcome visitors to come see. There’s a small entrance fee and the whole community shares the profits in addition to individual weavers selling souvenirs.
Also on the drive back, I witnessed my second sunrise in Indonesia on Kelimutu (yet another volcano!), overlooking a milky blue crater lake.
Our trip wasn’t without mishaps — notably, we took a wrong turn that became a multi-hour detour on badly maintained roads. We even fell off the bike once! But we were going so slowly on the rocky terrain that we were essentially at a standstill and just tipped over. Mostly my pants got dusty and I scraped my palms a bit. We were rewarded soon after, when we stopped for gas and bottled water at a small store where a dog had recently had puppies.
After our road trip, I spent a couple days at the convent (above right) where Meghan Rose lived, hanging out with the nuns and snorkeling at a nearby beach. We also took a short ferry ride to another island, which I mention mainly to share an observation about the ferries and boats I encountered on Flores.
In Larantuka and Labuan Bajo, there was often not enough dock space, so boats would essentially double park — pull up next to each other and tie off. This meant that to board or de-board we had to climb over the decks of all the boats between the shore and the boat we wanted to be on.
These sorts of cultural norms were much easier to navigate with a fluent Indonesian speaker by my side, and I was grateful to have Meghan Rose showing me around. Flores was amazing for a lot of reasons, but reconnecting with an old friend and seeing her Indonesia was definitely one of the best.
I literally spent 24 hours in Hong Kong – arrived at 11pm on a flight from Indonesia and departed for Europe the next day at 11pm. But I managed to pack a lot into those 24 hours, and it was fun to travel solo again.
Compared to Shenzhen, China, which is a very young city, Hong Kong has so much visible history. The temple pictured above only dates back to 1847, but it was still cool to see structures like this one surrounded by skyscrapers.
I also stumbled upon some British colonial architecture while wandering through a park. And it felt like a lovely moment of serendipity because the building I happened to find (a former colonial residence) is now a tea museum.
Longtime blog readers / friends of mine will remember that I was an avid tea drinker for many years (and used to write about it every Tuesday). Although I don’t drink tea as obsessively as I once did, it was fun to spontaneously reconnect with that hobby.
I was glad to be traveling solo because I didn’t have to worry about whether my companions would want to visit a museum that primarily featured a wide variety of tea vessels. I took my time reading every sign about the history and preparation of tea and photographing my favorite teapots and I just felt… very much myself.
If, like me, you’ve been missing travel lately, I hope this post scratched that itch a little bit.
But, more importantly, I hope you’re feeling like yourself. Even if you’re feeling lonely or stuck right now, I hope that you’re also finding ways to do things that you enjoy.
Take care of yourselves and each other, and try to lean into love and joy, wherever you are.