Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

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My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

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Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

It wasn’t until last year that I failed to make it home for Thanksgiving for the first time. I spent the whole Thursday (illogically) mopey, sad that my Korean and Canadian friends wouldn’t ask me about why Thanksgiving is so important to me. I had one of my favorite dinners, samgyeopsal, with a big group of coworkers, followed by a tinder date, and still nothing seemed to fill the gaping hole in my chest where usually I had an overfull heart at this time.

A few weeks ago, I was skyping my mom, and she seemed genuinely shocked as to why Thanksgiving is so important to my brother and I. Why some arbitrarily chosen holiday, Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas, or Easter, or the Fourth of July? Why did we seem to choose this one to stake all of our fondest childhood memories on this one holiday? Just go shell out for some overpriced Thanksgiving banquet, my mom agreed, since I had told her there were many such events at American-owned restaurants in Seoul.

But, of course, it’s not about the food, is it? (I’m already sad enough to miss my mom’s cooking, but that’s not the point.)

It’s not about that p r o b l e m a t i c history of the holiday, tied into all sorts of Americana and patriotism. I know for a lot of Americans there is not a lot to celebrate, either because their rights and lands are being actively undermined, or because there isn’t much to celebrate in the way of family.

My family, then, is a superb rarity. Where everyone actually wants to see each other, there aren’t any blood feuds or big arguments, and everyone on both sides of the family comes together over food and tradition.  Thanksgiving is about family, really, about spending time with those who you love. It hit me right in the heart last year to see all the pictures of all the family members I was missing.

It’s not just a meal. We wake up early to do a “turkey trot” race, at least half of the family do. It’s only a 5k, but it makes you feel better about all the food you’re about to consume. After everyone is showered and in warm clothes, and usually after we’ve consumed a few gallons of salad between us all for lunch, that’s when the real work begins. Mom and the aunts prepare the food, and it’s my job to set the table. Or at least, it was. The last year I was there for Thanksgiving, I tried to teach my brother how to do it. I doubt he retained any of the information, just passing the duty along to one of the aunts or cousins instead. Dinner begins at 3 or 4, depending on when all of the family members arrive, and there’s a brief interlude in the middle where some dishes are cleared away and everyone rests their stomachs for dessert. Dessert is, after all, my mom’s favorite part of the meal. There are often up to 20 people who come to each Thanksgiving, and nobody goes away hungry. The best part, during and after all of this, is the talk. We almost never get to see so many family members at one time, except for at Thanksgiving. After long chats, some family members leave that night, some leave the next morning, and some might stay until sometime in the weekend. In past years, I would have to get up early to work or go to swim practice, but I even enjoyed this part of the experience, getting ready quietly to make my triumphant return later when most of the family members had only just woken up.

That was home. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime during my time at university, the feeling when I came home became more and more temporary. This is not a lack of feeling welcome, to be clear. Like Frodo and the Fellowship staying over at Rivendell, they wanted to stay forever but the feeling was the same: “You cannot stay here. Your destination is farther on. You must move on.” That Rivendell feeling accompanied me every time I went home after that, no matter how long or how brief the stay.

What is home? Is it merely a place to rest your head and keep your stuff? Is it, as my fellow millennials say, “the place where the wi-fi connects automatically”? (If so, then I have scores of “homes.”) Is it the place where you don’t have to explain yourself to others? I’m still exploring this, even now. I’m not sure whether my home for 22 years feels more real and tangible than my home for the past 2, even though I’ve fought so fiercely for the past few to keep it and keep on living here.

After all of those negative emotions surrounding my favorite holiday, I was fully prepared to have another horrifically sad Thanksgiving this year. Instead, I had a good little dinner with my best friends here, went to bed early, woke up early and cleaned my house, grabbed Starbucks for breakfast, and skyped my family over breakfast on Black Friday morning (in my time). It was right in the middle of dinner, and my heart was so full seeing all my family gathered there, so normal. You almost expect, when your own world is so different from what it was before, that everyone else’s lives are irreparably changed, too. So it’s at once jarring and comforting to see everyone in the same old way, gathering in the way they always have, and hopefully continuing to do so when I get back, too.

A toast, to continuity.

(Homeworld 2: Seoul, what is home, or beginner’s guide to Seoul).

category is: poncho eleganza

category is: poncho eleganza

After three days straight of drinking for one of the Geoje friends, Diarmuid’s birthdays and emerging in approximately one piece, I’ve found myself halfway through September not quite sure how I got here. I’d been telling people that I’ve been here for “a year and a half” for so long that it’s kind of crazy to see that time finally arrive. I talked with my parents a few weeks ago, and I agree with something my dad said: “It’s been a weird summer.” It’s been much the same as many of my summers in some ways, like trying to go to the beach every day that I can manage, drinking all the drinks, getting attacked by mosquitoes, and climbing mountains. But it moved too quickly and too strangely. That’s what my dad meant, I think. There was a strange quality to the summer that’s hard to place, kind of how the light after an afternoon rainstorm is a little strange and uncanny.

Anyhow, enough metaphors. Whereas much of last summer was me chilling in my house or trying to convince friends to do things with me, more of this summer was simultaneously solo doing things and having the perfect squad who always seems up for anything (s/o to Geoje squad, you’ll hear a lot about them this post). It passed by too quickly to measure. Maybe that’s how all summers go.

At the beginning of the summer, I made a list of trips that I wanted to take before the end of the year. I managed to tick many of them off already:

  • Jirisan hike
  • Sokcho beach/Seoraksan hike
  • Taiwan
  • Jeju/Hallasan hike
  • Busan re-visit
  • Japan re-visit
  • Myrtle Beach, S.C. for family vacation

As the last post was about Jirisan, the bulk of this one is about the second on the list, which happened in late June. It seems like ages ago now.

July is always a weird month for an American abroad, especially this year, where we have a veritable psychopath in office doing his darnedest to destroy relations with every nation in the world, including with South Korea. Nonetheless, the 4th of July is always a time when Americans take at least some semblance of pride in their country. Traditionally, this holiday for me meant belting out patriotic songs while working a long day lifeguarding at the pool, eating barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs and other red, white, and blue treats, and getting to play pool games when our breaks allowed it. It meant watching fireworks and getting to spend time with friends and family. In later years, it meant day-drinking and night-drinking with college friends. Being removed from all that, and in a country where the 4th of July is just another day, well it’s hard even though most days I actively try to avoid telling people which country I’m from.

July for me this year meant getting an IUD and some sort of steady friends-with-benefits situation (since estranged) and attending my first Pride festival. There is nothing like being surrounded by the love of friends, honestly. Also, this summer I was hard at work for my Korean class at Yonsei University. I will admit I didn’t study much outside of class, but the classes themselves were grueling and really pushed me to the edge of my mental limit.

At the end of July, I went home (or as close to home as I’m likely to get for 7-8 months) to visit my family on vacation in Myrtle Beach. I could have dedicated a whole 2,000-word blog post to this trip, but it would be boring and repetitive for anybody not present on the trip. It was just a trick of fate that it happened my vacation time off and the time my family were at the beach lined up perfectly. I was so grateful to get to see the family, spend so much time at the beach, and eat and drink everything in America. I’d missed salty and cheese snacks so much, and I ate pickles by the jar. I had lots of good talks with my brother and received lots of career advice from my aunts. I also got more updated on all of the family gossip that I’d missed out on for the past 18 months. A lot changes when you’re away. However nice it was, though, it was hard to get over the feeling of being a stranger in my own land. I felt like I had “I DON’T BELONG HERE ANYMORE” tattooed on my head, even though I’m really just the most unremarkable American person anyone has ever beheld, so I attracted no attention. I’m used to standing out in a crowd with my blonde hair. I’m used to being able to talk in a normal speaking voice to my friends across the store; because we’re both speaking English it floats easily above the constant murmur of everything else. While it was nice to be in a place where “everything makes sense,” I understand much better how I fit into the local ecosystem in Seoul. I’m not looking forward to fitting myself back in when I return.

In August I was buried in a fog of report cards and my impending Korean final exam at Yonsei. Towards the end of the month I also managed to lose/get stolen all of my important things, like my phone, ARC (alien registration card), and debit card, in Itaewon. I’m still reeling from the ramifications of that one night. In addition, I and some friends had a short but delightful trip to Busan, which was a re-do of my original trip last year in May, which I’d gone solo and not prepared for at all. Having friends to hang with you at the beach makes things a lot better. Finally, I also received a new Korean name. I’d been going by 조지아 (Jo Ji-ah), which is just the Korean transliteration of my first name, and unfortunately a completely legitimate first name-last name set. However, my friends-with-benefits decided I needed a “more Korean” name than that, deciding that my name should be 김지혜, Kim Jihye. This meant that he decided I should take his last name, Kim, and that didn’t sit quite well with me. I contacted my co-teacher from the old school, Miss Tiffany, about it, and she also thought the name he’d given me was too plain, and also wanted to give me a “full Korean” name, which means that none of the syllables in the name can be transliterated into Chinese characters, or hanja. I chose the last name of Moon because a) I’m already called “Georgia Moon” sometimes, b) I’m obsessed with moon phases (I have a tattoo of them, after all) and c) our friend/drag mother Haebin’s last name is Moon, so several friends all decided that they would take that last name. Miss Tiffany arrived at a few, from which I picked 가람, Garam, which means “strong river flowing” or “accomplish results,” I was told. In addition, I’m happy with it because of its resemblance to the Indian spice mix Garam Masala.

The Seoraksan/Sokcho trip formed the centerpiece of my summer. In my initial query to the Geoje squad group chat, I was just searching for even one other person to accompany me on a hike to Seoraksan. I clearly have no qualms about hiking alone, but for some reason I really wanted somebody to go with me. In the proposal, I said I just wanted somebody to go hiking with me, and then we could chill at the beach for the rest of the weekend, maybe get some barbecue, too. I didn’t expect much. I didn’t expect the rest of the group to be so on board. Of course, it changed significantly as to time and content of activities, but the initial premise remained intact. Hike, barbecue, beach.

A six-person squad all living in different areas of Seoul with different sleep and work schedules is hard to coordinate. I’m apparently not good at coordinating, so I’m just the idea man. I just say “what if?” and everyone else helps me make it happen. Six brains are better than one, after all. Also, not everybody is capable or wants to travel in the grungy style that I’m comfortable with.

Friday night before we left, I packed, headed to friend Rachael’s neighborhood out in Incheon (I don’t know how I was persuaded this would be faster to take the bus from, but I’m not very bright sometimes.) We got chimaek (chicken and beer) for dinner, and then went to Rachael’s house, which is also a loft, to sleep.

Waking up at 5am Saturday, we took a taxi to the express bus terminal, arriving just mere minutes after the bus left. We tried heading to east bus terminal (“Dong Seoul,” as it’s usually called, because dong means “east” in Korean), but our other friend Yoojin had found that the next bus from there was at 2pm. Unacceptable!! So, we made an about-face and headed back to where we started. We finagled a some kind of bus trip with a transfer, arriving at 11am in Sokcho. We then taxied to our hotel, the Mammoth Resortel, which was right near Seoraksan. It was a 1970s-style ski lodge, and we seemed to be the only people around. We rocked up the room to discover that pretty much our whole floor was deserted (I thought this was quaint or fortunate but the other friends thought the deserted floor looked more like a horror movie). We had 6 bunk beds in the room, and it was a pretty cool setup. I always demand the top bunk.

We headed out for our “hike.” I use this term generously because by Jirisan standards there was not much in the way of actual hiking. We did reach the top of s o m e t h i n g.

Walking toward the bus stop was like walking through that town in “Spirited Away.” It looked deserted in the daytime, but maybe it really might come alive at night? The other friends weren’t so sure. We managed to find one solitary open restaurant, where we feasted on just the right amount of bulgogi, pajeon, and budaejjigae, washed down with makgeolli like true hikers.

Right when we got off the bus to the mountain, that very minute it started raining. We saw the big Buddha seated at the foot of the mountain, and I will admit it was quite atmospheric with the mist floating by. I hate a day when I have to purchase a poncho, but this was one of them. (A wiser person would just keep a poncho in her bag for times like these. I never do.) It was a crapshoot as to whether we would be allowed to take the cable car to the summit, because they were very near to closing it due to rain and thunderstorms. We lucked out and got to take it anyway. The foggy views going up were amazing! At the cable car terminus, we got off and walked maybe a hundred yards to the “summit,” where there were enough craggy rocks and views from up high to convince everybody that we’d climbed to the top of the whole mountain. “Poncho eleganza,” we called it. We got ice cream while we waited for the cable car down.

Back in town, we took the most harried but awesome trip to E-Mart ever. Gathering beef, pork, kimchi, veggies, somaek (soju and beer), hongcho (Korean fruit vinegar perfect for mixing with soju and beer), ice, rice, and ramen, we returned to the hotel to stash our stuff in the fridge and get everyone showered, which was quite the adventure. With only one bathroom, some of the braver souls ventured out into the other deserted rooms to use their showers instead. We prepared for dinner, some cutting veggies and getting everything set out and others just cranking the tunes. It was a really cool setup in the hotel, with an open deck edged by grills, a communal kitchen open for all to use, and a fountain in the middle. Nearly everyone took a turn at the grill. There was lots of samjang (spicy red pepper sauce) and drinking, and I tried to get everyone on board with the hongcho. (It mostly didn’t work.) We also got Colton, seemingly one of the only friends who had never heard of Rupaul’s Drag Race, hooked on the show.

Somehow, even after a substantial amount of drinking, we managed to get everything thrown away, recycled, washed, or refrigerated. After that, we headed back to our floor’s kitchen/lounge/common room. We played “never have I ever,” like the middle schoolers we are, while drinking still more. The length of the day really struck me here, and even after I brewed and downed a full pot of coffee, I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I and other old-person-friend Shane had to sleep early. Early, of course, being 1 or 2 in the morning.

Shane and I obviously woke up the next morning far earlier than the others, early enough to have coffee and breakfast before anyone else. For a long time, we dawdled packing and eating breakfast, before finally checking out and heading for the beach. I seemed to be one of the only people to bring a towel, so while the others went to go procure towels, I just went in the water, which was freezing. It started to rain, but we still played around in the water (it wasn’t crowded at that time because it hadn’t reached swimming season yet) and threw sand at each other. We found a duk galbi (grilled spicy chicken and veggies) place for lunch, complete with cheese and fried rice. We got ice cream on the way back to the bus station and headed for home.

Here comes the sappy part. I spent nearly all of my Geoje trip this past January being ridiculously hungover or downright sick. I thought it unlikely that I’d ever see any of the people I’d met on this trip ever again, as I usually don’t keep in touch with people I meet on those group trips. Somehow, I made lasting friends with these people (I call them the “squad” to some of the crew’s chagrin) who still want to meet and do stuff. We’re not all interested in the same stuff. Some of us like drinking insane amounts, some of us take a crazy amount of business trips to foreign countries, some of us like to go hiking alone and have to get rescued by the Korean army, some of us like to go to book festivals, and some of us like traipsing through Mongolia alone. Somehow we found a squad that works in all of its various iterations, and I’m excited to see how we’ll keep in touch when we all part ways and before.

I’m so grateful for this s q u a d. End sappy bit.

I’m looking forward currently to my next grand trip during Chuseok, where I plan to make my re-attempt of Jeju Island’s Hallasan and then head on toward Taiwan. I’m looking forward with trepidation to the end of it all, when I’m attempting to travel for a month in China, maybe swing by Hawaii, and then finally come to a rest back on the east coast of the United States. My “real person” life sounds like a tired but happy balance of “side hustles” with finding a real and meaningful job that is even more well-suited to me than teaching.

A toast to looking forward and looking back on times well-spent with friends.

Don’t sweat the big stuff

Don’t sweat the big stuff

I’m just now clearing the backlog of all the travelling posts I’ve collected in the past 3 months but haven’t written. I understand what my cousin, Susanna, meant when she said she always made blogging out to be a big thing, and I totally get that now. I’m always collecting events and topics to write about but rarely actually sit down to write about them.

Ever since I was little, I’ve always been excited about my birthday. From birthday parties at the YMCA to going to the movies and out to dinner in middle school, to hiking trips and samgyeopsal the last two years, it’s always been a winning combination of comforting things and demanding fanfare. The day before my birthday, I had a language exchange with my old co-teacher, Miss Tiffany. We’ve long since strayed from the original purpose of the language exchange, but the camaraderie remains. Miss Tiffany very sneakily bought me a cake for my birthday!!! It was a lovely time. This was also shortly before I started the Korean classes at Yonsei which quickly ate up all my free time commuting and studying.

The next night, which was a weeknight so we couldn’t go too crazy, I met friends from my old school, Maxine and Stephanie, for samgyeopsal (as is the way) and drinking. We got too caught up in talking and arrived late to the bar where my friend Haru had been waiting for us for nearly an hour (!! I’m a bad friend..) Haru had brought a gift of a baby cactus which I’m still trying my best to keep alive, against all the odds. As we left the bar, I was trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to persuade my friends to come noraebang with me when Winner’s song, “Really, Really,” came on in the arcade across the street. That was enough to persuade all of the friends. There’s almost nothing in this country I love more than noraebang. After we had put Maxine in a taxi and seen Haru off to her house, I made Steph come back to mine and eat some cake, even though it was 3am and staying up that late is wildly out of character for her.

The next day was Friday. It was a really fun night, right? No. With impending open class, I stayed in the café to work on things for class. Moreover, I had class the next day, on Saturday, so there wasn’t any gallivanting to be had that Friday night. After Saturday class, I got lunch at a place near my work called American Factory, which I feel like they opened just for me, as I’m the only American in the area, and then convinced Steph to get some black ice cream that I had found in Hongdae area. We had to wait a long time but it was worth it “for the insta” and to find out exactly what flavor it would be. (With the black food dye, we figured it could be any flavor at all.) That evening we went out drinking with the Geoje lads and got up to some hijinks in the club.

Open class was the following week. To say I was terrified was an understatement. Last year, we submitted the lesson plans a month ahead. I had to re-write the plans several times. You have to rehearse the class ahead of times so that all of the students perform perfectly. It has to be “fun and exciting” (read: we have to create all-new games and materials for only this class) for the parents even though they have ostensibly come to see a regular, everyday class. My first open class, vice director (even though she had seen, tweaked, and eventually approved this lesson plan weeks in advance) took me aside right as I was going into class to try to add something else to the plan. We did not improvise in the practice and I was not prepared. She was right, of course, that I had not prepared enough material and I would have 10 minutes of extra time at the end, but she could have addressed this concern at any time in the previous weeks. That was enough to set the flustered and frustrated tone for the rest of the day. I went into the class, where 20 parents are crammed into a tiny room of about 12′ X 8′ and judging everything about you, from your teaching style to your outfit, and filming you for posterity. They are judging your teaching as well as how much you praise their child. It’s the toughest crowd I’ve ever seen, even though theoretically the parents are all there to see their children be happy and succeed. (theoretically) Since we had already practiced the game a few days before, the kids became bored quickly. Andy, our class’s resident troublemaker and notoriously ill-behaved (this kid once punched me in the face in the middle of a screaming fit, where I had to carry him out of the classroom so that the principal could talk to him) student, decided that he wanted the card Daniel had. A regular student would have used words: even “that one!!” would have been sufficient, or even gestures, but instead Andy decided the right thing to do would be to reach out and sock Daniel and take the card, thus starting a veritable fistfight in the middle of my open class. In the second class, preschool class, set in the gym, all the kids were sitting on the floor for a game which combined running and phonics, when to my horror I see Kyle has pulled his dick out of his shorts and is playing with it like it’s the most fascinating toy in the world. He had never done that before open class day. Luckily, none of the parents saw. Second open class, while nothing went wrong during the class itself, I had to rewrite my open class lesson plan more than everyone else combined. Even one rewrite is too many, in my book.

I love telling these stories to the incoming teachers and watching their eyes get really big. “What have I gotten myself into?” they think. I was really prepared for the worst with this open class. I had 4 50-minute classes to teach instead of 2 20-minute classes. The classes in this school are considerably worse-behaved than in the last school. There’s a lot less interesting material in these books and a lot more time to fill. So much can go wrong! Plus, class sizes can be much bigger at this school, so I was prepared to be watched by scores of parents. Instead, less than half of the parents came. They were mildly interested at best, playing on their phones the whole time at worst. (I also got a bit of a flash-forward to when/if I have kids and I’m forced to attend unending back-to-school nights.) After all that preparation, it turned out for once I really had worried too much. This is a recurring theme in my life.

And then, everything went to shit.

Briefly.

It’s still a little tenuous in this department. I’ll explain.

I was having a movie night a few days after open class (Steph and I had a standing promise to watch Riverdale together), scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I came across a post on the women’s expat in korea group. There are so many posts each day that it’s a wonder any given one will catch my eye. But I just happened to read this one. The long and short of it is that people with E2 visas (me) are apparently legally not allowed to work at after school programs (also me) or they will get deported immediately. I immediately spiraled into panic mode. The comments and suggestions off of that post and other related post fed my frenzy. Quit immediately, seemed to be the advice, go get a D10 visa, hire a lawyer, be prepared for the worst. Quit immediately, quit immediately, quit immediately.

I emailed my boss to ask for clarification (he hasn’t ever responded to that or subsequent emails on that particular subject…) The next day, I called him. It’s never fun calling my boss, not because he’s not perfectly nice, but rather because it’s so hard to understand him. His English is fine, but he’s a fast talker and is usually on speaker phone. He’s a busy guy. So it’s hard to tell if what I heard in this call is real or not. The essence of this call was thus: you shouldn’t worry because that law is coming after international schools and after school programs, but since we are registered as a hagwon (cram school) and only teach conversational English, it’s okay. The law is targeted at people teaching other subjects like science, math, social studies, and gym in English under E2 visas at places like international schools and after school programs. Only F-series visas are apparently allowed to work at these kind of places. I went through several really long spirals of logic to become okay with this situation. I haven’t been deported yet (If I do, my only plan is to get my hair dyed an insane rainbow color before I leave) and I’ll continue working hard for my school and keeping my head down, hoping that it stays that way.

That was my month of May in a 1500-word nutshell. During this time, I was really excited because it looked like hyung Aidan could make his ill-fated return trip at the beginning of June! It was not to be. A week out, he had to cancel the plans for the trip. I decided to still go on the hike that I had planned to take him on, climbing the highest mountain in mainland Korea, Jirisan. When faced between taking a slightly earlier bus down to the trailhead and having to find a pension in the dark and taking the midnight bus, sleeping on the bus, and hiking straight off the bus, I obviously chose the latter because I’m batshit insane, clearly. The “plan” follows:

  • Nambu Terminal midnight bus
  • Start at 2ish
  • Summit by noon
  • Cheonwangbong Peak
  • Descent by 2-3
  • Bus to Jinju to visit (Geoje friend) Hilary, if it’s too late to go back home at this point, then stay the night with her in Sacheon.

Prior to the bus’s departure, I chilled out in a Tom & Tom’s charging my phone and drinking a latte. You’ll find this was my first mistake. Second mistake was that I had neglected to buy a headlamp or flashlight prior to this time, even though I was pretty damn sure I was going to be starting the climb in the pitch dark. Because of the coffee, I barely slept on the bus. The seats were reclined and comfy, but I just couldn’t fall asleep. All the thoughts of the unknown were too busy swimming through my head. I had hoped that it would take until 3 or 4 am to get to the trailhead, so we would only be hiking an hour or two before sunrise. Unfortunately, almost on the dot at 3am we arrived. I was the youngest person on that bus by 20 years, the only solo female, and the only foreigner of any kind. All the grunting and stretching and people gathering into groups only served to remind me of how alone I was, how stupid a venture this had been. Why am I trying to climb a mountain alone at 3am nowhere near Seoul? At least, if I decided to quit and sit on the side of the road until the sun came up, I rationalized, I only had to wait 2 hours until I could see again.

For some fool reason, I decided to try to head up the trail. I ended up following some groups of ahjusshis up to the mountain. Trying to maintain a not-creepy distance while still seeing which way they took was a distinctly difficult challenge. It was threatening to rain and I was very sad about that, as I was using my phone flashlight held up to my chest like Iron Man. After a branch in the way, it seemed like the original group I had been following was thinning out. I was alone, in the threatening rain, with only my phone as a flashlight, in the dark. Great job, go me. As with all hikes, I couldn’t really confirm I was on the trail until I saw other people go that way. There were people behind me, so I was trying to reverse-follow them, as in making sure that they were still following me to make sure I was going the right way. It’s at least a kilometer, I’d say, walking on the road to even get to the start of the trailhead. I passed so many minbaks and pensions I really wished I’d booked one of those instead. But I forged on. At the trailhead, a pair of ahjusshis, Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, stopped for water and a chocolate bar as I studied the map. It was my intention to keep studying the map for as long as possible so that they could go ahead. It turns out, the ahjusshis had decided they would adopt me and I should go with them, as it’s dangerous to go alone.

You know that feeling when you’re offended somebody thinks you need help but you really do need the help so you’re also secretly grateful? That’s how I was feeling. It was nice to receive confirmation that I was going the right way, though, and let go of the reins for a bit. I’d initially thought that Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim were way better hikers than me, but we all averaged out to be kind of the same, going up the mountain. At our first stop for water, it had become light enough to turn the headlamps off. My phone was suffering.  The hiking itself was really quite easy, all the way to the top. It can be a far distance, and it requires advance planning, but the Jirisan hike that I chose was really not all that hard. At Rotary shelter, we stopped again. It was probably only 7am at this point, but we had been walking for hours. I was woefully unprepared, food and drink-wise. I had extra clothes and water that I needed, but Mr. Kim (I’d taken to calling him Himchan-ahjusshi because of his resemblance to B.A.P’s Himchan) had a few boxes of food that his wife had packed and he and Mr. Choi, he insisted, could not eat it all by themselves. It was just garlic bread and cherry tomatoes but it certainly took the edge off my hunger. To be sure I didn’t really like cherry tomatoes until then.

The flowered trees were beautiful and I seemed to gain strength as the sun rose. After climbing for hours, we made the summit by 9 or 10. My phone chose this time to die, as it often gives up early when it’s cold outside and it was considerably colder at the top of the mountain. Mr. Kim lent me his phone charger for long enough to charge my phone to get that selfie, and then we headed down the mountain again. The way down was both faster and much slower. We took more stops because the ahjusshis’ knees were getting really sore. There were also scores of school kids on some kind of hiking field trip/ scavenger hunt clogging up the works.

When we reached town again, I thought that it would be nice for me to buy lunch for Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, but I had mentioned something about buying a bus ticket to Jinju to visit my friend, and so when we stopped into the convenience store to buy one, we found that there was a bus there leaving in only 10 minutes. Barely enough time for a bathroom break, let alone a lunch. So, I said goodbye to the ahjusshis who adopted me and went on my way.

In Jinju, I got changed in the bus stop. I was “earthy but not unpleasant,” as my aunt once told my parents after they’d completed a long bike trip. The dirt clinging to my ankles and the sweat on my bag was unmistakeable, though. I went for a bagel and coffee at Ediya first, and then a burger at Lotteria, where I was chilled to the core by the fan. Geoje friend, Hilary, and I met and we got ice cream, coffee, and walked around. To Hilary, going into Jinju is “going into town,” but Jinju is a pretty small place compared to Seoul. After a really nice visit, I got the bus home. The subway ended early so I thought, “why not walk some more?” and walked the 3 stops back to my house. I’m not one to measure steps but I’m sure I walked like 50,000 steps that day.

As for some conclusions of this time in my life?

I think that everyone should try to travel alone like this at some point in their lives. Accept help when you need it, even if you think you don’t. Take time out for friends. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t sweat the big stuff. Everything will sort itself out in the end. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.

 

A toast to planning, even though you know you’ll end up winging it anyway.

 

Beaches, Backpackers, and Banh Mi

Beaches, Backpackers, and Banh Mi

A few days ago I returned from the United States, where I was visiting with family. That was the last overseas trip I’d been on since going to Vietnam at the beginning of May more than 2 months before. It occurred to me that I still hadn’t actually posted about Vietnam yet. This month is about to be the busiest month yet: balancing writing report cards with studying for my Yonsei Korean final exam, it won’t be easy to get it all done. I’m relying on day trips and studying in cute cafes to keep me sane.

Anyhow, back to my Vietnam account. It had never even occurred to me to visit until the convergence of two things: first, walking with one of my fellow travelers in the lava tunnels in Jeju, she suggested that if I like caves, I should go to Vietnam. Second, my friend and coworker Julia moved to Vietnam at the end of our semester in February. Both of these things together made it compelling to travel there.

On Saturday, I departed from Incheon headed for Hanoi. I got to watch some Korean movies (“My Annoying Brother” and one of my personal favorites, “Lucky”) and we were fed. God bless non-American flights. I had done the visa upon arrival that many people recommend which was pretty cheap and easy, although it was kind of a pain to get all of my things printed at the print shop before I left. A kind of creepy guy was noticing my progress in the visa line (I was doing my typical observing to see what I should be doing) and helped me out, so I suppose I’m grateful for that. I had neglected to take out US dollars as the visa website had instructed, but it turns out that the Vietnamese dong (Vietnamese currency) were okay anyway. It’s certainly not as much stress as applying for the Korean working visa, at any rate.

The busses and trains (if there were any trains to be gotten from the airport, that is… not every city is as well-connected as Seoul) had all left, so I was advised to take a minibus. I learned my taxi lesson after Japan, when it ended up costing more than $100 USD. I was stressed on the minibus: am I going the right way? Are we going to the right city? Am I about to be killed for my internal organs? That kind of suspicion is trained into you. I’m always noticing trees when I go to another place, a habit I learned from my mom. Everything in Hanoi is flat, which is a definite contrast to Korea, where there are mountains rising from the middle of the city. The boys here are cute enough but they’re even more noodley than Korean boys.

When it was just me on the bus, the driver started asking me questions too: “Isn’t it sad to travel alone?” (Not really) and “You’re so pretty,” (yeahhhh whatever.) I had thought old boy had driven me to murder street as all the lights were off and it was deserted. Even at midnight, the streets are never silent in Seoul. I had neglected to look up at the second floors, though, because I found my hostel right away once I did. The front desk guy stayed up late waiting for me, which was really nice of him. The beds were the most uncomfortable beds I’ve slept on in my entire life, and paired with the most difficult bunk bed I’ve ever had the misfortune of climbing up (with only two high-up steps and no higher rungs, you had to wedge your hands in between the bed and the wall for leverage) and a light directly outside my window shining persistently in my face, meant I slept barely a wink all night. Nonetheless, any bed is better than no bed.

The next morning, Sunday, the front desk girl made me a noodle and eggs breakfast while I jacked a Vietnam guidebook and tried to make a plan of what to do that day. While some trips benefit from being meticulously planned, like Hong Kong and Japan where things are hard to find on your own, some trips, like Vietnam, benefit from spontaneity. This trip was to be my first proper backpacker-type trip, and I only had hostels reserved and a vague idea of each city I’d be in for the day. The rest was up to chance. My list of things to do for the day was wide-ranging and somewhat unrealistic:

  • Coffee
  • Temple of literature (very near to my hostel)
  • Black ice cream (I saw it on the way in, but it turns out I found some back in Seoul a few weeks later)
  • Bun cha (a local favorite)
  • Lake
  • Old quarter
  • French quarter
  • Halong Bay?
  • Sapa?

Anyone who has traveled to Vietnam knows that you can’t do all of these things, and certainly not the last two, in even one day. Each of the last two is at the very least a full-day trip, starting early in the morning, as they are far from Hanoi. Needless to say, I didn’t follow that list at all, but perhaps it helped to guide my interests. After breakfast, I took a wander to see if I could get to anywhere resembling a main street from my hostel. Even taking all right turns, I got horribly lost in the back alleys before somehow making my way back. My plan for the day was a relatively simple square: West Lake down through the Old Quarter and French Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and then back to the hostel. It was not incredibly ambitious considering how much I walk any given day in Seoul, but it’s incredibly hot in Vietnam and almost nobody walks ever. If you’re walking down the street, so many people driving motorcycles slow down and want to give you a ride (for a cost, of course). I took a motorcycle taxi to Tay Ho and West Lake and saw the Tran Quoc Pagoda. I was immediately told to leave, of course, because I was wearing shorts, but I got to get a good look around before I went. I caught an iced tea in some old lady’s road side stand on the road back to the shore. I tried to walk to the old quarter and failed, but got pho at some pavilion in the market. I’m not quite sure where anything was in Hanoi, I was so lost all the time. I had a nice conversation with a girl about my age who worked at the pho place. People in Vietnam are pretty nice and are less about selling things than in Korea.

I went to a place called Son Café, which I remember distinctly because I spent so long there. I was just chilling enjoying my iced coffee when a little girl came up to me. She was learning English, and it’s clear from my face that I know English, so she started talking to me. She kept gifting me sweet potatoes (I hate sweet potatoes but I didn’t want to be rude) and her mom brought out some of her English books. I thought it was just to show me, but through a combination of words I couldn’t understand and gestures, she conveyed that she wanted me to teach her girl a bit (I was “paid” in an extra coffee). It was a little strange because the girl was only showing me what she’d already learned, but it was interesting to see how Vietnamese and Korean books are different. I gave her some FeelGood stickers (which I’d brought to do a bit of tagging, but oh well) and she gave me some plastic beads from her bracelet. After a few hours and the little girl going haphazardly through three different books, the girl’s mom managed to ask, with her daughter translating, if there was anywhere in Hanoi that I wanted to go. Using my maps and some advanced miming, I told her I was trying to go to Hoan Kiem lake, which was somewhere south of there. I thought she might give me directions, but it turns out we all walked there together. I would have been okay if they left me there, but the little girl had not tired of me yet. Most of our conversation was just naming different things in Vietnamese and English, but the girl was still amused. We went to the temple in the middle of the lake and the girl led me through, saying “Picture! Picture!” denoting where I should take pictures of things at the temple. We also got some coconut ice cream and sat by the lake practicing English again. The girl still hadn’t tired of me, but her mom had grown weary so she took us back to the café. I tried to walk back, but eventually gave up, getting a motorcycle taxi back to the hostel. After a shower and some recharging my phone, I drilled the front desk guy I’d met the night before while I drank a pepsi. While I chilled on the cushions on the floor (the tables were just wooden shipping pallets nailed together), some guys came in and were also talking to front desk guy. I don’t remember how this came about, but they invited me out to dinner, which was good because I was only going to sleep early that night and not do anything exciting. The two boys, both insanely tall, were Max, an 18-year-old from Australia, and Nathan, a late-20s French Vietnamese guy. We got some sort of pho with all kinds of mystery meats and Bia Hoy, the local beer (which is a lot like the light kind of beers that they drink in Korea). I learned a lot from both of them. Nathan had traveled a lot in Vietnam, and Max had traveled a lot, well, everywhere, on his gap year before he decided whether to attend uni or not. When I returned, I worked with front desk guy and he succeeded in organizing a Sapa tour for me the next day.

Monday, the next day, I woke up crazy early to leave for the Sapa tour. Front desk guy, as he’d promised only hours before (I wondered how long his hours were to have been working from the evening before), made me a takeaway breakfast and arranged even the motorcycle taxi to take me to the bus stop. I left my big bag in the hostel and only took the small backpack with me. We had a sleeper bus, but we had to wait for the 6:30 bus to leave before our 7:30 bus could come in. Sleeper buses are really cool. There are three columns and two levels of seats with little ladders up, and the seats are made to recline the whole way back. It’s very civilized compared to the seats on buses in Korea or the States.

I arrived in Sapa town and met my guide Sua (it’s easy to remember her name because my favorite iced coffee with the condensed milk is “caphe sua da”), who would take me on the trek. In the market, we got bun cha for lunch. It’s basically pho, though. We met Sua’s aunt, who is Mong ethnic Vietnamese and would be taking both of us on the trek. Sua shows me the little plants and villages along the way, and got to see the rice and other fields. Sua’s aunt does this 8km hike every day into the village, and she does it in only shower slides, no real shoes or hiking sticks. Sometimes there is only a small hold for the balls of your feet cut into the mud surface of the hill. I consider myself a pretty okay hiker but this little old lady had me beat, sometimes guiding me along princess-style because I was slipping. At the top of the mountain, after we’d heard stories of how hard Sua’s aunt has to walk each day, she somehow goaded me into buying nearly $100 worth of her hand-embroidered stuff (which was okay but just meant that I had to skip out on other souvenirs or experiences later in the trip). About 20 yards away from the homestay—I’d thus far managed to not fall down in any muddy ditches or creeks—I slipped on the muddy hillside and soaked through my shoes in mud and maybe cow dung. I ended up wearing my flip flops for the rest of the time.

The ZiZi homestay looked quaint and humble, but when they showed me up to my bed, there were outlets there and wifi, even though we were at the top of a mountain. I was so tired that I took a nap until dinnertime. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought another shirt, at least, because I was feeling really grungy and gross by this time. Dinner was a massive barbeque outside with all kinds of kebabs, lettuce, cucumber, cilantro, and more. I’d gotten a beer but it disagreed with me so I just set it down and committed to water for the rest of the night. There were kids and dogs running around everywhere and it felt like a really cool place that you could stay at for a long time. The other travelers at the homestay came from all different countries, and one of the ladies had stayed there for weeks just because it was so comfortable. I didn’t really click with anybody, though, and went to bed early because I was tired and stinky.

The next morning I headed out early. There wasn’t much in the way of breakfast and I probably got scalped when checking out (I could have sworn I paid for this homestay when I left Hanoi the day before). One of the most terrifying times of the whole trip was taking the motorcycle taxi down the mountain. There were hair-raising turns, steep hills, and rocky roads threatening to throw me off the bike, and I was holding on for dear life. I survived, but it was still terrifying. Again, I wasn’t quite sure I had the right bus, but they took me back to Hanoi alright. I got a car-taxi back to the hostel, the TV playing some kind of Vietpop which sounded like a tacky, canned version of k-pop. I felt much better after changing clothes and cooling off. I got a new bus ticked to Dong Hoi (where Julia lives in Vietnam) and also got the motorcycle taxi to the stop settled. The bus didn’t leave for a while so I was going to just chill at the hotel when suddenly, French Nathan reappeared! We went out to get an iced coffee, talk, and chill on an air-conditioned porch (it turns out I’m a sucker for his French accent). It took ages for the bus to come to the stop, and this one was a longer trip and made longer stops. I was just anxious to get to Julia’s and sleep. However, I had discovered that I unequivocally like the top bunk of the sleeper bus better.

I arrived in Dong Hoi at 4am. I borrowed a taxi driver’s phone to call Julia (this is one of those backpackery things that would drive my mom nuts but I somehow pulled it off), and sure enough she came through and drove me to her house. Julia has very sporadic hours, so she had just three classes that day, one early in the morning and one a little later. I slept while she went to her first class, we got banh mi sandwiches and iced coffees for breakfast overlooking the market, and then she went to teach her second class of the day. I tried to walk to the beach (attempting to remember the “map” she’d described to me as we drove around that morning) and failed, though I came pretty close. I got more coffee at Riverside Café to use their wifi, mainly. I headed back to Julia’s house, then we both went to a place called Gemenai Hotel (I promise this is how it’s really spelled) for lunch and to meet Julia’s friend and coworker Byron, who is really cool.

We all headed to a place—which proved to be my favorite part of the trip—Beachside Backpackers hostel/bar, where Julia promised there would be hammocks and beach hangs and beer if I wanted it. There was some oldschool country music playing and I got another coffee (a constant theme in my life is my battle against my need for coffee), although in moving my backpack over to the hammocks, I broke the coffee cup. I always feel 200% worse about breaking glass things than the actual owner of the glass thing ever does. Plus, it’s scary having broken glass where there are lots of barefoot people. Julia had to take off for her third class, so I played around in the hammocks, went swimming, and visited with Byron more (I was lowkey being babysat a little, but it’s understandable) because he didn’t have to work until later.

Julia’s 2pm class got canceled so she was just napping and Byron took me back to her house. I remarked to Julia about the oldschool country music and we ended up reminiscing about early 2000s country and singing little snippets of what we could remember. Julia’s apartment is spare, but you don’t really need much when you can eat out well for very cheap and don’t spend much time at your house. We got a food called banh loc xian, basically Vietnamese pierogies with spicy fish sauce to dip, and brought it back to beachside. We took up residence at one of the tables there, and many people joined us. Julia’s friend from back home in Canada, Becca, and her fiancé Laurent, their AirBnB guests, a random Scottish guy who wandered in from the beach, other hostel guests, and hostel owners Anh and Mikayla (and their adorable baby, Sophie) all came by our table to visit. Drinking nights are frequent in Vietnam but they don’t last long, because apparently people work almost 7 days a week.

That night, we had intended to get some snacks and Netflix a movie at Julia’s house, but when we got home we discovered a literal grapefruit-sized spider in her house. It was a group effort to get the door open and Julia got her neighbor to come kill it. The craziest thing about that is the neighbor picked up this massive spider in his hand and took it away like it was nothing. I’ve been to Australia and this is still the biggest spider I’ve ever seen, hands down.

The next day in Dong Hoi, Julia had to work again in the morning, and I had intended to go out and explore, but I just slept instead. For breakfast that day, we got banh mi again (definitely my favorite food in Vietnam) and drank coconuts!! I’m not a fan of eating coconuts but drinking them was pretty fun. We had intended to go to the market, but it was closed for siesta, so we had a swim at Beachside instead. Julia showed me her favorite café, which I had seen on Instagram and expressed my interest in visiting, and I was not disappointed. Vietnamese cafes are often outdoors and many have plastic chairs and umbrellas, so you are mostly chilling in the shade. Julia said something about the Vietnamese coffee that really resonated with me: that it’s an exercise in patience. You really have to wait for something that good. Much like Australian coffee, for good things you’ve got to wait and set aside enough time to properly enjoy it.

My phone charger had broken so I got a new one, followed by pho (my other favorite food in Vietnam) for “lupper” (a term in my family that means a late lunch/early dinner after which you might eat a late night dinner). The to-do for this day was a barbeque at Beachside, and there was so, so much food. Anh kept the food coming and you could have just eaten it for hours if you didn’t get full first. After some soul rapping we went home and I got to call my mom and tell her I hadn’t died. Every trip I go to a beach and collect some sand for her, and that day I collected some from Beachside.

The next day, the day I had been looking forward to the most out of the whole trip, was our trip to Phong Nha caves. I’d had big plans to book a big tour, a multi-day trek with camping and rappelling and headlamps, but when I went to book it, my credit card wouldn’t work on the website. Could I have gotten it to work? Yes. But I took that as a sign to do another tour. This one was through Julia’s friend Becca, and ultimately ended up being just what the doctor ordered. We were picked up from her house early, and we had a very multicultural group, Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people. Our guide explained about the caves and the region as we drove. The region looked very primordial, which was a good thing because that was where they filmed King Kong. (Nowadays it might be a great place to film a Jurassic Park movie, too). The national park was of historical importance, too, people coming through the caves to try to deliver supplies to the occupied north. Nowadays, there’s no farming or logging allowed in the park, so the tourism to the caves supports the regional economy.

We went to Paradise Cave first. I’ve been in many caves, (including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system in the world), but this one is probably the biggest one I’ve seen, volume-wise. As caves age, the stalactites build up, become too heavy, and break off, and form again, and you can tell these are very old caves in that way, many layers of detritus from old stalactites forming towering piles on the cave floor. In this cave, it was pretty touristy, with raised pathways and good lighting for selfies throughout, but only for 1 kilometer. You can walk up to 7km in this cave but from the first km, only headlamps and spelunking from there. Lots of the cave looks like a coral reef (or like the underground caves in Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind); I could have looked at the formations for hours. It’s lucky we didn’t have hours. Julia’s friend Becca works for a tour company and she had brought a go-pro camera to film a promotional video, but we found out later she dropped the go-pro down a pile of rocks near the entrance and had to go retrieve it somehow.

The Phong Nha park has only been open since 2003, some sections (like Paradise Cave) have only been opened as recently as 2010. So it’s a very new park. The largest cave in the world is Son Doong, and that cave can be found in this park. Only one tour company is licensed to go in this cave (not Becca’s company), and you must sign all kinds of waivers and pay thousands of dollars to go. You take a several-day expedition and a team of porters and assistants to help you. They call it a once-in-a-lifetime trip, such that I made myself a promise that that’s the kind of thing I’d want to do on a honeymoon.

We didn’t go to Son Doong, obviously. Our second cave of the day was called Dark Cave, but first we had to eat some lunch. We had an assortment of barbeque meats, sticky rice, veggies, herbs, noodles, rice paper, and peanuts, and together we made all of these into neat little rice paper wraps. In Dark Cave, you must wear headlamps and lifejackets. You zipline down to the cave entrance, swim into the cave, and then alight on the sandbar. The light filtering into the mouth of the cave was absolutely unreal, like something out of a movie. Once the light goes away, you understand why it’s called Dark Cave. You must crawl through narrow crevasses and over rocks and things, which is more fun, somehow, in the dark. Eventually we arrived at a room which is entirely flooded with muddy water (“chocolate party,” as the guide called it), and playing with buoyancy in the water was really fun. Like the Dead Sea, it’s so easy to float with no effort it’s almost disconcerting. After that, going down the mud slide was supposed to be fun, but instead many of us ended up scraping our butts up on the way down (the slide was more sandy than muddy, you see).

We were supposed to kayak back to the shore, and I do love kayaking, but instead I swam back with Julia and Becca. It wasn’t drastically faster or slower than kayaking, anyway. There were ziplines and an American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course of hanging things to jump off of into the water. It was just a hanging zipline, so I went off it and instead of flipping or dropping gracefully into the water, I did a terribly painful backflop instead. After changing, there were bottles and bottles of rum and coke to “celebrate” a job well done. Julia had to get her motorbike fixed that evening, so she dropped me at a cute café to take some wifi while she went to find a mechanic that would still be open at that time. She had been invited to a hen party, but decided against it, and we went to a restaurant called Red Pepper instead to get pizza. We ran into the Hong Kong people from the caving trip and met the prettiest couple from Holland I’ve ever seen. We had another talk at Beachside and a cocktail and then headed back.

The next day was my trip to Hue, so I woke up, packed up, said goodbyes, and shipped off. Being friends with other travelers is weird. You might not see them again for a long time, or ever, but you know you’re always welcome in each other’s homes. Social media keeps you connected. I love this modern age sometimes. Julia dropped me at the train station and had to go to work, but it turns out that my ticket we’d bought was for the next day instead. I was politely told to leave the train and pouting on the bench, when the train conductor man (on the sly) told me to get back on the train anyway. I was still stressed the whole ride that they would throw me off the train at any time, but they didn’t. From the food trolley lady I got some mango and chili salt to dip it in.

When I got off the train, some boy named Thanh cornered me right away and tried to sell me on a motorcycle Hai Van Pass tour. After getting kind of swindled in Sapa, I had just enough to make it until the end of the trip with bus tickets, hostel fees, and food, so I really didn’t have that much money to play around with. I had considered doing this tour, but at 2 million VND I could only afford half of that. He did manage to haggle it down to 120k but I really didn’t have enough. Thanh wouldn’t take no for an answer, so he succeeded in arranging my bus to the next city (although he probably scalped me, too) and invited me to a party and going out drinking. The story that follows is one that definitely would have skeeved out my mom, but I managed to get out alive.

I went to my Hue hostel, Why Not (I booked it because of the name, you can’t argue with that logic), which was western-themed. The beds were so big and comfy that I regret a bit that I couldn’t have slept in this hostel the whole time in Vietnam. (Side note: Vietnam hostels are so cheap that it’s impossible to choose one. The bad ones are $4 USD per night, and the good ones are as low as $7 USD, so it’s really not expensive to get a good one like this.)  The hostel was in a really hip area of town and I was planning my day’s route walking around. I planned to walk to the Imperial City on the other shore, which was not far on the map but felt far in the heat and owing to people accosting me at every turn to get a motorcycle taxi. I got iced coffee and wifi at some eerily deserted outdoor café with bizarre cobalt tablecloths (seriously this place was so big and looked like it was set up for a wedding, but it was just a regular café). I had brought my sketchbook but hadn’t used it until that day, but sketching the imperial city was so relaxing, even in the stifling summer heat. Much of the palaces have been destroyed by time and wars, but what remains is still impressive—and still being rebuilt. The reading pavilion was my favorite part, a wooden structure set in a little lake, very quiet and surrounded by flowers.

I took a motor taxi back to the hostel, and I saw Anh and Sophie walking by while I was waiting for Tranh. I’d been considering not going, but I figured, what did I have to lose by it? Tranh picked me up in a taxi van. I’d pictured this party being at some sort of club, but it turns out it was a party that was the 1-year anniversary of one of his family member’s deaths. This is usually a family event, and all the aunts gathered looked at me like I was the one who killed their relative. We did the bowing and putting up incense. Tranh had promised me there were some American friends to talk to, and his friend Kyle/Bao was nice enough. “We don’t go home until we’re drunk,” Tranh explained, and there was so much food on the table. They did their best to get me drunk with shitty light beer with ice in it. They didn’t succeed, and I was bored enough to go play with the cats and little kids. There weren’t many people for me to talk to. After that, we went to some kind of rooftop café, and in moving the glass tables together Kyle-Bao managed to completely shatter one of the glass tables. I have no idea how he did it. I got cut by it, which I also have no idea how it happened. It looked like a much more dramatic cut than it actually was. Tranh took just me drinking after with his creepy old man friends. After this point I begged off by saying I was sick and going to throw up all over him. That was enough. After I got back, I went out to the night markets briefly, had a shower, and then went to bed.

The next day I had to head to the next city, Hoi An. I had a breakfast ticket at Why Not so I got a baguette and jam and coffee. Tranh had promised that his friend would come pick me up in a motorcycle taxi, but when a shuttle van pulled up asking for a group of one person to go to Hoi An and accepted my ticket, I accepted. The other people the van picked up were incredibly late, but I got on the sleeper bus okay. In Hoi An, I took the motor taxi to the Little Leo Homestay, only to find out that I’d booked this hostel for the night before instead. Luckily, the homestay matriarch let me stay anyway. I rented a bike and got a map and went around exploring the Hoi An old town. It reminded me a lot of Venice in a way, a town with rivers and boats and yellow-painted flower-filled houses. It wasn’t that fun having a bike, though, because once you’re in the old city, you just want to ditch your bike and walk. It’s just too inconvenient. Most of the temples and tourist sites required tickets and I was just trying to figure out whether I had enough money for dinner and to pay for the hostel at the end. When it became too much, I got a cane juice and banh mi from a roadside stand. I returned to the hostel to get some wifi, and met a Korean friend, Ella. We went out that night to explore the night markets, and Hoi An is stunning at night with all the lanterns lit up (especially for the Lantern Festival). We got dinner of Xao Lau, a Hoi An specialty, and then walked back to the hostel to shower and drink a whole lot of water. There, we met Finnish friend Heidi who had been staying at the homestay for a long time. Both Ella and Heidi had really interesting stories as to their world travels and it was cool to meet such seasoned travelers.

The next morning was my last day in Hoi An and also Vietnam. We had breakfast at the homestay, some fried noodles and “white coffee,” and then I packed and checked out. Even though the homestay matriarch had wanted to charge me for the extra night that my bed went unoccupied, she decided against it. Even with only one night charged, I ended up not having enough cash anyway and had to use my card to pay for everything. I, Ella, and Heidi rented bikes and went to the beach. While I loved chilling at the beach in Dong Hoi because of all the experiences surrounding it, An Bang beach and ocean in Hoi An are objectively more beautiful. We got juices at a stand (so that we could park our bikes there “for free”) and then went down to the beach, where we got beers (or an avocado smoothie, in Ella’s case, so that we could use the chairs “for free”) and chilled in the shade. The water was beautiful and warm and it was the perfect way to finish out my trip. Heidi had met her Finnish kitesurfer friends and continued to chat, but I had to head back, shower, and change. At Danang airport I got one last pho while I waited for my flight. At my transfer in Ho Chi Minh City I got a banh mi and fanta for dinner, and then it was back to Seoul at 6am.

I didn’t mean to write 6,000 words, it just kind of slipped out. I know that I’ll be telling stories from this trip for the rest of my life. I learned a lot, too. Mainly, that trust is important, even when it’s trusting strangers, and when you give yourself over to chance, great things can happen. Or at least, you’ll have a great story to tell.

A toast to going with the flow.

everything works out

everything works out

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, but it’s definitely not this.

I told someone all of that recently and they said, understandably, “…and you decided to stay?”

Hmm, well.

Yes.

It’s possible that I would be much happier elsewhere, doing some other work.  It’s possible that I’m really not cut out for any of this and by this time next year will regret this a lot.  But it’s equally possible that some other place would be worse.  Or most likely, another place would just be different, with its own ups and downs.  So why not take a chance and really make something of my life here?  Happiness isn’t going to fall into your lap when you change locations.  You’re not going to suddenly find the “right” place where everything works out.  Some places are certainly better than others, but basically you will always have to fight for what you want.

About a week ago, after moving house from my old place to my new place in my favorite neighborhood Hapjeong, I took a break from organizing my things to catch a few drinks at my friend’s favorite bar, which happens to be right across the street from me now.  It’s amazing to live in the cool neighborhood you once had to take a long journey to reach.  At that time, my house was just a big empty furniture-less, wifi-less box.  While it was everything I had wanted, it was more than a little depressing at that stage.  So naturally I went out for drinks.

The bar is literally underground and run by surfer-aesthetic people covered in tattoos with raggedy long hair.  It smells like incense and smoke inside and you’re careful not to speak too loud because you don’t want to interrupt the vibe to be heard.  It is Curtis’s favorite bar, but last time Julia and I went, we got absinthe (and I had forgotten that I don’t actually like the taste of absinthe).  Curtis and Julia used to work with me at the old school, but for different reasons, they both left early.  So here we are celebrating getting out of our kind of toxic work situation and heading in different directions.  Any gathering of this sort requires a great deal of shit-talking about the former job, speculation on what’s going on now with the new coworkers, and what all the old coworkers are going to do after their contracts are up.  At one point, Curtis commented to me something to the effect of, “You know, it’s pretty amazing that you seemed to be pretty unfazed by all the shit that went down.”

All the complaining and shit-talking, I would participate in it, maybe, but overall I didn’t really let it get me down.  Perhaps it was literal ray of sunshine, Maxine, who kept us all afloat.  Perhaps it’s a love for country (here) that the other coworkers lacked.  Perhaps it was the thought of a new job that kept me going on in spite of it all.

It’s been a pretty wild ride this year, and it seems like it’s not likely to calm down in the next year.

Midway through January, I probably took one of the most interesting trips of my experience here.  I had not made any cool, high-flying plans to go to other countries for the Lunar New Year, or Seollal, vacation, which is wise because travel in this part of the world at that time of year is a nightmare.  But I’d had a vision to go to an island.  I found a travel group that was going to Geoje Island, the largest island in Korea after Jeju Island.  I like these travel groups because they take the planning aspect out of the equation, giving you options to do whatever you like or just lounge about or go drinking or whatever.

I almost didn’t go.

I almost missed the bus leaving at 6am from Noksapyeong.  Every other person thought ahead and took a taxi but I thought it would be cute to take the subway.  Luckily, they held the bus.

We arrived in Geoje after traveling for most of the morning on the bus.  I’d entertained thoughts of just letting the bus leave without me and going back to bed, but I’m glad that they held the bus for an extra 20 minutes.  Geoje Island is a starkly beautiful place, even in winter when we went.  We were told it would be much warmer than Seoul, and while it was marginally warmer, it wasn’t, say, shorts weather as I’d expected.  But the warm sun felt good on your face and it was a nice break from the biting seoul winds which rip down the long straightaway streets like a hurricane.  The landscape looks a lot like New England in the states or maybe Nova Scotia, big pine trees and rocky beaches.  We didn’t get to properly enjoy many of the things Geoje is popular for because kayaking and ATVing are more summer pursuits and it was still quite cold when we went.  Nonetheless, it was nice to be able to get out of the city for a while and make some new friends.

On Friday after the rooms were distributed we had South African vetkoek (fat cake), which is basically a fried donut-like roll with curry inside and spicy fries on the side.  I had never expected to learn so much about South Africa on a trip in Korea, but as the tour group owner was South African and my roommate, Hilary, was too, I inadvertently learned a lot about the country from them.  We ate on the bus while we were touring round the island.  We saw a beautiful black-stone beach where all of the stones were polished smooth and flat.  The sound that the waves made as they rushed over the stones was so surreal that I never wanted to leave.  Each stone was a perfect skipping-stone or paving-stone; they didn’t even look real.  Nature is so cool.  After that, we also saw a windmill, which is apparently very famous on the island.  We had the option to “hike” down to that windmill (in all, a 20 minute walk and not at all difficult) and then got to play on the sea cliffs a little.  I met some new friends, and we talked about the struggles of teaching and what we were planning to do for the next year.  Things are a lot less nebulous for you when you like your school and/or are head teacher.

When we returned from the island tour, we had also consented to go on the sunset cruise.  This, too, I almost bowed out of because I’ve been on probably one too many “sunset cruises.”  Again, I’m glad I decided to go anyway.  We took the bus to the marina and then boarded two boats.  To be honest, they were small little fishing boats, but they got the job done.  While a bunch of guys from a Saudi company took the bow of the boat, we made ourselves comfortable at the picnic table at the stern.  It was freezing cold in the wind but we all had concealed soju and beer in our jackets, so that kept us warm.  Our boats darted in and out of sea cliffs and pillars and through huge flocks of seagulls resting in the water.  The sunset was fantastic.   On the boat, we made friends with some Irish teachers, Diarmuid and Rachael, and had lots of laughs.  I’m always a little wary about these kind of trips, that I’m bugging the people I’m with, but these guys seemed pretty genuinely kind, which I feel is rare.  It’s even rarer to open up in the first day of a trip to people you’ve never met.

That, I felt, was the highlight of the trip for me already.  When we returned, it was time to braai (South African for “barbeque”).  It took ages to set up, as there were many people to coordinate and lots of different moving parts, and we were all starving.  We ate all of our sides and drank our convenience store beers in record time, while waiting for the preparations to be complete.  We got mussels and scallops and shrimp, but my problem is I don’t like any of these things.  I made a deal with the Irish friends and still got them (on the offchance that I might actually like them… I didn’t.) and then gave them the shellfish I couldn’t eat (which was all but one of them).  I keep trying and keep hating shellfish.  I consoled myself by telling myself that there was steak coming!  We had pretty big steaks that we were all allowed to grill over the open fire.  We were basically barbequing in one of the minbak (bed and breakfast) garages, all open-air.  It took ages to grill the steaks, as maybe 15 people were vying for space on the small and inefficient grills.  Not to mention, many of our steaks were frozen.  We couldn’t see in the dark, so we took our chances with food poisoning as we ate the steaks.  We kept making trips down to the maejeom (convenience store) for more soju and beer as the night progressed.  The group attempted to teach me how to play “King’s Cup,” a drinking game to which every single player had been taught different house rules.  We also had a ludicrous amount of rum and coke, rum being left over from the enormous orange vat of “jungle juice” the tour group had prepared for the braai.  There were stunning overtures of friendship and promises of future visits to home countries made.  Everybody is so much more earnest and generous when they’re drinking.  As we stood warming our hands over the dying barbeque fires, we watched some fireworks over the beach.  Someone in our tour group was setting them off.

Needless to say, it was a night of far, far too much drinking for me.  I can maybe only do one good night of drinking a week, and that was it for me.   I was really sick the next day, partially from drinking, partially from staying out in the night air cold all night, partially maybe from food poisoning.  Saturday was rough.

Since Saturday was Lunar New Year, we had the traditional breakfast of japchae, sweet potato noodles in a sesame oil and soy sauce dressing, ddeok guk, flat circle rice cake dumpling soup with seaweed and beef, jeon pancakes, and kongnamul bean sprouts.  My stomach was not having any of that.  While the other kids went ATVing or to the spa, I was hoping that a walk in the fresh air would cure my condition.  It took most of the day but it eventually worked.  I walked down the beach and up to the pier, hoping that I could get a climb on some of the cliffs.  In my kind of sick state, though, I didn’t much trust my ability not to fall down and hit my head, so I ended up not climbing anything.  I had been reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons at the time, so while I got a mocha at the sunny and peaceful second floor of Don Quixote Coffee, I read and enjoyed the sunshine.  I thought it would be unbefitting to fall asleep in the café, so I ended up going down to the beach for a nap.  They only give out one key per room in the minbak, you see, and I was not the lucky key-holder that day.  After some sleep, I felt marginally better and met new friend Shane at the GS, where we ate ice cream and those “Nacho” brand chips.

We headed out to Jisimdo, one of the outlying islands from Geoje, after that.  I had the feeling that on a nice summer day, Jisimdo would be a bustling hiking area, and missing the ferry back to Geoje would be no big deal, as there were many guesthouses and cafes and restaurants dotting the hillside.  As it was New Year’s Day, none were open that day, so we had to be sure to catch that last ferry back.  Shane and I walked around, exploring the old Japanese battlements and trails.  We had picked up long bamboo spears somewhere and were swinging them around dramatically as if we were in some old samurai anime.  Near the end of that adventure, I did get really dizzy.  Maybe it was dehydration or still food poisoning, but I was feeling really bad as we were getting on the ferry back.  Back at the accommodations, I took yet another nap and was restored to full health!

On Saturday evening, we were scheduled to go “bar hopping” in Okpo, which is the main town area in Geoje.  I’m always wary of stuff like this on trips here, because—while it might be cool and novel to go out partying for many, who might live in remote little towns that don’t even have a single noraebang to boast, or if not, then on military bases—it’s not all that novel or cool to someone who actually lives in Seoul and not outside of it.  I’m made even more wary when they describe it as a place with “lots of foreigner restaurants.”  As it turns out, the “suggestions” that they made, everyone either ignored or only listened to one single one, the one for the Indian restaurant, so 60 of us shuffled in all at once to this restaurant on Lunar New Year night when the restaurant only had 3 on staff.  You can probably guess where this is going, but basically we were the last to order as the staff ignored us for upwards of half an hour to even take our orders and then it took another 2+ hours for our food to come.  Somehow we bullied our way into a discount.  I’m glad for friends who can take matters like these into their own hands.  I’m the sort of confrontation-avoidant person who would never say anything and just lose two hours of their life with nothing to show for it.  We were expected to go out and drink at the little bars surrounding Okpo after that, but after all the waiting, I had no desire to stay in that area for even one more minute.  Plus, I was averse to ingesting any more alcohol that weekend, unfortunately.

We woke up Sunday to clouds threatening to rain and headed to breakfast, which was “the full English,” always a treat.  We emerged from the minbak after breakfast to find a steady downpour.  The weather was just nice enough that I just walked over to the area where the cafes were to wait out the rain, if I could, and if not, to wait until it was time for the bus to go.  I hung out in a café and ended up meeting the Irish friends, who had come in for brunch, having missed the tour group’s breakfast.  We shuffled back to the bus after that, stealing the ideal seats in the back, elevated so we could see all the way down the aisle easily.  The bus stopped after a few minutes to pick up the tour group members who had gone to Geoje seaworld that morning and then we headed on to Seoul.  We hatched a plan with the Irish friends and American friend Colton and his girlfriend Yoojin, to go out for dinner (huge bags in tow).  I’d suggested, since we got out at Noksapyeong station, that we go to one of my favorite café-bistros, Fat Cat, but it turned out to be closed.  We instead got burgers bigger than our faces at a place called Burgermine (there are about 3-4 burger places within spitting distance of Fat Cat if you ever happen to go and find it closed) and made plans to see one another again.

In between saying goodbye that time and the next time I saw them two weeks later, I had interviewed for the next year’s jobs and begun the narrowing-down process.  My future was a lot more certain after two weeks.  We had hookah, drinks upon drinks, and stayed out until the train started up again at 6am.

It’s been about a month since then.  I haven’t been avoiding the friends, per se, but it’s hard to commit to staying out until 6am.  My old lady soul protests to it unless there’s copious amounts of food or coffee involved.  My life is a whole lot more certain now that it was even a month ago.

Spring is a good time to reflect about old things dying and new things beginning.  That’s why I’m kind of grateful that the school year here starts in March.  It’s the perfect time for a new beginning.  The anger and stress and bad feelings all die with the cold weather and peace returns on the calm spring wind.

Near the end of the old year, not only were all of the students acting up like crazy—perhaps on some subconscious level understanding that they’d never see most of us again—all the teachers were going crazy, too.  Everyone leaving became lazier and more spiteful. Things seemed to speed up exponentially as the new teachers came in from Canada, Australia, America, and we had to attempt to fit a year’s worth of our learnings about how the job works into a few days at most.  The social scene at the end when everyone is leaving is fun, tragic, and hectic.  Everyone tries to fit all of their “lasts” into a single week.  It’s i n s a n e.  It’s so sad because some of these friends you know you might never see again in this life (in person, that is), at least not without the huge difficulties of crossing oceans.

It’s sad saying goodbye to humans who mean a lot to you.  It’s also sad saying goodbye to places that mean a lot to you.  I’m so incredibly grateful that I don’t have to say goodbye to Seoul for another year.  As I took my run last weekend, I was struck again (as I am nearly every day) by how beautiful this city is, how lucky I am to live here.  I’m already becoming sad at probably having to leave it, and that’s 11 months in my future.

In the meantime, I moved into my new job, the after school working only 5 hours a day in Dangsan-gu, just a short one-stop ride away from my home right next to Hapjeong station.  I found a perfect little loft (being short, lofts are perfect for me) which is exactly equidistant from Hapjeong and Sangsu, which leaves me situated in literally my favorite neighborhood in Seoul.  I’ve almost completely decorated the new house, which is fun but difficult, being an adult, y’know, but now the space really feels mine.  I do almost all my own cooking and have to manage my own affairs much better, now that my boss or coworkers aren’t right there to solve all my problems for me.  Every problem seems magnified when you can’t just lean back in your chair and ask 10 people who have had the same problem before.  But I think this year will be a tremendous year of growth.  It’s also a bit lonely so far.  I’m great at making friends, but I’m horrid at going out and finding friends, especially given the language barrier.  So we’ll have to learn to break through that.

Looking forward, I’ll continue to better manage the new house, find some Korean lessons so that I can really get more out there in the community, and keep discovering more and more about my neighborhood and my city.  I’m so happy and excited to be here for another year, loneliness be damned.

 

A toast to embracing the loneliness, using it as medium to create something new everyday.

 

 

Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

You’ll never hear a solo traveller tell you anything but how wonderful, life-changing and liberating it is to travel alone. It’s all true, you’ll learn your biggest lessons in love, life and the beautiful planet we share. You’ll change as a person and your very core will be strengthened. You’ll never depend on another, you will be the true master of your own destiny. Meeting new people will become a daily occurrence and that will quickly teach you never to settle for less. You will establish your tribe, a mixture of old friends and new. Initially you’ll let all kinds of weird and wonderful people into your life but you’ll quickly learn to be discerning about who sticks around.

This magic starts to evolve from day one, the moment you take your first flight, bus journey or boat to a faraway land alone. Each and every day you navigate the globe as a solo wanderer you’ll learn so much, not only about others but about yourself too. …

You’ll start to realise how often people chat about nothing at all. Yeah sure traveller small talk exists and usually begins with: ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where have you been?’, ‘Where are you going?’. These questions are asked every single day but the answers open up whole new worlds of possibility and understanding. Each response kicks open doorways to dreams and inspiration. …

Living out of a bag for extended periods of time became a way of life. Not having anyone to impress or keep up appearances for is liberating. Solo travel strips you of your need to present yourself as a perfectly polished human as you quickly learn it’s what lies beneath that counts. …

You’ll get into conversations about your future and instead of mortgages and careers your dreams will be a list of countries. A whole world of opportunities out there and a backpack that looks so rejected lying dormant on your bedroom floor.

For you’ve been bitten by the bug of the solo travel/wanderlust variety. Try as you might to conform you will never see settling in a conventional life as a viable option now. Your only solution is to find someone wild and free to run with you.

It’s now the new year and no matter how stressful or saddening 2016 proved for many, the year will soon pass into the realm of memory.  On New Year’s Eve, I failed to make any high-flying, hard-drinking plans befitting a proper red-blooded American 23-year-old.  I ended up going to see Rogue One in the 4D theater, meeting old friends and new for dinner at our favorite neighborhood Mexican joint, going for beer, noraebang, and then heading home at a respectable time of 1am.

We were at our second-dinner location enjoying chimaek, chicken and beer, as the clocks (time measured by all of our iPhones, of course) struck 12, when I took my dad’s customary position on every New Year’s meal.  As children, we dreaded the annual interrogation as to our New Year’s resolutions.  Because, you see, my father is a businessman, so we have been raised on a steady diet of business rhetoric our whole lives.  Your New Year’s goal cannot just be a single to-do item or even a list of places to go.  It must be a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based.  (My official goal, “become a ‘real adult,'” which is really one really big nebulous goal broken into smaller and more specific items for improvement, does not really meet these standards. But i digress.)  The other friends shared their goals, various as the people who keep them, but then new friend Brendan’s turn came.  He sat in shock.  There were literally no goals to be made.  Nothing to interest this man in this whole wide world, save finishing out the teaching contract and returning to Canada for a life of indolence and comfort.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to want the comforts of home and family.  We all do, to some extent.  But when wanting those things is only due to a lack of conviction in your interests, it becomes too hollow and sad for my liking.  Imagine having enough money to go anywhere in this world.  No ties or responsibilities.  You can pursue any interest that you possibly could imagine.  No place calling out to you, asking you to explore and learn.  This was heartbreaking to me, and nothing the other friends at the table could persuade him otherwise.

I like staying at home as much as the next guy.  I’m quite the homebody.  But this lack of interest in learning and discovering new things just rang so hollow and untrue to me.  It seems to me that I’ve been travelling my whole life.  “Even now, I am travelling,” as my one student’s mom wrote in her Speech Festival speech.  Whether it’s small adventures like runs or walks or bike rides, or flying to Korea or Australia, I don’t believe that staying sequestered in your safe space is wiser or better.

There are some universally agreed-upon things that travel is good for: you learn so much about yourself and about how you interact with others. You use the new cultures you are experiencing as a foil to examine your home country.  You become more empathetic.  You learn to improvise.  You learn to crop your life and the things you hold precious into a small and manageable size so that it can be folded and crammed into a pack and tossed on a plane at a moment’s notice.

We all agree on these things.  But how you “get there,” or the travelling experience, is deeply personal to each person.  As an example, I offer an anecdote from my childhood: when I was younger, my family would go on bike rides, strapping the bikes onto the car and prepared with snacks, maps, GPS tracker, water bottles, anything we might need.  We would often stop at a local elementary school where they couldn’t charge you for parking and head out onto the rail trail.  The fall leaves would filter the sunlight overhead and the crunching of leaves under your bike came loud in your ears when nobody was talking.  It’s sometimes hard to talk and bike, especially when you’re racing for dominance against your younger brother.  If we reached something of interest, like a gathering of rocks jutting out into the river where you could eat the snack and bathe your tired feet, or a little roadside stand selling ice cream, or a waterfall that was too far to jump on but close enough to look at, we would stop and “smell the roses.”  There was no agenda.  Nobody would be mad if we didn’t reach the promised 20-mile out-and-back.  Fast forward a few years.  My younger brother is training for a running of the locally famous C&O Canal trail, 335 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC, with his boy scout troop.  We went on a training ride with the troop one day, scheduled to make a 40-mile-total ride that day.  The scouts were young and fit and I hadn’t been on bike in a while, not to mention my bike couldn’t shift to more than 60% of the gears (it was a cheaply made bike and probably almost 8 years old at the time), so they naturally left my mom and I in the dust.  The scouts would plan to rest every 10 miles, no stopping for quaint little interesting things along the way.  I was puttering along and a bee stung me on my leg.  However, it not only stung me but got stuck in my bike shorts stinger-first so continued to sting me as I’m crying and trying not to fall off my bike.  My mom eventually turned around to see what the commotion was and we ended up stopping at a lovely farmer’s market for iced coffee while I literally took the ice from my coffee to nurse the bee sting.  The moral of the story?  Stop and smell the roses is probably the best way to travel.

The aim of this anecdote is that I know too many people for whom travel is not cultural discovery and joy and wonder (as it should be, in my opinion) but more of a clinical search for Instagram opportunities.  It is all too easy to fall into the mode of to-do lists, where a city can be dissected into its most sparklingly Instagrammable sights and activities, and you forget to actually experience things.  Call me too Hufflepuff or whatever, but I would trade ten days packed full with the city’s “must-see sights” for just one day at a really cool cafe with cool atmosphere or a cool view.  The checklist philosophy of travel is more exhausting than it’s worth, and it doesn’t quite give you a real sense of the personality of the place you’re living in or visiting (after all, if all you’re doing is the famous places, all crowded tourist destinations kind of bleed together after some time).

This entry’s working title is “Two Travellers,” mainly for those two contrasting travel philosophies, but also for my trip to Hong Kong over Christmas, with me and coworker Jenn.  How many travellers?  Two travellers.

Our plans were nebulous and theoretical at best.  Jenn is famously attached to her boyfriend so I really doubted that the plans would actually materialize.  This will come as no surprise to anyone, but it’s harder to plan a trip with two people than just one.  But we managed, mostly due to strenuous bugging on Jenn’s side because I am bad at planning ahead for things other than hostels and plane tickets.  Luckily we shared a common philosophy about going to Hong Kong: in essence, eat everything and we don’t care about much else.

Korea doesn’t do Christmas.  There are no special deals or restaurants and not much decoration, so it doesn’t feel much like Christmas.  It was not even cold enough, really, to warrant a holiday-like feeling.  We left on Christmas day for Hong Kong.  The hardest part of the trip was just finding the airport shuttle bus, which was actually ridiculously easy.  Jenn prided herself on arriving makeup-free, which is my perpetual state except for extraordinary circumstances.

Arriving in Hong Kong, we got spicy, peanutty dan-dan noodles and the typical iced milk tea/coffee blend which is apparently famous in Hong Kong, all without leaving the airport.  It was pretty awesome.  We got on the train with little trouble, but then getting off the airport train in Kowloon, we seemed to be trapped in a giant crater formed by towering shiny apartment buildings, no egress except for motor vehicles.  While the walking distance to our hostel was not that far, we had to duck down underground again to take a more circuitous route to get to our “neighborhood,” Tsim Sha Sui.  Jenn was hell-bent on finding certain snacks she remembered aunts bringing her in her youth, so it seemed like we visited about a thousand snack shops and convenience stores.  We didn’t find much, and mostly discovered that there were so many Korean stores and Korean tourists that it was like we never left Seoul.  At the end of the evening, we found the Temple Street Night Market quite by accident.  There, they sell anything from dog beds to dildos, but our favorite find was fridge magnets with sassy sayings in Chinese and English, my favorite of which was “From far distance you look like rainbow, from near you look like a big potato.”  We got fried noodles and a big bottle of beer at some outdoor eatery, but our favorite part of the late-night dinner was the roasted peanuts, which were just the right amount of salty and nearly impossible to pick up with your chopsticks.

On the Monday of the trip we ventured out to the Hong Kong Wetland Park.  Neither aquariums nor HK Disneyland held any fascination for us, but the wetland park was just the right combination of scenic and informative.  We had Hong Kong’s version of Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, and diner-style noodles with fried eggs and pork on top.  It was quite bizarre.  The wetland park was cool in the way that Ilsan lake park is just relaxing enough as an easy getaway in the middle of the city.  We loved watching the mud skippers dash between holes in the mud and the little crabs running away from our shadows.  I would hope that the English teachers in Hong Kong get to take their classes there on field trip days.  After that, we attempted to see the harborside Avenue of Stars, which sucked because it was under renovation.  Much of what we saw was under renovation at that time, as it’s the “dead of winter” in Hong Kong, although it did not seem nearly as cold as Seoul.  We got Din Tai Fung for lunch, trying all of the interesting little dishes there as is traditional.  I’m obsessed with the xiaolongbao, soup dumplings, so I got them every time the opportunity arose.  We walked back from there… and while it’s not far on a map, we got kind of quite lost and went in a very roundabout way.  In lieu of dinner, we ended up drinking our drinks and eating Cheetos in the temple courtyard (the temple after which the night market is named), where lots of old men are playing mahjong, smoking, telling stories, or taking naps.

Our hostel was very basic, mostly just a place to rest our heads, not like the comparatively swanky ones I slept in in Japan.  The first night we had a pair of nightmare roommates whose phones were constantly ringing full-volume, zipping and unzipping bags and crinkling plastic bags, and talking on the phone at ungodly hours of the morning.  For two days, we had no roommates, and then more people came into the hostel nearing the next weekend.  But the concierges did give good recommendations for the most part, as well as good advice as to how to get around.

On Tuesday we tried out Hong Kong McDonald’s, as both Jenn and I have an interest in comparing the different restaurants across different countries.  I had a really bizarre salmon burger and iced milk tea, but not completely complaining.  We headed off to Central Station which is on the main Hong Kong Island.  We headed to the Piers, from which you might be able to take the famous Star Ferry, but we didn’t do that.  We walked along, taking in the fresh air, appreciating the soaring shiny skyscrapers and the ferris wheel.  We walked through Tamar Park, which is a delightful park and made me sorely regret not bringing running gear with me.  We walked from Central through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, which is kind of quite far.  Along the way we saw amazing old trees growing out of unlikely places and under an overpass on our way (although we didn’t identify this until later), we saw little old ladies whacking sheets of paper with shoes.  We thought it might be them fixing jewelry or testing the shoes?  Turns out, you write your enemies’ names on the paper, or make specific ill-wishes and get the old ladies to “beat” the curses into your enemies, like some kind of cool old voodoo.  I couldn’t have found this intentionally but we came across this gathering quite by accident.  We got Starbucks, because I am irreparably addicted to caffeine, and I was delighted to find that the “shot green tea latte” that had been discontinued in Korea continued on as the “espresso matcha fusion” in Hong Kong.  We got DimDimSum for lunch somewhere near Wan Chai.  At Causeway Bay, we took the train back to Central and headed up to the Midlevel Escalators, the longest and most famous stretch of escalators in the world.  It was kind of fun riding up and seeing all the cool restaurants that we passed by, and we ended up using them as a tool later to discover where to eat dinner one night.  Australia before and now Korea have taught me that you can only gain from looking down each alley because there are bound to be cool restaurants and cafes or at least cool graffiti everywhere you look.  Not so with Hong Kong.  It was depressing.  But we did not get off to stop at any of the places in the Midlevels because we thought, surely, there were awesome cafes or restaurants or views to be had at the top.

Not so, dear readers.  There is nothing at the top of the Midlevels.  Hugest letdown of my life.  We headed  back to the Temple Street Night Market for dinner (you will notice a pattern with this one… we never skipped a single night at this market), where we picked up fruit juices with exotic toppings such as “bird’s nest” and “hamar jelly,” with questionable health benefits, if any.  I was dying of hunger (Jenn had grabbed some of the HK-famous egg waffles on the way), so we eventually found dan-dan noodles, xiaolongbao, and iced coffee for me to eat at around 11pm.  Sometimes coffee doesn’t agree with me, and this was one of those nights.  I stayed up late into the night, and at the insistence over text message of my best friend from back home decided to experiment with Hong Kong tinder.  Guess what?  Tinder only sets me up with Korean guys, even those studying in or visiting Hong Kong, apparently.

On Wednesday we headed, after eating delightful toasts from a breakfast restaurant called Toastbox, to Lantau Island (this is also the island where the airport is, but that was not our aim).  We took a cable car, which was really awesome as it was a glass-bottom.  I do not get scared of heights so it was fascinating to watch the scenery pass by underfoot, especially watching the scattering of people on hiking trails beneath us.  At the top, we headed to the Tian Tan Buddha, otherwise known as the “Big Buddha.”  On the path are scores of cows just mulling about and asking to be photographed.  It really has the air of religious pilgrimage even though it’s not really used for that purpose anymore and is really way more about the selfie these days.  The buddha is amazing, of course, but I think it’s the walk that is really neat, approaching along with the thousands of other pilgrims and having to walk the stairs up to the top.  The Path of Wisdom is another high-billed attraction, but it’s kind of lost on those who don’t speak Chinese, and that it’s less meditation walk and more selfie opportunity for visitors.

The more interesting part of the short hike to the Path of Wisdom was signs for the Tea Garden Restaurant.  We kept seeing them and, as we were both starving, we wondered where this famous-sounding restaurant was.  Turns out, we passed it on the way, it was an abandoned and disheveled structure with trees growing through the windows.  I thought it was a good metaphor for Hong Kong, really.  There’s much that’s new and shiny, but other things are crumbling and old.  When it’s not deemed worth saving, they just let nature take its course.  We bought incense sticks at the monastery and lit them.  The courtyard was smoky and looked kind of graveyard-like with all the sticks stuck in the ashes of previous visitors.  The Po-Lin Monastery is like many temples I’ve seen thus far, but off to the side, they had a restaurant.  Jenn and I bought fried noodles, tea, moon cakes, and mango jellies there, eagerly devouring them in the outdoor tables.  It had become much colder so we were ravenous but also kind of eager to return to warmth.  For dinner, we were recommended by the hostel front desk girl to get hot pot at the “Supreme” restaurant (its resemblance to the streetwear brand led to too many jokes), but it proved to be wayyyyy super spicy for me and I wasn’t able to eat much.  I hunted for coffee by myself this time, eventually locating some Starbucks where I had a beautiful pomegranate mocha and fell right asleep.

We got in a fight the next morning.  Basically, perpetually single me bristles at being bragged at about how a w e s o m e it is to be in a relationship.  We’re both at fault, but I wrote two affirmations on the subject: 1) I am a full, unique, and important person on my own and do not necessarily need a significant other to matter or be of interest in this world.  On the opposite side: 2) I should not begrudge others’ happiness even when it seems to undercut my own.

Basically, during most trips you’re likely to clash with your travel companions.  It just happens with some companions faster than others.  Thursday, our final full day, was the day we had planned to hike the Dragon’s Back.  We took a bus to the hike among with scores of other foreigners like ourselves.  The Dragon’s Back is as crowded as any urban Seoul trail, with nice views but not wonderful views.  Nevertheless, it gives you both decent city views and also a sense that Hong Kong is, indeed, an island and there are beaches and small town-vibes to be had somewhere.  Jenn became enamored with finding quartz stones to bring back home, but most of them were too sharp or too big to transport.  We took a minibus back, but as I was the last person on the bus, I ended up sitting on a little leather settee right next to the driver.  As he terrifyingly whipped around the hairpin turns and I held on for dear life, I was only slightly comforted by the scent of the jasmine diffuser and tinny trot music emanating from the radio.

We were deposited back in the Shuen Wan markets, where we got bizarre spiral-cut pineapple, steamed buns that looked like little peachy butts, and eventually were hungry enough to stumble upon a restaurant called Hainan South where we both got fantastic Malay curry and lattes.  We attempted to take the tram up to Victoria Peak.  It was too crowded so we vowed to return the next day.  We headed to Hong Kong Park, where we attempted to go to the outdoor aviary.  Closed for the day.  My favorite part of the park was actually the Olympic Plaza, which had fallen into disrepair but was actually being renovated for some new purpose, and the viewing tower from which you could see the tai-chi plaza and meditation garden.  We also attempted to go to the Hong Kong Visual Arts center?  Also closed for the day.  After crushing defeat, we returned to the Midlevels again, with food and coffee in mind, and ended up finding Michelin-starred beef noodles and iced coffee at a fascinating cafe called Maison, serving different coffees, teas, and juices named after various world cities.  After walking around the piers and watching the fiercely red junk boats sailing a while, we headed “home.”

On Friday, our plane was  not until later, so we woke up early, packed our bags, shuttled ourselves and our stuff to Central and put the bags in lockers, then headed up to the tram to Victoria Peak.  If you arrive early, you can walk right on, especially with the “Octopus Card” which is your transit card in Hong Kong (much like the T-Money card in Seoul.)  The views from the top are stunning.  It was a nice wrap-up to the trip, seeing the city that we had traversed end-to-end on foot and by train.  Hong Kong seems big, but in reality it’s much smaller than Seoul.  It’s easy to manage and navigate with absolutely no Chinese ability.  It is an interesting blend of super new and high-tech and crumbling old buildings and stately old trees.  Ultimately, as with Japan, I was glad to return home to Seoul.

I’m sitting here wondering which new places I’ll get to explore in 2017.  I hope it’s a lot.  But more than sheer number, I hope that I can learn and grow as much as possible in the new year.

A toast to quality over quantity when travelling is involved.