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.

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”

This post comes woefully late, but a lot of things have happened in between the events of the post and its actual writing. I’ve been on trips, gotten a tinder and met several people because of it, gotten two tattoos, graded a million papers and written report cards, and weathered many holidays and special days, and survived the dismissal of another new teacher. It’s been a wild ride.

So, even before I actually arrived on Korean soil I was already inviting friends and family to come visit me. Now Aidan hyung was the only one to follow up on this so far. But faithful friend Becca soon made plans to visit in early August. I initially thought that it might be around summer break, which was at first cool and then horrifying because I thought that it would be during the summer break and I would have to postpone my Japan trip to meet her. Turns out the time was early September instead, so no conflicts.

However, as time to plan came closer, I discovered that not only would Becca only be here for weekdays (of which I have such long hours that I could barely do my proper job as tour guide), but it would also come at the most stressful time to date of our school year, the changing of the semester.  During this time, a lot of the old coworkers left and a lot of new coworkers were coming in.  We also had changing schedules and books and report cards to hand in.  It was a huge mess.  So I was a nervous wreck, despite all my planning, that Becca would arrive and have to cool her jets for many hours while I languished at work.  I had arranged for Becca to get her tattoo (she likes to collect tattoos from every country she visits, even after she’d just freshly gotten one in Cambodia the week before) during the afternoon so that I could meet her directly after in that neighborhood.  I had told her that I would pick her up on my break and shepherd her to my house so she could put her huge backpacking pack in my house and I could give her the key and explain where to go.  I even bought a few samgak kimbaps for her lunch.

That Tuesday came and everything seemed to be going wrong.  It was our head teacher Amanda’s last day at the school and everything was in shambles.  The schedule had just changed that week, so the break that I had counted upon did not come at the right time and I was afraid she would have to wait in the train station and all my plans would be wasted.  I became a nervous wreck in the office, so much so that the other coworkers literally told me to just not worry about Becca and just have confidence in her.  But I reasoned: “I’ve made all these p l a n s and they can’t go to w a s t e” and was very stressed instead.  Becca’s wifi refused to work and I could not remember how long the train from the airport took or anything.  At lunch break, I strapped on my running shoes and sprinted to the station.  I was terrified that I would a) miss Becca and have to leave or b) get to meet Becca but be late back to school and get in trouble.  I watched the minutes tick by.  There is no free wifi for the Becca-type of travelers in the Seoul National University station.  I agonized over being late back to school

I’m happy to report that that didn’t happen.

Becca arrived in the train station safely, looking radiant and relieved.  I shepherded her to my apartment, explained where she was going, provided her with the tattoo design I’d drawn up previously and some lunch, and then I had to dash back to the school.  I was precisely on time.  Becca left at the correct time for her appointment, and the meeting with the artist was set up with military-like precision like a spy operation.  (Tattoos are technically illegal in South Korea, but more on that, I think, in a later post)  I met her at the end of the day when she had just finished up with the tattoo appointment, and from there we headed for samgyeopsal, which it shouldn’t need to be mentioned is my favorite meal in the entire country.  Becca asked for a “traditional Korean dessert,” and even though a lot of Koreans really do like Baskin Robbins, we managed to find a really good bingsu (shaved ice) place in Hongdae in amongst the night shopping and partiers.

What I learned from Tuesday with Becca?  Trust in your friends.  Trust in the process.  Trust in the universe.  For all your planning, everything will go exactly not as you intended, but as it is meant to go.

My bed is a tight fit but I’m pretty small so we managed just fine.  Wednesday was tall coworker Zach’s last day and there were lots of shenanigans.  I was much happier this day because Becca was safely in Seoul and could start to find her way around.  I had planned for her to go to the palaces on this day, but as it rained that day, that ended up not working out.  I suggested instead that she go to Dongdaemun for shopping and to see the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza).  All I could really do when I left was tell her the subway stops, give her an umbrella, and send her on her way.

I was sad myself when she asked where to get “authentic Korean breakfast” and I had to explain that breakfast is literally just the same food Koreans eat for every other meal, just eaten in the morning.

When I returned in the evening to discover that Becca only just barely made it to the DDP, and only because somebody who she met in a cafe that afternooon told her to go there, I was initially pissed but then cooled off.  I gave vague directions at best and a real Seoul native could instruct her better than me, right?  Every night I would ask if Becca had a fun day and she never said “no,” so I’m glad.  Basically, Becca is a pro traveler and is really talented at discovering the cool things to do in any given part of town, despite the lack of a guidebook or computer to research.

We had to stop at tall co-worker Zach’s apartment because he had stuff he was giving to me.  He had to take a plane out the next morning, bound for Hong Kong.  I really had intended for Becca to meet all the coworkers, but it turns out that I couldn’t really interest anybody in doing the planned things that week, so we ended up not meeting anybody really.

For dinner we had the actual most-loved Korean meal of all time: chimaek, or chicken and beer.  Becca’s got some mad dietary restrictions on her these days, and I find that I would be so worried about whether she could eat this or that that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy things properly.  Becca had no such qualms, despite not being able to eat spicy foods or drink too much, seemingly Korea’s two favorite pasttimes..  Basically, it was all an attitude thing, so if you let your dietary hangups get in your way of having a good time, they definitely will, but if you’re determined to have a good time, nothing can stop you.

We went to the Han River with a beer or so in hand and had a chat.  It was nice to watch the city lights go by and catch up.

Thursday I had so many well-laid plans, but those always go so well.  I thought this was the day that Becca should go see the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I think she got to, but I can’t remember.  My instructions to go out the Gwanghwamun Gwangjang stop on the purple line, following all of the travellers, were pretty explicitly clear, for once.  After that I had intended for her to head over to Insadong, which I also left pretty clear instructions for, but all the best-laid plans can go to shit.  And it’s so, so easy to get distracted in Seoul.  Somewhere along the way, she got hungry and, I believe, got some sort of yukgyejang, which is a spicy beef soup.  Sometimes the close-your-eyes-and-point method works well, other times it shoots you in the foot.  She said it was good, though.  You have to be pretty open-minded when eating in another country.

For dinner tonight something quite strange happened.  Becca’s dad is pretty high-up in the medical field, so he has connections all over the world.  Turns out he had a friend in Seoul, and he wanted us to meet that friend.  Said friend was also bringing his son.  I was under explicit instructions not to woo said son.

Becca’s dad’s friend ended up not coming for dinner in Ichon, but his son, Kevin, ended up being perfectly nice dinner company.  I think it may have been hard to balance talking to Becca about her experience in Seoul or about their dads’ work or the medical field and talking to me, a lowly teacher who can speak some Korean.  I’m not sure who would have been more interesting, but he balanced it with grace.  You know what I did not do with grace?  Eating haemul pajeon, the green onion pancakes with squid or octopus in it.  Ew.  Especially difficult with chopsticks.  We did manage to polish off a bottle of makgeolli between all of us, even though Becca did not drink much and Kevin didn’t drink at all.  By which I mean that I drank about 2/3 of the makgeolli.  It’s fine.  After dinner, we went for coffee and Becca’s dad’s friend did meet us.  He was nice and it was really nice meeting a fatherly-type older gentleman here.  It’s too often you see the rude ahjusshis and forget that they are fathers and grandfathers, too.  It’s important not to forget about connections like that.  You never know when your son or daughter might be travelling around the world and be able to meet your colleague for a dinner.

There have been so many mornings of a Friday where I have seen the ahjummas gathering in their full-on hiking garb in the subway station and I wish that I could join them.  So I sent Becca to Gwanak mountain.  It’s so far been my favorite mountain that I’ve hiked in Korea.  I was quite jealous that she got to go and I didn’t.  That day, she found the bus stop like I instructed, followed the students and people in hiking gear right up to the base of the mountain.  She was adopted by some ahjusshi on the mountain who showed her the way to the summit and got bibimbap and makgeolli for her when they reached the bottom again.  Becca is a far more adept traveller than me, but she ends up having really cool experiences because of it.

Even though Kevin spent basically the whole night before telling us how busy he was with med school studies, he somehow agreed to go out with us, both when we went to Kodachaya in Hongdae, where we got really spicy kimchi fried rice that Becca could barely touch, later when we went to my friend MJ’s bar, and even later when we went for noraebang.  It wasn’t the long and crazy night I had promised, but it was enough.  Kevin rapped Beenzino and I was so impressed.  I’m glad he took the night out of studying to come and join us for a night out on the town.

Saturday morning was the departure date.  We had to get all the stuff back into Becca’s bag after everything had been strewn about my floor and caught a coffee and bagel at a nearby shop.  It was sad to see her go and my anxiety is such that even despite profuse assurances that she had a fun time, I still worry.  I’ll probably always have these worries.  But again, this is the kind of travelling that is just kind of go-with-the-flow and entirely attitude-dependent.  Becca is the sort to make a good time out of any situation and I wish I could adopt that attitude.

A toast to old friends in new places.