how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It’s become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it’s probably one worth savoring.

Pretty much ever since I was born (maybe a little bit after), I’ve always wanted to go to China. I had books about China as a kid; Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies. I’ve already planned to go to China when my contract here is up, but I reasoned that it has to be for a long time to justify the hassle and cost of getting the visa, and in order to see everything. I’d been hearing lots of good things about Taiwan, and I had a Taiwanese friend in my Korean class at Yonsei this summer. For Chuseok vacation, a historically long vacation in early October, I decided to go to Taiwan. (The only other place that remains on my list for this continent is Thailand, but I promised to go there with my younger brother when he graduates from uni.)

I had a very ambitious plan for getting there, attempting to knock out two of my goal-trips in one fell swoop. The plan was to take the bus down to Wando, on the southern coast, to visit a café whose owner followed me on Instagram all the way back when I was in America and I’d always intended to visit. From there, I would take the ferry to Jeju Island, check into a hostel, find a beach to chill on and dinner. The next morning, I would climb Hallasan, shower, ship out, and somehow fly out of Busan Airport the next morning at 8am. Busan and Wando are not close. Busan does not have a ferry to Jeju. There are already flaws in this plan, as you can see.

There was a second plan to try to salvage this weekend. I would take an early morning bus (or midnight bus) to Seoraksan so that I could reattempt the mountain, and then bus home that very day.

Neither of these plans were followed out. In actuality, the weekend was filled by Netflix and getting my house cleaned before leaving. I also started Inktober, which is a illustration challenge where the goal is to draw one new ink drawing each day for the month of October. I’d done it for the previous two years, and it just so happened that the first week of this Inktober fell during the time when I was in Taiwan. That night at 10pm, I headed for the Dong Seoul bus terminal. I had to bus still to Busan, because the plane ticket was booked from Busan. From the midnight bus, I hopped right into a taxi because it was pouring buckets. It was an expensive-ass taxi. The airport wasn’t even open yet, so a relatively big crowd of people were waiting outside for the airport to open up at 5am. The check-in counters opened a half-hour later, and soon after that I was sitting in a Holly’s coffee listening to One Direction (a good omen) and charging my phone. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to non-American airlines actually treating you right on a flight; even if it’s only a few hours, they feed you a full meal and have the option to watch movies.

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I landed in Taipei Monday, October 2nd and procured my transportation card to get into town with relative ease. On the way, I saw an advert of Kris Wu that kind of derailed my whole day, but continued on. I dropped my stuff at the hostel and took a wander around my “neighborhood” Ximen. I was starving, so I stopped in at the first café that caught my interest, a bear café which had those 3D lattes. I didn’t succeed in ordering one of those lattes, but I did get a Gudetama lemon tart and some milk tea. It didn’t do much to keep me from starving to death, though, so I kept wandering, eventually stumbling on a cool café in an old wheelhouse, Belle Epoch (it reminded me of a café in Sydney called The Grounds of Alexandria), where I had eggs benedict and a rose latte. I saw lots of street art, perhaps from the yearly Pow-Wow Taiwan street art festival. I wandered through cinema street too, gawking at the huge standalone cinemas (movie theaters in Korea are often located in shopping malls).

The nearby historical district Bopilao was closed that day, so I eventually found myself at Longshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the area. Temples in Taiwan (and I’m sure, by extension, China) are much more ornate than in Korea. Whereas most of the decorations in Korea are rough-hewn from wood, perhaps constructed more quickly, the temples in Taiwan are extremely detailed, finely carved and painted elements on every possible surface. Longshan Temple is huge and I’m sure I could have spent ages there. As it is, I always get nervous taking photos near temples (the same goes for churches, by the way) and never know what is acceptable to buy or offer for gifts to the altar, especially not being able to speak Chinese at all.

I trekked back, still trying to orient myself within my neighborhood and the city at large. After I checked in and napped, I had intended to go roughly north to a night market for dinner; however, I accidentally went south, thinking it was north, ending up right back down next to Longshan again, in the night market on Guangzhou street instead. Nothing looked appetizing, it was darker and scarier than the night markets in Hong Kong, and I was sick with a cold and also really lonely, full of despair and regret for taking the trip by myself. In defeat, I finally settled on a banh mi, picked up some toiletries at a Daiso-like store, and walked home to eat dinner. It was so spicy that in my sick state I could barely eat half of it. I was not optimistic for this trip, seeing as it had such a disappointing start.

I was partially able to be more optimistic about Tuesday, October 3rd, the next day, because I planned to fill it by going to the National Palace Museum. I ate the other half of the banh mi for breakfast, heading to Shilin station. At Shilin, I dallied in Starbucks while I pondered the bus situation to get to the museum. From the bus, we waited in a huge block-like formation of a line to get tickets. This is what confused me the most about Taiwan: there are so many things which require lines, and there are never the rope dividers. Everyone somehow wraps themselves into orderly folding lines and somehow there is minimal line-cutting. If that were in Korea or the United States, utter chaos would ensue. It was heartwarming to hear Korean people in that line who were somehow following that system without starting any fistfights.

Once in the museum, touted artwork to see was a small jade cabbage. We had to wait for even longer to get into the room to see it and other jade masterpieces. I concluded that the cabbage isn’t the most impressive thing in the museum, or even the most impressive jade work in that gallery; but I did my time so that I could see it. It was cool and everything, but me being 5’2”, I can’t see much when there’s a huge crowd around this tiny detailed object. So, no pictures were taken by me of the jade cabbage.

Other exhibits proved infinitely more interesting: a gallery detailing the history of ceramics, especially the different glazes and firing techniques favored in different eras, an exhibit showing not only the different Chinese scripts but also the evolution of the Chinese characters from their ancient pictograms to modern characters, landscape paintings, bronzes, and even two full living room/study furniture sets from one of the kings of ancient times. I was hoping for a museum least rivaling the size of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, but it was not nearly as big. Perhaps the other buildings of the complex might have added more, but overall it was not a massive museum. It was disproportionately crowded, though, and I had to force myself to calm down when people took ages to take fingerprint-covered-glass pictures of the artworks instead of, you know, buying the museum collection book. (No picture you take will be better than the museum’s own photos of the artwork.)

After finishing the indoor collection, I strolled through the museum garden, one of those well-manicured gardens with ponds, trees, and pavilions. The pavilions were important because it was threatening to rain the whole time I was in the garden. There were the most remarkable solid-wood stools and chairs; I could picture them in Korea with a bunch of old ahjusshis sat around and sharing makgeolli.

The museum café was on the way out, but when I went in to investigate everything I asked after they had run out of for the day. Beef noodles? Sold out. Coffee bubble tea? Sold out? Iced Americano? (Literally if you have water and espresso beans you can make this drink) Sold out. I headed back to Shilin with my stomach grumbling but generally satisfied with my museum adventure. I was well and truly starving by this time, and I found a pork wonton noodles place where I got a huge bowl of noodles which saved my life. (Not that I was able to read that, but rather I saw somebody with them through the window and it looked delicious). I also got some lotus seed paste mooncakes for dessert, a matcha coffee (this drink combination will always speak to my soul, it seems), and headed back to the hostel, feeling a little too smug.

Opening up my prize in the hostel kitchen/lounge area, I discovered that the mooncakes were not lotus seed paste after all (these ones, in my experience, are usually marked with sesame seeds on top), but pork floss instead. Abominable. I was pondering my dilemma (not wanting to eat the dreadful salty cakes anymore), when some lady began loudly chewing on something or other, making the decision crystal-clear for me. I went back into Ximending and found a bubble tea place. The Korean beauty products store next door was playing EXO and I remarked that this second day was infinitely better than the first. What changed? Maybe more planning, more sleep, and a better attitude going into it.

I woke up late on Wednesday, October 4th. I had scouted some places the night before in Ximending, and I found a rather popular noodle place (it’s apparently very famous among Hong Kong tourists) where you slurp up the noodles right there on the street. They were hot, salty, and delightful. Next door was a very aesthetically-pleasing ombre juice place. I never managed to get a good picture of the juice, but it was still satisfying to see and drink it.

I walked up Dihua Street, which was a traditional shopping street for lots of traditional medicine and crafts, and while it retains the air of the traditional markets, there are also lots of cool little single-product shops, (like one store solely dedicated to rice harvested in Taiwan??), new cafes, and boutiques. I was particularly taken by the basket and wood kitchenware shops. I thought about buying a mooncake mold, but I thought it would be far too heavy and too silly to buy it now. I’d rather buy something practical which I can use immediately, like some wooden plates, cups, or bowls. I thought about buying those little unfurling flower teas for my brother, but chickened out that day. I bought taro pastries and pineapple cakes for my co-teacher and stopped in a café called “Mimosa” (very on-brand for me) for a brown sugar latte and an “American cookie” (that’s a chocolate chip cookie, apparently). I’d read that coffee is a big deal in Taiwan, and that there were many cool little cafes to visit. While I thought it unlikely that there were more cool cafes than in Korea, I still dutifully went in any café that caught my fancy while in Taipei.

Also on Dihua Street was a museum called the Ama Museum, after the colloquial Chinese name for “mother.” I only went into the building because the entrance was through a café, and the café looked really cool. I “came for the coffee, stayed for the museum.” It was a museum dedicated to finding justice for Taiwanese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. It was a soberingly thought-provoking place, but remarkably well-done. According to the museum, the Japanese still have not apologized to the survivors of these atrocities, even though all of them constantly carry the heavy weight of what they were forced to endure. This also happened to many Korean women at that time; Japan hasn’t apologized to them, either.

From Dihua street, I headed to Dadaocheng Wharf, which was promised to be a scenic place. There were no inspiring vistas to be found, honestly not a beautiful river (I’m perhaps very biased by our own Han River), but I also did not have the benefit of visiting on a sunny day. Perhaps, in the right sun, it could be a nice place to take a run through and enjoy the breeze.

I stopped at a tiny shrine temple to draw some flowers and then walked on, eventually crossing a giant overpass to get to the other side of the wall. I found the Confucius temple and the Baoan temple, a buddhist temple, two neighboring temples with vastly different purposes. The Confucius temple was an auspicious place to visit at certain life events, like before starting a new job or graduations, but not necessarily a place of religion. Traditionally, it was more like a philosophical school. The Baoan Temple was a beautiful complex, with hundreds of offerings placed on the red tables, people burning prayers and incense, and praying to huge illuminated pillars studded with name placards that looked like dragon scales. After the temples, I took a breather in a café called Norma Café and got a delightful panini and an iced coffee and waited out the rain.

I ventured over to the Expo Park, which was first made for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but there was a nice food court and some boutiques, and it seemed like a good place for music festivals these days.

I headed down the line to Daan Park, which ultimately turned out not to be a wonderful place to visit on a rainy night. However, it was peaceful, so I wasn’t resentful that there wasn’t much to see. Nearby was the Taipei 101 Tower. As I entered the basement to investigate going to the observatory, the crush of people immediately overwhelmed me. Walking through the overly swanky mall, I mused that for NT$50 I could get 5 coffees or bowls of noodles instead, and that I’d rather get a view of the tower than from the tower. I decided against staying in the food court and shipped back to Ximen where it was less crowded and I knew the area better. I planned my Thursday adventures on the train back. I finally got the promised beef noodles, as well as chowing down on the taro cakes and bubble tea back at the hostel. These taro pastries were what I was hoping for from the horrific pork floss mooncakes the day before. In the small illuminated cube of my hostel bed, I listened to youtube and caught up on social media as I let sleep hit me.

On Thursday, October 5th, I woke up early because one of the roommates in the hostel had an annoying case of the sniffles and seemed to refuse to blow his nose under any circumstances. I ate some taro cakes for breakfast and proceeded to look for coffee. For whatever reason, all that I found was Starbucks because I’m an incorrigible American.

I took the train to Jiantan station and then proceeded to wait ages for a bus. The plan was to go to hike to the top of a mountain for a nice view and then go to the Yangmingshan hot springs, which were apparently free to whoever was willing to trek up there. Taiwan is also apparently famous for hot springs. I met two girls, an American and a German, Fiona and Susanna, on the bus, and we all somehow convinced each other that we should get off too early by mistake. We waited for the next bus, and from there took another shuttle up the mountain. From the shuttle bus, it’s still a bit of a walk to actually get to the hot springs. It’s always nice to have somebody to talk to. The craziest thing was that both of the friends had also come from Korea. Fiona, from Los Angeles, was not much of a hiker, so she continued straight onto the hot springs, while Susanna and I got a bit turned around but made it to the small waterfall that we wanted to see. I stopped for a water and ice cream (the Taiwanese strawberry shortcake ice cream is better than American, and that’s saying a lot).

After the hike, we felt like we really “earned” going to the hot springs. I had expected the hot springs to be similar to Japan (I didn’t go to any hot springs in Japan, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures), big ponds with pearly mineral water and mists floating all around. In reality, they were just very small indoor nude baths with coppery-colored water. It wasn’t even worth getting undressed for. Disappointed, I resolved to go to the famed hot spring area Beitou a few days later.

After another series of busses, we found ourselves back in Shilin, where there is apparently the most famous night market in Taipei. I finally got my xiaolongbao soup dumplings, along with lots of other food, like lamb skewers which Fiona swore by, a mysterious (but apparently famous) “cake within a cake”, popsicles, and iced tea. I intended to get the iconic Taiwanese roll ice cream, but none of the stands were open when I passed by. I took a snack run back at the hostel after my shower. The Doritos were so salty, but welcome after eating a year’s worth of Korea’s sweet Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by those and the green tea yogurt drink that I picked up. Good snacks all around.

The next day, Friday, October 6th, I woke up much later because Sniffles had checked out. Getting ready quickly, I headed to that Ximen noodle place, got another rose latte, and met with Susanna from the day before. We had planned to meet and go to Maokong, where there were apparently lots of tea houses in the area. Fiona was uninterested and had a very dogmatic list of aesthetic cafes and food-blogger-recommended restaurants she needed to check off. I personally find that kind of travel exhausting.

We took the train to the Taipei Zoo area, then the gondola from there. I was expecting the kind of soul-crushing long lines that we found at the Hong Kong gondola, so being able to get on the gondola within even a half hour of arriving was an unexpected blessing. I was expecting it to be far harder than it was.

Halfway up, there’s the impressive Zhinan Temple, so we stopped there. I “bought” a wish that you can write on a little gold tag with a red tassle. You’re supposed to hang it on one of the trees or bushes around the temple. I stopped to sketch a particularly scenic pavilion and take a rubbing (Taiwan has old-school kinds of souvenirs), then got back on the gondola. There was this delightful ubiquitous black tea and green tea ice cream swirl, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it. It was delicious! Susanna got a grass jelly tea, which doesn’t taste terrible, but would never be something I would select from a menu.

The goal was to find a cool teahouse with a good view. It was hard to find one that had both a decent view but wasn’t backbreakingly expensive. I could tell Susanna was getting frustrated with me, but I wasn’t looking to spend $300 on a hot tea ceremony on a hot day. Finally we found a place that seemed to be kind of famous and had a great view, but more importantly had iced tea and dishes that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. We got tea fried rice, tea fried egg, something called “nest fern” salad, and iced tea. I made the mistake of assuming that Susanna was with me for the day, but when I wanted to stop at some little shed of a café on the way back, she continued back to Taipei without me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she had no reason to stick with me after that.

I returned to the hostel for a nap, Doritos, and more tea, briefly emerged for beef noodles and bubble tea, then went back to do laundry and read. It’s worth noting that, while the caffeine in tea usually doesn’t have any effect on me, on that day I drank enough tea to keep me up and buzzing late into the night.

Saturday, October 7th was my last full day in Taiwan. I had those HK-famous noodles and juice mix for breakfast and got the train to Xinbeitou. The Beitou area is warm and misty, as if the ground itself is beckoning you into the hot springs. The trees themselves bend and sway down to the ground like melted candles and the water in the stream seems to have an otherworldly color. My goal was the Longnaitang hot springs, which were the cheapest but also the oldest. Many hot springs are in more upscale hotels located in the area, but I was going for authenticity. Longnaitan hotsprings were actually so inconspicuous that I initially walked right past them. It was a nude bath and I forgot to bring soap to wash up before, and I spent all the time in the “cold” (45C) tub, never actually succeeding in getting into the hotter tub. It was relaxing, but not all that exciting. The tubs weren’t very big, and there’s not much place to go, unlike in the Korean jjimjilbang, where you can wander among the rooms for hours.

I had Taiwanese McDonald’s for lunch, too starving to find any place else, then headed back to the city proper. I “hiked” up Xiangshan, “Elephant Mountain,” to get a good view of the city and the nearby Taipei 101 Tower. I was glad I expended a little sweat for the much better view from there. The walk was only about 20 minutes straight up a series of stairs.

I finally visited Bopilao district after that. At one point it was a school, and the better part of the building seemed to tell about the history of Taiwan’s school system. It was a really cool area architecturally and aesthetically speaking, which is why I’d wanted to go inside originally. I went a little “stamp crazy” on this day. stopped at a café called Dante Café on the way back. I took a nap in the hostel and then went to that café that I’d been intending to go to all week, which turned out to be called “Now Coffee.” (The name of the café on the outside was only written in Chinese, but it looked like some hipster aesthetic kind of café that would serve a good coffee. I was not wrong). I got beef noodle-flavored ramen from the corner store, read, and chilled. The awesome ramen just further underscored how shitty ramen is in the United States and how wonderful it is, well, everywhere else.

Sunday, October 8th was my last day in Taiwan. There was apparently a beef noodles and jaozi dumplings place directly under my hostel, that I never went to for one reason or another, so I went there for breakfast. I got too ambitious and ordered too much, but it was all delicious. At the end, I told the ahjumma running the store 감사합니다, or thank you in Korean, as if that was my brain trying to tell me, “It’s time to go home.” I walked back up to Dihua Street for gifts, buying wooden cups, dried mango, tea accoutrements, and Gudetama mooncakes. I returned to my hostel for the last time to rearrange myself and then headed to the airport.

Lots of bad things happened on my way out of the Taipei airport: I went to the wrong terminal. I didn’t pay attention to which airline was at which terminal, so I had to take the long route to the other, costing me precious minutes when I was on a tight enough schedule to begin with. At check-in, they demanded to see my full itinerary, so even though I had everything written down nicely: flight numbers, airlines, times, and all—and they should’ve be able to look this up with my passport—they demanded to see the actual email, which was buried deep under months of other emails. I couldn’t get my phone to connect to the airport wifi no matter what I tried, and nearly had a crying breakdown over it, finally resulting in my opening up my data in order to download the email so I could show them. I believe that 5 or so minutes on data from another country might have cost me up to $40 USD but I’m not sure. It was not pretty, and not worth it.

I ran to the gate, thinking I had less than 10 minutes to get there until the gate closed. I arrived to a long line which didn’t move for more than 30 minutes. I needn’t have run, and standing in the line was exhausting. At least they fed us on this flight, because I didn’t eat at all in Nanjing.

The third shitty part of this returning-home saga was at Nanjing. I had originally planned to stay in the city, even booked a hostel if I could manage it. My layover was 12 hours, so it was technically possible. But I was warned by my friend that the hassle in procuring the visa and using the transport would make even getting in and out of the airport not worth it. That being said, since I didn’t ever leave the confines of the airport, logic dictates that the “visa” process should be easy, right? Nope. I was shuttled to various desks by scary-looking Chinese TSA/police-like guys for about half an hour, just to receive a scary-looking giant stamp in my passport saying that I was indeed allowed to stay the night in the airport. But hey, at least this visa was free.

I stayed up reading, first just on the floor next to a wall outlet so that I could charge my phone (until the lights turned off), and then in the seeming waiting-area as more and more of the airport shut down. At around 2am, new flights stopped arriving, so at that point it became clear that everyone there at that time was there until morning. At around 3am, I got too sleepy to keep my eyes open, and curled up in a massage chair to catch some Zs. This was hard with the angry little massage fixtures digging into my spine and every 15 minutes the chair yelling at the sleeping people in Chinese to put more money into the chair if they wanted to operate it. It wasn’t a comfortable night, but I felt very backpacker-y. Maybe it was foreshadowing to my China trip this year. That night, I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 and also counted, inaccurately, how many times Vonnegut uses the words “so it goes” in that story.

The airport opened up again a few hours later, Monday, October 9th, maybe around 5 or 6. It was strange that on this trip I witnessed two different instances of closed airports starting up for the day in two different countries. I may be happy if I never have to again, but as they say, “It was a moment.”

 

I think I benefited so much from that trip. I learned to be more okay spending time on my own, more okay to look like an idiot, and became even better at asking help when I need it or following others’ leads. I also learned how to read small phrases in Chinese so that I wouldn’t starve to death, things like “noodles,” “meat,” “coffee,” or “dumplings.” Knowing those, as well as memorizing the Chinese characters for my destinations each day proved to be invaluable. I think it was good preparation for the China trip, which I’m starting to prepare for now that we’ve reached the new year. It’s scary to think that this trip I’ve been looking forward to for almost my whole life is approaching in only a few months. I hope I can make the most of it, as RuPaul says, “and don’t fuck it up.”

 

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fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.

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.

 

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

I’ve gotten a bunch of worried comments from various adults in my life expressing their concern about this incident, so I’ve got to set the record straight.

Let me paint you a scene: young Simba has just returned after being rescued from the elephant graveyard that he has expressly been forbidden going to. His uncle (who definitely does not have his best interests at heart) was the one who told him about the elephant graveyard, so it’s really trusting one grown-up’s word over another. In tears, Simba explains to his father, Mufasa, “I was just trying to be brave like you!”

Mufasa replies, “I’m only brave when I have to be.  Simba…  Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.”

I use this analogy all the time to illustrate what I call the “Simba Complex.” I didn’t invent this idea, but I use it quite often to describe my boneheaded approach to life. When adults or other people have your best interests at heart and then you kind of… disregard that because you decide it doesn’t apply to you. This is one of the less-than-savory parts of my personality. I’m not proud of it. But I’m here today to say that it’s not 100% a bad thing, especially when traveling.

I got a lot of comments saying that the Daoist cult experience was “scary,” that it could have ended badly. I’m not dumb. I read articles all the time of women getting assaulted, killed, or mugged. It could happen to anyone. I’m not an entirely dumb, helpless child out in the world (contrary to what my stories may make it seem like.) It may seem like I get into crazy situations all the time, but I tell these stories (the getting-rescued-by-the-Korean-army story also comes to mind) not to illustrate their scary nature but rather because I’m a storyteller. I like to tell these stories to show how crazy and unpredictable this life is, not how frightening and tragic it can be. For those kind of stories, turn on your TV set or log on to twitter.

When traveling, of course, it is important to have a healthy amount of skepticism. Have your wits about you, one hand always on your bag, and eyes always looking around. You should be wary of talking to strangers. I understand this. But when you are traveling or living in a city you weren’t born in, your life will be considerably duller. How many of the best stories are made from chance encounters? How many amazing friends can you make that were once strangers? How many once-in-a-lifetime experiences can be made when you say “yes?” How dull of a trip to Vietnam would I have had if I didn’t take chances and go with my gut?

What I’m trying to say is, there’s room for both. If you follow your parents’ advice to a T and never talk to a single stranger, plan the ever-living hell out of your trip to leave no room for chance encounters and improvisation, or never leave your comfort zone, you will be safer. You can eliminate more of the variables from your experience. You can never control all of your experience, though. You can’t guarantee total safety. So improvise, talk to strangers, go off the grid and off-schedule, within reason. There’s a balance to be found. I haven’t really found it yet. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, my time is yet to come.

A toast to being dumb and lucky.

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.