A Year in Seoul - video by Maddy

Friday, September 25, 2009

From my sixth grade text book...

Cultural Gestures:

Thumbs Up

It means "ok", "number one", "president" (???), "best" etc.

Thumbs Down

It means "negation", "objection", "kill", etc.

Not exactly how I'd put it, but...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Summer Camp Pics I Never Posted

The kids felt this poor dog needed a mohawk
The dog definitely looks happy about it.

My 3rd graders sponge painting at school camp

My City Summer Camp kids brought me a present. Teacher really loved it...

View from my kitchen at City Summer Camp

Funny Face Sandwich Day!!

Proud Student- They all wanted a picture with their sandwiches

Instructions: Draw an Under the Sea scene

My 3rd graders are pretty creative

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Swine Flu Mania

Swine flu has long faded from World headlines, but the hysteria is alive and well in Korea. The day after returning home from my two week vacation, I sat in bed expecting to begin work the next morning, a Friday. I received a call from my co teacher, however, informing me that because I had left the country my vice-principal was afraid I'd caught swine flu. I needed to stay home for the next week because "symptoms take seven days" to appear. An extra week's paid vacation?? Okay! See you next Friday...

Upon returning to school I discovered that all the students were having their temperatures checked daily. In addition, all field trips and festivals had been postponed or canceled. I was advised by my school to "just stay in your apartment" all weekend (Ha!) and to avoid Emart. I just smiled and nodded, as I find this the easiest response to anything ridiculous my school asks of me.

Face masks are back out in full force and today I noticed the addition of large machines in the hallways labeled "Hand Washing" in English. They are the size of small refrigerators but I'm pretty sure all they do is spray hand sanitizer. I didn't test them because I am fervently against hand sanitizer as a means of hygiene. I really resent how this epidemic is going to make people overdoes on anti-bacterials, leading to the evolution of antibody resistant super germs that are going to make me sick in the future.

And, no, that's not paranoia... that's just science.
UPDATE: I have also learned that there are in fact 6 steps to properly washing your hands. Who knew it could be so complicated? My hands have never actually been clean before today...
Also, the government has decided to abandon the quarantine policy. They finally realized its completely ineffectual. It was great while it lasted, but some of us worried it would make our schools try to prevent us from traveling so I'm glad they've reconsidered.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thailand Part 6: Koh Phi Phi

Paradise on the horizon

Ferry to Koh Phi Phi after a long night of travel

Thai Boats in crystal clear water

view from the beach

a walk on the beach

Thai boxing at the Reggae Bar

Sunset over Bangkok

Reluctantly, we left Koh Phangan and headed by bus to Krabi port and then by ferry toward the final leg of our journey: a short three night stay on Koh Phi Phi.

Koh Phi Phi, located on Thailand's southwest coast, is most famous as the filming location for the movie The Beach. With its limestone cliffs, coral reefs and white sandy beaches, Phi Phi is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. In fact, its stunning natural landscape is protected by National Park status. Phi Phi's popularity among travelers has been rising during the past decade. During the 2004 Tsunami, however, the island was devastated. Reconstruction is nearly complete although still underway and evidence of the tsunami's physical and emotional aftermath is scattered over the island. It is once again a buzzing tourist destination, however.
Because of its location on Thailand's west coast, the rainy season last a bit longer on Phi Phi, so we experienced some wet weather. We arrived, however, to clear skies, shimmering turquoise seas and brightly painted huts and fishing boats. It was a true tropical paradise that completely lived up to its name. A fitting end to an amazing trip.
We expected Koh Phi Phi to be full of pricey resorts and upscale tourists, but instead we found a vibrant backpacking culture. We fit right in, picking up where we'd left off in Koh Phangan and meeting some interesting people to pass the time with. When it rained we relaxed in our bungalow and when the sun shone we sat by the sea with a Singha. Life was good for the next few nights, but everything comes to an end eventually.
We made our way back to Bangkok without sadness, however. The trip had been everything I could have asked for and I was ready to return to my home and my friends in Seoul. After a whirlwind night in Bangkok where I managed to get all of my money, cards, and documents stolen and then recovered, I hopped my flight home. I'm halfway through my contract now, and I'm ready to start part 2 (plus the one year extension I plan to add after that...)

Thailand Part 5: Sak Yant

In the midst of it all

Om and his handy work

My beautiful new tattoo

close up

Sak Yant is a form of sacred tattooing practiced in Thailand. They are normally tattooed by Buddhist monks and the designs date back to Ankgor times (800-1200 A.D.) when they were received by masters through visions. The tattoos are sutras made up of writing and geometric patterns and are meant to protect those bearing them from bodily or spiritual harm. Thus they have been very popular among the military and muay thai fighters.

The tattoos are applied using a bamboo rod, a technique which is about 3,000 years old. A fine needle is attached to the rod and then tapped into the skin. Because the skin is punctured and not torn as it is with a gun tattoo, the healing process is quite different. Pain is reduced and there is no bleeding or scabbing. The entire healing process only takes about four days and there is no need to cover the tattoo or avoid the sun or sea. Another benefit is the color tends to stay strong much longer with a bamboo tattoo.

I decided that I wanted one six months ago during my first visit to Thailand. It's hard to explain but there is something special about the connection one develops with this country. By my last count I've been to 17 countries, some that I have loved very deeply, but I have never felt such a deep bond between traveler and place. The rest of the world seems to melt away while you are there. There is no yesterday or tomorrow, no sense of urgency or stress. Life feels simple, all you need is a nice place to rest, a bit of shade, and some good food to eat. The needs and desires of everyday life, particularly for the material, fade into the background. Time passes only with the rising and setting sun.

I wanted to keep a small piece of that feeling with me, to remember who I am when it's all stripped away. I loved the beauty of the art and I wanted it all to be a part of me. So after discussing it with Om, our tattoo artist and finding the perfect design for me, I felt completely confident. I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out.

Most people want to know if it hurt. It didn't. It was more of an annoying "quit poking me with that needle for an hour" sensation. The placement of my tattoo was also not in a sensitive area (unlike Maddy who got one on her side, right over her rib cage). The discomfort was over in under an hour anyway, and it felt like a rite of passage.

My tattoo is supposed to bring harmony, safety and luck to me and those closest to me. I don't believe that anything in this world can protect you from all harm, nor would I want complete immunity, but so far my tattoo seems to be working its magic. It helps me remember, it protects me from lives I don't want.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thailand Part 4: Koh Phangan

Party time

Max! The Shaman

Our little piece of heaven

Haad Rin Beach

The view from our porch

Our favorite hangout

Koh Phangan is a larger island south of Koh Tao. Its mainly known for its Full Moon Parties at Haad Rin Beach. Then there's the Half Moon Parties, Black Moon Parties... basically there are a lot of parties. Predictably, the feel is very different from Koh Tao, and interestingly the look is quite different as well.

We weren't going to be in Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party, but we wanted to stay at the beach where it all went down anyway. We were hungry and tired so we stopped at the first few bungalows that we saw. Fortuitously, they were all out of our price range or fully booked. Feeling a bit irritated, we trekked up the famed Mellow Mountain and walked straight into our own paradise.

High on a rocky cliff side overlooking the infinite turquoise sea and white sand beach sat our new home, a tidy little bungalow complete with wrap around porch, hammock and refreshing ocean breeze, all for the lovely price of $3 a night each. When the man showed it to us and asked if it was alright, I couldn't help but cry, "I'm so happy!" My outburst and the dreamy look on my face seemed to startle him a bit, but it didn't matter, I'd found heaven.

We spent the next week lost in a haze of happiness shuttling between our bed, the hammock, the beach, and our favorite restaurant where we could get green curry, mango lassis, and fried bananas while watching Family Guy. We never wanted to leave and as the days faded in and out we wavered on our plans to get to Koh Phi Phi. We heard it was the most beautiful spot in all of Thailand, but life was just so good.

Not to mention the new friends we had made on our mountain paradise. Max, a 38 year old Thai guy who owned the Mountain Bar conveniently located a few flights down from us had become our new buddy. He was a good friend to have, interesting, funny and always willing to share. He invited us to hang out with his friends on his birthday and we passed a crazy night taking shots in the bar while he blatantly ignored his customers. Max was living the dream. Spending all day and night chilling out on the mountainside. We would regularly find him fast asleep on mats in the bar when we finally left our bungalow around noon each day.

While his dream would continue, we knew ours wouldn't last forever. Max wouldn't give me a job in the bar and our trip back to Seoul was looming ahead. It was time to move on and see what all the fuss with Koh Phi Phi was about... but not before a little stop in a bamboo tattoo parlor...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thailand Part 3: Koh Tao

in our bungalow

Sunset with Thai fishing boats

Enjoying the view and some curry at a beach bar

morning in Koh Tao

I was happy to be able to spend a night in Koh Tao and get a feel for the island. The smallest of the trio it makes up with Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, Koh Tao appears the most raw and natural of the three. Thin bands of yellow sand ring the coastlines, separating the emerald ocean from the rugged tropical forest by mere yards. Bungalows and beach bars have gradually overtaken the edges of the forest, while a bustling town and snaking roads have filled in the interior.

About 21 square kilometers in size, the island was given its name, meaning Turtle Island, because of its shape. It is, coincidentally, also a breeding ground for several species of turtle. The island's main draw is diving, however, and everywhere you go you overhear people discussing the day's diving conditions.

I didn't do any diving on my trip, but I would like to return to Koh Tao one day to get my certification. The courses are inexpensive and the setting is perfect. I would love to get a glimpse of the whale sharks silently roaming offshore. They are a relatively common sight in the surrounding waters.

After a night out that ended with me asleep on the beach while Maddy talked with the friends she had made over the past week, we hopped a ferry back to Koh Phangan. Koh Tao had a laid back, natural vibe, but I was ready for the excitement of the larger island. Watching my first taste of the islands recede against the horizon, I felt completely at ease. We had no plans or obligations for the rest of our trip and certainly no idea we'd be spending the better part of the next week lost in paradise. ..

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thailand Part 2: Moving South

My route to Koh Tao... went to Surat Thani when I could've just gone to Chumphon, but no harm done. It was a good trip.

A view of Bangkok

View from the train as the sun rose

Ferry to the islands

First glimpse of paradise

On the train to Suratthani I was seated across from a handsome Iranian muay thai fighter named Amil. I quickly discovered he was quite the talker, and I learned all about his life over a delicious Thai dinner that he ordered for us.

He had been living, working and fighting in Bangkok for eight years now, and although he didn't say it, I got the impression that he's very good at what he does. I've always found it interesting that all of the boxers I have ever met are the gentlest people outside of the ring. Not only did he have great stories to tell, but he was amazingly curteous to everyone around him. He told me he had just been accepted as a contestant on The Contender Asia and he hoped to use the TV program to help bridge the divide between Iranians and Americans. His goal was to fight an American and knock him out... not because he hates Americans, but because doing so would ensure the American fighter would invite him to the U.S. for a rematch. Amil wanted to befriend the American after the fight and show the world that there could be peace between members of both countries.

He told me he was extremely happy to be having dinner with an American and promised he was going to mention our meal on the show. I'm going to have to watch it to see if he really meant it. He also talked about his family for a while. He told me his mother was learning English and that she wanted to come to Thailand to see him, even though he goes home a few times a year. When I mentioned I was an English teacher he immediately took out his phone and said he was going to call his mother. I thought it was a joke until he handed me the phone and a sweet woman with surprisingly good English began talking. Life is so strangely wonderful sometimes. I never imagined that I'd be sitting across from a professional fighter on a train through Thailand talking on the phone with a woman in Iran. I even have an invitation to visit their home. I might have to take her up on it sometime, although Amil advises I put it off a few years.

I began to grow very tired at around 11 pm, so I climbed into bed and slept soundly until we arrived at the station at 6 am. From there we took a bus to the ferry port.
Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan are islands off the southeast coast of Thailand that are popular among backpackers for their diving, parties and close proximity to one another. Island hopping is easy, and travelers rarely visit just one of the islands. Each has its own appeal and vibe, however, attracting a slightly different set with its unique scenery and atmosphere.
I was supposed to meet Maddy and Andrew in Koh Phangan and was going to arrive at about noon. It was a beautiful day and the ocean was calm so I enjoyed the ride staring out into paradise under the hot afternoon sun. Amil got off at Koh Samui, where he was meeting a fellow fighter to do some training. We said goodbye and I promised to watch him on the Contender when it aired in late fall.

I arrived in Koh Phangan and headed to an Internet cafe. When I checked my email, however, I discovered a message from Maddy saying that she and Andrew had not left Kho Tao as planned and wouldn't be able to meet me until the following day. By this point I was a little burned out on traveling solo, so I decided, what the hell? I'll take the two hour ferry ride to Kho Tao and find them. I had the name of their bungalows, and I figured they couldn't be that hard to track down. This meant, however, that I had done a complete circle of the islands. Kho Tao is the farthest to the north of a little group of islands and I could have taken a shorter train trip and saved a bunch of time.... oh well, it was a good trip and I wouldn't have changed it.
I arrived in Kho Tao around 3 o'clock and headed to their bungalows. I figured I would find Maddy's towel hanging on the front porch if they weren't down by the beach and that's exactly what happened. They weren't there so I decided to wait down by the ocean until they came back. The water was crystal clear, the island was gorgeous, and I couldn't have been in a better mood. Five minutes after I'd started swimming I saw Maddy and Andrew walking up the beach. Of course I decided to creep up on them as awkwardly as possible then run at them from the ocean. We had a glorious reunion as if we hadn't seen each other in years rather than days and caught each other up on our adventures.
Now that we were back together, things were about to get interesting...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thailand Part 1: Solo in Bangkok

My very first Samsong bucket in Thailand (well this trip anyway)
with Dan

It's so true... beverage cart on Khaosan Road

My fabulous driver and his tuk tuk

The Golden Buddha

I haven't been able to write a thing. I've literally done nothing for a week during my quarantine, but I just couldn't write. There is too much to say. I think I am going to have to write a series of shorter posts so that I don't feel overwhelmed.

Let's start with that incredible feeling on my last day of summer camp. My kids got away with everything that day because I was already sipping buckets with Maddy on a tropical island in my mind. After camp, I booked it home to finish getting ready and headed off to the airport to begin the first leg of my epic journey: solo in Bangkok.

My original plan was to get into BKK at around 1 am and meet up with some friends and spend the night with them. Well, those plans changed when I came out of immigration at 4 am and found out the airport was two hours from their apartment. Instead, I did the only rational thing, which was to go to Khaosan road and drink to avoid paying for a hotel room.

My first lungful of the stench of Bangkok was glorious. Cockroaches scuttered on the sidewalks, farangs and Thais wandered about drunkenly, and I felt at home! The streets were pretty empty by this point, so I parked myself at a nice outdoor patio and ordered a Singha... aaaah Thai beer crushes shitty Korean beer any day of the week.

I really enjoy traveling alone because it is basically like walking around with a sign that says "I want to be friends with you!!!!" Within two minutes I was taking tequila shots with some really funny British guys who were sitting at the table next to me. It was 5 am and we were having a blast. All I could think was, "It's day one, the adventure is beginning... AND I'M GETTING PAID FOR THIS!"

I separated from the boys at about 9 and went to find some breakfast... coffee, fresh fruit and yogurt. Beautiful. I decided to spring for an individual room because I was dreaming of a nice hot shower and a rest. The first hotel that would let me check in at 10 became my new home. Then, after my shower I wandered Khaosan and took in the chaos. After about 80 tuk tuk drivers offered me a ride (a tuk tuk is a little taxi that is kind of like a tripod motorbike... love them!) I decided a little drive around would be nice. I found a nice guy who was going to take me to a few temples for an hour or two for the steep price of 40 baht ($1).

I saw some beautiful temples and the driver was really cool, plus I just like driving around the city catching a breeze and escaping the heat. You never escape the hustle in Bangkok though and I was taken to two tourist agencies where I had to make up fake questions so my driver could get a free gas card. Then we stopped by to see his "friend" at a tailor shop. If you have ever been to Bangkok you know it is just brimming with people trying to custom make clothes for you. If you are in the market, its amazing - great clothes for real cheap. If you aren't, it's just kind of annoying. Eventually we made it back to Khaosan, however, where I vastly overpaid my adorable driver and promptly ran into my new British friends in the street.

So, it was off for a bite to eat and a few beers, after which we snuck into a rooftop pool and drank fresh coconut juice while we had a swim. Later on I met up with some friends I had met last time I was in Thailand and we went out for some drinks and dancing at Gulliver's. They're teachers in Bangkok, so the next day I went to hang out at one of their apartments to have a relaxing day before my journey south. I was shocked at how nice their places were. They live about an hour north of the city and we had a good laugh when all the Thai people in the neighborhood were pointing and staring at me. I don't think they get many blond farang women in that part of town.

I took a taxi to the train station in the evening and found out I could get a spot on a sleeper... but it was going to leave in two minutes. An incredibly competent (thank you thank you) information lady dragged me to the ticket office, got my tickets, and ran with me to the train where I hopped on the last car with about 30 seconds to spare. Mission accomplished, I was on my way south to find Maddy and her friend from home, Andrew. Paradise awaits, as does the rest of this story...