Monday, February 27, 2012

My Favorite Place in the World

One of the hardest questions any traveler gets asked is, "What was your favorite place?"

My first time out of my native country was with the Semester at Sea program in college, where I visited 10 countries in 100 days. Every country was so different and offered commendable, praiseworthy, and completely unique experiences. I truly loved every country but always got asked the same troublesome question: "What was your favorite place?"

How could I pick just one?!! Every place was so jaw droppingly different from home. How could I compare the time I saw a family of elephants walking along a mountain range in the twilight of South Africa's wilderness with the time my friends and I let our drivers have a break while we raced each other and peddled them to our destination in Burma?

As much as I tried to explain this over and over, it seemed that few people understood where I was coming from. Either that, or they just were trying to be nice and weren't really looking for an hour long speech about how every country is amazing in its own right.

I soon thought of a suitable answer to this ceaseless inquiry that I would spout off from memory whenever someone posed it to me. That way, I didn't get annoyed and angry when people were trying to be nice to me and hear about my trip. It went something along the lines of, "Oh, that's such a hard question! I loved them all....but if I had to pick a place I could see myself living in, I would say South Africa or Japan." Ugh, just typing that made me bored.

More than a few years later, I now have a real answer for this question. When people ask me what my favorite place in the wold is, I say "Monet's garden!" with a gracious smile.

Visiting Monet's house is like a dream. It's the most beautiful place in the world. Now when I get asked this horrendously tedious question, I instantly get reminded of it's beauty and grace and instantly forget my frustrations. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Day in Tuscany

One summer when I was in college, I spent a few weeks living on the island of Corsica. It was not the best of experiences, actually it might have been my worst time abroad, ever, but it was an experience nonetheless. One of the best parts of that time was being able to see Italy for the first time.

I took the ferry from Corsica to Livorno. Livorno is a little sea town with nothing particularly amazing about it. I visited a couple old Catholic churches and saw some old statues guarding barren piazzas. My favorite part of this sleepy town was the few canals it had. It was wandering along these waterways that I found this rendition of, what I can only assume to be, the boogeyman.

hide yo' kids
Another small treasure of Livorno was the very yummy pizza I ate at a little place on the other side of the piazza from my hotel. The pizza oven was a commanding view inside the restaurant and took up quite a bit of room. I could see the pizza chefs sliding out pizza after pizza while I sipped on my carafe of red wine. It was so good I ate there twice and I only stayed in Livorno one night!

view from my hotel room in Livorno
The next morning I took the train to Pisa. While riding the train, I met a very nice gentleman from Tunisia who spoke French, Italian, and English. At the time, I'd never even thought about the tiny African nation. In fact, I didn't really know where it was exactly but now looking back, I wonder if he played any part in the uprising that started a revolution.

graffitied train in Italy
I arrived in Pisa early in the afternoon and couldn't check into my modest hotel until late in the afternoon. I decided to wander around the city while always walking in the general direction of the hotel. I went shopping for a while along the beautifully paved streets. What a difference Pisa was compared to Livorno! Just a short train ride away and here were beautifully renovated old buildings, pedestrian streets lined with fancy shops, and pots of flowers everywhere.

A summer storm came along and I stopped at a little restaurant to eat lunch while I waited for it to pass. Although the rain didn't let up after over an hour, I decided it was time to find the hotel and ask if I could check in early to free myself from my luggage. Thankfully, I had brought an umbrella but it was summer so I was wearing a dress and sandals. This is when I got lost, had a break down, and got my faith in humanity revitalized, all in less than an hour.

I was trying to stay dry, hold onto my luggage (which was an abominable bag I've since gotten rid of), look at a map, and navigate an ancient city definitely not built in a grid like pattern. I was alone and feeling very down. Speaking zero Italian, I tried to stop every person who looked like they spoke English. No one had heard of my hotel. I was getting desperate and trying not to cry when I heard some Americans talking a covered but open air restaurant. I must have looked really pathetic because they instantly invited me to join them and bought me a drink with the promise that they'd help me find my hotel once I've calmed down and the rain stopped.

It's was a kindness I'll never forget. Just them telling me that it would be okay was immensely reassuring. It turned out they were from California too, and after talking for a bit I was feeling so much better. Not only did I finally have someone to talk to but I also had a whole day of fun planned with them by the time the rain stopped. We found my pitiful hotel down a dark alley. I checked in and dumped my bags quickly before heading back out to explore with my new found friends.

We visited the leaning tower, of course. Why else go to Pisa? My friends had rented a car and planned on driving to a fortress town for the late afternoon and dinner. I was welcomed along and so we drove through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to a small town crammed onto an even smaller mountain. The town was magical, like something straight out of a fairytale, but what I remember most was the drive, for it was even more majestic. It was everything you would think the Italian countryside should look like. There was golden sunshine, rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves, grape vines for days, tiny villages, and waves of gleaming grasses swaying in the wind. I sat in the car gazing out the window, so thankful for the generosity of strangers and the beautiful world around me.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Say it Like it is, Korean Style

Koreans are not scared to tell you that you are ugly, fat, or that you look really sick. It's not to say that Koreans aren't nice. They are some of the kindest people I've encountered. They will usually follow up that "you look really sick" statement with a thoughtful, "Are you okay?"

Why don't they skirt around the truth? They simply don't consider it rude to tell a friend something that is true. Actually, it's expected of a good friend to tell you the truth about your physical appearance. When discussing the issue with some of my lovely Korean co-workers, one said, "I would be angry if my friends didn't tell me I was getting fat." To which another said, "That's love!" 

Their bluntness can be off putting when you're not expecting it. I laughed once because something was so straight forward and rude by American standards and it was just stated casually by one of my Korean friends. It totally caught me off guard and made me think--two things that always happen when living or traveling abroad.

Being forced to compare your culture against another is all part of the experience. Why do we do the things we do? This question is rarely addressed while living in your native country day to day but is examined practically every day while on the road. It's what makes travel so great. Travel makes you question not only all the new experiences and customs around you, but also all the "normal" things you do.  

Travel gives you a unique perspective into your own life. Is shaking hands better than bowing? Are forks better than chop sticks? Should we be more direct and less comforting towards our friends' physical appearance?

All are questions I never thought twice about before, but now that I'm living in a different culture, they come up frequently. Examining your life through the eyes of a foreigner will make you not only more open minded, but more compassionate, patient, and understanding towards everyone around you both at home and while traveling.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to tell any of my friends, "You're getting fat; don't eat that cookie in your hand," but at least I won't be offended if a Korean friend says it to me. Maybe I'll actually hug them because then I know we're besties.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Odongdo - A Day Trip to Yeosu

Over the Lunar New Year holiday, we took a day trip to the coastal city of Yeosu. It's only about 25 minutes on the train from Suncheon and is the home of a lot of islands both big and small as well as the next World Expo. We heard from our coworkers about a great little island to visit that you can walk out to on a bridge and decided to check it out. It's called Odongdo or Odong Island.

Upon walking out of the train station, you are cast immediately into the expo area. This will be great once the expo is open but kinda sucked for us because we had to walk all the way around it on some sketchy will-be-sidewalks-one-day paths to get to our destination. We took a short cut through the construction site and got told, very politely, that it was dangerous and we had to get out. The walk seemed to take forever but the buildings under construction look like they're going to be very cool. Spencer was very worried about their upcoming deadline of opening day, May 12, 2012, and kept saying, "The buildings aren't even finished!"

About thirty minutes later, we finally got to the bridge. The ocean was deep blue, gorgeous, and dotted with islands in the distance. It was a very nice winter day, perfect for a stroll.

The island is very small and easy to navigate via a series of wooden pathways. There is a lighthouse, a couple snack shops, at least one souvenir store (we only went in one, there might have been more), a cave, and many places to head down to the rocks to be near the water.

The walking paths are very nice.

our first view of the lighthouse

Cave of Dragon

There were a few men fishing from the rocks. Spencer took this picture and I absolutely love it.

There is a little museum and you can go to the top of the lighthouse but, sadly, both were closed the day we visited. The car belongs to the person who lives on the island to run the lighthouse and their house is to the left.

There were some great old trees, spritely bushes, bamboo...
...and one very silly tree

Monday, February 13, 2012

2011 Recap Photo Extravaganza!

 The adventures of 2011 began with our wedding on May 21st in Modesto, California. It seemed like the first half of the year was just leading up to this moment.

Next came our amazing three week honeymoon in Belize.

During our stay in Belize, we took a day trip to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. 

We got home from our honeymoon and two weeks later, moved to South Korea.

After only a month in Korea, we had our first week long vacation, which we spent in Hong Kong.

It's a gorgeous city.

We started exploring our surroundings.

Jinju Lantern Festival

walking around Suncheon


Took the fast train to the big city.

Katie came to visit us for Christmas and we had such fun.

We took our second week long vacation in Japan. 

We brought in the new year in Tokyo. 

Here's to another year of enjoying the ride while exploring the world! Happy 2012 my friends!!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Perfect Too Much Pressure?

Korean elementary students study more than I did in college. They go to school all day and then get bused around all afternoon to various private schools called "academies." I have one student who attends two different English academies, piano academy, gumdo (Korean traditional fencing) academy, Chinese academy, history academy, math academy, and study academy (a quiet study room). He gets home about 9 or 10pm every night, only to eat dinner, do his homework, and go to bed.

Can you imagine the look on an American child's face at the thought of all that learning?? It's literally unheard of back home...and academies aren't like tutoring in America, where kids get help with their homework from public school. Academies have their own lessons, homework, and expectations. Kids often have multiple backpacks, one for school and one for each academy. 

Even though it seems unimaginable to most of us, some kids actually like going to academies. Of course, some don't like to go, but their parents make them go anyway. The student whose schedule I outlined above, loves to go to academies. He likes to learn and study, especially English and sports. Not every kid studies as much as he does; some kids only go to one or two academies.

One thing that is standard for pretty much all kids, is that their parents expect them to get perfect scores on everything, especially on standardized public school tests. The Korean education system doesn't use the A, B, C, D, and F grading scale. They use a ranking system where all the kids in the class are ranked against each other and every kid is expected to be number one. There might be 10 kids ranked number one in each class, if ten kids all got perfect scores on everything.

You could get 95% on every test and still be ranked 14th in the class. Competition is fierce.

The pressure these kids are under can be quite a burden and it only increases as they get older. There is an enormous amount of pressure in Korean middle schools to get into good high schools and even more pressure in high school to get into a good university. Some kids even break down  so badly that they commit suicide.

The statistics are sobering and the numbers are only increasing each year. Suicide is the leading cause of death in South Korea for those under 40. In 2009, 202 college students committed suicide, an increase of 49% from the previous year and the numbers are still growing.

Emphasis on education and hard work is nothing new in Korea. If anything, it's a custom passed down from an older generation. The generation who watched their country get taken over from the Japanese, freed from their grasp only to be thrown into a civil war, and eventually divided at the 38th parallel. In about 60 years, Korea has come from a country in turmoil to a first world country. The grandmothers and grandfathers of today were the ones who brought this country to what it is today by working hard, gaining higher education, and expecting only the best from themselves and their children.

There's no doubt that South Korea's progress has been substantial. The pressure from parents and the tough Korean educational system has helped this country achieve success on a global scale...but how much is too much?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shibuya Photo Essay

crowded streets at night

music venue

drinking sake with naked babies frolicking in the background

live music

playing darts in a windowless and very fun bar called Bee, on the eighth story somewhere

mirror like globe with an open shutter

A video of the Shibuya crossing at night.