Puddle Jumping in Portland

“ And the rain, rain, rain, came down, down, down, and washed right over piglet.”

The capital of pork and PBR, and home to an alphabetical listing of odd from Arsenic flavored ice cream to Zealots in Zebra galoshes, Portland was the logical escape route from my life in the Middle East. I even welcomed the rain. And boy did it rain. Forest Gump wouldn’t have even been able to classify the rain last month in Portland. Truth be told, this was sort of an agenda driven holiday for me. My mom and I had to get down to the very serious business of wedding dress shopping, and what better place than a city who welcomes weird behavior?

For some old world charm we stayed in the place that makes “dated” look good, the Benson on Southwest Broadway. This is the sort of place you go if you are spending the holidays with your miniature poodle and a hot toddy. The tree was still up when we arrived two days after Christmas and the fireplace was surrounded by guests and their pets, drying their wellies and wet paws. In short: this is the kind of place I love because I am a “make-believe-aholic.” As in, I like to pretend that I am Kay Thompson’s character Eloise who lives in the New York Plaza hotel with her dog Weenie, although if I lived in a hotel, I would have a pig named Solomon.

Speaking of pig…I have been seriously pork deprived the last four months so it’s safe to say that I over-indulged during my holiday. My Mom and I started out at Deschutes brewery and restaurant, and by the time we were finished wining and swine-ing it was still raining. We waddled through Portland puddles back to our cozy hotel.

Now if you have traveled with me you know that I’m not big on tourist traps, but when it comes to most things edible I don’t mind being called a lousy tourist. Portland has found a way to keep touring cool by adopting the old adage “the quickest way to a [tourist’s] heart is through their stomach.” I give you: Voodoo doughnut! Let’s just get this over with. YES, I waited in line for nearly half an hour for a doughnut, and YES it was the infamous bacon maple bar, and YES I enjoyed every last maple drenched, meaty bite. Not the best thing before trying on wedding dresses, but nothing could have spoiled my day after bringing my mom to this doughnut institution.

For wedding dresses we hit up two fantastic boutiques with a Peruvian themed lunch at Andina in between. The English Department screams Portland artisan with local designer and owner Elizabeth Dye, who was on her hands and knees scrubbing the toilet when we walked in (talk about a working woman!) Their dresses are at once classic and bohemian and I think I fell in love at least three times in the changing room. Next up was Divine Design in the Pearl District. With slightly more mainstream dresses, this boutique boasts some of the most beautiful fabrics and lace I have seen anywhere, not to mention they opened up just so my Mom and I could browse. So, did I find THE ONE? Yes. Am I going to tell you about it? No. You will just have to wait until August like everyone else. But I will tell you, it in no way smells of bacon or pbr like the rest of this blog and it is the prettiest thing I have ever imagined walking down an aisle.

When I say that this trip was agenda driven, wedding dress hunting was not the only thing on my list. Two of my very best friends from our Korea year happened to be in town and I knew that if I wanted a little holiday mischief, an evening with them was a safe bet. My mom took us to the joint named among OregonLive’s “Best New Restaurants of 2011” Luc Lac. This Vietnamese house of Pho serves up steaming Asiana, and an impressive bar manned by well-known tender and co-owner Adam Ho. After politely slurping my soup Asian style, mom went to bed, and the Korea reunion tour went out. We had hit up some of Portland’s finest dives before someone…ok it was probably me, got the bright idea to go to Mary’s. I’m going to let you readers go ahead and google that one, not that I am ashamed or anything😉

I awoke the next morning to more rain, and a wad of one dollar bills in my pocket? and decided it was probably time to get on home to the Middle East but not before experiencing one more Portland foodie-icon: Portland Food Carts. There are over 200 food carts in Portland, constantly opening, moving, and serving up some fantastically authentic, ethnic grub from all over this earth. Just the sort of thing teachtravelplay eats up, literally.

I would like to thank all the fine folks and weirdos for making this Portland trip a success. I Look forward to returning this Summer for some dress tailoring and maybe some more maple and bacon goodness.

We’ll Always Have Paris.

I had been warned prior to my gap year in Europe by the University doctor who, let’s face it, must have seen hundreds of students returning from exchange programs showing symptoms of strange rashes and itchy privates. She explained quite frankly that “travel is very romantic, you might find yourself on a train, winding its way through snowcapped mountains and meet a dashing man. All of a sudden, a twenty-five year age difference doesn’t seem so bad.” She paid special attention to the temptations associated with being a young backpacker in Paris. As I set out to see the romantic city, with its rumored tree lined walkways and accordion playing bums, I swore to myself “I will not fall in love in Paris.”

Six years after my first trip to Paris I have returned, and couldn’t help but remember how badly I failed at my attempt to “NOT fall in love” in the notoriously romantic city. Thinking back, I don’t even think I lasted 24 hours before my little backpacking heart was swept away the moment I laid eyes on my bunk buddy in the “Peace and Love” youth hostel…yes, really the name of a hostel, and yes, the very reason I stayed there. Until very recently I have looked back on my love affair in Paris, and only ever remembered my Australian amore. Not what I ate, drank, smoked, paintings I saw, cathedrals I visited. On this recent trip however, I realized that not only did I fall in love in Paris when I was 19, I fell in love with Paris, and with travel six years ago. I fell in love with the way my backpack straps weighed on my shoulders as I walked to the train station and the impression my feet made in my worn Birkenstocks. A new stamp in my passport did, as it does today, make my heart flutter, and learning to order a glass of wine in French made me feel like an independent woman. I am a bit more seasoned a traveler now, but last month’s trip back to the city where it all began sent sparks flying in this backpacker’s heart.

I had just over 24hrs in Paris this time around, a time frame where you have to make a decision: “Will I make a mad dash to every landmark and tourist hot-spot in an 5-mile radius?” OR “Will I stroll the streets, snap a few artsy photos, take in some local cuisine, and maybe if I am lucky end up in a street parade?” I’ll take the latter any day. So that is what we did. Matt and I spent 24 hours with Le Grand Paris, starting quite by mistake at the Eiffel Tower. Yes, a bit touristy, BUT in my defense when I first came to Paris in 2005 I was too in-love to be bothered to see the iconic structure so I was rather pleased when we sort of bumped into it. Starting a tour from this lovely spot on the Seine allowed us easy access to the Botobus, a water taxi service that drops passengers at several spots along the river.

Back on dry ground…well I had already wet my lips with a little Bordeaux, we hopped off the Botobus at Musee De O’Rsay, strolled down Quai Voltaire, and crossed the Pont Royal Bridge into the Jardin du Carrousel. Through lush greenery, ample walkways, and Secret Garden worthy fountains we spotted the Pyramide du Louvre by renowned architect I. M Pei. I remember falling in love with architecture as well on my first trip to Paris, a love that has propelled me to visit cities since for their buildings alone: Chicago, Dubai, and Barcelona. But Paris’s architecture is uniquely innovative with centuries of design standing seamlessly together.

Although my appetite for architecture, glass, and steel had been fed, Matt still hadn’t tasted a fresh Parisian baguette and I was in the mood for a staple of French cuisine. Hoping to avoid going into a detailed explanation of Foie Gras, I took Matt to Rue Montorgueil, ducked into Comptoir de la Gastronomie as it was the Café with the fattest, healthiest bird painted on its sandwich board, and ordered nothing but bread, cheese, wine, and this savory French delicacy. Filled with duck liver and sourdough we “waddled” across Pont Louis Philippe to Ile St-Louis for a sacred desert. Eating Berthillon Ice cream feels like being in an old world love story, and I ate up both the melting treat and being in Paris with Matt.

We spent the evening perched on a bench in the Latin Quarter with a carafe of Bordeaux looking up at a slivered moon. I remember on my first trip to Paris sitting on a bottle shop floor with my hostel romance, judging a “good” wine by the depth of its indentation in the bottom of the bottle. I was so overwhelmed that for one, I was 19 years old and allowed to purchase a bottle of wine, and that I was in love in the most romantic city in the world, Paris. This past visit brought about much of the same emotion, but with a slightly more maudlin attachment to my early years as a backpacker. I realized that along with being the capital of romance, Paris is also the best place for a young traveler to start. It was for me a starting point, and now a lovely place to return again and again.

Wishing my Paris love a very happy birthday and wonderful year of travel.

Want to Visit Paris? Airline: AirFrance direct from Seattle Hotel: Hôtel Novanox, 155, bd du montparnasse – 75006 Paris Transport from Charles de Gaulle: RER Line B3 5:30am-Midnight, 40 minute trip. Visa for Americans: Nope. Travel Guide: Lonely Planet, Paris Encounter.

Sugar, Spice, and Souks: Deira Spice Souk

Photo Credit: Jo Kelly over at

If you came to the United Arab Emirates in search of old world vignettes, tucked in narrow alleyways, filled with magic carpets, Arab men in colorful head scarves and puffs of jasmine flavored incense, you may be disappointed when confronted with the modern city. While Dubai rises high into the clouds with its contemporary sky scrapers, tradition can still be found around every corner. One sure spot to scope the cultural heritage of the UAE is the Deira spice souk, along the Dubai creek.

Starting on the creek’s West bank, visitors can meander through the textile souk, picking through cashmere pashminas, and stalls filled with vibrant fabrics. Beware of zealous merchants going to extremes in order to catch your attention with their goods. Within moments of entering, the vultures descended, not even bothering to circle first before throwing scarves and bangles over my unsuspecting body. The technique worked, and I ended up walking away with a hand stitched garment from Pakistan, a pair of Ali Baba shoes for a very special three year old, and a giant hookah… My arms were in serious need of some pack camel assistance to carry my loot, and I hadn’t even crossed the creek yet!

The real treasure hunt begins on the East bank of the creek, known as Deira. This collection of souks hold spices, gold and other precious trinkets, as well as picture perfect photo ops in every turn. To get across to Deira from the textile souk, simply hop on one of Dubai creek’s Abra boat taxis, costing only 1 dirham, leaving approximately every other second, from wherever you are standing. The abras go across to a few different points along the creek so just gesture toward the spice souk and your driver will make sure you get to where you want to go. Matt wasn’t satisfied with just one ride on the traditional boat, with its cool breeze and ample people watching, but after three trips across I distracted him with a coconut vendor and we finally docked.

At the mouth to the Deira markets is a bustling intersection with bus transfers, water taxi stations, and street vendors selling “Natural Viagra.” Yes the souk really does carry something for everyone. Now one might think that shopping for spices involves buying three lbs of vacuum sealed black pepper at your local Costco, but I assure you, there is so much more sniffing and tasting fun to be had!


I pride myself on a well developed palate, thanks to a few years of traveling and sampling a diverse range of flavors, so I was thrilled when the first vendor we happened upon wanted to test me on my spice knowledge. By sight I passed five out of six spices including: Frankincense, lemon balm, dried rose hips, cinnamon, and saffron. Where I went wrong was failing to identify the Arabic spice combination that is Ras El Hanout. In my defense, this traditional spice combines many of the ingredients I called out in a guessing frenzy including, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. I can’t wait to take my Summer holiday to the USA next week and deliver a few new salts to the one and only, SaltySeattle!!!

The complexity of layered flavors in Arabic cuisine can be attributed to a long standing history of spice trade throughout India and the Middle East. A trip to the Deira souk provides a look at the rich and spicy history of a nation becoming quickly modernized. Enjoy your backyard grilling and seasoning this July, and save me a salty salmon burger!

A Taste of Dubai

Every city has its niche. None compete with Chicago Blues, Melbourne street art, or Hong Kong Dim sum chefs. If I were to pin-point Dubai’s most notable expertise it would be the city’s deliberate interweaving of architectural styles, cultures, fashions and cuisine. There was no better representation of this than last weekend’s Taste of Dubai set to a pan sizzling soundtrack and against the backdrop of media city. The yearly event boasted big name chefs Gary Rhodes, Jun Tanaka, and a sampling from restaurants new to the Dubai scene like the much talked about Ivy, set to open in May. The best part of the event, besides a gorgeous day, plenty of schmoozing and the goody bags was of course the ample wine selection…which is why most of my reporting comes from my experiences earlier in the day….before I came out of the lady’s wearing a different pair of shoes?

Dubai is a four hour trek from our home in the Western Ruwais desert, but I woke with a craving for tapas and the big city so we made the trip, checking into the event without even dropping our bags at the hotel first. The festival celebrated its fourth year in style with twenty-two restaurants serving up International fare. Between cigar pairings in the MMI lounge and crispy fish n’ chips it was difficult to decipher a favorite tasting, until I got to Certo. Chef Matteo Bertuletti’s rumored goat cheese, blueberry and porcini ravioli dish had me happily in line. An hour later, finished with my ravioli I was still in the Certo tent, Montalcino in one hand and strawberries drenched in balsamic in another, convincing me that returning to Italy would ensure that I never went hungry again.

With so much international food abundantly available in the UAE it is a shame to admit I still have a list of fare that I consistently miss while living overseas. Avocados is on that list for me, a really pricey and rare treat in many parts of the world, so you can imagine my version of a zig-zagged b-line upon spying a table of beautiful Has avocados ripe as can be. The man standing next to this table was of course an added bonus, Ruben Herrera executive chef of Maya by Richard Sandoval located inside Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa. Ruben was gracious enough to whip up some guacamole for us and let me pick his brain about the challenges of bringing Mexican food to an international audience. Ingredients for many dishes, from a simple pico de gayo to chile relleno are often difficult to find and Ruben remarked on his resistance to settle for anything but the most fresh and traditional ingredients. The hotel offers a weekend lunch at 300AED for use of all pools and facilities as well as lunch from Maya. Advance bookings required.

The celebrity stage and cooking demo classes brought food patrons, amateur chefs and culinary celebrities together in a fun way! Well known for over a dozen cook books and television show “Rhodes around Britain,” chef Gary Rhodes excited the crowd about his food and even gave a few pointers after admitting his aversion to mechanized  tools in favor of an old fashioned “hand whipped” approach. Prior to chef Rhodes was the impeccable Jun Tanaka who prepared steamed sea bass in an orange glaze so mouth-watering that the stage was rushed faster than a Justin Bieber concert in order to snag a bite.

With the evening winding down I grabbed a spot in the last cooking class of the evening with the adorable and highly talented chef Scott Price from Verre, to prepare a seared sea bass and cauliflower puree. Always the good student I grabbed a station in the front and made sure my apron cleared the bunsen burner, can’t say the same for other chefs during our course. With the menu translated into nine languages, cooking with chefs I have only previously seen on the food network who have travelled tremendous distances, and drinking an Asti Spumante imported from a region I have not visited in nearly six years, I saw Dubai not merely a melting pot for culture but as a city epitomising the postmodern ideal. Quick to grow into a world renowned hub for international cuisine, Dubai’s food makes this city a unique place to nosh. Hopefully I’ll see you back next year at Taste of Dubai!

A Northwest New Year

What do frozen ponds, dreadlocked runners, organic champagne and Improv have in common? A new year, Pacific Northwest style! I am home to my little haven that is the Northwest corner of Washington state, complete with hip alternatives to everything from Aromatherapy to Zen gardening and more resolutions for cleaner, healthier more conscious living than most other towns I have visited world-wide. I decided that before I spend anymore time exploring, internalizing and trying to verbalize my discoveries within another culture, I would introduce you to oh little town of Bellingham, and no, Jesus was not born here.

With just over 80,000 Bellingham has now reached a size where tranquility is possible, and miraculously enough, so is thriving community! I pop into my favorite coffee spot Avellino, open the Cascadia Weekly, turn to the upcoming events page and Presto! More action packed fun than I could wave a honey stick at! Because I have just returned from over a year away from the town I call home, I have the urge to do and see everything Bellingham has to offer. So the big question is: what to do for New Years???! Enjoy an evening of improv at the Upfront Theater, take in the lyrical musings of The Bad Tenants, brave one of the many ruckus house parties spanning High Street (voted in 1987 as home to one of America’s top party schools by Playboy Magazine…), take a plunge in icy Puget sound waters or sip some prosecco at the newly re-opened Chuckanut Ridge Wine Company??? I try to make every year-end with a bang and the next begin with a ball or at least some bubbly. So here it is, a run-down of my new year ring in, Northwest style.

Dec. 31, 6am: Wake to a frosty morning wondering why I have chosen running as a hobby, lace up my Fairhaven runner kicks and hightail it to Bellingham’s “Last Chance Marathon.” The route out to Clayton beach and back reminded me of how fortunate Bellinghamster’s are with such an extensive greenway trail system, as well as a new year’s resolution to not let myself get this out-of-shape again, regardless of how much plane travel I am doing!!!

Dec. 31, Noon: With a runner’s high to trump any other high that the Pacific Northwest is perhaps known for, I grab an infamous potato burrito from the establishment that sees Baker bums and Western students through dreary winter months, Casa Que Pasa. Limping back to my Volvo (13 miles, give me a break!) I pop in to Everyday Music to pick up a Boy and Bear album, getting a taste of B’ham street talent on railroad avenue on my way out the door.

Dec. 31, 4pm: I swing into the community food co-op for some local produce, organic mozzarella and vino for tonight’s new year’s eve Italian feast. Between April and December the Farmer’s market has everything from Bavarian pretzels to world-class hula-hooping as well as all the ingredients for any of my culinary endeavors, but in winter months the food co-op fills my basket with goods. 

Dec. 31, 8pm: After having fed much of the Chuckanut Bay Rugby team, and emptied a few bottles of cava I’m ready to throw on my party pants and ring in the New Year. First stop is a house party with impeccable rock covers by The Listers warming up frozen campus streets…..10pm: I forgot the taxi situation in the “Ham.” With a small number of cabs in this city, there are some creative options for getting around town on nights such as this one. The Sober Rovers for instance will come to your tipsy rescue, pack their Go-Ped scooter in your trunk and drive your vehicle home. But considering it’s chilly, nearing midnight and the music is hopping, I decided to stay put for the count-down.

Jan. 1, 2am: Late night food is lucrative business in a college town that likes to stay out until the sun comes up. My favorite early morning snack stop is the Russian Pierogi joint Pel Meni,  where you can paw through a decent collection of records, chat up some unlikely characters or if you are lucky spot local celeb Betty Desire chowing down some dumplings.

Jan. 1, 11am: Because running a half marathon the day before didn’t produce quite enough endorphins to sustain my new year’s ring in, I decide to participate in the Lake Padden Resolution Run and Swim along with a gaggle of other motivated and frosty toed locals. After a lap around the Lake’s 2.7 mile trail participants plunge into icy waters, washing away the old year and emerge refreshed and eager to take in the new, as well as hop into the park’s warm showers!

Jan. 1, 1pm: I re-fuel with old friends at a Northwest establishment known to locals as “The Shoe,” and formerly “The Horseshoe Cafe,” the oldest continuously run restaurant West of the Mississippi! 24 hours a day this joint is THE PLACE to go for cheezy fries at midnight, a bloody marry at noon and some of the world’s best people watching.

After hitting golf balls off Eldridge Avenue into one of those unbeatable sunsets the Pacific Northwest has a corner market on, I feel that my love affair with Bellingham has been renewed into the new year. Home to street art, the Dream Science Circus, Ryan Stiles, ice cream worth standing in line for, alley concerts, sunset drum circles, a tree hugging club, the Ski to Sea, an alternative library, bike lane traffic jams, the bacon maple bar, and the world’s largest octopus swimming through Puget sound waters. Small but mighty, the City if Subdued Excitement has enough to make this traveling heart go “pitter-patter.”

Leaving Korea: My Top 10 Experiences

It has been 365 days since I arrived from my home in the Pacific Northwest to South Korea. In this year I have seen and experienced more than I could have hoped for in a lifetime. Living abroad is one of the greatest challenges we can face, and one of the most rewarding experiences. I have, at one time or another felt stripped of my culture, my language, my family, my religion and my personal comforts. But I have also gained a Korean family, friends, a new understanding and appreciation for religion, language, and the comfort of knowing I can meet many of the challenges that have plagued me in the past, head on. With so much gained this year, Matt has helped me to narrow down our top ten Korean experiences. Here they are! :

10. Jim Jil-Bang

Kicking off with number ten is the Jim Jil-Bang. Throughout the year we have spent hours on buses fitting our favorite Korean style bath house to the tune of “YMCA” as an expression of our deep love of the one stop scrub spot. The Jim Jil-Bang is above all else a bath house, where men, women and families go to clean up and relax in soaking tubs, but it also holds another purpose as a 24 hour place to get some shut-eye. We have, on a few occasions slept in one of the 24 hour Jim Jil-Bangs when it is just too late for a motel, and the experience is a truly memorable one. With dozens of Koreans piled on the spa floor, all dressed in jammies provided at the front desk, we always crack up as we step over snoring (and at times, flatulating) snoozers, trying to find a place to lay down and join in. The first time I had my back scrubbed by an unsuspecting adgima, I knew that this experience had to make my year’s top ten.

9. Scooters

Our first day in Korea I thought Matt and I might buy bedding or maybe groceries, but in fact our first outing was to the scooter shop to pick up some wheels for the year. Our scooter has truly become part of our lifestyle here as we rode it through rain and snow this winter and formed a “scooter gang” with friends for long road trips to temples, waterfalls and the beach. I finally got brave the second half of the year and started taking our retro bike on my own and if you have ever stepped into most of Asia you will understand my apprehension. Scooters follow little to none of the road laws present in most countries. In Korea you can witness scooters on sidewalks, parked inside buildings, and zipping around corners at top speed. Delivery drivers balance coolers of bibimbap as they fly between cars and through red lights, making the scooter a unique part of the Korean experience.

8. Sporting Events

You followed along as we cheered Ulsan Mobis basketball team to victory this past March and you mourned the loss of Korea’s defeat in the 2010 world cup. Between baseball games, school sports day and trips to the swimming pool, we have seen another side of Korea, filled with national pride as they support their athletes. Koreans know work ethic like no other culture I have ever seen, and this rings true on the soccer field and basketball court. Americans may be larger than the average Korean, but I guarantee a Korean will spend the night in a lap pool perfecting his stroke long after the western athlete has gone to bed. The athletes are not the only one’s dedicated to their national pride either. To this day I have never experienced a crowd of fans quite like the Korean crowd. There is no “if you can’t beat em’ join em’ ” option here, you either join in or you might as well go home!

7. Nore-Bang
I have been invited out with my principal, several of Matt’s superiors and numerous friends throughout the year to partake in norebang or “singing room” and the experience is never short of amazing. Imagine a karaoke scene, minus the stage, the dive bar backdrop or the hundreds of people whom you have never met booing your version of “Sweet Caroline.” The norebang is for private groups where you and your posse can sing until the wee hours with all the comforts from home, comfy couches, popcorn, beer and a big screen tv flashing some interesting and at times provocative clips. The image of my vice principal getting down to “Hey Jude” still puts a smile on my face, making the norebang experience a highlight to my year in Korea.

6. K-Pop

Back in the Fall we learned that MTV’s “Biggest Bad-ass Star” was a Korean by the name of Rain. With curiosity seriously peaked, we made the weekend trip to Seoul to see for ourselves if this sexy Korean, dancing machine could really deliver. Not only was the “Rainism” concert one of the most entertaining shows I have seen in ANY country, but this experience opened the door to a whole world of K-pop that I didn’t even know existed. Since then I have memorized Korean pop songs, screamed along with my middle school students when Shinee, 2ne1 or Big Bang are mentioned and even joined a K-pop dance class so I could follow along to the music video. With no other popular music genre option in Korea, K-pop stands alone as the dominant music source, and it seems that a new teen heart-throb group pops up weekly. It’s so hard to keep track of all the new talent I have been forced into buying a new pair of K-pop socks to wear on my slipped feet every time an album drops. And sure enough, just as quickly as Wonder Girls or 2PM popped up, they were gone, like magic, magic magic, it’s magic…oma oma oma…

5. Temples

Korea’s temples lie outside of any history or culture I had seen before this year. Standing proudly at the top of most mountains, walking into a temple is a must when visiting Korea. Our hike in Jirisan national park on Buddha’s birthday was the most memorable temple visit this year in Korea, with monks serving bibimbap to hikers at the top and the constant sound of chanting up and down the steep mountain. We stepped into the secret gardens inside Biwon and walked along paths that kings treaded in the 15th century. We visited what is claimed to be the largest central hall in Asia at Yakcheonsa on Jeju island. We ate temple lunch with monks after the lunar new year at Munsu temple and spent an afternoon with the female monks at the all women’s temple Songnamsa at the base of Gagisan mountain. The temple experience has been a highlight of our year in Korea and brought us not only a better understanding of the Korean culture but an appreciation for the preservation of ancient history throughout the world.

4. Korean Food

If there is one thing I will miss about Korea, it will be the food. From kalbi to live octopus we have spent the year putting daring, squirming, delicious food into our mouths and loving almost every morsel. Learning hangul was crucial to ordering food in a restaurant or at the market and we quickly recited our favorite dishes. In the winter we dined on samgye-tan stuffed chicken submerged in a hearty soup. In the spring we feasted on live octopus and fresh catches from the raw seafood market. The family style in which we have eaten this year has brought us close to our friends in Korea and even Matt can now sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor of a Korean restaurant.

3. Hiking

Coming from the Pacific Northwest we have grown-up with green mountains as a backdrop and Korea has certainly not dissapointed us on any of our vertical wanderings this year. We have hiked the tallest mountian in South Korea, picniced on the lip of a volcanic crator and finished up our year of hiking with a trip to neighboring Mt. Fuji in Japan. At the top of every mountian in Korea, your ascent is celebrated with a kimchi feast, toasting other hikers and enjoying a miraculous view. Seeing Korea from the top of dozens of mountains this year has made me appreciate our amazing earth much more and continued to instill a sense of adventure in my travels.

2. The DMZ

With the world’s most secretive country less than six hours away from our home on Korea’s southern coast, Matt and I have been eager to learn more about the relationship between North and South Korea since we arrived last August. In the year we have been here, the ceasefire treaty signed in post war Korea has been claimed not valid by the North, a South Korean warship has been sunk, and as of just recently North Korean leader Kim Jung Il has up and left during a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter. You would think that living in the midst of all this talk of possible war outbreak that we would be better informed than the rest of the world as to what was going on in our backyards…but we are not. Our visit to the demilitarized zone did very little to better understand the continued feud between North and South, but it did cast a hopeful light on future peace talks. We were able to visit and enter the 44km long third tunnel as well as Dorasan train station, the last stop on the rail line before passing over the North Korean border. The train station exists as a hopeful sign that peace will one day be acheived and that backpackers like myself will be able to make the trip of a lifetime by land.

1. Teaching

Ringing in at number one may be a surprise to many. I have spent the last 20 years being educated by teachers that I respect and admire and I was eager to take my place as one of these influential figures to my students in Korea this year. And then I got assigned to my position teaching fifteen year old boys… With class sizes averaging forty-five students I felt completely helpless trying to control, let alone teach English to ESL students. I have struggled and doubted myself more this year than ever before, nearly given up on several occasions and asked “why me?” Truth be told, on the other end this experience has helped me grow as a traveler more than any of the other nine on this list. The confidence I have acquired leading a class has made walking into a hostel and making friends elsewhere a breeze. The acceptance and realization that not all education systems are the same and flaws appear everywhere has helped me to appreciate the uniqueness of culture. The support and encouragement from fellow teachers has helped me remember that even when travelling through barren outback I am never alone. At the end of this year my students brought me more joy, understanding of Korean culture, and unforgettable stories than any other experience. Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done, but certainly the most rewarding.

A big thanks for following my year in Korea, for your comments and your support, and a very special thanks to Matt for being my one link to home with everything that this has entailed. I am off to Australia for two months to volunteer, swim with sharks, wander through the outback and FINALLY enjoy a bottle of red wine. So stop by and follow this next adventure! Until next time, Anyonghi-kesseyo!

Shopping the stalls of Seattle’s Pike Place and our local farmer’s market in Bellingham Washington has nurtured my love of open air markets, where choosing the ingredients that will make up your meal is not a rushed endeavor and a personal relationship between grower and consumer is possible. Although my verbal communication to vendors in Korea is limited, the Korean street market presents a unique and colorful shopping experience, one that I so eagerly anticipate I have it marked on my calendar every five days.

Like in any outdoor market, the Korean market sells fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, affordable hand-made goods and local fare. What separates the Korean market from the rest is the oddities that are unique to this very culture:

  • Live octopus
  • Korean Pancakes
  • Kimchi
  • Dried Fish
  • Insect larvae …

Among my favorite outdoor markets in Korea is the Jagalchi fish market in Busan. Visitors can wander through over ten blocks of undersea curiosities and enter a two story indoor group of stalls for even more seafood delights. On the second floor of this seafood market are restaurants who encourage customers to purchase fresh fish downstairs and then bring it on up to be cooked and served with a variety of side dishes.

The 24 hourDongdaemun market in Seoul is designed for the bargain hunting night owl. Whenever Matt and I take the midnight train to Seoul, arriving in the city by 5am, we stop in at this bizarre and unique market for a late night/early morning snack and whatever other oddities we can find at a haggled price. We’ve woken up Saturday afternoons wondering why we now own a giant whisk broom and 500 pair of knock-off  “abbibas” socks.

The highlight of all my marketing experiences is our very own traveling neighborhood market that comes to our quiet street every five days. There are 40-50 stalls selling produce, live eel, bamboo salt, hand made pasta and Matt’s favorite: Korean pancakes. The experience is never complete without a few nudges from a pushy Adjima, or someone stopping you at the kimchi booth for a free English lesson, and I never arrive home without something new and curious. This week I was invited to sample four different types of bamboo salt, inspired by my dear friend SaltySeattle

Enjoy your farmer’s markets, late night markets, street fairs and taco stands in whatever open air you find yourself in this outdoor season!

Filipino Holiday Part 2: Cast-away anyday in Coral Bay

Halfway through our trip to the Philippines, having spent five days in colorful Coron town enjoying great food, kayaking in pristine waters, an epic motorcycle ride up the coast and a general dive vibe atmosphere there, we were ready to get out of the sweltering heat and reach our next destination. Luckily for us that meant a private sandy beach island with hammocks for two, floating in turquoise water, filled with coral reefs and sea turtles. Coral Bay Resort, just under two hours by boat from Coron town can be found at . Our boat transfer to the island was included in the rate and as we moved further and further from anything familiar, out into clear, deep water it was apparent that if it was isolation and tranquility we were after, then all our dreams were about to come true!

Our arrival at Coral Bay was reminiscent of stepping into en episode of “Fantasy Island” with staff members running down the resort’s long white dock to greet us and take our bags, which they were shocked to find out were only two small day packs including a swimsuit and some bug repellant. The resort is set in a small inlet backed by mangroves and boasting a magnificent view of inviting water lapping against a white sand beach. Our room overlooked the sunrise every morning at which time we could see fishermen making their way out in traditional wooden boats.

The “All-inclusive” style of Coral Bay Resort is a must because of its isolated location and one that was welcomed, presenting its guests with fantastic and plentiful food, not to mention a special treat for me after living in Korea for the last six months: Vino!!! Inspired by all the fresh seafood we were presented every evening at dinner Matt and I decided to take out one of the wooden row boats for a day of fishing. Matt’s catch and release hobby is one that I have always found to be cruel and somewhat pointless but even I rocked our boat with excitement after reeling in a little needle nose. While paddling we began hearing a low moo-ing coming from somewhere near the horizon. In all my infinite wisdom I suggested “Oh there must be a farm on one of these islands with a dairy cow.” Matt about doubled over laughing and informed me that the noise we were hearing was the sound of sea turtles. After a few minutes of sitting still they began popping their heads up for air and swimming close to our boat. Truly magical!

On our last day in Coral Bay we took out our snorkel gear, feeling a bit disappointed that we were not certified to explore the wrecks in the surrounding waters but eager to se what we could find in the coral reef just off shore. Low and behold there was an entire world operating just below the water’s surface filled with every imaginable color, and a few colors I didn’t know existed. One thing I love about snorkeling is the sounds. I love the crackling of the coral like a little tickle in your ear and the steady in and out of your own breath as you slowly move through the water. I could have stayed under for the entire day, but then we remembered that there was most likely a yummy dinner waiting for us and a couple of cold San Miguels so we flippered onto shore leaving the under world with a little less mystery.

With brown bellies, satisfied taste buds and our ever growing urge to explore momentarily fed, we took the commuter plane back to Manila for a nine hour, well taken advantage of layover. Manila is home to Cathedrals and architecture that is reminiscent of Spanish colonization, however many buildings were destroyed during the Japanese occupation in WWII, those remaining gathered around an “old town” district an easy walk from Rizal park. I felt at moments like I was back, wandering the streets of Madrid as I did at age 19 on my very first solo adventure, but the juxtaposition of shoeless children running after mangy puppies and the sound of a wooden flute carried through narrow markets made our day in Manila diverse and eye opening to such a unique culture.

We capped our evening with two of the items most missed from our home in the Pacific Northwest: Hamburgers and ice cream, which we enjoyed as children literally climbed all over us and a man whom we met in the park invited us to help him celebrate his birthday. It was like this until the moment we boarded our plane, an openess of the Filipino people to share every aspect of their lives with us, curious about ours and eager to make sure we left our vacation taking with us nothing but beautiful memories from visiting their breathtaking country, and we certainly did.

We’ll leave you with some REALLY cute kids!

Signing off, Matt and Emily

Shabu, Sashimi and Sanak-ji: A Foreigner’s Search for a Raw Deal

Matt swishes his Shabu Shabu

When you ride a scooter everywhere, the cold really gets to you. Not only to your fingers, toes and ears, but your lungs, knees and eyeballs begin to feel like they will never function again after a twenty-minute ride to the cinema. The point is, we have been staying inside more and more this month but when we do venture out into Korea’s frigid January evening it has been for one thing…Sam-gya-tan. This traditional Korean soup is both filling and has the ability to warm even the most frosty limbs. Think Thanksgiving stuffed bird, meets momma’s loaded chicken noodle soup. Inside the bubbling broth floats ju-ju bis, garlic cloves, veggies and an entire game hen. The surprise is when the hen is opened to reveal that it has been stuffed with yummy, gooey rice!!! We can’t get enough and the thing about Korea is every restaurant has its specialty, often times the only thing on the menu besides kimchi of course. So you learn your hangul translations for food quickly when you find a dish you like. After a friend decided to sample the Korean dish most discussed in hushed voices by fearful foreigners (I’ll give you a hint: it has four legs…at least to begin with), and got violently ill, I took it upon myself to “beef up” so to speak on my Korean food knowledge. In nearly five months here I have sampled over twenty types of soup  all boasting flavor that knocks me out of my slippered feet, my favorites thus far: Mandu Giege (Dumpling soup), Gkal-guksu (noodle soup) and Sam-gya-tan (stuffed chicken goodness).

Matt and I are all about sampling cuisine from anywhere and everywhere and we’ve been pretty spoiled so far. I didn’t realize until years later that my time spent in Italy was both a blessing and a curse because it exposed me to Piedmont’s flawless spread of creamy sauces, fresh pasta and the world’s best wine. I never thought my pallet would be completely satisfied again…until now. I can’t really compare Korean cuisine to any other I have tried but Matt and I both agree that the Koreans have the “perfect bite” down. In any given bite I can taste ginseng, perilla leaf, bamboo salt, and rich Korean beef. Recently when having a discussion with some co-workers about what an asset Matt is to his school, he was told: “Matthew, your quality is your eating, you are a strong eater.” While I can find at least two or three qualities in Matt I would rank above his eating habits, I don’t blame him for his strong appetite here.

Outside of the delicious in every culture’s cuisine lies the exotic. While neither of us have sampled dog meat here in Korea we have done our fair share of exercising our taste buds to new flavors. We went to a fusion restaurant the other night, a tiny five table joint in our neighborhood with a chalkboard menu containing three items: Kal-guk-su, Bap and Shabu-shabu. Shabu shabu is a Japanese dish where thinly sliced beef is swished very quickly in a bubbling soup being cooked in the center of the table. The few second swim is enough to cook the beef just enough to eat or, can be sampled raw with wasabi. Raw is a big theme since we have been here. This was expected and welcome since we are both big sashimi fans and indulge in creatures of the sea whenever possible. What was not expected was the consumption of sea creatures that are still alive. Live octopus: San-nak-ji is a common dish here and is something that we had to try.

Last night Matt and I went in search of this live octopus we’ve been hearing of with brave stomachs and supressed gag reflexes. When we go searching for something it usually ends in fits of laughter as we try to convey what we are looking for in our broken Korean. Like last week when we went looking for the dinosaur tracks that apparently dot the northern bank of the river. We walked up to a farmhouse, clad in our scooter helmets and goggles asking for the “Gong-ryup” (Dinosaur). We knew just what we were doing, and revelled in the astonished look of the farm keeper as she replied “Op-sio” (We don’t have). hehehe. This time we were certain to be pointed in the direction of the octopus.

It took a few tries of wandering into restaurants and asking for “San-nak-ji?” After three fails in our cozy little neighborhood we hopped on the scooter and headed to the beach. Illsan beach is about an hour bus ride from Ulsan’s University neighborhood, 40 min if you are on the back of Matt’s bat-mobile! We bumped into a friend in Bellie donuts once arrived at the beach, who gave us just the lead we needed, pointing us in the direction of our culinary fate. I walked into the humble restaurant and took a seat on one of the hand sewn pillows lying on the floor…”San-nak-ji” I said nervously. The owner’s eyes lit up and she threw on her slippers, beckoning for me to follow her to the tank outside. Swimming around were about twenty five live, baby octopus. Her hand plunged in grabbing a few by the kneck…well the part that connects the head to it’s eight squirmy legs anyway. There was no turning back at this point.

We were brought the usual side dishes that accompany most Korean meals: Kimchi, bean sprouts, sweet potato, dried fish, yellow radish, sea weed and rice. Immediately after cleaning the squirmy octopus and removing a few legs for easy swallow, the chef brought us our undulating lunch. We looked at one another for a brief moment of reasurement and then dug in. When eating live octopus you must beware of the suction taking place inside your mouth and make sure that these sticky arms are not still holding on for dear life as they slip down your throat. I spent extra time chewing to be sure I would not end up with an octopus arm stuck to the inside of my esophagus. Another trick is to use the side dishes to your advantage. I like my octopus with a little bamboo salt, some wasabi and sesame oil, wrapped inside a piece of kelp. Matt preferred to let his octopus suction all over his lips and tongue until he could no longer feel his face…and then add some chili paste for that extra little burn.

While eating we couldn’t help but notice the three elderly women who appeared to be running the establishment, hanging out in their lounge clothes, tickling one another and gossiping over a cup of instant coffee. This typical restaurant scene resembles a family kitchen filled with family, no sign of opening or closing hours and void of menu. I have grown a custom to this setting and feel at home in these moments, even with an octopus leg dangling from my wasabi drenched mouth, looking out over the East sea, and wondering if I will ever actually be home in any one place again.

Signing off and wishing you all a full belly,

Matt and Emily