The buildings in Beirut still wear bullet holes from an era we would all wish to soon forget. Their façade an ugly reminder of public violence that neither the Lebanese government nor the media could hide. If bombed out buildings and war stories from baby-faced teens are not reminder enough of Lebanon’s torn past, the echoes of hammers and bulldozers in a frenzied re-building effort paint a clear picture of Beirut’s effort to move on. So I visited. I travelled to Beirut on the dawn of growth and change. Luckily for me, some of Lebanon’s best traditions have remained exactly the same, and were waiting there for me to admire and taste.
Beirut’s history is a tangled one, as they have tried for decades to blend a mosaic of religions, cultures, languages, money, policy, food, and people, and been un-successful on most fronts. Today, the Lebanon that I see is one that is once again, reinventing itself and it is the youth that seem to be at the forefront of the project. I had the pleasure of meeting with some old friends from my days living in the UAE’s Al Garbia region. I bought them a beer, and got right down to asking personal, sometimes inappropriate, and nagging questions…my specialty🙂
Diya was a teenager during the height of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, and remembers this time well. Although his expression of the seriousness of the situation in and around Lebanon came across clearly, Diya likened his personal experience to being in a video game. Waking next to your weapons, leaving the house or shelter cautiously, and well aware that at the end of each street there were tanks, bombs, weapons more powerful than yours, and people, out of their mind with the only necessity they had: survival. Moving from place to place was even more dangerous for Diya and other Lebanese due to the presence of f-16 fighters flying above Lebanon. According to Diya “These f-16 fighters of the Israeli Defense Forces dropped a great number of leaflets from the sky on an almost daily basis, threatening to shoot at any moving light after 8 pm. This made it harder to move from one place to another with no electricity, scared to even use a torch.” I asked Diya if he sees this time reflected in the youth of today’s Beirut. From speaking with him, and seeing countless teens, exercising their right to be flamboyant, and throwing convention out the windows of their speeding cars, I understand Beirut as a city inhabited by angsty youth that lived through a war. “Why should we follow traffic laws after living through war?” Diya noted. And really, the chaos, and the youth, and the remembrance of the fragility of life are a great part of what makes Beirut in particular inimitable.
The uniqueness of architecture in Beirut, with bombed and dilapidated buildings, blends in a devastatingly beautiful way with the ruins of Baalbeck. Outside the city, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley stands what is in my opinion a far more impressive collection of Roman ruins than those inside Rome herself. The Baalbeck ruins were built over 7,000 years ago by the Romans to worship the God of the sun. It immediately reminds visitors to Lebanon that there is a lot going on here, and there has been for thousands of years. Lebanon has been occupied by the Romans, the French, Syrians, and today Palestinian refugees. If that weren’t enough of a mosaic, the Lebanese also have one of the most diverse governments of any nation; with a Sunni Prime Minister, a Shite Speaker of Parliament, and a Maronite Catholic President, required at all times. Unfortunately as we have seen, it is this remarkable mosaic that has made itself vulnerable to breaking.
All the turmoil, begs the question “What are we fighting for?” I mean, why is it that everyone is fighting over this country? WELL, despite being able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea in the morning and ski at Faraya Mzaar in the afternoon, young, vibrant locals, and a truly unique mix of glamor and Bedouin traditions, there is the food…no let me be more specific the MEAT! If I didn’t get gout on this trip it was only because I was too afraid to sneak beer into the Hezbollah. Down dodgy alleys you find svieha: dough pockets filled with minced, fatty lamb and spices reminding us of the foreign lands that have at one time or another had influence over Lebanon’s cuisine. Diya and his girlfriend Natalie took me to one of the thousands of shwarma stands that litter Beirut. I like food you don’t even need to bother being polite with, and Lebanon tends to have the “dig in!” mentality down.
It was one of those quick trips, where I try to JUST get a taste of a city, eat some good food, drink some local brew, and have a holiday. But I couldn’t even try to do that in Beirut. There is too much political history in here, too many unique groups of people, too many religions, languages, influences, and freaking amazing food to NOT become completely enamored of this place. And I did get swept away in a city and a country that I had been afraid to visit. Go see for yourself, and don’t forget to write and tell me about it!
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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.
They say you can never go home again. A tricky saying when your home has spanned three countries in six months. Don’t get me wrong, I in no way feel sorry for myself, in fact this popular phrase has freed me up to the fun and challenging task of taking the concept of “home” with me in my backpack. I felt at home in Korea, not that I ever got used to often being the tallest in a room, or that I grew accustom to kimchi for breakfast, but it was my friends who made my home there. Naturally our last day on the way to the Seoul airport is heart wrenching even now to remember, until I realized the advantage of having seriously nomadic friends. Oh the places you’ll go! With six of these bosom buddies having relocated to Saigon and this city being among the 75 cities I want to visit this year (life is short OK!) it was a no brainer that Matt and my first break from the desert would be to re-live our Korea glory days in Vietnam!
Matt and I had just over a week in Vietnam so we chose a very small radius of area to cover, reflective of the pace in which I prefer to travel: leisurely, with enough time to sample traditional cuisine, get tricked into drinking too much with locals, and picking up some truly unique souvenirs along the way. Our base was Saigon where our gracious hosts offered us a bed, a scooter and a place to rest our hookah. I was made aware of the government presence shortly after arriving when the owner of our host’s apartment asked for copies of our passports during our stay. I stepped outside to a stream of scooters decorated with the star of the communist flag and although I spent a year five hours from the North Korean border, this was my first face-to-face with a truly socialist regime. With that said, I think it is impossible to fit Saigon under any one umbrella term. This city beats to a whole new genre from its scooters that outnumber drivers, twenty-four hour pho, expat scene and surrounding green hills laced with the history of a not so distant war.
These nearby, lush hills of Củ Chi set the stage for our first day in Vietnam. It had been six months since we said good-bye to our retro, Korean scooter with its red and orange flames, so the moment we feasted our eyes on a city wall-to-wall in two-wheeled madness, we wanted on! The trip to the tunnels should take under two hours from the city, but characteristic of my preferred pace of travel, I like to stop for drinks, food cart fare, photo opportunities and the occasional flat tire.
The city faded behind us after a quick tire repair and was replaced by the green rice fields so reminiscent of the Vietnam we see in postcards. An occasional ox drawn cart, communist propaganda poster and spring roll stand completed my visual sketch of the countryside. The tunnels presented a chance however to explore a less picturesque history. Our guide, a retired soldier who served in the Vietnam War, led us underground, neglecting to mention the meter tall, dark crawl space we were sharing with the bats that spend their days roaming from one passageway to the next. The network of tunnels and underground meeting rooms were used by the Viet Cong leading up the 1968 Tet offensive and eventually the seizure of Saigon in 1975.
After making it out if the tunnels without turning into the newest member of the Twilight gang, my curiosity for the history of Saigon led me to the War Remnants museum. The museum was a must for me in understanding the city’s transition from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally I make a point of taking in at least one natural history museum, or fine art collection on any city stop, as these places tend to provide a few hours of quiet reflection on the bustle I encounter in trying to experience a city on foot.
The entrance is difficult to miss, with left over US tanks and shell casings lining the driveway. I was tapped on the shoulder by the stub of an arm, attached to a man who wanted only to know my citizenship. I hesitated wondering if I could pass as Dutch and then swallowed my pride and whispered “American.” The man looked at me as if he had already known and picked me out of the crowd as someone who carried so much embarrassment and guilt upon seeing the propaganda in the War museum that I would gladly hand over the contents of my wallet. He was right. This living image of the continued suffering brought about by war rang loud inside the museum walls, and for the remainder of my time in the city.
Although the museum left my head in a rebellious cloud of propaganda and uncertainty about my country as well as the one I was traveling, I stepped back out into Saigon for a night out with my Korean comrades. We hit up Pham Ngu Lao, district 1 where I overheard a group of expats talking about Bob Dylan giving a concert after nearly forty years of singing anti-war anthems heavily inspired by the Vietnam war. I wondered if Bob Dylan too felt the same full circle sensation I had as I attempted to come home again, seeing my friends here in this new setting. We found a Korean restaurant and the Hangeul seemed to flow faster than soju as we reminisced on our year together. This group has found a new home in Saigon, a city that has initiated them amidst communist stars, crispy rolls and spider webs of traffic. Just in case our old nomad neighbors had any thoughts of forgetting about us as they acclimate to their new city I made sure to leave a little token of my affection in the form of a stray kitten, once white, and in need of some love from fellow nomads.
Surprise…or maybe not a surprise to some, I am off again! After accepting teaching positions with SABIS in the Western region of the United Arab Emirates, Matt and I now find ourselves in a familiar setting…an immigration office wondering “what the hell are we doing?” I have come to think of these moments just before I lay myself at the mercy of a new culture as similar to the feeling of walking into a blind date, and truth be told, I have been to more countries at this point than on blind dates and certainly had more success with the former. But with Valentine’s day upon us I thought I would take this moment to look at this unique culture as a potential love affair, one that I plan to flirt a bit with first, before opening a bottle of bubbly.
So here is what I know so far: Located on the Arabian peninsula, the UAE is comprised of 7 emirates united under one president (Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi) but each sovereign and ruled by an autonomous Sheikh. The UAE is an Islamic nation whose muslim locals make up a mere 20% of the population, the remaining 80% comprised of Expats ranging from Pakistanis to Europeans. Dubai has in the last decade soared to overwhelming wealth and development now boasting Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building, as well as an indoor ski slope. The UAE has grown in recent years from oil funds while they sit on 10% of the world’s oil…not bad for a country less than half the size of Washington state!
At this point my first impressions, despite being warned about Matt and I holding hands in public, showing too much ankle and having to acquire a “drinking licence” are optimistic. Located within reach of countries that have been on my travel wish list longer than I have been “borrowing” airplane blankets, and boasting cuisine that has been salivated over by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and James Martin, I jumped at this dream date. How could I not be intrigued by a culture so widely rumored about through media sources, and yet mysterious to the Western world? I am putting my “to-do” list on hold, rolling down my pant cuffs and borrowing a tip from an admired adventurist: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.” ~Mark Twain. Hopefully my love affair with the UAE is sparked at first sight, but like most true romances, it will be a labor of patience, time and magic carpet rides🙂 And I don’t think I will have too hard a time holding off on the bubbly this dry Valentine’s….it’s prophet Muhhamed‘s birthday.
“May the grace of God be with you always in your heart,
May you know the truth inside you from the start,
May you find the strength to know you are part of something beautiful.”
~ Alexi Murdoch
I attended a Steiner school growing up, an experience that has undoubtedly helped to shape my future educational goals and may be a clue to answering the question nagging my every rucksack weighted step “Why can’t I shake this travel bug???” The permission to be curious about the world around me and to continue to ask questions and search for answers was instilled in my Steiner education from a young age. This curiosity is THE reason I find myself now, typing away perched on a ladder, overlooking the beautiful blue mountains at the KindleHill Steiner school in Wentworth Falls! I have spent a remarkable two weeks here volunteering with the HelpX program to build a new school, and never have I been so far from my home and felt so very much at home in this welcoming and eclectic community.
The KindleHill school is using a unique cobb construction technique that I have been thrilled to be a part of, waking up early to mix materials, shovel cob, climb ladders and render walls. My evenings are spent in the workshop accommodation eating meals lovingly prepared by dedicated parents and translating jokes between the other volunteers representing five different nationalities. On weekends I wander into nearby Katoomba by train for the world’s BEST coffee and pastry from cafe Zuppa, and to chat it up with some colorful locals, before I take off on a bushwalk into some breathtaking territory. Yep, life is pretty sweet at the moment.
My constant struggle with moving from place to place has rung true blue here in that I am constantly saying good-bye to somewhere or someone and I always have that feeling that my heart will never repair itself. But it does regenerate and I am able to hold on to fond memories of all these wonderful places and the people who inhabit them and feel so unbelievably blessed to have been part of their lives for even a short while. Thank you thank you thank you to the KindleHill school for your love, generosity, openness to volunteers from far reaches of the earth and for your dedication to educating this generation in such a meaningful way.
I thought I would squeeze one more island trip into my tour of the North East coast of Queensland. Just off of Townsville lies the little gem that is magnetic island complete with eucalyptus breeze, baby koala and coconut bowling!? This was definitely the place to combine my attempts to converse with nature and pure mischievous mayhem. If you are looking for either of these in your vacation, then check out the Bungalow Bay Koala Village.
Besides miles of gorgeous beach and a maze of bushwalks to choose from, the Bungalow Bay Koala village has an animal sanctuary worth taking a peek. Bungalow Bay offers a champagne breakfast in the sanctuary followed by a tour of the grounds where you can sip your morning cocktail while holding a cockatoo. I have seen my fair share of cute and cuddly animals but by far the baby Koala takes the cake (or eucalyptus) as THE cutest creature, clinging wide-eyed to the furry back of his very relaxed momma bear. During our tour I had the pleasure of holding a crocodile, wrapping myself in a python, and walking mystified through a forest of butterflies. Unlike the underwater wildlife I had experienced diving in the whitsundays, amongst exotic birds, reptiles and crimson streaked protea, I was free to hold my breath in wonder at this unique land I have stumbled in to.
The evenings at the Koala village are well-organized by staff with drink and dinner specials and events such as the infamous coconut bowling party where guests represent their home country by hurling a coconut at a line of bowling pins hoping not to launch any into the nearby pool. Of course an American won the whole thing🙂 putting everyone else to shame, although the Germans did make a comeback after singing the best version of their national anthem. With lazy afternoons spent poolside, crack-up evenings in the open-air hostel bar and morning walks through the bush in search of wild life, magnetic Island really is the full package deal. During my twenty-minute ferry ride back to Townsville I heard that familiar voice I occasionally have when departing a particularly perfect place “Why are you leaving???”
What do silica rich, white sand beaches, sea turtles, some of the world’s best diving, tall, wind-filled sails and me sipping Australian Shiraz on a boat deck have in common? These things and more can all be found in the paradise that is the Whitsundays. After arriving in rainy Sydney last week (it is after all Spring here) I bee-lined it up the coast to Airlie beach to take in what is rumored to be the most beautiful place in the world, and I think that thus far, I would have to agree.
The whitsundays consist of 74 islands in the heart of the great barrier reef, off the central coast of Queensland. I made my home-base the small town of Airlie Beach, taking 2-4 day trips from this point, trying to see as much of the area and soak in as much sun as I could before having to head South into some unpredictable Spring weather. Airlie is, from a tourist perspective, the place you come while on your way somewhere, making it a great place to book tours, spend jet-lagged hours on the beach or celebrate into the wee hours while you shake off your sea legs after a three-day cruise. I stayed at the waterfront backpackers and was very pleased with this decision. Down the road is the more raucous magnum’s hostel with some affordable dinner options and a good bar scene. Through waterfront backpackers I was able to book my 3 day cruise onto Wings II, a sailboat headed into the whitsundays. For $340 AUS my trip included 3 days, 2 nights on the sail boat, delicious meal after delicious meal, a free night back on shore in the backpackers, snorkeling equipment, and a few other perks like internet use and coffee in the morning. All in all a pretty sweet deal, not to mention, that for someone backpacking alone, I was overjoyed by the group of fun, adventurous travellers aboard Wings II.
I should say first that I usually have some motion sickness when I am…on ANYTHING moving, so the decision to board a relatively small sailboat for three days was a risky one. The pharmacy in Airlie beach is well stocked with ginger tablets and, if need be, drugs strong enough to sedate a crocodile if things get really bad. Despite a few rough hours I felt top-notch the entire trip. That is until I decided to give scuba diving a try…
It really is a wonder I travel at all, considering I am asthmatic, terrified of heights, allergic to anything with fur, dairy or pollen, frequently nauseous, prone to panic attacks, blind as a bat, and downright clumsy. But you are only in the center of the great barrier reef with a private dive instructor on a beautiful sailboat once, right? So I did my first introductory dive, not so smoothly I have to admit but with the help of very patient instructors (I squeezed the dive master’s hand while swimming around the ocean until we were all the way back on the boat) I went diving! Over the next two days I saw a moray eel, neemo fish, a humphead wrasse named George, a turtle, a mother humpback with a brand new baby and the best sunsets I have seen since I left the Pacific Northwest over a year ago.
The whitsundays are an absolute must on any East coast Australian itinerary, and well worth extending a visa for an extra few weeks in ( I promise I will come home someday Mom!) I am off to Townsville and Magnetic island next to check out the Koala sanctuary and a rumored coconut bowling party that sounds sweet-as🙂 (in the process of learning to speak Australian…and I thought Korean was tricky!)
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
A new and contagious epidemic is sweeping South Korea and the rest of the world and it’s not the swine flu or yellow dust. The upcoming world cup has brought out radical fans, new theme songs and every excuse to party from Seoul to Busan as a red sea of patriotic football fanatics sing praises to the “Red Devils.”
With kick off in less than a week Korea has made sure to clothe every citizen working in hospitality from hotel staff to grocery clerks in red jerseys in support of the South Korean team affectionately called “The Reds” or “The Red Devils.” Korea’s beer “Hite” has changed its label from a generic looking orange and blue motif to a series of football comic strips. Schools have held world cup themed sports days where classes compete in massive football games emulating their favorite players. Little is known about pre-game build up coming from the North Korean fans but NPR recently reported that key Northern player Jong Tae-Se has vowed to score a goal in every one of the team’s scheduled matches. Not an easy task given the tough draw the North Koreans have been stuck with.Jong Tae Se
The most advantageous aspect of the games for us will be the live broadcast being projected onto an 80′ tall screen in the open-air stadium across the street. With the time difference from South Africa to Korea all games will be played between 8pm and 3:30am Korean time. I can safely forecast three weeks of summer nLonely Planet’s homepage ights tailgating Korean style in the very near future. Stay tuned for world cup updates from Korea and be sure to check out as bloggers from around the globe write in about their world cup experience.