Malay Peninsula 12: Koh Lipe part 2

This beautiful, glorious day was all I could have asked for in a tropical island vacation. After several days of mediocre or downright unpleasant experiences, the holiday gods smiled upon me once more. This day is the reason why Koh Lipe has made it to the top of the return destinations list. I’d be worried about singing it’s praises, but since this post isn’t going to be seen by more than 200 people, I don’t expect that I’ll spur a tourist revolution.

What I’ve read about Thailand seems to indicate that it was full of island paradises 30 years ago, but the tourism industry has turned nearly everything into a marketing scheme and the trash tourists bring with them has destroyed once pristine beaches and coral reefs. Koh Lipe is the only island in a national park where permanent (non-government) structures are allowed. It has no big roads and limited access to any transportation other than the small longtail boats and scooters. Boat access to the other islands in the park is relatively easy from Koh Lipe and it makes for a cleaner and less crowded experience than other Thai island destinations.


Good Morning Koh Lipe

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I booked a snorkeling tour package ahead of time. I needn’t have bothered, however, since a stroll down walking street showed dozens of companies doing boat tours, snorkeling tours, and scuba instruction. Plus, most hotels and hostels rent out basic snorkel equipment, and one can simply walk out into the water from any beach and see cool stuff. I booked with a company called Paradise Tours. The tour I chose had access to multiple reefs across several islands and the absolute coup de grâce, glowing plankton!

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The boat wasn’t set to leave until 1pm , so I took myself down to Pataya for breakfast. I found a little shaded cafe overlooking the beach which was dazzling in the early morning sunshine. I was relieved to see that the storm clouds had passed since rain can cloud up the water and make snorkeling less fun. I ordered scrambled eggs and got served a massive portion and a complimentary slice of sweet fruity bread that they made on site. My Thai iced coffee came in a tall thin glass that made me feel posh and decadent. I took a food pic but only later realized that the plate and glass were both large enough that it’s impossible to tell the scale, but trust me it was generous.

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After breakfast I headed out to find a beach bag. Well, a waterproof bag anyway. These are sold in abundance on walking street in many sizes. The idea is that it’s a bag you can put your phone and wallet in (or even towel and change of clothes) then take it in the water (no diving, but surface swimming is ok) and your stuff will still be dry. This was great for me since I had no one to watch my things on the beach if I went swimming (one more reason for beachfront accommodation next time), and I definitely wanted to make sure that my phone stayed dry on the afternoon’s snorkel excursion. I’d already had to replace my Korean sandals that came apart in the rain, I wasn’t risking anything else. The shops on walking street have everything you could need on the island. Swimsuits, sandals, diving gear, beach wear, even pharmacies and a hospital are all available. It was easy as pie to pick out my water bag and head back into the jungle once more to fill it up and leave the non-essentials behind.

I went through more sunscreen on the island of Koh Lipe than anywhere else, but when you are a pasty, porcelain skinned, melanin deficient, sun wimp, the main line of defense tends to be clothes, hats and sunbrellas, none of which work well when swimming. Ergo, beaches mean the all over application of sunscreen. Follow that up with a liberal dose of mosquito repellent and while you may smell a little odd, you’ll be more comfortable in the long run. I managed not to burn at all and only sustained one mosquito bite that left any lasting impact. Better living through chemistry!

Snorkeling Adventure

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Wearing my swimsuit and new sarong, armed with my waterproof bag, I joined the expedition at the headquarters on walking street. Once our party was assembled, we headed down to the beach to board our boats. They split us up, and I ended up with a group of 4 young westerners who were quite happy to include me in their day. It was a pleasant surprise because they clearly had a group vibe, but still worked hard to make sure I felt included in the activities when we were above water. The early morning insanely bright sun had gone behind a light gray cloud cover for which I was relieved. I know that UV can still be dangerous on a cloudy day, but it’s easier on the eyes and it’s less hot. The downside is that all those photos you see online of the crystal turquoise water are a result of the intense direct sunlight and my photos are a little less stunning. But I’ll take a comfortable experience over a stunning photo, since my adventures are about memory and I am not a paid photographer.

I don’t have a large number of photos of that day anyway, since I still haven’t managed to do a fundraiser to get a go-pro or other underwater camera in my life, the underwater pictures here are all from the Paradise Tours page to give you an idea of what I experienced. For whatever reason, they didn’t take any photos the day I went, even though it’s supposed to be part of the package. All the other photos are, as usual, mine unless otherwise noted.

Tarutao National Park

dive-sites-mapWe went to three different snorkeling spots around Koh Lipe, all of them a part of the Tarutao National Park chain of islands and each one even tinier than Lipe: Jabang, Hin Ngam, and Koh Yang. It may have struck you by now how many places start with Koh, which is because เกาะ (koh) means “island”, so saying “Koh Lipe” is the same as saying “Lipe Island”. You can see from the map that there are two larger islands, which I gather are the main part of the national park and are nature preserves where the only accommodation is camping by government approval. Thus even though it is much smaller, Lipe is the  place people stay when they want to explore the islands.

Underwater Life

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I guess that people who dive all the time get disappointed on dives when only the plain fish come out. I didn’t see any giant sea turtles or whale sharks or anything rare, but that didn’t make the experience less stunning to me. Coral reefs are like giant underwater gardens filled with multicolored life at all levels. Just enjoying the rock and coral formations is a treat as you feel like you’re flying above the ocean floor. The sea is teeming with tropical fish that most of us only ever see in an aquarium or “Finding Nemo”.

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Not counting the myriad of fish I could not hope to identify, I know for certain that I saw clown fish, angel fish, parrot fish, trigger fish, fusilier fish, sea cucumbers, anemone, starfish, giant clams, sea urchins, bright blue christmas tree worms, stunningly enormous moorish idols everywhere (that’s Gill from Finding Nemo, btw), a wide variety of rainbow hued wrasse, balloon and box fish, and a thing called a cornet fish. The coronet fish totally weirded me out. At the third reef of the day I encountered this odd looking fish, but unlike the other fish that day, the coronet froze and stared at me. I froze and stared back as we both tried to decide if the other was dangerous. At the time, I only knew the names of maybe half a dozen of these, but i was able to identify the rest using my trusty friend “Google”. All these links lead to pictures of the creatures on Florent’s Guide.

Three Reefs and a Rock Island

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Jabang is famous for it’s red coral. It was our first stop and we arrived about the same time as another tour group. It was amazing to me how many people on the tours didn’t know how to swim. Everyone in my boat was a strong swimmer, but I observed a large number of people from other boats in life vests and clinging to the buoy lines that had been put up to mark the reef’s location. I didn’t realize that the snorkeling equipment listed didn’t include fins, and I didn’t do much downward exploration because I am a natural flotation device. People in Asia seem to use life vests for everything, even shallow water or narrow, slow running rivers. Of course I wear them if I’m going too far from shore to swim, icy water, or otherwise dangerous situations, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see them while snorkeling!

The current was strong and I found that I had to work hard just to stay in one place. But we were surrounded by boats, each one with a dive captain assigned to it, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. It had been almost two years since my last coral reef swim in Aqaba. I was excited just to be there. The reefs are huge and filled with fish at all levels, including some that will come right up to you to see if you have anything interesting. Toward the end of our time there, it got a little crowded, but since more than half the people were glued to the buoy lines, it didn’t take much effort to swim a short distance and get space to myself.

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The swimming site on the south side of Hin Ngam was less crowded, had much less of a current, and I felt more comfortable exploring. I drifted around and finally started to get used to swimming without fins. Normally when snorkeling, you keep your arms to your side and use gentle foot motions to glide forward. Without fins, I started out splashing way to much while kicking my feet, but I eventually settled into a reverse style where I left my feet still and used a variant on breast stroke to pull myself forward through the water. With less of a crowd and feeling more at home in the water, I soon found myself immersed in the rhythmic breathing of the snorkel and the entrancing experience that is a coral reef. Before I knew it, the guide was waving me back to the boat and it was time to move on to the next spot.

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We took a break from swimming to go check out the north side Hin Ngam itself. The island is not accessible all year, but is a unique attraction because its north beach is made entirely of smooth rounded rocks. Every other beach is smooth white or pale sand, but here the shore is mounds of round rocks of all sizes. There is a myth that whoever removes a rock from the island will be cursed, and another that says whoever can make a stack of 12 rocks will have their wish come true. The Thai government is all for supporting the first myth as the island would soon vanish if tourists removed rocks; however, the tradition of stone stacking is also frowned upon. There were more signs warning us not to stack stones than there were warning us not to steal them. I could not figure out the logic behind this at the time and have since been entirely unable to find any other reference to the stone stacking ban online. There is only blog after blog inviting visitors to stack their own. I am trying to imagine what damage could be done to the park. Could the stones be breaking when they fall over? Could the human rearranging of small and large stones be interfering with the structural integrity of the island? Why does the Thai government object?

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Who knows. But I’m sure you can predict that our group did not honor the signs, and at least two of them set about constructing a lucky tower. It’s harder than it sounds. Because the stones are round and smooth, there is no way to efficiently stack them. The trick is to start with the largest stone and get progressively smaller, and to find stones that are more elliptical than round. While my boat-mates were constructing, I wandered a little further inland to see a small display that showed the curse for removing stones in several languages and a small shrine that I didn’t quite recognize. (I would see several dozen more like it while in Thailand, but more on that in a later post). The stones were beautiful, a muted gray color and banded with stripes of yellow, white, blue and green. Their soft shape is caused by the unique way the water has pounded them over the millennia.

Our next stop, and our final coral reef, was at Koh Yang. This was the shallowest of the reefs we visited, which was a mixed blessing. Although in shallower water, it is easier to see the bottom dwelling fish without free-diving, it also means the coral are much closer. Much much closer. It was not as shallow as the reef I went to in Jeddah which had barely enough water to swim in without touching the corals below; however, while I was treading water and talking to people still on the boat, I managed to whack my foot into a boulder sized coral growth resulting in one of the worst types of injuries you can get for its size. At the time, I was in the water, and full of adrenaline and endorphins, so I glanced quickly at it to make sure I wasn’t gushing blood and then promptly got distracted by the coral reef. This place was much emptier than the other spots we’d visited as far as people, and the crystal clear water gave me plenty to look at. Of course it’s fun to see the stars of the ocean, but even an ordinary neighborhood coral reef is a feast for the eyes filled with tiny, intricate creatures and the wonderful illusion of flight as you soar over them.

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Counting my coral injury, 3 of the most interesting things happened at this reef. The other two were 1) my encounter with the coronet fish, which was odd both because I had no idea what he was and because he spent a good long while watching me, when other fish simply ignored me or glanced in my direction momentarily. When all ocean life is just going about it’s business and one fish pauses to watch you, it’s memorable. And 2) the parrot fish feeding. I had seen the odd parrot fish at the other two reefs, but they were everywhere here and multiple sub-species/color patterns.

Parrot fish are named for their “beaks” because they eat coral. Some reserves even worry that they may be endangering what’s left of the reefs and work to limit the population. Thailand doesn’t seem to be on that list because “don’t eat the parrot fish” signs dotted the beaches. Nonetheless, the fish eat coral, crunching it with strong beak-like mouths and digesting out all the nutritious bits before excreting the remainder as sand (sorry if I just ruined your barefoot beach walk).  At first I was confused by the sound i heard underwater, but soon realized that it correlated to each mouthful the fish took from the reef and I remembered that documentary (because I adore ocean documentaries) and realized I must be hearing the chomp chomp of parrot fish jaws. The reef here was shallow enough and the parrot fish plentiful enough that I could hear them crunching away on their dinner.

12552862_1774943286067791_30421379723713114_nWhen it was time to get back in the boat, I got a better look at my foot, which bled for about a minute, then stopped. I rinsed it out with fresh water and the scrapes seemed shallow and sparse. I think I’ve had worse carpet burns. I knew the complications that are possible with coral scrapes from my last run in with the sharp sharp critters, but at the time, I thought it looked ok and had been rinsed sufficiently. (this is what we call “foreshadowing”)

Sunset BBQ on the Beach

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We boated over to an isolated beach on Adang for dinner and sunset. The beach looked like the set of Lost and we joked that the black smoke monster or possibly a maniac wearing a Dharma Initiative jumpsuit would burst from the jungle behind us at any minute. While the guides were cooking our barbecue, we wandered up and down the beach, found a little freshwater stream that was ice cold in comparison with the warm sea water, took an endless number of photos of and for each other (including a little Dirty Dancing reenactment), and generally splashed around on the amazing paradisaical beach.

Dinner was simple grilled chicken and salad, but it was plentiful and we were hungry after all that swimming. Afterward we were treated to an amazing sunset. The cloud cover from the day provided a dramatic outline for beams of sun to play hide and seek and for the dying day to cast a golden crown along the edge of the sky. We watched until the last glimmer of glow had sunk and in the purple twilight, we re-boarded the boats for our final stop of the tour.

To Neverland

I have an addiction to bio-luminescence, maybe to pretty lights in general because I find myself drawn to every lantern festival and fireworks display I can find, but there’s something magical about living things that glow. I was lucky enough to live in a part of the country with fireflies as a child, but I haven’t in years. The glowworms of NZ were one of the highlights of my trip there. Glowing living things are awesome.

You know those lists on Facebook that say, “50 amazing things to see before you die” or “20 beautiful places you didn’t know existed”? Most people look at them and go, “ooooh aaaah”, and then forget about it because we’re never going to get there. One such list I looked at years ago included the bio-luminescent plankton in the Maldives. I made grabby hands motions at my computer before realizing at that time in my life, there was just no way to make it happen. Years later, when I was researching Thailand and what to do in the tiny slice of it that shares the Malay peninsula, I ran across repeated mentions of glowing plankton. My dreams rekindled. I had to put that on the itinerary, no excuses.

I had no idea what to expect. The photos of the glowworms had been dramatically different from the reality (not at all a let down, but not accurate either), and I knew that most of the pictures and video of the plankton was from the famous beach in the Maldives where the glow is especially strong or simply time lapsed or otherwise enhanced. Understandably, looking at tiny specks of light on a black background is not a great photo. Pictures show a beach at night where the normally white foam glows blue, or people wading/floating in water that seems to have a diffuse blue LED glow. Maybe those things exist somewhere I haven’t been yet, but they weren’t here.

Our glowing spot was just off a boat access only beach back on Lipe. As we sped across the water, the sunset diminished and the stars began to come out. We pulled up to our beach a little early, and the guides said we had to wait for full dark. One of the girls on our boat had done a tour in Australia with glowing plankton, but she said they only put their feet over the side of the boat and kicked at the water, creating a soft blue glow. I looked at the water and at the surf on the beach for any sign of light, but could only detect reflections. Finally, they told us that the plankton were present and it was time to get in. We still couldn’t see anything and our guide swished his hand around in the black water, trying to show us. I thought I saw a tiny sparkle, but couldn’t be sure. You have to look under the water, he said.

I fixed my mask in place and descended into the ocean carefully because it was now too dark to see the bottom and I didn’t want another collision with rock or coral. Knowing that the plankton’s glow was activated by motion, I put my face down and waved a hand tentatively in front of my eyes. I nearly swallowed seawater in my utter shock at the response I received. As I drew my hand through the clear water, tiny sparkles emerged and trailed behind my fingertips. I was the first in the water. Everyone else was still on the boat, nervous because they couldn’t see anything. To catch my breath and get my bearings, I popped my head up long enough to exclaim my delight and wonderment to the other passengers before returning to the underwater marvel.

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I wasn’t angry Tinkerbell, but this gif shows via fairy cartoon the way the sparkles trailed from my hands and feet when I moved.

Despite not being able to see anything from the surface, once looking underwater, there was enough light to make out the large rocks and corals on the bottom. Similar in many ways to a meadow by moonlight, the detail was vague and the shadows intense, but it was far from a black abyss. While observing the reefs, the strategy was to move as little as possible, here we thrashed, flailed and spun with vigor. At one point, without any communication, we formed a ring and kicked our feet in the middle to summon the largest glow we could manage and then broke apart to revel in our private magical flights. Each movement of hand or foot brought a new ribbon of sparkles, exactly like CGI magic effects, but made of living light. As I looked down at the nightscape beneath me, fairy lights trailing from my toes, I felt an overwhelming sensation of being in Neverland, dusted by Tinkerbell and flying with my happiest thoughts.


This tour – boat, equipment, guide, snacks, dinner all included came to about 25$ US and there are way more than 3 places in the National Park to find good coral reefs. I long to go back and spend a week or more alternating between lazy beach days, snorkeling, night diving, and maybe a night of camping on one of the uninhabited islands. I hope you’ll check out the rest of my photos of Koh Lipe on Facebook and stay tuned for further adventures in Thailand. Thanks for reading!

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Gaya Kingdom: Myth and History

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a school field trip to the Gaya Theme Park in Gimhae (near the Busan airport). I had never been on a school field trip before, and while some of you may be thinking, ugh a day of corralling screaming kids outside, my unenviable position as foreigner gave me a bit of a pass on kid wrangling and a lot more freedom to indulge my sightseeing urges.

The Gaya Theme Park is a strange combination of history, mythology and recreation. Let’s start with the history part.

What is the Gaya Confederacy?

Korea has not always been a single unified nation. I was not taught Korean history beyond the US involvement in the Korean war at any point during my education, which is vastly disappointing since I studied East Asia at University. I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps since arriving here. There’s not much history in any part of the BCE. There’s some fossils and pottery and a legend about a kingdom that dates back to more than 2000 BCE. The first records seem to be from a Chinese encounter in the 7th century CE, but the seat of that Kingdom and most of it’s stuff was in what is now North Korea, so we may never know any more than what we find in the Chinese records.

china mapSkipping ahead to the first century CE, we get what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo (purple) controlled huge swaths of the north including what is now North Korea and parts of China (it is also where we get the English word “Korea” from, since their word for their own country is hanguk) The south was divided between Baekje (yellow) on the west, and Silla (blue) on the east. Except, there were more than three. The Gaya confederacy wedged it’s way between Baekje and Silla for almost 500 years. And let’s not forget the Tamna, who were a whole other Kingdom until the 1400’s! But, sure, it’s the Three Kingdoms Period.

UntitledBetween it’s mythic founding 42 CE and it’s surrender to Silla in 562 CE, the Gaya confederate existed in the south central area of the Korean peninsula, just barely missing Busan (where I live) but keeping it’s capital in the nearby Gimhae (where our airport lives). They did some fishing and agriculture, but were most famous for their ironwork. It was a rough confederation of 6-12 different Gayas. When they Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, they claimed that Gaya had been a Japanese military outpost from 300-710 to justify their “return”, but no scholars take this claim seriously today.

Ok. History part done. Let’s get colorful.

6 Golden Eggs

The theme park is located in Gimhae because that is thought to be the historical capital of the biggest baddest Gaya of the confederacy, the Geumgwan Gaya. I was worried about the weather since the heat had been bad a couple of days during the week, but between happy weather gods and the fact that the theme park was up at a higher elevation, it was a stunningly sunny day with blue skies, fluffy clouds and cool breezes.

20170526_140450As we entered the park, the first statue was of a giant golden egg with 5 smaller eggs around it’s base. I was taking pictures of absolutely everything, hoping to figure it out later, so I snapped a shot and kept walking with the group. My co-teacher saw me take the picture and told me that the egg was there because the founding king of Gaya was hatched from an egg that fell from the sky. She also referred to this as “history” although I’m hopeful the last part was just a linguistics flub and that no one here seriously thinks that kings really hatched from sky eggs in the good old days. I could not figure out how to ask this without sounding rude, tho, so I let it go.

The Palace & The Indian Princess

20170526_100351.jpgWe made our way deeper into the park heading directly for the palace. It’s a replica palace. Very little archaeological evidence of Gaya has been found, although the tomb of Suro (first king of Gaya) is maintained in Gimhae as well. The palace grounds are reminiscent of Chinese palace architecture with familiar canted roofs and wide open courtyards between buildings. The colors and designs are quite unique to Korea, being less the scarlet and gold of China and more earth toned versions of dusty rose, pink, taupe yellow and pea green.

The kids ran eagerly around the courtyards and explored the buildings inside and out. Within each open building were some museum like decorations showing the furniture, art, history and stories of the Gaya king and his Indian queen.

What? Yes, that’s right. His queen was said to be from India. While the king’s building was full of pottery, iron work, carvings and paintings, the queen’s building was a more wistful romance story including a wall where visitors could tie wishes written on paper, a love throne for two, a hall of stars (using mirrors and LED lights to create the illusion of a blue star filled eternity), and the “pasa stone pagoda”. The pasa stones, the sign said in broken English, were red stones from India used to appease the sea gods during her voyage, and later erected in the palace. I have no idea if these stones are actually from an archaeological dig, or from India, or if it’s just a collection of rocks from the area stacked up to look like the ritual rock stacks common all over Asia.

20170526_101605One room had a huge map along a wall showing the queen’s “romance road of Asia”, paths from India to Korea picked out in red and blue. Another sign seemed to imply that the queen had brought Buddhism into Korea, however that is highly unlikely. I suppose she may have brought hers to Gaya (assuming that she was actually Indian) but the northern Kingdom of Goguryeo got it from their Chinese neighbors. I question her Indian origin story because the myth (written originally in the Samguk Yusa in the 13th century, it’s a kind of history/mythology mashup of the Three Kingdoms period) refers to her as being from Ayuta, a “distant kingdom across the sea”, but the name doesn’t correspond to the name of any country or city from that time period in India or any other country.

However, in the 21st century a gaggle of historians and diplomats (including the North Korean ambassador to India) went and did a statue of the queen in Ayodhya, India, believing it to be the “Ayuta” refered to in the Samguk Yusa account of the tale. Although the statue was accepted, the Indian government says there is no evidence of any such person in their historical records or mythology. (citation BBC)

The Story of Miracle Love

20170526_100403We took our time around the palace complex, letting the kids run off some of their excitement after the long bus ride. There were plenty of historical things of interest, but no teachers tried to make the kids focus on learning, nor was there a guided tour where kids were shuffled from one room to another while someone explained things. They did separate out the grades so that no one building became too full, but on the whole, the kids were on their own to enjoy the space.

20170526_103748After a while, we headed out of the palace complex and back toward the main entrance to the theater. Turtle imagery was everywhere. A large mountain with an artificial waterfall towered over the theater building. A gray stone turtle lurked in the pond below and another golden one perched precariously on an outcropping halfway up the mountain! I asked about the turtles, but my co-teacher didn’t know (don’t worry, there’s an answer later).

The theater offered a showing of a musical rendition of the love story of King Suro and Queen Heo (alternatively Hur) called “Miracle Love”. I was a bit nervous of going to see a musical in Korean. I didn’t want to pester my co-teacher to translate while we were watching, so I figured I’d just enjoy the music, costumes and dancing. However, the theater thoughtfully had installed some large screens on either side of the stage where English translations were displayed. It was immensely helpful, if still a little grammatically imprecise.

20170526_110511The story began with two archaeologists stumbling onto a large cache of relics from the Gaya period. Their song explained with some lament how little was known of Gaya before this discovery. Then a cave in knocked our archaeologists unconscious and a hazy dream fantasy of the mythstory of King Suro began in earnest. Dancers dressed as the zodiac animals performed intricate dances on stage as some kind of high priest or shaman character sang of the strife, war and drought in the land, praying to the heavens for deliverance which arrived in the form of 6 eggs. (although all 6 eggs hatched out kings, 5 of them were elsewhere being kings of other parts of Gaya, so aren’t in this story)

20170526_110923The glowing egg hatched to reveal the full grown form of Suro who is proclaimed king on the spot and is expected to wield the power to heal the land. Yay! But it’s not easy being king. The drought continues and his people begin to resent him for not living up to the promise of his celestial birth.

20170526_111433Meanwhile in Ayuta (India?), the princess Heo has a dream that her destined love is in a land far away, and that she must set sail to reach him and fulfill her destiny (lots of destiny). The dancers costumes were reminiscent of saris and there were certainly hints of Indian Bollywood style music and dance moves that were obviously meant to place the princess and her handmaidens in India.

20170526_112151But OH! The villain! Satal, a god of war and a gleefully over the top villain dressed in a skull mask and rough furs and accompanied by evil temptresses dressed in black and red gauzy costumes came on to sing his number about how he would defeat Suro and become the king of Gaya, keeping the kingdom forever in a state of greed, hate, and famine. His musical style was that of classic hard rock and the stage was lit by enormous flames as he and his minions sang and danced.

20170526_112450The princess’s ship is caught in a deadly storm and she is washed ashore in the wreck. It seems the moon itself has saved her just in time to be found by king Suro and they sing a touching love duet in the style of popular Korean ballads. But their happiness cannot last. Satal and his minions kidnap the princess and beat Suro nearly to death in battle. He wants to give up. He didn’t expect this to be so difficult. Where are the heavenly powers he’s supposed to have, after all? But his loyal servant reminds him of the plight of his people and the love of his princess and his resolve is bolstered.

20170526_113408During a rallying all cast dance number, new armor is forged for the king, turning him from a dandy to a warrior. He is told he can receive the remainder of his heavenly powers upon the mountaintop and so newly armored he ascends to greet the powers of heaven, represented on stage as a white dragon flying around Suro to strengthen him. However Suro fights, Satal holds his own and the soaring duet of hero and villain waxes lyrical about the evils of greed, selfishness and divisiveness being defeated by the power of love. In the end, it is not the armor or the power of heaven that gives Suro the strength to defeat Satal, it is the love of Heo, her voice joining the song to call back to their duet and the fact that their love was made in heaven.

Strengthened by love, the king defeats Satal and restores peace, harmony and prosperity to Gaya. Everyone celebrates with this all cast finale that I managed to get a video of. There’s no direct translation, but it’s basically yay we won, isn’t love awesome? Love, love, love.

I haven’t read the Samguk Yusa, but synopses online seem to indicate that the creators of the musical may have taken a few romantic liberties with the story. I also could not help but look at this story of a man who arrives on earth in a giant egg, is nearly defeated by his enemy (another godlike being), retires to his fortress in disgrace before being reminded he has to rescue his true love and re-emerging stronger than ever to defeat General Zod… I mean Satal… and wonder if maybe he’s related to Kal’el?

What’s Up With the Turtles?

20170526_123913After the musical, we escorted the kids back over to the palace where they unpacked tiny picnic blankets and box lunches under the watchful eye of the staff while we enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air. When the kids were all done eating, they were turned loose in the playground section of the park while the grownups had a lazy lunch of fried chicken next to the lake surrounded by heaps of purple pansies.

20170526_140416On our way out of the park, I spotted a turtle garden with empty shells that kids could climb in and around, as well as a happy, smiling gray stone turtle overlooking the scene. The sign near the stone turtle informed us that the mountain where King Suro’s egg landed and hatched looked so much like a laying turtle that it was named Gujibong (gu meaning “turtle” in Korean). Which explained the mystery of why there were so many turtles around the park.

I also spotted the naked turtles who had apparently left their empty shells for kids to play in. These pink and white polka dotted creatures were caught in embarrassed poses of disrobing and we all got a pretty good chuckle about it on the way back to the buses.

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Serendipity

I had never heard of Gaya Theme Park and would not have even known to put it on my list of things to do if the school hadn’t taken me there. Looking at it now, public transit would still only get me to within 2km, though I suppose one could hire a taxi to get up the mountain, I’m not sure how the best way to get back down. My point is, it’s not a hotspot for foreign tourists.

On top of that, Gaya’s history isn’t well known even by Koreans, perhaps because so much of the archaeological evidence was lost until recently. It’s things like this that truly highlight the differences in experience between living and working in a foreign country and merely visiting one. It’s so easy for us to take for granted that our history and culture are spread across the world (first by colonialism and now by commerce and entertainment) that we can forget that every country has a rich historical and mythological tradition of it’s own. I’m grateful to have had this chance to learn about Gaya, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it with me. Please enjoy the rest of the photos of this beautiful day on the Facebook page. Thanks!

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A Year Later, Still Relevant

A year ago, after attending the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (Pride), my elation was destroyed by the Pulse shooting and after some time to process the grief and anger, I wrote this. Now, with the political climate of the US and the world drifting more and more into divisive, unhealthy, and downright dangerous territory, I think it’s important to remember these things, so I’m reposting.


It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.

Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.

Connection

The problem of violence in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….

The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being.maslows_hierarchy_of_needs Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.

In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.

To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.

We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.

2017 Add on: I could not have dreamed when I wrote that sentence what was coming, I thought I was speaking in hyperbole about Nazis… 

The “Or” Problem

tumblr_m02txbbmhq1qa1zvjAmerica is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.

Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)

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Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.

twilight-tumblr_ktux7xw1621qatyd2o1_500-breathtakingdottumblrdotcomEven in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.

guncontrol1And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler.  I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.

I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.

I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).

ojigt5fWe need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so.  Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?

Freedom and security.

Dislike and respect.

Disagreement and compassion.

Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech

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When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.

63159187In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).

In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.

Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.

In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.

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When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”

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Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.

You’re an adult. You should know better.

2017 Add onFreedom of speech also doesn’t come with a guarantee of platform or audience. No one is obliged to invite someone to speak at an event, and no one is obliged to listen to them. People like Ann and Milo don’t have a right to an auditorium or TV air time and failing to give them a chance isn’t an infringement of their right to speak without persecution or prosecution by the government, which is what the amendment guarantees.

And, because it’s come up more than once over the last year

YES THERE ARE LIMITS TO THE FREE SPEECH GUARANTEE IN THE BILL OF RIGHTS.

The first amendment does not give everyone the right to say whatever they want without legal consequences. Things not protected include: incitement to violence, false statements of fact (slander, libel, perjury, etc), obscenity (with caveats), child pornography (thank goodness), “fighting words” and offensive speech, plagiarism, and a few others. So before you get all defensive of that alt-reich, neo-nazi’s right to free speech, check out if his words really qualify.

The Crab Bucket

When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.

Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

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Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.

Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.kb2zocq

Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.

Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.

Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.

Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.

Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.

I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around crab-bucket-web1America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.

Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!

And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.

Not every bullied LGBTQIA+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.

There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.

I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world,  but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.

2017 Add on: I’m heading back to the US this summer to dispose of my stateside material goods and visit my family again. After this, I don’t think I’ll be back for a while, certainly not until there’s adequate health care and I don’t have to worry about getting stabbed to death for standing up against Islamaphobia. My mom is retiring next year, so I’m hoping she’ll be able to come out and visit me and bring my niblings along so they get to see more of the world.

That said, I’ve met several Americans who are heading home. When I asked them why, they said they felt they needed to stand up and do something about the state of things. Even when we talked about the fact that they were unlikely to ever find as good a job as we have here, let alone as good a healthcare plan, they looked sad, but resolved. I admire these people immensely and I hope that they can make a difference.

Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.

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I can’t even begin to list all of the horrible things that have happened since I first wrote this post. Increases in white supremacist violence, more restrictive laws to increase the school to prison pipeline, the Trump administration, the Paris accord withdrawal, Syria, Russia… people are scared, some feel under threat by the government’s plans to dismantle health care and other social services, and others are under threat because of the color of their skin, the god they worship, or the person they love. Don’t give up. #Resistwithcompassion.

Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

Food Fight

Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders. This post is not fun. It’s not about travel or adventure. It is relevant to these because by living in other cultures, and experiencing culture shock, we uncover things about our own culture and about ourselves that may have otherwise never come to light. This is about how food culture in Korea made me face a tiny portion of my own food wars and the treatment of food in American culture. I thought about making it private, but aside from the fact that I just don’t have that many readers, I think that there are others who have their own food fights who need to know they aren’t alone.


I don’t want to say I have an eating disorder, but I think that it’s reasonable to say I have a very good view of eating disorders from where I stand. As a child, my father made it clear to me that my grandmother (his mother) was morbidly obese, diabetic and wheelchair bound because she ate her feelings. I saw this trope in movies and TV shows, as well as in PSA style warnings in health class, so it sunk in pretty deep. So deep that when faced with feelings of sadness, grief, anger, shame, guilt, etc. my throat closes down making swallowing nigh impossible and my stomach rejects everything with a vicious roiling nausea. There are some negative emotions like insecurity, stress and anxiety which do not trigger this response, so I still stress eat from time to time, but far more common for me to fail to eat while emotional and then eat too much when I recover and realize how hungry I am.

When I lost a close friend to suicide, I was so sad for so long that I couldn’t eat anything other than plain crackers and chicken broth with white rice for about a month. Most of the time, this isn’t actually a problem, since I’ve gotten decent at being able to take some time out and bring the emotions back around and postpone the healthy meal until I finish crying myself clear. (oh, yeah, I also believe we have to experience our sadness rather than suppress it). I haven’t actually gagged or thrown up over food from emotion since I was a kid. Which is probably the source of this whole mess.

Korea has been a battle ground over this usually innocuous problem. In the US and a lot of other places, if a fat girl turns down food in public, no one really pushes. Heck, even skinny girls are nervous to be seen eating too much or the wrong thing. A lot fat shaming is placed on overweight people eating anything in public, like they’re supposed to just hide from the world and never visit restaurants. America is like one giant overbearing parent criticizing all your food choices while also being the worst frat boy bro and offering deep fried everything and sandwiches made of fried chicken “buns” with bacon in the middle. Do you want fries with that?

Korea is not the only country I’ve lived in or traveled to where eating is a social activity, but it is the only one I’ve lived in where I felt so pressured to eat more. I sit at lunch with my skinny Korean coworkers and watch them shovel mounds of food in record time. I cannot eat that fast. I think maybe when I was in high school we had to eat that fast because there was no time, but I’ve become a slow eater since then. It’s better for you. It gives you time to enjoy the food, and gives your body the time it needs for the messages to get from the stomach to the brain that you’re satisfied. Not only can I not eat as fast as these women, I can’t eat as much as they do.

Last summer, I found myself in the very awkward situation of sharing an office with a group of administrative staffers that I otherwise never see. They brought treats basically every day to share and would insist that I come away from my desk to the table to join them. Even if I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was right in the middle of working on something and didn’t want to break my train of thought. I felt like I had no choice. And that made me feel a stinging combination of anger and shame that caused my throat to close against the swallowing of the snack.

I know, it sounds silly, why have such a strong emotional response to someone offering you food? It’s not about the food. It’s about the agency. It’s about food as weapon of control. If I can’t politely decline, it’s not my choice anymore, and there is nothing that flips all my trigger switches like having my agency over my own body removed.

I made it through the awkward summer often by simply holding onto a single piece of something to make it look like I was eating more. When school started and I was once again back in the company of my regulars who were all on diets all the time. One ate a huge lunch because she planned to eat nothing else that day, while another did so because she’d skipped breakfast. I survived lunch awkwardness by simply taking less food on to my tray, but this year with the new cafeteria, the very kind lunch staff love giving me big portions. And this year there are new teachers around me who are not on diets and love bringing and sharing snacks morning and afternoon.

When the substitute had her last day with us, the music teacher ordered a whole bunch of “Mom’s Touch”, a fast food fried chicken and burgers kind of place I ate at once and only once because there was nothing else around where I was at the time I was hungover and starving. But she ordered this smorgasbord after lunch, and everyone just kept eating! Even though I’d just had lunch, even though I really don’t like Mom’s Touch, and even though fried fast food is so unhealthy, I felt solidly pressured to eat some of it.

A few weeks ago, one brought me an ice cream right after lunch. Usually when people bring me snacks, I can politely accept and just say, oh I’m still full from lunch but I’ll enjoy this later. But ice cream melts… so I ate that. And that just runs counter to everything I ever learned about food. Eating ice cream just to be polite and not because I wanted it? What!?

After a whole puberty of diets and exercise plans, calorie counting and measuring ( and an early 20s rebellion of eating all the worst things, and part of the 30s doing fad diets and more measuring), I finally came to terms with listening to my body. Eat when hungry, stop -not when full, but when no longer hungry. When craving food, think about why. Go in craving steps where you try the healthy option and wait 10-15 minutes: water, protein, fiber, fruits/veggies, lastly chocolate. This has done basically zero for my scale, but I think it makes me feel better, and it’s certainly not unhealthy.

This chronic battle with food and emotion is unlikely to ever stop entirely in my life, but I felt like it was more of a cold war in the last few years. And then today, at lunch, one of my coworkers explained that the school was doing a “food waste awareness” program and that everyone was supposed to clean their plates.

Food waste is terrible. People in wealthy countries throw away so much food, it’s insane. I am sure Korea’s waste is less than it is in America. I remember learning the weight-loss mantra “Better to waste than to waist.”, meaning better to throw it away than get fat. But of course, really it’s better to not buy it, not cook it, not put it on your plate.

The point is, I am all for food waste awareness. But here we all are in a setting with very little control over how much of what food is put on the tray (I suppose kids can ask for less of something, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen) and this “clean your plate” suggestion (not even a mandate, since of course I am an adult and they aren’t actually forcing me to finish, only asking me to set a good example for the kids) this suggestion reaches all the way back into my psyche and flips every last food autonomy switch I’ve got.

I’m sitting at the table in my dad’s kitchen in California. I don’t remember exactly when, but I’m not more than 10 years old. His wife has made some kind of Hawaiian stir fry for dinner, and I’ve been told I have to clear my plate to earn a slice of the delectable chocolate layer cake resting under glass atop the fridge. I try, I eat everything but the onions, which I hated back then. But it’s not good enough. No onions, no cake. I struggle to choke down the onions I hate so much, the cake taunting me from across the kitchen. My father is going to have his piece in front of me. I force onions in sweet and sour sauce into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow, trying to hold back tears. But my throat closes and my stomach rebels and the onions, peppers, beef, and pineapple comeback up and onto my plate.

Now there is no dinner in my stomach, and I am scolded and shamed for vomiting, for wasting, for making a mess. Dinner, cake and dignity all revoked.

This is far from the only time that food was used as a weapon or a reward, but it is the one that came back to me today when my co-teacher innocently asked me to set a good example to the students during this food waste awareness campaign. And suddenly, my stomach turns upside-down. Food is repellent and I can feel the beginnings of the clenching throat that will make swallowing impossible.

I was hungry when I sat down and we were having curry rice for lunch which I particularly enjoy.  And yet, after that I picked listlessly at my food, waiting for the others to finish first, which they always do, and to leave me alone at the table where I could nibble until nearly everyone was gone and I could dispose of the rest of my lunch as unobserved as possible. Now I am ashamed to waste food and to let the children see me do so.

I love food. I don’t understand how it is that we create in ourselves this kind of conflict, guilt and shame over food. Shame over eating, shame over not eating. I can’t help but think back to my brief time in France, a country that takes pride in food preparation and spends time to eat and enjoy it. Maybe I’m being wishful in believing that somewhere there is a culture that does not have the complex love-hate relationship with food that I grew up into. Until I find it, though, I just have to keep digging the shrapnel out of the scars of my past, hoping they’ll heal more completely each time.

In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.


May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival

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Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.

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There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.

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On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival

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I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.

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There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).

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There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.

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Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.


I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

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Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

Malay Peninsula 9: Clothes shopping in Georgetown

Here in Korea, Spring chugs along into summer. The mornings I stand outside overseeing the kids recite their daily English are still a little bit chilly, but by the time I leave school at 4, it’s hot enough to want a shower and an ice cream at home. The festivals of May are coming fast and furious, and just today, the whole 6th grade went away on a field trip, leaving me with some unexpected free time to power through another story from winter break.

The next major destination of interest on this trip is actually Koh Lipe in Thailand, but it would take me two more days in two more cities to get there. In researching my travel path, I came to realize that Penang and Langkawi are places that used to be awesome hidden gems, but have gone mainstream tourist in the last few years. This story is less about Malaysia and more about clothes, but sometimes that’s where the adventure takes you, especially when it ruins a pair of pants and requires an emergency replacement.


By Train and Ferry

20170122_100830The train from Ipoh to Butterworth was a delightful piece of transportation, and in retrospect, the last clean and comfortable transit option I would get on this trip. The train was spacious, sparkly clean and climate controlled with a nice view of the Malaysian countryside out the window. The train station in Butterworth is easy walking distance from the ferry terminal and bus station allowing me to take a quick detour and buy my bus ticket to Kuala Perlis. (there were only two running each day so I didn’t want to miss the morning bus!)  Then I headed over to the ferry terminal to catch the quick boat over to the island of Penang. The ferry ride was brief yet delightful, with beautiful views of the cities and a cooling breeze.

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From the ferry terminal I was able to hop on the free cat bus toward downtown Georgetown. I know that “cat” stands for “central area transit” but I could not help but be amused at the similarity to the famous Miyazaki character from My Neighbor Totoro. No, the Georgetown bus didn’t have a furry face or eight legs, but I liked the idea that I was riding in the cat bus anyway. The free bus has stops all around the central area and is a great way to see the sights. In my case, a great way to get closer to my hotel.

Who Colonized this Architecture?

I was staying in a UNESCO world heritage neighborhood, and my little hotel was doing it’s best to live up to the standard. The whole place was dripping with charm and atmosphere. The architecture and decor was some strange clash of China and New Orleans. I’m not sure how else to describe it, because I haven’t been to many places that have the unique New Orleans architectural style which I always understood to be a French influence, yet here in Georgetown, which was a British colony, I found that the styles were far less colonial British and far more colonial French. I’m not an architectural expert, and you shouldn’t take my word for it. All I can say is that having been to Beijing and New Orleans, Georgetown felt like the all time city mash up between the two.

Expat Life

After I got checked in, I took all the clothes I wasn’t wearing down the street to a laundromat where the machines dispensed their own detergent. One of my 2 pairs of pants had acquired some holes in an indelicate place and I needed a replacement. While my laundry was spinning away, I wandered across the street to engage a group of expats who looked like they may have been in town for a while and asked about the best places to find cheap pants replacements.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to be directed to the mall and the international brands like H&M or the Gap. It shouldn’t shock me that more than half the expat community just wants to live surrounded by familiar brands and western styles, but it does. With the exception of being unable to find a thing in my size (bras anyone?), I like to buy clothes that the locals are wearing for two reasons: one, it is more likely that they know what is suitable to the climate they live in; two, I’m less likely to stand out as the obvious newbie/target. There’s some bonus material about local economies and new experiences in there, too.

One guy finally realized I wasn’t impressed with western mall options and told me where the local clothes markets were to be found. I spent the rest of my laundry cycle chatting with an older French lady who had rented out her property back in Europe and lived in Malaysia working under the table for the hostel she stayed at because it was cheaper and easier than trying to deal with paying all the bills in Europe at her age. Note to self: Malaysia as potential retirement country?

alibaba-trousers-tie-dye-baggie-genie-boho-gypsy-harem-pants-250x250Laundry complete, I set off on a walking self-tour of the cheap clothes district. I am not normally a fan of shopping, but I have decided that if I am ever going back there, I need to do it with an extra suitcase. So many beautiful clothes, many inspired by Indian fashions, glorious batik fabrics and wildly reasonable prices compared to what similar fashions cost in the US. Skirts, shirts and dresses abounded, but pants were a little challenging. Free size is really a misnomer because it only applies to a size range from about 6-12 (US). the most popular pants seemed to be the Ali Baba style which are big billowy and flowy, but cinch around the ankle, looking not unlike the pants Aladdin wears.

Thigh Gap Deficit

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art: GarbageHumans on Etsy

Why not just get a flowy dress/skirt/alibaba pants? Well, if any of you have thighs that touch, you may have some idea of the horrible phenomenon known as “chub rub”. The unfortunate and unflattering name notwithstanding, it’s not just about chub. I know lots of svelte people whose thighs touch because thigh gap beauty standards are insane! (no shade on naturally skinny folk, this is about people trying to achieve beauty standards that are not natural to their body type). So, in hot / humid weather, the chafe is real. Imagine getting a blister on your inner thighs. Ouch! I wear biker shorts under skirts or dresses and it helps a lot with the rubbing, but I only had one pair with me and I needed another chafe free article of clothing for the rest of my journey.

Coloring Outside the Runway

Pants in my size came in 2 types. Black, coarse, thick fabric (wtf it’s 30 degrees and 90% humidity out here?) or clown pants. I wish I was joking. I know that as an American my sensibilities of color are drab in comparison with everyplace other than England. Our puritan ancestors despised joy and now we’ve culturally accepted the idea that bright colors are somehow gauche or low-class (hello systemic racism?) because we associate them with the heathens and the brown people. This disdain of bright colors is something I’ve been observing in myself and others since I first started traveling. Buying hair clips in China was challenging because I didn’t want the super bright sparkly ones, I wanted the earth toned ones. Watching people cringe in Hindu temples because they see the brightly painted statues as gaudy while the Hindus see the colors as a celebration of their faith. And now in Malaysia trying to buy a pair of pants that I might ever wear again.

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photo: TheHaremLoft on Etsy

Bright colors, elephant print batiks (really, I know the elephant is popular in SE Asia, but don’t put elephants on plus size clothes, it’s just rude), and even patchwork patterns of jangling colors and prints. I might have worn them there, because the locals did and because they wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb, but the chances of me wearing them in Korea the next summer were slim to none. I have begun to learn to appreciate the bright colors and patterns in art and even in clothes on other people, but I still can’t put them on myself. I think because of my weight I was subconsciously trained to try to occupy less space, and almost certainly because of my gender I was taught not to stand out. I’m working on it, but I wasn’t ready for elephant pants just yet.

The Mystery of Viscose

20170122_182655Eventually, I found some black pants that were a lightweight material and had a beautiful blue pattern around the cuffs. They were about 7$US, so I wasn’t overly concerned with the durability and I was delighted with the way they fit. Of course they were from India (I’m starting to believe all my favorite clothes are), but unfortunately, they are made of a material called “viscose”. I did not know what this meant at the time. I had never heard the word and I was so desperate for pants at this point, I didn’t really care. But later, while laying in the AC of my hotel room, I looked up the word and discovered the world’s most temperamental fabric.

Viscose is made from plant fibers or cellulose, making it a uniquely natural synthetic fiber. It has some ties to artificial silk and to rayon, but is ever so much more delicate. Many laundry blogs (yes those exist) indicated that although there are tricks to washing most “dry clean only” clothes, viscose is so sensitive to water that it can loose it’s shape or shrink dramatically if it gets wet, and it can tear to shreds if it is squeezed or wrung out while wet because of how the water impacts it’s delicate plant based fibers. On the other hand. I have rayon clothes I wash all the time, and I’ve had bamboo sheets that went in the washer and dryer, and because of the way the bamboo is processed, it’s viscose too. My cheap, imported-from-one-developing -nation-to-another pants did not come with washing instructions, just the 100% viscose tag. I have no idea how to clean them without utterly destroying them because even dry cleaning is an adventure when you aren’t fluent in the dry cleaner’s language. I hope I can get them to last the summer at least, fingers crossed.

Wrap It Up

20170122_172744I tried to find some local-ish dinner food, but my travel weariness led me in the end to a little boutique restaurant near my hotel that was more expensive but also vastly more comfortable. Amid the offers of western sandwiches and pasta, I found a lone offering of the national dish: nasi lemak. Omnomnom.

I also managed to pick up a beautiful blue batik sarong which was one of two things I actually planned to buy on this trip. After I got cleaned up and I watched a few YouTube videos on how to wear a sarong, I went 20170122_182721out for a beer in my new tropical get up. I got the impression that Georgetown is so popular among backpackers and expats for a combination of it’s strong western influence and plethora of cheap bars. (many places have a regular “ladies night” menu which are totally free or insanely cheap) I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it after only a short time, but I can see how it would be a refreshing break if I were on a multi-month trek of SE Asia, and I’d definitely love to go back for more clothes when I’m not backpacking.


We’re about halfway through the stories of the Malay Peninsula adventures. For those wondering how I keep the memories so fresh months after the experience, I cheat. I wrote everything down as soon as I got back in one giant GoogleDoc, and it’s just a matter of edit and polish for each chapter afterward. There’s no photo album for this post, but I hope you’ll check out the Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter pages for regular updates and photos on adventures as they happen. Thanks for reading! ❤

Golden Week: Jindo Miracle Sea Parting, Beoseong & Staycations?

The beginning of May where holidays like Labor Day, Buddha’s Day, and Children’s day come close is often referred to as Golden week because of all the days off work/school together. Last year, I got a long weekend and went to the Namhae Anchovy Festival and Taean Tulip Festival. Spring is the time of endless festivals in Korea, and last year I wasn’t able to catch them all. This has been a chance for me to go back and get the highlights I missed last time. Of course the Daegu Lanterns were a part of that, but I also finally made it to the “miraculous” sea parting at Jindo in time to walk across the narrow land bridge that leads to the island of Modo (jokingly now referred to as Mordor after the LOTR movies because the Korean pronunciation is so similar).


Busan to JindoWe set off from Busan (blue dot) in the morning to drive all the way across the southern end of the Korean peninsula to Jindo (red dot). Although Korea is small compared to, say, the US, it was still almost 5 hours of driving with the occasional pit stop. (By the way, in case you’re curious, you can see Daegu on this map as well).  Fortunately, I went with a tour group (my stand by Enjoy Korea) and the bus ride was comfortable. I even got mostly through a Vonnegut audiobook, which is the only way I can consume books on a bus.

The Festival & Traditions

We arrived at the tiny festival grounds in the early afternoon and had the chance to wander around, take in the sights and enjoy the beach. The weather was lovely, and we spent about an hour just sitting in the grass above the sea enjoying some 막걸리 (makgeoli). Although many Korean festivals now have a sameness about them to me, it’s become something to look forward to rather than to be curious about. Favorite festival foods that are hard to find elsewhere, like 동동주 (dong dong ju) or fresh 해물파전 (seafood pajeon). I couldn’t find anyone selling 동동주 in Jindo. Vendors there insisted it was the same as 막걸리, but I didn’t believe them, and did more research. If you’re curious, this blog does a great English language explanation of the two. Koreans also love to invite international vendors to even the smallest festival, and this was no exception. I saw booths selling food from at least 10 other countries, including one doing the cumin spiced mutton skewers from China that I love so much.

20170429_152224The Jindo festival had at least one feature I’ve never seen before: a traditional Korean wrestling ring. A pile of sand was placed in a large circle where two contestants could wrestle in the traditional style. 씨름 (ssireum) is Korea’s wrestling, just like sumo is Japan’s. Each wrestler had a sash of cloth wrapped in a specific pattern around their waist and one thigh. The wrestlers would kneel and lean in to each other for a moment before the bout started to give them a chance to get a good firm grip on the cloth. Then they would stand up together and the referee would call start, whereupon they attempted to dump their opponent in the sand. The holds never changed. Each wrestler maintained their grip on the sashes at the designated waist and thigh position. Working to topple the proponent meant pulling and pushing and moving the center of gravity around. It was different from any other style of wrestling I’ve ever seen. Both men and women participated, though not against each other.

Cultural appropriation or good old fun?

There was also a “festival of color”, similar to Holi Hai. Only, unlike the one at Haeundae beach which was held by the Indian expat community in honor of their holy day, this was a totally Korean run secular affair. I start getting really tangled up in cultural appropriation when two post-colonial cultures are involved. I suspect the Koreans had no real idea about the religious significance and just thought it would attract more tourists. In the end, the only people covered in colored powders were young, party-driven Westerners. As far as I can tell, a group of Koreans cottoned on to the fact that white kids like this dancing with colored powder thing and did it for the fun and the money.

20170429_172837Even more bizarrely, after the color throwing was over, the festival organizers gave each participant a “toga” to wear. The togas were long white robes with red sashes that could have evoked a Roman senate or Jesus. Considering we were about to “part the seas” it was hard not to see it with Judeo-Christian overtones, but the rather drunk person I asked about it just said “toga party!” The entire thing seemed like the festival organizers were trying to find a way to appeal to the expat crowd. I’m glad they had fun, but I would have preferred some more traditional activities, like someone to teach us about collecting clams and seaweed the way the locals were doing as the tide went out. It’s hard to go do local culture festivals when the locals are busy trying to white-wash everything for cash.

The Magic Math of Tides

20170429_175222Finally, the real “reason for the season” was upon us and we muddled our way down the road to the rainbow steps beneath the watchful eye of the grandmother and the tiger. We paused at a bench to don our thigh high rubber boots and got some advice from the locals on how to attach the rubber garters through belt loops to hold up the boots, or failing that, to wrap them tight around our thighs and snap them in place. Thus clad in bright orange and yellow wellies, we made our way down the steps and into the shallow tide pools to wait for the tide to recede.

ModoIf you look at the area on Google Maps you will simply see the beach and the islands, but on Korea’s own Naver Maps, there is a thin line connecting the rainbow steps to the island of Modo. Although this path is only usable twice a year (at most), the Korean map makers consider it important enough to draw in.

The effect is caused by an extreme low tide. Tides are caused by the relative position of the Earth, Moon and Sun and are fairly regular and predictable because astronomy is math. Despite this, I heard no less than five people declare knowingly that “no one could predict” when the low tide would occur. I guess these are the same body of “no ones” that could have known health care is complicated? Science education is important, people. In fact, here’s some now. This cute little website does a basic introduction to tidal prediction methods, with pictures and everything.

laplaceThe history of tidal prediction starts with Kepler (total nobody) in 1609 to theorize that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean tides. He was followed by other such no-ones as Galileo and Newton. It was in 1776 that the first big complex equations came from a man called Laplace. Harmonic analysis was added in the 1860s and polished off by 1921 in the form that Navies all over the world still use today. Although the math hasn’t changed in almost a hundred years, computers make the math easier and the information more widespread so now instead of just ships in harbor– surfers, beachcombers, and clam hunters can go online to see the local low and high tides at their favorite beach.

Tidal harmonics are the reason why low tide gets extra low once or twice a year (if someone reading this is a scientist with a better way of explaining it, PLEASE chime in) All the different factors that affect tides are like a ‘lil wave pattern (think sound amplitude). When the ups and downs of different factors are opposite, they can cancel each other out, but when they align, they can magnify the effect. Because they’re all beating at different tempos, they interact differently over a cycle (year), but in a totally mathematically predictable way, line up all at once and create this “super tide”. Thus it is that the seas part, and we can walk over to the island. Sufficiently advanced math really is indistinguishable from magic.

The Legend of the Tigers

20170429_180517On a more mystical note, the local legend of the tigers explains why there’s a statue of a grandmother and a tiger overlooking the sea. Long long ago, the villagers who lived on Jindo were plagued by man-eating tigers. The whole village packed up and sailed over to the neighboring island of Modo to escape the threat, but one woman was left behind. The woman was Grandmother Bbyong, and she prayed to the Dragon King, the god of the sea, to help her. Finally the Dragon King came to her in a dream and told her he would build a rainbow brigde across the sea for her.  The next day when Bbyong went down to the sea, the waters parted to let her cross and her family came out from Modo to meet her. This also explains the rainbow stairs that lead down to the landbridge, but not why her family couldn’t have just sailed back for her in the first place.

Walk on the Ocean

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Finally, the event saftey team declared it was safe to head out into the water and we began to wade as a huge human conga-line through the shallow waves. I’m told that in some years, the bridge rises completely above the water, and indeed the most famous picture used in every promotional website in Korea is one of a wide and distinct stone pathway through the sea. My experience was a bit more damp.

20170429_183234While math can now easily tell us the time of the lowest tides, it does not yet advance to tell us what the actual lowest level of the water will be. Not that it couldn’t, but there are more variables involved, so it’s not a thing now. While we can say with certainty, the lowest tide of the year on this beach will occur at 18:38 on April 29 (or whatever), we can’t say for sure if that will expose the land bridge or simply be lower than every other tide around it.

20170429_185231We tromped along the path, watching parasailers overhead and rainbow colored lanterns being released in to the air from the beach behind us. It was clear the path was quite narrow because going too far from the group to one side or the other to get a picture resulted in a severe deepening of water level. At the time, my friends and I theorized it might be man-made, or at least man-maintained, however, I have since then found that the build up of rock and sand in this twisty line is a natural result of the currents around the islands.

20170429_184104Before long the golden light of the sunset combined with the swish-swishing of hundreds of feet through water to create a trance-like state. I could not judge how far the island was, nor tell which way the path twisted. The rocks below us rose and fell, bringing the waves treacherously close to the top of my boots and then back down to barely splash over my toes. The whole path is nearly 3km long. I suspect a determined person could make it out to the island and back in the hour or so the path is clear to walk, but I wasn’t racing, and soon we were greeted by the sounds of Korean drums and the distant flags waving as the procession from Modo came out to greet us.

Get Back

Tides are bonkers. When we went to Thor’s Well in Oregon, we had to check the tide charts to see the show, yet practically had to run to get back when the tide turned on us. In New Zealand, my lovely soak in the hot water beach went from peaceful to sea-soaked in minutes. Once the tide is returning, there is not a lot of time to get out of the way before the ocean reclaims what is hers. We had been told, when the big parade starts heading back to Jindo, go with them or you’ll be swimming back.

20170429_191328The walk outward had been slow, trepedatious, as though we were nervous the land could drop away at any moment, but the trip back was much more celebratory as well as much more damp. The parade of drum bangers, cymbal crashers, gong ringers and flag bearers danced merrily in their traditional garb, urging us all back to the larger island of Jindo. Our pace quickened and our legs swung to the rhythm causing much larger splashes. Waves came in from both sides of the path making us nervous, but excited. The water finally breached the top of my boots and sent an icy chill down my shins, but I found I did not mind.

By the time we returned to land, the sun was long gone and we picked our way up the tidal flats to the main road by the bright halogen lights of the festival. Desptite wet knees and sore legs, I felt elated. Participating in huge group rituals does interesting things to the human brain, but a big one is bonding. It raises hormones like oxytocin and dopamine which make you feel good about life and the people around you. I especially like doing them in huge anonymous groups because it fills me with the love and connectedness but there’s no social group to attach it to, so I get this big whole-world love.

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We doffed our boots and made our weary way back to the buses, pausing long enough to scrounge some dinner. Practically everyone fell asleep on the bus ride to our hotel, and I don’t think I stayed concious more than a few minutes after laying down on my little floor mat, content and sleepy and looking forward to the next day’s adventure.

Jimjilbang

Why every white-anglo blogger I’ve read is scared of these is a giant tragedy. I’d say mystery, but I think I understand it. They are terrified of nudity. Prudish Victorian and Puritanical values passed down from our anglo ancestors have made us associate all nudity with sex, which is itself an activity with much shame, blame and whispered scandal about it. But, oh my god, strangers (of the same gender) might see my naked body in a non-sexual context while they are equally naked… this is scary to the anglo-mind.

I too held this prohibition for part of my life. Theater and dance classes took some away, because you can only be so modest while changing in the dressing room. At some time, I fell in with a group of rabid exhibitionists in St. Louis who were often non-sexually naked around each other. I went to public hot springs in the mountains of Washington where total strangers stripped down to soak, but it was never awkward. Over many years of various levels of friendships, intimate relationships, and gym memberships in multi-cultural parts of town, I eventually unhooked my nakedness=sexuality link and can now comfortably enjoy the jimjilbang experience.

This particular morning, at 7am, I headed downstairs to get a bracing shower and some good soaking in after my muscle straining ocean walk and never-as-fun-as-it-looks sleeping on the floor. After washing up in the shower, I got into the mid-warm pool and enjoyed the hard water massages to pound out my stiff back. I graduated up in heat until I was able to get into the super hot pool which was made of an herbal infusion that turned the water a deep smokey topaz black. For the next hour, I bounced between the super hot and super cold, bringing all the inflammation in my unhappy muscles back down and getting me all set for the next adventure. Why anyone would let a little nudity interfere with such glorious bathing, I will never know.

Boseong and the Green Tea

I visited Boseong last winter for a midwinter lights festival. We spent some time in the green tea fields and I was surprised at the time how beautiful they were, even in the bleak austerity of winter. Now at the end of April, I had the chance to see the fields in their spring colors.

20170430_115224Before heading to the fields, we walked up a long road past the area of the light festival where a few wire frames from reindeer and dragons could still be seen. The road up the hill was painted with fun perspective illustrations of a stream, complete with little camera icons to show the best places to stand to see the visual effect. Optical illusions are fun.

20170430_105220At the top of the hill, far beyond the little pagoda that had marked the highest point of the lights, we finally came upon the green tea museum where we were treated to a special showing of the Korean green tea ceremony (complete with English translation by our awesome guide). The ceremony involves a process of several containers: a water pot, a cooling bowl, a tea pot, and the drinking cup. The hot water pot is filled with boiling water, which is then poured into the bowl, and from the bowl into the tea pot and finally into the cups. The instruments are warmed up in this way. Then more boiling water is poured into the cooling bowl. Tea leaves are scooped into the warm but empty tea pot and the ideal temperature water is poured from the bowl over the leaves. While the tea steeps, each cup is emptied of it’s hot water into another bowl on the floor and wiped dry on the outside. The tea is then poured into the pre-warmed cups by pouring only a half a portion into each and the other half in reverse order on the way back. The tea is then served, 4 cups to the guest and one to the host.

20170430_110142The hostess tried to tell us a bit about green tea, red tea and black tea but her translated explainations seemed off to me, since she said it had to do with the age of the leaf when it was picked from the plant. I don’t know if this was her or the translation, but the real story follows: In any country with Chinese roots in it’s culture and language, the three colors of tea are a bit different in meaning that in the West. Red tea is not Rooibos, in fact all three come from the same plant. And it’s not the age of the leaf at picking that determines the difference, but rather the post picking, pre-drying process. (although especially young and tender tea leaves are sometimes referred to as “monkey picked” and do make a delightful tea).

Green tea is picked, cut and dried. It doesn’t stay fresh long (no more than 2 years) so don’t let it sit around in your cupboard forever. 紅茶 Red tea is how Chinese and their linguistic relatives refer to what the British call “black tea” (confusing, yeah?). It is also picked from the same tea plant and cut, but then it is oxidized, which I am not going to try to explain the chemical process of, but you’ve all seen it because rust is what happens when iron oxidizes. Red tea is what happens when tea oxidizes. When the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the tea is dried and the oxidation stops in the absence of moisture. This is your standard English teatime tea and when stored properly stays good for a loooong time (making it ideal for trade and trans continental shipping in the days before FedEx). 黑茶 Black tea is fermented or post-fermented tea that is both oxidized and fermented over a period of months or even years. Pu-erh is the most widely known of these. There is a lot more about tea, but I’m stopping here.

20170430_130215After we conducted our own tea ceremonies, I drifted lazily back down the hill, examining the spring flowers and the grounds that had been lit up beautifully last December. When I finally got back to the tea fields, I took off on the same route I’d walked before and was happily greeted by many blooming apple trees and a small army of busy bees who were so focused on the brief blossoms that they paid no mind to all the humans fussing around. In fact, I think it was the only time I’ve seen Koreans in the presence of a bee not totally freaking out. I guess the selfie with the tree is worth it.

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The tea fields were much more crowded than in the winter, but people were still fairly polite about taking turns at the best view spots. One kind man noticed I had been framing up a photo of an especially stunning tree with the tea as a background when some more photo seekers stepped in front of me. I had been prepared to simply wait them out, but the gentleman spoke to them in Korean and pointed out they were in my way. 감사합니다!

20170430_131911In addition to the blooming fruit trees, there were cascades of purple flowers covering the rocks wherever tea was not growing. It made the whole place feel like a still frame of a rushing river in shades of pink, purple and green. Besides the tourists, there were also tea pickers at work. Each ajuma looking lady had her sun guards on, gloves and a mesh basket to place the leaves. They were not picking the bushes bare, but selecting only some growth. It seemed to me to be the newer, brighter green leaves that they were after, but I couldn’t tell for sure. In the age of automation it was strange to see people picking by hand. I know that it’s still the way for many crops in the world, but sometimes it gets driven home that there’s a human on the other end of my tea or strawberries or carrots, and then I’m carried off by sociological musings on how we came to value people who sit at desks manipulating imaginary money so much more than people who make our food.

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Speaking of food

green-tea-noodles

photo credit: honjatravel

Of course I had to go back to the everything green tea cafe. It was a warm day, and walking for hours in the sun (even with my sunbrella) meant that I was all set to try some cold green tea noodles. Cold noodle soup is one of the best ways to survive the summer in Korea because it’s served with chunks of ice floating in the broth along with the filling noodles and crisp pickled veggies. I managed to pick up a lunch companion from a whole other tour group, too. Boseong was a target of opportunity following the Jindo festival, so multiple tour agencies were out in force.

I pilfered the gift shop for more green tea latte packets that had gone over well as gifts then impulse purchased a bag of green tea caramels to share with my co-teachers too. I think they remind me more of green tea salt water taffy than caramel, but still delicious.

My last treat was over at the ice cream shop. No visit is complete without some green tea ice cream, but this time I opted for the green tea affogato. I have to admit, I did not know what an affogato was before I came to Korea. I guess it’s just not popular in the parts of the US I lived, and I’ve never been to Italy. But it is on the menu of nearly every cafe in Korea. In case you, like me, spent your life in an affogato black hole, it’s a scoop of vanilla gelato (or ice cream) topped with espresso. Yum!

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photo credit: Annemone

I somehow expected the green tea affogato to be vanilla or green tea ice cream topped with a shot of green tea. Makes sense? Not what happened. It was green tea ice cream topped with espresso. Don’t make an ick face. It was insanely delicious. Even one South African girl who hated green tea said that it was nice. I’ve had the tea/coffee blended drink that’s popular in Asia and enjoyed it, so it shouldn’t surprise me that this was delightful, too. Now I’m on the hunt to bring home some green tea ice cream and some espresso to reproduce the experience.

On the way back, I discovered my unintentional link to @shmaymee and her art, bringing the whole weekend around into one small world ride of awesome fun.

Golden Week

This beautiful conflagration of holidays that resulted in me only working 2 days out of 10 during the end of April/beginning of May was the first time in over a year that I spent any real time off just relaxing at home. Of course, some weekends I don’t make it out on an adventure, and some adventures are just going down to the beach for a market or karaoke night. I’m not a non-stop sightseeing extravaganza, but I realized I haven’t had more than one day in a row of slothing at home in over a year. I pounded thru the entire Magician’s trilogy, fixed my friend’s computer, celebrated another friend’s birthday, watched the new Guardians movie and finished Iron Fist. I can’t say I want to binge watch Netflix and read fantasy trilogies with all my free time, but it felt good. I love traveling, but if my latest trip to Thailand taught me anything it’s that rest is important too. Even when my job is easy, it’s not restful and even when my adventures are amazing (or perhaps especially when they are amazing), they are not restful.

Life can be full of wonder or dull as dirt almost no matter where you live (I admit it’s easier to be wonderful when you live in someplace like Busan as opposed to any small town where Wal-Mart is the most interesting store), but I’ve seen so many expats who go abroad and after a year or less they become blasé, falling into habits of the same bar, same hobbies, same expat friends, and no more magic about the experience of living abroad. I saw those people from the very first time I went out and I could NOT understand how it happens. I fought against it and fought hard. I didn’t join the expat gaming group or theater troupe, I spent at least one weekend a month but usually more going out and doing something unique. I sometimes wore myself out doing that. And while I still don’t want to become one of the blasé, I think I’ve come to peace with the idea of a middle ground. So, maybe once or twice a year, in addition to my big out of town adventures, I can have an around the house staycation, too.


Yesterday was the first instance of air conditioning on the bus this year. It heralds the end of so brief spring and the beginning of … the Hot. It will probably be ok for another month, but soon, too soon, the summer will be upon us. Hopefully I’ll get in a few more good adventures before the heat becomes unbearable, but I have at least finally purchased my tickets for the Philippines this October. Whatever else happens, I have that to look forward to. In the mean time, I’ll be pumping out some more of the Malay adventures as the emotional and experiential roller coaster gets revved for some serious ups and downs. Don’t forget to check out all the photos from Jindo and Boseong. Thanks for reading!

Artists & Expats: It’s a Small World Afterall

What happens when you use a random image from the internet for your own work? Mostly, nothing. Sometimes, if it’s owned by a big, rich corporation, you’ll get a cease and desist order and then you just have to take it down. Some images are in the realm of creative commons, which means they are made to be used by whoever wants to. But tons and tons of content is added to the internet by people like you and me, who are not corporations or even sole-proprietorships, just people who like to create and share.


Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma in the Lanterns of Daegu?

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The friend I went to Daegu (from here on “D”) with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art.

To understand the next part, you’ll need a little background on the EPIK program. Every spring, a few hundred new teachers arrive, get oriented, and are released into the wilds of Korea. In order to help them adjust, EPIK assigns the new recruits in a mentor/mentee system to any of us who were not scared away after the first year. I had a mentor last year (who was 22 and at her first job out of university, but hey), and this year I am a mentor. It ensures that new folks have at least one experienced expat they can turn to for advice.

Less than a week after posting this picture, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I was exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them was revealed to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asked how I’d gotten introduced to her art and I explained the IM from a friend (“D”).

“D” is a second year EPIK teacher and therefore also a mentor. If you have any sense of narrative prediction, you’ll see where this is going… “D” is @shmaymee’s mentor! @shmaymee and I thought that “D” must have gotten the art that way, but when I asked, it was not so. “D” had simply found the art randomly on the internet and decided to share it with me, not knowing that the artist was her own mentee.

The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. A simple comment on one post enabled us to see the invisible threads of connection that united us all in this crazy little expat world.

It got me thinking, too. I do my best to use my own content on this blog. I write my own stories from my own experiences and thoughts. I share my own photographs unless I have no other way. I have tried to become more aware of permission and credit when I do use someone else’s content. Is this copywritten? Is it creative commons? Did I make it easy for my readers to find the original artist?

I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. If you see ads on my blog, it’s because I buy the cheapest web-hosting service I can and that comes with ads not of my choosing. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them). When my friends publish a book, I don’t ask to borrow it or (god forbid) to be given a free copy, I buy a copy. Bcard1When I wanted art for my calling cards (left), I paid the asking price to Seth of 4sacrowd because I like their work and because we pay people for work. Google image search makes it so easy to find a picture of anything, but unless there’s a watermark, we often have no idea of the legal status of the image or of reproducing it. I don’t know the perfect solution, but I hope we can all do our best to remember that artist, writers and content creators of all stripes are humans, creating things that fill our lives with joy and meaning and that whether they are asking for praise, credit, money, or all of the above, that they (we) deserve it.


Check out these artists @shmaymee and 4sacrowd, look around your own friends and family to see who is creating and deserves your support. Make art not war! … or something like that.