Letters From China (Fall 2007)

Looking at these entries from my time in China, I’m struck by the extremes of emotion that living abroad can engender. “I hate this!”, “I love this!”, “I’m dying!”, “I feel awesome!” It seems some things don’t change even after 10 years. I’m no longer surprised by these swings, but they certainly still happen. Despite this, I wouldn’t trade my life for another, and even on the downfalls I am grateful I got back up and kept on trying. Sadly, there are no beautiful photos accompanying these letters, but I hope the stories of the Best Pizza Ever and the Amazing Coat Bargain will nonetheless amuse.


Oct 29, 2007 at 6:35pm

Today my class read a chapter called “East Meets West” and it dealt in part with culture shock, and described 4 phases, honeymoon, hostility, humor and home. I’m not really sure I had a honeymoon phase this trip, mainly cause I think my entire 2 months in China in 2005 was that phase, I was just so excited to be there, nothing else mattered. I was still happy to be here when I arrived, but nothing so over the top giddy as my first trip.

I think I was mostly in a humor phase, just finding my feet and being more amused than angry at the differences. Plus I was meeting the new teachers and in many ways helping them to adjust to China for the first time, I was getting instruction about my job and how to get about town, so I was occupied and involved.

Recently I’ve been pretty depressed, and trying to figure out why. I know that at least part of it is a frustration with the culture. The fact that it took me WEEKS to get the bank stuff sorted out even though I had the help of one of the school administrators, the fact that I feel like i’m on display half the time I’m in public and the fact that people keep bugging me to teach their kids or practice with them in the guise of friendship have all been really aggravating. There are things I know are just cultural differences, but knowing is not keeping me from being upset.

I tried looking up different ways to deal with this kind of thing, and a lot of it hinges on stuff like arts and crafts, exploring the area or reading about the culture, stuff you do alone… and I don’t think that’s really going to help me much. I need more interaction.

I love my classes, often they’re the best part of my day, well the part I feel best during, anyway, but because of the student teacher relationship, the age difference and more importantly because of the cultural differences, I don’t feel like I can have more than casual conversations and interactions with them outside of class, and hardly anyone who’s not a student speaks any English and my Chinese is just about enough to get around and buy stuff, but not to have deep conversations in.

Even the other Chinese people closer to my age who work here don’t really fit in the peer group category, I often feel like I have to avoid them or they will ask me to do more work, tutor someone else’s kid or something…

There’s other foriegn teachers, but I don’t see them all that often because our schedules are at such odds.

Its getting really cold, so going out wandering is getting unpleasant for more reasons than just being stared at, talked over or pawed at.

I was trying to watch some Buffy while grading papers and the disc stopped working and it was just too much. It’s so stupid, and I hate that its affecting me like this. This is why I wanted someone to come with me. I think I could deal with the culture shock OR the isolation, but I don’t know what to do with both. I haven’t had a hug since I left Seattle and I think all the one’s you gave me at the party wore off finally.

I’m sorry, I guess, for unloading here, but I’m lost. I’m supposed to be tougher than this, but so much of my strength comes from the support of others and I feel so cut off from that now.

I’ve tried to talk to a few people individually about it, but I don’t feel like I’m really getting it across well enough, or fast enough or whatever enough.

We don’t have to have anything specific to talk about, but there’s this whole free talking thing with gtalk, and just being able to hear your voices, even if we’re just on while surfing the web or whatever to be able to talk like we’re in the same room…. I told you all before that you would be my life line here, and while I believe what you’ve told me, that I’ve not been forgotten, thinking about me doesn’t help if you don’t say something too.

I have 10 more weeks till the break, and then another 25 after it. (hopefully there’s still a may trip to China in the offing for some of you at least).

I don’t even know how many people read this anymore, only a handful respond. I can’t do this alone.

*2017 update* Culture shock and homesickness are the bane of the expat life. Over the years I’ve found more ways of dealing with culture shock, but the things I identified here stayed true. Social interaction is a big deal for me, even though I’ve gotten good at going out and exploring alone, I still do best when I can share my life with other people. On the other hand, I’m not sure I have anything like “homesickness” left after so long. I miss some feelings, or the ability to just head over to a friend’s house, but when I think of “going home” it just means my cozy little apartment here in Busan, and I think when I move, my sense of home will move with me.

Of course, as you keep reading you’ll see why I call culture shock an emotional roller coaster… that still hasn’t changed.

Nov 4, 2007 at 9:24pm

I’ve been posting a lot about feeling bad, and I want to let you all know, that there are good times too. Today, in fact, was a really nice day.

First I slept in, which is always a good way to start a day. Plus since my lil bedroom space heater had done its thing it was nice and toasty.

I needed to get food for the bunny, so I got dressed and set out for the pet store. The weather was wonderful, sunny and not too smoggy and actually not too cold. The walking street was packed, and there were so many kinds of foods. I had to pass thru the whole street to get to the pet shop, so I took note of all the foodses and picked up several tasties on the way back home.

I got a cool breakfasty thing, there’s a thin crepe with an egg cracked onto it and also spread thin, with sauce and green onions and some kind of crackly pork rind thing all folded up together. I got a kind of fried sweet potato pankakey thing. And I got what looked alot like rice crispy treats, but turn out to have less flavor.

I came back and watched some tv and surfed the web for good ecards for my mom’s bday (which is today by the way, so wish mom a happy bday).

Around 3pm 4 of us got together to go to Beijing to check out a Pizza restaurant, and oh my god, I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy pizza and beer so much. I may pay for it tomorrow with the wheat thing, but OOOOHHHHH it was SOOOOOO good.

Just walking into the restaurant was amazing, it was like we’d left China. The decor was all dark hardwoods and stone, it had a pizzaria atmosphere without being faux Italian. There was American rock music playing in the background and the SMELL was wonderful.

We ordered 3 pizzas, since I really only intended to have a small taste. Everyone ordered mediums, which turned out to be 15 inches across! They got a veggie, a meat, and a supreme (called Garbage Pail) and they were seriously the best pizzas I think I’ve ever had.

I’ve always known food was linked to the limbic system, but I don’t think there have been very many occasions when food has caused that much enjoyment.

We told the waitress to compliment the cook for us, and he turned out to be the owner. He came up to see us. The owner is an American, looked very west coast, bleach blonde, lots of tattoos (kinda cute too), and very nice.

There was, of course, much good conversation over dinner, and a general happiness that infused the whole group. Pizza, beer and rock music… it was a little piece of American heaven… and I hope I’ll never take these wonderful things for granted again.

We headed home somewhat reluctantly, but the bus was warm and we all found seats (not as common as you might think), and I got to have a nice birthday morning convo with mom, and now I’m off to a warm shower and a soft bed.

It was a good day.

*2017 update* Although I no longer rely on pizza to alleviate my need for Western food (which still happens, but I think I just like variety), that little crepe thing I found in the street market remains my all time favorite street food to this day. I can’t find it anywhere but China and so haven’t had it in 5 years, but if you ever get the chance, eat one.

Nov 9, 2007 at 10:12pm

So, I went shopping today at the Silk Market. I tell you three hours of shopping should not be so tiring but wow I’m pooped.

I got some nice things, gifts for some of you and a new winter jacket for myself. But I want to share the joy of shopping in China.

So for hair clips, the starting price was usually about 120, followed by me laughing and saying no way. Then they ask for a price, and I say 15 (followed by common humorous 50/15 confusion), followed by them laughing and saying ‘no way’. Then they offer 80, I say no and begin to wander away slowly. They say 60, and I just shake my head and wander a little further (the trick is not to get out of range too fast), they say give me a better offer, and I say 20, they try in vain for 40, and I leave the stall (still moving slow) then they call me back and say ‘ok ok your price’.

This varies some, but seemed to be the standard.

The COAT was hilarious. I went looking for a coat last for just this reason. By the time I found a nice coat, I only had 300 left in my purse. And here’s the fun. She says, normally I charge this (showing me a calculator reading 4800) but since you live in China of course I give you special price (shows calculator with 2200). Now the coat is nice, but there’s no way I’d pay that even if I had it, and she knows that, there is the art of lying in that we know we’re lying to each other, but since we both know, its like a little ritual act.

So I say, no I can’t do that price, and she says give me your best price, and I type in 200. She whines a while, oh my factory doesn’t even sell it to me for this! I can’t sell it for 200. She counters with 1800. I counter with 400 (I honestly thought I still had 400 on me). And the ‘oh its too low’ begins again, whereupon I tell her that’s all I’ve got. She says I can use a Visa card, I tell her I don’t have one, which took some convincing, but was true at the time, no way I’d bring a credit card in that place. Then to prove I only have 400, I open my purse to show her, and it turns out I only have 300. Now, she really doesn’t want to believe me, so I end up basically emptying out my purse to show her its all the money I have on me. I’m sorry, I say, but i just don’t have any more. And as I collect my things to leave the stall, she breaks down and says, ok since you only have 300, I will sell it to you for that, protesting all the way that she shouldn’t and what a deal I’m getting and I have to tell my friends to come back, but tell them I paid more so they won’t expect such a low price, etc. which of course I promise to do (remember the lying ritual), and we go away happy.

Of course all prices are RMB, so for USD divide by 7.5…. I love this place!

Dec 3, 2007 at 3:37pm

Some of you know by now that I’ve been sick for a while. Last Wed. I woke up and felt like crap, and I’ve kinda been icky ever since.

Its a lovely nausea, which is mostly gone if I hold still with an empty stomach, it rises with a vengeance if I move too much or eat.

I missed class Wed and Thurs morning. Thursday evening I told one of the people in the dept that I might need to go to a doctor, and she went with me to a pharmacy and picked out some Chinese medicine for me, which not only didn’t really help the nausea, but made me horribly gassy.

Friday I went to the hospital, there is no other way to see a doctor here. Wow.

We got there by taxi, I had to check in and pay a 3 kuai registration fee. Then I went to the doctor who asked some questions, mostly about diarrhea, and decided it was probably food poisoning (translated as “dirty food”), but that he wanted me to have a blood test anyway.

I take the doctors paper to the cashier to pay for the blood test (20 kuai) then go to have my blood taken in a whole other part of the building, by nurses who use iodine as a sterilizer, and the tubes for blood collection weren’t vacuum sealed, so they drew my blood with a syringe then squirted it into an open plastic test tube (did i mention they weren’t wearing gloves?)… GAH!

Anyway the test turns out to be a general blood analysis and the results sheet shows my levels and the acceptable range for each level, thus ensuring that the doctor doesn’t actually have to know how to interpret the results, only to see if they’re in the right range.

They are, and I take the results BACK to the doctor who says that my illness is not serious, and offers me amoxicillin. Well, first he says an IV transfusion of “medicine”, and it was only after lots of asking on my part that they finally admitted what the medicine was.

Amoxicillin is an antibiotic, a pretty strong one, the main side effects of which are nausea and diarrhea… so not to good for an upset tummy. They also tried to tell me the “medicine” would kill a virus, which is not possible.

After lots of arguing in which I tried to explain that I was not going to take amoxicillin unless I was MUCH sicker, they finally offered to give me “something to protect the stomach lining”, my best guess is an antacid of some kind. And they all thought I was crazy for refusing the antibiotics.

Now, just to be clear, an IV of amoxicillin is standard for any illness here. My students told me that an IV transfusion of medicine is what’s done regardless of what you have, so I not only don’t have any great feeling that I’m missing something the doctor knows about mysterious Chinese stomach ailments, I left the hospital feeling like I knew more than the doctor.

Oh, the mystery alternate medicine turned out to be 75 kuai and I didn’t end up buying it, so we’ll see if I can kick this on my own.

I’m slowly able to eat more, now, and I got a cheap blender to be able to make tofu banana smoothies. I’ll be doing ginger infusions and generally taking it easy, and avoiding Chinese medicine.

I haven’t found a place to buy western medicine yet, Wal-Mart proved a bust.

*2017 update* That mystery stomach ailment lasted a while.  I survived on tofu smoothies, orange juice and snickers bars… I think it might have been a reaction to the oil in the Chinese food (sooooo much oil) and even when the nausea passed I still had to take regular breaks from Chinese food or it would come back.


It’s fall here in Korea these days too, and it seems that health issues are the theme. It’s nothing serious (I think), but I’m going to a doctor or dentist 1-3 times a week and it’s taking all my time, energy, and spare income. Looking at my photo journals, I feel like I am doing so little adventuring in comparison to last year or years before, but sometimes we just have to buckle down and take care of the necessities. Currently that’s teeth, body, and a new job hunt (which will likely mean a new country, or at least a new city after February).

There’s still plenty I love about Korea, but right now I’m loving the affordable and efficient health care system more than the festivals. Less fun, but whenever I see one of my US friends post a gofundme for medical bills or complain about fighting an insurance company for coverage they paid for, I get seriously grateful that if I have to spend the better part of a year getting poked and prodded by medical/dental professionals, at least I can afford it and never have to argue over my national health coverage. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy more stories from my very first year abroad in China! Thanks for reading ❤

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Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from, although I didn’t write anything about them. Plus some letters about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Spring in the City 2008: After my return from winter break, I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

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?

Funny story —17888705_10208562203273054_1559197028_n

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. 

2017: First Quarter

There’s been some radio silence on the blog since the New Year began. I thought setting 2016 free would herald the great and wonderful 2017, but like many of you, I am discovering the sad reality that the change in date does not magically change the world. I don’t want to be the writer who complains, but I would be lying if this blog was all sweetness and light. I saw an article online the other day that said that our overall unhappiness is greatly contributed to by watching only the most perfect parts of others’ lives online. The fact is, everyone has bad patches, but most social media mavens only show the sunshiny parts, leaving the rest of us thinking that there is something wrong with us if we can’t achieve that level of perfection and happiness. Well, I am going to dispel that illusion. It’s only the Ides of March, and yet I am fully ready for another, more actual, holiday. 


January

The first half of January was the bi-annual English Camp. Actually, these are pretty fun because for two weeks, I get a tiny class of kids who volunteered to be there, and I get to run the whole curriculum without the textbook or school goals. This winter, I did superhero camp. The kids got to choose superpowers (from a list), design their superhero icewing.jpgcostumes (paper dolls), and make their superhero names using a  handy 5 point chart I made up of titles, colors, powers, animals, and gender endings. I took pictures of them and added superpower effects, and made a video of them singing and introducing their superhero alter-egos (which I unfortunately cannot share with you because of my teacher confidentiality agreement). It was fun, it was all in English, and I only had to call the Korean teacher once when some boys decided to draw penises on their superhero paper dolls(*sigh). On the last day we made chocolate cake in paper cups in the microwave and had balloon races. Overall, it was a good start to the new year.

20170117_130638.jpgThe second half of January was my 2 week winter vacation. I decided to go to the Malay Peninsula and do a whirlwind tour of Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand (but only the peninsular parts). I’m working my way through writing, editing and adding photos to the whole 12 day adventure which will go out to the blog and FB page soon, so I won’t try to summarize it here. Suffice it to say that the vacation may have foreshadowed more ominous things, since it too started out with so much promise and enjoyment, yet ended in a total emotional breakdown of epic proportions.

February

…was boring. So boring. I got back from my holiday wounded and limping (yes, literally) just in time to come back for the most useless time in the Korean school calendar. The kids all took their end of year exams before the winter break began on Jan. 1. Although my co-teachers had saved some material from the book to stretch out over the remaining few classes, the students were entirely uninterested. As subject teachers we had maybe 7 days of these lessons, although I had even less because the 6th graders did High School Musical marathons for the last few days. The Graduation ceremony was on the 17th and then there was another week of “spring break”, during which I got to sit in my office doing very little. I couldn’t do anything to plan for the lessons starting in March because no one knew what anyone would be doing!

I enjoyed my first year in Korea and working in the public school system. There were a few hiccups to be sure, but overall, it was probably the best (maybe second best) teaching gig I’ve had. Plus, there’s so much going on in Korea, I felt like I missed out on at least half the events last year. So, I decided to renew my contract here rather than seeking out a new country to work in and explore. But February brought me back to shades of Saudi Arabia. No answers, everything changing all the time, and a sense of hopeless isolation that brought on existential dread. With no students to brighten my day, and no future to plan for, the days at the office became a long, cold, gray stream of Dostoyevskian blah.

I decided to take advantage of the lack of students to visit a dentist and see about the slight occasional pain in one molar. I don’t love dentists, but I know ignoring problems in your teeth never makes them go away on their own, so off I went. Only to be told I needed a root canal a20170211_175911.jpgnd an inlay in two different teeth, and that the root canal would take 4-5 visits to the dentist to complete. Thus began my endless dentist torment.

On top of that, Korea flat up failed me in providing it’s normal endless stream of festivals and activities. There was one lone festival to celebrate the first full moon of the new lunar year, which was marked by the building of a massive bonfire on the beach where people could toss their complaints and woes of 2016 to be burned as well as their wishes and hopes for the next year to rise up to the heavens. I’m not sure how the gods/ancestors tell the difference, but it was a big beautiful fire on the beach and that was fun.

I had my first experiment with “crazy color” hair dye in Korea in February (probably inspired by the endless boredom and need for color in my life). I managed to negotiate a conversation in a beauty supply shop to get myself some bleach and a shade of purple that was pretty if somewhat pastel. I should have known better, but hair dyeing is a source of rebirth and stress relief for me, so I charged ahead. The end result was.. subtle. The lightest parts were indeed a pale purple-ish, but nearly everything else turned brown. Not even a pretty brown, just ashy. This led to my first experiment ordering from the infamous G-Market, a sort of Amazon/Ebay website for Korea. Although I had seen many Koreans around downtown (and even a few students at the school) with colors in their hair as ombre or even whole hair dyes, it seems that the only thing available in most shops are the very pastel colors, including a shade of green called “khaki”, which I can imagine no westerner ever saying, yes, please, let’s dye my hair khaki.

February also brought home the reality that most of the people I know, including my besties, were leaving Korea. International life is full of the tides of expats moving in and out with the job market. I think many seasoned expats avoid making close friends among the first years because of this very thing. But since I was a first year lastScreenshot_20170212-150344.png year, that meant that most of my friend pool were other first years. I had thought they were going to stick around, but events conspired in such a way that meant I spent the end of February going to/throwing farewell events and helping my friend pack/get rid of stuff.

I spent the whole second half of February feeling somehow both bored and exhausted, telling myself over and over that things would get better in March when the students came back, when the festival season began again with cherry blossoms, and when the weather was finally nice enough for me to play Pokemon Go without wearing 3 layers of clothes and freezing my fingers solid.

March

As March drew near, I was finally given some slight insight into the shape of my new school year. I was to get a second school, splitting my time between two schools. Plus, it turns out no one in the whole city wants to teach at my main school, so in the complex bidding war that the Korean teachers engage in to switch schools every 3 years, someone who had the horrible misfortune of not getting any of their top 10 choices was to replace my wonderful and amazing first ever Korean co-teacher. Plus, she doesn’t speak much English and hasn’t taught English in a decade. Plus the new school isn’t just going to have me for a day or two, but one and a half days a week. Every Thursday I get to start at one school and move to another. Plus plus, that teacher has also never taught English before. Oh goody.

20170303_082606.jpgI had barely an opportunity to say hello to the new teacher at my main school and none at all to visit the second school. Despite the fact that classes would commence March 2, the new teachers avoided talking with me about lessons, or goals, or expectations. I began to get anxious, and reminded myself that newly arrived EPIK teachers wouldn’t meet their co-teachers until the new school year began, but I also had to wonder how many fresh off the boat foreign teachers would be paired with inexperienced Korean teachers. Was I getting extra newbies because of my experience or was it really random?

School finally started, but I found myself with a lot more nothing for a while while we waited for subject classes to start and while we waded through the first day of class orientation lessons to help the new students and teachers meet one another. Finally getting started I began to realize the daunting task ahead of me that involves balancing a crazy schedule and teaching 2 new teachers how to do the job. I mean, I guess I could just sit back and let them flail around until they work it out, but I can’t really let the students suffer like that, so this is me, doing my best to manage. It’s somehow harder than if I just had a class myself, because I have little to no influence over what happens in the classroom on the days I’m not with a given group of students (since I’m spread thin over 2 schools and 4 classes of 4 grades, I basically see each class 1 time a week, except for the 6th graders I see twice). I now understand why it is that so many Koreans can study English from the third grade and yet not be able to speak it.

20170312_081003Then at long last, a much anticipated event which I had spotted back in January finally arrived. A glorious yoga retreat at a spa resort in the mountains! What could be a better way to ease my stress and restore my resilience than such a wondrous weekend. The day before the retreat, I woke up with a cold… sore throat, stuffed sinuses, whole 9 yards. With little sleep and much mucus, I arose early Saturday and set off anyway, hoping that some meditation and spa therapy would at least help a little. And it might have, had not absolutely everything been a crazy misrepresentation, mistake, flake, or flat out disappointment. I haven’t even decided if I want to blog about this trip because it was so awful, I can’t find a way to spin it for the “life lesson” or “silver lining” even though that was the name of the organization that presented the event.

Amid the highlights were the totally not delivered as promised vegetarian Indian buffet (the vegetarians were served Korean food, and a tofu steak that had pork in it); the 4 hour/seven instructor yoga and meditation session that was missing one instructor and also completely failed to do things like adequately warm up the participants for challenging poses or to present alternate poses or instructions for beginners (many of whom had their first and possibly last exposure to yoga that weekend); and the 2 drunk male staff members (one shirtless) showing up in my hotel room at 2am waking me up and trying to touch me even after I asked them to go (still not sure why they were there in the first place).

20170308_172034Did I mention that during all this time, my tooth, the one that I’m getting this infernally long root canal done on, is in pain? The dentist has twice left me in pain for over a week with no medication, leaving me to struggle on through life with a dull throbbing ache in my left lower jaw and the total inability to chew anything on that side. Even now that the root canal is supposedly “over” (4 sessions later) and the process to install a crown can begin (minimum 3 sessions), my tooth hurts day and night and I have to wait to find out if it will be treated or not until my next appointment. But hey, my hair dye arrived, and it’s a smash hit.

20160403_121604_1.jpgAnd Holi Hai is coming, which is the Indian festival of colors where we all dance around and throw colored powder and paint on our white clothes while rocking out to Boli-rock or Indo-pop on the beach. I did it last year and it was awesome, so I was really excited to go again this year. And yet somehow, people are trying to ruin that too. Two factions of the local Indian expat community have started a turf war over the holiday and who gets to throw the party. They’re trashing each other on social media and trying to drag all of us as well as the local Korean government into their feud. I’m still planning to go, but I will have an escape plan in case they start physically fighting over the microphone or DJ station. I don’t know what they were trying to do, but all they’ve really succeeded in doing is demonstrating their total lack of Holi spirit. Festival of love, guys.

Next?

So there it is. My life is not lollipops and rainbows all the time, despite the fact that I am so amazingly lucky to be able to live abroad and travel to exotic destinations and meet new people and try new things. And I am amazingly lucky. And I do have gratitude for the opportunities in my life. I sometimes describe culture shock as living on a roller coaster, and by and large what I share with the world is the highs, but when you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s not because I’ve forgotten to write, it’s because I keep trying to live up to the maternal advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”


I release my sadness, woe and frustration. I do not want to carry it with me, so I give it a home here. I bid farewell to the winter within and without. I welcome the arrival of Spring and the rebirth of the year and it’s promise of new growth. I strive each day to find the beauty and wonder that keeps me going in the dark times. 

Happy Pi Day
Happy White Day (it’s about candy, not race)
Happy St. Patrick’s Day
Happy Holi Hai
Bless

 

Ten Days in NZ: Odds & Ends

How to make a ten day vacation last 6 months? Write a blog! With one week left before my Malay Peninsula holiday, I’m finally publishing the last of my adventures in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There are several smaller adventures that I enjoyed around New Zealand that didn’t make it into their own full post, so I have assembled them here along with the story of my last day in New Zealand. Odds:  Onehunga & Shopping (Auckland), Kuirau Park & Wai-o-tapu Geothermal Wonderland (Rotorua), Narnia (Whangarei), Stargazing (Waitomo). Ends: Planetarium & Cornwall Park, a  farewell to Aotearoa.


Onehunga, Auckland: Cute Shopping & Best Bacon Ever

I wanted to try to find some items that are rare/impossible to find in Korea, so I decided to check out the premier outlet shopping center on my first morning in NZ before leaving civilization. The Dress Smart outlet is in Onehunga, so I set my GPS a220px-onehunga_mall_layout_in_onehungand headed over early so I could snag a parking spot and some breakfast before the shops opened. In the States, Outlet malls are often far from the cities or even the suburban sprawl and exist as sort of concrete islands in what is otherwise quite unattractive farmland. Imagine my surprise when the GPS led me to an adorable little neighborhood, streets lined with tiny cafes, boutiques and thrift stores. Onehunga is adorable.

I parked the car and wandered over to find breakfast where I discovered New Zealand bacon for the first time. I’m familiar with US style bacon (cured belly meat, thinly sliced), and what we call “Canadian” bacon (from the pork loin, more like cured ham), but this was the first time I had ever been served this unique blend. “Middle bacon” served in NZ and Australia comes from a middle area of the pig so as to include some of the back (common in English bacon), some of the loin (Canadian) AND some of the belly fat (American), so it’s basically the best of all bacony worlds 20160814_094812combined and explains why it both looks and tastes like US bacon and Canadian bacon were fused together in some kind of mad-biology experiment went right. If you are a bacon fan and you are unable to get yourself down under, I highly recommend making friends with a butcher to see if you can persuade them to sell you some of this stuff.

After breakfast I walked back to explore the mall. Although I didn’t end up buying much, it did give me a really good idea of the types of shops and clothing that are available and popular in NZ. Shoes are clearly the most expensive basic clothing item in NZ. It’s interesting to see what’s expensive and cheap from place to place. The Converse outlet store was selling hightops (my preferred shoe) for 100NZD (about 73USD). I can buy the same shoe on the website for 55USD. I also looked for some better weatherproof shoes for my journey through the bush (and I plan on doing more hiking in Korea when the weather cools off), but there just weren’t any shoes that came close to being an improvement on my Chucks that were less than 200$… at the outlet mall!

Conclusion: Onehunga is adorable and worth the visit.  Dress Smart is probably best for shoppers who are looking for nicer clothes and not so much camping/hiking gear.

Whangarei: Breakfast in Narnia

Whangarei was a quick stop over between Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula where I planned to check out the Waipu Caves and the Whangarei Waterfall. I got one more fun surprise there when I set out to find breakfast. This trip wasn’t really about food, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit a place calling itself Narnia.

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It turned out to be a simple cafe with a standard range of NZ cafe food. This is much superior to US cafe food and may include things like Eggs Benedict, or smoked salmon omelettes. The portions are generous, the food is fresh and often free range, and it tastes as good as a promo picture looks. 20160817_105844There were of course posters of the Narnia movies and copies of the books around the place, and some artwork on the walls by local artists. It wasn’t until my meal was finished and I went to find the restroom that I stumbled upon the most Narnian feature of the cafe. The back seating area (and restrooms) were through a hallway that had been hung on either side with fur coats so that you had to push past them in order to enter. It was very subtle, because even though I had seen things hanging in the hallway, I had not really realized what it was until I felt the fur on my hands as I pushed my way through to the other room. The strange and sudden realization that the otherwise very ordinary cafe had worked in a hidden-in-plain-sight magic wardrobe made my whole breakfast even better.

Rotorua: Kuirau Park & Wai-o-Tapu

market-timeWhile I was in Rotorua, I had planned to take a lazy walk around the Saturday Market and Kuirau Park (a free park that has geothermal activity). The market was a cute little local flea market kind of affair with folks selling used clothes and books, antique jewelry and dishes, and a whole lotta food stalls selling Kiwi and Maori foods. I had been hoping for more handmade goods, but it was still fun to wander around and I picked up my souvenir gifts there from the one handmade stand I found: a lady who made skin balm from the native medicinal kawakawa plant.

20160820_104641Kuirau park is interesting. It’s got lots of mud pools and a hot lake that are all gated off to keep kids or drunks from wandering into them. It also has public foot baths using the thermal waters so people can come by and have a nice warm foot soak. I suspect the park is nicer in any season besides winter because there are a lot of trees and flowerbeds as well that were bare, and what looked like fountains that were turned off for the season. However, it’s free, so I do recommend at least stopping by if you’re in Rotorua, especially if you’re thinking of doing other geothermal parks. Several other blogs I read recommended this as an alternative to Hell’s Gate unless the mud bath is on your bucket list.

Wai-o-Tapu, Geothermal Wonderland

20160820_114946_1-animationWai means “water” and tapu means “sacred”. This area is known in Maori as the sacred waters. In addition to the free hot springs, there is also a free to view mud pool and gyser (the Lady Knox). The only pay to play activity is the colorful geothermal park. In fact, it is the most colorful in Rotorua and in my view, ranks up there with Yellowstone. Most of Rotorua is shades of gray and brown (mud), but I’d seen some stunning photos of Champagne Lake and decided it was worth the 23$US to check it out.

Waiotapu has 3 trails that cover multiple types of geothermal activity. I found the shortest trail to be the least interesting because the craters are just large holes in the ground. The outer trails are where the magic happens, so don’t get discouraged. Go all the way around the park. The map says it’s 75 minutes to walk all three trails, but if you stop to admire the view and take photos it’s quite a bit longer, 3 hrs in my case. The park is so colorful because the various mineral deposits along with resident bacteria create a stunning palette. Unlike the considerably more neutrally toned hot springs I was soaking up the day before, the mud and waters in the park here can reach boiling temperatures (100C/212F) so don’t think about dipping your toes in!

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The walk starts with a series of craters that can display different shades based on the mineral content of the gases escaping, but the first exciting view comes in at stop #5: the Artist’s Palette. This stunning body of water does indeed look like a giant paint palette with different colors scattered around. It is followed by a series of soft jade colored pools and above ground mineral deposit formations. It’s hard enough to describe these and not entirely effective to capture them in photographs. There are shades of blue and green that are almost milky or opalescent. There are bright splashes of sulfur yellow and dark inky black mini-pools. Some of the pools are still, but others bubble with heat and escaping gases. The ground formations look like they belong in caves but are out in the open, creating textures and color delights that range from the tiny few cm across to the large petrified waterfall.

The third part of the trail leads steeply upward through a forested area. There are lovely vistas of the colored pools, and if you’re willing to make the extra hike all the way out to the Lake Ngakoro Vista, you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama and a long distance view of Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe). I have to admit, realizing my whole hot spring adventure was “in the shadow of Mt. Doom” made my inner geek girl squee and I may have taken a few dozen photos from this spot.

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As you come back down the trail, it rejoins the second loop at the Champagne pool. This 20160820_142200.jpgdazzling body of water is the one you see on all the websites, brochures and billboards for Waiotapu because it’s deep blue water and vivid orange shoreline are such a visually striking image. Combine that with the meandering edge of the built up lip of the lake and you are just left gaping at the majesty and variety of nature. I also discovered the reason it’s called Champagne. There are teeny weeny bubbles effervescing around the pool giving it the distinct appearance of champagne in a wide glass sending a constant stream of tiny bubbles out into the world. The extreme heat of the pool combined with the cool late winter air meant that there were great plumes of steam rising up from the water and obscuring the far shore. It made for a dramatic landscape, but I did get dosed with some intensely sulfur smelling fumes when the wind shifted. Other than that, the park didn’t have much of an odor.

20160820_144422.jpgThe Champagne pool may be the star of the park, but it’s not the last surprise on the trail. After passing by a few more craters, you reach the final stop, “The Devil’s Bath”, which is a deep sided pool of the most florescent neon toxic waste movie effect from the 1980s colored water you will ever see. I’m sure you’re looking at the photos going “no way”, but yes way, Ted. A few more sight seers came around the corner while I was staring at it and were equally blown away. My best guess for what causes the crazy green shade? Bacteria, chlorophyll loving bacteria. Weather the colors of Waiotapu come from animal, mineral or vegetable, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in between hot springs. Check out the full photo album on FB, here.

Waitomo: Stargazing in the Southern Sky

I had such a good experience with the YHA in Rotorua, I decided to go ahead and book with the same company again in Waitomo. Despite being part of a chain, the two hostels could not have been more different. Rotorua YHA was a giant multi story, multi building complex akin to a college dormitory. It was also walking distance from lots of amenities including food, banking and entertainment.

The Waitomo YHA, however, was more like a farmhouse. There were maybe a dozen rooms, and a large wood-burning stove/fireplace in the middle of the common room, plus a baby sheep and baby goat on the premises in addition to the farm dog. It was clean and warm, so I’m in no way complaining, but it was a much yha-waitomo-juno-hallbigger difference than I had anticipated. I even saw an advertisement for a horse exerciser position that offered room/board/caving and a little cash, clearly intended to attract backpackers to the job. The hostel was walking distance from the main tour company that offered trips into the caves, but not much else. Because of the isolation, a local cafe did a pick up service to bring guests over for a meal and a beer.

After dinner it couldn’t have been later than 8:30 at night, but the moon wasn’t up yet and the sky was clear as glass. I could see more stars than I’ve seen anywhere except some remote mountains and deserts. I remarked on the view to the driver, but he said that it wasn’t really much compared to the “real” views of stars they get, and that he’d come to take the whole thing for granted. He forgot people in the city couldn’t see it every night.

Despite the chill in the air (aka, winter), I couldn’t just go back inside, so I turned off the back porch light of the hostel and lay down in a hammock where I could look up without straining my neck. It was awe-inspiring and disorienting to see so many stars, but recognize none of them. I’m not an astronomer, but I went to my share of planetarium shows as a kid and I can pick out the big dipper and Orion easily enough. But even if I don’t know the names of all the stars in the northern hemisphere, I know the patterns as familiar.

Imagine you go to the same Starbucks every day, then one day you walk in and the whole shop has been rearranged. You couldn’t say where everything used to be, but you know that it’s different now. These were stars, the same lights and shades of color I was used to, but sprinkled unfamiliarly around the sky. What’s more, there was a patch of milky space that was clearly not a cloud but something much farther away. I’ve seen an arm of the Milky Way once or twice, it’s hard to see in the US anymore because of the huge amount of light pollution everywhere, but if you go far enough into a dark zone you can see it. This had a similar quality, but the shape was completely wrong. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a part of the Milky Way or some other nebula deep in space. Either way, it was entrancing.

53ff6124cc72cb8388240908b242e4a0The only constellation I’d heard of for the southern hemisphere was the Southern Cross, featured on the NZ flag. I looked for it, but at the time, I wasn’t totally sure if what I saw was the constellation or my wishful thinking. After all, how many patches of 4 stars can look like a cross if you’re trying to find one? I stayed outside until my fingers got numb, soaking in the interstellar beauty and realizing once more, NZ had granted my wish. Before I came, I thought about how much I was looking forward to seeing the night sky from the south, yet until that moment, every night I’d been outside there had been either cloud cover or a bright full moon, making the stars invisible. Yet here on my last night in the bush, the night sky collaborated to put on just one more show.

Auckland Take 2: French Food, Planetarium & One Tree Hill

From Waitomo I drove back to Auckland. I found that driving away from the twisting, unlit roads that had so vexxed me just 9 days ago was sad and difficult. As the roadways became wider, straighter and streetlights appeared at regular intervals I began to feel that my time in wonderland was over as I drove back into the land of the urban and the mundane. I managed to negotiate a parking place at my hostel in the city and decided that if I was going to be urban, I might as well enjoy the city for what cities have to offer and I took myself out for a lovely meal at a nearby French restaurant.

Although there were many amazing looking things on the long menu, I decided to go with a set out of some nostalgia for my all too brief visit to France. I got a marrow bone with toast for an entree (appetizer), a duck confit for the main dish, and an apple tarte tartin for desert. I also found a type of wine on the menu that I was unfamiliar with called a Viognier and decided to try that.

20160822_211246The marrow bone was a huge bone, cut in half longways and sprinkled with a crust of herbs and sharp white cheese (perhaps a parm or asiago). If you’ve never had bone marrow, and are not a vegetarian, I would like to recommend it. It’s basically like meat butter, which is to say it’s rich rich rich like the best butter you can imagine but instead of tasting like cream, it tastes like the meat of the animal from whence it came. You will not ever have a cut of meat, however well marbled, that is as rich and decadent as bone marrow. As I scooped the marrow from the bone and spread it on the toast, I wondered briefly if I’d made a mistake in ordering so much food when the first dish was so intense.

I drank water with the bone marrow dish. Only after it was cleared away did I taste the wine for the first time. It was a light and pleasant white. The internet tells me Viognier is similar to Chardonnay, which I can see, although this particular bottle (no idea) was to my mind, neither especially sweet nor dry and certainly not oaky (a common way to age Chardonay). It was a good match for the meal and highly drinkable. I’m not a sommelier so I’m not going to get much more descriptive than that about the wine, but it’s my new second favorite white (Gewurztraminer is still number one).

The duck confit on the other hand is something I could talk about at great length. This magical way of preparing duck in it’s own fat produces some of the most tender and flavorful results you could hope for, but on top of the “regular” process, this restaurant had decided to serve the duck in a spiced candied orange sauce. 20160822_213413.jpgThe duck rested atop some caramelized onions and roasted potatoes which were themselves drowned in the heavenly sweet and spiced sauce. Atop the duck rested the candied and stewed orange slice and a small tomato, the sweet and tart qualities of which were complimentary to the sauce. At first glance I thought it was a version of orange duck, but then as the spices reached my nose and soon my tongue, Christmas exploded inside my head.

It was decadent, and the crisp Viognier was a good break for the sweetness of the sauce and richness of the duck itself. It took me a long time to work my way through the meal, not just because I wanted to savor each bite to combine different layers of ingredient in different ways and experience all the flavor combinations, but because I had to pause and wait for my stomach to make more room. When the waiter with his thick French accent came by to check on me, I told him I hadn’t had food like that since the last time I was in France he smiled demurely. I don’t know how many Kiwi’s have a chance to try real French cuisine, but he was clearly pleased that I made the comparison between the homeland and his little restaurant down under. I’d had duck confit in France, but it was lightly seasoned and focused mainly on the flavor of the duck. This warm citrus holiday spiced version just about blew my mind!

20160822_215921Finally, I considered myself conquered and had to leave some of the veggies behind to save space for my tarte tartin. This is a sort of upsidedown caramelized apple pie with ice cream on top. It was wonderfully soft and well flavored without being overly sweet. The caramelization left a light and pleasant bitterness, and the apples themselves brought a bit of tartness. In the end, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites and felt horribly guilty for letting such a culinary treasure go to waste. I apologized to the waiter, trying to assure him the tarte’s taste was not to blame for so much of it being left behind. I finished off the evening with a digestive (because boy did I need one by then) of green Chartreuse which is a fabulous herbal infusion made by French monks that is basically like Absinthe’s grown up, more erudite older brother.

Planetarium

I took advantage of my last day in the city to pick up items that aren’t readily available in Korea (deodorant, peanut butter cups, jeans my size), and as my shopping came to a close, I realized I still had several hours before I had to drop the car off. I began to think about some very sage advice I’d read about vacations: the first and the last thing you do set the tone of the whole trip because the first sets your expectations for the trip itself and the last seals in your memories.

I decided to have one more glance at Google Maps to see what was around me and noticed a little spot marked “planetarium” only a short drive away. I stared in disbelief. One more time, New Zealand had heard and answered my wishes. Just two nights before I had lay in that hammock under the unfamiliar stars wishing I could learn more about them and here was the planetarium practically right next to me! Of course I had to go.

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It turns out that the Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is inside Cornwall Park, which is famous for One Tree Hill, one of the two main (natural) high points in Auckland to get a panorama of the city from and highly recommended on the short list of free things to do. The Stardome itself has a free gallery exhibit as well. I looked on the website to try to find times for the planetarium shows, but all I could find were things about Pink Floyd.

I decided to go in person and find out what I could, hoping that they had regular shows on the hour or something similar that I could at least use to get a general idea of what I’d been looking at the other night. As I was waiting for the lady at the counter to finish helping someone else, a young woman in employee garb came out from the back and started talking in a clearly North American accent. When I had my chance, I asked her where she was from and how she came to be working at the planetarium in NZ so far from home. It turned out she was also from my mom’s hometown! After our chit chat, I remembered to ask about the shows. I told her I wanted to learn more about the southern night sky. She pulled out a brochure with the show times, but the next one would sadly not start until after I had to be at the airport. I explained my predicament, thinking maybe I could have a look around the gallery or have a few specific questions answered when suddenly she said, “do you have a little time now?”

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It turned out that she didn’t just work there, but ran the planetarium shows for the school trips that came through. Since the school day was over and the evening shows had yet to start, the viewing room was totally unoccupied and she offered to provide a private mini-show!

She went through a hasty review of the northern hemisphere, comparing Seattle and Busan for me before moving on to Auckland. It was great to be able to review my little bit of astronomy and get to ask questions as they popped into my head and the relevant images were on the screen. The Auckland night sky was much less impressive than what I’d seen in Waitomo. She pointed out a few familiar northern constellation inverted. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look for any, let alone to turn them upside down to see them from the southern perspective. She filled my head with facts and tidbits on star names, distances ages and whole new southern constellations.

Finally, we left Auckland for a night sky that she said was probably more like what I got in Waitomo and sure enough, the distinctive milky glow was right there. It turns out that it is part of the Milky Way, but not an arm like we see in the northern hemisphere. It is the center of the Milky Way itself. And if that wasn’t cool enough, there’s a void in th9029405_orige milky light caused by dark dust in the way that the Maori people identified as a type of constellation by negative space rather than connecting the dots. It’s an emu.She also taught me how to find the Southern Cross and use it and the Pointers to find due South. It’s not quite as convenient as having Polaris, but it was fun to see it in action.

The whole thing was much shorter than a show would have been, but it was absolutely a highlight of my visit to be able to get a personal tutor and starshow to help me better understand the southern skies. We stood around chatting outside the theater area for a good long while afterward about astronomy, science, history, neuropsychology and a plethora of other fun learning topics. I got the impression she’s a person I could easily be friends with if we had the chance.

The Last Farewell From One Tree Hill

I left the planetarium feeling wholly reassured that my final memories of New Zealand would help make a great last impression. I didn’t have time left to walk around the park. The airport was only 15 minutes away, but I had to fill up the tank and navigate traffic. Pulling out of the parking lot, however, I noticed a map of the park and decided I did have enough time to drive around the loop road and go look at the famous One Tree Hill.

Cornwall park is a large green space in the middle of a fairly urban area, but it’s not just any old inner city park. I drove down tree lined roads with daffodils in bloom. I passed a hillside of sheep and lambs as well as a field of cows. There were even a few chickens wandering around. As a final farewell, it brought back the pastoral beauty of the previous week’s travels. The view from the top was a complete 360 of Auckland starting with the wide greenbelt of the park itself, and ending with the sea and distant mountains with the bustling metropolis a tiny strip of urbanization in between. I watched the sun sink low and turn the blue-white sky into shades of gold and gray. Then I got back into the car and drove off to the airport. I could not have asked for a better farewell from Aotearoa.

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The experiences and memories from this very brief trip are now woven into the fabric of who I am. Every trip, every new place, person or experience changes us, some more than others. New Zealand may be one of the most magical places I’ve had the chance to experience and for whatever reason, my entire trip there felt like I was really connecting with the spirits of the land through the soles of my feet as the Maori myths imply. Ten days is too short a time to know if it is a place I could call home, but I know that Aotearoa and I are not finished with each other yet. I will be back someday, to walk more paths and breathe more forests and bask in the gifts of beauty and serendipity that are offered.

Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 1)

Ever wonder about the aboriginal people of New Zealand? I had the opportunity to visit a Maori village in Aotearoa and it inspired me to learn a lot more about them. Not everything I have written about the Maori was something I learned in New Zealand. I did a lot of follow up research after I got home to help me understand what I had seen and to put the experiences into a greater context. For the purpose of this blog, I will be mixing the information I found afterward with the descriptions of the experiences to help make the connections clearer.


Feelings & History

When I found myself suddenly spending an extra night in Rotorua, the girls at the reception desk of my hostel recommended the Maori villages as a good activity. This was something I had some strong yet mixed feelings about while I was researching the trip. A lot of websites put one or another village in the top 10 experiences of New Zealand, to the point where it felt like an integral part of the national experience. The issue for me, however, was a leftover white guilt for the way that First People are treated in the US, now and historically. As I write this, tribes are coming together for one of the biggest united protests in our shared history in order to draw attention to a planned oil pipeline that is questionably off their land but would have serious impact on their water. (#NODAPL) Native American reservations already have some of the worst land and water in the continent and are rarely heard when they try to talk about the pollution, the violence against them that still pervades, the lack of access to healthcare or the justice system (only federal courts can hear their cases). Nevermind all the insane horrific murder, rape and mistreatment they suffered for centuries at the hands of European colonialists.

Then, there’s the fact that as a child, I traveled around the American west. It’s not a frontier anymore, but people like to pretend, like to see a show or visit a replica old west frontier town. I went to these and a lot of them are about cowboys and famous historical figures like Wild Bill or Calamity Jane, or Annie Oakley where you can see replicas of the shootout at the OK corral or a modern version of the Wild Bill show. That’s ok, I guess, not that different from going through replicas of colonial villages in New England, it’s a glorified version of history. But I also went to shows about the “Indians”. I watched an outdoor play one night, I don’t remember the story, but I know there were white characters and Native characters, and I remember being riveted. I got a rabbit skin from the souvenir shop and had the whole cast sign it for me… I don’t think I was more than 10 years old.

indian_gamingYou can’t go anywhere in the US without being on some tribe’s ancestral land, though. I learned about the tribes as we moved around the country. I learned their words in each new place because white settlers used the names the Natives gave to things long after the people were relegated to reservations, forced to wear western clothes, speak English and go to church. And in the few places where they are reclaiming their place, they are still only known for 2 things: casinos and tourist attractions. Casinos because crazy sovereign land rights make gambling legal on reservations. These buildings are decked out in the tackiest stereotypes of Native imagery with wooden carved Indians in giant feather headdresses adorning the entryways and sacred patterns hanging on the walls, using the images of their culture to draw in suckers. Only slightly less crass are the informational tourism spots where descendants of colonialists can come and see an authentic teepee or wigwam or rain dance. Sometimes they even sell sweat lodge experiences. And as much as I want to learn about the people and the culture, because that is maybe my greatest passion in this life, it feels cheap and tawdry whenever I see these displays outside of museums. This is not to say they shouldn’t live their own culture, but there is a difference between living your lifestyle and putting on a show.

Why I decided to go anyway

With all of this heavy history in my head and my heart, it was not an easy decision to visit a Maori village, to cross onto someone’s sacred ancestral land and be… “infotained”. Several factors helped to bring me around.

One, I really like to learn. It’s hard to separate me from an opportunity for knowledge, even if it is uncomfortable.

Two, it turns out the Maori are not “native” to New Zealand. It is believed that the Moriori were actually there when the Maori arrived from Polynesia and were gradually driven South and out (by the Maori) until they finally died off in the 1930s. Unlike the Native Americans who are believed to have travelled to the continent about 10-12000 years ago when there was a land-bridge from Russia to Alaska, the Maori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand only 1000 years ago. I don’t think it gives them less claim to the land, but it does mean that they have more in common with the European colonists than the Native American tribes.

Three, the Maori have not been nearly so hard done by as I had feared. This is not to say they did not suffer at the hands of the British colonists or that new European diseases did not ravage their population, but overall, there was nothing quite like the Trail of Tears or the massive amount of betrayal and backstabbing that went on during the colonization and westward expansion in the US. Captain Cook didn’t even land on Aotearoa until 1769, and for nearly the next hundred years, New Zealand was sparsly colonized, new British arrivals consisting mainly of whalers, seal hunters and missionaries eager to convert the trouserless heathens. Possibly the most damage done to the Maori during this time was the introduction of the gun to their intertribal warfare so that they could kill each other more efficiently.

Fun Facts:

maori-fishing-up-the-landMaori Colonization: The explorer Kupe took a really big boat and ventured across the ocean, leaving his home in search of new land. It’s believed that colonization of NZ from Polynesia was deliberate and slow after this. It took several hundred years of ocean faring boats going back and forth bringing more and more Maori. In fact, the seven main tribes now identify by which boat (waka) their ancestors arrived on. For those who have been wondering about why I keep using other names to refer to NZ, Kupe named the land Aotearoa which roughly translates to “land of the long white cloud”. There are a few legends on why, but no consensus. The seven waka hourua (ocean going boats) and later the seven tribes, are called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

23054085.jpgThe Treaty of Waitangi was basically an agreement the Maori signed with the British crown stating that New Zealand was under British sovereignty, but that the Chiefs and tribes would keep their own land (selling only to British settlers, no filthy French or Dutch here, please), and that the Maori would have the same rights as British citizens. Of course they’ve been arguing over the terms and ignoring the details since it was signed in 1840, land was stolen anyway and wars broke out, but it was a big deal that the warring tribes came together to deal with the colonists (which did not happen in America) and that they never completely lost the power to leverage this document (also unlike every treaty the US government ever made with Native tribes). I actually passed by the treaty grounds when I was in Piahia, although at the time, I didn’t understand the true historical significance, as I had only US/Tribal treaties as a reference point.

12061-2Modern Maori: Are there arguments about land rights, water rights, fishing and hunting rights… and every other aspect of sovereignty? Of course, but it’s much more like an argument between people of (nearly) equal footing than in the US where we’re still ignoring the fact that our reservations don’t have safe drinking water or can’t fish their own streams/ coastlines for a food source. I found lots of news articles about the modern issues between the Maori and the State and the general tone is much more like dealing with a neighboring country or even another political party than anything else. Nowadays Maori language is taught in schools and there are a guaranteed number of Maori seats in parliament based on the numbers of Maori who are enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, Native Americans are struggling to regain their languages from the time the colonists forbade their use, tribes like the Haida in Alaska no longer have any members who can speak the old tongue and the last recordings of their language were made almost 100 years ago. And while there are people of Native descent in congress, they must run as representatives for their state, not for their Tribes.

Of course the Maori need to keep working to preserve their heritage and the colonial injustices are bad. I don’t want to say their issues are somehow less because other people have it worse. But, it did go a long way toward helping me see that these Maori villages that were offering shows and dinner to visitors were not being exploited or financially trapped into feeling like turning their culture into a show was the only way to earn a living. Rather that they were more like our Native Hawaiian population than our mainland Natives and, so far, I don’t feel guilty about luaus.

I met many Maori in New Zealand. I was surprised, actually at how not white the country is. It’s still about 70% European descent, but the census reckons about 15% of the population is Maori and the remaining 15% a mix of various Asian and non-Maori South Pacific. (In the US, only 2% are Native, and more than half of that greatly mixed.) I gave a ride to a Maori farmer who’s car had broken down and he talked about wanting to do something with his farm to bring in tourists like offering horseback riding tours and lessons. He told me how they used to use Maori language as a secret code when they were kids. Once I learned to recognize the features and not just the tattoos, I saw Maori integrated into every part of New Zealand, often displaying traditional jewelry or smaller tribal tattoos in more discreet places, keeping their culture close, but not ostentatious.

Visiting the Mitai

p-e6223960-c944-2800-c81f093ea594b12b-3747524Armed with a better understanding of the history and a strong desire to learn more, I booked myself a table at the Mitai Maori Village for that evening. The Rotoua area tribes (iwi) are said to all be part of the Te Arawa iwi from the original seven. There are at least 4 villages offering tours, shows, and dinners around Rotorua. I didn’t really do a lot of research into each one because initially I had not planned to go at all. When I did decide to go, I went with the Mitai Village because the hostel I was at was able to get a substantial discount from their regular price. Sometimes we make decisions for very practical reasons.

During my visit to the Mitai ancestral land, two main things happened to me: I learned a lot about Maori which was awesome, and I watched a whole bunch of obviously materialistic tourists treat the whole thing with the respect and solemnity you might expect from a Medieval Times Restaurant, that is to say, none, which was sad.

You’re Saying It Wrong

Now that I’m about 2000 words in, let me start from the beginning. The first thing I learned was that I’ve been pronouncing the word “Maori” wrong my whole life. I don’t know if it was from some well meaning documentary or just some assumptions about the transliteration, but I always said may-oh-ri, with three distinct sylables. I was wrong. It’s a two syllable word that sounds more like maw-ri  or mow-ri, the vowel sound is actually about half way between ma and mo and not common in English sounds. It was more like the Korean vowel ㅓ, and the r is more of a flap than a glide with the tip of the tounge tapping the roof of the mouth gently. I had already learned about the strange wh=f issue and now I encountered my first major dipthong (“ao”). I have no idea who Anglisized their language. The Maori had no written language and all of their words are now written using the English/Roman alphabet that is clearly unsuited for the sounds they make, so much so that I didn’t always realize words I heard that night were words I’d seen written on signs around New Zealand as I traveled.

sam_2253_01We were greeted at the entrance by a woman in traditional dress and (makeup) tattoo with the Maori greeting “Kia Ora” (key-or-ah) and escorted through to the dining hall for our introductions. Here, our host greeted us again and taught us to say kia ora then proceeded to offer introductions in the native language of every visitor there (although he did have to ask about a few). I thought this was a good idea because it felt like an exchange and not a lecture, and seemed like a good way of engaging the audience and personalizing the experience as much as you can in a group of 50. He told us a little about what to expect for the evening and taught us a few more Maori words, nearly all of which I have subsequently forgotten, but it was fun and as an amateur linguist I really liked having the opportunity to hear and practice the Maori phonology.

The Quick Tour

20160820_171604Next we broke into smaller groups and bundled outside to see some of the village. Our group first visited the boat displayed by the front gate. Our guide explained to us about the word “waka” (boat) and the three most common types of waka for daily use (fishing and transporting goods), for war, and for long ocean journeys. She pointed out to us the way in which this particular waka was made using planks and that was how we could tell it was a replica and not a traditionally made waka. In fact it was the prop from the movie The Piano. I appreciated the fact that they were so upfront about the fact it was a replica, using the movie prop to point out the similarities and differences between the prop and a traditional waka. It felt honest. Film and museum replicas are great for showing off history, but should never be passed off as originals.

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After admiring the waka, we headed over to the cooking pit. Here, our hosts had dug a deep pit in the earth which was filled with hot coals. The food was carefully wrapped and lowered on a tray into the pit, then covered with blankets to keep in the heat, cooking what would soon be our dinner. This is one of two historically traditional methods the Maori used for cooking, the other being to use the geothermal heat of the region to steam the food instead of a manmade fire. I understand at least one village in the area still has access to a nearby hot pool they use to prepare dinner for guests with, but the Mitai lived with a vibrant freshwater spring rather than a geothermal one. Our guide told us that although the Maori cooked this way in the past, that mostly what they ate were the native ground birds which are now all extinct or protected and so the only traditional food in the meal would be the sweet potatoes (kumara) and that the rest of the chicken, lamb, potatoes and stuffing were all brought in from the British settlers. I suppose to some, this revelation may have been a disappointment, finding that our Hangi feast was really made of familiar food, but again, I appreciated the honest discussion of history and the unique way that a living culture had adapted to the changing times far more than any fake recreation of an imaginary past. Our guide said a prayer in Maori over our meal, before covering it back up and leading us once more into the dining hall.

Here he went more into details about Maori culture, language and history. He asked us to choose a “chief” from among ourselves to represent us as a visiting tribe. He told us the Maori called foreigners “the tribe of the four winds” or Ngā Hau e Whā, to represent that we come from everywhere. There were more than 21 different countries represented in the audience that night. Women are not allowed to be chiefs or you can be sure I would have raised my hand, but two men both volunteered and the guide decided to have a contest between them. New Zealand_Maori Culture_APT_740_LLR.jpgHe taught them how to make the traditional war face which involves opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, sticking out the tongue toward the chin and doing an aggressive war cry. One of the men took this task quite seriously, doing his best to make an intimidating face and sound as he was shown, buy the other (and younger) was too cool for school and sadly sought audience attention by laughing at the process and doing a poor imitation of the war face, perhaps unwilling to look foolish, but in the end failing. We were asked to vote by applause and the man who went all out won by a landslide, which was nice, because I felt like he would at least take his duties as our chief for the night seriously and not treat it like some kind of opportunity for laughs.

Maori Greetings

The guide then explained that when we went into the meeting hall (performance hall too), their chief would meet our chief. When two families or tribes meet, one puts a small offering on the ground (often a silver fern leaf). If the visiting chief picks it up, it is a sign that they are peaceful and pleasantries, trading, or feasting can commence. If the visiting chief refuses to pick it up, it is a declaration of the intent for war, and fighting promptly ensues. The next thing he showed us was the Maori greeting. We had already learned how to say kia ora (key-oh-ra), which means not only hello, but also goodbye and is a general well wishing like “be well” or “good health to you”. If someone says kia ora to you, it is polite to say it back. Next he taught us the body language that goes with it.

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In the west, we shake hands, and in Asia, people bow, but when the Maori meet they touch foreheads and noses at the same time. Called the hongi (not to be confused with hangi, our dinner), it is an intimate greeting that breaks down the barriers of personal space immediately. The touch is done twice. On first touch, you do not breathe. This stillness is for the dead, for those who have come before and gone beyond. On the second touch you breathe, mingling the breath of life (ha) which can also be seen as a co-mingling of spirits. It is a representation of the creation of the first human. Tane (the giant tree who separated his parents to make room for life) created a woman (yeah, first human is a woman here) from the earth and breathed life into her. Once this is done, visitors are considered part of the village for the duration of the visit and share in all rights and duties that the villagers themselves do.

River Raid

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With our chief prepared to meet the Mitai chief, we headed out into the bush to watch the warriors paddle their waka down the stream in a recreation of a traditional war party. This waka was made in the traditional manner, unlike the movie set replica at the front gate. Perhaps in the summer, this part of the performance is more visible. I’ve seen some pictures online that look like they are happening in daylight, but during August, the sun was setting around 6pm every night and it was quite dark by the time we were led down to the stream. Nonetheless, the warriors in the waka had torches (fire, not electric) and it was impressive to see them coming down the stream, chanting and going back and forth between paddling and using the oars in a type of dancing display.

Sadly, my cameras are really lousy at low light. Maybe one day I’ll run a go-fund-me for a new one, but somehow every time I come face to face with the choice of spending my money on a new camera or on a new country experience… there is no actual competition. As a result, I have pretty old cameras. I usually am able to share my own photos of the places I’ve seen, but in low light the best I can do is share the photos of people with expensive cameras who went to the same places to give you a better idea of what we saw.

Show Time

20160820_183118After the outdoor display, we headed into the performance hall. It was somewhere during this time that I started getting flashbacks to my childhood wild west/cowboys and Indians shows. The stage was set up to look like a Maori village, and once again, the guide was quite clear that it was a set and not real. The performance started with singing and dancing, then the cheif came out and gave a speech in Maori that of course none of us understood. While all the Maori performers were wearing traditional costumes, it struck me at once how different the cheif’s clothing was, especially the white fur cloak he wore. New Zealand has only one native land mammal, which is the bat, so where did this fur come from? It turns out that the Maori brought dogs, kuri, with them from Polynesia. The dogs were rare and their fur was prized as one of the elite materials for chieftain cloaks (along with fur seal skin), and because white was a common kuri coloring, I expect this was meant to represent a white kuri skin cloak and was quite prestigious indeed.

He presented the peace offering as we were told to expect, and our “cheif’ picked it up accepting the peace. He introduced us (his tribe) and thanked the Mitai chief for hosting us on their land. Then they performed the hongi (touching nose and forhead) and our chief was able to return to his seat. Following the formal introductions, the Mitai chief switched to English and gave a brief introduction of himself and the tribe, reminding us all that the Maori now live in modern houses, wear regular clothes and enjoy using facebook, and that all of that night’s show was a way of demonstrating their history and traditions that are no longer practiced except for purposes of historical preservation or special significance. He was easygoing and had a good sense of humor that kept the audience engaged, but it was still sad to me to see the fact that their history was being almost Disneyfied for our consumption.

The Action Song

The performance is known as waiata a ringa, or action song. In the early 1900s, there was a movement to revive traditional Maori music that added dancing and the guitar to the traditional singing, and eventually developed into a standard performance used all over Rotorua today that includes a sung entrance, poi, haka (“war dance”), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. Our performers (kapa haka) did not do it in exactly that order, but really close, and nowadays the action song is used in competitions between iwi (tribes) around New Zealand; it’s not just a tourist attraction.

337207941_48fcda1c62_zAfter the sung entrance and the chief’s introductions, they introduced traditional Maori instruments of which there are two main kinds: melodic and percussive. Melodic instruments (rangi) include flutes made from wood or bone, gourd instruments that are blown into or filled with seeds and shaken, and trumpet instruments made from shells. These are considered the domain of the Sky Father but each group and specific instrument has it’s own god/goddess or spirit associated with it. Percussive instruments (drums, sticks, poi -the white flaxen balls on strings, and a type of disc on a cord) are considered the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.

They showed us how some of the percussive instruments like the poi and the sticks had started out as training activities to strengthen the warriors, but had quickly been adapted as games and dances by the women. The poi were used in dances, but also to imitate sounds the Maori people heard around them, including the more modern sounds of the imported English horses and the railway. The short sticks were used in group dances combining rhythm and agility as the men and women tossed the sticks around the circle while singing and beating out the time (the stick game).

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They also performed some beautiful songs that included the hymn and the ancient song as well as some lighter-hearted love songs. One of the cuter love songs included the lyrics, “hey pretty lady, your boyfriend he’s no good, so come with me instead”. The hymns were not translated for us, so I’m not sure exactly which gods they were honoring, but at least one of the ancient songs was a sort of Maori “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star crossed lovers named Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. They lived in villages in Rotorua, across the lake from one another, and their families forbade their marriage. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous couple, however, Hinemoa and Tutanekai had a happily ever after, because after his family had taken Tutanekai’s waka to stop him, Hinemoa swam across the lake to reach him instead.


The performance is far from over, but this post is reaching my self imposed limit for avoiding TLDR syndrome. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned so far. I’m not posting an album on Facebook for this experience because my photos are too dark, but you can find my YouTube Channel if you want to see more videos of this and other travels. Part 2 is coming soon!

 

Unspoken Rules and Double Standards

Sorry if this ends up being incoherent. I’ve been woken up from my nap twice. First nap I’ve been able to have since arriving, by the way. Every day I come home thinking I’ll have a nap, and haven’t been able to until today, and bam, woken up twice for this junk.

So, you remember when you were a kid, and your parents taught you that lying was bad? Then the first time you heard one of your parents tell a white lie like ‘no that dress doesn’t make you look fat’ or ‘my goodness this green jello casserole is delicious’ you were like WHAT!? no way you just lied, lying is bad!

Parents then undergo the difficult prospect of trying to explain the complex rules that govern untruth in the adult world. Because even though we all know lying is bad we lie every day to make things easier, to spare someone’s feelings, to avoid an unpleasant conversation, to pretend that we care about what our boss thinks, or even just to get what we want.

Most of the time, by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve built some kind of reasonable database of acceptable lies, which is to say, the ones that don’t get us in trouble. But if you asked most adults to write some rules for how this works, they wouldn’t be able to because its always a case by case basis, and our brains do some very complex algorithms to determine in any given situation if its ok to lie.

With me so far?

Because I feel like the entire situation of men and women talking in Saudi is just like this. When you arrive, you hear talking to men you aren’t related to is haram (bad). But then you find yourself talking to a man and its ok. Talking to shopkeepers is ok, but don’t talk to them too much. WTF is that?  But I’m out in public with this man alone? Well, he’s not a Saudi, so its ok as long as you’re in public. But I’m in my apartment with these 2 guys? Is one of them Western? Well, that’s ok because one of them is obviously a chaperone. But if they’re both Saudi then haram! This guy drove me to the airport? He’s just a driver, so that’s ok. This guy gave me a ride to a party and chatted with me on the way? But he’s your friend’s father and she was with you, so its ok. This guy took me out shopping. oh my god haram don’t you know you could get deported for that!!!!!!

*sigh

Does this abaya make me look slutty?

What am I doing?

This whole thing is gonna be a little messy as I get my feet under me, but the basic plan is to share my adventures with you as I gallivant around the world, near and far. Sometimes, you’ll see a nice day hike only an hour away from my Home Base: Seattle, and sometimes you’ll see me in strange and exotic foreign lands. And if I get a chance, I’ll put up some of the old stories of adventures gone by. Wheeee!