Down Keyboard, Up Brush

I am not keeping up with the blog recently. Apologies. Realistically, I’ve gone dark for longer before. That whole 5 months I lived in Seattle between Japan and Korea I wrote maybe one post, but I also didn’t have much to write about back then. Now I have 33 drafts sitting waiting for me to work on them, and yet when I open them I just sigh. I did not do a good job taking notes on my summer holidays. I don’t have 4 hours of  enforced desk warming at work every day anymore. I have these lovely three day weekends and I can’t bring myself to spend even one of them writing in here. Nanowri-no-mo. The writers block is strong.

Writer's Block by Pyre-Vulpimorph

I’ve been working on my winter travel plans, which involves reading a lot of other people’s travel blogs. I see a lot of blogs that will do an entire 10-12 day trip in a single post of no more than 2,500 words. It is a great way to summarize a trip and pass on the most vital information to future travelers, so I’m not dissing those folks at all. In many ways I envy them, because my task would no doubt be easier were I to adopt a similar approach. I might even have more fans since “in depth” reading requires an attention span that is not popular in the world of click and scroll. Which, I’m also not dissing. I love scrolling thru my FB feed as much as the next person. However, when it comes to my own content, I want to be able to tell a story. I like telling stories.

It does not help that this semester’s schedule has been a little extra brain taxing, leaving me with less mental spoon-power at the end of each teaching day to sit down and organize a blog post. Three more weeks! I’m staying at this job, don’t worry. I worked way to hard to get it to leave, but I am looking forward to having a chance to get a new schedule for spring semester.

Art History

The good news (for me anyway) is that I haven’t merely crawled into a cave to binge watch Netflix (although I have done some of that as well… like maybe the entire Star Trek catalogue except for Enterprise causethatonesucksfiteme). I have finally reopened my artistic cabinet. Before moving to Saudi Arabia (and thus before starting this blog) I went through a few art binges in my life. In high school and undergrad I was massively prolific. Reams and reams of sketch pads filled, art given as gifts to everyone I knew, and even occasionally sold to strangers for profit!

Then I stopped. For years.

After finishing my MA and getting back from China, I finally picked up the brush again. It helped that I had some peers to do art with. Going over to a friend’s house to paint and drink tea (or wine) is a lot of fun, and it took the pressure off me to PRODUCE. I finished paintings that had been half done for years. I started new ones. I updated older artwork from my high school days to reflect my new style. I was feeling it.

Then I moved, and all the art went into storage. Saudi was… well, you can read the blogs, but I did my last real piece of art there when I made the life size paper Christmas tree to adorn my hotel room. I made every piece of that from paper and foam because Christmas decorations are forbidden in Saudi. That was in 2014. Since then I’ve had art supplies laying around. At least a sketch pad and pencil. People who knew I liked to make art would give me things as gifts and slowly I accrued watercolors, acrylics, brushes and canvas and they just sat on a shelf.

Returning from Europe this August, all my Korea friends were finally gone. Those who didn’t leave in February (the end of the school year) left over the summer. I knew I had to make myself get out and be social in order to avoid the cave-dwelling-Netflix-binge fate. Public “foreigner” events are the best way to go since we all show up expecting to mix and mingle, but I live over an hour away from the two nearest cities with decent expat populations and I knew I needed more than just “socialize” as a motive to travel so far. So I joined some art classes.

Specifically, watercolor. These are much more social than educational, but I did end up learning some new techniques as well as just getting a chance to chat with people. The first one I went to in Busan and everyone pretty much split as soon as it was over. The second one was in Daegu where I ended up spending several hours after the class hanging out and chatting. So far, no lasting friendships have been formed, but I had a good time regardless.

Art Spark

I also triggered my art spark. During the last couple of months I’ve delved much more into making art than into doing photography or writing. As a result, my Instagram and Blog are feeling a little neglected. The first piece I started was a simple mandala pattern on acrylic. I spent about an hour looking at mandalas on Google Image search and then sat down to draw my own. Once the pencil sketch was done, I transferred it over to a canvas by carefully measuring over and over. It’s much easier to make a mandala in a computer where you can just copy and paste for symmetry. I also used a black marker to show the main lines. I basically created an adult coloring book page on a canvas and then started using acrylic paint to “color” it.

    

I wish I could say I was finished, but it turns out that coloring in acrylic isn’t as fun as coloring with pencils, crayons or markers. I also struggled with color. I repainted part of the outer ring twice, and the middle ring 3 times. I have since taken a digital version into Pixlr and experimented with color schemes for the middle ring. At least now I know what I want to paint there… One day, I might even do it.

One day when I was tired of meticulously painting inside the lines, I decided to pick up the sketch pad again. I liked the idea of the mandala, of the adult coloring book style, and decided to try to make a mandala animal pattern. Back to Google Image search. I scrolled through a few hundred designs before realizing my favorites were the jellyfish. I have no idea why. Not wanting to copy the poor unattributed artist whose work I was seeing plastered all over cheap t-shirts, Etsy pages and Pinterest boards, I decided to make my own!

I stuck the Star Trek on auto-play and went to work on my sketch-pad. A while later I had the finished design. Most people will recognize it’s extreme similarity to the adult coloring book fad. That is totally on purpose. However, when it came time for me to imagine how to colorize my drawing, I didn’t like the idea of repeating my mandala with acrylic paint experience. Visualizing a few mediums while I lay in bed cradling my chronic insomnia, I hit upon the idea of using colored paper to bring my creation to life!

The next day I found a local art store which was overrun with paints and painter supplies as well as the standard Korean “stationary store” supplies like colored pens, and poster board paper. I was never able to find things like wrapping paper, brown paper lunch bags, construction paper, tissue paper or any of the other staple craft supplies I grew up with in America, let alone any of the new craft supplies that my niblings get to play with. Maybe in Seoul there is a shop that has them, but not here. The only patterned and colored paper I could find was for origami. I bought a half a dozen different design packs and a decent sized canvas. There was also no such thing as decoupage glue or mod-podge, so I got plain white glue and made my own by mixing it with water. Old school.

I didn’t want my bright colored jellyfish alone on a white canvas, though. What do do for a background? Paint it blue with acrylics? No… I really wanted a watercolor effect, but I didn’t have confidence in my ability to do it, especially not on a canvas. I decided to make the watercolor on paper and decoupage the background as well as the foreground.

Paper-cut Redux

I cut circles in various sizes, hoping to evoke a “bubble” feeling. I then spent hours (more Trek bingeing) painting them in pale shades of blue and green.

It was worth it. When I finally was ready to create the background, I placed the different sized circles around the canvas. I painted them in layers, mixing a little white paint into my glue/water mix so that the bottom layers would fade a little compared to the top layers and give it some depth. Originally, I thought there would be distinct bubbles against a white background. In the end, the whole canvas was covered and it reminded me of Monet. I tell you, I loved that background so much I almost didn’t want to put anything on it. I will definitely be using that technique again.

 

For the jelly itself, I started off by cutting the pattern from plain white printer paper (abundant at my office). I used the canvas to make sure the pieces fit and I had to make some changes from the original drawing to accommodate the new size and materials.

When I had the tentacles and body shape done, I used post-it note paper to measure and cut the patterns on the body. It was much better than plain paper because I could make sure they stayed in place while I added other shapes. I had to change the size of the heart shapes because the first attempt was too small. Being able to stick them to the body let me clearly see how the shapes would look glued down.

Finally I was ready to cut the colored origami paper. Sort of. First I had to decide which pieces got which colors and patterns. I had a limited amount, no more than two sheets of each type and remember origami paper isn’t exactly big, so for larger chunks, I had to line up the two sheets along their pattern to make it seem, well, seamless. I also had to balance the colors and shapes in my head.

When I made my final color decisions, the last of the cutting was ahead of me. I had to trace the white paper stencils onto the origami paper and faithfully cut each shape and each layer. The tentacles were actually fairly easy, but the accents on the body were the most challenging. Here again the sticky paper came in handy since I could just stick my stencil to the colored paper rather than try to hold it down. I also enjoyed using the designs on the paper like using the pink circles on dark green to make the circle centers, or using those same patterns on the purple to accent the hearts. Not only cutting the shapes I needed, but cutting them around the patterns.

In the end, the gluing required more patience than I could have imagined! I had to be very gentle with the wet paper. It wasn’t just gluing pieces down, but using the watered down glue like a paper mache. The paper would be wet and tear easily. However, if I didn’t soak the paper evenly, it would pucker and wrinkle badly in response to the areas touched by glue. I added only one or two pieces at a time and had to wait (more Star Trek) for them to dry at least most of the way before applying the next.

Damp pieces were adjustable, but only a little. If I hadn’t planned and checked everything while it was dry, I don’t think I could have assembled it wet. It was a whole new experience. I’ve done paper mache and decoupage but never to create a 2d art of my own design, and on a canvas no less. It took me 3 weeks of working on it in my spare time.

And that’s why I haven’t been writing…

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How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

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There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

Best-Places-To-Travel-2016

Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

Summer Abroad ’18

Hello faithful and new readers! I have returned from the epic summer travels to my quiet little home in Korea and tomorrow I start the fall semester’s classes and resume my life as a mild mannered (ha-ha) teacher. Along with my return to my office comes the joyous task of sharing my summer adventures with you! I hope you all had a great summer as well, and thanks for hanging in there during the silent months. Let the blogging resume.


Why Europe?

It is possibly the most quintessential rite of passage for young Americans (and I think quite a few Europeans, Australians, etc) to spend a summer abroad between finishing school and starting work life. I didn’t get the chance to do so upon my BA graduation, and although I did go abroad after my MA graduation, it was to take a job in China, not to explore and adventure. Finally, finally, no longer a university student by a couple decades, I managed to be at a point in life where I could do my “summer in Europe”.

I feel exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity, but having done it, I am also glad it came to me later in life. I think that the purpose for the young to travel abroad should be to see new ways of life, to get outside the comfort zone before that becomes too scary.

I’m not saying Europe didn’t push my comfort zone, it did, but some of that may simply be that I’ve gotten so used to Asian and Southeast Asian travel that I had to readjust my parameters.  Nor am I saying “don’t go to Europe”. Oh hell, no. Go go go. But it’s expensive AF, and it’s not the coming of age story that I think it was when my parents’ generation made it famous. Now, everyone speaks English (it’s still polite to try to use their language, tho), and other than some extra stairs and a lack of free water (seriously it comes out of the tap, why can’t they just serve that at the restaurant?) it’s just not that culturally different from whatever Western European descended culture you came from.  (Obvi. this advice does not apply to people from non-European descended cultures)

There are a million wonderful things to see and do, I’m simply saying I’m glad I did it now and not at an age when I might have passed them by. It’s culture, and castles, and museums, and history, and food, and it’s expensive. Of course you can have a good time on a budget anywhere, but why?, if you are on a budget and don’t care so much what you see, only that it’s “abroad” go to someplace less expensive. Save up and go to Europe when you want to see Europe for it’s own sake and not for some Hollywood version of summer backpacking.

I spent more on this trip than any 3-5 other vacations you’ve read about on this blog, and yeah, it was 3-5 times longer, but I was still skating the bottom edge of a reasonable EU holiday budget at around 100$ a day (not counting airfare). It was challenging and caused problems from time to time. I could have easily spent twice that and not been in the lap of luxury. But, I wanted Europe bad enough that I was willing to do it shoestring, and overall, I think it was a good experience.

Where are the stories?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write 51 days of holiday travel into this blog. Past vacations that have ranged from 5-12 days often end up with a 1 post per day ratio. I’m not going to write 51 posts about Europe this fall, and I’m going travelling again in January, so I only have 4 months to write and edit everything! AAAAHHH!~!

Usually, I come home and spend a few days (a week) writing down everything I can recall in a “rough draft”, then decide how I want to present the story: chronologically, or thematically. Then I divide the draft into draft posts based on content and size (I really try to keep each post under 5k words), and finally I go through each one, edit it, add research details and photos, and publish it. It took me 6 months to finish posting a two week vacation this way. It’s not sustainable.

I did keep a kind of journal on the trip, well most of it. I stopped after Germany. I had very little “me” time in Copenhagen to write in, and I thought, “meh, it’s fine, there’s only like 2 weeks left and I know I can remember that much without notes”…. we’ll see.

I imagined that I could write up the last two weeks of draft and then start sorting and it just loomed ahead of me like a hurricane on the open ocean and I realized it could take me over a month to just draft and organize the information. So, instead, I’ve decide to just tell you stories of my summer as I’m able with absolutely no relationship to chronological or thematic ordering. Stories that left an impact on me will get much more time, other parts may get glossed over or dropped entirely. Sometimes I’ll tell you more about a place, sometimes I’ll tell you more about how it affected me. Sometimes I’ll have lots of history, other times I’ll have very practical travel advice. Always, I’ll have a story.

I encourage comments (polite and constructive of course, this is a troll-free zone after all) if there’s something you want to know more about or hear more about. This was not only a whole new kind of travel for me, it’s now a whole new kind of travel writing after 4 years of perfecting my “short holiday” style. I don’t really know where it’s going. Let’s find out together.

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

The Evolution of an ESL Professor

Whenever I read memes or even articles about teaching jobs I sort of laugh and groan at the same time. I genuinely do not believe there is another career where everything from your day to day duties to your mission statement can change so much from one place of employment to another. I’m also sure that if my blog were more popular, a bunch of people would come out of the woodwork to tell me why their job changes as much or more. It’s not a competition. The point is, at the beginning of my career, I had one set of conceptions about the job of teaching that have continuously been challenged and forced to evolve every time I move to a new country or job. Starting my new job in Gyeongju was no exception.


*Disclaimer* Education is a deep and complex field. People get PhD’s in it. Libraries full of books full of educational theory exist. I’m not trying to encapsulate the total sum of the educator’s experience. I’m sharing my own personal experiences, my progress through this wild career, in the hopes that it is interesting and perhaps sheds a little light into the world of ESL Education and teaching abroad.

In the Beginning

Related imageI started my teaching career at the college level. I did tutoring before that, but it’s not really the same. Tutoring is a kind of gateway after school job for future educators. My very first gigs were at a community college teaching adult night classes in digital photography and Adobe Photoshop. This was so long ago and far away, I can’t even remember the name of the school or the dates of the classes to put it on my CV. It was also before the advent of quality camera phones, automatic everything and Instagram filters, so people actually had to learn the settings on their camera and the basic functions of Photoshop to produce the same quality image that your average phone can produce today.

I wasn’t originally even supposed to do it, but my roommate had accepted too many freelance jobs and needed to foist her classes off on someone else. I mean, I was basically qualified in education and work experience (using Photoshop as a part of my oh so glamorous job at the wedding videographer’s) but it was not a class I applied to teach nor interviewed for, it was one that I ended up doing as a favor.

I had no idea what I was doing as far as instruction, however. Knowing a topic and knowing how to teach that topic are worlds apart. Lucky me, it was adult continuing education and most of the people signed up were hobbyists who wanted to make better vacation photos. I basically showed up and demonstrated photography techniques then answered questions. There was no lesson plan or assessment or anything that I associate with proper teaching these days.

Image result for teaching assistant memeYears later I was a teaching assistant while in grad school. This is a wildly variable position that can mean anything from “teach this class for me because I’m busy with a research project” to “here grade these”. A “real professor” is listed as teaching a particular class, and then assigns a variable amount of work to the graduate student assigned to help.

In this case, the real professor also did all the hard work of lesson planning and designing assessment materials. I got to practice a little classroom management in smaller groups, and I started learning how to follow a rubric while grading.

No-Book, No-Syllabus, No-Fail Class System

Finally, I got my own classes in China. This was a bit like being thrown in the deep end of a trout pool. Initially terrifying, ultimately bewildering, but not actually dangerous. There were sometimes textbooks and sometimes not. There was no kind of departmental organization, no standard rubric or exams.

Image result for failure is not an option memeI was told that should a student fail, it was my responsibility as the teacher to let them take the test again, and if they still failed, to make the test easier and let them try again, and then if they still failed, they would be allowed to pay a fee to pass anyway. It seemed like a horrible waste of my time to fail anyone at that point, so I had a grading curve that gave the worst performing student the lowest possible passing grade.

It was the first time I was responsible for an entire course, from syllabus to final exam. I had to make all the assignments, all the quizzes, all the exams, and all the grading rubrics from scratch. Sometimes I also had to make the course reading materials from scratch too.

Most of the time my lesson plans were fly-by-night because I had no guidance and extremely minimal resources (like, chalk… and maybe occasionally I could get copies made if I was lucky). Mostly we had fun. I had a lot of very driven students and that made it easier because they wanted to learn and practice and ask questions. They were mostly only children from farming families who were under a lot of pressure to succeed in university and then make enough money to lift their families out of poverty. Students were hardly ever absent because their class leader would report them for skipping. Communism, eh?

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Over the course of the school year I got better and better at making plans, and learning how to judge how well an activity would work or how long it would take. I still made a lot of mistakes, but no one was watching except the students and they are by and large a very forgiving group about anything that means less work for them. I didn’t really make any progress on assessment techniques, however since most of my graded assignments were designed to be fail-proof.

Get You Some of That Training

I decided to get some more education before my next job. I tried to get into a program for an actual teaching certificate, but I discovered (despite a major teacher shortage) that WA state (where I lived at the time) would only offer teaching certification education as part of a (very expensive) master’s degree. The Americans reading this already know what a university degree costs, but for the rest of you:

And that’s just undergraduate, aka Bachelor’s degrees. If you want a Master’s in something, well…

But what about financial aid? Loans, grants, scholarships? Oh, that is only good for your first degree at any level. So my existing MA disqualified me from getting any aid at all on an M.Ed. while at the same time Washington State law made it impossible for me to get a teaching certificate without getting that M.Ed. The extra schooling didn’t phase me, but the extra $40,000 for even the shortest 18 month program (not counting cost of living during said 18 months) was just untenable. So, when people ask me if I’m a “real teacher” or a “qualified teacher” and what they mean is, “do you have a certificate to teach in America?”, I get a little cranky.

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Unable to afford a shiny and expensive teaching license, I went off to a local school in Seattle to get my TESOL certification. I took two quarters (WA schools are on a quarter system, 1 quarter is 10 weeks) of part time classes at a total cost just under 2500$ and was able to keep working while I did it. Of course I know it’s not the same. Of course I know that people who were able to get those M.Ed. programs got a much better education in teaching than I did. I’m never going to try to say a TESOL is equal, but it’s better than nothing. I can’t do anything about the financial gate keeping except take what’s left.

Nearly all overseas English instruction jobs require the TESOL or CELTA these days. A quick note to aspiring ESL abroad instructors, – DON’T DO THE ONLINE COURSE.  There are a lot of places offering TESOL online for a fraction of the cost, but most good jobs will not take your online certification. If all you want is a gap year abroad, fine. Take a crappy job that doesn’t need a TESOL at all and have fun working to death. If you actually want a decent job and some good tools to do it with, invest the time and money in a brick and mortar school to do your TESOL, classroom observation, and classroom practice experience hours.

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I got the TESOL because I’d been out of teaching a few years. The change in qualifications was part of it, but I also wanted something on my CV about teaching that was more recent when I started applying for jobs again. There was a lot of the material that was familiar to me from my previous experiences, but it was nice to see it all laid out in a clear way instead of the hodge-podge I’d cobbled together from trial and error. I still use stuff I learned there.

A Kingdom Where Students Are Paid

In Saudi I also taught university students. It was an intensive English certificate program they could do as an add on to their degree program. In reality, it was an adult babysitting service. I only taught women because gender segregation was still mandatory at the time. The women were paid to go to class. How’s that for culture shock?

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Since the women in Saudi can’t appear in pictures, this was our class photo at the end of year party. I am holding the knife and my ladies are posing with me.

They were in class for 5 hours a day with me (with breaks). Their level was very low despite 6 years of English language study prior to our program. Even though there was a better guide as far as materials and exams went, the school’s program was primarily based on an experimental kind of “self evaluation” that involved the students making portfolios of their work to show their progress through the semester, and then being evaluated on that progress with half the grade being from the teacher and half from themselves (with teacher veto power for obviously undeserved 100% grades). Again, I was basically in a no-fail, no-absence kind of program. Being absent meant not getting paid for the day, so it was a rare occurrence. Unlike my Chinese students, these ladies weren’t motivated to succeed by their family or future because as women in Saudi Arabia they reasonably felt that they had no future beyond making babies. (side note, this was before the new crown prince started noticing that women are people, so maybe that will change soon?)

The day was divided into 3 sections: Speaking/Listening, Reading/Writing, and A BS Made Up Title to Cover for Wasted Time. I don’t actually remember what they called it, but it doesn’t matter, it was the arts and crafts /adult day care portion of the day. I had to design creative projects to keep the students busy during this “class” that could show off their English skills to the Dean. The men did things like making videos and other technologically oriented creative uses of language, but girls can’t appear on video plus all our computers were sad and broken (unlike the men who had 21st century classrooms with digital whiteboards). So, we got down to it with poster-board and colored markers the best we could.

I also had to make lesson plans every week, which was a pain in my rear, but very good practice. Making lesson plans is one of those things that feels like it takes twice as long as actually teaching does when you first start, but then once you’ve been doing it for a while you find you can do it in 15 minutes while watching TV. However, they were often useless as things changed from hour to hour at the school, and goals and rubrics would be replaced any time the Dean felt like it.

We had a text book, but the students were not supposed to buy it. If I wanted to use material from the textbook, I had to put it on the overhead projector or print it out. There was too much haram (forbidden) material there for students to have unfettered access. I was not supposed to do more than two printouts a week (that’s 2 printouts per 25 hours of education). I couldn’t use any music, and was very limited in the kinds of images I could use as well. I spent a lot of time inventing activities that would work with just pencil and paper, whiteboard and marker.

I did have to write quizzes; however, tests were entirely supplied by the textbook publisher and were standardized across the school. They hardly mattered since the projects and self-evaluation notebooks accounted for most of the grade. I don’t actually know how many hours I worked because I often spent weekends making class materials and lesson plans. I had no incentive to work quickly because there was nothing for me to DO in my free time there.

Elementary, My Dear

When I came to Korea, I took a job teaching elementary school kids. Whut? I wasn’t even sure I could do it, but I wasn’t alone. There was a really good structure as far as books and materials, but there wasn’t much evaluation going on. Elementary kids in Korea don’t have “exams”, and even when they do take tests, it’s more like a practice thing or a way for the teacher to see if people are absorbing the material. There’s no pressure the way there is for middle and high school students. In a lot of ways, that’s great, especially for young kids. Elementary kids are also rarely absent because the school calls their parents if they are and wants to know why.

I didn’t really do “lesson plans” per se, as the Korean English teacher was primarily responsible for that, and also because the textbooks were broken down into the most insanely easy to follow blocks (2 pages per class, every class; CD with videos and activities included; plus stickers and activity cut outs etc in the back of the book… really… great… books.) I did make a lot of games and fun activities because it was my job as the “guest” or “native” teacher to Make English FUN!

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I really wish I’d known more about these kinds of games while I was in Saudi because I think it would have saved me some serious headaches and made the days more interesting. Nothing is really as boring as masses of repetition, fill in the blanks, or black and white worksheets.

I did make worksheets for the elementary kids too, but they were more like puzzles and were only used as “extra” for the kids who finished their regular assignment early, or the kids who wanted to earn some extra points (points were used to get candy, not for a grade).

I also assigned myself some assessment tasks when I realized that things like handwriting and spelling were much harder for the Korean teachers to check quickly and accurately.

Finally, elementary school kids are legally entitled to an education, so no matter how badly they behave in your class you can’t send them out. I’m not saying any of these are bad policies. I think in large part, they are great for kids in that age range. I bring it up, however, to contrast my previous educational experiences with my current job.

Going Pro…fessor

No two teaching jobs from my past have been the same. Even when I was teaching the same subject (ESL), I faced different issues of bureaucracy, cultural expectations and limitations, available materials, support (or hindrance) from other teachers and administration staff, as well as my own personal experience.

One thing they do have in common, however, is that all of my past jobs have been effectively “no-fail” and largely “no-skip”. Everyone shows up and does the work because there are external consequences of not doing so coming from family, government, or someone higher up in the school than me. Most of my past jobs were pretty laissez faire about the whole “teaching” thing. Some required a greater or lesser extent of paperwork from me, but generally nothing that I couldn’t keep track of on a single grade sheet.

Image result for shit just got real memeNow suddenly I find myself in (forgive me China and Saudi, but) a real university.

The paperwork here is a little daunting. There is a digital attendance tracker. Students install an app on their phones and then scan into the classroom when they arrive. I have to double check this, of course, because some smart alecks think they can run in before I get there, swipe their phones and then skive off while being digitally counted as “present”. Despite the fact that I always catch them, some still haven’t figured out how.

There’s another program that tracks the classes and students. I recently had to enter midterm grades on this all Korean website, and navigate adding a make-up class to the online schedule so that it would sync with the digital attendance tracker. Fortunately the office staff here are AH-MAZE-ING. They made little instruction sets with screen shots and step by step instructions. I love them so much.

Image result for teacher paperwork memeI’m also tracking all the grades in some Excel spreadsheets that were designed years ago. I’m not required to do it this way, but since I am required to have the same overall weight for each aspect of assessment (attendance, participation, homework, quizzes, exams) everyone says it really helps with the math, as in, you don’t have to do any. I have a paper version for back up and my own sanity.

I don’t have too much in the way of lesson planning or test making since everyone teaching the same level/using the same book is meant to be on roughly the same schedule and administering the same quizzes/exams. They’ve been teaching this stuff for decades, so the lesson plans and materials are all mostly made, available in Dropbox or Google Drive depending on the Team Leader’s preferences. I still have to check for mistakes or updates, and sometimes I’m a little blown down by what I find, but overall, it’s quite effective.

As the semester goes on, I’m getting faster at all of this, and more confident about making changes for my own needs. I’m actually hoping that next year I can start re-incorporating games into my lessons again. For the time being, I only get to use my fun games in the “extra credit” class I teach once a week in the Language Lab since it has no set book or lessons.

In a stunning move toward self-responsibility, our hours are not tracked. We’re expected to be in class during class time, but all the other various tasks of teaching are entirely up to me where and when I do them. Some days this means I’m in the office until 9pm. Other days I’m out after only a couple hours. Sometimes I’m doing marking in my pajamas with Netflix on in the background. The flexibility is great, but I also realize I never truly *stop* working since students can and will message me at any time.

Most magically, this is probably the best support network I’ve ever had at an educational job. It’s a little bit stunning and now that I’ve had a taste, I never want to work solo again!

Students Are Allowed to Fail

It’s not just the paperwork and administrative tasks that have changed with my new placement. The students, student interactions, and student expectations are wildly divergent from my other schools.

In the past, Korea was a lot more like my experience of China. (I hear they are changing, too, but I haven’t been back in a while) Students worked hard to get good test scores and get into a university, but then pretty much skated through an undergraduate degree afterward. Nowadays in Korea, students still have to work their butts off to get into university, but then they are expected to be self-responsible hard working adults once there.

Related imageMy university has a rule for the English department that only a certain percent of each class can receive an A or B grade. They call it a “curve” but it’s more like a ceiling. No matter how many do well, only the very best 15% will get an A. Another 30% can get a B, and everyone else will get a C or lower. Failure is entirely an option. 

I just can’t seem to get over the fact that I’m allowed to tell a student “tough” in response to some abstract complaint.

I don’t mean real issues. I’ll help a student all day long if they are genuinely trying to learn and are having stuff happen. I was texting one at 11:30 pm the other day because they were really worried they’d have to know the nuanced difference between “intelligent, smart, and clever” for the vocabulary quiz. Even after being told that for quiz purposes they could be used in the same way, they still wanted to understand the actual differences which is really great! I was fine spending my free time on that.

Image result for student excuses memeConversely, I had another student who was upset they were marked absent on the first day of classes (they were absent) and tried to argue with me for 30 minutes about why they shouldn’t be marked absent (because they were in another city) and why they shouldn’t loose points for trying to show me the absentee records on their phone during class instead of doing the work I assigned. That gets no sympathy at all, and eventually I dumped them on the admin staff who told them the same thing I said, only in Korean and in a sterner tone of voice.

Those are two very obvious examples of the opposite ends of the spectrum, but most of my student interactions are much harder to track and I spend a lot of time trying to weigh the effectiveness of my previous teaching styles developed in the no-fail/all-attendance environments when I’m clearly surrounded by students who think they can get away with coming every other class, or halfheartedly doing the homework, or making up terrible excuses for why they didn’t.

Some of these are so far outside my realm of experience, I can only stammer and stare when they happen. I had a student tell me they would miss class (good for telling me in advance) and I responded that they would still be marked absent (unless they had an official note), but could make up the quiz if they came to my office another day during the week, to which they replied, “thank you”. When the next class came around, I asked why he hadn’t come to take the makeup quiz. He told me he didn’t understand my text. How was I even supposed to know that? Now he has a zero.

Image result for headdesk teacher memeI’m still banging my head into my desk over these kids while my team leader (who is a very dedicated teacher and works quite hard and no he isn’t reading this blog, I’m just saying his reply is not born from laziness) is telling me to just say, “tough cookies” and move on.

All my instincts are to ensure that my students do the work in class and succeed. It’s been my responsibility to ensure this for my entire teaching career. I can’t just park myself in the front of class and lecture. I still move all around and talk with students one on one because I know they won’t speak if everyone can hear. I can’t just wait for students to ask me why they got that question wrong, or expect them to read the syllabus or homework, so we spend class time on it.

I think that some of my habits and instincts are good and helpful, but I can also see that some of them are causing me undue stress in this new environment and it’s going to take me a while to figure out what to hold on to and what to set free.

What Does Your Teacher Do?

Although most of my experiences have been as an ESL instructor abroad, I feel like the wild variation in the practical experiences of teachers is true in most fields. So, the next time you hear someone snidely remark, “those who can’t do, teach” think about the teachers in your life, in your kids lives. What do they do? What limitations are they laboring under? How much of what you’re complaining about is even something they control? Why I haven’t you called your local government officials to insist teachers all get paid fair wages for the work they do? How is the job in their school/community/country different and unique? How are they making the world better?

Then buy them some chocolates or something cause this shit is stressful.


Heyo! Still writing about the less travelly aspects of my life these days, but I’m pleased to announce that I am going to Nagoya, Japan over the long holiday weekend ahead (that is Children’s Day aka Golden Week). One of my friends from Busan got a job at a university over there (yay!) and I’ve decided to go and visit, stuff my face with Japanese food, and traipse through as many parks and gardens as possible. It might take me a couple of weeks to write about the trip, but I promise there is travel writing in the very near future.

In the mean time, I’ve taken up macro-photography as a springtime hobby. If you like pictures of really tiny things, you can check out my Instagram for a collection of extreme close-ups of flowers and cute little bugs.

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The No-Travel Blog?

I feel like I’ve been absent from writing for months. I set up a schedule of publication in anticipation of having more new things to write by now and it simply hasn’t manifested. What happens to a travel blogger when they aren’t traveling? No one but the independently wealthy and the corporately sponsored can maintain a year-round travel lifestyle, so chances are, all your favorite travel bloggers have downtime, too. In an effort to keep my story alive, I’m here to look at this question and hopefully figure out how to fill time and pages until the next time I get on a plane.


In 2015 when I headed back to Seattle for 5 months, I tried to write about my life there, but it was so much “go to work, look for work, hang out with friends” that I couldn’t think of anything to say for 3 of those 5 months. Winter makes it even harder since the local adventures that one could otherwise undertake to find writing inspiration are out of reach (especially if you don’t ski).

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2017 presented similar adventure writing challenges. My whole summer holiday was spent amid friends and family, mostly in their homes. I did take photos when we went on outings, but to be honest, I was much more focused on catching up with them than in the scenery. I suppose it’s just possible that the blogosphere would enjoy such personal details, but I doubt my friends and family would appreciate being aired in public. Plus, inside jokes are really hard to narrate. Thus, the summer trip got exactly one blog post, while a typical holiday may have 10-20 stories!

I did take a trip in the fall which is the main new content I’ve been able to publish, but I had no winter holiday at all, just a brief weekend trip. Leaving me to reach back into archives and scramble for even small details to bring to the page.

It’s not just the writing either. Traveling is my hobby and my greatest source of joy. The thrill of planning a trip, reading other blogs on my destination and looking for the best hidden gems while designing the most efficient color-coded itinerary (ok yes that makes me a little weird, but I love it). Then going on the trip and seeing all the things I looked forward to plus finding things I didn’t even know about. Then coming back and sorting through my memories and photos and researching all the things I saw but didn’t know about (still a nerd). Then finally posting my story here. It’s a whole process that keeps me engaged and productive and most of all happy.

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Finding Your Happy

Like a lot of people in the modern world, I struggle with happiness. I spent a long time not having it, and a long time learning how to change that. There’s all kinds of stuff out there about positivity and manifesting, most of which is quite frankly bunk, but it does have a root in real science.

Surely you’ve noticed that when you’re in a good mood, everything seems wonderful. Conversely, when you’re feeling low, even really great things can barely make a dent in the depression. Happy brains focus on the positive without effort. Unhappy brains focus on the negative, often way more than we want them to. Cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology are ways to help train your brain to focus on good things more often. As with any other form of training, it takes hours and hours of practice and effort and as soon as you stop, you lose ground.

Like playing the piano or working out, happiness requires daily practice. For me, the anticipation, experience and reflection cycle of travel is my happiness workout routine. 2017 was like a broken ankle in my happiness marathon training. I knew it was a legitimate (non-imaginary) problem, and I tried hard to take it easy and give myself time to deal with the things that were presenting as obstacles, knowing that one day soon it would get better again. Well, now it’s April of 2018 and I’m stretching out those “muscles” for the first time in months and boy are they rusty.

No, It’s Not Out There

When the stress of the job hunt was finally over and spring was on the horizon, I thought, “ok, this is where it gets awesome again!”

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Wrong. Instead of sunny 17 degree weather, I got sleet and ice. Instead of 2 weeks of beautiful blooms and festivals, I got one day of getting lost trying to find a few trees that hadn’t quite gotten there yet, followed by enough rain to destroy them all. 

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Instead of going to see a traditional Korean bullfight (no animals harmed!) and persimmon wine tasting, I’m going back to the dentist because the festival was canceled due to concerns of, I’m not kidding, foot in mouth disease… which I guess is a cow thing. Every external goal that I pinned my happiness on fell through and my emotional resilience took hit after hit as I faded into a potato chip munching Netflix binge-watching funk.

I was relying on the spring warm weather, the cherry blossoms, and the resumption of the Korean festival bonanza to lift me back into mental shape and that was a critical mistake. Happiness doesn’t come from outside. Of course, mindfulness and gratitude practices are easy when the world outside is giving you a lot of beauty to be mindful of and grateful for, but relying on the external for that boost can only last so long.

All The Small Things

Thus sitting in my small room, staring at the gloomy gray skies and listening to the rain that was ruining everything and huddling with my heating pad to fight off the winter that wouldn’t leave, I found myself asking the question, “How can I even write a travel blog if I’m not DOING ANYTHING?”

Which, a few days later I realized is a tremendously silly way of looking at this. I’m doing a helluva lot. I moved to a new city (in Korea), rented a foreign apartment all by myself for the first time, started teaching in a totally new educational environment, started exploring my new neighborhood and meeting new people. Ok, so I haven’t had any “big” adventures, but I’m not in a coma.I didn’t get cherry blossoms, but I tried every cherry blossom themed food I could find. I may not have any sweeping vistas of the mountains without smog or rain, but I’ve been focusing on the small flowers and building a bigger photo journal on Instagram. Sometimes small stuff is where we have to look for joy. The point is, never stop looking. Join me as I reflect on the tiny adventures of daily life in Gyeongju, South Korea. 

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Don’t worry. This isn’t going to permanently turn into a daily life blog. I have a trip planned to Japan in May and I’m going to Europe for the summer holidays so there will be plenty of travel stories coming soon. Until then, try to enjoy this “slice of life” time, and check out the Instagram for my spring flower collection. Thanks for hanging in there with me. ❤

Hello Bohol: Historical Sites & History

When I was in high school I thought history was the most boring subject ever. Now I know it was just that history had the most boring teachers… and textbooks. Seriously, I don’t know how hard they have to work to make something so interesting seem so boring. However, since I know the secret these days, I love using my travels as an excuse to learn about the history of each place I visit. Bohol is far richer in history than I can fully explore here, but I enjoyed learning more about it, and I hope you will too.


Mostly Catholic Churches

I visited many of the large cathedrals left over from Spanish occupation that had distinctive stone architecture and European influenced art, but driving around I saw a great many smaller centers of worship. Most of the small churches around the island are a single “room”, wall-less or lattice walled affairs where the neighborhood can gather to worship. I took that picture on the right from the street. It’s not under construction, it just doesn’t have a wall there.

They are very devout Catholics over there. One evening on the way to dinner from the hotel, I drove past a procession of some kind, a mixture of genders and ages, but 4 men were carrying a liter with a statue of (probably) the Virgin Mary and a mountain of colorful flowers. They walked down our small street singing Ave Maria as they trailed after the statue. I didn’t take any pictures in part because I was driving, but also I felt it would have been a bit rude. These people weren’t worshiping in a place that was heavy with tourists and I felt as though I’d been allowed to witness something very personal.

The large historical cathedrals are well marked tourist spots however, so I have plenty of photos of those.

Panglao Watchtower & St. Augustine Parish

Before visiting,  I didn’t know much about the history of the island other than a little bit about the Spanish colonization. However, the watchtowers are listed on a great many “to do” collections, so when I noticed one nearby on Google Maps, I decided to stop and check it out. As I pulled in, several young men asked if I was there for an island hopping tour. This was one major tourist attraction I decided against before arriving simply because the descriptions I read online made it sound like a horrible hassle for little reward. I politely declined and found a shady tree to park under near the church of San Augustine. Some nearby cows who wandered over to see if I had anything interesting, but soon realized there were no treats.20171001_114802.jpg

The Panglao Watchtower is located on the south end of the island. It is 5 stories high, making it the tallest structure on the island. It was built in 1851 by the Spanish, and is in serious disrepair. I know almost nothing else about it, because it’s not a popular enough historical site to have much published about it online. I did find that around that time the Spanish and Filipinos were having a bit of a tiff over things like government control and secularization, so I suppose the watchtower built next to the church may have been out of a concern that the church could be attacked by secularists?

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I wandered around taking photos of the tower and the mangroves nearby before moving to the church. There were people inside, it was a Sunday after all, but it seemed to be a small meeting and not a full congregation and they were confined to one section of the church, so I quietly stepped in to an empty area to look around and take a few more pictures inside. As I stood looking at the art and architecture, I was struck by the very Spanish style before remembering that colonization of the Philippines was Spanish and not British.

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Finally, I walked out along the end of the pier all those island hoppers were using to see the ocean view. I didn’t know it at the time, I only found out days later when a restaurant owner told me, but apparently a local church runs a free ferry to the nearby Virgin Island (a stop on the island hopping tour), and if you want to know more, you’ll have to go to Nikita’s Coffee Shop and ask the old British guy who runs the joint, as I never had the chance to find that particular boat.

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Dauis Watchtower, Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, & The Miracle Well

My next goal was to find the Miracle Well, which is located at the Our Lady of the Assumption church on the north end of the island. There is a little matching cathedral and watchtower at both north and south, although the northern watchtower was so much shorter that I almost didn’t see it at all.

The church is just next to the bridge that leads over to Bohol. It’s easy to find parking, and the grounds are lovely. I wandered slowly around taking photos of the exterior of the church, some of the statues and grottoes around, the sea nearby, and a little brood of baby chicks because they were insanely cute. The watchtower is so low that I have no idea what one would be watching from it’s second story window, but it seemed to be a part of the set. Unfortunately, by the time I finished exploring the exterior, they were just closing up for lunch and I didn’t get inside (don’t worry, I came back another day).

Our Lady of Assumption is so close to the bridge to Bohol that I was able to pause there again on my way elsewhere for another shot at getting inside the church and finding the Miracle Well, but it wasn’t until my third stop at the church that I finally succeeded. At long last, the church was both open and unoccupied, so I was able to get inside without interrupting services.

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It is an open and intricately decorated church. Either it had been untouched by the earthquake or had been lucky enough to earn a full restoration because the inside was in excellent repair. The large sanctuary had stone walls, but also large windows to let in light and air. It was an interesting combination of the European style and island style. I wandered around taking pictures and looking for the well, which is supposed to be near the altar.

According to myth, the town was under attack by pirates (a thing which did happen regularly), and all the townsfolk locked themselves in the church (big stone building, makes sense). However, the pirates were determined and began a siege, trapping the townsfolk inside with no water! Then, miraculously, a fresh water well sprang forth at the foot of the altar and saved the people inside, allowing them to wait out the pirates who I suppose either got bored or were driven off by the Spanish navy. The well remains a source of fresh water to this day, despite the fact that it is a stone’s throw from the sea. The church offers bottles of this miraculous water for a donation of your choice.

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I searched everywhere. I saw no well. I looked online for images that might give me a clue where the well was, but the interior seemed to have undergone a remodel, and the few photos of the well I found were such close ups that I could not tell where in the church they were. Was I even in the right church? There were no signs, no informative plaques to tell visitors about this amazing miracle. Had I really come to the wrong church three times looking for a well that either didn’t exist or had been destroyed in the earthquake?

Finally, on my way out, I saw a small office with some people who looked at least a little bit like they were affiliated with the church and asked. A very kind lady not only assured me that this was the correct church, but led me over to the well, which was hiding unobtrusively amid a low wooden railing that separated the parishioner’s pews from the priest’s area.

I had seen the railing and the signs on it that said “no entry”, and had looked no further, but in one little section, the railing goes from being a single line, to being a square and there is enclosed the well, covered with Plexiglas to keep anything or anyone from falling in. 20171006_150623She took up a nearby lamp and shone it into the depths so that I could see the water below.

Once I’d taken a few photos, she walked me back over to the office and fetched a bottle of the “miracle water” for me to try. Of course I left a donation, don’t be silly. And since tourists are advised against drinking the tap water here, you’ll be happy to hear that I suffered no ill health from the miracle well water. Maybe that’s the miracle?

More photos of the St. Augustine & Lady of Assumption Churches.

St. Peter the Apostle Parish Ruins

After the river cruise, I headed across the street to see the Loboc Church, aka Saint Peter the Apostle Parish Church. The full history of the Spanish colonization here is for a later time. For now, suffice it to note that this church was the second built on Bohol by the Jesuits. The Parish was done in 1602, but the coral-stone building that (mostly) stands today was finished in 1734. Then in 1768 the Jesuits were tossed out and another Catholic group called the Order of the Augustinian Recollects took over. I’m not going to try to explain Catholic orders here, feel free to wiki that if you have a burning desire to know. It’s also been declared a National Treasure by the Philippine government, and is under consideration for UNESCO heritage sites. It was absofrickinloutly beautiful (judging from photos) before the 2013 earthquake and now it is a stunning ruin.

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I had spotted the ruins when driving to and from the Chocolate Hills earlier in the week, but at the time I was  hurrying to get there or exhausted and ready for bed, so I was pleased to have carved out some time just to go and ogle the ruins. I know it’s tragic that the earthquake destroyed so much, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed seeing the church in it’s glory, because photos really do look lovely, but there is something about ruins being reclaimed by nature that just draws me right in. Even though it’s only been 4 years since the earthquake, the locals have just not been able to raise enough money to complete repairs and other than some scaffolding and a few gates to keep people out, the structure has been left to the onrush of jungle foliage.

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Trees have sprouted in the walls. Ferns and mosses creep across the stone carvings. I peeked in barred windows to see the remains of a baptismal font, and peered through gated doorways to see the interior filled only with more layers of scaffolding. It’s clear that they do not wish to simply leave the church to decay, but very little has been done in the 4 years following the destruction. To me it was the perfect combination of man-made beauty and natural power.

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At one point, I moved up close to get a good photo of some carving and I noticed the odd texture of some of the stones in the wall. They seemed to be organic. I know there are some crystalline structures that can appear organic, but these struck me as being especially sea-like and I wondered at the time if the stones may have come from a once-upon-a-time sea floor limestone quarry. I saw more of the same stones in other ruins once I knew what I was looking for, and vowed to find out when I got back. It turns out the answer is fairly simple, and I wasn’t far wrong. It’s not so much an ancient sea bed quarry, as a coral quarry. I had no idea coral could be quarried for building materials, but this happens in several islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Sometimes the coral is sliced into roof tiles, sometimes it’s mixed in with other ingredients to make a kind of concrete, and sometimes it’s big enough to hew whole building stones from, leaving some of the churches of Bohol with fascinating fossil structures in their walls.

I spent close to an hour circling around the crumbling church. The detail in the stones, the tiny plants and the hidden carvings and grottoes were entrancing, but eventually the heat and sunshine drove me back to my bike and back on the road where a welcome travel breeze cooled me off once more.

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Baclayon Church

I will admit that my itineraries were largely informed by picking a single destination based on interest or reviews, and then examining the map to see what else was labeled on the roads I would be driving. I mean, if you’re in control of your own transportation, there’s no reason not to pull off to at least have a look when passing by landmarks, right? I don’t think I would have gone on a church tour in the Philippines for it’s own sake (although I did go to several in Europe because architecture!), but I’m glad I had the chance to see the buildings.

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I had a suspicion by this time that I’d actually seen the Baclayon Church before, but not stopped at it. Looking at the map that day, I was sure it was the church that was visible from the market I’d stopped at for snacks on that first drive up to Bohol while going to the Chocolate Hills. And lo, I was correct. It was a little tricky to find the entrance, but fortunately Bohol is not a heavy traffic place, so if you get lost its easy enough to pull over or turn around.

The Baclayon Church (also The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary Parish Church)  is the oldest Christian settlement in Bohol, established by the same Jesuit group that had set up the Loboc Church. It was first colonized in 1596, and the finished coral stone building that stands now was completed in 1727. It was also taken over by the Augustinians. It was also declared a national treasure. And it was also a short-lister for UNESCO world heritage sites before the earthquake hit. However, unlike the Loboc church which is nearly untouched, the Baclayon Church is well under way with repairs. I ran into a construction crew on the far side actively working.20171006_141117.jpgThere is very little sign of damage on the exterior. This is not because the damage was minimal, but because the effort has been great. There was a before and after photo out front as well, showing what the damage looked like just after the quake and it’s much closer to what Loboc Church still looks like. I wandered around the exterior taking more photos and found several more blocks with that organic sea-life look that I now know to be coral stone. It seemed that the sanctuary proper was still under construction, but it is scheduled to re-open this year.

The museum, reliquary and gift shop are all open to the public. I have never seen so many rosary based trinkets in one place as that gift shop, I think some may have been several meters in length while others appeared to be made of glow in the dark materials. The reliquary is at this point in time simply a loose collection of the relics and art that adorned the church and (mostly) survived the damage: statues, a few rather terrifying mannequins and a version of the Pieta with some loose wigs. Still, it’s clear that these were all valuable historical displays and they were gathered together with care. I’m afraid I declined to enter the museum proper that day.

More photos of the Loboc and Baclayon Churches.

The Blood Compact Memorial

One of my favorite travel techniques is to look at a map or a tour to-do list, see a thing with an interesting name, visit it, realize I have no idea what it is about, take a ton of pictures, and look it up when I get home. The Blood Compact is a perfect example of this formula.

When I programmed my map app to take me there, the destination was a place I had driven past at least 3 times during the last week, yet unlike the Baclayon Church which I was confident of having seen while driving past, I could not recall anything at all where the map was pointing me. Confused, I pulled up the street view, hoping to get a better idea of what that stretch of road looked like, and Google insisted on pointing me to a patch of grass on the side of the road with nothing around it. This is not the first time that happened on this trip since some things are set back off the road, either down a slope or behind trees where the cameras missed it. Since I had to drive that way to get back to the hotel anyway, I decided to give it a whirl.

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I only realized I’d driven past when my app dinged in my earbuds. When I pulled over to look around, I spotted a tiny little monument set back from the road back the way I’d come. I turned around to get a better vantage point and took my “I was here photos”, but there didn’t seem to be anything other than this small wall, explanatory plaque, and a trio of wayward goats.

“About the middle of March, 1565, Captain General Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s fleet anchored along this shore. Shortly thereafter, Legaspi, manifesting trust and confidence in the islanders, entered into a blood compact with Datu Sikatuna, for the purpose of insuring friendly relations between the Spaniards and the natives. A few drops of blood drawn from a small incision in the arm of each of the two chiefs were placed in separate cups containing wine, and in the presence of the followers of both, each chief drank the potion containing the blood of the other. Thus, during this period of colonization, a bond was sealed in accordance with native practice, the first treaty of friendship and alliance between Spaniards and Filipinos. –1941”

Later, while doing my “now what did I just see” research, I found all these cool pictures of a bronze statue of the ceremony! Where even was that? There are two places on that road labeled “Blood Compact” on Google, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of the people posting photos of the statue were part of a tour group with a guide who knew where to go. Looking at Google Street View in retrospect, I found both the plaque and the bronze statue in different places. The plaque is next to a convenience store and somewhat down a slope from the roadside. The statue is next to “Ocean Suites”,  on a raised dais, behind a white metal fence. I may have driven past it and thought it was part of the hotel. *sigh.

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How About That History?

I am not going to write a comprehensive history of the Philippines, or even come close. This is a highlights reel to put the current socio-political and economical issues the Philippines is facing into context for those of you who, like me, found your history books mysteriously silent on the fate of small island nations.

Colonialism

A whole bunch of countries were scrambling to get to the East and get the precious SPICES! The Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, British, Ottoman, and even the Chinese and Japanese were all out to expaaaaaaand. That’s how I got a country, and how lots and lots of indigenous people lost theirs. The Portuguese and the Ottomans were being a bit rude in the Philippine Islands, so when the Spaniards showed up on Bohol and were like, “oh no we are not like those silly Portuguese!” The natives were happy to make this treaty with them, and the Boholano people are still quite proud that their ancestors made the first friendship treaty with their eventual oppressors… Yeah, I don’t like colonialism.

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Which makes this next part extra sad.

A few hundred years of all those empires competing over SE Asia and South Pacific islands of military strategic value meant that even though the Spanish held the Philippines officially until 1898, there were plenty of battles, skirmishes and invasions where someone else took control of Manila or other islands. Basically all the rich kids fighting over the land and the native people getting boned. Sometimes the natives did rebel, I think the longest single rebellion lasted almost a hundred years in one part of the country, but none succeeded at driving their European overlords out. The part that came as a complete and total shock to me is that Spanish rule of the Philippines did NOT end with independence in 1898, but rather with the sale of the island nation to …(dun, dun, dun) THE USA! …at the end of the Spanish American war.

The Philippine American War

Mere days after the transfer of ownership, the Filipinos tried to declare their independence once more. While we (Americans) were busy fighting the Spanish American War, the native Filipinos were simultaneously fighting Spain for their independence. Was the democracy loving US *helping* little Philippines? No, because we were still pretty darn isolationist in 1898 and hadn’t gotten into the habit of having the giant standing army we like to send around on “peacekeeping missions”. We were actually fighting Spain for control of their islands like Cuba. By the end of the war, they signed over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, although apparently the US paid 20$ million for the last one to cover infrastructure costs.

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By the way, we still own Guam and Puerto Rico, but won’t let them be states (have representation) or apparently get decent federal aid after a devastating hurricane.

Having been engaged with the Spanish for their freedom, the Filipinos were not actually on board with the sale, and declared themselves independent and published a lovely constitution. The US, on the other hand felt it had paid some hard earned money for the territory and so began the Philippine American War, which I had actually never heard of until now. The Filipinos lost, and America continued to OWN the country until after WWII when we were generally making everyone (mostly Britain) give back all their colonies and decided to use the Philippines as our “set a good example” colony.

Military Dictatorship

Shortly after WWII, we get to Ferdinand Marcos who started his career in the House in 1949 (just a few years after officially free Philippines happened) and eventually became the President who implemented strict martial law from 1972-1981. It was a military dictatorship, and a seriously brutal time, and why am I telling you about it here? Because although the was finally ousted by a revolution in 1986, his rule was a major threat to democracy there and rife with cronyism, favoritism, extortion, and flat out ignoring the constitution. And the guy in power now is making a lot of people draw comparisons.

10 interesting facts about president ferdinand marcos | tenminutes.ph on Ferdinand Marcos Background

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Like many countries, the Philippines was not proud of that time in it’s history and as a new generation grew up in the light of the revolution and the restoration of democracy, they weren’t always well educated on the dark side of Marcos’ reign. Too soon, people began to think that stricter measures and even martial law could be good tools to help the country.

Democracy and Death Squads

Enter Duterte. Another lifelong politician, he has risen to popularity and power with the aid of DEATH SQUADS. I’m not kidding. In order to “clean up” the country, he has repeatedly and publicly declared that it’s ok to kill criminals without trial. This includes drug dealers, drug users, petty criminals, and “street children”. If you aren’t gagging in horror, you may need to get checked for your humanity.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects firearms together with Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during his visit at the military camp in Marawi city

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He’s also said unbelievably horrible things about wanting to rape women, wanting to kill people who cause problems with extreme violence, and pardoning everyone under his command who committed human rights abuses while carrying out his orders… if this sounds like any other world leader you may have seen on tv in the last year, you are not alone in thinking this.

Responsible Tourism

This left me in a tricky position vis a vis being a tourist. I did not feel in danger in Duterte’s bloody cleanup because they are in no way targeting foreign nationals in this death squad round up. But economically, it was a tough choice. I know that my tiny vacation budget is not going to have an impact on the national economy of the Philippines, but it just might have an impact on the lives of the small business owners, guides, and environmental preservation programs that I do want to support and that I desperately hope survive until the next era of democratic sanity is restored. So, yes, I went and I feel ok about that.

Hello Bohol: Loboc River

There are a couple large famous rivers on the island of Bohol, and we were slightly closer to the Loboc than the Abatan. In the end, reviews and photos make it seem like these rivers and their cruise options are so similar that ease of location seemed to be the best tie breaker. Thus it was that I found myself on the Loboc twice this trip: once by night for a firefly tour, and once by day for a lunch cruise. Both experiences were enjoyable in uniquely different ways.


Fireflies by Night

20171005_180252The only actual tour I signed up for in the whole 9 day holiday was the firefly tour. After my experience in Surat Thani, I wanted to see more, and I wanted my travel buddy to have a chance to experience the wonders of fireflies in the mangroves. We decided to go with a group because the price including pick up was only 700p, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about driving ourselves in the dark. I can’t tell you what company we used because our hostess Becca made the arrangements for us. The van was a little late, but again, it seemed everything in Bohol is slow, so I didn’t let it worry me, and soon enough we were on our way. I ended up sitting next to some Koreans and we chatted a bit on the drive up to the river. They were of course also on the same Chuseok holiday I was, but had already been to a couple other places in the Philippines and had done all the major sites in Bohol in just 2 days, including a dive! They were leaving for Manila the next morning and couldn’t imagine how I was spending my whole holiday on just this one tiny island.

20171005_192741.jpgWhen we arrived, it was at a small riverside dock where several other drivers also unloaded vans full of tourists and we were herded onto a large boat in the Loboc river. Once all aboard, we drove up into the mangroves. The night was amazingly beautiful. It happened to be a full moon and the river was wide enough to make a space around us and let the moonlight illuminate the trees and mountains in pale blue. The night air was warm, but the wind of the boat’s passage kept us cool and bug free. I was a little put off by the huge crowd, but it was a beautiful night and I was enjoying the scenery nonetheless. People had pointed to one or two lone flashes, wondering if that was the bugs we were coming to see, but of course it was not.

At one point the guide flashed his light high up into some palm trees and the light reflected off of dozens of shining things. I knew it couldn’t be the fireflies, which are bio-luminescent and not reflective, and which also don’t live in palms, only the mangrove apple. But I had no idea what could cause the reflective twinkling. In post vacation research mode, I found one lone reference to migrating birds sleeping in the nina palms along the river, so I’m guessing that it was their sleeping bodies the guide was illuminating for us?

Finally we came around a bend and were greeted with the christmas tree blinking of a firefly colony. I think if you want the best description, it’s better to go read my Surat Thani experience. This was really beautiful, but my experience of the beauty here was detracted from somewhat by a few things. One, the boat drivers actually ran the boat into the tree on purpose to get us as close to the blinking insects as possible (and I fear to agitate them into a better display, which is backward because they flash less when threatened). Two, every single person on the boat instantly stood up and raised phones and go-pros on sticks to try to get the best photos and videos of the tree. I know that low-light tech has improved a lot, but I also know that none of them have any images that will come close to the real thing. It made me a little sad that it was more about pictures than memories.

I stood too, because there was no other way to see. With the boat in their space, most of the fireflies retreated to the top of the tree, and blinked, as the others had, in near unison, but with one major difference from the ones in Thailand: they streaked. Perhaps because so many had been disturbed and taken to the air, or perhaps they just have a different blink time, but these bugs stayed lit long enough that a small portion of their flight path was illuminated creating the illusion of a thousand tiny shooting stars. My video, alas, only serves to highlight the terrible night capture my phone has. Maybe I should start a GoFundMe for a better camera…

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Once everyone had their photos, there was a chorus from the passengers to get going, and I rather expected us to move on forward to another glowing tree. After all, in ST, we were on the river for close to an hour and saw dozens of glowing trees. However, as we disentangled from the tree, we headed instead back toward the dock. The whole journey, more than an hour of driving, and the moonlight cruise up the river (which, yes, was nice for it’s own sake) were all for this single tree and brief 10 minute photo op. I thought about all the other times I’d seen the Chinese and Koreans on holiday do something similar: travel a long way to take a photo or two and then move on. I love my photos too, I like taking them, and I like looking at them later or sharing them on social media, but I still try every time I travel to take some time at every stop to put the camera down and just *live* in that moment. Otherwise all that photo will remind me of is taking the photo.

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I tried not to be ungrateful as we returned that night. It was hard for me not to compare my experience in ST to this one and feel very let down. I tried instead to focus on the good parts. The comet effect of the insects was stunning. The full moon on the river and the jungle was an absolute treat. It turns out that nearly every firefly tour in Bohol is like this, big crowded boat, one tree for photos, done. The best thing I could have done if I wanted a quiet peaceful personal experience with lots of trees full of lights would have been to go on one of the kayaking private tours, but there was no way that I was going to wield a kayak paddle until my back became less crispy, so this really was the best I could hope for. The good news is, now that they know tourists will pay to see fireflies, the locals have stopped cutting down the trees they live in and are working on restoring the mangrove’s environmental balance to bring more back, so spending money on this is contributing to the preservation of mangrove habitat.

Tourism is a tough balancing act because if they don’t have enough money, they can’t make it nice. If it get’s too popular, they can’t keep it ecologically healthy. If they make more money destroying the environment than they do showing it off, they’ll follow the money. People gotta live. It’s our role as privileged travelers to spend our money on things that encourage responsible growth and preservation while helping the local economy, and I think if nothing else, the firefly tours on Bohol do that.

This tour was also a good example of expectations vs reality defining an experience. I had no particular expectation of what I’d see in ST, and it blew my mind. But I had to at least slightly compare my first experience to the one in Bohol, and I ended up being perhaps less than stunned because it didn’t match my mental image. I don’t want to let this stop me from doing things twice or in different places, but I hope it reminds me to hold back my expectations and come to each experience as fresh as possible.

Lunch Boat by Day

Another must do on the tourist itinerary of Bohol is a daytime river cruise. I chose the Loboc River Floating Restaurant Cruise. By this time, I knew what a meal should cost, and 450p for a good lunch plus a cruise and a show is well worth it. Reviews told us that the food was decent, and they did not lie. It was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste). You can read more about it on the food post for this trip.

Unless you join a tour group, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get tickets in advance, so I aimed early and arrived at the tourism center at 11am. On my way into the parking lot I was issued a “priority number”. I gather this is so that people can then buy tickets in the order they arrive without having to stand in a long line.

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I pocketed the numbers and wandered around the little shopping area, taking in the repetitive souvenirs and trying in vain to find an iced coffee (no such luck). I never ended up buying any stuff, because I’m already loaded down with more things than I know what to do with, but I was tickled by the mash-up of the famous Starbucks logo with Bohol’s famous Tarsier, and I think if I’d been in the market for a new t-shirt, this would have been it.

When I at last headed to the ticket counter, I was at first rebuffed, but when they saw the priority number (issued some 30 minutes earlier and probably already called in the waiting area), I was quickly herded to the cashier and directed toward the lunch boat. Lunch was served as we boarded, giving everyone the chance to fill their plates and do some serious eating while still at the dock. At first I though it a bit strange, but I realized once we started moving that it was a good plan after all, since it got most people seated before the boat was in motion, and it meant that we weren’t dividing our attention between the food and the view.

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Somehow, I lucked out unreasonably, and got a table at the very front edge of the boat. I don’t think there are actual bad tables, since each one seemed to be on the front or one of the sides. The middle was occupied with the buffet, and the rear of the boat held the bar and a small stage where we were serenaded with acoustic renditions of English, Chinese, and Japanese popular songs. The musician was pretty good and I felt his songs added to the overall experience that day, so left a generous tip in his basket when it came around.

20171006_114514.jpgI took lots of photos, most of which are nearly identical in retrospect, and a few videos which I’ve managed to string together to give a general impression of the experience (see below). My seat provided an unrivaled view of both sides and a constant breeze that kept me cool and comfortable. Boat staff offered to take pictures (with my own camera, not as a souvenir gimmick), and when I was ready to go get my seconds of maja blanca, I offered my spot at the railing to a young lady with a very serious camera who I thought would appreciate the vantage point while I wasn’t using it.

20171006_115341.jpgWe pottered down the river, admiring the plants and scoping out some other floating platforms where we theorized the dance performances would be held. At one point, I began to notice lamp posts along the riverside, seemingly alone in the jungle. I suppose that there may have once been a path there, perhaps wiped out by the 2013 earthquake or just by the changing course of the river, but it was more than a little Narnian to see a perfectly normal lamppost in the woods.

Our outward tour ended at a small waterfall where we paused long enough to make sure everyone on board got a good look and a photo op, then we turned around and headed back the way we came.

20171006_115421If you’ve ever been up and down a river, you’ll appreciate that the view on the way back is not actually the same as the view on the way out, so I didn’t mind at all. Plus, on the way back we pulled up to one of the floating platforms and got treated to some local traditional dancing. The sign indicated the dance is called Kuradang, which seems to be a kind of dance used at many celebrations in Bohol. It likely started before the Spanish colonization but has just as likely been influenced over the centuries. It’s still special here, though, because it’s considered to be a uniquely Boholano dance.

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My lunch partner got up from our table to see if she could get a closer view for photos and was quickly stolen onto the dance floor.  I couldn’t just leave her there alone (plus, I had to get pictures of her being silly), so I followed and was soon dancing with the performers myself. We joined in the Kuradang in the portion where male and female partners sort of circle around one another. I did my best to follow my ersatz dance partner, who knew the steps much better than I. I’ve watched a few competition videos since and I can say that while I do feel that we were doing the same dance, that we were also doing only the most simple beginners steps. The gentlemen we danced with were very polite and hands off and we all had a breathlessly good time. After the music stopped, we were invited to sit there on the platform to watch the next dance: the tinikling.

Tinikling is much easier to find information about online since it’s practiced all over the Philippines, not just in Bohol. It’s also dated to the Spanish colonial era, but I don’t believe it came from Spain, merely that it developed across the Philippines during their occupation. (Kind of like how Riverdancing style developed in Ireland in response to British occupation?) I got a much better video of this dance, since I was now seated right next to the stage. It’s a dance involving two long bamboo sticks being slapped on the ground to make both the drum beat and a jumping challenge for the dancers. It was a bit like the complicated jump rope routines I could never master as a child, and also reminded me of some of the stick jumping dances I’d seen the Maori do in New Zealand.

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Once the main performance concluded, the dancers once again urged us forward. This time, I went first and tried my best to imitate the foot movements of my teacher. She was patient but of course it was a performance as well, so after only two practice toe taps, they started the bamboo moving (slowly) and I tried to follow the pattern. Oops for me, we’d only practiced the right foot, and suddenly I realized I had no idea what to do with my left! Fortunately the bamboo wielders were paying close attention and did not snap the poles on my leg. We reset our position and started again, and I managed to get the rhythm for about seven seconds before losing it again and begging my way off the stage. I won’t say this is an easy dance to master, but I was also going sans bra to spare my sunburnt back and I was more than a little worried that the energetic bouncing would cause a wardrobe malfunction.

Finally, we were released back to our seats on board, breathless and excited. I felt completely ridiculous but I also realized that we’d probably had the best time of anyone on board because we were willing to throw dignity to the wind and act like children. We bid the dancers farewell and thanked them for the joy (with words and a generous tip) and then the boat moved on, bringing us back to the pier where we began.

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I don’t know what I had expected from a lunchtime river cruise, and I suppose at least a little bit of every experience has a reflection of what you put into it, but it turned out to not only be a lovely meal (where I learned about a new food) and a beautiful view (getting to see the same river by moonlight and midday), but also a personal dance lesson in traditional Bohol and Philippino folk dancing. Definitely worth the cover charge.

 

Letters From China (Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008)

When the vicious cold winter weather begins to fade, the world begins to fill with flowers and everyone is in a more festive mood. Sitting in my cold and empty classroom in Korea now, I’m looking forward to spring more than ever. but until it arrives, here are the stories of the celebrations and beautiful blossoms I encountered in early 2008 in Yanjiao and Beijing to tide us over.


Mar 18, 2008 at 4:47pm

This week is Ireland week. The Irish Embassy is holding a number of events to increase awareness of Irish culture in China, and one of them was a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Not only was this the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in China, I’m told it was the first “open” parade since 1989. There have been military parades, and a few dragon parades (which are actually street performances, not real parades). So, a big step toward openness for China and a real historic event.

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Though I must admit it was painfully obvious that China doesn’t know what to do with a parade. They limited the participants in number (if not in scope), so it was quite small. They didn’t put any rope/tape up to block the parade route, there were no musicians besides the bagpipe at the lead, and they only marched about 500 yards before doubling back to their starting point.

Quite a few people came from Ireland for this special event, and they are easily identified as the crazy people wearing huge green hats. I had no idea that the holiday was as big a deal there as in the states. Before I found the people from the school here to hang out with, I met a group of Irish tourists, decked out in green clothes, big green hats and carrying large Irish flags. They shepherded me until I found my own group, quite friendly, and magnanimously declared I was Irish for the day. Although I don’t have any photos of them, there is at least one of me in their trip album somewhere.

After the parade (which started 30 min late) there was a band, a real traditional folk music group, very enjoyable, and traditional Irish dancing.

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The Irish minister of something or other got up on stage with some Chinese officials to be all official and ceremonial.

There was then a “famous Chinese singer” who won the Chinese equivalent of the American idol show, no its not called Chinese idol.

Then there was a jazz band and it kind of tapered off.

We went to an Irish pub called Paddy O’Shea’s, had some drinks and chips. The irish band and the bagpiper came there too, and played for us throughout the evening, and we didn’t get back home until after midnight.

I think I celebrated this St. P’s day with more Irish people than I’d ever MET before in my life. It was fun.

Some amusing things:

1) St. Patrick having been at the ball the night before, claimed to have been drinking tequila till 7:30 that morning.

2) I ran into one of my students there, who had many questions about Irish culture, including why was the piper wearing “a dress”. That was a difficult explanation, mostly involving “shhh, don’t say that so loudly, it’s not a dress”.

Mar 24, 2008 at 5:58pm

I don’t think I have many photos of this one. We went to the Marriott hotel for Easter Sunday brunch. Super posh. I mean, I’ve been to Marriott in the states, and they’re nice and all, but I felt like I was in some weird rags to riches movie. I just couldn’t bring myself to be crass enough to snap photos in there, sorry. But take my word, it was beautiful.

The day was also lovely, mild and sunny. And we sat indoors, but near the patio’s open doors so we got to see outside and have a nice breeze without suffering the sun in our eyes or the smoke from the grill.

The buffet was HUGE (we’re seriously considering doing that once a month now). I ate so much seafood: sushi, sashimi, steamed mussels, scallops in the shell, smoked salmon… mmmm. So much seafood. And cheese, which is really hard to come by here, especially good cheese. There were American breakfast foods like sausage, bacon, and omelettes, but I didn’t have any. There was Chinese food; there were crepes; there was a fresh fruit smoothie station and a salad bar. There were 3 grill stations outside, ribs to die for, as well as other meat selections, a table of fine sliced meats like prosciutto etc. A desert selection of doom (though honestly there was not enough chocolate, the lemon tarts were awesome) and a fondue station. And while I believe that SOME of it was special for Easter, they do this every Sunday. it was about 300 kuai, so 40$, not cheap, but sooo good.

We puttered there till 5 pm (the buffet stopped at 3:30, we just lingered over last cups of coffee, champagne etc), then headed to a tiny little bar in a hutong some way away, where we wiled away the evening discussing politics (mainly American). They had flavored rums there, and I got one ginger and one orange clove… very smooth and very nice.

I had to duck out earlier than most, and got home rather later than I wanted to, but it was still a nice day out, and hopefully the next late night bar excursion will be on a Saturday.

 

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2017 Note: Oh the days before Instagram. I can hardly imagine being ashamed of taking photos of my food,or a restaurant, or a buffet table these days. The last time I went to a very posh buffet, I actually ran around with my camera to get pretty pictures of the tables before they were attacked by guests before I even got my first plate of food. I wrote more than 7,000 words about my food experiences in Bohol in 2017 and took pictures of nearly everything I ate there. And yet, back in 2008 in China, it seemed gauche to stop and take photos in that beautiful hotel. I wonder what photo trends we’ll get this decade.

Mar 26, 2008 at 7:58pm

Yuyuantan Park

IMG_0376.jpgThis is the gigantic park that has over 2000 cherry trees. I went today to check it out, since some of the cherries are blooming elsewhere. There weren’t a lot in bloom, and I walked around for about 3 hrs (it’s huge). I took over 100 pics (and this is without most stuff in bloom). I think these are the best of today’s. I’ll be going back in 10-14 days when I expect it to be really much fuller. A lot of the pics are closeups because the trees are still pretty bare, and most of the grass is brown, so the wider shots just don’t look very nice yet. This one is my favorite from the whole day. Unexpected bee!

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Enjoy the rest of the photos!

Apr 1, 2008 at 4:23pm

I think this very well may be the student’s favorite western holiday. I woke up sleepy, cold and cranky because the weather is cold and I can’t breathe. I got to class a couple minutes late and my classroom was empty. One of my students came up to me in the hall and said (as seriously as possible) “Oh! We thought that you wouldn’t make it to class today!” which was a vaguely reasonable assumption, because I’ve been sick.

Anyway, it was an April Fool’s trick and the whole class poured out of a neighboring classroom with choruses of “happy fool’s day!” It did make me smile.

Then during the next period a group of Kevin’s students asked me to switch classrooms with them so they could play a prank on him, and thus I became a participant in the shenanigans.

Certainly a good deal of enthusiasm for April Fool’s.

April Flowers

2017 Note: In April 2008, I took a lot of beautiful photos of flowers all over the campus as well as the snow-like drifts of cottonwood trees that almost certainly added to my health troubles. I somehow never wrote anything about these beautiful trees that brightened my day as I walked past them on campus, or even about the strange hummingbird moth that I saw for the first time that year and only learned the real name of recently. I don’t know if I was too consumed with my misery to think about writing more about the flowers, but it makes me glad that I’ve changed my focus.

I still write about the hard times on occasion, but I like to spend my words on beauty and joy whenever possible. In the end, that means that I experience the joy over and over. The first time, when I’m living it, again when I think about what I want to write, again when I write, edit and proofread it, and again when I choose which photos will accompany my story. The joy becomes larger and the pain becomes smaller as time passes, and I hope that the next 10 year retrospective of my life reflects that.