Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

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Stories Around Hamburg

My week in Hamburg was cut a little short because of the insane heat wave going on last summer. I spent an unfortunate amount of time simply being too hot and trying to recover from that. 37 C with no AirCon or even fans is treacherous. Plus, my Airbnb was up 5 flights of stairs, no elevator. I still had some interesting and unique experiences while I was there, most notably the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Nikolai, the Hamburg Harbor, the Miniature Wonderland, a wonderful ferry down the Elbe to see some old shipwrecks on the shore, a live music fountain light show in the park, and an interactive haunted history adventure!


Monday Madness

Monday was the single busiest day I had in Hamburg. I started the day with a trip to the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai because I love ruins. The spire stands as the highest point in the city of Hamburg and is quite distinctive sticking up above the surrounding trees and buildings.

bove ground, you can explore the ruins of what remain after the Firestorm of 1943, see some beautiful artwork, and take the elevator all the way to the tippy top of the tower for 360 degree views of the city.

It’s really quite delightful, and included in the elevator ticket price, is entrance to the museum located in the former cellar of the church. I’ve never been one to turn down a museum, but the experience was vastly more than I bargained for, and is getting its very own blog post. Let me just preface by saying, wow, the German’s don’t pull punches when it comes to discussing their role in the Nazi disaster.

After the memorial museum, I continued on toward the warehouse district where I had scheduled a combo harbor tour and Miniature Wonderland experience which I previously shared. I really have no idea what the tour guide said as it was 100% in German, but the harbor is really pretty, and I did get to see sunset from on the river Elbe which was a real treat.


Tuesday Too Hot
Tuesday was the hottest day. I went out for food and the restaurant was lovely but sweltering without Air-con or fans. I decided beer is hydrating. It’s certainly more available than water. I had the most tender pork and wonderful sauerkraut.


I thought I could find a cafe like Starbucks to enjoy AC and iced latte until it was time to go to the park in the evening but if they had AC it couldn’t compete the weather. One cafe that actually had a visible ac was out of ice for drinks.

In the end, I had to give up on everything and head back to my room where at least I could get ice and a cold shower. I’m genuinely worried for the people in Europe if climate change continues to serve up these super hot summers in towns without the infrastructure or social awareness to handle them. Even something as simple as putting a 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer in preparation of a hot day out was a complete novelty to my German hostess. In future, I’m not planning to return to the mainland of Europe during the summer months ever again.


Shipwrecks on the Beach, Cruises on the Elbe, it’s Wednesday!


Way down the river at Blankenese there are some slightly famous shipwrecks. Old craft that were simply not ever cleaned up, yet are so close to the shore that they are completely exposed at low tide. It sounded cool… or… at least interesting, even if the weather was still too hot. Sadly, I had the only day of difficulties with the Hamburg transit that day. The 50 minute journey took 2 hours and I got to the wrecks 45 minutes after low tide instead of 15 minutes before. Despite this setback, I did get to see them mostly out of the water and in the shade with the wind it was a nice place to sit and rest and watch the tide come in.


I don’t much like swimming alone at larger beaches. I seem to be good with smaller places, I was fine in the Philippines in the rivers, but not the beaches. I like swimming in the ocean if I’m snorkeling, but not just wandering into the water from the shore unless I’m with a group. Whatever the reason, I didn’t go swimming in the Elbe that day, but once I cooled in the shade, I was content to sit and watch the river and enjoy the breeze.


On my way to the ferry terminal, I saw a marker on Google Maps called “magic tree” so of course I had to stop and look. I have no idea what it was or how it got labeled on the map, but it was pretty?


This ferry ride was everything I wanted. Very few humans, a seat in the shade with a breeze and a nice view. They even got close to a few points of interest since it’s a tour ferry. Much better than the overfilled boat tour I’d taken as a combo with the Miniature Wonderland ticket.


The ferry dropped me off downtown at St. Pauli’s, a famous bustling cultural hub in Hamburg. I had a delicious salmon sandwich at Pier 10 then went to the night market. It was a little less “market” and more “outdoor bar” with some food trucks but still cool. I drank a beer and got some specialty cheese.


Thursday: Fountains and Flowers and Music oh my!
Another extremely hot day. I stayed in all day, drenching myself in cold water and holding a frozen water bottle to my neck. When the sun got lower and the temperatures dropped back below 30C, I went out to the botanical gardens. I decided to go out before sunset despite the heat because I wanted a chance to see the actual gardens, but my main goal was to see the fountain and light show with live music accompaniment that is a nightly feature at the gardens in summer. I walked slowly, taking my time to enjoy the flowers and take lots of pictures.

The gardens were stunning, if slightly wilted from heat. More locals came out to enjoy the relief of the relatively cooler evening air and to eat some ice cream by the lake. I even ran into a swing dancing group cutting a rug in an open pavilion in the park.

Then, when I was ready for a rest, I sidled up to the in-park restaurant for dinner. I decided to finally try currywurst. I’d seen it all over the place but hadn’t eaten any yet because I was trying to enjoy what I thought of as “traditional German” food. In the end, I gave in because currywurst was so ubiquitous I had to accept it as a local specialty. I’m not really sure it’s related to curry. It’s a wurst (sausage) with sauce that may be tamarind since it tasted a bit fruity and tart, I think it was sprinkled with turmeric powder. It was nice but somehow nether Indian nor German. I don’t know the fascination but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

For the concert, I found a spot by the water early on as the lawns around the lake began to fill up with families on picnic blankets. I watched ducks and geese be unbelievably blase about humans even as toddlers chased then around the grass.

I’ve been to a lot of fountain shows, I love them all, but what makes the Hamburg show so unique is that it’s all live. The music is performed live, and the person controlling the fountains and lights is activating all of it live. It’s not a pre-programmed computer controlled performance, so it’s not as perfect or technically marvelous as some, but it has the tremendous advantage of being totally unique every time, and of involving live performance artists. I was sitting so close to the edge I got sprayed by the fountains from time to time which was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. One day, I’ll buy a better night time camera, but here’s a little snippet to give you an idea of the show.


Hamburg was an up and down experience going from extreme heat and misery to wonderful, captivating experiences when the heat eased off. I wish I could have experienced the city more fully in better weather because I really loved everything I was able to experience while there.

It’s basically impossible for me to fit a whole city into one post, and Hamburg is no exception. I’ve already published the story of Miniature Wonderland, and following this post will be the deeply emotional ride through the St. Nikolai WWII memorial museum, and finally the thrilling conclusion of my last adventure in Hamburg: The Dungeon!!!!!!

Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

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In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

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I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

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The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.

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The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

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Now the tunnels are full of art.

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The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.

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Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

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After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

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Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

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Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section! If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

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Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

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.

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

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


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

The Festival & Traditions

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

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

Cultural appropriation or good old fun?

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

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

The Magic Math of Tides

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

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

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

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

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

The Legend of the Tigers

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

Walk on the Ocean

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

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

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

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

Get Back

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

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

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

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

Jimjilbang

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

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

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

Boseong and the Green Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speaking of food

green-tea-noodles

photo credit: honjatravel

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

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

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

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photo credit: Annemone

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

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

Golden Week

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

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


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

Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Dubai December: Overview & The Miracle Gardens

December is major holiday celebrating time for me. Most westerners celebrate some version of Christmas/Yule and the New Year, and of course Americans have Thanksgiving at the tail end of November. On top of that, I’m a Sagittarius, so I get to throw a birthday celebration into the whole mix.

Saudi celebrates none of these things. Not even birthdays. Islamic New Year was in November (tho it changes on the Gregorian calendar every year) and they celebrated by fasting for three days.

I was lucky enough to have an impromptu Thanksgiving feast, and you can read about my Christmas here. New Year’s celebrations are sadly out, since it’s on a Wednesday, and we work Sunday to Thursday. But my birthday goshdarnit, I could do something about that.

I decided to treat myself to a champagne brunch in Dubai. And since I was there, to take in some other sights as well.

I started my explorations bright and early Friday morning at the Miracle Gardens. This is a huge garden filled with structures made entirely of flowers. It’s actually very affordable, merely 30 AED (about 8$ US). And like all things in Dubai, I’m sure it’s the most, biggest, -estest of it’s kind in the world.

20141219_112658I spent the better part of three hours wandering the grounds, which even in December were quite warm in the sun. Every turn brought new views of the staggering flower creations. A village of flower houses, a tunnel of flower hearts, a giant flower clock, a princess tower, a river of flowers, bowers and bells, and even a floral Burj Kalifah (the tallest building in the world also in Dubai).IMG_0731The air smelled wonderful, and all the staff were amazingly friendly and helpful, constantly offering to take pictures for me so that I could pose next to the floral architecture. There were several pagodas and gazebos where people could rest in the shade and a generous but not overbearing snack center.

This was ceilinged by a carpet of flowers providing shade, perfume and beauty while also preserving the all flower panoramic view from the central hill.  The snack center offered a wide array of snacks from countries near UAE, and several dishes I’d never heard of. Because of my brunch buffet plans I didn’t sample any of the fare, but others seemed to be enjoying it, and it was nice to see snacks that weren’t merely pizza, burgers and fries.

I was also told that they’re working on a “phase 2” which will be the world’s largest live butterfly garden if/when they can get the permits. So I’m keeping my eye out on that one because 35 thousand butterflies would be SO COOL.

It wasn’t very crowded in the morning, but became more so as it crept closer to noon. It was very difficult to take wide shots without people in them, but unlike Saudi, that’s ok. And everyone was very considerate about taking turns to pose and take photos at the best spots.

The garden is only open in the cooler months (hardly surprising given that no one wants to do anything outdoors in the summer in Dubai), so plan your visit accordingly.

I could go on about the astonishing architecture, the magnificent scents, the colors and sheer volume of flowers, but in the end, pictures do speak louder than words, so please take a look at all my photos over on my facebook page, and keep a look out for the rest of my exciting Dubai December adventures!