Winter Vacation 2019

Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start my new year off with a lovely holiday adventure. Thanks once more to my fancy Korean University Job™, I get a nice long break from the students lasting from about Christmas until March 1st. While I did have some fiddly bits of professorial paperwork that keep me at my desk for part of that time, there’s no unending deskwarming like I was subjected to at that EPIK job.  I’ve scrimped and saved on rent, food and local expat parties in order to treat myself to another 6 weeks on the road!


Jan 10- 19: Taiwan – I won’t get to see the Chinese New Year here, but I’m hoping to see some beautiful temples, museums, mountains, street food, and above all, the winter migration home of the Purple Crow Butterflies!!!! (not pictured below) I’ll be in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I’m brushing up on my Mandarin in DuoLingo!

Jan 20-28: Jordan – I’m meeting up with a friend who teaches in Japan to tour my old Middle East stomping grounds again. Last time I went, I didn’t get to see everything in Petra, and almost nothing else at all. This time, we’re spending a full three days in Petra to see everything, plus a day and night at a Dead Sea resort to take in the mud, and a couple days of wandering around Amman (below) to see the ruins and the markets.

Jan 29 – Feb 11: Egypt – In a complete turn around from my normal travel patterns, my friend and I booked a 13 day almost all-inclusive tour (a few meals are not covered). I actually found one that is in line with my desired budget and it will be a relief not to have to think about transport or scheduling while I’m there. I’m brushing up on my Arabic, too, but Egyptian Arabic is nothing like what I learned, so having a guide around will come in handy. We’re supposed to get to see Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm el-Sheik. We’ll even be taking a 5-star Nile River cruise for a few of those days. Considering how limited my time was last time I was in Egypt, I’m really excited!!!

Feb 12-22: Malaysia – specifically, Penang. I’ve booked an Airbnb in one place for the whole time. I was only there one day last time I passed through but it seemed like the kind of town I’d enjoy for longer. I’m staying in Georgetown where I can wander around to see the street art, shopping streets, and amazing food, but I may rent a scooter and head off on a mini road trip around the small island. Plus, my host says that the Lunar New year celebrations last 2 weeks or more, so even though the official day is Feb 5, there should still be lots of decorations and events while I’m there.


While I won’t be on the blog during my vacation time, I’ve written a lot more posts about last summer and set them up to auto-publish during January, February and March by which time I hope to have some new stories from the winter adventure for you. If you want to get a real-time experience of my travels, you’ll need to hop over to the Instagram or the Facebook page where I will do my best to post something cool every day. Thanks for following ❤

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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

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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!

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. ❤

EPIK in Review

At some point I realized that my EPIK Orientation post is one of the top 5 on this site and I thought, now that I’m leaving, it might be useful to some people to see what I learned about EPIK in the last 2 years. Like everything I write here, it is my experience and my story, not some definitive article, but it is my hope that my perspective can help a few of the hundreds of new EPIK recruits who enter Korea every February. It may seem a bit negative, but this isn’t a rag on EPIK post, it’s a look back: Things I experienced. Things I learned. Things I wish someone had told me. Things there were no way to know until they happened.

I’m not writing every good experience here because I’m trying to focus on things that I learned the hard way, that were not good surprises, or that could have made my life easier if I’d known sooner. And also because I wrote a lot of my good experiences as blog posts or Facebook updates or even Instagram photos while they were happening.

I chose to stay a second year. I think EPIK is a great opportunity. It’s generally agreed that with few exceptions the quality of job here in Korea for ESL teaching is 1) University, 2) EPIK, 3) Hagwon. EPIK offers reasonable working and teaching hours. It offers paid holiday leave on top of the national holidays that is 2-3x what hagwon teachers get (if they get any), and it offers paid sick leave which most hagwons also don’t offer. There’s far more of a support structure for newly arrived teachers as well. 4 stars: would recommend.


Public School in Korea

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Schools are graded: A-D, the A schools are the richest and best performing schools while the D are the poorest and lowest performing. The “good” news is that the Korean government seems to be interested in putting extra money into the lower grade schools, but there’s only so much the money can do.

Teachers don’t work for a school, they work for an office of education: Here in Busan, that’s BMOE. My contract is with them, and they get to decide what school(s) I work at in their district. But even Korean teachers are at the whim of the Office of Education within a structure. Korean teachers go to special teaching universities and pass rigorous exams to become teachers. Once they are placed with a district, they will stay there unless there is some extenuating reason to move and they apply for transfer. Korean teachers stay at a school for 3 years and then move to a new school in the district. Preference is given to teachers on a points system. Years of experience count toward their points, but they also get more points for a class D school than class A, so even younger teachers have a chance at getting a “good school” after they serve 3 years at a “bad school”.

No one bids to go to a class D school, which means working here I’ve been mostly surrounded by teachers who do not want to be here and are just biding their time until their 3 years are up and they can go back to a decent school. This is insanely discouraging for me, and I can only imagine how much more so for the students who have no choice. At best, I have a co-teacher who doesn’t want to be here, but out of a sense of duty will do her best while she is here. At worst, I have a co-teacher who complains about the students every day, who cancels class or ends early at any excuse, and who goes to her doctor to try and get medical leave for “stress” because the students are “just so awful”… spoilers, they’re not actually that bad.

In elementary (I can’t speak for middle and high, sorry) the students spend most of their time in “homeroom” where they learn most subjects from a single teacher. The homeroom teacher is almost exclusively responsible for discipline and is the only point of contact with parents. English teachers are “subject teachers” which means even the Korean English teachers are second class teachers, looked way down on by homeroom teachers, and generally given crap. Somehow, homeroom teachers don’t think subject teachers actually DO anything. Which is by and large a load of hooey, since subject teachers often have to do more lesson planning on a tighter schedule and are often assigned additional administrative tasks for the school.

The Principal Principle

main-qimg-84ba5eb5ec8a91c7ec0873bb8a036012-c-e1517966951546.jpgNot only are the schools massively different depending on if it’s A-D, elementary, middle, or high, all the schools have drastically different policies that come from the principal. Many of them will push to see how much extra work they can get you to do. You could try to force the letter of the contract (although it’s best to do that only as a very last resort because people will resent it), but it’s wiser to find culturally sensitive ways to stand up for yourself at work. Politeness will go a long way to smoothing the trail, but how you’re treated is going to be wildly different from everyone else in your intake because the principals make 70% of the rules, and the CTs make another 10-20%.

Your contract is very vague on school responsibilities. I personally found that I was expected to operate a “morning greeting” program 6 months of the year where I would stand at the school gates with some of the older students and make every student arriving read one English sentence form a signboard before proceeding to their homeroom. Other teachers have to run reading clubs. Some are required to participate in teacher volleyball, while I’ve never even been invited. This is all based on the principal and the CTs.

It depends on how your CT and principal get on with each other too! My first year CT had a great relationship with the principal. I’m fairly sure he thought she could do no wrong. She got away with all KINDS of stuff. But my principal does not like my second year head CT. He yells at her, embarrasses her in front of other staff, belittles her, and generally doesn’t trust her. Because of this, she’s far less willing to ask for things on my behalf (not because she doesn’t care about me, but because she doesn’t want to get yelled at by him), and he’s far more likely to jump down her throat if something isn’t done perfectly.

That first year head CT lost most of my intake paperwork. We still don’t know where my checklist for the apartment move in is. We had to redo several things. She filed my Korean tax exemption a year late… just, NOT good at paperwork. But now that I’m leaving, the principal is mad at the current head CT for not having these things, and is making her chase down the first year head CT to get her to sign new versions of 2 year old paperwork. That’s how much he likes one and hates the other. And it definitely impacts my experience at the school.

By the way, keep copies of everything for yourself, just in case.

Your Role as the Guest English Teacher

For myself and the other EPIK teachers I talk with regularly, the sense I got was “you’re not a real teacher”. Because all the Korean teachers went to a special university and are constantly undergoing training updates to be public school teachers, they are certified in a way you are not. Your basic job is to be an English speaker. A living recording. I felt far more like a department resource similar to a computer lab or library than I felt like a teacher. Eventually, my CTs came to realize I had actual skills and we did more collaborating, but I was lucky and it still took time and effort.

It all depends on your principal and your CT (co-teacher). English subject classes are run by a Korean teacher who may or may not actually speak English. They teach the English class alone when you aren’t there. They might plan all the lessons, or they might only plan lessons they teach without you. They might teach with you, or they might disappear on days you’re in their classroom (even though they legally aren’t allowed to do that for student safety reasons). I’ve personally had one CT who mostly liked to plan her own stuff, but close to half the time when she’d talk with me about it, she was open to changes I suggested. I had a CT who did all the planning and told me exactly what she wanted me to do. I’ve had a CT who wanted to plan and run the “lesson” portion but have me plan and run the “game” portions. And I’ve had a CT who didn’t seem to understand what lesson planning was at all, so I eventually just started telling her what I was going to do and letting her work around me.

I have friends who only speak as a kind of classroom demonstration and never run lessons themselves. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the second half of a lesson without attending the first half. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the entire lesson without the aid of their CT.

They cannot prepare you for this at orientation. They try, but it’s not going to really sink in until you’re doing it.

Remember, you are not their equal. You will never be treated as such. If you are temporarily made to feel like you are, there will come a time when you run into the wall of foreignerness and there will be times when, for better or worse, you know your role in this school system is purely for show.

Speaking of things being for show… a lot of what you, your CT, your students, and your school do are all for show. Most of orientation is for show, so that the schools can say their foreign teachers completed so many hours of training. Any activities you do beyond class are strictly for impressing parents or the school board.  You will have “open classes” where parents and the admin staff can attend, but those will be carefully orchestrated performances that bear little resemblance to a daily classroom experience. I had people from the school board come to my class twice during winter camp this year… to… see…. I’m still not sure.

That morning greeting thing I had to do? Solely so that parents would see my very white face smiling at their little ones every morning. We tried our best to make the sentences relevant to something they were doing in class, but I actually had to argue with the Vice-principal because she thought it would be better if I personally said “good morning” to every single student instead, and I couldn’t get her to understand how useless that would be because her focus was on how great it would look to see the foreigner talking with kids where their parents could see them rather than on the learning benefit to the students.

The Chain of Command

Respect flows in order from job title to age to nationality. You are pretty much at the bottom of this. (you’re lower down than the Koreans who are younger than you… ) You shouldn’t object, or say no, or in any way be direct about any negative feedback.  You get a little latitude because most of them know you don’t know the Korean WAY, but it’s easy to step on a cultural landmine or simply be confused as to why things are done this way.

Interruptions are going to be a way of life. In the authority structure of Korean work environments, when the boss says jump, you say how high from the air. They will not ask you to come see them when you finish what you’re doing, they will just expect you to stop whatever it is and attend. They will interrupt your conversations with other teachers, maybe for 20-30 minutes. Trying to talk about your lesson tomorrow? Well, if the Vice-principal calls your co-teacher, she’ll answer and pretend you don’t exist until the VP says goodbye, not even so much as a, “this could be a moment, sorry, I’ll let you know when I’m done.

I managed to have a conversation about this with my CT and while she can’t do much about the people above her, she has at least been willing to work with me so that if she calls me to talk about our next lesson and I’m working on something else, I can ask for a few minutes to get to a stopping point. But before we had this cultural heart to heart, we both felt disrespected. Her because as my supervisor, she expected Korean style obedience. Me because I feel like the only reason to not let an employee get to a natural stopping point while working on something is because they’re in deep trouble.

And yes, I did just say I argued with the Vice-principal. There is often a workaround for the foreign teachers, but I only talked with my CT’s bosses after talking to her and having her ask me to go to the Principal or Vice-principal myself. She did this in part because of the problems I mentioned earlier of her getting yelled at, and in part because she knew I could be more direct and get away with it. But please, don’t go around your CT or behind their back, as that is a recipe for disaster.

Your Co-Teacher and You

20170526_085942.jpgYour CT is the most important person to have a good relationship with at your school, and possibly in Korea. This is the difference between a good work life and a shitty one.

My first year here, I had an amazing head CT (except for paperwork, she was terrible at paperwork). She spoke excellent English, we loved the same books and TV shows, she was energetic and happy most of the time and she liked her classroom to be fun. She also liked to read books or do yoga in the afternoons, and generally did minimal lesson planning so she’d have more free time. She had been teaching English for ages, so that worked for her because she knew what she wanted to do already 80% of the time.

We chatted regularly, shared cookies and coffee in the afternoons, gossiped about K-pop stars or scandals in the news. And I had a lot of free time, too. Which was great. I taught 21 hours a week, and spent about 5 hours doing other class related work at my desk, and the other 14 hours a week in the office, I could work on personal stuff.

That first year, I didn’t always get on with my second CT. She was new, nervous, and very strict. But by the end of the first year we had worked most of that out and were doing ok.

I decided to stay a second year. I knew my primary CT was changing schools, but that secondary CT would become my handler and we already had a good working relationship. I knew the second year wouldn’t be the same, but I had no idea how much it would change.

Cue dramatic music.

Not only did I lose the fun CT, but I gained a second school. We’re office of education employees after all, and we have to go where they send us. In this case, they decided to split me between 2 schools, giving me a horrible schedule, increasing the number of students I spent time with, and decreasing the amount of time I spent with any given student. I need a job where I can have rapport with my students. Jobs where I can’t connect with my students are soul crushing to me… so this was a major disappointment. I’ve done my best to connect with the more than 300 students I see this year, but I don’t know most of their names, and I really only have any idea of the ability of the outliers (best and worst). It makes me feel like I can’t be an effective teacher, and then I remember that’s not really my job at EPIK.

Other than sheer overwhelming schedule nonsense, the second school was fine. The CT was new but she was young and energetic and very glad to have me because she knew I had experience teaching English and she did not.

Meanwhile, at my primary school, the new head CT was losing her shit because suddenly she was “in charge” and our entire co-worker dynamic was changing. Everything I thought we’d worked out and gotten comfortable with was suddenly quicksand because all that happened when she wasn’t my “boss”. I know I just laid out the hierarchy, but to me, she’s still not my boss… technically our CT is above us in rank, but I’m also older than her with more English teaching experience, and while I was happy to do as she was asking in most cases, I wasn’t down with the jumping part of the boss-worker relationship. So we had to go through a whole new series of fairly stressful bouts to find our work dynamic again. Which, by the way, is good now… it just sucked having to do it twice with the same person.

Remember when I said no one wants to work at a class D school? Well, that means all the new teaching staff we got in my second year didn’t want to be here. It was a penance because they were too low on the totem pole to get any of their top 10 choices. On top of that, when it came time for the staff to divvy up the jobs between homeroom and subject teachers, no one wanted to be the new English teacher either! One woman heard that subject teaching was easier than homeroom (remember that dirty rumor?) so she volunteered, and even though she could barely say 3 words of English, they gave her the job.

Also remember how I said all the teachers go to special universities with rigorus testing? Well, it hasn’t always been that way. It turns out that while nowadays teaching universities only accept the very best, back in the day they took the dregs. So depending on the age of your CT, they might have come from an era where academic proficiency was not required to become a teacher.

I went from a year of singing the lego theme song (everything is awesome!) to a year of crying at my desk at least one day a week. Because my CTs changed and I could not make it work. (Although, the nearly year long ordeal of two intractable root canal procedures that required dozens of trips to a variety of dentists and endodontic specialists could not have helped things)

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It took me about 9 months to finally get a plan for really dealing with her and it was “don’t deal with her”. Now I just make my materials and tell her what I’m going to do while I’m in her room. She doesn’t get a vote anymore. I’m not suggesting you handle a difficult CT this way. I think my case was extreme. At some point my head CT actually suggested that I simply not do anything for this problem teacher unless I was directly asked. I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I just cared about the kids too much. Because my head CT saw how hard I worked on finding a mutual solution, she eventually backed my decision to do it my way and appealed to the Vice-principal to select a different English teacher next year.

I’ve worked with 6 Korean co-teachers in the past 2 years and 5 of them were great. No it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but the other 5 I could at least communicate with and they cared about the students and classes and me, so we could hash it out when things got rough.

You are stuck with your CTs. They are not going away until the school board sends one of you to another school, which only happens in March. 5/6 we cover for each other when one is sick (I mean, it’s Korea, so we still come to work, but the well one will pick up the slack so the sick one can do less). 5/6 I can ask for help with things outside of school (advice, translating, calling stores or doctors offices that don’t speak English, stuff they don’t have to do). 5/6 have my back with the students and the admin staff.

6 isn’t a lot either. I’ve never had more than 3 at a time, but I have friends who have had as many as 11 co-teachers at once. When I think about how different all my CTs are in teaching style and in what they want from me, I get a little dizzy at the idea of trying to do that across 11 people. But it happens.

Plus, you’re the only native speaker at your job, so you don’t get to have foreigner friends lunchtime like the hagwon teachers do, if you don’t enjoy your CTs company, it gets very lonely.

The experiences of myself and my friends at BMOE is not universal, though. Ask 2 EPIK teachers about their CTs and you’ll get 5 different descriptions.

I found this article written by a teacher in Korea who finds himself constantly abandoned by CTs and left alone in the classroom. I want to point out that is a) illegal because you as a foreigner are not certified to handle safety and discipline issues.  I asked my Office of Education about it, and while it’s ok for us to be alone with kids during camp time (and for the occasional few moments a CT might need to step out to deal with pressing issues), the children are required to be overseen by someone with the right certifications and that’s not us. b) the Koreans who are assigned English classes are being paid for the English classes, so if they ditch you, goof off on their phone, etc. they’re basically not working when they should be. It’s up to you if you want to complain or not, but at least now you know the rules.

Last Minute Everything

The schedule is never what it says it will be. Ever. You will be told about events when they happen, or if you’re lucky, the day before.

I joined the monthly dinner club my first year (teachers pay into a fund and then go to a nice restaurant as a group once a month). Most of the time I found out when that one day was the day before or morning of.

Classes can be moved or cancelled or rearranged with zero notice. I will sometimes walk into an empty classroom only to be told by the CT that class was moved to another time. There’s a school wide phone system, they could call, but they don’t. I was told today that the class I just finished was actually the last time I would see my 3rd graders because she decided not to have class next week after all. Now I don’t even get to say goodbye…

Planning your holidays can be rough. You can easily look up the federal holidays and I recommend you book any trips you want for things like Chuseok as soon as possible because all the Koreans booked that 3 years ago. But your school holidays are dependent on camp, and often the principal won’t decide when camp is going to be until a week or two before the end of the semester. You can ask them to, but there’s no way to force them. And if you buy plane tickets before your time off is set, you could be very disappointed.

Speaking of camp. You won’t know how many or what level students you get until about a week before go time. But you need a lesson plan and materials list way before that.

Desk Warming and Other Kiddie BS

20170303_082606There is an expectation in Korean culture about your body being at work = you are working. Public schools are actually better than private companies because most of the time the Korean staff can actually show up and leave at designated times instead of trying to beat the boss in and wait until the boss leaves to go. As the foreigner teacher, you have a strict time in and time out and if they ask you to do more they have to agree to OT. Don’t agree to stay late until you get that OT approved, because they WILL try to get you to “volunteer”, and according to your contract, if you volunteer, they don’t have to pay you more.

I have a friend who has been teaching more than her maximum 22 hours for 2 years because when she showed up, the Korean teachers told her “the last foreign teacher did it” and she didn’t stand up for herself. Public schools are infinitely better than hagwons about your hours and time, but it’s still important not to get taken advantage of. But also, don’t be totally stingy about a few extra minutes on occasion when you’re trying to finish some work for the next morning.

However, while you’re busy watching them to make sure you’re not overworked, they’re watching you to make sure you’re body is in that school every second they paid for. I know they mentioned desk warming in orientation, but it still drives us all crazy. It’s not just that I have to sit around when my work is done. Or that I have to come to school when there are no students. It’s that I have to sit around when there’s no heat or a/c AND no students… It’s that I’m not allowed to decide which of my two schools I’d like to be working at so when the internet is down during desk warming, I can’t go to the other place. Or if I have work to do at school A but I’m scheduled to desk warm at school B, I can’t change that to get my work done at school A…. it’s obstructive.

I also had to sign in and out during winter camp this year because my new VP thought I couldn’t be trusted to show up if a Korean teacher wasn’t there to see it… I know there are newbies out there who might try to take advantage and skive off, but after 2 years of being at the same school, it was insulting to be suddenly treated as untrustworthy.

Paid Time Off

20170126_081916Your holidays and sick leave aren’t exactly what you think they are. EPIK teachers get 11 sick days, and it says in your contract that for more than 3 days you need a doctor’s note. BUT. That actually means any non-consecutive 24 hours.

Unless your CT and principal don’t care… because that CT who was bad at paperwork my first year? Yeah, I only brought a sick note for my 5 day quarantine, and I was never asked for another one the rest of the year.

My second year with the more rules focused CT, I had a million dentist appointments for which I often left school only 1 hour early, but those added up and soon I was having to bring a note for every visit. Which also costs 3,000 won at the doctors office. On the other hand, one day I was actually too sick to get out of bed, I was told I could not use my sick time because I didn’t get a doctors note despite the fact that I had food poisoning and could barely drag myself to the bathroom, forget the hospital.

I explained later to my CT why I wasn’t able to go (no car, no family/friends to drive me, no ability to even call a taxi, and unwilling to call an ambulance for non-emergency illness because while the ER costs are low if they deem it necessary, if they think you’re wasting time, you get a bigger bill). She sympathized with me, and could tell how awful I still felt the day I returned to school, but there was nothing anyone could do, and I had to use a vacation day instead of a sick day.

Those doctor notes are only good for the day they are issued. Unless you have something like a surgery or a highly contagious flu, they can’t issue a multi-day note. So if you want to miss more than one day, be prepare to schlep back to the hospital every single day, or else not get paid time off. More than one teacher has gone to a doctor thinking that note will cover the duration of an illness and returned to work only to find they’re burning vacation days or not getting paid for the missed days.

The holidays are also restricted to use for summer and winter break, so unless your principal feels benevolent, there is no way you can make them give you time off during other studentless days. I originally wanted to use my winter vacation days to end early this February. There are no English classes in the last week of the school year and desk warming at the end of my contract when I had so many things to do to get ready to move my life seemed silly. I asked before winter break if I could be allowed to do this and was told flatly “no” because it wasn’t official holiday time. Even though I also was told I had to use a paid holiday for my sick day… outside of official holiday time. They said I could use the paid leave to have short days, but not full days off. Yet, it turns out, I’m actually taking the last two days of my final week completely off anyway. As circumstances changed, I have an appointment on that Thursday morning, and I think my principals finally decided it was a reasonable request to just have the last two days off rather than to try and juggle half days all week.

School Computers

The school computers are all awful. Get a VPN. I can only erratically access my Google Drive from school because of the network’s security features. Sometimes, I can’t even copy images off the internet which is bad when you’re trying to make a PowerPoint and need that clip art. Sometimes one program will only work with the VPN and another will only work without it, so I have to keep turning it off and on. One day Drive needs the VPN, but the next day it won’t work with the VPN on. Some days, I have to turn the VPN off and on again every few minutes because the school’s network keeps blocking me… I swear I’m not trying to watch porn, I’m usually just trying to get to a picture of a cat eating a hamburger.

They are also sloooooooowwww. Like dial up modem slow. Like, are you sure there’s not malware on this machine slow. It’s because they have so many redundant security programs running that it eats the processor speed to nothing. And they also never clean them out. The IT person is only at your school for one day a week, so it’s best if you can manage a minimum of your own tech support… change that windows desktop into English for a start. Basically, try not to run anything too demanding and be patient.

Everyone hates the messenger program. That penguin is a thing you will come to hate. You can turn it off, but then you miss messages from your CTs. Most of the time, I leave it on with the sound disabled (god it was hell before I got that fixed). Sometimes when I’m working on a thing where the pop-ups get in my way I turn it all the way off. I’ve also asked my CTs to verbally tell me if they send a message on this thing because I get a notification for every single all-staff message. I’ve gotten 3 while writing this paragraph. I ignore them. All of them are in Korean and most of them do not apply to you. Some teachers say we should try to copy and paste every message into translate because sometimes there is relevant information. That’s… true-ish. Information about school events that might include or affect you are there, and your CT might not think to tell you about them, but I think if you just talk with them and let them know the situation, you can work something out.

Culture Clash

20170422_204235There will be a lot of cultural misunderstandings. And just because one Korean person explains Korean culture a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s that way for every Korean. I mean, does everyone in your culture represent it the same way? If you feel confused or upset, try to find the specific reason for those feelings, and after you’re calm, ask to talk with your CT about it. Ask about the Korean perspective, and let them know your cultural perspective, not to try to get them to change, but so you can understand each other better and find something that works. One CT does not think a teacher should ever have their hands in their pockets in class. Another CT might have her hands in her pockets regularly. Is that Korean culture? No, but they might tell you it is.

Pick your battles. To me, hands in the pockets was just not that important, but being able to come to a natural stopping point in my work before shifting to another task was.

Remember it’s not about you. This seems obvious, but I have met some people who had a rough time with this idea. Yes, they brought you over from another country to expose their children to native English speaking and a little bit of cultural exchange, but it’s not a “teach your class about your country” kind of experience. Some of the kids I’ve been teaching for 2 years still can’t remember what country I’m from. It’s not personal, I know they love me, but it’s just not a priority for them at this point in their lives. It’s great if you get the chance to share things about your homeland, but it’s not why you’re here.

Not only are you expected to teach things in English that are familiar to your students (not to you), your CTs might not be interested either. Regardless of the innate interest of your students and CTs, the best thing you can do is be curious about Korea. Let them teach you about their language, culture and food. Show appreciation for it. My students love correcting my Korean and it makes them feel better about their English mistakes. They go wild when I use a K-pop star or popular Korean cartoon character in a PowerPoint. And my CTs are far more willing to listen to my cultural concerns if I demonstrate that I respect theirs first.

The Good Stuff

I’ve said a lot of scary stuff, but none of it was a deal breaker for me. In the past I’ve worked at places that were so much worse. Every hagwon teacher I’ve met here has a harder job than me with less vacation time and no sick time. But more than “it could be worse” there are a lot of things to like about working with EPIK.

22 teaching hours: At this point in my career, it’s pretty much my maximum because I believe we should have at least 1 hour of paid working time per hour of paid class time for things like lesson planning, materials prep, and student assessments. More if you’re looking to do career development, too. However, since most private academies ask teachers to do 30-35 teaching hours in a week, I appreciate how great that 22 hour limit really is. Also, it’s not 22 full hours. It’s 22 class hours. I have 4 class hours from 9am to 12:10pm… teacher math.

The good side of desk warming: even though we are forced to sit at these desks for hours of non-productive time, the good news is you’re never given “busy work”. If you’re done with your class prep/homework grading then the time is yours. You can take a nap (some schools have nap rooms for staff), Skype your friends, do yoga, go for a run on the school’s track (it’s generally ok to wander around the school, but best to tell your CT if you’re going somewhere other than the bathroom or your office), shop online, watch Netflix, play video-games, or like me, work on a blog.

Support structure: You are an employee of the Korean government. You are protected by the same workers rights laws as all other government employees here. That is AMAZING. You have at least one (probably more) co-teachers. They can be challenging sometimes, but they are also your best allies. I lost count of how many times I had to ask for fairly simple things, help with finding goods or services, help scheduling repairs for broken technology, help dealing with hospitals and companies that don’t speak English. Advice about Korea. Although the CTs are only required to help us with the things that directly apply to the job, most are willing to do more if you have a good relationship and show your appreciation for their extra effort. I see hagwon people on the Facebook page all the time asking for help because they can’t ask a Korean at their office. We can.

Cultural immersion: Hagwons tend to hire lots of foreigners together, so hagwon teachers see foreigners every day and can hang out between classes or at lunch or after work quite easily. EPIK teachers are the only foreigner at one or more schools. We spend all day entirely surrounded by Koreans. I found that I had to take an interest in Korean things just to have something to talk about at lunch. And yes, sometimes we sit at lunch and they talk rapid Korean and I get lost and tune out, but more than half of the time, I am included in the conversation. Plus, I can just go to my CT and chat. We can talk about classes, and students and lesson plans of course, but we can also talk about our lives and what’s going on in the world around us. It’s a much more involved job opportunity because you really have to work NOT to be exposed to the culture around you.

Paid leave: It’s really good. I mean, university is still better, but EPIK is better than any job in the US. EPIK teachers start with 18 paid holidays and get more if they stay longer than a year. I managed to have a 10 day trip to New Zealand and a 12 day trip to the Malay Peninsula my first year (weekends). Tell me another job you can afford to take two international holidays a year? Plus, there’s a lot of national holidays that give you long weekends when the tour groups run extra trips because they know all the expats are free.

Enforced savings: You pay into the pension plan every month and that’s employer matched. Most countries have an agreement with Korea that allows foreigners to cash in that pension fund when they leave Korea. Plus, severance pay is national law here now, so for every 1 year of work you do, you are entitled to a month’s pay in severance when you leave that company. So even when I do a bad job of saving from my paycheck (no one’s perfect) I’m still getting a little nest egg for every year I’m here. It’s not enough to build a retirement plan on, but it’s nice.

Healthcare: The only people who complain here are Canadians because they are spoiled people who pay nothing to see a doctor. The rest of us are blown away by the high quality and low cost of healthcare. As government employees, we’re on the national plan. But even services that aren’t covered are often far more reasonably priced than in our home countries. I’ve been able to get LASIK and take care of some normally costly dental work here, and I’ve got a list of other minor things I want to take care of next year because I can afford it here but not in the US.

Tiny Koreans: no, it’s not an Asian height joke, I’m talking about the kids. The only thing that can reliably cut through any amount of frustration or culture shock depression any day is the genuine enthusiasm of my students when they see me. I know that I’m extra lucky because I have friends who work at schools and academies that cater to spoiled rich kids and I hear the horror stories. But my kiddos are kind to me. They smile when they see me in the halls or on the streets near the school. They wave. They want hi fives. They are curious and want to share. And their joy is just contagious. I can be having the worst day, but I still smile when I see them smile. They can make me feel like a rock star, and I hope I can do the same for them.

Korea in General

korea-travel-landmarks-vector-illustration-57253225Most of this is EPIK specific, but that “K” does stand for Korea, so…

Shopping: Get into that online delivery as fast as you can. G-market, yogiyo, iherb. Love them. On the ground, basic needs shops are Home Plus, E-mart, and Daiso. Buy things from people on the street. For the love of god, the produce and (at least here in Busan) fresh seafood is much cheaper from the street vendors than any store. Even my Korean coworkers are amazed by the deals I get on fresh seasonal fruit because I am willing to buy it out of the back of a truck.

Pharmacies are only for direct health needs. Not everything needs a prescription, but you will have to ask the pharmacist for what you need because it’s not out on the shelves. From cold medicine to band-aids to hand sanitizer. It’s at the pharmacy. If you don’t know the Korean, ask your CT, use a translating app, or just show a picture of what you need to the pharmacist on your phone.

You can get most of what you need here. Most common medicines (check your prescriptions, and don’t assume they have your favorite birth control options, I had to go to Thailand for mine), hair and skin care, cosmetics, shaving and styling. Easy to find many options. What’s hard to find?

  • There is no toothpaste with fluoride. I don’t know why, the Koreans are obsessed with dental care but don’t use fluoride. You can get it on iherb.
  • They also don’t use deodorant. I did read a study that says they don’t as an ethnic group have as smelly sweat as other ethnic groups… this is mostly true, although I do still run into the occasional case of BO in the hot weather. Beauty shops are the places to find the few brands that exist here, but most expats just bring in a case when they go on holiday or buy it from iherb.
  • Tampons are… just, hard to find. Mostly at Costco, Home Plus, or E-Mart. Pads are easy and in most neighborhood shops.
  • Plus size clothing (both genders, worse for women) and large shoes. I sometimes buy men’s shoes because I’m the largest size ladies shoes are made here. A few places carry larger sizes in store, but online options are easier, and a lot of cities have clothing swaps among the expats to refresh a wardrobe. I have found that bras, underwear, and jeans are the most challenging (read, have never successfully bought in Korea) but everything else is workable.

Socializing: Join the Facebook group for your city. Go to events. Go on tour groups (I like Enjoy Korea best). Go places on your own, the intercity train and bus system is great and cheap. Go to all the festivals. Talk to Koreans. Do not be one of those people who only works and drinks. I mean, if that’s all you want out of life, I can’t stop you, but Korea is amazing and I really feel bad for the people who come here and never experience anything but their school and local expat bar.

Bank/Phone: KEB Hana bank. No really. As my FB admin says, “the least worst option”. Banking here is hard. Make sure your debit card is set for international use (sooooo many people ask every month, “why can’t I use my Korean bank card on my vacation in Bali?”), just ask for the international option when you open the account. You can also get your debit card to act as a bus/subway pass if you ask for it.

You can read more about my experiences with KEB/Hana here.

Make sure your phone can do international SIM cards AND Korean SIM cards… I don’t know if I just had a bad translation, but I think I almost ended up with a phone that would do only one of those things and I had to explain a few times that I live in Korea and vacation abroad,so I need both to work. They got it eventually.

Learn some Korean. Learn to READ at least. You don’t need to be fluent but this will make your life easier. Talk to Me in Korean and Duolingo are my favs that are free.

Google then ask. Foreigners have been moving here in droves every year for a while. It’s an annual migration and they all have the same problems, questions and concerns. Chances are, someone, somewhere has asked before you and had the question answered. As much as experienced expats do like helping the newly arrived, we hate answering the same 5 questions over and over. You will be mocked if you ask a question with an easily Google-able answer. Older expats are not a service you are entitled to, they are helping because they want to, so put in a little effort to show you’re trying and not just lazily hoping someone on Facebook will do it all for you. That said, if you can’t find the answer, DO ASK because someone here knows. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the Busan expat community is very connected and helpful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Hell yes.

20170526_100631.jpgI know I wrote some discouraging words, but trust me I’ve written far more about my wonderful experiences here. Korea, like every country on earth, is not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, and EPIK public school teaching is a great way to get to experience it all. I hope those of you reading this looking for advice or in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Korea will learn from my experiences, good and bad, and make your own great adventures in the upcoming school years.

If you’re feeling apprehensive about your EPIK experience, just go take a look at all of the wonderful things I’ve shared in the last two years in this remarkable little country.

First Week at EPIK

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 & 2017

Holi Hai, Sailing, first Norebang, Canola Flower Festival

Best desserts & Samgwangsa Lanterns

Taean Tulip Festival

Sand Sculpture Festival 2016 & 2017

PRIDE: Seoul 2016, Seoul 2017, Busan 2017

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, UN Memorial, Dadaepo Fountain, Sulbing, Beomeosa Temple, Jinju Lantern Festival

Jeju Island

DMZ & Seoraksan

Boseong Tea Fields (winter), NYE at Yongdusan Park

Daegu Flying Lanterns

Boseong Tea Fields (spring) & Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Gamcheon Culture Village

Gaya Theme Park

Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm (winter)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival


I hope this gives some insight into the nitty gritty of being an EPIK teacher. Of all the things I learned while writing this, the biggest one is that no two EPIK teachers have the same experience. I advise you to read as many blogs and watch as many Youtube videos about this as you can if this is something you are planning to do because one perspective, no matter how detailed, is incapable of covering all the possibilities. Above all, when you come to Korea, keep an open heart and an open mind. You will face challenges, but if you persevere, you will have wild and joyful adventures as well.

Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Fishing Festival

This winter holiday, I stayed in Korea for … reasons. But amid all my boring yet stressful classwork and job hunting, I managed to squeeze in a trip to the frozen north (not the country) to frolic on a frozen river and try my hand at catching the delicious and famous river trout through the ice. Leave it to Korea to make an ice fishing festival the event of the snowy season.


World’s Largest Indoor Ice Sculptures

It took about an hour to get to the festival from our hotel, but we still arrived early in the day. I had read the pamphlet ahead of time and knew my priorities for the day. First things first, I had to find the ice sculptures. Maybe it’s a holdover from my brief stay in Texas, maybe it’s my American-ness showing through, or maybe they’re just frickin’ awesome, but I love going to see “The World’s Largest”s. Combine something as beautiful as ice carvings with “World’s Largest” and it’s a magnet.

According to the map, I had to leave the river and head in to the city. It seemed like walking distance, but there’s no scale to these festival maps, so I really had no idea. I headed in what seemed like the right direction and soon became disoriented. Lucky for me, I found a helpful parking lot attendant I could ask, and she spoke wonderful English. I don’t expect it. I ask in Korean now because I can, but I think people like practicing their English on me and will often respond in English if they’re able.

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It was a bit farther than I thought it would be, but it was not at all hard to find since the main street of the town had been completely decked out in paper mache fish and I only had to follow the decorations straight to the exhibition hall.

My tour group had purchased special “foreigner” passes for us which included free entrance to many activities around the festival, so I simply had to show my pass at the door and I was waved inside. A few twisting hallways and some airlock flaps later, I was standing in a room roughly the size of a small airplane hangar surrounded by towering ice constructions.

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Lights had been frozen into the ice so that it glowed from within. Some ice had been colored before freezing to make opaque blocks for flowers and animals. Nearly everything was inviting us to touch and climb on it, with only a few special items having “don’t touch” signs. Children and adults alike wasted no time exploring, climbing, and posing for photos.

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Soon I headed into the ice tunnel under the main structure and found myself in the next chamber surrounded by castles, turrets, and SLIDES! Two long slides came down on either side of the structure I had just come through, landing riders into ball pits for fun and safety.

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I watched for a while, then mounted the stairs. I was pleased to see the ice stairs were cut with treads for grip to keep us from slipping while climbing up or down. From the top, the view was even more spectacular and I started to realize how big the World’s Biggest actually is.

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The most successful sliders had been able to stay on their feet, crouching on the way down without letting their pants touch the ice slide. I tried this technique, but my left foot went out from under me almost immediately and I landed on my bum. Fortunately, I was already crouched down, so it wasn’t far. I tried to slide down the rest of the way on my bottom, but my jeans refused to slide! I had to get back up on my feet about three more times to get to the ball pit, but it was worth it.

As I moved through the display, marveling at the sheer size of these ice buildings, I noticed some signs that indicated each one was a replica of a famous work of architecture from around the world.

St. Vladimir Cathedral (Russia)

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The Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada)

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The Church of Gran Madre de Dio (Italy)

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The Storting (Norway)

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Zenko-ji Temple (Japan)

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The Temple of Heaven (China)

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Utah State Capitol Building (USA)

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I spent far too long exploring the beautiful towers of light and ice, admiring the shifting colors, the grand towering replicas that defied me to resort to panorama mode in order to capture their full form, the tiny air bubbles and crystalline formations inside the blocks that caught and played with the light, and the sheer exuberance of everyone in attendance as they ran from place to place trying to take it all in and touch everything with brief pauses for photos in between.

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I don’t know why the world’s largest indoor ice sculptures are here in this small town in Korea rather than in someplace like Dubai (which loves indoor snow) or Toronto which has a ready supply of cold, or really anyplace with an international airport. But here it is. And it is marvelous.

*You can see more pictures on the Facebook Album.

Ice Fishing

The next activity on my list was ice fishing. I’ve never done it before and where better to try for the first time than an ice fishing festival. For those of you picturing a lone fisher next to a single hole out on a frozen lake, or even a portable cabin that can be moved from ice hole to ice hole, banish these vast landscape of wilderness images from your minds. In Hwacheon, hundreds of holes were cut in the thick ice of the river at regular intervals where visitors could go to try their hand at catching a trout.20180114_113732.jpg

As I came back up the main road and approached the river, I could see where the flowing water and frozen surface met downstream of the festival proper. I headed upstream and was soon in the midst of crowds of ice fishers. The Koreans all seemed to have their own equipment, and I had been told my equipment rental was included in my entrance pass, but I had no idea where to go to get it. I stopped at one of the entrance gates to inquire, and showed my pass, but was told that this area was not for foreigners, I had to keep going about 10 minutes.

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Odd, segregated fishing, but I suppose it might help them to provide better services to the foreigners if we’re all in one place? I walked and walked and walked. I saw many more fishing areas, but none for foreigners. It didn’t help that the brochure map we had been given had simply been translated into English rather than being marked for foreign visitors, so there was no marker for the foreigner fishing area on my map. Finally I was sure I’d gone too far, and so I asked again and was told this time to go back the way I’d come about 10 minutes…

You can imagine I was less than pleased. I explained I’d come from that direction and had not seen it at all. The poor young man was flummoxed because while he understood me well enough, he didn’t quite know a) how to express himself and b) where exactly it was. So we went to the information tent and he called someone and they showed me on the map in the tent where to go. It was the area marked as Children’s Fishing which was also not labeled on my map. I only remembered passing it because it had a huge sign at the entrance.

I said as much and after some linguistic confusion in which both of us forgot the word for children in each other’s languages (vocabulary always abandons you when you need it most), some further rapid Korean with the woman on the phone, and handing the phone to me for far less rapid English, it was determined that the Children’s area and the Foreigner’s area were the same.

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I thanked him for his help and headed back towards the kids area. I was starting to have a rough time with the crowd. I sometimes feel like there’s some hidden crowd language in Korea I’m just not getting, but it seems like no matter which way I’m going or which side of the path I’m on, it’s wrong, and people will bash into me and give me dirty looks. It’s not actually something that happens every day (or at least I don’t notice it every day if it does), but it tends to happen more at events and festivals.

I know every culture has it’s own unwritten rules for sharing space, but I can’t seem to figure these out. And on that day, I was getting shoulder checked pretty regularly by people coming toward me. The hard part is, I don’t even know if it’s passive aggressive or if they are really just so different that this bumping doesn’t seem rude to them. But I had been walking a long time with no break. Breakfast was a long time ago. I just wanted to catch a fish for lunch and was struggling to find the one spot I was allowed to fish in of the hundreds of fishing holes around me, and I was getting run into… a lot.

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The kids area turned me away, too. Politely. And they did finally manage to tell me that I needed to cross the river to get to the foreigners’ side, which was the first time anyone had done so. However, even though the foreigners’ fishing area was simply on the opposite bank, and the river was frozen solid, there was no way across there.

I looked around debating between trying to find a place on the ice where foot traffic was allowed all the way across or going back up to one of the bridges above. The reason the ice was not passable was that every bit of it was covered in some kind of festival activity. Fishing holes took about half the space (not all in one area), but there was a bobsled, an inner-tube sled, a zip-line, ice skating, hand pushed sledding, curling, ice soccer, and some kind of area with large robots children could ride in and enact mecha-battles, as well as the oh so very famous bare handed trout catching. That river was covered in fun.

I spotted stairs down the far bank and decided the bridge was a better option, so I hoofed it back over to a staircase, across the long suspension bridge, and over to the concrete stairs I’d seen only to find that they were blocked off at the top!

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I think I still would have gotten lost even if I hadn’t gone to see the ice sculptures first because our bus parked quite near those blocked steps, and also near the suspension bridge. So near, in fact, that most of us crossed that bridge first thing. Even though all the services for foreigners were practically right under it. I should have just gotten a snack when I started feeling stressed. I should have gotten food and sat down, but I kept thinking I was just a few more minutes away from my goal. I could make it a few more minutes… until I couldn’t. It’s important to me to remember this even though it wasn’t fun because I need to remember to rest, to eat, to give myself space when I start to feel frustrated instead of pushing on.

20180114_143753.jpgWith only one more wrong turn (I foolishly went into the building labeled Foreigner’s Fishing thinking I might pick up my rental rod there, but nope) I at last had my tiny blue fishing rod and my own hole in the ice. As I stood there working out the fishing technique by watching others, I began to relax and look around. I might have a small clue why people enjoy fishing other than eating fish. I was dubious of how this would work because our hooks had no bait, only a lure. It didn’t take long before the first person near me caught a fish and hauled it flopping out of the freezing water and onto the ice.

It’s not fair that fish aren’t cute. I don’t know if I could watch someone catch a chicken or a small mammal and be ok, but fish just don’t phase me. In fact, I felt better about the old men who walloped their fish unconscious or dead quickly than the more squeamish younger people who let them suffocate in the provided plastic bags.

I worked on my technique a little. Trick is to let the lure hit bottom (it’s not far), then reel it in about 5-10 cm as your low point. Jerking the line up toward the surface quickly simulates the darting motion of a real tiny fish which attracts the trout. I tried it a few different ways with no luck as more and more fishers around me caught their own lunches. I knew I didn’t have to catch one to eat one, my foreigner pass entitled me to one free cooked trout whether I caught it myself or not, but I still wanted to try. I gave myself 30 minutes because I did still want to do a couple other things at the festival.

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I never even got a nibble. But I did feel better. Even though I was cold and standing on the ice, there was something soothing about the repetitive motion of casting and reeling the line while watching the festival go on around me. I packed it in with only a little regret and went to find the food tent. Like so much at the festival, the foreigners had our very own (there was one for Koreans on the other side of the river, I’m still not sure how I feel about the segregation). Fish that people had caught were dropped off at the window of a field kitchen to be cleaned and wrapped in foil before being cooked.

The cooking method was a huge iron contraption with dozens of drawers that could be pulled out, have a foil wrapped fish inserted, and closed again to seal the fish inside the charcoal heated interior. I found some of my tour-mates inside the restaurant and cashed in my free fish coupon. I received possibly the ugliest presentation of the most delicious fish ever. I was very hungry and cold, but also happy. Maybe my hunger contributed to my perception of the flavor, but it was a damn fine fish. Fresh ice water trout caught only moments before it was cooked and served to me. It also made me feel better about not catching one, since the fish cook rotation meant that no one actually got served the same fish they turned in.

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I have been living in Korea long enough now that dissecting the fish with chopsticks didn’t phase me in the slightest and I even managed to pull out the skeleton whole when I was halfway through. I ate that entire fish and thanked it profusely for giving it’s life to me. Despite this fact, my stomach wasn’t quite full from what turned out to be a very late lunch.  I went back to the “restaurant” to see what other ways the trout was being prepared. There were fried cutlets and spicy sauces, but it was the sushi that caught my eye. Fresh trout sushi!? Um, yes please. And everything was so cheap because they were using the fish caught only a few meters away.

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After lunch, I ducked into a heated resting area to warm up a bit and met a man who had brought his entire family up from the Philippines just so his kids could see snow. He told me about the places in America he had visited, and I told him about my joys in Bohol. It was amazing to me that tourists were coming from so far to this ice fishing festival. I guess it’s a bigger deal than I knew.

When I could feel my toes again, I headed off to the last free ticket item on my list: the snow slide. This giant built up slide of ice and snow dominated the riverside. It’s top was at the street level and it’s bottom met the frozen river. Riders carried up inflated rings to toboggan downward and see how far out on the ice they could get the momentum to take them. I didn’t have much time left before our bus was leaving, but I figured I could make it at least once.

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This time, I crossed the river on the icy surface instead of taking the bridge because I could see that although the slide started at the top, the line started at the bottom. My foreigner pass pinned to my jacket (yeah, they said we had to wear them like that, class field trip style), I was ushered past the ticket line and given a sticker for 3 free slides! I got in the line to collect my inner-tube and watched as the kids ahead were fitted out with helmets. Adults were allowed to take the risk of going bare headed.

We trudged dutifully up the covered ramp. Most of the small children were lugging sleds as big as themselves but managing. One poor girl, maybe 3-4 years old had been sent on by her parents (who I guess were planning to take video from the bottom?) and the inner-tube was actually bigger than she was. Had I been closer in line, I would have carried it for her, but eventually between the bigger kids in line and the staff at the top, she managed to get there.

The slide was wide, 10 or more spaces across with sturdy metal handles for riders to grip as we tried to sit down on the tubes without slipping on the ice. With 3 layers of clothes plus jacket, I wasn’t bending too well, but I made it in time, and when the whistle blew I launched my sled forward and down. The slope was much smoother than the one at Nami Island and I picked up speed immediately, but also never caught any air time.

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I don’t know why we scream and holler in roller coasters and fast rides. I don’t know if it’s American, or Western or what. I know that a long time ago, I was scared of roller coasters and when I finally got over that fear, I was taught by my family about the joys of a good loud yell in the thrill of the moment.

I do know that I was the only person trailing a triumphant “WOOOOO HOOO HOOO HOOO!” on the way down the slope. I am not ashamed.

Finally it was time to head back. I barely managed to cross the bridge, find a bathroom and buy some hot cocoa for the road in time. Even still, I was somehow the last person back on the bus, and no matter how much the tour leader assured me that I wasn’t late, it felt weird to be the oldest person there and the last one out having fun. I’m still not ashamed.

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival: overall opinion?

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As much as I enjoyed the trip to a land of ice and snow and all the fun experiences new and renewed that I was able to have there, I am so ready for winter to end! We’ve had several weeks of below freezing temperatures (-10 C!) with dangerously low humidity (10%). Somewhere, a Canadian is reading this blog and scoffing, but the heater in my classrooms either doesn’t work or barely works and it takes me hours to warm up after sitting in this ice cold building all day. The Ice Festival was actually warmer than Busan is now. The inside of my refrigerator is probably warmer than the inside of my school. Hurry up, Spring!

Hello Bohol: Firsts and Lasts

This post is a collection of tales of how I came to spend 9 days in Bohol, and of my first and last impressions of the country. I warned you that this holiday would not be presented in chronological order, and how much more out of order can you get than putting the first evening and last morning together? Read on to find out more about Korean holidays, Philippine toilets, a little about tipping culture, and a little about human kindness.


What Am I Doing Here?

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Image Credit: Haps Magazine

What made me think it was a good idea to take a 9 pm flight on a Friday before a major holiday? Considering I bought the plane tickets back in early May, I don’t have a clear recognition of that decision making process, but I’m sure it had to do with some combination of maximizing vacation time and minimizing price/layover time. Regardless of why I made the decision at the time, when the day arrived and I stood outside in the dark waiting on the limousine bus to the airport at a time of the week I’m usually in my PJ’s with a glass of wine recovering from the school week, I asked myself this question.

When I arrived at Gimhae airport to find it more full of humans than I’ve ever seen it before, the line for my check in counter already stretched across the large room, and the flight itself delayed by an hour, I asked myself again. One day, we’ll invent teleporters, or I’ll finally steal a TARDIS, but until then, airports are the necessary evil I face to enjoy the world.

The Big Holiday Gets Bigger

It was Chuseok again in Korea, that wacky lunar fall holiday that moves around more than Easter, but is a bigger deal than Christmas. Last year, you may recall, I took a 5 day weekend in early September down to Jeju, the “Hawaii of Korea” because Chuseok fell on a Wednesday-Saturday, and I also had no idea it was coming until it was almost here, so no real time to plan a getaway (thanks Enjoy Korea for saving me there). This year, Chuseok is in early October, and because of magical lunar calendars, the timing for no work days was awesome. The actual holiday was Tuesday-Friday, but many businesses (including my school) decided not to bother opening on the Monday before. Plus, the Monday after was October 9th, a controversial holiday in the US (I prefer “Indigenous People’s Day” to that other dude), and Canadian Thanksgiving this year also, in Korea, it was Hangeul Day, the day we celebrate the creation of the Korean phonetic writing system that freed them from the complex Chinese writing system and enabled the country to become super-literate. To save you the arithmetic, that’s 10 straight days of not working.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I wanted at first to go back to Koh Lipe, but the island is closed this part of the year due to the weather. *sigh. I pulled up my new favorite flight searching website, as well as several old standbys to see what the cheapest fares to the most interesting places were during my window of opportunity. It turns out that even though I started looking as early as April, most Koreans had been looking since last Chuseok, and the prices were already 2-4x what they normally would be for every destination. It’s also the “rainy season” in all of SE Asia, so trying to pick someplace I wouldn’t simply drown in a monsoon was on my mind. Finally, I settled on going to the Philippines, to the island of Bohol, and the even smaller island of Panglao.

I chose this destination for a combination of 1) ticket price, 2) new country experience, 3) recommended by a friend who lives in Manila, 4) Bohol is surrounded by larger islands, so I hoped they would serve as a weather break to protect me from the worst of any ocean going storms, 5) it’s not a total tourist resort yet. But first, I had to stop over in…

Manila

My flight landed in Manila around 1am. There were huge lines for immigration, and although I had no bags to collect, it still took me a while to navigate the terminal to find customs (no one even looked at me as I breezed through, let alone checked my paperwork or bags), and then to find the only open SIM card vendor at 2am. They gave us vouchers on the flight for a free SIM and I knew that I could try to get one in the morning on my way out of Manila, but when I found a lone agent manning a tiny booth outside the taxi pick up, I joined the short line and paid up for a working data connection. My lifeblood restored, I went off in search of my ride.

I had a 9 hour layover in Manila, which became an 8 hour layover when the flight was delayed, and then 7 because I didn’t get out of the airport until 2am… you see how this is going. But at the time I booked the tickets I did not relish spending 9 hours in a mostly closed airport with unknown facilities (just as well, since the Manila airport is severely lacking in comfort and entertainment even during operating hours, and it was positively barren overnight). While searching for options to rest my feet during the break I found a little hostel right next to the airport that clearly decided to make a business of the long Manila layovers.

Jorvim Apartelle arranged an airport shuttle, a comfortable room (shared bathrooms), working AC, and a fresh breakfast before the return shuttle as part of their package deal. Maybe I could have paid less by doing it all piecemeal, but it was worth it not to have to hunt down a taxi at 2am or worry about feeding myself at 6am. It wasn’t a long nap, but I was horizontal and cool and I awoke much refreshed. Breakfast was a simple egg, fried slice of spam and scoop of rice with Nescafe on the side, but it enough to be getting on with, and the driver made sure we all got to the airport in time to go through all the security.

Oh the security. Manila is going through some weird stuff politically, which I’ll get into later, but I’m assuming that is part of the security set up at the airport. While customs had seemed wholly unconcerned with what I brought into Manila, once I was going on to another port, I had to pass through a gauntlet of x-ray machines. Simply to enter the terminal, one must pass through bag x-rays and metal detectors. I didn’t have to stand in line to check in since I already had my boarding pass, but to get to the gates, I had to pass another screening. I’m not sure what they thought we might put in our bags or pockets between the front door and the boarding gates, but there it was.

For a major international airport, the Manila airport is pokey. At first I thought it was just because I was on a domestic flight, but my wait in the international terminal on the way out was not much better. I went to get an iced coffee, only to discover that this just meant nescafe over ice… and it tasted awful. The first time it was so sweet I felt I was drinking sugar syrup, when I went back and reminded them I’d asked for no sugar, I got something that sort of tasted like a mix of coffee and chalk. It seems that the Starbucks invasion of the Philippines hasn’t reached the airport yet. It did not bode well for my coffee prospects on holiday, but I consoled myself with the idea of beach drinks instead while I discreetly tipped my cup in the bin.

Tagbilaran

When we left Manila, I stared out the plane window at the bustling city, tall buildings and concrete from one coast to the other with little spots of green here and there. When we flew in over Bohol, it seemed the opposite was true. Not a single high rise building or city-like cluster tainted the green below us. I could see the rolling dark green of mountains and the brighter green of farm land.

As we got closer, I could make out palm trees and rice fields, and the Chocolate Hills that are the most famous land feature of the island. The water we passed over was so clear and shallow I could see the outlines of the reefs from the air. I began to seriously wonder about the “city” we were supposed to land in as we passed over more and more jungle broken up with the occasional road or group of houses.

When we finally landed in Tagbilaran, the entire airport was a single building that was smaller than the hostel I’d stayed in in Manila. The runway was short and the tarmac could not have accommodated more than one plane at a time. We disembarked via stairs and walked to the terminal a few yards away while bags were unloaded onto carts. There was a small luggage carousel in the building, but to be honest, I’m not sure why. The flight was so small it seemed like it might have been easier to simply let passengers claim bags as they came off the plane rather than use the tiny moving circle inside.

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A Word About the Bathrooms

Because my hotel at least 30 minutes away, I stood in line for the restroom in the airport, only to discover that Philippine toilets don’t come with seats… They weren’t Asian style squatters, they just looked like Western toilets without a seat. I thought maybe it was broken, but I saw many more like this any time we were in a very Filipino place, so I’m thinking it’s normal there. Plus, the first non-Muslim country I’ve seen the hose regularly installed. Toilet culture.

I found a decent article later on about the bathroom situation in the Philippines. I think it’s gotten better in the last 9 years since the blogger wrote this, but some of it is still true. Even in Bohol, most of the places “for tourists” had toilet seats. Many had paper (although still best to throw that in the trash and not the bowl). But when I did go to a less touristy area, I was greeted with seatless bowls, flushless toilets (like the ones in Koh Lipe that had to have water poured down them), and either the Arabic style hose or the Philippine traditional tabo (bucket and ladle) for cleaning. I’m reasonably open to doing things like the locals, but I still bring my own paper when I’m touring in case of emergency.

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Image Credit: markblackard.com

Finding Food on Foot

The hotel I’d chosen was only a couple km from the most famous Alona Beach, but far enough away to be much cheaper while still being quite nice. There were animals everywhere. Goats, cows, dogs, chickens… and I could hear the roosters from my room, but they weren’t too loud inside so I didn’t think it would be a problem to sleep through them. Once I got in and had a little look around, I asked my hostess, Becca where to get some food.

Becca is the best, by the way. I seriously recommend everyone who wants to go to Panglao go to Imagine Bohol and stay with her, because she is wonderfully attentive, speaks great English, and will recommend or arrange anything you’re looking for.

20170930_113725There were no food delivery options nor any restaurants in walking distance and although it was my plan to rent a motor bike (scooter) for the week, I was waiting until my travel companion arrived on a her flight 4 hours behind me so we could handle both rentals at once. However, my breakfast had been a long time ago, and I needed something to quiet the growling tummy. As we reviewed our options, she mentioned hesitantly that there was a small convenience store just down the street where I could get some ramen. Done! She said she’d show me where it was and I expected it to be hidden or at least farther, but when we got to the gate of the hotel drive, she pointed at a sign barely down the street, less than 2 minutes walk.

I headed over, meandering my way, taking in the flowers and greenery on the side of the road as well as playing a short game of peekaboo with a shy child hiding behind a tree. A man came out from a house and began to purposfully cut small branches from a tree, but he was collecting them, not discarding them, so I assumed it was not merely pruning. I asked him what the tree was and he replied “mulungway”. “What’s that?” I asked, not yet understanding how strange a question it must have seemed to him. However, his English was not up to the task and he simply said, “for eating”. I didn’t recognize the tree and vowed to look it up when I got back to the room, but sadly I had forgotten it by then and didn’t hear it again for several days.

The convenience store folks were surprised to see me, and were endlessly helpful as I bumbled around the tiny aisles looking for lunch. I ended up with cup noodles, an egg, and an ice cream cone. As I was paying, the ladies wished me farewell, and I said, oh, you’ll probably see me again since I’m staying right down the street. This seemed to make them happy and we chatted some more before I finally left.

I had heard from other travelers how friendly the Filipino people are, but I was starting to understand that it was not actually an exaggeration. I mean, I like talking to locals everywhere I go, and usually I find kind and helpful people and have good experiences, but dang if every single school kid didn’t break into a grin and wave and say hello when I passed by. Leaving tourist spaces can be scary, but I think in Panglao is well worth it.

Leapin’ Lizzards

20171005_182724As the sun set, the lizards came out, and when I went back to the room, I was greeted on the porch by a gecko. It was maybe 6 inches long, not huge, but so unexpected I let out a little yelp, and Becca sent someone to save me. I insisted they did not need to shoo the little lizard away with a broom, but Becca said sometimes they bite. She also pointed out the tiny 1-2 inch lizards elsewhere that were totally safe. I asked if the gecko was poisonous, but it’s not, and it wasn’t even slightly aggressive, but I still kept a distance from the others I saw so as not to add gecko bite to my list of minor travel injuries.

Grateful Farewell

The last morning of vacation, it was time to settle our account with Becca, the hostess with the mostest at our little apartelle. Like most places in Bohol, they only take cash, and she’d been careful to politely remind us the day before in case we needed to get to an ATM. Tipping culture in the Philippines is not yet standard, but I’d read up a bit before coming, and I’d seen many things I’d read confirmed. Fancy restaurants tended to add a 10% tip into the bill, most places didn’t expect a tip but were happy to get one. Tips are still expressions of gratitude there, and so when we felt we were treated especially well, we left a special tip, and if we felt the service was adequate, we left 10% (often included) at fancy places, and not at all in “regular” places. But when it came to the hotel we were both in agreement that Becca and her staff deserved more, and to be honest, it wasn’t a very expensive hotel to begin with, so 20% was still only about 40$. I don’t know if that seems big or small to you. I’ve never stayed in one hotel for 9 days before. I’ve left tips for housekeeping before, but usually only when I made a mess or when they did extra work for me. But Becca was so gracious, always there for us, making sure we had everything we needed, the apartment was cleaned up every day, fresh towels and sheets, she arranged our motorbike rentals (at a much better rate than other places around the island), scheduled our firefly tour, recommended beaches and restaurants and was just generally a fantastic part of the holiday.

I took our rent and her tip bundled together and brought it to her room in the morning, letting her know that the extra money was for her, and not waiting around for her to count it before heading back to finish packing up. A few minutes later she came by our room to see if we’d made a mistake. This is I think the most amazing insane part of this story. We gave her 20%, like I said about 40$US in tip. I can almost imagine someone questioning a mistake if we’d given her hundreds, but in the grand scheme of my life, 40$ (or really 20$ from 2 people) is not that much even to loose accidentally. But she was so honest that she came back to see if we gave her too much money by mistake. No, I told her, you’ve done so much to help us and make us feel welcome and cared for, this is our way to say thank you.

She teared up. Actual tears in her eyes, and she asked if she could give us hugs and told us we had been such wonderful guests. It blew my mind a little bit that such simple things as appreciating her with words and a small gift meant so much. This was obviously not an everyday occurrence in her life at the hotel and it struck me not for the first time how the people here are treated simply because of the reputation of their country as a source of cheap labor and maids.

I hope in some small way that sharing my experiences of Bohol and it’s people can help paint the Filipino people as a caring, friendly, generous and worthwhile group of people who deserve the same respect and courtesy as all of us no matter what their job is. A little kindness goes a long way here, so spread it around.

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The weather in Busan is decidedly cold these days, and the mountain outside my window has turned from green to russet as the trees change for autumn. I’m still pressing though a monumental amount of healthcare. It turns out that suddenly having access to good and affordable care means you actually go. I’m totally fine, I’m just a dental and medical anomaly and require more specialists than the average bear. Despite this drain on my time and energy, I try to stay grateful that I’m doing this here and not in some country with totally inadequate health insurance plans. Hopefully by January I’ll be able to do some kind of adventuring again. Stay tuned for more tales from Bohol as I get my first (and only) motorcycle lesson, and the wonderful freedom and unique experiences that came with this new mode of transportation in our next installment: My Own Two Wheels. Thanks for reading! ❤

Hello Bohol: Introductions & Disclaimers

During the Chuseok holiday this October, I took a 9 day trip to Bohol in the Philippines. It’s taken me a long time to get the rough draft out of my head, and it’s going to take even longer to devote time to polishing the words and photos. I’ve broken up the story into small, and hopefully joyful vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. This post is a little introduction to Bohol, and a little explanation about why this story is being told differently. Yeah, it’s another post with no photos… it’s been that kind of fall. If you’re really craving photos, you can go look at the chrysanthemums I found here in Korea last weekend.


I usually take holidays by going to all the places. I can look at my color coded spreadsheets of past holidays and it’s a little bit non-stop. I think the last time I stayed in one place more than a couple nights on holiday (not counting family visits) was in that resort in Egypt, and even then I did a day flight into Cairo and may have done more if not for the food poisoning of doom. Every other holiday has been a whirlwind of exploration, and I love that. I love seeing all the things. But, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last did a “relaxing” holiday, and considering how I drove myself into the ground in Thailand, I decided Chuseok was going to be a single destination vacation.

Even in the spring when I started to look at plane tickets, the holiday prices were already sky high, and my decision to go to the Philippines was influenced by the fact that they were some of the cheapest flights left. After asking a friend who has lived in Manila decades where to go, I decided to spend my time in Panglao. Panglao is a tiny island that’s off the coast of tiny Bohol.

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Some people may look at the tiny island of Panglao and say, really 9 days? What did you do? Especially when you consider I don’t really DO laying on the beach all day, nor do I have my diving certification (the two main reasons to go there). It turns out that there is a LOT of amazing stuff over there, most especially if you can control your own transportation. I didn’t make a spreadsheet for this holiday either (to be honest, I was a little focused on the US trip, and the dental work). I did make some tentative itineraries based on interesting things and geographic proximity, but I did not have a day to day PLAN. I made fewer itineraries than there were days, so that there would be resting time and I would avoid the kind of burnout that happened in January. I was also meeting a friend there and wanted her to feel like she had some room to suggest things and not be railroaded by color coded schedules.

Researching Bohol ahead of the visit was a little tricky since it’s not a real popular stop on the backpacker routes and the tourists listed the same few “must-do’s” over and over without a whole lot of information on them since it seemed nearly everyone who went joined a tour group or hired a guide to make these tried and true tourism routes. I was largely content with the idea of doing the same things, but on my own time and without an awkward guide trying to make conversation, take silly photos, or rush me on to the next thing (it turned out I couldn’t avoid this altogether, but the few times I was forced into it, it made me grateful for the self touring I did the rest of the time).

The posts in the “Hello Bohol” series are not strictly chronological, but more organized into categories:

First and Last – I thought about calling this one “airports and hotels” but I thought, who’s going to want to read that? It’s the story of getting to Bohol, and a rather special experience on my last morning there.

My Own Two Wheels – After Thailand, I realized that I needed to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around SE Asia. With it’s small size and lack of cities, Panglao seemed like the perfect time to try. These are the stories of learning to ride a motorbike and how it felt.

Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers – Two of the most famous tourism attractions on the larger island of Bohol. I visited the Chocolate Hills, two tarsier parks, and a few other attractions nearby.

Balicasag with the Turtles – I got a spot on a diving boat heading out to the minuscule island of Balicasag, best known as a serious gathering place of giant sea turtles. I didn’t join the divers, but I had excellent snorkel experiences and finally got my own underwater photos!

Beaches – There are so many beaches on Panglao. I didn’t have a chance to visit them all, but I managed to get in quite a variety.

Food & Fancy Restaurants– There is an amazing plethora of gourmet food on Panglao. Everybody has to eat, and vacation is the time to indulge. Vacation calories don’t count, right?

Panglao – things to do and see on Panglao besides beaches and restaurants

Loboc River – a lunch cruise by day and a firefly cruise by night, the Loboc river is another tourism hotspot in Bohol that’s worth the visit.

History & Historical Sites – For anyone who likes history as much as I do, this post includes several old churches, military fortifications, and other historical points of interest, as well as some backstory about the Philippines I didn’t know about before.

Waterfalls – My last full day of the trip I went on a three waterfall adventure quest that took me to muddy back roads and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

What’s going on with me this holiday?

Every time I write, it’s a work of balancing the best story with the actual reality. This is not to say that I make things up, but sometimes I leave things out. Like any good storyteller, I leave out boring details. You don’t want to read about what movie I watched on the airplane or every time I had cup noodles as a snack or how often I brushed my teeth or what book I’m listening to when I fall asleep. These are pedantic details that do not add to the story. Likewise in life, there are small discomforts and dissatisfactions that happen but do not serve to advance the story or to entertain the reader.

Facebook and Instagram have been accused repeatedly of creating false narratives of our lives wherein all our friends look so happy and successful all the time, while we feel like useless failures. Of course, the irony is that everyone experiences the same distortion because we all post our best selves online, right? I mean, who wants to look bad? Well, me, sometimes. I mean, I don’t want to look bad per se, but I don’t want to create a fantasy version of myself that I won’t recognize in 20 years.

So how to decide what bad things to include and which ones to leave out? I have no idea. I’m totally faking it. Mostly, it’s about how much of an impact did that have on me (did I forget it and move on in less than an hour or did it alter the course of the day/week/year?). And the rest is how good of a story does it make? I mean, let’s face it, we love tragedy and schadenfreude so yes suffering makes good stories sometimes.

In many ways, I think of this blog as a journal. I hate diaries and always have, but every therapist ever says that journaling is a very important part of mental health. I do have some blog posts that will never see the light of day because they are just for me. But mostly, I don’t mind sharing, and there’s something about pretending I have an audience that makes me more attentive to the quality and content and frequency of my writing. But times like this I have to remember that it’s not my diary. It’s one thing for me to tell stories of people I’ve met on my journey who will almost assuredly never be identified by this blog, or even to tell stories of people who are identified as long as the story is the kind that makes them happy.

This time it’s harder because something happened on this holiday that is having a profound and lasting effect on me, and it might even be a good story from an external perspective. But it’s not my story alone. A person I care for quite deeply is involved, and I don’t want to hurt or embarrass her by telling this story in a public forum. But there’s no denying that her presence, her actions, and her choices had an impact on the holiday, on me, and on my writing afterward. Re-creating this adventure was an emotional roller-coaster as memories unfolded taking me from happy times to “oh, and then that happened…”. Photos show us smiling and laughing and I cannot help but remember my joy in sharing those moments with someone so close to me, but the gaps between photos speak to tears and hurt and confusion.

At the time of writing this, it seems that this trip spelled the end of our friendship, so this is my compromise. I won’t tell her stories, but I won’t pretend that everything was great. As you read, if there seems to be a gap where the plot jumps irrationally, or where details are less than they might be then those are the scars left by removing each unpleasant yet wholly private instance of conflict.

Once while talking about death, she asked how I would cope with losing her, and I told her that I would be sad, and I would feel grief, but that those would fade and in the end, it would be the good memories we made together that would last and define my feelings. She’s not dead, but it seems that she is lost to me just the same, so I’m hoping that telling these stories will help me process my sadness and cement the good memories that I want to keep forever.

 

 

Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤