Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Burning questions...

Or, Megan makes up a series of questions to answer so that she can have something to write about in her blog.

 -Age you went on your first international trip.

I'm not sure. My parents and grandparents and I went to England a few times when I was little. My first solo "international" trip was to Vancouver, Canada to see Pearl Jam.

 -Best foreign beer you've had and where.

I will go with a pint of Harp while sitting in a pub in Galway, Ireland, listening to some pretty great live music. Honorable mentions to the Corona I had last Fourth of July at a Mexican restaurant in San Diego and also to any beer I've ever had at a Pearl Jam show, anywhere.

-The last place you visited.

I guess the last really exciting place I went is to the Yeosu World Expo. I had only the vaguest of ideas what a World Expo was - an exhibition of many worlds? - but wasn't really sure what to expect. I took a 6 AM train from Daejeon that got me to the Expo at 9 AM, just as the gates were opening.  From what I could tell, the Expo was basically divided into two sections - there were a couple of Korean-themed pavilions, such as an Aquarium and some other things that honestly did not sound that interesting ("a mudflat experience?" "programs to learn about hyundai cars?") and then an international pavilion, with programs presented by many different countries.  While some of these were also a bit dull, many of them were really fascinating, especially the ones that included performances.  When I walked into the Vietnamese pavilion, they were in the middle of a dance and music show that was so good I went back later in the afternoon to watch it again.  When I went next door to Cambodia (what a global traveller!) there were some musicians sitting outside playing the drums. I stood and listened to them for about half an hour. Then I came upon a musical performance from East Timor. I had never even *heard* of East Timor before! I had to look it up when I got home, and who knew, it's in Southeast Asia! Or at least there's a chapter devoted to East Timor in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The East Timorians were very nice and they even gave me a free shopping bag! Maybe I should go there some day... I'll have a bag for my souvenirs, any way.

In addition to performances, some countries also had short movies, relating to the Expo theme of "the oceans." I must admit that the USA pavilion's movie made me a bit teary-eyed and homesick: the movie was basically a collage of scenes of beaches on both the east and west coast with people proclaiming, "this is *my* ocean." I also really liked the movie in the Japan pavilion.  I hesitated going, because there was a long wait (well, 25 minutes) and I had read online that it wasn't a very interesting movie.  But I'm glad that I went. The movie was about a young boy named Kai (one of my favorite preschool students was named Kai, so that made me a little homesick) who lived in Sendai when the earthquake and tsunami struck last year.  He lost his entire family. But then he found his bicycle which was, miraculously, still intact. He got on it and it grew wings and the bicycle took him in the sky all over Japan.  He watched as people started to rebuild and, basically, learned that even though there is tragedy life can still continue. As he said, humans will find a way to carry on.  I thought it was a really good short film.  Also, at the end, he found his family dog - seriously, I don't know how anyone can not be moved by that.

Small countries that were apparently not big enough to afford/warrant their own buildings were housed together in either the "Atlantic Ocean Joint Pavilion" or the "Pacific Ocean Joint Pavilion." I really liked the latter, since I have an odd fascination with living in a small island in the South Pacific.  I think it started with the movie Joe and the Volcano.  I also really enjoyed the book The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which is one man's memoir of living on a small island in Kiribati - which is possibly why I was oddly excited when I saw that country's.. well, corner.  Not surprisingly (since not many people have ever heard of it), it was pretty empty. As soon as I came closer, the man staffing the Kiribati corner started talking to me and offered to point out his country on the map. I can't remember how many islands he said make up Kiribati - but it was a lot.  He told me he lives on Christmas Island, which I think is the most populated of the islands.  But they're all pretty desolate, I think.  He told me that I should come visit his country one day, there is "one flight a week from Honolulu." I said maybe someday.

Some of the country's even had their own restaurants.  I had some coffee and pie in Romania, I ate dinner in Turkey (a really great chicken schwarma - is schwarma Turkish?) and a beer in Belgium.

All in all it was a very enjoyable trip. The expo goes on until August 12th; I might go back. If only to watch the Vietnamese performance again.

 -Favorite and least favorite destinations.

 Not sure I have any least favorites. Every place has charm if you look for it. Favorite destinations. I'll try to narrow it to five: Howth, Ireland- I can practically taste the fish n' chips I had sitting by the ocean on a gorgeous, sunny, warm day in June. Yum. I might be romanticizing those fish n' chips, but the fact that an Irish friend also waxes poetic about them leads me to believe that I'm not.

 Seoul, Korea-Despite growing up in Bangor, Maine - or maybe because of it - I am a city girl at heart. I love losing my way in a crowd, I love the subway, I love all the palaces and tourist sites, I love the coffee shops, I love Hongdae... I could go on and on. I just love Seoul. I'm quite sure I will visit Seoul again during my life time and I'm so grateful that I lived two hours from it for a year.

 Hawaii- One of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I went there -surprise, surprise- to see an Eddie Vedder concert, and my friend Kristine and I rented a car and spent a week driving around Oahu.

 Sapa, Vietnam- I took an overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, which is by the Chinese border. The train leaves Hanoi around 7 PM and gets into a town called Lao Cai around 6 AM. From there you take a 30 minute van ride up a winding mountain road to Sapa. I will never forget sitting in the front seat of a crowded van listening to some sort of strange Vietnamese rap music and watching the sun rise over the "Tonkinese Alps."

 Seattle- Because even though I have been away from it for over 11 months and won't be back until late October, it will always be home.

 Honorable mentions: Halong Bay, Vietnam. California. Boston.

 -Event you experienced abroad that made you say "wow."

 Going up to the top deck of a boat in Halong Bay early in the morning and seeing the cliffs rise out of the fog and then disappear again.

 Honorable mention: watching the sun come up over a statue of a hand rising from the East Sea on New Year's Day.

 -Favorite mode of transportation. 

Trains, planes and automobiles.

 -Greatest feeling while traveling. 

 Finding a place on my own despite language barriers. See: finding my way to Homigot, Korea on New Year's Eve. Also, finding Hoan Kiem Lake on my first morning in Hanoi despite being so overwhelmed by the crazy traffic that crossing the street took me 30 minutes and a very nice Vietnamese man who took pity on me.

 -Passport stamps, how many and from where? 

 Currently in my passport are stamps from Ireland, Vietnam, Korea, and Hong Kong.

 -Best city view

Coit Tower in San Francisco. I walked there - and it was quite a hike! It's over priced, of course, but the view was so worth it. I love that city though, so I suppose I'm biased.

Honorable mentions: The Space Needle in Seattle (sorry, it's Seattle, I have to say it) and Seoul Tower.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


How I choose to feel is how I am
-Pearl Jam

I realize that my last post about my first six months in Korea was woefully inadequate. Here are some other top moments:

Music. Yes, Seoul is no Seattle, but it is proving an acceptable substitute for the year. In November, I went to see Two Gallants, a band from San Francisco. The show didn't start until 11, I was tired and cold, and I *almost* skipped it. I am so glad that I didn't. When the band started to play, I found my way to the front of the stage (on "Mike's side" of course!) and closed my eyes, smiled and enjoyed life. Nothing better.

In December, I went to see Deerhoof, a band that I knew literally nothing about. The name sounded vaguely familiar and I read that they were from San Francisco, so I decided to check them out. Once again, as I was walking to the show not only was I cold and tired, but I also could not seem to find the venue. I wandered around the confusing streets of Hongdae for about an hour, and just when I was about to give up, I looked down the street and there it was! Like fate. And like before, I am so happy that I went. The club where the show was held was very very small and unlike at the Two Gallants show, the crowd was mostly Korean. There were three opening bands, all Korean, and all really good. I especially liked the third band, who I *think* are called "Banseom Pirates" and played spacey instrumental music while a strange movie played in the background.

Deerhoof was also a really great band, and if I ever get another chance to see them, I definitely will. The drummer was amazing, so much fun to watch. The lead singer was a really cheerful Japanese (I think) girl who kept saying "Kamsam-ida!"

Of course, I can't forget the guitar-playing bartender that I wrote about before. Victoria and I have since gone back to his bar to listen to him play again. Whereas on Christmas Eve, he mostly stuck with songs by Damien Rice or the Beatles, this time he played mostly Korean songs. I wish I knew the name of his bar so that I could advertise it, because he has a wonderful voice and is obviously a great performer who shouldn't just be in a small bar playing only to one or two people at a time. And, adding to my guitar-playing bartender love: both times we saw him, "Once" was playing on a screen in the background. In fact, on Christmas Eve he asked, "Have you ever seen this movie? It's great."

Theater. I have seen four plays so far in Seoul, three Korean and one American. The first play I saw was Jump, an absolutely hilarious non-verbal play about a family that does martial arts. Highly recommended. The second play that I saw was called Cookin With Nanta, and I went to it on Christmas. Another very funny play, about four chefs who are preparing a wedding feast. Again, it is non-verbal, the story is told through dance and music. And it stars "A Sexy Guy" (that's really what the character is called in the script). A few weeks ago, Victoria and I saw The Ballerina Who Loved a B-Boy, about, as you can probably guess, a ballerina who falls in love with a break dancer. The dancing in the play was phenomenal - as was the fact that one of the actors had a shirt emblazoned with the F-word - and after the play we got to go on stage and take pictures with the dancers. The most recent play that I saw was Without You, a one-man show starring Anthony Rapp from the Original Broadway Cast of Rent. The play is based on his autobiography about the deaths of his mother and Jonathan Larson (the writer of Rent). I wanted to see the play because I LOVE Rent (have seen it five times, own the original Broadway recording, and have the entire play memorized), but I was kind of leery of the whole "one-man show" concept. But it was *so wonderful* He sang songs from Rent (including La Vie Boheme!) and is such a good actor that two hours went by in the blink of an eye.

Cafes. I have to add this one, because who knew that one of my favorite things about Korea would be the coffee shops? There are some great ones in Daejeon. My favorite is called Holy Cross. It is on the 6th floor of a tall building downtown, and is somewhat reminiscent of a New York City loft inside. I have been known to sit there for a few hours, drinking a latte and reading a book on my Kindle. And they have free wifi! And they know my name and order without me having to say anything. That's winning in my book.

Other random things: cute Korean guys, samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), kimbap, udon, dweji galbi (bbq pork), walking along the Han River in Seoul, the KTX train, waffles for dessert, parks, not having to worry about driving a car (just having to worry that I won't get run over when I go outside, but I'm getting used to that), Sun Sing Dam bakery, getting off the subway at a random stop in Seoul and walking around, and most of all, not having to worry about money. That's a big one. Free housing + no car + low cost of living, relative to Seattle = much less stress in my life. I almost don't want to have to go back to Seattle and start the treadmill all over again. Almost.

Yup, there are lots of things I love about living here, and I will dwell on those, because as a wise man named Eddie Vedder sings, "how I choose to feel is how I am."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pearl Jam 20 - It's OK

it's okay
we've all seen better days
it's okay
we love you anyway
it's okay
you don't have to run and hide away
it's okay
we love you anyway
this is my chance
this is my life
and my hope in an alley way
this is my voice, this is my choice
there may be no tomorrow
this is my plea, this is my need, this is my time for standing free


6 months..

Life is what you make it

I've had some really amazing experiences during the last six months in Korea, and despite the fact that not everything has worked out quite the way I hoped it would, I wouldn't go back and change anything I've done. I can look back and be happy with my decision to uproot what was basically a good life in Seattle to move across the world. No regrets. So here is a list of a few of the great experiences that come to mind:

Busan last weekend: hiking through the woods with various Koreans who laughed every time I said "kammsamida" (thank you.. maybe I really have been pronouncing it wrong for six months, who knows?) and finding Seokbulsa Temple, an amazing temple that is precariously built into the side of a mountain. Getting there involved lots of walking, riding a cable car, more walking, and lots of miming where I wanted to go to Koreans (if only I could put "miming" on my resume when I get home).

The next morning, I watched the sun rise over the ocean, and then went to Haeundae Beach.

Spending New Year's at the Homigot Sunrise Festival: One of the biggest lessons that I've learned about myself in the past six months is that I'm tougher than I give myself credit for (it only took me 31 and 1/2 years to figure that out...). I needed that tough-ness when I decided to go to this festival: getting there involved taking four buses, sleeping in a jimjilbang, and going so far from the beaten path that I didn't see any other westerners or hear any English spoken for almost 2 days (a bit of a rare experience in Korea). And really what can be better than watching the first sun rise of the new year over a giant statue of a hand in the ocean? Yes, nothing can be better.

Christmas in Seoul: For Christmas, my friend Victoria and I decided to go to Seoul. On Christmas Eve, we went out in Hongdae, the University area, and randomly found a bar advertising "live guitar." The live guitar player turned out to be the bartender, who played songs for us (including an amazing version of "The Blower's Daughter" by Damien Rice and, hilariously enough, "Puff the Magic Dragon"). At the end of the evening, we took a taxi back to our motel and as we were getting out of the taxi, two college-aged Koreans got in and said "Merry Christmas!" I looked at my watch and it was exactly midnight: Merry Christmas indeed. The next day, we went ice skating and then I went to see an awesome play called "Cooking with Nanta." We ended our Christmas day with dinner in Myeondong while watching an impromptu marching band play "YMCA" by The Village People. It was all so awesome I had no time to miss home! (Sorry, mom!)

Some other interesting things:

Festivals! The Jinju Lantern Festival, the Seoul Lantern Festival, the Busan Fireworks Festival and the Cheonan World Dance Festival.

Buddhist temples. There are so many amazing temples in Korea - from Jogyesa temple in Seoul to Donghwasa temple in Daegu. For me, part of the fun is not only seeing the temple itself, but also the journey in getting there. Most of the temples are located on mountains or in parks, relatively far from the cities. I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I'm able to find them.

Halloween in Seoul, and buying a drink in a bag from a wizard on a street in Hongdae.

The friends that I have made. Although I generally enjoy being and traveling alone, I have made some great friends here that I think I'll probably stay in touch with even after this adventure is over.

My vacation to Vietnam and Hong Kong. The pinnacle of the past six months. Not much more that I can say about it than that.

And what am I looking forward to in the next six months?
More traveling around Korea.
Hopeful short vacation to Japan?
Trip to Jeju Island when mom and dad come to visit.
Visits from friends? Beatrice, I'm looking at you!
Buddha's birthday in May. Given my love for temples, I am really looking forward to this.
Cherry blossoms in the Spring. A taste of Seattle.
Radiohead at the Jisan Valley Rock Festival in July.
Lady Gaga in April (Haha, surprisingly I am really looking forward to this!)
More trips to Busan and Seoul. I love those cities.
And the pièce de résistance: one or two months in the Fall spent traveling around Southeast Asia. Pages added to my passport, here I come...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vietnam, part II

I suggest you step out on your porch...
Run away my son, see it all
Oh, see the world
There's much more than this

-Pearl Jam

Confession: one of my biggest reasons for coming to teach English in Korea was the opportunity to travel. I had a good life in Seattle: friends, a decent job that I usually enjoyed and was sometimes good at, a nice apartment, enough money to see 7 Eddie Vedder concerts in California last summer.

But something has always been missing. I’ve always had this Pearl Jam lyric playing in the back of my head: “Run away and see the world… There’s much more than this.” There has to be much more than this, right? This itch to find a little bit of that “something more” started the first time I traveled to a Pearl Jam concert, and only got stronger when I moved across the country, got my tattoo (a move that was completely un-Megan-like) and went to Ireland by myself for three weeks. There is something more.

I have wanted to go to Vietnam ever since I first saw pictures of Halong Bay. One day I will see that in person, I told myself. And I did. Sitting on the top deck of a boat in Halong Bay by myself in the morning watching the fog lift and settle again over the limestone cliffs was incredible. One of those moments that makes you think about how big and awe-inspiring the world really is. And how lucky we are to live in it.

On my first morning in Hanoi, I remember walking around Hoan Kiem lake, and taking a picture of a phone booth that said “Vietnam” because I couldn’t quite believe that I had made it. And that feeling is a memory I will carry with me: no matter what happens from now on, I not only went to Vietnam by myself, but I survived, had fun, had amazing experiences and met friends who have inspired me in ways they will never know.

A few of those great experiences were: riding on the back of a motorbike, kayaking through Halong Bay, having a few amazing dinners and conversations with some new friends from California, going to a jazz club in Hanoi and hearing covers of songs by Elvis Presley and the Eagles, hiking through rice paddies with a Hmong tour guide who took me to his house, and having a foot massage from an… ahem…. handsome Vietnamese man.

In all, I stayed in Hanoi for six days - more than enough time, I think, to explore the major sites, but nowhere near enough time to drink enough fresh Passionfruit juice or iced coffee. During those six days, I went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, Quan Su Pagoda, the Vietnam history museum, the Vietnamese women’s museum, the Temple of Literature, and the water puppet theatre. I also spent a lot of time wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter, and more time that I care to admit standing on the sidewalk trying to work up the courage to walk into the crush of motorbikes on the street. In Vietnam, moreso than in other places I have traveled, I talked to many other tourists: there was the Malaysian couple who seemed as confused by the map as I was, the Australians who I met at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and the Canadians who couldn’t seem to figure out how to get their train tickets.

Although seeing Halong Bay was the reason I decided to go to Northern Vietnam, I was apprehensive about taking a group tour. I generally prefer traveling alone - even though it can be hard at times, it also gives you the freedom to do what you want, when you want. With a group tour, most of that freedom is taken away. However, the tour turned out to be one of the high points (if not the high point) of my trip. Our group was small - there were only 7 of us - and everyone was genuinely kind. My fear that there wouldn’t be enough down-time to sit by myself and just enjoy the moment was never realized. I think that if I hadn’t gone with the tour I went with, I would have missed out on a lot of great experiences: kayaking, singing karaoke, meeting great friends, seeing monkeys, and climbing a mountain that I was sure would result in my death (well, maybe I wouldn’t have minded missing out on that one).

Sandra and Adrian were the other Americans on the tour, organic farmers from California who had been traveling in Southeast Asia since Christmas. They had already been to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and told me about their boat ride down the Mekong river in Laos, making me wonder why I had never thought of the most obvious next step for me: taking at least a month off during the Fall to travel through Asia.

After a night spent on the boat and a night spent at a hotel in Cat Ba Island, we headed back to Hanoi. From Hanoi, I took an overnight train to Sapa, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It had been foggy and chilly during my entire time in Hanoi and Halong Bay, but the sun and clear blue sky were what greeted me in Sapa. By blind, dumb luck, I happened to have booked a gorgeous hotel with a balcony overlooking the mountains. I spent a good portion of my time there sitting on that balcony - despite the chill in the air - drinking passionfruit juice, listening to Pearl Jam and staring at the sky.

I was in Sapa for two days, and each day I went on a private tour with a Hmong tour guide. The first day he took me to his village, showed me his house and I met his children. The second day we went on a 7 kilometer trek through the rice fields to two other villages. It was muddy, sometimes steep, and alternated between being chilly and hot, but it was also one of the most cool things I have ever done. As we walked, we talked: he said, "many Hmong live in America, right? In California and also Minnesota?" He told me that two years ago his village got electricity - and later, when we stopped at a house for lunch, he seemed glued to whatever American show was playing on the television. We saw some animals, and I asked him what they were, and he looked at me in surprise and said "Those are buffalo, you've never seen buffalo?!" Then he told me to stand in front of them so he could take my picture. "Will they bite me?" I asked. He laughed.

That night I had dinner with Sandra and Adrian, the farmers I met in Halong Bay, who happened to also be in Sapa. On the night train back to Hanoi, I met two women who, proving just how small the world really can be, were from Seattle, one of whom spent a few years working as a park ranger in Acadia National Park, Maine.

I spent three more days in Hanoi, and one of those days was spent with Adrian and Sandra. We had lunch, walked through the Old Quarter, went to the Opera House, and then finished the evening at a jazz club, where I discovered my newfound love for ginger tea.

The next day, it was on to Hong Kong, which will be for another post. I can say, however, that even though I had a great time watching the Chinese New Year parade and taking a cruise through Victoria Harbor and riding the cable car to the giant seated Buddha at Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong was a bit of a letdown after Vietnam. Even though it was so nice to go to Starbucks and be able to cross the street without fearing for my life, I found myself missing the incessant beeping horns of the Old Quarter. Perhaps I am romanticizing my vacation a bit, but that's okay, that's what vacations are for. All I know is that I loved Vietnam and have some incredible memories and friendships to treasure. Not to mention a new plan for traveling around Southeast Asia this fall: I know that I want to go back to Vietnam. I also want to see Cambodia, Laos and China. Life is too short to keep putting off the things you really want to do.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My world begins where the road ends

watch me leave it all far behind
Eddie Vedder

How to begin describing my vacation to Vietnam? It has been like a dream. A very magical, slightly nerve-racking, at times frightening but always beautiful dream that has, I think I can say without exaggeration, changed my life. The people I met, the things that I did, the sights that I saw have all been out of a movie, not my life. I will never forget sitting by myself on the top deck of a boat anchored in Halong Bay during sunrise. Nor will I forget overcoming my fear and kayaking through limestone caves. Or trekking through terraced rice fields with a Hmong tour guide named Fa who took me to his house and introduced me to his children. Whose life is this, because it doesn't seem like mine. One of the Hmong women in Sapa who I bought some earrings from tied a bracelet made of yarn to my wrist. It finally fell off this morning while I was in the shower. I left it as an offering at a Buddhist temple in Hanoi. That seems like a fitting end somehow to my magical vacation.

More to come when I get home to Korea. To be continued....

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

wake up and fight

woody guthrie's new year's resolutions. my favorite is the last one.