Sunday, April 14, 2013

Come On, Teacher, Carve Your Niche

[Note: While this post was nominally meant as a summary of my experiences leaving Korea, due to time constraints it was not finished until well after I left left Korea.]
So the other day I remembered the Deftones did a song they named “Korea” for some reason, and I decided to give it a listen for the first time in a long time and see if I could figure out the connection between the song and the country, if any:
After listening, I’m still not sure if I get the connection, but I guess it does kind of remind me of a night out in Itaewon…
It seems to me like I’ve been seeing Korea show up a lot more in Western media in the last few years, and I don’t just mean that song with the dance and the guy in the sunglasses who was in literally every last advertisement the last time I went to a movie here. (I’m still here at the moment, in a hostel in Hongdae in Seoul, but I’ll probably be at Incheon Airport, or on the plane, or maybe even at my layover in San Francisco or home (home… what a problematic term…) in LA by the time I finish and post this.) Writers and artists often seem to look to foreign lands when they want to make a strange location seem more forbidding or exotic (or, dare I say, inscrutable? Or, perhaps even, oriental?) and when they seek that perfect mystery-shrouded locale halfway around the world their imaginations somehow almost always end up in the Far East. For years, I would say Japan probably had the most prominent place in the Western imagination when it came to oriental exoticism, but these days Japan seems a lot closer than it used to – after all, our kids grow up on Pokemon and Power Rangers, our baseball league has Ichiro and Matsui, there’s a Toyota in our garage and the local 7-Eleven is selling sushi and coffee in Domo coffee cups. So who is the new Empire of Strange and Far Away, now that we can’t depend on that far-away land on the edge of the world where people are descended from the sun? The Middle East is too dangerous, Eastern Europe is too European, South America is too colonized, Bangkok is a little to grimy, Hong Kong is soooo 1997, Bali a little too touristy and most people wouldn’t know which continent to start looking in to find Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Where do we turn? Shanghai, with its sexy new skyline, has definitely been making waves. But increasingly, it also seems like we’re imagining ourselves in the Land of the Morning Calm in order to get more lost than we’ve ever been.
I thought a little about this when I was watching “Cloud Atlas” in a Korean theater, since part of the movie takes place in a nearly-unrecognizable imagined Neo-Seoul. Usually I’m used to seeing the “Neo-“ tag stuck in front of some form of post-apocalypse Tokyo, and to be fair I think the filmmakers forgot which city they were in a couple times as well. (Tatami mats in the apartment? Really, production designer?) I kind of wondered how the Korean audience felt about getting stuck with the culpability for (spoilers abound) the future society of good-looking, pleasant, female slave-clone-drones rather than some other Neo-Corporate capital of the Neo-World. They chose a very colorful, East Asian type of pop look for the restaurant, but honestly other than the Korean obsession with appearances I didn’t see anything particularly East Asian about the type of sexism or wage slavery represented in that part of the film. Relations between the sexes and among workers may be a little different here, but let’s face it, sexism and worker exploitation exist all around the world with different faces. In terms of the story, I kind of felt like Seoul was plucked randomly from a short list of relatively wealthy, far-away places. It’s possible the audience in Korea never even felt any sort of connection with the Neo-Seoul represented in the movie. Koreans are probably used to seeing misrepresentations of Korea by now. (Vietnamese-style straw hats? Really, “Lost” production designers?) Plus they were probably too busy wondering why all the white people in Neo-Seoul had such weird-looking faces and odd accents. The only notable moments of shock I heard from the audience were for the man-on-man kiss (one guy, loudly) and the reveal at the end that Doona Bae had played the wrinkled older Mexican woman (all the girls, audibly).
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about these things as I prepare to leave this inexorably unfamiliar place and return home to the United States. Is there a “Korea” inside of all of us – some far-away, alien place that we seek to discover, and maybe even live in, but know that we will never understand? What does that “Korea” have to do with the Korea that I’ve been living in almost every day for the last three years? Which one will I remember most strongly? Which one will I miss first?
Winter break and the winter session of school, which followed my trip to Thailand and Cambodia, were a little busier than I expected them to be. I learned a few days before the end of the school year that I would have an additional camp for incoming freshmen that I hadn’t anticipated, but I managed to pull together enough old summer camp activities to cover those classes. Then, during the winter session, by surprise, I had two weeks of classes spread over three weeks to do with the returning first-year students starting their second year of high school. This was a big surprise considering that in no past year had I ever been asked to teach anything during the short February session, not to mention that one of the previous middle school teachers had been given pretty much that entire time to pack up and leave, and the Lunar New Year holiday fell in the middle of that time. I suppose that previous teacher might have been given the time off because he was applying for a visa to move from South Africa to the United States to rejoin his wife, and, knowing what I know about US visa paperwork, he probably needed the time. [Note: Here in the blog (dammit, I can never get used to the immediacy of this medium) comes the time and space gap between being in Korea at the end of my contract and encountering Los Angeles, Buffalo, Los Angeles and most of a bottle of North Coast Sauvignon Blanc (I needed it to cook, I swear) on the way to the plastic folding table upon which I am now typing this.] So (oh god, I'm starting sentences with "so," I've been in Korea for too long) the process of leaving Korea was a little more compressed than I expected it to me. I remember that at some point, about a month before I was suppose to leave and after I had gotten home from Thailand, I suddenly realized, "Damn, all this time I've been so focused on how much I miss my friends and family back home and I never thought about how much I'm going to miss the people I'm leaving behind here." As I think I've mentioned before, I suppose that missing people and places is an inevitable consequence of traveling and exploring. But I have to wonder, in retrospect, how much of the time I spent in Korea was spent focused on what I was missing back home when I could have been focusing more on the good things going on around me.
Thankfully, due to the ending date of my contract I was able to squeeze in a couple days in Seoul before I left the country completely. I'm glad I was able to make the transition back to the United States in steps rather than doing it all at once—I felt a little bit like I was going through the same process as one of the pet fish I used to buy for my fish tank, which I would have to leave in their plastic bag from the pet store floating in the top of the tank for fifteen or so minutes before I could introduce them to the tank, so that the temperature would even out and they wouldn't die from the shock of suddenly being introduced to unfamiliar waters. I don't know how I would have handled it if I had gone straight from the emotional shock of rushing to catch a bus in Daegu to Incheon Airport and hurrying to say goodbye to my co-teacher, who was such a good friend to me over the course of the three years I was in Korea, and his family directly to boarding a plane to the United States and being launched headlong, fourteen hours later, in to the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, California, USA. In Seoul, I got to spend one last night (or was it two?) out on the town with one of the teachers from my town and got to meet and hang out with a couple of friends of mine from film school back in America. Oh, and also I got to make a late night stop at Taco Bell which turned out to be a bad idea. One of my film school friends actually invited me to visit her on the set of a film shoot for a low-budget Korea movie. I think the idea was to get my blood pumping for being back in the world of film production. I have to say it worked, to an extent at least. I mean, I don't think I have the stomach or spine to back into freelance electric and grip work, but it sure would be nice to be a part of something creative again...
I managed to squeeze in a couple touristy things on my way out of Korea via Seoul, and one of them was finally visiting the Korean War Memorial in Seoul. The Korean War Memorial appears to be curated by the Korean military, and I was a bit surprised how militaristic the message was at a museum dedicated to something I always understood as being remembered as a time of great suffering and pain for the Korean people. I mean, yes, the segments dedicated to the actual Korean conflict were quite mournful, but most of the other sections were surprisingly upbeat about "The Glories of War!" (quotes are mine to denote a concept I voice facetiously rather than a quote from the actual museum), including probably the cheeriest summary of any country's involvement in the war in Vietnam that I've ever seen. One thing that really stuck with me, though, from the whole experience was seeing the inscription over the wall of the wing of the museum that enshrines the names of all the foreign soldiers who gave their lives during the Korean War. I can't recall who it's attributed to, although I think it's from the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. It reads, "Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." To me, the idea of traveling to a foreign land, and giving your life in a violent conflict there, without ever getting to know the country and never meeting the people is just horrifying. I'm glad to say that, no matter how I look at my experiences from the last three years, at least I can say that I got to know the country and met the people. How terrible to leave one's homeland to travel the world, and never get to know the world beyond your homeland!
Well, my days in Seoul ended all too quickly, and soon I was on a plane back to the United States. I spent a week in Los Angeles, where I was hoping to see friends and perhaps land a job interview or two, but managed to do not nearly enough of the former and none of the latter. I headed from Los Angeles to my parents' home in Buffalo, where I was planning to look for some temporary position that could help me save enough money to move back to Los Angeles comfortably and without worry of having to spend financial bounty from teaching in Korea (I may get brave enough to write a blog post on how to use your teaching job in Korea to get out of debt, but I'm not sure if I want to take on that much braggadocio at the moment) but soon learned that the temp market in Buffalo is, not surprisingly, rather barren. An opportunity to take on a room and a roommate in Los Angeles came about, and after scrambling to unload a treasure trove of childhood Lego sets onto several generous eBay buyers, I ended up back in Los Angeles a little sooner than I had imagined.
So that's where I am now –scribbling these words as I take care of an unfamiliar cat and wait for the newest episode of Mad Men to begin here in Los Angeles. It's been quite a journey from when I left three years ago to my return now, and it's a little strange to ponder the fact that the whole thing took me from here to halfway around the world and then back to a place a short trip up the 405 and down the 101 from where I began. Fate? I don't know. Trying to get anyone to take my résumé seriously in Buffalo taught me that, to some extent, you really never can go home, and to some extent to you have to continue following the path you've chosen to its end, no matter where it leads and no matter what byways you attempt to take along the way. I guess the only direction you can ever really move, no matter which direction you face on the map, is forward. What's that thing in The Great Gatsby, about those boats being inexorably dragged forward? Wait, no, that was about being borne into the past, wasn't it? Damn. I'm sure it'll come back to me when I see the Hollywood adaptation this summer. Perhaps I should avoid respected literature and stick to the pop music references. Well, at any rate, here I am, for better or for worse, home sweet home.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hail to the King, Baby

Hey there. So even though this blog is nominally about teaching English, I usually post a long update about my vacation travels when I get back, because, let's face it, having the opportunity to travel around Asia is one of the big things that lures people into this job in the first place, myself being no exception. I had the bright idea this year, during my trip to Thailand and Cambodia, to write most of the posts on the road and email them to myself to save time and the effort of trying to remember all the details later. Of course I realized pretty quickly that I would rather enjoy my vacation while I was on it rather than using my vacation time to write about it, so must of what I sent to myself were rough outlines of blog updates which I fleshed out after the fact. So here it is, a recap of my trip to Thailand and Cambodia, recounted partially in the almost immediate aftermath. Enjoy!

Travel Blog Update 1 - Sat, Jan 19, 2013 at 5:43 AM KST - Incheon Airport, South Korea

It's 5:20 AM and so far the trip is going splendidly, by which I mean I'm having breakfast at McDonalds at Incheon Airport because I have insomnia and I couldn't sleep. Trying to sleep in the airport jjimjilbang (it's normal to sleep in saunas in Korea, remember?) probably didn't help matters. Two things continue to amaze me: 1) Koreans can sleep anywhere, on any surface, in any light and noise level, under any circumstances. 2) Koreans don't seem to appreciate that other people may not have this skill, like when they speak with full voice or answer their fucking phones when a roomful of people are sleeping around them fer Christ's sake. I was excited to try the Incheon jjimjilbang just for novelty's sake, if anything, and I was hoping it might be as nice as a place like Siloam Sauna near Seoul Station, which is quite swank. No such luck. It's small and cramped and, like almost all jjimjilbangs, it's a good place to sleep only if you're dead drunk. Lesson learned.

I left my town yesterday afternoon so that I could be sure to get to the airport on time, and so that I could grab Mexican at one of the best Mexican joint in Korea, Los Amigos in Itaewon. Hey, I can get Korean food anywhere, but where else am I gonna find a decent mole sauce, amirite? Of course, not long before I left, I got a call from my co-teacher, who, a bit panicked, told me that I needed to come to school and complete my Korean tax return before I leave for my vacation because it's due at the end of January. Dynamic Korea strikes again. (It's not so much that it happened that bothers me as much as the fact that it happens all the time here.) Luckily, after running to school with a Christmas stocking stuffed with receipts (it was the container closest to my kitchen table pile of unorganized receipts) I managed to pull together, compile and sign enough documents that my co-teacher should be able to finish the return while I'm away. I guess I shouldn't complain too much - I'm very lucky that I have a dedicated, caring co-teacher to help me with these things. Some girl on Facebook was complaining that her co-teacher threw the form at her - in Korean - three days before she left on her vacation and basically told her, "Good luck, have fun."

Let's hope Bangkok goes a little better than the trip to the airport to get there...

Travel Blog Update 2 - Sun, Jan 20, 2013 at 8:50 PM KST - Sairee Beach, Koh Tao, Thailand

Day one in Bangkok. I kind of knew from experience that this one would mostly be a waste. Didn't get away from the airport until 3 or 3:30, didn't leave the hotel until almost 6. Ended up gawking at Bangkok's meccas of consumerism at Siam Square. Ate a bowl of some variety of tom yam that was not so much to my liking at a mall food court while a Thai cover band played U2 and The Rolling Stones.

Tourists are everywhere here, oddly gawking at everything as the Thai residents of this wild city calmly go about their business. I've been noticing that there's a variety of Tourist quite prevalent here that I have taxonomically classified as the "Bald Pudgy Short-Haired White Guy." Common variants of this species, when not spotted alone, are the BPSHWG With Thai Girlfriend, and the BPSHWG With Thai Hooker. I think what worries me the most about these BPSHWGs, speaking as a white, somewhat pudgy gentleman who trims with a #2 guard and haven't had a full head of hair since I was about nineteen, is the nagging question: How much do I have in common with these BPSHWGs? Am I already one of them? Am I merely in denial? Am I simply avoiding fate by not browsing those "Date Sexy Thai Women" websites that pop up in internet banner ads? (To be honest, the ones that I get usually say, "Date Sexy Korean Women!" but that's easier marketed than done.) What do these guys and their Thai girlfriends do when they're not together in Thailand? Do they remain in touch? Do the guys send money? Do the girlfriends send food? I thought I was just here to dive and see a few wats, not to witness a disturbing vision of a possible personal dystopian future.

I think I might start going to the gym again when I get back...

Travel Blog Update 3 - Fri, Jan 25, 2013 at 9:13 AM KST - Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta, Thailand

Hey there, my own email. Just finished my stint in Koh Tao and made it to Koh Lanta. Had a great time diving there, although my schedule there got a bit messed up as I seem to have failed to drink enough water and succeeded in drinking one too many G&T's on the first night, which messed up my first day of diving. Koh Lanta promises to be fun, though. Just wish I had more time to relax and explore here, since, as it stands, I've only got two days before I have to split for Siem Reap. So much to see, so little time...

One thing that surprised me about Koh Tao was how seemingly outnumbered the Thais and everyone else there seemed to be by the Westerners. I guess in most of my travels I haven't been to a lot of places that exist almost purely as tourist destinations. Even though it's difficult to meet and really get to know too many local people on a short trip like this, part of what interests me about travel is experiencing new cultures in other countries. In a place like Sairee Beach, that experience is mostly limited to the pleasantries exchanged in the midst of a commercial transaction. In fact, from what I hear, a lot of the clerks and shopkeepers here aren't even Thai, they're Burmese. You can spot the Burmese women pretty easily in the morning, as they use this special type of light-tan Burmese mud as a facial product that doesn't dry clear until later in the day. Almost all the people I've met here are white, twenty-something European tourists or white, forty-something European tourists. For Europeans, Thailand seems to be a bit like what Mexico is for Americans. The younger people come to party and the older people "just take pictures," as some scoffing younger traveler said on the night boat the other night as I was chatting with an older couple and holding my camera bag between my ankles. As a single guy in my mid-thirties, I feel like a bit of an awkward tween here - too old to go out and party every night but too young to talk about how my retirement investments are holding up. I guess I should be glad to have had the opportunity to do this trip while I still have a bit of perspective on both groups, even if I do sometimes feel a bit like the misfit in the high school lunchroom.

Originally I had planned to take a full day to travel from Koh Tao to Krabi and from there to Koh Lanta, but due to my little dehydration incident I ended up getting the night boat from Koh Tao in order to get to Koh Lanta in time for my scheduled dive. Apparently some night boats are nicer than others, but the one I was on was an interesting experience, to say the least. The assigned bed spaces are so narrow that I was worried I wouldn't be able to fit my shoulders within mine if I tried to lay my arms at my side while I slept. I hope the girl next to me wasn't too disturbed when I chatted with the guy on the other side about which one of them would scream louder if I accidentally rolled over in the middle of the night and spooned one of them. (The guy strongly insisted that he would be louder.) Luckily there was an empty bunk or two on the guy's side so we were able to spread out a few inches and not be quite so intimate. Still, it was better than the third-class ferry ride from Jeju to Busan in Korea, which is great if you like sleeping on a stiff, itchy carpet with no bedding other than a foam and vinyl brick for a pillow. I also met an interesting couple from Cincinnati on the boat ride. The husband of the couple is a landscape architect, so without much work to do in the winter they spend their winter months in Pattaya, a beach city not too far from Bangkok. Their reason for choosing Pattaya? The city's famed sex industry, indirectly. "Everything's so cheap because it's priced for the girls working there," they said. Ain't globalization grand?

I'm kind of glad I had run into this blog post about traveling from Koh Tao to Koh Lanta before I underwent the journey, because I was definitely a little less panic-prone after reading about what to expect. My trip was remarkably similar: truck to the night boat, night boat to a local taxi truck (which tore the shit out of my backpack and rain cover when they threw it on the roof), taxi truck to local Surat Thani travel agent, travel agent to bus, bus to another travel agent, truck from travel agent to a local Krabi guest house, van from the guest house to the Koh Lanta vehicle ferry (which is much more frequent than the passenger ferry, by the way), then a drop at completely the wrong end of Koh Lanta, a frantic call to the resort I had booked, a long wait for the guy who the people at the Krabi guest house had said they had called, and a free ride to the resort. Basically, after paying the travel desk at my resort in Koh Tao for the full fare, all the pieces were outsourced to outside contractors. But hey, I got to Koh Lanta in one piece. I trusted my resort in Koh Tao to value their good name so I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get ripped off or abandoned along the way, though. One stop along the way did do their best to sell accommodations in Koh Lanta to the travelers, but honestly they seemed fairly legit about it. I bought a ferry ticket back to Krabi from them and in the immediate aftermath I was suspicious that perhaps I had been shafted price-wise, but when I checked my guide book, the book quoted the exact same price that I had just paid. [The people at my resort in Koh Lanta were a little annoyed that I didn't buy the ferry ticket from them, but they still dropped me off at the passenger ferry when I needed to be there without incident.]

I try not to think of the touts pushing expensive taxis and guest houses at bus stations and ferry terminals as necessarily being out to rip off tourists; I like to think of them as trying to use better advertising to market a more poorly-positioned product at an inferior price. It aids my piece of mind regarding humanity. I mean there's nothing wrong with that, right? That's just basic capitalism. We all know there's no such thing as a perfect market with perfect information. Anyhow, if you undergo a trip like the one I made, don't necessarily accept the first offer of transportation you're given or believe everything (read: anything) that a taxi driver tells you, but try to be patient with all the secondary contractors you meet along the way. There was a couple in the waystation in Krabi who were terribly pissed off that the bus had stopped in Krabi proper to let off some girls who were traveling with a different agency, then taken them to the waystation instead of dropping them off when their final destination was Krabi. They were incensed that a cab from the waystation back to Krabi town would be the equivalent of $1.67. (Admittedly you can get a plate of noodles for not much more than that in Thailand, but I digress.) I'm fairly certain that it was probably just an issue of getting a receipt for that part of the journey for the people at the waystation, and it probably was the last link in a chain of unpleasant incidents for the couple that blew up at them, but things definitely got a bit tense before they decided in a huff to walk back to Krabi. Thai people are generally very nice, friendly and love to joke with people, but don't piss them off. If a Thai person feels like you've questioned their integrity or they've publicly lost face because of you, they may knock your ass down. And keep in mind that a few of these cats know muay thai.

Koh Lanta is a bit more peaceful and less developed than Koh Tao, but if I had known the island a little better I might have picked a different area to stay in. Kantiang Bay is beautiful and it's also the closest spot to the dive operator that I'm using, but it's quiet and almost all the way at the souther tip of the island, and Koh Lanta isn't an easy place to get around without your own wheels. [Later in the day that I wrote this, I tried to rent a scooter from the resort I was staying at to get around the island, and after a couple loops around the parking lot we agreed that it was a really bad idea for me to rent a scooter.] I had rented a bike in Koh Tao to check out a bit more of the island, but the hills (and my choice to drag around a big heavy manual camera) made it an exhausting and fairly short trip. It also took me a long time to find a place that rented decent bicycles, as most of the shops on the island that advertised "Bikes For Rent" were actually renting motorbikes or motor scooters.

By the way, as an aside, I definitely noticed while traveling that Thai people really love their king. There's pictures of him and the queen and shrines dedicated to the royals everywhere. It's a little strange to see pictures of a country's titular leader in so many different places - at least, in a country where I know they've been placed voluntarily. I hear he's a nice guy for a monarch - very much a "man of the people" type king. Probably won't run into him on this trip, though. I hear he's a photograper. I wonder what he would have to say about my Nikon FM2.

Also, today I had my first experience of walking around a corner and saying, "Holy shit! It's an elephant!" The little tyke was tied to a tree outside of a place advertising elephant treks up to a cave and some waterfalls, but when I first saw it I didn't see that it was tied to anything. Pretty shocking to suddenly see an elephant in the middle of civilization. [I asked one of the dive instructors later this day about that particular elephant trekking organization, and he had nothing good to say about the people running it or the way they treat their elephants, so I took a pass. I believe there are some better outfits running treks to the caves on Koh Lanta elsewhere on the island.]

Travel Blog Update 4 - Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 3:02 PM KST - Chiang Mai, Thailand

I'm currently on the sleeper train from Ayuthaya to Chiang Mai so I won't actually be able to mail this until later. The sleeper trains here are definitely better than the night boat from Koh Tao was. My bottom bunk is roomy and comfortable, although it could use a reading light and an electrical outlet. The bunk was already folded down when I arrived, so I didn't get to see what it looked like before it was converted from seating to a sleeping berth. [The next morning I got the chance to see the transformation; the crew converts all the sleeping berths back into seats between 8 and 9 in the morning, and then offers the opportunity to purchase breakfast. Also, later in the morning I realized that the reading light in the bottom berths is hidden behind the head rests, which weren't folded up in my berth.]

After an excellent day of diving and a quick trip to Old Town in Koh Lanta, I hopped a ferry the next morning and spent a brief morning and afternoon in Krabi, just to check out the city. There's not all that much that's interesting to see or do in Krabi itself (other than seeing the big crab statue on the waterfront... they kind of had to, don't you think?) but there's a few nice-looking guest houses there, and they have enough tours available to nearby areas that I would guess Krabi is probably a nice jumping-off point to see other attractions in the area if resort islands aren't your thing.

From Krabi I flew to Siem Reap to start my (wait for it...) holiday in Cambodia. (You have no idea how long I've been waiting to have a chance to type that.) Even before the plane landed I could tell I wasn't in Thailand anymore. I kept waiting for my late evening flight to breach the cloud line so I could see what was below, until I realized that we were below the cloud line and there were simply no lights below. There were lights by the time we got to Siem Reap, but outside the city it was a near-complete blanket of darkness - "real country dark," as a certain cultural commentator once said. Cambodia clearly isn't nearly as bad as it was in the days of Pol Pot and the Dead Kennedys, but it is still among the poorest countries in the world by most measurements. Almost all the countries I've lived in or visited here have been advanced economies (Korea, Taiwan, Japan) or middle income (Thailand, Malaysia) so other than my trip to the Philippines almost three years ago I haven't really traveled too much in poorer countries (and even the Philippines are still a few steps ahead of Cambodia by most indexes.) Of course, when you land in a city like Siem Reap that's a tourist destination, it's not immediately evident that you've stepped away from the world of easy money and economic security. The strip of road from the airport to the Night Market is girded on both sides by hotels that cater to bus tours from East Asia - there were definitely more than a few signs in Korean along the way, of course. And of course traveling in a poor country isn't quite like the poverty porn-type images you typically see in the West when we only tend to see less-developed countries in ads for charities or movies about terrorists. People who are poor don't live every day in misery any more than rich people live every moment in ecstacy, after all. But I'm in way over my head already in this discussion so let's drop it here. Suffice to say, prices were lower and hawkers were much more insistent than in Thailand. Still, Siem Reap is definitely a nice place to visit if you have the time. Just don't believe your cabbie if he tells you that the guest houses in the area you're headed to will all be full and he knows where you can get a room for three times the standard price. Do what I did and check it out for yourself first. You'll thank me.

When I got to Pub Street in Siem Reap I was a little surprised by the level of partying going on. I mean, I had seen plenty of it in Thailand, of course, but I had no idea that the backpacker party circuit would stray this far from the beaches and into a city that's mostly known for peaceful vibes and temple-spotting. I guess once you've got a good party going there's no reason to take a break just because you can't swim. It was also kind of fun to go somewhere with tourists from places other than North America and western Europe, although I got a little tired of having to push my way past the large, mostly Korean tour groups that seemed to have a knack for always parking themselves directly in doorways and narrow passages to listen to their tour guides explain things in their native language. I hate to admit this, but I was actually a little perturbed to be around Koreans again while touring Angkor Wat. I mean, don't get me wrong, after three years living here Koreans are like family to me, but on the other hand, while I love my family very dearly there's times when I really don't want to be around them - especially when I'm on vacation trying to get away from them for a little while. But really, Koreans, no offence meant. Just try to be wary of standing and mobbing where people want to walk when you're traveling, please. I suppose the language barrier probably makes it difficult for most Koreans to travel in anything but those large bus groups, and Koreans aren't known for being the most travel-savvy or interested in experiencing the local culture. (Pack your ramen and soju, everyone!) Then again, maybe some of the huddling together and fear of foreigners is justified - at lunch, my tuk-tuk driver (who was awesome, by the way - one of the most experienced in Siem Reap, had a lot of great stories) claimed that some tuk-tuk drivers, if they get a Korean passenger, will just take them out in the jungle, rob them and kill them. I didn't always undestand him very clearly with his accent, and I'm not sure to what extent he may have been exaggerating, but it was still a pretty chilling story.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were fantastic. I wish I could have spent a lot more time in Cambodia, actually - much more than the one night and one day I had squeezed into my schedule. Some friends visited the country about a year ago and had nothing bad to say about it, and I was really grateful to get a little bit off the beaten track for a day or two after being on resort islands for a whole week. Maybe some day I'll have to come back and do the whole Burma/Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam/Laos circuit. One can hope.

Having returned to Bangkok. I almost decided to cancel my second day touring the city and book another night in the hotel to get some rest because the cough and cold I had started to develop in Koh Lanta were getting worse. (The guidebook had warned me that I would probably get sick at some point in the trip just because of the unfamiliar pathogens - I guess I should be glad it wasn't anything worse than a cough. I'm also glad I schedule all my diving for the first week of my trip - you're not supposed to dive if you're congested or taking cold medication.) Instead I delayed my start by an hour or so until a drug store opened, scored some Thai Robitussin (which is the same as regular Robitussin, by the way) and soldiered on. It was worth it. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) in Bangkok are - and I do not use this word lightly - un-fucking-believeable. The grandeur of the place is helped by the fact that Thais have a serious fetish for gold and no qualms against overkill. You'll notice in most Thai temples that there's not just one golden Buddha, there's usually a scrum of them, varying in size and splendor, all gathered on the same altar. I'm guessing the Thai Buddhist tradition of "merit-making," or donating to a temple in order to make up for past sins and shortcomings, probably contributes highly to the amount of bling you'll see in a popular Thai temple. Also, the teak- and gold-exporting days of Siam must have been heady days indeed. Color me impressed.

The rest of Bangkok would have to wait for another day. Around dinner time I hopped onto a commuter train and headed for Ayuthaya, the former Siamese capital prior to Bangkok. Today, it's mostly a far-flung semi-industrial suburb of Bangkok, and the palaces and temples there mostly fell into ruin after the capital was abandoned. [Had I known what whould happen later in the week (ooh, foreshadowing!) I might have skipped it to make time for Sukothai, but at least Ayuthaya was on the train line, which made traveling there a little easier.] I stayed in the small but friendly guest house district at one of those incredibly welcoming guest houses with no amenities and three generations living under one roof that just make you glad to be alive and traveling, and spent the next day touring the town by bicycle. I did get lost a couple times despite having a map, possibly because the red brick remains of the stupas and chedi in Ayuthaya can all start to look a bit the same after a while. Apparently I got turned around in my travels and somehow missed the best preserved temple, on the other side of the river that surrounds historic Ayuthaya. But all in all it was still a nice day.

Alright, so, as soon as this train arrives in Chiang Mai (likely at least an hour behind schedule) I need to find a place to drop my pack today and sleep tonight, a place to get my laundry done and a place to buy film. I'm not too worried about the former two but the latter quest may prove difficult. Hopefully Chiang Mai University still has a photo program that's shooting on silver. Wish me luck.

Travel Blog Update 5 - Weeks later - My desk at school

I got to Chiang Mai and discovered numerous really nice-looking guest houses, some of which were in traditional Thai-style teak houses, and all of which were booked full. The hotel/guest house were I stayed (I say "hotel" because it was built and operated like one and "guest house" because that was closer to the price and the quality of the service and amenities) was decent and the price wasn't too bad (I mean who am I kidding, compared to American or Korean prices it was a steal) but I would have tried to book something in advance with a little more character if I had known what I was doing. The night train from Ayuthaya, which was supposed to arrive around 9 AM, ended up rolling into town some time closer to noon, so I only had about a half day to explore the center of the old city, and after returning to my hotel/guest house I realized that I had missed half the highlighted spots listed in my guide book. I also realized at this point that my original plan - to leave Chiang Mai the next day in time to take a six-hour bus ride to Sukothai and still find accomodation somewhere - would basically wipe out any chance I had of seeing the sights in Chiang Mai or enjoying any of the special attractions offered there, like an elephant trek. There was a short mental debate, and the verdict was that Sukothai would be dropped from the itinerary in favor of an extra full day in Chiang Mai. I have no real regrets, considering how much I enjoyed Chiang Mai, but some colleagues of mine here had really talked up the marvels of Sukothai, another former Thai capital, and I likely would have skipped Ayuthaya for Sukothai if I had known how things were going to go down. Kind of unbelievable that, after more or less planning the trip for a year whenever I had deskwarming time at school, I somehow never figured out that the travel time from Chiang Mai to Sukothai would only give me two half days in Chiang Mai the way I had it scheduled. Oh well, hindsight is 20-20 I guess. I'll see it next time. (If there's a next time...)

By the way, I had no trouble finding a photo shop to develop and scan my film. 35mm lives on, brothers and sisters!

I chose Patara Elephant Farm to do my elephant trek. It was a bit expensive, but they were written up in the Lonely Planet guide as treating their elephants well while also allowing people to interact with the elephants and ride them, and I definitely wanted both out of my Chiang Mai elephant experience. When we started our day at Patara, one of the owners made it clear to us that while the elephant farm doesn't operate in strict term as a sanctuary for injured and abused elephants - and while he didn't want us to go home thinking that every other elephant show in Thailand is abusing their elephants - they work extra hard to keep their elephants healthy, treat them humanely and not train them to do silly things like kicking footballs or walking on their hind legs. Elephants in Thailand were used for hundreds or thousands of years as beasts of burden, but with the end of logging in Thailand and the advent of heavy machinery, more and more domesticated elephants ended up in those elephant shows with the football kicking, or simply going begging on the streets in Bangkok. (I never actually saw anyone begging with an elephant in Bangkok, but my guide book had a big story about it. It's possible that those days have ended.) So strictly speaking there's nothing unnatural or abusive about riding a trained, domesticated elephant. Patara does work to rescue some elephants from situations where the owners can no longer take care of them properly, but their main focus seems to be caring for their elephants in captivity and breeding them to preserve the species, which they've been quite successful in doing so far.

So what's it like riding an elephant? Awesome. Totally awesome. And a little scary. Kind of tough on the thighs as well. Just being around these giant eating and pooping machines up close is awesome. There's nothing quite like the feeling of being perched on an elephant's shoulders, looking down at a small ravine or path edge that's suddenly an extra six or eight feet farther below and thinking to yourself, "I really hope this guy is more nimble-footed than I would be with someone riding on my shoulders." We spent the morning learning how to do some basic care for the elephants and some basic mahoot (elephant trainer) commands, then we rode the elephants up a nearby forested hill, had lunch and rode them back down again. Lunch was a mostly vegetarian affair, and when we finished eating the elephants happily gobbled up the leftovers. After that it was time for a quick bath in a nearby river (for the elephants, not us), then a visit to another area where two of the baby elephants live. Let me tell you, nothing is cuter than a baby elephant, especially when it won't stop head-butting your guide. When I got the complimentary DVD of photos at the end of the trek and checked them out at home later, I couldn't help but marvel at the wide, completely non-ironical grin I had on my face in almost all of them. Awesome.

I spent my last day in Chiang Mai visiting Wat Suthep, which was duly impressive, and catching a bunch of the sites I had missed on day one when my guidebook was back at the hotel/guest house. By mid-afternoon I was feeling the effects of all the walking and days of travel, not to mention the residual effects of the cough and cold, and looking for something quiet to kill a few hours. That's when I recalled the Chiang Mai Women's Prison massage school. The Chiang Mai Women's Prison in downtown Chiang Mai is now closed, but they still maintain a cafe and massage school across the street from their former home to facilitate training some of the prisoners in careers other than whatever landed them in prison. And seriously, who doesn't want to say they got a Thai massage in a women's prison? No funny stuff at this place, obviously, but I was a little surprised by how much climbing on the table and wrestling with various limbs is involved in a Thai massage. I was tempted to ask one of the masseuses what they were in for ("Me? Prostitution in a massage parlor." "What about her?" "I killed a fucking tourist!") but I resisted the urge. It was a good story and quite a nice massage regardless, and it really helped out those spots where I had been clinging to an elephant's shoulders with my thighs the day before.

The last day, after an overnight ride on a fairly posh double-decker bus, I checked out a few last sites in Bangkok - the American silk trader Jim Thompson's house, the famed Wat Saket "Golden Mount" temple, and some sites around Bangkok's Chinatown district - before gathering my bags from the hotel and heading back to the airport. I can't tell you how much I would have loved to spend a month - or three months, or half a year - exploring more of Thailand, Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia. I have to admit that the thoughts of trying to find an English teaching job somewhere around one of the islands in the peninsula, or sticking around and trying to get trained as a scuba divemaster, or finding a job that would allow me to phone in my work to the US or Korea from Bangkok, were - are - all very tempting. As is usual for me on these vacations, I was feeling a bit bilulous regarding my imminent return to boring-old, stodgy, no-fun, elephant-free Korea while boarding the plane, but of course any place that you're just visiting is always more exotic and fun than the place you're returning to to go back to work. Hell, when I lived in LA even Buffalo looked a little bit nicer from afar at times.

In any case, I'd say this was the trip of a lifetime but I really hope this isn't my last opportunity to travel in Asia. It's a remarkable region and an exciting place to be, especially these days. On a train platform in Bangkok I briefly ran into an older couple from the United States. I mentioned that I was working in Korea but heading back to the United States, and they immediately implored, "Don't do it." It does seem a little hard to settle for the cold winters and increased expense of the world outside Thailand after being there for just a couple of weeks. Sometimes I play with the idea of coming back to Thailand (or somewhere else in Southeast Asia - Cambodia, Vietnam, or maybe the Philippines) in the distant future when I'm old enough to retire and looking for somewhere that I can stretch my money a little further and maybe even do some good by volunteering while I'm at it. But who knows, by the time I'm ready to retire, perhaps all those countries will be rich and in no need of the generosity of foreigners. Or they might all be underwater. That would suck. Either way, it was an amazing trip and I hope I can find a way to come back in the future. Not sure how that's gonna happen, given the student loans and the residency in a country with no mandatory vacation for workers. Oh well. Maybe it's time to start exploring the rest of the Western Hemisphere. I hear there's some good diving in Belize and Honduras...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Light in the Black

Hey there. I'm hoping no one thought I was ill or incapacitated since I failed to post a long, navel-gazing blog update for New Year's Eve. I actually had a pretty good New Year's Eve this year, and even left the house to do it, believe it or not. My cousin came from Kitami in Hokkaido, Japan, where she also teaches English, for a visit to Busan. (She said she was hoping the Busan weather - which usually hovers in the -2 to 8 Celsius range in the winter - would be a welcome break from the frigid temperatures in Kitami, but during her visit we both voiced suspicions that she had somehow brought a bit of the Kitami weather with her.) We ended up going up to Yongdusan Park for the midnight bell ringing, which was fun, and involved a surprise visit from a remote-controlled flying dragon lantern just after midnight. It's amazing what they can do with those lightweight miniature remote helicopters these days.

Traveling with my cousin around Busan and Gyeongju, which one of my co-teachers was kind enough to take us to, was actually a really rewarding experience for me, since my cousin has an academic background in Japanese and religious studies so she knew a lot more than me about Korean and Japanese history and Buddhist iconography, among other topics. I think this was my third trip to Bulguksa in Gyeongju, but I was amazed at how many things I had failed to appreciate there as a complete naïf when it comes to Buddhism. ("Hey, you're right, that Buddha does have a thousand arms behind him/her. How did I never see that?") My co-teacher also pointed out to me that Bulguksa's renowned stone bridges are not the two small bridges near a pond and stream on the temple ground which I had thought were the special bridges, but actually were the large stone steps in front of the main temple building, as there had been a stream running under the steps in the past. Adequate English-language signage probably would have helped in that case. Nevertheless, I appreciated the correction.

Christmas was pretty mellow this year. I had gone out to Daegu the Saturday before to celebrate with some friends, so other than the traditional Christmas morn/Christmas eve trans-global Skype chat with my family back home, I didn't do too much to celebrate the actual date of the holiday. Another teacher in my town had organized a tour of a nearby temple with some students, but I had to bail on them because my Skype date ran over and catch up with them for dinner later at a local chicken shack. The only thing I did on Christmas Eve, besides work, was to buy a cake to bring to school on the 26th for the other teachers. I always feel compelled to do something to celebrate Christmas at school, and since it may have been the last time I would get all the teachers in the office at once before I leave, I figured I'd better take advantage of the opportunity to thank them for being so wonderful for the past three years. I don't think the counter girl at Paris Baguette, who couldn't have been much older than one of my students, understood my intentions for the cake, however. In Korea, Christmas has somehow become a holiday that's mostly for dating, as if Korea didn't have more than enough of those (Valentine's Day, White Day, and I suspect Pepero Day's true intentions) already. I'm guessing the girl at Paris Baguette who sold me the cake suspected I had a hot date and thought she had some piece of juicy schoolyard gossip about one of the foreign teachers, as when I paid for the cake, she slipped me one of the complimentary bottles of sparkling apple juice they had behind the counter in a very winking manner. I still have it in my fridge, actually. Not sure what I'm going to do with it. I was planning to drink it all alone on New Year's Eve but then my cousin came and I actually had fun. Maybe there'll be another special occasion between now and when I leave in forty-seven days...

We also recently had a presidential election in Korea, which was a special treat to witness since they only come along every five years. This one was especially interesting for several reasons. At first, a popular third-party candidate - Ahn Cheol-soo, a doctor, software developer and well-known political pundit - had been running along with the candidates from the major liberal and conservative parties, which threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the typically two-sided (and often largely one-sided) world of Korean politics, but he ended up dropping out before the election and offering tepid support to the liberal candidate. (His software company, AhnLab, provides the annoying security program that I need to use to access my bank's website, and I kind of wondered whether everyone's money would disappear the day after the election if he lost.) The other interesting factor in this election was that the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, in addition to being the first woman to have a serious chance at the Korean presidency, also happens to be the daughter of slain Korean president and dictator (or "strongman," as the Korean news seems to suddenly prefer) Park Chung-hee. Park Chung-hee has long been a divisive figure here - he's popular in southeastern Korea, where I live, but largely despised in the more liberal south and southwest. Conservatives revere him as the leader who started the economic programs that put Korea on a path to prosperity, while liberals remember him as the president who seized power with the military, ruled under a state of emergency and conducted ruthless crackdowns on democracy advocates. Needless to say, Park Geun-hye's candidacy was polarizing. (A friend of mine also compared her to recent US president George W. Bush, in that he considers her a politician who draws much more support from her family name than from her actual political acumen, which is apparently lacking. This would personally worry me more than her family history, but like I said I'm leaving in forty-seven days, so... Good luck, everyone!) What astounded me most about the election was that, despite bitter cold on Election Day, more than seventy-five percent of eligible voters participated in the election. That's a remarkable number, especially when compared to some recent elections in countries like the United States and United Kingdom. Some Americans these days like to talk and act like democracy is under siege in the United States when the issues at hand are actually some of the most banal functions of government, like taxation and social insurance. Yes, I know eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, yadda yadda yadda. But sometimes I wish some of these screaming yahoos actually had the experience of living in a country where democracy isn't a given and basic human rights really do require violent struggle, like Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or South Korea before around 1986. Americans talk a lot about liberty and justice, but don't seem to appreciate how easily we've been able to enjoy those gifts without struggle over the last half century or so. And we consistently seem ignorant of some of the allies we've had over the years who took it away from their own people. I guess it's very easy for a country to be politically nearsighted when there's oceans between you and everyone else...

Other than the above events, it's mostly been an unremarkable winter, other than it being unusually cold, and it hitting us with an uncommonly heavy snowfall about a week and a half ago. We do normally get some snowfall in the winter in this part of Korea, but people are usually able to sweep it off the sidewalk rather than having to shovel it. I saw a snow plow out on the highway during the storm, but snow removal in my small town has been haphazard at best, and definitely not done on an organized basis. Some citizens dutifully shoveled the walks outside their homes and businesses, but most of the six or so inches of snow we got stayed in place until it was packed down, partially melted and then froze again into rock-hard, solid ice slicks. Most of the sidewalks around town at least have ice-free paths cut into them at this point, and people have dumped sand or charcoal ash on many of the most traveled patches that are still icy and look like they could be until March given the thickness of the ice and the temperatures outside, but many of the streets are still pretty treacherous. Seriously, guys, we need to do something about this crazy weather...

I've had two winter camps for most of this week and they'll continue for most of next week, but they've been pretty laid back so far. And in another ten days I'll be toasting my buns somewhere in Thailand. In the meantime it's still pretty quiet and boring here, and becoming more so by the day. Some teachers have left for their vacations already, and most of the ones who are left are trying to save their money and energy for their upcoming travels, if they're not going stir-crazy from the increased free time and winter weather. I was, however, able to rouse a couple teachers at 6:30 AM last Sunday for breakfast burritos and beers to watch the Saturday round of the NFL's wild card round of playoffs, so this party's not completely dead. The other day I realized that it's now January and that means it's no longer too soon to start seriously looking for work and trying to plan my future, but then I realized I have a vacation coming in less than two weeks and I decided to blow the worrying and planning off until later. Frankly the whole moving back thing scares the shit out of me more and more as the days go on. I don't know what I want to do, I'm not confident of what I can do any more, or what anyone will hire me to do, I don't know where I want to be doing it, and I don't want to get stuck doing something other than what I want to do somewhere other than where I want to be doing it. Recreating yourself from scratch gets more and more tiresome as you get older. As much as I'm a compulsive planner and hate to put things off, I think a lot of the big decisions are actually going to have to happen after I get back and get a feeling for what life in the US is like again, and it what it feels like trying to live it in this day and age. There's just too many unknowns at this point. I probably should be taking better advantage of all this free time, but I suppose unrepentant sloth is also a valid type of time use. Besides, I need to finish The Beach before I get to Koh Tao. I'm under a deadline here...

Anyway, I do actually have work tomorrow afternoon so I should probably avoid going completely nocturnal and get to bed. As usual, I reserve the right to spell- and grammar-check this post in the morning and edit out the most scandalous stuff, so you've been warned. Forty-seven days and I'm coming hooooooooooooooome...