Spring Vacation: Myanmar

For our big vacation this year we decided to go to Myanmar and Cambodia with a very brief stopover in Singapore.  My friend had visited Myanmar in the summer and had nothing but good things to say about his trip.  It turned out to be a great recommendation.  I’m going to do the photos from this trip in two posts.  First, this one will just be photos from our 9 days in Myanmar, the next post will be photos from our night in Singapore and then 5 days in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Myanmar has a tough history and a what more or less could be called a totalitarian government.  Only recently has the government been relaxing some of their restrictions, and tourism is just starting to take off in the country.  Because of this situation, it was a very interesting place to visit.

We were mainly in three places.  First we were in Yangon, the largest city.  This was a very crowded and dense urban area.  Then we went to Inle Lake which is a very nice relaxing place with a lot of stuff set up for tourism.  Finally, we went to Bagan, the old capitol and the place with probably the most interesting things historically to check out.  Lastly, we went back to Yangon for a few days before we flew out to Singapore.

I put a ton of captions on the photos.  One thing you’ll notice is that at some point into our trip, Pearl begins wearing a bandage on her brow.  We rented bikes in Bagan to explore the temples.  Pearl had a little mishap while parking hers and ended up falling.  She bumped her head and got a little cut, but she was and is fine.  It certainly made the trip exciting…

One of the other very cool things we got to do was to meet up with a punk/indy band and check out a show in Yangon.  The band is called Side Effect.  I found them online before we went and got in touch.  I was really interested to see what it was like to be a band in a country like Myanmar with the government that they have.  Initially, we were supposed to see Side Effect play, but essentially what happened was the government would not allow them the proper permits that they would need to do any kind of public performance.  Luckily we did still get to see a small show, which are where a few of the photos you’ll see are from.

It was a really interesting trip and I’m so glad we got the opportunity to visit this country.

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Flower Gin in Seoul

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Little by little, as we explore and as time passes the bar-scape of Seoul has (thankfully) been changing.  Initially, the options were pretty bleak.  Light beer that all tastes like Budweiser, soju, and maybe the occasional makkeoli place.  If someone got really crazy they might puree a kiwi into a pitcher of soju or makkeoli, but that was about it.

Now, not only has craft beer been growing in popularity and a few new bars devoted to beer have opened, but we’ve found and explored a few new places that we hadn’t had on our radar earlier.

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One of these places is a little tiny shop called Flower Gin.  Flower gin provides two things as you might imagine: flowers and gin.  It is one of the more strange places we’ve come across.  It’s not only a full functioning florist, but also serves exclusively Hendrick’s gin.

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I don’t know how or why, and unfortunately the girl working when we visited didn’t speak any English.  They must have some kind of deal worked out with Hendrick’s because the place is covered in Hendricks artwork and paraphernalia.  It gives is a really interesting look.  There were even candles made out of old gin bottles.

20140208_152331The place served four cocktails, we had the Hendrick’s Gin and Tonic and the Hendrick’s Buck.  The gin and tonic was made with the addition of cucumber and the Buck was basically gin and ginger ale.  Both were decent drinks, though Pearl and I both preferred the Gin and Tonic.  Also, both drinks were festooned with a small fresh flower.  The price was also pretty good all things considered at about $8 per drink.

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I don’t think I’d ever actually had Hendrick’s gin before this, and I really enjoyed it.  What makes it unique is that they add cucumber and rose petals to the selection of herbs and spices that are infused into the gin.  It gives it a really nice and fresh taste.  As a ‘gin’ however, I think it kind of needs it’s own category.  It would come as quite a surprise if you were expecting a standard martini, and instead got one made with Hendrick’s.

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To get to the place go to Noksapyeong station on line 6.  Walk straight out exit two and continue up the main road for a ways.  You’ll come to a pedestrian crossing bridge.  Go across and then continue in the same direction.  Flower Gin is just after you get off the bridge on your right.  The address is 666 Itaewon-Dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul and according to an article I found online it is open from Tuesday through Sunday 12-12…though we didn’t see any posted hours.  20140208_15245120140208_154419

Trip to Kyoto, Japan

Pearl and I had a few days off of work that lined up and we decided to take a quick trip to Kyoto, Japan.  The ability to travel is one of the best things about living here.  Japan is only about an hour flight.  Initially we weren’t going to travel at this time for the sake of saving money, but we thought we might later regret not taking advantage of this ability to travel when we had the chance.  Anyway it was a short trip and limited only to Kyoto, but it was a lot of fun and very interesting.

Kyoto was a pretty relaxed city.  People were helpful and friendly, and I was surprised that almost everyone that we dealt with spoke at least some English.  We packed a lot into four days and we took a ton of pictures.  Here is a brief selection to get a taste of the trip.  Now we’ve got about three weeks of work before our big vacation in February.  We will be visiting Myanmar, Singapore, and Cambodia.  For now, enjoy the photos of Kyoto.

 

Hwacheon Ice Festival: Year Two!

One of the best parts about being here for two years is getting to experience things I did last year again with all the knowledge and experience I’ve gained from being in Korea for so long.  For example, I’m much better equipped to navigate a festival like this this year than I was last year.  Also, at the risk of being a little cheesy, this time around it was great to be with Pearl.  We’re usually on the same page about stuff, so I couldn’t ask for a better travel partner!

I’ll keep this short since I probably wrote a long post last year, but activities included ice fishing, trying to catch fish with your hands, lots of good food, snow tubing and a lot of other good stuff.  Our friend from the US Mike was visiting us during this time so he got to go to the festival also.  It was pretty cool to have him there.  It was kind of  like getting to do it all over again for the first time through him.

It was a fun winter trip and here are a few pictures.

Sobaeksan National Park Winter Hiking

I haven’t been posting on here as often as I used to.  I think the problem is that a lot of the ‘newness’ of being in Korea has worn off for me.  Even though now I’m still doing as much or more than I was at this time last year, it kind of feels more like normal everyday stuff for me.  I think about it this way: I wouldn’t have kept a blog about my daily life in San Diego, and now that Korea is just my normal daily life, the motivation to keep the blog up to date is lessening.

That being said every once in a while I will use this to record views/thoughts/new things that I do.  Also, I will try to keep it more up to date with photos for anyone who is still checking it out from back home.

Anyway Pearl and I have been getting into more and more outdoors kind of activities.  Lately we’re taking advantage of the weather to do some hiking.  Sobaeksan is one of the many national parks in Korea.  I talked about it a bit in a post a few months ago when we came here to hike in the fall.  In that post I promised that we would be back, and we have been.

We’ve really grown to like Danyang, the little town near the north side of Sobaeksan.  Now we’ve got our favorite motel, people at one the of restaurants remember us, and we’ve finally figured out the bus schedule to get to the trail heads.  I guess Sobaeksan has been getting popular for winter hiking because this last trio things were pretty crowded.

These are photos from two hikes.  One in December and one just this past weekend in January.   Both hikes we started before dawn to try to avoid the crowds.  Like hiking everywhere in Korea by noon the trails are just a solid line of people, even here in the winter.  It can be pretty annoying.  Anyway because we staretd so early I actually got us lost on the first hike.  We were a bit off trail and had to finally turn back.  Still nice scenery and a fun hike, but we returned in January to give the actual real trail a try and make the summit of Birobong in the winter.

You won’t be able to really tell in the photos, but up on the ridge line and the summit of Birobong the weather conditions were pretty extreme.  It was bitterly cold with some of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced.  I could allow my weight to fall into the wind and it would just about keep me standing up.  Being exposed to that wind even for just ten or fifteen minutes would cause your nose and cheeks to go numb.  The original plan was to hike along the ridge line for about 5 km before descending by a different route.  However, I didn’t feel like that was a really safe option with the conditions so we opted to just descend the way we came.  It was pretty incredible up there though!

So now we’ve done Sobaeksan in two seasons.  We’ll try to hike there again in the spring or summer to round it out!

The Weather In Korea

Two days ago we had our first snowfall of the season here in Seoul. It happened during the school day and it was exciting to see the students rush to the windows and flood out of the front doors to run around through the flakes. This is my second winter in Seoul. Though I grew up in the Pennsylvania and New York, the last six years before coming to Korea I spent in warm and sunny San Diego. The first snowfall here last winter sent me rushing to the windows along with the students. Since the snow seemed to signal the official change from fall to winter, I thought I’d take a moment to write a little bit about my experience of the weather here in Korea.

To put it simply, the weather here is very similar to New York. There are four seasons with warm humid summers and cold, snowy winters. However, the shifts in the seasons seem more dramatic and happen more rapidly than I remember in the US.

Summer: Summer is very hot and humid. The temperature is routinely at or above 30 degrees Celsius for an extended period and the humidity can be brutal. Also, the summer sees a period of the heaviest precipitation. July and August generally have a lot of rain. Sometimes it seems like it rains every day for at least a couple of hours. Then after that comes typhoon season. This past year we were lucky and saw nothing, but when I first arrived in Korea I remember two or three typhoons that were pretty bad.

Winter: Winter is as cold and dry as summer is hot and humid. A typical daytime temperature for at least December-February is probably around -5 or so. Right now in November most days are barely reaching about 5-7 degrees. Last year was apparently a very cold winter. I think our coldest day was something in the neighborhood of -17, and many of my Korean co-workers said that it was the coldest winter that they could remember. Though it didn’t happen last year, I guess the marker for an extreme winter is if the Han river, the huge river running through the middle of Seoul, freezes all the way across. There is quite a bit of snow in the winter, though less in Seoul than other parts of the country. There is an interesting attitude toward snow removal here. In Seoul, generally the streets are not plowed so the snow just accumulates and turns to slush under the cars. People will often throw the snow and ice swept up from in front of their shop into the street!

Spring and Fall: these seasons canned be summed up with one word: short. It seemed like fall this year lasted at most three weeks. The weather changes from summer to winter and vice versa very dramatically. One of the nice things about fall is that even though it is short, there is a very beautiful changing of the leaves. I like the ginkgo trees the best. Their leaves turn almost a fluorescent yellow.

Right now, I am loving the cold weather and I can’t wait until we get an accumulation of snow! I definitely prefer the winter over the summer, and there is no lack of winter in Korea.

The Language Barrier and How It’s Impacting Me

I recently had a friend from back home in the US ask me to complete a survey about living abroad for a school project that he was doing.  There were about 10-15 very broadly worded questions focusing on many of the aspects of my experience and my motivation for choosing to live abroad.  After reading through the questions, I realized that to properly provide full answers to all of them, I would be sending my friend back a book-length response.

Living as an expat in a country like Korea, there are a few questions from people back home that one gets very used to hearing.  “So, what’s Korea like?”  When I hear this I wonder, how can I even being to answer this? I understand that usually this question happens as an opening when people just don’t know what to ask.  Sure my friends and family read a blog post here and there and see some photos.  But, for the majority of them who have barely traveled, let alone lived in a country as different as Korea, my day to day life is a complete mystery.

It’s understandable, and very quickly I got used to these broad unfocused starts to explaining what the experience of living abroad is like.  For the sake of streamlining these conversations, early on I adopted a set of default responses that were broad and non-committal as the questions.  It is only later on that I realize that my early developed default answers actually have actually helped me to pinpoint exactly what is most significant for me.

Another question I am often asked is, “What’s difficult about living in Korea?”  My default response is, ‘The language barrier.’ I now realize that far from being just a vague answer to the question, it is really the best answer for me.  I can speak and read more than enough Korean to get around a function, but no matter how comfortable I get with Korea, until I am fluent in the language, I lack the ability to freely communicate and understand what is going on around me.

Eight or ten months in, this was fine.  I was learning new words still fairly frequently, although I was doing little or no formal studying.  I knew enough Korean to impress people, including other Koreans.  But small talk was very far beyond my ability.  Still, I felt more or less comfortable and confident in my language ability and development.

Then, I hit a big plateau.  Once I knew enough language to function, I stopped progressing.  Getting the basics of Korean down wasn’t too bad, but advancing beyond that is exceptionally difficult without devoting a lot of time to studying and practice.  Now, I have been about 14 months in Korea and my Korean is still more or less where it was 6 months ago, and now I’m felling embarrassed by my lack of ability with the language.  Korean people have never said anything, nor do I think they ever would say anything to me about this, but I feel guilty about not knowing more.  I also feel guilty that if someone wants to communicate with me, it must be them speaking English.  I am uncomfortable admitting how long I have been here, when an introductory conversation that begins in Korean must quickly change to English because of me.

A theme for me in my reflections and blogs about being in Korea has been how I change a progress as I’m longer and longer in the country.  This new development is kind of interesting.  There are all sorts of rationales why I shouldn’t be worried about speaking Korean and having conversations with Korean in English.  After I leave this country, really, am I ever going to need to be able to speak Korean again?  Koreans have been studying English formally since 3rd grade.  I’ve been studying lackadaisically for about a year.  Still, I think that Korean people will think I have a lack of respect for the country or something, since I haven’t learned the language.

And the thing is I could learn it if I wanted to.  I could sign up for classes, go to language exchanges, find a tutor, study daily.  Yet, I choose not to do any of these things.  I guess this goes to show me where my priorities are.

Teaching and living abroad obviously changes a person.  I think I’ve now been here long enough to find out some of the deeper ways in which these changes occur.  Not every change has to do with ‘broadening the mind’ and ‘cultural understanding.’  Some changes are just things you find within yourself from living in a very different and sometimes very difficult situation.  I think now I am more cognizant of how perceptions and reality of ‘foreigners’ sometimes don’t line up.  I think I have a better idea of how I want to be perceived by Korean people or any people in whose country I am essentially a ‘guest.’  And I also think I’, realizing just how much effort I am comfortable with putting into maintaining such a perception.  All these are things that I would have never considered before Korea.

I guess that’s what it’s ‘like’ living in Korea.  In a way, it’s far less about Korea than it is about me.  This experience is not only helping me learn about another culture, but also helping me learn who I am in another culture.