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October 23, 2013

The Adventures of Augie March

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The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest…

Is this the great American novel? I hate tags like that or attempts to declare any work of art “the best.” I would certainly not proclaim it to be so about this novel, but there is a great deal about it worth discussing and admiring. There is not doubt that Bellow is an immensely gifted writer as quotes like that one prove. His command of the language is impressive (even imposing and intimidating) and his writing, dense. However, I am not convinced that this book is as significant as it seems to think it is.

I am not sure that Augie should be classified as a hero, either. In the end, there is not an overwhelming argument for him being a person that I find admirable, or even memorable. His good and bad qualities seem to balance out and there does seem to be an everyman struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, but there is also very little growth in his morality and a very small amount of improvement in his decision making. Perhaps that is the key lesson in the book and Augie’s nature (“…everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it.”) is to do just that and somehow implicate the reader in his struggles.

As for the promising start of the book, I found some of the later chapters lazy and unfocused. New characters (like Robey, Mintouchian, and the sailor Bateshaw) seemed to pop up exclusively for Bellow to spout further diatribes that could not be otherwise folded into the overall narrative. I was reminded of a similar tactic used by Ayn Rand, except she tends to do it over entire 1000-page novels. The characters had no real relevance in the plot or story other than to serve as a way for the author to squeeze in more pompous, rambling philosophy. I also expected Bateshaw had actually blow up the ship with one of his experiments and that this accounted for his bizarre behavior and demeanor towards Augie, but this proved to be fruitless.

Don’t get me wrong. Parts of this novel were quite entertaining and illuminating to be sure. Particularly his description of each character, no matter how insignificatn and lines like:

“Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing,” he says. “That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.

Yet, somehow I still feel cheated as a reader. It seems to me as if an author of Bellows’ talents and experience should be able to intertwine themes and story in a way that does not come off as clumsy, inserted, and as ham-handed as they do in the second half of the story.

Ultimately, rather than complain about what this book isn’t, I will focus on what is attempting to communicate. I think Augie philosophy on the axial lines of life are what will resonate with me the most:

I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!

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September 22, 2013

The Geography of Thought

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The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why

by Richard E. Nisbett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

 

While this book certainly sheds a lot of light on the different approaches in the thinking of Easterners and Westerners (and the origins of both), that does not necessarily add up to an enjoyable or engaging read. This book comes off a bit like a graduate thesis and certainly has done the homework to back everything up.

Having lived in South Korea for the last two years, I have often wondered about (and even laughed out loud at) the subtle cultural differences in my day-to-day life here that touch many aspects of life. What has up until now seemed to me like a case of inconsiderate behavior, can now be more easily explained and understood in the context of Eastern thought as outlined early on in this book. I have often times referred to Koreans as completely UN-considerate (sic) as a whole while at the same time being polite (often to a fault) on an individual or professional basis.

For example, my ability to enter or exit elevators, escalators, and public transportation easily is sublimated (i.e. trampled) for the greater good of everyone else to get on or off quickly and with little fanfare. What I have for so long perceived as a rude and thoughtless lack of common courtesy is actually a much larger perspective of societal harmony at work. Ironically, this is something I had always thought I wanted. Once I learned to literally go with the flow and not take the overall absence of any awareness of me as an individual, I began to not only release my anger and outrage, but I have been able to use their Eastern logic to my advantage moving forward. It is everyone for themselves, so if you are late for the elevator or too slow in grabbing a seat, too bad.

What the book does not address, however, and what I still cannot understand is the paradox that results when traditional Eastern philosophy clashes with South Korea’s extreme focus on appearance and the unabashed vanity that results from it. Traditional appearances masked by rampant plastic surgery, excessive make-up, and all-out worship of brand-name fashions seem to directly contradict Eastern logic and instead embrace the Greek-based idea of agency or individuality. I also have likened it to an entire country of purebreds that sadly want to remove distinctive traces of their genetic heritage and in fact be mutts modeled after the unattainable ideal of Western beauty.

My line of thought before reading this book was a desire to understand what real difference appearance makes if you are all simply cogs in the machine, forever linked to your part in society? Why is individual attractiveness important when Asians do not view people out of the context of the particular role they happen to be in? It seems to me now it is actually the result of a desire to not stand out and therefore going to drastic lengths to NOT be different from anyone else.

I have also felt that South Korea as a country suffers from a massive inferiority complex and that chip lives largest on the shoulders of the post-war generation. Given the tumultuous history of the peninsula, this is understandable, and may have been the driving force behind the amazing success of their economy since then. However, the second-class status of women in this society and the don’t ask-don’t tell taboo and double standards of sexuality and prostitution, makes the generalizations of this book all the more confusing.

What’s even more interesting is that neither philosophy seems to have led to a society filled with happy and contented citizens. Koreans seem work very hard to live lives centered on the good of the family. While overall, Korea does seem to be harmonious as a society, most of my co-workers seem to dread time spent with their family and truly resent the expectations that erase their individual desires and freedom. Most Salary Men (life-long corporate employees) and people I encounter walk around like tortured mindless zombies, incapable of even imagining an escape from their sad destinies.

Westerners on the other hand maintain relationships with their families in relation to their status as free thinking and self-motivated individuals. As a result, American society is in the final stages of a massive collapse as a result of greed, corruption, and unchecked selfishness. Depression, health issues, obesity, and massive consumer debt are all the direct result of the failure to think of the good of the whole versus the rights and perspective of the individual.

Ultimately, I came away with the feeling that both sides have something to learn from each other, especially with regard to what some would call “common sense.” It turns out that depending on how you were raised and where you are from, this term can mean two completely different things, and that explains why my particular version of it is always in short supply while traveling throughout Asia. It also explains why now I will have a whole new definition of it should I ever return to the United States.

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September 20, 2013

Jagalchi Fish Market

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Sometimes the best part about living in Korea and being centrally located in Daejeon is the easy freedom and simplicity of booking a train ticket to quickly take you someplace new or different. It is much like I imagine living in Europe somewhere and having that mythical and romantic-sounding creation, the “Eurail Pass.”

There is not necessarily a danger in having a preconceived notion about how such a thing would work or how it would make you feel to travel by rail throughout Europe, but I am learning that it is positive and healthy to have goals and ambitions. Having expectations, however, with regards to traveling, reading, or just plain living, is the wrong way to experience life.

Having again run out of books and somewhat bored with too many recent trips to Seoul, I decided it had been too long since I had returned to one of my favorite parts of South Korea, the magical port city of Busan. Not only is it home to beautiful beaches and a great second-hand bookstore (Fully Booked), it also has an amazing fish market that I have strangely failed to visit. Cheymus and Olivia agreed to look in on foster kitty, Bean, and I found a terrific guesthouse near (literally on top of) Jagalchi Fish Market, Korea’s largest seafood market.


A rare KTX derailment in Daegu pushed my trip back by a week and it was certainly strange to see delayed arrival times on the big board at Daejeon Station for the first time. Perhaps this was an omen to postpone the trip, which I actually was happy to do. All of Korea was thrown into gridlock by the disruption to the normally punctual and efficient Korail system. Taking a bus was an option, but as I have previously mentioned, flexibility is the traveler’s best friend. It also underlines the expectations versus reality debate.Jagalchi Map

Jagalchi Fish Market, in the neighborhood of Nampo-dong in Jung-gu and Chungmu-dong, turns out to be an amazing feast for the senses, as well as the palate.  What’s even more amazing is that, when viewed on a map, the market seems to be located next to a piece land (Yeongdo-gu) that looks remarkably like a real fish!?  The outdoor vendors selling live, freshly caught, or frozen varieties, are all lined up in stalls that seem to go on forever, as are the adjoining restaurants with fish tanks and friendly “barkers” or “Jagalchi Ajummas,” ‘ajumma’ meaning middle-aged or married women, encouraging you to choose their offerings or step into their shops.

Not only is this a wonderful way to look into the past at a simpler time in Korea, it is essentially a giant free aquarium full of rare, unusual, and apparently edible bounties from the neighboring sea. It was only later that I learned that most of Korea is currently avoiding seafood due to increased fears of radioactive contamination stemming from the Japan tsunami, and subsequent nuclear plant meltdown at Fukushima.

Perhaps it was best that I didn’t know this in advance as it most certainly would have prevented me from enjoying two of the best fried fish meals I have ever had (sorry Cape Cod). It might also explain why some of the vendors were reluctant to appear in my photos or attempts to shoot an Instagram video of the non-stop action. As I have since learned, most are fearful of foreigners reporting negatively on the market (and their livelihood), despite a nationwide ban on seafood from Japan, which has met with repeated requests from Tokyo to lift the embargo.

What made the weekend stay even more enjoyable was a thoroughly wonderful stay at Terra Guest House. Terra, formerly Korea Guest House Jagalchi, is conveniently located directly above the indoor portion of the market in a newer building. Not only is it one of the biggest and most well appointed hostels I have stayed at here in Korea, it boasts one of the most beautiful views of the harbor and neighborhoods surrounding the market district. I booked a stay there the week before which was convenientlyt refunded due to the train accident, so I returned the following week with just a vague idea of its true proximity to the market. Using Google Maps once I arrived in the area, I was amazed to find it in the very same building I was strolling through. It was sort of like that scene in Aliens when Bill Paxton’s character is having trouble reading all the blips on his tracker.

Stunned and amazed at my good fortune, I went up  and checked-in after personally thanking the staff for their understanding about my previous reservation. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my favorite online reservation source, Agoda.com, does not typically offer refunds or reservation alterations, but I have found their customer service extremely helpful and responsive to assist with mix-ups and/or “acts of God,” like the train accident.  Furthermore, the staff at Terra also gave me a room at an even lower price for my troubles and was thoroughly kind and helpful for the duration of my stay.

Terra is also remarkably affordable despite its central location (just a few stops from Busan Station on the #1 Orange line) and premium amenities, including a complimentary breakfast (toast, coffee, juice, and cereal) and the rooftop view from the patio/deck that is a great way to take in the harbor any time of day or night. Someone will have to explain the whole “Continental Breakfast” thing to me sometime. What continent is it exactly that this breakfast originated? There is also a nice bathroom and separate huge shower area. The lounge is also big and comfortable with beer and coffee drinks available throughout the day (as well as a cute house kitty).  The whole place has free Wi-Fi and was not only relaxing, but also spotlessly clean and thoroughly modern. I cannot recommend this guesthouse enough and will look forward to staying there again on my next visit.

Now, about this matter of expectations versus reality…I guess I will save that for a separate post and let your mind wander a bit about it until then.

Busan Harbor from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

September 12, 2013

The Sound and the Fury

Readability006The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Add this book to my quickly growing list of books and authors that are highly regarded yet deeply disappointing to actually read. I understand that it was different for its time and it is supposed to be a little challenging. I really don’t mind spending time with a book that is both if it makes sense in even the most remote possible way. Rambling sentences, no punctuation, no discernible narrative, the endless introduction of new characters without establishing any existing ones, a lack of an even vaguely understandable time structure…these are all things that I as an English teacher deduct points for.

It all feels to me that over time everyone has simply agreed to heap critical praise and adoration upon this novel rather than try to explain it or actually admit that they hate it or don’t even begin to understand it. For me reading is about enjoying my free time by being taken somewhere else with characters and stories that are engaging or teach me something. I want to spend my limited amount of time on Earth using the amazing gift that is the written word by reading books that inspire me with the beauty of a well constructed sentence or a clearly conveyed thought or idea.

This book shows signs of being able to do that but instead ultimately comes off as lazy, unfocused, and experimental for its own sake. I am so glad my high school teachers didn’t make us try to endure this mess. I guess it is not for everyone and that I should begin reading any book without any preconceived notions about what it is, what others think about it, or what I should expect when reading it. That is not fair when taking in any work of art for the first time.

That being said, I am not even sure why I write reviews like this at all. I feel a little like I am hoping Faulkner himself somehow reads THIS REVIEW and feels bad about short-changing me as a hungry and patient reader. Perhaps I want someone else out there to tell me why I am wrong. However, when I am spending my precious time and money to do something I dearly love, don’t I have the right to get what I want out of the experience? After struggling through half the book, isn’t it my obligation as a consumer to put it down, bang out a grumpy summation and move on to something that makes me feel the way I want to?

Readability003After mulling this over a while, I decided to consult an expert. I recently asked Rebecca Foster, a prolific reviewer on many sites, including Goodreads and Bookkholic, about her views on the subject of literary criticism, pure reading, how best to approach finding and reading a new book, and when to walk away. Ms. Foster currently reads and reviews a staggering 250 books a year. I explained that since I moved to Korea I have replaced hours of TV viewing with hours having my nose buried in books instead. I went on to mention that my current dilemma (or challenge) with reading (and life in general) involves managing expectations versus reality. I am learning to live my life and travel with an open mind, yet I find it hard to do the same when looking for my next good read.

I love that so much information, background, and reviews exist at the touch of a finger, but I fear this is making it difficult for me to enjoy a book on its own terms and without preconceptions. Recommendations, awards, and “best-of” lists, like the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels, are also invaluable to me when determining what to add to my “Want To Read” list. Once I arrived overseas, I started out determined to read each book front-to-back to give it a fair chance to move me somehow. Since then, I have modified this to at least 100 pages. I decided life is too short to spend it reading bad literature. Ultimately, my real questions to Ms. Foster were these:

How do you approach a new book? When do you feel it is acceptable to put a book down and walk away when it isn’t engaging you? How do you read and review so many books without being influenced by the opinion of others?”

Her response was a breath of fresh air and a truly sensible perspective:

“Hi Matthew,

I certainly rely heavily on newspaper reviews, prize shortlists, and personal recommendations (including via Goodreads) to find new books to read. But, of course, this is all a subjective game – and even books with rave reviews that get onto the bestseller lists can be huge disappointments.

The best advice I’ve heard on how much of a chance to give to a book is from Nancy Pearl, who came up with the “Rule of 50″: give it 50 pages to grab you; or, if you’re older than 50, subtract your age from 100 and that will be the number of pages you should try. To be honest, though, I’m usually clear on whether a book will be my cup of tea within the first 20-30 pages. I wouldn’t want to waste any more time on a book I won’t eventually at least like, if not love. I mused on this and other things in an article about “readability.”

If I think I’m interested in a book, what I might do is skim some newspaper reviews and get a general idea of what people on Goodreads have thought of it, but I won’t read any details – certainly not any spoilers. Only after I’ve read the book will I compare my opinion with the critics’ in any depth.

In terms of where to start with a new author, I have a few different theories! I asked a number of friends whether they would read a) an author’s first book, b) an author’s most famous or bestselling work, c) their latest book, or d) whatever comes to hand. Most people seemed to go with b), or would take a friend’s recommendation of which book to start with. I published a general summary of the results here – and I’d be interested to hear what you think too!

All the best, Rebecca”

Readability002The article on “readability” is highly insightful and well written. I can now feel more comfortable moving on from a book that is not engaging or entertaining me. The “Rule of 50″ is half of what I have been practicing on my own, but perhaps a more patient approach overall is equally advisable, especially after doing your research first.

I too am constantly looking for that drug-like feeling or “ecstatic absorption” mentioned in the article that only a book can provide, so there is no shame in putting down a book and moving on to something else. Just as one book will open new doors and lead logically to the next one, sometimes the decision to move on is simply a matter of “not now” rather than “no.”

I think all of the ideas in the article on “Where to Start with a New Author?” actually have a lot of merit. Flexibility and open-mindedness seem to be the best attitudes for me rather than hard and fast rules. I am inclined to favor the serendipity (or synchronicity) approach recently as sometimes terrific books simply have a way of finding their readers at just the right time (or in the best sequence).

This can also be said in music about a good song or album, too. First novels and debut albums have a lot in common with respect to the fact that it actually took the author (or artist) their whole life to come up with the first one, whereas the sophomore effort may only take a year or two to create. The Doors put out all (six) of their studio albums over just four short years. However, some of my favorite artists are the ones that have challenged themselves to grow and change over the course of their artistic lifespan.

Readability004The band Rush remarked in their 2010 biopic, Beyond the Lighted Stage, about the different periods in their long career and say that (essentially) the fans that have sustained them the longest are the ones that are just as curious about their new directions and experiments as the band members themselves. I started listening to them right in the middle of their career with Signals and then worked my way back through their catalog and then forward with each new release.

I think you can do this with an author or genre, too. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as to start somewhere. Just as what is popular music-wise is rarely synonymous with what is good (I am talking to you, Justin Bieber), the best-seller list can be avoided altogether in favor of the “spirit of perversity” mentioned by Ms. Foster and following that less-travelled road can prove to be so much more memorable and all the more rewarding. Thank you, Rebecca, for putting me back on the good foot!

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September 1, 2013

Summer Break Pt.2: Kyoto

Day4Japan345The nice feature in splitting this trip into two blog entries (aside from claiming to already be halfway done) is that, in visiting two major and historic cities, it was almost like having two uniquely different and separate vacations. One of the most memorable parts was certainly the ride linking the two via the Shinkansen Super Express high-speed train while passing right by Mt. Fuji.

On the 2-hour journey I was able to read a terrific article Kim and Gary printed out from GQ about Kim Jong-Il’s personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. The article, Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi, describes the bizarre world of the late North Korean ruler from the inside from a rare survivor, and in fascinating detail.

If my time on the Korean peninsula has taught me anything about the behavior of the people who live here, it is that if it is strange, unbelievable, and seemingly defies all logic, it is probably going on somewhere on either side of the 38th parallel at any given time. A new book I recently picked up for a friend called “The Geography of Thought” will hopefully help explain why some of what Westerners call “common sense” is not at all common throughout Asia. The rest of the activity to the North, however, can certainly be attributed to the cult of personality maxim enumerated so well by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The rest of the quote, “Great men are almost always bad men,” is interesting, too, and is perhaps a good topic to address in another post entirely.Day4Japan307a

The train ride to Kyoto, coupled with a hot black coffee and salmon ciabatta breakfast sandwich from the amazing gourmet food market inside Tokyo Station, were the perfect way to relax a bit, take in some of the countryside, and go over the itinerary Gary put together for my two days in the former imperial capital of Japan. Train tickets in Japan are quite expensive compared to Korea and the Shinkansen is (surprisingly) not as fast as the 300 km/h KTX. However, the entire system seems to run nation-wide with a pride and on-time precision that is nothing short of amazing.

The few sites of note on my list for Kyoto included a visit to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), a stroll down the nearby Philosopher’sPath, and a stop in the famous Geisha district in Gion along Hanami-koji Street. This advanced scouting from Gary proved to be an invaluable lesson on the value of proper planning and research. I realized on this trip that you can only see so many shrines, temples, and pagodas before they all start to look alike. While at Kyoto Station I also realized that it is sometimes perfectly acceptable to be a tourist and take advantage of help from the experts.  Having an advisor at the tourism information center (inside the Kyoto train station) map out the buses and best routes to take, as well as having her help me find the exact location of my hotel, proved to be well worth it. The 10 minutes I spent there saved me countless hours of searching and embarrassed indecision and really set me off to explore the city with the confidence of a seasoned traveler.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

The rest of my time in Kyoto was amazing and unforgettable. While still a relatively large city, the flow, feel, and history of the area made for a nice contrast to my time in Tokyo. The more touristy first day in Kyoto was filled with a great blend of history, religion, and architecture, yet it provided me with yet another invaluable lesson in traveling abroad; leave blank spaces in your itinerary! It is easy to get caught up in all the things you want (or feel compelled) to see from all the tour books and travel shows. However, it is also important to remember that you are on vacation, and that a quiet afternoon reading a book or writing a postcard over coffee can be far more enjoyable than repeating the same busy routine day after day. In fact, isn’t that why we go on vacations?

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

This quote has popped up a lot in my discussions recently and I didn’t realize that it can actually be attributed to Woody Allen. I am in no way suggesting going on a big trip and having no plans at all. I merely feel that my most recent trips have been far more enjoyable because I was able to blend a bit planning and preparation with a flexible and open-minded attitude that allowed for improvisation, spontaneity, and time spent simply “being.” The few hours I spent at a (Seattle-based) Kyoto coffee shop gave me a great chance to truly relax and reflect of my gratitude and to focus on present moment awareness. The feeling I had watching the local people come and go and just taking it all in has proved to be the lasting memory of the whole trip. Moving to Korea was a huge decision and visiting Japan had always been a lifelong dream. Taking the time to slow down and just enjoy the reality of it all was not only an important step the process, but is in actuality a very simple key to a more fulfilling life.

Another part of the trip that proved to be fun was the decision to stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a “Ryokan.” Having saved quite a bit of money staying with friends in Tokyo for two nights, I decided to spend a little bit extra than I normally would have to stay experience the flip-side to my capsule hotel experience. Again using Agoda, I was able to find a room at a nice inn near Kyoto Station for a little less than $100. The only downside to using this site has been that in order to get the low listed prices, you have to agree to non-refundable reservations. While it can be helpful in determining the overall vacancies of any particular destination and can spare you getting shut out, the trade-off is giving up some of the above-mentioned flexibility for price. The lodging experience ultimately proved to be highly unique, albeit one that put my patience and positive vacation vibe to the test. Day4Japan414

The grounds, room, and other facilities were immaculate in every way  and every detail was thoughtfully considered. Having traditional Japanese tea after another great scrub and soak, on the bedding of the floor of my room, while dressed in the provided Yakata robe, was an immersive cultural experience well worth the extra cost of the room.

However, perhaps beyond the control of the staff, was an emergency, late-night road construction going on until 3 am right outside my window. After a few trips down to the front dest to inquire (complain) about all the noise, I finally turned to my Lonely Planet phrase book and found the Japanese word for refund, which is “haraimodoshi,” (払い戻し). Not only did this clearly outline my frustration and disappointment at the digging activity ruining my otherwise peaceful stay, it quickly got the construction halted once and for all. The following morning at checkout, the entire staff was extremely nervous and apologetic as they read to me a prepared (add sweetly rehearsed) statement in English explaining that my booking would be cancelled through Agoda and the room charges reversed.  Given the fact that my phrase book was purchased (used) in Seoul for less than 5 bucks, it more than paid for itself in just one usage – and for just one word!

The remainder of the trip was pleasant, relaxing, and the perfect compliment to the vibrant energy and overwhelming throngs of humanity everywhere you go in Tokyo. I caught one last train direct from Kyoto Station (which itself could be explored for hours alone) to Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka. In the future I would probably arrange to both arrive and depart from here instead and avoid the customs and immigration lines and congestion at Tokyo Narita (NRT). While I left blistered, sun-roasted, and exhausted, I did come in well under budget and can’t remember a more enjoyable,  fascinating, and transformative vacation.

While the idea for the Rock Traveler goes back to my grad school days at Antioch back in the late 90′s, I feel in many ways my identity as a traveler, writer, and true world citizen was born, fully-formed during five amazing days in the land of the rising sun.  どうもありがとう  - Dōmo arigatō

 

Summer Break: Japan from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

August 20, 2013

Summer Break Pt.1: Tokyo

Day2Japan208So, my five-day Summer vacation to anywhere was seriously in danger of not happening after I lost my Passport somewhere on Jeju Island. Fortunately, I discovered the embarrassing travel faux pas (or potentially infuriating administrative nightmare) early enough to sort it out with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul before break time. Strangely, it seems that replacing this important piece of overseas identification is relatively smooth and painless compared to the ridiculous bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through to get my Korean work visa. Once I received it, I began using my 3 favorite online travel tools; Kayak, Agoda, and TripAdvisor, to book my next adventure with a bit of a different strategy. While I did book a hotel for the first night make some loose arrangements after doing my research, I decided to leave a lot of the trip open-ended, allowing for  improvisation, spontaneity, and an ultimately more relaxing, free-flowing adventure.

I had been watching airfare prices for six weeks prior to my trip and decided the best use of my time and money would be on the islands of Japan. Not only were flights to Tokyo really cheap compared to Thailand and the Philippines, there are also a variety of other ways to return back to Korea, including the possibility of going home via ferry boat to Busan. Once I reconnected with old friends Gary and Kim Stollar (both currently living and working in Tokyo) my decision was made. Setting up roaming on your phone is very easy for a trip like this, too, as most major Korean carriers have a kiosk inside Incheon airport for international travelers to sort this out before departure. There are also plenty of currency exchange centers, which was a good idea for this trip, as Japan is still primarily cash-based.

The flight to Tokyo from Seoul was really inexpensive and took just a little over two hours on Air Asia. This made the first day of my trip seem like it would be just a quick hop over the East Sea (NO ONE in Korea will call it the “Sea of Japan”) and then on to fresh sushi and adventure. However, including my cheap and convenient airport limo (read: coach bus) ride to Incheon airport (ICN), and ticketing; plus customs and security checks on both ends, the day still turned out to be primarily an exhausting day of travel and standing in queue.

Rock Traveler Tip: Be sure to always fly internationally with a pen handy so you can complete the silly immigration forms in-flight. I had also temporarily photographed my Passport and ID for emergencies and to make this necessary paperwork a little easier.

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Once I got settled at Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT) and decided how to best get downtown. Rather than take the cheaper option, a similar airport shuttle bus, I chose instead to purchase tickets on the Narita Express (N’EX train) with departures straight to Tokyo Station. At a little over ¥2940 ($30 U.S.), the N’EX was smooth,fast, clean, and super cool. I spent the entire 90 minute (50 km) rain-soaked ride jamming to Radiohead with a goofy “I am really in Japan!” smile on my face made from a mix of both excitement, disbelief, and a sense of accomplishment. This smile quickly morphed into an astonished glaze of confusion (and amazement) at the size and activity level in and around Tokyo Station. This dizzying hub of multiple floors with dozens of rail lines all converging in one massive hive of activity took a while to fully process.

Once I got my bearings, it was fortunately only one stop to my hotel in Nihonbashi.  I have wanted to stay at a “Capsule Hotel” ever since Kramer joked about them on a hilarious Seinfeld episode (“The Checks” – Season 8). Kramer had his three Japanese visitors sleeping overnight in the “Farbman” chest of drawers with little complaint until the following morning. The hotel I booked in advance, Capsule Value Kanda Tokyo, was the perfect place for me to stay on my first night in Tokyo to simulate the experience. It was clean, inexpensive, and, as I mentioned, very close to Tokyo Station. The small, retro-futuristic capsule room was surprisingly comfortable and in no way claustrophobic. It was equipped with a built-in small (SONY) TV and a radio/alarm clock as well. You were also given a locker for your shoes in the entrance and a bigger locker for your gear. Thankfully, I opted to bring along just one, under-stuffed backpack, but larger suitcases could be stored in the computer lounge if necessary. Many travelers used this option overnight and used simple locks to secure their gear, which I made a mental note of as a fresh tip for next time. Traveling simple and light on this trip turned out to be a refreshing change, as well as a wise travel choice overall. Thanks Rick Steves!

(Please click on an image below to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

The bathroom/toilet area on my floor was clean and comfortably-sized and the showers and bath area downstairs were Japanese-style with a stand-up western shower available, too. I learned later on my trip exactly how to use this type of bathing set-up and had a much better experience as a result. Essentially a short rinse to clean off and short soak to warm up first are followed with a longer seated scrub down, shave, shampoo, etc. Then, an even longer and more warming soak in the tub finish off the refreshing cleanse. I highly recommend this type of hotel and bath configuration for the unique experience and overall value for your money. My capsule for the night was at about ¥3400 ($34.00) and was well worth it. The only downfall was the moderate noise levels of guests leaving early in the morning. There is no real way to block out sound, as the capsule only comes with a dark (70′s-style) rolling blind that pulls down once you are “encapsulated.” If you want absolute quiet and privacy or room to spread out, this is not the place for you. I recommend bringing a night mask and earplugs as a general travel rule, just in case, as this would have been the perfect place to use them.

After the tiring travel-filled day, I had very little energy despite my strong desire to see and explore more of Japan. Once I had a quick shower (minus the soak) and got over the nerd-like wow-factor of my hotel choice, I was refreshed and ventured out into the surrounding neighborhood to search for a simple yet filling dinner. I started with a small piece of barbecued eel on rice with a light broth on the side. This traditional Japanese dish (I learned later) is a summertime staple and was just the ticket at ¥500. Day1Japan037Still hungry and curious to try something else new, I found a nice, inexpensive soba noodle restaurant  on the other side of the street to tuck into as the rains returned.

This was my first experience with the common Japanese method of ordering; which is though a large vending-machine style ordering system at the entrance before bellying up to the bar. The terrific, light, and filling noodles were topped with various fresh vegetables and served with a side of cold broth for dipping and happy (loud) slurping. Watching the noodles be cooked in the open-style kitchen was the perfect way to end the day and complete my indoctrination to Asian travel that, after two years in Korea, is vaguely familiar yet altogether distinctively different.

I purchased a cheap umbrella at a 7/11 (Japan amazingly has Lawson’s, too!?) to make it back to the hotel safely and added another mental note about stowing a travel-sized umbrella in my gear for future trips. I guess in my excitement and romantic imaginings of traveling in Japan, planning for rain unfortunately never once entered into the picture. Back safely inside my capsule, I tucked into some Japanese anime and a terrific book I picked up randomly from Alice at Coffee Nori; Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy. Goodnight, Tokyo!

The next day I woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the few touristy items that were on my list. In addition to using online sources, I had purchased a used guidebook on Tokyo and a used Japaense phrasebook in Seoul. Both turned out to be fairly accurate, informative, and highly useful. First up was finding the Hachikō statue for my cousin, Chelli (conveniently located at the Hachikō Exit) at Shibuya Station, the famous bustling crossing that was also on my list. Hachikō is a dog famous for his loyalty and his story has been made into several movies. This led to a nice tour of the area including the huge Yoyogi Park and to visit to Meiji Shrine. Also on my list was to find a gallery in the the Spiral Building which was featuring a photo installation by one of my favorite musicians, David Sylvian. Sylvian was coincidentally the front-man and co-founder of the band Japan before embarking on a varied and impressive solo career, which now also includes photography.

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Having these little missions of destinations to find made for an exciting day of hiking and allowed me to see a lot of street life and neighborhoods I might have missed otherwise. All of this was possible without the dreaded stigma of being a “tourist”, despite my lunch at McDonald’s. Having worked at one in High School, I could not fight my curiousity, I guess. Now, I know once and for all that McDonald’s is the same, for better or worse, just about everywhere. I did meet some wonderful Korean ladies living in Japan there, so it was not a total loss.

Once I found the Spiral in the Minato area of Tokyo after lunch, I was glad I did. Not only was I treated to the terrific Sylvian photo exhibition entitled “Abandon/Hope” at no charge, but I was able to shop and explore the terrific cafe there as well as the amazing gift shop on the second floor before meeting Kim and Gary. Since it is not only common courtesy to arrive at a friend’s house with a gift, it is the height of proper Japanese custom. The gift shop at the Spiral proved to be the perfect place to pick up some wonderful tea just in the nick of time.

After meeting Gary and Kim near Tokyo Station we had a chance to catch up on the 20 years since seeing each other last. I attended their wedding in 1993 back at  the Faculty Club on the Ohio State campus, and there was a lot that had happened since then to talk about! They also turned me on to a terrific bookstore in the neighborhood called Maruzen before taking me out to the BEST sushi dinner I have ever had. I am not sure if it was just the excitement of finally having fresh sushi IN JAPAN, the terrific company and conversation, or the fact that it was just really good tuna, but it was a wonderful dinner and will perhaps ruin me for good sushi from now on.

Day three began with high hopes and lots more rain. It was here that I was thankful for the freedom to adjust my schedule a bit, and for the advice and guidance of Gary having already visited my next destination to the southwest, Kyoto. After booking my return flight to Korea from Osaka to Busan online and setting up lodging in a tradional Japanese inn, called a Ryokan, I was up for anything. I also learned at this time that sometimes it is best to book airfare directly from the airline’s website, or better yet, over the phone. This helped me avoid the confusion a third-party site like Kayak can have processing a Korean credit card (in Japan) with an American passport. Keeping things simple, we realized (with the help of lots of coffee) that we missed the early morning frenzy at the Tsukiji Fish Market, and decided on another plan. Keeping things simple, Gary suggested we buy my high-speed train tickets to Kyoto in person and a nice ramen noodle lunch in the same building would follow nicely. Day3Japan244

In the basement of Tokyo Station, the famous noodle street of Sapporo has been recreated with lots of variations of  this dish that actually has its origins in China. The Japanese noodle experience is generally one of three types of noodles; udon, soba, and ramen. Having had the first, soba noodles, already and saving udon for Kyoto, I was curious to see how ramen noodles in Japan differed from my college dietary mainstay. The result (like my sushi dinner) was a culinary epiphany, as what most westerners know (and love) as ramen noodles bear little resemblance to the fresh and hearty dish Gary and I enjoyed. Covered with bean sprouts and soaked in a hearty, spicy, almost gravy-like broth, my memories of fove “Maruchan Ramen” packs for a dollar were quickly put to shame.

Fully stuffed and rather cheaply I might add, we decided to check out the electronics districtcalled Akihabara, which for some reason translates to “Field of Autumn Leaves”. Along with a short tour of some other temples and pagodas in the area, we finished this more casual travel day with a stop at a new restaurant near Gary and Kim’s apartment. Kim’s employer, Boeing, put them up in a sprawling penthouse suite in at Atago Green Hills Forest Tower. This amazingly quiet neighborhood is within walking distance of Onarimon Station on the Toei Mita Line, Kamiyacho Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, and Toranomon Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. For dinner we had a terrific combination of Yakitori, or grilled chicken, which was done to perfection at their favorite new spot, a slightly upscale joint right around the corner from their building.

Fully exhausted, sore, and well-prepared for my upcoming stay in Kyoto, I retired early after dinner feeling I had sampled quite a good bit of Tokyo culturally and food-wise and confident that some things would just have to wait for a return trip. Gary had mapped-out a great game plan for my arrival in Kyoto and outlined his “must-sees” there, which proved to be just the right blend of history, sightseeing, and relaxing comfort I needed. The size, cost, and density of Tokyo could be overwhelming for any experienced traveler let alone a first-timer like me, so I was happy to have a good night’s rest ahead of me and thrilled to be booked for an early trip to Kyoto in the morning on the Shinkansen Super Express to let it all sink in.

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Please click here to read more about my stay in Kyoto in Pt.2.

July 9, 2013

Take Two

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This essay was written as a contributing article for Don Suh and HiWorld Recruiting for the launch of their their new website. 

While coming up quickly on the end of my second one-year contract teaching English in South Korea I realized this might be the perfect time to recount the whole experience so far and summarize my experiences over the last 24 months not only for posterity, but for anyone else out there considering moving abroad to teach English. My time in Daejeon has really gone by quickly, but in looking back over pictures from when I first arrived, I certainly feel I have come a long way and that, overall, the experience has not only been mostly positive, but also life-altering.

My decision to come to South Korea and teach English began back in the long, cold winter of 2011. Gas prices were outrageous and the economy had completely tanked. So had the employment market. I was working 3 jobs at the time and still could not really make ends meet. After a long heart-to-heart with my mother over dinner, I asked for her advice and guidance. I was 42 with a good education and a wide range of employment experiences. However, I had no savings, no real investments, and had never really been anywhere exciting. I was substitute teaching part-time at two Career and Technical high schools, working as a Specialist at the Apple Retail store at Easton 30 hours a week, and still working as a mobile DJ with a full calender of bookings for the upcoming wedding season. After my mother and I failed to come up with a logical solution that didn’t involve my borrowing money from her, I retreated with my old friend Patrick to the Donley family hunting cabin for some quiet reading, soul searching, and some more good advice.

The idea to move overseas was always simmering on the back burner since Pat himself returned from his two-year stay in Vietnam in the late 90′s. The prospect, however, never really got any serious consideration from me until some fortuitous events occurred to show me a new path. First, Pat introduced me to a terrific book by Rolf Potts called Vagabonding. The book, subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was a huge inspiration for me in the reality (and necessity) of a very different lifestyle than the one I was leading at the time. The toll of having three jobs and still barely surviving was no longer a viable option and, in fact, had never really been a good one to begin with. The writings and ideas of Simon Black and his website, www.sovereignman.com, also helped me to really understand the practical necessity of diversifying my finances, my opportunities, as well as my attitude about how I actually intended to survive in the future.

After over 250 gigs as a DJ in seven years (some 200 of those events were wedding receptions), I decided to look at the possibility of a radically different path and one that did not include “The Electric Slide.” Potts’ book outlines the simplicity and rewards of life abroad, as well as specific practical advice in harnessing my independent spirit and desire to travel to create a completely new lifestyle for myself. After opening up to the idea, I began to float a variety of options around to selected co-workers at the Apple store. I was soon informed that back-of-house guru, Mike, had completed a similar adventure in South Korea with terrific results, and so the scene was set for some vagabonding of my own. With Patrick’s encouragement and the support of my wonderful family and friends, the transformation and exodus into a prospective English teacher and future world traveler took a mere 7 months.

I quickly contacted Mike’s recruiter in Daejeon and began an online job search that became a daily obsession. The rest of my time was spent selling, scrapping, or donating some 75% of my worldly belongings in a cathartic, minimalistic process of having more through owning less. Once I stopped to really evaluate why I had so much “stuff” and why I was seemingly so attached to creating and maintaining a space for all of it, the spring cleaning of a lifetime was on and it just snowballed from there. Each trash run or drop-off at Goodwill also brought me a little closer to realizing my intention to live a life abroad that all fit into just 2 suitcases. After considering a few different offers and one brief false-start, I agreed to take a job in central Korea over the bustling capital of Seoul.

My goals upon arrival on the Korean peninsula were relatively simple. First, I wanted to see if teaching was a career path I wanted to pursue in earnest. Second, I wanted to jump-start my traveling adventures as Ontario, Canada, was the only place I had been outside the United States. Finally, I wanted to pay off any remaining credit cards and finally accumulate some real savings for the first time in my life.

After nearly 2 years in Korea, the experiment/adventure has turned into a way of life. Not only have I found a true passion for teaching, I feel I have been forever liberated from a lifestyle that was killing me not so softly. I have also said goodbye to an imaginary American ethos (“The American Dream”) that was really a pleasure to leave behind. The only real things that I miss are my mom’s cooking, good Mexican food, and sharing a laugh and a smile with my family and friends in person. The flip side here has been an experience that helped mature and refine many of my better attributes, while helping to jettison old and negative attitudes that were not working. All this has happened organically, while at the same time achieving all three of my objectives in a way I could never imagine.

After a long flight, high-speed train, and scary taxi ride to my new school, I was given a tour of the classrooms and of my semi-furnished apartment. My airfare here was paid for initially by me and then reimbursed through direct deposit in full once my Alien Registration Card was processed. The school was very clean, bright, and highly modern with computers, white boards, and nice digital projectors and speakers in each classroom. This was my first huge sigh of relief as the academy turned out to be much nicer than I expected. My apartment was also paid for and was to be the other positive indicator of the condition of my life for the next year. Thankfully, it too was also big, clean, modern, and quite well appointed. Apparently my recruiter and I had done pretty good for ourselves and the stage was set for a great experience.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

Teaching in South Korea can take on many forms, the most popular being in public schools, private academies, or in a university setting. While the requirements are slightly different for each and are changing every year, the basics are a native fluency in English, an undergraduate degree, and a clean background check. Some programs and schools require additional training or certification, but were not really required for my employment contract. My school is a private English academy (called a hagwon) with 2 locations in Daejeon. The main location is in Dunsan-dong near City Hall in the center of the city. The second, slightly smaller branch is in the suburbs 20 minutes away in an newer area called Noeun. My contract requires me to be there 40 hours a week from 1-10 p.m. on weekdays only. Students typically come to hagwons during the week after normal classes at their Korean schools finish. This can make for some long days for the students, but I have really grown to like the later hours and altered schedule. This leaves my mornings free for video calls back home and other activities; including lots of coffee, a gym membership, voracious reading, biking, and volunteering at 2Typically classes start around 3 p.m., so my first 2 hours in the office are for prep time and entering homework or grades. While a few of my classes are one hour in length, most are a quick 35-40 minutes. Students come in waves from younger to older throughout the day, so I start with 3rd and 4th graders and end up with middle school kids in the evening. The classes can be as small as 2-3 students and rarely go above 16-18 kids. Throughout the week I teach about 25 classes with a higher concentration of them being on Mondays and Fridays. This semester, I actually have NO classes on Tuesdays, but have to remain on site for what expats teaching here call “desk-warming”. This free time allows me the opportunity to read extensively, make travel arrangements, and to update my travel journal with articles like this.

As I mentioned, my teaching tenure back home was limited to substitute work with high school students, mostly Juniors and Seniors, so I had no real experience with young kids. Once the excitement of leaving the U.S. wore off and the newness of my surroundings sunk in, I began to really be nervous about how exactly I would handle my new position and how they would, in turn, accept me. My fears were pretty quickly put to rest during my first week teaching as the students were friendly, curious, and for the most part, highly intelligent and polite. Once I got the hang of in-class discipline (an evolving art form), I was much more confident as a teacher and far better off as an actual educator. As I often joke, it can’t be “Dead Poet’s Society” every day, but it is relatively easy and rewarding.

The coursework was all provided, including books and corresponding PowerPoint slides, as was some basic training and lots of terrific administrative support. In my second year, new textbooks were introduced and the native teaching staff came up with a suitable curriculum focusing on speaking for the younger kids and writing for the higher levels. While I do generally share a common office with some of the other teachers, I have had occasionally my own classroom, too, which was terrific. Typically, however, I go from class to class depending on my schedule and give the Korean teachers a break while covering my material with students on a weekly basis. Also, I now split my time between the 2 locations and take the subway to the suburban school 3 times a week.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

As for accomplishing my goals, it has been relatively easy to save money each month and send it back home to the states on the fairly standard terms of my arrangement. My expenses are minimal as health care is provided, food is abundant and cheap, and tipping is not a part of Asian culture. Public transportation is easily accessible, reliable, clean, and cheap, so the thought of owning a car again back in the states is a daunting prospect. I am responsible for my internet, gas, and apartment maintenance fees (including electric and garbage), which add up to about $150.00 per month. During my first year here I bought an older smart phone and paid about $30 per month with no contract. Recently I upgraded to a new Samsung Galaxy 3 (sorry Apple) as a small luxury and love everything about my new phone. It is twice as expensive as what I had but is super-fast, convenient, and fairly essential for translations, directions, and conversions. That being said, I can still send home roughly $1,000 per month. I also contribute $100 per month to my teacher’s pension, which my school matches. I can apply for this money back as a refund once I leave the country for good. My contract also includes one month’s severance at the end of each contract period and a return flight home. Any unused vacation time is also paid in cash. All in all, I have made out pretty well.

With regards to travel, the above mentioned liquidity and the ease of travel within Korea means that most weekends and holidays can be spent out exploring or traveling throughout the country. Seoul to the north and Busan in the south are easy to get to by bus or train for weekend getaways and I also visited Hong Kong for 3 days last Fall. I am planning a Summer break trip to Japan this month and then diving lessons in the Philippines over the winter holiday. I was also able to visit Jeju Island and bike around the entire province on holiday recently, as well. This part of my plan could be further extended if I am able to secure a university teaching position. I have discovered that I do indeed want to pursue a career in academia and that teaching at a higher level here might just be the perfect fit. The pay and benefits are roughly the same, but the vacation time is considerably more. Requirements for these jobs have just been completely overhauled, so be sure to do your homework if you wish to follow a similar path.

All things considered, my last 2 years here have been quite unforgettable and I highly recommend the experience to anyone looking to shake things up, travel a bit, and/or pursue a career in teaching. Korea (over Japan and China) seems to offer a nice balance of all the things ESL teachers are looking for; good working and living conditions, ease of travel, and an affordable lifestyle with the potential to save money or pay off debts. It is an interesting culture that can provide some basic challenges, but overall, most Koreans  have been friendly, gracious, supportive, and highly curious about me and the country I left behind. While I am not ready to return to the U.S. any time soon, I will have quite a few adventures to share when I return and an outlook on life that has been permanently changed for the good.

Check out HiWorld Recruiting on Facebook, too, for this and other articles about living and teaching abroad.

May 18, 2013

Seoul Searching

PatVisit019Last month I was thrilled to get a “human care package” from home in the form of childhood friend, Patrick Donley, visiting Korea for the first time. Pat was also a mule for a real care package of goodies from back home; including a wonderful Flannery O’Connor book and much-needed chocolate chip cookies from Aunt Margo!

Pat’s 20 days here perhaps went by too quickly for both of us, but we managed to squeeze in a lot of the best of what “The Land of Morning Calm” has to offer. As Patrick was in many ways the inspiration for my decision to move here, I wanted to not only show him why I have enjoyed my time here so much, but I also wanted to thank him for providing the impetus for the decision that has forever altered the course of my life.

The idea to move abroad was always simmering on the back burner since Pat himself returned from his two-year stay in Vietnam. The idea, however, never really got any serious consideration until the U.S. economy completely collapsed and some fortuitous events occurred to show me the path. First, Pat introduced me to a terrific book at the Donley cabin one night by Rolf Potts called Vagabonding. The book, subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was a huge inspiration into the reality (and necessity) of a very different life than the one I was leading at the time. The toll of having three jobs and still not making ends meet was no longer a viable option and, in fact, had never really been a good one to begin with.

After over 250 DJ gigs in seven years (some 200 of those weddings), I decided to look at the possibility of a radically different path that did not include “The Electric Slide.” Potts’ book outlines the simplicity and rewards of life abroad and specific practical advice in harnessing my independent spirit and desire to travel to create a completely new lifestyle for myself. After opening up to the idea, I began to float a variety of options to selected co-workers at the Apple store. I was soon informed that back-of-house guru, Mike, had completed a similar adventure in South Korea, and the scene was set for some vagabonding of my own. With Patrick’s encouragement and the support of my wonderful family and friends, the transformation and exodus took a mere 7 months.

I quickly contacted Mike’s recruiter in Daejeon and began an online job search that became a daily obsession. The rest of my time was spent selling, scrapping, or donating some 75% of my worldly belongings in a cathartic, minimalistic process of more through less. Once I stopped to really evaluate why I had so much “stuff” and why I was seemingly so attached to having and creating a space for all of it, the spring cleaning of 42 years was on and just snowballed from there. Each release also brought me a little closer to realizing my goal of a life fit into 2 suitcases.

After nearly 2 years in Korea, the experiment has turned into a way of life. Not only have I found a true passion for teaching, I feel I have been truly liberated from a lifestyle that was slowly killing me and an American ethos that was a pleasure to leave behind. The only real things that I miss are mom’s cooking, El Vaquero, and sharing a laugh and a smile with my family and friends. That, coupled with my desire to show Pat the brilliance of his suggestions in person, led to an exciting and unforgettable 3 weeks in Korea.

(Click on any photo below to view full size or as a gallery)

After getting acclimated to the time change and Korea’s hurry up “bali bali” culture, Pat was truly in his element. Determined to give him the full experience of my favorite things about living here, we spent the first weekend at Asan Shelter. Pat gladly chipped in to walk, feed, and water the dogs there and was exhausted after a full day with the wonderful animals there. The following week was spent exploring my hometown and trying some of the local delights, including a lot of spicy food, bad Korean beer, a potent bottle of Soju and a daily visit to Paris Baguette for breakfast treats.

We then booked a night at Jin’s Paradise guesthouse in Seoul’s Itaewon-dong district and hopped on the high-speed KTX to make the 50 minute trip at speeds over 300 km per hour. Seoul can be overwhelming for any experienced world traveler, but we managed to see and enjoy some of the subtle brilliance of the city over the weekend, including shopping and haggling (successfully!) with vendors in Namdaemun and Insadong, and sipping Makkoli (Korean rice wine) with some classic characters in a street side tent cafe.

Overall, the weekend was exciting and the sensory overload was tiring for us both. We gladly returned home the next day with our fill of the capital city and for plans of the adventure to come- our cycling tour of Jeju Island…