To Hava—I mean Panama City

We left Bocas very tan and headed towards Panama City on an overnight bus.  Overnight busses are great because they double as accommodations for that night.  So when you buy a bus ticket for 11 dollars and it leaves at 11pm and gets in at 7 a.m. that was your transport and your hostel all in one 11 dollar expenditure.  I`ve been taking overnight busses for long, long time, and just love them.  We decided to get to the bus early for some reason and ended up having to kill 3 hours in a nasty bus station in some tiny town in Panama.  We passed the time playing cards with kids, (which Jen subsequently gave away our deck of cards to a kid because he was “cute”)  and reading.

We arrived the next morning to Panama City at 5 a.m. (too early to check in) so the guard let us into the hostel and we slept on the couches for 4 hours until reception opened.  We checked into our tiny dorm room and set out to explore a bit.  Panama City has two parts.  The Miami part, and the old part.  The old section resembles Havana like you wouldn´t believe and the new part resembles…Miami.

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The following day we changed hostels because Luna`s castle was just too damn packed for our liking.  However, in classic BPA style, we kept our wrist-bands on and took full advantage of their free pancake breakfasts and movie theatre as well as 50 cent beer specials at night.  Don`t hate the player, hate the game.

My old bus from9th grade…

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There isn`t all that much to do in Panama City besides walk around, drink cheap beer, and see this minor engineering thing called the Panama Canal.  We took a cab 20 km outside the city to the Miraflores Locks.  The taxi driver told us of how there used to be 40,000 US soldiers living in the area as the US controlled the Canal unjustifiably until the year 2000.

The top part of the visitor center is an outdoor observation deck where you can see the boats being lowered back down to sea level for their entrance to the Pacific Ocean.   There is a movie theatre on the ground level which shows a very cheesey movie of the history of the canal.  Picture your fire safety video from 5th grade complete with some Spanish people.

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In this photo you can see a ship approaching the Canal.  The whole process is just downright fascinating and one of the best things I`ve seen in my life.  It was also interesting to see the South Korean ship go through the Canal, as the ship stopped, the crew disembarked, walked up to the observation center and forced everyone to sign 9 “official documents” stating we had seen the ship go through the Canal so they could report it to their goverment.  Weird huh?

*That was actually a joke that you will only understand if you lived in Korea

We watched a few ships go through the Canal, (one cargo ship takes around 30 minutes to go through and costs the ship at the min. 200,000 USD)  You thought the Jersey turnpike tolls were bad…

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The next stop after Panama was to be Boquete, a village of 4,000 people sitting some 4,000 feet up in the mountains of Western Panama.  You guessed it, we took an overnight bus to the transport city of David, where we could then catch a bus to Boquete, an hour away.  The bus ride was to David, 8 hours, went by uneventful and we holed up at a very cheap hotel in David for the next night ready to grab the bus to Boquete the next morning.

After the hour bus ride to Boquete, we walked around the town looking for a hostel only to find out it was much more expensive than we had anticipated.  A man drove up to us and offered us a room for 13 bucks a night, so we jumped on it.  The guy had just opened the hostel two months ago and had had very few guests thus far.  The first night we shared the hostel with 3 other people, an American, a Spanish girl, and a guy from Beligum.  The second day they all left and for the next 3 days and nights we had the hostel completely to ourselves.  Combine this with the fact that the man was NEVER at the hostel, and we had rented our own house, complete with patio, living room, tv, kitchen, and a babbling river in the backyard, it was heaven.

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The mountains surround the town and there isn`t much to do there besides eat, hike, walk around, and relax.  Relax we did.  We practiced Spanish with the owner who spoke far too quickly and his mother who spoke perfectly.  I wonder if he thought I was hitting on his mom when I kept asking if she would ever return.  (We just wanted to practice Spanish with her)

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Two nights ago I was on the internet and realized it was Hanukah so we bought potatos and made potato pancakes.

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After spending four days there, we are now back in David.  Our bus leaves tomorrow for the border of Costa Rica.  Jen leaves Wednesday for Detroit as she is spending Christmas with her family.  I`m going to be camping along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica for the next two weeks then meeting Jen in Liberia where we will go to Nicaragua for at least a few weeks.  We don`t really know what will happen after that, depending on funding, we might high tail it towards Mexico or take our time through Honduras and Guatemala then fly back to the States.

From the dusty humid streets of David,

Backpacker Acker

PS You knew I couldn`t stay off a two wheeled machine that long…

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Categories: Pan-America Trip | 1 Comment

From Panama to Mexico…or bust…bust is possible…

And here I was, packing my rucksack yet again for a trip that hasn´t really been planned out, which isn´t new. Ever since I´ve read che guevara´s motorcycle diaries, the panamerican highway has been calling. I often found it strange when I would meet australians, israelis, and europeans who had traveled extensively through the americas and I had merely skirted through costa rica, (a great adventure in itself with my buddy ari, the first trip that gave me a taste of what was the road, and what is a life of traveling). The fact that these fellow travelers, from far more distant lands than the USA, had traveled more than I had through the americas, when I lived in the united states of america, was unexceptable.

I too, like che guevara, believe the division of the americas to be a trivial and insignificant issue. We are all Americans and this continent stretches from the northern tip of alaska to the southern tip of chile regardless of how countries have divided themselves with imaginary lines we tend to call borders. I think it is every american´s duty to learn as much as possible about our neighbors. Thus, this is my goal, to travel from the panama canal north to mexico city or at least southern mexico, meeting as many people as possible along the way and showing our fellow americans that the big bad neighbors to the north can speak a little spanish and do care a bit about their culture and life.

So i took off from denver, where I had spent the past 3 weeks, and landed in san jose, costa rica to meet jen and head south, then north again to mexico. the plane ride was uneventful except for the flying through a thunderstorm the pilot said was ´too big to go over´ so at 39,000 feet, our airplane turned into a roller coaster for 10 minutes and i didnt think id make it out of the u.s., let alone to mexico. alas, like always, i made it, and took taxi from the san jose airport to a city called heredia, just outside san jose. i met jen there and we ended up staying in heredia for a few nights with her host family before buying a bus ticket to a small town on the caribbean coast called cahuita.

The next morning we grabbed a bus to Cahuita, feel free to look it up, a very relaxed caribbean town in costa rica. The town had no stoplights and only dirt roads complete with tons of authentic rastas and a very distinct smell in the air. On our way to our hostel in Cahuita, we were humpin down a dirt road when it started to pour, we heard a voice yell out “hey you, where you from?” We stammered over and was invited to have a few beers with a couple from LA who were on their honeymoon. In typical BPA fashion, instead of locking down our accommodations for the night, we figured beers were in order and the planning of sleep quarters would come later. The dude ended up playing football for Northwestern back in the day while the girl was a softball player there. We exchanged some stories, drank a few beers and headed off to our lodgings.We landed a spot right across from the beach and the national park for 20 bucks a night and settled in for the next 5 days. We took a hike in the national park, saw some monkeys, even saw one that was getting a bit friendly with a yellow snake that was on the tree which you can kind of see in this picture…

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Jen also gave me a haircut and it is much cooler now, even though i insist my hair is falling out, jen insists otherwise, we made a bet that i´d be bald by 30 so even if I go bald, i´ve created a win’win situation for myself. I`m one clever dude.

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About 5 days later, we caught a 2 hour bus to the border of Panama. I`ve crossed a handful of borders in my day, but this was undoubtedly one of the shadiest. First off, I could have just sauntered across the border with a kilo of cocaine on my head and I`m not 100 percent sure I would have been stopped. We decided to go about it the legit away and had our papers in order as we headed across the world`s most delapidated bridge. I also made Jen carry the kilo as I thought they suspect her less. Giant holes in the bridge would end your life with one quick mis-step. The bridge is used by giant multi-national banana companies and why they won`t fix it is beyond me. I don`t have the energy or computer ability to lecture them. (this computer totally sucks, and the space bar barely works, so you will all have to just deal with the gramatical errors and lack of captilization at some points).

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Anywho, we made it across the bridge, no easy task with a 50 lb backpack on your back and a small daypack on your front. Naturally, the locals breezed across with the ease of one of those Chinese dudes at halftime of an NBA game walking on plates and teacups. We grabbed a taxi to Almirante, a city in northern Panama where we knew we could get a water taxi to Bocas Del Toro. Bocas Del Toro is a bunch of islands in Northern Panama that have beautiful beaches, some killer surf (all reef breaks of course) and some very friendly people, save for a few, which I´ll get to in a bit at the dismay of my mother.

The first night we stayed in Mondo Taitu which was a shotty place but had a good party atmosphere, which would have been great if that was what we were looking for. We spent one night there and immediately moved to Gran Kahuna a hostel run by Rasta guys and we paid 12 bucks each for a dorm bed across from the ocean. The atmosphere was great, the people were amazing.

Bocas Del Toro is a very laid back place with one main street and not much going on. They have a few bars that get going at night but not much else. In order to get to any of the beaches around the various islands you have to take a water taxi. The water taxis are just small motorboats. The second day on the island we went to Isla Caranero, it has a world famous break called Silverbacks there where it can get over 20 feet, so no way in hell I was going to try that. I only surf breaks over 50 feet, didn´t you know this?

You can pretty much walk clear around Isla Caranero so that is what we did, finding secluded beaches along the way. We also got to see our first sloth. This thing reminds me of my brother and my buddy Noah at 5 a.m. on a Saturday. It was moving so slow, I could have run around the island 9 times and it still would have been on the same branch.

The next day we took a bus to the very tip of the main island, roughly 15 km away. We were headed to Starfish beach, a beach that had…lobsters. It actually had starfish and seeing as how we had never seen one before we thought it´d be good to check out. You know who also thought it´d be good to check out Starfish with us? Bad luck. Bad luck was with us from the start. One would think that a 15km ride would only take 20 minutes but not a chance my friends, not a chance. First off, we were scheduled to leave for the beach at 11 a.m. only instead of leaving for the beach, we circled around town with our driver´s assistant yelling “Playa Estrella” over and over until finally we had a full bus.

This was only the start. Finally reaching cruising speeds of 60 km/hr, the bus swerved violently to the right and we thought we were heading to a watery death. I glanced out the window and there was a 6 year old boy running clear into the path of our oncoming bus. The front of the bus swerved and barely avoided him, but the back of the bus would have no such luck. Boom Boom Pow. The back wheel ran over the kids legs. People on the bus screamed, and we threw it into reverse to check on the boy. By some miracle (Bad luck was late on his rent check), the boy simply had bloody feet and not much else, though he was crying up a storm as you might expect. He dented the side of the bus somehow with possibly his head and the driver of the bus was none too pleased about his new dent in his new bus. They took the boy to the hospital and we finally made it to the beach.

After that experience we were glad to soak in the turquoise waters of Starfish beach with fish that couldn´t hurt us if we abused their mothers in front of them. Ah Starfish, the Ned Flanders of the ocean.

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The following day we decided to try our hand at surfing. “Trying your hand, surfing, and Panama” are all words that should never be put in the same sentence. That´s all I´ll say. The waves were brutal, messy, choppy. We got our asses kicked. The only highlights of the day were the boat ride to the deserted beach at which we passed over mountains of swells. I´m talking 25 foot swells where our boat would go up for 6 seconds then down for 6 seconds, a snowmobile on the water if you will.

The second highlight came when I was exiting the water and saw four German girls who were set up next to us on the beach chasing their German friend (a guy). At first, I thought this a fairly silly game as they were all running around like little school girls. Though they were running very fast, I thought whatever game this must be, it is taken very seriously in Germany. The German man ran my way and grabbed my arm stating in broken English, between deep breaths, “Men in bushes, rags over faces, machetes, run with us.” Sold. I needed nothing more, we ran to our stuff, gathered it, then ran quickly to the only other group on the beach and told them.

As it turned out, there had been four men in the jungle just off the beach with machetes and bandanas over their faces and dark sunglasses. One man had moved very quietly and slowly towards the group. The German man, let´s call him Gerhardt, noticed the man, stood up and yelled something to let him know he was spotted. The other three men then charged from the rear of the jungle with machetes which caused the Germans to play their little game of chase each other and run like fools. The 15 of us all gathered our stuff together and huddled like penguins, attempting to look bigger than we actually were.

Now I didn´t see anyone, but all the Germans most certainly did. They were white in the face and could hardly breathe. I´ve traveled a ton, and never have heard of anything like this happening. We had heard small stories about not hiking from one deserted beach Red Frog to where we were, Wizards, but nothing to this extent. It was definitely a wake up call that is sometimes needed when traveling. Trust no one, be aware of your surroundings, and always carry a bigger machete then the others. To my family-do not worry, this was an isolated incident and we found out from locals that they do that to get you to run away from your belongings which they then take. Either way, makes for a good story.

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We are now headed to Panama City and will update you all again soon.

Much love from Panama,

Backpacker Acker

Categories: Pan-America Trip | 2 Comments

First leg of trip=success

We left Busan at 8 a.m. and took the 3 hour bullet train to Seoul.  From Seoul we boarded a bus to Incheon that we thought would take us an hour but actually ended up taking two hours.  From Incheon we walked to the International Ferry Terminal #1 not thinking that meant there was actually a second international ferry terminal.  As it turns out, we were at the wrong ferry terminal and had to take a 20 minute taxi to the other terminal where we bought our ferry tickets and awaited departure.  We passed the time drinking a beer and eating Jen’s homemade hummus.Our ship resembled the titanic, only it was way rustier than any picture I had seen in the movie.  We were in the “economy” class which meant I felt like Jack from the Titanic the entire journey.  I didn’t help things by repeately mimicking various Titanic characters.  It was dorm style sleeping and we had to fill out extensive forms and conduct a heath check in regards to the H1N1 Virus that is apparently sweeping over China.The ferry ride was uneventful aside from David’s birthday where we all became a bit too intoxicated.  We met “Echo” a girl from Tianjin, China who gave us insight as to how it’s like living in China with the one child policy, the extreme government clamp-down and other political issues.We arrived at Tianjin 27 hours later and although we thought it was Tianjin, it was actually Tangun, a city 50 kilometers from Tianjin where we needed to get to board the fastest train in the world to Beijing.  We thought the Tangun train station would be walking distance so we started to hump it along the very dark desolate streets.  An Audi ST pulled up and a Chinese man asked us where we were heading, we answered the train station and he replied it was over 15 kilometers away.  We now had a problem in the fact that the three of us had zero Chinese Yuan (Chinese currency) and only had Korean won which is totally useless outside of Korea.  The man then called a cab over paid the taxi 40 yuan (6 USD) and told the taxi to take us to the train station.It turned out the train station was closed and the taxi would have to drive us to Tianjin the 50 kilometers away.  We negotiated a price but failed to remember the exchange rate so I had to tell the taxi driver to stop at a market where I ran inside and checked the price of a beer (I knew from my previous time in China that a beer was less than 1 USD).  We finally made it to  Tianjin after an hour taxi ride and caught the train to Beijing.  The train was the fastest any of us had ever been on, reaching top speeds of 330 km/hr.   You do the math.So now we are in Beijing gearing up for our trip to Mongolia.  I leave tomorrow morning for Mongolia on a 28 hour train ride with my buddy Dave.  I will update again from Mongolia on the day before we leave for our motorcycle journey.Best to all of you,backpacker acker

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Heading West…yet again…

From here forward, every step I take will be one that brings me closer to my true “home” and my friends and family I haven’t seen in over a year.  It is the  longest I have gone in my life with out seeing one familiar face, even an old friend from summer camp would have sufficed.  I take solace in the fact that it has made me appreciate them more, even the weird friends, and the strange family members.I haven’t had a minute to myself to sit down and contemplate and digest what exactly this year has meant to me, so I will not do a disservice to myself and you and throw together some half-assed essay on what it is to live in Asia for a year of your life or teach English to foreign children for a year.  I have a feeling over the next month, I will have plenty of solitude which is always conducive to deep thought and will publish that entry upon my return to the States.So tonight is my last night in Busan, my home for the past year.  And when I say home, I really do mean home.  I was walking around today just looking at all the buildings with all the Korean writing and I came to realize I didn’t even notice this anymore.  I feel so comfortable here and  am confident I could quite easily stay for another. That said, I have the urge once again to hit the road, to carry all that I need to survive on my back.  I haven’t been able to sleep the past few nights as the mystery of what lies ahead keeps me awake as my mind won’t turn itself off.  So tonight I will drink a few beers with my buddy and prepare for the 10 a.m. train ride to Seoul.From Seoul, we will take another train an hour away to a city called Incheon.  From there, we will board a ferry that will take us to the Chinese city of Tianjin.  It is a 24-hour ferry ride, of which 12 of the hours we will be celebrating my buddy Dave’s birthday.  He has been one of my closest friends the past year and his infinite wisdom has kept me on the straight and narrow during my time here.  He will be traveling with me for the better part of a month as we traverse Mongolia.  Mongolia is a place few travelers have been or ever even contemplate going.  This appeals to us.  After living in one of the most densely populated countries in the world for a year, we both long for open space, great prairies, towering sand-dunes, and stars you could only think to imagine.  Our plan is to stay in Beijing for a few days as we gear up for the 24 hour train ride North to Ulan Batur, the capital of the country of Mongolia.  Mongolia, conversely, is the least populous country in the world, with a population of around 3 million in a country 3 times the size of France.  Once in Ulan Batur, we will find a translator who will help us get a hold of some motorcycles.  We aren’t sure what kind of motorcycles nor if they will work properly or not, but this is all in the adventure of the thing.We have tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, knives, fire starters.  We have heard that if you break down it can be a day or two before help will arrive.  We are prepared for this.  We are also prepared for intensely friendly people and panoramic sweeping views at every turn.  We are prepared to try new foods (sort of) and meet new people and practice their language.  A group of people largely untouched by the rest of the world await us.After Mongolia, I will travel north to Irkutsk, a Russian city along the shores of Lake Baikal.  From there I will take the Trans Siberian Railway across Russia, a journey that will take 5 days and will bring me to Moscow.  From Moscow, north again to St. Petersburg followed by a train west to Helsinki, Finland.  From there I aim to catch a flight to Germany and then right onto New York City.I will have fun and try to remember and write down all that I experience so some of you can gain a sense of what it’s like in that isolated part of the globe.  I will also be safe, rest assured.Thanks for reading, I hope to have some inspiring stories for you upon my return.My love to all of you,Backpacker Acker 

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Bring it North Korea

Gone were the high-rise apartments only to be replaced by 40-foot guard towers occupied by ROK soldiers with M-16’s and binoculars.  Gone were the old Korean women elbowing you as they exit the bus, enter crew-cut screaming Corporals from the United States Army.  Vanished were the taxies, instead appeared camouflaged-laden jeeps acting as escorts.  As you might surmise from the previous statements, “we aren’t in Busan anymore!”

Fortunately, nobody was massively hung-over for this adventure to the most heavily armed border in the world.  This is a place where one small miss-step could land you on a live land mine or in the wrong “Korea.”  A place where one stare can cause an international incident, a place where tension is always in the air, and a place where the words “no pictures, no talking, no gestures” are as common as “hello, please, and thank you.”

Our bus departed promptly at 0730 from the U.S.O office for the 70-minute ride north of Seoul to the De-Militarized Zone.  A 4-kilometer wide, 280-kilometer long stretch of essentially trees and mountains where no military equipment or personnel from either Koreas, or any nation for that matter, is allowed.  The result of this is an expansive area of teeming wildlife.  Beautiful white cranes flock at every turn, the shrubbery is extremely green and there are even relatives of the Siberian Tigers that live in the D.M.Z.  So if you had any inclinations that this would be a good spot to camp out for a week, think again.

The intensity of the situation hits not even 20 minutes after leaving Seoul.  Lining the highway to the DMZ is a 12-15 foot fence surrounded by barbed wire and protected by a South Korean watch-tower every 500 feet or so.  In each watchtower are 2 ROK (Republic Of Korea) soldiers with a large automatic mounted machine gun and binoculars, constantly on lookout for any incursion from the North.  They are protecting their “mother city.”  Seoul is the granddaddy of South Korea; consistently top five in the World’s Largest Cities.  The outskirts of Seoul sit just a handful of kilometers away from the D.M.Z. (at this area it is a large river).  The barbed-wire fence is lined with small white rocks that are stuck into various positions along the fence, every 3 feet or so.  The reason for this is that the ROK army can easily detect when someone has tampered with the perimeter fence as the rocks have been moved or adjusted in their positioning.  This is a method that is supposedly distinct to the ROK Army.

Our schedule would be as follows, a bus to Panjumon, where the JSA or Joint Services Area is located.  The JSA is located near Camp Bonifas, a military base operated by the United States Army and the Korean Army.  Soon enough, we had arrived at Camp Bonifas where our South Korean volunteer guide, Young, had to leave us (South Koreans aren’t allowed in the DMZ for any reason)  We switched busses to a United Nations bus that drove us inside the Joint Services Area accompanied by two loud U.S. Army soldiers.  Although it was pouring rain the entire day, the first soldier, a large Latino fellow insisted on wearing his Oakley sunglasses the entire time.  The second soldier, our guide, PFC Hauck, was a tall lanky fellow who seemed as if he was relatively new to the whole tour guide job.  That said, you would have thought these guys were taking us into battle, they screamed, yelled, shouted orders, and yelled some more when we didn’t listen.  They took themselves very seriously and that’s all I say on that.

Here is a picture of PVC Hauck struttin’ his stuff…

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The grey large building behind me is North Korea.  The border is that small ledge you can see between the two blue buildings.  The South Korean soldiers stand like that so they cannot be sniped from North Korea.  (Don’t mind the guy with his back to North Korea, he was the f up in boot camp)

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We were herded into a meeting room like cattle where we watched a really well done PowerPoint presentation complete with a horribly done talk over by PFC Hauck.  The dude was doing his best micro-machines commercial, only he wasn’t talking about little toy cars, he was talking about war, death, peace agreements, and other important stuff that would have been nice to hear.  I also noticed that the Corporal did not take off his sunglasses even when the lights were off.  (Don’t email me with “Maybe he had an eye disease, maybe he had a glass eye, and you should be more sensitive)  This guy thought he was the best thing since sliced bread and that’s all I’ll say on that.

Our next stop would be the Joint Services Area where meetings are held between North and South Korea.  We walked through the Family Center which was set up to allow North Korean and South Korean families to visit one another but was never used because of the North’s fear that all the families would immediately defect.  When you walk out of the Family Center you are immediately staring at 4 or 5 small blue UN buildings sitting directly on the border between North and South Korea.  Past the buildings, is the North Korean building where the officials work.  Due to the fact that both Koreans are always trying to one-up each other, both the Family Center and the large North Korean building look very similar and were only allowed to be built to a certain height.  Otherwise, I’m quite sure the two largest buildings in the world would be at this location.

Looking across at the North Korean building, I immediately saw a North Korean soldier staring at us with his binoculars.  Then a second soldier came out and they chatted for a moment and shared the binoculars as they both stared at us.  This was not the time to make funny gestures, flip the bird, do a shimmy, or tell some Kim Jung Il jokes.  Inside the small window seen here, there are more North Korean soldiers snapping photos of everyone’s faces, running them in their computers presumably and using them for various propaganda videos through out their country.  I just hope they got my good side.

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“Hey let me see those Mac”

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After the first group made its way out of the conference room sitting on the border, we were allowed to enter.  The room is divided by a conference table and is stationed by a South Korean soldier who will kick your ass if he feels it’s necessary.  The room is divided in half by an imaginary white line so that when the two countries meet, no North Korean ever has to come into South Korea and no South Korean has to enter the dreaded land of North Korea.  Why didn’t my mom think of this when my brother and me were growing up?  Either way, this is the only place in the world where you can enter North Korea legal territory and not be shot at.  Apparently, our group overstayed our allotted time because Private Hauck screamed, “no more pictures, move out!”  Only when people kept snapping (me included) I was given an earful of more yelling that immediately sent me back to high school football practice and I started to cry.

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Back on the bus, we motored around the DMZ with an armed escort in the make of a camouflaged jeep with two ROK officers with M-16’s.  Winding down narrow paths of just trees and wildlife on each side, we were forbidden to take photos.  We saw minefields at every turn, guard-towers off in the distance.  We saw the place where the 1976 Axe murder took place, when the U.S. Army and the ROK Army attempted to cut down a large tree that was blocking their view of North Korea in the DMZ and a fight ensued between North soldiers and a U.S. Army officer was axed to death.  We also saw the place where in 1984, a Russian tourist, on a tour with a North Korean tour company, in an effort to start a new life, dashed across the border and onto the South Korean side.  North Korean soldiers quickly followed him and a firefight took place between armies of both countries right outside the Family Center.  Again, a few soldiers were killed on each side.

We went to one more observation point where we could see both peace villages.  The peace villages are actual villages that are located within the DMZ.  North Korea has one peace village and South Korea has one. Both of which are within direct viewing of one another.  Kijong on the North Korean side, is distinguishable by its giant 525 foot flagpole that flies a North Korean flag over 90 feet wide and weighing over 600 lbs.  In this village you can see large buildings with electricity and bright blue roofs that obviously aren’t how any people in North Korea live.  This was done on purpose to convince South Koreans to defect to North Korea.  Until 2004, they had large (and I mean large) loudspeakers in the “peace village” that broadcasted propaganda to the South enticing people to once again, defect.

Not able to back down from a comparative showdown.  The South founded Daeseong-dong, a peace village of their own.  The people who live here are Korean citizens but are exempt from all taxes and must be in their houses with the doors and windows locked by 6pm every night.  They must spend 8 months of the year in this village in order to qualify for tax-exemption and their children can attend any university in South Korea free of charge.  Originally, the flag on the North Korean side was only a mere couple of hundred feet.  South Korea’s peace village erected a larger flag and loudspeakers of their own in what must have sounded like two really large Korean giants arguing with each other across a 4-km section of trees and grass.  “You come to North Korea now!”  “No! You come back here to South Korea now!”  “South Korea have many karaoke songs”  “North Korea have…Kim Jung Il, you come now!”  You get the picture…

Of course naturally, this is when North Korea erected the world’s largest flagpole at 525 feet, not to be outdone by their brothers to the South.  I believe this is the equivalent of the sandcastle building competition we’ve all been in as kids with your sibling.  One brother builds a sandcastle, the other brother builds it bigger, and on it goes for an hour.  Only in this case, South Korea is the older, wiser, brother, who says, “Screw this, I’m going to talk to that girl over there” and walks away leaving his younger brother with the biggest sandcastle, because in the end, it’s a god-damn sand-castle.  So there is North Korea, the world’s largest flagpole but they can’t feed their people.  Way to get your priorities in order.  Though who am I kidding?  That flag was frickin sweet.

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 This is the “Bridge of No Return” where after the Korean War, POWs from each country couuld choose what country they could go to.  Naturally, whatever country they picked would be their choice for life with no possibility of return, hence the name.

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The almighty flag of North Korea, hard to see with the fog that day.

Our escort led us to the exit of Camp Bonifas where Young, our guide, got us back on his crap-tacular bus and off we went to eat lunch at a restaurant near the DMZ.  All I can say about the lunch is anytime you walk into a male restroom outside of the only restaurant in town and the “number 2” toilets outnumber the “number 1” toilets 10 to 1, you might have just ate at the wrong restaurant.

We went to one more observatory which was just outside the DMZ but was too damn cloudy to see one thing.  Apparently on a clear day you can see one of the 50,000 statues erected to honor the Great Leader.  After the observatory, still raining mind you, we were able to tour a tunnel that was discovered in 1990 that the North Koreans had been building in order to a) defect to South Korea or b) the more likely one, invade South Korea.  There were four tunnels found in all, all coming from different points along the North’s DMZ and were all headed in the direction of Seoul.  Each tunnel could move approximately 30,000 soldiers over the course of an hour.  The tunnel was what you think it’d be like, dark, a lot of rocks, cold, drips of water falling on your head.  It was a 20-minute walk into the tunnel and then you’d turn around and go back.  We had to wear these dorky yellow construction helmets that seemed ridiculous at the time but turned out to be very helpful.  As we walked single file crouching in the 5-foot tall tunnel, you’d hear POP POP POP, all the yellow helmets banging up against the granite-laden ceiling of the tunnel.

We were back at the U.S.O. office by 3:30pm ready for a nap before our night out.  All in all, it was one of the highlights of my year in Korea.  This is more true given the timing, when every week North Korea is doing something provoking to other nations.  Be it testing nuclear weapons (people frown upon that surprisingly), launching “satellites” that look like missiles, or calling for war against their brothers to the South.  To be that close to soldiers of this feared regime, closer than most people in the world have been, was something that will at least make for a good story on a barstool somewhere the coming years.  And after all, isn’t making stories what life is all about?  So when I’m sitting at a bar in Chicago, Detroit, Hawaii, Paris, or Moscow and a newsflash comes up “Kim Jung Il testing bald eagles with grenade launchers” I’ll try not to smile because hell, I’ve seen his Army, and all they had were binoculars.

From the most heavily armed border in the world,

backpacker acker

Categories: South Korea | 2 Comments

Great China

Call me a bit paranoid, or crazy, in actuality, I’m a bit of both when it comes to flying. (various friends can attest to this)  To the rumors that I touch the outside of every aircraft as I board to check its structural integrity—I cannot deny.  To the rumors that I have been at peace with dying, and have seen my life flash before my eyes numerous times on various flights, I will not deny that either (note: all were nothing more than minor turbulence).  I’m a nervous flyer, I’m that “dude you don’t want to sit next to because I make the people around me uneasy” on the flight.  I’ve mistaken the mini-TV screens unfolding from the ceiling of the airplane for oxygen masks, I’ve convinced myself on numerous occasions that the plane’s engines turned off mid-flight and we were now gliding down to our imminent deaths on a mountainside in Albania.  I always scope out the pilots and see if they look hung-over or coked out and have often wondered why they don’t just keep parachutes on the plane for passengers, just in case.  So you now have a slight grasp of how I am feeling as I walk to the gate at Gimhae International Airport in Busan to board my China Eastern Airlines flight 5073 to Shanghai.  Here is the picture of my plane parked at the gate…

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Now, I don’t know which Cold War Era designer painted this thing but could they have made this plane look any less exciting?  Did they buy those block letters from a flea market of fonts?  The pilots seemed to be walking in a straight line, and I didn’t notice any white residue around their nostrils so I deemed they fit to fly and let them pass me with out incident.  I also just wondered if now the Feds are reading my blog  because I wrote “pilots, incident, and Cold War” all in one paragraph.

Giving the aircraft one quick knock on the side as I boarded—doing so very subtly as to not cause a Chinese flight attendant to say “Sir why you knocking on plane, come with me” only to be dragged into a secret interrogation room CIA style…I decided the plane was remarkably clean for being something out of the Mao Era.  Much to my great surprise, the plane was entirely new, the inside smelled like a new car, had sparkling seats, T.V. screens, and more than enough leg room.  Sitting back in my seat, scanning the wing for any dents or lose bolts, I decided this airplane would do just fine.   Hell, I was on my to China.

Eighty minutes later, we touched down at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.  A strange sight at the Shanghai Airport- behind me in the customs line was a group of 50 to 60 Indians straight off a flight from Delhi.  Approaching the escalator, panic ensued among the Indians.  None had ever seen an escalator before, let alone dare to step foot on one.  Screams, yells, laughter, shouts of encouragement all filled the terminal while local Chinese men looked on with delight.  Eventually, everyone except for a few older grandmothers made it on the escalator and to their awaiting luggage.  (The old grandmothers had to be escorted down a different way to an elevator (which I assume they also hadn’t seen before).   Paul Farmer, in his book entitled “Mountains Beyond Mountains” speaks of this phenomenon in the airport in Miami when the Haitians first come to the United States.

A local airport bus took me to JingAn Temple Station where I found my backpacker hostel with relative ease.  I was only staying in Shanghai for one night, as the next night I was  booked on the sleeper train to Beijing.  The weather in Shanghai was cloudy, smoggy, and rainy—a great combination for a city where walking around is the standard mode of transit.  One might ask, being in China, what was the first thing you did?  Eat a spring roll?  Crack open a fortune cookie?  Well, no, the first thing I did was buy a 2 dollar “Made in China” umbrella, which broke in the wind roughly 8 minutes later.  I should have told that woman selling them that telling me “made in China” when I bought them actually made me lower my offering price.

The highlight of that first day in Shanghai had to have been the crowd of umbrellas I saw while aimlessly walking around the skyscrapers.  The umbrellas created quite a viewing hazard and I had to use my 2-dollar umbrella as a battering ram and forced my way to the front only to snap this picture….

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Yes, that’s Jackie Chan and one of his little fans.  I can’t be for certain Jackie wasn’t really alive in there…this is China right?  I actually think China has cloned 55-65 Jackie Chan’s and just keeps rolling them out when the original gets too old.

That night I tracked down an Indian restaurant in Shanghai only to walk in to see 35 Indians eating with their families.  I thought I had stepped into a private party and immediately backtracked to the door as the owner came up to me and said “Eating alone?” in a tone that instantly made me depressed.  I nodded and he showed me to a table in the corner, giving all the Indians a great chance to stare at me as I walked to my corner table.

The one night stay in the hostel was eventful in the fact that at 4 a.m. I was awoken to a screaming match between a large drunk Australian man and a small Chinese student who had apparently unknowingly slept in his bed and had locked the Australian’s sheets, pillows, and blanket in his own locker.  This was compounded by the fact that the Chinese kid spoke zero English.  The Aussie tried to no avail to explain that he had no sheets or blankets but the Chinese student, half-asleep didn’t care and didn’t understand.  A small shoving match ensued until eventually staff was brought into our 4 person dorm room to sort it out.  I’ve spent countless nights in random hostels with random people all across the world, this was actually a pretty normal night.

The next morning I was perched on my barstool at 9 a.m. at an English Pub called Bulldog’s ready to watch the Ricky Hatton vs. Manny Pacquiao.  Hatton (per my prediction) was destroyed in two rounds.  It was quite entertaining to watch England’s golden boy get destroyed by a tiny Philippino guy in an English Pub in Shanghai.  The waitresses were predominantly Philippino, while the clientele was English.  I ended up meeting another English teacher from Belfast, Northern Ireland who lived in Shanghai.  He showed me around the French Concession area of Shanghai and he introduced me to his other friend, Norman.

In a typically Korean moment, I was stumbling around the streets of Shanghai attempting to find a blues bar when I ran into two Koreans holding an 8-inch laptop while looking aimlessly at the street signs.  “We are not Chinese, please help us find Babyface club.”  Opening the laptop, they show me a picture, followed by a video of the baby face club along with a googlemaps page explaining where we are.  Shanghai is the type of city where you really could walk around with a laptop and never lose your Internet signal.  Unfortunately for them, I had no idea where I was, let alone their stupid club, so we went our own ways.

Naturally, running late, I got into a cab and with a note from the hostel that said “train station” in Chinese, the cab driver drove like a bat out of hell and I was at the train station in literally 90 seconds, this was even after the hostel had told me it was 15 minute ride.  That man drove more aggressively than anyone I’ve ever seen in any country I’ve ever been to, save for one crazy cabbie in Istanbul in 2005, but I think that cabbie was on some major drugs.

The sleeper train to Beijing was beautiful.  It even smelled like a new car though I did my best to change that by taking off my shoes and revealing some strong odors.  I quickly hightailed it to the bathroom as the train reached speeds of 190 km/hr to wash my feet before lights out.  Lights out couldn’t come soon enough because I was now sitting in a 5 x 5 room with 4 really old Chinese people who spoke no English.  Talk about uncomfortable.  They stared at me for maybe 15 minutes straight until I had enough and used the old man’s head as my step up to my top bunk bed.  (I’m joking, I used his shoulder)

Beijing on the map looks like you could walk across it in 20 minutes, especially coming from Shanghai where you literally can walk across the city in 20 minutes.  Turns out 2cm on the Beijing map is about a 20-minute walk.  So the 6cm I had to hike to the hostel took 1 hour.  The hostel in Shanghai had given me another little piece of paper with the direction and name of the hostel in Beijing.  Here I am, walking around Beijing with my backpack and a tiny piece of paper showing it to anyone who will give me the time of day.  No one is helping me, only giving me shrugs, pointing me in three different directions at once.  I actually twice stopped on a bench to collect myself, re-gain my strength and push on in my never-ending search for the elusive hostel.

Finally after roughly 90 minutes of futile searching, a Chinese man approaches me and offers me help in perfect English.  He turns out to be a philosophy professor from Northwestern and lives in Chicago.  I show him the piece of paper only to have him laugh out loud while turning to me and saying “My friend, this piece of paper says “Shanghai South Grand Train station, please hurry my train leaves at 8 p.m.”  I pull out my other piece of paper and he immediately directs me to the street where my hostel is located.  This also now explains why the hell my cab driver in Shanghai was driving like I was a pregnant woman about to give birth in his back seat.

After exchanging pleasantries with the two Israelis in my hostel room, I was off to visit the Forbidden City.  The area that Chinese emperors had all to themselves for most of their rule.  Commoners were allowed nowhere near the Forbidden City.  It is well known for it’s gigantic picture of Chairman Mao on the front gate.  It’s one of those moments that you see something on TV. for so many years and now here you are, standing in front of it in awe, it would be the first moment like this in China, but not the last.

The Forbidden City has many temples and a giant surrounding wall and moat.  The sheer size of the area is the aspect that most shocks the visitor.  There is actually a Starbucks in Forbidden City, don’t even get me started on this.  There was a basketball court in the Forbidden City too.  One of my great regrets in traveling is not taking enough pictures of all the random basketball courts I’ve seen in different countries.  I think a book full with basketball hoops in random, exotic, places would be an excellent coffee table book in any living room.

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Across from the Forbidden City is the largest public square in the world, Tiananmen Square.  Security, like most government areas in China is intense, bags are subject to search and metal directors are the norm.  Tiananmen Square has one large monument with many soldiers standing guard around each of the smaller monuments.  It is a place where one cannot help but think about the oppressive Chinese regime and their terrible record regarding human rights.  The Tiananmen Square massacre comes to mind, where possibly thousands were murdered in the surrounding area around the square and the infamous picture of the protester standing up to the Republic’s tanks took place.  And if the square itself isn’t enough of a reminder of China’s struggles with its dissenters, the square is dotted with fire extinguishers at every turn.  Those fire extinguishers, placed within reach of the stone-faced guards, are used to extinguish monks who set themselves afire in protest of Chinese government policy.

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The night was capped off with cheap, delicious beers, sitting on the stoop of the hostel, overlooking our Beijing alley, or ‘hutong.”  We even got to witness a crazy street catfight 20 feet in front of us, I’ll post the video on youtube eventually.  I met a Finnish fellow named Martti from Helsinki, he is a free-lance writer for  Finnish travel magazine.  He is spending one month hitchhiking across Mongolia on his way back to Finland via the Trans-Mongolian Railway.  He really peaked an interest in Mongolia for me, land of the world’s last true Nomads.  More on that later…

That night I drank my fair share of beers but decided I’d better keep it under control as passing out and hitting my head on the Great Wall of China wasn’t really an option.  I haven’t looked into it, but I’m pretty sure Med-evac copter rides from the Great Wall are a bit pricey.  The bus to take me to the Great Wall picked me up at my hostel at 6 a.m.  My head banging from the beer, I found my seat, and passed out.  Two hours later I am awaken when someone throws a nasty, dry, sandwich on my lap and tells me it’s my lunch.  To compound this fact, I look outside and see we are still parked outside my hostel.  It turns out we weren’t broken down but that I was the first pick-up of the morning and the next two hours would consist of circling Beijing (a giant city) picking up other participants then returning to my hostel to pick up the crusty sandwiches.  Why they couldn’t have picked me up with the sandwiches I’ll never know, it reminded me of Korea in that sense.

Side roads the entire way made the trip to the Great Wall at Jingsaling last more than 4 hours, coupled with my two hour “circle-tour” of Beijing, it amounted to a 6 hour journey.  Driving in down the windy roads toward the Wall, we would catch glimpses of it out the side window, usually just tops of the towers.  Finally, the bus rolled to a stop.  Exiting the bus it was another 20-minute hike down a tree-lined dirt road until we started up the mountain for another 20 minutes.

The vendors were wise to the game, as they usually are.  They’d line up like Detroit Piston reserves on each side of us, as if we were being introduced at the beginning of a big playoff game.  Walking through the gauntlet of vendors, declining their offers for an English guide to the Great Wall,  the second we passed through, the pursuit was on.  I was O.J. in a white bronco, trucking up that mountain and they were the LAPD right on my tail.  Instead of sirens blaring, all I could hear was “you buy now!”  “ok you buy later!”  Let me say for the record, the worst possible thing you can do when vendors are on your ass on the Great Wall is try to “out hike” them up the mountain.  Why I even tried I don’t really know, all it allowed me to do was nearly pass out when I finally made it to the top, then I had to buy a water from the vendor at the top to prevent myself from falling over.  Was this a super-brilliant plan concocted by the vendors on both ends of the mountains?  I’ll never know.

Once I paid for my bottled water, regained feeling in my legs and stood up.  The view is one that I will never forget and immediately has catapulted itself to one of the greatest moments of my life.  Miles upon miles of endless Wall stretching out into the cloudy distance.  Tower after tower, each one higher than the next for as far as I could see.  The best part was there was hardly a soul on the Wall.  I knew the next six hours would be something I would remember for the rest of my life and essentially highlight my year living in Asia.

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Our group immediately started hiking, mostly to get away from the vendors, something we would later learn was like trying to get rid of head lice…it just doesn’t hap—–wait, what!?, there’s a treatment for this condition?  oh man am I out of the loop.

Anyway, let me re-focus here….ok…I’m back….after ten minutes into our nearly 5 hour hike, the group has dissipated quite a bit.  I was now hiking alone which is a great thing, only it makes taking pictures of yourself on the Great Wall terribly difficult as the rocks aren’t really great for the auto-shoot feature.  Every so often, I’d slow my pace and wait for the next closest hiker just in order to get a few shots of me.  Solitude on the Great Wall is something I would highly recommend, there are no roads anywhere within sight, no cars to be heard, no hordes of tourists with screaming little children.

Over the next five hours I would pass through some 34 guard towers, all still amazingly in great shape (with possible restoration among a few).  My original plan was to try and avoid the pesky guards and crash on the wall overnight and catch a ride back to Beijing the following morning.  That didn’t pan out as my planned recluse for the night were the guard towers who were now being occupied by old Chinese men and women hawking water bottles, beer, and the occasional t-shirt or postcard.

Some of the inclines in the hike were dramatically steep, literally stepping up each step well past my waist.  I wasn’t sure how a shorter person would/could do that.  I half wanted to wait for this really short person in my group and observe them attempt the climb, but alas my goal was the 17th guard tower, also the tallest on the route.  Sweating profusely, I shimmied my way up the giant steps to make it to the tallest guard tower.  Much to my surprise…and delight…I was alone.

The guard towers were remarkably cooler and making it there was a welcome relief.  Having the entire tower to myself overlooking all of Mongolia and China was something else.  I sat on the window, catching my breath, and really taking it all in when….I start to hear something.  It’s a faint voice, so faint I begin to think I’ve entered the first stage of dehydration…hallucinating.  I can’t make out the voice, all I know is I hear it.  Every passing second, the voice is becoming a bit louder until it becomes clear enough that I can make out the words….”you buy my postcard, you buy my postcard, you buy my postcard.”

This little old Chinese woman was either sleeping in this tower, followed me up to the tower, or straight up teleported herself into the tower, whatever she did, she was now 10 inches from  my face shoving postcards at me.  Solitude is truly difficult to find on The Great Wall.  Though the moment I had when I was alone on that wall was one of the top moments of my life.  When I look back at my year in Asia, that moment, walking on that Wall with nobody in sight for miles, is something that I’ll probably start the conversation with.  “Asia was great.  I hiked 12 kilometers on the Great Wall and didn’t see a soul for some parts, I also taught English in South Korea for 12 months.”

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Knowing nothing could top my adventure on the Great Wall of China, the next day in Beijing, I decided to take it “easy” and hire a bicycle for the day and cycle up to the Olympic village that hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.  One small problem with this idea:  the pollution.  I had heard about it and now I had experienced it.  My bicycle was a 1990 vintage Huffy with a chain that had no desire to stay on the chain-ring whatsoever.  That damn chain must have come off the bike maybe 12-15 times alone on the ride up to the village, some 10 kilometers away.  Every chain derailment would be met by me pulling off on some random Beijing road, swearing at the bike, kicking it a few times, then getting back on.

Ninety minutes later I actually made it to the Olympic village which mostly doubled as a ghost town save for the “Cube” (where Phelps won all those gold’s) and the “Bird’s Nest” a monstrosity of an engineering project.  I was so angry at my bike that I locked it up to the weakest, smallest, most feeble chain link fence I had ever seen.  A security guard came over to me and either told me I was an idiot for locking it there or told me I wasn’t allowed to lock it there.  I can’t speak Chinese and half of me wanted someone to steal that damn thing so I walked on.  (I had given the bike rental company some old student ID as collateral)

It was 5 bucks to get into the Bird’s Nest and I think it was quite worth it.  The stadium was completely open, you could walk around the whole damn thing if you so desired.  They open up the field area too so you can run sprints like Usain Bolt if you wanted to.  Me, I pretended I was back in high school getting called for bogus pass-interferences penalties as my team got crushed in the football State Playoffs.  Ah terrible memories….moving on…

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I will say, all joking aside, that the opening ceremony from the Summer Olympics was something so amazing, if you were watching it live on TV. it will stick with you forever.  I remember calling family, friends, asking them, “are you ______ watching this?!?!”  The synchronization of the drums, the amazing clothing, the sheer numbers of participants.  It was China in every aspect.

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Much to my dismay, the bicycle was still there when I came back and I grudgingly mounted it for the long, polluted ride back to my hostel to give the woman a piece of my mind regarding her chain lubrication procedures and derailleur adjustments.  (Note for future travels: Trying to take video on your camera while riding through Beijing is not a good idea and may result in numerous “near misses”)   Speaking of near misses, please find George Carlin’s take on near misses with regards to airplanes.  “It’s not a near-miss, it’s a near hit!  When two planes collide, then you sit back and say hey they nearly missed!”  Read that last sentence with Carlin’s condescending monotone voice.

The train ride back to Shanghai was uneventful and there were no awkward staring contests with random Chinese people.  They were a bit unhappy, however, as I came into our 8 x 8 sleeper car holding two good sized remote-control helicopters.  Looking back, it’s yet another one of those things I didn’t need but the 12 year old inside of me said to buy.  Suffice it to say, one has already died, and the other is a present.  After some finagling, I found some room for the copters and passed out as the chain hummed along at 300 km/hr towards Shanghai.

My last day in Shanghai I headed for the financial district to what has to be the saddest aquarium I’ve ever seen.  I am spoiled as I’ve been to some really great aquariums in my lifetime.  (Sydney, Chicago, Maui)  First, I’ve never been to a fricking aquarium that smells like a fish market.  Were they grilling these things up in the back?  Lord, the smell in the entire aquarium was horrible.  I know it has fish, but have you ever been to an aquarium that just smells ‘fishy’ through out the entire thing.  Even the damn seaweed and jellyfish section smelled like rotten fish.  Let’s see more highlights from fish-ghetto…The penguin tank was the size of a large bath-tub complete with penguins that were swimming head on into the glass as if to say, “I’m gonna break this glass open, and you, Mr. human, are going to pick me up and run me out of here.”  My favorite was the fact that all of the signs on the tanks say no flash photography or lights, yet after walking for no more than 50 feet, you’d see one of these concession stands….

Shanghai has the world’s third tallest building, so I figured I’d go to the top of it.  Entering the ticket booth at the base of 130-story tower building, the conversation went something like this…

BPA:  One ticket to the top.
Vendor:  40USD please.
BPA:  What?! 40 dollars?!  Do I get to meet Jesus or something up there?
Vendor:  No
BPA:  Well, how far does 20 bucks get me?
Vendor:  The observatory deck on the 110th floor.
BPA:  Is that still the tallest in China?
Vendor: Yes sir, it is.
BPA: Sold!

So my broke ass made my way to the 110th floor and it was still quite the view.  The fog/smog was still intense as you can see…

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(That building down there is actually taller than the Empire State building, so you can get a feel how tall we are talking)

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The last night, I met some guys from Boston who were studying in Beijing and we sat out on the Bund people-watching and drinking dirt-cheap beer.  A fitting end to my 10 days in China.

China is a land of billions of people and it feels that way all of the time.  The people are beautiful, and they are very accepting of foreigners.  The food is amazing, and as cheap as you can imagine.  It really is one of the more fascinating places I have ever been and I am already planning a return trip back there.  The Great Wall alone is worth the journey to China from whatever corner of the world you may be living in.  I really believe it is one of the wonders of the world you must visit and experience before your time is up.

“The Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  -Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism.

Now get to steppin’ people…

From the single boulders that together make up the Great Wall of China,

backpacker acker

Categories: China | 2 Comments

The Land of Smiles…a bit further South…

Making our way back to Koh San Road for one last time, we loaded up on any other necessary items we might need that would be too expensive in the outer reaches of the Andaman Islands.  This mainly consisted of bug-spray, (enough to coat an elephant 8 times over).

That night we caught a cab to the Bangkok Bus Terminal and boarded our bus bound for Phuket, a central hub of travel to the southern islands.  With our snacks in hand we boarded the bus and settled in for what would turn out to be one of the longer legs of our journey.  We were assigned a seat in the very last row so conveniently, or inconveniently, whichever way you see it, the bed of the”bus attendant” was right behind us.  My head was actually 4 inches away from her head, awkward a tad I’d say.

I had told Jen as we pulled out of the Bangkok Central Terminal that every kilometer we traveled south would become more and more Muslim.  We were now headed towards Malaysia and southern Thailand has a distinctly different feel than that of Northern and Central Thailand.  If Jen didn’t believe me when we were departing that it would become more Muslim, then at 3:15 a.m. when the bus rolled to a stop at a place I couldn’t even tell you, she definitely believed me.

Stepping off the bus we were no longer in Thailand.  Geographically speaking we were, but this was not the Thailand we had seen in pictures, and these people were not wearing beach clothes and most certainly were not drinking Pina Coladas.  We were now standing in a market with 400-500 Muslim men in full Muslim dress and not a woman in sight.  The market was full of action, people buying spices, snacks, drinks, and whatever else you can think of.  To state that we were stared at would the be equivalent of stating Mt. Everest is a hill, Michael Jordan is “pretty good,” and George W. Bush was a “bad” president.  Understatements of the century.

Jen did quite well under the circumstances, she had never traveled much before and this was her first true “traveling experience.”  I have only been to Israel and Turkey in the Middle East so I too, had very little experience being surrounded by this many Muslim men and being the only Westerner in sight.  This is to say nothing against Muslim men, except given the history between our respective cultures in the past 10 years, I cannot say I felt entirely safe.

I don’t know how we ended up in this “oasis” of Islam.  I believe it was the fact that we decided to “cut back” on expenditures and go 3rd class down to Phuket and save the first class ticket for our ride back when we would be tired, tan, and hungover.  Therefore, riding third class allowed us to travel with other people making the trip to Malaysia or onwards to Indonesia, etc.  Phuket was simply a stop-over for these people as they had no intention of hitting the beaches of Koh Phi Phi with us.  It was an astounding experience to  say the least and I’m still quite glad we opted for third class.

One younger fellow, complete with a head-wrap and scraggly beard approached us cautiously.  We stood in one place for too long and now we were about to have a conversation with a man who had never spoken to a Westerner in his life.  As you might assume, he was incredibly nervous, after all I am quite an imposing figure.  Shaking and trembling quite visibly, he spoke softly.

“Hello, where are you from?”

Quick, say anything besides the United States.

“Who? Us? oh! we’re from Canada eh!  (nervous laughter) definitely not from the USA!”

Small conversation for a few minutes about where we were going, what we study, led us to shaking hands with the man and departing our own ways.

I must recant, we did indeed see two other foreigners in the rest stop, they were within 1.5 feet of their bus’ door and the woman looked as though she was in a sprinting position ready to pounce back into her seat in a moment’s notice.  They had a wide-eyed stare, a deer in the proverbial headlights if you will.  Only there was no car, only hundreds upon hundreds of Muslim men acting as the figurative beams of light.

It is sad that the media and our culture has made us cautious or afraid, for lack of a better word, of their culture.  I just finished reading “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson a few months ago, and it really shows the Muslim world in a different light than what we are used to reading and hearing, I encourage you all to read that book.

Anyway, arriving at Phuket bus station at 8 a.m., we strapped up (our backpacks, not our guns) and started to head towards town to find a “cheap” place to bunk up for the night.  After 20 minutes of unsuccessful traversing the city, a man in a truck pulled up and asked us if we wanted to go to the Ferry station.  Now, I say, when a shady looking fellow in a run-down truck in the south of Thailand asks you to get in his truck, the only possible answer can be, “sure.”

Off we went for a few bucks to the ferry station where there were 4 or 5 large boats boarding their passengers for various islands.  Some were heading to Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, etc.  After bargaining for a ticket, we’d decided we’d head to Koh Phi Phi for a few days as everyone raves about the beauty of the island.

Stephen Stills once sang, “Got out of town on a boat, headin’ for the Southern Islands” in what is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written.  Now I can’t sing like Stephen, nor were we on a yacht like he undoubtedly was, but we were on our little twin hull ship heading towards the island of Koh Phi Phi.

After arriving at Koh Phi Phi, we found a small bungalow right near the port.  The bungalow looked relatively new because it was relatively new, though not for the right reason.  On December 26, 2004, (in case you’ve been in a coma) while I was drinking a beer in a Tel-Aviv youth hostel, a tsunami ravaged many countries through out Southeast Asia.  Nearly 4,000 of the 10,000 residents and travelers on the island of Koh Phi Phi were killed.  According to sources, 104 children lost one or both parents.  There is a popular book entitled “The Children of Phi Phi Island” which is a book created by the children recounting the disaster.  All proceeds go directly to non-profits set up to aid these new orphans.

Though the gravity of the situation does not hit you while you are traveling through Koh Phi Phi, upon return home, and looking at photos of the disaster which you now recognize easily, it strikes one hard.  Knowing that all the children I saw on that island were directly affected by that wave and lost someone so close to them is quite sad.  Volunteers and the government have set up an early warning tsunami system to alert residents and tourists alike as to a possible oncoming wave, so progress has been made.  Please check my photo galleries for full pictures of this island.

We spent the two days on Koh Phi Phi taking long-tail boats, which are long, wooden, boats with a outboard engine attached to a wooden rod extending from the back of the boat, to various parts of the island.  We’d long-tail it (it’s a verb too) to one beach, have a few drinks, then hire another boat to another beach, we eventually made it to “Monkey Beach.”  I’ll give you one guess as to why they call it monkey beach.

The monkeys aren’t cute little fuzzy monkeys that love humans and pose for pictures.  These are Chris Farley monkeys.  These monkeys have been fed non-stop for the past 10 years and have consequently developed pot-bellies and picky appetites.  Jen decided to feed one monkey bits of a banana, only this obese monkey had other ideas.  Jen handed, we’ll call him ‘Farley’, a piece of a banana, Farley took the piece, smelled it then tossed it to the sand.  Farley then walked up to Jen, pulled her hand down, grabbed the whole banana, backed away a few steps, took one bite of the banana then tossed the whole banana into the sand.

Farley then retreated into a nearby tree and waited for us to walk away while he eyed my backpack.  Once we were a few feet from the backpack, Farley’s fat butt waddled down the tree, grabbed my Gatorade bottle from my backpack, waddled back up the tree, unscrewed the gatorade bottle, took two giant swigs of “blue mountain” gatorade to finish off the bottle and threw it back at my feet.  What a punk that monkey was.

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We hiked around Koh Phi Phi for a bit, had some nice dinner and retired for the night.  Our boat to Koh Lanta would leave at 9am the next morning.  On the boat ride to Koh Lanta, I made friends with one of the crew and he invited us to come sit in the captain’s deck of our 100 foot ship that was now motoring slowly to Koh Lanta.  The rest of this story will be published in my book.

Check out my sweet ‘stache.

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One of the crew members on deck took us to his family’s bungalow hotel and we ended up staying there for one night.  It wasn’t a bad place, but it was located across the street from the beach and not on the beach.  The next morning we walked across the street and stumbled into our future home for the next two weeks.  The “Atcha Hut” was offering bungalows at  12 dollars per day, 75 feet from the crashing waves with nothing between us and the ocean but sand and two palm trees.  Here’s the view from our hut…

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Our buddy Jason met us there a few days later after we had discovered the best places to eat on the island, hired a moped for the two weeks, and bought copious amounts of drinks.  Jason and I eventually decided to buy a fishing rod so that we could try and fish right off the shore in front of the bungalow.   After we failed miserably at bargaining the price of the fishing rod down, we spent 50 bucks and sprung for it.  Little did we know, this would be the best thing we would buy in Koh Lanta.

Jason (naturally, if you know him) was late for our first fishing session at 7pm that night outside my bungalow.  (He stayed down the road at a different bungalow)  I rode my moped the 25 minutes into “town” to buy some shrimp and squid to use as bait.  I rigged up my line, waded out to my chest in the water, then gave it a great cast of epic proportions.  (actually I failed miserably on the first few casts, but that former sounds better)

Finally, after a good cast I was satisfied with, I sat back down on the sand, cracked open a 75 cent tall boy “Chang Beer” and took a sip from my beer.  I set the beer down and a small jerk was felt through my hands from the fishing line.  Swearing under my breath, I stood up and cursed the rocks that had already taken hostage of my precious bait, hook, and sinker.  Then another jerk, this time much harder.  For non-fishing folks, when a fish hits, you pull up hard on the rod to set the hook.  Out of  curiosity and anger at the rocks, I yanked up on my rod and felt immediate pressure followed by my line being pulled out to sea.  This was no rock ladies and gentlemen, in a whopping 20 seconds I had hooked a fish.

Now I’d like to be able to say I played it cool and brought this baby in with little fanfare, but I’d be telling a giant lie.  Screaming at the top of my lungs, “Jen! Jen! Jen! I got something, bring the camera!” people must have thought my first born baby just drifted into the sea.  I would reel in the fish for a second only to have it run away with my line 10 seconds later.  I had a fight on my hands.  By now, a small crowd had gathered around the commotion.

Let me preface this next paragraph by stating that at no time did the thought ever enter my head that I would catch anything at all.  If fact, I was so convinced I wasn’t going to catch anything that that’s all I would tell anyone who would listen.  My pop-pop used to take me fishing off the Jersey shore every summer and not once did we ever catch anything.  We must have fished that shore 40 times and never a bite.  So I was preconditioned to believe nothing would happen.

So imagine my face, my excitement, my outburst of a cavemanesque scream as I reach in the water and grab a 1.5 foot, 15 lb Jack after fighting with it for nearly 2 minutes.  There really are few feelings better than catching a great fish like that.  Immediately the crowd around me was mesmerized, one 60 year old hippie who looked like he had been on Koh Lanta for the better part of the decade remarked “Shit, I’ve never seen anyone catch anything out here!”  The fish was absolutely beautiful.  Here’s a picture…

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here’s the crowd gathered…(check out the hippie scratchin’ his butt)

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And ladies and gentlemen, here’s dinner for the night…

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Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my life in terms of sports.  It just barely beats out beating my brother 84 times in a row in our drive way pick up games growing up.  (My specialty shot was the “I’m shooting this from NBA three, then running into the house as the ball’s in the air because I’m that sure it’s going in to win the game shot”)

The rest of the two weeks consisted of just lounging.  One day we rode our mopeds down to the tip of the island and rented kayaks and kayaked all around some smaller totally deserted islands.  The beaches weren’t great and we had no food and we (Jason) accidentally left our little friend Norman back on the mainland.  So all in all, it was just a massive back work out.

Backpacker Acker kayaking to far-away lands…

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Jason and Jen learned how to cook authentic Thai food from our surrogate mothers on the island Joy and Nee.  They owned a shack of a restaurant a few hundred meters from our hut that we ended up eating curries, pad-thai, and other meals at a few times a day.  I want to adopt them and have them open up a Thai restaurant somewhere in the States.  Here’s Jason and Jen learning the ropes…

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That’s rush-hour traffic on Koh Lanta.

In the end we ended up staying on Koh Lanta for 15 days or so.  We would meet a lot of people who were just traveling through and were amazed that we were staying in one place for 15 days, but that’s how much we loved it.  There wasn’t anything there not to love.  The people were unbelievably friendly, the food was amazing, the beaches were average but the water very warm and calm.  The fishing was excellent.  (I ended up catching 6 fish, all Jack’s—2 keepers)  No traffic, no McDonalds, no big resorts.  Koh Lanta is changing by the day, construction crews dot the island with noticeable progress being made on a daily basis.  The Koh Lanta I return to one day will not be the Koh Lanta I experienced in the winter of 2009.  That said, who cares.

I will never forget the times we had sitting on the beach, drinking beer, eating fresh fish minced with garlic that we cooked over our open fire.  We met people from all over the world, traveling to different places, we exchanged stories, jokes, friendly insults.  It took a 6 hour plane ride, a 15 hour bus ride, and a 3 hour ferry ride—sometimes the best places aren’t the closest or easiest places to get to, if they were, every one would go there.  Suddenly while sitting around that fire, enjoying life to the maximum, we understood why we put up with the bullshit of Korea sometimes, for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you’ll understand why you came this way.”  Well, when you see the peacefulness that is Koh Lanta, you too will know why you came all that way.  May you all get to experience Thailand one day, one of the most remarkable places on God’s green and sandy earth.

From my bamboo hut overlooking the Andaman Sea…

Backpacker Acker

Categories: Thailand | Leave a comment

Back from China…

I have made it back to the R.O.K. from China and will post some cool stories about China and about my last Thailand trip (finally) in the next week.

In the meantime, here is something that should make you smile…

Today is Teacher’s Day in Korea (why they don’t have this is in the USA is beyond me).  It’s a day where they honor the teachers and and give them gifts, etc.  Here is what I saw out of my fifth floor office today…

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Check back this week for some China and Thailand stories…

bpa

Categories: South Korea | Leave a comment

The Kingdom of Cambodia

The trip—scratch that, let’s call it a trek to Cambodia is quite the adventure.  Shaking our hang-over from the previous night on Khao San road, we grabbed a taxi to the Eastern Bangkok bus station.  With help from our smooth driving cabbie, we arrived just in time to board our bus and start the 5 hour journey to the border of Cambodia.

After a rather uneventful bus ride, we were let off at the bus station in a town called Aranya Prathet.  Not much can be said about this town because frankly, there’s nothing in the town worth talking about.  A Thai Toledo if you will.  From the bus station in Aranya Prathet, we negotiated a “fair” price with a Tuk-Tuk, a improvised motorcycle with a bench on the back.  After telling the driver four times “Border, border, border,” we were off.

5 minutes later we pull up to a shack of a house when the tuk-tuk driver honks his horn and out comes a ratty looking Thai guy with some sort of “credential” if you could call it that, barely clinging to his blue jean shirt, of which was missing a few buttons.

“Hello, Welcome to Cambodia.”  says the blue jeaned shirt fellow

“This isn’t Cambodia!” I reply.

“Well, this is not Cambodia, this is the Cambodian Embassy, here are the papers you will need to fill out along with the fees.”

I look this shady fellow up and down and quickly decide this is a scam and in a raised voice I demand we go to the real border.  Sure enough, 5 minutes later we pull up to a decent sized white building that reads Cambodian Embassy of Thailand and we head in, pay for our 15 day visas and get back in our corrupt Tuk-Tuk as he takes us as close to the border as he can before stopping the Tuk-Tuk and letting us out.

It is common knowledge, the closer one gets to a border, the rougher, poorer, and desperate people are.   The Cambodian border with Thailand is no exception to the rule.  If you don’t believe this is true, take a trip to Tijuana or any border sites along Texas.  Hell, walk down to Windsor, Ontario, you’ll be sure to see some dishelved, hungover 19 year old American frat boy who lost his passport begging Border Patrol to let him back in.  That’s life, people who have to go to a different country to sell goods or work on a daily basis generally don’t have a lot of disposable income.  When’s the last time you heard an orthopedic surgeon say, “Headin to the Tijuana barrios to do some scopes, be back tonight.”  (Unless they were with Doctors With Out Borders or he’s running drugs)

The border is indescribalble through a website (I need not remind you this is a website, not a blog)  The smells and the heat eminating from this kilometer stretch of land is something only few travelers get to experience.  There were no tour groups here, just a few backpackers.  As we sat in the steamy customs office waiting for our visa, 12 men pushing carts stacked 15 feet high of goods would struggle at a snail’s pace to advance their goods towards the “riches” of Thailand.

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Coming from Thailand, Cambodia seems a different world.  It struck me as the type of place where you don’t fear the thugs of Cambodia, you fear the police of Cambodia.  In my short 5 days in Mexico City, I heard numerous stories of travelers that led me to believe that police officers were the ones who could most hurt you, both physically and financially.  When backpacking, I’d almost rather take a few to the face then a few to the wallet, chicks dig scars, and I have my share. (of scars, not chicks) *****Side note- I taught my students the phrase “chicks dig scars” but being Korean and obsessed with their looks, found it incomprehensible.

After making it through the border, we were now in the awful town of Poipet, Cambodia.  It resembled something from a war zone that some half-assed government tried to make look presentable, but it more resembled a hideously ugly chick who just piles on the makeup to the point where  she had been better off just going “natural.”  The entire town is just filled with early 90’s Toyota Camrys, some have license plates, most don’t.  We were taken a kilometer away from the border where we waited for a “cousin” of one of the hustlers.  He insisted it was a “good legal car” that would take us to our intended destination of Siem Reap, home of mighty Angkor Wat.

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our path to Siem Reap

The drive took around 4 hours, with a stop at the two hour mark at a local shack to buy ice cold sodas for 25 cents and whatever fruits your heart desired.  At the shack were three other Toyota’s all packed with fellow backpackers making the journey to Siem Reap.  After four hours in the Camry with two French nationals who were doctors who had just finished their stint in Africa, we arrived to the town of Siem Reap and were immediately transfered to a waiting tuk-tuk.  Why the driver couldn’t drive the 3 km more into town, we couldn’t figure out.  Then again, part of us didn’t want to know the reason.  Some things are better left unknown.

We ended up finding an extrememly cheap and friendly hostel appropriately enough named “Smiley Guesthouse.”  We had a good sized room with a balcony that overlooked magnificent orange glowing sunsets every night.  In the mornings, we’d head down to the kitchen where we’d relax in hand-woven straw chairs and eat eggs and fresh bread and fruit.  The rate for the room at Smiley Guesthouse was $6 a night.  After staying there for 5 nights and eating 5 breakfasts, our grand total for the 5 night stay was a whopping 50 dollars between the two of us for 5 nights and breakfast each morning.  Yeah I could live in a place dropping 25 a week.  That’d do just fine.

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me on my balcony enjoyin the ‘good life’

Let me explain Siem Reap.  The only reason people venture to Siem Reap is because of Angkor Wat, the ancient Cambodian temples that loom ominous over the hordes of tourists walking among them.  The town has no paved roads, only dirt streets which makes dust more prevalent than air.

*Sidenote:  We had met three Koreans at a bus stop in Arranya Prathet, Thailand on the way to Siem Reap.  We had a brief conversation and at the end, he bent down and offered us 2 dust masks.  Koreans love their dust masks so we thought it was quite funny that they were offering to people in random areas in Thailand, where the air was especially pure and clean.  Two days later while walking through Siem Reap for the first time, we frantically searching for said dusk masks only to realize they were left in the guesthouse.  To those Koreans we say Thank you anyway, and we are sorry for underestimating your global knowledge.

So what do we, seasoned travelers,  do after realizing we are in the dustiest place on earth?  We decide it’d be an excellent idea to rent bicycles and CYCLE into Angkor Wat and the temples.  From the guesthouse, the  ride was a 10km jaunt into the temple zone.  10km sounds like nothing, but in 93 degree heat, riding two 1980’s era Schwinns with tires that refused to hold air, with a seat built for somebody with a steel ass, it was a painful, yet rewarding experience.

Once inside the temple zone, every turn we made on the bicycle revealed another towering temple, most of them had faces carved into the pillars, almost as if the Cambodian gods were looking at us wonder…”why the hell those fools riding bikes around my temples?”  We were thinking the same thing about an hour into the ride when our asses went numb. I’m sure I didn’t help the situation by imitating the little Asian kid from Indiana Jones everytime we walked into a new temple…”Indy, you go now! Indy! Indy!”

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The circuit we decided on was 25km around and it took us through numerous temples all around the National Park.  There were stretches where we wouldn’t see another person or car, just rice fields and dense rainforest.  We saw monkeys, water buffalo, it was Jen’s first encounter with monkeys, though she does live with me, so she had some idea what it’d be like to meet and mingle with them…

Cambodia is different from the fact that there are a ton of beggars in Cambodia.  I’ve been through my countries and have seen beggars, but anytime you enter a country where begging is prevalent, it always makes for difficult and sometimes awkward situations where you don’t know the true motivation behind the people you are meeting.  An example…

We pulled off our bikes to watch a local man playing and feeding monkeys off of his run down motorcycle, he spoke with us a tiny bit and offered us some nuts to feed to the monkeys.  Jen accepted and I pulled out a few dollars to give to the man for the small amount of nuts and the picture opporunity.  After five minutes it was clear to me that this man wanted no part of my donation, he just wanted to talk and was just a very genuinely friendly person.  These can sometimes make for difficult situations—a few k’s down the road, I stopped to take a few photos of some children walking along a rice field, those kids were wise to the game and demanded a few coins for their time.  I happily obliged.  So in the span of a kilometer, we experienced two ends of the spectrum regarding hand-outs.

After visiting some more temples (a reminder all photos can be found on the photo section page of the website) we made the turn for home.  On the way back, I got into a few cycling races with some 7 year old Cambodian kids who were riding bicycles 5 times the size of them.  The cycles were so large, they couldn’t sit on the seat, but had to ride standing.  I’m quite sure I lost every race, I wanted to know how to say in Cambodian “My ass hurts, my face is sunburned, but if I see you out here tomorrow you little punk, you’re going down.”  Instead my Cambodian was limited to “Thanks” as I rode on the dusty road towards home.

On the ride back, we stopped to see why a crowd of people had gathered on a dusty side road.  There was a men’s volleyball game going on, complete with extreme gambling on the outcome of the match.  The men weren’t wearing shoes and had only ripped blue jean shorts on but the crowd treated it as a championship match.  I desperately wanted to go place a few bets, have a few beers with the locals, but thought better of it when I realized Jen was now the only female in the crowd of over 200, with blonde hair to boot.

The following morning we stumbled out of bed, slightly hungover, to go see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We waited for 20 minutes for our taxi, which we arranged the previous night, but in typical Cambodian fashion, he never showed.  The sky at Angkor Wat is “supposed” (notice the quotation marks) to turn bright red in the morning which provides for stunning pictures.  Well, the sky only turn bright red in the summer apparently, and in the winter, it’s a slight pink.  It was beautiful nonetheless, just not what we expected.  There were also a few hundred other people there so it was quite the ordeal to try and get a good photo with out some dope in the background posing with the resident Angkor donkey.

We toured a few more temples, headed back into town where we filled up on the best Indian Curry I’ve ever had, all for a few dollars.  We ended up going to the same restaurant almost every night and I briefly looked into the penalties for smuggling a Indian man from Siem Reap into Korea to work as my personal chef.  (Korea is kind of against that it turns out, go figure)

The next morning we were back in a 93 Camry headed towards the Thai border.  Although we only had 6 days in Cambodia, it has firmly planted itself on the list of countries I will definitely be back to.  The people were very warm and friendly, despite the extreme poverty and history of war.  Research the Khmer Rouge regime and you will find out that 1.5 million people died in a 4 year span when the Communist leaders gained control.  This was as late as 1978 people, this should shock you.  That being said, the country has moved on, I read a report in the New York Times last week that only 30% of people under 30 are aware of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Disturbingly sad.

I didn’t stay in Cambodia long enough to give it a rousing send-off in the last paragraph of this entry.  It wouldn’t be fair to the country or myself as I didn’t get a true grasp of the country.  I will tell you what I do know—The food is amazing, the Cambodian curries are some of the best I’ve had, every person we met, even in the face of poverty, was extremely kind and helpful.  If I am lucky, and determined enough, I will come up through the South of Cambodia on my next trip and experience the capital, Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields.  Until then, I must bid farewell to yet another country on my journey that is life.  Cambodia, you were a good host, until we meet again, which I have a sneaking suspicion we will…

From the dusty motorcycle-filled roads of Siem Reap,

Backpacker Acker

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Categories: Cambodia | Leave a comment

A little Korean lesson

It’s 11:47 p.m. on a rainy, foggy day as I sit on the edge of the window sill in my 3rd grade English classroom.  Twenty-three minutes until lunch time, how I still enable myself to look forward to sticky rice and seaweed soup 7 months into this stint is beyond me, but I do.

As the students are performing in groups a chant called “Hi, I’m Minsu”  (these are beginners) I look out the window, daydreaming, staring off into the valley of concrete until I am zapped back to reality by the oh so familiar sound of someone crying.  In this profession, teachers yell, kids cry, teachers yell more, kids cry more…you get the picture.  As the Korean teacher translates for me, I come to realize the boy, only as tall as my waist, has been offended because someone in class told him “he was a bad chanter.”  I guess Koreans look very highly on the skill of chanting, especially if he ever wants to go to a professional baseball game.  I mean how can you live and be a sub-par canter?  I digress…

His group standing mid-chant, his arms cover his face trying to hide the tears that must have been flowing under his gray jumpsuit’s sleeves.  Glancing around the room, I see a few smiles, while the entire class is now silent and has their attention focused solely on the youngster.

From the back of the room I start to hear a chant, the chant grows louder and louder until it’s deafening.  My limited Korean language skills cannot decipher what is being said but I do not need Korean fluency to know I’m losing control of the class.  Quick, I’d better do something before this kid runs out of the class room and tells his mother how terrible of a teacher I am.  “Stop it!  Be nice!  Hajima!  (Don’t do that)”  Silence is achieved and I march around the class giving the little students a stare to remember after their attempt to humiliate their peer.

My c0-teacher leans over towards and me whispers in my ear, “Jared, it’s o.k. they were only chanting, “it’ll be alright!  “it’ll be alright!  “it’ll be alright!”  Red faced and embarrassed, I step to the back of the room, lean over to the student who started the chant and whispered in his ear the start of the same chant I had just quelled until it was back at a deafening roar.

That story wasn’t groundbreaking or earth shattering.  I just thought I needed to write it down for memory because where I was raised, usually chants at crying children were vindictive, evil-spirited chants.  I was made fun of more than my share in every school I went to.  My instinct told me they were ridiculing this kid and I felt I needed to stop it.  Little did I know, they were actually screaming and chanting words of genuine support.

How does a society remain so altruistic through our current age of globalization, migration trends, and global despair?  Just when I think I’ve learned all I possibly can about Korea, some minuscule event like this opens my mind to the fact that each society is so uniquely different and we could do well to learn a few things from one another once in a while.

Those are my thoughts…

My Final Four:  Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Louisville, and Memphis.

My Finals: North Carolina over Louisville

My sleepers:  Villanova, Michigan State, Syracuse, Wake Forrest

Categories: South Korea | 3 Comments