Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ski Slopes, RBIs, and My Bare Chin

i realize fully well that I owe this blog a post about my fourth and final southeast asian country, Vietnam, but that will have to wait. For now, I am going to tell you about my weekend - since it stands out as exceptional for its first, lasts, and overall events.

Friday after school I met up with my friends and we promptly took a bus out East. It was my first time going to the northeastern part of the country. We took the bus to a town called Gangneung and after some more arranging ended up near our destination: Yongpyong Ski Resort.

Friday night we got fitted for our equipment, met our other friends and enjoyed some less than enjoyable convenience store food for dinner. We all slept on the floor of a 10 person hostel room that Quinn graciously booked for us.

This weekend was not only my first time skiing, it was, as best as I can remember, the first time I'd ever been to a ski resort. I've heard of stories from friends about Colorado and Utah and the sort, but never actually been myself. The Grants just aren't a ski & snowboard type family.

We woke up early on Saturday to get to the slopes as they opened and we got our lift tickets and everything by 8:30. Now, I had absolutely no idea how to ski whatsoever and even the bunny hill looked a bit daunting. Our group was lucky enough to have a nice arrangement of beginners and experienced mountain riders. My friend Justine agreed to teach me how to get down the hill without dying.

I'd say my first two minutes on the bunny hill were amongst the more frustrating of my life. After inadvertently speeding down the hill, falling on purpose to save myself and not knowing how to get up (2x-3x) I finally got the tiniest bit of the hang of the whole thing. It wasn't truly very difficult to pick up once you had an idea of how to balance, distribute weight, slow down and turn.

Before long I was handling the bunny hill no problem and moving on to "greens" and harder runs. I had a nice group of snowboarders present for encouragement and help (they were beginners too, but props to them for making it through the day....and a special thanks has to go out to Marla (and Sam if she reads this? but mostly Marla) for helping me in and out of my skis a dozen and a half times and sticking it out through the awkward pile-ups of Korean skiers that I created.

I also fell once getting off the chairlift, after my ski pole got tangled with our friend Greg's legs and had to try and roll away for fear of getting trampled by all the other lifts that were going to come in. The group got a great laugh out of it.

I'm going to give out kudos here to Quinn for convincing me that skiing would be enjoyable - I had my doubts. It was a blast....once you learn that falling isn't the worst thing ever. I probably fell 4 or 5 times the whole day and none were bad enough to injure me more than a few sore knees and back.

I'll be skiing again someday - and hopefully getting better and better.

And since I have no American resort to compare it to, I can't judge Yongpyong too well. I'm willing to bet that most ski resorts don't have a PC Room (always full, no less) nor do they serve Mandu dumplings in the main lodge. But the place was very cool - a few large hotels, some chalets, a hostel for the lighter pockets, a bowling alley, several restaurants and something like 27 different runs people could wind through.

Also, a shout out to Quinn and Brian who, I believe, both won their races and got some prizes. We all actually entered the race - in order to get the freebys ( a great sweater, a number for the race, and some coffee. we mostly did it for the sweater)...

The place was an interesting mix of Koreans, Americans, Canadians and some Northern Europeans who occasioned the mountain perhaps normally or perhaps for the races and "festival".

Perhaps the only negative about the ski trip was that I had to leave early. While the rest of the group stayed Saturday night and some skiied again today (Sunday), I had to take a 5pm bus back to Guri.

Why? Well, I had my first baseball practice today.

Last week a teacher (Mr. Choi) approached me to see if I wanted to join his team - Force Nine - with him and his buddies. They play in two different leagues and that means a game almost every Sunday until the end of the summer. I told him I'd love to but couldn't make every game and that didn't matter.

Since I am a foreigner though, I would have to meet the team manager so he could make sure my skills were enough to cut it in the Korean leagues.

So this morning a bit before 10am, Choi picked me up. He told me that we'd have a 3 hour practice, eat lunch and then have a scrimmage game. I had no idea it would be such a long day but it was terrific fun.

I should say now that I made the team - and I did pretty well today.

Our first stop was in a corporate yard, in a rented out warehouse space that the team calls "House". It's basically an indoor baseball practice area fusioned with a straight up bro-pad.

2/3 of the space is nets and a batting cage and room for throwing the ball around. The rest - a pool table, ping-pong table, flat screen, couches, massage chair, Wii, space heaters, lounge benches - was dedicated to the "boys being boys" aspect of the team. Apparently, they go out drinking most Sundays after wins - I'll be sure to tell you about that when it goes down.

So I met most of the team today - along with their "trainer", a super-intense Korean man who ran the whole team through stretching, some conditioning, and hours of baseball drills today. It was indeed a 3 hour practice - very few breaks. We practiced grounders, throwing mechanics, hitting mechanics, running mechanics and I feel like at some point just plain life mechanics. At no great surprise, Koreans are extremely mechanically driven with baseball - as I imagine them to be with most sporting arenas.

I was a bit rusty at first but picked up some of my old skills (ha!) - and it helped that Koreans aren't really that great at baseball, most likely because it's just not that popular of a sport here. Millions more play soccer and badminton comes after that.

Anyway, after the practice/warmup, we headed about 30 minutes away to Songchu, to a nifty baseball diamond in between some mountain ranges. It was actually pretty scenic and surreal, and the sunset casta strange shadow on the field but it was still beautiful.

We played a scrimmage against another team - we won 10-4 and it was really fun being out with all of them. Choi is really the only one that speaks English, which made me feel like Ichiro most of the time I was playing. Later they told me that I'm the first white player to play in the league - yeah, that's right, I'm breaking the color barrier - I'm thinking of wearing 42 on my FORCE jersey.

How did I do? I batted 2-4, 3 RBIs, one run scored, a tag out at second, a caught line drive and no errors. Was I so vain as to keep my own statistics - no! I was given my stat sheet on the drive home from Choi who happily recorded each game detail in his iPhone as the game went on. Yes, apparently, there's an app for that.

Our seasons starts next Sunday - I'll be sure to give some updates now and then.

What else?

Oh, I shaved for the first time in over 2 months. I was beginning to wonder what my chin looked like. And even with no facial hair, the next youngest player on my new baseball team (26 american age) guessed I was 29. (Jo - I need to age backward faster!)

I found a new, and closer, Chuiatong place to go to! This means that I will be making the walk to East Guri for some delicious mudfish soup at least once a week. I hope they'll start to remember me so I don't have to order. I have that savvy sort of deal going on at my local Kimbop place but I need a second location.

If I've told you about the drama with my bedframe and my leaving of it in my hallway (it's too long of a story) there's a new chapter. It was removed! That's right - someone just took it away. My tactic of just leaving it out until it disappeared has worked and I only had to endure a few complaints from my way-too-nice doorman.

The second comma in the title of this blogpost is an "Oxford Comma" in case you wondered what that was.

I hope one day the world might read about this man, who nearly single-handedly started the wave of Middle East protests taht is changing the political and social landscape of that always tumultuous region.

I can't believe what is going on in Madison! It's so terrific, what a beautiful and moving city. It's these things that give me some hope that I might actually live in America longterm and not grow angered by perennial apathy. Wish I were there - and if you are there and reading this, keep it up. The more attention you all get from the world the better since apparently the lawmakers won't listen.

I'll leave with a song and a quotation....

Fela Kuti - Zombie (some call him the Bob Marley of Nigeria, and indeed he's got the funk and the love - it's just mixed with some potent politics)

"Among those whom I like, I can find no common denominator, but among those I love, I can; all of them make me laugh."
- W. H Auden


Tuesday, February 15, 2011


alright - third country. the great nation of Cambodia.

just as a recap - I left you all off in Koh Phangnon - and our next city was Siem Reap.

from the hotel in Phangon - we took a taxi to a boat. we took the boat to a bus. we took that bus to a train. we took the train to a minivan. we took that minivan to the border where we left Thailand and entered Cambodia. We then took a large bus. We took that to another minivan and we arrived in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a large tourist city because of its close proximity to Angkor Village. The town was beautiful and nice and was filled with different sorts of accommodations, from the very expensive to the very cheap. We settled at a hostel called Golden Mango which was absolute fantastic - $9 a night and was essentially at least a three star hotel. Has to be the nicest hostel I've stayed in. We were sat down upon arrival for a presentation about the hostel - there was a restaurant attached whose most expensive item was a $3.50 steak. On-call tuk-tuks (4 person max. taxis driven by a motorbike at the front - awesome, they had them in Thailand too but I think I forgot to mention).

Angkor Village is the remains of a large civilization - both the political and religious center of much of Southeast Asia and features the famous Angkor Wat (wat = temple). Many of you might recognize a few of the temples from the Tomb Raider movie - or perhaps you've just seen pictures before.

They are notorious as tourists hotspots, hotspots in general (we went in the "colder" season and it was at least 90) and for children begging you for money as you tour (boy did they!). But it's beautiful nonetheless.

We opted for the major tourist package and woke our vacationing butts up at 4:30am and go to Angkor (with our private tuk-tuks) in time for sunrise (the sun rose around 6 or so).

The sunrise at Angkor Wat is quite famous and there were hundreds of people there doing exactly what we were doing. The sunrise is perhaps most famous because the sun reflects in the GIGANTIC(ly awesome) MOAT that surrounds the temple area. I've always been into moats (who isn't, seriously) and this one sure didn't disappoint.

But the sunrise was great - the eery red of South Asia spurting just above the peaks (rosy-fingered dawn, and all). Lots of pictures were taken. I'll put one or two up.

After, we toured Angkor Wat - which wikipedia says is considered the largest religious building in the world. At times it seemed more like a fort than a temple (was Hindu, then Buddhist). Very cool place - large indeed and amazing to walk around. Reminded me of Palatine Hill and all the ruins of Rome - always these weren't quite as decadent.

We had chosen to do a tour with the tuk-tuks and saw about 4 temples in total and a few old government and society buildings/ruins. Inbetween we had lunch at a recommended restaurant that was pretty awful, bought some things we definitely didn't need but couldn't keep refusing begging people, refused other begging people and fell asleep in the tuk tuk (well, I did) essentially risking injury because you could very easily fall out.

The other famous temples are the "tree" temple where the roots have seemed to come into perfect contact with the ruins adn grow right up against them - and have for many years. The other is the "faces" one (again, in Tomb Raider) where the large towers have faces looking out from them. You should be able to figure out which is which from the pictures.

We stayed around the village until about 3pm when we were just too exhausted to do anything but go home (not to mention I was in pants and dying).....That night we explored a part of Siem Reap called Pub Street that had a bunch of bars and eateries lined up and where all the tourists flocked to. It was the Asian Cup finals (Japan vs Australia - Japan having knocked off S. Korea in the semifinals) and every bar was playing the game so we watched (Japan won, 1-0 if you were curious) and drank a bit and went home early and tired.

The next day we slept in and sometime in the afternoon we went to a floating village outside of Siem Reap and near Tonle Sap (the largest lake in Southeast Asia). The village is precisely was it sounds like - a bunch of houses floating and they had all the necessary things for a village - schools, a hospital, and even a gymnasium that floated. Everyone just got around on small boats. It was very cool to see but seemed outright dangerous if floods or storms should come - but that's just how some people live.

Cambodian people were amazingly nice to us but were noticeable much poorer than the other three nations I saw. Lots of children begging for just one dollar - things were very cheap (2 shirts for like 4 or 5 bucks) and they were grateful if you bought from them. This also led to some annoying persistence on the part of the children and vendors, so there are times you have to be forceful with your "NO" 's.

We took a mini-caravan (2) taxis to the capital city of Phnom Penh but didn't get there until 10 or so. We made an unexpected stop at an impromptu dance party with Cambodian people taking place outside of a pharmacy along the highway. We danced for about 10 or 15 inutes then moved on- because it was nearing the Lunar New Year, there was a party of this sort every 15 or 20 miles. random gatherings of happy people dancing and celebrating. amazing to drive through.

We would done a day in Phnom Penh but we had to choose whether we wanted that or an extra day in Vietnam and we chose the latter. We ate in Phnom Penh and took a few pictures by our hostel (which was the most European of any of our hostels, a twisting consortium of rooms and hallways,a center laundry area and a main meeting area). We ate and after figuring out everything with our Visas we charted a private boat for a 2 or 3 hour journey down the Mekong River. We watched the sun set as we arrived in Vietnam.

Cambodia was short - the shortest of all the countries - but the most historically involved and an opportunity to meet amazing people and eat great food. i hope to get back there and enjoy more of the country - Phnom Penh and around Tonle Sap.

next, and last, up: Vietnam

Sunday, February 13, 2011


alright, now that the weekend is winding down it's time to tell you about my second country.

Thailand has always had the reputation of being a tourist haven - and maintains that with its vast domain of cities, islands and beachtowns. Perhaps no other country in Southeast Asia boasts as diverse a bounty as Thailand - and my friends and I were willing to indulge.

My time in Thailand was long and adventurous and although I wasn't in the major city/hub of Bangkok for more than 45 minutes, Thailand was a place I found a depth of experience through.

We hopped a short flight from Penang to Phuket - a large and popular tourism island off the western coast of the country. The flight was only an hour or so and I sat next to a very interesting and tan south African man who had spent his last 6 months on his 43-foot boat just sailing. He was an older gentlemen and had a great wisdom about enjoying life. Unfortunately, he was docked on the other side of the island.

Well, his side must be beautiful since Phuket is so boasted about and considering how scummy I found our arrangements. Our town - despite having a good hostel - was filled with skeezy bars, skeezy massage parlors and skeezy vendors selling their skeezy supplies. If you haven't caught the drift yet - I didn't love Phuket.

The skeez is shown below ( a cute puppy carried around in a basket of cigarettes)

But it had a nice beach and we some beers out there and thank god only spent the night.

The next day we shipped out to Koh Phi Phi, a more secluded and smaller island. There we stayed at Viking Resort - a string of bungalow type housing right off the beach that forced one to do a bit of a treacherous climb to reach each housing unit. No matter - well worth it. Phi Phi was one of the my favorite places I have ever been - if only for the seclusion, the beauty, the cheap price of anything in town, and the stellar day-long boat trip we took to several other islands and beaches near it.

This included a few of the filming location of the 90s movie The Beach (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and that place - Can Bay and Maya Beach on Phi Phi were stunningly beautiful. Ripped right out of a photography reel of place's of absolute perfection.

We did a bit of snorkeling too and my friend and I explored the cavernous underside of a large rock (barnacle-heavy, yikes!) and we just spent the day under the sun in perfect comfort. Outstanding.

We spent a few days on Phi Phi - celebrated our friend Chris' birthday and just relaxed and enjoyed the calm and the weather. And after those days, my friend Mo and I left the island and our friends to get back to Phuket to fly to Koh Samui (the other side of Thailand, now) to take another boat to Koh Phangnan and spent some time on this new island.

We met up with some Korean friends (Zoe and Joanna) and their vacationing friends from Madison - and it was this group I'd spend the rest of my vacation with.

They were thoughtful enough to arrange for their car to be waiting at the airport for us and to get a boat to get us to Phangnan and before I knew it we were there - another tropical paradise in the middle of the ocean sprawl.

And so we spent 3 days/2 nights on Phangnon, at another beachside resort (i think we each paid 6 dollars a night for our room). We spent the better part of our time just lounging around the beach here - eating some good grub made by the locals at the hotel and laying on hammocks. More relaxation - more bliss.

And on the second night we occasioned over to the famous Half Moon Party - a gathering of a few thousand island goers and live music and many, many bars and good feelings all around. We danced and enjoyed the night away and made it back safe (although a bird was almost sacrificed in the process.....)

We left Phangnon the third day having barely emptied our pockets - said goodbye to our quasi-spiritual/life guide Alec and made way toward the mainland. This would be the end of my streak of islands and beaches (don't worry - I'll be back there soon enough).

Our next stop was Siem Reap in Cambodia - but it was certainly anything but simple to get there.

Broken down: we took a ferry from Koh Phangnon to the mainland. From there we took a bus to the train station. We took an overnight train into Bangkok (my 45 minutes there), hired a private van to take us to the border, got dropped off at the border and went through customs and walked the mile or so onto the Cambodian side, bargained with taxi drivers but ultimately found some government workers who took us on a city-type bus to their offices and from there we hired a different private van to take us into Siem Reap. It was at least a day of travel but that's what happens when you spend time on a more secluded island and want to get back into civilization.

For us, though, that civilization revolved around the remnants of one of the largest fallen civilization centers - Angkor Village - harking back as far as the 11th century.

And you'll get the Cambodian rundown soon enough!

And I'll through some pictures up but they won't do perfect justice - nothing would, Thailand's islands were beyond belief - sort of an existing dream place where I woke up everyday to sunshine and the ocean calmly crashing in and receding. There must have been a dozen moments a day where I wondered if I would ever leave these paradises - if it was even worth it, if it was even real, if I really had been given such a great gift as to see it and be there. But, alas, vacations are meant to draw the awe out of places you may have left idle for a while.

And one more note: Mubarak steps down - we'll see if Egypt can stay strong and withstand some chaos - but certainly it is a victory for the rights of free people everywhere. It shows a seemingly sometimes indifferent world that collective action and principles can drive vehicles toward better natures.


one last thing - my friend Quinn, a much more skilled photographer than I, has put up his first sets of pictures on his Picasa - so here's a link to see them.......

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

SouthEast Asia: Malaysia

my vacation was long so rather than have you suffer through one long post about it all (read: my having to write one long post about it all) I thought I'd break it up.

I went to four countries in total (21 days) and thus will make this Part 1 of 4.


I must admit that going into the vacation I had the least eagerness to explore Malaysia - perhaps because of reputation or perhaps not because I really hadn't heard anything about. Thailand promised islands and seclusion, Cambodia had Angkor Wat and I spent a whole semester emerged in Vietnamese history - Malaysia seemed a distant fourth and a reluctant starting point.

And to be honest, the only reason the group probably wound up there was that Air Asia in its infinite cheapdom had a flight Seoul to Kuala Lumpur for something like 230 bucks. Couldn't beat it.

And you know - Malaysia shocked me. Plopped me right beside the head. It was without doubt the most culturally enlightening of the four countries - it gave me the most picture souvenirs and taught me the undeniably perennial lesson of not judging a country before you've experienced it.

So, then. We spent about the better part of the first week in Malaysia - 2/3 in Kuala Lumpur and 3/4 on Penang Island (buses and flights make for the half days and sort).

Kuala Lumpur existed sinisterly in my mind ever since adolescence when their Petronas Towers striped the Sears Tower of World's Tallest Building - something I took far more seriously then.

They were closed. Didn't get to go up.

But low and behold, KL also had a gigantically tall TV-type tower that had a higher observation deck and I got to go up there and snap some pretty incredible pictures of the tower - which I suppose I might have preferred anyway.

But the city was interesting - it was the opening door to Southeast Asia and its cheap prices, knockoff markets and people that speak far better English than the Koreans I have been brought to this continent to teach.

We learned quickly that Malaysia is a mix of British, Indian and Chinese influences - something that the two latter gave to boost their food straight to "incredible". Roti Canai - 50 cents? - hello!

KL gave us our share of attractions - some nice Hindi Temples that had a quirky new years festival going on - and great food and markets. But the highlight was when we out of the city for the day to the Bhatu Caves.

These are a series of caves, I believe, but we only went to one. And I don't think we would have had the energy for anymore. It was a few hundred steps up to the cave and was in the middle of a serious religious ceremony (chanting and carrying up buckets of something) as well as being surrounded by several dozen pernicious monkeys ready to pounce on any food going up or down.

It had, at its front, a giant standing statue of a Hindi god.

Inside the cave there were several elderly people blessing youths with sawdust and the sort to keep their bald heads cool. There was more chanting and altogether confusion on our part as we did not want to interrupt to inquire about what was happening.

But altogether a rewarding visit.

The day before we left for Penang Island we went to the bus station (a bit out of the city) and bought tickets for the large group. We were scheduled to leave at 3:30pm and we showed up at 3pm to make sure things were smooth.

They weren't. Problems with the buses and two dyed-mohawked s**theads delayed our departure until after 5 and we didn't get onto the island until after 10pm.

Penang was an amazingly cool island that we all enjoyed to full effect (except for a brief food poisoning episode by Sam). Malaysia only gained its independence from Britain some half century ago and the relics of imperialism still exist on the island that the Brits considered the jewel of the country.

Our hostel worker was a Malay man named Nathan. Adjectives elude me for him - but let's just say he had two rings for each finger, a haircut cropped from 1982 and wore only shirts with impeccable shine. Gotta see him to believe in him, I guess.

Anyway, we spent the first while in Penang touring some old Brit-infused haunts, including the worst tour of a mansion I've ever associated myself with and then some time looking out at the ocean because it'd be a while since anyone had done that.

Georgetown - the main city of the island where we stayed - had all of this and more. But no beach.

We had heard of Batu Ferringi (possible contender for future pet name) was nice, but also resort-conquered so we opted for a little further and chartered a private boat led by Captain Jack Sparrow (who we called Jack the whole day since he didn't tell us his real name) to a beach called Monkey Beach - populated by the same aggressive part of that species as we saw at the caves.

Well the monkeys stole our food, and followed us and the other people up and down the beach. We learned how to fend them off but relied on the Malay experts a few times. The beach was beautiful though and there were only maybe a few dozen people on the whole long strip so it felt like complete seclusion - terrific day.

When we got back to our hostel the man himself - Nathan - offered to take us over to the Thaipusam Festival. We had heard about this and were planning to go the next day but he figured either it'd be cool to also see at night or knew that we would never be able to see all of it in one day and insisted on taking us to "stop by"

We were there for at least 2 hours.

But lord was it fascinating. The festival is multi-faceted but is none for the most part because of the ritual where men put hooks through their skin and pull things along toward a temple on a hill. If it sounds painful and looks painful - we thought so too. We were told they either didn't feel pain because of a "trance" or were glad of the pain they felt as a sacrifice.

It's an optional thing in the religion and some men do it every year, some never, and some here and there.

In the picture below, the guy has hooks all up and down his back and the other guy has a belt of sorts attached and is pulling back to either incur pain or test the boundaries of it.

Besides the hooks, the festival had loud music, free food & drink (non-alc) and several groups of young Malay men dancing like barbarians with popped collars. Girls were not allowed to dance.

Also - medical tent - Red Crescent? Didn't know that there existed this Red Cross alternative but certainly interesting.

Anyway, we went back the next day for me and marched up the temple and my friends went in there while I sat and hung out wtih little kids and handed out some coins to them. They assured me I missed nothing (my knee got a bit banged up from a rahter large boulder at the beach the day before).

We flew out of Penang the day after that but we most certainly enjoyed our stay. I will, now, only have positive things to say about the country and its overwhelmingly nice people.

Next up, Thailand: A contrast of Phuket Scum and Two Isolated Paradises - as well as a half dozen boats, an overnight train, some minivans and taxis.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

back home

finally back home in Korea after a three week vacation in southeast asia.

details will come soon once i get pictures up and try and get down as many memories as I can muster.

for now though, it's quite surreal being back - remembering responsibility and that my life here is my life as current. by this i mean to note how strange it is to return back "home" to Korea while during my many months in this country it too has felt as some sort of work-involved vacation.

i got this coming back to Rome but those were mostly weekend getaways and I was still a student and subject to the whims and arrows of academic fortune.

AND to add to it, my kimbop place has raised their prices - 2,500won now for chamchi kimbop.