Author Archives: Sara

India Part 2: Kolkata and the Missionaries of Charity

May 2006 was my first trip to Kolkata, India. I went with my now alma mater, Anderson University. I did not have a clue what I was walking into when I signed up for the trip, but it was love at first sight for Kolkata and me. I worked with the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, in a home called Shanti Dan meaning “to give peace” in English. Working with mentally challenged older adult women was a huge stretch for me at my 19 years of age, but those two weeks of my life served the catalyst for a revolution in my world view. I came back an entirely changed person and my family witnessed my less than graceful transformation in an up close and personal way. I begged my family to return with me, but the only person who was crazy enough to entertain this idea was my youngest sister Sidney, who was 11 at the time.

Catching the bus to Shanti Dan

Sidney catching the bus to Shanti Dan

During my senior year of college (2009), I returned to Kolkata with a group of near and dear friends and my—at the time—fiancé Davo. I had the pleasure of bringing 4 of my closest friends with me and experienced the city and Shanti Dan for the second time through my wiser, more-traveled eyes. My love for the city and Shanti Dan only grew, and I knew that I would never grow tired of returning. Kolkata would be a lifelong home for me.

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Still fresh off the plane and jet lagged, I am writing about my third experience. As I have grown and developed in the past 4-and-a-half years, so too has Kolkata. This was apparent upon arrival at the airport. The airport has been remodeled since 2009, and what was once an extremely hot, un-air-conditioned, crowded and outdated mess of a space is now orderly, cool, and modern. Before arriving, I instructed my sister to run from the airport to the taxi without engaging with any of the mass quantities of beggars. I realized these instructions were laughable when we exited the airport. No chaos, no hordes of people, no beggars. We arrived at Hotel Circular to find it newly painted hot pink and purple (although much to my relief the lobby was still eerily dark, damp and green.) I slept well in great anticipation of being able to return to Shanti Dan the next morning.

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Saying the Morning Prayer with my sister and husband at the Mother House before volunteering gave me an incredible sense of peace and belonging. In some ways it felt like a homecoming. Upon arrival at Shanti Dan that morning, I immediately had goose bumps. It was all so familiar but different at the same time. Some of the women were the same; many were different, but love and light radiated from the place the same as I remember. I was overjoyed to be back.

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One woman whose face and spirit was most etched in my mind heart was still there. I named her “granny” because until this trip I did not know how to ask her name in Bengali. Although smaller, older and slightly more frail, her face lit up when she saw me. She immediately greeted me with the same greeting I remember so well: one “Namaste,” one kiss on the hand, one kiss on each of my cheeks, and a back rub. It is up for debate whether or not she remembered me among the endless cycle of volunteer faces; however my sister swears—and I agree—that she did interact differently with me. I relished the time I got to spend with her over the week and received one incredibly soft back rub from her tiny frail hands each day.

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This extraordinary women and her back rubs are a small story that parallels the larger narrative when working in the homes. Thousands of volunteers flood in every year with great hopes of “serving” and bringing Jesus’ light and love to these people. Yet every time I am reminded that Jesus is in fact already very present, and the light and love is already there. While at Shanti Dan I receive a level of joy unmatched by any other experience. Even though I am the person who makes beds, does laundry and feeds people lunch, the women at Shanti Dan serve me. With the women I am able to be fully present, engaged, joyful, and at peace. When I am at Shanti Dan, I am receiving a back rub and am refreshed by the beautifully simple things in life like doing laundry by hand. I am the one who receives and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful.

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The city of Kolkata appeared to be modernizing at a rapid pace. What was once a city thick with children and adults begging around every corner, people sleeping on every surface imaginable, and obtrusive grinding poverty is now a much more orderly and manageable city. I was shocked to find Park Street has many air-conditioned fancy restaurants and even an Au Bon Pain cafe. I am hopeful that this is positive development and that there has been social change for the better, however in the back of my mind, I am fearful that the streets have merely been swept and the poor are hidden away somewhere or maybe incarcerated.

Fine dining at Peter Cat

Overall our time in Kolkata was incredibly meaningful. It was a shorter trip, which was difficult, however we all know we will be back. This is what makes leaving bearable. Shanti Dan is not going anywhere, life will continue on at its rapid pace, but I can always return for refreshment. I eagerly anticipate the growth that will occur between now and my next visit. Each time I visit there are new lessons to be learned and each time I am further molded by the “City of God.”

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Goodbye Asia: Beijing solo adventure

When I arrived in Beijing I was terrified.  Could I figure out how to get to my hostel? What if I got lost?  What if something happened with my money?  What if someone took me away to a Chinese brothel and sold me?  Ok so obviously some of these fears were a bit irrational.  But I came to China terrified.

When I arrived in Beijing, a Chinese university student immediately befriended me.  He had never traveled before, and I knew no Chinese so we were a perfect match.  I helped him with things like what line to stand in for passports and where to go next, and he helped me with things like what subway to get on where and where I should store my bags.  I was off to a good start and feeling more confident.

When I stepped out of the airport armed with the new knowledge and maps my friend had given me, I was immediately hit with the insane heat and smoggy air.  Similar to in Kolkata, I could not see the sun and a grey haze was consuming the sky.  The heat was overwhelming.  I got to my hostel with the unsolicited help from a British man who lived in the area.  Upon arriving at the hostel, I met two Americans who had just left a year of teaching in Korea as well, and I made plans to take the bus to see the Great Wall with them in the morning.  That evening I explored the area around the hostel, got dinner, and did some wrong things and got yelled at, you know the usual.

The next morning we went to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. After a 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride where my legs were buried in the seat in front of me because they were too long, we arrived at our destination.  Ever since my Chinese history class at AU, I had wanted to visit the Great Wall, and it was pretty unfathomable to me that I was actually there.  We climbed up the mountain, climbed the wall, and I imagined what it would be like to be a solider at my post, guarding China from its enemies.  It really is remarkable that the wall is still there and bears so much history.  I also think I have never been so sweaty in my entire life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

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Great wall and lost of fog.

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There are lots of steps to climb a the great wall.

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Tower on the wall.

After the 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride home with my knees buried in the seat in front of me, I was pretty well exhausted, but I knew I only had a precious few days in Beijing.  So, I rested up, went to dinner and then headed to the night market.  Where I saw all these interesting ObaMao things. Weird.

ObaMao

ObaMao

Night market.

Night market.

The next day I set off to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  The thing that sticks out most in my mind about the Forbidden City is that it was incredibly ornate and massive.  (Sorry Gyungbukgung and Korea, but you are just not as cool as the Forbidden City.) I moseyed around for hours, took a lot of pictures, listened to my automated guide, which sometimes worked, and tried to dodge all the people who wanted to take pictures with me.

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By the time I was finished with the Forbidden City, I was exhausted and again possibly the hottest I have ever been in my life, so that did not leave a lot of room for walking around Tiananmen.  Luckily there is not a whole lot to do at Tiananmen but just be there.  The one thing I did notice was how much security was there. When you walk in every Chinese citizen has to give some form of ID to the security guards. For those of you that do not know, you will never seen the famous man standing in front of the tank picture, because it is illegal to publish in China.  If you Google Tiananmen Square anywhere but in China you will be flooded with scenes from the 1989 protests in the square.  But if you Google this in China, nothing comes up but pictures of tourists walking around and other pleasantries.  Just like China blocks Facebook from its citizens, it also blocks some of its history.

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After Tiananmen I went to the wrong temple.  I thought I was going to the Temple of Heaven, which looked interesting to me because it looked a little different than the dozens of other temples I had seen in Asia.  But I was actually at the Lama temple.  So rather than be disappointed about my mistake, I sat for a long time taking in the scenery and trying to absorb the fact that this was my last day in Asia.  This is where it somewhat hit me, and I was tossed into an emotional whirlwind for the rest of the evening.

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My last evening in Asia was spent eating dinner with an American on his way to North Korea and drinking terrible Chinese liquor on the side of the road with some meat on a stick.  The people I met that evening helped me though the emotions of my last night in Asia and my grand adventure coming to a close.  It is funny how awesome people can be that you have met only hours before.  I woke up the next morning at 5am with some help from a friend and went to the airport.  And that, my friends, was the end of my Asian adventure.

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

Good-bye Korea

This is my final goodbye to Korea.  I am sitting in the Busan airport about to board my flight to Beijing, and I am strangely unemotional.  This morning was emotional saying goodbye to Davo for 3 days (I know I am a wuss), but I was not emotional about leaving Korea.  It is possible though that my brain just cannot process what is happening.  I don’t feel like I am leaving.  I feel like I will be back here after China, but I won’t.

This weekend we said goodbye to all our friends, our favorite restaurants, our coffee shops and our bars.  Saying goodbye to friends was emotional.  We have met many cool people here and their company has helped us throughout the year to forget the massive heartache of missing friends and family back home.  We now have friends all over the world and it makes the world feel a bit smaller and more homey.

Korea has been a huge growing experience.  I have learned a lot about myself and the way that I connect with people.  I have learned to just roll with things.  I have learned that I am more adaptable than I once thought.  I hope that these experiences will resonate with me and stay with me.   I am capable of more than I thought.  And now I am about to embark on a journey that is wildly out of my comfort zone.  Traveling solo.  No friends, no family, and no Davo.

I know I am capable of navigating China alone.  But it is still scary.  Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive partner who encouraged me to clear this hurdle that I have always wanted to clear.  The solo female traveler.   During our time aboard I have met many amazing women who have come to Korea on their own and traveled all over the world on their own.  I always wanted to see if I could do it, too.  Three days in Bejing hardly begins to touch the experience of moving to Korea on your own, but it is a start.  I love  my partner more than anything, but I can do things without him, and I am looking forward to learning more about myself during this experience.

After Beijing I will meet Davo and his family in Prague.  It only seems right that this year-long journey began in Prague, and it will end in Prague.  Soon I will be making grilled pizzas with my family and partner, and I can take comfort in that as I am navigating an Asian sprawling metropolitan giant all-alone.

I can do this! Bring it, China! I am sure there will be a blog about China shortly upon my arrival in Prague.  Stay tuned.

How to book the perfect flight on the cheap

I do not claim to have very many areas of expertise.  I am decent at a lot of things but it is rare that I call myself an expert in anything.  Actually, I think I only have two areas that I am willing to self-proclaim expertise in: sleeping and international travel planning.  One of the aspects of travel planning I get asked about most is how to book the perfect plane tickets.  So I am dedicating this post to the process that I go about when booking international flights.

Choose Your Destination

The first thing that needs to be considered is: are you going somewhere specific or do you just want to get out of the country?  When I am planning a trip, I usually have some ideas of where I want to go, but I find it is best to let the price of plane tickets balanced with the cost of staying in that country be my guide. (I will discuss more about this balance later).  When we get time off of work and we know we have a chunk of time to globe trot, the first thing I do is get on the Kayak Explore application.

Kayak Explore is the best place to get a rough estimate of how much it will cost for you to go where. Poke around the map and you can choose options for when you want to travel such as: seasons, the entire year, or a specific month.  This can serve as a rough—and I do mean rough—guide to the places you can get to within your price range and some rough timing.  This tool is really just a way to narrow things down from anywhere on the globe to specific regions.  You can also cross-reference this with Sky Scanner, which has a search “everywhere” option.

Book Your Flight

Once you have decided a region you want to visit or a specific country, then there are many websites to use in order to insure that you are getting the cheapest flights.  These websites are the best for long intercontinental flights.  They work for in-country flights or small, cross-country flights as well, however I have found that there are sometimes small, local airlines that do not show up on the major websites that can be better if, say, you want to fly from Kolkata to Kathmandu.  These are ranked in the order in which I use them and in order of my preference.  But it is important to check them all so as to make sure that you really are getting the best deal.

  1. Kayak.com – This website is the love of my life (don’t tell Davo).  Besides the Explore option, it also offers just straight, plane ticket searches.  This website searches most of the major airlines in the world and comes up with the cheapest flights found for your destination.  It then links you to the website that it found the flights on, and you can book from there.  Genius, really.  Make sure to look at other options.  Flexibility is the key to cheap tickets.  There are places on this website that show you the cheapest days to fly on in specific months, etc.  It is really wonderful, and you can do a lot with this website.
  2. Orbitz.com – This is the first website I use after kayak.com in order to make sure that there is not a better deal on Orbitz.  Sometimes, even though Kayak is the greatest thing in the world, this website finds a way to make it a little cheaper.  So, I always like to check before I book.  This website also scans the web for different flights on many different airlines.
  3. Expedia.com – Generally I have found that this website is better for domestic US travel, but I still always check it before I buy international plane tickets.  Sometimes it will surprise you with the best deal!

Additional Considerations

  • Price of tickets vs. cost of country. Some countries cost drastically more than others.  For example, it might be much cheaper to fly to London than it is to fly to Delhi, however, it is much more expensive to stay in London that it is to stay in Delhi.  So even if you are footing a huge bill to get to a country, you might end up saving money in the end because of the small cost to stay in that country.
  • Land travel. Some times it best to fly into a major city and then bus or train to the place you want to go.  The bigger the airport, the cheaper the flight, and if you are willing to take the extra time to bus or train overland you can cut a lot of cost and see more of the country! (See our Thailand post about the “sitting with fan” train.)
  • Booking small in country flights. If you are flying within one country or to a neighboring country, check with locals or people you know who have been to the country.  Oftentimes there are small, cheap airlines that are not easily found on the Internet.
  • Order of events. If you have multiple destinations in your travels make sure to try as many permutations of the order of destinations.  Sometimes it is much cheaper if you fly to one place first and then the next rather than vice versa.  For example, Davo and I got to go to Iceland because I figured out that if we added Helsinki to our trip we could take save hundreds on the flight from Reykjavik.

Technical Advice

A few other technical notes (from Davo) on optimizing your buying/shopping experience. Occasionally, the cheapest flight on Kayak will have a notice under it saying “Only 3 seats left! Book now!” I was recently looking at booking such a flight, but waited too long and it disappeared the next day. However, a day or two later the flight reappeared for the same price with the same notice. (I’m guessing that it’s an advertising ploy, where the airlines only release a certain number of tickets each day at a certain price). If the site gives you such a warning then the flight disappears, there’s a chance that it will reappear. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that, but if you’re not pressed for time in booking the tickets, it might be worth waiting a day or two to see.

Additionally, I’ve read (although I have no direct experience to confirm this) that ticket-booking websites sometimes track visits to their site. If they see that you frequently search for airline tickets, they won’t display the cheapest flights. Apparently, if you clear your browsing history, cookies, etc., you will get cheaper flights. It might also work to use the incognito/private browsing mode available in your browser. Again, none of this is confirmed, but it might be worth trying.

These days.

What have we been doing “these days?” (These days is an expression that English speaking Koreans say ALL THE TIME, usually incorrectly.) These days, we have been gallivanting around South East Korea, seeing what it has to offer, and secretly (or not so secretly) counting down the days until we are home. In 13 weeks we will be leaving, but until then we have been trying our best to live in the moment and enjoy our time here. Here are some pictures of life’s recent shenanigans.

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IMG_1268A few weeks ago we went to a wedding for one of the teachers at my school.  As soon as we arrived at the wedding, I was very aware that we had no idea what we were doing.  The wedding was at the fanciest and most prestigious place in Ulsan, Lotte Hotel, and we were told that because of this we needed to give the couple $70 upon arrival as a gift to pay for our food (don’t ask questions in Korea).   We followed the signs to the wedding, and when we arrived at the top of the escalator a line of people were staring at us, and we had no idea what to do.  I panicked and called my co-teacher to come out and get us.  She obliged, laughed with us and then told us exactly what to do, god bless that women.  We then sat down at the lunch table which was in the same room that the wedding took take place.  You could eat and watch the couple get married at the same time.

This event was a clear depiction of just how different Korean culture can be.  As you can see, being at the wedding felt more like being at a show.  The couple was broadcasted over two huge screens while they were getting married on a stage and we were eating.  Also, the person who “presided” over the wedding was a high up person from the cell phone company the groom worked for.  All in all, a very interesting endeavor that included wonderful food, so we were happy.  The whole thing was very precisely timed and lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, in and out.  Totally Korean style.

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This is the Jinhae cherry blossom festival.  Every spring for about two weeks, the tree bust to life with beautiful blossoms that cover the country.  We signed up in advance to go to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, the supposed best place to see cherry blossoms.  We were set to go on a Sunday and the Saturday before we had a massive downpour.  Needless to say, when we got to Jinhae most of the flowers were now covering the earth instead of in the trees.  There were some trees that were salvaged though and we were grateful to see those.

This week Lacey and Matt (Davo’s sister and brother-in-law) are coming to visit us all the way from New Jersey.  We are very excited to see them and we have some fun things planed including a trip to Seoul and seeing Sigur Ros! We cannot wait! Stay tuned for our latest adventures and blog post about that!

Yeonam-dong 연암동

Since I have become a runner, I have run in every country we have visited.  I have found it is a very efficient way to explore a new area.  Running gives you the feel of being a local, while also affording you an opportunity to see much of the terrain in a short amount of time. While living in Korea and in Yeonam (our neighborhood) in particular, I have run the same streets many, many times and therefore have been able to get to know the area on a more personal level.

Yeonam-dong has been with me on beautiful runs in fantastic weather when I am elated and having the run of my life.  Yeonam-dong has been with me in the winter when I drag myself out to run, and 10 minutes feels like an eternity as I am craping up and trying to remember why I would ever do a crazy thing like run.  Where my students run after me yelling “Saera teacha” and adjuma’s (old women) look at me like I am completely insane and laugh when I pass them multiple times during a run.  Through thick and thin in my running career almost all of these moments have taken place running up and down through the grid of my neighborhood.  So, I thought it was high time that Yeonam-dong got a little blog action.   Here is the neighborhood I live, work and run in.  (Usually I play down town 😉

As you can tell people’s front doors/gates are my favorite and usually what I look at on my runs.

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My school 연암 초등학교.

My school 연암 초등학교.

Tokyo

The thing that sticks out most it my mind about Tokyo is just how immaculate it is.  According to Wikipedia Tokyo is the world’s largest “urban area” in the world and I am telling you there is no trash on its street.  Not one piece of gum, cigarette butt, loose straw, nothing.  I almost wanted to throw something on the ground just to see what would happen.  I imagined if I did someone would pop out of the wall slap me with a $300 fine and make me pick up my trash.  Or maybe I would just be stoned by the locals, who knows.  But I tell you this there is no trash in Tokyo.  And this very fact also is symbolic of the way Tokyo felt in general.  Tokyo was clean, polite, polished, and orderly.  As much as I loved it, it made me a little nervous and helped me further appreciate Japan’s more unruly and less organized neighbor, Korea.

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Wonderful use of space.

Wonderful use of space.

Our journey began when we arrived in Asakusa, Tokyo, and many locals went completely out of their way to help us navigate the small roads to find our hostel.   Our hostel [Retrometro Backpacker] was small, quaint and just what we needed.  The woman who ran the hostel was very polite, helpful, and soft spoken.  She recommended the wonderful “standing sushi” place that we ate at twice [no idea the name, but here it is on Google Maps] and showed us how to get to all the places we wanted to go on the map.  That night we set off exploring our area and were not disappointed.

Our cute little hostel.

Our cute little hostel.

Asakusa temple.

Asakusa temple.

The next morning we got up early to start sightseeing.  I mean, we only had two days so we needed to get a jump start! Davo and I went for a run, ate some breakfast, and we were off.  First we went to the Tokyo government municipal building so that we could get a great view of the city and see Mt. Fuji.  It was a little hazy so our view of Mt. Fuji was not exceptional but as Davo said, “we got to see ALL the city for free!”  And we did, it was beautiful and a great way to start out our trip.  Turns out Tokyo is pretty big!

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

After that we headed to Tokyo’s Harajuku area to check out some of the strange new fashion trends and the shrine to the Emperor.  Davo and I sat and ate some street food on a bench to take in the very high heels, bright colors, pastel colors, spiky black leather, piercings and whatever other fashions we saw.  After which we went to the shrine and had the pleasure to observe some Japanese religious practices, which actually looked much different than Korean practices.

Harajuku fashion.  Oh, my!

Harajuku fashion. Oh, my!

Shrine to the Emperor.

Shrine to the Emperor.

The rest of our evening consisted of hanging out in the area near our hostel, experiencing some authentic Japanese tempura. And drinking real beer! (Japan is known for being one of the only places in East Asia with decent beer.  Davo was very happy. )

The next day we regrettably did not go to the famous Tsukiji fish market, because it was closed for the Lunar New Year. Instead we got up and went out for sushi again, got some green tea ice cream and moseyed around our neighborhood.

Standing sushi place.  SO delicious.

Standing sushi place. SO delicious.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Later, we set off on a quest to find a “maido” café.  This experience was quite possibly one of the most interesting I have had in a long time.  At “maido” cafes (or maid cafes) young, attractive Japanese women dress up as maids and serve their “madams” and “masters” cute food.  You can pay to play games with them, take pictures with them, and they even draw your animal of choice with syrup on top of your coffee or drink.  What exactly is “cute” food?  You can see the pictures below.  We were not allowed to take pictures of the servers but this is the best I can do to show you what was going on here.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Cute food.

Cute food.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

Needless to say knowing me, I was fascinated.  I love a good social situation to analyze especially one that was as foreign to me as this one.  And for those of you thinking this is some strange sexual fetish, I am sure you are partially correct. However there were also families there, and it did not feel inappropriate.   The boys were good sports about my quest to experience this fascinating social phenomenon.

That evening we saw a few more temples and said goodbye to Tokyo.  We slept at the airport because it was the only way to catch our early morning flight and not pay $300 for a cab.  And as we were leaving Tokyo we had a small mourning session.  Japan is the last new country Davo and I will visit for quite some time.  It is somewhat an end of an era for us, but now it is time to rock out our last five-and-a-half months in Korea! Stay tuned.

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Thailand: The Best Place on Earth.

I have no idea where to begin in describing our trip to Thailand.  Let me first start by saying that I love everywhere.  No really, I do.  I have never been to a place I wouldn’t go back to, and there is no country I don’t want to visit.  Some countries are higher on the list than others, but hey I’ll go anywhere.

Some of you know that when asked my favorite place in the world, my answer is always India.  However, this is a difficult thing to describe.  My reasons for loving India have a lot to do with the country itself, but also what it had to offer me at the times I have visited.  So, my love of India is not just solely about India.  Iceland is definitely top on my list, but this has more to do with raw beauty, landscape, and solitude.  Iceland quite frankly just needs a category of its own.  This brings me to Thailand.   If I were going to move anywhere in the world right now I would move to Thailand.  In fact Davo and I have decided we will move there sometime in our lives; it is just a matter of when.

So why is Thailand the greatest place on Earth?  We will start with this.  The first day we were in Bangkok Davo inquired about the book “Eat, Pray, Love.”  Neither of us have read the book, however Davo said, “doesn’t she eat in Italy, Pray in India and Love in Thailand?”  I said “I think so yea.”  To which Davo replied, “Now, my question is why wasn’t Thailand the eating place?”  I know what you are thinking right now, “No way the food is better than Italy.” I will go on record and say that I have been to Italy, and the food is not only better it is also cheaper and healthier.  GASP!!!!

The first few days that we were in Thailand we explored Bangkok.  We met some Thai people who recommended two restaurants to us, one in Bangkok and one in Chiang Mai.  The restaurant in Bangkok was a tiny little hole in the wall across from a park.  We were instructed to order “fried catfish salad” and “green eggplant salad.”  Figuring that these people knew what they were talking about, we set out on our quest to find the restaurant.  This is where our love affair with Thai salads began. Until this experience we did not know that when we had previously eaten Thai food, we were making a fatal mistake in skipping over the salad section of the menu in favor of the curries and pad thai.  Both of these salad dishes were fantastic and completely unlike anything I have ever eaten. After this experience we were on a hunt for the best food experiences possible and Thailand did not disappoint.

Deliciousness.

Deliciousness.

fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Our eating quest continued in Chaing Mai where we continued to eat salads, pad thai, and curries galore! The second recommendation from the Thai friends came in Chaing Mai.  This restaurant was located in a temple and was quite possibly the best food we have ever had in our lives.  Again, it was the salads! This time we got avocado salad, pomelo salad, and fried banana flower salad.  I am salivating typing this right now.  And this is where we actually considered throwing up in order to make room for more eating.  I kid you not, it was THAT good. People probably thought I was crazy, but I felt it was my duty to tell every foreigner I saw to go eat there.  Ok, so you get it the food is fantastic here are more pictures.

Avacado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Avocado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Fried banana flower salad.

Fried banana flower salad.

Pomelo salad.

Pomelo salad.

The temple that the restaurant was also beautiful.

The temple at the restaurant was also beautiful.

So why else is Thailand the greatest place on earth?  For one, in order for me to love a place it has to have a certain balance of grunge and charm.  Thailand toes this balance beautifully.  It is rough enough around the edges for me to love it but also has temples that glow (literally), elephants to play with, mountains, markets to explore, and best of all style.  It is hard for me to explain what I mean by “style” but think of it this way – I want to put everything in Thailand in my house.  While we were at the market I essentially wanted to buy everything.  We haggled almost every night in our local market for different gems and have quite a few nice things to add to our home when we get home.  A little grunge and a little charm!

Style.

Style.

They love to hand lights in Chiang Mai.

They love to hang lights in Chiang Mai.

I have discussed a lot of charm now lets talk grunge.  When we decided Chaing Mai was the place we wanted to go after Bangkok, I did a little research on how we should get to this northern mountain paradise.  After internet readings and a few discussions with friends, we decided we would train to Chaing Mai in a sleeper car.  We were told we could book this the day we wanted to go, but just to be safe we went to the train station early in the morning to book tickets for our 10pm train.  When we got to the ticket counter and told the women what we wanted she told us that sleepers were all booked until next Thursday.  We asked her what she did have, and she said “sitting up with fan.”  To which I replied ok, how long is the train? The women typed into her calculator 17 and showed it to me.  It is moments like these that I am so glad I travel with Davo.  We are no-nonsense, no whining, take what you can get and be happy travelers.  So, we said sure to the “sitting up with fan” car for 17 hours, and decided to be glad that we would get to see so much of the country on our way.  We met some pretty weird travelers and might have been drinking rum and coke still at 9am the next morning on the train.

17 hours "sitting with fan."

17 hours “sitting with fan.”

A little grunge.

A little grunge.

We went to an Elephant Nature park that was an overload of joy.  Being with creatures that massive is a total rush (and we all know I like thrills).  We fed them, bathed them, and just hung out with them.  It was a place with a lot of love and a great story.  Check it out if you like 🙂  http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Well hello there friends!

Well hello there friends!

I know you all are jealous!

I know you all are jealous!

Overall, Thailand seemed to have it all and more.  Three dollar massages that we got almost every day, fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and beautiful people.  Every foreigner we talked to that lived there raved about being there.  I can’t help but think it is the Mecca of Asia.  Hopefully one day we will be able to visit Thailand again or maybe even live there.  But for now, I guess pictures and memories will suffice.

Wat Pho.

Wat Pho.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in  Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Temple made in 700 ad.

Temple made in 700 AD.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Stay tuned for the Tokyo blog coming up! Maybe we should rename the blog to Davo and Sara running around the world instead of in Korea….

Christmas.

The Christmas season is upon us here in Korea. From what I can tell, Christmas in Korea is more of a “couple’s holiday” where couples give each other gifts, and cute Christmas stuff is abundant on the streets, in stores, and even in school. Although Koreans definitely celebrate Christmas, I still feel there is a certain lacking of “Christmas spirit.” I think this is mainly because Christmas is not completely embedded into every aspect of culture like it is at home. Christmas has not had time to be a historical tradition here. Families have not passed Christmas traditions down from generation to generation. We only get one day off of school (no, not even Christmas eve), and the students are not running around school with that magical Christmas sugar cookie high and thinking about all the loot they are about to receive. It is just certain lack of excitement that makes it different here.

Despite all of this I was able to make it to Lotte World a few weekends ago to get a little Christmas spirit. Lotte, from what I can tell, essentially owns Korea, and they have an amusement park that they deck out for Christmas in December. When I heard about this I was sold! So it is off to Seoul we went to go to Christmas Land (aka Lotte World)! I went with a girl friend because I knew that Davo and Christmas themed amusement parks did not seem to go together.

So, some of you have been asking how we are doing with the holidays and being so far away from family and friends, and I would say I am doing better than I expected I would be. I got to see my family over Thanksgiving, and that was wonderful. We have lots of friends over here to spend the next week with. Davo and I are actually looking forward to spending Christmas day with just the two of us and our virtual families via skype. When are we ever going to be able to pull off spending Christmas with just us two again? There will always be family, friends, and maybe even children in the future so there is no better time than now to spend Christmas with only my wonderful and loving life partner.

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A day in the life….

At home (particularly at work) I used to sarcastically say “a day in the life, livin the dream,” when things got particularly out of control or generally just straight up ridiculous.  I don’t think anyone would call our life at home “the dream,” although I think our life at home is quite nice actually! In Korea, I feel like people would call our life a dream. We have tons of free time, a decent amount of money, our jobs are cake and well… were in Korea!  So, I thought I would post some photos of every day life.  You know “a day in the life, livin the dream!”

Above is the hallway to my classroom. There are usually many Korean children running around in the halls yelling “HELLO TEACHAAA” or “Nice to meet you.”  No matter how many times I tell them that they see me everyday so they should say “nice to SEE you” this just does not stick 🙂

This is the fantastic woman that I work with, who is totally hilarious.  She is the co-teacher who likes to whisper in my ear things like “I stole your cherry” and “I brought you a muffin.”  I can understand why she whispered that she stole my cherry, but I don’t know why the muffin was a secret.  She is full of surprises  and makes my work day very entertaining.  I love her.

This is where all the magic happens people! Kids come here to see “the Sara teacher” who bestows on them a wealth of practical and useful English.

…….NOT!

This is what is actually happening in my classroom.  I am teaching my children how to say very useful things that come out of this book such as the key sentences shown above. These sentences can be very useful for children when they are in an English speaking situation and a scene like this happens.

Random person walks up to a Korean child and asks in English: “What do frogs eat?”

Korean child thinks: Well I am so glad you asked that particular question because I learned this in my English class.

Child says: “Frogs eat Grasshoppers.”

Child feels satisfied that they were able to understand that question and answer in English! Mission accomplished.  🙂
No but really, I am completely bound to this book.  I have to teach straight from the text book.  All the time.  In each chapter there are “key sentences” that the children will be tested on and sometimes these sentences are literally, “Excuse me, may I feed this wolf?”  “No you can’t it’s dangerous, you must stay back.”  Or they are like the ones shown above. (I guess animals are a theme?)  This was very confusing to me at first.  Korea, did you really fly me all the way over here and pay me all this money to teach these ridiculous phrases that are not helpful in any way?  Apparently so, but here is what I think the actual deal is, we are not really here to teach English.  Our Korean co-teachers speak fine English for elementary level, they don’t need us.  But here is what we really are, cultural liaisons.  My purpose here is to expose the kids to western culture.  It is that simple.  But, maybe they can learn some English along the way as well.

This is the view from my 4th floor office. Life is pretty hard some times. 🙂

Our street.  It’s not something to write home about but we like it.  You can see on your left there is a community garden.  Ulsan does a WONDERFUL job of using every inch of free space it has for gardens.  For example…


There is about 3 inches of space between the road and the fence, thus, corn is grown there.  Genius really.

In the evenings we either cook in our tiny windowless kitchen…. OR……

We can go out for Samgeopsal! This delicious goodness is our favorite thing to chow on for dinner, or any meal really.  We have found that frequently Korean meals at restaurants are a very interactive experience.  You or your server cooks food on some sort of grill type thing that is at your table.  We have had many different meals in this style and we really enjoy the entire experience.

One evening I got to enjoy Samgeopsal with two of my co-teachers and the precious Lilly! I had a great time learning from Koreans how this style of food is really meant to be eaten.  Things that I learned:

1) NEVER pour your own drink.  It is customary for the oldest person at the table to pour drinks for people throughout the evening and when that persons drink needs to be filled, someone else must fill it.  If you are the oldest person at the table, you should be keeping tabs on everyone’s drinking because a persons cup should never be empty and they should never have to ask for a refill.

2) You do not put the peppers, garlic, onions or kimchi on the grill.  Even though we know we are not supposed to do this, Davo and I still do it and endure the weird looks.

3)  Usually the oldest person at the table pays for everyone’s meal.  But, if you are good friends and will go out to dinner more often, you can take turns.  They promised me I would get to pay next time but somehow I think that just isn’t going to happen…

Well folks! That is a glimpse of everyday life in Korea.  I love it here but my standard response when asked about my experience is, “I love Korea.  My only complaint is that all my loved ones live very far away.” So, please keep in touch with us! I want to hear about your everyday life! Comment away! Send us an e-mail or snail mail! Sorry that might have been a little over enthusiastic.  The bottom line is I love you people at home really hard and I want to know what is going on in your lives too.  🙂
One more for you all! This is down town Ulsan at sunset. Beautiful.