Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Fond Farewell to 2011
Days 4.5 - 7 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

And now here we are in Siem Reap, ready to kick off 2012 with our Habitat for Humanity Global Village Build. I love New Year's Eve. I like resolutions, festivity, out-with-the-old-in-with-the-newness, and party hats. I'm less fond of amateur hour in the bars, but I actually do like crowds and pubs and street parties and the like. From the looks of things, the market/restaurant area just across the little bridge from our hotel here in Siem Reap is getting ready for one big shindig tonight. I will definitely be shindigging!

A recap of the second half of this week:

Day 4.5: Wednesday night in Sihanoukville post-baguette, we mostly relaxed our sunburned tired selves. It was wine Wednesday in our Beach Road Hotel bar, and we enjoyed our glasses on one of the wicker/cushioned couches near the bookshelves, from which I plucked Heart of Darkness and finally read it. (Totally a Book You Should Have Read in College that I never did.) I finished it the next day and can't say I entirely understand it.

Day 5:  The last full day in Sihanoukville...sigh. I enjoyed breakfast and iced coffee on the second floor of the restaurant in a hanging cushioned/wicker swinging chair that overlooks the Beach Road activity. The day consisted of sun, the refreshing hotel swimming pool, good eats, and of course a sizable chunk of beach time. Have I mentioned that the beach in Sihanoukville is lined with restaurants and bars and you can either sit under the roofed part of them or in beach chairs on the sand where they will bring you menus, food, and drinks? It's really quite fantastic. As were the barbecued prawns we ate there on Thursday. In the evening we relaxed, had some more food and drink (falafel at a Middle Eastern place on cushions, rum/pineapple mixers while we packed) and then saw live music, a band of three middle-aged guys playing all sorts of classic rock. I am fascinated by these Sihanoukville long-termers, I tell you. Fascinated.

Day 6: Friday the 30th, we returned to Sihanoukville and we had air conditioning for the first third of the bus ride. Yes, that means we did NOT have air conditioning for several hours, including the crawling-through-traffic-on-the-approach-to Pnomh Penh part. But that's OK because they left the bus front door open for air flow as we sped down the highway. (For the record, I think that was the right choice.)  It was fun to come back to Phnom Penh - I like that city! - and back to our same guesthouse from last weekend.  In the afternoon we visited the Tuol Sleng museum, which is a building that was used as a prison and torture chamber for 20,000 people during the evil Khmer Rouge reign. It was simple, sparse, and haunting. The evil people who ran the place took photos of every incoming person they subsequently tortured and slaughtered, so the museum displays just row after row of mug-shot-like photos. You just walk up and down these rooms staring into the eyes whose fate you unfortunately know. There were seven prisoners who survived Tuol Sleng (seven! out of 20,000+!) and the paintings of one of them are displayed, depicting torture that happened there. It's all pretty grisly, and important.

After that we had another delicious, cheap dinner and a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club, or the FCC as they say in Phnom Penh. Have I mentioned the lizards? I am overly fond of the lizards on the walls of these airy tropical courtyard restaurants (mostly because they eat bugs, but also because lizards are fun). The FCC, our guesthouse, and a ton of other eateries and watering holes are along the riverfront, and it was a lively gathering spot on Friday evening. We enjoyed our stroll past soccer-like games, break dancing, other group dancing, and the like. Later on we met up with another member of our Habitat for Humanity team who was also in Phnom Penh on Friday.

Day 7: The boat to Siem Reap is a marvelous thing. I mean marvelous in that there-are-no-U.S.-tort-lawyers-in-sight way. A bit cramped inside with no sign of emergency exit procedures (or even emergency exits), the boat was a little stuffy. But were we sealed in? Oh no! As the high-speed -- keep that in mind, that's an important detail -- boat travels from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in five or so hours, passengers are free to stroll outside on the foot-wide ledge and clamber up on top of the long, tube-like speeding vessel. Railing? Seats? No, no, don't be silly. Just twenty or thirty travelers splayed on top, sprayed by waves if you lean too far over, and not inhibited by anything so mundane as safety precautions. It was a great way to breathe fresh air and watch the country pass by. And, you get to wave and be waved at with all the people in fishing boats along the way. A bit of a wild ride, but communal, convenient, and kind of awesome. Brian took a video so we can share our peril fun with you.

And then we were in Siem Reap. Such a different feel from Phnom Penh but already charming with its small river, our incredibly friendly hotel staff, and a slew of restaurants all packed together and clearly getting ready for the big New Year's wingding hullabaloo this evening. And now I will also go get ready for said whoop-te-do. Off I go, then.

Let's make those resolutions. Until 2012, y'all!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia
Days 1-4 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

Brian and I departed Korea on Christmas Day after a year of teaching in Andong. As I have previously mentioned, the time flew and we can't believe it's over, or that we aren't exactly sure where we'll be working next year (although it is likely to be teaching English in Asia again). Unfortunately, my laptop has been having some persnickety issue in connecting to certain wi-fi networks, namely those in our guesthouse and hotel, so I have been unable to blog for my adoring fans before today. I will have to give a brief summary. Just to set the scene, Brian and I are sitting on the second floor of a French restaurant on the Beach Road in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, enjoying free wi-fi and about to enjoy some fromage, salade, pain, and so forth.

Day 1: Incheon-Hong Kong?-Bangkok-Phnom Penh...Christmas mostly consisted of flying. We didn't realize until we were at the gate in Seoul that we were going to be stopping in Hong Kong. We did have to deplane there, but despite the free internet I was unable to post an update from there because the browser did not satisfy Google/Blogspot. Then it was on to Bangkok where we walked a LOT around the airport, and then finally to Phnom Penh for a most wondrous evening welcoming us to Cambodia. Lots of people were wearing Santa hats, like in the airport in Thailand and in the bars in Phnom Penh. Good festive times. We stayed in the Waterview Guesthouse on the river in Phnom Penh (including a balcony!), walked around the night market, and sample a few watering holes, including one where Brian could watch a bit of the NBA Christmas day game.

Day 2: After another spell walking around Phnom Penh and sampling its delights, including cheap breakfast and iced coffee and crowds and street crossing (the trick is to saunter, not try to dash through the motos), we headed in a van with other traveling types from various guesthouses to the bus station to catch our bus to Sihanoukville. After a long wait at the bus station ON the bus, and a several hour bus ride, we pulled into this ridiculous tourist beach town, found our hotel, and found the beach. My initial impression of Sihanoukville is one of just being generally startled that it exists. I mean, two months ago I had never even heard of it. I know that some of you have heard of it, but most of you have not. And yet, here I sit gazing out over throngs of travelers from all the Western world, strolling to their hotels, beach bungalows, restaurants (French, Greek, Indian), used bookstores, massage parlors, bars-a-plenty....bars with, like, 75-cent beer, I might add. Cambodia is cheap, including this developed, backpacker-laden tourist beach area. We got in some beach time, some food-in-one-of-the-many-restaurants-on-the-beach time, some hotel bar time, and some DJ party-in-a-bar-on-the-beach time on that first night.

Day 3: Tuesday I got to sleep in with no alarm for the first time in ages, and after several nights in a row of few hours of sleep, thanks to leaving Korea, packing, final noraebang night, etc. Tuesday was relaxing. We sat on the beach for a long time. That is, after all, the main event here. We sat on beach chairs, ordered lunch, read, splashed, sunned, and watched scores of other travelers do the same, comfortably, with chairs and beach umbrellas and open patio establishments stretching in both directions. Night consisted of the fabulous Beach Road Hotel bar again, then dinner at a wonderful guesthouse bar called Monkey Republic across the street, where we had delicious burgers. Mine was of the vegetarian variety. I have already declared that I am so happy, these past 72 hours, to be back among the vegetarians, and the acknowledgement of vegetarians, after Korea. We ended the night a few doors down at The Big Easy, another guesthouse with bar, this one showing Brian's Arsenal game on the big screen, and several small screens.

Day 4: Wednesday was boat trip day. For $15, you get a boat ride to nearby islands, snorkeling, and breakfast and lunch included. We boarded the small boat with 20 other people - and mind you, this is not your typical ferry, but rather a long fishing-type boat that looks like this, very Cambodian/Vietnamese, and wooden. And small. But, nice breeze! - and set "sail" with the outboard motor chugging in my face since I was lucky enough to land in the back row. We stopped for brief snorkeling off one of the islands, where you couldn't see much but I did get to see a bunch of black sea urchins nestling on the rocks, and one of our boatmates stepped on one, getting a spiky part embedded in his foot - ouch! We spent the midday on the main island where there are some "services" (bungalows, a kind-of bathroom, and a kind of bar, at which Brian could order what I think was a green coconut to drink - for real, a straw in the top), and where our crew cooked our delicious lunch while we lay around on the beach chairs reading and relaxing, occasionally getting up to swim or snorkel. On the way back to Sihanoukville we stopped off of the third island for some more subpar snorkeling (but yes, with sea urchins).  Now we are back in Sihanoukville, where we just ate wonderful baguettes and fromage, thanks to those awesome French for colonizing the place.

I wonder if anyone who doesn't get my sense of sarcasm is reading this? At any rate, today on the island I finished the book I started reading on the plane to Phnom Penh, First They Killed My Father  by Loung Ung, which details the horrible things she and millions of others experienced under the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. I highly recommend it to any of you who are grappling with the concept of Linda in Cambodia, trying to work out what is this place and what happened here and why have we been so scared of it since the 1970s - it's an interesting look at a history that has been pretty much ignored in the U.S., as far as I can tell.

Sihanokville trips me out by its very existence. Also, I feel like I could be anywhere. There's nothing paticularly Cambodian about it, other than that it's here. It's one of those places that would make Julia Sugarbaker say she wants to see "the real Cambodia," with Suzanne replying that she was perfectly content to stay on Serendipity Beach. Part of me is looking forward to going back to Phonm Penh and then on to Siem Reap so I can remember what country I am in. But there is a small part of me excited to lie on the beach and do nothing again tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And then there were two...

...days left of teaching in Andong! Can you believe it? Can I believe it? Furnishings have been sold, final gatherings have been somewhat organized, favorite restaurants have been frequented, glasses have been raised, clothes have been piled neatly for packing purposes.  Perhaps most importantly, I only have to have two more showers-that-don't-stay-hot-very-long in the coldest bathroom ever. I think I have concluded that it is preferable to have a cold shower in a hot bathroom (hot, i.e., the tropics) than a hot-two-minutes-warm-one-minute-cool-cold-hurry-out in an ice cold bathroom. In fact, even a hot hot piping hot shower that would stay hot long enough to actually, say, wash and condition one's hair is still totally negated when the bathroom is ice. Two more mornings of this! I am sorry, new people who are coming to teach at Avalon, whoever you are, but you will be taking short showers for January and probably most of February. But hey, it's Korea, which means the sa-u-na and jimjjilbangs are just down the street.

I know the biggest news this week has nothing to do with our impending departure from Korea, but rather Kim Jong Il's departure from this mortal coil. (Granted, he did most of the coiling...) I talked about it with my students who were of a certain age/fluency, and they all mentioned economic worries before war worries. There is a little war worry, though. Sigh. Seriously, people, how many deaths will it take 'til you know that too many people have died? (as a certain wise troubadour once wrote)

Come to think of it, as long as I'm quoting wise troubadours: "And so this is Christmas..."

I am off to Cambodia this Christmas day. For those who didn't get the memo, Brian and I are ringing in 2012 with a Habitat for Humanity trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to be followed by a sojourn in southern China and the Yangtze River, and then a month in Thailand doing our CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). Knowing we will be spending the bulk of this winter on the beach and in tropical climate cities has made it impossible for me to really settle into this freezing-bathroom, poorly insulated apartment that we were moved into on November 1st, or to happily hunker down in coat and scarves the way I would if I were actually spending the winter here. I am just ready to go be warm. And so we shall...after a few more slightly terrible Korean beers, and noraebang tunes, and one fine train ride from Andong to Seoul...and maybe even some farewell Outback cheese fries.

My second Korea stint draws to a close! And, I spent another year living out of the U.S. -- I'm allowed to move back to California now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ajumma Coffee-Sharing Protocol

Less than two weeks left in country and I'm still having confusing cultural experiences. (This is a good thing, btw.) So a couple days ago there I am riding the bus back from Seoul to Andong. How it works when you ride the express bus in Korea, usually, is that you buy your happy little (affordable!) ticket and then ride a decent, clean, comfortable bus to your destination. You get an assigned seat. In this case, I was number 12. The seats are two seats together on the left side of the aisle, and one seat alone on the right side of the aisle by the other window. In other words, the first row is 1-2 together, then seat 3. The second row is 4-5 together, then seat 6. And so on. When you get a multiple of 3, you know you will be in the seat alone on the right side, so I knew in seat 12 I would be in the fourth row in the single seat.

I boarded the bus and noted it wasn't too full. In the fourth row, an elderly couple were sitting together in my row, in seats 10 and 11. There was a suitcase placed in front of seat 12, in the area between the seat and the seat in front - where my legs would be when I sat down. I stopped in the aisle, showed them my ticket, and they hurried to move their small suitcase, wedging it between their legs on the floor of their pair of seats. It would have been nice for them, obviously, to have it in the seat they had thought would be empty, but they quickly moved it when they saw I'd be occupying the seat.

Within a couple minutes, the bus was ready to leave and there were still only seven or so people, total, on board. I thought to myself, "Self, you can move to the seat behind you, the couple can put their suitcase back here, you can have a bit more privacy, and everybody wins." (I hate sitting right next to people in a movie theater, too, when there are other empty rows. Why do people do that? When someone comes and sits right next to me, I totally move.)  And so in this case, as the driver began to reverse, I moved to the seat behind me (15, as you know if you are paying attention) and signalled to the elderly couple that seat 12 would be free after all and they could go ahead and put their suitcase back there. Of course they said thanks and stuff, and I tried to say "It's OK, no problem" although I was worried that the phrase I know for that, "Kwentchanayo" is not formal enough, because it is a polite form but not honorific. So, afraid of having not been respectful enough to my elders with my verb ending, I sat in seat 15 and started reading my book.

A bit later, here came Ms. Elderly Suitcase, to the seat behind her, with their thermos of coffee. It's one of those stainless steel, colored, sturdy thermoses people take on trips, with a lid that doubles as a cup. She sat down and held it out to me, offering me a cup of coffee. I tried to politely decline, once again fretting about my verb endings. I was trying to throw in a sup-ni-da or a su-seyo somewhere to make it all formal and honorific, but still I kept saying "Ah-ni-ye-yo" (No) and "Kwentchanayao" (It's OK). Anyway, I think she thought I was just doing the polite refusal thing, twice, and a third time she insisted, poured the coffee in the cup, and gave it to me. Then she went back to her seat.

So, what on earth is the protocol here? I mean, I had to drink it. (I think?) Would I drink it in the U.S.? No way. I'd think a fellow bus passenger was trying to poison me.So there I am sipping this random coffee and wondering about the etiquette. Do I drink it all? Do I drink a sip and then give it back to her? There's a thing in Korea about not totally emptying the dishes or pots or side dish bowls in restaurants, I heard, because it indicates you want your host to serve you more. I definitely did not want to be served more, as I was overwhelmed even being served the one cup! I drank half of it (tasty! mixed with milk! and apparently not poison) and then really tried to decide what to do with the second half. Meanwhile, Ms Elderly is back in her seat with headphones listening to music and oblivious to me. Finally I was like, whatever! and I drank the whole thing, then went back in the aisle, crouched next to her, got their attention, handed the cup back, thanked them a lot, and went back to my seat.

I mean, there was really no need to thank me for moving my seat. Anyone would have done the same thing, seriously! There were so many empty seats on the bus! And it was better for me anyway! I was so overwhelmed by the coffee thanks.

The funny thing is, I am reading the book Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, in which the new bride is totally out of her etiquette element at Manderley and has no idea what's going on with servants, menus, protocol, wings of the house, and whatnot. I was just reading it and thinking to myself, "Wow, I don't have to worry about fancy rules like that" when Ms Elderly comes and rocks my world with her proffered coffee thanks.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The view from here!

Have I mentioned the view from our new building? I mean, it really is a great view! I love looking out over Andong, nestled as it is in its hills, whether day or night. The view is probably the best thing about living in our new apartment. (Note: there were not a lot of contenders for this title.) Anyway, I try to take a moment every day to appreciate the view, because I love it. I don't know which time of day is the best. Many times I have found myself on the back stairway between my 5-6 p.m. classes, gazing at a glowing peach-pink-purple sky and the city lights that glow softly as dusk approaches. The front of our building faces downtown, and when nighttime has fallen over the city, the red sparkles and neon splashes punctuate the darkness and highlight the rectangular buildings. At midday, the decidedly non-rectangular buildings are the ones that catch my eye. Those are the traditional Korean houses of Andong, which are in the next block in either direction, a flat layer of old-style Korean rooftops in between all the modern apartments, stores and offices. The mix of old and new perfectly encapsulates what Korea seems to be all about. The ring of hills around the city and the river add their natural beauty, and I have come to know the line of trees atop a far east hill as well as I knew the E-Mart sign when we lived in Ok-Dong. In short, I try to not take for granted the view from our Dang-buk-dong digs.

I know what you're thinking: that I could post a picture of said view(s) to share with you all. You might be one of those a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words types. Well, not me. I am more of the belief that a thousand words are worth a picture. (Or, you know, 260.)

Friday, December 02, 2011

Oh hello there, December

"J'ai souvent constaté chez d'autres cette espèce d'instantanéité dans l'emploi d'une langue étrangère, après un travail inconscient d'incubation préparatoire ; il est remarquable d'ailleurs combien peu de mots suffisent pour exprimer les pensées les plus usuelles." - Arnauld d'Abbadie, Douze Ans de Sejour dans la Haute-Ethiopie
December! What!  And I have not even learned Korean yet, or sung nearly enough songs at the noraebang. And yet, here we are, with only three weeks more in Andong, Korea. I have to pack!

Today, I read the passage quoted above and it rang true.  Roughly translated, he says that he is always telling people that there's a revelatory moment when you can all of a sudden sort of use a foreign language that you have been working at learning, and that it's amazing how few words you really need to express the most common thoughts. Naturally this resonates with me the most from my Spanish, which I learned a-travelin' just as this author was learning Arabic on the road back in the day. I totally remember observing my brain make rapid progress in Spanish; in fact, it was almost as if I could note the physical occurrence and see my brain improve from Sunday morning to Monday night. There was a sudden moment where I just understood more. I totally get what my boy Arnauld is saying here. As for Korea - sigh. If only we used the language at all in our daily lives here! This is the same problem I ran into in 2005-06. All day I am paid to specifically not speak Korean. Then I go home to my apartment. Really, restaurants and stores are the only places I use the Korean language, unless I make an effort to set out to do so, and even in the shops and such people English us a lot. I've learned a bit - I learned to read and say a few phrases last time I lived here, and I've learned a bit more this time, but it's just crazy how little Korean the expat English teachers get away with knowing. I mean, even in Daegu many teachers don't read 한글 (hangeul - the Korean script), and in Seoul? Those people could probably get away with not even learning 맥주 (maekchu - beer) and 감사합니다 (kamsa hamnida - thank you)! Although everyone should always learn "thank you" in every language wherever they go even if they are just there for a day. I even learned it for my brief (wonderful!) stint in Turkey - then promptly forgot. (Ahh, right, teşekkür ederim - thanks for the refresher, Google translate!)

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes. December. It's beginning to feel a lot like winter, especially inside my classroom. Yes, I said inside. I have been teaching class in a coat/jacket for three weeks. We have heat now and everything in our newly "renovated" building but I have windows that are maybe like the thickness of a Ziploc of them doesn't even shut all the way...lots of my students just wear their jackets in my classroom. Our apartment upstairs has some draft/insulation issues, too. But have I mentioned we have only three more weeks here?

There will always be more things to do in Korea, but for now it is time to wrap it up and focus on our upcoming trip to Cambodia where we will see many wondrous things and help to build a house.

In other news, let's see.. my artistic endeavors in Daegu have ended (for now), I'm still picking up a few scraps of the Korean language here and there, I'm still managing to drag my cold self out from the blanket under which I huddle to make it to kickboxing once in a while, I'm reading about my boy Andrew Johnson and really digging his plebian, common man, pro-labor self. Let me just tell you that if Andy Johnson were alive today he would totes be #Occupying. And he is so not a fan of the organized religion in the USofA, circa 1850. It's pretty awesome. I remain fascinated by the prez bios I read.

Oh, also?  I could use some new music recommendations. What are you listening to?

Hurrah for December!  I love Christmas! I will be on a plane this Christmas Day but I still love it.