Korean Thanksgiving and Our Second Trip to Sokcho

We are just finishing up our much appreciated five-day weekend for Chuseok aka Korean Thanksgiving. Chuseok is a holiday where families gather together, eat good food, honor their ancestors, and give thanks for the plentiful harvest. Gifts are exchanged on this holiday and the grocery stores are stocked with large gift set boxes of whatever you can imagine. One teacher recieved a gift set of shampoo. Eight bottles of shampoo is more of burden to me than a gift, but I’m guessing the idea is that you can share with friends. A very popular gift set is the spam and oil set. Yum. In case you don’t believe me I have some photographic evidence.

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A Rather Honest Valentine

How’s that for a Valentine? One of the kids in my kindergarten class wrote this to one of her classmates. Chubby James didn’t seem to be too bothered by it, but I did catch him reading and re-reading it a few times.

In other Valentine’s related news, did you know that in Korea, women are expected to give men gifts on Valentine’s Day, not the other way around?! Women get gifts from men on White Day, a month later, on March 14th. And they made a holiday for all the single folk a month after that, called Black Day, where single people get to eat noodles with a black bean sauce and celebrate being single. Bet you won’t find Hallmark making White Day and Black Day cards anytime soon.

Thanksgivings Far Away From Home

I’ve spent three Thanksgiving holidays abroad now, which makes me a little sad because Thanksgiving at my house is the best. Yeah, yeah, your mom makes the best pie or turkey, whatever. My mom seriously makes the most wonderful food. She makes everything from scratch, and on top of making the turkey, two pumpkin pies, a pecan pie, a crimson pie, cranberry sauce, salad, green beans, gravy, and stuffing, she also makes vegetarian friendly stuffing and a tofurkey for our non-meat eating family members.

Thanksgiving 2010 in Seoul!

My mom rocks and so do our gourmet Thanksgivings, but as we all know though, Thanksgiving isn’t all about the food. It’s also about the family and friends gathering around a huge table and being thankful for all of the love in your life. If you have to be abroad for Thanksgiving, you have to work a little bit harder to find both the food and the company to share the evening with. Having at least one of these two things while abroad for Thanksgiving is lucky.

My first Thanksgiving abroad was five years ago while I was on Semester at Sea. We were in Spain on Thanksgiving Day, and my friends and I ended up spending the entire Thanksgiving evening in an Irish pub. I think I ate half a bag of chips that night. Not a successful turkey day because there was not a bit of turkey involved or much food for that matter, but it was filled with lots of good friends and love.

Unfortunately, my second Thanksgiving out of the country wasn’t nearly as successful as my first turkey-less turkey day. I was living in Khon Kaen, Thailand at the time, and my American buddy invited me to a Thanksgiving buffet at the Sofitel, the nicest hotel in the city. I was very excited to actually get to celebrate one of my favorite holidays with other turkey lovers! Thanksgiving night I called to confirm what time we would meet and I was informed that we had missed the dinner. They had held the Thanksgiving dinner for the foreigners the Saturday before and we had missed it! I was heartbroken. Who celebrates Thanksgiving on a Saturday?!? No turkey, no pie, and no one to spend Thanksgiving with. I ended up eating fried rice alone at one of the restaurants I frequented. It was not a good Thanksgiving.

This year I knew that I would be missing Thanksgiving again, so I made sure we celebrated before I left the home. It was a much smaller Thanksgiving than usual because not all of the usual attendees could make it in October, but it was perfect nonetheless. I figured that if I ate a Thanksgiving dinner before I departed, then I couldn’t complain about not having a fabulous holiday with all the fixings in November, little did I know that I would get to have a real Thanksgiving dinner here in Seoul too.

I really lucked out getting two Thanksgivings in one year, and the best part was that I didn’t have to celebrate in Korea alone; all of the other teachers at the school I’m working at, even the Canadians and British, partook in the festivities. We ordered a Thanksgiving dinner to go from Dragon Hill Lodge in Itaewon, which is close to the US army base (hence the availability of a Thanksgivingtake-away meal). For around one hundred bucks, you get a meal that serves ten to twelve people, as advertised. The package includes a turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a pumpkin pie. Altogether for fifteen of us, including the cab fare to pick up the meal, it cost around eight dollars per person. Not bad for a Thanksgiving feast.

The feast!

Concerned that there wouldn’t be enough food, we each brought side dishes. I made my mother’s delectable cranberry sauce, so even though I was away for Thanksgiving I still had my mom there in a way. Others brought mashed potatoes, two extra pumpkin pies purchased from the always reliable Costco, a broccoli pasta dish, scones, rolls, sweet garlic bread, and spring rolls. We had our feast in the gym of the school, each of us seated in the tiny kindergarten chairs making our glasses of wine and beer seem slightly sinful.

After the meal was over the girls talked over the leftovers while the boys played some form of football/basketball, reverting to the traditional Thanksgiving roles. We divvied up the leftovers, put the wine and beer bottles in the recycling, and moved the kindergarten tables and chairs back to the classrooms where they belonged. Tomorrow the kids will be none-the-wiser about what their teachers were up to the night before. Although nothing comes close to mom’s Thanksgiving dinner, this year’s was as close as a Thanksgiving abroad can get.

This post was originally written for diwyy.com.

A Trip (or a Dream) to the Roof of the World

I’ve been in Laos for a day back from Tibet by way of China, and as I flip through my pictures from Mt. Everest I still can’t believe I was there! I can’t say that it’s been my lifelong dream to go to Mt. Everest because it only occurred to me a few months ago that I could and should go to Tibet — and that if I was going to be in Tibet I couldn’t miss visiting such an infamous mountain. Once I thought of it, I just had to see the massive giant that has lured so many climbers, taken so many lives, and inspired so many people.

It’s cheaper and reportedly easier to visit Mt. Everest from its Nepali side, but I don’t like to do things the easy way. The roads in the National Protection Area of Mt. Qomolangma (Mt. Everest’s real name) were reported to be terrible. I was expecting the worst and happily found the roads to be in better condition than many of the Nepali roads I’d been on two months ago. It also helped that Tibetan drivers are also a bit better. Because of the ease and popularity of visiting the gargantuous mountain from the Nepali side, there aren’t many tourists who venture to Mt. Qomolangma from the Tibetan side, which made me even happier with my choice of route.

We spent one night in Shigatse before making the long trip to Everest. We arrived at 5pm, which left our guide Samdup one hour to get our permits because the Everest permit office closed at 6pm. He returned from the office with our permits in hand, but apparently we were quite lucky to have them. It was a holiday, Buddha’s day of birth and death to be exact, so the office had closed very early that day. Fortunately, someone who worked in the office arrived at the same time as Samdup and he luckily convinced him to give us the permits.

Instead of feeling nervous and then relieved as Samdup relayed the story to us, I was overcome by the feeling and thought that there was not a chance in the world that I would not have gotten my permit. Somewhere during the course of my recent journeys I’ve acquired a bizarre sense of confidence and optimism. I knew that I would get to base camp and I knew that it would be stunning when I arrived. There was not a single doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t happen.

Our next obstacle occurred at the army checkpoint where we had to present our permits and passports to enter the area. One of Samdup’s documents — permit, tour guide license or something else important — had expired, which meant he couldn’t go any further. Muni, one of the other three people in my tour group, had a Lonely Planet China which warned that foreigners can’t go past that point without a guide. This caused some worrying among us as we waited for the verdict, but my confidence or absurd optimism kicked in and I knew we would be able to go through. Like I said before, I was going to make it Everest Base Camp and it was going to be beautiful when I arrived. After much talking the soldiers let our driver take us into the area, leaving Samdup to find his way back to the closest town.

We had originally planned to stop at Rongbu Monastery before settling in at the Everest tent camp, but because it was so late in the day we decided to skip it and pop in for a visit on our way back the next morning. After many hours of driving we finally arrived at the tent camp. We put our bags in a tent, quickly added more clothing layers, and set off for the original base camp. The current tent camp is three kilometers below the original base camp because there were problems with human waste disposal that forced them to move the camp to a lower elevation. Other than some Chinese soldiers, nobody stays at the original Tibetan E.B.C. these days.

The other three members of my tour group –Muni, Marco, Ed — and I were joined by a Swede named Henrick whose guide decided not to hike to base camp to see the sunset with us. We were told that the three kilometer walk would only take 30 minutes, and that they would let us in upon arrival even though our guide wasn’t with us. Both of these statements were wrong.

Henrick and I took the lead and after many shortcuts we reached E.B.C. an hour and fifteen minutes later. There was a red gate like you find at the entrance to a parking structure next to an army tent where we figured we had to show our permits, passports and visas. I was starting to get sick of handing over all of my documents at this point. It was just becoming silly. I can’t believe that the Chinese government actually thinks there’s a chance that I snuck into China without a visa, made it into Tibet and had the nerve to go confidently traveling around and crossing checkpoints without the proper travel documents. But I digress.

Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that Muni was carrying all of the permits until we reached the soldiers guarding the entrance. I asked the soldiers if we could come inside their tent since my hands were frozen, it was windy and I didn’t know how far the rest of our group was behind us. Surprisingly they agreed and as I explained that we needed to wait for my friends he made it very clear that if our guide was not with them then we wouldn’t be able to stay at the base camp to watch the sunset. We were already at base camp, 15 meters away from the sign that says “base camp”, but we weren’t allowed to go any further based on the fact that there wasn’t a guide to watch over us! It’s not like we were going to steal the mountain for god’s sake!

The view as we approached E.B.C. that evening.

Since I had nothing to lose, I pleaded with the guard while making up lies about our poor sick guide who stayed at the tents. After a while, he excitedly told us his great idea: He would kick us out of the tent and allow us to wait outside for 10 minutes after which we would have to leave. He kept proudly repeating that this was his idea. I couldn’t figure out why he thought it was so genius since it didn’t actually help us, until the fifth time I made him explain it, which is when he added that his general was in the next tent watching TV with the door open and everyone would be in big trouble if he saw us wandering around without a guide. So Henrick and I exited the tent, where we found the others arriving. We told them we couldn’t go in and that we would have to come back for sunrise with Henrick’s guide to hopefully get in.

When we got back, Henrick had altitude sickness and went to bed. And I started seeing things. The altitude was affecting us more than I thought it would. Every time I moved something, I could see a trail behind it. When I woke up I was still feeling this side effect, but by the time I got to base camp I was fine. I had no idea that that would be my reaction to the altitude. After all, we were only 500 meters higher than the elevation I had no problem trekking at in Nepal.

When we arrived at the military tent in the morning, Henrick’s guide Nyima took care of everything and we successfully ventured past the red gate. We took a few hundred pictures, and after 20 minutes the one cloud that was obscuring our nearly perfect view of the mountain disappeared and it was beautiful! It was exactly what I knew it would be like. This time of year you have to be very lucky to get a view like that, but for some reason there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Everest would show herself to me. The sunset had been crystal clear as well, so why wouldn’t the sunrise be as beautiful, if not more so? According to the locals though, many people make the same trip as us only to have the mountain view completely obstructed by clouds.

Our view from the original E.B.C. where everyone hangs their prayer flags.

I wrote the initials of everyone in my family on a set of prayer flags and hung them on a hill in front of Everest for good luck (writing full names was too difficult with the pen I had). Then Henrick and I built a little rock pile like the Tibetans do for good luck.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect trip to see Mt. Everest, but lucky for me it got even better on our way out when we decided to stop and visit the Rongbu Monastery.

On Buddha’s birthday the monks at certain monasteries in Tibet wear masks and dance for the public to watch. The tradition goes back hundreds of years when a Tibetan king needed to raise money to build a bridge, so he danced around in a mask and costume. I’m not sure if this is exactly the story, but it’s what I understood from Nyima.

A few spectators at the Rongbu Monastery.

The celebration was supposed to happen the day we arrived at Everest, but the Rongbu Monastery celebrates and dances on the last day of the 15-day Saga Dawa holiday, which happened to be the day we visited the monastery. So at the highest monastery in the world we arrived five minutes before this beautiful, once-a-year dance began without us planning it. Like I said before, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Mt. Everest.

I can hardly believe that this was a part of my life. Luckily, I have plenty of pictures to keep reminding me that it wasn’t all a dream.

11 Days, 57 Hours Traveling… 100% Worth It

As I mentioned in my last post, I took a New Year’s vacation down south to see some friends. Hanging out with Bobby, Will, and Petra was exactly what I needed. It was  great to see a different part of Thailand,  and visiting Phuket and Koh Samui made me appreciate the Northeast much much more.

My vacation started with a six hour bus ride from Khon Kaen to Bangkok. I was expecting an uncomfortable bus ride, but much to my surprise it was the nicest bus I’ve ever taken. I should have figured this though, because every time I have expectations, Thailand shows me the exact opposite of whatever it was I was imagining.

The bus pulled out from the station at exactly noon and arrived at almost exactly 6:00PM, which was quite amazing since nothing ever happens on time here. A cute Thai girl adorned in a silver Thai silk suit served fruit juice, water, a snack, a hot lunch and some milk over the course of the journey. The chairs reclined and gave massages if so desired. I was in heaven! The cherry on top was the Thai variety show and movie that they played on the TV. Thai entertainment is as corny as Telemundo, only much worse, which means it is so much fun to watch.

My friend Dow (her name means stars), her boyfriend, and his father picked me up at the bus station in Bangkok. We went straight to a massive market where we searched the stands for the ingredients for our seafood dinner. We bought large prawns, crabs, fish, an octopus, vegetables, and desert. Unfortunately, I left my camera in the car so I don’t have any pictures of the market, but I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll be visiting it so I’ll take some pictures next time.

Dow prepping the prawns.
Dow prepping the prawns.
Dow's boyfriend grilling the fish, shrimp, and crabs.
Dow's boyfriend grilling the fish, shrimp, and crabs.

They cooked one of the most wonderful meals I’ve had in Thailand so far. There was a hot and spicy prawn soup, shrimp with snow peas, grilled crab and octopus, fish, and rice. I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. The next morning we had the leftovers for breakfast along with an octopus stir fry and some crab stir fried with garlic and morning glory.

The breakfast best breakfast I've had in Thailand so far.
The best breakfast I've had in Thailand so far.

After breakfast we walked around the garden looking at the cockatoo, the peacocks, and the Thai speaking parrot. I was confused when Dow said that we would take a tour of the house, which I’d thought I had already done. It turns out the house is on a fruit farm! I had no idea since we had arrived in the dark the night before. We took motorbikes around the farm where they had jack fruit, banana, coconut, and dragon fruit trees. I sampled a little of everything and was so full by the time they dropped me off to catch my next bus.

Thom cutting open a coconut.
Thom cutting open a coconut.
Dragon fruit trees.
Dragon fruit trees.

After waiting an hour for my bus to Phuket I finally sat down in my seat at around 7PM. I was stuck with a seat in the very back of the bus where none of the seats recline, and appeared to be the seats reserved for the people who were traveling alone since most people were traveling in pairs. It was an uncomfortable bus ride and I awoke at one point to find my blanket and purse soaked. It was raining outside and the roof above me was leaking. As if not being able to recline my chair wasn’t uncomfortable enough, now I was wet as well.

There was about a foot or so of water covering the entire highway so the bus drove slower than it usually does and as a result we arrived in Surat Thani around 7am when we should have arrived around 5. They dropped us off and we waited for an hour or two which is when we were shuttled into a van which took us to another shop where we waited for another two hours. When my bus to Phuket finally arrived I had to walk through quite a bit of water and despite my attempts to stay dry, my pants ended up getting completely soaked. I spent the next five hours sitting on the bus in wet pants.

I arrived in Phuket around 4PM after having spent 21 hours traveling. I was so excited to see Bobby and Will though, that I didn’t really care about the bus experience, in fact, it sounds much worse than it felt. That night we went to Ko Panyi, a Muslim fishing village, and spent the next day hiking in Phang Nga. My last day in Phuket we went to Karon beach, which was my only beach day of the entire trip. I had so much fun with Bobby and Will who make me laugh so much. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if Rachel, Logan, Arin, and Des could have been there though! Next time maybe?

The view from our room on Ko Panyi. The entire village is built on stilts around one big rock in the ocean.
The view from our room on Ko Panyi. The entire village is built on stilts around one big rock in the ocean.
Sa Nang Manora Forest in Phang Nga
Sa Nang Manora Forest in Phang Nga
NO DURIAN IN THE ELEVATOR!!
NO DURIAN IN THE ELEVATOR!!

On the 30th I took an eight hour bus/ferry trip to Koh Samui to see Petra. Petra is working as a butler at an absolutely stunning resort called Six Senses (http://www.sixsenses.com/Six-Senses-Hideaway-Samui/). I highly recommend it if you are looking for a lush beautiful resort to stay at. Although I’m not sure I would recommend Koh Samui itself as a destination. It is swarming with tourists and despite some very beautiful views, the amount of development on the island took away all of the magic for me. If you are looking for Thai culture you will only find a watered down version here.

I didn’t really come for the island though, I went to see Petra. I arrived in Thailand one week before her and we call each other constantly to share both good and bad experiences. We have very different jobs and live in very different parts of Thailand, but we both have shared similar emotions and challenges throughout our experiences here.

I spent New Years Eve at some bars on the beach in Chewang. Fireworks and good luck lanterns were released into the sky everywhere. The island was teeming with drunk tourists and unfortunately some Thai people use this as an opportunity to bring out pet monkeys and even eagles for drunk tourists to take pictures with. I felt so bad for the poor animals who are brought to the loudest part of the island, where even I can barely handle to be, and are forced to take pictures with stupid tourists. It broke my heart.

My trip to Samui was cursed with rain, so I didn’t manage to get to the beach. We still found plenty of fun activities to do though. We went to the movies, for a hike, and we popped into a Zen art gallery where we met the a fantastic artist. She was a true artist at heart and wanted nothing to do with money. Her sister took care of the business end of things and she insisted that Petra and I each take a painting that spoke to us even though neither of us had enough money. I chose one with a teal mandala and some black bamboo painted on it.

The waterfall at the end of our hike.
The waterfall at the end of our hike.
Petra at work!
Petra at work!
One of those fat jiggling weight loss machines from the '50s. There were two at this little gym in the middle of no where off a random little dirt road.
One of those fat jiggling weight loss machines from the '50s. There were two at this little gym in the middle of no where off a random little dirt road.

On the third I started to make my way back to Khon Kaen. Which started out easy enough but took a turn for the worst when I was left stranded somewhere in Surat Thani due to reasons that are still unknown. I may have been sold a ticket for a bus that didn’t exist…we will never know for sure though. After an hour of driving around with an off duty cop who wanted to help me, I finally caught up with a group going to Bangkok and did not have to buy another bus ticket. I finally got lucky, and was seated in a seat that reclined really far, making my ride to Bangkok extremely comfortable. It took me thirty hours to get from Koh Samui to Khon Kaen and was so unbelievably happy to be back in a city where things are cheap and people are extremely nice. I am so glad I was able to see my friends, but I am also really glad to be away from all of the tourists. This trip was exactly what I needed to appreciate the Northeast.

Sawatdee Pii Mai!!! (Happy New Year!)

Happy Holidays!

Tomorrow I’m heading down south for a ten day vacation! I’ll be meeting up with Bobby (fellow SASer and CU alum) and Will (also friend from CU) in Phuket and then heading possibly to Ao Phang Nga or some other island/beachy area. On the 30th I will be going to the other side of Thailand to see Petra (another SAS friend!) on Ko Samui. I’ve decided to take the bus since it is the cheapest form of transportation, unfortunately it’s going to be about 20 hours total each way, yuck!…but it’s only 60 bucks as opposed to the $400 round trip plane ticket. I cannot wait to see some familiar faces!

I hope the holidays are treating you well! Eat some gingerbread for me please!

Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas! and Happy New Year!

Love,

Danielle

Making it Snow in Thailand
Making it snow in Thailand

Loy Krathong and Prasat Pueai Noi

Loy Krathong:

Loy Krathong is a holiday celebrated on November 12th here in Thailand. You are probably asking yourselves why I am posting about this so late, and I have no good excuses. I don’t know why it has taken me three weeks to write about it. The holiday was explained to me as being an opportunity to ask Mother Nature for forgiveness for all of the bad things we do to her, primarily for all of the bad things we put into the water systems. Everyone makes krathongs (little rafts) out of slices of banana tree trunks, banana leaves, and flowers. Candles and incense are placed in the center along with some money and possibly some fingernail clippings if you so desire. As you release your krathong into the river (or lake if you don’t have a river) you are supposed to say a prayer for forgiveness and I think you get to make a wish, at least that’s what I was told.

The irony of the holiday seemed to be completely lost on almost every single participant. Loy Krathong is a big festival here and is much like a county fair. There are games, tons of food, and many many shops. The amount of trash that piled up by the end of the night was horrifying. Nobody seemed to notice that on the same night we ask for forgiveness for all of the bad things we do to the environment we were also destroying it. Not to mention the obvious fact that while we ask for forgiveness for polluting the water we are putting yet another piece of litter into the water.

My float was made out of a banana tree that one of the girls who taught me to make my krathong cut down from her neighbors yard. So not only were we littering in the lake, we were also killing and stealing trees. At least our krathongs were made out of biodegradable material though. Some people make their krathongs out of styrofoam, which makes me wince to think about. Of all things to ask for forgiveness with, they choose styrofoam?!? An environmentalists worst nightmare!

Other than that, Loy Krathong was very fun. I tried a corn and coconut waffle which was surprisingly good and had a great time making my krathong. Here are some pictures of the krathong building party we had. I kept asking myself what would Martha do if she were given some pins, banana leaves, and flowers…here are the results.

My krathong building teachers.
My krathong building teachers.
The Krathong I made. I used banana leaves, orchids, lotus flowers, roses, and some other white flower.
The Krathong I made. I used banana leaves, orchids, lotus flowers, roses, and some other white flower.
All of the krathongs we made. Mine is in the back to the right.
All of the krathongs we made. Mine is in the back to the right.

Prasat Pueai Noi:

A week ago I went on a field trip with two of my sixth grade classes to Prasat Pueai Noi, which is about an hour outside of the city. I was told that we were going to “a temple…kind of,” so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It turned out to be the ruins of an old castle which was the largest Khmer sanctuary in the Northeast of Thailand, at least according to the sign at the Prasat, it seemed a little small to be deemed the largest though. It was used as a Hindu temple, which is only obviously evident by the remaining carvings of Vishnu on some of the beams.

I’m not sure the description I would give of our field trip bus would really do it justice, so here is a little video of it. I was kind of excited at first because I thought I would get to ride in the back (in the cage) with the kids, but I am really glad I didn’t because on the way back to school two kids hurled everywhere. I was very thankful for being smushed in the front with the other two teachers and the driver after that.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqSRFd8Y-zo]
Prasat Pueai Noi
Prasat Pueai Noi
Some of my students.
Some of my students.

Prasat Pueai Noi 2

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The boys love to pose for pictures.

That’s it for today!

P.S. Regarding the political situation here, don’t worry! I am so far away from Bangkok it hasn’t changed my daily life at all. Thanks for all of your thoughts though, and Jet I will totally take you up on your offer if I start to feel like things are getting bad. Thank you so much!