#Choose Philippines: Why I keep coming back

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Intramuros, Manila

Mabuhay!

I’ve traveled throughout the Philippines on four separate trips now and to this day I still recommend the Philippines as an excellent travel destination in southeast Asia. Why? Because Filipinos are warm and embracing people. Food is cheap and delicious. You can never run out of destinations to visit. The landscapes vary as you travel around. Nothing looks the same. You can ride a caribou in Puerto Galera. Come on people! There are 7,107 islands to be exact.

The Philippines offers cooler environs outside of sticky Manila such as delightful getaways such as Baguio, Sagada, and Banaue where you can enjoy caving, hiking, and explore the different cultures that the northern mountainous lands offer.

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Hiking in Banaue

Okay, so maybe I have a boyfriend who is from the Philippines but there must be a reason why I keep coming back and making travel arrangements near and far.

My first trip there was to the island of Bohol and it was this venture that I traveled there alone back in 2013 with one intention in mind: to see for myself Chocolate Hills. Bohol exceeded my expectations beyond measure. It is a place I hope to return to.

In July of 2013 I set off to Bohol because I was dying to see the beautiful mounds of Chocolate Hills and the tarzier creatures with the big bug eyes.  After a short flight from Manila, Bohol greeted me with the dreaminess of Alona beach and all of the beautiful people, surroundings, and foods on  “White Beach” similar to Borocay. I fell in love with it at first sight. Dining solo with tea lights on my table I never truly felt alone. In fact, all of the waiters kept asking me where my husband was. The Philippines is a bit obsessed with coupling. Don’t you think?

Chocolate Hills

Why I keep coming back! (Travel longer-travel cheaper)

Compared to many other southeast Asia destinations the Philippines offers cheap travel around the country through ferries and buses, exotic and tasty food, and beyond affordable accommodation throughout the country. Think cheap massages, simple food (very inexpensive), beaches never too far away, many English speakers, and sincerely kind people. I’m pretty sure that when I was in the Philippines last September I was getting some sort of spa service on a daily basis for under $5 per hour. Back home it’s at least $60 minimum for an hour massage. Imagine that.

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Lunch @ Leslie’s in Tagaytay

Just a short list of my reasoning alone makes me want to plan my next trip to the Philippines because there is always something new to learn about Filipino culture, new places to explore, and unlimited foods to try. There are still regions even more north of Sagada that I haven’t explored yet.

It is the Philippines as a travel destination that I highly recommend to anyone who is thinking about jet setting to southeast Asia. If you are searching for something off the beaten path from what many tourists have done include the Philippines in your future travel plans.

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Batad Rice Terrace

Fast Facts

Culturally speaking the list of what you can experience in the Philippines is endless. From the delicious cuisine with exotic fruits to yummy street foods such as lumpia, ice cold halo-halo, loads of smiles from the locals (especially upon walking into a store) fried bananas, and buko (coconut) juice.

The landscapes of the Philippines drastically change as you travel from the overpopulated capital of Manila to the outside provinces and to the islands. The Philippines consists of  7,107 islands! With these many islands you are never bound to get bored or run out of places to see. If you thought that seeing Borocay was all the Philippines has to offer guess again.

What truly has highlighted my experience of traveling the Philippines has been caving in Sagada and walking through Echo Valley to witness the Hanging Coffins up on the mountain  to quiet Alona Beach in Bohol . The Filipino people have truly made each trip to the Philippines of mine very special to me. Oh gosh, now I am salivating thinking about lumpia.

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Enjoying a birthday celebration in Bohol

The dark side of paradise

It’s very easy to let the negative side of stories of  getting scammed, robbed, or getting a bad first impression of Manila upon arrival (the traffic, air pollution, and the overwhelming poverty). I can admit that yes I have been scammed by taxis and tricycle drivers before but that has not deferred me from wanting to keep coming back to the Philippines to see what else is out there.With that said, I’m here to shed the light on what the Philippines really has to offer as a travel destination. There are all good people in the world near and far. I have met all different kinds of people throughout the world and all throughout southeast Asia, however I haven’t met such  accommodating people in all my life since discovering it in the Philippines. The people of the Philippines has stuck with me as my main reason for what sets this destination apart from other places.

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hiking in Mt. Tapyas

With every destination you visit of course there is always the good and bad parts. For example someone can love the cuisine in India but the traffic and pollution in the cities could be the deal breaker from coming back. I loved cycling around Kyoto on my own but I felt very frustrated by my two trips there when I really couldn’t find my way around Kyoto because there really weren’t many English speakers to talk to. In Manila the traffic, overpopulation, poverty, and smog that fill the capital is such a pity and downer to me but I still love the people. The Philippines truly has to much to offer in terms of sightseeing, landscapes, diversity, languages, and cuisine. It’s been four trips now and I am starting to think when I will be back. As much as I have been offered the chance to live there it is much better for me to visit. The Philippines will always be a place that I can visit and I have many reasons why I can keep coming back.

For more information about travel and life in the Philippines check out my vlogs on Youtube here.

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In love with the Philippines

The Island of Gods

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Bali was always place that I wanted to visit after reading Eat, Pray, Love (like three times). I can remember laying on my hammock and dreaming about getting lost in Bali. Eating lots of exotic fruits, making local friends, and thinking that my life would fall into place after discovering myself. I wasn’t drawn to Bali because I was recently divorced or experiencing a critical heartbreak in my life but my own curiosity was leading me to a place where I could disconnect and set my own pace for what I wanted to do. A calling in my life was leading me to The Island of Gods.

It was December of 2010 and I was sitting in front of my heating fan in Korea freezing like I was in the tundra. I had just purchased my flight to Denpasar and could not have felt more thrilled. I got down on my yoga mat in child’s pose with Balinese gamelan tunes softly playing in the background and was over the moon for my adventure to come.

Escaping the frigid conditions in Seoul I was on my flight to Denpasar, confident and in control of my second solo trip. My first impressions of Bali started in Sanur is a quiet homestay near the sea. A typical breakfast of fresh fruits, banana pancakes, and coffee next to the sea were waiting for me. I was in Bali.

A typical Balinese breakfast

Peace, solitude, and acceptance wrap up my understanding of how I felt about Bali based on my immersion in the little gem of Ubud. Morning yoga at run rise at the yoga barn,fresh fruits at the Ubud Market, and setting the trip at my own pace are what resonate with me when I reflect on my Balinese adventure. It was this trip that set my spark on fire to begin traveling alone and continuing on that journey around Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

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A five course Balinese cooking class in Ubud

Going solo

Did you know that Bali is one of the top solo destinations in the world? For the curious solo travelers, Bali is a unique destination that I always recommend. Why? Because it is so easy to navigate your way around this small enough island with more than enough to do in a one week getaway. With plenty of homestays on the island you can have your own room with breakfast included (banana pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee). Your homestay host can help you plan day tours and outings with the help of a local guide. In my case the homestay hosts were very helpful when helping me plan.

img_9190Don’t miss Ubud

The heart of Bali, Ubud, is a peaceful playground that attracts the kind of people who practice yoga, create and practice artist, and those who are curious enough to leave the popular sites like surfing spot Kuta Beach behind to discover a layer of Bali that you cannot experience in an expat playground such as Kuta.

Of course if you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you must be familiar with Ubud. Located in the center of the island surrounded by rice field terraces, lovely nature paths, monkey forest, and pleasurable dining venues and cafes this place has plenty of offer. You can’t miss Monkey Forest Road, a long strip with local shops, artists, bistros, and cafes. For those in wanderlust mode you won’t fall short of pleasurable things to enjoy, even if that means enjoying smoothie overlooking the rice fields.

Ubud is where I spent most of my time on the island. After settling in my first night there I realized that I wanted to slow down and explore as much as I could on foot and through some eco-tours. I didn’t want to run my self down touring the whole island with a short amount of time. Ubud will always hold a place in my heart.

 

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At a very beautiful temple near Ubud

The sunrise is one of the coolest sights that you can’t miss to get your day started in Ubud. I took an early morning yoga class at the Yoga Barn where our class overlooked the rice paddies at the sun rose over the treetops. Stretching and holding positions in silence at the Yoga Barn taught me to slow down and stay in the moment. It was truly mesmerizing. The beauty of this experience is one that I will always treasure.

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Why I would go back to Bali

Bali is so dear to me because it’s the first place that I traveled to alone where I felt at home. I felt at peace navigating my way around while I was in  search of beautiful spots to soak in. Away from the main drag of where expats like to hang out in and around Monkey Forest Road I always found myself on a long stretch of paths that led me to beautiful sunsets where I completely took in my surroundings of exotic flora, locals selling colorful fruit and it was here where I felt so lucky to witness what I had thought of the landscapes, a painting. For the curious traveler I hope that you day you too take home a piece of Bali for yourself.

Getting there

Getting to Bali means flying into Denpensar (DPS) and then navigating yourself around the island through a taxi, motorbike, or through the Perama Bus. I used the Perama bus as it was reliable and cheap transportation. For US citizens it is $35 visa on arrival. Make sure you have US dollars on you.

Getting Around

Points of interest such as Sanur, Ubud, Canidasa, Senggigi, Lovina, and Amed can all be reached by taking the Perama Bus. You can also hire a driver if there are places you want to see around the island.

Desk warming: The obligatory task of expats in Korea

 

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Situation A: My desk. Filled with photos of my dog. No class today.

An empty school. An empty parking lot. Maybe three teachers tops are presently at the school for the day processing paperwork and answering the photos for their “duty” day required of them in between semesters. And you, the foreigner are at your desk all day long trying to find anything that comes your way to pass the time more quickly. You know exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s desk warming!

I will never in my life be able to forget the long days filled with sitting at my desk when 99.9% of the time I was sitting alone in a bare unheated office asking myself over and over again why I had to be there in the first place and what on earth was the purpose of my existence in an empty school when I could be sitting in my apartment doing the same thing except in my pajamas but in front of my heating fan with a bowl of hot ramen to warm me up.

When you sign your contract to teach at a public school in South Korea you basically are signing your life away to many important tasks that you must fulfill in your duties and that does include desk warming. Desk warming are essentially days that can turn into weeks where you are required as per your contract to come to school like a regular school day except no children are there.

All of the school staff have to rotate this task as well whether it be three teachers a day sitting in the main office doing paperwork for the school and answering phone calls. You however, the dear foreigner, waygookin, most likely will be joining them in the main office watching them or alone in your office next to the English classroom. Be prepared to fulfill these duties as it is a requirement and there is no scurrying out of it. Following the standard code of Korean way does prove your “diligence” as it is however a very strange concept of wasting time.

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Situation B: An empty classroom. All students are at home.

My desk warming days were ones that I will never miss. They were filled with endless cups of hot tea and instant Korean coffees,munching on choco pies, googling “how to survive desk warming”, watching YOUTUBE videos on desk warming, writing emails to my foreign friends who were also desk warming and browsing through waygook.org creating forums with the title “why do I have to do desk warming?”
In the winter they were long miserable days where I dreamed of being on a warm tropical beach laughing at my empty and cold office and never looking back. My days were spent with all layers of my clothing on including my winter jacket, scarf, hat, and sometimes mittens because the pipes had frozen and the cold air was coming through the windows.
Looking back I laugh more at my desk warming disaster in the winter months because of how cold the school was and no matter how many layers I had on, I was still freezing. My body wasn’t very adaptable to the drastically cold temperatures of winters in the ROK.Drinking cup after cup of hot tea with honey to warm me up and slurping instant Korean noodles while drinking the steaming broth still could not warm my freezing body.
The only thing I can say to make you to make you feel better about your future of desk warming is that it will get better in the summer months because you will busy planning for summer camp while no classes are in session and usually your co-teachers will be planning the budget and outline of the camp. Oh, and you won’t be freezing! Instead, you will be snacking on Korean drinking yogurts, seasonal fruits, and ice creams to keep your body cool because Korean summers are very humid and sticky. Instead of freezing your buns off , you will be laughing back at yourself of your cold winter months at your desk with no kids. Good luck!

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Situation C: My entertainment on my walk back to my apartment

You can find more about how I spent my days desk warming here.

How to mend a broken heart: Dear Korea..

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Living in South Korea for three years of my life helped me evolve into the person I am today. A lot of memories were made.A lot of kimchi was eaten. I ate a ton of rice cakes on a daily basis. Yummy snacks appeared on my desk on a daily basis. When I told my close co-workers that I was cutting back on choco pies and rice cakes the treats mysteriously kept appearing. I explored every corner, crevice, city, province, that my guide book offered me in Korea. A lot of great people came into my life. A lot of great people left. A lot of visits were made at the swimming pool in Gumi to do laps where nobody would talk to me. I accepted that. I could ramble on and on of what I wish I was prepared for when I left Korea for life back in the USA.

I wish somebody told me that it was going to be hard. That not everybody would want to hear my endless stories. Stories about kimchi. Stories about my coteachers. Stories about how cool the public transportation system is all around the peninsula. Stories about he time I toured the DMZ- the most heavily protected borders in the world. Stories about all the cool cafes in Seoul including Hello Kitty in Hongdae. Stories about the moments that made me into who I am today based on the coolness I experienced.

I wish I was prepared to know that my pictures didn’t justify what I really experienced. That talking about my travels would be compared in translation to someones weekend at home at the bar or a birthday celebration. That I was going to feel extremely confused and sad sometimes. That I was going to feel at times that something in my life had died. That finding Korean food at home was going to pretty hard and non existent basically. That my chopstick skills didn’t impress everyone. That my thoughts would be consumed with my experiences and tales in Korea.

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That I was going to miss Korea for a long time. That I would still be talking about Korea almost every day until that day I would visit three years later. That soondubu jiggae would be my favorite food and I would long for yummy korean snacks that I could not find at home. That choco pies became my go to comfort food. That on cold winter nights back home I would be longing for Korean ramen.

I wish someone had told me that I was going to feel disconnected from the place that I grew up. That I would constantly compare South Korea to the United States.That I would always wish and talk about how great the public transportation is in South Korea and how I didn’t need a car when I lived there. That the healthcare system in Korea was awesome and seeing a doctor cost me $3 compared to the crazy $100 co-pay to see a doctor back home.  That I would love and embrace Korean strangers. That at any chance I could get I could try to talk to a Korean person and share with them how much I love Korea and that I lived there for three years and ask them if they had ever had the chance to travel to Dokdo and Ulleung Island like i had.

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Moving forward hasn’t been easy. At the beginning stages of initially leaving Korea it felt as if I was mourning a death of something so dear to me that I lost.However after a recent visit I made finally with South Korea, it really opened my eyes to how much of the world I have seen in the past three years and how much Korea has not changed. Of course I think I am not as homesick for Korea these days. It is not Korea I long for as a place now. Instead what I miss are the people who made my life better and showed me how to be a good friend and taught me how to learn to enjoy Korea. What I know now is that I will always have love for Korea and Korean people. That dried seaweed, bibimbap, chamchi kimbap, and soon dubu jiggae will always be my favorite Korean comfort foods. What I do know now is that Korea will always be there and I can always visit. It is a place I can always return to in the case that I need a reminder of how great I had it there.

Life in the countryside of South Korea with EPIK

Moving to the middle of nowhere

Adjusting to the countryside in Korea was a process that took me many months to make work for me. When I was placed in Angye-myeong in Uiseong country in the province of Gyeongbuk in October of 2010 I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. When I applied to EPIK through Reach to Teach recruiting I didn’t specifically state whereexactly I wanted to lived. I thought I would be happy living anywhere in Korea.

Upon getting placed and settling into my new apartment my friends in bigger cities were enjoying meals together after work at Mr. Pizza, going to the movies together on Friday nights, and coffee meet ups at Sleepless in Seattle on Tuesdays while I felt stuck in rice paddie land searching for the reason why I was placed in my tiny town in the first place.

Reasoning with myself

One of my first weekends after I had settled in I took the bus up to Seoul to drown myself in all things foreign and wonderful; coffee shops galore, kebabs and Indian curries in Itaewon, endless shopping in  Myeongdong with bright lights and music pumping, and enjoying the subway rides around the city. I loved Seoul but the idea of taking the bus back to Anyge (three and a half hours southeast) sounded unbearable.I was drowning  myself in all the wonderful things that Korea afforded me and returning to the quiet town of Angye made me feel resentful.

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A really nice girl who I know through a friend invited me out with her friends for Thanksgiving celebration in Seoul. Most of the teachers were teaching at hagwons around the city and were super cool. I couldn’t help but feel completely sorry for myself and feeling quite miserable for the place I had to return to on Sunday night as they all talked about the cool places they were discovering around Seoul and how they spent their free time after work.  What was there for me back in Angye? What on earth was the point of a year in the land of makkoli, rice, and a whole lot of nothing?

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Angye (from the rice fields)

Tami became my sounding board and gave me some advice that stuck with me.As I look back six years later this was exactly what I needed to hear. “Focus on your goals for the next year of your life. You are going to save so much money by living there. Learn more about Korean culture and immerse yourself. You can always come to Seoul on the weekends.”

The next morning on my walk to school those words stuck with me over and over again in the back of my mind as I walked past the locals who were practically now my neighbors.
With a new goal in mind that I had to set for myself I had to learn how to adjust and try to enjoy my placement. I had to learn how to get comfortable spending a lot of time on my own during the week. I had to immerse myself in what I did have in my town; places to go for quiet walks to reflect, trying and discovering local restaurants, and making friends with those who lived around me.

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Angye, Gyeongbuk Province, South Korea

Deciding to enjoy my time

First thing I began doing was getting to know my local community. I started learning names of the bank tellers, pharmacists in our only pharmacy in town, and exploring the restaurant scene that offered only Korean fare.During the cold winter months in my first contract I became friendly with one of the restaurant owners who offered me a free Korean dinner if I tutored his daughter for an hour in English. She was very shy but her parents really wanted her to learn English from a foreigner. For about a month plenty of side dishes and bibimbap was waiting for me on the table and I couldn’t believe that all of that food for for me. I started to realize that as humble an offer as this was it wasn’t worth my time to sit for an hour with the owners daughter who wasn’t interested in learning in the first place and me talking to her. Nevertheless, that was worth the experience though.
Passing by a large chicken coup one day I spotted a beautiful dog who started following me to school one day and back to my apartment after passing by the shop. I soon fell in love with this beautiful creature. The obstacle of not being able to converse with the owner all seemed to fade away because she accepted me and seemed to enjoy my company. She was a widow and always invited me in especially during the cold winter months. Soon to follow however was to find out after being home on vacation in the USA for a month was that this animal friend of mine was run over by a car. I will always remember the kindness and commitment to sticking by me that this creature showed me.

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Being immersed in my local community familiarized me with all I had to be thankful for. As small as Angye was I held deep gratitude for a safe community where locals recognized me and invited me often to share a snack. One afternoon walking through the local market after work I heard my name being called through the crowd. I turned around and one of my students had a big box of strawberries for me. “This is for you, teacher.” I will never forget how that moment made me feel and I will carry it with me forever. Sometimes in our lives we are called to do something we aren’t ready for and unwilling to accept. Find the quiet time when you are called and accept it graciously.

Why it’s better to travel alone

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Dragon Tiger Tower, Taiwan

Traveling alone makes me feel like I am in control of what I want to see, explore, eat, and do all at my own pace. Wanderlust is something that has taken control over me ever since I took my first trip abroad to Mexico at the ripe age of seventeen with my  best friend. Since then I have explored more than forty countries on every continent except for Antarctica.

I can say that I have traveled a lot by myself in the past six years. Bali, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, and  South Africa. Many of the other countries I visited were on my cruise ship with shore excursions and friends. The travel I did on my own taught me so much about self reliance, how to read a map, figuring out the public transportation system (trains, buses, high speed rail), trusting my instincts, and being guided by my own natural intuition.

Top reasons for why you should travel solo NOW !

  • Build your problem solving skills
  • Learn to navigate the public transportation routes
  • Eat and dine whenever you want
  • No negotiation because you aren’t in a group
  • Mingle with more people at your own pace
  • More flexibility for last minute changes
  • See more, Do more!
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Taking a rest of cycling in Kyoto, Japan

Look. Traveling solo isn’t for everyone but it is something you should try at least once in your life when planning to see new places. Some people feel funny sightseeing alone and looking at magnificent places without someone special along side them but you don’t have to look at it that way. For me there is nothing more celebrating than making plans of places I want to visit without negotiating with others along the way. “What time do you want to eat? What do you want to do next? What do you want to do tomorrow? Do we have enough time there? Well if you don’t want to go there, I will go and meet you later” I seriously cannot imagine having these conversations when I travel because it will just complicate my plans and ideas. Trust me that you will meet really cool people during your travels. Once you take those baby steps and prepare your trip you will look back and realize that traveling alone was the wisest decision you have made. And in the case that it’s not for you at least it’s something you can add to your list of things you did in your life that you learned from that you can share with others!

 

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Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali

 

 

Reunited with the past: South Korea

I had romanticized being reunited with South Korea since the day I left August 25, 2013.

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Closing that chapter in my life living abroad in Korea was a difficult one. It wasn’t an easy decision to pack up all of my belongings and move back home to Connecticut but I knew that the time had come. All of my friends were finishing their contracts and putting the pieces together to build a new life elsewhere. What would I be staying for?

South Korea was the place I had called home since I graduated university. It was the place where I learned how to pay all of bills.It was the place that was kind enough to me on Christmas eve to add a full book of passport pages before I flew to Thailand on a last minute trip.  It was the place where I had my first “real job”. It was the place where I conquered my fears.It was the place where I had covered all the land quite literally. I visited every province, almost every city, almost every national park, and even venturing out to Ulleung and Dokdo Islands. It was the place I had paid off all of my student loans. It was the place that felt so lonely at times but full of people I knew that cared for me. I knew that one day I would go back and visit.It was the place where I failed to understand everything but somehow felt that I knew everything about Korea.  That was one thing I knew for sure.

Fast forward to September 2016 and I was picking up my checked bags and going through immigration at Incheon Airport. All around me were Koreans. All around me were whispers of a language I could barely understand. “yogi-yo” (Come here)… I heard in the crowds as I gathered my bags in search of the AREX (Airport Railroad) to Seoul Station. Shuffling through the crowds of families and more Koreans I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t look like them. I didn’t speak like them. Did I still know them?

Spotting a 7-11 convenience store with bright florescent lights I remembered my dedication to my favorite Denmark Yoghurt drink. Quickly grabbing the last yoghurt off the shelf and checking out, an expressionless young high school kid  rung me out. Really? My disappointment was slowly starting to build up as I walked out looking and recognizing all of my favorite korean snacks. Really giddy to find the counter to book my AREX ticket and kind of bouncing around with all of my excitement I booked my AREX ticket with the lady at the desk. I was explaining my excitement with her about reunited with South Korea after three years. I felt compelled to share the reason as to why I was in Korea. Blank expressions. Bland “ok’s” and “I see” mumbled back at me as she handed me my ticket. Really? I wanted to just flop on the floor and cry. What exactly had I romanticized about visiting Korea specifically?  Oh wait, that wasn’t what I was expecting. That’s not how this was supposed to play out.

Looking out the window from Seoul Station all of the skyrises and LG and Samsung apartment complexes all mirrored one another. Soon the open land of rice fields swallowed up the emptiness that would follow. The countryside of Gyeonggi province looked empty. Quiet. Quite like how Anyge looked. A place that I’m not sure I could ever visit again. Rewind to six years ago that was my first stomping ground village where my emptiness swallowed me alive. Studying the land carefully out the window as we glided by villages and mountains we soon arrived in Gumi.

Arriving at Gumi station was a surreal feeling. It was my home for a year of my life. I thought back then that I had the best life. I lived right behind Gumi station and stones throw from downtown. Reaching the top of the escalator I checked all my heavy suitcases into a locker and with high expectations booked it to the same coffee shop where I use to for language exchange and coffee. My korean friend Eunye owned it but married a Swiss man so now resides in France so her mom operates it. There at the front counter was Eunhye’s mom. I have met her many times before. Her English was almost non existent but I always sat in her coffee shop with her daughter while she was in the back. My mouth was running a mile a minute in my own excitement and adrenaline to see her and pop in to say hi. All of Eunye’s travel photos were still on the wall and I was standing in the past. I was anticipating something more than a “nothing” response. Hmm… so I took the steps down Gumi station to a familiar hair salon that I use to visit.

The same round figured jolly lady who I once shared deep and challenging conversation on New Years Eve with was standing at the counter. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.”Your here!”  I had forgotten her name but knew exactly who she was. “Hi! Remember me! You curled my hair a few years ago but we talked a lot and you use to live in Ireland. I didn’t forget you!” I was literally filled with so much excitement to rekindle the past and share the picture of my hair that she styled so beautifully on my tablet. Holding the picture and asking her how she was I sank in confusion to receive next to nothing in terms of an expression, response, or acknowledgement for my present and excitement to see her. My “homecoming” reunion was seriously cracking right in front of me. To have been out of the country for three years now was realizing that Korea didn’t change. I was the once who had changed.

Reflecting on my week long jaunt with Korea was highlighted by my visit with a coworker from the last school I taught at. Jeong Im is my moms age but she opened her roomy apartment to me with open arms in Chilgok. Meeting me at the new tram station with bright hiking wear (totally ajumma style) the real Korea I knew was coming back. Treating me to a vegetarian restaurant we retreated back to her place eating and reminiscing over korean grapes which was purely nostalgia. Korean grapes are so deeply purple and a sweet taste of heaven in your mouth. Drinking chinese green tea on the floor and chatting I felt a rumbling that shook the whole room. A 4.5 magnitude earthquake had struck Gyeongju with aftershocks reaching the rest of the Korean peninsula.

The following day we found ourselves viewing the big city of Daegu from the tram that was recently built. Getting off at Seomun Market we toured the food stalls taking in the scents of fresh fruits in big red bowls, tteokbokki cooking over the stove, and ajummas selling hanbok. This was the Korea that I couldn’t wait to be familiar with again. Jeong Im and I settled on a small ondol style restaurant that served haemul kalguksu (seafood noodles). The warm steam made my nose run like crazy and the cold that I had been fighting for five days now was starting to heal. Seomun Market was a place I use to pass by when I use to visit Daegu. Our afternoon venture was so familiar and I loved it.

Jeong Im had recently retired and opened her own Korean style Jimjilbang spa. She had prepared all these wonderful spa treatments for me. With both of her kids moved out I felt like the third child she now had. Being treated with all these glorious spa treatments was I a princess for the day? I needed my tiara. After dripping sweat in the sauna a spa “menu” was prepared for me. Warm sweet potato, korean grapes, and a hard boiled egg with hot water. I will never forget the way that I felt in this moment. I could never come up with a gift savvy enough to wrap up my gratitude to Jeong Im in a box. No present could ever express how Jeong Im made me feel while I visited with her. Maybe I should just consider writing her a nice note and mailing it to her.

The following afternoon we reunited with teachers over warm songpyeon and an orange vitamin C drink (korean style). Sitting at my old desk that was once mine that faced the principal three years ago gave me a rush of old memories that were once my reality at that time.Every day sitting at my desk not understanding what anybody was talking about lost in translation while facing the principal was truly comical. I met the new principal introducing myself and listening him ramble to me about who knows what because well, I don’t speak Korean. I should have learned Korean beyond just learning the alphabet.   Sharing a steaming hot of seafood, side dishes, and warm rice with Mina and Hyun Ji who were my main coteachers at Jinpyeong Middle School really encapsulated the entire reason for why I went back to Korea. To share deep engaging conversation, laughing, and chatting together the past and present. Sharing with them where I am today. Telling my struggles with missing Korea. Explaining who I am today. This is the Korea I missed.

My visit to Korea surprised me. I think I expected everybody to be just as ecstatic as I was to visit a place I use to live. A foreign friend once told me that Korea was always going to be there. I was the one who had changed and change after all is not a bad thing.

 

Tsushima, Japan

Out of all of the trips I have taken around Asia and Africa   I have only been on one trip with a group of friends. It was during Chuseok holiday (Korean Thanksgiving) and it was early September. The leaves were slowly starting to change to luscious red, oranges, and yellows. The air was beginning to feel much cooler after such a humid summer in Korea. Autumn in Korea has always been my favorite season and two girlfriends of mine had agreed with me to go on a three day cycling and camping trip in Tsushima, Japan with a small group of expats. The weather would be the same as Korea and the best part was that we didn’t have to plan a thing!

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After taking a quick ferry from Busan our days consisted of dreamily cycling the rolling hills heading northbound along beautiful and isolated island called Tsushima. My body was in complete peace and tenderness as I soaked in the small traditional simple living of Japan. The nostalgia of crisp apples in the market and the deliciousness of fresh sushi being rolled along with bento boxes took my sense to a whole new place.All of the newness of our first day was extremely comforting if that makes any sense.  In fact, many Japanese travelers who I have met in my travelers have never even heard of this island. What made this trip so enjoyable was that there was such little planning and decision making for us girls to make together. I think our biggest group decisions were: where we were going to pitch our tent, which Japanese grocery store we would park our bikes to pick up some food, and at what time we would take short water breaks to stop and take pictures.

I enjoyed this kind of travel because at the time this trip was so low key! It was almost too good to be true. We woke up at the break of dawn to watch the sun rise over the scenic waters with cascading hills and mountains in clear sight. As we cycled we contemplated our life goals, dreams, and ideas. This was the kind of trip that for the rest of my life I will carry with me the smells, sights, surroundings, and feelings. I will carry with me the glorious smell of autumn in Japan as we cycled along the sea watching local fisherman catch their daily supply. I will hold with me my appreciation of warmth and togetherness as we all huddled together around the warm campfire in the cold evenings with warm mugs of hot drinks under the stars with the campfire roaring in front of us.

 

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I will forever be in love with this weekend jaunt on the quiet and quaint island of Tsushima. Cycling the countryside of Japan on Chuseok weekend was one of those experiences you have that when you retell small pieces of the story all of the fine details are still fresh in your mind. Thank you Savannah and Adina for a trip that I certainly have not forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My personal travel style: super ‘travel’ savvy

A local kimbap shop in rural South Korea

My personal travel style would have to be titled “travel savvy” while still being on a budget. Enjoying local foods, cafes, markets all at the local level instead of finding “western” places. When I am traveling I cannot afford to plunge into expensive hotels however I steer very far from backpackers and cheap hostels to my favorite, airbnb.. Let me explain.

There are a lot of places to see in the world. There are a lot of things that I have done and more that I want to do. With that said, whenever I am traveling I find unique ways to cut back on travel costs while still traveling in comfort while enjoying all that’s around me. Let me give you a perfect example.

Two years ago I spent a week in New South Wales, Australia on my own and my main focus was Hunter Valley and seeing the Blue Mountains. First thing first I did a little research on public transportation in that area. Renting a car, organizing a private tour and hiring a taxi was out of the question. In the Sydney Tourist Information Center they actually recommended me joining a tour but when I found out what that would cost me I refused. I knew there was a much cheaper way.

I began my adventure in Sydney Central Train station with a one way ticket booked to Katoomba which was roughly a two hour train ride through gorgeous scenery and mountains before reaching my final destination. The train ticket cost me no more than 20$ Australian dollars. I pre booked a youth hostel ( but now I always travel with Airbnb) that had good reviews right in town near the train station and a two day hop on hop off red bus that toured me all around the Blue Mountains regions. Two days was the perfect amount of time to see all of the beautiful highlights that this region had to offer.  My rule of thumb is to always compare my dining options and find the best deal to get the most for my “bucks”.

I never cut back my spending on foods to eat a cup of noodles or cheap snacks instead of local meals to save a couple bucks. However, you will see me eating in s super fancy type restaurant. Instead what I do is sort out all of my options of places to dine locally by asking around and using tripadvisor to steer me in the right direction. As a lover of food and fresh ingredients I absolutely love trying all the foods that are native to where I am visiting.

Do you travel on a tight budget? What kinds of goods do you find your cutting back on? What do you not mind spending money on?  I would love to know!