Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bali Blow Out!!!

Walking off of the plane in Bali a man met us at the gate. At the plane's gate, not the standard "International Entrance" area that everyone else walks through and gets surrounded by drivers or signs. I found this a bit strange but it set the tone for how we were going to be treated real fast. This same man streamlined our visa process and got us and our bags out of the airport as fast as possible.

Then we reached the parking lot, and the second clue to how things were going to go down popped up... there were two vans waiting for us. Yup, six people, two vans. One was for us and the other for our luggage. As we entered them the AC was pumped high and was at least 50 degrees cooler than the humid outside weather. As the driver began to take us to our Villa I started feeling uncomfortable about the whole process. Did I need to be treated so specially? Could I not have waited in line at the airport like everyone else? Could I not ride with my own bag? Shouldn't I have? It began to dawn on me that I may have become a "backpacker". Someone who doesn't enjoy spending money on travel, but the excitement comes from finding the best deals while traveling. Not having things taken car of for you, but you find a way to take care of yourself. This was sinking in as the air conditioning gave me the chills, during a day of 90 degree humidity, and those chills made me start regretting my idea to travel with my brother and some of our other friends. It was a bad feeling, I actually started thinking that the vacation was going to be a failure, and in essence felt as if it already was. I had made the wrong decision, I saw it now, but had two weeks still to live through it. What had I done!?

Then the van turned in front of a huge gate, the gate opened, we drove down a beautiful entryway, got out, had our luggage carried inside to our rooms for us, and only steps after entering the doorway there were three servants holding trays of fresh squeezed juices, orderves, and fruit. Behind them was the pool and the rest of the Villa that looked like as one person put it, "a house on the show Real World". In just about 15 steps from the van to the entryway I realized I was an idiot, and that I loved having the best of things. Who doesn't? Granted I know it won't last but Bali was the perfect opportunity to live it up and that's what we did.

Meals that could feed small nations were prepared for us by our own cooking staff. Our laundry dissapeared from our hampers and returned folded on our beds daily. We lounged by the pool, walked the beach, and got hour massages in the city for $5 dollars. We were treated like Kings and Queens and if I could do it again I'd jump at it in a second. The week at the Villa was such a high style of living I've never experienced anything like it, but I'm glad I have now.

One week was spent at the villa and another one was spent traveling around Bali. Both were great in there own ways. Check out the pictures if you want to see more.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ladies and Gentelmen, I Give You... KONG!!!

So no, I didn't travel to a mysterious far off island with a giant ape on it in the efforts to bring it back so you could pay to see with your own eyes. But I did bring you pictures from my travels to another far off island, Hong Kong, and you don't have to spend a dime to see them on your computer screen. King Kong may have been the either wonder of the world and while Hong Kong can't claim that, it did have its up sides.

My most memorable moments in Hong Kong were mostly surrounding great meals with awesome people that I had only met once before at Kevin and Susie's wedding in France. During my visit I had great company, and great meals, sometimes with great views (sorry no pictures of that night skyline dinner) and it was a nice place to visit. It seemed to remind me a lot of Beijing and Shanghai and possibly even a little like Seoul (on drugs). Yet there was one thing that stood out, and made it seem different from those other cities. In Beijing and Shanghai you have Chinese people everywhere yelling at you to buy a shirt, a hat, a picture, or something or other. However, in Hong Kong, it's not the same at all. There it's Indian people who are pushing you to buy a watch, a cheap suit, or a souvenir. I don't know quite how the good people from India moved onto Chinese turf and started peddling cheaper goods, but it all seems ironically funny to me.

I did get to see some cool stuff though, check out the pictures.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Australia and Me...Slide By Slide

Check out the entire roll of film taken in Oz. The Zoo was left out of other posts but has some really cool pictures. I've never been nor will I ever be as close to a lion as I was there.

It was a great trip, I hope you can get some of the enjoyment out of the slideshow.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

High Rollin' Down Under

There wasn't much left of our trip to Oz. We'd gotten back from Fraser Island, we'd caught up on the year's worth of missed stories, and we didn't have anything else special planned. Yet, a quote I always loved was "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” by Martin Buber. Well, Mr. Buber, you don't know how right you were.

It appeared to be a normal night. Nothing too special. During the day we did some things around Sydney, tried to go to the zoo, but the ticket salesman said it was too late in the day, and we could enjoy it more fully tomorrow. We took his word (gladly because the zoo was cool, and needs ample time to visit) and we returned home. While walking through the door of Jimmy's apartment it was said as almost an afterthought, "Do we wanna go to the casino tonight?"

After that nothing more needed to be said. Considering we're a group of old friends that got together once a week throughout high school to play cards, and once a week to gamble on bowling (Oh Wacky Wednesday, I will never forget your two for one deal), we all knew we'd be up for the casino on a whim. We changed our clothes into our lucky shorts, sandals, and button down shirts, and we were off to take down the house. And I'm sure we would have, had we not been stopped at the door. Apparently the Sydney Casino is a bit more classy than any other casino that we had been to because they dropped the bombshell of "sorry, no sandals are allowed inside." We were discouraged to say the least. A thirty dollar cab ride there, followed by a thirty dollar trip back home to put on some shoes, and then a second thirty dollar trip to the casino and we were already in dept to the house big. We were all pretty pissed off about the whole incident, and it just seemed like it might ruin the night. Either that or it was a huge karmic misstep by the gambling gods throwing our luck so far down a hole that the only way out of it was to shoot directly up. And that is exactly what happened.

We sat at a 10$ blackjack table, the smallest denomination of money at all of the blackjack tables, and we just lit it up. This was my first time really gambling at a casino table, but I experienced something on this night that I'm sure even veteran gamblers have never been a part of. We started winning. Well, not me, being the rookie I lost my money in about half an hour but Joe, Jim, and Chris all starting rolling it in, and I loved watching it. As you can imagine, with every dealer bust, or blackjack dealt, we were cheering, clapping, and throwing around high fives like it was 1989. A few hours into the table they were all up about a hundred dollars and I didn't think it could get any better, but when gambling, it can also turn for the worse without a moments notice.

It was about here when the table dynamics were forced into a change because Joe had to use the little boys room. He asked the table dealer for a marker to hold his seat until he returned from his tinkle, to which the dealer replied "marker? you mean like a felt pen?" Apparently Australian gamblers don't pee because from the confused/disgusted looks we got, neither our dealer nor his pit boss had ever heard such an outrageous request. This was the second karmic misstep by the gambling gods; relieving oneself should never be a punishable act, and so instead of losing his seat to some Aussie, he decided to give it to me. "You take it Pauly, I'm up, I'm happy, play for me as you would," that's what he said. Now in the karmic battle between good and evil that had been going on in the backgrounds of our night, this was the deciding blow. A friend lending his seat, and money to another friend who hadn't gotten to sit, and lost his money quickly. The karma gods smiled on this act of generosity, and so did I, from ear to ear.

By the time Joe returned from the bathroom I had turned his one stack of chips into nearly three of the equal size. "What the hell did you do?" he asked, to which I replied, "I dunno, I just started winning." I felt like Forrest Gump. Joe knows you don't mess with a good thing when it comes to gambling, so he had me cash in some of the chips I had won, considered himself out (up $400) and told me the rest was mine to play with. This is when things really got out of hand. It seemed as if every move we made was right. I was winning, Jimmy was winning, and Chris was winning too. Every hand started going the right way for all of us. I've never seen a dealer bust so much, and so many times in a row: 22, 25, 26, it was unheard of. One hand after the next, he would bust, or we would get dealt 21. Things started getting so crazy, the luck seemed to be so much in our favor we couldn't sit back and play it normal anymore. We started taking chances.

I was the first to begin adding increments to my bets per hand. If I won the hand, I'd bet $10 more on the next, and then 10$ more on the next if I won that one, and so on. It seemed innocent enough until I won eight hands in a row and was betting $80 a hand at a $10 minimum table. Jimmy liked the excitement and we were already up big, storing hundred dollar chips in "don't touch" pockets, so he decided to jump on board. It wasn't long until we were both betting HUGE hands simultaneously, but that wasn't all, more than ever it seemed like we were being dealt cards that were screaming to be double downed on, or split (in escence doubling our already over sized beginning bets). We decided we had to play the hands the same way we would as if there was only ten dollars on the line, but when we doubled down, or split now, it payed off big time.

Such a crowd gathered around us that it felt like this little, unimportant, ten dollar blackjack table was the main focus of an enormous casino. Something I thought was unheard of. People came over just to ride our wave of luck. They started betting Jimmy's hands, and mine too. We'd still win. There were people throwing $50 chips on our hands, and we'd get blackjack. At one point there were so many people betting on Jimmy's hand that the dealer wouldn't allow it. They set a three person maximum to bet on our hands. When the pile of chips in front of Jimmy was it's biggest, with a hundred dollars of his on the line, and hundreds of three other people's, he turned a blackjack. Jimmy nearly jumped out of his chair, and did a kind of Tiger Woods celebratory fist pump, but with both hands, while letting out a giant roar too, but even that was hard to hear amongst the cheering around him. For the first time in the history of a casino the pit boss was called over to watch a $10 minimum table.

One night, 4 old friends, one blackjack table, and $2,500 won. We were all able to pay Jimmy for the Fraser Island trip, and the car rental after one night of fun together gambling. There was a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow on our trip to Oz, and it was full of Australian dollars. As Jimmy so perfectly put it while walking out of the Casino, "Money won is a hundred times sweeter than money earned." So while the trip to Australia was awesome, and the weather was the best weather of anywhere I've ever been to, and the city was beautiful, and Fraser Island was like no other place I've ever seen, and catching up with old friends was better than words can express..."All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” and for the rest of my life I will never forget the on the whim decision to go to the Sydney Casino in our sandals because I was unaware of it at the time, but this was our secret destination and I believe everything happened for a reason.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Land of Oz

What better to take the sting out of leaving Korea than a trip down to Australia to see some old friends? I didn't think there was anything, so I left Korea to visit Jimmy, who moved to Australia about 8 months earlier. He lives in Sydney and two other great friends, Chris and Joe, also decided to take this perfect opportunity to visit Sydney at the same time. You never expect schedules to work out like this, but as we found out, luck was on our side.

Sydney was a beautiful city. Just flying in on the plane I started becoming jealous of Jimmy and his location choice for ex-patriot living. I did love Korea, but I'm not about to tell anyone that it has great weather. I became so used to the grey ski, so used to cloud cover, and by the time I left I didn't even really notice China's "yellow dust" that blows over anymore. Well the crystal clear sky, warm sun, cool breeze, and white puffy clouds of Sydney quickly made me remember all the things I've been missing. It made me realize that there is some innate connection between people and the condition of the weather. I can have a good time on a rainy day, but seeing the sun shining already makes it a great day, and it was shining the entire time I was Australia.

As soon as I walked off of the plane I realized I was in a different world than the one I had become accustomed to in Asia. Just feet from the plane's gate there was a man on a microphone announcing the duty free deals of the day. That alone was something I've never seen or heard before, but there were other parts of it that made it stand out even more to me because I'd been living in Korea for a year, like he was announcing in ENGLISH! There were also lots of women with bright blond hair walking around. People looked taller than me. It seemed like there were obese people everywhere, and while all those things reminded me of America, everyone sounded like Crocodile Dundee, just to remind me I wasn't home yet. All the little differences seemed to stand out so brightly to me. The things I had gone a year without seeing were normal everyday things to you, but nice little surprises to me.

After arriving a few minutes before Joe at the airport we both took a taxi ride to Jimmy's apartment, in Woolloomooloo, to meet up with Jim and Chris. *Note to other travelers: There is no tipping in Australia, so don't listen to the taxi driver if he tells you there is, he's just being an Ass* Seeing Jim, Chris, and Jimmy's girlfriend Erin was really nice. I always thought that being apart from friends would somehow make it seem different when you met up again, but it's not. As soon as we saw each other it was like we were never apart. We still looked the same, acted the same, told the same jokes, and referenced Seinfeld episodes as much as ever. Even though I've been missing Seinfeld reruns for a year, I can still remember them pretty well.

We spent the first few days of the trip hanging out, catching up, barbecuing, seeing Jimmy's office, Sydney's streets and sights, and yelling lines from Gladiator at Russel Crow's mansion. It was everything I'd hoped for. But we did have one big trip planned, the 3 day excursion to Fraser Island. It's off the east coast of Australia and it's the largest all sand island in the world. Now what does that mean, "all sand island"? I wondered the same thing when I read it, but it means there is no rock formations, no roads, and that the ground beneath you will always be some type of sand while you're there. That is a little more understandable to imagine, but there are areas of the island that look like beach front (obviously), desert oasis, and rain forest. A rain forest growing out of the desert is something I had to see to believe.

Fraser Island was exactly what the type of thing I was looking for. It is a vacation spot, but you don't just sit around. There are no hotels, no spa's, or resorts, it forces you to have an adventure, and in a place that at times looks like it could be another planet. There are only sand roads that and they go up and down like crazy. Driving is part of the adventure because it's dangerous. You have to be worried not to crash the car as you're going over humpty-doodles (sand mounds), and crossing washouts, or just getting the car stuck in deep sand (like we did 4 times). I have no hesitation saying that the four guys from Jersey highly underestimated the seriousness of journey we had embarked on.

We planned out our route as we went along, bought food at the last minute for rock bottom prices, didn't realize we had no way to light the grill until almost nigh fall, thought we didn't have poles to set up the tent, couldn't find a campsite that we were legally able to camp in, found out we couldn't make a fire outside of the campsites that didn't allow us in, couldn't stomach the food we did buy, didn't bring Pepto-Bismol, didn't know how to dig a truck out of the sand, didn't bring enough lights, and I'm sure the list goes on but I'm starting to feel like I'm making us out to be a bunch of idiots. The thing is, none of this really effected the entirety of the trip at all. We were able to see more spots on that island than anyone else I've talked to that has visited there. Getting stuck was part of the adventure, running into a Dingo or two made things more exciting, the bad food made us feel like we were roughin' it, we found matches, and the tent poles, and made due without a fire. We were a bunch of idiots, but luck was just on our side.

On Fraser Island we went to a white sand, clear water lake that was empty. Yup, easily one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever been on, and it was deserted. Not a single person showed up in the entire afternoon we were there. Of course we played football in the white sand, if you know us you could have guessed that, but it was perfect. We walked in areas that felt like the desert. Saw lakes that seemed to be coming right out of the desert. Bathed in areas of water along the shores that bubbled up when the waves hit the rocks segregating them, earning them the name of the "Champagne Pools". We also climbed to beautiful lookout points, hiked cool trails, saw strange animals, drove on the beach, camped in the wild, and all around had an experience that none of us could have imagined.

After the trip to Fraser Island we thought the best of the trip was behind us. How could it get any better than beaches, fresh water lakes as blue as the sky, white sand, Champagne pools? Well no one saw this one coming but a night at the Sydney Casino turned out to be the one night of this trip none of us would ever forget.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

No Mo So Ko

Can you believe it? No more South Korea for me. I'm done with my year of teaching English there. It feels weird to say because that had really become my persona for a year. Everyone I had known through my whole life, or met during this year, heard at one time or another that I was "teaching English in Korea". This is just a fact that at times I said so often I sometimes wish it could be avoided, but it couldn't, it was just something so far out of the norm that it was going to come up in one way or another. Actually, it's the same now being back in America, it's impossible to answer even the most mundane questions (What do you do? Where do you live? What are you doing here?) without having to reproduce my own eccentric year in review. It's not that I don't like bringing it up because I didn't like it, it's actually the opposite. I really liked it, and every time someone brings it up I remember all the good times I had in Korea and it makes me kind of sad that I'm not there right now.

After parting ways with my parents in China I returned to Korea with only two weeks left on my contract. One week off after one week of school, "Graduation Week", which was basically a glorified vacation week mixed with a long emotional goodbye to all of the teachers and students I had become close with throughout the year. I saw these people everyday, became close with them. They took care of me, took me out to dinner, took me hiking, taught me to play badminton. I went out to drinks with them, threw parties for them, partied with them, danced with some of them, and sang with or for all of them (usually Eminem...at their request). The thing is, I became close with some special people I met here. I have close friends in America but these relationships were different to me. These friendships made me realize that there are good people all over the planet, and it made me feel like I was a good person too. It showed me that I can be thousands of miles away from my family yet still feel like they are close.

Graduation week was pretty sad. It felt weird to be sitting at my desk knowing that it was the last week I'd ever sit at it, and next year some other foreign teacher would be sitting at it. Weirder still when I got to meet that new teacher. He was really nice though, and I think he'll be a good fit for the school and the students. But each time I saw students, ate lunch, and went to classes and meetings I was reminded that I will never do this again, and will most likely never see most of these people ever again. It was a really sad and harsh realization.

During the last teachers meeting, a meeting I had attended every week for a year and not understood one word the entire time, Rachel and I were supposed to give goodbye speeches. Rachel stood up first and read her speech. It was supposed to be translated but that got shot down at the last second. Then it was my turn. I had spent the last couple of days with someone I am deeply indebted to trying to write my speech in Korean. I walked up the the podium I'd seen my principal talk at so many times before, never knowing a word he was saying, and I know that is what the eighty Shinjin teachers were expecting out of me. I looked up at all of them and felt my nervous heart beat fast, my hands shake, and felt the temperature of the room rise about twenty degrees. Then I read my speech in Korean. It was quiet before I started my speech, obviously, but once I started speaking it was eerie how silent it became. As if I could sense the collective conscience of them all recognize I was speaking Korean, and they listened in even more intently to try and get every word. I'm sure I made plenty of mistakes, but I finished, and sat down thinking it all went alright. Then the meeting ended seconds later, and to me it seemed like every teacher in the whole school came up to congratulate me, say good job, say goodbye, or say they would miss me too. After the realization that they understood it, and seeing that they were all touched by it, it was hard to hold in my emotion. Having a school full of teachers I respect all want to shake my hand, while knowing that this is the last day I will see most of them was just a little too much to handle. Tears rushed to my eyes almost as fast as the teachers rushed up to me.

Honestly it was one of those moments that I'll never forget. I felt like I'd graduated from something, I don't know what, but some sort of life step. No cap and gown or diploma, but a real feeling of moving up in the world. I had come here to do something and this meeting culminated the idea that I succeeded with nearly all of my good intentions.

Once the last day of school was over I had only one week to plan last meetings with all of my close friends in Korea before I left. I had lunches and dinners almost everyday of the week, and sometimes plans for drinks after them too. Sadly, I came down with a really serious case of food poisoning the day I had some of the most meetings planned, my last full day in Korea. Yup, instead of lunch with my principal, a guy who's life I wish I could have lived, a dinner with Mr. Jong who'd become like a father to both Rachel and I, and plenty of late night drinks with Alex, Jeff and Rachel on my last night, instead I spent it sick in bed. I'll always remember that night too, for a number of reasons I won't say, but it was something out of a movie.

But the goodbye dinners and lunches I did get to go to were really special too. I will never forget the people I met in Korea, I'm sure of it. Right now I still can't get Korea out of my head. I miss my apartment, my desk, the empty school gym, my hours, my vacation, my pay check, my friends, my Korean family, and my second home. That's what it was, and is, my second home. I cheer for Korea when I see them now in sporting events, and I feel somehow connected to the place. I like that. So even though I'm not in South Korea anymore, it's not no more South Korea for me, it'll always be there, and in some way I'll always be there too.The last time I sat at my desk...