Saturday, 25 September 2010

Fresh like morning dew

I was clearing out my photo library this week and stumbled across a few shots from the past year. Looking at them brought me into those moments, and the memories made me smile.

This shot was taken in the spring of 2010 in Seoul's Olympic Park. This couple had just settled down for a Saturday afternoon picnic, and were people-watching. Something about their ease fascinated me. They had a sense of calm that was foreign to a lot of people I'd encountered in Seoul.

This photo was taken during a visit to Krabi, Thailand in February, 2010. It was sunset and we were enjoying coconut shakes on an outdoor patio, while indulging in the fresh, seaside breeze. Such sweet serenity.

I encountered Mr. Pringles at the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival in the spring of 2010. I couldn't help but take a photo of him in his sweater and Dolce & Gabbana belt. Such class in Korea's rural countryside.

This photo was taken at a shack called Carpe Diem on Thailand's Phi Phi Island in February, 2010. Something about the ambiance eased me. In fact, when this photo was taken, there was a man sleeping in a hammock, high up in the tree to the left of the photo. It was definitely a lazy Thursday.

This shot was taken in 2009, during a summer festival in Toronto. Cirque du Soleil performers were walking along the boardwalk in broad daylight. Such a fun, yet bizarre experience.

The 2009 Seoul Drumming Festival took place in Seoul Forest. It was my first big outdoor event in Korea, and it was absolutely fascinating. There were professional drumming troupes and performers from all over the world in this space. There's nothing quite like listening to Brazilian drumming beats in a forest in Korea. Talk about a global experience!

This was one of my first "big" meals in Seoul. Shabu-Shabu is actually a traditional Japanese meal, but this is the Korean take on it. Notice the many plates? Traditional Korean meals have numerous side dishes to compliment the main course.

This photo was taken at PIFF Square in Busan, Korea. I love the colours in this shot. It pretty much depicts the neon frenzy that is Korea. The two ajummas (older Korean women) in the photo were selling dried fish treats from their stalls.

Stay tuned for another installment of photos very soon!


10 simple lessons from a year abroad

Living overseas can teach you a lot about yourself, and every soul-searching, curiosity driven, wandering spirit knows that. However, living in a foreign land outside your comfort zone can also put you in some terrifying and interesting situations that eventually unveil themselves as lessons in this crazy ride we call life.

I've been back in Toronto for a month today, and figured I'd spend some time reflecting on the past year of my life abroad. Here are the results of those meandering thoughts through my mind -- a list of 10 lessons learned in the 12 months I spent in Seoul, Korea. Please bear in mind that these lessons have stemmed from personal experiences and encounters. They, in no way, shape or form, reflect the thoughts of other travelers. But I do hope you enjoy the list!

1. Keep an open mind -- Don't just say it, live it! Almost everyone you meet while traveling the blue marble will say they're a "free spirit" or describe themselves as "open-minded". But saying it and living it are two entirely different things. I've met many people on my travels who've described themselves as such, but have had absolutely nothing to show for it. Sure, they've traipsed from one country to another, switching through hemispheres and seasons with ease. But when it came down to letting a culture absorb them (yes, don't absorb the culture, let the culture absorb you!), they were anything but "free-spirited". Judgment came quickly when presented with various cuisines, traditions and customs. In my opinion (as an example), if you're in Korea and someone offers you live octopus as an entree for dinner, unless you're allergic to seafood or are a vegetarian, eat the live octopus! If you hate it, then so be it... but at least you can say you tried live octopus in Korea. There's not a lot of people out there who could say that!

2. Pack light -- This was a big lesson for me. It's so tempting to stuff suitcases with items that you think you won't be able to live without while traveling. You tend to think ahead and assume that at some point in your adventures, you're bound to need that blow-dryer/diffuser that works so perfectly with your curls. But guess what? Almost every hotel/hostel/inn/dorm/motel comes equipped with a blow-dryer in the room. And if not? Perhaps it's time you considered going au naturel. You are traveling after all... being a free-spirit! Just pack the basics like a pair of jeans, a warm sweater, a few t-shirts and small items. Almost everything else that you need can be picked up along the way. Toiletries, underwear and seasonal clothes can be purchased in your country of choice, and can be bought at reasonable prices... if you're a reasonable traveler. Plus, you'll be glad to have extra space in your luggage when you stumble across amazing souvenirs and treats that you're sure to collect on your travels.

3. Listen to your surroundings -- Whether you find yourself at the local watering hole, or laying on a beach under a blanket of stars, take a few moments to tune out your inner voice and thoughts, and pay attention to the sounds around you. It's such a treat! One of my favourite moments over the past year took place in Krabi, Thailand. It was nighttime and I was laying on a hammock that overlooked the private beach our hostel was located on. I had a stream of thoughts passing through my mind about how grateful I was to be there... counting my blessings. Then, in the following moments, I let the sounds of the surroundings take over me. I heard the soft waves rolling to the shore; the hermit crabs click across the flat sand beds under a moonlit night; the residential dogs, with their paws hitting the cement pavement whimpering in the background; the fireflies buzzing around the mosquito lantern; the easy hum of the wind blowing through the palm trees... and through all that, I heard peaceful silence. The moment sent me into sensory overload, but it was such an amazing feeling. It seems to me that if you let it, your body documents and records the feelings associated with your surroundings. In this way, if it feels good, you can always go back to the memory, and remember exactly how you felt in that moment. It's a surefire way to bring a smile to your face, regardless of where you find yourself in the future!

4. Let yourself laugh -- Seriously! Humour and ease go a long way when traveling. More often than not you will find yourself in situations beyond your control, and you'll be at the mercy of people you're not sure you can trust. When you feel hopeless and think, "This isn't happening!" please remember to laugh. Scientists have proven that laughter sends bursts of endorphins through your body, which can eventually help you think more rationally in times of crises. If you find yourself spending the night at a hostel run by a toothless Thai woman who isn't sure if she's 68 years old or 92, and you're not sure how you ended up there, and in the shadows of centuries old ruins, you see her doing a bewitching, traditional dance to Madonna songs... go ahead and have a laugh! Chances are the night will be over before you know it, and you'll be on your way to your next adventure. And then, she and the creepy hostel you stayed at will simply be a faded memory... a story that you'll be able to share in the future. Laughter helps ease the crazy. I promise! No matter how absurd it seems, or how worried you are, if you laugh, it won't seem as bad and you might actually enjoy yourself!

5. Indulge in story-time -- Whether they're yours or someone else's, make sure you take part in an exchange of stories. There are so many fascinating people on this planet, and in traveling, you're one of the fortunate few who will get to meet people outside your immediate network. Mind you, some are worth staying clear from, but generally, travelers all have interesting experiences to share. Personally, I was always inspired by what I heard. Whether it was in talking with the Dutch man who sold all his personal possessions after a bitter divorce and decided to stumble through the world as the "lazy traveler"; or if it was the American teacher who's Korean had gotten better than his English after spending so many years in the Land of Morning Calm... they each had these unbelievably fascinating stories to tell of their encounters and perspectives. When you travel, you will find a kindred spirit. That's a guarantee... even if it's momentary. Allow yourself to listen a little and share a little. It's great for the soul, and you always leave feeling more enriched than when you started.

6. Language exchange -- Yes, I know that the literal idea of a language exchange is to sit with someone from a particular country and practice your respective languages. My take on this (over the past 12 months) went like this: If I was out with my Korean friends and I heard key words that seemed to work with the waiters or other Koreans, I would ask what they meant, then spend some time practicing the words. They would do the same with English. Basic things like "where?" or "washroom?" or "please" and "thank you". Small phrases and words in the local language go a long way and can make life a lot easier. And besides, you'll be proud of yourself when you realize you can say a certain word in the language of almost every country you've visited and then some... "Yeah" "Neh" "Kah" "Oui" "Ha" "Woi" "Hai"... In English, these basically mean... "Yes". Who knew?!

7. Get lost in translation -- I still remember the same 68 (or 92)-year-old bewitching Thai lady who kept screaming "boat tip" into my ear. It took my friends and I a few hours to figure out she was asking if we wanted to go on a boat trip. It turned out she was definitely getting some sort of boat tip, as the original price of the long-tail boat ride nearly doubled when she quoted it. Highly suspicious! In Korea, I would often have older men and women say "Megook?" to me. And for the longest time I thought they were asking if I wanted a certain kind of soup, because the Korean word for soup is "guk". I couldn't quite figure out why everyone was asking me this, until I learned the Korean word for America was "Megook". I felt silly for a bit, but then started laughing when I realized I had twelve more months of misunderstanding adventures to experience. A year later I can say it was absolutely worth it!

8. Be spontaneous -- This one's a given, right? One of my favourite experiences in Korea happened within the first couple of months of me moving there. I was out having dinner with a friend, and we ended up at an outdoor barbecue restaurant. He asked for the menu, which arrived completely in Korean, with no pictures to support the text. A bit apprehensive at first, we decided to take a risk and pointed to three random items on the menu. A few minutes later a waitress walked up to our table and spread three platters of oysters, muscles, scallops and cuttlefish for us to cook on our fire pit. It was a delicious dinner that we never would have known about had we not taken the risk. Sigh, just thinking about that meal makes want to smack my lips!

9. Ditch the camera -- It's so hard to travel without wanting to capture every single, solitary moment on some sort of camera. This was the case during a great part of my time in Korea. I eventually learned to leave my house with the camera, in the odd occasion that something bizarre happened and needed documentation, but I didn't always use it. Sometimes it's best to leave the camera in the bag and let your eyes and mind take the pictures for you. You'd be surprised at all that you miss when you're stressing behind a lens, focusing on smaller details. Sure it's great to try and capture National Geographic type photos, but you shouldn't let that overwhelm your trip. Treat your senses to the real 3-D! Let yourself revel in where you are in time and space on this amazing planet!

10. Purchase Skype credits -- you may not use it all the time, and you might find it leaves you too connected. However, Skype is amazing in times of lows and emergencies. If you need the quick-fix sound of a loved one to get you through a difficult time, or if you need to call your bank overseas, Skype can let you do that with ease. Sometimes you might just want to share a story in present time rather than write it all out in an e-mail. Or perhaps a visit to a particular place might remind you of someone in your life. Skype is an affordable way to get you through the lulls and dulls. Consider it a vitamin for your travels -- it's not essential, but it's a good idea to have it on hand.

So there you go! Ten pretty obvious lessons that I'm sure most of you are already aware of. Tag these along to the tips you've read about the country you're visiting, and you're bound to have a fabulous experience that's sure to enrich your life!

Cheers and happy travels!


Thursday, 23 September 2010

A switch

In the spirit of being optimistic and staying positive, I've decided to take the time out of each day to list a few things that I'm grateful for. Sometimes reflection is a good thing, and it helps keep life in perspective. So here goes...

Since moving back form Korea, I've learned never to take the darkness of night for granted. After living in Seoul for a year, surrounded by the glaring beams of neon lights, I've welcomed the dark back into my life. There's nothing nicer than sitting on the patio with a warm cup of tea in hand, and watching darkness cloak the city, save for a few twinkling lights in the distance, and the dim hues from houses.

That was one of the first things I noticed about Seoul, actually -- the neon lights. Everything from karaoke bars to restaurants seemed of equal importance because of their loud neon signs. In fact, on my very first night in Seoul, standing high on top of a hill, I noticed more neon crosses in the sky than I could count. Yes, even the churches advertised their locations with giant red or white neon crosses that reached high up into the night sky!

Moving back to Toronto feels like finding the dimmer on a light switch. Even though I live in the city and there's stores, restaurants and advertisements that showcase their purpose with bright lights, you're still aware when dusk comes around, followed quickly by night. It's a great feeling that I'll never take for granted again.

Hyehwa, Seoul at night - August, 2010

University of Toronto area, Toronto - August, 2009


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cities, Rivers and Lakes

I used to love visiting the Han river when I lived in Seoul. It had to be one of the best parts of living in the city... and the closest I'd come to nature in the confines of the concrete jungle. Even some of the best "natural spaces" in Seoul were man-made. But man couldn't take full credit for the majestic Hangang, as it flowed from one end of the city to the other.

In springtime, we would plan picnics along the riverbanks. We'd spend entire days parked on the grass, laughing, enjoying the good weather, and people watching. Friends would ride by on tandem bikes, older couples would stroll leisurely through the grounds, under the shelter of a single sun umbrella, and every so often, an adventurer on a jet-ski would zoom by, alerting everyone out of their relaxed spell. Those were good days.

A nighttime view of Seoul's skyline along the Han River. That's Namsan Tower in the distance.

But yesterday was the first time I felt absolutely happy to be back in Toronto. And it was the first time I realized how much I'd missed living in this city. It was evening, and I was downtown having dinner with a friend. Since we were close to the area, I suggested a walk along the harbourfront -- one of my favourite locations in this city. (I'm not quite sure what it is about lakes, rivers, seas and oceans, but for some reason, I'm always happier by the water).

Toronto's harbourfront overlooks Lake Ontario. On any given day, you'll find a plethora of boats docked at the harbour, while visitors and locals indulge in the activities along the quay. Summers are especially amazing, because of all the multicultural festivals and art shows that take place on the boardwalk.

The boardwalk along Toronto's harbourfront, with one of the cruise ships docked for the night.

So naturally I couldn't wait to visit the harbour after having been away for such a long time. We grabbed some coffee and strolled along the boardwalk just after sunset. Even though it was slightly chilly and there were clouds in the sky, it was a beautiful night. I liked the silence. After living in one of the loudest cities in the world, I've learned never to take silence for granted anymore. I also liked the soft lighting along the boardwalk, rather than the glare of neon lights. I think Seoul could learn a thing or two about outdoor ambiance from Toronto. Sometimes, less is more.

Now that I really think about it, I prefer the lakeside to the banks of the Han because when you look out into the distance, you don't see more lights -- just the dark horizon kissing the water. With the Han, the distance provided a view of the city-line (on both sides), and sometimes, all those neon lights could be quite overwhelming (and the furthest thing from calming).

I'm glad I left Toronto for a little while. Being away (and back) has made me appreciate all the things I took for granted about this city. I'm definitely lucky to call this place my home.


Images courtesy of Google Images

Friday, 3 September 2010

Year in a Dream

My brother, having experienced what I'm going through (twice), checked in on me the other day.

"What's it like in there?" he asked, pointing to my head.

I was watching TV when he came by, and was confused by his question.


"How are you feeling about being back?" he asked.

I hadn't really thought about it. I'd been home a few days at this point, and nothing about the whirlwind that was the past 365 days had sunken in yet.

"I don't know," I responded, not looking away from the TV. "It feels the same I guess... nothing has changed."

And that was the truth. Nothing had changed. My environment and everything around me was the same as I'd left it a year ago. Parts of me felt as if the past year didn't happen. Yet, it did.

"It feels like a dream, you know?" I elaborated. "Because I'm getting back into this familiar routine as if nothing happened... but I know it did. I feel like I might have been asleep for a year. Kind of like reality, but on pause."

He smiled knowingly, happy to see that I finally understood what he'd experienced in the past.

I knew the last year had happened, because the memories, photos, permanent reminders and writings spoke of it. Yet the only way to describe it to anyone who asked, was to liken it to a dream.

I explained this to my friend A, who, having spent a year in New Zealand, knew exactly what I was talking about. She mentioned going through the same experience. It feels good having people around who get it -- this bizarre sense of having lived another life while in a dreamlike state.

Hopefully I'll be back to 100 per cent in a few days so I can start working on my life in Toronto.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Calendar Days

August 2010 was one of the roughest months I've experienced in a very long time. Aside from packing up in Seoul, moving back to Toronto and getting sicker than I've been in a very long time, the days simply felt like an unending whirlwind.

So you can imagine that when September rolled around, I was pretty happy. There's something quite lovely about the start of a new day... week... month... year. It almost feels like a clean slate. If you've had an awful day, you can hope fall asleep, wake up in the morning, and try again for a good one. Or if the week has been brutal, you can anticipate the following Monday, knowing you might have a chance to edit the wrongs from the week before.

Depending on the industry, the ending/beginning of months can be quite stressful for some people at work. I personally look forward to the start of a new month. Entering into a new month reminds me that time moves forward, leaving the past far behind. The literal act of turning a calendar page thrills me to no extent.

September is one of my favourite months because in my mind, it marks the start of my favourite season -- autumn! I fell in love with autumn in Toronto during my first year in Canada, and I've never wavered since. There's something about the smell in the air, the temperature, the colours of the earth and the comfortable clothing that speaks volumes to me. I call it "sweater weather," because everyone always looks cozy.

This month might go one of two ways, leaving me bored out of my mind or busy as a bee. I'm hoping it's the latter. Every September in my life has been spent at school or at work. It's the first time I've found myself in this particular situation, so it will be interesting to see how the journey plays out.

I suppose in the meanwhile, I should continue working on this ridiculous jet-lag, huh?

P.s. Notice anything new about the banner? :)

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