A Travellerspoint blog

The Buckley Train is Setting Off Once Again

A brief summary of what I have up my sleeve on my way home from Korea

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Typically, in my little writing space that I've dubbed "Mental Malaria", I do my best to at least make an attempt at being entertaining. But today, as I find myself on day 10 of surfing my friend's couch, I'm realizing that quite frankly, it's taken a toll on my brain power. So consider this just an update for those of you who I do not keep in frequent contact with; just a "Mental Head Cold" if you will.

Its hard to believe, but I have just finished up one year away from home and my year of teaching in South Korea. It has been one hell of a ride. So what now? Well, anybody who knows me, knows that if I've got a pocket full of cash and an abundance of free-time, well I'm a go'in traveling. . .

So on Friday morning at 3 a.m. I board a bus out of Daegu and head up to Seoul. I then fly from Incheon (Seoul) to Hong Kong. I'm going to stay in Hong Kong for about a week, but I might shave that down to 3 nights because Hong Kong is pretty expensive and I'll be heading to Bangkok which is quite cheap. I have absolutely nothing planned for Hong Kong, have done zilch reading on what to see and do, but I'm usually at my best when left to just wander.

From Hong Kong, as aforementioned, I head to Bangkok for a short stay. I don't really have a plan for Bangkok either, but my guess is that it will involve eating a lot of Thai food and drinking a lot of Chang Beer. I have a friend who runs a used bookstore there, so I plan to meet up with him and chat about Myanmar as I intend to go back there at the end of my trip. He has been there many times and knows more about the country than anybody I know.

After Bangkok, I head to Nepal. Well, more accurately, I head to Calcutta India, where I'll get to enjoy 15 hours of hanging out in the airport. That should be fun. I wonder if the airport curry will be good? If it is, I think that justifies checking India off on my Facebook list of "places I've been".

But I digress. So yeah, off to Nepal which should really be the highlight of this little jaunt. I'm going to be there for six weeks and will spend three of those weeks trekking the Annapurna Circuit (which should be interesting considering I haven't exactly devoted myself to fitness in my year here in Korea). The AP Circuit doesn't take you up to Everest Base Camp or anything like that, but you trek from village to village surrounded by the Himalayas staying in little tea houses. It should be epic. Also on my list of things to do in Nepal is to visit the Royal Chitwan National Park where you get to ride around on the back of an elephant and view wildlife like rhinos and tigers. That should be pretty cool, though it may result in a bit of sore ass. I'm also considering a multi-day raft trip and may also take a "mountain viewing flight" to check out Everest from eye-level.

After Nepal, I'll return to Bangkok for a brief stay before heading back to Myanmar for about 10 days. I was there a little over a year ago, and though it is perhaps one of the most backwards places you can visit, it makes it all the more interesting. The Myanmar people are just amazing, made even more amazing by their resilience in the face of living in a country governed by a bunch of spineless thugs. If my time is running too short and the logistics of getting into Myanmar prove too tough, my backup plan is to head to Laos instead.

Assuming all goes well, I'll be on a long-haul slog back to the States on Christmas Eve. My current plan is to surprise my parents by telling them that I won't be back until January, but I'm a terrible liar and it's getting kind of tough to keep it up. After being home for about a month and a half, it looks like I'll end up back in Korea by February. It's kind of strange to think about coming back for another year, but life is good over here and I'm able to save a ton of money, something that I don't think is so easy back home with the current state of things.

So that's the plan. My life doesn't suck.

Posted by john7buck 01:58 Archived in South Korea Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Beer and Loathing in China

sunny 36 °C

As I sit here watching the Beijing Olympics closing ceremonies, it occurs to me that it’s high time to get my blog out on the trip to China I took the week before the Olympics even started. If procrastination were an Olympic sport, I sir, would be a Phelps-like icon.

For those of you who have been following my blog for the last couple years, you may remember entries about wild boar hunting in Borneo, climbing the tallest mountain in South East Asia and traipsing off into the unknown with a Burmese monk in Myanmar. So you might think that what follows might be an interesting account of backpacking along the Great Wall, studying kung fu with some Shaolin Monks or getting back to nature in the scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge. Well, I’ve got news for you, I did none of that. In fact, on this trip to China, I did essentially two things: got drunk and laid on the beach; not necessarily in that order. But along the way, some pretty hilarious things took place, so here you go.

This trip to China took place during our summer vacation. Though children back in the States enjoy a three month summer vacation, the children in Korea get to enjoy a grand total of three days off from their rigorous hakwan schedule in the summer. So short on options, but wanting to get out of Korea for a few days, my English friend Mark and I decided on Qingdao, China. Qingdao is only a short flight from Seoul, is the site of the Olympic sailing events and is also the city that brews Tsingtao Beer (pronounced the same as Qingdao, yet inexplicably spelled with a T). When Mark proposed this plan to me, he had me at Tsingtao Brewery.

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Our first few hours in Qingdao got off to an ominous start. As we took an exploratory walk down towards the beach, we quickly became aware that we were being stared at by nearly every passerby. Now, living in Korea, we’ve become quite accustomed to being stared at by the locals. But in Korea, the stares almost always seem to be an interested and friendly stare. The stares we were getting during our first few hours in China bordered on intimidating. We couldn’t tell for sure, but we were pretty sure we were on the verge of getting our asses kicked. The stare that worried me the most and got us moving the quickest was from one rather tough looking dude who I noticed stare at us, who then tapped his buddy on the shoulder before pointing directly at us. For a country about to host the entire world, we joked that they better get used to the sight of these strange looking creatures. Maybe we just weren’t wearing our Right Guard that day, because luckily, all the people we met after that first walk turned out to be amazing (though we did continue to feel a bit like a circus act, with strangers stopping us to take our pictures with them).

Early on in our trip we discovered a place literally called “Beer Street”. Naturally, this jumped to the top of our list of cultural sites we had to see in Qingdao. Unfortunately, due to this discovery, we really saw very little else during our stay in China. One restaurant/bar in particular became our second home during our stay. We found it on the first night, befriended the rather large staff and soon became the Norm and Cliff (TV show Cheers, for my International readers) to the Chinese Sam Malone and his bar of Asian Diane’s and Woody’s. Over the next couple days, we became fixtures at this place and for some unknown reason developed the tendancy to shout a Fonzie-eque "Heeeyyy!" everytime we entered.

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Our new best friends in China

On our first night there, we helped one of the employees edit the English menu he’d been working on. Of the many items on the menu that we looked over, we got a chuckle out of donkey being on the menu. So naturally, on our second night (and subsequently on the third), we decided we had to give it a go. Little known fact, donkey is actually quite delicious! Then again, it was covered with so much spicy sauce that it tasted identical to the lamb and deer we also ordered.

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Mmmmm! Donkey is amazing!

The other great thing about this place was that it gave us our own special Olympic preview of China’s strength and shirtless determination to sporting excellence. Every night we found ourselves engrossed in shirtless competitions and feats of strength like arm-wrestling and push-up contests. Sadly, we were no match. And while I’m on the subject, I should note that Chinese men have a strange obsession with going shirtless. Even when they’re wearing their shirts, they seem to feel the need to air out their belly by pulling their shirt up below their armpits. It sounds strange, but after a few days, we decided ‘what the hell’ and joined right in. I have to say, hanging the belly out may look bad, but it feels so good!

On our second night, after eating donkey and drinking at this bar, we asked our new friends if they knew of anywhere to go dancing. So when the bar closed, we packed into a few cars and headed out on the town. Unfortunately, the dance club they took us to was closing down for the night. After being in Korea, a land where the bars never close, China surprised us with a very early closing bar scene. Unfazed, our new friends took us to the Chinese version of a Norae Bang (karaoke room). Soon, we were joined by nearly the rest of the restaurant’s male staff, including the owner.

Of course, this night quickly erupted into debauchery with us joining in on the shirtless trend while belting out Western songs as our new buddies jammed out to the Chinese hits. It may be true that we didn’t visit a single museum or palace in China, but this night will be burned into my memory for far longer than any long-winded scenic tour.

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Courtney from Canada and Gillian from Scotland were the only two ladies in a room filled with sweaty, shirtless men

The one “cultural” outing we did make while in China was our tour of the Tsingtao Brewery. After walking through a museum of the history of the brewery, we ended up in a beer sampling area. This wouldn’t really be worth noting (we did drink enough Tsingtao to make China re-think Communism, after all), except for the fact that we were then joined by a rather large group of Chinese tourists, many of whom had children with them. Still not really worth noting, until I mention that all of these children joined in on the beer sampling. I’m telling you, if you haven’t seen an eight-year old wandering around with a beer in one hand and a bag of nuts in the other, well you just haven’t lived my friend. I know it’s disturbing, but quite entertaining, I assure you. In fact, the only thing that could have provided me with bigger sense of shocked amusement would have been if a monkey knife-fight had broken out over a racist comment about proboscis monkeys being less smelly than macaques.

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Hey man, where can a guy get a refill and some more nuts around here?

Later on, when they gave us a pitcher of beer to enjoy at the end of the tour, we were joined by a father and son at our table. The father looked proudly on as his small child gave a beer cheers to a Western dude, me. Capping off this strange foray into different cultural norms, I watched as a young boy slammed his beer down to empty and then as his mother refilled his glass from hers. To quote Homer Simpson, “To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s little problems!” Get used to that kid, I think you’re gonna need it later on in life.

Speaking of drinking in China (wait, I think I’ve been doing that during this entire blog), the Chinese we met seemed to only know one way to drink. . .down in one! Now, I’m not one to avoid a cheeky pint or two, but I’m not accustomed to having to chug every beer that is offered to me. I can’t tell you how many people offered us a beer and a cheers, only to expect us to slam it down with them. One or two of these is fine, but this followed us nearly everywhere we went. No wonder the trip was a blur!

The crowning evidence of this came during our visit to an Olympic Village party site. We just kind of happened upon this place and decided to stick around because there was beer a flow’in and hot models walking a runway. After settling in with a couple beers we really took notice of the fact that these Chinese people were really packing down the beers. They even had several “beer chugging” contests up on stage, where contestants were given 1.5 liter pitchers half-full and were expected to chug their contents as quickly as possible. This seemed impressive, until the third round where a robust Chinese guy insisted that they chug full 1.5 liter pitchers. Thinking no way this was possible, we watched in amazement as the brazen lad chugged the pitcher as quickly as you could pour it on the ground.

As this was happening, the atmosphere was clearly getting quite raucous. As a Chinese pop singer sang to the crowd with people dancing on the tables and chugging beers, Mark told me he had a feeling something bad was about to go down. I think his exact words were, “I have a feeling something illegal is about to happen.” Not two minutes later, a fight broke out in the back of the crowd. The next thing we knew, pockets of fighting began erupting all around the crowd. Beer bottles were being broken on heads, people were bleeding and women were jumping in the middle of it all trying to pull their husbands/boyfriends away, some taking swings themselves. In America, this would be broken up by the cops in about five minutes, but the police here seemed to just let it all go on. They did end the show and turned off the lights, but the fighting continued for probably an hour. During this whole thing, we didn’t move. We just sat their drinking our pints talking to a random drunk stranger who had plunked himself down at our table. At one point, a kind waiter came over and told us not to leave as it was quote, un-quote, “maybe a little dangerous for us to leave”. Point taken, we sat and just watched the excitement wondering if this was all just training for the Olympic party scene a week later.

All-in-all, I know I’ve had more culturally enlightening trips in the past, but this one proved to be among the most entertaining. As an American, we and the Chinese certainly have our differences, but I will concede this: in the world of drunken, sweaty, shirtless arm-wrestling, China is clearly the best! Much respect to China, as the Chinese people were incredibly friendly, accommodating and hilarious.

P. S. – Free Tibet!

Posted by john7buck 20:43 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Being a Wayguk (foreigner) is Way Fun

Life as a foreign English Teacher in Korea has its perks

sunny 33 °C

There’s just something about being a “foreigner” that suits me. I realize that seems like a strange title to give oneself, but that’s what the Koreans call us, and frankly I’ve come to embrace it. Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, so indeed, being one of a handful of white faces strolling around in an Asian city of a couple million makes a guy stand out just a tad. We, a motley crew of English teachers from around the English-speaking world, are unavoidably foreign, and though I have been here eight months now, everyday seems to bring a new reminder of this fact.

This point was driven home to me even before I stepped foot on Korean soil. While making arrangements via email with the director of my school to meet her at the airport, I naively asked, “Is there a specific place in the airport I should plan to meet you?” Her response came in a single line, “Don’t worry, you’ll be the only white guy coming out of the airport, I’ll see you.” - Gloria

Not yet accustomed to this foreign status, I stumbled out of 14-hour flight groggy and worried that I might be spending my first jet-lagged hours in Korea sitting on a street corner yelling the single name I knew in Korea . . . Gloria, help me! Adding to my anxiety was the fact that upon exiting the baggage claim, I noticed that there were in fact, two other foreigners walking nearby. However, one looked like a Texas oilman wearing a 10-gallon hat and a cheap suit (I felt pretty confident Gloria wouldn’t think that was me) and the other was a muscle-bound soldier-looking type. Now, I do photograph extremely well (I had earlier emailed a single image of myself looking kind of buff, if I do say so myself), but I was pretty sure Gloria wouldn’t mistake me for this guy either.

Although her math was slightly off, true to her world, I exited the baggage claim suddenly awash in only Asian faces and indeed saw a woman I soon learned to be Gloria, walking immediately in my direction.
Since that first night of experiencing life as a foreigner, I’ve come to appreciate the daily quirks that come with this title. These are just a few of my favorites, though I’m sure I could come up with many more:

“Hello, how are you? I’m fine thanks, and you?” – No matter where I go in my daily routine, I am greeted with this phrase by no less than five separate children in any given 30 minute span. Though I do feel the urge to teach them a slightly varied list of other greetings (maybe something like: how’s it hang’ in bro? What up homey? Or even a more honest; how are you? I’m freaking terrible man; my parents make me go to school like 80 hours a week! And you?), I none-the-less enjoy these exuberant exchanges that take place everywhere I go. Though it’s sometimes difficult to respond to each and every one of these encounters as I whiz by on my bike on my way to school, I get a kick out of the giggles and excited mumblings when I do respond, so unlike some of the other more seasoned (i.e. grumpy) foreigners, I always try to give them a shout out.

You get to be 5-years old again (take that self-reliance!)– Raise your hand if you thought being a five-year old was the greatest thing on Earth? If your hand isn’t up, get back to work you titan of industry. When you were five, people went out of their way to do things for you; they kindly overlooked your foolish mistakes and they let you take a lot of naps. Well that’s a lot like what being a foreigner in Korea feels like.

As one example, at many of the restaurants in Korea you get to cook your own meat right at your table. They either fire up gas burners under a Teflon plate, or bring a bucket of smoldering wood chunks and place them under a grate in the center of your table. It seems like this should be easy enough to manage on your own, but for some reason, every time we eat at one of these places the owner ends up hovering over the table turning the meat, cutting it up with scissors and then placing it in a side dish in front of us. What service you might think! Yeah, that’s what I thought the first couple times this happened. Then I began to look around and noticed that this particular service was not on offer for all of the Koreans in these restaurants. So I’ve since deduced that something we’re doing is either not cooking the meat to their standards, or perhaps more likely, burning the crap out of their hard to clean grill pieces. Whatever the case, we generally get our own little sous chef every time we eat at one of these places. I’m still waiting for the moment where one of these proprietors will pick up a piece of meat with some chopsticks and perform the “airplane” trick to get me to eat it. That would truly be the coup de grace in the life of an incompetent foreigner.

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One of the many Korean barbeque restaurants. Here comes the airplane. . .

As another example, the bike that I pedal around here in Korea had the pedal break off a couple months ago. Though it would have probably been an easy fix at a local bike shop, laziness had gotten the better of me and I hadn’t taken it in to get fixed. I was just making due pedaling around with a peg sticking out from under my foot. Then one night, not long ago, I was in a local bakery near my school. The owner, who seems to have taken a liking to me, followed me outside as I mounted my bike after a bread purchase. He began pointing at the missing pedal and uttered some words in Korean that I obviously couldn’t understand. He then led me around the corner to a stairwell where an old bike was parked in the corner. He opened up a little closet and came out with a pair of pliers. Not really sure what the guy was up to, he then proceeded to pull and twist on the pedal of the old bike. Not knowing any words to inquire about what he was up to, I just watched as he pulled the pedal off of this bike and then as he screwed it onto my bike. I’m really not sure if this bike actually belonged to this guy or if he was just willing to pull off a small misdemeanor as a favor to his new foreign friend. Whatever the case, I’ve been biking around with a fully functioning bike pedal again and that guy sees 2 bucks from me couple times a week for bread.

The other beauty of reliving my kindergarten years is the naps! My work schedule consists of less than 4 hours of work from 4:40 to 8:30 pm (with four ten minute breaks); so let’s just say I’m well rested. Unfortunately I don’t get to color as much as I’d like to.

On a scale of 1-10, you automatically jump up at least 2 points – Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of an ego boost as a pale-skinned, blue-eyed Westerner - well, head to Korea! I may not be the best looking guy west of the Mississippi back home, but when you’re told on a daily basis (albeit, mostly by 12 year olds) how handsome you are, damn it, you start to believe the hype. You might also be ready to head to Hollywood upon your return to the States as I often get compared to the likes of Kevin Costner, Owen Wilson and Nick Cage. Even my robust English friend Mark who, to put it nicely, is rather big-boned gets compared to a “round Bruce Willis”. Now, I realize that these movie stars are probably their only frame of reference, but it’s still nice to hear every once in a while. My only question is whether they think I look like a cool Bull Durham Kevin Costner or a lame Water World Kevin Costner.

On the downside, through language difficulties and different cultural norms, Koreans are also very quick to point out any flaws you might have. Just as often as I am told I am handsome and look like a movie star, I also get told that I have a wrinkly forehead, gray hairs and a big nose. At 32, my age has been guessed at anywhere from 22 to 65. It can literally be a roller coaster of emotions from minute-to-minute over here.

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The "round Bruce Willis" conducting late night international relations. You can't always trust a mystery liquor poured from a Budweiser bottle, then filtered through a hot chili at crotch level of a Korean man. This stuff tasted like spicy lighter fluid, but our new friend was quite insistent on showing us good hospitality.

Cut the small talk! – Though it is a strange thing to get used to, I know that anytime I’m out and about, I don’t have to make meaningless small talk with strangers. So for those times when you’re riding in a taxi and wish the driver would shut up and let you zone out, Korea is bliss. They don’t understand you and you don’t understand them. This is kind of a double-edged sword though as there are many times you wish to the Heavens that you could get your message across or understand what is being said to you, but you oddly get used to the fact that you’re a mime walking through a crowd.

I’m freaking awesome, I can read Korean – But I have no idea what any of it means. It’s like a Shakespeare class I took in college. I could read the entire five acts of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, but until I got to class and the teacher explained the whole thing, I had no idea what that rascal Puck was on about.

You’re Above the Law – Now, I’m sure this theory has its limits, but as far as I can tell, foreigners can more or less get away with a lot of crap as long as they’re not a danger to anybody around them. It seems that more often than not, the language barrier is often too much of a hassle to overcome. I’ve been to several parties where the police have been called and the cops had no idea what to do or say. I’m sure we didn’t win any friends with the neighbors, but the police more-or-less urged us to be quiet and left us alone for no other reason than they couldn’t tell us to shut up and go home.

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Just before the cops showed up and said "Oh!. . . "

I should clarify, that I go out of my way to never purposefully offend my hosts in this country, but it is comforting to know that if I ever do cross an unintentional line, my best defense is ‘gee, I just didn’t understand’.
I don’t mean to make light of this, but it reminds me of the end of the movie Kingpin where Bill Murray’s character (Ernie McCracken) wins the bowling championship and a million dollars. . . “Finally Big Ern is above the law! I can buy my way out of anything!” Yep, being a foreigner in Korea is a lot like being Big Ern. You know you’re making an ass of yourself most of the time, but you are who you are, and you just hope you don’t get “Munson’ed” too much like this guy. . .

Posted by john7buck 10:47 Archived in South Korea Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

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