Observations of a Collective Society

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I was standing at the back of a second grade classroom proctoring an exam. The students were exhausted from getting four hours of sleep each night due to excessive studying. The bell to indicate the exam was beginning rang, and in an extremely uniform fashion, the rows of students passed back their test sheets one at a time.  The execution of their test sheets was as flawless as a synchronized swimming routine. I imagine my clumsy self being inserted into this assembly line – I’d be fumbling papers, dropping them, and scrambling to pick them back up.

When I went to the hospital a few months back, I was passed along from person to person, and within the span of forty five minutes –  I had seen a physician, received not one, but two x-rays, had an EKG, was admitted to the hospital, and had an IV inserted into my hand – in forty five minutes. This process would have taken hours in Canada.

I have observed that when it comes to routine tasks, the people of Korea are excessively efficient. It seems that everyone knows exactly what they’re supposed to do, and when they are supposed to do it. Day to day roles are clearly defined – even down to the simple roles – like passing exam papers in a classroom.

What causes this efficiency? Are we doing something wrong in Western Culture? I recently listened to a podcast by Russell Brand that discussed the idea of individualism in Western cultures versus collectivism in Eastern cultures. This got me thinking – what if we are doing something terribly wrong in Western culture? I wonder if our society and our communities would be stronger and more efficient if we moved away from our obsession with individualism. I am not even sure how, or if such a paradigm shift would be possible. We are taught so early in life to focus on ourselves – to be selfish. I find myself pondering over the idea that maybe the world would be a better place if we put our communities first.

On the other hand, there has to be a downside to a culture based on collectivism. I have observed in Korea, that there is a stronger expectation to follow a traditional lifestyle. In Canada, it is more acceptable to go against the grain. I pride myself on being a highly independent and self-sufficient person – who doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional way of life. I can’t imagine a life for myself where this wasn’t the case. I also find myself wondering whether individualism or collectivism best promotes a culture of creativity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be exploring the downsides of both individualism and collectivism, but finding a balance between the two.

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Hmm…
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China: Expect the Unexpected

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Outside the walls of The Forbidden City in Beijing

At the beginning of October, Korean’s celebrated Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving. As a public school teacher, I was lucky enough to get a 10 day vacation based solely on public holidays. When I arrived in Korea, I frantically began to look for flights, and was disappointed to see that the prices were outrageous to fly anywhere in Asia – except to China. I never had a strong desire to go to China, truthfully, it was near the bottom of my list of places to visit in Asia. That being said, I typically let cheap flight prices dictate my travels, so I went for it.

My friend and I set out on a nine day adventure around China with the lowest expectations possible. I had heard that China Eastern – the airline we were flying with – was the worst airline ever. I was told that China was dirty, busy, and to prepare myself to get body-checked more than I do in Korea (which is a lot). I was also told that as a vegetarian, it would be nearly impossible for me to eat at restaurants. Lastly, I was told China was difficult to navigate, and that I would definitely require a VPN to survive among the Great Firewall. None of these things were true. 

We left for China on our China Eastern flight with no issues, and minimal delays. When we touched down in China, I was immediately shocked by how clean and modern everything was – point one China.

Our first stop was Shanghai, where we spent five nights. I instantly fell in love with Shanghai. I am hesitant to say this, but I think Shanghai is my favourite city I have ever visited. There is something extraordinary about a city that is home to architecture from ancient China, and buildings with a strong European influence, but also the modern and futuristic buildings of Pudong. We visited Yuyuan Market, which is a large area near the Yu Garden with a number of shops and food stalls. Yu Garden was initially constructed in the 1500s and the architecture in this area was what I expected to see in China. Not more than a few kilometers away, is The Bund – an area where you can walk along the river and view buildings that appear very European, only to look across the river and see a skyline straight out of the future.

 

 

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Shanghai was energetic, but not so busy it was overwhelming. It was easy to find quiet places to seek respite, and there are plenty of opportunities for good food and nightlife.

 

 

Two of my most memorable experiences in Shanghai, were Disneyland (obviously) and having a traditional Chinese massage. I paid no more than $10 for a one hour massage, including at least fifteen minutes of a Chinese woman doing intense work on my back -while standing on me. It took me several minutes before I even recognized that she was using her feet – such talent. It was an interesting cultural experience, and my body cracked in places I didn’t even know possible – success.

Of course, Disneyland was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip. I have been deprived of Disneyland and Disney World my entire life – thanks Mom. But, you are never too old for Disneyland, so I took it upon myself to fulfill these dreams at the age of twenty-six. Disneyland is a truly magical place. Maybe I am still a kid at heart, or maybe the people of Disney are just pure genius, regardless, it was wonderful. We even had the opportunity to see The Lion King musical live – in Mandarin. I was mildly embarrassed by how many lines I could quote, even though not a word of English was spoken.

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Disneyland wouldn’t have been complete without my Mickey Mouse ketchup shirt…
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The Lion King musical – in Mandarin!

After several days in Shanghai, we made our way to Beijing. Again, I arrived in Beijing with low expectations, thinking I would enjoy it much less than Shanghai. Again, I was caught with my foot in my mouth. Beijing was much more modern than I had expected. While there were many areas with famous sites from ancient China – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven – the downtown area was well developed with many modern skyscrapers. There is such a rich history behind every ancient site in China, so before we visited each site, I did some research online to get a background of why each place is so important. Because of The Great Firewall, I had to use Bing for my searches – seriously, who uses Bing?

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Downtown Beijing – the CCTV headquarters
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Temple of Heaven – Bejing
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Exploring Qianmen shopping street – Beijing

In the Tiananmen Square area, there was a distinct communist feel. As most people know, Tiananmen Square is the site of the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. According to my Bing searches, this appears to be a very controversial and unspoken topic within China. It is still “unknown” how many lives were lost on that day, and there is no site to commemorate them. For me, this created a very strange vibe in the Tiananmen Square area.

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Creepy vibes in Tiananmen Square – you get the idea.

On a lighter note, we also visited a pretty decent replica of Central Perk cafe from Friends. Of all the places in the world to have a replica of the Central Perk cafe, I did not think it would be China. They had good coffee, the friends couch, and even a replica of Joey and Chandler’s apartment.

 

 

I was told that in China, many people would ask me to hold their baby to take photos because I’m a foreigner. I made it my goal to hold as many babies in China as possible – because ya’ll know how I feel about babies. By the time I got to Beijing, I hadn’t held a single baby – so sad. One night while we were wandering around a night market, we stopped for a break. As someone was walking by with their baby, I waved with my craziest baby eyes. The baby was stoked, and got so excited that her mom put her down on the ground, and she ran right up to me and into my lap – pure joy – my trip to China was complete.

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Bliss

On our last full day in China, we explored the Great Wall. We were taken to a closed section in the Badaling area, and luckily, did not have to deal with flocks of tourists. It was a very foggy day at the Great Wall, and while some might have been disappointed by the lack of views, it actually created a very eerie and surreal feeling on the wall. The Great Wall was significantly steeper than I had anticipated, and some sections even challenged me due to my fear of heights. The Great Wall was beautiful, but I only explored less than three kilometers of this 21,000 kilometer structure. One day, I hope to see more of it.

 

 

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I even met a Bailey look-a-like near the Great Wall

China far exceeded my expectations, but it didn’t come without it’s struggles. Fortunately, these struggles don’t overshadow the amazing experience I had in China – so I’ll save those stories for another time. China taught me to explore new destinations without bias, and with an open mind. Everyone who travels somewhere has their own experience, and that does not define my experience. From now on, I will take the comments of others with a grain of salt and choose to see and experience things on my own.

 

 

Japan: The Canada of Asia

 

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We will just pretend the clouds are a spectacular view of Mount Fuji

 

Oh, Japan… I am just going to go ahead and say this out loud – Japan is like Korea, but better – sooo much better. Within hours of being in Japan, Jay and I agreed that we 100% could live in Japan. It was beautiful, and clean, and everyone was ridiculously nice. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness of the people of Japan. I am not sure how Canadians earned the rep of being the “nicest” country, but Japan has us beat by a landslide. If we looked lost or confused for even a second, you could guarantee a Japanese person would approach us to offer help. They taught us how to use the machines at the subway, directed us to our destinations, and one woman even rode the subway with us to take us where we needed to go.

Japan was also an ideal vacation for me because our trip centered around two things – a big hike, and lots and lots of food – the dream.

Osaka

The first stop on our trip was Osaka. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed a day due to Typhoon Noru hitting Japan – the day we were set to arrive – of course. We finally arrived in Japan a day late and decided to skip Kyoto and head straight to Osaka. We spent two nights in Osaka, one at the start of our trip, and one at the end of our trip. Osaka is known for being a foodie city, so I was eager to explore. With our limited time in Osaka, we spent most of our time strolling around the Dotonbori area along the river. We indulged in sushi (of course), and also okonomiyaki, and takoyaki – which are both specialties of the Osaka area – all of which did not disappoint. I also had a horrifying encounter with a screeching bug in Japan who landed on my foot – long story short, I gave a good laugh to a few locals as I screamed and leaped around the sidewalk. I think this was one of the highlights of the trip for Jay…

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Dotonbori, Osaka

Mount Fuji

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The start of our trek!

 

For me, this was why I went to Japan. I was more excited to climb Fuji than anything else on our trip. Fuji is a manageable climb for beginners with a rather impressive elevation, standing at over 3700 meters. Due to this, it is recommended you sleep on the mountain to avoid altitude sickness. We started our day by taking an early bus up to the Subashiri 5th station at 2000 meters elevation, and then we started our climb. Within an hour, I started to get light headed and nauseous – I now had an irrational fear of getting altitude sickness. We decided to take the climb slow and take many breaks, so I could acclimatize properly.

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Break time

 

We took a longer trail that is less frequented and goes through the forest. There was an eerie mist throughout the forest for most of our climb, and we saw very few other climbers – it was perfectly peaceful. Inevitably, the higher we climbed, the more barren it got, and out of nowhere – the mist cleared up and we realized we were far above the clouds.

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Bliiinded by the light

After about 8-9 hours of climbing, we reached our hut at the 8.5 station where we would sleep for the night. We had expected to see a mix of Japanese locals and tourists, but we were surprised to see that most of the climbers were locals from Japan. We slept in a room with 100 other sweaty hikers, nestled into rows of bunk beds.

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Cozy accomodations

Around 1 am, we were woken up by everyone preparing the trek to the summit. I woke up a very sleepy (and slightly grumpy) Jay, and we started to prepare to head to the summit. When we stepped outside our hut, I could not believe my eyes. There were thousands of people trekking up to the summit, and all you could see was the trail of lights.

It took us about two hours to reach the summit as we were going at a snail’s pace (my kinda pace) in line with everyone else. When we reached the summit, it was freezing cold, so windy, and snowing (sort of). I had to dig through my backpack to add on several layers of clothing, to the point where I was even wearing a pair of socks on my hands – yeah, I can be pretty resourceful. To our disappointment, we did not see a proper sunrise due to poor weather. We got a few glimpses of it through the clouds, but that was it. **Insert some cheesy quote about how it’s about the journey and not the destination**. Thanks for the pivotal life lesson Fuji.

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Every hiker frantically trying to catch the .35 second glimpse of the sunrise.

However, once we started to descend about 50-100 meters, the views above the clouds were incredible. We started our trek to the bottom, which involved sliding down loose volcanic gravel for several hours – this proved to be quite challenging for my grandmother-like joints, but I survived. I was pleased when we reached the bottom to discover that I had lost my hippie clutch – aka my wallet – aka my Visa and my Korean ID card…. It will likely puzzle me forever how and where I lost that stupid thing, but that’s life.

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When it’s so cold you wear socks on your hands…
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It’s pretty amazing being above the clouds – sunrise, or no sunrise.
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Who’s this stud muffin?

Fuji was a beautiful accomplishment, and I was reminded of this  in the following three days as I navigated the metro and streets of Tokyo. Every stair was taken painfully, one at a time, while my non-dilapidated boyfriend was able to walk around like normal. I will forever be grateful for escalators, elevators, and moving walkways.

Fujiyoshida

We spent the night in a small town with views of Mount Fuji the day we came down from our climb. I expected Fujiyoshida to be a small, but busy and touristy town, but to my surprise it was a sleepy mountain town perfect for recovery from Fuji. Our guesthouse was perfectly situated beside a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Little Robot. I came to the conclusion at this restaurant that they do everything right in Japan – even vegetarian food.

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Incredible vegetarian meals at Little Robot

We also climbed 398 stairs to see the iconic view of Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, but all we saw was clouds shaped perfectly to entirely block Mount Fuji. It was a beautiful quiet park, and Jay was pretty stoked about taking over a Pokemon gym – or something like that.

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“Mom” fashion

Tokyo

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Tokyo by night

First impression of Tokyo when I stepped out of Tokyo station – “Wow, this feels just like Toronto”. The general areas in Tokyo aren’t as crazy as I would’ve expected – it’s not insanely crowded, it’s clean, and it’s pretty quiet. However, there are several popular areas and neighbourhoods in Tokyo that are insanely busy with a buzzing high energy.

To be honest – our main focus in Tokyo was eating (well, for me at least). However, we spent most of our time wandering various neighbourhoods, exploring various shops and markets, and trying to navigate the monster metro system. Shinjuku was by far my favourite area of Tokyo. It was high energy, had lots of food, shops, bars, and small pockets of areas, each with a different feel. We visited an old school video game cafe where I observed Jay spend over an hour setting a high score on some game… to which he succeed. Good for him… We also visited a bar in the Golden Gai area, where the stairs were lined with red shag carpet and the interior had money all over the walls. We met an older couple from Thorne Hill and spent our night chatting about Canada and critiquing the sport of “Speed Walking” that was being displayed on the TV. We even spotted some Canadian Tire money on the walls of this place!

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Appropriate

We visited Shibuyua (the world’s “busiest” intersection), Harajuku, Raponggi Hills, and Asakusa, but the highlight of all of this was by far the food. We ate some incredible sushi, ramen, and tempura – all of which, will never be the same again outside of Japan. At most restaurants we visited, we were sat so we could watch the chef prepare our food, which was a pretty special experience on its own. I am pretty sure I gained at least 5 lbs  in Japan, but was pleased when someone asked me upon my return – “Have you lost weight? You look so skinny” – the happiest moment after you have indulged in multiple dinners and even pizza for dessert over the past several weeks.

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I told myself I’d be a “good” vegetarian after this meal
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The world’s “busiest” intersection

Japan has been my favourite country in Asia so far – any country that offers good food, kind people, and beautiful scenery will win me over. I am interested to see how China contrasts when I visit in six weeks.

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Thanks for the memories, Japan!

Seoulicious

While this post is pretty delayed, I am still dreaming of the delicious food tour I had in Seoul at the start of May. In Seoul, there is an area heavily populated by foreigners called Itaewon – lucky for me, this area is a foodie paradise. As I have complained about often throughout my time in Korea, I have been quite deprived of my foodie and wino needs.

Thankfully, I left my weekend in Seoul with a happy tummy – you could say Seoul was good for my soul. This post is mostly for other foodies living in Korea, who are struggling to find delicious international food, so here we go. (Warning – I’d stop here if you’re already hungry for lunch).

The Flying Pan Blue

Brunch – the most important meal of the day (well, on the weekend at least). Luckily, there are ample opportunities to get your brunch on in Itaewon. We found this adorable hidden gem that served delicious Norwegian Benedict and mediocre coffee. I approve.

Burger Mine

This place is a bit outside Itaewon in Yongsan, but well worth the trek. The veggie burger was good (by Korean standards), but the real highlight was the “Animal Fries”. Apparently these are a take on a dish served at In-N-Out – french fries with thousand island dressing – yummmm.

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Soft Queen

Who doesn’t love soft serve? What’s better, is soft serve with crumbles of oreos sprinkled on top and a churro!

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Pizza Peel

I have a love-hate relationship with pizza in Korea. While it fulfills my cravings, it just isn’t Pepi’s (Holla Kitchener friends). What I do love, is that they serve their pizza here with – wait for it- honey and pickles. I’m not kidding, dip your cheese pizza in honey, and put some pickles on the side. Flipping delicious. Anyways, pizza peel does a pretty great job at a traditional pizza, and at an affordable price.

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Pizza Perfection

Champ Coffee

If I haven’t already mentioned it, my life here consists of drinking endless packets of instant coffee. It’s a sad life. Champ Coffee is a step in the right direction with regards to good coffee. However, the fact that it’s tucked out of the way down a quite alley, and has awesome hipster vibes gives it bonus points.

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#DoItForTheInsta

Gusto Taco

Another spot outside of Itaewon, but yes – so much yes. Gusto taco is amazing. Their tacos and their quesadillas are sooo good. They make their own tortillas in house, and it’s all delicious. Their nachos are a-okay, but I have come to expect nothing more than that from Korean nachos.

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That cheese crunch though…

Canucks

Nothing to make you feel like you’re at home more than a Canadian bar. 401 Highway signs, a Canada Post mailbox, delayed playoff hockey games, poutine, and whiskey – what more could a girl ask for? The poutine was incredible, and there were even real cheese curds – I’m not even sure where they find those suckers in Korea. Two thumbs up for Canucks poutine.

The weeks before getting sick and my trips to Vietnam and Seoul, I was hitting the gym hard. Probably a good thing as I spent my entire weekend in Seoul eating, and then resting up just so I could eat again. What can I say, I live to eat. Nom noms.

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#Namcation

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Towards the beginning of my contract, I found out that I would have the chance to take off a week in May due to National Holidays. I was so excited as I was thinking I wouldn’t have a getaway until August when Jay visits. Anyways, luckily I was able to snag some moderately pricey flights to Vietnam with my friend Caitlin, so off we went.

While Vietnam doesn’t seem like a large country, we only attempted to see Northern Vietnam, and I still feel like we hardly scratched the surface. That being said, in five days, we managed to visit Hanoi, Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Our vacation spanned a total of five nights – two on a sleeper train, two on a boat, and one on a short, 4 hour, red-eye flight. Needless to say, we did not come home from this vacation even remotely refreshed. However, it was worth it.

I think I say this about most places I have traveled at this point, but Vietnam has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been (okay, there is no way it trumps Iceland). Beyond the beauty, I was so surprised by the outpouring kindness of the people, and also of the English proficiency everywhere we went. I can’t express enough gratitude towards the universe for being born into an English speaking society – us English speakers are truly privileged.

As I mentioned, we visited three main spots in Northern Vietnam. Each spot was completely unique in comparison to the next, so I have to reflect on them individually.

Hanoi

Bah, what a bat-shit crazy city. We didn’t spend much time in Hanoi – I tend to gravitate to more rural areas, and don’t need much time to appreciate a city. There were very few quiet spots in Hanoi – the motorbikes and the people made it impossible to get a moment of silence unless you were inside. That being said, the energy was contagious, and helped me stay alert while running on no sleep – I was reminded to be more aware as motorbikes nearly clipped me while driving by. Hanoi – a city you could easily get run over by a vehicle or motorbike – crossing the street was absolutely insane. I thought it was difficult crossing the street in Korea at times, well thanks to Hanoi, that’s a breeze now!

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Motorbike madness

Now it wouldn’t be a vacation if we didn’t indulge in some awesome Vietnamese food, so of course, our first stop when we landed was to the highest rated Italian joint in the city – whoops. Props to Vietnam, because it was a pretty bomb pizza. Okay okay, onto the Vietnamese food… While in Hanoi, we didn’t get to try much because we were short on time, but I wasn’t leaving without trying three things: Bahn Mi, Pho & Vietnamese coffee. All were delicious, but oh em gee the coffee – probably the best I have ever had. If you are a coffee lover, go to Vietnam, go right now.

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VEGAN PHO
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Bahn Mi

Sapa

Oh Sapa… Sapa is one of those places that leaves an imprint on your heart. It’s one of those places that you daydream about when you get a bad wave of wanderlust when you’re having a rough day at work, or when you’re sitting in a Canadian snowstorm wishing for better weather.

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Taking it all in.

There are no words to describe how lovely Sapa is. We spent a day trekking in Sapa – I would normally say that wasn’t enough, but it was 30 degrees Celsius PLUS the humidity, so it was definitely enough. Our day trek in Sapa was led by a guide through a company called Sapa Sisters. They employ all local women to run the treks, and they are all private tours. While trekking through the Sapa Valley and taking in the sights of the beautiful rice fields, and water buffalo bathing in mud, I also got to talk with our guide, Zo. She shared so much about her life in Vietnam – her son, her work, things about her community. We discussed the differences between our cultures and shared many laughs. She was truly wonderful.

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Our amazing guide – Zo!

One wonderful thing about Vietnam is the abundance of babies! I’m not kidding – babies, babies everywhere! For those of you who know me, you know that this is essentially my paradise. Our guide Zo even hooked me up with a four month old baby to hang with when we stopped in the village for lunch – what a magical moment. Another memorable moment was a baby, not more than two years old, who yelled bye to us at least 17 times as we were leaving. It turned into a game, and I kept turning around to say bye to her, and she would say it again, and again, and again. What a smart cookie learning English already.

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Happiness is stealing babies.
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And puppies…
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Smart kids already knew English (and they weren’t wearing pants) – so wise.

Our day in Sapa ended with a motorbike ride back into the village. While I thought I would be scared for my life as we were headed directly into oncoming vehicles, it was a surprisingly calm experience for me. Kinda makes me wanna get a motorbike…

Ha Long Bay – Bai Tu Long Bay

Alright, I admit it – I hate organized tours. I hate being told what to do, I hate being told where to go, I hate being given a schedule to follow, and I hate rules. WOW, I sound super bitter. However, Ha Long Bay is a beautiful place that is far too challenging to visit without going on an organized boat tour.

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Our boat at sunset.
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Our guide telling me how to take photos – I’m clearly having none of it…

Luckily, our boat tour was really great – our guides were awesome, the people on our boat were lovely, the weather was good, and the Ha Long Bay area is stunning. I expected a few of those rock formations here and there – no, no, no, they just keep going and going forever. No matter where you go in that area, there are these miraculous rock formations, and so many of them. If I knew anything about them, I would tell you, but I don’t, so Google it – or you can visit my friend Caitlin’s blog – cause she knows shit about science, and I don’t.

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Starting our cruise through the mystery rock formations.

We spent a lot of time relaxing on the boat – the food was good and they had wine, so my tummy and my heart were super happy (Korea has been depriving me of my usual wine intake, and it is very distressing). Caitlin and I discovered that we vibe well with lovely couples from other cultures. We met a wonderful couple from Israel, and another from France.

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Sunsets are my favourite.

We also had the chance to visit a rural fishing village in the bay, where people actually live in floating houses. I admire those people – I was so sea sick after two days on the boat that I thought I might die. Followed by nearly a week of, what is called, “land sickness”, who even knew that was a thing? I felt like I was on a boat for almost a week after I was actually on a boat. Essentially, I felt like one of those bobble head things, and I would get awesome waves of nausea. It was pretty rough. However, the beautiful views made it all worthwhile.

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People LIVE here…

Anyways, I’ve blabbed enough about my awesome Namcation, and I will certainly be going back. Stay tuned for my next post about how I gained 10 lbs in Seoul. Nom noms.

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The closest I got to swimming, as there was a swimming ban in Ha Long Bay.

Life in Korea: Initial Impressions

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I have officially been in Korea over a month; I have been living in my apartment for more than three weeks, and I have started teaching. Since I have landed, everything has gone abnormally smooth (especially for my usual track record for near-death experiences while travelling – ie. the Iceland incident of 2016).  Because of this, a few questions have popped into my head since I have arrived in my apartment and settled in:

  • Am I supposed to be this comfortable?
  • Should a transition this big transition feel this easy?
  • Soooo, when is this whole “culture shock” thing going to hit me?

I still have no answers to these questions but I am waiting for the inevitable culture shock to smack me in the face – so I am sure I will have an entire blog post to write when that happens.

One of my initial impressions of Korea are the amount of small things that have made me think -“Wow, that’s smart – why don’t we do that in North America?”…

Examples:

  • Chairs that tuck themselves in, so you don’t have to
  • Heated floors in all homes and apartments – who doesn’t love warm toasty floors to walk on?
  • There are buttons at restaurants that you can push if you need service….or just waving at the server is completely acceptable. None of that awkward – “Oh, how is your first bite?” nonsense when you have a mouth full of food.
  • 360 degree photo stands for your phone in touristy areas – who needs a selfie stick?

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Aside from this, I have thoroughly enjoyed pointing out the hilarity in many signs throughout Korea…See below…

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Aside from these funny quirks that I have observed in Korea, I have really started to enjoy this beautiful country. While I have struggled with navigation since everything is in Hangul (the Korean alphabet), I am very fortunate that I speak English; there is just enough English around to get me by.

Over the past month, I have done my best to immerse myself into the Korean culture, and explore as much as I can. Throughout this process, I have developed a love for Jimjilbangs, Korean bathhouses where you strip down naked and hang out hopping from bath, to bath, to sauna; Korean food, especially Kimchi, I just can’t seem to get enough Kimchi; teaching, which is something I never thought I’d enjoy this much; and lastly, the Korean people, who have been incredibly welcoming and warm since I have arrived in Korea. I had a conversation with a friend recently about the idea that we are considered “foreigners”, but most times we are treated so unbelievably well that it would never feel like you would expect; Korea has naturally become my home away from home.

I have frequently thought to myself that it really doesn’t “feel” like I am living in Korea. I am waiting for that inevitable moment where I feel like I have entirely left my comfort zone, but it has yet to come. Perhaps this is related to distraction – I have been insanely busy lesson planning, teaching, working towards completing my Masters, going to social events, and exploring my city and neighboring cities. Perhaps when things calm down, it will all settle in. I hope to have a post soon about my apartment, my school and  my local neighborhood. Until then…

Morocco: Beautiful landscapes, delicious food and a side of culture shock

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In November 2016 I traveled to Morocco on my own. My first time visiting Africa, and my first time visiting a primarily Muslim country. I had read a number of blogs about the challenges of travelling through Morocco and dismissed them, thinking I would have a different experience… I did not. Morocco was beautiful and safe, but also a frustrating and challenging country to navigate as a young, solo, Caucasian woman.

My 11 Day Morocco Experience

**Full disclosure: I tend to get a little intense with my itineraries and they are often more ambitious than the average person. I came home exhausted and not at all refreshed. If this is not your style of travel, I would scale this back…. a lot**

Day 1 – Arrival & Marrekech

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Marrakech’s Main Square

I arrived in Marrakech late afternoon – I had pre-arranged pick up from my hostel (200dh), I now know that I was significantly overcharged for this as I took a taxi back to the airport for 70dh. (Dh = dirhams – Morocco’s local currency. Many places also take Euros). The first night I stayed at Marrakech Rouge Hostel – where I did not have the most positive experience. I dined at a small local restaurant and enjoyed some vegetable tagine (Tagine is a traditional Moroccan dish and the most common meal you’ll find on your travels).

Day 2 – Departure for the Sahara & Aït Benhaddou

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Ait Benhaddou

Early AM departure with my tour to the Sahara Desert (Merzouga) – There are two deserts in Morocco. The one I chose to visit is between an 8 and 12 hour bus ride away (to be honest, I stopped counting the hours on the bus).

On route to the desert we visited Aït Benhaddou,  a Berber village built in the 11th Century that has been used for filming movies such as the Gladiator and the show Game of Thrones.  Be mindful that these “side tours” cost extra money – so be prepared and have cash on hand because it will happen often during your desert tour.

We arrived in the Dodra Gorge area where we stayed overnight – our hotel was freezing. I was fortunate enough to have packed a sleeping bag liner (I would have froze without it).

Day 3 – Todra Gorge and Arrival in the Sahara Desert

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Todra Gorge (I clearly ran out of travel poses)

Continuing our trek towards the desert we went on another village tour where we basically received a carpet sales pitch…I’m a sucker and bought one. Bargain as much as you can, I made the mistake of not doing this and definitely overpaid.

Next stop was to visit the Todra Gorge – a beautiful spot.

Arrived in Merzouga (the city that neighbours the Sahara Desert) before sunset – where we got on our camels and started the trek into the desert.

PSA – If you have an interest in animal welfare/animal rights I would NOT recommend doing a camel tour. I seriously regret doing this, as the camels were clearly not well treated and were very unhappy standing up and sitting down with riders on their backs.

Unfortunately, I had a negative experience in the desert due to rain (what are the odds?), and the staff sexually harassing the women on the tour. Check the reviews before you use a tour company  – most people had a significantly better experience than I did.

Arrived in the desert via camel where we had dinner and slept.  

TIP – pack light and bring TP (you will basically be peeing outside on a sand dune). You need to bring next to nothing to the desert and can leave everything in your tour bus. No sense bringing it on the camel like I did.

Day 4 – Departure from the Sahara

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Sunrise in the Sahara

Expect to be woken up while it is still dark out to the sound of screaming camels (not particularly pleasant). Then you will head back to Merzouga for breakfast and start your bus ride home. The highlight of the desert tour was definitely the sunrise – worth waking up for.

The bus ride home was long with only stops to use the bathroom and for food. Expect to arrive in Marrakech in the late evening.

Day 5 – Ozoud Waterfall Tour

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Ozoud Waterfall (North Africa’s highest waterfall)

Ozoud is beautiful and is a nice opportunity to get in a small hike. I did a tour through my hostel and once again, the “tour guide” wasn’t included in the price. A few of us decided to opt out and explore on our own. We were told there are “many paths” and we wouldn’t be able to find our way on our own. This is not true. The paths are easy to navigate – you basically follow the river to the waterfall. Overall, a nice day trip from Marrakech!

Day 6 – Bus to Essaouira

The bus from Marrakech to Essaouira was roughly three hours and leaves frequently through the day.

Note – there are two bus companies in Morocco that service different routes – which I didn’t realize until halfway through my trip.

  1. CTM – Runs buses only
  2. SupraTours/ONCF – This company runs some bus routes AND the train system.

Their websites are easy to navigate for looking up schedules. These bus companies have separate bus stations in each city – be careful not to mix them up. Also, be mindful that the buses are often late so scheduling transfers with some time in between is a good idea. I missed a transfer once and had to wait 3-4 hours in the bus station.

Essaouira is a magical place and was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of my desert tour and Marrakech. Take a walk along the port, beach and outside the city walls, eat some delicious fresh seafood, and wander the medina where you will not get harassed like you do in the larger cities.

I didn’t get the chance to – but there are opportunities for outdoor activities such as surfing and windsurfing.

I also visited a private authentic Hammam and would highly recommend if you are looking for an authentic, cultural and relaxing experience. Keep an open mind and don’t expect a Western spa experience!

Day 7 – Exploring Essaouira

I spent the day exploring Essaouira and then took a bus back to Marrakech at dinner time. From Marrakech, I took an overnight bus to Fes and then continued to Chefchaouen.

Day 8 – Arrival in Chefchaouen

I spent a lot of the day bussing and arrived in Chefchaouen later in the afternoon. This was a long trek, but well worth it.

Day 9 – Exploring Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen was my favourite city I visited in Morocco. It was beautiful, calm and the people were friendly. A sleepy mountain town where the medina was painted shades of blue by Jewish refugees centuries ago is the perfect place to get lost and explore in and out of the medina. Surrounded by mountains, there are plentiful opportunities for hiking. I spent some time hiking up to the outside of the city walls and up to the Spanish Mosque (beautiful views of the city and a great spot to watch the sunset). There is additional hiking in the area, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time for this. I spent most of my time wandering around the medina photographing cats and doors.

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Cats….Cats everywhere
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Daytime view from the Spanish Mosque
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Chefchaouen Medina
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Sunset views from the Spanish Mosque

Day 10 – Travel Day & Returning to Marrakech

NOTE – BOOK YOUR BUS BACK TO MARRAKECH/FES/WHEREVER YOU ARE GOING WHEN YOU ARRIVE IN CHEFCHAOUEN. BUSES BOOK UP FAST.

Day 11 – Last Chance to Explore Marrakech

Spent the morning wandering around the Marrakech medina and enjoyed lunch at a delightful restaurant called Zwin Zwin Cafe – on the expensive side, but the food was delicious, they take credit card and even serve WINE! I was able to get a little buzz on before heading to the Marrakech airport to fly home.

General Things to be aware of:

  • Dress modestly – I made a rule to keep my shoulders and knees covered at all times. This draws significantly less attention to yourself.
  • Men will approach you – As a solo woman traveller, this is something you have to decide how you want to handle. I found I got very fed up by advances made by men and catcalls in the medina. My approach was to be extremely firm and I found this got the best response. While walking around the medinas, I would put my headphones in and listen to my music – this helped if I was feeling irritable and didn’t want to deal with the catcalls.
  • NOWHERE TAKES CREDIT CARD – seriously, nowhere… I found two places my entire trip that accepted Visa. Bring cash.
  • Wine/other alcohol is extremely hard to come by – There are some restaurants and a few stores that sell alcohol but they are far and few.
  • The culture is very different. Expect to be hustled for money everywhere you go. Also expect to pay someone if they help you with anything. Especially in the larger cities. If you don’t want to pay money, don’t accept directions from someone, follow people places, etc. I underestimated how much this would get to me. You will feel taken advantage of – it’s just part of the culture.

Was Morocco a beautiful country and did I enjoy my trip? Yes.

Would I go back? Probably not.

I’ve seen it, and it was wonderful, challenging, and frustrating all at the same time and I would recommend anyone visit so long as they have a good backbone and are prepared to delve into a very different culture than they are used to.