Friday, May 10, 2013

The End: 10 Things I Learned From Traveling the World

Today, I realized that I've pretty much left this blog hanging since my last entry in Thailand.  I suppose I have been putting off ending the written journey.   I am no longer going to be updating here, as my travels in Asia have come to an end... FOR NOW. However, I have started a new blog- which can be found here: My Fleeting Heart.  In closing, I will end with one last entry:

10 Things I learned while traveling the world:

The world is such a vast, fascinating, rich, and luscious place. We often find ourselves bound by the restraints that we build for ourselves, preventing us from ever really getting to experience it. I broke those restraints, if not permanently, just for a little while. The lessons I learned from traveling the world will stay with me forever. If you chose to take the path less travel, I promise that, you too, will learn more about yourself, humanity, and the beauty of the world we live in. The experience is invaluable. Below I have listed just a few of the things that I have taken from the world and elaborated on them to the best of my ability.

We are all different, but really we are all the same. We are plagued by judgement. It's an initial reaction to any one person we meet. Although it's not always vocalized, the instant we meet someone, we have an automated opinion of what kind of person they are, how they look, the way they speak, etc. Whether it's based on stereotype or first impression. How often do we really take the time to SEE someone? Take a step back. Take away all of the judgements and stereotypes. Imagine you see a woman from Thailand in her home, interacting with her children. The house is barely what you would consider suitable. The baby is sitting in the dirt naked. You see the baby reach out her hands beckoning her mother to embrace her. The mother smiles and holds her child close, as she plants kisses all over her cheeks. She has something in common with you, she shows love. Imagine you have a student in your classroom who is a North Korean refugee. You often see sadness in his eyes. He has something in common with you: he greives. A tuk tuk driver in Cambodia, haggles you to earn an extra dollar. He has no other source of income. He is trying to do whatever he can to feed his family. He has something in common with you: he knows the struggles of life. Little girls walking to school in Cambodai, shoeless, stop to smile and wave at you. They are going to learn, just as our children learn. At different times during my travels, I have seen my judgements and stereotypes of others dissapate. I have so often, found myself, sitting on a train watching the interactions of the people around me. I can see hurt in peoples eyes. I can see love between a mother and a child, I can see romance between man and wife. We might look different, dress different, act different, encounter different hardships of different calibers... but we all have one thing in common: we are human. We all give and receive love in the same way, we all feel pain and suffering, we are all one.

Children walking to school in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

It's okay to talk to strangers. As children, we are raised and taught not to talk to strangers. As an adult, I sincerely encourage speaking with strangers. Backpacking alone leaves you in no position to be selective in who you choose to converse with. I now have friends from all over the world. I can honestly say, I have gotten into the car with strangers, I have shared rooms and taxis, and minimal bus space with strangers. Strangers often tend to have the most interesting stories and perspectives. It's amazing to think how many people we walk past on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. Strangers become friends, who become people who change your life.
The United States, Italy, Canada, Germany: I met these two guys on a boat en route to Railay, when they asked me to take a trip to Au Nang with them, I said.. WHY NOT. We met Greta in a hostel- we were both checking in separately and decided to get a room together. Her and I ended up traveling together for about a week. Robbie, the Canadian, and I, ended up meeting again later in Koh Tao, Thailand. Lucas is the most laid back 19-year-old free spirit. They were all once strangers, now they are friends.

And to SMILE at them.(not much explanatin is required here) Smiling at strangers, strangers smiling at you... it just makes the world seem a much better place. I NEVER saw more smiling faces than I did in Thailand. A smile- a simple and under appreciated act.

My English friend James making friends with an agguma in Korea.
Just look at that unmistakeable smile. How contagious.
 Appreciate the life you live.I have always worked hard to get myself to where I wanted to be, and I would say, I've always appreciated the things I had: the family I was given, the security of a home, the opportunity to go to college and make a life for myself. I THOUGHT, I appreciated my life. Then, I went to a third world country. My heart EXPANDED. It hurt and I cried (for real). I saw more struggle than I have encountered in my lifetime and more than my heart could bare. I also saw happiness. For a country like Cambodia, where people are more poverty stricken than not, they have one thing that many of us don't... that being, happiness. In a place where struggle is nearly unavoidable, I found that there was also an undeniable presence of good feelings, smiles, and love. I often thought to myself, how disgraceful, we as Americans, are. The things we complain about, how dramatic we make little problems out to be, how we overlook the things we have- among those things, a warm house and bed to sleep in. Our luxuries far exceed the warmth of a home. I see my life in a different light now. I try harder not to be bothered by small burdens or mishaps, I try to smile and be happy every day for what I have... because when it comes down to it... I have a hell of a lot, and just by the hands of God, I was lucky enough to be where I am.

A home on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

 Music is a universal language. It brings people together. In Korea, I spent countless nights in Hongdae Park listening to young starving artists jam- all the while bringing crowds of people together in appreciation. I've spent a week with a band from San Francisco that was touring Korea. I've crossed the ocean on a boat with a boy and a guitar. I've sat on the beach in Tonsai, jamming to Bob Marley with the Thai locals. I've exchanged music with people from all over the world. Sometimes music speaks for us and between us.
This is my friend, Robbie, from Canada. He's a super talented musician.
 Here, he is playing at an Irish Pub in Au Nang on St. Patrick's Day.

This is my friend Thurbo, from Germany. We met in Chiang Mai,
Thailand.  A specific song, I would say, brought us closer together We
still send each other videos of ourselves jamming to the song,
between Germany and The United States.

 Get lost. Only when we are lost do we begin to find ourselves. A cliche? Perhaps... but it sure is true. I used to be the girl who needed to know when, where, what time, and with who. I was such a creature of habit, I was fearful of the unfamiliar. I completely let that part of me fade away during this past year. I can remember the exact moment, where I was, what I was doing, and the way the sun was shining when I realized that I had found myself. I was in Busan, South Korea and I had decided to leave my friends behind and attempt to find a way back to Seoul on my own. Something that was a bit out of my character... but on that day, I found it to be somewhat empowering. Once I had found the bus station, purchased a ticket, and realized that I was ALONE in an unfamiliar place, with no agenda, satisfaction washed over me. In that moment, I believe that I came into my own a little bit more. After that it just continued. I thoroughly enjoyed hopping on the subway and getting off at random stops, places I'd never explored, just to get lost for an afternoon. Those were the times that I often found the most satisfying things. I later decided on a backpacking trip... a journey in which I took completely alone, just me and my backpack, no agenda. I got lost, sure... and with that experience, I feel like I became a Rachel that I am incredibly proud of.

Bangkok, Thailand- where I spent a lot of time wandering
and getting lost.

 Fate is imaginary, but man, is it real. It's not something you can see, but rather something that presents itself to you within a moment. Sometimes, it seems that you are just in the right place at the right time. Things reach you. People find you.

(well- you can't see it.)

Be fearless. Try anything and everything. Don't say no to things. The more you do, the more empowered you will feel. Bungee jump. Play with snakes. Lay with tigers. Bathe with an elephant in a stream. Eat something absolutely insane. Actually, eat everything that seems absolutely insane: SO. MUCH. FUN. Climb mountains. Don't let anything hold you back.

Yellow Python- Floating Markets, Thailand

Some people travel, some people vacation.  There IS a difference. Too much time can be wasted sitting on the beach drinking Bahama Mamas. Explore the surroundings.  Go see temples, go see ancient ruins, visit an orphanage, wander through an authentic town, go hiking to a lookout, swim in a lagoon. Make friends with locals. Look for things around every corner.  The best people I've met in this life have been travelers.  Travelers all share the same innate curiosity. They wander, they explore, they discuss. They are filled with something we like to call, wanderlust; desire.
  Doi Suthep- Chaing Mai, Thailand

Home is where the heart is. If you find that you heart is in two places at once, then perhaps your heart has two homes.  That's ok.

Seoul, South Korea- A year of my life: my second home.

“The bridge will only take you halfway there, to those mysterious lands you long to see. Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fair, and moonlit woods where unicorns run free. So come and walk awhile with me and share the twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known. But this bridge will only take you halfway there. The last few steps you have to take alone.”      Shel Silverstein

Thursday, March 21, 2013


9:57am: Greta and I are walking into the basecamp bungalows for the last time before we part ways and journey off  to our next destinations. A Thai resident and basecamp worker greets us with a kind smile and asks us what we have planned for the day and we respond regretfully that we will be leaving. The man frowns back, "No leaving... you leave, no more sunshine." We both smile and I begin to sing, "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone." We make the way back to the bungalow, I grab my backpack, say my goodbyes to Greta, and head towards the pier. As I pass by, Mr. Sunshine yells out to me, "Hey, my friend, I see you when you see me!" I smile and wave. I walk about thirty feet more down the dirt road. A Thai man is sitting on a hammock, swaying with one leg propped up in a hold while the other traces lines on the ground. He waves to me and calls out, "you leaving?" I respond accordingly and he follows it up with, "My friend, good luck to you... Tonsai miss you." My smile is unmistakable. This is what a community feels like. This is my place.

Yesterday I laid on my belly, rocking and swaying with the waves, surrounded entirely only by water, with rock and sandy white beaches in the distances. The sun was setting and Greta and I had kayaked out to the middle of the ocean to see it. For a minute, I'm taken away from the moment. My legs are hanging off the end, floating on the top of the water and my face is squished into the side of the bright red kayak. My eyes keep alternating between opened and closed. I want to close my eyes, count my breaths and feel the moment, but the sights are too astounding to close your eyes for more than a few seconds at a time. My face is nearly at water level and the sun traces a dancing line of light that reaches out from the distance and finds my face. I feel alive. I want to engrave this moment in my mind and keep it safely tucked away there forever. Just then, while trying to pull myself into a sitting position, I topple off the kayak, into the water, scratching my stomach and then kicking a big piece of coral in the water... I might write gracefully but let's not forget how UNGRACEFUL I really am. A perfect seal on a perfect moment.

Two nights ago I laid flat on my back with the soft sand of Tonsai  cushioning my back. Looking up to view a sky full of stars for the first time in months left me feeling breathless. I don't remember the last time I saw visible stars, but it was surely not during my year in Seoul. The green lights in the distance paint the horizon a turquoise blue, only fading to black where dark silhouettes of the island rocks shoot up to the sky. Aside from myself and  my four friends, there are hardly any other people on the beach. The only interruption is the reggae music coming from the bar behind us, but it's welcomed by the swaying of my feet in the sand as I lay back on my elbows. Here everyone speaks about wanting to "get away" from the touristic beaches and finding somewhere untouched. I'm unbiased and honestly just happy to be anywhere as beautiful as this. While others are spending their time looking for this untouched place,  here I am enjoying it. It leaves me wondering: Is this real? How did I get here? (And) Do I have to leave?

Three days ago I rock climbed  for the first time. I'm not talking rock wall type stuff; I'm talking real massive cliff rock climbing. I met up with two of my friends from Korea here, one  of my favorite couples, Arvi and Robin. They are avid climbers so when they told me to come join them, I knew I could trust them not to let me die. I would be lying to say that I wasn't scared at first. However, once I reach the top of the 30m boulder and Arvi called out, "now turn around and take a look," all my fears dissipated. I was at the top of a boulder, the clear water ocean outstretched behind me, and my friends looking  like ants below me. Untouchable. This must be a rock climbers heaven. The next day, Greta and I hiked from one  island to the next, making our way from Tonsai to Railay. It took a lot of time and sweat to make  it there, but once there we were greeted by caves, massive rock formations with climbing  ropes leading us up and down to a beautiful blue lagoon and a viewpoint overlooking the islands. After our hiking adventure, we  made our way to Pranang Beach to watch the sunset before venturing back over to our side of the island.


Staying in Tonsai was like a small slice of heaven. Sure, we had no WiFi access on the island, had electricity for only a few short hours in the evening, cold showers, a bucket of water to flush the toilet with,  and a bungalow lacking airflow but excelling in insect population, BUT, we also had beautiful scenery, outrageous adventures, and a Thai community that made us feel like family every day. It was worth every second.  Backpacking has definitely taught  me how to be more laid back about things and  Tonsai especially has taught me how people can live happily without having it all. Happiness and a good life does not come from what you have but what you making  of it. Happiness is not a destination, it's a mind set. I'm happy.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


My head hangs out the window as I take my first 3rd class train from one  place to the next in Thailand. The wind crashes against my face and my lips form a smile as my mind wonders back to Chelsea. She always loved sticking her head out the window in the car and Lauren and I would tease her about her  puppy like tendencies. It's amazing how even while I'm the other side of the world, often times, simple moments can bring  me right back to my loved ones at home in the states.

I'm taking the train to Ayythaya after spending another two days in Bangkok. After I allow myself time to enter into memories of car rides with Lauren and Chelsea, I bring myself back to now. I let the wind fall across  my face as I encounter more recent memories made here in Thailand. I think back to the Thai man who offered me the sincerest smile when I boarded the train and the old woman who kindly asked me where I was  heading with a smile. I think about the little Thai boy who I found playing in boxes on the street and how he asked me to stack them three levels high and then reached his arms towards the sky requesting that I pick him up and set  him inside. I recall his giggle and his grandmother's smile as she watched him interact with me. I remember the feeling when I stood at the top of Wat Arun, with the city outstretched before me. Last night I sat in a tuk tuk with two other travels from Whales and Denmark. Our driver was racing through the streets so quickly that we were holding on for dear life. It wasn't until he started doing wheelies that I feared my life. I think back to the drivers face after I screamed and when he slyly said, "Enjoy?".  I look at my map and see print scribbled on it in black marker; two Philippino women I met briefly at a market lunch gave me their contact information and told me to call them if I ever visit Manilla. Memories. Moments that make up your life. I smile to think back on these recent ones and  how they will stay with me forever.

I think about the last week and that although it's taken me until today to realize it, I know I can conquer this trip on my own. The truth is that I have been a bit back and forth since I got here. I started out excited but quickly became hesitant about whether or not I was cut out for this kind of travel. It requires a lot of patience, motivation, and self reliance. I've been questioning myself a lot... until now. I realize that today I conquered a lot on my own. I somehow managed to make it to the floating markets and back (allowing myself to put trust in my own judgement and the sincerity of others), found my way back to my hostel, managed to take a public bus to the train station, bought a ticket, boarded a train, and now I'm on my way. As simple as it sounds, I have been worried about completing tasks such as these alone in a foreign country that's new to me because this isn't  Korea and  I don't have the same cushioning I had upon arrival there.

So now, as I begin my journey north, I feel better than I did yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. I know that this journey is going to make me stronger as long as  I have faith in myself and an open mind to the things around me. I'm laminating the memories from chapter one of my trip and starting to fill up another page today. Today I was reminded of the Rachel I became in Korea. The one who learned how to delight in uncertainties instead of stress about them. Once again, I'm reminded that perhaps having no idea what you are doing or where you are going is the beginning of life when you learn to live freely.

Lastly, I must admit one last thing... I couldn't stop grinning when the conductor came to stamp my ticket and asked my destination SIMPLY because  I felt like I was aboard  the Polar Express. SWEET.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

SURPRISE: Welcome to Bangkok

If  I were to make a movie about the life of a backpacker in Bangkok, Thailand, this is how the opening scene would play out...

An alarm goes off at 6am and a girl rises quickly in an attempt to dismiss it without waking the other 15 people asleep in her room, and  more specifically the thirty year old German man sleeping unnecessarily close to her who has a very specific fear of spiders. She trots to the bathroom and gets cleaned up for the day ahead. Sometime between 7 & 730, she is supposed to be picked up by a bus en route to the floating markets just under two hours south of Bangkok. She slides on her shoes, clicks the sunscreen shut and checks her watch. 6:47. Always better to be ahead rather than behind. Being that she is the only one awake at this hour, in a hostel on the outskirts of Khaosan Rd (a backpackers drinking paradise), she silently slips down the steps and out the door and takes a seat on the sidewalk in front of "Born Free Hostel." She waits. 7:00. And she waits. 7:30. And she waits some more. 8:04. In the mean time she swaps Malaysian coins with a boy from Germany, smiles at the local Thais biking by, chats with a friend in America, and sits with her feet plotted in front of her, only interrupted by the sound of passing motorbikes and the frustration building slowly inside her head. 8:17. She starts to wonder if the bus is ever coming when the hostel owner swings open the door and greets her with a smile. The girl questions him and the man and his girlfriend make some phone calls only to realize that the transport reservation had gone unseen the day before. She is assured, "Wait ten more minutes and they will come. Their mistake." The hostel owner slips out and rounds the corner to seven eleven. Three minutes later a Thai man semi frantically busts through the door, "floating market, floating market!" At this point the scene is picking up pace. The girl rounds the corner and exits the doors  only to see a motorbike sitting in front of the hostel with a Thai man saying "you come with me, let's go." She points to the bike wide eyed and says, "Mini bus?" The Thai responds back, "No, no. I take you car. Let's go."  You can sense the hesitation in her demeanor but she hops on anyway. WHEN IN BANGKOK. Off they go, all the while, passing the hostel owner with a wave, and riding on and off streets and sidewalks. They pull into a back alley (it's eight am.. do murder scenes take place this early? NAH. Relax Mom). The Thai man points to his car. The girl looks at him, then back to the car and questions him, "you and me.. together only?" He answers back, "Yes we go. Let's go. Okay, okay?" Zoom in and freeze on the girls face. At this point you can actually SEE the hesitation written all over her face. She asks again, "Floating market tour?" He reassures her, "Okay. Let's go." She gets in and eyes the papers in his hand that she verifies as a list of tourists signed up for the same tour. A good sign. She skeptically asks the man, "We drive all the way there together? Only two? You drop me off.. how do I get back?" The Thai guy puts on his pink sunglasses, pops in a piece of double mint, and shrugs, "Hmmm... Maybe, I don't know yet?" The screen freezes on the girls expression that can only be described as somewhere between what the hell, this is hilarious, and I'm gonna die. The title fades into the screen in bold letters, "SURPRISE: Welcome to Bangkok," and the song "Don't worry, be happy starts to play." END SCENE.

This is what my life seems to be in south east Asia. If I had to come up with a one word slogan to explain what life is like here, simply put, it would be "SURPRISE!" I have only been in South East Asia for a week and it has already taught be something that I THOUGHT I had already learned in Korea. In Korea you get things thrown at you here and there, but in these south eastern countries, it's more a fly by the seat of your pants place than anywhere else I've ever been. And so, I believe it has taught me something already, and that's NOT to stress about things that you cannot control. In this country if you make it a habit of stressing every time something doesn't go as planned, you will spend 80% of your time stressing.

The story above really did happen this morning and although I spent at least 50 of the 90 minute drive there planning my method of escape and plotting out a way to get back to Bangkok if I got left in the middle of nowhere, he really WAS with the travel agency and he got me there in one piece (although barely, the driving on this country gives me nearly the same rush as bungee jumping). I knew he was an okay guy at one point when he hit the brakes too hard and outstretched his hand in front of me.  Sold.

The situations I've been in lately have been absolutely absurd. It's no wonder to me that Bangkok has a reputation of "crazy," but as it is teaching me to relax about things more  I'm really starting to like it. I think finally, after a passing week here, I'm starting to mellow out and  join in on the backpackers vibe of, "just go with it."

Oh and just a small brag worthy update: I have eaten a grass hopper and a scorpion. I have also held a 20-30lb boa constrictor around my neck. I have done wheelies on a tuk tuk ride AND fish ate dead skin off my feet. WEIRD.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Un-glorified Truth.

I've been in southeast Asia for four nights and  three days now. I feel like I should sit here and  glorify every aspect of things up until today for my readers, "Amazing, beautiful, tropical, adventurous." All those things are true of course, but, that's not how I'm currently feeling. I could write all of these  things but  then I wouldn't  be honest in my words and to me, writing is about what I feel and  experience on paper... the truth, not the glorified  version.

The truth is that I have been feeling a bit broken for the past two days. I spent two nights in Bangkok before heading to Cambodia on Monday morning. In Bangkok, it's obvious that there's no such thing as rich, however the things I saw there were not quite as painstaking as what I've seen my last two days in Cambodia. I knew I was coming to third world countries, but perhaps I didn't prepare myself emotionally for the things I would see.

In Cambodia children are without shoes. Their feet are dirty and they walk the streets trying to sell things to tourists to help their families. Whereas some people shrug this off as a scam or, "their parents send them over to guilt you into giving them money," I just cannot find it within me to continue walking and shake it off. Little 8-10 year old Khmer girls who speak next to no English but can perfectly say, "postcard, ten one dollar, lady," approach you around  every corner. Little boys are carrying around baskets of cheap souvenirs in Angkor Wat trying to sell them to the crowds of tourists passing  by. Families of four ride through town on one motor bike with no helmets, fathers driving while mothers hold  their infants close. There are stray dogs everywhere, some so unkempt that they barely have any hair left. Garbage lines a lot of the country roads. Contrary to what people say, Siem Reap is not just a big touristy area that boasts one  of the biggest attractions  in south east Asia. There is a lot of struggle at the heart of the city that people fail to mention, and part of me feels that my heart wasn't built strong enough to take it all.

This brings me to my next point. Although this is the poorest and most heartbreaking country I've ever experienced, they have one thing that changes it all: happiness. In a place were struggle is a part of every day life, I never would have imagined to see so many smiles. These people are happy. Children might be running through the streets shoeless but they are many times laughing and giggling as they do so. They play on dusted side streets with nothing more than sticks, dirt, and a small ball. Their simple smiles and beautiful bellows of joy are enough to both melt your heart and make you reevaluate your life. Khmer men and women try desperately to sell you fruit, massages, cold drinks and souvenirs at unbelievably cheap prices, a dollar here two dollars there. More often than not, tourists try to barter them down to a lower price. Many tourists keep walking without even acknowledging their presence, but rightfully so as the haggling can get a bit overwhelming. The thing is that we all look rich in this country, because in reality we are. But, even as we pass by these people ignoring them or saying no, they will STILL offer you their sincerest smile. That is something about this place that I will always carry with me.

And so, as I sit here, reflecting on this, and a moment away from tears, I feel as though my heart can't take anymore. I would be lying if I told you that I haven't actually considered cutting my trip short because I honestly feel broken hearted. Being here makes  me want to go home and hug my mom for the life she gave me. It makes  me want to cry as  I sit and  ponder the fairness in the fact that by the hand of  God, I was blessed to be born into a family and  place that would provide me with all that it has, while others are born into conditions that I couldn't fathom. Then, I have to remind myself that just because I feel sad for them doesn't  mean they need my pity. They have the two richest things in the world keeping  them together: love and  happiness. That is something we can all learn from in a world where we often take things for granted.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Leaving Korea Behind

My last day in Korea has come to pass. As I sit writing this, I'm currently suspended in air "on a big jet plane," (see: Phoenix/ Angus and Julia Stone) destination: Bangkok. In less time than imaginable I will be trekking around Thailand for five weeks on yet another personal adventure. This morning I awoke feeling a bit frazzled, definitely anxious, and  although I hate to admit it... just a tad fearful. It seems fairly plausible for a girl of my age who is about to embark on a journey of this stature alone. However now that I'm S.E.A. bound all I really feel is excitement... and also, I'm hungry.

My last two days in Korea were pretty full of ups and downs. When I say ups and downs, I mean, bordering bipolar disorder. In the past 48 hours I have cried, laughed like a hyena, stared blankly at an empty room while showing no emotion, bounced off the walls with an energy that would be  impressive even for a sugar crazed five year old,  crashed like a drunken zombie, had a broken heart, had an elated heart, and felt contentment, fear, excitement and everything in between. WHAT A ROLLER COASTER. I always did like rides.

Thursday seemed to be the day when the finality of everything seemed to really sink in, making it my hardest day. The day before I had said my goodbyes to my dear friend and coworker, Eunhee. That in itself was hard enough. Saying goodbye to my co teacher, Ga Jiyoung, on Thursday proved to be harder for me than I had expected. During an ice cream date and  just before parting ways, Jiyoung placed a generous amount of "pocket money," into my account to help me with the costs of my last two days and the beginning of my trip. Ga Jiyoung has been there for me since day one. We taught together everyday and  confided in one another. She was the person who helped me get my life situated in Korea. Whatever it was I needed, she has always been there to help. She calls herself my Korean mother. I couldn't keep from crying as  we parted ways, knowing that the next time we will meet is very unsure. I got into the elevator with tears in my eyes which turned into a full on sob once the doors were closed. I drug my feet back to my room, plopped onto my bed and just let the tears flow. I wanted to call home but I knew that due to the time difference I would wake someone so instead, I picked up the phone and dialed Aileen. Two missed calls and a returned call later, I answered the phone with a voice disguised by tears and heavy breathing, "I just can't do this, Aileen! There are too many goodbyes.. I just.. I don't know what to do!" Aileen is an angel and that's all you need to know about her. By the end of our phone call I had laughed and had begun feeling better. Two hours later, I met her and all the other girls for our last dinner together.

On Friday morning I awoke knowing that it would be my last day in Korea and my last night with my best friends. I laid in bed for about an hour before getting up to take care of the last of things. I packed up the rest of my clothing and  other items into two boxes, cleaned the apartment and washed all the bedding, and before I knew it, it was time to leave. I turned on my headphones, sat down on my desk, and had a moment to myself. As I sat there, I eyed my apartment carefully, retracing each memory in my mind. I shed a tear or two, grabbed my boxes and my backpack, said goodbye, closed the door, and  left it behind.

After I shipped the last of my boxes home, I was standing at a cross walk; backpack strapped into place, waiting for the green man to guide me across, when a small old lady approached me. She began looking at my face fiercely and thought, to myself, "oh, here we go." I smiled in acknowledgment and just then she grabbed  my arm and began to tell me how beautiful I was in Korean. Her smile was the essence of sincere kindness and she spoke with such excitement. She continued speaking to me in Korean and with the small amount that I know, I was able to distinguish what she was asking and responded accordingly. She told me I was beautiful, asked where I was from, asked if I had a boyfriend, and if I was leaving Korea. As the green man appeared, we moved forward, crossing that street for what would be my last time. I had thought I was alone again until I felt a pull on my sleeve. As I turned toward her she reached out to give me an orange. I shook my head, "Ohhh.. anniyo! Genchiniyo! (Ohh no... I'm okay!)" She continued to urge it towards me so naturally I graciously accepted. As we both stood waiting for the bus, she continued to look at me and smile before finally letting out a another, " Ohhh yaepudda! Sarang hae yo!" (Ohh beautiful! I love you!) I smiled and blushed some more, thanking her, just as  my bus approached. She looked at me and then to the bus pointing and I nodded as to confirm that, yes, I was  leaving. She waved me off with a warm smile, two flailing palms and a "bye-bye!" I got onto the bus with a silent grin, thinking to myself, "Korea, you've gone and done it again." I rode the bus to my next destination smiling all the way. Sometimes the universe speaks to us in special ways and some times the timing it just right.

My last day in Korea seemed to continue in this way. I found myself really appreciating everything around  me.  One last short trip to my school left me feeling pleased and appreciative. Across the street I waited for my train to take me away from Wolgye (it was late as always but on this day instead of becoming perturbed I felt myself grinning about it). As I waited, I stared across the way  at Yeon Ji Cho. The sun was falling on it so nicely,as if it was being silently glorified, in the way I have glorified it all year. All I could do was smile, and instead of being sad, I was happy that it will always hold a piece of me.

I spent my last night in the airport jimjilbang with Kimberly and Aileen and it was perfect. In the morning Kim Jiyoung and Semi also showed up to see me off. I felt like such a lucky girl to have four friends with me at the airport. The hugs and goodbyes were hard, as expected, and  tears were shed, as expected. Just before I passed through the gates to security I heard four beautiful girls yell together, "We love you Rachel!" At that moment I couldn't help but cry, both for the goodbyes and for the love I have found in these people in Korea. I looked back with tears in my eyes and waved. With that, I stepped through the gates and disappeared out of sight. And so began the next adventure in the story of my life.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hold back the tears (but pour the soju).

The element of surprise: something that people either love or hate. There's the whole argument that you don't want to be surprised with something you aren't ready for and then there's the argument that that's half the fun (you know, the spontaneity of it all). Korea teaches you something about surprise, and that is to be ready for it.  People just love to throw you into the pool without floaties in this country. Be ready for anything and always always accept whatever is thrown at you because there is no saying "no," in Korea. These surprises sometimes range from- "SURPRISE, we have a staff dinner no one told you about" to "SURPRISE, today you will tutor the principal in English for an hour" to "SURPRISE you are going to participate in a staff volleyball tournament today!" (Okay, okay, okay- oh and... THANKS for the heads up, I wouldn't have worn heels.)

When you are called upon to give an impromptu speech to a room full of Koreans, the element of surprise can be a bit nerve wracking. Just as I was beginning to get comfortable at last night's staff dinner, I heard my name leaving the head teacher's mouth as my co-workers urged me to move to the front of the room. There I stood in a line of about five other teachers. At first I thought, okay, I'll just have to give a bow when they call my name, but THEN the microphone started to be passed and I was second in line.  "Shit, what am I expected to say?" I scurried back to my co-teacher and whispered, "Jiyoung, what am I supposed to talk about?" She just nudged me and said,  "Whatever you want!" Really? Whatever I want? Well if that's the case... "Have you guys heard about the new wolverine movie coming out?" No, but seriously  I don't even know what kind of speech this is supposed to be and none of these people will even know what I'm saying!   Being that it was an end of the year dinner and many teachers would be moving on to new schools, I assumed it should be some sort of goodbye speech.  I listened as the teacher before me gave her own short speech and I smiled and nodded accordingly (truth be told... I had no idea what she was saying.) While I waited, anticipating what would come next, I tried to calm my nerves but before I knew it I had a microphone in my hand.  I started off by saying thank you to everyone (simple and easy to understand) and told them how very grateful I am to the staff and students at Yeon Ji for always being so kind and welcoming. They helped make my year here a wonderful experience. While speaking, I tried hard to hold back my tears. I quickly went from a nervous mess to an emotional basket case.  "Don't do it Rachel... DO NOT CRY." I succeeded in getting through it, and as expected, everyone smiled, nodded and clapped. Even if they didn't understand me word for word, I still believe that knew what I was trying to say.  Back to my seat I trotted and thought to myself, "harmless enough, task completed, eh, that wasn't so bad, and also... man I am NOT going to miss those kinds of surprises."

Once the speeches ended, the feast began and the soju started flowing.  This has always been a somewhat strange experience for me.  In America, if you are a teacher, the last thing you want is for your principal to discover you taking shots at a local bar. In Korea, you slam them back WITH your principal and it is disrespectful to decline. Culture shock 101: this is not a trick, you will not get fired, but you will move up on the social ladder at work.  Over time I have become accustom to this; I know that Korea is a big drinking culture, and it's actually quite enjoyable to let loose with your coworkers.

Korean dinning and drinking is something I'm really going to miss when I go back to America.  Surely I can find a place to grub on some Korean and without a doubt I will be drinking with my friends and family at home.  However, it's the WAY it's done in Korea that I really love and it's experiencing it with Korean people that I sincerely enjoy.  Going out to a traditional Korean dinner and being the only foreigner there is a pretty special experience.  Everyone wants to teach you something, whether it's how to hold a shot glass when accepting soju from your elders, or how to wrap your galbi with raddish peels.  There is a way to eat everything and there is a way to accept and pour drinks. As I sat at my table, surrounded by the people who have become my coworkers and friends over the past year, a sense of fondness and appreciation overwhelmed me. I brought myself to Korea but these people brought Korean culture to me. In that moment, I felt as though I was having an out of body experience. I saw everything going on around me, but the only thing I could hear were my thoughts. I looked around at everyone smiling and clanking their glasses while the green bottle got passed from person to person. Sadness crept into my lungs.  I thought back to my first staff dinner and remembered this exact moment being one of my first big cultural experiences only 12 short months ago. "I am so lucky," I thought to myself, and I meant it.  I have been truly blessed to have been able to be a part of this culture, and what a wonderfully rich culture it is. I am so proud to have spent one year here. As my thoughts enveloped me, I masked my sadness, held tight to my appreciation, brought myself back into the moment, and shared another shot with my friends at the table.