Travel Series: Looking for Meaning

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Travel is a good time to get different perspectives on life.

After all, you’re around new people and seeing new things. It’s fun and inspiring to change up your world view.

My only advice is: Don’t expect too much.

Once, I took a train to the countryside in South Korea.

Then, I took a bus to an even more rural area.

Then, I climbed a very tall mountain to have a cup of tea with a monk in the temple way up in the remote hills.

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The monk’s name was Ka-Ga, and because the Korean sounds for “K” and “G” are very similar, the other monks teased him and called him Gaga like Lady Gaga.

To play into the joke, Ka-Ga even listened to Lady Gaga on YouTube, and he liked a lot of her music.

If you have never seen a monk dance to “Poker Face,” you really should. Perhaps it’s even on his YouTube channel by now.

(And yes, I had cell phone and data service even in the most remote parts of South Korea because that’s just how things are there.)

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Ka-Ga offered me tea, which is traditional. He cheated and used an electric kettle instead of boiling water on the stove, because he said electric tea kettles were a brilliant invention.

And while we drank it, he showed me his Youtube channel where he taught people how to do meditation poses and about the tenants of Buddhism.

We talked for over an hour before a senior monk came and told him to get back to work decorating for Buddha’s birthday.

However, they both agreed to me getting a picture with Ka-Ga and the tea first.

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In contrast, I was in Thailand and I came upon a monastery having a “monk chat” day. This is where the monks speak with anyone who comes to talk to them, and try to recruit new people to the faith.

I was excited to talk to one of them until I discovered that as woman, I was considered unclean. I wasn’t allowed to speak to the monks. I asked a male tourist if he would pose my questions instead. He did, and I got the sexist answers I expected.

That reminded me to reflect on some of the things in the world that are bad, in addition to taking pleasure in the things that are good.

It also reminded me that just because someone is supposed to be wise or tolerant, does not mean that they are.

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The thing is; it’s fun to have new experiences. Sometimes they are good, like meeting Ka-Ga, and sometimes they are less good, like at the Monk Chat in Chang Mai. No matter what, it’s just important to remember that no one has the answers.

You can only go looking for answers to certain kinds of questions and find them.

For example, if you want to know what cow tongue soup tastes like in Shanghai, you can go looking for that answer in Shanghai. If you want to know why people in Ecuador use alpacas to transport goods in the hills, you can travel to the hills in Ecuador and ask. Some questions can absolutely be answered by traveling.

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On the other hand, some questions are going to stick with you no matter where you go. They are the kind of questions that have to be answered inside yourself, like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my purpose?” There is no Monk or Sherpa or Guru who can answer those questions for you. You can travel the entire planet, but in the end, you can never run away from yourself or the questions you hold inside.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t climb the mountain and talk to the monk. Meeting Ka-Ga was one of my favorite memories in Korea. You should definitely have those experiences!

All I am saying is: There aren’t any easy answers out there to the hard questions. Even at the top of the tallest mountain, you won’t find the words to calm your soul.

Some questions can only be answered inside your head.

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Busan Sand Festival

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Every year there is a sand festival held in Busan, South Korea. The theme for the year I went was “Once Upon A Time,” and so most of the sand castles were based on fairy tales.

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I had no idea that sand art could be this detailed or beautiful. I mean, I built sandcastles at the beach when I was little just like everyone else.

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However, the sad little things I built were nothing compared to what I saw at the Sand Festival.

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I should warn you that Busan is short on accommodations, and the sand festival is a huge draw. Because of this, I would recommend making a hotel reservation well in advance if you want to go.

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Once there, you can rent a spot under a huge beach umbrella and even rent a cooler if you want. That way, you have somewhere to stretch out and enjoy the waves when you aren’t admiring the art.

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Like most things in Korea, be prepared for crowds. Of course, with crowds comes ice cream vendors and stands selling everything you could ever want, so in some ways that is a good thing.

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Seoraksan National Park

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There is a place on the northeast coast of South Korea called Seoraksan National Park. It is one of the most beautiful and challenging places that I have ever hiked, and I hope you get the chance to go there some day.

I went with my friends Will and Ash. I only had a weekend, which is not enough to do the whole park. But, I did what I could.

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There are some easy activities, like taking the cable car up to the top of one of the peaks, or enjoying tea in one of the temples. We did do those things the first day, but we also did the really hard hike to the Ulsan Bawi mountain on the second day, and then climbed the 888 stairs to the top.

It was a very difficult hike, and it took us most of the second day.

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On the trail up to the stairs we came upon a temple, a place to refill out water bottles, and some quirky rock stacks.

The views along the trail are really amazing. I did it in October, which is really the best time of year. It’s cool, and the trees are starting to turn. I went about a week to early to see the best of the colors, but it was the only time I could make it.

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The picture above is of Dragon Ridge, which you can see from the Ulsan Bawi trail. However, that is a two-day hike and I didn’t have time for it.

Instead, I did the second-hardest hike in the park.

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We stopped halfway up to have a picnic lunch that we brought and play a little frizbie. Will is the kind of kid that likes frizbie. It’s not my thing, but I like to make my friends happy.

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Sure, there is a temple to stop at along the way. There are places to get water. It’s a great trail that is well, worn.

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However, the air is thin and it’s a long hike.

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However, if you get to the top, it’s an amazing feeling.

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Don’t go for just one day. The mountains make it very hard to predict what the weather will be like, and there is way too much to see in a day.

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Instead, go for a weekend, or even an entire week. It’s a huge park with far more trails than I was able to do, and you can easily spend a week just hiking around.

Here is me with the flag on top of the mountain. Such triumph!

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Camping is permitted, but I stayed in the nearby village of Sokcho and took the bus in each day. I didn’t have a tent and all the gear needed to camp since I moved to Korea in suitcases.

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No matter how long you go for, try to do one of the hard hikes. I didn’t have time for Dragon Ridge, but I am told it’s amazing as well. It’s really worth it for the views, which on a clear day extend all the way to the East Sea (or outside of Korea; the sea of Japan.)

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Suwon’s Folk Village

Suwon’s Korean Folk Village is a great place to spend a day. Break out your walking shoes and give it a try!

The lake (with traditional boat)



Suwon’s Folk Village is a really interesting. It’s a re-creation of a historic Korean Village. There aren’t any original historic villages in Korea, because most of their historic buildings were destroyed during WWII and the Korean War. But this re-creation looks really authentic and it was really neat to tour.



These are the prayers people have left.




I have always had the impression that in America we don’t think much about history. I guess this has a lot to do with the fact that we really don’t have much in the way of history to think about. Our country is younger than the Korean written language (Han Gul) which revolutionized writing in this part of the world in the mid-fifteenth century.



Traditional Korean House



The history we do have is sordid, and we try to forget it and pretend slavery and the extermination of the native people happened long ago and should be respectfully swept under the rug where no one can see it.



Me in front of an aristocrat's house




From the perspective of an American, Korea has an amazing history. It’s thousands of years of mostly peaceful and spiritual lives farming the land. The Korean Folk Village in Suwon demonstrates this history very well with old farm equipment, re-creations of ancient houses, and even rows of traditional crops.



Tight rope walker




Don’t get the impression that the Folk Village is like a museum. There is a lot going on. From traditional wedding ceremonies to tightrope walkers, there is plenty to see in the way of entertainment. And the more I learn about Korea and its people, the more impressed I am with their heritage. It makes me feel like a punk kid sometimes coming from such a young and vain country. Meanwhile thousands of years of the Korean’s ancestors’ bones are buried here. It really makes you think.



A parade with traditional clothes and music




I was thrilled with the parade of people playing traditional Korean instruments because I bought my grandmother a Korean drum, and she wanted a picture of someone playing it. So now I have one to show her.



Just a haystack. But it made me smile. How often do you see a haystack just chillin' like this?




I admit, Korea isn’t anything like this anymore. Its one MacDonalds after another, and girls running around with Gucci handbags. But seeing it for what it used to be makes you appreciate the perspective these people have on life, (even if they are currently importing a mass amount of our worst culture here.) Americans may have cornered the market on being an upstart country with fresh ideas and dreams too big for reality; but Koreans blend our culture with something we know nothing about: Moderation. And when you mix it with such a novel and un-American concept, it’s really not so bad.



Me and a stone lion in a quiet little garden area.




I particularly like Buddha. I mean, nearly everyone here is a Christian now… but Buddha’s ideas live on in their society even as they convert en mass. We could stand to import some of those ideas ourselves, and it wouldn’t hurt us to get some historical perspective either.



The Buddha is everywhere, even as the nation becomes Christian




I would recommend the Korean Folk Village to anyone who visits. It was a fun day, and it’s a very peaceful place. (Oh, except for the huge kid’s play land. That’s not peaceful at all- though it looks like a paradise for children.)



Kid's play land inside the Korean Folk Village

Moved to Korea

I’ve moved to Asia for awhile. Had to get out and see the world, as much as I love Phoenix.

I’ve moved to Asia for awhile. I really do love Phoenix, but sometimes you need to get out. So here is a bit about my new adventure.



The mountain next to the building I work in.




First, Korea is not a third world country. I heard a lot of silly things like that when I announced I was moving here. For the record: It’s much more modern than the US. We have great public transportation and fantastic medical care, not to mention thousands of years of interesting culture. Plus, the buildings are more modern than in the US and we have nifty doors that slide open when you walk up, just like in Star Trek. You may not hear a lot about Korea as a citizen of the US, but that’s not because there’s nothing going on here. The US is just a bit… self-absorbed.



This is Korean Money. Pretty neat, huh?




Yes, North Korea is communist. Yes, they are our neighbors. But the North Koreans and South Koreans view themselves a lot like separated cousins. If North Korea attacks anyone, it won’t be us. They would rather convince their cousins to join them. I worry more about my friends in the US than I do about myself.



Yeoungtong, in the city of Suwon




No, I am not being deprived of all things American. From 7-11 to MacDonalds, there are plenty of American things here. They even sell Pringles at the corner store. I can get almost everything here that I can get in America.



At the grocery store.




So to put it quite simply; it’s not anything like people seem to think. It’s much nicer. And no, I am not here as a journalist. I am not going to sneak across the border into North Korea for some story on Communism. I am actually just here for adventure. I am teaching English to pay for it. It’s a lot of fun, and I promise to stay away from North Korea.



Best Strawberries ever