Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How Being by the Seaside in Burma Can Remind you of Your Grandfather, Life, and Where you Belong

My second morning in Mwalmine (I used to know how to pronounce that) was a little surreal. I was having breakfast on the patio of a 100 year-old house-turned guesthouse with about five other travellers and one of the Burmese house owners.
As we sat around the wooden picnic table, sipping our tea or 3in1 coffee mix, with a boiled eggs and toast our host began to talk to us about Buddhism. 
"In Myanmar, it's the Buddhism that is traditionally from India. In East Asia it has been adapted from the original Buddhism."
Having lived in Korea and China, and my heart was looking to return there, I knew what he was talking about. Monks in Korea wear grey. The tiled roofs look different. There aren't as many monks in the morning begging for food. But this wasn't Korea, or China. Or Japan. I was in Myanmar.
He continued to give us a brief rundown of the history of his religion. He then spoke about how the town of Mwalmine was a hub for meditation. I remembered how I met a traveller from San Francisco a few years prior, somewhere in the middle of China when I took myself on my first real wander with my backpack. The guy told me how he'd just finished a three-month meditation retreat in Burma. My eyes lit up in awe. His backpack was smaller than mine. He had no plan after the middle of China. I felt like an amateur as we walked to a local noodle joint on a busy road in Changsha and he continued to tell me about South East Asia. I felt a little better about myself when I was greeted by the restaurant owners who remembered me from the day before, and I could stomach our spicy Hunan-style vegetable soup a little better than my San Francisco friend.
And there I was, two years later, sipping tea and no specific plans (and the same backpack) I felt a little more hardcore, a little more figured-out. 
One tip I have for everyone is to approach strangers; people who seem inspiring. People who do scary things, people who are out of your league and people with stories to tell. By surrounding myself with some of those people sometimes, it helped me get to where I am today (which is still confused, and that backpack is now on it's last legs). 

".....the Buddha say..." our host continued as all us travellers were soaking it all in. I'd spent a few years in Asia at that point, on and off. I thought about how my friends at home must think my mornings must be everyday in Asia. Breathing in balmy air, looking out at palm trees and people on motorcycles rushing by while I sip tea and an elderly local teaches me about the ways of the Buddha.
But it was a first time for me, and the travelling couples who surrounded me. I sat alone, but that gave me the chance to talk to our hosts in more depth. One of the brother's I learned, was Catholic. His English name was Anthony (after St.Anthony). He spoke of the global village and his hopes for Burma. I wasn't sure if he was 60 or 95. He was skinny, sweet, and full of life. He did the books of the Breeze Guesthouse so diligently. In Myanmar in the summer of 2014, there weren't many desktop computers. The train stations didn't have them, the wi-fi was very slow, and hotels and hostels checked you in the old-fashioned way, by writing in your name (with a pencil and everything). The big notebook with graph paper must have been a few years old, with every guest who'd walked through the doors of his guesthouse filling the pages. He added each one in small print, to save as much space as possible. 

Anthony told me about how his family's guesthouse was originally built for a British shipping engineer, over a hundred years prior. The decor on the second floor, where guests were allowed to dine was reminiscent of 19th century England. Beautiful wooden picture frames hung on the wall; well-kept over the years. Dark hardwood floors that shined and creaked a little, as Anthony little grand-niece crawled around. Some of the most beautiful buildings I walked into that summer, with the exception of all the temples, had been turned into guesthouses. This seems to be the way of the new world. But I still recommend staying in one; it sure beats staying in a boring, concrete hotel. Why give money to the big names when you can support Anthony and his family? And I swear, their home has one of the best views in Mwalmine. 

I learned a lot that summer in South East Asia, and especially my few weeks wandering around the backroads, temples, markets and trains in Myanmar. A country that is in the process of figuring their shit out is the perfect place for an individual who is on the road doing that very same thing. If I don't say it enough: Thank you, Burma.
I realized that too many options doesn't mean happiness. It means chaos. I think I'm more of a simple girl. I'm happy with one job and one group of students to take care of. I'm a one-on-one person, and I help people best when there's more attention to detail.

I spent the beginning of 2016 thinking and thinking and then worrying about what to do next, and here I am a year later doing the exact same thing. Will my time in New Zealand ever come true? When will South America come into my life? When will I be in the big city again? There's always Maldives.
My modest plans for the year are to read more books (maybe even write some of my own).
And Plan B? Maldives. Or Antarctica. 
It's hard to make any more plans, because my brain has been buzzing all week with American politics and everything. All the marches, all the opinions, all the fights. All the Instagram posts I have to like and all the blog posts I have yet to share. There are too many things to do, and a lot of things out of our control. 

Me, I prefer things analog and organic. If you are one of those people, you can't left swipe me; I deleted that app. I'm just not that kind of girl.
Knock on my door. Send me a real text message. Whatever happened to climbing up trees and throwing rocks at peoples windows in the middle of the night? Telephones with strings and tin cans.

And mixtapes.

Sometimes I have it all together

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ramblings Around the City of Angels

At Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego. I took a photo here in 2004 on my last day in San Diego. There I was over 12 years later.
I first stepped foot in L.A 12 years ago. We were driving in from San Diego and made a pit stop by the Comedy Store on Sunset to see who was performing that night. I walked out of the car to a line-up of people and never thought that would be my first moment in a city I'd seen in movies, dreamed of and thought about since I could remember.
I'd grown up wanting to be an actress and instead of worrying much about fitting in when I was younger, I always figured I'd end up in places away from all the people who made me feel bad, boring, and uncool all those years as I turned into a teenager.
But somewhere along the way my life had taken a different turn and I stayed in Montreal, on some sort of spiritual quest with new friends and new questions. I spent time in different houses, driving along different streets and talking in different cafes while we tried to figure out what to do with our lives.
My surroundings were diverging and we were discussing things that mattered, and that was enough for me. Dreams of fame and fortune in exotic places would have to wait.

The biggest part of that dream, I later realized, was a longing to find my people. A dream to be amongst like-minded characters. To live in a space where no one calls you crazy; no one shakes their head at your antics but instead, joins you in them.
Does that have to remain only a dream? I always figured big cities filled with strangers would be the best places to find that.
And what better place to find your team of dreamers than in the city of angels and broken dreams?
I've yet to find a team, but I've found some of my people scattered around the globe-in Beijing, in South Korea (mostly the unmarried Koreans who are challenging the traditions of their country). Some who've stayed with me, some I've met at bookstores, some now live in Nepal and some in the U.S.
Still longing for a stage, I made teaching my stage. You can act silly with kids and it's a way to catch their attention and bring the classroom together. To ease my nerves during my first few months of teaching in Nanshan, China I would get into character every morning, and use my short walk to school as a way to meditate. It took a few years to completely feel at ease with a bunch of little strangers during my second kindergarten in Busan. Some days, those kids were my best (and sometimes only) friends when I first arrived in the country.
It's been a lot of work (and lots of unpaid days), and not a lot of planning-I sort of "just go with it", while remaining true to the bigger picture of my dream and taking some chances along the way.

I woke up New Years Day and my first conversation that morning was with an aspiring artist from Brooklyn. He was promoting his brand, selling t-shirts online and looking for funding to produce an album. Way too many stories like his in L.A. Also there are way too many stories like mine; that solo-female traveler, trying to find the good in the world and looking for love and writing all about it along the way. Is the market overstuffed? While I remain a pessimist, my new friend just preached about the "dream" and to keep going. After about twenty minutes of sharing our hopes and dreams for the new year he got to his computer and to work, while I packed my things and wandered off for the day. Keep going.

The day unravelled as I ended up in places more familiar. I sat in a cafe on 1st Street in the heart of Little Tokyo. People watching, writing and sipping my coffee (I'm a pretty good multi-tasker) I soaked in the energy everyone carried with them that day for the new year. Walking up and down the streets of sunny L.A and to visit the Temple around the corner, people were buzzing. Filled with hope.

I'd never heard of Skid Row until I drove past it New Years Eve and New Years Day. January 1st I took my first ride in an Uber, as that was the only way for me to get into the busy section of downtown L.A and Little Tokyo from my AirBnB, and everyone that morning warned me not to walk. It was a short 8-minute ride with a driver named Jorge, as we passed run-down streets lined with broken tents, tarps, pieces of newspaper. People wandered, looking in all directions and looking lost. Feet reached the outsides of many of the tarps that bucketloads of people seemed to be calling "home" for a long, long time. I drove through the backroads of Beverly Hills a few days later, where signs were put up for pedestrians (peasants?) to not pass. I've seen more 7$ lattes than I can count. People speak of change. People seem to be hopeful, especially the first few days of the New Year. But I can't forget wandering through Silver Lake in L.A last week and passing a 1$ store filled with everything from off-brand maxi pads and week-old blueberries while right across the road there was a cute organic grocer. The clientele was very different from what I could see from the window of the organic place.

Watching the beginning of Obama's farewell speech last week, I think I wasn't alone in the thoughts running through my brain-like regrets, missed steps, things done differently, hope lost.
I'm sure Obama's been doing an extra dose of soul-searching since that Election Day. I'm sure we all have. I can't help but feel as vulnerable as the POTUS right now, who still speaks of change, who still (hopefully) believes in hope, and who wonders what the hell happened from that moment someone crazy got elected until now? What have we done? What have we yet to accomplish? He had two terms to do stuff. I had years of living abroad and traveling-why didn't my life completely transform and become all that I envisioned? I've been blogging for a few years now, why do I feel like I haven't made any progress? Why are my dreams pilling up, my reading lists saved for later only getting longer? When do we feel like that "hope" has been achieved? Conquered?

My first week alone in L.A I stayed at a hostel by Venice Beach. It's a neighbourhood I've dreamt of being in for years now. I spoke with lots of locals, trying to get a sense of the community and how things have changed since its heyday in the 60s. I wandered trying to breathe in the energy of the past poets and beatniks who were once there, and the unknown ones who still remain. My hostel was filled with mostly international folk, from Italy to New Zealand. They were all surprised and shocked at this "America" they were seeing. All the tents by the beach. All the wanderers. The homeless and the drifters. Then they down another Budweiser on tap. What is this country? This city? They ask. Why are things just so?
I tell them the name means the City of Angels.

As for me, I'm still looking for my team. Maybe right now I'm in the midst of building a little team. Everyday is work. Maybe soon I'll get paid again. And I'm going to continue to be a little crazy, and keep in my heart what's right so that in the end, there won't be any regrets.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

It's My Party...

My favourite time of day was after a long (but lovely) time in Thailand and the sun was about to go down. The kids would be playing downstairs and I'd jump in the shower. I would be carrying around some sweat from the day and it needed to be washed off before the air got too chilly. As the sun set and the mountain air turned cold, I finished what was left of the room temperature shower water. I dried myself off and changed into my night clothes. Usually a long shirt and my elephant pants. My friend Nim told me that people in Thailand (not just Thais, because there are a lot of hill tribes and "minority" groups who are from Thailand, especially in the north of Chiang Rai where I was staying) shower twice a day. It's true. It's too hot sometimes not to. I immediately fell in love with this routine, because it felt like getting two days in one. Cheating, and then you'd be redeemed for the second chance at the day after that shower. With wet hair and fresh clothes I'd go back downstairs-the kids running around and the little ones playing with the dogs Nim's family adopted. Chakrit, the baby of the house and Nim's prized nephew, was always passed around for some playtime and photo ops. I'd check on dinner and then remove my flip flops to sit down with Nim, her father and whatever siblings were home for the week (Dom, Jim or Do) and we'd say a prayer before dinner. The wooden dining table, the place where we'd eat three meals a day and I'd do some activities with the kids on Sunday afternoons overlooked the hills of Mae Salong, one of the northernmost parts of northern Thailand and the Mekong delta. The sky turned from pink to purple to black as we munched on our dinner, served in traditional pots for rice, some meat and whatever green Nim's mother picked from the hills that day. My first month in Thailand I didn't get the spring rolls and mango sticky rice street food most travellers indulge in whenever they step foot in the Kingdom. However when I taught at the high school some afternoons in the village of Mae Salong, they paid me with a lunch of fresh pad thai almost every afternoon, followed by sweet Thai iced coffee or tea later in the day-still my best pay check ever.
On weekends or when the kids had a day off, we'd walk down the hill and towards the farm Nim's family managed. The boys would climb trees along the way, and as they got to the top they'd shake the trees until mini mangoes fell from the branches for us to snack on. Sometimes we'd make it down to the river to bathe or just play.
Following dinner the kids would scramble up to the activity room to finish their homework, and afterwards we'd slowly congregate to the TV room. The older girls were always amazed at how much I enjoyed watching the Thai dramas with them even though I couldn't understand any of the dialogue. Facial expressions go a long way. After two years away from teaching ESL, I became a teacher again in that room; when I had about 20 sets of eyes looking at me, looking for some guidance, a song or a silly dance to teach them (or for them to teach me).
After about an hour of "lessons" I'd say goodnight to the kids and my second favourite part of the night would be walking up the stars to the balcony. The sky was pitch black by then. I'd count the amount of lights on that led down to the hill, and there'd usually be more stars in the sky. I would look for the bright moon (were you looking, babe?) and every night, I couldn't quite grasp how peaceful everything seemed. How isolated we were (according to me) yet how normal life was when people were around-with girls gossiping in Akha (their native language) and braiding each other's hair (or making bracelets out of palm leaves). I'd talk with Jim and Nim and maybe Skype with someone from home, or write about the day. Or help Nim put together a slide show to promote the orphanage and get some sponsors. (Rice wasn't always coming cheap).
The last time I was there was two years ago, a few weeks before my 31st birthday. One of the brothers, Dom, was very concerned that I'd be moving to Korea and would be alone for the holidays, and have no family around for my birthday. I didn't, but it was fine. My only birthday present that year was from him, when he gave me two handmade bracelets from the market in Mae Salong. They were nothing fancy and when he gave them to me he apologized, saying "I only went to this market, I'm sorry I couldn't get them from Chiang Rai or anything".

There's no where else in the world to go with a broken heart but Thailand. Give to others, go far away, bring a new wardrobe. Throw out those pants you've been lounging in. Completely new foods, smells and faces are the only way to get a heart beating again and a head to think straight. I've tried a few other places: Seoul, New York, and now California. Thailand worked. It's one of the only places that did work. Honestly, I don't know how other people do it. No wonder people drink, no wonder people vote for the wrong guy (or gal).

No matter how far you go, the normal always finds you. Maybe you were looking for that all along. Maybe it's all some people will ever know. After a lot of traveling, a lot of wandering (from different jobs, apartments, countries, etc...) I know that when I'm surrounded by weirdos who turn out to be my family, things will always be exciting. I just hope there's room for climbing mango trees along the way.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Korean Falls

Written two weeks ago-edited today at the airport. All things still true.

Even when I'm in Canada all I can do is talk about Korea, about Hong Kong, about Beijing...about Georgia the country and hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. (it was hard coming "home" and not feeling connected to the people as I walk around the city, my city that I've known for so long. People don't smile and say Hello, people don't offer lifts to where you need to go, or tea on the side of the road. Call me crazy but I think we need to bring that back...especially in these dark times, am I right?)
Today, while eating Thai fried rice at a restaurant on one of my favourite streets in the city with one of my most favourite people in the world (a place where there's an African market next to Korean food, then Chinese food across from Montreal's older diners) I started telling them about the four seasons in Korea. Yes, the south part of Asia is hot most the time. Places like Korea, Japan, and the northern part of China have the change of seasons just like in Montreal, Toronto, New York City. They even get snow, but maybe not as much as in North America. It was nice to live in a country and wander through places for a while that was completely different in a lot of ways, but then the change of the seasons was a pattern I've lived with my entire life. Fall breezes. Summer sweats. That cold January night when only a handful of things can keep you warm. The thing about Korea is that the best seasons are long and a little delayed in my opinion; sometimes a little lazy but well received anyways. I like seeing flowers still in bloom at the beginning of October, and hints of spring by the beginning of March.   
A part of me will always be Korean when I do things like wake up on a Sunday and want to go for a hike. Or as I wander the streets ranting about how there are no 24-hour convenience stores. And WHY AREN'T THERE SUPER ADORABLE CAFES ALL OVER THE PLACE?! We're spoiled a little, in Korea. 

My first trip to Seoul, one of the biggest metropolises in the world and the capital city of Korea (South part!) I walked around the city not quite getting it. The bright lights, garbage and endless bars (from the back of an old van, to a little coffee kiosk, to a three-floor club) overwhelmed me and I got caught up in the excessiveness of it all. I looked at the city with a critical eye. Then it turned Sunday and I took the bullet train back to my little beach city of Busan, where I had a comfortable job and a studio apartment. I finally returned months later, my body finally adjusted to Korea time and my spirits a little higher. My best friend and I wandered through the neighbourhood of Hyehwa in the north east part of the city on a chilled Friday in November, searching for our hostel. It was next to a chicken restaurant-like many things are in Korea. If y'all haven't tried Korean fried chicken yet, go do it. Do it now. Keep reading later.
It was wonderful, wasn't it?
Maybe it was because I was too overwhelmed when I first moved to Korea and I needed time to settle in the country. I have a different relationship with that country than I do with a country like China, where the chaos on the streets and openness of the people make me feel at home. Korea is a country that shows it's light when you least expect it. 
Just like in relationships. Just like in love. And sometimes it's too late (but not all the time). 
This particular Saturday morning, my second trip to Seoul was one of the sunniest November mornings that I can remember. We walked around the neighbourhood and around the Uni campus with the pathway lined with Korean maple trees. The leaves were smaller than a typical Canadian maple but so much brighter. Everything was painted a bright, bold red. I was living in a country where my favourite season stretches an extra month, until wintertime, even during what's usually the grimmest of months. 
November in Korea is also the month to make kimchi. You'll know it because outside of most local marts there will be carts of giant cabbage, just ready to be marinated, fermented and made into the country's national dish/pass time. And you can't pass those marts without walking by endless rows of persimmon-delcious and juicy and ready to be made into a tea. Pink rubber gloves will be on sale (the yellow ones don't work because they'd stain yellow ones with all the chilli paste) and people will be carting giant plastic containers of the stuff on the subway, on their way home to refrigerate the stuff for a few months. The ritual of making kimchi, like many things in Korea, are done with friends and family. What fun is it to do it alone? 
Usually the first or second week of December is when people take their last hike of the season. Jangsan, Seoraksan, (san means "mountain") Jirisan and Seoul's Bukhansan are some of the country's highlights, when locals boast about how particularly beautiful it is when the leaves have changed colour. A Sunday spent walking up the mountains and getting some fresh air that the concrete jungle below can't really provide-talking to friends, co-workers, strangers, a few hilarious exchanges with the ajummas and ajoshis along the way (usually involving those stretching machines or one of the random hula-hoops found on the ground) are one of the reasons people stay in Korea. Not to mention the food (one restaurant and lots of makoli) that's always to be had once you reach the peak. 

This fall when I felt the air turn crisp and the smell of fall approaching, I started to second guess where I was. Is this what Canada smelled like? Is it supposed to be this warm in October? Who wants to go for a walk with me? How does Mont-Royal sound? How many yellow leaves can I jump in with the kids at work during their (and my) playtime? When you feel those seasons changing you either need to move, or find yourself a partner...or at least someone to hike with up those mountains when September ends way too quickly, and then plan how to hibernate for the winter. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Georgia....oh Georgia (the country)

If you've met me somewhere in Europe this past summer, or spoken to me since I've been back in Montreal, I have probably spoken to you about the magical place that is Georgia the country. I feel a deep desire to specify Georgia as a country, because initially when many people (that I know) hear the word Georgia they think of a southern U.S state with funny accents and lots of peaches. Georgia the country is thought of second. And this, this is horrible. Georgia the country should be first, foremost, always. Hidden somewhere in the middle of Eurasia, with a seaside, misty mountains, grassland and dry land, with a bit of sad political history thrown in for good measure, I can't think of a better place to step foot in. I don't usually play favourites. I don't usually list countries as good or bad. But Georgia (the country), is the best country!
Did you know that peaches also grow so fresh and juicy in Georgia the country?
Did you know that people still cross themselves (the orthodox way) whenever they pass a church? And there are a lot of churches, in Georgia the country. Each one more special and beautiful than the next. Whether it be up in the Caucasus mountains or on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, the churches light up in ways I've never seen in any other part of the world.
Did you know that Georgia's big city of Tbilisi is the new hot spot to travel to? It's like Prague a few decades ago; it's perfect like Europe, but off the beaten track and still exotic. Still warm and welcoming. What other kind of combination do you need?
Did you know that they have some of the best cuisines? Eggplants, spinach, cheeses and freshly baked breads, specialty wines and juicy, plump dumplings called "khinkalli" are things you can eat everyday for the rest of your life and never crave anything else for your entire life. Georgia satisfies.

Today is a Sunday. It's one of those great fall days in Canada. But in usual Jen fashion, I'm being nostalgic. About 8 or 9 Sundays ago I was hiking up to a chapel in Kazbegi, northern Georgia just a little bit away from Russia. My friend and I were amongst the beautiful Caucasus mountains as we got off our marshuka, checked into a little guesthouse run by a sweet Georgian woman and made our way up the hill to one of the world's best-placed churches. A lot of families were out that day, hiking up to a centuries-old church to pay their respects, spend some time together and pray to one of the 20 (or was it 30?) saints and icons hanging in the chapel. They make a lot of beeswax candles in Georgia, the country. There are a lot of saints to pray to.

It's also Thanksgiving weekend, and families are coming together. Things are a little bittersweet for me on a personal level. I'm in one of those reverse culture-shock modes, trying to find my grounding again. Lots of things.

But also last night was the last family holiday gathering in my grandparents house. My mom's side of the family is Irish Catholic. There are a lot of us. I have a group of fabulous cousins and some are more like friends to me than family. Our grandma and grandpa bought a house in Ville-St Laurent, in the middle of Montreal over 50 years ago. For five decades, we've gathered under the tree for Christmas, and huddled together in the kitchen, in the guest rooms and in the basement whenever it was a holiday, or just a random Sunday. The kids play hide and seek and seek refuge in the little corners of our grandparents house, whether it be under our grandfather's office desk or in the laundry room. We'd hunt for Easter eggs on Easter Sunday (good luck to the new tenants, who will probably find some ten year old Cadburys when they move their furniture into our basement). At the end of the night we'd race our grandma up and down the street. We'd have barbecues in the quaint, and very Montreal-style backyard. I can still smell the hot dogs and burnt buns. Auntie Debbie's spinach dip. Auntie Bernice's casseroles. Last night as I was sitting in the office and reminiscing with one of my cousins, two of the little ones, from the generation of great-grandchildren came running in, chasing Pokemon and hiding in that go-to spot, under grandpa's desk. My older cousins did it, I did it, and last night I saw their kids do it. Some patterns are meant to be.

So today, I woke up a little sad. Most of my family did, I think. My remedy was to sleep in and then make my way to my favourite cafe, to write and look outside at the autumn leaves. Maybe spend some more time with family later. On my walk down to the cafe in Montreal's neighbourhood of NDG I passed by a European bakery. I went in, of course. Buying things from other places are my way to fill the travel void when I'm back in Montreal. I bought a few Russian pastries, and then I found a bottle of Georgian mineral water! Such a small thing, I know. But it was enough to get me dreaming about that hike in Kazbegi, those walks down Rustaveli and in Tbilisi's old town. My wander down the shores in Batumi. All the wonders in my short 9 days in Georgia the country.

Can I go back, now?
So as to not get too teary-eyed I had to think about the future last night. I had to remind everyone that there are new memories to be made somewhere else. We're blessed to still have our Grandpa, at 99. We all spend time together and keep in touch. Let's hold hands and move forward. How about buying a big house in Georgia the country? If Grandma had ever visited that place (she visited a lot of places, and she told me that New Orleans was always her favourite) I know that she would have loved the wine.

Happy Thanksgiving, Canada!

My Grandpa told me he was proud of me the last time I left to teach and travel again.  I think my grandmother would have been, too.

Freshly baked bread comes out of the walls in the old town of Tbilisi. All for .80 Lari.

Random cave in Batumi

Right outside my hostel in the city of Batumi in western Georgia the country. The road that leads to the Black Sea, and to Turkey!

And the lovely doggy that wandered with me all morning. When countries "develop", one of the things to stop is the stray dog population. More things get regulated and the strays are killed. I hope this doesn't happen in Georgia the country, but it probably will, someday.

Typical Georgian breakfast. All for $1. 

Khinkalli. After our hike in Kazbeki we enjoyed this with a cold Kazbegi beer, and later, Georgian wine. Life can't get better than that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

That Moment When You Long For Home When You Are Home

I can't believe how emo/hipster that title sounds. Maybe it's the pumpkin spice latte I'm drinking (first in 3 years!) or the autumn playlist I'm streaming that's filled with City and Colour and the Paper Kites (no offence to either of those bands, they're fantastic) but it's what I'm feeling. I like to keep it real. So allow me to indulge for a paragraph (or two).
I've been sick for the past few days. I never get sick. Except for a week in Mongolia (maybe I need another hike up a sand dune to break my fever). As I woke up the other day, still sick with no desire to do the work I needed to do, I thought of what I needed to heal. What are the home remedies, the hot bowl of mom's chicken noodle soup that cures all? What I did in Korea was walk across the street to the mart, get a cup of Shin Ramyeon (spicy ramen noodles), a Vitamin C drink and some of those Vita-C tablets and perhaps head to a little herbalist pharmacy, always so close by or around the corner from where I worked or lived. And mmm, persimmon tea. Or perhaps just a hot matcha latte from one of my many favourite kopi rangs (coffee shops). Sophia's Kale Smoothie from Jack and the Beanstalk.
All those things used to help me. I found them and they worked and all I needed to do was walk across the street and fork over a few thousand wons (a few dollars) of my teacher's salary to do so. I didn't go and order anything from international herbal shops like iHerb and try to replicate exactly what I would eat at home (it didn't work, anyway). It's way too complicated in Korea to go hunting for North American foods without a Costco card, so because I was broke I just went local. After a while of being away for the first, second and third time I started to learn about the other over the counter medicines around the world that worked for me. ENO for a sore stomach. Ginseng. All kinds of things. They were effective and I never remember whining much about how things were so "weird" and that I just needed some comfort food from home. I found my own comfort, and now that I'm back "home" (for a little bit) my comfort for my cold can't be found, and I think this little flu will be lingering for a while. On top of waking up a little sick, I also woke up feeling a little powerless. Staying at my parents in the suburbs I was a drive away from a pharmacy or about a 15 minute walk to one. And it's a pharmacy with meds where even though I can actually read the label, I have little idea of what they will do to me. Then it's another 20 minute walk to get any sort of food. I didn't feel like doing that in the fall breeze. And that's not even thinking about the health food shop that's miles away. I like being self-sufficient, and there's something defeating when you're 32 and you have to ask, "Daddy, can you go to the store and get me some Cold FX?"
So with the phlegm growing and the slight fever relentless, I've decided, after much investigation and study (a.k.a travel/living abroad/working hard in other countries/life) that I'm allergic to cold air, and not immune to Canadian germs. Maybe it's because I was too protected as a kid. I used to have constant colds all winter (and sometimes summer) when growing up and throughout University. I just thought I was lazy and weak. It was probably my diet. It was probably a lot of things. "Maybe you need a steak", they said. "You need to go to the doctor", they said. While health care is free(ish) for people who reside here with a medicare card, they have to wait hours and hours in emergency or walk-in clinics to get seen by a doctor if they don't have the privilege of having a private physician. You hear me, my middle-class Canadian peeps?

Then, like magic, I started to travel. It started with a few weeks there, a few months somewhere else. Then a year, or two. People talk about travellers clinics and getting vaccinated when going to these "foreign lands" and all this diarrhea you'll inevitably get the moment your feet touch down to paradise. I was always fine. I'm always fine. Two summer ago I spent over three months in South East Asia and I've never eaten so well and digest so fully (especially the week I spent at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where we were served a vegan buffet three meals a day). Don't get me started on how full your hair gets when it breathes that incomparable South East Asia balmy air.
Even if it's for a short weekend away when I lived in Busan. I spent about three years overall in the (dynamic) city of Busan in South Korea. I worked at three different schools overall, and it was a way for me to learn more about myself, meet people I never would have met, discover that I was a teacher, learn how to deal in any type of quirky work environment. The list goes on. And I've never taken a sick day. Maybe once or twice a year I'd have a horrible day with a stomach bug, but it would swiftly pass with the help of my sweet students who'd keep their calm and distance for a class or two, while Jennifer Teacher tried not to pass out on the floor.
I usually stayed put while living in Busan and saved my money for travel after I finished a teaching contract, but sometimes I'd escape for a weekend or two; to China, Jeju, or Taipei. Cuisines and air would change, but I adapted quick. I moved to Beijing and started life full-on. Getting jobs, apartments, fighting the traffic with a mix of the decades old Beijing buses and sleek subway cars for 2 kuai a piece (25 cents). I was tired, but fine.

Last night, in my fevered daze, I wrote a little blurb that was supposed to be this blog post and mainly on the topic of re-patriation. I'll have a better and clearer article on the pains of re-patriation in another post.
Here's the thing: Many of you people who've spent significant time somewhere else know that it is sometimes harder to "return" than to "leave". Sounds weird, right? Should we begin opening clinics for those people coming home after a brief or not-so brief stint away? Do we all need to be quarantined? Or do we just need some spicy chillies, hot ramen noodle soup and a breath of exotic air?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Being in Kyrgyzstan

The moment I flew out of Korea, even when I was waiting at the last gate of Incheon International Airport (gate number 135-and I was late. I’ve never run so fast in my life) I completely abandoned everything that I was and tried my best to start fresh. It didn’t really work, but I tried. All I knew was that I was in a completely different landscape and that’s what I was looking for. If my eyes saw completely different things then maybe I would have completely different luck. So far, I’m just seeing different things.
As I moved closer to Europe I noticed customs, habits and smells starting to morph into something familiar, but almost forgotten. These kinds of rituals were vague notions which rested in the back of my mind, and the more I looked around the more I remembered the things I grew up with. Rules that were beginning to seem normal again when I made a move back to Canada (after a few years of backpacking and teaching) faded once again when I hastily took myself on a return to the other side of the world: the place that gives me comfort, the place where I can navigate, the place that usually makes sense. And also a place that annoys me sometimes. It’s like a good ex-boyfriend, really. 

My first day of wandering through Kyrgyzstan I was shocked with things I hadn’t seen in a while, but things still recognizable-things vaguely familiar. Jam on toast. Babies in strollers. Waiting in lines. Slices of bread as your appetizer. Before landing there I didn’t know Kyrgyzstan had such a Russian colonial history but as I saw pairs of moms chatting the afternoon away, while walking their kids in the park around with a stroller (why are they so big?!) I realized that I was getting closer to the West side of the world and I wasn’t super excited about it. There’s a ton of parks in Bishkek and all adorned with statues of some sort of Russian intellectual or dictator (same same, but different). It’s also super easy to find pasta. It’s super easy to find a breakfast with coffee, eggs and bread. And a lot of gassy water. You can find fresh dill in some soups. Maybe even some sour cream. For North Americans and Europeans who live in Korea, you can understand how exciting those things are. 

Day two (maybe it was three) consisted for a 4-hour bus ride eastbound. With the snow-peaked mountains in the distance as the marshuka rolled out of the city and through the part of the country which borders Kazakstan I couldn’t believe I was only minutes away from what the Kyrg countryside had to offer. Through some pointing at pictures, trust in our navigation skills and GPS, help from lovely guesthouse owners, lots of delicious local food along the way, and a few free (and paid) rides in cars and vans, we made our way through the western side of Kyrgyzstan and it’s two main lakes in six days. And a little over 100 dollars each. You can get some good bargains, in Kyrgyzstan. Independent travel, local guesthouses, restaurants and cafes are easy to find in Central Asia. 

Some of our highlights:
-Walking by the secluded Lake Issyk-kul in the morning and eating at a small bakery for breakfast. 
-Finding over 1000-year old petroglyphs up on a hill in Cholpon-ata, overlooking the lake. There were only a handful of tourists there. So old. So beautiful. So historic. Who knew?
-Literally pointing at a picture, telling the owner at Apple Hostel in Cholpon-ata that “I want to go to there” and we found our way to a peaceful, hilly valley somewhere in northern Kyrgyzstan. We stayed in a yurt, ate fresh fish, and played with the kids in the morning on giant swings. 
-Finding the backpacker haven that is Karakol Coffee, after a long marshuka ride and a few long walks under the hot sun. We sat, charged phones, ate food, drank and didn’t do much else for a few hours. We went back there for breakfast the next day. The menu consisted of what seemed like endless amounts of homemade cakes and pies, different styles of coffee and milkshakes. The drinks cold and the pizza great. It’s like heaven. And the owners are so nice. Definitely recommended if you ever find yourself in Kyrgyzstan :). 
-Riding donkeys near Song-kul Lake. 
-Finding ourselves in an old house near the main square in the city of Kochkor, before an overnight trip to Song-kul. The place was definitely pre-Soviet era. 

I didn’t know if Kyrgyzstan was West or East. It seemed like a mix of both. Things are changing in that country, just like so many other places in this world. The capital is modernizing but the pace still slow. 

It was about the 10th yurt I’d stayed in so far that month when I checked into my last one while up by Song-kul, on my last day of exploring the Kyrg countryside. Walking through the front door of a yurt there’s always that element of curiosity-how big is it? Will it be cozy, cold? Where’s the tea? When all of the guests (for that day) sat down around the table we were served freshly whipped butter and strawberry jam in sparkly, maybe imperialist-era glassware in a yurt in the middle of Kyrgyzstan by a beautiful, Muslim practicing Kyrg family. 
A ton of yurts are set up by the blue marine Song-kul Lake, an alpine lake in the middle of the country. The hardcore adventurists (badass German mountain bikers) make the trek up to the 3000 metre elevation from the town of Kochkor to Song-kul, where in the summer yurts get built and locals farm and get back to nature, away from the more industrial cities. The rest are lots of Community Based Tourism camps where the lucky travellers who make it to Kyrgyzstan get to stay. The wander to and from the city to the mountain, I got to see some of the most breathtaking, peaceful scenery I’ve ever seen in this entire world. It’s worth it to go somewhere that you may think is the middle of nowhere-it’s always the most rewarding. It’s always the most life changing. It’s always the most beautiful and the lifestyle centuries old, the religion new, the food just cooked. So many different levels of culture shock, and new things to learn about in so little time. 

One of my favourite travel moments though was on the bus ride back to Bishkek. After Song-kul and lunch in Kochkor, Jean and I stopped at the well-known Burana Tower and then found a ride back to the capital city. I knew Bishkek had two bus stations. I knew our hostel was next to one of them. I figured they were both a little far away from each other. I had just spent my last 5 som using the toilet at the bus station near the Tower. It was getting late and this bus needed to get us as close to our booked hostel in Bishkek as possible. I tried asking him which station we were going to, but I couldn’t. A few “hellos” and “thank yous” in Russian was all I could muster. So a few hundred kilometres later, as we rolled into Bishkek, the bus eventually stopped at the other station and let everyone off.
"Last stop. This last stop." The bus man said.
“Um…west bus station?” I tried to pronounce the name of the street where we were staying.
“No. No. Last stop.” He said again.
So I just pointed to the paper where I wrote down the street name and the other bus station’s name. Then I just looked at him and said, “please?”
He turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and took off again, with only Jean and I in the car. We drove a few kilometres until we eventually reached recognizable territory, and I knew how to maneuver through the touts and marshukas and make our way around the corner to Apple Hostel. The bus driver nodded, smiled and let us off the bus without charging us any extra. He even watched us for a few moments making sure we were safe in the crowds of Bishkek.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.