Tuesday, November 15, 2011

China Picture Slideshow: The Highlights from Beijing, Xian, Ping An & Xing Ping

We took thousands of pictures on our "Big Trip," and now I have to decide what to do with all of them!  So, my goal is to make picture slideshows by country.  China was our first stop and we spent one month exploring four areas of the country.

  • Beijing & The Great Wall of China
  • Xian & The Terracotta Warriors
  • Ping An & The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces
  • Xing Ping & The Li River
We also made quick stops in Guilin and Nanning.  (On a previous trip we traveled to Hong Kong & Macau).

Oh man, was it hard to pick my favorite photos to make up a true representation of our time in China.  So, here's what you'll see:
  • Sights:  Of course, there's us enjoying the must-see spots from Tienanmen Square to the Great Wall.
  • Food:  Eating delicious street food was part of the experience along with seeing scorpions and star fish fried up for the adventurous. 
  • Faces:  Local people both young and old.  The beautiful faces of children who gravitated toward us or the Yao ethnic people who like Rapunzel let down their hair for us.  These are the faces that made our days special. 
  • Scenes of Daily Life:  Rows of bicycles, a water buffalo being led off a ferry, incense sticks raised in prayer.  These are all small moments of daily life that really bring out the flavor of China.
  • Rural Scenery:  Breathtaking scenes of ancient rice terraces and limestone mountains along the Li River.  It was rural China that I enjoyed most.
  • Architecture, Wildlife, Street Scenes...the list goes one.  All of these things together made our trip so memorable.
There's so much left to see!  If I play my cards right I just may get back to China someday to see the mountains of Tibet or the desert towns along the former Silk Road.  Shanghai is on my list, since seeing the airport was simply not enough!

Travel Tip:  In no other country did we find so little English spoken.  However, you need not speak Chinese to enjoy yourself.  Come prepared with a guide book and map that has names of places in both English and Chinese.  This way, you can ask for help.  A simple "Ni Hao" (hello) along with pointing to the name of your location in Chinese will get you pointed in the right direction.  We did this constantly and were tickled at how helpful people were.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Our Return Home to the USA

Our tour through paradise had to end eventually, and then it was time to return home.  Actually, I went home twice.  The first time, “home” was visiting Korea.  We returned for a few days to pick up our belongings and to visit with family one last time.  It was a surreal experience because we were back in Korea, but not at our house, our neighborhood, or back to our routine.  The visit still reminded us of what we enjoyed so much about this country – kind people, neon lights, and delicious barbeque.  We even took a trip to our former school and had a brief visit with the children we’ve loved so much.

Four days later we boarded our flight from Seoul to New York and we were really on our way home.  Door to door it was a 26 hour journey.  Stepping off the plane, I was happy to hear New York accents and tickled to get my first “welcome home” at the immigration check point.  Then I was seeing my parents for the first time in 18 months.  It was a nice reunion, and once at my childhood home it didn’t feel I’d been gone so long after all! 

Our time in the USA has been filled visiting family and friends.  I was thrilled on my first weekend to go to Villanova University’s homecoming with college friends.  I’d missed so many events like this in the past, I was overjoyed to simply be present.  I’ve helped out my brother and his wife with a little babysitting, but truly it was a gift to have one-on-one time with my two adorable nieces.  I know I’ve already re-connected with them and our bond will only grow stronger.

Just as we did upon our arrival in Korea, we are busy comparing everything.  Our once familiar neighborhood grocery store seems strange.  Where’s the aisle of jumbo rice bags and the aisle dedicated to ramen noodles?  Why are sesame oil and rice noodles so expensive?  We mutter these things to ourselves, while at the same time being delighted that we can now afford to eat as much cheese as we want.  Cheese was a pricy treat in Asia.

I’m relieved that life is all in English and therefore easy.  I do not need to spend time with my dictionary, planning an errand before stepping out the door.  It’s routine rather than an adventure to go a post office, restaurant, or shop.  However, my husband and I find we’re delighted to speak with our Korean drycleaners who tip us off to where we can buy kimchi in the area.

I’m amazed at how quickly we adapted to life in Korea.  It really did become a second home to us.  So, as I revel in the joy of being home in the USA, I also find myself missing the familiarity of being a stranger in a strange land.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Seoul, Korea: Directions to Seoul Tower

We were in Seoul nearly a year before we made the trip to Seoul Tower.  As was typical when making weekend plans, we took out our trusted Lonely Planet Seoul City Guide and looked up directions.  We thought the provided directions were a little odd – the subway stop seemed too far from our destination – however, if Lonely Planet printed it we figured it must be right.  We were wrong.  After exiting the subway we soon realized we’d need a taxi to complete our journey.

Once there, we realized there was a much easier way to get to Seoul Tower and that’s what we share with you in this video.  You may also want to pair a visit to the Tower with a stop at Namdaemun Market as they are very close (within walking distance).

You may go up Seoul Tower for the views, but you can also enjoy some good food.  There are several options and some are really reasonably priced.  If you want to eat at the revolving restaurant “N Grill,” be sure to make a reservation in advance. 

When you arrive at the base of the tower, you’ll notice all the padlocks cluttering the surrounding chain link fence.  Couples supposedly seal their love with this small gesture and some written words.  My husband and I didn’t come prepared for this popular ritual.  So, we bought our overpriced locks, hearts to write on, and permanent markers at the gift shop.  Still, I was excited to leave a little memento that’s forever in Korea.  You can save money though if you arrive with locks and love notes in hand

In the end, our visit to Seoul Tower made for a lovely day.  We enjoyed the views, a good meal, and got swept up in a bit of romance as we wrote our love notes.  It was definitely worth the trip.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs Memorial

My husband, Cameron, was reflecting on the loss of Steve Jobs. He noted how in the face of death, Jobs had said some really smart things about life in recent years. So, we paired up those quotes and reflections with a video we shot this week of the sun setting in Phuket, Thailand. It seemed an appropriate pairing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand: Travel Tips for the Grand Palace

You should be prepared before making a trip to The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.  With just a bit of planning before your outing, you should have a lovely time.  In this video, I give you three tips: 
  1. There is a strict dress code! I give you all the details in my video.
  2. If you want an English tour guide, there have been some changes and it's no longer free. 
  3. Beware the scam artists near the Palace -- they are looking for you!
I hope my video tips make your day at The Grand Palace go a bit smoother. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand: The Grand Palace Review

Colorful, Dynamic, Sparkling -- that's how I would describe the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.  It is above and beyond any temple complex I've seen in Asia. It's beautiful and if you are making a stop in Bangkok it should be on your "to-do" list.

In my video see what really makes The Grand Palace so spectacular.  It's a feast for your eyes!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand: Amazing Rainbow at Grand Palace (Video)

I really enjoyed visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.  The buildings are stunning.  The decoration is so ornate, it's unlike anything I've seen before.  Glass tiles sparkle and gold paint shimmers all around you -- it's like a fantasy land.  As if this wasn't enough, we were treated to a show from Mother Nature.  A beautiful, full rainbow in the sky made for some great photos.  So, we wanted to share them!  Oh, and if you're in Bangkok, the Grand Palace is a must-see.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Amazing Hackey Sack

I loved that Phnom Penh never felt like a tourist city, existing solely for visitors.  We just happened to be thrown into the mix.  We stayed there 3 nights, and the truth is I could have lingered a little longer. 

On our first day we simply strolled through the city, getting the lay of the land and soaking in the atmosphere.  In the early evening, the locals really started to come out.  They filled the local square and crowded the riverfront, enjoying the outdoors after a hard days work. 

Walking along Sisowath Quay, which is alongside the river, we spotted groups of men playing hacky sack.  They were attracting a small audience and it was well deserved.  They were truly talented!  So we captured some video to share with you.

It’s these small moments that I think will stay with me in the years to come.  Moments of daily life that we were just lucky enough to witness and be a part of.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Ice cream Meltdown (Video)

I think we've all had one of those days.  You're cranky, don't feel well and things just aren't going your way.  You try to ignore it and then some small inconsequential annoyance pushes you over the edge.

Well that was me on Day 54 of our "Big Trip."  I wanted ice cream and a chain restaurant Lotteria (akin to McDonald's) had a large display showing a variety of delicious ice cream you could order.  But, they didn't actually have any ice cream!  That was it -- inconsequential annoyance that led to my meltdown and my desire to "go home" where I could eat all the ice cream I wanted.

This happened to me occasionally in Korea.  I was having a bad day and suddenly some small cultural difference irked me greatly and suddenly I wanted to "go home."  It passes and I'm very happy to be where I am.  Although I'm still in the mood for some ice cream!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lunch Lady: Serving Soup in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Vietnam

We first saw the Lunch Lady on TV.  My husband and I love the Travel Channel's show "Anthony Bourdain:  No Reservations."  He visited the Lunch Lady for her famous soup during a stop in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  Everyday she makes something different depending on what looks good at the market.  She serves the locals until she runs out of soup.  Street food doesn't get any better than this!

So, of course when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) we wanted to see the Lunch Lady and try her soup.  We hopped on a motorbike taxi and were on our way.  When we spotted her shady street food corner, she looked up at us and flashed a big smile.  She knew we were there for her.

In a few minutes we had bowls of  hot soup and fresh spring rolls.  I don't know the name of our soup, but I do know it was the best I've tasted in Vietnam.  We were there before noon, and shortly afterward every table and chair was taken.  She's popular and deserves to be.  The food is delicious and fresh and incredibly cheap.

Cost of Lunch:  2 bowls of soup + 4 fresh spring rolls + 2 sodas = 90,000 Vietnamese Dong ($4.50)

Watch my video for directions on how to get to the lunch lady.  You can also access a helpful map here.  My thanks to the "Gastronomer" -- this blog helped up to find the Lunch Lady on our trip.  So go ahead and add the Lunch Lady to your travel itinerary and enjoy the soup!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Motorbikes are a Must!

Motorbikes will forever remind me of Vietnam.  In no other country are the two-wheeled transport more ubiquitous.   They are every where, clogging up the small streets of Hanoi and roaring through the big boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City.  The traffic is so dense and the lack of traffic rules so rampant that just crossing the street seems like an Olympic exercise in timing and agility.  At first you follow the locals, a bit timid.  Eventually you gain enough confidence that you decide it’s time to ride a bike yourself.

It’s a good decision – do it!  Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is a thrill.   Take a motorbike taxi, a motorbike tour, or simply ride around aimlessly exploring unseen corners of local cities and the countryside.   There’s a feeling of freedom and joy that will accompany your ride and certainly you’ll want to do it again.  I know I did…I still do!

Travel Tip:   Renting a motorbike in Vietnam is easy.  There are many local travel agencies that can help you.  Some hotels also offer rentals.  For a full 24 hour day, expect to pay between $5-$10, plus gas.   Some rental companies include insurance, others do not.  Make sure you’re provided with a helmet and wear it.  It’s also a good idea to get a bike lock from the rental agency.  In Vietnam, you drive on the right and I would suggest avoiding driving at night before you’re experienced on the roads.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Beach Review

Nha Trang wasn’t on our original Vietnam itinerary, but along the way we got the desire to relax at the beach.    In Vietnam, a few places come to mind when you think “beach” – Mui Ne, Phu Quoc, and Nha Trang.   We’d just heard a dismal review of Mui Ne from fellow travelers and Phu Quoc is an island, making it a bit more difficult/expensive to get to.  So, that settled it…we would go to Nha Trang.

We’d been told Nha Trang’s municipal beach was not just the best in Vietnam, but one of the best in the world.  We spent 2 nights here and we didn’t do much but sit on the beach and eat good food.

So, what did we think of the beach? Watch my video for a full review.

Travel Tip #1:  You can find cheap, nice accommodation in Nha Trang.  We stayed at the Ruby Hotel in a private/ensuite room for $11 total per night for two people.  The room was large and clean and it was only a 5 minute walk to the beach.  We booked through Hostelworld.

Travel Tip #2:  Travel at night.  We arrived in Nha Trang by night bus from Hoi An.  Arriving at 6am, we had a full day to relax.   Departing, we took a 10pm train to Ho Chi Minh City.  Again, we had a full day to enjoy the beach.  Our hotel was even kind enough to let us use a room to shower and change before our travels.  This made our stay in Nha Trang feel longer and more relaxed.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hoi An, Vietnam: Beach Travel Review

Arriving in Hoi An, the beach was an after thought.  We were there to see the historic core of the city, which is quite charming and we even splurged on some tailored clothes.  However, we soon learned just how close the beach was, so we decided to check it out.  We rented bicycles and thoroughly enjoyed our short ride to the coast.  You may not come to Hoi An for the beaches, but you may stay because of them!  What a delightful surprise -- these beaches are pristine and uncrowded.

There are two popular beach options just outside the city center.  Learn about them in my video.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hue, Vietnam: Café on Thu Wheels Motorbike Tour

Thank goodness for travel reviews.  That’s how we found out about Café on Thu Wheels.  We checked out Trip Advisor’s top attractions in Hue and Café on Thu Wheels was at the top of the list.  We trusted the high praise and decided to book a tour ourselves.  We were not disappointed.

Café on Thu Wheels offers a 5 hour city tour that includes stops at The Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda, The Mausoleum of Tu Duc, and former French bunkers hidden in the woods.  You begin by travelling through rice paddies in the countryside and along quiet back roads and narrow trails.  Toward the end of the tour, you work your way back into the city.  You cover a lot of ground and the entire time you’re on the back of a motorbike.  Your guide is also your driver.  It’s a wonderful way to see Hue and I highly recommend it.

For a full review and directions to Café on Thu Wheels, watch my video.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Travel Review

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay is world famous for a reason; it’s beautiful.  Nearly two thousand limestone rocks rise from the calm waters.  It’s the inspiration for dozens of local legends and poems and maybe that’s why it’s a fixture on the tourist trail.  Some think that’s reason enough to skip Ha Long Bay…too many tourists.  They’re wrong. Go, go, go!

There are many ways to see Ha Long Bay and tours are available for every budget.  Watch my video for recommendations.  I loved our trip, but the second time around I would do it differently.

Travel Tip:  You must join a tour to cruise Ha Long Bay.  Most people book their tours in Hanoi, which includes transport from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.  However, even if you arrive in Ha Long City on your own, you will have to join an organized tour to see the area by boat.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hanoi, Vietnam: A Visit to Hoa Lo Prison -- The "Hanoi Hilton"

The Hoa Lo Prison was famously dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam War.  Today it's not a prison, but a museum.  Most of the exhibits focus on the time period before the Vietnam War when the prison was used by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners.  However, the small exhibits about the American POW's are interesting.  It seemed more like a propaganda display than anything else.

This is a copy of the video playing on a loop at the museum.  You'll notice the emphasis on the good treatment and privileges supposedly afforded to the POW's.  The pilots are said to be sorry for their "crimes" and to have realized the war in Vietnam was wrong.  Watch the video yourself and pay attention to the subtitles.  I thought the museum was interesting and worth the visit -- that doesn't mean all the displays are historically accurate.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ping An, China: Travel Review of Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

This was my favorite stop in China.  It was the rural China that I had imagined and longed for, and it did not disappoint.  If you will be stopping near Guilin, add Ping An to your travel itinerary.  And as I suggest in my video, stay more than a day to truly appreciate the peace and beauty the area has to offer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ping An, China: Travel Tips for Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

When you arrive in Ping An, the thing to do is simply walk around and take in the views of the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  For three days that's all we did.  I just couldn't get enough of my surroundings.  They were so beautiful and so unlike anything I had ever seen before.  This is one of those places you see on a travel show and think to yourself...I want to go there someday...and I kept pinching myself reflecting on how lucky I was to be there.

Not only can you walk around Ping An Village, you can take paths leading to other villages.  Some of those walks require stamina, but can be very rewarding.  In this video, I've included directions to find my favorite walk from Ping An Village.  This walk was peaceful, secluded and it won't leave you exhausted.  The path will also lead you to a neighboring village that isn't frequented by tourists. 

Aren't you lucky...to be traveling to Ping An!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ping An, China: Bus Directions to Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

We had trouble finding good, reliable directions online to Ping An from Guilin, China.  With a bit of help from our hostel and some good luck, we found the bus we needed.  So, we wanted to let everyone else know how to get to Ping An to see the breathtaking Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  Your first tip...the bus doesn't leave from the bus station, but the Guilin Train Station!  Watch my video to learn more.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Xian to Guilin, China: Train Trip in a Hardseat (Video)

I've never traveled like this before.  I'm used to air travel and occasionally a long car ride.  But, on this journey around Asia it's all about train travel -- it's cheap, convenient, and you can travel overnight.

I've tried out every class on the trains.  I've been a VIP in my own private cabin.  I've tried the soft sleeper, hard sleeper, bottom, middle, and top bunks.  I sleep well on the train, as the rocking lulls me to sleep.  I awake to a new city and a new adventure -- it's great!

But, what happens when all the sleeper cars are sold out?  You end up in a hard seat.  That's how we traveled from Xian to Guilin, the longest train journey of my life.  I was nervous about this journey.  It turned out better than I expected, which is not to say it was great.  It was an experience and as travelers share stories, this is our badge of honor.  We survived 28 hours on a train!

We survived the noise.  Chinese people are talkative, vivacious, and very loud.  I kept asking myself:  Why is everyone yelling?  The noise was never ending.  We survived the lack of personal space.  This isn't an issue for the Chinese.  They don't have that luxury in such a crowded country.  So, seated five across, knees touching, shoulder to shoulder we made our trip.  Some people had "standing room only" tickets.  They sat in the aisles, slept across the bathroom sinks, under chairs and clogged up the passage ways between train cars.  Just walking to the bathroom was like participating in an obstacle course.  We survived the stares.  As far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners on board.  Furtive glances are not the name of the game.  Some people flat out stared for what seemed like an eternity.  If I walked through one train car full of students, I was busy waving both hands as I was greeted with shouts of "hellos" and giggles.  We survived the bathrooms.  There is no toilet seat.  You squat and hope you don't fall over as the train sways.  Hold your nose, ignore what you're stepping in and don't forget to bring your own toilet paper.  Few bathrooms plus many people = stink. We survived the lack of sleep, boredom, achy backs and behinds and the swollen ankles.

It was no picnic, but it was worth it!  Our final destination was the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  The views were simply breathtaking and it was my favorite location in China.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Xian, China: Biking the City Walls (Video)

Most people come to Xian, China to see The Terracotta Warriors.  However, there's much more to do!  One of my favorite activities was biking the old city walls.  Xian is one of the few cities in China where the old city walls are still standing.  This is a fun, easy and cheap activity for the whole family.  Watch my video for additional tips!

Bike Rental Expenses:
Enter through the South or North Gates to rent a bicycle.  First, you must buy an admission ticket to get up onto the wall.  The cost is about $6 (40rmb).  Renting a bicycle is very cheap.  The cost is about $3 (20rmb) for 100 minutes.  You must also leave a deposit of about $30 (200 rmb).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Xian, China: How To Get To The Terracotta Warriors (Video)

It's considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.  That's why so many people flock to Xian, China to see The Terracotta Warriors.  There are countless tours to see the life-size clay army.  However, you can cut your expenses in half by doing this trip on your own.  Pack a lunch, catch the public bus (#306/ #5 -- it's the same bus, but goes by two numbers), and finally buy your tickets on site.  This is any easy DIY trip.  For complete directions on where to catch the bus to the Terracotta Warriors, watch my video.

One more tip:  If you're saving money by skipping a tour to the Terracotta Warriors, then do your research in advance.  Signage in the museum isn't very good and you want to know what you're looking at!  So read up on the Terracotta Warriors before your trip to make the experience more enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beijing, China: The Great Wall of China at Badaling (Video)

If you're visiting China, you must visit the Great Wall!  There are many sections of the wall and we chose to go to Badaling.  This is the most visited section because it's close to Beijing.  We chose to travel independently for two reasons.  First, it saves money.  Second, we heard complaints that tours spend too little time on the wall and we wanted to spend an entire day there.

If you watch my video, you'll hear we had trouble getting to the wall from Beijing.  The directions we had weren't great and we got lost on our way to find the bus.  So, hopefully you can avoid the same problems by following these directions.

Directions to Badaling from Beijing:

Take bus 919 to Badaling.  There is more than one 919 bus -- although all go to the Great Wall, you want the Express Bus, because it makes few stops.  The cost is 12 yuan per person and you pay for your ticket on the bus.  The ride is about 90 minutes.  The bus runs every 30 minutes starting as early as 7:30am.  You pick up the 919 Express bus from the old gate of Deshengman.

Now, I'll tell you how to get to Deshengman!  Take the Beijing Metro to the Jishuitan Stop.  Go out through Exit A.  Walk East toward Deshengman for about 10-15 minutes.  Here's a helpful hint as you start your walk:  If you're walking along side a river, you are going the WRONG way!  Instead, after exiting the subway station you will soon see a bus station on your left.  This is not your bus station, just a landmark to let you know you're heading the right direction.  Although you can't see Deshengman Gate when you begin your walk, it's easy to recognize.  It's a large stone tower belonging to an old city wall with buses parked all around it.  Cross the street and find the 919 Express bus ( green and white color) and then get in line to get on the bus.

You can return to Beijing on the same bus.  Again, you'll pay 12 yuan on the bus and the ride is about 90 minutes.  Okay, now hopefully you won't get lost!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Beijing, China: How to Use the Beijing Subway (Video)

I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how easy it is to use the Beijing Subway.  All signs are in both Chinese and English.  Even the announcements on the train are in English.  No matter where you are going or how many transfers you make, one trip on the subway costs only 2 yuan.

I noticed that most Chinese using the subway wait in long lines at a ticket counter to purchase their tickets.  There's no need to do this!  Skip the lines and use one of the automated machines.  My video shows you how to do this.  It's quick, efficient and in English.

You'll need a subway map, but that's easy too.  They're printed on the back of the free tourist maps you can pick up at any information booth.  So, get out your map and get going.  This is a great, cheap way to see Beijing.

One warning -- Beijing is crowded, so during rush hours expect to by packed into your subway car like a can of sardines.  It's okay -- it's all part of the China experience!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Beijing, China: Pictures With Strangers (Video)

Traveling through different Asian countries this year, there's always been a time or two when someone asks you to pose for a photograph.  Simply because I'm a foreigner, there's a fascination that is apparently satisfied with a photo.  Still, I wasn't prepared for the attention I would receive in China.  Visiting Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City in Beijing,  I was approached by many people wanting a photo.  Holding babies, shaking hands, and striking a pose I felt like a politician!  I was surprised by people's curiosity and affection.  This interaction with perfect strangers was a lot of fun, and something I'm always remember about China.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beijing, China: The Forbidden City (Video)

For almost 500 years The Forbidden City (also called the Palace Museum on some maps) served as the home of China's emperors and their households.  It was strictly off limits to most people and that's what makes visiting it now so intriguing.  We enjoyed our trip to the Forbidden City.  I would say it was both exciting and exhausting to walk the grounds.  Here's one of the tips you'll see on my video -- Bring your walking shoes because the palace covers about 180 acres. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beijing, China: Tiananmen Square (Video)

We started our tour of China at Tiananmen Square, a symbol of China that is both famous and infamous.  It's the largest public square in the world.  I've read the size of the square was to show the power of the Communist Party and maybe also of China.  It's a concrete behemoth with massive statues and buildings flanking it.  It's not beautiful, but it is impressive. 

Tiananmen Square is probably most known for the massacre in 1989 when the government forcefully put down a pro-democracy rally by bringing in troops and tanks and killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more.  It's still clear today that any insubordination will not be tolerated.  This may be a "public" square, but you are not free to do as you please.  A security check is required before entering the square.  There are strict opening and closing hours and guards keep you from actually getting close to any monuments.  In fact, there's a strong military and police presence here.  There are also undercover military officers amongst the crowd.  You know this, because some stand in plain clothes at attention with the military.  My guess is it's their way of letting you know, anyone could be a soldier.  During our time on the square we saw soldiers march in unison across the square for what reason, I can't say.

Military March in Tiananmen Square
We also saw a man run through the protective ropes surrounding a monument.  He didn't hurt or threaten anyone, but he was promptly tackled by police.  He fought back, but he was outnumbered and within minutes was shoved into a van and taken away.  As police quickly went to tourists to see their cameras and what pictures they had captured, we made a hasty exit.

Shortly After Being Tackled
Then, He Was Taken Away In a Police Van
Now, this isn't the only picture of Tiananmen Square.  It's was filled with thousands of happy tourists on our visit, most of them Chinese, clearly excited to visit their capital city.  They posed for pictures before Mao's portrait and proudly waved Chinese flags in their photos.  More than a dozen of them happily grabbed us to pose for photos together.  No translator was necessary.  I held children, shook hands, and posed for many photos.  I guess we were part of the atmosphere too.

Happy to Pose for Pictures With Fellow Tourists

Monday, July 4, 2011

Picture Of The Day - Day 1

As we travel through Asia I'll be sharing my favorite pictures.  Today, July 4th, was our first day in Beijing, China.  We're staying about a 15 minute walk from Tienanman Square - so of course we had to go take a look!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kulture Concierge

When I moved to Korea there was so much to figure out -- getting cellphones, opening a bank account, paying my electric bill, buying furniture, applying for a driver's license...the list goes on and on.  When you're in an unfamiliar place and you don't speak the language all of these small tasks can become mind-boggling and frustrating.

I was lucky though, because I had help from my amazingly efficient sister-in-law, Kimberly, who just happens to run her own business called "Kulture Concierge."  I can't say enough about how helpful this has been to me and my husband - it's literally made our life in Korea more enjoyable, because it reduced stress and frustration.  So, for a few bucks, maintain your sanity!

What can Kulture Concierge do?  Essentially, this company can help expats living in Korea with just about anything.  Here's a brief introduction to the company from its website:

"Kulture Concierge can be your personal assistant in this foreign culture.  We can help you purchase event tickets, create custom tours, make travel arrangements, help you find anything you need in your area such as a hair-stylist, auto mechanic, or doctor, arrange for moving assistance, set up utilities (electricity, gas, telephone, internet), get a cell phone, give you a personal neighborhood orientation, help you register a new car or get your drivers license, find hard to locate items, do your shopping, event planning, document translation, coordinate delivery service and on and on and on.  Whatever you need help with, we are here to make your life easier."  

Contact Kulture Concierge

Website:  www.kultureconcierge.com

Kulture Concierge's Blog

Telephone:  070-7893-4083

Friday, July 1, 2011

Busan, Korea is a Worthwhile Destination (Video)

My husband and I just spent 5 days in Busan, Korea and despite the days of rain that prevented us from lying on the beach (argh!), I really like this city.  It has a different flavor than Seoul.  It’s more approachable, the people a bit more friendly, and very easy to get around.  With unique neighborhoods and beaches Busan has a lot of personality.  Plus, if you like fresh seafood…this is the place to go.

So, I wanted to share two of my favorite spots.  If you’re planning a trip to Busan you can watch my videos for directions on how to get there.

Gwangalli Beach:  Sure, you can sun yourself on Gwangalli Beach’s soft sand or swim in the tranquil waters.  But, a great time to visit is after nightfall.  Gwangalli Beach is a true urban beach.  Just a few steps from the sand, you’re on a city street.  At night, these businesses, hotels and restaurants are aglow in neon colors.  Those colors reflect off the water.  That paired with the lit “Diamond Bridge,” really make for a nice atmosphere and great photo opportunity. 

Haedong Yonggungsa TempleWhat makes this temple so unique is the beauty of the natural setting.  The temple was constructed on huge rock cliffs overlooking the East Sea ocean waves.  It can be magical to hear the melody of the sutra chanting from the temple mixed with the sound of the ocean waves.  This Buddhist temple has dozens of statues and sculptures.  While I’ve visited many temples in Asia, this one stands apart and shouldn’t be missed.

More To Do:  Of course, there’s much more to see in Busan.  The Jagalchi Fish Market, Taejongdae Resort Park, and Yongdusan Park are just a few examples.  We enjoyed a great hike into the woods that afforded us great views of Busan.  You can also explore some new food dishes in Busan.  We tried Nakji (raw octopus) at the fish market.  The just sliced up octopus pieces are still squirming on your plate and the little suction cups will stick to your tongue.  My husband savored the wiggly pieces while I quickly chewed one up and consider it a badge of honor to have done so!

So great atmosphere, unique food, and beautiful beaches…on a sunny day make Busan a worthwhile stop on your Korean journey.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Our Last Day at April School

Lauren Teacher & Cameron Teacher's Last Day!

One of the hardest parts about leaving Korea has been leaving my students.  I’ve become attached to so many of them.  It’s impossible not too!

There’s a group of young girls about 8 years old who greeted me each day with hugs, kisses, handholding, and big smiles.  They practically attacked me in the halls, everyone pushing and pulling trying to get some attention.  They made me feel like a rock star!  They love to be loved and encouraged and they returned it tenfold.  I will miss them.

Part of the "group"

I'm officially being mobbed!

I’ll miss Jenny and Lucy – the most adorable twins I have ever seen.  Every day they dressed alike.  Little fashion plates, they belong on the cover of a magazine.  With big smiles plastered on their faces, every day the answer to the question, “How are you?” was “I’m happy.”  I will miss them.

Who couldn't love those faces?  (Jenny & Lucy)

I will miss Kai.  He’s a little boy with a big personality who frustrated me on a daily basis.  I couldn't help myself.  I saw how smart he is and how great he can do if he puts in the effort.  So, I pushed him and he pushed back… always with a smile and some mischief in his eyes.  I will miss him.

These children are special and there are way too many that have touched my heart to name here.  Teaching them has been a privilege.  I spent so much time with them and outside the classroom thinking about them, that it’s strange to be without them.  A week after leaving…I just feel it’s vacation.  It’s still not real.

When I told students I was leaving, I could see their faces fall with disappointment.  Many asked me “When are you coming back?”  They didn’t seem to understand why Cameron and I would leave.  I’m glad that we helped to make English school enjoyable.  More than that, I hope some of these children have felt encouraged and loved by us.  Oh yeah, and I hope they grow into being fluent English speakers! 

So, on our last day, Cameron and I ended a week of goodbyes.  We told all our students how to track us down and handed the reigns over to some new teachers.  Our amazing staff had a little surprise get together at the end of the day with some yummy goodies, gifts, and farewells.  I was a bit emotional.  I was able to work with such kind, caring, and hardworking people.  It’s not easy to adjust to new teachers year in and year out, but they do it gracefully.  Cameron and I are proud and grateful we were able to be part of the team at April School.

The April School Team -- They're Great!

The April Teachers...Jean, Marie & Ray (in the photo!)

So, here are A LOT more photos of just some of the faces we will miss!

Seed 2 with only 5 students, but energy for 12!

Ted and Andy work on a Thinking Project

Esther & Jelly Show Off Their Acing Posters

Jenny is Always Happy to See You!

Nadine Won "Best Sprout 1 Student" Last Term

I was Lucky to Have These Girls in Class!

Okay, now it's time to see some photos of Cameron Teacher and his students.  Cameron was loved for being silly, fun and creative.  It's true...he is very silly.

Students Would Line Up and Beg for This Trick!

Of Course the Boys Loved Cameron Teacher

Steve was a Favorite

Cameron's Seed 2 Girls

Henry & Justin Strike a Pose with Nancy

Cameron and I had a wonderful surprise on our last day.  A former student of ours who was truly wonderful came back to say goodbye.  Tiffany had found out from a staff member that we were leaving and surprised us on our last day.  Tiffany travels to Canada soon to practice her English.  She's a fantastic student and we know she'll do very well.

Cameron Teacher is Making us Laugh

Tiffany was in Cameron's Class 3 Times

Finally...just look at these faces!  Could you forget them?  I didn't think so.  Full of energy, creativity, love and sometimes mischief, there are so many faces we'll never forget.

Rich, Sapling 1

Yuna, Seed 1

Carrie, Sprout 2

Monday, June 20, 2011

Our Walk to School: April School in Yatap, Korea

I'm certain this was the best commute I've ever had.  Door to door it was a 15 minute walk to April School.  It was so pleasant and relaxing.  So, on my final walk to April School, we made a photo journey of our walk.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Saying Goodbye to My Students

Sapling 1 student, Dorothy

Cameron and I started saying goodbye to our students today.  I get so attached to people -- it's hard to know I won't see them again next week.  But, they know how to find us should they ever come to visit America!  If not, we took some great pictures together today.  I will miss them...

My wonderful Sapling 1 Class

Esther and Jelly Prepared Posters for Acting Day!

My great Seed 2 class

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Teaching in Korea: Pros and Cons

Teaching in Korea can be a wonderful experience – it certainly was for me and my husband.  Of course a lot depends on where you’re teaching – your school and your neighborhood.  English education is very much in demand in Korea and that means small private schools (Korean term is hogwans) are constantly popping up.  Some are reputable and others are not.  If you’re considering a move, do your research first and speak with other teachers at the school for references.  A bad school could mean late salary payments, no severance pay, poor health insurance and poor accommodations along with a bad working environment.  So, there you have it – you’ve been warned!

Now, let’s assume you’ve ended up at a good, professionally run school like I did.  It could be a hagwon, international school or university.  Any way you slice it, there are pros and cons.


The Students:  I taught younger students (ages 6-11) and I loved them.  They are affectionate, boisterous, smart, hardworking and full of personality.  Some are frustrating and misbehave – after all, they’re children!  However, the importance of English education is ingrained in the culture here.  Parents are strict.  So, I would say children generally do their assignments and homework.  It’s not just gratifying to teach these children, but it’s wonderful to have relationships with them and be a source of encouragement in their lives.

Teaching Experience:  The demand here is for native English speakers.  While a college education is required, a degree in education is not.  However, for those wanting to try out teaching as a profession or gain more experience, this is a great opportunity.  You don’t just learn how to teach English, you learn student management and teaching techniques.  I felt very comfortable in the classroom and learned the joys and stresses of teaching in a real environment.

The Schedule:  The typical teaching schedule is less grueling compared to a typical American workweek of 40+ hours.  Of course, each school is different.  At a private school, I had two weeks of set vacation plus some holidays off.  At a university, you’re looking at close to four months paid vacation.  Either way, your work days are about 7 hours or less.  Hours differ depending on the schools.  I worked afternoons and evenings and that was just fine, because my husband and I were on the same schedule.

The Experience:  This is the opportunity that teaching in Korea affords you.  It’s the opportunity to experience living and working in another country.  You get to tour Korea!  You can meet interesting people.  You’re on the other side of the world – so go and visit China; it’s only an hour flight!  Little things like eating out and applying for your driver’s license become an adventure.

Money:  I don’t think any of the teachers here are going to brag about their salaries.  It’s not a lot of money.  However, with free housing provided and low expenses in Korea, you just may end up with a nice savings.  Some come here to pay off debt and others use their savings to travel. 


Cultural Differences:  I wanted to experience the Korean culture – there’s so much to appreciate.  However, cultural differences in the workplace can be frustrating.  Last minute decisions are a big sticking point with Westerners.  This will affect your schedule, working hours, vacation time, and work responsibilities.  Planning ahead is not a priority.  Here’s one more example:  It’s important for Koreans to “save face.”  That means criticism or workplace problems are not always dealt with head on.  It can lead to confusion on the part of Westerners – the feeling is that issues are not dealt with honestly.  Even when you understand the culture, it can be frustrating at times.  However, you must remember that you are in Korea working with Koreans – it is up to you to adjust and not the other way around. 

Changes, Even With a Contract:  Your expectations and your school’s expectations may not be the same.  You have a contract and you think you understand that contract, but there are likely exceptions and misunderstandings that go against your expectations.  For example, when examining your required hours, realize there’s a difference between “working hours” and “teaching hours.”  You may be paid for only teaching hours, although your working hours are longer.

Now Some Advice...

A word of advice to prospective teachers:  This is not a free ride.  If you decide to teach in Korea, you should behave as a professional.  Too many teachers act immaturely and irresponsibly.  Not only are you impacting your school, you’re a poor ambassador for other Westerners and teachers.

I can wholeheartedly recommend teaching in Korea.  I enjoyed my job, the country and the people.  I enjoyed the travel around Asia.  My stay was short term – just a year, but there are many others who make a life for themselves in Korea.  They’re romanced by good jobs and a good lifestyle.  You may be too!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Goodbye Korea...Our Next Adventure Awaits

Our time in Korea is just about up.  We have 6 more days of teaching, 8 full days left in our apartment in our lovely little neighborhood.  So essentially there’s a week left of life as we’ve known it for the past year.

Change, even when you’ve chosen it, is always a little bit difficult.  We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our lifestyle and experiences while living in Korea.  There are no complaints.  However, it’s still time to go home to be with family and start the next chapter of our lives. 

However, before we do that, there’s still one more thing to check off our list – our “Big Trip.”  At least, that’s what we’ve dubbed it!  After a week touring Southern Korea and a few days spent with family here, it will begin.  Our tour of China and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, & Malaysia) begins on July 4th.

This is going to be a whole new experience.  We’ve never traveled like this before – for months, with one big backpack each (packing light…preparing to do laundry), and with only loose plans to guide us.  We’ve never had the luxury of time to do something like this, and it’s exciting. 

The biggest itch I’ve ever had was to see the world – to travel anywhere and everywhere.  I want to see it all, try new things (except bizarre foods), meet different people, lie on different beaches, learn about other cultures, and see unique landscapes.  I’m so excited to see things I’ve only read about in books. 

And after it’s all said and done – I’m certain I’ll be overwhelmed and exhausted and so excited to return home.  We just booked our ticket…and already it seems too far away.  I’m just lucky, there’s so much to look forward too!  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Thinking Projects (Videos)

My students wrote this script for their "robot infomercial."  Then they memorized it and performed it together.  We have a small stage with a blue screen and fixed video camera in the classroom.  CPS Robot can clean, do your homework and even print money!

This is a class of only 6 students -- they are some of my youngest.  Together we wrote a play based on a book we read in class called "The Great Car Cleanout."  The students then made props, memorized their lines and performed together.

I saved the best for last!  You'll notice the difference in video quality right away.  That's because my video editing guru (my husband) shot and edited this video with two of my students.  They had a lot of fun putting this together.  This project was for a video contest among school's across Korea, and student votes have landed our "DAK 9000" video in 4th place.  Now, the judges weigh in...we'll let you know what happens when a winner is announced in late May.