Danshui River Walk

Taipei City is a huge metropolitan of more than 2.6 million people. There always seems to be hustle and bustle. And heat. On the weekends, many city dwellers like to go a little outside of town to get away from it all, cool off  from the ocean breeze, eat some snacks, and play a few games. Recently I had a chance to visit Danshui, where the Tamsui River meets the Pacific Ocean. It was a perfect respite from constantly being in the city center. travel in Taiwan

Taiwan Danshui mountains

The mountains were beautiful!

Snacks in Danshui Taiwan

Yum?

Yum?

Danshui Taiwan

Is this not the tallest ice cream you’ve ever seen?!

Taiwan Beach

Playing games

Playing games

Temple in Taipei Taiwan

There were even a few temples there

 

Danshui Danshui Taiwan

Man's Silhouette in Taiwan

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That One Time I Saw North Korea…

While I was disappointed to leave Japan, I knew I had the excitement of visiting yet another new-to-me country: South Korea. My flight from Tokyo to Seoul was only about 2.5 hours, and since my last flight was 12 hours, that flight was a breeze! My flight didn’t arrive in Seoul until 9 pm, so after my contact, Sang, picked me up from the airport and took me to where I was staying, I called it an early night.

The next day, Sang picked me up to do a little sight-seeing. After going to a park by the river, Sang said, “Hey, do you want to see North Korea? The DMZ is only about 45 minutes from here.” I wasn’t expecting that, but I absolutely wanted to!

In the US, the Korean War is sometimes called “The Forgotten War” because this war’s issues were deemed as a little more unclear than previous wars and people today tend to forget about this war. In South Korea, it’s known as “625”, which refers to the date the war started (June 25th). In North Korea, they call it the “Fatherland Liberation War”, and in China (because China aided North Korea in this war), it’s known as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”. Wow! Everyone has some different viewpoints on this conflict.

The war, which took place between 1950 and 1953, erupted because at the end of World War II, Korea ceased to be a Japanese colony after Japan’s defeat. Who would help this newly freed nation? The Soviets would assist in the north, while American troops would help in the south. The Soviets ended up bringing communism to the North, and the situation turned into the first military act of the Cold War. Harry Truman, US president at the time, said that the US had to intervene because if not “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.” Nearly 5 million people died during these 3 years, and, as you know, North Korea is still communist.

Now the DMZ, the demilitarized zone,  exists. It’s a 150 mile area that serves as a large border between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world with soldiers on the edges of it always standing guard, barbed-wire fences everywhere, and the knowledge that anyone that tries to cross illegally will be shot on site with no questions asked. The part of the DMZ that I went to was just right at the edge of it-still on the South Korean side.

People on the South Korean side decorate the fences with ribbons that have wishes written on them-wishes to be reunited with their loved ones. Can you imagine if someone suddenly cut your country in half and you were never allowed to see or hear from your friends and loved ones on the other side? North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave their country. They can’t make a phone call to family. They aren’t permitted to even use the internet. They are completely isolated. Sang translated some of the messages on the ribbons for me, and they made me so sad. One of the most touching was one that simply said, “Grandma. Grandpa. I miss you.” There was also a birthday card that said something like this, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again or if you’re even still alive, but happy birthday.” That’s when I just started crying. I just can’t even fathom how hard that must be on the Korean people on both sides.

DMZ

North Korean Border

North Korean Border

North Korean Border

North Korea

There is also an official border crossing that is really only for South Koreans to cross. South Korea built a great deal of factories that give 100’s of 1,000’s of North Koreans jobs and many South Koreans cross that border daily to work there as well. I was allowed to take pictures from the car, but I wasn’t allowed to get out of the car.

North Korea

Going to the DMZ was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew a few things about the Korean conflict, but this made it real to me. It is a sad situation that I hope can be fixed sooner rather than later.

When we were leaving, I asked Sang, “Do you have any family in North Korea?”

He said, “I do. But I try not to think about them. I don’t know if they’re living or dead. I can’t think about it, or I’d be sad every day of my life. I must put it out of my mind.”

Foxy Lady

Today I met with my small classes, and we had our field trip to two different places. First, we went to the Imperial Palace. To get there, we took the subway to the main Tokyo station. It has really beautiful architecture and has some signs around it explaining the history of it. One sign was talking about how the station was 100 years old but had to be restored after a fire. I went on to read aloud to my students that the fire had been caused by a bomb that America had dropped on it. Ohhhh…….That was actually a really awkward moment. I mean, I know I had nothing to do with it, and I know that they weren’t alive when it happened, but it is strange to have lingering. I never really thought about that aspect before coming to Japan. Our countries have done some terrible things to each other in the past. However, I think while the older generation may hang on to some past afflictions like that, we, in the younger generation, don’t.

As we continued walking to the palace, I asked my students the name of the emperor. In Japan, the emperor has no real power and is more of a figure-head. The prime minister is the one that makes all the political decisions for the country, like in England I guess. Well, when I asked the name of the emperor, they all looked at each other with confusion. “We just call him emperor. We don’t know his name.” I couldn’t believe it! “You don’t know the name of the emperor of Japan?” I asked amazed. Well, the question was answered quickly with a little help from an iphone- Akihito. After doing a little reasearch myself, I discovered that the emperor is never referred to by name; he is only referred to as “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor” or Tennō Heika. So, I guess they had a good reason for not knowing!

The imperial palace is mostly just old castle walls and gardens. You can’t actually go into the “palace”, and we never saw the actual building in which the emperor lives. Lame! I did see my first bonsai trees though. They were the pine trees surrounding the moat. I was told by my students that doing bonsai trees is an old person hobby. Haha.

students at the Imperial PalaceImperial Palace, Japan

On my way back to my hotel, I stopped by a shrine that I have passed by everyday and have been curious about. The fox shrine. There were 100’s of fox statues at this shrine. Foxes are important in the Shinto religion in Japan. Inari, the protector of the rice harvest, is guarded by foxes. Foxes, or kitsune,  are thought to have supernatural powers, such as being able to morph into a human and also hearing and seeing all human secrets. It was definitely different than any shrine I have ever been to, and I have been to 100’s of them!

Japan

Tokyo, Japan Shinto Shrine

Japan

Shinto Shrine Japan

Apparently 16 Year Old Japanese Boys Love Me

Today I had my first experience with a Japanese school. I went to Teisei Gakuen Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo. When I first arrived, we were ushered to a room to wait for the principal. He arrived with a few other teachers, and after a lot of bowing and a great deal of business card exchanging, we were on our way for a tour of the school. We walked the halls and they opened the classroom doors for me to peak in the rooms. I caused quite the distraction, I discovered, as students waved at me and one student stood up while the teacher was teaching so he could get a better look at me and then got smacked on the head with a stack of papers! Haha.

Next, we went to the lecture hall where I would speak. 80 students attended my class along with about 10 teachers (no pressure at all). I had no idea what level of English these students would have. Well, does it tell you anything that the English teacher at the school had to translate everything I said sentence by sentence? It’s so hard to do an interactive English lesson when no one can understand you! We made it through though and even had time to do a few tongue twisters. (Why did I choose one with an r-l combination?! Whoops!)  There was someone there to take pictures during my lesson, so I felt a bit  like I was at a press conference or that the paparazzi was stalking me.

After I was finished, we had a short question and answer period. Several students simply asked, “How can I improve my English?” Yes, I have a master’s degree in teaching ESL, but how in the world can I answer that question in a one minute answer?! There were also some general questions about how many siblings I have, what was my favorite subject in school, etc. Then it was asked if I had a boyfriend. Then the following conversation took place between me and a brave and bold 16 year old student:

Boy- “What is your ideal man?”

Me- “Someone who is kind and funny.”

Boy- “Um, is height a factor for you?”

I almost died!

When I finished the lesson (and also before I started), the entire group stood up, said something in unison and bowed to me. How interesting! And also, they presented me with a gift to thank me for my lesson. They were all too sweet! I got to spend a little time with some of them afterwards chatting and taking a few pictures.

After leaving the school, we went to eat with one of the teachers. He’s the one that gave us the tour of the school. I like that I never know the plan and never know what’s going on, because it’s all said in Japanese. We were just walking (to what I assumed was the subway station) when all of a sudden we are in a restaurant. I’m just like a little duck following her mommy sometimes while I’m here. I guess the teacher had asked Mr. M ahead of time what food I like, because all the dishes had been pre-ordered and arrived as soon as we sat down. There were probably 7 courses, and at the end, the head chef brought us out ice cream and shook my hand. It was SUCH a good meal!

So I had a pretty good day over here in Nihon. (That’s Japan in Japanese in case you didn’t know!) Tomorrow I’ll teach my 2 conversation classes again. In one class, we will be traveling to the Imperial Palace!

Japanese High School Students

ESLTeaching in JapanESL Teaching in Japan

Reunited And It Feels So Good

Today I was able to meet up with some Japanese people who I went to college with. I hadn’t seen them from anywhere from 2-6 years! We had such an amazing day! (And I got to take some pretty great pictures!)

Reunion with Friends

We met for lunch at a kaiten sushi restaurant. This is where everyone sits at a bar that’s in a circle and sushi goes by on a conveyor belt. A sushi train if you will. You just grab what you want, and they add up your total at the end by the color of plates you used. It was a very Japanese experience for me. My friend Haru even made me order some special items that weren’t on the conveyor IN JAPANESE! He just told me what to say and a few seconds later I got the sushi chef’s attention and repeated it. Haha. Speaking of my Japanese skills, I know about 6 words now- hello, goodbye, excuse me, chopsticks, noodles, and thank you. I could get by for about 2 years on those words!

Sushi in Japan

Sushi

Then we went to Tokyo Bay, which is the gateway to the Tokyo Sea. This bay is an active, busy port. We walked across the Rainbow Bridge (think Golden Gate bridge), then went to a shopping area and rode a ferris wheel and had some ice cream.

After that, we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant, where our friend Tao is working. I hadn’t seen him for 6 years! We had a fun time reminiscing. The chef, who is from Italy, even came out to greet us, ask us how our food was, and gave us free dessert and coffee!

To close out the day, we stopped in the downtown Shinjuku area to see the night lights. It was SO crowded there and also on the subway in that area. That’s the place to be I guess!

Tokyo at night

Japanese Lantern

This was my only day off while in Japan, so I made full use of it and was gone for about about 12 straight hours. My feet hurt! But it’s worth it. :]

Japanese Approximations

*Disclaimer: The following statistics are approximations.

Number of times I have bowed since being in Japan: 500

Number of crows  seen/heard: 1,000

Number of pet foxes seen: 1

Number of times I have eaten tofu: 3

Number of times I have ordered sushi in Japanese: 1

Number of old friends I have seen: 4

Number of people I have seen in anime costumes: 5

Number of Japanese pop concerts I have stumbled upon: 1

Number of  ferris wheels ridden: 1

Number of mosquito bites: 4

Number of free desserts from Italian chefs: 1

Number of cigarette vending machines seen: 10

Number of times I have spoken in front of a church: 1

Number of times I have ridden the subway: 5 trillion

Number of buildings I have been in above the 45th floor: 2

Number of Japanese weddings witnessed: 1

Number of toilets that have starting playing music when I entered the stall: 1

Number of days I have been in Japan: 3

Can you believe I have witnessed this much and more in only 3 full days in Japan? We’ll see what else is in store for me! Which of these things do you want to hear the full story about? Let me know, and I’ll tell you!

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have more time to write about the great day I had today!

Eyebrow Blessing?

   Travel writing attempt number 2….this time in Cambodia! Enjoy!

      I learned a great lesson while in Cambodia-you just never know when your eyebrows need a good blessing or two.

     Danny and I arrived in Phonm Phen, Cambodia and decided we wanted to roam around and explore the city. We stumbled on this place that looked like a temple, so we started wandering around. We saw some statues and some small buildings, but we didn’t really know what anything was.

     Then we noticed an ancient gentleman who looked like he was guarding a door. We thought that he might be able to tell us a thing or two, but, as it turns out, this guy didn’t speak a lick of English. He motioned us through the door into a shadowy room with an altar at the front decorated with flowers, tiny bowls of liquid, incense, and other small relics. He told us in Khmer to sit down (I think?) as he gestured towards the floor and took a seat beside us on the stone ground. He began sweeping his arms in front of the altar in apparent attempt to make his explanation of this room understandable as he babbled away in a language that was completely incomprehensible to both me and Danny. We just nodded and giggled under our breath.

     The next thing we know, our guy turns into a priest! He picks up some incense sticks and dips them in the water and starts muttering some incantations. Danny and I look at each other in confusion. The man starts tapping the incense on our hands and then directs us to touch our hands to our foreheads. We do as we’re told. He begins muttering again, “dadadadadadadada eyebrow dadadadadadadada”. Really? Did he just say eyebrow? The one word I can catch out of all of that is eyebrow? He runs his finger across his eyebrow. Yep. That’s what he said. “Dadaddada eyebrow dadadadada” he chants again. He slaps our hands with the sticks yet again then nudges us to touch the water to our eyebrows. Are eyebrows sacred and revered in Cambodia and someone forgot to tell me? Is this the Eyebrow Temple, and we didn’t see the sign on the way in? I decide that my eyebrows must be being blessed by Buddha at this very moment!

     Soon, the ceremony ends as our makeshift blesser stands up and we leave the dark room and go back out into the sunshine with confused looks on our faces. Am I supposed to pay this guy? Leave him a tip? I walk away with no idea of what just happened, but I leave with my eyebrows feeling especially lush and gorgeous. 

Just Nod and Smile

Well, I have been trying my hand at some travel writing. I have had so many funny and unique experiences while traveling, I feel like I need to share them. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy reliving the experience. Get ready to read about my adventure in crossing the Vietnamese border!

      I have found that my best response in life is a nod and a smile. This is especially useful when dealing with gun-toting, communist boarding crossing guards. After a very long and interesting 24 hour train ride from Hangzhou, China to Nanning, China, I was finally ready to make my way across the border from one communist country to another. We had to get off the bus and walk through customs and exit China, then walk across the Vietnamese border and do customs on that side.

      So, here I go walking through with my 30 pound traveler’s backpack on my back and my friend Danny by my side. Even though I haven’t done anything criminal or wrong, I always feel a little edgy going across borders. Are they going to deny me entry? Have I unknowingly let my passport expire, and they’re going to send me on the next slow boat back to America? After being pushed and pushing back to get to the front of the mass of people that should, in an American’s eyes, be a nice, neat line, I finally make it to the window.  

     As Danny finishes up at the window, he stands off to the side, as I start my smile and nod routine. There are two Vietnamese officers behind the grimy, plexi-glass window. They both look like they are growing weary of seeing 20-something year old foreign backpackers trying to enter their country. I hand one angry-looking man my passport. He flips it open, looks at it, looks at me, looks at it, looks at me. He’s grumbling to the man beside him as he slams a rubber stamp down on my Vietnamese visa. Then he looks at my entry paper. The second man starts talking rapidly to the man holding my precious passport. If only these two gentlemen spoke English and didn’t frighten me slightly, I might have had the courage to ask if there was a problem. Finally, after much deliberation in a language that I couldn’t even pick a single word out of, the man with my passport looks at me from under his little, blue hat and says in English, “Is dat man your husband?” while pointing to Danny who was already safely through the line.

     My mind begins racing. I am thinking they have discovered that Danny has smuggled some illegal substance into the country; maybe he is even hiding a small child somewhere in his backpack, and he forgot to mention it to me. I’m already picturing us being escorted to a back room filled with rats the size of my head. I quickly spout out an, “Um, no?” hoping that is indeed the right answer.

     “Oh good!” he says as he slaps the other man on the shoulder enough times to constitute as the himlec maneuver. “Because he thinks you are soooooo beautiful and is very happy dat you are not da wife of that man!” he says while crying with laughter. I glance in the direction of my admirer who is red in the face and is swatting at the hand on his shoulder. I figure that that information was supposed to be a secret between comrades. I take my passport back and tuck it back into my bag as I nod, smile, and walk away. 

Me with my travelin' gear