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“I’ll take my hot chocolate without the sacrificial blood, thanks.” The Conclusion of the Guatemala trip.

Continued from Five Nights in Antigua, Guatemala and What to Do in Antigua, Guatemala.

After an afternoon of exploring ruins, we got ready for the wedding which was held at the Porta Hotel in Antigua. Lili faced a major challenge in that she wanted a Catholic ceremony, but it was not being held in a church. Locating a priest that would perform it proved to be a challenge. Everything else was already in place and she had purchased a dress more than a year before, but she explained to me that in Guatemala it is considered strange to wear the wedding gown if you have a civil ceremony, rather than religious. Fortunately an old family friend turned priest was able to perform the ceremony.

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The next morning we miraculously rose early considering each table came equipped with bottles of rum and whisky. Semana Santa, or Holy Week, was approaching and we had learned that in the weeks leading up to it — Lent — there were processions on Sundays.

I had experienced Semana Santa in Spain several years ago. The processions were interesting, but after a solid week of trying to navigate around them to get anywhere in Sevilla (I was taking language courses for a couple months) it was wearing thin. I know I shouldn’t complain about getting first hand experience with an incredible cultural experience, but I need clear access to Zara and Promod at all times. Don’t you judge me! I was also late to class.

Our experience in Guatemala worked out perfectly. The insanity and deluge of Guatemalans and tourists from all over had not yet arrived in Antigua, but we still got to see the Catholic celebration. In fact, we got to see something even better — the preparations. The streets are prepared with beautiful alfombras, or carpets, of sawdust, flowers and pine straw before the processions arrive with the heavy floats carried on the shoulders of the men, or cucuruchos, who have been selected for this honor. Women in the procession are called Las Dolorosas.

From the cutting of flowers to the watering of pine straw to the use of power tools  and stencils to lay colorful sawdust, it was incredible to see hours of work, faith and dedication put into making something beautiful that would be trampled out of existence when the procession passed by.

If you’ve been bypassing my other photo galleries, please look through this one. Photos don’t do it justice, but it was really incredible.

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Chris and I had lunch at La Antigua Vineria. The pizza was delish and  authentic. To add to the ambience was a man — owner maybe? — watching an Italian news channel. Chris wasn’t able to enjoy it so much as his stomach was a little off.

IMG_4467We returned to the hotel so he could rest while I drank coffee and read. We ate dinner at the hotel again that night — this time with reservations so we were able to be seated outside.

Chris still wasn’t feeling great so he struggled to enjoy his risotto.

But we did have a lovely view of the small lap pool.

Asian pork ribs with soy sauce, ginger, star anise and sweet potato.
Asian pork ribs with soy sauce, ginger, star anise and sweet potato.

I wondered whether anyone ever really swam in it. Though pretty, it was literally a lap pool. Tables sat alongside it and a sign requested that guests refrain from swimming during restaurant hours.  For my amusement, I considered swimming laps like an Olympic swimmer as it would inevitably lead to diners being splashed.

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IMG_4475Chris’s stomach issues did not improve during the night. Just the opposite. I was on my own the next day for the chocolate tour at Choco Museo. I participated in the chocolate making workshop which takes you through the history of chocolate in Guatemala and the chocolate making process.

The first thing we made was chocolate tea from the shells of the cacao beans. Then we made spicy and bitter hot chocolate as the Mayans would have — sort of. They would actually put blood in it. I was taking the class with another couple and when the teacher asked the husband to prick his finger, she was so deadpan, I actually had a moment of panic in which I actually questioned the possibility that I wasn’t going to get any hot chocolate because some dude from Massachusetts was going to have to donate DNA. My chocolate lust has often been known to cloud my judgment and  sense of reality. Instead we just used chili powder. We also stirred as the Mayans would have, pouring from jug to jug. One more thing I lack the coordination for as you can see from the progression of these photos.

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IMG_4510Next we made hot chocolate as the Europeans adapted it — meaning sweeter. And we ended by making our own chocolates to take home. While my chocolates cooled and hardened in the fridge, I walked back to the hotel to check on Chris. He wasn’t much IMG_4511interested in getting out of bed, so I got some coffee and read a book on the patio until it was time to wander back into town and collect my chocolates. I did some last-day gift shopping as well, including a colorful hand-made wooden mixer truck for Connor.

I made one last sweep through the markets before grabbing some lunch at a Korean joint. Yes, I ate Korean while in Guatemala. What can I say? I didn’t plan it — it just popped up in front of me.

Who can say no to bibimbap?
Who can say no to bibimbap?

As we left Antigua the next morning we saw our first clear shot of the volcano hovering above the town. It had been surrounded by clouds until that point, but the sun finally burned through. And then it was gone out of sight, our quest to get a picture unfulfilled.

We arrived at the airport only for me to become enraged that I was unable to take my big bag of tamales, chuchitos and salsa with me. In ‘Murica our signs just say no guns or explosives.

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I burned through the last of our quetzales shoveling airport-hocked handicrafts into my bag.

Our final Guatemalan adventure was at takeoff. Just as the plane was nearly completely boarded, it was announced we had to get off as the airport had closed. This immediately triggered my anxiety. Airports don’t just close. Clearly there was a security issue and of course I was thinking of terrorism. Everyone began to file off and the flight attendants — who look nothing like the dolls Delta hocks —

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were clearly unsure how to proceed. They began checking boarding passes, then taking them, then returning them and checking them again. We were alerted that the airport had closed due to a security issue on the other side. Someone somewhere made the call that our flight could go, but it had to be ASAP or we would be stuck. So everyone filed back on and we were cleared for takeoff. This is the kind of stuff that rattles me and it happened to be the same day as the Germanwings crash. Had I known about that at the time, I told Chris he’d probably still be clutching his stomach in Central America.

But the flight back to Atlanta was uneventful.

“Why does coming home make you so cranky?” Chris asked me as my mood had soured quickly upon landing.

The travel beast has been reawakened.

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What to do in Antigua, Guatemala

Continued from Five Nights in Antigua, Guatemala

Chris and I woke the next morning, still slightly rattled from the robbery, but still excited for the day’s activities. After I massaged the bruise developing on my butt from landing in the street, we headed to the dining room for a Guatemalan breakfast, which was included with our room.

My favorite thing, besides the coffee of course, was the chuchito — corn dough, meat and tomato salsa wrapped in a corn husk.

IMG_4522IMG_4523Then we headed over to the other hotel to meet Gaby and David, friends from back home that I met through Lili. We were booked for the coffee tour and zip lining through Finca Filadelfia. An adapted unimog truck picked everyone up at 10 and we rattled over the cobblestone streets of Antigua, frequently seeming like we would scrape other cars, but somehow squeezing through.

The zip line was first. This was my third time zip lining (previously in Costa Rica and North Georgia), but the first time I didn’t have to do my own braking as I approached the platform, which made it easier to focus on the views.

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IMG_4237We grabbed some lunch on the property afterward while waiting for the coffee tour to start. I was quite surprised by the coffee tour. I love coffee, but I can’t say I expected the tour to be as interesting as it was. I’ve been on a few winery tours to learn about my other beloved beverage, but tend to lose interest after gazing at a couple of oak barrels — take me to the tasting! But coffee was actually much more interesting to me. The guide took us out on the property and we saw the process from start to finish. I was surprised to learn that while most countries can just grow the Arabica coffee plant, Guatemalan soil isn’t well suited. They graft the more resilient roots of a bitter robusta coffee plant to the tastier Arabica tops.

We wandered through the plants and were allowed to pick some IMG_4241coffee beans right off the branches. There is a method to doing this without messing up the bean. Yes, I messed all mine up. We eventually worked our way through the drying, roasting and packaging, including the opportunity to wear hairnets. I suggested Chris wear two as a safety precaution.

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Naturally this all ended with the sampling of an incredible cup of coffee. I took a couple of smooth enjoyable sips, but couldn’t resist dropping some sugar in when nobody was looking. I change for no one.

Thousands and thousand of coffee beans drying in the sun — such beauty.

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I snapped a couple photos of some local girls collecting and shelling beans.

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We returned to town as the wedding rehearsal finished, grabbing a drink in the hotel lobby. Did I manage to talk Chris into dinner out? That would be a hell no. But we did have a fabulous meal at our hotel where I dined on the penne pesto picante with shrimp kebab.IMG_4253

The next day was the wedding, so we spent the afternoon exploring the many ruins in Antigua. An earthquake devastated the city in 1773, ending its reign as capital. Some of the must-see sites include Casa Santa Domingo, the cathedral of San Jose, Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas and catedral de Santiago. This list is a pretty good compilation of things to see.

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My next post will cover the rest of the trip, but for now I leave you with this image taken at Iglesia de San Francisco. It really made me appreciate modern day access to the epidural.

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Five nights in Antigua, Guatemala

It was more than a year ago that Chris and I were having lunch at Mac McGee’s in Historic Roswell and the topic of Lili and George came up. Lili is a good friend that moved to Barcelona back in 2008, and in 2011, Chris and I had met her and her Dutch boyfriend George in Florence, Italy for two-weeks of stuffing our faces with the best food on Earth. We wondered if there might be an engagement any time soon. Twenty minutes later on the drive home, I received a text that George popped the question while they were visiting her family in Guatemala.

Since Lili is originally from Guatemala City, I finally got to dust off my passport which has sat lonely and unused in the fireproof safe since Connor was born.

IMG_4180We flew Delta direct from Atlanta to Guatemala City, meeting up with Angel, another old friend who was connecting from Florida. Chris and I shared our row with a Guatemalan that hadn’t been home for 10 years. A casual business or pleasure question revealed that his daughter had paid for his trip because he had been battling depression over a job loss. He was surprising his family who had no idea he was coming, as well as an online girlfriend he’d never met. I really hope that went well — especially the girlfriend part. He was texting before we hit the ground and she told him she had a “weird feeling.” “Premonition?” I joked. I hope that turned into a positive feeling whenever he dropped it on her that he was about to show up. Very nice guy…just not the conversation you expect when being polite. Angel, on the other hand, had a whole row to herself and sprawled out unconscious.

Lili had booked us transportation to Antigua, so the car met us outside baggage claim to make the roughly 45-minute trip.

I booked five nights at Panza Verde Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, just around the corner from the hotel where Lili was staying and having her wedding. I was enamored by the pictures on their website and I wasn’t disappointed. Especially when they put a fresh, fruity welcome drink in my hand. I was very pleased with our stay. One particular woman that worked the desk was especially attentive to our questions and booking our reservations. Our only somewhat negative experience was when we decided to eat dinner at our hotel last minute. We knew we didn’t have reservations, but as all the outdoor seating was available, and it was early by latin standards, we hoped we’d be able to be seated. A man was working the desk and his manner left something to be desired. Since we did not have reservations, we could only eat inside. We accepted that expecting the tables must be set to fill soon. But when we finished our meal, they still sat empty and didn’t fill until later in the evening. His manner left me with a bad taste and the feeling that he was teaching us a lesson for not planning ahead. Granted, I will say I have never worked in a restaurant and there may be insider info I don’t know to the logistics of running one, but it rubbed me the wrong way.  But aside from him, I recommend a stay there.

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Chris and I set out to explore. The first day was pretty casual…just walking the streets until we ran into Lili.

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On recommendation from Lili’s brother, we stopped for a bite at Restaurante Mono Loco. We ordered nachos — to share, thankfully — since the plate was as big as my head x 3. I also developed an affinity for Gallo Guatemalan beer, which is available in the States as Famosa.

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We then returned to the hotel to sprawl out and rest before meeting the group for drinks at Lili’s hotel.

At this point, I should probably backtrack a little. Traveling to places like Guatemala, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. is my style. I love Europe and I have done a lot of traveling there, but it is definitely more in Chris’ comfort zone. Had it not been for the wedding, I’m not sure I could have sold Chris on the idea.

His primary concern was safety. Stuff happens everywhere, but he definitely was a little more concerned on this trip.  Me, not so much. Safety should always be of concern, but I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that I’ve never had anything stolen, and petty crime warnings for travelers persist anywhere you go. Unless there is a major concern for bodily harm, I accept it as the way things are.

The guidebook had warned about being out after dark. When the group decided to go get dinner after drinks, Chris was hesitant. We were still full from the nachos, but I wanted to go for at least one drink, then we could head back since we were tired anyway (suffering from toddler-lag if you will).

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As we headed back, passing through the square I even said to Chris, “See, it’s fine.”

Within 10 minutes, years of traveling luck ran out. I had switched from my usual duffel bag (as Chris calls my purses) to a small purse worn across my body. Everywhere I looked, people were carrying large bags. I even saw tourists toting around designer labels, which I wouldn’t do anywhere but home. Well, I mean, if I had any designer labels. We were cautious of other pedestrians, but as we reached a corner, I stepped to the edge to prepare to cross. Suddenly there was a car right in front of me, perhaps an inch from my body. There was this immense pressure pulling me that I couldn’t process. It wasn’t until I was l lying in the street that I realized the passenger had grabbed my purse at chest level and pulled until it broke, dragging me with them. Fortunately it snapped before I got dragged under the car or otherwise seriously hurt. As the proper smart phone addict that I am, I immediately patted my pocket and began stammering about how “at least they didn’t get my phone!”

He left nasty fingerprints all over my shirt.
He left nasty fingerprints all over my shirt. This photo doesn’t do it justice.

In fact, all they got was my driver’s license (I thought, well at least I can get a picture now that isn’t as bad as that one. I was wrong about that, I learned at the DMV upon my return), my ATM card, which was cancelled within 15 minutes, and my lip gloss (a**holes).

But the most significant thing they took from me was my ability to ever convince Chris to travel outside his comfort zone or think I’m right ever again.

We didn’t let that ruin the trip though. I just chalk it up to my luck running out. It was bound to happen someday — well, getting something stolen. I did not have plans to be dragged by some creep hanging out of a car, but at least I have a story. I’m just glad it wasn’t on one of my solo trips.

Part 2 — What to do in Antigua, Guatemala coming soon!

 

Soju Shenanigans-Memories of Korea

It struck me recently that it has been 10 years since I was in Korea. No one our age should ever say the phrase ‘when I was in Korea’… a friend once said to me. Less humorous was the number of people who asked me whether I was in the north or south.

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It seems pretty surreal looking back on it. I had some really great experiences, and some not so great. The job itself was ridiculous. I taught English of course, as most foreigners there do. All the foreigners I ever met in my seven months had one of three jobs. ESL teacher was by far the leader, followed by American military and a handful of engineers–I couldn’t tell you what any of them were engineering. The whole time, I only ever met two travelers. They were passing through Daegu and stood out to our teacher posse heading to Commune, a regular drinking spot, because of their giant backpacks. Korea tends to get dissed on the Asian backpacking trail.

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I’ve been craving the street food and convenience store snacks a lot lately. I miss my little fish-shaped bread with –I don’t know–a sweet bean paste or something inside. And the convenience stores on every corner of Daegu had these little triangles of rice wrapped in seaweed with different flavors in the middle.

The air was disgusting. I think I coughed for the first month straight. A few weeks in, I went to the top of Apsan Mountain and could breathe again.

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But there were coffee shops with luxurious seating everywhere so it was a worthwhile trade. Coffee ranks higher than oxygen for me. Now that is something Korea has down pat. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops didn’t fill themselves with wooden chairs. You didn’t count yourself lucky to have your request for a booth granted, like in America. Comfy couches were everywhere!

So were the obvious signs that copyright/trademark law didn’t apply. My knockoff Kate Spade bags, the Robert DeNiro Cafe and Titanic bar–yes, a bar covered in memorabilia from the film–were testament to that.

They also had honor bars. It’s quite possible that these are somewhere in America, but I have surely never encountered one. Tables had long ice buckets and you just took what you wanted and paid when you were done.

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I was sick a lot as I had no immunity to Korean germs. And there were a lot more opportunities to pick up the germs. The PC bang, or internet cafes, for one. Everyone spent quite a bit of time there. You see, young children, the Internet, while not brand new, was fresh enough that instead of Facebook, people were signing up for this thing called Friendster, instead of attempting to express your self in 140 characters or less via Twitter, lots of people blogged, and getting e-mail was still a reason to get excited. I still hate Twitter, by the way. I spend the whole time trying to condense my sarcasm under the character limit. I knew I was doomed health wise when the paper cups at the school water cooler were confiscated because the kids liked to throw them all over the hall. They was replaced with a single communal cup. Maybe I could avoid one sniffling kid with pink eye, but not all of them.

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Multiple generations all living together allowed some unique businesses to thrive as kids tried to escape their parents’ — and grandparents’– watchful eyes. I mean, Internet cafes aren’t exactly rare abroad, but Korea is a place where every third shop is full of preteen gamers. Or the DVD bang. This would never work in the States, but it was awesome there. You don’t simply rent a DVD in Korea, you rent a small room with plush couches where all your friends meet up to watch films. That was our Sunday night thing. Dinner and the DVD bang. It was pretty much the only night that didn’t revolve around drinking. This is where I developed my addiction to Asian Horror Films– Ju-On, Gin Gwai, Chakushin Ari and Ringu. Better known here as the American versions The Grudge, The Eye, One Missed Call and The Ring. FYI, the Asian version is better in all cases but The Ring. It’s old hat now, but back then, the Asian-inspired imagery of the long, dark hair obscuring the face of an evil woman approaching with erratic, jerky movements was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen. The only thing scarier was what might have previously occurred on the couches we were sitting on since Korean young couples used it as a place to get away from adult prying eyes.

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Korea is a very homogenous society. Foreigners really stood out, at least away from certain sections of Seoul. I found myself exchanging the knowing “wassup head nod” when passing other foreigners. It was only a couple days before I walked past a kid who grabbed his mom, yelling, “Waygook! Waygook!” when I walked by. The kids were fascinated by my freckles and I was deemed some sort of (beloved) sun monster. They’d grab my arm and and turn it back and forth. The underside they proclaimed “good.” The top freckled side was “bad. Africa.”

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The way Koreans interact with foreigners is quite different from how they interact with one another. But rules don’t apply to us. While introduction is a big deal amongst Koreans, we can be approached, asked a thousand questions and recruited for English practice. Sometimes this is a great way to make a Korean friend, and sometimes it’s just awkward, like when the heat in my apartment stopped working (which also controlled the water) and I had to shower at my gym in a big open room (It was winter and my employers were in no hurry to correct the issue). Please don’t play 20 Questions with me when we’re both naked.

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I discovered the greatest food on Earth — Korean BBQ — while I was there. I also discovered the greatest/worst drink on Earth — soju.

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My Korean co-workers seemed quite concerned about my weight. I wasn’t overweight, but they were certainly concerned about me becoming so. Concerns were expressed by a building manager that barely spoke English, but mustered up enough language to discuss my “healthy” appearance. “Healthy” didn’t seem to mean to him what it does to me. And another teacher eyed my instant coffee and snacks between classes, and declared that she was worried about me “fattening.”

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I became a mini-celebrity for a brief time when a picture of my brother slipped out of a book and the students spotted it. He once bore a great resemblance to Harry Potter, glasses and all, and the kids were thrilled that I knew Harry personally. I think this is what led to my brother’s later adventures in facial hair. A few short years later, I would go pick up my brother on a trip home from his art school and would mistake him for a homeless man, which was preferable to a few years later when he shaved his head and looked like an extra from American History X.

I visited the DMZ, where people are very serious at ALL times. My friend Mieka and I made the mistake of laughing slightly when the guide told us how the north and south competed to have the tallest structure at the border. She spun towards and declared, “Don’t laugh! Watching!”

THAT is North Korea.
THAT is North Korea.
The guy behind me is making sure I don't walk through the wrong door to the North Korean side.Technically I'm standing in N. Korea here. I'm pretty sure he'll be understanding if I get confused though...
The guard behind me is making sure I don’t walk through the wrong door to the North Korean side.Technically I’m standing in N. Korea here. I’m pretty sure he’ll be understanding if I get confused though…

Besides the job I was officially recruited for, I had a second side job that was actually not permitted by my visa, as did most teachers there. Almost everyone supplements their income with a second job tutoring, and no one is really clear on the consequences, so everyone pretends there aren’t any. I got hooked up with a job doing English lessons for kindergartens around the area. It was a pretty pointless program. It’s a big selling point for schools to offer English lessons, but they tend to be silly and infrequent. Since I worked afternoons, I’d get picked up on occasional mornings by one of the recruiters who would drive me to a kindergarten. Some I only ever went to once. Some once a month. One time I was hired to put on a show for parents’ day. That was the only time they brought someone in, which didn’t seem to be unusual. Then one day I was picked up to go to one of my regular schools, and when we arrived, there appeared to be someone of authority there looking into things. The recruiter hesitated, stopped me, and observed for a bit. Then we got back in the car and took off. His English wasn’t great, but the best I could gather is that perhaps it was a sweep of some sort for visa violations. And that was the end of my kindergarten days. By that point I already knew one teacher who was sitting in a Korean jail for signing for a package that contained marijuana sent by his brother in Canada. Okay, I don’t know if it would have been that dramatic, but no need to find out. Fortunately, he was able to avoid jail time and got deported instead.

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My real job was an absurd blight on education. Many Korean kids attend hagwons for supplementary lessons in addition to regular school. English hagwons are a major employer of foreign English speakers. I’m not saying all are bad, but some are truly a joke. I worked for a large chain and we were there as marketing tools. Let me describe the training: there was none.

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I got off a plane on a Friday night. I observed another untrained teacher playing Hangman with the students on Saturday afternoon. Monday I became expert Hangman teacher. And this was how the cycle went. More new teachers would arrive, observe other untrained teachers with no prior teaching experience and begin teaching. But, hey, our photos looked good in the newspaper ad. Eventually a “no Hangman” rule was passed. We had to stick purely to the in-house created textbooks. I wish smart phones and Instagram had been the thing so I could show you photos of these textbooks, but alas, at this point, digital cameras were still exciting (I was the only one still rocking film-I am always a good couple years behind on technology). But I will describe one of my favorite lessons to give you an idea of what we were dealing with. One of the middle school texts was called “English Through Cartoons,” and one of the lessons was called “The Keyhole.” The drawings consisted of a scantily clad woman with a large chest barely contained in her shirt sitting on a bed. A young boy has busted in, and she is upset that he didn’t knock. He informs her that it’s okay, he looked through the keyhole before he walked in on her. MUCH better than Hangman.

On Halloween one of the staff asked me to tell a scary story. He said he’d interpret it. I told him I wasn’t sure I knew any appropriate for elementary kids, so he had me tell him a story, which he then approved, and said he’d interpret. It’s that old story about the babysitter lying on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep and the dog is under the couch licking her hand. She goes upstairs to to check on the sound of dripping, and finds the dog decapitated and hanging. When she runs downstairs, she sees the escaped mental patient from the news under the couch. When I came home and got my master’s in education and started teaching, it occurred to me that telling that story here would probably land me in the administrator’s office. But in Korea, it sent two girls screaming out of the room and it was all good.

This kind of stuff wasn’t unique to my chain. This is from a friend of mine, Mieka, who worked at another major school:

Ahh the Flaming Children story . . . Like many of the English schools in Korea, Ding Ding Dang, the school I worked for, embraced all the North American holidays with vigor. So at the end of October we had Hallowe’en celebrations with costumes, candy and jack o’lanterns. We also had games and crafts and ended each party with a mummy wrapping competition. For six class sections this went off without a hitch. The pumpkins were displayed on the front desk and some enterprising Korean teacher decided not to waste the extra candles and set up the extra candles next to them for some mood lighting (can you see where this is going?). For the seventh and final Hallowe’en party, the “mummies” from the different classes were standing in front of jack o’lanterns, waiting to be judged. One of the boys stepped too close to the open flame of the extra candle and the toilet paper used as mummy wrapping caught fire. The girl next to him panicked and bumped into him and caught fire as well. Jonathan and Lee grabbed the kids to try stamp out the flames while I grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher to put out the fire. The kids were okay, their clothes protected them from the worst of it. And I had the most interesting story at the Commune that week. Oh and did I mention all this happened on my 26th birthday!?! I think the story may have become an urban legend among the foreign teachers in Korea but I can attest it is true!

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Mieka’s school also had some questionable text books. Foreign teachers would often be hired to create these publications, and they liked to slip stuff in that might not set of the radar of administration, but the teachers thought were hilarious. Unlike me, Mieka took photos.

Exhibit 1

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Exhibit 2

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I was in the middle of a lesson one day and another teacher popped in and said, “Watch this!” He threw a handful of candy in the air and all the kids dive-bombed the floor like vultures. This was the work environment. And I didn’t really appreciate how insane it was until I started teaching for real.

The Americans and Canadians had it pretty easy, though. At least we weren’t in the same boat as the English, Irish, Australian and New Zealanders who were constantly informed that they weren’t speaking correctly.

But none of that silly work stuff mattered because this:

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And then I told Barack, “Look! This is how we’re gonna do this! End of story!”

Back-to-back trips = no blogging for a couple weeks. I’m not one of those travelers that’s motivated enough to lug around a laptop, much less add one more item to the list of things TSA can harass me about. I’m already getting crazy with secret 4-5 oz bottles of*gasp* liquid! On February 26 I caught an early morning flight to DC to join other staff and volunteers of the TS Alliance for training and meetings with representatives and senators. Little did I know that of the four flights I would have over the next couple weeks, this would by far be the best one. It was almost empty and everyone could have their own row. I was traveling with Wendi, and she’s one of those social types that actually engage total strangers in conversation (I’m trying, okay!?). We began talking to a guy that, quite by fluke of another medical issue, had discovered that both his daughters had a health issue related to a faulty gene as well. Theirs is quite different though. I can’t remember what it was called, but basically they are lacking the ability to create an enzyme that creates a protective coating of organs such as the lungs and liver. So although they don’t have any current health issues, the basic drinking and smoking that other people may partake in casually, is a whole different ball game for them. They are at a very high risk for cancer because of this. They are young now, but that’s a lot of pressure as they get older. Those teen and college years are going to be awfully stressful for those parents…

Red velvet, baby!
Red velvet, baby!

We arrived at the Melrose Hotel with plenty of time to spare before training, so we went strolling through Georgetown and stopped for lunch, where I categorically deny having any wine. We also happened by DC Cupcakes of reality show fame. Cute cupcakes, but honestly, I think they were from the day before. Apparently the sisters on the show (which I really don’t watch) only come in when they are filming. Oh, the lies of reality television. We all received matching shirts to wear on the Hill which is great for visibility, but bad for the amount of time I spent obsessing over what to wear before I left. I suffered a closet induced mental breakdown for nothing, but whatever. My Jackie O. dress is still a bit tight where my body mistakenly thinks there is still a baby inside. My ribs would have hurt by the end of the day anyway. We rose early to get through security and where I met my favorite government employee of all time. As we prepared to pass through security at the entrance of Cannon, there was a hysterical number of abandoned coffee cups just inside the door on a ledge. Had I had the time, I would have taken a picture. A female security guard walked over, took one look, and it was, “Oh Hell NO! This isn’t a trashcan! Tell those people outside to use the one out there!” Then she stormed off yelling, “This is bullshit!” I should apply for that job because I used to do that when I worked at Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, and I always got in trouble…

We Georgia volunteers managed to meet with the offices of all the representatives but three, Paul Broun and David Scott, as we never got a response to our requests from either office, and Sanford Bishop, who responded, but had no staff available to meet with us. The morning started off great as our very first meeting was in the office of  supporter Rep. John Lewis who promised IMG_2595continued support. We had other positive meetings, but this was the only straight up yes on the spot. Of course, given that we were there just before the sequester, these meetings were a little different from what they would usually be. What we should have been doing was asking for them to sign the FY2014 Dear Colleague letter to support tuberous sclerosis research. Problem is, as you probably know, Congress never got around to dealing with 2013. So we were trying to get that through, and let them know that eventually there will be a letter for 2014. You see, the House wrote a bill that funded the Tuberous Sclerosis Complex Research Program last summer, but things came to a stop at the Senate and here we are still awaiting a budget for a year that will probably be over before anything gets done. So thanks to the sequester that went down a couple days later ,there are more cuts…to everything. I could rant here about how this kind of performance in the private sector would lead to mass firing, but other people are far better at discussing politics.

With Georgia representative Tom Price.
With Georgia representative Tom Price.
Just after getting a promise of support.
Just after getting a promise of support.

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That evening the Alliance held the Volunteer Awards dinner, my final evening of being introduced to people and pretending not to know who a lot of them were already, as if I haven’t spent the last several months since Connor’s diagnosis stalking everyone online to see how others were faring with TSC. “Oh, hello, nice to meet you!” (In my head: So you’re the mom of so and so, who’s 10 years old, loves soccer, and went as a zombie for Halloween).

Dinner was steak, potatoes and asparagus. Why am I telling you this? It’s significant and will affect the next several days of my life.

Then there were drinks in the lobby, and a trip to a bar across the street.

With Wendi and Reiko, TSC moms and volunteers.
With Wendi and Reiko, TSC moms and volunteers.
With Wendi and Chris Hawkey of the band Rocket Club, emcee for the awards ceremony.
With Wendi and Chris Hawkey of the band Rocket Club, emcee for the awards ceremony.

It was a fun evening, but given the nature of the trip I didn’t get too crazy with the drinks. That turned out to be stupid. I might as well have danced on tables for all the good it did me because when I woke up the next morning, I was NOT well. Wendi had an early morning flight, and should be very grateful of it. I spent about an hour or so being “not well”. And then a miraculous recovery! That’s how I roll. I’m never sick for long. So I spent the next few hours before my flight checking out the monuments.

Just cuz I tried to hop the fence for a photo didn't necessitate a physical assault. Jerks.
Just cuz I tried to hop the fence for a photo didn’t necessitate a physical assault. Jerks.

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Don't I look healthy here?
Don’t I look healthy here?

I found myself feeling particularly tired after a couple hours, which I chalked up to the fact that I hadn’t gotten much sleep the last couple nights, so I headed to the airport early. This turned out to be the only reason I got home that day. I arrived at Reagan to learn that my flight was cancelled and I could either go standby for the next two (full) flights home, or I could take the shuttle to Baltimore and fly from there. Two other early arrivers were in the same boat. I’m quite grateful to one of them, who is a weekly business traveler and had beat me by only a few minutes. Despite the clear skies and the fact that they had another (full) flight departing 45 minutes after ours, AirTran tried to tell him it was weather related. He called BS on that one, and they finally admitted the plane had mechanical issues. So at least for my irritation I got a free shuttle ride and plane ticket (which will probably be so blacked out I can’t use it). While I appreciate the free ticket as compensation given that I still ended up on a flight that departed roughly the same time, I DO  NOT care for them lying. I don’t care if it’s typical of the industry…it’s crap. I also do not care for the fact that I had booked a 2:00 flight, and two weeks earlier I received an e-mail that my flight was cancelled and I was now on the 4:00. I accepted that change–it was fine. But now this, too. And he said, well we sent you an e-mail today. I said, “Yes, you did send me an e-mail today, and it contained my itinerary exactly as it still was. The reference to the cancellation, I thought, was reference to the 2:00.” And I’m not crazy because the business traveler got the same e-mail and didn’t understand the flight was cancelled either. His colleagues that hadn’t arrived yet would later receive e-mails that they could not fly out until the next morning.

At any rate, they paid for a shuttle in which we had to bully the driver into actually taking us. And then when he finally left, he turned around to go back and get someone else despite our protests that we would barely make it as it was. Nonetheless, we did make it. And I thought I was dying the whole way.

Turns out, I wasn’t better after all. But I can’t even claim nausea. It was soooooo much worse. More of a “stomach full of acid eating away at my insides” kind of thing. The TSA lines were thankfully short, just the perfect length in fact, for me to redress, run for the bathroom and retch loudly enough to horrify the entire row of stalls.

Oh my God, it’s Cambodia again. The only time I had ever thrown up on a plane before. Oh please, not again. I can still hear that mean French lady snapping, “Close ze bag! Eet smells!” I rode the wave of post-puke feeling better-ness into feeling hopeful all was well. Until I got on the plane and was seated next to two girls  with attitudes that had seemingly never flown before. I mean, I don’t care if you’ve never flown, but I care that you can’t comprehend that the flight attendant has told you three times to shut off your devices and that you refuse to put your purse under the seat because the floor is dirty. I know an omen when I see one. I was so miserable between the bathroom and my seat, that I actually started to cry. The flight attendant was really sweet and gave me a hug. But then I was terrified of letter her know I was sick because she’d think I’d contaminated her, even though I was certain it was food related. Yeah, the ride home in Chris’s car wasn’t much better. But at least he brought plastic bags.

In defense of the hotel, I have to say I don’t know of anyone else getting sick. I thought the hotel was otherwise fantastic.

The wall in my hotel room.
The wall in my hotel room.

I feel bad if I picked this up elsewhere and I’m blaming them, but timing wise, I just don’t know where else it happened. And they were a little lax with the food I thought, as far as taking a long time to bring things out and letting stuff get cold…so that’s my guess anyway. I would have the pleasure of battling my body all the way to Boston, where I had to fly two days after I returned. But that’s for another entry if you made it this far…if the mention of vomit hasn’t scared you away. Don’t worry. That’s as detailed as it’s getting.

DC footwear on the Metro.
DC footwear on the Metro.

Tavel Stories You Don’t Tell Your Mom

I don’t know what challenges lie ahead for Connor, but I hope that he will get to travel. This is a long post, but I think I almost died a couple times, which my friends will enjoy, even if they don’t care for my wordiness.

My obsession since college has been travel. I credit a few things for leading to this. One is that I’m an Air Force brat and we moved all over until I turned 12, including California and Japan. Another is my college friend Cecile who had dual citizenship because her mother is French. She was always traveling back and forth, and when we’d all converge back on the dorm, she’d dump out a suitcase of French gummy bears and chocolates, and share adventures from the Paris Metro. Meanwhile I tried to tell impressive stories of all the movies I’d seen at my local Regal cinema and frappucinos I’d downed at Starbucks. Most of my early overseas trips involved her. We went to Spain and Costa Rica, and I would later visit her in France, then Germany as she moved about abroad. (Warning: never move somewhere interesting and make one of those empty “come and visit anytime!” offers to me). I haven’t yet made it to Switzerland, where she currently lives.

In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002.
In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002. I finally got my own Paris metro adventure. Flashed by a man in a trenchcoat!
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!"
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!”
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.

The third was my anxiety, which would landslide into depression at times, and left me with a feeling of being constantly restless. I always felt like I was looking for something, and I figured the best way to find whatever it was, was to hop on a plane. If that thing I was looking for was a fairy tattoo from Thailand, selected solely because I thought the silhouetted wings looked cool, I found it. On a side note, a few years after the dust settled on people thinking I was mental for getting stuck with a needle in Thailand, Hangover 2 got released and when it comes up, people look at me like I’m crazy again.Gathering the courage to get tatted.

tattooThis story I actually did tell my mom. Just not for a couple of months. You see, I’d threatened to get a tattoo all through college, but never followed through. So by the time I graduated, she thought she was safe. Whenever I’d bring it up, she’d mock me and say, “Oh are you? Well if you do, I’ll go get one, too. We can match.” I basically started this same conversation again, as if I didn’t already have one. When she pulled out her usual mocking threat, I said, “Really? You mean it? You’re gonna go get one?”

“Suuuure!” she replied.

I yanked up the shirt to reveal my lower stomach, and silence. Jaw drops. Finally, “Robert! Get in here! Your daughter got a tattoo!”

It was hilarious. It was also nine years ago. She has yet to follow through.

With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in February 2004.
With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in Tebruary 2004. Mieka was a teaching friend from Daegu. The first time we went to the tattoo parlor, she went through with it. I chickened out. We went back the next day.

The Thailand trip came on the heels of a six-month stint teaching English in Daegu, South Korea. South Korea is a very dangerous place to live, in that it feels so safe that your guard will be significantly lowered when you leave. As far as safety is concerned, I have never felt so free as I did there. Perhaps my inability to read and follow the news exaggerated that feeling, but a random murder in Seoul made such a splash that it actually seemed like murder was a big deal there, as if it didn’t happen every day. And so I felt free to wander down dark alleys I wouldn’t have otherwise. The biggest danger I faced there was an angry Ajumma (older, married woman) openly disapproving of my wardrobe. Man, they hated that red, strapless dress of mine. I couldn’t understand what they were shrieking, but nothing got the octaves up like that dress.I only remember being scared there once. Most of the time I was there I live in a dorm near downtown, but for a brief period I stayed in an apartment about 15 minutes out, near Kyungpook University, with a Canadian roommate. This was the setting of Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #1. In the middle of the night came a wild  knocking on the door. I came out of my bedroom just in time to see my roommate wrestling a Korean man back out of the door and slamming it shut. He continued to bang and yell while we looked at each other confused. At this point we realized we had no idea what the Korean 911 was. Instead we attempted to start calling the school headquarters, as it was approaching 6 am. One of the managers answered. But since he spoke no English, he just kept hanging up on us. Finally we were able to get one of the owner’s sons on the phone. He contacted the police for us. The banging had gone on for over an hour, but in the meantime, he had taken a fall back down the stairs and was passed out on the landing. The only way for us to get out was to step over him, which wasn’t going to happen. Eventually he awoke and was back to trying to gain entry. During this whole time, not one neighbor did anything. Finally the cops arrived and we opened the door, a thick Canadian girl armed with a bat (where the hell did that come from?) and me with a heavy, metal statue of the Hindu god Shiva. It turned out the man was so incredibly intoxicated, that even having two white girls open the door was not sufficient to convince him that he had the wrong apartment. He lived in the next building. I will say, on his behalf, that those apartment buildings do look like they rolled off a conveyor belt built by Paul Bunyan. The cops thought the whole thing was hilarious, and laughed as they dragged him away, still screaming, I presume, that it was his apartment.Beyond the insult of the cops finding our fear hilarious, the boss’s son never did check on us to see if we were okay. One of many reasons I had no guilt about breaking my contract halfway through. But my ridiculous job there is another entry to come.

Cambodia Angkor WatThe unsettled feeling had arisen once again, so I booked two months in Sevilla, Spain of language courses, but decided to go through Thailand (where I would obtain my tattoo) and Cambodia on my way out of Korea. Why Cambodia? Cambodia had garnered some recent attention due to Angelina Jolie’s adoption of baby Maddox. While in Korea, I took to reading about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge when they took over from 1975-79 and destroyed the country, coating it in landmines and murdering much of the population. I selected it because in my mind, I would be wandering through jungles, maneuvering around land-mined areas to explore the ruins of Angkor. It turned out that the only thing I had to maneuver around were Australian backpackers. It was an early lesson in that if Lonely Planet has been there, so has everyone else. Land mines were well cleared and danger areas off limits. Bummer. But as I mentioned, Korea destroyed my sense of danger which is how Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #2 happened. I went alone, but had met another American on the flight into Cambodia and we were traveling together now. On our way into one of the temples, we encountered a couple of young local boys who wanted to give us a tour so they could practice their skills and eventually get jobs. Tourism is a lifeblood industry in this poverty stricken country, so we said no problem. Of course, we knew they would want a couple bucks at the end. Not an issue. So the four of us wandered around the temple and they described the temple friezes and what they meant. The area was drowning in tourists, so we had no reason to be concerned. But there was one part that was set apart from the rest, and before we realized it, we were headed for it via a woody path. Other tourists were fewer and farther between. I hadn’t realized that Cyrina and her tour guide had dropped back a bit, and suddenly my guide stopped. He informed me that he had to go to class and wanted money. His demeanor went from friendly and jovial to aggressive. I said, sure, no problem and started to reach for my Thai baht (even the Cambodians don’t want their own currency). Then he demanded 2,000 baht specifically. I just looked at him dumbfounded. That was over 50 bucks. Was he on crack? “You mean 50 baht? Right?”

“No! I have pay for school! Give me 2,000!”

I glanced back at Cyrina and could see she was having a similar conversation with her guide. I wasn’t scared of him. I couldn’t process more than that he had suddenly lost his

With Cyrina in Cambodia.
With Cyrina in Cambodia.

mind thinking I was going to give him that much money just because he demanded it. He was definitely getting creepier by the moment. And then I heard a magical Australian, “Hello, there!” It was an older gentleman we met in our hotel. “Oh, hello!” I exaggerated and ran to his side and we walked back to the main temple, grabbing Cyrina on the way. The guys just glared after us. Back at the main temple, another backpacker we had met previously expressed concern because she had seen us with the guys and she had heard it was a ploy to get tourists away from the crowd and rob them. I never even felt fear during this entire encounter as Korea had slowed my danger processing so much that I didn’t register what truly could have happened until it was over. I’m not normally this stupid…I even keep my keys between my fingers when I’m alone in dark parking lots, ready to gouge out the eyes of an attacker. Damn Korea’s low crime rate. It almost got me killed.

Coimbra, Portugal was location of my scariest encounter, Story #3, which was ironic because I had initially planned to travel to Honduras that summer. But my mother had to go and read the state department’s travel advisories, and man, you never saw someone so nervous about a few machete murders. Look, it’s a small country. You do what you gotta do to get a good spot on the beach. Since my mother took it so well the previous summer when I told her I would be traveling alone for five weeks through Thailand (again), Laos and Vietnam, I thought I’d cut her a break and alter my plans.I’m not sure when the Portugese encounter started. I do know when I first saw him. I had crossed a bridge over the river to see a monastery (I think…that’s kind of cloudy now). There was this dirty looking guy carrying only a camera bag. I’d been out of Korea for a few years now, so suspicious mode was back. He seemed weird and I caught him looking at me, but he could have just been some dirty backpacker. The camera bag mellowed me a bit, but it wouldn’t be long before I started to think there were scalpels rather than cameras inside. I started to walk back across the bridge, and knew he was behind me. He came closer and closer, so I stopped next to some tourists and let him pass. He breathed heavily behind me as he did so. I gave him a reasonable head start and continued. Then he stopped, as if looking at the water, but I could see he was checking my progress. So I hurried past him and made a right through a crowded park at the end of the bridge. I found a place to sit and relax and let Mr. Weirdo go about his day. Within a few minutes, he took a seat just a few yards from me. At this point, the prickles of annoyance turned to fear. There was no doubt about what he was doing now. I made my way through people to a riverside pizza place. My brilliant plan was to have dinner as he would surely lose interest in that amount time. My mistake was that the restaurant was almost entirely windows. I could see him pacing from one side to the other, watching me eat. Now I was entering panic mode. It was Sunday. Most things were closed. I was currently in the busy tourist area, but I would have to pass through some quiet streets to get back to my hotel. I desperately tried to communicate my problem to the waiter in my crappy Spanish, hoping it would be similar enough to the Portugese I needed. He seemed to get the basic idea of what I was telling him and pointed out a nearby police substation. I waited until Captain Creeper circled around the other side and made a run for the busy street. Somehow, magically the traffic cleared for me and I made it, the hole filling in quickly behind me. He spotted me too late. I continued to run and he couldn’t get across. I made the split second decision to head for my hotel because at this point there was no way he could catch up. Even for the few months I did 5ks I could never run like that again. I reached the hotel and locked myself into my room, and left town the next day. I will always wonder what his intentions were, especially considering he did this with so many people present. I also wonder if I should have gone to the police anyway. He probably would have melted into the crowd, but maybe, just maybe, they would have picked him up and discovered he was wanted for rape or murder or something.

In spite of these stories, I generally feel very safe when I travel. I generally try to follow the rule of not looking too much like a tourist. No fanny packs…both for safety and the massive offense to fashion. I quit the whole travel wallet strapped to the body thing years ago. I hate those and prefer to carry no more than I can afford to lose, but if you’re going to use them, carry just enough for basic purchases in a regular purse or wallet. It kind of defeats the purpose when you have to make a big show of practically undressing yourself at the cash register. Be cautious at ATMS, but it is not necessary to have your wife hold a jacket over you to shield the screen from prying eyes. That makes ME want to rob you out of spite, and probably signals thieves that you have a good amount of money in there to be that cautious. You also shouldn’t walk around with guide books and maps in your hand, but I freely admit to breaking that rule as my directional dyslexia won’t allow me to process and retain directions beyond a block.

Oh, and upon further review of these stories, Connor is not allowed to travel. He’s not even allowed to leave the house. Ever.

Sorry, Mom.