Friday, January 17, 2014

Try Not to Blink

Most posts like these hover closer to the turn of the calendar: heralding a New Year, pondering all it may portend while probing the experiences of the one so freshly left behind. Accomplishments are crowed and hopes are cooed, bearing the standards of our midwinter rebirths. The good is grasped tightly in writing so any bad beyond the horizon can't blot it out entirely when the world feels darker and colder. This post attempts these things, of course; however, it requires that I slide the scale a bit. My last and coming year are not framed by the beginnings of Januarys, but the ends. January 25 marks our anniversary of living in Seoul, where we've just signed on for another contract to end February, 2015. My year is therefore slightly shifted from the usual count, and my reflections are skewed accordingly.

'Expect the unexpected' is a trope of the traveler, and, as expected, the past year it has proven it true enough.

I've learned a new language - not enough to hold a conversation, but enough to form grammatically-correct sentences with a little struggle, and more than enough to survive. I learned to read and write a new alphabet in less than a week. I can navigate the subway and direct a taxi with the basics. I can peruse a menu and order the usuals, and while my vocabulary may not always suffice, I can at least amuse those patient enough with a decent accent.

I've tried to embrace the cultures that have welcomed me as a guest, even if there are times I've wanted to fold my arms and click my heels on the off-chance such a transplant doesn't require a tornado and a head wound.

I've visited three countries outside of Korea, four if you count a few steps beyond an invisible line into the negotiating territory of North Korea. Malaysia, Japan, and the Philippines have shown me glimpses of worlds to which I'd never previously given much thought beyond romanticized stories or fingers tracing a map. I've stared like a child at whale sharks and guarded my belongings from unscrupulous monkeys. I've sipped soju on rooftops and tasted corner store sake on my boyfriend's lips. I played darts with an audience of chirping geckos and learned how to shuffle cards like an adult. I've wandered through painted palaces built, burned, and rebuilt over thousands of lifetimes before mine, and I've spent several cumulative hours looking for a place to pee. I've collected prayer beads from cool-tiled mosques, shrines in caves, and temples on the edge of the sea. I've retraced countless steps and found my way before I even realized I was lost. I've confirmed an uncanny ability to know my way around by recognition of subtle landmarks, and I've thanked God for Adam's sense of direction in the face of my hopelessness (without a handy compass or the convenience of tree moss, I've accepted that I will never have those bearings - seriously, where the hell is North?).

My ability to endure spicy foods has grown to a point at which I am not filled with dread to try a bite of something new (and instead, every so often, I'm filled only with mild regret and temporary pain). I saw Basquiat's art and remembered to try to make some of my own, too. I nursed bruises and scrapes from a Spartan Race and hunted mosquitoes with vengeance. I explored with my parents when they came for a surreal visit. I climbed a mountain with terrifying, humbling views, afraid to reach the top, but more afraid not to. I was caught by the monsoon in the park when we lingered too long for the summer sun's liking. I cried under cherry blossoms and laughed in the glow of thousands of lanterns floating through crowded streets. I played in the mud, sang in sweaty bars, and fed neighborhood alley cats in the rain.

I've fallen in love with teaching and had my heart repeatedly broken by dozens of unfairly-adorable 6-year-olds. I encouraged sarcasm in a couple third graders, fanned infant flames of feminism in a few others, and asked "Why?" a million times.

I've forged new friendships while aching for the ones on the other side of the world. I've seized opportunities across oceans while missing milestones at home - weddings of dear friends, the birth of my nephew, my cat learning patience - and knowing there will be more. Technology helps to soothe the pangs of these particular casualties of my time here, but sometimes the sense of removal is strong and homesickness flairs when I can only celebrate these occasions via Skype. I also feel these things knowing that one day, I will feel the same for my life in Seoul. There is a certain peril with this brand of adventure: the heart-seam-ripping feeling of longing for home and longing for hazard abroad, as if one can be ignored or made dormant while the other is satisfied. This longing exists, dully, just under my ribs, with semi-frequent  bouts of acute immediacy. It has taught me that Home is not where, but with whom (which seems to make things infinitely more difficult), and it spurs a selfish desire to transplant everyone I love to wherever I happen to be.

I've been reminded over and over again of my luck, that I get to share all of this with someone I love in ways I never knew possible. He has taught me more about living - and about myself - than I'm sure he ever intended. I couldn't ask for a better partner (or a better travel buddy, to boot). I wouldn't be where I am without him, physically and otherwise, and I'm excited for our next year together, and the year after, and the years after that.

I've felt unsure more times than I thought tolerable. There were stretches when depression stole the throne, as it does from time to time. I've known discomfort as a constant shadow, and I've let fear drive discovery.

I've been happy.

Altogether, 2013 delivered more than I could have imagined; I'm sure this year has much more in store. I'll look forward to good things - expected and unexpected - and try not to blink.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Place in the Sun

In Seoul, autumn is short and winter is sudden. As November is still finding a foothold, our brief excitement of trading flipflops in humidity for boots in brisk air is ended before spark has a chance to fade. Autumn's brevity is a precious gasp air in our lungs - we'll be holding our breath in the dark until spring brings promise of the surface.

After Christmas, we were lucky to escape for a few days, to find a place in the sun before winter steals the memory of such a thing. Arriving at 2am wreaked havoc in jetlag form, but our first stop in Cebu allowed us a first taste of a welcome thaw before heading to the islands.

A day and a ferry-ride later landed us on Panglao, a small island off the bigger, better-known Bohol. Our tiny resort was at the end of a winding dirt road, perched cliffside over the ocean.

We named him Cecil.

Having only two full, proper days on the island (bookended by two half/travel days), we took advantage of what we could, namely a "countryside" tour spanning 8 hours, including encounters with a number of animals (some cuter than others), a Jungle Cruise-esque lunch with decidedly fewer puns, and astounding geography despite the temperamental skies. (P.S. Remember the devastating earthquake in the Philippines at the end of last year? That was on Bohol, where we saw a good bit of sad aftermath, i.e. centuries-old churches reduced to ruins as you'll see below.)

The belltower of the Baclayon Church. Post-earthquake, the bell now lies at the bottom of the ruin.

Adam and a monkey exchanged a polite handshake.

A few pythons (the dark one holding the record of "Largest Snake in Bohol") and I exchanged a polite ew-I'm-pretending-I'm-not-a-little-freaked-out.

Adam loves amusing me more than he hates snakes.

The breeze we enjoyed during the cruise (and lunch) on the Bohol River dried our sweat-damp skin long enough to find an appetite and to stoke our ultimately-misplaced hopes of seeing the backside of water.

Another church, crumbled by the earthquake.

To get a better idea, I made a quick video of our riverboat excursion.

Next up, the tiny, furry-tree-froggish buddies I'd been dreaming of meeting for months. I found it difficult to contain my squeals when silence was enforced at the Tarsier Sanctuary. The world's smallest primate = Kait's overdose of cute.

We posed in the designated way because we're adults. Because tarsiers.

The man-made mahogany forest was... tall.

The butterfly garden survived the earthquake, but Typhoon Haiyan decimated the numbers of insects. Thankfully, there were still plenty of beauties flitting about and plenty more pupae, patient and safe.

The Chocolate Hills are a crazy geographical formation, named for the distinctive brown of the adorable Hobbit mounds rising above the green of the jungle.

Most of the observation peak didn't manage to survive the earthquake.

More animals, obviously. 

This little guy was a sniffing machine. His name is Chummy.
New Year's Eve was spent absorbing our last rays of sunlight on the white (hot) sands of Alona Beach.

Of course, with any international trip, I would be remiss not to give a nod to some of the delicious local fare I lustily inhaled sampled.

For breakfast, sunshine on a plate.

Lumpia, lumpia, and more lumpia.

Sorry, shrimpies. At least I resisted reenacting a particularly silly scene from 'Good Morning, Vietnam' with your remains.
Although we heard them, we did not see any fireworks from our tiny island. Instead, this New Year's Eve, our riots of color and light came instead from the constellations burning bright and absolute in the southern sky, the riches of experience, and the indomitable life we beheld, abundant and enduring. This year, I celebrate that I am both witness to and part of something infinitely grand and wondrously intimate.

Manigong Bagong Taon and 새해 복 많이 받으세요 - Happy New Year, friends.