Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trekking around the Kathmandu Valley

Story Three: Trekking around the Kathmandu Valley

Katie and I have two big objectives while in Nepal. We want to do the 3-week Annapurna Circuit trek, and we want to do the 3-week extended trek to Everest Base Camp. Each of these treks might be stretched out to 3.5 or 4 weeks, we don't really know enough details yet, and are going to play it by ear. But we do know that both of these hikes involve reaching elevations of over 5,000 meters, and Everest Base Camp is at an elevation of 5545 meters – about 18,200 feet above sea level. Needless to say, we're going to need to acclimate. So we decided it would be a good idea to do a few short hikes around Kathmandu (only at an elevation of 1300m, lower than Denver, Colorado), and on Friday, September 16, 2011, we set off from our guesthouse in Kathmandu for the village of Sundarijal, an hour and a half by bus from the city center.

Our initial, planned itinerary went something like this:
  • Day one: Bus from Kathmandu to Sundarijal (1.5 hours), hike to Chisapani (5hrs), stay the night.
  • Day two: Hike from Chisapani to Nagarkot (10 hrs), stay the night.
  • Day three: Hike from Nagarkot to Changanarayan (6 hrs), take a cab back to Kathmandu.

Backpacking (or 'trekking' in this and most non-American places in the world) is very different from anywhere I've trekked before. Unless you are in a super-remote area, you can count on walking through a village every 3-4 hours, and each of these villages will typically have several 'teahouses' available where you can stay the night and have your dinner and breakfast prepared for you. And depending on the season and the village, the prices can range from so-cheap-it's-basically-free to cheap. Because Nepal makes it so easy to be flexible with your trekking schedule, our final trekking schedule ended up working out like this:
  • Day one: Bus from Kathmandu to Sundarijal (1.5 hours), lunch at Sundarijal (2 hours), hike to Chisapani (4 hours), stay the night.
    The very beginning of the Sundarijal - Chisapani hike

    Katie hiking through what sometimes seemed to be endless fog.
  • Day two: Hike from Chisapani to Nagarkot (8.5 hours), stay the night.

  • Cute Nepali children

    Day three: Day-hike around Nagarkot, stay another night in Nagarkot.
    Talk about a creative restaurant name.  Just below the Nagarkot View Tower, Nagarkot.

    Katie, climbing up the Nagarkot View Tower, just before the monsoon that almost ruined the rest of our evening.
  • Me climbing the Nagarkot View Tower.
    Day four: Hike from Nagarkot to Changanarayan (5 hours), stay the night.
  • Day five: Hike from Changanarayan to Bhaktapur on the Kathmandu Valley floor (6 hours), stay the night.
  • Day six: Feel like shit, cancel rest of hike, taxi back to Kathmandu, go to hospital.
Notables from the six-day trek:
  • Our room in the teahouse in Chisapani (first night) cost 100 rupees. That's about $1.33, or $0.67 each. When you stay at a teahouse, you're expected to eat their food, so that's where they make their money, but food and drinks are also ridiculously cheap. Over the course of our single night and morning at this teahouse, we had 3 large pots of tea, one large pot of coffee, a very-filling and delicious dinner AND dessert, and an awesome breakfast. Our total food bill – 1,200 Rupees, about $16, or $8 each. So a cheap day on the trail can be done for about $10.

    Mmmm... chow mein.  I don't know if I've ever had chow mein, but I discovered it in Nepal, and it changed my life.
  • About two weeks into our Nepal adventure, we STILL haven't seen the Himalayas. The views from Nagarkot are famous, but the Himalayas have been hidden from view for the whole time we've been in the country. Annoying.
    Trailside view en route from Chisapani to Nagarkot.  If there were no clouds here, the Himalayas would be visible at the top of this photo.

  • Leeches! Katie got 4, and I got 3. I was the one wearing shorts. Go figure. And then there was the one we found in our hotel room in Changanarayan that I had to crush to death with a Nalgene bottle 5 times before it finally died. Reminded me of the invincible spider from Australia. And by the time it was actually dead, one little corner of our hotel room looked like a murder scene.

    Hooray!  Leeches!
  • Diarrhea. I'll leave it at that.
  • Seeing a local boy herd a herd of 50+ goats down a mountain road.

    Herd those goats, 10 year-old boy!
  • Mt. Dog Fuck, Nagarkot. The best place in Nagarkot to view the sun setting over Kathmandu is from a small hill in town inhabited only by fat, friendly stray dogs … that can't stop fucking.
    Sunset over Kathmandu, seen from the world famous Mt. Dog Fuck, Nagarkot.

    The view down onto the road out of Nagarkot from the famed Mt. Dog Fuck.
  • Drinking home-brewed Chang (Nepalese moonshine “beer” that tastes like lemonade without enough sugar in it) and Roxie (Nepalese moonshine liquor that tastes almost exactly like saki) in a dirt-floored restaurant for 15 rupees per cup. The drinks were poured by a Nepalese hobbit from old gasoline cans. Classy. In an totally unrelated story, I found myself in a Nepalese hospital three days later with crippling stomach and body pains.
  • Being trapped in the “Friendship Hut” across the road from an Army Base a few kilometers from Nagarkot in a monsoon. When it rains here, it can rain HARD. We spent an hour or two in what basically amounted to a small gazebo, trying to avoid the downpour. Eventually, when it started getting dark, we had to give up and walk back to town, understandably miserable in the dark, pouring rain. And all this just after I'd had to run off the road to poop in the woods, and had gotten bitten on my ass by what must have been a spider.

    Katie testing out her $4 raincoat in monsoon rains at "Friendship Hut," just outside Nagarkot.  It wasn't waterproof.
  • Having this same night turn totally around because of our having dinner with a Nepalese family, who rather than watching TV together at night, sang songs while one of the men played the guitar. We tried to reciprocate the kindness they'd shown us by singing the only song that both of us knew: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
  • Forming a hippy death-pact, whereupon if any of the following rules are broken, a mutual suicide has been deemed the most prudent action:
    • Dreadlocks (either of us), and head-shaving (Katie).
    • The use of patchouli for anything at all ever.
    • The use of the word “chakra.” More items will be added to the list as our terrifying free fall into hippydom provides more specific examples of punishible-by-death crimes.
  • Seeing Changanarayan, the oldest Temple in Nepal, and a mere 5 minute walk from our $4.66 hotel after dark.
  • Meeting 5 Nepalese college students, 2 of whom were out celebrating having just passed their final college exams. We relaxed with them on top of one of the hundreds-of-years-old temples in Bhaktapur Square, and then bought them dinner and chang at a local restaurant.
  • Surviving an Earthquake that neither of us even felt, but that resulted in several deaths mere miles away in Kathmandu.
  • Waking up in Bhaktapur after a sleepless night of fever-induced tossing and turning, body pain, and spending the rest of the day in a Nepalese hospital, being taken care of by Katie and the manager of the hotel we'd moved into a mere hour earlier. But the whole hospital thing deserves it's own entry. So be patient, both of you that have managed to read this far...

    And some more photos... 
    I'm eventually going to have a full album of "animals in weird places."

    See what I was saying about "Animals in weird places?"

    Haggling for bananas or something.

    One way of getting around Nepal.

    This is a picture of corn.

    I love it: "I'm bored.  No electricity."  The whole country has rolling blackouts.
    I believe this is a flamingo.

    ...and more "Animals in weird places."

    Here's a necessary caption: This is a butterfly.


Story Two: Monkeys

Katie had read about Swayambhu, or Kathmandu's famous “Monkey Temple,” and insisted that we go there as soon as we had some free time. I happily agreed. Every now and then, you find yourself in a new place or having a new experience that feels truly … maybe not life-changing, but at least significant. Swayambhu was both such a place, and such an experience.

On September 14th, Katie and I awoke at 4:30 with the intention of making it to the top of Swayambhu by sunrise. It was about a 30-minute walk from our hotel to the temple, but as has been the case literally every morning since our arrival, sunrise wasn't that amazing – we've been in the clouds almost the whole time we've been here. The night before, when we'd decided to come to the top of Swayambhu for sunrise, I'd envisioned it being devoid of people, a peaceful refuge from the hussle and bussle of Kathmandu. Wrong. There were probably over a hundred Nepalese people at the top of the temple by the time we got there, but we were the only non-Nepalese, which I suppose was kind of cool.

The temple itself was beautiful, but I'm not going to write much about it here – look it up on Google images if you're curious what it looks like. And I'll put some pictures up somewhere, sometime. After seeing the main area of the temple, which was inhabited by a good number of “wild” monkeys, we went off to explore some of the lesser-viewed areas of the Temple grounds. And here we encountered several different groups of monkeys, including one group led by the aptly named (Katie and I named him) “King Monkey,” who really seemed to run the show at Swayambhu. When we found this first group, we simply wandered around, observing and taking way too many pictures of our evolutionary predecessors.

The activities they took part in were hilarious and amazing to observe. Baby monkeys would fight each other and then ride around on their mother's or father's backs. Monkeys of all different sizes would swing back and forth from the endless prayer flags adorning the Temple. They'd scream at each other. They'd jump from ancient stupas to moss-covered trees, pick up discarded candy-bar wrappers, and get the last crumbs out with their little monkey-hands. I didn't see any poo-flinging, but I plan on going back to Swayambhu as often as practical, and maybe poo-throwing will eventually make it onto the list of things I've seen monkeys do.

Now for three quick monkey stories, all from this single day at Swayambhu.

ONE: Katie and I were taking pictures of the monkeys, and a baby monkey wandered very close to Katie. They don't seem at all afraid of being even a few feet away from people, but Katie must have made some sudden move that frightened the baby, so it shouted and ran off towards mama, who shouted and started running away with the frightened baby on her back. King Monkey must have observed all this from nearby, because within 5 seconds of baby monkey freaking out, King Monkey was running towards Katie with a fire in his eyes. At this point, Katie was freaking out and coming towards me, when she heard the pitter-patter of monkey feet running up behind her. King Monkey screeched in anger and two-hand slapped her on the ass before Katie was able to complete her hasty retreat.

TWO: Swayambhu, being an actual, functional temple in addition to a massive tourist-draw, has resident monks. And there are child monks. My stint as an elementary-school teacher in Korea taught me that no matter where in the world you are, children will be children. So it shouldn't have been a surprise to Katie or I that the three 10 or so year-old monks we saw while at Swayambhu spent their time chasing, yelling at, and throwing rocks and sandals at the monkeys that also inhabit the Temple. It just seemed counterintuitive – aren't monks supposed to stand, above all, for peace and harmony with all living things? To see them throwing rocks at their quasi-pets was weird.

THREE: Dog-monkey war! King Monkey was hanging out on a little stupa, when an older Nepalese man, unaware of King Monkey's presence only a couple feet away from him, walked by. King Monkey got angry for some reason and swatted at the old man. There are well-fed, friendly stray dogs all over Kathmandu, and one that happened to be nearby at this moment ran to the old man's defense. This started an all-out dog/monkey war. Barks and screeches filled the air as the dogs eventually chased the King Monkey-led gang of monkeys back into their safe haven – the trees all around Swayambhu. Although the monkeys were obviously much more fun to observe than stray dogs, neither Katie nor I could help but root for the dogs, as they'd come to the helpless old man's defense. We hoped this was a sign that if we faced any further problematic monkey-business (yeah, I said monkey-business) of our own, we'd be able to count on being defended by stray dogs. If only there'd been dogs around at the time of Katie's monkey-hands molestation.

Bathrooms in Nepal

This whole blogging thing is still pretty new to me, and I guess I don't really know what kind of format, if any, “Glenn's Adventures” will ultimately follow. I know there will be plenty of events in my upcoming travels that will warrant an entire entry, but there will also be long periods of time where I'll be away from electricity, or when I simply won't want to or have the time to do much writing. So for today's entry, I'll try doing this in short story style. Here are some of the amazing things that have happened to Katie and I since everything went to hell on day one of our Nepal adventure.

Story One: Bathrooms in Nepal

Let's start with what everyone reading this must certainly be most interested in: peeing and pooping! In Korea, western-style toilets were the norm, but you'd occasionally find yourself having to use a squatter. A squatter that flushes. In Nepal, squatters are the norm, and western-style toilets are the rarity. And I haven't yet seen a squatter that flushes – at least not in the traditional sense. Most bathrooms have a big bucket and a tap (that occasionally works), so once you've done your duty (by 'done your duty' I mean 'taken a shit'), you fill the bucket with water and dump it into the squatter, thus mysteriously flushing away whatever you might have left behind, excluding, of course, the terrible smells that are a permanent fixture of Nepalese bathrooms.

There are no public bathrooms in Nepal, which is problematic on several levels. Since I got here, my digestive tract has been angry at me, perhaps because of the amount of street food I've been eating, or perhaps because all the damage done to my camera and computer stuff on day one wasn't quite enough to satisfy an inexplicably vengeful higher power. Either way, whenever you need to use a bathroom, there isn't one around. But there is ALWAYS a tea and snacks shop / restaurant. It doesn't matter if you are downtown, or on a high mountain trail. There's always a tea shop. So you can simply go in, order some tea, and use the bathroom. Problem solved – except for the oxymoronic concept of stopping at a place to pee, only to order another few drinks which simply perpetuates the problem.

Now for some specifically memorable squatter experiences: On Katie and my first full day in Nepal, we went to Swayambhu (Monkey Temple; see Story Two below), and when we came down at dusk, we wandered into a hole-in-the-wall for tea and snacks. The phrase hole-in-the-wall takes on a whole new meaning for spoiled Westerners like myself over here – many places have dirt floors, 5-foot high ceilings, and no electricity. This was one such place. Both Katie and I needed to use the bathroom, and upon explaining this, the proprietress told her 8-10 year old son to show us each, one-at-a-time, to the bathroom. To get there, you had to follow a boy through a single-candle lit kitchen, then through a pitch-black hallway (with 5-foot ceilings, of course), seeing only with the help of the boy's keychain-sized LED flashlight that emitted about as much light as a black hole. And it smelled like death. Poop-death.

The other specifically memorable squatter came at another hole-in-the-wall near Durbar Square, one of the touristy areas of Kathmandu. Getting to this squatter involved going upstairs, and through a chicken-wire “gate” that said something about a construction zone, under a collapsed brick / concrete / rebar pillar, and onto what can only be described as a bannister-free balcony. It looked like part of the floor had collapsed some time earlier (Days? Months? Years? No idea.). And there, on the middle of this 'balcony,' was the squatter. The 'balcony' was still hidden from the outside world by walls on all four sides, so you couldn't look out on the city or have the city look in on you, but after dark, it would have been terrifyingly easy to try to squat down, and instead fall over the edge of the balcony and impale yourself on one or more of the pieces of rebar sticking out in all directions from the floor below. Fun.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

24 Calamatous Hours in Kathmandu

...So as of the end of my last entry in this new-to-me blog thing, I claimed that I was “...ready for my next adventure.”

Never before has anyone been so incorrect about anything.  Ever.

My last night in Korea was amazing. I stayed at a great motel, and enjoyed the best Korean food I'd ever had. Never before has kimchi jjigae – one of my favorite Korean dishes – tasted so fantastic. And having just finished a ~13 month stint in the country, claiming a specific meal to be 'the best' is no small feat. There were lots of mixed emotions as Katie (my travel mate for the next few months), her father, and I wished my girlfriend a happy birthday, even though her real birthday was the next day, September 11, the exact day I was leaving for Nepal, and the 10-year anniversary of the biggest news story of my lifetime. Oops. It wasn't supposed to work out that way.

My travel mate for the next few months, Katie, was at the airport by the time I woke up the next morning; she had left early to see her father to the airport, since his flight home was earlier than our flight to Nepal.

I'd met Katie when I first arrived in Korea, about 13 months ago, and we became quick friends because of our common interests in general adventuring and our propensity for making fart and dick jokes. Additionally, we had both spent a great deal of time in Colorado, where I grew up and she spent 3 winters working at Copper Mountain, one of my favorite ski resorts. And if that isn't enough 'small world' stuff, we both had participated in a semester abroad program called 'Semester at Sea,' albeit 2 years apart.

Leaving the motel at 10 in the morning with one huge (80L) backpack, a daypack (35L), and my bomb-proof super-briefcase sized camera case I felt reasonably ready to get on the 11 hour flight (including a 3-hour layover in Guangzhou, China) that would take me the 2500 miles West from Seoul to Kathmandu. What could possibly go wrong in the next 24 hours?

At baggage check, things started wonderfully. The weight of my combined bags was significantly higher than allowed for our flight, but since Katie and I had booked together, they used the average weight of all three of our checked bags (Katie's big backpack, my big backpack, and my camera case), and said that I wouldn't be charged an overweight baggage fee. Nice. I'd arrived expecting to fork over an extra $100 in baggage fees. The woman at the China Southern counter also told us that we'd need $25 each in U.S. DOLLARS for a 90-day visa upon our arrival in Nepal. Fortunately, I had been given a $50 bill from a student's mother on my last day at Beyond Advanced (the Korean school where I taught English to elementary school students). I had planned on holding onto it in case I needed it for a bribe or something at some point in the next few months, but it now appeared I'd have to part with it at Nepalese customs. Oh well.

With baggage check done, Katie, Melody and I had hoped to have one last lunch together, but upon consulting a nearly-magical touch-screen Incheon Airport guide and finding that it would take approximately 45 minutes to reach our departure gate, and noting that boarding was set to begin in approximately 45 minutes, we were forced into a hasty goodbye. It was terribly sad saying goodbye to Melody, but we both knew this day was coming, and I suppose we both handled it as well as could be expected.

The rest of Katie's and my time at Incheon Airport was uneventful, as was the hotter-than-hell, air-conditioning-free flight to Guangzhou. Then, things started getting weird. At Chinese customs, the officer who inspected my passport didn't believe I was the person on my passport. Granted, my passport photo was taken in 2003 when I had longer hair and weighed maybe 15 pounds more than I do now, but c'mon … it's me. Lacking any other form of photo ID (I lost my wallet with my driver's license a few months before, at a rapey jimjilbong in Seoul), I presented them several credit cards and whatnot with my name on them, and eventually, they let me through. But the foreshadowing of this unfortunate event would turn out to be remarkably in-tune with everything the next 12 hours would hold for me.

With about 2 hours to kill in Guangzhou airport, I took out my brand new laptop with the intention of updating the metadata for some ebooks I'd downloaded the previous week. When I turned on my computer, the right three-quarters of the screen was dead. I tried a few things to resurrect my screen, but to no avail. Shit. My brand-new (one month old, turned on maybe 5 times prior to this event) computer was toast.

Then, when it was time to board the plane, I took out my camera to take a picture of the boarding gate, and got an error message saying something about the communication between the lens and the camera being faulty. One sentence of background information: My camera, a $2500 Canon 5D Mk II, is only about a year and a half old, and I've already had to have it repaired twice – including once after owning it for only three days. Marvelous.

Depressed by the events of the last hour but looking forward to our arrival in Nepal, Katie and I boarded the plane for our 5-hour flight. Our time on board flew by (Get it?! Flew by. Like being on a plane. I'm funny.), and before we knew it, we were on the tarmac at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. We got off the plane and walked about 200 meters to an airport unlike any I'd stepped foot in before. Instead of clinically clean, white walls and architecturally modern curved surfaces, we walked through a dimly-lit brick hallway, seeing only one airport employee for the duration of our walk from the airport to customs and immigration … where I discovered my wallet was missing.

I immediately knew my wallet must have fallen out of my pocket on the plane, and turned around, Katie in tow, and ran back through the dimly-lit brick hallway towards the plane. If I had tried anything like this in America, I'd probably have been shot. But instead of being shot, a security guard calmly approached me and asked me what the problem was. I explained that my wallet must have fallen out on the plane, and he walked us in that direction. A moment later, Katie and I were met by the head of security. He asked me to describe the wallet, to which I replied, “It's brown. And it says 'Bad Mother Fucker' on it.” He told me they'd found it, and returned it, sans the $50 I needed for immigration. Happy to have the wallet, I didn't make a fuss about the missing $50, even though the security guy brought the whole crew responsible for the cleaning of the plane over, and told me exactly who had found the wallet, and who he had given it to prior to it being given to the head of security himself. I didn't want the guy who found the wallet to lose his job, so I didn't press the issue and ask for him to be searched or anything – 82% of Nepalese people live on less than $2 a day, and $50 for me is, in my newly retired condition, pocket change.

Back at immigration, things continued to go downhill. In order to get a 90-day Nepalese tourist visa, you must pay $100 U.S. (in U.S. Dollars, British Pounds, E.U. Euros, or one of several other NON-NEPALESE forms of currency). Credit cards are not accepted. So it turns out that even if my $50 hadn't been stolen, we'd still have been in trouble. This sounds, from an American perspective, like an incredibly easy obstacle to overcome, but in Nepal, things can sometimes be more difficult. Neither Katie nor I had any currency of any kind, so simply converting money wasn't an option. We went to the ATM located near customs and immigration, but it was turned off. After explaining our predicament to the officer at the customs and immigration desk, he volunteered to hold on to our passports while we went downstairs to get money from one of the two ATMs elsewhere in the airport. Reluctant to leave our passports in the possession of anyone but ourselves, but lacking any other options, we agreed, and headed downstairs, through baggage claim. Because of the time we spent getting my wallet back and trying to deal with the visa fiasco, the baggage claim carousel had already been turned off, and our bags were sitting there for anyone to grab. Luckily, no one had done so.

We continued out past baggage claim, to where we'd been told we'd find another ATM. This one was closed off behind a metal gate. At this point, we met a guy who'd been sent by Khangsar Guest House (the hotel we'd booked for our first few nights in Kathmandu) to pick us up, and explained the ridiculous situation that was presently unfolding. With the good humor and attitude I've since come to appreciate, and perhaps ignorantly expect from Nepalese people, he walked us to our last-option ATM through a monsoon that started, ironically, the moment we stepped out of the covered section of the airport and onto the sidewalk. 5 rain-soaked minutes later, we arrived at ATM #3, our last chance to get money for our Nepalese visas. It cannot be denied that this ATM was one of the most overly protected pieces of technology in the world – it's protectors included a fully camouflaged Nepalese army soldier with a rifle … and a stray dog. Unfortunately, it's protection was fully unwarranted. The screen read “Temporarily Out Of Service.” This being Nepal, I'm not sure if “temporarily” means “until tomorrow” or “until the rapture.”

Unsure what would happen now, we returned upstairs to customs, grabbing our baggage from baggage claim on the way – I was really uncomfortable leaving all my camera stuff there one moment longer. In our sleep-deprived and somewhat delirious OMG-I'm-finally-in-Nepal mindset, we spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to get back upstairs to the customs desk. We'd initially come down a down-only escalator, and were too idiotic to find the stairs that were located a mere 20 meters away. We came disturbingly close to trying to run up a downward-moving escalator with heaps and heaps of baggage while wearing wet flip-flops. Broken jaws, feet, and other injuries may have been averted only because of a kind Nepalese man pointing us in the direction of the stairs.

Back, yet again, at the customs and immigration desk, we told the officer there that we couldn't get the money for our visas and were unsure how to handle the situation. He consulted with his boss, and they gave us little slips of paper that were to work legally as our passports, until we came back to get our passports, the following day any time after 2pm.

Bleh. What a disastrous few hours. We got into the cab that had now been waiting for us for over an hour in the pouring rain, and were on our way to the Khangsar Guest House. We arrived a bit hungry, but much more THIRSTY … for beer. After such a stressful day, a few beers on the rooftop of our new hotel was exactly what we needed. So we got 4 big beers and relaxed on the rooftop, discussing the problems we'd had that day, and the starkly contrasted, beautiful future that the next few months would certainly hold for us.

Writing this entry over a week after the events described in this entry, the 4-beer dinner on our first night in Nepal remains, by far, our most expensive meal in the country. By the time our first 'dinner' was complete, a full moon had materialized from the previously cloudy sky, and I went to our room to get my camera and tripod to get a full-moon photo. When I grabbed my tripod out of my bag – surprise! - the head snapped off.

Even with all these unforeseen and costly problems, I remained (and still do) positive that my time in Nepal will be exceptional. And as will be seen in my next entry – hopefully posted tomorrow – my expectations have been, for the most part, justified.

Next post: Week one in Nepal. Awesome experiences at Kathmandu's famous “Monkey Temple.” Ridiculously cheap living expenses. Delicious tea. Street food. Local drinks served from gasoline cans. Amazing locals. Katie's and my first teahouse trek through the Kathmandu Valley. And much, much more!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Leaving Korea...

I'm writing this entry – which may not be posted until my arrival in Nepal – from a bus en route from Tongyeong to Seoul, where I'll fly out of in less than 24 hours. It's a strange feeling, and I don't know that my emotions have ever been so mixed up at the end or beginning of a new journey. And this certainly qualifies as both.

Thursday, September 8th was my 29th birthday, and although I knew that my life had been amazing for the last year, it really hit home for me when I was Skyping with my parents, and they asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I thought about it for a few moments and wasn't able to come up with anything. At this moment I knew that I was genuinely happy.

For the last year, I've had an easy, relatively stress-free, decent paying job doing something I would never have imagined myself doing back in my high school days. Teaching Korean elementary school students English was, although extremely trying at times, an amazing experience that I wouldn't give back for the world. And with the completion of my contract, I've saved close to $10,000 to spend over the next 5+ months, as I travel around Nepal and Southeast Asia.

I lived in a beautiful coastal town with one of the most closely-knit communities of expats I could possibly imagine. There were probably about 30-40 native English-speakers working as teachers in Tongyeong, and of that group, perhaps 20 at any given time could be counted on to hang out together with regularity. I say 'at any given time' because the crowd was constantly changing, as year-long contracts were always expiring and being refilled. The bonds I formed with some of these people will last a lifetime.

And I had an amazing Korean girlfriend that I'm going to miss like crazy when I step foot on my flight to Kathmandu tomorrow. I debated sharing the following few sentences because it's kind of embarrassing, but what the hell. I don't think I've actually cried in … well, since I don't know when. I was close to it when I said goodbye to my favorite class of adorable 8 year olds. I almost cried when I read a 'thank you' letter from one of my students a few nights later. I was on the verge when I said goodbye to my friends and fellow Tongyeong expats last night. I came close when the bus I'm now on pulled out from the station, and Melody said “Goodbye Tongyeong.” But tomorrow when I get on the plane, I know it's going to happen. Don't pick on me too much.

So when my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday, it was an unbelievably liberating feeling to be able to say that I didn't genuinely want anything. I've got everything I need, and shy of a new Ferrari or another overpriced and unnecessary camera lens, I've got everything I could even really want.

So why am I leaving this almost-perfect life behind me? That's tough. I know that as amazing as my life here has been, the next 5 months will be even better. I'm ready for the end of 'the grind,' even though 'the grind' been great in Korea. I'm ready to hike over 18,000 foot passes with 20 pounds of camera gear strapped all over my body. I'm ready to see monkeys steal food from my plate. I'm ready to see the Taj Mahal, Mt. Everest, Angor Wat, Vietnam, and the countless other things that will occupy my life over the next few months.

I'm ready for my next adventure.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

About Me...

So I've been traveling and generally doing fun things around the world for the last 3 and a half years, and I decided it was about time to share my stories with the world, or more likely, my parents.  To that end, here's a quick summation of how I came to be where I am presently (South Korea), getting ready to do what I'll be doing in 3 days (flying to Nepal to backpack for a couple months).

I grew up in Greeley, Colorado, and nothing happened.  Then I went to University at the University of Colorado, and almost nothing happened, but I did go on "Semester at Sea," a study-abroad program that takes place on a ship that goes around the world, stopping in a bunch of different ports along the way.  Thus, I was bitten, and the travel bug infected me.  Then I graduated.

After graduating from the University of Colorado in 2006, I worked as a 'design engineer for a small engineering firm in Denver, Colorado.  I knew going into the job that I didn't want to do it for long, but I quickly got tied down by bills and whatnot.  I constantly told my friends about how great it was going to be when I quit my job and started traveling the world, but didn't actually DO anything to make this a reality.  Eventually I realized this, and at a friend's Christmas party in December 2007 (where has the time gone?!), I got drunk and ordered a non-refundable one-way ticket to New Zealand.  Best drunken decision EVER.

I lived in New Zealand for 7 months, working about 5 of those months as a lift operator at Coronet Peak, just outside of Queenstown.  It was probably the best job I've ever had.  The rest of the time I spent living out of my car (I bought a $700 1988 Honda Civic), hiking, taking pictures, and generally having a better time than I would have had I NOT drunkenly bought a non-refundable one-way ticket to New Zealand.

Then I moved to Australia, where I wanted to learn to surf.  I didn't really learn to surf, but I did drive around the whole country in my amazing van that I lived out of, stopping for a few months in Byron Bay, on the east coast, and Perth, on the west.  I worked as a dishwasher, a bus driver, a waiter / handyman, a general laborer, a forklift driver, and a fence builder during my time in Australia. While there, I made a ton of friends from around the world - the backpacker scene in Australia is huge.  Finally, I took a ton of pictures.  I'm an amateur photographer with some aspirations of becoming a pro, but lacking the drive to make it happen presently.  I'll have to get some pics up on this site later.

Then I moved back home, because I hadn't done enough paperwork in advance to secure a job as an English teacher in Asia.  I spent 4 months in Colorado, where I camped, reconnected with old friends who remain my best friends, and again, took a shitload of pictures.

And then, hours and hours and hours and hours of paperwork later, came to South Korea to teach English to elementary school students at a private school in Tongyeong, a city of 130,000 people on the SE coast of South Korea.  And succeeded in my goal of having a great time.

Now, I'm done with my contract, and I'm going to Nepal to hike for a few months, then off to SE Asia to do... I don't know, really.  But the next 6 or so months should be awesome, and hopefully I'll be able to write some good stories and post some good pictures here while this takes place.