Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Back to the grind, back in Korea

EDIT: This is being posted one week after I wrote it.

I'm writing this in Korea. In a cheap hotel on Jeju Island, Korea (Google maps it) to be more precise. I'll be spending the next year here (although hopefully not in this hotel room...), working as an English teacher. While this is not the first time I've done this, it is my first time on Jeju. I spent a year teaching English to elementary- and middle-school students in Tongyeong (Google maps it, too), from August 2010 to September 2011. Why am I back in Korea?

Well, after dabbling in more “career paths” than I care to admit, teaching English in Korea has been the best option I've thusfar been able to make happen. Probably not the best based solely on financial gain, but certainly the best based on the combination of financial gain, quality of life, and opportunities presented. I made a bit more money as an Engineer, during my brief tenure as one from mid-2006 to mid-2008, enjoyed my day-to-day job more as a lift operator in New Zealand during the winter of 2008, and had more free time as a waiter / handyman in Australia in 2008 and 2009, but none of these jobs have provided quite the net personal benefit that teaching English did during my last adventure in Korea. So during the five months I spent back home in Colorado, from June through October, 2012, I spent a considerable amount of time looking for new teaching opportunities in Korea, hoping to quasi-replicate the amazing year I had here previously. And the fact that I've only worked for about three of the last 13 months and have been broke, living rent-free in my parents house (I'm now 30, by the way) while back home meant it was time to get back to work.

I landed at Incheon International Airport, one of the world's busiest airports (it lies just outside of Seoul), on the afternoon of October 24, and had about three and a half hours from the moment my flight touched down until my next flight would take off – from Gimpo International Airport, Seoul's other international airport. During this three and a half hours, I came to remember a few things that I loved about Korea. In order to get from Incheon to Gimpo, I had to (1) collect my checked baggage, (2) pass through customs and immigration at Incheon, (3) find my way to the inter-airport subway, (4) take this subway / rail line – a ride of 35 minutes, (5) collect my boarding pass at Gimpo, (6) go through security, and (7) get on my next flight. Would this have been doable in the United States? I don't really know, but it would be a lot more stressful, given the longer times required for each of the steps in this process. In Korea, I made it to my next flight with over an hour to spare. AND I wasn't forced to pay an excess baggage fee for this leg of my flight. I WAS forced to pay a $70 “extra bag” fee to take my camera gear from Denver to Seoul, and it would have been $270 if I hadn't just barely managed to get the weight of my primary bag down from 52 to 50 pounds, by means of transferring 2 pounds of stuff to another bag. Bear in mind this is just a transfer of weight. The plane was still carrying the same amount of weight. But the gate workers made me go through the loops, all over two pounds. Argh, whatever.

I landed in Jeju at about 8pm on October 24th, and after getting a ride to my aforementioned cheap hotel, I enjoyed a delicious meal of black pork, a Jeju specialty. I learned last night that it is only called “black pork” because the skin of the pigs raised on Jeju is black. Does it count as racism to charge more for black pigs? Regardless, it tasted about the same as normal pork. Delicious. Kind of like how black people taste the same as other races … delicious.

More than a little jetlagged, I fell asleep more solidly than I can remember having happened in the last few years. In fact, I woke up at 3 in the morning to find that all my lights were still on.

So far, so good. And then I had a shitty experience.

I was picked up outside my hotel by “Jimmy” (Korean name unknown) at 9:30 AM on October 25th. Jimmy was the guy who got me my job. He's basically an intermediary between potential public school teachers and EPIK (English Program In Korea), which is the Korean public school system, on Jeju. We spent the next five hours doing paperwork and whatnot that was required for me to teach. First, we went to the hospital, where I took a drug test that involved taking 4 (yes, four) vials of blood, and a urine test. Then, we went to the Education office, where I re-signed a contract that I'd signed earlier and emailed to Jimmy. Next, it was off to the bank so I could open an account so I could be, you know, paid. And then the ugliness.

Let's go back a ways. Prior to my five months in America, I'd spent about 3 months teaching English in Vietnam. This was roughly March – May, 2012. Long story short, I ended up leaving Vietnam with about $2,900 US in Vietnamese dong – yes, their currency is the dong, and yes, the currency I had with me in America was a gangsta-style half-inch-thick roll of 500,000 and 200,000 dong notes. I never exchanged it for American dollars because I wasn't able to find anywhere with a halfway decent exchange rate and was under the impression that it would be a different story once I was back in Korea. Turns out I was wrong.

After opening my new bank account with NH Bank, I asked if I could deposit my Vietnamese currency and was told, “Nope. Y'all gots ta roll inta one dem ekchange banks t' do dat.” Not verbatim. I explained to Jimmy that I needed to go to an exchange bank, and we went to Jeju's branch of KEB – Korea Exchange Bank – with whom I banked with when I was here before and had had nothing but positive things to say. We were in a rush at this moment, so I didn't bother counting the bills the teller had given me. The currency exchange accomplished, we carried on, taking care of the rest of the paperwork necessary for me to spend a year here as an English teacher. It seemed that everything went fine, and the rest of the day's interviews and paperwork breezed by. At about 3:30, I was back at my hotel with no obligations for the rest of the day, and looked at my financial situation.

At KEB, I should have been given about 2.8 million Korean Won. I'd even been given a receipt that said I was given about 2.8 million Korean Won. Unfortunately, I had only been given about 1.8 million Won. Only now realizing the situation a couple hours after the exchange, I panicked, and counted my money again. Panic, again. After re-re-confirming that I was about 1,000,000 Won (something like $900) short of what I should have been, I called Jimmy, and briefly explained the situation to him. He seemed a bit disbelieving, but suggested I return to the bank and explain the situation to them, with the stipend that if I encountered a problem, I was to call him. Heart racing, I walked back to the KEB, and pulled a number from the queue machine.

My number was called, but it wasn't pulled by the woman with whom I dealt earlier, so I pantomimed that I needed to speak with a specific teller. A few minutes later, I was “conversing” with the teller who had shortchanged me $900 a couple hours before. I went into this situation with the assumption that, no, she hadn't tried to steal $900 from me (she's Korean after all, and Koreans don't steal, right? Is that racist?). This assumption was based on my previous year here, during which I heard multiple stories of wallets being lost and subsequently returned with ALL the money contained therein untouched. Her reaction, however, just led to more questions.

When I explained that I was short one million Won, she didn't dispute the fact at all. She simply grabbed a million Won and handed it to me. She gave me $900 without batting an eye, checking records, or contacting a manager. I don't know whether this implies she knew she'd been caught stealing, or if she had, after my departure, realized that she'd shortchanged me, and just wanted to fix the situation immediately. I think this will remain one of life's unsolved mysteries.

Ah reckon that's just about enough for one entry. I'm going to try and be more vigilant about writing, and I'm optimistically saying that I will, in general, try to put up a new post every other week or so for the duration of my time in Korea. Next story: the first weekend. Spoiler alert: it involves a hospital visit...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Just a tad overdue - Nepal 4 of 4

It's been a good long while since I've done any writing so I guess I'll just get right to it.  Here, at long last, is the last of my Nepal photo-entries.

After a surprisingly comfortable Christmas Day van ride, I arrived in Chitwan, just outside of Chitwan National Park, the home of the 2012 International Elephant Race (and elephant soccer game ... seriously).  The environment here, versus the lodges on the Annapurna and Everest Treks, was tropical.  The elevation here is roughly 150 meters above sea level.  I didn't know that Nepal GOT this low.  The lodge I stayed at featured electricity, a shower, and a Western toilet.  Livin' large.
A Belgian couple (or Dutch?  I can't remember ... the perils of writing a blog entry nine months after the events contained therein) told me to wander up the river to see a crocodile they'd seen.  I saw him, but got only crappy pictures.  I did, however, get a nice shot of this outdoor speaker that was blaring AC/DC (did I mention this was Christmas Day) in a decidedly resortish part of "town."
This is what a taxi looks like in Chitwan.  I got a few rides on these guys while I was in Chitwan.  Not quite as nice as a Crown Victoria, but more memorable.
Pshew ... made it through Christmas without any particularly blasphemous comments.
... resist the temptation ...
... RESIST! ...
Sorry, couldn't resist.  Christmas only comes around once a year, after all.
Q: What's the difference between Jesus and a picture of Jesus?
A: It only takes one nail to hang the picture!
So anyways, the morning of the 26th was super foggy.  Here's a bit after sunrise.
It's pretty tough to do Chitwan individually (i.e. not as part of a tour group), so I spent about three days here with a tour group, and on the morning of the 26th, our first activity was to go out on the Narayami river on a dug-out canoe.  It was a foggy morning.
One of my major goals on this portion of my trip (Chitwan and Bardia National Parks) was to see a live tiger.  If you're interested in how that all turned out, read one of my previous entries, which probably has the word "tiger" in the title.  In Chitwan I did NOT see a live tiger, but my group saw plenty of tiger paw prints, like this one.  Prior to our group seeing this print, we were given an extensive safety talk.  The conclusion was this: if we see a dangerous animal ... it's case-by-case.  That was it.  But fortunately, we were being guided by two 5-foot tall guys armed with bamboo sticks.
These are ducks.
These are elephants.
This is a guy climbing an elephant.  He wandered into the river and pat the elephant in a particular way.  It responded by using it's trunk to lift him up on top of it's head, at which point he rode it back to it's home like a horse.  Can you imagine having a pet elephant?  Aweome, minus the food costs and, ahem, cleanup.
Went on a 4x4 ride, which was cool, but disappointing - I was led to believe I'd see 400 tigers, 300 elephants, and a unicorn.  Nonetheless, a rhino was pretty cool to see.

Young gharial crocodiles at a breeding center.  I spent a few minutes on Wikipedia to find some gharial-related information, and came up with this fascinating gem: "The length of the snout is 3.5 (in adults) to 5.5 times (in young) the breadth of the snout's base."  OMG!  (Damn you, lack-of sarcastic font.)
"I would eat your face off if my own face wasn't so fragile." - old Ghiari proverb

Now the morning of the 27th, about to go on an elephant ride.  Fun, but Nepal's equivalent of a roller coaster.  An elephant-ride factory, basically.  They obviously just wanted to get everyone on and off as fast as possible.  I rode with a German mother and her two teenage children who spoke English, but only spoke German for the duration of the ride.  Here's something no one thinks about when getting on an elephant ride - this shit ain't comfortable.  And photography from a bouncy-ass elephant ain't easy.

Back through the river.  This river-crossing was obviously included as a gimmick - "OMG!  I rode an elephant through a river!"  And this Indian family has iPhone photos to prove it!

As gimmicky as the elephant ride was, we did see another rhino.  The closest I'd ever been (or would ever HOPE to be) to a rhino in the wild.  Notice the steamy breath?

Who knew there were rhinos in Nepal?!

Merry Christmas to you too, scary scarecrow-Santa.

As I mentioned in an earlier caption, I was in Chitwan for the "International Elephant Race" and soccer game.  No one in Chitwan or the surrounding villages has a car, but they all have bicycles, hence the mass of unlocked bicycles at the event.

What?  You've never seen an elephant with war-paint?

I can't even remember if these guys were judges in the elephant soccer game or players.  Notice the toenails on the elephants.  Wait ... you've never been to an elephant soccer game?!  Loser!

Dancers at the post elephant-soccer game events.  This entire event was really memorable and awesome.  And the food and beer were super-cheap.  I wish I was there again, right now.

We visited an elephant-breeding center.  This little guy was born a week before we arrived.  I remember having told friends during silly drunken conversations that my theoretical "ideal pet" was a pygmy elephant.  I don't think such a thing exists, but after seeing this little guy, my opinions were justified.  Minus the whole "feeding" and "cleaning the shit up" things, I can't imagine a cooler pet.

I'm hoping that the following tag will attract more visitors to my blog: "ELEPHANT TIT PORN."  (But seriously, wouldn't one expect elephant titties to be horrifyingly gigantic?  I'm a bit disappointed.)

Night at the International Elephant Race (and soccer game).

A second ago, I accidentally typed in "rave" instead of "race," and now I'm wondering how awesome it would be to attend the "International Elephant Rave."  Right, guys? *silence*

On my last day in Chitwan, I went back to the elephant breeding center with unknown-nationality Goffery and Anna, and wandered through the forest shown in this photo in yet another unsuccessful attempt to see a tiger.  We were alone, and in the dark of the denser portions of the forest, so it got mildly frightening at times, but the most terrifying creature we saw was the beast in this photo.  And yeah, those are 20,000+ foot mountains in the background.  Horse is not impressed.

Some kind of bee.  I wish I had a macro lens.

Seriously, I wish I had a macro lens.  I will be totally willing to sacrifice a few hand-welts for better closeups of bees and butterflies and whatnot.  Isn't the iridescence of this guy's wings incredible?

I had to photoshop the shit out of this picture to even get it THIS visible.  Other photographers out there will get what I'm complaining about... trying to get a noise-free photo of a monkey jumping from one branch to another AT DUSK is GODDAMN IMPOSSIBLE.  Note to self: return to monkey-land and observe monkeys at mid-day.

This is a gibbon.

Now for a story: The tale of Glenn's passage from Chitwan to Bardia.

Most of the people that go to Nepal as tourists go there and do some kind of trek - Annapurna Circuit, Everest Base Camp, etc. and MAYBE make it to Chitwan National Park.  Not many tourists make it to Bardia, but I'd read it was, because of it's remoteness, a great spot for wildlife.

The ride from Chitwan to Bardia was long.  Something like ten hours on a full bus.  I was doing this portion of my trip independently, and it was a bit sketchy.  I boarded a bus at the Chitwan bus stop some time in the afternoon, and promptly (and shockingly) fell asleep.  Maybe the totally-legal Valium had something to do with this.  Perhaps because I was the only English-speaker on the bus, the stops (for dinner and to pee ... no, not at highway restrooms, just on the side of the road) were kind of weird.  And the times were insane.  The dinner stop made sense, but the 2AM stop, which lasted half an hour didn't make any sense.  Nonetheless, I used it to drink a pile of 10 Rs. (70 Nepali rupees = $1 US at the time of my visit) milk teas.

At 4:15 AM, thank Valium, I was asleep again, when the guy next to me (I have no idea how he knew where I wanted to get off the bus) let me know - via elbow nudging - that we'd made it to Bardia, and I was to get off here.  This was the only time in my time in Nepal that I arrived anywhere early.  I was let off the bus in the pitch dark with a distant building the ONLY source of light on a cloudy night.  To be clear, I was basically dropped off on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere.  There was only one building - a 10 foot by 10 foot cinderblock shack barely illuminated by a gas lantern that I spent 5 minutes walking to.  It turned out to be a military checkpoint where no one spoke English.  Not knowing what to do, and not really sure what to do about this unusual situation in the pitch black, I invited myself inside (the 3 Nepali military guys armed with machine guns weren't opposed to this), to wait until daylight.

Fortunately, only a few minutes passed before a guy on a motorcycle arrived.  He was there to pick up nonexistent guests for "Mr. B's Place."  There were no guests waiting there, but I was.  The driver spoke English, and I communicated that I needed a place to stay; he was there to take people TO a place to stay, and I got a ride on his motorcycle.  It turned out the village of Bardia was about a 15-minute motorcycle ride from the military checkpoint on a crazy dirt road.  On the pre-dawn ride, I noticed several people walking the opposite direction of us.  I asked what they were doing out at this ridiculous hour, and was told they were walking to school.  It was still before 5AM.  I will never doubt the drive of Nepali people.

I arrived at "Mr. B's Place" shortly before 5AM, and immediately met Mr. B.  There's a picture of him further down.  He kindly let me stay the night (kinda ... it was now about 5AM) for FREE.

If you ever make it to Bardia, stay at Mr. B's Place.  It's amazing, and Mr. B is great.

Woke up at ~9ish on the 29th, and after breakfast, wandered through town and the surrounding forest.  In fact, I spent this whole day simply wandering the area.  It was awesome.  As for the town, there were maybe 10 shops total and a population of a few hundred.  I had lunch in town: 4 samosas, 2 doughnuts, a fried vegetable-pile, and two cups of milk tea.  The total?  55 Rupees.  (75 Nepali Rupees = $1US)

This is a butterfly.  Surprisingly, there are a lot of butterfly species that live in Nepal.

Remember that thing I said earlier about it being difficult to get photos of monkeys jumping all nimbly-bimbly from tree to tree?  Well, it's still true.

Is it a monkey?  Is it a dog?  It's monkey-dog!
(I don't know what it is.  I'll try to remember to find out when I am more patient ... and sober.  Whatever this thing is, they're all the hell all over Nepal, especially near Bardia.)

A village I discovered while wandering around mindlessly.

Fun things that happened between 12/30 and 1/2 2012:
Walked around and saw zero animals.
Rode a super-ghetto bicycle to the neighboring village and back.  The front tire popped.  The seat pinched my balls in a horrible manner (humorous twist to the end of this story later).
Ate a ridiculous number of cookies.
Drank Sprite and whiskey on New Year's Eve and was in bed well before midnight.

Finally, a nice view on the 2nd.  I knew I was leaving Bardia on the afternoon of the 4th, and hired a guy to walk me through Bardia National Park in hopes of seeing a tiger.  We saw quite a few paw prints, but no tigers.  There were random towers scattered here and there throughout the park.  This was the view from one of them.

Not as large or terrifying as a saltwater crocodile from Australia, but pretty goddamn scary when you see one of these guys only after your guide points it out to you.  If I'd been alone I would have been eaten a thousand times in Nepal.

Just because I'm sure any visitors to this site haven't seen enough monkeys yet.

This was supposed to be a picture of a tiger, but instead it is a picture of a stupid bird.

This also was supposed to be a picture of a tiger, but again, it is a picuture of a stupid bird.  Or deer.  Or whatever.  It's not a tiger, so who cares.  It's a stupid spotted deer.

I spent all day on the second of January, 2012, walking through Bardia with two guides in the hopes of seeing a tiger.  Didn't happen. But I did see a caged rhino (face pictures a bit down) that resulted in this picture.  Pretty cool huh?
Remember that Arrested Development line: "Those are balls!"
You'll never know for sure, will you?

Mr. B and myself.  I'm the short, Nepali guy.

The view from the "Elephant Tower" in Bardia National Park."  My second day trying to spot a tiger.  Ugly weather, poor photographic luck.

God ... damn ... it.  This is where I saw a tiger, but it went from asleep to out-of-sight in less time than it took me to raise my camera to my eye.

Seriously, goddamn it.  How did I miss this shot?  For details on WTF happened, read one of my previous entries.  But goddamn it, this shot is symbolic of why I don't earn money as a photographer.

Kingfishers.  I'm getting tired of writing so much and it's time to go to sleep, so the rest of these photos will have horribly short captions.

Rhino.  Not in the wild.  A caged rhino that killed a dude once, so it was captured and put in "jail."  "Jail" was quoted because that was the humorous word my guide used to describe the rhino's housing situation.

I went to get lunch this one day, and ended up sitting with these old guys who didn't speak a word of English.  I let one of them use my camera and he took literally 14 back-to-back-to-back pictures of his friends by holding down the shutter button.  He's probably never seen a camera, and he's a better people-photographer than me.

I don't know what to say.  This kid is a badass.

Back at Pashupati, at dawn a few days before I finally left Nepal.

More Pashupati.

Still more Pashupati.

Still still more Pashupati.  Hope to come back here someday.

There are almost as many monkeys at Pashupatinath (Pashupati) as at Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath).  The next three photos are of a particularly hilarious mother and baby monkey at Pashupati.

Oh, monkeys.


If you've made it this far, here's me insulting you.  This is a picture of you.

Something like 100 days without shaving.  Goddamn, that's a sexy lumberjack.

NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!  What have you done!?!?!?!?!

I can't believe THIS is my last picture from Nepal.  Oh well.