Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cheesemakers in Korea

I know people say it is a small world.  I believe it more and more.  Here is a small world story.

From time to time as I walk the halls of Korea International School near Seoul, Korea, I see a young man from the middle school wearing a "Monroe Cheesemakers" red t-shirt.  Cheesemakers are kids from Monroe, a small community of 10,000 people in South Central Wisconsin.  It just so happens that my first teaching job 25 years ago was in Monroe.  How odd it is to see a Cheesemakers t-shirt in Korea!  My worlds across space and time have collided!

But let's dig a bit deeper.  How is this possible?  While the story itself is a bit long and winding, it also makes perfect sense.  

The aforementioned student is Allan the son of Neil who is a recent hire from Shanghai, China.  Neil and my husband Brent were buddies growing up and both attended Monroe schools where I later landed my first job.  Neil became a teacher, began teaching internationally and eventually ended up married and with kids and living in Shanghai.  Brent became a teacher, got married, had kids and eventually decided he was interested in international teaching.  Brent called Neil who helped to navigate the world of applying to teach internationally.  Brent and his family (that's me) ended up in Seoul.

Okay, so that brings two families to the same region of the world.  Good start.  But what about that boy in the hallway at KIS?  

Well, a year ago Brent knew that Neil and family were looking to relocate.  He also knew our school had openings in the teaching areas suited for Neil and his wife.  Networking and interviews did their magic, and voila, Neil and family ended up at KIS! 

What about the t-shirt?  Allan has never lived in Monroe, but he has relatives who still live there and they visit in the summers.  So, Allan likes the mascot and got himself a t-shirt that he wears at KIS from time to time.  

Pretty cool, eh?  And here's a little post script.  My niece has play dates with Neil's niece back in Monroe while my daughter and Neil's daughter have play dates in Korea.  

Now if that isn't "small world", I don't know what is. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Here we GO again!

The couch is gone.  The book cases are gone.  The table is gone. The extra dishes and winter clothes - gone.  The wall hangings are down.  The cupboards are emptying.  The calendar is full.  The cat is . . . . in Hong Kong!

What does it mean?

At this very moment we are 16 days from leaving KIS and GMH (Goodmorning Hill) and what we so affectionately call "The Dong."
Apt. at GMH
Sixteen days from boarding a plane and leaving home once again as global nomads.  Fifteen days from a completely empty apartment and tearful goodbyes in front of the fountain at GMH.  Fourteen days from completing grades and emptying our rooms and turning in our Macbook Pros that were never really ours but sure felt like ours for the last four years. Thirteen days from saying goodbye to the last of the students. We are about 12 days from Anna getting her braces off (she got them on our first year here).  We are 10 days away from the final "goodbye" for Alec and his buddies at a KIS pool party.  Six days away from a final sleepover for Anna with 8 of her friends. And 4 days away from the Farewell ceremony for departing staff.

The countdown has long been on.  1 year left.  1 semester left. 2 months left.  1 month left.  Such a countdown serves as a means to channel anticipation and melancholy.

What else does it mean?  We are sixteen days from arriving in Wisconsin, our other home.  Sixteen days from hugging family one more time.  20 days from seeing parents and the cabin.  26 days from summer fun in the Dells.  And 6 weeks from enjoying BBQ with old friends in our home for 17 years.  Life is wondrous and we are so grateful!

Are we looking forward to moving to Hong Kong?  Sure!  That's only 2 months away.  And 3 months until we can introduce Jigs our cat to his new home.

And doesn't time fly?
The views that await us.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Korea soon

Our four years in Korea will come to an end within a month.  Of course, this occasion calls for a bit of reminiscence and reflection, so please indulge me.

Chances are I will have written about most of these things at one time or another but here we go.

Korea is an amazing country.  We have spent most of our time living and and traveling around the Gyeonggi-province, which is the area in which Seoul is located.  I believe few people from the western hemisphere ever dream of coming to Korea to live or vacation, but I highly encourage you to do so if given the opportunity.

I believe I was most surprised by the presence of nature - the mountains with hiking paths everywhere and the intentional planning of green space along the rivers, with plenty of public parks.  And people of every age are out there enjoying these spaces.  Families look happy enjoying a walk or bike ride or a park or setting up a tent at a park.  Elderly people are hiking or exercising at the public exercise areas.

In the city itself there is plenty to do: shop, see shows, tour museums or palaces, attend festivals, eat, get a massage or go to a sauna, or shop at outdoor markets, hike, walk or bike.

The city is safer and cleaner than most anywhere you can go.  Public transportation is affordable and easily available.  There are specific services for English speakers who need help in Seoul and specific ongoing events for foreigners.  The air quality is quite good most of the time, too.

There is a sort of innocence here that is refreshing - somewhat like going back to the 1950's USA.  Education is clearly a priority here and international teachers are well respected.
You might get mixed reviews on expats interactions with Koreans, but my personal experiences have been very positive.

These are the upsides.  Certainly there are a few downsides.
First, the drivers are rarely aware of others.  Korea's value of education borders on obsession which tends to wear out the children and create imbalance in their lives.  Confucianism has both its benefits and drawbacks.  And having just a few major companies driving the economy has created some issues for the people here too.  Seoul is an expensive place to live and there is less English than you may think; this can create problems when traveling or buying products or simply trying to connect to the Korean people.  Certainly the population density is much higher than most people in the midwestern US would have ever encountered.  And life in an apartment is much different than that of living in a home in a neighborhood (but not necessarily worse).

Having said all this, I can conclude that I am still delighted to have had the opportunity to live and work here and raise two children in this culture and in the international school culture.  Our family has had the opportunities for travel and savings and top notch education that we may never have experienced back home in the US.  I shall be saying more farewells in the upcoming weeks, and this will be hard.  But I am so grateful for all that Korea has given to me and my family.

If you have been following my blog, please stay tuned as we transition to Hong Kong in August.  New adventures await!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Cat-rageous

As I write this, Jigs the cat is curled up in a ball at my feet.  He is snoozing contentedly, and he is microchipped with an AVID 9-digit chip compatible with Hong Kong regulations.  That is the end of the story. 

Let me start at the beginning.  See, we are moving to Hong Kong in the fall and have decided to take our cat with us.  Amongst the myriad of red tape designed to keep pets off of the island, there is a microchipping  requirement.  After having run into dead ends in the US over Christmas to find and purchase the right chip to bring back to our vet in Korea, I again commenced the hunt with the aid of my Korean neighbor and retired English teacher, Helen.  One night  Helen escorted me over to the government office in Suji to get a microchip, only to find the laws in our district had changed January first.  That meant we would have to wait at least 6 more weeks before the vet would be ready with the new system.  Luckily, after several phone calls over two days, Helen was able to learn that a nearby district's vet office had exactly what we needed.  

What joy!  I had finally arrived at the last leg of this particular red tape journey!  Now I just needed to get my cat to this vet.  But how?  And where was it?  Helen once again came to my rescue.  By this point she was fairly invested in the whole business, so she volunteered to accompany us to the vet.  Anna decided to come too.  So, at the agreed upon time and date, I stuck Jigs in his cat carrier and met Helen by our elevator.  Off we go.  First, a short bus ride to nearby Migeum station area with the cat meowing at regular intervals.  "Sorry, Jigs.  This should be just a few minutes," Anna soothed.  Off the bus and on the street we headed in the direction that my internet research had led me to believe we should go.  But no.  Nothing there.  

This began The Quest for the Vet's Office.  Helen, now emerging as the heroine of our story, asked anyone and everyone (in Korean, of course) where we were to go to find this place.  The cat continued to meow.  Passersby wondered at the unfamiliar sound in the midst of the busy city.  Anna soothed, "It's okay Jigs, we will be there soon," and handed me the carrier.  Off again.  More walking.  More inquiries.  A phone call..  . All done by Helen, mind you.  More meowing.  More soothing.  Until finally after what was about 30 minutes and one and a half miles of walking, we found ourselves at the vet.  Hallelujah!

Now it was Jig's turn for bravery as the vet inserted a giant needed with a teeny tiny AVID 9-digit-Hong-Kong-compatible microchip between his shoulder blades.  He was very brave.  

After just a 10 minute walk back to the bus (yes, we essentially had walked in a big square) and much meowing later, we arrived at the bus stop.  Jigs continued to complain, Anna continued to coo, and all was right with the world.

For the moment.

Still more adventures to come. . . . 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in Air Travel

We have found ourselves traveling a lot over the past few years.  Traveling itself isn't exciting at all.  Getting "there" is, of course.  But getting yourself to an airport along with your kids and luggage and carry-ons, through check in and security and then waiting for the plane to arrive, being on the plane for
X number of hours, then off the plane, through luggage pick up and customs is all rather tedious.  The best that can be said for it is that if "nothing happens" you've had a good trip.

Our most recent travel from Korea to the US-Mexico-US to Korea included a few memorable moments, however.   These are the times that test your patience.

Everyone deals with delays now and then.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Cozumel to arrive in Minneapolis where my brother-in-law, who lives literally 10 minutes from the airport, was poised to pick us up.  We were confident he'd check for delays and not have to wait too long for us.  However, upon our arrival with other delayed international flights, the line through customs was insanely long.  It wove through all the usual maze, then around a corner, and down the hall and then halted.  That's where we picked it up.  Some poor little 4 year old girl who had begun asking for water on the plane, was an hour later (and still in the hallway) begging and crying for water.  I finally mentioned to her mother that there must be a bathroom up ahead.  She "excused" her way through the line with the little girl, never to be seen again.  We were the lucky ones not having a connecting flight to catch.  But tempers flared when we all discovered that only 4 customs people were working the line of hundreds of people trying to process at the same time.  Finally, 2+ hours later, we made it through customs, only to realize that my brother-in-law was long gone and we had no phone or phone number.  Eventually we found a way to contact him, and he came to get us.  A 7 PM arrival had turned into 10 PM.  Patience!

That particular customs line beat out even our first arrival to Russia in 2004 when for no particular reason a customs line closed at the height of processing an international flight and everyone had to "merge" into one line.

But customs lines aren't the only potential for "eventful" travel.  So, too, mechanical problems.
Our flight back to Korea from Detroit had its own problems.  After an announced delay of 3 hours we finally made it on to our plane.  Everyone was buckled up having listened to the safety information, but the plane didn't move.  Turns out there was a mechanical problem with the plane.  So we waited.  Our 3 PM flight, that had turned into a 6 PM flight (with hopes of dinner being served by 7:30 PM) turned into a sitting-at-the-gate-until 9 PM flight as we waited for the repair (I guess that makes dinner about 10:30 PM).  Needless to say, the natives were restless and mighty hungry by take-off.  So, our 12 hour flight turned into a 15 hour flight.  All of this is  unfortunate, of course, but the hardest part became the arrival in Korea.  Public transportation closes at midnight, so an entire international flight of people needed to get to their destinations.  Thankfully, the airline arranged for special busing for everyone.  We, however, had pre-arranged for a van to pick us up.  The poor van driver went from a 7:30 PM pick-up to a 1:30 AM pick-up of his customers.  We were mighty anxious to get off the plane, get our luggage, and get home.  But, alack, it still was not to be as simple as that.  There was a mechanical problem with the luggage compartment and they couldn't get all the luggage out right away - including ours.  So, we waited about 20 minutes at the carousel for our precious luggage.  We were very happy to see the van driver waiting to pick us up at 1:30 in the morning.

As for patience. . .  I say "What are you going to do?"  Brent says "Are you kidding me?"

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bali Journal

Travel journal September 14 to 23, 2013

The Balinese are dark skinned, dark haired people with sometimes good, sometimes bad teeth.   Most all I have encountered have smiled and said hello, almost looking at me as if I am highly unusual - some novelty.  This goes especially for those who live in the immediate vicinity of Pukutatan, where we are staying at Medewi Bay Retreat for four days.  Our accommodations are amazing, of course.  All Australians or westerners here,  no Balinese.  Those who work here are Balinese and very good with service.  

The towns and buildings in general are made for the tropics.  Homes tend to be in small neighborhoods with narrow roads for access.  Lots of chickens range freely.  The roosters have been waking me early. In each neighborhood the houses are constructed of mainly gray stone, wood carved windows, and red tile roofs.  Some structures are covered in stucco or are made of red brick.  Each neighborhood appears  to have its own Hindu Temple.  Some are very elaborate and large.  All have carved stone that is incredibly beautiful.  These structures and neighborhoods are tucked into the jungle itself so that everywhere you look there are banana trees and coconut palms as well as flowering trees and hibiscus.  The locals seems to prefer driving scooters rather than cars, but most appear to be quite new, even the scooters.  Most everyone wears a helmet.  Occasionally you might see a family of four on a scooter, but not so much as in the Philippines.  

Both yesterday and today we walked the 10 minutes to the beach.  It is on the northern western coast where there is black sand, created from island volcanoes.  The blackest of the sand is powdery like flour and jet black ash.  The first foray to the beach we found lost of pink seashells, a few sand dollars, and black stones and lots of purple jellyfish that do sting, as Anna found out.  The second time, there was a dead pufferfish to add to the mix.  It was quite large, the size of a small a loaf of bread.  The third time, which was this morning, there were barely any jellyfish or shells, but there was loads of garbage that had washed ashore.  Mostly various plastic bags or food wrappers.  At all times the beach was nearly deserted, so we are definitely not in a developed area.  

Today we braved the local bus service.  The bus ride to Negara is about 45 minutes.  The buses are full of locals, and the local fare is about 1 dollar for the 45 minutes.  Or at least that is what we were expected to pay.  The buses themselves are quite old and dusty with open windows and narrow seats and aisles.  But we did fine and the man next to Anna was happy.  Along the way we passed open and terraced rice fields with an occasional worker hoeing the mud.  We saw egrets and water buffalo, chickens and goats.  There are also many wandering dogs.  In Negara we found a mall with loads of cheap plastic toys and cheap clothes.  There was also an arcade where the kids each got three games for a total of $2.  Lunch cost the family $3.  Crazy!

Tuesday.

Day trip from Mdewei bay retreat.

Left at 8:10 am.   Began our trip up the mountain and stopped at an old banyan tree, that is so big it has a hole in it the size of a road.  Well, actually the road goes right through it,  on the roadside our guide pointed out a banana tree with bananas, a coffee plant, and chocolate cocoa tree with the pods hanging down off the trunk and branches.  Women in brightly colored sarongs were carrying supplies on their heads walked about, dogs and kittens too. 

The hot springs up on the northern coast  were great.  There were three spots.  One larger pool and two smaller areas with lion heads spitting out the warm water onto your shoulders.  It was a lovely setting.  Venders were selling swim suits and cloth and bracelets along the path in.  There were many Aussies and French there.  The water was as expected,  sulfury.  It reminded us of the emerald pool in Thailand.   It took about two hours to arrive there.  After about forty minutes we were own our way to the Northern shore to go snorkeling.  After much ado getting Anna the right size of fins, we headed out onto a very long pier over the black sand and onto a private long boat with a pilot and a guide.  Our guide pointed out Java, a volcanic island.  In fact we saw three volcanic islands, but I'm not sure if they were all Java.  The boat took us toward an island  30 minutes away where we put on our gear - minus life vests - and got into the azure water near the white sand beach but right over the coral reef area.  At first we were in quite shallow water, but then we ventured to a bit deeper water.  At points we were swimming right along an abrupt drop off, (seemingly an abyss) which was a strange feeling.  We saw all kinds of fish and coral.  Best snorkeling so far that we have experienced.  The school of black fish was fun to glide over and at one point the guide dove down and picked up a huge blue starfish for us to hold.  Alec released it back to the depth. Alec still doesn't like the mask, so he wore fins and goggles and came up for frequent breaths.  But the cool thing is he was able to dive down under too.  We boarded the boat, had lunch, rested a bit, then headed out for a second swim.  Great time!  Brilliant!

Before leaving Medewi Bay Retreat in Pekutatan, Brent won a week for two at one of four resorts set to be used in the next two years!  How cool is that.  

Wednesday

Took the trip to Ubud with the driver.  We stopped to see batik and a silver shop on the way.  Brent got a replacement wedding band there that cost me $35.  It is lovely and handmade.

Our new place called Bali Putra Villas is amazing too.  It is right in the middle of the bustling town of Ubud, but you walk way in to reach the villas, past wet rice fields, so that all sound disappears but that of birds and roosters crowing.  We have a two story, two bedroom, tiled floor, with kitchen, porch, and balcony, mosquito nets around the bed.  We have managed to convince the kids to sleep in the same double bed for most nights on the trip, so that is nice.

Thursday - Monday
Thursday was the big biking trip with a large KIS group.  Maureen and Al had arranged it for us.  We were picked up at our villa in a van, taken to the inside rim of a huge volcano.  There we had a lovely Balinese breakfast buffet as we waited for the others to arrive.  We gazed at the horizon - a beautiful large volcanic lake, more volcanic cones inside the larger one, and a mining operation.  Our entertaining guide told us about the indigenous people who live on the lake and don't like to get visitors; they still inbreed, wearing nearly nothing and live as they have for thousands of years.  

After all the troops arrived, we loaded our vans and headed to the Civet Coffee plantation and processing center.  This is the Cat Poop coffee that is so expensive ($80/cup in NYC).  Brent tried some after our little tour and explanation of how the coffee beans only stay in their digestive tract for 40 minutes.  After coffee and tea samples we were on our way to the bikes.

The bicycle ride was fabulous, lasting several hours and all downhill.  Anna and Brent went up ahead and Alec and I trailed last, which was fine.  The day was rather leisurely with stops at a few different rice fields, a Balinese home, the home of our main tour guide, and much beauty to see in each town we passed through.  At the end of our journey was another buffet of Balinese cuisine.  Our tour guide told us more about Balinese culture (such as the MBA - marriage by accident - that is, getting a woman pregnant and having to marry her or go to jail for 3 years).  At his home we were able to see his whole family wood carving beautiful window shutters - even the 10 year old!  The living areas were for extended families, very small and basic, with no apparent electricity.  Each family unit has their own Hindu temple - quite large and elaborate.  Families never sell their property and the youngest son must take over the home and care for the family.  Men can marry a second wife as long as the first wife agrees; the first wife can then give all the mundane housejobs to the younger wife.  Babies aren't to touch the ground until 100 days.  All this AND we got to see the pigs and piglets that they owned.  Another interesting fact was that the mothers awake at 5 AM to cook the day's meal over wood coals; there's just 1 meal a day and anyone can eat at anytime throughout the day.  We learned so much and saw so much!

In the evening we again went off with Maureen and Al to see a Balinese Dance Show at a temple.  The costumes were quite elaborate with lots of gold; there were monsters and musicians and dancing women.  The women had every single movement choreographed, including much to say with their big eyes and fingers, held very taut.

Much of the rest of our stay in Ubud consisted of shopping sprees and $6 massages and different kinds of food.  However, further highlights were the visit to the Monkey Forest not far from where we stayed AND the Cremation Ceremony (in the Monkey Forest).  It turns out that everyone is to be cremated here.  If you aren't rich enough to have a private cremation, then you participate in the community Cremation Ceremony that takes place once every 5 years.  We just so happened to be in Ubud during the event.  Native Balinese kept telling us to go; we all needed to wear sarongs, though.  So we ended up buying a few more so that Alec and Brent had something to wear.  Alec was not pleased.

So, eventually it was time to leave.  We had a full day ahead of us since our plane wasn't scheduled to leave until just after midnight Sunday night.  So, we hired a taxi driver (for $35 for the entire day) and went to Sanur Beach.  We hadn't heard too much about which beaches were best on the southern part, but it was near the airport.  The beach was okay - very crowded, mostly with locals, but there was a nice walking path just behind the beach which was lined with little novelty shops.  After spending much of the day there, the driver took us to a spot for dinner.  It was lovely!  The sun was setting, the tables were outside, planted in the sand and right next to the ocean.  The breeze was light and the menu was fresh fish that we could pick out ourselves from the vats.

A perfect almost-ending to our stay in Bali.  

The adventure at the airport was another matter. . . one I'd rather forget, so I shall not go into detail here.

Salamat tinggal (goodbye!0

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sri Lanka for Spring Break

Our family had the good fortune to travel to Sri Lanka over our Spring Break.  Even more fortunate was that we were able to tour the small island country south of India with the father of a friend of ours. Gary is an expat who has lived there for many years.  He and Recika, a driver and friend, planned our entire trip for us.  It was amazing to arrive off of the plane and have a van and 2 new friends waiting for us.  The week that followed entailed many, many hours on the road (pretty slow roads) traveling up country to see many major sites.  What an extraordinary experience it was.

Sri Lanka has varied landscapes; we were not on the coast but inland which meant that we experienced the tropics and jungle and mountainous regions.






Among my favorite experiences

The elephant orphanage

The tea plantations in the mountains

 The two dozen monkeys at one of our resorts
 The varied religious representations: Hindu . . . 
 Buddhist. . .
 And Christian.  We were there on Good Friday and were surprised to see the Catholic churchyards filled with parishioners all in white, as well as witness an angel parade in the street!

 The 1/2 day safari
 The botanical gardens near Kandy


 the Indian Ocean


Roadside pineapple (for under $1) and King Coconut

Seeing how Batik is made

The Old seamstresses using the OLD Singer sewing machine to hem Anna's sari. 


 Food and People!

We so enjoyed our week in Sri Lanka!