Archive for the ‘Tourists’ Category

The second stop on the 2008 North American Tour: Wheels on Fire found me heading south for my first real trip to Mexico to attend the wedding of my good friend, Marshall. I learned something interesting about traveling to Mexico. When you say “I’m going to Mexico for a week”, everyone–and I really mean everyone–thinks you are going to the beach. Jimmy Buffett, white sandy shoreline, straw hats, Margaritaville, warm water and ass-bronzing, drinking cocktails out of pineapples and wet t-shirt contests.

I am happy to report that my Mexico included absolutely no Jimmy Buffett, everyone’s chests remained dry and all drinks were served in glasses. My Mexico was rich with vibrant color, misty mountains, creeping bougainvillea, tremendous mariachi, homemade tequila, outstanding colonial haciendas, and so many good friends and familiar faces.

The trip began in Mexico City, where Janelle had booked us a courtyard room at the (mostly) quiet and cozy Casa Gonzalez guest house, in the beautiful Zona Rosa section of the city. I was instantly hurtled face first into a language labyrinth, replying to virtually everyone in Korean. This met more than a zillion blank faces. French being my second language, Spanish being my third (y solomente un poquito) and Korean being my everyday, my mind quickly defaulted into a tossed salad of oui’s, siempre’s and annyong’s. English? Who speaks that? Thankfully, it only took a day of marinating to retrieve my Spanish and stop telling people “I’m sorry” in Korean.

Truth be told, I was mildly terrified of Mexico City. I mean, people get kidnapped there, right? Hey, I’ve seen movies. I’ve seen Three Amigos. In my defense, I live in the plastic bubble of Asia, where, as I recently heard David Sedaris describe it, the level of danger is at a negative. Where one could leave a bundle of money on a subway seat and someone else will turn it in. This may not be entirely true (no, really it is), but let’s be honest, people. My adopted country does not have a State Department Travel Warning issued against it.

Needless to say, my reservations were unwarranted (I blame Lonely Planet), and with only a few pesos missing from my change and one uncomfortable encounter with leering taxi drivers, I was greeted with wide smiles and generous Buenos Tardes and Mucho Gusto’s. In fact, after two weeks suffocating from culture shock in Texas, it was a welcome relief to return to the land of the strange, language barriers, street vendors, gracious customer service and a place steeping in culture and history. That is a place in my heart that makes all the sense in the world to me. We ate mole verde and chile rellenos with Pacificos, walked tree-lined streets through colonial neighborhoods, found fresh calabaza y queso tamales for breakfast, visited the lavish El Zócalo district and even rode the city bus. Twice. You don’t scare me, Mexico.

Barely having absorbed the flurry of busy streets, it was time to head north to San Miguel de Allende, located 274km north of Mexico City in the mountainous central state of Guanajuato. The 4-hour bus ride on ETN was one to rival all the Excellent Buses in Korea. Winding through the mountains with Murakami in my lap and late-day sun blasting through a pack of billowing clouds, I finally saw the colors that Marshall has painted these last few years, almost like stepping into someone else’s eyes. Fertile farmland rolling out from the edge of the sky beneath the tower of desert mountains.
sunday afternoon meeting
San Miguel is a beautiful colonial city nestled into the side of the Bajio mountains, spilling over with ex-pats, artists, open air markets and delicious food. But for me, San Miguel was about the company of amazing friends and the celebration that brought me there. Yeah, I know. That hurt my teeth to write, but it’s the truth. It was a week of simple meals and long conversations, family gatherings at Casa Beneficencia and poolside afternoons with cerveza, rooftop nights drinking wine and late loud cantina nights playing music, reuniting and re-connecting the dots of the last five years of living too far away from each other. Who needs sights to see when you’ve got that?
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And the wedding? I’ll say this much: we don’t know shit about weddings. This was by far the most festive one I’ve ever been to, from the honking of the horns at Yadira’s arrival to the all-night dancing and drinking. At midnight, after a long, languid dinner and hours of dancing, when any other wedding would be coming to an end, a mariachi appeared from the darkness of the ranch road followed by two giant mojigangas to begin round two of the celebration. For over an hour they blasted their horns, while family and friends danced and sang along to traditional Mexican folk tunes, older couples beckoning one other with “mi corazón” and “mi amor”. The mariachi was followed by more dancing, more coffee and the 1:30am taco stand. We, the 30-something set, dissolved into an exhausted audience at our tables, watching the 50-plus set dance into the early morning.

By Monday morning, I was ready to say Annyonghi-kaseyo to Korea forever and find myself a little casita to call home. Instead, I returned to the bus station, where my abandoned Murakami had been rescued and kept for me, and made my way back to Mexico City to catch my plane to Dallas. Watching the landscape roll past me, it occurred to me more than once to keep rolling. To go deeper south of the border, further west of the sun.


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The Beach

This week we are on school holiday to celebrate Korean Thanksgiving or Chuseok, and Monday I travelled out to the west coast with my friend Susan to visit Eulwangni Beach. It was a perfect blue-sky sunny day and fated to be even better, as by 1pm I already had one man buy me beer & give me chocolates and yet another man feel me up. This is sadly the most action I’ve had in my seven and a half months in Korea. I don’t know about you, but I like my groping a little more romantic, a little less public and perhaps a bit less violating. A few extra teeth would also help.

I am not someone who is typically fucked with, and I like to think this is due to my grave and serious nature; a certain “Do Not Fuck With Me” aura which, much like soju from Koreans, emanates from my pores. I am usually able to rid myself of unwelcome company rather quickly and am not often pinned into a corner. However, this time I was not so lucky, as Crazy was fast, determined and well…he was crazy.

Upon exiting the subway station, we were immediately approached by the gentleman in question, who started prattling away in Korean, smiling. We both assumed he was trying to offer us a taxi, sell us some Jesus, ogle the foreigners…you know, something common and expected. Usually when this happens, a simple “no” is all it takes to relieve oneself of the perp. He was not having this. There was some grabbing of our shoulders, some forceful no’s, some running and some chasing similar to dodging an angry wasp. But there he was at every turn, smiling and eager and grunting in Korean. And then it happened: with one hand firmly on my shoulder, the other came out of nowhere and grabbed my breast.

I have since taken a shower in bleach several times and reviewed the scenario in my mind, trying to determine how it all happened and why my knee was not immediately and violently in contact with his prostrate. All I can assess is that I was in complete shock and froze. I recall actually saying in my head, “Did he just grab my boob?” We somehow escaped and made it to the other side of the street, where it took me several minutes to erase the incident from my mind and successfully resist the urge to start sobbing.

It was so awesome.

Moving on. After a fantastic and brief ferry ride over to Yeongjondo Wharf, I met another potential soulmate at the bus stop. Truth be told, Susan accepted the burden of this one, as I have little patience for people who will. not. stop. asking me questions in Korean for 50 entire minutes. Especially when it’s the same question and the same answer every time. And especially when it is clear to me, the speaker and everyone around us that we didn’t understand it the first time. After about 30 minutes of this, I believe I uttered, “OK, I am officially exhausted.”

When we finally boarded our bus exactly three hundred hours later, our Bus Stop Suitor followed us aboard and approached us with a plastic bag, from which he pulled two cold beers and a bar of chocolate, eagerly handing them to us. A gift. And then I felt bad. Because this is where I am also usually an asshole. He was just trying to help and he wasn’t groping either of us. Even if he was a little insistent that we change our plans and take a different bus to an entirely different beach. And would not stop talking.


We spent the afternoon laying in the sand, enjoying the sun and the water and our cold beers, talking the girl talk. Not one cloud in the cobalt sky. We watched the sun set over what must be China and watched the restaurants opening up for dinner. We ate the best potatoes I think I’ve ever had and watched the carnival rides at Wolmido. We had an incident-free return to Seoul and then I washed myself in bleach.

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Palace Schmalace

So yesterday I went a-palacing with my friends Arliss and Erin and their friend YoungMi. I have been rather hell-bent on seeing Changdeokgung Palace because there is a Secret Garden on the palace grounds. I don’t know about you, but anything that has the word “Secret” in it is somewhere I want to go. My whole life I have searched my parents’ house for secret passageways, secret jewels, secret underground kingdoms and have always come up dry. For this reason, I have placed a good deal of expectation in Changdeokgung to deliver the goods.

Going to Changdeokgung takes some doing as you can only visit by guided tour and the English tours run only three times a day. We had each already been to this palace on other days, only to be realize we’d just missed the last English tour. There have been several near misses, several aborted attempts to see the Secret Garden and with the rain at 9am it looked likely to be another Day In Which I Did Not See Something Secret. But by late morning, the rain had stopped and meeting spots were being discussed.

tops of palaces

I learned something yesterday. When you have seen one palace in Korea, you have pretty much seen them all. Now I realize this is generalizing and there is a lot more history buried in the soil of one Korean palace than in my entire New England hometown. Do not misunderstand me. I was very much in squealing, fast-clapping-hands awe of Gyeongbukgung the first time I saw it. It was the first defining “I am in Asia” moment I experienced here. I have spent entire days wandering around Gyeongbuk and Deoksugung, getting lost in their labyrinth pathways. They are immense and breathtaking and the types of places that are impossible to fully capture in photographs.

But I have also visited them a lot. Five and two times respectively, to be exact. So it is not surprising that I felt an overwhelming urge to say Palace Schmalace. And say it a lot. I mean, sure, it could have been that I wore high heeled boots because I am tired of looking like a tourist everytime I go out exploring. Let’s face it. I am never going to not look like a tourist. I have it on good authority that no one will ever think I am from Korea. But it is a fierce battle of high-heeled fashion out there on the mean streets of Seoul and it is a battle I have spent my whole life losing. Some days you just want to be a winner.

So, yeah, ok. My feet were killing me. OK, so my bag was as impractical as my footwear and for the very same reasons. And perhaps I was dehydrated and could not be bothered to hydrate because I did not want to hold the bottle. My shoulder hurt because my bag was heavy because living in Seoul means being a pack-mule if one wants to photograph AND have something to read on the train AND write in her diary if she happens upon a romantical coffeeshop AND carry her trash because there are no public trash cans anywhere. And yes I may have been a little overtired because Korea and the agony of time zones has turned me into a vampire.

But the Secret Garden was secretly boring.

Alright, the garden was really pretty. But it was hard to appreciate when what I really needed was not secret at all: I needed a nap. I did have a brief magical moment in which I lollygagged behind the group messing with camera exposures and discovered an open window in one of the buildings that I had to stick my head into.


Inside was nothing palatial or ancient, but what seemed to be a turn-of-the-century kitchen that reminded me of the one at The Crane Estate in Massachusetts. I stuck my head in there and snapped my two best shots of the day. So that was sort of Secret.

My experience at Changdeokgung should in no way reflect upon my company, as they were the highlight of the Secret Garden and even better, they resorted immediately to cold beers to rehydrate as soon as we returned to civilization. We finished the day with The Best Tofu Restaurant In The History Of Time and a touch of soju and I was happily in my well-lit apartment by 10:30.

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seoul tower top
seoul tower bottom

Seoul Tower, Namsan Park :: July 4, 2007

Sunset, cable car ride, hot dogs on sticks, pineapple on sticks, jimjilbang scrub-down, The Best Engrish We’ve Seen Yet, apple sodas, last subway, Two Two Chicken and beer.

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