Deserts and Dolphin Trainers

Every billboard, and most shop windows, contained the line “Ramadan Kareem” in some form or another since it was Ramadan when I visited the UAE. My favorite (I wish I had a picture) said “Muscle up this Ramadan” over top a bright yellow Camaro. While cynical people would shake their heads over such blatant consumerism, I had to laugh because that’s such a modest car compared to the McLarens and Bentleys on display in showrooms along Sheikh Zayed Road. 

Dubai is certainly a place that relishes being over-the-top. While there are some links to the past left (my favorite experience was riding an old wooden abra—an integrated part of the transit system—across the Creek), this is an emirate that likes to show off both its modernity and wealth. I’m not a big fan of fountain shows but the scale and quality of the one at the Dubai Mall (not to mention the location right next to the Burj Khalifa) made it worthwhile to see. A shiny, clean Metro takes you to many parts of the city if you don’t feel like driving.  There’s even a special “Gold Class” car should you feel like taking transit but don’t feel like interacting with the masses. I thought such a luxury was ridiculous…until the time I was shoved into half a seat with an armrest jabbing my side because a guy wanted to give a (young, pretty) woman a seat but didn’t want to actually stand up. (Fortunately, he managed to spread out enough to seem completely comfortable.)  As for the desert safaris where you ride a Land Cruiser over dunes, ride camels (hold on when they sit down since they do so violently), and watch a show — sure, they’re touristy, but they are also lots of fun. 

Abu Dhabi, where Shona, one of my teammates from UMBC, lives, is just as wealthy but more understated. What’s a Scot doing in Abu Dhabi working as a dolphin (and chinchilla) trainer? The real answer: oil money buys anything and there’s lots of it here. Since she had a day off, she took me to see the Heritage Village to learn more about the history of the area and then walked me by Emirates Palace. We had such a good time talking about her work (my favorite tidbit: the dolphins will play tricks on new trainers to size them up) and our swimming days that we didn’t really notice the 40 degree Celsius heat. 

The nice thing about spending time with locals is that they know where to eat. Shona (very kindly) treated me to lunch at a nice restaurant that had a partition so that non-Muslims could eat (many restaurants just closed until sunset). The sandwich and the dessert I had were both delicious though the water was part I was most pleased about. It’s nice to see friends, especially when they are involved in such interesting endeavors. 

One Word Vocabulary

If there’s a constant to Hong Kong, it’s that you will get dripped on. As a hot place in love with air conditioning, the units hang on the front of buildings, haphazardly at times, and sprinkle all over inattentive pedestrians (or those avoiding the ubiquitous copy watches or tailor touts). Well, at least the liquid is clean(ish).  
Jokes aside, Hong Kong was a beautiful and friendly place to visit. For having just a one word Cantonese vocabulary (‘Mmm-GOY,’ or ‘Thank you’), I was able to move around and find my friend Pak, a teammate of mine from UMBC. One night, we enjoyed the unique cheesy noodles at a small shop beloved by Hong Kong’s creative scene – the pictures of all the musicians and actors on the wall reminded me of Jim’s Steaks, the best place to eat in Philadelphia (it’s my blog and my opinion). Another afternoon, he stretched out a run he had to make to the post office in order to show me around Sham Shui Po, a district where you can find almost anything from cheap electronics to a chamois (the thing I actually needed). It’s good to catch up – some of the youth he coaches, after a long day at the office selling insurance, could soon be ready for international competition. I have some pretty interesting friends. 

A week is a bit long to stay, but I did find things to do. I had to start slow since I needed to recover from a cough given to me by someone in my Malaysian hostel who wondered out loud, ‘maybe I do have Dengue…’ Once I felt better (and not like I had Dengue fever – did she even know what that was?), I enjoyed the Hong Kong Museum of History with its colorful parade costumes. Taking one of the double-decker trams to watch horse racing in simulcast at Happy Valley, surrounded by skyscrapers, was an enjoyable, low-key way to spend an evening. If you enjoy beautiful scenery, I highly recommend visiting the Buddhist Nan Lian nunnery and its adjacent gardens – its a cozy nook in a city jam-packed with tall buildings and cars. 

Oh wow, I’m only two weeks behind on my blog now! 

Just Like Florida

The region around Kuala Lumpur looks like, and imagines itself being, Florida. From the air, you see subdivisions, expressways, and lots of trees. On the ground, there are elevated trains, busy malls, and lots of self-congratulatory billboards extolling the country’s international rankings in things like ease of doing business in an attempt to attract foreign investments. (However, there were none of the familiar “Open for Business!” road signs.)   The airport is shocking, not for its cleanliness, though everything is impeccable, but rather for the silence – there are no announcements and no one speaks above a whisper. 

I had a few days to spend on a layover but I mostly just rested. There are a few experiences I thought were special though. You can see the entire city lit up from Helibar, a helicopter pad by day but a meet up point at night. There is still a rainforest preserved in the center of the city that you can walk through. The National Museum is walking distance from KL Sentral, if you can figure out how to exit it (I found it confusing). As for food, I was lucky enough to stay only a block away from Jalan Alor, a small street famous for all its restaurants and food stalls.

If there’s anything that was annoying, it was the constant construction. In other words, if you aren’t paying attention, you might fall into an unmarked hole in the sidewalk or miss the walkway you need to take since a green construction wall makes it seem closed. This criticism isn’t fair though – what modern city isn’t full of activity building new skyscrapers and roads? 

Mister Patrick

Arriving in Jakarta, I knew that the normal fare for a taxi to my hostel would be about 100,000 rupiah. However, since it was late and I was at the desk of a reputable cab company, I just accepted it when the guy charged me 300,000 rupiah for the hour-long trek since he insisted he was giving me a “huge” discount. As soon as we walked outside I understood the discount – he booked me a huge Mercedes-Benz sedan with a suited driver. I’m definitely torn because it was a lot more money than I should have paid but at the same time it was a unique experience (not to mention extremely comfortable). 

Thursday, May 25th was some sort of poorly explained national holiday in Indonesia so Pink was able to give me a huge tour of the city. Before she picked me up, I checked out Kota Tua, the old Dutch quarter, on my own. The theme music for the Amazon Trail computer game was playing in my head as I strolled around since the architecture, with the white walls and red clay roofs, combined with the warm weather and the foreign (to me) location, made me feel like I was on an (admittedly tame) adventure.  

Our main destination for the day was Taman Mini, a cultural center / theme park with areas for every province in Indonesia. In a way, it was a chance to visit the parts of Indonesia I didn’t have time to see. The wooden houses, similar to the ones where her family once came from, were intricately painted and had high ceilings and straw mats on the floor to keep them as cool as possible. We saw traditional dances being performed – the children in elephant costumes performing were particularly cute and the women dancing with hand drums provoked a tremendous amount of suspense. I even had a chance to hold a snake and see a Komodo dragon. 

Monas is a great place to walk in this very pedestrian-unfriendly place so we did just that afterwards and remembered all the fun (and some exhausting) days from swimming at UMBC. The street food was great. The kerak telor, a savory crepe-like dish made with duck eggs and eaten like a burrito (with care taken to avoid eating too much paper), was a nice, small dinner. As for the martabak manis, a huge (4 cm thick folded) pancake stuffed with butter, condensed milk, sesame sauce, and chocolate sprinkles, it made both a filling dinner and breakfast for the next day. 

The next morning at the airport, I checked in, only for Malaysia Airlines to tell me my flight wasn’t actually being flown that day. However, they apologized by setting me up in the business-class lounge with its full buffet and comfortable seats. I even had enough time to set up my fancy new phone (a Polytron, made in Indonesia, with a screen showing my balance in rupiahs that I still haven’t managed to remove yet) that Pink, very kindly, took me to buy after my old one broke. Between the luxurious ride to the the city, the high-end lounge at the airport, and the big bucks (well, $110…) I spent buying a new phone, I think I (unintentionally) became a jet-setting VIP for a few days. 

Accidental Movie Star

I would have combed my hair had I known how many pictures I would be in at Borobudur and Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I had traveled to them in order to admire the stonework and reliefs (one at Borobudur was particularly interesting as it hinted at the cross-ocean trade Indonesia engaged in one thousand years ago) but the school groups seemed more interested in practicing English and asking to take pictures with me.

I decided to spend the money on having a driver take me around Yogyakarta since I was only staying a few days. Hiring Rendi, as recommended by my friend Pink, was great because not only did he take me to all sorts of sights (Mount Merapi, Penthuk Setumbu to see a 5 AM sunrise, a bunch of little temples near Prambanan) but he introduced to all sorts of local foods like soto ayam (chicken skewers) and nasi gudeg (jackfruit with rice). 

It’s really tough to pick the highlights for this place. One highlight was the Balinese-style gates at Masjid Gede Mataram Kotagede. Afterwards, Rendi and I ended up talking with a couple of Javanese shadow puppet makers for a half hour and were even invited inside their studio. I was surprised that they didn’t try to sell me anything – they just seemed pleased to show off their antique stage and their gamelan, a traditional instrument with a deep, mournful metal sound that notably is missing a few notes on the standard tonal scale. 

Some ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Schmuck

Only 14 km to go! 

Pink yelled this out as encouragement from the back of Khan’s scooter as we made our way back to Kuta. However, at that moment, my stomach decided to tighten and what had started as infrequent sobbing soon progressed into full-fledged crying. Why was I crying? Well, at the time, I was simply overwhelmed by the task of keeping up with my friends in the bustling roads.  It must have been a really funny sight (I’m laughing as I write this) to see me driving in the local fashion (as in, speeding, riding on the sidewalk, and passing on the wrong side of the road centimeters from side-swiping huge buses) with tears streaming down my face and the occasional high-pitched scream as I had what seemed (to me at least) a close call. To my credit, I didn’t get lost and I made it back without a scratch. 

Our destination that day was Ubud and, to Elizabeth Gilbert’s credit, it was pretty cool. From eating crispy duck to hanging out with monkeys to seeing the rice terraces, it was a really fun day. Tiny roads connect the little towns scattered through the rice fields and you can really appreciate them on a scooter. I’m happy Khan and Pink showed me the quiet, peaceful side of Bali that was completely absent in Kuta. 

It was a relief when Pink rented a Daihatsu Xenia for the next day’s adventures. That day (Sunday, May 19th) included snorkeling in Blue Lagoon Beach, where the coral begins just meters from the shore, a seafood lunch on the water in Jimbaran, and sunset at Uluwatu Temple. Just be careful though – there are no trainers at Uluwatu Temple to keep the mischievous wild monkeys from stealing your hat or breaking your glasses. 

Purposefully Out of Date

I don’t like to worry my family – thus, I waited a few weeks before revealing my crazy ride to the hostel. Culture shock certainly hit me the next day as I witnessed the craziness of Kuta, with its bustle, sundries stores selling off-color items, and endless touts selling everything from massages to surfing lessons. I took full advantage of the day I had on my own by taking a surfing lesson from “Tommy,” a random guy on the beach who was offering an informal lesson with an hour of solo board time for about $20. 

The next day I made plans to hang out with Khan, Pink’s boyfriend, near his high-end import shop in the exclusive area of Nusa Dua. The SIM card I bought the day before paid for itself when Khan talked down the cab fare over Whatsapp from the outlandish 300,000 rupiah to the much more reasonable 150,000 rupiah. While the water quality and atmosphere of Kuta reminded me of Ocean City, Maryland, Nusa Dua, with its white sand beaches and clear water, represented what I thought Bali would look like. After letting me spend a few hours at the beach, Khan treated me to a delicious Padang lunch and showed me a nearby sea blowhole. When the time came to say goodbye, I took the scooter he rented for me (surprise, Mom!) and attempted to find Uluwatu Temple. While I would ride a motorcycle to work on a regular basis back home, riding a scooter on the confusing roads in the wild traffic was terrifying for me. It didn’t help matters that my gas tank was empty, the speedometer was broken (in true Honda fashion), and my phone was dying. While I didn’t find the temple, I ended up seeing the most gorgeous beach I had ever seen in my entire life at Uluwatu Beach. There, a small beach (maybe 20 meters wide) was crammed inside a beige-colored canyon maybe 35 meters high. On the way back, I took a couple of breaks. At one, after becoming completely lost and feeling honestly terrified, I considered giving up, taking a cab back to the hostel, and telling Khan and Pink that I wouldn’t be able to hang out with them over the next few days. Fortunately, a few bottles of water calmed my nerves and I made I finally made it back. I was looking forward to seeing Ubud with Pink and Khan too much to throw in the towel. 

Enjoying Trains Too Much

Somehow, I managed to wake up for the tour I booked of the DMZ. It feels like some sort of surreal movie set when you stroll around the sites. You walk in a crouched position through Tunnel Number 3 and the shiny granite (partially covered in coal-colored paint in a lame attempt by the North to pretend it was a mine) looks like plastic…until your helmeted head hits it. From a viewing platform you see North Korea just a few hundred meters away and hear the propaganda loud and clear. Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea and the product of an unmatched peace initiative, is way overbuilt for the rural surroundings and the single train that terminates there. After I ate lunch in a border complex that included, among other things, a Popeye’s Chicken and an amusement park, we took the bus to the Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area. After passing through Camp Bonifas, and over a tiny bridge designed to collapse under the weight of a tank, we arrived at those famous light blue buildings that straddle the border. We were allowed to take as many pictures as we wanted from the North Korean side, even of the stoic North Korean guards, just so long as our cameras did not face the South Korean side (no free reconnaissance for the hostile actor). People disregarded the commands to stay arm’s length away from the North Korean guards when taking pictures and to not touch anything though. Fortunately, despite the shocked collective gasp of the entire room when someone knocked over a microphone, our group did not create any international incidents. 

The next day I had a flight to Indonesia to see my friend from UMBC’s swimming team, Pink. I decided to spend my last morning in South Korea as the only non-daycare worker or senior citizen at the Korail Railroad Museum (it was a weekday after all). I loved walking through the trains and I especially enjoyed how one exhibit in the museum let you operate actual railway signal hardware. 

I was having such a good time that I decided to stay past the time I had decided to leave for the airport – after all, would I really need three hours to check in if I didn’t have luggage? I had the same attitude stopping for lunch and the post office to write and mail some postcards. I walked up to the the self check-in kiosks with an hour and a half until departure and felt smug as the process worked flawlessly…until I received an error message informing me that self check-in wasn’t available for me. I thought the lines for the staffed desks looked short until I rounded a corner and saw the huge line for economy class. I kept my cool but the Korean Air policy of ending check-in an hour before departure was on my mind as the minutes ticked away. Attempting to check in from my (conveniently) almost-dead phone didn’t work either. My hopes were pretty low when I reached the counter with 40 minutes until departure. ‘I’m sorry sir,’ the attendant began, ‘but the aisle seat is taken. Would a window seat be acceptable?’ ‘NAE, NAE (YES, YES)’ I stammered as I received my boarding pass. Since it was already boarding time, I satisfied every travel story cliche by sprinting, first through security, and then to my gate, while holding the perfect running form I learned from swimming practices in spite of my boat shoes and Oxford shirt. It was such a relief to see a few people still in line as I made it to the gate – everything about this flight would be easy now. 

The seven hour flight to Bali wasn’t bad. The fixed price taxi to my hostel was very overpriced but I was so dead at this point (2 AM local time on May 18th) that I was just relieved to finally end my day. When it turned out I was at the wrong branch, the very friendly staff offered to give me a lift. Imagine my surprise when the employee, who was sitting in a comfortable-looking van when I arrived, threw me on the back of his scooter. I sure woke up when, seeing the gridlock on busy Legian Street, the driver merely veered, curb and all, onto the sidewalk and started weaving in and out of traffic as conditions warranted. Perhaps Bali wouldn’t be as easy a destination as I had planned. 

Google Is Obsessed with Buses

It turns out that next to Gyeonju is Pohang, a beachside city famous for an industrial skyline that, while somewhat ugly by day, is lit up spectacularly at night by orange lights. By chance, a friend of Matt, my Daegu friend, lives there. Thus, I took a 20 minute bus ride and ended up enjoying my favorite chicken dish, jjimdalg, with a new friend, Jake. On Jake’s advice, I walked from my guesthouse the next day to see the ultra-modern Steel Art Museum. I really liked one piece that, at first glance, is just a strange pile of steel pellets. However, a light on one side revealed that the pellets formed a shadow of a Greek warrior, sword on his belt, holding the head of a vanquished enemy in his outstretched arm. Jake decided that I couldn’t leave Korea without eating a traditional meal so he, very kindly, treated me to a huge lunch at a local restaurant. The customary plum tea was especially tasty. 

My bus back to Busan arrived in time for me, on Google’s advice, to take a local bus to see the hometown Lotte Giants take on the Doosan Bears in a baseball game. The fans were not as passionate as Japanese fans (the fact that the Giants lost 9-4 probably didn’t help), but it was a fun atmosphere. I wasn’t expecting to hear such classic songs like ‘What Does the Fox Say’ to rile up the crowd so much. The Lotte Giants do have the strange tradition of, at the end of the game, handing out orange plastic bags which people then start wearing as headpieces. This was more fun to watch than the lopsided game on the field. 

After following Google’s advice to take a cross-town bus to David’s apartment, I received some bad news – Google is so obsessed with buses that it won’t even suggest taking the (much faster) Metro anywhere. The bad news was tempered by the news that David bought a couch – I no longer would sleep on the (admittedly pretty comfortable) yoga mat. I celebrated the purchase with David and Yeongwhi by sitting and chatting on it until 2AM.

My last day in Busan involved climbing Geumjeongsanseong Mountain, which, at 801.5 meters, is the tallest peak in Busan. Days that you wish wouldn’t end involve seeing sights like that with the people you care about. 

After waving off David’s bus to work the next morning, which his bosses tell him to ride despite technically being just for factory workers at a nearby plant, I took the slow train to Seoul. My friends Sungho, Hyein, and Qubok were free after work finished at 10:30 PM so I took the Metro to Yeonsinnae to enjoy specialties like pig’s feet (very tender) and somaek (a smooth combination of beer and soju) with them and Sungho’s friend, Sungwon. We were having such a great time that I stayed out late trying dishes like raw beef (one bite was enough), and chicken wings (I definitely ate more than my fair share). I would have stayed out later but, since I had signed up for an 8 AM DMZ tour, I took a cab home at 3 AM. After all, it’s not like I’m 22 anymore. 

Finally Using Trigger Warnings

After spending more than a week surrounded by friends, I decided to spend a few days alone in Gyeongju in order to find a quieter side of Korea. The history is what attracted me to the place (the city is more than 2000 years old). However, there isn’t much I want to write about concerning the historical sites except for a recreated wooden 14-sided die used for drinking games in the Silla Kingdom. To my amusement, I learned that the original had survived, only to be accidentally incinerated by a curator during a preservation procedure. 

I saw plenty of warmth when buying food in Gyeongju. At a donut stand near my hostel, the proprietor, noticing me stuffing my face with a sugared creation, invited me to sit down in her shop, gave me a potato donut free of charge, and even brought me cups of water and coffee. Another time, when walking through a traditional Korean market, a lunch counter worker motioned me over when I was exploring and I ended up learning the  proper Korean way to eat rice and kimchi (in a lettuce burrito with spicy sauce) while enjoying a huge lunch for less than six USD. 

Bulguksa Temple, a famous World Heritage Site, was big but didn’t produce any ‘wows’ – the other places I’ve seen spoiled me, I suppose. The Seokguram Grotto was 2.2 km up a mountain from the temple according to the guide signs so hiking there sounded fun. The 50 minutes that they said were needed to get to the parking area seemed overly conservative …until I made it there 50 minutes later. The stone Buddha with twelve attendants, a Korean National Treasure, was impressive even behind glass. 

What really captured my attention was another small building down the hill. The room, with its dark wood floors, well worn and partially covered by white rugs, was filled with shelves and shelves of small golden Buddhas with yellow Christmas tree lights in front of each. A large golden Buddha sat centered along the back wall – hence, it wasn’t appropriate to take pictures. 

TRIGGER WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGERY 

A painting in the room caught my attention for a few minutes. There were three horizontal divisions. On top were seven seated Buddhas, each with a different pose and all looking content as they floated above a stage surrounded by monks hitting a large drum and performing devotions. Orange smoke separated the middle division, with a host of earthly ills – Samsung smartphones, with an army of gray zombies below with each stooped looking at his or her own; a small mountain of pills and other drugs; a F-16 dropping bombs; Kim Jung Un smiling in sunglasses next to a large gun on wheels; a warming Earth being held above a fire; men drinking and fighting at a table; a group in a boat looking content and engaging in debauchery; a white guy with a scruffy black beard and jeans trying to poke an orange cord from his iMac into his arm as if it were an IV with his jaw going slack in ecstasy; and a boy being paddled. On the bottom was a background of gray smoke with two scary looking demons in the center. On the left were two rings of fire. In one ring, several naked men and women were lying face down in a bed of spikes as they were being whipped. In the other ring were men and animals being forced to work by a demon. On the right side of the large demons was another ring of fire where several demons had hung a man by his long hair on a horizontal bar held up by two sturdy wooden posts. The demons were clearly enjoying stabbing the man in the abdomen with a long sword as the man screamed in agony with his bright red blood splashing all over the ground. This painting was so unlike anything else I’d seen in Buddhist temples on my trip here that I found a seat under a canopy made of rows of red, blue, yellow, pink, and green lanterns and immediately started writing my thoughts lest I lose them complaining about the hike (or the bus I could have probably taken) on my way back down the mountain. 

END TRIGGER WARNING