Monday, February 28, 2005

Big Fish

On Thursday, February 24th Brian and I make our way down to the Kaohsiung international airport and take our second plane ride of this trip. Despite internet searching, several phone calls and even a chat or two with some salty sailors we are unable to secure a boat to the Philippines and so resign ourselves to modern, instant transportation. Arriving in Manila we know immediately, we have come to a country which is an entirely different sort of animal. We step outside into a blistering, humid environment and a dozen people trying to "help" us out. We arrange a cab and ride into town amongst ridiculous traffic weaving past horse carts, buggy guys and brightly colored Jeepneys. We arrive at a hostel, the Malate Pensionne, where we secure a great private room for $11 and set up camp. Not surprisingly, just outside the little courtyard of the attached bar is a Starbucks (grande latte 110 peso, $2) and as we walk into the street realize we have landed in the heart of the Manila bar scene.

Skipping the coffee we hit a cafe for lunch and discover a bucket of six local beers (Sam Miguel) also costs $2. What a deal! Not surprisingly this begins a long night of lubrication. As we walk the streets, all eyes are upon us. With each step we are confronted by Rolex watches, begging children and astonishing sites of poverty. Before long we find ourselves exhausted and overwhelmed by the flow of requests and unfamiliar activity. We decide to rest a short time and return to the gated sanctuary of the hotel bar and courtyard, where a lush wall of greenery and soothing waterfall provide a perfect backdrop for relaxation. After a good warmup we are directed to a bar called L.A. Cafe, a good spot for foreigners. I walk into the street to take a look as Brian drops some gear off in the room and note the new complexion of the city. As night falls the city seems to rise, streets fill with people, lights brighten and music pumps from every door and window. As usual the kids grab my arm and as I try to untangle myself I am approached by four attractive girls, too anxious to meet me. Brian comes out, impressed by my quick work and I explain that they are offering massages... and as they put it "other services". I have not even left the threshold of the hotel.

We walk toward the bar and a small dirty boy runs beside me carrying two long stem roses. I look down as I walk and he begins to poke my side with his right arm, just a stump, missing the hand. He pokes and pokes, "Give me money... I can eat." I ask, "What happened to your arm?", "Bomb", he says and continues his jab. I look up to Brian walking a few feet in front and am stunned, before my next thought, he leaves and I say the first thing that comes to mind, "Well, at least I didn't have to worry about him putting his hand in my pocket!". Brian winces at the harsh joke, and we shakily chuckle on our way.

The doorman at a nearby Hyatt points us to the blue neon sign over the door of L.A. Cafe and we enter the bar in high spirits. "Hello and welcome my friends!", a host immediately grabs us and escorts us through the bar. On our way we survey the crowd, all eyes upon us, beautiful girls all around, a few scattered white men. Our host shuffles a table full of girls out of their seats (despite my weak protest) and sits us down. Within seconds we have a dozen new friends, a girl on my lap and one on each shoulder all wanting to know who we are and where we are from. Wow! Talk about some aggressive girls, even while we'd talk to one others would be bumping and poking us for attention...and beautiful. Not surprisingly, I lose my nerve within minutes.

With an ardent desire for understanding I leave my seat and wade through the crowd heading for the nearest white guy. T.J., a young G.I. with a red ball cap, is standing, unmolested, glaring round himself to gain space while his crew is buried amongst the girls. I ask the deal, and as suspected many are working, but surprisingly many are not. I meet the waitress and back into a corner where we chat. I ask her what it's all about and she says, "These girls, they just try to find their chance, their Big Fish.", she turns and looks me in the eye, "Like you."

Thus we have found the Philippines, everywhere we go we are watched, every move we make is followed. The experience has been rich with fun, with wonder and with anxiety.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Travel Map

Travel thus far. We are currently in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Kending, Taiwan on a winter Monday is a quiet place. This little tourist town lives for the weekend traveler. Saturday night the town bustles with lively vendors, random fireworks displays and thousands of Chinese visitors walking the night market. On Monday they are gone. We decide that this is the perfect time and place for us to cut our teeth on renting some scooters to explore the area. While Brian grew up on a dirtbike, I have never ridden a motorized bicycle of any sort so this was certain to be a new experience. But hey, I thought, how hard can it be? We walk down to the bike shop and negotiate a price of 700NT (about $22) for the bikes and after a two second description of the workings of the machine I hop on, hit the gas and cruise away, with Brian close on my heels. We've been instructed we need to get some gas and fortunately right in front of us is a station so we pull in and fill up. It is easy! We pull out from the station and head down the highway looking for a less busy road to test out our wheels. I spot one in front of me, turn on my blinker (man I'm good) and bank into the turn. To my surprise, I begin to lose my balance, and slipping, grab tightly onto the handlebars to keep from falling off. This grip hits the gas and sends me accelerating straight into the ditch! Realizing my impending doom I leap from the bike, fly off and land dashingly onto my feet! Nervously laughing, I turn to watch the bike crash onto the street smashing the left side mirror. Whew. Not the best moment I've had on this trip.

I manage to repair the mirror (mostly) and after a 1/2 hour of practice around an old graveyard I've actually got the hang of having the accelerator on the handlebar. We head off to explore the area, luxuriating in our new found freedom. The day proves a smashing success and after many hours of riding, we sit down to watch a beautiful sunset off the southern coast of Taiwan.

Tuesday, after our usual breakfast at 7-11 (milk tea and milk bread), we catch the bus to Kaohsiung which is to be our last stop after 10 days in Taiwan.

In the past few days I have come to realize that my appetite for "single serving friends" is rapidly diminishing. In each place we visit there are opportunities to meet and spend short periods of time with many different people. This is one of the joys of traveling. However, after a month of touring 3 different countries and many different cities, taking the time to form more significant friendships is beginning to feel necessary. This means staying somewhere for more than just a few days. We knew before we left the necessity of traveling fairly quickly while in more expensive countries. I look forward to slowing down further as we enter some less expensive, and warmer, parts of this continent.

Month 1 - Equipment Update

  • 1 Towel - Left behind in Tokyo, replaced in Marugame.
  • 1 Deodorant - Left behind in Osaka, proved to be extremely difficult to replace. Purchased an arasol spray in Hakata which I've come to like.
  • Hiking Shoes - The ones I bought in Paris 4 years ago. Blowout in Taipei airport, jabbing into the back of my heel. Abandoned the shoes at Amigos in Taipei and replaced with a good pair of Nike running shoes.

Left Behind:

  • 1 Padlock - Not sure why I packed this. Hopefully someone has more use for it than I. Abandoned in a hotel room in Kaohsiung.
  • 1 Pair of Gloves - Its warm now, not sure when I'm going to need these again. Abandoned in a hotel room in Kaohsiung.
  • 1 Neckwarmer - see above gloves.


  • 1 Pair of Sandals - Acquired in Hualien, Taiwan
  • 1 Necklace - Given to me by a Japanese friend in Tokyo.
  • 3 Books - Why are they lining up? about the Korean phenomenon Mintos (given to me in Seoul by Eunju), Siddharta by Herman Hesse, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • 1 Lighter

Overall, my pack is slightly heavier than when I started, mostly due to the books, weighing in around 39 pounds.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Korea - Financial Analysis

Financial Statistics:

Average amount we paid for accomodation in Korea: $16.02/night

Cost breakdown by percentage:
Accomodation: 26.0%
Transporation: 11.9%
Food/Drink/Entertainment (includes site seeing): 62.1%

Average cost of a beer in a bar in Korea: 3000 Won or about $3 US.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Cold War has Ended

Our last weekend in Seoul we fore go sleep to pack in as much nightlife and site seeing as possible. Two pumping nights at club M2 in Sincheon result in us heading directly from the club at 6am to catch our tour of the Demilitarized Zone at 7am. The tour includes a trip to the 3rd infiltration tunnel where the North Koreans have dug a deep passage under the DMZ for invasion purposes. Four such tunnels have been discovered and many more are suspected. As we walk toward the middle of the now barracaded cave I begin to feel my heart pounding. The passage is crowded by the tour group and low, certainly not a place for the claustrophobic. I can't help but imagine 30,000 troops an hour storming through into the South, a country I have come to admire and enjoy. From the tunnel we travel to the Dora observatory for a look at the Northern half of this divided country. Here you can feel the tension, soldiers patrolling, the barb wire fence, and this 4km scar accross the land untouched by human feet in 50 years littered with more than 1 million land mines. Brian and I contemplate a run accross the field...

We have travelled from Hiroshima, to Gyeong-Ju's anti-nuclear rally, to the DMZ and thanks to Mr. Kim Jong Il's most recent announcement can not help but feel that conflict is imminent.

From the DMZ Brian decides to head back to sleep and I continue a walking tour of the city with our friend Enju. Having a Korean guide proves a tremendous asset and she shows me a great time at some local cafes where we can lounge, watch movies, surf the internet, drink tea, and eat noodles as long as we want for about $4. These people have succeeded in creating some great social alternatives to drinking.

In Korea there are three cold wars we struggle with. The political war between North and South, the freezing cold war against the weather, and the cold that Brian has contracted as a result. While we truly enjoy our time in Seoul Brian and I finally decide to throw in the towel. After much discussion we decide to abandon our original plan of boating to Beijing where we would have to face even more icy days. Instead we select a quick flight to Taipei, Taiwan.

As we step off the plane we are immediately rewarded with balmy weather, the sweet scent of warm ocean air and the reintroduction of the colour green. For us the cold war has ended and hot times are ahead.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Stick it to me

Using an old apartment building:

Take one small dark room, illuminate with spinning, flashing lights and heat with seven or eight cheap Korean beers per serving. Circle the room with bench seating, insert active monitors and a pair of microphones on one wall and let simmer. Your classic Korean karaoke noraebong should now be ready for use.

Stir in one Irishman, one Korean, two Canadians, an American, a German and a pair of Aussies belting out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and you have a disaster in international harmonizing and one hell of a good time!

After the Superbowl Brian and I settle into a comfortable life in Seoul and the days begin to roll by. We spend the week sporadically together and apart as one activity seems to lead to another for each of us. Wednesday we mark the Lunar New Year by visiting GyeongPok palace where a traditional Korean drum performance is going on. The particpants include a number of small children which stand precariously atop the shoulders of the dancing men as they build human pyramids and dazzle us with spinning hat ribbons. For three days the city shuts down and we find ourselves enjoying some free site seeing and plenty of down time.

After the holiday I decide to tackle one remaining chore. I am in need of a Hepatitus B booster to protect me for the next six months so with some directions from Ms. Kim I head toward Youinido Hospital. As the elevator doors open to the primary reception area my senses are overloaded by a teeming mass of people, dinging bells, wheelchairs, nurses and a volume level only a room full of excited Koreans could create. There have been few times thus far where I truly felt my nerve faltering, but combine this seemingly chaotic, energetic mismatch of expectations with my natural anxiety about being injected with anything and I nearly give up on the spot.

Steeling myself, I enter the room seeking signs of familiarity to fit my preconcieved standards. Despite a lack of English anything I begin to find the pattern to the madness and integrate myself with the cogs of this complex but effectively running system. I fork over some cash and am sent from one place I can not find to another, talk to several pleasant Korean speaking people in white coats and am eventually led to the only place in the hospital with English posted over the door, the "Injection Room". I walk in prematurely and with a Korean nurse excitedly asking me to wait outside am confronted with a terrifying image of beds filled with moaning people and screaming kids, many with hanging IVs feeding their outstretched arms. Ultimately, I spend $50, am injected with something, stir up some emotional baggage and leave with shaky legs.

In retrospect, despite the entire process being somewhat non-supportive to foreigners, and taking me almost 3 hours, the hospital was a clean, well run facility and I do believe they gave me the right shot from a sharp, sterile needle.

I would also like to say thanks to Brian for giving me a much needed hug afterwards.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Superbowl Monday

Well, I can say, with certainty, there is good reason why the superbowl starts in the afternoon and not at 8 o'clock in the morning. The problem with an 8am start is that the drinking begins at 7am and never seems to end! It is a very funny thing to look at your watch a few drunken hours after the game and see 3:30 which normally would seem about right, except that in this case its 3:30pm and you have another 12 hours of drinking to go. Fortunately for me, most of the 20 year old army kids are surprising poor at arm wrestling, despite loving to do it, and most of my afternoon drinking was funded at the expense of my now very sore arm.

At 1am on Friday night we hop an overnight bus from Gyeong-Ju to YongPyong ski resort to see what the Korean mountains have to offer. We arrive at 7:30am just as the town is waking up and find a very modern, very western style ski resort. Although it is very beautifull, we observe the similarity to everything we are used to and the costs are prohibitive so we decide to catch another bus in the afternoon to Seoul. In the evening we soak up some Korean night life and fullfill our primary objective, find a place to watch the superbowl. With that lined up we opt to take a day off here in our very nice accomodations and hardly leave the hostel all day Sunday, and prepare for the day ahead.

There is still a lot of Seoul to be seen.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Richard the Wanderer

In truth, it is the people we meet on our journey that truly shape its experience. The places we visit provide a common backdrop and an enabling atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas, but it is the influence of others which form the banks of our river, and the rocks we have to navigate along our path.

While every encounter nudges us in some direction or another certain personas seem to have a profound effect on our road and may dominate our experience for several days at a time. Thus far we have had three such experiences, "Kristin the Adorable" in Tokyo, "Ian the American" in Marugame and most recently "Richard the Wanderer".

While lamenting our inablity to get food in Busan we sit at a table with our beers commenting on how we haven't seen a western person in 4 days. Sure, another Kristin would be fantastic but even to meet some random person would be great. Someone interesting, maybe European it doesn't matter. Just someone to change our mode a bit. We finally get some food and arrive back at the hostel. As we walk through the door we notice something new, a scruffy looking fellow in a green jacket sitting on the common room couch. We introduce ourselves at once and thus we meet Richard from Austria.

Richard is going our way so the three of us get up early (11am) and head out to Gyeong-Ju one of the more historic regions of Korea and about 1 1/2 hours by bus from Busan. We spend the next 2 days travelling and living with Richard as we visit the region and learn what a true and interesting spirit he has. He has been travelling and working and travelling for more than 10 years and we have a good laugh together at our first meal. I tell him I have come to Asia to slow down, and he says he has come Asia to speed up! We do come to find out, that no one moves at a more calm and peacefull pace than Richard.

Our first night in Gyeong-Ju we decide to visit a local pub and Brian's karmic luck strikes again. Please send a few prayers out for the guy he seems to need them. Sitting and trying to chat with a few Korean girls two middle aged Korean men step into the bar both of them very drunk. They say a few words and suddenly one takes offense to Brian and bellowing at us in Korean pushes his friend into Brian and it seems we are about to brawl. I leap out of my seat (Richard has yet to notice) and the second Korean man, regaining his feet realizes the situation. He pushes back his friend and bowing quickly backs out of the bar saying the only English words he seems to know, "Thank you, Thank you". The moment passes, we slowly regain our cool, and return to our new Korean friends.

On Thursday we pick up a fourth to our party, a Japanese man named Yoshiro (Yosh for short) and he spends the evening drinking us and the day sight-seeing with us. What an international bunch we seem.

Gyeong-Ju is a very scenic place, I'm sure it is fantastic in the summer. For now, things are a little cold in Korea. We have come to appreciate how great a luxury our heated homes have been.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Korea Kicks Ass (ours)

Busan (also spelled Pusan) Harbour is a bustling, unattractive place and the city seems to follow suit. After a couple of weeks in Japan we started to feel like savvy travellers. A first taste of Korea very quickly set us straight. The order, cleanliness and yummy food of Japan quickly melts away as you step off the boat. The people here seem to be polarized to either loving or hating us.

We walk off the boat at dusk, manage customs without too much hassle and begin to sort out accomodations. The first people we meet are fantastic, three drunk girls from the ferry land us on the correct train and we run into Mr. Cho a business man who speaks excellent English, suggests some sights in Korea, and giving us his card/number says he would be happy to show us around the city the following day. We step off the train and grab some very yummy fish shaped pancakes from a street vendor and end up at the Blue Backpacker hostel. How much easier could it be? Honestly, how much better could we get at this business?

Turns out the hostel is full, but Jin (the owner) offers to let me sleep on the floor so we go for it. Dropping off our bags, with the excitement of a new country in us we head back out to see the city nightlife. Walking down the street we are scooped up by two middle aged Korean men who are hell bent on buying us a beer. After our experience with Mr. Cho we warily agree to head into this bar with them and sure enough they buy the biggest pitcher I have ever seen and some interesting snacks come to the table. We soon begin to loosen up as we realize they have good intentions and are just two drunk brothers looking to chat up some foreigners. They suggest we take a cab with them down to another area of town where there are some other bars.

I know that if I were reading this, at this point, I would be thinking to myself, "These guys are idiots! What the heck are they thinking?". Well, rest assured, the thoughts were going through our minds as well, at each step we were carefully testing the scenario and trying to make safe but not limiting decisions on what to do next. After relating our story of Mr. Cho, Jin had told us that many older Korean men like to take out younger foreigners and show them a good time, and really enjoy it. Not wanting to miss out on a cultural experience we decide to take some measured risk.

We hop in a cab and speed away into Simyeon a center for nightlife in Busan and arrive 3000 Won later (about $3) and I hand 10000 Won to our friend in the front seat to pay the driver. He takes the cash and pays from his pocket and says he will get me some change as soon as we get inside (That was the last I ever saw of that $10) . Walking down the street with our two drunk friends they stumble into a bar with a fat russian chick out front. We recognize it immediately as a hostess bar but head in to test the waters. The fat russian jumps onto Brian's arm and I've got a cute russian born Korean on mine. To cut the story short, Brian and I ended up being the ones to show our two Korean friends a good time at quite an expense and we felt pretty ripped off when they bailed out of the cab at some random location on the way home.

We drink a few more to lament our scenario and head back to the hostel. The next day Mr. Cho turns out to be a flop (wrong number) so we try to head out for some food and realize how damn cold this country is! Freezing, we walk from one restaurant to the next and can get no food served to us except beer. That being fine, we wonder why we can not get any food. It turns out the restaurants all shut down there kitchens between lunch and dinner (exactly when we were trying to eat). We finally manage to get some grub in a scary Chinese place.

Deciding that things in Busan are just to cold, dirty and ugly we decide to head home to hide. Traffic in Busan seems to be a reckless test of wills between cars and pedestrians. I have first hand experience that the car usually wins. Walking down the sidewalk Brian and I are looking to
our left at a Seven Eleven with a Temple Gate over it when I suddenly sense something looming on my right, I stop, and yelling an warning explitive see Brian get splayed straight out onto the hood of an oncoming car! The poor bastard was hit!

Fortunately, other than a couple of bruised knees he was ok, rolled off of the car and continued walking (With my peeling laughter in the background).

I found this particularly funny, he had continually reminded me since the beginning of the trip how the number one cause of injury over seas is traffic accidents. He had even yelled at me a couple of times to stay on the cross walk!

At least the fish pancakes were good.

Japan - Financial Analysis

Well some interesting financial statistics here for you numbers people out there:

Average amount we paid for accomodation in Japan (excludes free nights at friends): $29.13/night

Cost breakdown by percentage:
  • Accomodation: 17.0%
  • Transporation: 34.4%
  • Food/Drink/Entertatinment: 48.6%

Average cost of a beer in a bar in Japan: 600 Yen or about $6 US. (even at a low end bar we couldn't get one for less than 500 Yen)

Food and drink in Japan is very expensive, but it was also our first destination and we had a couple of blow out nights in Tokyo and Osaka so that has skewed the numbers a bit.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Japan's History

From Osaka we hop back on the Shinkansen and travel to Hiroshima for a day of historical review. From the outside Hiroshima seems to be a city shaped entirely by its explosive past. We walk around the hypocenter of the explosion (now an international peace park) and visit the museum. Both Brian and I opt to rent the english headphones after our rather dull visit to the Kabuki theatre. Entering the museum you can immediately see the astounding impact of the bomb with two huge models of the city before and after. I wander from shocking exhibit to shocking exhibit with the sound of a womans voice pounding testimonial after testimonial of horrifying death and dismemberment into my ear and any pleasure I may have been having in the day is quickly swept away. They hold nothing back in their attempt to turn you into a antinuclear protestor.

In a place like Hiroshima your imagination will run wild. Sitting in the park looking up at the broken remains of the A-bomb dome we imagine the day of the event.

In the evening Brian and I opt to spend the evening apart and I go for a walk in downtown Hiroshima. Taking in the sights and sounds with a clear mind I find myself beginning to think of Japan as a lot like disneyland. It is a very happy place, with bright blinking lights and even the street music sounds like a disneypark. The post war influence of North America is something I feel tugging at my mind. Like a dream better left unread.

In the morning we take a ferry to Mayajima an island off the coast of Hiroshima. The island is supposed to be one of the most scenic areas in Japan. As we step off the boat into the town of Mayajima we realize we have been snared into a tight tourist trap. There is a mountain on the island and we decide to walk off the beaten path, our goal being to feel a little nature. We climb directly up the side of the mountain, off of the set trail. It proves to be steep hard going but eventually we are rewarded by running into a small trail leading up the mountain.A fantastic path completely unattended by others. Our three hour climb to the top of Mt. Misen is like a trip down the rabbit hole. We begin to imagine goblins and fairies hiding in the dense foliage and rocky path and suddenly I see Brian with his camera out stalking some creature. "I just saw a monkey!", he says. I envision a small little critter and looking about the temperate forest I say, "No it couldn't be.", and something lands on my head. I look up and see a 3 foot monkey staring back down at me from a tree running overhead. We jump about and starting to grab our cameras and realize they are everywhere! I run around a rock and I hear a crash behind me and poor Brian has tumbled down some stairs trying to get the perfect shot.

The poor guy has had a run of tough luck, and even his ceremonious sacrifice in Marugame of the token Ryan gave him does not seem to have helped. Fortunately the only damage was to his fingers, his ego, and a big scratch on his brand new replacement camera.

Miyajima was a hit, especially off the beaten path. My guess is during the summer it is swarming with people. Our day was an adventure fit for a child.

After hiking the mountain we head to our third Japanese island Kyushu in the city of Hakata/Fukuoka. We spend the night in a Japanese guest house and have a fabulous meal at a nice restaurant, our last in Japan. In the morning we take a taxi to the International Harbour to catch a ferry to Korea. We step out of the cab and hop excitedly up to the building and through the double doors of the hall and are greeted by 8 beautifull bowing Japanese women. I start laughing, apparently I pointed to the building next to the port on the map and we walked directly into an activeconference center. Seriously, we feel welcome despite being a couple of rough looking backpackers!

We sort things out and take the Camilla line, a decent ocean liner, accross the sea of Japan to begin our adventure in Korea.