Month: February 2012

Seoul food

One of these days I’m going to learn how to give myself a break.  Or at least slow down.  It seems that for me, the only speeds are dead stopped or going way too fast – it starts to wear on you after a while, ya know?

I arrived in Seoul from Japan around 11:00 pm on Sunday, February 5th, and didn’t get to my guesthouse until well after midnight.  The very next day, my intensive Korean classes started at 9:00 am.  I think that my whirlwind travels had finally started to take their toll on me – I was so tired that my performance on the placement test put me in level 1.1 – the lowest class level offered.  I quickly realized once class started, however, that I was wayyyy beyond that class, and asked my teacher if I could move up.  Apparently that was a really big deal – most people who requested to move were flat-out denied, and even I was put on a “probation period” of 1 class period, after which my teachers would confer and decide if I could handle the newer class.  But thankfully, I was allowed to stay in the higher level.  It was hard, but not overwhelming.  I felt like I was right where I needed to be.

On a side note, I would just like to comment on what a difference a changed perspective can be to how you see the world!  I returned back to Korea after 2 weeks of travel twice within the span of a month.  The first time, it was after going to America for Christmas, and I was so upset.  I missed my family, I miss my home, I miss the warm weather in Georgia, and I wanted to be anywhere in the world other than Korea.  But the second time I flew into Korea, it was after traveling around southeast Asia.  And I’ve never been happier to see Korean soil!  I could read all of the signs, I understood the currency exchange rate, I knew how the metro system worked…and I even had my own metro card!  It was a wonderful thing, and as I made my way to my guesthouse, I found myself periodically breaking out into idiotic grins.  It was great :D.

Anyway, back to Korean classes.  Before coming to Seoul, I had all of these grandiose plans about all of the things that I would do in Seoul with all of my spare time.  I was going to complete all my Federal financial aid forms for grad school, work on my TEFL certification, write lots of blogs and journal entries, see the city, meet with friends, blah blah blah.  The only thing I would be doing was classes in the morning…I’d have tons of time, right??  Ha.  Wrong.  So, soooo wrong.  What my days actually looked like was something like this: I would wake up, have breakfast with Leora (we lived together while in Seoul, and it was wonderful!), walk to class together, then sit through 4 hours of Korean lessons, until 1:00.  Then I’d grab lunch, sometimes alone, sometimes with new friends, sometimes with old friends, and head back to my guest house to study.  For hours.  I usually studied after class about as long as I studied in class.  By the time I finished, it was already 5 or 6 at night.  That gave me just enough time to clean up and eat dinner before I headed off dancing!  I danced almost every night of the week – it was heaven.  And the nights I didn’t go dancing, I went to bed crazy early to make up for the sleep deprivation from the night before.  It was a fun schedule, but probably not the healthiest – it’s probably a good thing that I was only in Seoul for 3 weeks, lol.

My class building – yes, that is a building.  It’s entirely underground – the ground and stairs and walkway were built up around it.  Super creative architecturally…. super annoying if you’re trying to find your classroom.

Leora and I in our little abode!

Left to right: Mónica (from Spain), Ti-anna (from Canada), and Heidi (from Norway)

I did have time to do a few other things.  Our language program took us on 2 cultural excursions – one to see a comedic / taekwondo performance called Jump, and the other was to a Korean cooking class.  That was a lot of fun!  We made bulgogi (Korean-style meat and veggie stir fry) and bibimbap (a veggie and rice mix).  The best part was that at the end, we got to eat it!  Yummy!!!  I made some really good friends from class – particularly Heidi, a Norwegian girl, Ti-anna, a girl from Canada, and Mónica, who was from Spain.  Unfortunately Mónica was from my original lower level class, so I didn’t see much of her after I switched classes, but we still hung out some, and I’m hoping to connect with all of them again in Seoul before I leave the country.

Korean cooking class.  Check out her face.  Priceless 🙂

Look what we made!  Yummie!! 🙂

I also hung out with my dancing friends.  I spent a lot of time in particular with Jae, a Korean-American friend of mine.  I had met him when I went swing dancing in Seoul way back in November, and he promised that if I ever came back to Seoul and wanted to go dancing he would show me where all of the dance spots were.  He did not back out on his promise.  Jae was my personal tour guide of Seoul for the few weeks that I was there.  Not only did he show me where the dances where; he also introduced me to cute little restaurants, and to weird Korean food (anyone up for some cow intestine or fried silkworm pupa??), and to the international church service that he attends, and to a lot of his Korean friends.  He showed me little corners of Seoul that I would have never found on my own, like the underground museums dedicated to King Sejong, the inventor of the Korean alphabet, and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose brilliant military tactics saved Korea from the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.

Jae (on the right) and a mutual friend, John.

Jae and I in the underground museum.  He really liked the war machines, lol

Any of you at all curious about the principles behind the creation of the Korea alphabet?  Check out these signs 🙂

And then, just like that, my life in Seoul was over, almost before it had even started.  Finals were on Wednesday, the graduation ceremony was Thursday morning, and by Thursday afternoon I was on a bus headed back to Gyeongju.  I do miss the dancing, and even the intensive Korean studying.  But you know, I finished well in Seoul, and so I’m happy to be back in Gyeongju; I really have no regrets either way.  I was even given the honor (and the stress!) of being asked to give a little speech at the closing ceremony.  I found it ironic that I went from being bored in a level that was too easy for me, to giving a speech representing my entire class level!  I tried to upload a video, but for some reason it wouldn’t work…I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it! 🙂  I learned a lot in my classes and, even more importantly, my desire to learn Korean has been greatly spurred on, as well.  I will miss my newly-made friends from Seoul, but they have promised to come visit me, and I them, so I think that we shall see each other again before I leave.  And it’s soooo nice to be back in Gyeongju.  My host parents met me at the bus station, and then took me home and made my favorite meal for me.  I’ve spent today catching up on housekeeping stuff – laundry, blogging, journaling, unpacking, etc.  But even mundane things are enjoyable when you like where you are and who you’re with :).

Closing ceremony – class friends

Me and my teachers <3

Everyone all together!  We all passed, woohoo!!!

I’ve mentioned several times “when I leave Korea,” as if it were a certain thing.  The last time that most of you had probably heard, I was still on the fence about whether I would renew my contract for another year in Korea or not in July.  But my last day in Seoul, I got an email that solidified my decision.  I was accepted into Georgia Tech’s master’s of science program….not only that, but I was also offered a graduate assistantship, which significantly reduces tuition, and also pays me a large stipend every semester.  So, it looks like I’ll be headed back to Atlanta in the fall!  I want to study international relations, with a regional focus on Latin America.  I hope to write my thesis on the educational systems of Latin America.  It’s cool seeing how all of my random experiences are coming together! 🙂  Living in Seoul, even if for just a few weeks, has reminded me of how much I need a good church community and dancing.  They touch a part of me that nothing else can touch, and I’ve missed that enormously in Gyeongju.  I will miss Korea, too…but it will be good to go home.  God is so good, and I’m simply overwhelmed by His favor right now.  It has indeed been a very, very good past few weeks.  Hard to believe that I have less than 5 months left in my grant year!

Japan

By the end of my journey, my endurance was starting to wane.  To put it simply, I was tired, and all the more so because I had done nearly all of my traveling alone.  There’s something about traveling with a friend that really energizes me, and makes even the most frustrating situations more bearable.  But I had planes to catch and memories to make, and I didn’t plan on missing a single opportunity!

When I was in middle school, my family befriended a Japanese girl who was studying in America at the time.  We took her on all sorts of family outings, and got really close, but then she moved back to Japan, and we kind of lost touch.  But I also held the memories of Naoko close to my heart, and when she found me on facebook about a year ago, I saw my grant year in Korea as a perfect time to reconnect!  She’s married and has a son now, and I’m a college graduate, so we certainly had a lot to reconnect about!

So anyway, Naoko and her husband (Shilla) and son (Hiro) met me at the airport in Tokyo, and we headed back to their house for the evening.  The next day we headed to Kyoto, and 2 slow trains and 1 bullet train later, we arrived and walked around for a while to do some sightseeing.  It was fun and exciting (and also CRAZY expensive!!), but Hiro was getting tired and antsy (I’m sure we’ve all experienced children in the throes of the “terrible twos!”), so we all went back to the hotel early and called it a night.

On the bullet train to Kyoto!

There was crazy massive snow falling somewhere in the middle of Japan.  Thankfully, we only experienced it from the warmth of the train! 🙂

A traditional Japanese Maika dance

My splurge of the week.  If I had realized just how much it was in dollars I probably wouldn’t have bought it…but it was good, nonetheless 🙂

Yay for old friends <3

The next day we went on a bus tour of the city.  It took us to the Golden Pavilion – one of the most famous landmarks in all of Japan, the Silver Pavilion – which is misleadingly named; it’s not silver at all!, and a bunch of other landmarks all over the city.  When it finished, we had lots of time to kill before our train left, so Naoko and I left the boys sleeping in the mall, and we went to a traditional folk art museum.  That was COOL.  We got to see demonstrations (some live, some on video) of all SORTS of different traditional Japanese arts – sewing designs for kimonos, and goldworking, and jewelry making, and basket weaving, and doll making, and rope braiding, and wood carving, and painting….basically anything you could think of, was probably represented there.  I’m not generally a huge museum fan, but this museum was different.  This was a living history museum, a hands-on interactive museum that fused the past with the present, and I found it fascinating.  I was rather glad that we had had so much time on our hands :).

The golden pavilion!!

The silver pavilion….more like the dull brown pavilion =/

More sightseeing….

Drinking from this fountain is supposed to be good luck 🙂

That dog is BA!!  He’s got a saber!!

The traditional folk art museum

The next day we all slept in, had a rather lazy day, and then I headed to the airport to go home.  Upon boarding the plane, I was surprised with the blessing of being bumped up to first class – which happened to also be on the second level of the plane, which just made it all the more cooler.  I don’t know if you’ve ever flown first class before, but I have been ETERNALLY spoiled.  The seats were super comfy, had a sinful amount of leg room (you could literally recline the seat into a completely flat position, be laying straight out on your back, and still have room to spare!), the meal was delicious, and the in-flight entertainment extensive.  They even had soothing background music and mood lighting!  It was certainly a nice way to recharge on my late flight back after so much travel turbulence over the past 2 weeks.

So that’s it!  One bus, four countries and times zones, six trains, eight cities, 12,000 nautical miles, countless memories and priceless friendships later, I’m back where I started….much poorer financially, but in the long run oh-so-much richer.  What a blessing this Fulbright grant has been to me!

That’s a fountain that spurts different designs…gotta love Japanese technology!

Poor Hiro was all tuckered out!

First class deliciousness 🙂

Cambodia

My second layover in Kuala Lumpur was just about as long as the first one.  However, since this time it was in the middle of the night, I decided to just find a place to sleep and not do any sightseeing.  I looked online and found that there was actually a hotel in the KL airport, so I booked a night there and thought that that was that.  But when I arrived in the airport from India, I found out that this hotel is not accesible from the lost-cost carrier terminal….my terminal.  But, no sweat, there was a hotel just a few minutes away from the terminal, technically still on the airport grounds.  They even offered a shuttle service!  So I walked to the shuttle…and that’s where my problems started.  The shuttle was full, so the driver told me that I should walk.  Somehow, I doubted the wisdom of his scheme to tell a single girl to go walking by herself in the the middle of the night in an airport in Asia, but I was super tired, so I just silently walked the hotel.  All I wanted was a bed to sleep in.  But alas, the universe had other plans.  I arrived at the hotel to find that they were completely booked.  So I slogged back to the airport, by this time thoroughly prepared to spend the night sleeping on a chair in the airport.However, as I was getting settled on my little chair, I happened to glance over and noticed a sign for the airport’s “premium lounge.”  I initially balked at the price, but then I decided that a safe place to sleep and a shower were more important, so I bit the bullet and paid the price.  But it was so worth it in the end.  I had such a limited time in Cambodia, that I would not have been able to enjoy it if I had been sleep deprived and grumpy the whole time.  As it was, I got a shower, had reliable internet for a while (and even got to talk to my mother while I was there, woot!), took a shower, got some sleep, AND had breakfast.  Definitely worth the money.

My hostel in Cambodia was as wonderful as the first hostel in India was horrible.  They were there waiting for me at the airport (in a TUK-TUK, no less!!), and took me to the hostel free of charge.  The main lobby area of the hostel is also an outside restaurant / hangout area.  It is covered with hanging plants, and cool quite nooks to sequester yourself in, and flowers, and gentle water rippling in the background.  Upon checking in, I was greeted with an incredibly friendly staff who made the arrangements for any sort of excursion that I wanted.  They even greeted me with a fruity drink, to refresh me from my travels!  Walking into the room, I was greeted by a huge bed (which also happened to be the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in…ever), a modern bathroom….and flowers!  They had scented jasmine flowers strewn all over the room!  I had been in Cambodia less than an hour, and was already in love with it.

My hostel

I was determined to make the most of my extremely limited time there, so I dropped my stuff off and immediately headed out again.  I felt as safe in Cambodia as I felt unsafe in India, and decided to go exploring on my own for a while.  I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to the arts district, and then let him go so I could meander home on my own.  So I walked through a place called Artisans of Angkor, which takes young artisans from all over the country and gives them a year of training in their craft, so that they can make a living doing it.  Pretty cool place….

Walking home, I got asked by several drivers if I needed a ride.  But the beautiful thing about Cambodia is that they respected my answer when I said no.  In India, people would follow you for blocks and blocks, entreating you to to buy their products the entire time, no matter how strenuously you denied their offers.  But in Cambodia, they asked once, and if you said no, they backed off and let you be.  It was a wonderful thing.

In the afternoon, I went on a boat cruise down the Tongle Sap lake.  The ride lasted about 4 hours, with a few stops mid-way.  The main ride took us through a huge floating village in the middle of the lake.  It was fascinating to see these people living completely, constantly on the water.  I wonder if they ever yearned to be on land for a change of scenery, like I sometimes yearn to be on the water.  There were other people on the tour with me, mostly from France.  My one semester of college French allowed me to make some small talk with them, but I was really wishing that I knew a bit more.  But it was still a blast.  Being on the water, with the cool breezes ruffling through my hair, was so incredibly relaxing.  I could have stayed there all day.  The only thing that I didn’t like was the snake children.  Cambodian women have a habit of putting snakes (non-poisonous ones, I hope!) around their small children’s necks (we’re talking, like 3 and 4 year olds).  Then then paddle around in small boats when the tourists show up, and anytime someone wants to take a picture of their child, they extract a small sum from them.  I’m not sure exactly what it was, but something about that particular practice really really bothered me.

We stopped at a crocodile farm – they creeped me out!!
This is what they did with the crocodiles….

But anyway, Cambodia was a wonderful experience, so let’s move on to happier things! 🙂  My hostel is owned and operated by a lovely Australian couple.  Twice a week, they offer an all-you-can-eat Australian bar-b-que.  So that’s where I found myself Tuesday evening.  Boy I tell you what, when they said all-you-can-eat, they meant it.  There were chicken kabobs, and beef kabobs, and vegetarian kabobs, and all sorts of grilled meats, and sausages, and salads, and potatoes, and fruits, and breads….it was amazing.  I went to bed one very happy puppy that evening.

The next day I headed out to see Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the entire world.  I was planning on getting up early and watching the sunrise….but my bed was far too comfortable.  So I missed the sunrise, and I’m entirely ok with that….the bed was worth it :).  I was on a different tour with different people this time, some of who also spoke a foreign language.  Except this time, they spoke Spanish…and I was in heaven!  There was a Taiwanese couple who spoke fluent English, a lady from Colorado named Carolyne (more on her later!), and a couple from Madrid, Spain.  She spoke a little bit of English, but he spoke none at all, and so the three of us talked in Spanish almost the entire day.  It was amazing…I had forgotten just how much I love Spanish – speaking it, hearing it, everything.  Reminiscing about Spain was just an added bonus :).

Angkor Wat in all its splendour
The whole group having a Khmer picnic lunch!
There was a wedding at Angkor wat while we were there 🙂
The steps to the top – it was a 70/100 slope!!

So anyway, we spent the whole day on a walking tour through the temples of Angkor.  It was really cool at first, but I have to admit, by the end of the day, they were all starting to look the same.  The other American in the group, Carolyne, was in her 70’s, and she finally called it quits when we got to the last temple, and waited for us while in the van while we were walking.  Honestly, I wanted to do the exact same thing, but I refused to be outdone by middle-aged people, and so my stubbornness won out and I persevered :).  But regardless of our age difference, Carolyne and I really hit it off on the tour, and she invited me back to her hotel when it ended to go swimming.  As sore as I was from all of that walking, I gladly took her up on her offer.  So I went swimming in my jean shorts and t-shirt (I hadn’t brought a bathing suit), and we just talked for a couple of hours.  She’s a fascinating woman.  She’s a French and art teacher, and has lived for extended periods with her husband working as a teacher all over the world.  Now that he’s gone, she travels the world on her own seeing as many things and meeting as many people as she can before she dies.  I want to be like her when I grow up :).

I had to cut our visit short, however, because I had a dance to go to!  Cambodia is famous for their traditional style of dance, Aspera dancing, and my wonderful hostel had arranged for me to go to an Aspera show in the evening.  The performance was in a big buffet-style hall, and because I was a party of one I got seated alone at a small table right near the front.  The view was great, but the seating was rather lonely.  But that was quickly rectified.  A woman was walking by me as I was getting settled, and she happened to say, “Oh, you’re here alone?  Me too!”  So I invited her to join me, and she accepted, and we had a wonderful talk.  Liliana was just as fascinating as Carolyne was.  She was born in Columbia, but moved away when she was 18, and now lives in Switzerland.  So in the end, I got the best of both worlds – a great view, and also someone to share it with :).

My meal at the Aspera restaurant – it was soooo yummy
Aspera dancing!!!

And that was it.  That was the entirety of my stay in Cambodia.  I took a Tuk-tuk to the airport early the next morning, bought a coconut for breakfast (which, suffice it to say, undoubtedly put me on cloud nine), and headed back to Kuala Lumpur.  Even the airport was lovely this time, with a huge Lunar New Year’s celebration going through the terminals while I was there.  One of the flight attendants gave me 2 oranges…which became my dinner that night :).  Cambodia was the epitome of relaxation and rest, with the warmth of the sun rivaled only by the warmth of the people, and I can say with ease that I most certainly want to return there sometime in the near-ish future.

My coconut!!!  It’s been years since I’ve had one…I was sooo happy 🙂
Lunar new year celebration in the KL airport

India

My next stop around the world found me in Delhi, India.  India was the biggest cultural shock that I’ve ever experienced in my life.  Ever.  Including Korea, which took me months to really adjust to.  I’m not quite sure where to begin.  But as countless wise men have undoubtedly said over the ages, beginning at the beginning is probably the best course of action, so I will start there, shall I?I had reserved a place at a hostel in India in advance.  I had also given them my flight information (three times!), and they were supposed to come pick me up at the airport upon my arrival.  My flight got in around 8 in the evening, so it should have been a nice, easy night.  But unfortunately, life had other plans.  What actually happened was this: I arrived on time, exited the airport….and found no one waiting for me.  I waited for a while, with no luck.  If being stranded in the New Delhi airport wasn’t bad enough, I also couldn’t call my hostel to see where they were – there were no pay phones in the entire airport.  But even if there were, I wouldn’t have been able to use them, because I didn’t have any money.  I had brought a lot of Korean won with me to exchange on my travels into the local currency; however, the currency exchange counter wouldn’t take won, so I was left with a lot of useless money and no money that I actually could use.  So I asked a random stranger if I could use her phone to call my hostel, and she begrudgingly said yes.  Well, the hostel told me to just take a taxi and then they would reimburse me.  Which did me no good because I had no money.  However, I found a small police station and asked them for help, and they helped me find a cab driver who was willing to take dollars, of which I had a few tucked into my passport, just in case.

So I was finally on my way!  The drive lasted about 20 minutes.  We got about a block away….and then found out that the road had been closed, in preparation for Republic day celebrations that would be held the next day.  So I borrow my taxi driver’s phone to call the hostel again (I have GOT to get an international phone!!).  The guy at the hostel refused to meet me, but rather told me to go to a travel agency and find somewhere else.  Needless to say, I wrote a biting review of their establishment once I returned to Korea. I was soooo frustrated.  When I got to the travel agency, I found that because of the national holiday the next day, all of the cheap hotels were already booked.  At this point it was nearing 11:00 pm, so I finally told my taxi driver to just take me to the closest place that had an open room.  This ended up being about 10 times the price that I had originally anticipated spending…but I was so tired, I chalked it off as a learning experience, locked my door and went to bed.  It certainly wasn’t the welcome to India that I was hoping for, but even in the midst of all of that, there were bright spots.  The policeman, taxi driver, and travel agency worker were all super nice and helpful, and made me feel much more at ease.  They kept calling me m’ame, which I found amusing at first, but eventually came to realize that it’s just how they show respect to foreigners.

I must admit though, I was glad when a new day dawned.  I woke up singing “Journey to the past,” from Fox Animation’s Anastasia….”people always say life is full of choices, no one ever mentions fear.”  Hurrah for Fox, giving inspirational songs for people all over the world! 🙂  I had bought a trip with a travel agency so I wouldn’t be completely alone the entire time, so I headed out bright and early to the meeting point.  A bit too early, actually…the cafe wasn’t open yet, and so I had to wait outside for nearly an hour.  The leering stares of the men who also happened to be on the street at that time made the first time in my life, in all of my travels, that I have ever been truly honestly frightened.  It was a sensation that I experienced on multiple occasions over the course of my week in India.  At the risk of inundating you with my writings, I wrote a separate article reflecting on some of the thoughts that were going through my head when that was happening.  If you want to read it, just follow this link.

But anyway, at last the group met up – it was myself, our tour guide, and 4 Germans, and we started our tour of India.  We took a walk through old Delhi, dodging the taxi and motorcycle drivers that squeezed through the tiny alley streets with reckless abandon for pedestrian safety, walking past savory street-side food vendors and stalls stuffed to bursting with knick-knacks and tourist merchandise, and ducking under the tangled and frayed electrical wires that hung from the crowded buildings in unstable masses.  That afternoon, we headed to Agra, for the next leg of our journey.  The swirling mass of humanity seemed to multiply, if possible, once we got on the road.  Every moment we were stopped, people swarmed the car, trying to sell me something, asking for tips for simple tasks, or simply begging for money.  The worst was when we stopped for lunch.  I was the only patron in the entire restaurant, so I was naturally swarmed there too, but this time I had no car to protect me.  It was rather overwhelming, especially since many of the Indians didn’t seem to have a proper filter as to what were appropriate topics to talk to a stranger about and what weren’t.  I didn’t get to my hotel until late evening, and I promptly went to bed.

The oldest mosque in India
The streets of Old Delhi
Lunch with my German friends!!
Yummyyyyy
A moqsue that offered free lunch to everyone.  Since they couldn’t pay for it, they volunteered their time to help make it.  Pretty cool….
My Delhi tour guide, Hirdesh….super sweet girl
The lotus palace, seen from the car on the way to Agra
Typical Indian traffic

The next day was The Day!  Really the only reason (or at least the main reason) I wanted to go to India was because I wanted to see the Taj Mahal.  And let me tell you what, it certainly didn’t disappoint.  The Taj is beautiful from a distance…but once I got up close, once I actually touched it….it sent a thrill up my and down my entire spine.  The Taj Mahal has 43 million individual gems in it, the carved panels inside took 2 men approximately 8 months to make – for each panel, and it took approximately 20,000 workers 22 years of intricate, detailed work to complete the entire building.  And all for the love of a woman.  It is such a timeless symbol of love and dedication – so much more so, I think, than Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra – that it was literally breathtaking to behold.  Sure gives all of the men nowadays some big shoes to fill :).

The main gate to the Taj Mahal
The “classic” photo of the Tj Mahal
The entire place was sooooo detailed

I spent the afternoon with Mehran, my tour guide – the Germans had opted to get a massage.  Mehran took me to some of his favorite sites in the city – the Agra fort, another tomb, the shop of some gem inlayers who use the same techniques as were used in the Taj Mahal, and the moon gardens, which lie across the river from the Taj.  The Germans actually told him to go spend time with me, and then told him you’re welcome for giving him the opportunity to spend more time with me, which I found highly amusing :D.  He was a good guide and a good friend, however, and I enjoyed the afternoon immensely.  He was also a rather good storyteller, and I thoroughly enjoyed the tales he told me about his escapades in college, such as when he cried “snakes” on a crowded metro just so that people would run away and give him more space :D.

The Agra fort
Another tomb….not nearly as impressive as the Taj Mahal, but far more peaceful and quiet
The gem-inlayers of Agra
Me ‘n Mehran 🙂

Day three, Mehran took me to Fatephur Sikri, a deserted fort about 45 minutes outside of Agra.  There I said goodbye to him, and headed to Jaipur.  Jaipur was my least favorite city in India.  The guide was cold and unfriendly, and the repeated warnings I got from locals about the danger of a woman being alone in the city made me nervous about even leaving my hotel room.  Although I did get to see an Indian wedding at my hotel, which was really cool.  I also went to a ton of famous temples and shrines and forts that I honestly don’t remember much about – they all seemed to run together after a while.  But I did get to ride an elephant!!  That part I remember quite clearly.  Those great big lumbering beasts do not make for the smoothest ride, but it was certainly fun!  I can’t imagine crossing countries on one, though!!!  I also made a point to go to a Bollywood movie in the evening.  It didn’t disappoint – the sumptuous costumes, intricate dance scenes, exaggerated fight scenes, overdramatized acting, and intermission so that people could go buy food midway through to sustain themselves through the excessive length – it was everything and more that I was expecting to see in a Bollywood film :).

An Indian wedding
The ladies’ quarters of Fatephur Sikri
Parcheesi – Indian style.  The pieces were concubines, and the winner got to spend a night with the emperor…
Yay for elephant rides!!!
The wind palace for the ladies of the palace – they could see but not be seen
The water palace
The Pink City
The peacock gate to the royal palace
The largest sundial in the world
The amber fort in Jaipur
My reflection in the hall of mirrors in the amber fort
The peacock restaurant!!

My last day in Delhi I went to a saree shop.  I was only supposed to look and play dress up, but I found one that I absolutely loved, and so I allowed myself a splurge.  I have no idea where I’ll wear it, but it’s beautiful, and I love it :).  On the drive back to Delhi, my driver decided to pick up some random people on the side of the road and take them with us for a few hundred kilometers.  This is very common in India, but I found it quite awkward, and I must admit that I was glad when we parted ways.  My driver also decided to randomly stop at his home before he dropped me off.  That was also awkward – we had tea, and just sat, not talking, for about an hour.  I asked why were there, and I was told “to kill time.”  But whatevs…when in Rome…  But honestly, even though it was awkward, I actually kind of enjoyed it.  I got a glimpse, however small, of the “real India,” which is what I always prefer to see in any country that I go to.  It was nice to see a slice of what really happens in India, away from the tourist centers.

Where they made the dyes for the sarees

So I checked into another hotel in Delhi (courtesy of my wonderful friend Mehran, who booked it for me, since I had originally planned on staying at the hostel that stiffed me), spent the night there, and then caught a taxi to the airport the next day.  I had quite a few takeaways from my stay in India.  The first one, is how very very blessed I am.  I was surrounded everyday by stark, raging poverty and pain.  And I couldn’t get over the fact that I am so very very blessed to even own a passport, to live in a country where I am financially able and also allowed to travel basically anywhere in the world that I please.  Also, a smile goes a long way.  As a solo traveler, there were lots of times when I really needed help, and I can’t tell you how much more willing people were to help me when I smiled and was nice to them.  They even said as much.  Another takeaway: I realized just how much I dislike head scarves.  Actually, head scarves aren’t bad…but I realized that the more of face is covered, the more I dislike it.  It dehumanizes the wearer.  On multiple occasions, I found myself wondering, “what happens if one of these women gets hurt in the street and needs help?  Her husband wouldn’t know it was her to help her, even if he was staring right at her.”  As the week wore on, I found myself growing progressively more and more impatient with people who homogenized me as a “rich foreigner,” and were unable or unwilling to see me as what I was – a person.  But I realized that a full head scarf does the exact same thing.  I know there are religious, cultural, and familial reasons for wearing them, so please don’t jump down my throat….I’m just saying that from my perspective, they seemed to dehumanize the women who wore them a bit.  They became just a pair of eyes, and by the end of the week I had grown to dislike full head coverings just as much as I disliked being swarmed by beggars every time I walked outside.  But overall, India was a great experience – if nothing else, a massive learning experience – and I’m very glad to have gotten the opportunity to go.  Oh, and one last takeaway….know the currency exchange rate before you go!  And make sure you have money!  It will save you a whole bunch of headache and trouble :).

Malaysia

As a Fulbrighter, my work visa allows me 28 days of travel abroad during my grant year.  I spent 14 of them in America for Christmas, leaving me another 14 to see as much of Asia as I could.  And I wanted to see all of it.  Although that was a rather implausible goal, I did see as much of it as I possibly could in the short time allotted to me.  

My travels started off in Malaysia, on an extended layover.  Although flying directly to my destinations would have been much easier, the low-budget airline AirAsia makes travel far cheaper if you first go through their major hub, Kuala Lumpur.  So, since my money is currently far more important to me than my time, I decided to route every trip through Malaysia.  It made for some interesting travel situations that I might have tried to avoid if I had know about them in advance, but I didn’t know, I made the plans, and in the end I survived a wiser and more experienced individual.  So anyway, onto Malaysia…
My first layover in Kuala Lumpur was quite extended – around eight hours.  And, since several of my friends were already in KL, I decided to leave the airport and spend the day with them.  After dropping my stuff off at their hostel, we hit the town.  Since they had already been there several days, they had the town scoped out, so we were able to make the most of my limited time.  
So first we hit the Petronas towers, KL’s famous twin towers.  Soaring hundreds and hundreds of feet into the air, they are a glass and metal masterpiece that is truly impressive to behold.  And inside, they are a modern shopper’s paradise – literally dozens of stores selling thousands of items, all at the very top of fashion.  We didn’t stay there long, however; the majority of our time was spent at the KL tower, one of the tallest towers in the world.  We looked around for a while, and then went to the animal exhibit (I held a snake!!  It was awesome :].  I was surprised at how difficult it was to hold…it was always trying to wriggle away from from me!).  
And then…that was it.  Before I knew it, I was on the metro, on my way back to the airport.  It was such a short time, I hardly had time to even realize that I was there before I was already leaving.  But, short as it was, it was really nice to start my travels off with people that I love and care about, since the rest of my travels were mostly solo.  I definitely started my whirlwind tour of Asia with a bang!
The Petronas Towers

Animal exhibit at the KL Tower

This one was for my dad and older brother 🙂

CHARLIE BROWN CAFE!!!

Yay for friends…I love my friends…