Korea: The Lay of the Landscape

Posted on November 19, 2014

My mother said that she hated the mountains growing up because they always hid how far one could see. She never saw the horizon until she was 16.

Korea is full of mountains, although it doesn’t have much of a reputation for being wrinkly. From above it’s all peaks and folds, gentle ancient hills, softened by dense trees and valleys lined in golden rice fields.

The mountains cradle skyscrapers and clouds, then feel the tickle of the sea and farms at their feet. Although the country has an immensely diverse landscape of its own, the mountains are the threads that keep it all together.

Miss By a Mile

Posted on November 16, 2014

A while back I shared a photo from Humans of Berlin, a Korean girl who left Seoul to find her identity in Germany. At the time I thought I understood her, but my capricious share was mostly a nod to the commonplace conformity of suburban America. Parents who disliked that their daughter wore black.

I’d not fathomed the implications of that girl’s statement, how much higher her wall had towered around her in Korea, than the piddling suburban picket fence had for me.

In the time I spent exploring the cities, the mountains, and everything in-between of Korea, I realized the bullet I had dodged, had I, with the flip of a butterfly’s wings or a moment of circumstance, not been born in the USA. The rules that bind society here – the importance of fitting in, the piercing claws of tradition and pride – those are all things that would have chafed deeper than I could ever imagine.

This is a country steeped in history, racked with war, and even today stocks cabinets of gas masks and oxygen tasks to protect its residents against the angry brother to the north.

There is so much that I respect and honor here, but it couldn’t have been my home.

Through traveling through Korea I thought I’d find myself closer to my roots. Instead I found an appreciation for the life my parents have given me, and for the life I’ve found in this free, beautiful place called San Francisco.

It Takes a Village

Posted on October 7, 2014

Along my travels, I’ve reveled in medieval castles in Germany, the stoic, hard streets of Ukraine and Hungary, the crumbling stones of the UK, the chaotic technostorm of Japan, and the languid, classic beauty of France.

But there was one journey I’ve never had words to describe. My own country, to Korea.

This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer.

Korea is certainly not the oldest civilization in the world, but what makes it different from many others is the fact that it’s remained largely unchanged until recently. South Korea is known for its music, electronics, and the DMZ. Traveling outside of the major cities is more difficult for those who don’t speak Korean, but in good company it’s worth the trouble.

Yangdong Village,  too cutely called a “folk village,” is famous for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing it summarized in an dry, local tour book, I assumed it was like many other historic sites I’d already visited: a couple of empty, preserved houses with a gift shop and volunteer reenactments.

Boy, was I wrong.

Pulling up, all you see is a huge parking lot. No houses, just new and modern concrete walls, freshly shaved grass, and brand-new, still-bandaged baby trees. Walk through this new part, and then you come to a long dirt road. A few clay tiled roofs begin peeking through the trees, then suddenly – apart from the small welcome booth and a sad-looking coffee shack – you’re transported back in time.

This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer. It’s the Korea that everyone wants to remember, whether or not they have ever been to Yangdong Village. It’s the Korea my parents grew up in.

A small, friendly woman came out of the welcome booth and offered to show us around. We walked with her to the house at the top of the first hill, which was built in 1500. The late summer day was still and hot, the air was filled with the buzz of cicadas and the view from the garden wall overlooks the village in the valley, the mountains on one side, and miles of golden rice paddies on the other.

This style of house was the kind that mom used to live in when they escaped the area during the war, with the central courtyard, a boys’ wing and the girls’ wing, and the fire tunnels under the house that heated the floors. And with a view of the thatched-roof houses down below where servants lived. It’s so strange to think that my mother, a former Director of IT at an international newspaper, had grown up in such a place that seemed straight out of a movie.

A woman came out of one of the thatched-roof houses just below. She had passed us on her bicycle when we were walking up the dirt path and now she was bending over the grains of rice on the ground, spreading them on a blanket, rippling them around to dry in the hot sun. She had baskets of nuts and garlic and all kinds of things stacked outside the other buildings of her house.

This is how it’s done, how it’s always been done.

As we followed the pathways through the hills, we discovered so many things you’d never see today: men’s meeting houses, persimmon trees loaded with fat vermillion fruit, private garden plots growing sesame, turnips, soybeans, and cabbage, bright dancing songbirds, thousands of mating dragonflies, hornets, and yellow gingko trees. There was even a huge pond that was growing a large variety of mythical lotus plants (which I had no idea were so tall, and existed in so many varieties), and a stone bridge across it.

Here was everything one needs to survive in a village where time stands still.

And aside from the residents, we were the only people there.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw a handwritten sign at the entrance of one of the thatched-roof houses advertising treats for sale. We walked up and a cheerful, friendly old woman came out and showed us what she had. She had sikhye in water bottles and brittle and those delicious fried cake things that I ate way too many of when I was a kid. She and mom talked for a long, long while and I could tell that this was the best part of the trip for her.

There are countless historic landmarks in Korea, but few as poignant as Yangdong Folk Village. I had spent three mind-numbing days staring at crumbling statues and grave mounds, but the minute I stepped into Yangdong I truly understood the significance of a country that had an ancient heritage that stayed ancient right up to my parents’ generation. I understood how close history was, not because of the museums and plaques and tours, but because history had been happening right until our politics and wars beat down the doors.

And suddenly time sped up, and here we are now in the country of condos, K-Pop, and Samsungs.

Where does all that time go? Is it here, still, stuffed between the hills? Will it die right here if people don’t keep driving 50 km out of their way to have a random conversation with an old woman of an ancient village?

I hope that it continues to live and breathe and stay exactly the same as it has for another 500 years. Only time will tell.*

See more memories in the gallery.

The Bipolar Wonderland

Posted on June 18, 2014

From my earliest memories, I’ve always wanted to be someplace pristine, beautiful, and wild, where the the earth stretched like hands to touch the sky.  No matter how many hours I let my imagination twist around those snowy peaks, it’s never enough.

Alaska was always the holy grail. A place so exotic and far, yet required no passport to visit. I have always lived in cities, and the space-chafing provinces of the East made  it even more mind-boggling that there should be a state so big that one could live an entire lifetime within its borders and still never know it all.

So Alaska is a land of conundrums: Vast, yet so restrictive for one accustomed to traveling by car. A warm, summer sun beating down on solid rivers of ice. A community serving some of the best hippie cuisine, and yet so famously right-wing.

Most of all, it was the endless invitations to taste the fruits of the ocean’s bounty, a strange, gluttonous concept completely taboo to one living in the guilty world of eco-sustainability.

Whatever Alaska truly is, it’s marvelous. To me, it will always be tied in with one of the greatest adventures of my mind and soul, sweetened with the love of friends and family, a treasure trove of fantastic discoveries and surprises. And it will be that majestic wonderland of everlasting light, impossible mountains, perfect rainbows, the bluest waters, and the greenest, greenest trees.

I will always want more.*

See more memories in the gallery.


Posted on May 29, 2014

You’ve proved that some things are truly worth the wait. A town I’ve always scorned, the endless sprawl stuffed with ego and self-made importance, of glitter and gloss and trends and useless wealth, of all the things you think you know about America and the left coast. You’ve finally shown me that underneath the judgment there is truth.

Los Angeles has a soul, a nugget of hard-earned history underneath the incendiary glam. A phoenix from the fire of those baked yellow hills, the old stubble and sweat. A town as rough and raw as the one I’ve already known.

And between the tired, cliched distractions of the sprawling hills hides a gorgeous golden core, a historical city that was never scrubbed away. Where little details don’t go unnoticed, where you savor every bite, where every stranger saves a greeting just for you.

This is California. North or South, you’ll never know what you’ll find around the next corner.*

The New York I Remembered

Posted on May 26, 2014

It’s 9 PM on West 43rd. The darkness of this night is curiously thick; the blazing, blinding light 30 yards away hesitates to meet me down the midnight canyon where my feet staccato the silence. It lingers safely by the door, where it’s comforted, noticed, savored by the thousands of tourists who bathe in its glow and snap their selfies.

30 years ago, this street was as bountiful and bold as the square down the way. Commuters performed their stoic march between offices in temporary shoes, pretending to never notice the contorted, backwards-creeping trucks or hawkers pushing flyers at the corner. The art deco globes spilled their soft, warm light on the side of buildings, vehicles, and pedestrians alike.

The New York I remembered was a gritty patchwork of promise and pleasure. As a child, it was impossible to determine which was which, as every color, ever corner, every face was a question too big to ask. From big brass doors to heavy marbled walls, to unsavory neon lights and the gravy in the wet rushing streets, the suits, the noses, the traffic — all a flavor of which you take completely for granted until you go away and understand that what you had isn’t as common as you once believed it to be.

Cities, like families, grow apart. You’ll think it’s stayed the same until you go back and see that it’s not the same thing at all.

It’s still there, just increasingly harder to see. And that forgotten city will one day melt into the tapestry of time that eventually absorbs us all.*

See more memories in the gallery.

Why This American Wants to Be an Expat

Posted on January 27, 2014

When abroad in a major city in the westernized world, you may never see anything out of the ordinary other than the language: Starbucks, McDonald’s, souvenir shops, Toyotas, fanny packs – some things are always the same.

But you always know that you’re not at home when you see the toilet.

The WC.

It is the one thing that, without fail, makes you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Whether there’s a big button, little button, wide rim, tiny rim, back shelf, front shelf, little water, no water, squat hole, dirt hole, or you can see the train tracks flying underneath you, it’s all the same — the realization that when answering nature you’re on a very, very long-distance call.

After being immersed in der Vaterland, I realize just how extremely different our two cultures are. Women, for example, do not pinkeln all over the seats. A detail that 49% of the American population never, ever thinks about, but it means the world to the other 51%. As a scientifically-trained person with a small bladder, having to pee at a bar or restaurant has always been a source of extreme psychological trauma. A potential gateway to disease. And an extra 45-60 seconds of bladder-ific agony while you dance around on one foot trying to extract the flimsy Neat Seat from the cardboard holder, inevitably ripping it right down the middle so you have to start all over.

… only to find out that your Neat Seat is “eco friendly,” which means that it does absolutely nothing as your butte hits that soaked rim the last stranger has hovered over, your bare skin baptized by that wet, cold and potentially disease-laden kiss.

Wouldn’t it just be nice to be somewhere where people mutually respect each other, where our compatriots are considerate about shared space? While in Deutschland I’ve discovered time and time again (roughly once every 4 hours) that that there are places in the world where people hold themselves accountable for their actions, and respect the person who inevitably comes next.

The act of travel expands your horizons and introduces you to new words, new people, new routines and the nuances of things that you never before realized you considered normal. And sometimes it awakens you to certain normalities of home that you can live without.

Respect. Somehow, that seems a little too much to ask.

A Fast Track Out of Jet Lag

Posted on November 24, 2013

The inevitable question after 12-24 hours of traveling when you finally show your face to your friends: “How’s the jet lag?”

The truth is that I haven’t suffered from jet lag ever since I discovered the fasting trick, and even though I get asked to explain it all the time, I haven’t really been able to find anyone else whose done it. Which makes no sense! Why would you want to spend so much time, effort and money to fly yourself around the planet only to sacrifice a grueling, miserable week (usually more) struggling to adjust? Wouldn’t you rather be ready to go that first morning and enjoy every blissful second of your adventure?

I’d love for the world to realize that time is precious, and to take advantage of it. Plus, this isn’t some miracle drug for sale – fasting is free. So I’m putting this info out here in hopes that more people can try this, spread the word and have happier travels. :)

Does it really work? I’m sure anyone reading this will ask this. All I can say is that I’ve done this for trips to Europe as well as to Asia, and I live in California, if that helps (e.g. 9- to 16-hour time zone change). Each time I’ve had minimal, if any, effects of jet lag for all trips. Round trip.

So, all I ask is that if this sounds good to you, try it. And tell me how it turned out!

The 16-Hour Fast

It’s been known for decades that living beings will naturally adjust their circadian rhythms so that they are awake when food is available. Here’s the study that demonstrates this principle in mice, with big words. It’s probably way more info than most of us need to know, but there ya go.

A 16-hour fast is short enough to get your body’s attention. So stop eating, then reset your clock by breakfasting at your destination time.

In 4 steps:

1. Decide what time you’d like to have breakfast in your destination time zone.
2. Count back 16 hours from that, and calculate what time that is in your departure/current time zone.
3. Eat your last local meal at that time, the day before your flight.
4. Fast until 8 AM destination time, at which time you eat again.

Boom. Done! Does that sound hard?

Practical Tips

Set a 16-hour timer on your smartphone to tell you when your fast is up. This way you don’t have to worry about checking your watch and/or forgetting to set it to the new time zone.

You can grab a short nap on the flight if your last meal doesn’t already fall before your last full night of sleep. I’ve found that sleeping for a portion of the fast made the trip a lot more pleasant for myself (and my husband) than being awake and hangry. But we’ve both noticed that the more we napped, the less effective this was.

Drink LOTS of water. It’s great for staving off hunger pangs. Plus, it’s hydrating and that’s the #1 thing you need an airplane, anyway.

Most people don’t want to skip out on the in-flight meal. A couple of times I’ve just accepted the food and had it sit in front of me until my 16-hour timer went off. But flight attendants will want to clear that away, plus it takes willpower to have that piping hot little package sit in front of you screaming, “Eat me!” So it’s just easier to decline the in-flight meal altogether and pack a much more delicious meal in your carry-on bag to eat when you’re ready. Hey, might as well make it worth the wait.

If you go the above route, hit the bathrooms as soon as the meal is served. Everyone’s busy chowing down so there’s never a line. Plus, you’ll probably need to reset anyway from all that water you’re drinking. (Hint, hint)

Personal Notes

It’s probably fair that I indicate a few more details about how I felt. After all, fasting isn’t a magic bullet but it’s the simplest, most effective thing I’ve ever tried. And it doesn’t cost anything, so what’s there to lose?

  • I do get very tired on the actual travel day. Even if I  napped, it’s tough to stay awake until 9 or 10 PM the day you land, which is just something I try to do in general. Giving in and going to bed early is a surefire way to ruin all your hard work! So it’s really important to stay moving until bedtime.
  • For the first couple of days I’d fall asleep easily at the normal local time, but I’d sleep more lightly than usual or wake up a smidge earlier than usual, like 6 AM instead of 8 AM. There are existing theories saying that we instinctively sleep lightly in new locations anyway, so who knows?
  • I also experienced a touch of minor indigestion for a day or two. But definitely not enough to prevent me from diving headfirst into the local cuisine! Potential possibilities: residual effects of the time change, travel stress, or the change in diet that comes with being in exotic foreign locations.

So, that’s all from me. I hope you find this info helpful (or at least amusing) and that no matter what tricks you choose, you’ll find a way to squeeze more fun into your next journey.

Safe travels!*

Sand, Sea, Stars

Posted on September 10, 2013

Two hours into the desert lies a dead lake surrounded by snow-white beaches of salty bone.

Surrounding the stink of the Sea is a vast, desolate wasteland where the sun is bright, so bright, drenching and beating and bleaching everything to a uniform color. All living things run – or die – so that there is nothing left but burning hot sand.

It is here where the Wall snakes along the horizon, sinister and dark and deceptively small. The Wall is the only straight line in an endlessly curved landscape, straight as an arrow between the boulders, rocks and knolls. Clean and sharp and dark, it sits diminutively in the dry brown landscape, pretending to be train tracks except that there are no rails this close to the southern border. The Wall that seems so small stands over 20 feet high, taller than any man. Built to tower over the tallest head. Built to strangle dreams.

The border police, omnipresent in their badge-covered trucks, cruise without lights in the empty desert night. They’re always on the hunt, but hungry for conversation . Tonight they are eager to help us find the perfect place for a photograph. I feel a gush of warmth in our camaraderie in this deep, silent night… despite the unspoken reason why they lie in wait.

But I don’t think about that. Tonight, we play nice.

When I’m standing alone on that beach of bone I look up into the huge expanse of stars and see the horizon tinged yellow by distant village lights. I think about my “old” digital camera, my little car, my shallow desire for a faster lens, and how I’m here right now because of my pursuit of some senseless first-world adventure.

Down the street, across the border, there are so many people who have never known such a life, and they never will because of the Walls we build, the patrols we pay.

Beneath the glowing cleft of the Milky Way and under the slowly-spinning silent blades, the universe stretches beyond tiny human comprehension. The piddling problems of our politicians, our absurd beliefs that history will never repeat itself, it doesn’t seem like it should matter.

And yet it does.*

See the full journey in the gallery.

Between the Lines

Posted on July 15, 2013

Few people really know my secret: that I was born and bred with the New York skyline just out of sight, a prickling crown sitting just so on the horizon. Yet this suburban empire has never felt right; it’s a den of ghosts, of half-remembered memories, like cuttings on the editor’s floor.

Being there again I feel sick inside, haunted. I have no books, few photos, and no ties left to the people that still live here. Like the creeping green vines in humid high summer, the person I once was is slowly being covered, condemned, fading at the side of the road.

It’s not my home anymore.

But drive south where the summers are pinker, the vowels get longer and history rolls from the bounty of the sea. It is here that I feel closer than virtually any place else.

Stone gates of Baltimore Cemetery

The sun beat down like a hammer from hell, scorching the eyes and searing the skin. It bounced from the sidewalk in shimmering waves, and I counted down the seconds before I would burst into flames. Inside the black box I envisioned the film curling into useless, melted goo. Luckily, my imagination is wilder than I think.

It’s been so long since this city has had its heyday, I wonder if anybody here still remembers that there ever was one. Storefronts once clean and closed are but faded husks 40 years later. Houses watch over the street, not with deep black eyes but yellow plywood stares. They gawp, shocked, as if their crumbling walls were some ghastly surprise.

Time is measured in deaths, in hate, in crime.

What is it about these fringes that fascinates me so much? It’s partly the danger, partly the gristly spectator sport of seeing of Baltimore in its most hopeless, raw underbelly. But most of all, it’s the slow free-fall of these neighborhoods that both quickens the blood and makes you want to cry.

Abandoned Victorian apartments in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill

A quick Google Search for a West Baltimore street address turns up a few historic images, gruesomely optimistic real estate photos and meeting minutes from community boards, including a vast spreadsheet of all known vacant homes. I open the last and am astounded at the disorder and length of this list. But I scroll, and keep scrolling, and keep scrolling still. So many empty shells (over 16,000 ), so many holes in our history. There is still so much to this city that can’t be fixed.

Old Baptist Church and street portrait in East Baltimore

There are ghosts on the streets. Some are faded smiles and dead promises painted high on the brick. Some are the shuttered houses that line the streets, a thousand empty coffins of time. And the rest are in the people, as real in flesh and blood as you and me, but living in an untouchable world, an unknowable life. I felt their gazes and their presence at my back, measured and watching.

Vintage painted brick advertisement in Federal Hill Baltimore Old painted advertisement on abandoned storefront on N. Carrollton in West Baltimore Formstone, marble steps on row homes in East Baltimore Baltimore arabber and fruit cart in West Baltimore The Sellers Mansion on Lafayette Square, West Baltimore The gate on Madison at Druid Hill Park and Reservoir Hill, Baltimore Stone castle gates of Baltimore Cemetery on North Ave Old red gas pump, gravestones and radio tower in the Baltimore Cemetery Baltimore row houses in Pigtown

It is uplifting then, to see so much change less than two miles away. New storefronts, shiny bars, tourists packing in the shops like there’s no tomorrow (or like there’s no heat). The heart of this city beats lounder than ever before and I’m caught in the whirlwind of new life. New money. I take a seat at a new old bar, next to all the clean, drunk people. I feel like I’ve know them all before from raucous nights in White Marsh or Towson, from lacross games, campuses and concerts. There’s a familiarity here that helps me settle in and fall headfirst into memory’s embrace.

Inside the Admiral's Cup bar in Fells Point, Baltimore

From ashes to rebirth in a single day, I’m comforted knowing that Baltimore will never be truly defeated. It is a city I would one day be honored to call home again because of this testament to its progress and enduring spirit.

Wait for it, World – this place I knew has one more heyday still yet to come.*

Read the full history in the gallery.


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