Thursday, January 26, 2012

Typhoon Fever

(I apologize for missing a blog post last week.  The following post with explain.)

I am writing this blog post to you not from my school computer room, where I usually write these - not from my apartment, where I sometimes write them - but from a hospital room.  I am in a hospital room because last week I became very sick.  I don't remember becoming sick, though, because the sickness caused me to lose my memory.  All that I remember of my time at home sick is boiling water on the stove because I had run out of drinking water. I don't have any recollection of being at school on Thursday when Alisa tells me I couldn't remember something that happened five seconds before. And when I lost my memory, Alisa and my co-workers decided to send me to the hospital.

If there are a lot of details missing in this story so far that's because they are missing in my head as well.  Hopefully, eventually it will become much clearer to me.  When I did start holding onto my memories, I was in a hospital room with six other men of various ages and levels of functioning.   The man beside me just seemed to suffer from grumpiness and an inibility to keep his dentures in his mouth.  The man beside him slept all day, so I don't know much about him.  The man in the far corner was the least functioning of us all.  His wife, a dedicated and brave lady, takes care of him at all times and does everything for him, which includes holding the pee bottle for him.  The man beside him was younger, but balder.  He was a happy guy.  But the man beside him, almost across the room from me, was my favourite.  Think of Morgan Freeman.  Then make the face a bit korean...  take away an ear (he'd lost one)... add the speech of the character Brick in "Anchorman"... and then add a malfuctioning hearing aid - that's who this guy is.  He might be the funniest guy I've ever observed before.  His hearing aid would always be making those funny high-piched squeels that seem to be coming from somewhere else in the room.  So he'd take it out of his ear, look at it confoundedly, turn a knob and talk to himself in the funniest voice (I can't imagine anyone understanding him), and then look up and give a goofy smile and go back to watching TV, only for it to happen again 2 minutes later.  I swear, if I could just take him with me everywhere I go, I'd never have a dull moment.  Anyway, the last guy in the room, directly across from me, was a guy about my age, and not Korean.  I'm quite sure he is Vietnamese, but I never got to ask him.  He's a smily guy who's in here because of something he did to his finger.  It's pretty bandaged up.  One more thing about these men: they could have won any snoring contest hands-down.  They've clearly practiced hard to get to the level they're at.  It was quite a chorus to fall asleep to most nights.

But many of these sentences, you may notice, are in the past tense.  That's because I am no longer in that hospital room, sadly.  Today, the doctors decided that I'm contagious and so they moved me to an isolated room of my own on the same floor.  From this room, I have the nicest view of Pohang that anyone can have - overlooking the harbor and all the boats going out and coming in.  And I have my own bathroom.  These things are great, but they aren't people.  I'm lonely.  I want to laugh at Morgan Freeman some more.  I want the smiling nurses to bustle in and out of my room and sometimes stop to see how I am.  Sometimes the nurses visit me here, but not very often.  Oh well.

But wait.  You don't even know what's wrong with me yet!  (Unless you're one of the family or friends who does already know what's wrong with me - in fact, knew what was wrong with me before I even knew it). (But if you're not one of these people, let me tell you what's wrong with me).  I have Typhoid Fever.  The doctor says it is due to the bacteria Salmonella Para Typhi.  I got it from something in Cambodia and the fever had been hibernating inside my body for three weeks.  Then, when it decided to show itself and mess up my physical health, it chose to mess up my memory as well.  To me, Typhoid Fever feels more like Typhoon Fever because it feels like a typhoon just ripped through my brain.

My doctor tells me that I'll probably be here until February the 3rd - that's in a week and 2 days.  The nurses need to give me antibiotics everyday for that time.  They do this through the introvenous tube that is hooked up to my arm at all times.  Before this experience I would see Koreans walking around with IVs and wonder how they could be helpful to them.  But now I see that it's much easier to insert a liquid medicine into a tube that's already connected to you than to give you a new needle every day.
A week and 2 days seems like a long time, and it probably will be, but I've had a lot of good friends come and visit me already and I have lots of books to read, movies to watch, news to catch up on, and memories to recal.
Actually this experience has been somewhat beneficial to me so far.  It has made me give up control of myself to the doctors, nurses, family, and friends.  And most importantly, it has helped me realize that God is ultimately in control.  I'll have plently of time to do the daily devotions that I have such a hard time finding time for during my 'regular life', because I'm always doing much more 'important' things.

I appreciate your thoughts and prayers for me.
Thanks for reading,

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I played hockey! on ice!  I've mentioned the ice rink nearby.  I found out that some of my friends play there every Tuesday and Thursday night.  And I joined them this past Tuesday.  What it is, is a team of young guys, students most of them, practicing by playing games against a group of old guys, some of them dads of the students.  We played for the old guys of course.  They had an extra pair of skates that fit and quite a bit of extra equipment as well.  So I got out there, and it was awesome.  I hadn't realized how much I had missed skating or playing hockey until I had the chance.  Now, it's all I can think about.  I'm even watching a recent NHL game online as I type this.  I've also missed Hockey Night In Canada.  Other than a fantasy hockey league that I'm a part of with some of these guys, I've been mostly cut off from all my usual sports pursuits of back home.

The other big news here is that our school, Poly, is moving.  Right now we live in Changsong-dong, a developing neighbourhood to the North of the city.  I guess, when the school was built here, they thought the area would develop faster than it is.  Now, instead of waiting any longer, they're moving to where there's more people - I-dong, a much more developed neighbourhood to the South of the city.  But where there are more people, there are also more academies - more competition.  I'm a little doubtful that this move is going to pay off.  We've already lost quite a few students because of it.  But I guess we'll see.  We're somewhat excited to move to I-dong because that's where a lot of our friends live.  But that's only if we, the teachers, actually move with the school.  As of now, the directors haven't told us yet if we will be moving.  It would be a 20 minute commute by scooter and an hour by bus, so we'd all be pretty put-out if we didn't move.  We're prepared to let the directors know about our frustration if this is the case, but I'm hopeful that it won't come to this.

If you haven't yet seen the pictures and videos I posted of Cambodia below, you should.
Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cambodia: The Harmonious Land of Smiles

The year of 2011 ended in the best way possible for me. Our trip to Cambodia was truly unforgettable.  It is a beautiful country with amazing sights.  But it was the Cambodian people who made our trip so memorable.  Here is a summary of our trip:

It started at 5:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve at the bus station when Sarah, an awesome friend and trip-mate handed me my first ever Christmas stocking.  After a hot and stuffy bus ride we put our winter coats in storage and boarded our plane to Guangzou, China where we'd then catch our flight to Phnom Penh.  The flight was made enjoyable by remembering and singing songs from Veggie Tales movies with Alisa.  At the Phnom Penh airport, we were surprised by how quick and easy it was to get our visas and get into taxis.  And here was the first real indication that this was going to be a great trip.  Being in a foreign country, you want to be wary of the possibility of service people taking advantage of your ignorance.  So I was on my guard when a couple taxi drivers quickly grabbed our luggage and swept us into two taxis.  But I needn't have worried.  Our drivers had strong English and answered any questions we had as we drove through the city to our hostels.  They told us that it was too late to buy tickets for the river taxi to Siem Reap which we had planned to take in the morning.  So instead they took us to a place where we could buy bus tickets.  Then, they brought us to our hostel.  Japan Dan, a good friend who finished his contract in August and had been teaching in Japan since, met us there, and this made our group six people: Alisa, Sarah, Roman, Peter Kelly, Japan Dan, and me.  We all went to sleep quickly then, after a successful yet tiring day of travelling.
One thing we noticed about Cambodia this first day was its smell.  Cambodia smells good.  It smells like trees and nature.  I hadn't really noticed before, but Pohang doesn't smell this way.

On Christmas day we woke up, not too early, ate a quick breakfast, and got in a van which brought us to our bus.  Now, for me, the whole first couple of days were spent comparing Cambodia to my memory of Vietnam, which came back to mind quite easily, being physically close to it.  In many ways the two countries looked similar from the outset; lots of scooters/motorbikes, palm trees everywhere, vast fields of rice paddies, and a lot of water (tributaries of the Mekong river).  But from the window of our bus to Siem Reap, I could see that there is more poverty in Cambodia than in Vietnam.  While many of the homes that we passed in Vietnam were made of concrete, almost all the homes that we passed on our way to Siem Reap were one-room shacks made of wood with palm leaf roofs.  Also, all of these homes were on stilts.  It is the dry season and I can imagine that, during the wet season, the rivers flood a large portion of the country.  On this bus ride we also passed countless water buffalo grazing in any random place, lots of signs for Cambodian political parties, boarding schools, a number of brick factories, and, every once in a while, a very ornate temple.  What was so cool about seeing Cambodia from the window of a bus was that we got to see very quick snippets of the lives of Cambodians as we drove by.  We saw people working in their fields, building buildings, getting hair cuts, playing volleyball and soccer, biking, boating, dancing, hugging, or just sitting on their steps and watching.  We passed a lot of children who all seemed to be on their own, separate from their parents - like they looked after themselves most of the time.  From these snippets into these people's lives it was clear that they live at a much slower pace than what I'm used to.  There is no hurry about them.  This was refreshing to see.  I could see that these people have very little stuff in their lives as compared to me, and, as we drove past them, all the my stuff  felt like a burden. In these ways and others, I could see that life for these people is very different than for me, and it was amazing to see such a different lifestyle.  From the bus we could also see how colourful Cambodia is.  In a matter of seconds we would pass beautiful magenta water lilies, purple flowering bushes, thick green underbrush, blue water, orangey-red soil, and once in a while the bright yellow robes of a monk.

It was a long, bumpy bus ride, but we finally made it to Siem Reap.  I wondered how we'd make it from the bus stop to our hostel.  But, I needn't have wondered.  A group of men were there to welcome us and to usher us onto their tuk-tuks.  What's a tuk-tuk? A tuk-tuk is a simple carriage pulled behind a motorbike.  They largely replace taxis in Cambodia.  Riding in our tuk-tuks was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  This is because being carried in a small carriage, bumping along, hearing the sounds and smelling the smells of the city is just cool.  But also because we no doubt had the two best tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap.  As we would realize later on, tuk-tuk drivers like to keep the business of their client-travellers throughout the time that they are in the city.  They are always asking, "Do you need a tuk-tuk today?  No?  How about tomorrow?" (I even bought a t-shirt that says "No tuk-tuk today OR tomorrow").  Our tuk-tuk drivers did this too.  Even before we got on their tuk-tuks the first time, they had figured out that we were going to Angkor Wat the next day and had said, "You don't have to pay today, we'll take you to the temples tomorrow, and you pay us afterwards."  This turned out to work perfectly for us.  After Angkor Wat, they then suggested that they take us to a floating village near Siem Reap, and this turned out to be my favourite part of the whole trip.  On top of being super helpful, very patient with us, and organizing the awesome experiences we had in Siem Reap, they took us out for a drink on our last night there.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  On Christmas night, after arriving in Siem Reap, we settled into our hostels and headed out to have our first Cambodian dinner.  It did not disappoint us, let me tell you.  We went to a place nearby our hostel with smiling waitresses.  I had a sweet-and-sour pineapple chicken dish that was super delicious.  (Mom, the sauce tasted just like your meatball sauce, and it went perfectly with the pineapple and chicken).  At every restaurant we went to after that, I looked for the same thing.  We headed to the central market in Siem Reap after dinner.  There, and many other places in Cambodia, we found beautiful scarves, like you'd see in a Ten-Thousand Villages store, for only two or three dollars each.  Needless to say, our group bought a lot of them, I'd estimate around 25 all together.  But, in this market, we also found a place - where you sit with your feet in water and the fish eat your dead skin cells.  This place was right on the street, a couple of us hadn't done it before, and the guy was friendly and said he'd give us a free beer, so we did it.  Sitting there, with my feet being nibbled on by fish, among good friends, in 30 degree weather, drinkin' a beer, in Siem Reap Cambodia, on Christmas day, I had a 'this-is-awesome' moment.  It was one of many on the trip.

It was around this time, also, that we started commenting on how well Cambodians know English.  Every person we met had at least a basic level, and many of them were quite fluent.  I asked our host, who was just a teenager, about how he had learned his English and he told me he had taken a one-year class and then just worked hard on his own to keep improving.  I realized that most of the Cambodians we met were in the tourism industry and likely rely on a basic level of English to communicate with their clients.  (And here I am, uni-lingual, 26 years old, and with no excuse. I'll have to get on that).
Now, on top of buying a lot of scarves, we also ate a lot of food.  Later on that night, we had our second Christmas dinner.  And this one was much different than the first.  Actually, it was much different than any meal I've ever had.  That's because I ate kangaroo, ostrich, and crocodile meat!  They weren't bad at all - a little chewy, and, strangely, a little bit sweet - but not bad.  And that was the end of our Cambodian Christmas.
The Night Market in Siem Reap
The next day we got an early start because this was the day we went to Angkor Wat.  Leading up to our trip, as it no doubt is for any Cambodian visitor, Angkor Wat was what we were looking forward to the most.  The temple of Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious building in the world.  It was built in the early 1100s, making it around 900 years old.  But what I hadn't realized was that Angkor Wat is just the tip of the iceberg.  In the whole Angkor temple complex, there are over one thousand separate temple sites!  And we only visited 3 or 4 of them.
To put it simply, these temples are astounding.  As we went from one to another in our tuk-tuks, I found it hard to wrap my mind around how old these huge structures are, but also how much work it would have taken to build them.  I learned that the sandstone used to make these temples came from 40 km away!  It's impossible to imagine how much work it took to transported so much stone over such a distance.  And then they had to construct these amazing temples - each of them so beautifully detailed.  They're covered in intricate carvings of huge Buddhist faces, dancing gods, and extensive scenes of battle and daily life.  Also, they're designed so precisely.  Each temple we visited has a number of layers full of doors, dark rooms, and corridors.  A couple of times I almost got lost, (purposefully. of course) wondering through the depths of these ancient temples.  Also, the temples are in all different stages of preservation.  Some have stone pillars falling all over and you wonder if the ceiling will last the day; some are being eaten up by the jungle and they have trees growing all over them, right out of the rock walls; and some of them, Angkor Wat especially, look so untouched, they could have been built last year.
Another thing that was so interesting about this place was that, even as tourists, we could hike all over the temples.  Despite this being the 8th wonder of the world, there are no barricades or fences keeping people from seeing (or damaging) some parts of the temple, only a few arrows here and there.  It really gives a visitor the chance to explore the temples for themselves, which I enjoyed thoroughly.  At one point, Alisa said, "Thank goodness this place isn't in North America.  Can you imagine if it was?"  I totally agree.  If I try to imagine it, terrible images of "Angkor Wat Disneyland" come to mind.
One more piece of information about the temples that make them so interesting is that, depending on the religion of the king who built them, some of them were built as Hindu temples while others were built as Buddhist temples.  Some temples, I learned, were even started as Hindu temples, but later completed at Buddhist temples.

Roman's picture of us before the entrance to Angkor Thom.

These next 3 pictures and the video are from Bayon Temple.

This is Baphoun Temple.  It was one of our favourite spots. We sat here for a good half hour.
Can you see the sideways Buddha?

I'm pretty sure our tuk-tuk driver told us that this is a 1000 year old bridge and tree.
This temple is thought to be uncompleted because it was hit by lightning as they were building it.  The builders thought this was bad luck, so they stopped.
This is Ta Prohm Temple.  It was one of my favourites because it's covered in trees and it felt like we were discovering it for the first time.

Angkor Wat
But I can't forget to mention the monkeys!  To lead up to this story, I have to tell you that, before the trip, Roman was all excited about the chance to see monkeys in Cambodia.  He said, "I just want to have a monkey sitting on my head, like you see in those pictures."  Well, as we were walking through a large stone gate into one of the temple complexes, we saw monkeys!  They were wild monkeys, and lots of people were walking by them, but no one was stopping or seeing how close they could get to them.  This is of course what we all did.  It turned out we could get pretty close.  But these monkeys were just as aggressive as the ones in Vietnam.  All of a sudden I had three on me, one bit my finger, the other took off with my water bottle, and the third was left gnawing on my leg (no joke).  They climbed up Alisa and Roman too.  They were a little nicer to Alisa and she loved it.  Roman, as he had wished, had a monkey climb up to his head.  Except, instead of sitting there nicely, the monkey bit him right on the noggin!  Ya, crazy - but not too surprising I guess, considering they're wild animals.

(Roman's picture) Me with a monkey gnawing on my leg.
All in all, visiting the temples of Angkor was a mind blowing and awesome, but also surreal experience.  It was amazing to walk through them and see their beauty, but it was hard to imagine what they were really like when they were at their height, being used as centers for the Khmer Empire.
At dinner that night, the owner of the restaurant we were at asked us how much time we had spent at the temples.  We told him one day.  He said that's not enough.  He said he's been visiting them for 15 years and that's still not enough.

Tuesday morning I woke up to the sound of birds chirping - something that doesn't happen in Pohang.  After a relaxing morning and delicious lunch, our faithful tuk-tuk drivers picked us up and took us about a half-hour out of town, through a beautiful little village, to a small river.  There we boarded a wooden motorboat and our boat driver took us through shallow waters to one of the coolest places I've ever been - a floating village on the Tonle Sap lake.  First we passed a police station, high up on wooden stilts, then a school, high up on stilts, and then we came into this absolutely gorgeous village of maybe 200 wooden houses, all high up on stilts.  Then, our driver dropped us off on a floating dock, and quicker than I knew what had happened, they put us in two small, canoe-like boats and we were paddling right through the beautiful village.  I was at the back of one of the boats which was being guided by a girl about 10 years old.  I was handed a paddle and encouraged to use it but I didn't really know what to do or where to go at first.  It turned out that I didn't need to know where to go because the 10 year old girl was in much more control of the boat than I was.  Dan, Roman, and Pete were in the other boat with the mother of our guide and her younger sister, a cute maybe-two year old who Roman fell for right away.  The mother and her daughter took us through a part of the village, into a water-forest that was pure awesomeness, and back to our starting spot.  It might have been the best 45 minutes of my life.  This was certainly the most peaceful place I've ever been.  There was so much sun, so much water, so much beauty, so many smiles, and so much life there.  The whole time questions were running through my brain: What is life like for these people?  How did they build this village?  What do they eat?  What games do they play?  What makes them so happy?  How often do they stand on dry land?  I couldn't imagine growing up in a place where instead of walking down the street, you take a boat - instead of learning how to play soccer, you learn how to catch fish.  What a different lifestyle that is.

This is a school.  Imagine going to middle school here
Into the water forest.

If you look closely, you might see a naked baby.
I didn't plan for this, but I kinda like it.
After some food and drinks at the restaurant run by our boat-guiding family, we got back into the motorboat and our driver took us farther out into the lake where we couldn't see the other side.  There, Alisa and I went for a swim as we watched the sunset.  Then, as soon the chance for a good sunset picture was up, our driver, a good looking teenage guy, said, "We'll go back now, ok?"  Then he and all the other tourist motorboats just like ours gun their motors and literally race back through the village to where our tuk-tuk drivers were waiting for us.  The whole time our driver had this mischievous grin on his face and he would yell at the other young boat drivers he was racing.  It must be the best part of their day, I though, when the sun goes down and they race each other back.  It was cool to be a part of it.
And it was at this point that I wondered if these people - our tuk-tuk drivers, our canoe guide family, and our motorboat driver - know how special they had made our day.  They probably do this every day so there's probably nothing special about our day, and they probably won't remember us.  But for me, I'll remember this day and their faces long after I've left their country.  I wonder if they know that.
That night, we got on a night bus and tried to catch up on sleep during the bumpy five hour trip back to Phnom Penh.  We took a lot of dirt roads and at times sitting on the bus felt more like sitting on a malfunctioning roller coaster.  At the Phnom Penh bus stop, as the sun came up, we waited for our next bus, which would take us to Sihanoukville (see-wan-ook-vil) on Cambodia's west coast.  But figuring out which bus was ours was a bit hard.  We weren't given any instruction getting off our night bus and the workers at the bus station didn't seem to speak much English.  Thankfully, a friendly girl on an electric scooter (that made no sound, which I thought was the coolest) helped us out and got us on the right bus.  I slept a little more on this bus ride, and when I woke up, I could see ocean.
Really, what we were hoping for when we planned to go to Sihanoukville was to spend a lot of time soaking up the sun and relaxing on the beach.  Sihanoukville turned out to be the perfect place for that.  Our hostel was a bit out of town though, and, as we headed down a seemingly deserted road in our tuk-tuks, I couldn't help but worry that the Cambodian hospitality had reached its limit for us and our tuk-tuk drivers were now taking us to some remote place to leave us there (or worse).  But nope.  It's just that there are some roads in Cambodia that look deserted to outsiders, but actually aren't.  We soon arrived at our hostel which was in the middle of a beach paradise, named Otres Beach.  Honestly, this place looked like it came right out of a travel magazine.  The beach was beautiful.  And the culture of the place can be loosely summed up in these words: beach bums and two dollar marijuana.  It is a place where nothing happens quickly - everything is laid back.  We spend the rest of the day enjoying the beach and the atmosphere (but not the marijuana - don't worry).

If we wanted sun, we got it.  The next day, we got on a boat and headed to the nearby islands.  On the way - and this is one of the coolest things I've ever seen - a long, skinny fish, going lickity-split, jumps out of the water and skips across it just like a stone, travelling a good 30 meters before diving back into the water.  It was amazing!  And completely random.  At the islands, we went snorkeling, played in the water, and got a lot of sun.  Though we had the sunscreen with us, most of us got burnt to a crisp.  But, back on the mainland beach, these Cambodian women would walk around offering massages, pedicures, fruit, lobster, and real aloe vera plants.  This they cut up into small pieces, mixed it with ice and then rubbed it all over our burns.  It felt very good.

Friday, our last full day in Cambodia, we got our last taste of the beach in the morning and then caught an afternoon bus back to Phnom Penh.  This bus ride was another memorable experience - but not for the right reasons.  The whole way - five hours straight - we were bombarded with noise and disturbing images.  Before the trip, we had been warned about karaoke buses that play loud music with no one singing.  Well, that's what this was - but worse.  The speakers were terrible and the songs were all the same - whiny love songs.  But they were nothing compared to the movie they made us watch.  They played this movie that I think was supposed to be a comedy but was mostly just alarmingly disturbing.  It seemed like every character was killed at least once (no joke) very brutally and graphically.  There was no plot at all, and it was dubbed over into very loud Khmer (Cambodian).  If there was a low point to our trip, that was it.
We eventually got to the city, jumped on tuk-tuks and got back to the hostel we stayed at our first night in Cambodia.  The evening was spent reminiscing over a delicious dinner and buying a few more scarves and souvenirs at the night market. 
The next morning, at 6:00, our tuk-tuk drivers from the night before picked us up and drove us through the busy city to the airport.  And that was the end of our glorious trip.

I know it sounds cliche, but think I fell in love with Cambodia.  There's just such a life to the country.  And that is ironic given its history.  Just over 30 years ago, Cambodia went through the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in which roughly two million people died.  This week I read a book that I bought in Phnom Penh called "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung.  It's a memoir of the author's growing up years under the Khmer Rouge.  It is a dark and powerful glimpse of what life was like for Cambodians at that time.  Also, Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in Asia.  And yet, despite their poverty and their dark, recent history - or quite possibly because of it - Cambodians are some of the happiest people I've ever met.  Which is such a contrast to Korea.  I don't want to say that Koreans are unhappy people, but I wouldn't say they're very happy either.  Koreans have such high expectations of themselves, which they spend all their time trying to fulfil.  They are so driven, they don't seem to have time to enjoy life.  In Cambodia, life moves much slower, and, to me, the people seem to understand that getting into top universities and getting a well paying job isn't what bring happiness and shouldn't be our only goal in life.  I don't mean to rip Korea apart - there are a lot of things about Korea that I love.  It was just very refreshing to be in a new place and experience people with a completely different attitude toward life.

What a wonderful trip it was.
Aw khun, Thank you for reading,