Monday, January 25, 2010

Sabah, So Good!

Selemat Petang! Wow - time flies! Already so far behind in the blogging!

I'll try to update you as best I can on how we spent the last few days we had in Sabah, the eastern province of Borneo, Malaysia. I'll save the recent excursion to Miri & Mulu National Park for the next entry.

Our second full day in Borneo was a full day indeed. Because of the wet weather (see previous entry) we decided to for-go a two day hike up Mt. Kinabalu and opted for the less exciting, but convenient day trip offered by most of the tourist operators in the area. The tour took us, a middle-aged Japanese man, and a family from India with two adorable little ones in a groaning minivan up into the Kinabalu mountains (and the clouds) before going into the park's Botanical gardens for an informative introduction to rain forest flora. After which we enjoyed a tasty Malaysian lunch before driving to the Poring Hot Springs for a fantastic walk through the rain forest canopy via a suspended walkway. Then AA, SB and I took a dip in the hot spring tubs. By mid-afternoon the rain had moved into the mountains and we spent most of the 1.5 hour drive home slowly winding along the mountain roads covered by clouds. When we arrived back in the city, we hit up an Italian restaurant across the street from our hostel for some fantastic thin-crust pizza (I'm on a vacation from Korean food, not Canadian, after all).

The next day was the big highlight of our short time in Sabah. We were pick up early by Mini-van and drove 3 hours through the stunning countryside to the tiny town of Tenom, where we got on an old rickety train to get to the launch point for white water rafting on the Padas river! The course boasts level III and IV rapids, but thanks to all the rain the day before, the guides advised us that we would actually be navigating level IV and V rapids instead. In the minivan, the only folks who appeared to be rafting were the three of us and Ronnie, our guide. The other men in the van were simply catching a ride to Beaufort en route. However, when we arrived at the train station in Tenom we were joined by 40 Brunei soldiers on an Adventure Training course (a break from their usual boot camp routine). Needless to say, we were a popular addition to the group. The muddy Padas river was all riled up from the rain and after some brief safety instruction and strapping into our jackets and helmets, we hit the river. It was the most exciting, heart-pounding experience of my life. Our raft capsized once in a really tough section of rapid, only Ronnie managed to stay in the boat. Most of my raft members resurfaced close to raft and scrambled back inside quickly. However me and one of the soldiers found ourselves quickly being swept down river away from the boats, struggling to hang on to our paddles and figure out which direction our boat was in. We followed Ronnie's urgent advice to swim right toward the bank and it wasn't long before we were back in the boat and back in business. We rafted for about an hour and a half before stopping in a (relatively) calm stretch for lunch at a stilt-home of faded clapboard. Toddlers chased puppies and chickens around the grounds while we chowed down on some delicious home-made Malay food. It was exactly the break (and fuel) we needed before we went back out on the river to finish the course. Our second time round, our team seemed to hit our stride, navigating the rapids with more confidence and grace than the first time round. Near the end of the course, the river calmed significantly and we were able to hop into the river for swimming/body rafting. I climbed out of the raft onto the bank thoroughly soaked on rubbery legs and feeling elated.

(I'm sorry, I have to interrupt the narrative here for a moment: Korea has been following me everywhere on this trip! K-pop has just started blaring in this cyber cafe - the group 2NE1 for those of you who know who that is, if you don't just Youtube 'em - which reminds me that I forgot to tell you about the 100 or so Korean tourists who managed to find us on Mamutik island. They were impossible to miss - all wearing matching baby pink polo shirts and big sun-visors and staying far away from the beach. Oh gawd, why? Instead they blared bad Korean music, Noraebonged and played coordinated group clapping/towel waving games on a green space near the public toilets...oh Korea, if you're going to follow me all the way to a beach in frikkin' Malaysia, at least try to enjoy it! We've also met folks from Korea at nearly every stop - though thankfully they are the more adventurous type!)

Anyways, we all made it out of the river alive, feeling fantastic. We had another rocking, rickety train ride to Beaufort I believe and then a shorter ride back to KK. One of the guides of the trip, Angelo, rode with us and AA and I really enjoyed chatting with him about his rafting experiences, and some Sabah environmental and political issues.

Arriving back in KK, we debated about heading out to see some of the nightlife (which would include partying with those Brunei soldiers, a few happened to be staying at the same Hostel as us) or getting up real early to catch the ferry to Brunei. We wound up doing neither. The plan to go to Brunei got kaiboshed when I did a little online research around 1am and found it really difficult to find availability to Mulu National Park in Sarawak, a fly-in only location which we were really looking forward too. We decided it would be better to stay in KK at least one more day and get that part of the trip sorted out, rather than delay booking it and miss the opportunity. So we weighed our options, talked to a few airlines and managed to get some flights but they meant taking a flight to Miri in Sarawalk that night. So we're skipping Brunei this time. To be honest, we were mostly going for the stamps in our passports and since Brunei is quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Borneo, we felt it was better to spend that cash in Sarawak where we would get the most out of it. After all the tickets were bought, it was still only lunch time, so we grabbed some grub and our bathing suits and hopped on a speedboat to Sapi Island, another island part of the same park as Mamutik. This island had much better snorkelling and assortments of fish! I still had the bottle of fish food (re: breadcrumbs) from Mamutik and had blast starting a literal feeding frenzy around me in the bright teal water. (You'll love the video, once I get it posted!) Amanda and I took a short hike through the interior of the island to the other side, where we enjoyed a fantastic view of the sea stretching out to the horizon. Then we headed down to the abandoned beaches of the island accessible by hiking trail, but not by boats. We found several fresh monitor lizard tracks in the sand. And a few hops and scrambles-over-rocks later, we found 3 of those giants slowly lumbering across the sand. Two of them quickly slipped behind some rocks and into the forest (I'm sure they'd heard us coming a mile away), but a slowpoke patiently waited in the sand for us to go by (we had to go waist deep into the water to give him his space, we didn't feel like testing how aggressive monitor lizards are). We caught our speedboat back to the jetty at 5 pm, enjoyed a dinner of delicious Arabic food on the wharf and finally got to watch a spectacular KK sunset, which all our guidebooks had raved about, but we'd seemed to miss every night so far. As the brilliant golds and oranges began to fade into magenta and purple hues we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the airport.

As our plane lifted off, I felt reluctant to go. I know that Sabah has so much more to offer, so much to see and do that we simply couldn't get to because of time and budget constraints. It's definitely on my list of places to return to. Kota Kinabalu turned out to be a great base-camp for our day-trip excursions and a good introduction to Malaysia, a great place to get our feet wet (Literally and figuratively). At the same time, I was so eager to get to Miri and head on to Mulu National Park - we had seen so little of the Borneo rain forest, soon we would be flying into the heart of it!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Coming at Ya from Borneo Malaysia!!!

Hey All - I guess I spoiled the surprise, but I'm writing to you from Malaysia!!! Yesterday we (Amanda A, hereafter AA, and Shari B, hereafter SB) flew from Seoul to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the Sabah province of Borneo Malaysia. The plan is to travel west from here through Brunei and the Malaysian province of Sarawak, then hop on a boat or a plan to Singapore and explore some of Peninsular Malaysia. Well that's the first 3 weeks. I'm splitting off from the girls in Kuala Lampur to fly to Chiang Mai Thailand, for a week at Elephant Nature Park (you may recall me gushing about this place last year).

Now I realize that my last entry ended in November. I've decided I'm not going to write up a huge thing about December/New Years. One of my goals for the New Year was to update this blog more frequently, therefore have shorter entries, easier for ya to digest. A comment I just had from my mom confirms this as a good idea. Here's the highlights from the end of 2009:

- weekend Christmas shopping in Seoul (ate 2.5 feet of subway sandwiches while there, I'm not ashamed!)
- finals at school + Christmas holidays coming up = lots of watching "Merry Christmas Mr. Bean" and singing carols in the classroom
- had a REAL turkey dinner at Jodie and Stephen's place with a few friends, soo soo good!
- Skyped with family back home
- toured around SK with my friend Mike (who was visiting all the way from San Francisco!), showed around Gwangju, Suncheon and Seoul. We went up Namsan Tower (the Seoul equivalent of the CN Tower) and did a temple stay at HwaGaeSa.
- Snowball fight with Zen Master and 3:00 AM meditations at HwaGaesa
- 5 days of "Additional In-Service Teacher Training" at Seoul's NIIEC centre
- Desking warmingin a cold teachers office (but you've heard my take on that!)

Here's the pics from it all, they tell the story better than I do anways. December

Also, here's some pics of me teaching (as you requested Uncle Mel!), a cornucopia of hilarious Korean signs/stuff, and the outcome of a funny student assignment. Enjoy

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming...
Ok, so landed in Kota Kinabalu around 3:45pm local time. Getting off the plane, the humidity and sweet smell hit me immediately. My guidebook gave us a good tip on looking for 'minibusses' (ie. minivans) to get into town for 2 Ringgit (60 cents) rather than taking a private taxi from the airport for 30 Ringgit ($10), so we hopped in one going the right direction. One of the passengers was a friendly local who helped us get on the correct city bus to get to the heart of downtown KK, where we could walk to our hostel. Everyone here is really friendly, and in a sincere way (as opposed to the "Friendly" people in Thailand who were happily trying to con you). We're sticking to a budget this trip, so we're staying in a dorm-style room with bunkbeds for 10 people and only fans, no air-conditioning. No privacy, but you meet lots of backpackers from all over. After checking into our hotel and changing out of our winter layers (because it was -5 when we left Seoul), we deided to hit the waterfront nightmarket for some local food for dinner. We ate fried noodles w/ chicken and veggies for $1/plate and drank ABC Miah's, the wierdest thing I've ever tried to suck through a straw. Ingredients included canned corn, condensed milk, grenadine, chopped nuts and some green stuff soaked in syrup for good measure. Shari and I also tried some mystery meat - the vendor told us it was pork, so our best guess is that we ate sections of pig tail. We wandered through the craft market and the fruit market in the hot rain. I tried two new tropical fruits: Mangosteen (very sweet and strange looking) and Duku-langsat(which is like a big grape except that you peel it and the inside comes out in sections like a citrus fruit). We loaded up with fruit to eat for breakfast the next day and made our way back to the hostel. I was exhausted - the trip had started at 10:00pm in Suncheon to catch a midnight bus from Gwangju to Seoul and then get on a Plane at a 11:00am. I'm a light sleeper so I really didn't get much if any sleep on the bus or plane. I decided to hit the showers (a good way to keep cool at night is sleep with your hair wet after all. When I got in, a little pink gecko clambered up the wall away from me. I kept my eye on him as I soaped up, and good thing I did. The little bugger climbed until he hit the ceiling and then started making his way across the ceiling directly above me. He lost his grip right above me, naturally. He landed with a loud splat at my feet. I very gracefully squealed and huddled against the door. We stared at eachother dumbfounded for a moment. Then he spotted the exit, which I just happend to be blocking. I squealed again and hopped to the opposite side of the shower as he scooted out under the door.

Today we headed to Mamutik island by speedboat from KK harbour. We thought we would get rained out, but those ugly storm clouds stayed near the mainland and we got to enjoy some swimming and snorkelling (though, as can be expected in a public swimming area, almost all the coral was dead from being stepped on), Tom Yam Soup for lunch (spicy tomato and herb soup with veggies and chicken) and happened upon a HUGE monitor lizard lounging on the rocks. No seriously, HUGE. HUUUUGGGGGGEEEE! We thought at first he was Komodo dragon. Yeah, that big.

I just finished a big dinner at the food court of a big shopping complex and am heading back to the hostel to relax for the rest of the night. Tomorrow we going to Mt Kinabalu park to do alittle touring of the area (the wet weather makes any serious climbing too much trouble for us) and check out the poring hot springs! I'll let you know how it goes. I cannot WAIT to get into that beautiful jungle that is just pressing itself up against the city. Cross your fingers for me that the rain stays away!!!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Going Retro - November 2009

As promised, in a much better mood now. I'm better prepared for my chilly office. I put winter tights on under my jeans, and super warm fuzzy socks on too. Thermal undershirt under my sweater which is under my winter coat. And I brought my sheepskin slippers (from Egli's Sheep Farm back home) and a big jar of Citron tea to school, I think I'm on mug number 4. Also, brought my MP3 player to school, so I've been chillin to some fantastic music: Fleet Foxes, the Weakerthans, Great Lake Swimmers, Sandi Thom, etc.

Now, imagine my shock and surprise when I scanned back through recent posts to the blog and discovered my last narrative entry, as far as the "life of Lisa" goes, left off at Halloween! Sorry guys!

The good news is, November wasn't nearly as busy as September and October.

The first weekend is probably the only one really worth blogging about - Amanda Ammon and I headed to Gyeongju (Korea's ancient Capital during the 3 kingdom's period)located north of Busan, to tour the ancient sites and do our first Buddhist temple stay. Gyeongju is one of those places in South Korea that I think every expat should go see. Once it was a royal city filled with Palaces and Shrines, now it is a small tourist town built around the remains. About the only things still intact are the enormous royal tombs that rise out of the ground like the small perfectly circular hills you would see in the background of a Mario Bros game on a Super Nintendo. We toured much of the sights on foot, beginning at the Gyeongju National Museum, then walking over to Anapji Pond. From there we walked past the first of the royal tombs (Daereungwon tombs), and the remains of Royal Palace - only stumps of stone left in the ground - Cheomseongdae Observatory (the oldest standing Astronomy tower in Asia) and onto the Royal Tomb park. One of the royal tombs has been opened to visitors as a sort of "walk in" museum, where visitors can see how the tomb was designed and how the body and artifacts would have been laid out! We learned that when a King died, his queen and many servants would also be sacrificed and buried with him, the intent being that they would continue to serve the King in the next life.

After pounding all that pavement, I felt relieved when we met up with our friends from Suncheon who would also join us for a temple stay at Golgulsa, a mountain-side temple outside the city. We were dropped off at a highway junction by a rural bus and walked about 20 minutes following signs. I didn't mind. Fall in Korea is spectacular and we were walking down a winding road than ran through a small industrial town settled in the valley of a mountain range. I loved feeling 'away' from the city. We huffed and puffed our way up the short by steep pathway to the temple office for check-in. We then learned that our accomodations were at the bottom of the hill we'd just climbed, and thus we'd be making that trek many times in the next 24 hours. According to the Buddhist tradition, we ate a vegetarian supper and finished everything on our plates (Buddhists try to not to waste anything, particularly food as it sustains our bodies). Golgulsa is a famous temple in Korea because its monks practice Sunmudo, a rare and ancient meditative martial art. Not designed for combat, Sunmudo requires the practitioner to have complete control over their mind and body in order to perform the difficult, almost dancelike moves. So though most of us came prepared to meditate, we were quite suprised to find ourselves sweating and straining through a Sunmudo training session. We had a short lesson in meditative technique and then were treated to a remarkable Sunmudo demonstration that had been put together for a group of Korean visitors to the temple (lucky us).

Soon after that it was time for bed - we had a 4 am wake up call to meet! We slept as most Koreans do, on a hot ondol floor with blankets to serve as mattress and cover. Our pre-dawn alarm clock was a junior monk tapping a wooden bell and chanting outside our building. (Punishment for sleeping in was 1080 bows to Buddha, and no one dared risk finding out how strictly this policy was enforced!) After doing some morning bows and a walking meditation, we met with the monks in the dining hall to participate in the Balwoo-gongyang for breakfast around 6 AM. The Balwoo-gongyang is a meditative meal practiced by Buddhists designed to focus the mind on the food that sustains us: where it came from, the earth it gained its nutrients from, the farmer who cared for and harvest the food to the cook who prepared the meal. Nothing is wasted. The dinnerware consists of a placemat, chopsticks, a spoon and four bowls - one of which is filled with hot water for washing the other three bowls with at the end, so that you begin and end the meal with 4 clean bowls. Done properly, nothing is wasted except maybe a half a cup of water. It was one of my favourite experiences at Golgulsa, not to mention a technique I can adapt the next time I go camping.
After breakfast was finished, I hiked up the side of the mountain to see the Maya Tathagata Buddha (a big Stone Buddha cut in relief into the side of the mountain)and take in a breaktaking view of the mountain valley and forest as the sun rose. I visited the cave shrine for a little bit of meditation. We had some free time in the morning in which you could go on a tour of some local sites, which I opted out of to take the most glorious nap this girl has ever taken. To finish up the stay we ate lunch and then participated in a special tea ceremony with a student monk (He was one of the few who could speak English) who answered our questions regarding Buddhism and the Buddhist lifestyle.

Before heading back into Gyeongju to catch a bus home, Amanda and I decided we wanted to take in one more historic site: Bolguksa Temple, a temple so big and beautiful they made into a UNESCO site. It was raining pretty heavily by the time we got there, so I bought a bright green poncho to try to protect my pack. Despite the rain, the temple and its grounds were stunning, particularly the pond outside which made the brilliant japanese maple trees nearby seem to glow. We were in a bit of a hurry, so as not to miss the last bus back to Suncheon, and in my haste I managed to forget my wallet inside the main Shrine hall, and naturally didn't notice until we were all the way at the bus stop. It was quite a jog to get all the way back up the hill and inside the grounds! Thankfully the ticket guys didn't make me pay again, and of course, this is Korea, my wallet had been put behind the counter for safekeeping, money and cards just as I had left them. I also bought a really pretty souvenir bell similar to the Emile bell we saw at the National Museum from a vendor who happily accepted my money and then stuffed the trinket in a box proclaiming "Made In China". Yeesh.

Here's the photos:

I was low on cash and energy after all that had happened in the last 5 weeks, so the rest of the month was pretty low key. Lots of social events of course, but I stayed in Suncheon, and we did a few fun photo shoots with Amanda Gale's fancy new DSLR camera. Photoshoot #1 - Kate, Lindsey C and I dressed up as Marionettes (ala my design for my Halloween Costume); Amanda G dressed up as an Angel and Lindsey V dressed up as death. Photoshoot #2 - at the end of November I put up my Christmas tree and Amanda Gale patiently took about 600 pictures over two days until Mokah decided she was ready to sit pretty in front of the tree for my Christmas Photo Cards I sent out. But we did have a lot of fun with it and Amanda and Kate both got some holiday shots to send home out of it too!

Will try to quickly write up a summary of December and the New Year before I head off on Vacation - Tomorrow I'm flying to Kota Kinabalus Malaysia!!!

I'll leave you on this note: I discovered that of all things, the toilet seats in the teacher's bathroom are heated! I have seriously been considering bringing my laptop to school and setting up shop in the lavatory. :P

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Freezing My Buns Off in 2010

Considering that Koreans are so very proud of their four distinct seasons which includes a harsh winter (due to Siberian winds and North Korean clear-cutting), you would think these guys would be on the up-and-up about insulation and heating for the winter months. But no. ALL the entrance doors to my school are wide open and several windows have been left open to let in "fresh air" for good measure. Or you might think that since they are so proud of their Ondol (floor heating) system, they would install it in their schools instead of installing crappy air heating systems in the CEILINGS (hot air rises people!). In Canada, we insulate then weather-strip then insulate our weather stripping and cover everything up with plastic sheeting just to be safe! THEN we turn on our turbo-awesome furnace which vent hot air up from the floor.

***If you haven't guessed the tone, this entry is going to be rant-y (Yes, I can make up words, I'm an English Teacher now :D)***

I'm currently sitting in the teachers room with my winter coat, wrist warmers and scarf still on, wishing to high heaven I could wear my warm and cozy boots inside but instead I have little toe-sicles due to the fact that I have to wear my slip-on "inside" shoes. Me thinks a trip to Shinae (shopping district) for fur-lined "inside" shoes has moved to the top of my priority list.

On top of freezing at my desk, I cannot even take refuge in the usually warm and cozy "teachers rest room" which is the only 40 square feet in this building equipped with Ondol and also blankets/pillows so you can "take a rest" in super warm and cozy slumber-party fashion. I really thought this whole desk-warming thing would be fine because I could spend 50% of my day sleeping on a hot floor. (The other 50% would be spent blogging to you, naturally :P)

What is desk-warming you ask? It is a gift from the National Education Office to all of the Native English Speaking Teachers (NEST's) this year. Alittle context for you -

The public education schedule in South Korea runs like this: School starts 1st semester at the beginning of March each year. 1st semester ends in Mid to Late July. School is on "summer break" until the end of August when the 2nd Semester begins. The 2nd semester runs from the End of August until the end of December. The schools then begin "winter beak" from January to Febuary. Middle Schools and High Schools return to their classes for one in Febuary, a so-called "Graduation Week" to officially close out the school year and send the graduates on their way to High School or University.

In the past, school principals had the jurisdiction (and rightfully so) to decide what to do with the NEST. Some schools runs extra camps and classes to benefit the students who are not participating in aggressively scheduled Hogwan (private academy) programs. Others only stay open for the Administrators and higher ups to continue their work. Some close completely. So, the case has been that some NEST's end up with a lot more time off than the 26 days written in their contract for winter break or the 7 days alotted to us for summer break. -

I was one of these lucky folks. My school said "see ya later" last year on Dec 31st and I didn't return until March 2nd. Similarly, I finished teaching in Mid July after exams and didn't return to work until the end of August. This year was going to be the same deal, but the National Office has been brooding and stewing over complaints made by Korean Teachers and other NEST's about the "unfair" treatment some of us have recieved. Tired of hearing complaints and attempting to put a tighter thumb down on NEST's (thanks to the efforts of groups like the Anti-English Spectrum who very publicly denounce NEST's as lazy/incompetent/sexual predators/drunks etc etc etc) the National School Board announced that they would no longer allow schools to give their teachers more time off than what is written in the contract. If your teacher is not at the school, you don't pay them.

For some teachers, this is not a big deal. Most elementary school teachers run extra camps for the their schools during the breaks. I was asked to run some extra classes at the end of Febuary (After I return from my trip to MALAYSIA!!!)and of course agreed. The problem is that there are also many schools which do not run programs for the NEST's to participate in. Some schools are not even open to the students. This is especially true in my province, Jeollanamdo, which is less populated and much more rural than the rest of the country. The new enforcements mean we now have to come and sit at our desks from 9-5 to earn our keep, regardless of whether there is work for us to do or students for us to teach.

Not the end of the world, to get paid to do nothing. But it would nice if I wasn't freezing my butt off. And it wouldn've been nice to have had this announcement earlier than December 21, 2009. You know, that it wouldn't have screwed up my plans to travel within SK with a friend visiting from the US. Sorry Mike.

I really am just blowing off steam here. There are atleast a few other teachers here at my school teaching morning classes in January. I'm not alone with janitors like some people. I've got books to read, blogs to write, journalling to catch up on, etc etc etc.

All the recent changes just wind up making me feel like the Education board sees me as a child that must be chaperoned or an hourly worker who must be carefully watched because I can't be trusted otherwise. I know my school loves me and my co-teachers and vice-principal were really apologetic about the abrupt change to my plans for January. It just sucks that my direct employers/supervisors no longer have the authority to adjust my work schedule in ways that make sense for our particular school. It sucks to be paying for the mistakes/poor behaviour of other NEST's and xenophobic socio-political groups.

It sucks freezing my buns off for the start of 2010.

(Tomorrow I promise to be in a better mood and write to you about the awesome Christmas & New Years I had here. I just wanted to vent alittle.)