Living out of a Backpack

{April 11, 2009}   Delhi, India

My last day in Varanasi was a bit of a challenge.  Sierra and I went out to a little town about 10 kms from Varanasi which is full of buddhist temples (I forget the name of it right now).  Anyways, it was really nice to get out of the city and get away from all of the people asking us if we wanted boat rides or to buy things.  The sites weren’t all that impressive, but we saw the ruins of a temple where Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon after becoming enlightened.

Then in the afternoon, we had lunch at the great German Bakery place and I got henna done on my hands.  It turned out pretty cool, but it took more than two hours for her to put it on and then dry, so I was a bit late leaving for the train station.  So I decided to get a cycle rickshaw driver to take me to the hotel to get my stuff.  I figured that would be faster, but I was definetly wrong!  The cycle guy ended up going in the completely wrong direction, and I didn’t figure it out until we were almost 5 miles away from my hotel!  My train was leaving in about an hour and a half, so I started freaking out a bit, since the whole city was a traffic jam at that time of day.  I had to get an auto rickshaw, then another cycle rickshaw just to get me to my hotel.  (Sunset must be the peck time for cremating people, because there were 3 shrouded bodies laying on the ground literally right in front of the hotel entrance, which I had to manouver around to get my stuff and then get back to the road.  Crazy!)

Anyways, I got a really nice rickshaw driver to take me to the train station and I got there with about 15 minutes to spare before the train even pulled up.  The 12 hour journey was very chilled.  My train car was filled with middle aged Korean tourists, so I felt very safe.  (What a coincedence I would be put in the carriage with all the Korean ajumas!)

Everyone warned me that Delhi was crazy, and I’m kinda in chill out mood, so I decided to forget about running around town visiting sights that I wasn’t really interested.  I just got a hotel room in Panharganj area (Hotel Scot which is quite nice!) and have just been shopping like crazy in the main bazaar here.  It really reminds me of Khao San Rd in Bangkok, so I feel like I’m in a familiar place again.  And everything is so cheap here!  I even had to buy a new backpack just to get all my purchases back to the UAE!  I’m leaving for the airport in about 6 hours (at 2:30am!!).  So I probably won’t be writing anymore until my next journey.


{April 9, 2009}   Varanasi, India

The train ride to Varanasi went surprisingly well.  (So many people warned me about the trains, I was a bit freaked out.)  The train was about an hour late, but it was much more comfortable than I had thought it would be.  There were triple decker bunk beds in the carriage (I had a middle one) so there wasn’t really any room to sit up or move around, but I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on. 

In the morning, I meet the American girl, Sierra, who had the bunk above me.  And we have been hanging out together in Varanasi.  Its really great to hang out with her because Varanasi would be pretty intimidating by yourself!  The city is made up of tiny winding alleys where we are constantly getting lost.  Plus the aisles are filled with people, cows, goats, dogs, and lots of manure! 

We ended up staying in the Ganga Top Guest House.  It is right next to the Ganges River, but it is also about 50 feet away from the Crematorium!  (We didn’t realize that when we checked in!)  So as we are drinking our morning chai at the rooftop restraunt, we have a lovely view of shrouded bodies being carried into the crematorium!  (If Sierra wasn’t here with me, I think I would have checked myself into a luxuy hotel asap, and spent the next 3 days at the pool!) 

Anyways, the first day we wandered around this strange but very beautiful and surreal city.  We sat near the burning ghat for a while and watched them burn the bodies on the pyiars.  (It sounds really morbid, but Varanasi is supposed to be the most holy place to die, and being cremated on the bank of the Ganges is very Indians wish.)  Then later in the evening we got really lost so we only caught the last 5 minutes of the nightly ceremony (we’ll have to go back tonight) with all of the Baba’s singing and chanting at the main Ghat.  Then we went to watch some traditional Indian music at a little cafe.

Our second morning, we woke up at 5:30am and went on a early morning boat ride down the Ganges.  It was really amazing to see everyone bathing, swimming, and washing their clothes in the same river where they put all of the bodies.  We had  great breakfast at the Brown Bread Bakery and then decided to chill for a bit.  Later this afternoon, we are going to do a yoga class, and then try to watch the nightly ceremony.

Varanasi is probably the craziest place I’ve ever been.  I wish I knew more about Hinduism so I understood alittle bit about what is happening around me!

{April 7, 2009}   Agra, India

I arrived in Agra after a pretty uneventful 6 hour bus ride from Jaipur.  The bus was actually a lot more comfortable than I would have imagined (of course a little AC would have helped a bit)!  I immediatly went to the area right by the Taj Mahal, since that’s where all of the backpacker guesthouses seem to be.  The streets seemed a lot more dirty and chaotic than in Jaipur, but maybe that’s because they’re more like little winding alleys here so all of the cows, tuk tuks, street dogs, and people are crammed into 1 lane.

I stayed at Shanti Lodge, which was pretty good.  The best part of it is definetly it’s view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restraunt.  Instead of paying $15 to see it, I could just go up 1 flight of stairs and look at the Taj as many times as I wanted.  The first day I arrived in the afternoon, so I didn’t do much. 

My second day in Agra I woke up at 5:30am to be one of the first to visit the Taj for the day.  It is such an amazing sight!  It is even more magical and amazing in person.  I don’t really know what to write about it.  You’ll just have to see it for yourself.  After the Taj and a really horrible breakfast at my hotel (the view is so amazing people don’t really seem to care that the food is so terrible), I hired an auto rickshaw driver for the day.  We went to the Agra Fort, Baby Taj, some Chinese Mausoleum, and a park by the river that backs up to the Taj.  Of course after taking me to all of the places I wanted to go, the driver decided to force me to go to shops and factories so he could gets gas coupons from the owners.  It was kind of a pain, but I guess its to be expected.  I was so exhausted after the long day that I laid down to take a little nap at 6:00pm.  I didn’t wake up until 3:30am!  The sun and the early morning must have been too much for me!

On my third day in Agra I decided to go to Fatehpur Sikri, which is a town about 40 kms from Agra.  I was still kind of annoyed by my rickshaw driver from yesterday, and I had a whole day so I decided to take the bus there instead of being driven in a private car.  The bus was a bit of an adventure in itself, but I think that experience local transport is a big part of seeing the country in a real non-touristy way.  I finally made it to Fatehpur Sikri by about 11:30am, so it was boiling hot!  Fatehpur Sikri is a World Heritage site that is an old palace complex and massive mosque build in the 1500’s.  It was built for King Akbar, but he only lived there for 16 years because there isn’t much water.  So then he moved the whole city and his palace to Agra. 

The mosque was really beautiful and amazing, but since it is free to get in it was full of people try to sell you things and be your tour guide.  It got pretty annoying after awhile.  Then I went to the palace portion and it was so peacful in comparison!  (I would much rather have to pay a few dollars entrance fee than have to deal with people in your face constantly!)  I hired a guide for $1 to show me around the massive palace complex.  He had some interesting information, but his English wasn’t that great so I only understood about 1/2 of what he said. 

After that I had another great meal, and then took the bus back to Agra.  (The only places that I’ve had bad food has been right around the Taj Mahal.  I guess if its too touristy an area the food is gonna be watered down and nasty.)  Now I’m just waiting to get on my overnight train bond for Varanasi.  The train was really full, so I’m going to be in third class.  We’ll have to see how that goes.  (There’s only 2nd, 3rd and 4th class.  And everyone keeps telling me third is the same as second, you just have a little less space.)

{April 4, 2009}   Jaipur, India

I’ve only been in India for 48 hours, but it feels like I could fill a book with all of the things that have happened so far.  I am really loving India! Most of my friends warned me that it was crazy, overwhelming, and a bit scary but so far I haven’t had any problems.  Besides I love craziness and how alive and vibrant third world countries feel.  There is always so much happening on the street, I could amuse myself all day just wandering around.

Anyways, I am staying at a great little guesthouse called Explores Nest.A married couple run it. It only has 4 rooms, so it feels more like you are staying with some long lost cousins, than actually staying at a hotel.  The couple are so friendly too!

My first day in Jaipur I wandered around and got lost on my way to the Old City (even though its only a 10 minute walk it some how took me an hour).  I eventually made it through all the windy alleys to the City Palace (with a detour in the bizarre, I’ve somehow become a shopacholic since arriving in India, I think its because everything is so cheap!).  After the City Palace, I decided to give myself a break so I hired a cycle rickshaw driver to take me around.  We went to the Water Palace, some other temple, the Temple of the Winds (the most famous sight in Jaipur), to a museum, a Hindi Temple, and then back to my hotel. The driver had offered to take me for only 40 cents an hour, buthe worked so hard and carted me around for at least 5 hours, so I paid him $10.  He was so happy!

The next day, I had to stop by the train station first thing in the morning, since I need to book the tickets in advance for my overnight train journeys later on in the week.  The lady was not very helpful, so I only got waitlisted for the trains, but I’m hoping I’ll make it on both of them.  (You can check your status online, so at least I won’t have to stand at the train station waiting.)

Then I got an auto rickshaw (trishaw) to take me to the Amber Fort.  We stopped at the Maharajas’ tombs too, which were really beautiful and were in a surprising peaceful setting.  The Amber Fort is incredible! It was a huge palace where the king and all of his wives lived.  I hired a guide (for $3) and learned a ton of interesting facts about the fort.  Then I went to a Bollywood movie at the most famous movie theater in India, but the movie was really boring.  It was an action movie, half in English half in Hindi and there wasn’t any dancing or singing.  So I left after about 40 mins.  (The ticket was only a dollar, so I didn’t feel bad about it.)

Then I went and spoiled myself with a head, neck, and shoulders massage and a haircut.  I wasn’t expecting the lady to cover my hair in olive oil, which seems to be a key part of the massage, but it was still really nice and relaxing.  (btw- My hair is still super oily, even though she washed it after the massage.)  After spoiling myself I had to do a bit of shopping.

Then I went to dinner.  (I have been eating like crazy since I’ve been here, but the food is so good I just can’t say no.)  This dinner was the best of the trip though-so far.  It was a thali place with only 1 thing on the menu.  Basically you sit down and are give a huge tray and about 10 little bowls.  Men walk around with all kinds of curries, breads, veggies, rices, and desserts and fill up your little bowls.  It is free refills, and it seems like their goal is to get you to eat as much as possible.  So as soon as I took a bite a man would come and put two more things on my plate.  (Funny story- when I first walked in I heard all of this singing and drumming happening in the next room over.  I figured it was a private party with entertainers in the next dining room, so I asked the waiter if I could sit in there.  He said “sure”, so I walked in.  It turned out it was the kitchen and about 20 cooks were sitting around singing and playing instruments as a kind of warm up for the night.  They ended up giving me a tour of the kitchen, showed me how to cook everything, and took pictures with me.)

I’m leaving for Agra tomorrow.  And I hope its as much fun as Jaipur!

{October 1, 2008}   Eid Vacation in Oman

It is Eid holiday here in the Gulf, so I was lucky enough get 9 days of vacation. (Originally it was only supposed to be 5, but some high ranking religious/government person decided that everyone in the UAE should have Sunday and Monday off from work in addition to Tuesday-Thursday. Yeah!)  So I decided to take a little trip to Oman.  I live about 10 miles away from the border, so it was the eaisest place to travel to. 

Originally, I was going to leave on Friday, and hired and guy to drive me to the bus station just over the border in a town called Burami, Oman.  I didn’t have any problems leaving the UAE or finding the bus station, but once the bus arrived it was a different story.  The driver wouldn’t allow me to get on the bus to Salalah, since I wasn’t a GCC (Gulf Citizen). It turns out that the bus follows a really crazy route.  It starts in Dubai, and drives across UAE.  Then it enters Oman and stops at the Burami bus stop to pick up people.  Instead of continuing on in a logically route, it crosses the border again and drives back into UAE for a few miles, and then crosses the border for a third time and goes back into Oman where it finally proceedes to drive to Salalah.  (Strange huh?!)  There are only a few bordering crossings open to all people, and unfortunately the bus goes through ones only for GCC’s, so I was given the choice to hire a taxi and try to race the bus through the borders (the driver made it clear that they wouldn’t wait for me if I was late), go to Muscat, or just go home. 

I choose the easiest option, of just going home for the night.  That’s when I ran into more complications.  The border people for the UAE didn’t want to let me back into the country, since I hadn’t offically entered or exited Oman.  (You can drive all around Burami without offically entering Oman.) So the border guard wanted me to get a taxi to drive me 20 miles into the interior of Oman, get stamped in- then immediately stamped out of Oman, then make my way back to the border.  Playing the sweet innocent girl card worked, and the border guard let me through without making me drive all around Oman.  So things worked out in the end.

I decided that I would have to cut Salalah from my itinerary.  (Salalah is supposed to be a really cool laid back beach town, full of mango and papaya trees, and it’s supposed to have an East African vibe to it like Zanzibar.)  It sounds really cool, but it’s a 15 hour drive from my house, so I just couldn’t do it.  I decided to spend a few days in Muscat (the capital of Oman) instead.  The bus journey was much less eventfull this time, and I made it to the city without anything major happening.   I stayed at a nice little hotel called Naseem Hotel, which has a great location right on the corniche in the little port town of Muscat called Mutrah. 

Immediately on entering Oman, I noticed how much more friendly the Omani people are compared to the Emirates.  There was a lot more smiling, people saying “hello”, and offering to help you here.  Plus Muscat (espcially Mutrah and Old Muscat) really has an Arabic vibe to it.  In Al Ain and Dubai I feel like I could be anywhere in the world, with the shopping malls and Starbucks, so I really enjoyed that “arabic-ness” about Oman.  I spent the the first part of the trip wandering around Mutrah and Old Muscat.  I visited some museums, saw the fish market, the gold souq (where I bought frankinsense- how cool to actually see real frankensense), some old forts, and the Sultan’s Palace.  It was really fun wandering around, but it was incredibly hot and sunny!

The second day I went on a dolphin watching/snorketlling tour.  The dolphin watching was incredibly! (I’ve been on quite a few dolphin watching tours before, but it was nothing like this.  Normally you see a few dolphins and then they swim away.)  In Oman there were literally 50-100 dolphins swimming along side the boat for at least a 1/2 an hour.  The whole pod was constantly jumping out of the water, so it was really cool!  The snorkelling was really nice too.  It definetly wasn’t the best coral in the world, but there was a good variety of tropically fish to see.  I even saw a sea turtle swimming around (which was a first for me) and this crazy looking white eel.  The guide had said that there weren’t any sharks in the bay, so I had a mini heart attack as I was snorkelling along and saw one swimming directly below me!  (It was just a little reef shark, but still the surprise of seeing sure scared me.)  I don’t think I’ve swam that fast for quite a while!

In the afternoon, I went on a drive to some of the villages with a guy from my hotel and a nice taxi driver called Abdullah (who’s family had come from the village).  It was really interesting to see life outside of Muscat.  Oman is much less developed than I had originally thought.  (To give you an idea, up unti 1970 there were only 2 schools in the whole country, 1hospital, and 10 kilometers of paved road!)  A lot has changed since then, but people in the more remote areas still have troubles getting water and electricty etc.  The scenary on the drive (and all over Oman) was quite amazing.  It is obviously a really dry country and you hardly see any plants or green things at all, except when you get to a little village or oasis of date palms.  The whole country seems to be covered in jagged mountains (which also have no plants growing on them.)  It sort of feels like you’re in outer space or something. 

We went to a little fishing village called Quirat (where Abdullah is from). There wasn’t really much to see, but it was interesting to just observe daily life.  The people were so friendly, we got a few offers to eat dinner in random strangers houses!  Another funny thing that we saw, were the goats that basically were everywhere in town.  They were even climbing on top of cars!  We had a simple dinner there, and tried the traditional Omani Eid dessert called “hawal”.  (It is the texture of hard jello, and is flavored with tons of palm sugar, rose water, safforn, and pistachios.  it was very strange, but I’m glad I had the chance to try it.)

Ramadan is finally over now, so I can eat and drink anytime I want!  Yeah!!  I’m headed back to Al Ain today.  I enjoyed seeing Oman, but it is definetly a lot harder to be a tourist here, than in other places I’ve travelled.  You really need to have your own car, since all of the sights seem to be 200+ kms from Muscat, and they really don’t seem to cater to tourists.  (There aren’t many day trips, and the ones they do offer are super expensive.  Well, at least to me after living in South East Asia.  I’m sure Europeans think it’s quite resonable.)

{September 6, 2008}   First Week of Classes

I’ve been in the Emirates now for two weeks, and feel like I’ve adjusted to life in Al Ain pretty quickly.  My classes began on Monday, and everything went quite well.  I am a 1st grade teacher, and I have a class of 29 students (which is quite a change for me, since my largest class in the past had been 14).  I feel like I’m teaching at the UN or something.  There are students from at least 10 different countries in my class (Sweden, USA, UK, Morroco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan etc.).  The little Swedish girl can already speak 4 lanuages- Swedish, Chinese, English, and French!  And did I mention she is 5 years old!!

All of the kids are much better at English then I had expected.  Some seem nearly fluent, so that’s been a nice change.  I teach the kids pretty much all of the subjects like Math, Phonics, Art, Science, Spelling, Reading etc.  (Luckily there is a music teacher who comes in and sort of takes over the class for me, otherwise I’d feel sorry for those kids having to listen to me sing!)  I am also teaching a special class with 2 4th grade boys who are new to the school and need extra help at English, so they can catch up with the rest of the 4th graders.  (It’ s really nice to have such a small class after dealing with 29 5&6 year olds all day.)

This month is Ramadan, so pretty much everyone in the country is fasting from sun up to sun down for the entire month.  Which means that stores and things are closed for most of the day.  Also, our school hours are shortened, which has been a nice way of easing into the classes.

I became a member of the Intercontinental Hotel earlier this week, which I’m really happy I decided to do!  (Intercon is a nice hotel, with a gym and a bunch of outdorr pools.  They also do belly dancing classes that I want to take with some of my friends.)  So my basic daily routine has been- going to school from 8-2, go home and chill out for a bit, then going to the Intercon and swimming/laying around by the pool, and working out.  (I feel like I’m on vacation at a resort in the Caribbean or something every afternoon!  The pools are really nice, and have a swim up bar, waterfall, jacuzzis, and a lap pool.) 

We have been eating way too much at the food court in the mall, but just the other day we found a nice little Indian restraunt near our apartment where you can get a huge meal for about $3 or $4.  So I’ll definetly be going there regularly,  you know how much I like Indian!  And yesterday I found a little carry out place that serves falafel and kebabs.  (For about $1 you get a pita filled with lamb, chicken, or falafel, with a nice yogurt type sauce, and some lettuce.  It was super yummy, and you can’t beat the price!)

{August 30, 2008}   My First Weekend in the Emirates

The work week here is Sunday to Thursday, so our weekend really started on Thursday night.  My school organized a bus to take some of the teachers to Abu Dhabi (the capital) for the evening.  We went to a Picasso exhibit at the Palace Hotel, which is definetly the fanciest hotel I have ever been in.  It is huge, I think the grounds are at least 40 acreas, which are right on the beach.  Inside the hotel is all gold with hundreds of real crystal chandliers.  The exhibit was pretty nice, but I had never realized how bizarre some of Picasso’s artwork is.   After seeing the exhibit, we went to the Marina Mall for a quick dinner and a look around.  The mall was really big, but it’s basically just like a mall in the US, so it wasn’t too exciting.  (Sometime I want to go to the mall in Dubai with the indoor ski slopes.  That would be really fun!)

On Friday night, Kathryn and I had a little house warming party at our place for some of our coworkers.  Then we all went to the Rotana Hotel bar and had a few drinks and listened to the band.  (They had a few singers/dancers from Cuba or Colombia or something, which seemed a bit weird.  But they were pretty good.)  We also went to a sheesha bar (aka hookah bar) afterwards.  It was a really fun night, and it was great to get to know my co workers a bit better.

Dave had asked about the prices of things here.  It is pretty similar to the prices in the US.  There are some things that are a real bargain.  Well, obviously gas is really cheap, I think it’s $1 somthing per gallon, but I don’t drive so it doesn’t really effect me.  Also we have a big vegtable market by our house (sort of like a massive farmers market but with hawkers yelling at you trying to get you to buy from them).  My roommate and I got a ton of onions, tomatoes, green beans, okra, zucchini, garlic, nectarines, and lettuce for about $4!  (They don’t seem to understand that we don’t need 5 pounds of tomatoes etc.  Since most of the people here have really big families to feed.)

Some things are quite expensive though.  For some reason the mall’s foodcourt is about $10 for a dinner.  (It’s the same chains we have in the US serving the same food, but its like twice or three times the price.)  Also, they don’t really have hostels or budget hotels in most of the Arab countries, so it’ll be a bit more expensive when I travel around or go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi for the weekend.  (But they do have a few budget airlines, so I can fly to India, Egypt, Sri Lanka, or really anywhere on this side of the world for about $200-$300 or less.) 

The only other annoying thing about life in the UAE so far is the lack of public transportation.  None of the teachers have cars, so we have to take taxis all over the place, but there seems to be a serious lack of taxis in Al Ain.  (Some people have had to wait by the road for 45 minutes +.  And it’s about 100 degrees everyday, so that’ll get annoying fast.)  They do have buses to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but those are really the only two places we can go directly. 

Overall, I really like it here.  And I’m very happy I came.  My first day of teaching is tomorrow, so I’ll have a better idea about what life will be like here, after I’ve met the kids.

Well, as some of you know,  I was very unhappy with my school in Korea.  I’m surprised I put up with it for 6 months, but it was definetly time to leave.  So, I was planning on just travelling, relaxing, and going home for a bit, when out of the blue I got a phone call from a recruiter in the UAE offering me a job.  (He found me, because I had posted my resume on a teaching website.)  Anyways, they wanted a teacher asap, so within 10 days of first hearing about the job, I was on an airplane headed for Dubai.

I’ve been here for 4 days now, and things are going really good.  The set up is much better than I would have imagined.  I am working as a 1st grade teacher at an International School in Al Ain, UAE.  The school is very nice and they are taking great care of us.  (Helping with my passport issues, sending cars and drivers to help us with things, organzing social events for the teachers etc.)  My teaching schedule is much less demanding than it was in Korea.  I work from 8-3, but have about 2 or 3 hours of breaks throughout the day.  Plus I have an amazing brand new apartment, and I have almost 17 weeks of paid vacation! 

I am sharing my apartment with Katherine, who is from England.  She is very nice and we are getting along really well.  As I mentioned before my apartment is massive (especially after the tiny studio I had in Seoul).  There is a big living/dining room, a decent size kitchen, 1 1/2 bathrooms, and 2 big bedrooms.  Our “apartment” bulidng, looks more like a townhouse.  It is 2 floors and is just 4 units in each building.  We have a pretty good location too, just about a 4 minute was to the mall and Carrefour (which is similar to Target or Walmart). 

I haven’t really done much sightseeing or anything yet, since I have been doing training everyday.  But I was very surprised when I arrived.  I basically live in the desert, but they have done alot of work to make it look green.  All of the roads are lined in palm trees and there are lots of flowers, trees, and grass too.  It is very clean and everything is quite modern.  (I was really surprised that it rained the second day I was here.  It was just an hour long storm, but I had heard it only rains once a year, so maybe that was it.)

Tomorrow is the start of the weekend here (the work week is Sunday to Thursday), and the school is organizing a bus to take us to Abu Dhabi (the capital of UAE) to go to a Picasso exhibit at a really nice hotel, and then a stop at one of the malls there.  Tonight, we have an event at one of the local hotels, which is trying to recruit foreigners to become members of the pool and gym.  (There are a few nice hotels in Al Ain with big outdoor swimming complexs that have the same membership thing.) Since we finish work at 3:00, I’m tempted to join one so I can lounge by the pool and workout in the afternoons. 

I haven’t met my students or had any classes yet, but I’ll update my blog and let you all know how the first day goes, on Monday.

{May 4, 2008}   A day in North Korea

I’ve been wanting to do a day (or weekend) trip to North Korea, ever since they first started letting foreigners in a few years ago.  It never worked out with my schedule before, so as a birthday present to myself I decided to shell out the cash and go for it.  (For a one day trip the prices range from $190 to $300+, so it’s pretty expensive!)  I really wanted to go with Adventure Korea, which is a tour company that specializes in taking English teachers on weekend trip, and who I’ve done some other fun trip with before.  But they wer booked up until June or July, so I signed up with Go n See Korea. 

We had to meet at 5:30am near City Hall, which is on the opposite side of the city from my apartment, so I was awake by about 4:15 just to make sure I made it there in time.  My group was 2 other English teachers from the States, and about 50 Koreans who were an average age of 70 or 80, plus a few random Japanese people thrown in.  We were quite a strange group! 

Anyways we drove to Dorasan immigration station. (For those of you that did the DMZ tour, it’s the same building as the railway station near the DMZ that we visited.)  At immigration we got our North Korean “passport” which we had to wear around our necks all day.   These were big pieces of paper (purple for foreigners and yellow for South Korean) with our pictures on them, all of our stats like birthdates, place of birth, country of origin, profession, etc.  (The North Koreans agreed to start these tours as a way of generating money, so they also have lots of things they can fine people for.  For example, if you get your “passport” wet you have to pay.  Fines are from a few $ to 100’s of $, so I was on my best behavior all day.  I also heard, that they particularly try to fine Americans, so we had to be extra careful!) We also locked up all of our banned items, from cellphones, books, to even extra batteries on the Southern side.

After loading up into the buses again, we were ready to go to the North.  The drive through the DMZ was very surreal.  It was bizarre to see all of the North Korean soliders standing in attention and watching our every move.  It seemed like there was a solider stationed pretty much ever mile along the road through out the whole day!  Immigration on the Northern side actually went very smoothly.  After going through the metal detectors and having our bags x-rayed, we had to have our cameras approved.  (Anything with more than a 10 times zoom wasn’t allowed.)  (Unfortunatly they only stamped our little paper “passport”, a stamp from North Korea in my real passport would have been really cool!)

As we offically entered North Korea, we first drove through the Industrial Complex area that the South Korea companies like Hyundai and Daewoo plus the South Korean government has funded and built in the North.  It’s brand new and looks very high tech, but it was eery because there were hardly any people around.  Supposedly 10,000 work in this area, but we only saw about 10 people, plus no cars, bicycles, or buses. 

Then we drove through Kaesong City on our way out to Barkyeon waterfall.  The city was really interesting.  It supposedly has a population of 300,000, but it sort of felt like a ghost town as we drove through in the morning.  There were soliders stationed on many of the streets and a few people riding their bikes on the sidewalk or in the dirt, but there was absolutely no one on the roads at all.  In fact, I never saw another car the whole day.  (There were some buses parked in a lot, but I also never saw these driving around either.)  The city was very different from any place that I had ever been.  In the countryside all of the houses were totally identical, and looked like they came straight out of a history book from 100 years ago.  In the city, there were some taller apartment buildings, but these also looked very strange like they were all built by hand or something.  The windows weren’t in straight lines and it looked like they would be pretty unsafe to live in.  Also none of the shops or restaurants had any signs in front of them.  The only signs that you could see in the city were propoganda posters and pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song.  (We saw one big sign hanging from some apartment buildings, that was later translated for us saying “Let’s destroy our #1 enemy: America”.  Pretty welcoming, huh?!)  It was bizarre thought that the only currency accepted all day was US dollars!

Barkyeon Waterfall was pretty, but unforunatly as soon as we arrived there it started raining, so our hike in the mountains wasn’t quite as enjoyable as it could have been.  Even out in the woods there was propganada about “The Great Leader” painted in red on the rocks and mountain sides. 

After the waterfall, we went to lunch in the city.  My group at lunch at a cute little place, but it was strictly for South Koreans and foreigners, no North Koreans ever enter the place.  The lunch was great!  We had about 15 little gold bowls laid out in front of each person.  Inside the bowls were tons of different veggies, tofus, eggs, rice, and soup.  (Stacy would have loved it!)  After lunch we were allowed to walk around the restaurant grounds, but they had locked us into this area with tall fences all around us and 15 foot high wooden gates, so we couldn’t see out into the city and so the North Koreans wouldn’t be able to see us.

After lunch we went to some more sightseeing places like the Sunjukgyo Stone Bridge, Youngtongsa  Palace/Museum, and a Confuision School.  It was pretty interesting and beautiful, but of course we saw exactly what the North Korean government wanted us to see.  We were allowed anywhere near the actual citizens and our “tour guides” closely monitored every picture that we took. 

When we went back through immigration the North Korean border officials went through every picture that was taken by every person, making sure there were no pictures taken from bus windows, pictures of Kaesong city, of any people, or any writing.  I think that we were all pretty happy to be going back to the South.  I’m really glad that I did the tour though, it was a very interesting day.  It really makes me wonder about the rest of North Korea and all of the things that they had kept hidden away from us on our tour!

I’ve settled into my new life in Korea.  It was a bit bumpy in the beginning, with the super long hours at my school (SOT) and the weird dynamic there between the old teachers, new teachers, and Korean staff.  But I feel like I’ve adjusted now, and can deal with it now.  I’ve really connected with my kindergarten class.  They are all great kids (even the 2 boys that can be really bossy and pushy with the other kids).  I had Parent Teacher Conferences a few weeks ago, and it was nice to hear how all of the kids really enjoy coming to my class, and that they tell their moms all about me and everything that we do.  3 or 4 of the moms said that the kids pretend to be Kelly teacher at home.  Very cute!  It’s great to be able to witness their progress daily and see how much they can learn in just 2 short months.  (I sure wish I could learn languages as quickly as they can!  btw- My Korean skills have not improves at all.  It seems easier and easier to get by in Seoul only speaking English.  I am amazed at the number of Koreans I see reading or studying English on the subway everyday.  English seems to be some nationwide craze, or something.)

I have been keeping myself really busy with work, and I’m not really in the partying staying out all night mood this year, so my lifestyle has change dramatically from the first time I was here.  Everything was new and exciting then, it’s sort of life as ushually now. 

The beginning of May is basically non-stop holidays, with Labor Day (which I had to work on) kicking it off on May 1st, then Children’s Day,  Buddha’s Birthday, Parent’s Day and Teacher’s Day all happening before May 16th.  It is a fun two weeks.  Plus I have two 3 day weekends in a row, which I am really excited about.  Today there is a Lotus Lantern Festival going on in the middle of the city.  Lots of latern building activities and cultural events, finished off by a night time parade of all the lanterns.  This will be my first time going to the festival, so I’m pretty pumped. 

et cetera