Posted by: Seoul-struck | June 6, 2011

Soundtracks

If you’re like me you have a soundtrack to your life. I’m not saying this because I watch too many movies and too much TV and am therefore so deluded as to believe that there is always some sound guy watching my life, reading my thoughts, and choosing the perfect song for every moment. Nor am I under the delusion that there is a composer composing an original score to my life, frame by frame (mostly because if there was, I’m sure the music would be strikingly similar to John Williams, and I could not handle that). When I say I have a soundtrack I mean that there are albums I listened to at certain points of my life that have come to define them. All of my memories from that time are associated with that music, and all of that music, when heard in the present, brings back memories of that time.

My first single, The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand brings memories of my ten year old self at my grandparents house where I found my first Walkman and cassette tape. The Reel Big Fish defined my extra-curricular high school life as I listened to them on the bus to and from tennis matches throughout my four year career. John Mayer’s Continuum kept me company for my third semester at James Madison University when I just wanted to get the hell out of there, and when I finally did, the Cat Empire welcomed me to my new life at UVA (shut up all you John Mayer haters – sure, his songs are schmaltzy and relationship-y, but if you’ve seen him improv you know he’s an amazing musician, and Continuum is a great album). Ray Lamontagne’s new album God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise was the score of my Habitat for Humanity experience as I spent a lot of time volunteering during my unemployed days after returning from abroad. But there are two albums in particular that I keep coming back to.

Before I left Korea and started the big trip that I had been waiting for for three long years, I bought a new mp3 player. I knew I had some long-ass train rides ahead of me (42, 38, and 72 hours to be exact, the first three legs of my trip from Beijing to Rome by train, not to mention the 25 hour ferry ride that kick-started the journey), so I chose to sacrifice gigabytes for battery life and physical size. I packed the 4 gigs that I had with Dispatch, Vusi Mahalasela, Paul Curreri, the Roots, and much, much more. One of the last artists I put on the player was Citizen Cope. I had only listened to one of his albums at the time: Every Waking Moment, and I really liked it, so I decided to do some quick downloading and add his other two albums to my player, and I am so glad I did. My first night on the ferry across the Yellow Sea, as I left Korea behind, I sat in front of the window, feet propped up against the glass, watching the sky and sea turn from blue to grey to black while listening to the self-titled album Citizen Cope along with The Clarence Greenwood Recordings. I sat and I listened and I thought about where I had just been and where I was going.

Citizen Cope kept me sane while I suffered through the unfortunate state of the economy class on a train across China; he held my hand while I shivered and shook and shat my way through a serious stomach illness on my two day train ride through Kazakhstan; he lulled me to sleep after a night of hot tea, snacks, and good conversation with two gorgeous Ukranian women as we swept our way through the former Soviet state; together, his music and I contemplated the fragile state of humanity as I rode the bus to and from Auschwitz; his lyrics and my eyes drank in the beautiful Czech countryside, the bustling metropolises of Germany, and the faded pastel colors of the Netherlands.

I can’t listen to his music without these memories cascading back, all at once. Each note brings back a new image, a new feeling, a new footprint connecting my present with my past in a way that is so real and so vivid that I can almost feel the wheels beneath my feet. It is the most amazing feeling.

As much as we travel to be in the present, we also travel for our future. We travel to create these memories that will be with us forever; memories that, if we’re lucky, we can call back for the rest of our lives to remind ourselves of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and everything we’re proud of. We travel because we know how good it feels to have these memories. We know how exhilarating it feels to take a part of the world home with us, and how heart-wrenchingly satisfying it feels to leave a part of ourselves behind. We thus become inextricably bound to our footprints, and they come to define us as much as we define them.

If you’re like me, you’re always looking forward. Whether you’re searching for your next job, your next relationship, your next adventure, or even your next meal, you always have both eyes fixed straight ahead. Every once in a while, though, it’s good to look back. When I’m in the mood to remember I simply turn on my soundtrack and I find myself staring back at a trail of footprints disappearing over the horizon. It is the most amazing feeling.

Should you find yourself composing your own soundtrack, close your eyes, listen, breathe deeply, and feel your feet sinking into the earth.

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Posted by: Seoul-struck | May 27, 2011

Christopher Columbus

Your elementary school history teacher probably told you that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Your high school history teacher probably refuted that fact saying that the Vikings discovered America. Your college history professor (if you cared enough about the world to learn its’ history) probably told you that no one discovered America because there were people there the whole time, and that believing otherwise was ethnocentric and wrong. You probably hated the fact that history kept changing as you learned more of it, and that might have turned you off from history all together. Well, I’m here to wrinkle your brain once again (as a certain hilarious television personality would say), but it has nothing to do with history. Turns out Christopher Columbus did, in fact, discover America. So did the Vikings. So did the Chinese and the Italians and the Sudanese. Only your college professor was wrong, because everyone who found their way to these golden shores discovered America, each in their own way.

One weekend David and I decided to take a trip across the Korean peninsula to the port city of Busan. We showed up at the train station about an hour early, found a plastic 3 liter bottle of beer, some paper cups, and a dark alley, and drank until our train came at 11:45pm. It was a five hour ride overnight, and at 5am, we arrived at the flying-saucer-esque Busan Station with the drunk/up-all-night munchies. Across the street a lovely Kimbap Kitchen called to us, so we followed the siren’s song to some delicious Chomchi (tuna) Kimbap for breakfast. We still had three or four hours to kill before we were to meet up with our couchsurfing host, so we used the time we had, along with the energy from the delicious food and the heat from the kitchen, to figure out what to do until then. We settled upon Taejeongdae, or “granite cliffs overlooking the South Sea” as described by the guide book. Our lovely chef overheard our conversation and told us there was a bus to Taejeongdae that stopped just outside her restaurant. We waited for a while, hopped on what we hoped was the right bus, stood on the bus for a while, then hopped off and began following the hundreds of people who were streaming up the wooded hills of the coast towards the cliff tops. It was like the sun waited for us to arrive before poking its head out over the sea. We spent the morning climbing all over the cliffs, basking in the sun’s warm glowing warming glow, and staring out at Japan (one of its small islands).

I still have such a strong attachment to that place. That place, where hundreds of people visit each day at sunrise, is mine; mine and David’s. In that moment, when we stepped out onto the cliffs and our eyes drank in the convergence of the waking sea and the pink light of dawn, it was ours. No train ride, no 5am Kimbap, no chef, no bus, no hike, no sunrise will ever be the same as ours. In that moment we discovered Taejeongdae, just as the thousands before us had and the thousands after us will.

And herein lies one of the greatest joys of traveling: discovery. Everyone who travels, everyone who visits a land they’ve never seen or a city beyond their experience, finds nothing but discovery. Streets, cars, signs, faces, food; it is all discovery, but none of it is new. It all existed before you got there and it will continue to exist after you leave, but what you see and what you feel becomes a part of you, and you will never be the same. No, I’m not talking about self-discovery. I’m talking about knowing the world differently than you did five minutes ago. I’m talking about knowing the world in a way that no one can recreate because it is unique to your experience. Sure, many have seen Taejeongdae or the Great Wall or St. Peter’s Square, but no one arrived of the same path. We travel to remind ourselves that we are unique; a thought that is so easily lost in the everyday back and forth of work and home and the familiar. We get used to things the way they are, used to being average or normal or even content. But we are not average and we are not normal, and we should never be content. Each of us walks our own thin line through the world, trading footprints for memories. Those memories keep us sane, they keep us who we are, and they keep us hungry, always hungry, for more.

Should you find yourself standing in the midst of your own discovery, look down; you might see footprints all around you.

Posted by: Seoul-struck | May 14, 2011

Takkalbi

So I’m trying to write every day, or at least every other day, and since I may run out of material if I do that, every so often I’ll interrupt the philosophical nonsense to talk about some of my favorite things I’ve found while traveling. Today’s topic: food. Be prepared for a lot of posts about food… I love food. One of these days I’ll touch on the importance of food relative to travel and the human spirit, but for now, just enjoy the food porn.

Warning: this post may contain graphic content not suited for vegetarians.

I never used to like spicy food. Six months in South Korea changed all that. It started with my first meal in Korea when my friend (let’s call him) David took me to a Korean fried chicken joint. Korean food is some of the spiciest in the world, so he tried to introduce me to the local fare by ordering something tame. Instead we ended up with one of the spiciest things on the menu. It took about nine liters of beer between the two of us (literally) to survive that meal. I spent the next day in complete and utter discomfort. So did David’s toilet.

After five or six experiences like that (after my taste buds were literally burned away) I began to like spicy food. My new and improved buds loved and lived for the spice. That’s when I discovered Takkalbi. Takkalbi is chicken rib meat cooked with cabbage, sweet potato, penne-noodle-shaped rice cakes, and a delicious spicy red sauce. It’s prepared in a gigantic frying pan at your table while you sit on pillows, sipping on baekseju (the good kind of Korean rice liquor), noshing on banchan (appetizers/side dishes), and smelling the amazing food you are about to eat. Grab yourself a set of silver chopsticks, some good friends, and a generous helping of water and rice, and you’re set for one of the best nights of your life.

Posted by: Seoul-struck | May 13, 2011

Arrival

If you’ve ever taken a trip, you know this feeling. First, there’s an announcement. Some strange voice comes on the loudspeaker and says something that is, at worst, inaudible, and at best, incomprehensible. It doesn’t matter if you hear it anyway, because you know you’re close. You can feel it. Second, there’s a deceleration. The ears pop or the brakes squeak, and you suddenly feel like breaking down the doors, hopping out, and running the rest of the way. Hell, you can run faster than this bucket-of-blots. Third, there’s an acceleration. Not of your vehicle, but of your pulse, and you can feel it everywhere. It’s as if your vessel (the kind that transports you not your blood) is pulsing right along with the rhythm of your heart, wheels thumping over the connected pieces of track or pavement as your most powerful muscle expands and contracts. You hope everyone around you feels this excitement, and if they don’t, you feel sad for them. But then you forget, because before you know it, you’ve stopped. We can’t be there, can we? I swear I heard him say ’30 minutes.’ He did, and it was, but you’ve lost all concept of time. The world is this moment, and this moment you have arrived.

My arrival at the port of Tianjin, China took longer than most. I’m not used to boats, and it probably took over an hour or two from first sight of the port to the dock itself, but I was unaware. Then we had to get off the boat. There were a lot of us, yet we seemed to move with the speed and efficiency of an entire colony of ants pouring out of their ant hole, making a straight line to the food. But for that whole stretch of time, however long it actually was, I was entranced by my surroundings. Every boat that passed, every wave that crashed against the hull, every face in front of me in that line was a new experience, and I soaked them up like a sponge in the desert.

Before I knew it I was on dry land, through customs, and walking through a parking lot searching for the bus to Beijing. I found it, got on, and made sure it was the right one. It was only when I was asked for cash did I realize that I didn’t have any currency! I had about 600,000 Won (roughly $600 US) in my money belt, but no Yuan. I bolted off the bus, ran around to every person I could find asking if they had any cash or knew of a bank nearby (cause there are always so many banks right on the docks). I don’t know Mandarin, and therefore I had no idea when the bus was going to leave, so I ran around like my life was about to end, trying to find some currency. I found a cab driver who happened to have some money for me, so we bartered about the exchange rate, me thinking I knew more about it than I actually did, and finally, at probably an unfair rate, I got some Yuan. I ran to the bus, paid the driver, sat down, and caught my breath. The bus didn’t leave for another hour.

When I arrived in Tianjin, the entire world was new. Sights, sounds, faces, language, how long it took buses to leave after the last person in the parking lot had departed; everything was new. The best way I know how to describe it is a blank slate. For all you philosophers out there, you know that many believe this is how we emerge from the womb: a blank slate ready to be carved with experience, waiting for the world to make its mark on us. I firmly believe in this philosophy because I have actually experienced it, many times, at the relatively ancient age of my early twenties. Seriously, I had to re-learn what money was. Ok, I knew what it was, but in that moment, when I spoke to the bus driver, I was a blank slate, carved only by what had happened since stepping off that boat. And that’s what traveling forces us to do. We have to live in the moment, take everything in as it happens, because if we don’t, we will not survive. We have to live in step with the world; let the world come to us and tell us what the fuck we’re supposed to be doing. There is no future, no past, only now. It is the smallest window of time, but through that window we are able to see the world exactly as it is, and that sight is indescribably beautiful.

Should you happen upon your own slate, wherever in the world you may be, wipe it clean quickly, and learn to love the sound of scraping stone.

Posted by: Seoul-struck | May 10, 2011

The Ride

Israel. 2008. Winter. Three friends and I slipped away from our Birthright trip to have a little adventure in Jordan. A four hour bus ride from Jerusalem brought us to the resort-slash-border town of Eilat where we caught a cab to the Jordanian border, about ten miles out of town. We arrived to a deserted parking lot and instantly knew something was up. Nevertheless, we got out of the cab, unloaded our (ridiculously oversized and over-packed) bags and walked to the gate as our cab sped off. Turns out the place was dead for a reason: the border was closed for the Muslim New Year. So much for Israeli-Jordanian communication… not even our cab driver knew this. Or maybe he just wanted to strand a few obviously clueless travelers. Either way, after posing for a satirical thumbs-up picture in front of the “CLOSED” sign, we began calling every hostel in the guidebook to send us a cab. One finally came and we spent the night on the shore of the Red Sea. Not a bad night.

The next day the border was hopping and, after the to-be-expected ridiculously long line, we made it through the Israeli side of the border. Before entering Jordan, though, we had to pass a final test. We walked up to the last guard standing between us and a cab to Petra, bags rolling proudly, a guitar swinging from (lets-call-him) Bob’s back. The guard noticed the guitar, stopped us, and asked for a song. Now, being a guard, he was carrying what I would classify as a fairly decently sized automatic weapon. The group immediately looked at me. Great. I just love performing, especially with the added pressure of an audience with RIFLES. I found it hard to say no, so I sat down, opened the guitar case, and pretended I didn’t know exactly what song I was going to play. Paul Curreri, if you’re reading this, your song saved my life. Ok, it really wasn’t dramatic at all and there was absolutely no danger, but it was the most amazing experience ever. Sitting in the middle of no-man’s land between two countries with a violent history and a tenuous present, in the throes of a vast desert, with three friends and a guitar. I played the shit out of that song.

That, right there, that is why we travel. Not for the cathedrals or the ruins or the beauty or the history lessons. We travel for the unexpected, the unintended, and the unknown. We travel for the incredible sense of humility we get from being kicked in the teeth with the notion that we are at the mercy of the world and of each other. We travel because this feeling of dependence and insignificance gives us pleasure.

Somewhere along the line we became deluded with the notion that we are, and each of us is, the center of his or her own little universe. Maybe it happened when we stopped merely surviving as animals and began looking for ways to make our lives better, or maybe it was when we figured out that life has an end and we are all we get. Either way, the personal perception we gain from this inflated sense of self is terrifying. If we are, in fact, the epitome of existence, we are only responsible to ourselves and therefore only capable of failure in the ultimate sense. Everyone has their burdens, from those who have conquered the world to those who hate their jobs to those who simply live content. There is always sadness and there are always failures, and if we think we are always responsible, then the ride from cradle to grave will be unforgiving. We travel to be reminded that our lives are not of our own making; that every hand we shake, every room we enter, and every bite from that unknown plate of mystery meat changes the course of our lives. And once we accept that we are simply along for the ride, we might just be able to sit back and enjoy it.

If you ever find yourself in that barren desert, crossing the border between Israel and Jordan, look for the guard with a smile on his face.

Posted by: Seoul-struck | May 10, 2011

Departure

Let’s try this again. My first first post sucked, as writing often does when you take a very long hiatus, but now I’m back, with a vengeance, to give my first post another shot. Here goes…

Welcome to my new blog. If you find yourself trapped here, hitting the refresh button, waiting for my next post, well then, I guess I’m pretty awesome. But that is not the point of this venture (and, seriously, I’m not that awesome). The point is just to ponder, if you will, our motivations as people; people with drive, ambition, curiosity, tenacity, and any other quality that gets us off our asses and out the door, into this amazing world of ours. See, I didn’t used to have any of those qualities. In fact, in high school and my first year of college, the most commonly used adjectives to describe me were lazy, unmotivated, bored, shy, and television-watcher. But that changed, rather suddenly, actually. I found something that, to use a cliché, spoke to me. And what it said was, WAKE UP!! There’s a whole world out there and you are just a tiny part of it, a part that, frankly, isn’t pulling your (unfortunately large) weight. No, it wasn’t God, or my parents, or a career, or drugs, or (thankfully) law enforcement that spoke to me. And it didn’t really speak to me either. Instead it burrowed under my skin, and like a tapeworm (I prefer seed), began to grow until I spoke those words to myself. That parasite (or future flower) was travel.

To this day I have, in some cases quite literally, made a living out of traveling. It is my passion, as it is a passion of many on this Earth. I have been fortunate enough to be in a position (middle class, white, American) where I can travel all over the world, and I have. About a year ago I returned from a trip that took me literally around the world; a trip which I began by getting a job teaching English in South Korea. Upon returning home I thought my travel bug had been squashed, like a fly on the windshield that needed the blade of a wiper to finish the job, and perhaps it had been. But, like that pesky tapeworm (or that beautiful flower), it has grown back. When I wake up in the morning and when I fall asleep at night I find myself dreaming of my next trip.  I have even found myself re-applying for teaching jobs in South Korea, something I would have never thought even remotely possible when I left the country over a year ago. So, naturally, to my inquisitive and analytical-to-the-point-of-severe-anxiety-and-nearly-delusional mind, I have to ask why? What is it about traveling that makes me feel this way? And let’s face it, I’m not the only one to be inspired by travelling.

Everyone loves to travel, and I mean everyone. I have never met a person who said meh, I want to stay here for the rest of my life and never ever leave. That could be, again, because I’m middle class, white, and American, but I don’t think so. Even the poor and destitute dream of a world beyond their own, that’s why New York exists as it does: a cauldron of boiling ethnicities, grandchildren of those who left their hometowns behind. That’s why Roman Emperors, and emperors of any kind, set out to conquer lands beyond their borders; they wanted safe passage throughout entire world. Ok, different circumstances, but the point remains. Our world is a world of motion, a world of exchange, of flight, of adventure and a passion for it. What I have experienced is not a singular feeling. The feeling may be more extreme in me, or less extreme, or it may be manifest in a different fashion. It is definitely unique in that it is my own version of this feeling, but it is not singular.  So when I ask the question why do I love to travel I am really asking what is it about the human condition that causes us to travel, and why can we not live without it?

And thus we (finally) arrive at my statement of purpose. I seek not answers to these questions, but a better understanding of what they mean. I just want to know what makes me tick and why so much of the world ticks right along with me. So, if you’d like to crawl inside my head like that cockroach they put in that guy’s ear in Star Trek, be my guest. You might not learn anything, but I promise it will be entertaining.

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