[Final] Status Update: My S[e]oul Whispers of Reclaimed Heritage

PWALLE’s Final Resting Place: “Long Time, No See, Korea”
[thoughtfully peaceful, told by backpacker ready to root again..for now]

A deep breathe and a quick assessment of my surroundings. I am sitting cross-legged in a bright-colored ka koi, on a low mattress futon in a comfortably spartan dorm room. I am punching short bursts of keys on a road-weary netbook while sipping Chinese pu-erh, a bitter tea that drives away the morning fogginess and sharpens the slurried marinade of thoughts and emotions upstairs. Now and then, I stop to reflect—stir up the pot—and stretch away the soreness of yesterday’s rock climbing session. When I look up from Miranda I see a squeaky black chair and a wobbly Ikea desk covered in unfinished postcards, Korean language books, Won coins of varying denominations, and a half-gutted router (one of many ongoing projects). The two small windows of my dorm are open; they let in the warming morning air and the faint hum of city traffic punctuated by the staccato notes of songbirds. Outside is a maze of green foliage stemming from gnarled pine branches, which shelters the even rivulets of traditional roof tiles (기와 – giwa) of the neighboring building and frames glimpses of the high-rise cityscape beyond. My stomach gurgles, a reminder that moments are not infinite, and brings my attention back to the blinking cursor on the screen.

I am in Seoul. More than four months have passed since the beginning of my travels. I have raced, ambled, traipsed, and stumbled my way through sixteen cities in four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. My trip has been exciting, thought-provoking, and harrowing at times. Now it has landed me in South Korea as a worn, sleep-deprived, and somewhat bewildered backpacker, stripped of the comforts and routines of home. And I feel that such trappings are wholly fitting for my arrival here, in the country of my birth.

Traditional roof tiles of Changgyeonggung Palace

Traditional roof tiles of Changgyeonggung Palace

South Korea is jarring. Some moments I feel like a perfect tourist, wandering through the elegant courtyards of Changgyeongung or strolling atop the cobbled Seoul fortress walls, gawking and snapping pictures on my smartphone camera. But when I ride the whirring metro trains or push about the delicate cuts of meat that lie simmering on a Korean BBQ grill, surrounded by black-haired, dark-eyed—often spectacled—slight figured Koreans whose gratuitous smiles and goofy laughs and wide-eyed facial expressions….[every time I try to write this paragraph, I end at a loss for words here. Maybe that is well enough, as what is left unsaid is often more telling than what is said, I suppose.]

At any rate, this country would be jarring to any foreigner. Seoul is a force—a sprinting, caffeine-fueled, future-minded (and perhaps future-blinded) metropolis whose life blood pulses along its streets and railways, and blitzes through meals and drinks in cafes, restaurants, and hofs with eyes glued to the chrome-encased screens held in their hands—the portals of streamed media and telecommunications packets packets packets that buzz within an ever-growing cloud of connectivity. It is a bipolar mesh of the old and the new: lightning fast WiFi serving up free content beneath ancient tile roofs, and proprietary formal manners and culture attired in tomorrow’s edgy fashion and style. [Ripped from journal] Seoul life is a sleepless race amidst towering clusters of gleaming skyscrapers nestled within the historic fortress walls, nestled in turn within the ancient mountain peaks—ancient encasing old encasing bleeding-edge new. [end note]

Does this look like a place where you could easily get free, lightning speed WiFi?

Does this look like a place where you could easily get blazing fast free WiFi?

I did not have to force a feeling of kinship to South Korea; the bonds emerged quickly and naturally. The public-facing lifestyle and mannerisms suit me, as well as the attention to detail, decor, and cleanliness—surprising, but refreshing. Even Seoul, the hectic epicenter of over 25 million people, isn’t too oppressive for this dirty son of the woodlands. Occasionally the crowded city life becomes too much for me, and I must flee to the refuge of quiet mountain paths where I can be [mostly] alone. When such an urge beckons, Seoul rewards me with a metro line that I can take practically to the first steps of trailhead—no small comfort.

I am not implying that I fit in here, or naturally belong here at all really. Far from it—at last I share the sentiments of countless 교포 (‘gyopo’ – Korean foreigner) testimonials regarding expat life in Korea. The feeling of in-betweenness…it is impossible to describe this sensitivity in any other way than an endless saga of stories that glance sideways at the truth like Zen parables. I will not engage in such fruitless laments, at least not right now. There is too much to do, and indeed much to be gained from embracing this fencepost status while it lasts—does it ever end, I wonder?

But I am happy here. Every minute I spend here strengthens a part of me that has been lying dormant, quietly sleeping, for 25 years. I can feel myself growing immensely [toss out for my fellow nerds: like a Level 25 Cyber Mech Swashbuckler who decides to dual class Zen Ninja Mage]. And with this new parallel growth, I am further grateful that my past has my back: my American upbringing and education, my outdoor-minded and travel-eager adventures, my host of rockstar friends and contacts back home, and most of all, my loving family. 살것갈다 indeed: it is damn good to be alive!

Ready to do a demo of 'Yum Bowls' .. Korean style.

Ready to do a demo of ‘Yum Bowls’ .. Korean style.

PWALLE’s Last Rambles: A Blitzed Account of My Korea Travels
[caffeinated recollection, told by the last breaths of a settled backpacker]

I hit the ground running in Seoul: romped around Jongno-Gu and Mapo-Gu, gorged on BBQ and Soju, sang myself hoarse in a 노래방 (‘noraebang’ – private karaoke room or literally, singing room), and sweated away a hangover in a 찜질방 (‘jjimjilbang’ – public sauna/spa or literally, heated bath room)—just like a good tourist ought. All the while I fired question after question at local contacts and watched the crowds ebb, flow, and conduct their daily lives with vigor, and smartphones in hand of course. It was during this first landing in Seoul that I discovered the mountain trails: scores of steep wooded walking trails in Bukhansan National Park and elsewhere that lead the bar-worn Seoulite straight from the streets up to scenic lookouts that would take your breathe away, if you had any left. Plunge back down the mountain, blast the dirt off your precious shoes at the complementary pressured air tanks, and head right back to the madness. Like Bangkok before, the city threatened to consume me so I fled south to the ‘quiet’ seaside city of Busan. As a couchsurfing guest, I further explored the lives and habits of young adult Koreans, all the while casually observing as, how to say, little pieces of myself emerged.

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As expected, I continued to travel impulsively. A chance couchsurfing invite brought me to Busan and there, random conversation led me onwards to Gyeongju. I was sitting outside at a beachside cafe, chasing away the AM fog with espresso, morning sunshine, and the crashing surf. A trio of Koreans came over and sat at a nearby table, and conversation sprung up. I was shocked and amused to hear that they had wandered over from the beach on the impression that I was a Korean movie star—apparently such sightings are not unheard of in Busan and truthfully their first impression was made from quite a distance, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered. [Side note] I’m really growing fond of that burnt red smoking jacket. [end note] After a brief conversation I learned that their hometown, Gyeongju, was a historical must-see for any tourist, so I resolved to make it my next stop. On such whims I arrived in Gyeongju by bus a few days later.

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The chance encounter and recommendation did not disappoint. Gyeongju is a municipal museum, much like Ayutthaya in Thailand before. Once the capital of the Silla Dynasty, the city and surrounding area are spotted with tombs and shrines, and its rivers and mountains adorned with historic pagodas and temples. On Day One I made my way to the Namsan area, a vast system of mountain trails that take one back in time. Atop the first peak, which I headily sprinted up in jeans and a tshirt past bewildered Korean hikers sporting fashionable trekking packs and apparel, I perched atop a rocky outcropping and gazed over the rugged profiles of the surrounding landscape. [Heady scribble ripped from journal] I feel home. [end..I’ll spare you the accompanying drawing—nothing more than a crude sketch done by a novice artist who’s clearly high on endorphins and caffeine]

Eventually tearing my eyes from the view, I turned around and beheld..a young Korean woman, resting alone and reading a book. My my my, think I, have I just found a pretty girl who climbs mountains to read a book? What luck! I should say hi. But of course, I didn’t, for at that moment a gust of wind scattered all the loose pages of my journal across the mountaintop. After frantically gathering each page, I was dismayed to find that the attractive trekker had gone! I shrugged away the loss, and hustled down the mountain. But at the trailhead I received a second chance, catching sight of her heading to the bus stop. I played the tourist card and asked for directions, chatted a bit, and happily accepted her invitation to dinner back in Gyeongju. She and I explored a series of attractions—the tomb of General 김유신 (Kim Yushin), Yangdong traditional village, and the nearby coast—for the next couple days. We shared stories and laughs in halting English (often accompanied by illustrations), and I traded my backpacker’s sense of direction for her language proficiency in finding places and ordering meals—I’m truly grateful for the latter, since they [the meals] were delicious, novel, and entirely beyond my ability to order by myself. After three days we caught a bus back to Seoul, and I returned to the capital in high spirits.

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Two weeks had passed, and a desire to stay awhile in Korea had grown into a conviction (yeah yeah, there’s a pretty girl involved but let’s not forget the more personal reasons). With such enthusiasm, I lugged my backpack to Ilsan, a small ‘hamlet’ of about 1 million people just outside of Seoul (a metro line takes you right to Ilsan, and continues much farther beyond). Here I have spent the last two weeks as a volunteer guest of Holt Children’s Services, serving as an activity leader for the residents living onsite. My weekday 9-to-5: I push wheelchairs, organize sports activities, distribute coloring books and crayons, play comical guitar concerts, supervise snack time, and give tours for the frequent English-speaking visitors. It’s not as glamorous as jumping off seaside cliffs, maybe, but it’s meaningful to me. Holt’s residents are all disabled—some mentally, some physically, some both, and more than a few severe cases. It is both humbling and jolting; the work makes me aware and grateful of the joy of merely breathing, moving, talking, and thinking without encumbrance. More than that, the work connects me to my past. Holt is the same foundation that accepted me from my poor birth mother and adopted me away to my new life and family 25 years ago. It is part of the origin narrative that I am now building.

This is Han-U, one of the residents at Ilsan. He's learning the slide---quite a milestone, no doubt.

This is Han-U, one of the residents at Ilsan. He’s learning the slide—quite a milestone, no doubt. I can’t help watching him and imagining myself…eh, now’s not the time.

I pour this appreciation into spending my free time wisely: studying 한글 (the Korean language), learning Korean culture, hunting for a job, and hedging my bets by tutoring English—the gateway to TESL. I am back on a normal sleep schedule, and am booking my calendar weeks in advance—mostly with Skype calls with friends and relatives back home, but I welcome the signs of productivity at least. On the weekends I explore a new area of Seoul, go rock climbing, and spend time with the friends I’ve made thus far. Yes, I am pleased to find that this new beginning of sorts also functions as an excellent happy ending for my travel narrative—one book ends, another begins. If only my college essays had been this easy to write.

Traveling around Asia has been a unique and exhilerating adventure, full of excitement, challenge, and growth. But it is now time for me to enter a new phase of life: reconnect with my heritage. Much of my trip has been guided by chance and whim, but I feel that it has led me to Korea, inexorably and beautifully. PWALLE’s travels began as a freewriting exercise containing more raw energy than cogent direction, and through various twists and turns it has sketched itself into a work of art, full of human imperfections that I wouldn’t dare dispense. I am grateful to begin exploring Korea with the headiness of a four month adventure at my back. Here am I: poor and alone in a foreign country, with too few possessions to fill a dorm room, facing a host of new challenges and uncertainty..yet I am happy and confident. It is not unlike the exhilarating dream of being reborn, yet retaining all the wisdom and experience of one’s previous life; in fact, I contend that it may be the nearest neighbor to such a privilege, if we ignore the possibilities of devout spirituality.

Or drugs. Let’s not go there.

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PWALLE’s Ending Thoughts: “Next Time, Bring The Damn Travel Guitar”
[humble reflection, told by green backpacker who brought too many meds]

It is difficult to properly explain what indeed I’ve learned on this five month journey. For one it’s hard to imagine my state of knowledge prior to the bumps, bruises, surprises, and discoveries that brought me to what I know today. But indeed, I’ve learned a great deal so I will try to enumerate.

  • I’ve learned and spoken tidbits in six new foreign languages and tightened up my chopstick game. Further, I’ve learned that not all Asians even use chopsticks. Thais use a fork and spoon, for example, though they typically use the fork to prod food onto the spoon for consumption. I did not learn to stop stabbing food with my fork.
  • Further still, I’ve learned that language is a practical ability. Like playing a sport or performing an instrument, the ability to speak a foreign language ebbs and flows with practice and application. I was astounded to find that my Thai was quite foggy after only two weeks in Malaysia, yet it surfaced briefly again when I met some Thai backpackers in China. More interestingly, I’ve learned the concept of ‘international English,’ an omni-language that chucks the frilly words and adapts its form and grammar to the listener. I’m relieved to see my fluent American English revive itself when I meet Americans or work on my blog.
  • I’ve learned to ride a motorbike and I’ve learned that I thoroughly enjoy riding one. Further, I’ve learned that travel can quickly fill your motorbike resume; I’ve now ridden one everywhere from highways to rutted mountain trails to crowded city alleys.
  • Further still, I’ve learned that the motorbike (or the scooter) is the gateway to expat living and extended travel in developing countries, or at least here in SE and E Asia. The motorbike forces you into close proximity with local culture, and necessarily sharpens your sense of orientation. And, nothing beats the thrill of arriving at your destination on your own accord, without the hassle of overcharging taxis, hectic and confusing local buses, or the like. As an aside, though, this country boy has learned that metro trains are awesome.
  • I’ve learned that culture shock can be alleviated by just plain talking to people. The repeated episode that I starred in countless times went something like: (Me) “In America we do [x] because we believe in [z].” (Local) “In [foreign country] we do [y] because we believe in [z].” In other words, the values of those I encountered really weren’t terribly different, though their resultant behaviors and policies might be totally foreign. The differences come from a myriad of things—geography and climate, political development, rice in place of corn, etc. Are you keen on checking out Shanghai, but terrified of Chinese—how do y’all say it?—‘hive mind’ culture? Perhaps you could try to imagine your value systems shaping themselves amidst 1.3 billion citizens. It doesn’t make other cultures any less different, but it can smooth the edge of culture shock.
  • Further, I’ve learned that humor is your greatest weapon and balm during travel. Trains sometimes ‘not come’—there’s probably a great explanation, but the ticket teller’s English ability can only afford those two curt words. Or perhaps an elderly waitress may shunt your vegetarian order and give you pork spare ribs because “you look skinny.” Above all, cultures are different, and politeness rituals are part of culture! Just saying hi to a girl in a club who smiles at you could get you punched in the face by a meaty biker thug (especially if he mistakes you for a local). Just laugh it off. No amount of fuming and arguing is likely to resolve the situation favorably, and it definitely won’t make you any friends. I’m aware that there are dire exceptions to this rule, but for the majority of cases, humor reigns.
  • I’ve learned [the hard way] that losing your passport sucks..especially when coupled with losing your wallet. As a result, I’ve learned the heady experience of being a broke and unidentifiable alien in a foreign country. I do not wish to repeat the experience. Ever.
  • Lastly, I’ve learned that the travel bug is addicting and can strike you at any point in life. I’ve met countless backpackers who hammer out vacation sprees for one or two months or more, then huck it home (or Australia) to the grind so they can feverishly save money for the next trip. I’ve met seniors with walking canes sporting backpacks no smaller than mine and staying in no better quarters. But, all these people were incredibly happy, and so I’ve learned that life-long travel addiction can be very rewarding.

It would be grossly unrepresentative to call the above a complete list, but there’s too much to cover. Some last coverall statements: I’ve learned that every culture I encountered is lovely and intriguing, I’ve learned that there are beautiful places everywhere I’ve been, and I’ve learned that there is way more to see here (in SE and E Asia, and in the world at large really) than I can fit in my lifetime.

What will I do differently next time? Well, I normally don’t get much gratification out of hindsighted litanies but here’s some important points:

  • I will buy and bring my own camera. Using your smartphone camera—despite its 20 megapixel hella-zoom Photoshop trick features—becomes irritating. For one, if you’re using your phone for directions, music, and communication (whodathunk?), the battery will die quickly. Sure, buy an extra battery..then forget it at the guesthouse when you go on that epic trip with the sunset mountain view when, all of a sudden, an explosion of tropical birds emerges from the trees. Yeah. My strategy involved seeking travel companions who brought their own camera and enjoy taking pictures, which was ok, but sometimes said travelers are few and far between..or sometimes they don’t enjoy sharing pictures..or sometimes, their pictures just plain suck. Anyway, I’d buy and bring my own camera.
  • I will force myself to blog every day. In all, I’d say I gave this blog about 67% effort. As my first major solo backpacking trip, there were too many distractions and adventures for me to devote as much time as I’d have liked to writing. I wish I’d written more—the events that I actually blogged about sit much more clearly in my memory than those I didn’t. But, I kept a shorthand private journal besides so maybe those other events will make their way into stories someday.
  • I will never, Never, NEVER again leave my credit cards in my passport wallet. Losing one is bad. Losing both is utter chaos. Never again.
  • I will travel with close friend[s]. Traveling alone was wonderful. I made some incredible friends and met some bizarre people. I could plan my travel easily and whimsically. I could go where I wanted and do what I wanted, always. But, at least once, I will travel again with a close friend or friends. I met many pairs and groups on my travels, and while the tradeoffs are many, I saw enough positives in their journeys to justify giving it a try. Further, I discovered that you can always leave your friends, as many of my travel companions did.

Well..that about does it. PWALLE’s travels have officially ended..or have been put on temporary hiatus. I may post some thoughts and scribbles from time to time, but in large part I’m calling this a finished project. It’s been very fun, very rewarding, and very real, so thanks for following along. Until you hear from me again, keep smiling and dreaming.


I don’t write about
everything I do-
everything I write about
I’ve done

That's all, folks.

That’s all, folks.


Status Update: Backlogged Thoughts and Journal Snippets from Malaysia, Vietnam, and China

Xin chào! 你好! It’s been awhile—I’ll take the fat slice of the responsibility pie, but some blame must go to the People’s Republic of China for blocking access to my blog! And in that tone, I begin what is bound to be a status update of mixed feelings.


My last post was over a month ago, which begs the question just what the hell was I doing? I’m going to summarize in a piteously brief manner.

My first stop, as mentioned in my last update, was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My immediate surroundings became decidedly more modern, albeit in a wholly Asian fashion. Modernity asserts itself in KL from the spinning doorways of skyscrapers, futurama malls and techno clubs, but inside these gleaming towers and complexes you’ll be sure to find a friendly paperless spray toilet—and maybe even a good ol’ squat toilet or two. The city is also very culturally diverse with its Skittled mix of native Malays, Indians, Arabs, Chinese, and more than a handful of Westerners [1]. Most of my exposure to KL was through the looking glass of Chinese Malaysians, namely my local contact ‘Kitty’ and her gracious friends J (my actual host) and E.

Honestly, I was quite a bore in Malaysia. My intention was to rest and drum up a reality check from vacation-style wonder-wandering in Thailand. So I restrung my guitar, bought some much needed clothing items, washed the corrosive Andaman sea water from all my climbing gear, filled in some gaps in my journal, slept a lot, and logged some computer time in a handful of coffee shops. Not much else happened, likely because I spent the rest of my time wandering through mega malls with sales and service industry staff that probably rival the general population of most Midwestern towns. This is not to say that KL was not without intrigue: a fun ‘hike’ up to the monkey-infested Batu Caves, a gratuitous sampling of Malaysia’s varied ethnic cuisine, and a handful of cultural collisions—some enlightening and thoughtful, some comical and rather embarrassing (sorry J).

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From KL I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam to stay with Jan, a South African that I met in Thailand. I recall being slightly anxious on the plane, worrying that perhaps my side trip to Malaysia had dulled my adventuring spirit. [Hindsighted ridicule] Yeah, right. [end jab] Vietnam is stimulating enough to sharpen even the most jaded globetrotter. If you’re doubtful, then do as I did: fly into Hanoi and have the airport taxi drop you off right in the middle of the whirring neon cacophony of Old Quarter. Had I not been immediately rescued by Jan, I believe that I would have been whisked away once again into the overstimulating blur of backpacker life.

My Hanoi sojourn would prove to be, instead, another taste of expat life. I stayed near the north end of Tây Hồ (West Lake) as the glorified house guest of Jan and five other South Africans, and engaged in typical expat life events such as trying to cook familiar foods with unfamiliar ingredients (and only one pan) and playing charades with local shopkeepers. Hell, I even helped teach an English lesson at a Vietnamese middle school—properly expatriatic, if there is such a sentiment.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

Expat slacker session. Always draws a crowd.

The rest of Hanoi largely blurs together for me—I was entirely overstimulated (for many reasons) for most of the stay. In retrospect, what Hanoi lacked was the typical mundanity of the in-between. Even the commutes were arousing. Traffic in Hanoi is a constant weaving sliding leaning dodging [holy sh*t!] braking swerving [close call!] accelerating bionic flow of mostly motorbikes and bicycles, which swarm like bees around the larger vehicles. [Tangent ripped from journal] Automobiles and buses barely manage on the wide highways; on the two-way streets, which amble river-like past restaurants, cafes, Bia Hơis, and greasy mechanic shops, and in the narrow twisting Old Quarter alleys choked with grocer carts and bamboo hat peddlers and dazed tourists, these luckless vehicles must painfully inch their way through the two-wheeled swarm like irritated buffalo [2]. [end tangent] Much like a bee, one feels hyper-alert and vulnerable on a motorbike, frantically buzzing around in dangerously close proximity with other insectizens, until—at last, and likely just in time—one lands abruptly and sits catching breaths as the human swarm continues to rage on all sides. Indeed some of my favorite moments in Hanoi blend heady conversations on the plastic seats of Bia Hois and Kem Zois with the equally heady motorbike ride to said places..and ah! The joy of riding like a manic vigilante around a completely deserted metropolitan area, thanks to Hanoi’s sharp 11pm curfew! All in all, I fondly remember—and occasionally miss—the Vietnamese, and the [buzzing, laughing, yelling] buzzsaw cacophony of their voices, and the simple elegance of their food—Phở, Bún chả, and Bánh mì and the rest. And most of all, I miss the kinship of living with a tight ‘family’ of expats in a collidingly small and charmingly eclectic expat community. Isle of Misfit Toys, for sure.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos---I can't find most of them.  I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

Something happened to my Hanoi photos—I can’t find most of them. I will post a video of racing through Hanoi traffic, and others, hopefully soon.

On April 7th, 2014, with a measure of wistfulness and a hurried toast, I said goodbye to Jan and chaotic Hanoi and charming Vietnam, and boarded a night train to….

Holy-f***ing-China. For proper culture shock, mix one part ‘zero preparation’ with two parts ‘vacation brain’ and chug feverishly as you cross the border into Guangxi province at 2am. At 9am, you, brave and foolish Westerner, will arrive in the farthest civilized place from Kansas imaginable. Say goodbye to English, and to welcoming smiles and friendly hellos at that. Have a nice bitter laugh over the weak smattering of Pinyin that you proudly amassed in Chinese 100, because nobody uses f***ing Pinyin here [3]. Grit your teeth and say hello to the protocol-or-scram attitude, the throat-tickling air. Brace yourself as fellow passengers literally shove you onto metro trains so they can also board. Accept these harsh realities, and be rewarded with the gems of China expat life, where you can feast yourself into a comatose state for pennies, and where you can literally be a rockstar and model with virtually no qualifications other than your foreignness and ability to breath air.

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My stay in China was bipolarly intense. There were moments when I was treated like a prince, and others where I was disdained like a plague rat. In one moment, I was riding high on the anticipation of a memorable climbing trip to Yangshuo; in the next, I was plunging into the frantic despair of losing my passport wallet. It was by such grim fate that I entered the city of Guangzhou as a tired, dirty, money-less, and largely unidentifiable foreigner. Several days passed before I could secure a Western Union rescue fund from my family, so I further enjoyed the sharpening thoughts of sleeping on the streets and stealing food from roadside vendors. But, I met some genuine friends in these grim circumstances, and some of the most unexpectedly comical charity that I’ve ever received. My proximity to Chinese culture and kinship was strongest when I was personally at my weakest. And through all of this bipolarity, I found China to be aggravating and amusing, shocking in its surprises and similarities, and just plain enervating. Some day, I hope to give it a second chance..with more preparation, and a closer eye on my personal effects.

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[Returning to the present moment,] 4am, and I’m about six hours away from leaving China and jetting to South Korea. I’ve determine to stay awake until my flight because one of my new friends wants a goodbye toast before I leave, but he doesn’t finish work until 5am. My nerves are firing a bit slowly, but I am feeling quite alert. I am aware, on the one hand, that I am more in tune with the privilege and merit of my travels than I was a month ago, and to that I say 谢谢,中国。 I am also aware that I am staying in a hotel for the first time of this trip; I write it off as much needed R&R, but this is a thin veil for what is clearly a tired retreat from the crowds, smog, and culture shock of China. Bipolarity continues.

I am also aware that I am getting tired—not just 4am tired, but a deeper sort of weariness that sits on my shoulders and the section of brain between the backs of my ears. My senses have been taxed. I reflect, well, you deserve to be tired. You’ve experienced quite a lot in the past four months. Too much? Perhaps not too much, but rather too rapidly, particularly in the past month and a half:

I’ve negotiated a laundry deal via a twenty minute conversation held entirely on two separate windows of Google translate.
I’ve ballroom danced in a Vietnamese coffee shop with the owner, a smirking woman named Chau of about forty years whose jet black eyes leap the language barrier.
While on the subject, I’ve shaken a leg in some starkly varied places: everywhere from Hanoi clubs walled with corrugated metal and whitewashed plaster; to glitzy chromed out Chinese clubs, whose long entranceways—lined with mirrors and strung with glittering faux diamonds—will spill you onto streets lined with VIP-parked Ferraris and Mazeratis [note: the Hanoi clubs are more fun].
I picked up some Afrikaans phrases and an obnoxiously persistent Australian accent; the former sneak their way into an occasional exclamatory remark, the latter has thankfully passed as quickly as it came.
I’ve witnessed the reverently preserved body of a national hero, the figurehead of the only defeat in US military history. He pickles well.
I’ve learned a passable amount of Chinese drinking games, and an embarrassingly small collection of Chinese characters.
I’ve climbed pockety limestone behind a cow pasture in the Guangxi countryside.
I’ve watched a variety show consisting of a sword-wielding strongman and decidedly racist boxing match through leopard print lens-less glasses at a Chinese club fittingly named ‘Blanco,’ whilst enjoying free-for-foreigners booze and bar food.
I’ve slept in a very shady motel for free, thanks to the owner who calls me his brother and whose English improves with his beer intake.

5am. A WeChat message stirs on my cellphone; it vibrates irritably against the table as though protesting its travel sores (five different SIM cards and drops on all manner of terrain). I am off to say goodbye to my Chinese friends and to China, for now. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in South Korea. Bye!


Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] ‘Skittled’ is a ridiculous term, but not chosen entirely out of whimsy. It is used in the context of ‘mixing bowl’ as opposed to ‘melting pot,’ in reference to some of the very deep-seated cultural tensions I witnessed in KL (I will not go into them here, for brevity’s sake). So, taste the rainbow, my friend.

[2] Bia hơi is the generalized name of an establishment that serves maybe the cheapest draft beer in the world. Some of these ‘bars’ are basically a couple kegs in the empty first floor garage of the manager’s home, with plastic stools serving as chairs and tables. The beer is cheap, the conversation loud and fun..and the bathroom occasionally just a drain in the upstairs apartment bathroom.

[3]Admittedly, I was nowhere near the tourist track in China. It is likely that travel in Beijing and Shanghai and such places is much kinder for Westerners. I hope to return to China soon. It is a truly intriguing country; all that one could see and experience there should not be ruined by one instance of a stolen passport wallet.

[silence]….*static* ……………*pulse*

July. I’m about to release my final two posts of my travels. The first is a backlogged status update from back in April..perils in China hampered its release, as did the subsequent turbulence of my first return visit to South Korea. The second status update covers the latter. Be warned: it is a bit tricky to find objectivity within these posts—they are emotion-laden and road-weary. Happy Sunday! ~~PWALLE

Status Update: Surfacing for Shirts and Strings

Right then. It’s been about three weeks since my last post: a regrettably blasé draft of a song about my un-regrettably adrenal motorbike ride from Chiang Mai to Pai. I’ve begun to receive a few hey-Alice-how’s-the-view messages, which has coaxed me out of the rabbit hole long enough to write a status update. Wait, let me get coffee, [short pause] and a cookie [shorter pause]. OK, now I’m ready.

Sunday, March 23nd 2014—three restful days have passed since my long-delayed departure from Thailand. Anything but laziness kept me captive in the Kingdom of Smiles [and Scams]. As primary evidence, consider the following two opportunities:

  • Opportunity 1: Climbing in Good Company A very attractive Swiss rock climber and aspiring yoga teacher suggests that I join her in Thakhet, Laos for some breathtaking climbing and related adventures.
  • Opportunity 2: Ruined Temple Run Two near and dear friends from back in the States invite me to join them in Cambodia for the Siem Reap/Angkor Wat tour. Bummed I missed this one—familiar faces would’ve been a really nice change of pace.

Entonces, behold the power of Thailand.

My second month in the Kingdom was just as fulfilling as the first, and well worth that ridiculous visa run to the Myanmar border. I met many more intriguing characters (including Swiss girl): an international campsite of fire dancers; a Bavarian guitarist who bills himself as a one-funny-man show; a moonshiner couple, and their notorious steel and copper still; a Thai baked potato sorceress self-styled as Shampoo, who can transform potatoes into irresistible drunk treats; an American expat who can transform ludicrous quantities of alcohol into bellowed rowdiness and the fastest dancing feet I’ve ever seen; a gorgeous Russian couple who perform on horseback for Cavalia; a German BASE jumper with a tattooed face and eyes poached with adrenaline; a Filipino ladyboy model with a taste for adventure and American ad slogans—there are more but I think I’ll stop here. Don’t want to water down the list.

I’m still working on the 2nd part of the Bangkok post. I had worried about losing details as time and travel progress, but the key moments seem to surface just fine. The delayed writing might help me spare you some of the tedious details, which you’ll probably appreciate. Anyway, the journals will be slow-going, and I’ll try to keep the status updates rolling.

A [not-so-]brief overview of month two in Thailand:

I raced the setting sun on a motorbike over a beautiful 160 kilometers of twisting hairpins through mountains and bamboo jungle, which was enough to earn a “you’re crazy, man” from the owner of a Ko Phangan hostel that I met along the way (if you’re wondering why this is significant, check out full moon parties—the dude has seen his fair share of craziness). I sweatingly swung fire poi, flew and was flown in an acro yoga class, and finally traversed an entire slackline in a field edged with bamboo bungalows at the Pai Circus School and Guesthouse. I camped under the stars for a week with a remnant of the Shambhala in Your Heart festivalites at a Japanese commune called Moon Village, where we bathed in rivers and waterfalls to pass the scorching day and made music, mantras, and moonshine to ward off the nighttime chill. I finally left the north on a rickety sleeper train bound for Bangkok. Though my stopover was graciously brief, I still managed to drop myself into a karaoke bar of food, beer, and thirteen Thai girls who sang for hours for a Swede’s going away party (and the 20 baht bills he was doling them). I dropped in on a golden old college friend during his performance at a Phuket bar crowded with English teaching expats..incidentally, this is also the first time I’ve been simultaneous kissed and muay thai kicked. A day later, we sleeplessly boarded a boat ferry for Ko Phi Phi, where I got my first taste of scaling Thailand’s beach-side limestone cliffs. On Phi Phi I also got my first taste of Thailand’s infamous beach parties. I actually remember most of the events, which include enumerating the uses of a large bucket—to justify that we could do more than drink copious amounts of alcohol from it..which is all we actually used it for—and taking breaks from sand-choked trance raves to jump through fiery rings and over fiery jump ropes. Once my liver stabilized, I escaped to the sabai paradise of Tonsai Bay and its dynamic throng of adrenaline-junkied climbers and BASE jumpers (and a respectable amount of suitcase touting gawkers). Here, I would engage in the Tonsai dream:

  1. Wake up, break the fast with a fresh tropical fruit smoothie, and then sweat through the scores of excellent climbing routes that rise from sand and sea along the bay. To send these routes, you must endure pumpy sequences of overhanging jugs, core your way along overhanging roofs, and even take forward superman falls of faith to distant hanging stalactites.
  2. When the sun and heat becomes unbearable, rinse in the ocean or the cold water shower of your bamboo bungalow and then find lunch and a shaded siesta at one of the open-air beach bars—an only-in-Tonsai question: which is your favorite bar nap spot? [Answer: Chillout Bar’s converted longtail boat.]
  3. When the sun graciously leaves the opposite side of the beach cliffs, head in that direction for more blissful limestone climbing.
  4. End the day by gorging on fresh seafood barbecued in tinfoil, and sipping cold drinks on the beach while you watch deft locals spin fire on slacklines and perform brilliant covers of Western classics.
  5. Spend your rest days lying on the beach, snorkeling or diving, getting a coconut oil massage, practicing slackline, playing guitar in a hammock, etc.

I carried out this routine for a blissful ten days with only two breaks: one, a quick trip to Ko Yao Noi, a chilled out island whose limestone cliffs are guarded by sea and the most sketchy motorbike approach over rutted dirt hills and turns; and two, a Deep Water Solo excursion. The latter was a glorious experience—riding a longtail boat out to climb the limestone karsts that rise straight out of the sea, and jumping from heights up to 30 meters into the warm Andaman Sea. My highest jump lasted about four seconds—I will never forget the gut-twisting experience of falling long enough to realize you’re still falling..and then still falling. Most people only get to experience such a drop sans protection in their dreams.

cliffDeep water solo—see more great photos from @tedhesser on Instagram.

My visa ended [again] on the 20th, and so that morning I braved a Malaysian Airlines plane for Kuala Lumpur (thoughts and condolences go out to MH370 flight and its family and friends). And here I am now, in a mall-choked modern city waiting for my Vietnam visa and catching up on my blog, finally. It’s been really nice to regain a sense of reality in a proper apartment with consistent WiFi, and worry about little more than replenishing a few shirts and replacing Alice’s strings. Thanks so much Kitty for hooking me up with your awesome wax therapist friend.

That’s all for now—catch y’all again soon! ~PWALLE

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Ride, Ride, Ride Your Motorbike to Pai

[I was bored, so..]

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
buckle on your pack and set off from Chiang Mai /
remember you must drive on the road’s left side, /
and though the traffic ain’t bad and the roads are quite wide, /
oncoming tour buses on the whole damn road will drive /
so hold onto your ass and hope you don’t die. /

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
With the wind in your hair and whiskey by your side— /
should you bail on the highway leaving messy wounds to cauterize— /
set of from Chiang Mai in search of Highway 1095. /
And though you get lost because the street signs are in Thai /
the strawberry salesman and wok lady will set your path right. /

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
through rolling hills of bamboo with the shaded mountains behind /
and coffee plantations and villages of hill tribes. /
Don’t blabber in the latter, or you’ll be offered a bride /
and if you refuse, well it’ll probably be fine /
just remember you’ve refused a bribe with a bride. /

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
don’t go in the vans; it will upend your insides /
for the road will twist and back bend all the damn time. /
It’s better by motorbike, even if it’s the second time you’ve tried /
just keep your head on alert and your wits do not hide /
and never freak out on the bike. /

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
stop at the waterfalls and geysers when you’re tired /
and float in the hot springs with pretty gals and guys. /
Get lunch at any old Thai restaurant you find /
and persuade smoothie girl to use the strawberries you had to buy /
give her a wink, and this time no bribe with a bride. /

Ride, ride, ride your motorbike to Pai, /
as the setting sun glows orange at last you’ll arrive /
follow the puke-scented shuttle vans as your guide. /
Pull in to a guest house and settle in for the night /
only to be pulled to the bars’ glowing lights /
cus after all, remember, you’re in Pai.

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A Poem, and an Afterward

A travel friend of mine sent me a wonderfully relevant piece:


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber, and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.
~Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933)

A heady thought about the importance of the journey, and resigning the destination to its proper place of enabling the journey.

There are some thoughts that I missed in Cavafy’s piece, and one in particular I believe to be of great value. Cavafy, where are the travel companions, the transient allies—equal parts strange and similar—that one meets along the way? So, I addend (without the slightest pretense that my version equals the former):

Wander Widely, Live Fully.

Unroot thyself
and reach for foreign soil with breathless soul,
confronting thyself in true form
against the clarifying backdrop of the unknown,
the unexpected.

Fear not loneliness,
for your naked soul will encounter wild and wondrous pilgrims
equanimically unclothed—
friendships forged in mere days
whose intensities shine ten times the span.

Bolden thyself,
brace not,
like a willful river flow
from the eternal wellspring of experience—
maintain constant departure while always

Paul Elliott (1988 – ?)

Wander on! ~PWALLE

Ithaca, as depicted in The Return of Odysseus by Claude Lorrain, 1644

Ithaca, as depicted in The Return of Odysseus by Claude Lorrain, 1644.

Status Update: Wake Up From Reality, Your Dream Awaits

This morning I woke up from a dream within a dream. The steady hammering of nearby construction—a familiar alarm from the past two weeks that I stayed here in Chiang Mai—lifts me from slumber at exactly 8:45am. What a lovely dream think I, wistfully reminiscing on the week-long lovefest that was Shambhala In Your Heart festival, a music and art gathering at the Doi Luang Youth Camp in Chiang Dao, Thailand. But Chiang Mai is still a dream, and one that will continue for the moment.

Prior to the festival I had been in Chiang Mai for two weeks, staying in a palatial apartment in the posh Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. After a week and a half of blitzed travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a taste of [temporary] home was much needed and much appreciated. I had ideal roommates, a regular sleep schedule (strictly enforced by the time-clocked start of morning construction, albeit), local friends and climbing partners, an exotically bohemian city to explore at leisure, and a dreamscape climbing crag within forty minutes motorbike ride.

I have put down soft roots here, right down to my routine:

  • Wake up early, read a bit, then eat a breakfast of coffee and duck eggs fried with garlic and fire hot chilies.
  • Engage in caffeinated waxing with Taylor about politics, culture, and whatever else comes to mind (women, mostly).
  • Pick a few songs and jams on Alice, occasionally to cheers and clapping from the nearby construction workers.
  • Read a bit more.
  • Walk a few blocks to my favorite organic Thai restaurant, where a smiling Thai woman serves me a vibrant plate of pad kee mao gai.
  • Walk a few more blocks to Play Cafe, where I write my blog on Miranda and converse with the Korean couple that owns the place.
  • Take a Song Tao to No Gravity climbing gym, and project a few routes and shoot the shit with Simon (the Swiss owner), Marco (a Swiss friend of Simon’s), Muat (a Thai champion climber), and Duan (a Thai boy that works and sleeps at No Gravity and plays a mean game of street badminton)
  • Eat dinner, and move on to the rest of the night’s activities.

On the note of writing, I have finished Bangkok Pt 1 here in Chiang Mai and am awaiting the precious moment when I will have time to compose Pt 2. My journals take me ages, even when I’m furiously typing for hours straight to the driving cocktail of espresso and German trance. I will perhaps need to shorten my future journal entries, and include more status updates such as this one. We’ll see.

Pure honesty: I am trying my absolute darndest not to bliss the hell out right now. Life in Chiang Mai has been nearly perfect in that commercially renowned 99.99% sort of way. But Chiang Mai doesn’t even compare to my beautiful dream within a dream at Shambhala. In the shadow of the Doi Luang Chiang Dao mountains, the youth camp sits in a broad meadow near a murmuring stream. At this blissful site, I passed seven days under the inflamed sun—dancing, singing, grooving, jamming, crafting, and connecting with wilderlings born of earth and fire from across the globe. I am working on a longer journal on Shambhala, but it will have to wait for now.

Though the festival dream is over, Chiang Mai is still quite blissful. I have climbed in otherworldly limestone caves, scaling moonscape toufas of melted rock. I have eaten a mountainous spread of halal Pakistani curries while watching a nearby group of tourists sit with their legs submerged in a tank of cleaner fish. I have ridden a bicycle through twisting traffic that knows no painted lines, and a motorbike down a pothole scarred highway through rice paddies and bamboo jungle. I have dined with Thai villagers, who gigglingly pass you fried unknowns and pop the tops off glass beer bottles with their teeth without blinking. I have rapped on the microphone with a Thai jam band (admittedly to a forgiving audience of three friends) at an art studio/bar, and played guitar with a gorgeous massage therapist in her bungalow studio. I have sustained several slaps and punches from a Thai biker gang who mistook me for a local Thai. I have seen that the world can be quite small, and that home can be anywhere you decide to lay down roots. My two short weeks in Chiang Mai have taught me a lot, in an experiential sense. I would live here, definitely, but I will continue my travels so I can be doubly sure.

I have met an incredible cast of characters in Chiang Mai. I will describe the major characters with unjust brevity, and hope to not insult the minor characters with their absence from the list (y’all are wonderful and you know it):

The Roommates
Taylor: an intellectual adventurer and fellow DePauw alumnus. He’s thoughtful and kind and has a comical tendency to laugh at pretty much everything, from my ribald stories to his whimsical purchase of a $6000 mountain bike. His mind cuts to the core, yet that critical gaze and ready retort that I recall from college has been tempered by a dream life working a dream job in the dreamy city of Chiang Mai (though he would still intimidate the typical bread-and-butter graduate student). Humble—will happily state that he hasn’t climbed much but then powers his way up a 6c+ grind—and talkative—will willingly discuss anything from the Paleo diet to American hip hop.

Barry: an expat Welshman and Crossfit coach. Regimented and driven (partly by his signature “bulletproof coffee:” an epileptic (by which I mean, it would render me inoperable) blend of coconut oil, raw butter, and jet black coffee. Barry has a smile and friendly demeanor that disarms your wary thoughts about whether the guy could crumple a steel barrel. Also thoughtful and smart as hell, though he never flaunts it. Definitely a dude I’d like to count among my friends..particularly at a dinner party and in a dive bar brawl.

Pui Pui: a dazzling Thai femme fatale, ex-climber goddess and current Olympic weightlifter. She is gorgeous, sweet, and fun–she got that diva style and none of the priss, you know? She’s the kind of beautiful woman that I’m genuinely glad is dating a rockstar like Barry; otherwise, I fear that I would be hopelessly fresh with her. In all seriousness, I find the pair incredible and their relationship inspirational [someday I’ll be mature enough to stop there] and I think Pui Pui would nonchalantly send me to the hospital if she was single and I was acting a fool [end joke].

The Friends
Karim: a world citizen climber with conversational language skills from his many past homes. A bit of a professional bullshitter—during the introductory exchange of asking where he was from, he replied “I’m from the moon” and I had to roll with it (“Ah! Heard it’s cold there. Light side or dark side?”). Easily one of the best climbing partners that I’ve had in a long while; the guy is damn charismatic and can persuade you to climb harder than you ever thought possible and without grievance. In all fairness, that charisma is a double-edged sword occasionally, particularly when paired with that damn bottle of Myanmar rum that he manages to produce in the decisive moment when you’re splitting the fence between reasonably going home to bed and joining him on his escapades.

Jennifer: a true Chicagoan and long-term traveler. She describes herself as Type A, but I think that does her a bit of injustice. She’s definitely driven, but in traveling with her I found her genuinely happy to wander and explore without definitive plans. Woman definitely knows her way around a schedule though, and was likely a hellofa school administrator back home. I enjoyed her company as a fellow US traveler—it was nice to remember a taste of my own culture and furthermore not be repulsed by it. I will fondly remember her company at our apartment’s Great Gatsby themed birthday party for Pui; Jennifer and I had a comically difficult time finding ingredients for Manhattans. The end product was pretty good and a colossal favorite, but really only resembled the true cocktail in the Kentucky bourbon and orange slice.

Stefan: an Austrian climber and yoga enthusiast from Vienna. His personality matches the circular Hari Krishna knot of hair on the back of his shaved head: calm, positive, and energy-aware. His activities represent the range of possible pursuits in bohemian Chiang Mai: acro yoga lessons, massage therapy school, and shamanic breathing sessions to name a few. I joined him and a dynamic band of merry backpackers when I moved back into the transient hub of Old City. Together, we floated to Chiang Dao for Shambhala, which I hope to describe in full detail when I have the time.

Jan: a[nother] South African with dynamic personality. He has been teaching English in Korea and Vietnam for the past few years, along with generally enjoying life in Asia. Jan has the same metabolic blitz as Julian, the other South African with whom I traveled with from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I met Jan whilst sampling the succulent array of food carts near Mun Mueang Soi 6, and indeed his exuberant attitude toward life can be best described in accordance with his signature exclamation about the food: “The food here is incredible! And so cheap! I f*cking love it! Is that pad Thai? It looks amazing, I must have some..no wait, better make it three! Here, you must try some, please you must!” Jan was also a merry participant at Shambhala, and I plan to see him again in Vietnam for continued adventures.

That is all for now. Bangkok Pt 2 will be coming along shortly, and many other thoughtful ramblings besides. Cheers and love!

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