From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.
On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters. Continue reading
Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.
So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.
When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling. Continue reading
Summer in Japan is a great time for festivals and fun, as noted in my last entry, but it’s also a great time to get away from Japan. Students in Japan don’t have quite the same summer break as we do in the states, but there is definitely more time off over the summer than at other times of year. Sadly this time off is mostly just for students, not teachers, but with a bit of creative scheduling I was able to plan a trip to Taiwan with my frequent travel buddy, Annin. Continue reading
Alright, time to begin the holiday travel posts! I think I should start by explaining exactly what I had planned for a very extended holiday, one I’m still shocked went off without a hitch.
While I was given the green light to take almost three weeks off to travel, the first few days of my trip were a bit more complicated. From the very beginning of my stay here in Can Tho, I had always planned on spending Christmas Eve in Saigon, where this year’s Pac Rim group (including several staff members from my trip) would be holding their holiday banquet. I was beyond excited to see old friends, meet the new students, and generally wax nostalgic. A few days after the party my friend Annin was going to meet me in Saigon, and we would then travel around Vietnam. Our friends Lisa and Pase, staff for this year’s Pac Rim, would also be joining us for a few days during their holiday. Everything was coming together and it was looking great!
A few weeks before the party, I realized that while I was told I could have time off, my university course’s final exam was scheduled right between the Pac Rim banquet and meeting up with Annin. This meant that my schedule would have to go as follows: Dec 23 – bus up to Saigon and hang out with Pac Rim. Dec 24 – Pac Rim Banquet! Dec 25 – bus back to Can Tho, teach in the evening. Dec 26 – Administer final exam in morning, finish grading all 50 tests in afternoon, and bus back to Saigon at night to hang out with Lisa and check into hotel with Annin.
Yes, it was a bit of a crazy schedule, and yes, grading took far longer than anticipated, but it all worked out fine in the end.
Now, for what you’re really interested in – how was it meeting up with this year’s Pac Rim?
Well, it was great to see old friends and say hi to a few of the students whom I had met back on campus. I spent most of my time running errands with Lisa and Selina and trying to be helpful with party preparations. I loved hanging out with old friends and getting to know the new staff members, but one thing was made abundantly clear: three years is a lot of time, and I am definitely no longer a student. This sounds obvious, but spending time with current students really hit home to me how much I’ve changed over the past three years. And, while I loved my experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not interested in going backwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an awesome time seeing everyone.
Realizations aside, I spent a lot of time catching up with Elisabeth and Nima, who had led my trip. This year is Elisabeth’s final year as Pac Rim director, and she and Nima were leaving the trip mid-year to allow a new director to step up. It was great to see them, and we had a wonderful time together. On the second day in Saigon, Selina and I snuck into the Grand Saigon’s breakfast buffet to eat with our friends (and, let’s face it – our hotel’s breakfast was not nearly as nice), and we ended up having a lovely meal with EB and Nima, talking about the highs and lows of this trip, their plans for 2015, and how much I missed non-white bread while in Vietnam. Elisabeth was very cute and surprised Selina and me with a loaf of wheat bread later that night, which was so nice, and much appreciated.
Other highlights from the visit include going out to an American-style BBQ restaurant, where I was super excited to eat ribs, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and beer that wasn’t mostly water (Vietnam is great for many things, but beer is not one of them). Earlier in the day we went out for coffee near the hotel at a famous Vietnamese chain, Trung Nguyen. I was shocked to see that prices in Saigon were basically double what I would normally pay in Can Tho, but I guess that’s how it goes. Strangely, it took around 45 minutes for us to get take away coffee, so these days I’m far less enamoured with this brand of coffee shop (although if I bring anyone back coffee from Vietnam, it will probably be from here – it’s widely known as some of the best quality coffee and it’s very easy to find).
After coffee I set out with Selina and Lisa’s friend Linda to try and find the offices of Saigon Artbook, whom I had read was selling decks of cards printed with illustrations by local artists and representative of Vietnam. It was a bit of a long trek, and once we found the building it was clear that it was not usually used as a storefront – there was no sign, no markers to indicate where to go, and the first floor of the building was a cell phone shop. But in the end we were successful, and everyone bought a beautiful, very unique deck of cards.
Moving on – the actual banquet was lovely. I sat at a table with a few friends, and a student whose parents were both Pac Rim alumni. It was really interesting to hear about both the current trip and his parents’ experience in the 80s. We were also treated to this year’s mid-year video, which I must admit was very well done, and this group was clearly better at remembering to film things… Oh well! After the video the students presented EB and Nima with scrapbooks as a parting gift, and it all got a bit emotional. I started tearing up for sure. All of EB’s students were invited up to give a hug, but Selina and I weren’t sure if we should sit back and let this year’s students do their thing. Eventually we were prodded into going up by our table mates, just in time for the group to start singing a song we absolutely didn’t know. It was a bit awkward, but funny. After hugs, it was time for a dance party, which was a blast, and a fitting way to bid farewell to Elisabeth, who truly shines on the dance floor.
As we all know, after the party comes the afterparty! Selina and I went back to Lisa’s room and played drinking games with the other staff and our friend Jewel, who was the coordinator for the student program assistants in Hanoi, and a surprise party guest. We hadn’t seen her in three years, so it was great to catch up. Once everyone had gathered, we headed out to Saigon’s backpacker district for a few drinks and some dancing. Little did we realize that Christmas Eve is one of the craziest times to be out in Saigon, as traffic was NUTS. Luckily we didn’t have far to go, and when we returned to the hotel around 4am, it was significantly quieter.
Anyway, in the end I’m glad everything worked out and that I was able to meet up with the group, if only for a little while. And who knows, maybe I’ll see them again before the year is out – they’re headed to some pretty cool places, and the travel bug hasn’t left me yet 🙂
I’m having a tough time believing that it is, indeed, December, but the Christmas decorations on every street would seem to indicate that it’s true. I didn’t think Vietnam would be particularly excited about Christmas, seeing as it’s a primarily Buddhist (but 7% Catholic, according to Wikipedia) country, but it appears the stores all know the value of a holiday promotion, and the Christmas feel that goes with it. Yes, I am a bit of a grinch, but with not one Hanukkah bush to be found, I feel I am entitled to a little less enthusiasm than some, haha.
But regardless, there have been a few holidays in the past weeks that I did celebrate, including Thanksgiving and my 24th birthday! Thanksgiving was a fun affair – it was completely last-minute, but a bunch of the foreign teachers organized a dinner at a friend’s house and made everything from chicken to spring rolls. I dutifully provided cheese and crackers, and a few store-bought cookies, because we all know that cooking is not my forte. I did miss my usual job as pumpkin pie baker (even I can’t screw that up), but I still had fun. Unfortunately, since Thanksgiving isn’t really on the radar in Vietnam, I had to work that night from 6:30-8:30pm. I arrived at dinner in time to help set up, left right as everyone was about to eat, and returned in time for everyone to leave. But not to worry, I still ate my fill of food and was able to get in on some games and singing before heading home for the night. In the end I decided I was very grateful for the friends I have made here, my supportive friends and family back home, and the fact that I can be here doing this right now. I’m a very lucky person, and sometimes it’s nice to sit back and reflect on that.
So, since Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here in Vietnam, the designated time to begin decorating for Christmas appears to be December 1st. I swear, on November 30th I walked down the street and everything was normal, and the next day I was swimming in a sea of Christmas trees, lights, and Santas. I haven’t really taken any pictures, but even now, I’m writing this in a cafe and there’s a strobing string of lights and ornaments right in front of me, and pictures of snowmen everywhere. It’s a tad strange, but I’ve decided to just go with it.
Anyway, the start of December was a great time for me. As some of you know I was really excited to have clothes made for me once I arrived in Vietnam. Somewhere in the shuffle of getting settled in and working and traveling, I lost track of that thought. A while back I told a friend that I wanted to have some clothes made, and she surprised me a few weeks later by saying that she’d take me to a fabric shop, and then to her friend’s mom, who is a tailor. This all came together about 2 weeks ago, and I picked up my finished clothes just in time to go to a friend’s birthday party. I don’t have pictures yet, but below are a few of the fabrics I picked up. The one on the left is now a nice, full-length skirt, and the other two are waiting for me to figure out what I want. I’ll post pictures once I figure it out.
In any case, after picking up my awesome new skirts and dress I went to a friend’s birthday party, since she’s also an early-December Sagittarius. Fun fact, people I’ve met here talk about astrology a lot. If I tell friends I was born in the year of the horse they know how old I am, and I’ve had my palm read by students at least twice. Fun stuff. Anyway, the birthday party! We went out for goat hot-pot, which I love, and once we got their my friend asked if I had ever tried hột vịt lộn, or fertilized duck egg. Now, before arriving in Vietnam, I thought this sounded like the most horrible thing ever. Having lived here for a while, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart, and decided I was willing to try the egg, provided it was dark, and I’d had a few drinks first. And maybe I’d start with the quail version, since it’s much smaller… In any event, I told her that I hadn’t tried it yet, and that it was still to bright out to change that at the moment. It turns out she wanted to add one to our hot pot, and that sitting on the tray of veggies waiting to be cooked were two, perfectly innocent-looking eggs. Peter and I were both convinced she was just teasing us, and that these were in fact just normal eggs. So, quite brazenly, I told her to go ahead and add them! It was her birthday after all, and I figured if it was the real deal than at least it’d be cooked when I ate it. I was soooo not prepared for what came next. She cracked the egg and poured it on into the pot, and I really haven’t seen anything quite as… well, gross. The egg oozed a black, mucus-y membrane, which was bad enough, and then, out plopped the tiny almost-duck. I don’t tend to be a squeamish eater, but that almost did me in. Even Peter, who had eaten hột vịt lộn before was a bit put off by the whole thing. But after a few minutes we had regained our composure and our appetities, and everyone dug in. I don’t think I ate any of the duck itself, but the hot pot was delicious, and I can now (sort of) say I’ve tried hột vịt lộn. Go me. After dinner we all went out for karaoke and dancing at a local club. It was an eventful, fun night.
The next day I had to give my university students their midterm exam, which they were of course thrilled about. But even so, after the test was finished they surprised me with a birthday cake and they all sang. I was really touched, it was so nice! They gave me a cake even when I gave them an exam, haha. It turns out that my students in almost all of my classes had found out from each other that it was my birthday, and for the next few days each class sang to me. It was so sweet, I really love my students…
And that was about it for my birthday. I went out to a rooftop bar for drinks with friends, but we kept the whole thing pretty laid-back, which pretty much falls in line with how I usually celebrate my birthday. I also went to Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend, but I’ll save that for another post.
So, here I am, a week into being 24, and I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve gotten a lot of love from friends, family, students and coworkers the past few weeks, and I’ve been constantly reminded of how happy I am to be here, living a life-long dream, learning every day, and generally just having a blast.
Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday/holiday well-wishes, and to everyone who has been following my adventures here through my blog. I’ve got a good bit of traveling coming up at the end of the month, so hopefully I’ll have some fun stories (and pictures) to share with you soon!