El Gran Mentira

The language classes moved to the next level. I'm starting to use subjunctive more. I was really amazed watching my teacher prepare for this. She had a huge ritual of things to build up before she talked about subjunctive with me. That is the opposite of how I like to work with languages; I believe it is better to start by using it and then learn some grammar afterwards. However, my teacher had a really big surprise for me. Apparently all of my Spanish teachers have had a similar attitude and they all used bad grammar in order to avoid using subjunctive in front of me. Now I have a year and a half of bad grammar to erase and replace with something totally new that sounds funny to me. I said something impolite about all of my previous teachers when I learned this.

Sometimes the problem isn't the language. During class I got the example, “The government never fulfills the law.” I got pretty confused, because I didn't understand how fulfill could be applied to the law. The law says that you can't cross the street away from an intersection, that you can't lie to business investors, and in Montana, that you can't have a sheep in the cab of your truck without a chaperon. What does that have to do with the fulfilling. I asked her to explain what she meant and she gave me the example, “The law says all education will be free, but doesn't follow through.” Maybe I'm more conservative than I had thought.

A Joao le Duele que a la Chica de Ipanema le no Guste él

From Mexico City, I did a bus marathon to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. I left in the early afternoon and arrived the next afternoon. Surprisingly, I didn't feel like a big deal. I moved in with a host family the day I arrived and started Spanish school the next day.

Starting studies again really highlights what I don't do well. Immediately, I can't see how I will ever be able to speak Spanish, but I know what I was like before, so clearly something is happening.

Spanish class is pleasant. I do 2 private hours daily. I sometimes manage to sneak some humor in, like the class that was entirely based on the girl from Ipanema: A Joao le duele que a la chica de Ipanema le no guste él.

Unfortunately, the weather is sucking. We've had most of a week of hard rain. I just checked the forecast and it looks we have 10 more days of rain scheduled. My host sister's school was canceled because of it, flooding is becoming an issue, I understand that some bridges have collapsed., and that it is hard to get out of town. Plus, it's cold.

One of my friends from Bangladesh and Korea arrived here the day before I did. I guess if you meet enough travelers you don't have to coordinate your travels to have someone to travel with.

I also realized that Latin America is more inviting that Asia. That is why I had gotten so tired of traveling before; the Asians didn't really understand or want hard core travelers. They want people who plan their trips in advance and pay a bunch of fees. Latin America is happy to have visitors. Arriving in Mexico, I got a 180 day visa without have to say a word. Guatemala was almost as happy to have me.

Ombligo de la Luna

The next adventure took me to Mexico. Because I'm not going to learn Korean, I can be more aggressive about Spanish and the GMAT. Flights to Mexico City are inexpensive, so I jumped right on one. This was my second trip here. I had really fond memories from before and felt that the hostel I stayed at was one of the best on my trip. So, of course, I went to a different hostel to see if that changed the flavor of the city. I learned that hostels in Mexico are remarkable, but we will get to that shortly.

Mexico City is dirtier than I had remembered. I probably missed that because last time I visited right after Bangladesh and had stopped seeing dirt. That said, I think the city is very pleasant. It is incredibly friendly, inexpensive, and loaded with neat stuff. One of the main roads has custom art benches spread out along its length. One of them has three levels and is about 10 feet tall. I don't understand where the city's bad reputation comes from.

The time I was here before, I stayed at a hostel run by a techno DJ. The majority of the hostel ended up going out to see him spin. I remember coming back at around 3 or so. I ended up spending a lot of time with the people I met at that hostel. This hostel was more remarkable. It was run by two men (who weren't the owners). There was a cafe attached. I was the only guest. I also never saw anyone in the cafe. I never got a key to the hostel, so I couldn't come in unless someone was there.

My first night, I was invited out to a club. Because this was in Mexico, going to a club means speaking Spanish. Therefore party = study. Convenient, no? Before going, my hosts made some marijuana toast and then smoked some more. One of them had met the DJ online. It was a techno club. Between 12 and 1, drinks were free. All the rest of the time, drinks were far from free. At around 3:00, they decided to host an after party at the hostel, and most of the club left.

Including me, there were about 9 people at the after party. I don't like marijuana, but think it smells better than tobacco. At one point, I counted 6 people smoking pot, or preparing it to be smoked. I didn't pay attention, but assume the other two people were smoking tobacco. Watching people smoke didn't really hold my interest, so I headed off to bed shortly after we got back to the hostel.

I had been pre-advised about the next night. There was a party at the hostel. People started smoking out at about 5. DJs started spinning around 11 and it lasted till around 8. I lasted till around 3 when I decided that I would happier asleep. I'm getting better at sleeping in less than ideal situations. I fell asleep without problem and slept ok.

I woke up around 10 the next morning. So did my hosts. They had been running on two hours of sleep and one meal daily since I arrived. After two days it was starting to show; even after smoking-out, they looked tired. I wasn't particularly interested in another party and figured that I didn't have much to worry about. They invited me over to the house of one of the DJs and I decided to accept. It was in one of the touristy neighborhoods of Mexico City and I hadn't done any tourism at that point. The DJ had not gotten up at 10 am. She was still asleep when we arrived and didn't wake up to let us in, so we walked around the market for a while before trying to get in again. I got curious why we headed out someplace so early after a party till 8. I learned that the party was without the permission of the hostel owners and that they guys didn't feel like getting yelled at when they were that tired.

When we finally got there, I saw three of the DJs from the previous events. I also saw some people smoke pot. After a couple of hours, I followed someone to get his windshield replaced and watched the mechanics work, and smoke pot.

As evening approached, someone proposed going to a party. It was only around 8 or 9 when this happened, so I figured that this was a different type of party. None of the other parties started hopping until 12. My host asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I'm pretty tired. I'm not excited about a party.” He told me that he was exhausted, too and didn't really want to go. Someone persuaded him to go for one hour. One hour later, we were just arriving at the party, which was 30 min., by car, out of town. And, I had watched people smoke pot (twice).

As one might imagine, the party was a repeat of the previous evenings. However, I had my camera this time. What does one do with pictures of people smoking pot and dropping acid? Every single person I came with was pretty tired at the beginning of the party, but the group didn't get inertia to drive back until around 3.

I left the next afternoon before my hosts had gotten up.

Let me describe the people I met. Every one of them smoked. I didn't meet any other foreigners. All of them seemed to speak some English. The women were all preparing to go to college or in college studying dance and/or psychology. The men were all preparing to go to college or officially doing nothing. That said, they were all friendly. I never lacked someone to talk to in my broken Spanish. I had a few interesting conversations, too And, even though high all of the time, my hosts did a pretty good job of watching out for me, checking in now and then to see if I needed anything.

Let me end this post by asking for it. I can't remember the last time that I got sick beyond the most basic stuff. I'm curious if I will get this posted before I get sick.

2 Hours in Canada

I headed off to the states.

I'm going to describe the person who sat next to me on the flight to Vancouver. She was from Hong Kong. She hated Americans. I had this pointed out to me several times. She was a student trying to enter University. She was accepted to some international schools, but wanted to go to a school in China or Hong Kong. This is because the Chinese schools are better. She took a year off to study in order to have a better chance of entering a Chinese school. She was studying Organic and Physical chemistry while sitting next to me. She was hoping to become a nurse.

We talked about me for a while. She thought I was very powerful for doing my adventure alone. She told me this several times. We also chatted about the world. We talked about medicine. Apparently, Chinese doctors are better than American ones because the Chinese doctors study harder. One of the things that confused her was that, even though Americans are lazy, we seem to produce more really exceptional scientists and engineers. When we talked about stuff other than how China was going to beat America, her knowledge was more limited. For instance, she didn't know who the president of China was.

I spent about two weeks bouncing between Seattle and Portland catching up to the people who sometimes email me. It reminded me that I like my friends.

Apparently, the main character in “The Tropic of Cancer” is an embodiment of the Id; he goes where he wants, he does what he wants, and he doesn't worry about the consequences. I was recently compared with him. I can't decide whether that was a statement of jealousy, a criticism, or both.

I try to take care of all of my sundry business in my short trips to the states. This time, I needed to convert a lot of different monies. I learned that the US is one of the worst places in the world to do that. I was paying 10% for each of the conversion transactions. I won't be doing that again.

All of this happened as I prepared for my next adventure.

No More Asia

The official purpose of the trip to Hong Kong was to get a new visa to Korea. Korea's government is not very pro-American right now. We are one of few countries that doesn't get an automatic 90-day visa to Korea. We get 30-day visas. Fortunately, the C-3 is a 90-day visa that we can easily apply for. I did my research, and learned that Americans can apply for visas at the Korean embassy in Hong Kong. The first business day after I arrived in HK, I went to the embassy to start the application process. Unmentioned on the website, in Hong Kong Americans can apply for any type of visa except C-3's.

That was a pretty big blow. That meant my options for learning Korean were to return to the states, apply for the visa and then come back to Korea or stay in Korea for 90 days on 3 different 30-day visas counting on not getting in trouble with immigrations. Both options were several times more expensive than I had budgeted for. The time I had available to learn Korean, however, was tight. It was already a risky target language. With all this, the fact that I was burned out on travel, and the fact that I could get a flight to Vancouver from HK for $330, it became pretty clear that I should scrap Korea and go back stateside for a while. On Tuesday I got tickets that leave on Thursday.

Hong Kong

I have ties in Hong Kong. One of my friends recommended a hostel that was not in Chungking Mansion. The new hostel still wasn't perfect, but it was in a totally different league than the mansions. It also helped alleviate the problem of limited Internet access.

Hong Kong has a unique character. There are many first generation immigrants. Also, I suspect that one of the city designers was a big fan of the Jetsons. There are moving sidewalks everyplace. They're important because they take you between all of the awesome restaurants. I have eaten all over the place. I'm very good about trying new foods. It is pretty rare that I encounter a totally unfamiliar food. It happened four times in Hong Kong. I had never even dreamed of almond tofu. All this for less than $5 per meal.

They have their own ways of dealing with things like money. Hong Kong has branded money, like the HSBC dollar and the Standard Chartered dollar. I knew that, back in the day, money started that way, but I had not known that it was the case now. Particularly now that there is no gold standard.

I had always thought of Hong Kong as being a huge city with no way real way to escape. Apparently, something like 80% of the land area of Hong Kong is uninhabited. I visited an island called Lama, that is about 20 minutes away from the main island by ferry. Lama doesn't have any cars. Most of the smog from the main island doesn't drift that far. I walked from one end of the island to the other in about 2 hours. It was an amazing escape from the big city. If I could justify/afford it, I would buy property there.

Hong Kong is Chinese, but is steeped in English. That makes it easy to get around, but it is enough Chinese that most of the culture is still hidden. I really felt like I could live in Hong Kong for a year or more and discover new gems regularly for the whole time.

Cheap Hotel

I'm staying in a cheap hostel. Hotel rooms in Hong Kong seem to start at around $200 a night. I found a place for $10. I got a private room with TV and AC. Unfortunately the AC doesn't work and the TV doesn't get any channels. The location is also rather meager. It is in the 3rd world skyscraper. The vast majority of people in the building are from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The Indians seem to dominate. Walking out to the street involves having at least 3 Indian guys trying to sell you watches or handbags or something. It is also Bangladesh-y crowded.

When I first arrived, I was a little lost and went to the wrong building. My hotel was on the 13th floor and the place was crowded, so I decided to take the stairs. Hong Kong is reasonably hot and humid. By the time I got there, I was sweating. After I got straightened out, I found my way back down and up to the 13th floor of the correct building. Irony struck when they said that I would be staying in a different building and the escorted me back to the first building, but up to the 17th floor this time.

The real gem of the story, though, is the bathroom. The bathrooms are little rooms, just large enough to hold a toilet and sink and leave a little room to move around in. There are handheld showers included as well. All of the fixtures are really cheap plastic things. In Germany, I encountered hot water heaters that are an ugly square box mounted on the wall that is very effective at producing copious quantities of very hot water. The use roughly the same system here. An engineer might see the problem here; cheap plastic fixtures melt. During my shower this morning, the temperature fluctuated several times. I was a little confused by this because I had my own hot water heater and it used the same line as the cold water. I didn't understand what would cause the temperature to fluctuate. But, I was busy taking a shower and didn't think about it too hard. After I finished, I turned off the water, but the water didn't stop flowing. The hot water, that is. I figured that I'd turned the knob the wrong way, so I went the other direction. Now lots of hot water was flowing. I went back to my first instinct. The water was still flowing pretty quickly, the room was filling up with steam, and the shower head was getting too hot to hold. As I was pondering the enduring philosophical question that often marks significant road marks in people's lives, “Now what?”, the shower head started changing shape. As it melted, very hot water to start flowing in several new directions. This made me much more conscious that I was standing naked in a very small room. I decided to put the toilet to work and then found the shutoff valve at the wall. Maybe in the future, I'll get a job and have a goal of only staying in hotel rooms that make for very boring stories like, “I went to my hotel, slept, and took a shower when I woke up.” I don't think hotels are supposed to provide excitement. For now, I'm considering changing to the YMCA.

Shanghaied

30 days ended. It was more fun studying Korean this time than I remember it being last time.

I got tickets on China Eastern Airlines from Seoul to Hong Kong. I made sure to double-check the departure time and date. I noticed that I had to change flights in Singapore. I even went so far as to check what the visa rules were for Singapore. Unfortunately, that was a blind spot. I went to the airport, found my flight, checked-in, and got most of the way there before I realized that I had confused Singapore with Shanghai. What are the visa rules for transiting the Shanghai airport? I didn't know, but I knew that it was part of mainland China. What's the right thing to do in this situation, I definitely couldn't persuade the plane to turn around and let me check the visa requirements. When in doubt, I discourage showing weakness. So, I charged right through planning on bluffing my way until I got arrested and sent to a Chinese prison (Do they offer free language instructions for prisoners?). Apparently, you don't need a visa to transit shanghai, but I do have a Chinese stamp in my passport. Later, I'll check to see if I was supposed to need a visa to do that.

What To Do

The informal plan had been to arrive in Korea, find a place to teach, and then stay here for a year teaching English. After I got here, I realized that teaching didn't feel right. Watching other teachers, I saw that the most important part of the English teacher's job was to be a status symbol. The money isn't particularly good. If I did it, the dominant reason would have been to get the visa. I decided that it wasn't for me.

I think I have a good alternative to teaching English. I'm probably going to do an international MBA. It has been on my radar for a long time, but I had not yet decided to pursue it. I think it would allow to work in the exotic places that I want to work and to have enough authority that I can be involved in the “what to do” decision instead of just the “How to do it” and “How do we clean up after this fiasco” decisions.

One of the remarkable things about my first choice school is that they require their grads to be fluent in three languages. That sounds like a good challenge to take on just because it is fun. I'm thinking Spanish and Korean. Korean isn't commercially viable, but it would be cool to be able to say I'm fluent in an Asiatic language.

When I was in Korea before, Americans were allowed to stay for 90 without a visa. Today, it's 30 days. Most of the world can still stay 90. The C-3 visa allows Americans to stay for 90 days, is multiple entry, and doesn't require any special paperwork to apply for. I have a ticket to Hong Kong. When my 30 days are up, I'll go there and get my C-3.

On another note, my web hosting company has been letting me down. At times, it has had spotty web hosting. I can live with that. Recently, it started dropping emails. I don't think it's dropping very many, but I'm not down with that.

Changes

Seoul was the first place that I ever went abroad. I arrived just about 9 years ago. Coming back lets me see a lot about how the world changes, but also a very unique window into how I've changed.

Seoul is bigger than it used to be. Walking around the Ewha campus, most of the empty spaces have been filled up with new buildings. The city extends out further and the subway has filled in a lot. All of the businesses I was familiar with have closed and been replaced by new businesses. However, I think the biggest change is the Korean relationship to the outside world. The traditional Korean restaurant that I ate at most regularly has closed and been replaced by a sandwich shop. The traditional Korean restaurant next door to that has also been closed and replaced by a sandwich shop. Getting American stuff used to be difficult. Cheese was a big deal. I remember being something of a novelty, as a white person. I recall having only seen a few white people per day. Today, cheese is a common ingredient in restaurants, some neighborhoods are dominated by white folk, and American stuff is available at corner grocers.

I like the foreign take on American/European stuff. I tried a wine milkshake. They used a port as the main flavor. It was nice.

What about me. How have I changed? When I was in Seoul before, I was intimidated by the experience. I didn't like to venture too far from the grounds that I knew because I didn't have much faith in my language ability or cultural skills. That has certainly changed. I'm also better at learning languages.

I started dancing just under 9 years ago. I'm sure of the date because I started dancing in Korea. One of few businesses that didn't close was the club that I first danced at, Macondo.

One of the friends that I was visiting blogs. I enjoy reading his writing, so I've stayed up on his stories. He started dating a Korean woman. One day, they went to a restaurant to eat dokboki and were refused service because the woman working there didn't like mixed couples. I can contrast this to my experiences. I have been frequenting a restaurant near my house. The woman there likes me so much that I only pay about half the time. The thing that caught me off-guard is that, apparently, we were talking about the same restaurant. That is the value of cultural integration.