vacations of an efl teacher

My first year contract is complete! Well, it will be in one week…during that time I won’t have much real work to do, though.  So, essentially, it’s done!  I can’t believe it.  I also can’t believe I signed the contract to stay here another year, but I did.  School schedules are a little strange in Korea, there is a winter vacation for the month of January and during that time most teachers will teach at least one winter English camp.  The first week of February is this weird week of classes and graduation before the real end of the semester.  The new school year begins the first week of March.

Working in Korea as an EPIK teacher, I get two chunks of vacation time, 8 days in the summer and 10 in the winter (you also get 5 extra days if you renew your contract).  This is one of the really nice perks of working here.  Although I’m not a fan of deskwarming when the students don’t have school, I am thankful for my chances to travel.  And deskwarming isn’t so bad anyway.  It gives me a (forced) opportunity to make cooler lesson plans, study Korean, catch up on the news (oh, wait, that’s super depressing these days) or even better, to sit down with a cup of Korean instant coffee and write.

Summer vacation in August was rather busy.  After teaching 3 summer camps (so much work!), I flew off to meet my lifelong friend Mary in Thailand.  I was excited to finally travel with her after all of our years traveling separately and to see another new country. Thailand is great, but 9 days is definitely not enough.  It’s not long enough to really get a good feel for any country that large.  Even so, it was nice to get away for awhile and not think so much about waking up early and getting to school and lesson planning.

Our itinerary looked like this:
Day 1: Bangkok.  Coffee, Thai massage, Food
**Thai massage. So good. Holy wow.**
Day 2: Bangkok. Temples, Palaces, Coffee, Food
**Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are stunning to see, but go early in the morning to avoid massive crowd sizes**
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Day 3: Day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (8:30am-7:30pm. A seriously long train ride)
**I recommend flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to save time and energy.  Some of the views on the train were nice but to me I would’ve rather been out of a train doing something.**
Day 4: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Food, Thai cooking class
**Take a cooking class in Thailand! You’ll be amazed at what you can do**
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Mary and I at Siam Rice Cooking School (Highly recommended!)
Day 5: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Temples, Worked on lesson plans at coffee shops (yay), Food, Amanda’s illness begins…
Day 6: Chiang Mai. Sick. Chiang Mai Ram Hospital Visit.  Felt like death.
**Chiang Mai Ram Hospital is a nice for foreigners because their level of English is good enough for communication among all of the staff.  There are probably other good ones in Chiang Mai but I can’t speak for them**
**Also, dear Mary, thank you for accompanying me to the hospital when I felt like death.  Having sick friends on a trip is the worst, because you feel fine but you also want to help but you don’t want to help because you’re on vacation and you want to do stuff! In any case, your sacrifice will ever be remembered.  If your friend takes care of you on their vacation, you’d better be damn grateful!**
Day 7: Chiang Mai.  Sick. Feeling less like death after medication. To a spa for facials.
Day 8: Flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Taxi to BKK Airport, Waited forever for flight, One last Thai massage in the airport.

If I got the chance, I would like to go back to Thailand.  I was so worn out from the year that I don’t think I was much fun to begin with (sorry Mary), and then I got seriously sick in Chiang Mai and missed out on a lot of natural wonders that would’ve, I’m sure, made the trip much more full.  3 full days while traveling is a lot of time out, sadly, so I missed out on hiking in some beautiful natural places and hanging out with elephants and eating a lot of delicious food.  (Sidenote, I’m convinced food poisoning is the closest a human can get to feeling death while still managing to stay alive).  All in all, I’m happy I went, and I was glad to travel with Mary (finally) but I don’t feel like I had enough time in the least bit.

In January I was able to take all my vacation at once.  EPIK teachers are allowed 10 days in the winter for vacation, and then if you are renewing your contract they give you a bonus 5 days.  I combined my vacation days with the Lunar New year (설날) and had a nice chunk of time away from teaching.

For 10 days, I was back in the US visiting family and friends.  It was good to be back to see the people I love, but honestly it also felt strange.  I had this weird feeling that I was foreign in my own country, even though I certainly also feel foreign in Korea.  Maybe the concept of “home” is just lost on me.  I went through my old things and went past my old apartment and drank coffee at my old regular places.  But it was different.  Or maybe it’s me who is different now.  One thing is for sure, though…it felt amazing to breathe such clean air again.  A “cold” that had been lingering for months suddenly went away after spending a few days in the Minnesota air.

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Snow and Sunshine in Minnesota

 

I was also able to participate in a sister march for the Women’s March on Washington.  I saw women (and men) of all backgrounds and beliefs come together to support and fight for women’s equality in a way that is accessible to all.  I won’t get into the politics of it all here, but I will say that I do believe now is a very important time for women to stand together peacefully and make our voices heard.

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Before going home (to my Korean one, that is) I went with Riza to Hong Kong and Macau.  Hong Kong is small, and the 5 days and 4 nights we spent there was pretty perfect.  It would’ve been nice to have about 2 more days to move a little more slowly and visit a few more cafes, but all in all I was not disappointed even with less than a week.  I was pretty rested after my vacation at home and I was ready to go all out and do things all day, so we were able to pack it all in.

This trip’s itinerary:
Day 1: Arrived around 10am, ate probably the most delicious wonton soup of my life, lost Riza’s passport, found Riza’s passport, took the train into the city center (Tsim Sha Tsui) to drop off our bags and freshen up.  Visited: Kowloon Park (lovely!), Garden of the Stars, Coffee Academics (cafe)

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Bruce & Riza

Day 2: Took the MTR to Tung Chung Stn and the bus to Ngong Ping Stn to get to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island.  This was probably my favorite place of the trip..it felt so peaceful there and the Buddha is beautiful and massive.

Went to Victoria Peak on the tram, visited the ladies market in the Mong Kok neighborhood (scored my only souvenier of the trip…a denim bag with a cat on it…)

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View from Victoria Peak

Day 3: Day Trip to Macau! Took the Ferry from the Kowloon ferry terminus to Macau.  It seems very easy to just buy tickets when you get there.  We used TurboJet.  It was so warm in Macau! Saw the ruins of St. Paul, Senado Square and headed to the Venetian Macau.  I think  my favorite thing about Macau were the pretty blue street signs with both Chinese and Portugese.  And the egg tarts…oh, the egg tarts.  Ferried back and slept for about 12 hours from exhaustion.

chinese and portugese signs macau에 대한 이미지 결과

Day 4: Hiked Dragon’s back (so windy, but so lovely!) Then we rested before watching the Chinese New Year parade.  It was huge…people were waiting hours before it started to get a good view.  The parade consisted of several floats and performances by groups from all over the world.  A little crowded, but cool to see.

Day 5: Eggs Benedict at Urban Coffee Roasters Tsim Sha Tsui (highly recommend for food and espresso…best flat white I’ve had in Asia thus far), packed our things, chilled out a bit and headed to the airport.

Pro-tips for Hong Kong (not sure I can call myself a pro, but…): Get an Octopus Card for the MTR (rail transport) at one of the customer service centers in an MTR station, go to the Lantau Island Buddha early in the morning (preferably on a weekday) for lovely views and less crowds…same goes for Victoria Peak (another tip, don’t get your hopes up too much for Victoria Peak as it mostly felt like a tourist trap to me despite the nice view).

I love love love vacaion time.  I’m already trying to hold myself back from planning my next one.  I’m thinking Taiwan or Japan next, or maybe Indonesia or the Phillipines.  Or… okay, enough for now.  Teaching abroad is not only great for the experience of living in another country, but you’re also given time off to explore nearby countries.  Now excuse my while I re-open my other tab…the flight search engine…

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on the united states of america, from afar.

Taking a small rest from cleaning my place, I grabbed my phone.  ‘I’ll kill a few minutes with Facebook…why not,’ I thought rather unconsciously. So I sat on my bed and clicked that little blue and white icon and there it all was.  My feed is full of tragic images of the victims of the recent Orlando nightclub shooting. Stories by survivors are emerging.  Deeply terrified people crammed into bathroom stalls and corners, desperate to hold onto life.

Donald Trump emerges with his wildly inappropriate comments about all Muslims (particularly immigrants, despite the fact that the shooter was an American…), the occasional radical Christian pops up in a comments section saying disgusting things about how “the gays were being judged,” and the gun control debate rages on.  Another rape case sheds light on white privilege, particularly the “good ol’ boys club” variety.  News outlets are overwhelmed.  Competition for readers results in more and more “shocking” (read: click-baiting)  headlines.

Now, the fact alone that DT is even a presidential candidate astounds me to no end.  Koreans and other various foreign nationals can’t seem to wrap their minds around it either and are continuously asking, “…but why?”

Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say this before.  I am not a nationalistic person.  [Before you have time to say it, I’ll answer your questions.  No, I do not hate America.  Yes, I respect those who have served on America’s behalf.  No, I do not think the way America does things is working].  Nationalism, while sometimes unifying for a particular demographic, is overall divisive.  Even without physical walls blocking our view of the neighbors, mental walls are as high as can be.  They. Them. Those people.   My personal loosely held conspiracy theory is that professional sports were an invention of governments (and/or those who benefit financially from war) to get average citizens comfortable with the idea of hating the “other.”  But this is not a post about nationalism, so take me out for coffee one Saturday if you want to get into that.  All of that to say…despite my non-nationalism, I still consider the United States “home.”  No matter where I go or what I do with my wandering self, I think I’ll always feel that way.

And right now, I am deeply saddened by my home country.  Since my move to Korea, I’ve watched ‘America’ from afar.  I have felt embarrassment, disappointment, and bewilderment.  But today I felt defeated, and I cried for the lost lives, and the lives that are lost every day due to hatred and violence.  I don’t want to argue with you about guns.  But is it not obvious to you, fellow Americans, that other developed countries don’t have this problem?  I don’t really care if you like to go hunting in autumn, if you own a shotgun or a rifle or a pistol or live in the woods.  I grew up where you did.  Please don’t be defensive.  Something needs to change.  I wish it were not so, and maybe in the future there will be greater peace, but for now violence resides in the hearts of humans.  And it’s too easy to go gun shopping.  Easier than it was for me to get a driver’s license.  The combination has been deadly.  In these “discussions,” I’ve seen too many people shouting at each other, and I haven’t witnessed enough people listening.

And that, I think is the problem.  We don’t shut up long enough to listen to each other.  We come to radical conclusions based on misinformation.  We choose hate because hate is easy.  We don’t choose listening, we don’t choose love because love is painful and difficult.  It means we have to examine ourselves and maybe even admit we were wrong.  Sometimes, it means we need to give something up that we’ve held onto for most or all of our life.  I use the pronoun we because the problem is in all of us.

I don’t have answers. I’m not writing today to promote a specific viewpoint, not at this time.  I’m writing because I’m heartbroken.  I’m sick of the hatred, and I’m tired of the violence.  I am writing because it’s all I really know how to do right now about it all, sitting over here on my bed in Korea.  I am writing for my LGBT friends and my Muslim friends.  I am writing as therapy for myself.  With everything in me, I am sending love and peace into the atmosphere.  With everything in me, I hope that we can stand by each other, love each other, and march bravely into the future.

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on the bus

here
i have no car
can’t get to any place
without my own legs carrying me
or reliance on another

here
where you can open the window
close the window
spit out the window
and no one cares

where i am
i can see
ladies with backs bent
from years of service
to the earth
carrying the vegetables
to the people

where i am
i see a man who needs help
talking to himself
alone in his head
and everyone looks
the other way

“do you know my son?”
“do you know my granddaughter?”
“do you speak this language?”
“from where do you come?”
tilted heads
dark eyes looking into mine
hand reaching out to touch
my messy hair
i’ve been waiting
here
for awhile

here
i let my legs carry me
through sidestreets
through alleyways
through a little town
in the countryside

by the river
a cat is chasing a chicken
the running water
and the fear of the hen
are the only sounds

here
is where i met
the little girl
and her little dog
and we laughed
for lack of common language

she told me i was pretty
and i told her she was pretty
and she giggled
and covered her face
and ran away

invited to sit
scolded
pushed and shoved
and patted on the back
waved to
laughed at
spoken to
ignored

it’s another day
on the bus
here

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korea: the beginning

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cherry blossoms in jeongeup

I have been laying around in my little apartment all day feeling quite sick and even more annoyed that I’m physically unable to hike and travel a bit like I had hoped to this weekend (the 5-10 minute walk to the nearby convenience store was almost too much to handle, so…).  I figured it was a good time for my long overdue blog update.

I can hardly believe how fast time seems to be moving.  it has been just about two months since i landed at incheon airport feeling all dazed and confused after my ridiculous lineup of cancelled and/or rerouted flights around the US and my one very long flight from chicago to south korea.  I found the counter where I could pick up my korean sim card, and then made my way to the EPIK counter with my arms full of luggage where I was told a bus would pick me up shortly.

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welcoming ceremony at EPIK orientation

orientation is a blur in my mind now.  a combination of jet lag and recovery from being sick before leaving (am I always sick?) made me feel rather out of it for the first few days, and the schedule was pretty busy and tiring on top of that.  we had teaching classes, lectures, meals, korean language classes and a demo lesson to prepare for.  meanwhile, most of us were left wondering where in korea we’d be living for the next year, what grade levels we’d be teaching and how many schools we’d teach at.  all in all it was good to have an introductory period to korea and to meet others who were doing the same thing, but it felt like a lot of waiting for answers.

at the end of orientation, we found out our fates for the year–mine was that I’d be living in jeongeup-si in jeollabuk province and that I’d be teaching middle school.  what I didn’t know yet was that I would be teaching at 5 rural schools–3 middle schools and 2 elementary schools.  at the time I felt pretty overwhelmed by the idea of teaching middle school kids when all I had mentally prepared for was teaching elementary school kids.  now that i’m into the swing of things, teaching middle school and elementary school both have their pros and cons and it’s not as terrifying as I thought it might be. 😉

my apartment…..it’s not bad.  well, it’s not bad anymore.  when I first moved in, I found a pretty good sized population of weevils (flour bugs) feasting on some dirty dishes and pots and pans that the previous tenant graciously left behind.  I’ll be honest, I was grossed out at the state of the place, particularly the cupboards (where most of the bugs lived) and the bathroom.  BUT, I purchased some cleaning supplies and gloves and went to town.  i’ve done a pretty thorough cleaning every weekend since I’ve been here and I’ve kept all my food refrigerated, and i’m happy to say that I have been bug free for a week! (meaning, I haven’t SEEN a  living weevil for a week. are they still living in the cracks, waiting for me to drop a crumb?  i try not to think about it). anyway, now that it’s been cleaned I’m pretty content with it. the size is nice for me and didn’t require me to buy much of anything to fill it up, and the bed is comfortable.  it’s free for me to live here and it’s my own personal space, so I’m happy.  a little shift in perspective and a positive attitude make all the difference.

my city….I genuinely like it.  for a korean city, it’s small.  but it’s not actually that small.  it has everything I could possibly need or want apart from maybe an H&M, but it’s better for my bank account that the nearest one is 30-ish miles away by bus anyway.  koreans love coffee shops.  If you know me at all, you know that pleases me greatly.  within 5-10 minutes walk from my place, I can get to at least 15 coffee shops.  (mhmm, I’m counting).  my relationship with espresso will continue to be strong this year. I’m even becoming a semi-pro at ordering coffee in korean (when I don’t get all shy and lose confidence, that is)!  important phrases include: I’ll have one latte (or americano), please; one extra shot please, and I’ll have it for here/take out.  anyway, enough about coffee…. the other foreigners in town have been really friendly and welcoming (thanks guys!) to myself and the other new teachers.  there are, i think, less than 20 of us in total living in town.  the nightlife here isn’t too exciting, but there are still a lot of restaurants, bars/clubs, and noraebangs (singing rooms).  If i decide I need more excitement, it’s super easy to get anywhere else in korea by train or bus.

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beverages of jeongeup

teaching….it’s definitely been challenging.  the first few weeks were a little rough as I had no idea what anyone expected of me.  it has gotten much better, and I feel like though it’s still a lot of work if I want to create quality lesson plans for my students, it’s become a lot more enjoyable.  I’ve chilled out a bit on thinking I have to control every detail of what goes on in class and because of that the whole experience has been a lot more relaxed.  It’s okay to use the mediocre textbook activities sometimes if it means I get enough sleep the night before. it’s going to be okay if I planned what I thought would be a really enjoyable lesson and the kids ended up with that “teacher I’m bored” look on their face.  teaching, I’ve found so far, is full of all kinds of life lessons that need reinforcing.  mainly, for me, letting go of the need for perfection and just going with the flow.

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my wednesday middle school in the mountains

speaking of going with the flow… yoga.  what would I do without my practice?  my favorite thing to do after school is get on my mat and get rid of any negativity that I let seep into my brain & body throughout the day.  I HIGHLY recommend  Yoga with Adriene (youtube) and an app called “Yoga Studio” which I believe is only available for iOS?  these two (free and/or very inexpensive) resources made me fall in love with yoga over two years ago, and my life has never been the same. (insert dramatic music here).

lastly—

many friends and acquaintances have asked me various questions about how I found out about this teaching program, what tefl class to take and “why korea?”  I worked with Greenheart Travel  to apply for the EPIK program (English Program in Korea).  I recommend everyone who asks, if you don’t want to apply directly through EPIK and you want someone to kind of hold your hand through the process (it’s an intense process, people!) then work with greenheart! I had a fantastic experience and it was nice having someone in my own timezone (USA Central) to work with and email if I had any questions. they recommend the International TEFL Academy tefl course, which I took.  it was a little expensive compared to some others, but I found it to be pretty well organized and I learned a lot about practical ways to teach english.  if you think this is something you want to try, then I say go for it. why not?

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elephants, tea and temples: amanda in sri lanka

Happy 2016 everyone!  It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?  It feels good to be back.  As I’ve been busy applying and interviewing to teach in Korea, I’ve let time slip away without an update about my recent travels to Sri Lanka.  (If you don’t already know, I am preparing to move to Korea to teach with the EPIK program in February).  Now that I’m sitting around waiting to hear about my placement city and sign off on my official teaching contract, I have a little more time on my hands to think, process and write.

 

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Chicken Biriyani in Colombo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sri  Lanka was incredibly beautiful.  Breathtaking beaches, brilliant green fields of tea growing throughout the mountains, the curiosity and hospitality of the locals and the FOOD.  Seriously though, the food.  My taste buds will never be the same.  The group of people I traveled with went impressively well together-I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to hang out with for two weeks.

When someone asks me excitedly, “How was your trip!?” I genuinely don’t know what to say.  I usually reply with a generic positive exclamation.  I did, of course, have a seriously wonderful time in Sri Lanka, but how can I even begin to explain the impact that setting foot into another new world has on my soul?  I can tell you I saw elephants and got sick with food poisoning for three days and got all dressed up in a saree and drank the local coconut liquor, but when I enter a foreign land something deeper always happens internally than I can describe to you with my words.  Travel is a powerful experience–the most powerful, in my opinion.  So, instead of a play by play I’ll just share a few of the thoughts which, strung together, make up a rough outline of “how my trip was.”

When you are an average American from the lower middle class who just flew across the world juxtaposed directly next to a Sri Lankan tea worker who makes 600 rupees ($4 USD) per day but is fighting for 1000 ($7 USD), you question things.  You just do.  You can’t help but think about the $4 latte you grab a few times a week on the way to work, or the little $7 airport salad you ate during your long and incredibly boring layover in Dallas, Texas.  You can’t help but wonder about the concept of currency, and the man made idea that the American piece of paper in my right hand is worth more than the Sri Lankan piece of paper in my left.  You also can’t escape the reality that though it is a man made idea, you must abide by the principles of these ideas if you want to participate in society like the other humans.

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tea field

I learned that my acting skills are greater than I thought they were. Or maybe, it’s my eating skills.  While the spicy food burned my mouth with the fire of a thousand suns, I was still capable of smiling politely and sitting casually at a table.  I even came to enjoy the spiciness of the food, and I find myself adding cayenne pepper or some other spicy spice to everything in the midwestern United States where I live.  It’s hard to find any meaning in midwestern food when you’ve just returned from Sri Lanka.  I’m excited to try all the spicy food Korea has to offer.

I cannot express how hopeful it made me to see a country with a recent history of a horrific civil war full of such religious tolerance. Of course I was only around for two weeks but in that short time I watched Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians exist peacefully and respectfully together.  The US could take some notes.

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Hindu Temple, Colombo
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Buddhist Cave Temple, Newara Eliya

 

Stay tuned for my first post from Korea…I can’t wait to hop on another plane next month and be off on my next adventure.  Keep in touch, please! And have a beautiful new year.

 

 

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the sublime is at your doorstep

Caspar David Friedrich: Frau in der Morgensonne
Caspar David Friedrich: Frau in der Morgensonne

reasons to be dissatisfied seem to be spewing out of every corner, brewing up down every street and springing up inside each of us.  reasons to feel that you do not have enough, that you do not do enough, that you do not give enough or take enough…that you are not enough.

what is the source of dissatisfaction in your life?  i know that i tend towards this when i am stationary, when i am not embarking on a grandiose adventure or partaking in my next seemingly meaningful endeavor.

i have come to believe, once again, that the greatest adventure of all has to do with the simple moments–an awareness that brings with it the appreciation for the moon lighting up the darkness, the joy that comes from delighting my senses of smell and touch with a cup of warm and strong coffee, the connection that comes from acknowledging the coffee farmer and having gratitude for his work, or the smallness i feel when i stand in the valley of mountains.  the simple moments of a kind interaction with a stranger, or a child laughing, or a hug from my sister.  daydreams are beautiful, but simple daily realities have now truly stricken me with their vast profundity.

if looking at wildflowers growing by the lake doesn’t make you cry tears of happiness–what does?  if that’s my thing–what is it for you?  what is beautiful to you?  i thought i had to run circles around the world to find out, but the sublime is at my doorstep.  the sublime is at your doorstep.  it is in you as much as it is floating around in the sky on the opposite hemisphere of this earth.

what do you love?  what brings you joy?  i challenge you to make a little list of the little things in your daily life that make you happy.  here’s mine:

one. time with close friends and family

two. meditation (while staring at trees, preferably)

three. yoga classes

four. new friends

five. cat cuddles

six. (responsible amounts of) wine

seven. being around trees even while not meditating

eight. minimalism

nine. deep, unstoppable laughter

ten. making lists with even numbers of bullet points

updates and reflections from the great plains

fargo, the city I know so well.  the city of dreams… dreams of summertime in the midst of long winters, that is.  dreams of mountains and oceans, dreams of air that doesn’t hurt to breathe.  the weather’s getting a little warmer around here and people are stripping off their winter parkas, feeling slightly uncomfortable in their relative nakedness.

my new little apartment is just my size.  it feels a bit naked as well, with its lack of furniture and other people.  i like to think of the emptiness in terms of extra room for yoga and late night (or early morning) solo dance sessions.  my cat makes it feel like home though, and i am eternally grateful for her incredible listening skills.

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my new job also has cats, and one of them sits on my lap sometimes.  i can look out big windows at trees and my coworkers are beautiful and there is a limitless supply of coffee so i’m quite happy there.

i’ve now finished a class to become tefl certified (teaching english as a foreign language) so as soon as i turn my final papers in, i will be qualified to teach english overseas, which i hope to do next year.

today I was daydreaming a bit…remembering my first day in belgium on my most recent trip.  being so tired and out of it, it didn’t register how ridiculous it all was.  want to hear a story?

I was up late in dublin with my couchsurfing hosts and several of their friends.  we went out to a bar and had a few hot ciders and mulled wines and laughed and I listened to their beautiful french speech and talked to a new spanish friend about writing and cats.  as we walked home that night, my two lovely couchsurfing host ladies and I found a stray cat wandering the streets of dublin.  we spent about an hour earning its trust and eventually coaxed the poor lost kitty back to the apartment with us.

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three hours later, i was in a cab on my way to the dublin airport.  the sun shone through the windows brightly during my descent to brussels, and needless to say I was exhausted and totally unprepared to enter a new country.  but, i entered a new country….right into a total public transportation strike.  now, if you know me, you know I travel on a budget.  I did not have a taxi budget, and although there was room in my funds for emergencies, a taxi into brussels city center would have costed me about €50…that’s something like $75.  when your budget is 50 USD per day, you fret about that kind of cab fare.

staring out at the emptiness in the underground area of the airport where the trains usually run, i looked up at the dingy ceiling and whispered a little “help” to God.  “help,” I said, and a young belgian gentleman suddenly appeared at my side.  “you know the trains aren’t running, right?”  he said to me.  i nodded sheepishly, “I thought I would come down and check, just in case.”  “yeah, me too.  i’m from here.  i’ve never done anything but take the train.”

“are you headed to the city center?”  he asked.  i nodded again.  “want to share a cab?”  he asked.

now, before i left home, i made no promises to anyone except one:  the promise to my father to not share a cab with anyone.  too many sequels of “taken” had come out for him to not give me this sound advice.  so, dad, this is a disclaimer for you: please forgive me.  but know that my intuition is strong and my general rule in life is TRUST NO ONE.

so, i followed this man to the taxi line, where we were going to pay our €25ish each to get to the city center.  he suggested we try to catch an uber taxi instead.  i seemed to be doing a lot of shrugging and nodding that day, and this i did again as we climbed over the fence together and headed upstairs.  we wandered around trying to find the one that showed up on his phone, finally found it, and met the man who would be our taxi driver.  the taxi driver only spoke french, and in this moment i had to turn on my body language reading skills to understand their conversation and see if this was still a wise decision or not.  i could tell the driver’s french was broken, and the two men did not know each other.  being unfamiliar with uber prior to this, i wasn’t expecting an unmarked minivan…but i noticed the driver’s uber keychain as well as his kind and gentle demeanor.  i sensed that he was new to belgium and that he had young children.  i could sense his fatherliness and compassion for humanity in general.

so i handed him my torn and crinkled piece of paper with the address to my hostel and hopped in the minivan.  we first dropped off my cab-mate who wished me good luck in my travels and explained to me in english that we were not far from my hostel.  after he shut the door, the driver, who had shown no sign of speaking any english, asked with some embarrassment, “can i try english with you? sometimes i am afraid of english.”

i laughed and told him his english sounded good, and he let go of a little fear.  he told me how he had always wanted to visit the united states, because he had family in california.  he told me about his children and about how he drove the uber taxi as a second job because he wanted his wife and children to have nice things.  he thanked me for letting him practice his english and proceeded to drop me off at my hostel, where he told me my first uber ride was free and gave me coupons for more free uber rides. thanks for the help, God.

collapsing onto my hostel bed, i thought i was going to avoid any socialization and instead sleep for a whole day and a half.  that was before i met my sole hostel-mate.  she entered the room smelling like vodka and carried an air of the belief that she used to be lovely when she was young.  she ignored me at first.  an hour or two later, we began a conversation that would last deep into the night.

she was a french speaking woman, homeless, and full of regret.  she carried photos of her young daughter who was doing well in school and was being raised by another family.  a few hours later we were both sitting on the floor telling each other our stories; she was drunk on vodka, i was drunk on lack of sleep.  we exchanged bits and pieces of our lives with each other in english and spanish.  “i used to be young and beautiful, like you,” she reminisced.  “i never thought this is what i would become.  please do not become like me.”

“there is still hope for you,” i said.
“that’s what i believed when i was your age,” she replied.

a pain in her back had persisted for years.  she said she had seen many doctors who rejected her because she was a crazy homeless woman who had no money to pay.  the only reason she was able to stay in the hostel with me, she said, was because the homeless shelter had paid for it after she had broken a glass over a man’s head when she had had enough of his sexual advances towards her.  “what i want more than anything is for my daughter to love me again and for this pain in my back to be gone.”

now, my spiritual journey at this time was one of pure confusion and aimless wandering.  what compelled me to ask her if i could pray for her, i am not sure.  i hadn’t prayed in my own head for a long time, and to hear myself talk to God out loud felt foreign on my lips but it also felt like the right time for a prayer.  i put my hand on her back and prayed.  we cried together that night–she cried because no one had touched her in love for years; i cried because my dry soul felt the water of communication with the divine once again.  “i used to know God,” she said between swigs of vodka.  “i used to know that he loved me.”

we cried together that night–two women whose souls hurt for very different reasons, two women brought together and connected by humanity.  two women who would then go to sleep, and wake up to say a short goodbye and never see each other again.

and that….

was my first day in belgium.

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