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Look! More Ruins in Pompeii

Remember when I said that all the ruins in Rome start to look the same? Well, the same can be said about Pompeii.

On the advice of my friend from grad school, I told my parents that we should find a tour of Pompeii. It would be more organized and we’d get to see the Herculaneum on a full-day tour. Then we discovered that the full-day tours are only available twice a week, neither day was one that we were in Sorrento. We settled on the the half-day tour to just see Pompeii.pompeii

We figured it was worth the price just to avoid riding the Circumvesuviana again. Even the Italians believe this train is a piece of shit. It took almost an hour and a half from Naples to Sorrento along 30 stops on this privately-run train that was probably constructed by Mussolini and still uses the same cars with no air conditioning. The New York City subway looked better in the early 1980s. Yes, I got spoiled by the amazing trains in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

Instead of watching the wasteland pass by on the Circumvesuviana, we saw the coastline from the comfort of a tour bus. Our guide was friendly and humorous–he even made a point of telling us to not buy any souvenirs other than books. I didn’t bother buying anything, unless you count the free map at the entrance.

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

The portion of Pompeii that is open to tourists is large and only accounts for a small part of what was once a thriving city. Due to a lack of funds and local interest, the rest of Pompeii remains unearthed, but there have been promises made that sometime in the future excavations will resume (probably when the Circumvesuviana is replaced by something more modern like a donkey cart).

Pompeii Forum

Pompeii Forum

Most of Pompeii is streets lined with what used to be shops and homes that are all more or less in the same state of ruin. There are few, if any, identifying features remaining in any of them. “And this here is a what used to be some sort of business. Over here is the same thing. Etc.” The first one was nice, the second was curious because it was so similar, and then it turned to boredom. That is, until we arrived at the brothel.

Yup, it's a sidewalk penis

Yup, it’s a sidewalk penis

Our guide pointed out the slightly visible ancient Roman penis in the sidewalk that pointed visitors in the direction of the brothel district, which today is the most intact portion of the ruins of Pompeii. It’s such a popular destination that every tour stops there and has to wait for the tour ahead to move along before entering.

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

In Pompeii’s red light district, visitors can see the original stone bed used by prostitutes that still retains its crabs and syphilis (Mt. Vesuvius must have had a part in the preservation). Inside the brothel are frescoes that depict which sexual act was performed in each room (they had to cater to the illiterates among the population).

This looks like an interesting room for a break

This looks like an interesting room for a break

Throughout the hot day we encountered many more historic ruins that pretty much looked the same. A few of the temples and the amphitheater stood out, as did the forum. Aside from the brothel, the public bath was also fairly well preserved, proving that the Romans had their priorities in safeguarding particular aspects of society from certain destruction.

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The roads still have large stones that served as crosswalks so residents wouldn’t have to walk through the sewer that was the street. These same stones had gaps that allowed carts to freely maneuver through the waste. I suppose because the people only bathed once every few months, the stench from their roads/sewers wasn’t noticeable.

One of the narrower streets

One of the narrower streets

I knew Pompeii was a thriving trade center in ancient Rome, but did know just how large the city was. I also didn’t know that prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the sea was right next to the city (it’s now miles away). Fortunately, with the clear weather, it’s easy to still see the volcano that buried the city almost 2,000 years ago.

Toward the end of the tour, we passed the gated section of Pompeii that houses artifacts, including the preserved bodies that most of us have seen in history books or National Geographic. With exhaustion from the intense sun setting in and the crowds gathered around, I only took a brief glance at what I thought would be better displayed. I had incorrectly thought that the artifacts and preserved residents would be displayed throughout the ruins of Pompeii. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

All jokes aside, Pompeii was an impressive half day out of Sorrento. It would’ve been better with a full-day tour though.

Have you visited Pompeii? Have you ever seen a more impressive prostitution district?

Crowded Religious Tourism at the Vatican

Just about everyone that visits Rome heads to the Vatican for a day (for the more religious tourists, it might be a few trips). There’s art and architecture there for those who aren’t religious, and that’s what I went to see with my parents. For the non-religious, there’s also the experience of visiting the world’s smallest country, but there is no immigration checkpoint unless you count the security lines to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museum.

Welcome to the Vatican

Welcome to the Vatican

My father thought ahead and reserved timed tickets for the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel (no tickets are necessary for St. Peter’s Basilica). By the time we arrived at the enormous fortification walls of the Vatican around 10 in the morning, the line for those without reserved tickets was almost a mile long–stretching out in the summer sun toward the subway station. We discovered that our timed tickets were meaningless–we could’ve arrived earlier or later without standing on the painfully-long line. Of course, as soon as we entered the Vatican, we had to stand on line to exchange the reserved tickets for regular tickets and then on another line for security.

Not as crowded outside

Not as crowded outside

We followed the signs and walked around the rooms full of art. The Vatican museum can be described as an artistic history of Christian art. There’s also some pre-Christianity Roman artwork that I found more interesting because it provided a bit of a change. Of course, there’s also a large section of Egyptian artifacts, some of which are quite interesting but not as impressive as the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.vatican-mosaic-floor

As the day wore on, we walked more quickly through the rooms of paintings (religious art gets repetitive). We stopped every now and then for the more famous works of art, or the more interesting works. I found one work that looks like it includes Bill Murray, proving his immortal brilliance. I was also surprised to find a portrait of what was supposed to be a saint, but looked like the Incredible Hulk (or maybe just Lou Ferrigno without the green body paint). I originally thought it was a painting of Samson, but I was wrong.

Is that Bill Murray on the right?

Is that Bill Murray on the right?

After hours of walking through the hallways full of art and feeling fatigued just before lunchtime, we came to the Sistine Chapel. I was finally able to see Michelangelo’s magnificent painting. It’s beautiful, and much larger than I had imagined from reading about it in art books years ago–I always thought the central image of God and Adam was larger than the other portions, but I was incorrect. The atmosphere in the Sistine Chapel, however, was disappointing.

That's one badass saint

That’s one badass saint

The Sistine Chapel is the one place in the Vatican in which visitors are not allowed to take photos, even without a flash. There are still some people who don’t follow that rule and run the risk of getting scolded by security. The chapel is also crowded to the point that it’s not easy to navigate from one end to the other–and with everyone staring up at the ceiling, it’s more likely that you’ll bump into more than a few other tourists. Security constantly reminds visitors to be quiet, which they aren’t, and to take in your view quickly and leave before it gets more crowded.

Michelangelo wasn't the only one to paint the Vatican walls

Michelangelo wasn’t the only one to paint the Vatican walls

We exited the chapel and walked into the Vatican cafeteria for lunch. A decent salad with a bottle of water was 9 euros, which is less expensive than I had expected. It wasn’t easy to find an open seat, but we managed to find a few people getting up to leave as we entered. We rested just enough to regain energy to walk back out through the city walls and around to St. Peter’s Basilica. By the time we exited the Vatican museum, the line to get in was even longer and the heat grew more oppressive (really, don’t go to the Vatican museum without an advance ticket unless you arrive the minute it opens in the morning).

Constantly looking up at the ceiling of the museum

Constantly looking up at the ceiling of the museum

I could’ve done without much of the artwork in the Vatican museum, and would’ve been satisfied with only visiting the Sistine Chapel, assuming a smaller crowd and a bit more time to appreciate Michelangelo’s work. To visit such a site that I’ve longed to see only to be disappointed by the atmosphere, made the day more exhausting–the excitement was nearly sucked out.

 Have you ever longed to visit someplace only to be disappointed, not by the site itself but by the actual experience?

Colossal Colosseum Tour

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
-Bob Dlyan, When I Paint My Masterpiece

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

On the last full day in Rome, my parents and I set out fairly early to tour the Colosseum. We had purchased our tickets the day before at the Roman Forum–the tickets are valid for 48 hours to enter each site once. Despite not having to wait in the excruciatingly long line in the summer sun to buy tickets, it still took a bit of time to get into the Colosseum. Had we known, we might have tried to get there an hour earlier to avoid such a crowd.

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

We had walked past the Colosseum numerous times because it wasn’t far from the hotel. I took plenty of photos of it at different times of day, usually when we were most exhausted from walking around Rome. It’s an impressive structure from the outside, but it elicits more of a sense of awe upon entering.

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is enormous, thus the Latin root. It is the inspiration for modern stadiums–the similarities in the design are everywhere, from the the seating to the entrances and exits. Contemporary stadium architects are still utilizing the design of a building that’s almost 2,000 years old.

colosseum-int

How many gladiators died in that basement before fighting for their lives?

If it weren’t for the blazing sun, I would’ve enjoyed just staring at the ruins within the walls. I could’ve watched the throngs of tourists gaze upon the history that epitomizes Rome as a tourist destination

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

My mom convinced me to download some of the free mp3s from Rick Steves to add some guidance to our self-guided tour of Rome (I also used some of the mp3s for Florence). I read through the text, which only half downloaded for some reason, and then handed the audio portion to my mom. She was shocked by the commentary about the depravity of Roman society–the numbers of people and animals killed during the entertainment. I was just surprised they didn’t fill in the time between killings with orgies, but I assume that came at night after witnessing all the gore and feasting upon the dead animals. I suppose the concession stands had an endless supply of meat to roast and serve throughout the events.colosseum-entrance

If we could have entered the lower level of the Colosseum, we would have stayed longer. Unfortunately, that area is only accessible on a guided tour–a fact we did not know before arriving. The basement area would have been interesting (and more shaded)–I could have seen the cells in which the gladiators were held before they entered the arena.colosseum-b&w

Have you been to the Colosseum? Did you get a cheesy photo with the plastic armor-clad gladiators?

Meeting Michelangelo’s David

“Is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down?”
-Kent Brockman

That line from The Simpsons wasn’t what I was thinking while waiting in line at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. I was looking forward to seeing Michelangelo’s masterpiece. After waking up early and getting in a rather short line as soon as the Uffizi Gallery opened at 8:15, I decided to head back toward my hostel to check out the line at Accademia. It was also not too long–I waited in the shade for 40 minutes. It would have been shorter, but advance tickets take precedence to those schmucks who just wander up to the museum to pay their 11 euros.

The first view of David among the crowd

The first view of David among the crowd

David is an incredible work of art, especially after learning that the marble was considered inferior quality at the time and Michelangelo was the only artist who wanted the job. The statue also doesn’t show his age after standing outside for more than 200 years.

Someone give that guy some pants

Someone give that guy some pants

David is the centerpiece of the gallery, which doesn’t house much else. The hallway leading up to the statue is lined with Michelangelo’s “Prisoners,” the unfinished sculptures that were supposed to be housed at Il Duomo di Firenze with David atop the dome. The prisoners are in different stages of development and provide viewers an image of men trying to escape from the stone (though that was not Michelangelo’s intention; he just wasn’t able to finish them all).

One of Michelangelo's Prisoners

One of Michelangelo’s Prisoners

After years of studying art before heading off to college, I was excited to see so much art in Florence. There are details that are missed in books. As a friend had mentioned before my trip, the most impressive feature of David is his hands. She was correct. David’s hands are huge, and they have more detail than I realized. While the sculpture is beautifully smooth, Michelangelo added pulsing veins on his right hand–the veins are even present in the neck. It stands out among the smooth marble.

The details of David's hand

The details of David’s hand

While David’s hands are his most impressive feature, Italian tourism likes to focus on another feature. At every turn, the vendors sell close-up postcards of his penis (even one with sunglasses on it). Hey, you can even buy shorts with his penis superimposed over an Italian flag. They’re obsessed with it. If I was going to open a cafe in Florence, I’d probably call it David’s Doodle (shut up, Flanders) and serve plenty of suggestive-shaped food. If you decide to steal this idea, please just give me credit.

Beyond the Scaffolding of Travel

It’s just my luck. Good grief, if Charlie Brown traveled the world, this would probably happen to him at every turn. Maybe I’m caught in an extended Seinfeld episode set outside New York (I did recently drink a beer called Costanza).

Sometimes I feel like I’m touring construction sites rather than beautiful historic sites.

Just about every time I visit a major tourist destination that I’ve wanted to see for years, it’s undergoing renovations of some sort. I understand the need for restoring artwork and preventing ancient buildings from becoming ruins, but I always seem to time my visits to coincide with such restoration work.

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

When I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, most of it was shrouded in scaffolding in preparations for the 2008 Olympics. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was even replaced by a picture; it was a rather disappointing sight. Rather than photograph the buildings or artifacts, I focused on the crowds and the scaffolding.

Isn't the Forbidden City amazing?

Isn’t the Forbidden City amazing?

I had hoped that that would be the end of my adventures in renovations, but it wasn’t even close. In Bangkok, I witness the restoration of paintings at the Grand Palace. Watching people work at restoring historical paintings was more interesting than it sounds.

 

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

At Angkor Wat, many of the temples were being restored–or, in some cases, saved from encroaching nature. Much of the restoration at Angkor Wat is recent and made possible by international foundations–I was surprised to learn that much of the work was supervised by organizations from China and India.

 

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

The restoration efforts are most noticeable at Ta Prohm–many walls have had to be reinforced and braced as the trees that have grown into said walls are forcing the ancient bricks to separate and crumble. While it may ruin a few photo opportunities at the temples, the efforts to preserve what remains is commendable. It would be interesting to see the temples as they were first constructed, but it wouldn’t be such an amazing experience as it is now–it would be like witnessing the newly reconstructed Great Wall of China at Badaling versus the ruined preserved section at Simatai.

 

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

The trend continued as I arrived in Rome. A fellow traveler at my hotel told me to not bother visiting the Trevi Fountain because it was closed for renovation. My parents and I wandered past it anyway without intending to. It’s beautiful behind plexiglass, but it loses its allure without the water.

 

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

And then there’s the the Baptistery in Florence, one of the city’s oldest buildings and supposedly one of the most beautiful (after the Duomo). It was completely shrouded in scaffolding, but that didn’t stop people from paying to go inside. I decided I had had enough of seeing renovated history after paying to see scaffolding inside the Medici Chapel.

 

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

I should just give in to fate and expect that my travels will forever be obscured. Someday I’ll be pleasantly surprised to encounter an untouched relic.

Is there a recurring theme to your travels that’s beyond your control that leads to disappointment? Or does it at least lead to an amusing anecdote?

The Onward Self

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
-Oscar Wilde

I had wanted to write about my adventures here in Italy–the inspiring art of Florence, the historic streets of Assisi, the delicious gelato that keeps tempting me. Today, however, is not a day for such posts. Today is more for self-reflection in the face of adversity on the road.

Would be nice to have time to enjoy more of this

Would be nice to have time to enjoy more of this

Yesterday I awoke at 2 in the morning to start my usual shift and was greeted by a message from my boss, insisting on a phone call. This is highly unusual, but not entirely out of the ordinary. I won’t go into details, but I’m now out of work. And stuck in this little town in Italy until the end of the month, at which time I already have a flight booked back to Tokyo. This certainly isn’t the ideal situation I had been hoping to encounter while traversing the globe.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I’m reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

I suppose I won’t be indulging so much in local microbrews for 4 euros. I can also cut out the temptation of all that cheese and gelato.

You mean I CAN'T eat all the gelato now?

You mean I CAN’T eat all the gelato now?

Now comes the next step–the choices and decisions that lay ahead.

Despite my family’s desire to have me back home, I’m determined to continue with this journey in one way or another. I had planned a full year abroad, and wanted to extend it–I was searching for somewhere to be a semi-permanent base rather than hopping around every couple months. It appears that might be easier to manage now.

Life in Taipei is pretty good

Life in Taipei is pretty good

I found cities in which I would like live in Asia–I found comfort in Taipei and Tokyo, and even in Seoul (though it took a little longer to grow on me). Unfortunately, it’s too late to apply for teaching positions at universities as the semester is about to begin, if it hasn’t already, which leaves me with more corporate options through which to sift. I’ve already begun applying for positions and hope to find something suits me.

There is one other option in Cambodia that I have been contemplating. I’ve started helping a non-profit with social media management, and I was interested in heading there to volunteer around my previous schedule. Now that I have much more time, I can volunteer with the organization full time–the only problem being that I wouldn’t get paid anything for six to twelve months.

Maybe this will be my life

Maybe this will be my life

This leads to the option that I could raise money via Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding website. I certainly wouldn’t need much to cover expenses in Cambodia, and I could even donate any excess funds raised to the organization, but I’m still unsure if it’s the path I want to pursue–I’ve never been good at asking for money. There’s also the possibility that I could find enough freelance work to offset the financial burden.

What do my readers think? Should I find a corporate career outside the US or start fundraising to help children in Cambodia?

Italy and the Death of Diet

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

Perhaps this title is a bit hyperbolic; however, it fits my feelings about staying in Italy for a little over a month. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the temptation to gorge on foods that are generally unhealthy in such quantities is ever-present here.

After two months of losing weight in Korea (not to mention a bit of an effort at the end of my stay in Taiwan), I’ve come to Italy to face the temptation of all the foods that the country has to offer. Fortunately, with the high cost of eating out and my odd work hours, I’m forced to at least eat breakfast and lunch in my apartment, and I have managed to find healthy foods to cook in the limited space I have.

I knew I’d be tempted by the cheeses and cured meats that are so prevalent in Italy. I cut down on cheese for over six months before heading out on this adventure, and Asia lacks cheese, which means another nine months without that deliciousness.

That's all for me, right?

That’s all for me, right?

Italy is also home to some wonderful gelato. Some of what I had in Rome was good, but nothing exceptional–or at least good enough for me to want more all the time. I mostly wanted it because it’s hot walking around in late July and August. I was quite happy having a refreshing mojito gelato while walking around Florence two weeks ago. The other gelato I had the next day was overly sweet.

The best gelato in Perugia

The best gelato in Perugia

That was until I discovered this little gelato shop in Perugia. I hate how businesses throw around “artisan,” but here it means something. This shop even makes its own gelato bars dipped in chocolate (the Nutella and coconut was wonderful) and gelato sandwiches. This shop is also much cheaper than the 5 or 6 euros some shops tried to charge in Florence–I only have to pay 2.50 euros for a medium cup. This is reason enough to visit Perugia.

I have no idea what to get

I have no idea what to get

Of course, it’s obvious that this is a university town when another gelato shop advertises cannabis-flavored gelato. Somehow I doubt it tastes good, but I may give it a try anyway.

Should I try it?

Should I try it?

Where have you been that offered too much culinary temptation to resist?

Pirates of the Tyrrhenian Sea

Welcome to our pirate ship

Welcome to our pirate ship

It wasn’t as cheesy as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and no one broke out in song or even spoke in pirate tones. Everyone did walk the rather short plank without much coercion though. And being Italy, we had no rum.

Every now and then I get a treat while I travel. I have to thank my family for this one (particularly my parents for helping me afford the vacation). And yes, I do get to take vacations from traveling because my mode of travel involves a lot of actual work during the week.

While in Capri for a wedding, the party organized a pirate ship cruise in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Apparently, I arrived a day too late for the yacht that sailed around Capri the previous day. But a pirate ship is so much cooler than a yacht.

View from the ship

View from the ship

I originally expected this to be a cruise around Capri until shortly after lunch–we had to meet for dinner at 6:30, and everyone on the pirate ship was going. The day lasted much longer. There were plenty of stops for us to jump off into the Tyrrhenian Sea for a swim. Without the sails up, the deck was rather hot, so the water felt a lot better.tyrrhenian-sea

We also cooled off with plenty of white wine, prosecco, and I drank enough water to clear out all the sea salt from my nose. I know, it’s not very pirate-like to drink prosecco, but we were Italian pirates for a day, and Italy doesn’t have any rum. We were also served plenty of pasta and seafood to stuff a walrus, which wasn’t such a great idea because that was pretty much what we were served for dinner in greater quantities.capri

As part of our cruise, we decided to take a quick tour of the Blue Grotto–quick because that’s all the time you’re given. It’s the biggest tourist draw in Capri aside from all the luxury shopping that can make anyone feel poor.

Ready to board the row boats for the Blue Grotto

Ready to board the row boats for the Blue Grotto

The Blue Grotto is beautiful, but you only get about five minutes inside the small cave with about half a dozen other row boats. It costs 13 euros per person to go in, but that doesn’t include a tip for the rowers–supposedly they make nothing from the entrance fee. The rowers got angry at the tips we gave and there was a lengthy argument–we weren’t told what an acceptable tip was. We were willing to give a few more euros to shut them up, but there was too much pride on their side to bother. We just sailed away instead.

Inside the Blue Grotto

Inside the Blue Grotto

Aside from sunburn, which hurt like hell with my backpack a few days later on the way to Perugia, the day was great. The coast around Capri is picturesque, and it was interesting to see how the 1% likes to travel on yachts (boat garages on the ship with multiple boats and jet skis, or how about a helicopter?).capri-sea

Have you been to Capri or the Blue Grotto? How did you enjoy it?

Walking Through History in Rome

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. – Winston Churchill

It’s difficult to turn a corner in Rome without bumping into history. Of course, most of that history is just unrecognizable ruins, but it’s still noticeable.

After a few days of wandering around Rome’s confusing winding streets in search of the more popular historic sites, travelers encounter so many ruins that they all melt into a single memory. I have dozens of photos from around the city that I can’t identify as more than “some interesting Roman ruins.”

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

As I walked in the late-July heat of the intense sun through the Roman Forum in search of angles for interesting photos as well as a respite in the shade, I realized how impressive this must have looked when it was built.

Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn

There is a lot of beauty in the ruins at the Forum, but aside from a few select parts, most of it just blends together as nothing recognizable without a label.Roman-Forum2 Unlike some of the other major tourist stops in Rome, the Forum doesn’t feel so crowded because it is more spread out. If it wasn’t for the intense heat of summer, it would be a great place to sit and contemplate the history for a few hours, but the late-July heat definitely limits that experience.

The Hippodrome of Domitian

The Hippodrome of Domitian

I had to thank Jupiter, or whichever Roman deity is responsible, for the life-saving public fountains within the Forum grounds. Filling up water bottles with cold water made the walk through much more tolerable. Without the fountains, it probably would’ve been a much shorter walk through Roman history.

Sunrise over Perugia

“to scant the truth
of the light itself
as it was reflected from”

-William Carlos Williams, “Cézanne”

Early morning sun shining on St. Domenico Basilica

Early morning sun shining on St. Domenico Basilica

There is an advantage to working Hong Kong hours while living in Italy, which makes me feel better about missing out on life while here.

First peek at the sunrise

First peek at the sunrise

When I take my lunch break, it’s 6 AM here in Perugia. The streets are quiet–the only people out are the sanitation workers cleaning up the evening’s empty booze bottles and cigarette butts.

perugia-sunrise2

Greeting the morning in Perugia

Just a short walk away from my apartment is a scenic overlook facing east. It’s a great location to watch the sun rise over the hills below. After a week of overcast mornings, I found clear skies this Friday. There was an added perk of fog rolling through the fields in the distance.

Long Stopover in Italy

Last week I was on vacation in Italy. I met my parents in Rome and, after a few days of sightseeing, we headed to Capri for a wedding. In between, we stopped in Sorrento and took time to see Pompeii. perugia

While it was great to be on vacation and go sightseeing on consecutive days, I’m back to work. I took up short-term residence in the old university town of Perugia. Unfortunately, I’m still working on Hong Kong hours, which means I get to watch the sunrise during my lunchtime walk (if it would stop raining).

Typical alley around Perugia. I don't know where they all lead

Typical alley around Perugia. I don’t know where they all lead

Perugia is a beautiful town in the mountains of Umbria–every building here is historic, including this hundreds of years old building in which I’m staying. There’s even a church around the corner that has a fresco by Raphael. I have managed to have a few moments of sunshine to grab photos of surrounding area and narrow alleyways.

Don't think I could get tired of this view anytime soon

Don’t think I could get tired of this view anytime soon

There will certainly be more weekend traveling while here–it’s only two hours to Florence and a few hours further to Venice. Unlike my other destinations, there won’t be as much time for interaction with locals on my work schedule.

On Departures

On journeys through the States we start,
(Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.

-Walt Whitman “On Journeys Through the States”

Sometimes I get to hike with friends, like to Lion's Head Mountain in Taipei

Sometimes I get to hike with friends, like to Lion’s Head Mountain in Taipei

There’s a difference between the travel I’ve been experiencing and what most people consider travel. Most people visit a place for a few days or weeks–they see the highlights of a destination and move on. For many of these travelers, there isn’t much interaction with locals other than for services.

I’m in a different situation. Because I work during the week, I stay in one place for at least a month (sometimes three months as a visa allows). I may not have much interaction with people during the week because of language barriers or the fact that I just don’t approach people for conversation often. I do, however, meet people as I move along–and the conversations I have occasionally turn into friendships that last longer than my short-term expat adventures in each country.

The problem I encounter is saying good bye all the time. I have to say good bye to the places with which I’ve become familiar, only to start the process again. I have to say good bye to routines I’ve developed, only to be replaced by new routines in a new place. Most of all, I have to say good bye to the great people I’ve met.

Sharing Okonomiyaki with Chinese expats in Tokyo

Sharing Okonomiyaki with Chinese expats in Tokyo

There were friendly faces in Japan–waitstaff and restaurant managers, as well as regular customers–who always welcomed me. There was the shui jing bao vendor in my Taipei neighborhood who taught me the characters for the different varieties he sold. And then there were those who became more than just passing acquaintances.

Sometimes I can enjoy a view of Tokyo on my own

Sometimes I can enjoy a view of Tokyo on my own

In most cases, it takes a while to form friendships–one-time meetings aren’t enough to get to know someone, but they are enough to get an impression of that person to continue the connection. I have, fortunately, enough time in each place to make new acquaintances and plan to meet with them again before I depart for my next destination. These friends I’ve made in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Korea have made adjusting to moving to each place easier–they’ve suggested places to see and things to do, they’ve taken me out for birthday cake, and shared meals that would otherwise be awkward to eat alone.

The only exception to this is my coworker in Korea because we’ve been talking on Skype for work for two years–meeting was almost a formality to forming a friendship over a beer or two.

Way to make me feel welcome, Korean bar

Way to make me feel welcome, Korean bar

The wonders of Al Gore’s miraculous internet invention, as well as smartphone apps, have enabled people like me to continue the friendships that have developed across borders. I’ve had to download a few apps to connect to people in different areas–WhatsApp (which I no longer use), LINE (popular in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea), and even WeChat. Facebook is still the preferred method of communication for most people I’ve met, especially in Vietnam.

Friends in Saigon know what to order at the restaurants

Friends in Saigon know what to order at the restaurants

These friends I’ve made, and the subsequent ongoing communication with them, has made decisions to continue moving more difficult. Obviously, friends and family would like to see me move back to the US. And some friends around Asia would like to see me return to their countries. And I wish I could live in all at once. Each place, each friend holds a piece of my desire to return–some more than others. I just hope they all know that no matter where I end up I’ll always appreciate those with whom I’ve crossed paths.

Hiking the Highest Peak in Seoul

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops—
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
          layered pinnacles aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
-Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains”
First view of Bukhansan National Park

First view of Bukhansan National Park

I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a national park that was so close. It still took about an hour to get to Bukhansan National Park from my apartment–the park is on the outskirts of the city and requires taking a 20-minute bus ride from the metro station. Nonetheless, I was determined to get to the park and hike, even if I did wake up a bit later than I should have. It was a good excuse to test out my new hiking shoes–my Columbia shoes were wearing thin and not capable of the occasionally slick rocky trails.

Getting to the park wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be. There was a tourist information booth just outside the station, and they gave me a list of buses I could take and told me where to get off. It helped that the bus announcements were also in English.bukhansan-stream

I wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped that the trail signs in the park would be better than the ones at Yongmasan and Achasan. Fortunately, the signs were much better, though without a trail map it was a little more difficult deciding with trail to take. I was, again, lucky–I chose the trail that I wanted without actually knowing that it was the one (sometimes it pays to follow the crowd).

bukhansan3I figured it wouldn’t take long to follow the trail that claimed to be only 4.5 km (I’m not sure how they measure distance around here, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t take over two and a half hours to hike that far). It took a strenuous two and a half hours to hike up Baekundae, which at 2,744 ft is the highest peak in Seoul.

View from atop Baekundae

View from atop Baekundae

The more than 30 sq. mi. that encompasses Bukhansan was established as a national park in 1983. Its history dates back almost 2,000 years when the first fortress was built in the mountains. A nearly 6-mile defensive wall was constructed in the mountains, but was partly destroyed during the Korean War. According to some of the historic information posted along the trail, the region was used to discreetly move weaponry through the country–I can only imagine the difficulty of lugging all that equipment up the mountainside.

One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

The mountains in Bukhansan National Park are beautiful. Rocky cliffs greet hikers as they wind their way up. On other peaks, I watched more adventurous visitors scale the rocky mountainsides–park rangers ensured that all rock climbers were fully prepared prior to attempting the climbs. I enjoy hiking, but I’m not up for rock climbing.

Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

The main trails are well maintained–I doubt there’s a specific trail for those brave enough to scale the cliffs–and there are even stairs in some places (more worn and natural stairs are in other areas, but they can be a bit slippery).

It's not THAT steep

It’s not THAT steep

The trail leading to Baekundae started out fairly easy for the first hour, but gradually increased in difficulty. Toward the peak, it was a scramble up a near 70-degree slope. The way down is much more difficult, but there are ropes and cables that are firmly implanted in the rock to ensure that hikers don’t fall all the way down the mountainside.

Just roll me down the mountain instead

Just roll me down the mountain instead

The peak was crowded. Most hikers stopped there for a long rest and a picnic. I love that the Korean concept of appropriate hiking provisions includes bottles of soju, beer, and makgeolli. I enjoyed a beer from a convenience store when I returned to the town on my way back to the bus.

Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

The only downside to the hike was the weather–the haze obscured the views that are still spectacular on such days. If I move back to Korea, I’ll have to take the hike again on a clear day. The air cleared up a bit as I reached the summit, so it turned out alright for the day.bukhansan4

My new hiking shoes held up quite well in Bukhansan–the lack of tread on my old pair would have probably meant my demise, or at least a broken bone or two. Had I arrived earlier in the day, I would’ve tacked on a few other short trails, but I was tired and hungry (the humidity didn’t help much). Despite only hiking for about five hours, my legs were quite sore the next day. Even after sitting down on the subway, it was rather difficult to stand up again (I also fell asleep on the train for a bit).

Out of Seoul

Long conversations 
beside blooming irises – 
joys of life on the road 

-Bashō

As the sun sets on Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

As the sun sets on Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

Today I depart Seoul after two months of living in a tiny apartment near Toppoki Street (and I’m not really a fan of eating toppoki; it’s not bad, but I just don’t like gluttonous rice cakes much). I’m heading to Italy for a while–I get to see my parents and relatives for the first time since I left the US last October. It’s exciting to continue the journey, but bittersweet to leave what has become somewhat familiar.

Night at Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

Night at Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

I’ve had a great time here, despite a rough start to my stay. I’ve made friends and seen some interesting sights. I’ve enjoyed Korea more than I expected, and I still haven’t visited the popular destinations of Busan and Jeju. There’s enough remaining here to remind me to return.

The food in Korea has been great–I’ve had the best fried chicken here (although I know I shouldn’t eat that). And I’ve even discovered some blossoming microbreweries to counteract all the cheap light beer that is so prevalent throughout Asia. And, of course, there’s always the beautiful mountains to keep me entertained.

What would make you return to a travel destination?

Take Me Out to the Korean Ballgame

I finally got to see a baseball game in Asia.

Mokdong Stadium, Seoul

Mokdong Stadium, Seoul

I could go in Japan because I was there during the playoffs, and good luck getting a ticket for that. I tried again in Taipei, but the ballpark was difficult to get to–about an hour and a half from central Taipei by train and bus. Getting to a ballgame in Korea is just easier.

The pitchers in the home team bullpen look a bit bored

The pitchers in the home team bullpen look a bit bored

My coworker made getting to the game even easier–she lives near Mokdong Stadium, which is only about 40 minutes on the metro from my apartment. I have been talking to her about going to a game since my first week here–I suppose I was finally annoying enough that she agreed to get tickets.

Play ball! I have no idea who's at bat

Play ball! I have no idea who’s at bat

It’s not easy getting into a game when you have no idea who the players are and you don’t have a favorite team. I just went along with the Nexen Heroes because they were the home team. But it was an semi-entertaining game. There were a lot of home runs (hit by the visiting team), and a 9th inning rally by the home team that was just too little, too late.

The Nexen Heroes mascot is no Mr. Met

The Nexen Heroes mascot is no Mr. Met

I learned quite a bit about Korean baseball. Even the visiting team brings cheerleaders to its section–and they were quite loud while their team was at bat. And Korean teams have a lot of chants and songs for fans to sing. I also learned that the Korean pronunciation of Heroes has four syllables (I thought I only heard three, but I was corrected). If I lived here, I’d have to learn Korean to sing along with the team songs.

The programs have quite a few pages of fashion advice

The programs have quite a few pages of fashion advice

Seats in the outfield, from third base outward, are not assigned–you can sit wherever you want with those tickets. And the stadium doesn’t care if you bring your own food and beer into the stadium–we bought a few beers at the grocery store and fried chicken in the parking lot; other spectators brought in pizza. And concessions weren’t nearly as overpriced as Yankee Stadium (or any ballpark in the US for that matter).

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