Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sanna and Singapore

I’ve always wanted to be elegant. Preferably European and stylish, wearing scarves and outlandishly flowy shirts with pants I found at a small shop in Stockholm. I want to be one of those people that give off an adventurous, bohemian aura, but in a classy bookish sort of way. I wish I decorated my home with plush rugs, and dark, wooden shelves sprinkled filled with interesting artifacts: old books and worn maps, silver timepieces (not watches) on thin chains and a wooden roll-top desk with secret compartments for letters.

Lucky for me, I have a Swedish friend named Sanna who is all of that and more. She lives here in Singapore and has generously loaned her couch to me for the week, despite barely knowing me. We shared a few classes in college and ran in the same writer-y circles, she more than I. As she has said on her own spritely blog, we world traveler types have to stick together, and I’m grateful to be included in her aura. Moreover, in her I have a knowledgeable source of information about Singaporean life. Sanna grew up here attending the same international school she now works for, the Singapore branch of ICS (International Christian School).

Er—I wrote that half a week ago when I was still in Singapore. Arrived back in good old K-town this morning and work is piling up like a mad thing. Consequently, I am of course terribly behind on bloggering. Here’s hoping that will improve in the upcoming days. But until that little miracle occurs, I leave you with a few pictures of Singapore.

Calvinites in Chinatown.
A whole store devoted to Tin Tin. Pretty cool!
Very cool tiled boulevard thingy. Sanna says she and her siblings swam in it when they were little and that the signs now posted there prohibiting such paddling are due to "people like her." 

Chinatown. Buildings like this are a common architectural feature of Singapore. In the olden days (erm, like, British colony days I think?) several families would live above the first-floor shop.

I stumbled upon the Chinese men's checkers and mahjong haven.  Delightful subculture to photograph. More pics to follow.

Borrowed Sanna's dress to go to Ku De Ta, the bar at the top of the poles-with-a-surfboard on top building on the left. Very cool view from the top (open-air, glass railing) and the. most. expensive beer I've ever drank in my life. Worth it because I got to see Sanna's dance moves thereafter and let me tell you: best part of Sinapore.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Up in the Air

 Last night I flew over craggy peaks scratched with ice and snow, flew toward the slim band of orange sunset girding the world until it disappeared into a cool, cloudy night. I crawled my way through customs, caught the last tram through the streets of Melbourne and spent the rest of the night curled up on the couch cushions of good ol’ 570/Apt.213 Swanston Street.

The familiarity of the Melbourne streets was strange and sudden. Disconcerted, I kept my head down as I bought Tim-Tams for my parents (will they survive the post?) and some lunch for me (budget airlines don’t provide in-flight service). I found my train, snailed my way through security, and got myself back up in the clouds where I now fly above the Outback.

Does that look like a desert to you??
It’s very red—movies set on Mars could be filmed here. But there are random circles of scrubby somethings and enormous patches of whitish something else that looks like a coastline of water frozen in the attitude of swirling over a nonexistent shore. Shadows of clouds are the main aberration in the redness, but long thin lines of paler red upset the uniformity as well—as if some bitchy goddess sharpened her nails and dragged them across the earth’s surface. The end result is the desert’s version of a Zen rock garden. I haven’t seen any roads yet.
Poor picture quality compliments of my airplane window.

Why do people insist on closing their windows when flying? I’m not saying I could rubberneck for the full eight hours of this flight, but how is everyone else so content to ignore the outside? Maybe they’ve all flown Melbourne to Singapore a hundred times before. Maybe they’ve seen the desert loads of times and the red and the clouds and the sheer inhospitableness of what’s below us has lost its magic. Maybe I’m the only one obsessed with clouds.

I keep waiting for plane flights to get old. Customs did, a long time ago. Check-in is ancient and layovers have been in the metaphorical grave since I this Traveling Nonsense began. But I suspect the actual flight will never lose its magic to me—that sickening swoop when the plane reluctantly lumbers into the air and the heady rush of inner disequilibrium as the ground pushes away. When the ascent levels for the first time, I still—still! every single plane flight!—imagine that this is it. The end. The engines will whine and then stop. The plane will stutter and, like a cartoon, whisper a final “Uh-oh” before toppling us back to whence we came.

But four hours later I’m still up in the air looking down at the desert, typing on my netbook trying to ignore a blurry episode of Malcolm in the Middle playing on the cabin screens. It’s difficult, because I’m pretty sure that’s a 90s version of NPH and everyone’s favorite Sacred Heart janitor yucking it up on screen. Clouds will overtake us soon and we’re about to leave Australia behind. A cooking show will soon replace Malcolm. Perhaps I’ll close my window for now—others are trying to sleep. I’ll open it in another hour or so, to see what comes next.

I hate filling out these cards mostly because my block-lettering sucks.

This is why I love my netbook.

"Travel is only glamorous in hindsight."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Last Days in New Zealand

Piri was very helpful.

We drove perhaps forty minutes out of town, back into the familiar wide open that is the New Zealand countryside: hills in the distance; mountains in the farther distance; sun and farmland and curving roads. We jostled down a dirt road to Sam’s house. He lives here with Pete, on this three-horse, five-sheep, four-dog, and a-couple-of-chickens-and-chicklets wheat farm.
             Two wired-hair terriers greeted us as soon as the car doors opened. Tui—the five-year old named after the New Zealand bird who, according to Maori legend, sacrificed itself for humanity—and her daughter Piri—about eight inches tall and too spunky for her own good—gambol about as I shake Pete’s hand. Their house feels spacious; glass doors and windows open to tease the breeze through the kitchen and living room. A wooden island table is the centerpiece of the kitchen, three seats and smallish. The living room is a picture of juxtaposition: a faded black wood-burning stove facing off against a Sony flat-screen across the room. Painted horses stare out from half the coasters. The other half match the pictures on the wall—rough and tough men, faces obscured by wide-brimmed hats, bodies hidden by long overcoats standing on an empty plane, or behind a fence or in front of a herd of rangy cows.
            We chatted while Sam prepared dinner: Sam has lived in Germany, Japan, and traveled all over, has two kids and an ex-wife; Pete, a little older, recently took Sam with him to his son’s wedding to a Singaporean girl this December. They like to travel, they love their dogs, and at one point did endurance horse-racing. Dinners here are succulent—tonight is mince patties, the next night lamb, the next steak and potatoes, always with fresh salad and a dessert option—and they are quickly scarfed.
            Bees hover and hum their way above the flower gardens and the horses clomp restlessly in their pen across the road. After dinner while Pete does the dishes, Sam takes them both by the harness and leads them down the road, up the hairpin turn and the rocky path to their paddock. He shows me the sheep pen, chicken pen, and their third horse up the way a bit, still a little wild. He moves with the slow surety of a farmer, the horses like gentle ladies on either arm.
The two sheep dogs—Best and Tess—bark with delight at our approach and burst joyously from their cages when I release the latch. They frolic with Tui and Piri, tumbling around each other and coming back to me for a loving ear-scratch. They go back into the pens soon after, chasing the biscuits Sam throws for them.
I wore Pete's shoes a lot when he wasn't home.
I stand, awkward among the life that’s so familiar for Sam. The two simple tasks he gives me—closing the gate after him and fetching the chicken eggs—take me too long. The gate is unwieldy over the bumpy ground. Sam has to warn me about the fence when I almost electrocute myself and, a few minutes later, is forced to explain three different times which pen it is in which the chickens lay their eggs.

This week I cleaned and weeded for Sam and Pete and they did everything else for me. I ate well, slept comfortably, and stole their cookies one by one. Pete dropped me off at the airport an hour ago and I already miss the quiet, steady peace of their little homestead. Before I go to my gate and once more wrap myself in the ennui of travel, I’ll leave you with a few pictures of my last week in Middle Earth.

**As always, apologies for the formatting. **

The road to Glenorchy. Best driving in NZ.

It was about twenty meters past this sign where Lydia and I stood when SUDDENLY an enormous part of the glacier
cracked off and fell into the water. I thought I was going to witness both a "surge wave" and Lydia's demise as I sprinted up the embankment screaming for my life.

Coffee. Sugar. Tea. Good hostel.

If I was ever going to find Redwall it was probably somewhere in New Zealand.

And this is the storage closet I paid $30 to sleep in. Worth it. No snoring boys and queen-size bed!
Just try.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Give Me the Hufflepuff Gifts

After I drilled a bit on my memory verses (I Cor 10), I took a little extra time to graze through the rest of the book. Chapter 7 caught my eye, as it has before.

“An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (I Cor 7:34-35)

I remember studying this in high school Bible study and laughing with my churchmates at the obvious joke: Please God, anything but that gift! Even service, or encouragement (the Hufflepuff gifts) would be better! (But seriously. Please, no.) A joke made half in earnest and half in horror, as I recall. Is that my gift, I wondered? Thanks bunches, God. You’re a real pal.

But this morning, I read it differently—without the queasy horror of dying a little old cat lady/saint. This time I read it in slight indignation as I think of my church in Korea and, indeed, most churches whose doors I’ve ever darkened. Paul is praising single people here, encouraging them to stay single. Why? Not because it necessarily makes them happier people or allows them to live longer lives (a couple perks of marriage, according to Science[1]), but because single people can live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

So why can’t singles be elders?  Deacons? I Corinthians clearly states they are more devoted to spiritual matters than married folks, who are “concerned about the affairs of this world.”

 Or are we wrong about “the husband of one wife” delineating a specifically married man rather than if he’s married, it should be to only one wife? Because if we’re wrong about that (perhaps some of you can guess where I’m going) we might as well be wrong about the man part of it, too, right?

My indignation was only enhanced when I read thiswell-meaning article. I feel as if the writer, Louise Wilsher, perfectly encapsulated the sweetly condescending tone the Church has set for the Christian view of single people. She talks about outreach and “embracing” singles with warm smiles and invitations to the theatre.

Yes! Please! Of course! People all need community. Being exclusive is unbliblical, (James 2), and hurtful for anyone—married or single—because everyone needs smiles and invites. Welcoming people into your circle, or helping them get connected in another circle in which they will feel comfortable (whether it be as friends or adopted family, as she suggests): that is Christian hospitality. Rock on, Romans 12.

So, to the married folks, when the outreach has worked and the singles are in your church, what do you do with them? What do you do when they grow in faith?  How do you treat them as they live “in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” Pity is certainly not an appropriate response, nor condescension.

And single people, what is your attitude toward singleness? Do you embrace this gift of free time and unfettered passion? Are you thanking God for leading you toward a way abounding in steadfast love? Or is it still the same joke—not that gift, Lord, please—that you pray, half-earnest, half-horrified? Can you trust God to be better than fallen, crippled expectations?

The great love story of our lives is taking place right now, and it will continue to take place for the rest of our lives. Let’s revel in it!

Happy Valentine’s Day, Folks!

[1] HA! I thought I should have a reference too. But I don’t. Someone prove me wrong or right, please.

Monday, February 11, 2013

You Say Mt. Ngauruhoe; I Say Mt. DOOM

Before I could hike Mt. Doom, I had to conquer Lake Taupo and its hostel, The Tiki Lodge. The Tiki Lodge became our group’s Hotel California as we waited for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing—host to Mt. Doom—to open. After three days of purgatory the hostel released us to the mountain with good grace and the parting gift of Naomi.

Naomi is a Welsh English literature major on holiday in New Zealand from her study abroad program in Sydney which she’s doing in conjunction with her university in Ireland. At nineteen, she’s hitch-hiking NZ alone, staying in hostels and in strangers’ houses who invite her in and catching rides with people like us, who happen to be going in the same direction, in this case: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Though hundreds do the Crossing every day, very few people attempt Mt. Doom. Its formidable slope and lack of standard path, utterly lacking solid footholds, are enough to intimidate most. At the top of the climb, steam rolls over the rocky edge and a precarious walk around the slim ridge reveals volcanic-heated rocks, a large patch of snow, and the red crater of Mt. Doom. Surfing down was the highlight of my journey thus far. I’ve never felt so formidable, so euphoric—rocks tumbling past me, inertia unstoppable, my balance shifting second by tilting second as I charged down the insane slope. Exhilarations galore!

But I’m missing the real story. My dad calls my current state sensory over-load. I’m so bamboozled by beautiful vista after vista that I’m in danger of missing the details that make them beautiful. One amazing moment crowds the previous out of the way like old Korean ladies jockeying for a seat on the subway. One day I see the low rolling hills of Hobbiton and the next, I’m hiking volcanoes. The next is a ferry and the next, a silver-gold coastal road before green-laden mountains followed by glaciers and waterfalls and fjords. On and on and somehow I feel more tired than ever.

Naomi, the welsh girl with us, read an essay once about travel. Title and author were long-forgotten, but the main point stuck with her: the best places you travel aren’t the most amazing or even the most memorable. The best places are the ones that touch your heart and feed your creativity. They are the places with enough magic to swell your soul and leave you breathless for even a moment.

Enough wordy wandering. What I mean is this:

Mt. Doom was amazing, but Naomi took my breath away. I think it was her bravery, the way she embraced the prodigal son of life with an attentive smile.

She has a dorky, lilting laugh and white-blond hair. She likes rainy days because they make her feel creative and thinks miserable Irish mornings are perfect because they mean a cozy cup of tea with friends afterward. She wants to raise a family in Ireland eventually, but she feels silly that she’s already found her favorite place in the world so soon and intends to continue traveling. She likes Harry Potter, worries about having a job after undergrad, and she misses her young step-brothers.

She disappeared before I thought to say goodbye—hitching a ride with a couple of Asian girls on our shuttle from the mountains. I’ll never see her again, like I’ll never hike Mt. Doom again. But unlike Mt. Doom, I feel like I owe her something.

“Thank-you” sounds trite, and an ode seems sycophantic or untenably romantic. Perhaps I can simply wish her well here on this silly little blog, and pray that she continues to inspire others the way she has, unaccountably, inspired me.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Hobbiton How-To

Everything You Need to Know for your Trip to the Shire

Good Morning! What do I mean by that? If you don’t know, you need to study up on your Tolkien before you revisit this post—or at least before you visit the Shire![1]

Hobbiton, a town of Middle Earth’s Shire, is found fifteen minutes outside of the tiny New Zealand town of Matamata on the north island. According to legend (i.e. my sloppy-haired, sunny-smiling tour guide Carolyn) the location was the third to last of 159 possible locations on Peter Jackson’s shortlist that fulfilled all three of his requirements: rolling hills as described in the books, an enormous rounded-top tree, and a lake adjacent to said tree.

For Lord of the Rings fans who come to NZ, this tour is a must—particularly since it’s the only affordable and official Lord of the Rings tour in New Zealand. Most others are helicopter rides that show one or two filming locations.

But when visiting a famous place like the Shire, one must be prepared. The HobbitonMovie Set Tours do most of the work: shuttling you to Hobbiton from Matamata, providing knowledgeable tour guides, and serving up Green Dragon’s finest ales. But to fully enjoy the experience and to make the most of your photo opportunities, I’ve provided a packing list for your day trip to the Shire.

Be sure to bring with you:

At Sam's house!
        1.      Camera/Recorder. Duh. But in all seriousness. Go to this tour with a friend or two and make a pact that one person will stay with the tour guide at all times and record what he or she says. Take turns. The guides are gold-mines of information and they welcome questions of all kinds and field them like pros. But if you want to take fun pictures during the tour, you will undoubtedly miss a good chunk of the tour since half of it is informal questions and tidbits. I and my travel companions spent the entire tour dancing between dorky pictures and gleaning every drop of trivia from our friendly guide.
        2.      Tolkien Knowledge. If possible, read up and watch up before you go. Lucky for me, I fell into the Tolkien craze during my middle school and high school years when I had abundant time for obsessions and a young brain still able to soak up absurd details and hold onto them for years. A solid familiarity with both books and the movie will only enhance your trip to the Shire.
        3.      Picture Props: You’re on a major movie set; don’t miss the opportunity to snap all of the stupidest pictures you’ve ever wanted to take. Most of the set is hobbit holes—including Bag End and Sam’s house—of varying sizes. You don’t want the same picture again and again (but this time the door is yellow! this time blue!), so to spice up your photos, have the following:
a.       Prepared Photo Ideas. The tour goes fast and the next tour is coming in behind you (unless you get the last one of the day, which I recommend: fewer people, slower time schedule), so take Jeremy Irons’ advice and be prepared! You don’t have time to hem and haw.
b.      One Ring.  Even if your ring wasn’t forged in the fires of Mt. Doom, you should at least be able to find a plain replica: gold, with ancient Elvish markings which delineate something along the lines of one ring to rule them all. For the A+ students, bring an envelope as well. Prior to your arrival, practice in your best Gandalf voice: Keep it secret. Keep it safe.
c.       A Pipe. And perhaps a leaf of Old Toby to smoke outside of Bag End. Prior to your arrival, practice your smoke rings. It’s all about the ambiance.
        4.      LotR Soundtracks and Speakers on which to play them. I cannot emphasize this enough. Humming doo-doo-do-do-do-dodududoo as you stroll up and down Hobbiton’s grassy paths is fun, but it is not the same as listening to the official tin whistle solo. I have been itching for my violin ever since I got here to Middle Earth.

In all seriousness, visiting Hobbiton was a blast. New Zealand’s landscape brings Middle Earth to life without any help from the cameras or set-builders, but when you see Hobbiton up-close and examine the detail crafted into the movie set, the result is truly inspiring.[2] It also confirmed my suspicions that I would have grown up quite happily as a hobbit. I will one day have a hobbit door. And hopefully live near to a pub as quintessentially pub-like as the Green Dragon.

So, Good Morning! Even if you’re not a hobbit like me, come visit the Shire! Elves, Ents, and all a manner of folk welcome!

Carolyne, our tour guide and barkeep.

Cider, at the Green Dragon.

My 'Hood.

[1] “Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good thir morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” “All of them at once,” said Bilbo.
[2] P.S. You write like what you read. Can you tell I’ve been doing nothing but keeping up with travel guidebooks for the past week and a half? Traveling is exhausting! But at least I’m better at driving these days. ^^

Monday, February 4, 2013

On the Road to the End of the World

There was a moment, about two years ago, as I walked down the soggy, dimly-lit sidewalks of Brussels with my suitcase and handwritten directions to the hostel for which I’d spent the last forty minutes unsuccessfully hunting, that I realized: this is actual danger. A car glided slowly, behind me, its occupants saying something to me—in French? an invitation—and laughing to one another. An about-face, and two sudden right turns gave them the slip, but shop doors were closed, the last train back to the airport long-gone, and I was very alone.

Last year in January it was a similar story at the Chiang Mai bus station. The past two years have afforded plenty such scary moments. There have been times I busted through three contingency plans before the grace of God carried the day and I ended up somewhere I never could have expected, safe and sound. Each time: the adrenaline rush, the frantic prayers, the deep breaths, and the wide-eyed surety that this, surely this, is the scariest moment of my life.

I now have a new scariest. But first, another flashback.

When I was in high school, my family visited Austria and took a day-long Sound of Music tour. For music dorks who occasionally bill themselves as the Von Schnabel Quartet, it was a bundle of fun. Beautiful sights, familiar buildings from the movie, and—near the end—a self-steer metal luge ride down the side of the mountain. Perhaps my dad said it first, but I remember thinking—as I sat down in this tiny little contraption that was about to whisk me a million miles an hour to my very probably death—that I really shouldn’t be allowed to do this without some kind of training. A safety course, a guide, an instructional video like on the airplane, or at least a helmet and knee pads.

The same feeling prevailed three days ago when my Brazilian friends showed up at the Warkworth Lodge and said,

“You can drive manual, right?”

I can: on very flat surfaces—like my elementary school parking lot—with no other cars near me, in the right lane rather than the left, and with Coach Mom in the passenger seat (on my right with the rest of the car).

I can drive manual, just like I could steer the luge down the mountain, but I should not be allowed to do so.

The easy part of the drive
New Zealand, unfortunately, provides none of the things on my safety list. Instead, it’s uphill! downhill! twist left! curve right! drive on the left! signal with the right! lots of honking, some people drinking, and a light mist as dusk settles into darkness. “Where are the headlights on this thing?” “I can’t find the defrost button!” “Turn here?” “No, there! Next to the sign with the yellow things and the—oh, you passed it…”

When a truck caused a backup, I stalled in the middle of a steep ascent. I stalled twice more when incorrect directions took us to the wrong motel—also located midway up a mountain. I swerved off the road once—forgetting how much of the car was on my left—hit a couple curbs. I swore a little and prayed a lot.

The speed limit is about 100 km/hr, but you can't go consistently much
above 65 because of constant curves.
My knees were actually weak when I unfurled them to get out of the driver’s seat in Bay of Islands in the Northlands. I clutched the driver’s side door for support, and took deep breaths—remembering Brussels, remembering Chiang Mai, buses in Cambodia, luge rides in Austria, and all those moments that I had thought were dangerous before.

They were. And so was this. Also, stupid and reckless and exhilarating. Maybe in a few years I’ll forget exactly how it feels to know that this is how “Dead Twenty-Somethings Found on the Side of New Zealand Mountain” headlines are made. In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and be grateful for my bones still being underneath my skin and breath pumping in and out of my lungs. I’m grateful for the insurance we bought—which will cover the hubcap I lost at some point around Cape Reinga, or maybe nearer to Kawakawa (a one-road town with 108-roads with of personality)—and I’m grateful for my new-found driving abilities.

 Indiana roads should be no problem after this.

Met this little  cutie at Cooper Bay. Like a cross between a rabbit and a puppy.

With friends like these, who needs anemones?
Geoff and Liz, Jorgia and Sonnie from the Warkworth Lodge!

Me and Sabine, who taught me how to say "Halt deinen Schnabel!"

Going for a morning run at Bay of Islands. Is it too early in this relationship to say "I love you," Aesics? Because it's true.

Sand and rainy sun at Cooper Bay


At the End of the World

Cape Reinga

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Working at the Warkworth Lodge

Warkworth is the small town of small towns. There’s a post office, two churches, a grocery store[1], several fish & chips shops, and a bus station. Go down three blocks and you’ve left Warkworth for the rolling hills of sheep pastures.

The Warkworth Lodge is one of several small motels—classy motels, think comfy B&B—nestled into the corner of the town. Its owners, Liz and Geoff, work full time running the lodge, and spend all their free time and energy caring for their three young kids, one of whom plays underwater hockey for her school (wut?!). The only other workers are volunteers like me, who come to the lodge for a few weeks and work part-time, cleaning and booking rooms in return for accommodation and food.

It’s a well-oiled—and yet laid-back—machine here. The day after I arrived the other volunteer, Sabine (pronounced “Sabrina” without the r and with an uh and the end instead of an ah), showed me the ropes. We cleaned bathrooms, stripped and re-made beds, cleaned kitchens, vacuumed and dusted rooms, washed towels and sheets, hung them out to dry, folded and ironed them and ate delicious, delicious lasagna made by Liz.

It’s hard work, this domestic stuff, but weirdly peaceful. Hanging wet sheets and collecting them dry off the line fifteen minutes later is my favorite part of the day. Folding them, on the other hand, is a nightmare. I’ve learned quickly that making beds is an art that I do not yet possess. The same with cleaning a shower without banging my elbow against the side of it or spilling water from the shower head down my shirt. Every. Time. But after all that hard work, rolling green hills, a pristine pool and hot tub, sunny skies and the vociferous wind are pure bliss when combined with a good novel and some comfortable writing, coffee and hearty dinner.

 “I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and do good while we live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his or her work, this is a gift from God.”

[1] Which they never call a grocery unless they want to sound like a foreigner. But more on Kiwi-American language differences in a different post.