What Am I Doing?

Not that you asked, but I’ve been taking courses with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and am currently teaching English in Seoul. No, I haven’t abandoned my license to practice law—as usual, the legal career is in the backseat while writing drives (life-experiences called shotgun). Before leaving California to go to Korea, I made a few visits to Disneyland.

Disneyland - California Adventure

Okay, this is technically California Adventure, but I didn’t take any photos on the other side.

UCLA Extension

I’ve been taking the Novel Writing series of courses with UCLA Extension. I started with the on-campus class (going back to the old campus is always nice), but switched over to the online version when I decided to go to Korea. Overall, I think it’s been rather helpful.

In terms of craft, the lecture and workshops haven’t taught me anything “new.” I’d already learned much of it via the internet, the Southern California Writers’ Conference, and writing groups. However, the lecture material and workshops have helped me to hone my craft, solidify certain theories (so I can actually apply them more consistently), and develop my ability to read with a writer’s eye.

The instructors at UCLA Extension seem to echo the sentiment I’d read when researching MFA programs: you can’t really teach art, you can only facilitate the growth of artists. So, that’s how the classes have been going. The instructor and other students offer valuable insights and feedback but, for the most part, each writer needs to put in the work to further their own craft.

Teaching English in Korea

The process to get the job in Seoul was a long one. Securing documentation and flinging paperwork back and forth was a bit of a hassle. After months of that, I finally flew to Seoul and was subjected to a highly stressful week of training. The bottome line: if you fail the training, you’re sent back home. Honestly, I did not expect the training to be so taxing.

I’m glad to say, however, it’s been a considerable while since training and I’m feeling fairly comfortable here now. I’m more at ease in front of the classroom, have been referred to as Handsome Teacher a number of times (the girlfriend says this has been inflating my ego), and am slowly swapping out American fast food out of my diet in favor of kimchi jjigae. So, yeah, I’m getting settled and finally feel like I have the time to start posting here again. Hopefully, I’ll also get to write a lot more and have something to report on that end.

Take it easy, folks.

Namsan Seoul Tower

Namsan Tower (AKA Seoul Tower)

A.D.M. Was Here: Bangkok

After making my way up the length of Vietnam via bus I booked a last-minute—and surprisingly cheap—flight to Bangkok. I arrived at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Aiport in the middle of the night. From there, a taxi brought me from a wide, empty highway to the lively streets of the infamous backpacker hotspot: Khaosan Road.

Bangkok01

The setting for the beginning of The Beach (2000) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The place isn’t as crazy as the movie makes it seem (though, to be fair, the movie was made over ten years ago). 

The taxi driver couldn’t actually drive onto Khaosan Road as it was blocked off for pedestrians and street vendors selling everything from pad thai and clothes to scorpion-on-a-stick (side note: the scorpion is more to exploit tourists seeking the exotic; it’s not food locals normally eat, so I hear). When I got out of the cab, I wasn’t quite sure where I was in relation to my hostel and asked one of the clothing vendors to help me out. I wound up with an awesome hand drawn map on the back of a scrap of cardboard. Continue reading

A.D.M. Was Here: Vietnam

In the fall of 2013 I went on another trip abroad as a sort of before-I’m-an-official-lawyer trip; two and a half weeks in Vietnam, a few days in Thailand and Cambodia, and a week in Seoul. This post will be focused on Vietnam.

I flew with Asiana which, at the time, was suffering from some bad press due to an unfortunate incident in San Francisco so the tickets were cheaper. After many hours in the air and a complimentary hotel room in Incheon for a layover, I arrived in Tan Son Nhat International Airport in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Many folks still refer to the city as Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh, so that’s what I’ll be going with.

Before going to Vietnam, I was told by a friend that might have to pay off the airport security in Vietnam for one reason or another (i.e., bribe them to not be hassled). So I was fairly paranoid going from baggage claim to the customs checkpoint. They looked at my passport while my bag went through their little machine and—well, nothing happened.

Saigon, Part 1

I spent most of my time in Saigon mooching off a friend’s relatives. I stayed in their apartment, ate their food, and was chauffeured around once in a while. A young woman, let’s call her S, who spoke more English than the other folks was sort of assigned to show me around.

View of a less touristy corner of the city from an apartment window.

View of a less touristy corner of the city from an apartment window.

After dinner with my friend’s family on my first night in Saigon, S brought me to some places where young people hang out. From what I remember, there were a lot of places to shop and eat, a lot of small groups of people just loitering on the sidewalk and talking. The next day, S brought me back to the mall while it was open and got me a prepaid phone.

Somewhere in Saigon.

Somewhere in Saigon.

Aside from my booked flight to South Korea, I had nearly two weeks to kill and had absolutely no plans. All I knew was that I wanted to explore Vietnam. As most reasonable people would do, I went to Google to research things to do and see; unlike some people, I waited until I was already in the destination country before opening my browser. Eventually, I resolved to use The Sinh Tourist to make my way from city to city.

The Sinh Tourist is a popular touring company, but it’s surrounded by imitators with similar names. I’m not sure if this is due to lax trademark law or simply a lack of enforcement. Thanks to all the other “Sinh” touring companies, both physical offices and on the internet, it was a slight hassle to figure out which was the one I wanted.

I had another one of my friend’s relatives bring me to the physical office. He thought it would be fun to do so on his motorbike rather than his van. Having never ridden a motorized two-wheeled vehicle before, it was a novel experience. What made it more interesting was Saigon’s traffic.

For those who haven’t seen Saigon traffic, imagine a swarm of motorbikes and bicycles with a handful of cars and vans all constantly moving through the streets, with little to no signs or lights to regulate them. If you’re a pedestrian, unless you’re at a huge intersection, there aren’t any crosswalks or lights to well you when it’s safe to move. You simply start walking across the street and try not to get hit. The trick is to keep your speed consistent. If you make sudden stops or sprints, it’ll make it harder for drivers to predict your movement and would probably make them hit you. If you walk at a consistent and moderate speed, the drivers will see you and adjust their speed so you pass each other without incident—supposedly.

On the way back the Sinh Tourist office, however it began to rain a lot. Not taking the van turned out to be a horrible idea. My driver had a rain poncho, but all I had was the back of his poncho to put over my head.

Da Lat

After a few days in Saigon, the motorbike guy brought me back to the tour company’s office and I hopped on a bus to Da Lat. It was my first day in Vietnam without my friend or his relatives to guide me, and it gave me a sense of excitement I’ve only ever felt when traveling solo. Right before the bus was to leave, a young blonde woman rushed aboard. She was out of breath and had cuts and scabs on her knees and arm. I think I had trouble placing her as English at first, having only heard her speak a few words to the bus crew.

The drive from Saigon to Da Lat took over six hours. One of our stops was at a large rest stop which included shopping and several restaurants. With the people from my bus being the only people there, it felt deserted. Since the English woman was also traveling alone, I asked to join her for lunch. I’ll be calling her D from here on out.

Back on the bus, D and I swapped numbers and, after checking into our respective hotels, met again for dinner. She, like many expats her age in Vietnam, was an English teacher. She’d been doing it for a while, maybe a year, and had some stories to tell. The most memorable bit was how she’d been mugged twice: once when she first moved to Saigon, and another time rather recently. It was a mugging that resulted in the scabs on her arms and legs.

In the touristy, foreigner area of Saigon, there’s a considerable rate of theft. One of the common means went like this: Two jerks drive by on a motorbike, one guy drove while the other sat in the back ready to snatch bags from tourists. The first time this happened to D was her birthday. The second time, D refused to let go without a fight. She held onto the strap of her bag and ended up with some cuts and bruises when she fell. The thieves still got away, though. She admitted it would’ve been smarter to just let go, particularly since she had known not to carry anything essential in her bag to begin with. In contrast to D’s experience, I’d been staying at my friend’s relative’s house, away from the touristy area and foreigner-targeting thieves.

D told me she’d already been to Da Lat, and she had come back on her solo vacation from teaching English because Da Lat was her favorite place in Vietnam.

Da Lat, unlike most of the country, was nice and cool. The city was at a higher elevation in the mountains with an abundance of green and fresh water streams running through and around it. Since D had already seen most of the touristy things I was set to do the next day, I had to go off on my pre-booked tour and make new friends.

The day tour group wasn’t too big, so it was moderately intimate, making it easy for me to befriend a group of college-aged kids from—well, I forget where, but I’m thinking Singapore or Malaysia. Their English was just a tad below conversational, and I didn’t speak a word of their first language so our conversation was minimal. However, we were able to communicate enough to take photos for each other (this was before the explosion of selfie sticks; not that I use selfie sticks).

The first attraction on the tour was Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, more of a mansion than a palace, but it was the vacation house to the final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. I took a bunch of photos, but was most impressed with the green outside.

Da Lat 1

Front of the Bao Dai Summer Palace.

Woods outside of the palace.

Woods outside of the palace. There may or may not have been a public restroom just out of the shot.

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A.D.M. Was Here: Paris, France

After being ferried over the Adriatic from Greece, I jumped on a series of trains up to Paris. Arriving in the middle of the night at a hostel in Montmartre, a district of Paris known to me only as the location of the Moulin Rouge, I secured my bags and walked around the neighborhood before I attempted to get some writing done in the lobby. While trying to be productive, I noticed a tall, skinny guy with a  giant beard pacing the lobby and mumbling to himself; he was somewhat unnerving.

I doubt I got much work done (probably ended up on Facebook) before I eventually tried to settle in for the night. I couldn’t sleep, though; the room smelled like ass. More accurately, it smelled like you’d expect it to smell with five sweaty men trying to sleep in relatively close-quarters with a window opened only a crack (couldn’t let too much of the Winter air in).

Not a fan of man-stink, I went into the front desk and asked if it was possible to switch rooms. The guy up front, who I’d spoken to briefly while I was writing, was nice. However, the hostel was booked up. There was a guest who hadn’t shown up to check in yet, though. Seeing as how it was after midnight, it was possible the guy wouldn’t show at all. Neither of us felt comfortable stealing the guy’s bed right away. So, I sat and waited for a while before we began to look into alternatives.

The front desk guy said, if I didn’t mind, I could sleep in the common area or the laundry/storage room. The problem with the common area was that it was filled with people’s bags, guests would be coming in early all morning to get their stuff, and there was no way to turn the lights off. That seemed somewhat acceptable, but he also took me into the back to show me the laundry/storage room.

When the hostel guy put the key into the laundry room door and turned, there was a snap. The key broke and he and I worked for a bit to finagle it out of there before we could get inside. The laundry room itself was fairly large, and he could get me some kind of mattress to sleep on in the corner. However, he then also informed me that hostel employees would come in early in the morning to wash sheets and what-not. By this time, it was about three in the AM and he and we decided that I should just steal the no-show’s bed. So, I slept in a non-smelly room. Evidently, unlike the other five men, my new roommates had heard of showering. The only caveat was the creepy, pacing beard guy was on the bunk above mine and he didn’t seem like he slept all night.

The next morning, having not been murdered in my sleep, I checked my bags and joined a tour. It was another free Sandeman walking tour (you tip the tour guide at the end). The group met in front of the Fontaine Saint-Michel—

Paris (1)

Archangel Michael standing on the back of Satan; Fontaine Saint-Michel.

The tour brought us down the Seine, past museums and toward some park where you could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. On the way, we came to the Pont des Arts, a bridge on which the rails were covered with “love locks”—padlocks couples put onto the bridge before throwing the key into the water as some sort of symbol of their unending love. The government decided to destroy these people’s love by ripping the railings down (the cumulative weight of the locks was getting hefty and posed somewhat of a danger, plus the locks  looked rather ugly from afar—like a dump site full of scrap metal).

Paris (2)

The Seine, I think.

Paris (3)

Some of the love locks on the Pont des Arts.

Paris (4)

More locks.

Paris (5)

Some locks had cuter (or more depressing) words than others.

Paris (6)

The Louvre with horrible lighting.

Paris (7)

Whatever the hell park this is.

Paris (8)

People who don’t enjoy being photographed.

Paris (9)

It’s no London Eye, but at least its surroundings aren’t as cluttered.

Paris (10)

People, trees, and a lot of sky.

Paris (11)

Pretty much my first view of the iconic tower.

After getting our somewhat distant glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, everyone tipped the guide and the tour disbanded. There was an attractive young woman on the tour alone who, naturally, gravitated toward me. I don’t recall how we started talking; she probably asked me where I was from. While the others dispersed, we decided to continue being touristy in a group of two.

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A.D.M. Was Here: Athens, Greece

The bus from Sofia brought me into Greece and, after a pit stop in Thessaloniki, I went straight down to Athens where I stayed for two nights (i.e., more than I’d stayed in the previous three countries combined). I spent these nights in the Apollo Hotel which was reasonably priced and only a short subway ride to the city’s main attraction: the hills and temples of (and around) the Acropolis.

Now that I think about it, I may actually have gone from Bulgaria into Greece on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Anyway—

After finally getting some rest in a proper bed (and not the Train from Hell as described in my last post), I took the subway in the A.M. to Acropoli station and began to explore. The first place I tried to get into was the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, but the place was closed for Christmas.

It wasn’t a big deal, though, I just had to come back the next day; there was still a lot of Athens to see. Somewhat aimlessly, I wandered southeast to the Arch of Hadrian and followed the road up to Zappio Megaro where there were a bunch of people doing holiday stuff, and tiny horses which now reminds me of Parks and Recreation:

Athens 00

Arch of Hadrian. Not to be confused with the other ones in Italy or Jordan, or Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England (aka The Wall keeping out the Wildlings).

Athens 01

The view of Temple of Olympian Zeus… from over a fence.

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A.D.M. Was Here: Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia

To reflect the way I rushed through these cities, I’m squeezing them all into a single post (secondary motive: to finish writing about my prior travels a bit faster; there are still a number of countries to get through).

Prague, Czech Republic

A friend from law school, let’s call him Mr. Sarcastic, let me stay at his family’s place in a quiet part of the city. He picked me up at the train station and we took some sort of public transit to their family’s apartment where we kicked his younger sister out of her bedroom. I took my Mr. Sarcastic’s crappy bed, he took his sister’s considerably fluffier bed, and she was banished to the couch in the living room. Not my idea.

Longest escalator I've ever seen.

Prague Station’s escalator is probably the longest I’ve ever seen.

After leaving my bags at the apartment and before going out for the night, I ate some random food Mr. Sarcastic’s mom set out for me (ham cold cuts, I think). My friend’s mom, through my friend as a translator, gave me advice not to drink any liquor due to recent incidents of counterfeit stuff in the region causing people to go blind.

So, Mr. Sarcastic gave me on a night tour of some areas of the city. It was getting close to Christmas so there wasn’t much partying going on; but there were holiday decorations and a Christmas market. We finished the night by drinking a bit at some club called Karlovy Lazne.

Prague at Night 01

Prague at Night 02

The next morning, Mr. Sarcastic brought me to see Prague Castle and its hodgepodge of architectural forms. If I recall correctly, the variations are due to the fact that Prague was a major seat of power for a long period of time, which brought a broad range of intellectuals there, including architects.

Prague 01

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral's interior.

St. Vitus Cathedral’s interior.

While I did some touristy stuff at St. Vitus Cathedral, Mr. Sarcastic ran off to the post office (I think). It began snowing while I waited for the dingus to comeback (actually, it was nice).

Prague St Vitus Cathedral 03

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A.D.M. Was Here: Berlin

Coming back into the Eurozone after Scandinavia, the price of food and lodging seemed super-reasonable. My train out of Copenhagen brought me to Hamburg where I had some time before the next leg of my journey to Berlin; I spent that time at a Christmas market eating Christmas-y snacks (assuming you count deep-fried dough covered in Nutella as a Christmas snack).

Hamburg Christmas Market

Christmas Market in Hamburg

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