In the midst of list season,  I deliver to you the first of far too many to come. Here is a tale told through images of places I traveled in 2011.


The Ho Chi Minh Memorial in Hanoi

A young boy properly suited for Tet festivities

Tran Quoc Pagoda


Local dwellings of the Bay

Giant vertical rock formations


Cathedral Notre-Dame

Soaking up the afternoon sun

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of the Peoples Committee Hall


A vessel of the Delta

Snake liquor for sale and a local curious fish

Coconut candy makers selling their product in the Delta


A fellow giant, me, greetings the Petronas Towers

One of oh so many delicious plates served up in Malaysia


On the water, island life

A monk giving alms at a Chinese temple for the Lunar New Year celebration

Botanical garden locals

A city of temples for ranging beliefs


Hongdae’s infamous makguelli man

Awaiting the sunrise near the sea

Fried goodness for sale near Seoul Station

Seoul Lantern Festival 2011


Gwanggali beach

Seafood stew successfully devoured

Bidding farewell to the sun over Gwanggali


Street art spotted in NW PDX

Sweet nectar from Mecca


Chicago Theatre

Skyscrapers and fields of grass

The Magnificent Mile

Meeting giant Marilyn


Iowa feels like home and these are some of the state’s finest folks and dear friends of mine.

Wall art at Big Tomato Pizza

The lovely lady Anna and I,  faces glowing in humidity


Exterior of the Seattle Art Museum

Roomies reuniting in Seattle


View of San Fran from Lombard Street

Annie Danger and I at the base of the windiest street in the world

Decor of China Town

Alcatraz sighting in the bay

Message of the Mission


Kaili and I playing with a sculpture park illusion

Minne’s Spoon and Cherry sculpture

Bridge wisdom


Sunny day at the seashore

My puppy dog, Sadie Hawkins, hiding out in the tall sea grass


Jackson Square

Intricate bead-work of a chief suit

Taking a shot at General Lee

Draping Oaks

NOLA pride: Abita beer and the Saints logo in the distance

Cafe Du Monde, possible location of heaven on Earth


South Korean guards standing in a kill stance in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea

The flagpole carrying the weight of the heaviest flag in the world in North Korea

Peering into another world


For more photographs of my travels and Korean life, visit my Flickr page:


Ten days

Though I seem to be constantly in a state of self-reflection, I have yet to put into words what this past year has been, what I’ve experienced, how it has changed me, what it’s meant to me, the people I’ve met and the sights that I’ve seen, and perhaps I won’t really be able to fully  articulate such reflections until some unknown point in the future. The strange, exciting, sort of sad (all right, quite sad) and a bit frightening thing is that I’m leaving Korea in ten days and I have no idea what I’m doing.

These last few months I’ve spent flip-flopping between staying and going, and there’s this never-ending dialogue occuring between my inner beings arguing over the legitimate reasons to make an attempt at creating a life and career for myself in America and the adventurer begging me not to go anywhere too familiar, to continue the journey to foreign territories with languages indecipherable and cultures unknown. I have a very loose plan for my not-so-distant future and I’m thrilled by the numerous prospects and oddly as ease with the uncertainty of what’s to come; it’s entirely possible that in a few months I’ll be en-route to Seoul for round two, but the possibilities also include various other Asian cities, locations in America and maybe even a return to eastern Europe. As I’ve mentioned, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m confident, a bit strangely so, that everything will work itself out as it should.

Figuring out the future is not, however, the point of this post. Tonight likely isn’t the night to get down deep into it, but I’m seriously so astonished to realize that I’ve spent a whole year living in Korea and when I think back to my first days here and the person I was then, it feels so bizarre because I recognize how much I’ve grown. When I moved to Seoul I was in dire need and want for an unfamiliar land and despite my rapture for the adventure I was embarking on, I came to this country torn apart with a broken heart desperate to mend. Whatever love I had to give, I gave it to this city and now I find myself preparing to pack my bags to leave my love behind. Seoul is a magical place that I’ve become so attached to and even with ten days to go, I know it’s going to tear a bit of me apart to fly away. My life here is a wonderful and exciting one that I very well may kick myself for leaving behind, but I suppose the thing that’s helping me to maintain my composure is that little grain of an imagined future that has me coming back here–an imagination that very well might become a reality.

I don’t have it in me this evening to review my year and share the tales that have yet to find themselves surviving infinitely in the interwebs, but I couldn’t keep quiet the excitement and anxiety wriggling all about me. In ten days I’ll be back in America and for all I know I may fall back in love with my motherland, but regardless of where I decide to call home for the next however long, I must note that I’ll be leaving a piece of myself behind in Seoul-land that someday I must retrieve. Ten days from now is not goodbye for me and this place, it’s simply a see you later.

Halfway reflections: six months in Korea

View from my apartment window shot in August

This week marks my six months spent living and working in Korea. I’ve certainly repeated it enough, but I’m quite serious when I say that my time here has sped by rapidly and though it does feel like I stepped onto a plane Asia-bound eons ago, the calendar and its measure of time passing somehow seems wildly inaccurate. In these six months I’ve learned so much about this country, its people, culture, customs and language, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself. There is a strange level of loneliness that comes with being a foreigner in a city constantly buzzing with busy bodies and being surrounded by voices you cannot understand. Though this aspect sounds perhaps unappealing, I’ve come to savor the time I’ve had alone here as it’s provided me with ample opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination, which at this stage in my life are things I dearly needed. I’ll likely never be satisfied with the amount of writing I complete, but when I set out for this adventure part of my intention was to write my heart out and though my heart has many more things to say and scream, I feel as though I am succeeding in turning myself more and more, bit by bit, into paper.

Anyhow, the point of this post is to report some of my findings and discoveries from my first six months living this foreign life, so here are a few thoughts that immediately come to mind…

1. Chopsticks beat the fork

Just last weekend I had a food experience that basically rocked my proverbial world. While going on a book binge in Itaewon (the often cited “foreign section” of Seoul aka where foreigners go when they’re homesick–due to all of the foreign restaurants that serve something other than Korean cuisine, innumerable themed bars that are, again, not Korean and countless vendors selling clothing that is “American sized”) my coworker David and I took a break to indulge in some Thai food. When our food came out and our hands moved for utensils we were both silent for a moment as we picked up our forks with a certain awkwardness for how unnatural something once so ordinary had become. We had a good laugh about it, but the fact remains that I seem to know not what to do with a fork any longer and that, my friends, is WEIRD. Having grown to prefer using chopsticks, I found this instance of using a fork so hilarious not only for how strange it felt, but also for how primal and animalistic using a fork seems to me now. Forks somehow lack a gracefulness that comes with eating with chopsticks; using a fork requires movements that seem too aggressive to me, too similar to stabbing and shoveling even if it is just with vegetables and rice. This is already more than I ever needed to say on the topic of forks vs. chopsticks, but my point here is that the chopsticks beat the fork–I’ve found a new preference.

2. Heated floors are amazing. Seriously.

I’m too lazy to figure out (or google) what genius was behind the creation of heating a home through the floor, but this person, whoever they are, is easily on my favorite list because heated floors are awesome!! Waking up in the morning and stepping out of bed is made much better when the floor is nice and toasty. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this except that it is really quite wonderful and everyone should experience the pleasure of heated floors someday.

3. The Korean education system is by no means perfect, but the U.S. could definitely take a lesson from them

Every student in Korea attends public school receiving a standard education across all subjects, but, beyond that, just about every Korean also attends a variety of hagwons, which are private specialty schools that offer further instruction on a specific area of study. I’m employed by an English academy/hagwon, but there are literally hagwons for every subject you could think up–math, science, taekwondo, art, Chinese, music, you get the point. Most of my students, ranging from elementary school grade through high school, attend classes everyday but Sunday from 9 AM through anywhere between 6 PM-11 PM. There are some breaks in between for meals and whatever necessary transportation, but, for the most part, kids in Korea are in school all day long. This system of schooling definitely has its drawbacks and in no way do I think how it’s done here is the ideal, but it’s worth nothing that Korean families and the Korean government do take education very seriously and their investment in both time, money and resources is one reflection of this fact. I, along with most Americans, am concerned about the state of the educational system in America and though I don’t know what exactly the solution(s) is/are, I do know that great measures need to be taken and changes need to be made because other countries, Korea included, are surpassing us in far too many areas. The fact that a thirteen year old in Korea can write a better essay in English than an American high school student is something that worries me as I’ve witnessed this to be the case far more often than I’m comfortable with.

4. Warm beverage vending machines are almost as amazing as heated floors

I do gain an immense pleasure from inserting 1000 won (less than $1) into a machine that will spit out a can of warm, sweet soy milk. 

5. Neon night light

My officetel/apartment is on the thirteenth floor of a fifteen story building and out my window at night the neon lights of love motels, restaurants, PC bongs (internet cafes), noraebongs (singing rooms), clubs and whatever other forms of entertainment warrants colored light signage are glowing bright. If I were on say the fifth floor, my room would probably never know the dark, but higher up the neon glow that radiates into my room is the most comforting and strangely soothing night light I’ve ever had.

6. Korean kids come up with the best English names

Most of my students have fairly generic English names (Sarah, Tom, John, Richard, Lisa), however there’s a handful that get creative and make the attendance roll significantly more entertaining. My particular favorites are Obi and Maybelline of the girls and Flash and Ocean of the boys.

7. Makgeolli my love, soju my death

Ugghhhh, soju is the worst. It’s downright awful and anytime that stuff shows up at the party (which is way too often) my liver, my brain and my entire body punish me severely. Soju is often compared to vodka and is a potent and unbelievably cheap distilled beverage, costing about 2,000 won (just over a $1) per bottle with an alcohol content of anywhere from a 25% – 45%. Added to all of this terribleness is the fact that soju is generally consumed in straight shots and there are loads of drinking rules that all work against the aforementioned liver. Makgeolli, on the other hand, is a wonderful Korean rice wine that is milky white with a subtle sweetness. Just as cheap as soju but a bit less strong, makgeolli is beloved amongst Koreans and for whatever reason, whenever they spot a foreigner drinking makgeolli they will immediately consider you their new best friend. Though it’s generally consumed plain, I have had makgeolli mixed with cider, which is quite sweet but a rather refreshing beverage.

8. Kimchi in everything, all of the time

When I first arrived in Korea I had a semi-open mind about consuming meat and figured maintaining my vegetarian diet wouldn’t work, but after one meal of pork with my Korean coworkers I quickly realized that my innards don’t know what to do with meat anymore and it was better to accept the confusion/intrigue/shock of Koreans than to miserably try to convert to a diet I don’t care for. This is where kimchi comes in. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of spicy, pickled/fermented cabbage and is consumed with almost every single meal in Korea either as an ingredient in the main dish or as a side. Trying my darnedest to stay away from meat, kimchi has become the staple of my diet and most of my meals are centered around it–kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes or a kimchi rice ball; my Korean life figures into having kimchi in everything all of the time. Fortunately, I love kimchi and all of the dishes that call for it.

**For the record, I haven’t been a proper vegetarian while living here as I have on occasion been eating fish, which is the only meat I’ve ever really loved and found difficult to give up when living in close proximity to the sea (as I did growing up in the Pacific Northwest and now in Korea).

9. The pleasures of Korean cinema

Before moving to Korea I became obsessed with the work of Korean director Park Chan-Wook and was especially enamored with his films Thirst and Lady Vengeance. Since living in Korea I haven’t watched all that many Korean films as finding titles with English subtitles can be difficult, but recently I went on a movie binge and am diving into the works of other well-regarded Korean directors. At the moment, my obsession is with Bong Joon-Ho and his most recent film, Mother. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and is so well-crafted and stunning in all of its attributes–storyline, acting, character development, visuals. The thing about Korean cinema that I find so special is that I have yet to watch a film that isn’t breathtaking and, simply, great. When it comes to cinema, Korea seems to know what they’re doing. If there is anything you take away from my six month reflection, I hope at the very least it is that you need to watch a Korean film. 

I’m certain there are things I’ve left out, but these things are what immediately came to mind. My Korean experience has been phenomenal and this is no doubt a year of my life I will never forget. I could easily ramble on about my fascinations with my current home for days, but it’s getting late and the part of me that is obsessed with American television shows needs to be fed some of The West Wing (GO SANTOS!). Stay gold my friends. 

Tale of two mountains: Dobongsan (pt. 1)

I’ve spent the last two weekends teaching my legs a thing or two about hard work and pain by climbing a few of Korea’s voluptuous mountains. Both have teased and tempted me with their treacherous paths and tricky rock formations, but eventually Dobongsan and Naejangsan shared with me their many treasures of hues, views and fresh air feelings not often experienced. I can’t quite tell you what it feels like to conquer a mountain peak, to breath in that untainted, crisp air, to look down or across a ridge and see just how far you’ve come. It’s a feeling of success, glee, exhaustion and peace all combined and streaming fast through your veins; something like adrenaline, but more unique.  It’s a wonderfully addicting thing, this feeling, hence my tale containing not one, but two mountains. And, hopefully, many, many more of the mountains Korea holds upon its land.

First came Dobongsan, one of the closest mountains to Seoul itself, a mere 90 minute subway ride from my home in Anyang. Though my Halloween weekends are typically spent fiending on candy and recovering from previous evening shenanigans, this October 31st was spent not in costume, but rather in gear that made it clear to all of the appropriately attired Korean hikers that I was not a usual to the sport.  I should mention that Koreans take hiking very seriously. They also take their hiking clothes very seriously, always prepared with their brand-name gear: brightly colored hiking shirts, pants, sturdy boots, long hiking poles, heavy packs (filled with plenty of delicacies to create a feast at the peak), etc..

Though I was originally supposed to hike Dobongsan with my friend Spenser and the S.H.I.T.Y. hiking group, Spenser was late to our meeting spot and after some waiting, I decided to head to the mountain for a solo adventure. Upon my arrival at the base of Dobongsan, I got a taste of just how popular a hobby this is in Korea.

Flood of hikers crossing the street from the subway to the trail leading to Dobongsan

Aside from the many vendors selling hiking gear, tools and trinkets, there were a great many restaurants and tables splayed with snacks, including what could only be considered the hiking essentials: makguelli (Korean rice wine), soju (Korean vodka), ramen bowls and water. They might even be displayed in order of importance.


Fishy snacks!

When I finally came to the hiking trail, I almost immediately fell under a trance from the fall nature show of leaves making like acrobats, transforming their colors. Living among buildings and cement sometimes makes you forget just how magical nature can be.

Though there were innumerable options of routes and trails to go on as well as destinations, I decided to make Uiam Rock my first point. Being a novice at this whole hiking thing, I stopped frequently along the way and spent some quality time taking in the little things. I noticed on my hike to the top many rock stacks lining the trail, or placed atop boulders, and later discovered that “rock stacking” is a practice of meditation, and that each layer is supposed to represent a family member you’re praying for or a wish that the individual has.

A rather impressive rock stack

After a few hours I finally made it to the top of Uiam Rock and of all the people in all of Seoul, I found Spenser at the top the rock!! Well, technically he found me when he saw a view that looked like a mighty fine photo op and, of course, there I was with my fancy cam getting busy.


Views from the top

For the not so novice

After snacking on some kimbap (literal translation is “roll rice”) and mixed nuts, Spenser and I felt rejuvenated and continued along the ridge line to Jaunbong Peak. About halfway along we came across this amazing viewpoint:

What you can’t see is the Koran women insisting we pose with peace signs!

A few hours of hiking the ridge line brought us to a busy Jaunbong Peak:

And just over a few steep steps later, we made it!

“We were just down there!!!”

When we did finally make it to the top, Spenser disclosed that he has a slight fear of heights (surprise!!) and after taking in the chilly breeze and beauty at the top, we decided to make the trek to the bottom for a hot meal (my favorite kimchicheegae, aka kimchi stew) and some celebratory makguelli and cider (best drink in all of Asia, I swear to you)!

And, of course, we couldn’t make it to the bottom without making a temple pit-stop:

There are so many wonders hidden in this mountain and I’m sure there are just as many in every other Korean san. In a few days I’ll give a play by play of my conquering Naejangsan, but until then, enjoy the tale of one mountain and the many photos that come with it.

See Through My Seoul

I can keep the Seoul puns coming for eons and in the midst of messing with words, I suppose I can post a photo or two. Here’s a photographic update of my last two months. I cannot believe I’ve already been living here for three months; the time has been speeding past and I can’t hardly wait for whatever the next few years hold for me in my South Korean jaunt.

This is the Kring Culture Space, which is quite possibly my favorite building in Seoul. The interior is just as stunning as the exterior! I visited the Kring building for a multimedia art event put on by Intel and VICE Magazine called The Creators Project. It was quite a party and perhaps the perfect space to host such an event.

Dance party!! The crowd was awesome and everyone had a great time dancing and jamming to DJ Soulscape

Cell phone charms for sale in Myeong-dong, a popular shopping area in Seoul. There are an infinite number of options when it comes to phone charms, so be sure to select wisely!

A peek into the immensity of Seoul as seen from the viewpoint on the trek to N Seoul Tower.

Art installation at the base of N Seoul Tower

These are “locks of love,” which cover the metal railings and some metal trees at the observation deck of N Seoul Tower. There are hundreds of thousands of these love locks left by people to symbolize a promise to stay with someone forever—be it a lover, child, friend or family member. Some people leave messages with their locks, expressing their love even further. It’s a beautiful sight to see and such a romantic, adorable and generally dear gesture.

Art installation in Hongdae that I’m oddly fond of. Hongdae is a super hip area (near Hongik University, which is a major art school in Seoul) packed with bars, cafes, night clubs and eateries. In the very near future I plan to explore all the cafes over there including the few roasteries I’ve spotted.

On the way to the cat cafe in Hongdae…can you feel the cat love all around?

Welcome to Gio Cat cafe! This was hands down one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Seoul. For 8,000 Won (about $6) you get a coffee beverage and the opportunity to spend as much time as you like with the roughly 20 cats at the cafe. As one would expect, many cats were napping, and it’s against the rules to wake up a sleeping cat, some cats were climbing platforms and snooping in the bags patrons left sitting out and other cats were friendly and greeting their excited visitors. I went on a Saturday and the place was quite packed with Koreans taking a million pictures of cats. Of course, I too brought my fancy camera and couldn’t resist snapping some shots. If you ever have the chance, go to a cat cafe!!

Look at that face!! Probably my favorite cat the cafe!

So, that’s basically the last month summed up in photos. I still have a ways to go before I’ll have conquered Infinite Jest, but I’ve decided to start a 365 photo project when I’m done reading, so get ready for a steady flow of photos in the not-so-distant future that may or may not turn out fantastic. Until next time, I’ll work on crafting some more stories from these Asian waters.

(All photos taken by Chelsea Marie Hicks using a Canon Rebel T1i)