This is the Story of 195 Kilometers

It’s 9:30 AM on a Wednesday Morning.

I’m sweating and absolutely starving. And depending on my coworkers’ aptitude to “just have one more,” I’m probably a little hung over.

I’ve almost gotten hit by both a commuter bus and an angry cab driver. Both of whom possess little forethought to glance in the review mirror before carelessly changing lanes.

I arrive at some generic coffee shop which features an overpriced Iced Americano with an atrociously off ice:americano ratio.

This is the best part of my day.

It’s here where I meet her. A smaller than small woman with a rounder than round face. She doesn’t enjoy sports. She prefers Canadian boys to all other ethnicities. She hates the fact that coffee causes her to break out. She drinks it anyways. She hasn’t seen her parents or other family members for over five years. She speaks to them for less than 10 minutes only once a year or at least until “they cut the phone away.”

She is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea.

I volunteer with an organization called PSCORE. This is an NGO which strives for the successful reunification of North and South Korea.  In the process, PSCORE assists and supports North Koreans who have recently defected to Seoul and the surrounding area. They provide transitory support and things like 1:1 tutoring once they have “settled.” (A term which I’m using quite loosely because admittedly, I have no idea if this is possible.)

For the sake of confidentiality, and my own misunderstanding about the popularity of this blog, I’ll skip the identifying factors.

Regardless, twice a week I meet with her. I look forward to rearranging my sleeping patterns, skipping my morning yoga routine, and paying triple for an exceptionally shitty cup of coffee. It’s absolutely amazing.

Having defected well over five years ago, she’s no stranger to living in South Korea.

But attempting to learn a convoluted language based on countless exceptions and strange placements of the letter “h” when it is really not all that necessary?

Well, she’ll get there.

I’m “supposed to” be her English tutor. That’s technically my job. But technically, I’m not actually working or getting paid. So I’m taking the whole “supposed to” thing quite liberally. Besides, volunteers aren’t obligated to follow rules all of the time. It’s not in our contract. (Guys, that’s a total lie. But I really had you going for a second there…)

She brought a book of Tolstoy to our first English lesson. At the end of the session, its spine remained unopened.

Instead of talking about an anarcho-pacificist (which believe me, usually tops the list of things I like to discuss), we talked about ourselves. We talked about ourselves in that curious way you do when you assume that if you open up a little about yourself, then the other will too.

I complained that the antiperspirant in Korea needs to redefine their idea of “anti.” She complained that the humidity in Seoul makes her hair “sticky.” (Note: Add “frizzy” or better yet “an absolute rat’s nest” to the list of new vocabulary words to teach.)

She asked about my experiences dating in Korea. I asked her if she thinks she will ever get married.

Soon our sessions were more about her fights with her long-term boyfriend over a future with/ without children. Soon I started to rant about people always throwing their garbage in my bike basket.

We share an intense fascination with the other’s upbringing.

We translate funny things on her phone. Things like “athlete’s foot” and “precarious.”

Sometimes I see Tolstoy or another Let’s Learn English in the Most Impractical Way Possible textbook popping out of her oversized purse. But neither of us seems too worried about conjugating the word “go.”

Instead, it’s here where the distance of more than 190 kilometers, becomes the shortest route to friendship.

Farms, Forks, and Foreigners: Eating Locally on the Road

Given the opportunity, I would have eaten palak paneer for every meal while in India.

No wait, that’s not true.

Given the opportunity, I would have self-constructed an IV-drip bag of the pureed green goodness and pumped my veins full of that stuff every time I was feeling low on vitamin D, cumin, or anything else blended into that glory bowl of curry.

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Traveling as a Veg and the Solution to Charades

There’s no denying that when you travel, you are very likely to acquire a new and extremely valuable skill set.

No, it’s not the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere. And no, it’s not an increased aptitude for knowing where the best drink specials are, or even the closest (but really, cleanest) toilet.

 And it’s definitely not a knack for always remembering to stuff every available pocket full of napkins and toilet paper at restaurants which just happen to provide these luxuries for uh, free of charge.

It’s a new set of skills which will only increase your confidence as a traveler, make conversations with the locals more enjoyable, and confirm without a shadow of a doubt that you are in fact, a foreigner in a land very unlike your own.

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Failing to Meditate: My 5 days at an ashram in Rishikesh

“We’re staying in an ashram for 5 days on the skirts of the Himalayas. There’s no internet. Whatevs. I’m totally going to throw my mind, body, and soul a serious curveball, here.”

I ended an email with this threat to my meditative self, said a mental farewell to shotty internet connections, and made  my way across the Lakshman Jhula bridge in Rishikesh to an ashram in the yogi-centric part of town.

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Getting Scammed in the World’s Oldest City

“He’ll probably use a name that’s easy to remember.”

Oh, Crap.

“And he’ll definitely tell you that he just met other travellers from your home country.”

No, no, no.

The staff at the hotel thought that predicting the behaviours of our auto rickshaw driver would be a fun game to play. I just felt like I was watching myself on an episode of some Just for Laughs comedy sketch.

The uh, prankster (so to speak) was a man calling himself “Mr. Baboo” and not surprisingly, claimed to have met two Canadians the day prior.

There’s no way Mr. Baboo scammed us. It’s probably just a fluke. I mean, he waited for us as we frantically scrambled through the Varanasi Train Station. And he even tried to calm me down after I had actively convinced myself that I would be stuck in Varanasi for the rest of my 20’s. (This is only a slight exaggeration. We were a big hot mess of we-need-outta-here fury. And since this was also during the holy Durga Puja Festival, it meant that even the locals were a big hot mess. Everyone wanted to go somewhere. And no one seemed content on waiting in a designated line to get there.)

But Mr. Baboo was there for us! There’s no way he could have scammed us. Just as long as they don’t say something about him taking us to that silk factory museum. 

“Did he take you to the silk factory museum?”

….

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The Time With A Healthy Dose of Shadow Puppets in Nakon, Thailand

Don’t ask me how I ended up in Nakon Si Thammarat, Thailand.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you if I tried.

Bouting some common cold-like symptoms, coupled with a night of you-have-try-it-because-after-all-you’re-in-Thailand Sangsom, and ending with being transported 35000 feet in the air, I landed in Nakon Si Thammarat with a heavy case of delirium-induced exhaustion, catatonic muscle aches, and an upper respiratory cough which sounded similar to an old man’s hack caused by countless years of smoking 35 packs a day and yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

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The Time He Fell in Love in Pai

“I think I just found heaven on earth,” he slurred in a thick South African accent as he slid two mojitios across the table.

He had only been in Pai for four days, the same length as myself.

After arriving with his girlfriend and scoring himself a job at arguably the sweetest bar in Pai, he giddily bounced from table to table.

From his willingness, almost eagerness, to make some serious grandiose statements about this paradise of a place nestled high in the Northern mountains of Thailand, it all seemed pretty obvious.

It was clear he was in love. 

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The Time with the Moral Dilemmas in Chiang Mai

Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing.

I mean, you know what the right thing is, you know how to go about doing the right thing, but sometimes, just the act of going through with the right thing just seems so, well….hard.

Like remember the time that I, the soapbox-when-provoked-vegetarian, went to a cockfight in the Phillipines?

Or how about that time when I successfully convinced a class full of pre-teen girls that Justin Beiber was obviously a friend from home? (Okay, so maybe that wasn’t just an isolated incident but more of a daily behaviour management technique. Oh and by the way, this is a totally successful resource that really should be used in every ESL classroom).

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